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.