Sunday, September 30, 2007

"Michael Clayton" -- * * *

In addition to functioning as yet another example that George Clooney can do no wrong, Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" is an engrossing throwback to the "trust no one" thrillers of the 1970s (i.e.: ones where the villains were either the government or big corporations). The film's old-fashioned sensibilities are to its detriment as well as benefit, but more often than not it serves as a refreshing antidote to the adrenaline-fueled actioners that our ADD-afflicted generation is used to.

Our title character, played by the Clooney, isn't quite a lawyer--I don't think at least-- but a fixer-of-sorts of problematic legal situations (he describes himself as a janitor). We're introduced to him in the midst of a poker game where he gets a call that a man who just fled the scene of an accident needs his help. After driving to the estate of said man (Denis O'Hare) and his wife (played by Julie White, who, if I recall, doesn't get any dialogue), Clayton explains that he'll be of little to no help with the situation. He gets in his car, drives for a bit before pulling over, gets out of his car and gazes intently a pack of horses just in time for his car to blow up. The rest of the film will diagram the four days leading up to this event.

In the midst of an important 6-year-long multi-billion dollar lawsuit, leading prosecutor and legendary litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) seems to have lost it, when in the middle of a deposition, he strips off all his clothes and begins professing his love for the plaintiff, the first sign of a combination of crisis of conscience (he harps on his guilt over defending a deadly weed killer) and mental breakdown. At risk of having their very important case depleted further by Arthur's antics, as well as Arthur losing his partnership, his firm calls in Clayton (who's desperately in need of the money), disciple of Edens, to fix the situation. All the while, mysterious blonde men with guns are listening in on Arthur's (and Michael's) phone conversations, while frequently checking in with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who seems to functioning as the other side's Clayton-like figure.

If this all sounds more than a bit complicated, it is. "Clayton" plays vague with story details at first , leaving us to figure out exactly going on while things are already in motion. However, unlike "Syriana," which this will no doubt be compared to, here things get clearer as they go along, and audiences probably won't be complaining about the story being too confusing (though I'm still not totally clear on the particulars of the case). This doesn't have the lofty aspirations, nor politically relevant intentions, of that great film, so while it isn't as resonant or weighty, it's also not as intimidating or convoluted.

Gilroy's (making his directorial debut) no-frills style of filmmaking is more of a plus than a minus, but it occasionally allows the proceedings to lapse into tedium, and there are moments where they feel rather dry. The story doesn't have any particular lulls, but one really shouldn't expect anywhere near the momentum of the "Bourne" films (all of which Gilroy scripted). However, perhaps Gilroy felt that the story was complex, and overloaded with detail, enough, that camera tricks and flashiness would only distract. His straightforward direction allows us to absorb everything that's going on, as well as lending certain scenes power that otherwise would've felt familiar or overdramatized. There's a fast, efficient death/murder scene midway through that's so much more disturbing and unsettling due to the lack of any music or dramatics.

Gilroy should be commended for opening "Clayton" with a device that grabs you from the film's title being displayed on the screen. Over shots of empty offices, we hear a voiceover of Arthur's increasingly nonsensical ramblings, being left as a voicemail on Michael's cell phone. He also makes a wise decision in closing the film on a bittersweet note reminiscent (at least in my fractured line of thinking) of "The Graduate" and "Clerks II," a mix of satisfaction and feelings of "what did I just do?"

The cast here is solid all around, always keeping your attention in even the moments where the story might not be. Wilkinson is quite good in what is probably the showiest work he's ever done. An actor who usually specializes in subtlety and internalization, he gets a chance to basically play "crazy dude" here, and he even gives this manic-depressive who's gone off his meds profound moments of sadness and introspection.

Swinton is very strong as a woman who has to be responsible for the dirty work that her job entails, but at the same time is just a woman doing her job. Swinton doesn't play her as a typical villain at all, and it's an interesting portrayal of the all-powerful, high-confidence power player, reeking of insecurity underneath. It seems as if half of her scenes consist of her looking into mirrors practicing her speeches and making sure her business suits look okay on her.

But, as is to be expected, this is Clooney's show all around. As a cool, collected player thrown into a situation he doesn't know what to do with, Clooney as usual avoids any sort of overdramatics, but always gets across Clayton's desperation and internal conflicts over what he does (there's a fantastic scene of him telling his son that he'll grow up to be a good person and not be burdened by his father). While I admit I expected Clayton to be morally ambiguous than he was-- he never actually veers into 'unlikable' territory-- it's still refreshing to be given a central character who doesn't sleep well with what he's asked to do, and given significant dimension.

Those who are always complaining there isn't enough fare in theaters for "adults" would do well to venture a look at "Michael Clayton" when it heads into multiplexes a week and a half from now. It may not be flashy or overbearing enough to make a dent at the box office, and possibly a bit too intelligent (I admit a second viewing will be required to catch some things that flew over my head), but it's a solid, gripping little film that treats its audience with respect.

"Michael Clayton" opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and nationwide on October 12th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson), Best Original Screenplay (Tony Gilroy)
Clooney has a very tough field to contend with, and I fear the combination of his performance's subtlety, this film earning lots of like but little love, and his recent Oscar win might result in him sitting this one out. We'll have to wait and see about Wilkinson's chances, but he's quite good and the role's showy enough to at least get it on their radar.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"The Kingdom" -- * * * 1/2

Peter Berg’s relentlessly entertaining and intelligent “The Kingdom” is a rare beast in the thriller genre: one that will satisfy the ‘blow shit up and kick some ass’ crowds as well as those who like their movies to actually offer themes and subtext to chew on. There’s certainly cheer-and-applause moments, but there’s also a disquieting cynicism at play, as well as an acknowledgment of the results of United States’ foreign policy.

After a brilliant opening credit sequence that rather speedily gives a brief history of the U.S.'s relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the film cuts to a softball game in Riyadh that promptly gets blown up. Believing the attack to be the work of a “bin Laden wannabe,” Abu Hamza, the C.I.A. sends an (extremely small) evidence response team to investigate and respond accordingly. The team includes Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), Janet Mays (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Levitt (Jason Bateman). The four are guided by Saudi colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who informs the group they are merely allowed to “walk through” the crime scene, and even then, only after Saudi police grants them access. Due to the failure to communicate, the Americans are forced to conduct the investigation behind the backs of the Saudi officials to actually get anything done.

For its majority, the film is a gripping “CSI”-esque crime procedural of wading through evidence and following leads, but with the consistent dread that something terrible might happen. In the film’s last act, it evolves into a full-scale action film with heroic rescue missions and bad guys getting blown away. Some may take issue with the shift into Michael Bay territory, but considering it’s a hundred times more thrilling and intense than anything Bay’s ever done, it’ll probably be most people’s favorite part of the film. But even before we get to the exciting climax, “The Kingdom” is always interesting, thoughtful, and devastating in one or two spots.

The cast does solid work, but if the movie suffers from anything, it’s Foxx’s insistence that every movie in which he appears revolves completely around him; as a result, the other characters aren’t nearly as defined. Foxx does his soft-spoken serious thing, and he's fine, but I'm still waiting for him to become even a slightly interesting actor to watch. It's a shame the other characters aren't nearly as developed, since they're a lot more entertaining and involving.

Cooper is awesome as usual with his limited material, and engages whether he’s dispensing Southern wisdom or brandishing a big fucking gun. Bateman gets the best lines in the movie (listen closely to background dialogue to hear his take on Pabst Blue Ribbon) while showing his dramatic chops as well, particularly late in the film (during a third act story turn that all the trailers spoil).

Garner basically makes weepy faces for most of the running time, but she makes up for it in the last act when she’s given the film’s most applause-inciting moment of badass violence. The one truly false note in the cast is Jeremy Piven, who shows up for a few brief moments as smartass State Department official Damon Schmidt. Piven seems so out of place every second onscreen, and he really needs to stop pulling out his Ari Gold shtick, it’s getting old fast.

While “Kingdom” doesn’t match the true greatness of Berg’s last film, “Friday Night Lights,” it is the closest he’s come to making a Michael Mann film, and that’s likely due to Mann’s involvement as a producer here. From the camera movements to the cinematography, Berg has his own style, but it’s impossible to not have vague recollections of “Miami Vice” or “Collateral.” As much of a fan as I am of the pitch-black comedy “Very Bad Things,” Berg has grown immensely as a filmmaker since then, and I eagerly await his next project, the Will Smith superhero comedy “Hancock.”

Some sensitive types have expressed concern that the film is too ‘rah-rah America’ and our characters mow down people willy-nilly as long as they’re wearing a caftan or a turban. I could kind of jibe with that criticism if Matthew Michael Carnahan’s (who also wrote the upcoming "Lions for Lambs") screenplay didn’t go out of its way to draw contrasts between “good” and “bad” Muslims, as well as close on a disturbing note acknowledging the United States’ complicity in creating more terrorists with our actions. Not to mention that the film’s most sympathetic character, by far, IS a Saudi. I’m usually the first one to cry prejudicial outrage, but I really don’t think “The Kingdom” is an offender.

Thought-provoking as it might be, there’s no denying that “The Kingdom” is a very commercial thriller, not a didactic political allegory. As cleverly written as it is and as interesting as the things it’s saying are, this is a movie that, above all, wants to entertain you. It may not be intellectual enough for the highbrow or mindless enough for the low—thinking is a requirement—but for me, it was the perfect amalgam of popcorn entertainment and complex geopolitical thriller. Basically, it’s like the love child of “Syriana” and “Live Free or Die Hard.”

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Highly doubtful

"The Game Plan" -- *

For those who worried that back-biting and cross-dressing ruined sports caster Marv Albert's chances of ever appearing in a Disney family comedy, your fears will be relinquished by "The Game Plan," the latest miserable entry in the "unlikely dad" genre. In addition to doing literally nothing to distinguish itself from other similar movies, it's an insanely assembly-line constructed manipulator that wastes the skills of some genuinely talented people.

Our central character to guide us through this tripe is Joe "The King" Kingman (Dwayne "The Rock" Rockman, er.. Johnson), an Elvis-obsessed egomaniacal quarterback for the Boston Rebels. Joe cares about his career and only his career ("Beyond the field, nothing else matters. Nothing," he says). He leads a life of self-absorption, partying all night, only caring about himself and his pit bull Spike. Much to his (and the audience's!) amazement, one day little Peyton (Madison Pettis) shows up on his doorstep, saying he's a daughter from a spur-of-the-moment sexual escapade with an ex-girlfriend, who Peyton says sent her. The movie is basically just a series of gags and set-pieces of the wacky shenanigans Joe and Peyton get into as he tries to balance his football career and fatherhood, all while he learns to be a better man and let people in. Jesus, I just vomited on my keyboard.

I've always maintained that, for a guy who was primarily known as a wrestler, Johnson has legitimate acting chops, particularly in comedies. He was one of the only things worth watching in "Be Cool" and upstaged Stifler in the comedy department in "The Rundown." He doesn't embarrass himself here, but he seems painfully aware he's acting for children; he broadly mugs to a far greater extent than he's done in the past and he constantly goes bug-eyed with wildly exaggerated takes. In the scene where his allergy to cinnamon, after eating Peyton's cookies, causes a supposedly hilarious lisp, the lisp apparently effects words that don't even have 's' in them (while shooting a promo ad, he shouts "Cath the magic!").

Pettis seemingly comes from the "cutesy kid with big doe eyes and a speech impediment" school of acting, but it doesn't help that the screenplay (written by three women) doesn't even make sense of her character. She's supposed to be intellectual enough to be familiar with Pulitzer-prize-winning scientists and classical composers, but she's not knowledgeable enough to realize 'X' and 'O' in playbooks don't stuck for hugs and kisses? Consistency isn't key here, just grabs for cheap, lazy laughs. They'll make a point to show how mature Peyton is in one scene, and the next one she'll be bedazzling Joe's football or painting nail polish on his dog.

Morris Chestnut's beatifically smiling character exists purely to show/tell Joe how great it is to be a family man, and Kyra Sedgewick truly embarrasses herself as Joe's money-grubbing agent. Made up to look like Casper, you'd think now that she's the star of her own hit show, she wouldn't need to take roles that require her to fart loudly from eating fast food.

The movie ratchets up the sentiment, the cutesiness and familiarity as it goes on that it becomes nearly unbearable; from Joe slipping on a doll and falling on his face to a big muscular deep-voiced football playing crying at ballet and saying "that's beautiful," this thing only gets worse as it goes along. By the time Peyton slo-mo walks with the team in an adorable mini-uniform to the closing strains of "Mr. Blue Sky," I was muttering to myself "I hate this movie." By the time the third act hit, I was just imagining dark turns the movie could take (e.g: Joe accidentally shatters Peyton's skull) to entertain myself.

Just to give you an idea of how by-the-numbers and cringe-inducingly cloying "The Game Plan" is, let me run down the final 20 minutes for for you: after an emergency "I'm allergic to nuts!" scare (played for tugging of heartstrings, not laughs), the kid gets taken away from Joe, but then returns to him with a group hug involving the two of them and the kid's mother, just in time for Joe to win the big game. We close with Peyton running up to Joe, exclaiming, "Daddy, you won the championship!" To which Joe just responds-- with a big smile while picking up his daughter-- "Oh Peyton, I've won much more than that." We fade out, leading into a closing credits sing-a-long to Elvis' "Burning Love." I'm not kidding. It sounds like a parody of a family film, no?

And for a movie that's sole purpose is to drain families of their hard-earned cash, it's yet another in a long line of Disney film that has the hypocritical balls to rail against commercialism. Even ignoring for a second that this is coming to us from DISNEY, it's also coming from a film that just minutes earlier had a scene start 5 seconds sooner than it needs to so we can watch Joe and Peyton catching the end of a Dunkin Donuts commercial.

If "The Game Plan" teaches us anything, it's that sometimes trailers are right. If a movie looks like shit, there's a good chance it's shit. If all the trailer can show show to sell us on the movie is a dog in a tutu, then that's probably the best the movie has to offer. I'm sure it'll gross $100 million (hey, just look at "The Pacifier's" success), but even for small children, this is uninspired, insulting crap.

"Feast of Love" -- * *

Robert Benton's mismarketed drama "Feast of Love" has a few good performances and a fuck of a lot of nudity, but besides that, it's really not worth your time. Given that the movie's sickly sweet/cute trailer (and title for that matter) gave me sugar rush, it didn't particularly bother me that the actual movie is considerably more serious and tonally downbeat than advertised, but audiences expecting the cute, fluffy romantic comedy they've been promised are in for a rude awakening by the finished product, which is more akin to a weak combination of "Love Actually" and "House of Sand and Fog."

Rather than "Actually's" daunting eight intertwining stories, here there's only three to follow, following 18 months in the lives of a handful of Portland, Oregon residents. Though it was likely impossible due to the film's already short running time (about an hour and 40 minutes), "Feast" really should've been cut down to just two storylines, since the third one nearly sinks the whole movie.

Everyone's somehow connected and/or friends in this movie, and the proceedings are all watched over by happily married college professor Harry (Morgan Freeman, who *gasp* also narrates). Harry omnisciently dispense advice to everyone around him, while still, along with his wife Esther (Jane Alexander), mourning the recent death of his son, which he blames himself for. He regularly attends the coffee shop Jitters, owned by Bradley (Greg Kinnear) and worked at by Oscar (the disturbingly pretty Toby Hemingway).

After being left by his wife of six years (Selma Blair) for another woman (Stana Katic), Bradley ventures again into the dating world with Diana (Radha Mitchell). Bradley is smitten with ice queen Diana, utterly clueless that she's continuing to have an affair with a married man, David (Billy Burke). Meanwhile, recovering drug addict Oscar has been enjoying a fruitful relationship with new Jitters employee Chloe (Alexa Davalos). Chloe is hopelessly in love with Oscar as well, but a fortune teller has told her Oscar's death is imminent, and Oscar's unbalanced father (Fred Ward) keeps showing up to her house and threatening her with a large knife-- not a good combination.

Minimally developed as they might be, Freeman/Alexander's material is nonetheless affecting, and Kinner's surprisingly dark lovable loser storyline is throughly involving, in no small part to the actors involved. Kinnear proves again here why he's one of the most reliable, underrated actors working today, and Freeman really shines with Harry's emotional scenes, or the ones where he's not once again relegated to advice-giving negro. His chemistry with the rare-seen-on-screen-anymore Alexander is superb, and their scenes together are easily the most moving sequences in the film. Mitchell gives a performance of greater weight than her character really requires, but the effort is appreciated.

Burke doesn't have a terrible amount to do, but his argument scene with Mitchell is probably the best one in the movie. Despite him cheating on his wife, he explains he tried for 11 years to make the marriage work before he cheated; she's already fucking someone else right from the get go (in the film's best line, he exclaims after slapping her, "You're gonna marry a guy you're not even sure you're in love with? You deserve to be slapped, you're a cunt!"). And saddled with by far the worst storyline, Davalos is lovely and affecting here, making herself the one standout in her material.

It's the Oscar/Chloe stuff that suffers the most from underwritten characters, mediocre-at-best acting (Hemingway is beautiful, but isn't much of an actor) and increasingly manipulative melodramatics. Whenever the two of them are on screen, you can bet your bottom dollar something eye-rolling, "awww"-worthy, or tearjerking is about to happen. Also, I haven't read the book "Feast of Love" is based on, but it seems a lot of their material gets wedged in haphazardly and is given the short shrift (like an unnecessary bit about them filming a sex tape to make some quick cash).

But the overwhelming feeling throughout "Feast of Love" is one of blandness, which leaves the sheer volume of nudity as the most interesting thing about it. I'm all for more nudity in film, and it's a fair defense to say that people in sex scenes in film should be nude for realism, but audience members could be forgiven for finding it a bit excessive. While Hemingway, Burke and Kinnear's derrieres are briefly glimpsed, Blair and Katic go topless, and both Mitchell and Davalos are given key sequences where they're asked to go full-frontal. I'm sure the man's a stone cold professional (despite his tendency to having a lot of female flesh in all his movies), but my mind couldn't help wondering the motivations behind the 75-year-old's Benton demanding so many of his young actresses disrobe.

While I was mezzo-mezzo on most of "Feast of Love," about a third of it made me cringe, most notably a moment about halfway through the film. Benton mooches off the goodwill toward's this summer's indie golden child "Once" while taking advantage of the fact that most of America hasn't seen it. He does so by integrating that film's lovely centerpiece song "Falling Slowly," a song I can't listen to on my iPod without getting choked up. How is it utilized? It's played over a "Good Luck Chuck"-esque montage of the varying couples in the movie fucking in a multitude of positions. I shit you not, I almost walked out of the theater.

"Feast of Love" is tolerable for the most part, and it's worth checking out at a matinee price (or on DVD) for Kinnear and Freeman's material alone, but one should be warned that nausea is a possible side effect. Characters' actions and dialogue rarely feels honest or recognizable (and flat-out pretentious on more than a few occasions), but the writing is occasionally saved by the actors.

Some people are going to completely love this movie, despite-- or because of-- its melodramatics (an audience member on the way out of my screening remarked it was "the best movie I've seen since 'Crash,'"). I certainly heard sniffles at moments, and I'm convinced Freeman's dolcet tones have a hypnotic power that can make audiences like anything featuring them. Though I've heard it's a step up from the book it's based on, Allison Burnett's relentlessly contrived screenplay is significantly more eye-rolling than it is heartwarming.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Into the Wild" -- * * * 1/2

Sean Penn's lyrical adaptation of Jon Krekauer's book "Into the Wild" is an ambitious and fascinating piece of work that almost inexplicably succeeds on virtually every account. Despite the groundswell of positive reviews, I admit I just couldn't get myself excited for this one; however, around the one-hour mark, I was won over by its artfulness and its rich tapestry of characters, locales and strong performances.

The film follows the adventures/explorations of 22-year-old Emory graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) from 1990 to 1992, after fleeing his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), and freeing himself of material things (he donates his $24,000 college fund to charity, and abandons his car in the Arizona desert). Calling himself "Alexander Supertramp" once on his journey, McCandless' goal was to make his way to the Alaskan wilderness.

Penn jumps around from McCandless' time alone in Alaska living in an abandoned bus, to his time on the road, his adventures (including paddling down rapids, running among horses and hunting moose) and encounters with various people on his two year journey that led him there. The most notable friendships he makes are with a middle-aged hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a seductive 16-year-old singer (Kristen Stewart), South Dakota farmer Wayne (a slightly subdued Vince Vaughn), and lastly-- and most poignantly-- an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who's lost his wife and son and starts to have grandfatherly feelings towards Christopher.

Narrated by Christopher's admiring sister Carine (Jena Malone), "Into the Wild" is a lengthy film (2 hours and 34 minutes) that moves at its own pace, but never drags. And despite the movie being a series of encounters with various folk, the journey seems to naturally flow and never feels like vignettes strung together. Had any been excised, the film's impact would be diminished to some extent. Penn's filmmaking style feels intentionally loose, free-form and borderline unfocused; we get snippets of conversations and bits of non-sequiter scenes (such as one where McCandless expresses his love to an apple) that drift into the next, particularly in the early going. But rather than irritating, the loose structure works in the movie's favor, and only feels appropriate given the subject matter.

Considering he's in virtually every frame, and playing a character whose likability is questionable, Hirsch does a fine job as McCandless, though he sometimes comes off as a bit of a blank-slate. It's an especially tricky and demanding role, and without the right performer commanding the screen, the film would be a slog to get through. If the film gets the kind of attention I think it will, this may finally be the star-making turn that eluded him with "The Girl Next Door" and "Lords of Dogtown."

Hurt and Harden do fine as McCandless' parents, but they occasionally veer into caricature, and we don't really spend enough time with them to ascertain whether or not Christopher's feelings towards them are justified. Keener is very strong, particularly in a moving scene where she reveals she has a son Christopher's age who she hasn't seen or heard from for 2 years, and expresses concern for Christopher's parents.

But the finest performance in the film comes from veteran actor Holbrook, who doesn't show up till the two-hour mark and has only about 15 minutes of screen-time. It's not an especially showy performance, but it's touching, resonant and almost unbearably heartbreaking. In a particularly strong ensemble, he's the one that really sticks with you, and greatly increases the final half hour's emotional impact.

How McCandless' adventure ended is fairly well-known by now, but it still should be considered a spoiler of sorts. I'll hold my tongue for the few stragglers, except to say the sequence Penn chooses to close the film is beautiful, haunting and wildly impressive, at the very least from a technical standpoint.

Penn's depiction of McCandless is slightly less even-handed than in Krekauer's book (the film skews more towards the positive), he deserves credit for not painting him as heroic. Though the film certainly glorifies his experience, it also implies it might have been misguided, and doesn't shy away from McCandless' self-righteousness and simplified ideals (when asked what awful things he's getting away from, he answers "Parents, hypocrites, politicians, pricks").

After his last two extremely dark directorial efforts, "The Crossing Guard" and "The Pledge" (both starring Jack Nicholson), "Into the Wild" emerges as Penn's best film to date, and certainly his least bleak one. Regardless of where the story ends, it's a film filled with genuine passion, sadness and a reverence for nature and exploration that's infectious. Regardless of where you fall down on McCandless, the film is never less than compelling, and I have a feeling will only be enriched by repeat viewings.

"Into the Wild" is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities this Friday, and will slowly make its way to theatres nationwide throughout October

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Director (Sean Penn), Adapted Screenplay (Sean Penn), Supporting Actor (Hal Holbrook)Cinematography, Art Direction
We'll have to see how the film does at the box office, but if it maintains its momentum and buzz throughout the season, this could be a real contender. The combination of 'true life story,' 'written and directed by well-liked Oscar winning actor' and the fact that it's a movie people really seem to be liking, might be enough to push it into the awards derby

Monday, September 24, 2007

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" -- * * * *

Make no mistake about it: there's a supreme level of genuine cinematic artistry on display in Andrew Domink's haunting and beautiful (in every sense of the word) "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." If you’re looking for a fun, old-fashioned western adventure, “3:10 to Yuma” certainly satisfies in that respect. “Jesse James,” on the other hand, is for audiences looking for something far richer, poetic and thought-provoking; I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I’ve seen it. There's a dreamlike, ethereal feel here that will make audiences instantly realize they're watching a film operating on its own elegiac wavelength, unique from any other-- whether or not they'll like it is another story.

Based on the heavily researched novel by Ron Hansen and equipped with a silky-voiced narrator (Hugh Ross), the film kicks off in September of 1881, with the arrival of fresh-faced, star-struck Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) at the James gang’s forest hideout on the eve of their final train robbery. Ford is initially coldly rejected by Frank James (Sam Shepherd) and half-heartedly patronized by Jesse (Brad Pitt), but after Frank calls it quits and heads back east, Bob and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) continue to run with the James gang, including Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt). Though a camaraderie develops amongst them all, Ford never does a very good job of concealing his obsession/idolization of hot-headed, charismatic Jesse. Jesse never feels entirely easy around Bob, nor Bob around Jesse (the latter asks, “do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?”). As the two mens’ relationship develops, Bob’s blind admiration turns into something significantly more complex and indefinable.

The film takes a narrative approach that seems shaky and questionable at first, but eventually proves to be exactly the kind necessary for this type of story. Dominik slowly crosscuts between various story strands focusing on the different men involved in the initial train robbery; they're all engaging, but we’re not made 100% clear on their relevance initially. However, in retrospecrt, every sidestory or sequence serves to enrich our understanding of the characters and where the film will take them later. The one seemingly consistent element throughout is the characters' universal fear of Jesse and that any wrongdoing of theirs might bring his arrival (and punishment).

For a film that’s going to be branded as a “western,” “Jesse James” is startlingly low on violence and high on psychological drama. However, when Dominik does stage violence, it’s in a very precise manner with a jarring impact and attention to realism at all costs. This is the first film I can recall that depicts gunfights as clumsy, messy ordeals, with shooters rarely hitting the intended target until they’re practically right next to each other.

Much has been made of “Jesse James’s” epic running-time, 2 hours and 40 minutes. While I can’t say it’s a quick-moving epic, a la “Zodiac,” I can say I was never less than completely compelled for the entirety of the film’s duration. Some say the film could have been cut down, and while that’s technically true, so many of its finest “unnecessary” moments would have been lost, and I think this is the sort of film that almost needs to be long, to allow it to completely wash over you. But one should know beforehand that this is a film that takes its time, and if you don’t think you can handle that, the 96-minute-long “Good Luck Chuck” is playing right next door.

The awe-inspiring cinematography by the great Roger Deakins and the repetitious score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis cast a haunting spell in and off themselves, that the film could conceivably work simply as a masterpiece of mood and tone. In fact, many people have been prone to comparing “Jesse James” to a Terrence Malick film in the way it utilizes visual poetry. While it's a valid point, this is a significantly richer and more involving work than something like “The New World,” which hypnotized with its imagery and sound, but failed to involve beyond the surface aspects. Even if you wade beyond the astonishing filmmaking on display, there are fascinating character depictions here, a sprawling, enrapturing story, and themes at work to spawn hours-worth of conversation.

Casey Affleck has always struck me as a middle-of-the-road actor, occasionally doing acceptable work, while other times coming off as out-and-out bland. His portrayal of Bob Ford (as well as his upcoming lead role in “Gone Baby Gone”) officially announces him as an actor with remarkable talent. Ford is never given a “big” scene, so to speak, everything is always simmering under the service, but it’s an incredibly demanding, ever-changing role and Affleck fascinates every second he’s on screen. When Ford is being nerve-rattlingly creepy (drawing tenuous comparisons between himself and James), it’s a thousand times more unsettling than the dialogue alone would imply. But as much of a pathetic creep as he may be, there’s always an undercurrent of humanity to Ford, particularly in the film’s final act, which shows his increasingly sad life post-assassination. Even if the film makes next-to-nothing at the box office, there’s no question this is the performance that will launch Affleck to the next echelon, and I think it’s going to net him an Oscar nomination.

This is absolutely Affleck’s show, but it’d be criminal (as well as misguided) to undervalue Pitt’s work here as simply playing a version of himself—as some critics have done. Pitt plays James as a man haunted by his inner demons as well as his celebrity, fully aware of how people look at him and using it to his advantage. Menace is in his eyes in almost every sequence he’s in, and there’s a startlingly tense scene of him stopping by an acquaintance’s residence that shows the fear he instills in people; he’s portrayed as a man who controls every element of his life, even his death (the “assassination” of the title is presented as more of a world-weary resignation by James). Though he often allows the beast within to show through—he’s prone to inexplicable rage and bursts of violence—he’s also oddly sympathetic at points, and James never comes off as less than a tragic figure. Both Pitt and Affleck’s performances disallow the film from containing black and white moral judgments, or conventional heroes and villains.

Numerous writers I respect greatly-- including CHUD's Devin Faraci-- have professed that they love the film so much, yet (or perhaps as a result) they're having trouble writing an actual review for it. To the same end, the rave reviews I've read for the film failed to capture or illustrate what exactly is so great about it. Having seen the film now, it makes sense. It's hard to define the greatness of "Jesse James" or put your finger on it; we're simply not used to films making us feel the way this one does. Despite comparisons to past works of Malick, I don't think another film has had me leave the theater feeling quite the way this one did, and I’m not entirely sure this review does any better in capturing what’s special about it.

Once in a blue moon-- or in the case of 2007, twice in one year-- a major studio manages to accidentally create a gloriously uncommercial piece of challenging, artful cinema that only got made due to the involvement of major Hollywood players. Needless to say, the studio never knows what to do with the film, cuts different versions, desperately tries to make it mainstream, and eventually resigns out of exhaustion and just cuts their losses by dumping the film into theaters with little fanfare or attention. Paramount did it with "Zodiac" and now Warner Bros. is doing is with "Jesse James." But where the former at least had the hook of being a murder/crime procedural, the latter is a unique, epic tone-poem that is only going to appeal to an extremely small percentage of audiences and is going to need all the help it can get. It’s easy to see that this was a labor of love for Pitt, and not a cheap grab for awards or box office.

“The Assassination of Jesse James” is a sad, mournful film, though it’s open to debate about what exactly its mourning; it ends on a profound note of ambiguity and regret that I can virtually guarantee will stay with you, even if nothing else about the film does. Dominik’s dreamlike style and methodical pacing will certainly not appeal to everyone—my showing featured numerous walkouts, as well as audible sighs—but those who allow it to wash over them will find the film totally and utterly entrancing. Though it’s likely to not be given its proper due till years down the line, this is unquestionably, at the very least, one of the best films of 2007.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, and will slowly roll out around the country throughout October (Non-specific expansions have been set for October 5 and 19).

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck), Cinematography, Score, Costume Design

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Good Luck Chuck" -- *

Have you ever met a really horny, immature 14-year-old boy at a Bar Mitzvah, wedding or some other family function? Give that kid a film crew and $30 million dollars, and the results would probably be startlingly similar to “Good Luck Chuck,” the new masterwork starring unfunny funny man Dane Cook, and the worst actress working today, Jessica Alba. Needless to say, horny, immature 14-year-old boys are going to looooooove this movie; backwards-cap-wearing divorced dads trying to endear yourself to your preteen sons and appear "cool," this is the movie to take them to. The rest of the moviegoing populace will find it an execrable, scummy wretch that gives R-rated comedies a bad name.

Probably the one good thing one can say about “Good Luck Chuck” is that it does take advantage of its R-rating, giving its prime demographic lots and lots of titties, and what seems like endless montages of Cook fucking the hell out of dozens upon dozens of girls. But the mere fact that the movie is lowbrow and sex-obsessed isn’t on its own a bad thing. The problem is that its writer/director/star are the type of 14-year-olds at heart who still giggle at slang words for genitalia, bodily excretions and features non-stop hits in the balls. To give you an idea, our "money shot," so to speak, involves a woman with three breasts. Yeah.

Opening with a scene that doesn't quite qualify as kiddie porn, but invokes the same feeling (10-year-olds talking about "fingering" and "dicks" and such), the movie establishes our title character's fate when, during a game of "seven minutes in the closet," he refuses to show the goth girl at the party his penis. Like all goth girls, this one naturally practices witchcraft and knows how to recite hexes on memory. She puts a curse on little Charlie/Chuck that will make every girl he ever sleeps with immediate meet the man of their dreams afterwards-- i.e.: never Chuck himself. Chuck's dismayed when he learns said news, which dumbfounds his lecherous fat friend Stu (Dan Fogler), a plastic surgeon who only performs breast augmentations.

Now 37 years old and still stupid enough to not figure out this curse until now, Chuck (Cook) takes advantage of the situation by sleeping with as many girls as possible who learn his "curse." Unfortunately, Chuck soon falls for accident-prone Penguin specialist Cam (Alba), and has to keep from sleeping with her out of fear she'll fall in love with the next guy, and not him. That's pretty much it.

There's a big difference between offensive/outrageous and genuinely mean-spirited, and at virtually every turn, "Chuck" opts for the latter. We got not one, but two, extended sequences of obese women seducing or fucking a revolted Chuck, and we're meant to be nauseated as well that fat women want to have sex. In the world of "Good Luck Chuck," women should all strive to look like the never-ending stream of skinny, buxom identical-looking blondes and brunettes asked to disrobe here (all with identical-looking breasts, by the way). I only hope the heavyset actresses, Ellia English and Jodie Stewart, were adequately compensating for portraying the objects of derision for fratboys nationwide.

However, "Chuck" isn't just mean, it's also lazy. Director Mark Helfrich (who served as editor on the "Rush Hour" trilogy) shoves every gag down our throats, with the camera lingering about 30 seconds longer than seems necessary, like a sitcom's hopeful pause for laughs. The screenplay (by Josh Stolberg) creates a world where every male is a sex-crazed maniac and all females are giant-titted airheads, and also adheres to a hilariously by-the-book three-act structure where (1) Chuck learns of curse and fucks girls, (2) he meets/falls in love with Cam, and (3) he loses Cam and must get her back, culminating in a stunning display of originality where he has to race to catch her at the airport.

I saw Dan Fogler's Tony-winning performance in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," and it was clear that the guy had talent; as lisping, allergy-infested child prodigy William Barfee, he was hilarious and moving. It's wildly disheartening that after just two major film roles, Fogler already seems to have squandered any goodwill he built up. In "Balls of Fury," he was just vacant and uncharismatic, but here, he's out-and-out irritating. Every line is bellowed at maximum volume, and makes Stu one of the more off-putting film characters in some time. Matters aren't helped by a scene late in the film where, in a sequence that seems a metaphor for his film career, Fogler sticks his dick in a grapefruit.

Cook tries, but just misses, to pull off bland sincerity as Chuck. He's not out-and-out awful, but he's still the weakest excuse for a comedic leading man since... well, Dan Fogler in "Balls of Fury."

Alba has gone past the point of awful to being out-and-out embarrassing to watch. I genuinely feel bad for the girl as she tries to deliver lines like "I'm going to Antarctica for research," but the poor girl has such dead eyes and vacant expressions, she's barely believable as a human being. Making Cam accident-prone was a smart move by the filmmakers, covering Alba's limited/zero skills; when she's falling down or getting hit in the head, acting and speaking isn't really necessary. In an age when many actresses are just startlingly mediocre and getting by on their looks, Alba's noticeable awfulness is apparent in every single line deliver and facial expression. At this juncture, her performance as a scantily-clad girl who danced around in "Sin City" is the best she's been in a film.

I'm certainly glad the R-rated raunchy comedy is on the way back thanks to a Mr. Apatow (and we still have "The Heartbreak Kid" on the horizon), but movies like "Good Luck Chuck" are what killed the genre in the first place. Those who actually want to see this will get what they came for-- mucho nudity and crass, mean gags-- but I weep for the generation that finds Dane Cook performing cunnilingus on a stuffed penguin the height of comedic brilliance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Dragon Wars: D-War" -- * * 1/2

“Everyone believes the time of dragons has past… but the time of dragons has just begun!”

Thus is the voiceover that opens “Dragon Wars: D-War,” an incompotently-made ball of terrible that is so thrillingly bad and free of irony that I challenge any moviegoer to not derive at least some sort of entertainment from it. This is the sort of movie that rarely gets afforded a theatrical release, but I’m so glad it did. This kind of inspired awfulness deserves to be seen on a big screen, preferably after ingesting as many mind-altering substances as possible.

I’m not sure that I completely followed the “plot,” but here’s what I got out of it: centuries ago in Korea, there were legions of giant serpents led by one big bad one. Somehow, they transformed into human form. Cut to modern times, where our blank-faced hero Ethan (Jason Behr) remembers being taught about the dragons by Robert Forster as a child. Ethan has some sort of special ability to stop the dragons. The dragons rise up, and start attacking the city Godzilla-style.

The rare movie that I’d say is being seen for mostly ironic purposes (it managed to make $5 million this weekend), “Dragon Wars” is, above all, a reminder—especially after watching “Snakes on a Plane”—that the best bad movies are the ones that actually think they’re good. Sure, it may be horrific nonsense about dragons and crystal spirits, but one couldn’t say there’s not creativity and imagination at work here. The film is merely idiotic at first—sticking just with giant serpents—but by its final third, it’s evolved into madcap chaos, complete with winged, fire-breathing creatures munching on helicopters, and giant, lumbering beasts with missile-launchers on their backs marching by Burger King.

The film is completely without irony (that’s what makes it delightful), but I refuse to believe the filmmakers had no sense of humor. I just can’t accept that they were able to shoot sequences of a gibberish-speaking overlord wielding a Toys’R’Us sword without cracking up. The acting and dialogue is cheesetastic to the nth degree, Forster in particular. The formerly-respected actor probably never thought he’d see the day he’d be asked to deliver lines like, “He was denied the honor of being declared an all-powerful dragon.”

That said, even as a grade-A turd (admittedly, it’s a turd covered in sequins), the film has missteps. Considering how unintentionally funny it is, it’s questionable why the writer/director Hyung-rae Shim felt the need to include “comic relief,” let alone comic relief in the form of a wisecracking negro (every black character here is “sassy”) and a wacky fat guy who everyone thinks is crazy for seeing dragons (“This thing stared at me like my ex-wife!”).

Also, the movie’s mismarketing left me mildly disappointed at the finished product. The poster, the tagline, as well as the title, indicate the movie is about dueling dragons fighting each other in our cities. Sadly, this never happens—they just attack us. But, oh, what glorious attacks they are. Aside from the madness that occupies the third act, the dragons’ first appearance in our world is truly hilarious. The head dragon makes his presence known by finding a zoo, chewing on, and then spitting out a charmingly (and blatantly) animatronic elephant.

Jam-packed with vaguely recognizable B-movie actors (Holmes Osbourne shows up at one point), and brandishing an ending where a character ascending into the heavens with a dragon, “Dragon Wars” is the type of movie that deserves to develop a cult following. Without an ounce of pretension, or genuine quality, it’s destined to be watched by groups of stoners for many years to come.

A little lapse...

Sorry everyone, it's been a few days. This has been an intensely busy work week in terms of school, so I haven't been able to update as often as I'd like.

However, later today, I should have a review up for the glorious, cheese-tastic "Dragon Wars," and late Thursday night / early Friday morning should bring my thoughts on the new Cook-Alba opus, "Good Luck Chuck."

I have a screening tomorrow night for "Resident Evil: Extinction," but I've yet to see the second film in the series and feel obligated to give it a look before checking out the latest installment, so I'm going to have to pass on the screening, and may not get around to that one till Sunday or Monday.

After an a.m. screening on Friday of "Michael Clayton," I'll be heading home to NY for the weekend, where, god willing, I'll finally get to catch "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Until then, buckaroos...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Across the Universe" -- * * * 1/2

Anyone who tries to tell you Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe" doesn't have flaws should probably ingest less illegal substances before going to the movies. However, anyone who allows those flaws to keep them from surrendering to the film's wonders may be severely lacking in their capacity for joy.

Taymor's finished product is just as nutso, jumbled and completely delightful as you probably expected when you first heard the trippy, self-indulgent artist was crafting a '60s-set musical made up completely of Beatles songs. The story's weak and the characters ill-defined, but who gives a fuck when everything surrounding them is so goddamned beautiful, exciting and glorious to behold? Anyone with even a passing interest in adventurous cinema, musicals, surreal imagery, and most of all, The Beatles, has no right to sit this one out.

The characters are almost all named after Beatles songs, and our leads are, inevitably, middle America-hailing Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess), who's come to New York from-- where else?-- Liverpool. The two develop a complicated romance while living in a Greenwich Village apartment with Lucy's drop-out brother, Max (Joe Anderson), the Hendrix-esque Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), the Joplin-reminiscent Sadie (Dana Fuchs, who also played Joplin in Off-Broadway's "Love Janis), and the sweet, frustrated lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio). The story spans (I think) a decade as Jude and Lucy run into their fair share of problems, and Taymor takes us on numerous characters' adventures through the '60s.

The simplistic story here is just a framework upon which to hang a non-stop series of breathtaking musical numbers, but considering the numbers are the film's raison d'atre (the 33 Beatles songs make up about 95% of the running time), I doubt much of the audience will be complaining. Still, one should know going in that they're not likely to find themselves terribly attached to any of the characters; Taymor's direction and imagination is truly the star.

Like many Broadway "jukebox musicals"-- shows inspired by the music of one particular artist-- "Universe" occasionally suffers from story beats obviously dictated by specific songs' content and often results in silly literal interpretations of lyrics (during "A Little Help From My Friends," the mention of getting high is sung over an image of a character inahling). But more often than not, Taymor's innate artistry takes hold, and sets songs to fascinatingly extravagant visualizations of them ("Strawberry Fields" features Jude pinning bleeding strawberries to a white canvas, leading into a hallucination of strawberry bombs being dropped over Southeast Asia), or interprets them in a fresh way that might leave you unable to listen to the song the same way again.

In fact, her more out-of-left-field touches are often the most effective; interpretations of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a ballad of unrequited lesbian love and "Let It Be" as a gospel-infused elegy for victims of the '67 Detroit riots are unexpected and tremendously powerful. "Because," sung by our group of main characters while laying in a field, is also quietly haunting and lingers throughout the rest of the film.

Some of the less striking numbers in the film are still smile-inducing and many audience members will fight the urge to sing along, but around the film's midpoint, the proceedings become increasingly more off-the-wall. The two flashiest (and most memorable) numbers in the film would have to be "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." I loved both, but I could see some finding the latter-- featuring Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, as well as his chorus of blue people, in probably the closest simulation of psychedelic drugs I've ever seen on film-- distracting from the flow of the movie.

"I Want You," on the other hand, is unquestionably brilliant and abstract. Kicking off with Uncle Sam banners coming to life and segueing into Army training with drill sergeants who all look like G.I. Joe dolls, sequence hits its apex when cutting to soldiers in Vietnam in their skivvies singing the chorus "She's So Heavy" while carrying the Statue of Liberty on their back.

Lest I make the film sound like it'll solely appeal to weirdos, these arty flourishes are frequent but not persistent. Versions of "I've Just Seen a Face," "It Won't Be Long," "Hey Jude" and "All You Need is Love," to name a few, are superb covers of the songs without veering into the intensely surreal. Still, if you're able to take "Mr. Kite," the rest will be a cakewalk for you.

Though the film's main goal is to turn you on in every audio-visual respect, it's also one that truly believes in the transcendental power of art and the healing effects of love. At every turn, even in the most perverse or cynical moments, the film seems to be saying positive and hopeful things about the human condition, however simplistically. Needless to say, some will give themselves in to it; others will be in agony for 131 minutes. By the time the movie hit its "All You Need Is Love" conclusion, I was unashamedly grinning like an idiot, so take that as you will.

I'm sorry to say, likely due to it long being considered a troubled project, "Across the Universe" will probably be lucky if it makes it to the $10 million mark. The studio doesn't appear to give a shit about it, damning it with haphazard marketing and a fart of a release (it gets dumped in a mere 400 theaters next weekend). It's a movie that's destined to be re-watched over and over on DVD by its inevitable fanbase, but most people I've talked to don't even know what it is, let alone have a desire to see it.

Plenty of critics have already complained about the film (reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are split right down the middle), with some calling it wildly self-indulgent and just a series of music videos. Those who can't enjoy two-hours-plus of thrilling re-imaginings of some of the best songs ever written, simply because there's not a terribly strong story or screenplay surrounding them, will have a difficult time with "Across the Universe." Coherence clearly wasn't the order of the day here, and that might be a problem for some people. Thankfully, I'm not one of those people.

"Across the Universe" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington DC, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and opens everywhere September 21st.

Update (9/20 2:46am): For unknown reasons, Sony has decided that the film will be expanding this weekend to 250 screens, not 400, which means some markets that thought they'd be getting the film will not be (Baltimore included). Further detailed release patterns have not been announced.