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

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Savages

The Savages is a very good film. And yet I found it disappointing on what I can only describe as a metaphysical level. It is the sort of film that, while ringing with laudable authenticity and an admirable lack of maudlin sentimentality, prefers wallowing in misery to reaching for transformation.

The Savage siblings, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) thought they had left their troubled past behind. Having escaped their domineering father, their absentee mother and even each other, both have settled into lives of quiet desperation. A college drama professor, Jon lives in a rickety house in Buffalo, supposedly writing the definitive (but never quite ready for his editor) book on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy inhabits a New York City apartment the size of a postage stamp, works as a temp while imagining herself a playwright, and is carrying on an illicit affair with an older neighbor.

Their cocooned, inoculated lives come to an end when they discover that their estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), ensconced in Sun City, Arizona — a sort of geriatric, 1950’s Disneyland utopia — is suffering from dementia and desperately requires their help.

Like so many 30-somethings, Jon and Wendy are in a state of arrested development, not children, certainly, but not yet adults either. As they embark down the troublesome and emotional difficult road of finding a comfortable place for their father to live out the remainder of his days — more, we are told, than he ever did for them — the siblings find themselves once again under one roof, chaffing under each other’s eccentricities.

Director Tamara Jenkins, who last wrote and directed 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills, based much of this tragicomedy on her own experiences dealing with a parent suffering from dementia. The extraordinary cast gives exactly the sort of rich, nuanced performances one would expect. Hoffman, who never fails to impress, has perfected playing the sort of sadsack for which we can’t help but rout, and Linney, one of our greatest, if most underappreciated actresses, has never look lovelier.

Unfortunately the film’s central musings on aging and mortality are lost amidst the subplot of squabbling sibling neurosis. Deeply flawed and blisteringly human (these are not the sorts of people with whom you’d want to be friends), Jon and Wendy’s adolescent immaturity and miserable existences overshadow what was surely intended to be the film’s primary message — how a messy family deals with the humiliation of aging. The plot is supposedly oriented around caring for Lenny Savage, yet his children treat him as if he’s invisible. On screen for half the film but given paltry few lines, Lenny is little more than a MacGuffin for his children’s neurosis.

Many independent films, proving Newton’s Third Law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, have countered Hollywood’s penchant for melodramatic and saccharine plots by crafting similar stories bundled with starkly different values. More often than not this means draining a film of anything even remotely sensational or syrupy, substituting a story about depressed people we cannot remotely hope to like, and calling it honest. And while there is a lot of truth to the claim that happy endings happen only in Hollywood, these films lose something as equally important as the truth they champion — they lose their humanity. Too often, humor comes at the expense of, not in response to, characters’ situations.

Jon and Wendy never reconcile to their father. Never forgive him. Never begin seeing each other as valuable, treasured allies. Never take any steps closer to that elusive Promised Land known as adulthood. Never, that is, until after a title card in the closing minutes that reads: “Six Months Later.” Somehow they found the will, strength and resources to jumpstart their becalmed lives. But how? The events hidden behind that title card are what I really wanted The Savages to be about.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

What Would Jesus Buy?

Repent sinners, for the Shopocalypse is at hand! So proclaims Rev. Billy, the head of the so-called “Church of Stop Shopping in What Would Jesus Buy?, a new documentary which is almost guaranteed to make you cringe for any number of reasons.

When I first saw the documentary short Preacher with an Unknown God a few years ago, it was like a sudden splash of ice water to the face. Rev. Billy, clad in ecclesiastical garb and topped with a tower of peroxide-golden hair set like an impenetrable helmet, stormed a Starbucks like a Marine securing a beachhead and proceeded to decry the coffee giant’s role in America’s ever-escalating consumerism. He ranted and railed like an evangelical televangelist, condemning Western materialism and calling for a cessation of greed. He was like something feral, a man feeding directly off of an open electrical current, exaggerated and hysterical, an Old Testament prophet recast as a hyper-caffeinated parody of a modern stereotype.

Bill Talen (aka Rev. Billy), who says he adopted the persona of street preachers he would always see on the street-corners of Manhattan, is like Michael Moore, in that he practices a sort of civic disobedience toward corporations, employing guerilla shock tactics to provoke both his victims and his audience. What Would Jesus Buy?, produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), follows Talen, his girlfriend, and their 20-person gospel choir as they countdown to Christmas by traveling the country. Rev. Billy preaches in churches and Wal-Mart parking lots about the destructive affects of our consumer-driven culture, culminating in a visit to the home of the Anti-Christ himself, Mickey Mouse’s Disneyland.

Rev. Billy demands we begin thinking about where the things we buy come from and how our purchases affect the world around us. He pleads, through mock tears and charismatic tongues, that we consider the effects of staggering debt, third-world labor conditions, compulsive shopping addiction, the environmental impact of our SUVs, a marketing juggernaut that has blurred the line between advertising and entertainment, and the commercialization of Christmas.

What Would Jesus Buy? subscribes to the Mary Poppins school of sermonizing — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Rev. Billy has something exceedingly serious to say but he knows you just might listen better if he couches it in comedy. God knows it’s something we need to hear. But, in creating so embellished a vehicle for his message, Talen runs the risk of losing his purpose amidst his own performance. Moreover, What Would Jesus Buy lacks cohesion. While its message is unified, the film is not, coming off more like monotonous, episodic sound bites than a single, unified diatribe building toward an inevitable climax.

What made the original documentary short work is that we were never allowed to see behind the curtain. We never saw Rev. Billy out of character; never knew if he even had an “out of character.” And while the new feature about his life’s mission fascinates by letting us get to know the passionately zealous and completely sincere actor behind the façade, the effect is only temporary. Like the old adage about not wanting to see how sausage is made, Talen’s potency comes mainly from his alter ego’s larger-than-life persona — once that is compromised, so too is much of what makes it hard to take your eyes off him. His public persona is so dominant and supercharged that we can’t help but distrust the authenticity of the private moments when he settles into normal.

For all that, it may be important to remember that in the plays of Shakespeare, the fool often makes more sense than any other character. Truth is truth even when it comes out of the mouth of a clown.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

August Rush

More fable than film, there is no earthly reason why August Rush should work. But it does.

August Rush is about a love triangle. 12 years ago, on a rooftop overlooking New York City’s Washington Square Park, Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a charismatic young Irish guitarist and Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell), a sheltered cellist, shared a magical evening beneath a full moon. But their romance was torn apart before it had a chance to begin, leaving, in its wake, two destitute young people who gave up on their music, and an orphan child, the only hint of their enchanted union, who Lyla is led to believe died stillborn in a car accident.

Now, years later, the child they don’t even know exists is performing on the streets of Manhattan, cared for by the mysterious Wizard (Robin Williams) who dubs the boy August Rush (Freddie Highmore). A musical prodigy who can hear music in the random, dissonant sounds of everyday life, August is convinced that he can use his remarkable musical talent to reunite him with the parents he has never known.

Preposterous from beginning to end, in order for August Rush to work, you have to accept it for what it is — a fairytale wrapped in contemporary clothing. Do not try to apply the laws of logic and realism to this film or you will only come away frustrated. August Rush is an enchanted fable, and only by accepting it on those terms will it be successful.

Director Kristen Sheriden (the daughter of Jim Sheriden, director of In America, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot) knows the lofty limitations of her story and instead of hesitating for even a moment, runs full speed ahead with her outrageous concept. As much a music video as a movie, Sheriden understands that music is pure, undistilled emotion and will win over her audience despite whatever reservations they might bring to the theater.

Meyers, who has been enjoying well-deserved success of late, is wonderful as Louis. Captivating Russell, who delighted audiences in this summer’s Waitress continues to charm. Terrence Howard, always compelling, plays a kindhearted child services officer trying to keep August and other lost boys like him, safe. And Highmore, best known for his role as the melancholy brother in Finding Neverland, continues to be the cutest kid working in film. If August Rush fails at all, it is in the choice to cast Robin Williams as the half Fagan/half Bono character of Wizard. Whenever Williams appears on screen, the film’s gears seize up. A walking parody, Williams is a liability for the film, not an asset.

Reminiscent of 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus, August Rush is unapologetically supercharged with hope and optimism. The film doesn’t have a drop of cynicism in it. No, fairy tales do not reflect reality. But then, that is exactly why we so desperately need them.


Hitman is the oddest of action movies — a film that is all but devoid of action. Not satisfied with simply being another mindless video game adaptation, the film also forgets to be entertaining.

Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) works for one of those shadowy trans-government organizations referred to, imaginatively enough as, “The Organization.” Trained since childhood as a ruthless gun for hire, Agent 47 derives his unique moniker from the last two digits of the barcode tattooed on the nape of his neck. (Note to super-secret assassins working for ubiquitous clandestine organizations: if stealth and a low profile are important to you, I recommend against tattooing giant barcodes on the back of your bald heads. Just a thought. Take it or leave it). Agent 47 has no name. He is just a number. (Get it? OK, I’ll stop now).

While on an assignment to assassinate the Russian president (Ulrich Thomsen), Agent 47 finds himself embroiled in a political takeover. Suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted. As The Organization, the Russian military and Interpol (led by Dougray Scott) close in, Agent 47 desperately tries to connect the dots and find out who set him up and why. But the greatest threat to his survival just may be his own conscience — a decidedly alien emotion aroused in him by the beautiful but damaged prostitute, Nika (Olga Kurylenko).

Hitman was embroiled in problems throughout its lighting-fast production schedule, the most serious of which was the firing (and subsequent re-hiring) of its French director, Xavier Gens’ for making the film too violent and bloody. At one time, the studio considered paring the violence in the film down in order to ensure a PG-13 rating, but eventually relented, kept the R-rating, and simply made the violence more palatable.

That actually explains a lot.

Usually films like this are fueled by pure kinetic energy. They move so fast and make so much noise that you don’t realize, until the credits begin to roll, that there was no story. Hitman doesn’t even grant you that. The action is as sparse as the script, which feels like a CliffsNotes version of a longer screenplay distilled down to the bare minimum of a verb here and a noun there. The result is a plot so thin as to border on translucence.

Say what you will about these paint-by-number action films, they often employ a dazzling sort of physical grace and violent elegance. But Hitman cinematographer Laurent Barès goes for grainy and overexposed and calls it stylish; composer Geoff Zanelli cut and pastes the soundtrack from the Bourne films and calls it his own; and Olyphant, who looks good from the neck up, moves with an peculiar, unimposing physicality.

A few months from now, Hitman will be released on DVD with the theatrical cut and perhaps even a director’s cut. Save yourself the trouble and the money and watch the only decent cut out there — the trailer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Mist

You don’t have much faith in humanity, do you?

None whatsoever.

I can’t accept that. People are basically good. Decent. My God, David, we’re a civilized society!

Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. You take those things away, toss people in the dark, scare the shit out of them — no more rules — and you’ll see how primitive they get.

Scare people bad enough, you’ll get them to do anything. They’ll turn to whatever promises a solution. Grasp at any straw.

Going into The Mist, I never thought I’d see a more nihilistic film this year than No Country For Old Men. Boy was I wrong.

Based on a novella by Stephen King, The Mist is the story of a small, rural town in Maine that is enveloped in a pervasive, impenetrable white fog within which horrific, carnivorous creatures undetectably hunt their human prey. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) are among a group of terrified townspeople trapped in a local grocery store when the otherworldly mist roils into town. It isn’t long before David realizes that some thing — wraithlike and terrifying — is hiding in the mist. He has trouble convincing the others until one by one they begin getting picked off.

As their numbers shrink, the impromptu community becomes increasingly divided. Do they stay and barricade the plate-glass façade of the store in hopes it will keep out whatever wants in, or do they make a run for it, hoping against hope that they can escape and find rescue? Imperiling the situation even further is Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), a Bible-thumper whose apocalyptic tirades sound implausible at first but garner ever more superstitious disciples as things continue to deteriorate. Other than the book of Revelation, from which she reads and quotes liberally, Mrs. Carmody is someone who has spent little time in the New Testament. Her’s is an Old Testament God, full of violent wrath and brimstone punishment. Carmody sees the mist as a heavenly retribution for humankind’s wickedness, a prelude to the end of the world.

Their survival depends on everyone pulling together, but as the fractures continue, reason gives way to fear and panic, and the real monsters are revealed to be, not in the mist, but in their midst. The thin veneer of civilization is pulled away and the true horror is revealed to be none other than us.

This is Frank Darabont’s third feature-length adaptation of a work by master of horror Stephen King, the first two being The Shawshank Redemption (which has gone on to become one of the most beloved films of the 20th century) and The Green Mile. Ironically enough, Darabont is known as a far classier director than he regards himself, an anomaly directly tied to the success of his resume since Shawshank. However, Darabont got his start in Hollywood working in the horror genre, having penned The Fly II, The Blob remake, and Nightmare on Elm Street 3. With The Mist, Darabont has returned to that in which he is most comfortable.

Although Darabont insists The Mist is an unabashed horror film, it gleefully plays more like a B-Sci Fi monster movie from the 1950s, as if it is wholly unaware the genre ever went out of style. More to the point, it feels like an old radio drama of the 1940s to which moving pictures have been added.

Darbont’s script vacillates somewhere between pitch-perfect and hyper-literate — not the sort we’d find, say, in something written by Aaron Sorkin, but the kind of sentences that have been run through a computer thesaurus to convert everyday vocabulary into language the author doesn’t comprehend but certainly makes him sound smarter.

Compounding this problem, characters are written to act unbelievably. When half a dozen people tell Andre Bragher’s skeptical New York lawyer that they were just attacked by a tentacled beast in a back room and chopped off an appendage as proof, he is unwilling to even walk the few steps to confirm their story. The script needs a single-minded doubting Thomas and it will have one, whether he acts like any rational human being would or not. Marcia Gay Harden’s Mrs. Carmody cannot help but become a caricature, no matter how exemplary her acting — it was inevitably from the first draft of the script. Thomas Jane, best know for The Punisher, competently and assuredly leads a respectable ensemble cast that also includes Laurie Holden, Toby Jones, William Sadler and Frances Sternhagen.

The cause of the mist is reveled to be a military experiment that went horribly wrong while trying to open a gateway to another dimension. Why is it that when you open a portal to another world, what comes out always wants to eat you? The digital monsters, resembling grotesque aberrations of spiders, birds, bugs, and 50-foot-high crabs, are mostly convincing, but we can’t shake the feeling that we’ve seen them somewhere — perhaps a dozen somewheres — before.

Don’t expect Darbont’s usual shimmering cinematography and graceful camerawork. The Mist is seen through handheld cameras that shake to and fro and crash-zoom on the chaotic action. While the action could have used tighter, more rapid edits, the handheld style, so popular today, works well for the story.

Darabont admits to being “a little pissed off at mankind lately” and it shows. This Sci Fi/Horror mongrel is a modern day “Lord of the Flies,” a horrific morality tale that uses the mist and its monsters as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in order to examine the way in which civilization evaporates in the face of catastrophe.

Ultimately, the film finds nothing hopeful about humankind. The final moments of The Mist are consumed with utter, complete despondency. You anticipate where the narrative is driving, but cannot imagine your assumptions are correct. Whereas King’s novella ends ambiguously, Darabont has fashioned a denouement that just may be the most nihilistic I have ever witnessed in a film.

Monday, November 19, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coen brothers from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, is, quite simply, a flawless film. What is, perhaps, most amazing is that a film this terrifying, this violent, and this relentlessly nihilistic should also be this enthralling. If you see only one more movie this year, make sure it is this one.

While hunting in Texas’ desolate backcountry, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the grisly scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Bullet-ridden bodies, bathed in crimson and bloating in the hot sun, litter the ground. Hundreds of pounds of cocaine sit unmolested in the back of one of the abandoned pickup trucks. A large satchel full of $2 million dollars rests under a nearby shade tree, clutched in the rigored hands of a man who no longer has any use for it. Stupid enough to think he can get away with it, Moss takes the money and runs.

But someone is coming for the money: the nightmarish apparition of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an expressionless sociopath with a goofy haircut who speaks in riddles, flips coins for human lives, and wields and an awkward, if terrifying weapon. It isn’t long before Moss realizes Chigurh, relentless and seemingly unstoppable, is the predator and he is the prey. No matter how well he prepares, no matter where he flees, Chirgurh is never far behind. The two men engage in a lethal game of cat and mouse across hundreds of miles, leaving gory collateral damage in their wake.

But Chirgurh isn’t the only one looking for Moss. Local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out the clues for himself and hopes to get to Moss before Chirgurh does. Sheriff Bell knows his stuff. Patient and unflappable, he has seen it all…until now. It used to be that God, justice, and morality were something Bell could count on. Not anymore. Gone are the days when Bell felt he could make a difference, or even comprehended the evil he was charged to prevent. Exhausted, disillusioned and “overmatched,” Sheriff Bell has decided to retire. Finding Moss is the last thing he will do while in uniform.

No Country for Old Men marks a blistering return to form for the Coen brothers, and ranks alongside their superlative black masterpiece, Fargo. You will not see a more technically perfect film this year. No Country for Old Men takes its time, but is never remotely boring. Cinematographer Roger Deakin’s sunburnt photography is sparse, forlorn, and luxuriant. The film has a methodical, disciplined, exquisite attention to detail. Nothing is too small to capture the Coen’s attention.

The film squeamishly dwells on its violence, clinically rather than voyeuristically. With an instinctual understanding of Hitchcock’s rule that what we don’t see is far scarier than what we do see, the Coens have assembled scenes of quiet terror. Floorboards groan and shadows slink beneath doors, generating enough tension to make the most hardened moviegoer crawl out of their skin.

The dialogue in No Country for Old Men is raw, staccato, violent, and straight as an arrow, suffused with the dark comedy and exaggerated dialects for which the Coens are known. The humor, as in Fargo, is black, deadpan and bizarro. Each performance is faultless. Every character, no matter how minor, arrives on screen fully formed.

Brolin is terrific as the bewildered everyman who doesn’t know when to quit. He has had a good year. Best known as the older brother in 1985’s The Goonies, Brolin has exploded onto screens this year, giving superb performances in The Valley of Elah, American Gangster and Grindhouse. Tommy Lee Jones plays the character he’s perfected over the last decade — hound-dog faced, world-weary and cranky. There is a reason directors keep asking him to roll out his trademark — no one can do it half as well.

But years from now, when No Country for Old Men is still spoken of with reverent tones, it is Javier Bardem who will most often come up in conversation. Bardem’s terrifying predator is destined to become the stuff of movie folklore, a villain for the ages, spoken of in the same breath as Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.

This riveting adaptation of McCarthy's text is remarkably faithful, not just to the author’s narrative, but also to his pervasively bleak worldview. McCarthy doesn’t allow for salvation or redemption, so don’t look for it here. God is spoken of often, but never seen — he is Gilroy’s “absentee landlord” or worse, dead at Nietzsche’s hand. No Country for Old Men is a film in which human beings are powerless to alter their destiny, where compassion imperils, and where those from whom you run the hardest distract you from those you never saw coming.

“You know how this is going to turn out don’t you,” one character asks another. In McCarthy's world of stifling randomness and chance, there is only one bloody certainty.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


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

Written anonymously around AD700, “Beowulf” is the oldest and greatest epic in the English language. Despite the fact that its storyline encompasses Viking Scandinavia, the roughly 3000-line poem is the solitary major surviving work of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry. The story, required reading in most high school and college English literature classes, is the foundation for all our modern hero myths, from King Arthur to Conan the Barbarian.

Robert Zemeckis, the creative genius behind such films as the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away, here uses his charming but flawed The Polar Express as a technical springboard to reimagine the epic myth of Beowulf (watch two very different and very impressive trailers here and here) for a 21st century audience. The reason filmmakers return to the well of animation time and again is simple: with animation, you are restrained only by your own imagination. What makes Beowulf the best of both worlds is that it incorporates near photo-realism with animation’s visual autonomy. Zemeckis and his team have tackled the hybrid medium in a manner that is surely the vanguard of things to come. To call Beowulf a flawed, yet evolutionary leap forward in cinema may not be too great a compliment.

Like the poem, the film can be divided into roughly three acts. In the first, the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), roused from his cave (the outside of which looks like something plucked from the mind of Caspar David Friedrich and the inside of which is vaulted with trusses that look disturbingly like a titanic human ribcage) by the merriment of the drunken lout, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his reveling Danes, attacks the mead hall, slaughtering and devouring his victims. Hrothgar sends out a medieval distress call to which the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his band of men respond. After a cataclysmic confrontation with the beast, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his torso, leaving the troll to limp back to his cave to die.

In the second act, Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) seeks vengeance and goes on a devastating bloodletting, butchering all of Beowulf’s men. This leads to a confrontation in the monster’s cave from which Beowulf returns with yet another tale of struggle and gallant victory. But is our hero telling the whole truth?

In the final act, we jump decades into the future, after Beowulf has become king of Hrothergar’s kingdom and taken Hrothgar’s young queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) as his wife. Beowulf presides over a sprawling kingdom that has fallen into lethargy and territorial squabbles. But such issues are forgotten when a massive dragon appears in the skies and sets itself on destroying Beowulf and all he holds dear.

The “Beowulf” poem does not find its way to screen unmolested. Several alterations have been made. Numerous characters and events have been deleted. But, what is, perhaps, most shocking is not what has been excluded, but what has been added. Screenwriters Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman (Stardust) examined the legend on a cellular level and decided to address the glaring inconsistencies, disjoined plot points and unreliable narration that have always plagued the work and earned the ire of certain academics. They have created a “unified field theory” that not only draws disparate stories together and elucidates plot holes, but actually contributes to the existing scholarship.

Scholars agree that when “Beowulf” was originally written, it was a distinctly pagan document later embroidered with Christian symbolism by the monks responsible for its duplication. Screenwriters Gaiman and Avery have actually taken the spiritual imagery even further, heightening Christianity’s clash with the pagan Norse religions and orienting a plot that is shot through with Biblical imagery.

At the very heart of this new Beowulf is the theme of sin and consequence. The film reveals that the temptations we give into, however small, harmless or pleasurable they may seem, often return when we least expect them, rabid and famished for blood. In Beowulf, one character’s sin, which appears as little more than a miniscule indiscretion, quite literally grows into a destructive force beyond human comprehension. The sins of the father are not just visited on the son, but on all those unlucky enough to be near the transgressor. “We men are the monsters now,” Beowulf tells his best friend and comrade in arms, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson).

Beowulf is every bit as interested in Faustian bargains as the temptations that set those bargains in motion. Grendel’s naked mother, oozing sex and seduction, and whispering flattering praise, is temptation personified. But the image she chooses to take is not her real form. It is only a masquerade with which to ensnare her prey — her true form is a reptilian monstrosity little different than her misshapen son and every bit as deadly. Like those things that tempt us to stray from the righteous path, her physical sensuality is a mask for her lethality.

Zemeckis, Avery and Gaiman’s Beowulf is not the towering, infallible hero one might expect, but a deeply flawed, all too human man with faults and weaknesses, chief among them hubris and pride. Beowulf sees himself as invincible. He has come to believe in the songs sung about him in mead halls. Worse, while irrefutably emboldened with might and valor, he has taken to exaggerating his exploits, polishing them with little embellishments. But his lies and the indiscretions they camouflage, return to haunt him when he is an old man, and all too aware of his shortcomings and sins.

By utilizing the most modern technology, Zemeckis has breathed new life into an ancient tale. Zemeckis and his special effects wizards accomplished their task much in the same way that Peter Jackson transformed a man in black spandex into the troll Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In “performance capture,” minute digital sensors are attached to actors’ bodies allowing computers to interpret the data as movement and generate fluid, lifelike dynamism within a wholly virtual environment. Most of the animated characters resemble their real-life doppelgangers, with the exception of John Malkovich’s Unferth and Winston’s (far slimmer) Beowulf avatar. For Beowulf, the animators’ inspiration was simple — a six-foot-six, incredibly muscular, Norse Jesus Christ.

The performance capture technology is distracting at first precisely because it is so new, and by its very nature, calls attention to itself. Instead of letting yourself be washed away by the story, you find yourself studying the mechanisms that made the story possible in the first place. Gradually, the technology fades into the background, and finally becomes utterly indispensable. Why the filmmakers choose this particular medium may not, at first, be obvious, but by the end, will be abundantly clear.

Grendel is envisioned as a putrid, rotted, decomposing corpse with great fissures in his scaly skin where flesh should be. He lumbers around, muttering in all but indecipherable Old English (the poem’s original tongue). Peculiarly enough, it is precisely this grotesque deformation that ensures he is the most believable of all the characters.

Where the performance capture technology fails is with the human face. The animators have yet to find a way to convincingly render the face with all of its nuance and subtly of emotion. If the eyes are indeed the windows of the soul, then Beowulf’s characters’ souls are impenetrable. They are emotionless, plastic zombies with dead gazes.

Beowulf pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating. If the film had been live action instead of animated, it would certainly garner a hard R-rating. The violence and gore is pervasive. Grendel rips and tears bodies apart and chews them up with relish. Though the film never indulges in any explicit sexual situations, it does inject plenty of innuendo. The film gives equal opportunity to both male and female nudity. Early on, Beowulf battles Grendel in the nude, a primal, animalistic fight that, thanks to a few well placed props, hides Beowulf’ more vulnerable bits, Austen Powers style. Later, when Beowulf confronts Grendel’s mother, she rises from the water of the cave, all shapes and curves and long, unbroken lines. Covered in a thin veneer of gold lacquer, the siren’s nudity is like that of a mannequin, curvatous but anatomically indistinct.

Robert Zemeckis, who began as a Spielberg protégé, has forged his own path as a bold director who, like George Lucas and James Cameron, is perpetually pushing the limits of the cinematic medium. Beowulf may very well represent “a” future of film, though certainly not “the” sole future. Very few people remain concerned that CGI will one day replace actors, but Zemeckis is pointing the way toward a day in which such usurpation could be possible…and believable.

NOTE: Beowulf is being released in both 2-D and 3-D formats. I have always found 3-D distracting and not worth the effort. Beowulf changed all that for me. Watching the film in 3-D was a spellbinding and enthralling experience and, if possible, certainly the preferred option of viewing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera is based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who, in 1982, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his luxuriant body of work. After viewing this film adaptation of one of his most beloved works, you will be faced with one of two conclusions: either the Nobel committee has lost all credibility, or Marquez made a appalling blunder in allowing his book to be refashioned for the screen.

Love in the Time of Cholera is about a young Colombian clerk named Florentino Ariza (played by Unax Ugalde as a teenager and Javier Bardem as an adult) who, while on a routine errand, catches site of the beautiful Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) through an open window. The course of his entire life is altered with just the single glance. Possessed of a poet’s heart, the poor Florentino woes the wealthy Fermina through letters and gradually she falls for him. But when her father, Lorenzo Daza (John Leguizamo), a trader whose finery cannot mask his gutter roots, discovers that the two young people intend to be married, he packs his daughter off for the Columbian interior where she vanishes from Florentino’s sight.

But Florentino is a man singularly possessed and time cannot dull his adoration. Tragically, Fermina returns to the city of Cartagena many years later, where she is married to the handsome Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), a physician who has made a name for himself battling a devastating outbreak of cholera. Distraught, Florentino throws himself into his work, eventually becoming a wealthy ship owner, and turns to promiscuity as a means to cure the ache in his heart. The Wilt Chamberlain of his time, he records each of his sexual encounters in a diary, detailing more than 600 entries before the film’s end. Although he is not physically faithful to Fermina, Florentino remains hers emotionally, biding his time — even if it be 51 years, nine months and four days — until he can be with her again.

Director Mike Newell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood’s Love in the Time of Cholera is a lush, handsome film that looks to have been shot entirely in a tropical botanical garden. It uses a horrific disease as a metaphor — like cholera, love is indiscriminate, consuming some and sparing others.

Unfortunately, the film’s polished veneer cannot mask its glaring failings. Listless, poorly scripted, badly acted and displaying an unforgivable misinterpretation of its source material, Love in the Time of Cholera is easily one of the worst adaptations of a great book ever mounted.

Spanish actor Bardem is terrific as the adult Florentino, though he plays the part with such shy awkwardness that we never buy that hundreds of women could have thrown themselves so enthusiastically into his bed. Italian Mezzogiorno casts spells with her haunting, hollow, watery eyes, and Bratt strides through the film with a surprisingly regal presence. But it is the woefully miscast John Leguizamo who truly stands out. There is a thin line between larger-than-life and caricature, but Leguizamo was so busy parodying exuberant Latin stereotypes that he unsuspectingly vaulted across it and never once looked back.

Leguizamo’s hammy performance is but one instance of inappropriate comedy in the film. Moments of unintended hilarity are bad enough; moments of deliberate yet thoroughly incongruous comedy are unforgivable, and Love in the Time of Cholera is stocked with them.

Love in the Time of Cholera spans more than half a century, making it necessary to age the actors, in some cases from teenagers to elderly matrons. This works better for some than others. While Bardem is aged impeccably, it is as if the filmmakers were afraid to show the ravages of time on Mezzogiorno’s face, fearful, perhaps, that we will not accept Florentino’s undiminished love for his Fermina if she succumbs to the natural progression of time. Instead Fermina remains virtually unchanged well into her 70s, while Florentino becomes stooped and hobbled.

As great as all these faults are, they pale in comparison and may, in fact, have been forgiven, had the script not overlooked its single most important objective — convince us that Florentino and Fermina ever possessed a love worth waiting a lifetime for. Not enough time is given to love’s first blush to persuade us of its later unwavering steadfastness. So many films such as this rush toward the bulk of the plot, forgetting that, if a believable, even seductive prelude is not established, the resolution is doomed before it begins.

I couldn’t help but think about Memoirs of a Geisha while watching this film. Geisha, like Cholera was based on an acclaimed novel of breathtakingly rich detail and subtle, understated nuance. Unfortunately, Geisha was directed with all the subtly of the Las Vegas strip. Similarly, Love in the Time of Cholera’s source material — a story of intimate, interior journeys — demanded restraint and delicacy but was instead translated for the screen with slapstick bombast and scene-chewing melodrama.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lions for Lambs

Lions for Lambs is peculiarly unique in my movie-going experience. I can’t remember the last time I saw film that I both disliked and want to see again as soon as possible.

Lions for Lambs is three stories on parallel tracks. In the first, skeptical reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is granted an interview with neocon Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), a lawmaker with the president’s ear and the architect of a new battle strategy to shore up America’s failing ambitions in Afghanistan. Cruise is the perfect actor to play the passionately earnest, if misguided statesman. In his first film since his infamous PR meltdown, Cruise oozes his trademark charm, but cannot conceal a certain venire of guile. While Senator Irving comes across as whitewashing reality and instituting a too-little-too-late policy, he is never caricatured as malicious or dim-witted. Streep’s veteran journalist is world-weary, jaded and coming apart at the seams. She would be equally enraged at Irving’s spin and her own political lethargy if she had any stamina left with which to respond.

In the second story, Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) sits in an office besieged by books, trying desperately to convince loafing student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) that his blistering promise and potential is needed now more than ever. In the most heartfelt of the segments, director Redford, who is one of those singular vintages who just gets better with age, reveals his hand — a young, engaged, empathetic population is the key and indeed, the only hope to salvaging our national virility.

In trying to persuade his slacker student, Malley evokes Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), two formers students from the wrong side of the tracks who translated their selfless idealism into potent action by joining the Army, a decision Malley esteemed but with which he vehemently disagreed. This third arm of the story finds the two Special Forces soldiers trapped alone on a snowy Afghan mountaintop with the enemy closing in fast.

Lions for Lambs borrows its title from a remark made during World War I by a German officer commenting on the bravery of British soldiers in contrast to the criminal stupidity of their commanders. Redford does not even try to hide the fact that he views the current political leadership in America and the men and women who fight for it, in the same light.

The seventh film under his tutelage, Lions for Lambs may be Redford’s most unremarkable insofar as technique is concerned, but his bravest in terms of subject matter. This is obviously an issue for which he has great conviction.

Lions for Lambs is the sort of uber-preachy film for which conservatives love to eviscerate liberals. Though Redford obviously places blame with conservatives for getting America into Iraq, his fellow liberals do not escape unscathed. Redford charges them with collusion during and apathy after. In fact, a broad spectrum, from educators to the media to a listless public all fall under Redford’s sights.

The problem is, for all of its good intentions and clear-eyed idealism, Lions for Lambs is not a movie, it is a political science lecture. The film is almost nothing but talking, interspersed with a bit of pacing here and there. Once in a great while something blows up. Conversation — even that of the very best and most erudite kind — inherently lacks drama. The dense and undeniably intelligent script is somewhat fascinating, if only minutely compelling.

The theater and the classroom are not the same medium — if this exact same discussion were to have taken place in a college lecture hall, it would constitute one of the most rousing days ever spent in academia. But as a film, Lions for Lambs fails completely.

Too dense for its own good, viewers will be appropriately impressed by the sheer amount and delivery of screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan’s prose, but will probably be unable to retain anything more than fragments and colors of its meaning. For this reason alone, I am interested in dissecting the film a second time — if I’m able to stay awake.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Continuing Trek Casting News

Now that we know who will be manning the starship Enterprise bridge, it's high time we find out who else will be popping up in the new Star Trek movie, directed by LOST's J.J. Abrams, which, incidentally, began principle photography this week, just ahead of the writer's strike.

Earlier, it was announced that Eric Bana would appear as a bad guy named, Nero.

Now, it's confirmed that Alias' Rachel Nichols is aboard for a as of yet undisclosed role...

...Bruce Greenwood (an actor I've always liked) is set to play Capt. Christopher Pike, who, as the mythology tells us, commanded the Enterprise before Kirk, and was the main character of the first failed Trek pilot...

...and Winona Ryder will appear as Spock's mother, Amanda.

Fred Claus

Am I allowed to say that I did not like Fred Claus? Does it make me a Scrooge to recommend that this is one piece of holiday coal you should leave in your stocking?

Many years ago, in my first and only stand-up comedy routine, I complained about how difficult if would have been if you were one of Jesus Christ’s siblings. “What do you mean you know I did it?! Why don’t you ever blame Jesus? Oh sure, cuz he’s perfect!” You get the general idea.

In Fred Claus, Hollywood took the same idea and applied it to Santa “Nick” Claus. What must it have been like to live in the very large shadow of someone who is beloved the world over for his acts of kindness and benevolence? Not easy, judging by how older brother, Fred turned out. (For anyone sensing a Godfather nod, you’re right on target).

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Fred (Vince Vaughn) took on the role of the black sheep of the family, moving to Chicago where he became a fast-talking, down on his luck, repo man. Over the objections of his wife, Nick (Paul Giamatti) invites Fred to the North Pole to help with the Christmas preparations and make some extra money. But Fred isn’t exactly the holly jolly type and soon this sibling rivalry flares up, pitting brother against brother.

As if things weren’t already bad enough, Mr. Northcutt (Kevin Spacey) shows up as an efficiency expert with hard data showing that Santa’s mom and pop operation is getting clobbered by Internet purchases. Northcutt has orders from the board to consolidate Santa’s operation, outsource as much of it as possible, and, if improvements are not immediately made, shut the North Pole down entirely. A modern Ebenezer Scrooge, Northcutt is not above a little sabotage in making sure Santa gets the pink slip.

The question, “Does Santa have a family?” is an interesting one, with lots of comic potential. But unfortunately, the script doesn’t go far enough with it, preferring instead to dwell on the Northcutt subplot that, frankly, we’ve seen in these sorts of films several times already. There are some nice bits at a “Sibling Rivalry Anonymous” gathering complete with Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin, but overall the jokes are all recycled.

Director David Dobkin, who helmed the uproarious Wedding Crashers, finds his zippy, racy humor hamstrung by the necessary family-friendly storyline. His cast, which also includes Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Kathy Bates and Rachel Weisz (who sounds like a female version of the Geico lizard) is terrific, but they aren’t given much to work with. Vaughn, ever the adolescent stuck in an adult’s body, has a great ability to be both naughty and nice, despicable and lovable, but even his over-the-top antics can’t hide the fact that this story is built on some pretty shaky stuff.

You can see Fred Claus trying desperately to grab hold of the comic goldmine that Vaughn’s past co-star, Jon Favreau generated with his 2003 film, Elf. But it doesn’t try nearly hard enough. Fred Claus is replete with far-from-seamless digital effects, and oddly dark, dramatic moments that play with perfect menace — except for that fact that they have no earthly business being in a brainless, feather-weight comedy like this.

If you chose to indulge in Fred Claus, don’t expect to come out of the theater emboldened with the Christmas spirit. Though you will probably be singing a carol or two, and I suppose that counts for something.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl

How exactly do you pitch a film like Lars and the Real Girl?

“Picture this: a painfully shy young man orders a sex doll on the Internet and takes it with him everywhere he goes.”

I’m sure studios were lining up with their wallets out. Well, if they weren’t, they should have been. Lars and the Real Girl is an incontestable delight (and not even remotely the risqué film some might assume it to be).

Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is not simply socially awkward, he’s socially inept. Unable to stand the touch of another human being, he prefers to sit alone in the dark, wrapped in the small blanket his mother knitted when he was born. Lars lives in the garage apartment behind his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin’s (Emily Mortimer) house. Karin has made it her mission in life to extract the damaged but gentle Lars from his shell, constantly inviting him over for dinner despite his pitiful excuses as to why he is always unavailable.

One night Lars unexpectedly shows up on their doorstep with an announcement. He has a girlfriend. Is it Lars’ perky co-worker, Margo (Kelli Garner) who is always watching him from the church choir loft? Overjoyed at the news, Gus and Karin are stunned when Lars reveals a life-sized love doll whom he calls Bianca. He’s even invented an airtight back story: Bianca is a half-Brazilian, half-Danish paraplegic missionary raised by nuns who has come to the States for furlough after meeting Lars online. She’s “very religious,” of course, and would need to stay in Gus and Karin’s guest room.

Is Lars putting on an act? It doesn’t appear that way. He treats Bianca the same in private as he does in public.

Gus is appalled and considers having his brother committed, while Karin’s leveler head sees some glimmer of hope in Lars’ actions, however absurd they may be. When Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, who brings a deeply compassionate intelligence to the role) recommends playing along until they can determine what part of Lars desperately needs Bianca to exist, the whole town gets into the act. While Lars drags Bianca everywhere, even to church, the small Wisconsin town in which he lives welcomes her as if she were every bit as real as Lars believes her to be. For them, Lars — eccentricities and all — is worth the compassion and even the benefit of the doubt.

Lars and the Real Girl is directed by Craig Gillespie (who incongruously enough also directed this summer’s critically and commercially panned Mr. Woodcock) and written by Nancy Oliver (“Six Feet Under”). If the plot sounds like the perfect set-up for a raunchy comedy, think again. Bianca may have been manufactured for sex, but Lars’ relationship with her is completely chaste. Indeed, the film blessedly never once indulges in even a hint of smut, even though there were so many opportunities where it could have.

This is not to say that a grown man lugging around an anatomically correct sex doll doesn’t have inherently funny scenes. But Lars' genuine humor erupts from the quietist, most unexpected moments, not the widely telegraphed ones to which a lesser film would succumbed.

Ryan Gosling is one of the finest actors we have. His performance is a study in serenity, control and tone — too little and we’d never buy his delusion; too much and we’d be looking for a straitjacket with Gus. But Gosling plays Lars with pinpoint control and quirky believability, delivering a performance that is never creepy and always endearing.

Lars and the Real Girl’s magic lies in its total sincerity. The characters in the film play it straight and we take our cues for how to respond based upon their actions. As the community folds Lars and Bianca into their lives, so do we. So strong is Lars’ attachment and his friends’ commitment to kindness, that we suddenly find personality where before there had been only silicone. If Frank Capra made a film about a man, his sex doll, and the nostalgically caricatured community in which they lived, this would be it.

The Wisconsin landscape is like something out of a Bergman film — cold, hard, iced over and spartan. You half expect the characters to speak in Swedish. The film is even suffused with Bergman’s religious undertones, though none of his dark doubt.

Sure, this quiet, little film is implausible, but if you look at Lars and the Real Girl as a sort of parable, the film’s logic begins to make its own charming sense. You see the hard-fought, satisfying conclusion coming, slowly working its way toward you, and still you are moved. (Hint: the title is Lars and the Real Girl, not Lars and the Fake Girl.) When you feel tears well up in your eyes, or hear giggles in the dark, you know the movie has spun its magic.

Don’t let Lars’ off-putting premise turn you off to what is one of the most life affirming, gratifying films you’ll see this year. In a world of fakes, Lars is the real deal.

Days of Heaven

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

Just as Days of Heaven relies on its painterly images and jettisons every scrap of irrelevant dialogue to tell its story, so too is it difficult to capture in words a formal description befitting a film as wondrous as this.

In a career spanning 40 years, director Terrence Malick has made only four feature length films. Yet each is regarded as an undisputed masterpiece and Malick himself as one of cinema’s most extraordinary artists.

Told through the eyes of an innocent child (Linda Manz), Days of Heaven, Malick’s second film, tells the story of two lovers, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) who pretend to be brother and sister after fleeing Chicago to work on a Texas wheat farm. The wealthy owner of the farm (Sam Shepard) is dying of a terminal illness and Bill conceives of a plan in which Abby gets the farmer to fall in love with her, so that when he dies, all his assets will become theirs. Bill’s plan seems to be succeed, but when the farmer’s health improves, Bill finds he cannot sit idly by watching Abby in the arms of another man. A confrontation of Biblical proportions is inevitable.

Days of Heaven needs no more plot summation than that. The film is more silent film than traditional narrative. Though it was scripted and even shot with a conventional through-line, Malick took two years cutting the film together, paring away every superfluous syllable. Malick does not care about narrative velocity or structured plot. His films are sense impressions, dream images—fragmented, impressionistic and completely unconventional.

Forget the trite praise for the painter Thomas Kinkade—it is Malick who truly paints with light. His films are suffused with it. You can feel its very texture. Taste it on the tip of your tougue. His cinematography is Vermeer in motion.

Malick’s vision—prolonged, contemplative and visually indulgent—needs to be experienced, not seen. He is more poet than filmmaker, philosopher than director, an artist so in tune with the lyricism of the natural world that he comes across as part of it rather than its mere observer. Nature is not simply another character in his films—it is his only character. Human beings are superfluous.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bee Movie

Making a movie that kids will like does not, necessarily, make it a good movie. Case in point, Bee Movie.

The thriving metropolis of New Hive City lies in the Sheep Meadow, just off Turtle Pond on the Upper West Side of New York City’s Central Park. Within its honeycombed walls, the latest class of youngsters are graduating from bee school and preparing to start work within the only career open to them, the honey-making conglomerate Honex.

But recent graduate Barry (Jerry Seinfeld) is one bee who wants to be more. He shuns the uber-efficient hive mentality and the prospect of doing the same job for the rest of his life. (In a moment only the adults will get, Barry hides from his parent’s incessant nagging about his indecisiveness at the bottom of a swimming pool of honey, an explicit homage to the famous scene in The Graduate.) Barry finds his chance to escape his preordained existence while hanging out with the “pollen jocks,” macho Top Gun aviators who are the only bees allowed to leave the hive.

Barry’s adventures in the outside world are both wondrous and treacherous. During one encounter, his imperiled life is saved by the kindly florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger, who even sounds adorable), who is surprised to find bees can talk. Barry and Venessa strike up a friendship that is put to the test when Barry discovers that humans harvest honey for their own consumption. Flabbergasted that they would steal what rightfully belongs to his kind, Barry does what any self-respecting bee would do: he sues the human race. His actions lead to some unintended and disastrous consequences, not to mention a from-left-field moral lecture.

Producer-writer-star Jerry Seinfeld, long sought for animation work, has collected a hive of talent for Bee Movie, but unfortunately, most of it is put to the service of a surprisingly unoriginal and humdrum story.

Bee Movie's largest failing is that it never tries to find its own internal logic, a set of rules that would allow for conversations between bees and humans, much less the increasingly ridiculous events of the latter half of the film. Unlike the inherent logic between, for example, the critter and the human chef in this summer’s tremendous Ratatouille, Bee Movie has moments of wild absurdity that feel out of place, even in a cartoon. The film works too hard for its funny moments and comes away goofy rather than whimsical.

Which isn’t to say that Bee Movie doesn’t have delightful moments. There are funny bits as bugs do what bugs do: become mesmerized by bright lights, smack repeatedly into windows, collect on car windshields, etc. Patrick Warburton, best known for his role as Puddy on “Seinfeld” but also a talented voice actor who stole the show as Kronk in the underrated The Emperor’s New Groove, is great as Vanessa’s beefcake-without-brains boyfriend. There are dozens of humorous pop references in which stars from Sting to Larry King make appearances. And when Barry and his “pollen jocks” squadron leave the duocrome order of the hive for an exuberant flight through a Central Park bursting with color, it is the one moment of the film in which we too soar.

The animal kingdom has always been ripe for cartoonists’ pens. Everything from mice to fish, dinosaurs to birds, dogs to cats has been anthropomorphized with animated relish. The ultimate example of animated insects was undoubtedly Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. But, Dreamworks Animation, no matter how hard it tries, is no Pixar. Its films, while funny and often clever, never rise to the sheer genius Pixar seems to have in spades. Dreamworks’ animated films lack the sort of effortless charm, animated grace and satirical wit that Pixar seems to generate instinctively.

Bee Movie has enough deliriously silly moments that kids should still find it more than enough entertainment, even if their parental chaperones do not. Unfortunately, this is one film that comes close to living up to the pun of its title.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Some filmmakers produce their greatest work in their youth and then fizzle with age. Others are consistently great, producing triumph after triumph until the end of their lives. Sidney Lumet belongs in the latter camp. The 83-year-old director of 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon returns with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a sleeker, slimmer film than he’s done in some time, but very possibly his strongest work in decades.

Deriving its title from the Irish toast, “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead,” the film centers around two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the payroll manager for a large New York real-estate firm, and Hank (Ethan Hawke) who is also employed at the firm but in a far more menial capacity. Andy is the responsible and successful one, Hank the good-for-nothing screw-up. Loser or not, Hank is having an illicit affair with his brother’s trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), who spends the first half of the film in various states of undress.

The brothers both find themselves in desperate need of cash. Andy, who is afraid of losing Gina if he doesn’t improve their standard of living, has been embezzling thousands of dollars from the company as well as leading a double life at a high class, 21st century opium den. But the powers that be are growing suspicious and sniffing around. Hank is a henpecked divorcee who is months behind on his child support and in danger of losing the rights to see his increasingly hostile, pre-teen daughter.

Andy comes up with the perfect, victimless solution to all their troubles: Hank will rob a “mom and pop” jewelry store — their own mom and pop’s (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) jewelry store. Though Hank protests at first, we know he will do it — what other choice does he have? Andy’s idea seems foolproof enough. They rob the store on a weekend when their parents aren’t even there and since they know the alarm codes and safe combinations, they can be in and out without a hitch. Insurance covers their parents’ losses and they sell the jewelry on the black market. What could go wrong?

But, of course, everything goes wrong. In fact, it goes so horribly awry that everything the brothers do to buy time or fix the botched job only makes it worse. As events spiral out of control, we watch their relationship, already frayed by unresolved resentment and sibling rivalry, transform into something we could never possibly predict, leading to a shocking and inconceivable conclusion.

The plot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is telegraphed in out-of-sequence, chaptered episodes that jump backwards and forwards in time. Some of the same events that lead up to the bungled robbery, as well as those that follow it, are examined from different points of view. Although the film employs a gratingly annoying sound and editing effect to signal the transitions, the overall flow of the narrative is completely lucid. If anything, we comprehend even more, given that we’re allowed to experience events often and from different perspectives.

Lumet’s camerawork is simplistic, pared down, anything but flashy. He is confident in finding the perfect shot and sticking with it, often for the length of an entire scene. As audacious as it is unsophisticated, this choice creates an insidious sense of dread and acute, brooding claustrophobia.

Every principle in this film has either won or been nominated for an Academy Award. Hoffman is electrifying (when isn’t he?), drawing on a stronger, darker side of his persona. Hawke plays against type, convincingly portraying a weak and cowardly buffoon. He obliterates the Darwinian model of evolution, revealing that the one who survives is not necessarily the strongest, but the one who runs away the fastest.

You cannot watch Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead without thinking of Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, or the Coen Bro’s masterpiece, Fargo. Lumet even uses Coen composer Carter Burwell to ensure the two films are identified as spiritual kin. Playwright and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s script boils with palpable tension and genuine suspense. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is more akin to Greek or Shakespearian tragedy than modern filmmaking, exploring urban malaise and family dysfunction with tools as timeless as they are effective. It is a film that peels back the layers of the human psyche like onionskin, examining misery at the cellular level. It is not interested in resolutions, only motivations. Evil, it turns out, lurks close-by, often where we least expect it.