29 December 2008

Semester Round-up, Part II

Continuing on throughout the semester...

Rachel Getting Married
I can say this for certain: it caught me off guard. In many ways. It's a completely different kind of film than anything else I've seen this year. Anne Hathaway finally comes into her own, and will deserve her Oscar nomination. Jonathan Demme continues to be one of the hardest directors to predict. Though the handheld style always pinches a nerve in me, it was used to good effect here. Beyond that, I'm finding it hard to find the words to describe it. It's sort of like my own wedding: I remember fleeting images, the general impression, but the details are hard to recall. It's a unique experience to be sure.

Quantum of Solace
I adored Casino Royale, and I think Craig's terrific as Bond. And so some of that charm made Quantum pretty enjoyable. The plot's not fantastic, but then again neither are many of the plots of Bond films. That's not the reason you go see a Bond film. You go see it for Bond, and with Craig in the role, it's worth watching. I wanted to nail the camera to the floor sometimes, and maybe strangle the editor. All in all, not particularly well-made, but again, Bond movies aren't about great filmmaking, they're about a memorable character once again saving the day and getting laid. Add to that some emotional momentum from the last film and you've got a movie that will be better respected as time goes on.

Role Models
I think Paul Rudd is hilarious. I kind of despise Seann William Scott. So it was a coin toss to begin with. But I actually really enjoyed it. It may not have the biggest emotional range, but it made me laugh. A lot. It's exactly what the trailer to it promised, no more, no less. And it also proves that McLovin is not just a one-hit wonder.

I seem to be one of the lone defenders of this movie, but I think I really understood what Baz was going for. As I've discussed with friends, I don't think he was quite finished yet. As in, I think the director's cut will be shorter, not longer. The stuff in the movie was great, I just think there could have been less of it. That would clarify the style, which wavered uneasily from over-the-top melodrama to social realism. It would make Nicole Kidman's performance make more sense. It would give the aborigine scenes more grounding. That said, if you're expecting a sweeping epic, a la Gone with the Wind, you will be better prepared than if you're expecting something along the lines of his earlier films.

Let's hope this incredibly silly adaptation stops this teen phenom in its tracks. I don't understand this new vampire chic trend. Vampires are evil, they kill people, end of story. I prefer the traditional side of that story. So to try to change it up (giving the vampires super powers) and adding several heaping helpings of teen angst (imagine watching an entire season of Dawson's Creek) makes the whole affair a big waste of time, to me at least. Although no scene in any "drama" this year has made me laugh as hard as when we discovered that when vampires go in the sunlight, they don't die, they just become fabulous and sparkle like diamonds. Wow.

Synecdoche, New York
One of my favorites of the year so far. I've been fascinated by Charlie Kaufman since first seeing Adaptation, and seeing him direct his own work is a stroke of genius. The film is a manifestation of some of the theatrical theory I've been reading this past semester, and so it all came to a visual head in this film and the experience was wonderful. There are layers upon layers upon layers, and to begin to try to explain the plot would be futile. You just have to see it. Great acting, great direction, great script. A truly original film.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
The latest unnecessary remake from Hollywood is not as bad as most critics believed it to be. But it's not that great either. Keanu Reeves is just as good as you'd expect him to be playing an alien. And for Keanu Reeves, that's actually pretty good. The rest of the cast goes through the paces, though there's a distinct lack of urgency in any of the characters. They're not excited or scared enough, if that makes sense. I understand the thematic reasons for remaking the film, but at the end of the day, as I said, it's just simply not necessary. The old film stands up just fine on its own.

I'm kind of indifferent to biopics. They neither excite me nor bore me. So there's a level playing field there. Like a lot of biopics, however, the film rides on the performance of the central figure, and on that level, the film excels. Sean Penn is just great. A lot of people won't go see this film, I expect, because of the subject matter or political reasons or whatnot. Since I'm apolitical, that wasn't an issue for me, but if you are political I urge you not to let politics come between you and a good film. The movie is very good at selecting the parts of Milk's life that were most important/intersting through the framework of Milk himself recounting his past achievements. He is proud of them, and we are proud of him, by the end. No matter what you believe about the issue, you'd have to be a rock not to be moved by the courage of a man who takes the podium at a rally with the promise of being shot once he's up there. If the film weakens it's in its supporting players, who, while performing wonderfully, seem to fade around the central light of Penn. When he's not onscreen, we want him to come back, and some of the sideplots suffer for it.

Slumdog Millionaire
I agree with whoever it was that pointed out that it's a strange and off year when a film by Danny Boyle is a contender for best picture. I've never been particularly impressed by Boyle, and this film is no exception. Everyone seems to be getting caught up in the wave of the film's optimism and life-affirmation, but if the movie didn't have a happy ending, would it be as popular/successful? I think not. It's not a bad film per se. It's actually a good film, but not a great one. The filmmaking is capable enough, the acting not particularly notable. It's the story that is catching people afire, and I wish more people were level-headed enough to see that when they are proclaiming it as the best picture of the year.

A fascinating play becomes a fascinating film, but with conditions. The play is famous, rightly so, for the ambiguity of its conclusion. Did he, or didn't he? I'm wondering if the film, directed by the playwright John Patrick Shanley, is his answer to the question, since he did have it in mind when writing the play (he also told the Broadway stage actor, and I'm sure he told Hoffman). I won't tell you my conclusions as to the answer, but suffice to say that while it doesn't totally erase all doubt, it does provide a slant that the play does not. And this is inherent in the form of film. By its nature, and this has been pointed out before, it is less ambiguous than theatre. That doesn't weaken the film, however. It remains very engaging, and its performances, while not entirely consistent, make it terribly entertaining and engrossing to watch.

So that's the semester round up. All the movies that I saw in the theatres from the end of August to today. From here on in I'll be trying to post slightly longer individual posts on movies I see in the theatres, as well as some posts on movies I watch at home. I'm making the goal of watching 4-5 movies a week in 2009, and I'm going to try to post weekly updates as to what I watch and what I think about them. Some will be movies I've seen before, maybe even written about before, but I'll try to say something. Got to keep the conversation moving.

15 December 2008

Semester Round-up, Part I

I know I said I was going to do this for the summer movies as well, but that's a little far back and far too many movies to cover. So here's what I've seen since school began, and some short thoughts on them.

Vicki Cristina Barcelona
Anyone who knows me knows I'm a big Woody Allen fan. Needless to say, I enjoyed it. I thought it was much better than his previous two efforts, Scoop and Cassandra's Dream. The actors are all pretty great, though I tend to think that Scarlett Johansson's best work is ahead of her, meaning I think one day she'll be really great, but sometimes she just doesn't have the experience and insight to make a performance truly great. That said, she's more than competent in this role, and holds her own against the greats Bardem and Cruz. Spain is beautiful and this movie makes me want to visit. The film is beautiful too, and gets the right amount of emotion while still retaining that slightly cynical Woody edge.

Burn After Reading
I'm never quite ready for the body count in a Coen Brother's comedy. And this one is particularly violent, and it always caught me off guard. I thought the style and tone of it were great, with performances to match. It's refreshing to see a comedy that, and I know this sounds counter-productive, doesn't invest too much emotionally in its characters. It's able to keep its distance and see the people in all their idiocy, which is what screwball is all about.

Ghost Town
What an incredibly pleasant surprise this was. If you saw the trailer and thought it looked like a mediocre romantic comedy, you were right, it did look like that. The advertisements were awful. But the actual product was so much more, and delivers some of the most genuine emotions you're likely to see in a comedy this year. Though the concept is a little cliche, the way it transforms itself, especially toward the end, makes it all worthwhile. If you are a fan of Gervais, you especially need to see it. It's a fitting beginning to what I hope is a long film career.

Being a fan of Westerns, I went to see this without knowing really anything about it. And I'm glad I did. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have such great report, that without it the film would absolutely fail. I could have done without Renee Zellwegger's character, for the most part, though some of her silliness provided great material for Ed and Viggo. Jeremy Irons is great, and I'm always glad to see him.

There were critics who thought it intriguing and critics who found it unbearable. I find myself in both camps. The initial premise is really interesting and it is intially really engaging, but I was glad when it ended. Some of the scenes of savageness and brutality that humankind supposedly descends into when confronted with a global outbreak of blindness were a little hard to bear, and the ending seems very false after all that comes before it. An interesting exercise for director Meirelles, but little more than that.

If you know me, you know I like politics as I like getting my lip stuck under a man hole cover. So I was surprised at myself for wanting to see this. The good thing about it, and I know other critics have said this, is that it is relatively free of overt bias. It's fairly balanced, but in the end, not that interesting. We don't really learn anything we didn't know before. I think that his life and presidency are something we won't truly be able to judge until several years down the road. So this film will not be as influential as it could have been.

The Duchess
Extremely conventional, but that doesn't make it bad. There are always going to be films retreading the same dirt as previous films. There are always going to be movies about women being oppressed by a patriarchal society. This filmi in particular covers some of the same ground as the superior Marie Antoinette two years ago. That said, it's capable enough, especially in the nuanced and detailed performance by Ralph Fiennes. Keira Knightley does what she can, but this isn't her best material. For some reason, this film just feels out of place this year. Don't look for any attention come awards time.

Check back later for Part II!


I must apologize for the lack of posts since, oh, September. School has been incredibly busy this semester. While I have still seen many movies, I have not had the time to write lengthy reviews. But one of my whole points with this project was to break my reviewing mold. So what you're going to get in the next couple of posts are some short paragrpah length reviews of movies I saw this semester. I'll try to cover them all, going down a list that I keep. I'm going to do my best to stay current throughout the next couple of months, as this is Oscar season and I want to have my say in it all. I absolutely love Oscar season. The Oscar race is more important to me than the presidential race ever was. And let it be said that until I see something better, I'm rooting for The Dark Knight all the way.

27 September 2008

19 September 2008

Synecdoche, New York

'Synedoche New York' Theatrical Trailer @ Yahoo! Video

This excites me in so many ways. And it looks like it just might break my heart.

12 September 2008

The Dark Knight and the return of Disappearing Worlds

I just reread my review of Iron Man, written way back on May 16. Wow. Since then, so many changes have occurred, mostly personal ones. I'm in a new city at a new school with new goals. And obviously my writing about film has suffered for it. But I like to think I'm back now. It may be sporadic at times, but I'm committed to keeping up the habit. In the next couple of days I'll be putting up a few posts detailing what I thought of the movies I saw in the theatres this summer. I'm going to try my best to keep up with the movies I've been seeing lately, which unfortunately has been next to nil. That said, I'm also going to try to post comments about older movies I watch at home, movies I am looking forward to seeing, movies I've seen again and have changed my mind about, etc.
My goal? In short, I want to move away from a formal review column. Writing a full-fledged review is a bit too daunting. It's fine when I have an actual deadline and people to report to, but it appears that self-motivation I was going to rely on just isn't enough. At least for now when I've got so much going on. I want to move toward this site being just a general discussion of film, so if you actually read this, feel free to comment with appraisals, agreements, disagreements, information, etc. I don't want a news site or a rumor blog, this is an outlet for my cinematic opinions, pure and simple. Feel free to let me know what you think.
Why now? As I said, I just reread my review of Iron Man. I stand by what I said about that movie, but I was struck most by the comments I gave about the state of comic book films. About how they were in a holding pattern. About how they needed that last artistic push. Well, odds are you saw that push this summer. Of course, I'm talking about The Dark Knight.
I've seen it three times now. The last two times I was determined to go home and write a review about it. But I never got around to it. Each time afterward there were just so many thoughts running through my head. What could I possibly say that hadn't already been said? But what struck me most about my dilemma was how it was so difficult each time to get past the raw emotions and thoughts raised within me after each viewing. There was just no way for me to formulate them all into coherent thoughts.
In short, obviously, I really really liked it, as I'm sure many of you did. It seems to have won a wider acclaim than I can ever remember for a film. It's truly a film that almost everyone can agree on. In a way, for me, I was destined to love it. I've loved Batman ever since I was a wee lad. I loved lots of superheroes. But while I seemed to grow out of several of them, I seemed to fall more and more in love with Batman as I grew older. It's a testament to the richness of the character and the depth of the material. What could be a novelty is instead, now, one of the most compelling stories in American popular culture. And seeing how it's all based on twisted psychoses, it's success is all the more amazing.
Psychology is what spurned my second phase of Batmania. I started reading more of the recent graphic novels like The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth. I felt validated. Here, finally, was an intellectual and mature reason for my boyhood fascination. Batman's psyche became much more complex, and with that, his relationship with The Joker. Relationship is not a word you can use with all superheroes and their archnemeses. But it exists here, not just on a personal level but on a literary, archetypal level. The Joker is telling the truth when he tells Batman "you complete me."
All of that psychology and that wonderful, macabre, twisted relationship was all there in the film. Heath Ledger's performance is exactly what it has been made out to be. Jack Nicholson's Joker was Jack Nicholson playing the Joker. Ledger is how the Joker has always been meant to be. I find him endlessly fascinating, not just for the acting technique, but for the fleshing out of so many facets of the Joker character that had hitherto gone unseen on film. His philosophy, his drive to "just do things" is especially poignant today. Indeed, along with Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, The Joker makes The Dark Knight one of the most significant post-9/11 films yet. Both grapple with rational people trying to contend with completely irrational violence. The randomness they employ is the most frightening weapon they have.
The Joker enough would have been enough to make me love this film. It gave me all I wanted. But The Dark Knight sparked a third phase of my Batmania. I was moved. In fact, I'll go ahead and admit that I found myself on the verge of tears with each viewing. And for the most part, it was because of Harvey Dent.
Two-Face was always interesting to me, but his transformation into such a tragic figure gives this film its emotional punch. In an age where political systems have become truly useless, he was enough to give me hope. He builds on that hope, that hope for a true change you can believe in, all throughout the first half of the film. When it comes crashing down, only then do we see the real menace behind The Joker. In Batman Begins Bruce found he could fight evil by becoming more than just a man. In The Dark Knight The Joker finds he can fight Batman by doing the same thing.
If The Dark Knight had to be boiled down to one theme, I think that would be it. That people can be more than just their life. More than a biological existence. This series of Batfilms are brilliant because they have finally shown a reason for Batman beyond the tired conventions of a revenge melodrama. That's enough to twist Bruce to the point of taking action, but by transforming into a metaphor, he starts a journey that is so much bigger than one man's desires. Harvey was more than one man's desires. He was not about wanting power. He was actually righteous. One of the most moving moments to me is Jim Gordon's desperation as he screams "We have to save Dent! I have to save Dent!" Harvey's destruction and perversion at the hands of The Joker is the most diabolical scheme in the film. It truly is The Joker, and Christopher Nolan's, "ace in the hole."
So there it is, folks. The comic-book movie I dreamed of almost four months ago. It looks beautiful, it's written beautifully, acted beautifully, directed beautifully, etc. And that's the best I can do at describing it. Sitting here writing this has made all those emotions come up again, and they're still fresh. In a way, it's hard to believe a summer blockbuster made me feel this way, but it's apparent this film has rewritten the definition of that term. It may be presumptuous to say, but The Dark Knight has put us into a whole new ballgame in terms of the film industry. I can't wait to see what happens next.

16 May 2008

Iron Man

(Note: from here on out, reviews will be a bit shorter now that I'm not first writing them for the newspaper. I've graduated, and I'm going to rely on my own personal motivation to keep this blog going. Let's hope it works.)

Marvel's newest, and first independent, effort is both highly conventional and fairly unique. It's probably no surprise, especially if you've read other reviews, that Robert Downey Jr.'s casting as Tony Stark the stroke of genius it was destined to be. That said, without his presence the film would be much more ordinary, and not the standout of its genre that it is. That's not to say there's not some great work being done elsewhere.

Jeff Bridges is probably one of the best comic book movie villains to come along in recent years. There's not a whole lot of depth to his role as it's written, but he makes it so interesting to watch. And Gwyneth Paltrow is just as good as you'd expect her to be in the role. With a name like Pepper Potts, you wouldn't expect much from the character, and while it doesn't quite rise beyond quirky sidekick, it's still great to see her having fun with the role.

As far as the story and script go, it's your average superhero origin story. Jon Favreau's direction is capable enough, but his real triumph is putting together such a solid package all-around. Perhaps it's the character himself that makes the movie work so well. While the sequel will most likely deal with Stark's more colorful flaws, like his alcoholism, this first outing wisely steers clear of such provocative material to allow us to grow to love Tony. His personal revelation is unique as well. Instead of just stepping up to take responsibility for himself, there's a lot more at stake.

Comic book films have entered a holding pattern. While a new renaissance began with X2 and Spider-man and peaked with Batman Begins, most of the films post-Superman Returns have been a bit lackluster. X-men: The Last Stand and Ghost Rider have shown us that the material is sophisticated enough to require an intelligent director to make it work, something that only the Nolans and Singers of the industry have been able to pull off. They've grown in respectability, to be sure, but they're going to need that last extra push to convince everyone that they're just as worthy as other film art. What would happen if Scorsese were to tackle The Flash, or David Lynch were to do Doctor Strange? Only time will tell.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

“I’m finding it hard to believe that things are going to get better.” If you’re familiar at all with the plot of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” you might assume that this line is spoken by the main character, Peter, who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall. But it’s not spoken at all. It’s sung. By a puppet.
It’s an appropriate gesture for a film that doesn’t necessarily wear all its feelings on its sleeve, though Peter does. After getting dumped we see him break down crying, probably more than any other male character ever seen on film. He’s not your traditional masculine protagonist.
He’s sensitive, and so is the film. Produced by Judd Apatow and written by actor Jason Segel, who also plays Peter, it’s the kind of comedy that has a lot more underneath than it wants to let on at first. It doesn’t indulge in stereotypes or easy laughs, though there are plenty of laughs to be had.
The plot is quite simple. Peter, tries to get away from his pain by going to a Hawaiian resort that he remembers Sarah (Kristen Bell) talking about once. Of course she’s there, with her crude English rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Awkwardness ensues.
As Peter attempts to get over Sarah, he starts to fall for a customer service representative named Rachel (Mila Kunis), and quickly bonds with her and the other colorful characters who populate the hotel.
One of the strengths of the film is the supporting cast. Whether it’s an oblivious surfing instructor (Paul Rudd), a star struck waiter (Jonah Hill), a nervous conservative newlywed (Jack McBrayer), or Peter’s overly-sensible stepbrother Brian (Bill Hader), there’s always someone around the corner to console Peter and provide some laughs.
Unfortunately the laughs aren’t always very consistent. The blend of comedy and poignancy is not always balanced, and a few of the jokes now and then fall flat. It’s not as polished a film as it could be, or should be considering those involved.
But still, there’s a lot going on here, and if you pay attention it’s worth your while. For instance, watch the character of Sarah Marshall. You start the film wanting to hate her because of how she left poor Peter. But instead of letting her remain a villain, Segel’s script lets her have her own feelings and conflicts, and we gradually see why she initially made the instigating decision.
The same can be said for Peter, in a way. We pity him as sort of an underdog, but eventually realize it’s of his own doing. The film doesn’t answer all the questions of how he got to be who he is, and the story is better for it. Ambiguity isn’t a staple of modern comedies, so it’s nice to see it here.
Still, there’s plenty of crude and unusual humor, culminating with a hilarious climactic scene involving the aforementioned puppets. I won’t spoil it for you here. Good comedies rely on surprise, but also remind us why we should care. Though it’s not perfect, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” will most likely prove to be one of the better comedies of the year.

18 April 2008

Smart People

I’m sure we’ve all had at least one professor like Lawrence Wetherhold, played by Dennis Quaid in the new film “Smart People.” As the title infers, he’s smart, and he knows it. And he has no problem lording his intellectual superiority over his students, much to their, and our chagrin.
It is a bit painful to watch a character who we should view as sympathetic act in such a singularly self-destructive manner. In fact, most of the “smart people” in the film do the same, but it’s a testament to the filmmakers that such masochism never causes us to lose interest.
We get the sense that Lawrence has always been a misanthrope, but since the death of his wife, his attitude has worsened. His high school age daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) seems to be a chip off the old block, even mimicking her father’s indifference toward his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church).
Lawrence becomes involved with a former student (who he doesn’t remember) named Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is now a doctor. As expected, Lawrence’s sour disposition isn’t exactly great fodder for a good relationship, and the two start to have problems.
There’s not really that much of a central plot, just scenes from a specific point in all these characters lives where they must ultimately decide if they will take the necessary steps to become happy again. Considering their personalities, one doesn’t expect much, and the film doesn’t necessarily spell out a certain happy ending.
So why would anyone want to spend an hour and a half with such unpleasant characters? I’ll admit it takes a certain mindset and patience, but it can be rewarding. It works, pure and simple, but not in an easily identifiable way.
That’s not to say it’s perfect all the time. Dr. Hartigan comes off as particularly ill-developed and confusing. It’s no wonder Lawrence has a hard time figuring her out. And an odd subplot involving Vanessa and her adopted, emphasis on the adopted, Uncle Chuck may fit the theme but doesn’t fit well with the rest of the comparatively realistic story.
Dennis Quaid continues to be one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood today. Considering his choice of projects, it’s no wonder. He usually seems content to be involved in mediocre action films or shallow comedies. But when he’s given a chance, like he is here, to really stretch himself and show his chops, he never disappoints.
The rest of the cast is capable enough, if not particularly brilliant. Ellen Page shows considerable range in being able to play a completely different kind of smart-aleck than we saw in last year’s “Juno.” It would have been easy for her to repeat characters, but she goes the extra mile to make sure she doesn’t.
It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t necessarily give into artificial character arcs or forced poetic justice. Their lives are just as messy at the end of the film as they are in the beginning, but for whatever reason, there’s just a little bit more hope.

11 April 2008


George Clooney’s new film “Leatherheads” seems to be wandering between two worlds. On one side is a relatively realistic period picture, depicting the formation and popularization of the National Football League. On the other side is a nostalgic view of the 1920s gleaned from classic early Hollywood screwball comedies.
There’s merit on both sides, particularly in the screwball portions. You have the familiar character types: the sassy female reporter, the blustery newspaper editor, the quiet pretty boy, and the more rugged and world-weary leading man.
The female reporter is Lexie Littleton, played by Renee Zellwegger, who is assigned to cover a supposed war hero turned college football star, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). She’s been tipped off that his combat stories may not be all true, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to save his financially scrapped NFL team, ‘Dodge’ Connelly (Clooney) has recruited Carter to lend his star power and skills to the team’s profile, launching them into the heights of victory and fame.
The central comedic conflict comes when Dodge and Carter both fall for Lexie, leading to a series of misadventures and drunken brawls. There’s no sense in saying anything more, because you can probably predict how it will end.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Clooney’s goal seems to evoke a bygone era, which fits the tale about the end of an era when people like Dodge could play football in a more interesting, albeit dishonest, way. The legitimization of football becomes the harbinger of doom for Dodge.
So while at times it seems uneven to be bouncing back and forth between screwball antics and a mellow swan song, it oddly enough seems to work. The film is consistently enjoyable, despite some plot devices being a tad out of place, like Dodge and Lexie dressing up as cops to escape a raid on a speakeasy.
But such over-the-top flourishes can be welcome, in a way. They keep things interesting and pique your interest before it has a chance to wane. It’s a hard balancing act to manage, but the cast is more than capable.
As a director, I think Clooney is still maturing. His previous efforts, the underrated “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and the overrated “Good Night, and Good Luck” showed good promise, and “Leatherheads” continues to show that potential, though it’s clear he hasn’t hit his peak. He still seems a little bit too concerned with style over story.
Still, it’s refreshing to see a group of stars led by such a socially-conscious figure as Clooney taking the time to let loose and have some fun. Watching his previous two films would not lead you to expect such lighthearted fare. In its own way, it’s quite the bold move.
It’s not a perfect film; few are. But it’s a riskier film than many have given credit for. With everyone so concerned about the future, it’s nice to see someone looking lovingly at the past. If it leads viewers to discover the old films it’s referencing, then I’m all for it.

08 April 2008


Charlton Heston
"The shadow of death will pass over us tonight,
and tomorrow we will see the light of freedom."
-The Ten Commandments

04 April 2008

Shine a Light

For me, concert films are a mixed bag. To me, it seems counterproductive for a film to try to reproduce the feeling of being at a live performance. It simply can’t work. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
Director Martin Scorsese has been in this avenue before, having directed his chronicle of The Band in “The Last Waltz.” His Bob Dylan documentary, “No Direction Home,” worked so well because it was mainly a documentary with some concert footage sprinkled throughout.
But in “Shine a Light,” which many are labeling incorrectly as a documentary, he returns to a more straightforward concert format. It has some interview excerpts between some of the songs, but it is mainly a recording of a concert by The Rolling Stones in New York City as part of their “A Bigger Bang” tour.
The film seems to presuppose a couple of things if you are going to be able to enjoy it. One: you must either consider concert films an accurate similar experience to actually being there, or consider the concert film a different animal altogether but something still worthwhile. And two: you are a Rolling Stones fan.
If you can agree with both statements, then more power to you. This film is for you. I’m not a huge Stones fan, and thus it was not a pleasant experience. My feelings were equal parts indifference, boredom, and, by virtue of seeing it on an IMAX screen, nausea.
That’s not to say it’s badly made. Scorsese knows how to put together a nice looking product, whatever the subject. The opening is the most interesting, chronicling his own efforts to organize the documentary amidst the flurry of preparations for the concert, coupled with a visit by sponsor Bill Clinton and his family and friends.
We see the difficulty he encounters in getting the musicians to commit to a set list, which he finally receives mere seconds before the show begins. We see Mick’s hesitation at the presence of so many cameras. Whether this is all staged is up for debate.
Then the concert kicks in, as did my malaise. The main event is visually frenetic, with quick editing marring some of the momentum that could have contributed to a true-concert-feeling experience. However, seeing the way Jagger moves, it becomes clear that the approach was necessary.
The Stones are great performers, there’s no doubt about that. To have that much energy when they’re that old is a wonder. They all seem to be at the top of their game, and loving the ride. Some guest performers like Jack White and Christina Aguilera pop in to contribute.
Despite the performances, the film just suffers from a lack of a destination. Perhaps it’s just the way I’m used to looking at films. It’s difficult for me to have interest in a film that I realize is going to be the same thing for two hours.
But that said, it’s a relatively unique experience. Be warned though, if you are easily prone to motion sickness, skip the IMAX version. It may be the closest you can get to the real thing, though in my opinion, such an attempt is ultimately futile.

02 April 2008


Jules Dassin
Rififi, Brute Force, The Naked City


“21” is about very smart people. They are math students at MIT who are able to count cards in games of blackjack at Las Vegas casinos, and in turn win hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have an intricate system, unbreakable codes, and even some clever disguises.
We may not be math prodigies, but it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers do not consider we audience members to be smart enough to figure out a basic, predictable plot such as the one presented here. While the movie manages to entertain, it begins to get tedious by the end.
Jim Sturgess stars as Ben Campbell, a boy genius with dreams of medical school but without the funds to realize those dreams. Enter shady math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who has put together a crack team of stellar students to take Vegas for all its worth. All Ben has to do is join and he will have the money he needs.
He joins. We know that he must join, because if he doesn’t, there is no film. At least not the one promised us through the advertisements. Still, we have to sit through a refusal, a failed recruitment and another refusal before Ben finally joins the team. I hope I wasn’t the only one to see that coming.
Other blatant foreshadowing abounds. Ben notices a girl named Jill (Kate Bosworth) that he finds attractive. Guess what! She’s on the blackjack team and they are soon living it up in Sin City with lots of cash to blow. We know by the rules of poetic justice, and coming-of-age films, that Ben’s misdeeds must catch up to him. They do.
If I seem overly sarcastic, I must apologize. It’s not a bad film, really. It’s just that little grinds my gears more than a film that insults my intelligence. They do not even try to clearly explain the team’s card-counting method. I suppose they did not think we could grasp what they repeatedly call “basic math.”
Still, it’s entertaining enough. All the glitz and glamour of Vegas is on display, with plenty of flashy and perhaps overly frenetic camerawork to go with it. The performances are satisfactory. We are left satisfied by the ending.
Perhaps the root of my problem with the film is its billing as “based on a true story.” The film adds in lots of artificial plot devices to move the story along, and you can tell they are not part of the factual events.
Elements of chase films and heist pictures fall in, turning the movie into average escapist fare. It’s better than many films out in theatres now, but won’t be remembered once the summer arrives.
Perhaps I have been overly critical. Perhaps, comparatively, it is a good film, one that makes intellectuals into heroes for a change, a film that does not paint virtue and vice in clear-cut terms. And, as I said, it’s entertaining. It just seems to me that maybe we can aim higher, that maybe the movie industry should try to deliver films that challenge instead of spoon-feed.

Drillbit Taylor

I’ll go ahead and make this admission: I can sympathize with the young protagonists of “Drillbit Taylor.” Maybe some of you can, too. That’s right, I was not one of the popular kids in school, nor was I particularly adept at most social situations. Luckily, I encountered no bullies like the character of Filkins, who engages in some of the most outlandish tactics you could imagine. It’s that level of impossibility that ultimately kills the film.
The film is produced by Judd Apatow, who brought us last summer’s hits “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” both of which were marked by a certain universality that anchored the humor. “Drillbit Taylor” contains such sympathetic situations, but the film is doomed from the beginning by a plot that denies the possibility of such universality.
The unfortunate victims, Wade, Ryan and Emmit have just started high school and are at the mercy of Filkins, until they hatch a plan to hire a bodyguard to protect them. Since they are strapped for cash, all they can afford is Drillbit (Owen Wilson), an army deserter and local homeless person who latches onto the kids as a source of cash and easily pilfered items.
Drillbit poses as a substitute teacher and becomes popular with the teachers, especially an English teacher (Leslie Mann) who finds him attractive. Meanwhile, Filkins gets a little comeuppance, but gets angrier at his frustrated attempts to pummel the boys.
All of this heads toward a very predictable conclusion. Drillbit is exposed, illusions are shattered, and the boys must fend for themselves. This mirrors the pattern of the entire film: interesting developments or opportunities for humor are set up and then cancelled out by some mediocre gag.
This script is co-written by Seth Rogen, who should really know better, having starred in some of Apatow’s previous hits, including “Knocked Up.” One wonders, watching this film, if he was just as strapped for cash at the time of writing it as its titular character is.
The film is not necessarily awful, it’s just so frustratingly average. There’s always the promise, the possibility, but no one seems able to make it materialize. Not even Owen Wilson, one of the most likable actors working today, can turn the material into something worthwhile.
Part of the problem is its young cast. It’s not that they are incompetent, it’s that they are rather inexperienced, and it shows. They are meant to anchor the film, but they’re not skillful enough to provide a range of emotion that makes us care. Having them at the center of the film gives the whole thing an amateurish feeling. Like the film, you know there is potential there, but they just can’t fulfill it.
It’s the kind of film that is hard to review. There’s so many out there like it, and writing about it makes me feel like I’m repeating myself. Perhaps this drivel must exist for us to recognize the true comic gems. I just wish they weren’t so few and far between.

The Bank Job

It’s a credit to the filmmakers that “The Bank Job” is not a three hour film. It could have been. It’s a marvel that they were able to distill so many plots into just under two hours. With that much plot, though, there’s little room for anything else.
The movie is supposedly based on a true story, but the facts are a bit hazy; there’s clearly lots of conjecture here. Rather the point is to try to explain away the mystery surrounding one of the biggest bank robberies in history amidst an atmosphere of vice and corruption in the 1970s.
The basic premise is this: a member of the royal family is photographed in a compromising situation on a Caribbean island, and the photo ends up in the hands of a black revolutionary figure. He uses it as leverage to get out of any legal trouble he runs into.
The government is tired of his evasions, and so it secretly contracts a group of thieves to rob the bank and unknowingly recover the photograph. Meanwhile, it also sends a spy into the black revolutionary gang to try to obtain any copies that might exist.
Unfortunately for the thieves, the robbery also draws the ire of the regular London police who don’t know of the government’s plan, a pornography magnate who has to recover evidence of his bribing other London cops, and other government officials whose photos were taken in compromising situations by a conniving brothel owner.
It’s a large amount of characters to keep track of, and with so many different allegiances, particularly among the various government and law enforcement types, it can get a bit confusing. Luckily director Roger Donaldson is up to the task, imbuing the narrative with all the certainty of a Scorsese film.
However, by the time all the plot devices are in place and the story is running at full speed, there’s no time left for character development, or reflection of any other kind. The story’s entertaining enough, but the weight of it crushes everything else in its path.
Still, there’s an interesting style here, with a muted color palate trying to reflect memorable 70s films. It would have been easy to try to make an intricate Tarantino-esque odyssey with lots of quick shots and frenetic visuals, but Donaldson wisely keeps things more conventional. It’s more like “Rififi” than “Reservoir Dogs.”
The cast is led by perennial British tough guy Jason Statham, who thankfully shows more humanity than in the truly awful “The Transporter.” He doesn’t have the greatest range, but his previous work in Guy Ritchie movies serves him well here. The rest of the cast is capable enough, and because the movie’s all plot, they never have to dip deep into the well of emotion beyond anger or excitement.
Now that I think about it, the whole movie is a little like a Guy Ritchie film. It’s essentially a 70s “fact-based” version of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” which has its merits. Thankfully the filmmakers here seem to have a better handle on their style, and a better sense of purpose.


I am making a new law. Let’s call it the “Law of Diminishing Shorts.” This law will state that any film featuring Will Ferrell in 70s-style basketball shorts, that is, short shorts, cannot try to be serious. Ever. So let it be written, so let it be done.
Such is the central flaw of Ferrell’s latest 1970s farce “Semi-Pro.” The story takes place in the world of the American Basketball Association (ABA), facing its waning days and the promise of a merger with the NBA. All the ridiculous grandstanding and flamboyancy of the 70s combined with the almost-ludicrous energy of professional basketball makes for a rather exotic locale.
And this is the kind of world that Ferrell does best in. His pompous fools Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby could not exist in a normal world; they need to be surrounded by characters just as silly as they are. The same is true for Jackie Moon of “Semi-Pro.” When he starts the film by singing his love ballad “Love Me Sexy,” you think things are off on the right track.
So you can imagine the disappointment every time the filmmakers try to plug in a serious subplot or a relatively serious emotional moment. It doesn’t jive with Jackie Moon, and so he wanders through the picture, occasionally wrestling a bear or jumping over cheerleaders while wearing roller skates. Besides the occasional scene with Andy Richter or Will Arnett, there seems to be no one who will play along.
The serious moments I refer to mostly revolve around an aging ex-NBA player (Woody Harrelson) who is trying to connect with his ex-girlfriend. The pieces of the subplot are sparse and random, and create nothing but sluggishness as we wait for Ferrell’s next crazy stunt.
Also in the mix are a couple of mismatched commentators, the afro-hooded “Coffee” Black (Andre Benjamin), and a clueless hippie (Jackie Earle Haley). These are the characters that make Jackie feel at home, and the comedy is strongest when it indulges in their ridiculous banter. The best scene of the film is the one that most feels like improvisation. It features poker, a gun, and Tim Meadows, and that’s all you need to know.
Some might consider this a sign that Will Ferrell needs to move on, forget the 70s, and start doing some more sophisticated comedy or serious roles. I would have to disagree. In the right hands, Ferrell’s energy and persona can work wonders. They just have to be harnessed to the right task, in the right world. A clown’s just not as funny outside of the circus.
One thing is for sure, though. He stills has that manic energy and conviction that makes him talented, in my eyes. Few comedians will jump through the hoops that Ferrell does with such gusto, and a feeling of genuine investment in the often foolish concerns of his characters. It takes a sort of courage that you don’t often find. Unfortunately for him, “Semi-Pro” was a losing battle from the beginning.

01 March 2008


Once upon a time, there were these fantasy stories that people called fairy tales. Kids loved them, adults respected them, and so on. Then came the modern age. Yes, kids still like fairy tales, for the most part, when they’re not playing video games or watching television. Adults, it seems, are too busy to be interested. But that doesn’t stop movie studios from trying to create quirky comedies that they can bill as “fairy tales for adults.”
Producer/actress Reese Witherspoon has found one such tale to present in the movie “Penelope.” It’s not exactly for kids, really. But I’m not sure adults will like it either. Indeed, there seems to be a battle throughout the film about whether to make a sweet children’s story or a hip deconstructionist morality play for grown-ups. Either way, I doubt either group will be completely satisfied.
The film stars Christina Ricci, who finally seems to be breaking out of her eccentric macabre teenager mode, as the title character who is stricken with a family curse that caused her to be born with the nose and ears of a pig. Now nearing adulthood, she is pressured by her parents (mainly her mother, played by Catherine O’Hara) to find a fellow aristocrat to marry, since falling in love with “one of her own kind” will break the spell.
Naturally, her face frightens off most every suitor, including one spoiled brat who goes to great lengths to get revenge by hiring a diminutive reporter to help him get a picture of Penelope and clear the charges of insanity leveled at him by the public.
To infiltrate Penelope’s mansion, they hire Maxwell Campion (James McAvoy), a gambling addict who has lost all his money and is desperate enough to go on the mission for them. Oddly enough, and probably predictably, he falls in love with her, but a secret he carries keeps him from declaring his feelings for her.
And so begins the star-crossed love story with themes that echo “Beauty and the Beast” and other nursery stories. It’s a simple theme, but one that is burdened by an overly complicated story. It seems that ff you’re going to present a complex story, you should then present complex emotions and themes.
While the story is smack in the middle of the modern age, albeit in some imaginary cross between London and New York City, the emotions are a little too simplistic for a modern, adult audience. But kids will likely be confused by some of the more subtle machinations of the plot.
Still, it has some charm. Ricci and McAvoy make good romantic leads, and Peter Dinklage gives a surprisingly memorable turn as the reporter. There is some comedy here and there, but there’s too many failed eccentricities and quirks for the humor to remain consistent.
To its credit, there is a very fine line here, between juvenile and adult fantasy. To balance it, the filmmakers would need to employ both that knowing adult edge and a refreshing kind of innocence. Here, the alternating lopsided game of tug-of-war just wears thin.

26 February 2008

Vantage Point

About halfway through the film, the groans started. The audience was audibly frustrated, and they had no qualms expressing it. By the third or fourth time that the film “Vantage Point” rewound to start the events over again from someone else’s perspective, that frustration was starting to get loud.
Such is the inherent problem with the gimmick behind the film. The basic premise, of at least the first hour, is that you will see several different viewpoints of a presidential assassination and terrorist bombing during an international summit in Spain. Owing an obvious debt to Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” the goal is that each viewpoint holds different clues to unraveling the mystery at hand, which in this case is who assassinated the president and set off the bomb.
You’ve got the secret service agent Thomas Barnes, played with an ever-present grimace by Dennis Quaid. There’s an American tourist, Howard Lewis, played by last year’s Best Actor winner Forest Whitaker. There’s a Spanish police officer, Enrique, who is enigmatic and possibly useless to the story.
And let’s not forget the President (William Hurt) and the terrorists themselves, who occupy the last frame of reference. Between each section, the director employs a rather obnoxious and obvious rewind effect and then displays a ticking clock showing us that we’ve gone back to the beginning. After a while it feels like several episodes of “24.”
But the clock is not the only thing that makes the film feel like television. Each section ends with a cliffhanger, and it starts to feel very contrived. There’s enough to this story to keep us interested, so why rely on artificial suspense?
There are some merits to the style, though. It’s a fresh take on what could (or might be) a very average story. And we are allowed the perspective of people who would not normally be caught up in a thriller like this.
It could be done well, but it gets to be a little too messy. The timelines don’t always match up and the aforementioned rewind effect and other elements tend to dumb it down a little, as if we could not pick up on it on our own.
Luckily, after an hour, that technique is exhausted and we get to the payoff: a thirty-minute non-stop action sequence that is meticulously choreographed and finally gives us the gratification the audience deserves by then. Car chases, espionage, betrayals, kidnappings, murder, all boiled down into a frenetic and tight scene that almost makes up for what’s gone before.
When it all comes together, it makes sense and we can sit back and enjoy. It just makes you wish the rest of the film had just dispensed with the gimmick that it could not employ flawlessly. There’s the end of a good movie here, but you have to settle for less in order to get there.
It takes expert filmmakers to pull off the kind of film that director Pete Travis has tried to present here. You have to have a certain respect for your audience’s intelligence and a strong sense of narrative momentum. I’m just not sure those involved were up to the task this time.

23 February 2008

The Best Films of 2007

It was a great year for film. No doubt about it. About midway through the fall I started to worry: I haven’t written a bad review in a while. Am I losing my edge? My credibility? My discretion? I was writing one good review after another. But they deserved them. I can’t remember a time so saturated with good cinema as this year has. There were a lot to choose from, but here’s my favorites.

The Top Ten

1. There Will Be Blood - The most ambitious, audacious, epic, classic, groundbreaking, thoughtful, evocative, engrossing, and memorable film of the year. This film is a cut above in so many ways. If you haven’t seen it, go. Now.

2. Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street- It’s my favorite musical. Perhaps there’s no way I couldn’t have enjoyed it. But I also know all the ways it could’ve gone wrong. And it didn’t. Wonderfully performed and visually rich. And Tim Burton has never been better.

3. Ratatouille- I don’t think I’ve ever used the word sublime in print before, but I will now. Because I think that’s the best word to describe the joy at work in this film. Artistically, the most fully realized and satisfying computer animated movie ever. All that would be enough to make the list, but on top of that it’s incredibly enjoyable. I’m convinced that if this film doesn’t warm your heart, you don’t have one.

4. I’m Not There- Bob Dylan is my artistic hero. One of the reasons for that is his refusal to be pigeonholed, to give into the impulse to satisfy anyone. He is solely ruled by his own artistic instincts, a quality I hope I could develop one day. Therefore, there’s no way to do justice to such a man by making a movie trying to depict him as just one man. Six actors was the right way to do it. Todd Haynes has given the biopic a well-deserved kick in the pants.

5. No Country for Old Men- I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said. Well acted, excellently adapted, deftly directed. The consistent mood sustained in this film creates an atmosphere I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. And I liked the ending, for the record, because the movie’s conclusion is correct. What can you really do in the face of such irrational, senseless violence?

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford- One of the most underappreciated movies of the year. Surprisingly good performances all around in what amounts to our American version of the story of Judas. It’s at once a legend and a deconstruction of that legend, with images that tap into our collective American unconscious. Watching it is an experience unlike any other.

7. Atonement- The movie was marketed incorrectly, I think, as a kind of classic wartime romantic drama. There are elements of that, to be sure, particularly in the central love story. But to boil the movie down to that would be an injustice. It’s much more complex than you would expect, with a final message that’s artistically relevant and heartbreaking at the same time.

8. Once- The simplicity of this film gives it a charm not found in any of the big studio releases this year. It might not reinvent the genre, but it does unearth a kind of musical that doesn’t rely on big dance numbers and operatic discourse. More than any other musical, here the characters are truly singing from the heart.

9. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead- one of the most straightforwardly tragic and intense dramas in recent memory. The display of acting here is an achievement in itself, and Sidney Lumet doesn’t pull any punches in his old age. It’s brutal and sorrowful, like a Greek tragedy, but with the kind of energy of a truly modern story.

10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly- Kudos to the filmmakers for turning what might have been an average sob story into a truly unique experience. A story that’s always engaging with emotion that’s not the least bit artificial. And Max von Sydow will break your heart.

The Second Tier

11. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days- Really brutal, at times painful and frustrating, in terms of the characters and their choices. Artistically, confident and thoughtful direction never shy away from the harsh realities.

12. Lars and the Real Girl- one of the best original screenplays of the year. It’s genuinely moving, with a tenderness found in few films of the past few years.

13. Across the Universe- a fitting companion to the musical innovations of the greatest band in history. A weak story is forgiven by surreal musical numbers that never cease to surprise.

14. 3:10 to Yuma- A hopeful sign that exciting, thrilling Westerns are making a comeback. This is the genre we Americans do best. It’s about time we got back to it.

15. The Savages- A serious comedy indeed. It feels real and genuine, with one of Laura Linney’s best performances.

16. The Bourne Ultimatum- the smartest action movie in years. It’s good to see such a well-made product in such an underappreciated genre.

17. Michael Clayton- a fine directing debut for Tony Gilroy. It could be called a thriller, I suppose, as some do classify it. But it’s much more thoughtful than that label would suggest.

18. Juno- A little overrated, I have to say, but a good film nonetheless. The script drove me nuts sometimes, but it’s much more emotionally complex than I originally gave it credit for. Good performances all around, and good to see the Arrested Development alumni thriving.

19. Into the Wild- from Sean Penn, I had expected a politically liberal hippie tribute/odyssey, but what I found was a film that refused to glorify this flawed person, mourned the tragedy of wasted potential, and managed to make him into a hero.

20. Romance and Cigarettes- John Turturro’s crazy surreal/realist musical is hard to classify, even harder to judge. For sheer audacity and experimentation, it earns a place here. Though the ending is a mess, it’s one of the most artistically brave movies this year.

Honorable Mention

21. Grindhouse
22. Charlie Wilson’s War
23. The Darjeeling Limited
24. No End in Sight
25. Eastern Promises

Guilty Pleasure of the Year Award:

Worst film of the year (tie):
Year of the Dog

10 February 2008


Roy Scheider
"I can do anything. I'm the chief of police."

Youth Without Youth

I’m starting to think that Francis Ford Coppola wants to be immortal. Two of his last three films, though they span over a decade, deal with the trouble of aging. The peculiar “Jack” starring Robin Williams depicted a boy who ages at several times the normal rate, and so becomes a boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. Now, with “Youth Without Youth,” his commentary on aging becomes even stranger, and incredibly convoluted.
The director of “The Godfather” brings us the story of Dominic, played by Tim Roth, a professor who we first see at age 70 in 1938. He is struck by lightning and suffers terrible burns, but when the doctors remove the bandages, he looks no more than 35 or 40 years old. The doctors are baffled, but the appearance of Dominic’s strange doppelganger, seen only to him, seems to hint that Dominic knows more than he is telling.
With the renewed youth come strange powers, none of which are explicitly explained. He can sometimes see the future, read books without opening them, or read minds. His abilities and reverse aging make him the target of a mad Nazi scientist who is doing experiments with electricity to change human evolution.
The aforementioned story takes the first half of the film. Throughout, Dominic keeps trying to finish his “life’s work,” which is a study of the origin of language and human consciousness. This study comes into the foreground in the second half of the film, which seems to be another film entirely.
That hour shows Dominic encountering a woman who randomly starts spouting ancient languages. She keeps regressing back to older and older tongues, and Dominic thinks she will eventually arrive at the first language. He is excited to complete his research, but when she begins to age at a rapid rate, he knows he cannot sacrifice her for his work.
I have given a great deal of plot synopsis, which I normally don’t like to do, but I feel that doing so for this film is a personal achievement in itself. The film’s editing and cinematography make following the narrative difficult, with two Dominics often wandering the same frame, or flashing back to different parts of Dominic’s life, which, since he aged backwards, are difficult to distinguish.
I could easily call the film a mess, and it probably is. Yet Coppola still has that kind of directorial confidence that makes me still wonder if there was something I didn’t see, if there was something he was hiding from me. I almost feel stupid that I didn’t “get it,” but then again maybe it’s not meant to be “got.” Either way, I can’t say it was a very satisfying cinematic experience.
If the story I told confused you, then the ending won’t help. I am always very annoyed by films that end with the doubt that everything that happened before may not have actually occurred. Indeed, we are not even sure when the ending happens in the long, complicated chronology. If Coppola meant to give us a grand statement on human consciousness or existence, then I have to say he has failed. There may be something to this film, but I just don’t think I have the patience to try to revisit it again.

25 January 2008

There Will Be Blood

“I’m going to bury you underground.” “I’m gonna come inside your house, wherever you’re sleeping and I’m gonna cut your throat.” “I told you I was going to eat you!” From these words, we can clearly see that Daniel Plainview means business. That business is oil, the oil industry of the early 1900s, in fact. But to boil “There Will Be Blood” to just another epic film depicting some bygone era would be a gross misunderstanding.
The film is as emotional and reflective as director P.T. Anderson’s other great films, “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” But combined with that is an indictment of capitalism that’s as relevant today as it’s ever been. And at the center of it all is the oilman Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is at once a family man, a community leader, a criminal, and a monster.
He starts out scratching in the dirt for silver and gold but eventually builds up an oil empire across the Southwest. His son, H.W. Plainview is always at his side, at first. Besides him, however, Plainview keeps all people at a distance. As he confides to one person, “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.”
To watch Day-Lewis make the transformation from grizzled prospector to refined entrepreneur to the end result in the film’s final harrowing moments, which I will say little about, is one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the last few years. He delivers no wrong choices, no missteps; indeed it is as flawless a performance as I’ve ever seen.
This character is shown to us through the skillful lens of Anderson’s epic vision. Few directors know how to move the camera as well as he does, and the cinematography is always engaging and engrossing. Anderson knows how to use both short and long cuts to great effect, and so brisk montage is coupled with lengthy meditation to craft not just an interesting story, but an experience all its own.
There are so many other elements of the film that I could go on and on about. There’s Anderson’s script, based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, that is filled with dialogue that will be remembered for years to come. Or I could discuss Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s unique score which truly deserves the oft-used label of “haunting.” And there are the other performances, which are notable perhaps not for their own virtuosity, but for the ability of each actor to hold his own against the force of nature that is Day-Lewis.
It may seem like I’m on some sort of high with the way I’ve been gushing, but it’s all true. It is rare to see a film where all of the people involved are at the top of their game. It is hard to imagine any of them topping themselves. But they never outdo each other. It works as a great fluid union, sweeping us along with it. That’s how you make the best film of 2007. That’s how a classic film is made.
All of this is enough to make a great film, but then you have the ending, which truly cements it in your memory. Without divulging any plot details, I found it strange how the audience reacted differently both times I saw it. I don’t know if there’s a right way to react, but I know that it is the only way to end that movie. The madness to which it descends is delivered with such gusto by Day-Lewis, that no matter how we react to it, there is a part of us that becomes truly afraid, not necessarily of what is in front of us, but that it might be inside of us, too.

22 January 2008


Heath Ledger
Cowboy, Clown, Star of Electricity

19 January 2008

The Orphanage (El Orfanato)

It’s a credit to the filmmakers of “The Orphanage (El Orfanato)” that it takes so long to figure out just what is going on. We’re not sure if the reason for Laura’s son Simon’s disappearance is supernatural or the work of a creepy old woman. We’re not sure if Laura is crazy or if there really are ghosts in her childhood orphanage that she has now bought. And, as viewers, we’re not always sure when we should be apprehensive, which is more than a little disconcerting.
It helps to have such a command of atmosphere in the face of a rather cliché story. Laura, played by Belén Rueda, moves into her childhood orphanage to open a home for kids with special needs. Her son, displaying that rare sense of the supernatural that all children in horror films apparently have, starts to play with a new imaginary friend named Tomás. He soon disappears, and Laura and her husband Carlos begin a frantic search lasting for months.
Possible culprits include an old woman who used to work at the orphanage, or a supernatural sinister force embodied by the spirits of children. At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll go no further, but suffice to say that it’s not exactly a story you’ve never seen before.
Other ubiquitous scenes include the visit of a medium, played by the linguistically versatile Geraldine Chaplin. Monitors and microphones are hooked up, and the others watch as she makes her way through the spiritual realm of the house, encountering the ghostly forces within. But of course, there are skeptics, and soon Laura is left alone.
The last thirty minutes of the film are its strongest part, and Laura’s struggle becomes much more personal and intimate. We get some answers to the puzzle, but not all of them. Even so, the film features one of the only times I’ve felt truly satisfied at the end of a horror film.
Despite the tired story, the film is very well made and well acted. The cinematography creates just the right mood, without overly relying on darkness or fog to make us frightened.
Also, I suppose we should be thankful every time we get a decent horror movie that doesn’t rely on torture, films that are more like Hitchcock and less like “Hostel.”
One of the producers of the film is Guillermo del Toro, the man who brought us last year’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” This has sparked many comparisons between the two, but I don’t know if I would go that far. This film is less like that dark fantasy, and more like a cross between “The Ring” and the all-but-forgotten “Legend of Hell House.”
Overall, it’s admirable and more than decent, especially if you, like me, feel it’s been a long time since a horror film was made that didn’t disgust people. It may not go so far as to be an homage to classic thrillers, but at least it reminds us, in some vague way, about the subtlety and class of the best films of the genre.