Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Dreams Go To Die On “Revolutionary Road”

January 19, 2009

R, 119 minutes, Dreamworks/Paramount Vantage

I have not read the 1961 Richard Yates novel by which Sam Mendes’ new film, Revolutionary Road, is based, but after last night’s viewing of the movie one thing is for certain; it must be the very next book on my list. It is almost always counted on for the book by which a film is based to be even better than its moving picture adaptation, no matter how good and/or faithful the film is. This is easy to understand, given that print has so much more space to let its subjects and themes breathe, whereas films are pressured into condensing a story down to a running time suitable enough for audience entertainment. If the novel does indeed follow the usually inevitable trend of being superior to its cinematic re-creator, then I might have found my favorite book of all-time. I’d like to think that over the course of this decade I have developed a sense for what separates the good films from the bad ones, the great films from the good ones, and the simply masterful ones from the great ones. This is a film that hit me in ways only a handful have, and it must be included among the best I have ever seen, a favorite prefered even above some of the films I adore to great lengths. Special territory has been reached with this one.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet became inseparable friends while filming Titanic, the movie that made them both instant stars; and in the eleven years since they have given us countless performances that show convincing reason to how they did indeed deserve such vast acclaim and swift promotion for their talent. Finally finding themselves back together on screen, the two bring the central-focused couple of Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler, to life with startling realism. Mendes and screenwriter Just Haythe waste no time throwing us into the lifestyle of these two people, as we meet them at their initial meeting point, gazing at each other amidst a sea of people at a cocktail party, never to be seen apart from that point forward. There is brief time spent at the yougner, child-free period in their life, as they talk avidly about their shared ambitions and expectations in life, vowing to never succomb to the standard trap that most Americans allow themselves to be “comfortable” in, no matter how secure it may be. They fall in love the way most of us do, through an attraction that eventually leads to an apparent inseparation; but there just seems to be something different about the Wheeler’s, which is a feeling shared by everyone who has ever been around them, and especially to themselves. Sure, they move into a nice suburban Connecticut home with clean furnishings and bright shutters, raising two kids and Frank working at a dime-a-dozen job, but this is a couple that can break free in favor of their dreams for a better life at any given moment, at their discretion, nothing to prevent it. This is what they thought was true.

Set in the 1950’s, when cigarettes, martinis, and disguided dysfunction were as common as breathing, Sam Mendes’ film hits every single devastating note with blatant, brutal truth, and gets every piece of emotion through the wringer with his actors. There has already been mixed talk about the film, some saying it is too serious, downtrodden, and bleak to deserve any kind of high acclaim or awards. In a year where there has been such a steady amount of terrific films but no one that stands up above all and makes a profoundly masterful statement, here is the one that finally does it…and I fear that it will become neglected (especially the performance by DiCaprio) other than the resounding praise for Winslet as April. There have been a lot of films that focus on the material fences put up by families that attempt to mask what lies beneath the surface, some about the misunderstanding of one love to another over the course of a long period of time, but Revolutionary Road is paved with countless things that prevent it from being compared to any film I can think of. It’s standing alone on its own tower. This is the film of the year, one of the most important films of the decade, and over time should be seriously considered as one of the most searing portraits of a timeless message to Americans ever created.


Leonardo DiCaprio
Kate Winslet
Kathy Bates
Michael Shannon
David Harbour
Kathryn Hahn
Zoe Gazan
Jay O. Sanders
Dylan Baker

Based On The Novel By
Richard Yates

Screenplay Adapted By
Justin Haythe

Produced & Directed By
Sam Mendes


Throwback To Eastwood’s Own Iconography In “Gran Torino”

January 12, 2009

Rated R / 116 Minutes / Warner Bros. Pictures

If ever there was a role that signified a send-off to a legendary career, then that of Walt Kowalski in Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino, is certainly it for him.  Walt has been endlessly labeled as Dirty Harry Callahan after retirement, and there are definite similarities; but I think this character is drawn from much more than just that classic figure. It’s like Eastwood hand-picked this screenplay by Nick Schenk, saw it as a perfect way to close the curtain on his career in front of the screen, and is saying farewell by creating a culmination of nearly every single character he has played over the last 50+ years. The film definitely centers itself around the performance by Eastwood, and it’s fascinating and terrific enough to garner an Oscar nomination for the legend, but there’s a lot of other aspects about the project that deserve much recognition. The film almost feels like it could have been adapted from a play as it sticks to a very simple environment, relying on genuine human emotion and a lifetime of regrets brought to the dissection table in the most unexpected of places.

As the film opens we are witnessing the funeral service of Kowalski’s wife, who we quickly come to find was the only person who could possibly have had a chance to get through to him on the inside, to understand him as his true self. Even to his immediate family members he is seen as a distant, cold, and insensitive person; which is just what Walt would prefer. We see the modern world through the discretional eye of this intriguing character, a war veteran who has seen the grittiest circumstances of life and death, now living in a world where morals seem to have been sucked from nearly every human being. Eastwood and Schenk waste no time letting us get to know Walt, as his grandchildren disrespect the church and the recently deceased at the funeral service, all while  flaunting various electronic gadgets and exposing ridiculous and oddly placed body piercings, which to all Walt gives a snarl. He is left in a large home with no one but his faithful dog Daisy to accompany him, as he chooses to live the remainder of his days landscaping on a regular basis and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon after Pabst Blue Ribbon on his porch, observing the run-down Detroit population and, most importantly, marking his territory.

With the loss of the only person close to him he both locks himself up inside even more, and becomes twice as bitter on the outside to anyone that dares come in contact with him. The calculated, material interactions that his in-law’s frequently have with him do not stand a chance at cracking his judgment, and even the visits by a young priest (because it was promised to his late wife that he would check up on Walt) will be shot down unless he alters the normal outline by which these individuals of the church go about helping people. Walt’s world is not one to easily shake and even suggest a change, but when he becomes involved with an Asian family that lives next door after a quiet boy that resides there is forced by a gang into attempting to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino, he will soon be opened up to an understanding he never thought was possible. That is all the detail I will go into about the story, because to give any more away would feel like an analyzation of plot, when really all that should be done in a review for a film like this is to state an opinion one way or the other. This is a film that is certainly the most straight-forward he’s made this decade in terms of construction,  but the power of the characters and situations is as deeply layered as anything he has ever done. There are mostly positive remarks about Gran Torino, with the only real complaint being that the supporting acting seems bland and off-putting. I never thought that for a second, and not even when the Asian gangs were repeatedly blabbing on and on with their incessant demands of the young boy, because who is to say that this is not a realistic depiction of what goes on in these downtrodden parts of the world? Eastwood’s film is nearly another masterpiece, but it is certainly another fantastic piece of work in a long career filled with dozens of praise-worthy projects. If this is indeed a send-off to his presence in front of the camera, I can be okay with that.

3 1/2 STARS

Clint Eastwood
Bee Vang
Ahney Her
Christopher Carley
John Carroll Lynch

Screenplay by
Nick Schenk

Produced & Directed by
Clint Eastwood

There Is No “Doubt” That This Is A Lesson In Acting

January 5, 2009

Primarily a writer, (whether it be films or plays) Oscar-winner, John Patrick Shanley (Best Original Screenplay for 1987’s Moonstruck) had only directed one of his own scripts before this year’s Doubt, which was the oddball romantic comedy, Joe Versus The Volcano. He has had many ups and downs throughout his career, but it is certain that he has remained true to being a daring original writer, and when he’s on he is spot-on. His new film, the aforementioned, Doubt, is his first directing gig in 18 years. I can only assume that he has chosen to direct here primarily because he knows the material better than anyone, and it’s probably such a piece that he holds dear that he wouldn’t want to give it to anyone else in the possibility that they could mistreat it and not do it cinematic justice. He won multiple awards for the play of the same name, most notably the Pulitzer Prize; and watching the film it is easy to understand why such acclaim has made its way to this fascinating material.

Shanley’s story is set in 1964 at a Catholic School in the Bronx, where signs of modern education and leniency are beginning to make their way into this particular establishment, among other things; and they are all about to meet their clashing match in Sister Aloysius. Meryl Streep gives one of the most impressive performances of her storied and legendary career as Aloysius, a nun who has built a reputation over decades of being as strict a principal as they come, keeping the ever-rotating student body in line and then some. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the recently-appointed priest to the school whose ideas and suggestions for new advancements and changes in the system of education are inevitably going to rub on Aloysius the wrong way. The Sister will stay out of Flynn’s way as much as she can, though, in respect of the hierarchy in which he stands. However, after letting a recent sermon by Flynn  focusing on the effect of doubt in a world of certainty, fill her mind with various thoughts, she decides to begin a relentless campaign to uncover what she believes to be ungodly behavior beneath Flynn’s exterior.

Addressing her concerns with the rest of the nuns, and in particular Sister James, Aloysius paves a road powered by what is at first certainty but later fueled by what could possibly be a delusion-filled power-trip. The entire experience is weaved so masterfully by Shanley, and along with the brilliant cinematographer, Roger Deakins, this is one of the most successful play-to-film adaptations to have come out. The climax of the film is in the confrontations between Aloysius and Flynn, but to desire a concrete resolution is to ultimately let the point of it all fly right by your head. Whether or not the molestation accusations by the Sisters come to be true or false is not really a matter to the power of the film at all, but only the battle of stands attempting to be held down by each of these individuals. This is a film that whatever your thoughts on it, like it or hate it, you will not be able to deny that it contains some of the most scintillating acting you will ever see in your lifetime. Every year there is one standout film that you can instantly feel that script-to-actor is perfectly cast. Last year it was Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, and there is no questioning that Doubt takes that title in 2008.


Meryl Streep
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Amy Adams
Viola Davis

Based on the Play “Doubt: A Parable” by
John Patrick Shanley

Written For the Screen and Directed by
John Patrick Shanley

“Tropic Thunder” Goes Above and Beyond All Expectations

November 17, 2008

(On the eve of this film’s DVD release, I finally sit down and make myself write a review…which is tragically three months behind. Better late than never, right?)

R, 107 minutes, Dreamworks Pictures

There’s no question that Ben Stiller has been slipping over the past few years, resorting to strictly physical humor comedies that offer nothing more than cookie-cutter plots and characters. There used to be a more intriguing, risk-taking side to the actor, where he would take on roles in films like Flirting With Disaster, Zero Effect, Your Friends & Neighbors, or The Royal Tenenbaums. However, since being a part of that Wes Anderson masterpiece some seven years ago, the amount of even decent roles Stiller has been in could be counted on almost as many fingers as his character, Tugg Speedman, has toward the opening of Tropic Thunder. Let’s just say that’s not a whole lot. Even throughout the actor’s ongoing attempts to create something behind the camera as a director, there still have been many misfires. The three major films he has helmed in the past; Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, and Zoolander, all had small amounts of promise but never could overcome their mounting flaws. So you can imagine the skepticism I had upon my first thoughts of Tropic Thunder, because I had pretty much lost all hope in Stiller, thinking he had forever gone into the realm of idiot cinema – but within the first two minutes of Thunder, all expectations were blown out of the water. It’s one of the 3 funniest films of the year.

Stiller’s film opens in a way that will later be understood as not only perfect, but the only way to rightly introduce the three main characters; with trailers of the latest films they are to be starring in. Each actor is at a different level of stardom at this point in their careers, whether that be Kirk Lazarus in the award-winning spotlight, Jeff Portnoy making dough from cookie-cutter comedy sequels to feed his drug addiction, and Tugg Speedman in the desperation stage, once-heralded as Hollywood’s action hero but now merely forgotten and in need of a comeback. Stiller plays Speedman with all the right tones to turn in his best performance in a very, very long time and really holds his own (as best he can) alongside the brilliant Robert Downey Jr., whose Kirk Lazarus is one of the most memorable comedic characters ever. The two are both hungry for an Oscar win, but the difference is that Lazarus is looking for another gold statuette to add to his mantle that is already full of them, and Speedman, now middle-aged, is wondering what he has to do to even get a nomination sometime in his life. Pitted together with Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy, who is a semi-parody of Eddie Murphy in his “I play every character in my films” stage, the three headline an ensemble cast of characters in Tropic Thunder, a war film based on the book written by “real-life” war hero Four Leaf Tayback, who is played by Nick Nolte in a hilarious performance. Problems arise immediately as the film begins production, with the deadly combination of actor’s egos fighting against each other from scene to scene, not to mention it all trying to be orchestrated by a first-time director, Damien Cockburn, who is played by the always impressive Steve Coogan.

Once Cockburn is threatened to have his job taken away by the ruthless executive producer, Les Grossman, he ponders what he must do to take control of the movie and the actor’s. With a little influence from Four Leaf and an entire bottle of Patron one night, Cockburn decides to drop his cast right into the middle of an actual war ground. With hidden cameras set up throughout the area, the actor’s are unleashed into the jungle with nothing but the screenplay and their clashing beliefs, senses of humor, and ideas. When what certainly doesn’t appear to be a freak accident occurs within minutes of them arriving, the majority of the people involved are led to believe that what they are doing is no longer making a film of any kind, and their lives are in danger. Of course, Tugg Speedman thinks all of it is an elaborate prank to try and get the best of their abilities out of them, and since he is in charge the show must go on. Tropic Thunder is filled with extremely original bits and pieces throughout the entire thing, and kudos must go to a trio of screenwriters here, including Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen, and even Stiller himself. It’s about time that Stiller delivered a complete follow-through on the small promise he has shown with each film he’s directed so far…and it helps that his cast was terrific all around. Also giving excellent supporting performances are Jay Baruchel as the quiet, timid little actor, Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a shameless self-advertiser/rapper, Danny McBride as the film’s trigger-happy pyrotechnics specialist, Matthew McConaughey as Tugg’s faithful agent, and Tom Cruise in a turn that cannot even be even slightly given away in any review. It must be seen to be believed.


Del Toro and Perlman Bring “Hellboy” Back With A Vengeance

November 9, 2008

PG-13, 120 minutes, Universal Pictures

With each passing summer season, and especially over the course of this current decade, Hollywood has made it their mission to unleash as many sequels as American audiences can handle, and then some. It’s almost as if each movie studio is in a weightlifting competition that lasts during one season every year, and the ones falling at the bottom of the box-office bin one year, begin to look for ways in the off-season (fall/winter) to pump enough steroids into their onslaught of blockbusters to make a comeback. It’s all about the money, and in sequels they obviously find their biggest avenue for profits – because no matter how ludicrous, pointless, or flat-out awful the idea of certain sequels are, the majority of people are going to pay $10 to go see them. Anyway, where I’m going with this is that the reasons for making sequels in today’s world of cinema have ultimately become up to the studios themselves, even if there is clearly nowhere else more interesting to go with a certain subject, characters, etc. There are very few that can put anticipation into a thinking audience member’s mind, to make us get excited about wanting to invest more of our time and presence in the progression of certain matter.

What was extremely impressive about the summer of 2008 was the amount of anticipation that I felt for the arriving sequels, and for good reason. All of the original cast and crew were coming back for the two most significant sequels of the year, both Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Both of those directors put such a stamp on the film’s before their follow-ups, that if they were to not be at the helm for the next addition it would be utterly pointless to green-light into production. It’s obvious that Del Toro’s comic book character (and film, for that matter) is on much more of a small scale than anything in the Batman world, so in a way Hellboy II could appear to be an independent Hollywood blockbuster when sized up against The Dark Knight. This doesn’t make Del Toro’s film any less grand. In fact, when we’re talking about film-making on a grand scale, especially when it comes to creatures, makeup, art direction, costume design, etc. – is there really anyone working today that can match Del Toro? I would have to say no, and that he is in a class of his own.  With that being said, his sequel here is an enormously entertaining experience, surrounding Hellboy’s world with an even bigger world of unique creatures that exist exclusively in the mind of the director himself. He packs the kind of deserving wallop that needs to come with a second film in a franchise, upping pretty much everything on the majestic end of his style, with no holding back. But unlike Sam Raimi’s disastrous attempt to pack Spider-Man 3 tight with a ton of different things, Del Toro orchestrates his world from potential madness into beauty. His films are wonderful to admire, to see multiple times in an effort to take in all of the gorgeous images.

Ron Perlman once again proves to the world that it’s not always necessary to cast a million-dollar man in a main superhero role like this, and he plays the part with such a balance of sarcastic tones, inner doubt, and just plain confidence, that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing it now. The original Hellboy was a fascinating experience and one that I didn’t think Del Toro could top with the sequel, and although I don’t really consider The Golden Army a better film than its predecessor, I cannot say it’s any less of a film. the cast is having an even bigger ball together here, and the script calls for it. There are love triangles that emerge in unexpected places, which prove to be the most intriguing thing about the film in my opinion, even with the spectacular action sequences – which there are plenty of and will not disappoint. Just like the first installment of this franchise, it comes within inches to complete perfection. I had a terrific time watching this film, as I always do with any Guillermo Del Toro film.