Saturday, April 26, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ned Beatty, Emily Blunt

Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: R

** ½ (out of ****)

A while back I was having a conversation with someone who told me they were “getting sick” of Tom Hanks. I found this funny because in appearing in no more than a film or two a year he’s far from being overexposed. Yet, I knew what they meant. Those one or two films always seem to coincidentally come out around Oscar season and have been diminishing steadily in quality for about the past five years. So while we haven’t seen a lot of Hanks, it seems like we have because his few appearances have been mostly unwanted ones in lackluster films that depend solely on his star power to succeed. This conversation took place in the mall late last year as I was walking past the theatrical poster for Charlie Wilson’s War. The poster (shown above) was voted the worst of the year by the Internet Movie Poster Association, but I’d actually go a step further and call it just about the worst movie poster I’ve ever seen. I almost want to hang it on my wall… as a joke. Just look at it. Really, has there ever been a poster that makes you NOT want to see a movie more? And what’s Philip Seymour Hoffman supposed to be doing exactly?

Now after finally viewing the film I’ve determined that this poster captures the movie perfectly and no other could have possibly been more appropriate. There’s a lot of talk but nothing really happens. What it has going for it, however, is a spry, energetic tone and two strong performances, one of which does come from Hanks. But the movie is so sincere and earnest and the actors look to be having such a great time I almost feel guilty bashing it. It’s as if everyone involved with the picture convinced themselves they were telling the most interesting story in American history, but then forgot to put it up on screen. Don’t tell them that though. They’re having too much fun and probably wouldn’t listen anyway. This is Ocean’s 14: The Cold War Years. The only thing missing from the poster and the film is George Clooney.

It’s the early 1980’s and the United States is in the midst of The Cold War while freewheeling Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is busy indulging his interests in hard partying and beautiful women. While cavorting with strippers in a hot tub he happens to catch a Dan Rather report from Afghanistan detailing the struggles of the inadequately armed Afghan fighters against the Soviet invasion. Appalled by the lack of support the Afghans have gotten from our government the flamboyant but well-liked Wilson uses his Congressional pull to set up his own committee and stage a covert war. He recruits the ultra-conservative, anti-communist socialite Joanne Herring (a woefully miscast Julia Roberts) as well as a loose cannon CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman) to help beef up support and plan a new strategy. A visit to an Afghan refugee camp populated by wounded children just further inspires Wilson and Herring.

Through Wilson’s efforts U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, which at the time was only about $5 million, increased substantially and his work has been credited with contributing to the collapse of The Soviet Union and bringing about the end of The Cold War. Unfortunately, a major side effect of this strategy is that Wilson ended up unintentionally arming the Taliban, which years later led to the events of September 11th, 2001. Oops. But the movie is especially careful not to actually place blame on Wilson since things didn’t start to go to hell there until years after the events in the film took place. It’s also mentioned many times that more had to be done than just throw money and weapons at the Afghans. It was the U.S. government’s job to follow through on Wilson’s work and they didn’t. Still, it’s fascinating that something that seemed like such a great idea at the time ended up turning into such a disaster. That’s this movie’s meal ticket and what gives the story a more meaningful undercurrent than it would have had otherwise.

This is a film that will play best with history buffs and those deeply interested in foreign policy and politics. Although I’m betting even they may find their patience tried by the film’s self-congratulatory tone. Everyone else will find even less enjoyment in it and may actually be bored despite the breezy running time and light touches. Part of the problem is that there’s no challenge or conflict in the film. Charlie Wilson is just such a charming, likeable guy you can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to help him. What Hanks manages to convey well is that despite Wilson’s superficial character flaws he’s essentially the only honest politician there is and makes no bones about the fact that he really wants to make a difference. Hanks is so sincere as an actor that he’s perfect for the role, even if the unfortunate side effect is that he turns womanizing and drug abuse into almost admirable qualities.

With her spotty Texas accent and cartoonish mannerisms Roberts doesn’t fare nearly as well as Hanks and her thankfully abbreviated appearances in the film come off more as parody than performance. But I was too busy laughing at her perfectly coiffed hair to even care. I’d say she probably spent anywhere between 36 and 47 straight hours in the hair and makeup trailer before cameras started rolling. Luckily, Hoffman steals the show with his justifiably Oscar-nominated supporting turn as rebel CIA agent Gust. There isn’t much to the character which makes his work that much more impressive. With just a few scenes, Hoffman suggests a whole history to this guy that makes each action he takes infinitely more interesting. Between this and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead it’s been a great year for Hoffman, but it’s a shame the movies he starred in weren’t worthy of the performances he gave. The great Ned Beatty appears, all too briefly, in a worthless throwaway part while Amy Adams is underutilized as Wilson’s “personal assistant.” Emily Blunt has a tiny but extremely memorable role as the daughter of one of Wilson’s constituents. Despite her screen time being limited to about 2 minutes her sizzling scene was just about the only thing in the entire film that legitimately stayed with me.

This was directed with maybe too much energetic vigor by Mike Nichols who goes to great lengths to show us that the charismatic Charlie Wilson LOVES WOMEN. Nichols shoots so many creepy, leering ass and cleavage shots of Wilson’s secretaries (one of whom he affectionately nicknames “Jailbait”) you’d think he was directing a soft-core porn film. The script is from Emmy-Award winning West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin, and it's full of zippy one-liners and catchphrases. It has a real “Old Hollywood” screwball comedy feel to it and despite its many flaws manages to be goofy and endearing, even if I suspect most its laughs are unintentional. For Nichols this effort is a long way from The Graduate, but not too far off from Primary Colors.

This was one of those DVD’s where I was more interested in the special features than the film because I knew all the actors would be slapping each other’s asses and tripping over themselves describing what a wonderful experience making this was. They’d gush about all these fascinating facets to the story that are nowhere to be found in the actual movie. I was right, but in all fairness after actually seeing and hearing from the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring you have more of an appreciation for Hanks and Roberts’ takes on them. I don’t know if that necessarily makes their performances any better but it does make for an engaging contrast. It’s too bad the list of people this film will appeal to is short. It would likely include the families of Hanks, Roberts, Hoffman, Nichols and Sorkin, as well as history teachers over the age of 50. Oh, and Clooney of course. Maybe for the sequel they can all get together and hit a Vegas casino.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson
Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Ryan Gosling just might be the best actor we have who has yet to star in a truly great film. He came closest with The Believer. The Notebook was a decent chick flick. Half-Nelson was just plain overrated. Fracture was an unintentionally amusing genre picture. That disconnect between Gosling and the material he's given continues in a big way with Lars and the Real Girl. This is such a close call for me but I'm recommending it with hesitation. The movie sometimes treats the serious issue of mental illness as a joke but Gosling's performance, as a man who finds comfort in the arms of a plastic doll, doesn't. While the script has holes big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through, Gosling somehow finds a way to fill them in. I knew he was good, but I had no idea he was THIS good. It's probably the best performance of his career and it's made all the more impressive by the fact that he's saddled with problematic and occasionally cringe-inducing material that's searching for the right tone.

The movie is full of nervous laughs and we're never quite sure whether it's supposed to be taken seriously or not. The term "dramedy" has never been more appropriate and that's not necessarily a compliment. But because of Gosling's work and the dedicated support he gets from the other actors I was able to let go and not care. It seems to exist in a fantasy world where human interaction magically cures mental illness and everyone is tolerant and supportive of those who are different. It's a sad testament to just how dark and depressing the films of 2007 have been that I actually found myself relieved to see that. I was smiling throughout and happy I got to spend time with characters I actually liked. And that ended up being enough.

Everyone has days where they just want to be left alone. For Lars, every day is that day. After the death of his parents the introverted 27 year-old has become a recluse living in their garage while his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) occupy the main residence. Just getting him to come over for dinner proves to be a near impossible task for Karin, who senses there really might be something wrong with him. They're relieved, however, when Lars proudly announces he has a new girlfriend and asks if she can stay in the guest bedroom. This girlfriend is not Margo (Kelli Garner) a cute co-worker interested in Lars who he's afraid to talk to. It's Bianca, a life-size plastic doll Lars ordered from a perverted web site his friend was surfing at work. Under the guise of getting medical treatment for the wheelchair-bound Bianca, Gus and Karin trick Lars into seeing the family doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who just so happens to be a psychologist as well. Mercifully, Nancy Oliver's inexplicably Oscar nominated script stops short of also making her a practicing veterinarian, which always seems to be the case in these small middle America movie towns.

She diagnoses him as delusional and takes a Tom Cruise approach to psychology by suggesting that instead of committing him or putting him on medication it's better he just work through this himself. Only Lars can get rid of Bianca because he created her. Gus and Karin are told to go along with this and treat Bianca as if she's his actual girlfriend as we enter the most problematic territory of the film. After some brief initial shock, the entire town accepts Bianca as a member of the community and the script tries to mine giggles from an uncomfortable situation. We see Bianca at church. Children sitting on her lap. Wives taking her out for a night on the town. The ridiculousness reaches a fever pitch in the final act and it requires an unfathomable suspension of disbelief.

I think what the film was trying to do was show how Bianca acts as some kind of symbol for understanding that brings the town together and fills a void in their lives. It's a tough sell. Dagmar's reasoning is that if Lars were told Bianca isn't real he wouldn't believe it anyway and she's right. Gus, who Schneider wisely plays as a voice of reason rather than a villain, tries but fails. I'm not a clinical psychologist so I haven't a clue whether this is the right approach to take with someone with a delusional mental illness or how reality based this is but it sure does play weirdly when depicted on screen. Even though this is "just a movie" I couldn't help but feel it has a responsibility to present this problem and its treatment realistically since there's no doubt people like Lars really exist. It's a responsibility Oliver's script skirts around a little for entertainment purposes.

Lars must also contend for his growing feelings for Margo, who threatens to come between him and Bianca. His sessions with Dagmar in which she gets him to opens up about Bianca's personal and medical history are of course meant to get him to come to grips with his own insecurities. We know the whole time where this story is going even if it takes some mind-boggling detours to get there. As Lars becomes Mr. Popularity in town and grows closer to Margo his need for the doll will hopefully diminish and they'll be a breakthrough.

Clarkson is given a near-impossible role to pull off here as a reasonable psychologist who suggests a VERY questionable form of treatment. But she does pull it off and her subtlety proves to be an invaluable asset in a film burdened by craziness. We're also expected to believe a seemingly normal young woman would not only go unbothered by the fact that a guy has a plastic doll for a girlfriend, but would understand and appreciate him that much more. It would be unbelievable if not for the adorably endearing performance of Garner as Margo. There's great chemistry between the two leads and watching Lars come around and eventually bring himself to connect with her is the highlight of the entire film. Both are a joy to watch together and their performances are so good this does manage to be a moving love story in spite of the script's head scratching middle act.

You'll be wondering who the "real girl" of the title actually is since the disheveled and mustachioed Gosling shares just as much chemistry with the inanimate doll as he does Garner. While the movie may forget at times we're dealing with mental illness and get bogged down in eccentricity, Gosling never does. Rather than overplay the quirkiness like many actors mistakenly would he instead inhabits a man wanting desperately to make a human connection but who's unable to. His performance just might be one of the biggest Oscar snubs of the year since the Academy's so busy praising performances in great films, they tend to overlook the times when an actor, against all odds, nearly single handedly drags thankless material like this past the goal line. That's far more difficult. Gosling's name is often mentioned alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Foster as being among the next emerging generation of great actors, but he's lagging behind those two. Not because he doesn't have the talent but because all the projects he picks seem to be plagued with all these little problems. He'll make a great film yet and when the day comes it'll mean a lot more because he cut his chops on material that hasn't been up to the level he deserves as an actor.

The film was directed with a lead eye by first-timer Craig Gillespie. There's nothing interesting going on visually at all but there really doesn't need to be for this type of story. It also takes place in a location I like to refer to as "Nowheresville, U.S.A." a nondescript town you may recognize from other movies where the weather is overcast all the time and no one seems to really do anything. What they are though are the most tolerant, kindest people on Earth to be so accepting of Lars. But this scenario is far preferable to one creating some kind of stupid false crisis with the townsfolk ostracizing him because he's mentally ill. That's a road we definitely didn't want to go down either.

This film can't possibly be looked at as any kind of serious examination of mental illness and has to be taken as almost a fantasy or fairy tale. At its best it's reminiscent of Hal Ashby's Being There, while at its worst it recalls fluffy feel-good films like Waitress. Unlike the latter film though, these people aren't just caricatures. The actors make sure of that. Despite a mish mash of tones there is a unique and special feeling surrounding the film. We really want to believe that everyone could be so accepting of someone with a mental illness and Lars and the Real Girl lets us suspend our disbelief and do it. That's what movies are for and that's why this barely gets a pass. I guess it was just nice to see something with a positive message for a change, as far-fetched as it may have been.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan,
Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Running Time: 84 min.

Rating: PG-13

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

It's debatable whether it actually helps to know as little as possible going into Cloverfield. Shrouded in secrecy for months leading up to its release and at the center of a huge viral marketing campaign, the studio went to great lengths to make sure very little was leaked about the film. Just about all we knew was that it was set in New York City and it involved some kind of monster attack. Details about what this monster was, where it came from and especially how it looked were guarded closest of all.

On one hand this is great because it creates an element of shock and surprise when you see the film. On the other hand it isn't because when anything is hyped this endlessly and we essentially know nothing, you run risk of audiences being disappointed with whatever they see. Just ask George Lucas (although that's a little different because his Star Wars prequels did truly suck). Hype or not, internet or not, Cloverfield doesn't suck at all. In fact, it's very good and a true original as far as monster movies go.

After finally seeing it I've determined the most ridiculous complaint leveled against the film is that the shaky hand-held camera is annoying and nauseating Without it we'd really have no movie and nothing would distinguish it from any other run-of-the-mill monster movie other than the fact that the acting is a little stronger. But also, had the film not been shot this way, we probably wouldn't be hearing criticisms that the film evokes "9/11 imagery." It's okay to have New York City under attack, just please don't make it look real! This does evoke imagery of that day, but it's unavoidable. I'm convinced any disaster movie set in New York would, but this just LOOKS worse because of how it's shot.

We already, for better or worse, have gotten United 93 and World Trade Center so to complain about this now seems a little silly. I hesitate calling this movie frighteningly realistic because it deals with a premise so far out there, but that's just what it is. The people seem real. The situation seems real. And that's why it's scary. The way it's filmed and directed lets you feel like you're an eyewitness to something horrifying and enables you to envision yourself in these characters' places, maybe wondering how you'd handle it.

Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) has just taken a new job in Japan and his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are throwing him a surprise going away party. Rob's longtime friend Beth (Odette Yustman), who he slept with weeks earlier shows up with a date making for an extremely awkward situation. His best friend Hud (T.J.Miller) is given a camera and the task of recording everyone's final goodbyes to Rob. He very reluctantly agrees, unaware that he'll be recording much more than just a couple of well wishing testimonials that night. He's our eyes for most of the rest of the film as we see what's unfolding onscreen through his hand-held camera. He mostly uses this opportunity to goof off and flirt with his crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who barely knows he exists. Rob and Beth argue about their "relationship" and she storms out of the party.

It's here where I wished I knew even less about the film than I did going in because what happens next is truly jarring, especially in the context of the friendly home video we've been watching thus far. Something attacks the city and that's just about all I can reveal plot-wise without spoiling anything. It's big, it's nasty and no one knows where it came from.. Rob's caught in a life and death situation with Jason, Lily, Hud and Marlena and it clear all he wants to do is get to mid-town to find Beth.

It's almost impossible not to compare Cloverfield with The Blair Witch Project, one of its obvious inspirations. Where the two movies diverge, however, is in their use of the hand held camera as a storytelling device. In Blair Witch it was essentially a gimmick used to convince us what we're watching was real. This does that, but takes it a few steps further. It cleverly uses the camera to incorporate flashbacks of Rob and Beth together, as the night's events are accidentally recorded over a day they spent together the previous month. As a result, the footage shows up intermittently during the film giving us a better sense of who they are. Hud, who's behind the camera also has a distinctive personality, which somehow finds a way to shine through in the way the film is shot, which in turn influences how we see events.

I can't recall once during the film where I stopped and thought to myself how creative the director was or how clever the dialogue. It really seemed as if no one was directing this and it had no script, which is probably the highest compliment of all. Despite his name being all over the project in the media, Lost creator J.J. Abrams is actually the producer while Matt Reeves, whose previous credits include Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and The Pallbearer, is behind the camera. He invisibly directs this with near-perfection.

Of course this has a draw back too in that an 84 minute home movie that doesn't play as if it's been edited at all will have the tendency to drag its feet at times no matter how suspenseful. If this went on any longer than an hour and a half it probably would have been too much but at this length it's just right. Reeves is also able to salvage a PG-13 rating believably because if something's too gory or gruesome to show he doesn't have to. Hud can just miss it. He's not supposed to be a professional cameraman. If there's a conversation that we're not supposed to see or hear, then we won't. Reeves can do all of this believably without us ever feeling as if we're being manipulated.

This especially comes in handy with the monster since he can take a Jaws-like approach to its unveiling, giving it to us visually in small doses throughout the film, only increasing the terror and suspense. The special effects and CGI don't become as huge an issue or as noticeable as they would be in your typical blockbuster because this sloppy style of filming distracts you from it. The execution of this technique is very, very clever and not something we've seen in a film of this magnitude before. While the ending feels slightly anti-climactic, I'm hard–pressed to think of a more satisfying one. A couple of alternate finishes are included on the disc, none of which vary much at all from the theatrical one.

It can't be overstated how wise a decision it was on Abrams' and Reeves' parts to cast, other than maybe Vogel, virtual unknowns in these roles. The performances are fine all-around, with the strongest coming from Caplan. Had what unfolds at the 20-minute mark not happened I still would have wanted to spend the entire running length of the film with these characters even if they were just sitting around the apartment talking.

Unlike Blair Witch, which was concerned primarily with using the camera to unspool its mythology, this film lets us get to know the characters and eventually come to care what happens to them. That they're fresh faces, not big stars helps speed along the process even if some of the actors resemble more famous names. Caplan and Yustman could pass as doubles for Zooey Deschanel and Jennifer Connelly, respectively. Both are also naturals and the camera loves them…even if it's a shaky hand held one. Michael Stahl-David is likable and believable as the lead. Because of the naturalness of all the performances you have to believe a lot of Drew Goddard's script was improvised on the spot. The actors provide a spontaneous feeling we probably wouldn't have gotten from more established actors, who out of habit would have turned in more mannered work. This proves that sometimes it doesn't pay to necessarily go for the most talented performers, but instead those best suited for the specific material.

It's tough to determine whether Cloverfield is a movie that plays better on the big screen or small. It feels like a giant event movie that needs to be experienced in a loud theater to fully absorb its scope, yet the direct immediacy of its technique lends itself to satisfying home viewing as well. Having not seen it on the big screen though, I couldn't accurately tell you how much is lost in translation, if anything. It's also hard to determine how well this will stand up on repeated viewings since The Blair Witch Project, hailed as masterful upon its release, now plays like nothing more than a clever stunt. There seems to be more going on here, but it'll take some time to tell just how much. If nothing else, its eventful release and box office success came as a huge relief during the notorious moviegoing doldrums of January. It's no surprise that a sequel is being planned, as unnecessary as it is.

Some may feel uncomfortable with the way the film brings to the surface 9/11 fears, anxiety and memories. Collapsing New York City skyscrapers and a decapitated Statue of Liberty can only bring one thing to mind and Abrams had to know that. He probably also knows that day has already been seeping into Hollywood whether we like it or not. But what is film, anyway, but our lives adapted on the big screen for display? If they ever stopped being that, I'd want to quit watching them. It's time to admit that Cloverfield has bothers so many people because it so effectively taps into that powerless, scary feeling of not knowing what's going on.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lions For Lambs

Director: Robert Redford
Starring: Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Andrew Garfield, Derek Luke, Michael Pena, Peter Berg

Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R

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

Of all the politically themed dramas Hollywood has nauseatingly dished out to us in the past year I was dreading Lions For Lambs the most. I figured with big power players like Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep attached there would be no one there to rein them and they'd make fools of themselves juggling this heavy-handed subject matter. With Cruise producing and Redford directing those fears were only magnified. Much to my surprise, they actually restrain themselves a little and parts of it are actually very good. I'm convinced this is only because it does a better job hiding its blatant one-sided agenda than expected. It almost had me.

The film tries to be a call to action and tell us that as citizens we should be involved and alert to what's going on in even the smallest way possible. It does this by telling three different but interrelated stories concerning The United States' war on terror in the Middle East. One of these stories is thought provoking, another boring, while a third is unintentionally hilarious.

This is the first feature to be released under the Cruise led United Artists banner after he was unceremoniously dumped by Paramount following his Oprah couch jumping debacle and other various public displays of embarrassment a couple of years ago. It's an auspicious start and a very rare misstep for Cruise, whose choices in projects are usually flawless. A special feature on the DVD is a video montage highlighting all the great films released under United Artists, and there are many. This isn't likely to ever be listed among them. But of course you could argue Pieces of April had no place in the montage either but I think we know why that was there.

The silly, on-the-nose title of the film obviously refers to clueless political leaders (lambs) sending brave young men and women (lions) to slaughter overseas for no reason. So going in I really had no right to expect a fair and balanced treatment of the issue. And if anything, this film's commercial failure conclusively proved what we already knew: Audiences like to make their own minds up and don't like being preached to, no matter how slickly it's presented.

The first story involves an upcoming hotshot Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) who has a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan that he's willing to share only with veteran TV reporter Janine Roth (Streep) in an hour-long exclusive interview in his D.C. office. Janine had written a very flattering piece on the Senator 8 years ago that she's now starting to regret because she realizes this guy is full of hot air and just has his sights set on the White House. Now she has to objectively report on this latest piece of propaganda. The charismatic Senator will say and do anything to raise his profile, even if it means putting soldiers lives at risk.

Two of those soldiers fighting in Afghanistan right now and in immediate danger from this new strategy are college students Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Pena) who were inspired to enlist by a project given by their idealistic professor Dr. Stephen Malley (Redford). Malley is having an hour-long meeting with spoiled, apathetic student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), who's been skipping class and is in danger of failing. Dr. Malley offers him a deal he has to think hard about and that could have a major bearing on his future. He tells him about his two former students, emphasizing that while he may not agree at all with what they did, he respects them for at least doing something.

This is a very talky movie. It clocks in at only 91 minutes but I'm sure if we saw a copy of Matthew Michael Carnahan's script it would be about 180 pages. Peter Berg, who plays a Lieutenant in Afghanistan, has a stretch of dialogue that has to be among the longest I've ever heard. All I could think listening was how it could even be humanly possible for anyone to memorize so many lines. As he just kept going, without even taking a breath, I actually started cracking up. All the war sequences are boring and major reason for that (besides not being filmed particularly well) is the narrative lets us know too late who these two soldiers are and their relationship to the professor. We don't really know why they're there until the last 15 minutes of the film so we don't care. It's a shame too because Luke and Pena give good performances and are terrific later on when we finally get to know who they are and what they stand for. It's a double-edged sword that the war sequences don't take up very much of the film because, while they may not be effective at all, do we really want something so important treated as a throwaway?

The film gives more than enough time to the ludicrous "showdown" between Cruise's Senator and Streep's liberal minded reporter. Cruise slides into the role of the cocky Senator effortlessly and audiences are likely to pick up on the irony of him playing a man who believes everything he says no matter how delusional. It's Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise playing a slimy senator, but he's entertaining nonetheless. His character is essentially just a Bush stand-in though. It's humorous that in Rendition Meryl Streep was playing a conservative stereotype and now here she is playing a liberal one. She isn't very good at either and needs a new agent desperately because these ill-advised film choices are turning one of our most respected actresses into a joke. My (least) favorite moment with these two has to be when he leaves the room to take a phone call and she looks at his pictures on the wall, which includes a grinning Cruise superimposed into photos with President Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Then there's another photo of Cruise in military garb that looks like it's just a screenshot from the actor's role in Taps. It gets bad laughs, which isn't something you should be going for when handling material like this.

In all fairness, this section of the film does have some interesting ideas about the media and the two actors play off each other very well. If you're like me and believe the media can be blamed for everything you may enjoy this. Unfortunately, the film turns Streep's character into a pulpit preaching political lunatic late in the film when she has it out with her commercially minded boss over the content of her piece. Less would have been more in this scene. And the script actually asks us to accept that her bosses WOULDN'T dare move forward with a smear story on a Republican Senator. Where does she work? Fox News Channel.

Luckily for the film, the story involving Dr. Malley and the student he's trying to inspire is superb. Not only is Redford completely believable as a disillusioned academic, but the debate they have inside his office is spirited and intelligent. Unlike the other two sections of the film, this does really explore both sides of the issue and I loved how the Malley character acknowledged the fallacy of what his former students did, but still supported them. It also brings up an important issue about those Americans who are given the least often end up giving up the most, while those who are actually in a position to give, give nothing. Redford, with just the slightest mannerisms, suggests a whole history for this man that isn't even touched on verbally. The role probably isn't much of a stretch for the liberal actor but he plays it perfectly, proving why he's regarded as one of the best. Carnahan's script actually explores the fact that this guy would spend this much time with one of his students says as much about him and his perceived failings as it does the student.

As this student, Andrew Garfield gives the best performance in the film. He's one of those privileged preppy kids you can't stand who thinks they know everything even though they've experienced nothing. He's right there with Malley and has a wise-ass response for everything. I can't tell you how many people I've encountered just like this kid and Garfield nails it. Why couldn't the entire film been about them? Had the focus of this story been on Malley's relationships with his students and how he, for better or worse, attempted to provoke change in their lives, we really could have had something here. Instead the movie's liberal agenda seeps through in the Cruise/Streep storyline, knocking the wind out of the rest of the film.

As tough as it may be to believe, despite my misgivings of him as a celebrity, I actually like Tom Cruise a lot as an actor and take no delight in any of his projects, as an actor or a producer, failing. Redford is a national treasure as an actor and an accomplished director so it's a shame to see him involved in anything that isn't "A" level. I'd love to ask Cruise why he thought a movie exploring this topic would be a mainstream success when we're depressed enough seeing it on television everyday.

We go to movies to escape real world tragedies like this, not have our noses rubbed in it. I'm not against the topic being explored in a film per se, but if it is, it better inspire deep thought and say something important. Only one of the three stories contained in this came close to doing that. This isn't as shameless and sensationalistic as the awful Rendition but its goal is pretty much the same. In trying to present a meditation on the times we live in, Lions For Lambs succeeds mainly in conveying Hollywood's warped perception of them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Michael Shannon, Bryan F. O'Byrne, Amy Ryan

Running Time: 116 min.

Rating: R

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

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is essentially a film about two losers who make a series of stupid decisions that wreck their lives. When it was over I was sure I enjoyed it, but the more I thought about it I realized, aside from some sure-footed direction from a filmmaking legend and two outstanding performances, there wasn't really anything particularly great about it or worth recommending. The director of the film is Sidney Lumet, who's stated in interviews that he's gotten sick of reporters and critics mentioning how old he is. I don't blame him since I agree the age of a filmmaker should have no bearing on anything. So, let's just say he's up there in years. Watching the film I never would have guessed the age of the director, but more disappointingly, I also wouldn't have guessed it was directed by the same man who made Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.

It's not fair to compare this to those classics and while this is definitely one of his lesser efforts, it is still better than many directors' best. But his work is undermined here by a silly script that bombards us with an annoying narrative device that prevents us from caring about any of the characters. This is all in spite of an Award-worthy performance from one of our greatest actors and book ending the film with a shocking opening and closing scene. But all they are is shocking and that's the problem. I actually found myself laughing a lot during this film, which couldn't have been Lumet's intent.

Andy Hanson (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) are losers at life. Andy is stuck in a pressure-filled job he hates while struggling with drug addiction. He dreams of coming into a windfall of cash so he and his beautiful wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) can leave the country. They have intimacy issues but you'd never know it from the opening scene, which features them having wild sex. I guess after you've won an Oscar one of the perks is getting to do a scene like this, but something tells me it was probably more embarrassing and nerve-racking for the actors than exciting. Gina is having a secret affair with Hank, whose life is equally in shambles. He can't afford the child support payments to his ex-wife (played by Amy Ryan) and the two are at each other's throats constantly.

Andy comes up with a solution to both their problems with a plan to rob a mom and pop jewelry store. This mom and pop in question just so happens to actually be mom and pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Having worked there in the past they both know the layout and since their folks are fully insured they won't lose anything. A disguised Hank will case the joint on a Saturday morning although he's completely unaware their mother is covering that shift for an absentee associate. The problem with this master plan is that Hank isn't the brightest bulb in the box, nor does he trust himself to go through with this. He hires a hot-headed out-of-town thug (played by Bryan F. O' Byrne) to help him out and everything goes all wrong. It's worth noting that Rosemary Harris' performance in the robbery scene is truly awful, turning what should be an edge-of your-seat sequence into a screwball comedy with her cartoonish facial expressions. The second half of the picture deals with the serious fallout from this tragedy and Finney's character's suspicions into what happened. The more Andy and Hank try to cover their tracks after the robbery the deeper a hole they dig themselves into.

It's hard to determine which half of this film works best. On one hand, the first hour is at times a very interesting character study highlighted by a terrific Hoffman performance as this pathetic and desperate man. But this section of the film is mired by something very annoying. Kelly Masterson's script constantly zigs and zags, flashing forward and flashing back to let us know what happened "1 Day Before The Robbery," "2 Days Before The Robbery," "2 Weeks After The Robbery," "7 Days After The Fifth Leap Year And Approximately 2 Minutes and 15 Seconds Before The Robbery." It's so irritating. Not so much because of the confusion it creates, but because it's pointless. There's no reason for it. When used sparingly this device can be successful and actually add to the story (see Michael Clayton), but here it's just a distraction and distances us from the characters. We're too concerned trying to figure out what day and week we're on to actually care about what they're doing. It was clearly done in an attempt to make the film feel hip and new rather than enhance the material.

The second half of the film crackles with more intensity and belongs to Hawke, whose Hank could write a book on how to look as suspicious as possible after you've committed a crime. But it's just how anyone would act and a scene he has at a car rental office as just about as tension-filled as you can get. Again though, Masterson's script gives in to temptation and takes things too far. Everything escalates to ridiculous levels, which wouldn't be a problem so long as the story didn't take place in a fantasy world where cops don't exist. That's especially surprising considering this is a Lumet film. The script shifts from Andy and Hank covering their tracks so well that no cops could find them out, to their actions (especially Andy's) becoming so complicated and bizarre you wonder how any cop could even put the pieces together without their head exploding. Maybe that's why Masterson chose to write the law out entirely. It was just too much to deal with. The ending doesn't give us the closure a film like this needs and the final scene is downright laughable. That's really all I can say about it. Albert Finney is a gifted actor, but there's was no way even he could pull this off believably.

Despite my misgivings, Hawke and especially Hoffman turn in superb work. While they're movie stereotypes with movie problems like drug addiction and unpaid child support, these actors invest them with something more and I tried my best to care what happened to them. The ludicrous screenplay just wouldn't let me though. I not only believed them as brothers, but also that Hoffman's character could be married to Marisa Tomei. If that's not great acting I don't know what it is. Speaking of Tomei her sole purpose in the film seems to be to generate as much traffic as possible for the Mr. Skin website by appearing topless for nearly every one of her scenes. No complaints from me on that front, but I just expected her to play a bigger role in the proceedings. She's all but discarded in the third act.

On the DVD's special features Lumet describes the film as a "melodrama. That's a very accurate description. I think the reason this film has garnered such high praise is because people are just thrilled that one of the directors from the golden age of 70's cinema hasn't sold out and is still producing work of value and integrity at his advanced age. I completely agree that that's admirable, but just hoped to get a little more out of the picture. Burdened with a mediocre screenplay, Lumet did the best he could and likely a lot better than many other directors would have. I really wanted to like this but just couldn't bring myself to. Attempts to tell a deep story involving family and betrayal were sabotaged by the script's silly games. Before The Devil Knows You're Dead isn't a bad film at all, it just isn't anything we haven't seen before in the heist genre.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From The Vault: I Heart Huckabees

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert

Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 2004

*** (out of ****)

"It was as if somebody forgot to give the actors a script and said, 'For the next two hours, just go out there and do something'"
-2008 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee

"Pretentious" is a word that seems to have picked up a lot of steam in the past few years, especially in regards to film. Upon its release in 2004, this word was used often in describing the polarizing existential comedy I Heart Huckabees. As shocking as it may seem, between late 2002 and late 2005 I hardly watched any movies at all and I'm still slowly trying to recover and catch up on a lot of them. This one was always at the top of my list. People kept telling me I had to see it because, even though most of them despised it themselves, they thought it would be "my kind of movie."

For the most part, they were right…I think. It's a film perhaps best known for a couple of volatile on-set confrontations between director David O. Russell and star Lily Tomlin that were captured on video and posted on YouTube last year. I'd be lying if I told you that my primary interest in seeing the film didn't stem mainly from watching that. The good news is there is more to the movie than just that off-screen drama, even if there isn't nearly as much to the movie as Russell probably thinks there is, or wanted there to be.

It's a real "love it" or "hate it" affair yet somehow I found myself squarely in the middle on it. Part of me wanted to despise the film, while the other part really wanted to love and embrace it. In the end, neither side won. It tries to touch on deep philosophical issues that most mainstream films won't go near, yet doesn't really touch on any them at all. It's billed as a "comedy" yet after listening to the humorless commentary track from Russell on the DVD I started to wonder if he knew it was one.

Really, above all, I Heart Huckabees is a self-indulgent mess, but that's not necessarily a criticism. What it has going for it is that it's often hysterical and gives us a chance to see some big-name actors show off a humorous side of themselves we never knew they had. One actor, especially, who proves to have a surprising gift for comedy and gives one of the best performances of his career. I'd recommend this just for his work in it, but aside from that there's still more than enough here to tickle the funny bone.

After a series of coincidences and chance encounters with a Sudanese doorman, Alex Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) employs the services of a Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a husband and wife team of "existential detectives" to get to the bottom of it. They believe every event and every person in the world is connected in some way. In other words, everything occurs for a reason and has "meaning." Ironically, the closer the detectives get to unraveling the mystery the more Alex tries to sabotage their investigation out of fear of what they may uncover. He sets ridiculous ground rules for them, forbidding they go anywhere near his job, where he's having a major "situation." As the head of the environmental group, "Open Spaces Coalition" he's battling Brad Stand (Jude Law) a slick, smooth-talking executive from Huckabees, a Wal-Mart like department store chain, whose charm has enabled him to infiltrate and take control of Alex's group. He's made a sport out of telling people what they want to hear and being loved for it.

His beautiful girlfriend, Dawn Campbell is the spokesmodel for the company and is starting to have an existential crisis of her own, coming to the realization she's just a commodity valued only for her looks. As Alex's frustration with the Jaffe's investigation grows he meets another one of their clients even more frustrated than he is, obsessive anti-petroleum firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg). He's secretly hired the detectives' arch nemesis Caterine Vaubin (Isabelle Huppert), who supports a contradicting Nihilistic theory that life is completely random, meaningless and cruel and you just have to accept it for what it is. Tommy's liberal rantings reach a hilarious peak in the film's best scene, when he and Alex join the Sudanese doorman's adoptive family for dinner. Some of the stuff he says and how he says it will have you either in hysterics, just scratching your head, or both.

I'd love to say all these deep philosophical ideas come together in a big way at the end of the film but they don't exactly. I don't know if they're supposed to or if Russell even wants us to attempt to connect all the dots. The real joys in the film come from these memorable characters and all the actors' energetic performances as them. The character of Brad, especially, takes an interesting turn in the final act as he's set up as almost the antithesis of Alex. If Jude Law suddenly gave up drama it would be of no loss because he could have a future in comedy judging from what he pulls off here. His reaction to an important question posed by his girlfriend late in the film is priceless. He finds a way to make Brad completely slimy, yet still very likeable.

Even better is Watts, whose given the film's most memorable line. It's a joke that's almost too easy and we see it coming from miles away, but her delivery of it is so perfect. Watching her try to ugly herself up (as if that's possible) and run around in meltdown mode through the last third of the film is a huge guilty pleasure for those used to her usual work. She dives into this nonsense head first.

Tomlin and Hoffman have great chemistry together as do Wahlberg and Schwartzman, who's never been better as the super-sensitive, worrisome protagonist. Before I saw this even those who hate the film told me how much they loved Wahlberg's performance as this delusional firefighter. He steals every scene he's in and basically the entire film. Of all the actors here Wahlberg seems to know best that the character demands to be played with total straight-faced conviction. He's known as quietly intense actor so it's a thrill to see him channel that intensity outward in comedy. Who knew he could be this funny? Despite the film's mixed reception, I'm very surprised he didn't earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this. There are also some "before they were stars" cameos from Jonah Hill and Isla Fisher while Shania Twain proves to be a good sport by appearing as herself despite being mocked throughout the movie in a funny sub-plot.

It's a shame the Tomlin/Russell controversy has overshadowed the film because you'd figure a movie like this would actually be fun to make. I guess it's just a harsh reminder that no matter how fun and breezy things look onscreen, or how perfect the cast synergy may appear, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to deliver the finished product…and often involves many clashing egos. Judging from the two "incidents" available online I'm just impressed Russell was able to restrain himself from strangling Tomlin the way she was acting. I wasn't sure whose side I'd be on but after seeing the second clip where Tomlin inexplicably curses out my girl Naomi she officially lost me and I was on Team Russell. Ironically, after all that the scene never even made the final cut.

The movie made some more headlines this year when Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee adopted the film's title as his campaign slogan. The quote above, reflecting his hatred of the film, may seem true at times during the movie, but in actuality it takes a lot of planning to craft something this absurd and meaningless. Just ask Tomlin. In any event, this film was far more successful than Huckabee's ill-fated Presidential run.

David O. Russell already had two critically acclaimed films behind him before he directed this: Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings. The latter featured another storied on-set confrontation (this time physical) with star George Clooney. If this had happened once Russell probably could have recovered but because he had two huge incidents with major stars he was labeled as "difficult" and his career has yet to recover. To be fair, it's worth noting that Wahlberg has worked with him twice and both he and Schwartzman were able to stand him long enough to record a commentary track for the DVD without any issues.

Even though I'm giving the film three stars because it is really a mixed bag it's one of the more affectionate three-star ratings I can recall giving out and I can envision the movie growing on me. It probably plays much better on repeated viewings and I can understand how it's quirkiness has earned it somewhat of a cult following. The performances, its memorable visual aesthetic and Jon Brion's enchanting, offbeat score only enhance the overall experience. It is original that's for sure and the rare case where a movie's behind the scenes turmoil may have actually helped its cause, or at the very least, drawn more attention to the finished product. I Heart Huckabees may not work all the time, but I had a smile on my face the whole way through.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Raymond J. Barry, Conner Rayburn
Running Time: 95 minutes

Rating: R

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

You know a comedy is off to a good start when you hit the floor laughing hysterically on the first joke. Jake Kasdan's musical biopic send-up Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story maintains nearly all of that momentum throughout its 95-minute running time. It's the rare spoof that's actually hilarious, mainly because it's lampooning a genre of film that hasn't been mocked that frequently, and as a result, the comedy feels inspired. It features an uproarious starring turn from John C. Reilly and is further bolstered by a clever Judd Apatow co-written script that knows all the targets it has to hit and nails them with pinpoint accuracy.

Almost in spite of itself, it's also a involving story in which we actually end up caring a little about the main character. If the film has any flaws it's that viewing the Walk The Line is an absolute prerequisite for anyone hoping to pick up on all the humor. Johnny Cash isn't the only target, as Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Elvis also take a huge thrashing, but he's the major one and its plot follows exactly the same plot formula as that 2005 film. The movie behaves like it really is an Oscar-baiting biopic and that's why it works so well.

Unfortunately, a side effect of this film is that I may never be able to watch Walk The Line the same way again. I'm a big fan of biopics in general but I don't think I fully appreciated just how clichéd and ridiculous they can be until seeing this. It hits on some silly truths about those films that almost make audiences look like idiots for liking them. In many ways, it's the ultimate compliment to have your movie spoofed, but on the other, if it's done really well it can make the original work look stupid. That's kind of what we have here. It's so good that the biopic, as we know it, may not be able to recover. But I guess if you're going to be spoofed, it's important that you're spoofed well and Apatow has it nailed down. While I loved Superbad, I'm one of the few who thought that Knocked Up didn't click. But Apatow's at the top of his game here with this. It's a big surprise and I can't recall a second when I wasn't laughing...hard.

As a young boy growing up in Springberry, Alabama, Dewey Cox (Reilly) lived in the shadow of his musically gifted brother Nate. After a freak machete accident took Nate's life, Dewey, hoping to carry on the family legacy, learned the blues. Before he's even out of his teens Dewey skyrockets to fame during the early days of rock and roll and what follows is a whirlwind trip through all the stages of Dewey's life. It hits on everything from the flower power era of 60's right through to the groovy 70's, as each touchstone offers up something new for the clever script to ridicule. The drug abuse, band infighting, the financial excess and marital infidelity are all well covered.

After his first marriage to chronically unsupportive wife Edith (Kristen Wiig) collapses he falls for his backup singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer), who becomes the love of his life. Fischer, who was given nothing to do in another 2007 comedy, Blades of Glory, is great here giving a hilarious take of Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter Cash. It's also jam-packed with cameos, from The White Stripes' Jack White as Elvis to Frankie Munez as Buddy Holly. But the funniest comes from Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman as the Fab Four. I particularly enjoyed Rudd and Schwartzman's dead-on portrayals of John and Ringo. In a hilarious touch, none of these famous characters are the least bit shy about informing Dewey (and us) exactly who they are.

As bad a beating as The Beatles take in this though it's nothing compared to what they do to Bob Dylan. After watching this, I now understand why Dylan didn't want anyone to go the regular biopic route with his life because he may have actually come off looking as silly as he does here. Credit Reilly who channels Dylan so well he should have played one of them in I'm Not There. Running gags involving Saturday Night Live's Tim Meadows as Dewey's drug dealing drummer and Raymond J. Barry as Dewey's angry, disapproving father never grow tired. He has a catchphrase that deserves its own t-shirt. Look late in the film for some big music star cameos, including one from someone who plays it so straight he could be presenting The Nobel Peace Prize. And what Apatow film would be complete without an appearance from Jonah Hill?

Then there's the music. Besides the lyrics being hysterical and filled with double entendres (especially the number "Let's Duet"), the songs actually sound like something Cash would have recorded. Supposedly Reilly actually toured the country as Dewey Cox, giving concerts in character. I can believe it. The guy can sing. In a movie like this tone is everything and Kasdan, who also directed the underrated Orange County, realizes everything is funnier when you appear to take it seriously. At times this veers so close the movie it's spoofing it threatens to actually turn into it. Since its success is so dependent on tone I'm not sure if this would have been as funny if Apatow directed it himself. He's probably a better writer than director and I thought, unlike Kasdan here, he had problems finding the appropriate tone in Knocked Up. It may not be coincidence the two films he only co-wrote or produced this past year were much better. This news bodes well for the upcoming Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Pineapple Express, neither of which he's behind the camera for.

Surprisingly, Walk Hard flopped hard when it was released late last year, which is ironic considering serious biopics never tend to light the box office on fire either. That could have been part of the problem. Everyone missed out, though it deservedly nab two Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song ("Walk Hard") and Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Reilly. The blame for no one going to see this definitely can't be placed on him or the fact he isn't a household name (Seth Rogen and Steve Carell weren't either). It seemed the studio felt the Apatow tag alone would be enough to sell this and didn't count on the fact that not everyone had actually seen Walk The Line. It's still funny if you didn't, but will play much better if you have.

The Two Disc Special Edition comes with two versions of the film. One is the original 95-minute theatrical version while the other is the "Overlong, Self-indulgent" 120-minute director's cut. I guess that's supposed to be a joke, but with the length obsessed Apatow attached to the project I couldn't be sure. You can guess which version I chose. A full two hours would probably be stretching it for a movie like this.

You have to wonder what audiences are thinking though flocking to brainless spoof films like Epic Movie and Meet The Spartans instead of this. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is more reminiscent of the superior Zucker/Abrahams comedies like Airplane! or The Naked Gun. It knows the key to a good spoof is to have genuine affection and respect for the material you're spoofing. Anyone who hasn't seen Walk The Line will want to after watching this, even if I have my doubts whether they'll be able to take it seriously

Friday, April 11, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O' Connor

Running Time: 158 min.

Rating: R

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

Yes, Paul Thomas Anderson's oil epic There Will Be Blood is as great as everyone says. But it's a fact I wasn't quite so sure of immediately. When it ended I knew I had seen a technical masterpiece but doubted if it was anything more than that or was even something I'd in good conscience recommend to anyone else. It's long, loud and drenched in despair.

In a year of depressing films this stands head and shoulders above them all as the most depressing. Then I woke up the next morning and found I couldn't shake certain scenes and images from my mind. After thinking it over it finally occurred to me that much like a lot of Anderson's output it's one of those slow burners that keeps coming back to you long after its over. It deserves to stand as an important American cinematic achievement of the highest caliber.

So far Anderson has directed five films and three of them (Boogie Nights, Magnolia and now this) could be considered masterpieces. That's not the part that's a big deal though, as plenty of other filmmakers could lay claim to that feat (but probably not at the age of only 37). The part that's so shocking and is an unparalleled accomplishment by any living director is that each of those three films have nothing in common. If they were blindly screened, you'd probably guess they came from three different filmmakers. Throw in the two other excellent ones (Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love) and it would just further muddy the waters. Skeptics claim Anderson is just mimicking his favorite filmmakers. Boogie Nights was his Scorsese. Magnolia was his Altman. This is his Kubrick. But that's simplifying things and not giving him enough credit. Others influenced those filmmakers and if Anderson's entire career is built on just merely imitation then how come his films are so great?

The shell of There Will Be Blood is tougher to crack than any of Anderson's other efforts, many of which were also written off as inaccessible at the time of their release. This could never be my "favorite" P.T. Anderson film but because of it his other work may have to be reexamined and will probably now play even better because of it. The Quentin Tarantinos, Wes Andersons and David Finchers of the film world are brilliant but I don't get the impression they're challenging themselves with every outing. You can tell Anderson really went out of his milieu here, pushing himself hard and making what should be a fairly dry story crackle with unique excitement and energy. What sets him apart from his peers is his versatility, something I don't think I ever fully appreciated until this film. As great as I thought he was, I never once considered he could have had a film like this in him.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood opens in 1898 when prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) accidentally stumbles upon oil deposits in one of his silver mines. We flash forward a few years later where Plainview, now the owner of his own small drilling company, is left to care for the orphaned son of one of his workers who died in an accident. He raises the boy, H.W. (a captivating Dillon Freasier) as his own and names him partner in his fledgling operation.

By 1912, Plainview emerges as one of the most successful oil men in the country competing with powerhouses like Standard Oil and is approached by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who gives him a lead on land in California belonging to his father Abel (David Willis). Plainview attempts to swindle the old man, but Paul's twin brother Eli (also played by Dano), an evangelistic preacher and faith healer, knows of the land's rich oil deposits and attempts to extract to the best deal possible from Plainview, one that would most benefit his church and the community.

At first, Plainview and Eli, while not exactly on the same page, at least seem to be reading the same book and reluctantly understand where each is coming from. Or so it appears. They begrudgingly tolerate one another until it becomes clear to Eli that Plainview's promises to him and townsfolk are hollow ones. It's all about money for this man. Faith and corporate domination don't exactly go hand in hand and as problems with Plainview's plans and a series of unfortunate accidents just increase the tension between them until it finally explodes…literally and figuratively. The film shifts in dramatically from being about the turn-of-the-century oil boom to the attempted salvation of a man's damned, rotting soul overcome by greed.

The brilliance of this film lies in how it methodically shows its hand as a deep character study. Plainview almost appears to be somewhat of an admirable figure when we first meet him. But his ambition starts to get the best of him as this inexplicable force that seems to infest only the most competitive individuals drives him forward in his cruelty. He uses his own son to further his business interests, but doesn't hesitate in discarding him when he threatens to become a liability.

When a man (Kevin J. O'Connor) shows up out of nowhere claiming to be his half-brother he doesn't think twice about extracting what he needs from him either. For a while at least, he appears to be the only person Plainview comes close to forming any kind of meaningful connection with. Layers of his personality we couldn't have guessed existed start to manifest itself and by the last third of the film he's pretty much the most vicious monster you could lay your eyes on.

What's so scary about Plainview is the reality of his persona. You could easily throw him in any present-day boardroom in corporate America and he wouldn't lose any of his edge. Justifiably, many comparisons have been made between this film and Citizen Kane thematically and there's a lot to that, especially in the film's emotionally brutal last half-hour. Unlike Charles Foster Kane, however, we realize there's even less of a shot of redemption for this man and by the end of the picture he remains as much of an enigma as when it started. His actions become more heinous as the story wears on, reaching its crescendo with one of the most memorable final scenes and lines in recent film history. The last two words of dialogue written by Anderson couldn't have possibly been more appropriate and chilling.

At close of the film I questioned what the purpose of all of this was. To put the audience through pure emotional hell to deliver a message that greed is bad? I thought the film could join some other great films of the year in being technically brilliant, but emotionally empty. It's not though. The more I think about it the more I realize the entire story is almost driven purely by emotion, just not the kind we're used to seeing in a film. It's negative emotional energy and it's represented in Plainview's relationship with his son as well as with his unsettling encounters with Eli, brilliantly played by Dano. He goes toe-to-toe with one of our greatest actors and holds his own every step of the way.

There was no sense in even having a Best Actor race this year. It was over before it began. No acting work this year or maybe any other so far this decade approaches what Daniel Day-Lewis accomplishes here. It transcends acting, and in some strange way, also works as a dark parody. I recently saw a Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the character that wasn't very funny and would probably seem even less funnier to me now after actually seeing the film. This is because there are already elements of parody in the performance. You can't spoof something that's spoofing itself. Not only does Lewis manage to hit all the dark notes of Plainview perfectly, but he finds a way to slide humor in without it being overtly noticeable.

Some have criticized Day-Lewis' performance as being hammy and over-the-top and it sort of is, but what's so remarkable is how he turns those qualities into attributes that deepen the story's psychology. On a first viewing it may not be entirely noticeable, but on repeated ones it comes more clearly into focus. And surprisingly, that only makes Plainview's downfall scarier and that much more desperate. Even while hating him with a passion, we still deeply care about his fate. It can't be undersold how difficult it should be to sit through a film with a main character this despicable, not to mention one that's featured in every single scene of an almost three hour epic. His performance instead makes it an unforgettable experience.
There Will Be Blood bucks the trend of what can be expected from an Academy Award nominated period drama. That starts with a deafeningly loud, bizarre and unnerving musical score provided by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood that was deemed ineligible for Oscar consideration because it incorporated pieces of previous recorded material. What makes it fascinating is how it breaks the unwritten rule that the music in a film is not supposed to draw attention to itself. All this seems to do is just that and at times I thought that it would be a better fit for a horror movie. Yet, it works. It works because this is essentially a horror movie and also precisely because it doesn't quite fit. It's uncomfortable and weird, keeping you on edge the entire time. Almost unhinged, like the main character and the film itself. It's touches and eccentricities like these that remind us this is very much a P.T. Anderson picture. Like casting Paul Dano as both brothers and writing them as twins, when the story doesn't even necessitate it at all… or does it? Part of me thinks it does.

This film will be compared to many others for years to come. There are traces of Lawrence of Arabia and Giant and that it doesn't seem out of place discussing this film in the same breath as those says a lot. Especially in regards to the breathtaking cinematography of Robert Elswit, who also shot Michael Clayton, and has had one hell of a year, taking home the statue for this. You could draw comparisons to many other films in terms of look and feel but the Kubrick comparison seems most valid.

Besides the dialogue-free opening 10 minutes reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the unnerving music and the presence of a morally depraved central character there's a certain intangible factor. All of Kubrick's films seemed to exist in this indescribable vacuum of time where they never age or feel dated. I liked Boogie Nights and Magnolia a lot upon their initial releases but time has proven them to be more potent than anyone could have anticipated. The same fate likely awaits There Will Be Blood and it won't surprise me at all when the American Film Institute releases their next list of the 100 greatest films and this is on it, and probably in a pretty high position. This is that good.

I have mixed feelings showering so much praise on this film since it really doesn't need it. I've also grown sick of the Academy's new attitude of rewarding "feel bad" films in an attempt to look edgy. I'd like to tell myself they nominated this for all the right reasons but considering the film that beat this out for Best Picture was the equally morose No Country For Old Men, that's doubtful. However, if they are going that route I only ask they nominate something worthy. This definitely is. It wouldn't be a stretch to envision people still watching and talking about this film 50 years from now.

In true Anderson fashion, this will infuriate casual moviegoers while simultaneously sending diehard film buffs into a tailspin. But we know he won't make anything like it again. After this he'll move on to something completely different, which he'll also excel at. It's that quality that separates Anderson from the pack and will eventually land him a spot on the list with the greatest American filmmakers everyone accuses him of copying. There Will Be Blood is devastating and at times difficult to watch, but you'll find it's impossible to look away.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Mist

Director: Frank Darabont
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, Nathan Gamble

Running Time: 126 min.

Rating: R

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

Going into Stephen King’s The Mist everyone was telling me I should brace myself for one of the most shocking movie endings ever. I hate it when people tell me things like that. I hate it because I have this bad habit of running through all the possible twist endings imaginable in my mind as I watch a film so by the time the end actually arrives there’s no chance of it surprising me. It also sets me up for disappointment if it doesn’t meet my unrealistic expectations.

I’ve seen so many movies and so many "shocking" endings in my lifetime that at this point it really takes a lot to blow my socks off. Since The Mist came out on DVD I’ve put off watching it precisely because of that fear of disappointment. I also knew that it combined the two movie plots I absolutely love the most: a nightmare in American suburbia and a Twilight Zone-like scenario. I can usually take being let down, but not by a film like this.

When informed of this brilliant ending my immediate response was that Stephen King must not have written it. King has a special gift in those final pages of making us feel like we completely wasted our time. His endings are so lackluster and anti-climactic it’s plagued even the best attempts to adapt his work. Up until now it seems the only film immune to this curse was Darabont’s own The Shawshank Redemption. An anti-climactic ending was also the one flaw in one of my favorite King adaptations, 1995’s television miniseries The Langoliers. So I knew if this had a great conclusion, it definitely didn’t come from King’s pen. It turns out I was right. The ending of the novella was changed with the author’s blessing, by writer/director Frank Darabont, but I can’t say how. I wouldn’t even think of spoiling this one. And Darabont should be praised for realizing that King can’t write an effective ending to save his life and just doing it for him.

The 2-Disc Special Edition of The Mist allows you to watch the film in black and white. That’s fitting because besides being one of the very best films of 2007, and one of the best horror films of the past decade, it’s the first movie in nearly half a century to effectively recapture the magic of The Twilight Zone television series in feature film form. Rod Serling’s name might look more appropriate in the credits than King’s. And right before those final credits rolled I half expected Serling, with his trademark cigarette in hand, to make an appearance and talk to us about the trip we’d just taken.

If Serling saw this I bet he’d agree that this holds up with the very best of his work. That it points out everything that’s been wrong with the science fiction and horror genres of late. That it isn’t about blood, gore or what some critics like to refer to as "torture porn". It’s about fear and what it does to people. What it tells us about our society and ourselves. Serling was always just holding up a mirror…now Darabont’s the one holding it. This is science fiction operating at its highest level and the rare horror movie that manages to be scary even though it shows us a lot. It also contains one of the most detestable characters I’ve ever seen in a movie and one that inflamed me with passionate hatred. You could say this movie does for horror what The Shawshank Redemption did for drama.

When a freak storm hits a small Maine town leaving an unusual thick mist and a power outage in its wake, movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his five-year old son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and their moody, irritable neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) travel to the local grocery store to pick up some supplies. They won’t be leaving there anytime soon as a frightened man with a bloody nose (Jeffrey DeMunn) enters screaming "There’s something in the mist!" Everyone in the store, frightened for their lives, begin to behave irrationally and form factions. Some want to risk it and see if they can venture outside. Others want to wait it out in the supermarket and hope for military rescue. The only thing that can unanimously be agreed upon is that they can’t agree on anything.

The dire situation brings out the best in some, but mostly the worst in everyone. Representing the absolute worst is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a religious zealot who wields her faith as an emotional weapon and views this mist as some kind of biblical Armageddon meant to punish the human race. Rounding out the cast of characters is the nerdy looking assistant manager of the store (Toby Jones), who has some surprising tricks up his sleeve, a pretty cashier (Alexa Davalos) a good-hearted teacher (Laurie Holden), a local mechanic (William Sadler) and a sweet old lady (Frances Sternhagen). All of these people are at once both more and less than they seem and their paths cross in shocking ways as the mist, and the terrifying creatures inhabiting it, quickly approaches.

On paper it would seem the decision by Darabont to not only offer an explanation for the mist, but also show in all their terrifying glory the creatures that attack from it, is questionable. It would be if Darabont wasn’t such a master of building suspense and investing us in the story. This isn’t about the mist or what’s in it. It’s about these people and how their fears and prejudices cause an inability to cope with the situation, hindering them from taking the necessary steps to insure their survival. It’s true the CGI may not be the best, but it doesn’t hurt the film one bit and I think I know why. The tentacled monsters and flying insects are scary, but it has nothing to do with how they look. It’s scary because we care. We actually care about what happens to these people.

You could argue they’re just stereotyped clichés spouting off hammy dialogue. After all, I was able to sum up the characters in just a couple of words. But I’d argue that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be in a movie like this and it’s the performers who elevate them to a level far above that. Thomas Jane is the square-jawed hero. The voice of reason. The leader of the group. Whatever you call it it’s the same thing, but what’s surprising is how much emotion he brings to it. This is probably the best performance given in such a thankless role since Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.

While there are plenty of great onscreen villains let’s be honest and admit you don’t really HATE Anton Chirgurh, Darth Vader or Hannibal Lector. You think they’re kind of cool, and so do I. There’s no coolness factor to Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody and there isn’t a trace of vanity to be found in her portrayal of her. She tears into this with everything she has and if I ran into Harden on the street I hope she has good security detail because I’d have a tough time separating her from the character (the fact that she beat Kate Hudson for the Oscar in 2001 probably doesn’t help either). Even if her character is a stereotype no one can deny it’s a stereotype based on a real person and it hits very close to home.

You know the people. They’re moralistic prigs who use their faith to prop themselves up, oblivious to the fact that religion does entail acting like a moral human being. People like that enrage me but I wasn’t quite sure how much until Harden fully fleshed it out in this role. Skeptics watching the film may doubt such a woman could cause that much friction and dissent, and as much as I hope they’re right, I have a feeling they’re not. Fear does things to people and Darabont understands exactly what. When she was onscreen my thoughts shifted from guessing how this was going to end to just hoping this character meets a slow, painful demise. That’s how powerful Harden’s work here is.

I felt like covering my eyes as The Mist approached its infamous ending. All the possibilities of how another King adaptation could be ruined raced through my head. Even 1408, which also came out this past year and was one of the better cinematic King attempts, had an ending that could at best be described as only serviceable. I’ve criticized 2007’s movie endings for being too bleak and depressing, but that’s not so much the problem. The problem is that they’re bleak and depressing just for the hell of it, and with nothing else for us to latch on to. No ideas or anything to think about when they’re over.

It doesn’t matter whether an ending is necessarily upbeat or downbeat, what matters is that the conclusion to the story is appropriate for the film. Many screenwriters in the past year have forgotten that. This ending gives you a lot to think about and that’s really all I can say without spoiling anything. I may have been prepared for how shocking it was but nothing could have readied me for just how deep and memorable. This one has to bee seen to be believed.

I’ve mentioned The Twilight Zone for good reason. This could almost be considered an adaptation of the classic episode of that series, "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," in which neighbors’ paranoia in the midst of a crisis turn them against one another. The mist in this film could easily be replaced by a natural disaster, a nuclear attack or any other major life-threatening catastrophe. The general conceit remains the same: Fear brings out the worst in us all. We know who the real monsters are. When this movie’s over you’re left to contemplate such sociological issues as well as questions regarding morality and religion. When was the last time you could contemplate anything at the end of a horror film?

You’ll also be contemplating how any major studio would even dare release a film with this ending. Luckily, Darabont refused to sign the deal unless he got final cut and King has since justifiably praised his interpretation of his novella, especially the controversial ending. That’s a relief, because after hearing what King’s original ending was, this film would have been much worse for wear if Darabont had decided to keep it. And after years of trying, Stephen King finally has movie he can be very proud to put his name on. The Mist earns its place as one of the very best King adaptations ever lensed.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener

Running Time: 116 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Tim Burton is a one of a kind filmmaker that’s for sure. In fact, he’s such a one of a kind filmmaker that I’m starting to worry if he’s only capable of making one kind of film. And with his adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street he’s given the last thing he ever needed: An excuse to completely overindulge his dark, Gothic sensibilities as a director. There will be those who absolutely love this film. For fans of Burton’s notoriously macabre work or even movie musicals in general this is a dream (or rather nightmare) come true. Even though I don’t fit into either category I’m still recommending it, but not without some reservations.

Anyone who claims Sweeney Todd is a giant leap forward for Burton or some kind of huge departure because it’s a musical is completely off their rocker. This is totally in his comfort zone and other than the fact that it has music in it it’s still very much vintage Burton. It’s also his darkest, most depressing effort since Batman Returns and could make No Country For Old Men look like the feel-good date movie of the year. But there’s no denying that it’s very well done for what it is.

The performances are great, it mostly succeeds as a musical, and as a tragedy it’s also effective. However, if you’re looking for a rollicking good time, go someplace else. I’d tell you you’ll feel like slashing your wrists when it’s over but by then you’ll probably be so sick of the sight of blood that you’ll lose interest. What the movie proves, for better or worse, is that no one makes a Tim Burton movie like Tim Burton and because he’s so great at it he gets a pass. I’m just not sure how much longer I can put up with it though. It would be nice to see him try something completely different for a change.

15 years ago Barber Benjamin Barker (Oscar nominated Johnny Depp) was falsely sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit and exiled to Australia by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who lusted after his beautiful wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). Now, going under the alias of "Sweeney Todd," he returns home to London only to discover that Lucy had taken her own life and his now teenage daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is in the custody of Turpin. He enlists the help of quirky pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) as he re-opens his barbershop, cutting hair and slashing throats until he finally has a chance to get his hands on Turpin and his troll-like associate Beadly Banford (a delightfully creepy Timothy Spall). Complicating things further is a developing feud with him and another local barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), which results in one of the more entertaining musical numbers in the film.

Sweeny Todd is not the kind of movie musical where you should expect show-stopping tunes you’ll be humming weeks after you see it. Actually, a few of them are pretty dull and drawn out. Across The Universe this isn’t, but it does have some big moments like the fantastic duet "Pretty Women," with Depp and Rickman, who work really well together. What the music does do very effectively is convey an interesting story that’s well acted by the entire cast. The singing is okay, but not great. Simon Cowell would probably have a field day ripping the thin vocal performances apart, but the bottom line is they’re as good as they need to be given the material and considering these are actors not singers. Supposedly Depp has never really sung before so taking that into account he actually did a fine job. Despite being a little young for the role he remains the perfect choice to play a weird outcast with internal rage. He’s always had that territory well covered and he’s brilliant again here.

Unknown co-stars Jayne Wisener (who looks exactly like a young Kirsten Dunst) and Jamie Campbell Bower (who plays Sweeney’s right-hand man) fare even better with the singing and their forbidden romance storyline interested me more at times than Sweeney’s revenge. These two have hardly acted in anything of note before, but you’d never know it. They’re just about the only characters you don’t have to feel guilty about rooting for in the film. Helena Bonham Carter once again transcends her natural quirkiness to add some much needed warmth to Mrs. Lovett, while Rickman really chews into the scenery as Turpin. The entire third act of the picture is basically a total blood bath and the ending, while completely appropriate, will probably leave some viewers feeling deflated.

Is it fair to judge a film in the context of a director’s previous work? Probably not, but it’s unavoidable when you’re talking about someone with a vision as unique and original as Burton’s. He’s an artist more than a filmmaker, which sometimes causes our emotional connection to the material to be severed. The main problem with the film, as with a lot of Burton’s previous efforts, is his characters tend to be so weird, troubled and dark that it’s hard to become really involved with any of them and the film suffers a little as a result. While it’s common for directors revisit certain themes in many of their films, Burton seems to be the only one who has essentially made the same movie over and over again for the past decade or more. They always focus on a weird, troubled outcast. They’re shot the same. They appear to have the same production and costume design. He even uses many of the same actors, regardless of whether or not they’re right for the roles. As usual, his work is a marvel to look and has a distinct feel but I couldn’t help but think his act is starting to get a little tired as I watched this.

Even his best films, like Batman and Big Fish, which deviated ever so slightly from the Burton template, didn’t reach the masterpiece level they could have because of his weirdness fetish. I’m not saying he should go off and make a fun, Disney kids film or anything, but something at least somewhat different would be a nice change of pace. Depp has fallen into a similar trap as well, as just once I’d like to see him attempt to play a character that isn’t some kind of disenfranchised freak.

He’s widely regarded as one of our best actors, but for me he’s yet to take on the variety of roles necessary to prove all his supporters true. Having said that, no one could have played THIS ROLE better than he does, which is why I’m so curious to see what would happen if he actually attempted to portray a normal human being in a straightforward serious drama. I’m all for actors taking risks but Depp just might be the only one who’s taken one too many and has gone so far in covering up his teen idol beginnings that he’s now in danger of covering up his talent as well.

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of musicals and usually stay way from them so that this year featured two I did enjoy represents a big step forward, even if I respected this more than I necessarily enjoyed it. But it does have that twisted brilliance and dark sense of humor that only the team of Burton and Depp can provide and a fascinating story to match. Fans of those two know what they’re getting into here and won’t be disappointed at all. It’s as good an adaptation of Sondheim’s musical as was possible and this was the right direction to take in bringing it to the screen. But anyone else searching for a mainstream crowd pleaser should look elsewhere. Sweeney Todd is Tim Burton’s Gothic nightmare set to music and as that it’s successful.