Friday, December 28, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (***1/2)

Directed by Tim Burton


Stephen Sondheim's bloody musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the most beloved stage plays in history. It's dark images and abundance of blood never stopped bevies of fans to come in to watch the story of the throat-slitting barber. So, you could see how many fans might have been worried when word came that it was going to be made into a Hollywood motion picture. How would you be able to get away with making this into a film with jeopardizing it's ferociousness?

In comes Tim Burton--possibly the most imaginative filmmaker since Stanley Kubrick--to take the reigns over the project. He brings in his most common collaborator in Johnny Depp to play the title character, and his wife, the ageless Helena Bonham Carter, to play the role of the meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett. How would these two performers, with no true singing talent, do in the roles? In a word: beautifully. It's true that neither Depp nor Carter have voices that blow you away, but they construct the performances so well that our focus moves from the singing to the power of the songs themselves.

The story of Sweeney Todd begins with the story of Benjamen Barker (Depp), a barber married to the beautiful Lucy, with a gorgeous baby daughter named Johanna. When the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) falls for Lucy and lusts after her, he has Barker disbarred and takes Lucy and Johanna for himself. After fifteen years, Barker manages to get out of prison and returns to London where he has changed his hairstyle and has become Sweeney Todd, a man obsessed with revenge on the people who took his life and family.

His old barber shop is now owned by Mrs. Lovett (Carter), a dainty woman who is rumored to make the worst meat pies on the planet, and has a shop covered with cockroaches. When she realizes Todd's true identity, she tells him that Lucy has since poisoned herself, and Johanna is still living in merciless captivity by Judge Turpin. Meanwhile, Todd's young companion on the ship to London, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) falls in love with Johanna, but is unable to get to her through Turpin's strict constraint.

After embarrassing the showy, Italian barber Signor Pirelli (a very cute cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen), Todd and Lovett construct a nearly flawless business proposition. With his barbering skills, Sweeney Todd will draw customers who, seeking a shave, will have their throats viciously sliced, and Mrs. Lovett will use the bodies to bake the meatiest meat pies ever sold in London. Todd is able to extract his thirst for blood, and Mrs. Lovett is able to make much of a profit on her much-improved meat pies.

After this plot summary, it seems obvious to say that this is one of the bloodiest films that I've ever seen. Every throat that Todd cuts sprays blood in countless directions, and afterward, Todd uses a foot petal to send their bloody corpses down a chute to the cellar, where Mrs. Lovett cooks up a nice pie with their remains. Its hard to imagine any filmmaker other than Burton who can construct this bloodbath without putting the original material at risk (he dealt with this delicate balance before in Sleepy Hollow). Burton instead makes the flaming red blood another corner stone in the spectacle that makes the film so tantalizing.

The music in film is preserved from the original Stephen Sondheim material, and the movie is essentially wall-to-wall with music. Like I've mentioned before, none of the actors in the film have particularly striking singing voices, but they're able to sing without power and allow the booming music in the background take center stage. Powerful songs such as "Johanna" and "No Place Like London" are reprised throughout the film with enough sweetness that the strength of voice never distracts. Remember, voice strength never hurt Chicago, which is easily the best American musical since Cabaret.

The performances in the film by Depp and Carter are what truly drive the film. Depp's portrayal as the vengeful, razor-wielding Todd is one the best, if not quirkiest of his career. Depp has spent the last fifteen years taking roles that makes us say "Well, I've never seen anyone do that before", and he continues with that trend here. As for Carter, her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett (a role immortalized by Angela Lansbury) is sweet, irresistible, and equally demented. Lovett's unyielding crush on Todd makes her the one character in the story a bit stranger than he is.

Their are very good performances in all the supporting roles as well. Alan Rickman's ruthless performance as the tyrant Judge Turpin is one of power and authority, a trait that this much underrated actor has employed in many roles over his career. Jaime Cambell Bower is convincing as Anthony, a young man fallen head over heels with the daughter of Todd. A true tour-de-force comes from a performance of the young Ed Sanders as Toby, a young vagabond who goes from the workhouse to working for Mrs. Lovett when her business booms. His presence is felt in his love for Mrs. Lovett and his finale has so much power, that I shall not reveal it.

Sweeney Todd is a testament to the filmmaking talent of Tim Burton. With this movie, he has established himself as a true cinematic visionary, with very few of his peers being nearly as brave or wondrous. It always seemed that Burton was more suited for animation, since live-action seems to stilt his infinite capabilities. But a film like this one makes you glad that he was willing to give it a shot. Never was beautiful, show-stopping music and unrelenting violence combined in a better way than this.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

GREAT FILMS: Manhattan (1979)

Directed by Woody Allen

Out of all of Woody Allen's great work, it seems to me that none of his films are as beautiful and incandescent as Manhattan. It studies the usual Woody subjects: the troubles within sexual relationships and the futility of intellectualism. More than anything, though, Allen's eighth film is a love song to the city he loves. A city brewing with culture and occasional crumminess, Allen has dedicated essentially his entire catalog of films to showcasing New York City, but no other film demonstrates Allen's obsession like Manhattan.

The story follows a group New Yorkers, including Isaac (Allen), a paranoid television writer, who hates the low-brow material he writes and is in the middle of a healthy affair with a 17-year-old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). His friend Yale (Michael Murphey) is a college professor who is happily married to Emily (Anne Byrne), even though he can't get his mind off of his mistress Mary (Diane Keaton).

Both men are conflicted with their lives. Isaac irrationally quits his job, and constantly questions his immoral relationship with Tracy. Yale endlessly fails to choose between his love for the comforting Emily, or his lust for the high-strung Mary. On top of it all, Isaac has to deal with his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) who plans to write a memoir about their unsuccessful marriage--and how she chose to leave him for another woman.

As all of Woody's films, Manhattan is filled with charming, flawed characters and hilarious, pithy dialogue, but this film is one of the only films Allen ever made where substance took a back seat to style. We remember the one-liners in the movie, but what we remember more is Allen's use of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" throughout the soundtrack. What we remember more is iconic cinematographer Gordon Willis' incredible black and white photography. No other film that Allen has made has such a detail for tone and cinematography.

There are a lot of moments which tackle Woody's usual subject matter of romantic relationships and their ability to make people hysteric. Yale drops Mary to bring some stability in his life, but he is completely unable to get her out of his mind. He unwisely suggests that Isaac take Mary out. Equally unwise, Isaac gets rid of Tracy, despite the fact that she truly loves him. The complexity within the constant hooking up and breaking up is something that is not uncommon in Woody films. Needless to say, the relationship between Isaac and Mary does not work out.

The sweetest moments in Manhattan are the ones that involve Isaac and Tracy. Hemingway's performance as the emotionally mature teenager may be the greatest performance in a Woody Allen film. It's incredibly nuanced performance, because we believe that she actually loves the much older, balding Isaac. Months after he has left her, Isaac sits talking to Emily, explaining to her his missed opportunity with Tracy.

It is rumored that Woody Allen disliked this film so much that he asked United Artists not to release it. It makes sense when you come to realize that this movie is very different stylistically than any other movie he made. There is a moment in the film when Mary and Isaac are walking through a planetarium, and the dark tone of the photography literally drenches them in darkness for quite a few minutes. Very few filmmakers would be brave enough to do this, but what it does is put emphasis on the important dialogue that is being spoken by the characters in the scene.

This movie is not a socially relevant as Annie Hall and does not have a message that blows you away like Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Manhattan is by far the most beautiful film Woody Allen ever made. There's a moment toward the end of the movie where Isaac talks into a Dictaphone, stating all the things that make life worth living, which includes Groucho Marx, classical music, and of coarse, Tracy. Through this reflection, he realizes how much he loves Tracy. As the audience, when we watch Woody recite those things, we realize that this film is one of those things that makes life worth living.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Savages (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Tamara Jenkins

Savages - Trailer


Ever since her charming feature Slums of Beverly Hills, filmmaker Tamara Jenkins has been MIA in movie theaters. Luckily, her return to filmmaking is with a film with such a great amount of heart, that it surpasses any of her previous work. Jenkins' The Savages is a film about familial responsibility. Though the dramatic comedy about family disorder is as common today as the brainless action film, this film is a one of a kind in the genre, because it focuses on the later result of that dysfunction.

The story is about Wendy Savage (Laura Linney), a woman in her mid-thirties with a desk job, and high ambitions to have her play financed--a play based on the irresponsibility of her parents in her childhood. She is also involved in a deep affair with a married 52-year-old man named Larry (Peter Friedman) who finds the time to indulge in sexual inhibitions with her in between walking his dog. When she receives a disturbing phone call about the health of her father, she is compelled to call her older brother John (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

John is in the middle of dealing with his own issues. He's a theater professor who's struggling to write a book on Bertolt Brecht, and refuses to marry his Polish girlfriend when her visa has expired, and she will be deported. When Wendy calls him, she informs him that their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco) is being thrown out on the street when his girlfriend dies, and he's unable to legally stay in her home. To top it off, Lenny is suffering from Parkinson's Disease which has caused him to have Dementia.

Lenny's condition has gone far beyond anything they can take on themselves, and they put him in a nursing home in Buffalo. In the meantime, John and Wendy live together in John's house as they try to come to grips with their own lives, and caring for a father who never thought much of caring for them when they were children.

It is mentioned quite a few times throughout the film that Lenny was nearly nonexistent in Wendy and John's childhood, and though its obvious that they have both turned out well despite it, the effects of the abandonment has effected them deeply in their personal relationships and their overall self-confidence. Despite it all, though, they work increasingly hard to make Lenny comfortable, even if they are never able to overcome the guilt of putting him in a nursing home smelling of death.

The film is a breakthrough in the career of Tamara Jenkins. The script is equipped with all the sparkling charm usual to her earlier work, but this film is a lot more mature and grizzled (like Hoffman's beard). There are wonderful moments and superb pieces of dialogue, such as scenes where the two siblings discuss their own careers and futures as writers. The combination of being proud for a loved one and the subtle sibling competition is hard to show on screen. This film manages to do it with a couple lines and stares.

Of coarse, the film would be close to nothing without the work of it's great cast. Linney and Hoffman may be the two most dependable actors, in their respective genders, in film today. Hoffman, coming off a monster year where he also starred in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and Charlie Wilson's War probably does his best work of this year in this small film, where he displays an emotionally confused 42-year-old with the self-esteem of a 12-year-old. Philip Bosco, known mostly for his work on the stage is transcendent as Lenny Savage, a man as helpless in old age and illness as he was neglectful as a father.

Of coarse, most of the emotional load of the film falls on Linney. Her ability to make Wendy likable and sweet despite being narcissistic and childish is what truly drives the film. Linney creates no pity parties for her character, but she is able to discover her own self-loathing. Without even realizing it, she becomes the backbone of an ever-decreasing family. She makes mistakes sexually and lies to get grant money from FEMA, but she is not all that much more horrible than anybody else.

The film succeeds as an offbeat comedy, even though the laughs come few and far between. Luckily, the audience doesn't get it's gut-check off of side-splitting laughs, but off of watching two people who realize the moment where they have to grow up and start taking care of their family. This is a hard task for two people who have no role model for a responsible family members. There's no need to laugh, the audience will be satisfied with their never-ending smile.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Juno (****)

Directed by Jason Reitman


It's wonderful to see a film that is as exquisitely executed as Juno is. The movie is being touted as the offbeat comedy of the year, and I believe that it truly earns that title, but I think it is a lot more than that. It very well could be the best offbeat comedy of the last several years. Using tremendous dialogue, and a slew of excellent performances, Juno is one of the finer films that I've seen about what it is like to make a connection with somebody else.

The film stars rising star Ellen Page as Juno, an edgy sixteen year-old girl who gets knocked up after her and her goofy friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) decide to have bored, living-room-chair sex. After chugging down gallons of Sunny D and taking numerous pregnancy tests, Juno realizes the unfortunate truth: she is pregnant. She contemplates abortion, until she realizes it would be more useful to give it up for adoption. She finds the perfect looking couple in the yellow pages in Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jeniffer Garner). Her A/C repairman father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and her dog-loving step-mother Bren (Alison Janney) both accept her decision, and off Juno is into the unorthodox world of teenage pregnancy.

The movie would not be nearly as good if all those characters weren't as superbly cast as they were. The strength of the film comes from the great chemistry between all the actors on the screen. Jason Reitman, hot off the success of Thank You For Smoking, does a very good job of balancing all of the supporting performances underneath the stellar work of Page. There are no characters here who feel like stock stereotypes, but there are plenty who you may feel like giving a hug.

The film was written by stripper-turned-blogger-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody. It is Cody's first screenplay, which makes it that much more impressive that she completely captured the essence of this bitingly humorous and incredibly charming story. This is not the first film made about teenage pregnancy, but it is easily the best. Cody does not settle for the sentimentality that most of those other films had, and instead the film flips a switch and it ends up it is not about pregnancy at all, but about people.

There are plenty magical little moments throughout the film, which is sparkling with wonderful humor. The wit of the dialogue, mostly spoken by Juno herself, is so quick and striking, you find yourself attempting to stop yourself from laughing so you can hear what is coming next. Throughout the laughs, though, the moments that stay with you are the conversations where you won't laugh. Many scenes in this movie are examples of Cody's beautifully written dialogue, my personal favorite being when Juno talks to Bleeker to tell him all the reasons why she likes him.

One of the twists in the film is Juno's relationship with Mark. A commercial jingle writer, Mark is constantly debating the possibility of being a father, while under the immense pressure Vanessa to grow up from his rock star dreams. Garner and Bateman's portrayal of the beautiful couple slowly crumbling is heartbreaking if not honest. Juno learns a lot about what lays beneath the surface of the beauty.

The film is easily a coming-out party for Ellen Page, an actress already known for her edginess after playing a 14-year-old trying to expose a pedophile in 2005's Hard Candy. Page completely embodies Cody's words, being probably the most lovable irresponsible movie teenager since Ferris Bueller. It's not just that Page is edgy or funny, she captures the heart of the audience with true sincerity. There is nothing forced in this performance. With Page we have the next great actress of her generation, and in this film, we have the best performance of her young, promising career.

Along with Page, Garner, and Bateman, the rest of the cast delivers first-rate performances. Michael Cera continues his wonderful year after Superbad, playing the tic-tac-loving Bleeker. His acute strangeness makes him perfect for Juno. Alison Janney is, as always, dependable as the strong-willed stepmother. Then, we have J.K. Simmons, giving one of his best performances as Mac. One of the best highlights of the film is a moment when Mac explains to Juno what he thinks is the concept of true love, the kind that lasts forever.

One thing that I shouldn't forget to mention is that the film has some great music spread throughout (highlighted by The Moldy Peaches' "Anyone Else But You") which is almost a motif because it is so heavily highlighted. Most of the music speaks like a Greek chorus for the movie, and will most likely stay in your head after you've left the theater.

The film does not promote teenage sex, nor demote it. What it does as a film is sit back and watch objectively and casually say, "That's life and those things happen", which can easily be said about a lot of moments in the film. We've seen all the characters in this films throughout our lives, homes, and, unfortunately, schools, but this film is not supposed to be any kind of lesson, but a document. A document about life and the things that happen which we don't expect.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Margot At The Wedding (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach


There are a lot of similarities between Noah Baumbach's first film The Squid and The Whale and his new film Margot at the Wedding. Both deal with unbearable intellectuals who are terrible people and even worse parents. Baumbach doesn't seem to like writing about people with high character, but at least in The Squid and The Whale the characters were somewhat charming, making them likable to a majority of the audience. The same cannot be said for the characters in this film.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Margot, a successful writer who takes her son Claude (Zane Pais) with her as she travels to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as she gets married. Pauline's fiance is Malcolm (Jack Black) a mustached, chubby loafer of whom Margot severely disapproves of. The sisters have reunited for the first time in a few years, with Pauline having moved into their childhood home, and we see very early in their reunion that this is a family with deep issues.

We learn that Margot is in the middle of her own rocky marriage and is in the middle of an affair with a writer (Ciaran Hinds) who just so happens to live near Pauline. Pauline has a secret of her own, she is pregnant with Malcolm's baby, and may have been the deciding factor in the engagement.

Baumbach laces the film with many scenes that are sexually disturbing, and tacks on a subplot about fiendish neighbors that roast pigs on their front lawns. We learn that Margot is essentially a monster who spends a good amount of time trying to bring down all of the people that she may or may not love. Beyond that, the film dwindles into a pretentious mess. There's little to no point to the way the film meanders around. Instead of trying to expose emotional scars, the film goes to length to make its characters unlikable. It succeeds.

To be fair, the film is earnest, it takes risks, and has actors who seems to truly believe in this story. Yet for all that, the film has too many scenes of emotional breakdowns that make the film lag. Perhaps the best moment of the film is a small cameo by John Turturro as Margot's husband Jim, a man so gentle, and completely counters all of the coarseness of Margot's ferociousness. Perhaps it's that Jim is the only character in the film that isn't under some kind of extreme emotional turmoil that makes him so refreshing compared to everyone else.

The movie is strange, but it is strange because it exposes the strangeness that we all have inside ourselves. I have many times met people who are like Margot, a person so upset with themselves that take it all out on the people who care for them most. I just don't think it makes a very interesting film. You can get points for bravery, and this film is very brave, but for all the offbeat, arty sidetracks that this film takes, it doesn't hold interest.

Nicole Kidman has always had a reputation for playing these kind of emotionally bare roles. She's as good as she always is, if the desired effect is making the audience cringe. Unfortunately, the most misused performer in the film is Jack Black. He's simply asked to do too much in this role, more than he is capable of. When he is funny the film doesn't work, and when adjusts to the humor of the film, he isn't funny. Somewhat of a guiding light for the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh probably does the best job of being emotionally bare without being mind-achingly annoying.

Much in the tradition of a film released earlier this year, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, this is a tremendous premise with a very promising cast, that is unfortunately filled with completely unbearable characters. It's not unwatchable, and Leigh's performance is sometimes enough to get you through it, but it seems that this film tries a little too hard to be unconventional, that it instead comes off as off putting.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

I'm Not There (***)

Directed by Todd Haynes


Bob Dylan is one of the most mysteriously mesmerizing figures in twentieth century culture. His music, filled with jamming instruments and thought-provoking lyrics, has spoken for countless generations of listeners. There are so many people who find solace in his droll voice and screeching harmonica, it's almost impossible to diminish his sound into a particular genre or time. Dylan, himself, is so mysterious and unspecific that it's impossible to show his story with one solid plot line.

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There expounds upon that idea, by recruiting six different actors to recreate different moments in the songwriter's life. What Haynes ends up with is an exotically bizarre film, that stretches the very definition of film making, and creates a story as sorted and majestic as it's cornerstone.

One of the six Dylans is an 11-year-old black boy who hops trains, sings folk songs, and calls himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin, in a performance that shows skill far beyond his age). He's a representation of the young drifter Dylan was before he found comfort of his idol folk singer Guthrie. Then there is Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a young, disillusioned man who has dedicated his time to writing protest songs that capture the social unrest of society. With the help of obvious Joan Baez-remake Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), he's able to find an audience for his "fingerpoint songs".

Then there is Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a Brando-esque movie star, who's fame started when he played a role based on Jack Rollins. His indulgences in celebrity and rocky relationship with his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), showcase the time of Dylan's troubled marriage and consequent divorce with his first wife, Sara. There's Arthur (Ben Whishaw) a Dylan-esque poet who is reciting a nonsensical interview regarding his career.

We see Jude (Cate Blanchett--who probably looks and sounds the most like Dylan) an amphetamine-fueled, hydrogenous rock star who's facing a mountain of backlash from those fans who feel he abandoned his folk roots and "went electric"; an obvious reference to Dylan's exile from folk. We go back to Jack Rollins who has transformed himself into a born-again Christian named John (Bale), disclosing Dylan's own spiritual awakening in the 80's. Then in the film's most puzzling sequence, we see Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), a nineteenth-century cowboy outlaw who's arrested for being an agitator. Possibly a reflection on Dylan's secluded times in the late 60's and early 70's.

With the movie, we see another example of the boldness of Todd Haynes. Haynes, known for his 2002 film Far From Heaven and the 1998 cult film The Velvet Goldmine, embellishes his reputation as a filmmaker who has chosen to expand on the ideas on what film is supposed to be. This is a much safer way to portray Dylan on film, I feel. Perhaps Hayens realized that using one actor to showcase all of Dylan's life might end up being the portrait of a shape-shifting schizophrenic.

It's hard to imagine anyone who is not a fan of Dylan's music being a fan of this film. It takes a lot of chances that are hard to appreciate unless you can either understand the scope of Dylan's music. Even fans of Dylan might be thrown off by the film's non-linear chaos, but at least they can sit back and enjoy the music, which is either sung by Dylan himself, or synced by the actors. Even I, as much as I enjoyed myself, saw that there are many times during the course of this experience where it becomes too convoluted and outlandish for it's own good.

That said, it is exciting to see a filmmaker and his actors take such big risks. Each story has it's own style and grace. The Jack Rollins/Pastor John section is told like a documentary. Robbie's tale of decadence is shot like a modern American drama. Billy the Kid's wild west is shot like a, you guessed it, American western film. Then there is the story of Jude, which is created with such Fellini-esque surrealism, it's almost hard to pin point where reality is and when Jude is in drug-induced fantasy.

There are moments recreated. Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"-influenced hook-up with bombshell Edie Sedgwick is shown through Jude's turbulent battle with a former lover named Coco. The legendary electric "Judas" performance is shown in such manic filmmaking, even those who are not familiar with the moment will be scorched.

The performances are earnest enough. Bale's protest singer and subsequent preacher is sincere, if not vague by the documentary style (which probably was the point). Ledger as a womanizing superstar is probably one of the more effective performances, showing a very sad document of a crumbling love. Whishaw, whose clips just seem to pop up sporadically between the other stories, is formidable, showing Dylan's quiet, strange defiance. Franklin's performance as the hitch-hiking lost boy looking to be a rock star is both startling and impressive. Gere, stuck in a entire segment that seems from another film, does well in the role, even if I'm still not sure why he was there to begin with.

As has been much proclaimed in the media, the film's core comes from Blanchett's complete transformation as Jude. Her performance catches lightning in a bottle. It's bold, strong and dominates the picture despite less than 40 minutes of screen time in a 2 hour plus film. It's not that Blanchett becomes Dylan that's impressive, not even that she becomes a man, but that she becomes a myth, an idea that the entire film is based on. The role is just as vague as the film supposes Dylan is, but she is able to completely embrace it.

This is one of those movies that you enjoy because of it's unrelenting bravery, not because it totally works as a film. It spirals too much for my liking, but there is never a point where I felt lost or bored. What we have is a document of a man who completely transformed his identity on more than one occasion, and was able to transform rock & roll music in the process as well.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Updated December Oscar Predictions

Updated December Oscar Predictions

Best Picture
American Gangster
Into The Wild
No Country For Old Men
There Will Be BloodBest Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
*Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Sidney Lumet, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson's War
Joe Wright, AtonementBest Actor
*Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Emile Hirsch, Into The Wild
Tommy Lee Jones, In The Valley of Elah
James McAvoy, Atonement
Denzel Washington, American GangsterBest Actress
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marie Corillard, La Vie En Rose
*Keira Knightley, Atonement
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, JunoBest Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck, Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford
*Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Hal Holbrook, Into The Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Best Supporting Actress

*Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot At The Wedding
Kelly MacDonald, No Country For Old Men
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Best Original Screenplay
Judd Apatow, Knocked Up
Brad Bird, Ratatouille
*Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Tamara Jenkins, The Savages
Kelly Masterson, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Best Adapted Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
*Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Christopher Hampton, Atonement
Sean Penn, Into The Wild
Sarah Polley, Away From HerBest Animated Feature

Best Cinematography
*Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men
Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
Seamus McGarvey, Atonement
Rodrigo Prieto, Lust, Caution
Roberto Schaefer, The Kite Runner

Best Art Direction
Dante Ferretti, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Jack Fisk, There Will Be Blood
Dennis Gassner, The Golden Compass
*Sarah Greenwood, Atonement
Arthur Max, American Gangster
Best Film Editing
Jay Lash Cassidy, Into The Wild
John Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Roderick Jaynes, No Country For Old Men
*Tatiana Riegal & Dylan Tichenor, There Will Be Blood
Pietro Scalia, American Gangster

Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat, Lust, Caution
Michael Giacchino, Ratatouille
Alberto Iglesias, The Kite Runner
*Dario Marianelli, Atonement
Alan Silvestri, Beowulf
Best Costume Design
Coleen Atwood, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
*Jacqueline Durran, Atonement
Ruth Myers, The Golden Compass
Patricia Norris, Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford
Lai Pan, Lust, Caution

Best Sounding Mixing
*Craig Berkley, No Country For Old Men
Peter J. Derlin, Transformers
William B. Kaplan, Beowulf
Lee Orloff, Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End
William Sarokin, American Gangster

Best Sound Editing
Ben Barker, The Golden Compass
Joseph Bonn, Spider-Man 3
Krysten Mate & Teresa Eckton, Ratatouille
*Al Nelson, Beowulf
Brad North & John Mete, 300

Best Make-Up
Nana Fischer, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
*John E. Jackson, Love In The Time of Cholera
Colin Penman, Hairspray

Best Visual Effects
The Golden Compass
Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End

Friday, November 30, 2007

Away From Her (****)

Written for the screen and Directed by Sarah Polley


It starts off very small for Fiona and Grant. She mistakenly places pots and pans into the refrigerator or has trouble remembering the name of wine. Grant doesn't think she's afflicted--he feels that she's too young. Then while traveling on skis, she becomes lost; she doesn't remember where she is, and perhaps even who she is. Grant finds her miles away on a bridge looking over into the city lights. It is a fact, Fiona has become afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease.

Away From Her, the feature film directorial debut from B-movie actress Sarah Polley, is a devastating film about the unexpected things we encounter in life, and the tragic elements of Alzheimer's. Based on the short story "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" by Alice Munro, the film addresses how no matter how radiant someone can be, eventually, the erosion begins.

The film is the story of Grant (Gordan Pinsent), a shaggy haired and bearded fellow who has been married to Fiona (Julie Christie) for forty-five years, and has been madly in love with her for all of those years. Fiona is still beautiful and glowing after all this time, but now she must be forced to label the kitchen cabinets to make sure she knows the correct places to put the dishes. Finally, the moment comes when Fiona herself realizes that she should be placed somewhere where she might get better, at the chagrin of Grant's need for her.

Grant researches Meadowlake, a resting home near their winter cottage. He sees all the social interactions between all of the troubled elderly people who have already been there quite a while. When on his tour, he is shown the second floor, where people are placed when they have "progressed further", but what Grant sees is not progression, but many lying in an almost comatose fashion. "My wife will not be progressing to this floor," he tells his tour guide.

Grant distrusts the place, and there is something else he dislikes, he must be withheld from any kind of contact with Fiona for thirty days of her coming in. Grant tries desperately to change Fiona's mind, but she sees it as the best for her. With the aid of a helpful nurse named Kristy (Kristen Thompson), Grant is able to check on Fiona, and when he is finally able to see Fiona, she can barely comprehend him. Instead, she has become immersed with a wheelchair bound mute named Aubrey (Michael Murphey). "What are you doing with this man, Aubrey?" Grant asks the bewildered Fiona. "He doesn't confuse me," she responds.

The movie can simply said to be about the disintegration of the human soul. Grant wants so badly for Fiona to get better, but she has become diagnosed with something where she can only get worse. Slowly, she is disappearing from him, but Grant refuses to accept it. He thinks maybe she is punishing him for a number of affairs he'd had when he was a university professor. Perhaps it's a charade, he ponders, that she's putting on. The most tragic thing Grant learns is that it isn't a charade, it's life.

The film is intertwined with scenes in which Grant visits Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis). They both share the same pain, and even through Marian's stubborn anguish, they are able to find a connection. What they share is not love or even passion, but they share torment. In a world where no one is guaranteed eternal life, why must people be taken away even before the die? "It's bad luck," Gordon confesses to Marian. "No," Marian states, "it's just life."

I fear through my description that the film is coming off sounding very bleak. One of the most magical things about the movie is that through all the tragedy we see, it is all underlined with a message that is very life-affirming. Grant has never experienced anything more painful than having to watch Fiona forget he exists, but it does not stop him from visiting every day, equipped with books and flowers, or anything that might bring back the slightest memory. Before Fiona has become controlled by Alzheimer's, she reflects to Grant her gratefulness that Grant had never left her like all the other university professors who found younger women.
It can be said easily that Grant is motivated by that guilt, but either way, we see his incredible dedication.

The performances by Pinsent and Christie are some of incredible feeling. Pinsent's paunched belly and heavy eyes reflect Grant's undeniable helplessness. The folding wrinkles on his face are so large they almost cover his eyes completely. He gives his wife the space she needs to be comfortable, but still comes everyday just to be able to see her. The performance by Christie, though, is something to ultimately cherish. Her descent is something beyond sad, it is uncanny. Every time Grant comes to visit her, she gives him the same polite smile. She is bothered by his insistence that she remember, but she knows that he will come back the next day. She senses that he is around for a reason.

The movie is one of the most majestic of the year. Few films do as good of a job of portraying such bare emotion. Away From Her had many chances to fall back into tear-jerking melodrama, but it doesn't settle for that. The film knows that what is more effective is how people actually feel.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Enchanted (***)

Directed by Kevin Lima


When Enchanted opens, we see Princess Giselle; she is a cartoon and is summoning all her animal friends and expresses her wanting for "true love's first kiss". This is a statement that is repeated (frequently sung) throughout the movie, and is a good statement to start this wonderful film. In Princess Giselle's world, true love's first kiss is always a success, and there is always a happily ever after. When she's thrust into reality, she encounters it the only way she knows how, with a twinkle in her eyes and a beautiful smile.

Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) sees her possibility of happily ever after in Prince Edward (James Marsden), but issues lie with Edward's evil stepmother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon). Not willing to give up her throne to the giddy, lovable Giselle, Narissa banishes her to a place where "there are no happy endings". Where is that place? New York City.

Giselle emerges out of a dirty pothole and is immediately confronted by the angry, narcissistic aspects that live throughout the city that never sleeps (including an angry little person she charmingly calls "Grumpy"). When she sees a castle door on a billboard she climbs up to investigate. She slips and falls, landing in the arms of divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey). After being increasingly chided by his young daughter Morgan (youngster Rachel Covey), Robert conflictingly agrees to allow Giselle to stay in their home until Prince Edward can come to rescue her.

As she adjusts to life with an additional dimension, Giselle manages to turn Robert's life topsy-turvy. She calls all the animals of New York City (squirrels, rats, and even cockroaches) to help clean up the apartment. She sparks suspicion with Robert's serious girlfriend Nancy (Wicked star Idina Menzel). She also manages to conflict with Robert's job, which she can never understand because he seems to work toward taking apart the thing she truly believes in: true love. All this while being chased by Prince Edward, who also manages to reach New York; as well as being tracked by the evil Narissa.

All you have to do is see the preview to know that all the desirability of this movie comes from the intoxicating loveliness of Amy Adams. By now, most people should have seen Adams in the strange indie Junebug. Her sweet performance in that film brings a light to an otherwise dull, odd movie. In Enchanted, Adams is another showcase of her incredible talent and likability. Adams, for sure, is a rising star, if not a growing talent. Her wonderful smile and bright, big eyes goes hand-in-hand with the romantic idealism of Giselle. And again, her incredible likability sparks what would have otherwise been a hackneyed meeting of fairy tales and cynicism.

Giselle is able to direct cockroaches to clean, she's able to conduct an entire stage musical performance within Central Park, but most of all, she is able to move the heart of Robert, a man jilted and chilled by the disappearance of Morgan's mother, and the consistent conflict he sees at his job. She's able to let Robert believe that sometimes in life, there are fairy tale endings.

Of course, there is nothing that happens in this movie that is not predictable. It is a film for children, and will be enjoyed by many little girls (if hated by many little boys). But I'd be damned if the parents forced to join them are not touched by the powerful force of happiness Giselle exudes. It seems that there are many scenes where Giselle is supposed to be a nuisance to Robert and the rest of the real world (she likes making dresses out of his curtains), but there is nothing that she does in the film that makes her a nuisance to the audience.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

GREAT FILMS: Before Sunset (2004)

Directed by Richard Linklater

When we first saw Jesse and Celine, they'd met on a train, and spontaneously decided to spend the night together in Vienna. This is the plot of the 1995 film Before Sunrise, which is the story of two lovely, fleeting young adults who create their own idea of romance. Throughout the film they talked and talked, but underlying all the talking was a constant yearning to hold each other, to be with each other. So they promise to meet each other at the same train station in six months, where their wondrous relationship will continue and flourish.

Before Sunset
takes place ten years after. They both have gotten older, grittier, and thinner. They've both become embittered by the way their lives have actually turned out, as apposed to their young optimism in the first film. Most important though, we find out that they had never reunited those six months later. Instead, they went on to live their lives--Jesse wrote a book about the romantic night and Celine got a job in the Peace Corps.

The film opens on Jesse in a bookstore in Paris. His book has been published, and this is one of the many stops on a promotional tour. He is feverishly trying to explain the ending to a handful of members in the audience (he leaves out that they never reunite in the book) and as he looks slightly to his right, Celine is there, watching him with a gentle smirk. Flabbergasted, Jesse concludes. They've not seen each other in a decade, but the moment they have seen each other it is like no time has passed. It is like they simply continue the conversation that they'd never finished.

They walk around Paris, ride tourists boats, sit in cafes, Jesse continuously dropping faint flirtations, even though they are both now involved in serious relationships. Ten years before, they were excited kids who couldn't wait to take on life. By this time, they've seen life, and they didn't care for it too much. The two have been haunted by the fact that their greatest romantic relationship was less than ten hours in Vienna. "When you're young, you just believe that there will be many people with whom you connect with," Celine says, "Later in life, you realize that it only happens a few times."

The film builds on conversations like these. They speak endlessly about the disappointing elements in their lives, but they do most of it with a smile, because now they're around each other. Jesse explains that he'd been thinking about Celine the whole ten years. Even driving toward his wedding, he saw a vision of her walking the streets. He has dreams where he sees her, and she's just out of reach.

More than anything, what this film presents is the second chance that most of us don't get an oppurtunity to have. We come in contact with people daily, but there are a few that actually mean something to you. Sometimes you don't realize it until it is far too late. There is such an underlying theme of regret that surrounds the story. Jesse's bad marriage is caving in, and Celine is patronized by dozens of ex-boyfriends getting married. The idea of what would have been is so tantalizing to them, and now they have that chance.

Jesse and Celine are played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Both seem to embody the characters so fully. Neither take the apparent melodrama too far. A breakdown scene in the backseat of a car could have gone terribly wrong if in the hands of the wrong actors. Instead, we get an incredible balance between pain and overall impatience to be around someone you have longed after for so long. Hawke's scruffiness and Delpy's sad eyes only add to the magnificence of the performances.

Of coarse, it helps that they co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Linklater, mostly known for his light-hearted comedies such as Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, creates something that is very hard: a film both heartbreaking and hopeful. It is by far Linklater's most emotionally jarring film. So many times, the characters are saying things without saying anything. Many times, they say things while trying to express the exact opposite.

The movie is quaint in it's 80 minutes. It is bold to make a film that hinders mostly on dialogue, and fortunately the dialogue in the film is tremendous if not sharp and cutting. The sexual tension between Jesse and Celine continues to build more and more throughout the film, culminates in a breathtaking scene within Celine's apartment in which she performs a "waltz" for him on her acoustic guitar.

The film ends ambiguously, much like the first film. Unlike the first film, though, it does not end with them saying goodbye. We do not know the fate of Jesse and Celine, what they will do in the future. What we do know, is that at the moment of the films denouement, they have successfully succeeded in reuniting the relationship. If it is never able to work out, they at least have this moment in time, in Celine's apartment, where they know that they feel complete happiness.

No Country For Old Men (****)

Written for the screen and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


The setting for the new Coen Bros. movie, No Country For Old Men, is the vast empty space that inhabits the lonely areas within Texas. The movie opens on numerous shots of emptiness, with the voice of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) speaking over the images. He explains the story of a 15-year old he sentenced to death after he killed a 14-year old girl. "The newspapers called it a 'crime of passion'," Bell explains, "But he told me, 'There ain't nothing passionate about it. Way I see it, I've been fixin' on killin' as long as I can remember. I'm goin' to Hell, reckon I'll be there in about 15 minutes'."

Thus, the stage is set for the most spectacular film I've seen so far this year. A film so tense and brutal, yet made with such skill, that it will stick with you long after you leave the theater. Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, the Coens have made a masterpiece centering on the disintegrating morality of humanity, and absolute evil.

The absolute evil is epitomized by the character of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Chigurh is a killing machine (with emphasis on machine) with less mercy than the Terminator. He doesn't seem to be motivated by what motivates the other characters in the film: money, drugs, sex; he's just motivated by the chance to execute extreme violence. His calculated menace makes one of the most sadistic movie villains that I have seen in years. He walks hard, with his shoulders broad, continuously wearing the same combination of dark clothes and coat, and sporting a cutesy bob hairdo. These details combine to make him look like a cross between Charles Manson and John Lennon on the cover of "Rubber Soul". His weapon of choice: a cattle stun gun.

We also meet Llwelyn Moss (a tremendous Josh Brolin), a welder who lives in a trailer with his sweet, child-like wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). The plot of the film begins to unfold when Moss goes hunting in the vast desert, and stumbles across a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Many people have been killed (and a dog as well), and Moss finds an incredible amount of Heroin, and about $2 million in cash in a bag--he takes no time in taking the money for himself. He sees one Mexican man who is still alive (barely) who begs endlessly for water. When Llwelyn decides to go back to get this man water, it ends up being the biggest mistake of his life.

When he's nearly killed by some Mexican drug dealers, Moss hits the road. Anton is on his trail, following him closely from motel to motel. We're not sure who puts Anton up to this trek (everyone he talks to is either killed, or threatened with the idea of being killed), but he seems to be motivated by principles. It's not Moss' money, so he shouldn't have it, and he will die for this theft.

Trailing all the destruction is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones), who worries over the state of the world. He seems to get to the scene of every crime two minutes too late. He's never able to prevent crime; but he's always there to see the aftermath. He longs for the days when young people still said "ma'am" and "sir", and wonders if he's even cut out for his role in law-enforcement the way his father and grandfather were. He looks at the looming evil that has swept his society, and ponders if its worth fighting for. All the while, he is trying to find Moss and Chigurh before more blood is shed.

I will walk away from explaining elements of the plot for now, and move onto my praise for this tremendous film. It is bold, it takes it's time, and it is not afraid to use silence. Silence may be the best performer in this film. It hovers over essentially every scene, like a death cloud predicting doom for everyone--particularly those who come in contact with Chigurh. It is the Coen Bros. most exhilarating film since Fargo. It is violent, brooding, but sparkling with humor familiar in Coen films.

The movie attempts to exemplify the morality of a world filled with evil. In fact, it questions whether there is any morality to begin with, and offers nothing in the way of life-affirming themes. The film takes it's time with it's story. It could have easily been 30-40 minutes shorter, but then the overall effect would be lost. It takes the personality of it's vast landscape, and with the cinematography of Roger Deakins (a frequent collaborator with the Coens) it may just be the "best looking" film the Coens ever made.

The engine that makes this film run is it's first-rate performances. Josh Brolin's turn as Llewlyn is a career-defining performance. Moss is simply not as smart and equipped as he wants to be, but Brolin allows you to believe in this man's money-hungry, life-threatening journey. Tommy Lee Jones' performance as the world-weary sheriff is another in a line of performances that Jones has participated in the last few years affirming his substantial career (this year's In The Valley of Elah may very well be the best of his career). Kelly MacDonald is tender and heartbreaking as Carla Jean, in a roll that makes you completely forget MacDonald's Scottish background. Carla Jean is the one, small star in this bleak film.

And then, of coarse, we have Javier Bardem. His performance as Chigurh will make your blood curd. He does not seem to be part of the human race. He kills people based on his own delusional moral code, but is very conscious to not get blood on his shiny boots. When he comes into contact with a bounty hunter hired to catch him, Carson Wells (a delightful Woody Harrelson), he knows what he has to do. He even has the decency to sit him down in his hotel room and explain to him why. When a man asks Wells how dangerous Chigurh actually is, Wells responds, "Compared to what? The Bubonic Plague?".

When the Coen Bros. released Fargo, they'd made a perfect film. A film made with such astonishing skill, it is the kind of movie that seems like a miracle. This kind of thing rarely happens twice with filmmakers, but with No Country For Old Men, the Coens have established themselves as iconic members of movie society. No Country is not a conventional film (do the Coens ever settle for convention?), and it is brave enough to be what it is: an uncompromising story of the rising evil that is encasing the world.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (**)

Directed by Sidney Lumet


Sidney Lumet has already established himself as a masterful filmmaker. Few people in the movie business can boast credits that include 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict. It seems strange, then, a couple of years removed from winning an Honorary Academy Award, he proceeds to cap off his career with a film that is incredibly average, flat, and overwhelmingly melodramatic.

I want to stay away from the statement that the film has too much emotion, because that can never be an issue for a film. What this film suffers to do is comprehend that emotion in any other way than having their characters explode and yell, while giant veins burst out of their tomato-red foreheads. It's hard to get in touch with a character when the faces always look so strained.

The movie centers on the Hanson family, and all the dysfunction that comes with it. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the oldest son, is a hot shot business man, who's encountered big time debt. He needs money--he needs it to pay his debts, to support his drug habit, and a pipe dream in which he plans to move with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) to Brazil. His younger, weaker brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is dealing with child support payments, trying desperately to seem like something more than a loser in front of his daughter.

What is Andy's grand plan to pull him and his little brother out of their financial woes? Knocking off a "mom & pop" jewelry store. No guns, no violence, no victims. Insurance would take care of the owners of the store, so everybody walks away from the incident happy. There is one twist though, that mom & pop store is owned by their actual mother and father. And when the job goes horribly wrong, Andy and Hank both unravel emotionally, as they watch their neglectful father (Albert Finney) ponder who committed the crime.

I should take the time to say that I have a lot of respect for all the actors within the main cast, I'm just a bit confused about why Lumet felt the need to have them strain their faces to the point where the audience finds themselves uncomfortable. Albert Finney in particular, spends essentially all of his screen time with his mouth hanging open. The result is we have a character looking like he's staring down T-bone steak, rather than mourning. Hoffman and Hawke do so much eye-squinting and face-clenching, you wonder how badly their jaws cramped during filming.

Credit must be given to the screenplay by newcomer Kelly Masterson. She's invented a seedy world with desperate characters, and an ending that is true tragedy. Unfortunately, Lumet decides to turn the story into pure melodrama, and in the process makes the characters charmless and annoying.

Take the character of Gina. She meets Andy in rehab, but she is frustrated at the fact that he can't seem to be pleasured by her physically, and starts having an affair with Hank. It's a very dynamic, complex character. What is converted to the screen is an adulterous bimbo who spends half the time naked, and the other half sporting incredible cleavage. She's one-note, and it's hard to sympathize with that.

The film is buoyed by a virtuoso performance by Hoffman. His dependability as an actor comes through once again, cause he seems the only actor who's able to make sense out of his facial contortions. Hawke is sincere in his portrayal of Hank, but he falls back into the over-the-top tempo the rest of the film possesses. Albert Finney walks around the entire film looking like a zombie. His implausibility as a inept father may be the deciding factor to what goes wrong in this movie.

If there is some kind of award for trying, this film would win it. You can tell that the actors and filmmakers working on this film earnestly want to do their best, and it is that which stops this film from being unwatchable. After all, it's not the film itself that is unwatchable, it's the characters. When you make a film about the unexpected consequences when things go horribly wrong (a subject in a lot of movies lately), you have to have create people who you actually care what happens to.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

American Gangster (**1/2)

Directed by Ridley Scott


In American Gangster we see the story of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. Frank Lucas is the most powerful man in Harlem, with the most powerful heroin empire of it's time. Richie Roberts is the good-natured cop on his tale. What follows is enthralling film of cat and mouse that stretches over 157 minutes, and provides us with as much violence and nudity needed to hold us over for that long. The film speaks with the power of a message film, but the message seems so misguided we leave scratching our heads about what we've spent the last two and a half hours learning. Drugs are bad? Organized crime is more profitable when headed by someone who's more of an entrepreneur than a criminal?

The story of Frank Lucas is impressive in itself. As an accomplice for "Bumpy" Johnson who ruled Harlem, Lucas learned the ins and outs of how to be ruthless, and when Bumpy dies, he takes over where he left off, and then some. Lucas goes on to buy 100% pure heroin right from the source in Southeast Asia, and by cutting out the middle man, he is able to sell better heroin for half the price. It's capitalism at it's best.

The story of Richie Roberts is less glamorous; he's a narcotics officer fighting a custody battle with his ex-wife and studying for an upcoming bar exam. He is exiled from his job at the local New Jersey police station when he turns in a million dollars worth of unmarked drug money. How can you trust a guy who's willing to turn in that kind of money, instead of sharing it with the boys? His peers don't attempt to find out because they've already lost the ability to trust him.

The action of the film starts when Roberts is given the chance to start his own circle of investigation into drug-busting, including several other officers he knows are as honest as he is. When they follow many popular mafioso into an Ali-Frazier fight, who is the guy with the closest seat? Frank Lucas, accompanied by his Puerto Rican beauty-queen wife, and decked out in elaborate furs. Through a series of lengthy investigation, Roberts and his men discover what was thought to be impossible: Frank Lucas, a black man, was able to work above the mafia, and make millions in the drug racket on his own.

Frank Lucas is played by Denzel Washington in a performance that is very much inspired, if not hackneyed. He's ruthless (the movie opens with him lighting a live man on fire) but has moments of mercy (he shoots the same man to stop his agony). This tennis match between the two sides of Lucas' character never seem to be very balanced. He has moments where he explodes with extreme violence, but yet he still goes to church with his mother on Sunday, and he's the one who says grace in front of Christmas dinner. He can trust the people who work for him, because close to all of them are members of his own family. It's one of those Denzel performances that elicits extreme authority (he shoots a man in the head in the middle of the busy Harlem streets with no consequence).

Frankly, the most intriguing part of American Gangster has nothing to do with gangsters. Richie Roberts' (Russell Crowe) investigation is told with such grit and fire, it seems to be a much more interesting cornerstone to place a movie upon. His paunched belly, five o'clock shadow, and the heavy bags under his eyes are striking and telling. He's an honest cop, and is quite at odds in a force filled with corruption. Unfortunately, his honesty as a law officer seems to be about the only good quality in Richie's personal life. His wife plans to leave to Las Vegas, taking their son with her.

The film stumbles around when it comes to it's storytelling. This screenplay is very raw and uncompromising, but somewhere along the line between being written and being put on the screen, it picked up many blemishes that signal tidy Hollywood filmmaking. Subtlety is a word that nobody in this film seems to have heard of, and this movie wants so badly to one-up the gangster pictures of the past with edge, it instead seems remarkably polished.

We have the character of Frank Lucas who is not sure whether or not he wants to be Don Vito Chorleone or Tony Montana, and Richie Roberts doesn't know whether he wants to be Frank Serpico or Vincent Hanna. The movie wants too much, including the recognition that those films received, and what we have is a movie that's not sure if it wants to be Little Ceaser or The Untouchables. I make references to so many movies because this film borrows so many components from them, and in the process has a serious identity problem within it's genre.

The biggest issue within the film's ideology is in the end. When Roberts has finally cornered Lucas, Lucas agrees to rat out a plethora of corrupt cops, in exchange for getting reduced time in prison. We see Lucas smiling as the cops are put away, but what does his face look like when thirty members of his own family are arrested as well? It's good that Frank Lucas exposed corruption, but do we have to make him a hero for it? In Goodfellas, they had the decency to explain that Henry Hill was still a bastard after he ratted out his compatriots, because after a life of immorality, he used even more immorality to get himself off the hook. Frank Lucas, on the other hand, is made to look like a saint.

The director, Ridley Scott, seems to do what he does in a lot of his films: take big, exciting ideas, and water them down for the viewing public. There's excitement in this movie--a very powerful drug bust scene toward the end pulsates with energy--and the movie is not dull. You just get the sense that you're being cheated because the movie takes the formulaic way out, rather than dealing with raw reality. It tries to take the stage of an epic, but the film's 157 minutes is fattened by a lot of scenes that are unneeded: Roberts' custody hearings with the usual ex-wife who demands him to make the choice between work and his son, as well as many scenes involving a strung-out Cuba Gooding Jr. playing a stylish drug dealer named Nicky Barnes.

The film reminded me a lot of another film: Heat. They both are stories involving a distressed, but honest cop trying to take down the sharp, but ruthless criminal. But that film attempted to blur the lines between good and evil, explaining that there is no good without evil (and interestingly enough, while Heat is probably twenty minutes longer than Gangster, it is not too long). This film, though, just wants all the glory of all the films that it samples bits and pieces from without having any of it's own innovation. It's not that easy, Ridley.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

GREAT FILMS: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."- J.J. Hunsecker

Sidney Falco is a hustling press agent, who finds himself in a bind, when J.J. Hunsecker has cut him off from his paper. Hunsecker is the most powerful, influential newspaper columnist in the city, and Falco makes his living on putting his clients in that column. So, why does Hunsecker cut him off? Because Falco had made him a promise that he didn't keep, and Hunsecker doesn't appreciate people who don't keep their promises.

Thus, the stage is set for the greatest story of sacrificed integrity in the history of motion picture. The promise made by Falco (Tony Curtis) was that he'd end a relationship between a girl and a jazz guitarist. The girl is Hunsecker's sister, and she is "the only thing I got left" he claims. So Falco is told to foil the relationship, and when he doesn't, Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) cuts him off, sending Falco into a whirlpool of deceit in order to make a living.

Burt Lancaster's portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker is one of the most villainous characters that was ever on the screen. He turns people inside out. With his power, and public opinion at his grasp he could turn the most innocent person topsy-turvy. Lancaster makes his presence large, and brooding. The character is based on Walter Winchell, an equally powerful and erratic columnist, who broke the taboo of being able to expose the private lives of public figures. Hunsecker takes that logic one step further: he doesn't want to expose, he wants to destroy.

What makes this film a masterpiece is the way it delves in to see into the souls of the characters, only to find there isn't any soul left. No one is safe from the power and corruption, and those who think they can fight it, end up in bad situations.

Falco's elaborate scheme to dismember the young relationship is sleazy if not impressive. Hunsecker wants him to break up the marriage, because if he were to do it himself--and with his power he could easily--that would only fracture his relationship with Susan (Susan Harrison), his sister. Falco can see that Hunsecker's unhealthy connection with Susan is partly deranged, but that is not his business. His business is getting his clients in Hunsecker's column, and if he has to break up a young, fleeting romance to do it, so be it.

Now, Falco is the most disreputable character in the film, the way he slithers around to get things done. Many note that he could get what he wanted if he just asked, instead of acting like such a snoop. We see him to get his stories in the papers by making a helpless woman sleep with one of the newspapermen. The scene is painful, but we also note Falco's desperation. Falco doesn't earn our full contempt because he does his work at the behest of Hunsecker. In a way, his hands are tied. He doesn't know how else to make money, because the only other example he has is Hunsecker.

In the end, Hunsecker is able to end the relationship, but he's become so blind to the situation at that point that he doesn't realize that he his left himself without an ounce of decency. He's spent a career ruining reputations and sometimes entire lives, and as the old adage says, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely". When the people he goes after are people of his own family and friends, he finds himself alone and pitiful.

Sweet Smell of Success is probably the greatest film ever made about corruption and what it does to the human soul. It is frank for it's time. Shatters taboos. More importantly, it doesn't let go to the characters and their mentalities, and no one is left unscathed.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Into The Wild (****)

Written for the screen & Directed by Sean Penn


Most of the charm of Into The Wild comes from the persuasiveness of Christopher McCandless. Chris is an adventurous young man, just graduating from Emory University with great grades, and a full fund for his future years in law school. Unfortunately, Chris doesn't believe in that kind of life. He cashes in his law school fund, sends it to charity, and decides to go off on a life of "Ultimate Freedom".

Soon into his journey, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) changes his name to Alexander Supertramp. He meets two wayward hippies, Jan and Rainy (Catherine Keener and Brien Dieker), and helps them in their unconventional, sometimes rocky marriage. He gets a job farming with the boozing, joking Wayne (Vince Vaughn), to whom he unveils the big plan of his journey: that is to go to Alaska, and live alone in the wilderness; nothing but him and the nature he adored in so many books by Henry David Thoreau and Jack London.

This journey is sparked by all those books and writers, but we learn through interesting flashbacks, that Chris' journey is also spurred by the emotional wreckage his parents made him and his sister (Jena Malone) endure during their childhood. His father (William Hurt) is a successful scientist, and his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) a boozer who started off as her husband's mistress in his first marriage--until she got pregnant. Chris has decided that he does not want to live the life that they have planned for him, because they are no more than materialistic phonies. Instead, he puts them through two years of torture of wondering where he is.

Sean Penn wrote the screenplay based on Jon Krakauer's book of the same name. The book is the true stories of McCandless, told through all the people whom he met on his journey. The film is striking in it's portrayal of McCandless. We believe in his journey, even though we believe, like all the people he meets on the way, that it is doomed. He gets to Alaska, finds an abandoned bus and makes it his home. He's equipped with nature-survival books (which he doesn't read very well), and all the novels that had inspired him on his trek. Everything is like how he dreamed, until he becomes trapped within his own isolation.

It seems Sean Penn, as he gets older, has become much less angry, and in the process, has become a much more rounded filmmaker. The film's beauty goes along with Penn's apparent adoration for the material. He creates the atmosphere of Chris so wondrously, and sometimes dangerously, suddenly the life of a "nature man" doesn't seen like such a bad idea, if only for about an hour. Penn's film though, is made so humane through the incredible performance of Emile Hirsch (known for little before other than Alpha Dog and The Girl Next Door), whose performance as Chris is more than acting. Every year, there is a performance so good you tend to worry about the health of the actor (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator two years ago, for example); this is that kind of performance.

The movie's most touching moment, comes when Chris has come toward the end of his trip, and befriends a religious, war veteran Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). Ron lost his family when they were killed by a drunk driver, and he has lived alone in his home ever since. He takes in Chris like everyone before, and cares for him like a grandfather would. Chris tries to teach him about the wonder of the wilderness, Ron tries to teach him about the importance of forgiveness (in which Chris refuses to do with his parents). Holbrook's entrance comes about two hours into the film, but he delivers such a warm, emotional performance that is the best of many highlights within the movie. Like all the others, Chris soon abandons him too, leaving Ron alone once again.

The movie is a majestic experience, in showing a lifestyle worth living-- a life of transcendentalism. Chris doesn't think he is homeless, he thinks he is free from homes. Penn acutely acknowledges this, because at all the points Chris tries to work his way back into society, he cannot function (he quits a small job he has at Burger King because they require him to wear socks). It's not that Chris is an incredibly skilled woodsman--he is never able to successfully hunt anything other than squirrels and berries--but the effort seems good enough. This is a film that stays with you long after you've finished watching, mostly pondering the incredible pain it must have taken to make Chris want to abandon society. Every person he meets really become enthralled by his zeal, and they worry and long when he leaves. Yet, Chris seems unmoved and continues the set path he's made for himself.

The movie is a bit bloated--it's safe to assume that 35% of it's 150 minutes is taken up by slow-motion, and music-filled montages detailing parts of nature and atmosphere--but since we are so sucked in by Penn into the world of Christopher McCandless, it doesn't seem to matter much. The film seems to adopt the personality of McCandless, free-spirited and uncompromising, and because of that, extensive looks into the wilderness seem almost necessary. McCandless' journey will come off to some as selfish, but this film documents a man who feels he must dedicate his life to something more than material objects. If that is not noble, I do not know what is.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

GREAT FILMS: To Have and Have Not (1944)

Directed by Howard Hawks

To Have and Have Not is a movie more remembered for it's steamy directions on whistling, rather than being a masterpiece of film. The reason mainly, is because the movie is not Casablanca. The two movies are similar in plot: a world-weary protagonist (Humphrey Bogart) lives in an exotic world with the French resistance fighting the Gestapo, while he has a love affair with a mysterious woman (Lauren Bacall) to the soundtrack of a bluesy piano man in an urban Martinique bar.

Sure, Casablanca may have an edge on this film when it comes to place in film history, but what it does not possess is this movie's smoldering sexuality. The sexual tension between Bogart and Bacall is so pulsating, and was considerably racy for it's time. Surely, it mirrors the true-life love affair the then-19 Bacall was having with the then-42 Bogart. Their romance further spurs this film's passion into the subconscious of the viewer.

The film is a very loose adaptation of a novel by Ernest Hemingway of the same name. It is about Harry Morgan (Bogart), a man who charters a fishing boat for hire, with his drunk friend, Eddie (the hilarious and poignant Walter Brennan). People pay to use their boat to fish in Martinique, France, but since World War II, business has been hard. When an American tourist tries to skip out on the money he owes Morgan, Morgan runs into Marie (Bacall), the tourist's date. Marie is tall, sexy, has sharp, glaring eyes, and a low rumbling voice. Harry is immediately fixed on her, and when the tourist is unfortunately killed by stray Gestapo bullets, Harry and Marie are sucked into the world of political unrest that was 1940's France.

We can talk all day about the political commentary within the movie (and there is a lot), but that is not what makes the movie so great. What I'll focus on is the romance between Bogart and Bacall; the greatest, most-telling romance ever shown on the screen. Bogart and Bacall also appear in Key Largo and The Big Sleep, but neither possess the passion that this movie possesses. Created by Howard Hawks, the master of romance within intrigue, this movie unfolds like a political message, but is really one of the great love stories ever told (again, like Casablanca).

The film is not really filled with passionate love scenes, with dialogue announcing the never-ending alliance between the two people. The movie takes a rougher perspective. Marie seems notorious--the first thing we see is her stealing her date's wallet. Harry, on the other end, is no push-over. He scoffs at the chance to help dedicated French refugees, and he's not afraid to tell them to their face. Marie, though alarmingly younger, may be the perfect girl for him, but Harry, so hardened by the world is not willing to find out. When forced to help the refugees because of debt, Harry gives Marie money to take the next plane home, to keep her out of danger, he says, but we know it is because he is afraid of what he may get into with her. In one of the more heart-tugging scenes in the movie, Marie sighs, "It was nice while it lasted."

The movie is an excellent expose of lovelorn relationships. The relationship between Harry and Marie in this movie lasts perhaps less than a week. In that short time we see passion, jealousy, dedication, and disdain. Marie's yearning is so heartfelt and agonizing, particularly coming from what we see is a very young, and naive girl. Meanwhile, Harry is a character best described as "essential Bogart". The character is brooding and selfish, but only a little connection with the right woman brings out the human side of him. This side sometimes scares Harry so much, he tries to destroy it all together.

To Have and Have Not is a masterpiece of steaming sensuality, which makes many romantic films these days look like a wet dream. The romance shown is powerful, but steady, and very sexy. "You know how to whistle, don'cha Steve?" Marie asks Harry in his doorway, "Just put you lips together and... blow." Very few films can have a line that strong, or the talent of Lauren Bacall to deliver it.

Early (VERY Early) Oscar Predictions

Because I have nothing better to do.....

Into The Wild
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
*Joe Wright, ATONEMENT

Emile Hirsch, INTO THE WILD

*Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER
Jodie Foster, THE BRAVE ONE
Angelina Jolie, A MIGHTY HEART
Keira Knightly, ATONEMENT
Ellen Page, JUNO

Hal Holbrook, INTO THE WILD
Philip Seymour Hoffman, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

*Cate Blanchett, I'M NOT THERE
Jennifer Jason Leigh, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING
Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT

Judd Apatow, KNOCKED UP
Diablo Cody, JUNO
Tamara Jenkins, THE SAVAGES

*Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Christopher Hampton, ATONEMENT

Seamus McGarvey, ATONEMENT
Rodrigo Prieto, LUST, CAUTION
Roberto Schaefer, THE KITE RUNNER

*Sarah Greenwood, ATONEMENT

Jay Cassidy, INTO THE WILD
Tatiana Riegel & Dylan Tichenor, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
*Paul Tothill, ATONEMENT

Alexandre Desplat, THE GOLDEN COMPASS
Alexandre Desplet, LUST, CAUTION
Michael Giacchino, RATATOUILLE
Alberto Iglesias, THE KITE RUNNER
*Dario Marianelli, ATONEMENT

Jacqueline Durran, ATONEMENT

Bee Movie