You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2007.

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Writer Scott Frank can now add director to his list of accomplishments. The man behind the script for two favorites of mine, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, has gone behind the camera to direct a new original screenplay, The Lookout. Despite the talent involved—Frank, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who can do no wrong), Matthew Goode, and stalwart Jeff Daniels—I definitely had my reservations about the film from the trailer. It seemed a bit too conventional, a bank heist gone wrong with an inevitable twist waiting in the wings. As the release date approached though, the buzz was all positive and I was more and more excited to see what Frank and Gordon-Levitt had concocted. Seeing that the other big opening this week was Blades of Glory, The Lookout was a no-brainer choice for the one to see, (however, Buffalo finally did get a theatrical release of Little Children, which I strongly recommend people see at Eastern Hills). Thankfully my preconceived notions were overpowered by the growing interest, because the film ends up being an intelligently told crime drama without any asinine twists and turns. While far from perfect, it was definitely worth the time.

Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a former high school hockey star who has been left lost in the world after a tragic car accident claimed two of his friends and his ability to remember what he should do next at every moment of his life, without the help of his notebook of instructions. Again, Gordon-Levitt shows his talent by portraying this lost soul on a road for redemption with every struggle inside him fighting to come to the surface. His moments of outburst and disgust for his inability to do what he did before the tragedy are emotionally gripping and draw the audience in so that they really care about this character and what his future holds for him. Despite the guidance from friend and roommate Lewis, (Daniels as wonderful as always), a blind internet flower salesman, Chris finds himself wanting some adventure and danger back in his life. The opportunity comes when ex-classmate Gary Spargo, (played by Goode, completely effective in a role opposite to the last time I saw him onscreen in Match Point), comes in with a plan to knock off the bank that Pratt works at. Chris must struggle with his desire to get back at those who feel he can’t do anything anymore and falls into Spargo’s scheme, leading him on a path that he has been on before—one of hate and self-loathing, trying to be the big man on campus again, which can only end in another crash. (My only problem with Pratt was his ability to drive a car. Forgetting where he needs to go at his watch alarm doesn’t mean he’ll forgot directions to that place? How bout not remembering what the can opener looks like, yet he can differentiate the red and green traffic lights no problem? Maybe I’m just nitpicking.)

Scott Frank deserves a lot of applause for his lack of fear to really give us some exposition and background to his characters. The first half of the film contains no mention of the bank heist we all know will be coming; instead we get a glimpse into Chris Pratt’s life and the environment he has been forced to endure since that fateful day on old route 24. We are soon invested in his character along with Daniels’ attempts to shield him from the dangers he no longer can pick out himself, the estranged parents giving him space not to allow his independence to flourish, but to have him fail and come back home, his new “friend” Spargo and the charming façade covering up his villainy, and new love interest Luvlee, who appears to be seeing more to her relationship than a job and maybe even starting to care for Pratt. It is this great use of dialogue and time that sets up the bank robbery to be as successful as it is. We know our heroes and our villains and we can sit back and enjoy the ride. Frank gets all this right, including not hiding behind a twist ending, but instead carrying out the story realistically and intelligently. Sure I would have liked a bit more darkness to come through the somewhat cheery outcome, but I forgive it because it all makes sense.

Unfortunately, where Frank succeeds on the heist aspect and the evolution of Chris Pratt, he leaves all the others behind. The supporting players soon become pawns thrown away once their utility has run out. What happens to Luvlee and Isla Fisher’s effective development into her caring? or to Alex Borstein’s character of the helpful bankteller, which seems to have no bearing whatsoever in the film? or to Carla Gugino’s social worker? All these women are thrown into the mix to serve Pratt’s background and mindset, but never fleshed out enough to stand on their own. Even the role of Bone, while creepy and effective as the silent sadistic muscle of the team, is so out of place, he becomes a tad laughable.

Thankfully though, while Frank misfires on the cast of misfits surrounding his leads, (which he wrote so brilliantly for in the ensembles Get Shorty and Out of Sight), he gets the plot progression and lead performances down to perfection. I am constantly waiting for a new Gordon-Levitt film and Goode truly impressed me with his versatility. Charm is all in the eye of the beholder because he had tons of the British variety in Match Point, making him a likeable bloke, and tons of the American variety here, a slimeball getting everyone close to him so that he can manipulate them to do his bidding. Go see the film for these two guys alone, but also bask in the many wonderfully shot sequences, including the opening car crash scene showing the sublime beauty of fireflies that lead to the tragedy which puts into motion the story to follow.

The Lookout 7/10

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photography:
[1] Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris and Matthew Goode as Gary in THE LOOKOUT. Photo Credit Allen Fraser/ Courtesy of Miramax Films.
[2] Matthew Goode (center) star as Gary in Crime, Drama, Thriller’s The Lookout – 2007

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Two David Fincher films in two years? Is that even possible? With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button finishing filming this year for a 2008 release, we get the director’s sixth film, Zodiac. While we do get some vintage Fincher style throughout the proceedings, this is very different from his other movies. As much a real life story film as one can be, Zodiac goes through the years chronicling the hunt for the serial killer that got away. There isn’t the graphic gore quality we’ve become accustomed to with Seven and Fight Club, but instead a taut thriller that keeps the viewer on edge, not knowing what bit of history would be coming at them next. Usually this type of film bores me, especially being one I know going in that the killer is never caught, yet Fincher really has control of the pacing and delivers one of the fastest three hour movies I’ve seen in awhile.

Our main entry point into the story lies with cartoonist Robert Graysmith, the man whose books the film was based on, played perfectly by Jake Gyllenhaal. No one plays shy, boyish charm, naïveté like he does. What would seem strange casting for a man who ends up devoting his life to finding out who the Zodiac was, Gyllenhaal ends up being the only choice you can think of once we find that Graysmith’s nickname, behind his back, is “retard.” He truly portrays the socially awkward, outcast Boy Scout we need to follow. Only a guy with his likeability and lack of ego could get as many people involved in the case to help him find the material he needed.

Besides Gyllenhaal though, we have a stellar supporting cast. Every frame that passes brings us another cameo from a known actor. Sure comedies of late have been cameo vehicles, but this one seems to have had Hollywood knocking on Fincher’s door to be included. From non-existent parts by Adam Goldberg, and recognizable faces Tom Verica and Jimmi Simpson, to small roles from Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, and Brian Cox, we have a non-stop who’s who of acting talent. Fincher must have been a big “24” fan as well casting Paul Schulze in a real bad wig as a witness for the cops’ main suspect in the case, Arthur Leigh Allen, (played with scene-stealing ability by John Carroll Lynch). There are a couple nice meaty roles to go with the cameos led by the always fantastic Robert Downey Jr. It has been stated the Downey and Fincher butted heads a bit during filming—I mean this is Mr. Unpredictable Ad-lib working for Mr. Perfectionist shooting 25 takes of a one minute scene—but the result is great. Downey brings a comic relief that is needed amongst the violence and drama, yet also plays his descent into drugs and unreliability to perfection.

In the end, the real star of the film, in my opinion, becomes Mark Ruffalo. He plays Inspector David Toschi who truly becomes embedded into the case and never able to break free of it. Ruffalo can always play the regular guy in irregular situations without making it seem like acting. His reactions to Downey’s character’s misstep in info leaking are real, as is his passion and emotion during the course of secretly working with Graysmith during the last act of the film. Toschi is the man that I feel the audience can relate to most during the manhunt and I wish he had been given more of a central role to the movie.

Although the film is successful at telling the story of forty years of the Zodiac, the plethora of characters cause it to be a bit sprawling and unfocused. Graysmith wrote the story, and he is our lead, yet we lose him for a good hour of the film to follow the police/newspaper’s efforts at finding the killer’s identity. Sure Gyllenhaal is in the background often, but sometimes you wonder where he went and once you get comfortable with Ruffalo being in charge, back comes Jake to take the lead again. It almost feels like two films cut together as a whole. Not to say the editing is bad because in actuality the film is real smooth transitionally. We are given snippets that are pertinent to the eventually findings by Graysmith and Toschi, and never more than necessary. When it comes to movies on a strict timeline, this is one of the best.

I feel that Fincher could have had another masterpiece, but just couldn’t commit to one viewpoint. He definitely did his research into the case and jam packed details wherever he could. However, the tagline for the film is “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer” and yet it was never really taken to the next level. Sure we see the strain the case has on Ruffalo, Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Edward’s family life, but on second thought, do we really? Edward’s family is never shown and he eventually quits the case, Ruffalo’s wife is supporting to the fullest and he remains balanced for perpetuity; even Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith, so deep into his research that his family leaves him, never seems too upset about it. He is more, “I’ll take care of our problems once this is done,” and doesn’t really seem to care that he has been left. So, basically in effect, rather than a character piece on how the case effects those involved, we get a strict thriller on the hunt for a killer.

Yes, it is not Fincher’s best, but as a film it is effective. We get some nice flourishes with the camera (the opening pan with stationary camera through car window, overhead/bird’s eye following of cars, and a gorgeous sequence traveling over the fog engulfed bridge of the poster) and some great acting, just nothing really special, screaming out at us to see its importance. Also, where was the Fincher-staple creative credit sequence? All in all Zodiac ends up being an enjoyable ride, that, if nothing else, whets your appetite for more darkness to come from his singular mind.

Zodiac 8/10

(Is it just me or was there a very odd cut during the Dirty Harry sequence? Ruffalo leaves the theatre for the lobby and Gyllenhaal watches his exit. We have a quick edit to Jake and Chloë Sevigny driving in their car, which then cuts back to the theatre for a meeting between Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo. So did Jake leave the theatre and come back? Is this a weird editing error? Or am I missing a profound purpose for this continuity break? Please shed some light if you know.)

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photography:
[1] Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith in David Fincher movies Zodiac – 2007
[2] A scene from crime, drama, thriller Paramount Pictures’ Zodiac – 2007
[3] Robert Downey Jr. (right) in Paramount Pictures’ Zodiac – 2007

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Love hurts. That, I think, is the main message Mike Binder’s newest film Reign Over Me brings across. Whether that love has caused your relationship to become stagnant, or has brought anger from the one you love cheating for years, or has broken your heart to the point of being unable to open yourself up to the world, love hurts. The great thing about this film, however, is not in its portrayal of these lost souls trying to let their past heartbreaks go, but in the eventual restart of new bonds for the future. No one in this drama is perfect; they are all at some degree trapped emotionally in relationships that they can’t free themselves from alone. There is some heavy subject material here and I credit Binder for never making the story turn into a political diatribe, but instead infusing the serious moments with some real nice comedic bits allowing the tale to stay character-based and small in scale compared to the epic event that looms overhead. What could have become a trite vehicle for opinions on how 9-11 effected us all, ends up being a story about two men and a connection they share that is the only thing which can save their lives from a life of depression and regret.

This is a new career performance for Adam Sandler. I like to think that my favorite director Paul Thomas Anderson was the first to see the childish, pent-up anger in his stupid comedies as something to use dramatically. The juvenility of a character like Billy Madison allows for laughs and potty humor, but also can be used to show a repressed man, shy and shutout to the world around him—a man with no confidence that needs an event of compassion to break him from his shell. Anderson let Sandler do just that in his masterpiece Punch-Drunk Love and Mike Binder has taken it one step further. Sandler plays former dentist Charlie Fineman whose wife and three kids were killed in one of the planes that took down the World Trade Center on 9-11. That one moment crushed any life that he had and as a result, he became reclusive and started to believe he couldn’t remember anything that happened before that day. Bottled emotion is what Sandler does best and he really delivers a moving portrait of a man trying to keep up the charade in his head while those around him, those that love him, try and open him up to the reality of what happened and what the future holds. Always on edge and ready to snap at any moment when something is mentioned to spark the memory of his perished family, he goes through life with his iPod and headphones, shutting out everything so as not to be tempted remember.

Reign Over Me is not about Charlie Fineman though, it is about dentist and family man Alan Johnson. A man that has trapped himself into a marriage and dental practice that both have stagnated into monotony, Johnson needs as much help in his life as his old college roommate Charlie does. Played perfectly by the always-brilliant Don Cheadle, Johnson has lost his backbone to try and change his life. He has no friends and when he sees Charlie, by chance, one day, his life evolves into something he hasn’t felt in 15 years. He revels in the chance to go out with an old friend no matter how much he has changed from the death of his family. Cheadle’s character wants to revert back to the college days of hanging out and Sandler’s doesn’t mind because all that was before he met his wife. The two men get what they want and allow themselves to grow close despite the years of solitude that used to rule their lives. Once they begin opening up though, it is inevitable that the subject of the tragedy will creep up and test the façade they have created for themselves.

The supporting cast does an amazing job helping keep up appearances for the two leads. Jada Pinkett Smith has never been an actress that impressed me and throughout the film played the tough as nails wife nicely, but it is her final scene on the phone with Cheadle that really showed me something different and true. Liv Tyler is a bit out of her element as a psychiatrist, but the movie calls her on this fact and makes the miscasting, perfect casting. The many small cameos are also effective, even writer/director Mike Binder’s role as Sandler’s old best friend and accountant, (my only gripe here is why he feels the need to put his name in the opening credits as an actor when it is everywhere, considering it is his film). Last but not least is the beautiful Saffron Burrows who you don’t get to see much of in Hollywood anymore. She is a great actress and plays the love-crushed divorcee trying to put her life back together wonderfully. A role that seems comic relief at first, but ends up being an integral aspect for what is to come.

Binder has crafted one of the best dramatic character studies I have seen in a long time. The direction is almost flawless, (the blurring between cuts and characters in the fore/background really annoyed me in the beginning), the acting superb, and the story true to itself, never taking the easy way out or wrapping itself up with a neatly tied bow at the conclusion. Even the music was fantastic and used to enhance, not to lead us emotionally, (why after two great uses of the titular song by The Who did Binder feel the need to use the inferior Eddie Veddar remake for the end, I don’t know, but it did unfortunately stick out for me). Reign Over Me is a film about love and how although it can cause the worst pain imaginable, it can also save us from regret and allow us to once again see the world as a place of beauty and hope.

Reign Over Me 9/10

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photography:
[1] Adam Sandler (left) and Don Cheadle (right) star in Columbia Pictures’ Reign Over Me. Photo Credit : Tracy Bennett. Copyright© 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.. All rights reserved.
[2] (left to right) Saffron Burrows, Liv Tyler, Adam Sandler, and Don Cheadle star in Columbia Pictures’ Reign Over Me. Photo Credit : Tracy Bennett. Copyright© 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.. All rights reserved.

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Lawrence of Arabia is oftentimes listed as one of the greatest films of all time. Not only that, but many say Peter O’Toole’s performance as T.E. Lawrence is the greatest piece of acting ever to be captured onscreen as well. Being that the movie was made 45 years ago, I wasn’t going into it thinking I would agree with either statement necessarily. Whether the four hour run time was too daunting to get my hopes up or not, I knew that no matter what, I needed to finally see this film. Being that it would show on the big theatre screen of the Market Arcade, I couldn’t make up an excuse. These were prime viewing circumstances and I was going to go for the ride from Cairo to the Middle East along with the band of Arab tribes trying to take back their land from the Turks.

On a technical level, Lawrence of Arabia has few equals. Director David Lean has created something with true epic focus. There are no advanced computer graphics multiplying fake people into huge battle scenes, this had to be done with real extras, sweltering in the desert heat waiting for their opportunity to fight amongst the movie’s stars. The scope is wide and Lean is never afraid to show the desert as a desolate wasteland because the shots are beautiful to behold. The British didn’t understand what Lawrence saw in the sand, but viewing the landscape shots here, the audience can see the tranquility and beauty that it truly holds. This was a big-budget movie and it shows by the settings besides the desert. When we arrive in Cairo and see the excess with which the soldiers live; its affluence is on display. Not only by the material objects, but also by the soldiers’ utter ambivalence to the fight while their Arab counterparts are trekking through the sun-ravaged desert to claim victory.

It is this juxtaposition between the British forces and Arab fighters that backbone the film. Yes, T.E. Lawrence is the focal point and his journey from army outcast to Arab liberator is the story arc we follow, but it is the fact that he tries to live in both worlds which really defines the course of actions on display. Credit does have to go to Peter O’Toole for his ability to grow his character throughout and display the emotion and conflict living inside him. Lawrence saw an opportunity to help the Arab tribes regain control of their land despite Britain’s refusal to give them artillery. Even at this early moment, he might have suspected this lack of true support as a sign of future motives, but he was so focused on his cause and the fact that he could do anything he set his mind to, he just didn’t care. When he finally succeeds with his first mission, he returns a broken man, having killed and seen things he never wanted to see. He knew it was all for the best, though, and needed to stick by his word of setting his new friends into a free land. Only when the men at Cairo, who once laughed at his expense, praise him with accolades and promotions does Lawrence first start becoming a man without a clear purpose. A man that was accepted by no one now finds himself loved by two distinct cultures, and must somehow cope with the success or eventually fall as a result.

Besides the excellent performance by O’Toole—intense, sarcastically humorous, and heartbreakingly real throughout—we are also treated to an acting clinic from the supporting players. Omar Sharif is fantastic as the Arab Sherif Ali who agrees to accompany Lawrence on his suicide mission to take a Turkish outpost. Sharif gives Ali a realistic progression from a man who cannot see a white man surviving anything in their future, to one who would follow Lawrence into Hell if asked. Anthony Quinn is also great as Auda abu Tayi, a leader of a tribe that can be bought by whoever offers most. His interactions with O’Toole are some of the best moments in the film because Lawrence always knows what to say to persuade Auda into doing something for his own interests and not for monetary gain, (although he still likes to take something as a souvenir for his troubles). Even Alec Guinness brings an effective performance despite playing an Arab Prince. There are many moments where the allusions to his later Obi-Wan Kenobi character come through making me smile, but the accent is hidden nicely into a British educated Arab speech that helps me forget he is as much an Englishmen as O’Toole is Irish.

In the end, however, it is the story which truly leaves a mark. During the runtime, I was slowly seeing some redundancies and wondering if an hour could have easily been chopped off without a second glance. Disappointment was setting in and I was thinking I might have to give it a 7 or 8 rating as a whole. Once the final scenes play out though, you realize why we needed everything that came before. It is Lawrence’s success in battle that both leave him broken but also ripe for persuasion into continuing on. The British were looking for a way to have Arabs do the work but eventually swoop in and take the Middle East for themselves, and with Lawrence, they had their man to rally the troops. Lawrence was neither British nor Arab, but instead a man beyond his dreams and ideals. The Arab tribes would never be able to live in harmony for a peaceful unity, and the British were just waiting for the implosion to occur. When all is said and done, Lawrence realizes he is not the God that people, and himself, saw him as, but a pawn that has been played from the beginning. His sanity and drive for good is sucked out of him because while it seemed he was accepted by both worlds, he really didn’t belong to either.

Lawrence of Arabia 9/10

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Many people were startled by the fact that Pan’s Labyrinth lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to its fellow nominee The Lives of Others. Granted, many hadn’t seen the German film yet, however, I think the push that the Spanish fantasy had, while also taking a few technical Oscars in the process, surprised a lot of people. The shock led to numerous movie folk on the internet describing the voting process for that award, how a select group, not the entire Academy, screens the foreign films. Therefore many thought that this more dramatic and adult story was chosen because that group was probably a very pretentious bunch and couldn’t in their right mind vote a fantasy film as a winner above it. Whether this is true or not, Buffalo now has the opportunity to see the award winning film for itself, to decide if it was deserving or not. I must say, while I don’t think it was better than Pan’s I am totally fine with the fact that it won. The Lives of Others is an expertly told thriller, tense throughout, as we never quite know what our protagonist or antagonist will do, or even if they are on opposite sides of the movie’s coin to begin with.

We begin the movie with an introduction to Hauptmann Wiesler, (played perfectly by Ulrich Mühe, who you might know from Haneke’s original Funny Games), a member of the Stasi who is teaching a class on the tactics of an interrogation, and how you must show no remorse when trying to find out enemies to the State. An old friend of his, who has since risen in the ranks of the government faction more for greed than actually wanting to do right by his superiors, tells him about a new surveillance job that has come up straight from the Minister himself. Wiesler, always a man willing to do what is necessary for the cause he believes in, takes the job and begins watching the accused man’s every move. Soon, though, he realizes that this man, while having friends of those with Western loyalties, keeps clean himself when it comes to politics of that persuasion. Instead Wiesler finds that his subject’s live-in girlfriend is having an affair, with the Minister no less. This is not a stakeout to find an enemy; his assignment is one to get rid of a man so that his superior may have a woman all to himself. Disillusionment sets in and Wiesler begins to put a series of events into place that only he knows what he wants the result to be. Does he want to punish the Minister for using his power for selfish gains? Or does he want to prove to everyone that he knows what his job is and will show everyone the power he himself wields.

There are some really fantastic moments throughout the film showing the eventually demise of the GDR. Mühe is fantastic as Wiesler and shows his changing opinions and confusion in what it is he is does for the Stasi. What was once a job for the continuation of socialism in East Germany has become a tool of the leaders to use against their people. When Wiesler and his boss friend go to lunch and he sits at a table of lesser rank than his own, his friend says how the captains sit in the back. Wiesler’s response of how socialism must start somewhere is so true and biting that his friend can only smirk. These leaders no longer work for the common good of all men, they have received power and they now intend to keep it. From this point on you never can tell which side Wiesler is truly working on.

Mühe is not the only great performance of the film, although his calm stoicism and hidden emotion truly carry it. The subject of his mission, Georg Dreyman, a playwright, is wonderfully done by Sebastian Koch. This role is of a man who has seen his politically outspoken friends be punished for voicing their opinions, and has, as a result, decided to not follow suit. Only when his mentor commits suicide does Dreyman finally decide to do something about the stifling regime in power and help the West see the growing dissent in the East. His girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, is also portrayed with raw emotion by Martina Gedeck. She is caught between love and survival and has gotten herself too deep in both to be able to leave one for the other. Her part is hard to watch because she tries so hard to keep both halves of her life living in harmony, but being too tired and broken to keep the charade going.

I will again say that I really enjoyed this film. The story was intelligently told and professionally acted and directed. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, waiting to see what Wiesler’s true intentions were. If the film would have ended at its logical finishing mark, I may have put it in my top ten of 2007. However, what was a fascinating tale of two men slowly realizing their beliefs were incorrect and because of which decide to take the dangerous challenge of doing something about it, becomes a history lesson about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the concentrated focus that enthralled me, and once a series of epilogues (2 years later, etc…) were tacked on the end, I was totally taken out of the intimacy of the movie. The final shot ends up being so clichéd and safe that, while appropriate, it ends up subverting the rest of the movie’s keep-you-guessing mentality. Some things are best left up to the audience’s imagination, and a final crossing of paths between the watcher and the subject need not be spelled out.

The Lives of Others 8/10

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photography:
[1] Ulrich Muhe as Gerd Weisler. Photo by Hagen Keller, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.
[2] Left: Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland; Right: Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman. Photo by Hagen Keller, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.

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This is what film was destined to evolve to. After decades of directors making storyboards as reference before filming and the slow building trend to adapt comic book work, we finally have the ultimate fusion of both. Sure Sin City did amazing things with the medium and created frame-by-frame transfers from drawing to celluloid, however, it was still shot as a movie first and foremost. Zack Snyder has done something different with 300; he has created a true work of art. Frank Miller’s story was one steeped in truth and history if not entirely non-fiction. The heightened reality came across in the stylized drawings of the graphic novel and the honor and respect held in such high regard by its characters. Snyder takes these aspects to another level with his film, creating some of the most brutal yet beautiful moments I’ve seen at the movies. The artistry is gorgeous to behold and the story and acting only enhance the quality with deeper meaning. What Picasso’s Guernica is to painting, an epic portrayal of war and death and the hope that can come out of it all, 300 is to cinema.

I am surprised how the huge success so far for this film needs to be footnoted with the fact that it has a starless cast. To me, this is a slap in the face of all the great talent involved. Gerard Butler, for one, has steadily risen in the acting ranks and just cements his talent with this role as Spartan King Leonidas. He has the rugged physique and harsh mentality of a true warrior, but also the compassion needed to lead a band of soldiers to their death and the love for not only land and country, but also wife and child—their freedom being the reason he needs Sparta to stay safe from tyranny. Then you have the beautiful Lena Headey, the actress that was forced into Terry Gilliam’s Brother’s Grimm after producers refused to let Samantha Morton have the role. Knowing Gilliam’s history with Hollywood and being forced to do so many things against his will, the words saying that Headey actually did the role justice to his vision means wonders. To be complimented for a part he had a singular vision for can only prove the worth she holds. I still want to see last year’s Imagine Me and You, the kind of chick flick that looks like it could be a really good film. Lastly you have the up-and-coming David Wenham, one of the best performances, in my opinion, throughout the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. After a fun role in the dreadful Van Helsing and a total metamorphosis in The Proposition, I believe he has some great things ahead of him. Even Dominic West as the treacherous Theron surprised me. After his laughable acting in The Forgotten, I couldn’t believe this was the same guy. I have never seen “The Wire,” but maybe the guy has some talent after all.

Again, though, no matter how effective the acting was, the true strength of the film was in the overall aesthetic. Sure many scenes were culled perfectly from the comic, but Snyder also put his own flare to it. Not only was the role of Queen Gorgo expanded from a single drawn frame to integral role of the film, but it was done so successfully. When I heard of the expansion I sort of chuckled, thinking here is an infusion of femininity in an otherwise macho story—if for nothing else, but to add a reason to have some sexuality and nudity in this hard-R movie. Instead it is her character’s drive back home in Sparta against the villainous Theron that makes the final moments as poignant as they are. While the comic gave us an insight into a warrior fighting for freedom of men, the addition of the Queen here gives us the story of a man fighting for the freedom of humanity and equality of all those living on earth. The softer side of the king makes his brutality that much more necessary and his love for his wife the reason he is so ready to give his life for the war. The only addition I disliked in the entire film was that of a grotesque creature/decapitating machine. The “monsters” in the story are supposed to be elephants and inbred freaks of nature, (this is ancient Greece), not monstrosities fixed with blades as arms. I find myself forgiving it though because it was on screen for so short a time, and the only misstep I saw.

Zack Snyder has outdone himself. I enjoyed his remake of Dawn of the Dead, but didn’t quite understand the critics when they said he had an immense talent and hold on how to shoot and craft scenes. 300 definitely showed me this to be true. Whether light scenes of stunning visuals like the dance of the oracle or dark sequences of battle and splattering blood, he succeeds with them all. The first long take of Leonidas fighting through Persian after Persian with the speed slowed and increased while the zoom jumps forward and back is amazing and makes the hallway fight scene in Oldboy seem like child’s play. This is truly the first great film of 2007, whether it stays atop my favorites at the end of the year remains to be seen, but right now it sits above all with quite a gap in between.

300 10/10

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photography:
[1] GERARD BUTLER stars as King Leonidas in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Legendary Pictures’ and Virtual Studios’ “300,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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The cult tv show from Canada has really surprised me with how fresh the comedy has stayed throughout its six year duration. When I first heard about the jump to the big screen, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it. Most half hour shows that get feature film updates really feel forced and dragged out like the writers took their next show idea and filled it up to last an hour and a half. With a show like “Trailer Park Boys” I sensed that something like this would happen, but thankfully I was wrong. Rather than expanding a short story thread, the creators actually seemed to have taken a full season arc and shortened it to make a movie. Trailer Park Boys: The Movie is then a tightened piece of work, with all the good parts kept at the expense of filler, to make it 100 minutes of pure insanity and hilarity.

A movie like this can only do justice if it keeps what works from the show. Our heroes, Julian and Ricky, need to go to jail at some point and come back to the trailer park right when the residents were getting used to the lack of trouble the two cause. Ricky then needs to win back his girlfriend Lucy, Julian needs to find a new masterminded crime to attempt, Jim Lahey has to find a reason to get the cops to arrest the misfits again, and Bubbles can enjoy some human friendship again, having only his cats to spend time with when the boys are gone. All the laughs and staples from the show are here to great effect. Now, while Showcase in Canada is a cable station with the swears and drinking allowed, it seems the filmmakers have decided to step it up even more for this movie. Lahey adds his favorite curse adjective to everything he says, (the least sense made the better), Ricky butchers the English language, Bubbles goes on his Tourettes rants, and with the addition of a strip club locale, nudity is very prevalent whereas non-existent in the show. The boys have pulled out all the stops for a crazy adventure of low-class criminals and the seedy activities they partake in for the love of friends and family.

It is great seeing John Paul Tremblay (Julian) and Robb Wells (Ricky) keeping their characters consistent with the show. The two have a great rapport and really shine as the brains and stupidity of the operation respectively. Their friend Bubbles is hilariously played as always by Mike Smith. His slow mannerisms and bottled up aggression always lead to laughs between his small vocal outbursts and his full on attack once his shack is destroyed. All the other regulars make appearances too, John Dunsworth the best of which plays his drunk park supervisor role to perfection. When he does a long take stare while downing an entire bottle of alcohol, I was dying of laughter just from the dedication to the scene. There has to be sacrifices of course for a jump like this, though, and that is at the expense of characters Cory and Trevor. This duo are great fun and foils to the boys in the show, but mostly wasted here in the film. Also, where was J-Roc? Youknowwattimsayin?! I really wish his role was bigger than the ten or so minutes he got.

Sure the film might not be as successful as the show, but it still delivers the big laughs and misplaced heartfelt moments as its originator. It was strange seeing the numerous inconsistencies to the show being that this is not a continuation after season 6, but an almost restart to gain a new fan base. I understand the reasoning here, but I feel that they could have kept it in context to the storyline with scenes of exposition from the show itself to help new viewers understand what was happening. Either way it was still enjoyable. Credit too to the Canadian support as always with cameos from Gord Downey and Alex Lifeson, along with the great soundtrack and hidden easter eggs. Between the numerous Hip songs, Our Lady Peace sampling (during J-Roc’s rap), Tea Party instrumentals, and Rush titles hidden at the theatre (game machine was 2112, and the movie names based off songs), I had fun noticing them all. So, whether you are a fan of the show or just want to experience the craziness for the first time, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie is well worth your time.

Trailer Park Boys: The Movie 7/10

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Craig Brewer is now officially a writer/director for whom I will see any film by, no matter how bad it may look. His debut, Hustle and Flow, was one of my favorites from that year, with its emotionally charged storyline and realistic, fallible characters. I wasn’t quite sure what I would end up thinking after seeing this sophomore effort. The cast seemed great, the trailer used music effectively, however, it seemed like there was a good chance it would cross into absurdity, and fast. Fortunately, Black Snake Moan hits all its marks dead-on. The acting is astonishing, the writing superb, and the editing style, as well as juxtaposed music, riveting the whole way. Brewer seems to be a master at getting his characters to have the right mix of both compassion and malice as they set forward on their paths toward redemption.

The first moment I knew I was in for a treat was during the abbreviated credit sequence at the beginning. Like he did with Hustle and Flow, Brewer lays the music over the widescreen shots perfectly with simply titled fonts coming up statically. The 70’s aesthetic was welcome and helped show that this would be another great character piece in the vain of those from that decade of some of cinema’s best. From here we continued on with the short snippets into the lives of both Lazarus and Rae, each vignette mirroring the other while they journey to the fateful moment their paths finally cross. The editing between them was fluid and relevant rather than abruptly cutting before the scene felt finished with its purpose. Rae’s boyfriend leaves for duty in the service and Laz’s wife leaves him for his brother. Each feels the loneliness and reverts to what they know in that situation—Rae to sex and Laz to the bottle. Only when Rae is left for dead at the side of the road and her savior comes from his farm to take her in does the reasoning for their actions finally start to become clear.

Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic as the older bluesman farmer trying to reconcile his life with God and that of the flesh and the pain it has brought him. There are the moments of stoic sternness as well as those of kindheartedness with his captive/patient. You never really look at the setup as comical or unrealistic because he sells what he is doing so well. Also, the character of Rae is not chained up for very long, despite what the trailers would have you believe. The situation starts a bit awkward until we see that the chaining was for her own good and is actually used for only a day or two. As for that chained girl, Christina Ricci really shines. I never really saw her as anything special, but this role is a true breakthrough for her. This girl is so troubled that her past sexual abuse has scarred her very deep down. Any time she is away from her love she starts seeing flashes of the man who took her childhood innocence away and itches to be touched by any man available to let the image go away. Her nymphomania is not for pleasure, but rather for survival from the haunting nightmares always hiding behind her eyelids. Ricci fully inhabits the role and shows all the emotional trauma to great effect and realism. Mention must also be made of Justin Timberlake, again showing some real acting talent. Where this guy came from I have no clue, but hopefully he will continue taking more films and steer away from the mostly crap music he churns out.

While not as solid and consistent as Hustle and Flow, Moan still ranks equally to it, in my mind, because when it is on, it is spectacular. Towards the end we have a truly enthralling sequence with “This Little Light of Mine” singing out, and earlier, the interaction between captive and captor, when the chain is first introduced, shows some top-notch work. The truly magical moment, though, is when Jackson sings (yes that is him throughout, like it was Terrence Howard in Hustle) the titular song while a thunderstorm roars and the lights flicker. If I don’t see a more beautifully shot sequence all year, I won’t be surprised. What these two people do for each other is wonderful and shows what humanity is capable of. One thing I think I really enjoy with Brewer’s work is the fact that he doesn’t show sinners becoming redeemed heroes. Instead he shows us that no matter how bad you have been, or how bad life has been, everyone can strive for redemption and to be better people. We don’t have saints here, but fallible people looking to right their ship. If the course stays true or if it falls back into darkness, no one really knows, but at least they can say that they tried as hard as they could.

Black Snake Moan 9/10

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photography:
[1] Samuel L. Jackson as Lazarus in Paramount Classics’ Black Snake Moan – 2007
[2] Justin Timberlake and Christina Ricci star in Craig Brewer’s BLACK SNAKE MOAN. Photo By: Bruce Talamon

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Talk about an unhealthy obsession. Notes on a Scandal is a tale told through the diary entries of a disturbed older woman whose newfound friendship with the first time art teacher soon becomes a dangerous infatuation. When the new teacher becomes involved with a student, our narrator Barbara, begins to use her knowledge of the infraction as a means to emotionally and psychologically blackmail the woman she loves. These are unsavory characters living lives inside upper middle class society, an environment that very well could be the main reason for their imperfections. The description from Barbara about how people of this class are vain and self-absorbed, in the end, really fits herself more than any other.

Whether due to the novelist, from which the story is culled from, or screenwriter Patrick Marber, the script here is gorgeous. The handling of the English language is stunning at times and a cynical wit prevalent throughout. Much like Marber’s previous writing effort, Closer, this film also contains a small number of characters and the self-destruction each partakes in, both knowingly and not. As an audience member, you know how the story will eventually play out—there is no way that this woman can get away with the transgression of having an affair with a fifteen year old child, either legally or within herself and her own guilt. The true strength of the movie is the thrilling suspense as the characters fall farther and farther into the web of deceit. At any moment the affair can be made public, and if it does, the results can be devastating. The handling of the relationship between our two lead women is effective and keeps interest in an otherwise simple plot.

The only way the film’s suspense can be successful is by believable acting and writing. I will admit that I never much saw the film world’s obsession with Judi Dench and the greatness she exudes in the field. Yes, she is always good in her roles, yet the stuffy matriarch character never impressed me as awe-inspiring craft. However, with this film I can see what everyone has been saying of her. Dench is truly brilliant as Barbara, a deluded woman living in her own story world fantasy. The craziness is always there, just beneath the surface, waiting to come out and take over. When she delves into the lesbian tendencies, you can see the love she has created in her head for this exotic woman that she feels she can save and make love her too. As the new teacher Sheba, Cate Blanchett also shines. Radiant as usual, Blanchett gives off a lot of sensuality here allowing us to not only see what her student and Barbara sees in her, but for us to fall in love as well. Her descent is completely of her own doing and while the eventual results deserving, her utter self-destruction allows her to finally see what true love is.

Notes on a Scandal could have been carried far by just these two women, yet it ascends one more level due to the phenomenal performance from Bill Nighy. He is the prototype father and husband in all ways and his yelling match with Blanchett towards the end is a highlight of the movie, as well as his emotional devastation. From the climax on, (until the horrible tacked on epilogue), we really see excellent filmmaking and an acting clinic. The final interactions between Dench, Nighy, and Blanchett remind me of what made Closer such a great film, but also how the first three quarters of Notes doesn’t quite equal the eventual stellar ending sequences. This one is a slow-burner with a nice payoff and well worth admission to see some of the best acting of the year. Marber has a way with words and hopefully will continue with his work of the dark and sinister world of upper class suburbia and how complacency in life leads to the destruction of any goodness one once had. Hopefully next time though, the filmmakers won’t bog down the dialogue with an unnecessarily heavy-handed score. At times the music made the film seem like a B-Horror flick, and I wouldn’t be surprised to check You-Tube and see some splices making this into a murder/horror film.

Notes on a Scandal 8/10

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photography:
[1] Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Photo Credit: Giles Keyte
[2] Cate Blanchett and Andrew Simpson in NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Photo Credit: Clive Coote

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I finally took the time to see writer/director Brad Bird’s first foray into feature length film with The Iron Giant. Hearing how great of a film it was and the success of his Pixar debut The Incredibles, I’ve been seeing the movie on my shelf for a while now, just waiting to finally be viewed. If you thought his last movie had heart, you need to see this one. While being based on a book, I’m not sure if it is the original source material or Bird’s vision on screen, but the parallels to King Kong are unmistakable. This creature from another world instills fear into all but one person—one person who can see beneath the harsh exterior into the wealth of feelings and compassion bottled up within. Sure the beauty in a story like King Kong is the sacrifice he makes in order to keep his love safe at the unfortunate price of being a monster in the eyes of everyone else, but here we have a kid’s story where happy endings aren’t just a commonality but a necessity. Bird handles the subject matter nicely at the end in order to give the audience the same emotional attachment to the creature despite the fact that the general population does end up seeing him for what he truly is. Ala Superman/Spider-Man/etc, the monster mystic soon dissolves as they begin saving human lives.

A big part of The Iron Giant’s success is the gorgeous animation. This may be one of the last great 2D animated films before CGI took over the field. The cinematic touches are great, including a depth of field composed of blurred images to give the audience a focal point. You forgive that the blurring effect renders the object even flatter than the medium does originally because the effect works as it would in a live-action film. Also, the lighting effects are wonderful, especially the flashlight sequences. When our young protagonist looks out his window into the woods, and the light flare goes from bright blind spot to illuminating band of vision, it looks very realistic. The power of the light even dissipates as the flash goes farther out into the distance.

As with The Incredibles, though, the true heart of the film is in the fully fleshed out characters. There is not an overabundance of cluttered supporting roles, but instead a few main roles, which are allowed to evolve and grow an attachment from the viewers. The emotion etched into the movement and facial ticks of the Giant are spectacular at getting language across, much as would have been done in a silent film. Eli Marienthal does a great job as young Hogarth Hughes, the only one who believes that his new friend is more than a weapon. Christopher McDonald adds some nice comic relief as our only villainous role, albeit not a bad guy in the common use of the term, and Jennifer Aniston allows Mrs. Hughes to be both motherly and understanding of her son’s adventures. The vocal star ends up being Harry Connick Jr., who is fantastic as Hogarth’s friend and confidant when it comes to the new discovery of the Giant. I think the best compliment that a film like this can have is the fact that the vocal talent was so good I didn’t recognize any as the people they are in real life. No one tried to infuse their own shtick into the part, but instead played the roles to enhance the story being told.

Along with all that, we are treated to subtle commentary on the state of the government, both with the “duck and cover” absurdity of atomic warfare and the references to gun control and war. These jabs are just that though, small moments that go along with the story, rather than take it over and hijack the film like what happened with Happy Feet last year. Weighty issues can be addressed in children films successfully, making the audience understand the problem yet not shoving it down their throats when the real issue at hand is the relationship between a child and his new otherworldly friend, giving him the confidence to stand up for himself and be a hero.

So far Bird has really impressed me as an animation director. While the teaser for Pixar’s new Ratatouille left me a bit indifferent, just the attachment of this autuer’s name makes me that much more excited for the movie. Hopefully Bird can keep the track record intact and also, maybe prove that in order for these films to be successful, a good story is necessary. In an age where we get around ten animated films a year, there are many that are horrible cashcows to rip off unsuspecting parents into taking the children to a cartoon. Thankfully Brad Bird shows us that animated films can still hold up against live action ones for the pieces of art they should aspire to be.

The Iron Giant 8/10

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photography:
[1] Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal)
[2] The Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel)

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