Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Duchess

Keira Knightley is Georgiana Cavendish, a forward thinking, trend setting, hard gambling, liquor holding, politically active, weak-knee inducing, headstrong beauty that men not only desire, but admire and respect; unfortunately, the one man whom she most desires to feel love and affection from remains aloof and emotionally flat: her husband. Having married the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) through an arrangement procured by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), Georgiana fully realizes that the primary goal of their union is to produce a male heir for the Duke, but she also assumes that the union will produce, for her and her husband, the typical emotions, intimacy and companionship associated with matrimony, however, as time passes, her assumptions become more and more obscured within a cloud of doubt. Focusing her efforts to find an outlet for her passion in other venues, Georgiana becomes a highly respected member of the aristocracy, celebrated by men and women alike for her beauty, fashion forward designs, and for helping to instigate political change as a vociferous supporter of the Whig Party, but as her passions find more room for expansion in outside endeavors, the more difficult it is to reign them in for her oppressive home life, eventually leading Georgiana to risk her entire existence by sharing her passions with a man other than the Duke.

Months ago, when I saw the first preview, I knew it would be impossible for me to be objective in any assessment regarding the film, considering I'm a ridiculously huge fan of Keira Knightley's and I think Ralph Fiennes is an amazing actor; not to mention that a well done period piece is easily one of my favorite types of films. I liked this movie even before the acne-ridden facial hair attempting ticket taker had finished placing my newly and curiously sticky ticket stub in my hand while incorrectly informing me which auditorium to proceed to. Fortunately, my ability to read small print and large L.E.D. displays coupled with my command of the numbers 1 through 20 helped me to deduce that the proper auditorium was actually upstairs to the right and not downstairs to the left, and although getting past the challenge of the architecturally dyslexic door sentry was exciting in it's own right, it was nothing compared to the anticipation that I was already feeling for the film. In other words, because of my predispositions, the movie would have had to have been on the level of one of the incredibly embarrassing church Nativity plays that I was obligated to participate in as a child, for me to have even remotely entertained the thought of disliking it. As it turned out, I did my best to watch the movie while ignoring my prejudice, and I'm fairly certain that the film was excellent on it's own, with no help from me. I thought the story was well told, the costumes and settings were amazingly opulent and the attention to detail was staggering, and even though I would have appreciated a few grand and sweeping shots, in the end, the director, Saul Dibb, made the wisest choice in keeping the shots succinct and precise and allowing the drama to be carried out by the actors in their richly detailed settings. There's a lot to be said for a director who actually relies on the cast to relay the story while avoiding inflated shots which, at first, might add some additional depth to a production but, when included with such an already decadent world, could very easily cross the line into flamboyance and lose any intimacy previously created with the audience.

Keira Knightley puts forth an Oscar worthy performance (in my biased opinion) as she solidly displays the gamut of emotions that her character experiences throughout the course of the film. The innocence, insecurities and curiosity that slowly becomes experience, confidence and determination mixed with a healthy dose of indomitable spirit are all made manifest by Knightley's subtly intense honesty as she uses her ethereal qualities to seemingly channel a personality from a bygone era. Perfectly complimenting Knightley's earnest performance is Ralph Fiennes' equally nuanced but substantially more delicate execution. Initially, Fiennes' character of the Duke seems completely disinterested in absolutely everything, but, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the Duke's rigidity is generations in the making and only a very limited number of precisely defined and refined distractions could ever see their way past his stoic and impenetrable demeanor. A lesser actor than Fiennes might have easily been overwhelmed by the Duke's apathetic distraction, ending up with only a "phoned in" performance, but Fiennes is incredibly diligent in presenting a measured indifference which makes the scenes where the Duke genuinely exhibits emotions that much more powerful and threatening. As for the supporting cast, rather than appearing as if they were there only to "support" the main characters, a pleasant, almost symbiotic, relationship existed, allowing each member of the cast to come across as a unique individual with possibly a story of their own worth telling while weaving in and out of the audience's perception.

Obviously I enjoyed this film, the story that was told and the people who told it. I'm not sure I'd say it was a powerful film, although there were some very moving aspects and certain scenes did invoke patterns of thought that stayed with me for several days. I definitely think this is a film worth seeing (theater, if only for the details), but I also understand that a historical drama is simply too much for some people. That's too bad but, then again, I can't imagine anyone who appreciates a well told story, regardless of historical time period, not enjoying this film, at least to some degree. So, if the opportunity presents itself, do take advantage of the situation and see this movie whether it's in the theater or elsewhere. I have several friends who will doubtlessly wait for the release on disc or pay-per-view or, most probably, borrow mine since they know I'll be adding it to my collection, which seems to be a regular occurrence after they read one of my one-sided conversations. Weird, huh?

Monday, September 22, 2008

There and Back Again

Finally, once again, it's autumn. This is absolutely my favorite time of year (followed very closely by winter) and even though I don't really get to experience it, living in this flat humid place of Florida, I'm still thrilled when it rolls around because, if anything, I know that things will be cooling off, somewhat, in the next couple of months. The anticipation of cooler (and hopefully chilly) temperatures definitely improves my outlook on life, in general; although, I still find it, at times, disheartening to be missing out on the changing foliage, the overcast days, the brisk breezes that subtly suggest the coming of winter and, most simply, the overall feel of the season. However, out of all the things that come to mind and have meaning for me during this time of year, the one thing that I can pretty much always guarantee for myself is the reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I know, I know, I'm a geek but what can I do? I just accept it and move on.

Here's a little history (and, yes, I've previously mentioned some of this): I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in 6th grade after having them recommended to me by Mr. B. who, as you may remember, would eventually become one of my favorite and definitely most influential teachers. Early in the year during a laid back afternoon session, Mr. B. had challenged the class with the solving of several riddles which, we later learned, were taken from the 5th chapter of The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark, which detailed the finding of the Ring and Bilbo's one and only meeting with Gollum. Mr. B. briefly described the book and after hearing him make several more references (trolls, spiders and Smaug), I asked him about reading it. By this time Mr. B. was pretty well acquainted with my preferences in genres, my imagination and, most importantly, my reading comprehension, so the following day he brought me a copy and told me that he was fairly certain I would speed through it with no problems, but he wasn't sure if I was ready for The Lord of the Rings. What's this you say? There's more to the story than I was lead to believe and I'm being challenged to read it? That was my initial reaction but, of course, Mr. B. explained to me that the real story was The Lord of the Rings and it was much more intricately woven using a writing style considerably evolved from the "children's story" aspect of The Hobbit. He told me to read The Hobbit and if I found it enjoyable, I should then attempt The Lord of the Rings because, even if I didn't grasp the full scope of story but made it all the way through, there was practically a universal preordination that I would read them again.

Intrigued and anxious I set out on an adventure that ended up taking most of the remaining school year. Mr. B. had been right and I had made it through The Hobbit in no time and then, after a short conversation concerning our views of the book, I started on the trilogy and found myself in a world for which I was completely unprepared. The previous story (or extended prologue, if you prefer) was a light, almost fairytale romp with dark elements that could only be seen from the proper perspective while looking through or around the obvious Brothers Grimm elements. Granted, the prospect of being eaten by giant spiders could be considered frightening, but I was much more interested and disturbed by the darkness (the Necromancer) that Gandalf went off to deal with but would hardly speak of. So, by the time I had finished the 2nd chapter of the trilogy, The Shadow of the Past, I was aware that I was in store for a tale that was significantly more intense and carried the possibility of grim consequences for a world that I was beginning to truly appreciate and feel comfortable in. As the books progressed, the story that unfolded was one reminiscent of an overcast day whose cover is rarely penetrated by small and fleeting rays of sunlight. Basically, I was in heaven. When I reached the end, I was sad that it was over but I was extremely pleased that the conclusion remained somewhat subdued and free from rainbows and unicorns. In talking with Mr. B. afterwards, he was happy to acknowledge my accomplishment and the fact that I had a solid grasp on the essence of the story, and he was also quick to point out that I should continue to read extracurricular books and never let myself become cut off from the wonders of words. Mr. B.'s final words of wisdom to me that day came back to the the story of the Ring: he suggested that the next time I read them (which he knew I would), I should do it when school was out and before life started to catch up with me. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but I look forward to a time when I might be able to give someone a piece of advice whose true meaning will take years to manifest.

Roughly a year and half later (8th grade), my mother gave me the red leatherette collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings for Christmas and, being the geek that I am, it immediately became one of my prized possessions. Heeding Mr. B.'s advice, I placed the tome prominently on display and waited until the school year was complete, the summer was before me and life was still comfortably in the distance before I began the adventure of the Ring for a second time. I remember hot, South Carolina afternoons and making my way outside for a couple of hours of reading, the sound of the brutally dry grass as it crunched underfoot and the green metal lawn chair that rested in the shade of a small tree in our front yard. The chair's identical twin often sat unshaded on the opposite side of the tree and was usually approached tentatively, if at all, by anyone wearing shorts, because it only took an instant to discover the damage that could be done to the backs of one's legs by the dark metal, with it's faux weave pattern, after an hour or two in direct sunlight. To the left of the shaded chair was a small ring of stones that had once been a flower bed, but the flowers were long since gone and all that remained was an area of dry matted weeds that were all flaxen in color, and had it not been for the small birdbath with peeling paint located at it's center, only a stone inscribed "unless" would have been needed to invoke the Lorax. A few feet in front of the flowerbed, my father had set a large aluminum flag pole into the ground which, after having lost his initial interest and considering the fact that he felt it, like most of his other notions, should be maintained by someone else, often stood barren, rising starkly into the air like a shining finger pointed accusingly at the heavens. I also remember being thankful that our house was located as it was: elevated and several miles outside of town, with the nearest road being a little less than a quarter of a mile in the distance and no neighbors to speak of, which meant that my afternoons reading in the shade were rather isolated and quiet, with the only
sounds being that of the rustling leaves, the "ting-ting" of the metal clips tapping against the empty flag pole and my mother's wind chimes ringing in the distance as the periodic summer breezes blew across our hilltop home.

With the hot summer days continuing to lazily drift by, I remained resolute in my steady and methodical absorption of the trilogy, hoping that my dedication would make up for lack of experience when it came to identifying any important literary morsels that might normally be overlooked in a desultory exploration. Rather than try to read as much as I could on any given day, I would limit myself to two or three chapters, often going back and re-reading sections until I was satisfied I hadn't missed anything pertinent and had a perfect understanding of what had transpired. As the end approached, I had to fight the inclination to read slower in an effort to draw out the finale and postpone my departure from a place to which I had developed a heartfelt connection - a pattern that I have continued to repeat with each subsequent reading. Eventually I sadly acknowledged to myself that there was no getting around it any longer, so I settled in to finish the last chapter and with each page growing substantially heavier, in conjunction with my heart, I slowly worked my way to the end of the journey and the parting from my friends, and as I read the final line where Sam says, "Well, I'm back," I knew that I was no longer the same person I had been at the outset; the story had changed me as fundamentally as it had the characters.

Even though I was an avid reader long before having heard of The Lord of the Rings, I'll be the first to admit that my scope of reading was extremely limited. I had initially embarked on the path of a reader in an effort to emulate my older brother whom I idolized (except, of course, when he made me suffer the typical indignities of little brotherhood). Considering that he was eight years older than me, my choices for doing as I saw him do were limited because, for the most part, his hobbies, his friends, the places he went and, without a doubt, his school classes were all very much beyond me, not to mention the physical differences eight years made. Fortunately, the one thing that I did see on an extremely regular basis was his time spent reading, and that was something I could easily do, and although 2nd and 3rd grade reading choices can be somewhat limited, in my opinion, my exposure to my brother's comic books, MAD magazines, Warren publications (Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) and science fiction paperbacks (the one's that I could understand) set me on a course to truly becoming a reader, increased my reading comprehension far beyond that of my classmates and, most importantly, made me feel as if I was being like my big brother. As time passed I continued to read the sci-fi/horror genres, literally judging books by their covers and never attempting to expand my experiences beyond the already familiar, which is why I felt so enlightened at the end of my second trip through Middle-earth. The reoccurring themes of things not always being what they seem, and there being more to something than meets the eye, had far deeper meaning to me than merely how they applied to the story. I was struck by how the same ideas applied to other things and how, without a proper open mind, patience to thoroughly examine and allow for all to be revealed or a willingness to see from other perspectives, so many things that might prove memorable could be missed, forever.

As the summer leading to my first days of high school drew to a close, I had continued to read while trying to remain mindful of expanding my literary horizons. My bright red copy of The Lord of the Rings, always plainly visible in my room, served as a constant reminder that reading was like mining, in that worthless rubble surrounds all of the most precious stones (fiction or non-fiction), meaning that much sifting must be done in order to find the items worth keeping. A large portion of what I read that summer, and over the next few years, was worthless rubble, but I did uncover a few gems which remain with me to this day. My time spent trying to read with expanding concepts has continued steadily, aside from a few brief lapses, because of the trilogy, and I have amassed a large list of favorites that register on some mysterious internal emotional scale. Not surprisingly, some of the most important books in my life have been those that, once I reached a point of listening to and respecting the learned opinions of others, have been deemed classics (old and new) or, at least, exemplary, and other standouts which I refuse to part with were discovered completely by accident during a random buying spree which I occasionally do just to shake things up a bit. Other books have a life of their own along with personal emotional attachment, such as The Pillars of the Earth, which was given to me by my exceptional friend, Lisa, 15 years ago. But that's another story.

After returning to The Lord of the Rings in my senior year of high school for my term paper, life, unfortunately, caught up with me, for more years than I like to think about, and while my reading continued, it was some time before I was able to make the comfortable journey back to the safe haven of Middle-earth. As fate would have it and after casting a semblance of Gollum into my own internal Mt. Doom, I was, at long last, able to return to one of my favorite literary strongholds, but, unfortunately, I found myself facing a bit of a quandary. It was February of 2000, I had been doing quite a lot of reading over the past year or so about some Peter Jackson guy (I had seen The Frighteners), and I knew the first film of the trilogy would be released in December of 2001, with the second film planned for release the following December and the third the year after, in 2003. Did I want to read the entire story so soon before the films or wait until closer to the release date, with the hope that life wouldn't rear it's ugly head in the meantime? After much going back and forth, I decided on a compromise. I read The Hobbit and the entire trilogy and then, for the next three Novembers, before the release of each film, I read the corresponding book, again. It was the reading of the individual books during the month of November that stuck in my head as an identifier with a specific time of year, because, for me, the overall internal tone of the books had always been, as I've previously mentioned, like that of an overcast day or, more specifically, one of autumn. That point was driven home over the next two years during the Thanksgiving holidays when I felt as if I had missed something but couldn't quite put my finger on it. Shortly thereafter, I walked outside one morning and was greeted by a rare Florida winter-like day (curiously, in my head and in my apartment, it's aways autumn or winter), and it was then that I realized how my mind had set up an internal calendar around The Lord of the Rings. So, the following year (2005), a week or so into September, I started The Hobbit with the intention of beginning The Fellowship of the Ring on September 22 to correspond with the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo in the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party. My plan was to have the trilogy read before the Thanksgiving holidays, so that I could then enjoy the three movies, once again, during my break from work (geek boy, I know). Needless to say, the plan worked perfectly, as it did the following year, as well. Last year, the reading proceeded as usual but, because of an unfortunate interference, the films were postponed until Christmas, which was just as well.

Now, another year has flown by with a speed whose exponential increase is somehow mystically linked to my age, but instead of being melancholy and dwelling on the paradoxical passage of time, I am pleased to be, once again, stepping into the tale of the Ring and I look forward to visiting all of the splendid characters that are a part of the odyssey. The past year has been a typical one, with no surprises and no tragedies and I've done my utmost to remain true to who I am by constantly challenging myself, in familiar and unfamiliar ways, and endeavoring to be a decent person focused on finding comfort in simple, but personally meaningful, ways. I don't always succeed, but, then again, things that are easy to accomplish never seem to be as
satisfying as the things that require more effort, however, it is satisfying to know that I have a few steadfast friends scattered about who, along with my countless literary comrades, help keep me motivated, entertained and, on very good days, humble. It is also quite satisfying to have something like the world of Middle-earth to act as a catalyst for fond memories, each year remembering things from the past as the story progresses, while simultaneously creating new memories that will be recalled and looked upon in future readings, and although I've been there, and back again, many times, I hope this is a ritual I can enjoy up to, at least, my eleventy-first birthday.

And speaking of birthdays, it is September 22 and high time I stop my rambling and bring an end to this mental meandering. Bilbo and Frodo await, and as I sit here contemplating my return trip into an extremely pleasant territory, a familiar affection washes over me and I know that when I open the book, in a few short moments, I'll be smiling as I think, "Well, I'm back."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel stars as Toorop, a mercenary living / surviving in what remains of, as best I can tell, a war torn town in Russia. I don't want to say that this is a "post apocalyptic" story, but there was definitely a huge conflict and , from the looks of it, most of Eastern Europe got their asses handed to them. Anyway, as these types of story go, the tough, loner, outsider with a violent and mysterious past ends up being given a shot at redemption (meaning money and a better quality of life) in the form of a simple delivery: All Toorop has to do is smuggle a young woman named Aurora (Melanie Thierry) and her guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), from their convent in Kazakhstan to New York City. Easy enough, right? Maybe not. As it turns out, factions are involved (who would've guessed), and while one faction really wants to see Aurora make it to The Big Apple, not surprisingly, the other faction does not. Along the troubled and deadly way, Toorop begins to suspect that Aurora may be a bio-engineered viral bomb designed to kill millions, only to later be told that, even though she is a virgin, she is pregnant with twins. As their journey intensifies and their bonds grow stronger, the lines of separation start to fade and Toorop realizes that his simple job has expanded past his personal desires and may now affect all of humanity.

This one's not as simple as you'd think. Going in, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and, for the most part, I was right: Futuristic action sci-fi with some fairly good actors doing their best to put some new twists on a familiar plot. Based on what I was anticipating, my expectations were not off the chart and I was only looking to be entertained on a primal level much like I have been with films like Doomsday, 300 or Wanted and, as I've already said, I was pretty much right. Taking that into consideration along with the fact that the film masterfully and unexpectedly blended the look and feel of Children of Men with Bladerunner, I was well on my way to enjoying a movie that I was beginning to see as "above average". Then, right when I was becoming comfortable with my good looking sci-fi action flick, a side door opened and the story turned into something with much more depth and far reaching philosophical implications. I was stunned and excited since, having never read the book Babylon Babies on which it is based, I wasn't expecting a story hypothesizing a future where religions, using science to manipulate their holiness, battle for the distinction of being the "one true" religion. As things began to unfold, my anticipation grew and, unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed, however, not entirely. Overall, I liked the movie more than I thought I would even before the additional plot depth was introduced, and my disappointment only comes from the fact that I felt the manipulative religions aspect wasn't explored as deeply and as satisfyingly as it could have been. As the credits rolled, I thought the movie had a prevailing truncated feel and, even though I had enjoyed it, I was surprised that certain scenes weren't explored in more depth while other scenes had the distinct impression of being badly edited on the short side. Basically, I wanted more. Imagine my surprise, later that day, reading an interview on Movieweb with Mathieu Kassovitz, the director, where he stated how frakking angry he was with Twentieth Century Fox producers over the fact he wasn't allowed to shoot certain scenes the way he wanted, how they didn't respect the script and how, ultimately, they cut about 15 minutes from the film before it was released. Obviously Kassovitz wanted an intricately thoughtful film and Fox wanted an action flick. For me, I made the best with what I was given, and I can only hope that the missing fifteen minutes will be reinstated when the movie is released on disc. We'll see.

As for the cast, Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh were very good. **Full Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh.** I realize that Diesel isn't a Shakespearean trained thespian noted for his subtle yet hauntingly emotive capabilities, which is good because of that whole "less is more" thing. What I like about Diesel is that he knows his limits, concentrates on his strengths and branches out just slowly enough to make you notice, and then accept it, rather than try to go all out and have the audience buy it simply because it's him doing it (Think Ben Affleck in the gem Daredevil and you'll understand what I mean). For this film, Diesel plays it tough but not supremely confident - he's a flawed character who intends to survive but, because of his performance, I never felt that his survival was guaranteed, which, to me, says a lot for the film. Also saying a lot for the film is the use of Michell Yeoh - she definitely makes the movie seem more legitimate with her strong-willed, no nonsense attitude, which is utilized as perfectly in this film as it was in Memoirs of a Geisha (yeah, I saw it and I liked it - I'm a huge Ziyi Zhang fan, just so you know) - Yeoh was able to match Diesel's physical intensity with her own silent, emotional intensity, bringing an unexpected harmony to every scene they shared together. Caught between the intensities of Diesel and Yeoh was Melanie Thierry, as Aurora, who was , in my opinion, very surprising and effective in relaying her character's insecurities while holding her own against veterans like Diesel and Yeoh. All in all, the three main characters played off of and supported each other in ways not typically seen in you average sic-fi outing, and when you add the smaller performances of Lambert Wilson (The Merovinian from the Matrix sequels), Charlotte Rampling and Gerard Depardieu, you actually find yourself with a pretty solid cast.

As with all movies in this genre, it has it's positives and negatives but, as I've already stated, because of my expectations, I liked this film more than if I had been anticipating a blockbuster. The direction is good, the scenery and overall "look" of the movie is great, the acting is above average and the story grows deeper and deeper as the film progresses, just not deep enough. I can't say that I'd recommend any friend to see it in the theater, but I definitely think it'll be worth renting since I fully intend to see it again with, hopefully, the missing fifteen minutes. If you do see it, try and keep an open mind and, while you're at it, let your open mind expound on some of the notions might enjoy it and, in the process, discover a whole new way to watch movies. Or not.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

In case you missed the lowdown, this film is Ben Stiller's take on parodying Hollywood, it's actors, producers, studio heads, agents, special effects wizards, and pretty much everything in between. The general idea is to ridiculously magnify and satirize all of the ludicrous, and not so ludicrous, traits of the movie making machinery. Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a super action star on the decline who, after flopping in a film he hoped would bring him acting recognition and accolades, is in Asia to film the most expensive was movie ever made and hopefully garner the respect for his "craft" that he has so long desired. His fellow cast members include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the mega Oscar winning method actor who has undergone a skin pigment dying process in order to make him as authentically "black" as his character, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the grossly over-the-top comedic actor who is the lead, as well as most of the supporting cast, in the comedy franchise The Fatties, hip hop mogul, entrepreneurial huckster and actual black guy Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and, of course, the obligatory innocent new kid on the block, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). Along with the rigors of filming in the jungle, the cast are constantly bombarded on-set by psycho special effects guys, the inept director (Steve Coogan), the moody and unbalanced "soldier" who's "memoir" is the basis of the film (Nick Nolte) and off-set by ass kissing agents (Matthew McConaughey) and power mad studio executives (Tom Cruise). As production becomes stymied, a decision for raw realism places the cast in a real-life desperate situation who's survival may only be achieved by actually becoming the well honed fighting unit that they portray or, at least, acting the parts more convincingly.

Yeah, it's funny. It's not pee your pants while you hyperventilate funny, but, as it remains consistently true to it's over the top form, it does provide a fairly steady stream of humor while intermixing some truly laugh-out-loud segments with an equal number of choke on your soda moments. The film pretty much leaves no stone unturned in it's quest for Hollywood bits to satirize and repeatedly reminds that nothing is sacred when it comes to their pointed observations, which I found to be remarkably refreshing for a Hollywood comedy when you stop to consider that movies very rarely make fun of themselves. I have a tendency to pass on most outright comedies because, in my opinion, the majority from the past few years have suffered from lack of inspiration, bad writing and an assumption that a well known actor (Norbit, The Pink Panther) or a physically attractive female (The Dukes of Hazzard, Over Her Dead Body) will make up for what the film lacks in substance*. Thankfully, Tropic Thunder uses everything I just mentioned as inspiration, and the core of it's substance is how seriously it takes the Hollywood lack of substance. I know, it's confusing, but trust me, it works.

The other thing that works well in this film is the cast. Stiller, once again, makes good use of his abilities to pull off a spot-on parody while displaying the utmost sincerity, however, this time he compounds the performance with the addition of his character's horrendously bad portrayal of the award designed character of Simple Jack. Jack Black is, well, Jack Black - his character, Jeff Portnoy, isn't much of a departure (if any) from most of the other Jack Black characters which, for this this film, is exactly what they needed. Black's Portnoy helps keep the energy level maximized as well as providing a few of those "I really shouldn't be laughing as this" moments. I think I should state, for the record, that I'm not a big fan of a Black's more colorful character work - I tend to have a greater appreciation for his "low key" efforts, but, for this movie, his exuberance is perfect. Brandon T. Jackson as hip hopper Alpa Chino starts out very stereotypical but undergoes a comedic, but intelligent, evolution as the film progresses, as does Jay Baruchel's character of Sandusky. McConaughey is the perfect shallow talent agent who sees his bottom line as being in direct proportion to his obsequiousness and Nick Nolte would have to the first, best choice for a psychotic burnout memoir hawking jungle rat.

Together, the previously mentioned cast and their respective characters could easily combine to make, at the very minimum, a mildly amusing film, but I firmly believe that Robert Downy Jr. as Kirk Lazarus and Tom Cruise as producer/studio exec Les Grossman make this movie entirely worth seeing and add a degree of humor, originality and out and out entertainment that is becoming harder and harder to find in big production comedies. Downy Jr.'s Lazarus is the glue that holds the entire chaotic story together - when the story gets too crazy, he's the level plain that the camera always returns to and when the kinetic energy subsides, Lazarus becomes the humor focal point. I seriously doubt, because of the character specific nuances, if anyone could have pulled off the Lazarus character as well as Downy Jr. As for Tom Cruise, all I can say is: Wow. In my wildest imaginings, I would have never anticipated seeing such a performance from Cruise - he was loud, abusive, abrasive, disgusting, foul mouthed, egocentric, insulting, and repugnant........oh, and brilliant. The Grossman character is an unexpected delight (especially when he dances) and could not have been used more appropriately - considering the character's coarse and extravagant personality, he could have very easily been overused to the point of losing his shock value but, instead, his scenes were spaced well and properly short, leaving the audience (me, at least) wanting more.

I definitely enjoyed this movie and was pleasantly surprised at the final product, although I can easily say that this film isn't for everyone since some of the humor will be too much for certain audience members, while other audience members will be completely oblivious to the less than obvious jokes. I guess that's the way it is with most well written/rounded comedies, except in this case, with the emphasis on the extravagantly extreme, the disharmony will seem more apparent. Just do me a favor, try actually watching it (theater or when available for rent) before you decide.

*That statement refers only to U.S. comedies.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Finally, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are back together on the big screen. Like with many of the films I've seen, I find the notion of explaining what the movie is about absurd because certain plot points should not be given away and the knowledge that it's an X-Files story should suffice. I've discovered that in a situation like this, there tends to be three types of people: The ones who are already familiar with the characters and the overall themes of the previous stories, the ones with no prior exposure but have had their interest piqued because of things they've read, seen in trailers or they simply *gasp* have an open mind, and, lastly, the ones who merely have no interest at all because of one reason or the other. In this case, if you're an X-Phile, you don't really want to know because you want to experience the story fresh in the theater, and if you're an interested noobie, only a vague, at most, synopsis should be used so, again, the experience of the reveal happens in the theater, and if you're in the "not interested" group, you don't count and should go rent Heaven's Gate. So, the closest that I can come to a synopsis is: Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is in the middle of an investigation that involves a missing F.B.I. agent, an arm (not the agent's) and a purported psychic priest (Billy Connolly). Unable to make any progress, feeling completely overwhelmed by the grisly and otherworldly elements and convinced there's only a short amount of time to save the missing agent, Whitney, after procuring an "all is forgiven" agreement from the F.B.I., endeavors to find the one person she hopes can utilize the "spooky" aspects of the investigation to possibly save an innocent life, and that person is Fox Mulder. It's been six years since we last saw Mulder and Scully. Scully is now following her medical career and Mulder has been in hiding from the F.B.I. to avoid prosecution for his breech of protocol. (Mulder's infractions are in regards to certain events that transpired during the final seasons of the television series, but those events, other than to establish the fact no one has any information pertaining to his whereabouts and that he's an F.B.I. outcast, have no bearing in this movie.) As the events of the case continue to form a grim and forbidding mosaic and questions of life and death echo with the resonance of a ticking clock, it's time, once again, for Mulder and Scully to gaze long into the abyss.

This one was easy - knowing that the show's creator, Chris Carter, was writing (along with fellow scribe Frank Spotnitz) and directing this feature, I was already anticipating enjoying this film months before it's release, and enjoy it, I did. I know, I know, it's not going to cause money to rain down from the heavens to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars like The Dark Knight, and it's not going to appeal to the ABBA loving crowds of Mama Mia and I'm quite positive that it will hold no interest to those who prefer the intense story telling of Step Brothers, but, regardless of all that, this is a very well done film and very much worth seeing in the theater. However, I fully expect the film's overall success to be much subdued compared to the other offerings of the summer based on the fact that this is probably the most "low key" release of the blockbuster season, but, ironically, the fact that it is so "low key" is one of the most (at least, to me) appealing aspects of the movie. This film has no explosions, only one car chase (and it's in snow - so it's quiet) and no over-the-top "shoot 'em up" moments - there are a couple of gruesome scenes and surprising moments but, for the most part, this is an extremely cerebral story of suspense that gives nothing away, leaving it up to the viewer to follow the clues along with Mulder and Scully and when it's all said and done, there's no insulting summation for those who couldn't keep up. Another great thing about this film, along with the large and obvious central storyline, is the subtle underlying story threads that deal with faith, spirituality, life, death and the emotional light and dark within everyone. So it's fairly safe to say that this movie is not your usual summer popcorn fare but, not surprising to me, I did walk out of the theater feeling pretty warm and satisfied (even with no explosions).

Anderson and Duchovny remarkably pick up where they left off, but six years later - they have the same chemistry, humor and intensity as they did at the peak of The X-Files series, and yet they believably mature the characters to conform with events that are mentioned having transpired during the six year interim. Anderson, as always, honestly portrays Scully as fervently dedicated to her profession and beliefs, leaving Duchovny to display the same convictions while, characteristically, infusing a light lunacy coupled with a sharp wit. Amanda Peet is skillfully adept but emotionally uncertain as Agent Whitney and Billy Connolly is easily the linchpin performance as Father Crissman but, regardless of how good anyone else is, this is still the Mulder and Scully show and without them, this would only be a curiously intriguing movie.

It's possible that since I've recently been re-watching the series, I was more primed than most for a return to the darker world of The X-Files, but I really don't think that's the case and I'm convinced that anyone who appreciates a well told sinister tale that requires more than a modicum of actual thought from the viewer would enjoy this film whether they're a prior X-Files fan or not. After having seen my share of the big summer films (and liking a few of them very much), this was an extremely nice change of pace and, I must admit, the story, the directing and the snowy locations transported and entertained me as much as any CGI creation from any other summer movie this year. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing this again upon it's release on disc, which is where, I'm sure, the film will do it's biggest business, and even if there is no third movie that deals with the supposed colonization date of December 2012 (I want to believe there will be), this film has a satisfying closing shot of Mulder and Scully that opens a world of possibilities to the just have to watch the credits or you'll miss it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

In my opinion, this movie doesn't really require any type of synopsis because, unless you've been in living in a cave for the past six to eight months or suffering from a chronic case of Cranial Rectal Insertion, you should already have a decent idea concerning what this movie is about. In fact, the end of Batman Begins pretty much spelled it out for you, and if, for any reason whatsoever, you didn't see the previous Batman film, then leave now. Just go. Now, in order to be nice, here's a quick troglodyte catchup: Batman is still fighting to rid Gotham City of it's heinous criminal element. Things are getting down and dirty as the organized crime leaders get desperate. Harvey Dent is the new District Attorney and he's not afraid to team up with the police (or Batman) and take on the city's underworld. Oh, and there's a new guy on the block with knives in his pockets and a smile on his face.......and he's not joking.

Who would've thought that I was so looking forward to this movie? Did my ever present sentinel at the top of the page give it away? Well, no matter, I confess I've been anxious since I heard the first sound bites last summer and my anticipation only expanded with every new viral clue I'd uncover. Finally, after months of waiting (and having talked myself out of going to the midnight show on Thursday), I found myself comfortably seated, along with twenty or so others, in front of the expansive IMAX screen at 8:00 a.m., a full hour before the movie was scheduled to begin. With the minutes ticking by, each time I looked up from my book, the influx of people continued to grow until, with twenty minutes still to go, the theater was practically full, which is saying quite a bit for an IMAX size theater at 8:40 a.m. As the three minute mark approached, I put away my book, turned off my iPod, removed the earbuds and noticed that, even with the theater almost full, there was a prevailing silence and sense of excitement and it was at that moment I understood that even though I had not yet seen the film, I was already part of an event. As I looked around, I saw perfect (and imperfect) strangers looking at each other with smiles and expressions that implied acknowledgment of a unification of spirit, that spoke of a freshly forged camaraderie among people who would normally ignore each other - and all these exchanges of looks and smiles taking place silently, as if they feared the slightest vocal utterance would unravel the fabric of communion that seemed to nestle us all. As the lights dimmed and the screen flickered to life, I felt the ripple of motion as every person in the theater straightened up in their seats and collectively tensed for the beginning of the movie. A swirling mist appeared on the screen and, as the music transformed into the recognizable theme, solidified into the title card for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, indicating the release date and 3-D scenes for IMAX before fading to black. The fifteen second Harry Potter trailer was followed by a spectacular trailer for Watchmen, set to the song, The Beginning is the End is the Beginning by Smashing Pumpkins and ending with Rorschach saying, "The world will look up and shout, 'Save us!' And I'll whisper....'No'". Awesome. Then, after the trailer, black screen, rumbles, blue flamed explosion, logos and, as the theater erupted in spontaneous applause, The Dark Knight began.

Is it all that? Yes, and then some. Worth the hype? No doubt about it. Live up to the expectations? Absolutely. I would say that this is the greatest comic book film ever made, except for the fact that this film actually transcends the comic book world. This is the Godfather, Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back of comic book films while simultaneously being an action inclusive dramatic exploration of Jungian Archetypes and moral rectitude. The varying layers are what create such an ultimate story and will, in the long run, make the film more appealing to a broader spectrum of moviegoers. There's the well spaced (and placed) action for the surface entertainment of a Batman vs. Joker story that will appease the average action/comic book crowd - oh! There's even a magic trick! - There's the relationship issues, examination of responsibility and hard city crime story for the dramatic crowd and there's the exploration of the cold dark place that hides inside each of us for the crowd who's not afraid to look and see things for what they are, could be or should be. The combined aspects form a film that can easily be enjoyed over multiple viewings with different qualities becoming predominant depending upon the viewer's frame of mind, while the story's emphasis on reality serves as the metaphorical glue holding each layer together and creating a cohesive world for the viewer regardless of mental framing. In other words, Christopher Nolan, the writer/director, has crafted a "superhero" movie with a greater resonance of "truth" than some documentaries I've seen, while remaining faithful to his source material. Now don't me wrong, there are some truly spectacular comic book moments, but they are based in fact and not preoccupied with making you "believe a man can fly", as it were. The other joining factor that shares space with the reality aspect is the fact that there are no "sun shiny" happy moments, no "rainbows and cotton candy" break times, no "All You Need is Love and Kumbaya sing-a-longs" - Gotham City is a hard place and there's gritty work to be done by all sides involved, and it's this perspective that helps illustrate exactly what it is that Batman is striving for - he wants Gotham City to be a shiny safe outpost in a world of horror, even if he can never live there because, as it's explored in this movie, Batman/Bruce is beginning to understand that the dark remains with him whether he's wearing the cape or not. Some people may be put off by the overall sinister feel of the film, but I found it incredibly refreshing, immersing and honest.

The cast is easily the best you'll find in any movie this Summer or, so far, this year. Christian Bale in his second outing as Batman/ Bruce Wayne has really come into his own while raising the bar for any actor stepping into the role of a serious crime fighter. In the previous film, Bale adequately displayed a young Bruce dealing with his scars and fears while slowly transforming into a darker hero. This time, Bale is effectively playing two characters: Bruce Wayne: philanthropist, humanitarian and head of Wayne Enterprises and Batman: night dweller and scourge of the criminal underworld and, make no mistake, these are two very different creatures and Bale combines and separates them expertly.

Next we have Heath Ledger and because of who the Joker is and what he represents, he must be the standout character of the film and with that notion obviously in mind, Ledger uses the very nature of the character to craft a standout performance that I'm sure goes beyond what any fanboy could have imagined. Ledger is amazing and scary as the Joker and (being the huge fan of the comics that I am, I can say this matter-of-factly) his performance makes Jack Nicholson's look like a bad impression of Cesar Romero. I mean that, I really do. In the world of Batman that I know and have wanted to see, Ledger could not have achieved a better outcome - his Joker is unpredictable, uncaring, nuanced and, at times, terrifyingly sane - he definitely did his homework on not only the Joker character, but other psychotics as well because I'm sure I spotted a touch of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Ledger's performance will propel the batfans to new heights, greatly impress serious connoisseurs of acting and become a benchmark for all who attempt to follow. I firmly believe that people who are not remotely fans of Batman, action films or movies based on comic books would enjoy this film because of Ledger's performance, alone.

My other choice for a standout performance is that of Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon. I've been a big fan of Oldman and his eclectic repertoire for quite some some, and even though most people would recognize him for his work as psychotic or flamboyant antagonists, recently he's been making bold statements as quietly heroic and compassionate characters like that of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and, now, Lt. Gordon. In the first Batman film, Gordon was known as one of the few honest cops but, before that is ever stated, you knew what kind a man Gordon represented based on what Oldman was able to convey in a short flashback early in the film - by his demeanor, facial expressions and delivery there was no doubt he was a good man and a good cop. That theme is greatly expanded for Gordon in The Dark Knight to the point where you see to what length the character is willing to go in order to do the right thing while remaining humane and conscious of his loved ones, and Oldman succeeds brilliantly with displaying the dedication, uncertainty and concerns of an "average Joe" unconsciously being virtuous in a world gone mad. Put it this way, the character of Gordon is such a good guy and played so well by Oldman, that, even though I know that in the Batman universe Gordon eventually becomes Commissioner, there were points in the film where I was actually worried that something was going to happen to him. (This is Hollywood, after all - there's no telling what could come to pass.) So, as a character who is scared but can only do the right thing, Oldman pulls it off amazingly and makes it believable with as little as a set jaw and a thoughtful look. What's surprising is that in a film populated with so many larger, louder and flashier characters, Oldman's Gordon doesn't lose any ground.

The rest of the cast are as good as you would expect them to be. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both expand on their mentor, moral compass, and confidence support roles that they easily stepped into in the first film while Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over as Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes, brings a more believable sincerity and maturity to the character that is Bruce Wayne's love interest. Eric Roberts shows up as crime boss Salvatore Maroni and perfectly utilizes his patented "slimy guy who's full of himself" character to it's fullest extent and, lastly, additional newcomer Aaron Eckhart as D.A. Harvey Dent, who was a real surprise for me, flawlessly plays the role of a suave and captivating individual who is so focused on pushing himself toward reaching his devoted idealistic goals, that he's oblivious to what the price of failure could be - an individual who sees every issue as a right or wrong or positive and negative, like two sides of a coin.

As you can tell, in my opinion, everything about the film fell perfectly into place. I have absolutely no complaints and, trust me, being the die hard Batman fan that I am, I'm pretty picky when it comes to representations of the Dark Knight, his world and surrounding characters. I'm really glad to see that Bob Kane's creation (thanks to a little help from The Mark of Zorro) has finally reached a point of being taken seriously and treated with such reverence. After years of camp (even though I love the Adam West creation), non focus, misdirection and day-glow horrors with putrid story lines, it's truly refreshing to be able to sit in a theater (or at home for the first film) and enjoy an honest recreation of a practically hallowed world that, up until now, has been the domain of comic book geeks like myself. Now everyone's going to realize what they've been missing.

As for what comes next. Who can say? I'm convinced that as long as Christopher Nolan is allowed to follow his internal drive, the next Batman will be just as good as the first two, even though I realize how hard it will be to top this one. The great thing about being a true fan is that the next film doesn't have to set out to best the first two - as long as it's treated with the same dedication, everything will turn out fine and I'm sure that everyone working on the films feel the same way. In fact, Christian Bale recently said that he'd be happy to keep returning as Batman as long as Nolan was in the driver's seat and as long as there was no Robin character. Happy Day! At this point, and judging from what the returns have been in just two days, we're pretty much guaranteed a third film and I'm as pleased as can be about that and I plan on seeing The Dark Knight again, as soon as possible.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Our favorite cigar chomping, cat loving, candy eating, wise cracking spawn from Hell is back for another round with the things that go 'bump' in the night. This time, accompanied by pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), best friend and aquatic empath Abe (Doug Jones), newcomer Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), a gaseous entity and mysticism (misticisim?) expert who gets around via a containment suit (think reverse deep sea diver), and the rest of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, including Director Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), Hellboy (Ron Perlman) must face off against a wannabe leader of the Underworld bent on the destruction of the Human race. According to legend, the Humans and the inhabitants of the mythical realm had been battling each other for quite some time until an enterprising Goblin devised and constructed the Golden Army: 70 X 70 (4,900) monstrous indestructible clockwork warriors that would fight, fight and keep fighting. Upon seeing the army's wanton destruction, the King of the Elves was riddled with guilt and called for a truce between the two waring races in the hopes that each side could find respect for the other and continue to exist in their adjacent realms peacefully. The Golden Army was placed in an undisclosed location, in stasis (since they were indestructible), and the King of the Elves hoped that such a nightmare would never have to be awoken again. Unfortunately, after centuries of Human expansion, one particular Elf has had quite enough of Humans and anything remotely concerning them - his notion is to declare himself leader of the mythical realm, find the pieces of the talisman that control the Golden Army and then proceed to rid the world of the nasty Humans once and for all. Obviously, this is a job for Big Red and the rest of the misfit toys.

Excellent movie, but first, if you haven't seen the original Hellboy and even though it's not a prerequisite, I highly recommend that you do in order to get the full appreciation of the characters and the world they inhabit. The thing about Hellboy is there's no middle ground - people either really like it or the entire concept is completely lost on them. So, basically, the people who enjoyed the first film will definitely enjoy this one, and the people who didn't, probably wouldn't waste their time reading this, anyway.

The acting? What acting? Ron Perlman is Hellboy and Hellboy is Ron Perlman. I recently saw an interview where Perlman was talking about his experiences with Guillermo del Toro (writer & director) and he said that del Toro was very specific with in telling him not to act. According to del Toro, he had written Hellboy's lines with Perlman's personality in mind and was afraid that any 'acting' might ruin the character. Interestingly, when del Toro initially spoke to Mike Mignola (the creator of Hellboy and the line of comics) about filming the first movie, in an effort to save time by not hacking through a bunch of actors, del Toro suggested that on a count of 'three', they would both say the name of the actor they would most like to see as Hellboy and, at the end of the count, they simultaneously said, "Ron Perlman." Obviously, this role was made for Perlman and I'm glad to say that he tops himself in this second outing. It's also worth noting that the people who actually did act in the movie did so with the same level of quality as Perlman's non-acting. I'm a huge fan of John Hurt, and I've never seen him be anything less than top-notch, and this performance, although brief, is no exception. Selma Blair retains her believability as Liz but, because of the passage of time since the first film and her current circumstances, the character of Liz has further developed, showing more confidence and maturity in her abilities as well as being an overall stronger female, which added an unexpected dimension and beauty to the character. Doug Jones actually portrays three different characters in this movie, but the standout is of course Abe Sapien, the 'fishstick'. This time, Jones, as Abe, not only performs as the wonderfully nuanced character, but he provides the voice as well. (David Hyde Pierce had provided Abe's voice in the first film but declined billing because of the belief that Jones had truly created the character) In addition, Abe's presence in the movie is much greater than that of the previous film and his role is a much more pivotal one. Jeffery Tambor, as Manning, is a welcome return and the newest character, Johann (voiced by MacFarlane) perfectly fills the space left by a non-returning character as well as provides the perfect fulcrum for some humor, tension and opportunity for (Hellboy's) growth.

This is truly a movie that demonstrates the power of talent and imagination and I'm quite sure that it could not have been accomplished, at least to the same degree, without the guiding hand and creative force of Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro first became a blip on the radar when he directed Mimic, and even though he disowned the film because of constant clashes with Bob Weinstein, del Toro was constantly given credit for the best aspects of the movie. A couple of years later, del Toro directed Blade II, easily (in my opinion) the best of the franchise and del Toro's second film outing with Perlman. Hellboy followed soon after and then del Toro really hit it big with the Oscar nominated Pan's Labyrinth - after which, he could practically write his own ticket, but rather than jump into the Hollywood machinery, he opted to produce the excellent Spanish film The Orphanage for fellow director Juan Antonio Bayona before cranking up production on Hellboy II. Now, after creating such a rich and elaborate world for Hellboy, it's off to New Zealand, with Peter Jackson, for the next five years to create a new adventure for some old friends in the possible two film epic of The Hobbit. How cool is that?

In the world of fantasy, Hellboy II is a winner - where the ridiculous is believable, sounds can terrify and forests can walk. The cast and director join together to create a vivid and opulent world where even things most vile have an underlying, but discernible beauty - colors are vibrant, settings are elaborate and the most obvious CGI creation has measurable weight. Fantasy might not be your favorite genre but, don't be fooled, there's more going on here than is apparent and the action, comedy and singing (yes, singing) help make this movie into a multidimensional experience that really shouldn't be missed by anyone who fancies themselves remotely intelligent or in possession of anything resembling a sense of humor or, for that matter, wonder. As I walked from the theater at the end, I was as pleased with this movie as I was the original (more so, actually) and perhaps a little sad knowing that it will be five or so years until the story can finally play out.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


James McAvoy stars as Wesley Gibson, a 25-year-old accountant type who's days are spent huddling in a cubicle, getting degraded by his fat, obnoxious boss and being taken advantage of by his best friend/co-worker who, by the way, also happens to be screwing Wes's live-in girlfriend on a regular basis. Oh, and if all that wasn't bad enough, Wes also suffers from panic attacks. Nice, huh? Well, that's the extent of Wes's life, that is, until he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie) one night in a drug store. During the course of their eventful introduction, Fox informs Wes that his father, who had abandoned the family when Wes was a child, was not a deadbeat but was, in reality, a super assassin gifted with a rare genetic makeup which, when harnessed properly, could grant him access to strengths, speeds and perceptions that would make him a veritable superhuman killing machine. Turns out that others with this special genetic blend (like Fox) have been around for ages and, centuries ago, a group of such individuals had gotten together and formed a secret society called the Fraternity and had taken it upon themselves, aided by a machine of fate, to use their specials skills in ridding the world of very bad people. As time passed, others who were like them, including their descendants, were initiated into the Fraternity in an effort to continue their good work for the benefit of all mankind. Now, according to Fox, one of the brethren has gone rogue with the intentions of using his skills for personal gain, and knowing that the Fraternity would come after him, he started out on the offensive by killing their best and most gifted bad ass: Wes's father. Fox goes on to explain that the rogue agent's next move will be to take out the one person who could most likely fill the shoes of the aforementioned bad ass. Yep, you guessed it: Wes. Armed with this new information and insight, Wes must now delve deeper into himself if he wants to stay alive, and as he learns more from the Fraternity's tutors and their leader, Sloan (Morgan Freeman), Wes must walk the fine line of revenge and the fulfillment of his destiny.

This flick was great fun. I know, I know, there's that whole issue of physics and curving the trajectory of a bullet, which is displayed predominantly in the trailers, but I think the filmmakers were smart in showcasing that aspect of the film so there would be no mistake in what type of movie this is. This is not a Jason Bourne or a (spectacularly rebooted) James Bond movie, even though their reality can be, at times, just as tenuous. This is a movie based on Mark Millar's 2003 six issue comic series, of the same name, from Top Cow productions, and while the story has been considerably altered for the big screen, it is still firmly rooted in the comic book world - meaning, that it might not adhere to Newton's Three Laws of Motion, but it is damn fun. Besides, it's pretty much a given that when you combine Angelina Jolie with guns, physics are never a priority - not to mention that, even standing still, Angelina can break (and possibly create) laws of motion (and gravity) as she sees fit, but, as I so often remind you, that's only my opinion.

As for the cast, I thought James McAvoy was the perfect choice to play the easily ignored everyman who turns into a focused machine of retribution - it was a real treat watching as he transformed his character's traits. McAvoy is a real talent with a varied background which has served him well in the development of characters, his previous role being that of Robbie Turner in Atonement. One of the first things I remember seeing McAvoy in was an episode of Band of Brothers and since then, he's made great strides in becoming a very recognized actor at home in the U.K., as well as here in the states, with his latest role rumored to be that of Bilbo in the upcoming Hobbit film(s) - emphasis on rumored. Coincidentally, British actor Marc Warren, who's character in Wanted is known as The Repairman, was also in several episodes of Band of Brothers - just not the one McAvoy was in. Warren, as The Repairman, is intense and unforgiving and adds the right amount of menace to a role that could have been overshadowed by it's brutality. I will say that it's unfortunate Warren didn't get to display the dry wit or unassuming innocence that he has recently shown a knack for on the shows Life on Mars and Doctor Who, respectively. To get back to the headliners, Morgan Freeman taps into his stalwart character file for this movie and provides the serious universe balancing aspect to some extreme situations while Angelina, to briefly comment on her acting skills, actually portrays her over the top character more realistically than any of her past action endeavors, embracing her character's roots in Greek Tragedy and displaying the emotions and motivations accordingly.

Lastly, I would be remiss were I not to mention that this film is worth seeing simply because of groundbreaking visualist director Timur Bekmambetov, alone, and because of him, the movie would be just as much fun even if the cast were composed of complete unknowns. This is Bekmambetov's first American film, having completed all of his prior work in his native Russia where he is the creator of the most successful Russian film franchise in history, the Night Watch series, which broke all the Russian box office records previously set by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Interestingly, Bekmambetov was able to use Konstantin Khabensky, his favorite Russian actor and main character of the Night Watch series, in a small but pivotal role in this film. So, if you've seen either Night Watch or Day Watch, you probably have a good idea what's in store and are excited to not only watch this movie, but see it, as well. If you're not familiar with either film, then power up your suspension of disbelief and sit back and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Thought you might enjoy this - be sure to watch the cups vignette.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Meet WALL-E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class. WALL-E is a waste management robot - he and thousands like him, were tasked with compacting the overabundance of garbage into cubes and neatly stacking them into towering structures in an effort to clean up what had become an Earth inhospitable to life. After 700 years of diligent effort, WALL-E is the last of his kind, and along with his pet cockroach, Hal (as in 'Hal Roach' - and if you don't know who Hal Roach was, I suggest you look it up or you'll miss a great inside joke), as far as one can tell, they are the last "living" things on the planet. The curious thing is, after all the many decades, garbage is not the only thing that WALL-E has 'picked up', hence the pet roach. WALL-E has developed a unique personality, an insatiable curiosity and a fondness for collecting things. One of his most prized possessions is a VHS copy of Hello Dolly, which he watches nightly upon his return from work and, at some point, through the development of his personality, his interactions with the garbage and the many viewings of his single movie, WALL-E has discovered the most telling indicator of his sentience: He's lonely, painfully so, and he yearns for more. However, WALL-E continues his daily duty, partially because that's what he was designed to do and, primarily because his curiosity wouldn't allow him to do otherwise - oh, and there's also the small fact that he's proud of what he does. Now, after hundreds of years of doing what he does and becoming who he is, WALL-E is suddenly confronted by new and exciting possibilities with the arrival of an exploratory robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), with whom he is instantly enamored. As his internal circuitry mirrors that which the Tin Man most desired but always possessed, he sets forth on an adventure that, unbeknownst to WALL-E, has taken him 700 hundred years to prepare for.

WALL-E is, in a word: Stunning. I'll admit, I went into this movie expecting to enjoy it, but I was caught completely off guard by what I experienced; in other words, I was happily overwhelmed. When I wasn't laughing at the obvious (and not so obvious) humor or being touched by the poignant desires of WALL-E, I was sitting with mouth agape at the sheer spectacle of such a multifaceted and profound storyline. I've become quite accustomed to Pixar's movies dealing with darker issues just below the surface of the conspicuous, kid-friendly plots (Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles come immediately to mind), and I've become equally accustomed to Pixar's directors and writers rarely, if ever, acknowledging the existence of these underlying currents, however, this was the first of their films to integrate multiple eddies subtly intermingling like shifting sands on a desert planet, while the director continues to reaffirm that this is merely a love story. Perhaps that's where Pixar's, and by default, WALL-E's, genius truly resides: in the ability to tell a fun, heartfelt story with fundamental moral principals that everyone of all ages can enjoy, while surreptitiously blending notions of deeper meaning and thought for anyone who might take the time and put forth the effort to gaze a little deeper into the picture placed before them. Think of it as a splendidly animated Rorshach ink blot test: You can look at it and say, "Butterfly!", and be content, or you can take your time, delve deep into the crevices and see a flowering meadow alive with nature under a cerulean sky at the height of Spring. Either way, you're right.

Another amazing aspect of this film, in conjunction with the story, is the manner in which it is told. There are only a few actors involved and, for the most part, they don't really turn up until the second act of the movie and even when they do, the robot characters, communicating through sound effects and a handful of synthesized words, are still the center of the story. And when I say "characters", I mean that in the most complimentary way possible because the robots (especially WALL-E) have more personality and can convey more emotion, even though they lack a vocabulary, than most people I know. Watching the first act of the movie, in which the only characters were WALL-E, Hal and, later, EVE, was pure unequivocal animated poetry. Throughout the film, I was constantly reminded of my annual New Year's resolution to strive to talk less but say more; it was refreshing and reassuring to see so much being said, feel so much emotion, without the hassle and clutter of talking. Granted, the credit for "acting", the emoting, the "heart" and overall striking appearance of the film rests with the spectacular photo-realistic animation. Not only were life-like robots able to believably display longing and wonder, but desolate cityscapes, dry, dusty and barren of life for hundreds of years, were presented with a captivating beauty rife with loneliness juxtaposed phenomenally with the vivid colors, expansive star fields and clean line aerodynamics of future space travel, all while paying homage to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton as well as classic science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Alien. Quite a stupendous achievement and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised, when the Academy Awards roll around, to see this movie forgo the Best Animated Picture category and head directly for the Best Picture Oscar.

Obviously, I was very impressed with this film and a majority of the credit must go to the main character, WALL-E. One of Pixar's outstanding qualities is the ability to create rich characters with whom an audience can readily identify and, not surprisingly, I had felt an affinity to WALL-E upon seeing the first teaser trailer that simply showed him gazing up into the starry night sky. I was intimately acquainted with that look. The more I saw, leading up to the release of the movie, the more I liked and the more I recognized a kindred spirit, so I was predisposed to, at least, enjoy certain aspects of the film regardless of the overall product, however, as I've previously stated, the overall product is astounding. Again, that's just my opinion - I don't expect everyone feel the same connection that I did, but I do expect the average person to thoroughly enjoy this movie and I definitely think that WALL-E is more than worthy of a theater viewing (or two).

I could continue to ramble on concerning my opinion of this movie but, for your sake and mine, I'll refrain, although I will leave you with one final thought: Several years ago, I read an interview with Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, referring to the summer of 1967 when he and the rest of the Beach Boys and some friends were all taking a break, staying together at a large beach house and basking in, not only in the glow of the California sun but, the glow of their perceived musical accomplishments, as well. According to Wilson, while in town buying groceries, one of the members had picked up a copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album having been released just that day (which would have been June 2nd, I think), and brought it back to the house for a listen. After hearing the album from start to finish, Wilson said he realized that the Beach Boys had accomplished nothing. Now, everyone would pretty much agree that Wilson was being much more critical and demanding of the group than anyone else would ever attempt to be based on what the Beach Boys had contributed to music up to that point, but in his eyes and by his definition of 'accomplish', they were extremely far behind. After seeing Pixar's WALL-E, I can't help but wonder how many animation executives, directors, cinematographers, sound engineers and studio brass are thinking the same thing.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

It's apparently an average day, like any other; weather is happening, people are working, playing and doing all the things that people do on an average day. In New York's Central Park, people are taking breaks, walking, relaxing and carrying on conversations with their friends, until, without warning, the act of communicating becomes difficult, disorientation sets in and then, by whatever means are available, everyone starts to kill themselves. Word of the event begins to spread and the initial assumption is that New York has suffered some type of chemi cal terrorist attack. In Philadelphia, high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and the rest of the school's faculty are notified of the tragedy as classes are canceled and children are sent home to be with their families. Elliot and his math teacher friend Julian (John Leguizamo), decide to get their families together and take a train to the Pennsylvania farmlands until more information is learned and the possibility of further attacks has been reduced. Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who are obviously going through some type of strain in their relationship, meet Julian and his 8 year-old daughter, Jess, at the train station and, after learning that Julian's wife is late and will have to take the next train, they head out. Once on the train, news of more attacks reaches the occupants and after hearing increasingly grim reports, the conductors stop the train, due to no communication from any of the stations, and basically, because of fear and self preservation, tell everyone they're on their own. Now, in a small town in the Pennsylvania countryside, Elliot, Alma, Julian and Jess are faced with limited options. It has become obvious that the attacks are affecting smaller and smaller areas of human population and even though Elliot is beginning to understand what is happening, he's also beginning to see that there may be no such thing as a safe place.

This movie falls comfortably into the area of classic apocalypse, as in, something has happened/ is happening, we're not really sure what, but there's a good chance a significant percentage of humans (if not all) could end up perishing. Similar to how apocalyptic films of the 50's capitalized on the fears of the atomic bomb and the effects of radiation, this movie, at first, makes use of the terrorist threat fears, and then moves into an entirely different, but not completely unexplored, realm. Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has stated that his goal for this film was to create a current, well made "B" movie - much like those films of the 50's - and in that respect (and in my opinion), he easily achieved, and surpassed what he set out to do. The main difference between Shyamalan's film and the 50's versions is that rather than waste time on dialog involving pseudo-science and explanations that would become laughable in six to eight months (like much of the radiation hypothesizing of the 50's), The Happening looks for solutions based on common sense logic but never attempts to provide a definitive answer, relying instead on the notion that, as much as humans like to arrogantly think we're the be-all end-all of intelligence, there are just some things that we don't know and even when we think we have it figured out, we don't. That's my favorite aspect of the film: Humanity getting caught with their complacent pants around their chubby ankles.

Keeping with the "B" movie notion, rather than create the large (and expensive) spectacle of the world in danger, the story ultimately focuses on a few individuals who's purpose is to emotionally convey the vastness of the situation from the viewpoint of a mircocosm, and, for this particular story, Wahlberg, Deschanel and Leguizamo, along with a few others, do that incredibly well. Wahlberg and Deschanel are able to show the overall fear that such an event would induce while simultaneously displaying the emotional gamut of a couple suffering relationship strains as they try to assist friends and perfect (and imperfect) strangers through the course of an unprecedented event. Leguizamo is representative of the people in traumatic events who try to be brave for others as the fears concerning the fate of loved ones continually erode their internal supports. I've decided that Leguizamo should take more dramatic roles.

I didn't think this was a great movie, but I definitely believe that it was good and is worth seeing in the theater, especially if you are in any way a fan of the apocalyptic style of storytelling. This movie may not have major action or a spectacular budget, but the intense scenes when the event takes place more than make up for that. Shyamalan's ability to subtly film a sequence with an underlying intensity that lingers long after the initial scene has passed is uncanny. That alone is worth the price of admission or rental.

Oh, and one word of warning: If the notion of seeing someone intentionally inflict injury upon themselves intending to bring about their own demise bothers you, by no means should you see this movie. Seriously.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Strangers

Following a close friend's wedding reception, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) make their way back to James' family's summer home where they are staying for the course of the wedding. Things are a little tense between the couple, because of an earlier disagreement, and they each need a little quiet time to absorb the past few hours and come to terms with what they feel the future holds for them, mutually and individually. Fortunately, the summer home is in an extremely secluded area unburdened by the distractions of modern civilization. However, In the wee hours of the morning, James and Kristen are paid a visit by three masked strangers (hence the name) who seemingly have no intent other than malice. Unfortunately, the summer home is in an extremely secluded area unburdened by the distractions of modern civilization. Isolated from any possible assistance, their fear meters pegged, what started out as an emotional late night of contemplation suddenly disintegrates into a surreal exercise in survival.

Honestly, I'm still kinda working this one out. In my opinion, a small percentage of the film is truly original while another small percentage is truly predictable or insulting, leaving the majority to do the best it can with typical suspense situations. What I've been trying to work out is whether or not this was a successful combination and, after much deliberation, I've decided that the movie succeeds, but only moderately. With that decided, I can say the final product falls somewhere between fair and good, however, there are a few standout qualities.

The two things that save this flick from a being a direct-to-video release or, at worse, a bad genre network made-for-televison movie, is the cast and the cinematography. Basically, the cast consists of five people, our poor tormented couple and the three masked strangers, with 99.9% of the dialog being delivered by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. Tyler is excellent in realistically protraying the gamut of emotion experienced by Kristin while Speedman is more than adequate but slightly stifled because of the nature of the James character. The fact that the three strangers have only five or six cumulative lines of dialog (one stranger has none) contributes to the overall intensity, insanity and isolation of the situation, leaving Tyler and Speedman to be the sole conduits of emotion and information, which they do surprisingly well, keeping in mind that many actors would have a procilivty to grossly over-act given similar opportunities. Meshing cohesively with the performances, as well as practically creating the stark isolated environment, is the seemingly simple and minimalistic use of lighting, especially that of the interior shots. What initially starts out as a warm, almost romantic, quality in the house, eventually becomes a character in it's own right as the tones and situations in the movie progress and change. I kept remembering how, as a child, the simple act of turning on an overhead light could banish the dark, the shadows (even sounds) and my fears in one quick motion. Not so here. Even with all the lights on and a fire in the fireplace, the interior scenes were never remotely bright and shadows were always prevalent making the darkness seem like a living thing trying to squeeze the life from the light. The muted lighting and use of grain in the film was very reminiscent of some of the great suspense/horror film from the '70's including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), even though in the '70's, that was simply how films were made because of the available technology, whereas in film making today, those types of things are actually conscious decisions. It's easy for me to say that my favorite aspect of the movie was how it looked.

Unfortunately, Tyler and, to a lesser degree, Speedman's acting along with the excellent cinematography still weren't enough to completely win me over. As I said earlier, for me, this was only a fair to good movie and the main reason for that is the conflict I felt with the story and the James Hoyt character. I'll not go into detail because what bothers me may not bother someone else. I've mentioned on several occasions the fact that I'm aware that different people react differently in intense situations and, for the most part, it's impossible to predict how an individual will respond to every scenario, however, it's my opinion that certain reactions are merely a question of instinct, meaning that in many cases, the best action is no action, and the average person would act accordingly. Keep in mind that I'm not confusing instinct with intelligence because, as most of us who use polysyllabic words know, if it were a matter of intelligence, the average person would be (and usually is) toast in these suspense/horror type situations. I guess what I'm trying to say is that in movies like this, I'd like to see more experimental creativity with character development rather than dependence on tweaked cliches.

Oh, and while I would never try to indicate that I know exactly how I would respond were I to find myself in the same situation as Kristen and James, I can guarantee that when I get the shotgun in my hands, along with a shoe box full of shells, the game is unequivocally over.