Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Review: Gone Baby Gone

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris
Director: Ben Affleck
Release Date: October 19, 2007
Running time: 115 min

MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Miramax

“I am going to ask questions. If you don't answer fully and truthfully, you will suffer much more than you have to.” - Creasy, Man on Fire

“He lied to me. Now I can't think of one reason big enough for him to lie about that's small enough not to matter.” -
Patrick Kenzie, Gone Baby Gone

The Skinny:
Ben Affleck directs and co-writes the script adapted from the author of Mystic River.

The Review:
Amanda, a 4-year-old girl goes missing in the south Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. Private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend and partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired by the missing girl’s aunt to assist Police Chief Doyle (Morgan Freeman) in talking to a neighborhood reluctant to discuss anything with the cops. Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is a strung out drug-addled alcoholic. That she acts like she could give a rat’s ass less and could easily be a prime suspect is the exact reason to decide that she isn’t.

The Departed, Mystic River, The Boondock Saints, and now Gone Baby Gone. As much as I hate clichés (and it doesn’t get worse than this), Boston is becoming the new New York City when it comes to settings for good crime movies. The neighborhood, really - or more specifically both Affleck’s acquaintance with it - becomes sort of a character on its own. The mood the setting gives off, the people in the background, the language used; all of it.

The movie does have its share of awards worthy performances. Casey Affleck is brilliant in this movie. There is a sense that he knows he is in over his head, yet he has the fortitude to grow into the situation and stand his ground regardless. Ed Harris is lights out as Detective Remy Bressant.

Ben Affleck’s script is not only very tight and well structured, but he could not have hit a bigger homerun in his directorial debut. Imagine your public career being one of the bigger laughing stocks of the business for the last five years. Imagine wanting to rid yourself of that stigma. What do you do? Surely you don’t chose to adapt a screenplay from a book written by the guy who wrote Mystic River. You remember; that movie that had it not been for The Lord of the Rings: ROTK would have won Clint Eastwood another Oscar, so you can have immediate comparisons drawn, right?

That sounds exactly like the corner a post-Daredevil Affleck would have painted himself into. Only this time the joke is on us. Ben Affleck directs a very tight movie that burns slow at first while it mounts the tension. Once we get to the point where we start peeling away the layers, you can’t help but be impressed with the story itself. But look closer and pay attention to the shot selection. About halfway through, the movie seems to abruptly end. So abrupt that I looked at my watch and wondered what they were going to do with the other hour that was left. As Affleck continues to tell this story and you go back over everything, you realize that there wasn’t one wasted shot in the movie. Every one of them serves a purpose to the story. All the clues are there, even blatantly out in the open sometimes, but Affleck wisely chooses his shot selection such that we see everything we need to see to figure out the story, even if he doesn’t make it apparent that it will end up being part of the story.

What started as your garden variety kidnapping movie ended up being so much more. Not just the difference between right and wrong, but the definitions of the two, the degree to which people can be right and or wrong, and everyone’s interpretations of what they perceive all of it to be. The movie begs the question, “How far would you go to do the right thing?” Everyone in the movie has an agenda and a solid argument for why their definition is right, but this movie, and the questions it raises, is much more than a simply right and wrong. If only it were that easy.

In the end, there are no clear cut answers. Days later I am still torn, even as I sit her typing. Arguing what is right by law and right for the girl is like arguing the difference between ethics and morals. The story is told so well, and with such moral ambiguity, that as an audience we cannot simply sit back and judge the characters for making the decisions they made, we are forced both to make one for ourselves and be able to argue our justification. Simple yes or no just doesn’t cut it. Without giving anything away, the last scene of the movie still sticks with me. We see Kenzie sitting there, presumably both reveling in, and regretting the decision he made all at the same time. You will know this because you will be doing it in real time right along with him.

The Rub:
This is a wonderfully skillful directorial debut by Ben Affleck and equally excellent performances by Casey Affleck and Ed Harris. This movie will stay with you for a while after you’ve seen it. It is also happens to be one of the best movies of the year.

And there’s the rub.

**** out of ****

Monday, October 29, 2007

Review: 30 Days of Night

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster
Director: David Slade
Release Date: October 19, 2007
Running time: 113 min

MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Columbia Pictures

“You are a vampire who never knew what life was until it ran out in a big gush over your lips.” - Lestat, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles

“God? No God.” -
Marlow, 30 Days of Night

The Skinny:
Vampires descend on Barrow, Alaska as they enter a month of prolonged darkness during the winter solstice.

The Review:
Somewhere, some time I read that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects almost 25% of Alaskan residents to some degree. It would stand to reason that residents of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement on the North American mainland and in the United States, would make up the largest portion of that percentage. With just over 4,000 residents in the town, 25% would put us at right about 1,000 people impacted. Christ, don’t these people have enough to worry about? Now there are vampires attacking?

First things first. What a wicked idea for the setting of a vampire movie. A snow covered Alaskan town on the verge of reclusion, cloaked in darkness for weeks at a time in the dead of winter. Even the writers understand the novelty behind this as one of the vampires actually says at one point, “Why didn’t we think of this ages ago?” 30 Days of Night is a movie based on the graphic novels of the same name. There isn’t much in the way of a hidden meaning. It is, well, exactly what you would expect when you hear the premise behind it. Vampires can’t be in the sun, so they decide to go to the one spot on Earth during the one time of year when there is no sun. From there, they can go on an uninterrupted feeding frenzy. Pretty simple.

Josh Hartnett plays Eben Oleson, the sheriff of Barrow where seemingly little else happens besides this newest rash of things for him to do. It is too easy to jump all over Hartnett for being too wooden, stiff, dull, expressionless, or any other adjective we can think of to classify his acting ability. He is all these things in this movie too, but he wasn’t bad, per se, he was just… there. In the end, he wasn’t what the movie was about in the first place. This isn’t a movie about performances or even plot, necessarily.

You can have the coolest premise in the world (and they do) but it’s still a movie about vampires. Which makes it a horror movie. Which means there are certain conventions that are going to be present. There is still a group that is traveling together. Someone gets infected. Someone sacrifices himself for the greater good of the group. The annoying guy is met with an untimely death that no one really feels all that bad about. I would label these spoilers but they happen in every horror movie so I’m not really giving anything away. They aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here folks - it’s a vampire movie.

Speaking of… I found these vampires to be a bit Dawn of the Dead-esque. They are a fast moving, cutthroat group that actually exudes a bit of personality. At least the main few of them. In particular, Marlow (Danny Huston), the leader of the group, is quite convincing.

David Slade’s direction is tight without too many wasted shots. He gave the movie a grainy, gritty look to it that works well for the film. There is a contrast between the bloody carnage of the violence happening around them and the snow of the locale that lends itself well to the nature of the picture.

There is one shot, my favorite of the movie, that shows us everything we need to know about it. It is a slow moving aerial shot that pans up the road leading through town. There are vampires killing and maiming in just about every corner of the screen. It really shows the scope of the carnage the town is going through. Bones breaking, blood splattering, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria.

The Rub:
In case you didn’t pick up the subtlety of the message so far - this is a movie about vampires. It wont redefine the genre, but it surely didn’t ruin it either. It’s bloody and violent but above all; well made. An insanely simple and wicked premise, slick direction, and cool effects make this a good little popcorn horror flick. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking, but this is a far cry better than the majority of horror out there today.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Review: Dan in Real Life

Starring: Steve Carrell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, John Mahoney, Dianne West
Director: Peter Hedges

Release Date: October 26, 2007
Running time: 95 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Touchstone Pictures

“Honey if you call and I'm not home I'll be at the gym or the gun club.” - Jack Butler, Mr. Mom

The Skinny:
Dan Burns is a single father of three girls who tries to pick up a woman who ends up being his brother’s girlfriend he was planning to introduce during a family function. Now they all have to spend the weekend together.

The Review:
It’s funny how differently things hit you on different days. Depending on the day or week you are having, a movie can either sit well with you or sit like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t really expecting too much from this film, but I guess a funny thing happened on the way to the forum…

Dan in Real Life is about a single dad and popular family advice columnist Dan Burns (Steve Carrell). He is doing his best to raise his three daughters; two teenagers and one almost there. They set out on a weekend away for an annual family get-together. The first morning, Dan goes into town and meets a woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche) at a book store. We soon find out that Marie happens to be the girlfriend of Dan’s brother Mitch (Dane Cook), who was using the weekend as an outlet to let her meet the fam. The rest of the weekend is spent watching the Dan and Marie share secret laughs and quick snippet meetings in this mansion of a house unbeknownst to the rest of the family, especially Mitch.

This movie shared with me a few surprises. The most obvious is my realization that Steve Carrell is actually growing on me. This version of him anyway. Not The Office version or the Evan Almighty version. It even took me a while to like 40 Year Old Virgin. But when I finally got there, what I liked most about it was the quieter moments. Those are the moments that define his ability beyond his manic episodes. Much like his Bruce Almighty co-star Jim Carrey before him, he is best when used with restraint. The quieter, more toned down version suits him much more.

The scene where Dan and Marie meet in the bookstore is sweet and just real enough to set the right tone for the movie. Dan is gentle and clumsy and mildly awkward in his approach to Marie – much like you would expect a divorced father of three to be in that situation. I also liked the dynamic between Dan and all of his daughters. They each have their own conflict and he does what he can to balance them. There is a sweetness to his interaction with them but also the sense that he is barely hanging on. As the weekend progresses and he continues to hide his affection for Marie and the tension mounts, Dan starts to melt down a bit. Oh, how glad am I that his Carrell chose to play this straight with a quiet desperation rather than resort to his old tricks and ham it up. His performance, and the movie, is better for it.

Another surprise is that Dane Cook did not actually ruin this movie. That’s not to say that he wasn’t mostly annoying (he was) and still the worst part of the movie (he was), but he wasn’t the distraction this time around that he is starting to be. Not for one second did I get on board with the idea that a Dane Cook/Juliette Binoche union was plausible. They looked awkward together and I didn’t buy it. Maybe that played into the movies hand a little more in getting me to buy/root for a Dan/Marie partnership. Or maybe not. I don’t think it really matters. The end result of the movie was never in question either way.

Yes, this movie had its share of problems. This essence of this movie was the very definition of formula, almost to a sitcom degree. But it didn’t matter. I liked the scenes where the family interacted. Sure they were quirky and odd and existed seemingly for the sake of being quirky and odd. But between the crossword puzzle competitions, group morning exercising, and even the creepy talent show, the tone it set for the film was cheesy yet moderately charming all at the same time. Dan in Real Life isn’t really about the family, or the overacted brother, or the formula the script adhered to. It’s about Dan and how he interacts with, and deals with, all the stress in his life. And even though the movie isn’t about all of those things, it is hard to ignore that they helped shape Dan into what he is now and how he chose to deal with everything happening around him.

The Rub:
Dan in Real Life is a sitcom formula stretched to feature length. In this case, it’s not a bad thing. The real strength of the film is Steve Carrell and the realism he brought to the character. If he would have played this any other way, the film would have been a disaster. As it stands, flaws and all, this is a good, lighthearted movie that just sits right with you after you’ve seen it. Even if you wont remember it two weeks from now.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

Friday, October 26, 2007

Review: Across the Universe

Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs
Director: Julie Taymor
Release Date: October 12, 2007
Running time: 131 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Columbia Pictures

“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you. And remember I’ll always be true.”
Paul McCartney, All My Lovin’

“The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge!

The Skinny:
A musical telling a love story set in and spanning the 1960’s as told against the backdrop of the music of The Beatles.

The Review:
Very rarely does a movie come along that I have as much need to see as I did when I first heard of Across the Universe. Beyond simply wanting to see, I had to see this movie. The Beatles are without question my favorite band of all time and musicals are an obscenely underused genre in movies, so this movie was set up to be the perfect marriage of the two.

Across the Universe tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess) and his travels from his home in Liverpool, England to the good old U.S. of A. He is initially looking for his father whom he has never met and who does not know he exists. While he is there, he encounters a rash of people, whose names are derived from either titles or lyrics of Beatles songs. There’s Max (Joe Anderson), the rebellious kid from a family of privilege who moves to New York with Jude, and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom Jude falls in love. In New York they guys meet, and end up rooming with Sadie (Dana Fuchs) an aspiring musician, Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), Sadie’s guitar player and love interest, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who may or may not be interested in Sadie. Or Max. Or both, or neither. Lucy moves to New York after the death of her boyfriend in Vietnam and winds up falling in love with Jude. Max gets shipped to Vietman, shifting Lucy’s focus from all Jude all the time, to a radical anti-war movement. Sadie and Jojo go through the turmoils of being struggling musicians in love. And the whole thing just lumbers along from there.

The performances in the movie were decent. Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood in particular rose above the rest of cast. Dana Fuchs musical performances made for some of the better song renditions in the movie. It would, however, be difficult to argue that the best musical performance in the movie is T.V. Carpio’s I Want to Hold Your Hand. Never before has a song shifted its meaning as much by simply changing the tempo and setting in which it was sang quite like this was.

In concept, this movie is absolutely amazing. The idea of using the music of one of the most revered bands ever to tell a story set in the backdrop of the time in which the music was created is just this side of genius. Hearing these arrangements I have loved the better part of my life reimagined and reinterperted was mostly pretty amazing. I especially liked how you could see the grain of the film shift through each of the phases of The Beatles musical catelog. Some of the songs were a bit overdone, but it’s hard to ignore the essence of the music either way. At best, the versitility of The Beatles shines through in vivid detail. But there were times when it felt like the songs were forced into the movie for the sake of another musical number rather than to tell the story. And that is precisely when my worst fear realized itself. The movie started to suck.

This could have been - wait, let me start over - this SHOULD have been an achievement of the grandest scale. I just can’t tell who wanted it more, me or the movie itself. I will say this for Across the Universe; the ambition was there, but somewhere along the way it took its eye off the ball and couldn’t remember what it wanted to be. It wanted to be a love story set to Beatles music. Then it wanted to be a Beatles musical told through a love story. But it couldn’t ever figure out how to be both. About the time Taymor opted out of telling the story and into selling us with visuals, I lost my enthusiasm. Don’t misinturperet this; the visual aspect wasn’t lost on me at all - it was brilliant in spots - it just happened to coincide with the time when the storytelling stopped. When something worked, it worked wonderfully until it was overwraught and used as a weapon to bludgeon us with. When it didn’t, it just kind of fell flat.

Shortly after I got home from seeing Across the Universe, I got a call from a friend who had seen, and loved the movie. She wanted to know what I thought of it. I said the first thing that came to mind: “It was alright but I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called Moulin Rouge!” In hindsight, it as kind of a cheap shot since the two movies hadn’t much to do with each other. But there is a little stock in my first reaction. After that conversation I asked my girlfriend what she thought of it. Her unsolicited response? “I bet Baz Luhrmann is really pissed off somewhere right now.”

The Rub:
Across the Universe wants to be a lot more than it is. While grandiose in its ambition, once you strip away the novelty of having The Beatles music as a backdrop for the story, you are left with little more than a mediocre, clichéd love story that barely works. It wants to be trendy and genius and trippy, and while Julie Taymor’s visual flair is unarguably evident, the movie kind of lost it’s way once it abandoned the story it was trying to tell. I didn’t hate it, parts of it were outstanding. But the parts that weren’t seemed forced and based on my expectation and all that could have, make that SHOULD have been; this was nothing short of a missed opportunity.

And there’s the rub.

** ½ out of ****