Archive for October, 2007

30 Days of Night (**)

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

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Ok, here’s a horror movie that has a great premise and doesn’t really do anything with it. In the town of Barlow, Alaska, once a year the town is completely pitch black for an entire month. On the very first night of the month long period of darkness, an army of vampires invade the town to feast care-free for 30 days. I saw the preview, which I think is a fabulous trailer, and thought, man, this is going to be awesome! Unfortunately, the director, David Slade, just doesn’t know what to do with it, and the film kind of lies flat for most of its 113 minutes.Josh Hartnett stars as Sheriff Eben Oleson, who, along with his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) and a small band of survivors, must fend off the hungry bloodsuckers for a whole month. That’s the plot. A good horror movie doesn’t necessarily need a good plot to work, but it does need to at least try to be scary or gory or fascinating or at least interesting, and this film fails at all of those things. There are a few good death scenes, I guess, but by about the fourth vampire that Hartnett decapitates (all while wearing the same facial expression, a weird sort of grimace), we get a little bored.Josh Hartnett is not an exceptional actor, but he has been quite good in past films (Black Hawk Down, The Virgin Suicides and Sin City to name a few), but here his character is too cardboard to really care about. Same goes for Melissa George. Mark Boone Junior, the beefy, bearded character actor who has appeared in about every other movie in the last five years, plays grizzled misanthrope Beau Brower, and he’s given a few good lines. All the other characters in the group of survivors aren’t very interesting.Ben Foster, looking nearly unrecognizable, gives some fire to his small role as the Renfield-esque Stranger who appears in the town prior to the vampires to announce to the citizens that “death is coming.” The only really memorable supporting performance belongs to Danny Huston, as Marlow, the head vampire. Huston is a very good actor, and here creates a remarkably evil character. I would’ve liked to see more of him than, say, the rest of the cast.30 Days of Night does the one thing a horror movie should not do. It bores the audience.

Gone Baby Gone (***)

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

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Strange that Ben Affleck, he of countless bad movies and tabloid headlines, has created such a focused and engrossing motion picture. Yes, Ben Affleck, the star of Gigli, Daredevil and Paycheck, 3 of the worst films of 2003, makes his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, a character-driven crime movie, based upon the novel by Dennis Lehane. Perhaps his terrific performance in Hollywoodland as troubled “Superman” actor George Reeves was not just a fluke, but instead a sign that Affleck’s going to try to make good movies again (though his work in 2006’s awful Smokin’ Aces might disprove that theory.)The film stars Casey Affleck (yes, Ben’s younger brother) and Michelle Monaghan as Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, a boyfriend and girlfriend detective team located in Boston. As the story opens, four-year old Amanda McCready has been kidnapped, and the media circus has already enveloped a local neighborhood. One morning, Patrick is awakened by the girl’s aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver), who ask if he and Angie will take the case (they specialize in missing persons cases). They take the case, though Angie has her reservations, and before too long are plunged neck-deep in a labyrinthine plot of double-crosses, drug deals, corruption, guilt and other classic elements that this genre requires.One of the film’s strongest assets is its cast, probably due to his clout, Affleck was able to gather a large group of talent. Who would have thought that Casey Affleck, of all people, would make a good lead in a detective film? Prior to this film, most audiences (including myself) best remember Affleck as the lovable doofus in supporting roles in such films as Ocean’s 12 and Good Will Hunting. Ben probably sensed that his kid brother could pull off a big role, and boy, was he right. One strength of Casey’s performance is his use of body language, just watch the early scene where arranges his living room like a detective office, and then awkwardly shifts the chairs, sits down, notices that no one else is sitting, then quickly stands up and moves the chair. One theme of Gone Baby Gone could in fact be how the characters, the men especially, use body language to communicate their authority, like a bunch of proud peacocks. Casey Affleck also creates a screen presence that I’ve never seen in this actor before, this is the first performance where I’ve really noticed him as an actor.I wish I could say the same for Michelle Monaghan as Angie, but she never gets out of the supportive girlfriend character, and doesn’t really contribute anything to the film. Morgan Freeman appears in a few scenes as Jack Doyle, the Boston police captain in charge of the missing children division. His performance is stellar if not amazing. Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver are well-cast as the girl’s aunt and uncle, while Amy Ryan (who you may remember from the great HBO show “The Wire”) is a revelation as Amanda’s drug-addicted mother. Ryan literally disappears into the role (it didn’t occur to me who she was until about three hours after I’d seen the movie).Ed Harris, that great character actor, is exceptional as Detective Remy Bressant, and I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t get some award-season recognition (the same goes with Amy Ryan). A big part of the success of Harris’ performance has to go to cinematographer John Toll, who bathes Harris’ face in a haunting mix of shadow and light, which helps add to the character’s questionable ethics. It was great to see John Ashton as his partner, Detective Nick Poole, I had no idea he was still around.Ben Affleck has also cast the film with many locals of the Boston area, which helps make the film feel incredibly authentic. Just as the Italian directors Pasolini and Fellini would fill their films with faces full of character, wrinkles, scabs, flaws and other non-traditional features, Affleck has followed suite with his extras (yes, I’m thinking of the patrons in the bar scene while I write this review, too). Affleck and his crew has captured the feel and look of Boston perfectly (not too surprisingly, since this is Affleck’s hometown).If I have one quibble with the film, it’s in the narration by Casey Affleck. Now, film narration can be a powerful tool (the most recent example of a great film narration would probably be John Hurt’s delicious narration for Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), it needs to add something to the film’s texture in order to work. In opening of this film, Patrick Kenzie talks about how rough and tough it is to grow up in Boston, but it just feels redundant because John Toll’s evocative cinematography does a much better job at describing this feeling than the narration does.The film also includes a death scene that seems horribly, terribly real.  This is not like most Hollywood death scenes, where someone gets shot and dies, but this looks like the way it would really happen.  Affleck has captured screen violence in this scene like the way Peckinpah did in The Wild Bunch.  Gone Baby Gone is a strong movie, maybe not up there with Lehane’s other book-turned-into-movie Mystic River, but worth checking out.

Michael Clayton (*** 1/2)

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

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How did it happen? How did a former television superstar become one of the most reliable leading men in modern motion pictures? Further more, how did anybody from the cast of Batman & Robin ever win an Oscar? Somehow, George Clooney has become a cinematic force to be reckoned with. He’s always had a laid-back, disarming charm (probably first seen on the big screen in From Dusk Til Dawn,) but by the time Out of Sight and Three Kings came around, something changed, and he had become a great actor. Oh, and he won an Academy Award. Yet still, some don’t take him seriously as an actor. Yes, he was in Batman & Robin, but, you know what, of the lead actors, he was the only one who wasn’t completely horrible (yes, I said it).

Hopefully, his extraordinary work in Michael Clayton, the sharp, smart, biting new thriller from Tony Gilroy, will change the minds of the doubters. Clooney plays, get this, Michael Clayton, a “fixer” for a high-powered law firm in New York City (for those not in the know, a fixer is a guy who fixes problems. As Clayton sees it himself, “I’m a janitor.”) If you were to judge by his car, his suit, his look and his demeanor, you would say that Michael Clayton has his act together. But, behind that 200 dollar haircut is a failed marriage, a son who he only sees on the weekends, crushing debt, a gambling addiction and a restaurant venture with his younger brother that has gone south.

As the film opens, Arthur Edens, a top lawyer at the firm and a close friend of Clayton’s, has apparently lost it. During a deposition hearing where Edens was the head counsel defending U/North, a large corporation being sued for millions for pollution and contamination, Edens stripped down to his birthday suit and ran through the parking lot naked as a jay bird. When Clayton goes to bail him out and begin cleaning up this embarrassing mess, he assumes that Edens, a heavily medicated manic depressive, has simply stopped taking his pills. That’s not quite the case.

In presentation, content, mood and style, Michael Clayton is evocative of the spare, tense thrillers of the seventies. Movies like All the President’s Men, The Conversation, The Parallax View and The Three Days of the Condor (interestingly enough, Sydney Pollack, the director of Condor has a supporting role in this film). In an age where technology can do pretty much anything, government does things it probably shouldn’t and big corporations seem to follow their own rules, it’s appropriate that a modern thriller should have such an ubiquitous sense of paranoia and dread. It also features one of the most sudden acts of violence I’ve seen in a movie in the last five years.

Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Bourne trilogy, The Devil’s Advocate and Armageddon (I forgive him for the sin of Armageddon), makes his directorial debut here, and it’s pretty impressive. In an age where thrillers aren’t really allowed to be intelligent, here’s a movie that dares to take itself (and the audience) seriously, and challenges us with a complex, intricate plot. As I mentioned earlier, Clooney has turned into a hell of an actor, and this might be his most nuanced, fascinating performance. He’s backed by a supporting cast of unusually strong actors. Tom Wilkinson gives a terrific performance as Arthur Edens, the mentally unhinged lawyer who drives the plot. Wilkinson creates a character who, after years and years of defending morally and ethically questionable clients, might be seeing things differently. Or he just really needs to take his meds. Wilkinson gets to spout some great conspiratorial rants, the kind of juicy acting that he can really sink his teeth into.

I read some article somewhere that stated that Sydney Pollack was a better actor than director; though I don’t know if that’s true (he’s a very good director), he is perfectly cast here as Marty Bach, the head of the law firm. He trusts and respects Michael, looks at him like a son, but also realizes, completely, the reality of what he does. I also got a kick out of Michael O’Keefe of Caddyshack fame playing Barry Grissom, Marty’s right hand man. Tilda Swinton, that fantastic character actress, plays Karen Crowder, a top executive at U/North who is put in charge of the Edens fiasco. I liked the dimension and subtlety that she brings to the role.

As with the thrillers of the 70s, Gilroy peppers his film with memorable bit players. Sean Cullen, as Michael’s frustrated cop brother Gene, and David Lansbury (Yes, he is related to Angela, she’s his auntie), as his younger brother Timmy, give an additional texture to the film in their scenes. I love it when a movie shows that the characters have a history, a family, a life outside of the plot. I must also give a shout-out to Brian Koppelman, who plays “Player # 2,” a poker player who goads and taunts Michael during a game. In his brief, small role, he makes his character’s presence known.

Michael Clayton is an expertly crafted, exceptionally acted thriller. It has a logic and a style all its own, and gives us a lead character who never shows the audience his hand or reveals his true motives. Even in that last shot, we wonder, what is going through his mind?

Across the Universe (*** 1/2)

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

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There will never be another rock band like The Beatles. They are the most iconic and influential musical group of the 20th century, and their music is still relevant and wonderful. That being said, putting a new spin on something classic is not blasphemy. Many critics and audiences cringe at the very idea of a new approach to The Beatles, and indeed, the new musical Across the Universe was met with scowls, boos and hisses by many people. The first screenings were reviled, and its director, Julie Taymor, was fired and replaced by another filmmaker. After a long battle, Taymor’s original cut was released (this is the version that made it to the theatres.)

A movie musical that dares to tell the majority of its story with, gasp, music? How shocking and despicable! In a year of sequel after sequel being crammed down our throats, it’s refreshing to watch a film that is inventive and tells a standard story in a creative way. The film tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), a dockworker from Liverpool, who travels to America to find his father, and ends up meeting Max (Joe Anderson), a wily college student and eventually falls in love with Max’s angelic sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, who is luminous in this role). No bonus points for guessing where they got the names from (most of the main characters in this film are lifted from the Beatles’ songs). All this takes place against the backdrop of the 60s, that tumultuous time period in our nation’s history. Oh yeah, and that was also when most of this music was written, huh. What a coincidence.

This is a fun movie to watch. The musical scenes are inventive and take risks in the presentation of songs that have become rock standards. “I Want You,” for instance, is now sang by a giant Uncle Sam who emerges out of a recruitment poster and plucks a young man onto an assembly line of enlisted men, and later “She’s So Heavy” is sung by a platoon of soldiers dragging the Statue of Liberty across Vietnam. Taymor’s approach is theatrical, over-the-top and perfect for this material. One of the most touching numbers is when Prudence (T.V. Caprio) sings “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” while pining over a fellow cheerleader. All these years and I had no idea that the song was a gay anthem.

Other stand-out sequences include a stirring interpretation of “Let it Be,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sang in a club by the Jimi Hendrix clone JoJo (Martin Luther) after the assassination of Dr. King. Elsewhere, we have Bono playing Dr. Robert and doing a great cover of “I am the Walrus.” Joe Cocker plays three roles (!) and rocks the house with “Come Together.”

I have read review after review of this film that bemoans the lack of plot and character development. I can say that this film has the exact amount of plot and character development as, say, Moulin Rogue. Like that film, Across the Universe takes full advantage of the medium, making a movie full of life, bursting with striking images and song. This movie is a celebration.