Sunday, March 30, 2008


Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McEvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Harriet Walter, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

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

There’s no movie I’ve been less interested in seeing in the past year than Atonement. When it was announced as a Best Picture nominee back in January I laughed and rolled my eyes. I thought that despite making riskier choices in recent years this nomination was just further proof the average age of an Academy member is 80. Just from the trailer I could tell it was one of those films based a highbrow novel any English professor would love. On paper, it would seem Atonement combines all the elements of every pretentious art house film into one inglorious package. It’s a sweeping period costume drama romance, based on an acclaimed novel. And, of course, it’s set against the backdrop of war.

My mind was made up. This was one of the few benefits of not being in school anymore. I wasn’t going to watch or review this film unless I would be receiving a letter grade. But I eventually broke down. And at its conclusion I was the one who needed to atone…for my close-mindedness.It’s fun to compare the endings of the Best Picture nominees from 2007. Michael Clayton’s was the most exciting. Juno’s was the sweetest. No Country For Old Men’s was the most frustrating. But Atonement’s is the bravest. I’d call it a "twist ending" but that would be inaccurate since the beauty of it is in how it follows the narrative course set from the very beginning. We just never bothered to notice. It causes you to go back to reevaluate every scene and every word spoken in the film and view it within a completely different context. At the beginning I nearly giggled at how much the script expected me to care about these young lovers and the seemingly contrived situation they found themselves in. By the end, it's no laughing matter.

It’s 1935 England and 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis (Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) watches as her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) develops deep feelings for Robbie Turner (James McEvoy), a visiting Cambridge student and son of their family’s housekeeper (Brenda Blethyn). Harboring a bit of a crush on Robbie and feeling overprotective of her sister, Briony intercepts a dirty letter from Robbie to Cecilia. An unintentionally humorous aspect of this letter is that the filthy word used in it would cause just as much controversy today as it did in 1935. Just ask Jane Fonda. It’s nice to know some things never change. I don’t know if the word choice was lifted directly from Ian McEwan’s novel or was the invention of screenwriter Christopher Hampton but it makes the letter and the film resonate a lot more with contemporary audiences than it would have otherwise. Because of this we feel the force of its impact as much as the characters. Briony’s discovery snowballs into serious accusations against Robbie of a violent crime.

The first hour of Atonement is emotionally involving at the most visceral level, but is also frustrating without having at least one viewing behind you to fully understand its purpose. It plays, Rashomon-style, with time and perception, often giving us a second view of the same event only a scene after it just occurred. One of the more brilliant aspects of this device is that it presents doubt as to whether Briony’s actions are motivated by jealousy, misinterpretation, or the fact that she’s just 13 and has no idea what she’s doing. Or could it be some combination of all those? Those answers become much clearer by the end, which only enhances follow-up viewings of the film. Initially though, it does cause some confusion. We’re also treated to the least erotic sex scene of the year, during which I was actually looking at my watch waiting for it to end. I also wasn’t sure whether I should be more concerned for the safety of Knightley or the bookcase.

In a risky move that alienated audiences the film pulls a Full Metal Jacket in its second half and shifts from an emotional human-interest story into a war film. It’s four years later and Robbie is serving in the Second World War in France while Cecilia and Briony (now being played by Romola Garai) are now both nurses. It’s within this section where we’re given an amazing 5-minute plus unbroken tracking shot as Robbie and his comrades navigate the Dunkirk beach during the evacuation.

It’s a scene some believe was thrown in for no other reason other than to win a Best Cinematography Oscar. Let’s suppose it was. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful to look, any less of a technical achievement or undercut the fact that it fits perfectly within the context of the story. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey didn’t win that Oscar but you could argue he should have, and not only on the basis of that one scene. The whole film is a visual postcard. Dario Marianelli’s musical score is punctuated by the clanging of a typewriter, which will no doubt annoy many. I thought it worked though and added much tension, especially in the latter stages of the film where it’s needed most.

As I watched it I had all but written off the World War II section of the film as tedious and meandering, but only after the final credits rolled did I realize it’s flawless. It’s here where I have to be very careful not to give anything away. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that the story turns over on itself in the final minutes. How we thought we were viewing things and the perspective we thought we were viewing it from changes…and it changes brilliantly. Just when you think you have the story pegged it takes a sharp, unexpected detour and ends up being about something far deeper than you imagined it would be. The film actually turns out to be about what its title suggests it is in the most literal sense of the word.

As involving as the first hour was I can’t say I cared about any of the characters and was puzzled that the film would ask me to feel anything for them, much less root for Robbie and Cecilia’s young lust. Robbie comes off as a horny pervert while Cecilia mostly acts like a complete bitch to whom the world owes a favor. Ironically, early on I thought the most likeable was Briony who at best made an awful mistake and at worst was just a jealous kid. In those final minutes I can’t tell you how much my opinion of all three characters and the entire film changed as the wind was taken out of me with a sucker-punch to the gut.

I had to backtrack in my mind and re-examine everything I had witnessed up until that point. What I thought were flaws in the direction and script were actually subtle, brilliant strokes of genius painted by Wright and Hampton. Supposedly, they didn’t veer far at all from the source material and it that’s true than not only is McEwan one hell of a novelist, but Wright deserves credit for not giving into studio temptation and managing to retain the essence of the work.

The acting all-around ranges from fine to excellent, with a couple of performances going even beyond that. Knightley definitely fits the part of Cecilia but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that any number of other actresses could have stepped in and played the role with no great harm done to the film. James McEvoy, however, is irreplaceable. After being forced to take a backseat to Forrest Whitaker’s Oscar nominated turn in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland he’s in the driver’s seat here and carries the middle section of the film with a confident, yet sensitive performance. Saoirse Ronan earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination in a role that’s a lot tougher than it first appears, while Vanessa Redgrave has a small but VERY important part late in the film that I wouldn’t dare give away.

The great, criminally overlooked supporting performance comes from Romola Garai as the older Briony. When she first appears onscreen we just know she’s Briony. Sure she physically resembles the younger version but that’s nothing hair and make-up can’t take care of. That’s not how we know. We know because Garai makes us FEEL it with her presence. She enters relatively late in the game but the entire story rests on the handful of scenes she has. Wright wisely doesn’t have her attempt to mimic Ronan’s performance from earlier but create a Briony of her own, one transformed and matured into a different person from the events that occurred in the first hour. Because Garai conveys that so subtly is why I think the performance has flown under the radar. Still, I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how she wasn’t nominated. It could very well be the best acting work in the film.

Regret can be among the most powerful themes explored in motion pictures mainly because it can be one of the deepest feelings in life. You may remember a little movie called Citizen Kane managed to navigate the topic pretty well. Like that film, Atonement plays with the ideas of perception and memory. Similarly, the full brunt of its emotional power is contained in the final minutes. There are definitely worse films to be compared to and it’s very fitting that a movie about the power of storytelling should have such an unforgettable and emotionally resonant final chapter.

If the ending has a problem it’s that it’s so well written and powerful that I don’t know what kind of a film we’d have without it. Likely a far inferior one. But the ending is here and the movie has to be judged accordingly. While this probably wouldn’t top my list of the year’s best films it’s certainly more than worthy of its 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. And if I went in with this much of a predisposed bias toward the material and liked it I can’t even imagine how much fans of period romances will love it. You are taken to school here…but in the best possible way. When it was over I actually felt as if I learned something more about great filmmaking and screenwriting. If you think you know exactly what you’ll be getting from Atonement, think again. It’s not THAT type of movie. It’s so much more

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Am Legend

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith

Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

There are only a select number of actors who are capable of elevating middling material a level higher. Will Smith has slowly been emerging as one of them. I Am Legend brings nothing new to the played out last man on Earth/post-apocalyptic genre at all. If you wanted to skip it I couldn’t blame you, but if you did you’d be missing Smith’s impressive performance which makes everything worthwhile. The story is so familiar it’s actually been made twice already as 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s more memorable The Omega Man, both of which were based on the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson.

Even those unfamiliar with Matheson by name are probably still familiar with much of his work. One of the more underappreciated science fiction authors, he’s responsible for writing such masterpieces as Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the magical What Dreams May Come and many episodes of The Twilight Zone, like the infamous "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" starring William Shatner. Another Matheson penned episode "Button, Button," is being released this year as The Box, directed by Richard Kelly. Yes, Kelly has still been able to find work.

That I Am Legend would probably rank at the very bottom of Matheson’s accomplishments says a lot about how talented he is. Whenever his name is attached to a project I know I’m at least guaranteed something of substance and thus far no director or screenwriter has managed to really mangle any of his stories in their transition to the screen, which is somewhat of a miracle. His adaptations have a MUCH better track record than, say, Stephen King’s. So while I had little interest in seeing this, I knew it at least had one thing going for it right off the bat.

The film, despite being standard and somewhat predictable, is executed as well as can be reasonably expected from this genre. What isn’t standard is Smith’s performance in a very tough role. He has to carry this whole story by himself and does so magnificently, thus proving his status as the number one box office draw is far from a fluke. Beyond that there isn’t a whole lot to recommend, but since he is this movie, it’s more than enough.

The year is 2012 and in New York City military scientist Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is the last remaining survivor on Earth after a virus created to cure cancer instead wiped out the human race. We find this out in the opening minutes through a videotaped interview with the doctor who created it (an uncredited Emma Thompson in a cameo). The disease mutated and transformed anyone who survived into vampire-looking creatures that kind of resemble the ones from The Descent (except far less scarier). They hide by day and attack at dawn when the sun goes down, which creates more than a few nail-biting, race against time scenarios for Neville to get out of during the course of the film.

Somehow he’s immune to the virus and mostly stays locked in his apartment with his dog Sam, working hard to keep his sanity and find a cure for the deadly virus. Flashbacks are interspersed, giving us glimpses of Neville’s life before the outbreak and the burden of responsibility he feels for its result. Sending out daily AM radio transmissions, he holds out hope that someone else might still be out there as he struggles to survive.

I Am Legend
is the latest dramatization of a genre we’ve seen executed thousands of times before. I was sure we met our vampire quota already in 2007 with 28 Days Weeks Later and 30 Days of Night but here’s yet another vampire movie, except this one doesn’t involve a number and is wearing the mask of a post-apocalyptic tragedy.

The actual vampire stuff is uneven and a lot of the scenes (especially any involving animals) are marred by some really fake-looking CGI that’s so bad I had to double-check at the end to make sure George Lucas didn’t have a production credit on the film. Where the film really excels is in providing tension and well-placed excitement, much of which comes from Smith’s desperate performance as someone who really is believable as the last man on Earth. I’m still not sure how exactly someone can be "believable" in such a role but I do know that Kevin Costner wasn’t in The Postman. Smith is here.

The best scenes of the movie involve Neville trying to keep his sanity amidst terminal loneliness. His days consist mostly of conversations with store mannequins and listening to Bob Marley, but Smith even manages to make that engaging for the audience. Saying that he carries the entire film is a bit misleading though because he does have some help in the form of a canine friend. If an Oscar for Best Performance By a Dog in a Motion Picture were given out this year Sam would have it locked up. Yeah, Smith is so good in this role manages to coax a terrific performance out of his canine co-star. Struggling to keep it together mentally Neville is forced to depend on the only family member he has left, even if she doesn’t happen to be human. The threat of something happening to the one companion Neville can depend on looms very large and we know that if it does, his grip on reality will officially begin to slip away.

The director of the film is Francis Lawrence and this can’t be looked at as anything other than a success for someone who helmed the dreadful Constantine a few years ago. Many fans of Matheson’s novel were supposedly angered at the liberties screenwriters Akiva Golsdman and Mark Protosevich took with the ending. I don’t know why considering the choice of ending is hardly a slap in the face regardless of what happened or didn’t in the book. It’s satisfying and makes sense…at least for this film. Where the movie probably bites off more than it can chew is when it tries to introduce themes like science vs. religion late into the story. It was a noble effort but this is just post-apocalyptic disaster movie and heavy themes like that will always play better in Matheson’s writing than here.

The introspective first hour promises something more akin to the novel, but eventually that gives way to a more conventional Hollywood blockbuster. Still, this wasn’t Matheson’s deepest or most exciting work to begin with so there wasn’t a whole lot that could have been done. What needed to be accomplished was, even if I can’t imagine the movie will have anyone rushing out to read the novel. I pitied the poor film that was following Southland Tales on my viewing list, especially if it fell under the sci-fi banner, but this gets the job done. There isn’t a lot to I Am Legend but with Will Smith this in command of the material, a little can go a very long way

Monday, March 24, 2008

Southland Tales

Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore
Running Time: 144 min.
Rating: R

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

For the past two years or so I’ve been telling anyone willing to listen that if something were to happen to me like, say, accidentally getting hit by a MAC truck, that my only request is that it occurs AFTER I’ve seen and reviewed Southland Tales. To fully understand why requires a little bit of explanation. You see Southland Tales is what I like to refer to as a "Jeremy Movie." Such films, which only seem to come down the pike every few years, follow a certain set of rules. The first of which is usually that they don’t follow any. They’re also self-indulgent, tend to make little or no sense on an initial viewing, take huge risks, feature insane casting and sometimes, but not always, are directed by a filmmaker who just doesn’t seem to give a shit whether their movie is embraced by the public.

These films often elicit harsh, polarizing reactions from audiences and critics. When I tell anyone I happen to love one of them I can read the frustration on their faces, even if they’re too polite to say anything. They just can’t stand it. The second I saw the trailer for for this I thought: "Awesome. Richard Kelly made a really insane film…just for me." Well, me and just a couple of other people who might be crazy enough to appreciate what he’s trying to do. Nearly everyone else will probably despise it.

Southland Tales is the most ambitious, self-indulgent film to ever be released by a major studio. By comparison, Kelly’s own Donnie Darko and last year’s Grindhouse look like tame, mainstream crowd pleasers. It’s a sci-fi epic, a dark comedy, a drama, a romance, a musical, an action-adventure and a religious allegory all rolled into one messy inaccessible package. It’s also the most biting political satire since Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In presenting a dystopian fantasy, it ends up saying more about the world we live in than any of the heavy-handed political dramas Hollywood force-fed us over the past year.

Its nearly 3-hour cut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 screened to the harshest reception there since The Brown Bunny. This cut is shorter at 144 minutes, but I can see how Kelly would’ve needed more time to tell such an expansive tale that bursts at the seams with such force and energy. Its reception at Cannes makes perfect sense. This isn’t a movie for film festivals, critics or even most audiences. Hell, this isn’t really a movie for anyone except a few. But for those few it will be very special. A little while back I almost felt the need to actually apologize for liking Juno, a polarizing movie reviled by many. You won’t be able to beat an apology out of me for this one.

It’s an alternate 2008 and the country is in political, social and environmental upheaval. A set of nuclear attacks in El Paso and Albilene, Texas in 2005 have set off a chain of events that has led America into World War III. We’re told this via clever Fox News-like visuals and a T.S. Elliot and Robert Frost quoting voice-over supplied by wounded Iraq War vet, Private Pilot Abiline (Justin Timberlake). The government responds by beefing up the Patriot Act and creating USIDent, an oppressive "Big Brother" police state. With a gas crisis on its hands the country makes a deal to use an alternative source of energy known as "Liquid Karma," the brainchild of mad scientist Baron Von Westphalen (The Princess Bride’s Wallace Shawn). The fate of the upcoming election rests solely on the electoral votes in the state of California.

Amongst the political unrest, extreme liberal cells to emerge, specifically a group called the Neo-Marxists. They’ll stop at nothing to destroy USIDent and break the Republican stranglehold in office, using movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) to do it. Having recently disappeared in the middle of the desert, Boxer has returned to the California Southland with a mysterious case of amnesia, which right after impotence has to rank as the next worst condition with which to be afflicted if your wife is Mandy Moore. He’s shacked up with porn star and aspiring reality talk show host, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). They’re working on a screenplay, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the events that unfold in this film.

Boxer becomes the target of an extortion plot by the Neo-Marxists to bring down his in-laws, Republican Presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osbourne) and his Lady MacBeth of a wife Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson. The other two pieces of the apocalyptic puzzle are twins Roland and Ronald Taverner (both played by Seann William Scott). And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the plots and sub-plots contained within this jam-packed film or how they merge together for a visually stunning July 4th finale that takes you as far down the rabbit hole as humanly possible, owing more to Donnie Darko than you might expect.

It’s literally impossible to see this film once and attempt to make any sense of it at all, much less form an opinion on it. This creates a problem because an initial viewing will be so frustrating for most audiences that the last thing they’d want to do is revisit it, which is a shame because they’d be missing out. I’ve only seen it twice and I say "only" because I still don’t believe I’ve come anywhere close to extracting all there is from it. I don’t think I ever will. But it is amazing how much you pick up on in another viewing because it’s structured in such a way that you really do have to pay attention to every little detail. The narration. Those tickers at the bottom of the screen. The frequent news updates. They all play a role in filling in the blanks and dropping hints. The plot is complicated in its details, yet so meticulously crafted and constructed that from a big picture perspective it holds together in some sort of insane way when you step back and look at it all. More directly, it’s an extremely loose and very clever creative adaptation of the Book of Revelation, which is quoted many times during Timberlake’s voice-overs throughout the film.

As I experienced Southland Tales I could swear it must have been based on a comic or graphic novel because what’s onscreen comes so close to creating a living, breathing comic universe. As it turns out, the story is Kelly’s creation and while graphic novels were released separately from the film, they’re based on his screenplay, not the other way around. Not unlike George Lucas with Star Wars, Kelly had originally envisioned this as a nine-part series. What we get here is the final three parts entitled: Part Four: Temptation Waits, Part Five: Memory Gospel and Part Six: Wave of Mutilation. The graphic novels are prequels and this method likely alienated mainstream moviegoers who could point to it as yet another example of Kelly’s self-indulgence. To an extent they’re right, but I’d argue the three parts we get here wouldn’t be necessarily any more comprehensible if we had more background. And the prologue (which the studio pushed Kelly to include) does help make sense of this…if you pay close attention to it.

If I could compare it to any film, the closest it comes to matching, at least in tone, is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But it really isn’t like that movie at all, or like anything else for that matter. Kelly wears the influences of David Lynch, George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick proudly on his sleeve, yet he somehow still manages to build a universe that’s completely fresh and original. The movie is also incredible to look at with visionary production design and special effects that, if the film had been better received (or received at all) could’ve warranted Oscar consideration. Moby’s synthesized dream-like score seems almost ingrained into the fabric of the film and story itself. It’s hard to imagine any other composer’s work being as close of a match to this challenging material as his. Music also provides the exhilarating centerpiece of the film, a Justin Timberlake lip-synched musical number set to The Killers’ "All These Things That I’ve Done." After watching it you won’t hear that song the same way again. I have no idea how much was paid for the rights to use it, but it was worth every penny.

If someone asked me what my dream cast for a movie would be, the list would read almost exactly as you see above. It’s almost surreal seeing these names assembled together for one film. You may have noticed for the first time the conspicuous absence of "The Rock" moniker in Dwayne Johnson’s billing in the credits and the ads for the film. It’s appropriate. As a wrestling fan I was disappointed when Johnson hung up his trunks and retired for a movie career. If you looked at the long, unsuccessful list of wrestlers who’ve tried acting you’d know where I’m coming from. That disappointment officially ends now. I don’t want ever to see this guy anywhere near a ring again. I had a feeling he’d star in a great movie eventually, but I didn’t think it would be this early. The role of Boxer is right up his alley and Johnson deftly handles some of the most difficult material an actor can be given: the frustrating, incomprehensible kind. He’s no fluke and that this flopped won’t hurt him in the slightest. His performance drives the movie.

Sharing top acting honors with him is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who gives real heart and depth to what should have been the shallowest character in the film while Seann William Scott comes closest here to fulfilling the potential we’ve been suspecting he had all along. As the narrator, Timberlake is our eyes and ears in a story where we need a lot of help. Compared to his larger recent roles in Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan, this doesn’t let him show as much dramatic range, but of the three, his work here is the most memorable…and craziest.

One of the biggest thrills in this is for me was seeing actors who I never thought would get a good role again (some of whose careers peaked a decade ago) finally given a chance to impress. You really get to see them like you never have before. Jon Lovitz as a psychotic cop. John Larroquette as a clueless Presidential advisor. Christopher Lambert as a weapons dealer. MadTV’s Will Sasso as a drug-dealing movie producer. Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler as an unhinged "performance artist." The biggest surprise of the film is another SNL vet, Cheri Oteri. Anyone familiar with her work on that show will be surprised that as Zora Carmichaels, the leader of the Neo-Marxist movement, she actually gives one of the strongest dramatic performances in the film… a dramatic performance made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s given in the midst of a screwball comedy.

As Madeline Frost Santaros, Mandy Moore’s free fall of terrible film choices comes to a screeching halt. It isn’t a big role yet in some strange way it ends up being one of her most exciting and, much like 2004’s Saved, represents the risky parts that for whatever reason she’s strayed away from. A completely unrecognizable Kevin Smith (looking EXACTLY like music producer Rick Rubin) even cameos as a military expert, who may have the answers everyone’s looking for. Also, keep an eye out for the appearance of one of America’s most hated directors in a "blink and you’ll miss it" moment. There are so many wild performances and cameos its impossible to single them all out and I know I’m missing many. When there are this many big names in a movie there’s a tendency for it to become a massive distraction but here there’s none of that. Everything is dead-on.

Regardless of how important it is for filmmakers to take risks and give us something we haven’t seen before, most don’t because they’re not given the creative freedom and the few that are know that walking this close to the edge is too dangerous for their careers. There’s much less downside when you have modest goals. No one will ever accuse Richard Kelly of lacking ambition or playing it safe. That says something, and it's something we desperately need more of. I’m not praising this film to be cool or different. Nor do I think being ambitious and risky automatically qualifies a movie as brilliant. You shouldn’t take chances just for the sake of taking them. The risks have to be good ones that pay off. And I’d never imply anyone who hates the film just doesn’t "GET IT." Even those who love it will probably never "get it." From where I’m sitting, the mystery accounts for much of its appeal.

Despite my admiration for Kelly’s previous feature, I’m far from one of those Emo, glue sniffing, wrist-slashing Darko fanboys who would have salivated over anything he put up on screen. I knew what I was getting into and expected to be entertained, but was also fully prepared for the possibility I’d hate it. Either way I knew I’d be getting something daring and original. There’s just no telling how something so "of the moment" and reflective of our times will hold up over the long run, but I have this sneaking suspicion it’ll age very well.

I’ve been very critical of films incorporating, or even worse, preaching politics, but when presented in the context of such a creative fantasy, it goes down so much easier. It helps that Kelly is an equal opportunity offender, hilariously taking swipes at both sides. It works as a hysterical spoof of everything from YouTube to cable news channels to celebrity culture. Maybe it’s just my weird sense of humor, but I laughed harder during this than any mainstream comedy in years. Labeling this a masterpiece is false advertising if only because it’s just such a beautifully flawed mess. Perfect in its imperfection.

In a rare, welcome case of an actor not running for cover when their film flops, Sarah Michelle Gellar has been vehemently defending Kelly and the movie. She told Sci-Fi Wire:

"You know, at the end of the day, I hope people talk about it. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not a movie made for every audience. This isn’t a film made to go across the board. And what I love about it is, I went and saw the new cut with, like, five people. And afterwards for about three hours we all talked about it, because everybody took different things out of it. She added that "The true fans, the people that are the Donnie Darko fans, that are my fans, Dwayne’s fans, I think they’re going to enjoy it. And you know what? Those are the reasons I make movies."

She offers up a much better defense than I ever could. If you want a sterile, emotionless exercise (albeit a very good one) then see No Country For Old Men. If you feel like being challenged, then see this. Sometimes I’m asked which kinds of movies excite me and get my pulse racing. Pop in this DVD and you’ll have your answer.

I was counting down the days until its theatrical release but was then disappointed when its run came and went within a week. But interestingly, when I went to pick it up the DVD this past week it was almost sold out everywhere. Either the stores didn’t order enough copies or, much like Donnie Darko, there may be a second life yet for this film. I have a theory (which admittedly isn’t much of a stretch) that Kelly deliberately set out to make a cult film with Darko. He’d probably even admit it himself. That goal seems even more intentional here since he now actually has a cult to cater to. This already feels like a cult classic so it shouldn’t be long before it unofficially becomes one.

It’s shocking Kelly was given this much freedom by the studio but even his biggest detractors have to give him credit for abusing the privilege and making the movie he and his fans wanted to see. It’s so challenging, visionary and daring he may have also just lost some of those very fans he was making it for. That any cut of this almost totally impenetrable film was even released at all is somewhat of a miracle. It was worth the wait for me.

I’ve never really had the burning desire to write or direct a film. I know my limitations and far prefer writing about them. But if I did, I do know the type of movie I would want to make … and Richard Kelly has filmed it. He even stole my cast. For nearly two and a half hours all my crazy cinematic dreams played out on screen. I still haven’t completely processed what I saw, but I know I’ll be returning to it over and over again. While nothing makes me happier than singing the praises of an underappreciated, overlooked film that needs the support, it is awkward recommending one most of you will hate. But love it or hate it, no one can deny that they’ll only ever be one Southland Tales.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

August Rush

Director: Kirsten Sheridan
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Robin Williams, Terrence Howard, William Sadler, Leon G. Thomas III, Mykelti Williamson

Running Time: 114 min.
Rating: PG

*** (out of ****)

Most movies these days if you ask me to describe in a few words or less what they are about I can’t do it. What they start out being at the beginning changes totally in the middle and by the end it’s a completely different motion picture than what it started out as. Sometimes, after being bogged down with unrelated sub-plots and useless distractions, it ends as a different genre altogether. This time, for a change, if someone asked me in one sentence to describe what August Rush is about I could actually do it. My answer would be: "It’s about how music touches peoples’ lives." Every scene and every line of dialogue spoken contains within it that message. How the movie delivers that message is a little manipulative, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less effective.

It’s unabashedly sappy and features some amazingly contrived coincidences that will leave you scratching your head. If someone told me they thought this was the clumsiest screenplay of the year they’d be able to present a lot of solid evidence…at least maybe on the page. What we see and, more importantly, feel on screen is a far different story. The film makes no apologies about what it is and is smart enough not to pretend to be more intelligent than it really is. It’s a modern day fairy-tale and even though it isn’t a conventional musical it sure feels like an excellent one. It even manages to survive a child actor’s performance that borders on being a little creepy. In telling two stories, one more effectively than the other, its intentions are unabashedly pure enough to make you care deeply when they converge at the end. You’re required to take giant leaps of faith and the real gift of this movie is how it makes implausible coincidences feel like fate.

Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore) is a child who lives in his own world. He tunes everything out except the music he hears all around him. It’s this music, he believes, will lead him to his parents from whom he was separated from at birth. We flash back to 11 years earlier and meet those parents, Juliard-trained cellist Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) and aspiring rock singer Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who share a one-night stand that feels like a lot more than that. After giving birth, Lyla’s overprotective, domineering father (William Sadler) with only her career goals in mind, tells her she miscarried and gives the child up for adoption. Louis and Lyla go their separate ways and are forced to wonder what could have been.

Now entrusted into the care of an orphanage, Evan meets child services representative Richard Jefferies (Terrence Howard) who’s impressed with his resolve and wants to find him a family. But there’s only one family Evan is interested in finding and he sets off alone to New York City in hopes of doing it. He hooks up with a street performer named Wizard (Robin Williams) and this is an interesting character. It’s as if Bono from U2 decided that instead of championing for world peace, he’d rather spend his time exploiting small homeless children’s musical proclivities for monetary gain. Only, Evan isn’t like the other kids. He’s a musical prodigy Wizard soon christens with the catchy stage name, "August Rush." Rush’s gift doesn’t go unnoticed by the public for long and Wizard’s self-serving agenda threatens the possibility of Evan finally finding his parents.

This is a movie littered with huge stretches in plausibility that some just may not be willing to buy into. Like how Lyla just happens to discover she has a son at just around the same exact time Louis coincidentally comes down with the sudden urge to track his lost love down 11 years after the fact. Or how then at that very same moment Evan embarks on a road trip to find his parents. Or how the child services rep Lyla runs into just happens to be the one assigned to Evan’s case. How children are free to roam through the apparently crime-free streets of New York City without much consequence. How everyone happens to be at the right place at the right time for the ending of the film. You could write a book on all the contrivances but it would be a waste of time because all of them have little or no negative bearing on a film like this. It’s not misrepresenting itself as anything other than a heartwarming fairy tale, but just because it’s a fairy tale doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hit on some real emotional truths, particularly regarding the stories of Lyla and Louis.

Even though the screenplay presents it in a rather direct, clichéd way the movie touches on idea that sometimes people either through the choices they made in their lives or circumstances that go beyond their control, don’t end up where they imagined they’d be. Things that their life revolved around (in their cases it’s music) slowly disappear and they don’t realize how much it really meant until it’s disappeared completely. It’s interesting where they end up 11 years later and the viewer doesn’t need to put the pieces together as to why they did or how it happened. It’s available to us in the sincere earnestness with which Russell and Rhys-Meyers play their roles. Their first encounter kind of reminded me of the film Before Sunrise, although Louis does manage to bed Lyla in nearly record time and with very few words. Guys everywhere will probably want to pull out their notebooks, but remember, it’s just a movie.

I cared whether Lyla found her son and these two reunited again, even if I can’t say I cared quite as much about Evan. I hate to pick on a child actor because, at such a young age, the director makes most of the big decisions but Freddie Highmore (who previously starred in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland) just isn’t that great here. Part of it could be that the tone of the character is played confusingly, especially in the early stages of the film. He seems to have this blank look on his face as he just stares into the unknown while every once in a while making bizarre one or two word statements that make everyone around him uncomfortable. I think director Kirsten Sheridan was trying to get Highmore to convey Evan’s uniqueness and whimsical nature, but instead there were times where it felt like he belonged in The Shining. We start to wonder if finding this kid’s parents should take a backseat to getting him to the nearest mental hospital for evaluation. Sheridan went a little overboard in trying to tell us he was special which results in him coming off slightly autistic instead. It would have been more emotionally effective if he were just played as a normal, everyday kid with a special gift.

Now this is the Keri Russell performance I’ve been waiting for. August Rush is the second film in the past year she’s starred in dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. I thought Waitress was pretty much a disaster even if Russell’s work in it was serviceable (no pun intended). But I don’t want to see her bitching and complaining about her jerk husband and baking a bunch of pies. It was a good starring role but the material just didn’t seem as suited to her as this and here she gives a performance that’s just about a thousand times better. Unlike that film, this reminded me why the country fell in love with her in the first place on Felicity. One of the more positive developments that will be remembered about 2007 in film was that Russell came back to us and was finally given the opportunity to break through.

Rhys-Meyers also really gets the job done but his role isn’t quite as challenging. I don’t know what’s with Robin Williams. In every comedy he’s in he’s a total train wreck, yet when he’s given even the smallest dramatic role he invests it with something special. This continues that streak. His Wizard character is cartoonish early on but when he takes a dramatic turn later Williams is ready to go there. The film takes on a very Dickensian feel (comparisons to Oliver Twist are unavoidable) and I think one of the big reasons why is because of Williams’ unusual performance in this role. Terrence Howard’s part is smallest of all, but as usual, he turns nothing into something.

I was more absorbed in the story of Louis and Lyla but where movie does really succeed in telling of Evan’s journey is with his musical talents. It’s in the scenes where he hears a symphony in the most mundane everyday sounds like the wind blowing through the wheat field and the basketball hitting the pavement. And it’s when he grabs the guitar and actually begins playing is when the movie truly takes off. Sheridan lets the viewer sees and hears the world through the eyes and ears of this young boy. It helps that in a story about a boy who believes music can guide him to his parents that the actual music in the film is terrific. Mark Mancina’s score compliments every scene perfectly.

Toward the end we’re asked to suspend belief to the absolute highest degree. You just have to fall backwards and trust that the story will catch you. It does. It does because it’s playing by its own fairy tale rules and it doesn’t break them. The ending is absurd. But you know what? I didn’t care. When that magical last scene comes I couldn’t have cared less about certain creative liberties that may have been taken to get there. It was all worth it and you lose yourself in the final minutes.

It’s been a while since a film has split critics and audiences as widely as this one. A lot of critics (who tend to be sticklers for plausibility) just couldn’t make the jump and despised it, while at the same time, it really struck a deep, personal chord in a lot of moviegoers. I’d land somewhere in the middle. I can see both arguments. However, a movie has to be judged for what it’s trying to do, not overanalyzed for what it isn’t. For anyone who loves and feels a deep connection to music, and doesn’t mind a little sappiness, August Rush should probably be considered a must-see.

Monday, March 17, 2008

From The Vault: Batman Forever

Director: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Debi Mazar
Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: 1995

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

Riddle me this: What big name director almost single-handedly ruined the Batman franchise over a decade ago? If you answered Joel Schumacher, congratulations. It took me almost 13 years to recover from the trauma of actually seeing this in theaters when it opened in 1995 and calm down enough to finally write this review. I figured it might be fun now to revisit a film I hated years ago and see if anything’s changed at all.

First, the good news. It’s not nearly as bad as I remembered it and this time around I did notice a few things the Batman Forever actually did really well that I had overlooked. Now the bad news. The things about it that didn’t work are still very much there, and one aspect in particular looks worse than I ever remembered it. It’s a performance actually. And it comes from an Academy Award winning actor. That this man is not only still working after giving a performance so awful, but was nominated for Best Actor this year as well as appearing in the year’s Best Picture, should be considered a miracle. He deserves credit for that at least. I don’t know many other actors whose reputations could survive giving a performance so mind blowingly terrible.

In a bizarre way, Batman Forever works for what it is: A joke. And I do think it works better now as one than it did 13 years ago. For those who found Burton’s versions too dark and depressing (I didn’t) and are searching for an alternative take on "The Dark Knight" this fits the bill. For Batman purists, however, it can’t be viewed as anything other than an abomination (although I do know a few diehards who love it). But on the bright side, at least it isn’t boring or uninteresting.

It’s worth noting that the DVD I’m reviewing isn’t the 2-disc Collectors Edition that was released in 2005 as part of the entire Batman series box set. Rather this is the crappy, bare bones, double-sided full screen and widescreen single disc edition that came out in 1997. I’m mentioning that because the DVD transfer is absolutely terrible and for a film whose primary assets are visual it made the viewing a more unpleasant experience than it should have been I’m sure. The colors are a little washed out and I could even swear the print was scratched (and this film isn’t THAT old). It looked more like Planet Terror than Batman Forever. For anyone who actually enjoyed the film (show of hands?) and owns this edition, without even viewing the other I can tell you it’s worth the upgrade. I’m disappointed because I was really curious to get Schumacher’s explanation for some of the nonsense he inflicted upon us.

I remember reading a review of this a while back that complained that you shouldn’t be able to tell a director’s sexual preference just by watching their film. That’s very funny…and also very true. All joking aside, it is interesting to analyze the decisions Schumacher made and his possible reasoning behind them. Although Tim Burton handed over the directorial reins to Schumacher he stayed on as a producer, but how much input he actually had in this effort we’ll never know. My guess is very little. In a questionable decision, Schumacher completely did away with Danny Elfman’s score from the Burton movies, but I thought it was the right call. It wouldn’t have fit this material and Elliot Goldenthal’s score here works. There’s no sense picking a fight over that.

The most controversial decision surrounded the casting of a stoic (some would say wooden) Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman because the fantastic Michael Keaton wisely passed on returning for a third outing. When I first saw the film I absolutely hated Kilmer’s performance with a passion but now seeing it again I realize he did the best he could in a thankless situation. He’s okay in the role and appropriately brooding when he needs to be, which is all the time. I’d rank his performance below Keaton’s (which I still believe is the definitive portrayal) and Bale’s but I’d have to see George Clooney’s interpretation again to determine how it ranks against that. Matching it up against Adam West’s seems a little ridiculous since that’s a whole different animal altogether. Kilmer does probably look the best in the actual costume and it’s an interesting factoid that Batman creator Bob Kane has said that of all the actors who have donned the bat suit, Kilmer is actually his favorite.

The plot of Batman Forever concerns Batman’s attempts to rescue a very colorful Gotham City from Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), who was previously known as District Attorney Harvey Dent before half his face was burned and horrifically disfigured by acid (which we see in a 15 second flashback). He’s joined by Edward E. Nigma a.k.a. The Riddler (Jim Carrey) a mad scientist employed by Wayne enterprises who goes off the deep end. Batman is joined in his fight against villainy by the young Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) who has his sights set on Two-Face after he murdered his acrobatic circus performing parents in cold blood. He eventually takes on the moniker of Robin, but his role in this film is considerably less important than you may expect given the ads and the posters. Nicole Kidman is Dr. Chase Meridian, a clinical psychiatrist with a dual interest in Bruce Wayne and Batman, but not necessarily in that order.

Chris O’ Donnell has taken a thrashing for years for his performance as Robin, but really he’s perfect and this character is one of the few things this movie gets completely right. No one would have been a better fit for the part and I’m not sure what else people expected from him that he didn’t give. The scene where Two-Face kills his family (a big change from the comic) is the most effective of the film and he does a good job establishing his role in very little time. Another memorable scene where he steals the Batmobile and goes for a joyride is a clever idea that plays well. The only problem is that because Kilmer’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is fairly young he’s not quite believable as an older mentor to Robin. They seem more like equals both, joined by the murder of their parents at the hands of career criminals. The only remaining links left to Burton’s films are Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon and Michael Gough’s Alfred. Alfred is actually better utilized here than in Burton’s efforts and gets in some good one-liners. Sure, he’s no Michael Caine, but who is?

As big a fan as I am of everything Burton did with the franchise I have to admit Schumacher did one thing better. Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian completely blows Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale out of the water as Batman’s love interest. First of all, my god does Kidman look amazing in this. I’d go as far as to say this probably the hottest female character you’re ever likely to see in a superhero movie. And to think the idiots at Warner Brothers actually resisted Schumacher’s attempts to cast Kidman, claiming she wasn’t sexy enough. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be trapped in the Batcave with her. But the character herself is interesting as well. She has feelings for both Batman and Bruce Wayne but can’t seem to reconcile either of them. And Bruce doesn’t really know how he should feel about it. Happy? Jealous? That’s how conflicted this guy is. It’s pretty funny to have a love interest whose only real goal in the movie is to screw Batman. You can’t tell me we’ve seen something like that before. Kidman is known for making strange, risk-taking film choices (even more so now) so it’s ironic that in even her most mainstream vehicle she still finds a way to make her role completely insane. She’s the real star of this movie.

The major problems in the film are with the villains and considering they eat up most of the screen time it does create a big issue. Jim Carry was hot off the heels of the success of Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when he was cast in the role of The Riddler and it was, for the most part, a good choice. He’s clearly basing his performance on Frank Gorshin’s from the 1960’s television series and I can’t say that was a wrong way to go. I just wish he turned it down a notch and Oscar winner Akiva Goldsmith’s script didn’t contain so much of that mad scientist garbage at the beginning of the film. Can anyone explain to me what that brain sucking machine The Riddler created is even supposed to do? With those boxes in every home and people glued to their TV sets the entire silly premise brought back bad memories of Halloween III: Season of The Witch.

We know which team Schumacher plays for (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but was it really necessary to deck The Riddler out in eyeliner and mascara? He looked more like a drag queen than a criminal mastermind. Supposedly, Robin Williams was the original choice to play the role and I’m actually glad he didn’t get it. If Carrey was just a notch over-the-top than Williams would have needed a cage to contain his overacting. We dodged a bullet there. It’s a shame that Carrey guy never really went on to do anything else. I’m kidding of course. He went on to have a very respectable career… dressing as an elephant and shilling his movies on American Idol.

Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face is a complete disaster and nearly ruins the entire film. If Carrey was basing his Riddler on Gorshin than Jones was basing his Two-Face on Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Except he was trying to copy it, incorporating only the worst elements of that performance. With his annoying cackle and garish attire every second he’s on screen is nothing short of pure torture. Schumacher also felt it would be a good idea to give him a really pretty, colorful disfigurement because we all know how beautiful it looks when your badly burned face matches your suit. If Oscars were given for the worst achievement in costume and make-up this film would have them locked up. Not surprisingly, the "genius" make-up artist behind this endeavor is Rick Baker who you may recall from his Oscar-nominated work…in Norbit.

Besides rushing through Two-Face’s story arc too quickly and giving us virtually no backstory on him, serious creative liberties were taken as well, all of which hurt the character. In the comic he was known for his signature coin toss, which fatefully controls all of his evil decision-making. Here, like a petulant infant, he tosses the coin incessantly until he gets the desired result. Anton Sigurh this guy most definitely is not. He also has some arm candy to go along with his two personalities in Sugar and Spice (Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar respectively). Barrymore looks good but barely has a single line of dialogue the entire film. Although he’s supposed to be the lead villain, Jones just ends up playing lackey to Carrey’s substantially more entertaining Riddler for most of the film.

The one saving grace of Two-Face (SPOILER AHEAD!) is that he meets a final, conclusive demise at the end, eliminating any chance of Tommy Lee Jones returning. The alternate ending which saw Two-Face sitting at the kitchen table with his wife complaining about how crime in Gotham city has passed him by as the screen fades to black was apparently rejected. I remember reading an interview with Jones a few months back where he first learned that Aaron Eckhart would be taking over the role of Harvey Dent a.k.a. Two-Face in this summer’s The Dark Knight. When asked if he was ever interested in reprising the role he answered simply: "No." It’s a relief that he has just as little interest playing the role again as I do seeing him in it. I’ve been so traumatized by his work in the film that my heart sank when I heard Two-Face was returning in any incarnation for a sequel, even though Eckhart could probably sleep walk through the role and still fare better than Jones. I just have no interest in seeing that character ever again. The sad part of it is that if The Riddler were just toughened up a little and Two-Face was excised from the movie entirely we could have really had something here.

This is just a guess but it seems Schumacher was going for the campy feel of the 60’s TV show with this movie. If he was he failed because even the worst episode of that terrific show was slightly better than this. He took those campy tendencies to new heights with his sequel, 1997’s Batman and Robin. Compared to that this almost looks restrained. And the title of this film I’ll never understand. BatmanForever? It sounds like a musical. What’s scarier was there was actually another Schumacher helmed sequel planned that would have been called…Batman Triumphant. Who comes up with these titles? With his gigantic set pieces, bat-suits with nipples and rainbow color schemes Schumacher’s primary goal was to sell a lot of toys and make tons of money. Second on the agenda was making a good movie. That he almost accomplished the latter could be chalked up as an accident. I realize now that Schumacher is really guilty of only one crime: Going too far.

Amazingly, this film scored three Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound, the most of any Batman film to date. It kills me to admit it but those nominations weren’t necessarily undeserved, as it’s a great looking and sounding film. Schumacher was trying to stage a full-on assault on our senses and provide an amusement park thrill ride, so to that end this could be considered a success. It’s surprisingly well-paced and ends before you even know it started, never dragging once during its two hour running time. It played much better for me this time, but as tempting as it may be, I still can’t recommend it because, well, it’s just not a very good movie. I will say this is a better film than Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but that doesn’t mean I’m eager to give Schumacher a third chance to redeem himself.

The biggest revelation to come out of my re-watching of Batman Forever was that I didn’t hate it. Maybe I’ve just softened with age or it could be that because Christopher Nolan has successfully resurrected the franchise I’m able to put my bitterness toward the film behind me and put it in its proper historical context. It can now be viewed as an interesting cinematic curiosity and an alternative interpretation of an iconic character. Tilda Swinton’s hilarious Oscar acceptance speech this year got me thinking about Schumacher’s Batman films again and made me wonder how history will judge them and him. It’s never good when your movies have become the punch line of an Oscar joke. And in case you were wondering, yes, I am eventually planning to review Batman and Robin, with a very special emphasis on George Clooney’s performance.

Schumacher survived this, but that’s not to say his career ever fully recovered. He went on to direct solid features like Tigerland and Phone Booth and not so solid ones like The Number 23 starring his old pal Jim Carrey. Looking at the glass as half-full, we can thank Schumacher for his mistakes because without them we probably wouldn’t be enjoying the emergence of more serious superhero movies like Batman Begins and the upcoming Iron Man and The Dark Knight films. Unfortunately, the negative effects of his work can still be seen on films like The Fantastic Four series. His greatest contribution is that by turning Batman into a joke he unintentionally caused us to appreciate what makes superhero films special to begin with…at least the ones not directed by him.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dan In Real Life

Director: Peter Hedges
Starring: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston, Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney, Amy Ryan, Emily Blunt

Running Time: 98 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

There’s something to be said for not trying too hard. Dan in Real Life is the kind of movie that’s the toughest to make well because the temptations to go over-the-top and revel in stupidity are so great. If you don’t believe me just watch The Heartbreak Kid or Good Luck Chuck. Dan in Real Life joins Shoot ’Em Up as one of the most accurately titled films of the past year. It really is about "REAL LIFE." In fact, it’s so normal and true to life that the film’s one glaring flaw ends up being that it comes close to bordering on boring. It’s almost too intelligent for it’s own good, if that makes any sense at all. But if a romantic comedy is going to have a flaw, that’s an exceptional one to have.

There’s no slapstick or contrived situations here. It’s just a regular guy struggling with his regular family to make sense of his regular life. And that’s why it works. Well, that and the phenomenal performance of Steve Carell who elevates sitcom-level material to respectable heights and ends up really impressing in the second best starring role of his career. It was a relief spending time with likeable characters and Carell’s Dan led the charge. No matter how much you may think you like your family by the time this movie’s over you’ll want to trade them in for this one. Which is saying a lot considering Dane Cook is a member of it. But be forewarned that you’ll have to do your best to stay awake during their family stories, talent shows and Scrabble tournaments.

Carell is Dan Burns, a widowed newspaper advice columnist with three daughters who can’t stand him. A chronic overprotective father, he smothers the two eldest (Alison Pill and Brittany Robertson), one of whom is forbidden to drive while the other isn’t allowed to go anywhere near a boy. Keeping with the annual family tradition, the Burns’ drive out to Rhode Island and gather at Dan’s parents’(John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest) palatial Oceanside home with the rest of the clan.

When Dan runs out to pick up the newspaper he encounters a beautiful stranger named Marie (Juliette Binoche) at the bookstore. They strike up a conversation, immediately hit it off and end up sharing a long lunch together. However their time is eventually cut short when Marie reveals she’s involved in a new relationship and must leave to meet with her boyfriend. It isn’t until Dan returns to the house that he discovers his soul mate’s new boyfriend is actually his younger brother Mitch (Cook). Now that’s awkward. The rest of the movie consists of the threesome attempting to co-exist under the same roof while Marie and especially Dan painfully struggle to keep their feelings for each other under wraps, resulting in some amusing situations.

Writer/director Peter Hedges, whose big claim to fame is directing a pre-TomKat Katie Holmes to arguably her best performance in the sweet Thanksgiving comedy Pieces of April, really has a firm handle on this type of material. Here he’s not afraid to just let the camera roll and let us watch this family interact in a way that a real family actually would. While that doesn’t result in the most exciting film imaginable, it does lend the situation a degree of realism and lets us empathize with these people. They’re just like us, except maybe even a little nicer to be around.

When the film began I was worried its entire running length would be dedicated to treating us to yet another unbearable portrayal of a psychotically overprotective dad. I was waiting for a series of contrived catastrophes with the daughters that would cause Dan to overreact. That never happened. When the love triangle was introduced I cringed and looked at my watch attempting to count down the minutes to when the plot flew off the deep end. That didn’t happen either. It also doesn’t dwell on the corny premise of an advice columnist needing some of his own. His occupation doesn’t really figure in until the end and even there it’s minimal. Much to my surprise, there really isn’t any stupidity of note to be found in this entire screenplay. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, but when we’re talking about romantic comedies it isn’t.

Hedges lets the actors do their thing and they’re all charming, especially Carell who knows just the right notes to hit as Dan. He never comes off as neurotic or pathetic, but just basically as a good guy who’s having some problems in his life he thinks can be fixed by this woman. And he’s right. They can be. Carell is such a natural in this he seems to elevate everyone around him, including even Dane Cook. This is supposed to be where I praise Cook for just not be annoying, but he actually takes it a step further this time and delivers a fairly likeable supporting performance. He was good in Mr. Brooks but his character in that was really just a goofy hanger-on. This is the first time I’ve seen Cook play someone that could actually pass as a human being with real thoughts and feelings and he does a good job at it. Subtlety is not a quality usually associated with him but he’s so restrained here that, if anything, you may find yourself wishing (just a little bit) that the old Dane Cook would show up to annoy the hell out of us just so we have something to complain about. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get used to this new side of him. Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan has a small role as one of the sisters and she’s given basically nothing to do. That’s okay though because, outside of the main love triangle, this film is more about how the family functions as a unit. There are a lot of scenes with all of them interacting with one another and they all work. It’s tough directing scenes with so many actors in it so give Hedges credit for not only challenging himself, but getting solid performances from everybody in them.

The funniest part of this movie just might be unintentional. It’s bizarre that the family would be so taken with Marie, considering she isn’t exactly the most exciting woman in the world. She’s actually pretty boring. Then again, you’d believe a family whose idea of an exciting Saturday night consists of staying in and playing charades would be impressed by her worldly low-key charm. As I watched part of me couldn’t help but wonder how different the movie could have been had another actress been cast in that role. Let’s say a Drew Barrymore or a Kate Hudson. But I came to the conclusion I’m approaching this all wrong. Even though either of them would have undoubtedly added more excitement to the film I’m not sure they would have been the right fit for the material and may have given off the impression we were watching a worse (and stupider) movie.

That that thought would cross my mind probably doesn’t speak too highly of their film choices of late and is an issue they should probably take up with their agents. Plus, while they’re good actresses and easy on the eyes, Hudson or Barrymore wouldn’t exactly be the most believable choice to play a sophisticated world traveler. So while Binoche does add a degree of boredom to the film, she is the appropriate choice for the part and does a good job with it. This also might be the first time in the past year a lead actor is actually given an age appropriate love interest. The exciting love interest comes in the form of Emily Blunt who makes a strong impression briefly as a blind date for Dan.

There were times during the picture where I almost kind of hoped the movie would do something dumb just to liven things up a little. That’s how flawlessly normal this story and its characters are. It’s as if someone took a camcorder into a real family’s home and just started rolling. I’m willing to bet a lot of people will see pieces of their family in this. Even the home itself looks real and takes on a personality of its own. This was actually shot in Rhode Island, not a soundstage, and you can tell that’s true just watching the film. Having been to Rhode Island I knew that, but what surprised me was that the movie got the feel of the state just right. That’s especially impressive considering I wasn’t aware of the fact Rhode Island even had a "feel" when I was there myself.

It comes as almost a relief when a little bit of Hollywood screenwriting contrivance does rear its head toward the third act of the film when it’s most needed but it wasn’t anything we wouldn’t believe could actually happen with these people. That’s reflective of the entire film. One thing did bother me though: The movie poster is guilty of false advertising. I was really expecting Dan’s head to be lying on a plate of pancakes before the final credits. What a disappointment. Remind me to try that at breakfast tomorrow morning. Regardless, Dan In Real Life is a charmer of a story that goes down really easy without pushing any unnecessary buttons. More importantly, I actually liked all these people. Yes, even Dane Cook.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

No Country For Old Men

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald, Garrett Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Stephen Root, Beth Grant

Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: R

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


Here’s something you may not have heard about 2007’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture No Country For Old Men: It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s also darkly humorous and gripping in the best way possible. But it’s not a masterpiece. It may not even be the Coen brothers’ best film, as I’d argue Fargo still holds that title. Like Fargo, this also deals with a stolen suitcase full of cash, but the setting and circumstances are far different. Joel and Ethan Coen have long been known for their quirky, risk-taking style as filmmakers, and while they stretch out of their comfort zone quite a bit here, this proves to be no exception. Their dedication to finding the humor in the most dire circumstances has been their calling card but has also proven to be their biggest hindrance in gaining mainstream acceptance. But here there’s no winking and it’s their most serious, dramatic effort to date, and it’s technically close to flawless. I may not think it’s as great as everyone else (or The Academy) does, but at worst, it still ranks among the year’s best efforts.

Controversy has swirled around the ending and looking at the star rating above you could probably guess where I stand on it. I understand why the Coens made the decisions they did in the final act and give them credit for making them, even if I don’t fully agree. If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen this movie yet, it’s time to be honest and admit the big reason to: Javier Bardem. I don’t think this film will be one of those Best Picture winners that have a lasting cultural impact or will even necessarily play as well on repeated viewings, as I’ve discovered already. It’ll be remembered for Bardem, who creates a character who deserves to join Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector in the pantheon of our greatest screen villains. His performance powers the film, and at times, even overpowers it.

When retired welder and Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens to stumble upon a drug deal gone bad while hunting in the Texas desert. He discovers some dead bodies and a suitcase containing $2 million in cash, which he impulsively decides to take off with, despite the danger this poses to he and his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). Hot on his trail is a cold, heartless killer named Anton Chigurh (Bardem) and at times you wonder whether he’s even all that concerned about the money itself, or just the thrill of physically and psychologically intimidating anyone in his way to getting it. With his Beatles era bowl haircut and inventive cattle air gun murder weapon, he needs just a single coin flip to determine the fate of anyone he encounters. Every moment he’s onscreen and every single word Bardem emotionlessly delivers is pure terror.

He has a talk with a store clerk and you almost hope the old man doesn’t live through it so he isn’t burdened with the memory of actually having a conversation (if you can call it that) with this twisted psychopath. It’s arguably the most tension-filled scene in the entire film. Nearing retirement, seasoned Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) has uncovered this sicko’s trail of terror and is determined to reach Llewelyn and the cash before Chigurh does. So is bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) who’s hired to track down the money by a businessman who had invested interest in the botched drug deal. Wells is the only man with prior knowledge of just how dangerous Chigurh is, even though he uses his witty sarcasm to downplay it. There’s edge of your seat suspense as this monster closes in on Llewelyn and although its never explicitly stated in the film you get the impression this war vet is giving Chigurh the only real fight he’s ever had.

As we head at a breakneck pace toward the big showdown the Coen brothers pull the rug out and make a brave (some would say stupid) decision to deprive us of it. Llewelyn is discarded literally and figuratively as we head toward the film’s polarizing final 20 minutes. There’s a shift to the less interesting character of Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell. The film, set in 1980, finds a way to remain very much of that time period while still telling a story that’s just as relevant now. The Vietnam wounds are still fresh in these characters’ minds and there’s a new kind of evil emerging. It’s an evil Sheriff Bell and even his father’s generation before him couldn’t have possibly prepared for. It’s encapsulated in Anton Chigurh and Bell wants no part of it. With time passing him by and retirement on the horizon, he’s just going through the motions and would likely prefer not to come face-to-face with this monster. If he does, he’s done.

Llewelyn is also a victim, but of greed and temptation. His character is also a casualty of the changing guard and comes to represent concepts Sheriff Bell can’t really get a handle on. Everything now seems determined by fate and forces he can’t control. It’s just a matter of timing and chance that Chirgurh never does catch up with Llewelyn and even more so that Sheriff Bell narrowly avoids an encounter with Chirgurh himself that most certainly would have ended in his death. That this madman is never apprehended and walks away at the end of the film is supremely important. This psychopathic monster will live to see another day and for that the future looks bleaker than ever. The final scene of the film with Bell sitting at the table with his wife (Tess Harper) and explaining the dream he had about his father seem meant to echo the themes of fate and change that permeate through the entire film. And it ends very abruptly with the screen fading to black in almost mid-sentence.

The decision to take the story in that unconventional, anti-crowd pleasing direction makes sense given both the title of the film and the hints given by Jones’ narration at the beginning, but it can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic since we had so much invested in the two major characters and their potential face-off. I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel from which this film is based but supposedly it stays slavishly faithful to it straight up to and including the ending. If so, this may be the first case of filmmakers actually being criticized for staying too true to the source material.

While I understand the reasoning behind it and commend the Coens for refusing to give us an easy, comfortable ending, I couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling that the wind was taken out of the sails of the film a little. The rest of the movie crackles with so much suspense and intensity the shift toward the end left me a little cold. Not necessarily disappointed, but more unfulfilled. I realize that was the intention behind it but in a year full of powerful finales in motion pictures, often the last thing on a viewer’s mind after they’ve seen a film is those final minutes. And even the film’s diehard supporters couldn’t argue that the last 20 minutes leave a lasting, impactful impression. It isn’t a major problem, but it is something that prevented the film from reaching the highest plateau possible for me. Everything else is perfect, especially Roger Deakins’ typically brilliant cinematography and near absence of a musical score. We’re left with only the sounds, which, in the context of this story, create a menacing horror and suspense.

Josh Brolin, capping off an incredible year, delivers a subdued performance in the classic mold of rugged screen legends like McQueen and Eastwood. His work is so quiet and pitch-perfect that amidst all the hype surrounding the movie and Bardem he kind of got lost in the shuffle, which was unfair. He makes you feel for a man who admittedly made a very selfish, stupid decision. Jones is also strong in a smaller role that grows in importance as the film wears on. He’s kind of the eyes and ears for the viewers and the moral centerpiece of the story. Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald disappears into the role of Llewelyn’s confused and naïve wife with a dead-on Southern accent while Woody Harrelson reminds us just how much more effective he is when given the right role, no matter what its size.

But the movie really belongs to Bardem, who gives a performance that has to be considered one of the strongest Academy Award winning supporting turns in years. Part of me wonders if the movie has garnered the praise it has primarily for Bardem’s performance and the big scenes that accompany it. Everyone loves an entertaining bad guy and it’s been a while since one as entertaining and as scary as Chirgurh has hit the screen. Just the opening scene alone, in which he strangles an officer to death with his handcuffs, is enough to give you nightmares for weeks. That’s not to say the film offers nothing else, but I do think everything else it offers would mean nothing if Bardem weren’t a part of it.

With No Country For Old Men The Coen brothers have finally gained well-deserved mainstream acceptance, but while doing so still managed to make a film that’s as inaccessible and challenging as anything else they’ve ever done. Continuously finding new ways to frustrate us and confound our expectations just may stand as their biggest accomplishment.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Into The Wild

Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart, Brian Dierker
Running Time: 148 min.

Rating: R

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

"I read somewhere... how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong... but to feel strong."

-Christopher McCandliss

Sean Penn’s Into The Wild isn’t merely a great movie, or just the visual documentation of an incredible journey. That’s selling it short. What really is, at its core, is a life-altering experience that reaches deep and touches your soul. Usually after I’ve seen a movie I give it some time to sit in my mind a little and let it "sink in" before attempting to write a review. It took a little longer this time since I actually had to emotionally compose myself when the film reached its conclusion.

It’s been about 8 years since I cried during a movie, but I guess I must have been due because I completely lost it during this one. And The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have some serious explaining to do. I can deal with them not nominating works of deserving quality. That always happens. What I can’t deal with is them overlooking an important American cinematic achievement that speaks to who we are as individuals. Of all the Oscar snubs I’ve seen over the years, this is one of the worst.

When it ended I knew I witnessed something unique and special but it’s difficult to put the exact feelings into words. I’ve been trying to figure out why the movie moved me to the level it did what can be taken away from a story that can be viewed as either a modern day tragedy or an uplifting story of independence. You’re not sure whether to be angry at or feel sorry for this admittedly selfish protagonist and Penn wisely doesn’t force us to make such a determination. He’s not asking us to like McCandliss or condone his decision to abandon his life and family, but only to understand what he was doing made sense to him. Foolish as it may seem to us and those he encountered in his travels, he left this Earth on his terms. The degree of empathy you feel for him or his family may vary, but your heart will break for the people whose lives he touched a long the way.

Penn’s film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling novel employs multiple timelines to translate the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a top straight "A" student who upon graduation from Emory University in 1990 donates his $24,000 in savings to OXFAM, burns all the money in his wallet and sets off on a 2-year hitchhiking trek to Alaska. We join him at the end of that journey with Chris (going by the alias "Alexander Supertramp") hauled up inside his Alaskan "Magic Bus" as we’re given the details of the trip that brought him there. Flashbacks narrated by Chris’ sister Carine (Jena Malone) tell of their troubled family life that led him to rebel this dramatically. Their father (William Hurt), a strict disciplinarian who emotionally and physically abused their mother (Marcia Gay Harden), was arrogantly oblivious to the additional pain he was casuing his children. Talk of divorce never actually materialized, which just made the suffering drag on that much longer.

Chris’ parents have high expectations for the overachieving student to attend Harvard Law School after graduation but don’t realize he’s the type of person whose beliefs don’t come wrapped nicely in a box and can’t just be bought off with a new car. Material possessions are of little value to him as he questions society’s role for him, and many of those questions are good ones. A lot of movies have attempted to explore post-graduation angst but I think this is the only one to really ever get it right. It’s that feeling of not wanting to do anything and be completely freed from the shackles of responsibility placed on us by society and our parents. It’s every son or daughter’s worst nightmare to wake up one morning and discover they’ve turned into their mom or dad. This movie understands that. You could write Chris off as just an angry young punk but doing so would be failing to acknowledge that he brings up some real issues that we’re afraid to bring out into the open. And does the fact that we’re afraid to talk about them help create a Christopher McCandless?

The relationship between Chris and Carine represents the rarest sibling dynamic depicted in movies: A brother and sister who not only get along, but actually love each other very much. They lean on each other for support in the midst of their parents’ battles instead of choosing sides and drifting apart. She understands Chris’ decision to leave even though she can’t fully support it and the more lies and secrets he learns about his parents the more determined he becomes to continue on his ill-fated journey and cut them out of his life completely. And if it means cutting out his sister also then so be it.

It’s worth pondering whether his family's "punishment" is truly deserved or Chris is punishing himself more than anyone else. Jena Malone’s narration is the unsung crown jewel of the film, depicting all those conflicted feelings and her delivery of some of the script’s most emotionally stirring lines convinced me if she weren’t an actress she’d find permanent work doing voice-overs. The decision to use narration can make or break a movie and this is one of the best uses of it imaginable. The story couldn’t be told without it.

It’s insulting to call the individuals Chris encounters on his trip "characters." They’re real people with hopes, fears and strong opinions about life. Each of these actors, no matter how much screen time they’re given, flesh them out completely. We don’t want his time or our time with them to ever end. Vince Vaughn’s role as a farmer who briefly employs Chris is miniscule but it represents the most restrained work of his entire career. It’s the only time I’ve seen him not playing a goofier version of himself and mocking every line he delivers. He’s a real working-class person you care about and a voice of reason you hope can get through to this kid who clearly isn’t listening.

Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker play middle-aged hippies with relationship problems of their own and help center the story with their homey, down-to-Earth charm. They respect Chris’ free spirit, but like Vaughn’s character, see through him and can’t completely condone the direction he’s chosen to take his life. Kristen Stewart’s role as a teen singer who’s the ultimate temptation for Chris is smaller, but she’s unforgettable in it.

Hal Holbrook’s Academy Award nominated supporting performance comes late in the film but in just only 10 minutes he truly becomes Ron Franz, a lonely aging man who’s let time slip him by and becomes almost a surrogate grandfather to Chris. Something is awakened in both of them and when it’s time for Chris to move on to the final, inevitable leg of the journey his reaction becomes the beating pulse of the picture. I’ve always been a fan of Holbrook’s work in underrated gems like Capricorn One and Creepshow, but he never got the mainstream recognition he always richly deserved as being one of our most reliable supporting actors. I was so thrilled for him at age 83 to be given a role this meaningful that I felt like cheering. Sean Penn gave him the ball, but he ran with it. Regardless of what the Academy’s intentions may have been, this won’t be remembered as a one of those lifetime career sympathy nominations. He earned it as it’s the best role of his long, impressive career. And as tough as it was for me to keep it together during various points of the picture, I may have had the toughest time during Holbrook’s portion.

Emile Hirsch has slowly been building toward this for a while and it’s is an extremely difficult part to pull off well, not just because of the required physical demands (evident by his frightening skeletal deterioration at the end), but of the responsibility that comes with portraying a real person, especially one as complicated and potentially unlikable as Chris. This pushes the boundaries of what great acting can be. It’s a transformation, and it’s unfathomable that the Academy didn’t deem it worthy of recognition because this is usually the kind of immersive and self-sacrificing performance they shower with praise. 2007 may have been a strong year for films but it wasn’t THAT strong and I could name stronger ones off the top of my head (’94 and ’99 come to mind immediately). There’s no excuse for this.

Even worse are the oversights in other key Oscar categories. This isn’t a dialogue-heavy film and there are many scenes where it’s up to Eddie Vedder’s music and Eric Gautier’s gorgeous cinematography to tell the story. So many times I wanted to just hit PAUSE on my DVD player and take in the scenery. Every shot is like a love letter to nature. And who would have thought Vedder’s music could fit this so story so perfectly? There were about three or four songs in the picture that were so far superior to anything the Academy chose to nominate this year, or even in the past few years. It’s rare when music compliments a film this well.

There’s a point of no return for Chris and it comes in a scene where he gets a glimpse where his life would have been had he followed the road map his parents laid out. It just wasn’t for him and he wasn’t up to faking it anymore. After that moment he’s filled with a renewed sense of purpose in reaching Alaska and we realize then that there’s nothing anyone can do to try to stop him anymore. The most impressive aspect of Hirsch’s performance is how he hints that a small part of him does really want to forgive his parents badly. He just can’t bring himself to do it. I braced myself for what was inevitably coming (not that it made it any easier) but what really took me by surprise was HOW it ended, which I later found out differs from the account in Krakauer’s book. In the film’s beautiful final moments Chris’ and our eyes are opened, awakening us to the world as if we’re seeing it clearly for the very first time.

You could almost view this film as a warning to families everywhere who let issues fester and keep things bottled up inside. This is the worst possible result of that. Anyone harboring grudges and carrying anger will want to think twice about whether that’s really worth it after viewing this film. When it ended I was overcome with mixed emotions and wasn’t sure whether I should be angry at him for emotionally torturing his family or be happy that he stuck with his convictions until the very end living the life he chose for himself.

There was great potential in Chris that was both wasted and completely fulfilled at the same time, as strange as that seems. But I think the part that got to me the most was that he’ll never see those people he befriended on his journey again and there was never a chance to say goodbye. The movie perfectly captures that moment when someone special walks into your life and an important bond is formed, whether or not either party is consciously aware of it at the time. But as deep as those bonds were, there was nothing they could do to prevent this. Only Chris could save himself, and he didn’t want to. Or if he wanted to, he couldn’t.

It’s so ironic that a film like this came from Sean Penn. While a brilliant actor, he’s always come off as an independent minded individual who’s been difficult to get behind and root for, not unlike the protagonist. Maybe that’s partially what drew him to the material. Chris McCandliss may have been out for himself, but Penn wasn’t this time. He’s had a career full of cinematic contributions, but this stands as his greatest…and most important.

It’s been a year of strong films that were exercises in technical expertise, but they also left you cold and depressed when they were over. This is a tragedy, but it isn’t depressing. It’s life affirming. Maybe it’s for the best that it was overlooked at the Oscars because the Academy doesn’t deserve to own any of this film. It’s ours. It contains that extra ingredient that separates four-star movies from masterpieces. That feeling when you’re done watching it that you’ve seen something substantial that will always stay with you. Into The Wild really is about the journey.