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He Was a Quiet Man (2007)
Witty, quirky, dark comedy undone slightly by its visuals...
Frank A. Cappello, writer and director of He Was a Quiet Man, is a man with something to prove, having written the hilariously bad Hulk Hogan vehicle Suburban Commando, and directing the wholly disappointing Constantine. He Was a Quiet Man, whilst not an unqualified success, is one of the underseen gems of 2007.
The film is essentially an amalgam of A History of Violence, Falling Down, and Office Space, with a pile of quirks to boot. Bob Maconel (the hilariously disguised Christian Slater), a despondent office worker, decides that he is going to perform a murderous rampage at his work office, yet before he can do so, a fellow maniac beats him to it. However, Bob, in protecting the one person that he cares about, the beautiful Vanessa (Elisha Cuthbert), guns down the assailant, and inadvertently becomes a hero.
Bob is unashamedly similar to Michael Douglas' "D-Fens" character from Falling Down, kitted out in a shirt and tie, and even further, seeks moments of reflection in the great outdoors, although in this instance, there are no Mexican gangsters attempting to rob him. The similarities do, thankfully, stop there this film is born of something else, with its CGI traffic whizzing by at astronomical speeds as Bob dawdles along, illustrating the drudgery of Bob's life without an ounce of subtlety. Whilst the film as a whole is overly reliant on visual curiosities such as this, the animated, talking fish which eggs Bob on to kill his colleagues is delightfully colourful, and mildly amusing to boot.
As one can gather from the above paragraph, He Was a Quiet Man is very surreal in a hilarious sort of way. Essentially, if you gave David Lynch a funny bone, you'd probably end up with something remarkably similar to this. Despite the aforementioned reliance on visual effects, the film is unquestionably carried by the barely-recognisable Slater who, despite his recent collaboration with tragically awful director Uwe Boll, proves that he is still worth something in Hollywood, with comic timing that is nothing short of spot on.
Bob is essentially revered by everyone around him for his "heroic" actions he is given a new job, his colleagues no longer think of him as a schmuck, and the sexy office bitch wants to have sex with him, yet the film's real point of contention is Cuthbert's character. Vanessa is left paralysed following the shooting, wishing that she was dead, and moreover, she wishes that Bob, who saved her life, would kill her.
A surprisingly understated (until the climatic scenes) conundrum surfaces as an aside to this drama Bob still finds those around him utterly repugnant, and he considers whether or not to carry out what the other gunner started, as well as putting Vanessa out of her misery, of course. The film carries these questions very well it is at times predictable, and occasionally not so, yet it never ceases to lose its sense of intrigue. The film's examination of the way in which humans operate is not intricate, and verges on syrupy at times, yet what is most entertaining about He Was a Quiet Man is its surreal spirit. Furthermore, even in its sweetness, the film explores the lives of disabled persons with a surprising level of insight and honesty . It may be exaggerated, and at times, even humorous, yet its approach is undeniably refreshing, particularly in relation to how the disabled manage to still engage in an active and healthy sex life.
He Was a Quiet Man never remains comfortable, constantly fidgeting and posing new questions for both ourselves and Bob to consider. The film follows through with an insane close, yet it is the most manically reasoned, and therefore, perhaps the most realistic end possible (although term "realism" is a very tenuous one in a film as twisted as this). The ending comes very abruptly, and little is done to satisfy viewer curiosity, yet we are given the vital answers, even if they aren't wholly satisfying, and are a tad questionable. We are left to ponder several things, yet when the preceding ninety minutes are so intentionally devoid of poignance, the film may simply leave your mind as the final frame does.
Christian Slater's latest and greatest effort (at least for a while) is A History of Violence without the graphic violence, Falling Down without the social commentary, and Office Space without the sagacious humour. Yes, it is a blend of all three films, at the cost of diluting each of them. The film's worst crime may be never allowing us to particularly care for Bob (or anyone) as much as we did for D-Fens in Schumacher's film, yet even despite its relative superficiality, He Was a Quiet Man remains a thoroughly entertaining, inventive and quirky film that will have nihilists the world over utterly dumbfounded (myself included). Elisha Cuthbert pulls out a career best (in that she is above tolerable, and even "good"), William H Macy plays the corporate yes-man with glee, and Slater, with great aid from his fabulous make-up department, looks and acts with great hilarity. It is unfortunate that this film, embracing its flaws as it so flagrantly does, has yet to find a large audience, and as such, it instantly becomes one of the indie staples of 2007.
Sling Blade (1996)
Stunning work from Billy Bob Thornton and his cast...
Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, adapted from George Hickenlooper's short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade (which also starred Thornton), earned a "Best Adapted Screenplay" Oscar win, as well as a "Best Actor" nomination for Thornton, who pulls triple duty in writing, directing and starring in this bitingly effective document of a fish truly, tragically out of water.
Thornton plays Karl, a mentally handicapped man who has spent the last twenty five years of his life in a mental hospital for killing his mother and her lover when he was a child. We meet up with him as he is released from the facility, returning home, where he attempts to, with nowhere to live, no familial contacts, and little cash, reintegrate himself into society. Thus, these initial moments of Karl's freedom in of themselves are a depressing, saddening social commentary on how we treat those we release from incarceration.
Nevertheless, the tone of the picture frequently meanders into acceptably sweet territory Karl finds work with people who take care of him and understand his needs, and more importantly, is befriended by a fatherless child and his mother, who invite him to live with them. It must be said that the manner in which Karl is invited to live with this duo is a tad too neat and dry-cut, but the mother character does at least come across as generally very charitable, understanding, and pleasant.
Karl's interactions with the boy, Frank (played by Lucas Black, who is quite the impressive actor himself), allow for a refreshingly honest discourse, not only between Karl and the boy, but as a viewer observing the film, it is verbal catharsis on screen. The two individuals, in their naivety, hold little back from one another, each revealing a number of home truths to the other, and it is nothing less than thrilling to watch.
Much of Sling Blade's success can be drawn from its memorable performances from a myriad of understated, under-appreciated talents, from the late actors John Ritter (as a homosexual friend of the boy and his mother) and J.T. Walsh (one of Karl's comically disturbing co-detainees), to the stunning Dwight Yoakam as the abusive boyfriend of Frank's mother. In respect to Ritter, his turn is all the more welcome as it is largely a non-comedic role, although his scene with Karl in a diner is inherently funny thanks to their conflicting, entirely opposed trains of thought.
Whilst Thornton quite rightly received much critical acclaim for his portrayal of Karl, perhaps the dark horse of Sling Blade is Dwight Yoakam's turn as Doyle, the bigoted Southerner who lives with Frank and his mother. In one instance, where he causes a party to turn foul, I felt genuinely angry at his character Yoakam manages to play a thoroughly dislikeable individual with such vigour that one may almost turn to despise Yoakam himself. As Frank, in responding to Doyle's angry tirade, begins throwing items at Doyle in rage, I was in awe of the array of astounding acting talent on screen before me in Sling Blade, and by all probability, you will be also. The gravity of the hopelessness of these individuals is amplified by Thornton's frequent use of single take scenes throughout the film, almost lending a play-like format to the project.
Sling Blade is a film of little ambiguity Thornton draws dark, thick lines around his characters, and it is clear that, as the film progresses, Karl is more and more becoming a substitute for Frank's deceased father, although one could guess this simply from reading a synopsis of the film. It is not so much that Thornton is matter-of-fact about such plot arcs, but that he is not concerned with surprising his audience, and rightly so Sling Blade is a simple story of a simple man. If one can draw any deeper symbolism or subtext from the film, perhaps it is that in the south of America, even Karl, in his dim-wittedness, can form tolerant, educated assertions (about homosexuals, for example), yet the "rednecks" such as Doyle cannot.
Sling Blade does ultimately take the expected turn, one which can be guessed a good ninety minutes prior to its actual occurrence. However, this is not important what is important, and more to the point, what is interesting about what occurs in the final ten minutes of the film, is the morality of the situation. It may divide audiences in some respects, yet what is clear is that what it says about society and human beings in general is very disturbing. The film's close, whilst mired in tragedy, is uplifting in its own stomach churning way, and makes an important commentary on the post-incarceration process of not only mental hospitals, but prisons also.
The Director's Cut of Sling Blade, even at a weighty 148 minutes, and despite its slow pace, is gripping film-making. Thornton's tragic tale is an outstanding mixture of memorable performances, a sharp script, and arresting direction, and rather than swerving at the final traffic straight, he takes us on a largely smooth, occasionally bumpy ride that makes note of several of the many things wrong with society. With Thornton writing, directing and starring in this film, each with their own flare and ingenuity, the term "tour de force" is rarely more apt. Sling Blade, whilst perhaps too sedate for some, is a gallant effort that achieves in every manner that a film of this ilk should.
The Bucket List (2007)
A conventional, but heart-warming comedy...
Shaun Munro's Film Reviews (www.shaunmunro.co.uk):
The Bucket List is a quick grab Morgan Freeman, the master of voice-over that he is, soothes us into what is one of the more offbeat, yet curiously enjoyable titles of 2007. The concept alone, of two old coots running around, causing mayhem on their last legs, portrayed by Oscar-winners no less, is a promising one.
Fortunately, Rob Reiner's return to the camera wastes little time in building up its characters it, for fear of sounding cruel, gets them terminal rather quickly, and introduces them to one another so we can zip to the rather zany concept as soon as possible. The lines drawn are ones of stark contrast Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is a high-flying, brazen man, whose values differ distinctly from those of the noble, wise family man that is Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). People will naturally draw upon the racial aspect of the situation, yet such posturing is very much beside the point here. Both men are diagnosed with terminal illnesses, and share the same hospital room, in which they compose a "bucket list" a list of acts to carry out before they "kick the bucket", and so the adventure begins.
The bonding between the two characters leading up to the creation of the list manages to avoid seeming forced their discourse isn't overly memorable or interesting, but it is certainly effective enough to engage. The film takes its time to get to its core concept, yet once we get there, observing Cole adding his wild ideas to the list (such as skydiving) is a delight to watch. It is, however, a shame that Nicholson and Freeman barely had to get out of bed (literally) for their roles, in that each instance of diving out of planes and racing stunt cars is inexorably smothered in an unhealthy, horrendous-looking measure of CGI. As Cole and Carter race in their stunt cars, Cole utters, "Are you trying to kill us?", to which Carter retorts, "So what if I do?". Thus reflects the mild gallows humour that pervades throughout the film Carter's reply in this instance is slightly disturbing, but the scene, with its pop-rock soundtrack and Dukes of Hazzard-esquire stunt racing, is quite the barrel of fun. It is simply a shame that the scene didn't last longer, and wasn't so diluted by visual effects.
This is, however, not simply a film chronicling the hedonistic delights of two dying old men. As hilarious as some may find that concept within itself to be, a source of conflict is nonetheless introduced Carter's family wish for him to return home, feeling that Cole is taking him away before it is his time to go. However, Carter remains steadfast, and his revealed ambivalence towards his wife adds considerable depth to the conundrum. Underneath the jovial undertaking of two men's transition into death is a mildly layered approach, which, albeit dealt with in piecemeal fashion, at least hints at the strain and anguish endured by the families of these men. To entirely tar the film with a comical brush would be a misstep, one which Reiner narrowly avoids.
Whilst the film is very evidently slanted in favour of the sage, wise Carter, it is slightly more complex than a cut and dry, black and white (literally) duality. Rather, Cole recognises Carter's ideals and philosophies, yet rebukes them with his own stubborn ones. As the picture progresses, an air of mutual understanding is felt between the two, and whilst they both learn a lesson or two, they also both retain their core values, to the (not so) bitter end. As such, there are no convoluted character reversals, and the picture manages to avoid becoming bogged down in contrivances.
Near its close, The Bucket List quite predictably fractures the friendship between these two men, and draws the stark social contrasts that I was hoping that it would not. Nonetheless, by the time the conclusion rears its head, Reiner does not back out on his promise, and whilst the film does bathe in a wealth of sentimentality as the end draws near, it is affecting, and works within the context of the film. It is, however, simply a shame that only in the film's final moments is Nicholson able to truly exhibit his acting credentials, and Freeman is barely able to kick into gear at all.
The Bucket List is a wild film, and whilst its message of "live life to the fullest" is neither new nor refreshingly told, Freeman and Nicholson carry a fairly tenuous concept with their spirited portrayals of two lovable oafs. The fact that Reiner never provides them with material worthy of their acting calibre is a huge waste, yet at this stage, as Nicholson and Freeman themselves endure "accelerated development", the material is relevant, and it is clear that the principal actors, despite coasting through the largely rudimentary script, had a lot of fun with it. With most other actors, this film would likely not have worked, even with the emotional chord it strikes, yet when such an absurd concept for a film is handed over to two of the most critically acclaimed actors alive today, one can at least expect a decent payoff. The Bucket List is certainly not Rob Reiner's best work, but it is far from his worst, and as a feel-good holiday film (even with its dreary undertones), it succeeds.
I Am Legend (2007)
Smith dazzles in an above-average sci-fi romp...
Shaun Munro's Film Reviews (www.shaunmunro.co.uk):
Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend is the latest adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel (which has already been put onto film twice), starring Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville, who may well be the last man on Earth. Neville is charged with reversing the effects of a botched cancer cure that killed 90% of the world's population, leaving 1% immune, and turning the other 9% into "dark seekers" mutated beasts that wish to feed on any living humans they can find.
Following a welcome cameo from the wonderful Emma Thompson (as the doctor who started the whole mess), we press on to three years later, where the entire world is seemingly desolate, ravaged by the effects of the "Krippin virus". Is such a post-apocalyptic setting conventional, with its overturned cars, and its litter-filled streets? Absolutely, but the buck stops there, as the film's introduction is anything but rudimentary I Am Legend is not a film filled with dialogue, and the opening fifteen minutes is curiously, adventurously devoid of speech almost entirely. Given how Smith's character is alone in New York City, with nothing but his dog for company, it is commendable that screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman chose not to have Smith regurgitate an inner monologue, which would only serve to insult seasoned cinema-goers. Instead, Neville simply has occasional, ever-believable banter with his dog, which serves not to progress the plot, but to telegraph Neville as the sympathetic character that he is.
The seeming emptiness of the opening scenes reflects the drudgery and loneliness of Neville's own existence each night he is forced to lock himself away in his home, sleeping in the bathtub with his rifle at his side. All Neville has left is his dog, and at one point early on, he enters into a dark, potentially dangerous building in order to search for her after she runs away. In similar fare (such as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake), risking one's life to such lengths to rescue a pet seems ridiculous and non-sensical, yet in this paradigm, whereby Neville's mental state cannot be ascertained, and he has no other living contacts, diving into the abyss for a hound doesn't seem so insane.
In a brief series of flashbacks, we learn of Neville's loneliness and personal torture to an even greater extent. Neville has endured unspeakable family atrocities, and such interludes aid in envisioning him as a truly, uncomprisingly sympathetic character. Neville is a tortured soul of the greatest variety, and combined with Smith's moving performance, we are presented with an affecting, highly driven character that the audience can support for reasons other than the usual star power and recognisable face.
Robert Neville is, in many aspects, an unconventional action hero. Neville is a uniformly Hollywood-esquire scientist, in that he is muscular, yet when faced with volatile situations, he breathes heavily, and he shakes he is scared, and more often than not, he will flee in the face of danger rather than stand his ground in rather gung-ho fashion and unleash his rather hefty rifle. Only when faced with even more personal tragedy does Neville turn into rent-a-kill, and even then, it is understandable considering the gravity and emotional impact of his loss, and moreover, his true motives (such as his care for his own wellbeing) are unclear.
To this effect, there are a surprising amount of genuinely affecting, heartfelt moments in I Am Legend. Following a savage, brutal attack, in which Neville is faced with a heartbreaking choice (with an unexpectedly disturbing payoff), Neville is left empty and shell-like he sustains emotional bankruptcy beyond measures he believed possible, and it appears to be this tragedy which drives the climax, rather than the other, ham-fisted way around, to the film's further credit. The sadness of the situation is furthered by Smith's entirely convincing turn, particularly in a rental store scene, where he, in his jaded loneliness, begs the various mannequins scattered around the store - "Please say hello to me!". In the hands of a lesser actor, such a scene would have fallen flat and appeared preposterous and histrionic, yet Smith, the ever-underrated actor that he is, digs down deep and packs his performance with the appropriate emotional wallop that it dictates. Smith claims that preparing for I Am Legend was his most challenging turn since Ali, and given the surprising emotional depth of his character, one need not wonder why.
The film's third act is a tonal departure from the preceding hour Neville's environment is altered drastically, and in doing so, brings with it a wealth of clichés, metamorphosing a minimalist, restrained survival film into an overblown, rudimentary horror endeavour. The scenes in which Neville makes his most important discoveries are also the most conventional, dabbling in a dash of deus ex machina, and transforming plot-driven action into action-driven plot. The final moments, whilst wonderfully lit and a tad inspiring, are typical of such films, and whilst Neville's actions in the film's final moments are unassailably heroic, it failed to convince logically. I Am Legend's final act of violence works more as a reason to cause a lot of explosions rather than to paint a universal picture of heroism, yet when one considers Neville as a character, and what he has been through, it is a considerably more acceptable, yet nevertheless frustrating creative decision.
I Am Legend is a rarity it is a mainstream Hollywood action thriller that packs an authentic emotional punch, and allows Smith, holding the picture solely on his broad shoulders, to demonstrate his acting credentials with flare and zest. The film suffers from some incredibly hokey visual effects, and the film's third act seems to undermine the inventive preceding hour, yet as far as high-concept action fare goes, I Am Legend is a cut above the average.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
A surprisingly engrossing directorial debut for Affleck...
Shaun Munro's Film Reviews (www.shaunmunro.co.uk):
English readers may recognise Gone Baby Gone only through the controversy surrounding its release in the United Kingdom, whereby, due to the recent disappearance of four year old Madeleine McCann, the film's release has been delayed until April of next year. Life's ability to imitate art aside, Gone Baby Gone, based on Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name, is a gritty, competently acted, and surprisingly well-directed effort from Ben Affleck. Not only does the film present an intriguing, winding plot, but it also asks the viewer several questions, and the moral dilemma of the film's climax is a painful, disturbing one which will keep audiences arguing for years to come.
Affleck serves well to throw the viewer headlong into the kidnapping story from the outset, introducing us to private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), who is hired by the aunt of the missing young girl. Kenzie's girlfriend, Angie (Michelle Monaghan), is also his investigative partner, and works as a means of opposition to his steely determination to discover the whereabouts of young Amanda. Angie claims that she doesn't wish to find the remains of a child, whether they be dead or alive, if the results may be overly harrowing (such as the child having been heavily abused) such a view is an interesting one that less daring films would ostensibly choose to omit. However, it must be said that Monaghan's character is the film's weak link, and appears to largely be superfluous she does little to drive the narrative, and other than one particularly daring moment, she seems to work as a device for Kenzie to bounce dialogue off of, a sidekick of sorts.
Above most all else, Gone Baby Gone is a film comprised of magnificent acting talent, and truer in no great instances than those of Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. Freeman portrays Captain Jack Doyle, an officer with a chip on his shoulder, and his involvement in the plot's resolution is greater than most would expect at the outset. Freeman assumes one of the more intriguing characters in the film, although no-one is as thoroughly interesting as the super-charged Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). With his facial hair, Harris' look is a departure from the ordinary, yet it provides Harris with the "badass" look that the part so very much requires. Much like Doyle, he is wary of the baby-faced Affleck, yet in contrast, he is far more acerbic, and far less calm.
The novel aspect of the film lies within the fact that Kenzie, as not only a PI, but as someone who grew up in the underbelly of Boston, is privy to information, and to contacts that the police are not he is able to penetrate the hidey-holes of Boston, something which "stuffed shirts" cannot. In many investigative dramas, such attributes would appear clichéd or tired, yet due to Kenzie not being a cop, this concept remains fresh and not insulting to the viewer.
The manner in which the facts of the case unravel occurs surprisingly quickly various discoveries and interrogations lead to a very promising prospect less than half-way through the film, yet the tension and mystery are nevertheless relentless in their intensity. As Kenzie and the police are faced with more and more convincing leads, and as each one is debunked, it only seeks to both fluster and intrigue the characters, as well as the viewer even more.
By the half-way mark, things are looking very bleak indeed for young Amanda, and it is impressive that the film burns so quickly, given the tendency for procedural criminal investigation pictures to keep the viewer in the dark until the film's final moments. Affleck's various monologues bridge the gap between the segmented narrative, which dilutes the passage of time more than you may expect, and more unexpected (yet very welcome) narrative intrusions allay any restlessness the audience may otherwise feel, in keeping them fed with information, whilst still managing to maintain a level of genuine intrigue.
Whilst Gone Baby Gone's main attraction is the painful moral crux that plagues Kenzie in the film's latter moments, it is not just a film of morality, but of religion, and conflicting ideologies in general. In one show-stealing scene between Harris and Affleck, these beliefs clash Bressant's ideals may not be orthodox, yet he is driven, clear in his ideas, and he garners results. Kenzie, however, is ambivalent in regard to the lengths people should go to in order to protect children, and this ill will is worsened by his Christian upbringing. It makes for fascinating wordplay, particularly in regard to Harris' Oscar-worthy "You've gotta take a side" speech.
The picture's end serves up genuine surprises, and whilst it essentially becomes cat and mouse fare, it is very engaging, masterfully constructed cat and mouse fare. The "big twist" isn't initially convincing, although the explanation and accompanying moral dilemma are utterly compelling. With everyone, including his girlfriend, against him, and warning him of the potential dangers of his actions, Kenzie must make a decision. He stands to lose a lot, and to damage many people (including himself) with what is the "right" choice (at least legally). The turn is one of genuine surprise, and by the film's end, it elicits a disturbing, yet incredibly vital social commentary on how we raise our children.
Ben Affleck has turned many heads with his directorial debut it is doubtful that many expected his first venture behind the camera to succeed to this high a degree, yet with such an impressive level of acting talent on board (no moreso than the brilliant Ed Harris), it would have been difficult for Affleck to fail. Gone Baby Gone is little in way of inventive film-making, but it is an impressive effort from all involved, and it raises a number of valid moral and ethical questions.
A thrilling, expertly-crafted melodrama...
Shaun Munro's Film Reviews (www.shaunmunro.co.uk):
Sidney Lumet returns to top form in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - a devilishly tense (pun intended), sprawling, melodramatic puzzle of a film. The film's title comes from a famous Irish blessing, which declares, "And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead", verbiage very much apt for protagonist brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke).
In short, Andy and Hank, both short of money for various reasons, are looking to rob a "mom and pop" jewellery store, yet the sting in the tail lies in the fact that this store is owned by their parents. The focal point of the film is this robbery's result, which leaves various individuals dead or near death, and Andy and Hank must attempt a clean getaway as their father, Charles (Albert Finney), seeks to get revenge on the perpetrators. Embroiled in the turmoil is Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), who is torn between the two brothers in a very twisted love triangle.
Lumet enjoys utilising non-linear narrative to great effect in this film we open on the day of the robbery, and subsequently dart around various days before and after it, which reveals to us a wealth of important and, at times, shocking information. The initial robbery is an intense, gripping scene of intrigue, ending in a violent eruption, yet soon enough, we are sent plunging backwards to three days prior to this. Such flashbacks are often disorientating and ancillary to the plot, yet in this instance, they are satisfying, and moreover, necessary they work quickly in familiarising us with the two brothers and their various motivations (monetary, sexual, and familial) to rob the store.
The wildly slick robbery plan is orchestrated largely by Andy, who plays things extremely cool, whilst Hank initially balks at the idea, yet, with various large and looming debts, he ultimately decides to ride shotgun. In moments such as these, as Andy sits behind his desk, almost pontificating the need to pull this scam off, smoking a cigarette, he himself assumes a rather Faustian, devil's advocate-like persona, and it's wonderful to watch.
These flashback interludes, even in their effectiveness, fortunately do not last for the rest of the picture, and soon enough, we are thrown back into the intense robbery scenario, yet this time, thanks to said flashbacks, we now have context established. Lumet does decide to dip the viewer in and out of Andy and Hank's lives from days before the robbery, yet rather than suffocate the film, the puzzle-esquire format exists to suture together the various plot strands, endowing the viewer with essential information and character development.
Following the botched robbery, Hank states to Andy that "it's all come apart", and this is truer than the brothers know. The fallout of the robbery has greater ramifications than either could have ever expected. With the introduction of their father, the flashbacks begin to encapsulate his life also, introducing a more sinister, foreboding, and dangerous element into the narrative.
Hank in particular seems to become more and more neck-deep in trouble (mostly monetary) as the film progresses, yet Andy is hardly keeping himself above water either. Their own tribulations, combined with the emergence of their disaffected, enraged father, causes the tension to ratchet up to highly unnerving levels, setting up for what is one of the most thrilling, and shocking finales of the year. If anything, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a film about downfall the death of a very twisted American dream, if you will. There certainly are cathartic moments before the fall, in that these are, to a degree, sympathetic characters, although aside from Finney's tragedy-imbued person, you have to wonder if they're worthy of such sentiment. Andy, in particular, is of dubious moral character, and Hank, driven by a need to stay afloat, is dragged down into the abyss with him.
It is a massive credit to the picture to be endowed with such acting powerhouses as Hoffman and Finney, that one is able to find all of the film's familial issues to be convincing precursors to their present problems, without at all seeming forced. The finale is almost unbearably tense, serving up its fair share of surprises, and whilst one may declare that it "descends" into melodrama, I attest that it shamelessly (and rightly so) does so, with no descent or decline in the film's integrity or quality. The final twenty minutes is so chock full of unpredictability (yet still manages to be tangible), and so masterfully acted, that even if you find the melodrama to be several steps too far, there is nevertheless an assortment of reasons to both watch and revel in this electrifying, dramatic character study.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is packed with Oscar-worthy material the tragic, spiralling plot is unflinching in its portrayal of man's desperation, thanks to Kelly Masterson's sharp and inventive script. However, what without question raises this film above similar pictures is its acting Albert Finney is perfectly smouldering as a vengeful man thrown into an impossible situation, Philip Seymour Hoffman is spot-on as the unquestionably slimy sibling, and Marisa Tomei does an appropriately ditzy job. One mustn't forget Ethan Hawke either, whose role is not as meaty as Hoffman's, yet he still brings a flare to the role of an unspeakably desperate individual. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a winning, daring concoction of skillful writing, deft performances, and schooled direction.
The Kingdom (2007)
A procedural, uninventive, yet visually lush thriller...(MILD spoilers)
Shaun Munro's Film Reviews (ShaunMunro.co.uk):
Peter Berg's latest directorial outing The Kingdom serves to, at least initially, teach us a history lesson, but it isn't long before Berg's "gritty" endeavour becomes one enmeshed in stagy histrionics and clichés. Whilst The Kingdom is a severely flawed film, its opening credits sequence is impressive, running down a very piecemeal shopping list of important political events of the last century that involved the Middle East (with a gutsy reference to the September 11th attacks).
After Berg briefly introduces us to FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), a frankly clichéd character in his own right, the action transports to Saudi Arabia, where the majority of the picture takes place, thanks to a surprisingly brutal terrorist attack that transpires there. One of Fleury's colleagues dies in the attack, and in the fallout of this incident, we meet his all-American team, consisting of Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman, who are, along with Fleury, soon enough sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack and bring the perpetrators to justice. I must attest that I am easily distracted by minor, yet unassailably silly contrivances in a film's narrative, and whilst the film's initial meeting room scene is likely supposed to be one of marked tension, I simply found myself observing why, in a room of probably fifty FBI agents, only those in the room with a star credit actually said anything, whilst everyone else remained annoyingly silent. It's unrealistic, and moreover, does it really require much cognition to throw a few lines of dialogue to some of the other schmoes sitting around the room?
Such minor faults I can begrudge and move forward from, but The Kingdom's true disappointment is in its restriction of actors who are, without doubt, certainly above material such as this. For example, Jason Bateman (who wowed us in the woefully-defunct Arrested Development) is never really given a chance to prove his acting chops, yet he serves as the comic relief. I had high hopes for Bateman in this film, but as can be said for most of the characters herein, the banter they are forced to partake in is redundant and as bland as some of the performances (see: Jennifer Garner), wholly unaided by the bubblegum script. The film is not without its gems, such as Six Feet Under's excellent Richard Jenkins, yet his screen time is tragically limited.
Even Entourage's Jeremy Piven, who looks very much the part in this film, with his frosted hair and spectacles, was barely able to remain afloat. Piven, with his tenacious energy and cracking wit, would no doubt have served better as a crazed reporter (as opposed to a delegate for the U.S. Embassy), reminiscent of Dennis Hopper's idiosyncratic turn in Apocalypse Now.
The investigative element of The Kingdom failed to ever engage me from Cooper's character sifting through a muddy sludge for evidence, to Foxx exhibiting a strange culture clash with his Saudi counterpart. Moreover, the film's action is incredibly sparse, only ever kicking into fifth gear in the final twenty minutes. The manner in which these scenes kick off is hardly inventive, and the film's marketing largely spoiled the surprise, but the action is appropriately frenzied, as the remaining members of Fleury's team race to rescue the one who has been kidnapped.
The set pieces are by no means intelligent, but Berg has a keen eye for sharp imagery, and the carnage is indisputably well shot, even if Berg is insistent on showing us each explosion from at least three angles, and firing more bullets than would be expended in a first-person-shooter computer game.
Even whilst I was unable to ignore the sheer absurdity of Garner's fawn-like character (and she was almost certainly dropped into the film for tokenism purposes), what bothered me the most about The Kingdom is how it all ends. The film never attempts to be edgy or innovative Berg appears very contented with his straight-forward rescue premise, and delivers with exactly, simply that. A semi-prime player is dead by the end of the film, but it was a predictable choice, and even while the film's attempt at sentimentality in this respect is marginally successful, saccharine moments are also in high abundance. For instance, I literally dare you not to cringe as Garner's character hands a lollipop to a Muslim girl.
As much as the terrorists typically obscure their faces and shout "Allah" at near-enough every opportunity, the film does, in an albeit fairly foul-tasting manner, attempt to provide a positive representation of the Middle Eastern populace. What The Kingdom does is to remind us that, yes, even in this dingy, dust-bowl of a locale, Islam is not the enemy, and the final lines remind us of the insight that both sides believe their cause is the most benevolent, regardless of their methods. The real problem with the film's message is that it isn't subversive or refreshing in any fashion at all, and moreover, most educated people recognise these truths anyway.
In crafting an aesthetically accomplished, yet soulless ordeal, Berg succeeds. The film has two largely effective moments, but otherwise, The Kingdom simply takes a spate of A-list actors, drops them into a lush, exotic locale with a high budget, and blows a lot of real estate up in sandbox-like fashion. The camera-work will divide audiences, either deeper immersing you in the story, or frustrating you with its jolts and shakes, but the film's real facet of division lies in viewers who are willing to simply enjoy the fairly brainless drama, and those who are not. For the purposes of a by-the-numbers, tropical shoot-'em-up, this film succeeds, but to infer any greater degree of intelligence unto the picture, as Berg appears to attempt to, the effort stumbles.
9 Songs (2004)
Brave attempt, but ultimately soulless...(MILD spoilers)
Shaun Munro's Reviews (ShaunMunro.co.uk):
Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs is a sexual experience from near enough its first frame. The film's premise is incredibly straightforward Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margo Stilley) meet at a concert, and 9 Songs is essentially an expression of their love story, which just so happens to rather loosely revolve around music.
From the outset, we must consider where the line between glamourised pornography and artistic sexual expression is drawn, and furthermore, whether Winterbottom's film is able to transcend this line. A number of the film's sex scenes are unsimulated, which has been a high point of contention for the filmmakers actually attempting to tender a release for the film. Genitals, both male and female, are in full display, and while it is in a sense refreshing, the film is sure to alienate and embarrass the more body-conscious viewers among us.
Initially, 9 Songs appears to follow the format of a presentation of seemingly sage information about Matt's expedition to Antarctica, followed by a scene of intense intimacy, followed again by a musical interlude. Given the repetition and questionable narrative structure of the film, one can understand the criticism leveled against it almost immediately.
The film at points appears to settle down, yet just as an interesting or thoughtful strand of dialogue appears to emerge, it transpires into a sex session. It is difficult to know what the director is trying to say, that is, if he is trying to say anything at all.
Despite my outward criticisms, I must defend the film largely against accusations of it being extremely pornographic it rarely shows direct penetration and is mostly inferred. As such, the film may be a loosely strung together concertina of sex scenes, but porn it is not.
In lieu of all of this sex and debauchery, the film at least posits the idea of safe sexual interaction, and whilst a pack of Durex are hard to come by in 9 Songs, in one instance, a condom is clearly, visibly in use.
By the time the fourth song booms out and we're dropped back into the Brixton Academy once again, I was beginning to wonder is this a music festival? Are they going to a concert every night? Are the 9 songs metaphors for something? Unfortunately, the explanation is nowhere near as interesting as the latter question, but it did make me wonder are these people loaded? A very curious lesbian-esquire conflict is introduced in the latter stages of the film it appears to be an attempt to inject emotion into our hedonistic characters. However, considering we feel little-to-nothing for these individuals due to their distinct lack of characterisation (in that all we ever see is them having sex), this attempt ultimately fails.
The gravity of the conflict between Matt and Lisa is expressed through the symbolic meaning of the songs, or rather, the act of going to the concert. Matt, in his next visit to the Academy, attends alone he is on a whole over wavelength, listening to an completely different song, if you will, and whether this is reflective of a culture clash or something else entirely different, is anyone's guess. We are also quickly shown a bottle of pills, but its significance is up for debate we learn who they belong to, but nothing else. There are subtle hints as to who may be suffering from what, but they are exactly that very subtle, and nothing more than hints.
There is one portion of 9 Songs that I find incredibly difficult to defend Lisa administers oral sex to Matt in rather unflattering close-up, which I didn't personally object to, but, in what is the most critically reviled and shocking portion of the film, Matt is shown ejaculating. It just feels unnecessary the slurping noises are vile in particular, yet no more disturbing than the fact that we can hear children playing outside, presumably mere feet away.
Only in the final sex scene is the viewer able to extricate any definitive, emotive meaning, yet once again, we are barely familiarised enough with these characters beyond their acts of chemical exchange, and so an attempt at causing us to feel anything simply appears forced. The manner in which the film ends, whilst certainly not particularly unique or interesting, was a smart move, considering the temptation that must have lingered to pile on sentiment and clichés. In this respect, in the only manner in which it can be asserted, 9 Songs is a restrained picture.
The ambiguity of the fate of Matt and Lisa's relationship is an interesting point on which the film ends the director chooses not to romanticise or force-feed his creation or his audience with even a hint of a slant in either direction, deftly reflecting the fickleness of relationships and the meticulousness with which they must be preened.
9 Songs, as an experimental film, is an interesting exercise, yet it is difficult to consider it a success when everything outside of the sex scenes is either dull, pointless, emotionally corrupt or all of the above. The film should be commended for its daring attempt at capturing raw, gritty, penetrative sex onto celluloid, yet we are overexposed to these moments at the detriment of the film's effectiveness. Winterbottom shows us more than is necessary to convey the love and affection felt between these characters, and accompanies these moments with musical interludes that appear to have little significance symbolically, thematically, or otherwise. I cannot bring myself to condemn Winterbottom, because the film is not without its meritorious moments, yet at the same time, one cannot consider 9 Songs to effectively traverse the line of glorified pornography, so much as it narrowly scrapes past it.
Generic horror shlock with a few nice ideas...(MILD spoilers)
Shaun Munro's Reviews (ShaunMunro.co.uk):
Rise: Blood Hunter opens in a way that does not inspire much interest at all. Utilising the classic gimmick of showing scenes later in the film for virtually no reason, we witness some pseudo torture-porn shtick that did nothing but dredge up memories of the pretty passable Hostel: Part 2. As we witness Lucy Liu saving a hooker from certain death, sending her on her way and uttering "find a real job", one really has to laugh.
Following a "6 months ago" title card, we meet Sadie Blake (Liu), a reporter for some semi-trashy magazine. Soon enough, she gets talking to a computer hacker friend of hers, who, following some largely ridiculous and falsified computer jargon, finds a curious address embedded in a web page. Sadie naturally refuses to investigate at first, but that doesn't last long.
The scene then shifts to a rather dilapidated-looking house, where two teenage girls enter and are subsequently beset upon by some monstrous vampires. We have false scares, we have the ever-popular "hide in the closet and have the antagonist look like he's found you, but then turn away at the last second" spiel, and frankly, I was just happy to see one of the girls eaten.
Soon enough, Clyde Rawlins (Chiklis) shows up, the father of one of the girls. Seeing his daughter's friend eaten, he assumes his daughter has met a similar fate. He shows a real emotion, and being infinitely impressed with his performance on the superb FX show The Shield, I was somewhat disheartened when we were promptly taken back to the meat of the apathy-inspiring plot (something which happened to Chiklis far too much in the first hour of this film).
From here, Sadie investigates the address, and is promptly kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Soon enough, she awakens in a morgue, and it appears that she is now a member of the undead, finding it instinctively incumbent to murder and feast upon a member of the living as soon as she's awake. Following a rather gutsy attempt at finishing herself off, Sadie is nursed back to health by an absurdly pigeon-holed mentor-esquire character. Whilst this relationship is essentially just a means of driving the plot and is otherwise throwaway, the mentor does have some interesting morals - "no one is innocent", he proclaims. I'm not sure that I agree.
The transition of Liu's character from a helpless, victimised journalist to an ass-kicking, one-liner quipping heroine was literally blink-and-you'll miss it. It wasn't convincing at all, considering one minute she's very solemn, and moments later, she harpoons a vampire through a window, gets some vital information from him, and gives him another harpoon through the chest for good luck. There's absolutely no progression or character development, and her bravura temperament was too much too soon. So, we return to the opening scene, letting us know for sure that there was absolutely no need for it to be shown twice (it wasn't misrepresented as it was in, say, Mission: Impossible 3), and that it was just a gimmick.
The most interesting scene in Rise comes when Sadie is in need of new blood to feed on, and sees a hitchhiker she could feast on. At this point, there's an intriguing moral dilemma (the only one in the film, unfortunately) - does she kill this innocent man and feast on him, or was her mentor correct, in that there are no innocent people?
Naturally, the morality of this scene is pretty much ruined by the fact that when she initially doesn't pick him up, he yells profanities, then when she does pick him up, he smokes cannabis. I still saw him as an innocent person, and it seemed to me like there was some sort of moralistic value being espoused there that really didn't sit comfortably with me at all. Had this hitchhiker simply been wanting to get from A-to-B and she killed him, without him exhibiting any "negative" traits, then the scene would have been infinitely more effective. It's worth noting that the Sadie character didn't seem to care about his weed, although that could be because she wanted to feast on him, and moreover, it was more the views of writer and director Gutierrez that I was referring to.
Following on from this, we encounter the rather forgettable antagonist's butler, played by Mako of all people. He claims to be unafraid of death, yet this doesn't stop him from surrendering a few important tidbits before popping his clogs. It's not long before Bishop, the only villain left for Sadie to slaughter, becomes aware of her return to the land of the living, and in a phone call utters to her the wonderful cliché - "you're not so different, you and I". Michael Chiklis is finally given the screen time he deserves in the final third of the film, essentially becoming something of an obstacle for Sadie. Whilst they both have the same goal in sight, their methods vary wildly, teetering on different sides of the law. Predictably, an uncomfortable partnership forms, and there's even a hint of sexual tension, but fortunately, it doesn't transpire into anything else.
Sadie and Rawlins head into the final showdown, Sadie allowing Rawlins to follow her on the condition that he carries out one final act once Bishop is dead. A predictable surprise follows, and a not-so-predictable one after that, after which the situation gets very messy for our protagonist. Whilst the showdown ends ultimately as you'd expect, the film doesn't chicken out on its macabre little pact between Sadie and Rawlins, and so the ending happens to be quite satisfying.
Rise is a rudimentary little vampire horror film that will entertain its target audience, but others may find it simply nothing new in frankly already overcrowded canon. A lot of limited releases are simply under-seen masterpieces, whilst others are limited for a reason. Go figure.
Away from Her (2006)
An affecting, sympathetic portrayal of Alzheimer's...(MILD spoilers)
Shaun Munro's Reviews (ShaunMunro.co.uk):
Away From Her is the writing and directorial debut of Sarah Polley, a surprising turn considering her previous body of work (acting in Go, and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake). Perhaps more surprisingly, Polley has, in her first attempt at an endeavour such as this, crafted a mature, unrelenting effort at exploring the difficulties of dealing with Alzheimer's.
When we first meet the couple concerned - Frank (Gordon Pinsent), and Fiona (Julie Christie), unless you've read a synopsis of the film, you may be somewhat unsure as to which one of them is actually afflicted with Alzheimer's. The exposition to this effect consists of a number of social interactions which make it clear to us (it's Christie's character), and to this point, it's quite a refreshing way of introducing this tragic illness to the viewer, rather than forcefully imprinting it on us with over-the-top melodrama.
The film, much the same way as the illness itself begins to affect those it ultimately consumes, slowly flows in and out of the narrative, surrounded by intellectual banter, and just when everything seems fine, Fiona will go to fetch another bottle of wine and become very confused. This dynamic ensures that the viewer isn't bombarded with either too much or too little exposure to this illness too soon. Furthermore, there are occasional injections of humour, but in a manner which doesn't make fun of Alzheimer's. All of Fiona's irreverence is beside-the-point in relation to her illness, and given how she interacts with Grant, one can assume that she was this facetious before she became ill.
Grant, meanwhile, is clearly suffering through this also. He is comforted by the fact that, his wife, in her illness, has found affections for another man, although whether she believes this "other man" to actually be her husband is a point of contention. Grant feels guilt for ultimately deciding to send Fiona to a nursing home, but she assures Grant that it's her decision. In this sense, atypical of many similar productions, Fiona is a strong female lead despite her illness - she sympathises for Grant, but remains firm - she will be going away from him, and perhaps it's easier for her because of her illness. It's not as such an "ignorance is bliss" message or anything so heavy-handed (in relation to the rather sensitive subject matter), but Grant has no means of getting away from this - he is ever-cogent, and as such always conscious that Fiona is quickly going to spiral downwards.
Grant's visit to the home is like a metaphor for Dante's Inferno. The first floor is seemingly quite peaceful and serene - patients play chess and relax on chairs, eating dinner with relatives at Christmas. However, the second floor is like one of the latter circles of Hell, where patient's conditions range from barely cogent to near lunacy. It's quite the bleak picture of foreshadowing that Polley paints here, when you realise that by the film's end, this is likely where Fiona will be ending up, despite Grant's insistence that she will not be needing a transfer to the second floor.
Thematically, Away From Her is all about loneliness - the sufferers of Alzheimer's are isolated, victims of their own minds, and their families are similarly afflicted, but their solitude comes in their grief, and in some cases, their failure to come to terms with what is coming. Grant has no children, which only exacerbates his negative schema.
Following the 30-day period of no contact with Fiona (which the home insists upon), Grant endures a rather gut-wrenching encounter with Fiona, and whilst it's not like we couldn't see it coming, the performances make you feel for these characters. Make no mistake, Away From Her is a sympathetic film, but is also unpatronising, and we never get away from the truth of the matter. Fiona begins to feel that she needs a man of her sort, declaring "he doesn't confuse me" in reference to another sufferer of Alzheimer's she has become friendly with at the home. Grant's reaction to this is to, out of love for his wife, still come to see her every day, effectively torturing himself. The other man is an Alzheimer's patient himself - how can you get angry at him? Grant has no outlet for his feelings (not yet, at least), and so simply attempts to remind Fiona of who he is, in vain.
A curious idea is postulated (but thankfully not expanded on, or in what could have been disastrous, made a "twist"), in that perhaps Fiona is punishing Grant for the times in his life in which he wasn't a good husband. Fiona's comment prior to going to the home, that "we expect too much" would seem to refute that. Anything her husband has done has been accepted, and moreover, forgiven, it seems.
Grant eventually finds comfort in the wife of the man whom Fiona is currently involved with, although this is slow-going and awkward to begin with, and it takes a rather poignant, brief encounter with a teenage girl visiting the home to truly pull himself out of the doldrums. This point marks something of a transformation for a number of the characters - these emotionally drained individuals attempt to make the best of a terribly tragic situation, finding someone, anyone with similar problems, and clinging to them as tightly as possible.
Ultimately, Away From Her hits the expected peaks and troughs, but this isn't a film about surprises and stultifying plot twists - it is a sympathetic, affecting, uncompromising look at Alzheimer's, and how it affects the sufferers and their families (who are consequently also suffering a great deal). The pace comes close to fleeting at times, but the performances are grand, and for Sarah Polley's screen writing and directing debut, it's a very solid start.