Thursday, February 28, 2008

American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ruby Dee, Carla Gugino, Clarence Williams III, Cuba Godding Jr., Armande Assante
Running Time: 157 min.

Rating: R

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

The gangster film genre has become so familiar in American cinema that it could very well be considered an institution, or a cliché. When the 80th Annual Academy Award nominations were announced earlier this year a lot of people who surprised that American Gangster only picked up two nominations (one for Best Supporting Actress and another for Best Art Direction), despite being universally praised by critics and audiences upon its release as one of the best films of the year. Under normal circumstances two nods would hardly be considered a disappointment, but it is when you have an epic crime drama directed by Ridley Scott starring two actors the caliber of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. It is "EPIC" in every sense of the word and exactly the kind of film that wins little gold men, which made it's exclusion at awards season that much more surprising.

In taking pages out of similar films like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface by telling a very familiar, comfortable story, the film could have seemed like a pale imitation, but instead feels like the real thing because it presents the material in a fresh, interesting way and the trajectory of the story goes in a different direction. It's also breezier and more accessible than those other films, which many may view as a negative. I don't. Nor do I care that serious creative liberties were taken with the original story because I think this is one of those cases where a little embellishment adds more dimension and flavor to the characters, which deepens the film.

Anyone who lives for gangster and crime movies (I'm sorry to report I'm not among them) will absolutely love this, while everyone else will at least be entertained thoroughly for over two and a half hours with first class filmmaking. It's chief selling point is the prospect of seeing Crowe and Washington lock horns onscreen for the first time since 1995's forgettable Virtuosity. It doesn't disappoint at all on that end and delivers on many other fronts as well, especially in regards to Washington's performance, which is one of his most electric and powerful in years. I'm not sure if it's a movie we couldn't live without, but it will provide a lot of enjoyment for fans and non-fans of the genre.

Washington is Frank Lucas, the protégé and right-hand man of "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III), a gangster who runs much of the drug trade in late 1960's Harlem. When he passes away from a heart attack, Frank takes over the reins, cornering the drug market and putting the competition out of business. The secret to his success is a new purer from of heroin coming out of Bangkok, of which he controversially smuggles out of Vietnam using U.S. troops and equipment. Frank's rule over the Harlem drug trade puts him at odds with the Italian mob, led by Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) and a flashy, loudmouth dealer Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) trying to pass his brand off as his own. But his biggest adversaries are the city's crooked cops trying to get a cut in the action, the worst of which is the creepy, intimidating Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin).

It seems the only cop in New York not on the take is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who actually turned down a $1 million payoff, which makes him a joke among his co-workers. He's also plagued with personal problems as his partner slides into drug addiction and his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is suing him for custody of his son. Soon he's selected to head up a new narcotics squad and it isn't long before he has his sights set on Frank and his men. The movie tells juxtaposes the stories of these two men throughout and prepares us for the inevitable showdown in the third act. Scott knows what he has and milks it for everything he can, as Crowe and Washington don't share a single scene together until the last 10 minutes of the film. It's worth the wait though. And if you're expecting this film to end in a firestorm of bullets and taking bets on which man will survive you're approaching this story from the wrong angle, just as I was.

Frank Lucas is one of the most compelling characters you could hope to build a film around because he is, like this genre's best, complicated and full of contradictions. He wants to run the show but hates flashiness. He demonstrates cold-blooded ruthlessness when it comes to business but he's ultimately he's very fair and loyal . He endangers his wife (Lymari Nadal) and mother (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Ruby Dee), yet does everything he can to protect them. He cares for his brother (Chiwetel Ejiofor) but doesn't have time for his stupidity. Nothing is black and white with Frank, which is what makes the character so fascinating and engaging.

I've criticized Washington in the past for taking junk cop parts in films like Out of Time and Déjà Vu because we know he's always been capable of so much more. Here he shows us that and these are exactly the kinds of roles he should be taking. Of all the nominations this film was supposedly robbed of you could have made the strongest case for Washington for a Best Actor nod. At times you're mad at him for playing Frank so charismatically because he makes this drug dealer and murderer somewhat likable, which creates conflicting feelings as you watch.

The common thread he shares with Crowe's Richie is their belief in fairness and honesty even though they're operating on opposite sides of the law. They're practically cut from the same cloth, which makes their eventual encounter at the end of the film work so well and go in a different direction than anticipated. The sub-plot involving Richie's ex-wife and the custody battle is a screenwriting invention since the real Richie Roberts didn't have a child, but it does lead to an interesting courtroom scene where we're asked to question the motivations behind Richie's honesty and whether he really is as great of a guy as he makes himself out to be. Crowe turns in a good performance as well even if his story fails to pack the same emotional punch as Frank's. But it's not meant to, nor could it.

There's been a big question concerning whether Ruby Dee "deserved" a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her five minutes of screen time in this film. Whether she does or not depends largely on how you feel about the Academy's policy of rewarding an actor or actress for their life's work as opposed to the performance they happened to be nominated for. That's clearly what happened here, but I have a feeling the Academy unintentionally did her more harm than good by making her look like a charity case instead of an actress who gave a dynamic supporting performance worthy of award consideration. Anyone who's seen her work over the years knows she's no charity case. Having said that, she does give a reasonably strong performance in a woefully underwritten role.

If a supporting nomination should have gone to anyone it should have been Josh Brolin who plays what could have been a stereotyped crooked cop without pretension and gives a cold, calculated performance that cuts into the very heart of the picture. With a single icy stare he can imply things about this man that no line of dialogue is capable of. Between this, Planet Terror and No Country For Old Men (which I've yet to see) 2007 should be remembered as his breakout year. And to think just a couple of years ago the only project any of us would be interested in seeing him in would have been The Goonies 2.

It was a big shock when Cuba Gooding Jr, appeared onscreen because this must mark the first time in who knows how many years this guy has acted in a film of any value. It's sad but true. After the choices he's made since his 1997 Best Supporting Actor victory it's a miracle a director like Ridley Scott would even consider casting him in even a small role like this. No actor's stock has fallen further after an Oscar victory than his so hopefully this marks the beginning of a turnaround because he at least does a decent job with what he's given here. With all the big names in the cast this could have degenerated into a game of "spot the star" but it doesn't as all the supporting players slip into their roles seamlessly. But the most support comes from director of photography Harris Savides who can now say after this and Zodiac that he shot two of the best looking films of the past year. The costume design and a perfect late 60's soul soundtrack don't hurt the movie's cause either.

American Gangster continues an trend we've been seeing throughout 2007: The "throwback" film. Movies like Eastern Promises, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and Michael Clayton are all movies that could have been playing at a theater near you during the 1970's. But rather than just simply ripping off films from that decade these seem genuinely inspired by them and play like respectful, authentic tributes (some more than others). It's a trend that I hope continues because if there's a decade in filmmaking you want to mimic it's that one. Scott clearly did his homework here and his use of a montage that juxtaposes drug overdoses with a Thanksgiving dinner he'd have to admit is right out of Coppola's playbook.

He's a director that can pretty much do anything, even if I'm more than a little worried how he'll pull off the proposed film adaptation of the board game Monopoly. But that doesn't mean I don't want to see him try it. As someone who isn't a fan of the crime or gangster genre it says a lot that I found myself captivated for two and a half hours by a film that didn't drag its feet at all and had more than enough story to justify its running time. American Gangster may not be a complete original, but they do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That's especially true when it's done this well.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Post-Oscar Thoughts


Wasn't that opening pretty cool?

Yeah I know we all hate him, but isn't that Michael Bay/Verizon commercial kind of funny?

Didn't you miss Billy Crystal acting out scenes from all the Best Picture nominees?

…And wouldn't he have had a lot of good material for that this year?

Didn't you just know Jon Stewart would start off joking about the writer's strike?

Wasn't it impressive he was somehow able to wring a Hillary Clinton joke out of Julie's Christie's performance in Away From Her?

Were you not the least bit surprised to see Jack Nicholson seated where he was?

Were you also looking at your watch counting down the minutes until Stewart joked about all the women Nicholson's slept with?

Wasn't Stewart's monologue really good?

Weren't Anne Hathaway's reactions to Steve Carell great?

Were you a little disappointed to discover it was still impossible to avoid Miley Cyrus, even at The Academy Awards?

…and isn't her voice REALLY annoying?

Are you getting as sick of Katherine Heigl as I am?

Isn't it surreal, but pretty cool, to see The Rock presenting an Academy Award?

Do all the songs nominated for "Best Original Song" ALWAYS sound much sillier when they're actually performed on the show?

Doesn't Amy Adams have a surprisingly good singing voice?

And how many A-List actresses would actually go out and perform the nominated song(s) in their film...TWICE!?

Wasn't it incredibly difficult to remember who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year?

And what does that say about Alan Arkin's performance in Little Miss Sunshine?

Wasn't there legitimate doubt and suspense as to who would win Best Supporting Actress?

…and isn't there every year in that category?

Isn't Tilda Swinton kind of scary looking?

Wasn't it awesome that she mentioned George Clooney's performance in Batman and Robin in her acceptance speech?

Isn't it great that NO ONE will let him forget about it?

Doesn't it say a lot about him (mostly positive) that he's the first to laugh at himself for it?

Will DVD sales of that movie increase now?

Did we really need to be reminded of the nightmare that was Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Oscar win?

Didn't Hal Holbrook and Tom Wilkinson look the most impressive at in those 30-second clips for Best Supporting Actor even though neither had a real shot at winning?

Was everyone relieved they GOT AT LEAST ONE RIGHT on their Oscar scorecard when Bardem won?

Wasn't it weird seeing Bardem WITHOUT that "Dora The Explorer" haircut?

Was I the ONLY PERSON who didn't find Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill's Halle Berry/Judi Dench routine funny?

…and wasn't it nearly at the maturity level of David Letterman's Oprah/Uma debacle?

Have you ever seen anyone shake as much as Marion Cotillard after her name was announced?

Was she the only person in more shock that she won than we were?

Even though she's probably deserving, don't you get the impression that years from now NO ONE will remember who was named Best Actress this year?

Should we call that The ROBERTO BEGNINI SYNDROME?

…and doesn't that, in retrospect, make it a boring and uneventful choice?

Doesn't Jessica Alba look a million times BETTER pregnant?

Do they always have the hottest actresses hand out awards at the Scientific and Technical Awards luncheon as a cruel joke?

Doesn't it seem wrong that Owen Wilson is given the dubious honor of handing out the shittiest awards every year?

Is there a TALLER woman on Earth than Nicole Kidman?

Did anyone know who that Honorary Oscar recipient was?

…and didn't they do him no favors at all with such an abbreviated, half-hearted video package?

Did The Bourne Ultimatum clean up in the technical categories or what?

Weren't Josh Brolin and James MacEvoy surprisingly funny, without trying to be?

Didn't that Best Picture montage point out some really undeserving winners?

Did you cringe when they landed on How Green Was My Valley? for 1941?

Doesn't Rocky seem like a pretty stupid choice for Best Picture now? (sorry, but it does)

Didn't the whole package highlight the Academy's bias toward epic period films?

…and did that get the cast of Atonement's hopes up?

Is Amy Adams officially this show's MVP?

Didn't Kristen Chenoweth do a terrific job with that song?

Wasn't "Falling Slowly" from Once BY FAR the best choice for Original Song?

…and the only one that sounded like a real song, not a Broadway showtune?

Weren't you thrilled that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won? (and I haven't even seen the film!)

Wasn't it the only victory (besides Cotillard's) that had a special feeling to it?

Wasn't Stewart calling Hansard "arrogant" hilarious?

Wasn't it cool that he had Irglova come back on and give her acceptance speech?

…and wasn't it great that she responded by giving one of the few speeches of genuine substance?

Was there any doubt who was winning the death applause-o-meter this year?

Will they ever finally get the clue that it isn't a popularity contest and turn off the audio in the theater during that montage?

Um…where was Brad Renfro?!

How sad and shocking is it that Bob Clark passed away this year?

Isn't A Christmas Story one of the best films to NOT be nominated for Best Picture?

Wouldn't it have been a better choice than a lot of the films featured in that Best Picture montage?

Isn't "cinematography" a pretty difficult word to pronounce?

Can't Cameron Diaz pronounce it any damn way she pleases looking like that?

How many worst dressed lists will Diablo Cody make?

Isn't that some pretty mean ink on her arm?

Wasn't her acceptance speech surprisingly (disappointingly) restrained?

Didn't Ellen Page look like a deer caught in headlights the entire night?

…and wouldn't you if you had that much hype thrown at you these past couple of months?

Isn't it probably BETTER FOR HER that she didn't win?

Is there a better public speaker than Daniel Day-Lewis?

Must it be great to make a movie once every five years and win a Best Actor Oscar?

Were Joel and Ethan Coen not the least bit surprised they won?

Wasn't that a quick 5 hours?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oscar Predictions and Analysis

I'm usually pretty good at these Oscar predictions or at least I thought I was until last year when I missed nearly everything (including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor). That was my first full year of reviewing films so maybe I was a little too close to the situation and overanalyzed. This year I've taken a step back and I'm just going with my instinct, which has served me moderately well in the past. Keep in mind these are who I THINK will win not necessarily who I WANT to win, since I haven't yet seen all the nominated films. I have seen some though and will chime in with an opinion when I can.

It should be said that as negative as I get sometimes and how I bitch and complain about the Academy at least they (unlike something like the Grammys) do honor works of genuine quality and get more people to see what could have been overlooked films. I was surprised these past two weeks when I finally got to see some of the nominated films and performances that they really were Oscar-worthy. So despite my relatively minor complaints on certain exclusions I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's show. I should be back with my thoughts on the show on Monday.

Best Actor
George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah"
Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"

Who's Gonna Win? Daniel Day-Lewis
It's a miracle Tommy Lee Jones was even nominated for a movie few people saw and even fewer liked. I heard he was outstanding in it so good for him. Depp has an Oscar coming his way eventually but not this year. He could have won if you know who wasn't in the running. Mortensen deserves to be here but Eastern Promises wasn't enthusiastically received enough and isn't in the forefront of Oscar voters' minds. This leaves us with Clooney and Lewis. It just isn't Clooney's time yet, but if there's a dark horse in the race it's him since he's picking up incredible speed in the final leg and the Academy loves him. It would be JUST LIKE THEM to do something as ridiculous as giving it to Clooney. But Lewis taking is about as close to a lock as you can get.
Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"
Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"

Who's gonna win? Javier Bardem
THIS IS A LOCK and you can fill out your ballot with a permanent magic marker. No one else in this category even has a chance against Bardem who has the awards momentum of a runaway train at this point for his sadistic turn in No Country For Old Men. Affleck's turn is too subdued and nuanced for the Academy. And how many could actually sit through the film? Holbrook has the best chance here for an upset just out of sentimentality but it won't happen. Wilkinson has the unfortunate luck of giving this performance the same year as Bardem's. It shows how much the Academy loves Hoffman that he was even nominated for Charlie Wilson's War but just about everyone in the Kodak Theater has a better chance of taking home gold on Oscar night than he does.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Julie Christie, "Away from Her"
Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"
Laura Linney, "The Savages"
Ellen Page, "Juno"

Who's Gonna Win? Julie Christie
Marion…who? In what? I'm sure it's a great performance but I doubt enough voters saw it. Laura Linney is one of the very best actresses working today but The Savages made a meager showing at the box office and didn't exactly clean up during awards season. Blanchett is taking home gold but not in this category. That she was nominated for such a terribly reviewed film (a sequel no less!) proves one thing…that she's Cate Blanchett. This race is actually VERY close between Page and Christie. Page should have already won an Oscar last year for her incredible performance in Hard Candy, but Academy sentiment rests with Julie Christie for her emotional portrayal of an Alzheimer's sufferer in Away From Her. With Page I expect voters to fall back on their silly reasoning that she's "YOUNG AND STILL HAS PLENTY OF TIME." We see how well that worked out for Peter O' Toole. Let's hope the only time we see her at the podium isn't accepting an honorary Oscar when she's 80. But if Juno doesn't win Best Picture voters may want to reward its star and the temptation of the precocious Page giving an acceptance speech may be too much for them to resist. I'm marking down Julie Christie, but using a pencil.
Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"
Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"
Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"
Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"

Who's Gonna Win? Cate Blanchett
Ruby Dee was in American Gangster for 30 seconds. That nomination is a joke. The term "It's a thrill just to be nominated" really does apply to Atonement's Saoirse Ronan. Amy Ryan has a chance in a category famous for upsets but I don't think voters will grasp just how good that performance was in one viewing. And who's to say they even saw any of these films once, much less twice? Tilda Swinton has a very good chance here, but the Academy is in love with Blanchett. She could just stand there and read the phone book and they'd give her an Oscar. It's hard to take this win seriously if it happens though because you know even if she just merely mimicked Dylan poorly (which I heard she didn't) the Academy would still fall all over themselves praising her brilliance.

Best Director:
Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Jason Reitman, "Juno"
Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"

Who's Gonna Win: Joel and Ethan Coen
As fun as it is to say Julian Schnabel's last name out loud there's no way he'll be announced as the winner since his film isn't nominated for Best Picture. Most are surprised Reitman was nominated and probably even more so with Gilroy. With Anderson the Academy is probably thinking (or not thinking) once again that he's "YOUNG AND STILL HAS PLENTY OF TIME." The Best Director and Picture winners usually but not always match so if the Coens somehow lose in this category it could be open season for Best Picture. That's something to look out for during the show.

Best Picture
"Michael Clayton"
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

What Will Win? No Country For Old Men
Atonement's director, Joe Wright wasn't even nominated so that's out. As for Michael Clayton, when was the last time a legal thriller won Best Picture? I've yet to see it but everyone keeps telling There Will Be Blood is pretty much one of the best motion pictures they've seen in their lifetime. You have to wonder, then, if years later its defeat in this category at the hands of No Country For Old Men will be viewed as one of the great Oscar injustices. Juno benefits from being the lightest and most accessible film here and if voters are in an uplifting mood there could be an upset. Not likely though since backlash against the film has reached a fever pitch lately. No Country takes it.
Best Original Screenplay
Diablo Cody, "Juno"
Nancy Oliver, "Lars and the Real Girl"
Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"
Brad Bird, "Ratatouille"
Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"

Who's Gonna Win? Diablo Cody
When I reviewed Ratatouille I said I really hoped it gets an original screenplay nomination. Shockingly it did so thank you Academy. An animated film would never win in this category though. Lars and the Real Girl and The Savages have underperformed and are under the radar. Tony Gilroy's workmanlike script for Michael Clayton has the second best chance, but this is the one sure bet for Juno. If her interviews are any indication Cody is the leading candidate to give the most entertaining acceptance speech of the night. Everyone should be prepared to wake up to a very angry internet Monday morning.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Christopher Hampton, "Atonement"
Sarah Polley, "Away From Her"
Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, "No Country For Old Men"
Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"

Who's Gonna Win? Joel and Ethan Coen
Some impressive literary adaptations here but handicapping the winner is easy if you just go in descending order as far as their chances for also winning Best Picture, for which Away From Her and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly aren't even nominated. Their screenplays therefore can't compete against the three heavy-hitters. The Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's crackling novel is the frontrunner but PTA's There Will Be Blood isn't far behind. If Anderson takes this No Country has to watch its back for the rest of the night. Let me say though that even though the film was shut out of every single category I can't believe the Academy didn't AT LEAST nominate James Vanderbilt's script for Zodiac. I can kind of come to terms with it being overlooked in huge categories because it was a packed year but that they couldn't just throw it a bone here or in the cinematography category for Harris Savides' incredible work is an outrage.
The Other Categories:
Best Animated Film: "Ratatouille"
Best Art direction: "Atonement"
Best Cinematography: "No Country For Old Men"
Best Costume Design: "Sweeney Todd"
Best Documentary Feature: "No End In Sight"
Best Documentary Short Subject: "Sari's Mother"
Best Film Editing: "No Country For Old Men"
Best Foreign Language Film: "The Counterfeiters"
Best Makeup: "La Vie En Rose"
Best Original Score: "Atonement"
Best Original Song: "Falling Slowly" ("Once")
Best Animated Short Film: "I Met The Walrus"
Best Live Action Short Film: "The Mozart of Pickpockets"
Best Sound Editing: "No Country For Old Men"
Best Sound Mixing: "No Country For Old Men"
Best Visual Effects: "Transformers

Friday, February 22, 2008


Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janey, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby

Running Time: 91 minutes

Rating: R

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

I see a lot of movies. So many in fact that it’s virtually impossible to review all of them. Every once in a while I’ll have to skip writing about a couple which usually occurs with little damage done and no looking back. Occasionally though, films I didn’t have time to review have a way of rearing their heads later and making me second guess whether I made the right call. Two of those lesser-seen films were Jason Reitman’s 2005 directorial debut Thank You For Smoking and 2006's jolting drama Hard Candy. I thought the first was a clever, biting film that I all but forgot about five minutes after it ended. I can’t say the same for Hard Candy, a certifiable masterpiece that featured an unforgettable powerhouse performance from Ellen Page as a disturbed young girl who entraps a pedophile that should have earned her an Academy Award.

Little did I know at the time that the director of one of those films and the star of the other would team up for Juno, one of the most critically acclaimed and over-hyped movies of 2007. Nor did I know that I wouldn’t be able to turn on the television without hearing their names or the personal story of the film’s screenwriter, Diablo Cody. Logging into any web site these past couple of months without seeing that ubiquitous orange stripe and the title character’s baby bump became impossible, with the media saturation of Juno reaching unrelenting heights. If everyone’s rooting for the underdog, can it really even be considered the underdog? I do wish I had gotten in on the ground level and saw it months ago because I don’t think I fully realized just how sick I was of hearing about the film until I actually entered the theater to watch it and the opening credits rolled. I asked myself why I was there and the movie answered me, erasing all my doubts for the next hour and a half.

Hype or not, any film lives or dies by its own merits and while Juno isn’t completely perfect, it’s pretty damn close and supercedes in what it’s trying to do. It takes the thankless topic of pregnancy, which was already butchered in two brain-dead films this past year, and invests it with warmth and intelligence, a small miracle considering how meager the premise is on paper. Looking beyond the quirky and sometimes unconventionally ridiculous dialogue it’s a movie that gets the little details of real life just right and features some of the best supporting performances of the year. But make no mistake about it the movie belongs to Ellen Page for her Oscar nominated turn as a pregnant teenager who the movie doesn’t ask us to necessarily like or even tolerate, but just understand. That’s an important distinction many of the film’s growing detractors have failed to recognize. But by the end of the movie Page’s performance gives us little choice but to like her, whether we want to or not. And believe me, I went in dead set against it.

After a pretty cool opening credit sequence the film has an off-putting start with quasi-hipster dialogue being sprayed all over the place that’s tough to make heads or tails of. So much so that it doesn’t even sound like the characters are speaking the English language and it takes a good ten minutes to adjust to their manner of speech because at first it sounds unlike anything you’ve heard before, either in life or in a movie. I’m suspecting that’s a major reason why Cody’s script has been attracting so much positive and negative attention, even though that really shouldn’t be what’s primarily focused on (despite how endlessly quotable and hilarious most of the quirky dialogue is). Most of these zingers are delivered by wise-cracking 16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Page) who’s gotten herself into a little bit of a “pickle,” as it’s referred to throughout the film, after sleeping with her best friend, the shy and nerdy school track team member Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera).

A few EPT tests later she discovers she’s pregnant and at the urging of her best friend Leah (a scene-stealing Olivia Thirlby) comes clean to her maintenance man dad (J.K. Simmons) and dog-loving step-mom (Allison Janey). They’re reaction to the news is surprising and not at all what I expected and I think the reason why is because they actually reacted how real parents would. The scene is both hysterical and touching, as well as the first true sign that underneath all that showy verbiage is a story with genuine substance. A lot of credit can also go to Simmons and Janey who play their roles with pitch-perfect precision. They seem real, which is high praise considering most movie parents seem like overprotective cartoons.

After a briefly flirting with the idea of abortion and a scary clinic visit, Juno decides she’s going to give the baby up for adoption. The lucky couple (found through a PennySaver ad) is Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a pair of rich yuppies who look like they just stepped out of Town and Country magazine. Mark is a commercial jingle composer who dreams of rock stardom and seems more interested in hanging around the house watching low budget horror movies than being a dad. The uptight Vanessa’s whole world literally revolves around adopting a child. You could categorize them as stereotypes, but really, aren’t all yuppies stereotypes?

Cody’s script takes those stereotypes and somehow finds a way to present them as fresh, while at the same time investing them with considerable depth. The relationship between Mark and Vanessa just may be the most complex in the film and the turns they both take during the course of the story is surprising (or at least would have been had every media outlet not taken the liberty of spoiling it for me). Neither is exactly what they seem to be or how we perceive them at first. Nearly every relationship in this film means something and contributes to the story. The major one is obviously between Juno and Paulie but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how deep everything goes.

The real skill of the movie is how it depicts the little details between the cracks. Like how the popular cheerleader is best friends with an oddball like Juno. Or how that same best friend has a hysterically unhealthy attachment to her teacher. Or how no one can believe Bleeker is capable of getting anyone pregnant. It’s tough to explain but every scene contains a little surprise or two you don’t expect, and what’s most amazing is that everything seems to look so effortless and flow so well. We see Paulie’s track team running in their ridiculous attire throughout the film indicating the passing of the seasons as we get closer to the due date. Reitman overdoes it a little with the music (provided by indie singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson) at times but no one could say it doesn’t perfectly fit Juno’s quirky sensibilities or the film’s tone. The ending is sappy and sentimental, but this is a story that actually earns it for a change. Going in I expected this to be a writer’s film more than a director’s but it’s actually Reitman’s assured handling of the material and tight control over the story that reigns in a lot of Cody’s over-the-top and occasionally self-indulgent dialogue, especially in the beginning.

It’s often forgotten that the job of a screenwriter is two-fold. The first is the actual writing of the dialogue and construction of the story, but the second tougher underlying job is making that story actually mean something. Some movies contain brilliant, snappy dialogue but behind it is no substance because we don’t care about the characters. I don’t necessarily have to believe that real people talk this way, but rather that these people would and I did for every minute of the picture.

Everyone does speak pretentiously but it doesn’t ring false because they use it as a defense mechanism against dealing with the uncomfortable situation with which they’ve been presented. That’s most true with Juno and what makes Page’s performance so special is not her ability to so naturally deliver all that quirky dialogue (although that is a huge accomplishment) but what she hints at beneath it. Yes, this girl made a stupid mistake but the movie and the characters acknowledge just how idiotic it was and deal with it. Even her.

Juno’s witty sarcasm is just her way of coping with a disaster she knows was her own doing. Saying the movie fails because the dialogue is “too clever” is completely missing the point and doesn’t take into account the bigger picture. I don’t care so much about the dialogue as much as the context it’s presented in and the purpose behind it. Page’s performance here isn’t at the level of her work in Hard Candy but considering few female performances I’ve ever seen are that’s not such a bad thing. It’s a tricky, tightrope walk that couldn’t have been executed nearly as well by any other actress and it would have been a different, far lesser film without her in the lead. If she took home the gold Oscar night you wouldn’t hear any complaints from me.

So you think the executives at Fox television have suffered enough yet for their mistreatment of Arrested Development? Have they learned their lesson? Previously known only for starring in a brilliant, but ratings-challenged show, it seems almost ironic now that Jason Bateman and Michael Cera (who don’t share a single scene together in this) are in one of the most profitable movies of the year that’s up for four Academy Awards. For anyone who watched that show this isn’t a surprise at all. What was surprising to me was how big and important a role Bateman had in the film. As I was exiting the theater I overheard an elderly couple raving about how great a job they thought Bateman did in the film. I thought the exact same thing and it just may be the great, overlooked performance of the movie that should have generated Oscar buzz of it’s own.

At times it carries the movie and the friendship that develops between his Mark and Juno is really interesting. You’re never exactly sure how the movie will handle it and a lot of that credit goes to Bateman who plays him both as a really cool guy, but someone who’s dealing with some big issues of his own as well. This is the best film work of his career so far. Cera actually doesn’t have as much screen time as you may think, but the role is invaluable and I actually thought Reitman found a way to dial his awkwardness down a notch and he gives a quietly effective, intelligent performance. Jennifer Garner doesn’t fair nearly as well as everyone else and could be considered the one weak acting link in the film. At times she seems almost a little too mannered and stilted.

The recent backlash against this film has been some of the strongest I’ve ever seen. It’s been downright scary to read the internet venom spewed, specifically at Diablo Cody. Eli Roth must be thrilled to have a couple of months off as movie buffs have channeled all their hatred toward her of late. It’s both uplifting and depressing that a script written by a ex-stripper/blogger during her lunch breaks at Target gets optioned and she’s hits the jackpot. Uplifting because it proves anything’s possible, yet depressing because it means there may be other brilliant undiscovered spec scripts hiding out there that may never see the light of day because Hollywood is too busy greenlighting Norbit 2. Considering how many aspiring screenwriters there are out there I can’t help but think that some of the anger directed at her is just pure jealousy.

The big question is whether Juno really is as good as everyone’s been saying it is. In the midst of all the hype surrounding it it’s impossible for me to answer that question right now. Time will tell whether this holds up really well or not. Its Oscar trajectory has been compared a lot recently to another small film that could, last year’s Little Miss Sunshine (also released by Fox Searchlight). That was nominated for Best Picture, shoved down our throats by the press, yet now the film seems almost trite and insignificant (and it’s only been a year). There’s no telling if the same fate will await this but as much as it pains me to say it I can’t name any more than a few films in ’07 that I thought were better than it…so far.

While part of me wonders if the film seems so good because its ambitions are so modest, there is something undeniably special and unique in feel about it and it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what. It has an original voice and at its center is a strong female character, something we’re not given nearly enough of in mainstream movies these days. I can’t say I’ll be rooting hard for it on Oscar night but that’s the media fault, not the film’s. If Reitman, Cody and Page are normal people like I suspect they are they’re probably as burnt out and as sick of talking about the movie as we are hearing about it. I’m sure they’re ready to move on to the next thing and I know I’ve had my fill of pregnancy movies. Any more and I’ll probably go into labor myself. But at the end of the day, the fact that Juno is a very good film is tough to ignore. And that’s all that should matter.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Michael Clayton

Director: Tony Gilroy
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Michael O' Keefe, Ken Howard

Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

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

Finally, the curse has been lifted. For years I've been telling everyone that George Clooney hasn't starred in a single movie I liked since 1996. And yes, I saw Syriana. It's a shame too because I actually like Clooney as an actor and he's made some smart choices recently, but I just haven't liked his films. So when people would rave about a Clooney movie or performance all I could do is just shrug and say, "Well, I enjoyed his work on E.R." Now, with the legal thriller Michael Clayton he finally has a winner. The film, which is up for 7 Academy Awards (including one for Clooney as Best Actor) and marks the directorial debut for Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy is a slowed-paced thriller that doesn't exactly bring anything new to the table from a story perspective but still packs an incredibly powerful punch.

You could sum up the movie in one sentence, revealing key plot details and none of them would surprise. There isn't a single twist or turn in the film that's revelatory and the plot is one we've seen before. It moves methodically toward its predestined conclusion. And yet, it succeeds by executing its premise with laser-like precision and uncommon intelligence. Gilroy knows what he has to do and does it expertly, not getting bogged down in silly sub-plots or unrealistic situations. It also features the best performance of George Clooney's career and two more supporting performances of nearly equal value. It's a cold, distant picture and one I'm surprised Oscar voters selected as one of this year's Best Picture nominee, but it's deserving nonetheless. It's a film to be respected, but not necessarily enjoyed or embraced by everyone.

The job description of attorney Michael Clayton (Clooney) at his prestigious New York City law firm headed by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) would read as one word: "fixer." Whenever there's a legal mess Michael is usually the first one called upon to clean it up, like a janitor. He's described as the absolute best at what he does but that's a difficult notion to swallow watching him. He doesn't even seem to believe it himself and looks tired and spent, as if after 15 years he's done enough cleaning up for a while When the firm's top defense attorney Arthur Edens (Best Supporting Actor nominee Tom Wilkinson) has an apparent mental breakdown and strips naked during an important deposition involving a lawsuit against the firm's biggest client, Michael is called to Milwaukee to rectify the situation.

That client is U-North, an agricultural company whose products allegedly caused serious illness, resulting in a class action lawsuit that's dragged on for the past six years. U-North's chief legal council, the steely and determined Karen Crowder (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Tilda Swinton) is none too happy about Eden's episode and even less happy with what she believes is Michael's mishandling of it. Accompanying Arthur's breakdown is a sudden attack of conscience, which makes him determined to blow the lid off this case and in the process unintentionally endanger the lives of everyone involved in it.

If you've seen any of the trailers or commercials for this film you may be led to believe it's a non-stop thrill ride full of and shocking twists and revelations that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It's not. The pacing of the film more closely resembles those intellectual legal thrillers from the '70's or early '80's like Sidney Lumet's The Verdict and there's more exposition than excitement. I remember taking a screenwriting course a while ago and The Verdict was the study film and I'm convinced a major reason why was because its script was so simple and basic. Michael Clayton could easily be substituted for it because it attempts nothing new, instead focusing on executing a tried and true formula perfectly.

The movie is very straightforward and veers from the course only once by employing what's becoming a popular non-linear storytelling device in which the opening scenes generally reveal where the story ends up, but the film then flashes back to let us know how we got there. It's kind of humorous that Gilroy would show his hand so early and use that technique in a film that's otherwise very matter-of-fact but then again, this isn't a story entirely built on surprises.

When the film ended I was quick to check the credits and see who provided the original score. Not because I thought it was fantastic but because I could swear that this movie contained no music at all, or if it did, I definitely didn't notice. It's kind of funny imagining Gilroy (who directs this flawlessly) being so focused on the story that he just didn't have time for music because it could possibly distract from the task at hand. Much to my surprise, I found out that not only does the film have a score, but it was provided by James Newton Howard and is one of those seven Oscar nominations. It's often said that the most brilliant scores in motion pictures should blend in so seamlessly with what you're watching you don't realize it exists. If that's true then this is among the best scores I've never remembered hearing.

I've always had a little bit of a problem with legal potboilers, mostly because it's been hard to take them all that seriously, yet I do enjoy them. Big lawsuits against evil, greedy companies. Fancy cars and expensive suits. Honest, crusading lawyer struggling with addiction (here it happens to be gambling but feel free to substitute drugs or alcohol). They always seem to contain big, showy scenes also. But I will say it isn't too often you see a mentally ill defense attorney streaking naked, declaring his love for the plaintiff, then preparing his case AGAINST his own client. It should be hysterical but isn't because Wilkinson is so realistic and emotionally invested in the role. We're used to seeing him play more subdued, implosive characters so this walk on the wild side was an interesting departure that justifiably earned him a nomination. I thought the other legal thriller from this year, Fracture was hilarious, mostly because it didn't take itself seriously and delivered its ludicrous plot with tongue planted firmly in cheek. This takes itself very seriously, and while that should make the film less effective it doesn't mainly because it's so technically sound.

Whereas something like Fracture stretched credibility to the maximum this doesn't at all and I think that's why Gilroy's script, despite the absence of unpredictability, has garnered such praise. It's airtight without a hole to be found. That's a rare accomplishment for a movie in this normally ridiculous genre. It seems odd praising a script simply for not doing anything stupid but it's true in this instance. What really elevates it though are the performances, all three of which you could argue are better than the movie itself. After years of hits and misses this is finally the role Clooney was born to play and it wouldn't surprise me if years down the line this ends up being the part he's most associated with.

Usually he's an actor with very distinctive mannerisms, but here they disappear and he just inhabits this isolated character with low-key, assured intensity. His reputation as "Mr. Cool" has never served him better than here. He has an incredible scene (actually the same scene twice that bookends the film) in a field where his character feels and we feel he knows something but neither of us are completely sure. He doesn't have a word of dialogue. He doesn't need it. It may be one of my favorite scenes this year and if they were to show one clip from the film on Oscar night that should be it.

This movie has been heralded as the big breakthrough for British actress Tilda Swinton who first became known to American audiences in 2001 with her memorable turn in The Deep End but whose underrated work has always seemed to fly under the radar. What she brings to this role is special and there's no way it was something that was just merely translated from page to screen. As cold as her ambitious character seems there's this feeling of desperation Swinton invests her with. It's almost as if Karen knows her company's guilty and knows what's she's doing is wrong but has no choice in the matter. She's come this far and there's no turning back now. The only way she can deal with that is to completely cut herself off emotionally from the situation and for a woman like Karen that isn't difficult. Her and Michael are on a collision course and while the film prefers to draw its suspense out slowly and subtlely there is one notable explosive exception. The final scene will get your heart racing.

This is a film that can be watched and analyzed again and again because how it attains such great success is somewhat of a head scratcher. When it ended I was on the fence about how good I thought it was just because it's so basic, but another viewing cleared that up. We're used to praising films that give us something fresh we haven't seen before, but what about those that don't necessarily bring anything knew, yet delivers what it has with nearly flawless precision?

Michael Clayton
has been labeled the underdog in this year's Best Picture race, but I could see many wanting to throw their hands up in the air when it's over and ask, "THAT WAS IT?" I can see their point but I would also say to look much closer. It may not succeed how you expect it to, but it succeeds nonetheless. Seamlessly executing a story that's been told so poorly by just about every other film puts Michael Clayton in a class of its own.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: R

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

Everyone loves a comeback and very few comebacks these past couple of years have been as sweet as Ben Affleck's. His Academy-Award winning script Good Will Hunting (which co-wrote with buddy Matt Damon) vaulted him to the top of Hollywood's A-List in 1997, an honor he did his best to erase from our collective memories in the decade that followed. After starring in a series of truly awful big-budget flops and one disastrous celebrity engagement his talents as an actor and a writer began taking a backseat to his penchant for cashing big paychecks. He even starred in a (terrible) film called, appropriately enough, PAYCHECK.

The kid from Boston who finally got his break was gone, and in his name was placed was alongside other far less talented stars that let fame go to their heads. Then…something happened. He actually apologized. He admitted the choices he made were wrong and would now be concentrating on his work. Like many, I didn't believe him. After a strong supporting turn as fallen Superman star George Reeve in last year's Hollywoodland, we were forced to pay attention.

Maybe there was something to this "new" Ben Affleck after all. And now with Gone Baby Gone, which he both co-wrote and directed, the transformation is finally complete. I can't say it's a film that will stay with me forever but for a first-time director, or any director, it's a great achievement and requires multiple viewings to truly be appreciated And for Affleck it's the antithesis of all those other empty-headed big budget movies he starred in the past decade, during which he must have paid very close attention…to what NOT to do for his first feature.

Set in Boston, the film (adapted from Mystic River author Dennis Lehane's novel) centers around private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to look into the disappearance of a little girl, questioning locals in the neighborhood who are reluctant to open up to the cops. This doesn't sit well at all with Boston Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) who don't want two gumshoes jeopardizing their case or the welfare of a small child. The girl's mother, drug addict Helene (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Amy Ryan) isn't thrilled about it either, as it brings to light a lot of her shady activities with local thugs and exposes her incompetence and carelessness as a parent. The investigation also causes an even greater rift in her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law (played superbly by Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver).

The first hour of this film plays like a procedural. No, it is a procedural. So much so that I was wondering what all the hype was concerning a movie that's really just unfolding like a good episode of Law and Order, only with bigger stars. Most of it concerns Patrick and Angie gathering clues from and having (sometimes very heated) confrontations with the local riff raff while Freeman and Harris' characters complain about it. As I looked down at my watch though I noticed things were moving abnormally fast for a crime drama. It seemed as if they had burned through this really standard, unimaginative crime procedural in 60 minutes flat. I also asked myself why this movie was asking us to feel so sorry for this reckless, uncaring parent. Little did I know.

Then exactly half way through the film a shift occurs. I can't dare say what nor would I probably even be able to explain it, but let's just say the wool was completely pulled over my eyes and the story went places I never imagined it could. The layers of all the characters you met will be peeled away and the film will reveal itself as anything but a routine police drama. The twists and revelations just keep coming to the point that I had to throw my hands up in the air and admit that Affleck got me. The first hour can't be judged on it's own terms, something I wish I had known while watching it. There's no way I could have though because the script conceals its tricks so slyly and brilliantly, despite the fact they're all right there in plain view and make perfect sense. When it ends you think to yourself, "How could something that started like THAT, end like THIS?" Nothing is what it seems at first. No situation. No character. Everything is more complicated, and tougher. This isn't about just a missing girl or a grieving mother. Not by a long shot. Scenes that could be written off as throwaways in the first hour have a way of coming back and haunting you in the second, particularly a philosophical argument Patrick and Angie have in the car about the case.

I always love it when movies treat morally complex situations intelligently, without insulting the audience, but instead engaging them. At one point during the film one of the characters tell Patrick he has to "TAKE A SIDE." That could very well sum up the film as we're asked to take a side and you'll be flabbergasted at the depth and complexity of the question that's asked of us. And just think how many movies these days refuse to take a side and bail out. This one doesn't. It's possible you may not agree with the side the film or the main character takes but you have to give them credit for taking one and standing firmly behind it. You may even be angry with that stance, but you'll still be thinking about it days after the final credits role. It's a movie that understands that sometimes people do the right things for the wrong reasons or the wrong things for the right reasons. And that the line between right and wrong is often thinner than anyone believes it is.

It seems as if every year there's one Oscar nominated performance (usually in a supporting category) that has me scratching my head wondering what the Academy saw that I didn't. Upon first viewing I thought that performance belonged to Amy Ryan. Don't get me wrong I thought she did fine, but at first just didn't see anything that was especially worthy of a nomination. And considering she isn't in the film any longer than a total of 15 minutes I found myself even more perplexed than usual. I was all set to write this nomination off as just another case of an actor being given a ridiculous amount of hype and accolades for just doing a good job in a small role (think Geoffrey Rush's overrated Oscar-winning turn in 1996's Shine).

But then, hours later I realized all the scenes that stuck with me were hers. She's given a line very late in the film that must be the most offensive remark I've heard in a movie in the past year. That it even made the final cut is enough for my jaw to drop, but the way Ryan delivered it was such that I thought that yes, that was exactly the kind of stupid, insensitive thing this woman would say. It showed just how dumb she really is and what little grasp on reality she has. She isn't a bad person. That would be way too simple. She's just a woman who because of her station in life and lack of education can't improve her situation for herself or the daughter she loves. There's a subtle but important difference in playing the character like that and playing her as a total careless bitch, which would undercut the effectiveness of the entire story.

Ryan succeeded where so many other actresses would have failed and her performance ends up being the glue that holds the entire moral center of the story together. It isn't a huge role, but it's a crucial one. Affleck's script also has to be praised for adding those shades of complexity to the character Ryan played so brilliantly. And it's always great to see an actress who has been working hard for years finally get their big break and a well-deserved opportunity for bigger, better roles in the future.

If there's anyone else that could be singled out it's Casey Affleck who before this I seriously doubted had the goods to carry a film. Going in I chalked up his casting to nepotism but he's very effective and miles away from his Oscar- nominated supporting turn in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Watching him here I think I gained a new appreciation for what he did in that film because the roles are as drastically different and diametrically opposed as can possibly be. There isn't a wimpy or cowardly bone in Patrick Kenzie's body. Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman electrify, personifying men of duty who are completely sure every step they take is just and right, even when there's heavy doubt that it is. You could make a strong case that Harris should have also earned a supporting nod for his complex portrayal in a very tricky role.

The opening shot of Gone Baby Gone is of the streets of Boston with everyone in the neighborhood going about the regular business of their day. At the end of the film we see basically the same scene again, but this time everything looks and feels different after what's unfolded. The streets. The sidewalks. The kids playing. Simple everyday life almost appears to have more value to it after watching and experiencing this ordeal. You could discuss and analyze the ending with friends afterwards but it wouldn't be long before that discussion became a heated argument. The movie polarizes its characters and us.

Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between this and the other Lehane adaptation, Clint Eastwood's inexplicable 2003 Best Picture nominee Mystic River. While that film contained a twist ending that elicited giggles, this contains one that's heartbreaking, right down to the final scene, making a profound and intelligent statement about our flawed nature as human beings. As a whole this work is far superior and I can see it holding up even better on repeated viewings. It'll be interesting to put in perspective just how effective this film is when contrasted alongside the other heavy-hitters of awards season. Gone Baby Gone could prove over time to be a film with strong staying power. And it means that Affleck guy can finally quit his day job if he wants. He just might have a real future behind the camera.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel Running Time: 160 min.
Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Yes, the title's too long. And yes, so is the film. And it isn't even the best Western released in 2007, as that honor still belongs to James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is everything its lengthy title implies it is. It's epic, sprawling and at times self-indulgent, but contains a story too deep, acting too strong and is shot too beautifully for me not to praise it. But those who can't stand Westerns would be wise to stay far away from it and even those who admire the genre may find it keeps them too far at arms length for their taste. Despite the presence of history's most famous outlaw in the story this isn't a shoot 'em up with good guys and bad guys and non-stop excitement. It's justifiably drawn comparisons to Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and you could even argue it has a feel and style very similar to the work of Terrence Malik or early Clint Eastwood. This is a Western epic in the most traditional sense.

Whereas 3:10 To Yuma provided instant gratification this lingers in the mind's eye after it's ended and over time may prove itself to be, for better or worse, the film that stays with you longer. It also, probably more than any other film this year, makes a case of how important it is to end strong. Just when the film should be running out of gas and winding down in the last half hour it does just the opposite and fascinatingly explores the two main characters deeper, even though one is deceased.

I always thought the most effective endings of films ask us to go back and re-evaluate everything that has come before it and readjust our thinking, opening up new possibilities for further viewings (although I don't know of many who'd have the patience to watch this film repeatedly). If you don't want to see this film I understand. A nearly three hour Westerns may not be your cup of tea. But please don't avoid it because you already know that Robert Ford winds up killing Jesse James. That isn't the ending, nor is it what this movie is about.

19 year-old Robert Ford (Oscar nominated Casey Affleck) was someone who we'd affectionately refer to nowadays as a "fanboy." The subject of his adulation (or rather, obsession) is the outlaw train robber Jesse James (Brad Pitt), whom he idolized all through his youth. After constantly bugging James and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), Ford, along with his brother Charles (Sam Rockwell) are taken as a part of his gang in Missouri even as the walls slowly seem to slowly be closing on the reckless and paranoid James' operation. Joining them are James' first cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and hanger-on Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider). Troubles begin immediately as James lacks the capacity to trust anyone and his explosive, unpredictable behavior induces severe agitation and fear in nearly every person he comes in contact with, friend or enemy.

Ford's relationship with James is a peculiar and complex one. While he idolizes him for his exploits and would want nothing more than to follow in his footsteps, he also deeply resents him because he's a manipulative bully who could care less about his feelings. That this surprises Ford is a tip-off as to just how weak and naïve he really is. His obsession with James also causes him great embarrassment and humiliation at the expense of his brother and his peers who view him as nothing more than a pathetic, whiny little boy who would do anything for his hero. They're right, and Ford's resentment over the situation slowly builds throughout the picture, leading him down a moral path he didn't think he was ever capable of traveling. Bob Ford eventually kills Jesse James but the "how" and the "why" are much more complicated than they seem on the surface and even after the deed is done we're still asking questions about how it could have possibly ever come to that and whether it's fair for Ford to really be considered a coward.

Despite how wildly different both films are, it's interesting to compare and contrast Pitt's portrayal of Jesse James in this film with Russell Crowe's equally excellent work as the villainous outlaw Ben Wade in 3:10 To Yuma. Both men are dangerous, but Crowe presented Wade as fairly even tempered, sly and systematic in his approach. That's not the case here with Pitt's take on James, who is actually the more dangerous of the two because he's unpredictable and inconsistent, with no one, including himself being aware of what he'll do next. Pitt has come so far as an actor improving it seems with every role and it scares me to think, the more experienced he continues to get, just how much deeper he's capable of going.

Casey Affleck does a fine job as the wimpy, cry baby Ford but it's Pitt's magnetism as James that pulls us into the film and makes us understand how so many would worship and fear him at the same time. The irony that one of our biggest celebrities is playing (and owning) this role of the biggest celebrity of the Old West doesn't come into full focus until the final half-hour, but when it does the notion grabs hold and never lets go. The casting of Pitt was genius. So was the selection of Affleck. I couldn't help but laugh when the narrator remarked that after killing James the previously unrecognizable Ford couldn't go anywhere without being noticed. Since he's played by Affleck this becomes doubly ironic because besides being one of our most nondescript looking actors, he was always better known as being someone's little brother. After the year he's had that shouldn't be a problem much longer.

The most glaring flaw of Andrew Dominik's film (adapted from Ryan Hansen's 1983 novel) is that it could have benefited from some serious cutting in the editing room. It is very much a piece of literature adapted for the screen and gives off the impression little was excised in translation. This is especially true of the problematic middle section, which gets sidetracked with various supporting characters, none of whom are as engaging as James or Ford. It also gets preoccupied with James' double-crossings and betrayals involving these characters in scenes that at times seem to linger on minutes longer than they should.

Dreamy soft-focus photography and voice-over narration is employed during scene transitions, the latter sometimes irritatingly giving us information that's plainly obvious in Affleck's performance. On the heels of Todd Field's Little Children, this method (which was previously frowned upon) has become more popular than ever recently, but here it's abused a little and isn't all that necessary. At points it even gives off the wrong vibe making the film feel more like a History Channel documentary. When the concentration is on Ford's hero worship of James the story crackles and when it's not there are points where I was just waiting impatiently. Luckily, while I was waiting I had Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography to keep me company. With Canada standing in for the Old West his is probably the best looking film of the year and Deakins deserves to take home the gold on Oscar night for his efforts. He's one of the few directors of photography (along with Harris Savides) whose look and style is so instantly recognizable you know it's his film without ever glancing at his name on the closing credits.

Names you'll have to check twice for in those credits are Weeds co-stars Mary Louise Parker (as James' wife Zee) and Zooey Deschanel (as Ford's girlfriend Dorothy Evans) who both put in appearances you'll miss if you happen to blink. Parker does have one big scene but wouldn't it have been nice to know what Jesse James' wife thought about his "career?" Or more importantly, how she really felt about him? While I'm not thrilled about it, I can get over them wasting Parker, but doing nothing with the talents of Deschanel is a crime against humanity when you have 160 minutes to work with. But at least she got in on the end, which is where this movie really soars, turning the camera on us and exploiting our culture's obsessive fascination with celebrity.

It's in the aftermath of James' death that Dominik reverses viewers and Ford's expectations. In doing so he shows us that this story reverberates every bit as much today as it did then, if not more. That's why, despite its flaws, it works. If Jesse James were around today you get the impression he'd be just as popular, despite being a murderer. America loves a bad guy just so long as they're charismatic and entertaining. What we'd say about Ford today I have no idea, but it probably wouldn't be all that different than what they said then. And that's the big trick this film pulls out of its hat. In telling us about the assassination of Jesse James, what the story says about us ends up being just as revealing as what we learn about the two men involved.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Brave One

Director: Neil Jordan Starring: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews, Mary Steenburgen, Nicky Katt, Jane Adams
Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: R

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

When The Brave One was released into theaters this past September you may remember it was surrounded by a little bit of controversy. This controversy didn't involve the story, which tells of a woman who resorts to vigilantism when her fiancée is brutally murdered, but rather the movie going public's indifference to it. Citing the film's box office failure, studios started releasing statements that they'd no longer produce projects with female leads.

So that's what it was. Thinking back through all the awful movies I saw in 2007 I should have realized they all had one thing in common: a woman starring or co-starring in them. They also had actors, writers and directors but forget about that. I don't even know why these women are acting to begin with. Especially that Jodie Foster lady. Didn't she win an Academy Award or something like a hundred years ago? I don't even remember. And she must be getting up there in age too. It's no wonder this movie flopped. It couldn't have possibly had anything to do with the screenplay, which has gaping holes big enough to steer an ocean liner through or that everyone is burned out on these silly revenge films. No it's because the main character was a woman. That's Hollywood for you.

Had the narrow-minded studio execs looked closer they would have found many reasons why this film wasn't successful, the least of which is Foster's performance. I took some heat for bashing another revenge film from 2007, the much beloved Death Sentence, complaining it didn't have the conviction to explore the psychological implications of the violence it gruesomely depicted. The Brave One doesn't have that problem and is the slightly superior of the two as the script does actually contain some ideas rather than just depict a senseless murder rampage as fun.

Unfortunately though, while it gets the big details right and the lead performance from Foster is serviceable, it relies too much on contrived circumstances to prove its point. It also has an ending that unintentionally sends a strange message and will leave you scratching your head. It's an interestingly flawed film that tries to fuse art house sensibilities and psychological drama with an eye-for-an-eye thriller. The results are occasionally compelling, but mostly idiotic.

Foster is New York City radio host Erica Bain who, if the scenes here are any indication, bores listeners to death daily with her modulated voice on an NPR-style program centering around everyday life in The Big Apple. Everything in her life seems to be coming up roses until a nighttime dog walk in the park with her devoted fiancée David (Lost's Naveen Andrews) turns deadly when they're savagely beaten by three thugs. David loses his life while the severely injured Erica survives after spending weeks in a coma. Upon regaining consciousness she finds herself unable to cope with the psychological trauma the assault has caused and loses faith in law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice. Without a license to carry a firearm she obtains one illegally for her own protection. The longer she carries it the more the term "for her own protection" becomes open for interpretation.

A feeling of empowerment and vengeance overcomes Erica when she's in possession of the gun and it's something the movie and Foster depict very well. What the movie doesn't depict as well is Erica accidentally stumbling into one criminal situation after another and is put into a position where she can kill people without anyone noticing. I know New York isn't exactly the safest city in the world but it is a bit of a stretch to believe it's so bad that every time she walks out the door she just happens to be thrown into a situation involving rape, mugging, robbery or murder. It seems at every other street corner is an opportunity for Erica to brush up on target practice with her new firearm. I criticized Death Sentence for a lot of things but at least Kevin Bacon's character had a goal and purpose that moved the story forward. Here the entire film is composed mainly of coincidences and accidents manufactured by the script to hammer home the point that something "just isn't right" with Erica. And just in case we still didn't get the message, Foster's sleep inducing voice-over narration helps further clarify it for us.

The biggest contrivance of all may be the character of Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) with whom Erica strikes up a close friendship when they run into each other at a crime scene and she interviews him for her show. You'd figure this Mercer guy, who at first seems pretty bright, would be immediately suspicious that this woman he knows is an angry victim of a brutal crime is stuttering and sweating with nervousness in his presence and spends her free time hanging around vigilante crime scenes. I can get past the fact Erica isn't acting rationally, but I can't get over that this guy could be that much of a dummy. It seems to take him forever (or at least way too close to the end of the film) before he becomes even slightly suspicious of her insane behavior. And of course he's your typical movie cop with a chip on his shoulder going through a rough divorce, making us feel as if the character is a stereotype and we've seen this film a million times before.

To his credit, Howard leaps over these hurdles to deliver a very strong performance that distracts us from that. But even he has a tough time overcoming the stupidity of the screenplay. The movie takes a redeeming turn in the third act as the relationship between Erica and Mercer deepens and he's put in the position of choosing between the duty to uphold his badge and his loyalty to a friend. Without giving anything away I'll say that the ending comes completely out of left field and doesn't play by typical Hollywood rules. It's also borderline insane, making you re-think what the true message behind this entire movie really was to begin with. I'm not sure it completely works but I'll at least give it credit for being surprising and different.

The film was directed by Neil Jordan, who made the preposterously overrated The Crying Game in 1992, a film more remembered for its laughable "big twist" than anything else. He takes a similar artsy fartsy approach to this revenge tale, which causes problems. The movie doesn't seem to know what it wants to be as it teeters between action thriller and a more low-key exploration of the human psyche. There's a strange, disturbing montage at the beginning of the film with David and Erica that would have been more suited for a soft-core pornographic video release than this film. There's also a scene where Erica rambles on insanely on the air during her radio show and no one, including her boss played by Mary Steenburgen, feels the need to do anything about it. The scene goes on. And on. And on. How any respectable radio station in America would let this woman on the air in her mental state is beyond me. Too often Jordan and the script just strike the wrong notes for the material.

This won't rank among Foster's best performances but she does a good job depicting the mental anguish of this woman and no other actress would have been able to do it better. I appreciated that the film was actually interested in exploring the motivations and consequences behind vigilante violence but was confused by the title. I read an interview with Foster where she said essentially the same thing. Who, exactly, in this movie is "BRAVE?" And therein lies the contradiction that underscores the problem with the entire film. And if Erica really wanted to punish people a far more effective way would be to force them to listen to her radio show.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Across The Universe

Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, T.V. Carpio, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, Bono, Eddie Izzard
Running Time: 133 min.

Rating: PG-13

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

You know a movie's trailer is great when you get chills watching it. That was the case many months ago with Across The Universe and since then I've asked myself how it could be possible for the film to live up to those two minutes. With great trepidation I eagerly awaited the film's DVD release and even gave the film's soundtrack a listen thinking it might be interesting hearing actors butcher the most famous songs in The Beatles' catalog. But much to my shock, they didn't at all.

Across The Universe
soon became one of the films in 2007 I was most curious to check out. Not necessarily because I thought I would like it, but because I knew that a project with enough guts to center a musical around the work of arguably the greatest band in modern history would either turn out to be a masterpiece or a cinematic crash and burn the likes of which we've never experienced before. I've made it no secret that I don't care for musicals or films dealing with war. I do like The Beatles, but wouldn't be incredibly offended or take it personally if their music were given a shoddy presentation in feature film form. I mean we did already suffer through the film adaptation of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band so what could be worse than that?

Even when I mildly enjoy a movie musical, accompanying it is often a feeling of regret and embarrassment. I'm always asked what it would take for me to REALLY LIKE one. My answer is usually, "I don't know, but I'll know it when I see it." It looks like that day has come and while Across The Universe falls considerably short of being any kind of masterpiece it is a staggering visual achievement that offers up one of the best possible examples of film as literally the art of the moving image.

Many scenes are so visually eye-catching it's as if your wildest dreams have sprung to life onscreen and the director Julie Taymor's approach is so daring that the screenplay can't possibly keep up with it. It's an overindulgent, and at times maddeningly frustrating film that doesn't offer an easy method of entry for anyone watching. Better than ever before it illustrates the theory that it's always more interesting when a filmmaker shoots for the stars and just misses than when they make a perfect film playing it safe. Nothing about this movie is safe, or forgettable.

It's the 1960's and America is deep in the throes the Vietnam War with teenager Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) grieving the death of her enlisted boyfriend while her brother Max (Joe Anderson) is busy goofing off with his friends at Princeton. Their lives are about to change with the arrival of Liverpool dockworker Jude (Jim Sturgess), who comes to America in search of his birth father and ends up joining the two in their trek to New York City. It's there where the three share an apartment with an aspiring Janis Joplin-like singer (Dana Fuchs), a Jimi Hendrix knock-off from Detroit (Martin Luther McCoy) and an abused lesbian runaway (T.V. Carpio).

Lucy and Jude fall in love and not unlike Forrest Gump, the screenplay throws them into nearly every tumultuous event of the decade as Max is drafted into Vietnam, Lucy is knee-deep in anti-war protests and they go on a psychedelic acid trip courtesy of the bizarre Dr. Robert (Bono, who resembles Robin Williams channeling Ken Kesey). We even get a cameo from Joe Cocker as three different characters and even though he isn't supposed to be playing himself he almost does a better Joe Cocker than John Belushi. And all of this is set to the music of The Beatles with more song than dialogue during the course of the film's running time.

Everyone breaking out into Beatles songs should seem forced or out of place, and at certain points it does, but mostly it doesn't. The songs really do advance the story. Actually, they are the story and having raw, untrained voices help lend a sense of realism to the many over-the-top events in the film. Far from The Beatles' most famous songs being butchered, they're actually given a fresh take and in many instances the actors actually bring something different out of the song we didn't notice was there. This is especially true of T.V. Carpio's take on "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" early in the film.

For the first time when a musical ended and I had the songs stuck in my head it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The sequences are bursting with frenetic energy and at times are so visually breathtaking that it hurts to watch and you'll need to come up for air. The most memorable of which is set to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and features Max's recruitment into Vietnam by an Uncle Sam poster come to life and a horrifying brigade of square jawed officers. Another sequence with Jude realizing his feelings for Lucy in a bowling alley while singing "I've Just Seen a Face" matches it in emotional power, but at the other end of the spectrum. And there's a hallucinatory and visually dazzling excursion with Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard) that I'm guessing would probably be better appreciated under the influence of a controlled substance. There are times where I thought Taymor overindulged and went too far as I found myself asking whether it's really necessary to show American soldiers in their underwear carrying The Statue of Liberty through the jungles of Vietnam. But when dealing with material like this I'd much rather have a director fall on the side of going too far.

All of these scenes are powerful and often emotionally moving, but strangely the story as a whole doesn't quite reach that same level and that's because the screenplay can't help but seem kind of cliché ridden. While that may seem like a huge insult it isn't exactly since musicals play by a different set of rules and by nature are built almost entirely on clichés. And when we're dealing with the sixties that opens up a can of worms in terms of what can be thrown in the script. The draft. Anti-war protests. Forbidden love. Race riots. The emerging rock scene. Counter-culture. The generation gap. You could go on forever. They even find a way to squeeze homosexuality in there. It gets a pass though because musicals are supposed to paint with broad strokes and although many of these issues seem cliché now they weren't back then and The Beatles' music did reflect what was going on at the time with not much more subtleness than this film, so it fits. You get the impression that if the "Fab Four" saw the film they'd probably love it (supposedly Paul McCartney viewed it and did). The movie is sincere, wearing its heart on its sleeve while lacking the inherent silliness that has sunk so many movie musicals in recent years. There's no winking at the camera or anything to joke about here, which is a nice change for a genre that on film could really never be taken seriously at all.

A big fuss has been made about how timely this film is and how it can be viewed as being reflective of what's happening in our country at the moment. While I definitely appreciate the fact that this could make the story resonate more with some, for me it hurts the film a little…at least right now. I've just been so sick of hearing about politics everywhere I turn that I've been completely burned out with it. The last thing I wanted to see was a movie that addresses it, but that's more a reflection on me than the picture. What does reflect on the film though is that at times it seems to be preaching from the pulpit with its anti-war message. Perhaps when some time has past and I go back to the film again it's possible that aspect won't hit as much of a sour note, but I just don't like it when films start proselytizing about politics regardless of whether it's reflective of the mindset in that time period.

There is a feeling that Taymor is trying to jam as many Beatles songs and accompanying supporting plotlines into this as she can which causes the movie to zig zag a little as it heads to the emotional finale, which I think is why the final number doesn't register quite as deep as it could have. The battles Taymor had with the studio over final cut are infamous by now but this version is apparently hers, making me wonder if maybe the studio could have had a point that it needed a little trimming. It's also impossible to care about the three lesser supporting characters as much as Jude, Lucy and Max, which seems to have been an inevitable problem since the screenplay doesn't flesh them out as well. At times the lesser threesome seems to be there just to satisfy the Beatles musical quota, touch on social issues and share space in the apartment like tenants from a sixties version of Rent.

Taymor did make the right call in casting lesser-known names in the roles as Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson are not only great singers, but even better actors. Sturgess is especially impressive, showing real leading man range in a supremely difficult part. While Evan Rachel Wood has always done strong work in everything she's been in from Thirteen to Down In The Valley, she's been an actress that's difficult to get a handle on in terms of what she's really capable of. There's consistently been a quietness and naturalness to her that's made her captivating, but for some reason has kept her just out of reach for moviegoers. That "one big role" was always missing. Until now. This is the most exposed she's ever been and whatever gap may have existed between her and the audience has now permanently closed. This is a big showcase for her talents.

There's a scene late in the film where Lucy tells Jude that she'd jump in front of a tank to end the war and bring her brother home. Watching the special features on the DVD you'll have no doubt Julie Taymor wouldn't have hesitated to do the same to make sure her vision was carried out exactly how she imagined. Seeing her in action you could understand why the possibility of the studio robbing her of final cut would be devastating and impossible for her to deal with. In all the DVD behind the scenes special features I've seen in recent years I can't remember seeing a director this enthusiastic, interesting, or dedicated. I could tell you that none of it is reflected in the final product but I'd be lying. This isn't just merely a director, but an artist using the film as her canvas.

Taymor started her directing career on broadway with The Lion King before helming feature films like her bizarre but visually arresting adaptation of Titus with Anthony Hopkins and the Oscar nominated Frida, starring Salma Hayek (who cameos here). Across The Universe is not the film that will win her a directing Academy Award but one is coming to her and very soon if she keeps this up. That it failed to make a dent at the box office is of no surprise. It's a given anything this risky and ambitious would polarize audiences and critics, which explains it's nearly 50% split right down the middle on the Rotten Tomatoes meter. But it has struck a very strong chord among a core group of viewers who very passionately love it. I wouldn't go that far, but I understand why.

This is a difficult film to form an opinion on immediately after watching it because it's one of those movies that require some distance and breathing room to fully comprehend what you've seen and make sense of your thoughts. It's kind of like listening to a CD for the first time that's so different and challenging you don't know what to make of it. That first listen is just a formality to say you've heard it and nothing more. Upon repeated listens everything starts to come into focus. This is one of those and when it ended I'll admit I had an itch to watch it again so that opinion would come into fuller focus.

What I am sure about is that this film has something few others possess: An uncompromising vision. It also reminded me just how boring it is when movies are completely perfect. When you're walking a tightrope like this mistakes are going to be made and flaws will be visible. It doesn't make the movie any less memorable and in cases like this it can even make it more more so. Without risk there is no reward. So in taking so many chances Across The Universe just may have captured exactly what made The Beatles' music so special to begin with.