Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rescue Dawn

During the Vietnam War, German-born Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. fighter pilot, is shot down over Laos and taken captive by enemy soldiers. Interned in a POW camp, he and his fellow prisoners (Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies) endure torture, hunger and illness while they await their chance to escape. Dengler has no intention of sticking around the nightmarish camp, so he begins to dream up an escape plan that takes his fellow prisoners by surprise with its savvy and audacity. Dengler doesn't even know where he is--but he knows with unwavering certainty that he must not stop fighting for his life. As he makes his way into the jungle, accompanied by Lt. Duane Martin (Zahn), his journey will never let up, as it takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair, to one of the most remarkable rescues in modern history.

This is a remarkably well made and superbly acted film that concentrates more on the human and emotional aspects of Dengler's true story rather than trying to twist the events into an "action movie" and depict Dengler's character as an invincible savior. The real focus of the film is Dengler's desire to be free outweighing the always looming threat of torture and death at the hands of Vietnamese hostiles. The torture scenes are realistic but not graphic or "over the top" as many films tend to be in an effort to over emphasize what the characters have been through. The thought of being tied to the ground, spread-eagle and fully clothed, for several days while exposed to the Vietnam sun with no "personal time" breaks is brutal enough without exaggeration.

Christian Bale is absolutely perfect as Dengler with a flawless German/English accent and no trace of his true Welsh/British upbringing. Bale effortlessly embodies the fresh excitement of a pilot going on his first mission and, more impressively, he displays the struggle to survive an unimaginable and potentially lethal situation with a grim determination that is easily recognized as a trait everyone likes to hope they possess, but few are ever able to tap into. I definitely believe that Bale's penchant for roles such as this, as opposed to more flashy "mainstream" roles, is what makes him such an accomplished actor.

I must mention the fact that, even though I went to this movie expecting to see an excellent bit of acting by Bale, I was completely unprepared for the amazing performance of Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. This was the first time I've seen Zahn play such a broken and fatigued character and he was not only convincing, but he was able to capture the haunted and empty stare that is so often seen on the faces of P.O.W.s in old black and white photographs. Davies, on the other hand, portrays how such captivity can affect a person's mental stability inflicting delusions and paranoia. It's my understanding that Zahn lost over 60 pounds for his role and Davies looks completely emaciated and near death.

I understand that "war movies" don't appeal to everyone, but don't make the mistake of thinking of this film as being about war, because it's not. This is the story of survival in an almost pure form. The war is simply a situation, no sides are taken, no politics are invoked and there's no blazing glory. If you do see this movie and enjoy it, I recommend seeing the 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," the complete story of Dieter Dengler written and directed by Warner Herzog, the same writer and director of this film.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Red Violin

A universal yearning for beauty and perfection underpins The Red Violin, Francois Girard's ambitious, lyrical drama following the passage of a meticulously crafted violin from owner to owner. We see the instrument's painstaking creation in 1681 by master artisan Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), who intends it for his unborn son. Over a period of 300 years the violin acquires innumerable owners, traveling from rich to poor, from country to country, but always producing the same achingly beautiful music for those who most appreciate it. Bussotti's violin becomes legendary, and eventually comes under the covetous eye of connoisseur Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) in a surprisingly suspenseful climax. Girard uses the violin as a narrative device to link his vignettes, which offer trenchant observations on love, music, culture, politics, poverty, crime, and even death.

I originally saw this film in one of those "artsy" single-screen theaters with an adjoining cafe that tend to be sparsely populated by book carrying patrons familiar with the origins of the country known as Freedonia. I was very impressed with the film and, after the movie reached a certain prominence and was given a larger general release, ended up seeing it twice more. I have owned a copy since it was released on DVD and it has become one of those films that I often play in order to have something nice to listen to as I perform domestic tasks around the house, only to invariably end up perched on the sofa, completely focused on the story and accomplishing nothing that I set out to.

Being a fan of the violin and/or classical composition can broaden the appreciation of the movie, but is by no means a prerequisite for enjoyment. The story is very well told and superbly acted as it covers over 300 years and 5 countries in the travels of the violin. Each segment contains wonderful characters from different time periods which are all bound together by the violin and balanced perfectly by flashes to the present where Samuel L. Jackson deciphers the identity of the violin and eventually takes us to a worthy climax. In case you are a fan of the violin and the music used in the film, Joshua Bell was the solo artist and, if you're familiar with him, you can spot him as one of the musicians during the Oxford segment in which the character Frederick Pope is performing.

This DVD may be off the beaten path for most people but anyone professing to enjoy a well told tale, including a few unexpected twists, with flashes of a bigger, spiritual picture while surrounded by precise and beautiful cinematography should not pass on the opportunity to see and enjoy this movie. At least, that's what I think.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry approaches, 15-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is in full-blown adolescence, complete with regular outbursts of rage, a nearly debilitating crush, and the blooming of a powerful sense of rebellion. It''s been yet another infuriating and boring summer with the despicable Dursleys, this time with minimal contact from Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson) or his Godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Harry is feeling especially edgy at the lack of news from the magic world, wondering when the freshly revived evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) will strike. In this chapter we are introduced to the Order of the Phoenix and some of the members including Sirius, Mr and Mrs Weasley, Alistair "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Remus Lupin (one of my most favorite characters in the series) (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Of course, in an effort to protect him, no one wants to give Harry too much information (except Sirius) since they are relatively certain that the Dark Lord is after a prophecy regarding the two enemies which is kept in a special room at the Ministry of Magic. To make matter worse, Hogwarts has a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in the form Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) who works for the Ministry of Magic and is determined to bring her own type of "McCarthyism" to the school. Umbridge has a penchant for the most offensive shades of pink, which she incorporates on her walls (which are then covered by decorative plates displaying cats) as well as her fuzzy outfits that encase her from head to toe. Since the Ministry has decided that the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is some ploy cooked up by Dumbledore because he wants control of the Ministry, one of Umbridge's tasks is to discredit the return and impress upon the students that Harry is a liar. Harry quickly learns that the Ministry, by feeding information to the Daily Prophet, has been skewering him all summer long so that even without the assistance of Umbridge, well over half the school already thinks he's a lunatic who makes up scary stories. Faced with being an outcast, persecuted by the media and certain staff, ignored by Dumbledore (for whatever reason), dealing with horrible and unsettling dreams and knowing the Voldemort is gathering his forces and in search of a prophecy to use as a weapon, Harry is easily facing his most difficult year, yet.

This is, by far, my favorite movie of the series. Things are beginning to get serious (no pun) and the darkness is closing in. I've heard references to the fact that this is the darkest movie, yet. Well, it kind of makes sense if you think about it. In the past, Voldemort and his Deatheaters were responsible for numerous murders, which included wizards, muggles and even children and in some cases tortured victims into insanity in order to achieve their goals. Now, the evil Dark Lord has returned to power and is gathering his minions in an effort to seize power in the wizarding, and eventually muggle, world, regardless of who dies. Anyone remotely following the storyline must have realized, by now, that things could not remain all 'sunflowers and cotton-candy.' I mean, Voldemort isn't called evil simply because he likes to put super-glue in everyone's key holes.

Which brings me back to this movie. I really enjoy the fact that things are picking up, lines are beginning to be drawn and characters are becoming more defined. It was nice to see the return of Moody, Sirius and Lupin (again, one of my favorite characters) as well as the introduction of Tonks. Snape was, of course, devilishly unreadable and the rest of the supporting characters were actually able to have bigger impacts with less screen time. The stand out character was, without doubt, Delores Umbridge; such a nasty, vile woman that I absolutely wanted to see suffer in return for the suffering she caused as well as for her annoying "hem hem" throat clearing that, thankfully, wasn't overused in the film. Another character that I cannot neglect to mention is that of Ginny Weasley. There have been minor references to her abilities, in the past, but her character truly begins to show what she is capable of in this film and the director, David Yates, who is also signed to direct the next film, is very good at displaying her talents, as well as some curious looks, without making them the focus of what is being shown on the screen at any given moment.

As for the directing, I have to give Yates credit for being able to include as much as he did from the largest book of the series. While there are certain things that I would have liked to have seen, I understand that only so much could actually make it into the movie. Fortunately, it seems Yates was able to, at least, touch on all of the major points for however briefly. I suppose if I were forced to think of a complaint regarding the movie, it would have to be the length. I had read, several months ago, that the studio was wanting to shave time from the film because longer movies had, recently, been showing a decline in box office receipts. I think they confused "less engrossing stories" with "time," but maybe that's just me. I do know, originally, this movie clocked in at three hours and is now only two hours and eighteen minutes. It's quite possible that Professor Trelawney might see a "director's cut" DVD in our future.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Thirteenth Floor

The increasingly blurry lines between what is real and what is an artificial construct - both physically and philosophically - are the point of focus in the science fiction drama The Thirteenth Floor. In 1937, a man named Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) gives a note to Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio), the bartender at a swank hotel, that's addressed to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko). Fuller tells Ashton it's crucial that no one else sees the note, and that the information enclosed is of great importance. Moments later, Fuller transports himself to 1998. He's soon found murdered, and a shirt stained with Fuller's blood is found in Hall's apartment. Fuller and Hall both work for Intergraph Computer Systems, a cutting edge artificial intelligence firm, and the "past" Fuller was visiting was actually a stunningly realistic recreation of Los Angeles 50 years ago, complete with people you can meet and places you can visit, that exists only in a microchip. The message he left with Ashton, however, is real. Some people, including LAPD detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert) believe Hall murdered Fuller to assume his position of leadership at Intergraph. Jane (Gretchen Mol), Fuller's daughter, soon arrives on the scene, and Hall finds himself infatuated; Hall is determined to clear his name, so with the help of Whitney (also played by Vincent D'Onofrio), he slips into the virtual 1937 in hopes of discovering just what happened. The Thirteenth Floor makes copious use of digital effects technology to allow its characters to travel between 1937 and 1998 - ironically using computer technology to create a world that exists inside a computer.

You may have noticed a pattern in the fact that certain themes tend to follow me like dark angels, namely those involving time and perception. This movie continues that pattern and easily fits with the likes of The Matrix or eXistenZ. Coincidentally, all three movies were released in 1999 and The Thirteenth Floor, like the other two, relies heavily on the notion of perception and what, exactly, "real" is. Unlike the The Matrix and eXistenZ, however, this film concentrates primarily on the story, with less action and more character development, but does not delve as deeply into the philosophical or existential implications. In other words, the movie drops hints and leaves it up to the viewer to form the actual questions and explore the possibilities in his or her own mind.

The cast are all believable and, for being primarily unknowns, their performances range from good (Mol) to exceptional (D'Onofrio). Now, having grown accustomed to seeing Bierko (Boston Legal, The Long Kiss Goodnight), Haysbert (24, Breach, The Unit) and D'Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Full Metal Jacket, The Cell), the movie actually seems like a bigger production than when it was originally released.

The thing that I like most about the film is the fact that the intricate issues are between the characters only, and the bigger story is kept relatively simple, which could have easily become twisted and convoluted by trying to over complicate the main plot. As it is, "the hook" remains intact and an excellent part of the story rather than the entire story.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


Before time began, there was the Cube, also known as the Allspark. It's origin unknown, it simply was. The Cube could be considered the ultimate power since it was capable of creating life, which it did on a world that would become known as Cybertron. The life created was a race of sentient robots that became highly productive and technologically advanced and lived harmoniously for hundreds of years. Then dissent. A group of robots, lead by the evil Magatron, conspired to take control of the Allspark and use the ultimate power for their own purposes with no regard as to who died or what havoc was unleashed in the process. These evil robots became known as the Decepticons, and in response to their plans, a heroic opposition calling themselves the Autobots formed and, lead by the noble Otimus Prime, launched into battle against the Decepticons. The war lasted for thousands of years and practically annihilated all life on Cybertron. During the conflict, the Cube was lost to the deep regions of space along with Megatron who was willing to stop at nothing in order to achieve his goal of wielder of ultimate power. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years or so, and that's where this movie picks up. There's an ultimate power somewhere on planet Earth and a group of very large and very nasty robots who have the capacity to blend in by "transforming" into cars, trucks, tanks, aircraft and other objects are here to find it and the only hope in stopping them is another group of robots, with the same abilities, who not only want to find the Allspark and defeat the Decepticons, but protect the innocent human life, as well. The cast includes Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Jon Voight and John Turturro and a nice surprise turn for Hugo Weaving.

Put simply: This movie rocks! I walked into the theater with my expectations set to a moderate level, and I walked out thoroughly impressed and ready to see it again. Granted, it's a typical summer action flick with noise, fights and explosions, but everything was brought together in a very cohesive manner that didn't overly insult my intelligence which is something that the director, Michael Bay, is very good at. Critics tend to pan Bay's movies but, oddly enough, every film he's directed has been a huge blockbuster grossing well over a hundred million dollars, each. I think his track record should speak for itself.

All of the characters are well conceived and developed with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and the object of his desire, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), being the most crucial. The side plots pertaining to a group of attacked soldiers and that of a secret government organization are not, however, restricted to guesswork, and are eventually brought to an exciting culmination with the central plot of the film. Along with the plots, the other welcome aspect of the movie is it's humor. Some of the best comedic moments are provided by Ron and Judy Witwicky (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), Sam's parents as well as a couple of very funny scenes involving, surprisingly, the Autobots. For me, it was the humor displayed by the Autobots that helped me see them as characters instead of CGI effects. Which brings me to my next point:

The Transformers. From what I understand, the effects company Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM, developed new technologies for rendering the massive robots that make up the Transformers, and, I have to admit, the results are absolutely amazing. The robots blend in seamlessly with the surroundings and are improved by a factor of 25 over the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, which is saying quite a bit. The realism coupled with the humanity (good and bad) truly make the Transformers characters rather than props and, in my opinion, the standout Transformer is easily (and always has been) Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. Even in the animated television show, Optimus Prime was the character that was heroic and noble and seemed to possess all of the positive qualities that humans should aspire to. Michael Bay and the producers have, I'm glad to say, kept that aspect of the character intact while, at the same time, lightening his stoicism with a new found sense of humor; A very welcome and brilliant move that increases the "human" element of the character. Oh, and the final brilliant and, to a vast population of Transformers fans worldwide, the only choice was bringing back Peter Cullen, the only person to ever voice Optimus Prime. There had been rumors of bringing in a "big name star" to take over the character but a huge internet campaign by the fans quickly put a stop to such nonsense, and I must admit, having only watched the original show enough times to be somewhat familiar with the premise and characters, sitting in the theater today, even I got chills when I heard Optimus Prime say, "Autobots, transform and roll out!"