Monday, July 30, 2007


Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Running Time: 158 min.
Rating: R

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

I've been waiting ten years for this day to come. The day when I no longer have to constantly justify and defend David Fincher's place among America's greatest living directors. That place, in case you haven't guessed, is at the top and now it is rightfully secure. In 1997 Fincher directed a film called The Game that completely changed how I viewed motion pictures and challenged my perceptions of what they can do. Then in 1999 he did it again with Fight Club. Now, with Zodiac he's made what stands thus far as the best film of 2007. Hands down. It may not break the creative boundaries those other two films did, but it is a technical masterwork deserving of a Best Picture nomination come January.

Fincher, a director who has previously existed only on the fringe, can now sit at the table with the big boys. He's earned it. This is certainly his most mature, mainstream endeavor to date and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences have run out of excuses this time. He deserves a nomination if not a statue for this. An expert at directing films with high concepts, this time he takes a simple, minimally complex police procedural and turns it into a gripping, terrifying film that doubles as a deep character study. And we're not just talking about one character either, but many. Major ones and minor ones. There wasn't a single person in the film I didn't care about and not a minute of this film's admittedly lengthy two and a half hour running time that I felt should have been cut. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire time, glued to the screen by what I watching. I like to think I can go into any movie without any preconceived notions, but when you enter David Fincher's universe there comes a certain set of expectations. This film exceeds them.

The film, based on Robert Graysmith's two non-fiction books (Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked) is epic in scope and covers a thirty-year period starting in the 1960's when a serial killer known as "The Zodiac" terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area. He left a trail of victims and taunted the police with numeric codes (known as ciphers) and letters to the San Francisco Chronicle stating his intentions. He was never caught and to this day the case remains unsolved. The film begins with the shooting of Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau at lover's lane in Vallejo on July 4, 1969. Mike survives. Darlene doesn't. One of the many fascinating details about this killer and the case is that he gets so caught up in killing the women he often forgets to finish off the guys.

Police Detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and are almost out of necessity forced to work with the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle, who have been receiving cryptic letters from the fame seeking Zodiac that he wants printed on the front page. The top beat crime reporter for the paper at the time is the booze and drug addicted loose cannon Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), but soon the case attracts the attention of the Chronicle's political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). The first half half of the film focuses primarily on the initial investigation into the case during the late 60's and early 70's and how it consumes and nearly destroys the lives of the police and journalists investigating it.

What's most interesting is that Zodiac is far from a criminal genius (an old married couple even solves one of his ciphers), but the police cannot catch him mainly because of poor communication, stupid decision-making, politics and red tape. As a result, more and more people die and his rampage continues. By the time the film's over we realize that if just one eyewitness had been questioned all of this could have stopped. This is a movie we shouldn't even be watching. Sensing this weakness in the system, Zodiac wisely spreads his murders across different counties correctly assuming each police precinct has their agenda and can't possibly work together to solve any crime.

The saddest part of this is that if these murders were to occur today he probably would have been caught in a week, yet because of limitations in communication and technology the terror rages on. The Zodiac killings, more than anything else, are a reflection of the time. Fincher understands this and milks it for everything he can. The police departments become so tangled up in their incompetence that they begin to panic and suspect Zodiac may even be taking credit for murders he didn't commit sending the whole case into a tailspin. He craves celebrity and notoriety even going so far as to contact well-known television broadcaster Melvin Belli (the great Brian Cox) to get his point across. In a funny touch Belli seems genuinely excited and intrigued to be talking to a serial killer and Cox brings the same eccentric panache to this role as he did to his loony psychiatrist in last year's Running With Scissors.

After this, it becomes clear to the police the only predictable pattern of Zodiac is that he has no predictable pattern. Toschi and Armstrong are two smart, dedicated detectives who do everything right but fail because the system around them doesn't work. In one memorable scene Armstrong tries to send information to another police precincts but discovers they don't have a fax machine. The look on his face says it all. Against all odds, and largely due to that dedication, they finally zero in on a main suspect. He's a convicted child molester named Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) and all the signs point to him being the guy. Unfortunately, while the circumstantial evidence may add up, the physical evidence doesn't. They also must deal with the self-destructive Avery, whose desire to put his name on the journalistic map jeopardizes their case and his life. All these characters are in a free fall and watching fascinated from the sidelines is cartoonist Robert Graysmith.

It isn't until 1974, four years after Zodiac's last attack that Graysmith launches a personal investigation of his own and falls into the trap of obsession that befell the detectives and his own colleague Avery. Except, unlike the police investigation years earlier Graysmith's is actually effective and what he uncovers puts himself, his wife Melanie (Chloe Sevigny) and his children in danger and even raises the ire of Zodiac himself. One the best moments of the film comes when he states that he won't stop this until he's standing in the same room with the killer, looks him straight in the eye and knows it's him. Whether that line has a payoff I cannot reveal, but how ironic that a mild-mannered cartoonist could unlock the mysteries of one of the greatest unsolved mass murders in our country's history, but the police couldn't. A tricky situation develops here because audiences know going in that Zodiac was never caught and the case was never closed, so the film is practically forced into an ambiguous ending. James Vanderbilt's brilliant screenplay gives us that ambiguous ending, but at the same time leaves us completely satisfied. The case may not have an ending, but this movie does have a clear and emotionally powerful one that will haunt you for a long time.

Movies that span over decades or hinge on recreating certain time periods are among the most difficult to film and once again Fincher employs his trusted cinematographer Harris Savides, whom he's worked with previously on Seven and The Game (which was also set in San Francisco). According to Savides the goal this time out, unlike those films, was to shoot it in a way that wouldn't sensationalize anything. The result is that the movie almost has a washed-out documentary style to it, very much reflecting the time period it's set in. The newsroom scenes are very clearly inspired and influenced by All The President's Men. So many directors go too far when a movie is set in the 60's and 70's bombarding us with visual gimmickry and littering the soundtrack with every top 40 hit from the decade. Fincher knows that just one song placed at just the right time during a film can make a huge impact. In The Game it was Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." In Fight Club it was The Pixies' "Where is my Mind?" This time it's Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," and when the film's over, you'll be hearing it in your nightmares. I know I am.

That's the thing with Fincher films. You're just there. No games. He doesn't need to rely on any tricks or crutches. All the details are right but they're never distracting or call attention to themselves because the story and the characters are always front and center. Ironically, while it may seem like Fincher is doing his least, in doing it he's actually achieving the most. Watch the scene with Graysmith and Melanie on the their first date at the restaurant and pay attention to the subtle clues Fincher drops that this date is really their future. The roles they play at that table are the ones they'll play when they're married. It'll be a mess, but one they'll have to share in together. Under Fincher's skillful eye, Gyllenhaal and Sevigny put on an actor's clinic in a scene that would just be a throwaway in another film.

Then there are the killings themselves. The first two murders in the film (especially the second) are among the most horrifying I've ever seen in a major motion picture. Not because they're gory or bloody, but because Fincher makes the moments leading up to them pure emotional torture. You feel like screaming and crying for the victims because you know what's coming, even if they don't. He plays with that idea for a while and let's us think about it. Hard. This is the first time I can remember wanting the killings to get going because the waiting was scarier than anything we could possibly be shown. Then when they came I wanted to take that wish back.

A lot of important characters come and go through the course of this nearly three hour film, so unexpectedly, there are a lot of memorable performances, one of which I think is Oscar worthy. You may be surprised which one that is. Mark Ruffalo continues his streak of strong leading man work as nearly entire first half of the film belongs to him and Anthony Edwards, and they actually have a somewhat thankless task if you think about it. They must deliver copious amounts of police exposition, while at the same time give affecting portrayals of two honest, loyal men being dragged to the depths of Hell by this case. They're the moral conscience of this story. Their scenes could have played like a re-run of CSI but they don't beacuse they keep us engaged. It's also great to see Edwards, long underrated, find the right big screen role in his post-E.R. career.

Robert Downey Jr. again excels at the role he's always been best at: playing damaged goods. If anything, I wish he had a little more screen time, but it's a miracle Fincher even fit all these people in and gave them an adequate showcase at just under three hours. Gyllenhaal's Graysmith is not your typical Fincher protagonist. The first half of the film he could almost be described as a self-reflective wallflower just standing in the corner and observing. It isn't until the third act of the film where he shows us what he's got. A lot of people have complained that Gylenhaal really doesn't appear to age throughout the film not even looking old enough to have a wife and three kids. I agree to an extent, but I don't think it has a huge bearing on the effectiveness of the story or his performance. He's solid here.

In 2005 the Academy nominated William Hurt for Best Supporting Actor for A History of Violence even though he appeared in basically one scene and for no longer than 10 minutes. It was well deserved. Here's hoping History repeats itself and John Carroll Lynch is rewarded with one for his role as Arthur Leigh Allen, the man who may or may not be Zodiac. He makes that same kind of impact here, with just as little screen time. Lynch, a character actor, probably best known for playing Marge Gunderson's loyal husband in Fargo, really does have just one big scene. That scene, however, is the most important one in the movie.

We may never know who Zodiac is, but when he's questioned, Lynch's Allen somehow in just a few minutes and with only a couple of lines of dialogue meets our most frightening expectations of who the man behind that mask could be. This is clearly an actor who did his homework on Allen as little details about the real man subtly manifest itself in his performance, including everything from speech inflection to physical mannerisms. Even if he's not Zodiac, he's the creepiest, scariest person you could imagine encountering and you'd see why he'd be considered a prime suspect for any crime, not just this one.

This film has been criticized as being "overlong." "Overlong" means scenes have been added to pad the film's running time. This movie is not overlong. I could have watched ten hours more. I'm not going to lie though. It certainly would play better for someone like myself who's incredibly interested in the subject matter. I could easily relate to Graysmith's obsession with the case, as the details surrounding it are endlessly fascinating on many different levels. It's not too often I urge people not to purchase the DVD of what may end up being the best film of the year but that's exactly what I'm doing here. DO NOT BUY THIS DVD. Apparently Fincher was forced by the studio to commit to the scheduled DVD release date even though he was preparing a special edition director's cut he told them couldn't possibly be ready on time.

So what we have now is a bare bones single disc release of the theatrical version with a trailer in front of it for his director's cut to be released in 2008. This director's cut will include commentaries, deleted scenes, and an in-depth look at the actual Zodiac killings with witness accounts. I'll have to lock myself in the house, take the phone off the hook and plant myself in front of the tv for days when that comes out. Fincher was put in a tough position here and apparently was none too happy about it as he's stated the last thing he wants to be accused of is taking advantage of consumers by double dipping on a DVD release. I don't blame him. Everyone should just rent this version to tie them over for now, then wait until early next year to buy the director's cut. Here's hoping it comes out earlier to coincide with a strong Oscar campaign for the film.

Of the many cryptic notes sent from the Zodiac, one leaves the most lasting impression. It reads: "I am waiting for a good movie about me." He gets a great one. But you can't fight the uneasy feeling that maybe he's still out there and knows it. If that's not enough to send chills down anyone's spine, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, by making such a brilliant film about one of our country's greatest unsolved cases, Fincher may have also given this deranged killer exactly what he wished for all along.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Number 23

Director: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston, Logan Lerman, Rhona Mitra
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: Unrated

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

Joel Schumacher is a director who possesses a talent not many filmmakers can claim to have, or would want. He has the ability to make even the most extraordinary story seem pedestrian. He's been doing this his entire career with the lone exception of 2003's Phone Booth, but that had a script so strong Ed Wood couldn't have botched it. His latest, The Number 23 starring Jim Carrey in a rare dramatic departure, unfortunately continues the curse of Schumacher.

This is really a tale of two movies. One of which is completely ridiculous while the other is somewhat engaging. Schumacher is helped however by a strong, risk taking performance by Carrey that peaks late in the third act and a script by Fernley Phillips that actually contains some interesting ideas. I'd go as far as to say the actual concept behind the story is one of the best in a while and the script for the most part delivers. This could have been a very good movie, maybe even a great one. It's too bad Schumacher wasn't interested in telling the story, or more accurately, he was too interested in telling it in a way that would damn it with ineffectiveness. As a result, minor story problems become major ones and a film with a lot of promise falls short.

Carrey plays Walter Sparrow a mild mannered dogcatcher who on his birthday receives an interesting, mysterious gift from his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). It's a book titled "The Number 23" written under the pseudonym of Topsy Kretts that she found at a used bookstore in the neighborhood. From the very first chapter Walter notices the book contains remarkable similarities to his own life. I should pause to say that these "remarkable similarities" aren't that remarkable at all and anyone could probably pick up any random book from the store and find similar coincidences if they looked for them. Amazingly though, and to the script's credit, this is actually acknowledged by his wife. The story itself tells of a detective named Fingerling (also played by Carrey) investigating the death of the "Suicide Blonde" whose obsession with the number 23 led her to take the life of herself and her boyfriend. Soon Fingerling himself becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the number. Instead it leads him into a violent descent of madness and torment that strains his relationship with his lover Fabrizia (Madsen again).

Like his alter ego, Walter begins an investigation into the number and discovers certain names, addresses, time periods, and birth dates in his own life all add up to or involve the number 23 in some way. He's soon scribbling all over the walls and his body determined to solve the riddle, whatever it may be. Walter also discovers the book is tied to a real murder of a woman (Rhona Mitra) and is determined to find the author who he's convinced is responsible for it, even if it means involving his son (Logan Lerman) and destroying his marriage. The trailer would lead you to believe the actual number 23 figures significantly into the story but it doesn't. At least not how you think it does. It's really just a red herring. However, the book "The Number 23" is very important and the mystery behind that pays off big.

This is a film with a double structure, but unfortunately one structure is far superior to the other. When we're in real life with Walter attempting to unlock the mysteries of the book the movie is smart and gripping, but the detective story within the book is so bad that it's flat-out painful to watch. If you've always wanted to see Jim Carrey as a hard boiled, tormented, tattooed womanizing film noir detective then these scenes are for you. If you're like me and don't then these scenes play like bad outtakes and bloopers from Sin City. Imagine Schumacher directing a 1940's film noir but with the same sensibility he brought to Batman & Robin and you have a good idea how these scenes play out. I'd imagine this is one of those cases where everything plays much better on page than on screen because Schumacher shoots this in his typical self-masturbatory music video style with lightening speed cuts that completely distract from the story. That makes nearly the entire first half of the film unwatchable.

Carrey does the best he can as this detective but the fact he's terribly miscast in this type of role is inescapable. You know these scenes are bad when the fascinating thing I can find about them is that Virginia Madsen looks better with dark hair. Luckily for us the novel ends at chapter 22 and the rest of the movie deals with him trying to figure out who wrote it and why. There's also a psychiatrist (played in both stories by Danny Huston) who Walter/Fingerling suspects is having an affair with Agatha/Fabrizia. This character is pretty much useless but thankfully for Huston his supporting role here isn't embarrassing as his unfortunate one 2004's disturbing Birth. For me it was just a relief to see him in a movie where he's not publicly spanking reincarnated little boys.

The last half hour of this film with its big twist ending is kind of a cheat and silly, but I have to be honest and say it was entertaining as hell. Carrey may have been miscast in the role of noir detective but he excels as a tormented man wrestling with his own obsession and insanity as he completely owns the third act of the film. It helps that toward the end the movie finally explores the existential crisis of a man realizing a book may have been based on his life. I couldn't help but be reminded of Stranger Than Fiction as I watched even though that film was a dramatic comedy and this is a mystery/suspense thriller. Both do involve the main characters coming to the realization their lives are not what they think they are. I was surprised Phillips' script did at least attempt to explore some ideas and when I look back on it the plot does add up and make sense. This is a film that would probably play better on a second viewing, even if I regret to inform you that I will not be partaking in one anytime soon.

The Number 23
is somewhat similar to Premonition in tone and execution except the script here is competent and Carrey is a better dramatic actor than Bullock. Plus, unlike that mess, you can actually follow the plot. What really would have helped this film is if Schumacher stopped showing off and told the novel's story the same interesting way he told Walter's. After all, everyone can relate to a character who thinks they're the star of their own life story. Had that been filmed not as a joke, but with realism and feeling then the remaining pieces would have fallen into place to make this a success. I remember reading the synopsis of this film when it was in pre-production years ago and being excited and optimistic about the promising premise. Now I'm just left wondering what could have been.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

From The Vault: The Swimmer

Director: Frank Perry
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Kim Hunter, Marge Champion, Michael Kearney, Joan Rivers
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG
Release Date: 1968

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

I'm often asked what the scariest movie I've ever seen is. When I give my answer I get weird looks. It's not The Shining, The Exorcist, Jaws or any other film that would conventionally fall under the category of "horror." No, the scariest movie I've ever seen is a little known drama released in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster called The Swimmer and its scares come entirely in the form of psychological terror and atmosphere. I first discovered the movie late at night four years ago as I was flipping through the channels and stumbled upon a showing on American Movie Classics. As I watching I had no clue what to make of it as it was unlike anything I've ever seen before. When it ended I sat there in shock, unsettled and unsure of my opinion. The music, the cinematography, the pacing and the performances seemed like they were shipped in not just from another era, but another planet.

It's been compared by some to a full-length feature episode of The Twilight Zone and that comparison is accurate. You almost expect to see Rod Serling's name attached to the writing credits, but the screenplay (written by director Frank Perry's wife Eleanor) is adapted from John Cheever's well-known 1964 short story of the same title. The setting of Cheever's story is Westchester County, New York but was changed to idyllic suburban Connecticut for the film version. Most of it was shot on location in Westport with some scenes filmed in New Caanan and the beautiful setting of the film could be considered a character in and of itself. This is the kind of movie you almost have to train yourself to watch because it's so different from anything you'd expect to see from any film no matter its year of release. If it came out today, audiences would be equally perplexed. The only thing I was sure of by the time the film ended was that I saw something that was hypnotizing, frightening and unforgettable.

I didn't get much sleep the night I first saw it and by the next morning I was putting the wheels in motion to procure a copy of the film which, much to my surprise, was coincidentally first released on DVD a couple of months before I first saw it that night. It's hard to fully describe my initial thoughts of the film since I've seen it so many times now that each viewing seems to take on a life of it's own as I discover new details in the film I didn't notice the viewing before. Anyone's first viewing of The Swimmer is really just a run through. Then it sits with you for a while. It could be a couple of days, or a week, maybe even a month. Scenes stay in your mind and haunt you, as if the movie is just begging for another look. It's in those subsequent viewings that the pieces start to fall into place and what at first seemed like just a bizarre 60's head trip turns into a devastating masterpiece and a damning indictment of American suburbia. I've become convinced the only time to see this movie is during the summer and I've made it an annual ritual to do so, even going so far as to take my portable DVD player poolside to enjoy it. I get laughs at first until people see what I'm watching and become intrigued. It isn't long before there's a crowd looking over my shoulder transfixed by what they're seeing.
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The production and filming was plagued with controversy and creative difficulties to the extent that director Frank Perry actually walked off the picture and an uncredited Sydney Pollack had to come in and complete it. It proved to be great preparation for Pollack who a year later would go on to direct another 60's nightmare, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Perry clashed with the notoriously difficult Lancaster (who he never thought was right for the role) and sadly, after the film's poor reception, Lancaster himself began to believe, much like everyone else, that The Swimmer was a stinker. However, time has revealed it to be anything but, which should give hope to anyone hearing rumors about their favorite upcoming film being plagued by behind the scenes drama and creative differences. I'm not sure exactly what problems Frank Perry had with the finished product or what his perfect vision of the film would have looked like, but I can tell you that the version we have is not only an unsettling masterpiece, but possibly the most risk-taking motion picture I've ever seen.

That it bombed upon it's release in 1968 is no surprise given audiences couldn't have possibly prepared themselves for a movie that tackled issues so far ahead of it's time. That stands out as bizarre and groundbreaking in a year that saw the release of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is no small achievement. I'd even go as far to say this is just as important a landmark in American cinema history as Kubrick's film, regardless of how few people still know about it. Reminiscent in theme to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, the film revolves around the mystery of a man who's fallen from grace. Also, like that film, the how and the why is the story. However, unlike that film, this one doesn't exactly give you all the answers and you could argue that even by the film's final frame we're not completely sure what happened to the title character (although we have some damn good theories). While it's arguably ahead of its time in the thematic ground it covers, it's also quite dated from a technical standpoint, which only serves to increase its hypnotic appeal. There's no mistaking it's very much a film right out of the 60's. Whether intentional or not, the technical choices made by Perry in the film result in a bizarre viewing experience that may not be enjoyed by all. After what I've just told you, you probably have a good idea whether you're the type of audience for it.

On a gorgeous summer day Ned Merrill (Lancaster) emerges from the woods of suburban Connecticut clad in only a swimsuit to go for a dive in his neighbor's pool. When we first get a glimpse of Ned (or "Neddy" as his friends call him) he's in terrific shape and could be the poster boy for middle age exuberance, grinning from ear to ear. He's welcomed with open arms by his old friends the Westerhazys and it's very clear from their reaction that they haven't seen him in a while. The opening scenes do a good job of establishing the laid back cocktail era of the 60's (explored in Mike Nichols' The Graduate a year prior) and introducing us to a revered man who appears to be on top of the world. Establishing and sticking with that mood early is important because it will be completely shattered by the film's end. He flirts with Helen, (who confesses she "had too much to drink last night") and looks out into the beautiful landscape with the determined gaze of an explorer. Looking out he sees that his neighbor's pools form a river to his house. Today is the day Ned Merrill will swim home. He's going to swim the "Lucinda River," which he names after his beloved wife. She'll be there waiting for him. So will his two daughters. "They're at home playing tennis," he repeats to himself and others in almost a trance-like mantra throughout the entire film.

As Ned begins his journey it becomes clear something's just not right. At first we're not sure what it is, but as the journey progresses things slowly begin to come into focus. There's actually a strange uneasiness in Ned's encounters with his neighbors right from the start. As he swims from pool to pool it gets progressively worse and more obvious something's happened. What that "something" is remains a mystery. Everyone slowly become less welcoming and his encounters more disturbing. When he arrives at the his old friends' the Graham's house, he's welcomed but gets strange looks when he talks about his wife and daughters. At another pool an old woman screams at him that he's not welcome there ever again, though we have no idea why. Each pool and encounter brings with it new revelations and hints, requiring the viewer to pay careful attention to what is said and how. Every single line of dialogue and every acting gesture is important and I'm convinced you could watch the film 50 times and still not completely pick up on all of them.
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The movie also plays with time in a strange way. It's clear from the conversations that Ned's been gone a while, yet he seems oblivious to it. It's like he's operating in a completely different timeline at points. The most disturbing encounter of the entire film (and the one showcased in all of the film's print advertising) is when he arrives at the house of his daughters' now 20 year-old babysitter, Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard, who eerily resembles a younger version of Nicole Kidman). I don't want to give anything away here other than to say Ned misreads the situation terribly with disastrous results. An encounter with a former mistress (Janice Rule, who ironically had once appeared on an episode of The Twilight Zone) doesn't go much better. This dialogue-heavy scene is the one Sydney Pollack had to finish shooting after Perry abandoned the picture and anyone could reasonably argue it's slow and overlong. That's offset, however, by the powerful, brutally honest performances of Rule and Lancaster. I think it's actually one of the best, and most important scenes, in the movie. Another encounter with a little boy (Michael Kearney) selling lemonade mercifully doesn't go where we think it will, but is unforgettable in another disturbing way. He tries to crash a neighbor's party ( featuring with a cameo appearance by a young Joan Rivers, original face intact, as one of the guests), but doesn't end up getting anywhere close to the reception he expects. It's clear we're not watching a man swim home. We're watching the disintegration of his life right before our very eyes. Ned starts his journey youthful, virile and full of energy. How he ends it is far different.

I can't honestly claim the ending is a shock given the events that precede it but it sure is a powerful punch to the gut. The final image is a lasting one that answers many of the film's questions, but also raises many more. By the end we're still not completely sure what happened to Ned Merrill. Theories abound. I certainly have mine. I think the key line in the film comes when he tells the young boy selling lemonade that "if you believe in something hard enough, it becomes true for you." For me that line always symbolized what this film was about. Ned is offered drinks at each pool, but rarely has but a small sip of any of them. Was he an alcoholic? All the characters hint at some kind of disaster in his professional life yet we're left to fill in the details after many clues. That's not to say his personal life was any better and by the end we're led to believe something equally catastrophic affected that. As each scene and pool visit unfolds I picture a hand on a thermostat slowly lowering the temperature to the point where at the end it becomes unbearably freezing. It starts warm and friendly but finishes cold and sterile, leaving us, and him soaking wet. It's a reality check in the harshest sense.

Like most movies from the '60's this film is slow and deliberate, but never boring because Perry does so much to visually engage the audience. There's some bizarre (and I mean bizarre) soft focus and slow motion photography, including a trippy montage involving horses. Marvin Hamlisch's score for the film has been widely criticized as being schmaltzy and painfully dated (which it is) but no one could ever argue it doesn't fit the material. I remember reading a review claiming that this is the music they're probably playing in elevators in hell, which is an unintentional compliment since this man is supposed to be in his own personal hell. Hamlisch's eerily unsettling orchestration just hammers that home and embellishes the horror. It further cements the fact we're trapped in another time period and makes the viewing that much more unnerving.

The era is probably most reflected in Ned's interaction with the women he encounters and how the film portrays them. I usually don't like to quote other reviews in mine but having read just about every one ever written for this film my all-time favorite remains Lawrence Russell's of who describes Ned Merrill's attitude as "post war sexist ass-slapping triumphalism." That description, besides being really funny, perfectly captures the title character's demeanor throughout the entire film. In a way, it can be seen as a mirror of the times. What's depicted on screen as harmless flirting on his part would probably be considered attempted rape by today's standards. Equally perplexing is the film's PG rating which just goes to show how wildly different the MPAA's standards were back then. While the film contains little if any violence, nudity or foul language the adult themes it explores are so heavy I don't know any parent who would be caught dead letting their child see it. In all fairness the film's promotional posters did bare the tag: "For Mature Audiences Only." If it were released today it would likely earn a PG-13 rating (which didn't exist in 1968), but part of me can't help but think this is the only movie that deserves an R rating solely on the basis of the thematically dark territory it covers.

While now it's commonplace for movies to criticize wealthy suburbia and the hypocrites who inhabit it, The Swimmer was there first. It's fingerprints can be seen all over more modern films like Ordinary People, American Beauty, The Ice Storm, and most recently, Little Children. I bet if you asked the directors of those films, I'm sure every one of them has seen it. The movie's supreme accomplishment is that it somehow manages to elicit our sympathy for a chronically unsympathetic character and much of that (aside from Lancaster's bravura performance) comes from the fact that his arrogant, clueless neighbors are worse than he is. Like Ned, they measure their success by the size of their swimming pools, the car they drive, or where their kids go to school. They fail to see Ned's downfall as a lesson on how on the surface someone could have everything, but in chasing it, actually attain nothing. Like Ned they're all shallow self-centered egoists who only think of him in relation to how he serves their interests and affect them.

I could go into great detail analyzing the performances, but really there's only one that matters: Lancaster's. This is a one-man show and he gives one of the most terrifying and emotionally complex performances in motion picture history. He'd go on to deliver other great performances that were more accepted by the mainstream (like his Oscar nominated turns in From Here To Eternity and Atlantic City) but he's never done anything like we see here. Much like Rock Hudson's dark and daring departure in 1964's Seconds, audiences were just not used to seeing Lancaster in a role like this, so they promptly rejected it. In doing so they missed the finest acting work of his career. He delivers all of his lines in such a creepy, robotic manner we know something's terribly wrong with this guy even if he doesn't have a clue. He's finds a way to make Ned somewhat likable and easygoing, while paradoxically portraying him as pathetic and delusional. At first the whole thing just seems like a vehicle to showcase Lancaster as a movie star, but as a serious, dedicated actor he had other plans. Plus, how many actors today in their 50's would agree to a starring role where they appear in just a bathing suit for the entire film? That alone takes guts.

The film's continued obscurity with mainstream audiences was not helped in any way by 2003's ill conceived DVD release which featured the ridiculous cover art you see below, making the film look like a cross between a soapy melodrama and a soft core porn flick. It's not the worst cover art I've ever seen, but it's certainly the biggest misrepresentation of a movie ever and shameful movie marketing. I couldn't blame anyone for not wanting to pick up the movie on the basis of that cover. The cover for the VCR version (seen above) featuring Lancaster's sinister grin and memorable images from the film is far superior and better captures the creepy mood. They should have used that instead. Even the film's original theatrical poster (as strange as it is) represents the movie well and would have been a better choice.

Unfortunately, the DVD is a bare bones disc with only a couple of trailers for special features. It's a shame because if any movie deserves a fully loaded Criterion Collection release it's this. Next year will mark the 40th Anniversary of The Swimmer and I can't think of a better time to give the film a brief theatrical re-release followed by a DVD set that does justice to this incredible film, complete with commentaries and documentaries. I'd love to hear Sydney Pollack's take on the controversial behind the scenes drama that went into the making of the film and caused him to step in to finish it. I'd also be curious to hear from some actors who were in it. Of course many have since passed on, but aside from Lancaster, the two most important ones (Janet Landgard and Michael Kearney) are still living. Also, as unpopular as she may be, it would be interesting to get Joan Rivers' take on the film.
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A couple of years ago a small production company called ContentFilm announced that they had purchased the rights to The Swimmer and were going to remake as a starring vehicle for Alec Baldwin. It stalled in pre-production and was called off. I wasn't quite sure whether to be disappointed or relieved at that, but I have a feeling it's just a matter of time before we see an updated version. At least someone in Hollywood agrees with me that this is a story that deserves to reach a broader audience so I really can't completely bash the idea (as unnecessary as it may be). If anything, it could bring some much-needed attention to the original film. It's ironic now that Baldwin was the choice to step into a role that sees the main character struggling with serious family issues and personal demons. Unfortunately, there's absolutely no way Baldwin can bring the same gravitas and innate charisma to the role that Lancaster did. No one can. Nor would it benefit a remake for any actor to attempt to duplicate his performance. One thing's for sure: Baldwin would have had to put in some serious time at the gym to get in shape for it. To be fair though, Baldwin is an underrated dramatic actor and it definitely would have been interesting to see where he would have gone with the role.

The risk you run in remaking this is the original is so specific to time and place that a newer version would almost be forced to completely change everything. Today, I could see them adding flashbacks to explain Ned's past since they think audiences are too stupid to attempt to figure anything out on their own. Rather than a remake I think a sequel actually makes more sense. The final image of the film left a lot up in the air and I think it would kind of be interesting to see a modern day investigation into what happened to Ned Merrill that hot, summer day in Connecticut 40 years ago and how his life was destroyed. Perhaps the young boy from the film (now grown up) can be the one searching for answers. You could cast Nicole Kidman as the daughter of the babysitter from the original film. Why film a remake when the original story still has so many unanswered questions and mileage left in it? Plus, the bigger mystery may have been what happened to him after the final credits rolled. Of course the original film is so obscure I'd probably be the only person who'd want to see this so I could understand the hesitation there. Whether or not we ever see a remake or a sequel is irrelevant since the original is a movie so bizarre and original it deserves to be seen by everyone and I can only hope that someday it gets the acclaim it deserves as one of America's greatest motion pictures. Judged by any standard, yesterday's or today's, The Swimmer is a haunting masterpiece that should never be forgotten.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Director: Mennan Yapo
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Nia Long, Amber Valletta, Peter Stormare, Irene Ziegler

Running Time: 95 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)

If someone asked me to make a list of actors and actresses I'd most like to see make a huge comeback, Sandra Bullock would likely be at the top of it. She'd probably take exception to me saying that and claim that she never went anywhere, but c'mon Sandy let's be honest. You really haven't had a great starring role since Speed in 1994. It's tough to believe this is the same actress who sent my pulse racing and was so full of spunk, fire and potential in the 90's. What happened? I saw a glimmer of it again with a strong supporting turn two years ago in Crash, but after that she couldn't capitalize and I was left with false hope.

They say it's tough for actresses to find good parts when they hit 40 because of ageism in Hollywood. That's true, but there are a couple of exceptions. Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep come to mind immediately. I don't think any actress (except maybe Meg Ryan) has had as much trouble with this as Bullock, and it's not even really her fault. I think the problem with Bullock and Ryan was that their whole image was marketed around youthfulness, cuteness, and adorability. As they got older and the time came to find more mature parts they found themselves typecast. Now they're pushing too hard in the opposite direction and audiences aren't ready for it. I can't pretend to play agent but it doesn't take one to see that Bullock's role in the "psychological thriller" Premonition isn't a step in the right direction. Besides the film being incredibly silly and confusing direct-to-cable fare, she looks bored in it. Tired almost. The spark is gone. When I look at her now I don't see a movie star, which is a shame because I know there's one in there somewhere, waiting to come out. It's all about finding the right part. This is not it.

The DVD cover of Premonition promises "a gripping psychological thriller that will have you guessing from start to finish." Well, I do agree with half of that. While not gripping in the slightest, I did find myself trying to guess what was going on throughout, often with mixed results. In it Bullock plays Linda Hanson, a woman who seemingly has everything: a great husband, a beautiful house and two adorable little girls. Her world is soon turned upside down when a local sheriff shows up at her door to inform her that her husband Jim (The Fantastic Four's Julian McMahon) has just died in a horrific car accident. When she wakes up the next morning he's alive and drinking his coffee in the kitchen. She wakes up the next day and he's back to being dead again. The next morning he's alive. The next…well you get the picture.

Now I've never had a premonition or known anyone who has but something tells me it doesn't involve repeating a week over again in two different timelines. At least that's what I think was going on. I never thought I'd say this but for a better, less confusing representation of actual premonitions, rent the Final Destination films. So Linda now must fit together the pieces of the puzzle that lead to her husband's death and hopefully prevent it. Details, clues and even people show up in one timeline (where her husband is dead) and prove useful in another (when he's still alive). One of these characters happens to be one of the most incompetent psychiatrists you'll ever see in a film (played by a woefully miscast Peter Stormare). There's also a "mystery woman" (the beautiful, underused Amber Valetta) whose role in the story is so obvious I don't know why they even bothered to shroud it in secrecy. All of this plays a little like the Denzel Washington starring time travel thriller Déjà Vu from earlier in the year, minus the action or a plot that's somewhat comprehensible.

Exactly how confusing is this movie? Well, when the main character actually has to compose a chart to tell her what happens with whom and with what on which day that should tell you something. It wasn't until the final half hour of the film when I finally got a grasp on what was going on. Of course that doesn't mean any of it holds up. The saddest part of this is that when you break it down it really isn't that complicated at all. Director Mennan Yapo just chose, for reasons that may forever remain a mystery, to present it in such a way that it causes our brains to explode. How can we care about the protagonist when trying to figure out what's going on in the movie becomes our full-time job? Why couldn't he just tell the story? There's no big mystery at the center of this so it's not necessary to play games with the audience.

The screenplay also makes the terrible miscalculation of having Jim harbor secrets and plants the seed that he may not be as great a guy as Linda thought. So now we have a guy who's going to be killed who we don't even like that much. If we don't like him, then we can't feel sympathy for Linda and don't care whether she prevents his death or not. There are many laughable scenes in the film but my personal favorite is at the church when Linda demands they open the coffin to see if her husband is really dead. It's so over-the-top and ridiculously played all it does is evoke unintentional fits of laughter. There's also a silly, distracting moment in this scene that's better suited for B-movie horror comedy. I wouldn't dare spoil it for you.

Toward the end of the film, after confusing the hell out of us for an hour straight, the filmmakers actually have the nerve try to try to make important statements about life and family. I suppose the ending of the film does work story-wise, but I couldn't help but feel a little insulted at a resolution that essentially negates the movie from existing in the first place. There's an alternate ending of the film on the DVD that's so drastically different in tone from the one used it can stand as physical evidence that the director had no idea what kind of story he was trying to tell.

I don't want anyone to think that Sandra Bullock gives a bad performance in this movie because she doesn't. She's doing what's asked of her and it's a respectable performance. Unfortunately, what's asked of her is to sleepwalk through the entire film. It's not so much that she can't handle these parts it's that no one wants to see her in them. I had a similar reaction to watching Kate Hudson in The Skeleton Key. I have no doubt both of them can pull off darker material, but if that material isn't strong enough they'll sink a little further than another actress because that kind of part doesn't play on their strengths. Bullock, regardless of her age, should not be starring in junk like this, but in vehicles that that showcase her large personality. In a way this part is similar to her role in last year's time travel romance The Lake House, in which she also appeared comatose throughout. That film was flawed and depressing but at least the love story clicked, the whole thing mostly made sense, and there was some chemistry between the two leads. Plus, it at least managed to give us the right ending without making us feel as if we completely wasted our time.

premise had some potential and its opening minutes suggested the director was serious about telling an involving, straight-forward story, but then something went terribly awry the rest of the way. After seeing this and the slightly superior (but still ridiculous) Déjà Vu I'm just waiting to view Lee Tamahori's Next and see if the trifecta of nearly incompetent time travel movies for 2007 can be completed. I really hope not. Something tells me though, of the three, Premonition will be the only one that requires an instruction manual on how to watch it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garafolo, Peter O' Toole, Brian Dennehy, Ian Holm, John Ratzenberger

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: G

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

Anyone can cook. Yes, even a rat. That's the central premise behind Disney/Pixar's latest animated feature, Ratatouille. On the surface that sounds silly and maybe even a little disgusting. Yet from that off-putting description writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) gives us a movie that's a meditation on friendship, family, romance, loyalty and society's expectations of us, while miraculously at the same time crafting a deep parable on discrimination. On top of that it's also one of the best movies about food and cooking I've ever seen.

Despite its G rating, this isn't as much of a kid's film as you may imagine. In fact I'd go as far to say it really isn't a kid's film at all. There's no question kids may enjoy it, but this is Pixar's most mature, sophisticated effort to date and will likely be a bigger hit with adults. The movie tackles so many issues and is so intelligent that a lot of it is just bound to fly over little kids' heads. That would be a problem if the film weren't so funny and dazzling to look at. There's more than enough here to keep everyone entertained.This is one of those rare "family films" that actually is for the entire family. That it'll be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar (and likely win) next year is a lock , but I hope come January voters don't overlook Bird's brilliant script in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is not your ordinary rat. He lives with his father Django (Brain Dennehy) and brother Emile (Peter Sohn) in a rat colony but unlike his family he has a heightened sense of smell and an appreciation for fine gourmet cooking. He's frustrated that his fellow rats steal food and eat garbage. He wants more. This inspiration comes from watching his hero the late Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) on television and reading his world famous cookbook entitled, "Anyone Can Cook." Gusteau recently passed away after evil, underweight food critic Anton Ego (the great Peter O'Toole) gave his restaurant a negative review. After a series of funny events Remy finds himself separated from his family and at the window of Gusteau's self-named restaurant in Paris, which is now being run by tyrannical chef Skinner (Ian Holm) and has settled into a rut of mediocrity. It doesn't help that Skinner seems more interested in marketing frozen t.v. dinners bearing Gusteau's name than running a five-star restaurant.

Remy watches as a new employee arrives named Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), a garbage boy with no culinary talent whatsoever. After a mishap involving a spilled pot of soup, Linguini is bailed out of trouble by Remy, but soon the whole kitchen thinks Linguini is a master chef. Actually though, it's Remy pulling the strings for Linguini in a clever and hilarious way. Linguini now not only has to deal with the job pressure and guilt of taking credit for someone else's work, but also the kitchen's only woman cook Colette (Janeane Garafolo), a feisty perfectionist who feels this newfound success has gone to the star chef's head. She has no idea just how right she is (literally). As for Remy, he must contend with being a rat in a human's world and the baggage that comes with it. There are more surprises to be found and they develop in exciting and interesting ways throughout the entire picture and come together for a stirring finale. Watching it I had a feeling the final minutes of the film would be strong, but I had no idea it would be that moving.

I have to admit I went into this film with a mindset not unsimilar to O'Toole's nasty food critic. I had no desire to see this movie and have long ago grown sick of animated films. In fact, I had sworn off them. I thought Disney/Pixar had gone as far as they could go in this medium and we've seen everything. Last year's tedious Cars did nothing to restore my faith in animated features. Even the ones I've enjoyed (like Toy Story and Finding Nemo) I wasn't that crazy about. They were great films for kids, but I couldn't honestly say that parents would enjoy them nearly as much, if at all. Ratatouille is different. It not only breaks new ground in animation, but in storytelling as well.

I've never seen Paris look as good as it does here with its rich, vibrant colors and city landscape scenes that resemble a beautiful painting. The details in the animation of the humans are incredible and the computer generated food images not only look completely real, but appetizing and delicious. By the time I left the theater I was extremely hungry, which isn't an easy feat considering this movie stars rats. That's only half the story though. Within this visual feast Brad Bird weaves a story that's not only intelligent, but emotionally resonate and far-reaching. Aside from O'Toole there are really no huge names providing the voice work, but it's terrific all-around with special mention going to Oswalt and Romano. I also have to say there's no way I would have ever guessed Colette's voice belonged to Janeane Garafalo (employing a bizarre accent) unless I read the credits.

In most movies you'd be lucky to find just one character you care about. This one has two you care about deeply. Bird somehow even manages to bring remarkable depth to the food critic, who should be a stock villain, but instead becomes more important than we could have possibly anticipated. There's a speech given at the end of the film that's so beautifully written and meaningful I can't believe it's in an animated film. Movies like this aren't supposed have dialogue written that well or touch on themes this deep. I've seen so many live action films with real actors that attempt to tackle the issues contained here and everyone falls flat on their face. Just how smart is this movie? When Remy finds himself separated from his family and on the cusp of being accepted by humans he can't handle it. Why? Because he's a rat. He can try but he must overcome his own insecurity of viewing himself as others see him. He's stuck in a vicious cycle. A self-fulfilling prophecy. This is an animated film… and it's psychologically deep! Bird could have easily rested on his laurels and let the animation carry the movie through but he didn't. He took the time and effort to craft a screenplay that actually says something important, knowing full well most of the younger audience seeing this won't be able to completely process it all.

The question now becomes: Do you punish the movie for not catering to the target audience it's marketed for? I say no because it never really was marketed solely as a kid's movie. How many kids do you think can even pronounce (much less spell) the title of the film? Its G rating and Disney tag lead everyone to assume this was kiddie fare, which is unfair and actually kind of inaccurate since the film does contain a scene of attempted murder and a character getting drunk. The theater I saw it in kids were screaming and being dragged down the aisle throwing tantrums while adults sat transfixed by what they were seeing. That confuses me because we all know if there's one thing kids hate it's being pandered or talked down to. They want to be treated like they're intelligent and important. This movie does that. I have a feeling the reaction of the audience I saw it with says more about behavioral issues and a lack of parenting skills than the film itself. I will say it was a relief to finally see an animated feature from Disney that didn't have characters breaking out in Randy Newman songs. I'm not too sure kids will feel the same way though. This was a huge risk for Disney and it's great that it's paying off. Good, old-fashioned word of mouth has spread about just how good this film is and all the rumors are true. It's as good as audiences are saying, and better. It's already number 49 on the internet movie database top 250, has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and will deservedly go down as Pixar's greatest achievement.

Ratatouille stands as further proof that if you have the germ of a good idea it can turn into something great. Brad Bird just had three words: "Anyone Can Cook." What he does with that simple phrase and how he expands it to make it mean something so much more is what great screenwriting and movie making is all about. A lot of you are probably familiar with the industry term "logline." It's a brief sentence describing your film when you pitch it to the studio. If I read the logline, "A rat, with a keen sense of smell, is separated from his family and becomes a gourmet chef in a Paris restaurant" I'd think it was the stupidest idea I ever heard and has no feature film potential at all. However, I know if Brad Bird told me what he was going to do with that sentence I'd fall out of my seat in shock. He took the worst logline in history and turned it into a four-star film. Now I finally understand what Roger Ebert meant when he wrote, "it's not what a movie's about, it's how it's about it." When I compose my list of the top films of 2007 I'd be shocked if Ratatouille isn't somewhere on it. The film is a joy to watch from beginning to end and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face after seeing it. It's a reminder of just how magical movies can be.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Black Snake Moan

Director: Craig Brewer
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, John Cothran Jr., Michael Raymond James, S. Epatha Merkerson

Running Time: 116 min.

Rating: R

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

If there's one thing that can be said for sure about writer/director Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, it's that you've never seen anything quite like it. Unfortunately in this case, that isn't exactly a compliment. This is the kind of movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be a sleazy grindhouse exploitation picture yet at the same time strives to be a touching tale of redemption. The end result is that the film isn't entirely successful at either and is a near miss. Still, I'd be lying if I said it didn't contain two exceptional performances and at times I was fascinated by what I was watching. Except I was fascinated in the way you'd be fascinated if you saw a car wreck on the side of the highway and you couldn't help but stop and watch. It's unpleasant and uncomfortable to look at but you just can't help yourself.

The car wreck in question is Christina Ricci and she gives probably the bravest performance of her entire career playing a character I had little sympathy for, though that's through no fault of her own. I did, however, have sympathy for Ricci as an actress having to perform the embarrassing acts asked of her by Brewer in a movie that doesn't quite earn them. I found the first half of this film to be insufferable and almost a chore to sit through as I was telling myself that Brewer better deliver in a big way soon to justify what he's putting Ricci through. The second half of the film is far better and he comes close, but not close enough. That he comes close is due not only to the work of Ricci, but the brilliant performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who sells this emotionally complicated material like it's gold, proving once again he's one of our most versatile actors. He's stated that he thinks this is his best performance and I can't argue with him. I only wish it were in a slightly better movie.

A gray-bearded Jackson plays Lazarus, a God-fearing, down on his luck blues musician whose wife (Adriane Lenox) just left him for his younger brother. His life is turned upside down with the discovery of a half-naked girl, bruised, battered and dumped on the side of the road near his house. She's Rae (Ricci), a nymphomaniac with some serious trust and intimacy issues stemming from an abusive childhood. Up until this point the only person saving her from her self- destructive behavior has been her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake in an underwritten role), but with him shipped off to join the army, she's left alone to her own devices. That's bad. Very bad. Before long she slips back into her hold ways and is doing drugs and jumping anything that moves, including her drug dealer (played in a cameo by rapper David Banner). After a drunken late night argument with Ronnie's best friend (Michael Raymond-James), she's beaten and thrown out of a pickup truck. Lazarus takes Rae in and makes it his mission to nurse her back to health and cure her of her fever and sex "sickness." This sickness consists mostly of her screaming and writhing practically naked on the floor as an insatiable itch engulfs her nether regions. If you're a Ricci fan you're probably thinking that this sounds like your kind of movie. I can assure you though that watching these scenes is not all it's cracked up to be so prepare yourself.

Then there's the infamous chain. This is worth talking about because it provides a major clue as to why this film doesn't work like it should. Why does Lazarus chain Rae to a radiator? Well, so she doesn't escape obviously but there's more to it than that. There are dozens of other ways he could have accomplished that. Let's be honest. Brewer has Lazarus chain Rae to the radiator because he knew it would be a SHOCKING IMAGE. He thought the idea of a black man chaining up a white, trashy southern girl would shock us and make us feel uncomfortable. He's just pushing our buttons. It's no coincidence that the image was featured prominently in commercials, trailers, promotional posters and DVD cover art for the film. That's the real reason she's chained to the radiator. Also, he probably thought it would look cool. Maybe it does a little. I'll admit it. I'll also admit the image of Christina Ricci walking down a dirt road in short shorts, cowboy boots and a cut-off confederate flag t-shirt while flipping off a tractor is cool too. However, when you're trying to tell a story that contains at least some degree of emotional impact is it really an appropriate time to look cool? When Brewer shift gears later and wants us to empathize with Ricci's character it becomes a problem because he's already sucked us dry with bombastic, over-the-top histrionics.

I was almost willing to forgive all of this because of the conviction Ricci and Jackson bring to their roles. Naturally, Lazarus sees redeeming Rae as a means of redeeming himself and the relationship that develops between the two (at least in the film's second half) is at times actually very poignant, giving me hope that perhaps Brewer could pull this off after all. A moment in a blues night club with Lazarus playing and singing his heart out as Rae's body gyrates on the dance floor does more to capture what this film is really about than any other. There's also a beautiful scene where he serenades her during a thunderstorm that hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively. It's powerful stuff. I suppose I should praise the film for not taking the easy road and keeping the relationship between the two platonic, but honestly, you'd have to be stupidest screenwriter alive to attempt to force a romantic relationship into this.

As a filmmaker Brewer is clearly talented and I like how he uses the blues as a redemptive force in the film while capturing the essence of the South. The movie at times could almost be considered a love letter to blues music and the South. I especially liked the way the movie was cleverly bookend by archival footage of legendary blues musician Son House. You can literally feel Brewer's passion for the material shining through. Everything finally appears to be on track until he decides to give us an ending so bizarre and insane in its execution I thought someone snuck in a reel from another film. Inexplicably, after being absent the entire film (literally!) Timberlake's character returns in a blaze of glory and all of the sudden we're expected, with no questions asked, to feel for his plight and root for the tortured relationship between Rae and Ronnie.

Timberlake, like Ricci, is asked to carry a serious load with his performance, but unlike Ricci, he has just precious few minutes of screen time to do it. To his credit, Timberlake does a great job but this task is Herculean and it was unfair of Brewer to saddle him with it. In what really amounts to just a couple of scenes he's asked to do far more here than he was in all of Alpha Dog. A tighter script that developed his character early on would have eliminated the need to have Timberlake perform acting miracles minutes before the picture ends.

The treatment of Timberlake's character is indicative of another problem that permeates through the film, which is Brewer's inability to flesh out any of the supporting players in such a way that they meaningfully contribute to the story. The attempt to develop a love interest for Lazarus in a drug store employee played by S. Epatha Merkerson is pointless and underdeveloped while John Cothran Jr.'s preacher never seems like an actual person, rather just a plot device for the ridiculous finale. You can't shake the feeling these characters are just unwanted guests who drop in every once in a while during the movie. Really Brewer's entire third act is ill conceived and feels more like an episode of Dr. Phil than an appropriate ending to a major motion picture. Regardless of the ending, I was still left with the feeling Rae and Ronnie's relationship is hopeless.

This is Craig Brewer's much anticipated follow-up to 2005's Hustle and Flow (which garnered a Best Actor nomination for Terrence Howard and bagged an Oscar for original song) and the film is too interesting to technically be considered a disappointment, but it doesn't all come together like it should. The good news here is that where the movie fails is not in intentions, but execution. Brewer has great ideas, but perhaps he found himself torn between telling a moving story of redemption and making a marketable movie that would appeal to mass audiences. That said, I'd much rather watch a risk-taking movie that swings for the fences and just misses than a better one that's boring and plays it safe.

No one can accuse Brewer of playing it safe here and I really look forward to his next film. It's clear he has a lot of talent as a filmmaker and he manages to extract career high performances from Jackson and Ricci. As difficult as Ricci's performance is to watch it's rare you'd find an actress willing to expose herself as much physically and emotionally as she does here. If this leads to bigger roles for her I can't complain, no matter how many buttons Brewer may be trying to push. She deserves it. For Samuel L. Jackson, Black Snake Moan is thankfully a long way from fighting snakes on planes, which comes as a relief since this is obviously a far more challenging and complex role. Whatever problems exist in the film no one can claim the actors don't milk the most out of the material. If only Brewer had decided what that material was, the results could have been incredible

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Director: Len Wiseman
Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith

Running Time: 130 min.

Rating: PG-13

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

Boy, what a great time I had watching this movie. Any director looking to make a successful action movie should watch Len Wiseman's Live Free or Die Hard and take notes. For every second and every frame of this picture's 130 minute running time it makes all the right decisions and doesn't step wrong once. This isn't just a great Die Hard movie or a great movie for the third sequel in the Die Hard franchise. This is a great movie. Period. Someone who's never seen any of the Die Hards would still love this, probably even more than someone who's seen them all. Those who have seen all the previous films are already debating this one's place in the pecking order. I may not be able to make a strong enough case it's the best in the series, but I can make one that it's the installment I had the most fun watching. By the end of the film I was asking myself the question: Why can't all action movies be like this?

The experience of watching this can best be attributed to eating at McDonald's. The meal has absolutely no nutritional value, but when you're hungry and need a fix, nothing hits the spot better. It's the ultimate summer popcorn movie that features a great cast, a frightening terror plot that unravels believably a layer at a time, not one, but two great villains, incredible action scenes and characters you actually care about. I would have given this movie four stars if it were just a little tighter and trimmed about 15 minutes. That's how good it is. Going in I wasn't expecting much and actually had some big-time concerns, but when it was over I could honestly say I saw the best action movie since John Woo's Face/Off was released ten years ago.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is back and this time he's been thrust into a post-9/11 information age where all the rules have changed. He's a "Timex watch in a digital age," McClane's smooth adversary observes at one point during the film. And he's right. McClane has never seemed as out of his league as he does here. When he's called to Washington D.C. to pick up suspected computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, conveniently the star of those Apple Mac commercials) he's not sure why nor does he seem like he knows what a hacker even is. It turns out Farrell has unknowingly aided in a "fire sale" terrorist plot where everything must go. Everything being the nation's transportation, financial, power and utility systems. The man behind it is Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who's joined by his girlfriend, a sexy henchwoman named Mai Lihn (Maggie Q). They want Farrell dead, but they'll have to get past McClane to do it.

The two make an unlikely duo as it's up to Farrell's brain and McClane's brawn to save the country from the ultimate threat. One of the many terrific aspects of Mark Bomback's screenplay is how the villain actually has an interesting motivation for what he's doing and the terror plot has something important to say about national security and how safe we think we really are. This isn't one of those movies where nameless, faceless Arabs attack the country just because they hate us for some fanatical reason never explained. Bomback also takes the idea of computer hacking (which has been done to death in movies like this) and somehow finds a way to make it fresh and exciting. I can't completely claim that the events in this film are realistic but the movie presents things in such a way that something like it definitely feels plausible. There's one scene where Gabriel cuts into the national tv broadcasts and delivers his message in the scariest way I've ever seen a threat on this country depicted in a film. Ever. I was actually worried watching this movie that Bomback may have actually done too good a job writing a feasible terrorist plot, if you catch my drift.

There have been some complaints about the casting of Olyphant as the lead heavy in the film. These complaints mainly center on the fact that he isn't Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons. It's true he isn't, but I'd argue we're in a different era now and it calls for a different type of villain. Rickman and Irons were great for then but this is now. I'd imagine the person who would stage an attack like this on our country today would be exactly like Gabriel: calm, cool and collected. He knows exactly what he wants and exactly how he's going to go about it. In a way, that's far scarier. His low-key manner fits what the movie is trying to say and the casting of Olyphant works perfectly. I thought he did an excellent job and deserves better than being compared to other Die Hard villains in films that required a different type of actor playing them. This is a different movie.

As good a job Olyphant does, however, he can't hold a candle to Maggie Q as Mai. She made a strong impression with a small role last summer's Mission Impossible III, but she makes a HUGE impression here. She's one of those rare movie villains that are so entertaining and so good at being bad you actually feel like rooting for them, if not for the fact they're trying to bring down the entire country. I'd honestly have to go back to the 1980's to remember a villain in an action movie that was this fun to watch. That she isn't bad to look at definitely doesn't hurt either. You know you're watching a real first-class villain when about half way through the film you find yourself scared she'll be killed off. When the possibility of that scenario presented itself I felt like screaming at the screen because I knew the movie just couldn't be the same without her.

The entire fight sequence between her and McClane (the conclusion of which involves a dangling car in an elevator shaft) is probably the most exciting 10 to 15 minutes I've had watching an action movie I can remember. Supposedly a lot of CGI was used for all the action scenes, but I couldn't tell. Everything looked realistic to me. One of the big complaints the movie seems to be getting is that McClane looks more like a superhero than an NYPD cop with all the stunts he pulls off, which border on and often exceed the ludicrous and unbelievable. I agree and there were points during the film I was actually laughing aloud at how over-the-top it was (especially toward the end) but you know what? Who cares?! This is an action movie not a documentary.

The things he did may be unbelievable, but the effects are so good that they never look unbelievable, which is all that counts. Plus, as far as I'm concerned the terror plot itself provided enough frightening realism to make up for any shortcomings in that department. Any concerns about the films PG-13 rating are unfounded. While I can't say I'm happy certain things had to be edited out to market the movie to a broader audience it isn't conciously noticeable watching the picture. In fact, I'm actually surprised the MPAA gave the film a PG-13 considering how much violence is in it. It should be interesting to see if an unedited director's cut is released on DVD and how much that differs from the product released in theaters.

So how about all those worries that Justin Long was going to become the Jar Jar Binks of the Die Hard franchise? Not only does that not happen the interaction he has with Willis makes the movie. The decision to pair the two of them together takes the movie to another level because they unexpectedly play off each other so well. They're complete opposites thrown into this situation together and the back and forth between them is hilarious (without ever becoming annoying) throughout the entire film. I also liked how they used Farrell to bring across the point of how out of touch McClane is with the current digital age, which is really the main theme running throughout the picture.

Long actually has what amounts to a co-starring role as he's onscreen as much as Willis and he not only doesn't drop the ball, he delivers in a huge way. His presence in this movie is every bit as important as Willis' and I'd even go so far to say that if there's another Die Hard (and I wouldn't complain if there is) I'd have no interest in seeing it unless Long's character is involved somehow. The addition of Long could and should have been a disaster but credit Bomback's script and his performance for turning the character into more than just a goofy sidekick. He actually adds another dimension to and enriches the McClane character.

At 52 years old, could Bruce Willis still deliver the goods as a viable action hero? He not only delivers the goods but you believe that this guy could kick anyone's ass. Willis often gets credit for being a great action star, but it's time to be completely honest: He's a good actor. In fact if someone asked me to point to a movie where Willis is at the absolute top of his game and at his very best I'd point to this one. John McClane is described sometimes as the "blue-collar James Bond." I love that description because it's so accurate. He may not be slick or suave or the smartest guy around, but he has street smarts, can blow things up and kick your ass right, left and sideways. That's John McClane and this movie captures it perfectly.

An interesting decision is made in adding another McClane family member we end up caring about. It's his college-age daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead who, no complaints from me, seems to have appeared in every other movie I've seen in the past year). Her kidnapping at the hands of Gabriel comes so late in the film that me telling you about it could almost be considered a spoiler (if the commercials hadn't spoiled it already). Of course McClane has to have a strained relationship with his daughter, but I liked the way it was handled early on in the film. Bomback's screenplay doesn't push the buttons too hard and it feels just right. It's funny, yet relatable. Later on when she's in danger it becomes clear, much to our delight, she is very much John McClane's daughter. The casting of Winstead is perfect and when this was over I wished she had even more screen time because she was so believable and brought just the right amount of spunk to the role. There's also a hilarious cameo appearance from Kevin Smith (one of the few directors who can actually act) as a thirty-something computer hacker living in his mother's basement, which he's turned into a Star Wars shrine. Why do I suspect Smith probably has a room just like that in his home?

As the conclusion of the movie approached I realized something: I didn't want my time with these characters to end. That may not seem rare, but it is for an action movie. I could actually imagine a successful television series focusing on McClane and his daughter fighting terrorism with Long and Smith's characters along for the ride. We can call it The McClanes. For now though I'll take a sequel with those three returning. Bruce Willis gets a free pass from me to make as many Die Hards as we wishes, although part of me thinks it would be nice to end on the highest note imaginable, which this clearly is. One can hope when Harrison Ford dons the fedora and cracks the whip again next summer for the fourth installment of Indiana Jones, he has as much success as Willis does here. Honestly though, this will be tough to top. When the summer of 2007 comes to a close, Live Free or Die Hard deserves to go down as its biggest success story.