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Joe Wright’s
Atonement
Opens Friday, December 7, 2007

Starring: Keira Knightley (Cecilia Turner) ; James McAvoy (Robbie Turner); Saoirse Ronan (young Briony Tallis); Romola Garai (Briony Tallis at 18); Harriet Walter (Emily Tallis); Brenda Blethlyn (Grace Turner); and Vanessa Redgrave (present day Briony). Based on the novel by Ian McEwen

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

British director Joe Wright has fulfilled the promise he exhibited with 2005’s Pride and Prejudice with his helming of the lushly gorgeous Atonement. Set in 1935 during the start of World War II, the story is awash in class struggle, jealousy, repression and sexuality.

Thirteen year old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is an aspiring writer and a child of privilege. Born into the upper class of England, Briony lives with her parents and older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in a story book country house. And in what should have been one glorious day spent in the beautiful English countryside, Briony misinterprets a series of events and ruins the lives of her sister and her sister’s secret lover, the house keeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy).

The English class caste system was in a state of flux in 1935 and Robbie’s aspiring to romance Cecilia was emblematic of the coming changes in class structure. Robbie had been sent to Cambridge as a scholarship student at the same time that Cecelia had been away at Cambridge.

On that fateful day, the hottest day of the year, Robbie accidentally breaks a vase, a piece of which falls into a fountain. Cecelia is furious about the loss of the vase and strips to her underwear and dives into the fountain to retrieve the missing piece and emerges sopping wet and for all purposes naked. The stripping, diving and emerging are observed by the jealous and naive Briony who misinterprets both this and a series of other overheated events that occur that same day.

The next part of the film is set during World War II. Robbie, whose prospects for professional success and love have been ruined by Briony’s lies, is in France fighting the Germans. The English have been routed and are waiting at Dunkirk to be rescued in a scene that echoes Dante’s Inferno. Both Cecelia and Briony are working as nurses in London. Briony has come to her senses and realized what a horrible sin she committed when she was a naïve, class-conscious, thirteen-year-old, know-it-all. Briony desperately wants her sister and Robbie to forgive her, but the lives she ruined have become Humpty Dumpties and nothing she can do can put them back together again.

In the last segment we see the now dying Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), a successful novelist at the end of her life, being interviewed for a television show. And we learn that Briony’s entire life has been spent wishing for a forgiveness/atonement that has never come.

And as for the cast:The multi-talented Keira Knightly (the Pirate movies and Wright's Pride and Predjudice) is stunningly beautiful as Cecelia. Her scenes with James McAvoy explode with eroticism. McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) has definitely proven to be one of the (if not the) most talented young English actor of his generation. And young Saoirse Ronan does a brilliant job of portraying the multi-faceted young Briony as a basically good young woman who is so confused by her emerging sexuality that she commits a monstrous act of evil. And Romola Garai as the eighteen year old Briony is heart breaking as she strives for forgiveness by submerging her soul in the quest to help wounded British soldiers. And what can I say about the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave that has not already been said except to say “Ditto.”

Joe Wright did a beautiful job putting together this multi-layered story of love, war, jealousy and grief. Atonement is destined to be a classic; it is definitely a movie I will not soon forget.

12/13/2007: According to this article on MSNBC.com, Atonement received seven nominations for the Golden Globes, the largest number of nominations for any film.



Roger Donaldson’s
The Bank Job
Opens Friday, March 7, 2008

Starring: Jason Statham (War, Crank, The Italian Job) and Saffron Burrows (Reign Over Me, Enigma)

Reviewed by John Janusz

The Bank Job, an action thriller about a bank heist set in early 1970s London, is inspired by a true story. This film has all the makings of a real man’s movie with sex, scandals, mystery, espionage, graphic violence, corruption, profanity and the gratuitous nudity of beautiful women.

In a welcome change from some recent super-action roles, in this film, the hero (played by Jason Statham) is an anti-hero. Terry is a luxury automobile dealer with an unstable past. He is married with two children and he owes a large debt to some wrong people. Terry is approached by an old flame with a golden opportunity, a chance to rob a bank vault of its safety deposit boxes. Terry sees this as his last chance for the one big score that will finally put the life of small time thievery behind him, letting him live happily ever after with his wife and family. He and his most trusted mates form a gang and go for the gold. What they do not realize is that the contents of these boxes belong to some very prominent and dangerous individuals, individuals who will stop at nothing to regain their possessions. But escaping the police becomes the least of Terry’s and his gang’s worries. In this story the bank thieves turn out to be the most innocent among all of the parties involved.

If you enjoyed Ronin, Payback or The Italian Job you will love The Bank Job.

The Bank Job is directed by veteran filmmaker Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Thirteen Days, The Recruit). It is written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe, Flushed Away, Still Crazy and Tracey Ullman: A Class Act)



Jon Poll’s
Charlie Bartlett
Opens Friday, February 22, 2008

Starring: Robert Downey; Anton Yelchin: Hope Davis: Kat Dennings: Murphey Bivens

Reviewed at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival by Wendy R. Williams

Charlie Barlett is a quirky charming saga that tells the story of the new guy at a suburban a high school, a charismatic misfit who parlays his unassuming wit and charm to become the most popular kid on campus. And along his route to becoming “prom king,” he falls in love with the principal’s quasi-Goth daughter Susan (a charming Kat Dennings with lots of red lipstick) and finds his nemesis in person of the manically-depressed-alcoholic-high-school-principal, Mr. Gardner (Robert Downey, Jr.).

Here is a quote from the Tribeca Film Festival press release, “Failing to fit in at a high school run by a disenchanted principal (Robert Downey, Jr.), awkward Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is running out of options for making friends--until he names himself the school "psychiatrist." When he starts doling out advice, and the occasional pill, to classmates, his popularity soars in this witty take on teenage insecurity.”

This movie is funny on so many levels. Charlie lives in gothic mansion with his eccentric mother Marilyn (played by the mega talented Hope Davis), with whom he has a Hansel-and-Gretel-in-the-woods relationship. The family obviously has money (there is a chauffeured Bentley), but are also obviously over come by some mysterious melancholy. There are so many hysterical scenes: (1) Charlie looking up psychiatric drugs in pharmacological texts and then surfing psychiatric couches describing the exact symptoms that can be cured by the pill-of –the-month (2) Charlie setting up his psychiatric office in the men’s room (he in one stall the supplicant in the other – Catholic anyone?). This movie has an amazing tone and the credit can only be given to the director, John Poll. He kept his symphony under tight control.

And now about Robert Downey in his role as the principal, Mr. Gardner. Downey plays Gardner as a total whack job, but as the scariest kind of whacko – the one where all of the rage is tamped down so far you can only “see” it when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The scene where Downey is drunkenly shooting mechanized toy boats in his swimming pool should be taught in acting class. He is terrifying but he also seems trustworthy??? He is enraged by Charlie; but who doesn’t become enraged when forced to watch someone else walk on water?



Ramin Bahrani’s
Chop Shop
Opened February 22, 2008


Reviewed by Mindy Hyman

“A Whole New View of Making It In New York”

The amount of care and planning that Ramin Bahrani put into the production of his latest film, Chop Shop is evident throughout every single scene. The characters are so intricately portrayed that the viewer slides right into the story, losing oneself in the plot and forgetting that he/she is in a movie theater. CHOP SHOP redefines the meaning of independent filmmaking through the director’s ability to create a rawness, which only occurs, in real life.

Bahrani and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, spent months in the Queens neighborhood where the film takes place in order to get a feel for the community. The result was a natural script.

The storyline depicts the life of a twelve-year-old boy and his sixteen-year-old sister one summer in New York City. Alejandro and his sister Isamar (these are their real names) are orphans who live and work in an area called Willet’s Point, Queens, also known as the “Iron Triangle.” Willet’s Point is a twenty-block stretch of auto body repair shops. The businesses are called “chop shops” because they use parts from stolen cars, which are stripped, or chopped up, for their parts.

Alejandro plays the part of one of the workers that steers passing cars into the shop that pays him. Alejandro and his sister Isamar dream of having their own business and so they set off to make this a reality. The two hustle to save money throughout the summer to make their dream of buying a food cart come true. The film reveals the passion and love that these kids have for each other and their perpetual determination to create a better life for themselves.

Chop Shop takes us on an intimate journey into the harsh world of what “making it in New York” can encompass to some New Yorkers. Moreover, the film teaches us that love can get us through any type of struggle.

If you enjoy movies that depict real-life New York scenarios not often seen, then this is a film for you.






Paulo Morelli’s
City of Men


Starring: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Jonathan Hassgensen, Rodrigo Dos Santos, Camila Monteiro, Naima Silva, Eduardo “BR” Piranha, Luciando Vidigal, and Pedro Henrique.

Reviewed by Marguerite Daniels

20 years ago a green Dan Quayle drew comparison between himself and John F. Kennedy and received the famed verbal smack-down response from Lloyd Bentsen who uttered: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” Sadly, the same can be said of Paulo Morelli’s City of Men, a film which is being billed as a companion piece to the Oscar®-nominated City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles. City of Men is no City of God.

There are obvious similarities: the names of the films are similar, both films are shot in the favelas of Rio, both are coming of age stories, and both films share the same young actors, but unfortunately for City of Men it lacks the searing direction found in the original film and the matching-monikered television series. The film borrows the frantic action-filled high adrenalin rush of City of God but doesn’t deliver the poignant desperation of the original film, and without perilous anxiety the film falls flat.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like City of Men, I liked it fine, but I really wanted to love City of Men as much as I loved City of God and City of Men, the television series. In City of Men we are reintroduced to Acerola “Ace” (played beautifully by Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha “Wallace” (the endearing Darlan Cunha). Those familiar with the television series (and it does pay to have familiarity with the television series before seeing this film) will be pleased to see Ace and Wallace fully grown at eighteen. Both are enduring personal hardships: Ace has become a father, and Wallace is searching for the father he never knew. While they seek to understand themselves, a secret from the past threatens to destroy both of them, and the two young men are thrust into opposing sides of a gang war. And what a scary gang war it is. Everyone’s lives are altered in the favelas as the ruling drug dealer is challenged. Innocent people die, families are torn apart. None of this is new territory for the series. The new theme in City of Men deals with how the lack of fathers in the favelas affects the young people. Alas, the long-lost father theme isn’t subtly executed. Viewers of the film are repeatedly told that Ace shouldn’t be like his father and abandon his son. When Wallace finally locates his father (played masterfully by the ruggedly handsome Rodrigo Santos) the audience is told over and over again that he’s a bad father for not caring for his son.

Of course, we already know all of this. The boys have grown up in dangerous, gun-infested shantytown, after all. What’s of greater concern in this film is a theme that is never explored: even with present and available paternal units, how could our fair heroes find safe-havens in such squalor? The same economic divide that creates the environment still exists, and the missing daddy issue just seems pat. Without real social change in Brazil, criminal enterprises will continue to prosper.

So, ok, City of Men isn’t a great film, but the art direction presented by Adriano Goldman (Director of Photography) and Rafael Ronconi (Art Director) is equally picturesque and haunting, and I’ll be purchasing the soundtrack (kudos to composer Antonio Pinto) as soon as it is available. I suppose this is a classic example of familiarity breeding contempt since I know the story of Ace and Wallace well. Over the past six years I’ve watched Ace and Wallace grow-up. I guess I simply yearned for a more poignant vehicle for their send-off.




Julian Schnabel's
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
French with English Subtitles
Opens November 30, 2007

Starring: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby); Emmanuelle Seigner (Céline Desmoulins); Marie-Josée Croze (Henriette Durand); Anne Consigny (Claude); and Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Marie Lopez).

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Julian Schnabel (Basquait, Before Night Falls) has made a gorgeous, sensual feast of a film about the sad story of Jean Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle France, who at the young age of forty-three suffered a stroke that left him in "locked-in" condition. Unable to move any part of his body except his left eye, Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), wrote a book (also titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) about his experience.

Working from a script by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, Love in the Time of Cholera, Oliver Twist) the first half of the film is told through the camera-eye of Bauby's left eye. As the story opens, we as Bauby's eye, awake to see kindly worried people hovering over our bed telling us that we have had a stroke and now that we are awake we should be just fine. Then one of the doctors asks Bauby to say his name, he does and no one hears him except us, the film audience.

Bauby then narrates his own movie, telling us the story of his old and new life. Bauby's affliction has not made him into a saint. He is instead the same sardonic hedonist that he was before the accident.

The story follows Bauby's work with his gorgeous therapists, Henriette (played by Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Schnabel's wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia). Henriette devises a method by which Bauby can communicate with the world - a chart with the letters of the French alphabet arranged in most-used order. She painstakingly goes through the alphabet and Bauby blinks when she reaches a letter that he wishes to use. Bauby signals that he would like to write the book that he had contracted to write before the accident and the therapist make arrangements with his publisher to have yet another beautiful woman take dictation, Claude (played by Marie Anne Consigny).

This film is never maudlin; it is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski, also Steven Spielberg's cinematographer. We leave the viewpoint of Bauby's eye and see the world around him. The hospital room is a green marvel and the hospital itself is located by the sea; the entire setting is lovely. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, oh the things Bauby saw. Bauby receives visitors, the gorgeous mother of his three children, Celine (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). We see them on the beach with Celine's skirt being lifted by the wind. His equally gorgeous children visit and play in the sand. And Bauby's beautiful view of the world is not restricted to his present "diving bell." We follow the butterfly of his imagination as he remembers his past and takes flights of fancy into the future. And we follow him as he drives former girlfriend to Lourdes, her hair beautifully blowing in the wind. Bauby was a lustful man and the film is permeated with Bauby's (and Schnabel's) lust for life.

Bell is one of the best films I have seen this year and that is quite a complement with films like Gone Baby Gone and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead for competition. Schnabel won the prize for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for Bell and this film will surely be an Oscar contender for Schnabel, Harwood, Kiminski and the talented (and gorgeous) cast.





David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s
The Eye
Opens Friday, February 1, 2008

 

Starring: Jessica Alba (Sydney Wells); Alessandro Nivola (Dr. Paul Faulkner); Parker Posey (Helen Wells); Rade Serbedzija (Simon McCullough); Fernanda Romero (Ana Christina Martinez); and Chloe Moretz (Alicia Millstone).

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Read the Interview with Jessica Alba

Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud took on quite a challenge when they decided to remark the Pang Brother’s Hong Kong based film, The Eye. The Eye has become a bit of a cult classic with lovers of horror films. I saw the original and reviewed it when it was part of the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Hong Kong Film Series in 2002.

Both versions of The Eye tell the story of a young woman who has been blind since early childhood. Her vision is restored when she receives a corneal transplant. But with her new sight comes horrifying images of people who dying. Our heroine then consults a doctor (a psychiatrist in the Hong Kong film and a neural specialist in the Moreau/Palud film).

The remake is now set in Los Angeles and our heroine Sidney Wells (Jessica Alba) is now a concert violinist. There are other differences between the films. In the Hong Kong version of the film, the heroine’s doctor and friends are open to the possibility of the supernatural. In the Moreau/Palud film, everyone thinks Sidney has had a mental breakdown; her doctor, Dr. Paul Faulkner (played by Alessandro Nivola; her sister Helen (played by Parker Posey); and the conductor of the symphony, Simon Mc Cullough (played by Rade Serbedzija).

Sidney’s mind has become a living horror house. She is constantly visually assaulted: There are dead people in her elevator and her hallway and every night at 1AM she awakes to visions of people screaming as the burn to death.

No one believes Sidney, so she does what any seeing/thinking person would do, she goggles transplant memories using her Braille computer and printer. Sidney finds information about a phenomenon known as cellular memory. This is the supposed tranfer of a donor's memories with transplanted body parts. Sidney then convinces her very skeptical doctor to help her find her donor, the woman Sidney sees when she looks in the mirror. Sidney and Paul then travel to a small town in Mexico to find out what happened to her donor, Fernanda Romero (played by Ana Christina Martinez). And when they do, they find the source of the horror.

So, how does everyone do? Jessica Alba played Sidney as a very contained character who does everything that is humanly possible to stay centered when her entire world begins to crater into the abyss. Alessandro Nivola gives a nuanced performance as the skeptical doctor. Parker Posey does a fine job of playing the part of the supportive but disbelieving sister and she does so without any of her usual quirks. And little Chloe Moretz was heart breaking as the brain cancer patient who befriends Sidney in the hospital.



 

 


Cate Blanchett in
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There
Opens November 21, 2007


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In a season of ambitious filmic endeavors, Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, which is “inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan” stands as one of the most ambitious, and as such, divisive pics of 2007.

The one and seemingly ONLY thing most folks agree on is Cate Blanchett’s performance. Her Dylan is simply astonishing. But more on her later.

I’m Not There is mock-docu-pastiche of sorts, a cinema mosaic of various incarnations that embody the essence of the many different Dylans, through the years, as the man reinvented himself—funneled through the brilliant and inventive mind of Mr. Haynes. The notion is that one can never truly capture a person onscreen--their essence. You can read all the books, articles, listen to all the music--interview all the loved (and not so loved) ones and even talk to the subject himself, and still not really get a good idea who that person is. And Dylan, the icon, is even more mysterious than most.

In I’m Not There, Haynes has impressively created a host of persons who, together, may give some representation of the enigmatic artist. It’s a fascinating premise and he has, single-handedly, reinvented the (oh, so stale) biopic. Does it work? Well, now that depends. The film is not a failure, nor is it a resounding success (to this critic, anyway). Yet it’s very much like my perception of Dylan, flawed but extraordinary (at times).

The six Dylans include: an 11-year old African-American folk singer who calls himself Woody Guthrie (the appealing Marcus Carl Franklin); the progressive singer on-the-verge known as Jack Rollins (the always interesting Christian Bale); a difficult Hollywood actor named Robbie (Heath Ledger); a reclusive Billy the Kid (Richard Gere); an-Arthur Rimbaudish poet (an effective Ben Whishaw) and, the Dylan centerpiece (de resistance!) Jude (wholly embodied by Blanchett), the curly-mopped superstar, leading the sweet life (yes, La Dolce Vita)! All these Dylans are presented in a maddening, yet poetic, mosaic-like structure.

I greatly admire the film, but that isn’t the same as loving it. Actually, I haven’t felt so perplexed about my own reaction to a film in a very long time.

The Blanchett sequence borrows generously from Fellini, specifically Otto e’ Mezza (8 1/2), and in there might lay my chief problem with I’m Not There. I adore Fellini. He’s one of my favorite auteurs. Fellini (along with Bergman) was able to concoct his own personal vision hatched from his lunatic/genius head, put it onscreen and, somehow, it was miraculously accessible--most of the time. Haynes’ film is most definitely personal, almost too personal—somewhat impossible to penetrate. He has distilled his own Dylan from all his research and all his love. So it feels like it’s exclusively Haynes’ Dylan—and not one we can embrace or even understand. Yet, perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it’s okay for this film to be a trip into the mind of Haynes via Dylan (instead of vice versa). I’m truly not certain. Perhaps after repeated viewings I will come to totally embrace the pic…or loathe it.

What does work, works supremely well. Heath Ledger is quite powerful and his scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg are wonderful to watch. And there are many sequences that astound (specifically one that involves Allen Ginsberg and Jesus Christ—I will say no more). The Gere scenes are less enthralling and that has less to do with the actor than with the fact that those moments never meld with the rest of the film.

But as soon as Cate Blanchett blasts onto the screen as the freaky, androgynous Dylan the movie takes off to tremendously joyous heights. Blanchett has proven that there isn’t much she can’t do. From Elizabeth onward, she has shown her versatility and her bravery in making choices. No one else in her peer group (with the possible exception of Kate Winslet) can come close to her remarkable body of work these last ten years.

Her Jude isn’t so much an impersonation—although she is the closest to a real Dylan that we get (whatever that means), it’s an exhilarating immersion into Haynes’ most richly written ‘subject.’ Blanchett’s scenes are what one remembers most after the credits roll and the lights come up.

I love the film’s theme of identity, certainly something that all artists (all people probably) struggle with. Haynes puts forth the notion that ultimate freedom is escaping the pigeonholing and being able to reinvent yourself as you go through different life cycles. (Jane Fonda is a great example of an artist who has metamorphosed more than most and has always fascinated with her next incarnation.) And why not? Isn’t that what a realized life should be? Constantly searching for answers to that eternal ‘why am I here’ question?

I came to this film as someone who appreciates Dylan--the power of his music. I wouldn’t call myself a fan. The film made me crave more. So I went right out and picked up the four-hour Scorsese documentary and I bought a few Dylan CDs. I am very happy I did. If the film does the same for others, then maybe we’ll all develop our own visions/notions of Bob Dylan and who he is…who he needs to be…to us--individually.



Jason Reitman’s
Juno
Opens December 25, 2007

Reviewed by Corey Shtasel-Gottlieb


There is a movie each year, it seems, that emerges quietly and suddenly to touch audiences with its unassuming charm. Such a film works by repackaging the depressing and the mundane into a product that allows us to laugh at ourselves—to find humor where sadness typically lives. In 2007, that movie is Juno. Witty, ballsy writing and an endearing cast allow Juno to function successfully as both biting and adorable. A story of real substance emerges from behind the curtain of the prototypical dark comedy, producing a final product that is raw and hilarious and true to life. It may not be the year’s best picture, but Juno will be remembered as the sleeper film that took 2007 by surprise.

Set on a definitively Minnesotan middle class landscape, Juno tells the story of Juno Macguff (Ellen Page), a high school sophomore who finds herself pregnant after a one-night romp with best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Spooked by a less than comforting trip to the abortion clinic, Juno decides to give her baby up for adoption. Her awkwardly evolving relationship with the adoptive parents-to-be (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) is painfully humorous, as she belly-flops gracelessly into their white-bread lifestyle. Such is the way in which she approaches each of pregnancy’s seemingly fragile obstacles, trampling over maternity outfits and ultrasounds like a bull in a china shop. At face value, Juno may be the picture of inelegance, but in truth she is just the opposite: super witty and free-spirited, she exudes a depth of confidence that is admirable, even shocking, for a person in her situation. She embraces her role as the elephant-in-the-room with a self-deprecating sincerity that renders her deeply lovable. The core of the film’s success resides in screenwriter Diablo Cody’s development of such a character.

Embedded within the story of Juno’s pregnancy is her relationship with Paulie Bleeker, the film’s ultimate boy-next-door. Bleeker is Juno’s soft spot. A goofy gold headband and tiny track shorts uniform his innocent dorkiness; his quiet sensitivity clashes with typical depictions of teenage fathers. Like Juno, he appears to appreciate his own awkwardness for what it is, though his admission at the film’s end that “Actually, I try really hard” makes clear that he is a bit less secure. Nevertheless, his lack of cynicism is disarming, and melds almost seamlessly with Juno’s no-bullshit approach. The love story into which the film ultimately evolves is a product of this dynamic—it is untraditional, perhaps unrealistic, but mostly just, well, sweet.

The strength of Juno’s storyline is complemented by first-rate acting on all cylinders. Ellen Page makes the movie. She is so fully entrenched in this role, so believable, that I find it difficult to believe that she is not Juno Macguff in real life. This is, without question, her coming out party, a performance that should be awarded with her first Oscar nomination. Cera is good, too. Although he doesn’t deviate much from his soft-spoken Superbad shtick, he is perfect for the part. It is the supporting acting, though, that elevates Juno to next-level quality. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are excellent as Juno’s father and stepmother, and not merely from a comedic perspective; both portray a depth of emotion that gives credence to the notion of parents as actual people. The same is true of Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, whose stereotypical yuppyness melts to reveal a real, struggling couple at movie’s end. These are the types of performances that will provide Juno the same warm reception that made Little Miss Sunshine a hit in 2006.

In one of the strongest years for film in recent memory, Juno stands out among 2007’s brightest. Smart, funny, and original, it infuses something dark and taboo with genuine warmth. It is a must-see.



Bharat Nalluri’s
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Opens Friday, March 7, 2008

Starring: Amy Adams as Delysia Lafosse; Shirley Henderson as Edythe Dubarry; Ciarán Hinds as Joe; Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew; Lee Pace as Michael; Tom Payne as Phil Goldman; Mark Strong as Nick.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a frothy confection of a film; farcical and fun, it is the perfect chick flick. The film is advertised as a fairy tale for grown ups and it certaunly fulfills its advertised promise.

Here is a quote from the press release: “In 1939 London, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is a middle-aged governess who finds herself once again unfairly dismissed from her job. Without so much as severance pay, Miss Pettigrew realizes that she must – for the first time in two decades – seize the day. This she does, by intercepting an employment assignment outside of her comfort level – as “social secretary.” Arriving at a penthouse apartment for the interview, Miss Pettigrew is catapulted into the glamorous world and dizzying social whirl of an American actress and singer, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams).”

Delysia has a complicated love life, three love lifes to be precise. When Miss Pettigrew arrives at Delysia’s stunning penthouse apartment, one of the love lifes is still asleep upstairs, Phil Goldman (Tom Payne). Phil is the son of a theatrical producer and has the power (maybe) to cast Delysia in his father’s new musical. But career benefits aside, he must get out of bed because Delysia is late for a lingerie show. And as a further complication, Delysia's boss at the nightclub where she sings, Nick (Mark Strong), is about to arrive and Nick would also like to spend some time in the presently occupied upstairs bed.

So Delysia is desperately in need of the services of a sensible English governess. And Miss Pettigrew, in all her frumpy glory, jumps right in. She removes lingerie from the chandelier, stuffs clothing under the bear skin rug and dispenses sensible advice. And advice is needed for it seems that Delysia has yet another love interest, Nick (Lee Pace), the piano player at the nightclubs where Delysia works. Delysia truly loves Nick, but of all three men, Nick can do the least for her career.
Miss Pettigrew quickly dispenses with all three men and Delysia and Miss Pettirgrew leave for the lingerie show.

The lingerie show is a frothy delight, a pink bonbon for the eyes. At the lingerie show, Miss Pettigrew is introduced to Delysia’s friend, Edythe (Shirley Henderson), a brittle and sophisticated shop owner. Miss Pettigrew also meets Edythe cuckolded fiancée, Joe (Ciarán Hinds), an honest wholesome sort of man who was drawn into the smart set when he left the sock business to become a lingerie designer. Miss Pettigrew is attracted to Joe because she can see beneath his worldly exterior to view the decent man Joe really is.

So the die is cast, the players are on the stage. Just who will Delysia choose? Will Edythe be able to draw Joe back into her web? Will Miss Pettigrew ever get something to eat and will someone please do something about her hair?

Miss Pettigrew is set in a world that is about to drastically change. Indeed, we see the outlines of the first German bombers flying over the English sky. And in the world, all is not exactly as it seems for Miss Pettigrew and Delysia have one secret in common – what they do in any one day can truly throw them into the poor house the next day.

The cast in Miss Pettigrew all give wonderful performances: Amy Adams is utterly "Enchanting" as Delysia; Frances McDormand embodies goodness under extreme stress; Shirley Henderson delights as Edythe Dubarry, the evil witch of this fairy tale; Ciarán Hinds as Joe delivers the same rock-solid performance that has made him Ciarán Hinds. And the male love interests are all delightful in their own ways: Tom Payne plays an adorably vain Phil; Mark Strong is sexually exciting as the venal and menacing Nick; and Lee Pace, with his soulful eyes, makes the audience totally forget what our mothers told us about not dating musicians.


 



Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's
Persepolis
Opens Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reviewed by Julia Sirmons

A film about angst and rebellion under the thumb of an oppressive Islamist regime may, at first glance, seem like unlikely holiday movie-going fare. Nevertheless, tales of the resiliency of the human spirit and the triumph of rebellion and dignity in the most of trying of political circumstances are very much in keeping with the greatest story every told. With that in mind, there's no better way to keep the seasonal joie de vivre going than by checking out Persepolis, the visually arresting, earthy and affecting animated film adapted form Iranian author Marjane Satrapi's intensely personal graphic novels.

The film's narrative spans the course of both books; beginning with the young Marjane witnessing the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamist revolution, following her to school in Vienna then back home to Tehran and finally off to Paris to begin a new life as an artist.

As graphically striking as Satrapi's print illustrations are, the live animation gives the story a new vitality and depth. Shaded entirely in blacks, whites, and greys, the illustrations and images manage to convey a wide variety of emotions: the warm and homey feel of Marjane's close-knit family, the eerie and magical depictions of young Marjane's fantasy world, the traditional Persian aesthetic of the segments that explain Iranian history, the neo-noir punk feel of Marjane's sojourn in Vienna, and the bleak, ominous look of the scenes of political protest and rebellion. The visual complexity of Persepolis is truly dazzling; it looks unlike any film you've ever seen.

As much as the narrative of Persepolis is inexorably entwined with the history of modern Iran, it really is a much more universal story – that of a smart, tough, rebellious girl struggling to come into her own when all the weight of circumstance and society are fighting against her. One of the great delights of seeing the story on celluloid is that the character of Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes Benites as a girl and by Chiara Mastroianni as a teenager and adult) really comes to life. To see the character develop from a fearless kung-fu-loving young badass to a moody and an outraged teen and finally a defiant, self-confident woman is heartrendingly real. The superb cast of powerful, memorable characters is rounded off by Marjane's formidable and supportive parents (voiced Simon Akbarian and Mastroianni's real-life mother, Catherine Deneuve), and her doting but gutsy grandma (the incomparable Danielle Darrieux).

In this day and age, when oppressive regimes stamp out personal freedoms across the globe, Persepolis is an empowering call to arms; a strong reminder that the human desire for liberty can thrive under the most difficult circumstances. A more inspiring Christmas message would be difficult to find.




Sylvester Stallone's
Rambo
Opens Friday January 25, 2008

Rambo Returns With a Republican

Starring: Sylvester Stallone; Julie Benz (Dexter); Paul Schulze (The Sopranos); Matthew Marsden (Resident Evil: Extinction, Black Hawk Down); Graham McTavish (HBO's Rome); Rey Gallegos (American Wedding); Tim Kang (Third Watch); Jake LaBotz (Ghost World); Maung Maung Khin and Ken Howard.

Reviewed by Francesca C. Simon

The presidential campaign is a battleground with a cast of Democratic and Republican hopefuls tossing insult grenades, spitting out accusations at machine gun speed and looking for ways to launch surprise attacks that will catch their enemies off guard. Legislative voting record body parts flying through the airwaves, mouth to mouth combat on the campaign trail and midnight hour strategizing under the cover of media darkness makes a bloody setting for the final scenes of the 2008 Presidential Election in November. It sort of sounds like a Rambo movie, right?!

We who watch the action always wait for the hero to arrive in the final hour to ensure victory. Republican John McCain’s hero may have just arrived armed with a movie to add additional ammunition to McCain’s war hero arsenal! Sylvester Stallone – the embodiment of the war veteran Rambo – has endorsed McCain. In New York to promote his new movie Rambo, which will blast into theatres today, Stallone told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade that typecasting McCain as President would be the right maneuver.

“I like McCain a lot. A lot,” Stallone tells Kilmeade on Fox News’ morning show “Fox and Friends" which aired today, Friday, January 25, 2008. “And you know, things may change along the way, but there’s something about matching the character with the script. And right now, the script that’s being written and reality is pretty brutal and pretty hard-edged like a rough action film, and you need somebody who’s been in that to deal with it.”

That sums up Stallone in the new Rambo movie which he helped write and directed single handedly. This film comes almost twenty years after the last film in the series and this time the setting is northern Thailand. John Rambo is running a longboat on the Salween River near the Thai-Burma (Myanmar) border where the Burmese-Karen conflict, continues to rage after six decades. The film setting is based on fact. The Burmese-Karen conflict is the world's longest-running civil war and is currently raging in real life into its 60th year. It is a brutal saga of genocide.

"I thought the Burmese setting would be ideal because it's a story that's not just about Rambo. It's actually happening. It's true," says Stallone. "From the time I heard about it and began researching it, I thought, 'If I could just combine the two – raising “awareness of the Karen-Burmese civil war and giving the audience a good adventure story – that would be perfect.” It seems he has succeeded.
Rambo is a bloody reminder of the reality of war that shoots through the heart and mind the painful images of young American men and women in military uniforms falling on foreign soil wounded, bleeding and breathing their dying breath with the hope that their sacrifice will not be in vain. This movie punches you in the gut with the horrific bloody sights and high caliber blasting sounds of real war. This is ninety minutes of war – not a ten second news clip.

We first see Rambo (who is living a solitary, simple life in the mountains and jungles of Thailand) face to fang with a gigantic poisonous snake, which he captures and sells. No noble career here. Two human rights missionaries Sarah (Julie Benz) and Michael (Paul Schulze), plead with him to carry them up the Salween River, so they can deliver medical supplies and food to the Karen tribe, who are victims of genocide at the hands of the Burmese military junta.
Rambo first refuses but finally responds to Sarah, who is the only female in the missionary group. She speaks softly and imploring him to help them. We’re not quite sure what makes Rambo change his mind, but he lets everyone know that he’s only making the trip for Sarah. Rambo makes the run up the river, drops them off and returns to his solitude. But less than two weeks later, pastor Arthur
Marsh (Ken Howard) finds Rambo and tells him the missionaries have been captured by the Burmese army. He knows that Sarah will suffer abuse in the hands of the brutal military and so he agrees to take a group of mercenaries up river to rescue the missionaries. The adventurous effort begins and the action moves into full gear.

“I think Sarah stirs something in Rambo, his innate sense of good versus evil,” explains Stallone. “He sees this beautiful young woman, and her doctor boyfriend, who are willing to risk their safe and comfortable lives to help people they don't even know who live on the other side of the world. That awakens something in him. By saving Sarah, and trying to save the missionaries, he's also saving part of himself.”

Don't look for deep character development in this movie. There's no deep passion between the missionaries Sarah and Paul although they're engaged. The mercenaries fuss, cuss and spit – but none of them really move you. There's no insight into the vicious Burmese Major Tint, epitome of evil, effectively played by Muang Muang Khin. This man was, in real life, a resistance fighter for the Karen rebels. There is no back story of village families or idealistic soldiers. But the feel of the film is fiercely authentic. Stallone urged the casting of native Karen/Burmese who were from the region and knew about the factual Karen/Burmese conflict. So real Karen refugees, amputees, land mine victims and former Burmese soldiers were hired and this indeed adds a depth of horror and desperation to their performances. The familiar frames of rice paddies, dense jungle and the splattering of blood and guts will bring back many bad memories of Vietnam for many viewers. The acting is, well, action-oriented. But Julie Benz should get a special award from somebody for all the mud, blood, running, rain, and noise she had to endure.

Stallone says he never intended to write and direct Rambo but says he didn’t want to face any regrets. “When someone else does it, you have regrets and it doesn’t have your personality.” This movie is pure Stallone from start to finish. This is not the oiled-up, slick and righteously vicious Rambo. He walks with the weight of weariness on his broad shoulders. This is a man weathered by war, steeped in self-reflection and wondering whether he can face the world again. His performance as Rambo mirrors the reality of the human experience of maturity; how we all slow down, weigh our options, and sometimes, somehow manage to come out of the past to live in the future. The lines and scars on the face of sixty-60-year-old Stallone relay the message that war is always hell and it never changes – except for the equipment and the location. And yet we must always survive despite our suffering and find our way back into an ever evolving world to bear witness to the value of life.

Sylvester Stallone directs and stars as Rambo, filmed on location in and around Chiang Mai, Thailand. RAMBO is based on the characters created by David Morrell. Written by Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone. Rambo is produced by Avi Lerner, Kevin King -Templeton and John Thompson. Executive Producers Jon Feltheimer, Peter Block, Harvey Weinstein , Bob Weinstein. Executive Producers Danny Dimbort, Boaz Davidson, Trevor Short. Executive Producers Andreas Thiesmeyer, Florian Lechner Randall Emmett, George Furla.




Channing Tatum and Ryan Phillippe in Stop-Loss

Kimberly Peirce’s
Stop-Loss
Opens Friday, March 28, 2008

Starring: Ryan Phillippe; Abbie Cornish; Channing Tatum; Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Victor Rasuk; Linda Emond; and Mamie Gummer.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“With all due respect, sir, fuck the president!”

These audacious yet cathartic words are spoken by battle-scarred Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) after he is told by his superior that he’s being ‘stop-lossed’—ordered to return to Iraq for another tour even though his term of service is over. This ‘back door draft’ was first used by George Bush, Sr. during the Gulf War and has been widely used during the Iraq conflict.

Through extensive research and interviews with returning soldiers, director Kimberly Peirce (along with co-writer Mark Richard) have fashioned a powerful and deeply affecting film that examines the effect of war on a trio of soldiers, during combat, and later, at home.

Peirce has not made a film since her 1999 stunner debut, Boys Don’t Cry, which justly won Hilary Swank her first Best Actress Oscar. Stop-Loss more than proves she’s a picturemaking force to be reckoned with. Passionate and ballsy, Peirce has the filmic talents to back up her polemics. And while Stop-Loss brings to mind some of the best Vietnam-themed war films including: Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July; Hal Ashby’s Coming Home; Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, it is in the vein of homage, not hybridization.

The opening sequence is filled with blood, guts, mayhem…enough carnage to make anyone squeamish (my guest almost had to leave, he was grateful he stayed) and sets the bar pretty high for the events to come. Eventually, the soldiers return home and attempt to re-assimilate into their old lives, which is difficult for some and near-impossible for others.

Phillippe’s Brandon is the hub that holds his buddy-spokes together. They include: his best friend Steve (Channing Tatum), the tortured Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve’s fiancée, Michelle (Abbie Cornish).

The film is uncompromising in it’s portrait of these Texans, how their patriotism led to their enlisting, but how the atrocities they witnessed and took part in overseas have forever scarred them.

More often than not, Peirce opts to investigate the grey areas—not just with insights about a soldier’s duty but when it comes to moral and ethical questions as well. There’s a terrific scene involving Brandon chasing a group of thieves that have just broken into his car. We sense his outrage comes from how he has just returned from defending his country FOR these boys and here they are stealing from him. As audience members we are quick to want a certain type of justice from this scene, but immediately find ourselves questioning that vengeful nature in ourselves. Why it’s there. And how far we are willing to take it.

Too many critics have charge Stop-Loss with melodramatic excessiveness. I don’t see it that way. The subject matter demands that the stakes be higher than the norm. And while the film sometimes goes slightly over the edge—especially when depicting Tommy’s anguish (his shooting his wedding gift and his predictable fate)-- much like with the work of Oliver Stone, we can forgive the excesses. They’re almost required.

And Peirce and Richard are savvy enough to avoid most of the Hollywood-by-numbers script trappings. I applaud the filmmakers for never taking the Phillippe/Cornish relationship to that oh-so-predictable level. They also manage to end the film on a strong and true note. I have read a few negative reviews from respected right-wing critics that completely missed the point of the ending. This is not surprising since supporters of Bush and the war usually see ONLY what they want to see anyway--or what they're told they should be seeing.

Ryan Phillippe, so effective in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers last year, does his best work to date as the beleaguered Brandon, at first content to do his duty, but slowly waking to certain realities. It’s a bracing and complex performance.

Newcomer Channing Tatum makes good on the promise he showed in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Tatum takes some great acting risks and they pay off resoundingly while Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds another terrific performance to an ever-growing resume’ of impressive turns. Victor Rasuk is heartbreaking as Rico, a wounded soldier who’s spirits have not yet diminished.

Atypical for any type of war-oriented film, women are allowed some great moments as well. Abbie Cornish (who resembles a young Nicole Kidman) is perfectly understated as the confused Michele. Linda Emond embodies everymom with a quiet power that is breathtaking. And Mamie Gummer leaves her mark in a smallish role and proves spookily reminiscent of her mother’s (Meryl Streep) Deer Hunter performance thirty years ago.

Production values are excellent throughout with the great Chris Mendes doing stunning camerawork. John Powell’s score is potent and appropriately haunting.

At one point Peirce uses a song by country superstar and resident war-monger, Toby Keith to highlight just how misguided so many of our young men were post-September 11th. The ditty, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” was written to inspire our boys to want to seek revenge for that tragedy. The problem was it also asked us to blindly trust a President with his own agenda. And while Keith never had to take responsibility for the blood on his hands, true Americans like the Dixie Chicks were vilified and demonized for speaking out against an unjust war and a horrific President.

If you haven’t guessed, I do not support the evil that is George W. Bush. And I do not understand how so many Americans were blinded into believing he was invading Iraq because of 9/11 when one thing had NOTHING to do with the other. Finally, I will never understand the mindset that says we are not allowed to be critical of our President—especially when he blunders big time. I state all this so all my biases are up front.

Stop-Loss has the guts to say certain things that desperately need to be said. It is not only the best film of 2008 to date, it happens to be the first relevant film to deal with the Iraq War.

It was recently reported that, in the five years since we invaded Iraq, over 4,000 Americans are now dead. And, as far as Bush is concerned, we are staying put. Even the promise of a new President may not make a withdrawal possible for a while to come since there are many political factors to take into account. Leaving, at this stage, might be more detrimental for us. It’s all terribly frightening and no one seems to care as much any more. Call it Iraq War-fatigue, but Americans seem disinterested.

Stop-Loss is an important reminder that our boys are still dying AND is an accurate account of just one of the legion of ways the Bush Administration has turned our country into a borderline fascist regime where the Commander-in-Chief can ride roughshot over laws that have existed for over two hundred years—laws that are supposed to protect us as a democracy.

I urge everyone to see this remarkable film; it has something important to say and does so in a damned entertaining and inspiring way.



Alex Gibney’s
Taxi to the Dark Side
Opens Friday, January 18, 2008

Reviewed at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival by Julia Sirmons

“Americans want to believe that we’re more moral than the rest of the world,” says a military interrogator interviewed in Taxi to the Dark Side, a gripping new documentary about the US military’s torture policy. The comment provokes the film’s director, Alex Gibney, to ask the man if he shares that belief. He pauses for a moment. “I think that’s bullshit,” he replies.

It’s a sentiment that will doubtless be shared by everyone who sees Taxi, a powerful and well executed film that boils over with an infectious outrage, and that establishes Gibney (who also directed 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) as a powerful and confident voice in contemporary documentary filmmaking.

While it shares many of the attributes that made Enron so powerful, Taxi is more of a mirror image than a carbon copy of Gibney’s previous film. Enron started with a story of corruption in the highest echelons of power (the malfeasance of company bigwigs Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling) and argued that it was indicative of a much larger culture of corporate greed and recklessness that pervaded an entire institution. Conversely, Taxi starts with a single incident perpetrated by interrogators at Bagram prison in Afghanistan (many of whom were later transferred to Abu Ghraib) and makes a persuasive case that this and other examples of detainee torture and homicide were not, as high-ranking military personnel maintained, the work of “a few bad apples,” but rather the result of willful obfuscation and vagueness from the top of the military chain of command, perpetrated with the intention of tacitly condoning violations of the Geneva Conventions.

The result, Gibney maintains, was that military personnel – particularly interrogators – never knew what protocol to follow when dealing with detainees. (He repeatedly stresses the fact that, despite numerous requests, staff at Bagram and Abu Ghraib never received written directives on what they could and could not do in interrogations.) This uncertainty, coupled with constant reminders of the threat of terrorism and an immense pressure for “results” (which generally meant extracting confessions, whatever the cost) led to abuse of power on a wide scale. In the end, it was the soldiers who were punished, while none of the superior officers (or government officials) who deliberately failed to guide or correct them have been charged, tried or disciplined.

Gibney starts off with the story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver from a remote village arrested (on no evidence and the word of corrupt Northern Alliance troops) and detained in Bagram prison, where he died as the result of injuries sustained from brutal beatings. After the autopsy, the military coroner ruled his death a homicide. New York Times reporters Carlotta Gall and Tim Golden pursued the story, alerting the public to the issue of detainee torture.

From here, Gibney travels to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, effectively arguing that the chilling accounts and photos of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib were part of a more widespread use of psychological manipulation – including humiliation, sensory and sleep deprivation, and intimidation – in prisoner interrogations by military personnel. He convincingly argues that responsibility for this policy goes back to the top of the power structure, particularly to Vice President Dick Cheney, who stated from the days immediately following September 11th that, in order to win the war on terror, America would have to travel to “the dark side.”

Just how dark that dark side became is revealed through photographs and videos taken within the various prisons and via interviews with a wide cast of characters, who each help to shed light on the many facets of corruption and incompetence that make up the story. Military experts and personnel of all ranks are interviewed, as well as detainees’ attorneys. John Yoo, co-author of the infamous “torture memo,” makes an appearance. So does Alberto Mora, the former Navy General Counsel who, upon receiving news of widespread detainee abuse, threatened to go public with the story if the Pentagon did not change its interrogation policies. Moazzam Begg, a British national detained for almost two years at Bagram and then Guantanamo, was an eyewitness to the abuse of Dilawar. He also delivers first-hand accounts of what detention for an alleged “enemy combatant” is like with a surprising amount of humor and grace, most notably when he describes the irony of being asked to testify against the soldiers who detained him.

The interviews with four of the officers charged in connection with Dilawar’s death provide some of the film’ most complex – but ultimately effective – moments. Gibney works hard to depict them as fall guys for much bigger fish while still making them accountable for the fatal blows inflicted on Dilawar’s body. Their stories of insufficient training and lack of support from superior officers are horrifying, but at the same time many of their own comments – sweeping and derogatory generalizations about Islam and Middle Eastern culture, a smirk or laugh that leaks out in the middle of a description of torture and humiliation – can be chilling and deeply disturbing. In the end, they are the best proof of one interviewee’s assertion that the military attracts people who are “just this side of the Marquis de Sade,” and therefore need strict codes of conduct to stay on the straight and narrow.

One of the reasons that Gibney is so good at arousing feelings of indignation and outrage in his audience is that, unlike other cinematic provocateurs like Michael Moore, he doesn’t rely on bombast or gimmicks to do his work for him. He lets evidence and rational argument speak for themselves. The individuals he is criticizing damn themselves with their own words, while Gibney skillfully contrasts their dissimulations and justifications with the cold, hard facts. A great deal of credit must also be given to Taxi’s editor, Sloane Klevin, who, in her first documentary film, masters the art of making an argument with sound and image. Taxi is undoubtedly a charged and passionate polemic, but it’s a very successful one. This is because it’s a highly filmic piece, which expertly uses all the tools available to make its case.

In an elegant and moving codicil, Gibney dedicates the film to his late father, Frank Gibney, who worked as a military interrogator in Japan during World War II. It was his father’s deep distress at the news of Abu Ghraib – which, in his own words, “destroyed” his faith in the American government – that prompted his son to make the film. One can only hope that, in finding an impassioned audience, the son’s work will fulfill the father’s dream of a country that lives up to the principles it is fighting to defend.



 

Gregory Hoblit's
Untraceable
Opens Friday, January 18, 2008

Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, and Mary Beth Hurt

Reviewed by Marguerite Daniels

Everyone hates a serial killer, except for the immensely popular serial killer in Gregory Hoblit's Untraceable. In this eerie film written by Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinkler and Allison Burnett, the murderer is applauded by thrill-seeking cyber-groupies who log-on to watch the killer as he tortures victim after victim. Fortunately Diane Lane's FBI Special Agent Jennifer Marsh is tracking the killer. There's something about Diane Lane that makes you want to applaud her characters whether they are purchasing a home in Tuscany or committing wanton adultery with Olivier Martinez. The same is true of Diane Lane's turn as Special Agent Marsh. Here, she is sharp, world-weary, and tenacious. Special Agent Marsh wears many hats; she's a tech-savvy cyber-sleuth, a loving and dedicated single mother to the adorable moppet, Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine), and she is a patient and tolerant friend who endures the constant meandering chatter of her co-worker Griffin (Colin Hanks). She also manages to look put-together despite a propensity to shroud herself in flannel tops and lumberjack boots. Special Agent Marsh raises her daughter along with her equally self-sufficient mother Stella Marsh (Mary Beth Hurt) a gardening phenom who baby-sits Annie whenever Jennifer runs off to solve a case.

The film is set in Portland, Oregon, a city so picturesque in its grandeur that even the interiors of the homes are majestic. (Who knew that FBI work could afford plush linens, and sleek bathroom fixtures in a house situated in one of Portland's oldest neighborhoods?) What's nice about Untraceable is that we are given insight into the world of professional geeks. Special Agent Marsh and her partner Griffin work with a magnificent band of nebbish misfits who spend their days catching internet sexual predators and credit card crooks. These nerd/cop hybrids have been lulled into a seemingly peaceful world where they are free to indulge their innermost geek desires: they troll the internet and eventually hope to get laid through online dating. But sadly, as in real life, the geeks don't get laid. Instead, they receive an anonymous tip for a creepy new website, killwithme.com, that not only increases their workload, but puts them face to face with a dangerous serial killer. At first the killer seems to be a mean prankster; he places a sweet little kitten on a sticky trap, records the kitten's ordeal, and encourages his viewers to publicize the site as they watch the kitten die on camera. The site becomes an instant hit amongst cyber-pervs. As our intrepid FBI agents watch in horror, the killer moves on to gruesomely slaying bipeds as the site's popularity grows almost exponentially through word of mouth: the more people that log-on to watch the killer torture his victim, the faster the victim dies.

The killer stays one step ahead of the FBI by using an elaborate network of servers. Every time Special Agent Marsh and her team attempt to shut killwithme.com down, the website jumps to another server making the website untraceable.

There are product placements galore in this film (Windows Vista, anyone? How about a ride in Subaru Outback with OnStar road-side assistance?), but nerds and geeks can rejoice for the filmmakers have done their due diligence; the film is chock-full of authenticity and tech-speak. There is even an accompanying website http://killwithme.com/ where movie buffs are invited to play games while the serial killer taunts and threatens. The film does become a tad predictable when Special Agent Marsh is paired with a hunky homicide detective, Eric Box, played stoically by Billy Burke, and meets resistance from her inanely pig-headed boss, Richard Brooks (Peter Lewis), who doesn't heed his expert teams' warning and hastens the death of yet another victim. Also, the killer is obviously sinister and you wonder how he's able to charm his victims long enough to snare them. The basement he tortures them in is text-book dingy. This is common and familiar territory to movie-goers, and a few may loose interest. But under Gregory Hoblit's skilled direction the film ends with a thrilling surprise that makes its boiler-plate, serial killer movie tedium almost forgotten.


 


Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in The Savages

Tamara Jenkins’
The Savages


Reviewed by Corey Shtasel-Gottlieb

A film rooted in themes of unyielding discomfort—guilt, aging, death, and the internal entropy that each invokes—must be next to perfect if it is to succeed. Too often do movies slide blindly into the realm of the ultra-weighty without just recognition of what exactly what they’ve exposed. Tamara Jenkins seems keenly aware of such a fate, though, as she has written and directed a film that radiates with the warmth that exists deep below the surface of human pain. The Savages is at once beautiful and tragic, a poignant glance at raw middle-agedness. Jenkins treads the tightrope between laughter and tears with a grace only attainable by one who lives what she writes. More than just gutsy, her depiction of people-getting-older is elegant. She pokes at the lump in our throats with barely decipherable touches, chipping away at our natural resistance to stories that hit too close to home. The end result is a feel-bad-feel-good movie that will leave viewers satisfied in their depression.

The Savages is the story of a disjointed family, forced to reconnect by the tragic realities of aging. Siblings Jon and Wendy Savage are pulled from their fairly average (if unfulfilled) adult lives by the rapid deterioration of their father, Lenny. As the film opens, a weathered Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) sounds dementia’s alarm by smearing feces on his apartment walls, painting a too-literal picture of the shittiness of getting older. Soon after, Lenny’s girlfriend dies suddenly, and his children are left to pick up the pieces of a man already too far broken to be rebuilt. That Jon and Wendy Savage are themselves so fragmented only intensifies the discomfort with which we observe this process. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a relatively successful author teaching theater history in Buffalo, a man who seems to have just missed the mark in each phase of his life: he is not quite in shape, not quite upper-middle class, not quite married or settled or content. His nagging writer’s block reflects the emptiness that gradually burrows through his core, a wanting-more that surfaces in his sometimes condescending, sometimes bitter affect. Wendy (Laura Linney) is an unpublished playwright, self-medicating her way through temp jobs in Manhattan and an affair with her married, nympho neighbor. She is (like so many adults living alone for too long) narcissistic and unconvincingly optimistic.

The hidden scabs of both characters are uncovered when Jon and Wendy are forced to live together to care for their father. The film’s painful irony is that the Savage siblings can only find themselves as they watch the clock tick on their father’s life. Not unlike the lingering morbidity that made William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying a uniquely disturbing classic, The Savages functions atop a backdrop of human deterioration. The struggle to accept this as their father’s fate pushes Jon and Wendy to bear down—and even, sometimes, to smile—in the face of their own vulnerabilities. With this as her thread, Jenkins plays on the very human need to counter suffering with self-deprecating laughter.

Strong performances from both Seymour Hoffman and Linney allow Jenkins’ plotline the grittiness that it needs to succeed. As always, Seymour Hoffman brings unaffected passion and believability to his role. His versatility in 2007 (see also: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Charlie Wilson’s War) must leave us expecting nothing less than greatness in everything that he touches in the coming year. And yet, here he may have been bested by Linney, whose portrayal of middle-aged neurosis is near perfect. She pinpoints the cross-section between chutzpah and instability with a rawness that makes us cringe. The on-screen dynamic that emerges between these two seasoned performers is special to watch, as they seamlessly spin sibling rivalry’s familiar tensions.

In effect, The Savages joins a list of well-written, well-acted films in 2007. While it fails to pack the blockbuster punch of movies like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, it delves into the core of human emotion with unique force. It succeeds—as most films of its kind do not—as tragedy and comedy, both, making it well worth the price of admission.


 

 


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