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Here is the introduction of screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, brother of high-octane director Joe Carnahan. With this being his first film, it appears as though he has already reached A-list status. I mean his next three scripts will be brought to the screen by Oscar winner Robert Redford, Oscar winner Kevin MacDonald, and his brother. After viewing this entry, I must say I am looking forward to the others, if not with a little trepidation, very much. The Kingdom starts as an intelligently told military crime drama, emotions run high and results are less than adequate for those involved. What occurs next, however, is where the movie’s true strength lies. The final thirty or so minutes of chase and rescue action is intense to say the least. How much of that was Carnahan or director Peter Berg (the cinematography is very reminiscent to his previous Friday Night Lights) I don’t know. Now what I am sure of is that Carnahan’s script is what brought the heavy-handed sentimentality and unnecessary duality of key moments. For that I shake my head and wonder how “Hollywood” his next stories will be. Whereas his brother would just blowtorch the entire Middle East, Matthew Michael shows some restraint and compassion that kind of subverts the stuff that really works here. Either way, with or without those moments, this film is a great time at the cinema.

In a nutshell, this is a story about vengeance. Sure the Americans want to go into the Middle East and fight back at the terrorists for 9-11, but here we get a little more personal. An FBI agent has been killed during a devastating bombing in Saudi Arabia, (the orchestration of which shows how scary these zealots are with their total lack of respect for human life), and his friends have decided to backdoor their way into the country to help find those responsible. Going against the Attorney General’s orders, a crew of four specialists arrives to investigate with the help of the Saudi Guard. They find a break in the case and end up with a little closure before making their way back home. Here is where the climax comes in as one of their ranks is kidnapped for beheading. While the setup to this point is good, it’s the high-adrenaline chase that keeps you glued to your seats. It is non-stop warfare at close range and as a whole delivers fully on the setup for revenge that has been laid throughout the beginning.

All the acting is superb, and with this cast it better be. Jamie Foxx finally delivers a good role post Oscar; Chris Cooper is underused, but effective as always; Jason Bateman is fantastic comic relief and maybe even funnier than normal because of his reigned in performance; and even Jennifer Garner managed to make me not think her acting style stuck out like a sore thumb—she did try a bit too hard, but as the film continued she got better. The real stars of the film, though, were the two Saudi soldiers assigned the task to baby-sit, yet soon found themselves brought to action in helping the Americans with the case. Ali Suliman is great as the disgraced sergeant being punished for only being a hero and then still rising to the occasion after the abuse, (his character was the first moment of excess on Carnahan’s part for sap with a scene of him caring for his handicapped father at home). The real acting powerhouse, though, is the role of Colonel Al Ghazi by Ashraf Barhom. He brings humanity to this man, showing what it was that made him want to be one of the good guys. His rapport with the Americans is fantastic and his subtlety and emotive power is used to great effect.

Carnahan gets a lot right here, especially with his ability to show the evil and good that both sides have to offer. There isn’t really an agenda here, the Middle East is only used as a setting. His exposition may run a tad long, but it is effective in allowing us to understand the people we are spending time with. Without the events that transpire in the first three quarters of the film, we might not be as engrossed in the phenomenal action to come at the end. Berg also does a wonderful job directing. He is masterful in showing the stunt scenes. All the explosions are close-up and real, the carnage is in your face, and he has his actors on the right page. Starting the movie with a timeline of how our nations have arrived at the crossroads we begin the film at is another nice decision and executed to perfection. He should have thrown himself in the film as reward with some face time…oh wait, he did. I’m a Peter Berg fan, though, so he can do little wrong to me—until I see whether the Rundown keeps appearances up.

The last thing I have to mention is the friendship connection system that seems to be running rampant in the film industry. Hey, all the power to them. If you’re buddies with people that have pull, by all means use it to get quality film out to an eager audience looking for a departure from the drivel that is usually churned out. Here are just a few: Berg directed Jeremy Piven in Very Bad Things and acted in both Collateral and Smokin’ Aces, the first of which starred Foxx and was directed by Michael Mann who produces this, and the second written and directed by Joe Carnahan, brother of this film’s screenwriter. Then, you have Berg’s Friday Night Lights connections with Tim McGraw’s cameo and the spin-off show’s Kyle Chandler in a small role. I’m sure there are more, but that’s what I noticed first off. I must say, the results of having people work together that enjoy each other pays off more effectively in drama then when done with Will Ferrell comedies.

The Kingdom 8/10

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[1] Jamie Foxx star as Ronald Fluery in Universal Pictures’ The Kingdom – 2007
[2] Jennifer Garner in Universal Pictures’ The Kingdom – 2007

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I have been a David Cronenberg fan ever since my college portfolio review, where the professors, looking over a piece I did in high school, asked if I had ever seen Videodrome. At that point I had already seen eXistenZ, yet didn’t know it was from the same creative mind. Ever since, I have continued my quest to see everything he has done. I’m not quite there, but over the past few years, I have been allowed to see his work on the big screen. First was his taut psychological thriller Spider and second was the film that seems to have made him a bit of a household name of late, A History of Violence. The thing with Cronenberg, though, is that he is meticulous and uncompromising in his vision. Where seeing Spider was a delight at a Dipson Theatre, Violence was much less of a good experience. I need to revisit that film in the quiet and dark of my own living room because the audience members filling that AMC screening were out of their element. They laughed at the sex, cheered at the brutality, and talked throughout. Cronenberg needs to fully envelope your mind in order to be enjoyed and thankfully his new film Eastern Promises does not disappoint in those regards. Its subtlety and nuance showed me that he has hit a bit of a renaissance and is harkening back to the days of his masterpiece Dead Ringers. If this film says anything about his current work, I need to wipe the slate clean on Violence and see it again as soon as possible.

Filmed from a script by Steven Knight, whose last indie success was the gem Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises tells the story of a world containing a very real brutality only thinly veiled from view of its London streets. When a midwife of Russian descent comes across a young girl who dies during childbirth, she can’t know that her actions will embroil her right in the middle of a mob war. The girl had with her a diary, spilling all her secrets and connections to the most notorious crime family in the city. That family is in the midst of a feud, the sons fighting each other and letting blood run thick. All the midwife wants is to make sure the baby is cared for back home in Russia, however, the diary has been read by her and her uncle; she has gone too deep to just be left alone.

Unlike most films of this genre, we aren’t shown the black and white sides of good versus evil. In the middle of everything lies the Russian boss’s chauffeur Nikolai. He is quite the enigma—fierce, cold, and calculating when put to work, yet compassionate and caring towards our heroine. Is he just the driver? Is he looking to rise in the ranks of the vory v zakone? Or is there something else beneath the surface? The entire film hinges on the believability of this one man’s actions. Had the character been played by anyone other than Viggo Mortensen, I don’t know if it would have been as successful. Talk about an actor that lays it all on the line for his art; to have an American come in and play a flawless Russian accent, perfect sounding Russian, and partake in a fight scene at a steam bath, where most non-Europeans would be too prudish to even go nude, let alone orchestrate an action sequence, is unfathomable.

Cronenberg must be credited for finding a stellar cast throughout, not just with Mortensen. In an interview I read, he says he made sure to cast his characters with actors that were great linguists; the art of accents is like that of a musicians’ ear. If true, he has a Philharmonic Orchestra at play. Vincent Cassel, a Frenchman, is impeccable with his Russian, (even more impressive because I’ve never heard him speak in anything other than a French accent), and Armin Mueller-Stahl, German or Russian or both depending on what year the map was you had for his home country, is a powerhouse at the head of the Russian family. Mueller-Stahl’s ability to turn from kindness to violence is uncanny. He is so soft-spoken and genuine that he doesn’t need to raise his voice when the rage comes to the surface. That power and force driven out so quietly only makes it more vicious.

Let’s not forget about our midwife, played by the wonderful Naomi Watts. Truth be told, she doesn’t have to do too much rather than play opposite scary men, but she does it well. As the pawn between Mueller-Stahl and Mortensen, she shows a fearlessness that can be commended. Never backing down to the mob, even after she has been threatened, shows a side to her that one wouldn’t expect. Maybe she takes too much stock in the kindness shown by Viggo’s driver, but either way, her character is written in a believable way and central to the activities at hand.

I must warn prospective viewers that this is not a blockbuster Hollywood film. You may hear about the brutality and blood, the extended fight sequence at the bath, (whose final long take of Mortensen crawling along the floor leads to a bold finale to the fight), and the crime underbelly at play, however, it is still a Cronenberg movie through and through. The pacing is very deliberate, the story’s intelligence allowed to slowly ferment and be released at the perfect moment. It may cause discomfort from the graphicness, as well as some of the bigotry on display in certain scenes, and may bore some with its sluggish progression, but what it won’t do is disappoint those coming in wanting cinematic genius. Maybe I’m biased being the fan I am of this Canadian auteur, yet I can’t help shed the worry that Eastern Promises won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival because of hometown nepotism. Having finally seen it, I think it captured the prize on its own merits.

Eastern Promises 9/10

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[1] Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts star in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, an Odeon Films release.
[2] Viggo Mortensen (left) and Naomi Watts (right) star in David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES, a Focus Features release. Photo: Peter Mountain

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Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a wonderful little film. It is in effect a series of shorts strung together and connected by the two leads, Chaplin’s tramp and Paulette Goddard’s gamin. The tale is about how the machine age has taken over industry, throwing men on the streets with no jobs or money to keep their families afloat. In a brilliant stroke of ingenuity, Chaplin decides to scrap the idea of making this a “talkie” and allows only machines to have a voice. For instance, if the boss needs to bark orders, he does so through a tv screen and if Mr. Billows needs to explain how his feeding machine works, he plays a record containing his full speech. The sound effects are great and the visuals stunning, especially while at the factory. What its essentially a silent film at its core, Modern Times is so much more. A commentary on technology and the dream of making a home for the ones you love, it is also a very sharp comedy that will have you laughing throughout with its physical gags.

During the course of his travels, Chaplin’s tramp gets mixed up in some impressive set-piece jokes. From the assembly line shenanigans, to the giant gear trappings, to the feeding machine, inadvertently leading a Communist march, a couple stints in jail, a department store disaster, a dilapidated house, and the struggles of waiting tables, he always finds a way to get out of trouble. With all these things happening, the film can appear a tad disjointed, but as his character continues to evolve and the title-cards give us elapsed time, it still holds together as a complete story. A king of physical laughs, Chaplin never holds back either. His nervous breakdown at the plant shows his dedication to the comedy by being unable to shake the arm motion of his job even when he is outdoors and, of course, the rollerskating stunt later on is impressive. I’d be interested to see how that was shot, either composed post-filming to add the drop, or if he really was that close to the edge.

You can’t deny the man’s gift as an artist. How each vignette plays out is inventive and humorous on its journey. Even the moments with the beautiful Goddard are funny in their own right. Her manic facial expressions and piratelike mannerisms while stealing bananas on the docks during her introduction bring some good laughs. Her character is used pretty much as a straightman to Chaplin’s lunatic, but she plays the part well. The dream sequence of the two living in a nice house with fruit hanging at every window is priceless and the final scene at the restaurant is a riot. With her trying to help him out in getting a steady job and him mucking it all up to end up needing to sing in gibberish, it is the best part of the movie.

While I feel people of all ages can appreciate the film on its own merits—the comedy is broad and kids will enjoy the stunts and bodily harm stuff—it does contain some adult situations. Besides the Communist march mentioned previously, there is a short scene with Chaplin drunk along with a more lengthy part with him after imbibing some “nose powder.” It is never actually labeled as being drugs and the scene could be effective still without knowing what the powder is, so one should not use it as the sole reason to not show it to children. Modern Times is a classic on many levels and has proven so by standing the test of time for seventy years thus far.

Modern Times 8/10

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**Contains Spoilers**

Paul WS Anderson has given us the newest trilogy of diminishing returns. I have never played the video game before and therefore went into the 2002 original Resident Evil containing little knowledge of the mythology. With that novice mentality, I found myself really enjoying the film. It gave me the background needed, the action and suspense expected, and a cliffhanger leaving me anticipating more. That continuation came but two years later with the subtitle Apocalypse. Here was a film that showed how the series’ origin story was a huge part to the main plot of the first. This entry featured a bare-bones story, namely the extraction of a scientist’s child from the infected Raccoon City, yet that was okay. The action was amped up, the characters more accessible, the acting vastly superior, and the ingenuity evolved. While lacking in plot, it excelled in action and effects, making it an equal, in my mind, to its predecessor. Its final twenty minutes was even devoted entirely to setting up the third piece to the puzzle. Here, though, is where the train derails hard. Extinction had a fantastic setup, yet instead of continuing right where we left off, we meet a caravan of survivors seeking gas and motoring cross-country. Nothing is progressed story-wise that we already did not know. Where the sparse plot didn’t matter in the second, it stuck out like a sore thumb with the latest installment.

At the center of everything lies Milla Jovovich. This is the role she will be known for. Sure, The Fifth Element began her career in action movies, but the Resident Evil trilogy is what made her a household name. Heck, the only other film she has really starred in since was Ultraviolent, pretty much using her in the exact same role as Alice here. You need to give her credit for the stunts as well as the ability to make herself better at her craft as the years went on. Starting as a mute in Dazed and Confused, she could barely speak the language. With Resident Evil, Jovovich found herself a lot more adept and believable as an English speaking character. Also, it showed that she could go through a range of emotions well enough to carry a film. From being an amnesiac to eventually a killing machine with telekinetic abilities, her evolution in the series definitely moved parallel with her skill set. She will never do Shakespeare, but for the roles that she has been choosing, I can’t think right now of someone I’d rather see cast.

It is her total blank slate in the first film, which makes it so endearing. We learn what the Umbrella Corporation is all about as she slowly remembers her role with them. It was a successful zombie movie, utilizing the jump scares and the hyperkinetic pace needed to keep you on the edge of your seat. All the characters were enjoyable to spend time with, we got zombified dogs, and a story that kept a bit of intrigue as to what everyone’s motives were, while also being intelligent enough to keep my full, undivided attention throughout. The demise of all the people involved was interesting and to have a film end badly for all was a nice breath of fresh air. Alice does wakes up at the end, alone in a ravaged city, but she is definitely not in a position to rest up or smile at her good fortune.

The transition into the second film is then seamless. We find that she didn’t just wake up, but in fact is an experiment let loose on a city that cannot be saved. Our two survivors from the original are now pitted against each other to see which is the better soldier, and therefore the more effective military weapon. This fight is the entire story, though, as far as the main mythology goes. Otherwise, we have Alice and her new band of warriors on the lookout for the virus’ creator’s daughter. In effect, then, the whole story could have been told in about twenty minutes—they go in and get the child, Alice and Nemesis fight, boom, the film is over. However, the tale is padded with huge action sequences and gory zombie carnage. With the addition of Mike Epps to the cast, we are also treated with some nice comic relief, missing somewhat from the first besides Michelle Rodriguez’s sarcastic quips. I never minded the simplicity of it all because it never tried to be more than what it was. I stuck with it until the conclusion and found myself even more excited for the third part. The setup had so much potential. Alice was fully formed, all her memory intact, and a new ability in telekinesis. With Nemesis gone and the zombies no match for her, we could finally get to see the showdown between her and the Corporation itself.

And with that, we are treated to Extinction. It starts off pretty good with a cloned Alice being put through tests in a mock-up version of the mansion from the first film. It gets intriguing to hear what the scientists have been up to and to learn that Alice is outside trying to find survivors and keep herself off the grid. Then we get the first sign of trouble, an action scene that has nothing to do with the plot. Let’s kill some hicks in the desert. If that wasn’t enough, we also get a twenty-minute fight between our survivors and crows—yes those pesky black birds, newly infected. Sure the payoff is great, but really we are now halfway through the film and all that has happened is Alice found her old friends. We already knew she had powers and that her blood was special and could mean everything to the project. At the end of the film, that is the exact same knowledge we are left with. Besides many deaths and what could be the beginnings of a complete trainwreck of a sequel, starring no one else but Jovovich, (you’ll understand when you see it), we learn absolutely nothing as far as mythology goes. I felt cheated and let down greatly because this film could have done so much more. Besides Oded Fehr reprising his role from the previous film, nothing is redeeming at all. Alice kicks some butt, sure, but the emotional weight the filmmakers want from the civilians and children being protected never comes to fruition.

So, in conclusion, the Resident Evil trilogy starts strong and ends with a disappointing whimper. The first had everything you could have wanted in a sci-fi/zombie/action flick. Scares, plot twists, and loads of violence and gore rounded out the successful entry. In came the second, lacking substance, but making up for it with flare. More characters, which never hurt the proceedings, more blood, more action, and more monsters can only mean non-stop enjoyment. And if the film doesn’t deserve an extra point or two for Sienna Guillory’s Jill Valentine, then you must have watched a different film from me. Next came the unfortunate failure of a third. What is less even than a bridge to the inevitable fourth, (will the box-office be enough to warrant it?), this last entry is a wasted opportunity to add to a nice little franchise. Hopefully a fourth film could redeem the series, but with its horrid setup, I highly doubt it. The only way I’d probably even check out a new attempt would be if Valentine comes back into the fold to help out. If anything, either way, so little happened that you could probably just skip over the third entry anyways, and never have to sit through it again.

Resident Evil 7/10
Resident Evil: Apocalypse 7/10
Resident Evil: Extinction 3/10

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[1] Milla Jovovich as Alice in Screen Gems’ Resident Evil – 2002
[2] Sienna Guillory plays Jill Valentine in Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, also starring Milla Jovovich and Oded Fehr – 2003
[3] Oded Fehr (left) and Milla Jovovich star in Screen Gems’ action/horror film RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION. Photo by: Rolf Konow

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What do you get when you combine two masters at their craft like Franz Kafka and Orson Welles? Why, The Trial is your answer, a heady, surrealistic commentary on society and justice. Much like the novel Atlas Shrugged, laws here are made not to be followed, but to be broken. Society is constructed on the spine of guilt. One doesn’t need to be aware of what they have or haven’t done; to just be accused is all that is needed to break him. Our protagonist, Joseph K., has been awoken in his bed by the police and placed under arrest for a crime they will not allow him to be privy to. Instead, the characters run around in circles, showing us literal interpretations to everything that is uttered aloud. Much like a dark comedy—yes there are laughs in this one—words are taken at face value without any room for error. While causing humor with the viewers, it creates a feeling of helplessness for our hero. Joseph is led around and around through the corridors of the law system and his own head. Is he sane? Is what is happening real? He is running for answers, but at every turn only more questions are discovered.

This film would be perfect for a graduate level literature course. I am not trying to compose a dissertation here, so I will not attempt to decipher what goes on. There is so much subtlety and nuance at play here that it would take days to wrap one’s head around what they believe has occurred. Just off the top of my head I can think of two ways to take the movie. One goes along the lines of what I discussed previously, a society run on guilt where only the idea of an accusation can cause doubt in one’s own mind. Joseph knows he did nothing wrong, but as the story continues he slowly starts to think that maybe he is at fault, maybe the whole world is guilty. Living so long in a world where only dead ends await you and those supposedly helping are merely prolonging the inevitable can tear any man apart. The tunnels of sanity are never ending and destruction is the only release, whether self-inflicted or enforced. Sometimes acceptance is needed to arrive at an end. To be in the enemies pocket may be better than free and unprotected.

My other interpretation of the movie lies more on the David Lynch plane of surrealism. There are numerous allusions sprinkled throughout about pedophilia. From Joseph’s boss thinking he is having an affair with his 16 year old “cousin,” to his crush on an older women while trying his hardest to avoid the advances of younger girls, to the blatant use with the court painter, (his entire diatribe is laced with double meaning from the girls’ glee at wanting to enter his room to his threats of using his ice pick), it is very prevalent. In this way, one could almost say that Joseph is guilty of this atrocity much like the murder by Bill Pullman’s character in Lynch’s Lost Highway. He is so disgusted and unwilling to accept his transgression that he creates a dreamlike trial for his soul. The film, therefore, could be all inside his head, a manifestation of his own guilt and an attempt at seeking judgment for himself.

No matter what the real meaning of the film is, one cannot deny the beauty in the orchestration of all that goes on. Welles was a genius of innovation to the media of film. His cinematic intuition is unmatched as he creates gorgeous moments of stunning visuals. Just the amount of long takes has to reach into double-digits. The opening scene, following Joseph as he awakens and attempts to leave through the numerous doors of his rooms ushers us into the technical wonders we are about to see. If Welles can make a box of a room into a setpiece full of intrigue, just imagine the beauty on display when we get outside the apartment walls. Joseph’s office full of machine-like workers can’t be looked at without thinking how Terry Gilliam appropriated it for his own opus Brazil, and the transitions from scene to scene of him running through different sets as though they are all connected can be seen everywhere in film today. Welles was never afraid to take a chance and for a film as deep and intricate as this one, there was no way he would hold back here. I loved the part when Joseph runs from the painter’s quarters through the narrow wood-slatted hallway, stripes of light shining on him as he advances towards the camera.

All the acting helps greatly to submerse the audience into the story as well. What could be completely inaccessible, and a cause of frustration and anger from viewers, ends up being acceptable because of our lead being as confused as we are. Anthony Perkins is phenomenal as Joseph. Never-ceasing in his commitment to prove his innocence, he stands up to all outsiders, fearlessly and with a mind ready to intellectually take on all that comes his way. His nervousness and guilt-complex attitude is perfect for the role. Right from the get-go he begins to stutter and partake in Freudian slips. The onslaught of accusations and doubletalk of guilt at such rapid pace metamorphoses him into a broken man unsure of his own memory. Everyone else does a great job too; especially the cops that first come into connect with Perkins and are later punished because of his “formal complaint” towards them. Also, if writing and directing weren’t enough, Welles is a force onscreen as well. His deliberate, deep baritone and gigantic presence, (it seems that when he stands, the camera is always low-angled to make him tower over everyone), make him a force to respect. This alone makes Joseph’s showing of strength against him that much more powerful and, at the same time, futile when held against the grand scheme of things.

The Trial 9/10

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Talk about action packed. Straight from the get go, Shoot ‘Em Up puts the pedal to the floor and never lets up. The opening sequence is quite the setpiece for ushering the audience directly into the film, enhanced beautifully by Wolfmother’s “Joker and the Thief”. Our hero Smith is sitting on a park bench, eating a carrot, when he sees a pregnant woman being chased down the street by a murderous gentleman. Smith begrudgingly follows to be of help and unwittingly becomes involved in a government conspiracy laced with hitmen ready to kill anything put in their eyesight. Fortunately for him, Smith is quite the crackshot himself, with brains and swagger to boot. I must say I loved the nonstop action and generally enjoyed the quips thrown by Clive Owen, as our lead, with acerbic wit. In most cases, my enjoyment level would supercede any lack of intelligent story or impossible moments that defy logic, but here, there are a lot of those bad instances to need to forgive. For every glorious fight sequence with smart dialogue comes a blatantly fake procession with cringingly horrid jokes that don’t even get off the ground let alone fall flat.

I was with the film for a long while, loving the carrots, the cat and mouse rapport between Owen and Paul Giamatti’s villain, and the cynical tidbits on life and the society that lives it. Unfortunately, while the action never let up, the freshness and originality did. Killing a man by stabbing him with a home grown carrot is funny the first time, but by the third you start to think if writer Michael Davis thought the idea so funny he cracked himself up by using it over and over again. Then comes Giamatti, whom I hold in high regard, with a performance that is so one-note you have to imagine anyone could have done the role justice. Relegated to one-liners expressing the shock of getting beat again, along with way too many Bugs Bunny references, (I did like the ongoing phone tag with his wife), he is wasted about eighty percent of the time. Now if this critique were to continue in list form, I would be saying how the “you know what I hate” soliloquies finally hit the wall and faltered. However, that is the one thing I never grew tired of. Maybe it was because I thought everything he said was spot-on, but I could have watched him getting back at lazy, wealthy folk for the entire duration.

It’s a shame because I think Davis showed some real nice flare for action. Maybe if he could get a script with a bit more meat to it, he could have a real winner on his hands. As of now, this film shows he can do stunts, but not all the other “little things” that are needed for a film to be a success. One of those things is getting a performance from his actors. It feels more like he let all those involved run free while focusing on the sets. Giamatti just has fun and hams it up as much as he can, the never ceasing onslaught of expendable bad guys are either odd looking toughs falling into every cliché imaginable or secret service men doing their best Agent Smith imitation, and Monica Bellucci shows that being gorgeous can’t do it all. Bellucci is a fantastic actress, however, she is used here with a slow, methodical speech pattern. It ends up making the accent even more apparent while also causing her to be stiff and calculating as though following a metered pattern, needing every word to be articulated and on time.

Only Clive Owen truly succeeds as a performer. The guy is good and shows it here as he vaults a one-dimensional character into something interesting to watch. We know nothing about Mr. Smith and never actually learn anything either. Even so, Owen keeps enough bottled inside to show that there is a reason for what he is doing, excelling at the sarcasm and attitude I loved about Smith. What I anticipated as a role to help express what he could have done as Bond ended up being something completely different. We get the cool calm of 007 mixed with the hyper-kinetic frenzy of The Transporter. It is an interesting mix, but orchestrated to perfection by Owen.

Again, this is not a movie that one goes to for intelligent discourse. All those boring parts full of exposition and dialogue bridging the gaps in most action movies, helping to disguise them as heady cinema, are stripped completely away. We go from one explosion to another—gunfights at every turn—with our only plot driven language spit out between gunshots. Much can be appreciated here and hopefully this will serve as a stepping-stone for better work from its director, but on the whole, there is just too much fluff. Fighting while a naked woman is still coiled around you or while holding a baby goes just a bit too far from reality for my tastes. I couldn’t help but find myself rolling my eyes at how everything gets amped up by becoming even more unbelievable. When we are treated to a way too long fight while plummeting down from an airplane, I finally shut off my brain and decided to just see how it all was going to ultimately end, no longer expecting the story to redeem itself.

Shoot ‘Em Up 5/10

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[1] Clive Owen stars as “Mr. Smith” in New Line Cinema’s action thriller SHOOT ‘EM UP. Photo Credit: James Dittiger/New Line Cinema
[2] Paul Giamatti stars as “Mr. Hertz” in New Line Cinema’s upcoming release, SHOOT ‘EM UP. Photo Credit: ©2007 James Dittiger/New Line Cinema

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Our final foray with the 2007 Toronto Film Festival screenings was Brian De Palma’s Redacted, a film about what is going on in Iraq that the government doesn’t want the public to know. All those black scribbles on documents and censored video coverage are examples of redaction and this movie aims to show the world the ugly truth, unfiltered. As the director said after the showing, the movie is “fictionalized for lawyer purposes,” but actually based on footage and accounts that he found on the internet. A rape/murder at the hands of two soldiers occurred in Samarra, causing a backlash from Americans being posted widespread online. De Palma says that he read the stories and responses, thinking back to his film Casualties of War and how it was happening all over again. With all the legal tape that would have been involved had he decided to just make a documentary, (the soldiers accused are at trial now), he chose to recreate the events and mask reality with fiction. The end result is a powerful and brutal document, (definitely not for the faint of heart), about the atrocities of war and some of the bad seeds going off course—power-hungry with ego, restlessness, and a feeling that death may be coming to them at any moment. There is already controversy surrounding the film after being screened just two weeks ago in Venice and now here in Canada. It has found distribution in the US and will only spark more backlash and support once seen by the world at large. I will say this: it is a film that should be watched for the ingenuity of the digital film media and the power it exudes. However, I do not agree with the anti-war sentiment it tries to push, nor do I think the film is necessarily something that needs to be seen. Everyone knows the horrible things that go on over there, whether through the news, documentaries, or knowledge from relatives that know firsthand. Like De Palma says, all this can be found for yourself online, and as a result, the film will not change anyone’s mind because it only puts a visual with what we already know, those that have made viewpoints on the subject won’t be swayed. I do appreciate the fact that De Palma wants to try and start a dialogue about the war and make aware what is happening, though, so people know, as he did during Vietnam, and, if anything, Redacted will ignite that discussion.

Telling a faux-documentary is something that has been done many times in the past. Do not let this impact your desire to see another example, as De Palma has taken it upon himself to almost take the “faux” completely out. We are told the story by multiple cameras set-up at fixed points. One of the soldiers is a film student hopeful that brings his camera along with him everywhere, getting footage for the film that will grant him admission. Much of the movie is seen through this viewpoint, but while it is at the forefront, it can’t show every side. Along with it, we have a film crew from France and their reporting named “Barrage,” we have the security camera located where the troops have smoke breaks, and also the world wide web, including YouTube-like movies, Al-Jazeera-like footage, and even an iChat conversation between one soldier and his father. All the media bases are covered and De Palma takes great care in making them as realistic as possible. The events captured are things that you would never be able to see in America through legal channels. The death videos, by explosion or beheading, would not be shown on US television, but they are easily accessible by the internet and foreign means. This is the crux of what the film sets out to show, how, as De Palma retorts, “the forth estate has been completely co-opted by the administration.” Why must we search out the truth when the media could give it to us first?

This underlying theme is helped expressed so effectively because of the wonderful acting at hand. Every scene was mapped out before, but since they were filmed in continuous digital camera shots, almost all sequences were ad-libbed for realism. Each actor went through a two-week boot camp and was able to interview army soldiers in preparation for the role, but in the end, they created who their role would be and ran with it. The four actors that attended the screening seemed very proud of the film and the message that they are expressing with it. The shoot was hard and fast and one must give them a lot of credit for creating such a realistic end result. Between main filming and the second unit footage used for the “Barrage” moments, everything was put to camera in 18 days. Special mention should be made for Patrick Carroll, Rob Devaney, and Kel O’Neill, (who showed his great sense of humor during the Q&A), for really shining above all else.

When all is said and done, though, Redacted is a film that means well, but in my opinion will fall on deaf ears. Nothing is shown that is not already known or seen with a little light web surfing. With that said, it has the potential to blow-up in controversy. Many will see the anti-war bent as a detriment to morale, showing just a few bad eggs that end up standing in for the entire army. In this regard, I feel De Palma is doing exactly what the media is doing, showing all the bad things with little redemptive quality to show that the army is not all evil. These boys are protecting our safety over there and the question should be about whether we still need to do tours in Iraq, not whether atrocities go on there unpunished. We need to address training and superiority accountability because ending the war and bringing the boys back home doesn’t solve the problem. If the horrors of Vietnam have found themselves back today, what will stop it from happening again next time?

Redacted 8/10

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[1] Rob Devaney and Patrick Carroll in REDACTED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Mike Figueroa in REDACTED, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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I went into the Toronto Film Fest screening of Woody Allen’s latest movie Cassandra’s Dream completely void of knowing anything about it. With no other preconception besides the fact that I really enjoyed Match Point, I sat down to see what was in store this time around. Would it be a comedy or a drama? Since his last entry, Scoop, was a comic one, which I have not yet seen, I was ready to be enthralled with a mystery of dramatic proportions. What a surprise, though, when around a quarter of the way through, this one turned from serious to amusing. I need to believe that the laughs are intentional because of the way in which the performers start to ham it up for the camera. No way would Woody allow that to happen if he didn’t really want it to. Upon exiting the cinema—the glorious Elgin Theatre that reminded me a lot of Buffalo’s own Shea’s—many audience members seemed to be buzzing about whether they were laughing at good comedy or piss-poor, over-the-top theatrics. I never second-guessed myself that the laughs were genuine and by doing so, I found that I loved this film.

Some of you may be aware that Allen had cast and started preproduction on a film directly before beginning Cassandra’s Dream. For some reason the production fell through and was ultimately scrapped. No one knows if it was somehow reworked into the movie we see now, but I would guess that it was not. My first impression, once we discover the true impetus of the movie, was that this is Match Point with comedy. The plots of both follow a very similar path and the murder and guilt accompanied with it are one and the same. In the end, the only real difference between the two, besides the superficial supporting characters that are switched around, is the way in which both conclude. Whereas Match Point stays calm and methodical, Cassandra becomes very much a comedy of errors. It will really depend on your personal taste for which you feel succeeds more. Also, if you liked the first, you should like this new spin, but, if you disliked the first, you may find yourself enjoying this one because it seems to rectify a lot of what people criticized Match Point for.

Our entry point into the tale is with two brothers played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell. The two come from a modest family, whose father is a restaurant owner attempting to get McGregor’s character to take over the business for him, while Farrell works at a garage fixing cars when not betting at the neighborhood track. Allen does a wonderful thing with these characters as he casts both against type. McGregor is usually the heart on his sleeve type and sympathetic in nature while Farrell generally plays the ladies-man lothario who is not afraid of a little scrap. Both are completely flipped on their heads here with Ewan getting ample opportunity to be cool under pressure, seeing the big picture at all times and Colin showing some real nice range as the depressed and conflicted one, unable to wrestle with his conscience. Much like Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger cast as opposites, I believe this change of pace helps build up the atmosphere needed for the laughs to work. Farrell’s facial expressions are priceless and McGregor’s attempts to stay afloat, while the world falls apart around him, is top-notch.

The story itself is straightforward, much like Match Point. Both brothers find themselves in trouble financially, one for gambling debts and the other for a woman (the beautiful Hayley Atwell). Only their rich uncle will be able to save them both, however, the time has finally come where his charity will need to be exchanged for something he desperately needs. It is the proposition from Uncle Howard, a wonderful acting job by Tom Wilkinson, which really sets into motion the underlying plot point that props up the rest of the film. What he asks is impossible, yet after some persuading and bouts with ego, both brothers take the plunge and find they can’t deal with the pressure it causes.

Even though I found a few of Woody’s metaphors a bit too heavy-handed—“what’s your favorite Greek tragedy?” and the interpretations of dreams occurring left and right—I found the acting and plot progression to be spot-on. Both leads carry the film on their backs and without those performances would have left the whole thing behind to drown. While it could seem a tad lazy that Allen would pretty much rehash what he did two years ago, it is different enough to succeed on its own. Cassandra’s Dream could be looked on as a very capable companion piece to Match Point, (I may even go so far as saying I liked it better), but it also shows that a little comedy can go a long way. Hopefully Woody will delve more into this mixture of theatre’s two faces and show how working together can create some wonderful art as well.

Cassandra’s Dream 9/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed film The Squid and the Whale falls way short of living up to the expectations laid before it. There were numerous moments in Margot at the Wedding’s predecessor that skirted the line of acceptance, but they never crossed it. With this entry, however, Baumbach crosses the line early and soon finds that he can’t find his way back. No character here is really likeable at all. Everyone is a bit off mentally and unfortunately acknowledge that fact during the course of the days before Margot’s sister Pauline weds. With examples of family tension, bad parenting, and venting problems to children as if they understand what is happening, I really don’t know what Baumbach was trying to do. By the end of the movie, you really have to wonder why we should care about anyone and whether there was any reason as to why the director thought we would.

At many times it feels as though something is missing and that we are only seeing a slice of life in their dysfunctional family—we don’t know what caused the strife or what is happening as a result. The audience is privy only to the aftermath of many problematic relationships and really can never find a character to side with and enter the film in order to root for them to set things right. At too many instances we find that the puzzle may finally be solved and all our questions may be answered. One such time is at the arrival of Margot’s husband after a lengthy and mysterious build-up. All he does (and thankfully John Turturro throws out the cheese from Transformers and once again shows off his talents), though, is make us hate our principal characters even more. The guy is so nice and understanding that it boggles the mind why Margot can be having such problems in life. I really think she has a chemical imbalance, but being that Baumbach never sheds any light here, besides an off-handed comment from Pauline to her nephew, all you can do is put your hands in the air and feel frustrated for having spent time with people that end up in the exact same spot they were in at the start.

It is not the acting that fails, though; they don’t do the characters injustice. In fact, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pauline) and Jack Black (her fiancé) are quite good, with Nicole Kidman (Margot) also doing a much better job than the horrid turn in Invasion, although still not in top form. The fault seems to lie with Baumbach and the way he brought them to life. I don’t know what he had in mind, but before the premiere screening, he thanked his producers for allowing him free reign to make the movie that he wanted to make. I am glad to have had the opportunity to hear those words straight from his mouth: everything onscreen is exactly as he wanted it to be. His script, then, was written this vague for a reason. Maybe the point is to see how ego and fame can affect a family that sets out to find love. Some of this would make sense because of learning that Margot and Pauline were abused as children, going through multiple relationships for pure physical pleasure before settling on the men in their lives at the moment, men finally showing them compassion. However, even that bit of background history is tossed out the window when Margot makes a flippant remark on how their sister Betty was raped. Both sisters follow that statement with uproarious laughter. Talk about a shocker; either the event is tread way too lightly upon or perhaps that atrocity was a piece that was written in one of Margot’s novels. Leigh’s character does at one point yell that her sister will never be able to ruin another of her marriages by transposing events of her life into fiction. Thinking this way, it is tough to be able to tell what, if anything, is truly real in the film. Anything and everything spoken between the sisters could be a mixture of life and literature.

It is weird, though, as I can’t say I hated the movie completely. There were numerous funny moments and sometimes touching glimpses into the love they all feel they need the other to give them. Black shows some great range in a role of a man that is kind and unable to cause violence to another human being, but at the same time is a short fuse verbally and emotionally crippled, needing love from whomever is willing to give it. When rumors of his infidelity are finally answered, his sharp turns from sorrow, to strength, to fear, to self-loathing are a bit astonishing having known him pretty strictly as being a one-note performer. I also really liked a moment dealing with Ciarán Hinds’ character. He interviews his colleague and mistress Margot at a book signing and ultimately sticks a proverbial knife into her back. The moment is genuine and could have gotten some much needed conflict involved in the story, but actually is so random and unprovoked one must question why it happens at all. Again this is a moment where you have to think if the motivation for his betrayal has happened elsewhere and previous to our entry point into the antics of this dysfunctional clan. Unfortunately, the film Baumbach wanted is too hard to penetrate and almost impossible to make one want to try. Getting to know these people can only make your outlook on life suffer, because they have no regard for anyone other than themselves.

Margot at the Wedding 5/10

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[1] Nicole Kidman (MARGOT) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pauline) star in Noah Baumbach’s MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. Photo by: Ken Regan
[2] Nicole Kidman stars as MARGOT in Noah Baumbach’s MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. Photo by: Ken Regan

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Sean Penn’s new movie Into the Wild arrives on the wave of a well-regarded novel about a college graduate who decides that the anger and violence in civilized society is too much to handle and commences a journey through nature in order to truly live life as it was meant to be. This film is a wonderful glimpse into the life of a kid, wise beyond his years, and the bonds that he creates with people along the way. A victim of excess in wealth and a shortage of love, Christopher McCandless hid inside his mind behind knowledge and philosophy, building up his intellectual strength, as well as the physical, in order to complete his trek, ultimately leading him to Alaska. Penn never falls into the trap of showing too much heartbreak on the side of McCandless’s parents, because he doesn’t want the audience to second-guess the decision he made. There is no debate to be had here, our protagonist has no alternative but to get out and live off the land. Only being completely self-sufficient can he grasp a meaning for his life and one day perhaps go back with that knowledge fully learned.

Emile Hirsch is absolutely brilliant with his good-natured attitude and affable charm. His character believes that human contact is not necessary for happiness and never seeks out relationships. However, his character is so likeable that they find him and latch on, not to change his mind, but to experience his level of being and hopefully learn something from him and help enlarge his vocabulary on life. The people he meets help him to fully grasp the decision of life in the wild and be able to survive it. Never coming off condescendingly to those he crosses paths with, Hirsch always holds a smile on his face. One scene, where he meets up with a couple of people from Europe, proves how contagious a clear outlook on life without the troubles of societal restraints can be. These three kids have a blast, if only for a few minutes—with Hirsch being chased by the police for rafting with no license—and it makes one wonder if maybe we all should take a journey into nature and feel the freedom and full warmth of heart that a lack of stress to succeed in the business world can give.

All the supporting players are magnificent at helping show the side to McCandless that Penn needs on display to succeed. Hal Holbrook, Brian Dierker, and Catherine Keener are by far the best of these side characters with Vince Vaughn and Kristen Stewart adding some charm too. Dierker, Keener, and Stewart play hippie, flower-child type roles and allow Hirsch to show off how modest and unselfish he is. This is the family he deserved to have from birth and he is the son they wished their lives had earned them. At their best, all four together give some of the most emotionally charged moments in the film. Holbrook, on-the-other-hand, helps give insight into the philosophy that Hirsch needs to live with in order to survive the loneliness, looking him in the face, to come in Alaska. It is truly fascinating to see how every person adds something to his overall experience and to the tools he needs.

Hirsch deserves a lot of credit because he truly outshines the film itself with his dedication and sacrifice to the role. The length of time needed to allow him the ability to lose the weight necessary for a main plot point in the movie is crazy. If the time wasn’t that long and Hirsch did it all rapidly, I’m even more impressed. With all that, there are many instances free of dialogue that he needs to carry with body language and actions alone. True, much of this is enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack from Eddie Vedder, but evenso it is a remarkable performance. Kudos to Sean Penn for a gorgeous filming job also. He captures the countryside with grace, while infusing many moments of visual style by slow-motioning glimpses, knowing when to show the family left behind, utilizing informative and essential voice-over, and even breaking the fourth wall. When Hirsch first looks into the camera, at the audience, it does not seem unnatural in the slightest, but instead an amazing link for the viewers to take a look into his soul like those that crossed his path have. McCandless is so pure that it almost feels like glimpsing the calm protectiveness of God.

Into the Wild 9/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival


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