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Works because of the performances
Reviewing Alfred Hitchcock's famed black and white opus Psycho from a 21st century perspective gives the film less credit than it deserves. For it's time, it was revolutionary. Now, it is just a well acted, yet somewhat dated horror film. The editing in the shower scene has become a cliché in pop culture, but one cannot deny the original brilliance of the scene. The movie really only works as well as it does because of the performances of Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Perkins never really had another role he was better in, save Mike Nichols' Catch-22, a personal favorite. After Hitchcock died, he later starred and directed in numerous Psycho sequels before Perkins' eventual death. Hitchcock's killing of Leigh at the onset is also quite ground-breaking. It was mirrored in Wes Craven's Scream with the Drew Barrymore character, as well as in many other pictures.
Psycho also created the character of Dr. Sam Loomis, a name later used in the other revolutionary horror film, John Carpenter's Halloween. Overall, the movie doesn't age as horrible as some other select black and white 50's-60's horror films, but nevertheless it does age a reasonable amount, leading to many cringe worthy and laughable scenes, most likely due lackluster performances by the rest of the cast, low production values, and shady effects and "skeletons."
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Wes doing Wes
The Darjeeling Limited is unlike the average comedy. While not being truly laugh out loud funny, the film is clever, well written, with memorable characters and one liners that grow wittier over time. The only type of movie it can be compared to are other films by Wes Anderson, the director of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and the love it or hate film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. All of his movies are extremely stylized, with slow motion sequences, wide lenses that slightly distort the frame, and privileged, depressed characters with family issues all thrown together in a slightly artificial, timeless, carefully detailed environment. While with The Life Aquatic he may have tried to do too much, The Darjeeling Limited shows Anderson finally perfected his style. He knows when to throw inside jokes to his most loyal of fans, while keeping his stories fresh and personal, without acknowledging the critics who blame Anderson for repeating himself.
The film is absolutely engaging from the very start with a hilarious, memorable cameo by Bill Murray, trying to catch the Darjeeling Limited train in slow motion, yet is outrun by Adrien Brody's Peter to the tune of The Kinks' This Time Tomorrow, one of the three Kinks songs in the film (all are accompanied by slow motion sequences). Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson play the three Whitman brothers, Peter, Jack, and Francis. Wilson's character has organized a spiritual journey through India with his brothers who have not spoken to one other since their father's funeral a year ago. Performance-wise, the standout is Wilson, in what might be his best role yet. Owen Wilson seems to play himself in all of his other movies, with Wes Anderson being the only writer/director to truly know how to use his talents. The characters begin to realize that one cannot force a spiritual journey, no matter how many temples visited and organized rituals performed for brotherly bonding as printed on a laminated itinerary. The bender that results is a ridiculously entertaining blend of comedy and drama successfully aided by Anderson's great choice of music and colorful, dynamic cinematography.
Extremely recommended viewing (other than Anderson's previous efforts) before watching this amazing film is Hotel Chevalier, a 13 minute short film directed by Anderson and starring Jason Schwartzman, available for free download online through Itunes. In the film, Schwartzman plays the same character that he plays in The Darjeeling Limited. Also starring is Natalie Portman as Jack's ex-girlfriend, who makes a brief cameo in the feature film as well. The short film helps establish Schwartzman's character, and provides clues on certain details of The Darjeeling Limited. Also, a couple of funny moments in the feature wouldn't make much sense without seeing the short. The emotional, yet blissful experience that is The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson's best film thus far, defeating Rushmore for that top spot.
Less than a year after the previous installment of the popular pirates trilogy, Jack Sparrow and company return in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. The film should be great, given a three hundred million dollar budget, huge anticipation, and the closure a third installment inevitably brings to a series. While this film does show its budget and is quite visually arresting, it lacks a fair share of resolution to the trilogy and confuses with its overflowing exposition rather than purely existing to entertain.
Even in an action packed pirate movie, overly chatty sequences will simply bore audiences just because it's too hard to follow what exactly is being said. The movie really just had too many vague or unnecessary plot points that didn't affect the main plot at hand.
All the acting was perfectly fine, with Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbosa unsurprisingly being the standouts. The introduction of Depp's character in the pirate equivalent of Hell called Davy Jones' Locker is a particular favorite, as well as the scenes at World's End, which somehow involves a giant, deep waterfall. Keith Richards' hyped cameo as Jack's father is nothing to go crazy for, he does a decent job, but his screen time lasts only about two minutes.
Director Gore Verbinski and his crew knew going into this that the reviews would be mixed and the plot would be confusing (in order to encourage repeat viewings), but honestly, at nearly three hours, the more the film confuses you the more it becomes an endurance test. Also, rather than providing a satisfying conclusion to the series, the end opens up the possibility for a fourth installment, which might not even happen. The crew put every penny of the film's budget on screen, made evident in the hour or so of its bloated climax. The film looks and feels like a true epic, shots are wide, locations are vast, costumes are extravagant, and the scope is large. However, the film needs to scale down its plot in order to let the characters we fell in love with stand out and shine, as that's what makes these films unique.
It is awfully difficult to write about the new pie-filled romantic comedy Waitress without indiscreetly mentioning the tragic death of its writer, director, and co-star Adrienne Shelly. Whenever a wonderfully unique moment occurred in the film, there was a realization that Shelly will sadly never reach her true potential made evident in the film. A major hit at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, one would think Waitress would be a strange, oddly funny gem of a film, due to the festival's independent sensibilities. Yet what starts as that refreshing, different type of a film, turns into another familiar, mainstream romantic comedy.
The film starts with Jenna, perfectly played by Keri Russell, a waitress at a southern diner, who soon discovers that she is pregnant. Jenna's greatest gift is her apparent extraordinary ability to create amazingly delicious pies. Making her own original pies with inventive names seems to help her escape from life with her angry, insecure, narcissistic husband (Jeremy Sisto). Giving Jenna more of a reason to simply run away from her marriage is her new gynecologist, Dr. Potmatter (Nathan Fillion), whom she soon has an affair with. The film is loaded with other memorable roles including her fellow waitresses Becky (Cheryl Hines), and Dawn (Shelly), Dawn's eccentric poetry shouting stalker/boyfriend Ogie (Eddie Jemison), and Old Joe, the diner's owner, and the man whom only Jenna can tolerate, unforgettably brought to life by Andy Griffith.
Waitress is one of the better romantic comedies a wife would drag her husband to, with supremely enjoyable moments, hilarious bits of dialogue, and a first-rate performance by Russell. Her performance is key to the film, as she is basically the only fully developed character. Yet, by the end of the day, the Waitress is still a very light, undoubtedly sentimental, but genuinely pleasant offering by a filmmaker who should have had a great future as an auteur.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
bad moments, and great moments
Opening the 2007 summer movie season is Spider-Man 3, the ridiculously anticipated follow-up to its acclaimed 2002 and 2004 predecessors. What results is a film that finally shows the goofy, corny, yet extremely enjoyable style of director Sam Raimi. Still, the rumors are true, Spider-Man 3 does have too much going on, with about five different story lines tossed around. Raimi does a fairly competent job stringing them all together, but there isn't enough time to actually give some of the characters enough development. However, for all of the film's flaws, there are plenty of strengths.
First of all, the film is extremely entertaining to watch, with its nearly two and a half hour running time breezing by. Toby Maguire returns as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, who struggles with issues involving his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Now becoming more of a threat to his life than a personal problem is Peter's former best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), and his eagerness to avenge his father's death by donning the Green Goblin mask. Yet another storyline concerns a desolate criminal named Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) who may have been the actual killer of Peter's uncle. Spider-Man also scuffles with a rival photographer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) who eventually transforms into a creature known as Venom, and wrestles with his own impending dark side.
With so much to keep track of in such a loaded film, characters like Venom and Flint Marko (The Sandman) don't receive enough screen time to really make an impact. Perhaps some story lines could have been saved for future films, in order to develop the more crucial characters. On the other hand, many segments are thoroughly cultivated, with Harry Osborn's relationship with Peter being one of the best handled elements of the film.
One sequence of the film causing much polarity amongst audiences is when Spider-Man fully embraces his dark side and his new black spidey suit. Instead of Peter being ruthless and dark, Raimi makes him absurdly pompous. Rather than getting what was advertised as the darkest of the Spider-Man movies, we receive a very fun superhero film with great action sequences and many hysterical moments, including a cameo by the legendary Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead trilogy) as a French maitre'd.
While definitely far from great, Spider-Man 3 has a notable distinction being that in spite of much of the clichéd dialogue and over the top moments, the film still succeeds in what it intends to do, which is to entertain. Raimi was certainly aware of what he was making, packing enough action, comedy, and strong performances to obscure the cringe inducing moments.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Best comedy of 2007
Edgar Wright, whose previous efforts include the beloved Shaun of the Dead, and the amazing Grindhouse trailer called Don't, manages to impress yet again in his latest film, Hot Fuzz. Also returning from Shaun of the Dead are Simon Pegg as co-writer and star and Nick Frost as the co-star in a loving, British homage to American action and buddy cop films. Nick Angel (Pegg) is the best police officer in London. Yet he's so great, that he makes everyone else (including his higher authorities) look inferior in comparison. He is then "promoted" to work in the small town of Sandford, where the crime rate is miniscule but the "accident" rate is soaring. As he realizes that the town is much more dangerous than it seems (intentional action cliché), he ends up befriending the Chief's son, Danny (Nick Frost), an inept police officer who wishes his life was more like the cops in Bad Boys II.
For the most part, after British directors have a hit, they head straight off to Hollywood to make their next movie. However, after the cult success that was Shaun of the Dead, Wright stayed in England, and Hot Fuzz is as British a film as they come. The humor is truly more universal than anything like Monty Python or Alan Partridge, which some may love and others simply do not get.
What makes Hot Fuzz so enjoyable is how much fun the filmmakers and actors are having on screen. Countless name drops and references to other movies are present, be it in the dialogue, the lighting or just a particular memorable shot. Action films that the main characters are shown viewing are intentionally spoofed later on in the film. In addition , there are dozens of references to movies that are presumably favorites of the writers. Young audiences might not catch such references to films like Chinatown, The Shining, and Lethal Weapon, and many more, yet the filmmakers implemented these allusions so that if these devices are unnoticed, the plot will not be affected.
The amusing bit parts and cameos range from Bill Nighy and Steve Coogan, to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett. Yet the man who reigns supreme over all of them is ex-James Bond Timothy Dalton, in more of a decently sized supporting role than a bit part. Dalton is the mustached Simon Skinner, an absurdly over the top villain who seems to be at the scene of every crime Pegg's character inspects.
Hot Fuzz is a great film compared to recent "parody films" like Epic Movie and to a lesser extent Scary Movie, because Hot Fuzz openly embraces the films it imitates, and the characters in the film play it completely straight, rather than acting as if they're in a comedy. Also, Wright actually has a strong visual and directorial style that accentuates the humor and over the top action. The opening of Hot Fuzz is a bit slow for some, but every single plot point covered from beginning of the film comes together in the erratic, explosive, ridiculously entertaining end.
Solid and Entertaining
Disturbia star Shia LaBeouf appears to have a great future ahead of him. In the past few years, amidst forgettable roles in I, Robot, and Constantine, he contributed strong performances in films like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and now in the thriller Disturbia. Although it is basically a remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window, Disturbia is unique in that it mixes elements of teen comedy, romance, drama, and gripping suspense in an entertaining way. Not to say the film is perfect, as it definitely isn't, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and then some.
All of the acting is decent and believable, with standout performances by the aforementioned LaBeouf as Kale, and David Morse, as the suspected villain, Mr. Turner. Serving as great comic relief is Kale's friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) while the new girl next door, Ashley (Sarah Roemer), provides a romantic interest. Also notable is The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss as Kale's mother who is great as always, yet underused.
Kale gets put on house arrest after punching his Spanish teacher in class. It's his third run in with the law since his father died in a car accident a year earlier. Under house arrest, he begins to learn the secrets of everyone surrounding him through the use of binoculars and video cameras. His most important realization in his voyeurism is that his somewhat reclusive neighbor shares many suspicious similarities to a wanted serial killer whom the police have not yet identified.
It's generally difficult to create such suspense under the restrictions of a PG-13 rating (do not watch this at the theater between 7-9 PM to avoid the loud middle school crowd), but instead of just trying to shock, the film conveys paranoia and fright through the use of mood and mere suggestions of menace. The script could have used another rewrite to further develop the cast of characters, as the only one who is fleshed out at all is LaBeouf's.
LaBeouf, who turns twenty-one in June, is looking to join Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ryan Gosling as one of the few great actors under the age of thirty if he keeps turning in strong performances in interesting projects. His star is certainly rising with Transformers due this summer and the fourth Indiana Jones film in the summer of 2008.
We have to realize that even though there is so much that makes Disturbia unique, at heart it is a very commercial effort. The twists are quite obvious, many characters are underdeveloped, and there's product placement everywhere (which is realistic nonetheless). However, at a brisk 104 minutes, it would be a lie to say the movie wasn't extremely satisfying, and an undeniably entertaining film.
The Lookout (2007)
Not amazing, but pretty good
Acclaimed screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Minority Report) makes a promising debut with his first feature, The Lookout. Frank originally wrote the script several years ago with no intent to direct, yet the project fell apart time and time again, even under a proved director like David Fincher. Frank then took his last rewrite of the script, and with his knowledge of film-making from his experiences on other writing gigs, he set out to create The Lookout in an independent fashion.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a former high school athlete who recklessly killed two of his friends and injured his girlfriend in an easily avoidable car accident. He suffered a massive head injury (no, this is not anything like Memento), creating a condition in which everyday activities like opening cans and taking showers are a struggle. Chris meets Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), a former schoolmate who manipulates Chris into being the crucial element of a bank heist at the same bank Chris works for as a janitor.
Levitt, who recently stunned us with his work in Mysterious Skin and Brick, is subtle and extremely convincing while playing a very complex, difficult character, and Jeff Daniels steals the majority of his scenes as Chris's blind roommate, creating great comic relief. Besides for Isla Fisher as an underdeveloped character named Luvlee Lemons, the cast is great all around, showing that a film doesn't need easily recognizable stars to succeed.
While containing a heist, the film is certainly not a quick-paced action movie, even though it may have been marketed as one. The first and second acts are mainly devices for developing character, and the second act does drag a bit leading up to the explosive, suspenseful third act. The Lookout has just the right length, precise and beautiful digital cinematography that looks amazingly like film, and a minimalist, straightforward, yet somewhat underwhelming structure based on memorable characters, rather than action.
Reign Over Me (2007)
Reign Over Me is a success due to the powerful work by Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. While comedic actors going dramatic has been seen as somewhat of a distraction, Sandler is no stranger to playing more serious roles. Most of the characters he portrays have an unstable temperament and a vulnerability that can burst at any moment. He might even be typecast for characters with such hidden anger problems. However, this performance has some considerable dramatic weight, unlike his roles in less comedic fare like Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish.
In the film, Alan Johnson (Cheadle) runs into his old college roommate, Charlie Finerman (Sandler), whom he hasn't seen in several years. Five years before, Charlie suffered the overwhelming loss of his wife and three daughters in a plane crash. Charlie barely even recognizes Cheadle's character due to the repression of his memories and consequent reclusive childish lifestyle since the accident. It isn't until Alan persists in engaging him in conversation that Charlie remembers who he is. Their renewed relationship that follows will allow Finerman to have a friend who doesn't speak about his loss, eventually enabling him to confront the thoughts and feelings he has suppressed on his own terms.
Though writer-director Mike Binder doesn't show much sense of an individual style and some of his shots and transitions are a bit awkward, he does have a knack of getting decent to great performances from his actors while being a talented and funny writer. He shot this film with a digital camera, as more and more filmmakers are doing today, enabling the crew to shoot the night scenes with limited lighting. This kept the colorful backgrounds of New York City in focus, but resulted in creating frequent digital grain, which resembles blue specks scattered and moving on the screen.
Almost every main character in Reign Over Me gives a great performance. Jada-Pinkett Smith and especially Liv Tyler are memorable in their respective roles as a frustrated wife to Cheadle's character and a psychiatrist. However, it is Sandler and Cheadle that give some of their finest work to date. They completely owned this movie. Sandler actually plays a character that doesn't outwardly resemble or act like himself at all, partially credited to his Bob Dylan-esquire wig. Though Cheadle's character has more screen time than Sandler, they both should be considered to be leading roles, as they equally support and help each other throughout the film.
Music also plays a great part in this film, especially the title song "Reign Over Me," or "Love, Reign O'er Me" by The Who, and later covered by Pearl Jam. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, Binder shows Sandler using music to shut out his feelings and memories, but this particular song provokes such intense emotion that rather than diminishing his anger, it incites his emotions. All an all, Reign Over Me is an enjoyable, sad, yet many times funny film, driven by its amazing leading performances.
Director David Fincher finally ends his five year hiatus with a new masterwork in his take on the Zodiac murder case. In Zodiac, Fincher still clings to his dark, thrilling roots, yet expands his horizons in presenting the majority of the film from the perspective of a newspaper room. Unlike his previous notable works, (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) Fincher is not trying to be overly flaunting with the camera. Instead, he focuses on the details. From the opening vintage Universal and Warner Brothers logos to the pens Jake Gyllenhaal's character uses, we are completely thrown into the '60s-'70s time period that Zodiac predominantly encompasses.
Zodiac's main theme seems to be precision. The camera is always in the right place and the performances by every actor is pitch perfect, without anyone being overly showy. There are a few artistic moments where Fincher departs from subtlety and awes us, such as showing a time lapse sequence of the creation of the Transamerica Tower. It's safe to say that Zodiac is the best looking film shot with digital technology thus far . The film is shot on the same High Definition camera as Collateral and Miami Vice, and unlike those films, the look is not unsettling or distracting at all.
The film's meticulous obsession with detail also mirrors the characters and the story of the film itself. Throughout the film, we are introduced to four major characters who become obsessed with the Zodiac killer, one of whom ends up devoting all of his time to the case, neglecting his family in the process and potentially risking his life to identify the murderer. This character, Robert Graysmith, the writer of the book the film is based on, is played neurotically by Gyllenhaal. Robert Downey Jr. shows that he's still one of Hollywood's top actors in his dry, witty, self-destructive portrayal of reporter Paul Avery. Anthony Edwards plays William Armstrong, a detective partnered to Mark Ruffalo's David Toschi. Ruffalo fearlessly changed his voice and mannerisms to play Toschi, surprising many who have only seen him in romantic comedies.
One complaint about Zodiac is that the film is too long. Yes, it is long, but it isn't boring at all. Every scene is packed with so much information and detail that it isn't surprising to hear that a previous cut of the film ran a half an hour longer. Some scenes are expository and somewhat slow, but these are necessary in order for the faster, edgier scenes to shine. The film's length is necessary to introduce the vast ensemble of characters, with performances by Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, and John Carroll Lynch being the most memorable. What is also remarkable is the epic feel of the film that trailers failed to show. We ultimately span from the late sixties to the mid eighties, as well as an additional scene in the nineties, closing out with an contemporary epilogue over Donovan's ominous Hurdy Gurdy Man.
In Zodiac, Fincher did what so few have done. Under the cramped confines of a major studio, he ambitiously created a film both artistically satisfying and utterly entertaining.
Little Children (2006)
Little Children, the second film by actor-turned-director Todd Field, and adapted from the novel by Tom Perotta, has been treated extremely unfairly due to its limited release in America. It's been in theaters since early October, but only in January did it finally expand to about one hundred theaters. New Line Cinema has done a terrible job in distributing a brilliant, well received film, by releasing it with basically no promotion, and giving it an extremely minimal Oscar push. Yet it still receives three important nominations: Best Actress in a Leading Role for the always great Kate Winslet, Best Supporting Actor for Jackie Earle Haley (working for the first time in fourteen years), and Best Adapted Screenplay for Todd Field and Tom Perotta. Yet New Line still isn't expanding the theater count of the film and its doomed to an April DVD release devoid of any special features whatsoever.
Like critic A.O. Scott from The New York Times has said about the film, it is incredibly "hard to stop thinking about." Todd Field has crafted a delicate, edgy suburban drama with some remarkable performances. Every actor holds their own so well that even the great Jennifer Connelly is overshadowed by the rest of the supporting cast. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play the adulterous lead characters particularly convincingly, yet the supporting cast are the standouts here. Jackie Earle Haley deserves all the awards attention he is getting and more for his role as Ronnie J. McGorvey, a convicted sex offender. Noah Emmerich is fantastic as Larry, an ex-cop who has good intentions but comes across as a bully, and Phyllis Somerville is equally brilliant as May, Ronnie's elderly mother. While Haley is getting well deserved awards and nominations, Emmerich and Somervile have not received much recognition for their standout performances
Field shows a lot of thought in his directing work, placing a large amount of symbolism throughout the film, a reason for repeat viewings. He paints the screen with a bright, intense visual style that gives the painful reality of the movie a satirical tone. Also aiding this tone is the use of a narrator, telling the story in a way that resembles a children's book. The narration takes a little time to get used to, but it only adds to the genius of Little Children. For instance, the narrator suddenly disappears when the character of Ronnie is introduced, allowing the audience to judge him themselves. The narrator reappears only as Ronnie's mother is introduced, when we know his character enough to judge him accurately. We come to realize that everyone in the story has considerable character flaws, yet Ronnie is the only individual who openly acknowledges them. Little Children is one of the best films of 2006, and deserves so much more attention than what it has received thus far.
Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men, loosely based on the novel "The Children of Men" by P.D. James, combines an intense depiction of a dystopian future with an avant-garde visual style. The director, Alfonso Caurón, who helmed such diverse films such as Great Expectations, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, shows yet again that he can tackle any genre.
The film stars Clive Owen (Closer, Sin City) as Theo, a bureaucrat in 2027 London., who has refrained from human contact with everyone except for his hippy friend named Jasper, played by Michael Caine. We enter the film with news of the youngest person on earth dying, who is a little more than eighteen years old. It is understood that women are now infertile, but the reason for this disturbing phenomenon is not really explained. The characters in the film don't know either, creating the prevalent chaos. The plot gets moving when it is discovered that a young refugee, Kee is pregnant, and she needs Theo's help to get her to a group of scientists called The Human Project, in order to keep her baby safe.
Overpowering this compelling story is the amazingly impressive technical achievement, aided by Caurón's long time director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the art direction team. Like Cauron's Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men is shot almost entirely in hand-held, a technique movie-goers have a love it or hate it attitude towards. Caurón and Lubezki manage to pull off entire scenes in what appears to be a single shot, as well as a battle scene that runs over seven minutes long. This scene contains realistically decayed, massive buildings, as well as flawless staging of actors and extras. The result is that rather than looking like science fiction, the film feels as if it was shot on an actual warfront in the future with a hand-held camera.
It's astonishing that a film so interested in its technical merits really held its own acting-wise. Clive Owen is wonderfully dry, yet caring as the cynical Theo, and Caine is at perfection in a surprisingly comical, scene stealing role unlike we've ever seen him before. Yet it is Caurón that reveals himself as the real star of the film, with a virtuoso directing effort.
Children of Men will definitely find some viewers who feel it is simply incredible, as well as many detractors, consisting of those who feel the film left too many questions unanswered, especially with its abrupt ending. However, most will appreciate the flawless technical accomplishments (apart from a fake looking CGI baby) of the film regardless of ones opinion about how fulfilling the story was. Nevertheless, Children of Men is a gritty, compelling, and occasionally funny film that is imperative for any serious movie-goer to see.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Since its announcement, the buzz on Sylvester Stallone's new installment in the Rocky Franchise has gone from painstakingly low, to surprisingly high. Everyone seems to be agreeing that Stallone has redeemed the franchise with a final, enjoyable film, Rocky Balboa. Stallone provides enough meat to the story that Rocky Balboa is easily accessible to old fans of the franchise, as well as viewers seeing their first Rocky film. Yet of course, Stallone throws in nostalgic throwbacks to the previous films.
Stallone returns again as a writer and a director to the film. However, his writing reigns supreme over his plain, generally uninteresting direction. The screenplay brings about inspired monologues that somehow feel genuine rather than clichéd, providing the best acting Stallone has given in many years.
The first half of the film starts out with a sad, lonely, and somewhat bored Rocky, who recently became a widower. His son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), is too busy trying to escape his father's shadow to care, and the closest friend he has who isn't dead is Paulie, (Burt Young) Rocky's brother-in-law. Rocky spends most of his time sitting by his wife's grave in a lawn chair, or telling stories to his customers at the small restaurant he owns.
After seventy or so minutes of really learning about Rocky, and even loving him, Rocky earns his right to fight again. The story is so propelling that the ridiculousness of how Rocky's final fight comes about is left unnoticed. The fight against the current heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is executed incredibly, and as always, the audience will root for the underdog.
Stallone likes to provoke the emotions of the audience through the use of melodramatic music, underscoring scenes targeted out to be "powerful." This can make the scene feel sappy and overly sentimental, rather than sincere and true. Yet scenes like this do gel within the whole film. They don't stick out or make the scene incite unwanted laughter.
By the end it becomes apparent that Stallone put everything he had into this final chapter of the Rocky Series, just like Rocky Balboa threw out everything "in the basement" in his last fight. . Except for the last seven minutes, it is not an action film, but a dramatic, satisfying character story. However, Stallone didn't take any risks to give his film an edge, something to make it great, rather than good.
Gibson Strikes Back
It's safe to say that only Mel Gibson could have made Apocalypto. No other director would have been able to gather enough funding to produce a film with mostly non-actors in a Mayan dialect. Yet for Gibson, this isn't a problem. He has enough money to make whatever he desires after the great commercial success of The Passion of The Christ, and he's probably the most bankable director out there. Because Gibson directed it, people are interested. If another director made Apocalypto, it wouldn't even get a major theatrical release.
The resulting film ends up breaking new cinematic ground, mostly due to the risks Gibson took. Like with Paul Greengrass's United 93, the unknown cast helps transport the viewer into the ancient Mayan world that is Apocalypto. Most of the acting in the film isn't perfect, however the use of an arcane language masks most of this. The only standout of the cast is Rudy Youngblood, who plays the main character, Jaguar Paw.
Gibson also takes risks in his visual choices, including shooting the film entirely on a high definition camera. The decision to shoot on this digital format was not one of frugality. Gibson had the time and money to shoot on film, which creates softer, more elegant pictures. However, it becomes apparent that Gibson wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the Mayan kingdom in a realistic way. Apocalypto's Academy Award winning director of photography, Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves), made high definition completely emulate film in this summer's blockbuster Click. Yet strangely, the look of Apocalypto is a far cry from the appearance of celluloid. The motion of the camera feels more like a documentary than a film, and the colors look uncorrected and truer to life. Frequent movie-goers will notice this jarring difference on the big screen at first, but it really does add a unique look to the movie, and is fairly easy to get used to.
After a relatively slow yet surprisingly comedic first act, the pacing of Apocalypto accelerates so quickly that the movie feels a half an hour shorter than it actually is (the actual running time is 138 minutes). The last act is basically an extended chase scene containing Jaguar Paw trying to escape his impending sacrifice by the hands of the brutal Mayan Kingdom. In addition, reports of the array of violence are not entirely true. There is some violence, but the sadistic nature of the violence shown will make the faint of heart squirm.
Summaries of Apocalypto mention the film is about the decline of the Mayan civilization. This is entirely misleading. There are a few scattered references and metaphors to the kingdom's demise, but the real story ends up being more intimate than that. It essentially becomes a man fleeing his fate of death to save himself and his family.
Apocalypto is a daring, creative cinematic achievement, as well as an audience pleasing thriller by one of Hollywood's most controversial filmmakers.
The Fountain (2006)
It's been six years since acclaimed writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) released his last film. Those six years have been a whirlwind of youthful ambition and overwhelming disappointment. The Fountain's early incarnation in 2002 was a big budget epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, then after Pitt dropped out for "creative differences", Aronofsky had to start over, creating what he calls the no budget version of his early script. Pitt was replaced with Hugh Jackman, and Blanchett was replaced with his fiancé Rachel Weisz. The end result is an intimate love story, that just so happens to span three different time periods.
Fans of Aronofsky's previous work will be surprised by his latest film. Gone are the hip hop montages, Snorricam shots (a camera attached to the actor), and nauseating visual tricks. However, Aronofsky keeps his trademark center framing, fades to whites, and ambiguous endings. This is Aronofsky's most original, artistic, and ambitious work to date, and every single shot appears to be profusely thought out. It can even be said this is a thirty-five million dollar art film.
All audiences can appreciate The Fountain's remarkably original photography and astonishing visual effects, guided by Aronofsky's long time cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, as well as the gorgeous score by Clint Mansell, also a previous Aronofsky collaborator. However, will audiences be able to appreciate the film itself? Viewer's reactions from the film have ranged from "beautiful," "gripping," and "transcendent" to "muddled," "unfocused," and even "pretentious." This polarizing effect might have something to do with the odd, interweaving structure of the three time periods the film covers: past, present, and the future in space. In addition, Hugh Jackman plays the same character throughout each time period, which can further confuse audiences.
Darren Aronofsky stated in an interview on Joblo.com that before a prescreening of his film, he told the audience: "Don't think too much." Also, Jackman and Weisz have claimed numerous times that although the film might seem confusing, it's really just a love story at heart. If a viewer takes this advice before watching The Fountain, the film will make perfect sense, and the viewer can appreciate how much Aronofsky did with such a simple idea.
Essentially, The Fountain is about a man, Tom (undoubtedly a reference to David Bowie's Major Tom songs) trying to save his wife, Izzy, who is dying from brain cancer. Tom can't come to terms with her death, yet Izzy openly awaits it. Hugh Jackman is at his undisputed finest as Tom, showing a complete range of emotions, while the beautiful Rachel Weisz gives another solid performance as Izzy, even though it is Jackman, who undoubtedly carries the film. Other critics have proclaimed that Tom and Izzy have little to no character development, but the story Aronofsky is trying to tell is so simple and organic that the characters themselves are just symbols for Man and Woman.
The Fountain is a staggeringly ambitious film that does contain some ridiculous moments and a slow start, but nevertheless, the story of a man's quest for immortality is something we can all relate to.
Casino Royale (2006)
A Bond for a new generation
After a series of campy films and a four-year hiatus, James Bond is back. In Casino Royale, the 21st official Bond film, Daniel Craig steps up as the sixth Bond, giving the best portrayal of 007 to date. Craig makes the role his own. His believable interpretation is gritty, down to earth, and vulnerable, while maintaining Bond's classic sharp wit and arrogance.
After a black-and-white introduction where Bond earns his first two kills and reaches double-0 status, the classic gun barrel opening sequence begins, and the audience is sold. However, this Bond is neither suave nor polished. He does not wink, and when he fights, he bleeds. He is young, raw, quick and muscular.
Casino Royale was the first Bond book written by Ian Fleming. However, the film is not a prequel, like Batman Begins. It's set in contemporary times, and is not meant to connect with the previous 20 films. During the suspenseful casino sequences, the popular Texas Hold 'Em is played instead of the novel's baccarat.
Director Martin Campbell, who also helmed GoldenEye, arguably the best Bond film starring Pierce Brosnan, proves his talent of inspiring strong performances, even without a distinctive style. The screenplay credit is given to three individuals: Robert Wade, Neal Purvis and Paul Haggis.
Wade and Purvis co-wrote the last two Bond scripts, which were quite inferior in comparison to Casino Royale's wonderful script. Therefore, it's safe to say that the talents of Oscar-winner Haggis added the right element.
Eva Green is unlike any other Bond girl. She doesn't dress elegantly unless she has to. She doesn't show any inclination to seduce Bond. She even displays a layered personality. And he actually gets to know her. Also in the cast is Judi Dench, reprising her role as M, and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre, a very peculiar bond villain who has a dead eye that weeps blood.
The only complaint one could have for Casino Royale is the length. After a fast-paced, roller-coaster ride of a movie, the films film's conclusion feels bloated, and will confuse most viewers.
Nonetheless, Casino Royale should maintain Bond's old audience, and grasp a new one. The film is exactly the fresh start that the James Bond franchise needed. It shows us Bond's early mistakes and immaturity, so as the series goes on we'll understand how and why he becomes the wise, suave, womanizing and deadly Bond we all know.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
8 out of 10
Stranger Than Fiction has had endless comparisons to the films written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind), while the performance of the film's lead actor, Will Ferrell, has been compared to the dramatic turns of comedic actors, such as Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and Robin Williams. While Stranger Than Fiction is definitely more mainstream than a film written by Charlie Kaufman, comparisons of Will Ferrell's performance to Jim Carrey in The Truman Show do have merit. Will Ferrell successfully gives a dramatic performance in this comedic film.
Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) reinvents his directing style by creating a film that is very reliant on its screenplay. He refrains from an overly visual look by composing a flat, minimally toned image, and carefully directs Ferrell to a performance where not once does he overact. The screenplay, written by Zach Helm, apparently was much buzzed about when it was initially pitched. It sparked a bidding war throughout many studios and was eventually won by Sony Pictures. Helm's first produced script provides an extremely creative premise, but in parts, seems like the characters were too self aware of the direction of the storyline.
Will Ferrell gives his best performance to date as the IRS agent Harold Crick, and Emma Thompson is equally great as the writer's block suffering author Karen Eiffel. Crick starts to hear Eiffel's voice narrating his actions, and we come to realize that Crick is the main character of Eiffel's new book. Out of desperation, Crick seeks out literary professor Jules Hilbert, quirkily played by Dustin Hoffman, for guidance on where his own narrative is going. Hoffman's performance is reminiscent to his role in 2004's similarly toned, I Heart Huckabees. Maggie Gyllenhaal is also great as Ana Pascal, a tattooed baker who refuses to pay her taxes, while Queen Latifah reminds us that she's still funny as the underdeveloped character of Eiffel's assistant..
The film weaves comedy, romance, and fantasy all together in a similar fashion to Adaptation. Also like in Adaptation, the character of the author will create an ending that parallels the ending of the actual movie. Stranger Than Fiction's ending is incredibly fascinating, and will be either loved or hated. While others might see the ending as an unsatisfying copout, it is a truly complex conclusion that gives the audience closure on whether the film is a comedy or a tragedy.
Stranger Than Fiction is not your typical Will Ferrell comedy. It isn't loud, and it doesn't contain Ferrell running around nude. However, it is an intelligent, clever film, that has its moments of contempt, fantasy, and romance.
The Departed (2006)
Jack Nicholson is widely known for playing characters like himself. The question for the audience of his latest film, The Departed, is, will you be watching his character or the grinning Nicholson we know and love? Veteran Director Martin Scorsese opens the film in a way that any speculation of whether Nicholson can pull off his nastiest role to date (his turn as The Joker in Batman comes close) vanishes on the spot. Scorsese shows Nicholson in shadows during the opening sequence, aided by The Rolling Stone's Gimme Shelter. Not until the audience has been truly sold that this is the brutal, malevolent, and immoral Frank Costello, does Nicholson's face reveal itself from under the shadows.
The Departed, based on the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, carries some large star power. The director, Scorsese, is arguably one of the best working directors to date. The cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan, the aforementioned Nicholson as Frank Costello, with supporting roles by Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, and Ray Winstone. Catch any wind of that list of names and any expectations of this film go sky high. Yet despite gargantuan expectations for a film that was rumored to have so much tension on its set, the movie succeeds on almost every level.
First off, the screenplay by William Monohan is brilliant. The fast, often surprisingly hilarious dialogue is coupled with the gripping story of two informers, one infiltrating the Boston State Police (Damon) and the other the Irish Mafia (DiCaprio). Scorsese's stylistic direction and old film school techniques assisted by Michael Ballhaus's slick cinematography make the story flow smoothly yet surprisingly fast-paced for a two and a half hour movie.
The acting is phenomenal all around. DiCaprio proves his skill to everyone who denied his talent, even after his award worthy role as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (his second pairing with Scorsese, the first being Gangs of New York). He truly gives a layered, emotional performance, and arguably his best. Matt Damon reminds us that he is still an extremely capable actor, yet his role feels overshadowed by DiCaprio's. Nicholson gives one of his best performances with his wild turn as Frank Costello. However, the very underrated Mark Wahlberg gives a scene stealing performance as Dignam, giving his best work to date. Just about every single word that comes out of his mouth is absolutely hilarious. Sheen also gives a surprisingly great supporting performance, as do Farmiga and Baldwin.
The film is nearly perfect until a scene during its climax, where the action might appear over the top to some. But not to worry, the film's ultimate ending provides all the satisfaction one could hope for. The Departed is a remarkable film, proving that Martin Scorsese still has it after all these years, churning out what is possibly the best movie of the year.
You'll laugh hysterically
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the title character, is becoming one of the most talked about movies of the year. Borat, one of the three characters from Cohen's Da Ali G Show, is a completely naive and moronic character that Cohen plays with so much conviction that it's actually scary. One even wonders whether Cohen is a genius or a madman.
Borat is directed by Larry Charles, whose previous efforts were the disappointing Bob Dylan vehicle, Masked and Anonymous, and several episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. All these projects had major creative input by their respective stars, Bob Dylan, and Larry David, as does his new film.
Shot in a mockumentary-style, the film chronicles Kazakh reporter Borat and his overweight producer (Ken Davitian) in their adventures in the "U.S. and A." They are sent to create a documentary about our globalizing culture. However, Borat quickly falls in love with Pamela Anderson after seeing her on a rerun of Baywatch, and the plot ultimately turns into Borat's quest to California to marry Anderson. What's interesting is that Cohen, a Jew, is actually speaking a combination of Hebrew and Yiddish with a Polish accent in his subtitled mumblings. The film's plot is very weak. However, it's extremely doubtful that anyone in the audience would actually care, as they would be too busy laughing hysterically.
Cohen finds humor in the reactions of everyday people in response to Borat's antics and candid inquiries. Cohen seems to never stop, as the movie is basically funny the whole way through. Cohen and Charles even accomplish the unthinkable in this film by creating sympathy for such a repulsive and clueless character. Completely broke, lonely and out of gas, Borat creates a fire for himself outside a building, and one actually feels sorry for him. Though Borat appears like such a despicable character, in reality, he is far too moronic to hate.
Cohen might actually be making a statement concerning racism with this film, because beyond his tongue-in-cheek shtick, Borat unknowingly reveals what kinds of people are actually out there, the nice, along with the bigots and sexists.
Even Borat himself proclaims he hates gays and Jews, but it becomes apparent that he has never even met either until his voyage into America. The bottom line is, no matter how stupid the plot is, and how politically incorrect it may be, this movie is completely hilarious all the way through.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Marie's gorgeous to behold
Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette takes a vivid look into the lavish life of the controversial queen. Shot on location in Versailles, the film, along with The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation is stated to be part of a trilogy of the director's movies concerning women feeling alone.
Plot has never been Coppola's strong suit, but should a minimalist approach work in a biopic? To an extent, it does. The film does not cover Marie Antoinette's entire life, but just the years she spent in Versailles. The film's main conflict resides in the necessity of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) to produce an heir with Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). This is a meager plot to sustain a two-hour long movie, but Marie Antoinette really isn't about the trials and tribulations of France and extraneous character arcs, but about Marie's own personal feelings of being an outsider while living in Versailles.
The film successfully conveys her yearning for excitement beyond the confines of the royal court. Dunst gives an honest, respectable performance while Schwartzman gives a surprisingly excellent turn playing against type as the bloated, shy Louis XVI. However, the style and visual beauty of the film outweigh any of the performances. Costume designer, Milena Canonero, who has been producing magnificent work since the '70s in films such as Barry Lyndon and Chariots of Fire, creates a visual feast.
Coppola's direction is spot on. Her style shines through with the usage of pink, blue tints and modern music. The music, including songs by New Order, The Cure, Bow Wow Wow and The Strokes, helps a historical film connect with a contemporary audience. By using modern music, one could actually feel the rush Marie felt when sneaking out to a masquerade party. Another device utilized by Coppola was having the actors speak in their own accents, instead of struggling to sound French or Austrian. Where Coppola missed the mark, however, was in the writing. Her decision to sidestep the ultimate fate of Marie Antoinette could have been a great idea, but the ending of the film felt abrupt and incomplete. Coming straight off an Oscar win for her brilliant previous script, Lost in Translation, Coppola's screenplay for Marie Antoinette is disappointing.
Even without a perfect script, Coppola finds ways to create character and story without an utterance of dialogue. The simple switch of a portrait shows the death of a child, and the queen becomes aware of her fall in popularity when she applauds at an opera, but no one else joins in. Marie Antoinette had the possibility of being an outstanding film if it had been a reel shorter, but it was still a pleasure to watch.
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Last King a riveting look at despotic demon
Whether playing a tough high school football player in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker in Bird or a mafia hit-man in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Forest Whitaker has always given solid, occasionally great performances.
Yet, only with his role in The Last King of Scotland will Whitaker finally receive the respect he deserves. In his first non-documentary feature, director Kevin Macdonald gives a highly ambitious look at Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Whitaker) through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) in the 1970s.
Macdonald definitely shows his documentary roots through the use of extensive location shooting in Uganda, giving a guerrilla, authentic approach to the film. He also uses a fair amount of hand-held camera-work, grain and noticeable zooms to give this political thriller a documentary feel. The cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, utilizes high-contrast, deeply saturated images of Uganda with a prevalent light brown hue.
The pacing is fast, and the style, technique, costumes and music accurately illustrate the '70s feel. When we first meet Idi Amin, he's portrayed as a humorous but intense politician who has just become Uganda's president.
However, by the end of the film, the humor is gone. We finally get to see Amin's true colors.
Whitaker brilliantly captures the intensity and brutality of Amin, while maintaining his charismatic qualities. He is so convincing, that the footage of the real Idi Amin, spliced into the end of the film, completely flows.
The screenplay, written by Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan, and Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Giles Foden, actually focuses more on the naive Dr. Garrigan than on Amin. Garrigan would be too unlikable to care about in any other film, with his arrogance, selfishness, and ignorance. His naiveté seems appealing at first, then idiotic, and eventually completely loathsome. But what saves his character flaws is the on screen chemistry between him and Whitaker, and a strong performance by McAvoy. However, what is entirely misleading is the statement "This film is inspired by true events," as the McAvoy character is fictional.
The last half hour of the film ultimately becomes a thriller, coupled with a few scenes of absolute horror. Audiences will cringe in disgust at the violence attributed to Amin, who reportedly killed more than 300,000 Ugandans, while staying on the edge of their seats when not covering their eyes in terror.
The suspenseful final scene at the Entebbe airport provides a painful, though emotionally satisfying ending to a heavy handed film.
The Last King of Scotland is an extremely powerful film, with a commanding performance by Whitaker.
Half Nelson (2006)
Nelson's lessons linger
Half Nelson, the first feature by director Ryan Fleck, steers clear of the inspiring clichés of teacher-student films and the usual violence of films set in the ghetto.
Half Nelson is a character study, with a meager plot stretched into a one-act film. Not to say this is a bad thing. If one wishes to be thoroughly entertained, steer clear of this film. If one wishes to have a comfortable time at the movies, steer clear of this film. However, if one wishes to view a unique and risky example of independent cinema, see this film.
Any viewer can tell how much blood and sweat went into making Half Nelson, which was shot on 16mm for less than $1 million. Ryan Gosling is truly admirable for seeing something in this screenplay. After breaking viewers' hearts in The Notebook, Gosling carries this film. Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a Brooklyn middle-school teacher who is addicted to crack cocaine, with admirable subtlety. It's a performance that will make the audience cringe with anguish and sympathy as Gosling takes one self-destructive step after another.
It isn't surprising to hear that Half Nelson was once a short film by Fleck titled Gowanus, Brooklyn. That film starred the young actress Shareeka Epps as a bright, tough African-American girl named Drey in Dunne's class. The film characterized her unlikely friendship with Dunne, after she discovered his crack habit. Epps reprises her role in Half Nelson, and is astonishingly good in her feature debut, giving a real, down-to-earth performance. Rounding out the main cast is the charismatic Anthony Mackie as Frank, a local drug dealer who is actually nice.
Anna Boden's screenplay, co-written by Fleck, is filled with ranges of intensity, awkwardness, sadness, and humor. Fleck veers from the norm in his direction, giving an extremely claustrophobic look into the lives of the characters.
Half Nelson, although somewhat painful to watch, will stay with you for a long time.
Coons! was probably the best thing about the 2006 Tartan Road Film Festival in Boca Raton. I just walked into the screening of this thinking it was going to be another annoying high school short film. While realizing that the high school films were an hour later, I decided to sit this one out. Every single person in this small screening was laughing at every other line in the movie, and the ridiculous raccoons just added to it. Hopefully this movie finds an audience with some good word of mouth, as it was hilarious, shot well, and acted perfectly for the type of movie it was. I didn't stay around for the awards, but it would be a huge mistake if this movie didn't win. Keep submitting this to more festivals guys.