REVIEW: Otesánek (Jan Svankmajer, 2001)

This was my first and long overdue venture into the world of Svankmajer, a Czech filmmaker who has a penchant for stop-motion. Honestly, I was not sure if Otesanek ("Little Otik" in English but also known as "Greedy Guts") would be up my alley. More than anything I was in search a new sort of film experience. As it turns out, Svankmajer hooked me in the opening moments and had me going throughout.

We follow the tenants of a lower middle class apartment building presumably in Prague, particularly the two lovers Karel (Jan Hartl) and Bozena (Verinoka Zilkova) who desperately want a child but cannot concieve due to their mutual sterility. Much patience is involved in developing the details of the situation as the main story does not begin until a considerable amount of time has passed and Karel finally, as a sweet gesture for his wife, carves a tree stump to look like a child. Bozena instantly latches on to the inanimate object and appears mad with motherly instinct as she nurses the stump to life - a life in which it will never have its hunger satisfied by anything less than human flesh.

This is all a rendition of an old Eastern European fairy tale under the same name. The tale, like most of its kind, is quite simple but Svankmajer has delved deep and found intricacies to expound upon in a subtle manner. We have parallels drawn by edits such as the swineherd Otik swallows being related to the cops on the cases of missing people and we have overarching themes such as humanity's gall in thinking we can interfere with some of life's mysteries. The stop motion interwoven with live action during the scenes in question is to die for.

If you're like me and are aching for an uncompromised, uncensored, unique film with the MPAA gradually taking over American filmmaking, Czech this one out. It's startling, haunting, intricately woven and really, just plain brilliant.


REVIEW: Marie Antoinette (Sophia Copolla, 2006)

Quite obviously based on a true story, Sofia Copolla (Lost in Translation) takes a vaguely different approach to the period film with the story of quite possibly France's most famous queen. A young, Austrian princess (Kirsten Dunst) is brought to France to wed her betrothed husband and faces separation anxiety, ridicule and marital struggles of unfamiliarity amidst extravagant pampering. The story opens with her transfer between countries and continues... and continues... and continues.

The first half of the film was quite good due to Copolla's choices in composition, pacing and music cues. The story seems simple enough - after Antoinette's move to France she can't quite seem to "excite" her prince enough to consumate their marriage. This is really the only driving force behind the beautiful-looking picture. All the side stories seem frivolous and only exist to add length. Unfortunately, this main storyline ends at about the halfway mark, leaving us with an episodic series of dilemmas that come across as pointless due to our squandered investment in the original (apparent) intention. Thankfully the pseudo-hypnotic qualities of the dialogue and the cinematography don't fade much.

Focusing on the consequential first half, one may find some poignant parallels to modern society - particularly the gossip blog community. The royal environment as Copolla has crafted it appears as a very sheltered one in which the women merely live while the men do most of the important work behind the scenes. So what better to do with your time if you were a woman than get dressed up real nice and talk about people you don't like with your friends? Perhaps Louis XV (Rip Torn) and his foreign mistress the so-called Duchess of Polignac (Rose Byrne) would make for good conversation and a fantastic way to widdle the day away. In fact, as far as the film is concerned, you could call the king and the duchess K-Fed and Britney and you wouldn't be too far off.

So this film is certainly memorable for its nearly brilliant aspects but falls short of classic when it drones on and on over subjects it has already addressed more poetically in its first half. It seems too minimalistic in style to continue and attempt to encompass Antoinette's entire reign. I wouldn't steer you away from it, though. It's unique enough to at least be viewed once.


REVIEW: TMNT (Kevin Munroe, 2007)

Since the day I first heard of this project I've held it in my mind as a huge misstep for the turtle franchise as a whole - a dishonor to the turtles that I knew when I was a kid. The animated route in a turtles feature was altogether unsettling while the text-message style abbreviation of the title was out and out nauseating. I only ended up seeing the unrealistically realized reincarnation as an afterthought - a 90-minute sidenote to top off my day at the cinema. In the end though, it was well worth the time and actually proved to be the most movie-related fun I had that day.

The first half of the film was actually just as I expected - an even more cartoony rendering of our heroes and their friends (Casey Jones is given a head like a carrot while April O'Neil looks as though she could toss out a Pokeball at any moment) that is more kid-oriented than we're accustomed to seeing the half-shelled mutants, whose personalities are now more one-dimensional than ever. The storyline is only a shade or two better than that of an episode of Power Rangers. Even though the core of the movie is a group of mutant amphibians who talk and fight in bandannas, it's difficult to accept a whole new batch of lore attached to a whole new villain (whose build makes him look like he'd be put to better use as a bookcase), especially when it involves not only immortal, living statues but also a multitude of rampaging beasts of no particular purpose. I mean really, couldn't they have just stuck with the foot clan?

Surprisingly and thankfully the second half (beginning with Raphael's Ram Jam fight with the so-called Jersey Demon, for those of you who have seen it and are wondering where I'm taking off from) is pretty darn fun and well composed. The point of no return is easily the best moment and features a certain long-lived rivalry coming to a head. Splinter even gets in on some action and finds a moment to lay a line on us almost as funny as his classic, "I have always liked... Cowabunga" from the first film back in 1990.

So if you don't mind sitting through about 45 minutes of child's fare in the beginning, punctuated with relatively well choreographed action sequences, this colorful return to the world of the sewer-dwelling, pizza-munching, amphibian ninjas makes for an enjoyable ride.


REVIEW: Pathfinder (Marcus Nispel, 2007)

The premise sounds good enough to anyone who is as fascinated as I am by the Native American cultures - a young boy is left behind after a ship of Viking explorers crashes on the shores of the new world and grows up to be their defender when his people return to lay waste to the natives. This is no Terrence Malick epic, however, no - this is a B-grade action flick starring none other than Karl Urban (DoomLord Of The Rings: The Two Towers), the new hero staple for this current generation of high schoolers.

Pathfinder seems a project that didn't quite have the budget that it needed to accomplish what it wanted (hell, it resorts to stock footage during an avalanche scene). While there is an abundance of messily executed gore, there are plenty of pulled punches to go with it. The first act plays like a student film that stumbled on a few million bucks to spend on costuming and practical effects (which actually reminds me of something to credit the movie on - very few uses of CGI). The second act actually isn't too bad considering the context, and seems more like something that I wouldn't mind sticking with on television during spell of late-night channel-surfing. We then fall into the third and worst act, which is more slowly paced and yet more rushed than any of the other segments, including the tedious developmental stages.

The most surprising aspect of the film is that Laeta Kalogridis, who co-wrote the beautiful dialogue of Alexander with Oliver Stone, penned the sceenplay! I can understand being eager for just about any project after 'Xander unfortunately flopped, but to drop to this? Well, turns out she was one of the original authors of the graphic novel (to my understanding, anyway... there doesn't appear to be much info online about this). Still, the dialogue was only a shade better than you might find in a Sci-Fi channel movie of the week.

Perhaps the most appalling aspects of the movie are the characterizations of the two groups of people. The natives appear gullible and weak (and they speak English, which bothered me despite my understanding of the language's implimentation in a movie of this sort) while the Vikings were turned into exaggerated behemoths who were more monster than man.

In short, there is barely any worth to this mostly brainless and claustrophobic flick and it is absolutely understandable why the studio waited over a year to find a fitting release date for it. If you want action, re-watch M:I:III or Resident Evil: Apocalypse... or wait until the term "summer blockbuster" stops translating to "superhero threequel".


REVIEW: Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

It's no secret to subscribers to Tarantino that the guy's a massive fan of "grindhouse" films - exploitation pictures you never hear about from the 70's that usually showed in cheap, smelly theaters - and he considers the stylings therein more or less a lost art. It is with this in his fanatical mind that he has gotten together with his friend and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez to create an homage experience to the double-features of old with Planet Terror, a zombie action thriller, and Death Proof, a fast and furious driving movie. Each 90-minute piece features a menagerie of both vaguely and vividly familiar talents who are either established (Bruce Willis, Kurt Russell), looking to become as such (Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton), or simply a regular with the Troublemaker/A Band Apart studios (Michael Parks, Jonathan Loughran) and everyone involved seems to be having a great time.

A great time was assuredly had by the two feature directors, at least. Rodriguez is known for constantly pumping out films left and right while Tarantino (who is beginning to look like someone punched a young Randy Quaid in the face) does a lot of talking on the subject but doesn't seem to do any work to give his talk legs. In these respects, Grindhouse was the perfect forum for each of them to have some fun. Rodriguez could take it relatively easy with a more fun and loose piece while Tarantino could get back behind the lens without exerting the effort that one of his larger ideas like the much-discussed Inglorious Bastards would require.

For the most part, fun is to be had by the audience as well. I could complain about many aspects of Rodriguez' Planet Terror not appealing to me, but I think it simply comes down to taste. More importantly than the fact I've never genuinely enjoyed a Rodriguez picture (despite my great respect for his production style and often awesome editing that does indeed rear its sexy head here), I'm just not a horror buff so a lot of what the first double-feature installment has to offer doesn't work for me beyond uncomplicated amusement. I could also praise Tarantino's Death Proof for being more up my alley with its stellar antagonist and orgasmic soundtrack but the way Tarantino neatly giftwraps and sells it to us just works better for me on an aesthetic level.

Being a greater fan of Tarantino in general, I noticed several things about Death Proof that simultaneously add to and take from it. 'Tino spends a lot of time performing what I'll refer to as 'cinematic masturbation' during which he has his characters discuss the very films his work is inspired by and certain elements from his previous films (sets, recurring characters or fictional brand-names) make appearances. With a greater storyline these Askewniverse-esque, self-celebratory (and admitedly, occasionally fun) excursions would likely be less obvious and see greater successes. Also, the lack of a constant Rodriguez-style barrage of special effects gives the piece a more authentic feel while the overabundance of falsely bad reels and the like from Planet Terror also takes a major backseat. Beyond the taste factor, this is why I prefer Tarantino's handling of homages. As he presented extensively with Kill Bill and somewhat with Jackie Brown, his modernization of older filmmaking techniques and specific signatures of certain directors works in favor of originality while Rodriguez' film feels like a typical big-budget blockbuster of today that happens to have a bunch of computerized chemical burn.

So overall both major elements of this double-feature, particularly the latter despite its often idiotic characters, are enjoyable and well worth going out of your way for. The minor additions like fake trailers, age restriction warnings and advertisements are also just as fun as you've likely heard they are even if the movies themselves fail in their attempts at authenticity by using "grindhouse" traits only to their conveniences rather than truly teleporting the pieces back to the 70's. Let's just hope that Tarantino has gotten it out of his system and he'll now move on to something original!


REVIEW: World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)

Oliver Stone, while having created some of the best films of the past two decades, has never exactly been a sure bet. I love the guy's audacity and a large portion of his filmography (Alexander famously being one of my most adored pieces) but every so often there's a cheesy misstep. Born on the Fourth of July tread the cheese ground rather often, for example. This one, however, is more than a misstep - it's cemented in cheese so deep that even a mutant mouse with razor sharp fangs and a penchant for swiss would have trouble getting to it. It's unfortunate, considering this was the one 9/11 flick I was counting on. In fact, I was a die-hard advocate for it. I thought that Stone, the guy behind historical twist tales like conspiracy-laden JFK, would attack this from a completely new angle and really get into some provocative, artistic territory.

If any storyline centered at ground zero on September 11th, 2001 could play it safe, this is it. Stone's painfully conventional (and at times strangely religious) approach avoids most anything that would put people further on edge than the nature of the subject matter already brings them. Our focal point is beneath the rubble with two Port Authority Police Department officers (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) - the two real people who were the final surviving extractions. It is an odd thing to hinge a film on - two guys pinned under cement blocks, trying to comfort one another until apparently imminent death. I could easily see it as a powerful short film, but as a big budget, feature length picture it doesn't work so well.

When we're not underground with the two officers we're in brightly lit, mellodramatic scenes about their families. During production I was impressed to see such names as Maggie Gylenhaal and Maria Bello attached to such a potentially controversial project. In viewing these family scenes, however, we're subjected to the worst cliches of the entire piece that stand in my eyes as blotches on both actresses' records.

All in all, this is far from being a worthy or even memorable experience. It refutes my entire argument for seeing it by becoming a banal retread of contrived emotion that belongs on the Hallmark channel.


REVIEW: Reign Over Me (Mike Binder, 2007)

After two college roommates part ways and lead completely seperate lives, they come back together by chance to share a unique friendship. One (Adam Sandler, sporting a Bob Dylan look) has lost his family and fallen into a massive rut of grief with his life in shambles while the other (Don Cheadle, looking very Don Cheadley) is nearly overwhelmed with his personal and professional successes. Their stories intertwine to reveal several lessons in humility and feature supporting roles from the likes of Liv Tyler, Saffon Burrows, Paula Newsome, Jada Pinkett Smith, Donald Sutherland and Melinda Dillon (who seems to be going through her own smaller version of a Diane Keaton style career revival).

With the exception of a few gorgeous montages through the streets of New York City, the first couple scenes feel like a rough, unfinished edit. The pacing is off and the storyline jumpstarts unusually fast. After we're given a chance to weave our way through to the characters (and in turn find them rather relatable), however, things fall together. Overall it is a refreshingly quiet film that doesn't feel the need to be in-your-face about everything (although it does occasionally suffer from a plodding Elfman-esque score) and certainly knows its way around relatively complex storytelling, sprinkling nice touches of subtlety here and there to either drive home points or sneak in laughs.

Technically this is a 9/11 film. It was included in entertainment news stories along with United 93 and World Trade Center (my review for which is about 8 months overdue) for its premise. It is no secret to the public the event that claimed Sandler's character's family was the 9/11 attack. That considered, it is not once mentioned during the developmental stages of the film and, one throw-away reference aside, only really comes out during an emotional turning point. This leads me to feel that an opportunity to make the film more powerful was missed when we were widely informed of the 9/11 aspect. I can only imagine that, it being a mere six and a half years after the fact, the studio felt it was financially safer to reveal it so not to offend any unsuspecting patrons. The official revelation in the film is easily the most powerful moment, and helps in expounding upon Sandler's character.

This is the perfect March release. It is much better than the garbage we're fed in January and February (the so-called "dump months") but it's not quite ready to join the big league of Oscar contenders during the winter season. It's a film that you can feel good about while also feeling like you've taken something from it.


REVIEW: 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)

First off, a warning to those with the free tickets that came with copies of the Alexander Revisited DVD (that you bought if you're cool like me): Some theaters will just flat out reject them for no reason at all! When this happened to me I had to stop and think for a moment, but I ultimately decided I wanted to see 300 more than I didn't want to see it and I dropped the eight bucks.

What, can you already sense my lack of enthusiasm? Honestly, it's tough to formulate my thoughts on this movie because I so thoroughly loathed it. I'm not sure where to start - The whole thing was forced. It was claustrophobic, poorly composed, numb-skulled, oversaturated and featured acting worse than that of Attack of the Clones from some otherwise reputable actors (David Wenham, Dominic West).

From beginning to end the audience is bombarded with a piss-poor screenplay, whether it be in the form of narration that destroys the film's scarce opportunities for subtlety or terrible dialogue that sounds like it was torn from t-shirts people might have worn in the early 90's. When a character isn't delivering a cute phrase that you might also find in a Bon Jovi song, they're going to tedious lengths to set themselves up for one. The worst example of this is the lead himself, King Leonidas (A pointy-bearded Gerard Butler). It baffles me as to how I, as a moviegoer, am supposed to get behind this bull-headed patriot who has no dream beyond dying for his country. He, in fact, is the only character that recieves decent development but even that ends up as a mess of horrible cliches.

Basically, our three-hundred heroes are a bunch of narrow-minded hunks of muscle who only know battle. Sorry, but I'm not about to root for a blood-thirsty football team just because they oil up and stab people. The enemies make little sense at all as they march endlessly on the immobile Spartans, presenting monster after monster, none of which seem to have any place in the events. Sure, I can understand an artistic style that places weird beasts in ancient combat but when you throw in a blubbery behemoth with axes for hands whose only purpose in life seems to be executing Persian delinquents and you only have him there for a few seconds... that's just unnecessary. As for the Iranian uproar about the bad rap their ancestors are getting because of this skimpy piece of computerized garbage, well it makes about as little sense as the people who got angry about Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed allegedly honoring a real Boston mafioso.

The story begins without finesse and immediately gets both my eyes rolling and my ears tired of hearing the word "Sparta". What little story we do get between the overload of repetetive, sepia tone carnage runs out of gas at about the halfway mark and dwindles into a mere montage of brief scenes that are little more than extensions of the money shots we've already seen in the trailers - the very money shots that the movie seems to be built around, as if the filmmakers came up with them and thought, "Okay, those are awesome - now let's connect the dots".

The action has its share of cool shots but they only work as individual pieces. When lumped together amidst overly close close-ups akin to those in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they lose their effect. The major misstep is that there is no drama whatsoever. Oh, there are attempts - very weak attempts that I'd expect from a Sci-Fi channel original starring Ron Perlman and Lou Diamond Phillips, but nothing like what we see in say, Kill Bill, that gives the action sequences that extra something that you can cheer for.

This is usually just a funny phrase, but I actually feel dumber for having seen 300. I went in with my only expectation being that I'd at least like it better than Sin City (which surprised me when I left the theater thinking, "Uh...") but the last thing I expected was a beefy, unfocused theme song for mindless muscleheads that's about as graceful as my vomit after a quintuple-stacked fast food cheeseburger with whipped cream and nougat (how you'd get the nougat in there I don't know, but I so rarely get a chance to use the word and it's just so fun!). I almost feel like watching Doom to remind myself that sometimes bad monster movies with annoying electric guitar power chords can be mildly fun... or better yet, Lord of the Rings so I can remind myself why I usually like David Wenham. That people are eating this up yet still pissing on Alexander is beyond me. I think it's safe to say that you won't find me in the cinematic audience of any more Frank Miller-based films.


REVIEW: Alexander: Revisited (Oliver Stone, 2007)

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Alexander , so it should come as no surprise that I was thrilled to hear there was a new, longer and reimagined edit coming out. At three and a half hours, Stone has said that there is no footage left that he could have put in, and this version now features an intermission.

The drastic difference in this cut is the film's overall structure. Instead of starting with a young Alexander who has yet to see battle, we plunge into a scene that compiles several of Alexander's battles against King Darius of Persia into one. The tweaked proceedings give us two major improvements. First, we are introduced to Alexander's entourage as adults, so when we see them as children in the young scenes, their presence holds more significance. Second, we are given titles whenever the scene changes focus between the Macedonian center phalanx and the left and right flanks so we can much more easily understand the implementation of Alexander's strategy that was laid out in the previous scene. Losing its power a bit is Aquila, the golden eagle of Zeus (famous for feeding daily on Prometheus' liver). Throughout the film it is a powerful representation of Alexander's strength and determination but with its biggest moment happening so early in the proceedings I didn't feel the same chills I usually feel when watching the director's cut.

After the first few scenes had gone by, I was wondering why the new structure had such a different feel to it. The two conclusions I arrived at both involved Ptolemy. The story is framed by Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Ptolemy during his years as the Pharoah of Egypt as he dictates the story of Alexander to a scribe, but the frame is used to a different effect this time around. The lesser of the two points is that his voice-over comments seem a bit History Channel Documentary-ish at times (I.E. the monkey bit, which is indeed interesting but frivolous). More importantly, however, is the new placement of the "one king" speech he delivers comparing Alexander to Prometheus. The director's cut gave it to us at the beginning, setting things up in a more emotional and inspirational (adjectives that barely do it justice) fashion. Here it is given in the finale as more of a retrospective lament to Alexander's failure (which, as Ptolemy puts it, towers over some peoples' successes). The new placement gives a more dry feeling to the entire piece, making it occasionally feel like a visualization of the facts we know, but either way you look at it you've got a fantastic speech that reminds us of the importance of our hero's grand quest and how none thus far have either rivaled his feats or dared to execute the means by which to attain such a dream.

The most impressive aspect of this new cut is the way Stone has juxtaposed certain scenes to influence our thinking and subsequently bring new ideas to light. Some of the previously unseen footage was clearly cut for a reason originally, but it's fun to see and occasionally expounds upon subjects that returning audiences might appreciate such as the marriage to Roxanne and the relationship with Bagoas the eunuch. The intermission comes at a perfect time, allowing us to reflect on what we've seen and prepare for the second part of the journey when the army starts to fall out of line.

I highly recommend that everyone check out at least one version of this film despite the unwarranted barrage of bad reviews it is still receiving. If you have a choice, though, definitely go with the director's cut. While I really did like Revisited, I think it's more for folks who already love the film's previous incarnations or are interested in the Alexander story in general.


REVIEW: AMC Best Picture Showcase 2007

Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Yesterday, AMC Theatres held at many of their United States locations a marathon of the five films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. First up on the docket was Babel, Alejandro Nametoolongez Inarritu's follow-up to his last underwhelming exercise in pretention, 21 Grams. It was a great surprise when it turned out to be by far one of the better films of the day. We open in a Moroccan desert with the sale of a rifle from one local to another - the intention is to aid in the protection of goat herds. The young brothers in charge of the jackal sniping, however, decide to test the weapon's range on a passing tour bus, injuring an American tourist. This event, in familiar Innarritu (and obviously realistic) fashion, sparks a series of events that drastically impact peoples' lives the world over (hence the title). This is, of course, a topic we've seen a great deal in recent films but it remains compelling when done well, as it is here.

Rinko Kikuchi and Adrianna Barraza are entirely deserving of their accolades as they were definitely the two brightest spots in the cast. Elle Fanning was nice to see in there since I haven't seen anything she's done since The Door in the Floor.

Inarritu uses unnerving compositions that more mainstream directors usually reserve for shock shots (I.E. Alfre Woodard's big moment in The Forgotten) and really puts the audience on edge, expertly balancing the experience with what we know is about to happen and what we can only presume might occur. When the intense scenes pick up they sink their talons deep and don't let go until we can be absolutely sure all is well (and I use "well" loosely).

I would not at all be surprised if this picks up the Best Picture award tonight. Even if you are like me and didn't like 21 Grams, check this one out, just don't pay attention to the obligatory - and thankfully very minor - 21 Grams-ism at the end.

The Queen (Stephen Frears)
Second up in AMC's Best Picture Showcase was The Queen, a film that I hadn't heard of until I caught its trailer in theaters some months back. The trailer had me groaning - I don't care about the modern royal family nor did I have any sort of investment in the Lady Diana story. I remained open to the experience though, hoping to at least be impressed by the impeccable Helen Mirren's already notorious portrayal of HM Queen Elizabeth Windsor.

Mirren immediately strikes people familiar with Elizabeth with a great resemblance thanks to her solemn demeanor and makeup, but her performance isn't something I'd consider highly notable simply because while the film's alleged feat is probing the Queen's personal life, the real figure is portrayed to be very much the same sober person publicly as she is privately, subsequently restricting Mirren. To me the film was just as much about Tony Blair's first few months as Prime Minister as it was about Elizabeth's post-Diana days, and this is partly in thanks to Michael Sheen's fantastic performance. Sheen (known more widely for his turn as Lucian in Underworld) embodies Blair perfectly and will likely and unfortunately go unnoticed in America due to the strong Mirren hype.

The film itself was certainly better than I had expected, though director Stephen Frears seems to have handled it in the style of a romantic comedy despite the absense of both romance and comedy. Well, that last statement is not entirely true - there is some contrived humor here and there, and while it is occasionally funny it appears the opposite of realistic, a quality the rest of the film seems to aim for. The daring of the film's layout really lies in its confidence in its subject matter, particularly on the issue of the press and how it perverts the views of the public. Frears takes his time and paces the proceedings in a unique fashion that is surprisingly never boring. The only thing that really took me out of the grand illusion was during a scene when the Queen is supposed to be having an epiphany which is brought on by an imperial buck. This would be a really great moment were it not for the terribly obvious computer animation of the creature.

So would I recommend this? Not necessarily, but I am far from against it. It is a fine film, particularly for those interested in the royal family. The main thing you'll hear me talking about to anyone is Michael Sheen.

The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
Leo DiCaprio stars in his third Scorsese picture featuring a plethora of excellent contemporaries and predecessors the likes of Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon and Vera Farmiga. Sound familiar? That's because everyone's talking about The Departed... and it deserves all the hype. Sure, you've also heard that it's not Scorsese's best film ever, but with that guy's resume you can't really complain. One thing's for damn sure, it's a fantastic, captivating experience about high level law enforcement and the Boston mafia with more than your fair helping of deception.

Watching this for a second time in theaters as part of the AMC Best Picture Showcase, I was able to really pick up on some of its finer points - the storyline draws you in so quickly that on a first viewing it's tough to catch it all. The majority of it is crisp and tuned to thrilling perfection, and when it's not there's a good chance it's intentional. Being my second viewing, the first half seemed less interesting (not worse, just less interesting) since I knew what was to transpire later, but the second half proved just as exhilarating if not moreso. I left the auditorium with my heart pounding and my speech accelerated.

Scorsese seems to have a close working relationship with his editors (I noticed this first in Gangs of New York) and it shows more than ever here. There seem to be several throwbacks to gang pictures of the past in scenes that absolutely work, but don't have a modern feel.

I have yet to see this film's basis, the Chinese Infernal Affairs series, but I wouldn't mind catching it. I would imagine garnering an even higher respect for The Departed through the experience simply because I'm sure Scorsese really expounded upon the material to make it his own.

Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)
I have never been a huge fan of Eastwood's directorial efforts but became intrigued by his idea to make companion films about WWII. Then I saw the first trailer for Flags of Our Fathers... it looked cheesy with its saturated Americana and I ultimately skipped it with little to no anticipation remaining for the Japanese perspective film that was still to come. Despite having low expectations for every nominee in the AMC Best Picture Showcase (The Departed aside, since I had already seen it) Iwo Jima was probably the one I ended up looking forward to the least.

To my great surprise, the only relatively valid complaint I can muster for the experience is that the subtitles were written in a terrible, squished font that had no outline, causing them to disappear against similarly shaded elements of certain compositions - and that might have just been the print that I saw. Eastwood delivers what appears to be a genuine portrayal of a perspective Americans are unaccustomed to seeing. The fact is, as can often be the case in warfare, both sides are comprised of good people unfortunately pitted against one another. That very point comes across well here without being drilled into our skulls.

Ken Watanabe does a fantastic job - possibly the best prolific role I've seen from him yet - as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. He is joined by many faces that are widely unknown on these shores at this point in time.

I get the feeling that while I certainly didn't miss out on anything that Iwo Jima was offering as an individual experience, it would have been made all the more significant by also having seen Flags of Our Fathers. There were several scenes that appeared as though they could have been in either film, only structured differently in each to adhere to the respective outlooks.

I would absolutely recommend this piece to anyone who is mildly interested - it has defined how I view the battle in my mind, despite films like Saving Private Ryan having held that postion for so long.

Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
This was the last feature on the AMC Best Picture Showcase schedule - a welcome finale after the previous four take-no-prisoners films (We'll keep The Queen on that list for funsies) that looked like a promise of a laugh if nothing more.

Little Miss Sunshine's first major scene takes place in a house that looks so authentically middle class and lived-in that it should have won some sort of award. It shows each of the characters to be defined by one particular characteristic, for example the father (Greg Kinnear) is constantly focused on being a winner as opposed to a loser while the son (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he reaches his goal of becoming a fighter pilot. Of the members of the quality cast, the two I was looking forward to the most were Toni Collette and Alan Arkin. Collette proves yet again that she can flesh out even the simplest of characters into something completely believable - expect an Oscar for that woman within the coming years. Arkin doesn't do a bad job by any means, but his character is probably more one-minded than the rest as his only form of humor lies in cursing a lot. He manages to make it funny, though, as only Arkin could. Despite his character's relatively small role, he puts his best into it, making several moments pay off extremely well.

The film itself is sort of like a more emotional and down-to-earth version of National Lampoon's Vacation. There is plenty of humor that is sometimes drawn out for a mood and sometimes delivered in one-liners, but it is punctuated regularly by major downer moments that will or will not connect depending on who their audience is. I found myself relating the most to Paul Dano's character, despite his often immature behavior, so his predictable breakdown was by far the most memorable scene for me.

Overall it's not a bad film though it is certainly the weak link of the five Best Picture nominees. It lingers well. So, if you feel like watching it, I won't stop you. Have a good time as the Hoovers race to California in what proves to be an unusually eventful 24 hours. I'm sure it will prove much more successful on rewatches.


REVIEW: Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

In the year 2027 the world’s biggest celebrity is also the world’s youngest person… and he’s 18. The women of earth have been infertile since 2009 and humanity has descended into a form of organized chaos. Enter Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a relatable chap who lost his own son years ago, living in a proud yet hectic Britain. He’s about to be caught up in the secret center of this global dilemma through a group led by his former wife. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine (who I never thought I'd hear say "pull my finger") join some relatively fresh faces for Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Phyllis Dorothy James’ novel.

My expectations were kept low simply because the premise sounded too good to be true. Author James has found a way to plunge modern day society into a situation where we are forced to look at the nuts and bolts of reality while also scoping out the bigger picture rather than doggy-paddle through our convoluted environment of wishy-washy falsehoods and shove our heads further up our own asses. Cuaron handles the proceedings in an ultimately realistic fashion that strongly echoes the stubbornly simple vibes of other recent realism-revolution indies. That realism makes for a film-going experience that feels mostly unique now but may become victim to over saturation if the style flux continues. What it does provide to massive success is a tense existence in which anything feasible can happen without warning - an existence that I would imagine is fairly similar to present-day Baghdad.

The entire art team, from costumes to set decoration etc, did a stellar job bringing this pre-apocalyptic world to life with intricate detail. It’s so wonderful to see a film, particularly one of the sci-fi strain, whose crew has thoroughly thought through the probable environmental and technological evolution of humanity so that the final product can reflect a future that actually makes sense. There were also some nice nods to classic and modern art masterpieces, including Pink Floyd's Animals album.

The soundtrack featured a variety of musical genres with songs from some lesser known artists. Most notable among them was the groovy, forgotten and very appropriately placed "Bring On The Lucie" by John Lennon. Also, and I’m putting this here because I’m not going to try to build it into a separate paragraph, the screenwriting team avoided exposition in most every way. Sure, there were a few moments of the hackneyed okay-we-only-have-2-hours-to-tell-this-story syndrome but aside from that we didn’t have any sidekick characters narrating the action for us as if we were trained wallet-monkeys who aren’t capable of understanding visual themes and story progression.

As I mentioned above, I was worried that Children of Men’s premise was too good to be true. I didn’t think the conclusion would do justice to the initial idea and that it might even run the risk of becoming cheesy. I was thankfully proven incorrect in my doubts - this film holds up very well and should be seen by everyone. In an odd way, considering its fanciful nature, it’s eye-opening. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new film and left the theater with a humbled and/or enlightened feeling.


QUICKIE: Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2007)

The desperately contemplative Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is haunted by his nickname, Don Juan. As his current girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaves him, a mysterious letter arrives in the mail, announcing that he has a son. With the insistent help of his neighboor (Jeffrey Wright), he will visit every woman who could potentially be the letter's author. A variety of undeservedly lesser-known actresses (Tilda Swinton, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Sharon Stone), Christopher McDonald, Pell James and Chloe Sevigny among others come together to give flavor to this proud, independent film.
At first, I felt like I was watching someone play The Sims. Character goes here, character performs action. Character goes there, character performs action. Things did start to pick up as the simple storyline moved along, however, and I found myself sufficiently entertained. Jarmusch, with the help of Murray's deathly sober acting, made me laugh at reality. It's always nice to see a film that relies very little on the improbable (even when dealing with the most trivial of matters) and presents life as it actually, probably is.

For being my first Jarmusch film, I didn't notice anything eclectic or outstanding about the filmmaking, but there was one quality in the film's structure that I found intriguing - Rather than spend too much time developing the multitude of characters, Jarmusch instead leaves it up to the audience's own experience to discern how they feel about each new person by relying heavily on the exteriors (and occasionally interiors) of their homes.

Having been released in a very recent age when the 'indie' was overly 'in', Broken Flowers finds its own footing and provides a unique film experience. If you've got a slow evening ahead and want to watch something that's calm yet retains a good entertainment value, check it out!

REVIEW: Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)

In 1984 a television show hit the idiot-box airwaves and proved successful for its six-year run. Miami Vice, starring Don Johnson as "Sonny" Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as "Rico" Tubbs gets a shot of millenium adrenaline in Michael Mann's 2006 cinematic revamp, replacing the leads with Colin Farrell and Mann vet Jamie Foxx, respectively. Mann served as an executive producer on the original series and even wrote on episode (Golden Triangle: Part 2) so it would seem fitting that his innovative digital approach that was introduced in 2004's powerhouse Collateral would be perfectly suited for this re-imagining. Gong Li, Ciaran Hinds, John Hawkes, Barry Shabaka Henley, Luis Tosar, Tom Towles and John Ortiz join the cast.
I was highly anticipating this one and while it was completely different from what I expected (basically a more action packed version of the already ruthless Collateral) it still delivered plenty of very powerful stuff. The somber first two-thirds are slow-paced and this is where the film meets with most of its opposition. I felt that the character and storyline development was expertly handled, however, and once it gets to the final third it pays off big-time, proving the full experience entirely worthwhile.

Mann's use of digital cinematography is more subtle in this outing, creating a less experimental mood throughout. His exploration of South Florida and its underground drug cartel is enticing, particularly for someone like myself who has lived there for several years without learning much about the illegal trafficking.

Farrell and Foxx are sure to meet with criticism simply because they aren't given as much to do as one might expect from two lead heroes, but they play the stoic badasses effectively. The supporting cast is equally effective, featuring many budding stars (I.E. Hawkes, Ortiz, Li).

The soundtrack features some excellent songs such as One Of These Mornings by Moby with Patti LaBelle and Nonpoint's cover of Phil Colins' In The Air Tonight, executed to perfection alongside John Murphy's original score.

So while you may have heard that this is a mostly forgettable and overrated flick, I beg to drastically differ. It's a mature piece intended for adults - check it out and decide for yourself!