The Kingdom (2007)
Peter Berg’s latest directorial outing – The Kingdom – serves to, at least initially, teach us a history lesson, but it isn’t long before Berg’s “gritty” endeavour becomes one enmeshed in stagy histrionics and clichés. Whilst The Kingdom is a severely flawed film, its opening credits sequence is impressive, running down a very piecemeal shopping list of important political events of the last century that involved the Middle East (with a gutsy reference to the September 11th attacks).
After Berg briefly introduces us to FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), a frankly clichéd character in his own right, the action transports to Saudi Arabia, where the majority of the picture takes place, thanks to a surprisingly brutal terrorist attack that transpires there. One of Fleury’s colleagues dies in the attack, and in the fallout of this incident, we meet his all-American team, consisting of Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman, who are, along with Fleury, soon enough sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack and bring the perpetrators to justice. I must attest that I am easily distracted by minor, yet unassailably silly contrivances in a film’s narrative, and whilst the film’s initial meeting room scene is likely supposed to be one of marked tension, I simply found myself observing why, in a room of probably fifty FBI agents, only those in the room with a star credit actually said anything, whilst everyone else remained annoyingly silent. It’s unrealistic, and moreover, does it really require much cognition to throw a few lines of dialogue to some of the other schmoes sitting around the room?
Such minor faults I can begrudge and move forward from, but The Kingdom’s true disappointment is in its restriction of actors who are, without doubt, certainly above material such as this. For example, Jason Bateman (who wowed us in the woefully-defunct Arrested Development) is never really given a chance to prove his acting chops, yet he serves as the comic relief. I had high hopes for Bateman in this film, but as can be said for most of the characters herein, the banter they are forced to partake in is redundant and as bland as some of the performances (see: Jennifer Garner), wholly unaided by the bubblegum script. The film is not without its gems, such as Six Feet Under’s excellent Richard Jenkins, yet his screen time is tragically limited.
Even Entourage’s Jeremy Piven, who looks very much the part in this film, with his frosted hair and spectacles, was barely able to remain afloat. Piven, with his tenacious energy and cracking wit, would no doubt have served better as a crazed reporter (as opposed to a delegate for the U.S. Embassy), reminiscent of Dennis Hopper’s idiosyncratic turn in Apocalypse Now.
The investigative element of The Kingdom failed to ever engage me – from Cooper’s character sifting through a muddy sludge for evidence, to Foxx exhibiting a strange culture clash with his Saudi counterpart. Moreover, the film’s action is incredibly sparse, only ever kicking into fifth gear in the final twenty minutes. The manner in which these scenes kick off is hardly inventive, and the film’s marketing largely spoiled the surprise, but the action is appropriately frenzied, as the remaining members of Fleury’s team race to rescue the one who has been kidnapped.
The set pieces are by no means intelligent, but Berg has a keen eye for sharp imagery, and the carnage is indisputably well shot, even if Berg is insistent on showing us each explosion from at least three angles, and firing more bullets than would be expended in a first-person-shooter computer game.
Even whilst I was unable to ignore the sheer absurdity of Garner’s fawn-like character (and she was almost certainly dropped into the film for tokenism purposes), what bothered me the most about The Kingdom is how it all ends. The film never attempts to be edgy or innovative – Berg appears very contented with his straight-forward rescue premise, and delivers with exactly, simply that. A semi-prime player is dead by the end of the film, but it was a predictable choice, and even while the film’s attempt at sentimentality in this respect is marginally successful, saccharine moments are also in high abundance. For instance, I literally dare you not to cringe as Garner’s character hands a lollipop to a Muslim girl.
As much as the terrorists typically obscure their faces and shout “Allah” at near-enough every opportunity, the film does, in an albeit fairly foul-tasting manner, attempt to provide a positive representation of the Middle Eastern populace. What The Kingdom does is to remind us that, yes, even in this dingy, dust-bowl of a locale, Islam is not the enemy, and the final lines remind us of the insight that both sides believe their cause is the most benevolent, regardless of their methods. The real problem with the film’s message is that it isn’t subversive or refreshing in any fashion at all, and moreover, most educated people recognise these truths anyway.
In crafting an aesthetically accomplished, yet soulless ordeal, Berg succeeds. The film has two largely effective moments, but otherwise, The Kingdom simply takes a spate of A-list actors, drops them into a lush, exotic locale with a high budget, and blows a lot of real estate up in sandbox-like fashion. The camerawork will divide audiences, either deeper immersing you in the story, or frustrating you with its jolts and shakes, but the film’s real facet of division lies in viewers who are willing to simply enjoy the fairly brainless drama, and those who are not. For the purposes of a by-the-numbers, tropical shoot-'em-up, this film succeeds, but to infer any greater degree of intelligence unto the picture, as Berg appears to attempt to, the effort stumbles.
Last edited by asdasta; 12-12-2007 at 21:23.
The Brave One (D: Neil Jordan, 2007)
Neil Jordan cemented himself as a director to watch in 1992 with his highly controversial film The Crying Game, a film known for its subversion of gender roles. Jordan’s latest picture, The Brave One, seeks to repeat this pattern – it is essentially oestrogen-induced revenge fare, a Death Wish minus the testosterone, if you will, with a slight dash of Falling Down to it, also.
Whilst the concept of a female protagonist violently avenging social injustices is a breath of fresh air, Jordan almost falls at the first hurdle in painting a portrait of happy families in soon-to-be husband and wife Erica (Jodie Foster) and David (Naveen Andrews). The idea of “tragedy strikes the perfect couple” became redundant decades ago, yet directors and writers still insist on exploiting it.
Nonetheless, the plot moves forward fairly quickly, and fortunately, for want of a better term, the idyllic paradise is soon enough usurped. In a brutal attack, David is killed, and Erica is left in a coma, and I move to applaud Jordan’s gritty and visceral filmmaking approach. Furthermore, in the subsequent hospital scenes, as the doctors race to save their lives, Jordan holds nothing back – he shows blood-smeared breasts, and does so without it appearing either gratuitous or exploitative, but simply raw.
The initial stages of the film are not free of contemplative, broodish scenes, and whilst they do hurt the pace of the film, causing it to plod along, considering how well Jordan knows the camera, and how competently shot these interludes are, they seem neither superfluous nor tiresome. Moreover, they are few and far between in this picture. It can be said as a general rule, in fact, that the film is expertly shot – the constantly rotating camera gives an ubiquitous feeling of unease, and reinforces Erica’s own trepidation about venturing back into the outside world.
There are times when The Brave One almost appears to be criminalising the police themselves, or rather, the proceduralism of their line of work. It is this concept that essentially kick-starts Erica’s rampage, but I’m pressed to consider whether the system really is to blame, as, after all, is it really feasible to levy a cost-effective replacement?
As strong as the film by-and-large is, what bothered me most in the film’s establishing scenes is how quickly and coincidentally Erica is thrown into a situation whereby she is able to utilise her gun (which she illegally purchased). It feels very contrived, yet one can almost forget this when Jordan dazzles us with a wonderful slow-motion shot of Erica’s face, moments after using her gun – it is a credit to not only Jordan and his director of photography, but to Foster as an actress, using her face to speak without voice.
It isn’t long before Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) arrives on the scene, and as is bitingly truthful of our society and our expectations of the perpetration of violence, he suspects anything other than a female shooter. The script could have simply used “they”, yet “he” is used almost exclusively until the latter portion of the film, a decidedly sharper inflexion on the part of writers Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort.
Erica never seems to assume the “badass” persona that many lesser films would have conferred upon her – one can practically feel the adrenaline rushing through her body in each violent transgression, thanks to Foster’s extraordinary physical acting. However, soon enough, one can begin to question the morality of Erica’s interactions – she knows that she shouldn’t use her gun, but she does, she’s angry. It follows very succinctly that she is disenfranchised with society, and is very wet around the ears. However, she claims that she doesn’t shake when using the gun, yet vomits after dropping two thugs – this characterisation, I must state, is thus somewhat confusing.
In Erica’s first violent outburst, we witness her covering her tracks, yet in her second, which takes place aboard a train, the fact that 99% of all train stations (and trains, no less) are now equipped with cameras is conveniently glossed over. This is one of the few indisputable logical fallacies in the film, and it bothered me, although not as much as it should have, given the veritable strength of the film as a collective.
As Detective Mercer begins to get hot on the trail of Erica, the film assumes a stance that resembles a more volatile version of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down – we are truly unsure as to where, if anywhere, Erica’s sanity lies. What the film quite daringly ventures to do is make Erica and Mercer incredibly friendly with each other, making the chance of a cop-out ending later on far less likely (although my discussion of that will come later). As Erica interviews Mercer for her radio show, the lines of morality between a citizen and a police officer very clearly become blurred – those in uniform wish to serve justice simply as we do, but it as if they become too immersed in the procedure and administrative milieu of their work that they are blinded by it.
As The Brave One progresses, Erica transforms from someone of morally dubious character to one who is more or less morally bankrupt, diverging from simply repelling would-be assailants to actively becoming a vigilante. She kills those even the police wish dead, but in her act of cleaning the streets, she is attacking those unrelated to herself. Still, I find it important to stress that she knows this – the script is self-referential in its morality, and so to deem the film “morally confused” as many in the film press have is incorrect. Her actions reflect her irrational mentality in lieu of her fiancé's death, and to judge her morality in relation to those of “normal” people is unfair.
The key point of contention for the film is an interesting moral dilemma – will Mercer, with his ever-increasing array of evidence, turn Erica in, or, with his flourishing friendship and sympathy towards her, will he let her go? The finale is nail-bitingly tense, although the positional stances of the primary players by the film’s end aren’t entirely convincing.
As with Falling Down, the protagonist is a sympathetic character, even in her blackened moral reasoning, yet The Brave One, unlike the aforementioned picture, offers little in way of satisfying catharsis. In its main folly, the film’s actual closure negates the ending that it seemed to be logically building to, and, quite honestly, the fact that she didn’t kill a single woman left something of a sour taste. It invites all manner of feminist readings, foremost that Erica is quite literally undoing the “evil that men do”.
The Brave One, despite its disappointing ending, still manages to ask vital questions about the origins of violence, and whether a wealth of wrongs can make a right. Jordan’s direction is at times masterful, and the performance he elicits from Foster in particular is captivating. The picture makes occasional hiccups, yet this is a solid effort from a wonderful ensemble of talent.
Last edited by asdasta; 13-12-2007 at 01:16.
Awake (D: Joby Harold, 2007)
Joby Harold’s Awake, in its opening titles, explains the phenomenon of “anaesthetic awareness”, whereby a patient retains consciousness of events around them whilst under general aesthetic, often whilst having painful and intrusive surgery performed. Such forms the horrific situation for young, successful hotshot Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen), who undergoes a heart transplant, and in his consciousness, uncovers a sinister murder plot against him. A crazy premise? You couldn’t be any more on the money.
The first mistake that this film makes is to establish the eye-rollingly loving relationship between Clay and his fiancé, Samantha (Jessica Alba), which feels like something written for an under-funded daytime direct-to-TV film. Whilst this romantic dynamic is dwelled on for far too long, the subsequent tension leading up to the transplant is admittedly effective, thanks to his friend and doctor, Jack (Terence Howard) informing him that there is a very real chance that he will expire whilst under the knife.
Where Harold (the writer as well as director of the film) falls shortest is with his insistence to drum up a plethora of cretinous characters, none moreso than Clay himself. In a silly subplot, Clay wishes for Jack to perform his surgery, despite the fact that he has four malpractice lawsuits on his record, and a replacement, who has operated on Presidents and written textbooks, is available. It is therefore difficult to in any meaningful way identify with Clay when he so flagrantly defies logic in the name of friendship. In short: Clay is a fool beyond all tangible proportions, and his rebuke to this clearly superior doctor, that “He’s my friend, I trust him”, is as inane a strand of dialogue as you will feast your ears upon this year.
The accompanying familial interjections are likewise onerous – Clay spends far too much time pottering about, wondering whether to inform his mother of his engagement to Samantha. When the scene shifts to an impromptu marriage in the middle of the night, I found myself wondering when things were going to move to the operating table, and considering whether the emotional meat hook Harold attempted to sink was going to ensure our protagonist’s survival.
The procedural drama is sigh-inducing, and considering that Awake chimes in at a trim 78 minutes without credits, taking over thirty of them before the anaesthesia is administered is ludicrous. The means of expressing Clay’s thoughts once he is entombed within his own cerebrum is by no means an easy directorial decision, and the voice-over technique used appears to be the only feasible way, even if it does seem a tad clumsy. There is, admittedly, a certain, legitimate terror in hearing Clay’s screams as doctors slice his chest open and his body remains stationary (even if it is, at times, unintentionally hilarious).
This unfamiliar filmic territory allows an exploration of Clay’s mind, conjuring images of his own supposed funeral, for example. This would have been an effective technique had it not been rather sloppily executed, interacting with the present action in the operation room in absolutely ridiculous, near-transcendental fashion. Clay’s attempts to “hide” in his memories to escape the pain of the surgery is a novel and unique idea, yet it is never fully capitalised on, and is largely a failed, mis-utilised mechanic.
One gains an impression by the beginning of the final act that Awake would have served better as an episode of The Twilight Zone or, dare I say, Tales from the Crypt. As well as the insufferable build-up, we are thrown a wealth of cumbersome background information, the majority of which is analogous, but nevertheless unnecessary to the film’s narrative, serving as superfluous, yet sadly essential padding.
Awake is not without its occasional moments of genuine surprise, such as a twist introduced near the climax of the picture (albeit an utterly ridiculous one). I found myself genuinely shocked at such a curiously untelegraphed move (for a Hollywood production), and more to the point, Harold's choice not to back-pedal on this when it came for the film’s final payoff. Harold toys with our conception of reality (and moreover, constructed reality), and I thought I could see what was coming, but was never entirely sure due to the constant sea-saw between what is real and what is (or as the case may be, is not) hallucinatory.
There are some impressive techniques to be found when we walk around in Clay’s mind, particularly in the film’s latter stages, yet too often does it dive headlong into the over-existential and recondite, becoming very silly in the process, as well as abusing every medical regulation (sanitary and otherwise) known to man.
Nobody, I think, will complain that Awake is predictable, but a promising, if inherently clunky idea is protracted to the point of absurdity, posturing ideas of the collective consciousness and the otherworldly. I was left considering whether everything but the final shot should have been one of Clay’s anaesthetic-induced hallucinations. Awake is not without its effective moments, and it provides a number of surprises, but Joby Harold has a length to go as a writer, and as a director he needs to refine his craft also. The performances are more tolerable than they need to be, but they are merely that – Alba is typical eye candy, Howard is generally above such material (and it shows), and Christensen ranges from bland when attempting dramatic range, to laughable when screaming in agony.
Last edited by asdasta; 17-12-2007 at 23:18.
Lions for Lambs (D: Robert Redford, 2007)
Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is a film not particularly interested in entertaining its audience – it offers little for those in search of laughs, special effects, violence or explosions. Rather, Redford’s picture seeks to ask vital questions of the War on Terror, and whether or not you find the messages to be refreshing or even agreeable, there is undoubtedly a degree of deft craftsmanship aboard this venture.
Lions for Lambs encapsulates three plot strands which, as the film progresses, gravitate towards each other, resulting in a biting climax. Is it a tired premise? Probably, although the film’s approach to such a technique is hardly conventional, and the manner in which these strands interweave is neither forced nor overt.
The first strand involves Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), who has invited journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) to interview him regarding a new war strategy in Afghanistan. Irving is essentially a smart, suave character, although his initial discourse (or “banter”) with Irving is surprisingly charming, and seeing two highly exalted thespians such as Cruise and Streep play off of one another is always a joy to behold.
Streep is sharp, but a seemingly (at times) shrewd journalist. This may cause her to appear to be a flat and stereotypical representation of the press, although one must remember that she works for what appears to be a glorified dirtsheet, and moreover, aren’t most reporters like this?
Cruise’s character appears to be the “villain” of the film (at least initially), which is interesting, as he is the film’s pro-government slant. Streep rebukes, detailing America’s shortcomings, and so it is difficult to label their conference as one-sided, even if Irving is quite clearly supposed to be disliked. However, one could envision Irving as “stern but fair”, and he certainly raises his fair share of valid points – he is a utilitarian veilled under a rock-hard, charismatic exterior, attributes, which his job no doubt requires.
Whilst Irving spouts far more verbiage than Roth, there is a constant give and take between the two, and things are fairly equal, perhaps weighed ever-so-slightly in favour of Irving, who dictates far more choice facts than Streep’s character. However, the initial hard-faced political commentary of the tense meeting is alleviated by a pinch of sympathy levied in relation to Cruise’s character. It does, at times, feel as though he overencumbers Streep’s character, although we are never given a large enough glimpse into her psyche. Even if we were, I have to consider whether it would undermine both the purpose, and political equality of the picture.
The second narrative strand deals with Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), who holds a curious meeting with disillusioned, apathetic student Todd (Andrew Garfield). Their quasi-intellectual discussion is thrilling – it may be minimalist, but it is nonetheless engrossing. This meeting is an interesting divergence – Malley is essentially trying to push Todd to reach his potential, and whilst it is not without its political facets, this portion of the film seems to be more existential than anything. In a Bergman-esque fashion (namely pertaining to Wild Strawberries), the discussion frequently becomes inverse, with Malley being forced to ponder his own life decisions. Redford appears to attempt to instill a life lesson, both to Todd, and to the viewer, and whilst his arguments are certainly relevant to youngsters, the tragic irony is that they are the very audience who will likely have no interest in this picture.
Their discussion, whilst thrilling (even in its stoicism), makes an attempt at a social commentary, but I found myself disagreeing with it entirely. It essentially states that those who are the most maltreated by our government are the first to stand up and defend it, curiously ignoring the fact that such people are generally those in the poorer cross-section of society, who are left with little-to-no choice but to join the army to make a decent living for their family.
At this point, one may wonder how the classroom and the war room can converge without contrivance, but alas, the key lies in the third strand, which tells the tale of former students Arian (Derek Luke) and Ernest (Michael Peña), who, whilst stationed in Afghanistan, are separated from their unit and stranded behind enemy lines. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn a causal link between the trouble that Arian and Ernest are in, and the discussion between Professor Malley and Todd. The flashbacks are arguably the highlight of the film, providing moments of marked intensity. These scenes are unequivocally lengthy, but nevertheless engaging, and pose a very intruiging moral and existential dilemma.
The convergence of the film’s various conflicts is a shocking and heartfelt one – it provides interesting food for thought on not only the War on Terror, but war in general. Whilst I never felt overly connected to Arian or Ernest in any particular way, the imagery of their resolution was effective, even if Peña rolling around wounded for the majority of the picture was too reminiscent of his turn in World Trade Center.
The final scene does paint pictures too black and white for many tastes, and things end just as abruptly as they began, but given the matter-of-fact nature in which the film plays out, Redford was left with little other choice. Lions for Lambs is essentially little more than a series of debates with slight interjections of action and human drama, but as I attest, this is a film made not to entertain, but to, in some fashion, educate.
Performance-wise, the endeavour is a mixed bag – Cruise is decent but certainly not stand-out, Streep is restrained and percolates under the surface (only near the end does the script allow her to unleash), and Peter Berg, whilst a stereotypical Lieutenant, gives it his best. The acting dynamo of the picture is Redford, who brings decidedly academic dialogue to erratic life with his heartfelt portrayal of an aging professor with a rather large chip on his shoulder. Andrew Garfield also surprises with his authentic depiction of a confused, directionless student.
Lions for Lambs will bore casual cinemagoers, and frustrate those unable to simply observe political discourse. It is difficult to recommend the film on performances alone, and it is very much a title of undercurrents and inner machinations, yet Lions for Lambs is still one of the most underrated films of 2007.
Last edited by asdasta; 18-12-2007 at 19:36.
Waitress (D: Adrienne Shelly, 2007)
The late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress exudes charm from its first frame until its last, sniff-inducing one – the endearing Southern accents, the incessant mention of pie, and the wild and wacky characters all work in a wondrous, and surprisingly mature concoction.
The film revolves around the turmoil of Southern waitress Jenna (Keri Russell), who is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a controlling, abusive husband (Jeremy Sisto), and to make matters is worse, is pregnant by him, with a child that she does not want.
Aside from Russell, who is a commanding actress in her own right, it can be said that Waitress is a masterclass of underappreciated television talent, ranging from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines (Jenna’s colleague and friend), to Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto (Jenna’s maniacal jackass of a husband), to Firefly’s Nathan Fillion (Jenna’s doctor and on-again-off-again love interest). Also, one cannot help but feel a hint of sadness upon meeting Adrienne Shelly’s own character in the film – a ditzy, yet unarguably sweet colleague and friend of Jenna’s, and the fact that Shelly, the person, was murdered before the film went on to enjoy considerable acclaim, is heartbreaking.
From the moment these key players are introduced, the film is filled with promise. Can we see plot strands sewn early? Sure, but Waitress is not a film concerned with surprises and twists, but simply with telling a wholesome, fun, and touching story of family, love, and chasing your dreams.
I am generally weary of “quirkiness” in films, yet Waitress manifests its quirks through its host of wonderful, uniformly oddball characters, from the hostile, demanding owner of the pie shop in which Jenna works, to a psychotic, yet affluent stalker, to Jenna’s wildly acerbic, deadpan manager. The characters in of themselves are largely not belly-laugh material, yet they are certainly amusing in their own way, and provide the film with a greater sense of spirit and charm.
Even Fillion’s Dr. Pomatter is something of a bumbling Hugh Grant-esque type, and Shelly does well to raise the obvious romantic chemistry between his character and Jenna early on in the picture, rather than carefully tip-toeing around it. In this respect, considering that Dr. Pomatter is himself married, a question of morality runs as an undercurrent to the narrative. As such, whilst the film is incredibly sweet, it does, to its credit, have a number of entirely serious moments, although they never seem to inundate the narrative.
Waitress is hardly an explicit film in any respect, but in its sweetness, it doesn’t shy away from sex, or the occasional glimpse into domestic abuse. This is to the picture’s considerable credit, as many similar, lesser films have skirted around such subjects, ultimately becoming little more than saccharine, diluted fare. Whilst the former comment may arguably be applicable to this film, the latter is certainly not.
The narrative takes the expected 180, but it escapes seeming forced or contrived because the characters are so apparent in their insanity. There is a great deal of catharsis that comes surprisingly early on in an almost systematic fashion. It is hardly the most inventive or effective way to levy such purgation, but it works well enough, even if I may have to chalk that up to Jenna’s pregnant glow.
The film is endowed with a surprising amount of moral complexity at times (namely in relation to values of fidelity), and the characterisation is unexpectedly deep and rich, particularly in relation to Sisto’s seemingly one-dimensional character. Whilst one must attest that Waitress does pile on the sherbet in the final third of the film, even perhaps focusing too much on Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s relationship at one stage, the picture is pulled out of such doldrums by the interjections of seriousness, and many of the moral strands eventually come crashing together.
Does Waitress take the easy solution? Not as you may expect, although I felt as though I was feeling sympathy for the wrong person, or, at least, the person who Shelly intended for us to dislike. However, there is a very genuine joyousness about the entire, messy situation. The ending is predictably candy-coated, but it is more surprising than you would expect, and to a degree, the close is bittersweet. More than the lack of predictability, I enjoyed the morality of the film’s ending – it sought to make a point that I was convinced Shelly would gloss over, but alas, she was sure to instil a wholesome moral message behind what otherwise would have been a film seen to be glorifying adultery and infidelity.
Waitress is, without a doubt, a film that causes one to feel genuine emotion, thanks largely to Russell’s performance, but also to those of virtually everyone around her. Sisto in particular is on top form, ranging from laughably domineering to truly misogynistic in his temperament, and he may well arouse an air of anger within you. Even as an individual who enjoys an unhealthy amount of Scorsese and Coppola, I felt a glint in my eye by the end of Waitress. One would not be far wrong in commenting that this film can likely melt even the coldest of hearts, and this rudimentary, yet witty and stylistically glorious piece is one of the indie gems of 2007. Waitress is a film all about pie, and whilst I shall avoid the number of pie-induced puns that spring to mind, I shall attest that above all else, by the film’s close, you may want to eat a lot of it.
Last edited by asdasta; 19-12-2007 at 18:13.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)
Sidney Lumet returns to top form in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead - a devilishly tense (pun intended), sprawling, melodramatic puzzle of a film. The film’s title comes from a famous Irish blessing, which declares, “And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead”, verbiage very much apt for protagonist brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke).
In short, Andy and Hank, both short of money for various reasons, are looking to rob a “mom and pop” jewellery store, yet the sting in the tail lies in the fact that this store is owned by their parents. The focal point of the film is this robbery’s result, which leaves various individuals dead or near death, and Andy and Hank must attempt a clean getaway as their father, Charles (Albert Finney), seeks to get revenge on the perpetrators. Embroiled in the turmoil is Andy’s wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), who is torn between the two brothers in a very twisted love triangle.
Lumet enjoys utilising non-linear narrative to great effect in this film – we open on the day of the robbery, and subsequently dart around various days before and after it, which reveals to us a wealth of important and, at times, shocking information. The initial robbery is an intense, gripping scene of intrigue, ending in a violent eruption, yet soon enough, we are sent plunging backwards to three days prior to this. Such flashbacks are often disorientating and ancillary to the plot, yet in this instance, they are satisfying, and moreover, necessary – they work quickly in familiarising us with the two brothers and their various motivations (monetary, sexual, and familial) to rob the store.
The wildly slick robbery plan is orchestrated largely by Andy, who plays things extremely cool, whilst Hank initially balks at the idea, yet, with various large and looming debts, he ultimately decides to ride shotgun. In moments such as these, as Andy sits behind his desk, almost pontificating the need to pull this scam off, smoking a cigarette, he himself assumes a rather Faustian, devil’s advocate-like persona, and it’s wonderful to watch.
These flashback interludes, even in their effectiveness, fortunately do not last for the rest of the picture, and soon enough, we are thrown back into the intense robbery scenario, yet this time, thanks to said flashbacks, we now have context established. Lumet does decide to dip the viewer in and out of Andy and Hank’s lives from days before the robbery, yet rather than suffocate the film, the puzzle-esque format exists to suture together the various plot strands, endowing the viewer with essential information and character development.
Following the botched robbery, Hank states to Andy that “it’s all come apart”, and this is truer than the brothers know. The fallout of the robbery has greater ramifications than either could have ever expected. With the introduction of their father, the flashbacks begin to encapsulate his life also, introducing a more sinister, foreboding, and dangerous element into the narrative.
Hank in particular seems to become more and more neck-deep in trouble (mostly monetary) as the film progresses, yet Andy is hardly keeping himself above water either. Their own tribulations, combined with the emergence of their disaffected, enraged father, causes the tension to ratchet up to highly unnerving levels, setting up for what is one of the most thrilling, and shocking finales of the year. If anything, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a film about downfall – the death of a very twisted American dream, if you will. There certainly are cathartic moments before the fall, in that these are, to a degree, sympathetic characters, although aside from Finney’s tragedy-imbued person, you have to wonder if they’re worthy of such sentiment. Andy, in particular, is of dubious moral character, and Hank, driven by a need to stay afloat, is dragged down into the abyss with him.
It is a massive credit to the picture to be endowed with such acting powerhouses as Hoffman and Finney, that one is able to find all of the film’s familial issues to be convincing precursors to their present problems, without at all seeming forced. The finale is almost unbearably tense, serving up its fair share of surprises, and whilst one may declare that it “descends” into melodrama, I attest that it shamelessly (and rightly so) does so, with no descent or decline in the film’s integrity or quality. The final twenty minutes is so chock full of unpredictability (yet still manages to be tangible), and so masterfully acted, that even if you find the melodrama to be several steps too far, there is nevertheless an assortment of reasons to both watch and revel in this electrifying, dramatic character study.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is packed with Oscar-worthy material – the tragic, spiralling plot is unflinching in its portrayal of man’s desperation, thanks to Kelly Masterson’s sharp and inventive script. However, what without question raises this film above similar pictures is its acting – Albert Finney is perfectly smouldering as a vengeful man thrown into an impossible situation, Philip Seymour Hoffman is spot-on as the unquestionably slimy sibling, and Marisa Tomei does an appropriately ditzy job. One mustn’t forget Ethan Hawke either, whose role is not as meaty as Hoffman’s, yet he still brings a flare to the role of an unspeakably desperate individual. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a winning, daring concoction of skilful writing, deft performances, and schooled direction.
Last edited by asdasta; 25-12-2007 at 13:31.
Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)
English readers may recognise Gone Baby Gone only through the controversy surrounding its release in the United Kingdom, whereby, due to the recent disappearance of four year old Madeleine McCann, the film’s release has been delayed until April of next year. Life’s ability to imitate art aside, Gone Baby Gone, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, is a gritty, competently acted, and surprisingly well-directed effort from Ben Affleck. Not only does the film present an intriguing, winding plot, but it also asks the viewer several questions, and the moral dilemma of the film’s climax is a painful, disturbing one which will keep audiences arguing for years to come.
Affleck serves well to throw the viewer headlong into the kidnapping story from the outset, introducing us to private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), who is hired by the aunt of the missing young girl. Kenzie’s girlfriend, Angie (Michelle Monaghan), is also his investigative partner, and works as a means of opposition to his steely determination to discover the whereabouts of young Amanda. Angie claims that she doesn’t wish to find the remains of a child, whether they be dead or alive, if the results may be overly harrowing (such as the child having been heavily abused) – such a view is an interesting one that less daring films would ostensibly choose to omit. However, it must be said that Monaghan’s character is the film's weak link, and appears to largely be superfluous – she does little to drive the narrative, and other than one particularly daring moment, she seems to work as a device for Kenzie to bounce dialogue off of, a sidekick of sorts.
Above most all else, Gone Baby Gone is a film comprised of magnificent acting talent, and truer in no great instances than those of Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. Freeman portrays Captain Jack Doyle, an officer with a chip on his shoulder, and his involvement in the plot’s resolution is greater than most would expect at the outset. Freeman assumes one of the more intriguing characters in the film, although no-one is as thoroughly interesting as the super-charged Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). With his facial hair, Harris’ look is a departure from the ordinary, yet it provides Harris with the “badass” look that the part so very much requires. Much like Doyle, he is wary of the baby-faced Affleck, yet in contrast, he is far more acerbic, and far less calm.
The novel aspect of the film lies within the fact that Kenzie, as not only a PI, but as someone who grew up in the underbelly of Boston, is privy to information, and to contacts that the police are not – he is able to penetrate the hidey-holes of Boston, something which “stuffed shirts” cannot. In many investigative dramas, such attributes would appear clichéd or tired, yet due to Kenzie not being a cop, this concept remains fresh and not insulting to the viewer.
The manner in which the facts of the case unravel occurs surprisingly quickly – various discoveries and interrogations lead to a very promising prospect less than half-way through the film, yet the tension and mystery are nevertheless relentless in their intensity. As Kenzie and the police are faced with more and more convincing leads, and as each one is debunked, it only seeks to both fluster and intrigue the characters, as well as the viewer even more.
By the half-way mark, things are looking very bleak indeed for young Amanda, and it is impressive that the film burns so quickly, given the tendency for procedural criminal investigation pictures to keep the viewer in the dark until the film’s final moments. Affleck’s various monologues bridge the gap between the segmented narrative, which dilutes the passage of time more than you may expect, and more unexpected (yet very welcome) narrative intrusions allay any restlessness the audience may otherwise feel, in keeping them fed with information, whilst still managing to maintain a level of genuine intrigue.
Whilst Gone Baby Gone’s main attraction is the painful moral crux that plagues Kenzie in the film’s latter moments, it is not just a film of morality, but of religion, and conflicting ideologies in general. In one show-stealing scene between Harris and Affleck, these beliefs clash – Bressant’s ideals may not be orthodox, yet he is driven, clear in his ideas, and he garners results. Kenzie, however, is ambivalent in regard to the lengths people should go to in order to protect children, and this ill will is worsened by his Christian upbringing. It makes for fascinating wordplay, particularly in regard to Harris’ Oscar-worthy “You’ve gotta take a side” speech.
The picture’s end serves up genuine surprises, and whilst it essentially becomes cat and mouse fare, it is very engaging, masterfully constructed cat and mouse fare. The “big twist” isn’t initially convincing, although the explanation and accompanying moral dilemma are utterly compelling. With everyone, including his girlfriend, against him, and warning him of the potential dangers of his actions, Kenzie must make a decision. He stands to lose a lot, and to damage many people (including himself) with what is the “right” choice (at least legally). The turn is one of genuine surprise, and by the film’s end, it elicits a disturbing, yet incredibly vital social commentary on how we raise our children.
Ben Affleck has turned many heads with his directorial debut – it is doubtful that many expected his first venture behind the camera to succeed to this high a degree, yet with such an impressive level of acting talent on board (no moreso than the brilliant Ed Harris), it would have been difficult for Affleck to fail. Gone Baby Gone is little in way of inventive filmmaking, but it is an impressive effort from all involved, and it raises a number of valid moral and ethical questions.
Last edited by asdasta; 25-12-2007 at 17:32.
I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007)
Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend is the latest adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (which has already been put onto film twice), starring Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville, who may well be the last man on Earth. Neville is charged with reversing the effects of a botched cancer cure that killed 90% of the world’s population, leaving 1% immune, and turning the other 9% into “dark seekers” – mutated beasts that wish to feed on any living humans they can find.
Following a welcome cameo from the wonderful Emma Thompson (as the doctor who started the whole mess), we press on to three years later, where the entire world is seemingly desolate, ravaged by the effects of the “Krippin virus”. Is such a post-apocalyptic setting conventional, with its overturned cars, and its litter-filled streets? Absolutely, but the buck stops there, as the film’s introduction is anything but rudimentary – I Am Legend is not a film filled with dialogue, and the opening fifteen minutes is curiously, adventurously devoid of speech almost entirely. Given how Smith’s character is alone in New York City, with nothing but his dog for company, it is commendable that screenwriters Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman chose not to have Smith regurgitate an inner monologue, which would only serve to insult seasoned cinemagoers. Instead, Neville simply has occasional, ever-believable banter with his dog, which serves not to progress the plot, but to telegraph Neville as the sympathetic character that he is.
The seeming emptiness of the opening scenes reflects the drudgery and loneliness of Neville’s own existence – each night he is forced to lock himself away in his home, sleeping in the bathtub with his rifle at his side. All Neville has left is his dog, and at one point early on, he enters into a dark, potentially dangerous building in order to search for her after she runs away. In similar fare (such as Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake), risking one’s life to such lengths to rescue a pet seems ridiculous and non-sensical, yet in this paradigm, whereby Neville’s mental state cannot be ascertained, and he has no other living contacts, diving into the abyss for a hound doesn’t seem so insane.
In a brief series of flashbacks, we learn of Neville’s loneliness and personal torture to an even greater extent. Neville has endured unspeakable family atrocities, and such interludes aid in envisioning him as a truly, uncomprisingly sympathetic character. Neville is a tortured soul of the greatest variety, and combined with Smith’s moving performance, we are presented with an affecting, highly driven character that the audience can support for reasons other than the usual star power and recognisable face.
Robert Neville is, in many aspects, an unconventional action hero. Neville is a uniformly Hollywood-esque scientist, in that he is muscular, yet when faced with volatile situations, he breathes heavily, and he shakes – he is scared, and more often than not, he will flee in the face of danger rather than stand his ground in rather gung-ho fashion and unleash his rather hefty rifle. Only when faced with even more personal tragedy does Neville turn into rent-a-kill, and even then, it is understandable considering the gravity and emotional impact of his loss, and moreover, his true motives (such as his care for his own wellbeing) are unclear.
To this effect, there are a surprising amount of genuinely affecting, heartfelt moments in I Am Legend. Following a savage, brutal attack, in which Neville is faced with a heartbreaking choice (with an unexpectedly disturbing payoff), Neville is left empty and shell-like – he sustains emotional bankruptcy beyond measures he believed possible, and it appears to be this tragedy which drives the climax, rather than the other, ham-fisted way around, to the film’s further credit. The sadness of the situation is furthered by Smith’s entirely convincing turn, particularly in a rental store scene, where he, in his jaded loneliness, begs the various mannequins scattered around the store - “Please say hello to me!”. In the hands of a lesser actor, such a scene would have fallen flat and appeared preposterous and histrionic, yet Smith, the ever-underrated actor that he is, digs down deep and packs his performance with the appropriate emotional wallop that it dictates. Smith claims that preparing for I Am Legend was his most challenging turn since Ali, and given the surprising emotional depth of his character, one need not wonder why.
The film’s third act is a tonal departure from the preceding hour – Neville’s environment is altered drastically, and in doing so, brings with it a wealth of clichés, metamorphosing a minimalist, restrained survival film into an overblown, rudimentary horror endeavour. The scenes in which Neville makes his most important discoveries are also the most conventional, dabbling in a dash of deus ex machina, and transforming plot-driven action into action-driven plot. The final moments, whilst wonderfully lit and a tad inspiring, are typical of such films, and whilst Neville’s actions in the film’s final moments are unassailably heroic, it failed to convince logically. I Am Legend’s final act of violence works more as a reason to cause a lot of explosions rather than to paint a universal picture of heroism, yet when one considers Neville as a character, and what he has been through, it is a considerably more acceptable, yet nevertheless frustrating creative decision.
I Am Legend is a rarity – it is a mainstream Hollywood action thriller that packs an authentic emotional punch, and allows Smith, holding the picture solely on his broad shoulders, to demonstrate his acting credentials with flare and zest. The film suffers from some incredibly hokey visual effects, and the film’s third act seems to undermine the inventive preceding hour, yet as far as high-concept action fare goes, I Am Legend is a cut above the average.
Last edited by asdasta; 26-12-2007 at 03:02.
The Bucket List (Rob Reiner, 2007)
The Bucket List is a quick grab – Morgan Freeman, the master of voice-over that he is, soothes us into what is one of the more offbeat, yet curiously enjoyable titles of 2007. The concept alone, of two old coots running around, causing mayhem on their last legs, portrayed by Oscar-winners no less, is a promising one.
Fortunately, Rob Reiner’s return to the camera wastes little time in building up its characters – it, for fear of sounding cruel, gets them terminal rather quickly, and introduces them to one another so we can zip to the rather zany concept as soon as possible. The lines drawn are ones of stark contrast – Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is a high-flying, brazen man, whose values differ distinctly from those of the noble, wise family man that is Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). People will naturally draw upon the racial aspect of the situation, yet such posturing is very much beside the point here. Both men are diagnosed with terminal illnesses, and share the same hospital room, in which they compose a “bucket list” – a list of acts to carry out before they “kick the bucket”, and so the adventure begins.
The bonding between the two characters leading up to the creation of the list manages to avoid seeming forced – their discourse isn’t overly memorable or interesting, but it is certainly effective enough to engage. The film takes its time to get to its core concept, yet once we get there, observing Cole adding his wild ideas to the list (such as skydiving) is a delight to watch. It is, however, a shame that Nicholson and Freeman barely had to get out of bed (literally) for their roles, in that each instance of diving out of planes and racing stunt cars is inexorably smothered in an unhealthy, horrendous-looking measure of CGI. As Cole and Carter race in their stunt cars, Cole utters, “Are you trying to kill us?”, to which Carter retorts, “So what if I do?”. Thus reflects the mild gallows humour that pervades throughout the film – Carter’s reply in this instance is slightly disturbing, but the scene, with its pop-rock soundtrack and Dukes of Hazzard-esque stunt racing, is quite the barrel of fun. It is simply a shame that the scene didn’t last longer, and wasn’t so diluted by visual effects.
This is, however, not simply a film chronicling the hedonistic delights of two dying old men. As hilarious as some may find that concept within itself to be, a source of conflict is nonetheless introduced – Carter’s family wish for him to return home, feeling that Cole is taking him away before it is his time to go. However, Carter remains steadfast, and his revealed ambivalence towards his wife adds considerable depth to the conundrum. Underneath the jovial undertaking of two men’s transition into death is a mildly layered approach, which, albeit dealt with in piecemeal fashion, at least hints at the strain and anguish endured by the families of these men. To entirely tar the film with a comical brush would be a misstep, one which Reiner narrowly avoids.
Whilst the film is very evidently slanted in favour of the sage, wise Carter, it is slightly more complex than a cut and dry, black and white (literally) duality. Rather, Cole recognises Carter’s ideals and philosophies, yet rebukes them with his own stubborn ones. As the picture progresses, an air of mutual understanding is felt between the two, and whilst they both learn a lesson or two, they also both retain their core values, to the (not so) bitter end. As such, there are no convoluted character reversals, and the picture manages to avoid becoming bogged down in contrivances.
Near its close, The Bucket List quite predictably fractures the friendship between these two men, and draws the stark social contrasts that I was hoping that it would not. Nonetheless, by the time the conclusion rears its head, Reiner does not back out on his promise, and whilst the film does bathe in a wealth of sentimentality as the end draws near, it is affecting, and works within the context of the film. It is, however, simply a shame that only in the film’s final moments is Nicholson able to truly exhibit his acting credentials, and Freeman is barely able to kick into gear at all.
The Bucket List is a wild film, and whilst its message of “live life to the fullest” is neither new nor refreshingly told, Freeman and Nicholson carry a fairly tenuous concept with their spirited portrayals of two loveable oafs. The fact that Reiner never provides them with material worthy of their acting calibre is a huge waste, yet at this stage, as Nicholson and Freeman themselves endure “accelerated development”, the material is relevant, and it is clear that the principal actors, despite coasting through the largely rudimentary script, had a lot of fun with it. With most other actors, this film would likely not have worked, even with the emotional chord it strikes, yet when such an absurd concept for a film is handed over to two of the most critically acclaimed actors alive today, one can at least expect a decent payoff. The Bucket List is certainly not Rob Reiner’s best work, but it is far from his worst, and as a feel-good holiday film (even with its dreary undertones), it succeeds.
Last edited by asdasta; 26-12-2007 at 16:29.
Sling Blade (1996, Billy Bob Thornton)
Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, adapted from George Hickenlooper’s short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade (which also starred Thornton), earned a “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar win, as well as a “Best Actor” nomination for Thornton, who pulls triple duty in writing, directing and starring in this bitingly effective document of a fish truly, tragically out of water.
Thornton plays Karl, a mentally handicapped man who has spent the last twenty five years of his life in a mental hospital for killing his mother and her lover when he was a child. We meet up with him as he is released from the facility, returning home, where he attempts to, with nowhere to live, no familial contacts, and little cash, reintegrate himself into society. Thus, these initial moments of Karl’s freedom in of themselves are a depressing, saddening social commentary on how we treat those we release from incarceration.
Nevertheless, the tone of the picture frequently meanders into acceptably sweet territory – Karl finds work with people who take care of him and understand his needs, and more importantly, is befriended by a fatherless child and his mother, who invite him to live with them. It must be said that the manner in which Karl is invited to live with this duo is a tad too neat and dry-cut, but the mother character does at least come across as generally very charitable, understanding, and pleasant.
Karl’s interactions with the boy, Frank (played by Lucas Black, who is quite the impressive actor himself), allow for a refreshingly honest discourse, not only between Karl and the boy, but as a viewer observing the film, it is verbal catharsis on screen. The two individuals, in their naivety, hold little back from one another, each revealing a number of home truths to the other, and it is nothing less than thrilling to watch.
Much of Sling Blade’s success can be drawn from its memorable performances from a myriad of understated, underappreciated talents, from the late actors John Ritter (as a homosexual friend of the boy and his mother) and J.T. Walsh (one of Karl’s comically disturbing co-detainees), to the stunning Dwight Yoakam as the abusive boyfriend of Frank’s mother. In respect to Ritter, his turn is all the more welcome as it is largely a non-comedic role, although his scene with Karl in a diner is inherently funny thanks to their conflicting, entirely opposed trains of thought.
Whilst Thornton quite rightly received much critical acclaim for his portrayal of Karl, perhaps the dark horse of Sling Blade is Dwight Yoakam’s turn as Doyle, the bigoted Southerner who lives with Frank and his mother. In one instance, where he causes a party to turn foul, I felt genuinely angry at his character – Yoakam manages to play a thoroughly dislikeable individual with such vigour that one may almost turn to despise Yoakam himself. As Frank, in responding to Doyle’s angry tirade, begins throwing items at Doyle in rage, I was in awe of the array of astounding acting talent on screen before me in Sling Blade, and by all probability, you will be also. The gravity of the hopelessness of these individuals is amplified by Thornton’s frequent use of single take scenes throughout the film, almost lending a play-like format to the project.
Sling Blade is a film of little ambiguity – Thornton draws dark, thick lines around his characters, and it is clear that, as the film progresses, Karl is more and more becoming a substitute for Frank’s deceased father, although one could guess this simply from reading a synopsis of the film. It is not so much that Thornton is matter-of-fact about such plot arcs, but that he is not concerned with surprising his audience, and rightly so – Sling Blade is a simple story of a simple man. If one can draw any deeper symbolism or subtext from the film, perhaps it is that in the south of America, even Karl, in his dim-wittedness, can form tolerant, educated assertions (about homosexuals, for example), yet the “rednecks” such as Doyle cannot.
Sling Blade does ultimately take the expected turn, one which can be guessed a good ninety minutes prior to its actual occurrence. However, this is not important – what is important, and more to the point, what is interesting about what occurs in the final ten minutes of the film, is the morality of the situation. It may divide audiences in some respects, yet what is clear is that what it says about society and human beings in general is very disturbing. The film’s close, whilst mired in tragedy, is uplifting in its own stomach churning way, and makes an important commentary on the post-incarceration process of not only mental hospitals, but prisons also.
The Director’s Cut of Sling Blade, even at a weighty 148 minutes, and despite its slow pace, is gripping filmmaking. Thornton’s tragic tale is an outstanding mixture of memorable performances, a sharp script, and arresting direction, and rather than swerving at the final traffic straight, he takes us on a largely smooth, occasionally bumpy ride that makes note of several of the many things wrong with society. With Thornton writing, directing and starring in this film, each with their own flare and ingenuity, the term “tour de force” is rarely more apt. Sling Blade, whilst perhaps too sedate for some, is a gallant effort that achieves in every manner that a film of this ilk should.
Last edited by asdasta; 12-01-2008 at 15:58.
He Was a Quiet Man (2007, Frank A. Cappello)
Frank A. Cappello, writer and director of He Was a Quiet Man, is a man with something to prove, having written the hilariously bad Hulk Hogan vehicle Suburban Commando, and directing the wholly disappointing Constantine. He Was a Quiet Man, whilst not an unqualified success, is one of the underseen gems of 2007.
The film is essentially an amalgam of A History of Violence, Falling Down, and Office Space, with a pile of quirks to boot. Bob Maconel (the hilariously disguised Christian Slater), a despondent office worker, decides that he is going to perform a murderous rampage at his work office, yet before he can do so, a fellow maniac beats him to it. However, Bob, in protecting the one person that he cares about, the beautiful Vanessa (Elisha Cuthbert), guns down the assailant, and inadvertently becomes a hero.
Bob is unashamedly similar to Michael Douglas’ “D-Fens” character from Falling Down, kitted out in a shirt and tie, and even further, seeks moments of reflection in the great outdoors, although in this instance, there are no Mexican gangsters attempting to rob him. The similarities do, thankfully, stop there – this film is born of something else, with its CGI traffic whizzing by at astronomical speeds as Bob dawdles along, illustrating the drudgery of Bob’s life without an ounce of subtlety. Whilst the film as a whole is overly reliant on visual curiosities such as this, the animated, talking fish which eggs Bob on to kill his colleagues is delightfully colourful, and mildly amusing to boot.
As one can gather from the above paragraph, He Was a Quiet Man is very surreal in a hilarious sort of way. Essentially, if you gave David Lynch a funny bone, you’d probably end up with something remarkably similar to this. Despite the aforementioned reliance on visual effects, the film is unquestionably carried by the barely-recognisable Slater who, despite his recent collaboration with tragically awful director Uwe Boll, proves that he is still worth something in Hollywood, with comic timing that is nothing short of spot on.
Bob is essentially revered by everyone around him for his “heroic” actions – he is given a new job, his colleagues no longer think of him as a schmuck, and the sexy office bitch wants to have sex with him, yet the film’s real point of contention is Cuthbert’s character. Vanessa is left paralysed following the shooting, wishing that she was dead, and moreover, she wishes that Bob, who saved her life, would kill her.
A surprisingly understated (until the climatic scenes) conundrum surfaces as an aside to this drama – Bob still finds those around him utterly repugnant, and he considers whether or not to carry out what the other gunner started, as well as putting Vanessa out of her misery, of course. The film carries these questions very well – it is at times predictable, and occasionally not so, yet it never ceases to lose its sense of intrigue. The film’s examination of the way in which humans operate is not intricate, and verges on syrupy at times, yet what is most entertaining about He Was a Quiet Man is its surreal spirit. Furthermore, even in its sweetness, the film explores the lives of disabled persons with a surprising level of insight and honesty . It may be exaggerated, and at times, even humourous, yet its approach is undeniably refreshing, particularly in relation to how the disabled manage to still engage in an active and healthy sex life.
He Was a Quiet Man never remains comfortable, constantly fidgeting and posing new questions for both ourselves and Bob to consider. The film follows through with an insane close, yet it is the most manically reasoned, and therefore, perhaps the most realistic end possible (although term “realism” is a very tenuous one in a film as twisted as this). The ending comes very abruptly, and little is done to satisfy viewer curiosity, yet we are given the vital answers, even if they aren’t wholly satisfying, and are a tad questionable. We are left to ponder several things, yet when the preceding ninety minutes are so intentionally devoid of poignance, the film may simply leave your mind as the final frame does.
Christian Slater’s latest and greatest effort (at least for a while) is A History of Violence without the graphic violence, Falling Down without the social commentary, and Office Space without the sagacious humour. Yes, it is a blend of all three films, at the cost of diluting each of them. The film’s worst crime may be never allowing us to particularly care for Bob (or anyone) as much as we did for D-Fens in Schumacher’s film, yet even despite its relative superficiality, He Was a Quiet Man remains a thoroughly entertaining, inventive and quirky film that will have nihilists the world over utterly dumbfounded (myself included). Elisha Cuthbert pulls out a career best (in that she is above tolerable, and even “good”), William H Macy plays the corporate yes-man with glee, and Slater, with great aid from his fabulous make-up department, looks and acts with great hilarity. It is unfortunate that this film, embracing its flaws as it so flagrantly does, has yet to find a large audience, and as such, it instantly becomes one of the indie staples of 2007.
Last edited by asdasta; 12-01-2008 at 15:31.
Semi-redundant, but what the hey...
Name of Film: I am Legend (2008, Francis Lawrence)
If the words 'Will Smith blockbuster' immediately associate themselves with with 'bull****' amid the grey squidgy stuff that occupies the hollow spot in your skull, then you're probably going to vaguely disagree with this review. In fact, it's more or less guaranteed, particularly if you've seen it already; so go...I don't know, shoot a fox, or something. If you're aren't of that particular mindset, and just so happen - as I do - to enjoy the odd Will Smith film, then read on.
I am Legend tells the story of Robert Neville, a scientist and soldier who is the lone survivor of a global pandemic that has killed 90% of the world's population. The remaining 10% are divided into two groups; those immune to the virus - a scant 1% - and those who have been turned into horrendous, blood-sucking monsters who roam the night. It's a vaguely interesting concept - but of course it is - and it's executed rather well.
As most of you may or may not know, Will Smith is a funny guy. He does funny, and actually, I find him consistently amusing. So when I heard that he was instructed to 'dial it back' for a film in its entirety, I wasn't exactly what you might call enthused. But magically enough, despite the Fresh Prince's total absence, Smith's charisma shines through - and that's something of a bonus, considering that for a good portion of the movie it's just him and a dog onscreen. There are plenty of amusing moments - both dark and rather light - and some that are even touchingly so. Smith also portrays Neville's degradation as a human being rather well. This isn't of a man discovering an abandoned world; this is a man who has lived with it for three years - the only emotional contact he has is with his dog, and this shows in his eyes, his body language, the way he talks. It's a great, albeit hardly Oscar-worthy performance from the man.
Complementing Smith's performance is the wonderfully haunting cinematography; with DoP Andrew Lesnie masterfully creating a real sense of isolation and loneliness with his steady shots of an abandoned New York, over-grown grass waving gently in the wind. There's some really quite striking imagery here - one that particularly stuck in mind being Neville weaving his way through a stationary traffic jam in pursuit of a deer. It perhaps takes more than its fair share of cues from Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, but then again, that film took cues from the source novel of this one, so it's only fair really.
There are, however, two rather crippling problems, that also happened to be rather inexorably entwined together. This is supposed to be a horror film; and yet there aren't any truly scary pieces of imagery. The infected, for one, are entirely computer generated, and whilst the effects are solid, they simply fail to be scary. Perhaps it's meta-film thinking working its evil - if something isn't real, then it ain't scary - but there have been plenty of CG effects that have been truly terrifying. Perhaps it's the fact that they simply don't look real enough - their skin is too smooth, their movements simply not human, despite the fact that they're meant to be ex-humans. Something along the lines of the creepers in The Descent would've been more than adequate, but unfortunately it's not to be, and it sucks a lot of the tension that director Francis Lawrence has masterfully created beforehand. To add insult to injury, it turns out that Lawrence made this decision himself, and that makes it all the more disappointing.
There's another slightly less annoying problem, is the ending, which seems awfully tacked on and really does pander to the 'give us a happy ending, dammit' demographic that is stupidly microscopic and yet somehow seems to dictate how every Hollywood movie ends, ever. And unless you just so happen to sit rather prettily in that partition of the population, you'll see the exact moment where I think the thing should've ended.
In the end, this is an entertaining movie. It's an action film with a few psychological horror moments, some ropey CGI and a great central performance from Will Smith. You heard me.
Rating Out of 10: 7
Last edited by Jayk; 14-01-2008 at 23:17.
The Nines (2007, John August)
Is it fair to attest that Ryan Reynolds has endured a harsh rap throughout his career thus far? Certainly, although he does himself no favours in starring in a slew of unintelligible endeavours, such as the likes of The Amityville Horror remake, and the unintentionally, laughably bad Blade: Trinity. The Nines, if anything, is proof that Reynolds, with the right script, is a talented actor, and can carry a well-developed motion picture on his shoulders.
Like the other works of John August, such as writing the fantastic Go and the inventive Big Fish, The Nines has its quirks, although they initially leave one more dumbfounded than the quintessentially smart nature of those in Liman and Burton’s films.
The Nines begins as an actor (Ryan Reynolds) is placed under house arrest for a drug charge. Much like Disturbia, he meets the cute woman next door and is met with a myriad of strange, unexplainable events. It is difficult to know where the film is going for a long time, and the opening portion is without doubt the weakest. We gain glimpses at a bored Reynolds passing the time by masturbating, conversing with his aforementioned neighbour, exercising and drinking, and for a while, the film appears to slam against a brick wall.
Things eventually take a turn as Reynolds’ character is faced with some very odd occurrences, from a voice chanting the word "nine" over his phone line, to a curious, mute infant (Elle Fanning). Furthermore, the number nine appears to retain a sort of ubiquity, becoming frequently apparent both in conversation and action, in a manner that is considerably less annoying than in the failed Jim Carrey vehicle The Number 23.
The film's first half posits a fair share of mystery and intrigue, not all of which is entirely satisfying, yet there is hope that the second half will provide the payoff, and Reynolds' performance acts as a buoyancy aid until that time, where fortunately, the film gains a wealth of momentum.
Lots of metaphysical suggestions are posited in the film’s first “skit”, yet we are left with little time to ponder before the scene shifts, with Reynolds and his supporting cast suddenly assuming the identities of a new set of individuals - the components of a reality TV show, funnily enough. The documentary-esque approach serves well in providing an interesting insight into the television industry, although for those with little interest in the developmental process, this portion of the film may drag somewhat. However, it manages to remain grounded and down-to-Earth with undoubtedly geeky, yet satisfying references to various facets of the television lexicon. To this effect, The Nines is the first film I have ever seen to actually reference the Internet Movie Database.
The phrase "the nines" is massaged into the script frequently, and unlike most of the curious aspects of the film, it can't help but feel a tad forced. Is such self-service on August’s part really necessary, and moreover, is it going anywhere that isn't going to result in a convoluted resolution? Fortunately, the second act of the film is considerably more balanced and satisfying than the first portion, and the final moments of part two are both genuinely surprising and intensely intriguing. The quirks hold water, and the explanation, whilst utterly wild, leaves one glued to the screen thanks to the humourous, almost tongue-in-cheek mythology beneath it.
The third part remains as consistent as the previous portion, opening with a dash of subtle irony in relation to a comment made in the film’s second “skit” (regarding film and television characters who leave their car windows down). Many will miss the reference, and it is possible that August didn't even intend this, but I doubt the latter. As with the previous transition, Reynolds and company transport into the bodies of another set of characters, although in this instance, the link between these counterparts becomes considerably clearer.
The film's ending will strictly divide audiences - some will laugh it off as preposterous, pseudo-existential dreck, whilst others may applaud the brave attempt. Alas, the climax of The Nines is very much like an episode of the hyper-popular television show Lost - it dazzles the viewer with a heap of intrigue, and at the point in which a traditional narrative would provide the viewer with answers, The Nines hurls more questions our way, whilst also slightly allaying our bemusement. Nonetheless, the film's end "reveal" works within the quirky tone of the film, and as truly "out there" as the film's truth is, it stuck with me for a while, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by it. Thematically, The Nines assumes a stance very much similar to 2006’s highly underrated The Fountain, although provides more insight and clarity in way of the plot’s resolution.
The Nines, whilst certainly not reaching the heights of August's Go, is a courageous, left-field attempt, which doesn't impress from the starting gun, yet inundates the viewer with enough food for thought to have the running time fly-by. Ryan Reynolds showed promise in the disappointing Smokin' Aces, and with August's script, which is the goldmine that Reynolds has been seeking his entire career, his understated performance exhibits both his comic timing and dramatic prowess, which he can only craft and improve further. The Nines, along with films such as the recent He Was a Quiet Man, will likely become something of a cult classic in years to come, and what is more certain is that, regrettably, they will never gain the recognition that they deserve.
Last edited by asdasta; 17-01-2008 at 22:22.