Saturday, June 30, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

“Live Free or Die Hard”

USA. 2007. Directed by Len Wiseman. Story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi. Screenplay by Mark Bomback. Based on the article, “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin. Starring: Bruce Willis, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cliff Curtis and Kevin Smith.

Rating: ★★★

The premise for “Live Free or Die Hard,” the fourth installment of the Die Hard franchise is really ironic as it is ingenious. Having a plot where NYC cop, John McClane must now battle against cyber-terrorists, the movie and its hero come to show that fighting the old-fashioned way with real stunt work is the way to entertainingly defeat the bad guys. And here I was about to write, “Take that, digital superheroes.” But in a way, McClane could be considered a superhero because he is a near impossible man to kill, as he climbs out of falling SUVs or hangs at the back of a fighter jet and jumps and slides down onto a bridge (with a tiny help from visual effects, of course).

Being a hero from nearly two decades ago, it’s interesting to observe how the mold of the American action hero has changed over the years. Think of the grittier movie and TV counterparts of recent years like Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer who talk less and just get down to business. I have to admit I sorely missed the wisecracks that no one delivers better than Bruce Willis as McClane. It is also highly welcome to see more old-fashioned, wild stunts with sweat and guts, in this age of overblown CGI.

The story in this fourth movie involves a group of computer terrorists led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who systematically shut down every sector of the government's computer systems from security and finance to electricity. Initially, McClane is simply ordered to transport a brilliant computer hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long) from NYC to DC government headquarters for questioning. It would be redundant to say that he will soon be having another very bad day, which may include trying to rescue his kidnapped estranged daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), killing more terrorists when not spouting taunting remarks to them and somehow thwarting the plot.

Director Len Wiseman knows the key ingredients of the Die Hard formula and polishes them very well. He has a keen eye for directing spectacular action sequences, as his Underworld movies showed, and he crafts one outrageous set piece after another, just as a superior summer movie should. In no less than ten minutes into the movie, we already have a gun battle where McClane rolls and shoots out a fire extinguisher to blast a guy out a window. My personal favorite is a fierce and then dizzying fistfight between our hero and Gabriel’s lover, Mai (Maggie Q) who shows some nifty martial arts moves. And that’s not even mentioning an insane scene when he drives and catapults a police car into a helicopter.

Of course, the most important element is Bruce Willis in his key, career-defining role and age seems to have had little effect on him. There is a reason Willis fits so well in the Die Hard movies and that's because his performance remains grounded and down to earth, despite the implausibility of the plot and the action all around him. Some may say that he is a little too self-referential here but that is perfectly in line with his character having fought scores of villains and thinking this is more of the same old, same old. At one point, when Gabriel threatens to kill Lucy, John simply says, “You won’t kill her because you’re scared of me and wouldn’t have any leverage left.”

All the other actors do a fine job and provide able support. Timothy Olyphant is appropriately menacing as the villain but when it comes to Die Hard villains, we know basically there is Hans Gruber and everyone else. The surprise is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as she gets some juicy moments where she refuses to be the typical damsel in distress and tries to own up to her father's reputation.

As for the controversy regarding this film being given the more commercially viable PG-13 rating (the previous three films were all rated R), the movie still retains the spirit of the franchise, which is in the gloriously implausible action scenes and McClane’s wisecracks and cranky amusement at the situation. Fans will notice that he does curse a lot less and doesn’t smoke but the intensity of the violence is still intact albeit with less blood. In fact, this may be the most violent PG-13 movie to date and it is a wonder the sheer quantity of violence that was considered acceptable.

All ratings debate aside, “Live Free or Die Hard” delivers the quintessential summer thrill ride and shows that the franchise is far more durable than any of the other sequels you will see this year. There is a scene when Gabriel says to John McClane, “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” Yes, but that, of course, also means he can take a licking and keep on ticking. As long as Willis is in on the action, I’m game for more.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Knocked Up

“Knocked Up”

USA. 2007. Written and directed by Judd Apatow. Starring: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel and Jay Baruschel.

Rating: ★★½

There’s a perfectly good movie begging to get out of “Knocked Up” and I wish the filmmakers had tried to find it. As his earlier effort, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” did, writer and director Judd Apatow attempts to mesh raunchy humor with a human relationship drama. Whereas “Virgin” treaded that fine line with very successful and humorous results, “Knocked Up” ultimately slips off the tightrope.

Like “Virgin,” this movie also has a basic high-concept premise. It introduces Ben (Seth Rogen), an all-around pot-smoking slacker, and Allison (Katherine Heigl), an upwardly mobile “E! Entertainment” reporter. The two meet at a bar, celebrate, get drunk and have a one-night stand. Eight weeks later, she informs him she is pregnant. Despite their reluctance, she decides she is going to keep the baby and they decide to pursue a relationship and perhaps marriage. They turn for support to Allison’s sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd).

I like the movie’s basic plot about two people who actually try to deal with the consequences of a mistake instead of running from it. What they have done is irresponsible but they try to make the best of the situation for the baby. Allison in particular is very understanding with Ben, who is not exactly a role model figure, as he loafs all day with his slacker buddies smoking dope and trying to start a website that will keep track of female nudity in the movies.

The first act of the movie showing Ben and his friends is frequently funny if a little politically incorrect and quite raunchy. Of course, a lot of the humor is based on shock value at the sordid comments the guys make. But they also make various humorous references to modern movies all the way from “Back to the Future” and “Total Recall” to “Munich” and “Spider-Man 3.” What I found interesting is the double irony Apatow shows in how much our perceptions and outlook on life are influenced and altered by movies. In a later scene, Pete comments, “Marriage is like an unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond.”

The film eventually blends in elements of a relationships and gender drama in the style of Nick Hornby. There are some well-written, genuine moments when the two couples get into arguments about what a man and woman want. Men need their camaraderie to do guy things while women deal with how they fear they will be less liked as they lose their youth. One of the things the movie suggests is the prevalent gender dichotomy, as when Ben and Pete are able to go to Vegas and have a good if decadent time while Allison and Debbie cannot get into a singles bar because they look old or pregnant.

The screenplay falls slightly short, however, in actually coming up with a way of reconciliation. The Nick Hornby adaptation, “Fever Pitch” from 2005, which delved into similar material regarding a successful career woman trying to understand a man obsessed with the Red Sox, came up with a sweet compromise in its resolution. Here, however, the movie seems to avoid an actual confrontation of the issues it brings up as we get the inevitable brief separation among the couples. I personally wanted to see more of a compromise happening between the two genders because that’s what true relationships are all about.

What becomes a bigger and more grating problem as the movie wears on though is actually Ben and his slacker friends. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” despite its surrounding, pervasive bawdy humor, had a strong and naive center in Andy Stitzer, who was almost driven mad by the rude antics his friends put him through, generating many of that film's biggest laughs. Ben, on the other hand, is part of the misogynistic slacker lifestyle so we wait for him to change and better himself for Allison. But the film seems a little too flippant about showing his transformation because it wants it both ways by simultaneously trying to milk more dirty humor out of Ben and his buddies, which start to wear thin after a while. The point only worsens when the last act of the movie intercuts scenes of Allison in labor with the slacker guys acting like jerks the entire time in the hospital lounge. That includes a rather distasteful nod to the documentary, "Murderball" where two of the guys have a race on wheelchairs acting like quadriplegics.

Comedic geniuses like Charlie Chaplin brilliantly married hilarious, innocent slapstick comedy with touching sentiment in the 1920s and 30s. I wrote in my review of Chaplin’s great “City Lights” that “humor based on lewd dialogue and bodily fluids really give us nervous laughs by testing our thresholds for gross-out material.” Perhaps it shows the passing of generations that humor these days is always crude and vulgar but meshing that style of comedy with drama can create an uneasy mix. Maybe it’s time for Apatow to make a movie with better jokes to accompany his human drama.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Greats: The Fugitive

The Greats: “The Fugitive”

USA. 1993. Directed by Andrew Davis. Story by David Twohy. Screenplay by David Twohy and Jeb Stuart. Based on the TV series created by Roy Huggins. Starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, Julianne Moore and Joe Pantoliano.

Most summer movies try to cover up the fact that they don’t have good stories to tell by having large explosions and car chases, perhaps hoping that numbing the senses will prevent anyone from noticing. “The Fugitive” from 1993 depends on the basics of great storytelling such as character, location and old-fashioned stunt work. The film is filled with memorable action set pieces and they are justly so because they organically grow out of the engrossing plot and the protagonist’s motivation.

The story, based on the cult TV series of the same name, is very simple and Hitchcockian, building on his famous premise of the wronged man who fights to clear his name. A doctor, Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) comes home to find that his wife (Sela Ward) has been brutally murdered by a one-armed man. The murder was executed with such precision, however, to frame Kimble in the crime and he is sentenced to death by lethal injection. When a prison bus transfer goes wrong and results in a crash, however, he makes a narrow, daring escape to freedom.

How he accomplishes this is one of the great action sequences where Kimble leaps out of a bus window in the nick of time before a train collides into it. There is the other famous scene where he stands at the edge of an enormous dam at the end of a pursuit and headlong dives his way into freedom. These sequences work despite their implausibility because they underscore Kimble’s desperation to fight for his life.

At his tail is Deputy Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) who has become one of the great pursuer characters in movie history. Before this film, Jones often played bitter, ruthless villains who would speak vitriolic diatribes to their potential victims before taking them out in a swift. Here he plays a determined man who talks and lives by his reputation to capture his prey and backs every one of his words with action. The brilliance of his performance and the screenplay is how, despite the amount of dialogue he says, he allows his growing realization that Kimble may be innocent to be reflected instead on his momentary pauses and subtle looks of doubt.

The film made Jones a star and also reinvigorated Ford’s career in his best film since “Witness” in 1985. Ford, even in his “Indiana Jones” films, doesn't really play the prototypical action hero like Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is the dogged everyman who is thrust into an extraordinary situation and must use his wits and might to accomplish his goal. In “The Fugitive,” he excels in playing a doctor who gets down, lays low and gets on to business without many words, deserving comparison to Alan Ladd.

The director, Andrew Davis, a Chicago native, uses the city in the best atmospheric way put on film. His camera intercuts the claustrophobic nature of the chase with skyline shots looking down into the streets to highlight the entire city oppressing down on Kimble as he tries to stay free long enough to prove his innocence. His and writers David Twohy and Jen Stuart’s story is also ingenious in the way it makes the logic of the chase consistently believable. Kimble is a step and only a step ahead of Gerard because both are intelligent men – the former, a man who sneakily walks unscathed in all the places he should be avoiding to get the evidence he needs, and the latter, who is almost able to intuit his prey’s next move. Through the chase, the fugitive is able to lead his pursuer to the real villains and prove that he is innocent.

It’s amazing to see how well “The Fugitive” holds up even after all these years. Released back in the summer of 1993, it went on to become a box office hit and then earn several Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and win one for Tommy Lee Jones. It is rare that a summer action thriller gets a Best Picture nod but this film clearly loomed tall in people's minds. To see a movie like this again is simultaneously humbling and saddening simply because intelligent blockbuster films like these are becoming ever so rare in Hollywood.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Once

“Once”

Ireland. 2007. Written and directed by John Carney. Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, Bill Hodnett and Danuse Ktrestova.

Rating: ★★★★

She is a Czech immigrant who sees him singing with his guitar at night in the streets of Ireland. She says she really likes his music. He says he sings his own songs only at night because he fears no one willl listen to anything other than familiar tunes in the daytime. She says, "I listen." He says, "But you only give me five cents." She curiously asks, “Do you do this for money then?” He shyly answers no.

They later go to a music store and she asks him to sing one of his songs. He hesitates at first but she offers to play along on a display piano. He teaches her the chords and starts singing one of his songs on his guitar. She quickly and precisely harmonizes with her voice and the piano.

If it looks like I’m just giving a detailed scene by scene synopsis, that’s because to describe this film, “Once” is to praise the effortless, unpretentious way with which it flows. This is a movie that simply washes over you like meeting a stranger and knowing that you have an instinctive, special bond with him or her. Think of “Lost in Translation” as a musical.

The writer and director John Carney not only writes superb, memorable songs for his characters and the movie but, with his cinematographer, Tim Fleming, shoots his film in an experimental yet authentic documentary style that is never showy or obtrusive. The camera lovingly, visually guides his audience to the mutual connection that the guy and the girl share, as in their first, incredibly moving number together in that music store called, “Falling Slowly.” First, it focuses on him for a while, then on her, and then slowly brings the two together in the same frame and rotates from his perspective to hers.

The guy and girl played so naturally by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are not given names because their inner human qualities and talents supersede how they are seen and labeled by everyone else on the street. They both have meager jobs – he, working in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop, and she, selling roses. But when they meet, they bring out their hidden, cherished love of music. Soon he is inspired to pursue a real career with his music.

Anyone who loves music knows that adding organized sound to words and lyrics elevates their communication and resonance. “Once,” in its low-budget minimalist style gets right to the heart by showing everyday people writing songs to express themselves. It also answers to the common criticism of movie musicals – the awkward break from reality to create glitzy, show-stopping performance numbers. The problem with most film musicals is that they step away from plausibility to deliver their songs with all-surface panache that actually gets in the way of connecting with the characters. “Once” is stripped of all that and shows our two leads singing about their pains and their vulnerabilities.

The hurt they share in their singing involves their romantic pangs. She has a daughter and a distant husband back in her homeland, whom she married at a far too young age. His songs are all about his old girlfriend whom he resents for cheating on him but cannot get over. Of course, when they make a connection, it is hard not to root for them to get together despite that neither is really available and the film wisely keeps it all sublimated, unlike most Hollywood films that have reckless, hedonistic characters movng towards a predictable conclusion. The most tender moment in the movie is when she leans her head on his shoulder after she reveals a song she has written herself.

They play more music, talk and walk while wondering whether they should move to the next level. "How often do you meet the right person?” the tagline asks. Only once, the movie seems to say, and that person and their inspiration will remain in memory to remind and strengthen. We only hope he or she will be one we can truly spend the rest of our lives with.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Away From Her

“Away From Her”

Canada. 2007. Written and directed by Sarah Polley. Based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro. Starring: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Wendy Crewson and Kristen Thomson.

Rating: ★★★★

Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” opens with a couple cross country skiing in the snow side by side. The man drifts away to a distance for a while but his and the woman’s paths eventually converge back and they ski on. The question is: how does the drift happen and can separation be mended together completely?

It is an apt symbolism for this heartrending tale of an old married couple who come to terms with the fact that the wife may be losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. This is the kind of story that can go for knee-jerk sentiment but Polley’s “Away From Her” goes straight for the soul. It knows that emotional pain is magnified not when people cry out in front of a loved one but when they can’t.

The movie stars Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as Fiona and Grant Anderson, who have been happily married for 44 years. Fiona starts doing forgetful things such as putting a frying pain in the fridge. They joke about it at first (“Don’t worry, I’m just losing my mind”) but soon she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When she says, “I’ve reached the stage,” he is reluctant about committing her to a nursing home, fearing it will be for good.

She eventually convinces him to bring her to a nursing home run by Madeleine (Wendy Crewson) with the help of nurses such as Kristy (Kristen Thomson). The nursing home, however, prevents him from seeing her for 30 days so that the patients can settle in properly. When he returns, she has seemingly forgotten him and is fondly attached to another fellow patient with Alzheimer’s, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). He persists by visiting almost everyday to try to remind her who he is.

A lesser movie would have, at this point, episodes of weeping and sobbing but “Away From Her” avoids every temptation to fall into that cliché. Instead, it is about how a man must decide how his lifelong expression of love may have to change at the face of his wife’s decline and readjustment. If Fiona is finding solace with a fellow patient and does not remember him, should Grant let her find her renew her happiness and comfort with another man or persist in reminding her of a love she may never recall again? He ponders this question along with Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis).

This is the first film for writer and director, Sarah Polley, who is now only 28 and has already been recognized as a tremendous young actress in the independent film world. The tutelage under older veteran directors in previous films must have had a great influence on her, namely Atom Egoyan, who executive produced this film. Much like Egoyan’s films, she gains real power in her material by showing the arc of emotional turmoil in a matter-of-fact, naturalistic fashion.

A character with Alzheimer’s is one of the most difficult roles to play because the actor must convey a sense of genuine mystery of what one can remember and how much that self has returned, if at all. Veteran actress Julie Christie is more than up to the task, adding subtle nuances to leave us in constant wonder of what she is thinking and suggest darker weathers of her subconscious. She’s also rarely looked more radiant, even in her 60s, and she has to be to express the youthful beauty that Grant fell in love with in the first place.

While Christie deserves wide praise for her performance, our real empathetic entry into the story is Gordon Pinsent as her husband. There are fewer heartbreaking things in the world than to see a lifetime of shared, loving memories become unshared and Grant must keep all those emotions bottled up inside. The camera often just simply focuses on his face and Pinsent’s dreary eyes and facial nuances suggest more sadness and yearning than a million tears could.

What finally supplants Away From Her its final, greater emotional Rubik's Cube is in showing how the Alzheimer's disease may not be the only cause for the drift in the couple. I will leave you to find out how that is, except to state that it communicates the truth that in marriage, women are more understanding of men's ignorant faults than they can fathom. He may be incapable of comprehending being away from her but that does not mean he is always thoughtful enough to reflect on it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fight Club

“Fight Club”

USA. 1999. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Jim Uhls based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf and Zach Grenier.

Rating: ★★

“Fight Club” is a movie that has been almost unanimously praised by critics and audiences alike and the question I would like to ask them is: what is it all about? Is it an attack on post-modern social conformity? Or is it an examination of the driving forces behind antisocial violence?

That is what director David Fincher and writer Jim Uhls probably intended the film to be. The film has been compared to movies like “American Beauty” and “Office Space,” both of which delved into the monotony of consumerism and office culture. It certainly delivers a terrific first act with the Narrator (Edward Norton) in a soporific state in a dead-end job.

What makes the movie tricky to put one’s finger on is what happens after the Narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Tyler is the leader of an underground group of men who want to live in a code of anarchy and pay to punch, beat and kick each other to take out all their frustrations on consumerist society. The way the director films these fights makes the film's message and its delivery very confused.

Fincher, who has made smart thrillers such as "Seven" and the recent "Zodiac," is obviously a great director who can captivate viewers with visually arresting images and breakneck energy. The problem with “Fight Club," which is based on the cult novel by Chuck Palahnuik, is that the violence should not be portrayed in that way. Fincher’s camera resorts to slow-motion shots of pummeling and beating faces to the floor as if the opponents are some noble gladiators instead of grown men having grade school locker room fights. I cannot comment on the source novel by Chuck Palahnuik , which I have not read, but, in the movie, the fact that the graphic violence is portrayed with slick gloss is what makes it most troubling and hypocritical.

There is no doubt that the film's narration makes some intelligent points against the tethers of a materialist and product-driven culture and on how it can drive a man to barbarism. Where the film gets muddled is in the way it tries to show how to go about dealing with its subject. Is the message, live in anarchy and beat, kick and punch others to let out all your anger? The filmmakers will say that their movie is a cautionary tale against it and that one should not really live in anarchy, as the film attempts to show in some dire consequences in the Narrator's descent into madness.

Then what are we to make of the violence and the fact that the film does not really provide a sound alternative to it? Reflect on this, if the average young teenage male somehow grabbed a hold of this movie (though it is not appropriate for kids at all), what is it that they will remember more – the supposed social commentary or the arresting images of testosterone-laced pummeling?

Of course, some will argue that it is us, the viewers, are getting a kick out of seeing the violence and the film is attacking our own enjoyment of it. But the truth is that the movie really is encouraging it. A more realistic approach would have avoided the flashy photography and shown the pummeling men getting their hands injured as well upon making brutal contact with their opponents' faces.

It’s all too bad because the movie itself is very accomplished from a technical standpoint with some impressive performances. Brad Pitt is often criticized for being just a pretty boy but as “12 Monkeys” and certainly this movie shows, he can act in whacked out roles with great conviction. Edward Norton, who has been praised as one of the best actors of his generation ever since his very first role in “Primal Fear,” is no less convincing as the man who finds his life turned around by Pitt’s character.

The much talked-about resolution of the film sets another problem though. I personally resist films that seek to illuminate a serious social issue at hand and peg it into a neat and twisty ending. Not only does the conclusion bring in all sorts of logical inconsistencies, but does it add anything to the story? I read that the author of the original source novel, Chuck Palahniuk thought of this ending about two-thirds of the way through writing his book. The story would have been more compelling and honest if it had kept it as a battle of wills and ideas instead of an undeveloped gimmick.

Of course, in today’s Hollywood, that kind of loopy ending as well as the slick packaging of violence is needed because that is what will draw in mainstream audiences. The humorist, Don Marquis once said, “If you make people think they’re thinking they love you. But if you really make them think, they hate you.” I doubt many people would have gone to see “Fight Club” if it set out to make them really think.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Half Nelson

“Half Nelson”

USA. 2006. Directed by Ryan Fleck. Written by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Gabriela Curnen and Karen Chilton.

Rating: ★★★★

Movies most often tell their stories in conventional story arcs with a clear, distinct beginning, a conflict, a climax and a resolution, which is why novels are adapted so often. Hollywood films unfortunately have the ever growing tendency to draw that pattern in such large quotations to cover up the fact that they’re just repeating old clichés for mass consumption.

“Half Nelson” comes as a powerful exception to all of that. It unfolds like a short story that intently observes human thought and behavior. Some may find the film too low-key but that’s where it methodically takes real courage, in being the antithesis of all those films that have quotation marks all over them.

The film’s protagonist, Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a junior high school teacher in inner city Brooklyn. We see that he is a good history teacher in the classroom, insightful and supportive of his students. His nights, however, are spent in drunken stupors in bars or drug-induced states at home. Everything changes when one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps) spots him smoking crack behind a stall in the girls’ bathroom.

Thus begins a gradually closer relationship between the two but the movie is not about a teacher who necessarily inspires the student to new heights despite all odds or how a student is rescued from violent situations. It is a focused existential examination of a relationship between a teacher and a student in an inner city school, without any judgment or the violent mean street clichés.

The movie also stands as an acute study of addiction and loneliness. Not the dramatic, drastic aftereffects but the slow, gradual downhill progression within the stages. His flames of insight and intelligence spark when he is in the classroom talking about history and the tides of change. But outside, he is weighed down by his drug addiction, which he can’t quit despite the somber, zombie-like existence it yields.

The habit only adds to the isolation he already feels from his inability to connect with the outside world. When he meets some women in bars, he drives them away by boring them with philosophy and history. His occasional reckless behavior even leads a potential romance with a fellow teacher, Isabel (Monique Gabriela Curnen) astray. He only grows lonelier when he finds out that his ex-girlfriend from his days of attempted rehabilitation says she is getting married to someone else.

At this point in his life comes Drey and he finds she may give him the opportunity to lead one student well. He comes in at a crucial point for her, too, a time when she may need a role model and a friend. Her father is absent, her mother works day and night and is rarely around and her brother is in prison for drug dealing. The secret of his drug habit brings the two closer together but within their disconsolate situations, who is guiding who and who needs more help?

Dunne certainly wants to keep Drey away from Frank (Anthony Mackie), a small-time neighborhood drug dealer she is friendly with but could obviously be bad news for Drey. Is he being a hypocrite? Perhaps, but his own lifestyle with drugs reminds him everyday of its harsh reality. He would hate for her to go down the same path, even if it means slightly overstepping his boundaries of his role as a teacher.

The director, Ryan Fleck co-wrote the script with Anna Boden, based on their original short film, and their expanded screenplay is like a master class in film writing. What most movies cannot get across in a thousand words of dialogue, they get across through small gestures and deep silences of intense emotion. People don’t always need something to talk about to feel a resonating connection and the movie understands this with grace and subtlety.

Bringing such an understated script to life is a hugely difficult task and the actors all excel in creating compelling and believable characters, made even more remarkable by the fact that many lines were ad-libbed. Ryan Gosling deserves all praise for his work as he delicately negotiates all the nuances of behavior and facial expressions in his character that the filmmakers need not translate into words. Shareeka Epps is equally fantastic in the way she plays a smart teen in such a naturalistic fashion without any of the familiar acting mannerisms in other young actors. The always underrated Anthony Mackie is also great as the drug dealer who does not mean harm but feels no compunction for what he does.

All of the characters intertwine in a final, silent emotional confrontation, which begs a crucial question that Dunne himself hints at earlier in the film when he imparts a “Do as I say, not as I do“ lecture to Drey. Is good advice unacceptable because it comes from a flawed person who may not necessarily live on his word? If what he says is really meant to lead us to do what’s right, is the fact that the teacher is not doing it himself an excuse for us to avoid following what he is saying? To answer yes to both of those questions would be to remove the inherent value of morals altogether.

Probing issues like that are what “Half Nelson” is all about. What the film’s implications mean and how deep it goes may not grow in immediacy but rather in quiet reflection afterwards, much like in real life.

Bug

“Bug”

USA. 2007. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Tracy Letts based on his stage play. Starring: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr., Lynn Collins and Brian F. O’Byrne.

Rating: ★★★½

William Friedkin’s “Bug” is a movie that will draw wildly varying reactions from audiences. Some will go in expecting what the trailers misled them to believe – that it is a horror film about tiny parasitic critters that crawl under one’s skin. Others will come out snickering claiming that the movie is plain ridiculous, in the same way they would if they saw a crazy person on the street. Yes, the movie is a portrait of the journey into madness, so compelling and convincing that it would draw the precise reaction of witnessing the real thing.

Fearless is the most apt word to describe the movie. The writer, the director and especially the actors are throwing all caution to the wind and stripping themselves of restraint or self-awareness. Their achievement is so intense and scary in the way it delineates characters descending irrevocably into the whirlpool of insanity and self-destruction.

The story introduces Agnes (Ashley Judd), a lonely bar waitress who lives without any contact with the outside world in her own rundown motel room. She receives anonymous phone calls several times a night, which she suspects is from her violent ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.). One day, she is introduced by her friend, R.C. (Lynn Collins) to a seemingly gentle man, Peter (Michael Shannon). We immediately sense that something is strange and off-kilter about this character but Agnes takes him in.

He talks about how his blood and Agnes’ room is infested with bugs, which have been implanted by the government to watch everyone like Big Brother. Agnes who has not had any real human contact or semblance of civilization finds him appealing and buys into the crazy and schizophrenic ideas he has. Soon, they begin to think of any conspiracy theories they have ever thought of and synergistically feed on each other’s paranoid delusions in the confines of the small motel room.

Tracy Letts adapted the movie from his original, critically acclaimed stage play. It must have been difficult for Letts to write dialogue that projects manic hysteria without making it sound silly. Much of it depends on the actors’ delivery but the script uses streaming, distinct monologues to build step by step the progression of delusional conspiracy theories leading to mass paranoia.

It is to Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon's their great credit that they are able to still draw instinctive sympathy within their absolute mad hysteria. Shannon’s character, in particular, is frightening but does not want to endanger anyone around him. His delusional thoughts will lead to destruction but he believes that he wants to protect himself and Agnes from the supposed bugs that he thinks will harm them.

As for Judd, there are very few actresses who can say a potentially silly line like, “I am the super bug mother!” and make it sound simultaneously pitiful and sympathetic. The way Agnes, who is haunted by the disappearance of her son and is feeling a need to be trusted, is convincing in the way she feels valued to fulfill that need with Peter and starts to see things the way he does. Because of how she and Shannon are heedless of image or self-preservation, we feel excruciating pain not only for the characters but also for the actors themselves.

The other tricky performance in the film is by Brian F. O’Byrne as the psychiatrist who may be a doctor treating Peter or, according to Peter, the doctor responsible for the military experiments that he claims were performed on him. He has only one scene when he attempts to stray Judd away from her delusions and he and his dialogue precisely modulate between his desires to help and having a quiet air of menace.

The film is one of the most accomplished from William Friedkin who directed such classics as “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” but lost his way with many flops since. His directing style here is spare yet impetuous. He knows that he has a story about claustrophobic madness and his camera narrows in progressively to reinforce the tightening quarters and the entrapment of the characters within their delusions.

There will be some who find the movie laughable and incoherent but how can one expect grace and consistency in a tale of madness? Of course, madness is nonsensical and will draw mockery instead of sympathy from some people. That the film is willing to portray insanity accurately at the risk of being scorned is what makes it so audacious.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Shrek the Third

“Shrek the Third”

USA. 2007. Directed by Chris Miller and Raman Hui. Screenplay by Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman and Jon Zack. Story by Andrew Adamson. Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Rupert Everett and Justin Timberlake.

Rating: ★★

Having seen this third part of my story on the big screen in “Shrek the Third,” I am more than ever reminded that I, Shrek (Mike Myers), really miss my old, golden days in the swamp. More to the point, this third story of mine is not something I think anyone else will find very entertaining or funny. Things were a lot more fun when I got to really crack jokes with my loyal friend, Donkey (Eddie Murphy), got to battle the giant dragon (who is now happily married to Donkey) and got to explore what it is like to be a dashing man. This time, it seems like a ploy to make one more movie about me so that the moviemakers can cash more gold pieces.

Now, as I watch myself reflecting on whether I will be a good king and a good father, I realize that these are really personal matters to me that others will probably find boring and the whole story, as presented in this movie, is much too patchy to be interesting to others. I am now even finding the fairy tale characters around me rather routine and repetitive and I think I could have come up with better jokes on them while I was sitting on the can reading old fairy tales for kicks back in the swamp.

My story here first starts when I find that my father-in-law, the Frog King (John Cleese) may be dying? What was wrong with the Frog King croaking on and off repeatedly to confuse me, Fiona and my mother-in-law of his status? He croaks once and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Mum (Julie Andrews) start crying, then he breathes again claiming that there may be another possible heir, croaks a second time and finally lets out the heir’s name with his dying breath before croaking, for real. Worst of all, I wish someone had shut up the frogs who were singing, “Live and Let Die” during his funeral, as that only added to my sour aftertaste.

Needless to say, I, of course, have no desire to be king and seek out this other heir named Arthur (Justin Timberlake). Just as I leave, Fiona breaks the news to me that she is pregnant. And I wonder, why, oh why did the filmmakers decide to insert that terrible nightmare I had where I find my swamp filled with litters full of little ogre babies? Don’t they know it’s awfully exaggerative to be considered funny or even serious?

So, when I finally meet Arthur or Artie, I see him defeated by jousting by none other than Lancelot and I wonder to myself whether he would really make a good king. He may claim that he could but I personally have my doubts. When I first explain of his royal prominence, he suddenly addresses the crowd that has ridiculed him all these years and lays down threats at what he’ll do when he becomes king, and I say that was overkill. Of course he has to give a long-winded speech at the end to look to oneself instead of listening to other people’s insults. Good message, if only his character had acted that out a little more to reflect it… Anyways, as long as I personally don’t have to be king…

Then I hear that the poor sob, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) is out to replace me with himself as king. He barges in bringing in all these villainous characters who believe they have been unfairly treated for never receiving their happily ever after, or should I say, miserably ever after. So they kidnap Fiona and all the other air-headed girls like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Of course, it’s all up to me to come to the rescue once again to be rid of his awful smugness and flipping of his hair, which, though, I have to admit is still quite funny.

Speaking of funny, come to think of it, I know my rescue adventure must have had more laughs than what is in this movie. Certainly I must have had more banter like in my last movies with my loyal sidekicks, Donkey and Puss-In-Boots. Sure, I find Donkey annoying very often but he also cracked me up as well and made for interesting company. Also, I know there must have been more ways for Puss and Donkey to butt heads, particularly when they literally switch places. I could have imagined more fighting and wittier wisecracking from both of them for sure. Puss-In-Boots does get a smile when he gives his adorably glowing wide-eyed look on call.

Fiona, her valley girl type friends and her mum at least become pretty funny, particularly when they in turn come to the rescue when I am in a bit of a foil. I certainly never knew that Mum could sound like Julie Andrews singing “The hills are alive,” when she gets in a bit of a daze after head-butting not one but two brick walls to get out of a prison cell. Also, the addition of the “Kill Bill” theme to the girls’ preparation was a nice touch, along with a tummy-aching moment when one of the girls literally burns her own bra.

But here is the weird thing, I feel that all the other characters have gotten the hilarious moments. I know I could certainly have been made funnier since I sound like Mike Myers who, despite that I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, can be very funny. Perhaps, the makers of this movie were feeling that I usually don’t like to be the center of attention but if the title has my name on it, I should at least be able to identify myself within my own story, right? The best thing I can say is that I at least look more realistic in this movie than ever before.

I am not sure I want all the attention I have as a potential heir to the throne but if I do have some popularity, I think I would choose to have just the first two movies made about me. Particularly, if my story is going to be made so uninteresting… And if I am grouchy about all this, here is something to remind the writers and directors of this movie: I am an ogre! AARRGHH!!!

Letters from Iwo Jima

“Letters from Iwo Jima

USA. 2006. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Iris Yamashita. Story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis. Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara and Ryo Kase.

Rating: ★★★★

Clint Eastwood's “Letters from Iwo Jima” may just be the most humanistic war movie ever made and that is not a compliment I give lightly. Many other war films have reached greatness by successfully deconstructing the individuality of the men on the battlefield who gazed into the inferno. But no other movie has pierced into the soul and really brought out so vividly the inner turmoil within soldiers who face the difficult choice between political allegiance and what makes us essentially human. All this Eastwood has done through the viewpoint of the so-called “enemy” from the American side.

Some may say that Eastwood is more successful at this than in his previous film on Iwo Jima, “Flags of Our Fathers,” because this time he tells his story from the Japanese side. However, “Letters” is so focused and intent in evoking human empathy that it does not matter which view it is told from. Yes, "Flags" is a very good movie about the American flagraisers who were turned into heroes against their will but "Letters" more vividly reflects the personal conflicts that men of both sides faced against the horrors of the last great war.

Clint Eastwood is a director who has just been growing better and more skilled with age. When many critics thought his career was on the decline with the release of “Blood Work,” he made the searing “Mystic River” to show that he is the master of spare and direct storytelling. He one-upped that movie with “Million Dollar Baby” and now he has made this. It is just as well that Eastwood has essentially made a Japanese film in the native language. His style of minimalist brilliance is comparable to the great movies of Kurosawa, Ozu and more recently Takeshi Kitano, which avoid extra padding and rely on long silences that run deep and true. Reflecting on that, it is no wonder that Japanese actors found endless sources of emotion under his direction.

The movie starts and ends with a bookend of a team of archaeologists who have found letters long buried until the present day. From these letters emerge stories of the soldiers of Iwo Jima who seemed to be cold, calculating adversaries to the Americans but really were troops that knew this was their last stand. Led by the American-educated General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, in a stellar performance), the soldiers on Iwo Jima were outnumbered and outgunned.

With a more linear approach than the somewhat disjointed "Flags", a few characters’ specific stories are brought into sharp focus. We meet Kuribayashi who is conflicted about his previous friendship with America. He never imagined that there would come a day when America and Japan would fight and during a flashback to a banquet held in America, he confidently says, “The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight.” He has apparently been brought to this island for his familiarity with American military strategies but Kuriyabashi knows better.

Then there is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) who is really our entry into the story. He is most conflicted about fighting in his war and is constantly haunted by memories and fears of not seeing his wife and newborn baby again. He is not designed to kill or follow the military code with clockwork precision and knows it. This gets him into trouble, at which Kuriyabashi, being a less stringent general, calls off attempts by the lieutenants and sergeants to execute him for insubordination.

Soon, some of the general's lieutenants start questioning his leniency and military tactics and stand against him for not following the Japanese military code, where dying an honorable death is more important than coming back home alive. In the film’s most horrific scene, we see soldiers following that code when they find themselves ambushed and, contrary to Kuribayashi’s orders to retreat, choose to commit suicide by holding grenades to their chests.

After a series of conflicts between the ideas of Kuribayashi and his subordinates, one key moment late in the film underscores the real theme of the film, which is to look past the opposing side as mere “savages” as the military has trained them to think. One of the leaders of the tank brigade, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is an Olympic equestrian and when an American soldier is shot and wounded, he orders his men to treat his injuries despite their limited supply of morphine. When one of his soldiers initially refuses saying, “But they wouldn’t do the same for us.” Nishi replies, “Have you ever met one of them?” A point the film implicitly raises is whether someone who had not been exposed to foreign cultures and brainwashed in broad stereotypes could have looked beyond himself and asked that question.

Ultimately, all the stories essentially arrive at the same conclusion: that there was little room for being human or any kind of greater understanding in the hellish place called war. What scars were left in them and others who gazed into the inferno are for present and future generations to learn from and avoid the wars that create divisions of hatred and destroy our humanity. Eastwood has been quoted as saying that the trait he hates in others the most is racism and with “Letters from Iwo Jima,” he has made a masterpiece about global understanding and not seeing the other side as just a group of "enemies."

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Disturbia

“Disturbia”

USA. 2007. Directed by David Caruso. Written by Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth. Starring: Shia Labeouf, Sarah Roemer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aaron Yu and David Morse.

Rating: ★★★

“Disturbia” has been billed as “Rear Window” for the teen generation and Hitchcock is not a bad suit to follow. At least it serves as a good alternative to all those inept teenage comedies that dumb down the average teen mind or the horror gore fest of the week that tarnishes it. It also means it avoids the sensationalistic exploitation of “Body Double” where Hitchcock’s long-time admirer (read: rip-off artist) took the premise of “Rear Window” to sleazy voyeuristic extremes.

Movies by definition make their audience into outside observers of a sort, which is the ironic premise that Hitchcock tackled in his classic thriller about the human curiosity to watch others. Of course, one could accuse director D.J. Caruso of merely copying the Hitchcock formula but his film smartly grafts it onto the teenage outlook of suburbia. It is to his and screenwriters Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth’s merit that the film works as equal parts teenage angst drama and suspense thriller.

The opening scene is a horrific car accident that leaves Kale (Shia LaBeouf) and his father (Matt Craven) badly injured, the latter, fatally. A year later, Kale is understandably troubled afterwards and when he punches his high school Spanish teacher in class, he is put under three months house arrest, shackled by an electronic device around his ankle that sets off an alarm if he goes more than 100 feet away from his home. He doesn’t take this too well and neither does his mother, Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss).

The film gets many details right about the monotony of teenage life at home, complete with the routine of playing X-box and watching TV for endless hours. When those hobbies get taken away by his mom, Kale, along with his best friend, Ronnie (Aaron Yoo), starts spying on his neighbors, including his new next-door neighbor, Ashley (Sarah Roemer). She catches on the two of them spying on her, particularly in her bikini at her swimming pool, but soon joins forces with them in their little amateur stakeout. They soon lean their curiosity on another neighbor, Mr. Turner (David Morse) who seems genial enough but starts seeming to match the profile of a serial killer.

So all the pieces are in place for a modern-day “Rear Window,” and the film wisely depends more on classic Hitchcockian suspense than on showing actual violence. Not much in it is really novel including Kale’s attempts to prove Mr. Turner's identity turning him into the boy who cried wolf but Caruso slickly orchestrates them all to a nice polish. The film also uses the premise to make lighthearted observations of current suburban life in between the tense moments. Kale and Ashley are obviously bound to fall for each other, but the screenplay underlines it in a poignant moment where she confronts him about why he was spying on her and he gives an unexpectedly sincere response about how his curiosity extended beyond her good looks.

Most people have not heard of Shia Labeouf but they will after this movie. He has a natural and unvarnished presence, unlike many young actors who look like they’re trying to act so hard that their eyes are going to pop out. He's playing a teenager who is troubled but not disturbed, smart but not cocky, and he does it convincingly without any unnecessary acting flourishes. The same goes for all the other actors who give effortless performances, including the always reliable David Morse who modulates his sinister menace with next-door neighbor friendliness.

As with most thrillers, there are a few convenient contrivances placed to get the plot moving along. In addition, some of the pacing transitions between the lighthearted and tense moments are a little abrupt with only the musical score as the clear marker to switch between the moods. When the frightening scenes do come, however, the filmmakers know that the buildup and the aftermath to a violent act are scarier than seeing the real thing in explicit detail.

It’s too bad that recent horror films don't take that too heart and simply exploit violent acts. Hitchcock famously said about the bomb under a table, “It goes off, that’s action. It doesn’t go off, that’s suspense.” This is an idea that more teenagers need to be reminded of so that they can be nervous about the bomb, instead of being desensitized and blasé about it.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Déjà Vu

“Déjà Vu”

USA. 2006. Directed by Tony Scott; Written by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio; Starring: Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg and Bruce Greenwood.

Rating: ★★★

Ah, the time travel conundrum… The dilemma that has driven many a scientific thinker and others who tap into the human desire to break down the fourth wall… Because no human has ever trekked beyond that fourth dimension called time, every book or movie about it is always questioned, even butchered for logic and consistency. But then, paradoxically, how can one criticize time travel plots for being illogical when no one has ever experienced it firsthand? In that case, why bother?

Having such a mindset is the best way to enjoy a movie like “Déjà Vu,” the latest time-travel action thriller produced by Jerry Bruckheimer that uses the conundrum to explain the titular phenomenon. Much like the horrific explosion of a ferry that opens the movie, the film is likely to set off a similar effect inside many viewers trying to get their heads around the plot. Trying to sort through the maze of confusing theories and explanations in the film is the kind of stuff that fan geeks will fill loads of discussion boards about.

Most action thrillers are vulnerable to logic and consistency gaps anyway so the real question for the movie is: does it sell its ideas well? That’s where the great Denzel Washington is here to save the day, literally and figuratively for the movie. Here is an actor who could play a stiff board and still manage to bring in gravitas to make it interesting and compelling to watch. He could, of course, star in more substantial efforts like “Malcolm X” and "The Hurricane" but in this movie, he’s just having fun being confused as we are in this convoluted but ultimately entertaining thriller.

Washington plays Doug Carlin, an ATF (alcohol, tobacco and firearms, including explosives) agent who comes to investigate a crime scene where an enormous explosion has rocked a ferry filled with Navy enlisted men and their families in New Orleans and killed more than 500 people. That he is an ATF agent rather than a typical movie cop is a nice twist because it explains how and why he figures out many clues regarding the incident that the average cop may implausibly discover in other movies. Of course, it is a given that an ATF agent is not in a Jerry Bruckheimer production to investigate alcohol or tobacco as a potential cause.

Carlin is soon informed by FBI agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) that the government has invented a new and baffling technology to look four and a half days into the past to investigate the crime. A team of scientists including Denny (Adam Goldberg) presents visual feeds to Carlin around the ferry and the home of a victim, Claire Kuchewer (Paula Patton) whose death may possibly be linked to the incident, having washed up ashore minutes before the incident. The search leads him to a crazed terror suspect, Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel, in a subtly whacked out performance), a self-proclaimed patriot who believes he has been unfairly treated by the government.

Needless to say, Carlin finds himself falling for Claire as he watches her throughout the investigation and has that strange, titular sensation that he has maybe seen her before. This crucial motivational element for him to somehow change the course of events is what Washington has to sell for the movie to work beyond the time travel elements and he does. It is to his and Paula Patton’s credit that they are able to squeeze in some subtle romantic chemistry reminiscent of that déjà vu feeling.

For director Tony Scott, this is a calmer, less frenetic thriller than his recent fare, which makes for more comfortable viewing this time around. He, of course, is a technically accomplished director and adds an innovative chase scene (expected in a Jerry Bruckheimer production) where Carlin is chasing after Oerstadt four and a half days ago through a special goggle piece. He does insert some unnecessary political references to real-life events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the war in Iraq but also manages to make a worthy tribute to post-Katrina New Orleans, enhanced by Carlin’s determination to prevent the disaster and save Claire. One only wishes that Scott and Washington’s previous collaborative effort, “Man on Fire” had the time travel technology to save Dakota Fanning from being kidnapped and hence prevent the hypocritical and excessively brutal third act in that film.

As said earlier, people will have a field day figuring out the plot written by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio. One of the scientists explains that when something in the past changes, a new timeline ruptures and the old timeline ceases to exist. It is hard to tell where those ruptures occur throughout the film and what event has been altered or not. For example, when the characters seemingly make one important change in the past, Carlin finally discovers, “By making one change, we didn’t change anything.” The middle second act is filled with questions like that, particularly when the scientific geniuses try to explain the whole technology, and may give some a headache.

In the end, however, this is all Washington’s movie and the film works mainly due to his presence. In one scene, he asks another character, "What if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but you knew they'd never believe you?" There are very few actors who can say such a line and really mean it.