Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Orphanage

Otherwise known as, El Orfanato (yes, it's subtitled), "The Orphanage," centers on a Laura (Belén Rueda) and the children's home in which she spent time as a child. Thirty years have passed since Laura lived at the orphanage and she has returned with her physician husband, Carlos, and their son, Simon, to begin a new chapter in their lives. Laura and Carlos have purchased the old seaside estate, which closed shortly after her adoption, with the intent of restoring the long abandoned property and making it a safe haven and care facility for disabled children. As their restoration work commences, Simon's active imagination blossoms to the extent of creating new imaginary friends, he already had two, who keep him company and create puzzle-like games for him to play. However, as the reopening of the home approaches, the games created by Simon's imaginary friends become less playful and instead begin to resonate with a darker and more disturbing meaning. After certain events transpire during the opening day celebration, Laura becomes convinced that her family has fallen victim to some obscure malevolence that has long been lurking in and around the house. As the days pass, Carlos remains skeptical while Laura deteriorates but still refuses to give in to her ever mounting fears as she becomes almost fanatical in her desire to simply find some type of answer that can explain the transformation of her once happy childhood home.

You know, the past few weeks have been exceptionally good for movies, at least for me and what I've been to see, and The Orphanage ranks right up there with the best of them. I was absolutely stunned at how good this movie really is and, even now, I have divided emotions concerning it because, on one side, I feel devilishly pleased (like I'm in a secret club) that I've seen such a fantastic film that so many people will miss out on merely because they 'don't do' subtitles, and on the other side, I feel inclined to go out of my way to spread the word about this movie in the hopes that everyone who truly loves a good story and superb acting will be aware of it and hopefully have an opportunity to experience for themselves and believe me, it is an experience. The opening sequence establishes a quaint seaside residence for a very small group of children who, judging by the fun they are having, are as content and happy as they would be if they were all part of the same family as opposed to being orphans. It is during this sequence that the very young Laura is introduced who will become the focus of the film when she returns to the place of her childhood happiness, thirty years later. Rueda's portrayal of Laura is nothing short of extraordinary as she deftly displays the emotional intensity of someone whose sturdy fabric of reality is fast becoming something more akin to gossamer threads. However, the real genius of Rueda's performance is in her ability to make her character vacillate between crazy/desperate and sane/focused, to the point where even I began to question what I thought was going on and what was really going on. In the end, the character of Laura is a brilliant fulcrum for a story that is exactly what it appears to be, except not in the manner in which it appears.

I would like to mention that even though the rest of the cast's role aren't as central as Rueda's, they do provide the perfect foundations for the story and are more than adequately portrayed. Fernando Cayo as the supportive and concerned Carlos and Roger Princep as the playful and imaginative Simon are exceedingly believable in their realism while Montserrat Carulla is properly spooky and cryptic as the social worker Benigna. The standout of the supporting cast is easily Geraldine Chaplin of Doctor Zhivago fame (and Charlie's daughter) as the psychic Aurora, working with a team a parapsychologists, who uses an impeccable balance of science and supernatural to suggest simplistic solutions.

This is the first feature film to be directed by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona whose previous work has consisted primarily of music videos and noted short films, however, I was very anxious to see this movie based on the fact that it is executive produced by Oscar-Nominee Guillermo del Toro. For those not familiar with del Toro, his directing credits include Mimic, Blade 2, Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. Del Toro is definitely one of my favorite directors and, judging by this film, his exacting nature, development of characters and meticulousness for detail is going to be equally displayed by his production work. Because of his high standards and commitment to quality del Toro has become highly successful with potentially difficult and problematic movies that deal with the realms of the fantastic, making him a very in-demand director globally. As of this writing, del Toro is finishing post production work on Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is in talks with Peter Jackson and his production company to take up the directorial duties for The Hobbit and it's proposed sequel and I've even heard that his name has come up in the infinitely small number of directors being considered for the final Harry Potter film(s). Impressive.

It's been several days since I've seen this movie and I absolutely cannot wait until I get to see it again. Movies like this are few and far between; it's difficult to combine scary and suspenseful with thought provoking emotion and make no mistake, this movie has some serious fright going on. I've seen many more 'horror' movies than your average movie patron, but the image of the small child at the end of the hallway in the orphanage uniform wearing the homemade burlap mask with one eye and the tuft of hair sticking out of the top is not something that I will not soon be forgetting, and this isn't even a horror movie. On the flip side, I can't think of many (if any) suspenseful films that have had such a surprisingly emotional effect on me upon it's completion (I'm not going to translate that statement for you). The Orphanage is an amazing and beautiful piece of work and even though it's in a limited release, if the opportunity presents itself, do not miss this film and if you're not lucky enough to be in a area showing the movie, write yourself a reminder and attach it to your bathroom mirror so you'll remember to look for it on disc in a few months. Go ahead and do it now. Hurry up.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Beginning on July 3, 2007, patrons venturing out to see Transformers were treated to a movie trailer filmed from the perspective of a video camera and depicting a going away party for some guy named Rob. In the preview, the party is interrupted by the building shaking, lights flashing, an animal-like noise and a news report concerning calls pouring in about a thunderous roaring sound, which prompts the suggestion of going to the roof in order to possibly see what's going on. Once on the roof, an explosion is seen in the vicinity of the harbor and flaming debris begins to rain down in all directions forcing everyone back into the stairwell in a frenzied attempt to get to safety. The picture and sound cuts in and out as everyone races down the stairway and finally stabilizes as they exit the building and find themselves in a scene of utter chaos and disruption. The street is filled with people running in all directions (mainly away from the explosion) while other people are striving to see what's going on near the harbor. "What is it, is it coming this way?" is heard, followed by, "I saw it! It's alive! It's huge!" Unusual roaring noises reverberate in the distance and as party recipient Rob attempts to coral some of his friends, an exceptionally large object comes hurtling through the air, ricochets off a building about 40 floors up, smashes into the street displacing cars and SUV's and as it rolls to a stop amid screams of terrified people (Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!) you can see that the object is in fact the head of the Statue of Liberty. Oh my God! The preview then cuts to a party goer saying it was going to be the best night ever followed by a black screen with the words: In Theaters 1-18-08. And that was it. No title. No credits, other than the fact that whatever the film was, it was being produced by Alias and Lost creator and Mission Impossible III director J.J.Abrams. Transformers was a smash and was reported as such but, the mystery trailer was also in the news because everyone wanted to know what the heck it was but nobody was talking. Following months of viral marketing, the movie, known only as it's codename, 'Cloverfield' was finally talked about by Abrams and the true title revealed: Cloverfield. Other than the title, the only thing that Abrams disclosed was that the film was a modern monster movie filmed from the perspective of a video camera over the course of a single night. Well, now it has officially arrived and here's the synopsis with absolutely no spoilers:

Rob Hawkins(Michael Stahl-David) is moving to Japan and on his last night in the city he is surprised with a going-away-party populated by all of his friends, including his brother Jason(Mike Vogel), his brother's girlfriend Lily(Jessica Lucas), Beth(Odette Yustman) the girl he's been friends with forever and cares for more than he'll admit and his most loyal but dimwitted friend Hud(T. J. Miller). Hud's purpose is to man the camera throughout the party and record farewell testimonials for Rob to keep and cherish forever, and he does an adequate job when his attention isn't being diverted by Marlena(Lizzy Caplan), the newest acquaintance of the group and, obviously, the object of his desire. The party and typical accompanied drama are interrupted just like we saw in the trailer. Once on the street and after Lady Liberty's noggin has come to a rest, the core group of friends decide they should make their way out of the city posthaste because, yes, there is a monster and, yes, it's alive and it's huge. Oh my God! However, a plea for help in the form of a cell phone call alters their path and leads to the heart of the movie.

Absolute fun! This movie was extremely entertaining and held firm to what it aspired to be from the opening scene to the fade to black. I was especially pleased with the cast of near nobody's (although I was familiar with Lizzy Caplan from a few episodes of Tru Calling - yes, I watched the show, now let's just move on) and how well they came across as relatively average people who were somewhat cool (even the uncool people were kinda cool) and doing their best to deal with the situation of upset reality rather than lose their heads (like the Statue of Liberty). I didn't have a single issue with any member of the cast, their motivations or their actions in regards to the storyline and the situations in which they found themselves. Granted, it's easy to be more judgmental from the comfort of a theater chair but, given the intensity of their plight, I doubt their choices were much different from what mine would have been in a similar scenario, and, again, I feel that the non-famous cast helped me identify with the story on a more basic level. I did recognize one actor (Chris Mulkey - I looked it up), who turns up briefly as very minor character two-thirds of the way into the film, from his portrayal as a deputy in the original Rambo movie, First Blood, and also from his role as a bank robbing, fast car driving alien host in The Hidden but, for the most part, the people in this movie are no different than anyone you might see at any mall in any city. Very realistic.

My only complaint, and it's very minor, is in regards to another aspect of the film's 'realism'. While I appreciate the idea of the events in the movie all being captured on a video camera, I really wanted more. The shaky quality at some points or the realistically bad lighting didn't really bother me, in fact, none of the quality bothered me in any way because I understood the concept and limits of the perspective, however, I would have liked to have seen some aspects of this film from a secondary perspective. Judging from how good some of the effects shots looked through what is supposed to be a video camera, I couldn't stop myself from imagining what a wide aerial shot with full out digital effects would have looked like, but I'm sure that's what what the film makers were after considering the fact they were limiting themselves in the way they were. The film makers wanted to keep this story personal and on a smaller level, and they achieve that brilliantly - the movie plays like a small singular perspective of an exceptionally large and catastrophic event. Did I mention I really wanted more? I understand that the budget for the movie was around 25 million dollars, which is nothing when it comes to some films, and I really have to give director Matt Reeves kudos for what he was able to pull off when you consider how huge and expensive this movie could have been. So, for an unproven director, a fairly new producer (J. J. Abrams) and a unique concept for a classic genre, the studio forked out 25 million bucks to see what they could accomplish and the result is an engaging 84 minute monster movie that made 41 million dollars in four days. Having more than proven themselves, I'm really hoping their accomplishment will lead to a significantly larger budget for a sequel that will tell a bigger story from a grander perspective (maybe two cameras) and provide me with a few more details and deeper understanding of the events or, in other words, more.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Atonement, based on Ian McEwan's best selling 2002 novel is brought to the screen by director Joe Wright, who, for this adaptation, reunited with his film making team from Pride and Prejudice and it's Oscar nominated star, Keira Knightley. It's 1935, the hottest part of the year and Briony Tallis(Saoirse Ronan), a mischievous 13-year-old fledgling writer with an overactive imagination, is enjoying a life of luxury and privilege with her family on their estate in the Surrey Hills in England. On one particular afternoon, after failing to convince her cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, the 9-year-old twins, and 15-year-old Lola, to rehearse the play she has written rather than go swimming, Briony, from her upstairs bedroom window, witnesses an exchange between Cecilia(Knightley), her headstrong sister, and the housekeeper's Cambridge educated son Robbie(James McAvoy), which, after obviously stoking her imagination, prompts her to pry even further into her sister's business and eventually leads Briony to bear witness against Robbie in regards to a particularly atrocious transgression of which he is most assuredly innocent. Having openly declared their love for each other mere hours before, Robbie is arrested and separated from Cecilia on a night whose events will have repercussions for all involved for the remainder of their lives.

By the time I arrived at the end, this film had become one of my favorites. For me, there was absolutely nothing to dislike. Everything, the story, the characters, the settings, the cinematography, even the small amount of computer-generated imagery used, was practically perfect. The performances of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are outstanding and the chemistry that they are able to harness, between the two characters, truly breathes life into what could have very easily become just another period piece based on a good novel. The brief but powerful connection that Cecilia and Robbie forge is what makes everything that transpires during their separation so much more emotional and, as a testament to Knightley and McAvoy's talents, agonizing. However, I must note that it takes more than two incredible characters to create an outstanding film - without the cohesiveness of an equally compelling story, great characters are wasted. In this instance, the cohesive story comes in the form of another compelling character, Briony Tallis, brought to life amazingly, first, by Saoirse Ronan and then subsequently by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, with each incarnation being the bearer of specific emotions as the decades pass. The rest of the cast more than adequately provide support for the depths of the story and help bring about an intense and heartfelt realism that other films with similar aspirations so often lack.

I really can't say enough good things about this movie. I'm a sucker for romantic period pieces, anyway, but this movie hit it out of the park*. Another thing I should mention is an outstanding shot that occurs about halfway through the film. In the scene, Robbie who is now a British soldier in World War II, makes his way to the final point of British retreat on France's Dunkirk beach which is, understandably, a perfect study of weary defeat and disorganization. As Robbie makes his way along the beach, through and around hundred's of other soldiers and horses, the camera never cuts away, even as he doubles back and circles certain areas looking for a resting place - the shot continues, without a break, for five and a half uninterrupted minutes. As it turns out, on the day they intended to film that scene, the film makers were able to gather 1000 extras for that day only and, to make matters worse, the tide would soon be coming in and the set and pieces would begin to disappear. They had to make the scene in one day and the best way to do it was in a single shot rather then dozens of short ones. From what I've read, they were able to film the shot three times and, I think, ended up using the third take. For me, even though I was already aware of the shot, I felt that it added a significant amount of scope and realism to the scene as well as contributing to the overall depth and quality of the film and, to be honest, I was so focused on the unfolding story, the shot was probably half over before I realized I was seeing it, which is a good indicator that the technicalities didn't overwhelm the story and/or emotion.

Atonement is easily one of the best movies I've seen in months and I can honestly say that even the most hard-hearted person would find it difficult to not be moved by this story. I wish I could say that the film lives up to the book but, having not read it or seen a comparison of the two, I can't, however, I will admit that I'm shopping victoriously for a copy of the book as I write this and intend to have read it by the time the film is released on disc. What I can say is, if you have a penchant for moving, well thought stories joined with great acting and spectacular film making, then this is definitely a movie that should not be missed.

*I felt it was a good time for a manly sports reference.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

No Country for Old Men

In this allegorical crime drama based on Cormac McCarthy's book of the same name, director's Joel and Ethan Coen bring to life a surprisingly poignant story about wants and needs and the brutal violence that can be brought about by both. Josh Brolin stars as Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet barely getting by with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) in a small town near the Rio Grande. During an afternoon of hunting, Moss stumbles upon the site of a drug deal gone very bad consisting of a significant number of bodies, one barely alive Mexican, a considerable amount of heroin and two and a half million dollars in cash, which he promptly takes. Because of an event I'll not disclose, the very bad men who want their money back become aware of Moss's existence and contract sociopathic killer Anton Chigurgh (pronounced 'sugar' and played by Javier Badem) to find Moss and return the money. Moss, now on his own and having hopefully sent his wife to safety must try and outwit or, at least, out pace the pure evil that is Chigurgh. Back in town, the local Sheriff, Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is on the verge of retirement but has suddenly found himself in the middle of a series of murders that speak of a twisted apathetic individual possessing a ruthless cunning and wanton disregard for life. As Bell continues to piece together the events in an effort to track Moss and the suspect, he begins to fear the outcome of the convergence of their paths as well as question his own career.

I'll really be surprised if this film doesn't garner some serious Oscar recognition. Tommy Lee Jones, as usual, provides a strong but subtle performance as Sheriff Bell while Josh Brolin's portrayal of Moss is surprisingly fresh from an actor who has been around for some time but has never received any significant accolades. However, for me, the standout performance had to be that of Javier Badem as Anton Chigurgh. Badem masterfully captures the 'spirit' of a sociopath with unnerving results, to the point where it seems as if the character is continuously having an out-of-body experience which allows him to monitor his actions from the perspective of an observer and, thus, totally disassociate himself from any emotional connection that would normally be equated with such heinous acts. I should also mention that Woody Harrelson has a small but notable role as a bounty hunter named Carson Wells whose screen time is as comedic as it is unsettling. Lastly, the Coen brothers should be recognized for an amazing screenplay and their direction of the film in general because, if your familiar with their work, it's obvious that in this movie, as in some of their past features, they worked very closely with the cast and and made a point to emphasize each individual from the lead characters down to the least significant supporting role.

Overall, I thought this was an exceptionally well told story with the perfect amount of character development coupled with a believable premise. I really enjoyed this film and I'm looking forward to seeing it again when it's released on disc in March. I'm always fond of movies that begin with someone having a normal, uneventful day and suddenly things go haywire and this is one of those great stories that transpire simply because of a single, questionable action, and had it not occurred, the story would have been about ten minutes long, if that. Granted, the specific action serves to not only create the story but act as a window into the protagonist's personality, as well, while juxtaposing the actions and personality of the antagonist, Anton Chigurgh. However, in my opinion, had the main character, Moss, taken the opposite action, I would actually have considered him a smarter, but less empathetic character and it should suffice to say that if I ever find myself in a similar situation, my story will be the ten minute version.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I Am Legend

In I AM LEGEND, Will Smith joins the ranks of Vincent Price (in 1964's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH) and Charlton Heston (in 1971's OMEGA MAN) as the star of an adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name. Often surprising in its focus on loneliness and loss, this thoughtful, eerie, and restrained sci-fi horror film provides a parade of startling visuals, but never allows special effects to overcome the human element. Smith, in a strong performance very different from his usual persona, is Robert Neville, the lone survivor in a New York City where streets are overgrown and deer gambol among deserted automobiles. Following an epidemic, the Earth's population has been turned into an army of nocturnal zombies. Immune to the virus, military scientist Neville searches for a cure in his Washington Square townhouse. Haunted by visions of his family leaving quarantined Manhattan two years prior, he drives through the city with his German Shepherd, Sam, by day and barricades his home from the monsters nightly. But when Anna (Alice Braga)--another immune stranger-finds him, they will have to fight the onslaught twice as hard.

This movie rocks. I was very impressed with the movie, even though the connection to it's source material (the 1954 novella) is, at best, tenuous. Having recently seen several radically 'updated' adaptations of books and stories, I was very much prepared to see a completely new story loosely based on the original work, which allowed me to appreciate this movie as a separate entity - and appreciate it, I did. Will Smith is exceptional in his portrayal of a man who has quite literally lost everything and struggles daily with loss, guilt and loneliness; kept sane only by sheer drive, routine and his dog. The first half of the film is pretty much Will on his own forging a sympathetic emotional bond with the audience that greatly succeeds in conveying the scope of the Neville character's situation and motivation. I could have easily spent additional time exploring the isolated aspect of Neville's life. The second half if the film is where the intensity picks up and the story truly diverges from the book but, again, that's not really a terrible thing since the tale told is fast paced and never falls into the philosophical trap that could have so easily taken over the rest of the film.

This is a movie designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible without insulting the small p
ercentage who are familiar with books and might actually own one or two. There are several instances involving the 'infected' that really made me stop and wonder about their 'evolution' and, to me, these instances screamed for more exploration but the movie proceeded on, leaving those moments in my mind like afterimages of the sun on my retinas. It's been a couple of weeks since I've seen this film and, yet, I still think of those moments more than any other part of the story. If it was the intent of the filmmakers to leave the audience with those lingering questions rather than simply running short of time and explanation, then all I can say is: Well done.

If you do see this movie and enjoy it, I highly recommend reading a copy of the original novella by Richard Matheson. The book is roughly 150 pages and could easily be read in a couple of days and would give you the true ironic meaning to the title. The novella is concise and well thought, like most of Matheson's work. In fact, most people are probably more familiar with Matheson's work than they realize. Matheson wrote the novel The Shrinking Man which was made into the classic 50's film The Incredible Shrinking Man, he also wrote several episodes of the orignal Twilight Zone series including the famous Nightmare at 20,000 Feet staring William Shatner. And speaking of Shatner, Matheson also wrote the episode The Enemy Within from the original Star Trek series (season 1) where Kirk, because of a transporter accident, is split into two people - one evil and one good. Also written by Matehson, I'll mention Duel - a 70's television movie starring Dennis Weaver and directed by an upcoming director named Steven Spielberg (recently released on DVD), and, one of my favorites, the original television movie The Night Stalker staring Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, which went on to become a short lived series and the primary influence behind Chris Carter's The X-Files.