You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2006.

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Superman Returns. The name says it all. Our Man of Steel returns to our collective consciousness after almost 20 years. Has he arrived with the big bang all the hype has culled together? Unfortunately, not even close. Bryan Singer leaves his flourishing X-Men saga to helm an obligatory bridge episode in an already watered down series. While Chris Nolan had a ton of success with his reinvention of the Batman chronicles, Singer is hindered by the fact that this is a continuation two decades later. The heart and emotion is there, the acting is there, the story could have been rewritten with slight changes—all for a rebirth of the legendary hero. Instead, we as an audience go into the movie knowing its place in history, occurring after the first two installments as movies three and four have been all but erased from the echelon of cinema. Too many callbacks to the original, too much unwarranted camp in an otherwise serious drama, too muddled of a story where we as an audience are reminded by characters about a plot point before we are whisked off to continue that story thread. There is some intelligence in the movie going public, we know the story of Superman and didn’t need a handholding session in a sequel, which they decided for this to be.

Maybe it’s the fact that we have been given the brilliantly handled television drama “Smallville”, which delves into Clark Kent’s psyche and opens our eyes to the real trouble his dual life creates. It seems the filmmakers also have this in the back of their heads—besides the fact that even though we have moved Metropolis back to the east coast, a train set still contains the obscure town sign of Smallville, Kansas—as they seem to want to take a serious tone, although they won’t quite take it the distance. Sprinkled in we have Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, with great shades of sinisterness, trying too hard to do his best Gene Hackman impression. The camp just didn’t fit the character we are introduced to, a man much eviler than Hackman’s incarnation who would con an old millionaire woman on her deathbed to signing over her estate while the family waited outside. The indecision to pick a consistent tone with Lex made it hard to really see him as someone capable of mass-genocide; we desperately needed Ned Beatty’s bumbling Otis to play him off of, instead of the stoic, hardened criminals he accompanies. Also, Parker Posey is an annoying, thrice-removed Xerox copy of the old Mrs. Teschmacher; and did Kal Penn get paid for this movie or did he remove himself from the film and they decided not to redub his lines with another actor as they did for Gene Hackman in Superman II—I don’t think he spoke one word in the entire movie.

The film was not without its merits, however. Brandon Routh does an amazing job filling the large shoes left by the late Christopher Reeves. He isn’t given much of an opportunity to run with the Clark persona, hopefully subsequent films will bring out more of this, but his portrayal of the conflicted Kal-El is well played. Props also go to Kate Bosworth with a nice turn as Lois Lane. Having really only seen her in the likes of Blue Crush, with exception to a good performance in Wonderland, I was pleasantly surprised to see her pull off playing a character beyond her years, (a 23 year old actress playing a Pulitzer Prize winning star reporter for the biggest paper in the country’s biggest city), a stretch for most as seen with Katie Holmes’ dismal portrayal of an Assistant DA in Batman Begins. The twenty-first century also helped usher in some gorgeous special effects, with detailed set pieces and action scenes, (the airplane/shuttle rescue was well executed visually). Instances of see-through vision also sparked my attention, most evident in Clark following Lois through the Daily Planet doors, up the elevator to the roof.

Singer seemed to have had all the elements there for a successful restart in a dead series. He should have created a new world as he did with X-Men’s tie to reality instead of trying to build upon a 20-year old movie. Callbacks in movies of this kind are good fodder for laughs to the fans of a series. Short quips like Jimmy Olsen’s initial “Mr. Clark! Kent…I mean Clark Kent” and Clark’s “swell” remind you of scenes from the original and bring a small to your face. However, having a moment like this every 10 minutes gets old and very unoriginal, from Lex’s speech about his father’s advice to gather land, Superman’s “flying is still the safest way to travel”, and his “Lois you really shouldn’t smoke”, we are beaten over the head with these allusions to past greatness. (And on the smoking front, is our society so without faith in our parenting skills on teaching kids not to smoke that we have to put smoking as a rating point. It’s as if our favorite chain-smoker Lois Lane would have died instantly, or at the very least caused an R-rating had she actually lit that cigarette; it’s a part of her character. Being weak and taking that out was a public service announcement that took me out of the film a bit, especially when it is then ok to show Lex puffing on his cigar.) I won’t even mention the unnecessary plot-device of Lois’s child or the few discrepancies to the previous two films we are to believe this follows, or the multiple Jesus allusions—well I guess I just did. The makings of a great installment were there, but expectations were not fulfilled. Hopefully the Return has happened and now Singer and company can sink their teeth into a real Superhero masterpiece. The dream is still alive.

Superman Returns 6/10
As comparison: Superman 8/10; Superman II 7/10

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photography:
[1] BRANDON ROUTH portrays Superman, who returns after years away to find the world needs him now more than ever, in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure Superman Returns. Photo: Sony Pictures Imageworks. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] Lex Luthor (KEVIN SPACEY) menaces Lois Lane (KATE BOSWORTH) and her son Jason (TRISTAN LAKE LEABU) in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure Superman Returns. Photo by David James

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Finally I can cross The Da Vinci Code off my list of movies to see. While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I was on the fence when the prospect of going to the movie came up. In the end, I realized it needed to be seen on the big screen, and I’m glad that was the decision. It, of course, paled in comparison to the book, but all in all was still a successful adaptation, staying true for its entirety. Unfortunately, because it stayed so true is why it wasn’t a masterpiece.

I give full credit to the actors, each did their role justice—even Tom Hanks as our hero Robert Langdon, the one character I went in not thinking was perfectly cast. Jean Reno and Ian McKellen were brilliant as Captain Fache and Sir Teabing respectively, Audrey Tautou and Alfred Molina brought credibility to their parts, and Paul Bettany encompassed the albino Silas perfectly. Bettany truly stole the show and it’s a shame many of his scenes were cut in the adapting process, leading him to just be a villain with only small shades of the misguided, lost soul he really was. I am also thankful that the filmmakers made the Hanks/Tautou dynamic more of a friendship then budding love affair as it was in the book. The age gap of the actors was just too much for it to work and by thinning that relationship; it made the characters more believable in the scope of things. Ron Howard made a good directorial choice in guiding his cast this way; it’s too bad he didn’t alter anything else.

Howard fell into the Chris Columbus rut with The Da Vinci Code. As Columbus showed with his first two installments in the Harry Potter saga, staying word for word to the source material does not a great movie make. Text and film are two separate mediums that must be molded unto themselves for complete success. Howard seems to have been so preoccupied with pleasing the Dan Brown fanatics with a faithful adaptation that he forgot this movie was his baby to do with as he pleased. Yes, the direction has some very nice visual flair—evidenced with the fading of current action to past happenings, beautifully done on the crossing of the street towards the end where buses are going through swarms of walking pedestrians—but overall the text from the book has been lifted to the screen, more as a book on film then a piece of cinema. What this movie needed was a shot in the arm like the resurrection Alfonso Cuarón created with his Potter rendition. While still true to the Prisoner of Azkaban’s essence, Cuarón was able to put his stamp on the film by adding atmosphere and a sense of foreboding visually rather than falling back to what worked on the page.

Critics complained upon release that The Da Vinci Code preached rather than revealed, which I must agree with in part. It’s not that there is more exposition in the movie than was in the novel, in fact there is less. Because of the need to shorten the text to allow for a two-hour movie, scenes must be sacrificed. However, here they were too afraid to do any cutting, instead the filmmakers condensed. Whereas while reading we are brought into the hunt, listening to each character’s ruminations spanning chapters as they slowly crack the newest puzzle, on screen we are given solutions practically in the next breath as the question itself. This lack of methodical pacing makes it seem as though we are being taught because we don’t get to be a part of the unraveling. So, this isn’t a bad adaptation at all, it is actually near perfect. The real truth ends up being that the novel just was not a good candidate for the cinematic conversion. Sometimes engrossing prose works because of its medium and unless a director comes in to capture the essence and create a film out of it, rather than of it, we are left unsatisfied with a result that never truly takes form to stand by itself as a movie.

The Da Vinci Code 6/10

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photography:
[1] Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu) and Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon) in Columbia Pictures’ suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code.
[2] Paul Bettany plays Silas the albino in Ron Howard’s suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code

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David Duchovny has crafted a beautifully touching film with House of D. It is a coming-of-age story of sorts as his character narrates what happened to him around his thirteenth birthday. Being that his own son, in France, is now turning into a teenager, he feels that the time is finally right to tell his wife the reality of his past. Much happened to the young Tom Warshaw in the days leading to what should have been a joyous date. He was a standout student in his private Catholic school, hanging with his best friend Pappas, his neighbor who was mentally retarded and employed as a janitor at the school. While being 40 years old, Pappas was basically a 13 year old child as well. Once Tom discovered the fairer sex and began hanging out with a girlfriend, his friend realized he just couldn’t follow. Emotions run high as Pappas tries to win back the one person who really treats him as a human being by stealing a bike the two have been saving money for. This one event creates a snowball effect as Tom’s life spirals out of control, causing him to need to grow up much quicker than he should have to, making tough decisions which ultimately lead to his life in Paris as a new man.

House of D is the feature debut for Duchovny as a writer/director; he proves himself admirably in both positions. The story is nicely balanced between narration and dialogue. We are shown the time of Tom’s life that really created him. While the story itself is well-written and uses a believable story arc, making what could have been clichéd contrivances work in the final scope of things, it is the acting that really drives the film. It appears Duchovny is an actor’s director, getting amazing performances from stalwart thespians as well as capable newcomers. Téa Leoni is great as Tom’s mother who has lost her husband and is working as a nurse to try and bring her son up right, yet can’t shake the void in her heart left by the loss; Robin Williams deftly handles the challenges in playing Pappas as he doesn’t overdo it, (besides the unnecessary fake teeth), this isn’t a showy performance, but instead subtle and emotive; Frank Langella does well as the school’s reverend, adding a solid disciplinary figure with some nice comic moments; and relative newcomer—I believe this is his first starring role— Anton Yelchin who balances the angst and premature responsibility for those around him to perfection. Yelchin reminded me of Emile Hirsch, in appearance and personality as both play the older than their years character while still retaining the necessary youth, and both star in the forthcoming Alpha Dog which has garnered good buzz along with an intriguing trailer.

Singer Erykah Badu provides a breakthrough role here as well. She has acted in a couple films before, but here she really shines as Tom’s guide on high. Imprisoned in the titular House of D, her voice comes down to Yelchin’s character with advice among the other prostitutes yelling to their pimps on the street. Helping with girl problems and issues of respecting those you love, Badu delivers her lines with purpose and meaning through the bar cells with only a mirror shard to see him by. When she teaches Tom how to dance one dusky evening, she provides the music for which to gain rhythm from. The scene is light and touching, sowing the seeds of their relationship and the impact she had, although briefly, on his life. This distant bond culminates in a wonderful moment during the dénouement between her and Duchovny where the weight of his past is finally lifted from his shoulders.

House of D 7/10

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photography:
[1] David Duchovny (as Tom Warshaw) in House of D. Photo credit: Larry Watson
[2] Robin Williams, Zelda Williams and Anton Yelchin in House of D. Photo credit: Larry Watson

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Ice Age came out in 2002 giving me no real inspiration to go check it out. Of course I finally did and found it to be well voiced and scripted. So, when Ice Age 2: The Meltdown debuted, I had a bit more interest in seeing it, even though the idea of sequels usually doesn’t hold much clout in my eyes. To my surprise the film kept most of what worked from the original. The performances from Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary are all humorous and heartfelt. The addition of Queen Latifah as a lifeline for the continuation of mammoth-kind—despite thinking she is a possum—was a good touch as she has the voice and attitude that is just right for a family animated film. Her character drives the story along and works well with the returning animals, one of which is the pesky, unable to catch a break, squirrel Scrat. The filmmakers saw that Scrat’s mini scenes sprinkled throughout the first film were fan favorites and have brought him back for more. His small vignettes are a perfect parallel to our main plot and payoff with some of the best laughs. They weren’t the biggest laughs, however, as those came from the great Will “Job Bluth” Arnett as our friendly vulture. His sardonic speech is wonderful and his play on theme park/supermarket loud speakers is brilliant comedy.

The heart remains from the first as well as the clean animation. However, overall the film doesn’t quite match its predecessor as it falls into some lulls and the trap of a bit too much melodrama and sentimentality. Without the duplicity of a character like Diego in the first, the sense of danger is turned down. Whereas he could have turned on them in the herd while they were being chased, having the chase by itself in the sequel can’t compete. Also, it would have been nice to have at least mentioned the human child they saved. As Manny says at the end of the original, “We’ll never forget you;” it appears as though they have. In the end though, Ice Age 2 is still well worth a look.

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown 6/10
As comparison: Ice Age 8/10

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photography:
[1] (L to R) Diego (voiced by Denis Leary), Sid (voiced by John Leguizamo) and Manfred (voiced by Ray Romano) in animation movie Ice Age 2 – 2006.

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Before striking gold by teaming with Vince Vaughn in last year’s Wedding Crashers, director David Dobkin tabbed him for his debut Clay Pigeons. The movie had some buzz behind it upon its release in 1998, however I never got around to checking it out. A few months ago, while listening to my podcast of choice, the movie review show Cinecast (recently renamed as Filmspotting), Pigeons was brought back into my consciousness. It is a well-made effort—dark subject matter mixed with pitch black humor. This is vintage Vaughn who really lights up the screen with his infectious smile; even the high-pitched hyena laugh stays in tact as he must not have been asked to tone it down as it seems his more recent films have required. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who seems to not be able to catch a break. How many times must one character take care of dead bodies that he hasn’t even killed? Everyone has something to hold over him so that he must cover up the chaos happening in the town. Pigeons is shot well and nicely paced. It’s a shame Dobkin seems to have forgone the edge this film contains for more general fare like Crashers and the forthcoming Vaughn vehicle Joe Claus. He shows some nice flare and hopefully will continue making entertaining movies.

Clay Pigeons 6/10

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Being a huge fan of the movie whose name I stole for this post’s title and his more recent Gosford Park, I was ecstatic to see that Robert Altman had gone back to his layered dialogue and fly on the wall storytelling style with the new A Prairie Home Companion, (I haven’t seen The Company but it just didn’t strike me as the Altman I love). The film is a nice, poignant tale about the final show from Garrison Keillor’s ragtag band of misfits. What a crew they were: Keillor shines playing himself with an amazing comic timing and facial expressions that I wasn’t quite expecting being that he has done radio for so long, but his natural charisma and the help of being the script’s composer allowed a very rich and real performance; Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are a singing act with a great rapport, bouncing joke after joke off each other; Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are hilarious as musical sisters who—I couldn’t decide—have been taking hallucinogens for years or are just really high on life; Lindsay Lohan does a good job with her small role, I’m not sure it’s the serious adult breakthrough people are hailing it as though—she plays a young girl obsessed with death and yet cries “why?” to anyone who will listen when death is seen firsthand; and lastly the chameleon that is Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, our occasional narrator/private detective/security man whose clumsiness and convoluted, overdramatic speech lend a nice touch.

Altman does what Altman does best by giving continuous streams of conversation burned to celluloid. As Keillor himself says in the movie, silence and radio just don’t go together and that credo is seen here. He directs the menagerie of characters beautifully as only he can do, (with exception to Paul Thomas Anderson who served as “backup director” on this film for insurance purposes due to the age of Altman, hopefully securing some of these actors to support Daniel Day Lewis in his new film There Will Be Blood, as he is the proven successor to character driven dramedys). The actors keep the laughs coming and even when a joke seems to be done, or overdone, a character adds one more final quip to send the audience reeling in their seats again.

A Prairie Home Companion 8/10

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photography:
[1] Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan in A Prairie Home Companion Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

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Late nineteenth century Australia seems to have been quite a hellish place indeed if we are to believe what Nick Cave and John Hillcoat have given us here. From the unflinching, seeming authenticity, the weight of conflicting emotion on the part of each and every human being portrayed, and the sheer beauty of it—pain, suffering, and all—I won’t be the one to dispute it.

I must admit that I have never seen a western before. None of the classics—John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, John Ford—even though I own a few and want to experience the genre, it just hasn’t happened yet. The closest I have come is the first two seasons of the magnificent “Deadwood” on HBO. If The Proposition is any indication of what I am missing, sign me up for a marathon now. Nick Cave has scripted a haunting ballad of a time left behind. Like his music with the Bad Seeds, the film is both brutal and lyrical at alternating and overlapping instances, yet if there is one thing that runs throughout, it’s honesty. This is the Australian outback at its’ hottest and most dangerous. Flies scurry across frame every second of the way, touching down on the sweat-soaked flesh of the people invading their space. Give credit to the actors, this isn’t a Hollywood film, the swarms are plenty and there is never a flinch or notice, even when one lands on a lip or eye. They are also real people and not clichés. When one character, fast asleep in his bedroom with pistol at close proximity, is awoken by a gunshot, he doesn’t rise with gun ready for action. Instead he jumps up, hand on gun, and goes full speed into the closed door, falling to the floor. This jolt knocks the lingering sleep from his head and he turns to tell his wife to stay put before opening the door and leaving. There is no humor in the scene, just the reality of fear quickening one’s actions to a higher speed than his lucidity.

As for the story, the Irish Burns brothers have been wreaking havoc in the outback. The three and their cohorts ride through towns partaking in murder and rape without a second thought, until one instance wakes Charlie to discover the nightmare he is in. Charlie, played to stoic perfection by Guy Pearce, takes his younger brother away from the carnage only to be soon found by local British authorities, led by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). A proposition is then struck that Charlie has nine days until Christmas, nine days to find his brother Arthur, (Danny Huston), to kill him and end the hellish trail of death he leaves in order to save his younger sibling from the noose. Charlie agrees as he has taken his brother out of the life to save him; he must do what he can to keep that dream alive. The journey begins: a quest for redemption, for penance, or maybe to join Arthur again and lead a charge for rescue.

Flanking Pearce, (his Till Human Voices Wake Us has been on my to see list for almost 5 years now, if anyone has seen it please let me know how it is), are two amazing performances by Winstone and Huston; both wear their emotions on their sleeves. Huston is an intelligent, educated, yet sadistic man. He does whatever he needs to and at night stares out into the distance, a look of wildness etching the contours of his face. Is he thinking about his deeds with an anger keeping him awake at night or about what atrocities he will commit tomorrow? One compatriot asks later in the film if they are misanthropes, if they hate humanity—Huston’s answer is “Lord no, we’re family.” Caring for his own blood is all the humanity he needs. Winstone’s captain is the opposite. He is a just man, trying to civilize a wild country. Trying to balance the cold stare needed to accept the violence he inflicts with the compassion necessary to hide it when confronting his wife is heartwrenching. Every emotion is flashing behind his eyes, sometimes he must do what is right, and not “just”, and others he must do what is necessary for the overall good.

The supporting roles are also superb as John Hurt supplies a nice turn as a bounty hunter out looking for the Burns clan and Emily Watson is unforgettable as the captain’s wife. Her character is on the fringe of all the happenings going on, but when she slowly finds herself discovering the truth, her performance really shines. A gorgeous example is a scene where she is describing a dream to her husband, the camerawork is magical—as it is throughout the movie—and the composition of shots lend the tale even more emotion by shielding us from her face as she recites.

This film cannot be critiqued without mention of the haunting score by Cave and Warren Ellis. Music enhances each scene it is used in. Gorgeous strings and piano mixed with hard, driving guitar create mood and tension. Even the use of traditional Celtic melody works perfectly. The juxtaposition of Peggy Gordon with the visuals it is overlaid on is stirring. Nick Cave has bridged his dark storytelling from albums like Murder Ballads and Let Love In seamlessly to the big screen. Our emotions are amped up as we journey through the rollercoaster ride of feelings. If you have seen Wim Wenders’ poetic Wings of Desire and remember the two scenes in the music clubs where the angel first meets his love and next seeks her out in human form, all to driving rock beats, you will know what I mean by music creating a powerful hold. You will also know then that the second band used is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. His music has had a strong grip for almost two decades in cinema.

There are usually around three or so movies a year that I feel are perfect or close to it. These are movies that will stay with me days later in contemplation, ones that are hard to wait for DVD in order to experience again. It is then a rare pleasure to see two such films in the span of a week. Unfortunately it appears that The Proposition’s run here in Buffalo has come to a premature end after only one week. When it is released on DVD do yourself a favor and check it out. Who knew dirt, sweat, graphic violence, and a palpable humidity on screen could be so breathtaking a sight to see.

The Proposition 10/10

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photography:
[1] Guy Pearce as ‘Charlie Burns’ in ‘The Proposition’. Photo by: Kerry Brown
[2] John Hurt as ‘Jellon Lamb’ and Danny Huston as ‘Arthur Burns’ in ‘The Proposition’. Photo by: Kerry Brown

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“There is a point where bold becomes stupid.” Ving Rhames’s character Luthor speaks these words and couldn’t be more right. Just by looking at the evolution of the Mission Impossible series, one can see a bold example of cerebral storytelling shot by virtuoso Brian De Palma and a cold, mechanical showing, of a really stupid haircut, filmed by John Woo, who still hasn’t matched the brilliance of his final Hong Kong piece Hard Boiled stateside. Mission Impossible III definitely could have fallen in either camp—my thoughts leaned towards stupid—however, thanks, I’m sure in no small part to J.J. Abrams, we are given an enjoyable piece of popcorn action infused with just the right amount of heart.

Unlike the first film incarnation, which had multiple characters backseat-bound to the intricate story, and the second, a vanity project with everything on the periphery of Tom Cruise as an expendable device, we are now given a look into what makes the characters who they are and allow us to have an emotional tie to them, while still being treated with some high-powered eye-candy. There is a definite comparison to Abrams’s TV show “Lost” as the story is shot with a few flashbacks to help show the audience exposition. We aren’t treated like babies and fed with an update on where the characters have been at the beginning. Instead we are thrown right into the struggle before being jarred into the past to see how we arrived at that point. Abrams seems a master at character development in as few words as possible. He needs only one sentence to explain the past life of Michelle Monaghan’s Jules at an early engagement party scene. We don’t even need to be told what she does for a living because Ethan will visit her at the hospital. Is she a doctor or nurse? It doesn’t matter, she helps people and that itself adds to her character.

Superb acting is shown along with the elaborate, non-stop action. Besides Cruise, who does all he is asked, everyone is given a secondary role that they run with. No one seems on the fringe and all are integral to the plot. Monaghan does a good job of being the love interest who is not frail and defenseless—known by the basejumping she was doing when she met Hunt, this fearlessness helps the audience accept what her character is asked to do towards the end—and builds upon her resume after a nice turn in last year’s grossly overlooked Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang; Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, and Rhames play the action heroes to perfection, exuding kidlike glee upon accomplishing an impossible task; Billy Crupup gives a nice understated performance as Ethan’s contact at the agency; and Laurence Fishburne infuses some welcome straightfaced sarcasm. Not surprisingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman is also fantastic as the villain, adding credibility to a film that needed it after the debacle that was MI:II. The best, however, is scenestealing Simon Pegg, who is so funny he reminded me of how much I loved Shaun of the Dead and am anticipating the forthcoming Hot Fuzz.

Overall, Mission Impossible III delivers on the action as promised, but also shows heart. Everything is done for love and that really does help us follow the journey and feel for these people as they try to juggle saving the world along with saving their home.

Mission Impossible III 7/10
As comparison: MI:I 7/10, MI:II 3/10

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photography:
[1] A scene from Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible III, starring Tom Cruise
and Michelle Monaghan

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This is a film I have been highly anticipating for over a year. After first hitting the festival circuit in January of 2005 it went through the cycles, finally getting a stateside limited release at the end of March 2006. Buffalo, I ask you now to open your eyes to a masterpiece of cinema as Brick finally debuts at the Amherst Dipson.

Brick is a not a film as much as a symphony where each instrument is tuned to the beat of the conductor. Each frame is carefully orchestrated and composed to perfection. The dialogue is metered and spoken with a contemporary Shakespearean beat. Writer/Director Rian Johnson has created poetry with his first feature length film. It may be tough to understand the lingo and overall speech used, but as the film advances you begin to know the characters and the words just make complete sense.

We open with the stare of our protagonist—hard and piercing, yet on the verge of tears—eyes slowly welling up as he peers down on a motionless body, facedown in a tunnel’s steady, flowing stream. This is film noir at its best: wrong men and notorious women. Our leader into this underbelly of society has recently rolled on his boss to skate clean of a drug deal he was involved with. The cops allow this plea and decide to keep him in their pocket, with what happened as leverage. He stays low, nose clean, until an old love brings him into her world as it’s spiraling out of control. Using all his resources around the city, he begins his search to find her and make sure she is ok. He does this for his own means, with a stoicism that harkens back to Bogart’s Sam Spade.

Wait…Did I tell you that the city this is set in is a suburban high school? Johnson has flipped the genre on its head to brilliant effect. Brendan, our medium into the story, is played to perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a senior at the school who has alienated himself by ratting on his drug supplier. The vice-principal is using him to gain intel on the dealings around school, but Brendan will have none of it. He needs to find out what happened to his old flame Emily and see what she got involved in. Enlisting the help of a colleague, Brendan plays his enemies off each other to gain access to the mob boss and dope runner The Pin (“[I hear] he’s supposed to be old, like 26”), whom Emily has wronged. The truth must be found at all costs, either to assuage some personal guilt, to rescue love, to do what’s right, to get the bad guys, or maybe all the above. The search for answers leads to betrayal and secrets uncovered and I was there for the entire ride.

Brick is not the 21st century’s answer to Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone. This isn’t a satire on mob life with children playing men. This is a reawakening of the genre, a subversion of what you expect of it, but played straight as a razor. None of these actors break character and lines like this, echoing a hardened criminal telling off an over-zealous officer, “No more of these informal chats! If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me and I’ll see you at the Parent-Teacher conference,” are delivered with straight faces and a piercing confidence. The wit is there and you will laugh to the seeming absurdity, but the weight of the story holds strong. Well-placed humor helps you realize the gravity of everything even more.

Levitt shines in the role and proves to be the best up-and-coming actor of his generation. Following pitch-perfect turns as a violent teen in the wonderful Manic and as a teenage hustler, vagrant in Gregg Araki’s disturbing yet unforgettable Mysterious Skin, Levitt is making bold choices and continues a great run with Brick. He is flanked with solid support from “Lost’s” Emilie de Ravin as his lost love; Lukas Hass as The Pin, with loyalty straying muscle Noah Fleiss; Matt O’Leary’s The Brain, Brendan’s life-line to what’s happening as he sinks deeper; and Nora Zehetner flawlessly playing the femme fatale which one can never be sure whether to trust. Also, the accompanying score of piano and brass jazz fits perfectly to the atmosphere, especially on a late scene close-up shot of Levitt and Zehetner—faces close-up, lips with an atom of air between them, and a single tear slowly following down the contours of her face—uncannily mimicking the infamous shot of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca.

Any cinephile with $8 to spend will regret missing an opportunity to see this film. If you love film noir of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s check Brick out while you can. Doubtful that it will stay up more than 2 or 3 weeks, it will be coming to dvd on August 8th, however go out and see this gem. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but whether you love it or not, it holds a place on the timeline of cinema as an experiment in stripping down the essence of noir and showing it in a new and no longer angelic world of children on the cusp of adulthood. “Here’s looking at you kid.”

Brick 10/10

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photography:
[1] Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Rian Johnson’s BRICK, a Focus Features release. Photo by Steve Yedlin.
[2] Noah Fleiss (left) and Lukas Haas (right) star in Rian Johnson’s BRICK, a Focus Features release. Photo by Steve Yedlin.
[3] Nora Zehetner stars in Rian Johnson’s BRICK, a Focus Features release. Photo by Steve Yedlin.

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The honor has been bestowed upon me to talk about movies for our blog. No need for fanfare, however, as our premiere is not one to write home about. Yes, we begin with the underachieving Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston (the conjoined pet name eludes me) vehicle The Break Up. Curse the trailers for having me say to myself, “save the date of June 2 for that one.”

I should have seen the warning signs; I know this now. The film was directed by Peyton Reed of Bring It On fame. Wow, that one should have put the nail in the coffin right away. However, he was involved with TV’s cult favorites “Mr. Show” and “Upright Citizens Brigade”, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Most glaring though, was the PG13 rating. This is usually the kiss of death for a comedy of this kind. It starred Vince Vaughn, I thought if anyone can make PG13 seem R it’s him. But alas, he couldn’t.

With a cast this top-heavy on names, (some falsely calling it a “Frat Pack” film, untrue because of the omissions of Ferrell, Stiller, Black, Piven and Wilson Bros.), you’d think the humor, which starts off blazing, could be sustained. Instead we get to the point where Vaughn’s fast-talking, witty banter turns into loud, obnoxious, rehashed insults. The movie hits a lull during the middle stanza and rather than become comic genius, just ends up falling into the paint-by-numbers romantic comedy we see Hollywood churn out every week.

Most characters are underused. Ann-Margaret says thank you for the paycheck, Joey Lauren Adams is a far-cry from her brilliance in Chasing Amy, Vincent D’Onofrio is basically there just to advance a plot point, Cole Hauser has one funny moment at a night club, Justin Long is humorous playing a flamboyant secretary (gets old fast, though), and Judy Davis is wasted in a part where her role’s ego could have allowed for more laughs (she also looks just plain scary, as age didn’t do her well in the 9 years since I last saw her in Deconstructing Harry). The supporting actors each get maybe 10 minutes of screen time for one-dimensional roles that only serve as a quick laugh.

Aniston is the leading lady, but really just a support herself for Vaughn’s antics. Vince is center-stage and, in my opinion, just can’t pull through for an hour and a half. He is the consummate scene-stealer in other performers’ vehicles, but falls flat when he needs to lead. Surprisingly, Jon Favreau does his best Vince Vaughn by owning every scene he has. The guy acts like a champ, making us laugh even when we are checking our watches during the final act. John Michael Higgins also comes through, especially with his rendition of Yes’s Owner of a Lonely Heart.

Overall the starting laughs are great. However, you don’t pay theatre prices for less than half a movie. Wait on this one until it comes to video in 5 months or so. Instead check out great understated and nuanced performances from Vaughn and D’Onofrio in last year’s dramedy Thumbsucker, or revisit Vaughn’s breakthrough role as he delivers on a Favreau penned script in the great Swingers, (“Watch me make Gretzky’s head bleed for super fan 99 over there”), so money it knows it.

The Break Up 4/10

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photography:
[1] Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) in the romantic comedy The Break-Up.

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