Monthly Archives: October 2007

SAW IV

R, 93 min, 2007

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Writers: Patrick Melton (screenplay) & Marcus Dunstan (screenplay), Patrick Melton (story) & Marcus Dunstan (story) and Thomas Fenton (story)

Stars: Tobin Bell, Scott Gordon-Patterson, Costas Mandylor

Here we descend yet once more into the filthy, disturbed, (apparently) moral philosophy-fixated mind of Jigsaw, the “ingenious” serial killer prone to complex mechanical puzzles and implacable more dilemmas which often result in the torture, mutilation and gory murders of seemingly innocent victims. Continue reading

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BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

Sidney Lumet’s latest masterpiece, made at the age of 83 (which should not make a difference by the way) reveals an American master in top form. This brilliant, twisted and twisting crime thriller has a plot I don’t want to spoil (the trailers and reviews will tell you more than I). Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are brothers down on their luck; they both need money (and as Danny DeVito once said via David Mamet: “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!”). They plot a jewelry store robbery. The robbery quickly goes awry (to say the least!), and we see various leap-froggings through the chronology and points of view, which differ occasionally from sequence to sequence. For Sidney Lumet, who made such tough New York films as “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and “Serpico” (1979), this is a personal triumph. The screenplay by first-timer Kelly Masterson is like a puzzle, where you know the main picture going in, and the Devil’s in the details of all the smaller pieces. Without giving anything away, I will say that, unusual for a “crime picture,” this film has a strong emotional core, which makes for an astonishingly devastating experience. The cast is exemplary, with Hawke as the disheveled deadbeat father who loves his family but can’t pull it together. There’s Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s dissatisfied wife, and Albert Finney, heartbreaking as their father. As the situation snowballs out of control and the two brothers get in further and further over their heads, watch Hoffman’s face – the distortions he makes on his forehead, and the pain in his eyes tells it all. The old man sitting a few aisles ahead said, as he rose from his chair at the film’s end: “There wasn’t a single character I liked in that thing!” Not the point, sir! Not the point! This was one of the year’s best films. NOTE: For a more recent example of ostensibly the same basic concept, see Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” (2008) with Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as two British brothers in a similar predicament. Not as strong, but interesting for contrast’s sake.

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THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE

Oh, what a sad film this is! Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier directed this deliberately-paced, dark but hopeful melodrama about loss, forgiveness, and rejuvination. Halle Berry stars as Audrey Burke, an artist in Seattle and mother of two (a 6-year-old boy with a fear of dunking his head in the swimming pool, and a 10-year-old girl with a penchant for basketball). She is newly widowed when her husband Brian (David Duchovny) is gunned down in the midst of an act of domestic violence he happens to witness. That was always like Brian, being the Good Samaritan and going out of his way to help those who couldn’t be helped. Audrey particularly resents this trait when it comes to Brian’s best friend since childhood, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro, solid as ever), who she “forgets” to tell about Brian, and invites last-minute to the funeral. Jerry is a recovering heroin addict in need of a fresh start. Offering him a place to stay in her home, Audrey and Jerry work together to pick up the pieces of their fractured lives. This process is aided by a girl from Jerry’s NA support group named Kelly (an unrecognizable Alison Lohman), who takes to Jerry and sees in him an opportunity to do some good; this guy seems to draw that sort of attention like a flame draws moths. The film is sort of split into two halves, the first being the present, interspersed with seemingly random flashbacks to the marriage and the tragedy that led to the present, and the second half or so is more just straight-forward. This is a modern soap opera not quite to rival the works of Fassbinder or Almodovar, but it’s a respectable effort. Actually, I was somewhat reminded of the works of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, particularly the dour little gem “21 Grams” (2003) – not least because of the chronological leap-frogging, Del Toro’s performance, the cinematography, and the theme of sudden loss and the almost inexplicable need to move on right after. Bier is a little too content to give us close-ups on big eyes, and a few developments occur just a bit too abruptly, piling up one after another, but in a melodrama that’s to be expected – and forgiven.

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RENDITION

Gavin Hood’s intelligent, chilling thriller attempts to put a human face on the practice of torture, outsourced by the American government to foreign countries so that we can’t be held accountable. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is a chemical engineer with a pregnant wife named Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and son in Chicago. He boards a plane in Cape Town, South Africa and is disembarking at the D.C. airport when he is abducted, has a hood put over his head, and is taken away, his name deleted from the passenger manifest. Isabella is concerned, then frightened when she can’t get any answers, which are being withheld by the office of Senator Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), who authorized his extradition to another country for “interrogation.” This interrogation is to be overseen by a young CIA analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) who survived a terrorist bombing in North Africa only to see his colleague get killed. He and his foreign associates are questioning Anwar about possible terrorist ties linked through his cell phone records. Meanwhile, Isabella employs an old college boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) to get information, since he’s now an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin). Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) and writer Kelley Sane have constructed a labyrinthine plot (I haven’t even gotten to the time-shifting sequences following the foreign interrogator’s daughter and her friendship with a young man who may have ties to the bombing) around what is basically a human story; we have the young pregnant American seeking the truth about her husband, we have the husband who knows nothing and who can’t convince his torturers that he is innocent, and we have the pencil-pushing American agent who is forced into an ugly job, who must do it, but at what cost? Still, Hood and Sane’s plot is so utterly complex, and the tone so cold and slick, that it is easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the human elements. Nevertheless, this is an effective and well-made real-world suspense drama.

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RESERVATION ROAD

Terry George’s slice of life is a melodramatic tragedy that emotionally manipulates you like few films I’ve seen.

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PLANET TERROR

Robert Rodriguez’s extended and unrated DVD release of his half of the horror/camp double feature “Grindhouse” (the second half is Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof”) is as gory, goofy and fun as a zombie film can get. The film stars Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who (at the urging of those around her) thinks she ought become a stand-up comedienne. Freddy Rodriguez (formerly of “Six Feet Under” and perhaps atoning for the dreadful “Harsh Times”) is El Wray, a wrecking-truck driver with a penchant for fancy footwork, knives and general violence. When a mysterious outbreak hits the small Texas border town, turning the local populace into flesh-munching zombies, it’s up to Cherry and former lover Wray (and a small band of survivors) to fend off the evil invasion. Marley Shelton and Josh Brolin (who had a great year in this film, alongside Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” and-of course-the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”) are standouts among a stellar B-movie cast, truly getting into the over-the-top spirit of the cliche’s they are playing. Rodriguez too brings his entire cinematic bag of tricks to bear on a grade-zilch horror movie parody. By itself, it’s entertaining, but along with Tarantino’s work, makes “Grindhouse” a one of a kind must-see!

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ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE

Shekhar Kapur’s beautiful, if sudsy, sequel to his 1998 biography of the young life of Elizabeth I is as sumptuous as it is frivolous. This time, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), flanked by her omnipresent counselor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), is trying to juggle the commitment to finding a husband and producing an heir, with the struggle against traitors, threats of assassination, and the attempts at userping the throne from Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) and Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla, from “Blow”). Her romantic prospects are bolstered with the arrival of a pirate named Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, looking like he’s ready to buckle a swash or two). He’s infatuated with her, but is also quite taken with Elizabeth’s ward “Bess” (Abbie Cornish), and so a powerful love triangle is formed. Blanchett, an Oscar-nominee for the first film, exudes regalness and is sharp of wit, but this time tempers herself with a tinge of no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners seriousness. Perhaps the “Virgin Queen” has finally grown into a woman no man could truly love? The screenplay, by Michael Hirst and William Nicholson, is simplistic at best, historically inaccurate at worst, but essentially this is just a great-looking soap opera set against the backdrop of (slightly?) revisionist history, and the results are intriguing and entertaining. NOTE: Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar AGAIN for the same role in this film in 2007.

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ACROSS THE UNIVERSE

If Julie Taymor is not among the filmmakers you’ve heard of, that’s a crying shame. Her 2000 debut was the three-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. In 2002, she led Salma Hayek to an Oscar nomination in the actress’ passion project Frida. Now, with Beatles music as her main source material, Taymor paints a beautiful, psychedelic and always visually stunning love story for the ages. Watch out for Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite!

Note: Nominated for the Best Costume Design Oscar.

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SLEUTH

Kenneth Branagh’s “Sleuth” is a two character study by way of Harold Pinter, who took the basic plot of Anthony Shaffer’s play (previously adapted into a 1972 film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and didn’t even bother to look at the original dialogue it seems.

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<br/>The result is a fascinating, mind-boggling, cat and mouse game that truly keeps you guessing and riveted from moment to moment.

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<br/>Terrifically written by Pinter with crackling dialogue (“You gave him a metaphorical pat on the bum?”) and brilliant, over-the-top acting by Jude Law and Michael Caine (Law is playing the part Caine played in the original film and Caine now plays the role immortalized by Laurence Olivier), this is a real sleeper! Great film!

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MICHAEL CLAYTON

Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” is a high-powered yet subtle legal thriller in which we begin to have empathy – first for one man deemed crazy by his employer and his closest friend, and then for the friend, who must determine just how crazy his friend and colleague is.

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<br/>George Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” for legal messes, who when we first meet him, is world-weary, beaten down by his job, and yet, still trying to commit to what he does for a living.

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<br/>Colleague and friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, in the year’s first sure-fire Supporting Actor nomination deserving performance), believes that he too has been corrupted by his work, protecting an agro-chemical company for years against allegations of pollution causing deaths in small towns.

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<br/>Clayton must seek out the truth at all costs, including potentially, the life of Edens, as well as his own.

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<br/>Gilroy, a first time writer-director who is famous for penning the Bourne movies, keeps the film at a remarkably steady pace, drawing us in rather than assaulting us with improbable action in corporate settings.

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<br/>The supporting cast, including Wilkinson (the anchor of the film), Sydney Pollack as Clayton’s off-the-books employer, and Tilda Swinton as a remarkably nervous agro-chemical employee who knows more than she’s letting on, is quite simply, uniformly, superb.

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<br/>This is definitely one of the year’s best films. Nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture!

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LARS AND THE REAL GIRL

“Lars and the Real Girl” is the odd, but touching story of a lonely and sad rural man who his family and town are concerned for. When he finds a “sex doll” (anatomically correct) on the Internet, Lars (Ryan Gosling, in a great performance) decides to purchase her, gives her a name and personality, an entire history, etc. and presents her to his brother and his sister-in-law (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) as his fiancee/girlfriend. The entire small town in which they live is soon buzzing, and a doctor (Patricia Clarkson) suggests that the only way out of Lars’ delusion may be to acknowledge his doll as the real thing, and play along for his sake. Lars also has an unrequited crush from a co-worker (Kelli Garner of “Bully” fame).

 

This is funny, sweet, touching story of learning to come to grips with your past and the love and support that a town and family can give you if you open yourself up enough. Well-written by Six Feet Under alum Nancy Oliver.

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THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB

Robin Swicord’s delightful romantic comedy proves that you don’t have to be female or a male homosexual to enjoy the work of Jane Austen. As if there were any doubt. The film concerns the exploits of a small group of casual acquaintances and friends who bond over the literature of, perhaps, the greatest and most insightful female author of all time. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a dog-breeder (and collector) who can’t sustain a human relationship (romantic, that is) and loves setting up others on dates. Prudie Drummond (Emily Blunt) is a high school French teacher whose husband (Marc Blucas) is about to go on a long trip to San Antonio in lieu of their romantic/business trip to Paris (neither has ever been). Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is a serial bride, marrying man after man, always in search of love. Sylvia Avila (Amy Brenneman) is about to separate from her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) because he’s been seeing someone. Their lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace, formerly from TV’s “Lost”) has been searching for romance in all the wrong places, and loves taking risks. As a breath of fresh air, the group decides they could use a book club devote to the Austen canon to get over their personal problems. A welcome diversion, if you will. Jocelyn, at a breeder’s convention, meets Grigg (Hugh Dancy), an intriguing young tech supporter/software magnate who seems to have a lot of money and not know what to do with it. Thinking he might be a good fit for Sylvia’s recently broken heart, she invites him to join the club. He takes this as a sign that Jocelyn likes him, which on some level is probably true. One by one, a month at a time, they will whisk through the works of Jane Austen, from “Emma” (the inspiration for “Clueless”) to “Northanger Abbey” (Austen’s first book, published posthumously), from “Persuasion” to “Mansfield Park,” and (of course) “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Like clockwork, the plot developments (and their lives) begin to lightly mirror things from Austen’s world. The film was written and directed by Robin Swicord (“Practical Magic,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) and is based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler. As a romantic comedy, it’s pretty predictable and pleasant enough. As a tribute to Austen fans and a primer for potential future fans, it is delightful and invaluable. The cast is nice to look at and listen to, and the characters are not dopes stuck in a sitcom, but actually literate and intelligent people stuck in the unfortunate position of human life – and all its romantic foibles. And I liked that Grigg, Daniel and even the husband played by Blucas prove to be better than they first appear. This is not a “chick flick” per say, but a film for both sexes to enjoy.

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