You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2007.

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Here is a film that I just don’t think aged well with the years. George Cukor’s Oscar nominated Gaslight has the feel of something that was fresh and unique back when released in 1944, today, however, it feels as though it was from a bygone era, complete with acting that somehow has become laughable where it once showed brilliance. A slow burning plot is laid out, showing us the systemic destruction of a woman’s mind. Our lead Paula found the body of her dead aunt/caretaker when she was young. Now grown up, she has married a man in a whirlwind romance and decides to move back to the place of the murder with him. In that house, her mind begins to wander and frighten from sounds she hears at night and the dimming gaslights surrounding her. It appears she is also losing her mind and possibly stealing artifacts from around the house for no apparent reason and her husband’s temper creeps out more and more as the time passes. The handling of the degenerative process concerning Paula is done well, but I feel that having seen so many movies like this one over the years ruined my experience. I pegged the conclusion and twist about fifteen minutes into the story and I have to say it was written on the wall quite loudly. Being, what could be, the first of its kind, that revelation at the end might have really stunned some people, now it just means we have to sit through some monotonous exposition and character progression before seeing what we all knew in the beginning was eventually going to happen.

It’s not even like we are on the cusp of sound evading film either, it happened almost two decades previous, but the acting almost comes across as too broad. Especially with lead actor Charles Boyer, who plays Paula’s new husband Gregory Anton. He gives us shades of villainous facial expressions right from the get-go and never shows the audience anything to make us wonder if maybe he wasn’t pure evil. With his role as it is, there can be no confusion of his motives and that, to me, takes away a huge part of this film. All suspense about what is happening is thrown out the window as soon as Paula discovers a letter from the past addressed to her deceased aunt. That moment seals Gaslight’s fate. From there on, the only suspense was whether Paula’s forced nervous breakdown would become real, making her fabricated insanity a reality.

As far as Paula is concerned, I do believe Ingrid Bergman does a good job. Was the performance worthy of a Best Actress Oscar? I’d lean more towards no, but then I haven’t seen any other film from that year, so for all I know she was the best. Her feigned waif persona comes across a little heavy-handed at the start, almost playing right into the fact that she was being lied to in order to think she was crazy. It felt like she knew her craziness was faked and had to play it up to make it appear more believable. This would have been a brilliant move if she knew what her husband was doing and was subverting his work to trick him, but that is not the case. It was just a somewhat hammy performance. I will say that towards the end, where the truth is slowly being revealed, she steps it up a bit and shines. Half a performance, though, does not a best of the year award make.

The film is not without its charm either. Its conclusion is fun to watch and see what is truly going on with Boyer’s role. A big part of that revelation is laid on the back of Joseph Cotten. Now here is a man that could act. I have never seen him in a role that wasn’t believable or restrained in the realm of reality. He is the best part of the film and never misses a step. We are also treated to some comic relief from characters played by Dame May Whitty, a neighbor, and the couple’s live-in maid Angela Lansbury. In her first ever screen performance, Lansbury shows a lot of spunk and sarcastic wit. I also really enjoyed the atmosphere. Every foggy evening outside was beautifully shot and allowed the world without electricity to become a character of its own. As a whole, though, the film ultimately was too by-the-numbers and obvious to uncover its motives. I know this is all easy to say when so much has probably been lifted from it over the years, but that is where I’m coming from. One of the many hindrances to seeing old films today means I can never view them fresh or without the back catalog of cinema I have already seen being recalled to memory.

Gaslight 6/10

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When watching A Bug’s Life for the first time in a long while, I couldn’t help but see the comparisons with last year’s Happy Feet. As far as the main storyline goes, they are very similar, an outcast doing what he can to fit in while also attempting to be special. It just goes to show you how much better that film could have been without its liberal diatribe conclusion. A lot of people disagree with me when I say that I really like Pixar’s sophomore effort. Sure it doesn’t manage to capture the splendor of Toy Story, nor is the animation out of this world. However, the story is top-notch and the characters are wonderful to spend time with. With plenty of laughs and a moral center to boot, I could watch this one just as much as the studio’s other classics.

There is a lot about finding strength from within to conquer all odds here. Between our lead Flick needing to keep his self-esteem up to save his colony, the colony needing to open their eyes onto a new way of living for the future, and the circus bugs finding that they are more than just untalented sideshow freaks, everyone evolves into a better bug by the end of the story. Even the villain Hopper is fully fleshed and menacing for the right reasons. He is not doing it to be mean, but instead understands the fact that the ants outnumber him 100 to 1. He needs them to fear him in order to not have to worry about them finding out the truth. It is very much a circle of life, but not one that can’t evolve with the ages.

When thinking about the animation, it is actually quite good. Compared to Antz, the rival film of the time, this is much more realistic and less cartoony. The water is rendered nicely, as is the foliage. You don’t have to look much further than the ants’ eyes to see how much detail went into the production. The reflections and moistness, despite the smooth exterior, shows the realism. All the bugs are finely crafted too. The flies in the city and the crazy mix of creatures recruited to save the ants are never skimped on, whether for a small role or a more expanded one. It is also in the city that we see the workmanship on the environments. While Ant Island is nice, it is just the outdoors. Bug City contains plenty of garbage doubling as buildings and clubs. It is a great showing of humor and inventiveness to see what the animators used for everything. From the ice cube trays as circus stands, the animal crackers box as circus wagon—complete with full nutrition guide on the side—and crazy compilation of boxes to create a Times Square of billboards and facades, everything is done right.

As far as much of the humor, you have to credit the acting talent for wonderful delivery and inspired role choices. No one could do a male ladybug better than Dennis Leary with his acerbic wit. I dare you to think of someone better. Our leads are great too with Dave Foley as Flick and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Princess Atta, as well as the always-fantastic Kevin Spacey as Hopper. Spacey not only steals many scenes from the movie, but also takes center stage in the bloopers during the credits. Yes, A Bug’s Life was the originator of animated outtakes from Pixar, a tradition that has continued on. With many tongue-in-cheek bug jokes laced throughout, you also have to give props to the huge supporting cast. Full of “those guy actors,” it is people like Richard Kind, Brad Garrett, and the late Joe Ranft as Heimlich the worm who bring the biggest laughs.

Overall, it may be the simplest story brought to screen by Pixar, one that has been told in one form or the other numerous times over the years, but it is inspired enough and fresh enough to deliver an enjoyable experience. There are joyous moments, sad times, and even action packed scenes of suspense with birds coming in to join the fun. Complete with a couple of my favorite Pixar characters, Tuck and Roll, there isn’t too much bad that I can think of saying about it.

A Bug’s Life 7/10

As comparison: Toy Story 9/10; Toy Story 2 9/10; Monsters Inc. 8/10; Finding Nemo 7/10; The Incredibles 9/10; Cars 8/10; Ratatouille 9/10

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Across the Universe is not the only film this year to use a musician’s work as the backbone to a story. Todd Haynes has used the life and music of singer Bob Dylan in order to composite a tale of his many selves in I’m Not There. I know little about the director, besides the names and accolades thrown towards his previous two theatrical works, and besides liking Dylan’s songs, I’m not privy to a huge wealth of information on him. There were some rudimentary tidbits, which I found hidden in my head during the film from my Rock’N’Roll Music History class in college, but I think if I knew more I would not have enjoyed the surrealistic journey close to as much as I did. This is not a masterpiece in the complete sense of the word. As an experiment, however, it is a fascinating look into the life of a man that changed his image so often and never conformed to be the person that his fans wanted him to be. Having six characters play him at different periods of his creative journey shows the inventiveness put on display. There is nothing mainstream about the film, and that is a good thing. If I were to have one complaint, it would be the fact that it almost was not surreal enough. It was the overlapping that intrigued me—the versions of his life through a young boy’s love of Woody Guthrie and the anonymity of an older man’s Billy the Kid. No disrespect to the four other personas, but they were just a tad too much impersonation, not enough creative representation.

Haynes is definitely a gifted filmmaker. The compositions and transitions are remarkable and never static or boring. He keeps the tone consistent and never goes off track with the underlying theme he is conveying. Whereas a film like Across the Universe derailed at times, Haynes harnesses this one by always keeping us off-balance and not knowing what might happen next. The music didn’t tell the story; it enhanced it. Showing more the time period of our current Dylan stand-in, the music never took the lead to overshadow the actors onscreen. However, there are still some beautiful moments, like the funeral scene during the Billy the Kid thread. Although I liked the fact that the music didn’t taken control in order to manipulate the audience, it is still the sequence that does which sticks with me the most.

Our four major representations of Dylan are played by Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, and Heath Ledger. All do an amazing job, but their portrayals just seem too obvious. Maybe it was the technique used to show us their stories—I just wasn’t as interested in them as the final two variations. Whishaw is my favorite impression, a talking head narrating, as though in an interview, enhancing the other segments with background information. Bale’s section is the least successful, showing us his life as a Behind the Music segment, mostly from the mouth of Julianne Moore. It is too cold and calculated, with little to say except to give us the person for whom Ledger’s Robbie acts as in a film, leading him to meet his wife played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. His section is nice, showing us the transformation that fame and wealth and social relevance wrought on his soul. Gainsbourg shines and really it is her reactions to Ledger that resonate. As for Blanchett, her piece is the iconic Dylan—the badass who went electric and left all his fans behind him. She is great as the worked up, most likely drugged up, Jude Quinn telling the world that his music only needs to be relevant to him. He will not be a puppet for the world; if you hate his stuff, don’t listen to it.

What got me drawn in were the more expressionistic moments. Marcus Carl Franklin is quite a find here as a young drifter, wandering the world with his music. Innocent and pure, copycatting his idol Guthrie, he is at the cusp of Dylan’s first major transformation. With the death of the legend, he finally sees that it is time to become his own person and break through the barriers he has set up for himself. It was time to start singing about today’s problems and help create change in society. He is also one of three instances to cross over into another version’s story. Besides Ledger and Bale’s roles existing simultaneously and Bruce Greenwood’s oppressor manifesting in two separate stories, Franklin is seen entering Richard Gere’s Dylan world, the other remarkable metaphor for the singer’s life. As the real Billy the Kid, in hiding from the world and the authorities to live out his life in obscurity, he is brought back out to strike a change. One can’t buckle to the pressures of outsiders and critics, but instead push through and continue to be innovative.

These crossovers are great cinematic moments, helping bridge the gap between all six plot threads. Haynes made a bold move to tell the tale with fragmented personas overlapping and progressing. It is an idea that breeds surrealism and an ignoring of principles found in reality. I also loved his humor, bringing in the Beatles, Brian Jones, and a total mind-trip cameo by David Cross as Allen Ginsberg. I just wish Haynes would’ve gone full-bore into this parallel universe and not felt the need to every once in awhile bring us back to a realistic linear progression. The Bale/Ledger/Blanchett sequences do ground the story to be more comprehensible, but I almost would have rather been completely unaware of what I had just seen then leaving with the sense of understanding that I did. I caught a few references spiced in of song lyrics, and it’s that stuff that I wanted more of. I hope Haynes continues to go in directions that are against the norm because when he does, he creates some marvelous scenes. He is on the right track, giving us a psychological insight into the timeline of one of America’s greatest enigmas.

I’m Not There 8/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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I always say to people that Frank Darabont is the only man who can truly make a great Stephen King adaptation. I’m not so sure I have the credentials to state that as fact, but I do anyways. I love The Shawshank Redemption, but never read Rita Hayworth… and I read The Green Mile, but still have yet to watch the film. So, I can’t quite compare his work with that of the author, however, that did little to temper my anticipation for his first based on a supernatural story, with The Mist. Early buzz was that he completed the hat trick; even with some unavoidable clichés inherent to the genre, he was able to create something unique and terrifying. I have to say that I agree whole-heartedly. The tale that he has spun and the performances that he has wrenched from his actors are nothing short of spectacular. With the amount of tension built up, you hardly have time to notice the somewhat mediocre effects work and token moments of horror tradition. Whereas someone less capable would have tried to tell the tale of humanity versus the otherworldly beasts outside their grocery store cage, Darabont tells it how it really is—fear of the unknown turning man against man. There is no scarier monster than the one hidden inside us all.

We aren’t given very much background at all. Thrown into the plot by a huge storm knocking power out and leaving destruction in its wake, we don’t have much time before we are taken to the grocery store that becomes our setting for almost the entire duration. These are not two-dimensional characters, though, and through their conversations with each other, we glean a lot about who they are. It helps that this is a small town where everyone knows everyone, and they all make sure each other knows it. You have to love the old retired teacher calling you an underachiever right before you go out to risk your life against creatures straight from another dimension. The occupations of everyone plays into the plot course too, from a movie poster artist trying to tell the group that he saw tentacles attempting to take them out into the mist, to a lawyer doing his best to see the practicality of the situation and necessity of evidence before being convinced. They all have one thing in common, though, and that is the need for protection, the need for a herd to follow. As Armageddon plays out on the other side of the glass windows, fear takes hold, pitting faith against rationality, morality opposite ceremonial sacrifice.

Darabont has his cinematographer stay in very close throughout the movie. With extremely tight compositions, we are able to see the emotions and the chaos reflected by each actor’s eyes. Everyone handles the pressure differently and the filmmakers don’t cop-out from showing us each. The feeling leads to some claustrophobic moments, but also some wonderful action pieces, showing us the brutality and violence up close with no question or ambiguity to what happened. Towards the end, we are given a witch-hunt sequence between the zealots and the pragmatists. It is just a breathtaking piece of cinematic splendor, beautifully orchestrated despite its cruel subject matter and unabashed frankness. If you want to see grotesque, remorseless creatures, just take a glimpse at your neighbor. I’m sure it is there just below the surface, waiting for an opportunity to come up for air and latch onto the coattails of the nearest person crazy enough to think they know the answers and that they alone can lead the rest to salvation.

The acting is simply phenomenal. An ensemble of so many recognizable faces has been compiled and no one misses a step. Thomas Jane is devastating as the father of a young boy doing his best to keep everyone calm while taking stock of the situation in an attempt to find a way out; Toby Jones gives a nice turn as the slightly nerdy store assistant manager who is constantly walked on until his true worth is shown; Buffalo’s own William Sadler as the mechanic with a chip on his shoulder who goes through one of the scariest transformations after he has finally taken too much; and Andre Braugher is effective as the foil to Jane, their rocky relationship evolving and devolving as each minute goes by. While everyone is fantastic, it is Marcia Gay Harden that becomes the real tour de force. I have never been a huge fan of hers; she is solid for sure, but usually comes off as annoying to me. Here, though, she is the most frightening character onscreen. Channeling God’s wishes through her demented skull leads to the separation into two factions of the survivors. I just hope that Paul Dano is even half as good in what appears to be a similar role with There Will Be Blood later this year. If this wasn’t a genre flick I’d say she had a pretty decent shot at getting her second supporting actress Oscar.

Every note is played to perfection. Overcoming any crutches that the nature of horror/thrillers bring with them, Darabont has crafted an emotionally draining piece of cinema that leaves the audience gasping for air as though they have been kicked in the stomach. While the fights with the bug-like creatures are effective, they only play out as the first step to the battles within soon to come. I credit all involved for keeping the tone where it needed to be in order for success. This is an R-rated tale and it pulls no punches to that effect. Whereas most films of this ilk would take a simple route out of the carnage, we are allowed to watch all play out to its unavoidable end. Maybe the finale is obvious, but evenso, it is stripped down to the basic core of emotions. I knew it was coming yet it was still devastating to experience. Fear makes us all do that which we think we could never do and, if anything, The Mist is a cautionary tale to help us remember that one crucial and unbending fact of life.

The Mist 8/10

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photography:
[1] Laurie Holden, Thomas Jane and Nathan Gamble star in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist. Photo by Ronn Schmidt/The Weinstein Company, 2007.
[2] L to R: Thomas Jane, Laurie Holden, Frances Sternhagen, David Jensen and Jeffrey DeMunn in The Weinstein Company ‘The Mist.’

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Who better to deliver in the family friendly genre on Thanksgiving than Disney with their new animated/live action hybrid Enchanted. This movie is very cute and quite good at being both wholesome for the kiddies and tongue-in-cheek for the adults. You need to appreciate a studio being able to poke fun at itself. By using the classic stories of Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all made famous in their own right by the Mouse House, we are given some big laughs. The acting is very self-referential and broad as far as the fairy tale roles that make the journey into our world’s New York City go. Screenwriter Bill Kelly gives the cast some great lines and set pieces to play in, ultimately showing us that the storybooks aren’t always right. True love does exist, but not necessarily with the one you first think. The message is good, the songs are good, the animation and acting are good—Disney came through with this one. Along with Meet the Robinsons, Mickey and friends may be turning the ship around into a new renaissance.

We are ushered into the story with some 2D animation of Giselle, a pretty girl looking for her Prince Charming. That man is in fact Prince Edward, recently being led by his stepmother’s henchman to battle ogres and partake in adventure to keep his mind off a wife. You see if he marries, Queen Narissa loses her crown and he becomes King. She is having none of that and will cross into evil stepmother/queen/hag territory to trick Giselle into falling through a portal to our world. Now a fish-out-of-water, she must find her way back to her love, that eventually comes looking for her along with her best friend Pip the squirrel and the evil witch’s lackey Nathaniel. It is on this path that she runs into divorce lawyer Robert Philip and turns both his and her life upside down.

I love how the fantasy world comes into ours so awkwardly. Giselle’s ability to call on all the animals of her meadows allows her to do the same in NY, only the creatures she gets are rats, pigeons, cockroaches, and flies—yet they all do the work anyway—it’s priceless. Also, when she breaks into song, all the people on the streets join along and have a blast being part of the huge choreographed numbers. Her innocence is very precious and trying new things always gets her new lawyer friend in trouble, yet helps those in her wake. Patrick Dempsey plays that friend to great effect. He sees what she is doing and can’t help but fall for her joyful, inability to see cruelty in the world. Playing the straight man to her craziness leads to wonderful moments of laughter as well as those full of poignancy and compassion, giving the kids in the audience something to think about and lessons to learn.

While Dempsey’s evolution as a man is something to appreciate, it is the transplants that shine. Amy Adams and James Marsden play Giselle and Prince Edward respectively. They bring the happy-go-lucky mentality of Andalasia to our disenchanted realm. The over-acting is great and the culture shock fantastic. Adams is gorgeous and has the chops to make the aloofness work, but also change later on into a human being that sees what reality brings. When she tells Edward that she was thinking instead of singing, his reaction really hits home on the vast void between storybook fantasy and the real world. As for Marsden, his childish actions are truly funny; a borderline simpleton, he believes in chivalry and when he is told a suspected villain is really a friend, he just flips a switch and is ok with it. His smile is infectious and his vacant expressions indispensable to the film working on the dual levels it does.

Everything works here to bring a wonderful family-friendly story to life. Complete with its pop-up book bookends, Enchanted is truly magical. I don’t know how it could ever have worked as a complete animated work, as I have read it originated as, so thankfully they took the plunge to expand it with live action. Crossing between the two worlds is seamless—2D characters turned into humans or 3D computer generated animals. With many instances ripe for a wrong turn, the filmmakers seem to come to all the right decisions. Working in older Disney yarns and playing each story thread to its effective conclusion leaves us with a tale that could become a classic amongst the ones it appropriates. So, if you are looking for a way to spend a couple hours with the whole family, Enchanted is definitely a great way to go.

Enchanted 8/10

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photography:
[1] AMY ADAMS in ENCHANTED ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: BARRY WETCHER/SMPSP
[2] SUSAN SARANDON (left), JAMES MARSDEN (right) in ENCHANTED ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: BARRY WETCHER/SMPSP

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The Coen Brothers are most definitely back in form. While No Country for Old Men is not a perfect film, it is masterfully crafted and orchestrated to brilliant effect. Miller’s Crossing remains the one and only masterpiece from them, in my opinion, but this new one ranks right below it with Barton Fink and Fargo. The Coens always did better when there was a little darkness lurking behind the dry wit and deadpan deliveries. I have not seen Intolerable Cruelty, but, along with The Ladykillers, it appeared to have lost that edge so desperately needed for their movies to succeed. My only reservation here is the lethargic pace in a few moments, but mostly the ending that seems to go on for about ten minutes too long. I will fault that with the brothers’ adapting process of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. We are able to drop so many characters throughout the proceedings without a second thought, that the necessity to go back to Sheriff Bell at the end was a bit too out of place, waxing poetic for pretension sake. Otherwise, there is very, very little not to like.

Upon viewing the trailer, I was under the impression the story would be more than just about a man stumbling upon two million dollars and his attempt to elude capture by the enigmatic Anton Chigurth. However, much to my surprise, and ultimate approval, there was not. Every periphery character comes to the story for the sole purpose to enhance the central plot and give a bit more information on the cat and mouse chase. It truly is Josh Brolin’s stoic Llewelyn Moss versus Javier Bardem’s psychopathic Chigurh, and these two do not disappoint. I cannot believe Brolin almost wasn’t in the film at all. He had done a test reel with Robert Rodriguez during Grindhouse filming and sent it in for review only to find that the Coen’s wanted to know who lit it, not more about the actor included. With a little pressure from his agent, the brothers reluctantly took a meeting, pretty much when the audition process was over, and that was all she wrote. Who says some hard work and persistence can’t get you anywhere? It may have gotten Brolin in an Oscar winning film.

The leads are so good here, they don’t even need to speak—and believe me they don’t for much of the movie. Sans score/soundtrack, the quiet foreboding atmosphere and the shear expression of exertion, mentally and physically, on either’s face amps the tension and suspense to unforeseen levels. I was on the edge of my seat for practically the entire film, waiting anxiously to see what carnage Bardem would leave in his wake and if Brolin would once again escape, barely able to walk, for a freedom that probably wouldn’t last too long. I can’t think of any character more menacing them Bardem in recent memory, if ever. With his Dutch Boy haircut, sly smirk when speaking, and harsh deep accent, he would give even the most unfretted person shivers. And his air gun contraption always dragging behind him is a fantastic touch. With so few words emitted, the props do all the speaking for him.

Every supporting role is magnificently handled as well. If the Coens know one thing, it is the small town, country bumpkin mentality. The old southern drawls and longwinded ways to say simple things, with just the right amount of flair to leave you shaking your head about how real people don’t talk that way, are here in force. Kelly Macdonald plays the wife who knows what’s happening but never lets on to perfection and Garret Dillahunt is a riot as the smarter than his words deputy. His description of the shootout is hilarious and his back and forth with the sheriff always entertaining. That sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is also spectacular. He is the stand-in for the old men of the title, a lawman from a bygone era trying to understand the cruelty and deceit running rampant. Brought up by men who did their duty without the need for a gun, now chasing around murder after murder with federal agents going over every gruesome detail ad infinitum, he knows he is outmatched, and realizes he just doesn’t have the stomach to exist in this new world. We get all that from his character and his actions alone, we don’t really need the epilogue of him visiting people from his past to discover it for himself—it is a bit of overkill. Oh, and don’t forget the city-types in Woody Harrelson and Coen regular Stephen Root, both funny and effective in small roles.

What really stands out, though, is the storytelling on display. The Coens are not afraid to go slow and make everything perfect. Each time I found myself questioning something about how Brolin’s Moss was handling a situation; I soon got my answer with him waking late at night with an epiphany. Those two moments were a revelation, as though the filmmakers were reading mind. Every motivation was spot-on and each word carefully placed with minimalist precision, letting the audience know exactly what they need, no more/no less. The film is also beautifully shot and composed. There must have been some storyboarding going on because some of the set pieces and angles are breathtaking. You know exactly what is in store from the beginning as you see Bardem quietly getting free from his handcuffed position to kill his first victim, all while being blurred in the background. We need to see this blood and violence at the start to understand his malice and remorseless attitude, but the Coens know too much can be too much. Towards the end we only see the aftermaths and residuals from the killings. What was once shown to startle, with its brutality, eventually changes to become a device for us to now watch the killer’s face as he commits his atrocities. He seems to have become slightly unglued; perhaps meeting a formidable foe for once, and we are forced to peer on his impatience—just one more detail woven into the effective tapestry of this film. Welcome back Joel and Ethan; hopefully you will stay for the long haul.

No Country for Old Men 9/10

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photography:
Photo credit: Richard Foreman/Courtesy of Miramax Films

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Let’s start this out with the fact that my College Professor of World Civ had us read The Epic of Gilgamesh rather than the one adapted here with Beowulf. So, I went into the film without really knowing anything of the story besides the monster Grendel and the obligatory pride as a curse, creating your own demons, etc. As shown onscreen, it is obvious that the yarn is an ancient one. Besides the archaic traditions—Queens are inherited as the wife of all who take the crown?—it just feels dated and plods along as a result. I like the whole idea of our hero being his own worst enemy, but I would have enjoyed seeing a bit more conflict. The fight with Grendel and the dragon are both magnificent to behold, it’s a shame then that the true orchestrator of the chaos, stunningly played by Angelina Jolie, is ultimately lacking in depth and competition. It actually feels like how I’m sure most students do when reading the epic poem…long-winded, repetitive, and missing the nonstop action our MTV-cultured minds love.

If I were to compare the animation to something, I would not go to 300, as most seem to be doing. Sure the whole “I am BEOWULF!” thing is a direct rip-off, but the aesthetic and story is not. In my opinion, 300 blows this one out of the water, no question. To think of something similar, my mind goes to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a great little gem from almost a decade ago. The technology has come far since then, most notably with the fluidity of character movement, detail of liquids/hair/textures, and emotive ability in those moments that succeed with it. However, as far as looks go for the humans, I have to declare Final Fantasy the winner still. The faces in Beowulf continue to keep a plastic/rubber feel, giving the impression everyone had a facelift. Besides the hair on each face, especially the noses, the pores and skin quality so lifelike years ago looks creepy here, as it did in Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express, (I don’t fault Monster House because it was stylish and cartoony, not attempting to be realistic).

Those faults withstanding, it was a pleasure to view the film in IMAX-3D. Zemeckis utilizes the technology well, giving us moments of true depth. Whether flying through the tree branches, having a spear frozen in front of our eyes, watching bodies fall and flip towards us, and seeing blood splattered in our faces, we are thrown smack dab in the middle of the action. Water and blood are realistic and, along with fire and smoke, shown with nice field of vision, never seeming like a flat plane placed on top of the layer beneath it. The effects are so good, it might have been the best film I’ve seen using the gimmick. Having seen only three others, however, I’m not so sure that is too bold of a statement.

As far as the acting goes, I think most performances are a bit too over-the-top. I almost wish all the characters were devoid of any likenesses to their real-life counterparts like our lead. It is just too distracting, leading my mind to wander and think of how the cgi person differs from the actor. This is especially true with John Malkovich’s Unferth. They try to make him different enough, but the face is still there and the horrible Danish accent is just too much. The only really good turns, to me, were Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, and Crispin Glover. I would add Robin Wright Penn to the list, but her smooth/taut face didn’t allow for any nuance to go with her voice’s portrayal. Winstone, as Beowulf is the best. With very little likeness, he is allowed to create a full figure. The facial are expressions genuine and moving, especially when he realizes the pact he made with the devil and later on when he puts his life on the line for those he loves. Gleeson is a stalwart of the craft and comes across much like he would if it was really he onscreen, and Glover proves to be a master of elasticity and quirky movement. No one else could have been the stand-in for Grendel.

Artistically, the film is stunning to behold. Everything seems to have been lifted from the story correctly. Jolie’s devil is a disgusting creature only shown as beautiful through the warped minds of men—the use of reflections to show this fact is great. Also, the fact that our original King’s curse of an heir was his shame, manifested by a hideous creature made to hear every word spoken about him through super hearing, and Beowulf’s was his vanity, displayed by an Adonis of an offspring, showed the detail that went into the artistic direction. Unfortunately, while it visually held true to the tale, it might have adhered to the source a bit too much script-wise. It is a morality tale that drives its point home too forcefully, repeating itself often, leaving the audience cold and annoyed. If you want to see this film, do yourself a favor and spend the extra cash on the IMAX-3D experience. Without the visuals to preoccupy you, the film doesn’t quite deliver. Our hero says to his wife, “Don’t remember me as your King or a hero, but instead as a man, fallible and flawed.” He could have said it about the movie itself, but instead of being modest and touching for his character, it is ultimately a derogatory view for the work, something I’m sure the filmmakers hoped would be seen as glorious.

Beowulf 6/10

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photography:
[1] The Viking hero Beowulf (left) confronts the monster Grendel’s seductive mother (right) in “Beowulf.” Photo: Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. © 2007 by Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved
[2] His desire for the beautiful Queen Wealthow (left) surfaces in one of Beowulf’s dreams in “Beowulf.” Photo: Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. © 2007 by Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved

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I’ve been hearing that American Gangster is just your run-of-the-mill cop vs. robber flick, again showing Ridley Scott’s prevailing mediocrity. Hey, I love the cast and I find Scott almost as intriguing as his brother, so I was all for it. Generic gangsters with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe should still be better than most. However, while finding it to be unoriginal, I didn’t see it as a crime film. Instead it was one of my least favorite genres, the biopic. We are shown Frank Lucas go from driver of Harlem’s bigshot to king of the drug world and Richie Roberts from beat cop/law student to drug investigator head/prosecuting lawyer. Rather than give us all conflict, we get sequence after sequence of how these two got where they get. Not only that, but I couldn’t tell you at the end who was the good guy and who the bad. Both men are glorified and shown to have enemies that they vault over because of character, whether moral or not. They both beat the odds, and honestly, I liked Denzel’s Lucas as a person more than Crowe’s Roberts.

There is just too much going on here. How many times do we need to see Robert’s boyscout mentality and Lucas’ calm demeanor and non-flashy appearance? Both men do what they should to be successful in their field, only while Crowe continuously gets punished for it in life—but not career per se—Washington just gets richer. Who should we strive to be then? Like the young man with a 95 mph fastball, who gives up his gravy train, says, “I want to be like you Uncle Frank.” You don’t see Robert’s son looking up to dad, instead he seems to not even know he exists, pretty much because he doesn’t to him.

I don’t want to slight the story though. This is a very intriguing premise, how a black man subverts the middleman, like local electronic stores, to buy his drugs from the source in Bangkok. This no name does what the Italians never could, sell superior product for half the price, and stay almost completely under the radar. Whether the expensive chinchilla coat from his wife truly was the cause of him appearing on enemy lists or not—it is a bit convenient—it was bound to happen sometime. Although, keeping a low profile and staying conservative is a novel idea that you’d think more criminals would want to adopt. The Frank Lucas Story works, but I think it would truly succeed as its own tale. Just show us his life, or maybe just his heyday as a ruthless criminal, not as a kid from the streets that works hard and runs his city. Glorifying crime should not be what Hollywood wants to do.

While the Lucas tale was good, the Roberts one was great. Now, the Richie Roberts Story is something I would definitely watch. Here is a guy that is married to his job and estranged from his wife and kid. Someone who finds a million dollars of drug money and doesn’t take a penny; will not cover for his partner or friends if they do something illegal; and who will stop at nothing to actually put bad men behind bars. Even more unbelievable is how he not only takes down the most dangerous criminal in New York, but he also prosecutes him in court, getting him to cooperate in taking down corrupt cops. Then, the craziest revelation of all, he becomes Lucas’ defense attorney and gets his term shortened by fifty years. It is too bad that rather than give two hour-and-a-half films on each guy separately, we get a bloated three hour parallel tale of the two at once. I only stayed invested in anticipation to finally see these two powerhouses onscreen together.

In that regard, Washington and Crowe deliver the goods like usual. Supporting them, however, is a big time cast of names. I can’t believe all the people they got to be involved here with bit parts. Ejiofor, Hawkes, Brolin, Gugino, Common, Ortiz, Gooding Jr., Assante, and more vault the story to a higher level through their professionalism. Even RZA has a nice turn, but did we need the money shot of his tattooed name on his shoulder? Come on, cover that up, it was just stupid. I really hope John Ortiz will continue to get work because like in Miami Vice, he makes a small role his own.

So, in the end, as with most biopics, this one just shows too much. It lulled me into a sense of cruise control, just watching and watching, waiting for something special to happen. There are moments, like the final shootout that works nicely and a good exchange at the end between Lucas and his mother, but they are few and very far between. Only in America can a man without conscience, a murderer and druglord, blow-in a few corrupt cops and skate out of jail time to once again roam the streets. I understand the utilitarianism of it all and that he might be a marked man now, but honestly, he turned in police officers not gang leaders. There won’t be any hits put on his head; he’ll be able to retire with no problem. Not to mention, I’m sure, that probably no ramifications were experienced by the military and their involvement in the smuggling of contraband into the country. It’s like this all happened and we learned nothing from it.

American Gangster 6/10

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[1] Common, Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Malcolm Goodwin in American Gangster – 2007
[2] Russell Crowe star as Detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster.

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After all these years, I finally had the opportunity to watch my least favorite of the Rocky series, Rocky III, again. With the new installment, Rocky Balboa, having just reinvigorated my enjoyment in the saga, I couldn’t wait to see a true tragedy with this one. I’ll say that it did not end up that way entirely. I actually had a real good time watching it. Upon completion, I turned to my friends and said, “that wasn’t as bad as I remembered.” They replied by saying, “yeah, but I’m sure we didn’t laugh that much the first time we saw it either.” So, I am not going to declaring this a masterpiece by any means. Truthfully, the score I gave it from the memory of years back will stay the same. Maybe I would have increased it if the film’s goal was to be a comedy, but since it tried to be a drama, it did ultimately fail.

I give full credit to Sylvester Stallone. He wrote the original and ended up starring in it on more accident than anything else. He took that classic and turned it into a franchise beloved by many. This entry just has too much of its era on display—the 80’s are in full force. I understand what he tried, showing how success and the Me-lifestyle of the decade turned a champ into a chump. Some really great stuff happens too: Mickey saying that he had been protecting him and keeping him out of contenders’ grasps, Apollo Creed coming to his defense as a promoter, and Adrian stepping up and telling her husband how it is, despite her wanting him to retire. The bad just outweighs the good way too much. Between the circus in the hotel training facility, Hulk Hogan’s embarrassing cameo, Mr, T’s street version of Muhammad Ali trash-talk, Burt Young’s ridiculous remarks at every turn, and Sly’s new wardrobe, I shook my head in shame the whole time. The real travesty, though, is that Mickey had to go out in such an inferior product.

Along with all the unintentional laughter, the re-training of Balboa at the hands of Creed and Duke—Carl Weathers and Tony Burton carry the film—is fantastic stuff. The montages are cheesy and each scene drips melodrama, but the thought is what counts. Making a slugger become faster and graceful is an interesting spin and makes perfect sense. Maybe Sly just needed a script doctor to hone his good ideas into a more enjoyable whole. As is, though, while the underlying themes and progression of the series is worthwhile, the fluff just drags it all down into the gutter.

Rocky III 4/10

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The often-used phrase about how it was too bad such great acting was wasted on an inferior film has always intrigued me. The last time I felt it was with The Last King of Scotland. There, however, its top-notch performances vaulted its above average story into a highly enjoyable experience. That is how these instances usually go for me. I don’t mind if the movie is on the simple side if the acting is worth the price of admission. A great movie does not need to fire on all cylinders to make me praise it, the acting can always make up for whatever else is lacking. With that said, Sidney Lumet’s highly praised new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, brings out some electric turns from its cast. Everyone seems to have sunk their teeth in the roles they were given and they knock them out of the park. In that regard I agree whole-heartedly with critics that we have a return to form for Lumet, better known for his gritty character pieces from the 70’s. Unfortunately, while last year’s Find Me Guilty, his first major film in seven years, was pretty cookie-cutter, it was highly entertaining. I cannot say the same about his new work. Despite its acting clinic, the story is overall boring, contrived, and at times annoying with its gimmick of using multiple storylines to catch what each character was doing before, after, and during the robbery.

Robbery-gone-wrong plots are pretty commonplace. It takes some ingenuity or enjoyable supporting stories to carry an entry in the genre. What was so refreshing for a film like Inside Man is that it was about a robbery gone well. The downfall there was that its periphery Nazi plot was so specific and tacked on, it took away from what worked, the bank heist. Straight from the trailer here, we are told that our leads, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman, have hatched a plan to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Knowing all the angles, it would be an in-and-out job with no casualties. We all know that something will be going wrong and that the family will be faced with challenges to recuperate from it, but it doesn’t have to be so generic and obvious. Even the other plot threads are unoriginal. For instance, what is thought to be a look inside Hoffman’s psyche with drug abuse in a hotel room eventually turns out to have only been introduced so the locale could be used later on—just because we saw it before doesn’t let it make sense, it becomes unnatural due to how contrived it is.

Lumet and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson know that it is all in the details and they show every one of them. We are blatantly shown events and tiny missteps continuously, knowing that they will be coming back into play. The story was so worn that my boredom began manifesting things and scenarios, hoping that the stale events would pick up somehow. Having to see a truck pull into the mall’s parking lot, obstructing the view of the brother’s parents’ car, stuck out so much I started to think that whoever drove it was part of a twist yet to come. Don’t bother with any conspiracy theories; it was just a prop to block the parents’ identities. It is all so fine-tuned and orchestrated that the story just drags along, culminating in a mixed bag conclusion.

The final half hour or so is pretty good, though. The acting steps up drastically, and that says something since it had been in top form throughout, and the stakes finally get raised to the level of me being truly in the dark to what could happen. Only when every character has their back to the wall does the spontaneity and inventiveness finally come out. Too bad it took three quarters of a bloated two-hour runtime to get there. Not only that, but at the very end, it reverts back into blandness. The ending works, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that it is what we thought would play out from the start of the final transition—those epileptic screen flashes to let us know we were moving in time to a different character were laughably annoying—to the last main point of view change, while also allowing the results of a major character’s arc to be left untouched.

Again, though, despite all that is wrong and unoriginal about the story, the performances are fantastic. Ethan Hawke is his generally spot-on self as the “baby” of the family, literally and figurative. He is roped into the theft by his older brother’s smarts and conniving ability to get his sibling to do whatever he wants. As that man, Hoffman is at his best. The salesman smile, the internalizing of his lack of a loving childhood, and the scary rage when the bottom finally falls out, all shape this character to be the most interesting and complex of the bunch. If only Lumet would have honed the film to focus on this role, without all the repetition of getting everyone’s viewpoint, Hoffman could have easily carried the story to greatness. All the supporting players are brilliant too. Albert Finney is devastating as the father, slowly losing his entire family to the robbery’s wake, Brian F. O’Byrne is wonderful as the punk Hawke gets to help him with the heist, and Amy Ryan astonishes mainly from the fact that I could hardly recognize her due to the transformation taken in her last film Gone Baby Gone. Even Marisa Tomei, in a role that is completely a prop used to connect the brothers and their emotional problems and I guess as eye-candy since she is topless for most of the movie, is wonderful. It’s just a shame that the acting couldn’t have been the focal point. The mediocre story pushed through too much, instilling boredom on top of the performances that truly captivated my attention. This film is done much better in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, taking similar plot points, but not bogging them down in artifice and convenience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead 6/10

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[1] Philip Seymour Hoffman as Andy and Ethan Hawke as Hank in Sidney Lumet drama thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
[2] Aleksa Palladino as Chris, Michael Shannon as Dex and Ethan Hawke as Hank in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

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