Archive for December, 2007

I Am Legend (** 1/2)

Monday, December 31st, 2007

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“I Am Legend,” the novel by Richard Matheson, is a brilliant story about Robert Neville, the last man on earth, and how he must contend not only with being alone but also with the legions of the undead that want his blood. The book was hugely influential (Stephen King has named it as a crucially important inspiration to his own work, indeed, ” ‘Salem’s Lot” owes a lot to Matheson’s depiction of vampires), and was the source for two films. One was called, appropriately, Last Man on Earth, and starred Vincent Price. This captured the mood of the book pretty well, and featured a strong Price performance, though it sure does look and feel like a cheesy Italian production (which it is). The other was the 1971 Charlton Heston cult classic The Omega Man. Although it’s a little dated, I think it’s still a hell of a movie, and it’s pretty damn creepy.Though both of these versions have their pros and cons, neither were true to Matheson’s original ending, which is bleak but necessary in order for the story to work to its full power. The latest version of Matheson’s work, which finally gives the story its true name, has been in the works for many years. At one point, it was to be directed by Ridley Scott and star Arnold Schwarzenegger, then Will Smith was to star and Michael (shudder) Bay was slated to be behind the camera. Thankfully, that never came to be. Instead, Francis Lawrence, who helmed the awful Constantine, was given the task, with Smith in the lead.The result is a film that works for about two-thirds of its running time, before sort of falling apart. Lawrence creates a tense, ominous atmosphere, gives Smith a chance to show his range and then, the film loses its way. But, I’ll get to that later, let’s look at the good stuff first. The production design of this film is astounding, after a brief prologue that sets up the plague that wipes out the world (Emma Thompson pops up in a cameo as the scientist responsible), Lawrence reveals the location of the film: a desolate, deserted New York in ruins. It’s quite a sight.As in the other film versions of the story, the film follows Robert Neville (Will Smith) in his daily errands and tasks, as he drives through the streets of NYC in a sports car hunting deer, gathering supplies and trying to find a cure. At night, he locks himself in his lovely Greenwich Village townhouse and waits for daylight. His only companion is his faithful dog, Sam. Through flashbacks, we gather who Neville was and what he lost.For what the script gives him, Smith is well-cast. For much of the film, it’s a one man (and one dog) show, and Smith keeps our attention. Neville is a man of order and reason living in a world of a chaos, and, as you’d expect, the isolation is a little much for him. A nice touch to the film, I thought, was Neville setting up mannequins throughout the video store, so he could try to relate to someone, anyone.The most successful sequence, I thought, was when Neville is forced to enter a dark building one afternoon. That’s all I’ll say about this scene, but man, is it suspenseful. I wish the whole film could work this well. It doesn’t help that the monsters (who aren’t so much vampires anymore as identical zombie things) look downright silly. Note to Hollywood: there are times when CGI does not equal scary.I Am Legend is disappointing in a lot of ways, but maybe most in the fact that it could’ve been so much better. The last third doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and kind of ruins the tension that has been built so well in the first two-thirds of the film. It’s too bad, because it could’ve been a good one.

Juno (*** 1/2)

Monday, December 31st, 2007

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Hollywood is a place where creativity and uniqueness in cinematic vision is allegedly a priority, and yet 2007 alone was overrun with remakes, retreads, sequels and threequels (not a real word, but it’s a good one.) What a nice change of pace, then, to see a film that feels so fresh and original, a film that works both as a comedy and a drama, because after all, isn’t that what life is? Juno, directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, is a real winner of a movie, and features one of the most memorable characters in the movies this year.

Her name is Juno, and she’s played by Ellen Page, in a performance that confirms that Page is the real deal (you probably remember her from last year’s thriller Hard Candy). Juno is 16, sarcastic and wise beyond her years. She is also expecting. As the film opens, she discovers that her one night of passion with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (played by the great Michael Cera) has resulted in her pregnancy. Now, this set-up could be the basis of many different kinds of films. One such film that dealt with pregnancy was this year’s Knocked Up, but as good as that film was, that deal more with the man’s perspective.

I have heard Juno described in different reviews as bittersweet and touching, and in others as hilarious and deeply sarcastic. Like most worthwhile films, it touches on all sorts of tones and moods. As her pregnancy progresses, Juno will feel isolation, frustration, fear and confusion, and the film reflects these emotions.

I can only think of a few other films this year that are as instantly quotable as Juno (Superbad comes to mind). Former stripper and phone sex-operator Diablo Cody’s script is a delight, and the razor-sharp dialogue that Juno delivers is a welcome change from the safe, boring way that most teenage girls talk in most movies. I was also surprised by the way Cody depicts characters that are usually treated as cliches. Juno’s father and stepmother, for instance, are shown as being fiercely supportive, and the common arguments between child and parent are not seen as a terrible outburst, but rather just something that happens.

Ellen Page’s performance as Juno is the key to the film. I find the term “Oscar-worthy” silly and over-used, but frankly, there’s no other way to describe her work here. It’s perfect. Michael Cera, who with this and Superbad has had a hell of a year, finds all the right notes as Bleeker, Juno’s would-be boyfriend and father of her child. J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney give great supporting turns as Juno’s parents, though when have Simmons and Janney not been good in a movie? Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman are well-cast as prospective parents for Juno’s unborn child. Garner is especially well-cast, and in fact, I can’t think of another film where she’s been this good. Bateman plays against type, and is also quite good. I also liked Olivia Thirlby as Juno’s friend and confidant Leah.

Juno is a gem of a movie, a film that stays with you long after the credits roll.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (*** 1/2)

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

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Tim Burton’s blood-soaked, deliciously macabre cinematic interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious, gory stage musical is a dark, visually astounding experience. It’s involving, grotesque, funny, heartbreaking, jaw-breaking and probably Burton’s most uncompromising artistic vision since Sleepy Hollow. He pulls no punches. Neither does Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber himself, in his sixth (!) collaboration with the director.

The film opens with ominous organ music and a fiendishly clever title sequence where drops of rain turn into drops of blood and a trail of blood flows through an animated London. The mix of over-the-top Gothic horror with tongue-in-cheek humor continues through the whole film. An obvious influence to Burton for Sweeney Todd seems to be the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s, and it doesn’t shock me to learn that originally Christopher Lee was cast in a role in this film (Lee did end up in the finished film version of Sleepy Hollow, though, another Burton film that was a Hammer homage.) The production design by Dante Ferretti is astonishing, and in fact, the London of Sweeney Todd is almost a character itself.

Like Hamlet and Kill Bill, Sweeney Todd is a revenge story. Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) was an innocent, naive barber with a beautiful wife and a young daughter. The sinister, vile Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), with the help of his scheming, nasty henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), sends Barker away to prison for a crime he did not commit, has his way with his wife, drives her to madness and suicide and steals his daughter and raises her as his own, basically imprisoning her in his mansion. Flash forward 15 years, when Barker returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd, to get his revenge.

Though this is a musical (with some great songs, by the way), make no mistake, this is a violent, bloody motion picture. Though much of the credit to the film’s success goes, no doubt, to Burton, it must be said that the film would not work quite as well without Depp’s intensely focused, superb characterization of Todd/Barker. He is a man possessed by the idea of revenge, it not only drives him, but it consumes him. It’s another great performance by Depp, who also does a pretty good job with the songs. Helena Bonham Carter is well-cast as Mrs. Lovett, the well-meaning, slightly daffy owner of the meat pie shop right below Sweeney’s barber shop. Of course, the meat pies will play a part in the story…

Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin is a genuinely evil man, and Rickman plays the part with relish. Timothy Spall, who has been playing a lot of filthy, disgusting creatures lately (just look at his work in the Harry Potter films), has great fun with his role as Bamford. His facial expressions help sell the character. Sacha Baron Cohen has a small but crucial role as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, and has some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are fine as the film’s romantic straight leads, even though their job pretty much is to provide a small silver lining to this dark tale of woe. Ed Sanders plays the young Toby, who works for Signor Adolfo Pirelli, and also is given some great lines. Laura Michelle Kelly portrays Barker’s wife in flashbacks.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is gripping in the way few movie musicals are allowed to be. As I said earlier, it’s uncompromising in its vision, all the way to the end. And the reunion of Depp and Burton is cause for celebration.

Note: The IMDB page for this film gives away a few surprises, so I’d stay away from it until after you’ve seen the movie.

Charlie Wilson’s War (** 1/2)

Monday, December 24th, 2007

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The story of Charlie Wilson, the congressman from Texas who helped defeat the Russians from Afghanistan, could’ve made a great movie. It still could, but this film isn’t it. When a film has this much star power, both on and off the screen, you think it might make a pretty good flick. You’d be wrong. One problem with the film is its short running time. 97 minutes is not long enough to tell a story of this magnitude, you need time to develop the characters, the plot, give it depth and meaning. It feels like how scenes and character relationships have been left out of the final film. Mike Nichols is a good director, but he needs to file this movie away in the “almost” file. Charlie Wilson’s War starts out as a satiric character study of a flawed but deeply fascinating man, and then, once Charlie Wilson visits a refugee camp on the border in Pakistan, it turns into a deeper, more thought-provoking film. Either of these types of films would be fine, if Nichols could’ve pulled either off. The aforementioned refugee camp scene is successful on its own (especially the shot of Wilson looking at the enormity of the camp), but I wish it belonged to a film that deserved it. The same goes for the performances of Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. Hanks is such a famous star that sometimes it’s easy to forget what a good actor he actually is. Here, he creates a character who charms and aw-shucks his way in and out of potentially career-ending situations with graceful ease. He also gets to deliver several pretty good lines. And Hoffman’s Avrakotos is a force of nature, or at least for his first four or five scenes. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is totally miscast as a Texan ultra-right wing millionaire. I’d say her work here is borderline awful, though it doesn’t help that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin hasn’t really written her much of a role. That’s another thing about the film, it’s written by Sorkin, who is usually such a witty and intelligent writer, and Charlie Wilson’s War is more or less a slog fest, with the occasional good line here or there. Amy Adams also has a thankless role as Wilson’s hero-worshipping assistant. There is a type of film I call a “Golden Globe Picture.” A “Golden Globe Picture” refers to a mediocre film that is obviously awards-season bait, usually a half-baked script directed by a well known director and with a seasoned cast. If you must see this movie, do me a favor and wait until DVD. You’ll thank me later.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (***)

Monday, December 24th, 2007

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John C. Reilly is a tremendous actor, a performer that can play just about any kind of role, in any kind of movie. Up until a couple of years ago, Reilly was mostly known for dramas, independent films, you know, “important” movies. Then, he played Will Ferrell’s best buddy Clay in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and showed everybody that, yeah, he could play broad humor too. In Jake Kasdan’s new parody of music biopics, Walk Hard, Reilly plays Dewey Cox, a musical legend who overcomes guilt, drug addiction, greed, divorce and other obstacles to become a true icon. Yes, Dewey Cox is mostly based on Johnny Cash (and the film itself more or less follows Walk the Line‘s plot), but also on Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Brian Wilson, Waylon Jennings and probably a few others that I’m forgetting.

Like A Mighty Wind, Walk Hard features a barrage of original songs that both mock and pay homage to a specific musical genre. The songs are pretty well done, including the title number, “Guilty as Charged” and the innuendo filled “Let’s Duet.” I especially enjoyed the sequence when Dewey, strung out on LSD and God knows what else, fills a room full of hundreds of musicians in order to create his drug-fueled masterpiece, in a scene obviously inspired by Brian Wilson, who was known to create such atmospheres for his songs.

 

Walk Hard is a ridiculous movie, but I couldn’t help laughing, laughing a lot. It helps that Kasdan is a very smart writer (check out his films Zero Effect and The TV Set for examples of his fine use of dialogue) and he obviously cares about Dewey, and it’s not just a series of cheap jokes. Ok, there are a lot of cheap jokes in here (and about four hundred penis gags), but still, the film has a heart. The key to this is Reilly’s endearing, sharp performance as Cox. Reilly’s work here is hilarious, but more than that, it’s real, it’s authentic (plus, he does all his own singing).

Walk Hard features a cast of about half of the comic actors working in show business right now, including Tim Meadows, Jenna Fischer as Darlene (the June Carter Cash character), Chris Parnell, Jason Schwartzman and a bunch of cameos I wouldn’t dream of ruining. Since the film is co-written and co-produced by Judd Apatow (the director of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up), you can figure there will be a few notable actors in smaller roles. I will say that Jack White of the White Stripes does make a pretty good Elvis, though. Raymond J. Barry does a good job playing Cox’s father, in what could of been a thankless role.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is silly, ridiculous and absolutely hysterical.

 

 

Is it just me, or…

Monday, December 24th, 2007

Does John C. Reilly as an elderly Dewey Cox look just like Tim Robbins??

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C’mon, he’s a dead ringer!

The Mist (***)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

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Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” was, as King says himself, his attempt at a B-movie. It was intense, well written and really, really scary. I remember sitting in my room at three in the morning reading the story, and thinking to myself this is a really stupid idea. Since just about everything Stephen King has ever written has been made into a movie, it was only a matter of time before they’d get to “The Mist.” Luckily, the man who “got” to it was Frank Darabont, a filmmaker who’s no stranger to adapting King’s work. Perhaps you’ve heard of his films The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile?The Mist, which is the first Stephen King story Darabont has filmed that wasn’t about prison life, concerns a small Maine town where a mysterious, get this, mist rolls in to the neighborhood. Before too long, a large group of people are stranded in a grocery store, where they must band together in order to survive. Of course, there’s tension in the group, and doesn’t help the a mentally unhinged self-proclaimed holy woman claims that this is the end of days, and that blood must be spilled as sacrifice to the almighty.I liked this movie, it’s a good monster movie, with plenty of thrills and chills. It’s also, I feel, darker and more politically motivated than the novella. The film, for me at least, works as an allegory for the war in Iraq. In my mind, it’s a pretty obvious connection (then again, I felt that 300 was also obviously about the war.) The ending, which is substantially different from the original ending, is bound to cause debate amongst audiences.Thomas Jane does a good turn as the everyman hero, and, despite all of the criticism surrounding her character, Marcia Gay Harden does fine work as Mrs. Carmody, the diabolical holy woman who brainwashes a large number of the stranded with promises of redemption and salvation. If you’ve read the book, you’ll realize that Harden’s interpretation is not over-acting. Darabont regulars Jeffrey DeMunn and William Sadler give life to the standard supporting roles they’re assigned, and Toby Jones is well-cast as Ollie, the man child bag “boy”. Yes, the character’s are card-board, but the performances are very strong. And Andre Braugher gets to give some pretty good speeches.The film loses some of the ambiguity of the book that added to the terror (to give any examples would be ruining both the movie and the book for you), but Darabont has made an entertaining and thought-provoking monster movie.

I’m Not There (***)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

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When I first heard about Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic, I wondered how it could possibly work: several different actors portraying the same character? It seemed like an artsy-fartsy stunt that just couldn’t work. It wasn’t until I actually saw the film that I realized the error of my ways. Bob Dylan’s own time line is so schizophrenic, is full of so many different lifestyles and choices and musical genres and religious beliefs, that he had to be played by more than one actor. In fact, it took six actors, playing at least seven different characters (maybe it’s eight or nine, depending on how you look at it) to accurately portray Mr. Dylan in this film.Each character is a different aspect to Dylan’s personality, I guess. Cate Blanchett, for instance, plays Dylan right when he went “electric,” and the controversy that he caused by daring to play something other than folk music is depicted in this film. Blanchett’s performance is startling not because it’s a woman playing a man, but because I didn’t even notice the gimmick. I mean, I have no idea how Haynes’ knew that Blanchett would make the perfect Dylan, but man, he was right. It is an eerie, terrific performance. (There are a few shots where Blanchett looks identical to Dylan.)Marcus Carl Franklin plays Dylan as a young black runaway in the late 1950s who is greatly inspired by Woody Guthrie’s folk music, and in fact is going under that name. This plot strand seems to address Dylan fans’ frustration in the sixties when Bob refused to be a spokesman for his generation. I say “seems” because this film, like Dylan himself, is kind of hard to figure out. In one scene, the Guthrie/Dylan character is confronted by his obsession with Depression era music, and is told “write about your own time.” The struggle to maintain your vision while the whole world is telling you you’re wrong seems to be a theme that recurs throughout the different Dylan stories in this film.Christian Bale plays two Dylan-esque characters: Jack Rollins, who represents Dylan as folk hero, and Pastor Jack who mirrors Dylan’s “born-again” period. Bale is a phenomenal actor, and it’s hard to think of another actor who has played such an eclectic range in characters over the last few years (co-star Cate Blanchett would probably be in the running, though.) I mean, Bob Dylan and Batman, c’mon, that’s range. Ben Whishaw’s scenes as Dylan attempt to explain the man to an unknown group of interrogators, though it seems as he might just be confusing them more.Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid as Dylan, in a series of scenes that play as homage to Sam Peckinpah’s classic western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (which Dylan scored and co-starred in), but also help underline Dylan’s role as a mythic kind of hero (or maybe they don’t.) Heath Ledger plays an actor who is portraying the Jack Rollins character in a half-hearted biopic of the folk singer’s life. Charlotte Gainsburg plays his wife in these scenes, and their painful separation and divorce mirrors Dylan’s first marriage. The film’s multi-layered narrative, which ping-pongs back and forth between years, stories, film styles and themes, helps underline just how hard it is to define or explain Dylan.It also helps that Todd Haynes directs the material with such manic intensity. Keep in mind that although the film has many different stories and film styles, it has only one director. Haynes’ vision is playful, satirical, angry, cruel, heartbreakingly sad and fiercely political, sometimes all at once. Make no mistake, this is the director’s baby all the way.I’m Not There is a difficult film to explain, but in a way, not really. After I watched the film, I became convinced that this film does, in fact, help explain Dylan. At least, as much as one film could ever explain a person’s life. This movie is a puzzle, a joy for film buffs and Dylan fans, but I’m not sure how it will play if you come into the movie cold. It’s challenging and not for everybody, but for those who can tap into it’s wavelength, it’s a fascinating, entertaining journey.

Lars and the Real Girl (***)

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

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Lars and the Real Girl takes a concept that sounds like it belongs in a bad mid-80s comedy starring Rob Lowe, and turns it into a film with characters I care about. Yes, the plot involves an anatomically correct “love” doll, but it’s really about loneliness, family, community and the prisons that we create for ourselves. It’s also, yes, very funny, but it’s funny about human nature, and it doesn’t take cheap shots.I can’t think of another film this year that more depends on the lead performance of its star. Lars and the Real Girl has a very talented ensemble cast, but its the portrayal of Lars by Ryan Gosling that really makes the film work. Gosling is a terrific young actor, just look at his work as the conflicted Jewish youth who becomes a Nazi in The Believer or in his Oscar-nominated role as the drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson for proof of his range (not to mention his brief stint as a Mouseketeer in the early 90s). At age 27, he is just beginning his career, and the future I’m sure will hold some amazing roles for him.Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a painfully shy young man who lives in the renovated garage of his late father’s home. His brother, Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’ very pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live in the house. Lars resists all of Karin and Gus’ (mostly Karin’s) efforts to include him in their lives, and mostly sits in the garage in the dark. One day at his job as a computer programmer, his co-worker shows him a website featuring lifelike “romance” dolls. Flash forward six to eight weeks, and Lars is announces to a thrilled Karin and Gus that he has met someone.Imagine their surprise to learn “Bianca” is a doll. They consult a local doctor, Dagmar (the great Patricia Clarkson), who suggests that the only to cure Lars is to go along with it. “He’ll give up Bianca when he doesn’t need her anymore,” she says. So, the community bands together, going on with the charade. How this movie succeeds , and doesn’t turn into a vulgar disaster is something of a disaster, and much of the credit must go to the screenwriter, Nancy Oliver, and the director, Craig Gillespie.Ryan Gosling’s performance as Lars is a marvel of nuance and subtlety, it is so good, so effortless, that I forgot from time to time that I was watching a movie. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer find all the right notes in their roles, too, especially in the sequence where Karin practically drags Lars to dinner, and Paul and Lars have a stilted, barely civil conversation. Kudos to Schneider and Gosling for convincing me that they must really be brothers. The town makes up a kind of Greek Chorus, with strong supporting performances by Patricia Clarkson as Dr. Dagmar, the adorable Kelli Garner as the very real Margo and Nancy Beatty as Mrs. Gruner, who tells it like it is. I also enjoyed R.D. Reid’s work as Reverend Bock.Part of the charm is that as the town goes along with it, they too begin to see Bianca as a real person, and, to a certain extent, so does the audience. I was reminded of the similar effect that Wilson the volleyball had on audiences in Cast Away. Lars and the Real Girl walks a balancing act between the goofy and the tragic, and will leave you with a smile on your face. Check it out.