You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2007.

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The 2007 film lineup has finally begun for me. Sure I have seen many movies thus far, but they have all been holdovers from last year. Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces is definitely a fantastic opener and a hopeful sign of things to come. A mixture of high octane action with some very surprising, emotional moments and true dramatic worth, this all-star cast has some fun and allows the audience to just ride the wave with them. Something like this has a big tendency to taper off, yet Carnahan had a vision to jampack every insane idea he’s had the past 3 years or so and really keeps the adrenaline flowing for almost the entire run-time.

Our basic plot involves a huge operation that has been going on to destroy every last visage of the mafia. Everyone is pretty much behind bars except one last don, Primo Sparazza. The FBI believes they have their snitch to finally bring Primo in, and his name is Buddy “Aces” Israel, Las Vegas’ performer of the year for the past five. This magician had worked his charm into the crime syndicate and had gotten himself in far too deep. So, basically we have the FBI trying to keep him alive until he agrees to rat out everyone, thus granting him witness protection, a bail bondsman and his ex-cop friends trying to extradite him for their employer, and seven hitman for hire on the case to take him out for a million dollars from the crime boss. Primo is on his deathbed and he wants to see the rat gone before he expires with his heart as proof.

Right from the start Carnahan has us inside the action. All exposition needed, to understand the circumstances, is given to us as each player receives it. In a nice stylistic move, the director cuts between everyone around the world getting ready to travel to Lake Tahoe for Israel, making all the conversation match up as though they are all talking to each other. This maneuver enlightens the audience, not only on the plot, but also on the background of each character. So, in turn, we learn all we need while the action continues to play out, never getting bored or slowed down by characters of power dictating stories and plot points. The action continues to build and build, as a result, until finally reaching the climatic rendezvous of everyone at the casino’s penthouse room, housing Buddy.

A movie of this caliber can only succeed as far as the characters being able to keep the pace fast. As a result we have a collection of some of the best actors working today each with a quick tongue and the dramatic chops to stay realistic. Jeremy Piven is brilliant as Israel, using the comedic wit that has vaulted him to where he is today. The sharp timing allows for some memorable one-liners with his crew and his showmanship in flashbacks really makes you believe he is a skilled magician. What really surprises and excites is his ability to steal scenes with his dramatic acting. His is a man who is beaten into submission mentally and must turn on those he has trusted for the past years of his life. Not being able to get up the illusion of his own composure, we are treated to some great scenes of him breaking down under the pressure. This truly is a Piven we have not seen before and the combination of seriousness and comedy hopefully will get him some great roles in the future. As for the other crazy characters, we have Jason Bateman so far from his “Arrested Development” role that it is hilarious to just look at him, not to mention the words that spew from his mouth—priceless; Ben Affleck and Peter Berg acting cool and collected while dragging their partner Martin Henderson along with them, the rapport between the three is nice; Taraji Henson and Alicia Keys (yes the singer) are brilliant as hitwomen on the case, talking racial politics and ripping on each other while being just plain badass; and the awesome Zach Cumer as a Ritalin-addled karate kid, so hyper and little that the dialogue and action he gives is some of the best comedy I’ve seen in awhile. I won’t even mention the Tremor Brothers, as you must see them to believe them.

The film is not all violence and laughter, though, as it has some phenomenal straight men to counteract the comedy. Common is surprisingly very calm and collected for his first film role, Ray Liotta is great as always, and Nestor Carbonell adds some nice villainy to the mix of cartoon caricature killers. The real standout in the entire movie, however, is Ryan Reynolds. Who would have thought that Van Wilder would have the acting prowess to pull off a complicated role like this? He is the only one involved that seems truly affected by the violence and carnage happening around him. You watch his character lose all the cool he had and emotionally breakdown while being left behind by his superiors in the bureau. Once the dénouement commenced and the film slowed to crawl, almost taking me out of the film completely with its “I’m so clever” twist, relayed by Andy Garcia with the worst fake accent I’ve ever heard, that subverted all the success the first three-quarters of runtime had, I was shaking my head in disgust. Thankfully Reynolds’ stayed true to his evolution as a character and redeemed the horrible ending with a pitch-perfect finally shot.

Smokin’ Aces 8/10

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[1] Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling in Universal Pictures’ Smokin’ Aces – 2007
[2] Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta in action crime Universal Pictures’ Smokin’ Aces – 2007

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My introduction to writer/director Yimou Zhang was his first foray into epic territory Hero. The film took the beauty of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and infused it with inventive and powerful storytelling a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon. As a result, the film was an amazing feat of technical and emotional brilliance. I still haven’t seen his follow-up, House of Flying Daggers, as it seemed a more cartoony look into the genre, with visual style pushed to the forefront while story is pushed back. With his newest film, Curse of the Golden Flower, the trailer made me think that Yimou went back to having a solid story to tell and added the visceral flourishes to enhance the underlying plot. I enjoy tales of imploding nobility and family fracturing at the level of power, seeing how people will betray blood against blood. Also, it just looked stunning—set pieces and cinematography alike. Upon seeing it, I could call it a masterpiece of style with a lush environment so detailed one can understand why it is the new leader in Chinese film budget. As a whole, however, the movie becomes a nice shiny wrapper with little to offer on the inside. We are given a simple morality tale injected with so much fluff and ritual that you almost get faked into thinking you have seen something much more profound than you actually have.

China is led by the Tang dynasty and an emperor with three heirs to take his mantle upon his death. The eldest was born by his first wife who has since died. Remarried to the daughter of another king, more out of political purposes than love, as we find out, he is given two more sons. We are thrust into the lives of this royal family at an important cusp of their history. All together for the first time in three years, they are about to celebrate the Chrysanthemum Festival in honor of family and duty. Under the surface, however, brews many secrets and tests that each member must face to decide on a path to take for the future. The emperor must decide which of his sons to give the crown to; the empress discovers that she is being poisoned into insanity; the eldest prince, Wan, realizes he is not of the mindset to rule although the crown is his to lose; the second son, Jai, is a deserving warrior whose love for his mother will always win out against the king; and the youngest son, Yu, is treated as a lap dog without regard or consideration for any real power. In true Greek tragedy form, the family falls apart and goes along a path to self destruction as all pick who they love more—father, mother, or themselves.

As far as the acting and aesthetic go, Curse of the Golden Flower is amazing. The authenticity is unimaginable and so vibrant it is tough to see everything in each frame. There is so much to look at, yet on almost every opportunity, your eyes will go to the truly enthralling cast. Gong Li is great as the matriarch slowly slipping deeper into dementia yet still trying for a sort of revenge. Her utter devastation as she learns the price her ill-thought coup comes with is heartfelt and real. Chow Yun-Fat is his usual steady self, a professional of the field. His emperor is one who leads with a strong fist where duty and obligation will always win out over the emotional ties of family that can cloud a weaker man’s judgment. By the end of the film we will see how all the atrocities could be attributed to him and what might be some sick test of loyalty to him. All other characters play their roles nicely and stay true to their positions in the Chinese feudal food chain. Thankfully each son is very different from the others and allow for unique story threads. Liu Ye plays the eldest son with the kind of trepidation and nervousness someone unsure with how their life shall progress would have. Jay Chou, on-the-other-hand, is great as the son caught between his parents to the point where he is no longer fighting for the crown, but letting love, which will never penetrate his father, take over his actions.

Everything built up eventually comes to a really successful climatic battle sequence. Thankfully Yimou pulls no punches and all characters finish their respective arcs in the way they have been evolving to. No one comes out in the end at a place in which they do not belong. Sadly the progression to that point is long and tiresome. I understand Yimou and the artistic director wanting to really show the era in all its glory, but the detail can get very tedious; this is not an historical epic, it’s a fictional drama. The continual use of extreme close up and cutting of everyday servant activities gets old fast. Also, the over-saturation of little superfluous things like the continual scraping and painted in sparks when swords collide, (show me the fight not the friction of the metal), overshadow the moments when artifice work, (the chase scene with Wan as we see streaks of color through the stain glass hallways). The story itself has moments of artificiality as well with many plot points being too crazy. Between the abundance of incest, the younger brother Yu’s odd smile—making him seem mentally retarded—and creepy close-ups while eavesdropping around the palace, and the many convenient twists, the story is so convoluted for no reason. The true impetus at work is a simple tale of loyalty and betrayal tearing a family apart at the seams. Unfortunately Yimou tried to beef up with trivialities that only hinder its success. Cut a good 30 minutes and the romance between Wan and the royal doctor’s daughter, (serving no purpose at all even when you think a jealous subplot will develop with his mother) and you’d have one of the best films of the year.

Curse of the Golden Flower 5/10

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[1] Left to Right: Jay Chow as Prince Jie, Gong Li as the Empress, Chow Yun Fat as the Emperor. Photo by: Ms. Bai Xiaoyan © Film Partner International Inc. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all right reserved.
[2] Scene from Curse of the Golden Flower. Photo by: Ms. Bai Xiaoyan © Film Partner International Inc. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all right reserved.

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The premise for The Quiet always had me intrigued—a deaf mute girl living with a family hiding some dark secrets. Seeing an opportunity to tell this secret, to someone that can’t speak it to anyone if she even read her lips enough to comprehend it, the daughter relays that she will be killing her sexually abusive father. Just by watching the trailers you can see that there is something hidden within the mute girl herself, and you want to find out how the events play out. This story had great potential to give a taut thriller where the suspense could become unbearable. While I don’t agree totally with much of what I read critically about the film, I definitely can’t refute the mentions of horrible atrocities both physical and mental going on. There are some definite tough moments to sit through here, however, those were the moments that worked best for me—the times where the tension was high and the acting superb and real. Unfortunately, The Quiet also contains multiple instances of inappropriate dialogue and unnecessary crassness. With the dialogue so out of place in many moments, I was taken out of the film often and it’s really too bad because the climax was executed perfectly and almost made me forget how bad everything before it was…almost.

By having a plot that basically adds little to what is given away in the trailer, The Quiet really needs to rely on its acting. As the story progresses you become more and more aware of what is happening and what will have to come of it all, however, you don’t really mind waiting for the inevitable because you want to see how these characters handle the situations they are working towards. The ever-beautiful Elisha Cuthbert really surprised me with how well she portrayed the abused daughter trying to keep up a prom queen façade. Her only real shining moment previously was in The Girl Next Door; she played the part to perfection, using her looks to enhance what the role called for and had great comedic timing and nice dramatic chops as well. Here, though, she really takes it to the next level. At first you feel it will be another WB type performance that any young, cute actress could do. As the film continues on, Cuthbert is asked to play every emotion possible and she does a fantastic job making you believe what she is going through. Camilla Belle is wonderful as the deaf mute witness to what is happening. She stays in character and has total control of her facial features to portray her feelings without words. Martin Donovan is also effective as the father who understands he has a sickness but can’t control himself, playing the quiet moments nicely while keeping true to the anger and rage needed when called for. The true star, however, is Edie Falco. As a character that is wasted pretty much the entire duration, she is brilliant from the climax on. The emotion on her face would make anyone tear up, as the finish to her story arc is truly devastating to experience.

Tragically, all the performances can’t save the first three quarters of the film. The script is just vulgar for no reason whatsoever. Between the mother calling the deaf girl’s mother a slut over and over again, the love interest talking about masturbating, (Shawn Ashmore’s role is totally superfluous and adds nothing to the plot), and everyone calling Belle’s character names, you can’t help but laugh at the liberties all take when in the presence of a deaf person. I can see where the filmmakers wanted to express the ostracization her disability caused, but they really went unnecessarily too far and against the reality they were trying to create.

The Quiet 5/10

Also…fantastic poster. The use of color is gorgeous and the cropping riveting. I love it when studios aren’t afraid to have promotional posters that draw the viewer in rather than just show Photoshoped heads of the actors. Just the fact that the film info is in the middle with the title so small makes me call it one of the best posters of 2006.

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[1] Left: Elisha Cuthbert as Nina; Right: Camilla Belle as Dot; Photo by Ari Briskman, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. @ 2002 CTB Film Company
[2] Martin Donovan as Paul in Sony Pictures Classics’, The Quiet – 2006

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Finally Buffalo is able to see the phenomenon Pan’s Labyrinth for itself. All the hype and the acclaim have definitely raised expectations for this film by visionary Guillermo del Toro. For myself, I really just wanted to see a del Toro film outside of the Hollywood realm. Sure I liked both Blade II and Hellboy, but it’s the other Spanish language films, Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, that have been intriguing me for years. After watching his latest effort, I can say nothing less than that I can’t wait to check those other two out even more. Pan’s is an amazing feat of imagination and great storytelling put together as no one else could.

The one aspect that lingers upon its completion is the fact that everything that occurred seemed so original, and each plot progression a surprise. Maybe this fact impresses me more because of the homage to other films. Many things here are so familiar and have been seen before, yet each instance seems fresh. The ability to make these activities his is astonishing. Also, the deft handling of the fairy-tale narrative with its real world war counterpart is expertly done. The film never delves completely into the mythical realm, (actually this fact disappointed me), and keeps its two paths running parallel while also enhancing each other. There are some very nice transitions between both environments as well as great editing montages showing glimpses of each at one time.

In the end, this film is about war and fighting for what you believe is right. When the time comes to defeat an unjust tyrant, you need to be willing to sacrifice yourself for the cause of humanity. We are thrown into a civil war in Spain against the regime that has recently taken over. The rebels refuse to back down to a general, (Sergi López exuding his malicious intent at every turn), who is a brutal warlord that does not see all of Spain as equal. This monster is not just up against the people’s guerilla rebellion, however, but also on the other side of his stepdaughter’s quest for identity. Young Ofelia, played magnificently by Ivana Baquero in a role that normally plays in child-fare yet needs a greater sense of weight in an adult tale like this, (it is R-rated after all), sees her mother making the error of marrying this ruthless army man. Her mother is sick with child after the general made them travel late in her pregnancy in order to see his heir born. With utter disregard for all but his namesake, Ofelia must disappear into her imagination to find out what she is truly made of. With the death of her father and the slow detachment to her mother, the child puts herself into a fantasy story she has read about a girl from an underground world that came to the surface, allowing for her soul to remain forever. Ofelia takes the mantle of this princess and begins her quest to leave the atrocities happening around her for the royal life of a happier realm.

I really like the fact that del Toro was not afraid to make this film for adults. The underlying morality is similar to Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, yet here it does not cater to a young sensibility. This is not a girl renouncing her brother and needing to go on a quest to discover her love for others, this is a child trapped amongst the hell that earth can be. Death and pain surround her at all turns and she then must manifest that danger into her fantasies of survival. There are no cute and cuddly creatures on display here. The fairies guiding her are created from insects and have agendas of their own, the conduit between worlds, Pan, is an aging faun with a temper and disgust for humanity, and the evil entities are truly scary, (the toad and the Pale Man). There is blood, and lots of it, throughout the duration, whether during battle scenes or not. This is the world these characters are living in and rather than cop-out saying Ofelia is just a child who does not understand the gravity of what’s happening, del Toro allows her to not only realize everything, but be the one that the audience watches battle through the hardships.

All fantasy moments are beautifully orchestrated and gorgeous to look at. Whether at the portal to the underground world with Pan, to the majestic hallway of the Pale Man, you really get to see the director’s imagination to full effect. I don’t believe it could have been pulled off quite as effectively without Doug Jones becoming these mythical beings. Like he did as Abe Sapien in Hellboy, he truly creates these creatures and makes them real through motion. Maribel Verdú is also amazing as heart and soul to Ofelia while her mother lays sick in bed. The relationship these two strike up is necessary to counteract what is happening with the war, and her Verdú’s involvement in that story thread is also effective.

My only real problem with this film, a true visceral masterpiece otherwise, is the treatment of the mystical storyline. While it is executed to perfection, it is merely just an afterthought to what is happening. The fantasy aspect almost appears to only serve a purpose in keeping Ofelia away from the battles and never truly fleshes itself into its own unique identity. I wish for there to have been more fantastical elements rather than just being used as an escape. With that said, however, the conclusion truly is as effective as it can be in bringing the two worlds together. Del Toro surprises again, right to the end, unafraid to finish a fairytale against the genre’s usual type.

Pan’s Labyrinth 9/10

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[1] Maribel Verdú as Mercedes and Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in Picturehouse movie, Pan’s Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno, El) – 2006
[2] Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in Drama Fantasy Horror, Pan’s Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno, El) – 2006

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What happens when a precocious young doctor gets a feeling of claustrophobia at home and decides to travel the world to bring help while having fun in the process? Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland tries to show us the answers in the midst of Idi Amin’s rise to power in Uganda. While not a biopic, the film is also not a narrative fiction of any real weight. Instead this is a tale of a monster through the eyes of someone whose innocence thought what was happening was for the good of all until it was too late to turn back. Idi Amin is not the star of the show—although he does steal virtually every scene he’s in—it’s the young doctor’s evolution at the hands of the viciousness he was sheltered from in his childhood that drives the plot. When one is not quite world weary and still under the impression that they are invincible to atrocity, they can easily be duped into following what they see up close rather than what is happening around them.

James McAvoy does a wonderful job as the young doctor going to Uganda to lend his assistance and find some adventure along the way. He is rebelling against the life he should be leading in Scotland as a family doctor at the side of his father. That is not the life he wants to be living so soon in his career and thus spins the globe to find his next destination. While in the African country, he takes part in the hard job of being one of two doctors trying to help all the unfortunate poor of the nation. Upon a chance meeting with the new president, General Amin, he is given the opportunity to become the man’s personal physician. McAvoy is fantastic at showing the utter happiness at being looked upon as someone who can help a nation by this seemingly great man. He begins to enjoy his post, lives with all perks available to him, (I loved the transition from utter squalor of the countryside to the wealth of urban areas in the capital, as I never expected to see that upper crust side to the African scenery here), and becomes the leader’s closest advisor on all matters whether or not medically pertinent. It is his great job during the high times that really show how good of an actor he is once the lid is lifted to reveal all the atrocities that have been happening right under his nose. What once began as a job of missionary work becomes a trial to see if he can stay alive long enough to leave the country while his friend and boss becomes more and more unstable in his sightline, characteristics he hid so effectively during the courtship process of recruiting his skills.

No matter how good McAvoy is, though, he is no match for Forest Whitaker’s powerhouse performance as the larger-than-life Amin. Sure there is a lot of talk going around that the Scot is the real star here with the general a supporting player, (as far as awards go), however, Whitaker is on screen for a good three quarters of the film and definitely deserves to be considered in the Best Actor categories. Just because the film does not necessarily revolve around his character, he is still a co-star before being relegated a supporter. I have always been a Whitaker fan, from his small roles like that in Fast Times, to measured dramatic perfection in season 5 of “The Shield,” to the more unique roles like Ghost Dog. Nothing he has done, though, can prepare you for the magic he brings to the screen here. You get every side of this monster from his compassion for the people of Uganda—albeit those that are on his side—the utter charm and charisma that was used to get not only those around him as friends but also the British government to support his coup of the nation, to the animosity that could brim to the surface without the slightest provocation. Watching him go from happy-go-lucky to maniacal rants of insane paranoia, cutting short even those he just finished praising, is amazing. The smile could charm even the most skeptical cynic, but I think what someone says in the movie is true; he is a child and that is what makes him so scary.

Sure these two performances make the movie a joy to watch, but the film itself somewhat lacks in substance. Through the middle of the film, we see the conflict bubbling to the surface many times; yet while being different, serve to give the same context to the viewers. All this monotony is eventually redeemed at the conclusion. I truly will say that I never expected what happened. Yes, I figured what transpired would, but I didn’t think it would go down quite the way it did. I applaud Macdonald for never shying away from the true impetus of this film; he brought to the table a story of a monster disguised as a great man and showed how it all could unravel without flinching. His use of grainy camerawork adds to the documentary-like style and the close-ups of actors covered in the sweat and dirt of Africa showed the realism and truth of the place. He was also able to get great performances from all his supporting cast, from the extras playing regular townsfolk and army men, the Ugandans surrounding Amin, (especially David Oyelowo as another doctor), a nice show of talent from usual standard-fare actress Kerry Washington, and a surprisingly real and emotively bottled representation of a woman who trapped herself into the life she led by Gillian Anderson. All in all, this film is a must see for the actors alone, yet also has a riveting story to watch progress until its inevitable conclusion.

The Last King of Scotland 9/10

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[1] From left: James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Photo Credit: Neil Davidson
[2] James McAvoy and Gillian Anderson in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.

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Argentinean director Fabián Bielinsky tragically passed away last June. Upon his death, he had completed only two films, 2000’s Nueve Reinas and this year’s El Aura. I have not yet seen his first film, however, everything I have heard has been rave reviews—it even got the American remake treatment in 2004’s Criminal. It is a horrible shame that he was not given the chance to evolve as a filmmaker because his second and final film is fantastic. El Aura is an expertly written crime thriller, well acted and beautifully shot. Bielinsky was a true visionary and he will be missed. Experience this auteur’s work and support the Market Arcade Theatre’s ongoing Emerging Cinema series as it brings indie and foreign films to Buffalo for small runs that aren’t given to very many cities.

Ricardo Darín, also the star of Nueve reinas, plays an epileptic taxidermist whose life slowly crawls by while his fantasies of the perfect crime keep his drive for life going. We are thrust into the story with the first frame, Darín’s Esteban waking from a blacked-out seizure. The cause of the attack is not revealed until later as we get to know more about his character. He is a shy man, against killing, and not one to seek out conflict. The city’s museum pays him and a colleague for bringing in preserved stuffings for new exhibits. It is while waiting for their check that we get our first glimpse into the dream world Esteban wishes he lived in. Bielinsky directs the scene with a deft hand as our lead’s foolproof robbery plan is orchestrated around he and his friend while the process is told. Esteban has a photographic memory and can see all the outs and all the spoils without the loss of lives. The only reason people die during a job is because thieves are idiots—if he could have his chance, he would be successful, quick, and safe.

Unfortunately the fantasy of a fast-paced, high-risk life crashes down to earth once Esteban returns home. His wife has left him and he realizes he has gone through life too cautiously. Calling a fellow taxidermist on his offer to go hunting, he decides to try and take a change of pace vacation from the mundane existence he is used to. Once in the woods, his true colors come out as he purposely sabotages his companion from killing a deer and, after a spell of epilepsy, he finds himself at the center of a hunting accident. This event spirals him into the makings for one of his concocted heist schemes. All the pieces fall into place for him and he assumes the lead role in a job to knock off a casino’s weekend earnings. The difference between fantasy and reality, however, is more than being smart, because you can never see every angle. Esteban becomes too confident as he goes deeper and deeper into interacting with the world of crime. No one can be trusted and no plan is every perfectly conceived.

Darín is truly magnificent in this role. He plays the depressed Esteban to great effect, as his naïveté at every move is always evident on his face. The man he tries to be is very unnatural to his character and the audience can totally believe how he could get so far over his head. All the supporting players are effective as well playing their characters to full effect—the blowhard friend, the muscle and brains of a criminal duo, the brother and sister (a standout performance by Dolores Fonzi) who left one abusive family to join another, and the crooked smooth-talking accomplice who plays any side to make out with some cash.

Every actor is allowed to play their roles realistically and intelligently without making the audience feel like children as everything is explained to them. There are many stretches of silence throughout the film as we are shown characters interacting without any unnecessary talking that would never have been spoken in real life. Each event is given air to breath and unravels in its own way amongst the gorgeous wooded landscapes. Bielinsky had a firm handle on what he wanted to express and he didn’t let anything get in the way of that. His use of the camera to help progress the story is perfect. Whenever Esteban is recalling a detail he has seen before, we are given a sharp cut to that past place. Also, every instance of planning out his moves is played in real time to show how it will happen. Even when his cohorts chime in, like for the addition of ski masks, the details are updated into the fantasy play. The real shining moment of cinematography, though, is in the filming of Esteban’s attacks. He experiences a change inside himself before each one—a greater sense of being, the aura, when he is truly free from making any decisions as the seizure takes hold. As a viewer, we are able to feel the disorientation through a close-up montage of Darín’s face being caught up as the frame moves and becomes constricted. The sound effects change as well, truly making the audience feel what the character feels on screen. Esteban can be overtaken at any moment by his affliction yet he allows himself to try his hand at the life he has been fantasizing about. The results are chilling as the tension reaches a boil before concluding into a perfectly symmetrical finish, yet made mysterious by the classical music, suggesting maybe that Esteban has been caught in a spell the entire time.

El Aura 8/10

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I now can say I have seen a Pedro Almodóvar film in the theatre. Sure I saw five of the eight films included in ¡Viva Pedro!, but those were dvd projections, while Volver was the real thing (as evidenced by it catching fire causing the six or so of us watching to wait a bit before seeing the final twenty minutes). I will admit, while enjoying Pedro’s lighter, earlier fare, it is the dramatic and dark films I really have an affinity for. Carne trémula and Hable con ella are brilliant movies that left an indelible mark on me once they concluded. Volver has moments of true emotional resonance, but there is a bit too much playfulness and an inconsistent tone that prevented it from being the masterpiece most critics are calling it, for me at least. I was captivated by the performances and the seemingly slight storyline, trying to figure out where it was going. However, a lot goes on that, while pulling a Usual Suspects twist, really is a series of McGuffins. Like that movie did for me, Volver proves that a great 180-degree flip at the end does not make a great film out of the hour and a half before it. Pedro definitely had something here, and while a very good film, just didn’t quite seem to know how serious to take it.

Even if the film was utter crap, I would still have given it a good rating based on the phenomenal performance from Penélope Cruz. She has always been panned as an English-speaking actress, yet hailed as one of the best when in her native language. It’s true—I have not seen a really great role from her in English, (Vanilla Sky was good, but knowing that she was in the Spanish original, I have to hold judgment until seeing Abre los ojos), and the foreign movies I’ve seen with her showed a more confident skilled professional. Both times seeing Cruz in her natural element were in Pedro films, but unlike Carne trémula and Todo sobre mi madre, where she played somewhat shy women, relying on her friends, here in Volver, she has an almost sexual awakening from those previous roles. One could say that this film is a vehicle for Cruz’s gorgeous figure as much as the story being told. She is simply beautiful throughout, and it’s that beauty and self-assuredness that makes the touching moments of poignancy that much more effective. She goes through all emotions here, and I believe if Pedro allowed the film to stay true to the dramatic elements rather than playing some serious moments as comedic, her performance would have been elevated even higher.

The supporting characters all do great work as well. Lola Dueñas is great as the sister whose secret knowledge of their mother’s return from the afterlife constantly keeps her on her toes. The facial expressions are priceless when trying to keep her stories straight with her sister and hairstyle customers. With her role here and in the fantastic Mar adentro, (coincidentally directed by Alejandro Amenábar who did the aforementioned Abre los ojos), I really hope more of the hugely successful Spanish directors today utilize her immense talents. As for the ghost of a mother, Carmen Maura, Pedro’s old muse, returns in front of his camera. She plays the part perfectly where you can never quite see if she is a ghost or really there. Her comedic timing is precisely on the mark each instance needed, but again I feel it could have been better used in a different film. I also must mention Chus Lampreave with her distinctive voice and delivery, shining again in a small role. Almost every Pedro film I’ve seen has had her involved.

My review here might seem a bit harsh, but let me say I really enjoyed the film. It is just the knowledge of what Almodóvar can do with a dramatic piece of work that makes me think of how much more the movie could have been. No one does female-driven stories of family, love, and grief better, and it is just a shame many Americans don’t have a clue about him. Hopefully Pedro will never sellout and do an English language film unless it’s necessary for the story; he is too good at showing the culture of his home country of Spain. I have no clue if what he displays is true Spanish culture, but the opening scenes, with the tombstone cleaning, the funeral stories, and the non-stop kissing-greetings, make me feel totally surrounded by this foreign land.

Volver 8/10

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[1] Penelope Cruz. Photo by: Paola Ardizzoni y Emilio Pereda
[2] Carmen Maura as Grandmother Irene. Photo by Emilio Pereda and Paola Ardizzoni © Emilio Pereda and Paola Ardizzoni / El Deseo, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved

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Alpha Dog is based on the real life incident perpetrated by Jesse James Hollywood, (surprisingly his actual given name), and his band of 20-something friends getting over their heads when their drug business hits a snag. Hollywood had a debt owed by another young adult and when a riff begins between them, he took the debtor’s brother hostage until the money was paid in full. Hollywood stands trial right now for the planning the murder of Nick Markowitz, a kid who was caught in the middle of a tragedy ripe for a filmed tribute. Alpha Dog isn’t as much a tribute as it is a cautionary tale of how these are kids playing dress-up. They see gangsta culture and feel they can buy that lifestyle with their endless supply of money; they have no clue about the consequences of their actions, and no real remorse for the results. When this film is on, it is really on. Some scenes are so real and true to the culture and the mixed emotions going through the heads of kids that know nothing but being led in one direction by someone they think is their friend. Unfortunately, when the film is off, it is distracting and kills off the resonance left by the scenes that were on the money.

Nick Cassavetes, (yes the guy who adapted and directed The Notebook), comes in with a film that shows how much work went into it. You can tell that he really researched the case and tried to keep every detail intact. His use of captions for day, location, and time lend to the documentary-like construction, and the numbering of witnesses shows how many opportunities were there to stop the event from escalating. Just seeing all these people watching what was going on and doing nothing about it really hits home that we live in a world where one feels the need to just mind their own business, washing themselves clean of anything that might happen as a result. Adults see the abduction, but do nothing so as to not risk harm to themselves, and kids just find the circumstances a joke that will go away in the end and should be enjoyed while it lasts. It really is a tragic story and Cassavetes does a good job in getting that point across. However, I had seen an interview with him that spoke of how the film was completed when Hollywood was finally captured in South America. That incident made him go back to the film, recut it, and add footage to portray it. These additions are what ruin the film from being great. The final twenty minutes or so show fake interview footage and clips of those involved being captured. Every minute of it is unnecessary and instead of putting closure to the film, just totally destroys the climax that occurred right before. The movie ends up being disjointed and rough, as though it needed to be put together quickly and never allowed to be honed to perfection. It is a shame too, as the climatic scene is emotionally draining and hard to watch. The actors are phenomenal and rather than leave those images burned to your mind, it is all washed clean by stilted footage without any utility to the story that was being told. A movie should be all encompassing viscerally and emotionally and not made into an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” at the end.

To elaborate a bit on the acting, this cast is stacked to the brim with quality people. Emile Hirsch is great, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone do their job nicely, and it’s good to see Shawn Hatosy with a significant role, (he’s really good in Outside Providence), and Harry Dean Stanton back in front of the camera. The real standouts, though, are Anton Yelchin, Ben Foster, and Justin Timberlake. Yelchin plays the role of the stolen boy to perfection, full of innocence and a joy in being treated as one of the guys and hanging out with beautiful girls. Foster is just amazing as the junkie brother who’s loose canon mentality spins the whole ordeal out of control to the point where Johnny Truelove, (Hirsch’s Jesse James Hollywood character), can’t decide what to do because he knows he’ll have to watch his back whether the hostage lives or dies. The crazy coked out tweaking lends realism to the performance, as well as a comic undertone. Sure he may play it a bit over the top, but it is effective nonetheless. Finally, not to sound like every other review of the film, it must be said that Timberlake steals the show. The range he shows is exceptional for someone unaccustomed to acting on a normal basis. He is natural throughout and you can’t help but feel helpless while watching him, Yelchin, and Chris Marquette in the pivotal scene towards the end.

Now while I attribute most of the misfires here to the director, I must give him credit for its successes. The story arc is well laid out and especially effective in displaying some very humorous moments and comic setups for the first half of the film. By giving the audience a joyful entry into the darkness forthcoming, Cassavetes helps us sink into the proceedings and get caught up in the chaos. I also really like what he did with the opening credit sequence by having all his stars bring in old home movies. These aren’t just made-up clips of random children, but the innocence of all our characters before society has corrupted them. I picked out Yelchin, Foster, and Hatosy at first viewing, and I’m sure would see that the rest were there as well. Alpha Dog is definitely worth a look, but unfortunately not the masterpiece it seems it could have been.

Alpha Dog 7/10

PS. What were Alan Thicke and Janet Jones-Gretzky doing in this film for the three seconds each of screentime?

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[1] Emile Hirsch star as Johnny Truelove and Justin Timberlake star as Frankie in Alpha Dog – 2007
[2] Amber Heard as Alma and Anton Yelchin star as Zack Mazursky in Universal Pictures’ Alpha Dog – 2007

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The genre of uplifting, against all odds type stories is probably the second most common behind the against all odds sports tale. Every once in awhile one will come out that just blows the other away, however, they are mostly all just carbon copies of each other. These types of films have a built in formula of acts to keep the audience emotionally attached. You see the happiness taken away, you see the trials and tribulations and failures along the way, and finally you see your protagonist redeemed. I hoped that The Pursuit of Happyness would strive above these preconceptions and become something more than its type. Unfortunately, besides the heartbreaking performances from Will and Jaden Smith, this film really just recycles all the genres’ attributes and fills in the blanks with the details of Chris Gardner’s life.

Gardner is a very intelligent and ambitious man. He saw an opportunity to make some money for his wife and son, but didn’t see the results of his investing in machines, that although state-of-the-art, were luxuries his clientele didn’t see benefits in paying for. With all his money tied up in his machines, he never had the chance to find a career, as he needed to sell his products just to recoup the finances he used to pay for them. Finally, a job opportunity arises that would lend itself greatly to his high aptitude of mathematics. He sees a chance to make a living for his family so that they will no longer have to live paycheck to paycheck, but the decision itself would throw his world upside down. His wife can’t handle taking another chance at something that may ultimately fail and leaves him, Gardner finds his internship is full-time without pay, the IRS is after them for back taxes, and they find themselves on the street without anyplace to live. The one thing that could turn his life around comes at the price of having just a one in twenty chance at getting out of the worst squalor his life has seen. Homeless and broke, he has no other choice.

I don’t know if it was the knowledge of this type of movie, that everything will work out, or the fact that our hero does many unsavory things along his journey, but I just couldn’t quite be taken over by the story. You see his life falling apart all around him, but you know that everything will turn out right; you just wait and see to find out how. Sure that journey is a good ride and interesting to watch, it just doesn’t resonate as much when you know that no matter how bad it gets, it won’t get THAT bad. Unfortunately that fact is inherent in all these types of films, and you need something else to invest in. With Happyness, that something else are the wonderful performances. All the supporting players are fantastic, especially small roles like that of Kevin West’s time machine obsessed crazy, and Thandie Newton’s heartbreaking wife. Newton is just made up of pain and sorrow throughout, trying her best to believe in her husband. The stress is too much, and she is wonderful at showing every moment of hardship. Although you don’t like the way she leaves, you have to almost understand her reasons. Also, young Jaden Smith is a natural on screen. Sure that could be a result of being so young and just reacting rather than acting, (especially having his real father to play off of), but either way it is a brilliant job. His innocence and lack of complete knowledge in what is happening to his life is some emotionally wrenching stuff.

The real leader of the film, though, is Will Smith. He has been a fantastic actor for many years, and it is a joy to see him finally play a role, which allows him to show his skill. Sure we all love the action/comedy fare, but not since Ali have we seen what a professional he is. This is probably the best performance of his career thus far that I’ve seen and he deserves all the accolades being thrown his way. No matter how well he did though, I believe the character itself leaves a bit to be desired. In order to get where he is, he does a lot of lying, some stealing, (I mean he stays at these places until they throw him out; they will never see any money for the months they trusted him in), and some harsh reacting to characters he interacts with. For every moment Gardner really excels and shows the natural charisma and skill, which will land him a career, there is an instance that you look and feel he could have handled it much differently and better. There is also a lot of luck involved along the way, as every machine he loses miraculously is found, to the point he can run after someone and take it back to stay afloat financially for one more day. I wonder how much of the contrived moments necessary to keep him alive actually happened to the real Chris Gardner and how many were created for the story to advance cinematically.

The Pursuit of Happyness 7/10

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[1] Christopher (Jaden Smith) and Christopher Gardner (Will Smith) in Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures’ The Pursuit of Happyness – 2006
[2] Linda (Thandie Newton) in Gabriele Muccino drama The Pursuit of Happyness – 2006

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The day has come where all that movie watching during the year, all that money given to Hollywood players who need none of it, and all those buttered popcorn induced coronaries boil down to one person’s ego-trip of compiling a list of the best of the best. I now join the list of film-snobs everywhere with my top ten films of 2006. If you have been reading my reviews you will know that I don’t care too much about how the film was made, but instead how much I enjoyed the ride; if I was able to be transported into another world, for even a brief moment, (evidenced with The Illusionist, one of the best looking films all year, but in the end boring and obvious). Last year was all about the bio-pics, this year all about the heavy dramas, my favorite genre. These films will probably not all be mentioned in the Golden Globe/Oscar hoopla, but that’s a good thing, everyone has their opinion. So, please strike back at how right or wrong I was, (we know you people are out there, Happy Feet anyone?). I’d love to hear some films I might have overlooked, all recommendations are welcome.

Films not seen that have potential of creeping into the top: Last King of Scotland; Inland Empire; Volver (opens today); Apocalypto; Pan’s Labyrinth; Angel-A; Flags of Our Fathers; Notes on a Scandal; The Painted Veil; Sorry, Haters; Tideland; The Wind That Shakes the Barley; Letters From Iwo Jima

Honorable Mention:
Half Nelson, review: great performances, Gosling and Epps shine
Clerks 2, review: not as funny as Borat, but better all-around; Smith is back
The Prestige, review: Nolan does what he does best, fantastic sci-fi/thriller
Shortbus, review: a touching story about life and love, told through sex
A Scanner Darkly, review: Linklater + Dick = amazing meld of genres and technology

This list is subject to change, but at this moment it is as follows:
10. United 93: The only film before June that made the list, (therefore no review until I see it again). Powerful, emotional, resonant. This film shows what it is to be an American hero by still staying relatively impartial as far as depicting the terrorists.

9. The Good Shepherd, review: DeNiro keeps this sprawling tale about a man doing what he needs to for his country and freedom, no matter how it effects his personal life, reined in enough to be a riveting character study.

8. Little Miss Sunshine, review: Quirky comedy at its finest. Breslin breathes a heart into this tale about a family even more dysfunctional than yours.

7. Little Children, review: Hopefully we Buffalonians will be able to watch it on the big screen soon. It’s a wonderful satire of the underbelly of the suburbs.

6. Babel, review: Hopefully Arriaga and Iñárritu reconcile and make more movies together, because even this, their weakest of collaborations, is dramatic perfection.

5. Children of Men, review: Dystopic nightmares shot beautifully and based around a character that gives us all hope in humanity to persevere.

4. Bobby, review: Multi-narrative at its best, intertwining stories without the usual contrived interconnecting. **cough**Crash**cough** Every story stands alone on the journey to see their hero into the Presidential race.

3. The Proposition, review: Authentic, brutal, and poetic in beauty. If Ray Winstone does not get a supporting actor nod, the Oscars will truly be farce.

2. Brick, review: Film-noir with a purpose and a mission. As visceral a movie can be, the language penetrates and truly takes you to a place so real and dangerous, yet so stylized and vaguely familiar.

1. The Fountain, review: I don’t care if critics want to call it pretentious drivel. No one could ever attempt something this ambitious without it being pretentious. Love will conquer all.

All in all I thought it was one of the better years for film since 1999. We saw auteurs cement their roles in cinema and some show off what they can do, making us anticipate more greatness. 2007 promises to give some gems – Grind House; Black Snake Moan; 300; Zodiac; Southland Tales; and Smokin’ Aces. Hopefully it will be another good year.

For more of my top tens through the years, follow this link and hit top 10 movies

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