17 December 2007

16 December 2007

I'm Not There

Robert Zimmerman once said, “Chaos is a friend of mine.” He also said, “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” Zimmerman once said “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I'll die like a poet.” He also said, “I think a poet is anybody who wouldn't call himself a poet.” Stranger still, Zimmerman once said, “There is nothing so stable as change.”
Of course, you know Zimmerman better by his popular moniker of Bob Dylan. And that name has been the most consistent aspect of the man that we have seen. For as the film “I’m Not There” portrays, Dylan has gone through numerous transformations, moving from one to the next just as the public was getting familiar with the old one.
And as you might have already heard, the way that writer/director Todd Haynes handles these transformations is the revolutionary part of the film. Six different actors play versions of the artist, each with different names, but none named Bob Dylan. They are revealing in their differences, and each occupies a distinct world of his own.
Consider the peculiarly precocious eleven-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin, who embodies Dylan as a guitar-playing boxcar tramp traveling under the name of Woody Guthrie, the folk hero of Dylan’s youth. Or the young philosopher Arthur Rimbaud, played by Ben Whishaw, who is only seen in interview-style clips, spouting mantras like and including some of those mentioned above.
There’s also Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, an embodiment of Dylan’s protesting folk hero of New York City. Heath Ledger appears as Robbie, an actor who starts out portraying Rollins in a film and encounters some marital troubles. Plus there’s Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, lifted from Dylan’s appearance in Sam Peckinpah’s western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
The most talked-about performance in the film is sure to be Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, Dylan’s post-folk personality. Her segment begins with the Newport Music Festival where Dylan outraged fans by going electric. The scene is both true to history and fanciful: Pete Seeger runs around with an axe threatening to chop the power cords while Jude and his band blast the audience away with machine guns.
That marriage of the metaphorical and the historical permeates the whole film. This may be news for those who may not know much about Dylan to begin with. However, if you are familiar with him, you are sure to get more out of the film. A good resource for catching up would be Scorsese’s documentary “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.”
The film flits back and forth between all the different characters, albeit at times confusingly. But the point here is not plot, it’s persona. The genius of Haynes’ method is that he’s found a cinematic language to handle both Dylan’s life and his poetry, not an easy feat, to be sure.
It’s been a few days since I saw the film, and I find I am still processing it, trying to work out this puzzle in my head to make a whole. But that is an erroneous approach. The parts exist simultaneously, but never in the same place.
And that’s how it should be. I find that all I can do is watch it again. And again. It’s one of those rare occasions when an unsolvable puzzle is a blessing, especially when it sounds so good.

No Country for Old Men

Not since “Bride of Frankenstein” have we seen hair this creepy. It may be strange to start out a review that way, especially a review of a film like “No Country for Old Men,” a modern western set in Texas, circa 1980. Yet in a way, a mentioning of hairstyle may be the best starting place for trying to process one of the most frighteningly evil characters in recent film history: Anton Chigurh.
Portrayed by Javier Bardem, Anton is an amoral yet principled villain, that is, if he says he’s going to kill you, then he has to keep his word. There is not a shred of mercy in him; the most he can offer you is a coin toss to decide your fate. On the bright side, if you win he lets you keep the lucky quarter. His weapons of choice are a large shotgun with a silencer, producing a strange whining sound whenever shot, and also a compressed air tank that can literally blow someone’s brains out.
It is a testament to Bardem’s acting, his convincing malevolence, that every one of his appearances on screen elicited some kind of noise from the audience I was watching it with. He manages to be so stoic in the act of killing, yet he is still very human, albeit in a predatory sort of way.
His prey is Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon body-strewn scene of a drug bust gone awry in the middle of the desert. Amidst the carnage, he finds a satchel with two million dollars. As he realizes that someone is hunting him, he goes to great lengths, traversing the plains of Texas, to keep the money and keep himself and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) safe.
Hunting Anton are the Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, and gun-for-hire Carson Wells (an unconvincing Woody Harrelson). Sheriff Bell is a man who has been jaded by violence but refuses to let on. However, even he is shocked by the things he finds in Anton’s wake. He finds an environment that he may not be equipped to handle.
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, “No Country” travels through the bleak, barren landscapes of the desert to dark alleys and seedy motels, and does so with an unsettling silence. There is no musical soundtrack for the film, just silence, gunfire, sparse dialogue (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel), and more silence.
It is a methodical western that doesn’t overstate its poetry. There is plenty of savagery, and the only real nobility comes from Sheriff Bell. It recalls the various anti-heroes of the Coen’s first film, “Blood Simple;” a group of people stuck in a spiral of violence that could be easily prevented if someone had a good head on their shoulders.
I am still processing the ending to the film. It is hard to swallow at first, but it is fitting. In fact, it’s one of the bravest endings of recent memory, brave in its refusal to deliver answers and brave in its defiance of convention. Some may be disappointed by it, but if you think about it, in such capable filmmaking hands as these, can you really be unsatisfied?

Lars and the Real Girl

It’s rare these days to see the kind of town envisioned in “Lars and the Real Girl.” Not only does everyone know everyone else, but they generally like them all. They are a true community. They spend time with one another, and when someone is hurting, the rest are there to support them. It’s idyllic in its own way without being overly fanciful.
And it’s a good thing that Lars Lindstrom, played by Ryan Gosling, lives in such a town. If the film was set in a big city, Lars would probably be the victim of scorn and possibly violence. It’s odd that in such a diverse setting Lars would probably face derision for being different, while here in this primarily white middle-class setting he is accepted. For, you see, Lars’s new girlfriend has come to town. Her name is Bianca, and he met her on the internet. She also happens to be a life-size doll.
Such is the central joke of the film. Lars is delusional, and thinks Bianca is a real person. The only human contact he can muster the courage for is directed for someone inanimate. His brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin cannot understand this phase, but at the insistence of Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), they go along with it so that Lars can work out this problem on his own. He gave life to Bianca; he is the only one who can take it away.
They soon convince the other townspeople to support Lars in this emotional crisis, and everyone soon warms to Bianca and treats her as one of their own. The second act of the film is filled with numerous examples of Bianca’s newfound popularity, with Lars increasingly grasping for time with her. As Bianca gets to know everyone, so does Lars, and so he is able to come out of his shell, albeit painfully.
Nancy Oliver’s script is a great achievement in the way it handles such an outlandish premise. Most other writers would probably automatically latch on to the obvious crude humor that could be implied, but here the issue of physical relations between Lars and Bianca is only mentioned once or twice, and never dwelled upon.
For Lars’s problem is not sexual but emotional, and Ryan Gosling’s performance makes this perfectly clear. It’s a testament to both the script and the acting that the film is able to achieve such a unique sense of reality. Instead of dwelling on the inherent silliness and miring itself in running gags, they make you feel that emotional foundation.
Consider a scene in which Lars kisses Bianca. A man kissing a life-size doll is ridiculous, let’s face it. But when that scene happened, the audience I saw it with was almost completely silent, maybe even reverent. People were moved.
But all that’s not to say that the film isn’t funny. It is quite funny. But it balances that humor with the charm and tenderness of a great romance. Some may call it an offbeat film, but in its way it’s more romantic than most any other romantic comedy made these days.

The Darjeeling Limited

In Wes Anderson’s films thus far, it seems there are always troubled father-child relationships. In “Rushmore,” Max is uninspired by his barber father and seeks out a parental figure in a rich CEO. In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Royal tries to connect with his adult children after a long absence, much to their chagrin. And in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” the title character tries to act as a father to a young man who may or may not be his son.
In “The Darjeeling Limited,” the father is dead, and he is missed. It is debatable as to whether his three adult sons, Peter (Adrien Brody), Jack (Jason Schwartzman), and Francis (Owen Wilson) are ready to face the world without him. They squabble over his possessions, and, in a joyously frantic flashback, go to desperate lengths to get his old car back.
The family has fallen apart since the father’s death, and to bring them together again, Francis calls them all to India for a highly organized spiritual journey, complete with laminated daily itineraries. They travel to various villages and shrines, hoping for some kind of enlightenment, all the while keeping and spilling secrets, bickering, giving good and bad advice, and finding more about each other than they ever really knew.
Because the family has lost its anchor, they wander throughout the country, confused and unstable. Francis has recently been involved in a not-so-accidental wreck, Peter is afraid of becoming a father, and Jack is stuck in a destructive relationship.
Like the family, the film is free to wander as well. It’s an interesting departure from the meticulous storytelling of Anderson’s previous films. It’s not a slow film, but one that stops to ponder rather than get wrapped up in intricate details.
Indeed, it is the lack of such details that distinguishes this film from Anderson’s other work. Elaborate production design and motifs like a book, a play, or an education film marked the others, while this is a bit freer. The complex visual approach that some thought overloaded “The Life Aquatic” has found a better balance with the subtle emotions Anderson is so good at instilling in his characters.
Story and acting wise, Anderson’s films are all about understatement. The signature deadpan performances from Schwartzman and Wilson are back, and Adrien Brody fits quite nicely into the traditional ensemble. Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston pop up in smaller roles, as do a few bit players from the other films.
The familiar faces add to the effect that, though this movie has a different approach and flow, you know you’re watching a Wes Anderson film. “The Darjeeling Limited” is destined to stand with “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums” as some of the best modern examples of masterful balance between a director’s personal stamp and emotions that are universal. In a way, some scenes seem to wrap up and put to rest some of the questions and themes of the other films, as if the director is finally putting the “father” to rest.
“Darjeeling” is also accompanied by a short prequel film, “Hotel Chevalier,” starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, which adds a nice bit of back story for Jack’s character, helping to explain his character as you see it in the feature.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Twice in the film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” we see a man moments before his own death, and each of them knows it. But they do not scream or beg for their lives. They do not run away, hide, or exhibit other such displays of cowardice, though one of them is known for it. Neither do they fight back, or try to act heroic, for neither one is a hero. Instead, they seem to face the reaper with indifference.
Death, depending on your point of view, is either the most poetic part of life, or the most horrific undertaking a human being can undergo. Somehow, the death scenes of this film seem to convey both sides. Director Andrew Dominik imbues the entire film with a similar layered approach to create remarkably sustained, intense, visual poetry.
Some of these layers are the multiple perceptions of each character, evident throughout the film. One of the title characters, the famed outlaw Jesse James, played expertly by Brad Pitt, is a celebrity to most of the American public. He is a romantic figure of the west, mysterious and larger than life. Yet, to some, he is a menace to society who must be brought down at all costs.
Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck, idolizes Jesse James as the film begins. “Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanna be me,” Jesse asks him. Yet, as he is slighted by Jesse and ridiculed by others, he becomes embittered and decides to commit the heinous act referenced in the film’s title. After that moment, he likes to think himself a hero, but has to face the reality of the situation when the public vehemently disagrees.
The film also spends a surprising amount of time on supporting characters, showing them interact with each other, and most importantly, with Jesse. All this seems to be working toward a grand hypothesis of honor in the West, but like the character of Jesse James, it remains enigmatic to the end. Some of the subplots are not necessarily present because they are vital to the plot, but rather they fit nicely within the flow of the picture, providing more moments of poignancy and varied stanzas within the longer poem of the film.
Indeed, the bulk of the film is not so much the story of the last year of Jesse’s life, but rather meditations on what he was to America and the people close to him. Such a narrative method requires a strong visual approach, and Dominik does not disappoint.
Fast moving clouds, slow moving people, busy city streets, and lonely, snowy meadows make each scene flow like music, provoking nostalgia and anticipation. Figures loom and lurk in shadows and fog, silhouetted in sunlight and headlights, stalking like the heroes and villains of tall tales. This is not the past you may be aware of, but rather it is the Western of our collective American unconscious.
In case I haven’t been clear up to now, let me say that this film is a masterpiece. It’s a film that is so singular an experience that it is almost hard to pinpoint the reasons you enjoyed it. Rather than staying in front of you on the screen, it flows around you, immersing you. I could spend more time trying to explain the merits of the film, but it is truly something you need to experience for yourself.

Across the Universe

“Is there anybody going to listen to my story?” Jude asks the audience. This question at the beginning of “Across the Universe” is deceptive, masking what the film is truly going to be. In a movie musical based totally on the work of The Beatles, “listen” would seem to be the operative term. However, like all good films, it is primarily about what you see.
Another deceiving word is “story,” implying that a narrative will be the primary focus of the film. While there is a distinct arc for the characters, the musical numbers are what the film is really about, and because they are so expressive and experiential, so much like the songs themselves, you probably won’t mind the thinness of the plot.
What little story there is revolves around characters named after famous Beatles songs. Lucy (without the diamonds), Jude, Maxwell (sans silver hammer), Sadie, Jojo, Prudence, Dr. Robert (who is apparently, also the walrus), they’re all here. Even Mr. Kite, played by Eddie Izzard, makes an appearance in a spectacular carnival scene depicting his show on trampoline.
Jude has come from (guess where) Liverpool, to find his father at Princeton. There he meets and becomes friends with Max, and soon accompanies him to New York City. They move into an apartment with Sadie, Prudence, and Jojo, who have all come in search of meaning in the midst of the chaotic 1960s. Soon, Max’s sister Lucy joins them and quickly falls in love with Jude. As the political movement against the Vietnam War heats up, Lucy finds herself marching and protesting while Jude withdraws to express his frustrations through art.
There are also a myriad of subplots involving the other characters, but Lucy and Jude’s is really the only one of much consequence, as it helps deliver the film’s delicious final moments their emotional push. It’s best to realize that the story is mainly meant as a vehicle to get from one musical number to the next. It was a wise decision to fit the story around the songs rather than the other way around.
If you go see the movie, you’ll probably go to see those musical numbers, anyway. And they are everything you’d want, and more. Director Julie Taymor, well known in the theatre for her inventive visual style, brings the perfect blend of surrealism, choreography, collage, and montage. It’s hard to imagine many of the scenes being done any other way because they fit so well.
Consider “I Want You”, accompanying a scene where Max is drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam. Instead of romantic obsession, it depicts the dehumanization of American soldiers as they (literally) carry the nation on their shoulders. Or there’s “Come Together” where it seems that all the diverse denizens of the Big Apple, led by Joe Cocker no less, take to the streets to welcome the characters to the city. I could go on.
Films like this are rare, these days; works of art that try to achieve an experience, a barrage of feelings, rather than a progression of logic. It’s a fitting tribute to the greatest rock band of all time. You’re practically guaranteed to see things you’ve never seen in a film before. So take advantage while you can. After all, with a soundtrack like this, how can you really go wrong?

In the Valley of Elah

Our country is in peril and we can’t do anything to save ourselves. With one last bold stroke, Paul Haggis cements this bleak political commentary at the end of his new film “In the Valley of Elah.” Unfortunately, this moment is unnecessary, as any discerning viewer could have picked the idea up along the way.
Such obvious gimmicks are characteristic of Haggis, and his Oscar-winning film “Crash”, in the opinion of many, suffered under the weight of them. Luckily, this movie has fewer of them. Overall, it is more subtle, mature, and intelligent than its predecessor. This makes the presence of such general statements even more of a nuisance, and they might even keep it from being a great film.
That aside, there is much to admire here. The cinematography is more thoughtful and less staged. Whereas “Crash” jumped through locations and scenes rather quickly, in this film shots linger longer; some of the moments of silence seem to carry more weight than any of the dialogue. And because there is one central storyline, there is much to be said for the strength provided by such narrative focus.
That storyline centers on Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, whose son Mike has apparently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and has now disappeared. Hank, a former military police officer, travels to the base and begins his own investigation with the help of local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). What he finds is unnerving, and unfortunately gets manipulated into one of Haggis’s political statements.
Without any exploitation, the central secret that Deerfield uncovers is horrifying enough, and raises questions on its own that Haggis doesn’t really need to answer explicitly, mainly because we know the answers already. What happens when violence becomes second nature to a person? How does war affect a person’s psyche? These have been answered in other films before, but rarely so chillingly and so quietly as in some of the scenes here.
I’ve mentioned the silence of this film, and one of the best examples is Tommy Lee Jones’s performance. In a film where the director at times over-exerts himself, it’s refreshing to see an actor who is able to do so much with seemingly little effort. He is portraying a man who has lost his son, and he plays it just as a military man like Hank would, devoid of overdramatic wailing and weeping.
As previously mentioned, the political commentary comes in sparse but concentrated bursts, which to some might carry a lot of power. I suppose we could be thankful that there weren’t more politics. To Haggis’s credit, he doesn’t get wrapped up in being preachy regarding the current administration as most Hollywood people like to do these days. Rather than pervading the film, the political atmosphere lingers overhead. It’s always there if you want to find it.
Overall, it’s a conflicted film. Much of it is of high quality, even moving at times. Yet those punctuated moments, for me at least, brought it down. The last shot of the film is the heaviest one. It’s a bit hard to stomach such despair, particularly when coupled with the fear that it might be true.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

“Tommy was stupid.” That’s part of the short eulogy that poor Tommy Darden gets after being killed by his boss, the notorious outlaw Ben Wade. As his fellow gang members drink whiskey in his memory, Wade can notice they are uneasy. To reassure them, he quotes a passage of scripture to justify the murder.
It’s a significant clue to one of the major themes of “3:10 to Yuma”: the conflict between honor and survival, between nobility and harsh reality. The protagonist Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale, must decide whether to take the shortcuts repeatedly offered to him in order to ensure the prosperity of his farm, or to earn his family’s respect by bringing a notorious bandit to justice.
There is a mix of both paths in Dan’s actions throughout the film. The first time he encounters Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), he is shown great mercy. The second time, Wade gives him a lot of money. However, Dan helps capture him, and is subsequently hired by a railroad employee to make sure he gets Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison.
However, Wade is just as dangerous without his gun. He has a seductive personality, and uses his words cunningly to inspire equal measures of awe, guilt, curiosity, and fear. Dan sees just what Wade is capable of in both violent and more subtle ways. What starts out as a practical plan to save the family farm ends as a mission to ensure that justice is served. It might be futile, but like in most westerns, honor is a powerful thing.
The filmmakers, led by director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”), seem to be at a similar crossroads. Some portions of the film seem to espouse the romantic notions of the West seen in John Ford or Howard Hawks films. After all, it’s a remake of a Glenn Ford western from 1957. But with such scenes as a high speed stagecoach chase akin to an armored car robbery in a modern action film, it’s clear that a modern sensibility is vying for exposure.
Oddly enough, the duality works. The western has seemed to be in a holding pattern for a few years now, waiting for someone to give it direction. This film won’t be seen as revolutionary or groundbreaking by any means, but maybe it’s just what the industry needs to prove that there is still vitality in the genre after all. There may not be many surprises here, but is that what westerns are really about?
Perhaps it’s wise that the main goal of the filmmakers seems to be to create a solid, entertaining period piece. In that, they succeed wonderfully. Bale and Crowe deliver their usual great performances. Other notable turns come from Peter Fonda as a hired gun and Ben Foster as Wade’s right hand man.
All of this comes down to the usual frantic gunfight at the end. It’s a furious and violent scene, more like “Rio Bravo” than “High Noon”. What will distinguish it from other movies, however, is the fact that the turning point comes from an emotional decision, rather than a practical one. In a genre of archetypes and unshakeable men, it’s refreshing to see a character change. Or does he?


I believe it can be said that pies are the highest valued things in the film Waitress. Unlike the main character’s unborn child, they are never accused of making someone unhappy. Unlike the various spouses in the film, no one ever cheats on the pie. So much feeling and meaning goes into each one that I ended up wishing that as much care had been put into the weak and troubling story that makes up the late Adrienne Shelley’s Sundance hit.

If it seems too simple, that’s because it is. It tells the tale of Jenna (Keri Russell), a waitress in a small town who is unhappily married to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), and suddenly finds out she is pregnant. Her co-workers can’t understand her unhappiness about the baby, and frankly, neither did I. I can understand how it happened at an inconvenient time, but it did not seem to merit the kind of resentment directed toward him or her.

Meanwhile, Jenna embarks on an affair with Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), which makes her happy but forces her to lie to Earl. By the end it doesn’t really mean anything. She’s not the only one having an affair, though. Many of the characters are jumping in and out of love/lust, with little regard to the feelings of anyone else. At a few moments it seems the film is going to address these ethical issues, but it backs down. To do so would only complicate things, and that would not work for this comedy. This is a comedy…right?

The only real bright spot of the film for me was Andy Griffith. I’m not sure why, but seeing him from time to time, a cross between a curmudgeon and a saint, was a breath of fresh air in comparison to Jenna’s whining and all the shallow flings. He also brings a sense of pedigree to what is mainly an amateurishly written and directed film.

It seems to build itself up as a character film, but then denies itself the chances to really explore each person. Instead we are met with sitcom-style situations and the ludicrous Southern stereotypes which seem to pervade every depiction of the area. I will give it this much: it really made me hungry for pie.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters

In a way, the incredibly long title of this film immediately signals what kind of experience you are about to have. But before the opening credits begin, we are treated to something completely different. In a spoof of concession stand ads, a group of surly snacks screams instructions to the audience through a heavy metal song. They alert you to turn off your phone, don’t talk, don’t explain the plot to anyone, or else they will hurt in incredibly imaginative ways.
From these opening moments, the ordinary movie going experience is torn apart. This is not your “average” film in any sense of the word. It defies all the conventions of Hollywood while still managing to be as entertaining as a studio product. “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theatres” could quite possibly lure you into a brave world of cinema not seen on the screen in many years, if you are able to get past its absolutely ridiculous elements, that is.
Based on the popular late-night cartoon, the movie centers on a trio of anthropomorphic fast food products: Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad. Also central to the plot(?) is their trashy neighbor Carl, who unwittingly becomes a key to a scheme of world domination when his new exercise machine, the Insanoflex, comes to life and threatens to overthrow the balance of the universe.
While the combo meal tries to help Carl escape the machine, the Plutonians try to get a straight answer out of the Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future as to who exactly is meant to create the Insanoflex in years to come. Other aliens, including the Atari-style animated Mooninites and a piece of watermelon named Walter, also try to get a piece of the action. And let’s not forget the infamous Dr. Weird, who might be behind the whole plot, might also be the father of the Aqua Teens, and has definitely ripped his own brain out of his head one too many times.
If you’re still with me and this is intriguing you, then the movie is definitely for you. If you’re a fan of the television show, then, again, it’s definitely for you. Compared to the source material, the situations are even more outlandish, the plot twists even more random, the characters even more arbitrary, and the ending even more inconclusive.
If you’re still with me and you’re wondering why I’m wasting time and space writing about such a ludicrous movie, let me explain. I will admit that the appeal of it is going to be very limited. However, it is part of a tradition of art that is often misunderstood and ridiculed. It’s hard to pinpoint its exact heritage, but it’s possibly absurdist, surrealist, maybe even Dadaist. At its heart is an attempt to make sense of a seemingly random universe by satirizing it in an equally random way. Nothing is predictable, nothing is sacred, and everything is subject to change.
Writer/directors Matt Maiellero and Dave Willis have crafted their own personal New Jersey where literally anything can happen and does. It’s a world that puzzles and mystifies, yet also manages to strike some kind of chord, even we’ve never heard it before. It’s a world where meat talks (hilariously), chickens catch fire, and literally everything explodes upon impact.


It seems that every weekend there’s a new horror flick. The reason being that, no matter how good or bad they may be, they usually do good business. As the genre has become more prolific, so has its outlandishness and its senselessness, each film trying to outdo the others in terms of gore, cheap thrills, and imaginative means of creating excruciating pain.
With that said, let me tell you about “Vacancy.” It features none of the following: mutants, diabolical puppets, zombies, vampires, werewolves, extravagant technological death traps, or a low-cost European lodging establishment. There are no self-righteous maniacs trying to teach people the error of their ways by brutally murdering them. There are no killers who find the need to come back from the dead to exact revenge. These are all reasons why this film will likely stand out from this year’s already crowded crop.
It’s a decidedly simple concept: possibly-psychotic hicks trying to kill two unsuspecting victims. The unfortunate duty this time around belongs to David and Amy Fox, played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale. After the Hitchcock-style opening credits, we are launched immediately into their story. No annoying prologue or back-story, just a bickering couple lost on a highway at night.
Their car breaks down and they are forced to walk back to a hotel they spotted. After checking in with the odd manager, the menace begins. There’s no labyrinthine secret or legend they have to uncover, they merely have to escape with their lives. They slowly figure out the killers’ methods, and are able to get the upper hand more than once.
It’s a refreshingly straightforward take on a tired genre. It’s short and tight and every action has a reason. We don’t care why the killers’ are after them, we only know they’ve done it before to others. The only advantage they have is a knowledge of the layout of the motel and some 90s era video equipment. Because the villains are not invincible, it makes the possibility of David and Amy’s escape that much more probable, and the film becomes more exciting as a result.
Directed by Nimród Antal, the movie revels in inexpensive and easily produced scares that still manage to be frightening. Heavy knocking on one or more doors or the simplicity of light and shadow are enough to get us going. We never doubt that the killers are just creeps in masks, but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying.
The film is weakest when it tries to indulge the sentimentality of David and Amy’s floundering marriage. Their child has died before the movie begins, and while he is not overly mentioned, there is just a little too much talk about their emotional problems. Another weak spot is Luke Wilson’s performance. Poor guy, you can tell he’s trying, but he can’t conjure the emotional honesty needed to get him through some of the scenes.
If you’re looking for a good simple thriller before the onslaught of the summer blockbusters begins, then this is your ticket. It’s one of the few horror movies of the past few years that can give you a good scare without becoming extremely ridiculous.

The Hoax

It is important to note right at the start that this film is not necessarily based on a true story. Yes, the events in question did happen, but the words “Based on the book by Clifford Irving” are central to understanding the way the events are depicted. Because this is a story being told by someone we will come to find is a very great liar, it puts a spin on our view of the film’s reality. The man behind “The Hoax” might just be putting another one over on the unsuspecting public.
Because you cannot implicitly trust the source material, this gives the film rich depths to exploit the central conceit of the story in many ways. There are conspiracy theories thrown in that seem like Irving’s way of explaining or justifying his forgery of an autobiography by eccentric aviation mogul Howard Hughes. We get glimpses of delusions that might shed light on Irving’s motives in the scandal. Should we take these as facts, desperate attempts to exonerate himself, or just clever tricks from a master of deception?
Clifford Irving, played by Richard Gere, starts the film as a struggling author whose most notable work is a poor-selling profile on an art forger (footage and commentary on both these figures can be found in the Orson Welles film “F For Fake”). In a last grasp for survival, Gere promises his editor Andrea (Hope Davis) the most important book of the twentieth century, and to make good on this promise he concocts a scheme, with the help of his friend Don (Alfred Molina), to forge Hughes’ account of his own life.
Because Hughes is so notably eccentric, Irving’s ways of covering his tracks succeed even better than he hopes for. As he tells Don, “The more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I am.” Soon, covering the truth becomes harder and harder, and he ends up putting his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) in danger, as well as implicating Don. Hughes begins to try to discredit the book, and some of the aforementioned conspiracies come to light, one involving Richard Nixon (according to this film, Irving’s book is responsible for Watergate). These mysterious forces, whether they actually interacted with Irving or not, contribute, along with his constant lying, to his downfall.
Despite the film being about a lie, director Lasse Hallström is able to maintain a very realistic feel throughout, staving off the melodrama that he lapsed into on “The Cider House Rules.” The look of the film seems to match the 70s setting. Irving’s flights of possible fantasy match the tone and pace almost seamlessly, making it hard to tell fantasy from reality without some serious thinking. It’s as it should be: the truth is not handed to you, instead you have to work for it.
Richard Gere delivers a very strong performance, making both his portrayal and Irving’s lies completely believable. He pulls us onto his side; after all, what good would it be to make a story about a con man that you didn’t want to succeed? Both the fake autobiography and the reality presented in this film, with the help of the filmmakers, make Irving one of the supreme con artists of all time.


At the beginning of “300”, we hear the background story of King Leonidas of Sparta narrated by one of his men. We hear of his upbringing in the traditional Spartan way: he learns to fight from the time he can walk and is entrenched in violence throughout childhood to train him into a fierce warrior. This has the added effect of introducing the audience to the culture of violence at work in the film.
Throughout the movie, combat is glorified, and because of the historical background of ancient Greece this is not out of place. The battles are brutal; decapitations and blood spurts abound, magnified in great details by the grainy, colorful cinematography. But while the action fits the ancient feeling of the film, the approach is decidedly new, in ways that weaken the film.
It’s directed by Zack Snyder, whose only major previous credit is the remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead.” Perhaps just as important to the film’s concept is the source material: a graphic novel by Frank Miller, whose work was also the basis of 2005’s “Sin City.” From what little I’ve seen of the novel, it seems that Snyder stayed as true as he could to the source.
Visually, this is interesting. It’s not an ancient Greece we’ve ever seen before. Much of the frame takes on a dusty golden brown hue, while striking colors like the red of the capes and blood and the blackness of the hair stand out. Objects are arranged in the frame in a decidedly bold way, giving the film a dynamic and mythic tone.
The element that ultimately weakens this visual concept is the movement of those objects. Snyder employs a very “Matrix”-influenced approach to his camerawork, with much of the action scenes featuring numerous slow motion shots. At times it gets so repetitive that I felt I was watching a DVD that was skipping. What originality the imagery has on first glance becomes pedantic soon after.
The story is based on history and is fairly compelling. Sparta is being overrun by the massive armies of the Persian king Xerxes. King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, being the warrior that he is, is predisposed to fight back rather than submit. However, because the city council has not approved open war, he can only take a small number (you guessed it, 300) of soldiers to fight back the invaders in a narrow canyon.
The weaker subplot that often distracts from the narrative is the plight of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who must somehow convince the council to declare war, and has to ward off the ambitious councilman Theron (Dominic West). Also distracting is the constant narration of the aforementioned soldier, played by David Wenham, whose words serve little purpose than to describe to us what we are already seeing.
Overall, it will be known for its bold visual approach, but that cannot mask some of the amateurish directorial choices and the weaker elements of the script.

Inland Empire

“Inland Empire” isn’t your typical film. Made by the equally atypical David Lynch, it’s difficult to review because Lynch seems to transcend your expectations of movies with each of his projects. So while I will do my best to describe and unearth the various levels of the film, keep in mind that it can’t be judged with conventional standards.
Lynch has long been famous for his unsettling psychological stories that frequently flit in and out of consciousness. His work ranges from the odd (“Mullholland Dr.”), to the oddly conventional (“The Straight Story”). “Mullholland Dr.” was acclaimed for its labyrinthine tale that played with the worlds of dreams and their emotional effects. Some of his other work has been along this vein, if not as obviously. Yet, if “Mullholland” depicted a dream, “Inland Empire” depicts a psychotic episode.
The story, as best I can describe it, revolves around Nikki Grace, played by Laura Dern, who gets cast in a film directed by Kingsley Stewart, played by Jeremy Irons. The film, as they discover, is actually a remake of a Polish film that was never finished because the lead actors were murdered under mysterious circumstances. As they work on the production, Nikki starts to have feelings for her costar Devon (Justin Theroux), reflecting their romantic link in the story of the movie they are acting in.
That story occupies the first third of the film. Then, things start to get hazy as the lines between reality, the original Polish film, and the remake are blurred. For more than an hour it is difficult to tell just which story a scene is from, and sometimes, things happen that don’t belong in any of the stories. Characters take on traits of their film counterparts, and then interact with characters from the Polish film, and so on. Time means nothing; people die and then you see them again later.
In a way, Lynch is defying the normal film logic that one shot somehow relates to the next shot. Much of the film is a series of random scenes, all linked by an overhanging peril facing Dern’s character, the name of which you are not even sure of by the end. In short order you are taken from a backyard barbecue to Hollywood Blvd. and then onto a television sitcom featuring the actors in full size rabbit suits.
This is definitely bold filmmaking, but as a whole, it gets to be a little much. At almost three hours, for many the film will feel like a test of endurance. Because there is little semblance of a story arc, there is not much to compel you to keep watching. While such experimental portions of his other films led to a deeper sense of mystery and discovery, here it’s too much to handle.
The last portions of the film at first seem to hold the promise of some kind of resolution, but don’t be fooled; Lynch hardly ever makes it that easy. All of the growing tension and unsettling tone lead to a violent and illusory end. Followed by what has to be the strangest ending credits sequence in film history, “Inland Empire” stakes its claim as one of the most confusing films in Lynch’s varied career.


From the very first moments of the film “Breach”, we know we are enmeshed in history, and from the presence of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, we know it’s recent. Ashcroft’s speech tells the end of the story we are about to see, and because Robert Hanssen’s destiny is already laid out before us, what follows becomes a strong character study rather than the latest cliché spy thriller.
The film stars Chris Cooper as Hanssen, the infamous traitor in the F.B.I. who sold secrets to the Russians from the mid-eighties to his capture in 2001. He has been highly elusive and very adept at covering his tracks, even at one time being appointed to find a mole in the Bureau; he is essentially asked to find himself. As the film begins, the top minds at the F.B.I., played by Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert, are preparing their last push in gathering evidence to indict him before he hits the mandatory retirement age.
They enlist Eric O’Neill, played by Ryan Philippe, who serves as the film’s protagonist. He is a surveillance operative who is trying to reach agent status when he is pulled into a seemingly boring desk job alongside Hanssen, presumably to keep an eye out for Hanssen’s reputed lewd conduct. When he is informed of what is really at stake, he has to employ all his skills of manipulation into getting Hanssen to incriminate himself.
The bulk of the film follows O’Neill as he delves further into Hanssen’s treason, and his attempts to assist the Bureau in their investigation. All the while, the job strains things between him and his wife, exacerbated by Hanssen’s constant attempts to interfere in Eric’s home life.
Through Cooper’s performance, Hanssen becomes a fascinating character, and the exploration of his actions and his reasons for them become the strongest part of the film. Hanssen is a family man with seemingly strong Catholic convictions, and he continually pressures Eric to attend church and convert his wife.
This upstanding moral behavior seems contradictory to his treasonous acts, and indeed, that complexity seems to be the center of Cooper’s approach. What would lead a man to such despicable measures? No easy answers are given in the end, although Hanssen gives several possible reasons for his actions, though as to which is the correct one, it is impossible to say.
It is said a couple of times in the film and in the trailers that this was the worst security breach in U.S. history. This is certainly ample fodder for a film, but the writers do themselves credit by leading the focus away from the cold hard facts and not indulging in conventional spy thriller elements.
The rest of the acting is quite solid. Philippe does a good job of making his character believable in his ability to manipulate Hanssen, who is most likely the smartest character in the film. The power play between the two men is the central conflict. While it’s significant history, the human drama that plays out is more interesting than any leaked information or stolen documents.


He’s in his seventies. She’s in her twenties. Not exactly a match made in heaven. Yet Maurice and Jessie form the unlikely couple at the center of “Venus”, a British film directed by Roger Michell. This is not a feel good romance, nor a twisted tale of carnal obsession. The film exists somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, and its wavering is ultimately its weakness.
Maurice, played by screen legend Peter O’Toole, is an aging actor who is relegated to small parts in small movies, even playing a corpse in one scene. He meets regularly with his other elderly friends, including Ian (Leslie Phillips), who is suffering great pain and agony at the hands of his grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). Upon meeting her, Maurice is smitten, and they start to spend time with each other. Their friendship grows, but Maurice wishes that it could be something more.
The bulk of the film is a series of meetings between the two, and eventually Jessie’s youthful actions start to hurt Maurice, as he confides his feelings to his friend Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave). All the while, his friends feel alienated as he spends more and more time with Jessie, and their relationship takes twists and turns toward its inevitable conclusion.
The distinctive part of the film is, of course, the relationship between Maurice and Jessie. Indeed, it is a hard relationship to imagine, and the film has a hard time pinning down what exactly it entails. It is not an inspiring eccentric relationship, a la “Harold and Maude.” Maurice makes sexual references and clearly expresses such intentions. However, there is a platonic level of attraction, manifested in his nickname for her, “Venus.”
The film flips back and forth between the two levels of the relationship, and in some ways it reveals the complexity of such a pairing. However, the filmmaking style also switches back and forth, and this unevenness is frustrating. As Maurice’s life is interrupted by youthful bursts from Jessie, the quiet thoughtfulness is often interrupted by flashy camerawork or a loud sappy pop tune.
The movie’s strength lies in O’Toole’s performance. He is once again nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, and this is his eighth performance, having never won competitively. He did win an honorary Oscar last year, but almost refused it, saying he is still in the game and did not want to be out of the running for a competitive award. This movie proves that he’s still got it, bringing the right amount of pathos to a potentially disturbing role.
The other performances range in their quality. Redgrave is good as usual, as are Phillips and Richard Griffiths as Maurice’s friends. Whittaker has moments of inspiration, but at times she is a bit one-noted. As good as some may be though, it is O’Toole’s show, and the film’s focus does not waver in that regard.
The part of Maurice’s life depicted here is one of sadness with brief glimpses of humor. The characters are the same way, switching from kindness to cruelty. In order for the film to charm us, the film could have used more of the kindness. The cruelty makes a point, but it is not enough to make a profound connection.

The Last King of Scotland

The main character in “The Last King of Scotland”, Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy, begins by doing something a lot of us may have done at one point or another. He spins a globe and put his finger down, picking a random spot in the world. The only difference is that Garrigan actually goes there, beginning a long series of rash decisions that puts him in the middle of one of history’s notorious atrocities.
The film, directed by Kevin MacDonald, is based on events surrounding the presidency of Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda from 1971-1979. As his rule progressed, he became increasingly paranoid and unstable, giving himself the title of “Lord of all the beasts of the earth and fishes of the sea”, and ultimately being responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 people.
After sticking his finger on Uganda, Garrigan, a Scottish doctor, joins a clinic in a provincial town. Amin, played by Forrest Whitaker, having taken control of the country, visits the village and meets Garrigan, immediately admiring his upfront manner and his heritage, having an admiration for all things Scottish. Soon, Garrigan finds himself Amin’s chief physician and most trusted advisor.
Things begin to go awry, and as much as he tries to ignore the murders and extortion, he eventually wises up. However, Amin will not let him leave, considering him to be like a son. Compounding this problem is Garrigan’s affair with one of Amin’s wives. Garrigan must escape the country and tell the world what is going on, but doing so proves dangerous.
Sadly, this story is the film’s weakest element. Garrigan’s actions throughout the movie are so impulsive and often stupid that it becomes extremely frustrating. You would hope that the main character in the film about a madman might have some sense about him, but in this case we have no such luck. A film without a hero of some nobility is a hard pill to take, and often ultimately meaningless. An occasional misstep can be accepted, but Garrigan’s constant entanglements with the wrong women and general ignorance of what is going on around him make him not innocently naïve, but idiotic.
Without a central axis on which to turn, the rest of the film seems empty. Even the atrocities that Amin commits do not have the weight that they should because they are largely ignored by Garrigan, our emissary into that world. There is also a void visually, with the film looking like the filmmakers took a cue from “The Constant Gardener” in their depiction of Africa. However, without the strong human connection, this is just bells and whistles.
Of course, the biggest draw of the film is Forest Whitaker’s performance as Amin, the role which will most likely win him the Best Actor prize at this year’s Academy Awards. He is totally transformed, and brings the right amount of charisma to the role to justify people’s willingness to follow him.
Amin is certainly an interesting enough figure to build a film around, but this isn’t the right vehicle. While Whitaker’s brilliance is enough to carry some scenes, as a whole the film falls apart, and many of the filmmaking choices feel as arbitrary as placing your finger on a spinning globe.

Little Children

As the title would suggest, the world of “Little Children” is populated by the immature, but not all of them are age-appropriate. In the suburban neighborhood where the film takes place, adults and children alike deal with playground politics, bullies, and puppy love. The difference is, with the adults, grave consequences abound.
Directed by Todd Field, whose previous efforts include “In the Bedroom”, the film deals with Sarah Pierce, played by Kate Winslet, who, at the “dares” from the other playground moms, meets and forms a friendship with the “Prom King”, an attractive father they have not had the confidence to talk to yet. Meanwhile, the King, played by Patrick Wilson, has joined up with a nightly football league, and the whole neighborhood is dealing with the arrival of a “bully” in the form of a convicted sex offender.
These immature dealings dominate the first half of the film, and for that time, the film works as a satire. With interesting literary narration, the script plays up the inherent silliness in the actions of the adults. They are constantly forced into awkward confrontations and deal with them in juvenile ways, all the while ignoring the more significant issues at play. In the second half, however, everything changes.
Sarah and the King start an affair that they both aim to commit to long-term, and the King’s wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, responds accordingly. The pedophile begins receiving threats from a member of the football team, while the true “bully” is revealed. In the end, all of the decisions and plans and desires come to a head that leave some characters on the verge of death, and some with a chance at redemption.
The turn in the middle of the film is its biggest flaw. It plays out as if the writers had begun writing a comedy, arrived at the middle and realized the dramatic potential, and then continued from there. The dichotomy proves problematic when very serious events are presented with inappropriate levity or juxtaposition. Inversely, when some of the sillier actions of the adults are given a dramatic bent, it seems rather ridiculous and implausible.
The direction is thoughtful, with the finale photographed in a kind of beautiful darkness that it belongs in. The performances are all quite good, with especially strong turns from Kate Winslet, Jackie Earle Haley as the pedophile, and Noah Emmerich as his antagonist. Also, the underrated Patrick Wilson gives another great performance with just the innocence and naiveté that the film needs.
In the end, however, it comes down to the subject matter. Yes, the suburban lives of ordinary Americans can be poignant and moving, but the conflicted nature of the story always keeps the viewer at a distance, never letting us get close enough to really identify with any of them. What results is a sort of snow globe effect. “Little Children” looks pretty and moves appropriately, but never lets us get in the midst and feel the chill.

The Painted Veil

“The Painted Veil” is a story about love in the time of cholera, but it’s not based on that novel. Rather, it’s based on the W. Somerset Maugham book of the same name. The story has been around for quite a while, having been on the screen before with Greta Garbo in 1934. Whether you know this or not, you might still get the sense that you’ve seen it all before.
The film, directed by John Curran, stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton as Walter and Kitty Fane, a not-so-loving couple who meet in 1920s London and, after their wedding, move to Shanghai in China, a land still under British imperialist rule. He is a bacteriologist, and soon drags her along to a remote village that is suffering under a cholera epidemic.
It is not a pleasant trip, with Walter having recently caught Kitty in an act of adultery. He has essentially manipulated her into staying with him and coming along, and she is most definitely unhappy about it. Kitty tries working in an orphanage, befriending the children and the French nuns who have stayed amidst the increasing suffering. Walter tries to help the suffering people, all the while facing antagonism from the growing nationalist feeling. However, in that remote location, their love manages to blossom, and, of course, they discover things about themselves and each other.
You probably saw that coming. Indeed, there aren’t many surprises in this often stodgy film. The scenery is beautiful, but filmed in uninspiring ways by the relatively inexperienced Curran. It looks and plays out like most any other typical period piece you’ve seen before, with the story taking all the usual turns, and the characters behaving in all the usual ways.
In fact, the only thing that really caught me off guard was the ending. I kept waiting for significant things to happen, for a revolution, a breakthrough, something that would make these characters’ lives unique, but it never came.
The acting is rather typical as well. Naomi Watts is decent enough, but there isn’t enough to make us really care for her character. Norton delivers an unusually dry performance, and both are upstaged by strong supporting turns from Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber, who are able to give enough commanding presence to make their roles their own, rather than carbon copies of literary characters.
There is also a failure in the script to really decide what it thinks about the issues exhibited in the story. Conflicts over government, race, and social class are brushed over, seemingly in hopes that we will want to focus on the love story which is meant to be the film’s heart and soul. Sadly, it’s just not interesting enough.
It could have been compelling, complex, and filled with inspired moments, but the film seems to have used a period drama mold and just forced all of the different details into it. They fit perfectly, but with these kinds of films having been done so well so many times, it’s time for someone to smash that mold into tiny pieces.

The Queen

Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” begins with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, and in a way, the movie is a bit Shakespearean in nature. There are struggles for power, swayed allegiances, troubled monarchs, unhappy masses, and familial issues.
However, you won’t find any grand fight scenes with lots of flowing blood. There are few speeches that literally reveal a character’s thoughts. A character’s death does dominate the story, but you won’t see it on screen. That’s because “The Queen” is a film where the beauty is found in the particulars.
The story, when laid out plainly, might seem a bit slow. It revolves around the death of Princess Diana in 1997. This occurs near the beginning of the story, and then follows the response of both the Royal Family, headed by Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), and the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).
The main struggle is over the Royals’ refusal to acknowledge Diana, whom they deeply dislike, as a member of the family, since she and Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) have divorced. Blair recognizes the love that the public has for Diana, and through several phone calls seeks to convince the vacationing Queen to act accordingly with the people’s wishes for an official expression of grief.
That acknowledgment comes slowly and stubbornly, and as time goes by, it is found in details that might seem minute: a flag at half-mast, the presence of the Queen in London, a television address, etc. However, these details are important to the British, and similar details are important to the film.
One such detail is the absolutely fabulous performance by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. She is a woman used to keeping up appearances, with her every move being analyzed and linked into a responsibility to provide the nation with a symbol of elegance and grace. Because such a façade is required, she cannot let herself be overcome by emotion. Emotion does come, though, and Mirren’s handling of this duality makes the role shine.
The nature of the film and its direction seem to reflect a line spoken by the Queen early in the film, when she has heard about Diana’s death. She tells Blair, “We do things in this country quietly, and with dignity.” While the tragedy causes grief around the world, Elizabeth and the Royal Family show calm and restraint, but also a detachment from reality that comes from living a mile high above the rest, and ends up becoming a dangerous flaw.
Similarly, the film is not aggressive in its theme or emotions, but maintains a quietness that allows the film’s impact to develop without being forced. The dialogue is crisp and witty, and the power struggles play out over rational conversations that present a logical progression of the film’s ideas, rather than through bold statements.
Ultimately, it is a tale about a ruler out of touch with her subjects, and examines what it means to be a monarch in today’s world. Is there a place for a king or queen in this era? It does not present a definite answer. What it gives is a patient story of near-Shakespearean themes told with a coupling of grace and power, and unexpectedly, humor.

Marie Antoinette

At first glance, “Marie Antoinette”, directed by Sofia Coppola, might seem like your average historical biography movie. It follows the life of the famed French queen from her arrival in France to the end of the monarchy. Many people are familiar with this story, the tale of the queen who told the hungry people of France to eat cake, then lost her head.
However, while most biography movies tend to cover what happened to the person and their major achievements, this film takes a different path. Instead of just hitting the highlights, Coppola’s movie covers what Marie’s life might actually have been like on a day-to-day basis. Yes, it covers all of the major historic points, but much of the film serves as an example of what it must have felt like to be her.
The story starts in Austria, where young Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is being shipped off by her domineering mother to marry Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzmann), the heir to the French throne, as part of an alliance between the two countries. The marriage is an awkward one, and it takes a long while before it ever amounts to anything.
Meanwhile, Marie is having a great time living the good life thanks to the riches of the French monarchy. During this time, the French people begin to starve, and by the end of the movie, the revolution has begun.
The description might indicate that the movie is thin on plot, and in some respects, it is. There are a few notable events to speak of, and they mostly occur in the second half. The first half is a look at the wide-eyed Marie’s reaction to the elegance of the French court.
It is that elegance which is the driving force of the film. Beautiful sights are beautifully photographed. Much of the film is a cavalcade of opulence, with one extravagant scene leading straight into another. The visuals are indeed dazzling, and there is so much detail in each frame of the film that it would take several viewings to catch half of it.
Behind all this is a slower-paced story about the maturity of a girl displaced from her home into one of the most insane settings in history. Coppola, who directed “Lost in Translation”, is a director who takes her time. She doesn’t want to rush the story, and adds in delightful nuances to her characters along the way. The main danger of this film is those nuances getting lost amidst all the razzle-dazzle, but that danger is for the most part bypassed, especially due to the help of a strong performance from Kirsten Dunst.
A main criticism from early reviewers has been that the film is very shallow, with the visuals masking a lack of depth. Perhaps this is one of the points of the film. It is a look at a place in history notorious for its refusal to acknowledge reality. The French court continued to spend while the people starved. They are shallow by nature, raised to regard only their own comfort. That is the kind of people they are, and that is what the film reflects.
This is all brought to a point in the end when the monarchs are forced to face the discontent of the people that now threatens their lives. The scenes near the end are near terrifying, as the mood of the film so far comes crashing down like the monarchy itself. It’s a dissolution that is not only central to history, but to the film as a whole. It turns the joyride into a tragedy, the opulence into significance.

The Departed

In Martin Scorsese’s latest effort, the title of the film refers to those who have died. The irony of the movie lies in the adjective most used by other characters to describe them: faithful. In this story about broken loyalties and misplaced allegiance, no one is truly faithful. The tangled and intriguing plotlines of the main characters intersect at so many points that it often requires a lot of mental effort to discern who is working for whom against whom, and so on. These intricacies, in the hands of any other director, might have been disastrous, but in Scorsese’s hands, they’re very powerful.
The film revolves around two “rats”, as Jack Nicholson’s Irish mob boss Frank Costello likes to call them. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an undercover policeman who has infiltrated Costello’s gang that runs the Boston underworld. Matt Damon is a detective who was groomed since childhood by Costello to serve as his mole in the Boston state police. The story follows the two men as they try to subvert the operations of the organizations they’ve infiltrated, while adamantly trying to snuff out the mole on the other side. Through the course of the film, they constantly stay one step ahead of the other, all the while oblivious to the ways in which their lives coincide more than they intend.
Sound complicated? Try adding several other moles, informants, and subversive operations and you have the makings of a potentially baffling story. This is where Scorsese’s skill serves him best. He continues to have one of the best storytelling minds working in film today; he knows just where the story is going and just how long it takes to get there. The style is similar to his 1990 film Goodfellas in its handling of exposition and development of characters from boys into men. In this movie, that meticulous narrative construction carries the entire story. From the first few moments, the film is constantly moving, telling the story at a near dizzying pace. What keeps it from careening over the proverbial cliff is the expert camerawork, employing some of Scorsese’s most intense visual techniques to date.
Nearly every aspect of the film is hard-hitting. No character is totally safe from the brutal violence that constantly threatens to engulf them all. They are soldiers engaged in a war, but with little sense of loyalty that in the end might keep them honorable. Scorsese keeps them literally and figuratively in the dark, with the littlest bits of information carrying the weight of life and death. It is intense from beginning to end, with not just the possibility of death hanging over them, but also the possibility that, despite all of their best intentions, they might lose their identities forever.
All this is accompanied by great accomplishments on other levels. Jack Nicholson is great as mob boss Costello, and DiCaprio and Damon carry the weight of their stories excellently, helping to strengthen the convoluted narrative. Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and others back it all up with interesting supporting characters.
Overall, it’s a masterful film that never fails to entertain. While I could have done without one or two of the several plot twists in the final moments, Scorsese still delivers a powerful story with surprisingly interesting issues at its core.


Look up in the sky! It’s one of two Hollywood murder mysteries that came out in the first half of September. The other was the Brian de Palma film “The Black Dahlia”, which suffered from a lukewarm reception at the Venice Film Festival and an even worse welcome from American critics. Which is why I opted for “Hollywoodland”, the true story of the mysterious death of 1950’s TV Superman George Reeves.
In real life, the police ruled George Reeve’s death a suicide. However, rumors started to fly that there may have been some foul play. To this day, it is not known for sure what really happened, and that is how the film approaches it. The film takes its time, pausing to examine each detail instead of racing and building toward a grand conclusion that assembles all the miniscule facts, a la “The Usual Suspects.”
It is this patience that gives the film its strength. There are a lot of factors to consider, many eyes to see through, and director Allen Coulter deftly handles them all, showing them through the eyes of private investigator Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody. He starts out with a tip from a former partner, and slowly uncovers connections between Reeves and a studio mogul’s wife, played by Diane Lane. Her husband, played by Bob Hoskins, has a definite motive for murder, as does Reeve’s jilted fiance.
The film plays through each of the scenarios and also shows the suicide that the police envisioned. It ends without any single explanation being favored. The point of the film is the impact of the death on the people Reeves knew and the American people. What should a child think about a world in which Superman kills himself?
Besides the investigation, the film is also a look at the nature of working in Hollywood, being a star, and failing to achieve your dreams. Reeves was never a star, and despite being involved in such films as “Gone with the Wind” and “From Here to Eternity”, still remains in obscurity in spite of the Superman role. It is this part of the film that delivered the biggest surprise.
I’ve never really been a fan of Ben Affleck. Then I heard about him winning the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for this film, and I knew I had to see for myself. And the rumors are true; he really does an excellent job. He brings a surprising amount of emotion and poignancy to the role of George Reeves. Though the character exists only in flashbacks, Affleck manages to maintain a great presence in the film, turning Reeve’s death into a human tragedy that is just as compelling as any amount of mystery and intrigue can garner.
This is a film with a lot of layers, and a surprising amount of pathos. Coulter’s direction manages to handle all of the strong wills that come with a story set in Hollywood and still focus on the main tragedy of the story: that sometimes people die without ever achieving their dreams. That sometimes even Superman can fail.


It starts out with yodeling. An odd beginning, indeed, and it is never explained or mentioned for the rest of the film, but it immediately catapults the viewer into the world of Junebug. Directed by Phil Morrison and recently released on home video, the film is a Southern slice-of-life that defies stereotypical depictions of our region. It is able to reach beyond the average treatment of Southern people to delve into real emotions and characters that are as genuine as the outsider that arrives and observes their many quirks and tendencies.
It tells the story of Madeleine, an art dealer from Chicago who hears about an eccentric artist in North Carolina who would be perfect for her “outsider” gallery. However, her trip to see him serves a dual purpose, as her new husband’s family lives nearby and is ready to meet and scrutinize their new daughter-in-law. They consist of Eugene and Peg, the father and mother, Johnny the angry younger brother, and his very pregnant wife Ashley. Johnny is less than enthusiastic to see his successful older brother, since he himself has never graduated high school. Peg is very skeptical, and Eugene quietly listens to his wife’s misgivings. Ashley is ecstatic and quickly peppers Madeleine with a thousand questions about her lifestyle.
Based on the plot, one would expect a typical story about culture-clash with hilarious results. Indeed, there are humorous moments, but there are serious issues to be dealt with. The characters have real problems. Johnny is frustrated with his life, but instead of just sulking the entire film, he makes (albeit feeble) efforts to better his life and his relationship with his wife, whom he has habitually neglected. Eugene obviously has opinions of his own, but is never comfortable sharing them in the presence of his domineering wife.
This is the world of problems into which Madeleine falls. However, instead of trying to optimistically adapt and fit in, her own tendencies come out just as strong and the story becomes a conflict of wills rather than lifestyles, making the narrative that much more compelling. Instead of expecting the southern lifestyle to shift to include her, she must find a way to relate to them as an equal rather than someone descending from on high with sacred knowledge and customs.
Usually the South is shown in jest in films. This has sometimes resulted in Southerners underestimating the value of art in our region. However, Junebug, in the tradition of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, is a prime example of the kind of compelling art that can play out under the cover of our sometimes eccentric way of life.

Paradise Now

Filmed by Palestinians in the midst of their conflict with the Israelis, Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a chronicle of two young men recruited for a suicide terrorism mission in Tel-Aviv. Yet even though the film clearly favors the Palestinians, it still raises questions as to the methods that they use, namely the violence that only perpetuates more violence. It is a violence that the crew of the film witnessed first hand, as they had to endure airstrikes and the kidnapping of a crewmember. Yet somehow, in the midst of all this conflict, the film manages to be more objective than you would expect.
The story centers on Khaled and Said, and immediately we begin to see how the story might play out. Khaled is more than willing to die for his faith, and while Said is also a firm believer, we can see that he has doubts about the methods that he is about to employ. Some of these doubts come from his talks with a lady named Suha, who provides the voice of passive resistance in the film. However, as the film progresses, the typical roles that Khaled and Said seem to inhabit in the beginning become blurred, leading toward the shocking yet inevitable conclusion.
From the outset, we can see that the film is definitely criticizing the Israeli “occupation”. The first scene in the film shows Suha crossing a border from Israel into Palestinian territory. The side she leaves is deserted and quiet, but the moment she crosses over she is in a crowded street with people walking and driving everywhere. Other conversations in the film reveal this bias, including a scene with an Israeli who is so unfaithful that he has no qualms about being paid to usher the bombers into Tel-Aviv.
Yet even though the film is pro-Palestinian, the story questions the logic of using unending violence as a solution to the problem. Suha is clearly championing peace, but other moments also highlight the objectivity. For instance, the path to the bombings is fraught with error; mishaps highlight the inherent flaws in the methods they employ. Even when they are filming their statements before their mission, someone forgets to put tape in the camera, and then the camera stops working entirely. Later problems involving the mission itself provide tension. Yet in the end, we see that the methods are not necessarily the problem, as is the white-hot passion that drives the act in the first place.
That passion is the real terror at work. But whose fault is it? Is it Israel, who crowds the Palestinians in as seen in many shots in the film? Or is it the Palestinians who stubbornly refuse the seemingly-futile means of peaceful negotiation? There is clearly no right answer, but this film gives an unparalleled look into the motivations of terrorism, which is at least one step closer to resolution.

Match Point

Sorry New York, but one of your best homegrown artists has decided to cross the pond. Woody Allen is remembered for vowing never to leave New York ever again to make a movie after he returned from Europe where he filmed the hilarious Love and Death in 1975. After a 30-year stint in the Big Apple, Allen decided to retract his pledge and film a movie in London; and has crafted a thoughtful thriller that reminds viewers why he is often considered a genius.
Match Point, which was mostly (sadly) neglected by this year’s Oscar nominations, is a suspenseful philosophical thesis on the sometimes underestimated role of luck in peoples’ lives. It revolves around a former tennis pro, Chris, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who falls in favor with an extremely well to do family. He ends up marrying the daughter and working for the father, but soon finds himself entangled with the brother’s American girlfriend, played by Scarlett Johansson. Soon Chris finds himself with a moral dilemma on his hands, and in the end can only hope that his luck will keep him afloat.
Characters in Allen’s movies are often living in a world without a moral center. The problems they get into are problems not because they offend a higher good, but because they make the characters’ lives more painful and complicated. The events of this film indeed complicate Chris’s life, but unlike Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Chris is not plagued with guilt so much as the overhanging dread that he might be caught; that dread, coupled with several plot twists and turns, is what makes the film so suspenseful. The viewer is drawn into a conundrum without realizing it: Chris is doing terribly despicable things, but for some reason, we want him to succeed.
Woody Allen is a filmmaker who rewards intelligent viewers. Those who have read Crime and Punishment will see obvious parallels, and Allen’s themes always provide interesting springboards for philosophical discussions. Some of his films can alienate broader audiences by including too much high-brow humor. This film contains enough suspense and emotion to keep any viewer interested right down to the tense finale.

The New World (2005)

The best film of 2005 was all about one moment. While it clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, Terrence Malick’s The New World is really about the emotional ripples caused by that moment throughout history, shaping the destiny of an entire nation that came after. The moment I speak of is the first meeting of the Jamestown settlers and the “naturals” of Virginia. This is the story we are all familiar with: white men come to America, John Smith meets Pocahontas, we know the rest. We know how it happened, but what we have forgotten is how that collision of two worlds entirely “new” to one another would have felt. It is a moment full of curiosity, wonder and fear. It seems cliché to say that a movie makes history come alive, but this film does that in a way that is different from most others: it focuses on one emotional point and lets the audience feel it the entire time.
That is the beauty of The New World: that one moment shapes the destinies of all the characters entwined in it. Colin Farrell’s John Smith becomes entranced in that other culture, in both their traditions and their princess, Pocahontas. Other settlers are immediately fearful, reacting with both confrontation and isolation. Soon the two worlds become so wrapped up in one another that it is clear they will never again be complete and intact. It is both a violent and wondrous discovery.
Malick’s skilled direction makes this emotional journey much different than expected. Instead of resorting to historical epic stereotypes, he tells an extremely visual story keen on emotional impact. Rarely do I find a contemporary production so in tune with the basic nature of film as this one is. With most of the dialogue done with voiceovers, Malick lets his images tell the story. That is not to say that he is lacking in his use of sound; indeed, he knows how to use both silence and James Horner’s driving score to full effect. The performances are also notable, especially 15 year old Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, as well as Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer, in smaller roles.
All of these actors and production elements come together to create a beautiful and moving story, one that resonates as an American legend and as basic human drama.