Burn After Reading – Film Review

I have to admit when I first saw the trailer for Burn After Reading, the latest offering from the Coen brothers, I was afraid. It looked like it might be another Intolerable Cruelty. I was still reeling from No Country for Old Men and was hoping for a similar outing. No Country was at the top of my study list, but maybe doing intense films back to back is not a good idea, not even for the Coens. My fear was so strong that I only got around to seeing this film yesterday, several weeks after it opened. I was sorry I waited that long.

All the Coen elements are present. A wide array of familiar characters, plot twists, murder (of course), blackmail and everyone is cheating on everyone. It’s all wrapped up in a nice tidy package in a final exchange inside CIA headquarters.

John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, an analyst for the CIA with a level three security clearance. Due to a drinking problem he is asked by his boss to take a step back in his career. He becomes furious, and quits. This opening scene catapults the story forward and we find ourselves at a dinner party Osbourne and his wife, Katie Cox, played ice cold and calculating by Tilda Swinton, are hosting. At that event we meet Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and we’re off to the races.

Since he is now unemployed, Ozzie, as Osbourne is called, works on his memoirs. While we watch him slowly unwind and get a feel for his relationship with Katie, the film moves to Hardbodies Fitness Center, where Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) work. A mysterious computer disk is found in the locker room and Chad and Linda are convinced it is full of spy secrets and begin their blackmail scheme. It’s here that the Coens stop their nice tidy connect the dots story line and start bouncing all over the place. Fate and coincidence take over the plot and the ride gets stranger and funnier by the minute.

It’s kind of a spy movie, but the subtitle (intelligence is relative) hints that these guys may not be the sharpest tools in the shed. The script is funny and the style is dramatic comedy that goes back and forth between horror and disbelief.

Great performances, strong camera work, and witty dialog delivered with fantastic timing make this a really enjoyable film experience. I laughed out loud several times, as did most everyone in the packed theater. Recommended.

Visit the official web site here. Read the background copy of the site carefully.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Film Review

Brad Pitt as Jesse James
Brad Pitt as Jesse James

I’m a little late on this one, having missed it in the theater. I selected it on this very rainy day primarily on the Academy Award nominations of Casey Affleck for Best Supporting Actor and Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography. Neither won, but both efforts have been critically acclaimed.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not a western. From the opening dialog and brooding score by Nick Cave, to the dark, almost claustrophobic camera choices made by Roger Deakins, we immediately see this film stradles several genres. Mr, Cave and Mr. Deakins as much as anyone connected with the picture set the mood for this ambitious, but overlong film.

Mr. Affleck plays Robert Ford, who for his entire life (he’s only 19) has been obsessed with Jesse James. Mr. Affleck uses his baby face and boyish voice to great effect. His performance is true throughout the wide expanse of mental states his character experiences. Ford keeps a small archive of materials in a cardboard box under his bed that he revisits from time to time. He manages to find James and entangles himself in the James Gang web of robbery and murder. The film brings in a lot of characters and does a good job at fleshing out each one, but I had a difficult time keeping track of them.

Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, is painted as bigger than life as a very popular outlaw who borders on folk hero. There are powers attributed to him in the film. “When he comes into a room it gets hotter.” He always seems to know what’s going on before anyone else. Mr. Pitt brings a strong gait, his classic pose and voice to James that is effective, and keeps us off balance.

Casey Affleck as Robert Ford
Casey Affleck as Robert Ford

Ford shoots one of James’ relatives during a fight and is afraid that James will find out and seek revenge. James keeps Ford close from that point on and a very suspenseful cat and mouse game ensues. Over time James’ health, both physical and mental, begins to slip and he and his brother Frank give up their outlaw escapades. But James plans one more bank job and wants Ford to go in with him. We know from the title that James will be killed, and I’m disappointed to report that the assassin is obvious not fifteen minutes into the film. If you’ve read the book by Ron Hansen ahead of time of course you know it all.

Director Andrew Dominik sends us on a serpentine path through the story to arrive at the final scene. Or so we think it’s the final scene. But then he continues to tell the story of Ford, and with it James himself, as the assassination is played out on stage. It’s the 1800’s version of a You Tube clip. Here is where the film really bogs down and you just wish it would end. Ford discovers he misses James and becomes tormented with his own life and how he handled his time with him.

Beautiful scenery, an interesting score and good performances overall, but it’s difficult to work up empathy for anyone in the film. I was left giving the film’s premise some serious thought, however I found myself wondering more about what life would have been like during that time. Not recommended.

This film was reviewed as a DVD widescreen format on a Sony WEGA plasma TV. Sound amplified on a Denon audio/video receiver set ti 5.1 surround mode through Monitor Audio speakers.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Man on Wire: Philippe Petit’s Emotional Triumph

Beautiful and mesmerizing. More like a caper film than a documentary. That’s how I’d describe Man on Wire, winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary and the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize for World Documentary. Director James Marsh set out to tell the story of Philippe Petit, the man who wire walked between the World Trade Center Towers in August, 1974. What he ended up with is closer to drama than newsreel.

With the backdrop of Nixon’s Watergate and an America reaching for the stars with the groundbreaking of the WTC, Mr. Marsh effectively blends talking head documentary shots, actual footage, photos, interviews, documents, and recreations of the events to tell this remarkable story. Original music by J. Ralph with help from Michael Nyman’s signature piano helps build the emotion. The score is nicely combined with a diverse selection of songs.

It’s clear that Mr. Marsh was given full access to the Petit’s personal archives. He chose his assets wisely and the result is engrossing. Footage, anecdotes and Mr. Petit himself on screen walking us through the story; paragraph by paragraph. Yes, there’s a bit of French hubris that hits us in the face, but that’s part of his charm.

Mr. Petit is clearly a driven and talented man who approaches each day as if it’s a new canvas to paint. He occupies much of the screen time and puts on a show, retelling the event in exuberant detail. It’s not about “why,” he says when in custody. There is sufficient evidence to lead us to believe it’s about must.

Photo Credit: Jim Moore - Philippe Petit preparing

Nearly six years in preparation, this feat would have an improbable chance of success if it had full support of the entire city of New York. But to pull it off undercover with a makeshift band of players was nothing short of astounding. They had one stroke of good fortune after another. A guard on the 104th floor saw them walk past carrying the heavy coils of wire but said nothing. The arrow shot from a bow to connect the two buildings landed precariously on the corner of the other tower and could have fallen. Any single broken link along the way and it would have meant the dream would have failed, or worse.

On the wire

Once he was on the wire the police arrived quickly and summoned him to return to one of the towers. Petit would move close to them, and just as he was about to be in their grasp, he would turn and move toward the other tower. In all he spent 45 minutes on the wire and crossed eight times. All on no sleep, having had to rig the wire during the previous night. We know how it turns out, as it happened over 30 years ago. Still there is tension and uncertainty because what he did was so unbelievable, it leaves us questioning our own memory.

Mr. Marsh and the filmmakers frequently make you feel as if you’re watching a feature film. Only when he cuts to the individuals telling their part of the story, or interspersed archival footage, are we pulled back into reality.

France gifted the Statue of Liberty to us as to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln in hopes that France would be inspired to create their own democracy. The Twin Towers were meant as a symbol of worldwide commerce. A global statement and uniquely American.

I always found it mystical that it was a Frenchman who was so deeply drawn to these Towers. A deep connection was formed between them. Something we all experienced on that bright September morning in 2001. All in full view of Lady Liberty.

The film is based on Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. There is also a wonderful children’s book on the subject, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. It’s full of magical artwork that earned a him a Caldecott Award and captivated the interest of my four year old.

Take a break from the Hollywood grist mill of crushingly generic films and go see Man on Wire. Highly recommended. Available on DVD, December 8, 2008. Visit the official Man on Wire web site here.

Haunting theme to Man on Wire.

Update: Man on Wire is available on Netflix.

Read my review of The Walk here.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Film Review

Woody Allen has officially expanded beyond New York City. With a sun-drenched Spain, primarily Barcelona, as his setting, Mr. Allen provides us with another treatise in his exploration of love, relationships and human chemistry.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johanson) are friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, and as such, is engaged to marry an upper crust east coast steady. Cristina is more adventurous and is on a constant search for romance with thrills. Pic opens as they arrive in Barcelona to stay the summer at one of Vicky’s parents friends who now live there. The friends are very well off and socially connected, which gets the young women in on the Barcelona scene.

Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson
Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson

While having a late night dinner the women are approached by a local artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who they saw at a gallery opening earlier that day. He is famous for having had an extremely messy divorce, which included his wife trying to kill him. He offers to whisk the women off to a small village for the weekend, where they will all make love. His boldness intrigues Cristina, but Vicky is of course uninterested.

We are guided by a narrator throughout the film who keeps the talk simple, but insightful, telling only what’s necessary. Mr. Allen packs a lot into this relatively short film, with sharp dialog and comedic touches as only he can. It’s a short leap of the imagination to hear Woody’s voice in the narration.

We discover that Juan’s ex wife is Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) and she re-enters his life through an attempted suicide. By this time Juan is living with Cristina and so the three of them occupy Juan’s house. Juan and Maria are made for each other. They make wonderful love, inspire each other’s artistic endeavors, but they always end up in a huge blow out. Since Christina has entered their lives they are getting on famously. Perhaps she was the missing ingredient.

Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena
Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena

This is the theme of the film. Finding the glue that holds your relationships together during the trying times. Some things work, others don’t mesh when you are in a relationship. Most people accept the misses and focus on the hits, but Vicky, Cristina, Juan and Maria want it all. They know what doesn’t work and what they don’t want, but can’t quite piece it all together.

Javier Bardem with Rebecca Hall
Javier Bardem with Rebecca Hall

The acting is excellent all around. Penelope Cruz nails the hot tempered artistic type who is insane and keeps the film from falling into table (or bed) talk. Javier Bardem, fresh from his Oscar winning performance in No Country for Old Men, plays it completely different. He is very effective as the smooth artist, borderline womanizer, who has great comedic timing. Rebecca Hall’s performance as Vicky, was the biggest surprise for me. She played the straight and narrow with perfect pitch, but when it’s her turn to be the linchpin, she does it exceedingly well. Ms. Johansson plays Cristina smart but with a touch of vulnerability. She ends up doubting her ability to live on Juan’s level and her decision late in the film is the catalyst for the stories’ climax.

Regardless of what you think about Woody Allen, I would highly recommend this film for it’s interesting treatment of love and life, without taking itself too seriously. Visit the official Vicky Cristina Barcelona web site here.

Tell No One – Film Review

Tell No One introduces us to Alex Beck almost from the very first frame. He has a life one could envy. Fresh from medical school and ready to start his career as a pediatrician. He married his childhood love, enjoys a warm friendship circle, and seems genuinely happy. What could go wrong? Well apparently quite a bit.

The film is taken from the bestselling novel of the same name by Harlan Coben. Mr. Coben is crime writer extraordinaire and has accomplished the equivalent of the writer’s hat trick by winning the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony awards for his work. Mr. Coben is American and lives in New Jersey, but the film was shot by Guillaume Canet, a French filmmaker, and screened with English subtitles. It was a bit of a gamble, because the crime genre is so familiar to movie audiences in America. Seeing how Mr. Canet would interpret the material through his native culture and backdrop made for a thought-provoking experience.

Pic opens with a slow reveal of information that leads one to the conclusions described in this review’s opening paragraph. We get it all very quickly. As the perfect couple, Alex (Francois cluzet) and bride Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) take a nostalgia trip to a childhood swimming hole. After a long day of sun and swim they have a disagreement about Alex’s sister. Margot swims back across the lake in a moment of protest. The next thing we hear is her screaming. Alex follows in panic and once dockside, is clubbed in the stomach and head, and sent back into the water.

Fast forward several years into the future. We are re-introduced to Alex. This time in a life without Margot. He has fallen into a robotic, lifeless existence that is almost unrecognizable. We learn that Margot was killed that night and Alex was considered a suspect. One day he receives an e-mail that appears to be from his presumably dead wife. She sets a rendezvous date and time at a local park, and warns Alex to, “Tell no one.” It’s a little bit of a stretch but you are willing to go with it. What follows is one twist after another.

Both a thriller and a love story, Francois Cluzet as Alex Beck, does a fine job at playing this dual role as well as the before and after Margot character. Once he reads the e-mail message he is filled with a hope not felt since that fateful night. The police intercept his messages and are still looking to pin the murder on him. Alex turns out to be a formidable challenge for the police. The cops have lost effectiveness because of the tension between the clean ones and the ones on the take. The acting requires high physical demands and Mr. Cluzet is up to the challenge. He enlists the street smarts of a gang member whose son he treated and protected.

Revolver Entertainment
Francois Cluzet as Alex Beck

Alex is able to hire a high powered attorney, Maître Elysabeth Feldman (Nathalie Bayne) thanks to his sister’s wealthy restaurateur lover Hélène Perkins played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who speaks French and looks as radiant as ever. Like so many others in this film, Ms. Perkins constantly smokes. This picture should come with a surgeon’s general warning about the dangers of second hand smoke.

Kristin Scott Thomas
Nathalie Bayne, Marina Hands and Kristin Scott Thomas

The story is perhaps a little too tricky for its own good. The audience is definitely intellectually challenged, and director Guillaume Canet is up to the exciting chase scenes. But it seems over-staged. Mr. Canet goes back over the footage several times to ensure his audience keeps up. An effective enough technique, but somewhat overused. They are shooting for Hitchcock, but fall short.

This picture has a lot of strengths. We see a wonderful mix of French countryside and city locations. The pace is quick without causing whiplash, and you find yourself being invested in several of the characters. Matthieu Chedid’s score uses only one or two instruments at a time, which brings a darkness to the film that is only fully revealed in the final scenes.

If subtitles don’t bother you, and why should they, all of you can read, I would highly recommend this film to anyone looking for something off the Hollywood well worn path. It will stimulate your mind for days on end.

All photos courtesy of Revolver Entertainment. Visit the Tell No One official web site here.

The Dark Knight – Film Review

Warner Bros.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

The Dark Knight is relentless at wanting to tell a very big story. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan scrims the silver screen, then abruptly pulls it back, as if a grifter, conning us into a high stakes game of three-card Monte.

Batman, played again by the chiseled Christian Bale, has evolved into a commercial franchise for Warner Brothers, and they have been highly successful in keeping it that way. The tone has turned very dark since the Tim Burton days and I give them a lot of credit for just coming out and saying it. It is after all, The Dark Knight. I prefer it dark, so I’m all in on this one.

But it’s not the Batman that turned me so easily to the dark side, oh no. Bruce Wayne and Batman are worn out. Technology now dominates his modus operandi and Bruce is in the throes of a mid-life crisis. The problem is he already has all the toys, so what’s he to do?

He is constantly looking for his replacement. Someone who can take over and turn the city around, allowing him to retire. That someone is Gotham’s golden boy, DA Harvey Dent, played with venerable strength by Aaron Eckhart. Everyone wants Harvey to succeed, especially Wayne. But Wayne chases an old flame, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is become smitten with Dent and on the edge of committing to him. She knows Wayne’s secret and once said she would marry him if Batman permanently disappeared. I guess we can’t really blame Wayne for wanting to get out. It’s the only thing he has not been successful at doing his entire life.

Warner Bros.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

But Christian Bale and Batman are completely out done by Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. Mr. Ledger’s performance is a tour de force of blackness. He makes even me want to be a bad guy. Like all great villains, he is evil, persuasive and seductive. The Joker is a twisted combination of Hannibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins), Amon Goeth (Ralph Finnes in Schindler’s List) and Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton). Mr. Ledger even sounds and dresses like Beetlejuice. The Dark Knight would not be nearly as entertaining or effective without Mr. Ledger. This is an artist who has truly risked a lot to forward his craft. Perhaps he risked too much.

Beetlejuice, Lechter, Goethe
Beetlejuice - Lecter - Goethe

Chicago is an inspired choice for this gangster gone mad vs. lawman story. After all, we are home to Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Massacre, and the greatest political machine on the planet. We’re not ready for reform.

The visuals are stunning thanks to Wally Pfister’s lensing and the pace is breakneck, courtesy of Lee Smith’s crisp editing skills. For some reason the filmmakers felt they needed two veteran composers, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to score the film. They bring out the darkness in the moment, but it doesn’t last much beyond the final credit. This exposes one of many instances of excessiveness on the part of the studio that was unnecessary.

The Joker is in complete control of the chaos, and is able to bring Gotham to its knees. He even plays out a classic college social experiment with two boats full of people trying to leave a city under siege. Each one is armed with explosives and is in possession of the other ships’ detonator. They are informed that one ship will be blown up at midnight, unless the passengers blow up the other one first. The Joker has his way with nearly everyone, and tricks Batman into rescuing the wrong person, leaving Dent in a downward spiral so bad he falls into the Joker’s trap.

Unfortunately we have lost Mr. Ledger. As we look back at the arc of his career that led him to this performance, it’s clear the industry and movie going public has suffered a great loss. But Batman will live on, and we will all be looking forward to the next installment.

Recommended if you’re looking for a blockbuster with intellect. But don’t bring the kids. Check out the official The Dark Knight web site here.

Hancock – Film Review

When I saw the trailer for Hancock a couple of weeks ago I thought to myself, “This is just another super hero, star vehicle of a movie.” Even though the trailer clearly delivered on communicating the “twist,” that Hancock was kind of a jerk, reluctant to help, and needed to work on his rescue technique, I was not convinced I should put it on my list. My oldest son was heading back east for a couple of weeks, so I thought we could go out to a movie together on his last night. He chose Hancock. I was very glad he did. I thoroughly enjoyed this 92 minutes.

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

Will Smith plays Hancock, a human with super human powers, who could use a week or two at charm farm. He’s usually drunk, smelly, a bad dresser and downright nasty. Most of his time is spent asleep, but occasionally he flies around foiling crime, however, he does so without precision. In the opening scene Hancock is out to stop three guys in a white SUV shooting randomly at cars, while on a stretch of the L.A. freeway. In the process he demolishes sections of buildings, freeway signs, countless cars and the freeway itself, finishing off his chore by impaling the vehicle on the spire of the Capitol Records building.

The city is up in arms. Although they like his powers, and the idea of a super hero, they are worn out having to clean up after him. Warrants are out for his arrest, and everyone seems to want him to just go away. The L.A. mayor encourages him to move to NYC.

Will Smith delivers another fine performance. He is funny of course, but his physical athletics make us believe he is a human with super powers. It doesn’t look fake. As he did so well in I Am Legend, Mr. Smith gives us some deeply moving, quiet moments as he wrestles with his thoughts and tries to sort out his past. Mr. Smith is so very strong when the character motivation is personal. Hancock is as personal a role as you can get.

He saves Ray Embrey (played with perfect pitch by Jason Bateman), from being crushed by a train. Hancock tosses Ray’s car up into the air and stops the train with an outstretched arm, causing a derailment; yet another mess for the city. In this turning point scene, the crowd surrounds Hancock amid the debris and takes him to task. “Why didn’t you raise the car and let the train pass? That would have been the best way.” Hancock can’t believe what he’s hearing. Little old ladies and fat men giving him tips on technique. Ray enters and takes over to defuse the crowd, thanking Hancock for saving his life and asks to be flown home.

The story could have easily gone the Hollywood expected route, but writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, took us down a very different path. Ray is an aspiring public relations guy and has been going from company to company pitching his “all heart” cause. Firms would give away their products, like TB drugs, to those who need it most, in exchange for the bump their brands would get being part of the greater good. No one’s biting.

The train incident has given Ray a fresh idea. A public relations makeover for Hancock. After much convincing, there is an agreement and some hilarious scenes of Hancock in prison, working off his time. The thought was, once crime rose, the city officials would free him to fly once again.

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

Ray is married to Mary (Charlize Theron), presumably a stay at home mom raising Aaron, Ray’s son from a previous marriage. Ms. Theron is out of her ugly prosthetic masks of past films and back looking absolutely stunning in the warm glow of the southern California sun. Ms. Theron has earned the respect of the acting world and applies it with just the right touch here. From the outset Mary seems mis-placed in this middle class suburban cul-de-sac, and we wonder why she is married to Ray. Her secret is soon revealed, and it’s delicious. I won’t divulge it here (total spoiler), but it makes the film, propelling the story on a completely new arc.

It’s as if there are two films going on here, and director Peter Berg weaves them together with comic relief as well as dramatic substance. Highly recommended for fans of action films looking for something more to think about. This one should do well at the box office. Visit the official Hancock site here. It is not as easy to navigate as most, but still some cool stuff.

WALL-E – Film Review

WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is a friendly and extremely efficient robot that spends his days trying to tidy up a major mess left by the human inhabitants of earth. It seems that the Big-N-Large conglomerate, which owned everything and is the epitome of commercialism, made some mistakes along the way. Earth can no longer support life and so the company built space ships that would allow earthlings to cruise the universe until earth could support life once again.

WALL•E is sensitive and collects common items like lighters, light bulbs and kitchen utensils. He has set up an elaborate sorting system in a trailer and at the end of each day, puts them carefully in their place. WALL•E is a robot so you wouldn’t expect him to have emotions. But he is lonely and this is made even more pronounced as he watches the movie Hello Dolly on VHS day after day.

One day a robot piloted space ship lands in WALL•E’s backyard. Out comes a sleek and sexy model that we soon find out is named EVE. She is there on a routine mission to look for any signs of life on earth. WALL•E falls for EVE and tries to romance her with dancing and holding her hand. He shows her a living plant that he found during one of his clean-ups and she immediately whisks it back to the Big-N-Large command space ship, the Axiom.

WALL•E does not want to lose EVE so he clamps onto the ship and rides it to the Axiom, which is… well, it’s a nightmare. For over 700 years the Axiom has been traversing the universe, run by robots. It’s full of humans that have been brainwashed into the Big-N-Large cult and are unable to think or feel. Finally the humans regain their mettle and take back the ship, and eventually their pride and place as homo sapiens.

Pixar and writer/director Andrew Stanton have created another stunning showcase for their technology storytelling. It’s rich in detail and packed with the clever twists and humor we have come to expect from their productions. Having man and machine switch emotional roles was a brilliant device. The film reaches for ambitious themes of relationship, individualism and the importance of a working society, but falls short. The challenge of trying to convey these ideas without dialogue was perhaps too tall an order, as the film’s heavy lifting is left solely to visuals and sound.

There are enough things going on in WALL•E to keep your eyes and ears interested, but your mind will find a way to allow your day to day life leak in. At the very least films should be escapism, at their best they push us to think and re-evaluate our lives, our politics, even our future. Unfortunately WALL•E doesn’t do either. There was much I enjoyed, but Pixar has set the bar very high, and WALL•E didn’t make it.

Visit the official WALL•E site, which is way cool.

Photo Credits: Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Film Review

Heeeee’s Baaaaack. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more of a marketing event than a picture. It’s as much about the filmmakers, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford, as it is the film. But then again those are the guys that made it.

Going in I tried to temper my expectations, having been bombarded by a sea of hype over the last month and a half. The first Indy picture was such a thrill, and the trilogy worked well as a nice package to build out the characters and create the Jones myth. So why bring it back? Obviously the box office potential was way too tempting for Paramount. Turns out that Indy Jones is finding a new audience among kids. They are absolutely enthralled by idea and are now old enough to experience the first three films on DVD. This has created a powerful promotional on ramp to the Crystal Skull installment.

Picture opens with Jones having been kidnapped by the KGB and taken to a military warehouse in the southwest U.S. The Russian bad guys are led by Agent Irina Spallko (Cate Blanchett), the ultimate poster child of the elysian vision of Lenin’s Soviet Socialist Republic. They force Jones to locate a storage crate containing the remains of an alien life form, most likely from one of those UFO crashes. Apparently there have been crashes in the Fatherland as well, and Agent Spallko is hard at work piecing together clues on her own.

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

After a fun opening the film slows down a bit as Jones meets Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who gives him a cyptic note from Professor Oxley (John Hurt) by way of Mutt’s mother. Both are missing somewhere in a South American jungle. As expected the note is a riddle written in a dead language that only Jones can decode. This installment relies more on plot convenience than the other three, but we quickly forgive as the movie shifts into high gear.

Classic Spielberg technique is on full display. The Indy Jones films have a wonderfully simplistic quality about them. Part comic book, part science fiction, part historical drama. It’s very difficult to combine all these elements into one picture. This is Spielberg’s gift. He just knows how to compose the frame, create the visual language, inject humor, then distill it down in the editing process. Although he is consciously working to build a new audience, he is careful to retain many of the subtle touches that keeps his original audience connected. Like the image of a prop plane flying over vintage maps, while a red line shows us the flight plan.

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Everyone ends up in the same place, trying to find the same thing. Ms. Blanchett, her face and hair chiseled out of soviet stone, is positively diabolical, and will stop at nothing to learn the paranormal secrets that will help her ensure the world will become one big Soviet Union. It took me a while to warm up to Mr. Ford’s performance. But he is in amazing shape for his age and by the fourth reel I was fully in the Indy Jones mode of the past. John Hurt’s on screen time is spent mostly as a raving lunatic, trapped in the mental grasp of things beyond human knowledge. Mr. LaBeouf is a ’50s rebellious figure that knows more about what he doesn’t want from life. This casting choice was critical for Lucas and Spielberg, as they have chosen Ford’s successor.

Along the way there are a number of formidable obstacles that must be overcome. Jungles, mean red ants, nasty grave guards, waterfalls and then in the end the transformation of matter to the “space between the spaces.” Needless to say the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the heros get away. Indy rediscovers his love for Mary (Karen Allen) and learns something unexpected about Mutt.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is classic Indy Jones. Exciting, entertaining and fun for all. This might be the last time we see Mr. Ford in the leading role, but I’m sure Paramount will work hard at keeping this franchise alive for as long as possible, with or without him. Recommended for families. If you are super serious arty type, skip it.

Visit the official Indiana Jones web site. Paramount has done a really nice job integrating the other three films into the experience. You can see photos from all four films. Really interesting to see the evolution of the actors and visuals.


No Country For Old Men – You Can’t Stop What’s Coming

A brief forewarning.

Some people may find this post to be a little on the dark side. Just remember, I’m writing about the movies. None of these things really happened.

On screen killings are nothing new. How many times have you seen someone get rubbed out in a movie? Probably too many to count. The methods employed to dispense with characters are vast and varied. There are many masters of the celluloid capital crime; Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick and Lynch to name a few. Is there any major filmmaker that hasn’t staged a killing in one of their films? If you know one who hasn’t, please post it. Also, if anyone out there knows what movie was first to show a murder on screen, post that as well.

My study film these days is No Country for Old Men. Academy Award Winner for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor. Fantastic. Pure Coen brothers. Murders are a staple in the film world of the Coens. These guys are top notch. Not only do they deliver on body count, but add twists to each one.

Ethan and Joel Coen on the set – Released by Miramax

The choices are carefully crafted and painstakingly staged to keep the viewer off balance, which more effectively builds the trademark Coen suspense. Nothing is ever certain, except that Anton Chigruh is a certifiable psychopathic killer. Anton is driven. He has to do these things. We get the sense he’s been programmed; think Terminator. He sees the obvious and acts.

In No Country characters can vanish without regard to their importance or standing in the story. No one is safe. We’re all rooting for Llewelyn to get away cleanly. And even though he was a main player, his death takes place off screen, and in an unexpected manner. It wasn’t even Anton that pulled the trigger.

Naturally there are always nagging questions. Was it the flirting woman’s body floating face down in the Desert Sands pool? Did Llewelyn consider her offer for beer and get distracted? Did Anton really kill Carla Jean? Of course he did. But in those final moments with her we see a tiny crack in Anton’s method, connecting with his victims (potential victims). The gas station owner, Carson, Llewelyn… Carla Jean. The psychology is complex. But by stopping to explain his twisted mission of fate to Carla Jean, Anton takes himself out of the “the flow.” If he skips the lengthy talk with Carla Jean, there is no car crash. Her attempt to reason with him extracts a small bit of revenge.

No Country for Old Men has six main kill categories. I have compiled a list of the causalities and plotted them in their appropriate category (excluding animals). You are probably asking, why is he writing about this? Why take this time? The Coens put so much thought and care in their craft, one has to study it on every level to fully appreciate. Oh yeah, and it’s fun.

Impressive body count wouldn’t you say? And the winner is… Anton Chigruh with 14 kills. If you include the driver of the car that ran the red light and crashed into him, it goes to 15. After all it was Anton’s fault, a variation on the coin toss game of fate. Read my review of No Country for Old Men in a previous post.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigruh

What’s next for the Coens?

The Mike Zoss Production Company has a number of projects in various stages of planning and production. The next film to be released is most likely a comedy/drama (go figure) called Burn After Reading. From Working Title Films and Mark Zoss Productions, to be distributed by Focus Features. Picture is currently in post production, and stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand. Plot synopsis: A disk containing the memoirs of CIA agent Ozzie Cox (Malkovich) ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it. McDormand plays Cox’s philandering wife and Clooney an assassin. Hopefully it will be released in fall of 2008.

Other projects include, Suburbicon, Hail Caesar and Gambit. Pipeline is good. Get out your body count matrix and sharpen your pencils!

Under the Same Moon – Film Review

Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon is a sweet and surprisingly powerful film that disguises a complex study of Mexican immigration within a simple story of a mother’s love for her son.

Rosario (Kate Del Castillo) is a young mother without a husband. She crossed the boarder four years earlier and lives in Los Angeles in search of a better life. Rosario left behind her now nine year old son Carlos, also know as Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), who is being cared for by his sick grandmother. There is a weekly phone call from Rosario to Carlos Sundays at 10 am. This is their opportunity to converse about the mundane as well as more serious issues in their lives. Carlos has never met his father and never sees his mother. He is bright and sensitive and begins to get the feeling that his mother may not return or send for him. Their conversations are heart-wrenching for Rosario, as her son keeps asking her when they will see each other again. He makes her describe in great detail the location of the phone booth and what surrounds it. This visual device proves crucial to the story.

Carlos works for a seasoned businesswoman, Dona Carmen (Carmen Salinas) who arranges border crossings. This is how he meets a young brother (Jesse Garcia) and sister (America Ferrera) who are legal U.S. citizens, and want to earn money for eduction by smuggling babies to the U.S. Their offer is rejected by Ms. Carmen on the grounds of their inexperience. Carlos saves his money from the job as well as money his mother sends each month

The film keeps a brisk pace cross-cutting between Rosario in LA and Carlos in Mexico. But most of the plot turns are predictable. There are no surprises on how the characters act or change as the story advances. All pretty stock. As expected, the grandmother dies and Carlos decides to cross the border to find his mother in LA. He connects with the brother and sister and hires them to smuggle him into the U.S. His goal is to get there before the usual Sunday call, so she won’t worry that he doesn’t answer the phone.

Along the way he crosses paths with the usual suspects. A junkie tries to sell him for a fix, but many characters turn out to be good Samaritans for Carlos as well as Rosario. Eventually Carlos and Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), a gruff illegal, are thrown together. They develop a love-hate relationship that carries through the rest of the picture. During a short stay in Tucson, Enrique helps Carlos meet his father. The scene with his father, Oscar, is ineffective and seems to have been only inserted to get Enrique and Carlos onto a bus to LA. It’s probably the only wrong turn in the film.

Pics strength can be found in the performances. The players that have not yet made it have edges they keep razor sharp. The characters that are established in the U.S. are calm and steady. It’s this contrast that gives the film energy and hope. Kate Del Castillo is excellent in her portrayal of the mother who is determined to succeed, but is overcome by the emotional longing for her son. So much so she almost makes a huge error. Adrian Alonso is bright and tough, a natural on screen, and the catalyst for everyone around him. Supporting cast performances on both sides of the border are solid.

There is effective use of native music as well as talk radio that provides the undercurrent of the realities of Mexicans trying to understand where they are positioned in the American caste system. It’s a difficult and trying topic. Ms. Riggen’s camera is fluid and she passes it across a collection of visual clues that ties everything together in the end. Effective editing can also be credited for breathing life into a solid and inspirational script by Ligiah Villalobos.

Director Patricia Riggen and Adrian Alonso on the set

Under the Same Moon (subtitled) is a wonderful break from the Hollywood fare we are bombarded with week after week. It tackles a real issue and is successful in humanizing the suffering connected with it. Recommended. Visit the official web site here.

Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures


Elizabeth: The Golden Age – Film Review

Elizabeth the 1st has been endlessly studied from all angles. Historians, novelists, biographers and of course filmmakers. Arguably, no one knows as much about the psyche and behavior of Elizabeth than the academy award-winning actress Cate Blanchett. Playing her first in the 1998 film Elizabeth, and continuing her interpretation in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Photo Credit: Universal Studios

Pic opens in 1585. King Philip of Spain is keen on expanding his already expansive empire. He has set his sights on England, and of course the Queen. Ms. Blanchett fully and completely embodies Elizabeth in her performance. Yes the steely, tough person is present. But Ms. Blanchett carefully and with exquisite timing shows us the vulnerable side of the Queen. She has fears. She is not always confident in her decisions. Like all leaders of the time, she consults her God and mortal wise men. Elizabeth takes in comments and advice from all sides, then makes her decisions. It makes for fascinating character viewing. She is in constant motion throughout the film. Her mind is always turning, and her body keeps pace. This is a woman that thinks best on her feet.

The costumes are opulent, but the lavishness of the film’s look stops there. Elizabeth’s movements are placed in remarkably basic and drab settings. The rooms are enormous, but gray, as the filmmakers save the color for her gowns and hair. It’s a clever choice, and has the effect of giving more weight to the characters.

Period films are always challenged with trying to distill all the nuances of historical fact into a brief two hours. Director Shekhar Kapur does an excellent job of telling the broader story through a strong visual language that animates the script written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst. Students with a sharp eye will find inconsistencies with fact, but this is not a documentary. It’s a dramatic think piece of high order.

Photo Credit:
Universal Studios

Solid acting performances by Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Clive Owen (Sir Walter Raleigh) and Jordi Mollà (King Philip) as the key men in the story. On the female side, beyond Ms. Blanchett, are Samantha Morton (Mary Stuart) who is positively diabolical as the power hungry Queen of Scotland looking for an upgrade. She really knows how to dress for one’s own beheading. Abbie Cornish (Elizabeth Throckmorton) is the Queen’s favorite assistant. Ms. Cornish evolves her character from naive to confident, playing a pivotal and unexpected role in the Queen’s self-awareness.

Mr. Owen doesn’t quite swashbuckle, but is mysterious, keeping his allegiances and passions close to the vest as he plays on the emotions of both Elizabeths (Queen, and the lady in waiting). Mr. Mollà brings to life a disturbed, religious fanatic King Philip of Spain, complete with a childlike bounce to his gait.

Photo Credit:
Universal Studios

I must admit, I wasn’t that interested in seeing another film on Elizabeth, but from the opening shots, I was completely drawn into the story, thanks to the strong acting and excellent casting, along with outstanding art direction. Remi Adefarasin’s lens is active and fluid when aimed at the Queen. He chooses more of a trapezoid field of view when photographing King Philip. Crisp editing gives the film energy and momentum. Visit the official web site for Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Recommended. Also worth going back for a look at Ms. Blanchett’s performance in the Elizabeth from 1998. It opens with a burning-at-the-stake scene that’s the best ever put on film.

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who – Film Review

It’s not that easy to find a theatrical release suitable for a 3 year old. But it was Good Friday, we weren’t working or schooling, and determined to go to the show. So we navigated our way through a spring snowstorm to see Hollywood’s latest attempt to bring a Dr. Seuss story to the big screen, Horton Hears a Who.

Jim Carrey plays Horton. The friendly, sensitive elephant who hears whos coming from Who-ville. Mr. Carey plays the range from sweet to driven with classic delivery and timing. You see, Who-ville is a speck perched atop a purple clover, floating through Horton’s jungle. The Mayor of Who-ville, played in fine style by Steve Carell, is more of a figurehead. He has no real power in his office, but aspires to attain the mayoral greatness achieved by his male lineage. Through a break in the plumbing, the Mayor learns of Horton and both quickly become believers in each other, and each other’s worlds.

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

The movie cuts back and forth between Horton trying to convince his jungle mates that an entire world exists on a clover, and the Mayor trying to warn all of Who-ville that their world is teetering on the verge of extinction. Horton spends his time avoiding Kangaroo, played deliciously by Carol Burnett. She is an overprotective, alpha mom who feels Horton is a bad influence on the children. Where has Carol Burnett been and why can’t we see more of her? She gets a bald eagle, apparently from Transylvania, Vlad Vlad-I Koff (Will Arnett), to intervene and put an end to all this nonsense. Vlad is my favorite character in the film. Spontaneous and hilarious, but doesn’t have the sharpest talons in the flock. The filmmakers do a relatively good job of getting across the “everyone is important, no matter their size” theme.

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

Pic has strong visual effects and sound design. These things are so good now, that you frequently forget you are watching animation. Every character and scene is rich in detail, a feast for the eyes. Exceptional tech work all around.

Like most of us, Dr. Seuss helped me learn to read, but I have never found any of the screen versions to live up to the material; and that includes this one. The film interpretations are not captivating or energizing in the same way the books are, because Theodor Geisel’s wonderful cadence is lost. The strength of the books lies in the brevity of the text and the minimal artistic presentation. His genius was to remove the unnecessary and present the essential. The details aren’t necessary. The films are the opposite, crammed with details, burdened with over editing and extremely loud.

Memo to Hollywood: Let Seuss remain on the printed page. The books are the movies.

I suspect the moguls realize that to some degree, but the fun of making them and the financial attraction is too great to resist. My son seemed to enjoy it, except when the Wickershams try to stuff Horton into a cage.

You won’t be missing much by waiting for the DVD. But check out the Horton official web site. Some really great stuff there.


Michael Clayton – Film Review

What struck me most about Michael Clayton is how all the players on this project came together as an ensemble, and took this film to a much higher level than might otherwise have been achieved. This is an extreme example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. When you look at the foundational pieces that make up this film, they are nothing special for the slick productions we have come to expect from Hollywood. By foundational I mean the story/script, music, art direction, costume and make-up. Certainly there are brilliant moments in the dialog, and score, But the entire film has been elevated several levels by the amazing performances of the actors. Each and every thespian turns in a performance perfectly pitched for the story. Credit of course goes to the casting, but it continues through to the director (Tony Gilroy) strategically placing his pieces on the chess board in a stunning gambit. Those accomplishments have been acknowledged with 3 Academy Award nominations for acting, as well as 4 others; direction, music, original screenplay and picture.


However, the real stand out, the thing that pulls it all together in my mind, is the editing (by John Gilroy, the director’s brother). It’s his work that builds importance and power through the opening pre-minutes, then seamlessly splices together a patchwork story into the final film that earned a Best Picture nomination. In an unfortunate oversight, his name is missing from this year’s Oscar nomination list; I can see how it might have been overlooked when you look at the competition. But I posit, without Mr. Gilroy’s skill, Michael Clayton would not be on the Best Picture roster.

The story has been told many times before. Big conglomerate prioritizes greed above ethics and humans suffer. Hires a powerful law firm to defend it against a class action law suit, and an insider finally gets fed up and decides to expose the company for what it really is. Good triumphs and confidence is somewhat restored in the system.

That insider is Artur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) the law firm’s star litigator who has been willing to stay with this case for the firm and their client, U North. Arthur has a chemical imbalance, stops taking his meds and creates a scene by removing his clothes in a deposition hearing, then chases the witness into the parking lot wearing nothing more than his socks. Mr. Wilkinson’s rants remind me of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) from Network. Middle aged, reliable, brilliant, willing to do anything he’s asked, and slightly left of center. Edens teeters back and forth between mad professor, and adolescent boy looking for a way to beat the bullies and get back a small part his lost youth.


U North has just promoted Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) to head legal counsel, and sends her to Minnesota to straighten out the Edens predicament. Meanwhile the law firm dispatches their “fixer” Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to do the same. Clayton has been with the firm for years and his talent is swooping in when there is a mess, or about to be one, and making things seem normal again. Clayton’s life is in turmoil, as usual the shoemaker has no shoes. His marriage has dissolved, he sees his son regularly, but doesn’t really connect, he has a gambling problem, and a recent business venture with his brother has gone bust, leaving him with a large financial problem. Clayton is a steeping pot waiting for someone or something to uncork the kettle. Mr. Clooney plays it Clooney cool, but allows us a glimpse into the tortured side of his character as he struggles to piece together family and career. It’s touching and very real.

Crowder is calculating, neurotic, and will do anything to further her position. Ms. Swinton captures it beautifully, taking us inside her character’s head. We see her rehearsing her speech while carefully laying out the big meeting’s wardrobe to show us how comfortable she is inside the friendly confines of the law office. These rituals have served her well. But when the fight moves to the street she is in way over her head.

Director Tony Gilroy and George Clooney

Pic technical aspects are first rate. Strong direction and photography are right on for the complex thriller genre. It helps us forget sometimes that the story is a retread. But the script has numerous holes, and is in such a hurry to get to the end that it misses some rich opportunities along the way. Still, I would recommend this for its acting quality, doesn’t get much better, and the way the filmmakers assemble the elements into a fast-moving entertaining couple of hours.


Atonement – Film Review

Atonement is a classic British period film based on the critically acclaimed novel by the Booker Prize winning author Ian McEwain, and adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton. Set just as WWII is about to begin for Britain, the story pivots around two would-be lovers, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a well educated son of the families’ housekeeper, and Cicelia Tallis (Keira Knightley) who lives in the expansive mansion. They are kept apart by the vivid imagination of Cicelia’s 13-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Briony, who is quite the writer for her age, has a crush on Robbie, but knows that her older sister holds sway over him. Robbie has not yet won over Cicelia, and matters have become worse as he inadvertently breaks a family heirloom.

As an attempt at resolution, Robbie writes an apology note. Several drafts are typed out, some of them quite provocative. He settles on a short, polite version, and entrusts Briony to deliver it, just ahead of a family dinner that includes him as a guest. After he gives the letter to Briony, it dawns on him that the wrong version was placed into the envelope. Briony reads it of course, and is confused by the content. She delivers it to Cicelia without the envelope and the evening quickly goes out of control.

Photo Credit: Working Title Films

In town for the dinner is Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) the brother, along with his friend Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch), a successful chocolate magnet. The unusual house guest list is rounded out by the presence of three children, twin boys and a sister, Lola, a Lolita-type young girl. They are staying on while their parents work out marital problems (go figure). The dinner is interrupted when the miserable twin boys go missing, kicking off a massive search party at night. While covering her part of the estate, Briony comes across a man having his way with Lola in the weeds. Based upon all she has observed, and read, Briony is sure the violator was Robbie. The police are called, Briony’s statement is given and Robbie is hauled away.

Photo Credit: Working Title Films

From there the film moves forwards and backwards through a complex tapestry of time and space. Dreamlike and at times almost surreal, director Joe Wright keeps the viewers off balance, all the while maintaining complete cinematic control. You question the structure, the points of view, and the motivation of nearly everyone. Ultimately the tragic truth is revealed in the closing scenes by a now aged and dying Briony (Vanessa Redgrave).

The first and third acts are presented in a very straightforward style. The combat scenes through France with Robbie, who has traded his remaining jail sentence for an army uniform, and two other soldiers don’t look like your typical war movie. We later learn why. The Dunkirk beach scene, a crucial turning point in the war for the UK, is shot as if through gauze and includes an incredibly long tracking shot that captures the madness and mayhem of ordinary humans reacting to war.

Saorise Ronan, who is nominated as supporting actress for her role as the 13-year old Briony Tallis, is brilliant. The film opens in her room with her at the typewriter completing her first play. Her walk, stares, and voice are as if they have emanated from the the blunt strokes of her own typewriter. Her character is the tent pole of the story. The more she comes to grips with what she has done, the more she softens her voice and begins to float across the screen rather than march.

Photo Credit: Working Title Films

Strong performances all around, wonderfully constructed script, solid art direction and a score by Dario Marianelli that found ingenious ways to blend music with the sound of typewriter keys striking a platen. Would recommend Atonement to those looking for a serious, but not necessarily inspiring film. Visit the official site here.

There Will Be Blood – Film Review

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering, There Will Be Blood, is a departure from his large ensemble works Boogie Nights and Magnolia. This muscular, tragic film was penned for the screen by Mr. Anderson, based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil.

Pic opens at the very end of the 1800’s when America was moving into the industrial age. Oil was the new gold and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) saw an enormous opportunity. Mr. Day-Lewis is the face and voice of the entire film. One of our most talented actors working today, he delivers a tour de force performance. As Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, his spine was stiff and straight, towering over everyone in Paradise Square. Here his back is bent from years of hard labor in the wells, but he still seems to be the tallest. Like Bill the Butcher, it becomes obvious Daniel Plainview is an unstable and dangerous man. He is utterly and completely devoted to gaining enough wealth from oil to allow him to get away from everyone, forever. He does not speak of the past, invests in people only when it serves his agenda and carries a grudge the likes of which you’ve never seen. In a contemplative monologue he unleashes a wicked stream of consciousness, “I hate most people. There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want no one else to succeed.” You get the gist.

Photo Credit: Paramount Vantage

The first 15 minutes of the film go by without any spoken dialog, which helps us focus on the work and considerable skill needed to successfully strike oil. Already well established, “I’m an oil man and you will agree,” Plainview meets a young man who tells him Standard Oil is buying up tracts of land in a small town in California. With considerable drilling experience under his belt, Plainview visits the area and talks the town folk into leasing him the land to prospect for oil. His careful and deliberate choice of words is at the level of a con artist taking a mark. One family in particular, The Sunday’s, are first to sign. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is the son and a man of God. He has a talent for giving revival-type sermons and expects Plainview to help finance his new church. He considers himself a worthy opponent to Daniel. Big mistake.

Planview uses his 10 year old son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) to help lend credibility to his “family business” angle, and quickly signs all but one hold out. Early on in the project H.W. is severely injured in an accident and Daniel sends him to San Francisco for specialized help.

Out of nowhere, a man claiming to be his brother Henry appears, to tell him their father is dead. He shares a note from their sister to prove his lineage. Daniel takes Henry under his roof, and to a business meeting with the Standard Oil executives who offer him $1 million for his wells. Daniel refuses, threatens the execs, and instead, cuts a deal with Union Oil to build a pipeline to carry his black crude straight to the Pacific Ocean.

The story takes a dark turn as a murder is committed, and Daniel finds himself trapped by the actions of the lone land holdout. Plainview must consent to be saved by Eli in exchange for the land lease, something he finds very difficult to do in a scene that is excruciating to watch. H.W. returns to his father and strikes up a relationship with Mary Sunday, the youngest daughter, that leads to marriage.

Liquids are the catalyst and cause of greed and desire for power. Everyone has their liquid of choice. Daniel’s is of course oil. He examines it as if it were an endangered species, smelling, tasting, burning it. He rubs it in Eli’s face in a fit of rage. Eli has his baptism water and takes his revenge on Daniel during the fake redemption sequence.

The closing scene is a jaw-dropper. Daniel has made a fortune and built a mansion for himself including a bowling alley. He uses the main hall for a firing range. In the end he has it out with his son H.W. as well as Eli Sunday, who visits him to get his once promised donation.

Anderson and Day-Lewis – Photo Credit: The New York Times

Film is masterful in technique. You are so completely engrossed in the lives of the people and the story that the 2 hour 30 minute plus running time goes by without a squirm. Shot predominately outside in a beautiful but barren landscape, Mr. Anderson authentically captures the sights and sounds of early 20th century America. But it’s the dialog that propels the drama. Everyone is polite in a matter-of-fact manner, trying hard to transform the wild west into civilization. Jonny Greenwood’s score is sometimes loud, frequently haunting and more often than not seems out of place for the early 1900’s. But it’s right at home in Plainview’s world.

Highly recommended for the serious film goers who appreciate this craft being practiced at the highest levels.


National Treasure: Book of Secrets – Film Review

I know this is not one of those serious, adult dramas, but the National Treasure films are a kind of guilty pleasure; a welcome interlude from the more emotional, sophisticated pictures. I am fascinated with American history, having explored Washington, D.C. more than a dozen times. When I’m there I find myself completely enthralled in the vibe. Not the political vibe, but the vision and courage exhibited by the Founding Fathers as they launched this nation.

In National Treasure: Book of Secrets, sequel to National Treasure, we have the familiar puzzle solvers, Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage), his father Patrick (Jon Voight), the computer nerd Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and of course the easy-on-the-eyes Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). They are joined by a new character, Ben’s mother, Emily Appleton played with spunk by Helen Mirren.This time it’s personal as they are out to clear the name of great grandfather Thomas Gates, whose loyalty to his country has been besmirched by Jeb Wilkinson (Ed Harris). Jeb contends that great grandfather Thomas was in fact the master mind behind President Lincoln’s assassination, and has an entry from John Wilkes Booth’s diary to prove it.


The hunt for clues begins and Ben and Patrick are at their usual brilliance. But along the way they are stumped by a new set of glyphs discovered within the Twin Resolute Desks, one belonging to the Queen of England and the other residing in the Oval Office. Ben gets into Buckingham Palace and steals one of the glyphs and then leverages Abigail’s charms to get access to the Oval Office so he can search for its mate in the President’s desk (which is missing). Enter mother/ex-wife Emily. She is able to read the now dead glyph language and sets them on the correct course to clear the family name, and uncover one of the seven lost cities of gold, Cibola. Wouldn’t be a National Treasure picture without the treasure.

Riley adds value beyond his computer hacking skills, informing the gang about the Book of Secrets. A book that has been handed down from president to president, with only the chief executive knowing the content or where it’s kept. Inside that book are critical clues.Ben successfully kidnaps the President and talks him into divulging the location of the book (Library of Congress). One thing you can always count on with these movies is a look inside big government buildings you only see from the outside. Whether actual locations or sets, it’s done very well. But in what is now an overused franchise tool, coincidence after convenient coincidence takes place. Ben is always in the right place at the right time and can immediately identify and piece together the most obscure clue.


In the final scenes, they battle the evil Jeb Wilkinson as they ascend Mt. Rushmore and then follow paths cut in it’s rocks back down into the mountain in search of Cibola.

I don’t think I will be spoiling anything by telling you they were successful, and that the door is wide open for yet another sequel. Even though it’s light entertainment, it is fun to watch. But it could be so much more interesting and stimulating to the mind if things didn’t always so easily fall into place. Visit the official National Treasure movie site here.

I Am Legend – Film Review

If you’ve gotten this far you probably know that I Am Legend is a Vampire movie about the last man (almost) left alive on earth. It stars Will Smith as Robert Neville, a military scientist-type who has taken it on himself to find a cure and vaccine for a disease caused by a drug once thought to be a cure for cancer. Instead, it actually wiped out 90% of the human race (oops). That drug was developed by a woman scientist played in a cameo uncredited role by Emma Thompson. It took only three years for the hero drug to end up as the plague, and the film essentially begins at that point.

I went to see this picture primarily because I love to see big cities silent and empty. There is something eerie about it, as if you are in Rome, surveying the ruins of a lost civilization, but you have actually walked those streets. It transports me back to my childhood and my fascination with science and fiction. I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (same title) and this is the third adaptation of that story onto the big screen. The first was The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, then again in 1974 with Charlton Heston playing The Omega Man. Of course I saw those films on television, as well as The World, The Flesh and the Devil (Harry Belafonte). The images of barren cities are forever etched in my mind.


Mr. Smith turns in a fine performance and is able to carry the story by himself, displaying both drama and comedy through a deserted, post apocalypse New York. According to the production notes (download pdf here), he prepared for months both physically and emotionally to take on the role, and it shows. Robert Neville’s military training has come in handy, helping him construct a fortress in Washington Square. It’s outfitted with blast doors, power generators and an impressive lab in the basement.

All of the citizens of New York (and the rest of the world) have perished either through breathing the virus or being killed and eaten by the less fortunate ones who have become zombie/vampires. Mutants who cannot survive in daylight, have lost all notion of “typical human behavior,” are super strong and quite nasty.


Lt. Colonel Neville attempts to construct a typical day in his new atypical world. Eat, exercise, make a selection at the video store, flirt, shop, garden, even visit The Met. His house is adorned with original art–a Van Gogh hangs above his plasma flat screen in the living room. I would have done the same thing. No strike that, I would have moved into The Met. But Robert does something I probably wouldn’t have. He captures mutants and takes them to his lab for clinical trials in an effort to find a cure. He has been unsuccessful.

Robert has a close and only companion in Sam, a German Shepherd. Sam is child, wife (Samantha), friend and confidant. Sam is attacked by mutant dogs when Robert gets caught in a zombie trap he originally used on them, and barely escapes. He snaps and goes out at night to rundown as many mutants as he can. They actually overpower him and he is saved in the nick of time by Anna (Alice Braga) and her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan), who have heard his broadcasts over the airwaves.

Anna provides Robert with the human inspiration that has been missing for so long. An all out attack is mounted by the vampires, with their alpha male in the lead (played with raw power by Dash Mihok). Good and evil have a final showdown, while hope and the future of the human race hang in the balance.

The director, Francis Lawrence, effectively injects flashbacks, giving us some perspective into Robert’s drive and motivation. But for me it is all too expected. The pieces fall into place too easily. Technically the film is first rate. The dialog (monologue mostly) is engaging and Mr. Lawrence’s pacing keeps the story hurtling forward. So many details are right, but in the end, the film doesn’t rise beyond a routine science fiction thriller.


I Am Legend is interesting to watch for you sci-fi fans out there, and the official web site has some cool features, like an interactive map of New York and a daylight meter that you can customize to your own zip code. But it will work just as well at home as a rental, especially if you have a good entertainment system. One thing I kept thinking about during the picture. Free rock star parking anywhere in New York. Sweet.

No Country for Old Men – Film Review

nocountrypost.jpgJoel and Ethan Coen have a talent for hitting the audience right between the eyes (sorry). What an amazing body of work. Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother, Where Art Though?, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and now No Country for Old Men. Yes I’ve left some out, but these are the important works. I ponder long and hard over how best to characterize their films, but I keep changing my mind. My latest word paring description is dramatic surrealism. Their elements are visceral and easily recognized. Serious but laced with humor. Almost always violent, but often the dialog is as sweet as pie. Usually the situation is a little uncomfortable for the characters and the observer, but you can’t possibly look away, no matter what you might imagine will happen. And as you stand back and look at the whole, something is very much askew.

Watching No Country for Old Men frequently evoked Fargo for me. Opening shots of a bleak, barren landscape, not fit for man nor beast. This is not a world of cell phones or blogs, but one of instinct and stop-at-nothing drive. The locations contain only what is essential to the story, no extras, no filler, just pure story. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a Vietnam vet and a retired welder living in a run down trailer park in nowhere Texas. He is married to Carla Jean Moss (Kelly MacDonald). All we know about her is she works at Wal-Mart and loves Llewelyn. While he is out hunting one day (still stalking the enemy), he comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Carnage everywhere. One of the pick-up trucks is still loaded with product, but there is no money in sight. He follows a trail of blood–the entire movie is a trail of blood–and comes across the last man standing who has $2MM in a sample case. Looks remarkably like the sample case that held the money in Fargo. Llewelyn of course takes the money, thinking that he can actually get away with it. He obviously doesn’t know about one of the basics of life which states, “Just because you find something out there there in the universe doesn’t make it yours.”


Needless to say the finance guys want their cash back. And so their man to retrieve it is Anton Chigurh, played with chilling steadiness by Javier Bardem. They could not have made a better choice. His weapon, or “right tool” is a gas propelled cattle stun/kill gun (no bullets). His voice is deep and dark like the rest of his persona.


Then there is the county sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is approaching retirement and has presided over this corner of Texas since he was 25. Although age-wise, he still wonders why people do what they do, dealing with it through the use of humor and storytelling. He genuinely wants to solve this case so he remains engaged, but he knows the players in this game are out of his league, so he stays on the fringes.

The story is primarily a violent game of chase between Llewelyn and Anton. Llewelyn leverages his military experience to stay one step ahead, but it takes him too long to discover that the money has been lo jacked with a transponder. There is much these men have in common and we see them doing the same things in isolation, such as treating their own wounds. But only once do they actually speak to each other in a chilling phone conversation (rotary dial models only), where each one ups the ante and challenge. Both make promises you know they will either keep or die trying.I was completely riveted to the screen by the performances, drawn in by the dialog, and in awe of how they use the camera and lighting. The editing was invisible, while Carter Burwell’s music (noticed over the end credits) is more environmental than musical, causing the viewer to reflect on character’s choices and state of mind. So many things are linked together, but left unexplained; a Coen brothers hallmark. Perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s novel, on which this film is based, does a better job of connecting Sheriff Bell’s personal and family dynamics to the rest of the story. But here it is not a useful detour. I did however find it interesting, especially when the Sheriff recounts his dreams and speaks of the proud professional linage that has defined the men in his family. In the end he states that he is “over matched,” an observation that allows him to actually reach retirement. Others in his family didn’t fare as well.

Want to see this one again because I still have some unanswered questions in my mind. And as always, can’t wait till the next Coen brothers installment. In the meantime, I’m still looking for the money Carl Showalter buried in the snow.

Link to the official movie site for No Country for Old Men. Embedded within the end credits is a statement that the production is 100% carbon neutral. Yet another detail the Coen brothers have attended to.