Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Wackness (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Jonathan Levine


Being born in 1989, there's seldom a time when I get to see a movie that is nostalgic for a time that I actually remember. Luckily for me, The Wackness is just that kind of movie. A film that yearns for the times when The Notorious B.I.G. was an up-and-comer, and not a dead rap martyr, and the place where you had to blow the dust out of your video game cartridge just to get it to function. A time when you can sell and buy weed around New York City without being bothered by Rudy Guliani's clean-machine--well, maybe it wasn't perfect, but The Wackness does a perfect job of recreating this not-so-faraway time.

The story of Wackness is about the greasy-haired pot dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck). He's just graduated from high school, and he really doesn't have any friends. The only classmates that talk to him are the ones interested in purchasing his product. His parents are constantly arguing, and his family is on the verge being evicted from their Manhattan home. He sees his life as one big miscue, and is completely clueless about his future, because he can't wrap his mind around the present.

His only true friend is his therapist Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), who is also one of Luke's clients. Squires is the most neurotically misguided therapist perhaps in movie history (and that's saying something); in addition to being a pothead, he depends on Valium and Lithium to get through most of his days, and is convinced he should cheat on his distant wife so he can add spice to their loveless marriage. Perhaps its Squires' imperfection that makes him so compatible with Luke, and the two become great friends, consoling each other's weaknesses and insecurities.

Squires' also has a step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who is the apple of Luke's eye. She is beautiful, she is exotic, and she completely encompasses Luke's thoughts and fantasies. In Luke's last summer before adulthood, Luke decides to make his move and finally discover the life he thinks he deserves--one of happiness. Against Squires' orders, Luke begins seeing Stephanie, and her provocative nature opens Luke's eyes to what he's been missing. Not that it solves either his or Squires' problems, and whether it be because of drugs or heartbreak, they both are hit by big smacks of hard life.

This film was a pretty big time hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and I can see why: it smacks of indie pretension. Not that that's always a bad thing, young filmmaker Jonathan Levine is confident with this picture, not arrogant. He's obviously heavily influenced by the time he displays in the film, particularly by hip-hop music which pulsates throughout the soundtrack. Even the title shows this, a title which anybody could say is a little out of taste for a deep-seeded character study. Sometimes the film comes on a little strong with the 90's references, but the point is not to parody, but to create an atmosphere.

The film is led by Nickelodeon's own Josh Peck. Peck goes a great way to completely distance himself from his "Drake and Josh" reputation, playing a character that is both emotionally scarred and painfully reserved. Peck is surprising, if not fearless with his performance, but you can't help but feel that he was not quite ready to grip a character of this magnitude. The movie's Achilles' heel is the fact that it is pretty difficult to embrace Luke's plight, and that is the fault of Peck's inability to make him a living, breathing person. It's a brave step for the young actor, but I question the role choice.

The spark of this film comes from the seeming rebirth of Sir Ben Kingsley. Seeing him putz around in terrible films such as Bloodrayne and The Love Guru made many of the esteemed actor's biggest fans scratch their heads. But with The Wackness, Kingsley seems to have gotten his second wind. He plays the insanely flawed Squires with manic energy and hysterical timing. Kingsley easily steals the show, and with his upcoming film Elegy set for release in August, he is probably set up for a career-reviving summer.

The film sprinkles interesting cameos, such as Method Man as Luke's marijuana provider and Mary-Kate Olson as a constantly-stoned hippie with numerous boyfriends. There's something particularly fresh about The Wackness, even in moments where the film just doesn't work. The film meanders in montages showcasing rap music and warped camera angles. At times, the film is frustrating in its seemingly freestyle approach, but with inspired performances from Kingsley and Thirlby, and an earnest turn from Peck, The Wackness, at times, can be delightful.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Step Brothers (*1/2)

Directed by Adam McKay


The problem with most mainstream comedies these days--the reason why most of them seem anything but funny--is because they simply don't make the effort to tell adequate jokes. They depend mostly on sight gags, which in any situation outside of a Hollywood movie set would be horrifying and explicit. Step Brothers, the newest of these types of films, should get credit for taking this theory to the extreme. It does not try to insult the audience, but it unfortunately puts more responsibility on shock, and less on saying something funny.

The film stars Will Farrell and John C. Reily, who have suddenly become a comic duo film producers feel they can depend on. Farrell is Brennan, a 39-year-old brat, with a wicked temper, who still lives with his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), spending most of his time eating nachos with cheese and masturbating to exercise videos. Reily is Dale, he's 40, is of similar temperament, and lives off of his successful businessman dad Robert (Richard Jenkins). Nancy and Robert meet, fall in love, and now the overgrown babies have become unwelcome step brothers.

Brennan and Dale hate each other, and this brings a rift to their parents' marriage. But then, realizing that they are both on the same level of loser as each other, they instantly become best friends, which ironically causes more headaches for their parents. After they botch job interviews that Richard had set up for them, their parents decide that if they don't go out and get their own lives, they will be thrown out on the streets and forced to fend for themselves.

This story doesn't really go in many directions. Numerous scenes are meant to show Dale and Brennan as middle-aged mongoloids, but the filmmakers decide that this alone is funny. Most of this film's laughs comes from its creative one-liners, but these come few and far between other scenes of licking old dog feces and male genitalia being rubbed all over a drum set. The film also displays extreme violence, mostly at the expense of those of which Brennan and Dale feel they must showcase their power over the normal world.

Which brings me to Will Farrell. There was once a time when he was a creative comedian who excelled at brilliant improvisation in small cameo roles. Now, as his film career has expanded, we have come to see that he has become a victim of self-parody. There is not a whole lot of difference between Ron Bergundy or Ricky Bobby, and though both Anchorman and Talledegha Nights are both pretty funny movies, the one thing I've noticed through all of his films is that none of them are as funny as his golden years on "Saturday Night Live".

To be fair, Brennan is not a carbon-copy stock character like the rest, and in fact is essentially a reinvention for Farrell, becoming more angry, more crude, and a lot more tasteless. But in a way, it's a lot more disappointing than progressive, because Farrell spends less time working his improvisational magic, and more time pushing envelopes that should be sealed shut. It's something that is sure to thrill audiences, but people go into a film like Step Brothers to laugh, not cringe.

What is so frustrating in the film is how the talent far outweighs the finished product. Reily is just as aimless as Farrell in his performance (didn't this guy get nominated for an Oscar six years ago? Since when has he become a comedic sidekick?). Steenburgen mails it in, while Jenkins overdoes his seemingly simple character. In a way, its the parent characters that are the most puzzling, mostly because of their "wait-and-scream" reactions to all of the shenanigans that their two boys do.

There are moments of true humor--mostly in scenes where it is just Farrell and Reilly simply interacting with each other, but it's hard to see two truly talented actors settle for a mediocre screenplay (Farrell actually co-penned the script with director Adam McKay). I don't see the film taking on The Dark Knight in the box office in its first weekend, but there will definitely be an audience. It's considered another piece of the "Frat Pack" films (a phrase I still don't understand, because no one actor other than Farrell seems committed to it), and their's always an audience for something this uproarious.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Savage Grace (***)

Directed by Tom Kalin


Poor little Tony Baekland. Being raised by two as vain and irresponsible as Brooks and Barbara Baekland, there seemed to be little choice for what Tony could do with his life. It was their selfishness and complete abandonment that led Tony to what would become a highly publicized murder. At least, the film would like you to think "poor Tony", but instead you're lead to believe he is nothing more than a spoiled little brat who never stopped screaming when he got his toys taken away from him.

It starts the moment little Tony is born. His mother Barbara (Julianne Moore) decides to celebrate her new child by going out with her already distant husband--and Tony's father--Brooks (Stephene Dillane). The two hob-nob with a prince, but Barbara drinks too much, asks Brooks embarrassing questions, and in a fit, leaves with another man. Brooks takes it in stride and goes home to his boy.

The boy gets older, grows incredibly close to his mother, while his father becomes more and more absent. Finally, Tony (Eddie Redmayne) has become a man. He loves Barbara, respects Brooks. The in-fighting between the two has become white noise for Tony, and he acknowledges and accepts just how awful the two of them are. When Tony brings home a Spanish girl named Blanca (Elena Anaya), they make love, but she eyes Brooks, and Brooks eyes her.

Brooks, absolutely spent by Barbara's volatility, takes Blanca and runs away, and Tony --as he puts himself--"inherits" the responsibility of watching the self-destructive Barbara. The mother and son do have love for each other, but its a love that is blurred by Barbara's insane mood swings, and their shared unchained sexuality. At this point, Tony has realized that he is much more interested in men, and Barbara uses this information to manipulate him into fulfilling certain odd sexual fantasies--sometimes even for herself.

What first-time filmmaker Tom Kalin creates with Savage Grace is more like a study in extreme sexuality than the path one takes toward murderous insanity. His decisions within the movie are sometimes horribly misguided, not knowing when to draw the line between sensuality and crassness (for example, early in the film a young boy is seen licking an embarrassingly phallic ice cream cone). The film, though, is shot in a very slick style, stretching numerous generations from the late 40's to the early 70's. He is, most definitely, a filmmaker to watch.

Not that I would classify Kalin as a "homosexual filmmaker" (Todd Haynes and Gus van Sant are often unfairly labeled with that title), but Grace does have a preoccupation with homosexual activity, along with incest and sodomy. It attempts to push boundaries instead of explain how Tony is led to violence. The history of Tony Baekland shows that he was violent even after murdering his mother, so when does he make that jump from socialite to criminal? The film is much more interested in scenes of anal sex than addressing the transition.

So, this does not sound like a review for a three-star film, but that is because I have yet to discuss the film's saving grace (no pun intended): Mrs. Julianne Moore. The film showcases her incredible and seemingly effortless ability to encompass a character. It's a snap shot of what has made Moore one of the finer actresses of her time: fearlessness. Not that we haven't witnessed her portray a character on a downward spiral (she also does this in Boogie Nights and Short Cuts), but its the grace at which she can be fierce and ferocious, as well as sincere and compassionate, mostly all within a singular film. Moore has the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the bravery of Marlon Brando. If she chooses the right roles--or just as importantly, the right films--she could very well end up being the greatest actress in film history (and yes, that statement is supposed to be as bold as it sounds).

Savage Grace is the kind of film that is supposed to entrance the audience, even when it seems like it is blatantly trying to repulse them. It pulls off this feat, and for that, I recommend the film. It is true, my biased opinion about the film's star lead me to be more kind with this movie than many other critics have been, but nobody can convince me that Moore's performance isn't one of astounding bravura and charm. The story of Tony Baekland is tragic, but it is a bed he makes himself. In the end, the film makes more of a case for Julianne Moore's ability, than Tony Baekland's victimized situation.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight (***1/2)

Directed by Christopher Nolan


I'm a huge basketball fan. And I spent much of late April to early June glued to the television watching the NBA playoffs (not even a movie could pull me away). Unfortunately, marketers found basketball fans as the perfect demographic to start an extreme campaign--meaning having to sit through seemingly constant Dark Knight previews for a movie in May that won't come out till mid-July. On top of that, Christopher Nolan's predecessor Batman Begins, I found, was nothing more than a shallow attempt to rebuild a franchise ruined by Batman and Robin. So I went into the must-see film of the summer with lots of reservation, and fully prepared to put a needle to the balloon of rave reviews it had already received.

Fortunately for everyone, there is no way that I can do that. What Nolan has done with The Dark Knight goes beyond comic book films or summer blockbusters. He has created a wonderfully orchestrated character study which probes that natural battle of good and evil, and the misconstrued ideas of justice we have in today's world. He uses the notorious Gothom City as his canvas to execute his summation of what it truly means to be a hero, and what mankind will do when they come face-to-face with pure evil.

It wasn't until I watched the film that I realized the significance of the film's title "The Dark Knight". What's a Batman movie without the name "Batman" on the marquee? But than I saw what Nolan was trying to pull off, a film about a multitude of characters, none of which rule the film for themselves, not even the Dark Knight, himself. Let's start with Bruce Wayne. Played again by Christian Bale, Wayne has never been more self-indulgent or flaunting. He plays him like a mix of Donald Trump and Hank Steinbrenner. All a facade to throw people off of his other identity as the caped crusader.

Then we have Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), somewhat of a crusader himself. He is Gotham City's District Attorney, and he has struck out on crime with a vengeance. He has single-handedly put hundreds of crooks in jail, but has made twice as many enemies. Dent is on Bruce Wayne's mind, because Dent's arm candy is fellow crime fighter Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal--replacing Katie Holmes), Wayne's former squeeze. Then we also have Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman in a wonderfully subdued performance), whom has been helped by Dent quite a bit, but helped even more by Batman.

This group of stock characters are wonderful, but it's the one guy who brings them together that makes the film go. In a flash, the crime scene is taken over by the demonic Joker (Heath Ledger), who goes to mob leaders themselves to convince them that the way to defeat Harvey Dent and the police is to take care of "the Batman". We find out relatively quickly that the Joker's plan to adopt the gangs is just one of many rouses to put Gothom City in complete chaos.

All of the performances are great, but Ledger is a revelation. In his last full performance before his tragic death in January, Ledger shows why he was such a coveted performer: an utter fearlessness to get the character right. It's hard not to let Ledger's death effect the already grim portrayal he has in the film. The smeared cake make-up along with the smile-making scars on his cheeks (he has many stories of how they got there) are all peripheral--though still frightening. It's the volume of which this new Joker pulls off his masterpieces of destruction that makes him so compelling. He is not influenced by money or greed, but an unquenchable thirst for violence and anarchy.

This is much more a Batman film than Batman Begins, despite the fact that so little of the film has to do with Batman himself. The few scenes we spend with Bruce Wayne are usually sucked up by the charisma of his butler Alfred (classic Michael Caine), and the wit of his very own gadget-maker Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). If anything, the film attempts to do what Tim Burton was trying to do with the franchise before he was booted off to make room for Jerry Bruckheimer's money-making machine: it attempts to take the already dark character and story of Batman and make it even darker.

This film does not spout off cynicism as much as it declares doom. The Joker is more evil than any mobster or gang, he puts people in situations where they have to make the violent choices, like a somewhat more plausible and animated version of the character Jigsaw in the Saw series. It's this kind of unstoppable evil that Batman must fight against--particularly when Dent becomes a victim to the fate that he put so much stock in. The film doesn't end the way most in the superhero genre are. Nothing is definitively brought down. Instead, we are introduced to the fact that evil can only be warded off, not destroyed.

At two-and-a-half hours, the film takes on epic status. Using Chicago exteriors, the film's grandeur cannot be overstated. I'm still not sure if I'm sold on the film's resolution, and moments in the beginning of the movie taste of Hollywood intervention, but as the film continues to build, we are given a story of true pathos, and with the excellent work of Oldman, Eckhart, Bale, and of coarse Ledger, The Dark Knight may be the best film of this decade's comic book movie craze. If only because it rises above it, and is simply a great film.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Word About.....

In Bruges

I was like an old curmudgeon when I tried relentlessly to see this film around its February release, only to find that its limited release prevented any showing in Central or South Florida. That being said, I was finally able to view this brilliant film on DVD. This is the first feature film from Martin McDonaugh, and he shows early that he has an eye for a film's energy, and the talent for hysterical, excellently-timed dialogue.

The film truly makes room for three brilliant performances from three brilliant actors. Colin Farrell is Ray, a guilt-stricken hitman whose first hit resulted in the accidental death of a little kid. Along with him is Ken, and he's played by Brendan Gleeson in a performance of amazing subtle depth. Ken treats Ray like his protege, and the two are forced to take a trip to Bruges, Belgium after Ray's big flub. Ken enjoys Bruges, its large medieval towers, its cobblestone streets--the history impresses him. But Ray is overcome with anxiety, and manages to get himself into trouble.

It's the chemistry and dynamic between these two actors that makes the film run. Not once does this movie drag its foot, but instead trucks ahead adding more and more strange characters to the mix (a beautiful Belgian drug dealer who seduces Ray; an American dwarf who is bitter and racist). But when the film reaches its peak is when Ray and Ken's boss, Harry, bursts onto the seen. Played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes, Harry is volatile, violent, profane, and funny all within moments of his arrival in the film (roughly 3/4 of the way through).

When I finally saw Notes On A Scandal over a month ago, I realized that the power of the film came from the two brilliant actresses (Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett) bouncing their great ability off of each other. In Bruges has a similar feel, as Gleeson, Farrell, and Fiennes seem to be in a competition of who can one-up the other. Luckily, neither of the three are able to win, and what we are left with is an incredibly balanced film about three hilarious but deeply troubled men walking around a near fantasy town.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Hancock (**)

Directed by Peter Berg


Who doesn't like Will Smith lately? The answer seems to be nobody, as he headlines Hancock, a film which is sure to be his seventh or eighth blockbuster in a row. He is easily the most bankable movie actor in Hollywood, what with the huge, unexpected success of I Am Legend cementing his place at the summit of the film superstars. So what about Hancock, you ask? Despite being as CGI-filled as most summer films are these days and having one of the most interesting premises that I've seen from a Hollywood movie that I've seen in a while, it has the distinction of being the most uneven film so far in 2008.

The story of Hancock is pretty interesting. John Hancock (Smith) is a superhero who woke up in a Miami hospital sometime in the 1920's with complete amnesia. All he knows is that he has supernatural powers, and even though he goes out of his way to save the occasional bystander and take down the occasional criminal, his constant boozing and the carnage he leaves in the wake of every hero appearance he makes leaves him as a media target. The very people he attempts to save resent him, and all Hancock can do to counter it is get drunk and continue to use his abilities for further destruction.

Hancock's monotonous life turns around though, when he runs into the ambitious PR specialist Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Ray was stuck in the front seat of his car and nearly run over by a train, before Hancock stepped in and stopped the train in its tracks--literally, leaving the train in complete disarray. Grateful, Ray invites Hancock to his home, and offers to help repair his image to the public. When a warrant is issued for Hancock's arrest, Ray advises him to go to prison, so the public can understand how important he is. Hancock agrees grudgingly, and the plan works.

Ray's plan goes further, including creating a new, leather, more superhero-y uniform for Hancock to wear. Before you know it, Hancock is now a model citizen, and a courageous hero that the public admires. The only problem? Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) seems to have an issue with Hancock. From the first time that she meets him, she glares at him strangely, nearly scowling. She seems constantly annoyed by his presence, and when the reason for this is revealed, the film takes a puzzling and disappointing turn.

I must say that much of the first half of the film I enjoyed. The idea is glorious, because too many times we see action heroes and superheros alike leave areas in complete wreckage with seemingly no consequence. This film has the guts to poke fun at those movies, and at the same time embrace them. The film was directed by Peter Berg, one of my personal favorite B-movie actors. He has shown to have a talent for making energetic action pictures, with a very visceral style, a la Paul Greengrass. He handles this story very well, until that fateful plot twist.

The film reminds me of a blunder released earlier this summer, The Happening. Like that film, Hancock refuses to trust its own brilliant premise, and decides to spice it up with plot contrivances that are frustrating. Granted, this film has the gift of being much more fun than Happening, and like most of the Indiana Jones pictures have shown, a movie that is effervescently delightful can easily overcome the most preposterous of plot points. This film, though, just doesn't seem to get away as easily though because its story becomes so flimsy, so quickly its somewhat unforgivable.

The cast works well together, with Smith and Theron seeming to have a lot of fun together. Bateman is a treat, showcasing the spitfire wit and the surprising depth that has made him so popular recently (why did this happen AFTER Arrested Development got cancelled??)--so they're not the ones to blame. More than anything, the thing that this film seems to be missing is a villain. There really isn't a true villain in this film that matches Hancock blow for blow. I know the charm of this film is its unconventional story, but a superhero movie in which his main enemy is himself is also a gaping plot hole that should be payed attention to.

In the end, sub-par storytelling gives way to an average film, and a wasted storyline. I don't doubt that most audiences will go ga-ga for this, as its pumped with just enough shallowness that its ultimately satisfying. Peter Berg's movies keep on getting bigger and bigger (The Rundown to The Kingdom and now...), but he is slowly approaching Michael Bay territory in terms of films of complete brainlessness. Not that Hancock isn't occasionally a good time. If anything, what I want the reader of this review to understand is that this film deserved to be a lot better.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Wanted (***)

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov


This is the kind of film that makes the Hollywood summer season great. A little under two hours of sharp wit, beautiful stars, and highly stylized mayhem, all coming together to make the most exciting, action-packed film of the year. Not that Wanted, the first American film by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, is masterpiece theater, but it's ability to lavish in its own schlock chaos makes it ultimately satisfying.

The film is about Wesley Gibson, an over-anxious nobody with an unfaithful girlfriend and an obnoxious, obese boss who shouts her orders at Wesley accompanied by a stapler. Wesley has nothing to look forward to, cause every morning just presents the same misery of another monotonous day. Everything changes for Wesley when he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), a voluptuous beauty who informs him that the father he never knew was assassinated--and then drags him away from his own possible assassination in a hale of gunfire.

The meeting between Wesley and Fox is the first of many adrenaline-fueled action scenes enhanced by slow motion and outstanding special effects. When all is said and done, Wesley discovers that Fox is a member of the Fraternity, a group of assassins who kill wrong-doers. Their leader is Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who tells Wesley that his father was a member of the Fraternity, but was killed, and Wesley is just the man to extract the revenge.

There are Rocky-like montages which show Wesley gradually becoming the killer he needs to be to get his father's killer. He gets beat up a lot (though they're able to use some special bath--of what I'm still not sure of--to take away scars), but he eventually learns that what he thought was over-anxiety is actually his heart working fast enough to increase his reaction-time. So, for instance, he would be able to successfully assassinate a man from inside a business meeting from the top of a moving subway.

There is a subplot of "curving bullets"--i.e. shooting the gun at an angle, as so to make the bullet change directions. Focusing on preposterous plot details like this is the first thing that you shouldn't do when watching this film. Wanted is like the biggest fireworks show in town: it's distant and overblown, but it will always be better entertainment than bottle rockets in your backyard. No coincidence that this film was released just one week before the 4th of July.

Director Bekmambetov explores a lot of Matrix-style special effects. With the exception of excessive slow motion, Bekmambetov pieces together this labyrinth of destruction rather well. The film never takes its foot off of the acceleration, and by maxing out the talent of the cast (which uses Terrence Stamp and Common in interesting supporting roles), what we have is a film that succeeds on pure adrenaline and fun. Not since The Matrix itself has a film been so successful with the brawn so greatly outweighing the brains.

The film is headed by James McAvoy, a Scottish actor known only to Americans for the seldom seen Atonement and playing the Faun in the first Chronicles of Narnia film. Adjusting his accent for the American Wesley (and very well, to add, considering his harsh Scotsman accent), McAvoy puts together what will surely be a star-making performance. The transformation that Wesley makes as a character from the beginning of the film to the end is quite astonishing, and only partially believable because McAvoy embodies the quirks and sarcasm of Wesley well enough to flesh him out.

Both Jolie and Freeman are having great fun, we can tell. Jolie is in full-fledged Mrs. Smith mode, and Freeman is able to throw around a couple of four-letter words that we rarely get to hear from him. A seemingly tacked on ending almost spoils the experience, but Wanted is exactly what it claims to be: a balls-to-the-wall action film, with non-stop bloodshed and enough humor to make the characters tangible. The film seems to me like a Kill Bill Vol. 1 for the second half of the decade, since the violence is so fanciful. Funny to think how this film is not creating nearly as much uproar as Bill did for its violence. That's good, as long as there is no distraction from this truly rapturous movie roller coaster.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Visitor (**)

Written and Directed by Thomas McCarthy


Prof. Walter Vale is old. Not in the actual sense, though. He lives, drives, and works in a perfectly functional way, and gravity hasn't yet begun it's unavoidable battle with his skin, but figuratively speaking, he is old. He teaches one course at a university in Connecticut, but never more than one because he says he has to work on a book--a book that he never thinks about. He takes piano lessons, but since he doesn't make progress, he quits rather quickly. Life has taken quite a toll already on Walter, so he goes through life looking for a position with the least amount of responsibility.

Walter Vale (captured in a rapturous performance from Richard Jenkins) is the main character of Thomas McCarthy's new film, The Visitor. The movie showcases Walter as he must travel to New York to present a paper which he co-authored (though he claims he didn't write a word of it). The trip bums Walter out because he would much rather stay in Connecticut, teach his one course, and kick around in his large suburb home then make the taxing trek to New York City to talk about a paper he knows little about. But as his superiors explain, he really has no other choice.

Walter receives the surprise of a lifetime when he gets to his city apartment, and sees a young Muslim couple living there. Since the death of his wife, Walter has rarely visited the apartment, and in his absence, it seems somebody has rented his place to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Walter is shocked, but allows the young couple to stay until they can find another residence. Walter takes to the young couple, particularly Tarek, as he teaches Walter to play the congo in the New York City parks.

Trouble begins, when Tarek is arrested in a subway station, for little to no reason. Walter doesn't understand what is happening, but keeps his cool and issues a statement to the police, who tell him that Tarek will be released later in the day. It isn't until Zainab tells him that they are actually illegal immigrants, and Tarek is moved to a immigration detention center, that Walter understands the gravity of the situation. Walter, deeply concerned for his new friend goes to great lengths to help, first hiring an immigration attorney, and later taking in Tarek's worried mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), to comfort her as they try to get Tarek free.

When trouble begins in the story, that's precisely when trouble begins in the movie. The first third of the picture is an incredibly satisfying story about a very depressed man whose life is reinvigorated by an exciting young man who teaches him the beauty of small things. Once Tarek is behind bars, the story is confined to message film about the wrongdoings of immigration offices. Tarek is arrested for no reason, true, and it is incredibly unfair that a man who has made a life in a country can be swept out so quickly. That being said, it is this fixation that causes the movie to drag.

The hero of the picture is Richard Jenkins, who has what is easily his most creatively liberating performance. Walter is reserved, frustrated, yet so compassionate and is brimming with anticipation for the opportunity to discover his second wind. The supporting performances from Gurira and Abbass are good enough, and Sleiman is excellent in his limited screentime, but the film works as a showcase for Jenkins. He creates Walter with such subdued emotion, that it makes it that much more frustrating that more of the film isn't fixated on his character.

Much like Thomas McCarthy's first film, The Station Agent, we have a film that is focused on a character that believes that his circumstances should prevent him from having fun. In Agent, we have a naturally introverted little person, and with Visitor, we have a man still visibly mourning the death of his wife. But with his earlier film, McCarthy explores that character, explaining why he is who he is. This film, though expertly shot, falls flat as a character study. The more we want to learn about Walter's demeanor, the more we are unwillingly told about the horrors of immigration.

Not that I want or expect McCarthy to make the same film over again, it's just that the direction in which he chose to send his latest film isn't very interesting. A career performance by Jenkins is almost enough to make this film a treat, because it is always fun to watch an actor everyone knows (but not by name) finally get his break as a true film lead. The Visitor is a film that is meant to be an experience, a film to spark debate about the politics it tackles through out the story. Instead, it sparks debate as to why a film would take such a puzzling turn in order to make a statement.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The New Classics

To commemorate their 1,000th issue, Entertainment Weekly magazine published a list of the "new classics" creating a 50 Greatest list of everything from the last 25 years. Greatest albums, greatest books, and of coarse, greatest movies. The film list had the astonishing quality of being both agreeable and completely obtuse--as all these "greatest" lists tend to be. With a wide array of voters, you have things like Die Hard cracking the top 10 of the movie list. In order to speak my peace, I will now reveal what I find to be the ten best films of the last 25 years:


Maybe I'm still hungover from all of the Academy Awards this film just swallowed up in February, but I don't think anyone can deny this film's status as an instant classic. With those tricky Coen Brothers working with the great Cormac McCarthy's complex novel, what came out was a masterpiece of both style and substance. Performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin were snubbed for Oscar nominations, but Javier Bardem's creation of the inherently evil Anton Chigurh won every prize available. It's so deliciously beautiful and haunting at the same time.


It's safe to say Bardem's Chigurh is one of the top movie villains of all time, but the all-time greatest still belongs to Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter. Along with Jodie Foster and director Jonathon Demme, an incredible cast and crew combined to make one of the most bone-chilling suspense films ever made. With a horrific serial killer, a conflicted cop, and a brilliant psychopath, The Silence of the Lambs is probably the most balanced horror film in the case of it's characters. To this day, the sound of Lecter clicking his teeth makes people stay up at night.


Fernando Merielles' epic gangster film is based on a true story, and dissects the dangerous world of gangland Rio de Genero. Told through the eyes of a young boy who wishes to escape the horrors of his home, we are shown decades upon decades of violence, sex, and drugs, while the small children who are innocent age in to ferocious mosters with loads of ammunition. The film rivals schlock movies for violence, but is made with such a sense of seriousness, and a Scorsese-esque energy.


Speak of the devil. While Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are both more polished, stylized films, it's Goodfellas where Scorsese felt his most authentic. The greatest, most in-depth gangster film ever made, Goodfellas gets a lot of strength from its cast, which includes Robert DeNiro as a calm but deadly gang leader, Ray Liotta as a starstruck youngblood who does little to resist "the life", and of coarse Joe Pesci, in an Oscar-winning role as the hot-headed, gun-toting Tommy. The film, often accused of glamorizing gang life, is your basic rags-to-riches-to-destruction tale, but it's Scorsese's talent with the camera and with actors that makes this film a notch above the rest.


I once read somebody saying that there was no reason for this film to be as good as it truly is. There's some fact in that. Certainly, director Michel Gondry hadn't really proven anything outside of the music video world, Jim Carrey hadn't really shown that he can succeed in a serious role, and though screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had success, it came with the baggage of being labled as neurotic and unnameable. With the help from a career-best performance from Kate Winslet (as well as Carrey), Eternal Sunshine may be the most beautifully told love story of the last 25 years. Using basic camera tricks and no CGI, the film warps the mind, but melts the heart.


This was the reigning #1 on EW's best list, and for good reason. No other movie has gone further in changing cinema and pop culture alike the way Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction has. The movie has rocking tunes, classic performances from John Travolta and Uma Thurman, as well as the dynamite dialogue we've come to know from Tarantino. 14 years later, it seems that Pulp Fiction will stand to be Tarantino's one true masterpiece, but it still is nothing to snuff at. More than anything, the most powerful thing in this film is the masterful performance from Samuel L. Jackson as Jules, the Bible-quoting assassin. It's his brutish yet wise performance that makes this film more than just.... well, pulp.


Probably the greatest and most powerful film ever made about the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg's black-and-white epic about a rich man who would save over two thousand Jews from Hitler's regime, struck a chord in 1993 with audiences and critics alike, and placed Spielberg in a much higher realm of filmmaking than he ever was before. Stark in it's photography, yet graphic in its portrayal of human darkness, Schindler's List is a film filled with sentiment, but the right kind. It is Spielberg's quintessential film, and a movie that is among one of the most moving ever made.


Over the last couple years, it seems evident that Sideways may go on to become the forgotten masterpiece of this current decade, the way Three Kings is to the 90's. It has some of the best characters ever in a film, and incredible performances to back them up. The film includes career performances from Virginia Madsen, the hilarious Thomas Haden Church, and the dependable Paul Giamatti as Miles, the alcoholic writer who can't get his novel published. With layered themes of love, humanity, and friendship, no other movie this decade does so much with so little. This film, so far the best of the millennium, is one I hope will get its due in years to come.


Annie Hall is his classic. Manhattan is his most visually dazzling. Hannah and Her Sisters was his biggest commercial success. All that being said, the peak of Woody Allen's filmmaking career is Crimes and Misdemeanors. One of the seminal films ever made about faith, the human soul, and life in general, the movie is hysterically funny yet frightfully dark--sometimes both in a moment of seconds. With a cast including Mia Farrow, Martin Landau, Alan Alda, and of coarse, Woody himself, Crimes and Misdemeanors stands atop an already accomplished filmography with strong profundity and dazzling characters.


I once was involved in an argument with two other people. One of the people thought the Coen Brothers film Fargo was a perfect film, detailing a classic battle of good and evil, with amazing style and great performances. The other person thought the film was a waste of time, and that he'd lost interest in the film about 20 minutes into it. Sometimes it's hard to explain what makes Fargo so good, because it is so simple. It's that simplicity that makes it so brilliant, as well as the brilliant performances from Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, William H. Macy, and of coarse the Oscar-winning turn from Frances McDormand. The only way I can explain it is to ask people to truly watch the film. Do not read into pieces of dialogue or complex camera angles. Just think of the story and how everything unfolds so exquisitely. Then I'll defy you to tell me that it isn't a perfect film.

WALL-E (****)

Directed by Andrew Stanton


Ever since Toy Story, Pixar studios has produced some of the best films of the last decade. Finding Nemo and Ratatouille were unbelievably sweet films which charmed audiences, and won Oscars, while The Incredibles was a masterpiece about family and responsibility. Their newest film, WALL-E, believe it or not, is better than all of them. The story of a lonely robot, WALL-E has romance, it has social commentary, and a document of human strength, all squeezed into a 90-minute kids movie, that will reach more adults.

The first image we see in WALL-E, is large skyscrapers through the dirty, filthy mist, and as the shot gets closer and closer, we realize that most of these buildings are just constructed patterns of trash. The film takes place about 700-900 years in the future, and the only thing left on the world is WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter- Earth Class). He is the last robot left of all the WALL-Es, a race of bots left on Earth to clean all the trash amassed by human beings. All WALL-E has is his pattern of trash lifting, and a pet cockroach.

Where are all the humans, you ask? Well, as the film describes, the world basically succumbed to a humongous corporation aptly named 'Big & Large', which provided everything from food to gas. This preoccupation with materialism leads to an overflow of garbage. The human race decides to take a space cruise, while WALL-Es clean the world. Unfortunately, the plan doesn't work, as the humans stay in space, and WALL-E is left to himself, savoring small things such as spare pieces for himself and his video copy of Hello, Dolly!.

WALL-E's loneliness is cured one day, though, when he is visited by a large spaceship, dropping off a much-more advanced robot to track down living conditions. The new robot is persistent in her search for life (I say she because the film makes no bones about her sex), but her very presence creates an excitement in WALL-E that he hasn't felt in several centuries. They meet, WALL-E finds out that her name is EVE, and he shows her his layer, and his movies. WALL-E has no choice but to follow her back into space.

It isn't until about halfway through the film, when WALL-E is aboard the ship, do we get any true dialogue. Instead we are satisfied with robot dialogue, which in the case WALL-E consists of screeches, purrs, and squeals. We've seen this in other Disney pictures, where non-human characters are made more humane than the human ones, and that is the case here. The feelings expressed by WALL-E's camera eyes and clamp fingers are so apparent, there is just an unbelievable shade of adorableness.

The most appealing thing in WALL-E is the relationship between WALL-E and EVE, but what cannot be ignored is it's message about humanity. It both criticizes the overindulgence and irresponsibility of the human race, while also praising the never-breaking human spirit. When WALL-E is aboard the space cruise (of which the humans have been on about 700 years too long), human beings have been degraded into obese cretins, who get around on hover chairs, having lost the ability to walk. It's not totally their fault about their size, since living in no gravity for such a long time has increased their bone size.

The social commentary is not stricken hard, and if not paying attention can be missed completely. In a way, that is the beauty of WALL-E. Through it all, it is not meant to proclaim injustice or wrongdoing, but to announce the beauty within love and everyone's soul. Their are beautiful sequences, helped by the films nifty look. Tough and grainy on Earth; sleek and tranquil in space. The film seems Kubrick-ian at a lot of times (in fact, the film directly references 2001: A Space Odyssey on more than one occasion), and it's style is only supplanted by its unbelievably warm characters.

The lack of dialogue, I fear, might throw more people off of this film than it should. The children will love seeing WALL-E scramble all over the screen, and if adults can't appreciate the story that the film tells, then it's safe to say they may not have a heart. I feel safe in saying that WALL-E is the best film of 2008, and while I'm anticipating many movies later this year, it'd be hard, I think, for any of them to be as good as this wonderful fable, containing the most adorable robot to ever (EVER) grace the silver screen.

It's Been A While.....

Computer malfunctions has put my movie blogging at a complete halt for the last few weeks, so in an attempt to salvage most of the month of June I will do a quick recap of the few films that I've seen since I've been away...

Directed by Denis Dugan


The latest Adam Sandler comedy seemed to be an exercise in complete tastelessness as well as shamelessness. Not that we'd expect better from the guy who was in Billy Madison. To be honest, it felt like a breath of fresh air to see Sandler go back to his silly roots, as apposed to his latest unsuccessful ventures into dramatic films (Spanglish, Reign Over Me), and just flat-out bad comedies (The Longest Yard, Click). Also, Zohan has more than one moment that is actually pretty funny. That being said, the film is a mockery of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts (maybe that subject needs a little humor?), which makes no bones about its lack of intelligence.

Written, Produced, and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan


Once again, an M. Night Shyamalan film falls victim to not trusting his own premise. The Happening, a tale about how a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) and his conflicted wife (Zooey Deschanel) try to survive while an odd pandemic is causing the human race to commit suicide, has its moments. It's best coming from a way-too-short performance from John Leguizamo as Wahlberg's math geek, trustworthy friend. Too many times, the film hinges on weak coincidences and bizarre, nonsensical moments which have you leaving the theater scratching your head in frustration that someone as visually talented as Shyamalan continues to struggle at properly telling a tale of suspense.

Directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson


It's a tired premise--particularly in children's films--particularly in animated children's films. The inept worshiper ends up in the world of the worshiped, only to find that he must be the one to protect them. The worshiper in this case is the paltry Po (Jack Black), a fat panda, whose spent his life making noodles and adoring kung fu. When he finds out that he alone must take down the dangerous Tai Lung (Ian McShane), not only is he scared, but he is resented by the kung fu masters he looked up to. The film is sweet, has moments of great humor, but it is very blatantly marketed toward children only, and won't produce the adult belly laughs that you'd get from any of the Shrek films.

Directed by Peter Segal


This movie makeover of the beloved TV series has been getting a lot of heat from most critics as it tones down the slapstick of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and ups the action. Never having watched the original series, I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed Get Smart. In a move of expert casting, the always amazing Steve Carrell plays the bumbling Maxwell Smart, who has moved up from writing boring memorandums, and is now an agent. He's paired up with the sexy Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) as they take down nuclear terrorists. Dwyane Johnson and Alan Alda also star in hilarious supporting roles. A lot of laughs and a lot of thrills, Get Smart is the quintessential summer movie blockbuster.

The Visitor