Road to Perdition


Road to Perdition(2002) Gangster Drama (DreamWorks) Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker, Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Darlow, Maureen Gallagher, Kevin Chamberlin, Doug Spinuzza, Duane Sharp, Diane Dorsey, Harry Groener, James Greene, Peggy Roeder, Lara Phillips, Mina Badie, Heidi Jayne Netzley. Directed by Sam Mendes

Waiting for Oscar

2003 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Supporting Actor – Paul Newman
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration – Dennis Gassner, Nancy Haigh
Best Sound – Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, John Pritchett
Best Sound Editing – Scott Hecker
Best Original Music Score – Thomas Newman
WINS – 1
Best Cinematography – Conrad L. Hall

Loyalty is a commodity that is very precious because it is so very, very rare. It’s been that way for a very long time – we are an inconstant species, truly. But then again, the earning of loyalty is a very difficult thing; we don’t give it easily for a reason. And for damn sure we don’t forgive when that loyalty is sundered.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a loving husband and father as 1931 dawns. His son Michael Jr. (Hoechlin) has an unusual relationship with him; the boy worships his father and yet there is a distance between them. Perhaps it’s because his dad does mysterious work for the jovial John Rooney (Newman), who seems to be one of the leading men in town.

But John Rooney is no ordinary businessman; he’s a gangster and Michael Sullivan is his main enforcer, known far and wide as the Angel of Death. Michael Sullivan Jr. doesn’t know this; he thinks his dad is a cop, or a superhero. So he stows away in the trunk of his dad’s car when he and Rooney’s son Connor (Craig) go to visit someone for a talk, and that talk gets out of hand and Connor kills a man in cold blood, forcing Michael to have to clean up the mess. Michael Jr. witnesses this and Connor, not being a trusting sort, decides to kill Michael Jr. and make it look like a random gang hit. Unfortunately, Connor is a bit of a screw-up and manages to kill Michael’s wife Annie (Leigh) and his other son Peter (Aiken).

This puts Rooney and his former enforcer at war and Michael goes on the run with his surviving son. He appeals to Frank Nitti (Tucci) of the Capone outfit in Chicago for justice and peace, but Nitti, not wanting to get in the middle, declines. In fact, Rooney has set the somewhat demented crime photographer/assassin Maguire (Law) on the two who decide to rob John of his ill-gotten gains and then strike out on their own. It is a time of father-son bonding in a wild era, on the run from everyone and beyond the law. But when one is known as the Angel of Death, you know that the Grim Reaper isn’t far away at any given time.

This was Mendes’ first film after his breakout success with American Beauty and Newman’s final on-screen appearance (he would do a voice role in Cars). Both of those events tend to overshadow the overall quality of the movie which was a lot higher than one might have expected.  The movie was based on a graphic novel by noted mystery writer Max Alan Collins and the dark tones and overall feel of that work ported over to the cinematic version nicely.

Hanks went way out of his comfort zone here for a role totally unlike any he has played before or since. While one can relate to his protective father side, the cold and brutal killer that the Angel of Death is completely comes out of left field for Hanks, who has more in common with Jimmy Stewart than Jimmy Cagney. Jude Law also has one of his better performances as the twisted killer and crime photographer who takes crime scene photos of his own crimes.

Newman makes a final performance that is a great one to exit on. His urbane gangster is generous and full of Irish charm on the surface but is as deadly as a snake below. The relationship between him and the Hanks character is spot-on, father-son type stuff which of course makes the real son of the gangster jealous which is part of what drives him to murder the family of Michael Sullivan. This is also a very different role for Craig in his pre-Bond days.

The depression-era Midwest is beautifully captured here and photographed adroitly by legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, for whom this was his final feature as well (he passed away the following year after doing a short film). There are scenes of a confrontation between Michael Sullivan and John Rooney photographed at night in the rain which are absolutely breathtaking. Even if you’re not partial to gangster flicks, this is one of the best-looking and best-acted I’ve ever seen.

There are those who believe this is a good but not great movie and on that point I have to disagree. I think this will be thought of as a classic in the decades to come when the films of the 90s are discussed. At the end of the day, this is a movie that may be dark in tone but entertains nonetheless. If you haven’t seen it yet, this should be at or near the top of your must-see list.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances throughout, particularly from Hanks, Newman, Law and Tucci. Beautiful cinematography. Recreates the era nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More somber than most funerals.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The crime scene photos in Maguire’s apartment are actual crime scene photos from the era, some of which were taken by Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, the notorious photographer whom Maguire’s character was based on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD edition has very little other than a deleted scene that has Anthony LaPaglia’s performance as Al Capone that was eventually cut from the final version, but the Blu-Ray has two memorable featurettes worth getting – one explores the world of Road to Perdition in both the graphic novel it’s based on and the film, the other a retrospective on cinematographer Conrad Hall whose work helped make this film so memorable.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181.0M on an $80M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Bathgate
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: American Sniper

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Skyfall


Skyfall

As classic Bond as it gets.

(2012) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace, Rory Kinnear, Nicolas Woodeson, Bill Buckhurst, Elize du Toit, Tonia Sotiropoulou. Directed by Sam Mendes

 

James Bond is not just a classic; it’s a brand name for many of us. When we attend a Bond movie, we have certain expectations – incredible, jaw-dropping stunts, a charismatic villain, gorgeous women for Bond to seduce and exotic locations.

Within those expectations there are also others; gadgets of some sort or another, nifty cars, a haughty M, a title sequence with beautiful  women writhing about apparently naked, martinis shaken not stirred and so on and so forth. Mess with them and you are likely to have the purists come to your door with pitchforks and torches.

The filmmakers have no need to fear a mob after the latest Bond flick. As the film begins, a hard drive is stolen containing the names of every MI6 agent undercover in terrorist organizations. Bond (Craig) chases the perpetrator, a smooth hitman named Patrice (Rapace) over the rooftops of Istanbul and on the top of a moving train, followed by an inexperienced field agent named Eve (Harris) and monitored by M (Dench) and her chief-of-staff Tanner (Kinnear). It soon becomes apparent that Eve can no longer continue to chase the train and she gets herself to a vantage point where she can get  clear shot at the combatants but as the train approaches, she doesn’t have a clear shot. M orders her to take it anyway and Bond falls down and goes boom, off of a speeding train over a bridge and into a river.

Of course he survived. He’s James Bond. You could drop the Empire State Building on his head and he’d pick himself up, dust himself off, let loose a choice witticism and head for the nearest bar for a martini (shaken, not stirred). However, in his absence MI6 has come under siege. A bomb is planted in their headquarters. M is now answerable to a new Minister of Defense, Gareth Mallory (Fiennes) who is gently urging her to retire. The ever-prickly M refuses. She needs to find out who is behind this before she can go.

Bond is much the worse for wear when he returns. The gunshot wounds have played havoc with his shoulder, making aiming a gun a bit more problematic. He has become dependent on alcohol and has unresolved issues of rage aimed at M for not trusting him to finish off Patrice himself. Even though he’s clearly not ready to go back in the field she sends him there anyway and he follows Patrice back to his employer, a former MI6 agent named Silva (Bardem) with a grudge against M that goes beyond fury and reason. He is a computer whiz who was able to hack the MI6 mainframe and in doing so, set up a plan that ends with the destruction of MI6 and the death of M. But with James Bond on the job, England can rest easy. Can’t she?

This is simply put one of the best Bond movies ever; when Craig debuted in Casino Royale there was a sense that he was going to do great things in the franchise. After a misstep in the poorly conceived Quantum of Solace this is a gigantic leap forward. Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty clearly knows his Bond. The pacing here isn’t breakneck but it’s fast enough to keep us breathless but not so fast that we can’t enjoy the ride.

There are nods here to the Bond movies of yesterday with old friends making their reappearances including Q (Whishaw) and other people and things who I will leave nameless so as to not spoil the surprise of their appearances which in every case were met with spontaneous “Ahhhhhh” sounds from the audience.  

Craig is perhaps the most battered Bond in history; he gets shot more than once and is riddled with scars physical and psychological. Craig plays Bond with the cool of Sean Connery and the physicality of Jason Statham. The movie goes into Bond’s backstory more than any other has before it (the climactic fight takes place in Bond’s childhood home) in which much that is past is made to be left there, leaving the film’s final scenes to pave the way for the franchise’s future.

Dench is a revelation here; while Bond has never been what you would call an actor’s franchise Dench shines as M in a way Bernard Lee never would have been allowed to and turns the character into a force of nature. Makes you wish Dench would be given the vacant slot at the CIA.

Bardem, an amazing villain in No Country For Old Men, shows that he might very well be the best screen villain since Anthony Hopkins. He is scary and psychotic with a particular axe to grind; he’s not after world domination but merely to rid himself of his demons so that he may live the life he chooses, a life uniquely suited to him. It’s a believable villain which is made the more layered with his apparent bisexual impulses and a pretty strong knowledge of psychological warfare. Silva is brilliant, physically capable and remorseless; he makes a fitting adversary for Bond, one in which we’re not always certain Bond can triumph over.

This is definitely a must-see movie this holiday season. It has the epic scope that marks many of the best Bond films but a lot of the human elements that make it a great film period. Even if you aren’t fond of the Bond franchise you may well find something to love here and if you are, you will undoubtedly find that the movie treats the 50 years of the franchise with respect even as it reinvents it for the next 50 years, a neat trick that requires remarkable skill to pull off. Reason enough to celebrate.

REASONS TO GO: Destined to take its place as a Bond classic. Shows proper reverence but modernizes the series at the same time.

REASONS TO STAY: A few logical lapses and a bit too much product placement gets distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Like all Bond movies, there’s plenty of violence, sex and smoking. There are also a few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skyfall is the first Daniel Craig-era Bond film to use a title that didn’t come from Ian Fleming. Currently there are only four titles left from Ian Fleming-written James Bond stories that have not been used for the films; The Property of a Lady, The Hildebrand Rarity, Risico and 007 in New York City

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100. The reviews agree that this is one of the best Bonds ever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye

KOMODO DRAGON LOVERS: .A pair of these gigantic lizards can be seen in a pit at the Golden Dragon Casino during a fight scene.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Rise of the Guardians

New Releases for the Week of November 9, 2012


November 9, 2012

SKYFALL

(Columbia/MGM) Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Dame Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace. Directed by Sam Mendes

James Bond is back, and in an adventure that for the first time looks into the background of M, the mysterious boss of MI-6. When a figure from her past threatens to destroy the British Secret Service, Bond is put on the case in an ordeal that will not only test his loyalty to M but also may cost Bond much more than he could anticipate.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Spy Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking)

The Imposter

(Indomina) Frederic Bourdin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker. When a young 13-year-old San Antonio boy disappears without a trace, his family is overjoyed to discover him alive and well and living in southern Spain. At first all seems well, but nagging inconsistencies lead the family to begin to ask questions – and they are wholly unprepared for the answers they receive.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for language)

Liberal Arts

(IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney. A teacher at a big city university returns to his alma mater when his mentor asks him to speak at his retirement dinner. He gets immersed in the poetry readings, seminars and dining halls of campus but is unprepared for a precocious sophomore whose zest for life and sense of wonder awaken new feelings of possibility and romance in him.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including references, mature thematic material and some teen drinking)

Simon and the Oaks

(Film Arcade) Bill Skarsgaard, Helen Sjoholm, Jan Josef Liefers, Stefan Godicke. The scion of a working class family, an intellectually gifted boy, persuades his reluctant father to allow him to attend a prestigious boarding school. Once there he befriends a Jewish family whose atmosphere of music and culture whose son, yearning to do something with his hands, learns to build boats with his friend’s father. As World War II approaches, the two families will slowly merge in an effort to protect one another and make it through the war in Sweden.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

Away We Go


Away We Go

A young couple face an uncertain future armed only with their love for each other.

(Focus) John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Gaffigan, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider. Directed by Sam Mendes

At some point in all of our lives we are forced to grow up. Usually some sort of life-changing event is the catalyst – a new job, financial difficulties or impending marriage/parenthood. Whatever the cause, we are required to put aside the irresponsibilities of our youth and get serious about our future.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are very much in love. They are pleasant, smart people, both with jobs that enable them to work at home wherever that home may be. They live in a ramshackle house that is probably well beneath what they can afford. However, Verona is expecting their first child and that changes everything.

Further complicating things are Burt’s parents Gloria (O’Hara) and Jerry (Daniels) who they were hoping would help with the child-rearing thing. Rather than assisting with their grandchild, Gloria and Jerry are more eager to move to Antwerp. This leads Burt and Verona to the revelation that they are completely free to live anywhere now, but with that freedom comes choice – where to live?

This leads them on a road trip to visit various relatives and friends to examine the relative merits of various locations as places to raise their impending family. First is Arizona, where Verona’s ex-boss Lily (Janney) lives with her husband Lowell (Gaffigan). Lily is a foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic who actually does her best to convince Verona not to move to Arizona. It’s probably a good thing, too, considering all the dumbass legislation that has been coming out of there lately.

Next on the list is Madison, Wisconsin where lives a childhood friend of Burt’s, LN (Gyllenhaal), who teaches radical feminist bullshit (as far as I can make out) and has adopted a goofy New Age mantra that makes her a loonie of the first order. I’d say she’s a caricature but I’ve met a few sorts who aren’t far off from the views she espouses so we’ll leave it at wacko.

It’s on to Montreal where college chums of the both of them Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynskey) seem to be living ideal lives and at first it’s very appealing to Burt and Verona but soon the desperate unhappiness simmering beneath the surface for their friends comes boiling through.

Next is Miami where Burt’s brother (Schneider) is struggling with a wife who left him to raise their children alone. This is one of the more poignant of the vignettes, but the experience leaves Burt and Verona a little shaken. After all this, Burt and Verona are faced with their decision, but what are they going to choose?

Director Mendes made this hot on the heels of his last movie, Revolutionary Road which was a totally different animal. Mendes is known for his condemnation of the suburban lifestyle, which he has explored in movies like the aforementioned Revolutionary Road and American Beauty but this is a bit gentler and a bit more quirky than his previous movies.

Krasinski and Rudolph, both TV veterans (from “The Office” and SNL respectively) do very well on the big screen. Their relationship is totally believable and the viewer is left with no doubt that these are two people who love each other very deeply. Yes, they have a certain amount of indie film arrogance about them, but Burt and Verona are genuinely nice people who are a little bit more educated than most and a little bit kinder than most. If that makes them smug and superior to some, well I suppose they have reason to be.

The various location vignettes work with varying degrees. Janney and Gaffigan are a bit out of whack with the overall tone of the film and it is a bit jarring. The Miami and Montreal vignettes are the best, ruthlessly honest and brutally frank.

The script is well-written by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida who are romantically involved themselves. One gets the impression there’s an awful lot of the two of them in Burt and Verona (even the names are similar), so that may be why the film rings so true. Authenticity is a commodity that serves movies like this very well, and there’s an abundance of it here.

The truth of the matter is that there is always someplace better, but if you want the perfect place, it is almost inevitably the place where you’re at – wherever the one you love is, there is the perfect place to raise a family. Those who complain that there are no good romantic comedies anymore would do well to check out Away We Go – it blows all those formula movies right out of the water.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is more than believable, and they both deliver fine performances. Supporting cast does very well.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a bit too low-key for its own good; the one vignette that is louder is jarring to the film’s overall tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, as well as some foul language. For my taste, some of the humor is adult but mature teens will be able to enjoy this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Collette was originally cast in the Maggie Gyllenhaal role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on how the filmmakers tried to make the production eco-friendly with the help of a group called Earthmark.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: State of Play

Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road

In their latest movie, the only ship that's sinking for di Caprio and Winslet is their marriage.

(Paramount Vantage) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Richard Easton. Directed by Sam Mendes

We are all of us to a certain extent trapped by the circumstances of our lives. Our dreams are often casualties of the pressing immediate needs to make a living and a home. When those dreams die, often so does a part of ourselves.

When Frank Wheeler (di Caprio) sees April (Winslet) across a crowded room at a party, the attraction is immediate and undeniable. These are two young people who embrace life and are filled with it the way endemic to young people. Their futures are limitless, the world their oyster.

Several years later, the two of them are married, living in a Connecticut suburb. April, an aspiring actress, continues to perform on community theater stages, but we’re led to understand her performances are growing less and less outstanding. After such a performance, Frank tries to offer encouragement but in a way that hints at the cruelty that lurks within. We will later learn that the cruelty is the byproduct of his own desperation.

He is trapped in a soul-sucking job that he cannot stand. To make matters worse, he is working for the same firm his father did years before. He has become his father without realizing it. Their lives have become an endless parade of cigarettes and martinis, banal conversation at banal parties in a series of increasingly mind-numbing suburban get-togethers.

In desperation, April suggests they move to Paris. She could get a job as a secretary, or a translator at the U.S. Embassy while Frank took some time off to find out what he really wanted to do. At first, Frank is enthusiastic about the prospect, which elicits quiet scorn from their neighbors. Then he gets the offer of a promotion at work. He’d still be stuck in a soul-sucking job, but he would be getting paid better and isn’t that what the American dream is all about?

Into this mix comes John Givings (Shannon), son of Helen (Bates) their realtor and her husband Howard (Easton), a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life. John has spent some time in a mental institution and Helen thinks he would benefit from being around “normal” people like the Wheelers. It turns out that Givings’ mental illness had to do with speaking his mind, and as he does we discover that he has quite the keen intellect and a very detailed observational sense. He speaks his mind and the truth isn’t always pleasant. This provokes terrible fights between April and Frank and we see the façade slowly crumbling. As it does, the pretenses are stripped away and we see what the American Dream has made of this once-promising couple.

Director Sam Mendes also did American Beauty, a more modern look at the American suburban existence and this makes an excellent bookend to that work. This was based on a novel by Richard Yates, considered one of the leading voices of his generation, one of the few not bound by the conformity of the times. Mendes touches on that a great deal here; everyone is expected to adhere to a certain standard of behavior and any deviation from the norm is met with mistrust and unspoken derision.

Much was made of this being Winslet and di Caprio’s first film together since Titanic and its clear to see that the chemistry they built in that film (which Bates also appeared with them in) has only strengthened in the intervening years. Their performances are scintillating and multi-layered with all sorts of nuances that it will certainly take repeated viewings to uncover completely. There is love between this couple, most certainly; there is also as it turns out much hatred as well. This is the kind of relationship that is prevalent in a lot of marriages (fortunately not mine) in which the passions are so extreme that both emotions are there in nearly equal quantities.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe is so good, I’ve noticed that nearly every review I’ve read on the film (including this one), the reviewer is moved to write in the kind of prose that is meant to show off our abilities as writers. That says a great deal about how well-written this script is, and quite frankly, how good the source novel is.

One of the best features I’ve saved til the end and that’s Michael Shannon. He’s in only three scenes but they are riveting. You watch this man in the rumpled suit that he clearly feels ill-at-ease in steal each scene and with his performance help fuel the engine of the story. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and would have certainly taken it home were it not for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hopefully we’ll see Shannon get more work because of his performance here.

The novel was a child of its times and in some ways that is a criticism; the push for conformity still exists but not nearly at the same level it did in the 1950s and those points seem a bit dated. Still in all, that’s a minor quibble, especially given the overall strength and power of the story.

It is sometimes said that we turn up the music in our heads so that we can’t hear our own screaming, and that is certainly true in this movie. Mendes has come up with one of his best works, a movie that shows the pernicious dream-killing dark side of the suburban experience. As armies of men in grey suits march from Grand Central to their eight hours of meaningless work, we wonder how sane we really are to buy into an American Dream which has, in this case, become the ultimate American nightmare.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Winslet, Shannon and di Caprio. A gripping look at the darkness beneath the suburban façade.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the elements (such as the push for conformity) are from another era and not really relevant now.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language abounds. There is also some nudity and some seriously sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Frank and April’s children are siblings in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 25 minute feature on Richard Yates, author of the novel on which this is based, gives some insight into the themes of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Lovely Bones