You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2007.

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I can’t stand American film distributors and how they handle foreign films. With their money-scheming minds, they give us movie trailers without any dialogue, trying their best to disguise the fact that the work is not in English. If they don’t let us hear a strange language or show a single subtitle, people may just think that it was a minimal piece meant to strike our senses. Unfortunately, for someone like me, I know before seeing the trailer that it is a foreign film—I’ve probably been following its development. With that said, I still like to be as fresh as possible when coming in, so I only try to allow myself plot knowledge from the trailers instead of a synopsis or spoiler. However, these misguided previews don’t give us any insight to the film itself. I can’t think of a more prevalent example then Ang Lee’s new piece Lust, Caution. I was anticipating a tale of romance and seduction between an older man and his mistress within Japanese occupied China. Wow, was that not even close. True those aspects are there, but the real story is so much more involved, stimulating, and unexpected.

After following his last Chinese language film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with two English language works, it is nice to see Lee go back to his native tongue. I enjoyed both Hulk and Brokeback Mountain for what they were, but neither touched his martial arts epic in terms of scope or success. When hearing about Lust, Caution, I was very much excited to see what he would do with it. Looking more like a Wong Kar Wai movie, (not sure I have the credibility to make that statement seeing as I’ve only seen the gorgeous In the Mood For Love), I was hoping to get a sense of the character pieces he had done early in his career that I have not yet been able to view.

If there is one thing that stays consistent through the works I have seen, it is his wonderful use of cinematography. With cameraman Rodrigo Prieto, (a man who has filmed works by favorites of mine Iñárritu and Cuarón), behind the lens, one could not expect less. After working with Lee on Brokeback Mountain, he once again shoots some stunning work. The framing is always perfect, many scenes use mirrors and glass to keep all the action onscreen simultaneously, and the sexual encounters are displayed with the right amount of care and brutality necessary to get the point across on what is happening. This is one sticking point that has been gaining a lot of press around the movie. Does it deserve the NC-17 rating here in the US? Maybe. Nothing is more graphic than say HBO’s new series “Tell Me You Love Me,” yet it is more integral to the story. Many of the instances are pretty much rape, and that is something one should know going into it, in case it will deter your wanting to view the movie. However, the overall impact of what happens would not be even close to what it is had those moments been excised or edited. The sex between our two leads is the bond that connects them beyond the jobs they are doing. That physicality is what makes the final third of the film as heartbreaking as it is.

As I said before, though, Lust, Caution is not about the love affair been characters played by the great Tony Leung and startling newcomer Wei Tang. What we really have set before us is a tale of revolution, espionage, and maturing within the confines of a world at war. Tang is just a kid who finds herself the new star actress at her school. The theatre troupe she works with decides that they should do what they can for the resistance, which they are unable to fight in. After its director, played nicely by Lee-Hom Wang, has a chance encounter with an old friend, the troupe gets to the cusp of a dangerous situation. They soon find themselves way over their heads, trying to orchestrate an assassination of a Chinese man working with the Japanese as a traitor to his country. When the event that shows the culmination of their age and inexperience plays out, it is both unexpected and unavoidable. Either way, though, they have embedded themselves into the guerilla war and eventually find that they had no chance to turn back. Meeting four years previous to the film’s conclusion at the back of their college theatre sealed their futures.

While at its core we are given a story very similar to last year’s foreign sensation of espionage, The Lives of Others, it is shown very differently. Lee allows the story breathing room to ferment and go its course. Each “spy” grows up so much during the four year span of the film. Between the main two, Tang and Wang, along with Leung’s traitorous, political general, the evolution of each is shown in its entirety. All three’s motivations are clearly laid out and during the almost three hour runtime, the audience cannot become lost because they are shown absolutely everything. So, rather than build extreme tension between two people, like in the German film, Lee allows for a slow construction of backstory and relationship with all involved. All our principals grow together or apart based on what they allow themselves to do for the “good of their nation.”

No matter how good the story itself, the film would be nothing without its magnificent acting. Wang is great, as is Joan Chen with whom it was a pleasure to see play a role in Chinese as I have only ever seen her in “Twin Peaks”. However, it is Tang and Leung that carry the movie. With so many moments of silent expression between them and some tough to stomach scenes in bed, these two amaze. The emotions are always prevalent and the decisions they make never stray from character. Yes, their relationship is unconventional, but the bond they forge cannot be taken lightly. While the middle portion might seem a bit long and monotonous to a point, the finale is a feat of genius. From Tang and Wang’s final look into each other’s eyes and Leung’s reaction to the clock’s strike of ten, all you can think is how Lee let this story be told as it should. Holding nothing back and being unafraid whether he threw convention out the window, there is no way a movie like this would ever have been made in Hollywood. So, I guess while I chided the industry for their almost suicidal handling of foreign films, I do need to give them some credit for still letting us Americans, who don’t mind reading subtitles, view them in their unedited glory. (Well at least some times, if this was a no name director and not Lee, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the producers changed the ending and shaved an hour off.)

Lust, Caution 8/10

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Tang Wei (right) and Tony Leung (left) star in Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION, a Focus Features release. Photo: Chan Kam Chuen

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is not my favorite Wes Anderson movie by any means. I had such high hopes for it after viewing his previous three films as a crescendo of precision and quality. Zissou ended up being more pretension and aimless drivel then something worth writing home about. Now, I didn’t hate the film, there is a lot to applaud him for, however, it slightly tarnished his do-no-wrong clout with me. In the years between then and now, though, we were given a highly entertaining American Express commercial and the short film Hotel Chevalier. The latter ends up becoming a prequel to The Darjeeling Limited, his fifth feature length work and film that was never really thought of until after that short was created. Anderson was to segue directly into The Fantastic Mr. Fox with Henry Selick. I’m not sure if doing an animated movie directly after what to me was his first failure would have been a smart move. Thankfully we are allowed to view Darjeeling, which while not quite back to form, is a fantastic first step in getting back to where he left off with The Royal Tenenbaums.

Many themes from his oeuvre are prevalent here as assumed. Our three lead brothers are very affluent and with that is the baggage of delicate psyches and daddy issues. Said father has died the year before and ever since an incident that stays fresh in their minds on the way to the funeral, namely their mother’s absence from it, seems to have fractured their relationship with each other. Having not been in contact for that year, older brother Francis, acting as a mother figure for the others, much to their dislike, has taken it upon himself to orchestrate a spiritual journey through India to heal their bond together as well as the personal troubles haunting them all. As much for a catharsis after his attempted suicide by motorcycle, Francis is unaware of his brother Peter’s impending fatherhood and fears of it as well as brother Jack’s need to be loved, even if that lover is the one that scorned him. Sharing a predilection for drugs to numb their suffering, as you can see stereotypical spoiled rich kids doing, they set off on their trek complete with trust issues and brotherly quarrels based upon the smallest infractions.

Where Darjeeling truly succeeds for me is the way it has pared down the tale to include just these three characters. As far as Anderson’s canon goes, his character base has increased exponentially with each inclusion. Here, though, while we do get a few periphery roles, (with effective cameos by Bill Murray, Amara Karan, a great turn from Waris Ahluwalia, director Barbet Schroeder, and of course Kumar Pallana—whose absence from Zissou could possibly be its kiss of death), this story only works as far as Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman as Francis, Peter, and Jack respectively take it. Unsurprisingly, these three are at the top of their game.

Wilson, bandaged for the duration is at his finest as an actor. He must show nuance here and a buried streak of depression with the need for love by his brothers. I guess I couldn’t go this entire review without mention of his recent real-life suicide attempt. While the comparison is an easy one, I believe it might also be true. No, he did not help write this one with friend Anderson, but either way, his mentality in life, I’m sure, helped develop the realistic portrayal of those same feelings on screen. Brody does well as the more macho of the threesome. Usually playing the nice guy hero in his work, it was nice to see him take a role that is a bit of a prick. He is the least of the group to open up and his standoffishness works well to build on his eventual evolution following the Deus ex Machina. With Schwartzman, we are given greatness as usual. I really don’t think the guy can do wrong. Maybe the most pathetic of our leads, he is also the most realistic. With both his parents now absent from his life, he is in dire need for someone to care for him. Whether it the beautiful stewardess on the train, or his undying bond with his ex-girlfriend, he cannot be alone.

The script is smart and witty throughout, something that was missing for large chunks of Zissou. Our leads are charismatic and a good trio working off each other successfully. Unfortunately, Anderson needs an event to happen for these men to finally see the light on how they’ve been wasting their life. This moment left me distracted and confused. Not confused by what happened, but by how I felt about it. While on the one hand that event was crucial for everything that happens after it, on the other it is so random and profound that it jarred me from the world that had encompassed me so fully up until that point. I just felt it was lazy writing, not to mention a total waste of Irfan Khan’s many talents. Thankfully the sequence is followed by a wonderful flashback to that day of their father’s funeral. This is a moment that is truly wonderful and helps explain everyone’s motivations and how their love for their missing father has led them down the path they find themselves at present.

Aesthetically, Anderson has gone above and beyond once again. Each frame is jam-packed with detail and faux reality. I mean, to have every paper product from Wilson’s character include his business’ logo and letterhead shows the amount of time and precision Anderson takes to make his films complete worlds. His train cars viewable from the outside are wonderful as well; much like Zissou’s halved ship, we are able to see inside them seamlessly while it moves along its track. In what is almost a dream sequence showing all the characters that have touch our leads’ lives to that point and where they are right that moment, it is a nice bookmark on that chapter in their progression. It is the final sequence of the brothers racing to make their train that becomes the perfect conclusion. Finally able to let go of their emotional baggage, we wonder if they will be able to make it. It leaves us with hope for the future and not a shred of indifference, for we took the journey with them and hope all will be ok.

The Darjeeling Limited 8/10

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[1] L-R: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Photo Credit: James Hamilton
[2] Angelica Houston in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Photo Credit: James Hamilton

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Here is the next chapter in the graphic novels cum film movement that has been taking over the industry. The ingredients seem pretty foolproof: a revisionist vampire tale screenwritten by the novel’s authors, a setting without the sun for thirty days, a hard-r rating, a good cast, and visionary music video director David Slade fresh off his debut feature Hard Candy. 30 Days of Night is a brutal look into a world where the monsters reign supreme with little in their way to slow them down. With stunning cinematography, a beautiful washed out/dark cool color palette, realistic gore with unflinching detail, and a dark empty void of happiness, this one looked like a winner all the way. That is, until the ending. It is a shame that a story as hardcore as this one would take the path it does at the conclusion. Something a bit more tongue-in-cheek or satirical could have easily gotten away with it, but this one deserved to be allowed to run its course of brutality without a convenient finish putting a bittersweet smile on our faces before the lights turned back on, releasing us from the hold of Alaska’s darkest moments.

I can’t say anything bad about the directing. Slade has shown again that style can add a lot to a visionary tale such as this. He is given more room to move as opposed to the two leads, one venue he had for the brilliant Hard Candy, but still closed in enough to be able to create an aesthetic that didn’t need to change. The entire film takes place in the town of Barrow, amongst the houses, stores, and streets with the everyone knows everyone cast of locals. The Stranger who treks into town cuts them off from civilization and keeps the director trapped inside as well to find inventive places to shoot. Complete with jerky, frame missing attack scenes, Slade does not disappoint when it comes to eye candy. Close-ups abound and his ability to keep the camera on the casualties while they are chalked up is a bold breath of fresh air. Very few moments are actual scary jolts. This film’s true fear creator is in the unabashed view of all the carnage at work.

Staying on course, visually speaking, you have never seen vampires depicted quite like this. Their faces are distorted and smooth without blemishes. I have not read the books, so I don’t know how much these creatures are manifestations of the artwork, but I couldn’t help see the similarities to the beasties in videos by music group Aphex Twin. While the beings I’m thinking of were in the promos by Chris Cunningham, Slade too directed some of the band’s work. Not only were the facial structures otherworldly—very fallen angel—but the blank stares and open mouths they possessed showed a detached side to them as they were only out for blood. This is a dying race not attempting to expand their legions, but instead to just survive. I loved the one bald creature with blood on its face throughout the film. He was so memorable because the blood almost created a five-o’clock shadow on his face.

Credit all involved, and the actor himself, for getting Danny Huston into this film. He is amazing as the lead vampire Marlow. I thought the foreign language was a stroke of genius, but it is his mannerisms that really allow the part to succeed. The mouth breathing is foreboding and creepy, dried blood keeps adding upon his face, and his eyes are made up of a continuous blank stare. Someone as accomplished as he is in supporting roles should be commended for taking a role such as this and performing it seriously. This is no Bela Lugosi, as one character says, this is a malicious being out for survival amongst a race that he knows is inferior to his own.

As for the other actors, it is a pretty good job across the board. Josh Hartnett is surprisingly competent. I attribute that to the fact that he is mostly shown with a stoic, contemplative face. If there is one thing he does well, that is it. It’s usually when he smiles and tries to be mister cool that he falters, but thankfully he never really gets that chance here. Ben Foster shows again that no one can do what he does…no one, and Melissa George shows she is an interesting actress whom I have not been able to see yet. Not quite sure if I liked her completely, but she didn’t do anything to make me think I shouldn’t have. Also, it’s a pleasure to see Mark Boone Junior take on a role that lasts. Too many only have like five minutes of screentime (Batman Begins) and he is better than that.

Again, though, the ending just left me cold. Sure what happens as a result stays true to the event, it is just the event itself that made me cringe. Harnett’s sheriff must make a decision before his whole town and all he cares about goes up in flames. Up until that point, the movie had been an edge of your seat thrill ride where it seemed that no one was too important to die. I was even starting to smile that I might be getting a fully tragic end devoid of survivors. Unfortunately, the sheriff makes a decision so out of left field that it elicited more chuckles than poignant tears as a more thought out sequence might have. It doesn’t totally derail an otherwise solid genre flick, but it does leave just the right amount of bile in your throat to sully what comes before it with a faint bad taste.

30 Days of Night 7/10

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[1] When the isolated town of Barrow, Alaska, is invaded by a group of bloodthirsty vampires, it’s up to Sherriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett, right), his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George, left), and an ever-shrinking group of survivors to do anything and everything they can to last until daylight in Columbia Pictures’ 30 Days of Night. Photo credit: Kirsty Griffin
[2] When the isolated town of Barrow, Alaska, is invaded by a group of bloodthirsty vampires – including their leader, Marlow (Danny Huston, pictured) – it’s up to an evershrinking group of survivors to do anything and everything they can to last until daylight in Columbia Pictures’ 30 Days of Night. Photo credit: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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Real life is not known for its happy endings. Author Dennis Lehane seems to understand this fact and is not afraid to tell his stories with that mentality. The last novel of his to be given the film treatment was Mystic River. A great movie from Clint Eastwood was the result, showing the deep bonds between family and friends in Boston amidst horrifying tragedy. While the story and acting were top-notch there, something about the recent adaptation of Gone Baby Gone takes it a step further. It is my guess that the impetus for this is adapter/director Ben Affleck. While I’m sure Lehane keeps his stories seeped in Boston lifeblood, the transition to screen can’t always be exact, it takes a filmmaker from there to get it correct. As a directorial debut, you can’t ask for more from Affleck. No matter what your feelings are about his acting skills (I’m a fan, mainly due to his comedic work) you cannot deny the talent behind the camera. He brings authenticity to the relationships onscreen as well as being unafraid to show Boston as it is. The film is as much about the search for a missing girl as it is a lesson on what family means to those living in the city.

I will say that I was a bit worried by the trailer for giving too much away. We have a private detective, hired by the family of a missing girl, to help with the street aspect of the police’s case. There seems to be a lot of tension and some twists involving the mother of said child that may lean towards her being a part of the orchestration of the crime. Thankfully this is not the whole film at all. The private detectives, played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, are two youngish people getting in a bit over their heads. The chief of police has himself been a victim as his only child was killed and he has vowed to not let others experience that pain under his watch. So, along with the two cops in charge of the case, Ed Harris and John Ashton, the four principals attempt to find the girl by using untapped channels through the underbelly of the city. This search for the girl, however, is only the tip of the iceberg at hand. Gone Baby Gone’s story is so much more than this one case as we are soon privy to a second abduction, a group of degenerate cokeheads, a creole drug lord, and connections from the past that we as an audience can’t even begin to see until everything is allowed to play out to its startling conclusion.

For being a character-based tale, Affleck has allowed the story to hold itself up as the enthralling thriller it is. While there is a more action-oriented scene in the middle, it is the suspense of the unknowing that keeps us enraptured in the proceedings. Casey Affleck is a courageous take-no-crap from anyone hero inside a somewhat diminutive frame as compared to some of the heavies he comes across. He is a man who shows what he is made of on many occasions, including at a bar early on questioning witnesses, talking to the drug lord Cheese, and springing to action when his friends attempt a siege alone on a house later in the film. He’s the Catholic Boston boy, raised on the streets along with those who took the other road to violence and crime. With a strict moral code, established in large part by his priest growing up, he is unable to accept the skewed mentality of those around him who allow themselves to do wrong as long as it gets a wrongdoer off the streets.

Ben’s use of the camera is great. He portrays Boston by the people that inhabit it. The little touches of montages showing real citizens on their bar stools and street corners help put everything in context. Then you have the grass roots word of mouth crusades going on to express how no matter what part of society you belong to, the community takes care of its own. From the bar regular that spills what he knows about the missing girl, (putting up flyers about her as she was their unofficial mascot being that the mother frequently brought her inside), to the other that yells at him to keep his mouth shut, (its one thing to lie to the cops, but another to tell the truth to someone you know—a reason Casey’s character is enlisted to help gather intelligence), to the police officer at a funeral for a fallen cop walking up and congratulating Casey for a job well done killing a known pedophile, these people respect the protection of their own no matter what ugliness was used to get it. This is an underlying theme in Mystic River too, but something about this cast and the lead and director being from the city itself that rings so much more true. Besides that authenticity, Affleck does a nice job at adding his own flair to the proceedings and a superb eye for composition of frame and use of close-ups during character interaction. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

One must commend him also for his ability to get phenomenal performances from his cast. Many actors say that actors turned director get the most from them, and it shows here. Between this and Jesse James, it will be a crime if Casey Affleck is not recognized for his superior work this year. I can’t think of anyone who has done a better job than him. The latent bad boy hiding behind his good exterior and moral disposition comes out to great effect, helping to show the interior conflict he battles through the story. Everyone else is fantastic too, but special mention needs to be made for some. Titus Welliver, (wonderful in “Deadwood”, it’s good to see him doing films), stands out as the uncle of the missing girl hiding a few secrets himself, and the consummate professional Ed Harris bringing his A-game. Harris is a complicated man here with many hidden motivations. His role is very integral to the film and the way he can turn on the tough guy persona when necessary and the compassionate friend doing what he can to help another assuage his guilt is unmatched. The girl’s mother, played by Amy Ryan, also sticks out for her genuine performance. You’d be hard-pressed to believe that she isn’t a drug addicted drunk in real life, turning on the tears when appropriate, only to shut the faucet when life goes back to normal.

While the journey is amazing, it is the ending that brings everything together. Our lead faces a dilemma that can cost him everything he holds dear. Does he make the right decision? That’s for you as the viewer to decide. The final frame is lingered on to allow us time to wonder what would have happened if he chose the other option, but one can’t live with regret, they must do what they must do. All those involved saw something in this story and they all honored it with their best, making this my new favorite of the year, by a long shot.

Gone Baby Gone 10/10

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[1] Casey Affleck as Patrick in GONE BABY GONE. Photo credit: Claire Folger / Courtesy of Miramax Films.
[2] John Aston as Poole, Amy Ryan as Helene and Ed Harris as Bressant in GONE BABY GONE. Photo credit: Claire Folger/Courtesy of Miramax Films.

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Quite the interesting film from the warped mind of Bobcat Goldthwait. Shakes the Clown is his debut as a writer/director and tells the story about an alcoholic clown who, while passed out drunk, is framed for the murder of his boss and mentor. From the catch phrase “Loved by children. Desired by woman. Adored by bartenders everywhere” I was expecting something a little more perverse and out there. Instead, we are given a pretty run of the mill, mediocre comedy where the bumbling hero and misfit friends must uncover the evil villain, who until then is seen as the good guy. The loved by children part is a nice touch because no matter how mean or abusive he is to the adults, he is a fantastic clown (what agility on this guy). As for the desired by woman, he has a one night stand and a girlfriend—he is just being tormented by the number of ladies all over him—as for the bartenders, he usually is outside while the friends stick to the bar. Shakes is just too good of a guy to really make the role believable as being a deadbeat.

The biggest surprise here is the amount of supporting players that have gone on to accomplish things in the industry. An almost unrecognizable Kathy Griffin, (pre-surgery indeed); the usual solid performance from character actor Blake Clark; newcomer Adam Sandler, a tad bit raw, delivering lines like he is at a stand-up event, the guy has come far; and Robin Williams, who steals his scene and is probably the funniest part of the entire film. Besides these, however, we get a lot of amateurish work. I don’t want to be mean, but I could not stand Julie Brown. She has the looks and the affectionate glances to be the by-her-man girlfriend, but her speech pattern is horrid. Not being able to pronounce the letter “r,” she sounds like me when I was 5 before taking speech therapy. How there is not a feature length gag reel is beyond me, because these guys could not have kept straight faces opposite her.

A couple more roles gave me mixed feelings. Tom Kenny, as the villainous Binky, has quite the extensive filmography…as a voiceover pro. I can see why he would be so successful, as he is very over the top here, great for cartoons, not so much when you have to see his broad facial expressions that go along with the words. He reminded me a bit of David Paymer, and I couldn’t stop thinking how much better he would have done at the job. Paymer just has the sad sack, stick a knife in your back role down pat. The other role is the cop with high blood pressure. His delivery was awkward and a bit forced. Funny as it was, especially opposite his amused by the littlest things partner, he did stick out.

I must give credit to Bobcat for attempting to do something new in the genre. Although it is an overused plot, he tries to spice things up by setting it in the world of clowns; they overrun the town. I kept waiting to see if a normal person would arrive to entertain them. Moments do work throughout, like the fights with mimes, the rodeo clown clique, and the bickering at the bar, but there is just too much stuff that fails; it’s so broad that it elicited more yawns than chuckles. I ended up having to play a game with myself to stay with it by finding all the hidden things I could. My favorites were the cop putting a gun two inches from a convict’s face in the background while Bobcat is released from jail and the production company responsible for the clown television show, (watch the credits on the tv for it).

Shakes the Clown 3/10

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Whereas Elizabeth told a tale of royalty and the politics underlying every action to gain power, Elizabeth: The Golden Age weaves the story of how that strength survives. Michael Hirst gets help this time from the capable William Nicholson to explain what happens once the queen has proven her worth. The country has accepted her, yet many Catholic dissenters hide behind Mary Stuart, looking for an overthrow. Outside her kingdom sees Spain reviling her crown, standing against the God they hold dear. King Philip has a plan that will use Elizabeth’s most trusted advisors’ loyalty against her. This is a time where religion hangs over everything heavily. One cannot become a leader without God’s acceptance and one cannot start a war without that permission either. As a result, the story starts off at a subtle pace, slowly unraveling the conspiracies at play, to later crank up the suspense for a war that will shape the world as we know it today.

The years between the two films has seen director Shekhar Kapur hone his skills and develop an aesthetic much flashier here than its predecessor. Yes, he had the majesty of set and wardrobe in the first film, but here he takes it to the next level. Elizabeth begins in power; therefore she must show off her royal beauty. The movie can be seen as one of over-extravagance, but I don’t think it ever goes too far. Kapur’s attention to detail should be commended, and while the visuals are stunning and at times overwhelming, they never are at the detriment to the story being told. This can’t quite be said about the cinematography. He appears to be a bit over his head on composition, giving us many instances that beg the question, why did he do that? One such moment, at the end, shows Geoffrey Rush (reprising his role of Walsingham to much the same accomplishment) lying on his bed through a pinhole gap in the ceiling. The screen is black besides the small opening with its blurred edges. Not only is it strange, but it lasts for only about five seconds before cutting back to a normal vantage point. Another example is of the queen standing to the left of the screen while a column fills the other five-sixths. She isn’t even showed in full, but allows a bit of her dress to go behind the obstruction. Awkward moments like this seem out of place and take the viewer out of the work—a little misguided auteur-ism.

I can’t fault him too much for these transgressions, as there are just as many instances of pure beauty. From Sir Walter Raleigh swimming underwater while ships burn above him to the execution of Mary Stuart, Kapur gives his share of emotionally stunning sequences. Give him a weighty score and the ability to film in slow motion and let him do his thing. Even the many times he portrays metaphors and allusions to faith and God are done so with a deft hand. The shadow of religion covering most of the proceedings help allow him to get away with it, as that was a standard of the time, but he never lets them become too heavy-handed or laughably easy. I also give him credit for knowing his limits and instead of showing horrid action/war scenes, he holds back to only shoot the destruction the war creates. Maybe it was his experience with battles on the critically panned Four Feathers (I can’t weigh in here as I haven’t seen the film), but his masking the fighting with only explosions and aftermath works effectively.

Just as with Elizabeth, The Golden Age’s aesthetic, great as it is, only equals the acting on display. With both Rush and Cate Blanchett returning, one could not ask for more. Blanchett shows her strength at all times while also letting a bit of her dreams for a normal life seep through. When she is with her favorite “lady in waiting” Bess, a nice turn from Abbie Cornish, or alone with Raleigh, her true self shows through the façade of stoic leadership. She longs for a love affair, but not so much that she would sacrifice the people she rules. Her ability to hold to her word that she will protect everyone of England, no matter their religious preference and to even go to the front lines while they fight for her, (a nice scene even if the speech was a tad lackluster) shows her humanity and greatness.

Kapur has assembled another dream cast of British stars to support his lead. Clive Owen, as Raleigh, is the perfect amount of charisma and self-assured defiance needed to make his role believable. In order to have the queen’s full respect, he had to stand up for himself no matter what she might do as a result. Samantha Morton is fantastic as Mary Stuart. The role is somewhat of a MacGuffin, but effective nonetheless; hopefully she will take more roles as the villain in the future. She is a great actress and it’s nice to see her branch out of the heroine mode. There are many other familiar faces, all doing an admirable job to keep appearances up for this wonderful period piece. One more of notice, however, is the almost unrecognizable Rhys Ifans. Completely gone is the goofiness I know him for from films such as Notting Hill and Human Nature. What a surprise he is playing the Jesuit priest on a mission from Spain that no one quite knows until it is too late.

Following up on a film that is highly regarded and boasting of a star-making performance is no easy feat. Add to its difficulty the fact that the first was probably not created with thoughts of a sequel as it ends with an epilogue of text for which this new entry shows us. Thankfully Kapur stayed with Hirst to continue the tale correctly and seamlessly, even injecting some welcome comedy at the start, easing us into the extravagant world of the British court. The story of England during the sixteenth century is a very intriguing one and this film only helps to enhance the public awareness of it and to keep it alive in our consciousness.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age 8/10
As comparison: Elizabeth 8/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Not being a fan of the biopic, I must say that Elizabeth leaves an impression. With outstanding performances, lush settings and costumes, as well as a well-crafted story, this film does exactly what is needed for a biography to succeed—and it sticks to a specific period of a legend’s life, without trying to tell eighty years in two hours. Hers is a tale that many know, at least a trifle bit, about. From our introduction, writer Michael Hirst, (a scholar at the subject if I’m to be believed with this, its sequel, and the intriguing Showtime series “The Tudors” to his credit), tells us exactly what is necessary to gage all our principal players. Elizabeth is a Protestant, thus a heretic to those in power. Her being an illegitimate heir, daughter of Ann Boleyn, those with aspirations to the crown, the Duke of Norfolk at the forefront, look to do all they can in order to remove her. Elizabeth is at first a child in love, given an opportunity to rule yet without the strength needed to make decisions based on her own sound judgment rather than those around her. While she is a woman, and even those who call themselves friends and allies can’t shake that fact, in order to rule, she must be sure her mind is ruling and not her heart. Thus, we are shown the rise of a woman, whom no one thought able to survive a day on the job, who would soon vault her nation to be the wealthiest and most powerful in the world.

Shekhar Kapur is blessed with a script from Hirst that gets everything right. As far as story goes, this film is minimal and straight to the point. We are taken through the journey of betrayals with little doubt or vagueness. All crossovers of allegiances, all attempts at deception in order to use her as a pawn for more power, and each action that slowly shows her what it means to be human and how even the most trusted of her peers can be bought and sold, are portrayed to the point. Everything in the world was stacked against the Queen whether it politics, religion, or love. It all could have fallen apart very easily too, if not for the performances Kapur got from his players. While the script is devoid of excess, it is the direction that flourishes with style and radiance. From the castle interiors to the period dress, the film is precise in its recreation of the time. The words are perfect and the plot fast paced and exciting, but without the artistry to deliver it as such, no one would be talking about the end result nearly as much as they do. A good story may be enough for me, but it is the spectacle that allows it to succeed across the board.

Besides the visuals, the main driving force at play is the career-defining performance from Cate Blanchett. The Oscar winning portrayal of Katherine Hepburn, the standout roles such as in Veronica Guerin or Notes on a Scandal, and even playing a male icon such as Bob Dylan only add to her canon and help prop up what could be the best actress working today. However, it is this role that will always be synonymous with her name. To be able to show off the smile of a young woman attempting to keep her life together while it is swept away in the storm of responsibility for a nation is an amazing feat. Her virtue and faith in her own beliefs showed early on during her subjection to treason charges and almost execution at the hands of her half-sister, but they only fully show themselves at the end when she has finally excepted her duty above any earthly gains she might have otherwise. Only by secluding herself from the temptations of the flesh, or the heart of a woman, as some characters here would say, can she be strong enough to survive and protect her ward of England. The power that exudes from her being during the final chapter is immense. Some may say she became cold-hearted, but if you watch her performance carefully, you’ll see that it is her love and that alone which enables her to do the things she does. Only love and faith could allow her to acquiesce to the deeds she knows must occur for her land to be safe from harm. I can’t wait to see this strength of character throughout an entire film, as I can only imagine Elizabeth: The Golden Age will see her reign with that power prominently thrust forward.

One can’t stop with just Blanchett when speaking of the acting on display here. Geoffrey Rush is absolutely brilliant portraying the one man truly working on the Queen’s side. It is his role as Sir Francis Walsingham that reminds Elizabeth of who she is. He speaks of what Princes must do to succeed and what dark deeds are necessary for the good of the whole. He treats the Queen as an intelligent being and not a woman in a man’s job. Without his dedication and willingness to do the dirty work in order to propel her reputation as one to not take lightly, her reign would have been very short lived. Stoic throughout, besides a few gentle moments where the appearance of a smile can be seen, Rush is the epitome of a man taking his career seriously and the well being of those in his duty to protect ahead of any other.

The rest of the cast is a who’s who of European greats. Christopher Eccleston is spot-on as the villainous Norfolk just doing what he believes is best for his nation; Joseph Fiennes is good as Lord Robert, however at times seems a bit too theatric; Richard Attenborough brings a nice turn as the Queen’s closest advisor, wrestling with his belief in her at the expense of his thoughts that she is just a woman; and then we have the numerous cameos from the likes of Emily Mortimer, Kelly MacDonald, Daniel Craig, James Frain (also starring in the “Tudors”), and a gem of comedy to lighten the mood from Vincent Cassel. It is these small roles that show the true strength of the film. By reining in the scope of a story about Elizabeth to that crucial time of her ascension to power, it allows for the filmmakers to make sure every detail is perfect. Credit to Hirst and Kapur for getting it all right.

Elizabeth 8/10

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The man, the myth, the legend, and the movie title. In what could be my favorite film name of all-time, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is much more than its superfluous moniker. From its bloated runtime to its slow, methodical pace, Andrew Dominik’s epic tale contains an inner beauty that allows for all the pretensions one seems to associate with it. Dominik is unrelenting on his quest to tell the story the way he wants it told, never compromising by cutting scenes or shortening the name so it will fit on theatre marquees. The film even seems to have been languishing in the doldrums for over a year before finally seeing the light of day. Maybe the time was spent because no one would distribute it without changes, and if that is so, I’m glad to have waited for its introduction. Had anything been compromised, I don’t think I would have enjoyed my time nearly as much. Do not expect the wild west or gun fights at every corner. This is not a tale of excess or young guns, but instead one of paranoia, suspicion, friendship, and betrayal from all sides.

I knew little about who Jesse James was before viewing the film. Coming in, I thought I would be seeing him during his heydays of robbery and murder, eventually meeting his demise at the hands of one of his crew. Instead, we are introduced to the legend just before his final night ride with brother Frank. It is the last train robbery he undertook, before attempting to retire home with his wife and kids, that he meets the Ford brothers and their ragtag degenerate friends. James is no longer as God-like as he might once have been. A shell of his former self, he is constantly uprooting his family, children who don’t even know his real name, in fear of capture by the Pinkertons. Always paranoid and untrusting of those around him, after all his brother has retired and his normal crew all gone, jailed, or dead, James begins to fear for his safety. By riding to cleanse himself of those that may be conspiring against him, he begins a journey that will take him back into the friendship of Robert and Charlie Ford. Whether from depression caused by the memories of all he has done or an escalation of the malice and crazed disposition that allowed him to do it, this reunion for a series of planned bank robberies finally leads to his end.

Dominik’s film is filled to the brim with nuance and subtlety. At every turn we are even quiet moments of the landscape and metered prose of speech, slowly contemplated and released into conversation. Everything is orchestrated with great care and each frame a thing of beauty. The film must have been storyboarded like crazy because the compositions of each scene is balanced and gorgeous to behold. From the extreme close-ups, the smoke-laden atmosphere, and the visions from behind period-aged impure glass, Dominik has taken painstaking care in making sure each second is perfect. Even the narrated moments telling of James’ past are vignetted and blurred to give a sense of age and dream-state. The time on display was one of little technology and a lack of quick paced elements. A gunshot to the head still leaves a man breathing while the bullet lodges itself, a gunfight at close range takes ten shots before a direct hit occurs, and one can see the approach of both friend and foe from a large distance away while they ride up on horseback. Everything is deliberately timed, both enhancing the period being portrayed and adding to the mood and almost nonexistent changes in mental disposition as the wheels turn inside each character’s head.

All the acting onscreen is top-notch. Brad Pitt really shows how good he is as the man behind the stories. This is a time of instability for him as his state of mind causes uncontrollable outbursts of violence followed by fits of laughter at the lapse in control. He realizes that he is not himself anymore and it is this knowledge of his own fallibility that makes him even more cautious of what is happening all around him. Did he deserve the best actor award at Venice this year? I don’t know. He is very good, possibly close to his best, however, he was overshadowed, to me, by costar Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford. Sure the supporting roles were all fantastic, Sam Rockwell was his usual self, although at times very subtle in the machinations going on behind his infectious smile, Garret Dillahunt was great finally getting a role other than a David Milch production, and Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider both portray members of the dysfunctional group. Affleck, though, truly shines as the young kid able to ride alongside his idol only to be shot down as strange and queer. His joy, expressed very openly to his hero, comes at a very bad time. Just as James starts to look at everyone more carefully, in comes this kid with a dangerous obsession. As Pitt says before sending Ford away, “I can’t tell if you want to be like me, or be me.”

Affleck’s performance is one of the years best. The times when he must try and hide the rage bottled up inside while his dreams of being the James Brother’s sidekick shatter are tough to watch. From this showing, Ford was no coward, but a man tired of being kicked while he was down. Perhaps the act of murder itself was cowardly, but only because of the circumstances surrounding it. Ford was working for the sheriff in order to capture the criminal, but when the opportunity presented itself, when James finally realized what was to happen, you can’t help feel sorry for the 20-year old has he wrestles with what is about to transpire.

I applaud Dominik for having the courage to create something that is by no means a bankable commodity. For every person that goes to see Brad Pitt’s new movie, there will be at least three that scoff at the almost three-hour duration and slow unfolding of plot. Either way, this film is a masterpiece to behold, a work of art encapsulating a moment of history. Even the epilogue, of what happens to Ford after the assassination, helps shape the motivations for all that transpired during the course of the film. It never feels boring and it never shies from the weight it carries on its shoulders. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is simply something that needs to be seen to understand the effect it has, and that experience should be at the theatre so its composition and visual splendor can be viewed in all its glory.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford 9/10

And for all you Zooey Deschanel fans that want to see the film because her name is on every internet site as being in it, don’t. She is in the movie less than Nick Cave, and far less necessary. I still love how some people can be billed to sell a film when they have absolutely no bearing on it. No disrespect to her, I am a big fan.

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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The man behind the scripts for the Bourne trilogy (and The Cutting Edge) has decided to step into the director’s chair for his new film Michael Clayton. Along with an A-list producing crew (Sydney Pollack, Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella) Tony Gilroy has assembled a brilliant cast of big names and familiar faces. After the action-packed Matt Damon-starrers he decided to go more psychological in the thriller category. It would be tough for a first-time director to choreograph extended fight sequences, and credit him for leaving that to the professionals. This film relies on the acting and tight story of internal espionage between a multi-billion dollar corporation and the law firm that defends it. While containing many elements keeping it in the mainstream—numerous coincidences are necessary for the film to work—even when you know something is going to happen, Gilroy keeps the pace edge of your seat, allowing even the obvious to have a successful payoff.

In a nutshell, the story tells of a law firm’s top defense attorney growing a conscience. After six years of his life defending a client that most likely did knowingly kill 500 people with pesticide, he stops taking his medication and decides to cleanse himself of the filth he feels covers his body. This breakdown comes at a crucial moment in the case as evidence has turned up proving the U-North company had knowledge of the destructive qualities of their work. Because of this, we are introduced to the “fixers” of both sides, becoming involved to set things right. Both Tilda Swinton and George Clooney are fantastic in their roles as Karen Crowder of U-North and Michael Clayton of Kenner Bach Law respectively. They each need to start uncovering what went wrong and think of ways to rectify the situation. Although they are essentially on the same side, neither feels the need to let the other know what they are doing to clean up the mess.

At the crux of the tale is the question of how far one is willing to go before morality has to eventually set in. The mental breakdown of the lead attorney—Tom Wilkinson at his finest, turning on a dime from crazed to professional at one point in a phenomenal confrontation with Clooney in an alley—proves that a man who spends his entire adult life helping keep murderers out of jail can one day find the light. Seeing one of the victim’s suffering, along with the evidence that could blow the case wide open, finally brings him to the cusp of flipping sides. As for Michael Clayton, Clooney is on retainer to fix problems, something he has done for Wilkinson’s character in the past. He never quite knows the whole story because he doesn’t need to; his job is to keep his old friend under control. However, Swinton’s General Counsel has no second thoughts on what side of the law she is on. Able to squash any second thoughts or conscience that appears to be fighting its way to the surface, she does whatever is necessary to gain control over the case again. The question then becomes, will her vicious tactics eventually awaken the sleeping giant inside Clooney, or will he remain oblivious to the real problem and just take his money to pay off a brother’s debt and go home to his son?

Although we are given moments of contrivance, a phone call to Clooney as he leaves a poker game; a field of horses that looks like a picture in his son’s favorite book, which coincidentally is a main point in Wilkinson’s evolution post-meltdown; the arrival of the case’s main victims in NY at just the right moment, Gilroy still manages to make it all work. The pacing is perfect, in my opinion, and thus keeps you anticipating the next move, helping to allow one to see past the easy bridges of the plot. From the getgo you will probably have an idea in your head for how it all will play out, yet the journey still delivers with high tension. A lot is going on in Clayton’s life, events that would make a lesser man buckle, but this janitor has the gumption to stick through to the end in order to set things right for his brothers, his old friend, the case’s innocent victims, and himself. Whether you accept all that happens or not, the film is a ride worth taking. If for nothing but the final confrontation between Clooney and Swinton, a powerhouse sequence that both deliver the goods on, the movie is one to checking out.

Michael Clayton 8/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Tuesday night saw the return of Henry Rollins to Buffalo. I missed my opportunity to check out his ranting last year, but made sure to see the show this time around. As he said during the marathon 3 hours, (without even taking a drink of water), he is the enemy of Fox News’ conservatism. Sure there is a major liberal slant to his diatribe, and yes the audience claps and cheers at every stab towards Bush and the government, but he isn’t too bleeding heart that he doesn’t understand the system and both sides of the coin to keep it interesting for someone like me who doesn’t agree with much of what he says. Throughout the show he spoke about his hating CNN, his travels to Syria and the hassle Customs gave him upon return, his simultaneous admiration for Condi Rice and hatred that she fights for the wrong side, his opportunity to sing in his favorite band The Rutt’s final appearance, and his interview of Chris Walken for his IFC show. There was yelling, there were laughs, and there was even making fun of the audience when a cell phone began ringing. He says he isn’t provocative, that he is just provoked. After the show I can see his meaning. Rollins never tried to convert people to his way of thinking, but instead tell us that thinking is what he wants. No matter what side, to have an open mind and join discussion is what is necessary. The man is a brilliant entertainer and I’m positive he’ll be back, (one story was how the Town Ballroom’s owner has even driven out in the snow to Albany to pick him up when the airports were shut down). I highly recommend you going when he returns.

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jared’s tweets

  • RT @ava: True story. 7 hours ago
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