the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Location: Washington D.C.

Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

American Gangster

It isn’t that American Gangster is an empirically bad film or is even unenjoyable. While the lights are down and the screen is aglow, you’re sure to be perfectly entertained. But don’t be surprised if, when you walk out of the theater, you forget the film ever existed.

American Gangster is based on a true story, and is set is the closing years of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, a time of tremendous turbulence in America. Police and judicial corruption is rampant. Race riots are routine. The Vietnam War is taking a devastating toll overseas and at home. And a new opiate, heroine, is blighting America’s urban spaces.

Nobody noticed Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) when he was the quiet apprentice to Bumpy Johnson, one of Harlem’s most powerful black crime bosses. But when Bumpy died, Lucas saw his chance to build his own empire and create his own unique version of the American Dream. Emboldened with a keen business sense and years of street knowledge, Lucas comes to rule the inner-city drug trade by flooding the streets with a purer, cheaper product than has ever been seen. His secret? He smuggles heroine into the United States from the fields of Vietnam in the coffins of fallen soldiers. It isn’t long before Lucas outplays all of the leading crime syndicates, amasses a fortune, becomes a cult superstar and positions himself as one of New York City’s most influential criminal titans.

Hard-nosed cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a pariah among his fellow officers. Ironically enough, he can’t be trusted by the largely corrupt police force because of his reputation of sterling integrity and abhorrence for being on the take. He is Pacino’s Serpico without the unruly beard. During the day he hunts down criminals and at night studies for the bar exam. Roberts is a natural investigator and he’s spent enough time on the streets to know a power shift when he feels one. Someone new is in control of the drug underworld, and after a while Roberts is convinced that a black power player has come to dominate the scene. Tasked to run the first ever anti-narcotics division in the country, Roberts hand picks an elite team of street savvy undercover detectives to get to the bottom of the mystery.

American Gangster stars two of the most respected actors working today. Washington, the consummate professional, brings his usual immaculate class and bearing. And Crowe, a bit thick around the middle for this role, plays the scrappy, resolute bulldog for which he is known. But they are also surrounded by a terrific supporting cast including Ruby Dee as the Lucas matriarch, Chiwetel Ejiofor (who starred opposite Washington in The Inside Man) as Lucas’ younger brother and right-hand man, Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. — in a good film for a change — as Lucas’ major rival in the heroin trade, Nicky “Mr. Untotchable” Barnes (and the subject of an upcoming documentary of the same name), Armand Assante as mafioso Dominic Cattano, and Josh Brolin — who is everywhere this year — as on-the-take NYPD detective Trupo.

American Gangster goes to great pains to recreate the dilapidated state of mid-1970s New York City, though cinematographer Harris Savides lenses it in such oppressive darkness that you cannot readily appreciate it, much less tell who or what you’re looking at half the time. It isn’t simply another example of director Ridley Scott’s career-long penchant for shooting in shadows, but an aesthetic choice that at times actually works against our ability to comprehend the action.

American Gangster is a film of character paradoxes. While Lucas poisons the population of New York, he is, at the same time, a sterling husband and family man. Conversely, Roberts has prioritized a life of fighting crime at the expense of his wife and child, who are in the process of leaving him. They are two very similar men on different sides of the law. Both are dedicated and tenacious, even ruthless in the pursuit of their individual aims. Both men hold themselves to a rigid ethical code that ostracizes them from their colleagues. It is these very attributes that set them on a collision course with one another, and will lead to the most improbable of relationships.

Lucas’ undoing is but the penultimate climax of the film, leading the way for a final chapter that, while keeping to the reality of the true events, is not given enough time to breath and hence feels tacked on. Like the flawless Heat, what keeps the Lucas/Roberts dynamic interesting is that they never meet. Until the last, and easily weakest, act, that is, when a situation too implausible to believe if it weren’t true is given the short narrative shrift, just when we need a deeper examination the most. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that the film was already running too long. Clocking in at nearly three hours, they may have been right. And yet the end of American Gangster, which should have felt like a gratifying validation, instead feels like haphazard addition.

American Gangster has the pedigree to be a worthwhile contribution to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, it isn’t original enough to warrant such acclaim. The story of a black man’s rocketing rise to absolute power, something never before seen in the criminal underworld, should have made for an indispensable addition to the pantheon. Sadly, the film borrows everything from the epic crime genre but contributes next to nothing.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Rails and Ties

Most love stories start at the beginning. Rails and Ties starts at the end.

Tom and Megan Stark (Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden) always thought there would be time to take a trip or have kids or live out a dozen such dreams all couples yearn to fulfill when they first come together. But when Megan discovers she has inoperable cancer, she is forced to acknowledge that all her dreams are forever out of reach. Terrified at the thought of her own death but reconciled to its imminence, Megan yearns for her husband’s love and support now more than ever. But Tom cannot face the thought of losing his wife. While Megan wears her heart on her sleeve, Tom internalizes everything and decides to bury himself in his work as a train engineer where everything runs on ordered, predetermined courses and at least he has control. Or does he?

On a routine run, the unthinkable happens. As Tom’s train rounds a bend, he spies a car parked on the tracks just ahead; a young boy inside struggles to wake his unresponsive mother. Tom makes the only decision he can: he lays on the horn but dares not stop — if he pulls the emergency break, chances are the passenger train will derail and many more than two people will be killed. While the child leaps to safety, the train plunges into the car, killing the mother instantly.

Tom’s career is sidelined while a hearing decides whether or not his actions were according to the book, and he finds himself with nothing but time to spend with his dying wife. As he struggles to salvage their relationship in the midst of its imminent end, fate steps in when Davey (Miles Heizer), the young boy from the accident, appears on their doorstep to confront the man responsible for killing his mother. In a far-fetched turn of events that makes sense only within the context of Megan’s twilight of life, the Starks take in the young orphan, even as the police and child services mount a manhunt to find him. In Davey, Megan must find the fulfillment of her most cherished dream, Tom must find a way to open his heart before it is too late, and a young boy must discover the family he never had.

Alison “Daughter of Clint” Eastwood, has assembled nearly all of her father’s filmmaking team for her directorial debut. She has created a film of quiet delicacy, something fragile yet resolute, and shot through with a life affirming thread that is brave enough to suggest that sometimes life does indeed blossom from tragedy. Her use of trains as an analogy both of a means of freedom and a vehicle hopelessly trapped on an unavoidable trajectory is incisive without being overbearing. While her script has moments of exaggeration and narrative clumsiness, it rarely degrades to the point of unbelievably and never to the point that we divest our emotional fidelity.

Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden, who previously worked together in the dark but delicious Mystic River, here deliver courageous performances as two people desperately trying to find a way to get their lives back on track before it is too late. For Bacon, it is a welcome return to form after his hysterically bad performance is the dreadful Death Sentence. Harden is amazing as a woman determined to ingest every last bit of life before it is taken from her. Perhaps most surprisingly, young Miles Heizer, in his feature film debut, holds his own with some of the best actors we have, portraying a child forced to grow up far beyond his years.

I saw Rails and Ties only hours after a dear friend revealed to me that his wife has been stricken with cancer. Films about death cutting short a romance work because we in the audience cannot help but superimpose ourselves onto the roles. And one cannot watch Rails and Ties without those thoughts roiling inside. Tears brimmed at the surface of my eyes throughout the entire film. And yet, Rails and Ties goes one step further. While many films deal with the emotional agony and recovery of the one left behind, this film focuses every bit as much on the one cursed with the knowledge that no matter her willpower or resolve, death could come at any moment.

There is a scene in the film where Tom, unable to keep his head above the churning emotional waters, flies into a rage and demolishes an elaborate train set he’s been constructing in their garage. He spends the rest of the film rebuilding it and his relationship with his wife — the metaphor for which the train stands. While we rarely see clearly while in the midst of agony, we cannot overlook the fact that sometimes tragedy leads to healing, love, redemption and even hope.

Rails and Ties is a competent, assured film from a first-time director who obviously knows her material well enough to pull on our heartstrings without descending into melodrama or over-sentimentality. Eastwood does an estimable job of taking what is admittedly an implausible premise and making it sing with authenticity.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Music Within

When was the last time you watched a morality play — much less one that deals with people battling incapacitating disabilities — that was also unabashedly, side-splittingly hilarious? If nothing comes to mind, perhaps that is reason alone to check out Music Within, the new independent film based on the true story of one man’s quest to improve the lives of millions of marginalized Americans.

Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingstone) is born into a wildly dysfunctional family. So it is rather surprising when he arrives at adulthood having not just survived, but actually thrived. He is blessed with the gift of gab and the ability to weave stories (and even scathing insults) in a way that is irresistible to anyone within earshot. When Richard tries our for a debate team college scholarship, his mentor Dr. Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo) admits that he is the single most gifted student he’s ever seen but also rejects Richard on the grounds that he has nothing meaningful to say. “You must earn a point of view,” he tells the ambitious but untested young man.

Stung and surprised, Richard makes an impulsive decision to enlist in the Army and promptly finds himself in Vietnam. One fateful evening, a mortar round explodes dangerously close. While Richard survives the blast, his hearing does not. He is discharged and sent stateside with what little hearing he has left replaced with the maddening shrill of tinnitus.

Richard does not waste time feeling sorry for himself. Refusing to let his disability or the narrow-minded prejudices of others keep him down, he learns to read lips and successfully bluffs his way into several jobs. He falls in with a motley crew of colorful misfits, including Mike Stoltz (Yul Vazquez), a vet with an ocean of rage and nowhere to put it, Art Honneyman (Michael Sheen), a wheelchair bound victim of cerebral palsy who uses his rapier wit to deflect intolerance, and Christine (Melissa George) a college student who introduces Richard to the swinging world of free love.

Soon, Richard quits his job so he can help other disabled veterans find work. Word gets out and it isn’t long before he is handpicked by the national government to prepare a pilot program for assimilating the disabled into the workforce. That program goes on to become The Americans with Disabilities Act, a sea change that will forever alter the way in which this country treats its disabled citizens. Richard has found something meaningful to say.

Music Within is far from a perfect film. Usually, the script doesn’t live up to the production values, but here the production values are woefully outstripped by the relentlessly insightful and hilarious script. Music Within was obviously shot on a meager, shoestring budget, no matter how well it makes due with what it has. Still, while this is a small movie that spans a massive chunk of time — five decades — it does not do so in any sort of realistic fashion. Though the cars and fashions move with the ebb and flow of time, no real effort is given to age the actors. Furthermore, Richard surmounts his disability far too quickly for us to ever feel that it was ever much of a hindrance in the first place, and tangentially, we never buy that he is deaf, even partially. Whether this is the fault of the editing or the always-delightful Ron Livingstone remains impossible to tell.

Michael Sheen, who was last seen as the dapper Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Oscar-nominated The Queen, here vanishes into an performance as Richard’s cerebral palsy-afflicted best friend that is nothing short of astonishing and will probably be overlooked come awards season because of the diminutive nature of the film.

Music Within is made in the tradition of other great films like 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives, which wrestle with heroes returning from the fields of battle less whole than when they left. That this subject matter could be this uplifting and feel-good is almost irreconcilable and the credit must go to the screenwriters. They have constructed a film that illuminates the struggles and triumphs of those brave crusaders who blazed a trail for an entire country and did it will droll resolve.

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Most people go to their graves with their music still inside them.” By facing down his demons and digging into his own heart to find his “music within,” Richard Pimentel was able to help countless others find their song.

Like the disabled characters in the film, the low-budget Music Within may not entirely work on the outside, but at its core beats a very funny, very smart and very moving heart of gold.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dan in Real Life

You might think that Dan in Real Life mines the familiar story of family dysfunction, a well that, let’s admit it, never runs dry. But you’d be wrong. Dan in Real Life goes boldly (and refreshingly) where few films have gone before — into the home of a normal, loving family dealing with an abnormal and unexpected trial.

Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a widower and father of three mutinous young daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson and Marlene Lawston), who makes his living as a family-advice columnist. Dan has never really recovered from the loss of his wife and takes refuge in trying to maintain an ordered home, devoid of anything unexpected or outside the box. Little does Dan know that an annual fall weekend with his large and boisterous family at his parent’s (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) sprawling Rhode Island home holds the surprise of his life — the universe abhors more than a vacuum, it also spitefully abhors perfectly ordered lives.

Soon after his arrival, Dan runs into the beautiful Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookshop and spends an intoxicating, rain-speckled morning chatting with her over breakfast. For the first time in as long as he can remember, Dan feels his inert heart beat again. But his joy at meeting Marie is dashed when he discovers she is none other than his younger brother Mitch’s (Dane Cook) girlfriend whom he has brought up to New England to proudly introduce to the family.

Few things hurt more than being in love with someone who is already spoken for. As the weekend progresses, the Burns’ days are filled with a seemingly inexhaustible stream of activities from touch-football games on the lawn to family talent shows and colossal feasts. But all Dan can think about is Marie and mopes about the house, inviting his family’s concern and meddling. As the two try to squelch their growing attraction for each other, and throw Dan’s suspicious daughters off the scent, it leads from one comical situation to another. Before it is over, Dan will have to decide whether he wants to maintain his “play it safe” life or allow a surprise curve ball or two.

Like the early Die Hard films, one of the things that makes Dan in Real Life work is that it takes place within a confined space. The Burns house is a character unto itself and the privacy-deprived, close quarters within which the family must operate make for inevitable conflict and comedy. I was reminded of the underrated The Family Stone.

Steve Carell has a penchant for playing sad sacks on film in direct opposition to his over-the-top TV persona. It is a wise choice. It is hard to get “The Office’s” Michael Scott out of your head when watching him. His character in the uproarious Little Miss Sunshine worked because he hid himself behind a beard. Here he proves again that he is as adept at hysterical comedy as he is at heartbreaking drama. While he has a few classic “Carell slapstick moments” that are sure to garner big laughs, most of the humor in Dan in Real Life is lit by smaller, more humble moments.

Carell’s co-star, the acclaimed French actress Juliette Binoche, best known to American audiences for her portrayal of the selfless nurse in The English Patient, looks as young and radiant as we’ve ever seen her. Is Marie French? It never comes up. Binoche certainly seems to be doing her best American accent. Whatever slips through the cracks is explained by a life lived overseas. Either way, she is luminous.

Dan in Real Life is a film willing to admit that love is messy and that family, no matter how strained, is still the most perfect cauldron within which to ferment all those things that make life worth living in the first place — unconditional love, unqualified acceptance and irrational happiness.

Dan in Real Life is a large, monied film that feels like a small indie. Director Peter Hedges (Pieces of April) has crafted a by-the-numbers formulaic dramedy, to be sure, but one that hits all the right notes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


During an encore appearance on Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” just two weeks ago, Sir Anthony Hopkins related to his erudite host James Lipton the advice the venerable Sir Lawrence Olivier gave him when he was just beginning his acting career:

“Always risk. Go out onto the edge of the limb of the tree. Go out even further until you fall.”

Well, with Slipstream, the new film Hopkins has written, directed, scored and in which he stars, he proves indefatigably that he followed that advice to the letter.

Slipstream is utterly unwatchable. I hated every minute of it. I’ve never walked out of the screening before, but I was tempted to here. And that in the first five minutes. Rarely have I ever been so anxious for a film to end. I couldn’t flee the theater fast enough when the credits finally began roll. Slipstream is easily the worst thing I’ve seen this year.

There is no way to explain the plot of a film that has more in common with a dream (nightmare?) than with a lucid story. Dreams don’t make sense and neither will this film. Slipstream is a 90-minute, non-narrative, pretend experimental film, the sort of avant-garde stuff they forced us to watch in film school and then insisted we should like.

Felix Bonhoeffer (Anthony Hopkins) is a screenwriter suffering from dementia. His addled mind cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, between the past, present and future, between that which is real and that which he has written. Characters he invented invade his waking life while flesh-and-blood loved ones slip into his unconsciousness.

Filmmakers talk about the nature of life, the illusion of reality, and dreams within dreams when they want to put handles on the inconceivable or quantify the unquantifiable. Also when they have made a made a complete mess of a film and want it to sound far more cerebral and penetrating than it actually is.

I’m sure Slipstream is trying to say something about Hollywood and the current state of filmmaking, but very few people are going to care enough to decipher what it might be.

Slipstream is composed entirely of repeated scenes, rapid jump cuts, flash frames, old movie clips, news footage and color film stock changes punctuated by random sound effects. Almost no moment goes unmolested or un-manipulated. If there is any praise to offer here, it is to the sun-kissed cinematography of Dante Spinotti and the adroit, stream-of-consciousness editing of Michael R. Miller.

Slipstream is an unqualified disaster. On some level you have to respect Hopkins, truly one of the acting geniuses of our or any age, for attempting something so bold and unconventional. And the concept is certainly intriguing, to be sure. But, Hopkins’ self-indulgent exercise in total lack of restraint is unadulterated, haphazard nonsense. Even David Lynch would hate this film.

When introducing Slipstream at its first screening at Sundance earlier this year, Hopkins described his film as a “creative joke.” Indeed, good viewer, a joke of which you are the butt.

The Darjeeling Limited

Filmmaker Wes Anderson is something of a cinematic aberration — liking his films is not a prerequisite for admiring or even adoring his quirky talent.

Anderson’s films appear technically simple, despite the fact that they are numbingly intricate and complex. His musical soundtracks, drawing on such British Invasion favorites as The Kinks and The Who, are some of the most whimsical and enjoyable ever compiled. He is personally responsible for re-shaping the on-the-outs Bill Murray into the comic genius we know him as today, and introduced the world to Owen Wilson, easily one of the funniest men alive. Best of all, Anderson likes long takes and has an exquisite sense of spatial balance, framing his stories in such a way that he always maintains a harmonious equilibrium between his characters and their environments.

Oh that he could only achieve the same sort of balance in his scripts.

The Darjeeling Limited focuses on three estranged brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) who have not seen each other since their father’s funeral more than a year earlier. Francis, the eldest, has bamboozled his brothers into a train ride across India for a reason only he knows. He orders his siblings around like an overzealous parent and dictates their every move. He has laminated itineraries made up that account for every minute of every day, paying close attention to stops in towns with religious sites. Francis wants their journey together to be one of spiritual enlightenment, even though some distraction — usually bickering amongst themselves — always aborts their well-intentioned plans.

In reality, the men are not running toward anything but away from everything. Francis barely survived a horrific suicide attempt (ironically mirroring Owen’s recent troubles) and has the scars to prove it. Peter is an expectant father in an unhappy marriage who is rarely seen out of his father’s prescription glasses even though they give him terrible migraines. And Jack is in the middle of an imploding relationship. (The Darjeeling Limited actually begins online with a free iTunes download of the short film Hotel Chevalier, which gives a bit more back-story to Jack and his lost love, Natalie Portman). Although Francis initiated the trip as a means of reconnecting with their mother, (Anjelica Huston), whom we meet at the film’s twilight, it turns out she is even more adept at running away than her sons.

The Darjeeling Limited road trip covers a lot of literal and metaphorical ground. Of all Anderson’s films, this one seems to have the most to say, and stretches even Anderson’s porous definition of comedy. At its heart, this is a story of emotional healing, reconciliation and finding a way to move beyond unreconciled tragedy. While the trio of brothers begin their journey in the claustrophobic confines of the train, loathing every minute spent with each other, they end the film having finally discovered how to stop running away from their problems and, in a beautiful, if overt, gesture, let go of the baggage that has been weighing them down.

So it comes as some surprise that, while technically and thematically there's a lot in The Darjeeling Limited to arrest the attention, emotionally, the film is hollow. Though tragedies — both large and small — occur over the course of the film, we remain mostly unmoved. Try as we might, we simply cannot connect with any of the characters. Worse than remaining clinical and detached, they are generally unlikable and therefore inaccessible.

The Darjeeling Limited is never boring — there’s always something interesting to watch. It is easily Anderson’s most technically ambitious film to date and it shows. His camera glides back and forth, arcs on invisible pivots and crash zooms like it’s 1975. His sense of color, here powder blues and sunflower yellows, is intoxicating. His usual soundtrack is more limited than usual, but the songs that are included croon in your head long after you’ve left the theater.

For me, Anderson’s films have been a series of diminishing returns after the delightful Rushmore. I walk into each new screening energized and hopeful and inevitably walk out disappointed and unmoved. Sure, I know I’ve seen something unique and, at times, even brilliant, but it is never more than surface manipulation. I’m hypnotized, even though I’m rarely enjoying myself. Wes Anderson just may be the biggest style over substance offender working today. Like all of his films, The Darjeeling Limited is easy to admire but hard to like.

Monday, October 22, 2007


At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Bella joined the likes of Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hotel Rwanda as the winner of the coveted People’s Choice Award. While the award does not, by any means, clinch an Oscar nod, it worked for each of the aforementioned films. Regardless of future acclaim, Bella is an irrefutably effortless and heart-warming film, another indie gem with a deep soul and a beautiful message.

Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) is a man with a tragic secret. Once a devastatingly handsome soccer star on a meteoric rise, the disgraced Jose now hides from himself behind a long, unkempt beard and from the world in the kitchen of his brother Manny’s (Manny Perez) Manhattan restaurant. Nothing can woo him from his self-imposed exile, except Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a beautiful, careworn waitress with a secret of her own. When Manny fires Nina for repeated tardiness, brought on by morning sickness tied to a just-discovered pregnancy, Jose abandons the kitchen and his brother in the midst of a busy rush to spend the day with his emotionally devastated friend.

Jose and Nina wander the streets of New York City, discussing her pregnancy. We never find out who the father is; for Nina and us, he is “a nobody.” What she is confident about is that she is not keeping the child. Despite Jose’s peculiar and pained reactions to her plans, Nina is determined to terminate her pregnancy. Her’s is not a world any child should have to experience.

As the day shortens and the sun slides toward the sea, the couple finds themselves at Jose’s parents’ Long Island home. There Jose’s Mexican immigrant parents (Angélica Aragón and Jaime Tirelli) lavish love and delicious food on their guest (don’t be surprised if you walk out of this film famished) and for perhaps the first time in her life, Nina experiences the balm of family. Schooled by hard knocks and eaten away by cynicism, Nina is shaken to the core by their kindness. “Did you grow up with that kind of joy,” she asks incredulously, “that kind of love?”

Where Nina is hard and prickly, Jose is soft and compassionate. Perhaps unaware of it, Nina begins to unfold emotionally around her mysterious and somber friend. Before the day is through, Jose must confront the demons of his own past and use his pain as a conduit through which Nina can find the healing and love she so desperately requires.

Inspired by true events, Bella marks the feature directorial debut of the young, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Monteverde, and represents an independent addition to the Mexican juggernaut that pummeled Hollywood last year, taking its small place beside Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan's Labyrinth, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Though burdened by a miniscule budget, Monteverde makes the most of what he has — after all, he has New York City — and turns out a hearty story of loss, family, friendship and the unexpected, irrational power of love.

The film speaks, on one level, to the Mexican experience in America and on another, far wider level, to all of our all-too human needs. While all the principles shine and Blanchard certainly gives a beautiful, if sorrowful, performance, it is former Mexican soap star Verástegui who absolutely shines. As a result of having to act behind a full beard and long hair, Verástegui’s surprisingly nuanced performance comes through almost entirely through his eyes.

Bella is riding a quiet but fierce grassroots groundswell. The film has already swept Latino festivals, and has been honored by the Smithsonian and White House. At the risk of sounding like a studio plant, it may sweep you away as well. Bella is a pro-life film without ever necessarily being anti-abortion; a deeply spiritual film without ever being overtly religious. Bella transcends the usual binary loggerheads to speak to that on which we can all agree — the splendor of love, the power of family, and the enchantment of a child’s laughter.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Reservation Road

This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.

This has been the year of the revenge picture. First came the abominable Death Sentence, then the extremely problematic yet far superior The Brave One. Now comes Reservation Road, a film that doesn’t look or feel like those aforementioned thrillers, but deals with the same arcing themes, namely tragic loss, grief, rage and the quest for revenge. Too bad it offers nothing more perceptive or discerning than its blood-soaked predecessors.

Reservation Road opens with every parent’s worst fear — the loss of a child. On their way home from an outdoor student concert late in the evening, the Learner family (father Ethan played by Joaquin Phoenix and mother Grace played by Jennifer Connelly) stops at a gas station so daughter Emma (Elle Fanning) can use the facilities. While waiting for his sister, young Josh Learner (Sean Curley) crosses the rural Connecticut road to release some fireflies from a bell jar and is struck and killed by a passing SUV.

The man behind the wheel is Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), who's racing back from Fenway Park where he and his son Lucas (Eddie Alderson) have just watched the Boston Red Sox secure a spot at the 2004 World Series. He’s going a lot faster than he should because his impatient ex-wife, Ruth (Mira Sorvino) is anxious for her son’s return. Unable to make out what he’s hit, Dwight hesitates for a moment, but panicked, barrels on before his groggy son can make out what happened.

Devastated, the Learners try to come to terms with their loss. Grace blames herself for the death of her son, but must surmount her self-loathing in order to be strong for the rest of her family. Her increasingly estranged husband becomes fixated on the incident and obsessed with achieving justice by any means necessary. Ethan is more interested in retribution than in grieving. While the police search for the SUV turns cold, Ethan scours the Internet for advice on how to conduct his own investigation. While Grace tries to figure out how to live, the increasingly frustrated Ethan contemplates how one might kill.

From this point on, Reservation Road relies on contrived coincidences to energize the plot. When Ethan shows up at a local law office to hire an attorney to help with his case, he is assigned none other than Dwight himself. Unsuspecting at first, Ethan grows ever more wary the more time he spends with Dwight. For his part, Dwight is an emotional basket case. Far from shrugging off what he has done, Dwight becomes Lady Macbeth, a man unraveling under the strain of his heinous act. Getting away, the film suggests, is not the same as being free. Dwight wants, even tries, to confess but always wavers at the thought of what such an admission would mean to his uneven relationship with his son.

Reservation Road is the story of these two fathers — one waylaid by seething fury and the other impotent with remorse. Ultimately, we know that Ethan must figure out that Dwight is his man, a realization that is bound to unleash a potentially devastating confrontation.

Reservation Road is directed by Terry George, who helmed 2004’s moving Hotel Rwanda. George’s direction is solid and even interesting, with several scenes where the camera gets right in the actors’ faces, settling disconcertingly close. We are able to chart the cavalcade of emotions just by watching their eyes. And the quintessential New England landscape, resplendent in all its fall glory, is shot with a tourist enticing glow. But what George cannot wring from this turnip, is the tension and tautness necessary to agitate his audience, let alone make them care about Ethan’s obsession. If we cannot be persuaded to follow the emotional journey of a grief-stricken man who wants to see his child’s killer punished, than something is dreadfully wrong.

What is perhaps most disappointing is that Reservation Road boasts some of the best performances seen this year. Ruffalo, who is always masterful, is a shattered man ready to fall to pieces at any moment beneath the weight of his guilt. Phoenix is hollowed out by his sorrow — it is as if his driving need for vengeance is the only thing that gives his corpse-like presence the energy for locomotion. But it is Connelly who hits like a freight train. Her manifestations of anguish are Oscar-caliber. Since the hit-and-run accident takes place within the film’s opening moments, we are asked to mourn for and with the principles long before there is time for us to come to know and care for them. And yet, we do so easily because Connelly and the others’ performances are so authentic and believable. These actors are far too good for this material.

The problem lies with the script. On paper, the story looks strong. In fact, the movie is based on the novel by John Burnham Schwartz, which won the New York Times’ Notable Book of the Year award. Given that Schwartz adapted the screenplay himself, one would think that lightning might just be coaxed into striking twice. Not so.

Reservation Road is a drama with unhealthy aspirations of being a thriller. Although there are no moments where Phoenix takes up arms and initiates blood soaked carnage as in the Kevin Bacon and Jodie Foster vehicles mentioned on the outset, the script wants to make you think that the film could go that direction at any moment. A thoughtful and intelligent look at the motivations behind revenge and the terrible path to which it leads is bypassed in favor of melodramatic theatrics.

The script relies on lazy manipulation to advance the plot. At several points in the film, Dwight tries to confess to the crime, only to be shrugged aside by authorities supposedly too busy to listen to what he has to say. Furthermore, as Ethan slides deeper into his vengeful quest, his railings on the importance of justice become increasingly heavy-handed. When he finally puts the puzzle pieces together and determines that the man he is after has been right beneath his nose the entire time, the reveal feels forced and conveniently implausible.

The fact that the script is built on such moments, rather than simply trips over them occasionally, transforms a film with tremendous potential into a tremendous dud. There is no catharsis to speak of, no emotional remuneration worth the tedium that precedes it. It might be different if the film took more time at the end to probe the process of how one wrestles with profound loss or how another eschews culpability for causing incalculable agony. However, the film presents no such insight into the psyches of either man.

The story, as it is written, does not allow time nor the breathing room for reality. We are never permitted to see Ethan or Grace wrestle with the Really Big Questions, the sort that parents in the midst of such a tragedy are bound to have. We yearn for something. Anything. But instead of grappling with these types of issues, the film instantly shoehorns Ethan into vengeance-seeking mode. While Grace is allowed a few more moments of grief, its scarcity is based on the fact that the script calls for her to manufacture closure almost immediately to keep the family running smoothly in her husband's emotional absence.

Reservation Road commits to a situation in which we are shown the dangers of demonizing another human being, yet delivers no emotional payoff. How do you see beyond the vilified monster you've created in your own mind? What are the end results of giving oneself wholly over to anger and the need for retribution? How do you even begin to grieve or go back to your normal life following a tragedy? These questions are asked, but the film doesn't care enough to follow through with any answers.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


It’s scary to think that it’s already been 25 years since Poltergeist first haunted theater screens. Of course, as a child, I was never allowed to see it. Too demonic. Too frightening. It wasn’t until a dark Halloween night in my late 20s that I sat down to it and The Exorcist (another forbidden film from my youth). The Exorcist scared the living daylights out of me (still does), but Poltergeist was a sensational roller coaster ride.

Though I have friends (friends working on their PhDs in film studies with concentrations on the horror genre, no less) who insist Poltergeist was a horror film when it came out in 1982, I’m not buying it. Sure, Poltergeist is scary, but not in the usual sense. Poltergeist is creepy in that it purposely evokes our childhood fears — bogeymen in the closet, clown dolls coming to life, monster trees, etc. But Poltergeist is frightening in a way that is actually fun, rather than objectively terrifying. This is horror filtered through Disneyland.

This has everything to do with writer/producer Steven Spielberg. Though directing credits belong to Tobe Hooper (director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Poltergeist is every inch a Spielberg film. Hollywood lore records that Spielberg stepped in to direct several sequences. I believe every word.

The Freelings (then unknowns Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams) are a typical American family with three kids and a dog living in a brand new neighborhood of sprawling suburban, cookie-cutter style homes. When a poltergeist (German for “noisy spirit”) manifests in their house, the family is not initially concerned. At first the phenomena is merely playful, if mischievous. When household objects begin moving by themselves, Diane can’t wait to show Steve.

But it isn’t long before the pranks turn malevolent. It just so happens that the new housing development was built overtop a graveyard, and the spirits of those dead interred within wreak havoc on the unsuspecting Freeling family, going so far as to snatch the cherubic Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) to another dimension. In over their heads, the couple employs real life ghost busters and eventually a diminutive psychic (Zelda Rubinstein) to purge the ghosts from their house and rescue their daughter before the coming spectral apocalypse when all hell, literally, breaks loose.

Poltergeist works — and works astonishingly well — precisely because the action does not take place in a clichéd, putrefying haunted house but rather in a pristine, comfortable, modern housing development — the heart of normalcy — a setting Spielberg mined for satirical effect so often in his career. If E.T. (released that same summer) represents Spielberg’s commentary on the fragmented but functioning suburban dream, Poltergeist is the nightmare.

A film of equal parts heart and a dazzling display of sound-and-light craft, Poltergeist is one nightmare I love to revisit time and again.

The Complete Crew of the USS Enterprise

Well, that does it. Unless they also intend to fill some of the smaller parts belonging to Nurse Chapel (pictured above) or Yeoman Rand, the bridge roster is complete for the next Star Trek film, a prequel either examining how the crew met or expanding on their television voyages.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the crew of the USS Enterprise:

Captain James Tiberius Kirk: Chris Pine

Science Officer Mr. Spock: Zachary Quinto

Medical Officer Dr. “Bones” McCoy: Karl Urban

Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: Simon Pegg

Helmsman Hikaru Sulu: John Cho

Navigator Pavel Chekov: Anton Yelchin

Communications Officer Uhura: Zoe Saldana

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Yet Another Trek Update

Karl Urban, the Kiwi best known for his role as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Kirill the assassin in The Bourne Supremacy has been confirmed as Leonard "Bones" McCoy for the new Star Trek film. This is getting weirder and weirder.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


It has been dubbed “The 24 Scenario,” after the popular television drama. A massive bomb, for instance, is set to go off within a large American city and someone in U.S. custody knows where it is and how to disarm it, but is refusing to talk. Do the rights of the many trump the rights of the one? What if, by torture — an act legally and morally reprehensible to the government and its citizenry — the information can be obtained and countless innocent lives saved? Is coercion justified in such circumstances? Wherever you fall, it is a compelling quandary.

Rendition spans two continents, contrasting the noise, clutter and seemingly unorganized chaos of the Middle East with the clean vertical and horizontal lines of Washington D.C.. Somewhere in North Africa, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst, finds his sense of morality upended when he is assigned to oversee the interrogation and torture of an Egyptian-American prisoner. The man, accused of aiding terrorists, is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer from Chicago who, on his way home from a business conference, is abducted by the CIA and outsourced to North Africa for unorthodox questioning. Head of the secret prison, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor) carries out his duties with calculated resolve, despite the fact that his personal life is in shambles; amidst several attacks on his life, his rebellious daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) has run off with her Islamic fundamentalist boyfriend, Khalid (Moa Khouas).

Back in America, Anwar’s convert wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) searches desperately for any clue that might point to why her husband never got off his homebound plane. Flying to the nation’s capitol, she enlists the help of an old, politically connected college friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) an aide to the powerful Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). But the more Alan probes on Isabella’s behalf, the more he suspects his own government is behind the disappearance, and the more pressure is brought to bear on him to desist, especially by Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), the head of the CIA’s anti-terrorism department.

Rendition is directed by South Africa’s Gavin Hood, the director of 2005’s powerful Tsotsi, and the recipient of the first Academy Award for that country. There are an appalling number of foreign filmmakers who come to America to produce their first English-speaking film only to lose their artistic integrity amidst Hollywood’s relentless demand for bigger, faster, louder. (Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Invasion earlier this summer immediately comes to mind). Gavin Hood has broken the mold, steering clear of the treacherous rocks that have sunk so many of his predecessors and produced a film of blistering complexity and power.

The film takes its title from the U.S. government’s policy of “extraordinary rendition” — the abduction, indefinite detention and torture of foreign nationals deemed threats to national security. The film exists in a gray zone that acknowledges the existence and relevance of both sides — those who believe in the imperative to intermittently abandon civil liberties in order to save lives and those who believe that such actions lead our country down dark paths that damage our reputation, moral fiber and future security. The film asks the most utilitarian question: does torture work or will prisoners fabricate anything to abate the pain?

For a role deliberately devoid of charisma, the always-stellar Gyllenhaal turns in a powerful performance. There is a world-weariness, a barely functioning exhaustion that few actors can pull off well. Harrison Ford is known for it. Add Gyllenhaal to the list. His Douglas Freeman is a September 12th enlistee in the CIA, who has probably seen and done more than he could ever imagine. Now he is little more than walking dead, fatigued to the bone, more zombie than man. A young operative hopelessly out of his depth, he has mixed feelings about his assignment from the start, but believes in the rightness of his cause. Still, he cannot quiet his conscience, no matter how he tries to drown it in cheap alcohol or passion-filled nights.

Gyllenhaal is not the only standout in this pool of Oscar acquaintances. Reese Witherspoon’s all-American girl convert to Islam forces the viewer to think twice about the Muslim face of America. Omar Metwally, best known as the Palestinian lieutenant who shared a cigarette and political barbs in a stairwell with Eric Bana in Munich gives an emotionally charged performance as the suspected terrorist. Israeli actor Igal Naor is a perfect amalgam of precision and tenderness. And Meryl Streep does what all great thespian icons do, no matter the size of the role — shine.

Screenwriter Kelley Sane makes his motion-picture debut with Rendition. You’d never know he’s a novice. Weaving together a complex, multi-layered story that ends with a shocking twist, Sane isn’t afraid to leave some questions unanswered. He hints at pasts between some of the principles, but fascinatingly never teases them out. And he allows the film to end with a degree of menacing ambiguity, never answering one of Rendition’s core uncertainties. This is not a film that pretends to know all the answers, but finds the questions themselves an imperative.

Artists have always worked out national angst in whatever medium they employ. It is no surprise that such questions of national identity and moral authority are just now making their way to a theater near you. Given that the ordinary film takes anywhere from two to three years to move from pre- to post-production, Rendition and the politically-charged films of the summer that went before it are but the vanguard of a new wave of works confronting the fallout of the divisive decision to take the war to the enemy after the tragedy of 9/11. Many more are sure to follow.

Roger Ebert, who saw Rendition at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, described the film as “perfect.” That’s the word.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Trek Finds its Funny Bone

Shesh, I go out of town for one long wedding weekend and return to find not one, but two Trek casting decisions. And they aren't just any two casting decisions!

Up to this point we've had pretty logical (no pun intended) picks, but on Friday, Paramount Pictures signed Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame) to play Scotty! I don't know whether to be delighted (I loved both of those films) or terrified! Pegg proved he can at least play at serious in Hot Fuzz and I don't doubt his acting chops in the slightest, and yet...

Also signed was John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Sulu. I had no desire to see Harold and Kumar when it came out (I want to return to it now for Neal Patrick Harris' cameo) though I did see Cho do improv in L.A. a few years back. Also an unorthodox comedic choice.

Pegg and Cho join Eric Bana as the baddie, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Heroes' Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura in the latest bigscreen incarnation of the classic TV series. Chris Pine has been offered the role of Kirk.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Trek Rumors and Confirmations

It seems that Mike Vogel doesn't have a lock on the role of Captain Kirk, after all. Chris Pine, according to "The Hollywood Reporter," is also liked for the part.

While the rumors fly around the fabled Captain's chair, another appears to be set in stone. Munich's Eric Bana will play the film's villian!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Mighty Heart

I write film and TV reviews for DVDFanatic. Here is a truncated version of one of those recent reviews.

On February 1, 2002, Daniel Pearl, the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal who had been kidnapped nine days before in Karachi, Pakistan while investigating a story on the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was beheaded by Al Qaeda operatives. His body was further dismembered into ten pieces and disposed of in a shallow grave on the outskirts of the city.

As with the story in last year’s harrowing but imperative, United 93, we know the outcome of A Mighty Heart from the first frame. We are not here to witness the end, but rather partake in the journey leading to that end. Nor is this the story of Daniel Pearl. It is the story of his wife, the Parisian-born journalist Mariane, with him in Pakistan and five months pregnant with the couple’s first child when Daniel was taken. A Mighty Heart is based on her memoir of the same name.

We have little time to get to know Daniel (Dan Futterman) before he is taken. If we feel cheated out of character development, it is minute compared to the bewildering loss felt by Mariane (Angelina Jolie). We never actually see Daniel’s abduction (or his death). Aside from the moments leading up to his kidnapping, we are never privy to Daniel’s experiences through any point of view other than Mariane’s. We are as befuddled and apprehensive as she. In fact, we see Daniel more through flashes of Mariane’s memory flitting back to happier times, than the events of the story itself.

When Daniel doesn’t return home on the night preceding the couple’s departure from Pakistan, the Pearl household is turned into an impromptu command center. U.S. State Department personnel, FBI and CIA, newspaper officials, Pakistani police and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence descend on the house, joining Mariane in a vigil for her husband’s return.

White boards are filled with names, connected by enough arrows to form an inscrutable spider’s web. Data is mined and clues are run down. Suspects are dragged into custody, some of whom are tortured for information. Whole interrogation scenes are conducted without the benefit of subtitles or translation. Yet just when the police seem on the verge of finding their missing man, he slips away again.

This is a film of moments. Photos of Daniel handcuffed with a gun to his head circulate. Stories appear in the press that he is already dead. And through it all, Mariane is a resolute tower of strength, both mascot and team captain, sending impassioned interviews into an indifferent void. A practicing Buddihist, Mariane prays while the police follow leads. They shake down suspects, and she continues to text “I Love You” to her husband’s long silent cell phone.

A Mighty Heart is, in essence, a detective story, a police procedural that creates tension, but little emotion. The film saves the emotion for the moment when the infamous video of Daniel’s beheading surfaces. We, of course, do not see the video. But we see the faces of the men who do. And while Mariane is spared watching her beloved’s slaying, her grief, when she hears about it, is colossal and austere.

British director Michael Winterbottom’s film is almost as close to naturalism as one can get. Filming in many of the actual locations, he captures the chaotic commotion of a third-world city overwhelmed by population. How does one find a single man in such conditions? Winterbottom shoots almost exclusively in natural light, his cameras primarily handheld, capturing action in long, continuous takes. It is as if we are there, just one more police office pouring over data in the Pearl’s livingroom or crowding the streets of a city already bursting at the seams.

Reminding everyone that she is much, much more than just a pretty face, Angelina Jolie gives a riveting performance. A remarkable likeness, Jolie’s accent is impeccable and her portrayal both a testament to Mariane’s strength and her calamitous grief. Irfan Khan, who wowed audiences in The Namesake, gives a marvelous performance as the kindhearted yet tenacious police captain in charge of the investigation. And Archie Panjabi as Daniel’s Indian friend, Asra and now Mariane’s closest pillar or support, is nothing short of terrific.

Although Daniel is not found in time and his life tragically cut short, the film does not consider the mobilization to save him a failure. That American Christians could join forces with Pakistani Muslims to find the Jewish husband of a European Buddhist speaks to the real Mariane’s crusade since her husband’s death. Far from preaching rage and vitriol, she and the film conceive of a world in which love and forgiveness are the only attributes that will save the world from sliding across the brink of oblivion. Though the film begins with Marianne’s narration recounting her husband’s death, it ends with an announcement of her son’s birth. Appropriately enough, his name — chosen by his father shortly before his death — is Adam.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Am I Too Nice!?

The entertainment editor for the newspaper for which I write, The Colorado Springs Gazette, just posted the following on the paper's film blog:

"I've been getting lots of letters praising our film critic, Brandon Fibbs. But we just received his first hate letter. (Hey, Brandon, it was bound to happen.) It's anonymous, of course.

Dear Mr. Epstein,

Is Brandon Fibbs your nephew of something? (He's not, just a former intern and former student) Or has he been sent to your newspaper by the major Hollywood studios to work for free? (No, but he'll tell you he's nearly working for free.)

Your reviews used to be sanguine enough (glad people still remember) -- but this guy has never met a movie he doesn't LOVE -- as his A and A- ratings for every film he reviews shows.

Personally, I prefer the more down-to-earth reviews of Roger Moore. At least he tends to see films as they ARE -- especially the mostly-junk now turned out by the hideous people presently controlling Hollywood.

Oh for the days of Frank Capra, William Wyler and John Ford!

(I can understand why this person feels that way. Brandon has given out lots of As and Bs lately. But it's really be a great time for Hollywood and off-Hollywood films. The end of the year is when all the Oscar contenders bunch up. I'm guessing this letter-writer hasn't gotten out to the movies since 1960.)"

Here was my response to that post:

“Anonymous” might be interested to know that I agree with him or her wholeheartedly!

I was making the exact same observation just today. While strolling past the Times Square theaters, I remarked to my wife that I’ve had a run of positive reviews lately and need a real stinker to maintain my street cred.

Warren makes an extremely good point. It’s finally the fall season. After a summer of banality, this is the time during which the studios are pushing their best films. And my reviews reflect that. So do those of the other critics.

There is an additional reason, however. With so many films out there from which to pick, I am able to be selective in what I see. While it may seem rather snobbish, when something like “The Assassination of Jesse James” conflicts with “Good Luck Chuck,” or “Eastern Promises” runs into “Mr. Woodcock” and “Balls of Fury,” I almost always choose the film I think will have greater overall cinematic value. It’s better for you and me!

Keep checking back “Anonymous.” There are some less than stellar assessments coming down the pike. (Check out my review of “Death Sentence” on this blog, for a review of a truly abominable film that wasn’t able to run in the paper because it wasn’t screened for critics until the night before its release.)

By the way, I also write for other publications that prohibit me to share with The Gazette. Oddly enough, I have been accused of writing mostly negative reviews for them! You can read all my (nasty) reviews at my blog, The Film Snob, including the aforementioned “Death Sentence,” “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “Transformers,” among others.

For now, enjoy the fact that there’s actually some good stuff out there. It won’t last long.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Michael Clayton

This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.

There comes a point in everyone’s life — though for most of us, it is hardly a singular event — when we reach a crossroad and must make a decision as to which direction to proceed. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is at such a place. What he decides will determine the course, both physically and morally, of the rest of his life.

Clayton is an in-house fixer at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, one of the most powerful law firms in New York City. A former prosecutor from a family of blue-collar cops, Clayton now makes his living managing the firm’s dirty laundry at the behest of co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). If a client is involved in a hit-and-run accident, they call Clayton. If the wife of a high-profile politician is caught shoplifting, they call Clayton.

But cleaning up others’ messes has started to wear thin, and Clayton finds that after 15 years on the job, he is world-weary and burned out. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he tells one of the scumbags he’s sent to help, “I’m a janitor.”

Clayton’s frustration couldn’t come at a worse time. On the eve of massive settlement for one of their largest clients, the agrochemical company U/North, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the firm’s brilliant top litigator, suffers a shockingly embarrassing mental breakdown which threatens to sabotage the entire case. Clayton is called in to look after his friend and see to it that any damage he might have caused is contained, diffused, and quietly swept under the rug.

Arthur reveals the discovery of a “smoking gun” memo implicating U/North in the death of dozens of innocent people. In a Damascus moment reminiscent of Howard Beale’s Network rant, Arthur exposes a tenuous sanity all but crushed by the weight of a lifetime of moral indiscretions.

Despite everything Clayton does to assure Arthur that he has his best interests at heart, his friend knows that he is more interested in the suppression of truth than its liberation. "I'm not the enemy," Clayton tells him at one point. "Then who are you?" comes the malignant response.

There is nothing pompous or self-righteous about Arthur. His tolerance level for practicing evil is his undoing. It is as if he is discovering right from wrong for the first time in his life and is lit from within by a berserker fire to right the world’s wrongs.

Arthur’s crisis of conscience invariably brings Clayton face to face with his own ethical demons. Arthur is Michael Clayton in another 20 years and it is an image Clayton finds dreadfully unsettling. Oddly enough, it is not a moment of rash indiscretion but of moral clarity that reveals how far he has fallen.

As Clayton tries to pick up the pieces, juggling his duties to the firm with his obligations to a sick father, and alcoholic younger brother, and a son he rarely has time to see, U/North’s chief in-house council, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), swamped with panic and the frenzied impulse for self-preservation, decides to take matters into her own hands, setting events in motion that stain her hands with the blood of even more innocents. It isn’t long before Clayton finds himself squarely in the crosshairs.

A marriage of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich with The Pelican Brief, Michael Clayton represents the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter best known for penning the Bourne trilogy. You would never know it is his first time behind the camera, such is his confidence and assuredness. It cannot have been an easy task given the fact that two of his leads (Clooney and Pollack) are accomplished directors themselves. Gilroy takes his time getting to the plot, secure in the knowledge that character development is not only imperative, but done right, can also be compelling. His gut-punching script moves with its own sense of primal poetry.

George Clooney (in the sort of role Richard Gere used to tackle) is terrific as a man who is a shadow of his former self, an individual so skewed by compromise and the defense of the indefensible, that he is sullied almost beyond recognition. While the story of U/North’s corporate turpitude is engaging, it is when our shady hero comes face to face with the hollowing reality of what he has become that the film really takes off.

Swinton is pitch perfect, immaculately creating a character who allows circumstances to drive her ethics, instead of the other way around, to disastrous results. When it is over, even she cannot conceive of how she crossed such a yawning gap. But it is Wilkinson who deserves the most praise. He shines as the Shakespearean fool, a flesh and blood morality tale whose impassioned speeches and turbulent emotional state constitute the film’s moral center. It is a role that may be enough for another Oscar nomination.

Michael Clayton is not a film of pizzazz, pulse-pounding action, or fireworks. It is a deliberate and measured look at what happens when you wake up one day and realize you can no longer recognize the man staring back at you from the bathroom mirror. While the film’s title is certainly lackluster, in a way it is the ideal designation. For in the end, what’s important is not the case or the conspiracy. It is a man. And the choices the man makes.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

It remains to be seen whether audiences who enjoyed Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s 1998, seven-time Academy Award-nominated Elizabeth will take to the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The first film, a Western period drama filtered though Eastern sensibilities, was lavish yet restrained—spartan, and staged with almost theatrical minimalism. And while there are elements of that film here, the sequel’s excesses are so hyper-exaggerated as to disconcert even the most ardent fan of the original.

This follow-up takes place roughly ten years after the events in the first film. Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, returning to the role that made her a star) is no longer a girl wrestling with the magnitude of becoming a monarch. She has settled into her role as Queen with confidence, assuredness and not a little sprightly sass. Elizabeth is a master of deftly stage-managing her appearance. The public Queen and the private Queen are often irreconcilable. One is nearly divine, the ephemeral wisp of an icon net yet solidified. The other is wholly human, within whose breast beats a heart of passion and yearning. She is all-powerful, yet she must plow out her own desires for the higher ideal of her people’s welfare — the thoroughly modern woman who has it all but only at a price.

Elizabeth’s days are spent repetitiously holding court. Her only distraction is the dashing seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who has returned home from the New World with larger-than-life tales of adventure and daring-do. Intoxicated with his cavalier familiarity, Elizabeth is all too aware that she has forbidden herself any attachment that might distract her from her duties (with a moniker like “The Virgin Queen” could there be any other outcome?). In order to keep the roguish Raleigh close, Elizabeth encourages her favorite lady-in-waiting and alter ego, Bess (Abbie Cornish), to befriend him, even though it tortures her to witness their growing intimacy.

But the Queen has little time to dwell on personal matters. Treachery is ever present and many openly clamor for her throne. Although the Protestant Elizabeth strives to create a country of religious tolerance, her fundamentalist Catholic enemies, including her own cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), plot her assassination. Her most trusted advisor and the head of her intelligence network, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, also reprising his role), works to unmask her betrayers, but even he may be too late. The Spanish king Philip II (Jordi Molla), has constructed a sea-faring armada, which bears within its hulls the Spanish Inquisition, to crush England and restore it to Catholicism.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is unquestionably a sumptuous affair. The acting is impeccable. The lavish costume design is sure to electrify even the most jaded eye. The production design, much of it shot within Britain’s cathedrals, is breathtaking. As with the first film, people are dwarfed by the architecture. Kapur’s camera prefers to linger in the rafters, looking down on its puny humans from impossibly high vantage points.

Though the sense of scale remains unchanged from the first film, The Golden Age is brighter, warmer and faster than its predecessor. While the first Elizabeth was largely undemonstrative, its sequel is anything but. Elizabeth: The Golden Age suffers from being intensely more histrionic than the original. This is an epic, to be sure, but it is also a melodrama to match, a soap opera of titanic scale and bluster. Craig Armstrong’s sweeping, unceasing score is stunning but bombastically over-the-top, as are the visuals it frames. Too often the film vanquishes subtlety with hysterical relish, giving us Elizabeth bestride a white horse dressed in armor as Joan d’Arc giving the now perfunctory St. Crispin’s Day speech, or Raleigh swinging from the rigging like Errol Flynn.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is an overpowering experience. In the end, we know we have seen something beautiful, but was it really necessary to bludgeon the point home so?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Kirk is Cast!

While Paramount is expected to make it official any day now, the most sought after position in J.J Abrams new Star Trek movie appears to have been filled.

28-year-old Mike Vogel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poseidon, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants) is apparently set to be legendary Captain James. T. Kirk. Abrams and Vogel met on the set of Abram's upcoming monster movie Cloverfield, or whatever the heck it’s called.

Having seen him in nothing but the Cloverfield trailer, my jury's still out.