Archive for November, 2007

Beowulf (***)

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

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In a year full of great shouting lines, I think I would rank “I…AM…BEOWULF!!!” right up there with “I…AM…MEGATRON!!!” and “THIS IS SPARTA!!!!” Make no doubt about, Beowulf is a Caps Lock kind of movie, everything is big and ridiculous. It’s silly, gory and visually compelling. Oh, and it’s just a wee bit over-the-top. Just a tad.This version of the Beowulf story was directed by Robert Zemeckis, that cinematic innovator who also helmed the terrific Polar Express, which pioneered the animation style that Beowulf uses. The animation style allows for fluid, free-form camera movements that traditional cinematography probably couldn’t pull off (I’m thinking especially of a long shot that pulls back from a drinking hall to the lair of Grendel, in particular.) The film also has some amazing set-pieces, such as our hero’s vicious battle with a horde of sea monsters (I have no idea how this movie isn’t rated R), and the climatic fight scene.Beowulf, as you may or may not know, is a great warrior is summoned to fight the evil Grendel, who has been terrorizing Anthony Hopkins’ kingdom. Beowulf is a mighty, macho dude who looks much more like He-Man than Ray Winstone, the actor who voices Beowulf and serves as his model (we’ll just say that Winstone, who is a hell of an actor, doesn’t really look very much like He-Man). Grendel, by the way, is voiced by Crispin Glover, which is pretty damn random if you ask me.The film also features Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mommy, and gives us a look at animated Angelina’s lovely form. The film also features the animated versions of Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich and Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf’s buddy. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote the screenplay, which feels more like a fan boy’s wet dream than as a “serious adaptation of a major work” (I say that as a compliment.)Beowulf is violent, silly, gory and a lot of fun.

No Country for Old Men (****)

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

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If somebody was to make a list of the finest contemporary filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen would no doubt be on that list. Since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, the Coens have been a consistently reliable source for amazing motion pictures. I was about to say they’ve never made a bad movie, which is true, but it might be more telling to say they’ve never made a movie that I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend to everybody I know. Their latest film, No Country for Old Men, based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is another masterpiece: a shocking, thrilling movie with wit and nerve, plus the Coens’ usual does of quirky humor.

Like Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men, focuses on an unbelievably evil man in Texas. Played by Javier Bardem in a performance of unspeakable power, Anton Chigurh is a force of nature, a sociopath who lives to kill, and leaves a trial of bodies across the Lonestar state. The plot (which takes place in 1980) concerns Chigurh’s efforts to locate Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who has in his possession a large sum of money he acquired after stumbling upon a drug deal gone terribly wrong. The third main character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones), tries to figure out who is responsible for the massacre, and he also serves as the film’s moral center, a man confused and troubled by the state of things.

Each Coen Brother film has its own specific sub-genre, Blood Simple was neo-noir, The Big Lebowski was a detective story, Miller’s Crossing was a gangster picture, and No Country for Old Men is basically a slasher film, with Chigurh a more threatening presence than Michael Myers, Jason and Freddy put together. The film (along with the Tommy Lee Jones character) attempts to answer the question of how such an evil man can exist in a “civilized” world, much like the films Blood Simple and Fargo did.

This film is thrilling in the way few films are. In fact, this is the first time during a movie that I’ve noticed that my teeth were chattering, if that means anything. A key to the film’s success is the performance of Javier Bardem , who uses his physical stature to suggest a massive threat, a hulking figure like Frankenstein’s Monster. There is a scene where Anton Chigurh is smiling at another character, and I thought to myself, ‘this is what evil looks like.’ Josh Brolin is pitch-perfect in his crucial role as Moss, and with his exceptional work here and in American Gangster, I take back all of those Goonies jokes. Tommy Lee Jones’ work here is also vital to the film working; his monologues in the film say a great many things about human nature. Also, look at his expression in his scene at the hotel towards the end of the picture. Amazing.

Every Coen film has a great ensemble cast, and this film is no exception. In addition to the wonderful performances by Kelly Macdonald as Llewelyn’s wife, Stephen Root as a businessman, Woody Harrelson as a bounty hunter and Tess Harper as Sheriff Bell’s wife, there is a rich supporting cast that includes Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin. The Coens always cast even the smallest roles with perfect actors, such as Gene Jones as the owner of the gas station, in a sequence that will be remembered by Coen fans for years to come. Roger Boyce, who appears late in the film as a fellow sheriff, adds spice to his scenes. I could probably talk about all of the great roles in this film, but I’m sure I’d bore you to tears (like how about the border patrol man played by Brandon Smith??)

Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer who has been working with the Brothers Coen since Barton Fink, has outdone himself with his work here, it is spellbinding. The Coen Brothers have created a film work here that will be looked at and talked about for many years to come. And to those who hated the ending, all I can say is this, that’s the only way this story could have possibly ended.

The Number 23 (**)

Monday, November 19th, 2007

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The last time Jim Carrey and director Joel Schumacher teamed up, they dazzled us with Batman Forever, and the film world has never been the same since. So, as you can assume the expectations for The Number 23, the film that reunites these two titans, were exceedingly high. Ok, that isn’t exactly true, but still, the film has an intriguing kernel of an idea that Schumacher and his screenwriter Fernley Phillips manage to do absolutely nothing interesting with. It doesn’t help that the film’s third act so closely mirrors the much better film The Mechanist that that film’s producers should think about legal action.

The Number 23 stars Jim Carrey as Walter Sparrow, a dog catcher/family man who is, as these films require, a “regular guy.” He’s happily married to Agatha (Virginia Madsen), and they have a young teenage son named Robin (Logan Lerman). The fact they named their son “Robin Sparrow” suggests that Walter and Agatha are not without a sense of humor. Anyway, one day Agatha spots a novel at a bookstore called “The Number 23,” and decides that this would be the perfect gift for her husband.

The book focuses on a detective by the name of Fingerling (who is also played by Carrey), and Sparrow begins to see hauntingly similar comparisons between himself and Fingerling. He also becomes obsessed, like Fingerling, with the Number 23. Now, this is where the movie could’ve have become interesting. As it’s explained by Isaac French, the character played by Danny Huston, the number 23 has a connection to 666, and is considered by some to be a number of the devil.

They could’ve done something really cool and different with this film, and made the number 23 a gateway to Hell or made Sparrow possessed by the number or something else unique and sinister, but instead, the plot twist is lame, contrived and silly. Not to mention, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Number 23. Nothing at all. After all the build-up, the number 23 in this film is just a McGuffin, and not a very good one at that.

Jim Carrey can play dramatic roles very well, but I thought he was a little miscast here, and the novelty of Jim Carrey appearing in a thriller wears thin after a while. It is funny to see Carrey and Virginia Madsen dressed in ridiculous Goth outfits in the Fingerling scenes, though. After her terrific work in Sideways, it’s getting depressing to Madsen in role after role as the concerned housewife, and she’s wasted here. Same goes for Danny Huston, who is such an interesting and gifted character actor. I was surprised to see Bud Cort in a bit role, that’s always fun to see him in a movie.

Joel Schumacher is a notoriously hit or miss director, and I’m afraid I would qualify this as one of his misses. One of the few things that I did like about this film was the cinematography by Matthew Libatique. It’s lush, dark, ominous and mysterious, unlike the movie itself. I wouldn’t say this is a horrible movie, but it’s not very good, and considering the star, it’s pretty disappointing.

Civic Duty (**1/2)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

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Peter Krause is a good actor with a strong screen presence, probably best known for his work on two of the best shows of the last 10 years, “Sports Night” and “Six Feet Under”. His intensity and willingness to take his character to the darkest places are two of his great strengths, and indeed, his performance is the best thing about Civic Duty. It’s a thriller that has an intriguing premise, built on modern day fears and concerns (I thought of it kind of like a post-9/11 Rear Window), but in the end, it just doesn’t work.

Krause plays Terry Allen, an accountant who, as the film opens, has just been let go from his job, a victim of downsizing. In the early scenes, Terry seems troubled, distant, worried, which is understandable, considering his being fired. But, there seems to be something else, a deeper bitterness and anger. It doesn’t help that he is living in a culture where the ubiquitous media is constantly driving fear and despair into his soul, making him suspicious and nervous of just about everybody else, except for his wife, Marla (Kari Matchett).

Late one night, Terry can’t go to sleep. He spots a new neighbor moving in. Terry, much like Jimmy Stewart in the aforementioned Rear Window, will spend a lot of time looking at the window. He notices that the man looks “Middle Eastern,” and already the profiling begins. He starts to compile a list of the man’s activities, suspecting even his most mundane actions as part of some plot. He follows him on his errands, convinced of his guilt. His wife at first is almost amused by Terry’s obsession, but it quickly ceases being funny.

The man, a college student by the name of Gabe Hassan (played by Khaled Abol Naga), goes about his daily routine, not realizing that his every move is being watched. Civic Duty is a film built on an intriguing premise, but I felt that the director, Jeff Renfroe, and the screenwriter, Andrew Joiner, dropped the ball on the direction that the film takes. It could’ve been a terrific satire/thriller on how our culture creates fear and suspicion in our citizens through TV, the Internet, the news and our politicians. Or, they should have focused the film less on the thriller aspects and more on Terry himself. Instead, we have a half-baked thriller/character study hybrid that fails to satisfy either genre.

Jim Carrey look-alike Peter Krause is, like I said, the best thing about this movie, but even his finely nuanced performance can’t make this film more than momentarily interesting. Kari Matchett is gorgeous, but her character is nothing more than window dressing. Khaled Abol Naga has some good moments as the neighbor, but he also has a ridiculous scene where he and Krause argue political points that I doubt two characters in that situation would say (just the screenwriter trying to preach, I guess). Richard Schiff is well-cast as the local FBI agent.

Civic Duty features a strong performance from an underrated actor and an intriguing premise. Too bad it isn’t very good.

Blade Runner (****)

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

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Today, Blade Runner is widely considered one of the most influential science fiction films of the last 30 years, but, for years, that wasn’t the case. A flop when first released, ignored by critics, badmouthed by its star, Blade Runner couldn’t cut a break. That, however, changed when the film began obtaining a cult following in the late 80s, and in the early 90s, Warner Brothers commissioned Ridley Scott to create a hastily put together director’s cut. The main difference between this cut and the theatrical release is the removal of Harrison Ford’s voice-over narration, a narration that had been put in at the last minute on behalf of the studio, who worried that audiences would be confused by the plot.

Now, 25 years and 4 different versions later, comes the new, so-called “final” cut which, after a brief theatrical run, will be coming out on DVD in December. I had the privilege last week to see the new print at Cinema 21, one of my all-time favorite movie theatres, and it looks incredible. As opposed to the 1991 director’s cut, it’s obvious that a lot of time and effort has gone into the 2007 cut, and all of the improvements, mostly slight touches here and there, add to what was already a haunting and brilliant vision of the future.

Drawing from the mood and look of the film noir genre, Ridley Scott and his crew (including the late cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth) made a Los Angeles of the future dominated by darkness, a place where it’s always wet and almost always night, an overpopulated city where corporations, not the government, are the omnipresent force. The far-reaching influence of the look and style of Blade Runner can be seen in just about every post-1982 futuristic film. It helped change the way audiences think about the future (the phenomenal score, by Vangelis, was also highly influential).

For a film where most of the lead characters are replicants, Blade Runner has a lot to say about what it means to be human. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an ex-police dectective/”blade runner” who is pulled out of his self-imposed exile (an endless cycle of hard drinking and eating noodles) to track down and “retire” a group of replicants who have come back to Earth. The number of replicants that have escaped changes in every version, but I think that inconsistency isn’t a distraction, because since Deckard goes through most of the film confused and unsure what’s going on, shouldn’t the audience go through the same thing?

I have seen the film several times, and am convinced that Deckard, is, in fact, a replicant. There are several clues that support my theory, though many people (including Harrison Ford himself) believe very strongly that Deckard is human. I had a film professor who told me that all good films leave the audience with questions, and I can imagine the arguments a group of film lovers could have over the (in)humanity of Deckard.

Some of Deckard’s actions and behaviors certainly make more sense if we believe that he is a replicant. Consider, for instance, the scene where Rachel (Sean Young), the young woman who is a replicant, visits Deckard in his apartment, where he forces himself upon her in a scene that can be read as hilariously inappropriate. But, if Deckard is a replicant, then he is simply trying to be human, acting and reacting the way he assumes a human would act and react. As Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the reclusive corporate head honcho who designed the replicants, says, many replicants don’t know they aren’t human (like Rachel).

Rutger Hauer is perfectly cast as Roy Batty, the leader of the group of replicants. He wants more life, and is willing to kill for it. Hauer performance is so haunting, so real that I am convinced that he really is a replicant. Daryl Hannah, as the replicant Pris, is also well-cast, and has some scenes that still creep me out. The cast also includes Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, William Sanderson, Edward James Olmos and James Hong.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner remains one of the most influential films of the 1980s, and demands to be seen again, preferably on the big screen. Based upon the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Question of the Day

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

¬†When did Christopher Lambert…

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…turn into Vigo the Carpathian?? Is it just me, or were they, like, separated at birth? Perhaps the Ghostbusters should visit Mr. Lambert, just to be on the safe side.

American Gangster (*** 1/2)

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

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Ridley Scott’s new epic crime film follows two men who each have their own moral code and personal set of ethics. Of course, they are on opposite sides of the law. Their separate narratives combine to create a story that only could’ve happened in America, a place where the line between right and wrong, good and bad, criminal and cop is sometimes blurred beyond all recognition. It’s based on a true story, but who’s to say how much is true. If you want facts, read a book.Denzel Washington stars as Frank Lucas, a small-time hood who, in the late 60s, became the most powerful gangster in New York. As the film opens, Lucas is the chauffeur/collector/ right hand man for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, in an uncredited yet perfectly captured performance), the much-loved Harlem community leader/gangster, until Bumpy bites the big one. Lucas, bemoaning that his former boss had power but was still owned by the white man, decides to corner the drug market. How he does this is one of the many surprises of the twisty, tangled web this film weaves.Russell Crowe costars as Richie Roberts, the honest, womanizing cop whose story becomes intertwined with Lucas’. Roberts is on a task force created to take on the recent heroin epidemic, and one of the film’s ironies is that no one, cop or criminal, believes that an African-American could be controlling the drug supply. Eventually, even the Mafia Don (Armand Assante, doing his very best Marlon Brando impression) will be in Lucas’ pocket.The screenplay, by Steve Zallian, based upon the magazine article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson, does a mighty job of turning what could’ve been a unbelievably confusing gangster movie into a character-driven movie about the American dream. All Lucas really wants is love, safety, a house for his mother and maybe, just maybe, a little wealth. Of course, the film isn’t shy on showing that while Lucas helped make a very small percentage of the African-American community wealthy and better off, he did much more damage than good. Scott and cinematographer Harris Savides do a remarkable job of showing the haunting, gritty reality of drug addiction (probably inspired not only by the Steven Soderbergh film Traffic but also by the HBO show “The Wire.”)Denzel Washington gives his fiercest, strongest performance in a long while as Frank Lucas, creating a man who is smooth, clever and charming, but who can flip on a dime to a ruthless, cunning bastard. Watch his scene in the diner, for example, where he calmly excuses himself in the middle of a speech to take care of an “associate.” Russell Crowe is exceptional also, as the cop who struggles to stay honest in a bureau with too few honest cops.As in most Ridley Scott films, American Gangster is peppered with good supporting work. Who would’ve thought that Josh Brolin could be intimidating as a corrupt cop, but here he is, threatening not only Russell but also Denzel, and looking quite menacing doing it. John Ortiz is quite brilliant as Richie Roberts’ partner, and his performance is one of the highlights of the movie. I felt the same about Ruby Dee’s phenomenal work as Lucas’ mother, and she has a few scenes that are so emotionally stirring they stop the film dead in its tracks (I mean that in a good way). Though it’s a small role, I enjoyed Roger Bart’s scene as a rage-spewing US attorney who chews Russell out.The cast also includes RZA, Common, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hawkes, Ted Levine and, get this, Cuba Gooding, Jr!! Man, I have not seen Cuba in a movie that I would recommend for many, many years. Good work, Cuba!That being said, there were a few things that didn’t make any sense. I still don’t understand who Joe Morton was supposed to playing (the guy with the funny eyebrows and hairpiece), Denzel’s accountant? The whole subplot with Richie’s ex-wife (Carla Gugino) could’ve been dropped and it wouldn’t have hurt the film. Minor quibbles, minor quibbles.American Gangster is brutal, brave and fascinating. It tells a compelling story about trying to find success and happiness in America, and it never looses the audience’s interest. And for a film with an almost 3 hour running time, that’s a neat trick. Also, it’s got an absolutely terrific title.

Hotel Chevalier (***)

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

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Before (or after) Wes Anderson’s brilliant new movie The Darjeeling Limited, audiences should check out his short film, Hotel Chevalier, which stars Jason Schwartzman (playing his character, Jack, from Darjeeling) and Natalie Portman. It’s considered the first part of The Darjeeling Limited story, but I really don’t think it matters which order you see the movies (I watched Hotel Chevalier the night after I saw Darjeeling.)

Apparently, audiences are now being treated with the short film before screenings of The Darjeeling Limited, which is nice because Hotel Chevalier is getting pretty darn hard to find online. I thought it was an enjoyable little short, built on the kind of attention to detail and quirky characters that has made Wes Anderson one of the most unique of modern day filmmakers.

The 13 minute movie shows the bitter, awkward reunion between Jack and his ex-girlfriend. She is in Paris, calls him at his hotel, and arrives in hope of a brief… Reunion? Fling? Their dialogue is cold, distant. They go through the motions of romance, and we get the distinct feeling that this same ritual has occurred before.

Hotel Chevalier is not interesting so much in the plot details, but in Schwartzman and Portman’s performances, and in Anderson’s stylized direction. Hotel Chevalier provides, in its short running time, a great amount of insight into a failed relationship. Plus, if you’re a Wes Anderson fan, you should probably see it; you know, for bragging rights.

The Darjeeling Limited (****)

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

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The three brothers have not seen each other for a long time. How long has it been? A year? Well, since the time they missed their dad’s funeral to pick up his Porsche, so yeah, it’s been a while. They meet on a train in India to travel the country together and bond in a ‘spiritual journey’. Buried resentments, sibling rivalry, open hostilities and guilt might get in the way though. One of the many great things about Wes Anderson’s the love and hate relationship between brothers is the way the brothers’ interactions with each other feel so authentic.Unlike in most films about dysfunctional families, many of the brothers’ problems with each other are left unexplained, just like in real life. These characters have histories, and issues with each other (and themselves) that won’t be solved in a hour and a half film. The casting of the brothers is essential to the film’s success. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody are quirky, unusual actors, who exhibit a special mixture of oddball and mischievous behavior in many of their roles. Just look at Wilson in Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, and you see an actor unafraid to take on risky, unhinged characters.The chemistry between the three is so natural, so perfect that it honestly didn’t seem like acting. They really could be related, they’re that convincing. Owen Wilson plays Francis, the eldest, a control-freak who, after a near-death experience, arranges a journey with his two brothers through India in order to reestablish their bond. Adrien Brody plays Peter, who is fearing the upcoming birth of his child to a woman he loves although confesses “I’ll probably divorce eventually,” and Jason Schwartzman plays Jack, a writer living in France.On the train, the brothers dive right into where one assumes they left off more than a year before. Francis nitpicks and controls Peter and Jack, Jack and Peter confide secrets they don’t dare reveal to Francis, and then turn around and tell Francis. They all play sides against the other one; you know, stuff you do with your siblings. The brothers’ ‘spiritual journey’ does not really start like that, they mostly sit on the train and share their cough syrup and sleeping pills. Anderson has some sly things to say about these kinds of quests, how they’re really just vacations for bored tourists. You can’t take a spiritual journey, Anderson suggests, without earning it. This film, you could say, is about how the brothers earn the journey, and the right to call each other “brother.”Wes Anderson and his co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman have created a beautiful, vivid film about strangers in a strange land. In addition to the three leads (who are all terrific), the film features Anderson regulars Kumar Pallana (Pagoda from The Royal Tenenbaums) and Waris Ahluwalia, Wally Wolodarsky (who was a writer on “The Simpsons”) and Amara Karan as Rita, the object of Jack’s attention. There are also two key roles (one at the beginning of the film, one at the end) played by instantly recognizable stars, both of whom are also Anderson regulars.Also, look out for director Barbet Schroeder’s cameo. My favorite supporting performance, though, would have to be Irfan Khan as the grief stricken father the brothers meet on their travels. It’s a nearly wordless performance, but it’s brilliant.The country of India is practically a character itself. I can’t think of another recent Hollywood film where the location has been as vital to the story as this one. This film had to be set in India, there was no other way. The Darjeeling Limited is a wondrous, moving motion picture.