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.