Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The Savages" -- * * * 1/2

As a thoughtfully observed, honest, painful, character-based examination of the relationship between siblings, Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" belongs in the same category as "Margot at the Wedding," though Jenkins' film clearly has more affection for its characters and more of a desire to let the audience in. Alternately funny and sad-- the film never pretends there are easy answers about what to do when a family member reaches his later years-- Jenkins creates just slightly smarter versions of characters we feel like we already know, and equips the proceedings with a hopefulness that feels genuinely earned, not just an inevitability. With a stark sense of realism and extremely sharp dialogue, "The Savages" is most reminiscent of the humanism evident in Alexander Payne's last two films, "Sideways" and "About Schmidt" (Jenkins is married to Jim Taylor, Payne's regular collaborator).

Opening with a semi-surreal sequence of senior citizen women dancing in blue unitards-- indicating it's going to be an odder film than it actually is-- "The Savages" is the story of two siblings, Wendy (Laura Linney) and John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who must reconnect and really grow up when their oft-neglectful father (Philip Bosco) begins to die of vascular dementia.Wendy, a self-medicating East Village playwright having an affair with her 52-year-old married neighbor, spends most of her time applying-- and getting rejected-- for grants, while John, a standoffish, intellectual college professor, has spent the last few years writing a book on Brecht and putting off committing to his Polish girlfriend (Cara Seymour) whose lapsing visa is about to end their relationship. After their father's girlfriend of 20 years dies while buying cosmetics and he begins writing in feces on the wall, the two must face their inevitable responsibility, and fly to Sun City, Arizona to begin looking for a place for him to live out his remaining time.

With her main competitors considered to be Keira Knightley ("Atonement"), Ellen Page ("Juno"), Julie Christie ("Away From Her"), Marion Cotillard ("La Vie En Rose") and Cate Blanchett ("The Golden Age" or "I'm Not There"), allow me to begin beating my drum now for Laura Linney to win Best Actress this year. Linney may be the finest actress working today-- aside from maybe The Meryl Streep-- and manages to be truly great even with the most mediocre of material (e.g.: "The Nanny Diaries"). With Wendy, Jenkins gives Linney what may be the best role of her career, and the actress is truly a joy to watch every second of this film. As our true leading character-- the story is really following her, not John-- Wendy is imbued with a substantial complexity by Linney, and our sympathies always lie with her, even though she does more than a few things that would make us turn on anyone else. She brilliantly plays the more emotional moments-- her scene expressing her guilt at what she and John are doing to their father is devastating-- as well as delivering the comic dialogue with a hilarious precision few actresses possess. I doubt anyone else could deliver a line as simple as "You're an idiot" as brilliantly as Linney does here and her subtly cutting insults to John register as some of the best lines in the film ("Yeah, everyone's really itching for a book about Bertolt Brecht this holiday season"). Though she's not hiding behind prosthetics, or affecting a "challenging" accent, this is the most complete performance by an actress likely to be seen this year (Independent Spirit Award snub be damned), and I hope she finally gets the recognition she's long deserved.

In the first role he signed on for after winning his Oscar, Hoffman is also wonderful and understated as John, whose teaching specialty is "theatre of social unrest." An actor who never fails to impress and seems to savor dialogue like no other, Hoffman gives a performance that is just as importantly illustrated via body language. Averse to any sort of responsibility or intimacy (note his physical discomfort during many of his scenes with Linney) and the sort of pretentious fellow who listens to "The Threepenny Opera" while he drives, John still cries when his girlfriend cooks him eggs, and whenever we're about to classify him as indifferent, Hoffman will give us something to chew on to make us think otherwise. Midway through, he gives a particularly impassioned monologue about nursing homes as places for people just waiting to die that provides the perfect counterbalance to his subdued nature through much of the film. 2007 serves as a reminder that with actors like Day-Lewis and Norton only working every few years, we're lucky to have an actor as skilled as Hoffman working consistently, delivering three powerhouse performances in the span of one movie season.

Bosco has arguably the most difficult role here, alternately making us sad and uncomfortable whenever he's onscreen. It's not easy to watch someone in this state, especially if you've had the displeasure of seeing a loved one in a similar position, but it's to Bosco's credit that he never devolves into caricature and remains painfully realistic. It's also worth noting that he never really gets redeemed, making him the saddest character in the film-- he has a moment involving his hearing aid that's brilliant and heartbreaking in its simplicity. Much of his material involves things like filling out funeral arrangements, having his pants fall down on the way to an airplane bathroom or shouting incoherently; it's not pleasant stuff to watch, but it's really an excellent performance.

Jenkins' screenplay has its shortfalls, but for what it is, it's nearly perfect. It's remarkable how she completely fleshes out these characters in the short time we spend with them, and she's got a way with dialogue that's amazingly funny and truthful at the same time ("We are not gonna need to go and find [dad]... We're not in a Sam Shepard play"). There's a very funny, bleak sense of dark comedy on display here, as well as a genuine affection for the characters. Its cleverness starts with the "Peter Pan" referencing names of the main characters (John and Wendy are Savage, not Darling), and ends with tongue-in-cheek self-referencing (at one point, a character asks about their writing, "You didn't think it was just middle-class whining?").

If the screenplay has a fault, it's that it succeeds more at painting superb individual moments than creating an engaging storyline. But given the nature of the proceeds, that's okay, even if things feel a bit shapeless at times. Though everyone will have their favorite moments (mine was a "Jazz Singer" movie night at a nursing home where things get a bit awkward when Al Jolson slaps on blackface), there are no wacky set pieces a la "Little Miss Sunshine"... everything is character-based and feels like real life. Late in the film, John is seen standing in front of a chalkboard illustrating the differences between standard writing and Brecht; the board points out the former puts emphasis on 'Feeling' and 'Plot,' while Brecht is more focused on 'Thinking' and 'Narrative.' Those are very much the principles Jenkins employs here.

Supposedly, Fox Searchlight is putting most of their awards campaign money, time and energy behind "Juno," but despite that movie being more of an overt crowd-pleaser, I'm starting to get the feeling "The Savages" might be their strongest shot at a Best Picture nomination. It concerns a subject matter close to the forefront of of the elder Academy members' minds, but has a hopeful enough undercurrent (unlike the similarly-themed "About Schmidt," which supposedly just made them depressed and uncomfortable). It's also a film that lives and dies by its terrific performances and writing, and it aces both departments. With a careful release pattern, Searchlight has the potential to build steady word-of-mouth and want-to-see factors based on reviews and top-10 lists. It seems Oscar contenders/predictions have been varying by the hour this season, but as of right now, I think "The Savages" will be one of the final 5.

For a film about grown siblings looking for a place for their patriarch to most comfortably die, Tamara Jenkins' "The Savages" would deserve commendation merely for not being monumentally depressing. However, Jenkins' first film in a decade (her last was the underappreciated "Slums of Beverly Hills") not only avoids being emotionally draining, it succeeds at making you laugh loud and often without ever abandoning the tremendously sad reality of the situation. The subject matter will make it a tough sell, but the exceedingly clever, perceptive and bittersweet "Savages" will quite possibly emerge as the most unlikely audience-pleaser of the holiday season.

"The Savages" opens in 4 theaters in New York and Los Angeles (2 each) today, and will very slowly, incrementally expand throughout December and January, much like "Sideways." 9 theaters on December 7th, 50 theaters on December 21st, 100+ on Christmas Day, and nationwide on January 18th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: I think Best Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay (Tamara Jenkins) are total locks here, but if the film scores a Best Picture nom, which I think is likely, Best Supporting Actor (Philip Bosco) and Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) could conceivably follow.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Margot at the Wedding" -- * * *

MARGOT: “Was that the guy who used to rough you up?”
PAULINE: “No, that was dad.”

It’s no coincidence that Noah Baumbach’s difficult, borderline-impenetrable “Margot at the Wedding” is being released around Thanksgiving. The darkly funny drama is at its core, an analysis of the indefinable beast that is family, and the kind of hate (and to a lesser extent, love) that can rear its head when a haphazard/forced reunion or get-together occurs. While “Margot” has had its strong supporters, its detractors have had a sense of vitriol and loathing in their voice that I’ve rarely heard when discussing a film before, so I had a general idea of the divisive nature I was in for going in. The negative reactions are understandable; it’s ninety minutes merely spending time with unlikable, self-absorbed people, so the feeling of “I get that for free at home, why subject myself to it at the movies?” is certainly valid. With its complex, challenging nature that oozes discomfort, the film practically dares you to like it. I did, but Baumbach doesn’t make it easy.

“Margot” pronounces its intentions at the outset, opening with our young protagonist, Claude (Zane Pais) releasing an unprompted primal scream, giving us an idea of the homespun horrors to come. Largely plot-free—another aspect that seems to be frustrating audiences—the film documents a weekend on Long Island during which Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) will be marrying generally good-natured slacker Malcolm (Jack Black). Perhaps more monumental an occasion than the wedding is its engendering the arrival of Pauline’s sister, the remarkably unpleasant Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son Claude. The film is essentially a 90-minute series of vignettes that serve to enrich our understandings of the characters; basically, Pauline is pregnant with Malcolm’s baby—though she hasn’t told him—and is marrying him out of desperation, Margot disapproves vehemently of Malcolm and barely conceals her disdain, while Malcolm grows a mustache (“It’s meant to be funny,” he says) and fights urges to punch Margot.

Serving as both an examination of familial bonds and a character study of a tremendously complex, cold bitch, “Margot” unfortunately comes on the heels of Baumbach’s most “accessible” film, “The Squid & the Whale.” Whenever an interesting, unconventional filmmaker creates a movie that manages to garner some degree of popularity or accessibility, it almost always causes trouble for their next film unless their next film goes completely commercial. While it creates a higher awareness and initial interest in their film to follow, it also creates an expectation that their new one will be just like the last one and draws in people apt to loathe their latest, which is just as inaccessible or offbeat as the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Baumbach has never made things easy on audiences (even in “Squid”) and despite the presence of bigger stars, his style is just as uncompromising here and doesn’t allow us to draw simple observations or conclusions. For those who liked “Squid & the Whale,” much of that film’s style is here, but with even less humor and even less of a catharsis/resolution (though there is one here, even if you have to squint to see it).

With “Margot,” Baumbach plays a lot with people’s autobiographical interpretations of his films (something that was touched on in literally every review of “Squid”). For a lot of the film, it seems Claude is a stand-in for Baumbach, and at other times, it appears Margot might be a self-loathing depiction of himself; either way, it’s best to just view the film as what it is, a work of cinema, and not read into autobiographical intonations. He has a style of writing that is discomforting in its familiarity, particularly in a familial setting; characters talk knowingly about people we know nothing about (“Poor Becky…”), make inside jokes we don’t get, and offer us nothing in the way of exposition. In back-and-forth exchanges, characters don’t respond to what the other person actually said, but rather what they “heard” or how they took it. Baumbach also employs—to jarring effect—the technique of not allowing us the privilege of hearing characters complete all their sentences. Several times in the movie, midway through a statement (“But you have to—”), Baumbach abruptly cuts to the next scene.

Pauline and Margot speak to/about each other with such blithe cruelty—despite each calling each other their “closest friend”—that midway through, we’re hardly even phased by it anymore (Margot casually comments, “She’ll probably miscarry.”). But there’s a truth and understanding at work here; even though the two sisters literally never say anything nice to or about the other, we can see they love each other, if only out of necessity. In fact, if “Margot” is masterful at anything, it’s capturing the extent to which it’s possible to hate your family like no one else could ever understand, while still retaining some semblance of familial bonds. But lest anyone think there are any answers or resolutions to be found here, there aren’t. Like life, people’s problems and troubled relationships aren’t solved and mended, but rather resigned to and sighed over before just leaving. Like the titular figures in “The Squid & the Whale,” Baumbach goes heavy on metaphor here as well, utilizing a car with no brakes and a massive tree as the main objects of analysis here. From Margot’s failed attempt at climbing the tree to the neighbors complaining that its rotting roots are spilling over onto their property, it’s not particularly difficult to decipher the meaning, but it’s fairly effective.

I’ve always admired Kidman for continuing to work with adventurous directors more than actually being a gushing fan of her performances, but with “Margot,” she delivers a quietly astonishing piece of acting. I’ll have to go back and rewatch “To Die For” and “The Hours,” but I think this may be my favorite performance she’s ever given. Margot, as discussed by others, is incredibly unlikable—Baumbach doesn’t even give her one moment for us to sympathize with her—but she’s not without her humanity and complexity. We may not like her, but she never crosses the line into being “evil” or “a monster.” We’ve all (or at least, I have) met people like this performer and they almost can’t help what they’re doing. Firing off cruel, defensive remarks like tiny little missiles (“Stupid people get into Harvard early all the time!”) and silently loathing herself more than she could ever hate anyone, Kidman is completely in her element here.

Margot is the type of person who feels the need to butt in and take exception to a mother pulling her daughter’s arm too hard, blissfully ignorant of the psychological damage she’s inflicting upon Claude. From her abject nastiness towards Claude during a croquet match (“This is why I hate games, I hate what it does to me”) to her inability to even get herself off while masturbating, Margot is perhaps the most fascinating creature to be inflicted upon the American public in a film this year. She perhaps reveals the most about herself when discussing a character in a story she’s written, commenting that she “Silently resents the responsibility of parenthood.” Baumbach has commented that it’s not important that people like Margot as long as they understand her; with the combination of his writing and Kidman’s performance, this accomplished to tremendous effect. I predict this will go down as the best performance by an Actress in 2007 to get passed over for most major awards. When I re-visit “Margot at the Wedding,” it’ll be entirely for Kidman’s work.

Leigh is given perhaps the trickiest role in the film, as the seemingly “likable” Pauline. While nowhere near as vicious or hateful as Margot, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Pauline considering how weak-willed and self-absorbed she is, and it’s also clear she’s marrying Malcolm out of desperation and probably not love. Nonetheless, she’s turned into a real, recognizable human being (like Margot) and in face-offs between the two of them, it’s hard not to take her side. Leigh turns Pauline into a fascinating character in her own right, but never moreso when sharing scenes with Kidman and interacting with or discussing Margot. Whether inexplicably defending her (“You may not like her, but she’s not an idiot…”) or sharing a brief moment of odd kinship (the only time these two are affectionate towards each other are when they laugh hysterically about their other sister being raped by the horse trainer), Pauline is one of Leigh’s best roles.

I’ve always had an enjoyment of Jack Black’s antics from his initial “Tenacious D” days to “Nacho Libre” and found his more subdued, varied work in “The Holiday” and “King Kong” interesting and different enough to indicate the guy’s capable of playing more complex figures. I’m kind of mixed on his turn as Malcolm, but that’s largely due to the performances inconsistency. As basically the stand-in for “us” in this situation, he retains much of his humor while keeping Malcolm grounded and believable as a guy who would write impassioned letters to magazine editors, as well as comment that his scrotum is longer than his penis. His interactions with Margot (noticing a trend here?) are his best stuff in the film and he handles them with aplomb. However, his familiar “Jack Black-isms” seem jarring when they come here and only serve to take, at least me, out of the picture. When he bellows “Watch it, dicksack!” to a passing driver, all I could see on screen was JB, not Malcolm. Similarly, a crying jag he goes on late in the picture is astoundingly miscalculated—I don’t know if the scene was intended to be broad comedy, or Black just doesn’t know how to cry convincingly—but either way, it seems like a misstep, either by Black or Baumbach.

As you can probably tell, I admired “Margot at the Wedding” rather than genuinely felt affection for it, but as a carefully observed study of a cold, affluent family, it’ll probably be difficult for most to muster up much love for its proceedings. I still take issue with most of the content involving Pauline’s redneck neighbors—I didn’t quite understand the significance of it, or why it was in this film—but when the focus was on the central family, I was thoroughly involved. As difficult as it may be to face how bitter or mean families can get to one another, “Margot” always struck me as relatively truthful and intelligent; even though my family may not use the clever words Baumbach utilizes here, the struggles and interactions are painfully recognizable. “Margot at the Wedding” is a tough little film to process and demands more than the average “indie” fare, but its rewards are plentiful, not least of which is Kidman’s stunning performance.

“Margot at the Wedding” is currently playing in 35 theaters nationwide (including Manhattan, Long Island, Los Angeles and Washington DC). A further expansion is set for December 14, though I don’t know if I’d count on it opening at a theater near you.

Despite stellar work by Kidman, Leigh and a carefully observed screenplay by Baumbach, I dare say this film is going to make people so uncomfortable and be so despised, that it will be completely shut out in every category.

Friday, November 23, 2007

"What the fuck was that?"

My dad's reaction when the lights came up at the end of "No Country for Old Men."

Sing me some "Juno"....

Damn, "Juno" has a fucking awesome soundtrack-- possibly best of the year--- but there's no release date for it as of yet. So instead of waiting, I've downloaded the songs I've found listed in it and utilized iTunes to make a piecemeal homemade "Juno" soundtrack, and I'll fill in the blanks when it comes out; so yeah, it's not a complete soundtrack but at the moment it works...

1. "All I Want is You," Barry Louis Polisar
2. "My Rollercoaster," Kimya Dawson
3. "A Well Respected Man," Nick Binkley
4. "Tire Swing," Kimya Dawson
5. "Piazza, New York Catcher," Belle & Sebastian
6. "Loose Lips," Kimya Dawson
7. "Superstar," Sonic Youth
8. "Expectations," Belle & Sebastian
9. "All the Young Dudes," Mott the Hoople
10. "So Nice So Smart," Kimya Dawson
11. "Sea of Love," Cat Power
12. "I'm Sticking With You," The Velvet Underground
13. "Anyone Else but You," The Moldy Peaches

Alright, on my way out to see "No Country" again with mi padre; review of "Margot at the Wedding" to come in the next few days....

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"I'm Not There" -- * * * 1/2

"When I'm there, she's all right
But she's not when I'm gone
Heaven knows that the answer she don't call in no one
She's a wave, a thing, beautiful she's mine for the one
And I'm also hesitating by temptation lest it runs
Which it don't follow me
But I'm not there, I'm gone"

Todd Haynes has always been an experimental filmmaker, but some of his experiments have proved to be more accessible ("Velvet Goldmine") or successful ("Far From Heaven") than others ("Safe"). Despite a subject who is one of the most popular American cultural icons ever (Bob Dylan), "I'm Not There" is probably Haynes' least accessible film so far, as well as his most challenging, uncompromising, dense with content, and interesting to dissect. Easily one of the most ambitious films of the year (only occasionally falling short of those ambitions), the self-reflexive film will likely only appeal to an extremely small sect of the moviegoing populace, but it's always arresting and artfully blends together what sounded like chaos on paper into a very cohesive, carefully constructed amalgam of ideas.

Basically using Dylan as a case study for a larger theme, what "I'm Not There" is really about (I think) is how unnecessary and/or impossible it is to boil down or decode an artist's life/persona/raison d'atre, since what really matters is the artist's creations. Some will certainly complain that for all the Dylans on display here, we really don't gain any insight into the man, and that's entirely the point. At the end of the day, it's Dylan's music that will outlast him (and us) and define who he is/was, and us attempting to gain insight into a creator is fairly pointless and arbitrary. In the end, it's also saying that analyzing the whys and whats of an artist are just as futile as criticizing the merits of a work of art. As such, the film is enough of a daring and conversation-inspiring work that writing a review of it is almost beside the point. Nevertheless, here I am.

If you've heard anything about "I'm Not There," it's probably that Haynes has employed six different actors to each portray Bob Dylan, or rather, a different segment/aspect of his ever-evolving career, between 1959 and 1967. First up, a jarring introduction announcing at the forefront that this will not be your father's biopic, Dylan is portrayed as Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old black boy. At first seeming gimmicky, Woody's scenes are some of the most effective in the film, establishing the tone(s) and metaphorical themes of the film from the outset. Woody's meant to represent young Dylan, who emulated Woody Guthrie, as a young artist attempting to be someone he's not as a way of beginning his musical career. Toting a guitar case with "This Machine Kills Fascists" written on it, Woody travels the rails and is eventually told to "live your own time," leading into our next Dylan, Jack (Christian Bale). At this point, the film breaks out of the segmented style and cuts between our different stories/Dylans.

Jack, seen mostly through "archival" footage and unhelpfully elaborated on by a Joan Baez figure (Julianne Moore), represents Dylan's folk era of protest sings, at one point singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'." One of only two actors in the film encouraged to actually semi-impersonate Dylan, Bale's depiction is probably the closest anyone in the film comes to encompassing and impersonating Dylan as the majority of the public knows him. Meant to evoke Dylan's "romantic" side, his love songs, and doings during the Vietnam war, is Robbie (Heath Ledger), who-- bear with me now-- is an actor portraying Jack in a movie about his life. Robbie is Dylan at his most human and vulnerable, and most of his material pertains to his troubled marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

The segment during which the film most springs to exciting life, and that has gotten the most media attention, is that of Jude, where the electric Dylan documented by "Don't Look Back" is portrayed by Cate Blanchett. This segment is the most overtly "fun," taking on the style of Fellini's "8 1/2," and follows the period of Dylan going electric, and his folk-loving fans turning against him. Taking up the most screentime by far (about 35 minutes total), this segment also features Dylan's dealings with poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), a fashion debutante clearly meant to be Edie Sedgewick (Michelle Williams) and a critical member of the press (Bruce Greenwood). The two most attention-grabbing moments in said segment, lending a feel of "let's try anything" experimentation, are (1) when Dylan's initial going electric at the Newport Folk Festival is depicted as Jude and his band literally machine-gunning the audience, and (2) a "Hard Day's Night"-evoking sped-up sequence of Dylan frolicking with the Beatles.

Lastly, and most lugubriously, is Dylan depicted as Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), living in a Halloween-loving circus-esque town, as he hides out from the public eye but finds himself face-to-face again with his old dogged pursuer, Pat Garrett (symbolically, also played by Bruce Greenwood). There's certainly interesting stuff in this segment, knowingly referencing Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid," in which Dylan had a role, but it's the most likely to bore audiences (as it did me) as Gere looks wistfully at the sky and his dog and meanders around. It's not as harshly dull as some have dismissed it as, but it does draw the movie to a noticeable standstill. Given the least screen time and peppered throughout the various segments is Dylan as Arthur ("Perfume"'s Ben Whishaw), a 19th-century-attire-clad poet who directly addresses the camera with quotes from Dylan's 1965 interviews.

As I said, the engagement level from segment-to-segment is going to vary, and not every actor gets as much meaty material as others, but no one is less than good. I think it's safe to say that no actor involved thought this was going to be a particularly mainstream or money-making affair, nor Oscar bait, so they were likely attracted strictly to the material, and their enthusiasm shows on screen. Everyone here gives their all and lends their performance something special. The performers who stuck out most to me were Bale and, as much as I hate to jump on the bandwagon, Blanchett.

Bale is the only actor of the six to play kinda-sorta two roles, Jack and his 20-years-later embodiment of Dylan's born-again Christianity, Pastor John, and he does an impeccable job. Given that we only see glimpses of Jack, during particularly public moments, he gets a lot across with his eyes and physical gestures, and his Dylan-esque matter of speaking is dead-on. Blanchett's performance, showy as it might be, is really astounding from any standpoint, but especially if you've seen footage of Dylan from this era. While more impersonation than emotion-based, Blanchett completely embodies Dylan (at one point requesting of a crucified Jesus statue, "Why don't you do your early stuff?"), nailing down his mannerisms while also imbuing Jude with a palpable sense of malaise, whimsy and guarded defensiveness. This is more than just mimicry, it's an embodiment significantly more impressive than what Jamie Foxx (in "Ray"), Jon Voight (in "Ali," "Glory Road," "Pearl Harbor," the list goes on) or Blanchett herself (in "The Aviator") accomplished.

Once you get past the conceptual oddity, "I'm Not There" is still a fairly challenging work, not least of which is that it's a 2 hour and 15 minute film that embraces a non-narrative structure. In that respect, while the film is perpetually interesting, it's not always actually compelling. While you may be enjoying yourself at any given moment, there's never really the promise of evolution or resolution, and no real (even thematic) climax. My interest never waned, but it also hit me at a certain point that the film was never going to really build to some grand idea or occurrence, and that's going to be frustrating to some.

But at the time time, it'll also put a certain segment of the audience in cinematic heaven, allowing them to groove on the film's ideas, sequences and various strands. Some have evoked the comparison between the film and a great Bob Dylan song, and well, the parallel's there if you want to see it. What was particularly exciting about "I'm Not There" to me was how jam-packed with minutae and detail it was in every frame, and how Haynes utilizes numerous cinematic styles and reference points to demonstrate the unique aspects of Dylan. It's a shame I was only able to see the film once prior to writing this review, since it's practically made for multiple viewings.

Is it possible to really appreciate "I'm Not There" if you know little-to-nothing about Dylan? Well, no. With a vague understanding of the shape of his career, you'll get the general point of things and perhaps admire the film conceptually and appreciate the craft of the filmmaking, but you won't grasp/recognize much of the content (which certainly isn't to say an expansive and specific knowledge of Dylan's work/career will ensure the film won't infuriate or distance you). But unequivocally, the more Dylan minutae you're familiar with, the more you'll be "with" the proceedings and on the same page, whether you like it or not. In the days preceding my screening, I curled up with Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home," the new fantastic 3-CD collection "Dylan" and a DVD of Dylan's performances at the Newport Folk Festival. I'm still not sure I caught everything, but it certainly helped.

"I'm Not There" isn't the masterwork Haynes' "Far From Heaven" or "Safe" were (at least not in my eyes), but it's, without a doubt, essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a supporter of true art in film and/or music. While I would advise some research (though damned enjoyable research) prior to heading out to the theater, it's truly one of the most ambitious and thematically exciting films of the year, and only further establishes Haynes as one of the true visionary directors making films today. In what's been a terribly invigorating year for adventurous cinema, "I'm Not There" is really a must-see.

"I'm Not There" opens today in 125 theaters across the country; while nowhere near a nationwide release ("Enchanted," for example, is opening on nearly 4,000 screens), this is far wider than the single-digit screen roll-out initially announced and affords John Q. Moviegoer a much better chance of seeing it than originally thought.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Original Screenplay (Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman)

"The Mist" -- * * * *

With "The Mist," Frank Darabont proves two things: one, that he's nearly impossible to nail down or label as a filmmaker; and two, that perhaps he should be required to be behind the camera whenever a Stephen King adaptation is greenlit. A relentlessly downbeat and genuinely unsettling horror film, "The Mist" proves to be one of the very best film versions of King's work, though it's certain to polarize audiences (including critics) as much as any film has in the last twenty years. Opening with blink-and-you'll-miss-them nods to "The Thing" and "Pan's Labyrinth" (a film both Darabont and King have expressed their love for), "The Mist" is a genre film for true fans of the genre and not bandwagon-followers who just give their dollars to the "Saw" films and whatever remake comes out this week.

King's 27-year-old novella (arguably one of his most cinematic works) is painstakingly adhered to by Darabont, save for its ambiguous ending (more on that later). Our protagonist is film-poster artist David Drayton (Tom Jane) and when we first meet him, a particularly bad storm is raging and David, along with his wife and son Billy (Nathan Gamble), seek refuge in their basement. After a monstrous tree crashes through their window, David and Billy head to the local grocery store to stock up on food and supplies, but the storm has left a mysterious and impenetrable mist in its wake. While they're inside the supermarket, the local emergency horn sounds as the mist envelops the town, and a local with a bloody nose (Jeffrey DeMunn) takes shelter in the store, shouts "there's something in the mist!" and announces that whatever that "something" is ate/killed his friend.

Wisely heeding the injured man's advice, the store patrons shut the door, take cover and attempt to figure out what to do. The more time spent inside, and particularly after Norm the bag boy (Chris Owen) is devoured by something from the mist with tentacles while attempting to turn on a generator, fear, mistrust and madness begin to overwhelm those who remain. All the while, there's the constant threat of attack from the varying creatures within the mist as David tries to protect his son as best he can from said creatures, and the increasingly vicious two-legged ones around him. Chief among them is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a Christian extremist who believes the events outside are in fact the end of Days. Carmody sees this as an opportunity to preach her fire-and-brimstone philosophies to former non-believers, and the more catastrophic, seemingly supernatural occurrences that occur, the larger her makeshift "congregation" grows.

It's ironic that the selling of "The Mist" is being attributed largely to it being "from the writer/director of 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'The Green Mile,'" since this bitterly pessimistic work shares little of those two films' humanistic ideals. While Darabont's writing is just as sharp here as on those two Oscar-nominated films, the film more calls to mind his early work on "The Fly II" and "The Blob" than those King adaptations. "The Mist" struck me more as a B-movie creature feature taking place in the real world, playing things completely straight and focusing on the human side of the story and an analysis of how people would react in such a situation.

As such, fans of typical horror films will not quite know what to make of "The Mist." It's a shame that so much of the horror genre has pandered so steadfastly to its moronic fanbase over the years so that when a genuinely challenging and intelligent one comes along, it's almost guaranteed to get rejected. Those who prefer their genre pictures filled with cheap thrills, and like them best when "fun," will not be happy with "The Mist." This is an increasingly dark affair with a sense of dread that never gets alleviated. By the two-thirds mark (after a particularly chilling stabbing), it seems things can't possibly get more bleak and dispiriting, but lo and behold, they do.

So yeah, things are quite grim, but are they scary? Very. The increasingly claustrophobic feel adds to the almost unbearable tension, especially as characters begin to weigh their options about whether they're safer inside with the other people or outside with the creatures. In terms of those creatures, the effects on display are frightening and squirm-inducing, but even moreso when Darabont subscribes (as he often does) to the notion of letting your imagination do much of the work. What you don't see here-- and what's obscured by the mist-- makes the proceedings ten times scarier, and only makes the out-of-nowhere appearances of the varying creatures that much more frightening.

Without a Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey to hang his feature on, Darabont employs an ensemble cast largely unknown to the moviegoing masses, thus infusing the oft-bereft genre with *gasp* accomplished actors. From "Boogie Nights" to "The Punisher," Jane has always had an admirable sense of commitment to what he does, no matter how lousy the movie might be, and I was really impressed with his work here. If we don't connect to David, it's easy for this to just become a game of "what monster will come next?," and Jane succeeds in making him sympathetic, resourceful and human, and not just a hunky sensitive-artist stereotype.

Speaking of stereotypes, Harden sure as hell plays one here, but its to her credit that she turns this one-note role into something truly remarkable and, dare I say, Oscar-worthy. Carmody is no doubt a woman that we completely despise, but Harden (with the help of an especially well-written praying scene in a bathroom) makes her feel utterly real and in a warped way, makes us understand her, even if we never come close to sympathizing with her. Harden is, without question, a great actress, but it's difficult to remember that when she continually plays long-suffering wives/mothers. She may have looked at Mrs. Carmody as a fun departure, but it turns out to be one of her best performances, as well as the most fascinating-to-watch villain this side of Anton Chigurh.

For the majority of "The Mist," my audience seemed to be with it and getting caught up with the goings-ons and responding fairly well, and then in the last 20 minutes or so, I could slowly feel the energy of the room turning against it. Then the ending hit, and as people left the theater, I could just hear mutterings of "that was horrible" and "what did I just watch?" Yes, "The Mist" has a jaw-dropper of an ending. Abandoning King's ending's ambiguity, Darabont delivers an emotional gut-punch that is quite possibly the ballsiest conclusion to a horror film that I've ever seen.

I can understand the visceral reactions; the horror genre is notoriously one that people step outside of and watch for voyeuristic purposes, so Darabont asking us to get this invested and take responsibility is a major risk. I presume this decision will result in the film taking a massive box office nosedive in its second weekend, but also solidify it a place in the pantheon of horror classics. Pay no attention to what the Tomato-meter says or what some guy you work with tells you; 20 years down the line, people will speak with a great reverence for "The Mist" and what it means to horror cinema.

"Enchanted" -- * *

Riding a wave of positive early buzz, "Enchanted" is an ultimately disappointing and uninspired exercise of Disney trying to give itself a good-natured ribbing with the mentality of "hey, if 'Shrek' could do it, why can't we?" At first attempting (largely toothless) satire, the film soon devolves into a typical fish-out-of-water story filled with fairly obvious jokes and ideas. Any goodwill generated here will likely be due to a wonderfully charming performance by leading lady Amy Adams, and not originality or wit therein.

Narrated by Julie Andrews, "Enchanted's" first 10 minutes are entirely animated, beginning in the land of Andalasia where fair princess Giselle (Adams), equipped with a beautiful singing voice and a kinship with animals, longs to receive her "true love's kiss." Said true love is Prince Edward (James Marsden), but both young lover's dreams are dashed by bitchy Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), who banishes Giselle to "a place where there are no happy endings." This place turns out to be New York City, where the animated Giselle is thrust into the live-action world and forced to deal with reality for the first time. In New York, the immensely naive Giselle meets handsome divorce lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey), and his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey), while dodging Narissa's henchman Nathaniel (a depressingly annoying Timothy Spall) and being pursued by Giselle's best friend, CGI-animated chipmunk Pip.

The real problem here isn't the performers or the lively, colorful direction by Kevin Lima ("Tarzan"), but the eye-rollingly reminiscent screenplay by Bill Kelly. Kelly is no stranger to high-concept scripts that never fulfill their potential (he also wrote "Premonition" and "Blast From the Past"), and with "Enchanted," he's come up with a cute premise, but nothing more. Even when a film's intended audience is children or families, it should always strive to avoid feeling too 'kiddie' and offer something new or genuine. Despite a handful of bright spots, "Enchanted" continually felt like kiddie fare (even during two out-of-place gay jokes) and had me checking my watch with more regularity than smiling or chuckling.

The film does benefit from the energy and versatility of its location, New York City, but even this causes some problems noticeable to anyone who's ever actually been to the place. Not to nitpick, but I've never seen Times Square and Columbus Circle as sparsely populated. The real Times Square is a pain in the ass to walk through because there's hundreds of thousands of tourists stopping every few inches to point at everything they see (e.g.: "Look, a big Cup of Noodles!") that you can barely move. Here, it's obvious there were just a few dozen extras hired to walk around so Adams could emerge from a sewer's manhole and run around in her big frilly dress.

But a more glaring faux pas (at least to me) were the billboards on display; Couldn't Disney, a company with billions of dollars and CGI at its disposal have afforded to remove massive billboards for the long extinct Broadway shows "Ring of Fire," "Lestat" and "The Wedding Singer"? And speaking of Broadway, why hire immensely talented stage divas Idina Menzel (the original leading lady in "Wicked") and Tonya Pinkins (brilliant in "Caroline, or Change") in a musical and not allow them to sing, or do much in general?

Though the film features at least one grating production number, "That's How You Know," another one, "Happy Working Song," is easily the high point of its 100-minute running time. Occurring 25 minutes in, the number enjoyably parodies Disney films' propensity for adorable animal helpers. In New York, a place where creatures tend to not be cute or cuddly, Giselle beckons animals to come help her clean Robert's apartment, but only succeeding in rounding up cockroaches, pigeons and rats. For these few minutes, the movie truly springs to life, offering a glimpse of what might have been. There are a few other cute and funny jokes interspersed throughout the proceedings (Giselle mistakes an irate midget for "Grumpy"), but mostly, "Enchanted" never gets much cleverer than the corny animated films it purports to parody.

But the biggest bright spot of them all in this sea of mediocrity is Adams herself. After a phenomenal Oscar-nominated role in "Junebug" and a few funny scenes in "Talladega Nights," Adams finally gets her own leading role and makes the most of it. Though Giselle isn't as fleshed out as she could be, Adams is thoroughly endearing and amusing throughout and solidifies definitively here that it's only a matter of time before she becomes a full-on movie star. Marsden (having a great year between this and "Hairspray") also knowingly embraces his character's exaggerated earnestness, brightening up whatever scene he may be in. But rather than working in tandem with the material, Adams and Marsden elevate it. They deserve better than this, though it's clear to see why the parts appealed to them.

Dempsey (a.k.a.: the fakest hair in Hollywood) is as boring as ever, and unfortunately gets much more screentime than Marsden. I've never seen an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," so maybe therein lies my ignorance, but I just don't get the appeal of this guy. Sarandon enjoys the shit out of herself here, camping it up wildly, but alas, she's only in human form for a total of ten minutes (not appearing till the 80-minute mark) and doesn't get nearly enough to work with.

Maybe I'm just a grouch (I couldn't get into the schmaltzy "August Rush," also opening today, either), but is it wrong of me to want even my kiddie fare to be somewhat original or funny or genuinely endearing? I know 22-year-old males who worship the Coen Brothers aren't exactly the target audience for "Enchanted," and it's bound to make tons of money regardless of what people like me think. But really, considering all the elements in place here, this should've truly been something special and not just a slightly different twist on familiar ideas/jokes/set-ups.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actress (Amy Adams), Best Original Song ("Happy Working Song")

"Hitman" -- * 1/2

Equipped with none of the wit and dark humor of the video game on which it's based, the self-serious "Hitman" is a hack job infused with little-to-no energy and reeking of laziness. While never truly awful-- everything is sleek, slick and shiny-- the movie is unforgiveably boring and only notable for heralding the return of the star of "Mission: Impossible 2" and "Ever After," Dougray Scott, in a supporting role. Starring Timothy Olyphant (about as engaging and spirited here as he was in "Live Free or Die Hard") as shiny-plastic-tie-wearing assassin Agent 47, "Hitman" is pointlessly structured as one long flashback and fails to carve out its own identity, feeling like dozens of movies we've seen before. Though at first purporting to stay to its roots as a mediocre, if somewhat lively, live-action video game, within minutes the proceedings become bogged down in by-the-numbers plotting and a numbing barrage of bullet sound effects.

Directed with a complete lack of passion by Xavier Gens and equipped with a screenplay by Skip Woods that thinks less of its audience than most Hentai porn (a crawl tells us a scene takes place in "London -- England" and that a President's political party is 'Moderate'), "Hitman" features only two slight moments of entertainment to break the tedium. The first is an amusing, if nonsensical, moment where Agent 47 bursts into a hotel room of kids playing the original 'Hitman' videogame. The second is a sequence where 47 and three other hit men are all pointing guns at each other, and Olyphant utters, "How about dying with a little dignity?" At this point, all four hit men drop their guns, and each miraculously pull out SWORDS, fighting each other to the death. I couldn't quite tell if this moment was intended to be ridiculous or not, but either way, it worked for me. Though there had been rumblings of the film being edited down to PG-13, followed by the studio's subsequent defenses of its R rating, "Hitman" features endless violence with no real impact, and seems to have just been kept at an 'R' to feature a glimpse of our female lead's chesticles (which incidentally can't hold a candle to Marisa Tomei's). Video game fanatics tend not to be the most discerning filmgoers in general, but I can't even imagine them being satisfied with what's been done to a game that was significantly wittier and more crassly entertaining than most.

Monday, November 19, 2007

"August Rush" -- * 1/2

Seeing something as original and audacious as Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" within 24 hours of the pandering and schmaltzy "August Rush" only further reinforced that I'll take a haywire, dizzying excess of ambition over the opposite any day. While I'll acknowledge "Rush" is relatively harmless, it's unquestionably sentimental, generic pap for the type of people who fawn over movies that feature heartstring-pulling familial reunions and little boys in tuxedos. When you can actually mouth the dialogue along with a movie without having seen it before, it's generally not a good sign, and on numerous occasions, I knew exactly where the emotionally stacked screenplay was leading; it's the kind of movie where when someone asks "Do you have children, Mr. Jeffries?", you know the reaction will be a long pause followed by a wistful "I did."

A sugary re-working of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," "August Rush" features an 11-year-old protagonist who autistically... er, I mean magically... hears music all around him in everyday items. After being placed in an orphanage and separated from his parents (Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys-Meyes) who-- through a hilarious contrivance I won't spoil-- have no idea he exists, our hero Evan (Freddie Highmore) escapes and sets out to reunite with them in New York using his telepathic musical capabilities. Along the way, he becomes a street performer for the villainous Fagin-like Wizard (a gratingly over-the-top Robin Williams) who renames him August Rush, all while social worker Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard) scours the city for him.

I'm all for sugary-sweet movies that touch the heart or put a smile on your face (also in theaters: "Martian Child," "Lars and the Real Girl," "Dan in Real Life"), but "August Rush" takes sentimentality to such heights that I couldn't help rolling my eyes and shifting uncomfortably in my seat for its two-hour duration. I know this movie is charming some people who normally don't go for this type of thing, and honestly, I don't get it. I felt manipulated at every turn, from the whimsical opening narration to its "Run, August, Run!" conclusion. Nonetheless, the sneak preview audience surrounding me (shockingly almost all adults) seemed to eat it up, and broke into unanimous applause before the closing credits even came up. The film's ardent early supporters have understandably expressed concern about it getting lost in the proverbial shuffle this upcoming Thanksgiving weekend among six (count 'em, six) national releases... frankly, it deserves to.

"August Rush" opens in theatres nationwide this Wednesday, November 21st.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" -- * * *

At no point ever trying to appeal to adults in the audience, the G-rated "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is nonetheless perpetually charming and frequently adorable. The directorial debut of "Stranger than Fiction" screenwriter Zach Helm, "Magorium" is the type of thing you always hear described as appealing to "the child in all of us," and for once, the label fits. It would take a pretty sizable grouch to resist the sincere whimsy on display here, but even simply in the capacity as a parent, it's by far the best thing out right now to take your kids to (unless your kids are big fans of the Coen Brothers).

Intentionally evoking a fairy-tale feel, "Magorium" is broken into storybook-animated chapters and narrated by a young boy, our guide through the story, Eric (Zach Mills). Eric has no friends his own age, you see, and spends all his time at Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a (literally) magical toy store with a life of its own, and with the store's owner, Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), and its manager, Mahoney (Natalie Portman). At the ripe old age of 243, Mr. Magorium (also known as "Not Steve"), has decided to retire, not just from his job, mind you, but from the planet.

Before he leaves our plane of existence, he insists on passing the torch to Mahoney, who claims she's not capable of handling the responsibility, in addition to aspiring to get back to her old hobby/profession as a concierto pianist. All the while, Henry (Jason Bateman), a humorless accountant assigned with assessing the true value of the store, passively observes and becomes unlikely friends with Eric. Henry manages to avoid noticing any sort of odd/magical goings-on in the emporium-- much like the mom in "E.T."-- and refreshingly, his only job is to evaluate the store's worth, and he never becomes a threat or villain.

As he proved with "Stranger," Helm is a tremendously clever writer, and maintains that quality even while writing for a much different genre/audience here. "Magorium" is wittier than the average kids film, but never goes for the easy joke (no bodily functions are present here). It takes a very gentle approach, with dozens of moments that provoke smiles or chuckles rather than belly laughs. My favorite bits were things Henry finds in Magorium's records, such as a loan from "The King of Planet Yah-way" and an IOU from Thomas Edison, reading "thanks for the idea."

But "Magorium" generates most of its goodwill from its, to put it crassly, "awww" moments of charm and adorability. A sequence depicting Zach and Henry's initial interaction via notepads is a little sappy, but it's also the moment the movie truly won me over. There's also a tremendously satisfying moment featuring stuffed animals (yes, I said it) that I challenge you to not smile at. The store at its most alive and thriving moments is immensely endearing, from its 'fresh fish' mobile to its constantly escaping bouncy balls, leading up to a climactic final scene that might send some kids into sensory overload. Helm makes the store as wondrous as its name would indicate, and makes us understand why Kermit the Frog (in a cameo) shops there.

The screenplay also gracefully deals with some issues that may not comfortably shoehorn into disposable kids fare, but amazingly work remarkably well here. Magorium's "decision" to leave this planet provokes surprisingly sensitive and effective exchanges about celebrating life and embracing death as just another natural part of it. The second movie this season to profoundly reference "King Lear" (the other being "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), "Magorium" gives Hoffman a great monologue about the merits and resonance of that play's closing line, "he died."

Portman does okay with carrying the film, but she underplays to the point of barely existing. She can be very good in the right part (e.g.: "V for Vendetta," "Beautiful Girls"), but it's clear a meaty role wasn't her reason for joining the cast of "Magorium." As the titular character, Hoffman is excessively delightful and more loveable than he's been in years. Equipped with an exaggerated lisp and sing-song manner of speaking, he constantly threatens to verge into irritating territory but never does. The actor has expressed in the past his desire to play Willy Wonka, and he's obviously relishing his chance to play the closest thing to the infamous candyman and getting to do such things as tap-dancing on bubble wrap.

Bateman gets an opportunity to play against his smarmy persona here and it's a pleasure to watch his character's transformation. Rather than a coldhearted businessman with a hidden soft side, Henry is a good guy from the outset, just a humorless one who learns to embrace his inner child. Between this, "The Kingdom" and "Juno," it appears "Arrested Development" may have served as a perfect re-launching pad for his film career.

Credited as "Supposedly a film by Zach Helm" and running a refreshing 88 minutes (27 minutes shorter than the abominable "Fred Claus"), "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is not a "family film;" it is most emphatically, and proudly, a kids movie. It has an abundance of wit and humor but makes no attempt to have "risque" content-- or uncomfortably wedge in a Vince Vaughn or Jerry Seinfeld-- to pander to a hip, adult crowd; it has a heart of gold and makes no bones about it.

The film takes place in a more innocent world, where grown men can say "I love you" to young boys and/or be caught playing in their room, without anyone suspecting anything fishy. It also, more than perhaps any other kids movie this year, appears to made with love and not simply churned out to turn a profit or sell product tie-ins (the only name brands I could spot were Slinky and K'nex). Those who found "Stranger than Fiction" too precious, or prefer their family fare punctuated with material destined to fly over little ones' heads, will probably find "Magorium" either irritating or underwhelming. However, those who get excited upon hearing the phrase "magical toy store" should jump on board.

"Love in the Time of Cholera" -- * 1/2

A bad choice right from the outset for the notoriously impersonal/cold filmmaking style of Mike Newell, "Love in the Time of Cholera" is a rather dull, schizophrenic affair that fails to illuminate any of the much-hailed attributes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1985 romantic classic novel. The potential for greatness is there on paper-- the story, in theory, is a powerful one-- and it's easy to see the intent, but no one's heart is in it, and the disparate tone throughout is all wrong. What should have been romantic or moving, instead just plods on and on, going on far too many digressions and bringing to mind an ill-conceived soap opera (albeit a very pretty one).

Beginning in 1893 with an old man (Benjamin Bratt in old-age makeup) being bitten by a parrot and falling to his death, "Cholera" is a romantic fantasy/drama about a love that spans 53 years in Colombia. To put it simply, it's a life-spanning love between Florentino (played by Javier Bardem for the most part, and by Unax Ugalde in a younger form) and Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), but nothing in the film is as simple as that. Despite the two falling in love at first sight as young'ns, Fermina's father (John Leguizamo) disapproves of Florentino and takes Fermina with him to the country, intending to find her someone better. He does, in the form of successful doctor Juvenal (Bratt, bland). Though Florentino fucks hundreds of women throughout his life, his heart remains set on Fermina. Promising to wait for her until Juvenal dies (and as we know by the opening scene, he eventually does), Florentino carries a torch for his entire life. You can see where the resonance would/should be in this story, yes?

Squandering the potential to take advantage of the novel's magical realism (despite a re-creation of the book's original title presentation, surrounded by animated flowers), "Cholera" is instead tonally all over the place. We alternate, at any given moment, between broad and cartoonish, melodramatic, dull and inert, and wildly sentimental (the one attribute I can forgive-- this story should be sentimental). In the expansive and tangential storyline, it's ultimately the wildly jarring and "off" moments that stick out upon reflection; A misguided attempt at slapstick involving a cat's interference in a sexual encounter draws particular attention to itself. The only thing that seems more tonally off is the soundtrack, frequently punctuated by Shakira songs. Yes, Shakira and Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a match made in heaven.

Bardem is interesting to watch in anything, but this isn't one of the brilliant actor's better performances. The part is only noteworthy when viewed as a comparison to his bravura turn in the simultaneously-in-theaters "No Country for Old Men" as a case study of his versatility. You can't help but take note of the contrast in seeing Bardem blowing the brains out of innocents with an air-gun and watching him weep like a schoolgirl into his pillow after being rejected by his love. If only aspects of "No Country's" Chigurh were infused in Florentino, "Cholera" might be something worth watching.

In miniscule roles, Liev Schreiber, Fernanda Montenegro and Catalina Sandida Moreno don't get enough to do to make any sort of impression. On the other hand, Leguizamo's presence lingers throughout despite leaving the film early, even if it is for all the wrong reasons. Believing himself to be starring in a sequel to "Moulin Rouge," Leguizamo leaves no scenery unchewed, manically and viciously acting to a hilarious extent. It's tempting to criticize this performance as awful, but at least he's enjoying himself. We may be watching him with wide-eyed bewilderment, but at least he's not boring like nearly everything else.

So much of what must have resonated on the page comes off as melodramatic and uninspired in the hands of Newell. Dialogue, which may be ripped right from the novel, ranges from the redundant ("I gave her the letter. Now I must wait for her reply.") to ponderous ("Love is everything we do naked"). But what pushes the film from simply misguided and dull into truly patience-trying and forgettable, is its overstuffed nature paired with its slug's sense of pacing. At well over two hours, we go on a seeming never-ending stream of unimportant tangents and different episodes of varying characters, that I truly think a sizable chunk could've been wantonly excised (a 30-minute section in particular) and the film would suffer no narrative or coherency stumbling as a result.

To be frank with you, I didn't fall asleep during "Love in the Time of Cholera," but I came about a close as possible to doing so. Despite closing on a note of slight resonance and grace (with the pair finally together as senior citizens), it feels unearned, and nothing leading up to it provides anything resembling genuine feeling or engagement. I've heard from many a fan that Marquez's novel is a masterwork, with some even dubbing it their favorite love story of all time. If that's the case, Newell's film may be of even greater offense than from a layman's perspective, such as mine. To me, it's just a lousy movie. To fans of the novel, it's probably much, much less.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"No Country for Old Men" -- * * * *

"This country's hard on people."

In the interest of full disclosure, I think the Coen Brothers are easily the hands-down best filmmakers working, and have been for at least 15 years. I think they're complete masters of their craft, and even their worst movie (2004's "The Ladykillers") is eminently rewatchable and great in its own imperfect way. So, while it's no real surprise to those who know me that I all-out loved their latest, "No Country for Old Men," it's worth noting that it's, at least, one of their 3 or 4 best films (many have already proclaimed it's THE best).

Based on Cormac McCarthy's tremendous novel and set in 1980, "No Country" stays almost insanely faithful to a writer whose works have long been declared unfilmable. Needless to say, the Coens have disproven that statement to such a great extent that another McCarthy adaptation has already been greenlit; his most recent novel, "The Road," has been optioned and cast with Guy Pearce. While it may not be a selling-point for his detractors, "No Country" represents the closest cinematic equivalent of reading a McCarthy novel, while also very much infused with the Coens' everpresent sense of style and wit.

"No Country" is no doubt a thriller, a pulse-pounding crime drama that never stops moving and features more acts of violence than any film in recent memory. However, above all (and as indicated by its title), it's a mournful, sorrowful look at the encroaching darkness that it sees as overwhelming the once-decent values and humanity of our country over the last couple decades. An elegy for societal goodness, if you will.

Opening with the narration of Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), establishing our themes right from the get-go, we're soon introduced to our bogeyman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) as he's arrested and promptly escapes after strangling his arrested officer with the very handcuffs shackling him. Soonafter, we cut to good-ole-boy Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), as he discovers a truck filled with dead bodies, one barely breathing one, as well as a satchel full of money and more heroin than one could shake a proverbial stick at. Understandably, Llewelyn's only real interest is in the money, and brings it home to his sweet, concerned wife (Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald, phenomenal in a very small part).

After a nagging guilt about the one guy left alive, Llewelyn returns to the scene of the discovery with a jug of water, only to find the survivor has now been killed, and he's glimpsed and tailed. Putting his wife on a bus for Odessa to her mother's, Llewelyn's now on the run from the Mexican perpetrators of the crime, and more importantly, Chigurh, the intended recipient of the money, who doesn't hesitate to kill anyone who crosses his path or get in his way. All the while, Sheriff Bell watches from a relatively safe distance, shaking his head at what society's come to and attempting track down Llewelyn to keep him safe from unstoppable force Chigurh.

As the closest thing we have to a protagonist, Brolin continues his comeback year of excellence with an extremely modulated performance that is likely to get the least attention of the three leads. Brolin portrays Moss as a relatively bright, resourceful guy who loves his wife but seems a little too cocksure for his own good. Considering his amount of screentime, he doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, getting most the characters' emotions and motivations across in glances, sighs and movements.

Bardem's performance is, to put it simply, a fucking powerhouse. Also low on dialogue, Bardem imbues Chigurh with a ghostly quality, a combination of his seeming invincibility and inhumanly cold stares, smiles and manner of speaking; the fact that we don't even know his name until nearly an hour in certainly adds to the feeling. This is a character that is written to be scary, for sure, but Bardem makes him absolutely terrifying. You can completely sense the unease of everyone in the audience every time he's on screen, and the writing and the performance make him a significantly more intriguing character than a Hannibal Lecter or such. Chirgurh is no doubt a monster, but he's a "just" man in his own way, and has a sincere set of principles. As another character says, "He's a peculiar man."

Jones has the least screen time among the three (we don't actually see him till about the 25-minute mark), but its him the film is really about. Jones wonderfully plays him with a increasing sadness, like his role in "In the Valley of Elah," but with a far greater sense of gallows humor. The two performances are bound to draw comparison, and personally, I think I slightly prefer his work in "Elah" (easily the only thing about that film better than this one), but he still is fantastic as the moral center here. Sheriff Bell is the sort who skips certain occupational activities, like re-visiting crime scenes, not because he's lazy, but because he can't take what it does to his soul anymore. As a man who says things like "Once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am', the rest is soon to follow," this could've easily been a character that only curmudgeonly old men could relate to, but in the hands of Jones, we know exactly what he means and even I found myself agreeing with his Western wistfulness.

Serving as the Coens' third adaptation (after "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Ladykillers"), "No Country for Old Men" truly is one of their very best films, joining the company of "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing" and "Raising Arizona." Without sacrificing their trademarks, it serves as their most restrained piece of work, and potentially their most accessible and successful. The Coens have never been a sentimental pair; their films rarely, if ever, dwell on the emotional. But there's a profound sadness throughout "No Country" that really resonates without dwelling, and serves as an antidote for those who have applied the adjective 'cold' to them before. While there are some aspects you can recognize as distinctly Coen-esque-- they have a unique way of playing on the way certain areas utilize language-- they show little-to-no desire to overload on quirks that have permeated much of their past work (Stephen Root is the only member of their oft-utilized ensemble to show up here).

While many Coen films, and great films in general, have one or two scenes that serve as standouts to be cited by fans, "No Country" offers a bountiful plethora of them. I attempted to think of examples of great sequences produced here, and kept being reminded of another one, and another one, and then another that stuck out to me. From Chigurh's first attack on a motorist with his air-gun (typically utilized to blow the brains out of cows), to Moss's pursuit by a persistent, swimming dog, to a sequence in a hotel room that ratchets the suspense level up to an almost unbearable point, the Coens never let up. Even the quieter moments have a significant grace to them, paired with the impeccable writing, acting and framing of the shots. At the risk of hyperbole, literally every sequence is a jaw-dropper.

A big part of that is the look of the film, credited to the cinematography of Roger Deakins, having a Brolin-esque year of persistent greatness. His beautiful and shadowy cinematography here lends an austere gloriousness to every shot, joining his wonderful work on "In the Valley of Elah" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." On the aural end of the spectrum, Carter Burwell's score deserves credit for its restraint and the Coens' extremely, extremely minimal use of it. To be honest, it took a second viewing for me to even realize a score was used (it subtly and briefly underscores two quick, but pivotal, scenes); it's not until the closing credits when we hear a full, extended piece of music, and once we finally do, it's haunting. But the Coens' decision to leave the majority of the movie score (and music) free, with nary a car radio to punctuate the somber and tense content, makes the proceedings ten times more powerful (and suspenseful) than any score could have.

"No Country for Old Men" really can't be discussed completely without bringing up its ending. I won't talk about specifics, but more vague, non-specific spoilers. Still anyone who's seen the film or read the novel, read ahead, and those who haven't, feel free to return to me after this paragraph.


The Coens' faithfulness to their source material includes the novel's divisive ending. I've read it described as 'inconclusive' or 'open-ended,' but that branding is incorrect. It's very conclusive, concrete, it's just also extremely cynical, and denies the viewer a conventional "confrontational showdown between good and evil." Which, honestly, isn't just a daring, non-conformist conclusion to this story, it's literally, the only only way things could reasonably go down. An ending with a face-off between Chigurh and Bell would be a contradiction to every single thing that's come before it, and would completely destroy the entire point of the film. I'm, frankly, shocked at the level of certain people's surprise and disdain for this ending considering that everything you know about Jones' character and the film (including the title) would indicate that the film can end no other way. I rarely knock peoples' intelligence for their thoughts on a film-- I frequently have extended debate and discourse with others about out differing opinions-- but if you criticize this ending as "bad" or "unsatisfying," you're just stupid. You don't get the point of things, and you never will. Go check out "Fred Claus" across the hall.


Let's be clear about something. Regardless of awards, "No Country for Old Men" is an astonishing achievement in every respect. With a disquieting, unconventional emotional resonance paired with an unconscionably exciting and unpredictable story, the Coens have proven yet again why they're the best makers of movies working today. That said, it would be a shame if something this masterfully crafted were overlooked come Oscar time. Still, it doesn't matter. Despite the downbeat and violent state of things on screen, "No Country" will put any true fan of cinema in a terrific mood; I could conceivably watch it a dozen more times without getting my fill of the great things about it. And, unless a film comes along that blows the back of my head off, at this late point in the year, it's unquestionably the best film of 2007.

"No Country for Old Men" opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia. It expands to 130 theaters on November 16th, and 800 theaters nationwide on the 21st.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), Best Supporting Actress (Kelly MacDonald), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Cinematography

"Lions for Lambs" -- * * 1/2

It’s a shame that Hollywood has squandered the potential for making superb topical films about the political climate of our country in the last six years, because there was so much to work with. They haven’t failed spectacularly, but as of yet (we still have a few to go), none have been very powerful or effective. Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” sadly, doesn’t break the trend, but it comes significantly closer than “In the Valley of Elah” and is the most overly political of the lot. Opening with a voiceover about soldiers killed in Iraq and lingering shots of GOP. public opinion polls, there’s no question where the film’s viewpoint lies, but it’s significantly more even-handed than I expected going in.

Basically a filmed play, “Lions” weaves together three similarly-themed storylines: (1) an ambitious Republican senator, Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) doing his part “to keep the press better informed” by offering an exclusive interview with liberal veteran newswoman Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) about his new strategy in fighting the way on terror, (2) a liberal, grizzled college professor (Robert Redford) lecturing an apathetic fratboy (Andrew Garfield) in his office about two former students of his (Michael Pena and Derek Luke), and (3) those very students, now enlisted in the Army, as they partake in Irving’s new strategy in Afghanistan and find themselves royally fucked and embedded in the snow-covered ground. The first two stories are each basically just two people exchanging words back and forth in offices (in real time), with the latter blatantly pandering to audiences who might be bored by too much talking.

It’s this third storyline that nearly sinks the movie altogether, and prompted me to slink in my seat each time it was cut back to. It’s obviously wedged in to provide some sort of “action”, is poorly written, boring, repetitive (each time we cut back to them, it’s basically the same scene over and over), and ultimately, cringe-inducingly sentimental and “patriotic,” while supposedly depicting the human cost of the war.

Thankfully, the other two storylines are significantly more engrossing. The best, and most gripping, segment of the film, by far, is the Cruise/Streep material. Even though their scenes are very terse, back-and-forth dialogue scenes with little opportunity for “acting,” Cruise is perfectly cast as the slick, answer-ready-for-everything senator, and Streep is particularly wonderful in a role that’s probably fairly close to who she is in reality. Rather than preaching a liberal diatribe and painting Irving as staunchly evil and/or manipulative, this is rather, a fairly intelligent debate from both sides of the ‘war on terror’ argument, and is consistently compelling. While Janine is clearly who the filmmakers side with (when Irving asks, “When will you people stop asking the same questions?” she matter-of-factly responds, “When we get the answer.”), the arguments Irving makes are fairly cogent, intelligent and reasonably persuasive, and he sounds scarily like the Republican pundits who regularly speechify on Fox News. It’s also worth noting that the film avoids blanket Bush-bashing; we get a fleeting mention of “the president,” but the name is never uttered.

Like the DC-set segment, Redford’s storyline—set at “A California University”—has compelling dialogue (courtesy of “The Kingdom” scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan), even if the student’s situation seems fairly tenuous to the flashbacks Redford recalls. It’s this segment that most emphatically underlines the film’s themes about getting engaged, and it’s fairly effective. The title is a reference to a quote cited by Redford: “Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs.”

That’s really what the film’s about, and that’s what so refreshing about the best parts of it. Rather than a self-righteous, obvious message of “bring the troops home” (not really a point people need a film to bring to their attention), it’s chiefly a criticism of apathy, and a cautionary tale about us, the American people, not buying Iran like we bought Iraq. While there’s no question where Redford and Carnahan’s opinions lie, the film is as much a criticism of liberals who went along to the drum-up to Iraq as it is of the conservative politicians who instigated it. As Redford’s character says, “the problem isn’t with those in charge, they’re irredeemable. The problem is with us, who do nothing.” When it’s cooking, “Lions for Lambs” raises questions and ideas like this thoughtfully, and unlike “Elah’s” rah-rah “troops good, war bad” simplicity, you actually need to know shit to keep up with what’s going on here and follow the dialogue.

Though cast with A-listers to make John Q. American pay attention, "Lions for Lambs" will likely bore most audiences with its verbose nature and it will probably be crushed by “Fred Claus” this weekend. Still, for most of its running time, the film's a more interesting, thoughtful (though painfully earnest) assessment of our current national situation than less adventurous filmmakers seem willing to explore; it’s just questionable whether you want to spend your money on only about an hour’s worth of worthwhile stuff. While understandable that, at 88 minutes, “Lions” couldn’t afford to lose an entire storyline, it’s unfortunate, because at 65 minutes (missing the soldier content), this could have been a very good movie.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Probably none, but potentially Best Original Screenplay