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Always having been a fan of Richard Linklater’s work, it confounded me that his film after indie darlings Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise has never been released on dvd. SubUrbia is the kind of movie you hear that fans of his work love, but never found a place in cinema history. Flipping through the movie channels on tv, I happened across the film and could not stop watching until it was over. Much in the same way as his other work, the movie is dialogue driven and concerning a small group of people talking about life and what comes next for them. He has compiled a very nice cast, all of who take their character and roll with it. It is a scary thing, post high school, deciding what to do with one’s life. Having been stuck in the suburbs for so long, one begins to wonder if they can survive outside it.

The compelling thing for me in Richard Linklater films is the general waxing philosophic feel they all seem to have. These are kids that are college age who have things to talk about, questions to have answered, and are not afraid to ask them when they are surrounded by those they trust. This group of friends is caught at a crossroads, not knowing if what they are doing is the right way to go. Many have tried their hands at something, but ultimately gave up to continue loitering around their corner convenience store. When one of their friends, who found success in leaving the small town of Burnfield becoming a rockstar, happens to come home for a show, the group’s equilibrium goes off-kilter as they face what could be. Some feel that if they had applied themselves they could have been successes as well, while others see the shell of a man their buddy has become after being sucked into the machine. The return home opens everyone’s eyes to the situation they are in and for better or worse changes the way they decide to continue living their lives.

While a drama, there are many funny scenes. When a few of them begin talking about the reason Pony became a rockstar, to be able to tell the world his thoughts, to have someone listen to him, they say how rough it is to feel like no one can hear what they are saying. Through the entire conversation Giovanni Ribisi’sJeff is trying to be heard chiming in with his own ideas. The irony of the situation may be a bit heavy-handed, but it is also very true to form. Ribisi shines in this role as an intelligent youth who has never applied himself, always being content with hanging around his troubled friends. He soon realizes that the freedom he has is more important than selling out for fame and fortune, it is the people he cares about that keep him going, not the material things in life he could have. Steve Zahn is again brilliant in one of his earlier roles. He plays the idiot comedian to perfection while also evolving into someone who uses his cheery disposition for success. You begin to see that he knows exactly who he is and is in control at every moment. It’s a shame he now only gets roles that are one-dimensionally that stupid guy there for laughs. It is also a pleasure to see Office Space alum, Ajay Naidu in a good role, touching on the bigotry of American small town life. The success his character is having, while not being American, prays on the jealousy of those who feel their heritage should entitle them to happiness. The lazy toughs around town would rather pick on the foreigners for working hard instead of doing the time themselves.

Rounding out a very good cast is Dina Spybey and Nicky Katt. Spybey is great in a tough role. She is the lackey friend of one of the main group members and tries to fit in. It seems that every time she begins to connect, she is ultimately left alone. The depression her character feels comes through at all times; the despair of someone that troubled around you without knowing how to help is tough. There is so much going on this night that her anguish gets pushed aside until there is no turning back. Then there is Nicky Katt who makes the film. He is an intellectual trapped in the body of a jock who has partied and been king of the town for too long. He sees the world around him for what it is and hates himself for living amongst the grime. Toying with the emotions of his best friends, he seems to have a death wish to just end his suffering. No longer the star football player, the character of Tim can’t apply his intellect constructively and instead uses it to help the others while self-destructing himself.

Linklater is one of the most consistent directors working in and on the fringe of Hollywood today. His films always seem to have a message coming through them, trying to uncover a truth of life. Every one of his characters is true to themselves and connecting with humanity at every step. SubUrbia is so much like his other smaller films that I was surprised to see it was written by and based from a play from Eric Bogosian. I am a fan of his acting work, but after seeing this I might finally wipe the dust from my copy of Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio and check it out. Also, maybe I will turn on the movie that started it all for Linklater, Slacker, and see the true evolution he has taken. Hopefully SubUrbia will find its own way to dvd, maybe even the Criterion Collection will release it to join the other Linklater masterpieces it already has.

SubUrbia 8/10

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Harsh Times is an intense film. Keeping you on the edge of finding out how crazy events can become seems to be a staple in the writing of David Ayer. He penned the script for the gritty cop drama Training Day and saw its star, Denzel Washington, win an Oscar for his portrayal of the conflicted beast at its core. With his new film, and directorial debut, Ayer has crafted another street drama about people who themselves don’t know whether they are the good guys, the bad guys, or both. Don’t be surprised if his work soon creates a second starring Academy Award, as Christian Bale is a powerhouse. The raw acting talents of this Brit are unfathomable and thankfully his rejuvenation of Batman has finally allowed those chops to be shown on screen in challenging roles for the masses.

Crossing between being the soldier/sir, yes sir type of man with the gangbanger of his past could be a difficult thing to believe for a viewer. Bale deftly changes personas as if he was flipping a switch. His ability to go from crazed lunatic to apologetic, tear-filled and beaten man is amazing to watch. Having a great up-and-coming actor to play off of is a plus as Freddy Rodriguez shines in much the same way Ethan Hawke did in Training Day—playing the straight man whose life is finally on the up and up before his love for a friend drags him back down. The rapport between them is believable and effective in showing us what could be. One of their friends, played nicely by Chaka Forman, gets it right when he says how Bale’s Jim used to be so mellow. His fits of rage and confusion come upon him with no warning, showing us what war did to him. Being in the trenches created a man without a moral code, one who needs to not think, but just do. If one’s capacity to kill was always there, he/she could probably live their lives being able to turn it off when needed. However, if you were not wired that way to begin with, the stark contrast could fry their mind into not knowing what it should do. Harsh Times shows us that fall into delusion and self-loathing to the point where thinking doesn’t factor in at all, action becomes reflex and reflex becomes life. Unfortunately society is not of the shoot first variety like that of a warzone.

Ayer has done himself well with this directorial effort. He gets great performances throughout and in multiple languages. Even Eva Longoria was adequate and not a blemish on the film as I initially felt she might be. Ayer shows us all facets of his characters helping to enhance the story. We are privy to the past history of all involved and are allowed to understand each person’s motives. Seeing the paradise that Bale has in Mexico adds immensely to the conflict going on inside of him as well. The performance by Tammy Trull is paramount to this fact and her undivided love for her broken man is beautifully expressed. This relationship makes his actions that much more powerfully unfathomable. We have monsters among us in this world and while they can be utilized as a necessity for the survival of our culture, hopefully when their jobs are done they can be helped to assimilate back into society without their ambivalence being able to hurt the ones they love.

Harsh Times 8/10

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photography:
[1] (L to r) CHRISTIAN BALE and FREDDY RODRIGUEZ star in HARSH TIMES written and directed by DAVID AYER. Photo courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures, Inc.

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The final piece to Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s unofficial trilogy has finally reached theatres. Babel is a sprawling tale spanning multiple countries and languages as a lone gunshot leaves reverberations throughout the world, interfering with the lives of many people who at first glance are seemingly unrelated. These two men, director and writer respectively, have crafted two previous masterpieces with themes of love and sorrow, pain and redemption. From Amores Perros and 21 Grams, we are shown a steady progression of style and scale. While many are on the fence about Iñárritu’s quality as an auteur being that Arriaga has written each of his directorial efforts, (while having success on his own, writing the wonderful The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for Tommy Lee Jones), I believe they will have to take notice with this brilliant tale. Yes, the script is top-notch—a pitch-perfect use of verbal economy—however, the visual style has finally stepped up to the plate here as the director took control and beautifully orchestrated scenes, effectively disarming the audience on a totally visceral level. It may not be the teams finest, the scale might have stretched them a bit thin, however, the emotions are epic and the storylines true, once again creating what could be the best film of the year.

We live in a world split into different ways of life. Our cultures can seem behind the times to others or too advanced for their own good to more. Babel helps show us the many details that go into the everyday lives of Moroccans, Mexicans, Japanese, and Americans abroad. As with his previous films, Iñárritu shoots close up and kinetically. We see the food sticking to the Moroccan family’s fingers as they eat from a community bowl, the sweat forming from the sweltering Mexican heat, and the bright lights and sterile feel to a Japanese city along with its rambunctious youth culture raving behind the curtains. Through all the differences, though, this tale shows us the common thread of humanity which lies deep down in us all, proving that no matter our ethnicity or language, we are all here to live amongst each other as men and women.

A gunshot is fired out of the immaturity of youth not thinking before they act. The mistake was made in the desert hills of Morocco, yet was felt many miles away in all directions. Because the victim was an American it is automatically looked upon as terrorism. The government knows it has eradicated terrorist factions from its country and needs to show they will do all that is necessary to catch the culprits. In the meantime, the shooting causes the American couple to be unable to come home for there kids which allows for the harmless decision of their nanny to take the children across the border to Mexico for her son’s wedding. What appears as a small trip soon has dire consequences as her ignorance to the laws and paperwork at the border supercede any thoughts of good will she has for seeing her son married while still protecting the children under her care. The story does not end there as we also look into the life of a young deaf-mute Japanese girl who’s visit by the police stirs up memories of her mother’s suicide and need for love in her life.

Iñárritu and Arriaga have given us inventive story structure in the past by allowing us to see instances multiple times, from different vantage points. Amores Perros told three stories that were connected by an event shown from each story’s arc and 21 Grams jumped through time to show the interconnecting of its’ three characters’ lives. With Babel it appears as though he has gone with a straightforward narrative until we finally get the reveal of when each story takes place in relation to the others. While only necessary in a logistical capacity rather than a stylistic choice, the abandoning of the “gimmick”, for lack of a better term, frees him to wow us in other ways. What he chooses to do instead is barrage our eyes with powerful moments of acting without words. Like on his previous films, the score enhances moments in between the action enormously with loud strings and other orchestral instruments superimposed on the silent moments depicted on screen. Because of the many languages, Iñárritu is free to use this technique often as actions speak louder than words. We are led through the story by sight and sound without the use of language to guide us. Emotions are humanity’s common ground in terms of understanding and Babel uses them as a language in and of itself.

The utter silence is a main factor to the phenomenal performances across the board. Actors aren’t screaming or posing for the cameras, but instead softly trying to make it through the hardships of life. Cate Blanchett is great in a role where body language is key and along with Brad Pitt, (finally being given the chance to show he is more than just a fast-talking leading man type, but also a talented actor—one could say his own fault especially after leaving a passion project of Darren Aronofsky’s caliber for the great failure that was Troy, thankfully Hugh Jackman saved the day and four years later The Fountain will finally be released in a couple of weeks—but I digress), shows the pain of loss and that of love when your future is uncertain. Pitt is a revelation and does his best work since his off-the-wall role in 12 Monkeys, playing the exact opposite here, a fallen man, subtle and nuanced to perfection. Playing one of the Moroccan boys, Boubker Ait El Caid is immensely talented for a young kid, taking his character from a child to a man in mere hours of storyline. The evolution is true to form and the way he shows how his fear drives his actions is remarkable. Rinko Kikuchi is amazing, showing a range of emotions that run the gamut, all while being deaf to the world. Her isolation from life itself and how she thinks she needs to act in order to overcome it is heart wrenching. Credit Iñárritu for his help in getting her feelings across, especially in the fantastic nightclub scene with all the lights, projections, and sound filling the air yet cutting abruptly to silence as we are shown what confusion really is for this girl, who can’t fully enjoy or understand the actions of those dancing around her. All the actors in the Mexican sub-story do great work as well with cameos from the always reliable Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Pena, and Gael Garcia Bernal. However, the star here is Adriana Barraza and the evolution her character takes. From the helplessness of possibly missing her son’s wedding, to the joy of seeing that moment, to the responsibility of needing to get the children back, to the utter loss of all conscious thought as she must protect the children from the mistakes she has unknowingly made.

As with the previous collaborations, Babel is not for people who don’t like feeling emotionally vulnerable. If you come out of the film without having felt something, maybe you aren’t human. No matter what language or culture defines you, all those conventions are superceded by the raw emotion shown here. This is life on screen—every painful moment and joyous instance. Emotion is the universal connection binding us all and Iñárritu and Arriaga have their fingers on the pulse of it, harnessing it for all to experience. Arriaga will soon be trying his hand in directing and Iñárritu will be branching off to create work with other collaborators. Hopefully we will be treated to films even better than the ones they have given us, however, I can only hope that down the road a project will bring them together again for one more masterpiece of cinema for the heart.

Babel 10/10
Rounding out the “trilogy”: Amores Perros 10/10; 21 Grams 10/10

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photography:
© 2007, Courtesy of Paramount Vantage.

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About every year a movie comes out that is hyped to the extreme. Buzz around the world causes electricity that you know will fizzle out or not come to fruition in the first place. Snakes on a Plane caused a stir earlier this summer with internet chatter, but never really became a phenomenon nor seemed to strike with the “so bad its good” moniker. Well this week saw the opening of the movie that really started being talked about around festival season with its’ raucous debut at Cannes and star Sacha Baron Cohen’s strutting around France in his man-kini. Yes that movie is the long-winded-title “documentary” Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. And unbelievably it not only lived up to expectations, but also surpassed them to be the funniest movie I’ve seen in years.

Cohen is a genius as far as I am concerned and must have schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder because he so encapsulates this character of Borat that he is Borat. There is not one instance of coming close to cracking up or breaking character throughout the entire film. The accent and deadpan answers come quick and timely; this is really a foreigner in a strange land. While coming in, I was thinking the film would be reliant on his interviewing of unsuspecting personalities and him getting them to show their bigotry through the false security of thinking he himself was a bigot. Amazingly there are few of these moments as we really are shown a sense of history for our narrator: scripted and hilarious moments of his background in Kazakhstan and his attempts at adjusting to American culture. Yes the moments when he is let loose upon the country are funny, but there is also a story being told and used as a structure for the interviews to work effectively in.

Every detail has been carefully preserved to keep an amazing amount of realism to this work of pure fiction. The low-quality Kazakhstani visuals used for the opening and closing credits could be authentic, I’m not completely sure but from the uniformity of the title’s font I would guess that they have been created by the filmmakers. At every instance of a caption or credit we are given words in Russian over-captioned by English to keep the feel of a foreign film being shown in the United States. Yes there is the fact that if it was being made for the Kazakhstani people, they wouldn’t have filmed all the cut scenes in English, but I’m willing to overlook it. However, it would have been fantastic if every English speaking part had Russian subtitles to make it as authentic as possible; none of the words need be correct, as I’m guessing the Russian uttered by the film’s characters wasn’t, but the look would have been great. Besides the aesthetics, all continuity seemed to be carried through perfectly as well. Instances like the gobble when he slams his bag to the ground and the subtle showing of what really happened to the pet bear add to the reality being fabricated and help keep the audience involved with the film.

Of course the movie would not have been possible without the eclectic cast of bigots, kooks, and occasional human being shown onscreen with impossibly received consent. Every one of them are frank and honest and so offensively funny that there are moments when you can’t believe you haven’t heard news of lawsuits being filed even if their lawyers told them they had no case. We are treated to an exotic array ranging from the evangelical (comic genius), the feminist, the secessionist, and the college frat variety. Sure some it might have been staged, but even so, each encounter is priceless. The naked romp/wrestling match with his producer, played by character actor Ken Davitian, is perhaps the most disgusting yet hysterical moment I’ve seen in a theater, and their intruding on a business meeting it is absolutely priceless. I would like to believe each time they are accosted by security guards it is real, but I really don’t know. Hopefully even if the people they abuse are planted, the security is kept out of the loop for authenticity sake. Especially the encounter with Pamela Anderson, the holy grail of the story who is friends with Cohen and most certainly knew what would happen, I will continue to think the security thought she was in real danger.

Borat 9/10

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photography:
[1] Borat gets driving lesson so he can start his American quest. TM and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.
[2] On an American highway, Borat’s friend scares the other motorists – and Borat. Photo credit: Mark Schwartzbard. TM and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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Apartheid-era South Africa was a time of abuse and persecution by the white minority onto the black majority. The black South Africans were looked down upon and segregated at every turn. Any instance of fighting back was a sign of terrorism and treason. This film, Catch a Fire, is based on the true-life story of Patrick Chamusso whose life was turned upside. A man who was apolitical and loving to his family, Chamusso was unaccounted for during a span of time in which the oil refinery he worked at was bombed. As a top suspect he was arrested and tortured, along with his wife to try and make him comply, before finally being released. Patrick did nothing wrong—at least as far as arson goes, the missing time was due to infidelity—and as a result of being accused and beaten decided to do something his people could be proud of and try to stop the persecution.

Director Phillip Noyce has brought to the table a tale that not only shows a sympathetic side to the black people of South Africa, but also a side of moral ambiguity to the whites. Playing the head of anti-terrorism is Tim Robbins in a subdued and nuanced performance. He is a man that feels what he is doing is right and necessary for the protection of all South Africans. The bombings and killings need to be stopped for all to live in harmony. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t seem to really see the consequences of his actions in finding out exactly who the leaders of the resistance are. By seeing people as guilty until proven innocent, his compassion to let the non-guilty go, rather than be strung up as a symbol like those around him would like, does little when the innocent turn from the atrocities and become the enemy as a result. Beating those that have not wronged for events they had no part in will eventually eat away at their souls until they realize that something truly is broken with the system, and instead of having one’s family hurt for nothing, let the pain and suffering mean something. The mentality soon becomes that if I am tortured for keeping to myself, I might as well fight back to slowly chip away, slowly accomplish something for my trouble.

These are the thoughts that come to Patrick Chamusso after his wife is beaten while he sits and tells the truth about where he had been during the bombing. Played wonderfully by Derek Luke, Patrick is portrayed early on as a loving husband and father, sticking up for friends in a way to amiably keep trouble far away. He helps the local children stay off the streets by coaching them at soccer and he feels pride for the job status he holds at the mine, making a good enough living to support his family, but also understanding his limits and not being greedy to want more than the love of those close to him. The transformation he goes through after being released from wrongful imprisonment is subtle and heartbreaking. He leaves his family behind so as to help his people in a guerilla war; he must leave in order to come back without the guilt or embarrassment the Afrikaners have instilled in him. All the scenes in the terrorist camp are intriguing and well-made, good people doing the only thing left that they can do in a world closing in on them.

Emotions run high during the course of the film. Faces of anguish and pain are always cropped close in to see the souls screaming behind dampened eyes. Everyone is played against each other through lies and deceit with each turn adding to the powder keg that you know has to eventually let loose. The addition of many African tribal songs helps create mood as well as the back and forth between English and the South African native tongue. All the supporting roles also add depth to the proceedings, especially Bonnie Mbuli as Chamusso’s wife Precious and those playing Robbins’ character’s children and wife. Noyce show us both sides of the equation in his film and asks us the question of how far we’d be willing to go to do what’s right, no matter what side we are on.

Catch a Fire 8/10

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photography:
[1] Derek Luke (center) stars as Patrick Chamusso in Phillip Noyce’s CATCH A FIRE, a Focus Features release
[2] Tim Robbins stars in Phillip Noyce’s CATCH A FIRE, a Focus Features release.

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