Friday, August 8, 2008

The Bank Job

Sometimes I want to watch a film strictly for who is directing it. The Bank Job only made my Netflix queue because of the great director Roger Donaldson (13 Days, No Way Out, White Sands, Species, Cocktail) was the man behind it. Donaldson has a way of making movies exciting...even Cocktail... and Dante's Peak for that matter. He specializes in thrillers so when the halfway point of The Bank Job rolls around and the shit hits the fan... boy does it ever.

Our story begins with the lovely Martine (Saffron Burrows) asking her old flame Terry (Jason Statham) if he is interested in doing a little job with her. A sort of last heist so both of them can get out of the business. Terry isn't really in the heisting business and is skeptical of the offer. He finds out that Martine is really being asked to cooperate for a British MI5 agent that got her out of a drug smuggling charge. You see the British lads need to get some compromising photos out a safety deposit box in order to charge an upstart young hood Michael X (Peter De Jersey). As I said before... halfway through the light tone takes a hard turn. Things get veeeeeeeeeery complicated when it goes into thriller mode.

All of the actors are impeccably well chosen no matter how small the part... and boy there is a lot of speaking parts here. I got quite a few twists and turns including two WTF moments... one involving a sandblaster. Donaldson does a great job of getting the entire look too... the costume dept and everyone on the film deserves high praise.

The only downside is perhaps there are a few too many threads to be woven together here. The last 45 minutes gets very deep into the details. Not a lot of loose ends either. How much of the story is actually true is questionable as well. No matter what the answer to that may be, The Bank Job is flat out entertaining. In a marketplace with so many stupid films (eyeballing you Vantage Point), it is a pleasure to see a great director work with this much talent.


X-Files: I Want to Believe

This film hasn't been given a fair shake at all. I think a lot of the criticism has come from non-fan reviews and casual fans. For the hardcore fans of the series, I Want to Believe delivers the goods on what we realy want: Mulder and Scully. The plot takes a backseat to their relationship.

Let's get to the plot first. Mulder (David Duchovny) has been living in exile when a young FBI agent is kidnapped. Another agent in charge (Amanda Peete) reaches out to Scully (Gillian Anderson) to help her locate Mulder so he can use his unique skills to find the missing girl. The audience (and Mulder) is lead to believe that suddenly the FBI is all forgiving and will let the the two back without consequences. Mulder decides it is worth the chance to help sort out the mystery. Here is where it gets a little foggy. The only lead the FBI has is a reformed molester who happened to be a priest that still goes by the moniker Father Joe (Billy Connolly). Father Joe claims to have pyschic abilities and in fact led the FBI to a field with a maimed arm. Whether or not the good Father has a hand in this is the mystery.

Much of the plot was kept on the down low for reasons unbeknownst to me. Nothing in it is that original other than you do have a legitamite WTF moment half way through. The real story is Mulder's attempt to reconcile who he is and Scully's questions of faith in a fucked up, apeshit world. Ultimately those of the two major themes of the series so to say this is unexpected would be to reveal you to be a nonfan.

I think if you go into the film knowing that it is very low budget(Half the original film's budget) and expect a good longer episode you'll be fine. The interplay between the leads is still some of the best you can find. It is also a pleasure to see Duchovny in something smarter than the lackluster Californication. Series creator Chris Carter wrote/directed the film with a limited feel for visuals. It might have been better to obtain someone a bit more skilled with the camera to make the film look a little bigger. This one looks and feels small. Carter also makes a horrible casting decision with Exhibit as another FBI agent...terrible terrible. What was TI doing...oh yeah he's in jail.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Year of Living Dangerously

Some movies start out with a deeper meaning or rather to come across as deep and fail miserably. Some strive for big ideas and are mediocre. This is a mediocre tale from awesome director Peter Weir (Mosquito Coast, Master and Commander, Truman Show, Dead Poets Society). Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is a young journalist on his first real foreign assignment in Indonesia around the same time that whole conflict in Vietnam was starting up. Hamilton is teamed with a freelance camerman Billy Kwan(Linda Hunt playing a dude). Billy has adopted a woman and her son as his own and believes Guy could be the one journalist to blow the lid off the tragedies taking place there. Along the way Guy meets a hottie working in the British Embassy (Sigourney Weaver) and falls in love. Their relationship is compromised when a story comes between them that could not only destroy them, but get Guy killed in the process.

All of this makes The Year of Living Dangerously sound a lot more glamorous and high minded then the resulting film. Weir clearly loves the humanity of the project, but you never really get a true sense of the plight of the people. Only vague moments provide you a small glimpse into the true atrocities going on. Everything else is a young Weir trying to find his filmmaking self. The actors are fine especially Weaver who classes up a somewhat thankless role.

Nothing special here unless you want to see the evolution of Weir as a director. For this is the only reason I gave it a shot in my Netflix queue. Slight thumbs up for the solid talents behind a subpar script.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story

No doubt Wristcutters sat on the shelf for a long time because really... how do you market a long story about two people who committed suicide? And again the cut that director Goran Dukic finally released was probably not quite what he wanted. Dukic actually adapted his screenplay from his father's short story so that is probably why the characters seem to actually have a depth and feeling to them.

Zia (Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous) kills himself after problems with his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb from Talledega Nights). He finds out that suicides are condemned to live in a world much like the one he left "only a little worse." The fact that this world is made up of only suicides probably has something to do with that. Zia befriends a young immigrant Eugene(Shea Whigham from All the Real Girls) whose entire family has killed themselves. They talk and commiserate about their stories until one day Zia gets info that Desiree has too killed herself. Eugene and Zia set off on a road trip and that is where the story really gets going. The first person they encounter is Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon from A Knight's Tale and every man's wet dream) who is on the road trying to find the people in charge to inform them that she is in this work by mistake.

The story takes some twists and turns with other nice moments from John Hawkes, Tom Waits, and Will Arnett as the story comes to an end. The subject matter of suicide is a tough one to tackle and Dukic manages to craft a near brilliant tale of remarkable originality. His stark vision of the afterlife limbo in which the characters are habitating was missing only the lonely voice of Billy Corgan ala Spun. Suicide is treated with a bit a humor, but never so that is lessens the message of the film. The ending... the ending is just right.

Wristcutters will rightfully become a cult film one day much as Donnie Darko (tepid response in theatres) did in the last few years. One can only hope a true director's cut will come out with the many deleted scenes back in the film where they belong. If that happens my 90 will be a 100.


Angel Heart

Angel Heart is one of those odd films that has somehow lived on through the years despite it not being very good. It is almost mythical for the ruining of an American sweetheart Lisa Bonet from the Cosby Show. The nudity and sex scene she has later on in the film seem to be the sole reason why anyone remembers this Alan Parker film. Rumors were about too that the scene wasn't simulated... always one of those every few years in the urban myth variety. On to the movie...

Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) gets a visit from a potential client (Robert DeNiro) one day. Angel is more accustomed to finding cheating husbands than missing persons, but Cyphre (DeNiro) wants him to track down an old singer who has gone missing. Not much of an explanation or reason why just a thread to start with. Essentially this turns into a series of meetings Angel has with various associates of the singer that ultimately end with them showing up deceased. Angel feels a constant pressure to solve the mystery before he joins them in the morgue. Throw in an old girlfriend (Lisa Bonet showing up a long ways in) of the singer who seems to practice voodoo and you've got a glossy trash film noir.

Director Alan Parker has always been an overrated hack with far too heavy of a hand for me to take. Midnight Express got a lot of attention and probably is the only reason he was still making films by the time he got to Angel Heart. Parker would follow this trash up with an undenialable masterpiece Mississippi Burning. It was tough for him to mess that one up just as it is too much for him to elevate this material above standard genre crud. Much later on, Parker would do a string of so-so films culminating with Angela's Ashes and the godawful The Life of David Gale.

Bonet is extremely hot and underused, much like a walk on by British actress Charlotte Rampling. Of course, there is Mickey Rourke who has always been one of the finest actors working depending on how he feels about the film he is in. Here is seems to be trying to make the best of what he has got. Film noir is something Rourke was born to play, tis a pity he couldn't find a better script to do. The interviews with Rourke on the DVD lead you to believe his heart was never in this film and was more into his boxing around this time. I can't figure out for the life of me what DeNiro was doing here... and all the extras seem to point to the fact that he wanted nothing to do with it afterwards.

I'm giving this an average grade and you have to understand, without Bonet and Rourke, this would get a 0.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Grifters

Sometimes it is fun to revisit a film that you don't bust out too often to see how well it holds up. The Grifters is a drama from 1990 featuring the talents of director Stephen Frears (Hi-Fidelity, Dangerous Liasons) and producer Martin Scorsese. Essentially it is a story about three grifters (con men) and their relationship to each other. Each one looks at the other as a potential mark despite their closeness. Lilly (Anjelica Houston) runs odds down at racetracks for the mob and is sent to LA for some quick work. She drops in to visit her son Roy(John Cusack) who is hurting from a con he tried to pull in a bar. These two all ready have a contentious relationship when Roy's girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) enters the picture.

Revisiting this film now, I can clearly see that is set up as a creepy love triangle. Cue the scene where Myra confronts Roy about his work. A wisecrack early about Roy selling matchbooks provides a clue that she knew along what he did, but only later on after she witnesses it does she bring it up. At this point, Myra tell Roy that she is of the same ilk. Roy becomes immediately more intrigued by Myra since there is already that sexual tension between him and his mother.

Cusack is a master at the scenes with Lilly providing the viewer with way too much info with his eyes. They dart back and forth from breast to leg in a manner unbefitting of a mother-son relationship.

Strange that the film would come full circle from a line earlier on in the film. A woman always has one thing...

The Grifters was adapted from a novel by the great Jim Thomson that is less about the script as it is about the perfomances and direction. Cusack has the least showy part, but perhaps the most difficult overall. Houston has always been a fine actress, but most people didn't even know who the hell Bening was before this film. This is an excellent showpiece for one of the best actresses of all time. The daring and ballsy-ness is amazing.

Frears is always the consumate professional who might someday get the word auteur attached before his name. Each of his films has his fingerprints all over it. His work with the camera has a definite feel of the producer Scorsese. Each scene is done with such precision you can't help but feel excited just seeing what he is going to do next. Movies like this are an absolute pleasure to rewatch no matter what the subject matter.


Cameo alert for the great Pat Hingle as Lilly's mob boss. He was the original Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman!

Geronimo: An American Legend

The second half of Walter Hill was much better thank God. You get a good script from excellent screenwriter/director John Milius (Rome, Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian) with limited chances for Hill to fuck it up. Though the title would lead you to believe it is about Geronimo (Wes Studi), the story is told from a 2nd Lt. Davis (Matt Damon) fresh from West Point. He is put under the direct command of 1st Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric). Gatewood and Davis are charged with bringing Geronimo in to Brig. Gen. George Crook (Gene Hackman - the fuckin') to surrender. Geronimo's warriors would be the last to go into the reservation system while the US continued to push the American Indians away from their homes. Something happens on the reservation to start a revolt and soon Geronimo is back on the loose.

Altough you never really get to the heart of the Indian exploitation, you do get an excellent surface piece that manages to hit all the main points. Hill is able to sit back and not do anything too distractive to the narration. This represents a great change from his earlier work that would later again be touched on in Broken Trail.

In the description of the film, I wasn't even able to get to the greatness that is Robert Duvall as the tracker Al Sieber. Duvall manages to create a compelling character out of what seems like a stock role. In fact, each performance propels this film out of run of the mill status. For Gatewood, Patric brings the same underplayed, gentleness to the character as he lent to August March. Patric has become the king of understated roles, but that's for another column... Even Damon shows flashes of why, given the chance, he can really act. Also... look for a nice cameo from Kevin Tighe as a general who takes up the search for Geronimo later on. You'd probably recognize Tighe best as Locke's father on Lost or as the bar owner in the action classic Roadhouse.

Geronimo was Hill's follow up to the bomb Trespass. Both films did poorly in theatres despite being worthy of viewing. I liked Trespass a little bit better no doubt due to Bill Paxton and the Demon Knight himself William Sadler as the leads. Still Geronimo marks a key point in Walter Hill's career of direction.


Speaking of cameos... I almost forgot about Stephen McHattie popping in as well. McHattie is the diet Coke version of Lance Henriksen... right down to the gravely voice.

Wild Bill

It must have been Walter Hill flop month on AMC because I caught two of his biggest. Wild Bill came at a productive, flop-tacular time for Hill: the 90's. I had heard awful, scathing reviews about Wild Bill, but I thought there wasn't anyway it could be that bad... oh dear God I was wrong. It was absolutely worse. The movie starts with Bill (Jeff Bridges, but I'm the dude) hitting Deadwood (which covered all this better later on with some direction from Walter Hill...hmmm) to try and hit it big during the gold rush. The story is juxtoposed with too many annoying side characters and flashbacks. You never get a real sense of story with all the backtracking. Gunfights litter these for no particular reason other than to spice up the dull narrative.

Everybody is miscast. Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, Christina Applegate in anything, and The Dude sleepwalking through the lead all are enough to turn the film off immediately. Everything from the look to the direction just smacks of awfulness. This isn't even so bad that it is fun to watch. Even Diane Lane isn't fun... and lemme tell ya that is a hard thing to accomplish.

One wonders if Hill was just in a drug/alcohol stupor until his comeback with an episode of Deadwood and the pretty great tv western Broken Trail. Hill would follow this up with Last Man Standing, Supernova (a long story there...), and Undisputed... all turd sandwiches. Here's your DVD quote... Wild Bill is even WORSE than you would have thought!



There's not a lot to say about this classic film that hasn't already been said... but in case you've been under a rock or adverse to black and white I'll give a brief rundown of the plot. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is minding his own business running a little night club in Morocco some time after the Germans rolled into Paris when the love of his life Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks through the door. Although the story weaves between the political climate and a plot regarding exit visas, this is essentially a love story about a man who is forced to take a side. Rick is friends with Chief of Police (Claude Rains) and knows that is a dangerous time to do so.

The plot is hardly revolutionary, but the script was for the time. The rapid fire, smart dialogue is something quite lacking in most older films and surprised me the first time I watched Casablanca. This is probably the chief reason this film holds up so well over time compared to it's comtemporaries. All the leads are well casted and devour their roles. Director Michael Curtiz never oversteps his boundaries with flashy shots... preferring to keep the camera as an outsider to the intrigue going on inside of Rick's club.

Casablanca is absolute masterpiece and is a firm reminder why older films can still be as important as newer ones. Forget the rubbish about Citizen Cane and catch this one instead. I'm glad I finally got around to it.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

7 Years in Tibet

Not gonna lie to you... 7 Years in Tibet starts out as a bit of a mess. You have to stick with it for about 40 mins before you start getting to the good stuff. This time coincides with the mess in Heinrich Harrer's (Brad Pitt) own life. Heinrich leaves his pregnant wife at the train station after a fight to head off to climb a mountain in the Himalayas. The time period is just around the point that Britain was pulled into WWII. Harrer and expedition lead Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) are captured by the British (Since they are German citizens) and placed in a prison camp.

Many escapes later... the two find themselves trying to seek passage into Tibet. Eventually they make their way to the capital city where they catch the eye of a government official (B.D. Wong from OZ) and the young Dalai Lama. Soon the Dalai Lama becomes fascinated with Heinrich and they become friends. Certainly this is to echo the fact that the child that Heinrich created seems to want no part of Heinrich in his life. Waiting out the war in Tibet allows our lead character to find who he really is and wants to be. Later on you get the rumbling of China into Tibet and the backstabbing that takes place... but this movie is at it's heart a tale of a man lost in the world.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Enemy at the Gates, In the Name of the Rose) has done his best in cramming a story of about 10 years into the 140 min of run time. You feel a race at the start of the film to get to Harrer's time in Tibet. The story wants to be a bit more than that and that is a well intentioned goal. Annaud always gives his films a distinct look too... here you get Tibet as mostly a dirty, ugly place with the only glimpses of beauty being the people of the land. All of the actors are quite suited for their roles.

Not everything works here with the storyline. An effort was obviously made to keep this film under 3 hours. This causes the viewer to only focus on this period of time. This leaves you with the disctinct feeling that the most fascinating things might have been what Harrer did with the rest of his life... and not those 7 years in Tibet.


Friday, June 27, 2008


"He's hacked into my car's computer!"

So exclaims Diane Lane's character in the thriller Untraceable. I had heard all kinds of awful things about this film in the weeks around it's release, but I was surprised at how watchable it turned out to be. No doubt director Gregory Hoblit should get the credit for that after nice turns with Primal Fear and Frequency. Hoblit tried to class things up with a boring film Fracture that boasted the acting chops of Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. He (Hoblit) feels much more comfortable here with semi-implausible-land and a certain lack of decorum. Untraceable could've gone a different way and made this a sleazy whodunit that could creep into cult land, but instead you get a middling thriller.

Lane is on the case as Jane Marsh who is in the FBI cybercrimes division. Teamed with partner Griffin Dowd (Collin Hanks in all his post pubescent dorkiness) they mostly deal with losers who steal credit card info before stumbling onto a site where a cat is brutally killed live. Marsh wants to get the sonabitch on general principle, but the game is soon changed when the cat is replaced by a man. Enter Det. Box (Billy Burke - a Hoblit fav) as the Portland cop trying to find the missing man. The victim is being streamed live online where the more hits the site gets, the faster the man will die. The public start eating this shit up and the man soon dies. Will the cyberteam catch the killer or will the killer catch them? Probably both in a movie like this.

I have to agree with a writer from the AVclub in that this film would have been better served if the bad guy's identity was kept to the very end. And you also get that Untraceable was gonna get a little dirty with Lane's character spending a lot of time with the Detective. Random nudity from Diane Lane could only help differentiate between the rest of the ho-drum thrillers of this ilk.

A lot of talk was also given to the implausability of the plot... well duh it is a movie. Most of the twists require the same suspension of disbelief that you had to have to enjoy prior Hoblit films. What the film lacked was that complete go for the throat attitude that could have made this a perennial watch. Instead you get an average thriller that has a crush on the Saw films. Not as bad as you think... they should put that quote on the DVD box.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Very Bad Things

Four friends:Moore(Leland Orser), Michael(Jeremy Piven), Adam(Daniel Stern), and Robert (Christian Slater) take their soon to be wed friend Kyle(Jon Favreau) on his bachelor party to Vegas. And next thing you know after a lot of booze and coke, Piven kills a hooker. Isn't that always how your Vegas trips end? The five friends fearing comdemnation of all of them decide to dispose of the body and act like nothing ever happened. Only things don't work out so easy.

Peter Berg's writing/directing debut Very Bad Things is a rather auspicious one. Berg is determined to make this a dark comedy no matter what... only the dialogue feels ad libbed and the situations seem forced. Whether or not the film works for you will no doubt be based on the assinine behavior of the friends the rest of the film. I didn't buy into any of it. Throw in some overacting from Cameron Diaz and an underuse of Jeanne Tripplehorn...and you get a mess!

Berg would later go on to make The Rundown, an adaptation of Friday Night Lights, and a not bad political action film The Kingdom. So it would seem he just needs someone else script to do. I'd be hard pressed to say any of the actors were that good, but I will say that Christian Slater does just about everything he can do to make his part work. Still... the second half just doesn't make any sense and is rarely funny. It does have a bizarre ending... and I'm not sure if that helps.



Toby (Michael Pitt) had been living for awhile off the street. He is running away from some sort of abuse when he meets Les (Steve Buscemi). Les is a papparazzi and at first wants no part of Toby. Soon Les likes having a guy to talk to and brag a bit about his work when in reality Les is just barely getting by. So Toby becomes Les's assistant on a job working the "Music Awards." Toby gets caught up in an entourage of popstar K'harma (Alison Lohman) and soon the two strike up a relationship. Toby finds his friendship tested as he wants to follow his love, while not losing his best friend.

Mostly this is the same song and dance about a loser who find someone who looks up to him. Toby has no other friends so he looks past the parasitic nature of his collarboration with Les. A talent director (Gina Gershon) soon "discovers" Toby on the basis of his tryst with K'harma. The story takes a dark turn later... that maybe doesn't completely jive with the tone of the earlier film. It seems from the convo with writer/director Tom DiCillo and Buscemi accompanying the film might shed some light on that. Some of the script was toned down and perhaps that is why it comes out of nowhere.

DiCillo and Buscemi first collaborated in Living in Oblivion back in the early 90's which was the toast of film fests everywhere. He has since whiffed on many a fastball with the failures of The Real Blonde and Double Whammy. Clearly DiCillo knows what is ripe for satire in show business. The problem with Delirious is that the jokes aren't all that funny and doesn't go for the jugular. Buscemi has just done something similar with Interview - which takes on a budding actress being interviewed by a "real" journalist.

What really works for Delirious is the cast. Buscemi is always spot on so put that aside. Michael Pitt and Alison Lohman are both at the top of the list in terms of good young actors. They both can bring a realness to the characters that you just do not get with most of the souless names coming out of Hollywood. Both Pitt in The Dreamers and Lohman in Where the Truth Lies, have staked their claim in the role of serious actors. Here they get the tone of the film and try to give more than the perfunctory performance called for from the script. You actually want these two people to end up with each other.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw

More old school films here at TGE... this Sherlock Holmes tale come all the way from 1944! I was a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories since I was barely old enough to read. I've only seen some movie versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous character and none of them were very good. On the advice of a collegue of mine, I decided to look back a few years. Directer Roy William Neall made a bunch of Sherlock stories in the twilight of his career and I selected The Scarlet Claw to start with. Sherlock (Basil Rathbone) recieves a letter from a dead woman (she was alive when she wrote it) and things are set in motion. Joined by Watson (Nigel Bruce), Holmes sets off to Le Mort Rouge in Canada. The town believes a monster is killing people on the swamps outside of town.

Of course in older stories it was logical to set up each character as a suspect. So you get led around through Sherlock's search from character to character with the full intention of red herrings everywhere. The climatic finish takes a turn from modern movies where the killer is not a major character... but I will leave it at that since there is more to it than just that.

The two leads are both accomplished actors and the direction is solid. The set pieces used are quite good for 1944 with some nice moody atmospherics. Even with modern effects today, there is nothing like a black and white film with some big ol' smoke machines. Filmgoers with an appreciation of older films with no doubt be satisfied with this film. However, if you are still b&w adverse, perhaps you should try something else.


Murder on the Orient Express

Going old school back to 1974 with Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Lumet managed an all star cast including Sean Connery, Ingrid Berman, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave (who was hot once?), Michael York, Richard Widmark, Albert Finney, and Anthony Perkins. Each plays a character that winds up as passengers on the Orient Express when a murder occurs. Albert Finney is Poirot - a detective for hire that finds himself asked to investigate the murder by his friend played by Martin Balsam.

Essentially this is a whodunit for the last hour plus. In the movie intro you get a sad story of a kidnapping gone wrong that would seem to figure into the movie's plot. As Poirot starts his inqury you begin to understand that previous crime even better. The actors are universally good except for Perkins and Bergman - which is strange coz Ingrid picked up an Oscar for her role.

Lumet is again quite simple in his presentation of the story. He never does anything too fancy with the shots. Lumet's technique is usually to cast right and then get the hell out of the way. This way of thinking works well here where the story is really the director. The climax isn't anything too mindblowing, but it does throw you something different.

The Orient Express sputters a little out of the gate, but once the murder happens things come to life. Nothing revelatory here, but a excellent chance to see so many great actors together.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Dog Soldiers

Director Neil Marshall made everyone's list of hot new directors with The Descent. A lot of people don't realize that he actually made a little gem of a horror film before that. Dog Soldiers succeeds as the same kind of small cast, small environment element that made The Descent work.

A squad of British soldiers are out on maneuvers in the Scottish highlands when they encounter a camp of slaughtered commandos. What could possibly do such horrible butchering? Oh yeah... it's werewolves. The soldiers are quickly on the run when they find a local woman (Emma Cleasby) who seems a little too quick to help. Everyone retreats to a small house in the woods to try and hold out til morning.

People might be turned off by the low budget. You aren't going to see cool effects or big action sequences, but you will get a throwback to old horror films like Night of the Living Dead. Actors Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham, and Kevin McKidd are all solid as the co-leads for the budget. You never get a feeling that Marshall skimped anywhere except on the blood and guts.

So bottom line, either you can handle or embrace low budget horror or you can't. If it is your thing you are gonna love Dog Soldiers. It lacks the nice cinematic eye Marshall would later show, but for 100 mins you get a good time.


Second Skin

Sometimes you give a movie a chance for no particular reason. I can't really say one thing made me watch Second Skin. My boy Angus McFayden stars as Sam and the gorgeous (but not so good as an actress) Nastasha Henstridge is Crystal. Cystal applies for a job at Sam's bookstore and is promptly hit by a car. With the trauma to her head, Crystal is left not sure who she is or where she is running from.

This type of film is only gonna work if it goes one of two ways. Either you've got to be exceedingly clever with the narrative ala Memento or you have to go erotic-thriller. Director Darrell Roodt decides to split the difference and completely miss everything. One only has to look at Roodt's filmography to know that this is his forte.

Natasha has not real nudity of any kind and Angus seems to be sleep walking through his character. The plot has no surprises... so in the end. There's no reason at all for this film to even be made.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008


As a child of the 80's, I was raised on Arnold, Chuck, and Stallone. The first three Rambo's occupy spots on my DVD shelf and are for me a national treasure. Thou shalt not speak ill of Rambo in my house. With that being said, I was pretty pumped when Netflix delivered the newest addition to the series. I knew in my head not to expect too much coz after all its been 20 years since Rambo 3.

The fourth film finds out disallusioned vet working in some shit infested town along a river outside of Burma. Two missionaries (The Soprano's Paul Schultz and Dexter's Julie Benz) hire John to take them up river to help the people of Burma. Rambo warns the do-gooders that the only help the people need is guns. Of course, our hero's prediction comes true and the missionaries are caught up by the local military. So what's a killing machine to do? That's right... kill ever fucking Burmese soldier around and save Dexter's girlfriend.

R4 was directed by Sly himself... which explains why a lot of the killing is done by some mercs he knows. Matthew Marsden earns a top spot in the mercs no doubt due to his awesome performance in Anacondas 2....or not. The main problem is that Rambo has always been about one man versus everyone. This film seems to acknowledge the fact Stallone is getting old and lets some nameless characters have most of the fun. The action scenes are probably the most graphic you are ever going to watch. Limbs and heads explode everywhere... Dawn of the Dead has nothing on Rambo. Even the bad guys aren't established in any real way to get you rooting against them. For a film trying to create a "message" about the atrocities they sure don't spend a lot of time on that.

So I guess you'll enjoy Rambo 4 based on your expectations. If you are looking for a mindless action film with lots shit blowing up - you will probably like it. However, if you are looking for that same magic in the first 3 - that's not hanging around here.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Deer Hunter

So after that mad dash to finish the 2007 movie season via DVD, I got a little sidetracked by Lost. Seriously that show is like crack and I've fallen behind on actual films. I thought The Deer Hunter would be a good place to pick up the beat with it's longstanding status as a classic. Twas the winner of 5 Academy Awards and is largely to blame for director Michael Cimino's ability to get Heaven's Gate made. Most of the film nerds know that Heaven's Gate turned out to be a flop and a fiasco thus spiraling Cimino's career into the toilet. After watching The Deer Hunter for the first time, I have to wonder why people thought so highly of him. All the faults of TDH are largely to blame on the director.

Essentially this is the story of three friends from a small town in Pennsylvania that join the Army together to go fight in Vietnam. Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) all seem unsure of their decision during Steven's wedding the weekend before their Army careers start. Complicating Michael's close friendship with Nick is their love for the same gal played by Meryl Streep. The three friends reunite in Vietnam right before they are captured behind enemy lines. The trials in the prison camp and ensuing escape will each affect the soldiers in different ways that will last forever.

Cimino takes foreeeeeeeeeeeever to get this story going with the opening act being 45 minutes of the fellas last weekend together at home. The wedding sequence is way too long with very little if anything happening except to establish minor characters in roles that do not matter to the overall story. Sure John Cazale and George Dzundza are terrific actors, but they have no importance to the main storyline and should have had their parts trimmed down.

The leads are all quite excellent in their respective parts. It is a pity that the opening sequence with all the great actors suffers from bad sound, innane dialogue, and bits of the wedding celebration that do nothing but draw attention away from them. If you get this kind of cast maybe you should... I don' know... FOCUS on them. John Savage to me is the most underrated actor of this bunch. His part is overshadowed here by the central friendship to this story. Savage is truly wonderful with the scraps the script gives him. DeNiro is pretty much just De Niro and he does do that well. Walken's part feels cut down too much with never allows you to understand the change in his personality. Which leads me to...


While taking all the time in the world with the first 45 minutes of film, Michael's trip over to Saigon to try and get his dear friend Nick back is done in barely 15 minutes. Plus you never truly establish that Nick's character would go into this life with the Russian roulette sect. I don't buy that the most grounded character, Nick, would suddenly become addicted to that life of one bullet, one kill. What may have seemed profound in 1978 feels very forced in 2008. This has to be one of the weaker entries in the Best Picture Winners in the grand scheme of things. Clearly the ending captured people and made this memorable, but alas the journey there is barely worth the ride.


Friday, May 30, 2008

The Best of 2007

Ok... I never got around to Sweeney Todd and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is never going to get shipped via Netflix... I didn't see all the talked about docs Taxi to the Dark Side, In the Shadow of the Moon... but here is more or less the best of 2007.

1. Into the Wild - Just an incredibly emotional movie watching experience. Sean Penn was actually able to turn a great book into an even better film. Penn was finally able to follow up the promise of his debut masterpiece The Indian Runner.

2. Zodiac - David Fincher is borderline obsessive compulsive to detail and his adaption of Graysmith's novel shows it. Top notch all the way around and it begs for rewatches.

3. There Will Be Blood - I think this is a prime case of rewatching a film to realize it's greatness. The second and third watches of TWBB have convinced me of director P.T. Anderson's stunning brilliance.

4. The Bourne Ultimatum - Kind of a curveball here. I was quite impressed with Paul Greengrass's follow up to his disappointing first turn in the Bourne chair. The last hour is an action junkie's dream.

5. Starting Out in the Evening - 4 great actors doing a real movie for adults...a foriegn concept I know.

6. The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Well done debut from Andrew Dominik. The actors almost seem secondary to the beautiful cinamatography and music. Not for the faint of heart.

7. No Country for Old Men - Business as usual from the Coen brothers with the excellent Tommy Lee Jones and ...Josh Brolin? Not quite perfect, but very watchable.

8. Charlie Wilson's War - A well done film from Mike Nichols/Aaron Sorkin that uses Philip Seymour Hoffman to his fullest... that Tom Hanks guy isn't bad either.

9. Rescue Dawn - Another solid adaptation... only this time from a documentary by Werner Herzog. The realism will stay with you long after the film is over.

10. The Savages - Acting tour de force courtesy of Laura Linney.

I grade films rather harshly and there weren't a whole lot of them that made it over the 80 mark. Plus I'm necessarily recommending these films for anyone who isn't a hardcore film fan. Chances are if you like the Dane Cook garbage, you will not like any of these.

Starting Out in the Evening

It always amazes me when a well done film for adults slips through the cracks. People always complain about the lack of product aimed at a non PG-13 Brett Ratner crowd, but seldom put their dollars where it matters. Starting Out in the Evening currently boasts a 78 on metacritic and just under a 7/10 on IMDB, yet no saw it. Apparently even Oscar voters didn't see this strong effort from director Andrew Wagner who adapted this from a novel by Brian Morton.

Essentially this is a story revolving around 4 characters with writer Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) in the middle of it all. Leonard is approached by a grad student named Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) to help her with her master's thesis on his life and his books. The interest of a young lass brings up a conflict with Leonard's daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) who has relationship problems of her own with on-again off-again romance with Casey (Adrian Lestor). Heather is trying to bring out the real reason why Leonard has spent the last decade trying to finish just his fifth novel.

The dual storylines actually go together quite well especially if you figure out that Ariel and Casey's relationship is suppose to contrast the two sets of books that Leonard wrote. You see Leonard's characters were very different in the first books as told by Heather than the latter two. Those represent the two sides of Ariel's relationship. All of this is handled quite superbly by the director. You never get a sense that one half of the film lags in any way that would drag the other down with it.

Lauren Ambrose could play this role in her sleep and Adrian Lestor is always good. The two performances to talk about are Langella's and Taylor's Generally I have a disdain for the sterotypical character that Lili Taylor always plays perhaps best illustrated by the series Six Feet Under. She has limited range and a narrow comfort level it seems... but here she tones down the weepy put upon performance she always turns in. Instead she is able to craft an actual character with the help of a great script. For Langella, this seems a complete departure from his usual role as the man wearing the black hat. He gives a well thought out peformance that is every bit the opposite of something splashy like Daniel Day-Lewis's in There Will Be Blood. This much more subtle and nuanced. Langella lifts what could be a stuffy role with the wrong actor into something else.

All of this praise aside... I did have a problem with the ending. I don't want to reveal anything, but there is one scene that didn't play quite right. I can see how this would be accurate when you thing of the whole rather than the sum of it's parts... it is just that the tone feels off and the scene incomplete. I nitpick though and the average film goer might not even notice. This is a terrific movie for people who want more... expect more from their films.


The Andromeda Strain

Going a little old school today with the 1971 sci-fi classic The Andromeda Strain. Curiously enough it was written in book form by a young medical student named Michael Crichton and brought to the big screen by 4 time Oscar winner Robert Wise (The Sand Pebbles, The Sound of Music). Of course, even a big budget thriller looks dated thirty years down the road no matter who the director of the film... but you have to look at those things objectively.

So the basics... a satellite crashes to Earth in a small New Mexico town. Locals decide to recover it and try to open it. This unleashes a deadly strain of virus this world has never seen that causes the blood to clot rapidly causing quick death. Members of the Army's project SCOOP call in the Wildfire team to contain and investigate the dangers of the virus. The team (Kate Reid, Arthur Hill, James Olsen, David Wayne) is made up all all solid actors, but names you'd never recognize right away. Wise said he did that as to not distract you from the film and it's message. He wanted you to believe that this was a real situation that could happen.

While those four actors are more than capable, the real star is the sets. Wildfire is based a elaborate facility that has been made to look like a cross between the biolabs we have nowadays and something more Kubrickian. A scene toward the end shows just how far the set design people had to go to get a shot of James Olson racing through the core.

I have no doubts that when The Andromeda Strain came out that this film was about as perfect as you can get it. However, with pacing, special effects, and just advances in science in the last 30 years you do feel as this story is diminished some. Although actors of today would do well to take a note on not trying to oversell a role. Not a bad watch... unlike the new miniseries that changed a good deal around to add more of a military thriller aspect to it.

The new miniseries adds too many faces you'll recognize. Only Benjamin Bratt and Andre Braugher have the chops to bring the goods in. Christa Miller (Scrubs), in particular, is awful in her role as part of the Wildfire team. The military aspect is played up more to create the government conspiracy plot. All of it takes a timeless story and reduces it to Sci-Fi original movie territory. I didn't make it through the second half of the new Andromeda Strain, the first half left me with the distince feeling of a turd sandwich with garnishes.

Old Andromeda Strain 80/100

New Andromeda Strain 10/100 (10 for Braugher)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jone and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Henry Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) is back at it again in this fourth film in the Indiana Jones franchise. Jones is approached by a fellow named Mutt (Shia Lebeouf)to help him locate his mom's boyfriend (John Hurt). The boyfriend was an old friend of Indiana's named Howard Oxley. Oxley believed he had located a crystal skull which is the key to a secret to a lost city of gold. Throw in Mutt's mother (Karen Allen) is really Marion Ravenwood from Raiders and you get a family get-together much like the second National Treasure. I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. Oh and don't forget a miscast Cate Blanchett as a Russian general trying to get a piece of the crystal kingdom too.

I'm a bit late reviewing this because essentially my heart was broken. I knew it was gonna happen, but I hoped that somehow Spielberg could rescue this film from the evil clutches of George Lucas. Lucas is the man that came up with this lame-brained storyline. The setup for the film is actually quite well done all the way up til the crystal skull is revealed - then it is bye bye to logic and the world we knew of in the Indiana Jones series. It turns into a shotty episode of something resembling X-Files - without the brains. David Koepp was asked to create a screenplay based on this Lucas abomination and to be fair he does what he can.

Spielberg's elaborate stunts seem small in scale. The camera feels like it is only capturing a small bit of screen unlike the epic feel of say Raiders. Much of this has to be blamed on absurd CGI effects. Lucas is no doubt to blame for the dumbing down of this series. The latter Star Wars films suffered from the, "Hey look what we can do with CGI even if it doesn't fit with the rest of the film!" attitude. Everything feels cheap and small. I know Harrison can't do everything he used to, but that doesn't mean you have to CG other parts that could be done by stuntmen.

All that being said, you the audience get a horrible tacked on ending. I'm sure Lucas/Spielberg wanted to tie things up in a way to make to please the crowd, but more people I knew at the screening were angry since it went against everything the first films had established. Maybe it's not Indiana Jones that needs to hang it up, maybe it is George Lucas.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

P.S. I Love You

For your standard rom-com, P.S. I Love You has some pretty dark moments to the storyline. Holly (Hilary Swank)loses her husband Gerry (Gerard Butler) to a brain tumor. Soon after his death, she starts receiving letters Gerry wrote before he died. Gerry has a everything plotted out to help Holly through the first year after he passes away. Holly's mom (Kathy Bates) disapproves of the lettters. She believes her daughter is never going to get over it with all the constant reminder of her lost husband. Throw in a strange dude (Harry Connick, Jr) and some friends (Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow), and you have a film.

Director Richard LaGravenese is man all over the creative map. He has made in interesting chick flick in Living Out Loud, a spellbinding doc on American cinema in A Decade Under the Influence, a contribution to Paris J'taime, and a generic teacher film in Freedom Writers. Before directing, LaGravenese made some coin and a name adapting chick novels to chick flicks. But for his writing debut, he scripted the wonderful Terry Gilliam film The Fisher King. Overall though, you'd have to say he should know his vaginal audience. This film raked in a fairly respectable total at the box office.

Back to the film at hand, I found myself wondering why this film was constructed the way it is? You get a very anticlimatic double ending that leaves you with questions... and not in a good way. You basically follow Holly through the story with flashbacks to explain how she fell in love with Gerry. In real life, Holly sleeps with Gerry's friend from Ireland seemingly with his blessing from beyond the grave and maintains some sort of thing with the Connick, Jr character. It all feels awkward...

That is probably the best way to describe the entire film: awkward. The tone is all over the place...the characters are all over the place... the script is all over the place. Somehow I think I did like it. I say I think because I had a ton of issues with it. Butler and Swank REALLY work their asses off here.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Writer/Director Rebecca Miller tells a strange story about a man named Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) raising his daughter Rose (Camille Belle) in a 1980's commune. The commune is pretty much dead except for the title characters. Jack is an idealist who tries to keep the island on which his commune resides free of riff raff. The plot starts unwinding when Jack, who has a heart condition, invites his quasi-girlfriend (Catherine Keener) to live with them and baggage. The baggage being her two teen sons. One of which named Thaddius (Lewis's future costar in There Will Be Blood Paul Dano) who has designs on young Rose.

Basically it is a reverse Oedipal tale where the daughter finds it impossible to love any other man than her father. Jack realizes it too late to fix things. The rest of the plot is mostly cliche stuff. The real reason to watch The Ballad of Jack and Rose is for Miller's eye for the camera and her real life husband Lewis's work. This is by no means a great or even original story, but you are engrossed in this family's life and feel sad when it is over. In the end I liked more than I hated.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man has always been at it's core a story about a drunken, spoiled genius. So it seems perfect that director Jon Favreau fought to get the perfect actor for the role: Robert Downey, Jr. Obviously the parallels in the personal life of Downey echo some of those for this legendary comic book character who out of the suit in Tony Stark.

Stark is the son of a famous industrialists who built the family empire around weapons manufacturing. Tony has a close call with Afghani rebels on a business trip. He mananges to escape by constructing a crude suit made up of various parts stripped out of the rebel weapons. Upon learning that most of those weapons were made by his family's company, Stark tries to change his stripes by shifting the focus into another avenue. This action is met with disapproval by his top adviser Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Something seems to be going on under the surface and of Stark Enterprises...

Favreau wouldn't be anyone's first, second, third, etc to direct a big budget action film. In fact his last project, Zathura, had a large budget only to fall flat at the box office. Thankfully, Marvel felt as if he was the right guy to add a little more than we usually get from a comic book story. Favreau is an expect at adding humanity to his projects and that comes in very handy for this dark story. The special effects are well done even if the action sequences might need a bit more work in the next one.

Downey is always a wonder to behold, but alas sometimes his projects aren't. Here, he gets a meaty role almost tailored to his every strength. Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges are also excellently cast in the supporting roles. The only problem is Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's assistant Pepper Potts. I've said it before, but Paltrow is like listening to a robot with dialogue. You barely even get the Dunst Effect (two emotions) as someone forgot to change the microchip in her head.

In the end, you get a very well made MOVIE. I think that is the key with so many people having fawned over brainless trash like Transformers. Iron Man deliveres a story with convincing characters ACTORS playing them. The bar has been set high for the summer.


Friday, May 2, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

A comedy directed by Jack Kasdan (The Zero Effect) and written by Kasdan and Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) has a lot to live up to. Maybe that's an unfair expectation to put on a well intentioned film, but it is what it is. Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is more or less a knock off of Johnny Cash with Darlene (Jenna Fischer) his June Carter. Most of the film is a direct spoof of the Cash biopic Walk the Line with a few added changes later in the story. Such as when Cox tries to revive his career as a protest singer ala Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea. The film sticks with straight up spoof for most with very few gags requiring a set up. The songs were all composed by the writers (and some friends) with only one of them really working in "Let's Duet".

If it sounds like I'm not that excited about the film then you get my point. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments scattered throughout the film... it is just that there is so much dead space between them. The ending doesn't quite work that well either. Kasdan can do satire well as in his remarkable skewing of the television industry The TV Set. Unfortunately, Walk Hard falls squarely in the assine genre of Talladega Nights and Semi-Pro. Props do have to go to star John C. Reilly who keeps the whole thing from sinking. Having an actor who can do all his own singing ensures you are taken out of the story by bad lip-syncing (Streets of Fire hello?). I can only give this a modest recommendation.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

As someone who watches a lot of films, I must admit I expect more from a film from writer Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, A Few Good Men) and director Mike Nichols(Closer) than say a Mark Walhberg action flick. So while I greatly enjoyed watching Charlie Wilson's War, I did want it to be more overwhelmingly good.

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a morally bankrupt Congressman from Texas. One of his supporters, a socialite from his home state named Joanne Herring (A terribly miscast Julia Roberts), asks that he look into the current invasion of Afganistan by Russia. Wilson, who sits on a Congressional subcommittee, checks into the "black ops" budget to find that the CIA is is barely doing anything to help the rebels fight the Russians. Since the story takes place during the Cold War, fighting Russia was the thing to do only you have to keep it on the down low to prevent a full scale war. Wilson, with the help of a CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), starts doing what he can to fund and supply the war.

Everything moves along very quickly which is key for this sordid of a topic. Whether or not you can believe all of this (based on a true story) or not is up to you. Hanks is dialed down the entire film allowing him to play off the entire cast. Hoffman steals the show once again in his supporting role. The chemistry between his character and EVERYONE is top notch. Alas, Roberts is once again exposed as an actress. Other than Closer, I can't really think of a time when she actually did something outside of her comfort zone AKA shitty, big budget comedies and succeeded(Erin Brockovich was a piece of shit). Her accent alone sends a shiver up your spine. However, the rest of the supporting cast is excellent led by the wonderful Amy Adams as Wilson's assistant.

As for the puppeteers, Sorkin is right at home with this political tale. He gives it enough comedy as to not reduce the meaning of it, but to lighten what is at it's center a very serious story. On the other hand, it is hardly groundbreaking as a whole. Mike Nichols does what he does best: gets the hell out of the way and lets the script do the work. I'm not sure Mike is a good director as much as he just picks good material. Whichever the case, the two have collaborated on a very entertaining movie. It is disappointing that Charlie Wilson's War was oddly forgotten (for a Tom Hanks movie) about after it's brief run in theatres.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet has been an acclaimed director for as long as I can remember. His films Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Verdict, etc have won him a legion of followers even though he hasn't had a good one since 1989's Family Business. So maybe the critics missed him so much that his most recent effort Before the Devil Know's You're Dead became a much beloved darling of the film world. Truth be told, I've always found Lumet's work to be overrated. The stories are mostly character pieces long on "acting" and short on plot. With the exception of Deathtrap, I wouldn't classify any of films as a masterpiece. So it would seem fitting this his new film is much the same as his prior "classics" from the 70's told from a slightly different narrative.

BTDKYD is the story of two brothers Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) who plan a heist on their parents' jewelry store. Both need the money for different reasons and figure since the store is insured that no one with get hurt from this transgression. Complicating both Andy and Hank's life is Andy's wife (Marisa Tomei) whom is having an affair with Hank. That's enough of the plot since you are gonna want some surprises in this film... in fact you need them because the story is pretty straight forward.

One thing that sets this film apart from Lumet's other films is the fractured narrative style he uses here. The heist and it's aftermath are told out of order and from different points of view. It shifts from Hank to Andy to their father (Albert Finney) and back through again. Unfortunately, it feels more like a gimmick than necessary as in something like Memento. It feels concocted to add a bit more punch to a story we've seen before.

What elevates this film has nothing to do with the plot or the direction... it is in the performances. Just as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico would have been nothing without Pacino, BTDKYD would've have been the same without Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman shines yet again here as the brother who is leading a far more complex life than you initially might think. The journey his character takes should have nabbed him a best actor nomination at the Oscars. (He was rewarded with a nod for Charlie Wilson's War) His work here is far superior than Capote for which he won Best Actor. Finney is also strong here albeit with less of a part to work with... he plays a bit against type here as the flawed father to nice results. Hawke and Tomei (mostly nude, not that I am complaining) are more than adequate in their roles.

Lumet keeps the shots simple to illustrate the characters with the world around them. It's less about the closeups and more about framing each shot like you are watching a play. This simplicity has always been the best things about Lumet films. So while you are gonna get a lot of twists and turns, you will get good actors getting a chance to shine. (excluding Vin Diesel's awful performance in 2006's Find Me Guilty) Not a great film here, but a must watch for Hoffman fans.



Steve Buscemi was approached to help the remake of a Dutch film of the same name as a tribute to the slain filmmaker. It was to be one of three films to be remade in American as the final wishes of Director Theo Van Gogh. Buscemi had mostly directed a few indies and some episodes of TV (The Sopranos , OZ)so this seems easily in his wheel house.

Buscemi plays Pierre Peters, a political writer for a mag, that gets assigned to cover a b-list soap style actress Katya (Sienna Miller). The two are set to have an interview together that gets off to an odd start. Soon after the two retire back to Katya's flat.

What follows is much like a play with just the two main characters after that. The two play a cat and mouse game that wants to be something clever, but never quite builds to anything significant. You do get two very capable actors taking lots of verbal jabs. And I'm shocked to say this, but Miller steals the show from director Buscemi. Although, I'm sure you could argue that was what he intended. I've seen one other film Buscemi directed film in 1996's Tree's Lounge. Both of these films felt light on story. You can see the attraction to the simple setups and stories, but I want more from this fine actor.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Savages

Wednesday at the TGE's house was Philip Seymour Hoffman day. Inadvertantly or subconsciously, Netflix gave me 3 of his films at once. The first of which was a critically adored effort from writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills) that didn't find an audience in theatres.

Linney plays Wendy the sister of Jon (Hoffman)that finds out their father's girlfriend has passed away. The father, Lenny (Phillip Bosco), had been living with her family for years and now they want him out. This forces the sibling back together when they have to travel to Arizona to get him. Lenny is unfortunately going through late life dementia and needs to be placed in a nursing home. The rest of the film is a character story of two underachievers. Wendy has never been able to have a healthy relationship and feels in the shadow of her brother. Jon has achieved a PHD, but hasn't ever really figured out life. The plot device of the father returning enables the two to deal with things they have been ignoring.

The Savages is at it's core a character study of two somewhat dysfunctional adults trying to grow up. Hoffman can do this role in his sleep and eats up this material with viracity. It is Linney that is given the juicier role here. Her character is very reminiscent of the role Nicole Kidman played in Margot at the Wedding. Wendy is just a Margot that never hit it big with a book or play. All the performances from the supporting characters are top notch. Phillip Bosco is somewhat of a revelation here in the eldery father role. Bosco is most known for playing heavies, lawyers, judges, etc is an off beat choice for this role, but shows at 77 he can still bring it.

I wasn't a big fan of Jenkin's first film The Slums of Beverly Hills. That film seemed to lack a heart and was terminally obsessed with quirkiness. I talked about that in my review of Juno a few months ago. Here in The Savages, there is a quirk here and there, but nothing that keeps you from believing that these could actually be real people in a real situation. And maybe for once we get an ending that seems real too.


* By the way, I love Laura Linney so you might have to deduct 10 from that score if you don't

The Hawk is Dying

I enjoy the fact that Paul Giamatti has achieved a certain level of success so he can get a movie made by simply being in it. I say that because I find his choices of material to very interesting to watch. That being said, The Hawk is Dying isn't an easy film to like or watch. Still... it is fascinating.

Giamatti plays a man named George who runs an auto uphostery shop who fancies himself an amateur falconer. George lives with his sister (Rusty Schwimmer) and her autistic son Fred (Michael Pitt). He also has taken an interest in a young college girl named Betty (Michelle Williams) that he has been discussing his dreams with. Of course George fancies her, but keeps her at arms length. His character has done that with most everyone in his life.

George has already had a disastorous attempt at starving a hawk into submission. This was quite an awful experience and everyone reminds him of that when he and Fred find another hawk. As is the case with this kind of film, something happens to character and forces the lead character to deal with the impact. This is where the meat of the story follows with George's journey of self.

I can't say this ultimately works as a film. It feels more like a good character trapped in a not so good plot. Giamatti does everything he can to make the script better than it is... especially in some early scenes with Michelle Williams. The last 45 minutes manage to make up for the clumsy set up. A must watch only for Giamatti fans.


Friday, April 18, 2008

This is England

Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is kid who never quite fits in. He gets picked on at school for the way he dresses... his hair... his diminutive size. But when Shaun makes friends with Woody (Joseph Gilgun), he feels like he has finally found his place. Woody sticks up for him and shows him how to dress and act... shoot you might not even connect the skinhead culture into this right away until Shaun has his head shaved by a comely lass. Everything seems to be going rosey until Woody's friend Combo (Stephen Graham) gets out of jail. Combo is a hardcore nationalistic skinhead who has greater plans for Woody's group of friends. Combo's rhetoric appeals to Shaun's disallustionment after losing his father in a unnecessary war (sound familiar?).

Under all the pretensions you might have towards skinheads, you find a well crafted story about children growing up with no one in their lives but themselves. Shaun's story probably feels more current with the Iraq War echoing England's 25 years ago. Most of the actors you will have not seen before except for Stephen Graham (Snatch) - all of which feel dead on. There's nothing truly flashy here with writer/director Shane Meadows telling a simple story. The cinematography is solid for a low budget flick and the soundtrack of music is well picked to not draw any attention away from the story. I felt a tinge of George Washington here as well. That was another film about what happens to children without adults around. Both are just as heartbreaking.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

American Gangster

I am an unabashed Ridley Scott fan. I own 5 of his films and still need to pick up the underrated Black Rain and his classic Alien on DVD. Scott even manages to elevate his lesser material with his skill as a director as in Kingdom of Heaven and Thelma and Louise. I have a distinct feeling that overrated and craptastic Steven Zaillian's screenplay is much to blame here for American Gangster's startling mediocrity.

Our tale is that of Frank Lucas's (Denzel Washington) rise to top of the heroin game in NYC circa 1968. Lucas had great success by going direct to the maker in Thailand and importing it in under the noses of DEA. The other half of the story is about straight arrow cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Roberts is put in charge of a task force to stop the flow of drugs into the country.

That's probably enough of a setup since there isn't a whole lot of surprises or anything that sets it apart from any other drug/cop stories. Washingston is adequate here although it would have been an interesting to the previously casted Don Cheadle tear into this material. With that being said, Crowe can do this material in his sleep. He and Ridley are good friends and that no doubt drew him to this role, but the fact of the matter he is simply too good for this script. Scott does do a perfect job of casting some of the smaller parts with a TGE personal favorites John Hawkes (Deadwood) and Carla Gugino. Also nice in smaller roles are Ted Levine as Roberts boss and Josh Brolin (who had a Jude Law case of overexposure last year) as a rival cop up to his waist in dirt.

American Gangster is a well made film no question, but there is nothing stand out about it. I'm really surprised how many critics who have lavished this film with praise. With the pedigrees behind this film, I expected more. Don't expect to see American Gangster on my DVD shelf with Blade Runner and Blackhawk Down.


Monday, April 14, 2008

In the Land of Women

Carter Webb (Adam Brody) has his heart crushed when his beautiful girlfriend Sofia (Elena Anaya from Sex & Lucia) breaks up with him. When his grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) has some problems in Michigan, Carter uses it as an excuse to get away. While trying to regroup, he meets Sarah (Meg Ryan post plastic surgery bonanza) who lives across the street from his grandmother. Sarah is going through a tough spot in her marriage and with her health. Soon Carter is befriending Sarah's teenage daughter (Kristin Stewart better in Into the Wild) in a bit of creepy pedephile subplot.

In the Land of Women is somewhat a-mess with cliche and narratives that are probably unnecessary. You can tell that this first time effort from Jon Kasdan (son of Lawrence and brother to Jake) is jumbled with changes. The dynamic between Carter and Sarah seems to be the best relationship of characters in the film, but it seems to take a backseat while the other screenwriter devices are used. Even in the ending the film seems to be too tidy for it's own good. You never really get a since that this story has really changed a whole lot in their lives. That being said, I had a reasonably good time watching everything. A lot can be said about good actors elevating subpar material. Kasdan has a nice eye for things in his shots too. Maybe he just needs a hand from his brother Jake on focusing his story.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

A Noah Baumbach film with Jennifer Jason Leigh (his wife and my favorite actress) sounds like a good time to me... oh wait unless it is about an emotional wreck of a person named Margot (Nicole Kidman) who is like an infection in the heart of her family. Obviously this woman is damaged and unintentionally continues the cycle onto her son Claude(Zane Pais). JJL plays Margot's sister Pauline who is about to marry a loser in Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot uses Pauline's wedding as an excuse to come visit the man (Ciaran Hinds) who she is having an affair with.

Through the story you learn that both Margot and Pauline had a tough childhood with an abusive father. Pauline has learned to deal with everything through some medication and a supporting boyfriend. Margot on the other hand, breathes nothing but toxicity into everyone she encounters. I do think this is a brave performance for Kidman to take considering how unlikable her character is in every way. JJL is as always top notch with the only real find is Zane Pais as Margot's messed up kid. Jack Black is just fine as the recluse sometimes painter/writer who has captured Pauline's heart.

Baumbach gives the audience a story with no one really to root for... JJL is constantly put upon and the film might work if it was centered around her, but it's not. As always he writes brilliant dialogue, but it gets a little lost in the dysfunction. I think that the slightly more comic tone of Squid and the Whale allowed for you laugh a little more, but here you just feel cold. The scenes with Margot's put upon husband played by John Turturro are heartbreaking. This definitely looked better on the page than on screen.


Streets of Fire

Walter Hill was a hot shit director coming off a huge success with 48hrs when he set out to bring action, music, and cheesy 80's fashions together in Streets of Fire. Now I admire a man who thinks big and wants to do something different, but I can't really say that it all works here. First the story is of a rock singer just breaking through to the big time named Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) who gets kidnapped by the nefarious Raven (Willem Dafoe). Raven leads a gang of bikers named The Bombers who have been ruthless on the small town Richmond (which appears to be a small town in Chicago whatever that means). Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) reaches out to her brother Tom (Michael Pare) to rescue the lass. You see Tom and Ellen once dated until he ran off and joined the Army. What follows is an orgy of violence, bad 80's neon lighting, and cheesy lipsynched songs.

The first problem is casting Diane Lane who isn't able to sing her own songs. Perhaps back then the idea of lipsynching was so prevalent, but for this day and age Lane's work is pretty bad. What not just get a gal who can sing? Surely there was another fetching lass who could have brought that to the table?

The second problem lies within the cornball 80's crap thrown in with the costumes and set pieces. Do we really need the neon lighting and the pop not rock music from the day? No we don't especially when you've gone out of your way to make a lot of the set and wardrobe to resemble the 50's.

The last problem is in the music itself. Almost all of the songs represent the 80's style of music when a soundtrack out of Eddie and the Cruisers would have worked much better. Instead you get leftover Pat Benatar material as performed by someone not Diane Lane. Parts of the score by Ry Cooder is good however. Part of it seems to a riff taken from Springsteen's I'm A Rocker that is repeated over and over through the intro. After that you get classic Cooder guitar that was the best thing about the previous Walter Hill/Cooder collaboration Southern Comfort.

The acting is generally solid. Pare is pretty much one note, but he does that note very well. You get a nice side performance from Rick Moranis as Ellen's manager. Look for cameos by Rick Rossavich, Bill Paxton, and Mykelti T. Williamson. All in all, the film just needed a tougher, leaner image for this to work. By the time Raven and Tom duke it out at the end, you never really get a sense of danger on the line. I had a good time despite all over the failures here, but I'm not sure that's a good thing.


* Got to mention that the movie gets it's title from the Springsteen song and somehow the producers were unable to attain the rights to use the song. One might have thought that would have something you do before you make the film.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Finally... I'm saying finally because this movie FINALLY ended. Talk about a bloated mess at 2 hr 49min with a plot that leaves sooooo many strands loose. The basic premise of this film is that Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) finds himself in Davy Jones' locker. The rest of the pirates need his charm to combine with theirs to awaken Calypso. Calypso is some all powerful creature that was once the true love of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Plus they need her to stop the evil East India Trading Company which poses a threat to pirates everywhere.

Alright with that out of the way, time to discuss the myriad of problems here. Both the prior Pirate films have had extraneous plot almost to fault. It could be forgiven since it usually seemed pertinent in some way, but here all of the extra crap just bogs down what has traditionally been a spirited good time. The idiotic subplot with Calypso and Elizath Swann becoming the pirate king are wastes of time. Ideally the director Gore Verbinski could have cut everything down to a streamlined two hour film that would have flowed much better.


Thursday, April 3, 2008


Another film with homoeroticism thrown in as a main theme... Stop-Loss tells the story of Bandon King (Ryan Phillippe). King is a soldier who has just completed his obligations in his contract with the Army during the war in Iraq who gets sent back through the stop-loss loophole. That detail lets the gov't ship your ass back to the front if they feel like it is in the best interest of the country during a time of war. It is also referred to as a backdoor draft although that is a rather ignorant idea of it. A draft would take someone who has no plans to join the military and this just another committment that the soldiers who SIGNED UP have to fulfill if our moron-in-chief declares it necessary. So that pity argument is lost on me.

Anyway... back to the film. Stop-Loss tries to be a message film about the horrors of combat. Two of King's friends are also back in good ol' Texas celebrating a little leave. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is trying to deal with the loss of his best friend in their final month of duty in Iraq. King's other friend of which the homoeroticism emanates from in Steve (Channing Tatum). Steve is due to marry and settle down with Michelle (Abbie Cornish who is sort of a poor man's Charlize Theron). The only problem is his love for Brandon and their bond in the military... well that and the fact he is the kind of loser that can't be left to his own devices like Tommy. These kids joined the military because they didn't know what to do with themselves and now they found something they do well. Leaving it would too much for them to handle.

Michelle soon runs off with Brandon on a pointless trip first to Washington to try and get a meeting with their Senator of whom Brandon caught the ear of... this spirals into more "message" about the underground railroad of stop-lossed soldiers that takes them to Canada to start again. All of this is glossed over with only a glimpse into it. The treatment is much like a tv movie of the week. Ultimately the film finds it has nothing really to say and concludes in an unsatisfactory manner. Timothy Olyphant is wasted in a throw away role as Boot the soldiers' commanding officer.

Cowriter and director Kimberly Peirce made one of the best debuts in cinematic history with the emotional juggernaut of Boys Don't Cry. You see touches of her talent in the first hour with her skill in showing ordinary people in their environment. This film has some potential to really make a statement about the war, but wastes a golden opportunity. I read that there were at least 65 drafts of the script. Guess they should have made it 66 because that is where the real problem lies.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) was a mean, bully of a man who found himself slipping into fits of rage late in life. His brother Frank (Sam Shepard) has decided to leave their gang to go back east and get rid of this dishonorable life. On their last score together, they work with the two Ford brothers, Charlie (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Casey Affleck). James forms an attachment with Robert more so out of curiosity then anything. Robert Ford idolized the James gang growing up and can't wait to join up with them at age 19.

The loose group of hillbillies and thieves put together for their last job soon comes unraveled. Friends start turning out each and causes Jesse to grow paranoid. Especially later when he finds the Ford brothers his only friends left. In should be mentioned that in all of the time during the gang's reign of terror, the good people of Missouri kept them in their bossom. Jesse lived most of his life out in the open knowing that his legend would keep him safe. So the treachery in his own camp makes him spiral into a madness of sorts.

This is writer/director Andrew Dominik's first shot at a big budget film. Dominik manages to make a story of inherently unlikeable characters spellbinding throughout the entire 150 plus minutes. The opening is a bit clumsy and awkward, then so is one of the lead characters in Robert Ford. Affeck plays him with a somewhat homoerotic idolization towards Jesse that confuses and fascinates him. Pitt is fine here in a showy way as the mean spirited man who is used to getting his own way. There is also nice work by Paul Schneider (All the Real Girls) as one of the associates of the Ford brothers. Someday I'll have to write an essay of appreciation for Sam Rockwell - who seems to understand this material more than anyone.

The real brilliance in The Assassination has to belong to the cinematography, editing, and music created for this feature. All of them congeal until the film is left in a dreamlike state that you are never you will wake up from. Obviously this is not a film that will go down easily. It is a meticulously crafted film that perhaps never shows it's true intent until after Robert Ford does the deed.


* An interest note here, Garret Dillahunt plays an associate of Jesse James here. I was remind of his Robert Ford-like role in the tv series Deadwood of which he plays the coward Jack McCall who shoots Wild Bill in the back at the infamous card game.

* Also this is the 3rd time Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls) have worked together.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

So I'm a little behind on my blockbusters. I don't particulary like going to see movies like this with the unwashed masses because... I don't like people. And no matter what you do as a theatre manager, there is always going to be some douchebag in a crowded theatre doing something annoying. Although my tardiness in watch POTC2 is not because I didn't like the first picture. In fact, I thought the original was some of the best entertainment I'd seen in many a summer. I was just unmotivated.

Turns out... it is a pretty decent film. Obviously, director Gore Verbinski needs to work on his editing skills since this film is at least 15 minutes too long. There is plot... and lot of it actually for this kind of film. Basically Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) sells his soul to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) for the chance to raise his ship from the bottoms of the ocean. This sets off a number of other plot points involving Will Turner (my white-trash cousin as portrayed by Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (more Keira Knightley) amongst others. And since we all know they filmed POTC2 with POTC 3, there will be setup for a sequel.

All right with that being said... you get more or less what you got with the first. This is finally a film that costs a shit-ton of cash and you can see where it went. Unlike some pile o'shite like Transformers, the visual effects in this film are as good as it gets. The tendrils on Davy Jones for example are brilliantly utilized at times as well as stunning to look at. (The wardrobe dept. even gives Knightley cleavage) Excellent stunt work too with some of the island scenes early on in the movie.

All of the actors are fine as well with Nighy stealing the show here. Despite a hefty costume and untold amounts of green screen, he manages to give a performance of utter delight. He has fun with every line much like an Alan Rickman would. Stellan Skarsgard also classes things up with an appearance as Will Turner's long lost father. The three leads are all more than adequate for this light material - nothing extraordinary either. You also get a tease of the third film with the always welcome Geoffrey Rush reprising his character from the first film.

With some trimming to get this closer to two hours instead of 2:40 with credits, this would play a lot better. But for a home on with a good entertainment system and a stop button... just about right.


Monday, March 24, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson... in the forefront of the hipster douchebag movement of young filmmakers. He of the quirky older music in odd sections of film and who I probably have to blame for the headache of the Juno soundtrack. Anderson has given us: the second and third act failure of Rushmore, a masterpiece of the h/d movement in The Royal Tenanbaums, and a fiasco of a failure in The Life Aquatic. So what the heck did I expect here? The answer: pretty much what I got.

Very much in The Royal Tennabaums feel the story starts off with three brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter (Adrien Brody). The elder Francis kicks up an idea to meet and ride the train also named The Darjeeling Limited around India on a spiritiual journey. The real motivation is for them to finish their journey in Nepal to visit their mother (Anjelica Houston) who in typical Wes Anderson fashion has become a nun. Their mother never showed up for their father's funeral the year before and all of them seem lost now.

All three of the brothers are all going through trials and tribulations. Jack is messed up by his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) - who if you have watched Hotel Chevalier (the short preceding the film) is playing with his head by showing up unannounced and having sex with him. Peter's wife is pregnant and he is still caught in the transition of boy to man... he has retreated into all of his father's possessions for comfort. And never quite addressed in the film, Francis tried to kill himself on his motorcycle. You also get glaring symbolism from all of their father's baggage the brotheres carry with them on their journey.

The real difference between The Darjeeling Limited and Tennanbaums is the lack of sympathy the audience feels towards the characters of the former. Only Jack is ever given a deeper character. You get a look into his life that you are never quite given with Peter and Francis. Besides that the whole script feels very minimalistic and not in a good way. How are you truly supposed to care about these people without knowing anything about them? Brody and Schwartzman do what they can with the roles, while Wilson gives another perfomance he could have done in his sleep.

The overall effect is that of modest enjoyment. You feel fortunate for the little pieces of brilliance you get and yet you long for what you could have had.


* Wes Anderson needs to try something a little different. He needs to get out of the 70's look with rich, spoiled kids. Only four films in and I'm getting tired of his schtick.