You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2006.

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There aren’t very many debut directorial efforts by actors that make their mark on the moviegoing public. For every Redford, whose Ordinary People won him best picture and director at the Oscars, you get a handful of Mel Gibsons, whose debut The Man Without a Face just didn’t hold the weight that Braveheart and The Passion later would. Not since maybe George Clooney have I really enjoyed a debut effort with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in 2002. Last year in 2005, however, Liev Schreiber, always a favorite of mine, gave us the funny, heartwarming film Everything is Illuminated. He adapted the novel by author Jonathan Safran Foer himself and with only Elijah Wood starwise and a small indie budget made one of the best films that year had to offer.

Our protagonist uses the name of our author, Foer, and starts a search to find out about the one family member he had few real recollections about. A woman named Augustine in the now unknown village of Trochenbrod, Ukraine, saved his grandfather during WWII and Foer was desperate to learn about him and to see if the woman was still alive. He decides to travel the country with a translator and tour guide in order to find the town and collect memories of the place his ancestors were from. Schreiber deftly balances this somber and sentimental journey with fantastic bits of comedy as well as some truly touching moments. Our interesting caravan’s translator and guide are Alex Perchov and his grandfather respectively, two highly entertaining characters. Alex, much like a Borat-type character, speaking in broken English and asking numerous questions to his new America traveler, really gives the film its heart. His naivety to outside culture creates humorous situations yet also helps show how little Foer knows about Ukrainan culture and that of his Polish grandfather in turn. Alex’s grandfather is a volatile old man who eventually grows and learns a kind of respect for being alive and well, an interesting evolution for a man who at the beginning insisted he was blind. So, in fact the American’s journey of heritage becomes a pilgrimage for all involved, including deranged little Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Alex’s grandfather’s “officious seeing-eye bitch.”

There are many “indie” moments in Everything is Illuminated. We are shown many situations that include quirky characters doing quirky things. Elijah Wood, as Foer, has a very deliberate way about him, going through life collecting objects that cross him on his way. Much like an insect collector will pin his creatures in a display box, Foer pins his objects in Ziploc bags to the wall of his home. His many eccentricities—not eating meat/afraid of dogs/etc—lend a jumping point for funny interchanges between our main characters, yet these moments never feel forced. Give credit to Schreiber for being able to allow his actors to slowly move along and progress the story at a speed he set. Especially impressive is the fact he was able to do it with many Polish and Russian actors who have not been in many films. One could even argue that the real star here is Alex who had never dramatically acted before. Yes, Eugene Hutz has the stage presence from fronting a band for many years, however, it is still amazing that he is able to give such an immediate and soulful performance. With all his moments of comedy gold, it is in scenes like trying to ask directions from construction workers and interacting with his oppressive grandfather that really show a vulnerability and sense of humanity to his role.

I also need to point out the beautiful visuals onscreen throughout. The cinematography is gorgeous with many vast expanses of countryside. A scene showing the path to an isolated house amongst giant sunflowers is fantastic as well as the more enclosed shots like that of the many boxes contained of the lost Trochenbrod peoples. Even the camera angles are always inventive and adding to the mood of the piece. Complementing the landscapes of Ukraine is the landscape of Boris Leskin’s worn face as Alex’s grandfather. What originally was contorted in anger and ambivalence to anyone but his dog soon becomes saddened by pain and remembrance, but eventually turns to acceptance and thanks for all that he has been able to endure during his life. After all the yelling and abuse he gives his grandson throughout, one of the best moments is towards the end when he lovingly puts his hand to Alex’s face. In that moment you can truly see the love they have for each other through his tear-filled eyes. It is the revelation of the grandfather’s secret that has been bottled inside him for decades which really makes the movie and shows us the many connections between the Perchovs and Foers. Jonathan Foer is just the vessel needed to begin the course of events we are shown in Everything is Illuminated. The real tale is that of family and that no matter how close you are in proximity to each other, you can still be miles apart.

Everything is Illuminated 9/10

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[1] Eugene Hutz is Alex, Elijah Wood is Jonathan and Boris Leskin is Grandfather in director Liev Schreiber’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, a Warner Independent Pictures release. Photo credit: Neil Davidson. © 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
[2] Eugene Hutz is Alex in director Liev Schreiber’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, a Warner Independent Pictures release. Photo credit: Neil Davidson. © 2005 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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I generally don’t find many biopics to be great cinema. Most times you get a bloated story spanning what feels like millennia with only a charismatic mimic to guide your way. Films like Ray and Walk the Line were good for what they were and contained very good performances from their stars. However, watching someone reach stardom only to see him fall and be eventually redeemed can get very uninteresting. Thankfully every once in a while you’ll get a biopic with a real story, an arc that has substance and meaning no matter who was involved. One of these films was last year’s Capote, a brilliant cast of actors and an enthralling story of murder, compassion, and misguided affection. Much in this style comes Stephen Frears’ The Queen. With but a short week of time to tell, screenwriter Peter Morgan is able to show us a slice of life in the government of England and how they react to heavy turmoil. With the death of Princess Diana, we are shown how a country mourns its loss and how they force their monarch to change the values of a nation.

What is truly fact or fiction, I really don’t know. If I am to hold what occurs in this film as truth, which I will for the sake of reviewing said film, it is heartbreaking to watch Queen Elizabeth II fall out of favor with her constituents for only doing what she was meant to do. England is not a democracy; its royalty live by a code of conduct and lead their people with unflinching devotion to their prosperity. When these people decide to worship the memory of a woman who left the family, threw back at them what was given to her, and instead used her celebrity to make a name for herself, they expect all to feel their grief. The Queen feels devastation in what happened to the mother of her grandchildren, and being that she no longer was a member of the royal family, allowed the departed’s kin to set the rules. Diana’s family wanted a private burial away from the media scrutiny that all but murdered her. The Queen does everything she can to keep the wishes of those intimately involved in tact. Unfortunately the people have spoken and all must do their beckoning. It’s as if England had become a democracy overnight, telling their elected official what she should be doing, canonizing the deceased while stringing up their leader. In order to save face, Elizabeth must bend to the people and give them what it is they want against all she has ever been taught. She must become a puppet for these men and women who have lost their dignity and instead turned to idol worship and celebrity stardom. The media made Diana who she was, killed her, and then nearly brought down the country as a result. Elizabeth didn’t even bow down to a majority rule; no the democracy that formed around her was only at 25% for the dissolving of the monarchy. Credit Tony Blair for seeing the trouble happening and realizing his duty to the crown to try and get the Queen to acquiesce to the people’s demands, no matter how unnecessary that action should have been.

Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen are astonishing in their roles as Queen and Tony Blair respectively. They encompass their characters fully and show the inner struggle they each must deal with in order to come out of the media frenzy alive. While the Queen knows her place and did what she felt was called upon in her position, Blair knew the changing times and through utter respect for his Queen, while his coworkers wanted it out of contempt, tried his best to find a middle ground. The two great moments in this film come when Mirren first begins to crack emotionally and when Blair finally shows his respect for what his leader is doing. The reaction upon being asked to help the people grieve by Mirren is brilliant. Her finally saying that see has a grieving family to take care of first and foremost showed her motherly instincts and the fact that Diana was a person and not a figure or photo in a magazine worshipped by the masses. As for Sheen’s shining moment, when his people begin berating the Queen for giving a speech to the people but not believing a word she is saying of it, he finally snaps and says that is why she is so great a leader. She was willing to go against herself in order to save the crippling effect her supposed mistakes had on the nation. Being able to put her job aside for a moment, a job she was raised to believe was given to her by God, showed real courage and strength. To express that humility must have taken a lot out of her, but she made the sacrifice.

It is a real difficulty to side with the people of Britain when, during the many cut scenes of real footage, we see thousands of camera flashes amongst those crying. Yes people felt sad about the death, but unfortunately many people were just there for the spectacle, for bragging rights of saying they were there. How could they have the gall to make the Queen put the flag standard at half-mast above the palace when it wouldn’t happen even if she herself died? I credit Frears for making both the Queen and Blair at opposition yet at each other’s side. There is great impartiality shown here and those who view it can take what they will. To me it opened my eyes to the fact that the people of Britain made the monarchy change what it stood for because of a woman who was not a member of it. Unfortunately humanity has come to the point where a celebrity means more than those that are in power to lead and protect us. I’m sure just allowing me the opportunity to make a judgment on the proceedings, to see all sides of the incident, is all the filmmakers could have wished for. I applaud their success.

The Queen 8/10

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[1] Dame Helen Mirren as the Queen in THE QUEEN. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Miramax Films.
[2] (L-R) Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and Dame Helen Mirren as the Queen in THE QUEEN. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Miramax Films.

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There will be spoilers, however, I highly recommend you not waste your money on this atrocity anyway, so please read on.

Let me preface this rant with the fact that I am neither religious nor political. I could care less that liberal Hollywood treats their movies as agenda pushing media because I like a good story. The Constant Gardener really played with your sensibilities about what is happening in African countries and whatnot and how America is the cause, etc. However, the film was about love and the union between two people, and how one tries to honor the other after death. The political undertones were second fiddle to the touching story and beautiful construction, making it my favorite film of last year. Unfortunately not all films can use a strong story to thinly veil an underlying theme or moral, sometimes they must wear their politics on their sleeves. Once again I have no qualms with this as I’ll see the trailer and decide not to bother. It is a despicable thing that has been done with the new animated children’s film Happy Feet. Not only do they advertise it as an ugly-duckling type tale of redemption, but also completely target it to children. I equate this travesty of cinema to Camel Joe pitching smokes to kids; it is truly appalling.

Through the first 45 minutes or so I was with this movie. I enjoyed the against all odds yarn, the animation was nice, the music fun and entertaining (not to mention the Moulin Rouge-like use of it to advance the story), and the reigned in absurdity of Robin Williams was hilarious. Sadly, the film took a huge dive to garbage very quickly after. All of a sudden the emperor penguins become an evil cultish Catholic Church banishing their young “heretic” whose blasphemy has caused a shortage of sustenance. His evil ways have made their God take away their fish and livelihood and he must be excommunicated. I should have seen signs of this when, after deftly allowing us to tell our protagonist apart from the rest by his blue eyes, they grew the penguins up and made his fur stick out completely from the crowd; Mumbles the penguin was a disgrace, and an outsider who decides to use science and fact to prove his superiority over the simple creationists he was raised with. Now I hate the Catholic Church just as much as the next disgruntled Catholic, but come on here. Do little children need to be force-fed an anti-parable about the evils of the Right?

The liberals behind this film don’t stop at the allegory between penguins and humanity, however, no, they take it even further. Once Mumbles goes on his mission to prove humans are taking the fish and not God, he is eventually captured. Upon awakening, he finds, to his dismay, that he is in a zoo, surrounded by brainwashed penguins—slaves to fish feeding time—and multitudes of human watchers that ignore his cries for help for his species back home. My gag-reflex was tested when the filmmakers cut sharply from Mumbles’ face to the cityscape where the zoo resides, to Earth, and then to space. Oh for shame, what are we doing to these penguins? Only when a little girl sees his tap-dancing do the humans “awaken” to the atrocities they are committing with nature and free him to go search for more penguins. Now we have a melding of real live actors with the animation, people traveling to Antarctica to see these wondrous tap-dancing creatures. After a crisis of faith is averted, the humans are tickled by the showmanship of these animals and start dancing themselves. What’s worse are the cut scenes shown next of people in board rooms discussing how humanity is destroying this creature’s ecosystem and what can we do to stop it? This is a children’s film and the creators should be ashamed of themselves.

When did America resort to brainwashing its youth and turning a prophet? Maybe it would be accurate to say a long time ago. I understand if you were to bill this as Green Peace sponsored, liberal approved rhetoric and allowed the parents the choice on whether to subject their children to it. Instead we are given the posters and trailers of a cute little penguin tap-dancing while trying to find his heart song. Now all the kids want to go and experience the fun. Well congratulations to the filmmakers, it seems to have worked making Happy Feet the number one movie in America for two weeks. Next time they start picketing a meat factory for herding cattle to their deaths they can take a look in the mirror and see a person who herded young minds into an ambush of political cajoling. Why let our youth grow old and become educated to the issues when we can get them now in elementary school? Have them come home crying, “are we really killing the penguins Mommy?” (Yes there were many crying kids in my IMAX screening) and learn that they better vote Democrat when they reach voting age because if not then the furry creatures we pay to see at zoos will lose their homes. Happy Feet is a disgrace to cinema and a guerilla tactic by liberal supporters. What kind of world do we live in when our children aren’t even safe to watch a cartoon about dancing penguins?

Happy Feet 1/10

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photography:
[1] Mumble, as voiced by ELIJAH WOOD, has a Heartsong unlike any other Emperor penguin – he can dance – in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ comedy adventure “Happy Feet,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
[2] Mumble (voiced by ELIJAH WOOD), with the support of his Amigos, asks the all-knowing Lovelace (voiced by ROBIN WILLIAMS) about the ‘aliens’ in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ comedy adventure “Happy Feet,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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Emilio Estevez has thrust himself back into the limelight this year with his passion project about the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. While doing maybe four or so acting roles in the past seven years, Estevez has honed his directorial skills with tv shows and I’m sure tweaked his script and signed a wishlist of actors. I’m sure it was the storyline parallel between RFK’s Vietnam messiah with the hope for one today in Iraq by the Hollywood Democrats that drew many to the material, but I don’t mind the liberal agenda on display here and found it easy to ignore. While the writing is poignant and real, the directing and cinematography simply breathtaking at times, it is the acting that really makes this film. Having the sheer cast size here could be a very daunting task for anyone let alone a guy who’s past directing work includes Men at Work. Not only does he check everyone’s egos at the door by filming a true ensemble where no one gets more screen time then the other, he also gets some of the best performances these actors have ever given. It’s hard to believe, but Bobby is perhaps the closest movie we have gotten to vintage Robert Altman, not directed by the man himself. The intricate storyline and weaving of no-name characters through short vignettes culminating into tragedy bares an uncanny resemblance to Altman’s acclaimed Nashville. Being that the directing great recently passed away, Estevez has unintentionally given him a wonderful tribute. Bobby is a masterpiece in many ways and if everyone’s passion projects could be this thought out and important we’d never have a shortage of great cinema.

The decision to interweave archival footage of the real Robert Kennedy is a superb choice. Unlike the boring documentary feel this tactic gave Good Night, and Good Luck, it really fleshes out the man at the forefront while we are shown the periphery of the story. If Estevez had cast someone to be facially seen and interactive with the cast it would have taken all the emotional resonance felt away. Letting Kennedy stand in for himself is the most effective utilization there is. Also, allowing the actors to play off the real man makes their performances that much more real. The speeches hold weight with these men and women who truly believe he is the savior for their country that has strayed. His words, along with the gorgeous soundtrack of period specific music, juxtaposed with the visuals hits home almost every time.

Everyone knows the tragedy of the situation, and this film does not look to shove it down our throats; however it does display a heart-breaking finale as everyone we have grown to know converge at the epicenter of the tragedy. Bobby is not as much a film about the man, but a telling of his impact on America as a collective. We are treated to a kitchen staff of Mexican immigrants trying to gain respect; a black political staff supporter who is desperately trying to get ballots into the inner-city to help put his candidate in office as he is the hope for the future after the slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr.; a retired hotel doorman unable to leave the place he has resided working for so long; a hotel manager trying to make everything perfect with his employees and for the fiasco he knows will soon be spilling through his doors while dealing with his wife, a mistress, and a newly disgruntled kitchen head just fired; a washed-up lounge singer drinking her life away in front of her loving yet cowardly husband and the hotel stylist; a young soldier and woman about to get married so as to keep the groom away from the frontlines; and a couple boosters who decide to play hooky the day of the election to “have a personal relationship with God” and get stoned. This just describes a tiny particle of what is actually going on this fateful day. Every actor encompasses his/her role perfectly and with a real sense of everyman’s purpose. While not at all involved with the titular martyr personally, their stories are not to be dismissed as trifling or inconsequential. These are the people Kennedy was fighting for and their lives are the reason he was in the position he was to begin with. By showing the supporters, Estevez showed the man.

Rather than give a laundry list of actors, as each was great, I will try and single out the most memorable. For one, husband/wife team Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher both bring their best work here. Kutcher revels in the stoner/hippie role, whether not really having to act it for realism is debatable, he is good nonetheless. Moore, maybe likewise, plays the drunk and depressed ex-celebrity as though she went through it herself. Her old “brat pack” chum has given her a role here that she sinks her teeth into and really runs with. Credit Sharon Stone and Helen Hunt for playing roles their age and allowing it to show. Rather than use makeup and be glamorous, they show every wrinkle on their face proudly and give strong, truthful performances wearing their emotions on their sleeves. Freddy Rodriguez is phenomenal as the hotel busboy who’s fate has drawn him what first appears to be a bad hand, yet eventually helps him see what life is about and the way he should live it, with nice help from the wise beyond his years cook Laurence Fishburne. Shia LeBeouf, Brian Geraghty, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead shine in their story thread, as well as there being a strong performance from the great Anthony Hopkins in his. Special mention goes to Joshua Jackson who usually doesn’t standout to me in movies, (and a nice Mighty Ducks connection), and Lindsey Lohan who does do a nice job of portraying the conflicting emotions of her young bride. Also, give Nick Cannon more serious roles, because someone who has looked terrible in what looked like terrible comedies really does a great job in a tough role fighting for the people. And of course, there needs to be mention of the nice turn by Emilio who succeeds in the trifecta of writer, director, and actor on this brilliant little piece of cinema with a giant heart.

Bobby 10/10

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photography:
[1] Laurence Fishburne and Freddy Rodriquez star in Emilio Estevez’s BOBBY. Photo by: ©The Weinstein Company, 2006/Sam Emerson
[2] Sharon Stone as Miriam and Demi Moore as Virginia Fallon in Bobby

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It’s a real shame that everything I had read about Déjà Vu concerned the high-powered explosions and loud clatter of guru/producer Jerry Bruckheimer. No mention, except maybe as a footnote, was given to A-list director Tony Scott and the magic he has woven in his past three films. The man who brought us Top Gun has seen a sort of revival in style lately with the entertaining Spy Game, the amazing Man on Fire, and the kinetic Domino. Scott has taken the quick cuts of music videos and has infused them into his shooting style. His editor better be making some good money as these films fly by with filters, jump-cuts, grain, and camera angles swiveling at every turn. Greatly overshadowed by brother Ridley Scott and his more serious, award-winning epics, Tony has been pumping out some of the most solid and entertaining films of the past couple decades. With a reuniting of semi-regular star Denzel Washington, Déjà Vu proves that when Bruckheimer is paired with a like mind, his usual drivel can become great. Scott shows us how to hone the explosions, noise, and clutter to an effective level and gives us a helluva ride.

Déjà Vu could have easily reduced itself to timetravel farce, going by the books to show a time warp in order to solve a crime. The far-fetched premise of being able to see the past as it happens four and a half days later should seem crazy and by watching the previews you are given the idea that it will be just a series of do-overs. Fortunately the trailers these days show a totally different movie than what has been crafted. Scott and his screenwriters have not only developed a sci-fi tale seeped in enough reality to at least be looked upon as plausible for the sake of the story, but they nicely tidy up any chance of their being a plothole. Our story begins with a devastating domestic terrorist act upon a ferry carrying over 500 people, Navy and family. Washington’s ATF agent is brought in and discovers that it was no accident. Intrigued by the efficiency he displays, an FBI agent, played with nicely effective restraint by Val Kilmer, calls him in to check out a new toy they have to find who the perpetrator is. During the use of this screen of the past, Denzel acquires a feeling of obligation to do all he can to prevent what he sees from occurring in the present, no matter what consequences that might entail for the future. The quest to stop the violence begins with an attractive young woman who unknowingly has become an integral part in what will ultimately transpire.

The beauty of this film is that with multiple timelines being shown parallel to each other, there are many questions that desperately need answering. To credit all involved, they appear to have put themselves in the audience’s shoes and piece-by-piece wrote in a reason for everything. Anything that is seen either in the past, present, or future has a reason for being there and will be intelligently explained. Also, the performances are stellar, Denzel and Kilmer as well as a quietly maniacal Jim Caviezel and the emotionally exasperated Paula Patton, and the visuals unique. While Scott has toned down the ultra-kinetic cuts and filters for the main action, his style is still stamped on the graphics of their screen showing the past. The motion trails and speed scans lend a stylized digital editing program feel and are gorgeous to watch. Déjà Vu’s best sequence, however, is the crazy car chase during the present in pursuit of a vehicle in the past, definitely a rush and orchestrated almost flawlessly. Even though Ridley gets the accolades and Tony gets the hack/overproduced label, I must say, while they are the best directing duo in Hollywood, I might have to give the edge on pure cinematic entertainment to the younger Tony. He is on a roll and doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

Déjà Vu 9/10

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[1] Denzel Washington and Jim Caviezel in DEJA VU

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I never thought I would ever thank Brad Pitt for causing the utter failure of The Fountain launching principal photography three years ago. However, his leaving the production to do Troy may have resulted in the finest film-going experience I have ever had. Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece could only have been ruined by the doubled budget and lack of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz’s stellar performances. The epic scope this film has is that much better due to the small-scale effects honed and enlarged to full utilization. Much like this, Tom and Izzi’s quest for eternal life spans mankind yet could be found inside themselves if they only looked hard enough. The Fountain is definitely a fantasy for adults and helps show the world the lengths we will go for love and how it can blind us to what truly matters in that most precious of unions.

One can’t truly explain this film; it is an experience that must be seen firsthand to even begin to fathom the effect it can have on the viewer. Aronofsky has crafted a tale of love through the pain of death. Hugh Jackman is a neurosurgeon desperately trying to discover a way to decrease the growth of tumors. While on a mission to help prevent death and disease in the world, he also must find a way to save his dying wife from the cancer that has begun taking its hold on her. The looming death set before Izzi, played with pure emotion by Rachel Weisz, has been accepted, yet can’t be by her husband who knows he can cure her if he just had more time. Jackman is a shattered man on a quest which once started together, but now finishes alone. The futility of his situation cannot sink in and as a result he must continue on while his wife lays dying, trying her hardest to let him understand what is to come in the future. She shares her novel about a conquistador on a journey for Eden’s Tree of Life, telling him that he needs to write the conclusion. The quest along the road to awe has been laid out for Tom and it is up to him to decide what he will do when he comes face to face with destiny. This surgeon will come to a choice where he will have to either choose finding the end of death, planting a tree to gather his wife’s spirit for an afterlife through an ancient Mayan tale of Shambalba, or allow himself to accept that finality and hope for a continuing to life beyond it.

While at first it may seem a bit convoluted and pretentious, this story is a simple one. Love binds us to each other and pulls a veil over the big picture when it does not concern the survival of our union. Instead of cherishing the time we have together on Earth, we would rather waste it all in desperate attempts to prolong our stay. Much like Adam and Eve being thrown from Eden for wanting more than each other, Tom and Izzi are at the point of their journey where they can eat the fruit and risk losing everything, or they can take a step back and live for the moment. We all face this challenge throughout our lives, and will continue to as the years go by. Darren Aronofsky shows us the problem as far back as the Spanish Inquisition, as far forward as the end of time being pulled into the nebular entrance to eternity, and at the present day, here and now. Izzi relates to the beauty of ancient Mayan tales of the afterlife and through her writings on a past life, sparks her husband’s mind to imagine the journey through time and the road of disappointment it will lead him on. That road needs to be taken, however, for without the knowledge of pain and failure, one will never see that he must look inside himself for the answers that will bring him back to his love. When Jackman finally realizes what must happen, he expresses sheer joy and relief that his story has come to close, yet his life has been reborn for eternity.

After his genius with previous films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, it is hard to believe that Aronofsky could enhance the medium of cinema even further. While others take from past visionaries and apply their findings to their own work, Aronofsky creates those new ways that will be adopted in the future. He is an innovator and with his work here takes another step closer, if not to totally justifying the call by some that he is the new Stanley Kubrick. Each step of The Fountain is orchestrated to the utmost detail and the symphony is one for the ages. Along with Clint Mansell’s haunting score, Badalamenti to Darren’s Lynch, this tale is one for all senses. The palpability and lushness of the effects in the future scenes are a feat to behold. Crossing between three time periods is daunting in itself, yet in the final minutes, going through each at breakneck speed leading to the tale’s culmination is brilliant. No one else has the eye to make every banal, static shot seem magical and full of life. With seamless dissolves and gorgeous compositions, The Fountain is a feast for the eyes, intriguing at every turn. However, the true magic lies in the story being told, one that will break your heart while simultaneously breathing a hope for everlasting love inside of you.

The Fountain 10/10

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photography:
[1] HUGH JACKMAN as Tommy Creo and RACHEL WEISZ as Izzi Creo star in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Regency Enterprises’ sci-fi fantasy “The Fountain.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Regency Enterprises’ sci-fi fantasy “The Fountain.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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Wallace & Gromit has always been the phenomenon that eluded me. Every once in awhile I would be flipping channels and come across a short on BBC, but never took the time to actually watch one completely. When the film came out last year it seemed cute enough, however, the lauded praise and fanfare was surprising to me, as well as the oscar (granted Pixar was MIA in 2005). Finally I was able to catch up with the animated feature and upon completion I must say first impressions were correct. Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an enjoyable little film that doesn’t break any ground in storytelling, but is a feat of construction. Unfortunately in this case the wonderful visuals can’t overcome a lackluster plot.

Aardman definitely has inventive minds at work for them. The characters are all well fleshed out and nicely orchestrated. Each voice is original and cartoony in a good way. Almost like a vaudeville performance, the script is read articulately and showy. Even the name actors like Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter are unrecognizable in their roles. This performance style helps greatly in creating the atmosphere desired with the movie. The animation is a big factor as well with facial features becoming distorted for every emotion. Just the ability to have Gromit the dog be articulate and understandable in stop motion animation, while never uttering a sound, is amazing. Craftsmanship astounds at every turn.

Where the film falls flat is in the material being portrayed. The allusions are amusing with references to Beauty and the Beast and Frankenstein, among many others, yet the gleaning from other sources soon becomes a bit tedious to the point where you know where the story is headed. With a plot progression as telegraphed as this one, I started to feel a bit restless as the really funny parts became too staggered to keep my interest. Yes the visual puns are great most times, (the angel wings and devil horns in the meeting scene), the hidden text a delight, (the car’s window sticker, the cheese box label, the radio buttons), however, the sexual innuendoes got old and finally just elicited groans rather than chuckles. I almost feel the film would have been more successful either by going full-blown British and adult, or strictly child-driven without the crassness. Instead I feel the brilliant artistic merits are overshadowed by a mixed bag of gags and confused overall feel that never finds its way. Perhaps the switch to feature length created a need for filler in its almost 90 minute runtime, and hopefully when I get a chance to check out the shorts I will experience a tighter storyline and more enjoyable pieces of work.

Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit 6/10

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[1] Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) and Hutch in DreamWorks Animation’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

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Marc Forster is one of those directors that over that past years have been on my film radar. After a strong debut, (I know he had a couple previous, but lets go with it), with Monster’s Ball and a great follow-up of Finding Neverland, he really wowed me last year with the visual flair and emotion of Stay. This year sees the release of Stranger Than Fiction written by Zach Helm, whom people are hailing as one of the best new screenwriters, interesting since this is his first script made into a Hollywood feature. There were definite reservations on my part having the lead be cast to Will Ferrell, but I decided to go with my inclination to Forster movies and hope that we get Melinda and Melinda Ferrell, not watch me be an ass Ferrell. Thankfully Will gives possibly his greatest performance yet and really helps drive this intelligent, poignant allegory into a strong feature and a continuance to Forster’s streak of winners.

Many things could have gone wrong with Stranger Than Fiction. Ferrell could have pulled a Jim Carrey and highjacked the tale, it could have turned into slapstick comedy, or also could have become an It’s Wonderful Life ripoff of sentimentality as all involved discovered an inner love and exuberance for doing good. Credit Helm and Forster for sticking to their guns and creating a true existential parable, showing how we are in control of our actions and we make choices in our lives either for worse or better. If you woke up tomorrow hearing a narration of your mundane activities, you have the ability to dismiss it as craziness, disregard it all together and except your fate, or wake up and decide to do something about it. Fate doesn’t dictate your willingness to survive and that is exactly what Harold Crick wants to do. No matter how worthless his existence has been, all it takes is one wakeup call to turn it around and make something meaningful happen, to take a chance rather than cowardly take the easy way out.

Yes the film has many laugh-out-loud moments, however, it is mostly a nuanced and subtle film. It takes itself very seriously and most of the laughs hit big because of the deadpan delivery and gravity of the situation at hand. These characters don’t necessarily make light of the circumstances as much as go along with skepticism and a dash of possibility. Every instance is orchestrated to perfection and besides bringing up early on that a certain Wednesday event held the key to Crick’s demise, days before our author even began to know how to go about killing him, complete without any real plotholes. Helm took his time with this tale of the meaning of life, (great reference to this by having Monty Python’s movie of same name on screen briefly), and made every detail work throughout the evolution of a nobody into a literary hero.

Besides Ferrell’s revelation in acting ability, we are treated to numerous standout performances. The always wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal shows how skilled she is in playing a bitter idealist while deftly balancing a budding interest in that she is against. Dustin Hoffman does spot-on work as an eccentric literary historian trying to help Crick, more out of educational curiosity than human compassion; a nice companion to his performance in the other recent great existential tale I Heart Huckabees. Emma Thompson steals the show, however, with her broken reclusive writer, so enthralled in finding ways to kill her characters she can’t have a real connection with that of living people. The need she has to correspond with Hoffman’s character, but her inability to do so as it might cloud her ability to write profound dark tales, is portrayed beautifully. Every emotion she goes through during her discovery about the novel is great to watch.

Every minute of Stranger Than Fiction is measured and calculated to the utmost degree. Much like the film’s fetish for numbers, (I loved the computer grids and diagrams superimposed throughout), Helm’s script is a formula being solved. Every equation has one answer to even out both sides and while this film is no different, the filmmakers took a bit of liberty with its ultimate conclusion. The way it was going was perfect, the characters reactions to what was about to happen magnificent, and then the story took one last turn. While at first unfortunate, the final twist of the tale was redeemed by a profound statement from Thompson’s Karen Eiffel, so true to form and relevant to the proceedings that I agree with her: I’m ok with just good. Just because the answer wasn’t quite correct doesn’t mean they can’t get partial credit for the great work they did in the process.

Stranger Than Fiction 9/10

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I am not a very big action movie fan. Explosions, violence, and sex don’t make a good movie unless there is some semblance of a story involved. Therefore, I’ve never really had an interest in watching the twenty or so James Bond films. Hearing about the gadgets and the suave hitman persona told me it wouldn’t be too intellectually fulfilling, and if I didn’t want to be challenged at the movies I’d see a comedy, not a film pretending to be sophisticated. My fears were made true after seeing Pierce Brosnan’s last effort as the superspy, Die Another Day. With its’ cloaked car, impossible set pieces, and if I remember correctly time travel? (maybe not that far-fetched, but pretty close to it) I really had no desire to delve into the back catalog. Until now that is. With Daniel Craig coming on as a Bond that bleeds, I really got caught up in the hype and needed to see if one of the most versatile actors today could not only interest me in the series, but breath life into the dying franchise. I must say he did that and more as Casino Royale not only exceeded expectations, but also turned out to be one of the best times I’ve had in the theatre all year.

Craig has been brilliant for years now. Mostly in supporting roles, a nice turn as a mental patient in The Jacket and a better than necessary job in Tomb Raider, he has seen some critical acclaim as a lead with The Mother and 2004’s Layer Cake, which showed he could do the spy genre. Craig brings an image to this character of a man who, although unafraid of death, is fallible and willing to make mistakes in order to learn from them. He gives Bond a human quality that was lacking in the little Bond I’ve seen in the past. By rebooting the franchise, complete with impossible gadgets missing, we see an intellect in what he does. There are no toys to save his life; he must rely on his instincts and judgments to help get him out of the circumstances he finds himself in. You can see the wheels turning behind his eyes and the confidence that he will be able to do what is necessary to keep his Queen and country safe from harm.

We are thrown into the action straight off as Bond receives his double-o status. This film is an evolution from reckless rookie to field experienced professional. Bond is rough around the edges throughout the course of the film, making the wrong moves, but always taking the next step to insure success. He realizes the mission and he knows the rules. Our first big action sequence sees him going into an embassy after a man who has evidence he needs. While inside, he realizes that killing someone would mean his country has to give him up as that area is basically a foreign land. The entire scene shows him do everything he can to extract his man, yet never kill anyone. Sure there are explosions and injuries, but he never takes anyone out. Something about this fact really helped me to enter the world on screen; the writers didn’t take the easy way out by having him shoot all in his way, they saw the logistics of every situation and problem solved a way to get through them. I’m sure most credit should go to original novelist Ian Fleming, however, one must also applaud those involved with the film for keeping it grounded in reality—possibly oscar winner Paul Haggis’ surprise writing credit has something to do with this.

For the first hour and a half you will be on the edge of your seat. The film doesn’t take place completely at the titular Casino Royale, but instead on Bond’s journey on his way to the top of a criminal organization. There is character development and a process to the top. Also, every supporting character does an amazing job in keeping up appearances of realism. Mads Mikkelsen is menacing as the main villain yet not treated as a cartoon madman. He is not impervious to all but our hero; on the contrary he is doing everything he is in order to cover up a lapse in judgment he made. Also impressive is Eva Green as Vesper Lynd. She is not the kind of woman one would initially think of when compiling a list of possible Bond girls. When one would generally think of supermodel looks and skimpy clothing, like that here of Caterina Murino, Green adds a sophistication and beauty all her own. I think she is at her most gorgeous in a bathroom scene getting ready for the poker match, sans makeup. Just having a Bond girl on screen without makeup is hard to fathom, but her natural beauty shines as a result. She is also a superb actress and hopefully this role will advance her career after critical success in the great Kingdom of Heaven and underrated The Dreamers.

Much credit for the success of this film to me lies in the ability to have fantastic action scenes look believable, feel realistic, and progress an intriguing storyline. This isn’t action for action’s sake, but necessary sequences to show an evolution of character as Bond gets beaten but keeps coming back for more. Casino Royale was by no means a perfect film, however. The wasted role played by Isaach De Bankolé, similar to his in Miami Vice even though the man can act as evidenced in Manderlay and Ghost Dog, and the McGuffin by one of my favorites Jeffery Wright, were a bit out of place and one-dimensional. Also, the final thirty minutes or so fall into Return of the King status as the pace slows to a crawl and could have ended multiple times before finally picking up again at the conclusion. While these moments could have been tweaked at the screenplay level, they don’t detract too much from an otherwise great time at the movies.

Casino Royale 9/10

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photography:
[1] Daniel Craig stars in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures’ James Bond adventure Casino Royale. Photo Credit: Greg Williams
[2] Eva Green as Vesper Lynd and Daniel Craig as James Bond in director Martin Campbell movie, Casino Royale – 2006.

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I’ve been meaning to write a review for Michael Haneke’s Funny Games since rewatching it Halloween night. I had seen it for the first time around 3-4 years ago on IFC and was blown away by its inventiveness. It definitely holds up today as a sharp thriller and satire for our culture of wanting to see pain and torture on screen. With movies like Saw coming to theatres now, it may be even more relevant than it was in 1997. Word had it that Haneke, after the huge success of his most recent film Caché, would be remaking the film for English language audiences next year. I had reservations about this, but eventually heard it would be a revisioning not a strict copy in English, (although pulling a Gus Van SantPsycho—would be cool to satirize America for being too lazy to either learn German or read subtitles that they need a Hollywood adaptation). Whether this is true or not, the film has gotten underway as I’ve heard from an old friend how he has been cast as a stand-in for one of the troubled youths. Although unknowingly, Brett Vanderbrook has finally gotten me on track to review Funny Games with his jogging my memory a couple weeks late.

One knows they are in for a treat right off the bat watching a family drive along a road guessing classical music. All of a sudden the sound cuts to a heavy metal scream and the entire car ride is displayed, complete with the family still swaying their heads, with the jarring guitars and hoarse voice. The family finally reaches their vacation place and sets up to get a fishing excursion going and dinner cooking. When their neighbor’s houseguests come over to help, the film really starts going. These two young boys, played with playful malice by Arno Frish and Frank Giering, begin to mess with the family psychologically until the confrontation escalates to violence. To make the proceedings more fun, they eventually strike a bet on whether the captors will survive the night. This would seem strange at first until the director does the unthinkable and breaks the fourth wall. Yes, the antagonists start to converse with the audience, making the viewer into an accomplice, allowing the torture to continue. Credit Haneke here as the first moment of using the camera as a character is so subtle, one will think, “wow that was weird, I almost thought he was looking at us.”

Funny Games is a comment on the fact that we as moviegoers enjoy to watch torture happen onscreen. We feel safe knowing that the events transpiring are fake, yet feel inclined to watch them play out. By talking to the audience, Haneke is showing that these characters are conscious of their activities and are almost asking the audience if they should continue on their treacherous ways. Of course you could just walk out of the theatre or turn off the tv, but instead you become enthralled and need to see what happens. Just by finishing this film you yourself become that which it is a commentary on. One reason, however, besides the psychological reasoning, keeping you in your seats is the emotionally draining performances by Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe. Their anguish at the helplessness of their situation towards themselves and their son is heartbreaking. They are at the mercy of their captors and must bear with the “games” until their fate is decided. You need to watch the excruciatingly long single take around three-quarters in, and see true cinema greatness. What Orson Welles did technically with his opening to Touch of Evil, Haneke does here emotionally. To be able to change mood from being defeated, to scared, to angry, to helpless, to utter sadness is amazing. If Naomi Watts even comes close in the remake to what Lothar did here, she will be guaranteed that Oscar she was robbed of for Mulholland Dr.

Hopefully Haneke knows what he is doing with a retelling of his brilliant Funny Games. I must admit I recently told my friend Brett that Haneke was a God of cinema, mostly because of the jealousy that he gets to work on a movie with him no matter in what capacity. While that statement is a bit premature, being that I’ve only seen this film by him, I do own his filmography and in the near future will most certainly be able to make that declaration again feeling justified in doing so.

Funny Games 8/10

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