Archive for December, 2007

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: Once

December 20, 2007

Marketa Irglova (Girl) and Glen Hansard (Guy).

(review originally written in September)

Over the last decade or so, and especially in recent years, it seems to me that the label “independent”, whether it be through cinema or music or whatever, has lost its meaning in the majority of work released. When true independents revolutionized their labors of love in the early ’70’s, like Cassavetes and others, every inch of the arduent process was treated with the utmost care and by a select few. Now there are a handful of “independent” films being released every week, and although there are still some out there that have maintained what it truly means to go through an entire process of creating something on your own, I think most of the work has taken it for granted. It seems to now be a trend – even in cinema – like barb wire tattoos, little mini-mohawks, or luau things hanging from the rearview mirror. It just makes it harder to uncover some of the real independent pieces when they’re mixed in with hundreds of other phonies each year. That is, unless they are bright and shining standouts that cannot be missed even if you were trying.
John Carney’s Once is a revelation, a real and true and honest independent film that transcends the musical genre, creating on a small-scaled budget what American blockbusters couldn’t accomplish with their outrageous sums of money. The film’s premise is as simple as one can be as it follows a man who fixes vacuums, writes songs and plays them on the streets of Dublin, Ireland. There, one night, is where he meets a woman who just so happens to need a sweeper-fixing. Later she invites him into a music shop, where the owner allows her, a classically trained musician, to play the piano once a week. For the next few days, through nothing but songwriting, emotions held in on both ends will come tumbling out in ways rarely dealt with in cinema. There are no American ways of storytelling here, none of the insane coincidences or fairy tale-like conclusions. Once is just as real as a film can get, although it never feels like you’re watching a movie.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play the leads, both extremely talented musicians in real life, with such ease that it almost seems like they’re living it. Carney’s filmmaking is flawless, letting the situations and songs take deep breaths and play out in full, and even though the film hits a small 88 minutes, it is just right. I’ve never seen a film about musicians and songwriting feel this organic, like the songs are really being fleshed out and performed for the first time, right in front of your eyes. I am amazed that Amanda and I received another chance to see it with its re-release at a theater close by, and now the soundtrack, which I had been listening to a couple of weeks before seeing the movie, means a lot more to me and is one of my cherished discs in the collection. Carney’s film is a true wonder, a standout among a few very good films released this summer.
Rating: A+
R
1 hour 28 minutes
Fox Searchlight

I AM LEGEND

December 20, 2007

Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville

Although this is the third film version of Richard Matheson’s well-known novel, I Am Legend, it is certainly easy to welcome back another try, because it is the first time the story (which is of such futuristic caliber) can be told with equal amount of big-budget effects. It is also fine that the film is being made for a third time because they’ve waited long enough (it’s been over 35 years since The Omega Man) to tell this interesting story to a new generation of moviegoers, and it’s certainly at a time when something like what’s proposed in the film can actually put a scare into us on a deeper level. It all centers around scientist Robert Neville, who as the film opens appears to be the only person left in all of New York City – and possibly the world – after being the sole survivor of a devastating backfire virus that swept through 588 million people in 2009 instead of curing cancer. We are introduced to him as he roams the streets of the city three years after the virus struck, with only his faithful canine, Sam, at his side. The opening portions of this film are beautifully put together, almost operatic in tone even, and Smith is just spot-on in the title role. Francis Lawrence, who previously directed a filmed I disliked called Constantine, seemed to be a nice choice to take on the project, at least in the opening half. There is no doubt that the tale itself is important and timeless, but this remake took some odd steps in fleshing it out and ultimately makes it just mild success as opposed to something more, which it certainly could have been.

The computer generated effects of a ruined and desolate New York City are absolutely fascinating to look at and are flawless, but when the infected humans are unveiled as they lurk through the night, the CGI becomes more and more disappointing. One of the main setbacks that the film forces onto itself is the choice to reveal the creatures so early on. Yes, they are eerie and effectively scary when first shown in a great scene of tension, but the more we see them the less we are offset by their presence. Lawrence does a terrific job constructing Neville’s first interaction with the infected, creating one of the most memorably frightening moments of the year in thrillers. But as much as that scene was great as a stand-alone sequence, it proves to be too good and makes some of the later scenes, especially the final showdown with the mutants, seem a little disappointing. The movie has such good sound and editing work that it would have done well to not show the infected until at least after the half-way point, for sometimes the sense of something lurking rather than knowing what’s lurking is more effective. Although this is almost a major detriment to the movie’s success, there still are a number of things to admire and recommend about  I Am Legend, with the premier plus being Smith’s full-fledged movie star performance. A lot of people have compared his portrayal of the estranged Neville to Hanks’ performance in Cast Away, and that’s fair to do so. He handles this tough role in a careful manner, never crossing a line that would lose any authenticity. We learn to care for this character very much, as induced by well-made flashback sequences right before the virus hit the city. He rushes to get his wife and daughter on a helicopter and out of the area, in hopes of one day meeting up with them again. Of course if he wants to do this he must first find a cure for the terrible ordeal, because he is a man who has no choice but to stay until a job is finished.

I think I Am Legend could have benefited greatly from a longer running time. It runs by at a brisk 101-minute pace, which to me is oddly too short for a picture with such an epic feel. By the end of the film I was torn on where I was as far as a final verdict for my opinion of it, because it really takes a turning point later on that swayed my faith in the entire thing. I saw it a second time the evening after and came to the conclusion that even with the fairly large concerns I had with some of the climactic decisions made, there is definitely enough entertainment and such a strong performance by a lead actor at the height of his success, to make it ultimately worthwhile. To get what we’ve gotten, which is something much better than the average blockbuster of it’s kind, is somewhat of a miracle. To want something more is just greedy, so we’ll do good by settling for a slick action film.

Rating: B

PG-13
1 hour 41 minutes
Warner Bros.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

December 13, 2007

Tommy Lee Jones

Trying to find the right way to describe just how remarkable an experience it is, or what a privilege it is, to witness the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. It is so good that it manages to set itself apart from most of the films released this year, looking down from the high tier of a list that includes great film after great film in 2007. Perhaps this new direction taken by the sibling filmmakers – adapting a novel for the first time in their career – was the right step in patching up what was sort of a slump for them recently. They haven’t had a good film in a few years and are without a great one since the underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There. It also seems as though they count on delivering an American classic around the middle part of each decade since they’ve started directing. In the 80’s they exploded onto the scene with the instant classic, Blood Simple, then just over ten years later in the mid-90’s, along came Fargo. Now, just over a decade after that they’ve given us their towering achievement.

It seems like every year there is one movie adaptation of a novel that clearly stands out above the dozens of others surrounding it, and that’s certainly due to the fact that that one finds the perfect marriage between writer and the director with the truest vision to flesh it out appropriately. There is no doubt that No Country For Old Men wins those rights in 2007, with Joel and Ethan Coen turning this story into a breathtaking, quietly intense, inevitably evil and even age-old cinematic tale that is so masterful  in every aspect of filmmaking, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it thoroughly studied in film classes someday. There is simply not a flaw to be found in the movie, as I found after three straight viewings on it’s opening weekend in mid-November, and it’s certain that all the awards-givers this year will have a hard time passing up anything in the film. What first must be noted is the incredible cinematography, helmed by Coen-favorite Roger Deakins, as he creates pitch-perfect landscapes and brilliant situational lighting that effect every moment of strangely calm intensity that seep throughout the movie. Tommy Lee Jones plays an old-fashioned Texas sheriff who pines for the days when lawmen didn’t even feel the need to wear a weapon around their waist to enforce. His breed is dying because because of the ever-escalating violence around our country, which is represented in shape of one man, named Sugar, played by Javier Bardem in one of the most eerie and cringe-inducing performances in film history. Sugar is certainly the most menacing villain in the last decade of American film. Stumbling accidentally in the path of both men is one ordinary and overzealous man named Llewelyn Moss, who is one of those classic Coen characters who lead themselves down a road that can only result in a trail of blood and chaos. Moss is played by Josh Brolin in one of his three memorable performances in 2007, the first and second being Planet Terror, and then American Gangster. Stunning visuals and frenetic entertainment aside, just the underlying theme of this film is brilliant enough and just one of the reasons why it earns the right to stand among a select few this year.

The Coens have proven themselves over the last 20+ years to be completely unique filmmakers, and it’s evident that they are at their best when dealing with those stories of people digging their own graves, with some unexpectedly graphic violence and oddly timed humor sprinkled all over the place. There are sure to be a ton of nominations thrown out to the film, and I feel that Bardem is nearly 100% certain to be the year’s best supporting actor. The moments Sugar’s presence is felt on screen in No Country For Old Men (and it’s very soon into it) I felt uncomfortable, literally clinching onto my seat at times in fear of what might happen next. No one but Jones could’ve rightly played the part of the sheriff, for he is a master at what he does and it just seemed molded for him, and Brolin’s work should not be overshadowed. There is also excellent work here by Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, and Stephen Root. This is a film that will take you in it’s grip from the moment it opens until the haunting final frame), and one you will not forget any time soon.

Rating: A+

R
2 hours 2 minutes
Paramount Vantage/Miramax

JUNO (early review)

December 9, 2007

Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby

It’s been just about three months since I’ve sat down and made myself write a film review, and the strange thing is that it has been in these last 90 days that I’ve seen the most movies of the year. The fall of 2007 has been a tremendous season at the multiplex, arguably the best of my movie-going life to this point, filled with works of wonder and perfection across all genres…yet I haven’t wrote one word about any of it. It’s strange and irritating that the very time cinema has cured me the most is when I begin to neglect pouring my thoughts out about it. Lately, however, there have been a handful of films that are so good that they have re-awakened my passion, forcing me to slap myself silly in hopes of righting the ship. I have a feeling that Jason Reitman’s new film, a godsend to say the least and based on a first-time screenplay by Diablo Cody called Juno, will make me realize that I need to start contributing my thoughts and be a part of what’s happening right now – the apparent rebirth of frequent originality in American cinema.

I had the extreme luck of falling upon some advance passes to Juno a couple of nights ago, and I must tell you that this is a film of such color and wonder and humor and inner beauty and freshness, that it single-handedly made the last Thursday of my life a memorable one. Reitman’s first film, Thank You For Smoking, was about as promising a debut as anyone could have hoped for, so the sheer brilliance that has resulted in Juno should come as no surprise, yet it does. It does because the movie is such a miracle of the genre that it’s hard to believe that a debut writer and extremely young and still new director have accomplished what seems like the most impossible of things to get firing on all cylinders – the real, relatable teen comedy that doesn’t draw comparisons or surrender to cliches. Cody’s screenplay never takes a turn into a pitfall, and manages to create characters, environments, and situations that just feel organically grown and revealed for the first time in film. Every line of dialogue in the movie, combined with the exceptional delivery by the cast is fresh, memorable, and lovable, and I feel with no doubt be universally cherished by just about everyone who sees the film. Ellen Page plays the title character, a 16 year-old who learns of her pregnancy then ponders the options on what would be the right thing to do with the whole process. It is a performance that at the very least will give her unanimous acclaim and keep her steadily acting for a very long time. The first time I had the chance to see Page was in David Slade’s uncomfortably effective thriller, Hard Candy, opposite Patrick Wilson. It was evident then that she could handle a major role like Juno should see be given the chance, and she knocks it out of the park and then some.

With such strong writing and equally impressive direction, it wouldn’t even take great cast work to make the film good, but of course everybody in the movie is terrific, helping flesh out and elevate the movie into masterpiece level. Michael Cera, fresh off his breakthrough role in Superbad, plays Paulie Bleeker, the other half responsible for the conception. He is such an oddly charming actor and has sort of quickly mastered the art of the timid yet hilarious and lovable teenager, and here he makes Bleeker a character you never want to leave the screen. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman are very good as the wealthy couple who are in line to adopt Juno’s baby, doing the best work I’ve ever seen either of them do. This is an extremely important role for Garner in particular, because I think she sort of desperately needed something more unconventional to add to her stale filmography, to give it a little more life and make me personally believe in her more as a real actress. Others rounding out the ensemble are J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Olivia Thirlby, and Rainn Wilson, who are all equally fantastic. It’s impossible to not be at least a little bit memorable when you’re given a script like Cody’s for Juno, which I think that later down the road, whether it be years or decades even will be considered as a landmark moment and a spark to what is hopefully an illustrious career. Reitman, who is now 30 years of age has already surpassed the work of his father, Ivan, who did some great comedic stuff earlier in his career, but never with this many new and fresh things to bring to the table.

Rating: A+

PG-13
1 hour 31 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Coming Soon.

December 8, 2007

I am Andy Ferguson. I am now in the full and completely permanent mood of writing my thoughts on cinema (and occasionally music) again. I will be posting soon, so I hope you’ll check back often.