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, September 28, 2007

Lust, Caution

The premise of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is already quite familiar: a female spy attaches herself to a high-ranking enemy officer in order to learn his secrets and, ultimately, kill him. Usually, these sorts of films involve the Nazis (Paul Verhoeven’s recent Black Book comes to mind), and while Lee’s Venice Film Festival winner is indeed set during World War II, he trades the Nazis for Chinese collaborators in an oft-ignored part of 20th century history — the Japanese conquest of China.

The film opens in occupied Shanghai, circa 1941. Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) sits at a table with three older women who are busy playing mah-jongg and gossiping about their husbands. Unbeknownst to the others, Mrs. Mak’s real name is Wong Chia Chi, a member of the Chinese resistance sent on a mission to ensnare and facilitate the assassination of the husband of their hostess, Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers. When Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) shows up, it is clear, at least to us, that he and Mrs. Mak know each other beyond happenstance meetings at the gaming table. The seemingly frivolous mah-jongg games are a perfect mirror for the far more serious cat-and-mouse games also taking place.

The film jumps back in time to 1938 to reveal how Wong came to sit at the table of her enemy. A college student, Wong flees the Japanese onslaught and moves to Hong Kong where she falls in with a group of patriotic actors intent on putting on propaganda plays to stir the blood of ambivalent Chinese patrons.

Soon, the actors, led by the impassioned Kuang Yu Min (pop star Wang Leehom) decide on a charade far more elaborate and lethal. A local party official has been labeled a collaborator and the students take it upon themselves to infiltrate his inner circle and murder him. Wong becomes their willing bait and in an astonishing metamorphosis, transforms herself from a guileless schoolgirl into a dazzling seductress.

In Lust, Caution, the femme fatale is not the villain, but the heroine.

Though circumstances in 1938 go awry, the group gets a second chance three years later to draw Yee’s fly into Wong/Mrs. Mak's spider web. Or is it the other way around? Yee, now the head of the secret police, is exceptionally cautious and a cold manipulator, but he is also besotted with his wife’s playing partner and it isn’t long until he drops his guard just enough to let her in. While the two spend a large amount of the film in a ballet of conversation tinged with a subtext of desire, they soon begin a torrid affair during which some of Yee’s violent interrogation room practices come out in the bedroom.

Much has been made of the film’s problematic NC-17 rating, usually the kiss of death at the box office. To be sure, Lust, Caution’s sexuality is explicit, though never exploitative. Lee stages the sex scenes, which come late in the film, as sensual, erotic art, never exhibitionist titillation. Naked, the carnal power players continue circling each other like wild, wounded animals without any defense or armor. Is it any surprise then that their exposed hearts are penetrated? Will Wong and her rebels strike in time, or will she let her heart become involved and jeopardize all their lives?

Lust, Caution, based on a novella by the late, revered Chinese author Eileen Chang, is more than a story of political intrigue. It is an examination of shifting allegiances, the self-delusion of fragile identity, and the high price demanded for the artificiality of the masks we wear.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto casts a painterly spell with his camera, capturing a realistically drawn wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong wreathed in cigarette smoke, deepening shadows, and warm, evening light. The costumes are enchanting, composer Alexandre Desplat's music is dazzling, and screen newcomer Tang Wei, is a vision to behold, more than holding her own against the suave Leung, best known to American audiences for his role in Hero and the exquisite films of Wong Kar Wai. So why is it that this spectacularly produced film is so oddly disaffecting?

Lust, Caution moves like heavy cream or silk in a slight breeze — slow and luxurious. It seduces leisurely, artfully. Never one to pander to audience’s short attention spans, Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) has made a sober, deliberately paced, two and a half hour film that requires concentration and patience.

Nevertheless, for all Lee’s meticulous control over this immaculately nuanced melodrama-thriller, there is a surprising lack of emotional draw. Lust, Caution is flawlessly played and exceptionally beautiful, but for the most part woefully bloodless. Lee gets all of the details right and hits all the correct notes, yet for all the film’s considerable charms, we are never tempted to invest our emotions in the characters. We can see no reason why Wong would hesitate in her mission or come to care for her debonair but cold-blooded target. Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, the title is not Love, Caution.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Rumor has it that Trade is being positioned for a tidy fall release so that the film will stick in Academy voter’s minds once the Oscars come around early next year. If that is the case, its producers are bound to be monumentally disappointed. Trade is a dreadfully hollow film, empty of everything except pretension and self-importance posturing posing as art. It’s not that the film’s heart isn’t in the right place, or that its soapbox is unworthy — far from it — but the filmmaking is so amateurish and hamstrung by muddled sentimentality that it proves the old adage: the road to cinematic hell is paved with good intentions.

According to the U.S. State Department, more than 800,000 human beings are trafficked across increasingly sieve-like international borders each year, most for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Of that number, fully 80 percent are female and 50 percent are minors. Horrifyingly, most sex slaves end up in America and are never heard from again. Based on “The Girls Next Door,” an explosive expose by Peter Landesman that ran in The New York Times Magazine, Trade attempts to wrestle a vast political story with a global significance into a very compact, human story. Undoubtedly the correct approach, Trade collapses in on itself because the human story it attempts to tell is riddled with clichés and sensationalistic stereotypes.

The narrative centers on the abduction of a young Polish woman (Alicja Bachleda) and a 13-year-old Mexican girl (Paulina Gaitan) whose small-time crook brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), will stop at nothing to rescue. Shadowing the truck in which the abductees are being transported, Jorge finds himself sneaking across the border into the United States where he discovered by Ray (Kevin Kline), a lawman with a painful vendetta of his own. The film degrades into a sort of road-trip, buddy picture as Jorge, who has convinced Ray of his sister’s plight, trades barbs, xenophobic tirades and witticisms on the road to New Jersey where the girls are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder over the Internet.

As Trade progresses, it gets more and more implausible, setting up improbable situations that exist only because the script — and not any sense of reality — has fashioned them into existence. By the end, Trade feels like a bad episode of any number of TV crime shows in which a heavy-handed, overwrought score telegraphs the arrival of the good guys to save the day just in the nick of time. The film is schlocky melodrama where sincere subtlety should have been.

While Bachleda, Gaitan and Ramos perform extremely well, Kline, a great actor by anyone’s estimation, is woefully miscast. With an on again/off again Texas drawl, he is stiff and unemotional. A relationship with his wife which we see via a series of phone calls home to discuss an ailing cat, is completely unconvincing (and just plain ridiculous). His dialogue, like that of the entire script is leaden, clumsy and inert, sounding as if it has run through several language translators until it has been bleed dry of all life and consequence — all the more surprising since it came from Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright Jose Rivera, who penned the exquisite The Motorcycle Dairies. Similarly, German director Marco Kreuzpaintner’s camera never kicks it into high gear, preferring lingering, frustratingly out-of-focus shots over any sort of dramatic, narrative velocity.

Trade had all the earmarks of literate, thoughtful drama, written by a talented screenwriter, confronting a thorny political issue that plays out across an international stage, and grounded in a solid cast. So it is all the more shocking and quite frankly disappointing that the final product is an exercise in tawdry, melodramatic exploitation, more interested in sordid sensationalism than politicized thrills. This very real and very tragic problem deserved far better than this.

If there is an upside to the unfortunate mess that is Trade, it’s that the film’s producer, Roland Emmerich originally wanted to direct the film himself but was ultimately unable to find the time. It is almost inconceivable picturing the director of such films as Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow helming a picture as necessarily intimate as this one, without the script calling for the explosive end of the White House or some other such monument. Compared to what we were spared, this version might just be a masterpiece.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Kingdom

Following hard on Paul Haggis’ mournfully powerful In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom represents another Hollywood entry into this fall’s post 9/11, Iraq-conscious line-up. Of the upcoming battery of films, The Kingdom may be the most unobjectionable, accessible and ultimately, most entertaining.

Known as “the Kingdom,” Saudi Arabia, like Japan, is a country at once thoroughly modern and spectacularly ancient. Like all of the Middle East, it was carved up and partitioned by Western occupiers without any thought for tribal delineations. Its relationship with the United States is one of mutual beneficence—they supply us with oil and we supply them with arms—though neither country implicitly trusts the other. An opening timeline intersperses archival footage and news clips to explain the history of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, an essential history lesson if the viewer is to understand the complex and nuanced nature of the relationship between the two strange bedfellows.

When multiple terrorist bombs are detonated on an American base in Saudi Arabia, killing hundreds of men, women and children, an FBI anti-terrorism forensic team travels to the country to investigate. They are most certainly not welcome. The Saudis consider the incident a local matter and look upon the Americans with suspicion and distrust. FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his team (the always good Chris Cooper, the incidentally beautiful Jennifer Garner, and the hilarious but never inappropriately so, Jason Bateman) scour the blast site, examine the bodies, calculate how the audacious attack was carried out, and try to track down its perpetrator. They are determined to unravel the “who” and the “why” before protocol and red tape yank back on their ever-shortening leash.

Overseeing their every move is the stern but fair-minded Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum), a Saudi military police officer who is every bit as disgusted by terrorism as his American counterparts but under intense political, social and religious pressure to sweep them and their investigation under the rug. Al-Ghazi is our conduit into a world that feels alien and foreboding, a culture so different than our own that it hardly seems possible we inhabit the same planet. But by seeing Al-Ghazi both on the job, interacting with Fleury and his team, and at home, playing with his children, we realize our two peoples have much more in common than we have in opposition.

It would be very easy for The Kingdom to slip into a dangerously jingoistic and xenophobic experience. Indeed, early test screenings in which audiences cheered aloud as Arabs fell to a hail of American bullets, left the filmmakers deeply troubled. Were audiences able to differentiate between the terrorists and those Arabs on the side of the Americans and the terrorists, or were all Arabs seen as one, monolithic and reviled block?

Though the film goes to great lengths to separate the good guys from the bad guys, it cannot control spectators’ responses. Doubtless some may see the film as little more than “Cowboys and Indians.” That is as deeply troubling as it is painful, and only enforces the final, haunting seconds of the film in which the carnage is revealed to be just a spoke on a never-ending cycle of violence.

The final half hour of The Kingdom is jaw dropping. You may find it impossible to breathe. Reminiscent of a scene in the Tom Clancy thriller Clear and Present Danger, a caravan of SUV’s comes under attack in a narrow alley and must fight its way to safety. Despite its marketing, The Kingdom is not an action film. It is a forensic multi-murder mystery that just happens to have one of the most tension filled climaxes ever put on film.

Director Peter Berg (who helmed both the film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights) has always had a filmmaking style much like The Bourne Ultimatum’s Paul Greengrass—handheld cameras lurch after the action, lending to an organic, if slightly queasy feel—and it is exactly right for this film. Producer Michael Mann’s (the director of Heat, and Collateral) measured and deliberate influence is no less present. While the “CSI: Saudi Arabia” jokes are inevitable, The Kingdom stands as a smart, slick and very enjoyable thriller, deftly mixing Hollywood’s summer bombast with the thoughtfulness of fall season.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Slings and Arrows

A month or so ago, my favorite newsman, Scott Simon of NPR’s "Weekend Edition Saturday" interviewed Canadian actors Paul Gross and Martha Burns (Gross, who is married to Burns, is best known to American audiences as dreamy constable Benton Fraser from “Due South”) about their series “Slings and Arrows.”

Simon compared "Slings and Arrows" to the "Sopranos" and told how critics have dubbed it "the best show ever on TV." Chances are you've never heard of it. The reason is that “Slings and Arrows” is a Canadian import that only aired on the premium Sundance Channel. Intrigued, I decided to Netflix the first season. Luckily “Slings and Arrows” follows the British model: a season consists of only six episodes. Even if you were to watch every episode of the show’s three seasons, you’d still come up several episodes short of a typical American season.

The show’s title is taken from Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, and was co-created and co-written by former “Kids in the Hall” member Mark McKinney, playwright and actress Susan Coyne, and comedian Bob Martin, the Tony-award winning co-creator of Broadway's “The Drowsy Chaperone,“ all three of whom also star in the series.

“Slings and Arrows” is a moving love letter, simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the theater. It finds the clichés of backstage drama and spins them on their head. If you’ve ever been involved in the performing arts, you'll understand the art vs. commerce, boiling egos, and creative differences that go on behind the scenes of any production. Billing itself as a comedy about drama, “Slings and Arrows” is indeed side-splittingly, belly-laugh funny, but this blackly comic series has far too many moments of real, profound sadness to ever be considered a purely humorous concept.

The action is set at the fictional New Burbage Festival, a troubled Shakespearean theatre. In the first season, (trailer) New Burbage artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is killed in a car accident and his replacement is none other than Geoffrey Tennant (Gross), who was once Welles’ protégé until he suffered a nervous breakdown playing Hamlet and was committed to a psychiatric institution. It becomes immediately clear that the once venerable theater company is now living on its laurels, and that Oliver sold out artistry for crass commerciality. It is a theme that rears it ugly head throughout the series and represents one of the fundamental artistic paradoxes of our time—how to sell without selling out. It’s not bad enough that Geoffrey inherits a festival rife with commercialization, but his first production is to be (or not to be!) “Hamlet.” Add to that, his former lover, Ellen (Burns) is the festival diva with a bad attitude, an American action film star has been hired to play Hamlet, the actress portraying Ophelia can’t act worth a lick, the festival's business manager, Richard Smith-Jones (McKinney) has been convinced by American executive Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) to remake New Burbage into a shallow, superficial amusement park, and up-and-coming ingénue Kate (the luminous Rachel McAdams just prior to her discovery in The Wedding Crashers) finds herself falling for her American co-star. Oh yeah, and Oliver has returned to haunt Geoffrey as a ghost. Sound familiar!?

In season two (trailer), the production begrudgingly decides to undertake “Macbeth,” a play historically fraught with bad luck. The guest lead actor, Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies) was once brilliant but is in danger of becoming a hack. Richard, desperate for money to keep the company going, agrees to an extreme rebranding by an avant-garde advertising agency, whose head, Sanjay (Colm Feore), initiates a series of shockingly offensive advertisements. Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), a ridiculously foppish director who was originally set to direct Hamlet in season one until Geoffrey drove him out of town at the point of a stage rapier returns to helm “Romeo and Juliet” with the postmodern concept that the leads never once look at each other and are dressed as enormous chess pieces. While Geoffrey obsesses over “Macbeth,” Ellen and the rest of the crew fear for his sanity when he begins regularly conversing with the ever-present Oliver, whom only Geoffrey can see.

In the third and final season, the festival follows its stellar production of “Macbeth” with “King Lear.” But almost as soon as Geoffrey’s secures the legendary theatre actor Charles Kingman (William Hutt) as Lear, everything begins to fall apart. Kingman is angry and abusive, an aging man with a heroine addiction hiding a far more tragic secret. When Richard and Darren team up to direct a musical—the singing/dancing cast of which clash violently with the cultured Shakespearian types—its success soon overshadows the troubled Shakespeare production. When Ellen quits—on opening night, no less—to take up TV, Geoffrey seeks therapy from an unlikely source.

I am inclined to say that there are no words to describe how much I have fallen in love with this series, but I will, of course, endeavor to find some.

The writing on “Slings and Arrows” is nothing short of brilliant, especially when you consider how wonderfully compact it all is. The narrative construction is impeccable. Like something from master writer Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue sizzles with a lyrical, poetic rhythm. Astonishingly funny, the script is always ready with a biting quip or a quotable one-liner. "Slings & Arrows" is that rare sort of program that doubles you over with laughter one moment and leaves you wailing in tears the next. Each episode stands as a masterpiece in miniature, and when taken as a whole, the big picture is flawless. And that big picture is, quite simply, perfect television.

Every season opens with a different theme song, a rousing, gather-round-the-piano-and-sing-a-long pub tune tailored for each season’s particular play. Witty and hilarious, they are not, in fact, long lost show tunes, but purely original numbers.

If the show business ideal is to leave them wanting more, then “Slings and Arrows” succeeds in spades. It’s not that the seasons are too short to properly deal with their respective plots—an American show dealing with this much plot would be hard pressed to fit it into the traditional 22 episodes—but that we simply want them to stick around longer. No sooner have they cast their magic than they vanish.

The writers have created amusing and touching characters, endlessly involving and endearing. The magnificent cast, truly one of the finest television has ever assembled, is an ensemble of fully formed, completely flawed, exasperating and enchanting individuals. Yet these foibles never hide the writers (and our) genuine affection for them. It is obvious these actors have all done Shakespeare for years. It is one thing to portray a Shakespearean actor convincingly, quite another to portray a Shakespearian character with equal if not superior aplomb. From the largest to the smallest part, the acting is simply peerless. Their performances, executed with nary an off moment, elevate, transform, and mesmerize.

Don’t be put off by the show’s Shakespearian subject matter. You don’t need to be a Shakespeare or theatre geek to enjoy it, though, as with viewing the film Shakespeare in Love you may get more of the many in-jokes. While theatre fans will rejoice, perhaps the best thing about the show is that those who would normally fall into the anti-anything to do with Shakespeare camp may well find the Bard accessible for the first time in their lives. The phenomenally poignant insights “Slings and Arrows” offers, into both the plays and their characters, is nothing short of breathtaking, the stuff of required viewing for students of any age.

Boisterous and sublime, “Slings and Arrows” is a winning combination of clever dialogue, knowing character studies, tight plot construction, and an emotional throughline that makes for a truly unforgettable series.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Planet Earth

Enough film talk for a bit.

Over the next two days, I intend to chat about two utterly captivating pieces of television. One of them you have undoubtedly heard of. The other is unquestionably unfamiliar.

Today, the more recognizable of the two…

I don’t know if the Discovery Channel advertised in movie theaters in your city, but here in New York, previews for Planet Earth ran amongst the film trailers for a good month before its debut and had us all salivating for its premiere. I, for one, couldn’t wait to sit down to the 11 hours of what was being billed as the finest nature program ever aired. But it was a phenomenally busy summer and while my DVR captured every episode, I couldn’t find the time to enjoy them until just recently.

Have you ever discovered a book or movie or some such item that has been in your possession for a particularly long length of time but has gone untouched by you for whatever reason? And have you, once you’ve checked it out and found it to be nothing short of life-altering, kicked yourself for letting something that astonishing sit idly while you wasted your time elseware?

Such were my feelings after finally viewing “Planet Earth.” Unlike most things, “Planet Earth” is worth every bit of ink spilt in its hype. It is, indeed, the most awe-inspiring filmmaking of its kind ever assembled and easily some of the best television I have ever set eyes on.

There are Great White shark attacks on fur seals slowed down to the point where the predatory fish is revealed to launch bodily from the frothing sea; there are elephants at play under water; there are snowy peaks that become wreathed by massive storm system; there are sea creatures more alien than anything in science fiction; there are exotic birds to defy description; there are ice cathedrals enveloped by auroras; there are mating flies so dense that their swarm appears as a smoke pillar thousands of feet high; there are herds of numerous varieties of beasts sweeping across the plains in numbers too numerous to count; there are parasites so invasive they burst from a host’s body like something from a horror film; there are colossal caves inhabited by eyeless, albino troglodytes and ringed by crystals the size of automobiles; there are desert sandstorms and flashfloods that appear with equal ferocity; there are blue whales too immense to comprehend; there are birds that attack reindeer, otters that harass alligators, and lions that bring down elephants; there are polar bears swimming amongst shattered ice bergs…

It’s not just that the series was shot in High Definition (which I was not fortunate enough to see it in), or that new technologies allowed filming of animals from such great distances and heights that the human presence was invisible, allowing for footage never before recorded. It’s not just that “Planet Earth” utilizes high-speed cameras to slow down action normally imperceptible to the human eye, or speeds up other sequences to such a rate that we are literally allowed to witness the passages of seasons in one, unbroken shot or view the growth of plants with such rapidity that they almost take on animalistic life. It’s not just that the show establishes the geography from footage captured by NASA in low Earth orbit, or that it is the compilation of five years, and thousands of man-hours.

It is all of those things, and more. It is a window into something primal, a circular ballet of life and death, a never-ending equilibrium of the hunters and the hunted. It is glimpse into a world in which the human is almost never shown, and if he is, it is to reveal how puny he is in comparison to the world he inhabits. It is like nothing you or I have ever seen before, and there are almost not the words to describe how heart-wrenchingly beautiful and ravishingly wondrous it is.

To get some idea of what I mean, click here for a video set to the fabulous music of the Icelandic band, Sigur Ros.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Into the Wild

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived...” While the great Transcendentalist certainly lived austerely, his small cabin beside Walden Pond was not so separated from civilization that he could not pop in whenever the mood struck him. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch, in a role that is sure to catapult his career) is cut from the same cloth as Thoreau, but his is of much sterner stuff.

We are introduced to Christopher as an above average college grad of well-to-do parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) who abandons the prospect of law school at Harvard to obey a wanderlust only he can hear or comprehend. Christopher forsakes everything and everyone, giving away all his money and worldly possessions to hitchhike, kayak, and ride freight trains across the country until he gets to his ultimate destination, Alaska. For Christopher, who renames himself “Alexander Supertramp,” it is “important to measure oneself against nature with only ones head and hands” and Alaska is the man/boy’s Holy Grail.

Along the way Christopher meets the salt of the earth: middle-aged, kindhearted nomadic hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a genial South Dakota farmer (Vince Vaughn), a teenage gypsy (Kristen Stewart), and a lonely widower (Hal Halbrook). All, in one way or another, serve as parental figures, lavishing on him the attention and love his thirsty spirit so desperately requires.

For as much as Christopher is running toward himself, he is also running away from himself. We can hardly blame him. He is deeply apprehensive of becoming like his parents, materialistic workaholics whose violent marriage has been in tatters since he was born. With what his sister (Jena Malone, who narrates) calls his “characteristic immoderation,” he cuts his ties with them completely. Whatever their faults, their agony over the deliberate disappearance of their son crushes their spirits and, in a peculiar way, restores their humanity.

Director Sean Penn never judges his protagonist, nor does he try to hide his faults. Christopher is not an easy man to like. Admire, yes—even if we think his unorthodox methods border on madness—but fondness is not automatic. He is sanctimonious and arrogant. An inevitable symptom of his brief 22 years of life, Christopher thinks the wisdom he has absorbed from Tolstoy, London and Thoreau has taught him everything he needs to know about life. Moreover, he uses these penetrating insights to judge others. This self-righteousness will be tempered by his travels and by the connections he makes along the way. He will come out the other side no less passionate in his beliefs, but softer, purer, and with a great deal more understanding. It is not important that we like Chris—it is only important that we understand him. Though we may, to varying degrees, disagree with him, we never cease caring about him.

Combing the road trip movie with the man vs. nature genre, Into the Wild is both highly ambitious and occasionally unfocused. If the film rambles a bit, it seems only appropriate given its subject nature. For a meditative and contemplative film, Penn makes some odd and out-of-character directing choices, folding over-stylized camerawork into a less-is-more scenario if ever there was one. It speaks to Into the Wild's spellbinding nature that these moments, bothersome as they may be, never derail the film.

Into the Wild is based on Jon Krakauer's book, which reconstructs Christopher’s story from his journal entries. Told with sweep, fervor and vitality, the film is almost guaranteed to satisfy most admirers of the book.

There’s no denying that there is a certain seduction with the idea of turning one’s back on civilization and testing our wits and stamina against nature. It is a fantasy to which we all turn from time to time, especially as our modern world is subsumed by mechanization and drifts further and further away from a connection to natural world. What stops us from taking that step? Do we deem it impractical? Irresponsible? Or are we too pampered and set in our ways? So it is that when someone does make that brave and illogical leap, we look upon their venture with envy, even if their journey ends, as so many of them do, in tragedy. The journey, and not the destination is the point, right?

Christopher’s story is both heroic and cautionary. For as brave as Christopher is, he is also equally foolish. We cannot help but be reminded of Timothy Treadwell, whose video diary of life among the Alaskan grizzlies was chronicled in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Treadwell, deemed by some to be brilliant and others, insane, perished in the wilderness he loved. And while Christopher is a figure Penn wants us to admire—those who pursue their dreams with unflinching resolve are easy to admire—he, like Treadwell, learns too late that one must love and fear nature in equal measure and that happiness is meaningless without someone with whom to share it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

If it weren’t for the fact that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford boasts such well-known, contemporary actors, one might be tempted to think that the film was accidentally locked in a studio vault sometime during the 1970s and only recently rediscovered. There is something splendidly musty and blessedly anachronistic about it. It is a throwback to another time when films were allowed to be unhurried, when audiences trusted multiple storylines to converge organically, and time and place was evoked with consummate craft. The Assassination of Jesse James moves with all the deliberate pacing of Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and shimmers with the magisterial beauty of Malick’s Days of Heaven. The old is new again, and it has never looked so breathtaking.

The Assassination of Jesse James makes use of extensive voice-over narration which, like last year’s Little Children not only describes events but also comments on the characters and their actions. Sounding as if it were transcribed directly from a book written during James’ lifetime, it is antiquated but steeped in language as rich and lyrical as poetry. When the narrator speaks, the camera assumes a diffused eye — images become soft and unfocused, as if the screen is a time machine casting itself back to events obscured through time and partially lost in the fog of memory.

The epic saga (with an epic running time of 160 minutes) is set in 1881. Civilization, even with its rough edges, has come to the frontier. This isn’t a western with gunslingers and saloons, but Victorian houses and bowler hats. The time of the brigand is nearly at an end. As Jesse James (Brad Pitt) plans what is to be his last great robbery, he finds himself under siege from both the law and members of his own gang who are tempted to turn him in themselves for a reward so large it dwarfs anything they might haul from a bank vault. James becomes increasingly paranoid, prone to fits of shocking inhumanity followed by melancholy bouts of guilt-sodden remorse.

Despite these moments, James gets little character development. Far from being an oversight, James is always removed, at a distance, larger than life, one-dimensional, an enigma — but then most legends are. To delve too far into James’ humanness rather than his persona, to examine the man at a cellular level, would be to deny The Assassination of Jesse James its primary purpose. This is not a film about Jesse James, nor is Brad Pitt its lead actor. This is a film about Robert Ford and Casey Affleck is its star.

Ford is a quivering, sycophantic leech grasping for greatness. As a child, he collected everything he could about the exploits of the legendary outlaw Jesse James. An industry of dime store novels and sensationalistic tabloid stories turned the criminal into a folk hero. Now 19, (James is 34) Ford finds himself in James’ gang of ragtag ruffians. He does everything he can to ingratiate himself to James but only comes off as an obsequious, flattering toad. “I can’t figure it out,” James tells him at one point, “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Truly, there is a thin line between adoration and resentment. Ford is so desperate to be the thing he worships that supplanting his idol may be the only way he can find peace. As the title declares, it is no spoiler to say that, in the end, Ford will betray his hero and fire a bullet into the back of his skull.

Were Ford’s actions self-defense or cowardice? Or was James, resigned to the fact that this days were numbered, committing suicide by another’s hand?

Despite the fact that Brad Pitt recently won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his role as Jesse James, it is Casey Affleck who stuns. His sniveling interiority and mumbled cadence is utterly faultless. The supporting cast is no less impressive and on screen so often they deserve recognition. While Sam Shepherd, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, and Paul Schneider stand out as members of Jesse’s gang and Mary-Louise Parker and Alison Elliot shine in too brief roles as the menfolk’s longsuffering women, it is Sam Rockwell who proves once again, as with the chilling Joshua, that he is as adept at drama as comedy. Politico James Carville turns in a mesmeric performance as the governor of Missouri.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel by the same name, is a scholarly dissection, using the camera as a scalpel to peel back the layers of time and lore in an attempt to get at the truth — or at least the filmmakers’ version of that truth. More than just a study of jealousy, obsession and revenge, the film is a major revisionist work, deconstructing American folklore to reveal that obsession with celebrity and the uncomfortable tether between crime and fame is certainly nothing new to the 21st century.

The film is awash in the sort of macro attention to detail — historical, mythological, behavioral and psychological — that few piece of art, let alone motion pictures, ever come close to achieving. And it does it with impeccable, consummate ease. Shockingly, The Assassination of Jesse James is only the second film to come from Aussie director, Andrew Dominik. Together with renowned director of photography Roger Deakins, he has created a film of ravishing elegance and heartrending beauty. The film’s glowing, painterly cinematography and barren wintry landscapes may easily be the most incandescent things to grace theater screens this year.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club is the sort of movie that had saccharine tummy ache written all over it. Thankfully, I realized early on that I had nothing to fear. The Jane Austen Book Club is both a testament to Austen’s continued relevance and a fine example of classroom particulars converted into entertaining banter without losing any of its oomph.

Next to Shakespeare, Jane Austen is the most beloved author in Great Britain. Though she wrote only six novels, her influence on literature is staggering. Cinematically, more than a dozen adaptations of her works have been put on screen in the last 20 years, many to massive acclaim. Her novels examine the complexities of friendship and marriage, romantic entanglements, class positions, and social mores in the early 1800s. What makes her work so enduring is that, despite the changes in our social hierarchy and class distinctions, her themes are vibrantly contemporary.

If you don’t believe that, you need to meet the members of the Jane Austen Book Club. Here, modern Los Angeles stands in for Austen’s England. Six people come together to find refuge from their maddening 21st century lives in Austen’s books. As you might guess, their circumstances echo Austen’s creations with surprising coincidence.

There’s Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the oft-married free spirit who sets up the club in an effort to have “all-Austen-all-the-time.” There’s Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who is so interested in setting up her friends that she can’t acknowledge her own romance when it’s staring her in the face. There’s Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), happily married without a care in the world until the day her husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) tells her he’s leaving her for another woman. There’s Sylvia’s lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), who has the worst romantic luck and is only in the club to support her mother. There’s Prudie (Emily Blunt), the bookish high school teacher married to an insensitive jock and flirting with the idea of having an affair with one of her students. And there’s Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a cute techy guy who falls in love with a member of the group and gets Austen intuitively despite his nose normally being buried in science fiction novels.

Each is assigned a novel to host at their monthly get-togethers and we watch as they unpack Austen, unaware (except to the audience) that what they are really doing is unpacking their own lives. Ultimately, they find answers to their contemporary quandaries on the pages of their Austen novels. One clever moment shows one of the characters in the midst of a moral dilemma looking at a traffic signal that flashes, “What Would Jane Do?”

Robin Swicord, the screenwriter of Memoirs of a Geisha and the enchanting Little Women slides behind the camera for the first time in this sometimes sappy but no less satisfying film that works because its material (the film is based on the popular novel of the same name by Karen Joy Fowler) is intelligent and so is the terrific ensemble cast.

The script bites at the necessary places and brims with insight. You do not have to be an Austen aficionado to enjoy the film, though you will, arguably, come away with a richer experience. The script never feels weighted down with academia, though it is saturated with exactly the sort of rich and intelligent conversation one might expect at a book club of this nature. The dialogue may not be entirely believable but it works. These are not the conversations people have, they’re the ones we wish we had.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in the end everyone ends up happy. Any purveyor of Austen knows she likes to end her novels with neat bows and usually throws in a wedding or two. The question is not if the couple will live happily ever after, it’s how they will overcome the obstacles to get there. The journey, not the destination, is the thing for Austen, and this film.

The Jane Austen Book Club is not a chick flick — it’s a human flick.

J.J. Abrams Meets With George Lucas

Not certain if this image, snapped at a recent private party, excites or scares the hell out of me....

In other Trek news, Zoe Saldana has been picked to be the new Uhura for the new Star Trek movie.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


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

Hollywood is not above misrepresenting a film in hopes of drawing an audience. It’s not that the trailer for Silk misrepresents the film, so much as it does not tell the whole story. (Trailers that don’t reveal every plot point of the film they are promoting — now there’s a novel idea.) And yet, if you come away from the trailer thinking that Silk is merely a film about a upstanding, married, European man who goes to Japan on business and begins a torrid love affair you would be completely mistaken.

Silk begins at a sprint. 19th century French boy (Micheal Pitt’s Herve) meets girl (Keira Knightly’s Helene), boy and girl fall in love and get married, and boy resigns his army commission to begin working for Mr. Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), a local silk merchant with dreams of avarice. This all takes place in less than ten minutes.

The real meat of the story is what happens not when Herve is home, but on the road, traveling to exotic locations to procure the precious silkworm eggs that will ensure exorbitant profits both for him and his village. When a strange disease blights the local crop, Baldabiou dispatches Herve on a perilous trek to civil war-torn Japan for replacements.

To reach the mysterious land, Herve must journey by coach and then by train through Europe and into Russia, where a sled carries him across the 3,000 miles of the frozen Russian steppes until he can be deposited on a smuggler’s ship. Once in Japan, he is blindfolded and carried on horseback through the snowy Fukushima Mountains to a tiny village wreathed in snow.

This is Japan in perpetual winter, shrouded in fog and ice. Feudal warlords circle each other like jungle cats looking for a soft spot to strike. It is a scene few Westerners have ever laid eyes on; they are forbidden entry beyond the port cities.

It is in this small, unassuming hamlet that the stranger in a strange land meets the imposing warlord Hara Jubei (Kôji Yakusho) willing to strike a deal and give him protection. While Helene waits faithfully at home, barren and despondent that she will ever give birth to a child, Herve finds himself utterly captivated by his new business partner’s mistress (Sei Ashina). Even after he returns to Europe, he finds his every thought flits back to her.

Though they never exchanged so much as a word, he cannot get her out of his mind, cannot stop fantasizing about what it might be like to be with her. So great is his obsession, that he begins making excuses to undertake the treacherous journey again. With each successive visit, he is convinced that his feelings are returned, though the most communication he and the geisha ever have is a short note that reads: “Return to me or I shall die.”

Ultimately, Herve must make a choice — stay with Helene, who has grown ill, or risk everything for a manic, idealized fixation, the pursuit of whom will almost certainly get him killed.

Silk is a failure of a film, but one that could have been great. Based on the international bestselling novel by Alessandro Baricco, Silk had all the trappings of a monumental piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, the fissures are clear from the start:

The script is clumsy and heavy-handed, relying on an all-too frequent voiceover that doesn’t even attempt to sound necessarily antiquated. However, the brunt of the blame lies with the casting.

Michael Pitt is woefully miscast as Herve. There is no passion or fire to him whatsoever, nothing that would attract a woman like Helene or an exotic concubine, much less the interest of an audience. He is flaccid and inert, a narcoleptic presence devoid of charisma, utterly lacking in force or will, a man who exists only on the interior. Knightly is beautiful, but unremarkable, inexplicably dropping her English accent for a plain, Americanized intonation. She is, perhaps, too beautiful for the role, as audiences will have a hard time believing anyone would cheat on her, no matter how glamorous the seductress.

Like its lead actor, Silk is beautiful but emotionless, bereft of feeling. In a story that supposedly stirs Herve’s loins, but is incapable of stirring our blood. We do not agonize over Herve’s horrible betrayal of Helene because we feel nothing for them individually, much less as a couple. We were never given the time to know them before Herve went gallivanting off to the ends of the earth. Should then their complete lack of chemistry come as any surprise?

To be sure, Silk is a gorgeous film to behold. MIA director François Girard (The Red Violin), cinematographer Alain Dostie and production designer Francois Seguin have crafted a magnificent looking film every bit as visually luxurious as the subject of its title. Silk often takes on the look of a painterly tableau, with dappled light and luxuriously soft camerawork. The location shots, from Italy’s Dolomites to Russia’s frozen tundra to Japan’s bamboo forests are ravishing.

There is a twist at the end of Silk that almost…almost…redeems the film entire. It is a twist that cannot be revealed here, but one which completely recontextualizes the film from a story of sordid affairs and derelict spouses to one of fidelity, devotion and faithfulness. One key character in the film turns out to be a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin — a detail which drives the plot and motives characters’ action but ultimately turns out to be unimportant and irrelevant to the story. It is a twist that imbues the film with a deep, moral and spiritual gravity, and ties up the narrative threads with a condemnation of adultery and a celebration of monogamous marriage. Unfortunately, it comes too little, too late to save the film.

Silk is a solemn, plodding and tedious film. While it labors hard to borrow the mantle of David Lean’s sumptuous romantic epics of yesteryear, it is far too thin and precariously balanced to support such an aspiration. It is worse than a straightforward bad film — it is a middling, stagnant film that could have been extraordinary.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Across the Universe

You cannot help but admire — even be in awe of — brilliant director Julie Taymor’s extraordinary vision. Her films (Titus, Frida) are those rare works of art that succeed in merging cinematic splendor with Broadway aesthetics (she got her start on the stage and directed the wildly successful “The Lion King” on Broadway) to create something wholly original and entirely imaginative. And although her latest film, Across the Universe doesn’t completely work, when it does, you’re in for one wild and wonderful ride.

It is almost pointless to discuss the plot of Across the Universe since it is utterly subservient to and driven by the music. Across the Universe is one, long Beatles music video with short snatches of dialogue crammed in between. The story is not as important as the 33 — count them — 33 Beatles songs the film includes. You know all these songs. You’re not only singing them going out of the theater, you’re already singing them coming in.

Irregardless of the plot’s secondary nature, it is nonetheless epic in scope. Encompassing the turbulent 60s in all of their incongruity, Across the Universe tackles academia, race riots, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, drug use, protest marches, rock and roll, PTSD, and rebellious youth. It is the story of a time and place, less than individual persons, even if the problems they face look remarkably like our own. Characters like Jude, Lucy and Prudence exist, not for the sake of the plot, but because the songs give them life. That the give and take between the dialogue-driven scenes and the musical numbers is such an organic process speaks to Taymor’s powerful aesthetic.

Unfortunately, Across the Universe doesn’t quite work. The film is overlong and feels more protracted than it is simply because the dialogue — not the filmmakers’ number one concern — cannot support our interest. During the expository scenes, we find ourselves yearning for the next musical number to begin. And criticism or no, Taymor and company are probably just fine with that assessment. We have little to no access into the characters when they speak, but when they sing we are admitted into their very souls.

Some of the songs exist in reality, with characters simply singing through a scene. Others are operatic and highly theatrical, incorporating dance choreography that is a feast for the eyes as well as ears. Still others, especially as the film taps Beatles songs from their psychedelic phase, come across as surreal experimental films, exaggerated, heightened states more akin to dream sequences. More than once I was reminded of the extraordinary Moulin Rouge.

The film boasts several guest stars (Joe Cocker, Salma Hayek, Eddie Izzard), though none are more enjoyable or anticipated than U2 frontman, Bono, who plays Dr. Robert, a composite of Timothy Leery and Jack Kerouac. Not only can Bono act, but he can also do a spot-on American accent.

Despite its faults, much of Across the Universe is infectious, whimsical fun. At its worst it is slow and clunky; at its best it is transcendent.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Brave One

The Brave One is being advertised as a revenge pic even though it is nothing of the sort. It has more in common with M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable or even the TV series Heroes than with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. The Brave One feels like a superhero movie, charting the familiar origins story of an unsuspecting everywoman who discovers one day that a gun gives her special powers to right wrongs and uphold justice. Jodie Foster is a vigilante Batman without the mask and cape.

Jodie Foster is Erica Bain, the host of an NPR-esque radio show, “Street Walk” in which she trawls the boulevards of the Big Apple, recording the soundscape of “the safest big city in the world.” But that pithy punch line is obliterated the evening she and her fiancée David (Naveen Andrews) are brutally attacked while walking in Central Park. David’s injuries prove fatal and while Erica’s physical wounds heal, her emotional wounds do not.

Devastated by grief and paralyzed by fear, Erica buys a gun, presumably for protection. Suddenly she finds herself (or does she inject herself?) in the middle of seemingly random acts of violence in which she dispatches cold justice and is hailed as a vigilante hero by the public. By-the-book NYPD detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) cannot condone such vigilante justice even if he has grown increasingly frustrated with a justice system stymied by bureaucratic indifference. Having grown close to Erica since her attack, he now grows increasingly suspicious of her role in the killings.

The Brave One is directed by Neil Jordan, not a mainstream director by anyone’s estimation. Yet the man more known for crafting controversial independent films such as The Crying Game than studio-sanctioned action films, has teamed with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot to create a sumptuous, glowing, sooty, edgy, beautiful looking film. It may not be material up to Jordan’s usual form, but is sure looks like it.

Foster gives a powerful, emotionally raw performance in which she begins as a soft, plucky woman in the throes of love but ends as a black clad, chain-smoking, butch, physically gaunt avenging angel. It is a dark and effective transformation that the always-impressive Foster makes look easy. Foster allows us further access into Erica’s interior world through her splendid radio broadcasts, which act as narration, even providing commentary on her own, anonymous vigilantism.

Like the abominable Death Sentence — also in theaters now — The Brave One attempts to ask the questions: can we ever recover what is lost when it is so viciously taken from us? Does retribution merely make us into the very thing we loathe? Is living with the pain more acceptable than using the fuel of reciprocity to move on? And is survival worthwhile if we must “become someone else, a stranger” in order to do so?

The Brave One does not try to hide the fact that it is a meta-commentary on America’s post-9/11 wounds and the country’s attempt at closure through violent retribution in Iraq. While the stage is set in New York City (a darker New York that has more in common with 1970’s sensibilities than with today’s Giuliani-scrubbed metropolis), it could be Anywhere, USA. The greater commentary is on a life lived in fear and how one reacts to that fear.

The Brave One’s most glaring failing is that is it is forced to sacrifice realism in order to progress the plot. Bain, who has not had a violent encounter in all her years in Manhattan, suddenly finds herself embroiled in half a dozen over the course of a summer — after she purchases her handgun, of course. Defending oneself should the regrettable occasion arise is certainly reasonable. But purposely putting oneself in a situation in which you most certainly will be required to act violently is something else entirely.

There is something undeniably attractive about the vigilante who enacts justice on those outside of the scope of the law. We take primal satisfaction watching the “bad guy get it good,” while ignoring the ethical morass created by the person who considers themselves above the law. The title of the film considers Foster’s character “brave” because of her decisive actions. But is she? In order to feel human again, she must commit murder, gouging out her own humanity and that of others. And that is a burden too great for any mortal — or superhero — to bear.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Eastern Promises

You cannot walk out of David Cronenberg’s new masterpiece, Eastern Promises without thinking of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Its gravity is that palpable. It is not that Eastern Promises is guilty of regicide or succeeds in actually usurping the throne. But the film effortlessly and majestically takes its place as a great crime epic in miniature, arguably more "Godfather" than Coppola’s final installment of the classic cinematic triumvirate.

Cronenberg, who helmed 2005’s magnificent A History of Violence returns with an equally mesmerizing story of the Russian mafia, set in London. The story follows British midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), who delivers the baby of a young teenaged prostitute who subsequently dies on the delivery bed. Unbeknownst to her, Anna’s quest to reunite the child with its family will set her on a collision course with a ruthless Russian crime syndicate.

While Anna’s Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) works to translate a diary found in the girl’s purse (unlocking a harrowing tale of sexual slavery which he hear throughout the film as narration), Anna’s encounters Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a lieutenant for the Vory V Zakone, led by Kirill’s father, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who uses his chic trans-Siberian restaurant as a cover for sex trafficking. When Anna’s good intensions threaten to uncover the crime ring, she finds herself in Nikolai’s crosshairs.

Cronenberg’s bravura, nuanced direction is spare and clean, bereft of the sort of gaudy flourish and ornamentation that might detract from the film’s bracing authenticity. Eastern Promises is meticulously paced, measured but never tedious. This pacing lures the viewer into a false sense of comfort, so that when the film explodes in moments of extreme and gruesome violence, the shock is all the more startling. Eastern Promises is not afraid to dwell on the repulsiveness of violence. It does not flinch from revealing this subterranean world in all of its brazen brutality. Eastern Promises is not a film of guns, but of knives. In a particularly harrowing scene, a naked Nikolai is viciously attacked by two butchers in a bathhouse.

Cronenberg’s cast is brilliant. Watts gives a pitch-perfect performance. Hers is a life-affirming counterpoint to the darker characters all around her. To his credit, Cronenberg never attempts to take one of Hollywood’s most breathtaking leading ladies and doll her up. Watts’ stellar beauty, like her performance, is understated and believable. Frenchman Cassel is terrifying as a pathological, mentally unhinged crime prince obviously in love with his right-hand-man, Nikolai, who is more a son to Mueller-Stahl’s don (who plays the role with exquisite grandfatherly menace) than his own flesh and blood.

But it is Mortensen (star of A History of Violence but best known as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) who truly astonishes. His elegantly accented role is dark and tortured, powerfully coiled lethality interlaced with an unfathomable compassion that hints at a secret twist none but a few share. We cannot take our eyes off of him, even when he is nothing more than a presence in a room. The final shot of the film, a slow push on Mortensen, is imbued with profound dignity and ambiguity. It is a tour-de-force performance that speaks to Mortensen’s blistering talent so often overlooked because of its deep but minimalist nature.

Eastern Promises is a film of searing intensity that examines the tenuous membrane between good and evil as well as the frail nature of identity. Incisively written, impeccably directed and tautly acted, Eastern Promises is the first great movie of the fall lineup, a Godfather for a new culture and era.


I've been silent in the high definition debate simply because I haven't had the opportunity to properly examine the technology in any sort of meaningful way. Which is to say, I've watched one Superbowl game in HD and that alone represents my exposure.

It's not that I've doubted the pundits--many of them, my friends--when they've gushed about the technology. I just felt it was best to keep out of the debate, confident in their authority and experience on the subject.

And then a friend sent me something that changed everything and now has me chomping at the bit for more. Consider me a convert without having yet watched a single frame of a film. See the truth for yourself here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is not a war film, though at times it looks like one. In the Valley of Elah is not a murder mystery, though at times it sounds like one. In the Valley of Elah is a national requiem, a tortured dirge for the loss of American innocence and humanity, an anguished lament that we are destroying all that is pure and good and best in ourselves. And it is a film that you owe it to yourself and your country to endure.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a Vietnam veteran and retired Army sergeant who now makes a living hauling gravel. One day he gets a call that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq without informing his parents, has gone missing. A former military investigator with a keen insight into military bureaucracy, Hank drives to his son’s base in New Mexico to interview his son’s platoon mates. They are kind, but not forthcoming and Hank finds brick walls thrown up wherever he turns.

His pleas to the local police department fall entirely on apathetic ears except for Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), whom Hank cajoles into helping him. As they begin to sleuth around, Hank learns that Mike may not have been the recruiting poster soldier everyone thought he was. The more Hank discovers, the more the military wants to sweep under the rug. But when the charred remains of Mike’s body are found on a desert road, it is only a matter of time until the truth comes out — even if that truth reveals that there is no boogieman, just more victims.

Jones gives a powerhouse performance of emotional minimalism. Hank cannot allow his emotions to cloud his judgment. But we know exactly how he feels. We see his pain manifested in the emotional collapse of his wife (Susan Sarandon), but more than that, we see it in every line on his tightly etched face, in every glint of his wounded eyes, hear it in every deep swallow or exhalation of breath. Like almost every character in this film, Hank is cracked, barely holding on, only moments away from implosion. More zombie than man, Jones plays Hank with exquisite subtlety.

In the Valley of Elah, which derives its title from the Biblical story of David and Goliath, is the first film writer/director Paul Haggis has helmed since his Oscar-winning Crash. Based on a true story, In the Valley of Elah, like Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, is tense and meditative. It is not rushed or hurried. It is paced with a deliberate, methodical tempo, uninterested in commercial splash. It seduces us into concern for a solitary fallen soldier and only later reveals its trepidation for all those in uniform.

Not all victims of war die in combat. Limbs are not the only things lost to roadside bombs. In the Valley of Elah struggles to find meaning in the chaos of conflict. It is interested in the shattered psyches and hearts of soldiers who must look upon even children as enemies to be eradicated with cold, callous resolve. What are our actions in Iraq doing to us? What happens when we are hurting ourselves more than the enemy? What are the lies we tell ourselves to make it through just one more day? And what is left to call human when all humanity is bled dry?

In the Valley of Elah is the first of several films (The Kingdom, Rendition, Grace is Gone, Lions for Lambs) coming out this fall directly dealing with the War on Terror and its devastating repercussions. Let’s hope Hollywood, not exactly known for its subtly, handles each of these films with the same intelligence and restraint as this one.

It is extraordinary that a film this muted could resonate with a message this strong. The final image of In the Valley of Elah lacerates to the bone. And yet, the film is not political. It does not take sides. It neither rallies behind nor contemns the war in Iraq. Instead, it simply looks at the present state of our nation’s young warriors…and weeps.

The Next Indiana Jones Movie Has a Name!

Shia LaBeouf has revealed that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the name beneath which Indy and team will ride once again into adventure.

Robotech Coming to the Big Screen

Warner Bros. Pictures has picked up the rights to bring one of my favorite childhood shows, the anime classic Robotech to the big screen with Spider-Man franchise star Tobey Maguire producing and looking to star (grrrr).

Robotech takes place on an Earth of the future in which an alien spaceship has crashed on a South Pacific isle giving humankind the technology to build gigantic robotic battlebots. And it's a good thing too, because they must use them in order to fight off successive waves of alien invasions intent on retrieving the technology for themselves.

One of the inspirations for Transformers, Robotech, done right (i.e. minus anything that even remotely smells like Michael Bay) could be phenomenal.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

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

In the far-flung span of human history, only twelve men have ever stepped on the surface of another celestial body. And yet, somehow we have managed to convince ourselves that such acts of mind-boggling ingenuity and stunning heroism are now commonplace.

The new documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, reminds us all that America's space program is nothing short of astonishing and that humankind's venture into the vast, freezing abyss of outer space is one of the most extraordinary and significant moments in the history of our species. It celebrates the know-how of thousands of engineers and the derring-do of dozens of astronauts who embraced the most audacious act of outlandish genius ever proposed.

In the Shadow of the Moon scoured NASA's film vaults, coming away with a treasure trove of archival footage. Gone are the overused, iconic images so familiar to all of us. The filmmakers digitally re-mastered footage sealed in bins for more than three decades, much of it of such breathtaking quality and magisterial beauty that it is almost unthinkable that it has gone unseen until now.

In the Shadow of the Moon is a shimmering tribute to the brave men who, almost half a century ago, made the unthinkable a reality. Concentrating exclusively on the Apollo Program, the documentary eschews narration and simply lets the film progress through interviews with all of the remaining Apollo astronauts, minus its "team captain" and the first man to set foot on the Moon, the notoriously camera shy Neil Armstrong. Some of the astronauts are staid and stoic, paradigms of professionalism. Others, like Alan Bean and Michael Collins, are fun and animated, like children fresh off an amusement park ride.

These are the coolest guys alive, yet you'd never know it from their unassuming and self-deprecating demeanors. The space program comes to life through their humanizing reminiscences. They admit, through voices that occasionally crack with emotion, that they often have to pinch themselves to make sure it wasn't all a dream. "I called the moon my home for three days of my life," says Gene Cernan. "Now that's science fiction!"

The film traces the space race from its earliest birth pains to its most magnificent triumphs. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set an impossibly audacious goal before the American people: send a man to the Moon and return him safely back to Earth before the close of the decade. Tragically, Kennedy never lived to see his inspirational words plucked from the air and fashioned into the steel, wiring and propellant that would, just eight years later, send us racing into lunar orbit and beyond.

It's not as if there was any sort of guarantee that the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would be successful. Kennedy's national dare was the stuff of science fiction. Placing a man on top of a giant rocket sounded ludicrous at the time. "It was a quick way to have a short career," Jim Lovell recalls.

The astronaut corps was cobbled together from daredevil test pilots always on the lookout for new ways to go faster, higher, further. Engineers using slide rules and legal pads went to work designing and building the most sophisticated machines ever constructed. Nothing close to this had ever been attempted, and the intrepid scientists had no choice but to blaze a new, uncharted frontier.

The film follows the engineers and astronauts through the design, construction, training and implementation phase of the program. Though the outcome is well known, the film does a magnificent job of building tension into an enterprise that was fraught with uncertainty. When the first Saturn rocket plunged into space with a crew aboard, even the astronauts admit they were surprised.

"It was a time when we made bold moves," Lovell says, realizing that scientific and technological advances are made possible only by walking the knife's edge. For those in the Apollo program, hazards and peril were around every corner. Tragedy struck on what would come to be known as Apollo 1 when a launch pad fire killed Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a drill. And President Richard Nixon recorded a never-aired statement in case the crew of Apollo 11 was marooned forever on the moon's surface.

When the Eagle's landing pads made contact with lunar sediment on July 20, 1969, the world stood still. Across the globe, human civilization rejoiced as one. This was not an American achievement, the astronauts explain, it was a human achievement. Between 1968 and 1972, nine Apollo spacecraft journeyed to the moon, and a dozen men walked on its surface. As America imploded beneath the trauma of war, assassinations and divisive social unrest, the Apollo program was said to have redeemed the entire decade.

For all their courage and scientific acumen, the astronauts of Apollo fumble with and in due course abandon using technical jargon to describe their other-worldly experiences. Ultimately, rationality cannot illuminate what is a metaphysical voyage of discovery. So it should come as no surprise that, in Shadow's final moments, the moonwalkers' speech alters into something far more elegiac, whimsical and fundamentally spiritual. They are the first to say that they are nothing special—blessed men who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But to a man, they have been changed. They exude a modest, philosophical side that comes, one assumes, from having left our world and viewed it, in all of its fragility, from afar.

British director David Sington has crafted an awe-inspiring film suffused with reverence and wonder. In the Shadow of the Moon is one of those rare films with the power to coax tears and goosebumps from even the most jaded viewer. Its scope is so grand, it subject so inspirational, that audiences can't help but leave the theater staggered by the monumental human achievement it recounts.

Following a dozen or so more missions in the next few years, America's remaining space shuttles will be permanently retired. At that time, NASA will turn its energies, once again, toward the moon. Engineers are already hard at work designing the Ares rockets that will hurl the Orion crew exploration vehicle—the technological progeny of Apollo—into outer space. However, this time the moon is not the ultimate goal, but a stepping-stone to something far more extraordinary—a human footprint on the scarlet soil of Mars.

Monday, September 03, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Once the quintessential American genre, the western has fallen on hard times the past few decades. But every once in a while a film comes along that reminds you why the western is our national epic and Hollywood’s greatest tradition of popular cinema.

3:10 to Yuma is such a film.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a poor rancher trying to eke out a living for himself and his family on parched, barren land in the Arizona territory. A man above reproach, Dan is nonetheless discovering that integrity alone does not put food in his boys’ stomachs. Nor does it alleviate the distain of his eldest son Will (Logan Lerman), who is more fascinated with dime novel bandits than with his father’s honorable intensions. As the drought and the encroaching railroad conspire to take his land, Dan stoically holds out against hope that he can save his modest dream and regain the respect of those he loves most.

Fate intervenes with the capture of the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a rogue whose violent exploits are the stuff of Will’s cheap novels. A natural leader, Wade commands the unflinching loyalty of his ruthless gang who will stop at nothing to rescue him. When a railroad representative offers two hundred dollars to anyone willing to escort Wade on a three–day trek to the town of Contention and a waiting prison train bound for Yuma, Dan volunteers for the posse. He desperately needs the money.

But even shackled and under guard, Wade is a lethal menace. He possesses an astute insight into the weaknesses of human nature, a talent he exploits on his captors with deadly precision. Even so, Dan and Wade form a peculiar camaraderie on the treacherous trail. In the end, the upright rancher and the outlaw will face a baptism of fire together, leading to a brutal and bullet-ridden redemption and an unexpected, shocking penance.

Chief among Yuma’s many strengths is its compelling and powerful cast. Crowe plays the black-hatted Wade as a man grown wise by his life of wickedness. His masculine gentlemanliness is no sham, even though it masks a titanic lethality that strikes without warning. Bale is, by turns, pathetic and indestructible, a man worn down to the quick, but resolute in his convictions — even in the face of hopelessness.

The supporting turns are vibrant, including the great Peter Fonda as a leathery, hard-as-nails bounty hunter. But if there is any performance which will set audiences abuzz, it is Ben Foster as the sadistic, lightning-draw killer Charlie Prince, Wade’s second in command. With his albino coloring, pinched features and ice-cold stare, Foster’s elegantly monstrous Prince has an intense loyalty to his boss that borders on homoeroticism.

3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 film by the same name, is director James Mangold’s first film since his Oscar-nominated Walk the Line. Once again he proves his knack for gripping stories driven by compelling characters. His camera paints with John Ford’s luxurious brush, capturing the promise of vast vistas and the lawless bedlam of frontier towns. He has a solid eye and ear for atmosphere and pacing. The editing builds maximum tension, while Marco Beltrami’s modern-tinged score swells at all the right places. The result is a film of explosive, Peckinpah-esque action and engrossing post-modern, psychological duels.

3:10 to Yuma is riveting, exciting and rare — a thinking person’s western.