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Ah, remakes. Why does Hollywood insist on updating/copying/being inspired by past works, especially when the original was good? The past few years have even seen re-imaginings of John Carpenter films; the guy is still alive and making movies, so why are we redoing his past work from only two decades ago? When it comes to the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, I guess one can at least comprehend the want to infuse some 21st century graphics and effects; it was made in 1951 after all. But what it all comes down to is whether or not today’s filmmakers can remake something with relevance. The new The Day the Earth Stood Still attempts to distance itself from the original, only keeping the character names and a very general backbone to the plot—its script is based on the first film’s screenplay. While that could have freed the movie into becoming something new and different, the Hollywood machine decided to throw creativity out the window, making a bland, flashy popcorn flick, desperately trying to be pithy, yet only reinforcing how much better the original really is.

You know things have gone wrong when writer David Scarpa decides to be clever, making the giant robot get named by the government as an asinine acronym. Why can’t Klaatu just say that its name is Gort? Why does the military have to call it G.O.R.T.? It’s unnecessary and shows the sort of tongue-in-cheek callbacks that for some reason seem more important then telling an intriguing story. The most recognizable part of the first film is even completely cut out. How can you watch The Day the Earth Stood Still without the utterance of “Klaatu barada nikto”? It’s just plain sacrilege. Rather than a tale about humanity’s destruction of themselves and their world, we get a thinly veiled commentary on how America is the cowboy of Earth, calling itself leader and making decisions without the input of other world powers. This is no longer a cautionary story about people’s negativity and proclivity for violence; it has warped into the USA’s hubris and bullheadedness on topics such as survival. The country has aligned itself with a destroy all enemies before they can destroy us agenda, not realizing that by using force unprovoked will only therefore provoke the invading party, who will always be more powerful than us.

As for the story itself, don’t expect a shot for shot remake here, there is a lot different. For one, Jennifer Connelly plays Helen Benson as an astrobiologist, integral to the government’s interaction with the aliens as opposed to some random woman at the lodging house Klaatu visits in the original. But again, that all makes sense being 2008 now, in a post-9/11 world. Gone are the days an alien can land in Central Park and be met by local police. Instead we need to have the government tracking the visitor during its descent, preparing for an attack, only allowing certain scientists access at the eleventh hour, the public only when impact occurs. So, Helen meets Klaatu while he is being incarcerated, leaving an indelible impression as she becomes the reason he is allowed to escape the facility and attempt to meet with the universe’s undercover agent Mr. Wu, (played by the always wonderful James Hong). We then experience a collecting of lifeforms, a Noah’s Ark effect as Kathy Bates’ Secretary of State so obviously points out, as Klaatu prepares to let humanity die in order to save the planet—a very rare commodity being that it can sustain complex life.

On a purely special effects basis, there are definite reasons to watch this film. G.O.R.T.’s body’s disintegration into microscopic, multiplying, cutting insects is quite cool to behold. The rapid cracking of glass or dissolving of human tissue is well-orchestrated, not to mention the absolute destruction of Giants Stadium. Talk about a multi-million dollar effect that lasts about five seconds—worth every penny. I even enjoyed the sphere work of thunderclouds and fluid smoke/fog. And Klaatu’s healing power was a bit more advanced then needing Gort from the original to animate him again. Now, as long as he has a power source, the alien can jumpstart the vitals of a recently killed policeman, dead as a result of his now savior.

There are also a lot of good actors involved, all of who seem wasted. Besides Connelly, only Keanu Reeves’ Klaatu is given ample screentime. It’s a role that he is built for—devoid of emotion—anyone who isn’t a fan for that reason should enjoy his wooden delivery finally working perfectly. I joke, though, as I’m a fan of his, it’s just an easy comment to make, and I’m sure many do. As for the rest of the cast, I really liked John Cleese as a subdued Nobel Prize winning scientist. Without bombast, yet still with some humor, he appears to single-handedly plant the bug into Klaatu’s head that Earth may be worth saving. And being that this very important role in the first film only gets about five minutes of facetime here, that’s quite the feat. As for Jaden Smith, who shined in Pursuit of Happyness, I can’t say the same. Maybe it is the script’s fault for being so ham-fisted, but I just got annoyed with him. Always complaining, always rebelling, always being selfish, the part was written to progress the plot and it unfortunately shows.

That is the main problem here; it is all so obvious and contrived that you lose all sense of wonder and intrigue. You know that the boy’s father’s death as a military man will come into play, you know that him calling his stepmother Helen so emphatically will have a reversal before the film’s end, and you know that somehow everything will be ok. My biggest gripe, however, is with the ending. Stop reading now if you don’t want anything spoiled, although you should know how it ends by now anyways, but … Klaatu just leaves? He is about to destroy humanity and because a son finally calls his mother “mom”, even though right after that the US government attempts to blow him up, he decides to give them a second chance? Without even meeting world leaders to explain what they need to do? I guess extra-terrestrials give us way too much credit, because if that was I, there’s no way we’d survive the night. If anything, the US will just start saying they scared him off and were victorious against the intruders. I don’t see an entire nation acquiring enough humility to save itself in that short of time.

The Day the Earth Stood Still 4/10

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photography:
[1] Klaatu’s (Keanu Reeves) mission on Earth is tied to the spheres that have also arrived on the planet. Photo credit: WETA
[2] Jennifer Connelly stars as Dr. Helen Benson, a noted scientist who tries to unravel the mystery surrounding the arrival of an alien being. Photo credit: Doane Gregory

Now if you want a film to show the problems of drinking and how it can ruin your life, Frost/Nixon could be it. I jest somewhat here because, of course, that is not what this story is about. However, if what is shown is to be believed, a drunken night of nerves and fear on behalf of Richard Nixon might have been his ultimate demise. After what had been a steamrolling of his interviewer, David Frost, basically reshaping his image and making he, recently disgraced and resigned, seem presidential, soon became the nail that finished his political career forever. One phone call turned the tide, one moment of weakness and hubris lit a fire under a playboy performer and created a journalist with a mission to uncover the truth and save his very life from absolute collapse. Nixon was correct in what he screams through the phone—only one of them can come out on top. All he had to do was stay quiet and let the chips fall, but a man that never had it easy, never had the looks or natural charisma for life in the public eye had to take one last shot, one last ditch attempt to instill the fear he felt into the man across the table. It’s a misstep that he doesn’t even remember, so whether it happened is up to the memory of Frost himself, but witnessing that unbelievable turn of momentum can only be explained by it. If this film did anything for me, it has given me the passion to seek out the actual interview to watch that close-up, that moment where television molds reality into exactly what it wants, with the ex-President himself.

This film, based upon Peter Morgan’s own stage play, is the bread and butter for a guy like Ron Howard. He is the kind of director that makes solid films, but never that masterpiece that may show off his unique style as an auteur. He is a hired hand—and I mean that in the best way—that excels at non-fiction tales, getting great performances from his cast, keeping the camera on them to drive the story without the need for flash. When he attempts an adaptation of fiction, like he did with The Da Vinci Code, his static style just makes the fantastical boring, and those moments of visual splendor become forced and out-of-place. Give him reality, though, something like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, and he can direct it with the best of them. Frost/Nixon, being a play that involves pretty much two central characters is just that type. It becomes a boxing match, (Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan’s metaphor is uncanny), between these two personalities, clashing and jabbing and trying to keep the other off-balance. Frost becomes Muhammad Ali, taking the punches, taking the abuse, until the last possible second where he counters with an uppercut of his own. That punch connects and the staggering giant finally relents to give the public what it had been begging for.

Now I don’t want to call the filmic style static, because that word has a negative connotation. In fact, that very structured, composed style is exactly what is needed here. While Howard never makes the movie feel staged, there is no theatrical feel or stilted movements, it is just a wonderful use of minimal angles and panning. The camera stays focused on the performers, allowing them to become the people they are portraying, enveloping us in the story, tricks and effects unnecessary. And with the bravado of a guy like Frank Langella playing Richard Nixon, that is all you need. This performance is superb, he transforms into the fallen leader absolutely—playing mindgames, constantly smiling his sly grin, working the crowd, and reinvigorating his image. That scene with the phone call, as spoken of before, is fantastic. A star-making monologue if there ever was one; I would have loved to have seen this play because Langella is a formidable creature on the screen, I can’t imagine the power he’d exude on stage.

But don’t count out the rest of the cast. Michael Sheen is a favorite of mine and he doesn’t let me down. His transformation, from ladies man talk show host to a driven, serious, journalist is on par with Langella’s from confident trickster to beaten and ragged man, if not as front and center. Sheen shows Frost’s ego, so huge and successful abroad, yet so fragile in the states, something he desperately wants to change, unfortunately thinking his charade with the President might not have been the best idea to do so. Without funding, without distribution, without faith from even his closest advisors and friends, Frost went out on a limb and he sacrificed everything for just one shot at giving Nixon the trial he’d never have.

And the supporting players, a who’s who of character greats, bolster these two giants and allow them to do their thing. Toby Jones is a complete surprise as Swifty Lazar. Between the baldhead, the tough accent, and the hard demeanor, I couldn’t believe this little man, who usually plays nerdy intellectuals, (Truman Capote anyone?), was taking charge. Rebecca Hall adds to her great performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sam Rockwell does nice work as the crack reporter with more than fame invested in his work, and Oliver Platt excels, especially with his own Nixon impersonation. I also enjoyed the complete transformation of Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt. This guy played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and here he is a bookish producer that no one would say is getting by on his good looks. These players are firing on all cylinders, mirroring the film itself as a whole. It’s a story made all the more intriguing knowing it’s true, and, as a film, very entertaining and a showcase for some of the best acting of the year.

Frost/Nixon 8/10

photography:
© 2008, Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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It’s an unlikely source, but an effective one—David Fincher giving us a heartbreaking tale of love discovered, lost, found, and forever enduring. The man responsible for bringing to screen the ultra-sick mind of a serial killer in Seven, the warped sensibilities of Chuck Palahniuk with Fight Club, and the dark streets of a city in fear with Zodiac has crafted a beautifully lyrical film of love and its always-difficult journey. Based on a short story from F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenwriter Eric Roth has taken the premise and random details of plot to create something wholly new. While the original story is full of cynicism and hate, a reverse ugly duckling tale as Ben Button becomes a whipping boy his entire life except for maybe a decade in the middle, the film adaptation is one of beating all odds and making the best of a life that will inevitably end tragically. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s titular character is still afflicted with the same ailment, born a child with an 80-year-old’s body, aging younger as he grows older, yet the “disease” is worked with and overcome. His life moves forward, as his body moves backwards, towards an existence he always dreamed of having, but knew he would never be able to keep.

It’s all handled nicely for a film that reaches close to a three-hour runtime. A story told in flashback, Cate Blanchett’s Daisy is close to death and visited by her daughter Caroline in the midst of Hurricane Katrina when the tale begins. (This fact is my only real questionable call, as I don’t see the reasoning … perhaps having began on the day WWI ended and ending on a day of tragedy in Louisiana is supposed to be cyclical? Either way, I don’t think it was necessary, yet it doesn’t distract, so I don’t mind it.) Daisy wishes to be read to from a diary that she was never able to read herself, the memoirs of Benjamin Button, her one true love. The words being read serve as both a remembrance and validation to the dying woman as well as a truth telling towards the daughter, opening her eyes to the past, a life she never knew about. Benjamin is very candid in his remarks, telling the details of a very uniquely special existence while also the feelings he had for Daisy, a woman he met at age five and eventually met again in the middle, bringing a smile to her face knowing how he felt even way back then.

As any love story shows, it is not always easy. Meeting as a five year old girl and a five-year-old boy who looked eighty—easy was never in the cards. These two children struck a bond that would prove very difficult to break, despite love affairs, broken bones, hurt egos, or thousands of miles in between. Both lived very different lives, arcs that crossed yet never intersected. They needed to experience what was coming to them before they could be ready to finally see each other for the soul mates they were. It is an arduous journey full of eccentric people and events to spice up the action as we wait for the inevitable reunion. Ben Button sees it all: living in a home for the care of the elderly, (“Death was a common visitor”); sailing with the artist and drunk Captain Mike, (the always entertaining Jared Harris); having an affair with the wife of a British ambassador, Elizabeth Abbott, (a wonderful Tilda Swinton); and an upbringing by a poor black woman, (Taraji P. Henson stealing scenes and proving yet again that she will be working for a long time), with the intermittent visits from a kind gentleman seeking conversation, (Jason Flemyng without a trace of his usual strong English accent). It’s a full life that always ends up with the thoughts of a little girl, all “elbows and knees”, who grows into a beautiful NYC dancer, into a woman for whom only tragedy could awaken her true self, shaking the self-pity and pretentiousness away.

The story is strong, allowing for performances that excel at all turns. It may tread into sentimentality at times, but never to the point where it becomes a detriment. Ben Button’s life is always going to eventually end as it began, in reverse. Like the clock built by Elias Koteas’s Monsieur Gateau, a timepiece that ticked backwards as a symbol for all those who have died too young in war, possibly allowing them to be brought back to life, Button’s life is ever moving forward with its back against the wall. His twilight years already passed, old age becomes youth—a youth full of the death of loved ones, a youth that can only be lived alone so as not to cause pain for those you wish to live freely. But as a woman says to him early on, “we’re meant to lose the people we love … how else will we know how important they are?”

I think a lot of credit falls deservedly so onto the shoulders of Cate Blanchett and especially Brad Pitt. Known more for his looks and succeeding on charisma rather than talent, this is the first truly great performance I’ve seen from him as a “normal” guy, (pitch-perfect crazies like in 12 Monkeys don’t apply). With a deliberate New Orleans speech and minimal movement, Pitt’s Button goes through life cautiously and optimistically. He gets stronger and more resilient as the years go by, giving him a young appearance to hide the aged wisdom behind his eyes. And the special effect work to make it all possible is absolutely mind-blowing. How much is prosthetics and how much computer generated, I don’t know, but the aging processes for all are seamless. Even getting heights, weights, and skin smoothness correct, these actors grow and age with visual wonderment. And with gorgeous cinematography to frame it all, there is very little to dislike.

With that said, there was just something missing for me. Much like last year’s There Will Be Blood, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is technically sound and emotionally moving, yet there was still a void unfilled once I left the theatre. David Fincher has crafted a masterpiece that should stand the test of time and I’m sure will be loved by many, but similar to his great work on Zodiac, while wonderful, it just isn’t perfect to me. Again, though, that is just my opinion and I strongly recommend you go see this beautiful piece of cinema, because it is one of the year’s best and I can’t wait to revisit the world in the future, possibly changing my mind and becoming the masterpiece I know it could be.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 9/10

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photography:
[1] Cate Blanchett stars as Daisy and Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button in Paramount Pictures’ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Taraji P. Henson stars as Queenie and Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button in Paramount Pictures’ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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There is a lot to like about Frank Miller’s debut as a solo director. The Spirit is shot with a similar style as his last film, Sin City, based upon his own graphic novels, and the imagery is quite stunning at times. I’m not familiar with Will Eisner’s series for which the film is based, but after viewing scenes in stark black and white, with the bright red tie and blindingly white sneaker soles, coupled with the end credits artwork, I have to believe Miller did his best to bring those drawings to the big screen. The story too is intriguing, showing a superhero that works directly with the police; he is his own branch of the department, known by all and brought into cases like a detective. It’s a refreshing take on the whole vigilante stigma that will be explained once his origins are relayed. However, while there is a lot to like, there is a lot more that will just make you shake your head in disappointment.

I’ve been told that the comic is very pulpy and hard-boiled with shades of camp and I hope that is true because the film goes overboard in all of those categories. I enjoy a little humor and some fun, but when it’s inside of a film that is shot so darkly, so seriously, the juxtaposition becomes forced. There are plenty of good one-liners and the quick dialogue and rat-a-tat banter can be exciting, but mostly it is just plain laughable. What is The Octopus’s fascination with eggs? He does not like egg on his face, he hates those brown eggs that come from chickens, and one of his henchmen is named “Huevos”. Maybe I’m missing something there by not having read the comic; it just went way too long. Even the fight scene at the beginning between he the villain and The Spirit’s hero works only in moderation. You become intrigued by the fact neither can be hurt, they heal from every wound, and The Octopus’s cryptic talk about how they are two men uniquely alike makes you beg the question of what happened to them. However, the fight keeps going for ten more minutes—they bludgeon each other over and over again until they just decide to stop. I won’t even go into their horridly ominous declarations of how they will meet again, “real soon”, or how they’ll kill the other “all kinds of dead”. They just trade empty threats like that and go their separate ways … it’s all kind of surreal actually and no, toilets are not always funny.

The film is really just an exercise in excess and how, unless one is experienced enough to handle that much material, it will all fall apart as a result. As far as pacing goes, the story becomes disjointed with abrupt interludes, (a short scene between the police commissioner and his doctor daughter that really goes nowhere except to explain Denny’s relationship with Ellen) and all those somewhat stupid vignettes with Lorelei, the angel of death, and overlong exposition. Trying to go full-bore into style hurts scenes by making them too intricate and overblown. The obligatory bad guy telling the good guy his plan because the good guy is about to die scene lasted an eternity. Miller attempts to wow us with his sharp angles and quick cuts to close-ups dragging this Nazi-themed exchange out forever. Paz Vega is brought in for eye-candy and a necessary allegiance reversal before she is gone from the film again; The Spirit’s quips serve only to make The Octopus talk even longer, and being played by the master of bombast and extreme Samuel L. Jackson, talk he will; Scarlett Johansson’s speech does much the same in her matter-of-fact, emotionless delivery for the entire film; and the henchmen, (I like Louis Lombardi and the schtick is funny the first couple times), get overused, killing the joke before it even became cute. You watch the scene waiting for our hero to escape; you know he will, you just hope you don’t have to be bored so much waiting for the inevitable.

As far as the acting goes, besides characters being mishandled script-wise, all involved do an admirable job. It appears that they are all having fun in their hard-boiled way, hamming it up to the camera with broad facial expressions and over-the-top speech patterns. I’d be interested to see what a guy like Rian Johnson could have done with this, someone who showed a sense of rhythm and timing in his stylized speech with Brick, someone who has a better understanding of pace than Miller perhaps. I feel that the cast could have done it, but the editing and use of cutting from character to character rather than allow them to be in frame at one time, showing them interact in real time, just makes it clunky and off-balance.

With that said, I really liked Gabriel Macht as our lead, The Spirit. A relative no-name, this guy must carry the film on his shoulders, and I think he did the job well. There was always a sly smile on his face whether getting beat-up on the verge of death or flirting with the multitude of sexy women. He had the tone right and made it fun, even getting the deep raspy narration correct for the many “voice of God” moments as he explains what is happening. And since I mentioned the sexy women, there were some effective parts and some not so much. Eva Mendes was on the right page as well as Stana Katic, probably my favorite part of the movie as Morgenstern. She steals every scene she is in with her street cop accent and genuine sparkle in her eye with every compliment. Johansson and Vega, though, were purely eye-candy, giving some stilted performances. But I blame Miller for that, possibly being unsure how to direct them to get what he needed. Being coy and confident in your delivery is one thing, looking bored is a complete other.

The Spirit 5/10

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photography:
© 2008, Courtesy of Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment.

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(short and sweet and to the point — culled from listening to 110+ 2008 releases)

1.) Sigur Rós: Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
2.) The Kooks: Konk
3.) Uh Huh Her: Common Reaction
4.) Delays: Everything’s the Rush
5.) My Morning Jacket: Evil Urges
6.) The Black Keys: Attack & Release
7.) Dear and the Headlights: Drunk Like Bible Times
8.) Mystery Jets: Twenty One
9.) Feeder: Silent Cry
10.) MGMT: Oracular Spectacular

Honorable Mention (11-25):
11.) Coldplay: Viva La Vida
12.) The Music: Strength in Numbers
13.) Okkervil River: The Stand Ins
14.) Black Kids: Partie Traumatic
15.) Guillemots: Red
16.) People in Planes: Beyond the Horizon
17.) Boy Kill Boy: Stars & the Sea
18.) Ours: Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy)
19.) The Killers: Day & Age
20.) Glasvegas: Glasvegas
21.) Chapeau Claque: Fabelweiss
22.) Mogwai: The Hawk is Howling
23.) Ashes Divide: Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright
24.) Snow Patrol: A Hundred Million Suns
25.) Ferras: Aliens & Rainbows

And the rest of the Top 50 (in alphabetical order):
The Airborne Toxic Event: The Airborne Toxic Event
Albert Hammond Jr.: ¿Como te llama?
Alkaline Trio: Agony and Irony
The Armada: The Armada
Beck: Modern Guilt
Cat Power: Jukebox
City and Colour: Bring Me Your Love
Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs
Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight
Guns ‘N Roses: Chinese Democracy
Local H: Twelve Angry Months
The Mars Volta: Bedlam in Goliath
Morcheeba: Dive Deep
The Myriad: With Arrows, With Poise
Nada Surf: Lucky
nine inch nails: The Ghost I-IV
Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul
The Pigeon Detectives: Emergency
The Raconteurs: Consolers of the Lonely
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cardinology
The Secret Machines: The Secret Machines
The Stills: Oceans Will Rise
TV on the Radio: Dear Science
The Verve: Fourth

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Bryan Singer returns to a world that isn’t inhabited with superheroes, joining an old friend in screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a partnership that last resulted in The Usual Suspects. The question then becomes whether lightning can strike twice and if Tom Cruise’s thoughts that it would, by producing it as his second feature as head of United Artists, could be correct. With Valkyrie, a “based on true events” tale of high Nazi officials with enough guts to risk their lives to stop Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror and his sullying of Germany’s good name, those questions will be answered. If I were to be bold enough to weigh in with my opinion I’d say all those involved should feel proud of their work. I won’t say lightning struck again because, honestly, I was never that impressed by The Usual Suspects, it’s good, but without the ending it wouldn’t necessarily even approach great. Much are my thoughts on this historical wartime opus—it tells a very intriguing story with the right amounts of action, espionage, and heroism, however, I don’t see it as anything spectacular. It’s a very well done film and it can be applauded for that fact.

Cruise’s first foray into the producing world with his newly purchased studio was a little film with a big time cast, Lions for Lambs. It was a small-scale tale that hit home more often than not, a gamble that risked finding an audience and I believe succeeded. Valkyrie, on the other hand, was set up to be the studio’s tent-pole attraction, announcing the return of a movie-house. Unfortunately, after being pushed back a complete year, the release has become somewhat lackluster, a huge albatross of whether the backers didn’t feel it would succeed then making us wonder if it will now. With some big names attached behind and in front of the camera, many believed this would be a contender for end of year awards. I don’t think that will be the case. Solid yet unspectacular creates a piece that is worth seeing and recommending, but not an award-winning masterpiece. Singer does do a lot right, though, hopefully showing that he can branch out and distance himself from X-Men and Superman Returns to bring the humanity and character evolution that worked so well with his two mutant stories into a world grounded in reality.

At the end of the day, this film is made to showcase the actors while trying to educate the public about these superheroes in their own way, some heroics from a country and time that saw only murder and hatred. While this fact is what I enjoyed about it, it is also what may cause some of its lackluster sheen. Knowing, (I hope I’m ruining nothing here and people realize that Hitler committed suicide when the Allies surrounded Berlin), that the attempt to kill and overthrow the Nazi regime fails, makes the first half exposition drag. One wants to see how the plan falls apart, not how it was shaped and put into motion. Let me correct myself, you do want to know these details, how these men banded together, how they duped Der Führer, it’s just the anticipation to watch the plan go into effect that dulls the factual history from being as interesting as it should be. Once the day finally arrives to prove their worth, the tension and pace tighten up and drive steadily to the end, keeping you riveted as each step advances. I understand what Singer is trying to do by showing Colonel von Stauffenberg’s family and his not following orders—for the right reasons—ending in the loss of appendages and an eye, but was it all truly needed? Why can we understand the pain and necessity for people like General Olbricht, doing what he is doing, by looking at his loved ones in photos, yet we need Stauffenberg’s to be front and center, even getting an actress like Carice van Houten to portray his wife?

I won’t go into detail about the plans, which are the beauty of the operation; the ideas and execution of them are what keeps your interest. It is a pretty airtight mission, but as General Beck states, it’s a military operation, they never go right. No one can ever anticipate what might happen—venue changes, a person’s kindness to help carry something, the brief second-guessing of a man sacrificing precious seconds. One can never practice anything to perfection because life just isn’t that exact. But therein lies the heart of this story, that there are people who dare to stand against the norm to fight for what is right. Despite their oath to Hitler, these men and women put their feet down and risk it all for the citizens, for their country. It was never about them, it was always about Germany.

The one thing I feared was the fact that everyone spoke with their natural accents, no one made anyone attempt a horrid German tongue to possibly distract and distance us from the reality. While there is something to be said about realism, if handled right, there can be exceptions. Bryan Singer deftly maneuvers his way into the English translation by beginning in German and slowing superimposing our language atop the vocal track. It’s a subtle trick that helps make us believe we have been brought into a state of translation; the characters are speaking German yet we can understand them. This also helps in allowing the actors to give it their all, without the clunky self-consciousness that follows speaking out of one’s native speech patterns. I believe Tom Cruise does a wonderfully solid job as von Stauffenberg and the rest of the cast follows suit. Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp show that they can pull out some nice performances despite the occasional paycheck they take on other horrific career choices, and guys like Eddie Izzard and Thomas Kretschmann can excel in smaller roles, enhancing the bravado of the others. The two that impressed me most, however, were Christian Berkel as von Quirnheim and Bill Nighy’s Olbricht. Nighy exudes the inner conflict and struggle of humanity throughout the film, questioning everything and wanting to be absolutely sure of each step. When the time was right, though, he was able to compose himself and do his job, because deep down he knew he was doing what he believed in.

Kudos to all involved for making this story and opening my eyes to it, as I’m sure it will for many others too. Everyone brings their A-game, it’s all just too much a non-fiction film for me, stating the facts without surprise, lecturing rather than digging into our souls and touching us. The ending is magnificent, don’t get me wrong, it shows the strength of character these “traitors” had and it instills a legacy of heroism that they deserve. The journey to that point may be a little too paint-by-numbers for my liking.

Valkyrie 8/10

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photography:
[1] TOM CRUISE stars as Claus von Stauffenberg and CARICE VAN HOUTEN as his wife, Nina, in the suspense thriller VALKYRIE. VALKYRIE opens in theatres nationwide on December 25, 2008. © 2008 United Artists Production Finance, LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] BILL NIGHY (left) as Friedrich Olbricht, JAMIE PARKER (center back) as Werner von Haeften and CHRISTIAN BERKEL as Mertz von Quirheim in the suspense thriller VALKYRIE. VALKYRIE opens in theatres nationwide on DEcember 25, 2008. © 2008 United Artists Production Finance, LLC. All rights reserved.

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What’s Christmas without a holiday themed horror film? Not Christmas at all. As such, I viewed the 1974 genre flick Silent Night, Bloody Night with some friends to get in the festive spirit. Released the same year as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Theodore Gershuny decided to go in a more abstract surreal direction with his thrills, while keeping to a similar low-budget aesthetic. Because of this, while not being nearly as good as that Tobe Hooper classic, Gershuny’s work has a lot going for it and does merit some attention. It’s all about a mansion with a secret, a “ghost” calling a group of people back to it for one last confrontation of insanity and evil. With its voiceover narration of matter-of-fact exposition and tinted cut-scenes flashing back to the house’s earlier days, I couldn’t help but think about the old computer game The 7th Guest. Now that was a game that contained atmosphere and chills, enveloping the player with its motion-captured characters and open space maneuvering, (so much so that I desperately wanted to buy its quasi-sequel The 11th Hour, but alas, not available on Apple). Enjoyed for its look and style rather than its acting, story, or overall construction, this horror definitely warrants a look, although a peek should be enough.

The Butler family owned the house at the center of the tale many years back. It is told that the patriarch died in a fiery mess, his will turning the property over to his grandson Jeffrey with the stipulation to leave it be as a memorial. Many years pass and the mansion has remained unused and unsold, as per the deceased’s request, until our entrance into the story. A bigshot lawyer comes to call on behalf of the younger Butler with news that the house is for sale at a bargain rate to the town, if they still want it. You see, the town’s leaders have been hoping to one-day purchase the structure to tear it down and remove its blight on their history forever. The myths about it are many and people hold it as a haunted place to be ogled. The mayor, sheriff, and two other esteemed members of the society want to rid themselves of its troublesome presence—but perhaps for their own personal reasons.

As the story continues on, we discover that the house was made into an insane asylum at one point; a hospital that evolved into a place for fat and happy doctors to grow rich at the expense of the poorly treated ill. In what could be the most memorable scene of the film, a flashback shows these patients being set free to wreak vengeance on those that neglected and abused them. In a surreally shot orgy of violence and physicality, complete with Andy Warhol film regulars, we see the uprising and change of power at the institution, all but ushering in its demise. The Butler family, as it turns out, has more to do with the incident and players than just being the owners of the property. Complete with the present day escape of a patient from a nearby hospital coming towards the town, the parallels between the characters we are introduced to with those from that day of bloodshed start to overlap. We learn of violence, incest, the true background of people we are made to believe are upstanding citizens, and a conspiracy all but hidden about the town’s real history. This one night contains the makings for revenge and honor; payback onto the killers of a man’s daughter in cold-blood, a murder that left the father traveling from asylum to asylum trying to find those that did it.

It’s tough to explain the better parts of the film because those moments are usually the scenes of exposition. The flashbacks of what actually occurred those years ago, so that the mansion had become abandoned, are the crowning jewels of the movie. Visually raw and stylishly memorable in their contrast and gore, it’s a pleasure to be told what is going on because the screen shows off some interesting frames. Is it all convoluted and explained in such detail that it somewhat mocks the audience’s intelligence at figuring it all out? Sure, but because it all is so over-blown, the facts are a nice map to use while wrapping your head around the many dual roles at hand. It’s the discovery of who everyone actually is that brings pretty much the only scare to be had, albeit a purely psychological one.

Instead of leaving us with a great story, Gershuny decides to let the eccentric cast bring all the intrigue. Sure, the deaths are a treat, especially the opening burning and the first murder at the house while the victims slept in bed, however, the sheer oddness of all those inhabiting the screen are what won’t leave your head. From the smug lawyer played by Patrick O’Neal, the kind of performance just begging for a gruesome death, to the creepy wide-eyed stare of phone operator Tess Howard, played by Fran Stevens, to my favorite of them all, John Carradine’s vocally challenged, bell ringing old curmudgeon, you can’t help but laugh and learn to love the novelty of it all. Yet, it is the offspring of those from the past that become the weirdest of them all, complete with some of the most asinine dialogue you’ll ever hear. Q: “How old are you?” A: “Do you mean how many years have I lived?” Pure poetry. Mary Woronov’s Diane and James Patterson’s Jeffrey Butler are quite the pair. Left in the dark to the facts of what is transpiring around them, these two make it somewhat fun to go on the ride with. He is the epitome of creepy and she so annoyingly quick to change her attitude from skeptical to completely open to bewilderment and fear. What nuance. But again, watch this film for the visual flourishes—no matter how few—not the quality or craftsmanship. It’s also good for a laugh too if you have nothing better to do.

Silent Night, Bloody Night 5/10

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I’m still not quite certain what to think a day after watching Michael Haneke’s acclaimed film Caché. It is at the same time unnerving, confusing, and unabashedly honest. A story about guilt and how we as people cope with it, accept it, or disregard it. We may tell ourselves that we feel nothing, the tragedies in life were not our fault, however, our psyches and emotions can and will get the better of us. If you truly don’t feel responsible, why then, when confronted, do you still act aggressive? Why must you try and defend yourself if you are completely certain you were not the cause? It is a very interesting question that is asked without words here, a question that hangs behind each scene as the plot progresses. Caché becomes all the more intriguing because that plot is completely innocuous—the entire film is one big MacGuffin that is never answered or rectified. You never get to find out who is behind everything, why things have happened, or what kind of lasting effects the events that transpired will have. Instead the story itself is just a tool to show guilt in all its naked glory, to allow us, as an audience, entrance into a world we all know only too well. Whether we know who is seeking “revenge” or not, guilt is always only about you and how you let it affect your life.

The film revolves around a couple living a good life in France—successful, well known, and loving parents of a school-aged boy. Their world gets turned upside-down when they begin to receive VHS tapes showing the outside of their home; static shots that go on for hours, showing them as they come and go. The mystery escalates as crude child-like drawings come packaged with subsequent videos as well as sent singularly through the mail. These images depict either a stick figure head with red blood exiting its mouth or a chicken with red blood covering its neck. Both Anne and Georges Laurent appear to be completely surprised and confused about what is happening, however, they are not truthful to each other. With the police unwilling to help until an actual attempt at violence is done, Georges decides to take matters into his own hands. After a video sent shows his old childhood home and another the way to a run-down apartment flat, he begins to guess at what it all means. Memories of an event from when he was six start to crop up into his mind and speculation begins to manifest theories on what it all means.

These memories and dreams are my favorite aspect of the film. Before we know what they are, Haneke decides to cut short vignettes into the story at hand. We will be watching the Laurents in their home and all of a sudden be transported to a dark room wherein sits a young boy with blood in his mouth. The moments are unsettling and completely disjointed from the rest of the visuals … at least until the story continues on and the past is brought to light. Georges needs to cope with what occurred in his youth; he needs to reconcile his soul on whether lies he told—like any six year old who’s autonomy is being threatened in the home with a new sibling—ruined the life of another man, someone he hasn’t thought about or seen in decades. Whomever is behind the videos, whether someone involved with that incident or not, has uncovered this hidden guilt inside of Georges and now he must battle it, discovering for himself how deep the feelings go.

It is a tough film to discuss because, although you never find out who is orchestrating everything, the course of events will ruin your comprehension on what the Laurents are feeling. Daniel Auteuil and Juilette Binoche are both fantastic portraying a terrorized couple that slowly begin to realize what is happening and start to keep secrets from each other. This gets into the question of guilt again, how one can feel ashamed about his actions and, even though telling the other about it won’t do any harm, can’t do so. Sometimes it is easier to hide what could be important until absolutely necessary. Thinking back after so many years, with your age and experiences now weighing in, can have horrible effect on your mind. Something that seemed harmless as a child might become catastrophic as an adult because you now understand the consequences of those actions. The opposite is true as well, something we see with their son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). He is a young boy who may see phone calls and signs of affection between adults and leap to the conclusion of an affair, not comprehending platonic love between peers. Everything is relative to what state you are in at the time.

Haneke is the master at crafting stories that make you think for days afterwards, sometimes without ever coming up with a conclusion on what occurred. He makes sure to show the audience everything as raw as possible, utilizing long takes and static set-ups. Almost every scene commences with a still composition showing action occurring within the frame. Sometimes these moments become a videotaped visual to be rewound and fast-forwarded, other times they allow the camera to pull back and move, following live action. With such little camera movement, we are allowed to experience it all as a voyeur, spying on the hidden moments of these people’s lives. We as viewers begin to create a feeling of guilt ourselves, experiencing moments as a witness, knowing the truth whether the people involved decide to lie about the incident we just saw to those they love.

Caché is a very powerful film that warrants multiple viewings. I would also recommend checking out the interview with Haneke on the DVD to shed some light on his motivations. With wonderful performances—I must mention both Maurice Bénichou and Walid Afkir without saying whom they play, as that revelation should be uncovered while you watch—you will become engrossed with the story, waiting with anticipation to see where it all goes. By watching these people and their emotions, you will start to understand yourself. The ones who feel they hold no blame are so caught up in that need for innocence that they will do whatever it takes, without listening to those on the other end, while the ones who are innocently brought into the mess are calm and collected, unknowing what is truly at stake. Rather than seeing that composed demeanor as a sign of innocence, we get even angrier because we believe they are laughing at us smugly, making us squirm even more. Our minds are complex and make us do things we may not understand until it is too late. Some will be able to go home at night and sleep, unconcerned, while others will be left open-eyed, unable to bear the nightmares they know will come.

And that ending—a seemingly unimportant scene without context to the rest of the film, until you look closely and notice the two sons meeting and talking in the bottom left of the screen. What could they be talking about? Is this a videotape of a conversation that occurred earlier? Perhaps even the planting of the seed that Pierrot’s mother could be having an affair? It could be just one more piece to the puzzle, carefully orchestrated by the man linked to Georges past. Or maybe it happens in sequential order. Georges was going to bed early and Pierrot was not yet home from school, so potentially this occurs as the final event, one last overlap of these two families. We will never know exactly what it is as no words can be heard and nothing comes afterwards. It is just one more flourish from Haneke, making the audience feel guilt at seeing something and being unable to warn the Laurents that the nightmare may not be over after all.

Caché 9/10

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It all starts with a suicide. Or is it a car crash? I guess it all depends on whether you choose to start at the beginning or the end. Director Gabriele Muccino gives you the ability to enter his new film Seven Pounds whichever way you prefer as he starts at the end and works his way back to the beginning, showing us the course of events that led us to that heartbreaking 911 call. This is one powerful movie; maybe that is because I’m a softy when it comes to dramas of this ilk, dripping with weighty moments and chock full of devastating performances, but either way, a film works best when it truly touches me, when it lingers in the back of my head hours after leaving the theatre. And this is from the team that brought us the overrated, sappy, and not all that redeeming Pursuit of Happyness, so I’ll just say my anticipation was closely guarded for a big letdown. With all that, though, I was with Seven Pounds from the opening frame all the way until the credits rolled. Even though you figure out what Will Smith’s character is doing, that secret mission he is trying to complete, it is the way in which he fulfills his penance that shines bright and leaves you with a tear-filled smile at the end.

Our entry point is a bit jarring, leaving us off-kilter trying to comprehend what is going on. Smith’s Thomas has lists of names, one of people we don’t know and one of people it appears he is attempting to follow and audit. Working with the IRS allows him access to these strangers for a glimpse into their lives in order to see whether they are worthy of a gift he has the power to give them—a gift that could completely alter their circumstances. He calls an old childhood friend (Barry Pepper) and reminds him to do what it is he promised, to not second guess his decision because there is no changing his mind. Even in a role as small as Pepper’s, you can’t help but feel the utter grief held aloft in the background, hanging above everyone’s head. It is his character, seen maybe three times, that really encompasses the primal level of emotion being dealt with. His breakdowns, whether tear-streaked and composed or head in hands convulsions, show the bond these two men have is one that stands the test of time and any circumstance to come its way.

After that phone call, begins the journey to meet new people. Thomas is on some sort of mission to help alleviate the monetary troubles of mortally ill folk, trying to stay afloat despite the heavy burden of medical bills and survival. This progression takes many turns, from a “blind, vegan, meat salesman” that he berates to see whether he can get him to explode; to a phase two donor-necessity heart patient, unable to print her line of stationary, or even run with her Great Dane Duke; to an abused and scared Latino mother of two, too afraid to leave her boyfriend; to a dying hockey coach that instills faith in a downtrodden youth community; to a little boy in need of a bone marrow transplant. There are people who live with the pain and inevitable future with a disposition of hope and wanting to cherish each day, and there are those attempting to beat it by cutting corners and spending all their money at the expense of those who need it to go out in style. Why it is up to Thomas to weed through the mix and find those that deserve his “gift” is unknown at first, as is why this man, seen in flashbacks as an aeronautical engineer with a beautiful wife and huge beachfront home, is now living in a motel, driving a beat-up car, going door to door in order to audit for the IRS. As he says, though, “he kind of stumbled into the job”.

Smith’s quest as Thomas is a long and painful one, tempered with moments of clarity and honest compassion. As a man with the means to help, he takes his job seriously, crossing off people undeserving and testing those he believes are worthy to the nth degree. If that means he must yell and make fun of them, he must do it. At every step, though, you see the suffering in his eyes, the pain eating away at his soul, taking each step towards his fate, one as a saint of redemption, not only for those he wants to help, but for himself as well. It is an award-worthy performance and I only wish Smith would do more dramas like this instead of his blockbuster action summer tentpoles, because, while they are fun, this guy is too good for them. The man better win an Oscar before he is done or it will be a travesty—at least in my mind.

The rest of the cast is stellar across the board. Woody Harrelson as the blind salesman is pitch-perfect handicap with a joy of life. His shy smile and belief in humanity comes across throughout, whether on the phone being yelled at, sitting in a diner eating his pie, or at the piano in the park, playing for all who will listen. Elpidia Carrillo, as the abused mother, is fantastic, showing the hard evolution from prideful to scared to completely overwhelmed by the kindness of a stranger, allowing her family to finally be safe. And Rosario Dawson shines as the “once hot” young woman, beaten and broken by lengthy hospital stays, all but given up on living life to find love and happiness. It is the introduction of Smith’s Thomas that opens her eyes again to be a woman, a free-spirited sexual creature that can just live without fear of wondering what day will be her last.

Grant Nieporte, a guy who only has episodes of “8 Simple Rules…” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” to his name, has absolutely stunned me here. What could have been complete melodrama is composed in a creative and revealing way, helped by Muccino’s work and some stunning cinematography, (I loved the moments of close detail on the back of Smith’s head as he walks towards something, the background in complete blur, his head only filling about a third of the screen’s edge). The actors have definitely taken his words and ran with them, filling the voids with emotive actions and memorable moments. Definitely one of the best of the year, I can’t say enough about the impact it had, despite any instances where it could have flown off to soap opera territory, it remained true to the tale, staying the course and never copping-out once.

Seven Pounds 10/10

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[1] Will Smith stars in Columbia Pictures’ drama SEVEN POUNDS. ©2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Beverly Blvd LLC All Rights Reserved.
[2] Rosario Dawson and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures’ drama SEVEN POUNDS. ©2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Beverly Blvd LLC All Rights Reserved.

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How can one man be that good at picking projects to direct? Danny Boyle has yet to write one himself—granted, though, he has worked with the same people multiple times—but he can adapt his vision and style to anything. From musical, to drug induced frenzy, to children’s fantasy, to science fiction, to horror. No one does it like him, except for maybe Marc Forster; I like to think of him as the American Boyle. With this new film, Slumdog Millionaire, the Brit treats us to a touching love story, backdropped into a world of crime and poverty in Mumbai, India. It is such a simple tale, yet told in gorgeous flashback, peeling back layers when necessary and enhancing the relationships between our lead Jamal and those around him; those on his “friends and family” plan. Here is a young man from the streets, a boy who witnessed his own mother’s murder, living only to be reunited with the one person he truly loves, Latika. His bond to her leads him on an adventurous life full of violence and cruelty, events so harrowing that one would be hard-pressed to forget even the smallest detail about them. This is a great fact for Jamal as it will soon be shown how his life was lived with a destiny to be achieved. When he becomes a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, it’s as though the questions were written especially for him.

You are probably asking yourself how a film about a game show contestant having questions read as chapters in his life can be good. I know, it sounds like the most contrived piece of drivel, I agree. But trust me, it is far from that. Accused of cheating and arrested by the police, (talk about rights violations, at least we have rights in America), he is tortured to discover how he was able to trick the system. Only when nothing yields results does the Inspector, (the great Irfan Khan), decide to hear Jamal out and find the truth. What transpires is the film we have come to watch—a story told from a police chair, one of how the rough and tumble life of a slumdog gave him the exact right experiences to keep going towards a purse of twenty million rupees. Boyle, never one to go conventional, cuts between flashbacks of childhood, (the actual event being remembered), with Jamal in the hotseat on television, thinking of his past tragedies to continue the game as long as he can, in hopes that his love is watching, wherever she may be. With gorgeous cuts at the start—flashes of memories jumbled together as he is submerged in water or electrocuted—the structured chaos soon calms down to a normal pathway of three converging timelines: childhood, the previous night’s game show, and the present incarceration. We are shown exactly what we need at exactly the right time. The film couldn’t have been shot any other way and be nearly as successful as it is.

It all began in the slums with Jamal and his brother Salim. The two were inseparable no matter how much the older sibling would wreck the younger’s joy for his own laughter. They always believed in each other, even though they took diverging paths in life, the bond was never broken. These two Musketeers did what they needed to survive, looking out for one another and also for their surrogate third “brother” Lakita. Separated often, the three had a knack for finding one another through the years, until an event risks shattering any love between the brothers … an event that proves crucial to what characters do once the final trivia question is asked. Only when the bottom drops and one sees the monster they have become can he finally try to make amends. It’s a journey through time that proves how strong love is. Money is meaningless unless there is a life to live spending it. Who knows, if you live your life correctly, without regret, good things can happen. One doesn’t necessarily need to seek fortune in order to earn it and that fortune doesn’t always have to be monetary.

Boyle orchestrates it all with a steady hand, creating stunning visuals with composition, editing, (especially the numerous chase scenes on foot), and tempo changes; adding mood with a stellar soundtrack, (I’m enjoying it as I write); and allowing his actors to breathe free and give some powerfully natural performances. You have to give all those involved, (perhaps a little more to Loveleen Tandan who helped direct the Indian sequences) credit, for controlling three different actors as each of our three leads, all of which stay true to each other, never allowing you to believe they aren’t the same person just at different stages of their lives. Straight across the board, Jamal, Salim, and Latika are three-dimensional people trying to survive, no matter what they must do. I really enjoyed the youngest Salim, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, with his infectious and mischievous smile when he tricks his brother, and also the middle incarnation by Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, a boy at the crossroads of a path towards salvation or a descent ending with an eternity in the slum. Freida Pinto’s oldest Latika is wonderful as the troubled girl knowing only the kindness of one man, a man that she pushes away in fear of his death should they run away. However, it is Dev Patel’s Jamal that steals the show. With his blank stare and unceasing drive to find his love, Patel pushes on through it all. Severing ties and mending others to get closer to his dream, this young man never strays from his quest and you can see the wheels turning behind his eyes, calculating his next step.

A tale of destiny and striving to be good, Slumdog Millionaire is an uplifting parable showing how karma works. Everything happens for a reason, nothing is left to chance. Perhaps it is all written, but that doesn’t make the journey any tougher to endure. Jamal could have, understandably, given up at many times in his life, but his drive would not allow him that convenience. Conquering all odds, coming from the streets, to the point he didn’t even know Ghandi’s face was on his own country’s currency, Jamal gets the chance at a fortune and an opportunity to finally be free. I seriously found myself hoping he’d get the final question correct; it engrossed me that much. You’ll have to watch yourself to find out.

Slumdog Millionaire 10/10

Also, don’t forget to stay and watch the Bollywood number during the end credits … a little treat for all you Indian cinema lovers out there.

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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