Thursday, December 27, 2007

Laughing 'hard' with John C. Reilly

“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” is a box office dud, just sneaking in at the bottom of the top 10 movies in its opening weekend. It is hard to say why since the film is a silly, but sly lampoon of the musician bio-pic.

The film’s co-writer Judd Apatow had a good year with two big summer hits, one as a writer/director (“Knocked Up”) and the other as a producer (“Superbad”). It looked like the Apatow branding was becoming a sure path to the top of the box office. So what went amiss with “Walk Hard,” because it certainly isn’t an issue of quality? Maybe this style of comedy just doesn’t play well this time of year.

Or perhaps audiences have grown weary of parody films given the slew of lame films like “Epic Movie,” “Date Movie” and “The Comebacks.” These films are made quick and with little thought. The formula is to reference several recent films and do a shot-by-shot remake of a scene with a slight twist. This can work, but more often than not it is just lazy and cheap filmmaking.

A genre parody shouldn’t merely reference films that fall within its target of satire, but mock the conventions and clichés of the genre. Mel Brooks’ best films did this better than any other, and thankfully “Walk Hard” is in that tradition rather than the new parody formula. “Walk Hard” also recalls “This is Spinal Tap” in a good way even if its comedy volume doesn't quite make it to 11.

“Walk Hard” stars John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox, a rock star who is most directly tailored after Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” but who has an uncanny ability to play any style. This leads to amusing songs in the style of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson.

Apatow and co-writer/director Jake Kasdan hit all the ups and down of the rock star lifestyle and do a fine job mocking the somber tones of “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” The childhood flashbacks of those films are sent up in a hilarious sequence in which Dewey accidental cuts his brother in half. As the doctor informs Dewey and his parents, “It is a particularly bad case of somebody being cut in half.”

Reilly, who has been a reliable supporting player for a decade in films as diverse as “Boogie Nights,” “The Aviator” and “Talladega Nights,” is on top form in his first lead role. He is adept at the physical comedy and can deliver a joke with the best, but Reilly, who is also a good dramatic actor, does more with the material. There’s an underlining sincerity in his performance that keeps the more raucous comedy grounded.

There are moments when the film seems to be trying too hard to make Reilly be Will Ferrell, especially during a scene when he is running around in his underwear, but Reilly has his own goofy charm and shines most in the musical numbers. The songs range from relatively straight homage to outrageous spoof. The best is a duet with Jenna Fisher (“The Office”) called “Let’s Duet.” Fisher as Dewey’s June Carter-esque second wife is a perfect comedic match for Reilly and has just the right tone for the material.

The whole cast, which includes “Saturday Night Live” cast members and veterans Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and Kristin Wiig and cameos by Jack White, Harold Ramis, Frankie Muniz, Jewel, Lyle Lovett and others, is excellent. Cast members approach the material at just the right angle. There’s a wink and nudge, but there’s also an attention to detail provided by Kasdan.

The film gets the look and feel right. Kasdan as a director switches to grainy black and white for a great Bob Dylan parody and alters his palate again to take on the bright, tacky colors of 1970s variety shows. There’s a particularly humorous sequence featuring Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd and Justin Long as The Beatles that recalls the obscure mockumentary “The Rutles: All You Need is Cash.”

When reviewing comedy all you can do is say whether you laughed, and I did laugh, often heartily and louder than anyone in the theater. The film’s humor is at times vulgar, but never mean-spirited. The more familiar you are with music history, the funnier the film will be. Those who grew up in the era the film targets or those well versed in the time period will have the most fun.

The absurdity of politics: Five favorite political satires

When one is inundated by the political machine by all forms of the media — as we have been in the yearlong lead-up to the primaries — it is hard not to see the absurdity in the mechanism. Shining a light on that absurdity is the basis of one of the United States' great institutions: satire.

With the New Hampshire primary quickly approaching on Jan. 8, months of build-up to the primary will be replaced with the months of build-up to the election. If you find your cynicism bubbling up to a scalding boil, perhaps this is an apt time to rent a few political satires. What I provide here are five personal favorites to help you keep your sanity in the political circus.

“A Face in the Crowd”
This obscure 1957 film from director Elia Kazan features Andy Griffith brilliantly playing against his type as a charming country bumpkin, who becomes a cold, calculating megalomaniac following his overwhelming success as a TV star. The corrupting influence of power is hardly an original concept, but Kazan crafted an eerily prophetic film about the ever-blurring worlds of entertainment and politics. This is most evident in a powerful scene in which Griffith is shown coaching politicians on how to play to the camera and win audiences. Made in the early years of television, the film saw that this then-new medium was, for better or quite possibly worse, the future.

“Wag the Dog”
Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” is a satire in the very best sense of the word because it pulls no punches and targets everyone: politicians, the media and even the electorate. Robert DeNiro stars as a political analyst who hires a Hollywood director (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a fake war to distract from a scandal during a president’s campaign for re-election. The premise sounds like farce, but the film is so sharply written and performed as to make the viewer pause to wonder just how much of what the media shows is merely manufactured.

Warren Beatty stars as a suicidal, disenchanted politician who decides to end it by hiring a hit man to off him. Knowing he will die in a few days, Beatty begins to speak bluntly with incendiary language about the corruption of the political system and even adopts a hip-hop look and vernacular. Beatty is a well-known liberal, but it would be foolish to dismiss his work here as writer, director and star as nothing more than liberal propaganda. The film goes beyond mere party stereotyping, and, like its lead character, reveals the flaws of the entire system, and because of that the film is sharp and on target.

“Primary Colors”
Director Mike Nichols chronicles the primary campaign trial of a Bill Clinton-esque politician played by John Travolta in a film that feels authentic when it could’ve been mere caricature. Anyone can do a spoof of Bill Clinton as a lech and get a laugh, but comedy is at its strongest when the humor is laced with weightier, thought-provoking ideas. Travolta’s thinly disguised version of Clinton is remarkably good, but his performance and the film itself are not one-dimensional mimicry. The film features a strong line of cynicism placed next to a hopeful heart and isn’t afraid to raise hard questions about what it means to be a politician in America.

Don’t be fooled by the MTV Production’s logo as the film’s opening credits unfold. This not another dumb teen film, but rather a biting allegory for political corruption. Reese Witherspoon stars as an overachiever who will do anything to become student body president. Matthew Broderick playing against his former Ferris Bueller persona is the one teacher who attempts to oppose Witherspoon. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne's choice of setting for his lampoon of politics forces the audience to ask if national elections are any more sophisticated or meaningful than ones on a high school level. After all, high school presidential elections are popularity contests and student body presidents are figure heads who can never deliver on their promises.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

'No Country for Old Men' is exceptional in every way

“No Country for Old Men” has already been named the best film of the year by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critic Circle, but that’s likely only the beginning of accolades to be lauded on the Coen Brothers latest film. It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

This marks Joel and Ethan Coen’s first true adaptation, although "O Brother, Where Art Thou" borrowed themes from "The Odyssey." "No Country for Old Men" is an extremely faithful reworking of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a man who stumbles upon a satchel of money from a drug deal gone wrong and the unrelenting killer that comes after him.

Whole sequences unfold exactly as they do on the page, and passages of McCarthy’s rich dialogue from the minute to the lengthy appear nearly verbatim. It is refreshing to see filmmakers be respectful to their source material, but the Coens aren’t blinded by their revere of McCarthy’s words.

In many ways they have improved upon McCarthy’s novel. They have distilled the best parts of the novel, removed scenes that didn’t work, clarified the unclear and tightened the pacing in the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, “American Gangster”) and his pursuer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, “The Sea Inside.”)

On the level of plot, “No Country for Old Men” is simple. Llewelyn takes the money and Chigurh comes after him. It is the execution that is so astounding. The Coens have always been fine filmmakers, but something about the darker side of humanity brings out the best in them. Like “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” this is an atmospheric, moody piece of filmmaking that lingers in the mind.

The cinematography by Roger Deakin creates sequences of growing, quiet tension. There are small moments like a single lightning bolt cracking during a chase through a desert and a looming shadow in a doorway that stick with you.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the performance that is sure to be talked about for years to come is Bardem’s Chigurh, one of the best screen villains in years. Bardem — a Spanish actor who is largely unknown by American audiences — is menacing, but never over-the-top. In fact, if anything he is subdued. There is glint of joy in is eye as he gambles with people's life at the flip of a coin that is more frightening than anything you’ll see in splatter films like “Saw” or “Hostel.”

Don’t be mistaken though. This is a violent, bloody movie, but this isn’t violence for violence’s sake. McCarthy and the Coens are attempting to say something about our society. There is a questioning of how things have gotten where they are in the world. There are no answers provided to these questions. Everything isn’t tied up neatly in the end. Audiences well trained to have a sense of closure in their films will surely be let down, but the ending is exactly what it needs to be.

The film’s questioning nature takes the form of Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell. Bell is a weary sheriff worn down by a society he no longer understands. This is hardly a new archetype in fiction, but Jones brings levels of nuance to the character that weren’t on the page. Jones has played law enforcement figures for decades, but there’s something different about his performance here. Simple put, he is great.

This isn’t to short Brolin, who after bouncing around Hollywood as a B-actor for 20 years final got some juicy roles this year. His work here and in “American Gangster” put him in a new league. Like with Jones, the word that comes to mind is nuanced.

There is no showboating in the cast, even when Woody Harrelson and Stephen Root pop up in the latter part of the film to provide a bit of comic relief. And the movie is funny. Pitch black, but funny. After all, when faced with the terrible, as Jones’ Bell suggests, you have to laugh because “there ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”

Amy Adams truly is enchanting

For the legions of people who grew up watching classic Disney animated films — specifically “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” — “Enchanted,” with its blend of homage and self-parody, is an absolute delight.

“Enchanted” starts out in a magical kingdom where Princess Giselle (Amy Adams) awaits her prince. It has been a long wait since Prince Edward (James Marsden, Cyclops in the “X-Men” movies) is easily distracted by battles with trolls. Once they meet it is love at first sight, but naturally there is an evil stepmother (Susan Sarandon) who banishes the sweet but naïve Giselle to a place where there are no happily ever afters: New York.

This prologue is pleasant, but familiar. The animation is brightly drawn, Giselle’s animal helpers — led by the chipmunk Pip — are amusing and the songs are fun, but things truly come alive when Giselle enters the very real New York. No longer animated, Giselle struggles to apply fairy tale rules to the real world. Prince Edward, his servant (Timothy Spall), Pip and eventually the stepmother all follow after her.

Giselle meets a father (Patrick Dempsey, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and daughter (Rachel Covey) who take her in for one night that extends to several. There is fiancé in the mix, but even the most novice filmgoer knows that the stiff Dempsey will fall in love with Giselle.

“Enchanted” is pure formula filmmaking. It offers no surprises on the story level, and that's OK. Formulaic filmmaking is only bad when done poorly, and here the execution is excellent. Screenwriter Bill Kelly, who wrote “Blast from the Past” — another cheeky fish-out-of-water story — creates a knowing tone that doesn’t push its satire too far.

If the story doesn’t surprise, the presentation does. Sequences that would feel derivative in an animated film are fresh and funny here where the logic of the animated world is suddenly imposed on reality. Remember when Snow White was able to command all the woodland creatures to help her clean house? Giselle has the same ability, only this time it is pigeons, rats and cockroaches doing the cleaning. It is not nearly as gross as it sounds — after all this is a PG Disney film — and is one of the comedic highlights of the film.

Similarly, in a scene in which Giselle leads a lavish song and dance number in Central Park, the screen is full of infectious energy that yields big laughs. But while these are all good reasons to see “Enchanted,” it is Amy Adams’ effervescent performance that is the film’s true raison d’être.

Adams was nominated for best supporting actress in 2005 for her role in the little seen “Junebug.” It was a sour film with unpleasant characters, the one exception being the bright and charming Adams. She brings that same sunny charisma to

“Enchanted” and makes Giselle a character that is completely lovable. Adams' charms need to be seen to believe, and they alone are well worth the price of admission.

This is not to slight the rest of the cast. Dempsey, who basically has the straight-man role, plays it well and is charming in his own way. Marsden gets laughs as the overly earnest, well intentioned, but slightly dense Prince Edwards.

Sarandon is clearly having fun hamming it up as the evil stepmother, and even though her non-animated screen time is limited, she makes every second count. The computer animated Pip, although not an actual actor, per se, also steals scenes and is going to be a hard act to follow for the new “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie.

“Enchanted” is a movie that kids will drag parents to and girlfriends will force boyfriends to see, but the film is a rare breed that should appeal to almost everyone. The film is light and fluffy and proud of it. It is just good, clean, escapist fun.

Monday, November 26, 2007

'Beowulf' excites but lacks dimension

“Beowulf” utilizes a sophisticated form of computer animation blended with the latest in 3-D technology to create an extraordinary cinematic experience. The catch is you need to go to an IMAX theater to experience the film as it was truly intended to be seen.

Watching the 2-D version of “Beowulf,” you can’t help feeling cheated. The film makes no attempts to hide the fact that things should be flying at you, and it is frustrating and even distracting at times.

The epic poem “Beowulf” is juiced up with violence and sex in telling the tale of the title hero and his battle with the vile monster Grendel. People are ripped in half, heads are bitten off and a copious amount of blood is spilled. Angelina Jolie as the monster’s mother is more or less, with the emphasis on the more, nude for her entire performance. If the movie were live action it would be a hard R; as is, it has managed a PG-13.

“Beowulf” is entirely animated and employs motion capture, the same technology used to create Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and that director Robert Zemeckis also used for “The Polar Express.” Unlike a traditional animated feature, the actors not only provide their voices, but their performances are then made into computer-generated versions of themselves.

With the exception of Ray Winstone (“The Departed”), who is transformed into the muscular Beowulf, and Crispin Glover ("Back to the Future"), who becomes the grotesque Grendel, all of the cast members are animated to look as they do in real life. You’ll easily spot the likes of Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Brendan Gleeson.

The effect worked in “The Polar Express,” where the film adopted the drawing style of Chris Van Allsburg's book, but here, with a more realistic look, it becomes disconcerting. Many will be able to look past it, but for my money it took me out of the film. Part of the problem is inconsistency. Sometimes the characters look remarkably real, while others times they look like wax figures come to life. I wanted to see the real actors, not these dead-eyed simulations.

That being said, the world in which the characters exist and the sea creations and dragon Beowulf does battle with are amazing to look at. On the level of action, “Beowulf” delivers with visceral, well-directed sequences that blend cringe-worthy gore with pulse-quickening excitement. When focused on the action, the movie is engaging, but the dialogue and plotting is weak. The stretches between the action sequences are slow with mostly perfunctory dialogue to get you from point A to B. All the characters with the exception of Beowulf are one dimensional at best.

Beowulf is arrogant and full of pride, and that becomes his curse when Grendel’s mother tempts him with promises of power and lust. It sets up an interesting internal conflict for the latter part of the film, which flashes forward to show Beowulf as an elder king. Winstone is good as Beowulf and adds some nuance to the character during these scenes. Alas, just as the script is finally adding depth, this conflict is put aside to set up another spectacular action sequence. The action thrills, but is it asking too much to have a bit more substance with the spectacle?

As is often the case in Hollywood action films, the female characters are negligible. Robin Wright Penn (“Forrest Gump”) and Alison Lohman (“Big Fish”) as Beowulf’s wife and mistress are given nothing more than standard motions to go through. Jolie is asked only to be seductress, and she does it exceptionally well.

In his review, Roger Ebert wrote: “Am I the only one who suspects that the intention of director Robert Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary was satirical?” He may be on to something. There are subversive touches throughout, including Jolie’s high healed feet (you read correctly) and Beowulf’s decision to do battle with Grendel in the nude, but if satire of the fantasy epic genre was their intention then Gaiman and Avary didn’t push it far enough.

The screenplay really is a disappointment, as both writers have shown wit and intellect before. Gaiman wrote the award-winning “Sandman” graphic novels, and Avery co-wrote “Pulp Fiction.” Give credit where credit is due, though, Beowulf’s temptation by Grendel’s mother, the film’s most interesting aspect, was a departure from the original story.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Merry Subversive Christmas: Alternative Films for the Holidays

December is nearly upon us and we are already thoroughly saturated with everything Christmas. Television is already clogging with holiday specials and films. Classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “A Christmas Carol” and “A Christmas Story” deserve their revered status, but sometimes you need an alternative.

A little subversion of the holiday spirit is exactly what is needed to make it through the holidays. So here are five films that go down a different path. In the end they uphold the holiday spirit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some dark fun getting there.

“Gremlins” (1984):
It is definitely not a holly jolly Christmas when a father comes home with a unique fuzzy little pet for his son. There are three simple rules: Sunlight kills him. Don't get him wet. Don't feed him after midnight. The rules are broken and the cute fuzz ball spawns the gross, mischievous gremlins.

Director Joe Dante makes a scary and funny homage to monster movies that features sly pokes at the holiday season like “It’s a Wonderful Life” playing throughout the film and a macabre monologue about why a character played by Phoebe Cates doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Not the most obvious choice for holiday viewing, but why not? After all surviving the holidays can be just as trying as battling a group of gremlins.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993):
A Christmas film as only director Tim Burton could dream up. Instead of visions of sugarplums, Burton has visions of skeletons and ghouls. In this take on the most wonderful time of the year each holiday has its own fantasyland and when Jack Skellington, the leader of Halloweentown discovers Christmas, he kidnaps Santa and decides to take a crack at being St. Nick.

Occasionally even the most subversive of holiday films become embraced by the masses and while this is probably just as over exposed as “It’s a Wonderful Life” it doesn’t feel it. With its wonderful stop motion animation, offbeat songs and demented humor it delivers a brand of holiday fun all its own.

“Scrooged” (1988):
Bill Murray stars as a cynical TV executive that gets visited by a far more hilariously twisted set of ghosts than Ebenezer ever had to deal with. What starts out as a satire on the television industry morphs into a parody of “A Christmas Carol” and than ultimately embraces the holiday message of the Charles Dickens classic.

In description, the film sounds uneven at best, but under all the black comedy, it is surprisingly heartfelt. That it works so well is a testament to Murray, screenwriter Michael O’Donoghue (a former “Saturday Night Live” writer) and a cast that includes Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait and David Johanson.

“The Ref” (1994):
A bickering married couple played by a pre-fame Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are kidnapped by a thief (Denis Leary) on Christmas Eve. Using their home as a hideout, Leary is stuck in the middle of the deeply dysfunctional couple feud, which continues in spite of their situation. Eventually, Leary becomes the mediator for their disputes and poses as their marriage councilor when the equally neurotic in-laws arrive.

Meant as a vehicle for Leary, it is Spacey and Davis that steal the show. Think of it as a bleaker, less slapstick version of “Christmas Vacation.” Things work out in the end, but the trip there is stingingly funny and at times a brutally honest reflection of family dynamics.

“Bad Santa” (2004):
Vulgar, rude and offensive, this is a Christmas movie for adults only. A drunk (Billy Bob Thornton) and a dwarf (Tony Cox) pose as a department store Santa and elf as a cover to rob a mall’s vault on Christmas Eve. Along the way a needy kid starts following the drunken Santa home.

What follows is not heartwarming. There is no magical yuletide transformation for Thornton, but the warped friendship that develops between Thornton and the kid is sort of sweet in its own odd way. For those with a sick sense of humor and high tolerance for profanity, this is a perfect palate cleanser for an overdose on holiday cheer.

For more subversion check out last year's post on alternative Christmas songs

Friday, November 16, 2007

'Ratatouille' is animation at its best

Computer animated films are everywhere. "Bee Movie" is in theaters and "Meet the Robinsons," "Shrek the Third" and "Ratatouille" have all recently reached DVD. It would be easy to dismiss the whole lot as just kids' stuff, but "Ratatouille" is a great movie. Not a great kids movie, not a great family movie, simple a great movie.

"Ratatouille" comes from the Pixar studio and their track record remains flawless. From "Toy Story" to "Monster's Inc" to "Finding Nemo" to "The Incredibles," there isn't a dud in the bunch.

Today too many animated features go for bright colors and slapstick humor and nothing more. Pixar's films are colorful and have their share of slapstick, but their films are filled with a lot of heart and know that you don't need to condescend to children.

All of this holds true for "Ratatouille," which like all of Pixar's previous films tells a simple story, but tells it well with wit and well drawn characters. Remy (comedian Patton Oswalt) is a rat living in France whose heightened sense of smell gives him a natural talent for cooking.

Remy's idol is a chef from Paris named Gusteau (Brad Garrett) and through a series of mishaps Remy finds himself in Paris at Gusteau's restaurant. The restaurant is on hard times following the suicide of its namesake after a particularly harsh review from Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), Paris' most feared food critic. In one of the film's more off-beat touches, the spirit of Gusteau is Remy's guardian angel, or more likely just a figment of his imagination.

Things begin to turn around for the restaurant when Remy teams up with Linguini (Lou Romano), the restaurant's new dishwasher. Using Linguini like a giant puppet Remy guides him to making delicious dishes that become the toast of the town and that bring back Ego who is ready to crush Gusteau's once and for all.

It sounds like standard stuff, but it is done with a certain degree of sophistication. We all know that there will be a lesson to be who you truly are and that Remy and Linguini will win over Ego, but it is how the film does these things that is unexpected and wonderful.

There is a happy ending, but not the one you necessarily see coming. Indeed how Ego is won over is perfect and resonates emotionally in a way few modern animated films do. Ego has a monologue about food and the importance of critics that is intelligent and heartfelt. O'Toole reads it as if it is a great Shakespearean monologue.

The voice work from everyone is exceptional and while there are familiar names populating the cast, unlike so many other animated features, it is not about the actors, but the story. For decades animated features didn't cast big stars, but the voice that did the job best. That changed following Robin Williams' high voltage turn as the Genie in "Aladdin." When stars do voice work right it can be great fun, but too often it feels like just a gimmick.

In "Ratatouille" the cast's more famous actors disguise their voices and disappear into their characters. It is so much easier to get lost in "Ratatouille's" beautiful rendered Paris and into the plight of these characters when you aren't focused on the voices.

You'd be hard pressed to spot Janeane Garofalo's voice as Colette, Linguini's love interest. Garofalo gives a great vocal performance full of energy and sass and you'd never know it was her.

While there is a good degree of silly antics for children, the film also features a genuine revere for fine cuisine. The film doesn't dumb itself down and has a respect for food that may go over the head of younger kids, but which will be appreciated by adults and makes the film all the more honest.

Chatting with one of the minds behind 'Bee Movie'

About three years ago, Andy Robin, a former “Seinfeld” writer, got a call from Jerry Seinfeld asking if he wanted to help him write an animated movie about bees. Over the next few years he helped develop and refine the material that would shape the box office hit, “Bee Movie.”

“I would go down to New York a couple days a week and write with Jerry, and starting about a year or two ago I started to go out to Los Angeles to work on it,” said Robin in a recent phone interview with The Conway Daily Sun.
Writing took place in a small room with just Robin and Seinfeld one on one, but later other writers — Spike Feresten and Barry Marder — joined the team.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Robin. “There is nobody like him. He’s one of a kind. If I can make Jerry laugh, that is the best feeling in the world.”

Robin first joined the Seinfeld team through an encounter on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I had spent a year (as a writer) on 'Saturday Night Live,' and when Jerry hosted the show, Adam Sandler actually passed along a spec script that I had written to Jerry,” said Robin. "It was at a time when they were looking for writers, one of those rare times when there was a window open for writers. So they had me do a freelance script, and that was 'The Junior Mint.'"

Robin became a staff writer the following season and eventually brought on his college buddy, Gregg Kavet. Recently the Robin and Kavet writing team wrote and directed their first feature, the New Hampshire based “Live Free or Die.”

With “Bee Movie,” Robin found the writing process much more leisurely than his time on “Seinfeld,” and there was time to test the material and see how things played.

“Because it was done over a few years, you could really tinker with it a lot, see how it played for audience, see what was working and what wasn’t,” said Robin. “The animation people put together early versions of things so you could see if you liked how things were working.”

“Bee Movie” is coming into a market that is over-saturated with computer animated features and is entering the game 12 years after the groundbreaking “Toy Story” and six year’s after “Shrek” set the standard for the wink-wink nudge-nudge brand of self referential in-joke animated features that play on both an adult and kid level.

Those expecting Seinfeld to reinvent the animated movie in the same way he helped redefine the sitcom will be disappointed, but. then again, those are high expectations to live up to.

“Bee Movie” starts out with Seinfeld’s Barry B. Benson unsure he wants to dedicate his whole life to working one job for his bee hive, which is a giant city/corporation whose sole purpose is to create honey. According to Robin, it was Seinfeld’s idea to use the hive as a city allegory.

“He’s a New Yorker, it is what he knows best and it is easier to write things about something you know well,” said Robin. "Because bees have all these subdivisions of labor, the hive really did seem like a good metaphor for a big city.”

It has become a tradition in animated films, especially of late, to have a hero who doesn’t fit in with his family or species, but through his rebellion ultimately finds his place. This was the theme also at the core of this summer’s “Ratatouille,” a better, more tightly woven film than “Bee Movie,” but Seinfeld’s foray into animation is by no means a disaster. “Bee Movie” may not reinvent the wheel, but it at least changes the tire on some old formulas.

When Barry gets outside the hive, he meets a florist named Vanessa (Renee Zelleweger), who saves him from death by Timberland boot. Despite strict bee guidelines not to talk to humans, Barry begins speaking with Vanessa, and, through their friendship, he discovers that humans are stealing honey from his bee brethren. Barry decides to sue the entire human race.

This lawsuit premise is oddly inspired and gives the otherwise standard but fun "Bee Movie" its own flavor. It also allows for an amusing courtroom sequence featuring a broadly drawn prosecutor voiced by John Goodman and celebrity witnesses including Ray Liotta and Sting.

“Courtroom scenes are just kind of funny to us,” said Robin. “We did a few of them on ‘Seinfeld.’ It just seemed funny to have these crazy interrogations of Sting and Ray Liotta.”

And these cameo interrogations are funny for adults, but they will go over the heads of kids. The film's one-liners are almost always pitched to adults. Even so, “Bee Movie” is brightly animated with a cleverly realized hive and some fun action sequences such as Barry’s ride on a tennis ball, a couple battles with human adversaries and ride a on a windshield that features a hilarious chat with Chris Rock as a mosquito with a hunger for moose blood.

Barry and his friends and family — voiced well by the likes of Matthew Broderick, Kathy Bates and filmmaker Barry Levinson —are a cute bunch of bees, and, as Robin noted, kids want to root for them. So while the adult and kid humor aren’t always seamlessly integrated, there’s still enough here to keep just about every age group happy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

'Gangster' recalls best of 1970s cinema

Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” tells the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a driver and bodyguard to Harlem’s head hood, who takes over his drug business, cuts out the middle man and corners the market.

The story is set during the late 1960s into the early 1970s, and the Vietnam War factors into the plot. After hearing news of a drug epidemic among troops in Vietnam, Frank hops a plane and meets up with a family member stationed in Asia. Frank goes directly to the source, thus returning with a product better than anything else on the street. He sells his heroin at half the price and rises above even the mob as the local drug king.

The story of Frank’s rise is paralleled by a drug task force headed by Russell Crowe who is searching for the top of the drug food chain. The racism of the era keeps this task force from even considering that Frank could be at the very top.

Washington won an Oscar for best actor when he got in touch with his dark side in “Training Day,” but he’s even better in “American Gangster.” The crooked cop he played in “Training Day” was a performance based in bravado, and, while the intensity Washington brought to the role was mesmerizing, the character lacked dimension. The film’s setup was good cop versus bad good and gripped on that level.

“American Gangster” goes deeper. Frank has bursts of startling violence that reveal Frank to be a possible sociopath, but at the same time he has a sense of family and will do anything for them. Washington has tender moments with Ruby Dee as Frank’s mother that make Frank more than just a ruthless killer.
In juxtaposition is Crowe’s Richie, a good cop who never compromises the law, but whose personal and family life is a wreck.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) doesn’t allow its two leads to fall into cliché and even plays against them. Frank is the one with the seemingly virtuous family values. On the surface, Frank looks like the upstanding citizen and Richie the deadbeat loser.

Washington and Crowe’s characters have different aspects of their personalities that pull at each other — aspects that redeem Frank and those that flaw Richie. Both actors balance these facets and are effective because they don’t play these parts of their characters as completely separate sides. Instead they use them as shadings. Crowe and Washington do not share the screen until well into the film’s third act, but it is worth the wait to watch two top actors work their craft.

Aside from the two leads, most of the supporting cast consists of stock characters, but they are given life and a lot of flavor by a cast of familiar faces including Josh Brolin (“Planet Terror”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men,” “Inside Man”), Ted Levine (“Silence of the Lambs”) and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Dee as the mother, the women in this film are completely flat. Lymari Nadal (TV’s “Battlestar Galactica”) and Carla Gugino (“Night at the Museum”) are left playing standard wife stereotypes with nothing remotely new or interesting to say. In a movie that strives for complex male leads, it is frustrating to see the women in the film slighted.

Although set during the Vietnam War and the war being critical to the plot, “American Gangster” is not a political film. Even so, the evocation of the era still carries weight. At the beginning of the year David Fincher’s “Zodiac” was also set during the tumultuous 1970s, a decade of political and social unrest.

That filmmakers seem drawn to subject matters from this era in a way becomes a reflection and commentary of our unrest, even if it is not latent in the material. Stylistically, Scott even adopts the gritty style of crime films of that decade including “Serpico” and “The French Connection.” Crowe’s Richie Robert is a flawed hero with a strong moral code, much like Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in their respective films.

Scott is a fearless director who is willing to tackle just about any genre with a diverse resume that includes “Alien,” Blade Runner,” Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Matchstick Men.” He is a filmmaker comfortable working on a grand scale, and here he delivers a complex character study that clocks in at nearly three hours, but that grips despite its length.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Affleck brothers deliver the goods with 'Baby'

A decade ago Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won an Oscar for the screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Since then, Affleck — good at playing average Joes and as a supporting player — parlayed his Oscar notoriety into a misguided action-hero career.

Critics have loved to hate Affleck, and admittedly he has made it easy with one bad acting choice after another. Undoubtedly, the cynics were ready to pounce on “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck’s directorial debut, but it may just prove to be his best career choice since he sat down to pen “Good Will Hunting” with buddy Matt.

“Gone Baby Gone” is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the author of 2003’s “Mystic River.” As with “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” is set in Boston and deals with the investigation of a tragedy involving a girl. In “River” it was a murder; in “Baby” it is an abduction.

“Mystic River” was heralded for its acting, with Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both winning Oscars, and, while their performances were excellent, it was the sort of acting that screamed acting. In contrast, “Gone Baby Gone’s” acting isn’t showy, but it feels far more authentic, and because of that the film may be even better than “Mystic River.”

In a case of nepotism gone right, Affleck casts his brother Casey as Patrick Kenzie, a private detective hired by the sister (Amy Madigan, “Field of Dreams”) of the missing girl’s mother (Amy Ryan, “Capote”). The local cops, including Morgan Freeman’s police chief and Ed Harris’ investigating detective, reluctantly let Patrick and his partner/girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan, “Mission Impossible 3”) help with the case.

Patrick, who spent his whole life in the same neighbor, has connections and knows how to get people to talk who refuse to talk to the police. As Patrick keeps digging, even after the police have stopped, he opens up an ethical can of worms that makes the film more than just another crime movie.

Ben as writer and director does an excellent job at capturing the atmosphere of the neighborhood. Ben grew up in Boston and shows a feel for the flow of speech that goes beyond the familiar heavy Bostonian accent. He gets the attitude right. Ben even manages to slide in some sly commentary on the symbiotic relationship between the media and the neighborhood.

It helps that much of the cast is populated with unknowns or character actors, especially in the case of Ryan as the drug addict mother of the missing girl. Ryan is completely convincing in a performance that doesn’t feel like you’re watching acting, but rather the real thing. Drug addicts on screen can become hammy and false, but Ryan sidesteps stereotypes. Her character isn’t a sympathetic one, but Ryan, at least for one scene, makes you believe this woman’s pain.

Casey has been bouncing around Hollywood for nearly as long as his brother, but almost always as a supporting player, with the most high profile example being the “Ocean’s” trilogy. Here, though, Casey really gets to shine. His work is introspective and understated.

It could be easy at first glance to dismiss his acting as flat, but there’s more going on here. There is a low-key charm paired with a quiet intensity. Casey’s Patrick is a pretty boy who is mockingly called Harry Potter. But his looks make him deceptively non-threatening, and Casey makes Patrick’s ability to talk to just about anyone whether cop or criminal plausible.

The veterans of the cast, Freeman and Harris, are reliably excellent. Freeman has played cops before, but here he manages to put a new spin on his traditional persona. Harris and Casey have an extended conversation about the morality of doing a wrong for a greater right that is dynamite. The scene as written is almost yelling: This is the film’s major conflict, but as acted by Harris and Casey it is hard to fault. They are near perfection.

And Ben’s direction throughout is crisp and smooth with time for characters to breathe and develop. Ben has a thing for shooting cloud-filled sunrises and sunsets that gives the film a certain beauty. There are some missteps — most notably a use of voiceover narration midway that feels clunky — but this is a strong film by any filmmaker, first time or otherwise.

Films for Turkey Day

When it comes to holiday viewing, Halloween is easy with a plethora of scary films to choose from. Christmas may be even easier with enough feel-good Christmas films to make your teeth hurt. This year’s first new offering is “Fred Claus” opening Nov. 9.

Thanksgiving Day may fall between Halloween and Christmas, but somehow it gets lost in the mix. Although they don't get the attention they deserve, there are Thanksgiving-based films — and I am not talking about “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” or some special about the pilgrims. The selection of films is much smaller, but indeed there are films with Thanksgiving at least peripherally part of their plots.

Thanksgiving is sort of the black sheep of holidays — a day created to give thanks to the Native Americans who so graciously helped those early settlers. It is a holiday in conflict with itself — after all, our ancestors would eventually drive the people we are honoring to near extinction. It's no wonder that this holiday brings out the best and worst in people. Sure people travel great distances to gather with family to pay thanks for all the good in their lives, but the minute someone leaves for the bathroom the gossip starts.

Some may say I’m a cynic, but I’m not the only one. This is the same message that comes through in so many Thanksgiving-themed films. The strength and love of family may come through by the end, but the road there is often paved with conflict and strained relationships.

In “Home for the Holidays,” Holly Hunter returns home for Turkey Day and has to deal with the dysfunctions of her family, which includes Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning Steve Guttenberg, Robert Downey Jr. and Claire Danes. Directed by Jodie Foster, the film balances comedy with pathos as Hunter tiptoes through the minefield that can be family.

“What’s Cooking?” takes a multi-cultural approach, intercutting the stories of different ethnic groups — one Hispanic, one Vietnamese, one African American and one Jewish — trying to celebrate the holiday. Thanksgiving is a holiday unique to North America, but easy to embrace by other cultures because it holds no religious affiliation, and “What’s Cooking?” takes that idea and runs with it. No matter the cultural background, tensions stir as the turkey cooks.

Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” begins and ends with a Thanksgiving celebration. The secrets the cast, which includes Allen, Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow and Diane Wiest, reveal at the beginning of the film, will run their course over the year leading to heartbreak, betrayal and in some cases love. The family conflicts may go beyond the actual holiday, but it gets a nod here for using the day as the catalyst and conclusion of its drama.

From the indie world, there’s “The House of Yes,” in which Josh Hamilton brings his new fiancé (Tori Spelling)home to his eccentric, high-strung family, much to the displeasure Parker Posey as his Jackie-O obsessed twin sister.

If off-beat indie is not your cup of tea, or leg of a turkey as the case may be, there’s always “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with the slapstick antics of Steve Martin and John Candy as strangers turned reluctant travel partners trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Big laughs, but writer/director John Hughes does lay the sentimentality on a bit thick at the end.

Not that I am against sentimental, as indicated by my favorite Thanksgiving film: “Pieces of April.” In this small, but just about perfect film, Katie Holmes, the family misfit, tries to prepare Thanksgiving for her family members, who are driving to her small New York apartment.

The matriarch of the family, played with an acid tipped tongue by Patricia Clarkson, is dying of cancer, but the film earns both its laughs and tears and reminds that even with all the quarrels a family can still be filled with love. This is perhaps the most heartwarming film of the list, so I guess I lied. Maybe I’m not a cynic after all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

'Michael Clayton': A different kind of thriller

“Michael Clayton,” the assured directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, the writer of the “Bourne” trilogy, opens with the voice over narration of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner at a high power law firm. Wilkinson freely admits he is possibly crazy as he eloquently rants about how he feels he is covered in the excrement of the firm. The monologue, delivered quite brilliantly by Wilkinson, is a helluva hook that the movie lives up to.

In subsequent scenes, the film introduces us to the title character (George Clooney), the firm’s fixer, the man who is sent into clean up legal messes, and in some cases bend and manipulate the truth. Gilroy, who also scripted the film, drops the audience in the middle of events set into motion years before. After Clooney survives a car bombing the film flashes back to four days earlier. It will be nearly two hours before the context of these opening events become clear.

Some will call “Michael Clayton” a thriller – after all it is marketed as such – but those expecting the fast paced action of the “Bourne” movies will be let down. Gilroy is making a different sort of thriller. There are no chases. There are no gun battles. The thrills are smaller ones, but no less enticing. There are verbal battles and power plays in place of bullets and cars.

The plot is intricate and complex, but not confusing. Wilkinson’s Arthur is chemically imbalanced and when he goes off his medications he begins to see clearly that the case he has spent the last six years on is all wrong. His erratic behavior makes the firm uncomfortable especially since they are in the process of being taken over by a British law firm headed by Tilda Swinton (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”). Clooney is suppose to keep Wilkinson in check, but soon also sees the error of his ways.

The above description makes the film seem far more generic than it truly is, but to reveal any further details would ruin the film’s rich plot and characters. The film builds slowly, revealing the complexities of its story at a leisurely pace, it may lag in places but the film earns the audience’s patience and time. The ending delivers in a big way and any lulls are quickly forgiven.

As a writer, Gilroy has come a long way from his first screenplay, the figuring skating comedy/drama “The Cutting Edge.” Here his characters go deeper than mere archetypes. Swinton is the villain of the piece and on the surface she is as cold as the Snow Queen in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but Gilroy’s script and Swinton’s nuanced performance show a woman who is perhaps out of her depth as the head of a major international law firm. In a brilliant sequence we see her practice answers for an interview intercut with the actual interview. It shrewdly reveals a woman with a strong front, but a vulnerable underbelly.

Wilkinson gives one of his best performances as a man who he is crazy, but at the same time completely rational with his gifted legal mind perfectly intact and functioning. The line between crazy and sane is a tricky one to walk as an actor, but Wilkinson walks it gracefully.

As for Clooney, he continues to prove himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. Clooney’s Michael Clayton is worn down by life. He is a failed entrepreneur with debt hanging over his head and a guilty conscience. His decision to do the right thing isn’t shown with a preachy speech or flashy overacting. Clooney shows Michael Clayton’s moral shift through quiet pauses and subtle facial expressions.

Clooney is an actor who successfully balances commercial work like the “Ocean” movies with thought provoking film such as “Syriana” and “Good Night and Good Luck.” His star power brings attention to projects that may otherwise fade away. The Clooneys of the world show Hollywood that film can both be intelligent and arty and still be profitable. Clooney and others like him may be able to fix Hollywood yet.

'28 Weeks Later' has the scares, but none of the brains of it predecessor

“28 Days Later,” 2003’s intelligent, character driven riff on the zombie genre, was one of the most imaginative horror films in years, so it was perhaps inevitable it would get the sequel treatment. With “28 Weeks Later,” that low-budget gem is given the big budget treatment and a substantial amount of dumbing down.

The film is once again set in an England invested by a virus transmitted by blood or saliva that turns those infected by it into mindless beings consumed by one emotion: rage. Unlike traditional film zombies the ones of “28 Days” and “28 Weeks” are not the living the dead and do not lurch around, rather they run as if on a permanent adrenaline kick.

England was all but destroyed by the outbreak in the first film, but six months later the American military has cleaned up London and arrogantly reopened the city as an infected free zone. The political analogies are obvious and never go any deeper than the basic set up. Any opportunities for political or social satire are missed as the film instead focuses on gore and violence.

The film’s nominal star is Robert Carlyle of “Transpotting” and “Full Monty” fame. In a great opening sequence that promises a better film than we ultimately get, Carlyle, his wife and other survivalist couples are attacked by the infected. Instead of fighting, Carlyle runs away and leaves everyone behind, including his wife. The sequence provides more visceral, kinetic jolts than anything in the original and has the film’s few moments of genuine emotion.

In the rebooted London, Carlyle is reunited with his kids, who were in Spain when the outbreak occurred. It is at this point the film gets sloppy with the kids doing something so stupid that it is insulting to the viewers and works only as a plot device to set up events to bring about another infected outbreak. Once the infected are again on the loose the script and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo forget about believable characters and let the carnage reign free. The film constantly undercuts itself by killing off characters just as they’re starting to become more developed and well rounded.

“28 Days” had its moments of shocking and gruesome violence, but they were worked into a well crafted story that took the time to create characters the audience cared about. Director Danny Boyle allowed for moments of quiet, humor and even beauty. In this new film – aside from the opening and an affecting scene in which Carlyle explains to his kids that he left their mother for dead – there is little emotional connection or moments of introspection.

On the level of scares the movie is moderately successful, especially in a painful, hard to watch scene in which we watch a person become consumed by the Rage virus and then brutal kill a loved one. It is the only scene that lingers in the mind days after seeing the film.

There’s also an effective sequence in which snipers are told to kill everyone, infected or not, just to be safe. The scene is a throwback to the original’s theme that human nature is far more frightening and dangerous than the mindless infected. The infected have no choice in the terrible things they do, but humans do. It is a good message, but “28 Days” put it across with more skill and style.

Ultimately the problem is that “28 Days” was so fresh that to live up to it a sequel would have to remain equally original. Instead “28 Weeks” is filled with so many tired horror clichés and stock characters that the film’s stronger moments are undermined. It becomes just another generic horror movie with some solid scares and that’s OK, but it could’ve and should’ve been so much more.

'1408': A horror movie with a heart

“1408” is the latest film to tout the catchphrase “from the mind of Stephen King.” Few would debate that King is the quintessential horror writer of the last 30 years, but his works has had mixed results when transitioning to film. For every “Carrie” or “Green Mile” there are numerous duds.

Interestingly, it is his short fiction that seems to fair best in the world of film. “Stand By Me,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Apt Pupil” - all taken from “Different Seasons” - are among the best King adaptations. “1408” – a story from the “Everything’s Eventual” collection - isn’t quite of that caliber, but is a compelling haunted house tale.

“1408” starts with a basic horror premise. Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer who checks into supposedly haunted hotels to debunk them in a popular books series. This is the excuse he gives himself and others, but his real motivation is a desperate need to know there’s an afterlife following the death of his daughter. His cynical, sarcastic front crumbles quickly once he enters the demonic room of the title which is reported to kill anyone who stays in it within an hour.

King has written about writers many times before, most notably in “The Shining” and “Misery,” the former of which “1408” will inevitably be compared to and while there are similar themes, including the lead characters’ alcoholism, “1408” has a different and more simple agenda. Where in the “Shining” you watch a man descent into madness, “1408” shows Cusack struggling with his demons and looking for closure for the loss of his daughter.

Director Mikael Håfström avoids Kubrick’s visual palate and creates his own gothic vision that is arresting and affecting. This is not a gore fest like so much of the horror fare populating multiplexes and living rooms. There are solid jumps, but the film ties your gut in knots by creating an atmosphere of dread. A sinister clock, ticking down the hour and blaring out the Carpenter’s “It Has Only Just Begun” adds to the tension as the film plays out more or less in real time once Cusack enters the room.

At times the film’s special effects nearly take over with the room flooding, freezing and burning, but Cusack’s strong performance anchors the film. Cusack has always been a non-traditional leading man and is best known for his offbeat, quirky romantic persona, but he is more talented than he is given credit for. “1408” which is more or less a one-man show is the perfect showcase for him.

Fans of “High Fidelity” will be familiar with Cusack’s ability to add flavor to lengthy speeches and it helps he is given intelligent, funny dialogue by screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski that captures King’s unique voice.

While the film is largely Cusack monologing into a tape recorder as he tries to hold his sanity together, he does have some deliciously playful early scenes with Samuel L. Jackson as a hotel manager. Their scenes together have more zest than some whole films.

At the center of the film is the loss of Cusack’s daughter and the way the room taunts and teases Cusack with his greatest hurt is what gives the film more weight than the average spook fest. There is one scene that has an emotional impact that few will expect. It is rare today that a horror film will actually give you goosebumps and a lump in your throat and that’s what makes “1408” special.

Avoid this 'Contract'

If you are browsing through a video store and come across “The Contract” keep walking. Don’t allow yourself to be taken in by the pair of A-listers (Morgan Freeman and John Cusack) on the cover, “The Contract” is a stinker through and through.

“The Contract” went straight to DVD, which is rarely a good sign. The world of direct to video filmmaking includes but is not limited to cheapie sequels, low budget horror and action films starring aging former genre stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. They are easy to stop and easy to avoid, but every once in a while a film that looks like it could be worthy gets a direct to video release.

Reading the premise of “The Contract” it seems like it has the potential to be exciting entertainment. Freeman plays an assassin that through a chain of events comes into the custody of Cusack and his son (Jamie Anderson) who are hiking in the Washington wilderness in hopes of bonding after the loss of their wife/mother. Cusack decides to take Freeman to the police, but Freeman’s men are also in the forest eager to rescue their leader.

It is a hardly a new story, the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” which is currently playing in theaters covers similar ground, but with the excellent Freeman and the underrated Cusack you at least expect there to be a well acted mind game.

“The Contract” is the worst kind of bad movie, the sort of film that wastes its talent and teases the audience with glimpses of a good movie mired in the mangled collection of celluloid that is spooling out in front of you instead.

Every component of this film is flawed. The score is overwrought, the editing slack when it should be tight, the acting poor with only Freeman coming out unscathed and the writing clumsy and stiff. The dialogue is so stilted, obvious and forced that it is clear the actors can do little with it. At one point Cusack’s son has to shout at him “Just to listen me for once Dad!”

The characters are flat at best, mere archetypes and nothing more. There’s a throw away line explaining Cusack was a former cop that is there to justify some of things he does later in the film, but why he quit isn’t explored.

In the making of feature on the DVD, Freeman explains it is more fun for an actor to play a bad guy. There is some zeal in Freeman’s performance and he is clearly relishing the opportunity to play bad. Freeman manages to make some of the hackneyed dialogue shine, but most is so awful even velvet voiced Freeman can’t salvage it.

Cusack just looks embarrassed as if he knows there’s no reason to be in this film. Lately, Cusack seems to be drawn to playing characters grieving the loss of loved ones. In “1408” it was a daughter. In the forthcoming “Grace is Gone” and “Martian Child” it is a wife. What this has to say about Cusack’s state of mind could probably fill a psychiatrist’s notebook, but for my purposes it is merely a justification for why he appeared in something so below his talents.

The supporting cast is populated with uninteresting, annoying cookie cutter characters. The most infuriating of the bunch is the tired cliché of hick rural cops that don’t know anything about city things. At one point an FBI agent asks for a croissant and the sheriff replies they never heard of them in town. That’s the level this film is on. You have been warned.

A flawed, but interesting peak into Warhol's 'Factory'

Edie Sedgwick, the “Factory Girl” of the title, was the original party girl and the first to make fame a job. She became Andy Warhol’s muse in the mid-to-late sixties, with her short lived pop icon status eventually leading to a tragic death.

Edie’s story is a familiar one. She came to New York as a relatively innocent girl with aspirations to be an artist, but reinvented herself as a social butterfly. Warhol (Guy Pearce, “Memento") meets and becomes obsessed with Edie (Sienna Miller, “Casanova”). He decides to quit painting and focus on making her famous. Edie slowly loses herself to her own iconic status as she succumbs to the drugs, alcohol and various other excesses of fame.

The idea of fame, and everyone getting their 15 minutes of it, was one that fascinated Warhol, but the film doesn’t explore that too deeply. “Factory Girl” offers a peak inside Warhol’s Factory, the large studio where he did much of his art and films. The Factory is a world unto itself populated by oddballs and social rejects that are free to explore their art.

Warhol was an enigmatic figure with his pale skin, mousy voice and awkward social skills. Pearce nails the mannerism and vocal inflection in a performance that initially seems like nothing more than mimicry, but as the film progresses Pearce adds shading to his interpretation of Warhol.

When Edie begins an affair with a musician (Hayden Christensen, the new “Star Wars” trilogy) Warhol becomes jealous and cruel. Warhol’s self-proclaimed emotional detachment can’t completely hide his hurt which Pearce quietly registers in almost unnoticeable facial ticks.

Christensen is clearly playing Bob Dylan, but for legal reasons the character is listed as simply The Musician in the credits. He captures Dylan’s brooding cynicism and desire to challenge society. Christensen smolders with intensity that will surprise those who thought he single-handedly ruined “Star Wars.” He shines most in a scene in which he does a screen test for Warhol, blatantly mocking him the whole time.

Dylan and Warhol in many ways were doing the same thing, but Dylan’s art had depth where Warhol’s was seemingly more superficial. The film does a nice job of recreating the atmosphere of Warhol’s pop art world, but doesn’t delve beyond shallow interpretation. A case can be made that as it is shallow art it is unworthy of deep analysis.

Some would contend that Warhol was forcing pop culture to look at self with his work being a mirror of society. If that reflection is shallow that isn’t Warhol’s fault. The film seems to lean towards that view with Edie stating Warhol was throwing America back at people and “turning the assembly line into a punch line.”

But this isn’t a film about Warhol. It isn’t called “Factory Boy,” but you wish it was. Edie, at least as presented here, isn’t that interesting a figure. This is no fault of Miller who gives a strong performance. Miller knows how to do strung out women well as she already showcased in “Alfie.”

Edie was a damaged girl with a sexually abusive father and the weight of her gay brother’s death constantly plaguing her. Miller is forced to give numerous speeches rewording this information. The first time it is presented - in a flippant filmed conversation for Warhol - it is unsettling, but the film keeps playing the same emotional cards with no further exploration.

In the film’s most disturbing scene, Jimmy Fallon (“Fever Pitch”) coldly taunts Edie with her own sordid past while prodding a man to molest her as Warhol films it all. It is Warhol’s cruel punishment for leaving him.

Was Edie worthy of a bio-pic in her own right or are we merely fascinated because of her association with Warhol and Dylan? “Factory Girl” doesn’t quite make the case, but holds interest regardless for capturing the essence of the decadent sixties art scene.

'The Lookout': More than just a heist movie

Heist movies are rarely about anything other than the con, but Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” is a slightly different beast, a character driven piece where how the crime changes the lead character is far more interesting than the mechanics of the job itself.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a high school kid who had it all, until a car accident left him brain damaged. Chris has memory problems similar to, but not to the severity of Guy Pearce’s character in “Memento.”

Where Pearce couldn’t create new memories, Levitt’s Chris has difficulty sequencing them and gets easily confused. Chris also has difficulty controlling his anger and has lost his inhibitions, which leads him to say things like “I want to see you naked” to women.

Chris works alone as a night janitor at a bank something that small time hood Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, “Match Point”) notices. Gary baits Chris with the attractive former striper Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher, “The Wedding Crashers”) and convinces him to help with a bank robber.

Frank, making his directorial debut from his own script, has adapted Elmore Leonard’s “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” for the screen and the unique rhythm and flavoring of Leonard’s dialogue and storytelling is captured here. But Frank’s film doesn’t feel like a rip-off and that’s largely due to the freshness of the central character.

There’s a quiet intensity permeating through the whole film but for the most part it is not driven by the plot. Too often films in the heist genre are overly focused on labyrinthine plots and a surprise twist, which is all fine and well, but Frank has admirably but his focus on character.

Gordon-Levitt, who in the 90s was more known for his comic skills on the show “3rd Rock from the Sun,” has developed into intense dramatic actor. Following his work in last year enigmatic thriller “Brick,” Gordon-Levitt is proving himself to be the go to man for dark, complicated protagonists.

Chris is a complex, conflicted character, a bundle of confused emotions trying to sort everything out and Gordon-Leavitt balances all these difficult emotions in a way that is believable. He never allows the character to become a gimmick or mere plot point and infuses him with a wealth of turmoil that is rarely directly addressed but always there.

Jeff Daniels’ Lewis, Chris’ blind roommate and best friend, gives the film some of its only levity. The character does spout wisdom, but Daniels and Frank keep him from being more than just a blind wiseman. Lewis playfully flirts with a waitress at the same time he offers warm, humor filled support to Chris.

It is a performance that reminds you how likable and charming a performer Daniels is. Chris and Lewis’ friendship has nice flow to it and their scene help deepen the film emotionally and thematically.

Goode, an English actor hiding his accent well, is appropriately hard and grungy as Gary, but as he’s conning Chris, Goode manages to add at least a flickering note of compassion. Gary is asthmatic, which gives him the oddly menacing crutch of taking hits from his inhaler. Although Gary is the film’s bad guy, Goode keeps it low key and avoids hammy villainy.

In terms of acting Fisher’s femme fatale is the only weak link. Fisher showed chaotic comedic energy in “The Wedding Crashers,” here she seems dull and uninteresting, but that could be due to the script, which drops her when she is no longer useful to the plot. In a script that is intelligent and clever without being glib, it is the only disappointing aspect.

Frank as a director isn’t showy and the pace is leisurely, but rewarding. It is 45 minutes before the robbery is even mentioned, but Frank takes that time to create a world that is more fully realized than most films of the genre. The ending may be a bit too neat, but satisfying stems from a natural progression of the story. Maybe that in itself is the film’s big twist.

Ferrell on autopilot

“Blades of Glory” is Will Ferrell on auto pilot. For people who appreciate his humor it is a decent time, for those who think he is terribly unfunny this will act as further evidence.

After showing depth and dialing down to a warm, believable, human level in “Stranger Than Fiction,” Ferrell is back flaunting his body and faux machismo in a one-joke comedy about the first male pairs figure skating team.

Ferrell seems to have a thing for sports comedies, first there was the flat soccer film “Kicking and Screaming,” followed by the more on target NASCAR satire “Talladega Nights” and up on deck is the basketball comedy, “Semi-Pro.” “Blades of Glory” falls somewhere between “Kicking and Screaming” and “Talladega Nights,” but how many times can one actor parody sports movie clichés?

Jon Heder, Ferrell’s partner in comedy and skating, became an overnight sensation following the tremendous success of “Napoleon Dynamite.” Heder is still trying to live down the performance that made him famous and many are quick to dismiss all of his performances as watered down versions of “Napoleon.” But Heder is a likeable performer with a light comic touch and with “School for Scoundrels” and “Blades of Glory” has shown he’s more that a one trick pony.

Ferrell’s Chazz Michael Michaels and Heder’s Jimmy MacElroy and skating rivals who get banned from singles competition after an on-ice fight gets out of hand. Years later they are reunited by Jimmy’s coach (Craig T. Nelson, star of the show “Coach,” get it?) to be a pairs team. Naturally, they are exact opposites who hate each other and then ultimately bond.
This material is incredibly familiar, both as straight drama or comedy and “Blades of Glory” seems to be content to just work within the formula and earn some modest laughs. Although the character grows tired by the end, the idea of Chazz a crass, sex addict in the world of figure skating, is a funny one. It is role that is easy for Ferrell and will appease his fans who like him best when he’s stumbling around half nude or shouting dialogue.

The film lacks the extra layer of satire that features in Ferrell’s best comedies, “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Yes, both of those films are full of crude scatological humor, but there was also an undercurrent to the jokes that revealed the foolishness of American news and sports celebrity. In some ways “Talladega Nights” was just as effective as “Borat” at revealing the worst sides of Americans.

It is hard to review comedy. Humor hits each person differently. Some comedies hit the mark so well that just about everyone falls in love with them, but others are more hit and miss. “Blades of Glory” falls in the latter category.

One particularly gross scene is really the make or break for the film. In it Heder is handcuffed to a toilet. The key lies at the end of long strip of toilet paper. He can escape by using his tongue to pull the paper and key toward him. It is terribly unfunny scene, but if you can forgive the filmmakers for it then you are likely to accept the rest of the film.

Given the subject matter there are surprisingly and thankfully few gay jokes. The skating scenes are fairly amusing and there’s one hilarious chase scene with Ferrell running from a rival (Will Arnet, “Arrested Development”) while both are on skates. It is good as a distraction, but isn’t the sort of comedy you’ll be quoting with friends for months.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Vermont filmmaker brings latest film to the world

Independent filmmaker Jay Craven has been on the road with his latest film "Disappearances" for nearly a year and a half, crossing not only the country, but the globe. In the fall he will continue his national and international tour, but first is a stop off at the Claremont Opera House for a screening Friday Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m.

"We are looking forward to it," said Craven who will be on-hand to introduce "Disappearances" and lead a post-screening discussion of the film. "The opera house is a great facility. It is a facility the community knows and embraces and for us it is one of the bigger dates on the tour because it is a big hall and a community where some of its audience spills into Vermont."

Tickets for the screening are $9 general admission and $8 for seniors.

The Claremont stop is part of a 50-town tour of Vermont and New Hampshire. The film, like all of Craven's films, was shot in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and northern New Hampshire.

"The film comes from the region, so therefore it is important to go beyond the traditional distribution system to play it in the region," Craven said.

"Disappearances" is a North Country tale of high-stakes whiskey-running along the Vermont Canadian border during the Prohibition of the 1920s.

The film stars Kris Kristofferson, who told Craven the screenplay was the best he had ever read, as Quebec Bill, an impossible dreamer and schemer who turns to whiskey running after a freak lightning storm destroys his barn.

The picture also features Academy Award nominee Genevieve Bujold ("King of Hearts," "Anne of a Thousand Days"), Gary Farmer ("Smoke Signals"), William Sanderson ("Deadwood"), Lothaire Bluteau ("Black Robe"), Luis Guzman ("Traffic"), and 15-year-old Charlie McDermott in his debut role.

"This film has magic and mystery and ghosts and is a bit of a tall tale and is a bit of caper and the character of Quebec Bill is more fun than the character of Noel Lord in (my first film) 'Where the Rivers Flow North' and so it has struck a different chord (than my previous films), but it has struck a chord."

Craven has found that "Disappearances," which is the third in a trilogy of "Vermont frontier films," is the film that engages him the most of all his work.

"It certainly has an appeal that is unlike any of the other pictures (I've done) and it is also a film that has worked on me more than any of the other pictures. I can find layers of themeing and resonance and personal relevance to the picture."

"Disappearances" has not only played small towns throughout New England, but big cities across the country including New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, Ithaca and Dallas.

"It is a big country, so you just keep it going," said Craven, who in the coming months will be taking the film to Baltimore, Denver, Portland, Maine and Portland, Ore.. For an independent film it is about giving a film time to find an audience Craven said.

Unlike a Hollywood film with a marketing budget of at least $50 million, an independent film is working "under the radar" and has to work much harder at getting exposure.

"There's no question for an independent filmmaker that keeping it out on the road and trying to bring it to life in various settings is how you give it life."

Craven's time on the road has paid off with the film getting rave reviews from Variety, the Boston Globe and New York Times. "Disappearances" is also Craven most successful film since his debut with "Where the Rivers Flow North."

"Of the films I've made those are the two films that have gone the furthest. 'Where the Rivers Flow North' in its first wave of video release sold 35,000 copies at a higher price than what currently is the market DVD. This film ('Disappearances') has sold 60,000 copies."

Craven and "Disappearances" were also selected to be part of the American Film Institute (AFI) 20/20 Project which is a cultural exchange program sending nine American filmmakers and 11 international filmmakers around the world to show their work.

"It grows out of a long held desire for cultural exchange and a recent understanding that the United States needs to stimulate more positive interaction with other countries," said Craven of the project which is sponsored by American cultural agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the President's Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Craven believes that the strained international relations that have developed since the Iraq war made it clear to the current administration that something needed to be done to create common ground and understanding between countries again.

In the fall Craven and "Disappearances" will visit Israel and Palestinian territory, Venezuela and China. The film has already screened in South Africa and England where it was well received. Although the foreign rights for his other films have been sold and his work screened at international film festivals this is the first time Craven has traveled with his films.

"In South Africa the film played pretty well because the way South Africans responded to it was to say: 'we communicate with our ancestors, our ancestors are present and we see that as a theme in the film and we can relate to that.'"

Although still busy touring with "Disappearances" Craven is already looking toward his next project, but as an independent filmmaker it is always a struggle.

Independent is a buzz word right, with films like "Brokeback Mountain," "History of Violence" and "Capote" being slapped with the indie label, but according to Craven while these are well made films that challenge audiences to think outside the mainstream box they aren't true independents.

"The way that kind of filmmaking becomes the new independent - which is not really independent, it is studio money - makes the real independent at a disadvantage."

Studio independents, as Craven calls them, come from specialty production companies owned by the studios that have "many more resources available and more talent they can attract."

But Craven has been lucky so far at attracting big names for his films. Throughout the years he has secured the likes of Michael J. Fox, Rip Torn and Martin Sheen.

"I think for actors that work seriously and want to be challenged and want to remain active even when they may no longer be the hottest name in town, that those are the actors you can get to sometimes."

Still at the end of the day it is a lot of luck, who you know and good timing that helps land bigger names.

"In the case of Michael J. Fox in the first picture, it was a friend of mine restoring his old Vermont farm house in South Woodstock, Vt."

But now, looking ahead casting for the next project, Craven is stumped.

"I am trying to cast a new movie and in some ways it is like starting from scratch, I don't know exactly what to do. I'm researching which actors might be right for it and which actors because of their own circumstance may take an interest in it. You don't go about pitching Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. You're just not going to get through."

What this new project will hold is still unclear, but while the old project still has legs, Craven will keep traveling with it. After all, you never know who is watching.

"Part of the reason we go and fight very hard in distribution is to demonstrate to the actors that we will stand behind the picture and we'll get it out there. That helps us a bit because that means the films have been seen, they are known to a certain extent by the acting community."

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

'Zodiac' is an engrossing, intelligent thriller

“Director David Fincher made one of the darkest, most gruesome serial killer movies with “Seven.” With “Zodiac” he returns to the genre that put him on the map, but the second time around his approach is a bit different.

Fincher is one of the most stylish filmmakers working today. In “The Game” and “Fight Club” he concocted black humored mind-twisting thrillers where very little was what it seemed. For “Panic Room” he brought visual flair to a straight forward cat-and-mouse game. Some critics complained his style was showy simply for the sake of showing off.

For those expecting the flash of Fincher’s previous films, the feel of “Zodiac” may be disappointing, but Fincher makes the right choices. The film adopts the tone of gritty seventies films like “All the President’s Men” and “Serpico” and plays as well as the best films from the era. Fincher has created a film that is engrossing for the entirety of its nearly three-hour running time.

“Zodiac” tells the true story of the investigation of the unsolved case of the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer toyed with the press and police by sending encoded messages to newspapers asking them to be published or he’d kill again.

The film opens with the Zodiac’s first murder. Set to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” the kill is shocking in its abruptness. Fincher only showcases a few encounters with the Zodiac killer. There is no gore or blood in the film. Unlike the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises,” Fincher doesn’t rely on shock to scare, but builds a sense of menace and danger. This holds most true for a murder that occurs in broad daylight at a lake. Most thrillers play off our fears of danger lurking in the dark, but by flipping that convention, Fincher crafts a sequence that dries the mouth and gets the stomach butterflies fluttering.

In the wake of “Silence of the Lambs” most serial killer films have focused on getting into the head of the killer and psychoanalyzing their motives. The fictional killers of film have elaborate methods to their murders, but more often than not it all stems from being unloved as a child.

What makes “Zodiac” stand out in the crowd of generic serial killer movies is that it’s less about the killer and more about the obsession that grips his pursuers, which include San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

The film’s pacing while at times slow keeps things moving with a growing sense of anxiety as the film’s lead characters, especially Gyllenhaal become fixated on discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer.

The cast from the leads to the film’s smaller characters is astonishingly good especially Downey’s Avery, a scene stealer that tosses out cynical, caustic one-liners. He reluctantly takes Gyllenhaal’s Goldsmith under his wing before succumbing to drugs and alcohol.

We all know about Downey’s sordid drug laced past and that knowledge gives an extra weight to the performance. Following “A Scanner Darkly,” this is Downey’s second recent film playing a drug addict. Downey is clearly working through his demons. Where “Darkly” was a tongue-in-cheek comic turn, in “Zodiac” he taps into his own life to add to depth to the usual drugged out cliché.

The film really has two halves. The first focuses on the Downey and Gyllenhaal alliance to discover the Zodiac’s identity. The second half has Gyllenhaal form a new semi-partnership with Toschi. Ruffalo, a talented actor who has been stuck in fluff such as “13 Going on 30” and “Just Like Heaven” is excellent as the weary cop who inspired Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt.” The worn out cop is a tired archetype, but Ruffalo rises above it, but playing it with sincerity and understatement.

Brian Cox (“The Bourne Supremacy”) as a celebrity psychiatrist, Anthony Edwards (“E.R.”) as Toschi’s partner and John Carroll Lynch (“The Drew Carey Show”) as one of lead suspects all provide solid support. But Gyllenhaal is the film’s lead and it is up to him to carry the film.

Gyllenhaal portrayal of Goldsmith as he slowly and completely gives his life over to his pursuit of the Zodiac killer is nuanced and effective. His fixation grows from mere curiosity into a need to know the truth. Everything including his wife (the underused Chloë Sevigny) and kids falls to the wayside.

In a way obsession is the film’s ultimate villain and the film’s driving force. Many have fallen to the obsession of the Zodiac, reportedly, even Fincher whose own digging for information yielded new clues. Fincher captures how unhealthy fascination can consume someone and that’s what makes “Zodiac” more than just another serial killer movie.

The Wright/Pegg/Frost team is still 'hot'

““Hot Fuzz” is a very funny film. It is also unfortunately another example of a film falling victim to poor marketing. Commercials for the DVD focus on the frenzied humor of the film’s final 30 minutes, implying that the entire film features the same fast paced, in your face humor. It doesn’t. The slow build and dead pan humor of the majority of the film may turn off viewers hoping for the nonstop irreverence of the trailer.

“Hot Fuzz” is writer/director Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-lead Nick Frost’s follow up to the zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” As a creative team they are hard to beat when it comes to comedy that is a balanced mixture of smart and stupid with subtle and outrageous.

Their latest film takes on the action buddy comedy. In many ways it is bigger and harder target to lampoon than the zombie genre. There’s a danger in satirizing films that are already funny as has been proven in the latest crop of parody films such as “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie.” If the new film isn’t funnier than the original subject matter it renders itself useless.

Wright and Pegg don’t follow the current parody trend of directly lifting and altering scenes from recent films. Instead, much like Mel Brooks best films, “Hot Fuzz” features an original story that reduces all the worst aspects of the action comedy genre to a punch line.

The film’s set-up is inspired. Hot shot London cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is transferred to small town England, not because he’s reckless, but rather he does his job too well and he is making his colleagues (played by top Brit comedic actors Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy) look bad.

Angel is saddled with the town drunk Danny (Frost) as his partner in a town with seemingly no crime. Of course that isn’t the case and soon it becomes clear that a series of “accidents” are really a murder conspiracy. Naturally – as genre convention dictates – no one believes Angel even when it is absolutely ludicrous not to. The film mines some of its best humor from Angel’s fellow officers’ – including the wonderfully aloof Jim Broadbent – complete inability to listen to reason.

The middle section of the film actually plays more like a comedic homage to mystery thrillers a long the lines of “The Omen” and “The Wicker Man.” The film even features Edward Woodward the star of the original “Wicker Man.”

Of the film’s supporting cast ex-Bond Timothy Dalton is the easy stand out. It is a wonderfully goofy performance and it is clear Dalton is having fun and letting loose. Wright and Pegg give Dalton some of the best dialogue – cryptic exchanges that everyone except Angel ignores – that Dalton delivers with smirky glee.

As was true with “Shaun,” Pegg and Frost have great chemistry together. Pegg as the by the book cop gives a nearly flawless comedic performance and Frost’s loyal lap dog is the perfect balance. The way their dynamic gently mocks the male bonding of the action genre is one of the film’s best running gags.

Danny’s knowledge of being a cop comes from the very films “Hot Fuzz” is ultimately taking the piss out of. Angel insists the life of a cop is nothing like it is portrayed in movies. That is until the film becomes exactly like one of those films in a blaze of uproarious glory.

Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as “Bad Boys 2” are the films main target in the climatic conclusion and Wright gets all the over-the-top action right with Angel and Danny having to take on the whole town.

“Hot Fuzz” is long and takes it time, but in a way that is a part of the satire as Bruckheimer productions are notoriously bloated. The drawn out pacing of the film may not work for everyone, but makes the spectacular finale all the sweeter.

LeBeouf shines in 'Disturbia'

““Disturbia” is a derivative, but surprisingly effective thriller that is carried by the charm of Shia LeBeouf. He is perhaps the least likely rising star currently working in Hollywood and the best because of it.

LeBeouf has the same sort of off-beat charisma of young John Cusack and Tom Hanks. When “Disturbia” devolves into a genre pic, LeBeouf’s light comedic touch and low key persona makes the film seem smarter and stronger than it truly is. Much like his leading role in the summer blockbuster “Transformers,” he makes this material work better than it should. With these two films LeBeouf proves he is a star.

In “Disturbia,” LeBeouf’s Kale is an emotionally distraught teen, who gets into a long list of trouble following the death of his father. Kale finds himself under house arrest after he punches out an antagonizing teacher. When his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, “The Matrix”) cuts him off from his video games and internet, Kale’s eyes begin to wander to the suburban windows that surround him. Soon he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (David Morse, “16 Blocks”) is a murder.

“Disturbia” is essentially a teen version of “Rear Window,” but the film is better than that description. Despite the teen cast this rises above the dreaded teen movie branding and plays as a straight thriller. There are teen hijinx early on to help establish Kale as a likable protagonist before things turn dark, but the film is less pandering the average teen film.

The film is almost able to justify its update of the Hitchcock classic because of the advancement of technology. Where Jimmy Stewart only had a telephoto lens, Kale cleverly utilizes digital video cameras, cell phone cameras and his computer during his community watch.

Like “Rear Window,” the film is about voyeurism and its dangers. Before Kale’s binoculars start peering into the bloody garage of Morse’s Mr. Turner the object of Kale’s gaze is his sexy new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer, “The Grudge 2”). When Kale is caught as a peeping Tom, Ashley doesn’t call the cops, but joins in on the spying.

There’s an interesting dynamic that could’ve been explored here: what happens when a voyeur’s subject crosses to the other side? But screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (“Red Eye”) misses the opportunity to explore this and the chance to create a strong female character in the process.

Instead he reduces Ashley – flatly played by Roemer – to nothing more than a male fantasy come true. She is a cookie cutter love interest there to make out with the hero and need rescuing. It is insulting to the viewer and the film’s only true false step, aside from a few stretches of credibility when the film kicks into full thriller mode.

Luckily Morse’s performance more than compensates for things. He is menacing without being over-the-top. Morse is soft spoken, even congenial and does a nice job throwing at least some ambiguity into whether he truly is a murderer. When he realizes he is being watched it is fun to watch Morse toy with LeBeouf, especially in scenes where he flirts with Kale’s mom.

The film’s final act turns to horror movie cliché and is a bit preposterous, but is so well executed that the ridiculousness doesn’t occur until the credits roll. Director D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives”), who does a good job keeping things on edge throughout, lets the tension snap in the final third and earns some good jumps.

The best scenes of the last stretch involve Kale’s comedic sidekick Ronnie (the funny Aaron Yoo) sneaking into Turner’s garage. The sequence is seen through Ronnie’s shaky, grainy digital camera and earns some “Blair Witch”-esque scares.

“Disturbia” is certainly flawed, but in the end it entertains. If you are willing to suspend disbelief and go with the flow a good time can be had.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grint trades wizard lessons for 'Driving Lessons'

“The stars of the “Harry Potter” franchise will be set for life once the series completes its seven film arc. They will never have to work again, but if they choose to they will first need to get out from underneath the large shadow cast by the very films that made them famous.

The actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) will likely have difficulty avoiding type casting and forever being associated with their Hogwarts counterparts following the series’ conclusion. Radcliffe chose nudity on London’s West End in the play “Equus” to create distance from his screen wizardry. Grint has chosen something a bit tamer: the small coming of age film “Driving Lessons.”

Grint stars as Ben, a shy, repressed 17-year old stuck between a passive priest father (Nicholas Farrell) and a domineering, overzealous evangelical Christian mother (Laura Linney, “Breach”). Ben’s father has an open-minded, open-hearted view of faith and warns in a sermon that “the more someone parades their Christianity for the benefit of others the less I am inclined to trust the Christianity they claim.”

The comment is a subtle jab at his wife who uses her faith to manipulate others and justify her actions, even when those actions are pure hypocrisy. Linney, forcing a Brit accent, plays this well, with an ever joyous grin trying to mask and control other emotions.

Ben’s life has been so dominated by his mother’s will that he is almost afraid to develop an emotion beyond straight-faced apathy. He channels all his feeling and thoughts into brooding, visually rich poetry. When he tries to woo a girl with one of his poems he is shot down with a direct, “you’re just too weird.”

The film’s central plot and character thrust centers on Ben taking a job helping Evie (Julie Walters), a has-been actress with a slight drinking problem and a desire to go camping.

Walters, essentially playing a variation of her character from “Billy Elliot,” seems cursed to play foul mouthed over-the-top eccentrics. She does the role justice though chewing the scenery and giving speeches as if she were playing to the back of the theater. But she also downplays the flamboyant tendencies of a stage actress to show vulnerability and insecurity.

Ben becomes her only friend and the only person she can trust when a camping trip leads to a misadventure in Scotland where Evie is suppose to do a poetry reading. The trip marks Ben’s first deviance of his mother and the first time he allows himself to loosen up especially when a Scottish girl takes him dancing.

It could be easy to dismiss Grint’s performance as flat and lifeless, but Ben is someone who is learning to break out of his shell and trust himself. Ben never completely bursts out from his repressed nature, but Grint shines in the small moments of Ben letting go. Grint doesn’t show extraordinary range, but proves he can be more than a comedic sidekick.

There is a definite off-beat chemistry between Grint and Walters and he makes a good straight man to her antics. The screen dynamic that develops is that of friendship, but some will feel the need to compare the film to “Harold and Maude.”

All of this is well worn material and “Driving Lessons” doesn’t attempt to break new ground, but as far as light Brit comedy/drama goes it is a pleasant experience and for “Potter” fans it is the opportunity to see their beloved Ron in a different light.

Soderbergh's admirable disappointment

“Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s production company Section Eight (which is closing down this year as Clooney starts his own company, Smoke House) put out films that went against the Hollywood grain with subject matter or style that was often challenging or unique.

The most mainstream fare the company produced was the “Ocean’s” movies, which were more or less done on a whim to support the more experimental projects Soderbergh and Clooney wanted to take on.

Soderbergh is a filmmaker who balances Hollywood productions (“Traffic, “Erin Brockovich”) with smaller, risky projects that may have little appeal. “The Good German” falls into the latter category. It is a film authentically shot in the style of 1940s film noir using only cameras, sound and lighting equipment from that time period.

“The Good German” gets the look of the era down perfectly. Lighting, shot composition, editing and the beautiful black and white cinematography all come together to recreate a bygone time. In terms of sheer filmmaking gusto it is quite an achievement. It looks like it was made then not now.

It is wonderful to see the actors, Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, in this style of filmmaking. Blanchett and Clooney have a classic movie star quality that is captured here. Everyone plays the stylized acting of the time well, especially Blanchett who fits so well into this world she seems almost more suited for that time period than our own.

Maguire has a lot of fun getting in touch with his dark side playing a character who is scheming and cold. It is a small, but memorable role that is a nice counterpoint to his current big screen escapades in “Spider-Man 3.”

The film’s problem is by directly recreating a portion of film history, the movie collapses under the weight of that history. So much time was put into reconstructing a look and feel that the film doesn’t have much personality of its own.

The plot, which takes place in the chaotic weeks after Germany surrendered in World War II, centers on a war journalist (Clooney) trying to solve a murder that no one wants solved. He is also trying to rekindle a romance with a former lover (Blanchett), who is desperately trying to get out of Berlin.

The comparisons to “Casablanca” are unavoidable – Soderbergh even visually lifts the end nearly verbatim – and it only makes “The Good German’s” story and dialogue problems more glaring.

“Casablanca” was a film that was impeccably scripted, with colorful characters and snappy dialogue. “The Good German’s” dialogue on the other hand feels pieced together from 1940s espionage and noir films and lacks zest.

The screenplay by Paul Attanasio adds the profanity that the production code in place during the 1940s prohibited, but it doesn’t anything to the proceedings. Not being able to do or say certain things on screen forced writers and directors to develop creative ways to get what they wanted across. It is often why the dialogue of that era is so rich.

For fans of film history, “The Good German” is equal parts admirable and disappointing. The look, the feel, the acting is all there and it is watchable, but if all those element had been in the employ of sharper writing the film could’ve been great in its own right instead of being a reconfiguration of other great films of the past.