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

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The Prestige


The Prestige

Hugh Jackman and Andy Serkis examine a field of light.

(Touchstone) Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansen, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Roger Rees, Samantha Mahurin, Jim Piddock, Mark Ryan, Jamie Harris, Christopher Neame, Ron Perkins, Ricky Jay.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.

A magic trick is much like a three-act play, with the initial explanatory portion (the pledge), the turn – what you might call the plot complication – and the payoff, which is called in the business the prestige. As wily old Cutter (Caine) says, “It isn’t enough to make something disappear. You have to make it come back.”

Magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) are both learning the craft of magic from a veteran stage performer in London in the late 19th century. Robert is a married man, whose passion for Sarah (Hall) is matched only for his ambition to be in the limelight. Sarah is also part of the act, but she must often act as a sort of mediator between her husband and Borden, who have become fierce rivals. When one of the most dangerous tricks in the act goes terribly wrong, a distraught Robert blames Alfred for it.

Time passes and Alfred, a great natural magician with little talent for showmanship, is beginning to develop a reputation and a following. He meets Julia (Perabo) and eventually marries her. They have a daughter named Jess (Mahurin) and as Alfred gets more and more popular, he buys his bride a home. Then, one terrible night, Alfred is performing his bullet catch, his most dangerous stunt. A mysterious stranger comes out of the crowd to assist with the trick, and things go awry for Alfred, resulting in the loss of two fingers on his left hand. The mysterious stranger is revealed to be Angier.

As Bordens’ fortune sours, so Angier’s soars. With the assistance of Cutter, he puts together a show that has the potential to be the toast of London. Angier is an adequate magician but a tremendous showman, charismatic and handsome. With pretty assistant Olivia (Johansen) urging him on, he is on the brink of success – when a mysterious stranger who looks a lot like Borden causes another trick to go wrong, maiming an audience member in the process. Angier’s show is closed by the disgruntled theater owner.

When Borden returns with an astonishing trick that neither Angier nor Cutter can figure out, Angier does his best to replicate it, but his attempts are exposed to a bemused audience by Borden. Humiliated and furious, Angier leaves London to find out the secret of the trick. He sends Olivia to work for Borden as a spy and she manages to retrieve Borden’s diary. Scorned and feeling used, she leaves Angier for Borden, creating an untenable situation for Borden’s wife.

Cracking the diary’s cipher, Angier travels to America to meet with the great Nicola Tesla (Bowie) and his acerbic assistant Alley (Serkis) to try to replicate the device that he built for Borden. Despite Tesla’s warnings, Angier persists. Finally, Tesla reluctantly relents. From that moment on, the confrontation between the two rival magicians is inevitable and there is no doubt that tragedy is certain.

As much as being a movie about magic, this movie is about obsession and the cost it takes on those who are gripped by it. Director Nolan keeps things taut and simple. Although there is a bit of a twist that arrives near the end (which just keeps on twisting, don’t you know), the plot is elegant in its simplicity. As with his previous classic Memento, Nolan’s writing is so flawless that no event is wasted, and everything eventually makes sense in its own internal logic.

Bale and Jackman both deliver performances that keep you interested in their characters. Neither character is written as a hero nor a villain, but with shades of both in their personality, leaning towards the villain more in both men. It is hard to root for either one of the magicians as they do some Very Bad Things to each other, but the story is so interesting and the acting so powerful that you just want to see where the story takes them.

Inevitably, this will be compared to The Illusionist which was released at nearly the same time and features a similar turn-of-the-century European backdrop and a magician as a central character. With a larger budget, Nolan is more reliant on special effects than the other, which is a bit of a throwback in feel and in direction to silent movies. The Prestige is all modern, a big ole Hollywood blockbuster, make no mistake.

What makes the movie work is that the characters are so single minded on their quest that they have forgotten what their quest truly was. In the end, they are just flailing away at each other, motivated by hatred, greed and the baser parts of man’s nature. It is inevitable that men who fall from grace so completely will come to a bad end. It is not unlike watching an auto race and waiting for that crash. You know its coming; you just don’t know when it will come and how bad it will be when it gets there.

WHY RENT THIS: Nolan ratchets up the tension and Bale and Jackman do some fine movie star-style work. A fascinating look at the inner workings of a magician’s trade.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to root for either of the leads, who behave very badly towards one another. The McGuffin of Tesla’s machine stretches the line of credibility a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing imagery and violence, but definitely fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Christian Bale played DC Comics’ Batman; Hugh Jackman played Marvel Comics Wolverine; in the Amalgam series in which characters from both universes were merged, Wolverine and Batman were mixed to create the single character Dark Claw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Nine

Deja Vu


Deja Vu

In the aftermath of a disaster, Denzel Washington works the evidence.

(Touchstone) Denzel Washington, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer, Bruce Greenwood, Matt Craven, Paula Patton, Adam Goldberg, Donna Scott, Elle Fanning, Elden Henson, Erika Alexander. Directed by Tony Scott

Have you ever gotten the feeling that you’ve seen a movie before, even as you’re watching it for the first time? It’s not necessarily something a filmmaker wants their audience to feel, but sometimes there’s no help for it.

It’s Fat Tuesday in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the Algiers ferry bound for the Crescent City is full of sailors and partygoers bound and determined to have a great time. Not too far into the voyage, a car on the ferry explodes, setting off a chain reaction and a second, more damaging explosion and the Ferry goes down to the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain. The catastrophe kills men, women and children in a city which is already reeling from a hurricane that has all but destroyed it.

ATF investigator Doug Carlin (Washington) is called to the scene to determine whether the explosion was a deliberate act. While the FBI, local police and other agencies are squabbling, Carlin – possessed of a cat-quick mind and the ability to instantly see the compelling evidence – quickly determines that the cause of the explosion was, in fact, a bomb, making it a deliberate act of terrorism.

Carlin’s style irritates some of his colleagues, although FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Kilmer) finds him amusing and impressive. Pryzwarra’s boss (Greenwood) agrees and when a burned body washes up onshore in an area that would put it in the water a full two hours before the Ferry disaster, the FBI and Carlin realize that the key to solving this mystery lies with finding out what happened to the beautiful woman (Patton) lying on the coroner’s table. To do this, Carlin is brought into a highly sensitive experiment that may allow a quick-thinking investigator like Carlin a second chance at seeing what really happened, but also change his life forever.

Scott and Washington are reunited for the first time since the two made Crimson Tide and the stylish Scott knows how to use his leading man ably, even though Denzel is getting a little bit long in the tooth for these kinds of roles. The premise of by observing the past being able to affect it is one not new to science fiction literature or movies (heck, “The Twilight Zone” basically made a living on just that kind of conundrum) and in all honesty, Déjà Vu doesn’t add anything new to the dance.

However, Tony Scott is an adept action director and he doesn’t disappoint here, with a chase scene that has the two cars in different time periods, with Washington unable to see the car he is chasing and being guided along by his team back at the appropriately grungy looking lab. The climactic scenes pitting Washington and his love interest against the bad guy (a very un-Christlike Jim Caviezel) are played with appropriate tension. A lot of directors could take lessons from Scott in that regard – it’s not as easy a skill as it seems.

Scott is blessed with a very talented cast, including the criminally under-used Matt Craven as Carlin’s partner – this is an actor who deserves meatier roles – and also reunites Washington with Greenwood, both of whom got their starts on the “St. Elsewhere” television show so many years ago.

To the bad is the one bugaboo that plagues these kinds of time-tripping sci-fi actioners – the tendency for the plot to get muddled and confusing. Scott trumps this by making his characters real and then casts interesting actors to play them – Goldberg is particularly nifty as a science geek, and Patton makes a gorgeous corpse, but also a mighty fine love interest. The resolution seems a bit forced, but then if you think about these things too hard you can get migraines.

I kind of regret missing this in the multiplex, although it looked just fine on our medium-sized bedroom TV screen. To be fair, this isn’t a movie that’s really out to break new ground. It just wants its audience to have a good time, and at that, it’s successful. If you’re looking for something to rent that satisfies your Jones for action, you could do worse than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice action sequences highlighted by some very big booms – gotta love things that blow up real good. The cast is top-notch. The climactic scenes ratchet up the tension.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot can be hard to follow. While tense, the resolution seems a bit forced and contrived.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and some sensuality but otherwise okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While the movie was in pre-production, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, forcing the producers to make a decision to shoot elsewhere, a move that director Tony Scott resisted. In the time that it took to reboot the production, New Orleans had recovered sufficiently to allow shooting there and pre-production resumed, allowing Deja Vu the distinction of being the first movie to film in New Orleans post-Katrina.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Surveillance Window feature allows the director commentary to be fleshed out with video sequences that may also be viewed separately.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Everybody’s Fine

Surrogates


Rosamund Pike is lying down on the job.

Rosamund Pike is lying down on the job.

(Touchstone) Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, Boris Kodjoe, Ving Rhames, James Francis Ginty, Michael Cudlitz, Jack Noseworthy, Devin Ratray, Helena Mattson, Jeffrey de Serrano, Danny Smith. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

All of us are the sums of our own experiences. When we begin experiencing things by proxy, how real are those experiences? What is the line between our humanity and our bodies?

In the future, most people are electronically linked to androids called Surrogates. These virtually indestructible beings can do amazing things, things humans aren’t engineered to do. These Surrogates live our lives for us while we remain in the safety of our own homes. Invented by the reclusive Dr. Canter (Cromwell), his company VSI had grown to be one of the largest, most prosperous in the world although Canter had long since parted ways with them.

Tom Greer (Willis) works as an FBI agent. He and his partner Lorene Peters (Mitchell) are called to the scene of a crime where a mysterious motorcyclist (Noseworthy) – whose name, we later find out, is Miles Strickland – caused a car to slam into a group of Surrogates waiting to get into a nightclub. Not much of a crime really – destruction of property. The real problem materializes when it turns out two of the Surries (Smith and Mattson) had been hit with some sort of electric feedback device, blowing out their ocular devices, their chips and, as it happens, their operators as well.

Greer realizes quickly that they are dealing with a homicide, the first in a decade or more. Although his boss Andrew Stone (Kodjoe) is skeptical, the evidence looks pretty incontravertible. Things begin to get really messy when they find out that the male victim was in fact the son of the legendary Dr. Canter.

Greer has problems of his own. His son died recently in a car accident and his wife Maggie (Pike) has retreated further and further into the world of her Surrogate. The gulf between the two of them is widening, and he doesn’t know how to begin to bridge it.

When Strickland is spotted, a chase ensues that leads into a human’s only zone – an enclave of Luddites that have turned their backs on the Surrogacy technology and live simply, following the words of a semi-religious leader known as The Prophet (Rhames). They are called, somewhat snidely, Dreads by the Surrogacy-plugged humans and not for their choice of hairstyles, although the Prophet has plenty of those. This refers to a perceived fear of technology.

Despite the ban on Surrogate presence in the Dread zones, Greer chases Strickland in there anyway (not that he has a choice – the helicopter he’s riding in crashes there after Strickland turns the feedback weapon on the pilot of the ‘copter) and his Surrogate is destroyed before he can get the weapon away from Strickland.

However, now Greer is without a Surrogate and has to enter the real world for the first time in a very long time. Vulnerable, terrified and unused to his own body, he must investigate this crime and find out who’s behind it before the weapon is unleashed on millions of innocent people.

The movie is based on a Top Shelf graphic novel. Mostow, who has a fine resume of solid action movies, delivers again here. Basically, he realizes that the technology here is just taking existing surveillance, communications and social interaction technology to the next level. Surrogates are merely physical manifestations of the avatars we use in programs like Second Life and YoVille. Beyond that, the world onscreen is pretty much recognizably the world outside our door.

As intriguing as the premise is, it needs a decent cast to pull it off. Willis has made a career out of roles like this, the imperfect cop. He’s not the superman who leaps tall buildings in a single bound (although his avatar comes close to that); he has an Achilles heel, his personal life is a mess and while he has great instincts, he doesn’t always get his man – at least, not right away. Radha Mitchell is impressive here. She is one of those actresses that don’t get considered for plum roles, but whenever she does get onscreen, you scratch your head and wonder why she isn’t getting that consideration. She’s a marvelous actress and as she shows here, she cleans up rather nicely too.

The action sequences are pretty impressive. There are two main chases; the one where Greer’s Surrogate chases Strickland into the Dread zone and one later where the human Greer chases a Surrogate through the streets of Boston. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition, and Mostow handles it masterfully. There are some special effects, but this isn’t a movie overloaded with them. Mostly, he leaves it to the make-up artists who do a great job of making Willis look younger (with a little help, no doubt, from some CGI) and the Surrogates look nearly perfect.

There are a few quibbles. I found myself wondering why the FBI would be called in on what was ostensibly a destruction of property call, one that the local police would normally handle. The next time I see some teens defacing our development’s fence with graffiti, I’ll be sure to call our local Bureau.

This time of year the multiplexes are filled with summer leftovers and movies that the studios want to get into theaters as quickly and as quietly as possible. Surrogates is a good choice for those looking for a newer movie with a goodly amount of quality that won’t leave you feeling like you just wasted the last two hours of your life when you leave the theater. In September, that’s about as good as it gets.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise handled well with some decent action sequences. Willis inhabits a role that must feel familiar to him. The world depicted here is realistic and believable.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of amazing effects for a science fiction film. There are a few head-scratching moments in terms of logic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence, some foul language and some implied sexuality. Suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scenes inside the VSI building, one of the video screens displaying VSI commercials shows the rotating head of a T-800 Terminator from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which Mostow also directed.

HOME OR THEATER: If you’re looking for a decent film in the multiplex this time of year, this one fits the bill. Otherwise it’s fine on home video.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Visitor