Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!

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The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

(2007) True Life Drama (Paramount Vantage) Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Will Patton, Sajid Hasan, Denis O’Hare, Aly Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Perrine Moran, Jeffry Kaplow, Ahmed Jamal, Demetri Goritsas, Mohammed Azfal, Ahmed Jamal, Imran Patel, Veronique Darleguy, Gary Wilmes, Jean-Jacques Scaerou, Jillian Armenante. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Our Film Library

On January 23, 2002, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal investigating ties between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Al Qaeda was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan by a group of Muslim extremists. His wife was five months pregnant with their son at the time.

The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is today a fairly well-known occurrence by most Americans. His wife, Mariane (Jolie) would write a biography of her husband which described their life together and the harrowing last days of his life, before he was beheaded by his captors on February 1 despite her many pleas for clemency and denials of the terrorist assertions that Pearl was a CIA spy (to this day there have been no links shown between Pearl and any intelligence agency).

The movie made from her book mostly shows Pearl through flashback in almost idyllic tones. Most of the film’s plot revolves around Mariane’s ordeal as she tries to remain as composed as possible considering the extraordinary circumstances as well as the efforts by the United States Diplomatic Security Services, exemplified by Special Agent Randall Bennett (Patton), the Department of Justice and the Pakistani Capital City Police, exemplified by Officer Mir Zubair Mahmood (Khan) to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

Throughout she is supported by close friends like Asra Nomani (Panjabi) and colleagues of her husband such as his WSJ editor John Bussey (O’Hare) and Steve LeVine (Wilmes), ultimately this is an ordeal Mariane must go through alone. That she went through it with such grace and dignity is a credit to the triumph of humanity over depravity.

Jolie delivered a performance that may be the crowning achievement of her career in this film. It was certainly Oscar-worthy, although the movie’s June release date and box office failure likely were the causes of her not receiving a nomination for Best Actress. She plays Mariane with a good deal of emotional control, although the scene in which she is informed of her husband’s death is absolutely devastating. There is also a sense of her concern early in the film as she has some friends over for dinner, but the place setting for her husband who was on his way to an interview remains empty; her glances in the direction of the empty chair are subtle yet telling.

Both Jolie and Futterman resemble their real-life counterparts somewhat eerily (particularly in Futterman’s case). In fact, I would have liked to have seen Futterman as Pearl a bit more in the storyline; after all, Mariane Pearl wrote the book about her husband and not about herself. However, the focus of the movie is entirely on Mariane and Daniel is almost an afterthought in many ways except in flashbacks which show an almost idyllic lifestyle between the two. Oddly, these flashbacks seem a little overly manipulative and overly idealized. Daniel Pearl is in many ways not present in the film that is ostensibly about his wife but is in reality more about his death. In my mind, that does a disservice to not only the good man that he was but also the work that he did.

That said, I found it troubling that the casting of Jolie was groused about by some critics who said that they found her celebrity distracting when viewing her performance. Personally, I think film critics who can’t get past the celebrity of an actor are probably not in the right profession. Every actor brings something of their own personality and experiences into the performance of their roles; if you are judging a performance by what TMZ is saying about an actor, you aren’t doing your job. But I digress.

Winterbottom adopts an almost documentary style in telling his story, although the flashbacks tend to put paid to the documentary feel of the film. After watching the film, I did feel that I wished I knew more about Pearl the man; those who feel similarly can get more of a sense of who he was should probably see the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi which tells Pearl’s story with some background on his life in addition to the story of his kidnapping and execution.

At the end of the day, what happened to Daniel Pearl was barbarous and undeserved. However, it also must be said that he was more than just the last days of his life – he was a loving husband, a dutiful son, a proud Jew, a skilled writer, an insightful journalist and a thrilled father-to-be. Looking at his life as a tragedy tells only half the story. However, one cannot deny that Mariane Pearl makes for an interesting film subject as well and Jolie’s performance is truly inspiring. I can’t help feeling however that the film would have benefited from more of her husband’s presence, rather than being just a memory. He was and remains more than that to her.

WHY RENT THIS: A magnificent performance by Jolie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Manipulative and focuses less on the late journalist than it does on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some horrific violence herein as well as some sexuality and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A featurette on the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists which rose out of this incident as well as a Public Service Announcement for the Pearl Foundation.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $18.9M on a $16M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The conclusion of Our Film Library!

Jack Reacher


A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

A picture guaranteed to please both men (big gun) and women (wet Tom Cruise).

(2012) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall, Alexia Fast, Vladimir Sizov, Joseph Sikora, Michael Raymond-James, Josh Helman, Susan Angelo, Julia Yorks. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

There is an axiom that when a solution to a problem is handed to you on a plate, take a look at the plate first. That is especially true when it comes to solving crimes. Rarely are cases open and  shut so when it appears that way, it is natural for a good investigator to be suspicious.

Pittsburgh is rocked by a heinous crime; a sniper has taken out five people seemingly at random.. The Pittsburgh police put this one at the top of their list, and quickly found enough evidence to put a suspect, one James Barr (Sikora) into custody in what looks to be an open and shut case. While being interviewed by Detective Emerson (Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Jenkins) Barr says only one thing – “Get Jack Reacher.”

The trouble is, they can’t find the man. He used to be a crack military investigator but after being discharged took himself off the grid. He’s a man who doesn’t get found – he finds you. Fortunately for them, Reacher (Cruise) walked right into their office. To their surprise, he’s no friend of Barr’s; in fact, he wants to put Barr away for good after getting away with a very similar crime in Iraq when he took out four civilian contractors.

The trouble is, he can’t talk to Barr – he’s in a coma after being beaten up during a prison transport. Barr’s lawyer happens to be the district attorney’s daughter Helen (Pike) and she smells something really fishy. She wants Reacher to be her investigator which would give him access to the evidence, something the DA is not inclined to give him. Reacher only wants to catch the next bus out of Pittsburgh but he needs to put paid to this and move on, so he hangs around.

As he looks into it, he begins to get more and more suspicious and the police’s open and shut case begins to look more open all the time. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that Barr is just a patsy and that sinister forces are at work as Reacher gets closer and closer to the truth and the man who set all of this in motion – a man known only as The Zec (Herzog).

Reacher is a character invented by author Lee Child who has turned it into a series of novels that numbers 17 to date (with number 18 scheduled for publication in 2013). The Reacher in the book is a hulk, six feet five inches tall and massive. That is certainly not a physical description of Tom Cruise.

The reason that Cruise was cast and why Child approved of it is that Cruise captures the essence of Reacher. Reacher is certainly a force of nature when it comes to violence but he is also whip-mart, super observant and a true student of human nature. He understands not only what people do but why they do it.

Cruise is in remarkable shape for a 50-year-old man. He handles the physical aspects of the character well and a scene in which he takes out five thugs in a bar fight is believable, which you wouldn’t expect from a one-on-five encounter. In fact, all of the action sequences are pretty well done. McQuarrie doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel and given that he’s a first time director (after an acclaimed writing career that includes The Usual Suspects) is probably a wise decision.

While the climax drags a bit (which is a bit of a drag), the rest of the movie is surprisingly good. Herzog makes a pretty great villain (he orders a minion to chew off his own fingers after messing up) and Pike is a lovely and radiant heroine. I had thought that the movie would be a pretty typical action movie but it does rise above, thanks to a compelling story and a smartly done script. One can’t ask for more than that.

The timing is unfortunate as the first scene depicts a mass shooting (the film was released less than a week after the Newtown tragedy) and so that’s going to color some perceptions. Those who were particularly disturbed by those killings may want to think hard about seeing this – at one point in the film’s opening sequence the crosshairs of the killer’s rifle lands and lingers upon a young child. That’s meant to heighten the heinousness of the crime being committed, although in this case Hollywood doesn’t hold a candle to reality when it comes to human cruelty.

REASONS TO GO: Tautly plotted and well-written. Action sequences are quite satisfactory.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie Jack Reacher is much different than the book Jack Reacher. Climax is dragged out a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some foul language with just a hint of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally titled One Shot after the novel the movie is based on which is actually the ninth in the series.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100. The reviews hover from mixed to good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Marine

QUARRY LOVERS: The film’s conclusion takes place in a quarry and the landscape is used to good effect in the action sequence.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mystery Men

Killing Them Softly


Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

Brad Pitt hits the streets looking for people to go see his new movie.

(2012) Crime Dramedy (Weinstein) Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Trevor Long, Sam Shepard, Slaine, Garret Dillahunt, Bella Heathcote, Linara Washington. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Tough economic times make people a little harder. They grow skittish at any sign of trouble; they are unforgiving of mistakes, even those not of your making. When people get scared, their tendency is to go into self-preservation mode with most decisions made on pure self-interest.

In an indeterminate American city (but looks somewhat like New Orleans), a poker game gets robbed by two masked men. These things happen, even while the 2008 Presidential election rages and speechifyin’ is underway from candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, while President George W. Bush tries to calm people down as the economic meltdown strikes, crippling our nation and casting doubt on our future.

Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate. You see, this poker game wasn’t just a poker game; it was run by the Mob and they don’t take kindly to being robbed. Driver (Jenkins), the go-between for the committee that runs the Mob in New Orleans and Jackie, is glum. Examples must be made but a bloodbath isn’t necessarily welcome.

It soon turns out that there are four people involved in the robbery; Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Curatola), the dry-cleaner and low-level thug who masterminded it, Frankie (McNairy) – who is Squirrel’s choice to execute the robbery (yes, Frankie and Johnny – cute, no?) – Russell (Mendelsohn), the Aussie heroin addict that Frankie brings in to assist and Markie Trattman (Liotta) who runs the game.

Now Markie is completely innocent; his problem is that five years earlier he had arranged to rob his own game. This is common knowledge and even though he had nothing to do with this robbery, the clientele think he does and they don’t want to play anymore. While the mobsters in charge would be satisfied with a beat down of Markie (and a fine beating is administered to him), Jackie contends that Markie has to be whacked. With all due haste.

Jackie is not keen on getting all of these hits done himself so he brings in Mickey (Gandolfini), a hitman who is having some personal issues not the least of which is alcoholism and sex addiction. He proves to be worthless so Jackie is on his own, having to carry out all the hits himself.

The movie is based on a book by George V. Higgins called Cogan’s Trade which was set in Boston in 1974. Dominik chose to bring the action to New Orleans in 2008 and there are some compelling reasons to do that – the economic hardship thread is one of the main issues in the movie. I haven’t read the book to be honest so I don’t know if that’s something that was part of the original novel (it may well could have been) but it certainly is something that the filmmakers hit you in the face with quite regularly.

This is a fine cast and Pitt does a pretty good job with the enigmatic Jackie Cogan. I like that you don’t get a sense that Jackie is invincible and smarter than everybody else. He makes mistakes. He screws things up. However, he thinks quickly on his feet and takes care of business and is ruthless as they come.

Gandolfini, a fine actor who tends to be cast in roles that aren’t dissimilar from his Tony Soprano role, has a couple of really nice scenes here. Jenkins and Liotta are essentially wasted in roles that they shouldn’t have accepted (yes, further career advice to professional actors from a blog critic – just what they needed).

The big problem here though is Dominik. He consistently throughout the film reminds you that there is a director and that he has an Artistic Sense. From the most annoying opening credits ever through a slow-mo death scene of which Sam Peckinpah would have said “Didn’t I do that already?” in scene after scene you are given odd camera angles, unnecessary montages, and other little tricks which is a director inserting himself into the film. Word of advice to any aspiring directors out there – stay the heck out of your movie. If you must insert yourself, do a cameo. Or cast yourself in a role. Otherwise, let your actors and crew do their jobs and trust them to tell the story without your help.

This is frankly quite a mess. It is destined to be Pitt’s lowest grossing movie of his career to date and for good reason; this is the kind of film that people walk out on, as several folks did at the screening we attended. Da Queen and I hung in there but we were frankly dissatisfied when we left. I like a good neo-noir as much as the next guy but sometimes, simpler is better.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt gamely does his best. There are a couple of terrific action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: A fatal case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a ton of bad language,  a surfeit of drug use, plenty of violence and gore as well as a few sexual references; fun for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Richard Jenkins character is never seen standing up in the movie. He is always seated in a car or at a bar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are surprisingly strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burn After Reading

BARACK OBAMA LOVERS: .The film is set during the 2008 Presidential Election and features a number of speeches by the recently re-elected President.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: Color Me Kubrick

The Wicker Man (2006)


Wicker Man

"Anything Mel can do I can do better, I can do anything better than Mel..."

(2006) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Diane Delano, Michael Wiseman, Erika-Shaye Gair, Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute.

The 1973 horror-suspense film The Wicker Man, which starred Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, was an atmospheric piece that depended on creating a mood to creep audiences out. There was little overt gore, but it still remains in the minds of many, a masterpiece of horror that is unsung. Only now that a high-profile remake is being released is it getting the kind of DVD release it deserves. So what of that high-profile remake?

It’s a bit different than the original. Highway patrol officer Edward Malus (Cage) is traumatized by an accident on the highway in which a mother and daughter burn to death and he is unable to rescue them. He is deep in depression, having overcome the physical injuries but still blames himself for the two lives he couldn’t save. 

Out of the blue he gets a letter from an ex-fiancée named Willow (Beahan) who left him and basically broke his heart. Now, she needs his help. Her daughter Rowan (Gair) has disappeared and she is frightened for her safety. She lives on an island in the Puget Sound called Summerisle, a privately-owned communal farm that specializes in honey. There are no regular ferries, so the girl must still be on the island. Despite misgivings by his partner Pete (Wiseman), Malus, being of no forethought – get it? – decides to go find the girl, deep down hoping he can redeem himself for the one he lost.

After basically conning his way onto the island, Malus is met by a chilly reception by the island’s inhabitants, a sort of Amish-like community in homespun dresses. After blustering his way around the island, he finally finds Willow in a common house, where the bartender Beech (Delano) reluctantly gives him a room.

As Malus investigates, things begin to get weirder. First of all, the women seem to be in a dominant position on the island, the men being relegated to menial labor and breeding stock. They never speak – I thought they had been made mute, although da Queen thought they were just too frightened to speak. He is having hallucinatory flashbacks to the accident, and sees visions that are terrifying. Most of the islanders deny the very existence of Rowan, but soon the stodgy Malus begins to find evidence that he is being lied to. A meeting with the Queen Bee of the colony, Sister Summerisle (Burstyn) convinces him that there is a secret that the women of the island are hiding. Still, he is getting no help from Willow whose behavior is becoming increasingly confused and dazed. With no phone service and no connection to the outside world, Malus realizes he is alone in a very dangerous situation.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided to take the Christian vs. Pagan themes of the original movie and change them into a women vs. men scenario. The result is kind of a severe anti-feminist backlash, in which earth mother-worshipping females, who in the real world tend to be nurturing and gentle, become bloodthirsty advocates of human sacrifice. Not only does the psychology make no sense whatsoever, I found the movie to be exceedingly misogynistic. There is only one sympathetic female character in the entire movie – a waitress in the very first scene. I don’t know if that was the intention of the director and the writer, but that’s the impression I got from the movie, and I don’t think I was alone in that feeling.

As if that isn’t bad enough, LaBute – who also wrote the screenplay – is guilty of some poor writing. There are many unnecessary plot contrivances that just leave you with a frustrating feeling of trying to figure out why they bothered to include that thread in the movie. For example, the fate of the pilot who transports Cage to the island is unnecessary except to provide a gross-out moment late in the movie. Once Cage is on the island, the pilot is no longer needed and should have been allowed to remain offscreen. Also, the climactic confrontation between Malus and the colony is drawn out too long and the plot “twist” is easily seen from miles away. Once you know what is coming, the movie takes way too long to get there. 

One thing I was glad to see was that the character of Malus was not some sort of supersleuth. A patrol officer with ambitions towards being a detective, he blusters and stumbles his way through the investigation, preferring the blunt force trauma method of investigating over the finesse method with predictable results. He is not a brilliant man, but an obsessed one with an increasing undercurrent of desperation. Still, I thought that while Cage did a credible job, he was clearly wrong for the role. This is one of the few times I’ve ever gotten a sense from him that he didn’t really have a clear handle on what the character was all about.

While it is very much Cage’s movie, he doesn’t get a lot of help from the supporting cast. Burstyn overacts like she doesn’t get out much anymore so she needs to show off every acting chop she has and Beahan gets so increasingly dazed and confused that by the end of the movie you aren’t taking her character seriously at all. Sobieski is good in her role as a straight-to-the-point kinda sister, but is ultimately wasted. I was reminded, however, of how good she can be in the right role. This one reminded me for some reason of her work in Eyes Wide Shut although I couldn’t tell you why.

Beautifully photographed in British Columbia, there are some nifty sequences (such as the accident at the beginning of the film) but in the end, this is a disappointing movie. I can’t decide if it’s a horror movie that isn’t scary, a suspense movie that has no suspense or a thriller that isn’t thrilling. Any way you slice it this isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT IT: Some nice cinematography and one of Cage’s best over-the-top scenes of his over-the-top career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage is miscast, most of the supporting cast isn’t of much help and the script is oddly misogynistic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some intensely disturbing imagery and scenes of violence. There is also a smattering of nasty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the police station scene early in the movie, there is a missing persons poster with a picture of actor Edward Woodward, who played the lead role in the 1973 original.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an alternate ending that is far more violent and close-ended than what appeared in the film that is superior in every way to how the original release was ended (at the insistence of the studio according to the commentary).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.8M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Little Miss Sunshine 

War


War

Jason Statham and Jet Li prepare to face off in the tension-free climax.

(2007) Crime Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Devon Aoki, Kane Kosugi, Luis Guzman, Saul Rubinek, Ryo Ishibashi, Sung Kang, Nadine Velazquez, Andrea Roth, Matthew St. Patrick, Mark Cheng, Terry Chen. Directed by Phillip G. Atwell.

There are Asian martial arts movies, and then there are American martial arts movies. Asian ones tend to be way over the top, nonstop action sequences with plots that are almost an afterthought, more of an excuse to move the story from one action sequence to the next. American martial arts movies tend to be grim thrillers with double and triple crosses, lantern-jawed heroes and more guns than fisticuffs. 

War is an American martial arts movie with a pair of FBI agents – Crawford (Statham) and his partner Lone (Chen) who are monitoring a Triad smuggling operation into San Francisco when all Cleveland breaks out. Gunmen have come on the scene and turned it into a war zone. Lone wants to take a closer look, but the more cautious Crawford wants to wait for backup. Still, a closer look might not be a bad idea, so they go in and encounter a great deal of carnage. When Crawford spots a single bullet casing, he realizes that this is the work of the near-legendary assassin Rogue (Li), who was trained by the CIA and then turned on his handlers, becoming a mercenary for hire. By this time, however, it’s too late – Rogue shoots Crawford and is preparing to deliver the coup de gras when Lone rescues Crawford and shoots Rogue in the face, apparently killing him.

But of course, in an action movie, even people who are shot in the face don’t die, and a none-too-pleased Rogue pays Lone a visit, murdering his entire family and setting his home ablaze. Crawford is devastated by the fate of his partner.

Three years later, Crawford has obsessed over bringing the elusive Rogue to justice, but Rogue has fallen off the radar. His obsession has cost him his own marriage, as his wife (Roth) is happy to remind him. Still, even without Rogue, Crawford has a great deal to keep him busy. In addition to the Triads, run by Chang (Lone), the Japanese Yakuza have moved into the area, whose boss is the Japan-based Shiro (Ishibishi) who sends his daughter Kira (Aoki) to prepare his American operations for his arrival. 

Chang and Shiro are blood enemies; Shiro engineered the massacre of Chang’s family in Hong Kong and stole millions of dollars of art and artifacts from their home, all of which he has sold save for two ancient miniature statues of horses, made of gold. Shiro wants to sell these last two items as well, but nobody in Asia will buy them now that Chang has once again risen to prominence. So, he decides to sell them in America. Unfortunately, Rogue – now back on the scene – has apparently switched sides, having left Shiro’s employ for Chang’s. This act alone sets off a chain of events that leads to an all-out war between the Yakuza and the Triad, with many innocents caught in the crossfire. For Crawford, none of this matters – his chance to administer final justice to Rogue is at hand.

Where to begin here? This is a completely wasted opportunity. Statham and Li are two of the most charismatic action stars today, but most of their action sequences require little of them but to snarl and shoot. The script is a hodgepodge of action thriller cliches and forced twists and turns. The only real interesting twist here is Rogue’s identity (revealed in the final reel); the ending is terrible and essentially reveals that all the drama evolved from one of the main characters’ completely out-of-character actions. This plot point is so preposterous that you can only throw popcorn at the screen and boo or hiss, or whatever it is you do to reflect your displeasure at movie theaters. 

Statham and Li were both coming off of terrific performances, Li in Fearless and Statham in Crank, but they seem oddly flat here. The whole movie is building for their climactic encounter, but when it finally comes, it’s anticlimactic. There is almost no fighting nor is there any chemistry. Interestingly enough, the two would spend time on the same side in last summer’s The Expendables.

Atwell is making his feature debut; previously he directed music videos and quite frankly, he has problems keeping the story flowing over the length of the film. The whole subplot involving Benny (Guzman) and the plastic surgeon (Rubinek) is superfluous and unnecessary, much as having both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” in the same sentence is. While on the plus side he doesn’t have the tendency of most music video directors to use endless quick-cutting and surreal or symbolic passages, he doesn’t really show he has an aptitude for action.

That’s not to say that the movie is totally without merit. There are some nice sequences with Statham and his FBI team, and Aoki makes for a menacing baddie but for the most part, this is just wasted opportunity.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice sequences. Lots of bullets flying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little or no chemistry. Plot is too cliché or overloaded with twists. Ending is preposterous. Soundtrack is barely listenable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence, some of it fairly gruesome and also a good deal of sex, some of it fairly gruesome.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title for the movie was originally Rogue which Screen Gems changed to avoid confusion with a killer crocodile movie that Dimension was releasing more or less at the same time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track and a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Miss Potter