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The Sunset Limited (2011)
The Sunset is not Limited
Two men trapped in a room with their opposing beliefs. The words of Cormac McCarthy. The direction of Tommy Lee Jones. The powerhouse combination of Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. Two actors. One room. Big Ideas. Emotions run high. The essence of Drama is Conflict.
This 90 minute look at two men's opposing beliefs is strong and will resonate with the viewer long after it is over. It's the story of a man who wants to end his life and another man who wants to save it. What rings true is the direction of Tommy Lee Jones. It gels so well with the words of Cormac McCarthy.
These two actors gel even better making it all the richer. Jackson has the flashier role where Jones plays his complexly understated. If any actor could raise your heart rate by talking it's Sam Jackson. His character's belief in God is sincere and matched with Jones's dark, realistic view of the world.
Speaking of realistic-Don't go looking for a neat ending. This film stays true to it's subject matter and these actors stay even truer to their characters. Jones, as a student of theater and literature, knows as a director to let the words live and breathe. Because he does Jackson and him make a monument out of two chairs and a table in a small room. This sunset is anything but limited.
Clint Eastwood's Hereafter
Clint Eastwood is eighty years old and shows no signs of slowing down. He's always had good instincts as a director but has really hit his stride in the last two decades with masterpieces like Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and The Bridges of Madison County. In between he's also had a bunch of very good movies like A Perfect World, True Crime and Gran Torino. He'll take on any genre and character detail seems as important to him as telling the story. Yes, he's earned his reputation as an actor's director.
Clint Eastwood's Hereafter is an actor's piece even more than a story. It has some nice surprises and welcome and unexpected humor along the way. It tells the story of three characters and their relationships with death. One is played by Matt Damon, a psychic with a gift he considers more of a curse. There's also the lovely reporter who survives a Tsunami, played by Cecile de France, who seems to be an interesting cross between young Julie Christie and Mary McDonnell. To round out the three we have the young actor Frankie McLaren who plays a twin brother who has witnessed his brother's death. All three of these characters need each other and finally do intersect in the films third act.
However, the darker first act of the film really grabbed me. The Tsunami makes way for a terrifying opening as well as an unexpected car accident. Act two meanders a bit giving way to Eastwood's real time pacing but the reality of this act makes way for act three which is actually hopeful and even a bit romantic. Eastwood has said himself that this is the closest he'll ever come to a "chic flick."
Where does this film fall between Eastwood's masterpieces and very good movies? I'd say somewhere in between. It's entertaining throughout and you'll be fully invested in the characters. Matt Damon especially makes you feel the frustration of the gift he possesses. There's a brief fling with Bryce-Dallas Howard that ends in ruin because of his gift and it's set up and played so well that the outcome is heart breaking for both characters.
The film is worth watching and Eastwood is still sly enough to keep you on your toes. His films reek of real people which seem to elude most American directors. Speaking of elusive-Don't go in expecting any answers about the Hereafter. He presents it just as mysterious and enigmatic as he does to his main characters. His real trick was to bring death to a human level. That is the film's true success.
I saw Hereafter at the closing of the New York Film Festival and was so happy that Clint Eastwood was there. It was quite an event seeing your favorite director and a man you'd grown up watching and rooting for on the big screen. We gave him a standing ovation and he put his hands out telling us to sit down, which got a laugh. He then thanked a few people at the Festival and was happy that Hereafter was playing there. He then said to the audience,"I'll talk to you all later" and then my hero and Icon was gone. Just like the ending of High Plains Drifter-Poof!! Was he even really there? I'm glad to say that he was. Yes, it's fair to say I felt lucky!
Hereafter gets 3 and a half stars. Clint Eastwood's appearance gets four.
Living Past (2006)
Ian Keeney's Living Past is Haunting!
I was fortunate enough to see this short film on the big screen at the Ocean County Library's First Annual Student Film Festival in March of 2007. Ian Keeney directs this short film with style, flair, and real fear from a story by Aubrey Hickey. Myles MacVane brings to life the tormented janitor haunted by his past and Scott DiPalo makes a nice foil as the doubting Security Guard. This film is everything a short should be. It brings you right in and never lets up until it's inevitable conclusion. I've shown this film in the Indie Film-making class I teach and the reactions are not only always positive but from viewers who have felt real fear. Ian Keeney's Living Past is truly haunting!
Casino Royale (2006)
Bond is Back!
Sean Connery originated the role, George Lazenby wasn't tough enough for it, Roger Moore made it more fun and likable, Timothy Dalton made it more serious but humorless, and Pierce Brosnan really looked the part but his films didn't distinguish themselves and were simply pieces of other films strung together. Daniel Craig in Martin Campbell's CASINO ROYALE simply is the best James Bond the series has ever had.
Ever since Daniel Craig, who was excellent in LAYERCAKE, MUNICH, and ROAD TO PERDITION, was announced as the new Bond he was met with nasty comments from the media as well as CraignotBond.com. They said he was bland, blonde, too short, didn't know how to drive, and everything else you could think of. Then the media and the public actually saw his first Bond outing and everything changed. The film has been hailed as one of the best in years and Craig has been given the large majority of the praise.
The film is based upon Ian Fleming's first novel and has obviously been updated to a post 9/11 world. We get to see how Bond achieved his 007 status, how he fared on his first mission, how he first met Felix Leiter of the CIA, the mistakes he made, his interplay with females, and how he ultimately became James Bond. This is quite a tall order for one film and yet it delivers all the goods as Craig dazzles us with a very tough, funny, and human performance.
Craig also never lets us forget for one moment that James Bond is a killer. Ian Fleming's creation has finally been realized and the violence at times is very gritty and very realistic. There's even a terrorist suicide run at an airport that hits a nerve as Bond desperately hangs from an explosive truck and tries to stop it.
The film also boasts a terrific supporting cast, two action sequences that are by far the best of the series, exotic locations, no gadgets and gizmos, plenty of amazing stunt work minus CGI, and a wonderful love story. Eva Green is Vesper Lynd and her dialogue with Craig's Bond is witty, cool, and quite touching. Their relationship genuinely grows on us and we can't help to be a bit shaken by it's climax.
Judi Dench is also at her strongest as M and Mads Mikkelsen is a chilling villain. Caterino Murino is alluring and beautiful as Solange and Giancarlo Giannini is funny and sly as Mathis. Don't forget the understated Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter as well. The writing team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis also keep things fresh, exciting, and deadly serious.
Bond is ordered by MI6 to a high stakes poker game in Montenegro. There he must defeat La Chiffre at Casino Royale and prevent him from funding terrorists. La Chiffre is a master card player and not one to underestimate. Both men are gamblers, killers, and desperately want to win. Their eye contact speaks volumes despite the fact that La Chiffre's eyes weep blood at times. Bond's are icy blue and one can't help but to get lost in their magnetism.
The direction of Martin Campbell hits all the right notes as we'll find ourselves squirming at a brutal torture scene, thrilled by a construction site chase, on the edge over some rounds of Texas Hold Em, jarred by a nasty fight to the death in a stairwell, moved by a love story, and caught off guard by a twist near the conclusion.
In the end Craig and Campbell will have you clapping as my audience did at the 10:10pm showing on opening night. I can't remember the last time I heard clapping at the end of a Bond film. Yes, Daniel Craig is the definitive James Bond and he's back like you've never seen him before.
The Sopranos: Luxury Lounge (2006)
Eating Out Can Be Trouble!
This sixth season is heating up so no wonder Artie is spending less time in the kitchen as his restaurant is suffering. John Ventimiglia is wonderful as Artie and shows an amazing range as he wises off to Tony, becomes jealous of his new hostess, and even shockingly beats up one of Tony's guys. Tony is still his friend through it all and even gives him advice that is hurtful but true. Tony also lets Christopher go to California for a meeting. Christopher is still plugging away with a bad script and Little Carmine finds himself equally as clueless in the world of film. Ben Kingsley is hilarious as himself constantly bothered by Christopher who goes completely off the wagon and even slugs Lauren Bacall, in a wonderful cameo. You can also say farewell to Rusty who gets blown away in his car by two of Tony's hit men from Italy. Tony even wisely denies putting the hit out as we also see Phil's anger at Vito brewing. Very well acted and directed episode. I just hope the momentum continues because so far this season has had it all.
There's Nothing Like A Wedding!
This fifth episode into the season was very well acted by the cast and directed by Steve Buscemi. Johnny Sac's daughter is getting married and Tony is trying to recover and not be seen as weak by his men. Johnny is granted a six hour "get out of jail free card" to attend the wedding but when the Feds rush him back and head off his daughters limo Johnny breaks down and his wife faints. The scene is so tragic and so human that you can't help to feel for Johnny despite the fact that Phil Leotardo doubts his strength after the display of emotion. Tony's understands John's feeling especially having a daughter himself and doesn't like how his own recuperation is being seen as weak. His final decision to beat up his new bodyguard at the climax is harrowing as is his justified suffering in the bathroom afterwords. Tony knows you have to project strength even in times of weakness if you want to survive in his world. Can he really change after his near fatal shooting? That could prove just as dangerous. There was also a possible end to Vito this week after being discovered at a gay bar and we do find ourselves feeling bad for his neglected wife. A new plot is also spun suggesting Rusty may get whacked per Johnny's request. Things are being shaken up all over and AJ remains disrespectful as Uncle Junior grows more pathetic in his dementia. How could it possibly end good?
The Circle Is Now Complete!
Darkness and danger overshadow everything and make the truth harder to see. This can cause great fear within us. Some would say that's both the world we live in and the world Anakin Sywalker lives in. A world of fear and political maneuvering. A world of disguised treachery. Boy, I miss the days of The Music Makers Theaters of Bricktown, New Jersey. In 1977 that was where I first saw STAR WARS in Dolby Stereo. That was the first film that really filled me with wonder and a sense of awe.
Coming out of the Loews Cineplex this morning at 2:40am after watching STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH with a crowd of people I realized I was repaying a debt. I was thanking George Lucas as I've thanked Steven Spielberg by attending his films over the years. I was reminded of a more innocent time in my life.
As I drove through that car filled parking lot last night with insane drivers and elated STAR WARS fans I realized it was all worth it. I even thought of driving past the old movie theater just a shopping plaza away but thought better of it. The present can be the worst assault on the past and I preferred to drive home with my memories of the old Music Makers Theaters the way it was. I preferred to remember the way I and my brother Chris were at that time. We were kids experiencing the real power of cinema and the fascinating mythology George Lucas had created. Last night I experienced the chapter that brings this whole mythology full circle. To quote Darth Vader, "The circle is now complete." STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH is a vast improvement on the two previous installments. It's the grand payoff to a set up long coming. Seeing this film will make many want to watch EPISODES IV, V, and VI again because now we truly understand the man behind the mask.
The ambitious and impatient Anakin Skywalker surfaces better here than in the previous two installments. Hayden Christensen both bulked up and loosened up this time around. You can actually feel his worry for his beautiful wife and his disappointment with the Jedi Council. The only one who truly seems to care is Chancellor Palpatine.
Ian McDiarmid plays him once again and his performance is brilliant. His subtle and not so subtle manipulation of Anakin is fascinating to watch. Listen carefully and try not to cringe at the story he tells Anakin about an old Sith Lord and his apprentice. McDiarmid owns every moment of screen time and becomes quite a force to reckon with.
The film races on with fast paced action and real emotion from start to finish. It took Lucas three films to finally get his groove back on and it was well worth the wait this time around. He not only improved on the first two films but made this one worthy to stand with the original three.
Other improvements come in the fully realized character of Yoda. Each film he has looked and sounded better. This film he is as powerful and as thoughtful as ever and Frank Oz's voice always hits the right note for him.
Natalie Portman also has grown into her part and really makes you feel for Padmé this time around. Her eyes well up with tears of joy, worry, and heart break. Her final accomplishment helps produce the new hope the Jedi need but also brings about tragedy. At the same time Darth Vader is being fully realized and it's a terrifying juxtaposition.
Ewan McGregor continues to do an amazing job as Ben Kenobi. It's not hard at all to see him growing into the older Alec Guiness. He has been the most consistent of the series and always a pleasure to watch. His intelligence and intensity make his final words to Anakin that much more heart breaking.
It was also nice to see Sam Jackson get more to do as Mace Windu as he plays a very pivotal scene with Chancellor Palpatine and Anakin. Jimmy Smits also gets more rope and bring great nobility and strength to the character of Senator Bail Organa. There's also a nice cameo by Chewbacca as we are treated to the grand visuals of the Wookie homeworld.
Despite the fact that the action is wonderful the story in itself is a tragedy. Their were darker elements than I expected. Anakin's murder of the Jedi children, the killing of the Jedi, and the site of Anakin's severed and burning body as he screams red eyed to Ben Kenobi, "I hate you!" I'd think twice if I were a parent about bringing my young children to this one.
On the lighter side R2D2 an C3PO are wonderful comic relief. R2D2 is especially funny to watch during the beginning action sequence as he's seen hiding from two battle droids and ignoring Ben Kenobi's crucial request. We also get to see greater mobility from him thanks to George Lucas's continuing visual achievements. C3PO is priceless in his final scene as he realizes his and R2D2's memories will be erased under the order of Bail Organa.
The last few minutes tie up everything beautifully and not one STAR WARS fan should have any complaints. Though, I'm sure some will. I myself was a bit disappointed with Episodes I and II but now understand their purpose after seeing Episode III.
Lucas had a unique vision in 1977 with Episode IV and has really returned to his roots in Episode III. REVENGE OF THE SITH will forever change the way people look at Darth Vader. Lucas has once again given us reason to watch Episodes IV, V, and VI. Boy, if I had a dollar for every time he did that I'd be living at the Skywalker Ranch.
Jersey Girl (2004)
Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl is Funny and Moving
Kevin Smith knows that Ben Affleck is two completely different people. Knowing is half the battle and what is created is a wonderful, funny, clever, and heartwarming film and performance. Smith's writing and direction go hand in hand with Affleck.
What Smith knows is that there is Affleck the strong actor demonstrated in CHASING AMY, BOUNCE, and CHANGING LANES. There is also Affleck the movie star of PEARL HARBOR, DAREDEVIL, AND Armageddon. The strong actor is excellent and the movie star is limited by script as most actors are in movie star roles. Both are fun to watch but the actor is more interesting and makes bolder and more fascinating choices.
Affleck plays a New York publicist named Ollie whose in love and married to Gertrude. She's pleasantly played by the radiant Jennifer Lopez. Their love is very real and rarely do I feel that when I see a relationship on screen. Smith has said in the latest issue of Premiere to Affleck, "Because you were so in love with her when we were making the movie, you were able to bring something more real to the performance." This is evident in the performance.
Ollie has a child with Gertrude but then tragedy strikes. Gertrude dies in childbirth and Ollie is left alone to raise his daughter. He leaves her with his father during the day in New Jersey as he tries to continue his work. He misses Gertrude so much that he's snippy and impatient at work and can't focus. Even his sweet and understanding assistant, nicely played by Jason Biggs, is treated harshly.
Finally, Ollie's father tells him he has to take the baby and the responsibility. Ollie is angry and has no choice but to bring the baby to the Hard Rock in New York. There, he's doing some publicity for Will Smith when he blows up in front of all the reporters and bad mouths him. This ends his career.
Seven years later Ollie lives in New Jersey with his father and his child. Ollie works with his father as a road and sanitation worker and even picks his daughter up from school in a street sweeper. She's a sweet girl whose the picture of her late mother. She's even named after her. She likes school and her friends but loves her Daddy and her Grandfather. She's played lovingly by Raquel Castro.
Her Grandfather is beautifully played by George Carlin. He's a hard working man who drinks too much and he knows it. He also cares for his son and truly loves his Granddaughter. He has many funny moments as well as some that are tender and vulnerable. Smith, a fan of Carlin as am I, uses him perfectly here. I couldn't picture anyone else playing this character so convincingly.
Soon Ollie meets Maya. She's a Video store clerk who questions him about the pornography he rents. She's doing a paper on men and sex and sadly finds out Ollie hasn't had sex since the death of his wife. She's a breath of fresh air in Ollie's life and well played by the charismatic and lovely Liv Tyler. He finds her odd at first but his affection grows.
Ollie still tries to get back to the city and his old life but has very little luck. He can't get a job as a publicist no matter what he tries. He does take Gertrude into the city promising her a Broadway show. The show she picks and Affleck's reaction to it is priceless. She likes it so much she wants to perform it with Ollie at the school talent show.
The rest of the film I will not give away but I do encourage you to see it. We rarely see real people and real situations on the screen. The laughter and the tears are well earned thanks to the brilliant Kevin Smith.
Kudos to Kevin Smith and his honest and clever writing. In this film he not only makes you laugh but truly makes you understand Ollie's struggle and eventual acceptance of Fatherhood. Starting with the low budget CLERKS and continuing on with the brilliant and thought provoking DOGMA, Kevin Smith is a very real force in film making and is getting better as he goes along.
JERSEY GIRL is dedicated to Smith's Father. Having just lost mine recently I understand the pain and the absence. I wish Smith all the best and knowing his real life writing style would not be surprised if some more Father/Child issues were further explored. In JERSEY GIRL he explores them brilliantly.
Salem's Lot (2004)
3 Salem's Lots
Stephen King wrote the wonderful Salem's Lot back in the 70's and it was truly chilling. It had all the classic elements of good and evil and was colored by some fascinating characters and some real Bram Stoker moments. It contained a young writer named Ben Mears who was trying to come to terms with a fearful past, a seductive head vampire named Barlow, and his barbaric art collecting partner named Straker.
It was converted into a terrifying miniseries and directed by Tobe Hooper who would later return with Poltergeist. It starred David Soul as the writer Ben Mears, James Mason as the less savage and more brilliant and cultured art dealer Straker, and Reggie Nalder as the horrid and anything but seductive Barlow. Several characters were shortchanged like the alcoholic Father Callahan or just omitted like Dud Rogers, the hunchback from the junkyard. The emphasis in that version was placed more on horror than character development.
The new version, though crudely updated, does manage to connect the Marsten House better with the multiple character stories of the townspeople. There are definite differences as well as character changes and composites from the book and the previous miniseries. However, this version rang truer to me to the book than the 1979 miniseries but it wasn't as frightening.
Ben Mears comes to town to write a book on the roots of domestic evil and gets more than he bargained for. It seems the eerie Marsten House was once a home to a child killer named Hubey Marsten and his wife. An evil force lay within that house and has attracted more evil.
Director Mikael Salomon places the house above the town making it a more effective conduit to all the townspeople's fear. The house is more massive and forbidding than in the 1979 version and the Cinematography by Ben Nott is sharp, cold, and forbidding. The time of year was moved to a more crisp and cold winter.
Rob Lowe's portrayal of Ben Mears is actually more fascinating than the main character in Stephen King's book as well as David Soul's interpretation in the 1979 miniseries. We understand his fear of the Marsten House more through flashbacks as well as an added subplot in the past about a child who was murdered there. Guilt has been added to his fear and that gives his character more of an edge.
The role of Straker is now occupied by Donald Sutherland. His interpretation, like James Mason's, is still very cultured but does conceal a very creepy and mischievous side. You truly can't pin down what he's going to do next and his taunting of the ill fated Susan Norton, played by the beautiful Samantha Mathis, is disturbing to watch.
Barlow is now the handsome and seductive creature he was in the book played to perfection by Rutger Hauer. His seduction over the weak willed Father Callahan, James Cromwell in another perfect piece of casting, is one of the high points of this new version.
Andre Braugher does nicely as the town school teacher Matt Burke. This character was played in the 1979 version by Lew Ayres and was an exact match to the novel. This time he's more complex, homosexual, and more a devil's advocate to Ben Mears. Braugher's acting has always been strong and here he shines very powerfully in the scene where he confronts a vampire for the first time. His fear is genuine and the mark of a very skilled actor.
Rounding out the cast is Samantha Manthis as the brave and sweet Susan Norton who takes a liking to Ben. Her performance is more heartfelt and not at all distant like Bonnie Bedelia's from the 1979 version. Dan Byrd is quite a departure from the Mark Petrie Lance Kerwin played. He's more of a punk and the worst casualty of this update. Robert Grubb plays Larry Crockett, who is now incestuous and more trouble, Steven Vidler plays the tough and yet terrified of the truth sheriff. His character is a lot more interesting here than in the book and the previous miniseries. Julia Blake and Martin Vaughan play Eva Prunier and Ed "Weasel" Craig. Their relationship grows to be quite moving despite the fact that Barlow is turning most of the townspeople into Vampires.
The fates of some characters have changed and others have had their motivations altered. Overall, Peter Filardi does a nice job with the dialogue especially the narration of Ben Mears. The ending narration is surprisingly heartfelt and even a bit reminiscent of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
Watch this new version if you want more character development, good acting, a better story and special effects. If you want to be more frightened rent the 1979 version. If you want to experience real fear please buy the Stephen King book. He's not called the master of horror for nothing
Watership Down (1978)
I'm Down with Watership!
An animated masterpiece adapted from the Richard Adams novel. Right from the start we are told the rabbit's creation story. It starts very sweetly and soon becomes violent as we realize this film is not for young children. The themes are universal and the direction is exquisite by Martin Rosen. The score is both epic and eerie, a perfect fit for the rabbit's adventures. Sir Ralph Richardson's narration is also a warning for our heroes: "All the world will be your enemy, prince with a thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they'll kill you. But first they must catch you. Listener, digger, runner, prince with a swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed." The struggle of the bunnies is really a metaphor for man's struggle against evil. The film also makes a good point about man's destructive nature and how he's over expansion kills nature. There is a flashback scene where we witness the rabbits suffocating. We hear their eerie gasps and see their tormented, red eyes. Their warren is destroyed but thankfully a handful of rabbits leave in time.
The rabbits are led by the brave and noble Hazel, voiced by the great John Hurt. His sensitive brother, Fiver, voiced by Richard Briers, sees a bleak future for them and suggests they leave. They are joined by the strong BigWig, captain of the guard, and several others. After a series of adventures they find a lush, green mountain with a lovely view to live on. However, hey do need to mate and seek the help of a comically, wounded bird, a hilarious Zero Mostel.
Things get more complicated when the rabbits discover a place that other rabbits are abused and tortured.There is definitely a comparison to be drawn here to Nazi Germany. It's run by General Woundwort, voiced with pure menace by Harry Andrews. BigWig infiltrates and helps the other rabbits escape. Later, there is a final, bloody conflict between our heroes and Woundwort and his men.
The rest I won't dare give away but I'll tell you this is one of those films you see more in with each viewing. The rabbits creation story has definite parallels to the Old Testament and there is even a Black Rabbit of Death. In conclusion, the Black Rabbit comes to collect one of our heroes who is getting older and is ready to die. It's quite moving to watch that rabbit lie down and die and then observe his spirit emerge and chase the Black Rabbit to salvation.
This film I was fascinated with since childhood. Since I've gotten older I've found the themes even more relevant today. This is a very engrossing, human story that entertains and enlightens. If you truly enjoy this film, as I did, I suggest you read MORE TALES FROM WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams. As for the film, it's one of my favorites of all time.