Monday, September 29, 2008

Choke (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Clark Gregg


What is Choke? It's hard to say, really. It's hardly a comprehensible film, nor is it an adequately told story. The only way I can hope to describe it, is to say that it is an insane tale filled with deviant behavior, and extreme insensitivity to conventional "normalcy". The film braces itself with so many vulgar images and situations, it's hard to know how they were able to fit in the plot. But the plot does fit, and it's just crazy enough to be brilliant, and just demented enough to be utterly unforgettable.

The film is based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the same guy who wrote the novel that would later become the cult film Fight Club. He has shown himself to be a master of unsocial and downright sad characters, and with Choke, he continues his trend of telling the stories of those people's fall off the deep end. But enough about Palahniuk, the film was written and directed by Clark Gregg, an accomplished actor himself, and his regurgitation of Palahniuk's twisted world view is so spot-on and so repulsive, it leads to a film that is as enticing as it is dirty.

The story follows Vincent Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex addict whose cravings are so strong that he finds himself in severe sexual encounters even in the middle of his group therapy meetings. He has one close friend, Denny (Brian William Henke), and he is a chronic masterbater. The two work within one of those Colonial America theme parks, where the rules for employees are so harsh, that one cannot take off their 18th century wig or read today's newspaper without a warning of getting fired.

The only part of Victor's life that is remotely acceptable is his routine visits to his mother Ida (Angelica Houston), who lives in a special treatment hospital, because she suffers from severe dementia. Ida never knows who Vincent is, always confusing him with some lawyer named "Fred" or "Artie". Vincent works for the sole purpose of paying his mother's hospital bills, but she only continues to get worse. Among other schemes Vincent performs to get money, he goes to restaurants, swallows large amounts of food in order to make himself choke, and prays someone wealthy will rescue him. He finds that most people who save someone's life feel responsible, and will often give out cash.

Life begins to turn for Victor when he meets his mother's new doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly MacDonald). She wants dearly to help Ida, because she has grown very close to her, and Victor wants very dearly to get into Paige's pants. The relationship between the two makes up a large portion of the film. Perhaps, Victor can put his scoundrel days behind him, and finally settle with this night girl, but many obstacles befall him, including subplots dealing with rape-accusing senior citizens and Jesus's foreskin. Yeah, that Jesus.

It's not that Choke is in anyway offensive. As a matter of fact, given the subject matter, and the personality of characters, I found it to be rather tame. It's the way the characters express themselves, and their rascal actions that has the most effect on the audience. Most acts are hidden with tricky camera placement and smart editing, but the effect is much more damning, and a hundred times more cerebral. Gregg (who also appears as an actor, playing Vincent and Denny's boss) does such a wonderful job balancing this sick thinking, that you actually side with Vincent throughout the movie, despite his incredulity.

Sam Rockwell is someone who has been "destined for stardom" for the last decade and a half. Perhaps that ship has sailed, but he is an actor that is perfect for Victor. Rockwell has a quality that is moderately unattractive, yet is still charming enough to be engaging. He has been a substantial supporting player for years, and now he is given the reigns to carry a picture entirely on his shoulders. The disheveled hair and biting sarcasm, all add to a cataclysm of a character, whose primary past time is performance rape and anal beads. Victor is a man who hides his sadness behind sex, and wishes life were lived in a total state of orgasm. Only Rockwell could make that character a human being.

Every Palahniuk novel has the inevitable plot twist. They're not meant to blow your mind (ahem.. M. Night Shyamalan), but they are usually nurtured on by the events in the story. The one in Choke does seem a little tacked on, and throws the film into a startling direction. The denouement saves it, by cutting off abrubtly before things become to insane to manage. Many may see Choke as a nihilistic middle finger to mainstream Hollywood, and so be it. I enjoy the way Clark Gregg adapted the material at face value, and never hesitated to push the level of discomfort even higher. Conservative minds may be thrown off, but that is not this film's demographic. Its a film for those willing to admit that even they are a little messed up inside.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Duchess (***)

Directed by Saul Dibb


We look upon the 18th Century lifestyle with such romanticism, and envision it as a period of grace and beauty. But as films such as The Duchess remind us, it was also a time of unbridled tyrannical behavior, where women were little more than powdered dolls, whose meaning in life was to be loyal and sexually subservient to their male companions. So much for romance. There are some redeeming characteristics beneath all of those stuffy outfits and out-sized wigs, but that is not the focus of The Duchess. Instead, the film focuses solely on the torturous lifestyle of the obligated wife, and not much more, and what we witness is a story beyond tragedy.

The story is about Georgiana (Keira Knightley), a fun-loving, outspoken young woman, who is married off by her meddling mother (Charlotte Rampling) to the off-putting and less than enthusiastic Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Georgiana is excited about the match-up, and who wouldn't be? She is now the proud possessor of several large homes, and enormous celebrity. The only catch is that she must provide the Duke a male heir. Other than procreating for the future Duke, Georgiana's husband takes little interest in her, so she is left with being the fashion icon of her time.

Georgiana pops out two children, both girls. This creates a rift between two people who weren't altogether friendly to begin with. Even sex between the two is an exercise of extreme discomfort, since the Duke seems unable to express any type of affection for his young Duchess. Meanwhile, Georgiana takes her popular place in society, where she involves herself in politics and makes friends with politicians and artists alike. "It's like they say in England," one character professes in the film, "the Duke seems to be the only person in London who is not in love with his wife."

Troubles brew even further when Georgiana invites Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster to stay with them after her husband has thrown her out. Before long, Bess becomes the Duke's live-in mistress, causing Georgiana great embarrassment at the breakfast table. Life becomes unbearable for her, and the Duke will not free her. She tries to indulge in her own lover, the politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but isn't long before the Duke extinguishes that arrangement as well. After all, how embarrassing would it be for the Duke to be without a son and a cuckold? The more Georgiana fights for her own life, the more the Duke handicaps her attempts, and she is forced into a loveless marriage and a joyless household.

The film is a period piece in the most deliberate definition of the phrase. The sets stand large and detailed, the costumes and hairstyles stand unmoving and exquisite, and the score booms through the theater like a live orchestra. No doubt, this is a beautifully made film, and it pays great attention to its own beauty. Its hard to fathom that a world which seemed so perfect, that underneath brewed severe sexism and more marital issues than an episode of Jerry Springer. The film deals greatly with the juxtaposition between the time's beauty and ugliness, perhaps suggesting a balance.

The main flaw stands within the story, which runs out of gas roughly halfway through. After we have established the Duke's stance as a monstrous misogynist, we are then forced to watch another forty-five minutes of just how monstrous he can be. The pattern would grow more tiring if it wasn't spread between graceful filmmaking and wonderful acting, but that said, it creates a film that drags much more than it truly has to. There is no catharsis when this tale is through, just an relenting understanding of how things worked in the world of the malevolent Duke of Devonshire.

Knightley, as Georgiana, once again straps on the corset and cake make-up--it seems to be her genre of choice. Not that it deters her performance, as her portrayal of the extravagant Duchess is just another of many performances that show a maturity as an actress which exceeds her age of 23. Ralph Fiennes, on the other end, takes a different, much darker turn. Earlier in the year, he was deliciously evil in In Bruges, but there is nothing enticing about the character here. Fiennes, a true professional in his craft, orchestrates the Duke with such subdued range and masked anguish, you may even feel for his cause during some moments, but are always convinced of his maliciousness.

Much has been made of the fact that Georgiana is the great-great-great-great grandaunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. Both married fabulously rich men who would go on to have mistresses, both would go on to have lovers of their own, and both were indelible icons to the world while they were alive. I don't know if I find that much in common between their lives other than those extraneous details, but it is information many people have brought with them into the movie theater. Their biggest difference, obviously, is that Diana was able to escape her loveless, unfeeling life, while Georgiana was forced into the torturous coldness of the Duke. Let's enjoy the lavish perks we have today, rather than rejoicing in the "romantics" of the past. At least, I'm sure thats how Georgiana would feel.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Miracle At St. Anna (**1/2)



Spike Lee is one of the seminal talents in cinema, but his reputation is usually tainted by thoughts that he is a "paranoid Black man"--which no doubt he occasionally lives up to, himself. The shame of it is, this distracts most people from the gift that he has behind the camera. Miracle At St. Anna is his latest film, and in many ways, it's a boiling point. Many moments in this film show how he has crossed over from audacious film making to outright self-righteousness. Yet, other moments show his grace and intelligence, and are almost inspirational.

The film begins with Hector Negron, a black Puerto Rican postal worker in 1983. One day, he randomly murders an Italian wishing to purchase stamps. He is arrested, and when the police raid his house, they find the head of a statue, which happens to be a valuable piece to "The Primavera" statue. The piece had been missing since the Nazi's bombed the bridge during World War II. How this piece ended up in the possession of Negron is a mystery. A Purple Heart-winning corporal during that war, the press has a field day, trying to figure out his mystery, and with the help of a feisty young reporter (Joseph Gordon Levitt), he tells his story.

The story involves four black soldiers. They are members of the Buffalo Soldiers, an experimental group of African Americans drafted, and used mostly as litmus tests in the field, to test out the dangers of oncoming attackers. There is there staff sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), his associate sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy), private Train (Omar Benson Miller), and Hector himself (Laz Alonso). Crossing a river into enemy territory, the four are separated from the rest of their squad, who care little about their lives, and more of their position.

Train's war stress has reached its limit, when he finds an equally shell-shocked little boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), who has been wounded in the fighting. Train takes to the little boy, and the little boy takes to him, convinced that he is a "Chocolate Giant" (he even attempts tasting him to prove his theory). The four bring the ill Angelo to a house of other Italians. They are family led by a bitter fascist, and there is only one woman who speaks English. Trapped in the house, they encounter dangers from many angles and ethnics, and are haunted by thoughts that they are fighting a war for a white government that cares little for them.

The film is based on a novel by James McBride, and he was called upon to pen the screenplay as well. A major flaw within the film's storytelling technique is its inability to flesh out its true themes. Important sub-plots are not introduced until the last third of the film, and adds to the film's dragging pace. Plot turns like this work within literature, but seem odd within films. The script takes so much time meandering that the film itself seems like an act in futility, and we are left to judge just how important what we are seeing on the screen is.

Despite all that, the film also has moments of stunning beauty. For this, I give most of the credit to Lee, whose takes a break from his usual constant barrage of over-stylized visuals, and instead takes a more patient approach. Not that the film is not visually ambitious, but its done in a much less immediate way. Some of the battle scenes, for instance, are orchestrated like a painting, with colors and images so breathtaking, its as if we are watching a master at work. Spielberg in his two films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan used very subdued color, as if to point out the black-and-white nature of WWII. Lee, on the other hand, emphasizes it to its fullest potential.

These wondrous moments, though, come in between the meandering moments I mentioned before. The truth is, I don't know how much of McBride's novel translates to screen, because only half of it is truly interesting, and that half is only interesting because of what Lee makes of it. I find it strange that a film that was obviously very important to Lee, comes off so distant and unfeeling. We sympathize with the soldiers and their hardships, but we are never put in a position to truly care about them. In a story like this, that should be of sole importance.

I will give Miracle At St. Anna a very half-hearted recommendation. It is filmed so exquisitely, that it is hard for me to tell anyone not to see it. My fear is, though, that Spike Lee has become a product of his perception. Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X are some of the very best films I have ever seen, but I believe that Spike is less interested in being a great filmmaker than he is in being the great black filmmaker. He should spend less time worrying about his place history, and more time working on projects that don't deal with themes that he has exhausted his entire career. I respect his opinions and feelings, I just don't think they always make the best films.

The Lucky Ones (***)

Directed by Neil Burger


Certainly I believe Neil Burger when he says that the script of The Lucky Ones--which he co-wrote--is not meant to be an homage to the classic film The Best Years of Our Lives. Of coarse, it's nearly impossible though not to make comparisons. They both deal with three soldiers returning home from a hard war, only to find that the home they dreamed of coming back to in the field, is just as strange as the land they came from. In Best Years, they were returning from World War II, and they were three white men. In Lucky Ones, we have one white male, one Hispanic, and a Southern girl. So, it's a little bit of a mix and match.

The three soldiers are Colee (Rachel McAdams), Cheever (Tim Robbins), and TK (Michael Peña). Colee and TK are on a 30-day leave, but Cheever is done for good. When they get into the US, they find that their connecting flights are all cancelled due to a black-out, and they decide to rent a car and hit the road. Cheever's headed to St. Louis to see his wife and son, and Colee and TK plan to fly to Las Vegas from St. Louis when they get there.

The usual road movie misadventures occur. They travel through hotels, bars, and diners--each step bringing the trio closer. The motivations behind their treks emerge. Colee is going to Las Vegas, because the family of her boyfriend Randy (who was killed in combat) live there, and she wishes to return his valuable guitar to them. TK, who wounded his private parts, is headed to Las Vegas to find high-end prostitutes to help his recent issues with impotency. He knows that his relationship with his fiance will go nowhere if his parts are not functioning.

Problems arise on their journey. When Cheever gets home, he finds a wife who has fallen out of love with him, and a son who needs $20 thousand to pay for his tuition to Stanford. Depressed, Cheever continues on with Colee and TK, instead of staying with his family. He dreams up a plan to win big in Vegas to get the tuition money. All along the way, the three come to realize that the home they once prayed to return does not exist, and everybody they come into contact with do nothing but remind them of the horrors of their recent tour.

It would be wrong to peg this film as a "Iraq War" movie. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, the phrase 'Iraq' never is uttered from any of the characters. The circumstances overseas hang like a shadow over all of the actions that the three main characters take. It's cheif difference from Best Years of Our Lives is that it refuses to address the war concretely, and focuses solely on the charms of the characters. The film does not rely on sentiment to make these character's sympathetic, because they are so exquisitely written, and unravel perfectly. The film would make just as much sense if they were not returning soldiers, but just traveling through.

Much like Burger's previous film The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones drags its feet at moments and has issues both creating and resolving conflicts. The ending, most of all, seems abrupt and tacked on, as if the was nothing left in the creative tank, and the story just fell off the table. It's a flaw I'm willing to forgive, because watching these three intruiging characters in a situation, no matter how contrived, is a delight. Scenes such as TK contemplating fleeing to Canada before his next tour, or Colee seeing Randy's parents are conducted with such poigniancy and realism.

The strength of the film comes from its cast.
Peña, an actor usually remembered for bit parts in great films (Million Dollar Baby, for example), achieves the most fully realized performance in his young career. TK is a young man convinced of his own self-worth and future success, that it blinds him of his own immaturity, and Peña is able to display that self-righteous immaturity perfectly. Robbins, an established actor in his own right, does his best work here since Mystic River, as the patriarch of the group. McAdams, already known as a beauty, is given her first really chance to expand her talent as an actress. She plays Colee sweet but feisty, pious but ignorant, and it is easily the best work she has ever done.

A film like this is very pleasing to watch. People have real problems in the real world. They are not fighting villains in clown make-up or chasing after murderous vigilante cops, they are dealing with issues that burden all people, not matter their past actions. The film is a true delight, with wonderful, inspired performances. The film will probably get swallowed up this weekend by films like Eagle Eye, where you get a more instant gratification. But anyone who worries that a film like this won't bring a full catharsis shouldn't. It comes with a vengeance.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

GREAT FILMS: Within Our Gates (1919)

Written and Directed by Oscar Micheaux

In the absence of any interesting new releases, I will instead add another piece to my 'Great Films' series.

1919 was a precocious time in cinema. For a decade, filmmakers had realized the art that could be made with this medium, but it wouldn't be for another few decades that film's true golden age would arrive. Films were still silent, and dominated by giants the like of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. Amidst it all, a young African American filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux was whittling away on independent features that would go on to have huge audiences, despite little to no distribution. The most cherished and preserved of all the films he made is Within Our Gates.

Thought for decades to have completely disappeared, the original film prints of Within Our Gates were found in remarkable condition in Madrid around the early 1990's. The film has survived through decades of edits and censors (in fact, in the only version we have today, there is a scene still missing, which is explained on an intertitle), and stands today as one of the first American movies to directly deal with the issues that challenged African Americans in the early Twentieth Century.

Starring an all black cast (the fashion those days was to cast whites in blackface), the film's main character is Sylvia. A mulatto, Sylvia (famous performer Evelyn Preer) was raised by her adoptive black parents, and educated thoroughly. As an adult, she lives in the North where she tries to help other negroes get educated as well. She's engaged to the proud Conrad (James Ruffin), and lives with her jealous cousin Alma (Flo Clements). Alma, in love with Conrad, poisons him against Sylvia by showing him Sylvia's encounter with a white man. This encounter is never fully explained till the end of the film, but it sends Conrad into a rage, and he leaves Sylvia.

Another sub-plot within the film deals with Sylvia attempting to raise money to help keep the negroe school she works at open. She asks a kindly older white woman, who plans to give her the money, until a friend of hers try to convince her not to. Planning to donate a thousand dollars, the ignorance and blatant racism of her friend convinces her that she should in fact donate $50,000, to make up for her friend's impertinance. Also, we have the story of Jasper (William Stark), a gambling gangster, who has a romantic interest in Sylvia. When Sylvia falls for Dr. V. Vivian (Charles Lucas), Jasper warns her that he'll expose her past if she doesn't choose to be with him.

Of coarse, a lot of the plot revolves around Sylvia's past and her strange encounters, that are never fully explained until the film's third act. In an act of surprising humanity, Alma takes Dr. Vivian aside, to explain Sylvia's story. Sylvia was raised two sweet parents, but when the father is mistakenly charged with the murder of a white man, both he and Sylvia's mother are arrested and lynched. Sylvia, trying to escape, is encountered by an older white man who intends to rape her. His intentions are ceased when he sees a birthmark over Sylvia's breast. This is the same birthmark that belongs to his daughter, whom he had with a black girl he'd raped. This distinguished white man had provided for Sylvia's education and life.

The film was never widely seen across America, mostly because of its provocative material which was coinciding with the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago. But still, the film had a popular following in the African American community, particularly out West, where many blacks traveled to escape the prejudices of the East. From the beginning, the film faced heavy censorship. Before its premiere, two reels were cut from the film, and both the rape and lynching scenes were both increasingly cut. Even the surviving version we see now is said to be only a partial treatment to Micheaux's original vision.

Many parallels between the attempted rape scene in this film, and the attempted rape scene in D.W. Griffith's immortal epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). That film, probably the most popular film ever made up to that point, had a young white girl being chased by the sexual misgivings of a mongoloid black man until she is forced to throw herself off a cliff, to avoid (as Griffith put it, "a fate worse than death"). Griffith spent a lot of his career trying to apologize for racism of Nation, despite the fact that it was a huge hit. But with Within Our Gates, Micheaux stated that he wanted to make it clear "who raped who".

In the end, their is more to Within Our Gates than challenging the principles of Griffith (just as there is more to Nation than unadulterated prejudice), but its unflinching stance on the state of African Americans in 1919 America makes it a true classic in cinema. It's nearly 70-year hiatus from relevancy has made it forgotten in many minds, but it (along with others of Micheaux's work) has been brought back into the social consciousness. The films final scene, between Dr. Vivien and Sylvia, is probably its most powerful. Vivien, coming back to her despite knowing her tortured past, exclaims to her "You must be proud of your country. We were not immigrants." This blatant patriotism is both powerful and enrapturing, as we see a man who refuses to think of himself as anything other than a human being.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Zack and Miri Poster

Well, that Kevin Smith sure knows how to take his lemons and make lemonade, eh? Oh, and you can go ahead and add this film to the others that I was anticipating this Fall.

Monday, September 15, 2008

GREAT FILMS: The Conversation (1974)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola made four films in the 1970's. Three of those films are The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now. All three of those films are considered cinema classics, all showcased Coppola's talent for grand visual mastery, and all three made it on 2007's AFI 100 Greatest American Films list--and well-deserved. But that fourth film he made, between the two Godfather pictures, was also nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but it sometimes get lost in the cracks. That film is The Conversation; a film on the same level of all of Coppola's classics, but not nearly as admired.

Coppola has said many times that the film is in a way, a feature-length homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up. Both films are languid, intentionally-paced, and center around a character that finds more than meets the eye in his work. But where Blow-Up settles in its criticism of 1960's youth culture, The Conversation weaves a web of complex characterization and paranoia. Probably the most personal and subtle of all of Coppola's work, the film slowly uncoils its complex story piece by piece, until things are finally released that realize the worst nightmares of the main character.

That character is Harry Caul, played marvelously by Gene Hackman. Caul is known through various circles as the very best wire-tapper in the business. But he goes beyond that. He can record anything or anyone that he's asked, even if that person is in some of the most secure locations. The film opens with Caul recording a young couple that walks conspicuously around a park square, where they're sure the noise and the constant movement will make their conversation unheard. Using a complex arrangements of mics, and with the help of an arrangement of associates--including his partner, Stan, played by the late, great John Cazale--Caul is able to get every word they say nearly perfectly.

Harry works independently, for people who willing to pay the right price. He is the best in the business because he practices what he preaches. He is always the man in the shadows, even when he's off the clock. His pressing secrecy and insecurity cripple him in all aspects of life except for his work. He leaves a woman that he'd been seeing for a while after she begins "asking too many questions". He refuses to allow anybody, even Stan, access to his secrets in espianogue. He has built himself a force-field which pushes everyone out, leaving his only dedication to that of his complicated work.

The main plot point of the film begins when Harry attempts to give the tapes of the young couple's conversation to the man who was paying him to record them. The man is out of town, but his business associate named Martin (played by a young Harrison Ford), states that he can pick them up and give them to his boss first thing. Harry refuses to give away the tapes, unless it's to the man who paid for them, and leaves, smelling something fishy. He gives the tapes a closer listen, notices how desperate and concerned the young voices sound. He hears statements that draw red flags, and is plagued with worry that these tapes can be used to hurt someone.

Truth is, the film's greatness doesn't breed itself from its suspence story, though it is a competent, and effective one. This film, unlike Blow-Up, is brilliant because of the complex psychology of its main character. Hackman playing Harry Caul is one of the great performances of the 1970's. Hackman is an actor just as talented as Pacino, De Niro, or Hoffman, but other than winning two Oscars, he doesn't get the kind of respect those performers do in film society. Caul is quiet and contemplative, but always worried. He is pious, goes to Church and confesses regularly, but his faith seems to contradict his line of work, which is one of deceit and ominous voyeurism.

Two scenes in particular stand out in this film, when explaining Harry's character make-up. One being a scene directly after he refuses to give the tapes to Martin. He sits with his advanced audio equipment, listening to portions of this conversation over and over again, completely immersed. Meanwhile, Stan tries to intervene, asks him to grab lunch, and asking him details of the young couple. Harry yelps at him, explaining he does not want to be disturbed in his work. Another scene is later in the film, where Harry, slightly inebriated, talks to a beautiful woman, and attempts to explain his personality to her. He speaks in the third person, as if to distance himself from the truth of the matter, but its the closest this film goes in terms of having Harry open up his soul.

By the end of the film, Harry's life has been demolished--both figuratively and literally--by his unwavering paranoia. He failed at attempting to find the sketchy goings-on behind the tapes, and he sits alone. The film works on so many levels, both stylistically and thematically. Coppola, using long takes, and a smooth jazz piano score creates a brewing atmosphere. The film doesn't really build to its climax as much as it does wash over it like a wave on the rocks. It is the least known of Coppola's 1970's movies, but it can easily be called better than any film he made outside that decade. As a character study, it is equal to Taxi Driver, but the punch is a lot softer. Does Coppola borrow style points from Antonioni? He does indeed, but in the process accomplishes in making a film as beautiful as it is haunting.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Righteous Kill (*)

Directed by Jon Avnet


The other day I watched the film Heat for the first time in a long time. It was famous when it came out for being the first film ever to have all-star actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro converse together. Many audience members had beef when they went to see the film, and the two method geniuses only had one-and-a-half scenes together. But all that aside, Heat is one of the best crime films of the last twenty-five years. In Righteous Kill, Pacino and De Niro pair up again, but this time as partner detectives--guaranteeing significant screen time together. The audience got what they wished for, and were left with a film so devoid crativity and intelligence, we hope the two never make a movie together again.

The story involves Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino), two officers who have decades upon decades of experience in the NYPD. One thing they hate more than anything is watching criminals walk on a technacality, after they worked so hard to put them away. They run a good cop-bad cop routine, with Rooster as the witty charmer, and Turk as the strong-arm bulldog. They both believe that violence is just part of the job. "Most people respect the badge, but everybody respects the gun," says Turk--so you see the kind of dialogue we're dealing with here.

The big secret between Turk and Rooster is that they once planted evidence on a man they knew to be a child murderer and rapist. They knew him to be guilty, but with no evidence, and someone to back his story, there was nothing they could do, but cross the line of justice. Then, suddenly, all of the scumbags that were walking away clean are turning up with bullet wounds in their brains. One after the other, these free criminals are being gunned-down, each left with a poem resting on their corpses--so this criminal obviously took some tips from The Riddler.

Turk, despite being a menacing, violent man well over sixty, attracts the sexual escapades of Det. Karen Corelli (Carla Cugino), a forensic specialist. She, along with the much-younger officers Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg), notice a change in Turk as soon as the poetry-laden bodies begin to stack up. The person who is commiting all of these crimes seems likely to be a cop, and with Turk being as demonstrative and justice-searching as he is, he seems a likely candidate. Even Rooster, to a point, begins seeing the emotional change in his partner. So, is Turk a vigilante police officer or not? The audience, unfortunately, is left to figure it out.

Let's forget for a second that this film forces you to watch a 64-year-old De Niro attempt to sexually pleasure a woman nearly thirty years younger than him. And while we're at it, let's forget that the film has Pacino drenched in a tan bronzer than Alicia Keyes. Both of these, unfortunately, are already norms in Hollywood, so it would be hackneyed to poke fun at that. Instead, let's focus on the deplorably inate screenplay, which seems to know close to nothing about police work or crime in general, other than what you can pick up watching your sepcial edition DVD of Scarface.

This is the kind of film that inspires lines of dialogue such as "This is the clusterfuck to end all clusterfucks". Yeah, cause respectable people actually walk around saying that. In the film I saw directly before this, Burn After Reading, there was also a line of dialogue that used the ominous word "clusterfuck", but that film used the word to its creative advantage. It is an obscenity, sure, but it is a unique obscenity that can be used toward great humor, or can be manipulated many ways in dialogue. For Righteous Kill, the character spits it out like a potato, and its used only for its provocative draw, and nothing more.

Not that anybody should expect much out of a film that has Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson billed directly below the two legends. He plays a drug dealer named Spider (does anybody have a real name in this movie?). It's hard to be disappointed in a film that should've never been made in the first place. The star power of De Niro and Pacino alone is what got this film off the ground, and well it should. When you look at the two actors, you see two of the most talented actors in cinematic history. They were some of the biggest stars of the 1970's film renaissance, and are both Oscar winners. These guys are class acts, but they take part in a film that takes them at the basest value.

To his credit, Pacino seems to have a little fun with his role, almost poking fun at how vapid the storyline becomes. But De Niro, always the face of intensity, seems lazy by comparison. If these two ever line up together for another film, I don't doubt that I would go see it. I mean, there is still so much potential for magic between these two megastars. I have to believe that there's a better vehicle out there for them than this. Director Jon Avnet was also behind the helm for the equally hapless 88 Minutes, released earlier this year. He seems on a goal to be the worst filmmaker of the year. If your looking for a true taste of the potential between Pacino and De Niro, check out the diner scene between the two in Heat. That ten minute segment alone is better than one reel of this film.

Burn After Reading (***)

Produced, Written, and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen


Less than eight months ago, the Coen brothers were being hailed as cinematic geniuses while they're harrowing film No Country For Old Men won four Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Best Director(s). So, how do you follow that up? Well, the last time they produced a masterpiece--Fargo--they followed it up two years later with the hilarious cult classic The Big Lebowski. So, what do those pesky Coens have up their sleeves this time? How about a zany comedy with more plot lines than a Victorian romance novel, and more brain-dead characters than the audience at the last screening of Disaster Movie?

The plot (if you want to call it that) starts with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA man who is fired after being deciphered as an alcoholic. Cox is rather unpleasant sort of fellow, and is married to the equally unpleasant Katie (Tilda Swinton), a pediatrition who sometimes feels the need to strong-arm her young patients. Katie is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), an officer for the Treasury (though we never see him actually working), who is also married himself to a successful author of children's books.

The last three pieces of the puzzle are two gym employees: one a middle-aged woman who is desperate to take part in several plastic surgery procedures, named Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a spunky trainer who acts like a four-year old, but is good friends with Linda. Chad is like the last person you'd want to meet at a gym, because he'll give you useless information about the best energy bar or the best music to listen to during cycling class. They work at Hardbodies Gym, a modest business run by the sincere Ted (Richard Jenkins), who secretly loves Linda.

When Linda and Chad find a disk lying around the woman's locker room, they believe that inside it holds secret, important CIA information. They hope that the true owner of the disk, Cox, will give them a reward. Linda could use the cash to pay for her plastic surgery, and Chad could use it for whatever it is that Chad does. Among others, there are sub-plots involving: a) Harry and Linda meeting via an online dating service; b) Katie and Harry's attempts at divorce from their significant others (which has more relevancy than is initially percieved); and c) Harry's invention of an unorthodox sex toy, which he has built in his basement.

Of coarse, being the Coens, they attempt to cram all of this into a 96-minute running time, and they nearly pull it off. This is the kind of film where details and storylines are being thrown at the audience left and right, and if you happen to miss them, well, you may not know exactly what's going on. Not that its easy to follow even if you do catch them. The film ties the stories together so tightly, what we're previewed to is a rapid-quick labyrinth of idiotic behavior and unfortunate events that snowball into disaster. This is the common theme for Coen films: normal everyday people get mixed into criminal behavior; but never before have these everyday people experienced such horrfying, unexpected consequence (okay, maybe Fargo's woodchipper was the worst).

No doubt, the success of this film will judged by its cast. Clooney is devilishly fun as Harry, completeing what the Coen's call their "idiot trilogy" after starring in both Coen films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Swinton, Jenkins, and Malkovich do a wonderful job in limited screen time, if not necessasarily moving the plot forward, but giving the film more life and more humor. The best aspects of the film come from the performances of Pitt and McDormand. They're both mannered, over-emotional, and completely over their heads. In a world of imbesciles, Chad and Linda are the only imbeciles we find ourselves rooting for, even when one of them meets a pretty devastating state.

The film is incredibly shrewd, and does its fair share of winking with the audience. Not everything within this story works, and the Coens definitely let the film loose into whimsical territory. But what's fun about a film like this is not the story, per se, but the characters, and nobody creates interesting, quirky characters they way those pesky brothers do. I don't mind the off screen wrap-ups and conclusions like most people do. I believe the way the Coens make films is almost guaranteed quality work, and since nobody has been able to make such good films and be so prolific since Woody Allen, it's safe to say they are now within the same scope of filmmakers like Scorsese and Altman.

One thing I almost forgot to mention is wonderful two-scene cameo by J.K. Simmons as a CIA Superior trying to make sense of the crazy actions these characters take part in. He is a man of few words but every line is a punch line. His performance is a summation of what is great within this film, outstanding humor, wonderful performances, and plot that is so deliciously convoluted, we can forgive it easily because we love every image on the screen. In the Pantheon of great Coen comedies, it's not quite Lebowski or Raising Arizona, but it definitely has an edge over Cruelty or The Ladykillers.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Word About.....

2 Days In Paris

A combination of lousy distribution and personal laziness prevented me from seeing Julie Delpy's 2 Days In Paris. Luckily, these days we have DVD, where essentially any film, no matter how small, can be seen long after it has perished in the theaters. Much like my discovery of In Bruges earlier this year, what I uncovered when watching this incredibly well-written comedy was a much more layered tale than I expected. The story of a couple who are constantly on and off the rocks, Delpy's first feature film is one of mastery.

We all know Delpy (and if you don't, you most definitely should) from her incredible work with Ethan Hawke in the Richard Linklater Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films. Delpy actually co-wrote the latter film with Hawke and Linklater, which adds no surprise to the fact that she wrote 2 Days as well. In one film, Delpy has been able to establish a style, likened that to Woody Allen with a much more provocative edge (remember how sexy Allen tried to be with Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Yeah, can't seem to forget it either). The dialogue is rabid, and brilliantly delivered, but most of all, just mannered enough to hold the sting of realism.

Delpy is the lead, and the film's narrator, and she plays Marion, who is--wouldn't you guess--a terribly insecure French woman, who is creeping up on middle age and doesn't seem to be able to find structure in her life or in love. Sure, she's been with Jack (Adam Goldberg) for two years now--a time she calls "forever, by today's standards"--but the two have just spent a disastrous trip in Vienna, where they hoped to rekindle their romance. Before heading back home to New York, the couple decided to take a two-day detour in Marion's hometown of Paris, where they live in her parents' apartment and run into a number of Marion's ex-boyfriends.

Goldberg plays Jack with a rather bothered, nebbish annoyance, and his sarcasm provides most of the film's comedic punch. It is Jack who has to deal with most of the film's roadblocks; the discovery of more and more ex-boyfriends, the rudeness of numerous Frenchmen, Marion's parents and their twisted sense of humor, and most importantly, Marion's growing impatience with life. Sure, the film has its moments of uneveness, and it can't seem to decide whether it wants to be from the point-of-view of Marion or Jack, but despite it all, Delpy creates a film that is hysterical, poigniant, and sincere. Showcasing a couple on the edge of a nervous breakdown, this film scores as one of the funniest comedies of 2007.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

GREAT FILMS: Heat (1995)

Produced, Written, and Directed by Michael Mann

A group of actors in the 60's and 70's revolutionized acting in the movies. They changed the ideas most people had of movie stars, that they don't always have to be tall, dark, and handsome. They can become characters and still get top-billing. Many say they were directly influenced by the manic acting of Marlon Brando in the 50's, but I like to give them all of the credit. Among others, there was Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Gene Hackman. But the two that were probably most burnt into the social consciousness were Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Connected by the Godfather films, it wasn't until 1995 that they graced the screen together in one of the most anticipated films of the 90's... and one of the best.

It was like a gift from God, arguably two of the greatest actors in film history in one movie. But what some people didn't realize (and what they still don't realize) is that the film is by-and-large an epic ensemble performance. But it can't be denied that the film's story is headlined by the characters of Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (DeNiro). Hanna is obsessive homicide detective in Los Angeles, and Neil McCauley is one of the world's most skilled thieves. With McCauley planning his last big score, Hanna is already on his tail, even at times admiring McCauley's masterwork. The cat-and-mouse game played between them is the basis of the greatest crime drama of the 1990's.

The film is helmed by Michael Mann, known now for his films The Insider and Collateral, but known back then for his immensely popular Miami Vice television series. By now, we know Mann is a master of slick, L.A. crime capers, but what many didn't expect with his work on Heat is his ability to weave such a complex character-driven film filled with such disturbed and interesting personalities. The film established Mann as a filmmaker, and still stands as his most harrowing, brilliant film to date. The story, written by Mann as well, goes beyond cops-n-robbers and delves deep into the psychology of the stock characters many films tend to take for granted, and in the end, we're left with a film that blurs the line of good and evil brilliantly.

First, let's talk about the enormous list of characters. For Neil, there's his rough-around-the-edges protege Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and his strong-willed, trustworthy wife Charlene (Ashley Judd). There's also Neil's hothead associate Michael (Tom Sizemore), and the new guy they bring in on the job, Waingro (Kevin Gage), who is a little too sporadic even for this crew. In the film, Neil also meets Eady (Amy Brenneman), a Southern graphic designer. Eady catches Neil's eye, and very soon grabs hold of his heart, even to the point that he is willing to give up his life in crime. One more job, and he can use the money to build a life for the two of them. The work Neil does throughout the film concealing his criminal life from Eady is work of Chaplin-esque tightrope-walking.

Then, we have Vincent's group of friends. There is his wife Justine (Diane Venora), his third, who can't seem to break through Vincent's obsessive work ethic. She struggles to get close to Vincent, but also struggles to manage her disturbed teenage daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman). There's Vincent's main crew in crime-busting: including Drucker (Mykelti Williamson), Bosco (Ted Levine), and Casals (Wes Studi). Other characters weave in and out of the story, such as Neil's somewhat consigliari Nate (Jon Voight), a bad-luck former criminal at the wrong place at the wrong time named Donald (Dennis Haysbert), and a egotistical business head with an eye for corrupt crime named Van Zant (William Fichtner).

The main plot point of the film is a major bank robbery that Neil plans worth upwards of $12 million, and Hanna's preemptive attempts to stop it. But what the story is really about is how these characters, seemingly on two different sides of the law, almost depend on each other for their own existence. The film's peak comes in a scene where Vincent invites Neil to have some coffee. The two know each other to a point, they know that they're on different sides of the same fight, but instead of a showdown between the angel and the devil, we are previewed to a conversation. The conversation is a meeting between two men who are the best at what they do. They respect each other, and each other's ability, but they know in the end, one of them has to go down.

In a decade filled with exciting crime films like Speed and True Lies, Heat stands alone, not only because of its epic-stature, but because of the brilliant performances of its lead stars. Pacino, a master of intensity and street-wise wisdom, plays Vincent with the energy of the 1970's Pacino. He runs, he shoots, but more than anything, he obsesses, allowing every other aspect of his life take a backseat to his work. DeNiro had already played numerous criminals in his partnership with Martin Scorsese, but takes a different approach to Neil. Known mostly for his ferocity, DeNiro plays to McCauley's insecurities; he's stripped-down, questioning his lifestyle for the first time, and hopelessly connected to Eady, whom he knows his life won't allow.

Heat is a magnum opus. A masterpiece of stylized filmmaking, and a labyrinth of complicated personas, the film takes its time with its 172-minute running time and pays off. With this film, you don't get a run-of-the-mill bank heist film, but a tale that makes the all-too-forgotten statement that there really is no big difference between good and evil, becuase there is no good without evil. There is never a dull moment, or a moment where a character plays to some cliche of the crime film genre. The movie solidified Michael Mann as a legit filmmaker (perhaps the best pure movie director, if the criteria is style), and brought together a dream pairing of two of history's finest screen actors. Nearly thirteen years later, the film still stands as a classic in modern cinema.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Frozen River (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Courtney Hunt


Ninety-nine percent of all movies have a pretty clear distinction between who is good and who is bad. Within the first fifteen minutes, usually, we know who we want to root for, and who we despise. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this model of storytelling (it's strictly taught this way in most screenwriting classes), but the standard can become quite monotonous. That is what makes films like Frozen River so special. In this film, there is no black and white; there is no good guy or bad guy, just people doing what they have to do, and this results in a film of stunning realism and powerful performances.

The film is about Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a woman with two children, one a toddler and the other a bitter teenager. Her husband, a gambling addict, has taken the money they needed to pay for their new home, and has abandoned them. In her search to find him, she finds his car in the possession of a Mohawk Indian woman named Lila (Misty Upham). She wants her car back, but Lila convinces her to let her friend look at it because he is willing to pay more for it than it's worth. On the way there, though, Lila holds Ray hostage as they use her car to transport illegal aliens across the Canadian border.

Ray is able to get out of the situation without getting hurt or losing her car, but Lila takes all of the money. With the pressures of bills, feeding her children, and the down payment on the home she dreams to have (they currently live in a poorly insulated trailer), she returns to Lila to propose becoming partners in transporting illegals. You see, since the border lies on a Mohawk reservation, they're able to pass freely, but must be careful not to get caught with the illegals in their car.

To get to Canada and back, the two frequently cross a frozen river. It's said to be frozen so solid that semi-trucks can cross over it. As Ray and Lila continue to run their operation, the jobs start to become more and more dangerous both for their transports and for them. As Lila strives to retrieve her infant daughter in the possession of her meddling mother-in-law, and Ray dreams to get her children a proper home and life, they risk their freedom, and in some cases their lives, trying to allow many foreigners their ticket to America.

The film is the debut for filmmaker Courtney Hunt who also wrote the screenplay. The film may seem to drown in subtleties in moments, but that is only a further attempt to immerse the audience into the film's ice tundra setting. The film is about two women who do what they can to make sure they can live their lives civilly, and it neither criticizes nor canonizes them. The film simply documents their reactions and allows us to pass our own judgment. Using the prickly locations and wonderful performances, Hunt creates a world of disappointment, but also of hope. She does this without an ounce of sentiment or melodrama, and shows a maturity as a filmmaker far beyond that of a rookie.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is all the minor characters that weave themselves in and out of the movie. For instance, the character of T.J. (Charlie McDermott), Ray's oldest son. He is angry, angry that his mother won't allow him to work to help support them, angry that she doesn't allow him to have responsibilities, but most of all angry that his father has taken off without a word. McDermott doesn't play the role as a pithy, wordy adolescent, but a deeply disppointed youth, who truly loves his mother. Same could be said for the officer played by Michael O'Keefe. The officer does not come on to bring nonchalant authority like most films, but acts as a responsible police trooper. It's always fun to watch someone break up the supposed hackneyed stock characters.

But let's get down to what really makes this film great, and that is the lead performance from Melissa Leo. Leo turned a lot of heads at the Sundance Film Festival earlier with her portrayal of Ray, depicting perfectly the haggard strength and the broken heart. Leo is not a household name, and in fact, didn't really get notorization until her great turn as Benecio Del Toro's emotional wife in 21 Grams. Much like that film, Leo's Ray is a woman stuck in dire straits, depending on a completely undependable man, and finding herself to be her family's ultimate strength. It's not a stretch for her to play so weathered, but it's the warmth and the sincerity, along with the ruined image, that makes her so memorable.

Frozen River was about the only film that had anybody talking at Sundance (though Hamlet 2 and Choke got the biggest paydays), but it struggled to get distribution before being picked up by Sony Classics. With Rachel Getting Married and Synecdoche, New York to come out later this year, Sony Classics looks to have an interesting Fall season. People may generalize River's handheld style as 'indie' (a phrase most people are beginning to despise more than 'formulaic'), but there is a reason why it rose above all of those other 'indies' at Sundance and is now getting a proper distribution: wonderful acting and an overacheiving piece of work from a first-time filmmaker.