Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rambo

Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Paul Shulze

Running time: 91 minutes

Rating: R


***½ (out of ****)


I don’t think I’ve ever been more inspired to hit the gym than right after viewing Rambo. Say what you want about the film but no one can accuse 61 year-old Sylvester Stallone of not physically preparing himself to resurrect the iconic character he created over twenty years ago. He’s so big in this movie it’s a miracle he was even able to run at all without falling over and there were times I thought he might. If I was exhausted just watching him and the other members of the cast tear through the jungles of Thailand I can’t even imagine how hard a movie this must have been to make for them or how physically grueling. Stallone should congratulate himself though because he’s done what he failed to do with 2006’s Rocky Balboa. He’s made our reunion with John Rambo actually mean something more than just a trip down memory lane.

While it’s unfair to compare the two films, it’s all but impossible not to. I found his attempt to resurrect Rocky to be a laughable misfire in which Stallone fell in love with his own nostalgia over the character. He figured just putting “The Italian Stallion” in the ring again was enough, asking audiences to ignore the fact that the screenplay didn’t contain anything or anyone else worth caring about. The fourth installment of Rambo is the exact opposite and easily the most satisfying directorial effort of Stallone’s career. And this is coming from someone who is not a fan of war films, this series or really Stallone in general. Truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing this at all. But Rambo knows what it has to do and just does it, executing its premise to near perfection and not overstaying its welcome. In this way it reminded me of last year’s Live Free or Die Hard, which is a high compliment.

Under usual circumstances it would seem almost beside the point to discuss the plot of a Rambo film other than it involves a lot of people being killed in the jungle, but this actually does have a fairly engaging storyline. It isn’t going to change the world or anything but it gets the job done and places Rambo in a situation that brings out the best in the character and plays on the series’ strengths. The screenplay at times does seem to be reaching for something more also. It doesn’t quite get there, but it comes closer than it has any right to. And yes, a lot of people are killed also.

Lonely, aging Vietnam Vet John Rambo (Stallone) is content spending his free time catching poisonous snakes for profit when Christian missionaries Michael (Paul Shulze) and Sarah (Dexter’s Julie Benz) approach him with the offer to take their group up river from Thailand to Burma. At first, Rambo resists due to what can best be called philosophical differences (and likely a desire not to see these people killed) but pretty Sarah lays on the charm and he reluctantly caves in. When the trip down river leads to potential disaster as they encounter a gang of pirates, Rambo rectifies the situation the only way he knows how and returns thinking he’s safely gotten the missionaries to their destination. But he finds out a little over a week later that The Burmese Army, whose sadistic officer kills villagers for sport, has captured them. Rambo is recruited to head downstream again with a rag tag group of mercenaries to rescue them from the P.O.W. camp. Bloodshed and many rounds of firing ensue.

Going into Rambo I was expecting a movie with a big budget blockbuster feel and somewhat of a campy attitude but in actuality it plays more like a gritty independent film or documentary. I was amazed at how well Stallone shot it as it’s almost as if we’re seeing the action through Rambo’s eyes as he navigates the men through the jungle. Despite the picture only running 90 minutes it feels like an epic war film, kind of a twisted up version of Apocalypse Now on steroids. Some may complain about Stallone taking 40 minutes to get down to the action but I enjoyed the fact that he took his time reintroducing us to the Rambo character and giving us some quiet moments with him. Nor does he take center stage and start blowing everyone away immediately like you’d expect. This could have easily ended up being a vanity project for the star but Stallone, rather unselfishly, gives his co-stars equal time and turns it into an exciting ensemble action thriller.

Graham McTavish and Matthew Marsden are particular standouts as the mercenaries, while the cleverness of casting Julie Benz as the female lead can’t be undersold. Since she’s an actress that oozes angelic sweetness seeing her character being dumped into genocidal hell and having to depend on a grumpier than ever Rambo to get out is classic and provides a great contrast. Rather than saying Stallone gives a great acting performance here it’s probably more accurate to say he gives a great performance in the B-movie tradition. The only time he falters as a director is when he doesn’t trust himself enough as an actor and relies on unnecessary flashbacks and voice-overs to convey Rambo’s angst. It was that similar miscalculation that caused me to laugh hysterically at the finale of Rocky Balboa. Luckily, here it’s kept to a minimum and isn’t as ill timed as it was in that film. He conveys more with a single facial expression than any distracting voice-over can.

Stallone was put in a no-win situation with the violence. If it’s as graphic as possible he’s accused of being a hypocrite and exploiting the injustices in Burma he’s claiming to shine a needed spotlight on. But if he cuts corners in depicting it to please the studio and bring in younger audiences then the movie becomes less authentic, short-changing a serious issue. My stance on it is that this is just entertainment and he shouldn’t be held to so high a standard, but having said that, I think he made the right call going all the way with it. And to Stallone’s credit, the violence, as graphic as it is, never seems cartoonish. Instead, it’s horrifying and shockingly realistic. There are about two or three sequences that are downright difficult watch they’re so brutal. It’s here where the film flirts with being something more than just a fun action vehicle. You could even argue at times it’s so serious there’s little fun to be had during many scenes. But that’s the way it should be. Stallone didn’t compromise and refused to turn this into a joke.

The restrained script wisely doesn’t shove the Burmese situation down our throats, but lets the violence do all the talking instead. And does it ever. Unfortunately though it serves as disturbing further proof that the MPAA finds it perfectly acceptable to have limbs flying around in action movies since the NC-17 rating is only reserved for artsy independent projects that dare to feature sex or nudity. But that’s a separate issue. This film can’t be blamed for the MPAA rating board’s stupidity.

I was surprised how affected I was by the ending and in a weird way, Rambo does become an inspirational figure of sorts, at least within the movie universe Stallone has so effectively created. The choice of the final scene is just perfect and the movie couldn’t have ended on a more appropriate note. It’s been so long since I’ve seen First Blood or any of the other films in the series it would be unfair for me to compare, but what matters most is that this movie stands on its own two feet as a winner regardless of what came before. It stays true to the character and its origins and is everything a fourth installment of a franchise like this should be. If Stallone wanted to keep going and make another I wouldn’t complain. Or he can stop here and end with the knowledge that Rambo went out on top.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The X-Files: The Summer Movie I'm Least Looking Forward To

It’s a given that there are certain movies opening this spring and summer that pretty much everyone is universally looking forward to. I usually end up seeing most films on DVD but I’m sure I’ll be catching a few in theaters as well. One of the biggest ones just opened on Thursday to unsurprisingly mixed reviews. I haven’t seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull yet, but despite any misgivings and skepticism I may have (and there is some) my appreciation for the character and overall respect for the franchise does outweigh it and should allow me to go in with an open mind.

Similarly, no amount of media hype or exploitation of a certain tragedy could possibly dissuade me from wanting to see The Dark Knight. I have this sneaking suspicion that could be the one film in 2008 that will not only meet the hype, but also potentially exceed it if the trailer is indication at all. But what about those movies that aren’t such sure bets? You know, the ones that look like potential problems on paper. There are definitely more than a few, as there is every summer. Whether it be a completely unnecessary sequel, a bloated big-star action vehicle or a lame-brained remake it’ll be interesting to see what films will have us shaking out heads in disappointment and disbelief when the dust settles in the fall.

So, what am I dreading? It would seem there are a lot of candidates this year. M. Night Shyamalan’s killer plant movie The Happening could end up being less an environmental disaster than a box office one, but let’s be honest, even M. Night’s biggest failures are more intriguing then many other directors' successes. The Incredible Hulk franchise reboot has had bad buzz from the start and I’m one of the very few who thought Ang Lee’s 2003 version was just fine (even if I concede there were areas for improvement in it). The project is unnecessary for sure but the prospect of Ed Norton tackling the title role is interesting enough that I’m willing to give it a chance. Also picking up bad buzz is the action thriller Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, but I can’t tell you what a welcome sight it is to see a heavily tattooed Jolie hanging out of a speeding car brandishing a firearm after boring me to tears with both her film choices and personal life for the past 4 years. The film’s R rating is a good sign and even if it bombs I’d far prefer her to fail like this. At worst it’ll at least be a nice respite until she starts torturing us with her “holier than thou” roles again later in the year when she stars in Clint Eastwood’s Changli….zzzzzzz. Oh sorry I dozed off for a second there.

All these are shaky propositions but only one film this summer is completely unnecessary and nothing but an attempt at a quick cash-in on nostalgia. It’s The X-Files: I Want To Believe. And believe me, as a (former) fan of the show nothing would make me happier than to be able to think this is a good idea and will be successful. But if history is any indication this is bound to be yet another disappointment dished out by the George Lucas of television, X-Files creator Chris Carter. I do realize others, in a fit of nostalgia, are so excited to just see special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully again that they’re willing to overlook the fact that they could be set up for a huge letdown. I can relate. I know if a favorite cancelled show from my youth were being given a big-screen resurrection I’d just be so happy to be reunited with the characters I probably wouldn’t care if it was any good just so long as it stayed generally faithful to the show. I have no doubt Chris Carter will at least attempt that and the movie may turn out to be okay. But I won’t care. In other words, Carter, you blew it and I really don’t feel like giving you a second chance.
To understand why we have to take a little trip back in time. You see at one point in high school and early in college I was a big fan of the show. I was one of those kids that unshamefully (okay shamefully) had a “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” poster hanging over my bed. I watched every week for years as the show’s central mythology unraveled anxiously awaiting the day it would all come together. I’ll be honest though in that I always felt like I was forcing myself to really like the show as much as everyone else. Despite all the years I watched it I didn’t exactly form the connection with that show as I did other sci-fi television of that ilk like Quantum Leap. I always thought The X-Files was good but was never among those who thought it was THAT GOOD. And the reasons why started to become painfully clear as the series continued to drag on well past the point of its expiration date. The term “Jump The Shark” has become very popular in describing the moment when a show starts to go downhill creatively. But how many shows have actually jumped the shark? I mean really jumped it, dragging on years after it should have signed off and failed to even give us a satisfying conclusion when the end finally came. It isn’t many.

The X-Files didn’t just jump the shark. It jumped AN ENTIRE AQUARIUM. Just how bad was it? I’d say to ask David Duchovny but he wouldn’t be able to tell you…since he was written out of the show! That’s right, when Duchovny opted out of his contract to pursue other endeavors (a wise move if you ask me) the show didn’t end. In either a massive display of ignorance or stupidity, Carter actually thought the series could continue without its star actor. Hey, while we’re at it let's continue Cheers without Ted Danson, Veronica Mars without Kristen Bell, Frasier without Kelsey Grammer and Seinfeld without…you get the picture. Inexplicably, fans always seemed to give Carter a pass on this one, which perplexes me. And continue the show did when Carter essentially replaced Duchovny with Robert Patrick as the crippled program painfully limped to the finish line. Duchovny would still appear very sporadically and of course returned to play a big role in the finale, which revealed… nothing. That’s all The X-Files ever revealed in its entire run. We knew as much at the end of the series’ conclusion as we did at the pilot episode.

That’s why I laugh whenever I hear people complain about Heroes’ second season or especially Lost’s third. Even at their worst moments those shows revealed SOMETHING and had a game plan. Carter should have taken a page out of the Lost producers' book and set a solid end date well in advance. Because of this, Lost, barring any unforeseen creative catastrophe, looks like it’s going out in a blaze of glory, thus securing its television legacy. Lost is often (insultingly) compared with The X-Files and I could never understand why. One has managed to tell a cohesive story over the course of a number of seasons, while the other was just winging it the whole time. A little ambiguity is always good. Total ambiguity is not. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the show was completely awful but from an acting and directing standpoint it was actually very strong, which just made it that much more frustrating. That’s the story with The X-Files in general. When it was occasionally great there were few shows on television better, but when it was bad it was really, really bad. It was bad often.

So, you’re thinking what does this even have to do with the feature film? Just because a show ended in shambles doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a movie. After all, we wasted nearly nine years of our television watching lives, so what’s two more hours? I agree this should have no bearing on its merits for a big screen outing, just my excitement level for it, which is non-existent. Not helping any is that The X-Files: Fight the Future, the first feature length film of the show, released at the height of the series’ popularity in 1998, was just a decent, if completely forgettable outing directed by Carter. Now he’s back graveling for more and asking us to once again embrace this frustrating show that he buried with his own shovel. I suppose we should just consider ourselves lucky that at least Duchovny and Anderson are starring in it and Carter didn’t recast the roles. To their credit both actors have done a terrific job distancing themselves from their most famous characters since the show wrapped (especially Duchovny) and their performances and chemistry together onscreen would be among the only reasons I’d consider seeing film. I have no doubt they’ll slide back into their roles with ease. They’re not the problem.
I’d love to be wrong about all of this. I want the movie be incredible and do slamming box office since it would just increase the chances of a television series I’d actually want to see on the big screen getting green lit. I think at best The X-Files: I Want To Believe will be a reasonably entertaining summer popcorn movie, which, if looked at in context, is a completely pointless endeavor. Fans of the show will once again leave with more questions than answers and even if Carter does try to offer up any explanations it’s too late. That ship has sailed. Supposedly the film won’t be returning any of the show’s central mythology it botched so badly which is a relief, except would casual moviegoers who have never seen the show even be interested? Carter is stuck between a rock and a hard place here. The only purpose behind this film is just seeing Mulder and Scully again for a quick nostalgia fix.

Maybe this reflects a much bigger problem with adapting television shows into feature films that goes beyond just The X-Files. Even those who loved The Simpsons Movie admitted they didn’t take anything away from it that they couldn’t get from watching three great episodes of the show. In the film Homer Simpson even asked why anyone would pay $10.00 to watch something they can just see at home for free. It’s a great question and I think the answer is that the movie has to really give you something different and special. Can Chris Carter do that? I wouldn’t get my hopes up...again. You can call me in 2010 when the Arrested Development movie opens. That one I want to see.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Greenwood

Running Time: 125 min.

Rating: PG


*** (out of ****)


At the conclusion of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets I was pondering an interesting question: Do you punish a sequel for essentially just duplicating the original? Well, if you happened to like the original then I’d like to think the answer should be “No.” I’ve always been of the belief that a sequel is supposed to take the ideas presented in the original and expand on them to build a new story while still remaining faithful to the first installment. But, really, should such a strict rule even apply to something like Disney’s National Treasure franchise? It’s just supposed to be mindless fun. If you can’t suspend disbelief or check logic at the door be prepared for a miserable experience. If you can, it’s a great time. Anyone who liked the first film will like this one just the same and anyone who couldn’t stand it won’t find anything to appreciate this time around either. Forgo any speculation about how it stacks up to original. It’s the exact same movie.

The good news for star Nicolas Cage is this ends his successive streak of bombs, as it goes without saying this is a huge step up from Ghost Rider and Next. Although I don’t know what it says when it takes a light family film like this to actually ring a decent performance out of him. As for the myriad of other Oscar winners and nominees in the picture, I never stopped and wondered what the hell they were thinking appearing in something like this, which is high praise considering the talent involved. While the material is beneath them it never feels like it because they all appear to be having a good time. As a result, I had a good time.

Discussing the convoluted, absurd plot of this film in any kind of detail is almost pointless. All you need to know is that treasure hunter Ben Gates (Cage) is back and now on a mission to recover the missing 18 pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary in order to prove his great-great grandfather wasn’t a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, you read that right. And that’s just the beginning. To do it he must follow a set of clues that take him everywhere from Buckingham Palace to the Oval Office to Mount Rushmore to find a fabled City of Gold treasure and uncover a Presidential “Book of Secrets.” Along for the ride again is his now ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger), his bumbling father Patrick (Jon Voight) and tech sidekick and perennial third wheel Riley (Justin Bartha). There’s also the introduction of a new character, Ben’s mother Emily (Helen Mirren), a college professor who harbors a bitter 30-year-long grudge against his father. In one of the many identical developments to the first film a sneering villain is on Ben’s tale, following his every step to the treasure. This time it’s Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) who, like Ben but unlike the baddie in the previous installment, is very personally tied to finding it.

There were so many points during this film where I was laughing aloud uncontrollably. The clues Ben and company follow, part Amazing Race and part Trivial Pursuit, are so complicated it’s comical. But they’re also a lot of fun. At points you can’t even understand anything they’re talking about other than the fact that it involves U.S. history. In just the opening scene we’re treated to an unintentionally hilarious re-enactment of the Lincoln Assassination that somehow manages, amidst supreme silliness, to get the small details of that night right.

If the big, memorable moment in the first film was Ben stealing The Declaration of Independence it’s counterpart in the sequel is his attempt to kidnap the President of the United States, who here has the worst security detail of any elected official in world history. But I was just relieved to see the movie not insult us by attempting to have an actor impersonate George W. Bush. Instead, the Commander-in-Chief is played very well and believably by Bruce Greenwood, who has experience doing this before as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days. He’s especially valuable here, lending credibility to the most ridiculous situation imaginable. He’s so good should be tapped to play the President in every movie.

Cage slides back into his role with ease while Diane Kruger is just as bland as she was in the first film, though it hardly matters considering the depth (or lack thereof) of her role. Basically, she does fine for what she’s asked to do. The real success story to report though is that Mirren and Voight are not only utilized well but really add something of value to the film. They have great chemistry together and I can honestly say that I cared about their characters’ relationship and where it would go next. If the two of them ever co-starred in a spin-off film I would watch it in a heartbeat. Mirren, especially, really delivered the goods in her role. They could have easily just phoned it in for a paycheck but it’s obvious they were really enjoying themselves.

Unfortunately, Harvey Keitel is completely wasted as an F.B.I. agent. I have no idea why his character is even in the movie and he probably doesn’t either. It’s fun watching Ed Harris as a villain in a Disney family film and even funnier watch his supposed villain get a little too comfortable hanging out with the adventurers whose lives he’s supposed to be threatening. The character does have more depth than you’d expect and the script has him makes some interesting decisions in a thrilling water-soaked climax that reminded me a little of The Poseidon Adventure.

At over 2 hours you could make an argument that the film is too long but director Jon Turteltaub deserves credit for pacing it so briskly that it never drags. He also deserves credit for managing to craft a rip-roaring action/adventure yarn within the confines of a wimpy PG rating. The script from The Wibberleys (which sounds more like an auction house than a screenwriting team) is somewhat clever in the way it incorporates all of this American history into the framework of the story. Even though I was laughing at the preposterousness of it all I had to appreciate the hard work and research that must have gone in to crafting something this crazy. Trevor Rabin’s score is also very good. It has an old time Colonial feel to it that really suits the material well.

On the surface it may appear it doesn't take any talent to make the same film twice, but I’d argue it does. Ask Paul Thomas Anderson to direct There Will Be Blood again the same exact way and have it be as good. He couldn’t, nor would he likely care to since it would be pointless. Of course, why anyone would want to make the same film twice is a question that’s probably best left unexplored, but Turteltaub gets the job done. It’s probably a tough sell getting anyone to want to rent this when another considerably more exciting adventurer is tearing up the big screen, but it delivers a decent time. This isn’t high art and the bar is set low, but the film clears it with relative ease. National Treasure 2 works only on the most basic level, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that can still succeed in its modest ambition to just simply entertain.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Untraceable

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Starring: Diane Lane, Colin Hanks, Billy Burke, Joseph Cross, Mary Beth Hurt

Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: R


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


What a terrible film. I mean truly awful. Untraceable is the rare suspense/thriller that gets everything wrong. I should have seen it coming. The red flags were there. The big tip off should was seeing director Gregory Hoblit’s name on the credits. You may have heard of him, or if you’re lucky, you may not have. For years he’s been turning out forgettable, made for TV style thrillers hovering around C+ to B- level quality. His last effort was the hilariously over-the-top Fracture starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Remember that one? Hopkins doesn’t. In a recent interview he couldn’t even remember the title of the film (and I can’t say I blame him).

Hoblit’s only lasting contribution to cinema was introducing the world to Edward Norton and directing him to an Oscar nomination for 1996’s legal thriller Primal Fear. Looking at the career trajectories of each since then, it’s become painfully obvious who the true architect behind that brilliant performance was. Whenever an actor signs up for a Hoblit picture it’s a foregone conclusion they’re just doing it for a paycheck…and there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone has to pay the bills… even big movie stars. Even the ultra-talented Diane Lane. With Untraceable, Hoblit has finally made the movie I feared he would his entire career. Not one that toils in mediocrity like all his others, but something that is genuinely bad. I knew he had it in him. I’m just surprised it took this long. It’s The Condemned meets Saw, except it’ll be viewers who will feel as if they’ve been condemned sitting through a mess like this.


FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Lane) and her partner Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) are members of Portland’s cybercrime unit where they investigate a website (appropriately titled “killwithme.com”) with a streaming video featuring the slow starvation of a small kitten. That’s strike one against the film already as few things bother me more than seeing the torture or implied torture of animals on screen (and this is coming from someone who’s never had a pet in his life). The scene isn’t really graphic but what it suggests is disturbing enough.. The webmaster then steps up his game a little and graduates to human subjects, torturing his victims in Saw-like contraptions with the time and speed of their death dependent on how many hits the site gets. And wouldn’t you know, the site is…UNTRACEABLE. This brings in local cop Eric Box (Billy Burke) whose character is even more boring then his name implies. He’s clearly being set up as a potential love interest for Jennifer but thankfully the film doesn’t fully go there. That’s a relief because Burke has as much presence as a dishrag. The corpses left in the perpetrator’s wake giving a more energetic performance than he does. It’s no surprise to anyone that at some point during the film things will start to “get personal” with Jennifer and the killer. It’s nearly a given that her family will be in danger and she’ll have to come to terms with her inner-demons, which include the recent tragic death of her husband. At least she isn’t a recovering alcoholic also.

Any thriller with a premise like this has pretty much surrendered itself to being of lackluster quality before the cameras even start to roll. But there were ways around it. The film could have gone one of two bad ways but unfortunately it went the wrong bad one. It could have been bad in a silly, entertaining way much like Fracture. I didn’t like that, but at least I was never bored and was thoroughly entertained by its awfulness. It knew how to have fun and the actors helped. Here, Hoblit isn’t given as goofy or endearing a script, which ends up being the film’s major undoing. It’s actually being presented as some kind of social commentary. On what? The evilness of the internet or that people like to watch each other get tortured and killed. That’s really deep.

I consider myself a fairly pessimistic person and have never seen a glass that I didn’t think looked half-empty, but even I have a tough time believing if the public found out that their participation caused people’s deaths they’d flood the site with hits. And assuming, out of curiosity, the site did see an increase in traffic (which it likely would) I seriously doubt it would occur to the point where victims would be killed in seconds as the hits just keep on coming. It was only done so Hoblit could film huge, dramatic death scenes. And of course we have to have the incompetent F.B.I. head honcho cluelessly hold a huge media press conference talking about the site so the deaths can speed up. The movie ends up promoting exactly what it’s trying to condemn with its depraved world view. You could actually envision teenagers leaving the film wanting to set up a website like this. That’s how out of their way the screenwriters and Hoblit go in trying to make it look cool.

Making matters worse is nearly every line of dialogue and development in the story you can see coming from miles away. A film like this really needs to be twist-laden to capture the viewer’s interest. Instead, most of the first half of the picture consists of characters typing away at their computers. There isn’t a single surprise to be found and they even give away the killer’s identity early for no apparent reason. It definitely isn’t to explain his motivations because that doesn’t come until way later. They could have actually had fun with the killer’s identity and had us suspecting it could be someone close to the protagonist. Instead, he’s a nameless faceless nobody and we get a somewhat predictable explanation for his motivations at the end. Even last year’s Lindsay Lohan debacle I Know Who Killed Me had enough sense to realize that keeping the murderer’s identity a secret can lead to an entertaining reveal. As for the killer himself, the less said the better. Tobin Bell’s job is safe.

The movie’s one saving grace is Diane Lane. That I’m still giving the film this low a rating despite her effort should give you an idea how bad it actually is. A widely known but little talked about prejudice in Hollywood is that male actors are encouraged take on action roles well into their 50’s and 60’s (i.e. Willis, Stallone and Ford) but the second an actress hits 40 they’re kicked to the curb and forced to play mothers in Disney films. There are very, very few exceptions to this. Lane is one of them. That she’s cast in an action heroine role is cause for celebration because she really deserves it and is believable in the part. Just as believable, if not more so, than any actress half her age.

Unfortunately, where as directors of male action leads go out of their way to protect their star and make them look youthful and energetic, Hoblit attempts to make Lane look old and haggard. He lights her unflatteringly and most of the picture she looks like she hasn’t slept for 5 years. And the funny thing is… he doesn’t really succeed. She still looks pretty good! But don’t think for a second any studio would allow a director to even attempt to pull that on Stallone or Willis. And why do I have the feeling that when this film tanked at the box office all the talk in conference calls the next day was how it’s Lane’s fault and further proof that women (especially over the age of 35) can’t carry suspense thrillers. Jodie Foster had to hear it last year. It’s not as if they need to be given decent material or anything.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were thinking as they viewed this film, co-starring their son Colin, in a darkened theater on premiere night. They couldn’t have liked it. Especially Tom. It probably hit him right then and there why he’s never starred in a Gregory Hoblit film. But they can take solace in the fact that young Hanks does give a lively performance and escapes what could have been a career killer with his acting dignity in tact. He tries but the script doesn’t give him anything to work with outside of the geeky partner role, which he plays as well as possible. Would it have killed the film to tease some sexual tension between him and Lane’s character? I found it hard to believe any straight man working with that woman wouldn’t feel something. I can’t say adding a creepy obsession on his part is great screenwriting but it’s better than anything this movie offered up and would have at least at made the time go faster. You know a movie’s bad when I’m stealing elements from last year’s awful Halle Berry thriller Perfect Stranger… to make it BETTER.

The term “torture porn” gets liberally thrown around a lot by the media these days at films that rarely deserve it. This does. In fact, the entire plot literally revolves around the topic. Say what you want about the Hostels and Saws of the world but they don’t have the ugly view of human nature found here. Even the worst installments of the Saw series (I’m looking at you number 4) contain plot complexities and ideas well out of this film’s reach. Hostel Part 2 tackled a similar violence as entertainment topic with far more intelligence.

A neat twist at the end of this film would have been for the site hits to just stop as the American public realizes they want no part of this. Or better yet, the hits speed up at alarming rates not because viewers want to see the captors die, but because they don’t want a hand in prolonging their suffering and encouraging this psycho. But that makes too much sense. If the filmmakers had done that then maybe Untraceable wouldn’t have been nearly unwatchable

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ten Best Films of 2007

I’m not among the many who believe 2007 was an “INCREDIBLE YEAR” for movies. Still, it was pretty damn good and a definite step up from the past couple of years (especially the dreadful 2005), I found the big problem though was that it filled with films that were brilliant technically but failed to make that extra connection. And those that did make that extra connection tended to fall just short technically. I actually think there’s a HUGE GAP between the first couple of films on my list and the rest. It’s always a blurry line between “BEST” and “FAVORITE” but I’ve always had a theory that once you get to the top of any list like this that line starts to fade.

When compiling what I felt were the best films of the year I look for movies that excite me as a fan AND a critic, which is more difficult than you might imagine. When I could only find one that was able to do both equally my top choice became crystal clear. I should want to go running down the streets screaming to the world how much I love my top film and be able re-watch it multiple times, discovering something new with each viewing. It should be able to stand the test of time, with me being unable to look back and ask, “What the hell was I thinking?” when I made the choice. There’s no foolproof guard against that other than going with your gut, yet it must work because somehow I’ve yet to make a selection in any past year that I’ve regretted later.

It’s funny the tricks that time plays on your perception of certain films. I was certain that movies from earlier in the year like Grindhouse and The Lookout would make the list. They didn’t. Going in I was 100 percent sure that The Mist, which I loved and actually re-watched in preparation to do this, had a spot locked up. It didn’t. I’m still not sure what happened there but it can't speak too well for the horror genre when the best executed horror movie in years can’t even crack my top 10. Looking back, of the two Westerns released this year, I can’t believe I actually thought at one time 3:10 To Yuma was a superior to The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Jesse James ended up staying with me long after the final credits rolled. Yuma did not. And what was I thinking giving 4 stars to Shoot Em’ Up? Talk about over-praising a film.

I guess it’s to the Academy’s credit that four out of the five Best Picture nominees made my list, but unfortunately the one that didn’t ended up winning. Oh well. If anyone had told me a year ago that a period costume drama, 2 (!) family films and vehicles starring George Clooney and Justin Timberlake would make my list I’d tell them they were crazy. As much as I tried to avoid it happening, a film I didn’t review made it, but given the sheer glut of movies released within a calendar year that possibility was almost inevitable. I also didn’t want to declare any ties, but that happened too. When I asked myself whether I could sleep the next night without both of them making it and the answer was “no” the decision became a no-brainer.

Only two out of the ten films ended up going the distance from very early in the year to hold on and make cut. Two of our greatest living directors, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson, both contributed very strong efforts but neither was able grab the top spot. It was a strange year…at least for me. As I waited until I saw everything to do this it was my secret hope that my list wouldn’t look exactly like everyone else’s, but if it did I’d be fine with it so long as the right choices were made. For the most part it does look like everyone else’s, with one very glaring exception. The list counts down from the bottom up and following it is an "honorable mention" category. Enjoy.

10. (TIE) Bridge To Terabithia (Director- Gabor Csupo)
I saw this one very early in the year and regrettably didn’t block out the time in advance to review it. That I didn’t should tell you how bias I am against most “family” films and that I put it on here should let you know how special I think it is. The most mismarketed film of 2007 was pitched to audiences as a Chronicles of Narnia rip-off with fancy CGI and wondrous creatures. That's such a small part of this. In truth, it’s a touching story of friendship and loss that echoes My Girl and Little Manhattan with a touch of Pan’s Labyrinth, except maybe better than all those. Had they advertised it as it was, however, it’s possible no one would have gone to see it, which would have been beyond a shame.

In conveying the importance of tolerance, creativity, hard work, loyalty and imagination without ever once piling on the clich├ęs or preaching, it features two of the best children’s performances I’ve ever seen from Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb. The smaller adult roles are treated with just as much care as Robert Patrick is for once in his career given an unlikable character to play with real depth and it’s the rare film that actually seems to know the gift it’s been given with the presence of Zooey Deschanel and doesn’t squander it.

Those reasons above would be enough for it to make this list even if everything else in the picture were garbage, but it’s far from it. It could have coasted along, smiling and skipping its way to the finish line ignoring Kathleen Paterson’s 1977 Newberry Award winning source material and still have been a very good film. But credit Disney and Walden Media for realizing that by staying true to the absolutely horrifying third act there was a chance to do something GREATER. At first I was angry at the dark twist the story took, but it wore off quickly when I saw the intelligence and dignity with which Csupo and screenwriter David Paterson (the author’s son, whose childhood experience influenced the novel) handled it. Assuming they’re of the appropriate age (and not being a parent I wouldn’t dare speculate on what that is) I’m willing to bet children will leave this picture feeling more inspired than traumatized. I’d even go so far as to say it could invoke a positive change in their lives.

I’ve yet to meet anyone of any age or gender who saw it and wasn’t fighting back the tears as it reached its conclusion. Only one other movie moved me more this year and that one’s near the top of this list. A great film is a great film regardless of whether it’s considered a “kid’s movie.” If you ask me, adults probably have more to learn from it since kids can often be smarter than we give them credit for. There’s so much more to talk about but I can’t at the risk of giving too much away. Everyone underestimated the difficulty of what this movie had to pull off. It’s the best family film in decades and and recalls an era when seeing the Disney logo on a project actually meant something.

10. (TIE) Ratatouille (Director-Brad Bird)
Is there any movie this year (other than Juno) that had a worse premise on paper? A rat travels to Paris to become a gourmet chef. The idea of rats in the kitchen isn’t exactly appetizing nor is it likely to have small kids begging their parents to see a film tackling the subject. I saw this when it was first released in theaters and an interesting thing happened. The adults were laughing and transfixed by what was happening on screen while most of the children were restless and bored. Despite the film being rated “G” a lot of the humor is for adults and I think some of it may have flown over young audience’s heads. But like the other Disney film that shares its spot on this list, assuming they’re the right age, they’ll love it and find a lot to extract from its message of tolerance and cooperation without being hit over the head with it.

It’s a huge step up to the highest level for director Brad Bird (who previously helmed The Incredibles and the criminally underrated The Iron Giant) and a landmark release for Pixar. You’ve never seen animation look this beautiful and crisp and if you visited Paris yourself I’m guessing it probably wouldn’t look half as good as it does here. It boasts peerless voice work from Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm and Peter O’ Toole and is also one of the few animated films to deservedly earn a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. There’s a speech toward the end of the film (delivered by O’Toole’s evil food critic) that’s among the best dialogue written for any film this year, animated or otherwise. It was so deep and multi-faceted it’s almost impossible to believe an animated character is delivering it.

At the beginning of the film we’re told that “Anyone Can Cook” and Bird takes that relatively simple notion and expands it to mean so much more than that and in the process give us a family classic that can be revisited time and time again. There were a lot of technical achievements in film this year and this could be grouped among them but where it breaks from the pack is in taking that extra step to reach out and do more. One of the year’s most magical filmgoing experiences.


9. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Director-Andrew Dominick)

“Yes, the title's too long. And yes, so is the film. And it isn't even the best Western released in 2007.”


That ridiculous statement was written by none other than myself when I reviewed The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford back in February. There was a lot of shifting and feeling out as to what deserves to make this list and what doesn’t, especially at the bottom. It was amazing how films I hadn’t previously given the time of day to held up really well and those I loved months aged poorly on second viewing. A “so what” feeling even accompanied many of them I re-watched. I still found them somewhat great, but so what? They were just great and entertaining. There was nothing else there and I couldn’t justify including them.

There’s no “so what” with this. After watching Jesse James again I now more fully understand my initial, less than stellar impression of the film and why I reacted the way I did. It isn’t the kind of movie that provides instant gratification and on a first viewing all you’re doing is concentrating on how long and slow it is. It isn’t “knock your socks off” action/adventure Western like 3:10 To Yuma. But when Yuma ends, it’s over. This film never ends as certain scenes constantly play over again in your mind . It just sits there ingrained in your consciousness just waiting for the opportunity to be viewed again. And when it is a different result emerges. It isn’t too long or too slow. You realize there’s simply no other way for a story like this to be told effectively. It engulfs you in its dream-like atmosphere.

The haunting narration and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ unforgettable visual rendering of the Old West (which should have won the Oscar) make this less a film than a work of art, a novel captured on film. It’s a no-brainer that this is the most beautifully shot film of the year so let me go a step further and say it’s probably the best shot Western ever made. And with apologies to screenwriting guru Robert McKee, isn’t it about time we finally admit that voice-over narration (employed by no less than three other films on this list) can, if executed well, enhance a film tremendously?

Maybe I approached it all wrong in assuming that the film was actually about James and the wussy man-child Ford (brought to wimpy, pathetic life perfectly in an Oscar nominated performance by Casey Affleck) who worships him. It’s less about the legend and more about us, our celebrity obsessed culture. That should make the casting of Brad Pitt as James a stunt but the actor transcends that notion by delivering what’s hands down the best performance of his career. Rarely has an actor manipulated his own image to such successful effect as Pitt does here.

You’re on pins and needles and in a constant state of discomfort wondering what the unpredictable, wildly inconsistent Jesse James will do next. He doesn’t even know what he’ll do next. And when he’s gone we’re forced to reevaluate everything we initially thought of him and the film itself. In the final half hour when we expect the dust to be settling and the film to start crawling, Dominick makes it come alive in the most dazzling way, reversing our expectations and proving just how important it is to finish strong. 2007 was truly the year of the throwback film but classifying it as just that denies how timely (and timeless) it really is. It may not be for everyone, but try naming 10 better films released in the past year.

8. Juno (Director- Jason Reitman)
Rather than talk about the actual film (since we all know the last thing it needs is more exposure) I’ll use this space to go on a rant instead. There was a time not too long ago when a movie like Juno could have actually meant something. Expectations would have been lowered and it would have been worth rooting for. Unfortunately, Fox Searchlight and the media took it upon themselves to shove it so far down our throats that we were choking. The victim of an epidemic that’s reached alarming proportions in recent years: The over-aggressive Oscar campaign. Normally that wouldn’t bother me but it does here because I actually thought the movie was excellent.

If I had one wish though it would be that screenwriter Diablo Cody held back a little in the first 10 pages of the script with all the hipster dialogue (the only minor flaw in an otherwise superb script) so the haters wouldn’t have all that ammunition. Oh, by the way, did you hear that she used to be a stripper? Argue all you want about the quality of her script, but you can’t tell me Jason Reitman and his cast didn’t handle it as well as humanly possible and mine everything they could from it.

I think everyone knew going in Ellen Page would be perfect (and she was), but what about Jason Bateman? Am I crazy or would we have had a far worse movie if another actor were playing that part? Juno is neither as good or as bad as everyone has said it is and at its worst it’s still better than many of the films released in 2007 (what that says about the year is open for interpretation). And whatever you think of it I’m sure we can all universally agree that between the hype, the backlash to the hype and the backlash to the backlash to the hype, the whole thing was a nightmare that hopefully will never be repeated again.

And here’s something you may not have heard about Juno and why I think it works. Reitman and Cody took the most thankless topic imaginable (teen pregnancy) and did something unique and memorable with it. No other film on this list had more problematic material to work with and accomplished so much with it. We’re all about to find out just how talented Reitman, Cody and Page really are because their careers may have been permanently damaged by all the nonsense surrounding this film. It looks like they (and us) have a huge challenge ahead in recovering from all this chronic overexposure.

7. Atonement (Director- Joe Wright)
Hell has officially frozen over. A period piece starring Keira Knightley is on my list of the year’s best. There wasn’t a movie in existence this year I had LESS interest in seeing than this one, but thank God I did. Another film that plays with perceptions. You think it’s going somewhere but then takes a detour into entirely unexpected territory giving the film an added emotional kick. That problem I mentioned about certain films being brilliant technically but missing that extra special something? Not an issue here. Besides being a technical marvel (witness the now infamous 5-minute long Dunkirk tracking shot) it contains a twist ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan turn green with envy.

Nearly all of its emotional power is contained in the final minutes with a sucker punch to the gut that reveals the story was far more powerful than we originally suspected. I prepared myself for a sappy romance, but instead was handed a deep meditation on the power of storytelling that’s impact only increases in repeated viewings. The performances from James McAvoy, Knightley and Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan are all flawless, but I though the best one came from the criminally overlooked Romola Garai, who carries the most difficult part of the picture.

I never fully realized until viewing Atonement that, as much as I made fun of them in the past, how important it is to have big sweeping epics during Awards season (like 1996's The English Patient), and how much I’ve missed them. They used to be nominated all the time but it seems lately the Academy has been on this kick of trying to become edgy and cool by going with offbeat, smaller films. The result of which has been the unfortunate near-extinction of nominated movies like this, which make the little movies actually mean more. Without them smaller, supposedly “underdog” films (like you know what) can pick up too much steam and become overrated. That’s why this, despite earning a Best Picture nod, was actually UNDERRATED, if that makes sense at all.

6. Michael Clayton (Director-Tony Gilroy)
Another screw-up on my part. I first found Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut barely recommendable and spent most of that review mocking star George Clooney and making fun of legal thrillers. While that was fun at the time I happened to see it again (and again after that) and realized something. It isn’t a legal thriller at all. It’s a gripping character study…and it’s perfect. Each time I watch it it just gets better. The movie Michael Clayton can best be described as the girl you meet at the party who doesn’t impress you all that much at first, but then the more time you spend with her, the more you start to discover things about her you really like. I changed my rating for this movie twice and looked like a major tool as a result of it. Except, those changes were justified. I was wrong.

Gilroy’s script is completely airtight, an unheard of achievement in the legal drama genre. There wasn’t a single event that occurred in this script was unbelievable or even stretched credibility in the slightest, which is miraculous given the plot. It starts with the most memorable dialogue-free scene of the year and then returns much later in the film. How we get back to it is a wild trip and the scene means that much more that second time.

Like Jesse James, it's a throwback, but this time to the intelligent, character-driven thrillers of the '70's like The Parallax View and The Conversation and at its center is work from Clooney that qualifies as both a great movie star and great acting performance. If Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t in the race he would have won and deserved it. The supporting turns from Tom Wilkinson and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton are just as good if not better. The film also features one of the most emotionless, workman-like murders I’ve seen depicted on screen in a long time as well as a climax that will have you jumping out of your seat, pulse racing and cheering.

5. Zodiac (Director- David Fincher)
A David Fincher movie coming in at number 5 almost qualifies as an off year for him. Think about that for second. Even though Zodiac isn’t his best career effort he still made the top 5 with ease. That’s scary. I’d rank this way above Seven and (especially) Panic Room but below The Game and Fight Club. It could almost be considered the anti-Juno of 2007 because I’m convinced had it been released in December and not the Oscar dead zone of March it would have earned nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr.) Why it wasn’t we’ll never know but its release date does nothing to dilute the power of Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s gripping cinematic adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s non-fiction books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked.

Part police procedural and part character study it manages to keep us at a terrifying arms length from the killer while at the same time bringing us closer to him than we’ve ever been before for nearly 3 gripping hours. Downey is typically amazing as the troubled San Francisco Chronicle reporter who befriends the paper's curious and later obsessively compulsive cartoonist Graysmith (played with reluctant precision by Jake Gyllenhaal).

It’s All The President’s Men for a new generation as Fincher and his cinematographer Harris Savides brilliantly realize late 70’s San Francisco at the height of the Zodiac killing spree. Years pass but we feel his legacy grow along with Graysmith’s obsession. Character actor John Caroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen (the man who may or may not be the killer) in just one heart stopping interrogation scene, brings to frightening life our worst fears of what he may be. Credit him and Fincher for exceeding those wildest expectations. One of the most underrated and overlooked films of 2007.

4. There Will Be Blood (Director-Paul Thomas Anderson)
If I were going by which film “technically” was the most impressive of the year this would win hands down. The mitigating factors necessary for this to be considered the absolute best may not be present but everything else is. Anderson is a filmmaker known for taking huge risks but he may have taken his biggest risk yet by reversing all of our expectations in making a period epic and playing it mostly straight. Looking at his other previous work it would appear he’d be way over his head and out of his comfort zone here but you’d never know it watching the film.

Almost Kubrikian in its execution, Anderson uses Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil! as his basis to tell the story of prospector Daniel Plainview whose greed during the turn-of-the-century oil boom destroys everything and everyone around him. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is every bit as incredible as you heard he was and of all the Best Picture nominees this year, this is the one that should have won, not No Country For Old Men. You could mention it alongside such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and not be too far off the mark. It really is that good. Of the films on this list, this wins as most likely to enter the American Film Institute's Top 100.

Between Robert Elswit’s sweeping cinematography, Johnny Greenwood’s loud, pulsating score and a final 20 minutes that’s just about the darkest and most depressing thing you could ever imagine seeing on screen, this is a new classic. The American dream is built up, then dragged straight to hell kicking and screaming. Despite what the media tells you, it’s not a film about just milkshakes and catchphrases. It will never go down as my favorite P.T. Anderson picture (see Boogie Nights for that), but it’s probably the one I have the most respect for.

3. I’m Not There (Director-Todd Haynes)
Bob Dylan finally has a movie as bizarre, inaccessible and polarizing as he is. And for fans of his this is a dream come true. Haynes uses six different actors playing seven different versions of the legend at various stages of his career and life. Each one brings something different and special with none of them ruining the enigmatic aura that’s always surrounded him. A big fuss has been made about Cate Blanchett’s Oscar nominated turn as the egotistical jerk Bob Dylan from the Blonde on Blonde era we’re all so familiar with. There’s no doubt it’s impressive and dead-on in its accuracy, but I was more interested in the others. Like Christian Bale’s bizarre and compelling take on Dylan’s religious conversion, Richard Gere’s underrated interpretation of his reclusive later years, and most unsettling of all, Heath Ledger’s troubled movie star with the rocky marriage.

You could ask a dozen different people and probably get a dozen different answers as to what it all means or what it says about Dylan, or if it really even says anything at all. There are so many different things going on at once it’s impossible not to be transfixed (even if you hate it) and while everyone will have certain sections of the film and performances they favor over others, Haynes never stays with one long enough that you’d get antsy. With certain sections filmed in good old black and white it’s also one of the most interestingly shot movies of the year and the only one other than my number one pick that I feel showed me something I've never seen before.

2. Into The Wild (Director- Sean Penn)
When most films reach their conclusion I’m left thinking about the direction, the performances, or maybe the script. Not here. When Into The Wild ended all I was thinking about was THE MEANING OF LIFE. That’s how deep it cuts. In telling the story of Christopher McCandliss, who abandoned his family and worldly possessions to head off into the Alaskan wilderness, many accused Sean Penn of glorifying the journey. Well…what was he supposed to do? Penn told this story exactly how it should have been and he doesn’t, despite popular opinion, ignore the fact that this kid’s actions were misguided and selfish. We’re not supposed to necessarily like him, just come to some kind of understanding why he felt compelled to take the actions he did. Emile Hirsch, quite simply, gives the performance of his life while Eddie Vedder’s music plays just as an important role in telling the story as any line of dialogue in the script.

I’m glad I’m not a voting member of the Academy because it would have been impossible for me to put objectivity aside and cast a vote for Javier Bardem as Best Supporting Actor. With not much more than 10 minutes of screen time acting legend Hal Holbrook gives one of the most heartbreaking supporting turns in years as the aging retiree forever changed by McCandliss' journey. Everyone knows how this one ends, but that doesn’t make it go down any easier. Quite possibly Sean Penn's most important and unselfish contribution to cinema, either as an actor or director.

I should point out that the reason this movie is not in the number one position has nothing to do with any shortcomings on its part. It’s flawless and actually better than many of the films I’ve picked as my top choice in previous years. I even tried this out in the top spot but it just didn't work. And believe me I really, really tried. It just didn’t FEEL RIGHT. I knew what film was the best of 2007...

1. Southland Tales (Director- Richard Kelly)
Maybe the most ambitious and self-indulgent brilliant mess of a movie I've ever seen. With the pressure to follow-up his 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly was given (you could argue unjustifiably) the budget and free rein to do whatever he wanted for his sophomore effort. And THIS was his response. If you think about it, that’s pretty funny. When I first heard about this film a couple of years ago and found out who was behind it and the actors attached to star, I couldn’t wait. That enthusiasm started to diminish when the release date started to constantly be pushed back and word leaked of disastrous early screenings (like the infamous one at Cannes). If you had told me a year ago that this film would be sitting at the top of this mountain I would have jumped through the roof, but I started having serious doubts, not only that it could be as good as I hoped, but that it could be any good at all. I also know whenever a filmmaker tackles a project with this ambitious the potential for disaster is enormous. But it ended up not only being as great as I wished it could be, but a million times better than that.

In my review of this a couple of months ago I compared it to Dr. Strangelove and Brazil and that wasn’t hyperbole. I’d put it right up there with those, which is appropriate considering both weren’t received well at all by most critics and audiences upon their release. They later came to be appreciated as cult classics and after that took their place as being genuinely respected as important, groundbreaking films. All I can do is just wait and cross my fingers but if it doesn’t pan out that way it’s okay. The public’s perception can do nothing to diminish my love for this film. There are a lot of fantastic movies on this list but all of them (with the exception of maybe number 3) are great in ways that could be duplicated in the future. This can’t. Even those who think the film failed (and I know there are many) would admit it did so more interestingly than many others succeeded in 2007 and could only have been made by a true visionary.

Every time I watch it (four times and counting by the way) I notice details I never saw before and the second it ends I have this burning desire to just start over and see it again. I think that’s because the story twists in so many different directions that you could come at it from any angle you choose. If you wanted to just watch it as a slapstick comedy you could. It works equally as well as an action/adventure film. You can shut your brain off and choose to not even bother following the plot (which does eventually reveal itself as a brilliant construction that holds together perfectly) or you can attempt to put the pieces together as you go along. Unfortunately, most chose to view it the one way they probably shouldn’t: Literally. As if it were trying to make some deep, important thematic point. IT’S A SATIRE. It knew how to have fun, which is something too many of the year’s films completely forgot how to do.

In creating an alternate 2008 Richard Kelly came closer to depicting the world we live in now than any of the serious dramas released in 2007. It actually comes way closer than people are ever likely to admit and is only cinematic effort this year to incorporate politics and the Iraq War into its story successfully. It can also boasts an awesome score from Moby, mind-boggling visuals and one of the most memorable musical numbers ever committed to celluloid. In short, this is one for the time capsule.

It would be tough for me to claim that it’s filled with our generation’s greatest actors, but I can argue they’re among our most entertaining celebrities and all deliver terrific performances, pushed and challenged like they’ve never been before in roles no one imagined they could play. Kelly was smart enough to know a film this insane warranted casting choices that were equally crazy. Just get a load of this:

-Dwayne Johnson as an amnesiac movie star with ties to the Republican party.

-Mandy Moore as his bitchy, slutty wife

-Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star and aspiring reality talk show host

-Justin Timberlake as a wounded Iraq war veteran

-Seann William Scott as kidnapped twins

-Jon Lovitz as a psychotic cop

-Midgets (in S.W.A.T uniforms!)

Special mention should be made of Johnson, Gellar and Scott who deliver performances way beyond what anyone thought they were capable of. Especially Johnson, who I’ll never refer to as “The Rock” again after witnessing what he pulls off here. Most filmmakers would consider themselves lucky if they accidentally made one cult classic in their career. Kelly wrote and directed two…intentionally! As a human drama Darko wins, but as a work of science fiction it’s got nothing on this. I feel with Southland Tales Kelly made the kind of film I always secretly wanted to see, whether I was consciously aware of it or not. And I suspect it's infuriated so many because it challenges the perceptions of what we feel movies are capable of and what they can do. It's a misunderstood masterpiece.

Honorable Mention (in no particular order):
The Lookout (Scott Frank)
The Mist (Frank Darabont)
Superbad (Greg Motttola)

Grindhouse (Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez)

No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck)

American Gangster (Ridley Scott)

3:10 To Yuma (James Mangold)

Margot At The Wedding (Noah Baumbach)

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)

Live Free Or Die Hard (Len Wiseman)
Alpha Dog (Nick Cassavettes)

Friday, May 9, 2008

I'm Not There

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Wishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore

Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R


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


I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall during the conversation between writer/director Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan’s agent when they agreed upon a direction for a movie based on the singer’s life. I’m guessing it probably went something like this:

Agent: So I ran the idea past Bob and he’s cool with it. Except, he’s got a couple of ground rules.


Haynes: Sure. Shoot.


Agent: Well, first off you can’t write a movie that’s literally ABOUT Dylan.


Haynes: I’m not exactly following.


Agent: It just has to be INSPIRED by his life. And it has to be weird. I mean really weird and completely inaccessible…like he is.


Haynes: I can do that. Didn’t you see my Karen Carpenter movie with the Barbie dolls?


Agent: I did. Great stuff. Oh, and you can’t use his name any of his really famous songs either. So no “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Shelter From The Storm.”


Haynes: What about "All Along The Watchtower?"


Agent: That one’s okay. Most people think it’s Hendrix’s anyway. Just between you and me, his version is way better.


Yeah, that doesn’t seem too far off. I should mention that I go into Haynes’ anti-biopic I’m Not There as a pretty big Bob Dylan fan. I have a lot of songs on my ipod but I skip over loads of them, usually picking out what I want to listen to depending on the mood I’m in. But I don’t have to be “in the mood” to listen to Dylan. He's one of the few artists whose music I never tire of listening to. To appreciate this film requires complete honesty regarding why it’s being made in such a bizarre style. Why instead of traveling the normal biopic route we’re instead treated to a bunch of different actors playing incarnations of arguably America’s greatest singer/songwriter at various stages of his life.

It isn’t an attempt to gain greater perspective and insight on someone who has always been a frustrating, unsolvable puzzle as a human being and a celebrity. It’s being done because Dylan is such an introverted, insecure emotional basket case that he wouldn’t be able to stand anyone putting his life on screen for the world to see. Taking this unconventional approach softens the blow for him and was likely the only way the film would have ever seen the light of day. He could only truly express himself through his music and that notion lies at the heart of the film. Probably to Dylan’s chagrin, Haynes takes full advantage of his subject and in telling us nothing plays a sneaky trick and manages to tell us nearly everything. The opening credits tell us the “film is inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan” and that’s actually true. It’s the rare biographical film that does justice to its subject and now we can claim to actually have a film that’s just as affecting as the work he has given us. Others may find it a frustrating mess but even those who do won’t be able to deny its ambition or strokes of pure genius.

The film jumps between characters and timelines with no definitive three-act structure and the scenes don’t flow with each other as they would in a conventional narrative. Normally an approach like that would create a distance between the viewer and film but strangely that isn’t the case here. Against all odds it manages to be emotionally involving and while you care about some stories and incarnations of Dylan more than others, all of them hold your interest intensely. Dylan is first imagined as an 11-year-old Depression-era obsessed African American boy named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails with his guitar. He’s meant to represent the early inspiration for Dylan’s career. As played by Franklin, he's wise WAY beyond his years. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is a popular folk singer who later converts to Christianity. He’s being portrayed in a film by movie star Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) whose tumultuous home life with wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is obviously meant to echo Dylan’s own rocky marriage with his first wife Sara Lownds.

Ledger and Gainsbourg share real, palpable chemistry (both negative and positive) and with limited screen time make their story arc the most engaging in the film. It’s tough to imagine how tortuous it must have been to be married to Bob Dylan, but the mesmerizing Gainsbourg finds a way to capture it. The acoustic-goes-electric jerk Dylan depicted in D.A. Pennabaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back is imagined by Cate Blanchett as a character named Jude Quinn, while Ben Wishaw interprets the babbling poet version, Arthur Rimbaud. Both those segments are filmed in black and white with the former shot in a beautiful style reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Richard Gere has the smallest amount of screen time as Billy The Kid, a world-weary recluse whose time appears to have long passed.

There are some bizarre but fascinating supporting turns, especially from Julianne Moore as folk singer/activist Alice Fabian, an obvious stand-in for Joan Baez, who was jilted years ago by Bale’s character. She appears in the Dewey Cox-like documentary style portion of the film and it’s scary how well she gets Baez down in manner and appearance…really scary. Michelle Williams has a small, hallucinatory type role as a girlfriend of Quinn’s while Arrested Development’s David Cross gives a funny and startlingly accurate performance as Beat poet Allan Ginsberg.

Of all the takes on Dylan the one that surprisingly interested me the least was Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated one. I think this is because we’re so familiar with that version of Dylan it’s almost impossible to be surprised or shocked by it. This section of the film explores his notoriously adversarial relationship with the press and in trying to present them as clueless, ignorant vultures (which they were) we’re also reminded again what an asshole he was. However, Blanchett does Dylan more favors than he did himself in Don’t Look Back with a slightly more sympathetic portrayal that never relies on just merely imitation. She’s also given the most memorable Dylan moment: being booed at the Newport Folk Festival for abandoning his folk roots by “going electric.” Blanchett is bold and daring, but the essence of him (or how we imagine him to be) is captured even more by Bale and Ledger. It’s awful and painfully obvious to point out, but watching the Ledger portions of the film it’s impossible not to wonder just how much the late actor’s life may have resembled that of the character he was playing. It casts a ghastly, uncomfortable pallor over the picture, yet also gives those scenes an added poignancy.

I’m probably one of the few who really enjoyed Richard Gere’s performance because it was so subdued and restrained compared to the rest, and the part calls for it to be. His character and story have been singled out as the weak link in the movie but I found it to be a compelling analogy of Dylan’s insecurity with fame and his legacy late in his career. This section also contains my favorite scene, a haunting theatrical stage show set to the unearthed Dylan gem, “Going to Acapulco” covered by My Morning Jacket. Surprisingly, despite this film’s title coming from one of Dylan’s more obscure basement tape tracks, he did actually grant the rights for his more well known songs to be used in the film. The original versions of “Stuck In a Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” “I Want You” and “Visions of Johanna” make appearances and they add a lot. We do get “All Along The Watchtower” but an Eddie Vedder cover as opposed to the Dylan or Hendrix version. Haynes does an excellent job giving a second life to more obscure tunes while interweaving them seamlessly with the classics.

The name “Bob Dylan” isn’t mentioned once, although pay attention late for the only literal acknowledgment of him. Knowledge of his life and work isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying this picture, but those who have it will likely find even more to appreciate. Anyone going in knowing little to nothing will likely leave wanting to learn as much about him and his music as possible. Dylan haters would probably find it entertaining too since the film doesn’t glaze over his serious personality flaws and is as appropriately frustrating and impossible to crack as he is. As for the die hard fans, they finally have a representation of Dylan on film they can really put their arms around and embrace.

It’s now almost impossible to watch another biographical film without being reminded of this one, which exposes all others as frauds. It points out how boring and uninteresting the standard biopic approach has always been. You’ll likely have fun imagining other icons being given a treatment like this and which actors could possibly play them. I’m Not There has been lumped together with another risk-taking musical film last year, Across The Universe, which used The Beatles as its inspiration. I recently re-watched that and discovered it didn’t hold up nearly as well on the second viewing. I watched this twice and loved it even more the second time and I think that’s because while most films have only one method of entry, this has seven, with a new way to get in each time. Any way you approach it, you end up knowing no more about Bob Dylan the person than you did before, and that’s okay. He remains exactly as he should be: An enigma. And in telling us nothing about him, Haynes somehow reveals so much more than we could have hoped.