Archive for January, 2008

The Orphanage (8/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2008 by Brandon

The dead communicating with the living has always been a theme in horror films. It seems those darned ghosts just can’t seem to get enough of our world, so they stay behind and scare the crap out of us by only showing up at night and only when the camera shows an empty chair, pans away, then pans back and poof! they’re there. And for some reason they brought an orchestra with them that takes time to play one ominous and surprising note. Oh, those ghosts. Why can’t they all be friendly like Casper? In Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage,” which was produced by the visionary master of fantastic terror and director of last year’s superbly “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro, the ghosts are back and at it again, this time as children haunting an orphanage where something creepy and sinister happened many years ago, and of course they just can’t leave until they scare away a few people. “The Orphanage” is not anything innovative, but it is deliciously terrifying and one of those films that is an excellent example of its genre, a nifty little throwback to simple classic horror.

The cast is composed mostly of Spanish unknowns, so you’re not really distracted by any glaringly obvious star-power faces. Belen Rueda plays Laura, a woman returning to an abandoned orphanage that she left thirty years ago, to start a new kind of home for disabilitied kids, along with her son Simon and her husband Carlos. Simon has imaginary friends, so when he makes new imaginary friends at the orphanage (guess who), she and her husband don’t think much of it. But when something more starts to come of this, the chilling feeling of something crawling up your spine starts to infect the picture.

The worst thing about modern-day campy horror, evidenced in schlock like The Grudge, The Hills Have Eyes, Silent Hill, and so on, is that they substitute gore for scares and call it good. Even films that aren’t that gory can’t even get the scares right, as they simply use obvious scare tactics, sudden camera cuts, and loud crescendoes of music to tell you should be scared. There’s no attention to mood, character development, setting, or any of the things that makes classic horror good, like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gore can be used to excellent ends, but most filmmakers today simply use it to shock, and probably because they had a few extra buckets of it lying around too. The Orphanage should be required viewing for all filmmakers who want to create a horror flick, simply because it takes this tired genre, embraces every single one of its conventions, and scares the viewer sh**less.

Some of the horror tricks in the film are as old as the genre itself, but they’re used to wonderful effects. One scene has the stereotypical night-vision format, but the way that Bayona employs it is chillingly creepy. The scares are liberally sprinkled throughout the film, and for the most part, they don’t rely on the sudden reveal and the deafening clang of a soundtrack, but rather an insistent cinematic style that focuses unerrantly on what we are terrified of and gives us gritty detail that is more effective than any clanging cymbal. The production design on the movie is fantastic, perfectly conveying the creepy old-world look of the orphanage and the scarily child-like phantoms that inhabit it. But all this would be worth crap if the main protagonists were idiotic a-holes who didn’t know that taking off your clothes in a haunted house was a sure way to bring a ghoul running fast.

The Orphanage’s biggest strength is its central story of a mother’s love for his son, and it’s a beautiful one that anchors the picture in a solid reality than never once wavers. The charisma of the central actress carries it; she’s a perfect choice for the role and never once comes across as a screaming mother Hollywood archetype. Naomi Watts gave a similar performance in the underrated “The Ring” where she used her incredible talent to wonderfully convey an incredible love and simultaneous fear of her son.

The Orphanage would be a near perfect film for what it was if it wasn’t for the ending. In the last twenty minutes several unwelcome and too convenient cliches pop up, and then the last five minutes come off as so unbearably cheesy that I sat there shaking my head and wondering what in the world was going on. If they had found a way to pull it off without venturing into the territory of Jason waving to the leftover teenagers from Friday the 13th, it would have felt supremely satisfying, and even though it doesn’t end up being a wonderfully excellent horror film, it does succeed in frightening the audience very effectively, developing real characters, and creating a story that draws you in thanks to real storytelling, not convoluted plot lines masquerading as such. This is one orphanage that no child should go to, and that’s a compliment.


Michael Clayton (8/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 31, 2008 by Brandon

The legal thriller is a tricky genre in film. You have to convey the complexities of the legal system without throwing the audience into a coma from sheer boredom, while at the same time not compromising on story or character and giving people some solid drama and thrills. Though “Michael Clayton” does sometimes get a little too confusing for its own good, it does reward people who pay close attention to it with a taut and tense storyline and engaging and believable characters.

George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, the “Fixer”, a kind of free agent that cleans up the dirty messes that corporate clients can tend to leave behind. As the movie begins we can see the telling emotional lines that this exhausting and sometimes ethics-compromising line of work can leave behind, played out on Clooney’s face, especially in his eyes. This is a world-weary man if there ever were one, plagued by a gambling problem, family issues, and mounting debt, and now one of the biggest messes he’s ever encountered is coming up, involving a close friend of his, Arthur Edens, played by the excellent Tom Wilkinson. Edens has been working on a case that will cement the prestigious career of Tilda Swinton’s Karen Crowder, head of a budding eco-company called uNorth, but apparently something fishy is going on and Clayton is called in to clean up the mess left behind by the slowly eroding sanity of Edens.

“Michael Clayton” literally begins with a bang, in which we see a car bomb go off in Clayton’s car as he is standing on the side of a hill several hundred feet away. Then we flash back to four days earlier, driven the impetus of finding out what in the world brought us to that point. The difference between the Clayton at the very beginning of the film and the Clayton ten minutes in is massive, and most all of that is due to George Clooney’s brilliance as an actor.

I mentioned earlier the lines etched on his face and the sadness telling in his eyes, but that only expresses a fraction of what Clooney’s face, body language, tone of voice, and sheer acting ability convey in this film. It’s mind-boggling to watch him create this character from a bunch of legal babble. There’s a scene, with absolutely no dialogue, that goes on for three to five minutes, in which we watch Clooney’s face, which occupies more than half the screen. There’s no sound except the taxi that he’s riding. It’s three of the most riveting minutes I’ve seen onscreen in years, and some of the best acting too. The emotions that he plays across that face in those couple of minutes is terrifying, saddening, sobering, and exhilarating. Though if Clooney were the only good actor in the film, it wouldn’t really be worth seeing. Fortunately, he’s accompanied by an array of some of the best in the business.

Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder plays her corrupt-hearted character with a kind of sensitive portrayal that humanizes a person that any other actor probably would have demonized. It’s brilliant work. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens with vigorous intensity, portraying him as a man on the edge of sanity whose world has just come unhinged. It’s fascinating work, but I almost questioned the acting. It seemed over-the-top, and I didn’t buy his character as a real one as much as I bought Clooney and Winton. Sydney Pollack as Clooney’s boss is wonderful as always, but does nothing that’s remarkable or particularly noteworthy.

The story itself is kind of convoluted, with a lot of legal babble that will confuse you and leave you wondering what the heck happened, unless you’re paying close attention. However, even if you never look away from the screen and keep your ears tuned to every line of dialogue, you’re bound to get lost at some point, though if you continue to pay attention you’ll catch up with the story. This is a minor error, but one thing that the confusing storyline causes that is more egregious is its dehumanization of the characters. By the end of the film, though these have all been very interesting characters to watch, you don’t really sympathize with any of them that much, except for Clayton. They’re more case studies than actual people, which makes it hard to care what happens to the mess that Clayton is supposed to resolve. The central conflict of the whole affair also feels too typical, as if the screenwriters created this entire complex plot first and then just added the central conflict as an afterthought. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it made the central villains seem more like cartoon bad guys than actual people.

Michael Clayton’s best strength is unquestionably the acting. These are all such superb actors doing such amazing work that the performances alone will keep your eyes glued to the screen. The story is also engrossing enough and it challenges you to actually pay attention to specific details and people, as opposed to the typical simplistic plot that Hollywood is so used to giving out. Sure, it has its weak points and it’s by no means a masterpiece, but it is a fine legal thriller and one that will take its place right up there with other classics of its genre.

More Thoughts on that Oscar Dude

Posted in Awards Buzz with tags , on January 31, 2008 by Brandon

Okay, so now that I’ve caught up with all my old reviews and I’ve also had time to think about the Oscar nominee choices this year, I’ve come up with some more complaints, yay! Gotta love that. So, here are my gripes, in no particular order. Oh, and for the curious, here are the nominees.

There were so many good actors this year, that it’s difficult to say who should be bumped, so I’m not gonna name names (er-hem, Viggo), but I definitely think John Hurt in “Beyond the Gates”, Chris Cooper in “Breach,” and Emile Hirsch in “Into the Wild” were heinously overlooked. Will Smith in “I Am Legend” I think did a better job than Johnny Depp, and in the end you know Depp is going to win because he’s been nominated three times in the past four years (including this one) and hasn’t yet won, so the Academy is clearly favoring him. Of all of them, though, I’d say Daniel Day-Lewis probably deserves it the most, although it’s debatable with Clooney, as Clooney portrays a more real characters and Day-Lewis’s is mostly just pure evil. Aside from all of the above, too, I think it’s criminal that Christian Bale was overlooked for his role as Dietrich Dengler in Rescue Dawn. He played a character he never had before, and he did it believably and rivetingly.

Best supporting actor category was okay. Hal Holbrook will probably win, though I’m not sure if he should. Casey Affleck should win, though I did not see Charlie Wilson’s War. I don’t think Tom Wilkinson should win, his performance was almost too purposefully intense for me.

The songs were the absolute worst category. Hairspray was given a gigantic middle finger, as “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, “You’re Timeless to Me,” and “Good Morning, Baltimore” were all good contenders, Once was almost raped by only having only one of their fantastically awesome songs chosen that could slaughter Enchanted’s in an Uwe Boll-like match-up, including “When You’re Mind’s Made Up,” while the terribly drab and derivative “Happy Working Song” from enchanted got nominated, as well as the competent but too typical “So Close.” Come on, I know Enchanted was good, but not this good. These are no “Aladdin” or “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Into the Wild” should have been nominated for cinematography, and Atonement dropped. Yes, Atonement was very good, but not as good as “Into the Wild.”

We’ve already talked about the heinous tragedy that was the foreign language category. Persepolis would have been a shoo-in in it. I saw “The Orphanage”, and it deserved a spot on there. I still need to see 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days.

And finally, best picture. Ratatouille totally deserved a spot on that list; I’m gonna say it loud and clear. Back off, Atonement. And Michael Clayton was good but I didn’t identify with its characters that much so I don’t know if it deserves a place on the list.

That’s it, done with my griping (at least for now.)

Keep your eye out for a Michael Clayton review and an Orphanage review coming soon, and then finally my best of 2007 list!

Into the Wild (9/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 31, 2008 by Brandon
For as long as man will walk this good green Earth, he will always long to throw off the fetters of civilized life and rough it in the great outdoors, I mean really rough it. But he never will. He has family, friends, a job, responsibilites. One man, Chris McCandless, did, though, and his story, recounted in this movie, is nothing short of inspirational. The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same title, and it has taken more than ten years since Sean Penn, the now writer and director, saw it on a bookshelf in a bookstore, for it to reach the big screen. Now that it has, it’s glorious.The movie opens with Chris reaching his destination of the Alaskan wilderness, where he finds a decrepit old bus that he nicknames “The Magic Bus.” Deciding to hole up in it for a few months, the rest of the movie focuses on the journey that led him to his present destination, beginning with his college graduation ceremony, where we learn that not long after, he sliced and diced up all his bills and money and hiked up his pack on his back to set off on a journey to find himself, or something like that, not even bothering to tell his parents where he went, and they’ll spend then the next two hours of the movie wondering and worrying.

There’s little background to Chris, and that’s one of the biggest flaws of the film. Because we don’t really know him before he sets off willy-nilly into the wilderness, it’s difficult to imagine why, or more importantly, how. The movie simply depicts Chris burning his bridges and being just fine. He can get a job, get transportation, get food, all with nary a worry to ID or any of the practicalities of normal life. If roughing it were this easy we would all do it. On top of this, he can white-water raft down dangerous rapids with no experience whatsoever and come out completely unscathed. All these things put together put a little bit of a damper on the experience of watching the film, but after the first twenty minutes or so of the film, you quickly forget about all that, simply because of how entrancing the journey is.

Emile Hirsch plays Chris, and he’s perfect for the job. He wonderfully conveys the wide-eyed wonder and fiery determined spirit of this sojourner, and for the most part, you forget that he’s essentially a kid rebelling against his parents, and though some viewers may find this aspect of Chris’s journey to be offputting, it’s a fascinating, engaging, and enormously appealing character study. Sometimes the people he meets may seem like they’re a little bit too eager to fawn all over him, but with the charisma that Hirsch carries it actually ends up being fairly believable, also in part due to the fact that the people he meets are all played by such amazing actors.

Vince Vaughn is thankfully toned down as a wheat thresher who hires Chris, Catherine Keener is wonderfully sweet as a hippie woman who is having troubles with her husband and develops a close and personal motherly bond with Hirsch, and most amazingly, Hal Holbrook, who outclasses everybody else in the picture as an old man whom Chris inspires. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden play Chris’s overbearing parents, and watching the motions of grief played over their faces as the film progresses is nothing if not heartbreaking.

The cinematography is absolutely stunning, capturing the almost unbelievable beauty of the North American landscape. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s still such beauty left in our modern industrialized world, but Penn’s camera-work evokes the wonder effortlessly without ever feeling fake or forced. The hot air blowing over a desert, the frigid landscape of Alaska, or the cool gusts of wind wrapping themselves around Chris as he stands on a mountaintop are all exquisite images of the untouched beauty of nature.

“Into the Wild,” is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, the story of how one man decided he was going to go out and rough it and actually lived through it all to the end, never once giving up or backing down. It’s also a story of one man’s search for meaning, one that entrances with its personal beauty. Yes, it’s flawed, but it’s such a heartrendingly beautiful portrayal that ever flaw is forgiven with ease. There’s little chance you’ll find a more inviting or inspirational film this year, and little doubt that Sean Penn was the perfect man to bring this story to the big screen. Gorgeous.

Heath Ledger was No Druggie

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 31, 2008 by Brandon

I gotta get something off my chest. Someone said something earlier tonight that really really bothered me because it was characteristically obtuse and close-minded.

Whenever a major star in Hollywood dies at a young age, the first suspect is always, always drugs. And suicide usually follows in at a close second, if not being part of the first. I’ll admit it – when I first heard that Heath Ledger had died that was one of my first suspicions.

But to do this is unfair to the memory of those people. Just because they were part of the Hollywood culture does not mean that they took part in everything Hollywood. That’s like saying that everyone at SPU doesn’t drink, or doesn’t do drugs, or doesn’t have sex. It may be the norm for none of those things to happen, but it would be downright idiotic to claim that everybody abides by those rules.

Earlier today at a meeting which I was attending somebody said something about Ledger’s death being linked to drugs, which I found was a pretty obtuse thing to say. I mean, if they had even done any research on it, they would know the following:

Yup, that’s right. An accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Oh my gosh boy what a druggie life that Ledger had. I’m so glad we live at SPU where sleeping pills aren’t a danger. Give me a break. If you look at imdb, you’ll also find a quote from an interview with Jack Nicholson, who warned Heath about taking on the role of the Joker, as it was one that nearly killed Nicholson, literally. Heath did, though, and he was taking sleeping pills to deal with the leftover exhaustion in a desperate attempt to catch up on sleep.

Sure, the results are inconclusive, and the autopsy report isn’t due back for another ten days, but can we all give Ledger a break? Before making mindless accusations at this departed soul, let’s stop and think for a minute and actually do some research. He deserves more respect than he’s getting, and let this be a warning to all of us in the future that we shouldn’t judge someone based solely on the group of which they are a part.

That’s all. Heath Ledger’s daughter and his family have my prayers, and Heath, wherever you are, you do too.

The Bucket List (4/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 31, 2008 by Brandon
When thinking of what kind of tag lines I would give this film if I were part of the advertising department, the one I continually came up with was, “Cancer is fun!” The Bucket List probably wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously, but in a movie that boasts two of the best actors of their generation and a story does its best to tug our heartstrings, something tells me director Rob Reiner must have intended for us fall in love with this film. Perhaps it’s meant to be some grand sweeping story about following your dreams, but in the end the Bucket List is just downright insulting.

Jack Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a multi-billionaire who owns a hospital where apparently they’re not really concerned with making money, as “two beds, one room, no exceptions” is the standing rule. Unfortunately for him this means that he must not get his own room when he stays at his own hospital that looks like it belongs in Reading Rainbow, and never mind that he could afford going to the best hospital in the world with the best doctors. His roommate ends up being an old cancerous black man named Morgan Freeman (played by Morgan Freeman), who also happens to be narrating this whole tale. After finding out they have just about six months to live, ol’ Jack finds out that Freeman has this thing called “The Bucket List,” which happens to be a list of things he wants to do before he kicks the bucket. How cute. So, he convinces the poor guy that they should head out into the world to become Jumpy Old Men, continent hopping daredevils who aren’t bothered by the fact that there’s a whole mess o’ tumors eating away at their insides.

Okay, so, the premise is less than perfect, but that’s not what makes the Bucket List bad. A simplistic premise like this may have been able to be forgiven if Rob Reiner didn’t insult our intelligence about every five minutes. In the beginning of the film, Nicholson coughs up blood, and the room goes quiet and we’re supposed to feel sorry and scared for him. Then, just five or ten minutes later, we’re asked to chuckle when Nicholson needs to have his hair shaved because of the chemotherapy and ends up vomiting several times a night because of it. I never knew cancer could be so hilarious. Aside from this, the two treat the hospital like some kind of bed & breakfast. They can get up and go wherever and whenever they please, and screw that damn cancer. And once they’re out and on the road, the cancer just conveniently disappears. These men are receiving no treatment whatsoever, yet somehow they can climb mountains and pyramids and hills. There’s also a part in the movie where we waste an entire ten minutes on a location that could have been avoided by merely checking a weather report.

As Freeman and Nicholson hop from one blue screen to another, you begin to realize something. They’re hopping from one blue screen to another. From the first frame of this film to its last, it feels fake. You would think that it would be difficult to mess up a shot of someone sitting on top of one of the pyramids, but Reiner manages to screw it up royally. It looks like Nicholson and Freeman are sitting on a pile of bricks in front of screen that’s showing the vista. When they’re going through the African Savannah, National Geographic footage is tackily plastered onto the foreground as the Jeep roars through the backlot. A scene in France atop a hill overlooks the beautiful grainy blurry photoshopped ocean. It’s not moving, really. It’s distracting. And at the end of it all, the two learn the kind of life lesson that wouldn’t be out-of-place on Barney.

Nicholson and Freeman both have earnest fun with their roles, and they’re a lot of fun to watch, though Freeman needs to change it up soon. This man has an insane amount of potential yet he’s squandering it on roles that do the same thing over and over and over again. I swear, if he has another kindly old man role, I’m going to scream. Sure, he’s good, but he needs to expand his horizons a little. Nicholson is sometimes more creepy than anything else, and though these two characters are unbelievable together, the talent of these two actors and their chemistry works a little miracle. Sean Hayes from Will & Grace is subdued here, and surprisingly effective and hilarious. But these few saving graces can’t keep The Bucket List from its many insulting flaws. Movies that are unrealistic can be forgiven, but not when they strive for so much more. The Bucket List is DOA.

Atonement (8/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 31, 2008 by Brandon
Both the love story and the historical drama have been done to death, but Atonement is a fusion of the two and something entirely different. Based on the bestselling novel by Ian McEwan (which I haven’t read, and subsequently won’t address here), Atonement features delicately nuanced performances, an intricate storyline with a rather interesting message at its heart, and a message about the timelessness of love and the power of writers. It may be one of the best, and even more likely one of the most unique, films of 2007.Briony Tallis, played by relative newcomer Saoirse Ronan, is a 13-year old writer with spunk and attitude, living in an early 20th century English countryside, right before the beginning of World War II, in a massive mansion, where a dark story about love and betrayal is about to unfold. Keira Knightley is her sister, Cecilia Tallis, who gets involved with the servant boy Robbie, played with searing delicacy by James McAvoy. Unfortunately for both him and Cecilia, Briony has a crush on him, and subsequently accuses Robbie of a crime that he did not commit, sending into a hurtling rush decades of broken love, guilt, torn apart by war and separation.

Atonement is flawed by several things, one of which is its main actress, Keira Knightley. She doesn’t seem to be playing an actual character, but rather a caricature of that type of girl who falls in love with the servant boy. She consistently makes “oh lordy” faces and is always caught with her mouth hanging half open. I didn’t buy her at all. Another weakness is something about the story itself. It is unique in several ways, and where it strays from formula is where it succeeds the most, but I didn’t buy that one meeting of lips would throw into motion a years-long struggle. I didn’t buy that when Robbie went off to war he would constantly be thinking about Cecilia. War does things to you, and you’re never the same once you are in one.

Despite this, though, there are many things that make Atonement breathtakingly shocking, one of which is the relentless click-clacketing of Briony’s typewriter, which carries an ominous and slightly sensual feel to it. It serves as a kind of background to most every piece of music in the movie, which may sound boring, but actually serves as a beautiful kind of metaphor to highlight that this is Briony’s story, not Robbie and Cecilia’s. Another strength is its cinematography, which brutally focuses in on the horrors of both war and the tragedy of the story in an honest and straightforward way without any fancy work. On a side note, it seems every time a movie uses one long unbroken shot it’s destined to get nominated. Atonement had one, and it does get nominated. Granted, it’s a spectacularly done shot, but still. Seems a bit cheap, sometimes. Besides these two things, the actress who plays Briony once she grows up to be 18 carries the movie effortlessly and saves it from its endless sad pondering that came beforehand. And finally, the ways that make Atonement unique serve to put it above many other films made this year.

On the surface, this is a story about a lost love that spans a few years because of some person doing something bad, something that we’ve seen countless times before. But what separates Atonement from anything else we’ve ever seen is not only the way it’s told, but underlying currents of despair, broken love, heartache, mourning, tragedies of war, and many others. The film’s final five minutes throw you into a loop for what you just saw the last hour and a half, not the stereotypical twist ending, but something pretty dang interesting. It doesn’t cheat you, but it will cause you to look at the film in an entirely different light.

Atonement may be one of the most challenging movies I’ve seen all year. Sometimes it’s hard to look past the mundane surface and to the many emotions that bubble beneath the surface. Oftentimes nothing much seems to be happening at all, except shallow characters wallowing in their own despair-tainted muck, which is never fun to watch, no matter who you are. Despite this, though, and despite its flaws, Atonement is a powerful war drama with almost universally-great performances, an intricate storyline that will challenge you and possibly frustrate you, and one of the most unique yet deceptively simply storylines I’ve seen all year. I highly recommend it.