The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007


Full review behind the jump

Bee Movie

: Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith
: Jerry Seinfeld and Spike Feresten & Barry Marder & Andy Robin
: Jerry Seinfeld, Christina Steinberg
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Jerry Seinfeld, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson

I remember an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s mega-hit sitcom where circumstances conspired to put him in front of an audience of elementary-school kids. His well of humor completely dried up, and he was reduced to asking why they call it homework, since you’re not working on your home.

He should have remembered the lesson – kids don’t do ironic distance. Seinfeld’s style of comedy depends on the application of dry logic to the common absurdities of grown-up life, neither of which children have a deep understanding of. And even here in the animated
Bee Movie, where you can’t see his face, you can hear that archness in his voice, that instinct to deflect attention away from himself and on to whatever thing has him bemused at the moment.

This is a movie with a number of good ideas for jokes but no cohesion with regards to how to deliver them, and a distressing lack of artistry in its presentation. It’s been a long time since I saw an animated feature that cost so much money yet seemed to care so little about how it looked. A good family movie can enrapture the kids while rewarding the adults for coming along and paying attention. I’m sure that kids will pay attention simply because it is bright and antic and untaxing to their brains, but if there are children out there with a keen interest in satire about class-action lawsuits and the ennui of career immobility, I’ve yet to meet them.

Seinfeld plays Barry B. Benson, who recently matriculated from bee school and is about to embark on the one career allowed to bees – making honey. When he shows up for his first day at Honex (“a division of Honesco, part of the Hexagon Group”), he will pick his assignment and work it with no vacation until his death. Distressed that he’s about to surrender his only chit of free will, he procrastinates about joining the workforce, and mopes at home in a style visually-reminiscent of that classic of children’s cinema – The Graduate.

Eventually he schemes his way onto the crew of “Pollen Jockeys” who get to adventure outside the hive, gather raw materials for the honey, and see to the plant life of the Earth by scattering their genetic material hither and yon. Bees play an enormously important role in our ecosystem, and this movie does charmingly dramatize this.

But an accident or two or three separates Barry from the swarm and he ends up in the apartment of florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), who saves him from a boot-squashing. Barry is smitten, and breaks one of the sacred rules of bee-dom by speaking to her. Her reaction resembles a drunk trying to play Pictionary – the way the animators match Vanessa’s “performance” to the expressive tics of Renee Zellweger’s breathy and playful voice is one of the movie’s strongest points, the characters otherwise have a forgettable look to them.

Eventually Barry discovers that humankind has been taking all that honey the bees make for itself, and I laughed at the over-the-top devilishness of the beekeepers, chortling as they gas their slaves into submission. Barry responds like any offended party in today’s society: he fronts a class-action lawsuit. This gives John Goodman prime space to devote his booming vocal chords to the old country lawyah routine as the counsel for the honey manufacturers, and Barry’s vendetta against hive-smashing bears claims a wicked casualty.

And while there’s a mechanical cause-and-effect clicking away here within the plot, it rarely grew beyond the scope of wryly-amusing situation. I could resort to listing lines of dialogue that made me laugh, like many of those exclaimed by Vanessa’s anguished lunkhead boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton). But what is it that sums up those successful jokes except that, as is Seinfeld’s trademark, they riff on the peculiar fixations and surprising gullibility of the modern urban dweller? Vanessa’s eagerness to immediately lobby against the human race on behalf of an insect that makes clever conversation over wine is rather appalling, if you think about it.

Instead of being a movie about a young man going through a dynamic adventure during which he discovers his purpose, Bee Movie keeps feeling like a movie about jokes, and not a great one to look at, either. We’re spoiled these days by the high-quality of feature animation, and so I find myself wanting the pleasure of design, that enticing color and texture even the disappointing Shrek the Third had, where I had the childlike urge to reach out and touch something on the screen. When Barry zooms through the sky, it doesn’t feel transcendent. When crisis threatens, it doesn’t feel consequential. When he tries to appeal to our hearts, he doesn’t sound sincere.

Dreamworks Animation has positioned itself perfectly to be the Looney Tunes to Pixar’s Mickey Mouse – contemporary and quick, with a sassier attitude and emphasis on style and pacing over polish, compared to the warmth and artistry of their all-audiences rival. But with under-imagined trifles like Bee Movie, it’s as if they’ve ceded most of their share of the battlefield, and are content simply with volume of product. This is imitation amusement, the equivalent of the generic-brand cereal. We know the difference, especially the kids.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Live Free or Die Hard

Originally published 7/5/07
Full review behind the jump

Live Free or Die Hard

: Len Wiseman
: Screen story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi, Screenplay by Mark Bomback, based on certain original characters by Roderick Thorp and suggested by the article A Farewell to Arms by John Carlin
: Michael Fottrell
: Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Cliff Curtis, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kevin Smith

Try as they might, the movies still can’t make typing sexy. They’ve tried the usual tricks: installing movie stars (look, it’s
Sandra Bullock typing!), and they’ve upped the ante on what terrifying things can be accomplished by typing, like here in Live Free or Die Hard, where a few keyboard commandos manage to bring the functionality of the entire United States to a standstill. That’s one hell of an Alt- macro.

But even though it is a computerized world with computerized stories unfolding in it, it’s still so dull, and so unconvincing, to watch fit and be-stubbled actors battering away at keyboards, as if the speed and force of their fingers has some impact on the program being run. I guess the only thing less dynamic would be to up the realism and have them accomplish it by mouse clicks.

This is not to say I’m not glad to have John McClane back. The half-dressed hero cop character who made Bruce Willis a star in 1988’s
Die Hard is still a fine figure to deposit in the middle of any one-against-an-army action scenario. From the start that smirk and chip on the shoulder has fit Willis perfectly, as is the air he projects that he’d really rather be somewhere else, because where he is right now is likely to get him killed.

Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, Schwarzenegger was the invulnerable tank, and Stallone the greased-up fetish sculpture. Willis was the guy we could relate to. And this fourth entry in the franchise, 12 long years after
Die Hard: With a Vengeance, is quite a good time in spite of all the typing going on. It helps to have John McClane there to be bewildered and irritated by all this technology on our behalf. And it helps more still that in a digital world, director Len Wiseman still believes in the power of physical effects.

As the story begins, McClane is doing his usual job of stubbornly mangling his personal life. He’s apparently divorced now (I wonder what Holly cited, irreconcilable propensity to be around explosions?), and his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is doing the trick where she calls him by his first name rather than “Dad”. As the closest badge in the area, he’s sent on a thankless errand to collect computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, yes, the guy from the Mac commercials), whom the FBI wants to interview after someone breaches their security.

It just so happens that McClane arrives only minutes ahead of a well-armed assassination squadron led by the resiliently bouncy Rand (District B13 star Cyril Raffaelli). McClane’s unerring radar tells him something big is afoot, and as usual, no one believes him.

What’s going on is known as a “fire sale”, a three-stage coordinated hack on our infrastructure that starts with traffic signals and gets more destructively ambitious from there. It’s all the work of super-duper hacker Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who even with his typing skills doesn’t measure up well in the pantheon of Die Hard villainy. Compared to Alan Rickman’s smoothly-corporate sociopathy and Jeremy Irons’ bemused sadism, the most Olyphant the actor has in him is hissy-fits. I see him waving a gun at people, and I just don’t believe it.

But it matters less than usual because it’s not really Gabriel himself that McClane is pitted against most of the time, but his henchmen and the power he has from his position within our networks. And those trigger all manner of fun conflagrations. Wiseman got his start working in art departments, and I think that’s more instructive to consider than his previous work as a director, the vampire/werewolf smackdown Underworld movies. It shows that he starts in the physical world first, and then enhances where necessary. Impressive as computer effects are these days, we know a real car being flung through the air when we see one, and respect those willing to bring in the machinery to fling it.

Wiseman and screenwriter Mark Bomback don’t half-think any of the action sequences, when someone takes the time to conjure up a duel between a tractor-trailer and a Harrier jet on a collapsing circular on-ramp, they deserve credit. Scattered throughout the movie you can see large and small examples of the filmmakers trying to create fresh configurations of guns and found objects and flying stunt bodies, like someone coming up with new games from the contents of a very old toy box.

McClane’s body is visibly older and slower, and Willis shows a confident lack of vanity by playing within it. On the flip side, what he goes through reflects severe brinksmanship in the arena of plausible limits to bodily punishment. I blame the near-Wolverine-like healing powers of 24’s Jack Bauer for forcing the issue – while the first Die Hard saw McClane progressively more wrecked and hobbled in each reel, and took a rooting interest in how he’d survive his diminishing capabilities; this fourth outing, if it obeyed real world, not Road Runner, physics, would probably see him dead within the first twenty minutes. Seriously, how does he bail out of that car without flaying all the skin off his arm?

But a realism gripe doesn’t have much home anymore in the world of Die Hard. Despite the passage of time, I still know John McClane when I see him and am glad. He’s a very American kind of hero, doing the job that needs doing not because he likes it, but because no one else will. And his adventures have an innately-American truism at their base – no matter what people say, when it comes down to it, they’re really after your money.

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Full review behind the jump

The Mist

: Frank Darabont
: screenplay by Frank Darabont, based on the novella by Stephen King
: Frank Darabont, Liz Glotzer
: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, Alexa Davalos, Nathan Gamble, Chris Owen, Sam Witwer, Robert C. Treveiler, David Jensen

The Mist you can see shadows of all the big-name authors who’ve influenced Stephen King. There’s some Richard Matheson, a fair bit of H.P. Lovecraft, and, well, Stephen King himself. Just as in over 80 Perry Mason adventures Erle Stanley Gardner doubtlessly had to re-use a few courtroom tricks; so have we seen the prolific King, over the years, resorting to a little recycling in order to carry on his monstrous torments of the good citizens of Maine.

Of course he’s still good at what he does because he sticks to his core principles – that the imagination can be fear’s greatest ally, and that the biggest monster is rarely a match for humanity’s ability to be its own worst enemy. So that
The Mist will get a few good scares in is inevitable, because writer/director Frank Darabont is nothing if not famously scrupulous to King, having already adapted his stories The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. But not all forms of fidelity are intrinsic goods when it comes to adaptation, and he gives reverent treatment to one of King’s least thematically-ambitious tales: a colorful, but ultimately simple, penny dreadful.

With a set-up as quick as a whip-crack, and multiple opportunities for squirming and gore, this is a picture that should move with nasty zip. But it is too-frequently plodding, an aesthetically-uncertain application of “A”-movie pretension to what should have been merrily-“B” hysterics. It achieves on a number of points; but every time it does, some stumble is not far behind to undercut it.

It opens with an unseasonably ferocious storm that causes a power outage and knocks a tree through painter David Drayton’s (Thomas Jane) studio. He takes his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) with him into town to pick up supplies. The supermarket is filled with nervous locals, self-entitled yuppies with vacation homes in the area, and soldiers from that military base in the mountains where they’ve been conducting those secret experiments.

Soon the streets, the parking lot, seemingly the whole town and who knows how much else, is enveloped by a thick white mist, and a townsperson (Jeffrey DeMunn) runs in, screaming that something very dangerous is in there. And soon the store finds itself under siege by an array of beasts that fly, scuttle, sting, chomp, and other horrible things I can’t even find simple verbs for.

There’s a suddenness and ruthlessness to the violence in The Mist that I quite appreciate – the filmmakers are not afraid to spatter blood. And when the town’s local religious zealot Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) starts preaching Armageddon with more authority than usual (those bugs do look like locusts, don’t they?), I liked the gradually bubbling dread of Drayton and some of the other more-secular pragmatists in the store, who recognize that they might not be able to use this place as a safe haven forever. And I especially liked the diminutive store manager, the mild, balding Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones), who no one believes when he says he’s handy with a gun down at the target range. Heroes don’t always come with square jaws.

But two major problems with The Mist emerge quickly and never go away; and I’m not just talking about the below-market computer animation on the creatures. First, the camerawork keeps changing its mind about whether it wants to aim for stable widescreen compositions or dart in for a more modern, hand-held look. Each lends itself to a different experience for the viewer – either they are helpless witnesses, or experiencing the terror immediately from within the crowd. Both can be effective, but switching between them gives the audience an escape from their trance.

The second problem has to do with the peculiar character of the dialogue. At times it sounds like nothing less than a total transcription of the novella. But sentences, even whole conversations, that feel natural on the landscape of the printed page can reveal their jarring construction when suddenly spoken aloud by an actor. On many occasions during The Mist you’ll have this nagging sense that people, especially people in the situation they’re presently in, just wouldn’t be talking this way.

This does not stop the picture from frequently giving you a good jolt. A wide range of phobias are exploited, and as we get on into the second half Darabont effectively crescendos the tension within the store. Harden is invaluable, the fervency with which this Academy Award-winner believes in her otherwise-cartoonish character probably saves the movie from going completely off the cliff. And there’s one shot – you’ll know it when you see it – that captures in a single awesome image the scale of the troubles our characters are in. You’ll know because it looks like a painting that would give you a nightmare, or the cover of some lurid paperback that calls to you even though you fear what’s within its pages.

How tragic, then, that The Mist’s biggest triumph is so immediately followed by its most gross miscalculation. I won’t say anything about how the movie ends, except that Darabont has at last chosen to depart from his source material, which I’d been rather waiting for him to do. But what he’s chosen as an alternative is such a misguided, superfluous cruelty; instead of being shaken, I was just annoyed. It is in the hallowed tradition of good horror stories to be unsparing to good and evil alike, and to deny the characters easy rescue from a higher power. But when filmmakers go a step further, and exercise their own higher power in order to inflict pointless suffering, I tune out. I can’t dismiss The Mist for its mistakes, nor can I fully-recommend it for its virtues. But it hangs there, provocative – the choice of whether or not to walk in is yours.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Originally posted 7/5/07
Full review behind the jump

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

: Tim Story
: Screen story by John Turman and Mark Frost, Screenplay by Don Payne and Mark Frost, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
: Avi Arad, Bernd Eichinger, Ralph Winter
: Ioan Gruffud, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Andre Braugher, Doug Jones, and featuring the voice of Laurence Fishburne

A movie franchise that is purported to be about super-enhanced human beings seems to bank an awful lot on low expectations in
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. It is a movie that I can honestly say exceeds its predecessor, but that is saying crushingly little. With franchises like Batman and Spider-Man thriving under the care of filmmakers who see directly to the universal longings of their heroes and, successfully or not, swing for the fences every time, here is a franchise that still hasn’t found its tone, but coasts on the hope its audience will be satisfied that enough money was spent, and passively un-offended enough to stay until the end. It considers an indifferent shrug and a popcorn receipt to be a triumph of the form.

Although the first movie climaxed with a most underwhelming, non-apocalyptic dust-up, at least they have the decency to put the entire planet in jeopardy this time around. The filmmakers provide a variation on one of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful nemeses, Galactus. What form this being takes, and how it may or may not conform with his various guises in comic book-dom over the years, I’ll leave be – what matters is that a) he sends forth a cosmically-powered herald to find suitable planets and prepare them for his arrival, b) on arriving, he eats the planets, and c) he’s heading for Earth.

So how do you take a brilliant scientist with a stretchable body (Ioan Gruffud as “Mr. Fantastic” Reed Richards), a woman who can project forcefields and become invisible (Jessica Alba as his “Inivisible Girl” fiancée Sue Storm), a flying, flammable egotist (Chris Evans as “Human Torch” Johnny Storm), and a super-strong pile of living rock (Michael Chiklis as “The Thing” Ben Grimm), and conjure up a scenario where they can believably fight something that eats planets? Sadly, the movie has no interest in sorting that problem out, and hopes to buy its way out of trouble with a light show.

It could be that the screenwriters have no motivation to do anything beyond conjuring up a few perils and gags to get us from one product-placement scene to another. Writers in both film and television have made increasing noise in recent years about having to shoehorn advertisements in the most abrasively unsubtle ways into their scenarios – I only wish the rebellion had kicked off before the Fantastic Four’s flying car showed up with Dodge logos and a HEMI motor.

When we’re not looking at name-brand logos, we get sitcom situations enhanced by lackluster special effects. Reed Richards and Sue Storm finally intend to tie the knot, but keep getting interrupted by global calamity. Can they ever achieve normalcy with such responsibilities? Will The Fantastic Four survive their wanting to enjoy wedded bliss? If the movie felt like exploring these issues with slightly more substantive tools than snarky dialogue and contrived misunderstandings, then we might be getting somewhere.

But why do that when there’s a spin-off to set-up? Galactus’ herald, everybody who’s anybody knows, is The Silver Surfer, whose shiny screen debut has been destined since the appearance of the liquid metal T-1000 back in Terminator 2. The Surfer possesses seemingly limitless powers of matter/energy conversion and he flies around the Earth, boring big holes in the ground and making ominous pronouncements that create a lot of general panic. How all this “prepares” the Earth for Galactus I’m not certain. The Surfer is performed physically by Doug Jones but voiced by Laurence Fishburne. This is the same fate Jones suffered in Hellboy, performing the movements of Abe Sapien only to be re-dubbed by David Hyde Pierce. It appears to be his destiny to create a character for animators and then watch a celebrity who spent a day in a recording studio get all the credit.

So while the Fantastics (it is an act of willpower to withhold a “K”, dear reader) try to hold off bickering with each other long enough to knock Surfer off his board so he can explain the plot to them, I should also mention, for no reason other than thoroughness, that previous arch-nemesis Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) is back. This is an improbability he keeps threatening to explain but never does. As before he is lacking anywhere near appropriate levels of both menace and diabolicalness, and is satisfied that simply sauntering in, smirking, and being evil will annoy everyone and tickle his fancy. His visage is un-threatening, his voice thin and whiny, and he could suffer the same criticism as Bowler Hat Guy in Disney’s Meet the Robinsons: his plans just aren’t very well thought through. The wasted potential here is staggering – it’s like turning Lex Luthor into a serial litterbug.

Of the acting I can say little except that the actors don't have much to work with, and have all been more compelling elsewhere. I’m not one to demand that all directors be auteurs, I know that some are simply shooters with enough endurance, technical know-how and people skills to see that millions and millions of dollars are spent in their intended ways. There’s a need for that in Hollywood, and I don’t at all fault director Tim Story (Barbershop, Taxi), who has no discernible aesthetic or need to communicate through this medium, for wanting to keep earning such fat paychecks as a movie of this size provide.

So instead, my accusing eye falls on the gang of producers for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. As is increasingly common, there’s over a dozen of them. Between the ones who arranged for financing and tax credits in exchange for some prettily bland Canadian locations, the ones who just get their names up there for contractual reasons or ego, and the ones who busied themselves selling screen space to fast food restaurants, I wonder which one’s job it was to actually produce a movie, and if he or she ever had a moment’s passion about what to do with this movie besides advertise it?

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MOVIE REVIEW - No Country For Old Men

Full review behind the jump

No Country for Old Men

: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
: screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
: Scott Rudin, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Stephen Root

But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own."
-From the opening narration of
Blood Simple, the first feature written/directed by the Coen Brothers

I see an umbilical cord here stretching all the way back through the Coen Brothers’ filmography, connecting up to
No Country for Old Men, their latest work. Their first film, Blood Simple, is also a stark and merciless thriller, not without its odd touches, and it climaxes with a scene where a woman stands alone in a room, with a man in the next room shooting at her through the wall. Each bullet hole punches a shaft of light into the darkness, and the movie’s final joke is that these two people have been brought by impeccable logic to a fatal showdown, and she doesn’t even know who he is or how he came to be there.

This film contains more than one similar scene – it is hypnotizing in its dread of thin walls, and little telltale noises that make you worry something awful is on the other side of those walls; something that’s coming for you. You will find yourself
listening to this movie with a startling keenness. But this project is much more than the accomplished plot mechanics and set pieces of Blood Simple, or the prodigious craft and visual seduction of Barton Fink, or the criminal foibles and resilient, quirky courage of humanity against its own fallibility in Fargo. This movie draws from everything that Joel and Ethan Coen have ever learned and accomplished, and becomes something which is both greater than the sum of its parts and wholly itself.

They too have arrived at their fate, and the film they were destined to make, easily one of the best of this year, and also to be stood and counted when a reckoning of this decade of cinema is made. It’s been over ten years since they made a movie they expected us to take seriously. But
No Country, in every aspect of its design, execution, and feeling, simply stuns.

I won’t tell you what the movie’s actually about, because one of its greatest pleasures is the way it twists your empathy around, the way it sneakily tells a bigger story even as it seems to be microscopically focused. You’ll think it could be one of the most dreadfully nihilistic films you’ve ever seen, but that’s only because you haven’t yet absorbed it in total. Suffice it to say the filmmakers, working off of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, know exactly what their movie is about, and orchestrate it with a precision of mood and technique that rivals a concerto with a million notes, all of them perfect.

Instead I will simply tell you where we begin, which is with a Texan named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter out looking for game. What he finds is the blood-soaked aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, as well as a bag full of $2 Million. Moss is a man of unusual patience and smarts, he is just resourceful enough to think he can skip leaving well enough alone. And so he takes the money and begins to scheme how to get to freedom with it and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald).

This sets in motion a series of predatory maneuvers among all the interested parties, but the predator among predators is Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a kind of perpetual-motion assassin. His most versatile tool is a pneumatic piston, a metal puncher connected to an air tank, used by ranchers to kill cattle, and used by Chigurh to punch holes in whatever stands between him and his objective.

He has a definite attitude about killing, but that attitude is impossible to sum up. One of his victims cries: “You don’t have to do this!” And a rational man would see that this is true, that what he is about to do is totally unnecessary. He responds by smiling, and saying “People always say the same thing.” Bardem (in an award-worthy performance) puts so many colors into that line, and that smile. He’s perplexed, or maybe disappointed, or frustrated that he can never make people understand his own inevitability. With his dark clothes, and queerly-mechanical walk, and the way his eyes always seem to be gleaming, he’s nothing less than a moving storm, a plague of savagery that just spreads further, and further, through every person who comes near him or the money.

And maybe Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) can sense this. Maybe that explains the laconic reserve with which he tracks the concentric circles of violence as they widen outward from that first crime scene. Here is a performance that is not as showy as Bardem’s villainy, but in many ways is its equal for the absoluteness of its many dimensions. We can see Bell doing his job almost helplessly – sure that the forces of chaos will not be stopped by his investigations, surprised that against all his expectations he is nearing retirement and he can still be shocked by the capacity of man for evil, but somehow never doubting that his cause is both futile, and just.

The movie is bookended by two speeches by Bell, the first about a young man he once arrested and saw to the gas chamber, a boy who admitted that he’d “been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember.” The second, which is the secret to what this movie’s really about, I’ll leave you to discover. In both, listen to Jones’ way with the language. The way he seems to be standing, painfully, at a threshold, looking at the unknown, and horrors he will never forget, but trying to maintain the poise of his forefathers, wondering if they ever felt the same fear and uncertainty he does.

The Coens have always had an ear for dialogue, and often delight in conversations that sneak out from behind obstructions and circle towards an understanding rather than approach it directly. A long exchange between Chigurh and a gas station attendant reaches an unbelievable peak of menace without ever verbalizing a threat – it’s all in insinuation, and delivery, you watch with a helpless awe.

There’s so much more to No Country for Old Men than I can tell, about the relationships between loved ones, about the way storms look on the Texas horizon, about the ornery minimalism of Josh Brolin’s performance, even about a boot salesman who never forgets a sale. This is a film that simply does so much so gaspingly right that the list just grows the more you think about it. And you will think about it, and reflect on what it means. Strange that I can see so much insurmountable grimness, yet so much humor and hope and morality, in the same movie. The Coen brothers have played with all of these notes before, but never all together, or with such virtuosity.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Originally published 7/5/07
Full review behind the jump

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

: Gore Verbinski
: Screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, based on Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean
: Jerry Bruckheimer
: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Chow Yun Fat, Bill Nighy, Stellan Skarsgård, Jack Davenport, Tom Hollander, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Naomie Harris, Kevin McNally, Keith Richards

Of last year’s sequel
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest I wrote: “It entertains, to the point of exhaustion, yes, but to its credit, leaving you ready for more.” Well, the more has arrived, and I’d like to send it back to the kitchen. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is an overcooked, overstuffed disappointment, and a puzzling one at that. Filmed near-simultaneously to the previous episode, with the same cast and crew, it somehow whiffs where the other connected, fumbles the ball that was capably handed to it.

With a longer running time than
The Bridge on the River Kwai and a budget that back at the beginning of this millennium would have bought you at least two to two-and-a-half Lord of the Rings movies, let it not be said producer Jerry Bruckheimer is not trying to give you your money’s worth with this episode. But now that the trilogy is coming into port, and it’s time to unveil where it’s been headed all this time, we only realize that the captains have had no better idea than the crew, and have simply been following the winds, hoping for the best.

To their credit, writers Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio, working with pop-sensible director Gore Verbinski, have far surpassed the original mission of extending the brand of a decades-old theme park ride, and created a substantial mythology for what pirates are and what role they are to play in the huggably-grotesque world they inhabit. But that role becomes more baffling and Byzantine as the movie unfolds, one wonders why you would even choose piracy as a profession when it involves so many niggling little rules and responsibilities no one can keep track of (eventually an expert is called in for a by-now thoroughly un-secret cameo).

In a sense they play the role of the last free spirits, standing against a dictatorial Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who has seized control of the islands and is busying himself with some very PG-13-unfriendly mass hangings and the dismantling of all civil rights. It is a tragic flaw of all dictators that no sooner do they get absolute power than they immediately begin exterminating the people they were looking forward to lording that power over.

Anyway, he controls the land, and by holding the beating heart of the undead Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), he can command Jones’ fearsome ship The Flying Dutchman and its mollusk-encrusted zombie crew, and thus control the seas as well. I think he got into this because he wanted to improve the profits of his tobacco trading company; the mission has exploded somewhat.

So the “pirate lords” the world over are gathering to mount a final stand, which includes both resurrecting the maniacal Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) – who, without his skeletal side and fetish-y yearning to taste apples again, is far less interesting – and sailing to World’s End to enter Davy Jones’ locker and rescue the inimitable Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), last seen being very insouciantly eaten by a Kraken.

Between all the assorted mystic tokens, ancient legends, and modern double-crosses – these characters betray each other with such speed and regularity it’s a wonder they can remember whose trust to violate when – we have an awful lot to keep track of by now, especially Sparrow’s increasingly-questionable sanity. Depp is as enthusiastically-wobbly as ever and some of the movie’s high points involve observing a man who really ought not be left alone with the voices in his head. Jack Sparrow has transcended all the expensive noise surrounding him and achieved pop icon status – I know this because I could have spent a gleeful 90 minutes watching him be slapped by harlots and wig out, and not missed the rest of the movie.

But there’s also the intimated love triangle between he, the now-fully-tomboyed Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and blacksmith-turned-earnest-swashbuckler Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who clearly remembers when he used to be the hero of this whole pageant and is soldiering ahead with his mission to save the soul of his father (Stellan Skarsgård) from The Dutchman. Where that all ends up is rather poetic, but scantly prepared; so many literally earth-shaking changes in fortune occur that the movie seems too busy to let them sink in or even be comprehended. Supernatural events go hurtling by, at one point a character is revealed to be not the slightly-mysterious human we once thought, but in actual fact, a God. In such a long movie, at no time does anyone on-screen stop to register anything approaching appropriate shock at this revelation. This many hours into the story, can they really afford to be introducing so many new elements?

With the ability to spend lots of money includes, of course, the ability to fill the screen with hordes of ships and storms and sword-clanging extras real, digital, or hybridized. The movie is quite picturesque, gifting us sights like a boat sailing off the edge of the world, and a hidden fortress made out of hammered-together shipwrecks. But in the world of the ever-spiraling summer movie budget this alone has long since ceased to be sufficient. If you see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, reflect on the presence of those armadas of ships that face off, and those colorful, briefly-glimpsed pirate lords from the far corners of the Earth. If all of them had never existed – simply never appeared on-screen – would the resulting story have unfolded any differently? Quite simply – no, and if the latent excitement the filmmakers earned from the pirates’ first two adventures could be considered a natural resource, this movie just burned too much to too little effect.

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Full review behind the jump


: Robert Zemeckis
: Screenplay by Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary, based on the epic poem by “Anonymous”
: Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, Jack Rapke, Steve Bing
: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Angelina Jolie, Alison Lohman

The technology that goes into the making of
Beowulf does what makeup cannot do, allowing husky-sized 50-year old character actor Ray Winstone to play an action hero with the body of a 30-year-old Ultimate Fighting Champion. Set free of the physical form, an essence can emerge from the actor – in his case, that of testosterone and willpower, the inborn knowledge of how to carry Alpha Maledom.

Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis previously used it to allow Tom Hanks to act out multiple characters – little boy, train conductor, ghostly hobo, even Santa Claus – in the animation/performance-capture hybrid film of
The Polar Express. What we will appreciate in years to come with regards to the craft of acting because of this is cause for some excitement; as is the ability to create faraway worlds, and monsters and dragons, and have it all be aesthetically of a piece with itself. A special effect cannot stick out when the whole movie is a special effect. The ability of artists at computer stations to create a simulacrum of humanity that can display complex, even compellingly enigmatic, facial expressions and body language, is indeed advanced with this technically-ambitious work; the subtlest movement of the jaw can now carry meaning.

But every shiny new technology ultimately ends up reinforcing an old truth – you still need to tell a good story; and Zemeckis here has chosen a story that defies words like “enigmatic”. The ancient epic poem
Beowulf is a dark, wild, and beautiful spectacle, but keenly psychological it is not. Its narrative is more song-like than dramaturgical, self-contained verses of incident drenched generously in historical context rather than the airtight no-loose-threads cohesion of Hollywood 3-Act screenwriting. Wrenching the poem’s major events into a modern structure, screenwriters Neil Gaiman & Roger Avary drastically distort both their subject and his deeds. If the poem is glorification of Beowulf’s greatest hits, this is more like his Unauthorized Biography, lurid and slanderous instead of rousing.

Those who know the epic poem will recognize the progression of encounters. The hunting hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is invaded nightly by the beast Grendel, who slaughters even the progression of champions who come far in wide to face him in the hopes of reward. Hrothgar was once a proud warrior, now a little too old and a little too fond of drink, and his attitude towards Grendel – performed by Crispin Glover as an agonized, but not un-pitiable, wretch – hints at a more complex history.

And then Beowulf (Winstone) and his band of warriors arrive by longboat – independent contractors in the field of violence, if you will. Beowulf spends his first hours on shore answering every query or criticism with the announcement “I am Beowulf!” This is a man in need of business cards. His square-off with Grendel goes better than the previous ones, which brings both rewards and new dangers, because Grendel had a mother, and her powers far exceed his.

Grendel’s mother is never described in the poem as looking like a beautiful woman, nor was she described to have golden nipples, shiny and glistening wet. She’s performed by Angelina Jolie with predatory eyes and a purring voice, and except for the pointy tail is the least-altered of any of the characters from their flesh-and-blood performers; because really, who’s going to try and make improvements? But when she faces Beowulf, and offers him many temptations where one specific one seems more than ample, I ought to be thinking about the destiny of that moment; instead I was thinking about the legal implications of a technology that can so easily thwart any actress’s no-nudity clause.

And maybe it’s because as dynamically-visual as Beowulf is, it doesn’t seem to know whether it takes itself seriously. There are big old-fashioned themes at work here, about the appetite for power, and the permanence of our sins (a faddish new religion involving crosses is making some inroads). Beowulf is a man whose soul withers as his fame grows, and even though that’s not strictly canon I might have gone for the ride if the movie didn’t have this impish urge to reject any signs of maturity as they gather. We spend a whole action sequence with Beowulf in the buff, playing the same hide-the-naughty-bits game as Austin Powers. This is what the signature Old English epic needs to keep a modern audience’s attention?

This is an enthralling movie to look at, and has an exciting soundtrack of booming and clanging and screaming noises. Mayhem is never far away, and the climactic tussle is, purely as a piece of action filmmaking, a thrill. Some of the actors demonstrate a knack for this challenging new medium – Winstone as said above gets to show both icy swagger and lusty appetite in a role we otherwise never would have enjoyed him in. Hopkins is particularly good as the corrupted and debauched Hrothgar, landing sloppily in his throne, pawing ineffectually at his sad young bride (Robin Wright Penn) while his eyes regret old choices. And Glover as Grendel, his body contorted, his voice mewling, gets to take the conflicted suffering of Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, already operatic, and wrench it to a yet louder plateau – rock opera, perhaps.

How this relates to the original Beowulf, whose survival is in no way threatened, ceases to matter, I guess. Movies this expensive need studio execs to greenlight them and teenagers to buy the tickets, so to satisfy the former we get worn-out clichés in boldface, and to draw in the latter we get blood and bosoms. Why should it be, though, that filmmakers breaking new ground every year in the technology of film seem so afraid of a story that’s survived over a millennium?

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Ocean's Thirteen

Originally published 6/12/07
Full review behind the jump

Ocean’s Thirteen

: Steven Soderbergh
: Brian Koppelman and David Levien, based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell
: Jerry Weintraub
: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Eddie Izzard, David Paymer, Julian Sands, Bob Einstein, Vincent Cassel

The central gag of the modern
Ocean’s franchise, now on its third round with Ocean’s Thirteen, was established in a throwaway wink in its first episode. It showed Danny Ocean (George Clooney) calling on his loyal partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) as he was teaching some young Hollywood pretty boy actors how to look like they know how to play cards. As they left the club, squealing admirers thronged around the likes of Topher Grace, while George by-God Clooney and Brad by-God Pitt slipped nonchalantly into the night.

The series has played out like a sly love letter to glamour and stardom, which it sees as much more precious commodities than money and fame. When anyone who watches the evening news can discuss the weekend box-office results like they mean something, we’ve stopped seeing the movies as something that can make us gape, something that can make us utterly stupid by the simple thought of
God, look at how he looks in that SUIT! We’re in an age without many real movie stars, the ones who can live comfortably on that much screen real estate and hold all our projected fantasies. Clooney and Pitt, they’re two of the best we have in this bereft age, and who are Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan but the play-acting product of two giant stars very aware of their screen image? When Cary Grant played a cat burglar in To Catch a Thief, he was so dashingly impossible to ignore it became part of the movie’s fundamental joke to think he could slink unnoticed around Paris. These pictures are the closest equivalent to that sunny absurdity we may ever get.

Danny Ocean’s capers, as always produced by Jerry Weintraub and directed by the prodigious Steven Soderbergh, work best when they let us in the room for the capering, so we can enjoy as much as they do how divinely silly the notion is that George Clooney could escape detection by slapping on a fake mustache.
Ocean’s Twelve lost track of that principle, and wanted to coast on admiration from afar alone. Ocean’s Thirteen doesn’t exist, in the traditional sense, out of any emotional need to carry on any extant storylines. It operates as a cocksure and charming admission to fans that the filmmakers now remember what we wanted, and would enjoy the opportunity to provide it for us again. As a movie, it’s a superfluous and ungainly thing. As an experience in old-fashioned dazzle unburdened by self-seriousness, it’s a hoot.

If Soderbergh weren’t one of the top filmmakers working today, he could easily make a handsome living as one of the best cinematographers. As always operating under the alias “Peter Andrews”, he splashes up combinations of blue skies and glowing amber-hued skin that will give you the strong urge to have intercourse with the nearest willing party. First and foremost he’s provided us a movie that’s a divine pleasure just to look at, to bask in flashing bulbs and color palates that seem swiped from all the coolest clothing and architecture of the last forty years.

The story, penned by Rounders team Koppelman and Levien, is slapdash though frequently witty; I like the yes-that’s-what-he-said line about the high-class restaurant that serves “Cantonese-inspired Szechwan cuisine”. The plot involves a reunion of Ocean’s A-Team of well-dressed burglars to avenge one of their own, aging Vegas kingpin Rueben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould). He’s been muscled out of a deal by the unapologetically ethics-free Willy Bank (Al Pacino, blending ego, sharkiness, and Robert Evans’ glasses), and the shock of it has left him at death’s door. Ocean’s team whips up a plan of the most appalling complexity to ruin everything Bank loves, a plan which ends up requiring both old friends (Eddie Izzard as tech-man Nagel), and old enemies (Andy Garcia as casino magnate Terry Benedict, who still enjoys playing these games no matter how often he ends up in second place); along with, as a side effect, a minor revolution in Mexico.

These tangents are worth the misses for the hits, since they allow the stars to take pokes at their own superhuman aura. There’s a shot where Clooney and Pitt, in a few minutes of downtime from their dozens of interconnected schemes, are just watching Oprah together, and their unfolding reaction to her self-aggrandizing beneficence is just as goofily lovely as when Robert Stack wept for Dumbo’s Mother in 1941. I also appreciate how Matt Damon, playing Linus, the earnest teacher’s pet of the gang, gets to give the ol’ college try to a scenario James Bond would have been at home in, with the help of some advice from Maxim magazine and a dangerous accessory called “The Gilroy”.

It never approaches the confident snap of the original, where every piece clicked into place at the right time, with just the proper mix of surprises and the satisfying emotional thread of Ocean’s quest to reclaim his wife Tess. The wives are left at home this time around, letting the boys have their night out, and that’s an old-fashioned but not always bad idea. As with Ocean’s Twelve I think there are already too many characters and tricks for the audience to really relax – the first half-hour is a downright dizzying spree of exposition, and many of the obstacles along the way seem basically arbitrary.

But let us be honest with ourselves – this is an arbitrary movie. It exists solely for the purpose of its own superficial dazzle. It, like its predecessors, celebrates the double act of Clooney and Pitt, always performing convoluted thieving with devastating suavity. It is about fashion, and timing, and yes, how they all look in those suits (and Ellen Barkin in that dress, by the way). This time around, I’m thoroughly okay with all that.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Lions for Lambs

Full review behind the jump

Lions for Lambs

: Robert Redford
: Matthew Michael Carnahan
: Robert Redford, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tracy Falco, Andrew Hauptman
: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Peña, Derek Luke, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg, Kevin Dunn

Lions for Lambs
plays like the Hollywood equivalent of having something read into the Congressional Record. Everything it says is worth saying, and it is taking up a debate that too many feared to really engage for too long. It has dynamic actors doing the reading with conviction and skill. But for all the effort put into tarring Hollywood as some rich island of loony radicalism, its lateness to this particular party is staggeringly self-evident, even more so because it has so little to add except “Yes, we agree.” It’s not that this movie is political that damns it; it’s that it is perfunctory.

Clearly producer/director/star Robert Redford, helming his first feature in seven years, is motivated by an urgent desire to join the dialogue. More power to him, I say. But this is a work of such jaw-dropping pedanticism, it’s no wonder that its go-to visual composition is a man hectoring us from across a desk. As a lecture, it is composed with undeniable intelligence. As cinema, it is a shocking failure.

The story ties together three vignettes that are unfolding at relatively the same time. In Los Angeles, Professor Stephen Malley (Redford), a grizzled political science teacher, calls in one of his students, a bright young man named Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). Todd is the underachieving portrait of “these kids today”, bright and cynical, oversaturated with information but lacking the interest to prioritize it or put it to any use, because he is convinced the system is so rigged that no good can come of it. But because movie professors always have that unerring radar for That Kid Who’s Special Underneath it All, Malley aims to inject a little fight in Todd through challenging debate.

On the other coast, in Washington D.C., veteran political reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is called in for an exclusive private interview with Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). Irving, a charismatic rising star of his party, is unveiling a new military strategy for Afghanistan which he claims, with mesmerizing self-assurance, will finally turn the tide that failed to turn after all of our other new strategies. And part of that strategy will involve the risky deployment of a platoon of Army Rangers, two of whom are Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), the last students Professor Malley thought had potential.

Rodriguez and Finch, naturally, end up in a terrible bind on the battlefield, and stand, bold-faced and underlined three or four times, as the human faces that pay for these pretty arguments we have in offices so far away. Back when they were his students, and the attacks of September 11th happened, Malley felt in his gut that there was a more urgent use for bright young minds like this than cannon fodder. And yet it must be said that, if he wants people to step up and serve a cause, at least they found a way to do that.

I don’t mind watching any of these stars. Redford has his easy confidence, Cruise mixes up an effective blend of steeliness and desperate self-delusion, and Meryl Streep, as always, provides an excellence that is an endless joy to behold. She has created her character to such a dazzlingly-minute degree of detail that, when admiring her in a late confrontation with her editor (Kevin Dunn) over the need for the media to challenge the government line more forcefully, you damn near forget how gallingly simple-minded the scene actually is.

But what about those soldiers this movie purports to have so much compassion for? One is played by Michael Peña (Crash, World Trade Center, Shooter), and I think Hollywood really ought to do the right thing by him and make a movie star out of him already. He has a core decency that all but glows into the camera, and I like it more and more every time I glimpse it. He and his friend played by Derek Luke are so flawlessly earnest and loyal and virtuous – and so conspicuously ethnic compared to the white people deciding their fate from a safe distance. That they have such an absolute lack of control over their grim destiny all but cancels them out of the movie’s dramatic equation; which is a tragedy in real life, but on screen is merely wasted viewing time.

What Lions for Lambs does capably depict is just how far debate in this country has degraded. This is a war being fought with the same clichés you hear shouted by the callers on sports talk radio shows. “Take the fight to ‘em!”, “Show them we mean business!” – as if our Armed Forces have previously neglected to do any of these things.

This is the mindset that thinks any armchair enthusiast can strategize, the only thing really needed to win is sufficient will and everyone’s absolute loyalty. This is the mindset that defines “toughness” as the quality of ignoring reality until it turns in your favor, then taking credit for it while disregarding the cost of your intractability. Irving’s fervor is a capable demonstration of the freezing power of the black-and-white world view – the past must be disregarded, because all that matters is that he sincerely believes this time, if he beats his head into that brick wall very hard, it will realize he’s serious and break. And anyone who criticizes his plan must, by extension, not want us to win. Watch how in spite of her intellect it makes Streep’s reporter wither, and struggle to remind herself that doubt, reflection, and the lessons of history are not weaknesses. The most chilling buzz-phrase from his lips is the one that goes “We stay until we win. We do whatever it takes.”, which calls to mind what Professor Malley says, about how there are toys in our arsenal that a certain category of people have been agitating to use again ever since the big splash they made in 1945.

Again, all things that desperately need saying, and Cruise gives one of his better recent performances in the process of saying it. But as the long and winding conversations of Lions for Lambs unfold, a moment is going to arrive where you suddenly say to yourself – “This is it. This is all this movie intends to do.” You never want to feel that.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Shrek the Third

Originally posted 5/28/07
Full review behind the jump

Shrek the Third

: Chris Miller, with co-director Raman Hui
: Story by Andrew Adamson, Screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman and Chris Miller and Aron Warner, based on the book by William Steig
: Aron Warner
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Everett, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Justin Timberlake, Eric Idle

I’m going to share a name with you that is not famous: Carlos M. Rosas. He’s a senior character animator on
Shrek the Third, and so deserves a share of credit. The Shrek franchise, produced by Dreamworks Animation and PDI, has consistently produced characters of the most astounding personality and expressiveness – they create coherent, relatable feelings and gestures out of ones and zeros, and the abilities of Rosas and others like him are so proficient that we can cease to speak of it as animation and discuss it as performance, the unity of the vocal artists with the tiniest shrugs and facial tics that are seamlessly matched to them.

When you think of Shrek (Mike Myers), or his perpetual sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy), the way they move, and the way we can read their thought process, is as familiar as their voice, and as indelible to their identity. These characters, more than those in any of Dreamworks’ other animated features, feel
real to us, and that is a triumph not just of technique, but the stories they have been placed in up to now, and the messy human moods we recognize within them.

I’m going to share a couple more names: Guillaume Aretos and Peter Zaslav. They are, respectively, the production designer and art director of
Shrek the Third, which is a ceaseless pleasure to look it. When every building, rock, and smudge must be built from nothing, it is even more incumbent on the art department to give a unified look to the characters’ surroundings, and their work on this picture is surpassingly rich and amusing. There’s a scene where the long-suffering Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) is trapped in the display window of a sweets shop, and he’s next to a stuffed pastry that looks so convincingly flaky and sumptuous that my tummy rumbles.

Why am I spending so long praising these often-anonymous craftsmen? Because they have delivered to their utmost in
Shrek the Third, and their compatriots in the “above-the-line” categories – the writers and directors – have failed them. Tasked to give us another episode in the adventures of the green ogre who attracts more friends the more he wants to be left alone, they answer with what boils down to a shallow sitcom. Perhaps, after the inventiveness of the first two pictures, they have been crushed by the obligation to find something for all these old characters to do. In the summer of 2004 I praised both Spider-Man 2 and Shrek 2 as examples of how sequels can flourish when there’s sufficient inspiration and love from their makers to justify their existence. Now, three years later we have both the unbalanced disappointment of Spider-Man 3 and this picture, which seems only to exist because the business model of franchise movies demands it, but is nonetheless amazing to look at.

Sometime between the second picture and this one, Shrek won over the hearts and minds of the Kingdom of Far, Far Away, whose royal daughter Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) he married. The peasants used to eye him with suspicion and tighten their grips on their pitchforks. Now they all think he’s a swell guy, and he thinks likewise. He hasn’t shed all his vulgar bodily processes, but he has become, distressingly, quite friendly and cheerful. Unlike that other jolly green giant, the only product he’s selling is himself.

The plot has him in-line to become King. His father-in-law (John Cleese) is on his last frog legs, and his funeral produces one of the biggest laughs in the movie by simply accepting that there is a proper and long-established way to bury any frog we love. Also, Fiona is pregnant. Shrek wants neither the role of Father nor Monarch, and while the movie isn’t willing to explore the ramifications of him attempting to dodge the former, there is a way out of the latter. Another heir, a teenager named Arthur (Justin Timberlake), is off at school, where he spends his days being kicked. Shrek, with sidekicks Donkey and Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas) along for the ride (remember when he used to shun sidekicks?) sets off to fetch Arthur and convince him to take the throne.

Meanwhile, the pretty and dastardly Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) still feels the throne was meant to be his, but has been reduced to doing dinner theatre. He still has designs on that crown, though, and recruits all the storybook villains to his side with a Big Speech.

A rule of thumb is that good plots generally solve problems by providing space for characters to take decisive action which is true to their nature, and bad stories solve problems with Big Speeches accompanied by a heartwarming underscore. Shrek 3 has not just one, but several big speeches. Even the villains are using them these days. The old Shrek would have been grumpy enough about conventionality to see through this and take it apart as the wafer-thin device it is.

But now that he’s reached Shrek the Third, he’s no longer a character with true growth to undergo, no longer expected to respond to events as an ogre ought. He’s become a “personality”, like the dear and recently-departed Charles Nelson Reilly, who was never able to vanquish in the public’s mind the flamboyant persona from all those episodes of Match Game. This movie is filled with “personalities” – Donkey, Puss, Dragon, Fiona, Charming, Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, all of whom get screen time to take our familiarity with them out for a spin. As for the new characters, Arthur is too stereotypically sullen to be interesting, and the scatterbrained hippie Merlin (Eric Idle) puts some zap back in during his minutes simply because he’s the only one doing something we haven’t seen already.

They’re all occupying a beautiful screen canvas – that’s a tribute to the designers and animators and their ability to squeeze delightful details into the corners. I don’t want it to be faint praise that they’ve executed a minor vision impeccably, but there you go.

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Programming Notes

Well, here we are at the height of Crimbo season, and I'm stuffed with cookies and my bank account is mewling for relief. I'm not sure what I have to articulate for you in honor of it all, except that I hope everyone is with the people they love, and that there's enough warmth and sugar and tacky sweaters to go around.

I'm going to post a grip of movie reviews today, at least four. Three need only the last once-over, while the fourth needs a once-over plus a final sentence that doesn't suck. Since that leaves me with SIX still to write - and ye Gods, do you think they could cram any more awards contenders into the ass-end of the calendar? - I may try to lick more before Santa takes to the sky.

After that, posting will become sporadic at best - I'm off to Chicago on the 26th for my annual Bradley-classmate couch-surf. We'll see what this new camera can do, and if anyone in the Windy City has grown sick of me yet.

In the New Year, obviously I'm going to bring the movie reviews fully up-to-date. Beyond that, I'm still sorting out just what content is going to air on this particular blog outpost. I'll still be ranting and raving about the strike, obviously, but there may be more in store, we'll see.

And my American readers who are into this sort of thing can mark their calendars for January 14th, which is when my appearance on the new gameshow
Merv Griffin's Crosswords will air. I'll be sure to mention it again as it gets close.

Smile, friends. We made it.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - American Gangster

Full review behind the jump

American Gangster

: Ridley Scott
: Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson
: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott
: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Hawkes, RZA, Yul Vazquez, Malcolm Goodwin, Ruby Dee, Carla Gugino, John Ortiz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Armand Assante, Joe Morton, Richie Coster, Kevin Corrigan, Clarence Williams III

And no one even knew it was me. I was a shadow. A ghost . . . what we call down home a haint . . . That was me, the Haint of Harlem.
-Frank Lucas, from the New York Magazine article
The Return of Superfly

If actors have brands, Denzel Washington’s might be advertised as “Smooth Excellence”. He applies that quality fully to the character of Frank Lucas, who in 1970’s Harlem evolved beyond drug dealer to drug tycoon, in part because he understood the power of brands. Lucas is the central character of
American Gangster, a title so efficiently evocative that it is also a brand name, because it is not just Frank Lucas’s identity, it is his style. Maybe one reason the American cinema has always thrived on crime is that American criminals so consistently and fluidly react to the pulse of American capitalism. Once Frank Lucas decided that he was okay with heroin and murder, everything else was just good business.

The clash point of business and morals is the heart of Ridley Scott’s crime epic, which is the equal of many of the kingpins of crime cinema and one of the best pictures of 2007. It tells many stories under one big one; it is about the heroin trade, but also about corruption, and race, and family, and Vietnam, and the price of honesty. And it is even about fashion; because if Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is to be believed, who knows how long Frank Lucas might have stayed on top for if it hadn’t been for one fur coat?

That coat, a chinchilla with matching hat, was a present from his wife (Lymari Nadal). He shows up at a Muhammad Ali fight wearing it, and enjoying excellent seats, which prompts New Jersey Narcotics Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) to start wondering who this man is that gets better seats than the Mafia. He is the first to imagine his way through what has been Lucas’ best shield – peoples’ inability to think a black man could be at the top of any food chain.

A North Carolina-born street hustler who became the driver and confidant to legendary numbers runner “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas learned that handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving can be better protection than 100 guns, and that he will never truly control his destiny as long as he’s selling the same cut-down junk as everyone, and has to buy it from mobsters or crooked cops like everyone. Every step he takes, including a trek up-country through Vietnam to strike a direct deal with the poppy-growers, and an insidious method for bringing the drugs to America, makes perfect sense when you view it through that prism – he is doing what must be done to provide a better product at a lower price. Notice how he primarily uses economic muscle to stake out his turf, he knows that his extra-pure “Blue Magic” heroin is as inevitable as gravity if he just puts it out there for consumers to buy. He only gives in to anger when people deviate from the natural flow of the marketplace, like when his flashy rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) starts selling inferior product using the “Blue Magic” name. Always protect the brand.

Russell Crowe, too, has a brand, “Moldable Testosterone”, and his Roberts is a crusader of virile doggedness. He leads a shambles of a personal life, probably because he needs his full supply of virtue to get through the job. His refusal to take bribes isolates him from his fellow detectives, and his narcotics squad operates out of a warehouse with few resources and little guidance other than to figure out who the big players are and try to bust them. Struggling to connect the dots of an opaque picture, again and again we watch him walk into potentially-lethal situations armed only with nerve. Watch when he uses city money to set up a drug buy, promising to get it back, then watch as he sees who ends up with that money, and how perilous it makes the situation for him, but he goes and asks for it back anyway.

Ridley Scott is principally known as a visual stylist, and here gets superb work from cinematographer Harris Savides and production designer Arthur Max telling a big period story with a lot of locations. But he has a sneaky habit of filling his cast with well-disciplined actors and trusting them to do their job while he handles other details. Washington trusts this material and relaxes into it, his way of hiding venom with a charming smile, his unerring ability to dominate, they find as good a home here as any performance he has given. Crowe takes license from his Gladiator director to perfect his performance to the last detail. And watch how some performers get to just plain shine; like Josh Brolin, enjoying a renaissance this year both in No Country For Old Men and as a menacing crooked cop here, and the veteran Ruby Dee, playing Frank Lucas’ mother in a role that is brief in screen time but rich with dignified passion, and that cries out for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

What you’ll remember most about American Gangster is confidence. Frank Lucas has absolute confidence in his survival skills and his understanding of supply-and-demand. The filmmakers have the confidence not to go for flash, but to offer a restrained, almost stately delivery of a story that takes some time to tell. The volume of information they convey is nothing short of wizardly, but you never feel like you’re being force-fed. It’s kept alive and pushing ahead with pops of danger and intrigue, and this intoxicating flavor of a corruption that runs from the jungles to the streets. Ridley Scott and producer Brian Grazer know what product they’re selling, they have cooked it just as well as it can be cooked.

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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - 28 Weeks Later

Originally posted 5/27/07
Full review behind the jump

28 Weeks Later

: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
: Rowan Joffe and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo & Jesús Olmo and Enrique López Lavigne
: Enrique López Lavigne, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
: Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Imogen Poots, Mackintosh Muggleton, Catherine McCormack, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau, Idris Elba

It is a simple matter for a sequel to reiterate the actions and crises of its progenitor, the old-fashioned “
just like before, only more so.” It is a greater task, particularly when the reigns of the franchise are given to new filmmakers, to pierce through the story to its fundamental thought, and not just echo it, but deepen and expand it.

28 Weeks Later
is the long-awaited sequel to 28 Days Later, the scrappy and riveting 2002 docu-horror spectacle written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle. And under the direction of Spanish filmmaker Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, whose only previous feature is the Oscar-nominated Intacto, this picture joins the pantheon of sequels like The Road Warrior, Aliens, and The Empire Strikes Back; in that it is not only an acknowledgment of what worked about the first feature, but a measured improvement of its core techniques and ideas. While the first could not figure out how to build to a climax, and settled for being a movable feast of small freak-outs, here is a picture that, to its last frames, is still growing with inspiration.

The fear and shock of a populace infected with the so-called “rage” virus – which within 30 seconds of contact eradicates your humanity and transforms you into a flesh-tearing, blood-vomiting, sprinting ghoul – is no longer novel, of course. The rapidly multiplying hordes still make a formidable opponent, and a chilling means to show a world consumed by a wave of death so overwhelming that your loves, morals, and will are as inconsequential as your flesh. The life which means so much to you has been cheapened to near nothingness, and can be ended at the speed of a drop of blood. But
Weeks, like its predecessor, does not satisfy itself to simply frighten us with this prospect. It uses it as the springboard for a resonant plea – it is suffused with a hope that, even in this waking nightmare, we will stay human.

To be human means living with choices, and guilt. Don (Robert Carlyle), who survived the initial outbreak, did so by making a choice which has haunted him ever since. He does not now how to be happy that he is alive, or to tell himself it is better that he is still here to take care of his young son (Mackintosh Muggleton) and teenage daughter (Imogen Poots). As much as he insists he took the only avenue available to him, he is not 100-percent certain that is true. The movie is not interested in labeling him a good man or a bad man, it simply wants to say that he is here still and others are not, this is how that came to be, and how that makes him feel is utterly human and natural.

He is here, and his children still have a father, and they are part of the first wave of survivors being re-settled in a cleaned and heavily-fortified neighborhood of London. The original infected, as hinted at in 28 Days Later, have died of starvation, and the US Army is engaged in a massive disposal and research operation. There is no reason for the plague to re-emerge, they believe, but they have ominous contingency plans.

The populace seems to know they are both privileged and cursed. They have a chance to re-start normal life in their home, but in the chaos of an outbreak, they know whatever luck preserved them the first time may not be there again.

Thanks to a provocative but eminently believable twist in our understanding of “rage”, things indeed turn ugly, and on a much larger scale than in the first picture. Before, we would only hear horrifying stories of the disease practically leaping through trapped crowds, multiplying the panic and bloodshed with every new infection. Now we get to see such sights, shot by Enrique Chediak in the same frenetic, verisimilar digital video scheme pioneered by the original. And, while submerged in this mayhem, we ponder the Damoclean Sword in the hands of the supervising general (Idris Elba) whose task is, first and foremost, to not consider individual lives, but to contain the virus.

Our main characters each have, in some way, the power of life and death – like a rooftop sniper (Jeremy Renner) who is not as prepared for the demands of his job as he imagined, or his friend the helicopter pilot (Harold Perrineau) who is not supposed to consider letting unexamined civilians on-board his craft. Or the doctor (Rose Byrne), who must consider that, with the chance for deeper understanding of and protection from “rage”, one specific life may have become more valuable than any other. The cast, largely composed of somewhat-familiar character actors, is excellent – Renner in particular calibrates his transition from restlessness to self-examining horror without ever overselling.

And Don’s children take center stage in a rather audacious act of story construction. Fresnadillo is trying to have his cake and eat it too – showing a world on the brink while channeling it all through the evolving torments of one family. To balance the big picture with intimate suffering is an immense challenge; he recognizes the potential to collapse under the weight of coincidence, and faces it squarely – this is the work of a confident filmmaker who has something to say.

London, still dead beyond the bridges and walls of the “Green Zone”, is filled with a variety of terrors. Not just the disease, the bodies and the insects, but the expanding methods deployed by the Army to end the threat. They are trying to help, they’ve just ceased trying to help you. In a world of sprinting zombies, that the movie takes time to consider the menace of a cloud of gas is a tribute to Fresnadillo and his team of writers, and their imagination and commitment to the scenario.

28 Weeks Later is the sort of movie horror fans can put on a banner when trying to convince non-fans that there is substance, and thought, in this visceral genre. It means to jolt and scare you, and succeeds, but it finds deeper relevance in the questions posed by its plot. At a certain point, does life become so fleeting, dangerous, and disposable that we should cease to care? This picture takes us beyond the worst boundaries of our own reality, and still comes back with a determined “no”.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Please, studios, tell us more about what's in our own best interests!

Some very sober and serious folks – including an entertainment lawyer, and if you can’t trust one of them… – have an Op-Ed in today’s LA Times about the strike. I believe their argument can be summed up thusly: BOOGEDY BOOGEDY BOOOOOOOO! YOU’RE ALL DOOOOOOOOOOOMED!

To expand – they say that because the studios are rich and powerful, they’ll just “shrug” this silly strike off. And because writers and actors are weak dilettantes, eventually the successful among them will get bored with striking, file for “financial core” status (which allows them to disassociate themselves from the political activities of the guild), and go back to work, leaving the rest of us in the cold because of our Militant Yahoo Leadership™ and their refusal to accept the basket of shiny nickels we’re being offered. And that any of us who think there’s some sinister divide-and-conquer strategy being implemented by the studios and their surrogates and apologists, is just being paranoid.

As expected, they are playing the grown-ups, sorrowfully shaking their heads at our antics and telling us we really ought to stop; for our own good, you see? Strangely, they don’t address any of the following:

-The entertainment industry is projected to grow between 10-12% a year for the next few years, driven in many ways by new streams of Internet revenue.

-The WGA proposal currently on the table will grow our average member’s revenue by around 3.5%, barely above inflation and therefore, by simple math, not even a threat to the coming windfall.

-With our proposal in writing for over five months, the AMPTP has yet to make any comprehensive counter-proposal, although they did coin that nifty slogan with their “New Economic Partnership”. They have walked away from the negotiating table twice, and before the second time hired a PR firm that refers to themselves as “The Masters of Disaster” to prepare a press release about the breakdown of talks
while they were still in the room pretending to negotiate.

-The AMPTP refused to attend yesterday’s LA City Council meeting on the devastating impact of the strike on the city’s economy. Three hundred writers attended, and the city passed a resolution urging the studios to return to negotiating.

-I’m a screenwriter, not a TV writer, and I didn’t get the memo telling me I’m less fervent about this strike than my colleagues. Maybe the mail is slow because of the Holidays.

-Because of the failure of most of their new schedule and the unexpected speed with which the strike shut down their most popular shows, NBC is compensating aggrieved advertisers
in cash, having already given away all of the free commercial time they usually set aside for shows that perform under projections. The average settlement is around a half-million dollars per advertiser. Without new episodes of Heroes, The Office, or any of the Law & Order franchise, they will firewall their spring schedule with extra hours of The Biggest Loser, Deal or No Deal, and American Gladiators. I’d predict more unhappy advertisers over at NBC, once the network of Tom Brokaw and Bill Cosby, now the home of Howie Mandel and Hulk Hogan. But what do I know? I’m just some crazy writer.

-Script problems have already shut down tentpole feature films like Sony’s
Angels and Demons, and picket lines have slowed down production all over Los Angeles, hastening the exhaustion of studios’ film and television stockpile. The pilot season is already on the verge of collapse, meaning that the studios are now surrendering not only the remainder of this year’s TV season, but threatening their ability to have next year’s season ready by fall. With advertisers already up in arms, and stock analysts agog at their suicidal stubbornness, will the studios shrug that off too?

-Our Militant Yahoo Leadership™? We
voted for them. We voted for them because we knew this was coming. Two years ago we knew what issues would feature in our new contract, knew that the studios intended to play hardball, and so we voted for the candidates that promised to show some spine. Given the choice between striking and slitting our financial throats for a generation to come, we wanted our leaders to be willing to pull the trigger. The fact that they did, and that in trying they haven’t wilted in the face of threats, smears, ultimatums, and the “Masters of Disaster”, hasn’t exactly surprised us, because it’s exactly what we asked of them when we elected them, and when we voted in overwhelming numbers to authorize this strike.

-If studios think we’re the ones in trouble, I’ll quote the immortal last words of David Kahane, the screenwriter murdered by Tim Robbins’ slimy film executive in
The Player: “I can write. What can you do?

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - 30 Days of Night

Full review behind the jump

30 Days of Night

: David Slade
: Screenplay by Steve Niles and Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, based on the IDW Publishing graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
: Sam Raimi, Robert G. Tapert
: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall

Not only does
30 Days of Night, a horror film based on the acclaimed graphic novel, undertake a bold mission to reclaim the fear factor of a classic movie monster, it has one of those premises so irresistible you can almost hear the resounding thwack of a thousand other writers smacking their thousand foreheads for not thinking of it first.

But a good idea only puts you on the stage. Under the care of rising British director David Slade (who broke out of the music video ranks with the small-budget thriller
Hard Candy), it succeeds on that stage by avoiding the trap so many modern horror films fall into, where characters are punished or exterminated for their vain hope of surviving. The fine line between mercilessness and nihilism is inked in black and red; this is a bleak and evil movie, sure, but it does care enough about its heroes to decide they deserve a fighting chance, and lets them be resourceful and resilient in spite of their human imperfections.

But the smallness of that hope is in its way more excruciating than no hope at all. Taunting us with that hope, this movie draws us into a fun house of terrors, inflicting an elegant progression of elemental frights with chilling precision. Most modern horror movies want to shock or disgust you, this one remembers that its mission is to scare.

The story unfolds in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost permanent habitat in America. As Al Pacino learned when he flew north to investigate a murder in Insomnia, the sun does funny things up in the Arctic, things like set for a full month in the wintertime. A small town, cut off from the outside world – for anything that didn’t like sunlight, this would be like a Spring Break destination. So when some pale strangers with long teeth show up on Main Street, it’s no surprise to hear their leader (Danny Huston) exclaim: “We should have come here ages ago…

But this is a movie smart enough to keep its monsters in reserve for a little while, to draw us into a shivering state as we watch ominous signs accumulate around Barrow and its Sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett). He’s used to being the weary, civilizing voice of order, which the townsfolk grudgingly appreciate – and they all feel bad about that falling-out between he and his wife (Melissa George). Hartnett, one of those actors who is threatening to finally become interesting as he ages out of his pretty boy phase, gains our sympathy quickly, so we’re praying that he puts the clues together when everyone’s cell phone is stolen and destroyed, the town’s dogs are murdered, and a jittery stranger (Ben Foster) appears in the diner, mumbling strange threats and requesting raw hamburger.

Every couple of years a moment comes where an actor really springs into the consciousness of moviegoers, through the happenstance meeting of their untapped talent and a couple of juicy characters to play. Late 2007 is the time for Ben Foster, who has served his time in the TV trenches (particularly a long arc on Six Feet Under) and was pretty to look at but forgettable as Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand. Now in the same autumn he’s made an unforgettable impression both as The Stranger in this picture, and as Russell Crowe’s devoted right-hand sociopath Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma. He has big, anguished eyes and a way of pinching his voice and working his jaw muscles to show a tormented inner life. I can only hope Hollywood finds more big-screen uses for him.

There’s no use being coy that what’s about to hit Barrow is a flock of vampires. What will surprise you is how confidently director Slade re-writes their contemporary image. The vampire has become a watered-down cocktail of goth sex appeal, more often than not these days they’re taking the hero’s role, pretty actors leaving the spray tanner at home and slapping on false teeth. But these vampires are scarcely human; still able to concoct insidious strategies, but ultimately slaves to their savage appetites. Their body language is purely animal when they pounce and seize; it says there’s nothing decadent or sensual about their motivation; just pitiless and insatiable hunger. I look at their black eyes and remember Robert Shaw’s great soliloquy in Jaws about the shark’s eyes, “a doll’s eyes”; lifeless until they catch sight of blood.

The townspeople have little choice but to try and gather in numbers, stay hidden, and survive the sunless month. This leads to a stretch in an attic that calls to mind The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as some dreadful choices as each character considers their own calculus of survival under the unbearable pressure of waiting. This is a movie that understands, like Night of the Living Dead maestro George Romero, that the human psyche can crack in infinitely-variable ways when facing a seemingly certain and terrible doom. That fills out a feature-length movie much more satisfyingly than monsters leaping from the shadows.

The lack of sunlight is a considerable visual challenge, as is the influence of the dreamlike Ben Templesmith artwork from the graphic novel. The movie ends up looking almost conventional, stepping out enough to be noticeable as a kind of vivid darkness, but not enough to be truly daring. It’s one of the picture’s few missed opportunities.

But what makes 30 Days of Night stand so notably above its genre compatriots is that while it is unsparing in how it spills blood, it essentially sympathizes with its characters. Just as people act boldly and nobly, people also make dumb, pointless, tragic mistakes, and neither carries any promise of longer survival. But that we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing is the first step towards us caring about any of what’s happening on-screen. That crucial step guarantees we’ll be around for the scares.

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