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2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
...and on good taste, and your sensibilities...., 7 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

My cinematic crystal ball tells me that "Assault On Precinct 13" will probably be a box office smash--but it just doesn't tell me why. This is a film where clichés are worked harder than rented mules, fine talent is squandered, and dialogue is dumbed down to the level of a bad sitcom. If there's a point to this film, it's cleverly concealed beneath a veneer of blood encrusted snow. And despite a plot twist that I shan't reveal, nothing can save this film from its own undoing. Replete with weapons that are too big, body counts that are too high, scenarios that are too contrived, and violence that's more than gratuitous, it's an exercise in overkill of the senses and sensibilities. There comes a time, even in Hollywood, when excess can be excessive, when violence can be simply vile, and when overindulgence can be...well...just over the top. That time just might be now, with the release of "Assault On Precinct 13".

A remake of John Carpenter's 1976 movie of the same name, in which Mr. Carpenter borrowed from the premise of Howard Hawks' 1959 western, "Rio Bravo", this version is set in Detroit rather than Los Angeles, and makes cosmetic changes which defuse--or just plain avoid--the social issues and racial tension that informed and validated the original work. This time around, relatively unknown director Jean-François Richet has opted to offer up some pretty standard fare, dodging any potentially controversial topics, and play it safe by sticking to pure action.

It's New Year's Eve. A time for revelry and good cheer. But things quickly take a turn for the worse when a snowstorm forces the temporary detention of a group of disparate, rag-tag, petty criminals at the soon to be closed Precinct 13 station. Did I say 'petty criminals'? Well, all but one--one Marion Bishop (Lawrence Fishburne) who is the reason for all the mayhem that will occur. Bishop is a big-time mobster who knows too much, and if he gets to trial and sings, a lot of people will go down. To prevent that, an army of well armed, well armored and faceless commandos, lays siege to the hapless Precinct 13. And it's a lopsided affair at that, with only four people to defend the station: Two cops, Sgt. Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke), Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy), the secretary, Iris (Drea de Matteo), and Jake's therapist, Alex (Maria Bello), who's there to have a session in his office to help him deal with his guilt and fear after a bust-gone-bad eight months earlier when several other officers were killed because of his misjudgment. When the assailants strike, Jake makes the decision to arm the detainees to help defend the station, over the objections of the soon to retire O'Shea. Now the idea of enemies uniting for common survival can make for great drama, as it did in "Rio Bravo". But not here. There's an old movie-making maxim that says, "A pie in the face is still funny--if you do it right", which, of course, doesn't just apply to pies in faces, or being funny, for that matter. And that's the problem with "Assault On Precinct 13"--it just doesn't 'do it right'.

That's not to suggest or even imply that violence should be a taboo subject in film. Neither violence, nor anything else should be off limits. But taste, purpose and presentation are always considerations that should be weighed. Throughout film history, there have been many films that have been known for their graphic depictions of violence: Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch"; Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange"; Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan". But none of these films glorified it (although others certainly have--"Precinct 13" isn't unique in that regard). Instead, it was used to make a statement about its absurdity, futility and consequences, and never as the ultimate and singular point of the film, as it is here. In this film, no one is safe from the assault, not even the viewer.

© 2005

Cellular (2004)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Don't waste your 'anytime' minutes., 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The suspension of disbelief, a film viewer's ability to temporarily accept implausible, if not entirely impossible plot scenarios, actions and character traits for the sake of being entertained, is one of the most fundamental aspects of enjoying any film. From the instantaneous traversing of space and time, to humans morphing into all manner of creatures and beasts, the voluntary suspension of disbelief is critical to a gratifying film going experience. But to ask audiences to totally disregard all logic and common sense, and to abandon the ability to engage in any complex thinking, well that's asking for just too much.

That's the problem with "Cellular", the new flyweight thriller directed by David R. Ellis ("Final Destination 2"; "Homeward Bound II".) It asks all that and more. Just how much disbelief we're willing to suspend hinges on a lot of factors, not the least of which is the amount of entertainment value we're actually getting in trade. In this case, it isn't nearly enough.

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger), a high school science teacher, is inexplicably abducted from her posh Brentwood home by a group of window-smashing, maid-shooting thugs. She's carted off and locked in an attic, where, thankfully, there just happens to be a phone. Unthankfully, one of her kidnappers smashes it with a sledgehammer, just to make a point I guess. Well, as luck would have it she's able to piece it back together, something every high school science teacher--never mind that she's a biology teacher--is apparently skilled at doing. Now able to make a call to some number-she knows not what it is-she's connected to Ryan's (Chris Evans) cell phone to whom she explains her plight. Ryan, who is an unlikable, and I suspect, a somewhat unintended mix of cocky cynicism, skepticism and arrogance, doesn't believe Jessica, but finally, yields to her cries for help and goes to the police. But to no avail. So it's all up to Ryan.

Then things get really bad. The thugs kidnap her son, Ricky Martin (no kidding!!) played by Adam Taylor Gordon, and threaten to kill him if she doesn't tell them where her husband is, and if he, in turn, doesn't give them 'what they want.' Stop me if you've heard this before...maybe I'll stop anyway....

The story was written by Larry Cohen, who also wrote last year's "Phone Booth", a much more tautly directed and unnerving film by veteran director Joel Schumacher. "Cellular" is too derivative of that story line, and the film lacks its dramatic tension as well as its crisp and edgy visual style. And where "Phone Booth" maintained a serious tone throughout, peppered with some provocative ironies--not to mention that the phone booth itself served as an important character--"Cellular", too often, and too unsuccessfully, tries to infuse humorous elements that just fall flat, and the cell phone is little more than an incidental prop.

If something is played just for laughs, that's OK. If it's played out in complete seriousness, that's OK, too. And many films effectively combine the two. But when the mix is so confusing or poorly executed that we can't separate them, a film can become incoherent and uninteresting. "Cellular" is not particularly amusing, though it tries to be. It's not particularly serious, either, though it tries to be, leaving only 'incoherent and uninteresting'.

That, plus an array of vacuous characters (with the pleasant exception of oddball-cop-cum-day-spa-owner-wannabe, Mooney, played by William H. Macy, in an unlikely hero role), who share far too little screen time to develop any meaningful interactions, adds up to an overall lack of concern about the people or the events, and offers up a film, that like the bowl of depression soup in a Woody Guthrie song, is so thin you can read a newspaper through it.

"Phone Booth" may not have quite done for the pay phone what "Jaws" did for the beach, but "Cellular" won't even put a small dent in wireless use.

© 2004

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Portrait Of The Revolutionary As A Young Man, 7 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's doubtful that there's anyone, especially anyone who would go to see "The Motorcycle Diaries", who hasn't heard of Che Guevara. As one of the architects of the Cuban Revolution, he's been praised and pilloried, and his face has been emblazoned across T-shirts and posters throughout the world. But much, if not all, that is generally known about him pertains to his image as a revolutionary, and little else is popularly known about his life, at least in this part of the world. "The Motorcycle Diaries", based on Guevara's journal of a South Ameircan cross-continent trek, offers some, if narrowly limited, insights into this enigmatic man.

In 1952, Ernesto Che Guevara, (Gael García Bernal), with one semester still to go in medical school, along with his friend, biochemist Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna), embarked on an 8,000 mile journey of planned-for fun, and unexpected self-discovery. Riding together on an overloaded, underpowered, oil-spewing 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, their goal was to see as much of the South American countryside as they could (much of which was on foot, after the motorcycle--despite their best efforts at providing mechanical life support--died.) What they found, however, was more than just scenery, as their trek's carefree beginnings gave way to more serious and life-changing events.

In "The Motorcycle Diaries", director Walter Salles presents us with a view of Che Guevara which bears little resemblance to the popularly perceived, infamous revolutionary. Instead, we are shown a Guevara who is characterized as a man of principle and ethics; a thinker and devotee of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; an asthmatic who shook hands with lepers; a man who acted on his convictions. Young and idealistic, he was struck by the world's injustices that were heaped on the poor, not unlike many others who are empathetic to the plight of the economic and social underclass, and who, too, offer their aid and assistance in all manner of ways. But few have made the emotional, physical and irreversible leap that Guevara did.

Certainly, the film may can regarded as a bit of a propaganda piece, and one with a decidedly southern hemisphere spin, as if it were affected by the Coriolus Force. But it's understandable what Mr. Salles is trying to do here. However, were it not for the fact that this diary was that of Che Guevara the film would be little more than a buddy/road film: a South American "Easy Rider", or "The Wild One" without Johnny's rebellious "Whaddya got?" attitude. It's only because of what we know about Che's later life that the film gives any meaningful context to his early years, and without which, the film would be far less interesting.

As an early biographical look at Che Guevara, the film does sufficiently well, but it fails to offer a truly complete look at the whole person as it maintains safe distance from the man who is still steeped in controversy. So while the film is purposely and narrowly confined to the events recorded in the diary, it presents a difficult problem for the viewer, who will, I think, try to discover some nugget of information as to what motivated the radical change in Guevara's life. Some of that may be inferred through the stark imagery and haunting faces in a scene of itinerant mine workers waiting--hoping--to be picked for a daily crew despite the known dangers they will face, but the question, though intentionally unanswered by the film, will likely persist.

As a stand-alone work, "The Motorcycle Diaries" does offer a rich, visual travelogue of South America; its mountains...its cities...Macchu Pichu; and a wonderfully lyrical musical score as well. And an added bonus is the inclusion of some original photographs of the pair's excursion, shown during the closing credits, and worth staying for.

© 2004

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Misses the mark, 7 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The idea of making a movie star out of a musical performer is certainly not a new one, but there does seem to be more of it than there used to be, though the success of such ventures isn't any greater despite the number of attempts. The latest is Jim Sheridan's "Get Rich Or Die Trying" a bio pic (a term that I've come to dislike) about hip hop artist 50 Cent, with the title taken from his first CD.

The film's opening scene is an ominous one of a heist gone bad resulting in Cent being shot nine times, a factual element in his life from which he still bears the scars, and carries a bullet's fragment. Flashing back, the details of his life are laid out: At the age of eight, his mother, a hustling drug dealer in New York, is murdered; by age twelve, he's a dime-bag hustler on the streets, living in poverty. Though sidetracked by the allure of easy money in the drug trade, despite its unavoidable violence, its betrayals and its deaths, the young 50 Cent is intent on becoming a rap star, and the film lays out the path that ultimately got him to that status. But somewhere in the telling, the line between the truth and the fiction becomes indistinct giving the impression that 'wanting' is somehow synonymous with 'getting', and the details of the difficulty of the journey tend to get lost. While the film speaks to the level of violence that exists in today's urban, hip-hop culture, it tends to address it more matter of factly than tragically. When scenes of shootings and beatings, regardless of who's giving or receiving them, meet with an indifferent, or worse, an approving audience, something is terribly wrong with what's being said.

A film like this seemed to be an odd choice for director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot", "In America") best known for his films about the struggles of the disenfranchised, working-class Irish. But Sheridan grew up in a tough area of Dublin amidst drug dealers, thugs and musicians, and perhaps he saw similarities between his own experiences and those of 50 Cent. In fact, when he met Cent, he commented that it was like meeting someone from his own neighborhood. So in a way, the film straddles the line between a biography of 50 Cent and an autobiography of Sheridan himself. Given that, you might think that with such a personal, first-hand identification with that life, Sheridan would have infused a lot of drama and meaning into the film, but he doesn't.

The film's trailer tagline "I'd rather die like a man than live like a coward", while seeming to speak volumes about courage and purpose, is little more than a platitude guilty of using the propaganda technique of 'thinking with the excluded middle.' Certainly, there are other possible ways to approach, and to live one's life that include neither dying nor cowardice. It's a bleak pair of alternatives from which to choose. Unlike more inspirational films like "Ray" or "Boyz n The Hood", "Get Rich Or Die Trying'" doesn't measure up as a 'bildungsroman'--a coming of age story characterized by the psychological and moral development of a character. Instead, it offers a more superficial (though arguably necessary, perhaps) shift to the street smart ways of staying alive in a violent world, manifested by Cent's wearing of what is now his trademark bullet-proof vest, which seems to contradict the film's statement of 'dying like a man' philosophy.

Anyone who follows hip hop won't find any surprises in this film, nor will anyone who doesn't follow it, for that matter. There is a noticeable lack of real impact, and the unfortunate sense that there is a glamour in all of this, which there isn't. For both Sheridan and 50 Cent, this was an opportunity missed.

© 2005

Halloween (2007)
100 out of 137 people found the following review useful:
Old tricks, no treats., 10 September 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the taxonomy of redeeming values, one could include social, scientific, artistic, political, comedic, moral, etc. And it's nearly impossible to find any creative work that can't be defended or justified under one of these categories. That is, until now. Rob Zombie's "Halloween" is devoid of any redeeming value. It not only plumbs the depths of deprivation, it sets a new low-water mark for tasteless dreck.

This has nothing to do with prudishness, squeamishness, or easily offended sensibilities. It has to do with poor scripting, bad (read "no") character development, predictability, gratuitous gore and ultimately, just plain meaninglessness. Even the most abstract, non-narrative, experimental genres of film have a point that can be ascertained, albeit with some difficulty in some cases. But "Halloween" has no point. In the end, it is merely a series of unmotivated, contrived, gruesome vignettes that, cumulatively, add up to nothing. The film uses every cliché known to bad cinema: Doors that don't open, guns that don't fire, victims who fall and crawl when they can ill-afford to do so, under lit scenes that attempt to falsely create a sense of impending mayhem, some horrific, vile and pandering dialogue and the monster who just won't die. Mr. Zombie uses them all. It's hard to escape the notion that there is nothing intended or achieved beyond fundamental shock value.

Billed as a 'retelling' of John Carpenter's original, a somewhat, if only marginally better version, this edition of "Halloween" supposedly provides an explanation of the causes of Michael Myers' homicidal psychosis, to wit, his excessively foul-mouthed and dysfunctional parents, who, as characters are as creek-shallow as the rest of the cast. The only one I felt sorry for was Malcolm McDowell—the actor--not Dr. Loomis, his character. How he, the quintessential, ultra-violent Alex de Large of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and the multi-faceted Mick Travises of Lindsay Anderson's "If" and "O Lucky Man" and the H. G. Wells of "Time After Time," got roped into such an awful piece of cinema is a mystery.

Thematically and cinematically, "Halloween" is virtually identical to Mr. Zombie's two previous films, "House Of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects." In fact, except for the titles, the three films are nearly indistinguishable from one another as they all suffer from being stuck in the same stylistic rut. While Mr. Zombie does push the envelope of bad taste, there's no evidence that he pushes his own development as a filmmaker, and shows no directorial growth in his progression of films. What he overlooks in his bloodlust is the idea that showing less can be more effective than showing more, as in the "Psycho" shower scene when the knife is never seen striking the victim. Leaving nothing to the viewer's imagination and, instead, hammering home the obvious, can be the undoing of a film, which sums up the problem with "Halloween." Slasher films may well be the cinematic equivalents of bottom-feeders, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they have to be abhorrently distasteful and bad, or that they can't strive to achieve some measure of redeeming value.

Where Rob Zombie will go from here seems painfully apparent. Having painted himself into a corner from which it may be hard to escape, he may be his own next victim.

6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Slaughterhouse Film Puts Animal Rights On The Table, 7 June 2006

Following the publication of Upton Sinclair's hard-hitting, 1906 novel "The Jungle", which detailed the grim realities of the Chicago meat packing industry, he commented, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." Now, one hundred years later, a documentary about the inhumane conditions that still exist in that industry again aims for the heart, but this time, squarely hits its target.

"Peaceable Kingdom", a sensitive and sensible film, centers on the Farm Sanctuary, a collective in Watkins Glen, New York, whose mission is rescuing 'factory farm' animals, particularly sick and injured ones, from the slaughterhouse. It's a daunting task--and a sad one. Graphic footage of thousands of live-but-useless baby chicks being poured into dumpsters by front-end loaders, and of 'downed' cattle being dragged to their deaths by tractors and fork lifts, is alarming and disturbing, regardless of where one dines on the culinary continuum . To be fair, this is not always the case, but neither is it the rare exception.

On one level, "Peaceable Kingdom" is an unabashed and overt appeal to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle--a tall order, and one that even Farm Collective members would probably agree will fall on many deaf ears given our culture's inveterate meat and dairy based diet. But on a second, and perhaps, higher level, it's a plea to provide, at the very least, a humane system within which food source animals are protected from abuse and neglect. Although the film is not a judgmental indictment of meat eaters, it will undoubtedly have its carnivorous critics. But even the most dedicated Burger King and McDonald's diners will get the point here. It's not just about what we eat, but the way we go about supplying that need.

In industrialized nations where food production and food consumption rarely interface, it's easy for consumers to be insulated from the process by which dinner gets on the table. And it's likely that many have never seen the living versions of the animals that have become dietary staples. This isn't solely due to a more urbanized society, but also because of less visible food farming practices. Unlike dairy and cattle farms of the past, where outdoor grazing was the norm, today's factory farms have become indoor operations confining animals to cramped, unlit, mechanized environments designed to produce higher yields using less labor, facilitated by the use of tons of chemical additives, gallons of antibiotics and millions of cubic feet of aerosol pesticides, all of which inevitably find their way into the food chain and our kitchens.

Produced by Tribe Of Heart co-founders James LaVeck and Jenny Stein, "Peaceable Kingdom" avoids attempts to be slick, flashy or confrontational. Its straightforward production value, though not quite professional, is far from inexperienced. It's articulate, not preachy; thought provoking, not disapproving; suggestive, not critical. And decidedly opinionated, which any good documentary should be. It's only drawback is its failure to identify any of its on-camera interviewees.

Ultimately, determining whether humans are, by nature, carnivores, herbivores or omnivores is an anthropological question. But the conditions to which animal food sources are subjected in the name efficiency or expediency--and profit--is a social one, and maybe one worth more consideration than most are willing to give it. "Peaceable Kingdom" puts that question on the table.

© 2005

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
East meets Western, 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Drawing parallels between the old west and the Tang Dynasty of the 7th–10th centuries in China may seem to be a bit of a stretch, yet all the mythical and poetic elements of the American Western--individualism, honor, betrayal, love, jealousy, revenge--are there in Zhang Yimou's "House Of Flying Daggers", a visually riveting film. Were it not for the obvious nationality differences of the characters, this film would quite likely and easily work in the Western genre. That the two eras are separated by a thousand years doesn't really make for an anachronistic mix. Instead, it demonstrates the universality and timelessness of the themes. While the American Western revolves around the culture of the gun, this film revolves around its own cultural underpinnings in the martial arts.

With all the narrative structure of a John Ford or Howard Hawks epic, and the visual force and vitality of an Akira Kurosawa spectacle (several of whose films, were in fact remade as Westerns: "Seven Samurai" was reworked into "The Magnificent Seven"; "Yojimbo" became "A Fistful Of Dollars"), "House Of Flying Daggers" is an emotional, mesmerizing film with stunning--breathtaking, actually--cinematography, combined with dynamic and graceful editing, and classic storytelling. The imagery in this film--both visual and aural--is striking and often haunting: The characters amongst the stands of birch and bamboo; the rich autumn colors, reminiscent of a New England fall; the whoosh of an arrow or dagger through the air; the galloping hooves of horses, and the dazzling, brilliantly edited scene of the 'echo game' provide an exhilarating sensory adventure.

Mei, played with equal parts of innocence, sensuousness, and sensuality by Zhang Ziyi is a beautiful, blind dancer at the Peony Pavilion, a brothel where all the other girls take the names of flowers. Suspected of having ties to the anti-government House Of Flying Daggers, two deputies, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) set a trap for Mei in the hopes that she will eventually lead them to rebels. After she is apparently freed from her captors by Jin, whom Mei thought was only a suitor at the Pavilion, the two head north to find the others in the House Of Flying Daggers, while being pursued by soldiers. As the journey unfolds, so too do other details, as perceptions and beliefs are stripped away.

The title is an alteration of the original, "Shi mian mai fu", which literally means Ambush From Ten Sides. Similar in style to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", as well as his own 2002 film "Hero", Mr. Zhang's "Daggers" plays off the mythical and superhuman powers of the martial artists and exploits the art of special effects. Yet these effects--and they abound--never overwhelm the film, and not only fit in seamlessly in a visual way, but in a narrative way as well. Mr. Zhang never uses the effects gratuitously or for their own sake, but always in a manner that serves to advance and underscore the story he is telling.

Christian Metz, a French film theorist, once said that film is easy to understand but impossible to describe, and that observation is true in the case of "House Of Flying Daggers". It's somewhat easy to retell the plot, but there is much, much more that can't be related in words. Like riding a roller coaster, you have to experience it to understand the thrill.

If there is one drawback to this film, it's the need for subtitles--at best, a necessary evil--which keeps the viewer from seeing every incredible frame. Looking away, even briefly, is to miss some framing composition, a remarkable camera move, or a fleeting glimpse of a falling leaf. "House of Flying Daggers" is a film very worthy of repeated viewings.

© 2004

Sin City (2005)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A challenging film, and not for the squeamish, 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's grisly. It's gory. It's grimy, gritty and gloomy. It's Frank Miller's "Sin City", and it's not rated 'G'. But despite all the seemingly negative adjectives, this is a stylish film; a film that is as much, or maybe more, about visual form than it is about narrative content. Many viewers--most, probably--will find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the form from the content, but for those who can, or are willing to try, this is a film worth seeing. But be warned: it's not for the thin-skinned, tenderhearted or squeamish.

"Sin City", short for, or perhaps a better name for, Basin City, is a place where crooked cops, hookers, thugs, hard-boiled characters and tough language abound; a place that comes with its own form of law; its own form of justice. Based on Mr. Miller's graphic novel (read: comic book), it's a remarkable piece of film-making, despite the level of violence, which some would argue is too much--a point with which I would not wholly disagree. Yet beyond that is a neo-film noir, and one that--also arguably--is, or should be, defined more by its stylistic elements than by its narrative development.

Shot on digital video, which may make the use of the word 'film' a bit of a misnomer, most of what you see doesn't really exist. Backgrounds and graphic elements were created and designed to be absolutely faithful to the original comic book look and inserted in what's known as 'green screen' technique, based on an old Hollywood trick called a 'traveling matte' (which used a blue screen), and later adapted for television, where characters are shot in front of a green screen,with the green later being replaced by the backgrounds during post production. The technique allows for the original style graphics to be created separately from the main action, giving the director much more freedom and much more control over the final image. Hollywood's traveling matte system was used more as a cost-saving device that allowed actors to be placed against any stock footage background from of any location in the world, without having to actually get them there. Now, it's a technique that plays directly and in this case, very effectively into the very essence of digital film-or-video making.

Though co-directed by Mr. Miller and Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi"; "From Dusk Till Dawn"), with a scene directed by 'special guest' Quentin Tarantino (who was paid one dollar), the film is consistent in its approach, and bold, very bold, in its style. Primarily and particularly noticeable is that the film is in black and white with splashes of color highlights: a red dress; green eyes; a two-tone '57 Chevy station wagon (Mr. Miller was born in 1957)--it is captivating to watch, maybe inexplicably so. Replete with comic book style visual foregrounding, wide angle perspectives and wonderful pulp novel dialogue, combined with cinematic techniques of high-contrast shots, odd, dutch angles and silhouette lighting, "Sin City" is a tale of justice, vengeance and retribution. and one that is both visually and aurally cynical.

Several loosely connected, related episodes are linked together in a plot structure that is book-ended by the plight of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the only honest cop left in Sin City. With a bad case of angina and soon to retire, he takes on one more case, only to be gunned down by his own partner Bob (Michael Madsen.) The story then picks up on the leonine, and very large, Marv (a virtually unrecognizable, Mickey Rourke), who is, no doubt, the king of all the beasts who inhabit Sin City. Toss in a few other colorful--though still black and white--characters--Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) a crazy, corrupt cop; Dwight (Clive Owen) a tough and loyal ex-journalist, and Kevin the cannibal (Elijah Wood), and you get an improbable, yet effective plot.

Still, questions about "Sin City's" depictions of violence will arise, and criticisms will be leveled, and making judgements may not be easy, nor as black and white, as the film itself. To watch it, viewers will be viscerally challenged; but to understand it, the challenge will be intellectual.

© 2005

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Goes For Style; Misses Substance, 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Sometimes, more is less. Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" is a case in point. Not satisfied with merely reiterating a factual accounting of the life of eccentric billionaire, obsessive/compulsive, filmmaker and aeronautical engineering genius, Howard Hughes, Mr. Scorsese wanted more. Specifically, he wanted to recreate the emotional feel of films from those early years, and the visual look of the film stocks from that era of movie-making that was inherent in the primitive Technicolor and Cinecolor processes. In his quest for more, Mr. Scorsese, not unlike his subject, went to great lengths, artistically, technically and financially. Artistically, with the attention to detail in his color rendition afforded by the existing stock of the 1920s and 1930s; technically, with his first foray into the world of digital image enhancement; and financially with a $112 million budget. Yet, despite its extravagance and applied technology, "The Aviator" is a mediocre film, and after 2 hours and 46 minutes, one is left with a kind of 'so what?' feeling. Oddly, whereas a film of that length can begin to drag for the last half hour, "The Aviator" dragged for the first half hour. By the end of the film, highlighted by the successful flight of the Spruce Goose, we want more, but we're left with the image of a man who is in his final descent into hell. This film offers no explanations for Hughes' eccentric behavior, save the opening scene of his mother cleansing him, perhaps too attentively, but it does show how his eccentricity and his mental disorder drove him in his quest to be the best at whatever he attempted. Not that he was always successful, at least in the eyes of others. But Hughes was little concerned with what anyone else thought, and maintained a fierce independence and, some would say arrogance, throughout his life.

Despite its mediocrity and unevenness, the film is laced with some fine performances. Leonardo DiCaprio, as the young, flamboyant Hughes, initially seems miscast and unconvincing, but as the film progresses, he becomes much more effective. The opposite is true with Cate Blanchett's depiction of Katharine Hepburn, one of Hughes' early paramours. When first introduced, Ms. Blanchett's speech and mannerisms of Ms. Hepburn are amusingly accurate. But the imitation goes on far too long, through too many unnecessary scenes, and well after we get the point. Also delivering are John C. Reilly as the restrained Noah Dietrich, right-hand man of Hughes who dutifully and sometimes reluctantly carried out the capricious and financially risky wishes of Hughes; Kate Beckinsale as the no nonsense, headstrong Ava Gardner, and in some of the film's most compelling scenes, Alan Alda, as Hughes' congressional nemesis, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster.

Taken separately, the ingredients in this film would appear to add up to greatness, but they don't. Ultimately, the 'wow' effect just never quite hits, and the reason it doesn't is because the film attempts to get that effect through means that audiences are unlikely to notice since there aren't many who have ever seen a film that was shot on old, pre-1950, nitrate stock, since most of those films, given the unstable nature of that medium, have disintegrated into dust, and their subtle qualities of color and tone must be seen to be understood and appreciated. To his credit, Mr. Scorsese regards form as equally important as content--and that is not a bad thing. In fact it's what most often separates a great film from a mediocre one. But few films, will survive at the box office on style alone. (Francis Ford Coppola's "One From The Heart" is an example.) Perhaps paralleling some of Howard Hughes' undertakings, "The Aviator's" technological achievement is great, but its practicality too little. And like the Spruce Goose, which, technically, did get off the ground and fly--however briefly--"The Aviator" does, too. But the plane never flew again and was relegated to becoming a museum conversation piece. Similarly, "The Aviator" seems destined to have only a brief moment in history's limelight before it too fades away as a worthy, but impractical endeavor.

© 2005

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Gilliam's meta-fairytale, It's not Disney...and it's not too good, 6 June 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When it comes to serving up something completely different, you can always count on Terry Gilliam. This time his focus is on the Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger), renowned collectors of folklore and fairy tales. In a radical departure from the familiar Disney renditions of their tales, Gilliam creates a meta-fairy tale suggesting that the brothers not only chronicled and documented folk legends, but were a pair of clever mountebanks as well, out to exploit the fear and myths instilled in an unenlightened and gullible society.

Ambling through a Napoleon-conquered, French occupied Germany late in the 19th century, the brothers make their way through the countryside exorcising and expelling mythical demons believed to be living among the innocents. With the help of two assistants, Jake and Will stage elaborate and convincingly effective theatrics that simultaneously rid the towns of their witches and their riches. It's a lucrative enough trade, which goes quite well until they are caught by the French Army and the blustery governor, General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce). Facing torture and execution, the brothers accept Delatombe's offer to solve the mystery of several missing children in the town of Marbaden.

If you have a strong appreciation for Gilliam's surrealistic/expressionistic visual style, there's a lot to like about this film, but it's achieved at the expense of a cohesive narrative. The acting is a bit uneven, and at times it's as though everyone is reading from a different script. Peter Stomare goes way over the top as Cavaldi, the Italian henchman of General Delatombe, and is more a buffoon than fairy tale villain. And Angelika (Lena Headley), Marbaden's most--maybe only--liberated woman and the object of affection of both brothers, is perhaps a little too twenty-first century, but still one of the strongest characters in the film. With two of her sisters among the missing, Angelika joins forces with the Grimms in a cooperative, if uneasy alliance, and becomes the catalyst who at first polarizes, but in the end unifies the brothers, who like most siblings have their differences. Will is pragmatic and cynical; not prone to believing in anything mystical, unlike Jake, who, although not thoroughly convinced that magic really exists in the world, surely wants to be. Metaphorically, the brothers represent the conflict between a residual ignorance from the middle ages and the intellect of 18th century enlightenment.

Liberally mixing and matching various tales, Gilliam himself becomes a fabulist, weaving a hypothetical and imaginative fantasy that is marginally successful. At times dark and unwelcoming in its style, he often resorts to Monty Python-esquire slapstick humor and absurdity. Each time you settle into an imaginary, mystical past, you're jarred into a brief sitcom present. Anachronistic puns and one-liners interrupt the suspension of disbelief and break the continuity of the magical mood he's trying hard to establish. Though the film does sustain the obligatory moral outcomes inherent in fairy tales--good defeats evil; everyone lives happily ever after--it lacks the synergism that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and adds up to slightly less. Gilliam straddles the line between reality and fantasy without ever squarely deciding just which point of view he wants to convey. He aims high, but his ambitions fall somewhat short as the film never really gets revved up. It's not Terry Gilliam at his best, but there are worse ways to spend a day at the movies.

© 2005

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