Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Hitcher

Director: Dave Meyers
Starring: Sean Bean, Sophia Bush, Zachary Knighton, Neal McDonough

Running Time: 83 Min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

Let's make something clear right out of the gate: 1986's The Hitcher is not a flawless film and the idea of remaking it is far from blasphemous. It was a slightly above average thriller made special by a scary Rutger Hauer performance and a concept with mass appeal. It works, but I thought some of the plot turns were outlandish and ridiculous, even for a genre film like that. It could be improved and revisiting it (if done well) actually makes a lot of sense on paper and ranks pretty low on the remake offensiveness scale. I would almost dare call it a good idea.

Which is why it's that much more remarkable that director Dave Meyers has somehow managed to remake The Hitcher and make it far worse than the original, which in itself wasn't a great film to begin with. Even more remarkably he does it by pointlessly reenacting the original film scene by scene, all along the way changing the elements that worked and keeping things that didn't. He puts on a clinic on how not to remake a film. It actually takes a lot of skill to make a movie this wrongheaded that fails in so many different ways. A skill I wouldn't wish on anyone

What's most frustrating about the 2007 version of The Hitcher is that it actually starts off promisingly and the right adjustments were made to update the story for the current audience. Twenty years ago it was much more plausible that someone would pick up a scary looking hitchhiker on the side of the highway and give him a ride. We were stupid and trusting back then. It was the 80's. We were invincible. Reagan was President. Our parents hadn't warned us yet that strangers could kill you. Instead of C. Thomas Howell transporting a car solo from Chicago to California we now have college co-eds Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton) driving through New Mexico on Spring Break. The remake does something that may be considered clever (although I deem it absolutely necessary) by acknowledging the danger of just simply picking up a hitchhiker.

That "hitcher" is John Ryder (Sean Bean) and how he does eventually get into the car is plausible and early on it actually looks like that decision to have a male and female protagonist makes sense. In the beginning it creates an interesting extra dynamic in the story with their relationship. Unfortunately it also takes away an interesting dynamic that existed in the original, being the one on one psychological battle between Jim and Ryder. Jim and Grace have different views on how the situation should be handled and I thought it was mildly interesting how they got into the situation they did. By starting things off differently, but in way that makes sense, we're given hope that Meyers intends to use the original film as a springboard to convey his own vision. Wishful thinking.

The decisions Meyers makes next are not only lazy, but insanely stupid. Instead of continuing in the opening minutes' promising direction he instead attempts to mimic the original film story point by story point and shot by shot. He also decides the best way to do this is by shooting it like a music video. Of course this figures since Dave Meyers has a directorial resume full of music videos shot for Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and The Dave Matthews Band. That's great, and the film undeniably is shot well and looks terrific, but this is a horror thriller not a music video. Meyers also sprinkles modern rock music (like the All-American Rejects and Nine-Inch Nails) throughout unnecessarily. It's not that the music is bad, but just rather it has no place and shows up at just the wrong moments to drain the movie of any suspense or atmosphere.

Inexplicably, Meyers also chooses to keep the problematic middle portion of the original film intact almost exactly as is. If anything should have been changed, it was that. Now with an extra person involved it actually comes off far worse and more implausible. While Robert Harmon's original was able to hide the implausibility and ridiculousness behind taut, suspenseful direction, Meyers' style just seems to call attention to it. The movie is almost fascinating to watch to see how Meyers and screenwriters Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt stubbornly adhere to Eric Red's original story (right up to and including the ending), but fail to inject any of the pathos or fright the 1986 film did.

The decision to cast Sean Bean in the John Ryder role is a curious one. He's physically intimidating and looks the part, but Meyers insists on having him attempt to copy the mannerisms of Rutger Hauer. Now don't get me wrong, Hauer is never going to win any Academy Awards for his acting but he has a scary and creepy presence onscreen that can't be denied. Sean Bean doesn't. Why Meyers would attempt to have him act exactly like him and show off that fact is perplexing. Why didn't he just invite Hauer back to play the role if he admired his work so much? The addition of Sophia Bush (TV's One Tree Hill) as Grace was clearly made to cater to the teen audiences and give guys something to look at, but here's the irony: She actually gives the best performance in the film and it may actually be just as good, or at least no worse, than C. Thomas Howell's in the original. Of course this is hidden behind the awful direction and the fact that Zachary Knighton's bland Jim drags her down.

The addition of a sheriff played by Neal McDonough is completely superfluous and has absolutely no point other than to drive the action along faster. His presence is never more unnecessary than in the finale, which continues the trend of draining all the psychological undertones from the source material. Although the movie is loaded with action and clocks in at just under an hour and a half, it still somehow manages to drag and strangely feels like a direct to video release. It's a real hatchet job clearly done to just cash in. I'm not sure if it's surprising or not that it comes from Michael Bay's Platimum Dunes production company, the same folks that brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Amityville Horror remakes. I caught some heat for recommending last years' The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, but at least that movie took itself seriously and knew what it was. The Hitcher is a joke. The DVD release also contains one of the stupidest and pointless special features I've ever seen involving a newscast that (inaccurately!) recounts the events of the film. It plays like a bad skit that won't end on Saturday Night Live, serving as further proof that supplemental material on DVD's have spiraled out of control.

When the film ended I imagined director Dave Meyers sitting down and having dinner with Gus Van Sant, who directed 1998's ill-fated Psycho remake. They could talk about how they both pointlessly remade a horror film and chose to change only the things that made the original work and nothing else. Van Sant's casting choices, while awful, were at least unintentionally hysterical and entertaining in a train wreck kind of way. Meyers could never fail as interestingly or with as much skill as Van Sant who (Psycho notwithstanding) is actually a gifted filmmaker. Plus, he at least has the excuse that he was remaking a classic and nothing he could have done would have improved the original. Meyers could have improved 1986's The Hitcher, which was far from a masterpiece. Although in comparison to this it may now be remembered as one. If Dave Meyers' goal in remaking The Hitcher was for us to rediscover our love for the original, he succeeded admirably.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lost Season 3 Finale ("Through The Looking Glass")

Lost Season 3 Finale
May 23, 2007 (ABC, 9pm)

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

"It's going too slowly." ...

"They're not revealing enough"....

"Who cares anymore?" ...

If you are one of the many Lost fans, myself included, who have been heard uttering those statements over the past few months I hope you didn't give in to temptation and jump ship. Because if you did, you missed the writers answer those criticisms above with a middle finger last night and deliver single best episode in the series' history and the best two hours I've seen on television this year.

Even someone who's never seen the show before would have probably enjoyed it tremendously. If you haven't seen it no worries because one of the big positives that have come out of the DVD era is the amount of TV shows that have a chance to be discovered or rediscovered all over again. With it's continuing storylines and serialized format I can't think of any other better suited for that than Lost. In fact, it may play better on DVD. This summer would be the perfect time to catch up so you're ready for Season 4, which I can actually say for a change I can't wait for.

Yes it's true, Lost has had a rough Season 3, at least until the past month or so. For whatever reason the show has been compared endlessly to Heroes when they have absolutely nothing in common besides the fact they're both serialized dramas with a large cast. I like both shows a lot, but I like Lost much more. I'm sure anyone who's a fan of both shows would agree that the Heroes finale, while solid, got its ass handed to them by Lost. It was a rough night of televison for me last night. My DVR was not cooperating and I actually had to flip between American Idol and Lost. My finger still hurts.

So as Season 3 of Lost comes to a close let's see where we stand:

Desmond's premonition comes true as Charlie is dead, heroically sacrificing himself and drowning. However, this is not before making contact with Penny and finding out she didn't send that ship Jack thinks is going to rescue them. Hmmm.

The "flashback" this episode is of a bearded Jack who's depressed and has a drug dependency. He's attending a wake, but we're not sure whose. Nobody else attended. He also tries to kill himself by jumping off a bridge and gets into a verbal sparring match with a co-worker. He's not having a good day.

Locke is still alive after being shot and left for dead by Ben in the Dharma grave. He also has a vison of Walt (who looks a lot older by the way). His mission is to stop Jack from making contact with that ship.

Juliet has completely turned on "The Others" and crossed over to the good side. Or so it appears.

Hurley comes to the rescue in the VW van and saves Jin, Sayid, and Bernard from "The Others."

Kate might be pregnant.

Ben might not be such a bad guy after all. That ship that's coming to "rescue them" could really be up to no good. Jack doesn't care and beats the hell out of him. The ship's on its way. Uh oh.

In the most shocking moment in Lost history Jack's "flashback" is revealed to be a "flash-forward" as he meets up with Kate and it's revealed that they eventually escape the island. He screams that he wants to be in another plane crash so he can go back.

Just when you think you have all the answers, they change the questions. They took a huge risk by employing this "flash forward" device and revealing Jack and Kate do escape the island, even if we don't know the how or why. Of course now the same viewers who were groaning about them not revealing enough are saying they gave too much away. Please. Who really thought Jack and Kate would die and never make it off?

I also liked the touch that Jack falls apart and can't adjust to real life off the island. It reminded me of Cast Away or The Shawshank Redemption. You get get used to something, no matter how awful, and it's tough to let go just because it's all you know. It's familiar. But we still don't know whose wake that was. Sawyer's? Ben's? Locke's? Those are obviously the top three candidates, but it could be anyone. We do know Jack didn't consider this person "a friend" and Kate said she had no interest in going so there are some clues there.

I like what they're doing with this glimpse into the future but it has to be done carefully so this doesn't turn into another version of ABC's cancelled series The Nine, which beat that "flash-forward" gimmick into the ground and ruined what could have been a promising show. We can't know too much or it takes away from what's happening on the island. I'm sure writers Cuse and Lindelof know this though.

As for Charlie's death, Dominic Monaghan really came through these past few episodes but he was hardly given anything to do for two straight years. Charlie was just never important and a waste of space. It's a shame the character had to die for him to get a decent storyline, but this isn't a loss at all since his death was well handled and made sense. It's just a shame the writers never knew what to do with him until now. That was the biggest problem this and last season: Too many periphery characters we don't care about eating up screen time. They eliminated this toward the end of the season and refocused on the central storyline and key players. This has been especially true in the past few weeks with the renewed emphasis on Jack, Sawyer and Locke. Hence the the resurgence of the show.

If there's an M.VP. of this season it's Michael Emerson as Ben. He's carried Lost on his back and really deserves an Emmy nomination if he isn't killed off first. He's always done great work as a character actor but this show has really been his moment to shine. I hope he stays around for a while because his diabolical character adds so much to the show. Elizabeth Mitchell is also excellent as Juliet. Without those two performances the entire season could have been a complete disaster.

ABC is probably the worst network on televison, but I'm impressed they did something unprecedented and actually picked an end date for the show (2009-2010 season). Whether they follow through with it remains to be seen, but at least it lets us know there's some kind of plan in place and a finish line. That they actually listened to the fans and the creators' concerns is a welcome surprise. The last thing we need is another X-Files, that lurches on ten years past its creative peak dying a slow, painful death. Give them credit for staying committed to the show despite all the criticisms and not bailing on or sabotaging it. Fox should take notes.

While Lost definitely hit a slump earlier this season, it was greatly overblown and exaggerated by the media and viewers, who were getting ready to put the final nail in it's coffin. Sure, they could have moved things along quicker, but what about that episode of Heroes a couple of weeks back when Hiro traveled to the future...to do nothing? That was a complete waste and the writers were just killing time until the finale. I didn't hear anyone call them out on that, but when Lost slowly unspools its narrative it's a criminal offense. After last night Lost is healthier than ever and has reclaimed its spot as the best drama on television. Finally, it's okay to be a fan again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones
Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

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

With all the hype surrounding it, I was prepared for Pan's Labyrinth to dazzle and amaze me with its visual storytelling and imagination. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was how emotionally involved I would become in the story or how much I would care about what happens to the characters in it. With this film writer and director Guillermo Del Toro does something you haven't seen before, won't likely see again anytime soon and rightfully takes his place at the forefront of an emerging revolution in modern filmmaking. He takes two different genres of film, that couldn't be more diametrically opposed and somehow not only makes them successfully co-exist in the same film, but makes each equally powerful.

He manages to tell a fairy tale in the vain of The Wizard of Oz or Alice In Wonderland against the backdrop of a real world full of unimaginable viciousness and brutality. Despite what print advertisements and commercials would lead you to believe, this is not a kid's film. Any child who views this movie (if they can even make it through) would have nightmares for years. Hell, I'll probably have nightmares for years. The film is rated R and it's a hard R as the film features incredibly graphic violence and scary images. A monster known as "the pale man" whose eyeballs are on his hands is genuinely frightening and unforgettable. So the question now becomes: Who exactly is this movie for? The answer is just about any adult, or at least anyone who believes in the power of imagination and the triumph of the human spirit. It's also a film that features the best child performance of 2006, as well as one of the most sadistic onscreen villains you've seen in a long time.

It's post-Civil War Spain in 1944 and young fairly tale obsessed Ofelia (a fantastic Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to meet her new stepfather, the ruthless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who Carmen was forced to marry after the death of her husband. Vidal is a fascist leader who spends most of his time berating subordinates and torturing and killing anti-fascist rebels.

One night Ofelia discovers an ancient labyrinth made of rock outside their new home and meets a faun named Pan (Doug Jones) who claims she's the long lost Princess Moanna, daughter of the "King of the Underworld." To rightfully claim her title she must complete three tasks to before the next full moon. The question that lingers in our minds throughout the film is whether these fantastic events are actually occurring, or are just the product of a young girl's hyperactive imagination, created to protect herself from the horrors of the real world. And what a horrifying real world it is. Her mother is having a painful and bloody pregnancy that will likely result in the death of either her or the unborn child, if not both. If the Captain has his way it will be her since his mission in life is to see the birth of his firstborn son. Fantasy and reality are combined in the harshest way possible in this film and although there are clues early where the story's headed, it doesn't make it any easier to take emotionally when we get there.

Aside from the incredible set design, cinematography and art direction, del Toro does something else brilliantly that may not be immediately noticeable as far as storytelling. It's a small detail, but it's enough to take the movie over the top to the next level. While the fantasy element plays a major role in the early stages of the film, it takes a bit of a back seat toward the middle section as del Toro chooses to focus instead on the Captain Vidal's viciousness and the battle between his fascists and the rebels. Ofelia has genuine fear she may not ever return to this world and misses it. Instead, she may face a hellish life with this tyrannical Captain. Because del Toro pulls away from fantasy and bombards us with this cruel reality it makes the fantasy world that much more important and we miss it along with Ofelia. We feel her pain and fear and can't wait to see this magical world again.

That's not to say del Toro doesn't keep us busy while we're waiting, as there's an incredibly moving sub-plot involving housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) who we discover is far more than just a maid. We fear for her safety as much as Ofelia's. Del Toro even manages to bring great depth to what should be the throwaway role of the family physician. He has a scene late in the film that's unexpected, uplifting and tragic. In many ways that one scene encapsulates the entire film.

You know what's scary? When you're watching a film and you know the villain reminds you of someone but you can't seem to put your finger on it. Then about halfway through you realize that person is Hitler. That's how bad Captain Vidal is. He makes Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler's List look like the Easter Bunny and he's one of the most diabolical villains you'll ever see in a movie. He starts off bad and then scene-by-scene his behavior slowly, but realistically gets worse until he reaches such unbearable levels of cruelty that it becomes almost impossible to watch.

This was one of the few times I remember watching a movie and feeling real anger and hatred toward a character onscreen. This isn't just a stock villain either. The scariest and most frustrating element about the character (and a real credit to del Toro and Lopez) is that he seems like a real human being with feelings and motivations. We see a glimpse of humanity as he prepares to do anything to protect his unborn son, but it just makes you angrier because his loyalty comes from such a wrong place and is so inconsistent with the rest of actions. Even the worst men have a history and a reason (no matter distorted it may be) for what they're doing and that's what makes this monster scarier than any Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth. The Captain and Lopez's brilliant portrayal of him (which should have garnered an Oscar nomination) make the rest of the story mean something. It makes us care what happens to the rebels and care if Ofelia returns to the labyrinth. We're used to the "bad guy getting it in the end" but this time you may not care because there's no punishment available that leaves you satisfied he got what he deserved.

There have been clues in the past that del Toro had a film like this in him. The Devil's Backbone was a film not completely dissimilar to this one structurally or visually. With 2004's Hellboy you could tell he cared and was serious about staying true to the source material, but not so serious that he forgot it was a fun comic book movie. Here, everything comes together in his best film that not only dazzles visually, but manages to tell two emotionally involving stories at once.

There may be those who are put off by the fact that it's a Spanish language film with subtitles, but they shouldn't be. I'm willing to bet you could take those subtitles away and completely understand everything that's happening because so much of the film revolves around the visuals and the performances. Earlier this year one of the biggest shocks at the Academy Awards was when this film lost in the Best Foreign Language Film category. That was shocking, but the real shock came two months earlier when it wasn't included among the Best Picture nominees. Pan's Labyrinth is a magical and original experience that earns its reputation as one of 2006's best films.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Fountain

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Stephen McHattie, Mark Margolis, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ethan Suplee

Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: PG-13

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

Darren Aronofsky will likely be accused of a lot of things during his career, but no one can ever accuse him of lacking ambition. With The Fountain he swings for the fences and attempts out to make the most thought provoking film of our time. He doesn't, but he comes dangerously close and leaves you thinking that one day he will. You're not likely to see a film in this or any other year that splits audiences and critics like this one. Going into The Fountain the worst thing you can do is prepare to take anything literally. Don't expect a beginning, a middle or an end. Don't expect a protagonist or an antagonist, or even a plot, as we have learned to commonly define one. More importantly, don't expect any easy answers, or really any answers at all. Instead, expect to be amazed and challenged.

Anyone interested in seeing this film (or even if you're not interested and happen to) should be warned: the first viewing will be very, very rough. It'll go slow and you'll have no idea what you're watching. When it's over you'll likely feel angry, frustrated and have little desire to watch it again. These are feelings you'll have to fight because this is a film that must be seen multiple times to effectively form an opinion on. After seeing it three times I came to the conclusion that I'd at least formed somewhat of an opinion, whether I was sure of it or not, and could at least attempt to write a review. Even now as I write this I'm not completely sure. With this film I don't think you ever can be, and that's the point.

It's not a matter of understanding it. There's nothing to understand. It's a matter of absorbing everything that's put in front of you. Aronofsky (who also co-wrote the script with Ari Handel) did something that few filmmakers today would even attempt: a movie about ideas and feelings that challenge you as a viewer. It's been called self-indulgent, pretentious psycho- babble by many critics. It isn't, but in another's hands it could have very well been. Aronofsky's intentions are too noble to qualify for that. Aside from being one of the most visually beautiful movies you'll ever see, the reason it succeeds is mostly due to the moving love story at the film's core and the performances of the leads. They have the near impossible task of selling all of this, and succeed.

There are three interlocking stories told in The Fountain. One takes place in 16th Century Spain, another in our 21st Century, and the third deep in space in the 26th Century. Arguably the most important of the three takes place in the present as drug researcher Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is attempting to save his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) from in inoperable brain tumor by performing tests on monkeys. As time continues to run out for her he becomes obsessed with a certain compound he believes will reverse his wife's brain tumor, even if it means blatantly breaking medical protocol and upsetting a close co-worker (Ellen Burstyn) to do it. Meanwhile, Izzi herself becomes obsessed with ancient Mayan myths about creation and death and is one chapter away from completing her book, appropriately titled "The Fountain."

This book makes up the second story in the film and tells of a Conquistador (also played by Jackman) in 16th Century Spain who's sent on a mission by Queen Isabella (also played by Weisz) to find the Tree of Life (which supposedly holds eternal life), the location of which is revealed on a hidden map. The third story thread of the film concerns a meditative astronaut named Tom (a bald Jackman) who travels in a spherical bubble toward a golden nebula in space and is haunted by visions of Izzi.

That's really all that can be revealed without spoiling anything and I've probably told too much. The stories do come together, but not in any literal way you'd expect them to and the last 10 minutes of the film are a visual wonder not unlike the infamous "stargate" sequence that closed 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, The Fountain shares so much in common with Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece someone could reasonably accuse Aronofsky of ripping it off. You can definitely see the influence, but it's really just a starting point for the director to tell his own original story of love and mortality that spans through the ages. What it does have most in common with Kubrick's film is that it's just as inaccessible upon an initial viewing and as polarizing for audiences. It has to be. When you make a film as different as this and one that dazzles with deep metaphysical ideas instead of special effects there isn't going to be easy access for everyone.

Some parts of The Fountain work better than others It's most effective when it's in the present and dealing with Tommy's struggles to cure his wife, but that's where it should be most effective. The entire foundation of this movie (and all three stories in it) is built on their relationship and if that isn't portrayed just right then the movie collapses. It has great ideas and incredible visuals but the real power comes from the performances of Weisz and Jackman. Jackman is a reliable actor but I sometimes got the impression in his earlier performances that he was putting on a show and trying to entertain us. That's okay, but I was always curious how deep he could go as an actor if he were given a better role. Here he has it. Actually, he has three of them and does the finest work of his career.

Weisz's performance is likely to be overlooked simply because of the nature of the film she's in. It may be off-putting for some to see such a realistic portrayal of a cancer patient amidst a film that could be easily classified as surreal. In a way, she's our only connection to the humanity behind the film and Weisz bravely surrenders herself, never afraid to go to the sad and dark places the story demands. Ironically these two actors were not even supposed to be playing these roles. Originally Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were attached to star, but backed out due to script and production issues. In fact, the escalating budget and Pitt's departure caused the film to actually cease production in late 2002. Supposedly this film was a long, torturous journey for Aronofsky to get this made with his creative vision intact. It was worth it.

While it would have been very interesting to see Pitt and Blanchett in the roles, it's unlikely they could have done a better job. It just would have felt different, but not necessarily better or worse. After watching the film though, you'll likely find it difficult imagining anyone other than Jackman and Weisz playing these parts. Aronofsky initially resisted casting Weisz because he has a personal relationship with her and didn't want to appear to show favortism, or worse, have it destroy their relationship. I'm glad he changed his mind and hopefully we can see more corroborations with the two the in the future because it's a rare opportunity to see one of our most talented directors direct one of our best actresses. He also wrote in a small part as Tom's colleague for Ellen Burnstyn, whom he directed to a Best Actress nomination on his last film, 2000's incredible Requiem For A Dream. It's really a nothing role, but she adds some depth to it, making a case why good actresses should be cast in even the smallest parts.

On DVD and in the comfort of your own home is the worst possible way to watch this film, but unfortunately the only option available. Its mind-blowing visuals are meant to be experienced in a theater, preferably IMAX. I hope you have a big screen. While I was watching the film I wondered how the visuals could possibly look so good and real, until I and found out Aronofsky hardly used any computer-generated images, but instead real close-up photographic images. Unfortunately because the film was a commercial flop it will give clueless studio executives further encouragement to continue the ridiculous CGI route. I'd put any visual effects scene in this film up against anything in Spiderman 3, which was probably shot at five times the budget, and it would win. The visuals used here also very closely resemble those in Kubrick's 2001, which came out in 1968, and you don't hear anyone complaining that film looks even the slightest bit dated today.

Much like 2001, I can see this film enjoying an incredibly long shelf life and gaining fans as years go on. Some may complain Aronofsky's reach exceeds his grasp on this film and I could see their point as the film does try to do everything at once. It's a historical epic, a romance, a mystery, an action/adventure and a science fiction fantasy all compressed into 96 minutes. What a relief it is though to find a director who actually does reach for greatness and tries something different. Everyone may not love The Fountain, but they'll have to respect it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Alpha Dog

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, Ben Foster, Shawn Hatosy, Olivia Wilde, Dominique Swain, Amanda Seyfried

Running Time: 117 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Yes, Justin Timberlake can act. Going into Alpha Dog that seemed to be the question on everyone's mind, myself included. He's not asked to do anything too demanding, but toward the end he gets to do some emotionally heavy lifting and pulls it all off really well. Is he just playing himself? Maybe, but every actor brings who they are to a role, or at least some version of it. He's one of the highlights of the film and when it ended I was curious what he'd be capable of if given even heftier material to work with. For a while I thought this film would supply that, but it doesn't take itself seriously enough which is fine because it's just not that kind of movie anyway. Alpha Dog is instead a stylishly made guilty pleasure that's a lot of fun. It's cinematic trash and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

The story had the potential to be a little more, but as we head toward the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion it becomes clear writer and director Nick Cassavettes isn't interested in that. We start to really care about these kids, but he pulls back at just the wrong time to bombard us with visual tricks and gimmicks, including a very ill advised cosmetic one involving a major actress that comes late in the film. Still, it's a blast and anyone looking to be entertained won't be let down.

Alpha Dog is based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood a notorious drug dealer who became one of the youngest men ever to appear on the F.B.I.'s most wanted list. In this film we find out how. Here, all the names are changed to protect the innocent, or not so innocent, as Jesse James becomes Johnny Truelove. He's played well by Emile Hirsch, in a performance some people will undoubtedly have problems with. I didn't. He has a huge posse which includes but isn't limited to his right hand man Frankie Ballenbacher (Timberlake), kiss ass Elvis Schmidt (Eddie Vedder look alike Shawn Hatosy) and his hot girlfriend Angela Holden (The O.C's Olivia Wilde). When Johnny has a major falling out with one of his premiere customers, loose cannon Jake Mazursky (an explosive Ben Foster), seemingly by accident Johnny and Frankie kidnap Jake's 15 year-old-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) and shove him in the back of their van. They hold him for ransom even though they never really make any ransom demands and have no idea what they're doing.

The irony of this "kidnapping" is it's the best thing to ever happen to the shy, introverted Zack who's smothered daily by his mother Olivia (Sharon Stone) and isn't even allowed to leave the front stoop of their house. With these guys he finally fits in as he's exposed to drinking, drugs, three ways and basically everything else California teens do on a daily basis that he can't. What's neat about the film is that it exposes the parents as being every bit as irresponsible and stupid as their kids as they have sex in front of them and grow pot in their backyards.

Watch when Foster's character storms into his dad's house high out of his mind demanding money and dad can't even bring himself to say no. Symbolic of this epidemic is Johnny's father, notorious mob boss Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis in what amounts to a cameo role) and his grandfather Cosmo (the great Harry Dean Stanton) who've spent their lives cheering on his behavior until now. Now things have gotten too heavy even for them. With kids going around all day playing Scarface, real life was bound to catch up with them at some point. Everyone's in over their heads.

What ends up being the surprisingly touching relationship at the center of the film is the one between young Zack and Frankie, who's been put in charge by Johnny to look after the kid. Resistant at first, Frankie grows to like him and becomes kind of his de facto big brother. Zack idolizes him and because we get to see all these messed up kids through Zack's eyes it actually kind of humanizes them and the movie. It helps that Yelchin gives a quiet, unassuming, and likeable performance. He actually comes across as a little brother you'd want to have. Timberlake also really steps up in this third act, suggesting the film was going places deeper than I initially thought. Unfortunately though, it doesn't.

The decision Johnny makes as to what should happen to this kid, while without question morally wrong, also makes little sense. How anyone, even a kid this wreckless and stupid, could possibly think that this is the best way out of this situation for everyone involved (especially him) is unfathomable. I realize this is based on a true story, but that doesn't make what the characters do in this movie any more believable or make it less disappointing. Cassavettes had the information and it was his responsibility to present it in a way onscreen that would ring true. He'll probably be excused by most on this one since this is how it supposedly went down in real life, but he can't be excused for what follows.

Just after the most dramatic and emotionally gut wrenching moment in the film we're treated to a Sharon Stone scene that hits every wrong note imaginable. It would have been better placed in The Nutty Professor or Norbit. I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. It's a shame too because Stone does good work in the film and didn't deserve to be humiliated like this. Without giving too much away, let's just say Cassavetes could have gotten the effect he wanted out of the scene without resorting to this trickery. That it stands out as campy and unintentionally hilarious in a film that includes a cameo from Growing Pains' Alan Thicke is quite an accomplishment.

Even though it's Timberlake who steals the show, Emile Hirsch continues his string of strong performances with his work here, even if in the minds of many he doesn't exactly look the part. I think that was point and it's even questioned during the film why everyone fears and is frightened by this scrawny little kid. He looks young but Hirsch carries himself in such a way that he can pull it off believably, and does. In many ways his Johnny Truelove is very similar to skateboarder Jay Adams, whom he portrayed in 2005's The Lords of Dogtown. Both are egomaniacs desperate for respect and attention and afraid they'll be exposed as frauds. Truelove is even more a product of his own twisted environment.

Had this movie dug deeper and really explored the issues it brought up, Ben Foster's strung-out performance as Jake probably would have gotten more respect and possibly awards consideration. As it stands though, it instead makes for an entertaining and often times frighteningly hilarious diversion. He has a fight scene that's so over-the-top you can't help but cheer, and there were many times during the film where I wondered if Foster was really on something. That's how believable he is as an out of control addict. I should mention there are also a lot of girls in this movie. A lot. So many that it's hard for any of them to really make a lasting impression. Wilde seemed like she was just there for decoration, while Domique Swain gets to yell and shriek most of the time. The only two you'll remember (and for good reason) are Amanda Seyfried and Amber Heard, who break-in young Zack during a memorable pool scene.

Of course the easy joke here is that John Cassavetes is probably rolling over in his grave right now at the film his son Nick directed. I don't think that's fair. Every filmmmaker has their own strengths and weaknesses and while the elder Cassavetes' strengths may have resided in intimate character portraits, it's clear between this, John Q. and The Notebook that Nick's talent lies in mainstream popcorn audience pleasers. There's nothing wrong with that. He shouldn't be expected to follow in his legendary father's footsteps, nor would it benefit him to.

There were times during the film where I wished Cassavetes would just tell the story in a meaningful way instead of hiding behind fat suits, split screen technology and title cards telling us the name and number of witnesses as they appear onscreen. For some reason I expected the latter to pay off in some way at the end of the film but it never really went anywhere. It's just a gimmick. In any event, this movie does now hold the infamous honor of coming in fourth all-time for the amount of "F-bombs" dropped in a motion picture. That's a telling fact. Alpha Dog could have been more, but it couldn't have possibly been any more fun.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Little Children

Director: Todd Field
Starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, Phyllis Sommerville, Gregg Edelman
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)
In 2001 Todd Field released In The Bedroom, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece. It wasn't. Little Children is. What was the first thing I did after I finished watching this film? I sat and thought about it for a long, long time. And then...I watched it again. It's not an easy movie to sit through emotionally but it really requires at least two viewings to fully appreciate all the subtle nuances and tiny details that hide between the cracks of the film, in both the directing and the performances. It's so observant and intelligent about life that you might not even notice all the ground it covers at first. I know I didn't. After the first viewing I was taken aback and not quite sure what to make of it because it's so different from anything that's out there right now. It's very dense, methodically paced, isn't easily accessible and plays like a sprawling novel.

Based on Tom Perrotta's 2004 bestseller of the same name, Field co-wrote the script with author, going on record as saying they had no interest in simply just translating the material onto the screen, but adding a different dimension to it. Having not read the book I can't compare the two, but I have a feeling this is one of those rare adaptations where the integrity of the original work was not only preserved, but enhanced. Kubrickian in its execution, the film features a visionary style, sterile quality, and dark sense of humor the late director would have surely appreciated. It even contains a Barry Lydon-style voiceover narration. There's a throwback feel to it, from the creepy opening title sequence to the score and pacing all the way to it's ambiguous but ambitious ending. It could hold its own with some of the best from the 60's and 70's. The kind of movie they don't make anymore.

I thought Kubrick comparison may have been unfair until I remembered that Todd Field was an actor before he was a director and had a small role in Kubrick's last and most underrated film, Eyes Wide Shut. It looks like someone took notes. Many filmmakers have attempted to employ Kubrick's style over the years but none have come close to succeeding technically or effectively harnessing the spirit of them. Field has.

The film perfectly capturing those lazy summer afternoons in suburbia where the "desperate housewives" sit idly on the park bench gossiping while their children play. Playground politics are on full display in this small Massachusetts suburb and Field keeps digging deeper and deeper into the hypocrisy that surrounds its inhabitants. Someone who wants no part of this hypocrisy and is truthful to herself to a fault is Sarah Pierce (Oscar nominated Kate Winslet). A free spirited woman who was once a dissertation away from her Master's degree in English and is now a mother who couldn't possibly be more unfit for motherhood. Her only enjoyment in life comes from her evening walk around the neighborhood facilitated by her husband Richard's (Gregg Edelman) return from work, where he stays late masturbating to internet porn.

Sarah finds herself amidst three shallow housewives who have set their sights on a man they've dubbed the "Prom King," who has returned to the playground with his son after a long absence. This is Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) a stay-at-home dad whose beautiful wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a successful PBS documentary filmmaker and family breadwinner. That she's a documentary filmmaker is a neat touch since the uncredited voice that narrates this film belongs to Will Lyman of PBS Frontline fame. Screenwriting coach Robert McKee will probably yell at me for saying this but I'm a sucker for voice over narration. If used well it can add a lot to and this is possibly the best use of it ever in a film. The narrator here is smart, eloquent and often very humorous, popping up at just the right moment (like a tense dinner scene) to add rather than detract from the story. His voice is as much a character as anyone else's in the film.

Brad spends his days entertaining his son and his nights pretending to study for the bar exam, which he's failed more times than JFK Jr. He doesn't want to be a lawyer, or really much of anything for that matter. Time that could be spent studying is used watching kids skateboard in the park in an attempt to recapture the teenage years that eluded him, even though the kids don't even notice he's there. The housewives in the playground are too scared to talk to him, or maybe simply too lazy, but Sarah isn't and on a dare strikes up a conversation. As a joke they share a kiss in front of the shocked and horrified mothers resulting in a very funny scene. That eventually leads to summer afternoons at the pool with the kids and a deep friendship. It soon turns into a torrid affair.

Meanwhile the entire neighborhood has a bigger problem with the release of convicted child molester Ronnie J. McGorvey (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley) from jail after serving a 2-year sentence. He comes home to live with his aging mother (the wonderful Phyllis Somerville) and their scenes together are maybe the most touching, and at the same time strangely pathetic, of the film. She's trying to prepare him for life when she's gone despite the distraction of the town breathing down their necks. When he shows up for a swim at the public pool the parents grab their kids and flee like they've seen Jaws. Leading the charge is Larry Hedges (a completely unrecognizable Noah Emmerich), a "retired" neighborhood cop who leads a group called "The Committee for Concerned Parents" who makes it their mission to rid the town of this pedophile. He organizes a weekly touch football game with the guys and recruits Brad to be their quarterback. He has a secret of his own. From the opening scene of the film, with figurines rattling on a shelf as the sound of an oncoming train approaches, we're prepared for tragedy as these characters' lives threaten to intersect in the worst possible way for over two tension-filled hours.

Rarely does a film get so many little details right and hide such small treasures for the viewer to discover. Like the jester hat Brad's son wears all day but takes off the second his mother comes through the door, as if playtime is over. The real parent is home. No use for silly costumes. Or Sarah forgetting the rice cakes for her daughter and her frazzled reaction to it. Has anyone ever been more ill equipped for parenthood? The narrator at times mirrors the thoughts of the audience as he wonders how Brad can possibly cheat on his seemingly "perfect" wife with Sarah but we actually do know why and so does he. Sarah understands him and for Brad that means an awful lot right now. His wife would rather share the bed with their infant son.

The movie tries to convince us that Sarah is even physically wrong for Brad with her "boyish figure," and does an admirable job dressing her in baggy clothes to make her look as unflattering as possible. Of course we know Kate Winslet is far from ugly and having a "boyish figure," but if the narrator and wardrobe do not completely convince you, her performance will. She digs deep into this sad and negligent mother to deliver the finest work of her career. Some may find her scene with the book club discussing Madame Bovary a little too on the nose and in the hands of a lesser director it would have been. Field knows just the right way to handle it and Winslet is captivating.

On the surface Jennifer Connelly's Kathy seems like just a ball and chain plot device for Brad and Sarah to get together and an underdeveloped character. Look closer though. Watch how Connelly effectively portrays a nagging wife without ever once nagging. She'll give a look or say something just a certain way that gets under Brad's skin. When he announces he's thinking of buying a cell phone her response is so simple and matter of fact that it's actually devastating. How about when Brad comes home and finds a list of magazines he's subscribed to on the table with a note attached: "Do You Really Need These?" Finally a movie portrays marital strife with something a spouse would actually do! People don't always scream and yell at each other. These are the things that hurt more.

Over the past two weeks, between this and the indie drama Hard Candy, I've been able to see two movies starring Patrick Wilson, who I had never really seen or heard of before then. Both of these films are among the best I've seen in years and I think the reason neither performance garnered nominations (perhaps aside from the uncomfortable subject matter) is that he has such a natural screen presence that it appears he isn't doing anything. He's the best kind of actor. He doesn't force anything and can slip into a character without you noticing he's inhabiting it. With his blank expression and regular everyman looks you don't even notice he's giving a performance. Of course it wouldn't be up for any awards. It's too subtly brilliant and never draws any attention to itself. It's what he doesn't do that makes him so effective.

Much has made of Jackie Earle Haley's huge comeback and return to Hollywood's good graces thirty years after his role in The Bad News Bears. The strange thing about his performance as Ronnie is that it doesn't pull you in immediately, but rather sneaks up on you and slowly builds throughout the film until it finally explodes, or more accurately, implodes. His blind date is painful to watch. It seems like it's going well until we realize this man is simply not capable of having any kind of normal social interaction with anyone. The date ends the only way it can: in disaster.

Recently there has been some forward progression in how pedophiles have been portrayed onscreen. Between this film, The Woodsman and Hard Candy we're seeing pedophiles portrayed not as nameless, faceless monsters but as real people who are seriously ill and need help. Their behavior may be monsterous but it doesn't mean they're not human. It may be easier for us to pretend they're not, but if we do we're no closer to understanding what causes it. If we don't understand that, how can we prevent it? It's a reminder movies can educate as well as entertain. A lot of people are going to be uncomfortable with a movie that presents a pedophile in a sympathetic light, but I don't think this does that. It presents him as a sick human. Haley's performance is what earns our sympathy. Your heart breaks for the guy.

As good Haley's performance is, it's not the best in the film. I think that honor belongs to Noah Emmerich as the neighbor who makes it his life goal to harass the hell out of Ronnie and his mother. I can't tell you how many neighborhood parents I knew growing up who were exactly like ex-cop Larry Hedges. I could swear I knew the man. Emmerich gets every detail just right. It's so spot on it's scary. Loud, lonely, obnoxious, opinionated and self-centered he's the guy in the neighborhood you're nice to because you feel you have to be. Not a bad guy mind you, just annoying. You always have that feeling that he's harmless though, as he hides behind his mask of insecurity. For good reason. Everyone has a past. Especially guys like Larry. When you live in a small town you really have no choice but to be nice to him because you're going to have to deal with him every day. I loved it when Kathy had to remind Brad that he doesn't even like Larry Hedges. How true that often we get so caught up in our routines we're not even sure how we really feel about anyone, or even if we care anymore.

Emmerich, a fine character actor best known for his "best friend" supporting roles in films like The Truman Show and Frequency finally has an opportunity to play a character that's three dimensional and complex, and he sinks his teeth into it. How committed was he to this performance? Let's just say when he first appeared on screen I had no idea who he was. He looks like he lost all the weight DeNiro gained for Raging Bull. You can tell he underwent both a physical and emotional transformation to become this neurotic, obsessed man. It's the great overlooked performance of the film because it weaves so seamlessly and realistically into the story that it's almost impossible to notice how powerful his work is upon an initial viewing. His character is at the heart and soul of this film and that's never clearer than at the end. I think it's my favorite performance, supporting or otherwise, of the past year and Emmerich deserved a nomination.

Everyone has their favorite genre of film. Some like horror, others action/adventure, and some prefer suspense films. I always get strange looks when I tell people my favorite type of films are suburban nightmares. There's something about real people put in real situations with the volume turned way up that I respond to. Since I grew up in a small town a lot like this one (minus the public pool) and hated it it's always interesting for me to see these types of films exposing the hypocrisy of the residents, yet still showing them as human beings who make mistakes. The title of the film is cruelly ironic as it's the parents who are really the "little children." They need to be protected…from themselves. There's something about the truthful way it exposes how people think and act that we can learn from. I would rank this film alongside American Beauty, The Ice Storm and The Swimmer as the greatest in this genre.

I went into this film with the highest expectations imaginable and they were exceeded tenfold. In a year that's seen films like Children of Men and Notes on a Scandal come with incredible hype only to fall short for me I went in with great trepidation as well as optimism. As the film's finale approached I worried Field would force all these characters into a contrived collision course of melodrama. Just the opposite occurred. Instead the film ended quietly, introspectively and intelligently. At first I was surprised how abrupt the ending was and the lack of closure. But sometimes in life, that's how it is.

You have to wonder what would have happened had New Line gotten behind this film and pushed it like all the mindless sequels and remakes we've been seeing in theaters lately. That it was only nominated for 3 (albeit very well deserved) Academy Awards is shameful. It should have been a lock for a Best Picture nomination. How Field's first feature In the Bedroom, a great film but inferior on every single level, earned one in 2001 is perplexing. I think mismarketing is to blame and it's carried over into the DVD release as well. The cover art makes the film look like a romantic comedy and doesn't even hint at the emotional heft and complexity of this story.

Interestingly, the DVD doesn't come with a single special feature (not even a trailer) and there are no plans for a special edition in the future. You know what? I'm glad. Any special feature accompanying a film like this would seem gratuitous. Supplemental material, which in most cases is still a good idea, has devolved into a tool for filmmakers to hide the fact their movie sucks. I really don't need to hear George Lucas talk about the catering crew on the Star Wars Episode III DVD. This movie can stand on it's own and it's fitting there isn't a feature on here because this movie doesn't even seem like it belongs in the DVD era at all. That this is only Todd Field's second film can mean one of two things: He's peaked, or more frighteningly, his best work is yet to come. Either way, Little Children is one of those rare motion pictures that stay with you.