You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2008.

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Wow, did a Saw film get beat out by a bunch of Disney tweeners for the top spot? Maybe the tide has changed and the blood and gore doesn’t quite hold up on the scare factor versus singing and dancing kids … hey that scares me more too. Saw V has arrived anyways, though, and it continues the intricate storyline very well. While that story ties together nicely, the film itself is not up to par. I believe this is the first of the series that I actually started thinking about the stupidity of some situations on screen. In the past I’ve just let them go because the plot got me invested completely and I needed to see what would happen. Here, between trying to deflect the moments of disbelief with more blood than any that came before it and our “hero” deciding to speak out loud to describe things we just saw flashbacks of, I had to shake my head because the little things were taking me away from the big picture. It’s a shame too, because the script really interweaves the present with the past perfectly, connecting every installment together by shedding light on the behind the scenes goings-on for each one. Once again the writers have found a way to create inside the grey areas, beefing up the mythology and making it all more carefully orchestrated than we had originally thought.

Time is played with again, but what else did you expect? It all opens with a murder set-up, however there is one huge difference … whether the victim follows the rules and beats the game or not, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to save himself. This is so un-Jigsaw-like that maybe our new evil incarnate, (if you haven’t seen the past films, you shouldn’t be reading this anyways), Detective Hoffman, doesn’t quite share the same mentality of rehabilitation as John. Here is the first solo kill from the new serial murderer, or is it? After the film continues on, we are treated to many flashbacks helping to flesh out the relationship between John and Hoffman, how they met, how they connected, and what made this cop turn into an angel of death. Around the halfway mark is where we are finally able to get our feet underneath us, letting us discover exactly when everything we’ve seen has occurred in relation to the others. And of course, this device allows us to experience more of Tobin Bell’s superior psychopath, once again making it almost seem as though what he does is the right thing.

It truly all comes together, a fact that intrigues me to think that this may be the final piece to the puzzle. We discover small details including what transgressions the obese man in Saw got him in the barbed wire, how the doctor’s penlight ended up at the scene of that crime, why Amanda was placed in action during Saw II, and what got Hoffman involved with the side he was investigating against. The ability to keep adding on and make the background richer with each film is astounding. Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan did a great job picking up where the original writers left off with Saw IV and have continued that job here. Unfortunately it is their handling of the present details that falter. I don’t blame them too much because they had a lot on their plates making the backstory connect, leaving something to be desired on the periphery story about five young adults unknowingly involved in an accidental arson murder is understandable.

The game these five people must play is very obvious, with its twist blatantly there to be understood, yet milked until the final “test”. As a result, I just wanted to be done with them and go back to Hoffman’s cat and mouse game with FBI Agent Strahm. It’s too bad because I’m a fan of Carlo Rota from his “24” days and Julie Benz was quite interesting too, (when will I find the time to start watching “Dexter”?). Their storyline was just too much of a MacGuffin, one that never asked me to invest time in it, so I never did. Scott Patterson (Strahm) and Costas Mandylor (Hoffman) were too intriguing to pass up on. And that is totally character based, because I will admit, neither are that stellar as actors. They brood well and keep that blank, cold stare to uncomfortable effect. Anyone who can orchestrate a game as good as Jigsaw is worth your time and, as for our hero Strahm, anyone who can give himself a tracheotomy is all kinds of badass.

So, if you’ve been keeping score and haven’t lost your stomach yet, do yourself a favor and continue the journey. It’s not the best installment, but it builds upon the past nicely. You probably don’t have to run to the theatres, giving it a rent in a couple months should suffice. Just be forewarned and don’t take too much stock in the “you won’t believe how it ends” tagline. The ending is telestrated from the get-go, just one more example of how the standalone story is much weaker than the mythology continuity. And don’t forget to pay attention to some innocuous moments with John’s ex-wife, Betsy Russell’s Jill Tuck. Whatever her involvement is, besides the lie she tells towards the end, may just be a centerpiece to Saw VI, if that tale gets green-lit for production.

Saw V 6/10
As comparison: Saw 7/10; Saw II 5/10; Saw III 7/10; Saw IV 7/10

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[1] Julie Benz (“Brit,” left), Carlo Rota (“Charles,” center left), Greg Bryk (“Mallick,” center right), and Meagan Good (“Luba,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Saw V.
[2] Tobin Bell (“Jigsaw”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Saw V.

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Michael Ondaatje is the kind of guy that you just want to sit back and have a conversation with. The man has a fantastic sense of humor, is totally self-deprecating, and just brings a smile to your face with each one of his own. After a brief introduction that delved into his past as well as a description of his novel of concern, The English Patient, (which just by it’s paraphrasing showed me how different the film is, being that I didn’t have a chance to read before the talk), Ondaatje took the podium and read a couple poems and excerpts from three of his novels. There were a couple anecdotes thrown in the mix, but for the most part he just orated his words as meant to be heard, leaving the fun interjections for the Q&A that followed.

One of the most animated of those that have come for the Babel series, Ondaatje started it all off with a little local love, ecstatic to be in a building with ties to Ani DiFranco as he is a “great fan of hers”. He was born in Ceylon (which is now Sri Lanka), lived in England for almost a decade, and then settled in Canada, where he still calls Toronto his home today. After reading a couple deep poetry examples, the true humor of the man showed face with a vignette from Running in the Family concerning his grandmother. Once done relating the fact that his relatives in Ceylon never told the truth—they told stories and exaggerations for everything—he read his account, more fiction than not. The jokes are aplenty and Ondaatje showed his joy by laughing and smiling with the audience at every comical turn. Then, before some passages from his newest novel Divisadero, he shared excerpts from The English Patient. It’s a novel he has not read since he finished it, but then he hasn’t read any due to the fear of seeing things he should have done better. And of course the obvious reason, “I saw the movie”.

While the readings were enjoyable, as any are straight from the mouth of their creator, the off-the-cuff question and answer period really stole the show. Always quick with a retort and facial expression, Ondaatje looked as though he enjoyed every second of the visit … and that’s what you like to see. No one wants someone on stage going through the motions. He wasn’t afraid to admit when things he wrote were purely accidental, nor to say “I don’t understand that question at all” when a word is used that he remembers had meaning when he wrote it, but couldn’t for the life of him recall what it was. There were things said about how too much research is not a good thing, one needs random research mixed in with fiction to build a good story; how he never has an idea before writing, just a location and time for which to build from and stumble onto his next point of business; and that his style mirrors how he believes people think, non-chronologically. “We have a non-linear gene in our bodies,” he says, things must be revealed at the right time, not the chronological time. He also delves into the people doing the activities he writes, rather than the activity’s process itself, allowing for a deeper resonance to show humanity and the ability to imagine himself in that life.

His exuberance was contagious and the discovery of how different the style is of his novel compared to the film just makes me want to read it more. There is a sense of the common man and emotion in his readings and overall demeanor that makes you at ease and invested in the stories. With his crazy hair and never-ending arsenal of quips, Michael Ondaatje showed us how unpretentious an award-winning artist can be—something refreshing and thoroughly worth the time to experience.

The sold-out second season of Babel continues on April 1 with Marjane Satrapi and April 17 with Isabel Allende.

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Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened made me ponder that exact question as I walked out of my screening. Sadly, the answer I settled on was: not much. I think Robert De Niro’s producer Ben said it best when being completely honest with Stanley Tucci’s screenwriter about his new florist-set script—“it’s not a movie”. That is exactly what I would have said when this script was green-lit to become what it now is. No disrespect to Art Linson who adapted the screenplay from his own comic memoirs because I really do want to read the book. I think a week in the life of a producer could be a great read; the inner struggles and the hectic schedules, however, it falls completely flat cinematically. I was bored by this film start to finish. It had its moments of laughter, but more often than not, the joke was either cute/obvious or went on way too long, (John Turturro and his not stomaching the pressure of being an agent, I’m talking to you). It’s a shame because I was really looking forward to this tell-all tale of a high-powered money manager behind the scenes of a movie. Unfortunately I just got the equivalent of a reality tv show following our lead around from meeting to meeting, only less interesting because I knew all of this was scripted.

The jokes are all exactly what you would expect. Anyone who has ears knows about the tabloid rumors and the debauchery going on in Hollywood, this film does nothing to shed light on anything new. I would understand if the film was completely tongue-in-cheek with some biting commentary on the industry, but it truly is just a normal week. “Entourage” does a better job with similar subject matter even though every season is pretty much a reworked story arc of the one before it. No one really wants to see Ben going from movie to movie, studio to studio, wife to wife trying to keep a handle on his life. We have our own troubles without the bankroll allowing him to have the comforts while bartering and negotiating for a living. If anything, I may resent the life even more now because these spoiled brats just don’t care about anyone but them. I’m sure Sean Penn and Bruce Willis thought they were sending themselves up in great humor and satire; however, it was more them actually playing their real life selves. Maybe that is a credit to them as actors, but it was a detriment to my interest in the movie. I wanted bombast and only got controlled outbursts.

De Niro’s Ben is running around, juggling his business with his personal life, trying to get the money where it needs to be while also finding time to drive all his children to school—from both failed marriages. He deals with the no-nonsense studio heads, the prima donna actors, the eccentric drug-induced directors, the alimony loving ex-wife, the on good terms ex-wife, the grateful children and those growing up way too fast, the agents who can’t handle their clients, and the young aspiring actresses trying to sleep their way into a film. Pretty much every cliché you can think of is here onscreen, just brief enough to come and go before another takes its place. Hey, clichés are clichés because they happen. I’m not belittling the factual integrity of the story; I’m just questioning the use of tired plot points in a film that is attempting to be engaging.

The thing that really didn’t work for me, though, was the cinematography. Levinson has his DP shooting the entire thing in close-up, with what seems to be a hand-held camera. I can appreciate the juxtaposition of jumpy/shaky visuals to stand in for the chaotic lifestyle and high blood pressure Ben must be experiencing, but it is overkill here. It all feels as though they are trying to be Tony Scott with his MTV-style cutting and over-produced motion sequences, however, Scott’s use of the technique is always planned and carefully orchestrated. With What Just Happened, it seems as though the photographer just shook the camera and the editor just sped the film up to look “cool”. I don’t even know what happened at one point when we are watching De Niro go to his car from his house and then the screen cuts from house to car and back and forth again through time. We understand the trick being a way to show the cyclical nature of his work once we see him in the car over and over again at different moments towards the end of the sequence. It’s the moving him back in time, at the start, to the house after we know he was in the car that was just confusing and unnecessary.

Through it all is some nice acting, however, so it’s not a complete loss. De Niro doesn’t quite phone in the performance, as he is known to do of late. He has some nice moments with his more recent ex, played nicely by Robin Wright Penn, and with Tucci in a few comedic encounters. I liked Moon Bloodgood as the actress trying to sleep her way to fame and the Middle Eastern (I think) co-producers who got their money from hair and dry-cleaning. The real star truly ends up being Michael Wincott, a kooky character actor that has been away for too long. Everyone’s favorite Sheriff of Nottingham plays the crazed director trying to get his film at Cannes with the cut he deems appropriate. He is so over-the-top that his is the one role firing on all cylinders. He knows the score with the hyper-reality going on and he hams it up to stellar effect. Anytime he and Catherine Keener share screen time meant I genuinely had a smile on my face. Unfortunately they weren’t in view for too much of the movie.

What Just Happened 4/10

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[1] Robert De Niro, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci in Magnolia Pictures’ What Just Happened? (2008) Copyright © Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Catherine Keener stars as Lou and Robert De Niro stars as Ben in Magnolia Pictures’ What Just Happened? (2008) Copyright © Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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The English Patient is a story of love gained, lost, and never forgotten. The late Anthony Minghella had a couple films under his belt, but I don’t think even he saw the success coming from this adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel. It won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and even welcomed some mention famously in a “Seinfeld” episode. So, the real question is, why did it take me 12 years to finally watch it? I really don’t have a good answer, except that who cares, it’s been seen now. Did it live up to the lofty expectations? That’s a tough call because I don’t think anything could really match the pre-screening buzz I’ve had to deal with the past decade. However, it definitely came very, very close if not. This is an epic about events occurring on the fringe of WWII, instances of romance and passion that end up having political consequences unforeseen. Love makes us all do crazy things without a second glance at the outcome for those other than you. But, in the end, isn’t it all still worth it?

The titular English patient is Count Laszlo de Almásy who we are introduced to as his plane is shot down in a fiery crash, leaving his entire body badly burned. It appears as though he has lost his memory too, except for an uncanny ability to name every song he hears. Almásy loves to sing, as he is told throughout the film, in both his past and present, so this trick is not too out of place. He is on his last leg, the crash left him close to death, and eventually the military caravan he is apart of goes on while he and his nurse stay holed up in an abandoned Italian Villa. The nurse, Hana, has seen her own bits of tragedy during the war as her love was killed and then her best friend, seconds after talking to her, is blown up by a land mine. Everyone she loves seems to be perishing around her, so to get away with her patient is an appealing answer to the grief and anger bottled inside. The two are very alike, especially after we hear Almásy speaking of his wife, who we can only assume was the woman in the plane with him when it crashes. We won’t know the truth until we delve into the dreamstate memories of his past, the years leading up to the point he is at now. His days as a mapmaker in Africa and the affairs and dealings he participates in once the war breaks.

There are a lot of timeline maneuvering, but it’s always grounded through our lead character Almásy. Ralph Fiennes is either under burn victim prosthetics (the present) or shown whole in the desert (the past). The surrounding roles also help as we soon realize the instances with Kristen Scott Thomas delineate the past from those moments with Juliette Binoche’s Hana, caring for our lead in Italy. The way Fiennes dreams all his flashbacks make it tough for we the audience to decide whether he has amnesia or is just faking it to try and forget the past—an idea set forth by Willem Dafoe’s mysterious Caravaggio, a man that is not telling the complete truth, yet entrenching himself in the middle of the action. His past shows him in the deserts converting photographs into maps for the British army to use for the war that is brewing. It is a life of work amongst men and friends until a couple benefactors, one a photographer, come to visit. The arrival of Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton (Colin Firth and Scott Thomas respectively) turns the entire dynamic on its head. Fiennes’ strict bachelor finds a woman who fascinates him. A strong, educated, and independent one that just might feel the same about him.

This is not just any affair, though, but instead one with dire consequences. Those that Almásy and Katharine touch will all be affected because of the war and the sides that are forming. What was once a world of equality and kinship, with multiple ethnicities and nationalities all teaming up on the cartology project, becomes one of enemies and allies on opposite ends of a harsh brutal battle. The reverberations from their trysts are felt for years to come as grudges stay held and alliances are made. Why does Almásy keep referring to a wife when we know he never has one? What relationship does Caravaggio truly hold with him, if any? Why are he and Katharine flying in territory that risked them getting shot down and killed? There are so many questions for which hinge on Almásy remembering his past. We want him to remember because we want to know what happened to bring him to where he is, alone and disfigured, only wanting one more day in the rain before he dies.

But it is not all about this journey. We also are treated to Binoche’s Hana’s evolution as a woman trying to survive a war that appears to kill everyone she holds dear. What was to be a retreat of isolation beside her patient becomes a boarding house for Dafoe’s character as well as a team of bomb diffusers led by Naveen Andrews’ Kip. Everyone’s favorite Iraqi torturer from “Lost” was billed higher than Firth in an Oscar winning film back in 1996. Where has he been since? I don’t know, but I’m glad he has returned to the scene because he shows again here that he deserves to be. An Indian Sikh, he becomes the person that could show Hana she is not cursed. He can be a love that won’t go away, one to break her from the shell she has hidden herself behind. Theirs becomes a relationship that mirrors Almásy’s own with Katharine, allowing his thoughts to dwell on that happy time and eventually let spill what really happened.

Six people’s lives intertwine through over a decade in Europe and Africa, meeting accidentally and purposely with both large and small results. Each has a hand in the future of the other, whether they are aware of it or not. One move by any of them can be a life or death decision for the rest. As a result, this story could have become contrived to the point of absurdity in order to make it all happen. However, this fact is what makes the film so successful, because it never falls into that trap. The English Patient is natural and fluid throughout its lengthy duration with each coincidence and uncovered secret seeming to be as realistic as possible. I never once doubted the activities nor motives of any involved and while it may drag a bit around the hour and a half mark, the final 45 minutes or so make up for everything. Something can be said for the hidden truth being revealed after so much anticipation and buildup. Minghella took the novel and crafted a riveting piece of romantic drama, captivating its audience and delivering on every promise … absolutely.

The English Patient 9/10

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The seminal zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead, can now be crossed off my list of films I need to see. Here is a tale of the undead that is still copied and paid respect to today, some forty years later. Even writer/director George Romero continues to add installments to the saga with his most recent entries gracing theatres in the past few years. It is interesting to note that this film, the most notorious zombie flick, never uses the “Z” word. Much like 28 Days Later, the label is not uttered. Whereas it was intentional with Danny Boyle, as his creatures were just rage-infected humanity, here it might be because the word just wasn’t part of our lexicon. Instead we are treated with the slow moving “ghouls” leaving “partially devoured” victims in their wake. It really is just low-budget terror entertainment more than anything else. I had always heard about its great social commentary, and I guess you can make parallels to the red scare and communism, but in the end it’s all really just a film to instill fear in the young and laughs for the unaffected.

I jest a little about the laughs as this is not as poorly acted as one might think. Sure there are moments of cringe-worthy deliveries and over-acted moments, but for the most part everyone is restrained enough to allow the themes of survival, heroism, and humanity’s penchant for destruction to resonate. From the get-go I will admit to being worried, especially with Judith O’Dea’s shrill screams for her brother to stop scaring her—“Johnny!!” And Russell Streiner’s Johnny himself is too indifferent and tough when juxtaposed with his nerdy wardrobe. The performance seems forced, until he starts having fun with his sister, adopting the creepy Vincent Price-like voice, “they’re coming to get you Barbara” with ease. I think the amateurish acting helps lend some character to the film, though, being such a cheaply made one, (I mean that cost-wise not production-wise as the film is very well made), especially since Romero shoots most of it in close-up. It’s as though he wants us to see firsthand and up close the mostly unsuccessful attempts at naturalism.

But this creature isn’t made for film accolades, nor has it become a cult phenomenon never to be forgotten because of them either. The sheer simplicity of it all is what really stands tall when the credits finally role. At the center of the tale is this inexplicable outbreak of the recently dead being brought back to life with a hunger for human flesh, thus turning their victims into ghouls too. An interesting scene, viewed by our leads on the TV, showing the thoughts of the government on what could be the cause tries to illuminate some reasons, but nothing really sticks. Scientists believe the destruction is a direct result from a satellite beacon returning from Venus that was shot down as it entered our atmosphere with extremely high levels of radiation. The military, however, is skeptical that the cause is alien … possibly the most obvious comment on the Cold War. Horrors have always been the strongest comment on politics and societal distress because of the inherent fear they bring. Films give us an embodiment of the evils and monsters out there waiting for an opportunity to strike. With Night of the Living Dead, we are being overtaken by radioactively triggered automatons, stumbling into our homes looking for blood. Could this be the mechanical and emotionless face of Communism seamlessly integrating their way into our world? A wave of fear that people who look just like us could in fact be the enemy? Maybe.

The ghouls are knocking at our doors, trying to get in and growing in numbers as each minute passes. They are a force created by our own technology, inventions created to try and expand our hold on the world, devices sent to help begin our conquering of space coming back with a disease set to hit against the ego that’s necessary to take those steps. They consist of our brothers and sisters and friends, and once they have been turned, they show no remorse or kinship, only a lust to turn you too. Huh, maybe I’ve changed my mind during the course of writing this review; I guess there is more social commentary than I initially thought.

To get back to the surface, though, the story of these three small groups, trying to survive against the onslaught, I enjoyed what Romero did. He gives us the semi-locals—Tom and Judy—both young and unsure of their place, doing what they can to help, but letting emotions get in the way; the older stubborn Harry Cooper, entrenched in his views that his need for self-worth shields him from the right and smart moves; his wife and ill daughter caught in the middle as they must stick with Cooper no matter if he is wrong; and our outsiders, Barbra and Ben, caught up in the mix and truly the wild cards. Barbra is catatonic for most of the film, but her eccentricities cause immense unease and some of the best tension offered. As for Ben, Duane Jones is the epitome of the manly man hero. His take charge attitude is perfect as he will never back down to Karl Hardman’s overly brash Cooper, nor allow the wild Barbra get to him, willing to smack her if needed. Ben is the one with a head on his shoulders, looking for survival no matter the cost, trying to help as many as he can, but unafraid to leave them behind if they don’t want to jump onboard.

So, when all is said and done, Romero has crafted something here that I’m sure was odd and unique back in 1968. This is the backbone to every zombie story you can think of, it started a trend that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. Utilizing the media as a main character even in his first film, the newscaster becomes a voice of reason. Our implicit trust in the man on TV/radio, the person accessible to everyone and therefore must be the authority on the subject is the real scary aspect of the story. Our heroes do what they are told, not because it’s the right thing, but because it is the popular choice. I will say that the ending is superb and in tone with what had been going on. America as a land of cowboys, shoot first and ask questions later … ah, McCarthyism at its finest.

Night of the Living Dead 7/10

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The 1938 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood is quite the feat … for 1938. This adventure film is definitely dated, but don’t let that get you down; it is still a highly entertaining movie. I can see how innovative and successful it would have been upon its release and I respect all its achievements. However, it just has that stigma of a hammy, fun story wrapped around sword fights, romance, and political intrigue. It is the definitive version of the story, if not the best orchestrated in my opinion, because you can see glimpses here that were stolen for all the other iterations. Disney pretty much appropriated it all for their animated version and Cary Elwes was channeling Errol Flynn’s portrayal of the bandit stealing from the rich and giving to the poor throughout Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights. The only question I have upon the viewing is whether Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe will create something truly unique with the upcoming Nottingham, or whether they also will appropriate much from this tale, based on the legends of Robin Hood.

Everyone knows the story, King Richard has gone off to fight the Crusades and his evil, treacherous brother Prince John has usurped his proxy to seize control of the kingdom. Conniving to take the throne for good, John raises taxes and makes life horrible for the Saxons as any good Norman would. When the King is rumored to have been captured and held for ransom, the time to complete his coup is upon the nation. Only one man, Sir Robin of Locksley, takes the job of keeping the will of the true King alive. He begins to round up a ragtag army and starts becoming a huge thorn in the Prince’s side. The back and forth commences, fighting ensues, romances bud from unlikely pairings, and justice is put up in the air to either be defended or thrown to the side. It’s Robin Hood’s Merry Men versus the Prince’s loyally traitorous entourage … I wonder what the outcome could possibly be?

I will say that I missed the little jokes that made me love Disney’s Robin Hood so much, (it has always been one of my favorites of their hand drawn animations). You don’t know how much I wanted Claude Rains to start sucking his thumb when times became tough like Prince John did in the cartoon. It is all made up for, though, by the great production value. This is a big studio Technicolor picture on our hands. I have to imagine it was all shot on a soundstage due to the presence of some fantastic matte paintings, (the use of which makes me think it was not filmed outdoors). It is always a pleasure to watch characters move farther and farther from the foreground towards something that doesn’t exist. To make that look realistic is definitely a success. And the amount of detail and authenticity is astounding. The Medieval garb and castles are realistic; as is the muddy forest our heroes live and train in.

It’s all shot well too. The fight scenes are manic and exciting, moving at a speed so fast I have to believe it was over-cranked footage of slower choreography. With many cuts and reaction shots, the story is explained well by facial features and the orchestration of scenes. One cannot forget a wonderful moment during a fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Prince John’s second in command. The battle continues on through the castle until it reaches the dungeons. After going down the stairs, our swordsmen fall off the screen to be illuminated as shadows, looming over the huge stone column in the center of the frame. It is all one continuous take, leading us from a visual of them, to the shadowplay, to the return in frame of the two, still slugging it out. A beautifully shot sequence, it is what I remember most vividly from the screening.

My one surprise through it all comes from the character of Sir Guy. Who is this guy? I thought the Sheriff of Nottingham was the main baddie under Prince John’s ill-rule. I guess all the other versions I know of have combined these two roles and made the Sheriff into an icon of villainy, when, in fact, he is just a bumbling cop stumbling his way under Sir Guy, the real brains of the operation. It was my one head-scratcher, but a difference I kind of liked. Having the Sheriff a bit of a dullard worked against Basil Rathbone’s villainy nicely, because Robin Hood should have a worthy adversary. It was the biggest change of the ones I could spot—many others were just lack of detail and background. Much is glossed over for this blockbuster version: Friar Tuck’s drunkenness is alluded to briefly, but never spoken of I believe; Robin Hood’s taking from the rich is largely assumed, but never really shown; etc. This telling decided to go more for the high adventure, portraying our hero as infallible, than let any darkness creep in and add a little tension and duality of nature that could work so well in this tale.

That said; it was largely about the romance between Robin and Maid Marian. At first two very different people, a relationship the farthest thing from her mind, they soon fall for each other, as you know they will. Olivia de Havilland is effective as the girl needing protection, but she is also much more. There is a sense of royalty with her, always looking for a way to be free and independent. She has a strong will and spirit, never afraid to stand up for her beliefs, no matter the consequences. She is then the perfect candidate to catch Robin Hood’s eye. And boy does Errol Flynn take a look. His performance is a lot of fun as he hams up every moment with a witty oneliner as he partakes in a fight with swords or words. His ego is so big that his confidence will never quit. One could say he should fail on hubrus alone, but he is the hero and we love heroes. Flynn does not disappoint in that regard as he dons the tights and keeps Britain safe for his King’s hopeful return.

The Adventures of Robin Hood 7/10

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I’m going to start this review by saying I have no idea why Oliver Stone thought his new film W. would have any effect on the upcoming elections. The guy gave himself almost no time to edit his footage so that it could be released two weeks before Election Day. Don’t get me wrong, the film is constructed very nicely, he did a great job in that short time, all I’m saying is that he didn’t need to rush. I mean if he was trying to show the world why not to vote Republican, he should have done a film about Bush’s second term and the blunders he made in concern with Iraq. Instead, though, this bio-pic actually glorifies the man, telling how a screw-up punk could turn his life around, find religion, quit drinking, and become the leader of the free world. The story is inspiring, showing how his no-lose attitude made him into the most powerful man in the country, sticking to his guns and doing everything necessary to keep America safe. Sure his cabinet, (except for Powell), is shown in a horrible light, basically being blamed for any mistakes made in the first term, but that doesn’t speak to the party exactly. I’m not really sure what Stone wanted to achieve here, but besides an entertaining look behind closed doors with some fantastic imitations that rival Tiny Fey’s Palin, there isn’t really that much else.

The construction bounces around from Dubya’s first term Presidency, his past growing up under the strict rules and family legacy of George Sr., and a dream-like Texas Rangers centerfield sequence that crops up a couple times. We are given time stamps to help orient us, (a good move considering Josh Brolin plays Bush at every age, a bit strange when with college kids at a frat hazing), and the hair color change helps as well. In my opinion the most entertaining moments are in the Oval Office, listening to the cabinet interact with the President and the back and forth between them all—especially the rapport between Cheney and Powell. At first it was strange looking at these actors I know and love pretend to be real life characters, (I was mesmerized by Thandie Newton’s transformation into Condi Rice, the scowl and weird voice were great), but once I accepted them as the role, it all worked. Even Brolin’s Bush starts to look like the real man while the voice was exact from the start.

As for the early days, it would get a little redundant watching the wild child drink his way into trouble and Poppy doing what he can to erase the record. The two of them butting heads got a little old too, but when they almost squared off to fight at the Bush house, that was fun, especially with Ellen Burstyn’s Barbara. I always remember her being the old grandma in the background, never remembering the emotion and stubbornness they speak of throughout. Dubya is like his mother, shooting from the hip, while Jeb is his father, thinking things through and only moving when absolutely necessary. This comparison crops up often, I’m sure very purposely on Stone’s part, because it holds true in regards to Iraq, that hot-button topic most people are going to see this film to find out about. George Sr. did only what was needed, he won Desert Storm quick, showing Saddam his place, but he realized that occupation in the Middle East would leave them alone and be a horrible thing for his nation. This decision, to me, is the most important part of the story, but possibly because it sheds light on the disposition of the American public and their fickle attitudes in regard to vilifying people and placing blame.

Geroge H.W. Bush decided to take his victory and leave Eurasia alone. He proved his point and showed America’s strength. However, when re-election came up shortly after, Bill Clinton takes over. Dubya tells his father it’s because the public wanted blood, they wanted Saddam’s head, and that show of weakness cost him the vote. I believe this is brilliant foreshadowing for the future. Think about it. Dubya had the highest approval rating of any President ever. He got his revenge by invading Afghanistan, and he answered the call for blood by going into Iraq. He knew the voters wanted action, they wanted redemption for those killed on 9/11 and he gave them just that. In return, Bush received the most votes ever in a huge victory over John Kerry. And here is where I might be able to see Stone’s intentions, because by showing these events, he is telling the public that they asked for it and they got it. You can’t blame anyone but yourself because your bloodlust was answered. Sure, maybe the decisions second term weren’t the best, but the majority of the US wanted this war. So, I guess if anything, W. is showing voters that it is up to them to be educated and understand the topics and issues. Maybe next time you shouldn’t let your emotions lead your vote, but instead your head.

To get back to the film, though, it is a fascinating story of the American dream. Yes Dubya grew up with a silver spoon, but his trials and tribulations showed him a path to greatness and he not only took it, but succeeded with it. Brolin knocks the role out of the park, never becoming a caricature or only there for laughs, he is Bush. The rest of the cast is a lot of fun, Richard Dreyfuss is unrecognizable, you may think Dick Cheney actually played himself, and both James Cromwell and Toby Jones are effective as George Sr. and Karl Rove respectively. The most memorable and I think well-constructed member has to be Jeffrey Wright’s rendition of Powell. Here is a conflicted man, against the new road being paved and specking his mind. However, when the time comes to oppose the plan, he relents and becomes complicit. The inner struggle is always on his face, coming up with memories of how the Gulf War was handled, yet he never stood firm or against the Commander-in-Chief. He became just another lemming allowing everything it seems the nation hates about Bush’s terms. If you take anything from this film, hopefully it will be that you can help make the decision for what happens in this country starting next year. All you have to do is vote, but don’t let emotions run your hand again, don’t vote Democrat because you were against Bush. Vote for the candidate you think can help, whether that means voting another Republican in or not.

W. 8/10

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[1] Richard Dreyfuss (“Dick Cheney”), Josh Brolin (“George W. Bush”), Toby Jones (“Karl Rove”), Rob Corddry (“Ari Fleischer”) and Thandie Newton (“Condoleezza Rice”) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s W.
[2] Ellen Burstyn (“Barbara Bush,” left) and James Cromwell (“George H.W. Bush,” right) star in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s W.

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Looking at the filmography of director Kevin Reynolds makes me wonder why I was so surprised at how much I enjoyed his most recent work, Tristan & Isolde. With two enjoyable swordfighting epics on the list—Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Count of Monte Cristo—I should have realized this guy had the goods to make a winner, despite the possibility that this love story could veer too far into romance than I might have liked. With a lot more fighting and background into the politics of Britain’s attempts at uniting against the Irish front, (a dynamic that seems so backwards when you think of today), the tale of love between our stand-ins for Romeo & Juliet serves as a backdrop and impetus for the struggles of a nation. It is more a film about the unification of a national powerhouse, the beginnings of a blood feud between these two nations that still exists for extremists today, than a tale of forbidden love. Sure the romance is there, and it is effective, but the relationships between soldiers and kings truly makes the movie much more than I think most people would initially give it credit for.

It all starts with the treachery of a Brit, leading the Irish to a secret meeting of alliance, a gathering to unite Britain for a 2 to 1 advantage over the nation across the water. The Irish take out most of the tribe leaders, leaving the traitor and would-be king alive. The latter of which loses his hand in order to save the son of the man who opened the way to unification for him, Tristan. Sir Marke vows to raise Tristan as his own son, alongside his other, with the death of his unborn child and wife during the ambush. The boy grows into a fearless warrior, faithful to his “father” and willing to do anything for Britain. They begin the process once again to unite the tribes against the enemy and because of his maimed hand, Marke sends Tristan out to send a message to the Irish. After killing the King’s second in command, Tristan falls paralyzed by a poison on the fallen man’s sword. Thought dead, his body is sent away with a king’s burial at sea only to be washed ashore on Irish land to be found and nursed to health by the foreign King’s own daughter, Isolde.

Here is where a bond forms between the son and daughter of mortal enemies. They know their love can never succeed and when they part, still don’t really know whom each other is. Only when the Irish King manufactures a contest, for his princess’s hand in marriage, to split the British tribes apart, do they realize their places in court. Tristan fights for his king, Marke, and when victory is his, sees the princess as his love. Now rather than an impossible love from afar, the two must live under the same roof, her Queen, married to the man that raised and loved the boy as his own blood. The rest of the film then shows the power of love and duty and all the conflicts the two have with each other. Tristan’s love for his king and country constantly conflicting with his love of Isolde … attempting to reconcile the two and realize which is the empty shell of life and which the full.

I give a ton of credit to James Franco for really carrying this film as Tristan. His trademark broodiness and stone-faced emotion is in full effect, but the softer moments resonant to make up. This is a warrior fighting for the freedom of a people, so his demeanor is understood, especially with the conflict of heart, tugging at his mind, throughout. As for Isolde, Sophia Myles is perfect. Her beauty and kindness is one thing, but the smarts and philosophical thinking on love and freedom help show the bond the two create. This is a special girl, throwing her birthright as Irish princess out the window in order to live for herself. She may be in love with Tristan, but she also cannot deny the kindness and love from Marke, it is a conflict she must live with too as her marriage is not abusive or repressive, it just isn’t with the man she’d like.

Through all the deception and intrigue going on, between Tristan and Marke, Marke and the traitor in his midst, (Mark Strong in another great turn), and the Irish and British armies, you will not be able to deny the strong will of the British people. When I first saw the trailers I had thought we’d be seeing a standoff between Franco and Rufus Sewell’s Marke, a fight for the girl. This is most definitely not the case. Sewell is absolutely fantastic as Marke, a benevolent ruler who puts the interests of the nation ahead of his own. This is a man who has sacrificed everything and only shown love to those closest to him. This makes the affair between our titular characters that much more important as they risked breaking apart a country. The politics and war add so much to the story, making it one that can be enjoyed as an adventure epic rather than just a fluff piece about love. You men being dragged to see it with the hopes of your date thinking it’s a chick flick will not be disappointed as it is so much more than that.

Yes it is all about the love between two young people caught in the middle of a war, but it also is about the strength of nationality and humankind. The battle scenes are effectively shot, the static shots of the countryside are breathtakingly gorgeous, and the acting superb. Tristan & Isolde is a beautifully composed film visually and thematically that progresses perfectly to its inevitable conclusion. Whether the ending is looked upon as happy or not, it is the right conclusion for the film that preceded it. Every character carries out their arcs correctly and in harmony with their disposition and morals. It’s a highly enjoyable film that really is more than what you can imagine seeing the trailers and marketing. Sure it is Romeo & Juliet-like, but it is also a story of fighting for oneself and his nation, battling for good against oppression, no matter the outcome.

Tristan & Isolde 7/10

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James Franco and Sophia Myles as Tristan and Isolde in The 20th Century Fox’s Tristan & Isolde (2006) Copyright © The 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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Spike Lee has left me confused after viewing his new WWII epic Miracle at St. Anna. This film is a jumbled mess of great sequences, surreal moments, and short bridge scenes thrown in to advanced a contrived plot and then left on the floor to possibly come back to at the end. I give the marketing people credit for keeping a veil of intrigue over the movie, never really delving into what the plot truly is. At the heart of the story is a little boy who has experienced a great tragedy, one we can’t know until the end, that becomes a good luck charm to a band of four Buffalo Soldiers abandoned in enemy territory because their racist captain didn’t believe they could have gotten to the position they were. The boy, young Angelo, is the most important cog in the machine; as much an angel of protection as a boy needing shelter, his inclusion drives the decisions of everyone involved. Whether we knew his tale at first or if it is better finding out later on is debatable, however, the use of flashbacks throughout to explain the present, which is really the past itself—a story being related to a journalist as the sole survivor of the 92nd Infantry awaits a murder trial, that doesn’t actually get told to him—makes getting a foothold difficult. Some scenes seem to only exist for Lee to infuse a little racially motivated commentary, others are there to create the one event that is necessary to move the plot to where it must go, and yet more that just confuse because of their unnecessary inclusion.

It all starts with a postal teller killing a customer—the two appear to recognize each other—with a German pistol. He shows no remorse for the crime and instead goes to jail without speaking a word. Only when a young newsreporter played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks his way into a story by charming a police Detective on the case, John Turturro, does the man open up and speak the words I’ve used to label this review. The film now transitions to the Italian countryside in the midst of the war, our Buffalo Soldiers trekking along with orders to cross a forthcoming river. You believe this is our postal employee telling the reporter what happened, but when you see the end you will realize it must just be a retelling for the audience. And here is a main flaw for me; a lot of the scenes shown are there for us, thrown onscreen to open our eyes to details we don’t know. They aren’t always fluid, but rather abrupt vignettes that at first seem to be meaningless until they are possibly returned to. Making matters worse is the fact that they are usually inhabited by star cameos, leading the viewer to believe the scene contains important characters, when in fact it appears that Lee just called in a lot of friends. You rarely see anyone more than once—John Leguizamo, D.B. Sweeney, Kerry Washington, even Gordon-Levitt and Turturro. I almost would rather their parts be played by unknown actors because I wouldn’t put more stock into their roles than is needed.

There is one cameo that works well, but only because he is an integral part to the story. Walton Goggins, with even more redneck sensibilities than his role of Shane in the great “The Shield”, plays the racist Captain that leaves our heroes alone in Italy with the Germans hot on their tails. Even so, he could have been anyone too, but I’m glad for Goggins because it’s nice to see him on the big screen once in a while. However, the four survivors of an ambush on the 92nd are our main contenders here. And the funny part is that besides Derek Luke, I only had a cursory knowledge of the others, and that was by face recognition only. So, our leads are the no names surrounded by the stars. It’s an interesting maneuver, one that just hindered the story being told. It’s too bad because the foursome is great across the board; they didn’t need the bolstering of familiar faces on the periphery.

With a ton of religious overtones, Omar Benson Miller astonishes with his overabundance of faith. Playing Train, the soldier who finds Angelo and becomes his surrogate father/friend—the young boy’s Chocolate Giant—he is a fascinating creature. Kind of like Lennie from “Of Mice and Men”, Train has a huge heart that overcomes him at times. The bond with the boy is strong and, in order to protect, will possess him with power, strength, and anger. Like the sleeping man of the mountains, (talk about a heavy-handed comparison by Lee), Train is an invisible warrior with his statue head constantly being rubbed for luck. His faith in God may be childish in nature, but it works as he never gets bogged down by lust and hate like his compatriots. He is just a man trying to survive and watch over his ward.

There is a lot more going on besides the protection of this boy, yet things that come to conclusion because of his presence. He allows the men to join with an Italian family as they nurse him back to health; he is the reason they stay behind against their Captain’s orders to evacuate, leading into the best part of the film as the Germans come and take on the four Americans in a thrilling sequence; and he is the reason for a rift in the bond of a group of Partisans, Italians fighting against the Fascists. It all revolves around the child as he plays an unconsciously Jesus role in orchestrating everything. At times I started thinking that maybe he didn’t exist at all, maybe he was a manifestation in the story being told, a guardian angel himself for this group of men. Matteo Sciabordi is fantastic, breathing an abundance of life into a boy mired by tragedy in a world imploding around him. I think this could have been a better film if it focused only on his relationship with the soldiers, leaving the flashbacks, the racial politics, and the sub-stories all dancing around on the cutting room floor. As it is now, the sprawling tale is just too much to assimilate when so much is fluff surrounding the power young Angelo holds over the rest.

Miracle at St. Anna 6/10

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[1] Derek Luke (forefront)
[2] Matteo Sciabordi, Omar Benson Miller (behind Matteo) Michael Ealy, Derek Luke (forefront), Laz Alonso. This film chronicles the story of four African-American soldiers stationed in Tuscany, Italy during Word War II.
©2008 Buffalo Soldiers In Italy, LLC – ON My Own Produzioni Cinematografiche S.R.L.
Photo credit: David Lee

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The new Ridley Scott film has come upon us, the drama/thriller Body of Lies. I remember a time when Scott’s movies were must-sees, way back when. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the same of late with me having no interest in Hannibal, finding Gladiator and Black Hawk Down to be grossly overrated if not just good, and his latest American Gangster dragged along. Besides Kingdom of Heaven, which is a fantastic piece of work if you give it a chance, nothing has really hit me too strongly. I can’t say that this one does anything to change that perception. While better than I expected, there really isn’t anything new or surprising here. You’ve got your CIA agents on the lookout for an Arab terrorist, one on the ground who experiences the war everyday and the other back in the states delegating and making decisions for the global sphere and not worrying about collateral damage at all. Not only that, but you also get the secondary story of our lead putting himself on the line risking his life not knowing if he will be extracted or left to die. If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of a movie called Spy Game…that exact story done better by Tony Scott, Ridley’s brother. Now there is a Scott who’s films are still highly anticipated each year.

Trust plays a major role in the proceedings on whether we as Americans can rely on a nation like Jordan to help our cause. The young upstart on the ground, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris, believes that he can and tries to keep an open relationship with the head of the secret service there, Hani, (the always creepy villain type Mark Strong in a role that allows him to be human, if not still a bit intimidating). No matter how much these two like each other, though, means nothing as long as Ferris’ boss is pulling the strings. Russell Crowe’s Ed Hoffman is the eye in the sky watching everything going on around the world involving CIA operatives. He makes life and death decisions without emotion while putting his children in the car and dropping them off at school. He has the cold-hearted detachment necessary in war to make the tough call and still be able to sleep at night. War is no longer led by the men in the trenches, watching the opposition die by their own hands; instead it is the overweight politically intelligent men moving the pawns around into the correct position. If one soldier dies, you replace him with another, no emotions can show.

Everyone plays their roles effectively and help drive the film to its conclusion. It spans multiple locales and at a breakneck speed that can at times disorient you as a viewer, but for the most part runs smoothly. DiCaprio builds on his already extensive filmography of exotic venues and warzone subject matter as he travels between Middle Eastern nations and the US while mistakes are made and new missions conceived. The dynamic between him and Crowe is electric as they play off each other with mutual respect as well as the knowledge of how they are from different generations of the job. Crowe is methodical and ruthless while DiCaprio makes connections and relationships to hopefully lead into reliable intel and successful results. However, while the two give each other ideas and smart maneuvers, Crowe will not back down from his assertive stance and if he must continue on while leaving his man in the dark he will, no matter what that means for his best agent.

Now the trailer really misleads you into thinking that at some point these two will stand on opposite ends of the spectrum and work against each other. That never happens. Crowe’s Hoffman really only comes and goes as a Big Brother type, not really playing a massive role in the plot. The main source of story comes from DiCaprio’s Ferris as he develops roots and friendships in Jordan and attempts to earn the trust of Hani so that they can create a strong intellectual bond to help disrupt terrorists in the area. Ferris and Hani’s comings and goings are what matter and the lies that they keep are the reason for the title. The one thing Hani asks is that he not be lied to, that is the one condition for which his helps hinges on. The manipulations of Hoffman lead Ferris into heading an operation outside of Jordan connections. Once his short exile from the country ends and Hani invites him back, Ferris must decide whether to disclose what is going on or not. This is the main decision that leads into the third act of the film and what makes it interesting, building on the exposition of characters developed in the first two-thirds.

It all entertains and enthralls like any good thriller should, but in the end, besides the acting, there is nothing worth talking about. Whether the novel it is based on is better or worse, the film version becomes a tale of espionage and disparate attitudes to the ongoing topic of how information should be delegated to friendly Arab nations. It can be seen as a comment on the war, as anything made today can, but ultimately it’s just a piece of entertainment, hoping to expose the underbelly of deceit and backdoor deals going on in the US government. It’s nothing new; we all know the stories. I’ll wait for Ridley’s brother’s The Taking of Pelham 123, because even though it’s a remake, Tony’s penchant for style and flair just excites me more.

Body of Lies 7/10

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[1] RUSSELL CROWE as Ed Hoffman and LEONARDO DICAPRIO as Roger Ferris in Warner Bros. Pictures’ suspense thriller “Body of Lies.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] MARK STRONG as Hani and LEONARDO DICAPRIO as Roger Ferris in Warner Bros. Pictures’ suspense thriller “Body of Lies.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


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