O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


 

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

An olliphant never forgets.

(2003) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, John Noble, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee,Thomas Robins, Hugo Weaving, Paul Norrell, Lawrence Makoare. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

After a long wait at long last the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s version of the epic J.R.R. Tolkein-penned trilogy The Lord of the Rings came upon us, and it was everything we hoped it would be – although had it come out 10 years later it would have been split into two movies in order to maximize profits although in this case I wouldn’t have minded so much.

The movie opens with a flashback, as we see how Smeagol (Serkis) took possession of the ring (or vice versa), murdering his friend Deagol (Robins) for it. Smeagol slinks into the wilderness, gradually losing his soul and becoming the creature known as Gollum.

Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) are being led for a secret way into Mordor by Gollum unaware that the wicked creature intends to lead them into a trap. The lembas bread which has sustained them is running low, and Sam is rationing it. They need to climb a nearly vertical rock face in order to enter the tunnels that will take them into Mordor. However, Gollum displays his treachery, using the ring’s hold on Frodo and some strategically placed lembas crumbs to drive a wedge between Frodo and Sam, which leads to Frodo telling the weeping Sam to go home.

Meanwhile, the other heroes of the fellowship have no time to rest on their laurels after the events which crowned The Two Towers. Gandalf (McKellen), Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) ride for Isengard to take on Saruman (Lee), only to find out that the Ents have done it for them. They discover the hobbits Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), happily smoking their beloved South Farthing pipeweed and munching away on the spoils of Isengard’s larder.

Once again, the group separates, with Gandalf and Pippin going to the city of Minas Tirith to assist Gondor in the battle to come. Aragorn, Legolas, Merry and Gimli return to Rohan to await word from Gandalf and also convince King Theoden (Hill) to aid Gondor in their time of need, although he is loathe to do so since Gondor provided him with no assistance when his people needed it. When Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Gondor, Gandalf warns Pippin not to tell Denethor (Noble), the Steward of Gondor, of the death of his son Boromir (Bean) which Pippin witnessed.

However it turns out that Denethor already knows and the news has unhinged him. Pippin offers up his services to placate the half-mad ruler. Denethor refuses Gandalf’s plea to light the signal fires to call on aid from Rohan, but Pippin lights the fire anyway, and Theoden determines to go to Gondor’s aid. Eowyn (Otto) pleads to go with her uncle, but he refuses, asking her to stay behind to lead Rohan if he doesn’t return (he doesn’t expect to, knowing the numbers of warriors he brings will be inadequate). She disguises herself as a man and goes anyway, as does Merry, whom she pledges to look after.

Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham) can do no right in the eyes of his father, which is further complicated when Osgiliath, the fort he is charged to defend, is overrun by a numerically superior force of Orcs. Denethor orders Faramir and his company back to retake the fortress, even though Faramir knows that neither he nor his men will survive the attempt. That proves to be the case, as Faramir’s body is returned to Minas Tirith and Denethor completely loses it, extolling his men to abandon their posts and flee for their lives as an enormous army of orcs and mercenaries riding elephantine war beasts reach the gates of the city and begin to knock on the gates. To Pippin’s further horror, Denethor becomes determined to cremate Faramir’s body, even though as Pippin discovers, Faramir is still alive.

In the mountains of Mordor, Gollum springs his trap on Frodo leading the defenseless hobbit into the lair of a giant spider named Shelob, who attacks Frodo and at last, poisons him with her venom, wrapping the hapless hobbit in web for eventual dining. Fortunately Sam arrives in the nick of time to fight off Shelob, but can’t stop a small band of Orcs from taking Frodo’s inert but still-living body. Sam manages yet another dramatic rescue and the two emerge from the mountains, only to find that there are at least 10,000 Orcs encamped between them and Mount Doom.

As the force from Rohan encamps in the mountains, Elrond (Weaving) appears, bearing the re-forged sword of the King that had once defeated Sauron and gives it to Aragorn, urging him to take up the role he had been born to play: King of Gondor, heir to Isildur and the great kings of legend. Knowing that his love Arwen (Tyler), daughter of Elrond, is dying as Sauron grows stronger, having refused to leave Middle Earth with the rest of elvenkind, Aragorn reluctantly accepts the mantle he has avoided all his life. He, Gimli and Legolas go into the mountain to persuade an army of the dead to assist them. This army, led by the King of the Undead (Norrell), once broke oaths to the King of Gondor and were cursed for it. They will respond only to the King of Gondor, and when Aragorn reveals his sword, he has the allies he seeks.

Not a minute too soon, either. Minas Tirith is in the process of falling, despite the heroics of Gandalf. The mercenaries, orcs and nazghul are in danger of overrunning the city when Theoden and the Rohirrim arrive. They are able to hold off the hordes, but at great cost. Aragorn’s arrival with the army of the dead, however, saves the city. Once this is done, Aragorn releases the dead to their final rest.

All is not over, however. Aragorn knows that Frodo cannot hope to succeed with all the Orcs still encamped in Mordor. The forces of the Fellowship must make a desperate attempt to give Frodo and Sam the time they need to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the Ring in the fires that it was forged in. But Frodo may not want to destroy the Ring after all and Gollum is still lurking about with a part to play in the final dénouement.

As with the first two movies, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is absolutely breathtaking visually. The city of Minas Tirith is like a wedding cake in concrete, beautiful and imposing. On the flip side, the computer-generated Shelob is terrifyingly realistic; you could almost imagine her crawling around the dark places in your home town. A lot of sensitive people are going to have some nasty nightmares as a result of her.

The battle scenes are impressive in their scope. Thousands of computer-generated warriors move in tandem with the real actors and extras that were employed in the battles of Pelennor Field and of the Black Gate. Even the most jaded of moviegoers will be amazed and enthralled by what Peter Jackson has brought to life onscreen.

Mortensen gives a performance for the ages; his charisma and rugged good looks would earn him further starring roles, although I daresay he’ll probably always be remembered as Aragorn. Still, in many ways this movie is Sam’s story more than anyone else’s. He shows growth as a character, becoming the equal of any of the heroes who have garnered more press. It is Sam who provides the movie’s emotional payoff.

Elijah Wood’s Frodo is a curious case. Although ostensibly the focus of the movie, Wood is curiously detached. It’s very hard at times to fathom who Frodo is, although, to be fair, Frodo is undergoing drastic changes at the hands of the Ring. It’s hard to imagine being less interested in Frodo than you are in Merry or Pippin, but that is the case here. Wood does a pretty good job, but that’s not good enough to stand out in a cast that performs so magnificently.

Orlando Bloom also showed the makings of a big star, although Legolas is not really at the fore much in the trilogy; when Legolas is given the spotlight, however, Bloom shines. Andy Serkis provides Smeagol and Gollum both with humanity; although treacherous and conniving, you wind up feeling the pity for the character as both Frodo and Bilbo had, which is crucial for the story. The supporting cast of Wenham, Otto, Urban, McKellen, Monaghan and Boyd in particular all added luster to their résumés here.

Roger Ebert criticized Return of the King and the trilogy overall as having a “silly story,” which is one of the few times I have disagreed with him quite this vehemently. The story of the trilogy is the story of man’s own ability to grow and change. Written at the dawn of the atomic era, it ascribed hope that we could overcome the desire to use an awesome weapon, and conquer the forces of darkness and despair. Not silly at all, I find it a powerful story that has as much meaning in my everyday life as do some of the smaller films Ebert prefers.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has an honored place in cinematic history for groundbreaking visuals, and passionate vision. Return of the King is the best of these movies, not only because it should be, as the payoff of the trilogy, but because it also is so well-made and the performances well-given. Once you get past the eye candy, all you are left with is the performances and in that, you will not find a better ensemble than this one. It is to date the only movie nominated for more than ten Oscars (eleven to be exact) to win every award it was nominated for, and deservedly so. It is one of three films to win eleven Oscars, the most in the history of the award. I don’t know how much more honored a film can get.

I viewed the conclusion of this beloved trilogy with a mixture of awe, wonder, sadness and satisfaction. I am sorry the trilogy is now complete, but look forward to the works of Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen and the rest of the cast. There is an emotional epilogue in which some of the main characters of the trilogy take their leaves – not only from the tale, but from those of us who have followed the story from day one. It is a most satisfying ending.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing piece of film-making; it earned every Oscar it got and more. It will stand as one of the first true classics of the 21st century.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You find this a “silly story.” Roger Ebert, shame on you!

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are pretty grisly in places but I cannot emphasize enough just how frightening Shelob is as a creature. If you have a fear of spiders or are particularly sensitive to monsters, be warned that Shelob is as scary a creature that has ever been put to film.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Peter Jackson has an irrational fear of spiders and modeled Shelob on two of the species he fears the most.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1B on a $94M production budget; the movie made ten times what it cost, easily a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Iron Man

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


 

The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring

Now there’s an idea for the Kentucky Derby – arm the jockeys with swords.

(2001) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Sarah McLeod, Peter McKenzie, Harry Sinclair, Sala Baker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

There was much concern when it was announced that the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be made into movies that it be done right. Anything less than a classic movie would be heartbreaking to the millions of readers who love Tolkein’s work, let alone the smaller but very vocal crowd of the Middle Earth-obsessed.

Middle Earth is threatened by a grave power. A prologue shows us how, thousands of years prior to this story, a wizard king named Sauron (Baker) crafted a ring to dominate all the races of the land – human, elf and dwarf – and give Sauron ultimate power over Middle Earth. The bravery of Isildur (Sinclair), a human king, defeats Sauron’s plans; Isildur’s greed, however, causes the ring to escape destruction and allow Sauron to eventually return. The ring ultimately falls into the hands of an adventuresome hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Holm) who brings it home to Bag End, in the village of Hobbiton, where it remained dormant.

Now, it is many years later and Bilbo is readying for a massive party to celebrate his 111th birthday. His old friend Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), a powerful wizard, arrives to celebrate with a wagon chock full of wonderful fireworks, and is greeted by Bilbo’s nephew, the bookish Frodo (Wood). Bilbo is worn out, although he looks much younger than his years would indicate. He wants to see the Misty Mountain again, and dwell among the elves in peace so he might finish the book he is writing of his adventures, “There and Back Again.”

At the party, Frodo’s friends Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), get into mischief involving Gandalf’s fireworks, setting the tone for their roles in the tale. Bilbo makes a sudden and startling departure at the party’s conclusion, using the ring to become invisible. The wizard immediately realizes that there is much more to Bilbo’s ring than even he had realized. He confronts Bilbo and convinces his old friend to leave the ring to Frodo. Gandalf warns Frodo, “Keep it secret; keep it safe,” then rides off to find out the truth of this ring.

When Gandalf returns to Bag End it to urge Frodo to flee. Nine ghastly riders, the nazghul, have been dispatched to retrieve the ring, which by Gandalf has determined to be THE ring. Frodo’s friend, gardener Sam Gamgee (Astin) overhears some of the discussion and is confronted by Gandalf, who asks what he heard. “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a dark lord, and something about the end of the world, but please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”

Sam is sent to accompany Frodo. The hobbits run into Merry and Pippin, who are pilfering vegetables from a farmer. The reunion, however, is brief; the hobbits are nearly discovered by one of the terrifying and mysterious riders nazghul.

In the human town of Bree, they meet the ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), who saves them from a disturbing attack from the nazghul, and sets out to lead them for the elven settlement of Rivendell. However, the nazghul catch up to them at Weathertop, an ancient fortress, where Frodo is stabbed with a poisoned blade. Aragorn drives off their foes and steps up the pace to go to Rivendell, desperate to save Frodo. They are met along the way by Arwen (Tyler), an elven princess and daughter of Elrond, who puts Frodo on her horse and rides a thrilling race against the murderous nazghul. Gandalf, in the meantime, has been imprisoned by Saruman (Lee), head of his order, whom he had gone to consult. Saruman, believing that Mordor cannot be defeated this time, has decided to ally himself with Sauron. Gandalf finally manages to escape, using a giant eagle to fly from Isengard, the wizard’s tower which is Saruman’s base, but not before learning that Saruman is breeding an army of Uruk’hai, a crossbreed of orc and goblin that have none of the weaknesses of either race and many of the strengths.

Elrond calls a council to determine the fate of the ring, and after some deliberation, decides to send a small party to Mordor, to Mount Doom itself, to destroy the ring. This despite the objections of Boromir (Bean), son of the Steward of Gondor, the ruler of that land in the stead of a king who is lost – a king who turns out to be Aragorn, who doesn’t want the job.

There is much arguing and distrust among the races as to who will bear the ring, but finally Frodo speaks up and declares that he will carry the ring to Mordor, though he doesn’t know the way. Gandalf pledges to assist him, as does Aragorn and Boromir, as well as an elven prince named Legolas (Bloom) and a warrior dwarf named Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Sam, Merry and Pippin also proclaim that they are going wherever Frodo goes. Thus is formed the Fellowship of the Ring (cue dramatic orchestral music).

On the eve of their departing, Arwen presents Aragorn with a token of her love; Aragorn begs her not to give it to him, knowing she would give up her immortality for his love, but she gives it to him nonetheless. The fellowship then departs for Mordor.

The way is hard. In a snowy mountain pass, Saruman attacks them magically, forcing them to go the one way Gandalf didn’t want to travel; underground, through the mines of Moria, where Gimli’s cousin rules.

After surviving the attack of a hideous kraken at the gates of the mines, the Fellowship travels into Moria, and it becomes obvious that the entire colony of dwarves has been massacred. They are attacked just then by orcs, goblins and a massive cave troll and when it appears they will be surrounded, something frightens the thousands of orcs and goblins off; it turns out to be a balrog, a fire demon from the depths of the earth. Gandalf fights off the balrog, but then is yanked off a precipice, and is lost to the Fellowship.

Disheartened, the survivors of the fellowship make their way into Lothlorien, stronghold of the high elves, where they are greeted by King Celeborn (Csokas) and the ethereal Queen Galadriel (Blanchett), who allow the weary travelers rest. After receiving gifts of elven cloaks, waybread and other items, the Fellowship resumes its journey, now by river.

At camp they are ambushed by the Uruk’hai, Boromir is confronted by his own weakness, and the Fellowship is broken, with one member giving his life in battle.

The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring is a captivating, compelling movie that is only the first step in a journey that will take us to the eventual fate of the ring, of those who bear it and of those who seek it as well. Given the performances here, it is easy to care very much about who gets there and in what shape they are in when they arrive. It is a journey we can all take together.

The visuals are stunning, jaw-dropping at the time this was released. The elven communities of Rivendell and Lothlorien are beautiful in an alien way, blending naturally with their forest environments. Hobbiton in the Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo live, looks exactly as I imagined it, calm, peaceful and rustic but with a hint of the English countryside implicit in every nook and cranny. The ruins of ancient kingdoms, statues of forgotten kings and warriors dot the journey’s landscape, giving the world an old and lived-in appearance. The attention to detail in establishing each individual place in the movie, each with its own specific character and feel, is nothing short of astounding.

Jackson has an epic palette to paint his picture, and he uses every color imaginable. The bright colors of the Shire contrast with the dark, stormy terrain of Mordor; the Elven territories are in a perpetual autumn, as their race prepares to leave Middle Earth, lending a further poignancy to the tale. Jackson obviously holds the source material in high regard, and stays as true to Tolkein’s words as is possible.

Wisely, the various characters are developed slowly, becoming who they are during the course of the movie. There is not a disappointing performance throughout; Mortensen carries a quiet intensity as Aragorn, McKellen a grandfatherly presence as Gandalf. The extras are well-cast, helping set the background tone in each location; folksy and a bit comic in Hobbiton, suspicious and tense in Bree, graceful yet sad in Lorien.

What makes this so successful a movie is what I would call a sense of place throughout; the architecture, scenery and characters all contribute to the overall mood. Middle Earth becomes a living, breathing place because of it, and the rich textures of Tolkein’s world come to life before our very eyes.

Overall, this can only be called a labor of love, and that love can clearly be seen on the screen in every frame. Jaw-dropping special effects and eye-popping scenery from the wilds of New Zealand dazzle at every turn. Howard Shore’s haunting score serves to enhance the film, and having Enya contribute a pair of vocalizations to the movie is a wise move; her ethereal voice is perfect for it. When this was released back in 2001, it not only met the high expectations of those anticipating (myself included) but exceeded them. It has, with its successors, become a true classic, a movie that I happily watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time I saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing spectacle, faithful to the book and exciting and heartwarming all at once. A modern classic that still bears repeated watching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re not into fantasy, you’ll surely hate this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scary images and an epic battle sequence that depicts plenty of hacking and chopping.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most major films have from time to time more than one unit shooting simultaneously, generally just two or three. There were occasions when this production had as many as ten units shooting at once.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $871.5M on a $93M production budget. The movie was a gigantic blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Straw Dogs (2011)

The Other Woman


 

The Other Woman

Lisa Kudrow teaches the art of the fake smile.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Charlie Tahan, Lauren Ambrose, Michael Cristofer, Debra Monk, Mona Lerche, Anthony Rapp, Kendra Kassebaum, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Joy, Maria Dizzia, Ira Hawkins. Directed by Don Roos

 

By its nature marital infidelity is a terrible and unforgivable thing. This is true of the married party who cheats on their partner but it is also true of the one they’re cheating with, especially when they know full well that they’re having an affair with a married person.

Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) is a Harvard grad who works in the law office of Jack (Cohen), a married partner in the firm. She knows of his marital status but she thinks he’s cute and attractive and that attraction only grows the longer she works there. One thing leads to another and soon the two are carrying on an affair.

When Emilia gets pregnant, Jack decides that he would rather be with her than with Carolyn (Kudrow), the driven but successful obstetrician. The two divorce with Jack unaccountably given custody of William (Tahan), their young son.

The baby is delivered and it’s a girl. A few days after coming home, tragically, the baby dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) leaving her parents disconsolate. Emilia particularly has a hard time dealing with the baby’s death, growing more distant and irritable. Her relationship with William has become a war, each side practicing little cruelties upon the other (she encourages the lactose-intolerant William to eat an ice cream sundae; he proposes she sell all the infant furniture and clothes on eBay). Carolyn in the meantime has instituted proceedings to take back custody of William. She has become shrewish and confrontational. Emilia’s parents (Cristofer and Monk), long-divorced after her father cheated on her mother as a result of a sex addiction, are trying to patch things up although Emilia has been unable to forgive him for abandoning her.

Emilia’s life is falling apart and so is she. Everything she touches seems to turn to ash; her close friend Mindy (Ambrose) and Simon (Rapp) are slowly being alienated and her marriage is close to over. Could this be karma finally catching up with the other woman?

Portman is showcased here in this film by veteran indie director Roos (The Opposite of Sex), based on the book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. This is a bit different than we’re used to from Roos who specializes in clever and light relationship comedies. The cinematography is strong here which makes for beautiful pictures telling a bleak story. That story is told mostly in flashback which requires a deft hand. It’s not a new method of storytelling but it is often botched, leaving the viewers confused and frustrated. That doesn’t happen here.

Portman is a gifted actress and she makes good use of her talents here. Emilia is far from being a saint – after all, she did initiate a relationship with a man that was already taken. She also shows a streak of arrogance and insensitivity, as well as a bit of temperamental cruelty that particularly surfaces after the baby’s death. This isn’t a character that invites audience identification and yet we wind up doing just that; Emilia’s deeds aren’t likable but Portman makes Emilia herself so.

Kudrow, who has appeared in several of Roos’ films, is usually a bit of a charming ditz in most of her roles but here she’s capable, a little cold and VERY pissed off. She’s justifiably angry too but as in the case of a fairly significant percentage of women whose husbands left them for the women they cheated with, saves her vitriol for the woman and not so much for her husband. One thinks Carolyn blames the entire affair on Emilia, even though it takes two to tango and Jack is quite the willing dance partner.

In fact, Cohen’s Jack seems a likable fellow and we don’t get any sense of why he felt compelled to cheat on his wife other than that the woman coming onto him is Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful and desirable women in Hollywood today. The movie never really examines too closely Jack’s culpability which I suppose is fitting since the title is The Other Woman, not The Cheating Husband.

I guess in a way the subject matter is a bit of a soap opera by nature, but it certainly feels as such in execution. There are some pretty adult subjects here, given the infidelity and the baby’s death and subsequent grieving of the mother but the handling is a bit heavy-handed whereas a more sensitive touch would have been appreciated.

This can be recommended for the performances of the lead women, although Tahan also turns in a good job. His byplay with Portman feels authentic and the strain between them is palpable. Those aspects of the movie work. What doesn’t is the apparent blameless nature of the man and the daytime drama approach of the screenplay, but it’s still worth seeing thanks to Portman and Kudrow.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Kudrow and Portman.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat soap opera-esque. Sensitive subject matter handled with an iron fist.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is fairly adult with a good deal of sexual content and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shelved for nearly two years during which time Portman won her Best Actress Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $452,191 on an unreported production budget. The movie might have broken even but I suspect that’s quite unlikely.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stepmom

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky


Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky does not find his muse amusing.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger, Grigori Manoukov, Radivoje Bukvic, Nicolas Vaude, Anatole Taubman, Eric Desmarestz, Clara Guelblum, Maxime Danielou, Sophie Hasson, Nikita Ponomarenko. Directed by Jan Kounen

 

Sometimes it’s difficult to see historical figures as flesh and blood human beings. We see them as perpetually engrossed in whatever it was that made them famous, be it war, music, fashion, politics, religion or art. Nonetheless, these giants and icons had time to live, love, eat and have relationships, both friendship and the next level up.

Igor Stravinsky (Mikkelsen) went to the 1913 premiere of his latest work, The Rite of Spring brimming with hope. It was to be the piece that established him as not only a great composer, but one who altered music itself. With a ballet choreographed by the great Nijinsky and a debut set in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. To his horror, the audience reacted not only with boos but with such passionate hate that a riot broke out. Despite the solace offered by his wife Katarina (Morozova), Stravinsky sank into a depression, but the performance was witnessed by young Coco Chanel (Mouglalis), then establishing herself as a leading star in the world of fashion.

Seven years later, Chanel ran into Stravinsky at a party. The great composer had recently fled his native Russia after the revolution and between that and The Great War was virtually penniless, and his wife now suffered from tuberculosis. Still a great admirer of his talent, she invited the composer to her villa Bel Respiro in Garches along with his family so that he could work undisturbed by interruption or need.

Like moths to flames the two great creative minds are drawn to each other, first as mutual admirers and then physically. For the next 18 months they have a torrid affair which they did little to hide from Katarina, who endured the humiliation with the wisdom of a woman who recognizes that her husband’s foolishness was merely temporary. Still, during this time Stravinsky would write some brilliant compositions and Coco along with her collaborator Ernest Breaux would create her iconic scent Chanel No. 5, still the most famous perfume in the world.

The movie is taken from Chris Greenhalgh’s speculative novel of the same name (Greenhalgh also co-wrote the screenplay). The actual affair itself was never made public although confidantes and biographers of both Chanel and Stravinsky have since confirmed that it occurred. Much of what is depicted here between the two of them is extrapolation; how much a muse they were to one another is extremely subject to speculation.

Both Stravinsky and Chanel are both depicted as being not terribly likable. Chanel is a driven, demanding woman who was uncompromising in her vision and in the sense that she knew her place as arguably the most important creator of style in the 20th century; nearly single-handedly she changed the idea of what was feminine and her Little Black Dress remains a mainstay for any woman’s wardrobe to this day.

Stravinsky comes off as aloof, arrogant and self-promoting. He, like Chanel, was perfectly aware of the musical revolution he was creating and was, like Chanel, driven to be the one to lead that revolution. Both of them seemed outwardly perfect for one another, although with egos that almost guaranteed that once the passion ran its course there was no way they could continue any sort of relationship.

Mikkelsen certainly resembles Stravinsky facially with his angular bone structure and heavy-lidded eyes. The composer is rarely given opportunity to show any emotion except to his wife and mistress. He had children but is rarely shown displaying any fatherly emotions. It’s not what I’d call a gripping performance, although Mikkelsen is certainly a capable actor; I’d describe it more as restrained.

Mouglalis is certainly beautiful as Chanel herself was; I’m not sure she truly captures the force of personality that Chanel possessed but she certainly tries; in defense of Mouglalis I’m not sure anyone could as Coco Chanel was by all accounts an extraordinary woman who simply dominated every room she ever entered. She was as much a force of nature as a human being and Mouglalis gives some indication of that aspect of her. When it comes to displaying her more human side, well, it doesn’t quite necessarily work.

The character who engenders the most sympathy is Katarina and Morozova nearly steals the show. While she is being cuckolded, she is certainly no fool and is perfectly aware of what’s happening around her. She alone understands Stravinsky’s music and his needs for acceptance and adoration; even though mostly bedridden due to her affliction, she spends an enormous amount of time transcribing the composer’s work. She is strong, never self-pitying and is enormously protective not only of her children, but also of her husband in subtle ways. It’s a wonderful performance and Morozova may well be an actress to watch out for.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of not only recreating the disastrous premiere of The Rite of Spring (based on meticulous research) but also of creating Bel Respiro, which no longer exists and for which few images remain. The set design is sumptuous and certainly indicative of its time, the beginnings of Art Deco. Many of Chanel’s designs are used in the women’s costumes and this is as good-looking a production as you’re likely to see.

What I would have liked to have seen more of however is the hearts of the two icons. This is almost an intellectual exercise as we are shown how the two influenced one another. We see precious little of the souls of the artists other than what can be gleaned from their works, which might be the truest insights to their souls in any case. For a tale of a passionate affair, there is surprisingly little passion (although the sex scenes are somewhat heated, they are oddly un-sexy). I suppose that this isn’t really a love story, but still – I needed to have my feelings stimulated as well as my intellect and that just didn’t happen here. Be that as it may, this is still a worthwhile film to watch although those who think PBS is too highbrow may not agree.

WHY RENT THIS: A meticulous recreation of the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. Sumptuous set design.  Fine performances by leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly cool and emotionless. Appeals more to the head than the heart. Neither Chanel nor Stravinsky are easy to like.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality, including some fairly graphic sex and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Mouglalis appeared in several Chanel ads before being cast as Coco. Chanel (and their then-chief designer Karl Lagerfeld) gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to their archives and Chanel’s apartment in Paris.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget; sounds like a likely box office profit was made.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: First Position

Killer Elite


Killer Elite

A couple of dusty badasses.

(2011) Action Thriller (Open Road) Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Yvonne Strahovski, Dominic Purcell, Aden Young, Ben Mendelsohn, Lachy Hulme, Firass Dirani, Grant Bowler, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Rodney Afif, Michael Dorman. Directed by Gary McKendry

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so it is said. There is also a saying that if you seek revenge, you’re also seeking your own death.

Danny Bryce (Statham) is a member of the British Special Air Services (SAS), one of the elite forces of counter-espionage in the world, right up there with the Israeli MOSSAD and the U.S. Army Rangers/Navy Seals. He works on a team with his mentor Hunter (De Niro) and general fixer Davies (Purcell). While on assignment in Mexico, Danny inadvertently kills his target in front of his young son. Disgusted by his own actions, he decides to quit the game.

Some years later, Danny – now living in Australia and romancing local farmer Anne (Strahovski) gets a letter essentially informing him that Hunter has been captured and airline tickets are sent. Danny is met in some Godforsaken Middle Eastern country by Agent (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a travel agent and middleman for mercenaries.

It turns out that Hunter had taken a job for Sheikh Amr (Afif) who at one time had ruled Oman. He had been deposed, mostly due to the efforts of the British SAS who had also been responsible for the death of three of his sons. Now that the Sheikh is dying, he wants those responsible to be brought to justice (i.e. killed) and their confessions taped. Oh, and their deaths must look like accidents. If Danny fails to do this or the Sheikh dies before all three men are killed, the Sheikh’s remaining son (Dirani) will execute Hunter.

Throwing a monkey wrench into the proceedings is another former SAS agent, Spike Logan (Owen) who works at the behest of a secret society of other former SAS agents known as the Feathermen, because as one dryly informs him, their touch is as light as a feather, meaning they kill subtly and without announcing their presence. All three of the targets are members and when Harris (Hulme), the first name on the list is killed, a war is literally underway between Danny and his team (which includes Davies) and Logan and the Feathermen – with political ramifications that neither Logan and Danny have any clue about.

This is reportedly based on a true story; the producers say that both in the advertising for the movie and in the movie itself. This should be taken with a grain of salt. The author of the original, Ranulph Fiennes (who is played in the movie by Dion Mills in a small role) claims first-hand knowledge of the events and called the book he wrote on the subject (“The Feathermen” which he dubbed “factional” as a blurring of fact and fiction and which the movie is listed as “inspired by) although there has been much controversy as to whether his story was cut from whole cloth.

To me that is less important as to whether the story captures the attention of the viewers. To a certain extent, this one does, although some of the ins and outs seem unnecessary and vague. In fact, there are a whole lot of twists involving the various factions – the British government, the Feathermen, Danny’s group. At times I found myself simply noting and disregarding.

This is Jason Statham’s movie, which is a good and bad thing. Statham has an enormous charisma and of all the action heroes working today might well be the most likable. He has some limitations as an actor – at least, he hasn’t been pushed yet to exceed the range he’s displayed thus far – but what he does do he does well and he’s never better at it than he is here. He’s tough, he’s remorseless and he isn’t exactly a chatterbox. He’s also fiercely loyal and will walk through fire for a friend.

Owen is also a very likable actor and when he’s on his game, he’s as good as anyone. Unfortunately this isn’t one of his better parts; the character is written in kind of a scattershot fashion and for a brilliant strategist he is a little slow on the uptake. De Niro is sort of an afterthought, here more or less for marquee value; he more or less phones it in. Yvonne Strahovski from TV’s “Chuck” gets to use her native Australian accent in a fairly mundane role; there are brighter and better parts in store for her than this.

This is a pretty basic and entertaining action thriller but it certainly is flawed. It isn’t going to alter your perception or even stay long in your memory once you’ve seen it, but it will keep you entertained for the time you’re watching it and there could be worse testimonials than that.

REASONS TO GO: Some awesome action sequences and Statham at his best.

REASONS TO STAY: Nolan and De Niro are both almost afterthoughts. Some of the period look is jarring.

FAMILY VALUES: Very strong violence, lots of bad words and some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sir Ranulph Fiennes, author of the book this is based on, is cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s greatest living explorer.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the action sequences will be more impressive on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

Bringing Out the Dead


Bringing Out the Dead

Nicolas Cage performs triage on his career.

(1999) Drama (Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Marc Anthony, Mary Beth Hurt, Cliff Curtis, Nestor Serrano, Aida Turturro, Sonja Sohn, Cynthia Roman, Afemo Omilami. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. OK, that’s true for a lot of people – Scorsese is quite frankly one of the most accomplished directors ever. He knows the streets of New York City like nobody else. Whereas Woody Allen is uptown Manhattan, Scorsese is the lower Bronx. He can take murderers and junkies and make them compelling.

Bringing Out the Dead is about a burned-out New York EMS technician named Frank (Cage), who during the course of a hot, humid weekend, hopes to save a life and somehow find redemption from the ghosts that haunt him, particularly one named Rose, a street urchin who died while under his care.

During the first night, he and his larger-than-life partner (Goodman) haul in a coronary patient barely clinging to life. Frank finds himself drawn to the estranged daughter (Arquette) of the dying man, an oddly vulnerable woman with many complex layers. As the weekend progresses, Frank encounters junkies, drunks, gang bangers, victims, drug dealers, predators and criminals of all sorts.

Frank longs to be put out of his misery and tries his very best to get fired, turning to alcohol as the only way to ease his pain. Over the course of the weekend, he rides with a variety of partners, including the Bible-thumping lady-killer Marcus (Rhames) and on the final night, his psychotic ex-partner (Sizemore). He drifts through the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, struggling to avoid drowning himself.

Scorsese’s visual style carries the movie, using light and shadow to delineate Frank’s fall from grace and his attempt to rise above. Nobody uses motion and color like Scorsese, and he uses it well here.

Unfortunately, Paul Schrader’s script (Schrader and Scorsese previously collaborated on Taxi Driver) is scattershot, ill-plotted and occasionally pointless. I suppose the story is meant to reflect the pointlessness of life in the underbelly of a city where death and despair are constant companions. However, exorcising our demons is not just a matter of forgiveness; it requires faith and good timing too. When Frank encounters Rose for the last time, I found myself screaming at the screen “I get it, I get it already!!!!!!”

Cage was at a point in his career when he made this where he was still respected as an actor although he seems to be the butt of many late night talk show host jokes these days. His eyes here are sad, world-weary and expressive; it wasn’t his best performance ever but it might well make his all-time top ten. He gets to work off of a variety of foils for whom Sizemore and Goodman seem to be the most memorable. Arquette is luminous as Cage’s love interest.

Frank looks at the world through desperate eyes, seeking some kind of miracle in the muck. That he finds saintliness amid the squalor is a testament to his faith. That I watched the movie to its conclusion is a testament of my faith in Scorsese. Sadly, my faith was unrewarded, and I have to tell you that if you need a fix of Scorsese, go rent Casino, Goodfellas or The Departed instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Martin Scorsese – that should be enough. One of Cage’s best all-time performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unsatisfying and often meandering plot line serves to emphasize the story’s points a little too much.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, enough bad language to make anybody blush and a goodly amout of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There are two dispatchers heard in the movie, one male and one female. The male dispatcher’s voice is Scorsese; the female’s is rapper Queen Latifah, who would later go on to fame as an actress in her own right. This is also the last movie to be released on laserdisc.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.8M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a commercial flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Creature

Bicentennial Man


Bicentennial Man

I wouldn't say that Robin WIlliams is a bit stiff in this role but...

(1999) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root. Directed by Chris Columbus

One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov’s robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.

Bicentennial Man opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot (Williams). Their youngest daughter (Eisenberg, a moppet best known for a series of Pepsi ads at the time) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces “android.” Andrew’s arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze), but he gradually works his way into the family’s heart.

After the eldest’s attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love. Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie’s title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family. His creators at NorthAm Robotics take a skeptical approach but eventually the uniqueness of Andrew leads to a whole different relationship between creators and creation.

Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always – what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, he wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would have surprised me if Williams had gotten an Oscar nod given the Academy’s feelings about science-fiction in general, but one would have been richly deserved here – in my humble opinion, his work in this movie was at least as good if not better than the role he did win the statuette for in Good Morning, Vietnam.

There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. A scene near the end when the nearly immortal Andrew chooses humanity and love over eternity is a heartstring puller. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.

The ever-dependable Neill gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and conscience and Embeth Davidtz who plays Andrew’s love interests in two separate generations does a good job. Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist as well but as noted earlier, this is Robin Williams’ show and he shines. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic. This visual flair would serve him well shortly after this was made as he launched the Harry Potter series, his hiring for that job largely based on his work here.

Bicentennial Man is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question – What does it mean to be human? – and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by Bicentennial Man that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar calibre performance by Williams and solid support by Platt, Neill and Davidtz. Wonderful cityscapes and believable futuristic homes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp just a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The headquarters of NorthAm Robotics is actually the world headquarters of Oracle Systems in Redwood Shores.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.4M on a $100M production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes