Monday, January 14, 2008


Director: Mathew Vaughan (Layer Cake, production work)
Starring: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pheiffer, and the DeNiro

Stardust is a (moderately) fun romp through a modern-style fantasyland. A satire of sorts (although unfortunately it's utterly devoid of any real satirical theme), Stardust tells the story of a young man who enters a magical kingdom and gets swept up in an adventure. Perhaps a better way to put it is that rather than a satire, it's a fantasy adventure with a different tone. It's a tongue-in-cheek romp, rather than another one of those painfully "all-encompassing" adventure that most modern fantasy stories aspire to. Wonderfully in my opinion, the "fate of the world" does not seem to be at stake in this film.

The plot is marginally interesting, although I won't bother with details, as most of them are rather arbitrary. In fact, much of the entire story feels arbitrary. I've never read the source material (a Neil Gaimen book), but I suspect that's to blame. Although it is a director's responsibility to change material that misses the mark, so Mr. Vaughan isn't going to get out of this entirely.

Now despite these script complaints, I will add there are still things to enjoy here. Most of the fun comes from oddball moments (like DeNiro's gay pirate character) rather than gripping story points, but there are enough fun, oddball moments to make up for the plot definciencies. The direction is at times acceptable, but at others it totally fails - more than a couple of scenes were nearly pointless. Even the acting is uneven - Claire Danes gives a fine performance, although Pheiffer does the best job (as an ugly witch looking to regain her lost youthful looks). The boy (nominally the main character) is utterly forgettable. I imagine that this film will appeal mostly to the readers of modern fantasy books - those paperbacks that come in 12 part series with dragons on the brightly colored covers. Beyond that niche however, I doubt there's very much cross-over appeal in this story. The truth is that whatever it's target audience, all could be forgiven if it were just a better done film. As it is, it's just a rather marginally entertaining story, without much of anything to say. It's simply a forgettable work.

Standouts: Cute moments and characters like DeNiro's gay pirate.
Blowouts: Some flawed work across the board, including the basic story.

Grade: C+


Director: Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage, Postcards From the Edge, kinda famous)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

It's possible that this will be my pick for the most entertaining movie of the year. Is it a great movie? Maybe. I'm not quite sure. I am sure that it's great fun to watch, though, although keep in mind that I find history and politics immensely interesting in themselves. If you do not, I doubt this film will hit you quite as squarely as it hit me.

The story follows one Charlie Wilson, longtime southern democrat (meaning not terrified to go to war like the other species of democrat - the urban coastal democrat). He's a congressman from some nowhere Texas district who has rather seemlessly merged his (quite competent)professional life with a serious taste for women, booze and partying. The film starts with a naked Tom Hanks in a hot tub full of (much better looking) naked women.

This hilarious character then gets swept up in the cause of the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet union (early 1980s) by a strong-willed conservative donor (Roberts). He then hooks up with the only CIA resource assigned to the situation (Hoffman), and gradually weedles and deals in the US congress to increase funding for our Afghan allies.

I'll make a guess that most of the opposition to the this film will be based on "historical innacuracies". I'll also guess that there are already articles out there by conservative columnists claiming that this film is incorrect showing a democrat (gasp!) leading the military cause in Afghanistan. They'll argue that this was really a Republican Reagan-era operation, and that Wilson was a minor character at best. I'll also guess some others will complain that this film says that we indirectly created the Bin-Laden phenomenon. (Note that this is very much what the film does say, by the way.)

I say that these are arguments are misdirected, however. Yes, Reagan very much did promote military aid for Afghanistan. However, it should be noted that the Carter administration had a very precise plan to get the Soviets involved in a lengthy war in Afghanistan prior to Reagan. That's the thing with telling stories about recent historical events like this. There are a million details that must undoubtedly get lost. The point of the work of art is to get to the center of an issue. It's is absolutely *not* to repeat every viewpoint ever presented on a subject. Believe me, every single one of Shakespeare's histories seriously messed up the actual history involved. Wonderfully that doesn't have much to do with his plays.

It doesn't affect Charlie Wilson's War either. The story here got the crux of the issue correct: A very conservative idea - directly from the Roberts character - is presented to a hilarious dixie-crat, and then we see just how a disjointed American policy is created on an ad hoc basis, bit by bit. We also see how unintended consequences result (Afghanistan as a base for Bin Laden). There you go.

Standouts: Nichols direction, fun script, very good performances.
Blowouts: Sure, it glosses over a lot of recent history to make an entertaining story.

Grade: A-

Monday, December 31, 2007


Director: Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking)
Starring: Ellen Page, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Michael Cera

And once again with the "I've got no time to review stuff". So here are a few more quickies, starting with Juno.

Getting the press as 2007's indy, award-season crowd-pleaser, Juno lives up to the hype. It's certainly typical of other recent indy, award-season crowd-pleasers in its oddball characters and sunny disposition (see Little Miss Sunshine), but despite this it still feels like a wholly realized, and quite unique work. It's recommended not only for its laughs, but also for it's excellent, if unusual (and hard to pin down) script, acting, and direction.

The story follows an unwed teenage mother-to-be, her boyfriend (the nicest guy in the world), her remarkably composed parents, and the yuppie couple who plan to adopt the baby. On one hand it's very easy to make an argument that this film is morally unfit as it rather blithely glosses over the very real problems associated with people having babies who aren't ready to have babies. In fact, not once did I get a glimmer of just how messed up the adopted kid is likely to be. Is it *assured* that the kid will be messed up? Nope. But every adoptee I've ever met was swimming in a sea of serious emotional issues.

Despite this, the film is still very much worth seeing. There is an unusual, slightly sad tone well underneath the chipper facade that all the characters present, and this is what saves the film. In fact, this is what makes the film quite good. There are serious issues beneath all of the jokes, and the movie knows it. Well done.

Standouts: A fun, quirky script. Fine acting and direction.
Blowouts: Wow, considering the fact this little girl may have seriously messed up a future babies life, she seems awfully chipper ...

Grade: A-

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Director(s): Dan Klores + Fisher Stevens (a lot of minor acting + production)
Starring: documentary about Burt + Linda Pugash (crazy people)

Not quite what I was expecting, crazy love is a documentary about a couple who once appeared on Geraldo. The old afternoon Geraldo talk show? Remember it? Remember when he was hit by the chair:

Yeah, classy.

This film isn't quite on that level, but while thoroughly engaging, I can't honestly claim it's any better than Mr. Rivera. The film follows the "love" story of a rich ambulance-chasing lawyer and the woman he becomes obsessed with (literally obsessed). To cut through the hour long rambling that slowly reveals their respective levels of loneliness, selfishness, insanity, and greed, the lawyer tells the woman he wants to marry her. Then he cheats on her. Then she breaks it off when she finds out he's already married. Then he hires a couple of thugs from Harlem to blind her with lye, which they do. Then the story gets really weird, and slowly sadder. At least after he gets out of prison many years later it does.

Like I said this is an undeniably engrossing tale, although entirely in a gossip magazine kind of way. I watched in rapt attention as their story became more and more absurd. In the end, there isn't any redemptive value in this though. It's trash TV on film. It may feel more substanstive because it's a "documentary film", but it's still the same game that Geraldo Rivera played for ratings. The one difference is instead of amping up the childish tension like Geraldo did/does, the film plays these disgusting people purely for laughs. In the end that might be even worse. These people aren't funny. The screen is nearly always full of terrible, twisted, worthless individuals, entirely interested in themselves. At it's heart this tale might have in it a pretty good story about human nature, and I think it tried for some of that, but in the end Crazy Love didn't succeed at being meaningful. It was just a low-brow freakshow. And like a freak biting the head off of a chicken, it probably demeans both the biter and the guy who pulled out a buck to watch.

Standouts: Entertainment value. It's really interesting to watch nutballs.
Blowouts: Easy entertainment. There are some horrid people here.

Grade: C+


Director: David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortenson

I've found Cronenberg's last 2 films (Promises & A History of Violence) to live in very similar places, artistically speaking. And yes, they are both good enough flicks to be called art, me thinks. The similarities should be obvious I suppose, considering they both run over the same ground - thinky, violent thrillers that nonetheless (nominally) follow some mainstream conventions. They also both star Viggo Mortenson, who I'll admit I'm conflicted about as an actor, although his role here as a Russian mafioso is by far his best work. He's generally submerged himself into the role, although the character is overwhelming quiet and stoic (just like in every other Mortenson performance), virtually static unless in an action scene. Quiet, rugged, and internalized are some ways to describe his performances, "rock-like unresponsiveness" would be another. Here however, it works fairly well, as he plays an ambitious, tough-guy Russian gangster caught between the violence of his world and his own understanding of right and wrong.

The plot follows an English midwife (Watts) who after delivering a baby to a dying prostitute, seeks answers in the girl's diary. The simple act of possessing the diary puts her in danger, as it implicates a number of very powerful and very violent Russian gangsters, although she is unaware of this at first because she doesn't read Russian. When she (unknowingly) takes the diary to the boss himself, her life soon hangs by the merest thread. She meets, and is attracted to Nikolai (Mortenson), who is a rising gangster, a close confidant of the boss' eratic son. After a twist or two of the thriller plot, Mortenson finds himself in the highest echelons of the gangster society. He also finds himself hunted by competing mobsters. Here's where I'll note the fully naked fight scene that every review mentions. It's worth noting. It's probably the most unique and interesting fight sequence I've ever seen, as Mortenson battles a couple of hitmen in a sauna. Or at least the most interesting since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The movie's plot is interesting enough that I won't give away too many details, except to say that there are a few twists of the sort commonly found in Hollywood thrillers. Okay, I guess I'll also say that they're done much better than in most Hollywood thrillers.

Standouts: Direction, Viggo.
Blowouts: I didn't find the film to have as much to say about violence as many reviewers seem to think it does.

Grade: A-


Director: David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks)
Starring: Laura Dern, Jeromy Irons

David Lynch is one of the most frustrating directors working today. He's produced a number of near masterpieces (The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks - okay, only the first season). He has a few other very solid works in his catalog (Eraserhead, The Straight Story). The thing is, when Lynch misses the target, he REALLY misses the target. He's like that talented pitcher in Bull Durham who'd occasionally throw so wildly the ball would end up in the press booth. For instance, do not try to tell me Lost Highway is a good movie. Just don't.

Now realize that I'm a pretty big Lynch fan (of his movies that is ... if you should go to his website, beware - he's seemingly even wackier in his personal opinions). I make it a point to catch all of his films. I own the Twin Peaks DVDs, and have a framed poster in my home office. Heck, Mulholland Drive is one of the few films that I've ever paid to see twice. Inland Empire? Not so much. No, I'm fairly disappointed I paid even once.

I recall reading many reviews, and viewer comments, complaining about how impenetrable Mulholland Drive was. I disagreed. Perhaps I just got lucky when I saw the camera slowly falling into the bed pillow and immediately clued in that what followed was just an extended sequence of a dreaming subconcious mind. I think for many people, people who found it understandable or not, Mulholland was still terrifically engrossing. It grabbed the viewer and pulled them into the dream. Not Inland Empire. This was easily the least engrossing film of Lynch's canon. More so than even Lost Highway.

At first I found the images before me to be a bubbling, churning cauldron of cinema, where one scene would sink down as another rose up. It wasn't long before I became as bored as I would have been watching water boil, however. The main problem here, I think, is that the viewer isn't given much of an engaging reality to start with. I suspect that for Lynch's wacky time and plot twists to work, there must be something that the viewer is already comfortable with. What I'm suggesting is that it's Lynch's responsibility to first weave the rug, before he pulls it out from under us. This movie isn't very interesting from the start, so when the 60 minutes of utter weirdness begins there's no real reason to care. I couldn't care less about Laura Dern's character, so I couldn't care less that her reality had warped and twisted. Oh, I'll still catch the next Lynch flick, but this one will be soon forgotten.

Standouts: Some really beutiful imagery and "cinema" peppered throughout.
Blowouts: The characters were so utterly unengaging, that all of the dazzling director tricks simply bounced off my head, rather than penetrated.

Grade: C

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Director: Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice)
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy

This film is getting some of the best reviews of the year. Generally, you can count my blogtastic voice in with that chorus of more meaningful reviewers. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, although I won't quite rave about it. In fact when it was over, my first thought was that the movie deserved another 15 to 20 minutes of story. The fact that I wanted *more* from the film says a lot. Especially when every 3rd film I see these days drags on for 10 minutes too long, and you can't wait to get out of the theater.

I can't talk about the story without noting just how melodramatic it is. In fact I had quite the battle between my cynical self and my good side about just how good of a movie this was. In the end, I liked the movie a lot. It will probably be one of the year's best. I don't think it's even in the same league as the best English period pieces (Howard's End, Remains of the Day), but it is a fine production that deserves to be seen.

If you read many reviews, rest assured that mine will be the only one written by someone who hasn't read the ubiquitous novel. I should note that the only reason for that was because I just had too much else to do when the book was nominated in my book club a few years ago. Technically, I own the book. It's on my shelf. I think it even made it to my bedstand at one point. But that's it. So I have fresh eyes, so to speak. The other reviews I've read all seem insistant on comparing it to the written word. I can speak only to the visual story ...

... which was astounding. I'm frankly a little surprised this was an adapted tale. There were a handful of scenes which were purely cinematic in their storytelling. In one of the better uses of visuals I've ever seen in a film, we occasionally would first see a scene from the perspective of one character and then later through the eyes of the characters actually performing the action. For instance, to a young girl looking through her window (a young, exceedingly creative and intelligent girl, I'll add), it's surprising how different someone diving into a pool to retrieve a piece of a vase can look. This theme of perspective is imperative to the story ...

... which tells the tale of two young lovers (Knightley as the aristocrat & McAvoy from a lower class), and how the tiniest of things (simply the different 'perspective' of a little girl) can ruin their lives. From the girl's perspective she thinks she sees one thing, when in fact her eyes and her nature and her limited wisdom have betrayed her. She ends up accussing her sister's lover of a horrendous crime and he is convicted. He is given the option of fighting in France (in World War II) in lieu of his prison sentence, which he does. I should note here the marvelous visual scene of the famous British evacuation at Dunkirk. It's a very impressive bit of film artistry.

Later we see that the two sisters have both become nurses to aid the war effort on the home front. The young girl (now 18 - Romola Garmai) almost certainly has taken on the nurse role in some sense to atone for her past misdeed. I won't divulge how the story ends, but it involves a surprising, and quite interesting take on the specifics of atonment, cowardice, artistic license, lying, self-deception and even more on perspective. Perspective is as much the core of this story as is atonement, probably even more I think. Think how different perspectives result in terrorists, or Nazis, or basically good Republicans in favor of torture, or liberals who've been silly enough to join PETA. The choices hardly need to be as extreme as these examples, but so many of our choices are not arrived at rationally, scientifically, carefully weighed. Nope the paths we take are more often just the result of the same perspectives that drove the little girl - the limited view of the world we each possess, our own individual natures, and our varying degrees of experience. The truth is that we all need to atone for our hasty judgements, every one of us.

Standouts: A spectacular melding of a novel to the visual story-telling of the screen.
Blowouts: I almost found the story too melodramatic to enjoy.

Grade: A

Monday, December 17, 2007


Director: Olivier Dahan (French film, TV work)
Starring: Marion Cotillard

I must admit that, toward the end, this film simply bored me to tears. I should also add that at the time I watched it, I was in no mood for this type of pic at all. I hope I'm rational enough to realize this and can give the film more credit than I felt at the time.

I should start by saying my boredom was absolutely not due to Ms. Cotillard's fine performance as Edith Piaf, the famous French singer. In fact at first the film held my full attention. It's just that over the course of 2 hours the overdone "Frenchness" of the film wore me down. Oh, I understand why they did this. Edith Piaf is often regarded as the French persona distilled into a single tragic voice, so any movie on her would have to wallow in Francophilia, no? For me, though there were just too many moments where the artistic ironic tragedy was so profound that it crossed well over into silly self-parody. Yep, this film was the very stereotype of La Francais. Of course, how else but with a shake of your head and a wry smile can you view a people who feel the need to randomly assign a gender to every word in their vocabulary. As David Sedaris tells us, in France, an electric floor-waxer is a girl. Of course she is.

On the other hand however, this film is still entirely worth seeing for Cotillard's bombastic performance as the gutter-trash turned voice-of-France, Edith Piaf. From my perspective I wanted to see the film simply to learn about the famous singer. Going into the film I only knew the highlights (raised by Hookers, adored by millions). It turns out that she was one messed up lady. Really, really messed up. But with a hell of a voice, and a hell of a talent for conveying intense, operatic, melodramatic (French?) emotion in song.

A film well worth seeing if you adore la France, Piaf, or even music biopics like Ray or Walk the Line - because Piaf's life in many ways followed the same rags to riches, to rags, to beloved-figure-for-the-ages story as those films.

Standouts: Cotillard as one emotionally stunted and uncentered (but talented) individual.
Blowouts: The French (at times, only at times.)

Grade: B-


Director: Micheal Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy)
Starring: Angelina Jolie

You all remember Daniel Pearl, the poor Wall Street Journal reporter who was grusomely murdered on video by Al Queada supporters in Pakistan. Well, this is the film version. It's a solid enough movie, although in style and form it feels totally derivative of other recent films (from Babel to the Bourne Identity).

Winterbottom shot this film just like Babel, and quite similarly to Paul Greengrass' documentary style. A style which, if you read my Bourne Ultimatum review, I often despise. At the very least I'm getting sick and tired of it. Who would have thought that TV's Law & Order would originate the cinemagraphic style of Hollywood films in our times? There must be a dozen films in the last few years that look and feel like this movie. Quick cut vignettes instead of scenes, non stop plot points instead of characters. Oh well. There is obviously some value to it. Otherwise so many directors would not be doing it. I, well, I am not a fan.

This particular version of the style follows the wife of Daniel Pearl after his capture as she struggles to find him, and eventually loses him. Jolie gives the best performance of her career as a stoic journalist faced with terrible circumstance.

Standouts: Jolie.
Blowouts: Winterbottoms' derivative film style.

Grade: B-


Director: Greg Mottola (TV work)
Starring: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera

Teen comedies never get old, since each new generation gets one they can call their own. Heck, you can easily date someone by their teen comedy of choice. I was the in the Ferris Bueller generation. Great flick. Whatever generation, and whatever film, they're all really the same movie. Fast Times, American Pie, SuperBad - have fun with your buddies, get chicks, learn a little lesson. I like them all, even though I personally connected with Mr. Bueller the deepest.

Superbad follows 2 high school nerds searching for sex. They're the best of friends, but they each know they need something more than just each other. At first they think it's booty, but later on they learn it's a deeper "relationship" with the opposite sex. In my experience though, for high school and college, booty is plenty enough.
Anyway, they find that girls far hotter than them will like them if they supply booze for a party. I doubt this is true, but it does make for a fun film. Superbad is the lightest of stories. It's crude, raunchy, and teenage boy-centric. It's also pretty darn funny.
Standouts: A good fun flick all around.
Blowouts: It's a really, really surface-level flick. I mean Ferris Bueller looks like Tolstoy in comparison.

Grade: B


Director: Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine)
Starring: Ensemble cast incl. Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere

Who has time for reviews? Not me, that's who. So here's a lightning round of barely sensible thoughts on some films I've recently seen.

I'm Not There is at times ungainly and occasionally so "showy" as to annoy. It's confounding and confusing. It has no plot. It has no characters. (Quite literally, there is no plot to this movie.) It's also intriguing, unique, brave and (at times) pretty smart. Mostly it's a little silly though, as we get an interwoven cavalcade of different actors playing the various public personas of Bob Dylan in a series of imagined (or not so imagined) episodes in his life. For instance, a little black child (Marcus Carl Franklin) portrays the fake childhood Dylan claimed early in his career, that of a poor boy hopping the rails, a Woody Guthrie for a new generation.

It's absolutely necessary to have an excessive knowledge of the life of Bob Dylan to appreciate this film (which means you should know trivial things like Lay Lady Lay was written about a dog, or the basics of his relationship with Joan Baez). There's no reason anyone should know these things, but many, many people do. That's why he's famous. Hence the film. Anyway ...

Todd Haynes unique film would seem to be a study of mythology. I think the film is probably good enough to deserve more time thinking about it than I'll give it, but my first reaction was that Haynes is wrong in what he presents. He seems to find great delight in Myth. For me myth is nuthin more than what we come up with to help smooth over our own flaws. So any study of myth necessarily requires a study of the mythologizer. This movie does not touch that, except in an rather esoteric way. So says I ...

... after barely thinking about it for all of 90 seconds. (I.e. It's not a bad movie at all. I suggest you make up your own mind on this one.)

Standouts: Todd Haynes - this imaginitive film was the work of a true artist.
Blowouts: Todd Haynes - this frustrating film was nearly nonsensical at times.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 30, 2007


Director: Sydney Lumet (Serpico, 12 Angry Men, Network)
Starring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney

For many years (from his directing debut 1957's 12 Angry Men to 1982's The Verdict) Lumet was a major name in Hollywood, with 5 Best Director nominations and scores of pictures to his name. Today's audiences will probably know him best from his 1970s films Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, but as far as I'm concerned his first film 12 Angry Men was his best. Regardless, for us film fans he had more or less disappeared from the landscape for that past 20 to 25 years. Given that he's now 83, I think this is understandable.

After this layoff Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a surprising return to form for him. It's a good film, although I will note that I feel similarly about this film as I do Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. They're all very good movies, worth seeing and with much to recommend them, but personally I think all of them fall just short of 'great' movies. I think Pacino was largely to thank for turning those 1970s films into 'classics' that we still see on TV. Hoffman and Finney are particularly good in Devil, but even though this is a very good film, I don't think it's quite going to make it into HBO's rotation 30 years from now.

Regardless, the story is a classic Shakespearean tragedy watching a family disintegrate. It follows 2 brothers, Hoffman as the older, a slimy middle manager, and Hawke as the 30-something immature baby of the family. They are confused, unhappy people, selfish people. They want to be good, but they can't quite make it there. Hoffman's in a troubled marriage to a beautiful gold-digger (Tomei), and has a secret drug habit siphoning away funds. Hawke is divorced and unable to keep up with his child support payments (perhaps drinking the cash away). They need money. They decide to commit a crime to get it. Their plan? The plan is to rob their own parent's suburban jewelry store. Not surprisingly the plan dramatically misfires. After the events begin to spiral completely out of control, the second half of the movie focuses on the relationship between the father (Finney) and the sons. We get hints to past unhappiness leading to the current unhappiness, but nothing solid and substantial. I hope I'm not letting the cat of the bag, but as I said this film is a tragedy - in the classic theatrical sense of the word. Eventually, the family's relationships and the characters themselves end in tragedy.

Every review on this film undoubtedly notes one particular thing (and I will do the same), the movie starts with a fairly graphic sex scene between Hoffman and Tomei. In fact Tomei seems to spend over half her screen time naked. I'm shameless enough to note that this a net positive for my review. It is actually noteworthy beyond her good looks however, as the first scene is a bit jarring. It sets up the jarring events that follow very, very well.

For me there was a very personal link to this film, however. One that I kept thinking about throughout. Long ago I wrote a short story roughly based on a friend of my much older brother. This man was in his mid 30s at the time, grossly overweight, with thinning hair, seemingly sweaty and out of breath just by getting up out of a chair. This man grew up with my brothers, so I'd known him my whole life. By the time I'd entered college he was an insurance salesman with a (fairly) pretty wife and a big Victorian house in the center of my small home town. He was an annoyingly outspoken strength-and-values Republican, in the Rush Limbaugh mold. In fact, he reminded me in many, many ways of Limbaugh. What this man also was was a criminal. He was embezzling money from his clients to pay for his overdrawn life with his wife, as well as for creepily frequent trips to strip clubs and bars. In the midst of the drawn out criminal proceedings he had a heart attack and died, at 35 or so.

What I most clearly remember about this man was one time I (somehow) ended up eating dinner with him alone while the criminal proceedings were just coming to light. I knew about his crimes, but I don't think he knew I did. Or if he did, he didn't show it. That 60 minutes was one of the more enlightening of my life. I learned a lot in that brief time about human desires, hypocrisy, and how we make our choices. I learned about weak people and strong people, and how unbelievably easy it is to lie. I sat down and wrote a story the moment I got back. I think I won 2nd place in a university contest for it.

I bring this up because Hoffman in this movie simply *was* this friend of my brother's. I've never found a celluloid character to so closely resemble a real person - not including biopics I suppose. From the pale red skin, and somewhat bulging features, to the hypocrisy and way of thinking, the parallels were utterly uncanny. I can say it definitively: There's a lot of truth in this film.

Standouts: Lumet and his actors and his Greek tragedy about an American family.
Blowouts: I didn't like Hawke much in this film. I see what he was going for in his character, but didn't like the results.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Director: The Coen Brothers (Fargo, Blood Simple, many more)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones

Put simply, I think this is the Coen brothers best film (and that's high praise). Fargo was a wonderful creation, but this film is richer in many ways. It's also deeper, much better written and much more meaningful. It's no coincidence that this is the Coen's first film using a script adapted from other material, and excellent material at that - National Book Award winner Cormac McCarthy's novel (albeit not the novel he won the award for ...).

The Coen's have shown themselves many times over to be extremely talented at the art (and craft) of filmmaking. They know pacing, and editing, story, and tension, They definitely know atmosphere. The problem (if you can even claim there was a problem) was that their films were generally silly little romps (not that there's anything wrong with that). These two were talented enough to tackle harder subjects, but seemed to just plain enjoy weirdness and wackiness too much to even want to tackle harder subjects. Fargo was the closest the pair came to melding their unique, kooky style to real human issues, and real human emotions, until now. This film is occasionally absurd. It's occasionally funny. It's occasionally weird. It's always terrifying, and mesmerizing, and excellent. This will undoubtedly be one of the best films of 2007.

In addition to all of the praise I've given the Coen's, there's much left over for the actors. Jones, Brolin and Bardem were all successful enough in their roles to warrant Oscar nominations. Jones (as a rural Texas sheriff) begins the film with a voiceover, telling us about a criminal he once caught. His lawyers may have claimed he killed in the heat of the moment, but the criminal confided to Jones that he always knew was going to kill. It was all a matter of when that was going to be. Jones conceds that to fight that kind of evil puts your own soul in jeopardy, and that's not a pleasant proposition for any man.

Yes, the story revolves around (and around and around) the notion that evil exists in us, and that we're not going to kill it. And that's a depressing thought, and a hard one to face. The plot of the story is even harder and more depressing in some ways, although always engrossing and entertaining. While hunting, Josh Brolin stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone bad. Next to the bodies of evil men, he picks up a satchel full of cash. It's a lot of money, but it's also a death sentence for him the moment he lifts it off the ground. The drug lords are not about to let that money get away.

They call in Javier Bardem, a hitman or sorts. Bardem is (bluntly) one of the creepier bad guys in movie history. He's passionless, purely evil. He's full of his own strange convictions of what's right and wrong, and he's true to those convictions. In a very, very abstract way, he is made of the same stuff as Muslim terrorists, and abortion clinic bombers.

For the next hour or so the film mainly shows us Bardem hunting down Brolin. The hitman keeps popping up like a killer in a slasher film, but it's all well explained and plausable. There are chases and an exciting gun fight (and that's 'exciting' in a heart-pounding bad way, not in a heart-pounding good way). The big gun fight is hardly the climax, however, thanks to some good writing. I won't ruin the ending for you. I won't tell you whether Brolin lives or dies, or what happens with Jones as the lawman hoping to save Brolin's life. I will say that what does happen is terrible, and very true to the story, and well worth seeing.

Standouts: Nearly everything. Story, acting, directing, pacing, editing, etc, etc, etc.
Blowouts: The only downside I can see is just how depressing the film is. There's isn't much more than a glimmer of hope peaking around the edges of this dark cloud.

Grade: A+