Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Prestige

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis

Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG-13


*** (out of ****)


There are three steps to a magic trick: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. It's that third step that's most important because it's the reveal. It's the point where the audience's jaws are supposed to drop in amazement and suprise because they've been had.

Christopher Nolan's The Prestige goes to incredible lengths to make sure that we have been, but by the end I was instead left with the feeling I had witnessed one of the most ludicrous twist endings in years. Even worse, it took a lot of work to get there and was needlessly complicated. You get the feeling the movie almost has some kind of superiority complex and burning desire to prove it's more important and clever than it really is. I'm making it sound like this is a bad film which it's not at all, but I went in expecting a lot more. Maybe I'm guilty of inflated expectations. It's well made, incredibly acted and actually has more dramatic gravitas as a story than the other magician themed period piece of 2006, The Illusionist. It's a really good film that just ends up biting off a little more than it can chew.

The Prestige tells the story of two competing magicians and fierce rivals, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). When the film opens we see Alfred convicted of Rupert's murder and sentenced to be hanged. The film then flashes back to show the origins of their relationship when both worked as magician's assistants and an error on Alfred's part caused the death of Rupert's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo) in a water tank trick. This leads to a bitter feud between the former friends as they spend nearly the entire length of the film trying to outdo one another by sabotaging and stealing each others tricks, writing false messages, physically harming one another and just generally ruining each other's personal and professional lives.

It's a story of what happens when obsession (mainly on Rupert's part) spirals out of control and insecurity masks all reasonable judgment. It's exciting and fun as your allegiance switches between both men at various points during the story. Rupert is a brilliant showman, but a terrible magician. Alfred is a brilliant magician, but a terrible showman. When Rupert gets wind of a new trick called "The Transported Man" in Alfred's act he's determined to find out how he does it. The secret to "The Transported Man" is really the secret to the entire movie.

At his disposal is Cutter (Michael Caine), one of the greatest trick engineers of the era. He also has his own assistant and lover Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) go undercover to work for Alfred and steal his secrets. How he has her approach Alfred about it and has her gain his trust is interesting and another one of the movie's many clever sleight of hand tricks. Things get complicated when Olivia falls for Alfred and her allegiance switches. Or does it? Nothing is ever what it seems in this film. There's also an interesting marriage of magic and science in the story with Rupert obsessing over a machine built by scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie in some inspired stunt casting) that he wants to incorporate into his act.

At times this is a very confusing motion picture with multiple timelines, various twists and unclear character motivations. It's also overlong, or at least feels overlong as it hurls toward the finale. In some ways it's more complicated than Nolan's own Memento. That film was told out of order, but it was just told backwards and didn't skip around. It was straightforward in it's complicatedness. This one seems to jump back and forth simply to hide information and make it look like there's more going on than meets the eye. There is, but not nearly as much as you think.

What makes this worth sticking around for is the battle of one upmanship that erupts between the two magicians and how the two lead performances from Bale and Jackman bring it to life. They're so fun to watch and look like they're having such a blast it makes you feel guilty to criticize anything about the film. The movie is basically a showcase for the two actors, particularly Bale, who's just one role away from an Academy Award at this point in his career. I think a lot of people will be surprised by Jackman's nuanced work here as well. Caine provides great support as expected, while Scarlett Johansson continues her streak of giving a merely adequate performance in a role with no depth. That she's managed to convince the world she's one of our most talented actresses is a bigger magic trick than anything you'll see in this film.

We are given some interesting behind the scenes glimpses into magic that wasn't present in The Illusionist, which was really just a well told love story with some supernatural elements. The ending to that film could have been easily telegraphed but at least it played fair. I'm not to sure this one does. For those of you who think the "twist ending" in this film is brilliant, I'd like to pose a question: How many screenwriters could just simply tack this ending on at any movie's conclusion to justify everything the main character does? It takes only one stroke of the pen. Have no worries if you didn't quite get it since one of the characters will explain it to you (and another character) in intricate detail upon it's silly reveal.

Oddly, everyone seems to be raving about this picture like it's the greatest mystery/suspense thriller they've ever seen (it's even recently cracked the imdb top 250). Nolan's one of our best directors but the screenplay could have backed him up a little more here. If you go into The Prestige expecting a great time you definitely won't walk away disappointed. If you expect a little more, you may find the film plays one trick too many.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Oscars: Was It me or...

Was it me or....

After seeing the pre-show did you think that Richard Roeper should probably just stick to film criticism?

Should a telestrater only ever be used in a football game, and most definitely not to describe what someone's wearing?

Were you ready to shoot yourself if one more interviewer asked: "Who are you wearing?"

Were you happy that for over three hours you (hopefully) wouldn't get to hear anything about Anna Nicole Smith?

Wasn't that Eroll Morris skit to open the show painfully boring?

And unfunny?

And overlong?

Weren't you relieved they changed up the format this year so all the crappy awards would be given out first?

Was that relief extinguished when you realized you'd have to sit through all of them in one shot and it actually worsened the pacing of the show?

Was that Jack Black/Will Ferrell skit a contender for the funniest in Oscar show history?

Weren't their singing voices surprisingly good?

Wasn't it funny when Jack Black said he was going to elbow Leo DiCaprio in the larnyx?

Do you have as tough a time as I do believing anyone could find Helen Mirren "hot?"

Was I regretting not going with my gut instinct and changing my pick to Alan Arkin for Best Supporting Actor?

Weren't you happy Eddie Murphy didn't win?

Did you kind of wish he had after hearing Alan Arkin's "speech?"

Did you catch Abigail Breslin yawning during it?

Were you wondering, just on the basis of that thirty second clip, if maybe Djimon Hounsou should have won for Blood Diamond?

Weren't they stupid having no place for the winners to put their Oscars while they gave their speech?

Shouldn't they at least have had someone hold it for them?

Wasn't Meryl Streep great when she played along with that joke?

Didn't you feel bad for Jaden Smith screwing up his lines?

Then feel good when he recovered pretty well?

Was "losing" the Presidential election the best thing to ever happen in Al Gore's life?

Should President Bush make a movie, then he'll become popular? (okay, maybe not)

How could you possibly blame Gore for not wanting to run again when things are going this well for him?

Doesn't he have excellent comic timing for a guy who was called "boring" just a couple of years ago?

Isn't it amazing Melissa Etheridge could sensibly work the phrase "An Inconvenient Truth" into a song?

Doesn't she deserve an Oscar just for that?

Isn't it amazing Dreamgirls (A musical! With 3 nominations!) couldn't win Best Original Song?

Does that confirm just how popular Al Gore is right now?

Wasn't Jennifer Hudson's speech really classy?

Didn't you expect her to thank Simon Cowell?

Can that girl sing or what?

Aren't you curious to see what happens (or doesn't happen) with her career now?

Was everyone (myself included) cursing and ripping up their prediction ballots when Pan's Labyrinth lost Best Foreign Film?

Is it pretty sad when the only award I got right was the Honorary Oscar?

Isn't it pretty cool though that there were that many surprises?

Didn't Ellen Degeneres seem really comfortable and relaxed even when some of her jokes missed?

Wasn't it funny when Scorsese told Ellen her screenplay even has the word "Screenplay" on it?

Doesn't she deserve to come back as host?

Isn't Tom Cruise a really articulate presenter who seemed like he was genuinely happy for Sherry Lansing and was honored to be there?

Doesn't that make some of his other off-screen behavior that much more dissapointing?

Didn't Kirsten Dunst look terrible?

And really, really pale?

Didn't Reese Witherspoon look incredible?

Is Ryan Phillipe a complete idiot?

Weren't you, like me, glad DiCaprio was nominated for Blood Diamond instead of The Departed because it meant you got to see a Jennifer Connelly clip?

Were you thinking the way things were going that Ryan Gosling would have the title "Oscar winner" in front of his name before the end of the night?

Weren't you happy for Forest Whitaker?

Doesn't it make you want to go back and give his feature directorial debut, First Daughter starring Katie Holmes a second look? (no, me neither)
Were you thinking "who doesn't belong" for reasons other than what they intended when George Lucas was standing there with Spielberg and Coppola?

Wasn't it moronic on so many different levels for Lucas to question why he doesn't have an Oscar?

Didn't those presenters confirm who was going to win?

Didn't that make the Scorsese victory that much more special?

Doesn't he seem like a really great guy?

Is Jack Nicholson's "new look" not quite working?

Did you almost fall out of your seat from shock when The Departed won Best Picture?

Do I look like a fountain of Oscar prediction wisdom for typing this comment in my last blog: "It would be interesting to see The Departed pull an upset but I can't see it happening"

Aren't you glad this whole Oscar thing is finally over with?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar Predictions

Looking forward to the show tonight as I have a feeling there could be some major upsets and the Best Picture race is arguably the toughest to call in years. So here they are along with my thoughts on the major categories:

Best Picture: Babel

The Departed is too violent for the Academy and if Goodfellas didn't win this won't. Little Miss Sunshine is too slight. The Queen is viewed as an excellent t.v. movie. Letters From Iwo Jima was lucky it got a nomination. This leaves Babel, which is exactly the kind of film the voters love to reward so they can pat themselves on the back for recognizing a serious issue film. It's a grand, sweeping epic that takes on social concerns and FEELS like a Best Picture winner. That goes a long way in a race like this. That said, it is really tight this year.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese (The Departed)
Stephen Frears (The Queen) and Paul Greengrass (United 93) stand absolutely no chance. Greengrass far less so. Mixed reaction to Babel will hurt Inarritu in this category. There isn't enough support behind Iwo jima for Clint to pull an upset. Scorsese finally gets his due. Look for a very long standing ovation and lots of emotion.

Best Actor: Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland)
Voters have already forgotten about Will Smith's film and his performance. Gosling's nomination is reward enough, as is O' Toole's. DiCaprio should have been nominated for The Departed so he stands no chance. That leaves Whitaker who's powerful performance should make voters forget he directed First Daughter. One of the few locks of the night.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren (The Queen)
Unfortunately the lead acting categories are very predictable this year, but at least it guarantees everyone two correct in their Oscar pool. Kate Winslet will eventually win an Oscar but the support just isn't there for Little Children, which I hear is unbelievable by the way. Penelope Cruz can go home happy knowing her work was at least recognized. Meryl Streep's performance in The Devil Wears Prada is a supporting one. Judi Dench has the biggest chance to pull off an upset for Notes on a Scandal, but won't. Helen Mirren winning is the surest bet on the entire show as she's one every single critics award.

Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls)
I really, really hope I'm wrong. If you asked me the one thing I don't want to see on this Oscar telecast it's Murphy winning. This must be the ten millionth Eddie Murphy "comeback" where he gets our hopes up he'll become a real actor. Instead we all know he'll shove the Oscar in his closet and continue to waste his talent making Norbit 2 and The Nutty Professor 17. With his body of work this past decade how could the Academy possibly endorse him? I don't care how good he was in Dreamgirls. Unlike Murphy, Little Children's Jackie Earle Haley and Little Miss Sunshine's Alan Arkin are real comeback stories. Reward one of them. Please.

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls)
The Academy loves to recognize fresh blood in this category and it doesn't come any fresher than Hudson, making her acting debut. This should be an exciting acceptance speech if nothing else. Too bad Cate Blanchett won this a couple of years ago or she'd have a chance. Rinko Kukuchi deserves to win for Babel but will split votes with co-star Adriana Barraza. Abigail Breslin proabably won't join Tatum O'Neil as the youngest Oscar winner in history. Keep your eyes peeled for a shocking upset in this category. It's happened before.

The Other Categories:
Best Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed
Best Foreign Language Film: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth
Best Documentary Short: The Blood of Yingzhou District
Best Animated Feature: Cars
Best Animated Short: The Little Matchgirl
Best Live Action Short: Binta y la gran idea (let's see if I keep up my streak of missing this category like I do every year)
Best Original Score: The Queen
Best Original Song: "Listen" (Dreamgirls)
Best Cinematography: Children of Men
Best Art Direction: Dreamgirls
Best Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Best Film Editing: United 93
Best Sound Editing: Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest
Best Sound Mixing: Dreamgirls
Best Costume Design: Marie Antoinette
Best Makeup: Pan's Labyrinth

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Babel

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rinko Kukuchi

Running Time: 142 min.

Rating: R


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


When you stop to think about it, there's nothing more dangerous than being stuck in a country where you don't know the language or the culture. Babel knows this and milks the idea for everything its worth. Then it goes deeper than that to make a larger point about how we communicate, or rather don't, in today's world.
What happens is scary, but it's a different kind of scary than we're used to seeing in movies. The thrills and shocks come from the amazing stupidity and carelessness of the characters and the communication breakdown that permeates through the entire picture. The characters in this movie make bad mistakes and horrible judgement calls but they're realistic and not any I couldn't see someone making. I'm not sure what that says about the world we live in and to be honest I'm not sure if I really want to know. All the matters is that Babel had me thinking ...for a long time.

Within the first few minutes of the film we're already given the frightening image of two young Moroccan boys (one of which has a filthy habit of spying on his naked sister) playing with a rifle given to them by their father, a local herdsman. One takes a shot and hits a local tour bus carrying bickering married couple Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett). They're on vacation against Susan's wishes and one of the most interesting scenes involves them sitting at a Moroccan restaurant and having one of the coldest conversations I've ever seen a married couple have in a film. It's not so much what they say, but what they don't that makes such an impact.

Susan is hit with the bullet and is fighting for her life when Richard brings her to a nearby Moroccan village to stop the bleeding and wait for a helicopter to get her to a hospital. Meanwhile news reports cite that Susan was the victim of a terrorist attack, when in actuality it was just a couple of dumb kids playing around. In a way that's far worse, and the movie does a good job conveying that and making us almost wish it was a terrorist attack. At least that would be something we could wrap our minds around. Richard calls home to his Mexican housekeeper Amelia (Oscar nominee Adriana Barazza), who's looking after their two kids, tells her what happened, and says she needs to watch over them a little longer until he gets back. This is a problem. Amelia needs to be in Mexico for her son's wedding and has no idea what to do with the kids. It's at this point that she makes a stupid decision. A really, really stupid decision.

She hitches a ride over the border to the wedding with her livewire nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) and bring the kids. What happens to them, or should I say what they cause themselves, is horrifying, made that much moreso by the fact it was completely preventable. The final and most effective link in this storyline arc is in Japan where deaf mute teenager Chieko (Oscar nominee Rinko Kukuchi in a heartbreaking performance) who lost her mother to suicide and has serious problems communicating with her father, uses her body as a desperate cry for attention when she thinks the whole world views her as a monster. How this relates to the other stories is more indirect but made clear later.

This movie has often been compared to the 2005 Best Picture winner Crash with its cross-cutting narrative structure and themes of culture clash. From the day it was released in theaters Babel has caused unprecedented arguments among critics and audiences. That it's caused such heated debate can only be seen as a compliment to writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams) and the story he crafted. I think a lot of people have major problems with the film because the characters aren't easily accessible or likable due to their incredibly poor decision making and ignorance.

They also may have thought the script took some liberties in portraying them and didn't effectively convey its intended message of miscommunication among other cultures of people. I thought it rarely stepped wrong and achieved a remarkable feat in telling four almost equally effective stories that never lost sight of the central theme of the film and contained some remarkable performances. Given the scope of what Inarritu chose to take on here there were a million different ways this could have gone wrong, but it doesn't.

The two most controversial storylines involve the Mexican housekeeper's ridiculous decision to take the kids over the border and the deaf Japanese teenager's cry for help that manifests itself sexually. Watching it I'm sure a lot of viewers thought no human being could possibly do something as stupid as what housekeeper Amelia does with those kids. Well, in real life nannies do insanely stupid things that put the welfare of the children they look after in danger. I've seen it.

As for what happens when they arrive at the wedding, I think Inarritu wasn't trying to portray Mexicans in a bad light as has been accused but rather show the events from the vantage point of two terrified children who have just stepped into a world that they, like us, have no clue about. Inarritu was making a point about how we view those from other cultures which is why the depiction seems on first glance to be so offensive and over the top. Another misunderstanding in a film full of them.

Although it seems like the storyline least related to everything else in the film Rinko Kukuchi's Chieko is the glue that holds the movie together and provides much of its emotional power. Of all the characters in the film, she's the one you feel the most sympathy for. She's uses her body because it's her last resort after being ignored and ostracized. In her mind, she has no other choice and she comes to this realization in the infamous restaurant scene. For people who complain there's too much gratuitous nudity in films they may be happy to know this film isn't an offender. When an actress is asked to expose herself physically and emotionally like Kukuchi does here it better be for good reason. Inarritu knows this and takes good care of her. What I liked most about this story is that the other characters know she's vulnerable, yet all refuse to take advantage of her.

In a spectacular scene we're taken into a Japanese dance club and for a couple of moments the music stops and we hear what Chieko would hear: nothing. Lights blaring, people moving but no sound. We're deaf and it's terrifying. In a film loaded with uncomfortable moments this one really stands out. So does the performance of Kukuchi, who if there's any justice will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Believe it or not, I think of all the characters Brad Pitt's Richard was the one who acted the most sensibly given the circumstances. If you look back you'll see given how quickly everything happens and the massive sense of dislocation he must have been feeling he did all he could and handled the situation well. I also think in the minimal amount of screen time he had Pitt managed to deliver the best performance of his career thus far. Although I have to admit it was kind of distracting and unnecessary to age Pitt by giving him graying hair when we all know he's old enough to have two kids that age anyway. It seemed like they wanted to let us know he was giving a really serious, mature performance in case we didn't get the memo.

The way his relationship with his wife changes throughout the course the film is a sight to behold and all comes to fruition in one really powerful scene where Blanchett's Susan lets go of her anger and opens herself up to be helped. Blanchett spends most of the film on the floor bleeding to death, but she somehow even manages to even do that elegantly while continuing to prove her worth as one of the best working actresses today.

With its sweeping cinematography, tackling of cultural themes and globe spanning storylines this is the kind of epic that has Best Picture written all over it. As for the ending, it wasn't the storyline or image I would have picked to close on, but that's a minor issue considering some of the other disastrously inappropriate endings we've seen this past year. The idea behind the picture is one that should be explored more often in modern cinema because it's so relevant. A tiny event halfway across the world can carry ripple effects that impact others in ways that may seem impossible on paper. It has happened and continues to everyday. Misunderstandings and communication breakdowns can cause a bad situations to escalate into worse ones. No matter what your reaction to Babel is, you're at least forced to admit you had one.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Half Nelson

Director: Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Tina Holmes

Running Time: 107 min.

Rating: R


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


Anyone going into Half Nelson worried it will glorify drug use or make it seem exciting should have no worries. This film makes nothing seem exciting or the least bit interesting outside of Ryan Gosling's performance, where he jumps through rings of fire to deliver a brave performance in a movie completely undeserving of it. It takes a promising story and puts the blueprints on screen without fully developing it. Is it an insprirational tale of a teacher inspiring his students in the vain of Freedom Writers or Stand and Deliver? No, not really. Well then it must be a story of a good man descending into substance abuse who's redeemed by the love and care of another human being, like in Leaving Las Vegas. No, that's not really it either. I'm not sure what it was and I don't think the filmmakers knew either. All I knew was that by the time it was over I felt like I was stuck in a half nelson and was ready to submit. Out of boredom.

Ryan Gosling is Dan Dunne, an inner city junior high school teacher and sometimes basketball coach who's bright, articulate and actually really good at what he does. The scenes in the classroom are fantastic. He has an unorthodox but interesting teaching approach that involves arm wrestling his students and talking about dialectics (the tensions between two opposing forces) that he believes is the basis for understanding both our history and our present. He also has a serious drug habit. This is discovered by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), who catches him smoking crack in the bathroom one day after school.

13 year-old Drey also has some problems of her own as her father is absent, she's cared for by her overworked mother and now she's somehow fallen in with the local drug dealer, Frank (a very good Anthony Mackie). It's bizarre how the movie handles Drey's discovery about Dan's drug habit and how their relationship develops. I say bizarre because it doesn't do anything with it and their relationship really doesn't develop at all. The drug use is just there. That's it. It doesn't do anything to create any change in the relationship or conflict and drama at all. Writer/director Ryan Fleck seems to tap dance around the issue for the entire length of the film. I think he was coming from the school that less is more and that if he showed a harrowing portrait of drug use that's all he would need for his film to work. You need more.

The only attempt at creating any kind of conflict was with Frank the drug dealer, except there's a major problem with that. Frank actually seems like a really great guy. I'm not saying he should be sitting in the car twirling his evil mustache and smoking crack, but he at least has to appear to be some kind of negative influence on the child. So when Dan confronts the guy (in the film's only scene of real drama), he looks like a moron and so do we for being asked to root for him. We feel bad for Dan because he's a good person and a passionate teacher, but let's be honest: Would you want this guy around your kids? I wouldn't mind him teaching them, but hanging out with them after school? When Frank tells Drey her relationship with Dan is inappropriate you kind of think he has a point. Especially since Fleck failed to show how Dan's positive influence as a teacher has in any way translated into these students' personal lives.

If it seems like I'm being too hard on the movie, it's only because I expected so much more from it. The film takes a serious issue and just lets it hang there while the film meanders and limps to its finale. I shouldn't even call it a finale. It's just a stop. We end the film with no sense this guy's condition will improve or Drey's life was significantly altered for the better by having this teacher in her life. None of the problems in this film stem from Gosling's performance as it's literally the only reason to see this film. It's one of the best depictions of drug abuse I've seen in movies in recent years and he infuses the character with all these different shades and complications that are no where to be found in the script at all.

He shows us someone who's throwing his life way, can't hold a steady relationship and knows what he's doing is completely wrong, but just can't stop. It's a brilliant portrayal of addiction, but I really wish it was in a better movie. Shareeka Epps does a good job looking angry for two hours. I can't figure out for the life of me why that performance is being widely praised. Some emotion would have been nice and maybe would have taken the film out of the slow gear it was in its entire 107 minutes.

There's a tendency these days to praise any low budget indie that tackles a serious issue as being brilliant. Some are. Some aren't. This isn't. It's also pretty boring to look at as it was directed with absolutely no style at all with the camera static the entire time like we were watching someone's home movie. I respected its attempt as subtlety, but it just doesn't work for a story that could contain so much more emotional impact. The film had so much visual and dramatic potential, it was a shame to see it go to waste like this. That it's gritty and realistic becomes, in the end, it's biggest problem.

The good news to come out of this, is that Ryan Gosling is gaining notice as one of our most promising actors and this should lead to even more interesting roles for him, hopefully in better films. His Academy Award nomination here is well deserved. It's kind of ironic that before Half Nelson he was best known for the tearjerker The Notebook. On the surface the latter would seem to be the fluffier of the two, but there was probably more heart and passion in one scene of that film than in all of Half Nelson. It was formula but so what? At least it was entertaining and knew what it was. I doubt many people will go back and revisit this. All the pieces were in place for Half Nelson to be one of the best films of the year. Unfortunately, those pieces didn't connect.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone
Running Time: 152 min.

Rating: R


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


There's been a lot of talk lately about where The Departed stands in the pantheon of legendary Martin Scorsese pictures. I never considered myself a huge Scorsese fan so this concerns me very little. His films are always expertly made and technically brilliant, but for some reason have always failed to connect with me on a personal level the way the Kubrick or even Spielberg could. It could be because nearly all of his movies center around organized crime, family, and betrayal that it seems like he's making a different version of the same film every time out.

They're all fantastic, but you can't help but get the feeling you know what to expect when Scorsese is behind the lens. When he tried to stretch a little bit with The Gangs of New York and The Aviator it was met with tepid reception, if not from critics, then from audiences who wanted their old Marty back. They were right but while both films were overlong and tedious, no one could say they weren't interesting.

With The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, they have him back. He's at the top of his game and has made his most exciting, audience friendly picture yet. I can honestly say, of all of Scorsese's films, I had the most fun watching this one, and if I had to, would rank it ahead of many of his others. It also features some of America's best actors giving the performances of their careers. Like most Scorsese films, I can't promise you it'll stay with me forever, but for it's entire two and a half hour running time it had me captivated and on the edge of my seat. That counts for something.

Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Frank Sullivan (Matt Damon) both grew up on the rough streets of Boston with the goal of becoming a police officer. Scorsese shows us, within minutes of the picture, the different paths they take to get there and sets the stage for one of the most fascinating battles between good and evil seen recently in films. Costigan, who has a checkered past and virtually no family left, enrolls in the Boston police academy with the hope of becoming a state trooper while Sullivan joins as a mole to provide inside information to crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), who's been a father figure to him since his youth.

Immediately Costigan is tapped for a deadly assignment by Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (an inexplicably Oscar nominated Mark Wahlberg). He must infiltrate Costello's inner circle and leak information back to the cops so they can finally get something on him. Meanwhile Sullivan, who's quickly becoming the department's golden boy, is feeding police dirt back to Costello. Each are aware of the other's existence but not their identities. Complicating matters further is that both men are also, unbeknownst to one another, in love with the same woman (a psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga).

A cat and mouse game boils throughout the film as Costigan and Sullivan come closer and closer to discovering who each other is and Costigan is always seconds away from being discovered by Costello as the mole. Every moment he's in the presence of the volatile, unhinged Costello he knows the next breath he takes could very well be his last. The tension this creates is palpable and cuts like a knife through the motion picture. At times it's as unbearable for us as it is for Costigan. Over the course of two hours, every scene, every moment and every action is building toward the inevitable confrontation between Sullivan and Costigan and the possibilty that Costello will discover Costigan's true allegiance. There are twists and turns and if you, like me, haven't seen the Infernal Affairs trilogy this is based on, you're in for some serious surprises. I've never seen a Scorsese film where the stakes were this high and believe me the actors sell all of it with everything they have.

What works best about The Departed is that everything isn't really black and white or simply about good and evil. It cuts deeper than that. Sullivan's a crooked cop feeding information to a mob boss, but he's humanized by the fact that he's really just a product of his environment. In one of the first scenes in the film we flash back to his first encounter with a young Sullivan in a diner. We see a confused little boy being taken in by a guy who really on the surface would seem to a kid to be really cool. He's charismatic, funny and generous. He just happens to kill people. Sullivan shows loyalty to the one man who would give him the time of day. What's so bad about that? It's only as the story progresses that we realize that loyality comes at the expense of his own integrity and self worth as a human being.

Throughout the film Damon has this vacant look on his face and a cold emotionless demeanor that shows us it's not even registering anywhere inside him what he's doing. No matter how bad things get he never panics and remains steadfast in his loyalty to Costello. It's scary. DiCaprio has a tough job here because he really has to give two performances. One as the screw up from the wrong side of the tracks who can't pass his police exam and the other as a terrified undercover cop who must pretend to be brave or he's dead. He has to make us feel his fear and nervousness but make us sure Costello can't. He has to give a performance playing a character who's giving a performance. How hard is that?

For a long time DiCaprio struggled to find roles that properly showcased how strong an actor he is. For a while he was pigeonholed by his youthful appearance and not taken seriously. In recent years he's done a lot to correct that image and could easily qualify as one of the best we have right now. No role has ever fit him better than this as he owns every scene and is the timebomb that makes the story tick. I think as time passes people will better appreciate the work he's done as an actor and he'll be remembered as one of the greats. And to think he's barely over thirty and his best work could be ahead.

Nicholson fans will not be dissapointed with his "should have been nominated" performance as Frank Costello. He manages to be vile, sadistic, giving, funny and dangerous all at once. This isn't just Jack hamming it up like we've been used to. He's playing a tortured soul with real motivations and it's one of his most entertaining performances (which covers a lot of ground). I have no idea why Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor over Nicholson. As a tough talking, sarcastic Boston Sergeant he pops in for a few scenes, yells and curses a lot and then leaves. Then he pops in to do it again. He nails the character and does a good job in a small, insignificant role, but it's hardly Oscar worthy. In fact I enjoyed the more subtle work of Martin Sheen as the Captain who becomes a father figure to Costigan and Alec Baldwin as the head of the task force assigned to take down Costello. Vera Farmiga (who I've never seen before this) also turns in solid, interesting work as the love interest.

I understand a lot of people had a problem with the ending of this film. I didn't. Let's just say when your movie is called The Departed there's a pretty good chance a lot of the characters are going to die. Was there one death too many? Perhaps, but I didn't feel it stretched credibility in the least given the course of events and it kept in tone with the gritty, realistic nature of the film. I thought the ending was effective and worked on the levels was intended given the story. Scorsese leaves his comfort zone a little on this film as he trades in the streets of New York for Boston and the change of location is a welcome one (even if it was mostly shot in New York it feels like Boston, which is all that matters).

Like most Scorsese pictures the soundtrack is a character and he always knows just where to sprinkle the song to get the desired impact. Here we're treated to The Rolling Stones (a Scorsese favorite), Van Morrison and Dropkick Murphy's. Even if Scorsese's work may seem repetitive at times it's tough to fault a director for making films about topics he's passionate about, especially when they're done this well. I think even Scorsese's biggest fans would be surprised how consistently entertaining this movie is and how fast it flies by.

The dangerous, heart-pounding game between the two main characters and the visceral energy DiCaprio and Damon infuse in them is where the meat of the film lies, making it one of Scorsese's most psychologically complex works. This is a movie about choices. Both good and bad. The Departed isn't a masterpiece but's it a solid four-star movie worthy of it's Best Picture nomination. It should earn its director a very well deserved and long overdue gold statue on his mantle.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Running With Scissors

Director: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Joseph Cross, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gabrielle Union, Kristen Chenoweth

Running Time: 126 min.
Rating: R


*** (out of ****)

"It ain't reality, just someone else's sentimentality.
It won't work for you Baby boomers selling you rumors of their history. Forcing youth away from the truth of what's real today The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70's."
-Eddie Vedder

There have been some questions as to just how much of what happens in Augusten Burroughs' best selling memoir Running with Scissors (which I haven't read) is completely fact based. For Burroughs' sake and our own I almost hope none of it is because that would mean some of the characters we meet during the course of Ryan Murphy's cinematic adaptation of the novel could still be roaming the streets. That's a scary thought, but one I'm not discounting because I have no doubt that people at least similar to the ones depicted in this film do actually exist.

Running with Scissors
was widely regarded by audiences and critics as the single worst film of 2006 and I can completely see why. After posting this review I'm sure I'll get feedback telling me all the different ways this movie is terrible and I'll likely agree with every single one of them. However, something very unusual happened for me while watching this that I'm forced to give in and admit it. Against all good judgment and logic I was actually enjoying it and by the time it was over I couldn't deny it was a memorable experience. It was like watching a train wreck and I must say I laughed much of the way through.

The film is a complete mess. It's tone is inconsistent, the performances are over the top, its two hour running time feels like days and the movie runs out of steam three quarters of the way through. When it was over I felt like I needed to enter therapy myself. Yet, it works. Actually no, let me re-phrase that. It doesn't work exactly, but for better or worse, it sure is entertaining. And given the characters and the story I can't imagine any other style in which this movie could have been made. The story also somehow manages to come together in the end and have a lot of heart, despite its insanity.

We're told the story of fourteen year-old Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) who struggles to survive the disintegration of his parents' marriage in 1978. His mother Deirdre (Annnette Bening) is a delusional aspiring poet prone to fits of rage and frequent emotional and physical battles with her alcoholic husband Norman (a great, dry Alec Baldwin) whom she claims will eventually kill her. To say this woman is mentally ill would likely be the understatement of the century, but one of the best things about the movie is even though the part is written as broad caricature Bening digs deeper than that and lets us see her vulnerability even in her most absurd fits of silliness (and believe me there are plenty).

The Burroughs' seek marriage counseling from psychiatrist Dr. Finch, who's part father figure, part psychotic Svengali and has a room adjacent to his office he refers to as his "masturbatorium." You could probably guess what he proudly uses it for. The Burroughs' separate, Norman moves out and Augusten is sent to live with Dr. Finch and his bizarre family while Deidre is shacked up in a hotel, over-medicated with her mental health slowly cracking away. She also turns to lesbianism with a woman she verbally abuses in her poetry group (played by Kristen Chenoweth) because... well, let's just say the movie is weird.

What young Augusten finds when he arrives at the Finch's giant pink house of horrors would be enough to traumatize any human being for life, but as rendered onscreen, it's pretty damn funny. We meet Dr. Finch's wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) who's had the Christmas tree up for two years and spends her days on the couch watching Dark Shadows and eating dog food. His oldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) traps her cat in a laundry basket for a week without food or water and uses the Bible as a magic eight ball guiding her on what they should have for dinner.

The youngest daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is a teenage sexpot who likes to play with her father's electroshock therapy machine, but is actually the most normal of the bunch. She wants to go to college but is trapped by the craziness that surrounds her. Augusten immediately forms a bond with her that should go further than friendship but can't since Augusten is gay. I think it's this relationship that gives the movie it's emotional weight and focus. The Finches also have a frequent houseguest in Neil Bookman (an unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes) a patient and adopted son of Dr. Finch who still comes in for therapy sessions and sneaks into the house at night to try and stab him with scissors. He starts a sexual relationship with Augusten, crueling and clumsily initiating him into the adult world way too early. When I say Fiennes is unrecognizable in this role I mean it. I had no idea it was him until glimpsing the final credits.

The movie grabs us by the throat and chokes us with 70's nostalgia. This film isn't just set in the 70's, it is the 70's. It dives head first into the garish fashions, disgusting d├ęcor, and pop music that permeated through the latter part of the decade. The set and costume design on this movie is absolutely top notch and the Finch house is not just a setting, it's a character in the film. A historical artitifact of the time representing the absolute worst of the decade. Director Murphy (creator of t.v.'s Nip/Tuck) really got this right.

The pop music of the time is hilariously and inappropriately misplaced throughout the film on many occasions to the point where I started to wonder if this may have been done intentionally as a joke. Whether it was or not I could care less. It was funny and entertaining either way. I'm never a fan of music forcing it's way into a motion picture but the marriage of seventies pop music and the offbeat insane characters that populate this blackest of black comedies strangely makes a lot of sense.

If someone told me I had to make a movie and could assemble any all-star team of actors I wanted, there's a good chance I would cast many of the stars of this movie. Running with Scissors is no way Oscar worthy, but a few of the performances could be. There are those who are going to love Annette Bening's Golden Globe nominated turn as the mentally ill Deidre and those who will absolutely hate it with a passion. I can't argue with either one, but you could probably guess which side of the fence I fall on. One thing that can't be debated, however, is that Bening is one talented lady and it took a lot of guts for her to take this on.

Brian Cox lets the humanity seap through as Dr. Finch, who could have easily just been portrayed as a manipulative old quack. Cox never lets it go there and gives us the impression he may actually be a good man with pure intentions, he just flys off the deep end. He also manages to get the biggest laughs of the film. Gwyneth Paltrow's role as Hope is so small it could almost be considered a cameo but she makes the most of what she has and is an important character in establishing the unhappiness and craziness that accompanies the Finch family and the film.

The entire movie, though, belongs to Cross and Wood and their performances as disaffected youths ground the film and help it eventually become what it wants to be: a coming of age tale. They share the screen for the film's best scene when they demolish the kitchen ceiling as Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" blasts over the soundtrack. Their ceiling, but more importantly their world, is closing in and they need to escape everything the only way they know how. As Augusten, Cross is a spectator to the insanity that sorrounds him, while deftly hinting at the despair and lonliness lying just beneath the surface. Wood continues to prove she's one of our most promising young actresses giving Natalie the proper mix of anger, sexiness and vulnerability. Watching, you may feel like them. Trapped, confused and looking for a way out. That was the point.

The movie did something I really liked at the end and told us what happened to the real people these characters were based on. If I'm going to spend two hours with these characters I'd like to know what happened to them. This leads to a nice moment where the real Augusten Burroughs shares the screen with his movie counterpart. You could take exception with this and claim Burroughs is just patting himself on the back but in my book anyone who lived through something like this deserves at the very least a pat on the back. I'd even go as far as to say they deserve a book deal and a movie about their life.

Saying this film isn't for all tastes doesn't quite do it justice. It really isn't for any tastes and doesn't pull any punches. It has balls of steel. The term "it's so bad it's good" was never more applicable than it is here. When it was over I was sure I hated it, but then I realized I wouldn't soon forget a single character, performance or line in the film and I had witnessed an interesting exporation of mental illness and its consequences. More importantly, I had witnessed a story that at it's core is about overcoming adversity and coming out on the other side okay. Congratulate Augusten Burroughs, but more importantly congratulate yourselves if you can sit through it. Running With Scissors is a disaster, but an unforgettable one.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hollywoodland

Director: Allen Coulter
Starring: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Lois Smith, Robin Tunney

Running Time: 126 min.

Rating: R


*** (out of ****)


Sometimes a subject is so interesting it can carry an entire film, even if said film doesn't necessarily live up to expectations. George Reeves, star of the 1950's television series, The Adventures of Superman, is such a subject. You get the impression a dozen diferent kind of movies could have been made about him, but what we get here is a murder mystery whodunnit without a resolution. Of course, it can't have a resolution since they never really found out whether Reeves shot himself or was murdered.

Hollywoodland
makes a good case for the latter and hopefully puts to bed once and for all that stupid urban legend that Reeves jumped out of his window thinking he could fly like Superman. Ultimately though, his death was ruled a suicide and the case was closed. This material screams for a biopic not a murder mystery, but I'm recommending it anyway and that's in no small part due to the performance of Ben Affleck, who delivers some of the most nuanced work of his career as Reeves. It's easy to argue he was robbed of a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

When actor George Reeves (Affleck) is found dead from a bullet wound to the head in his Hollywood Hills home, the Los Angeles police department rule it a suicide and close the case. However, his mother (Lois Smith) knows something's very wrong and hires private detective Louis Simo (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) to investigate the mysterious circumstances sorrounding his death and delve into his sordid personal life, which included an affair with Toni Mannix (Oscar nominee Diane Lane)) wife of famed MGM studio boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Through flashbacks we see how that relationship began and eventually crumbled, leaving Toni angry and bitter. What's interesting about his affair with Toni is that her husband knows everything, but has absolutely no problem with it unless he hurts her. Eventually he does. Toni is older and that age difference ultimately causes the relationship's undoing as Reeves begins to tire of her matronly demeanor and crave someone younger and more exciting.

Enter aspiring New York actress Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) who eventually becomes his fiancee and second potential suspect in his death. When Reeves abandons Toni an infuriated Eddie Mannix, who's a big name with big connections, is the third suspect in what could potentially be a homocide. As Louis edges closer to the truth he uncovers more about Reeves, and himself, than he ever thought possible, personally affecting him on levels he didn't expect. The movie tries to relate those personal struggles with his separated wife and son to Reeves' problems, but it comes off forced, not quite connecting like it should. As a murder mystery the film doesn't quite hit the mark either because we can't have any kind of closure on Reeves' death since no one ever found out what happened. Instead the movie is held together by the examination of him as a person and how his own celebrity caused him to self destruct. All of this is brilliantly brought to life by Affleck's surprisingly complex performance.

Reeves is depicted as a really good guy who's only wish was to be taken seriously as an actor. Unfortunately his big break came as Superman, which made him a laughing stock to his peers and prevented him from being hired for anything else, causing his personal and professional life to unravel. There's a wonderful scene in the film at the premiere of From Here To Eternity when Reeves shows up onscreen in a small role opposite Burt Lancaster. The entire theater bursts in laughter and erupts with Superman cat calls. Humiliated, all Reeves can do is cower in his seat. Affleck plays the entire scene just right. He doesn't say anything, but we can tell from the look on his face that Reeves' entire world just came crashing down and he's forever burdened by the role that made him a star.

What's interesting is that when we see scenes of the filming of the show and Affleck in the costume, we can see the humiliation on his face and also understand why he'd be ridiculed. Let's face it: The Superman character is kind of a joke since it's always been exploited by Hollywood just to make a quick buck no matter how talented (Christopher Reeve) or untalented (Brandon Routh) the actor playing him was. It's virtually impossible for any actor to ever be taken seriously again after playing the part. However, as much as this burned Reeves up inside, he took his responsibility as a role model to children seriously. In the movie's best scene, he has to talk down a small boy with a loaded gun pointed right at him. How he does this without hinting in any way to him that he really isn't Superman is amazing. Had the film explored these themes further instead of emulating an E! True Hollywood Story, the film would have been unforgettable.

After years of starring in junk (and just now recently admitting to it), Affleck finally finds in George Reeves the role that brings out his strengths as an actor. There's no doubt he saw similarities between himself and Reeves as both men desperately wanted to overcome their image to be taken seriously as an actor, battling both personal demons and having tabloid romances. But for the first time in years he looks relaxed in a role that he completely owns, which should hopefully lead him to make more interesting choices moving forward.

While the film doesn't completely succeed drawing parallels between the life of Reeves and the man investigating his death, Brody's performance as the embattled Louis isn't to blame. He does good work here, as toward the end it becomes clear he's ironically the only person who actually cares for Reeves as a person, not as a celebrity. Brody will never look like your typical leading man, but every time out he gives it everything he has and often gives great performances in films unworthy of it. Lane, Hopkins and Tunney all give solid supporting turns.

This is the directorial debut of Allen Coulter, who's best known for his work on televison's The Sopranos and Sex and the City and he does an admirable job capturing the look and feel of 1950's Hollywood in all it's glamour. Hollywoodland is a good movie that could have been great if it spent more time examining George Reeves the man rather than trying to pointlessly unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Marine

Director: John Bonito
Starring: John Cena, Robert Patrick, Kelly Carlson

Running Time: 91 min.
Rating: PG-13


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


As a lifelong wrestling fan, I usually make it a point not see or review movies starring wrestlers. I'm almost too familiar with them to be able to look at their movie work objectively. I always see them as their "wrestling character." Plus, I like to think we should leave acting to actors. The recent marginal success of The Rock has softened my stance on this issue because he is a charismatic, hard working guy with great screen presence who I think has potential as an actor. John Cena is not The Rock.

I want to see John Cena in a movie about as much as want to see Brad Pitt headline Wrestlemania. Come to think of it, after viewing The Marine, the Pitt scenario sounds better by the second. From start to finish this is a disaster and the blame can't totally be placed on Cena, but rather a talentless hack calling himself a director. Watch The Marine and take notes. This is how you make a bad movie. A really bad movie.

Cena plays recently discharged Marine John Triton, who stops at a gas station, where his hot wife Kate (Nip/Tuck's Kelly Carlson) is kidnapped by a notorious jewel thief (Robert Patrick) and his band of thugs. He has to go through the South Carolina wilderness to rescue her. Things blow up. People get shot. Cena gets to use some wrestling moves. That's it. Actually, no that's no it. What I left out is that in the first half hour of this 91 minute film that actually feels more like 5 hours, we get to know John Triton as a person. I thought this was the biggest joke of the film and I actually laughed out loud many, many times. We find out he loves his wife, is working a dead end security job with a doofy co-worker and his temper can sometimes get the best of him.

Why anyone would think it was a good idea for John Cena to attempt to display even the simplest character nuances right out of the gate when he has no professional acting experience is beyond me. We should have started the movie at the gas station instead of spending a half hour exposing Cena's shortcomings as an actor. He also doesn't look like a marine. Worse yet, he doesn't even look like a real person. He's too big. He looks like a bodybuilder and director John Bonito takes these wide angle shots of him just standing there looking as if he's about to tip over. It's actually pretty hilarious.

You never conciously realize how important a film's score can be until you've heard a really bad one. Don Davis' score for this film is a perfect example. It sounds like it was ripped from a video game or was mixed in someone's basement. It's cartoonish and silly, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't fit the action. The explosions look fake and the sad part of it is they were probably real but Bonito's idiotic direction makes them look staged and silly. He also manages to retrieve unnatural, wooden performances out of every one of his victims, I mean actors.

Cena unsurprisingly delivers his scripted lines as forced as he does every Monday night. Only Robert Patrick escapes unscathed as he brings a dry humor to the proceedings, but even he's just collecting a paycheck. I think the worst and most distracting aspect of this film is it's PG-13 rating, which was no doubt stamped on the film to insure Cena's core fanbase of little kids and married housewives weren't offended by the film. There's no sex or violence in a movie that's all about sex and violence. I found that weird and off putting. To be fair, there's also an unrated version available, but that's not the film I'm reviewing nor was it the film that was released in theaters.

This the second WWE Films release after the Kane starring horror vehicle See No Evil, which was awful, but doesn't even come close to approaching this atrocity. Vince McMahon, who produced this, has his finger on the pulse of the American moviegoing public about as much as he does the American wrestling audience(and if you've seen any WWE televison recently you know exactly what I mean). I've seen direct to video action releases directed with more style, and even intelligence, than this. It doesn't even work as pure camp.

Blaming this all on John Cena is unfair since it's ultimately up to Bonito (who's previous experience is limited to directing wrestling shows) to hide his weaknesses. He takes the lion's share of the blame since he knows what he's dealing with, or in this case, not dealing with. Instead Cena's shortcomings are front and center for us all to see, much like they are on WWE television. This is the part of the review where I say he shouldn't quit his day job, but that expression doesn't apply here. He should probably quit that too. It's fitting that the first (and hopefully last) starring vehicle for John Cena is rated PG-13, is completely by the numbers, and takes no risks.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

From The Vault: House of Sand and Fog

Director: Vadim Perelman
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shoreh Aghdashloo, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Ahdout

Release Date: 2003

Running Time: 126 min.

Rating: R


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

"Masterpiece" is a word I try to use very selectively when reviewing a motion picture and not after careful consideration. This is one of those cases where it applies. For some reason I had problems remembering what film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003, which is either a poor reflection on my memory or that film, but considering I usually remember what film won in any given year, I'll say it's more likely the latter. After looking it up, I found out it was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. But it doesn't really matter.

What I can tell you with great certainty is that whatever film won that year was the wrong choice if it was released the same year as House of Sand and Fog. When it was over I felt like a better person for having seen it and felt like paying closer attention to how I treat people and how I view their behavior. For me, it was one of those rare movies that makes you think as well as feel.

After failing to pay false tax charge Kathy Nicolo (Connelly), a depressed recovering alcoholic who's husband just left her, is evicted from the house her father left her before he died. Now she's homeless and the only one willing to help is local sheriff Lester (Ron Eldard) who makes sure she has a place to stay and gives her the number of a good attorney (Frances Fisher). Before her and her lawyer can begin their fight it's auctioned off by the county and bought by Colonel Behrani (Kingsley), a former officer under the Shah in Iran who relocated his wife and son to America. He's had to work odd jobs just to make ends meet and they've been living in an apartment that's way beyond their means. After seeing the ad for this house in the paper it seems as if all his prayers are answered. He purchases it with the plan to renovate and resell it for four times it's worth, then be able to pay for his son's college education and improve things for his family.

The coastal Malibu house bears an uncanny resemblance to the family's former home in Iran further cementing Behrani's attachment to it and its representation for a better life in this country. He's now the rightful owner of the property, with a deed of sale to prove it. There's nothing Kathy can do. She 's lost her house. Behrani will sell it back, but ONLY at four times its value. What happens from here is shocking and heartbreaking and puts two total strangers on a collision course toward unimaginable tragedy and the saddest part of it is that it's really no one's fault. She thinks this man stole her house and in a sense, she's right.

He's living in a stolen house, as there was no good reason she should have been evicted in the first place. Regardless, he's the owner so he shouldn't, and isn't, obligated to return the house to her. He should be able to sell it for a profit and be able to provide a better life for his family. He's right also. They're both good people who would probably get along in most normal circumstances. In fact, they're great people. Except they're caught in a terrible situation where they make questionable choices and it brings out their worst qualities. These people could live next door to you. They're like you and I and that's what makes this situation so scary.

Behrani is an honorable man, but he's also very stubborn, somewhat hostile toward women, and can only see one side of the issue. Kathy is negligent, failing to open her mail for months, which would have informed her of this bogus tax charge. The character that drives the conflict forward like a freight train is Ron Eldard's Lester, a local officer who's essentially a nice guy but gets too personally involved with something he has no business getting into. The more the relationship between he and the lonely Kathy escalates the more it negatively impacts his ability to see the situation reasonably and act accordingly. Not only as an officer of the law, but as a human being. That's about all I can give way without spoiling anything.

Paul Haggis' Crash, which won Best Picture in 2005 explored issues very similar to the one covered in this film, but it lacked the real, raw emotional power that resonates throughout this film. With Crash, I was always aware I was watching a movie (albeit a very well made one) and that these people were brought together not by circumstances, but screenwriting. I never got that feeling watching this as it doesn't strike a false note once. Every single action each character takes in this story I believe they would take. I believe anyone in their situation would take it.

There's a tendency when criticizing films these days for everyone to dismiss any movie that has tragedy befall it's characters as "contrived." I hate it as much as the next person when a movie tries to elicit unearned sympathy. In this movie though, it's earned. Sometimes in life good people do bad things to one another and tragedy occurs. That's a fact. We can choose to look the other way or admit to ourselves when a film like this comes along that we can learn something from. It's honest. Even it's characters are honest with one another when they're behaving at their absolute worst.

In some ways, this film reminded me of Todd Field's In The Bedroom, but even that film contained a character that could clearly be identified as the villain. Here, the situation's trickier and as a result more morally complex. I'm sure many would identify Eldard's cop as the villain, but even he starts out with pure intentions and is essentially trying to do the right thing by helping this woman. What he doesn't count on is how he'll feel about her and how that will effect his relationship with his wife and kids and Behrani's family. He's not trying to hurt anyone, but as the situation worsens so do his decisions and his prejudices slowly begin to surface. Morally he is the most flawed character as he ends up stepping way over the line and abusing his authority as an officer of the law. Supposedly women audiences really hated the Kathy character because they thought she was "too weak." But Kathy can't reach out to her family for help because she's afraid what they'll think of her. Anyone else would be too.

This movie, based on the 1999 bestselling novel of the same name by Andre Dubus III, was written and directed by Vadim Perelman, who's best known for his work on televison commercials and videos. Amazingly this is his first feature film and he was drawn to the material when he read the book on a flight to one of his commercial shoots. He has said the book spoke to him personally as he himself was an immigrant from Russia and could relate to many of the story's themes. I haven't read the book (although I definitely will now) but I have the feeling Dubus had to have been pleased with this adaptation.

The movie was shot beautifully by Roger Deakins, who is probably the best cinematographer working today and whose impressive credits include The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo and A Beautiful Mind. The ominous, foggy coastal shoreline becomes as much of a character as anybody else in the film the way Deakins shoots it, as he never ceases to amaze when he's behind the lens.

Perelman made his first order of business obtaining Ben Kingsley for the role of Colonel Behrani and what a wise choice he made as I can't imagine anyone else doing this role the justice he does. Kingsley won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1982 for Gandhi, but his performance here is better. Luckily, the Academy did see fit to nominate him for again in 2003 for his work here, but unfortunately this time Sir Ben lost to Sean Penn for Mystic River. Having now seen both performances I can officially say Kingsley was robbed, which is no slight on Penn, who's one of our finest actors. If we were talking about Penn's performance that same year in 21 Grams then we might have a contest. Maybe.

As Kathy, Jennifer Connelly goes places emotionally few actresses are capable of and her work in this joins Hilary Swank's in Million Dollar Baby as one of the best female performances of the modern era. To see an actress put it all out there like she does in this film and not be recognized or rewarded with so much as a nomination is pretty disheartening. What she does in this film isn't easy and I have to admit I was exhausted just watching her. Connelly fans will also be happy to know that the movie's ending does include a scene with her on a pier, which I'm starting to think might be something that's written into her contract.

Shohreh Aghdashloo did receive a well deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actress here for her nuanced work as the Colonel's wife, Nadi. An Iranian immigrant herself she brings an aura of authenticity to the role as a woman who can barely understand a word of English, but could teach her husband a few lessons in sympathy and understanding. She has a limited idea of the atrocity that's happening around her, but has unending devotion to her family and cares for Connelly's character, taking her in like a wounded bird. She accomplishes all of this with limited screen time and even less dialogue.

I've read some reviews that cite Ron Eldard as the weak link in the movie, but when you share the screen with Kingsley and Connelly that's understandable. I thought he did an excellent job in a very, very tough role. Best known for his t.v. work in the '90's on shows like Men Behaving Badly and E.R., he's never really had a platform in feature films to show what he's got. Other actors would have played Lester as a stereotypical jerk cop but Eldard, under Perelman's skilled direction, knows to play him as a good guy who's slightly off his rocker and kind of stupid. He's got a goofy, normal guy charm that makes you not take him seriously which technically shouldn't work, but here it makes the events and his behavior more frightening and realistic.

As I reached the last quarter of this film I have to admit I had a difficult time watching. By this point the suspense becomes unbearable, the characters' actions more irrational and the movie becomes a pressure cooker just waiting to boil over. In an interview on the bonus features, Eldard says the saddest thing about the movie is that everything could have been avoided had one of the characters just stopped, took a deep breath and assessed the situation. I felt that toward the end of the film one of the characters did stop and decide all of this just isn't worth it and reaches out to end it. Unfortunately, this act is misinterpreted and leads to further tragedy.

There's an alternate ending included, but it's all about vengeance (which isn't what this story is about) and was justifiably scrapped in favor of the one they used, which is equally tragic, but in tone with the rest of the film. When this movie was over I couldn't help but feel angry and have conflicted thoughts about being a citizen in a country where this could conceivably happen. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if something like this actually has happened. This film touched me on levels no recent one has, but I can't say I'm eager to watch it again. It was an ordeal to sit through, but an experience not easily forgotten.