"That's a nice-a donut."

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg, the Canadian film director, has made many acclaimed but oftentimes weird or inaccessible movies. With A History of Violence, based on a graphic novel, he has crafted one of his more "Americanized" films. It is a stellar examination of a simple middle-American man and his family, and the wrenching fallout from what seemed like an extraordinary act of heroism.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is the owner and proprietor of a small town diner in Indiana. He has a loving wife (Maria Bello), and two fine children. One dark evening as Tom and his crew are closing up for the day, and a couple customers are still finishing their meal, a pair of vicious-looking men come in and demand coffee. It is an apparent armed robbery, but one of them also begins to assault one of the workers. In a split-second decision Tom manages to diffuse the situation, and the two bad men end up dead. He is quickly hailed as a local hero and becomes a media sensation ...doing no small wonder for business at the diner. The splendor is short-lived, though, as Tom is soon visited by a couple creepy-looking mobsters, led by Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Carl and his henchmen claim that Tom is actually "Joey Cusack", another mobster from Philadelphia who once nearly killed Carl. Ask him "how come he's so good at killing people," Carl tells Tom's wife Edie. But Tom is adamant: he has always been Tom and he's never even been to Philly.

Does Tom Stall harbor a dark secret - a history of violence - or is this just a terrible coincidence or nightmarish joke? To answer this question, the second half takes a somewhat different turn. A series of increasing violent and frightening encounters breed much turmoil and threatens to tear the Stall family apart. What started as a loving and adoring, almost like teenagers-in-love, relationship quickly becomes a relationship on the brink of disaster - with much anger and fear. However, though these family scenes are sometimes intense and definitely integral to the story, it felt as if the relationships soured perhaps a little too quickly, without quite enough discussion. Still, it does well to contrast Tom's actions and encounters with son Jack's rough life, including his dealings with a couple school bullies.

Mortensen, in a return to a smaller role since his days as a king in the world of hobbits, is quite good. It is a quiet, understated and reflective role of a tormented man. It's not quite the showy performance that awards are handed out for, but effectively shows that he is a very fine actor. Bello is also great; very confident and commanding as Edie, easily showing the wide range of sometimes-conflicting emotions necessary for her role. She has certainly established herself as one of Hollywood's leading character actresses. Though, I found it unfortunate that her role is lessened in the second half. The very solid cast is rounded out by Harris is one of his best performances in years, Ashton Holmes as Jack in a wonderfully emotive turn, and even William Hurt in an Oscar-nominated performance.

In the end, I would have preferred the truth about Tom to be much more ambiguous. But what Cronenberg and company does very well is to tell a thrilling, dramatic story about a family in crisis. At times, it feels sort of like a cross between Todd Field's In the Bedroom and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. A History of Violence is a relatively short movie (just over 90 minutes prior to the end credits), and doesn't waste a single moment.

The Verdict: A-.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V for Vendetta (2006)

Alan Moore's acclaimed comic book mini-series V for Vendetta was written back in the 1980s as sort of a sweeping manifesto against Fascism and the excess of government and was aimed towards the British government of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But released today, in an age of great political polarity in the United States, the story and plot are more relevant than ever today. It has finally been adapted for the big screen, with the fingerprints of Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers all over it, and officially directed by James McTeigue in his first head role. It is twenty years in the future and the (former) United States have become a "leper colony" and are engaged in Civil War. But that is just a footnote to this British story in which terroristic fear-mongering rules the day and hard questions are posed: can one man's terrorist be another man's patriot and savior?

A young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) is just another helpless person lost in the regime of an all-too-powerful government. Dissent is not tolerated and freedom isn't quite so free. Out one night after curfew Evey comes across a mysterious masked man, V (played exclusively behind the mask by Hugo Weaving). He saves her from a couple hard-nosed cops but quickly frightens her by blowing up a nearby London building in the middle of the night, with her right by his side. Video cameras have captured the pair together, and she is quickly a wanted person too, with government inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) close behind. V is fighting in the name of Guy Fawkes, a man who was hung on November 5, 1605 (Back to the Future?) for intending to blow up Parliament and overthrow the government. So while V tries to rally the country together and to awaken it from the tyranny and oppression, Evey must not only fight to stay free, but must come to terms with what she believes in as well. Things end in a shattering conclusion that blurs the black and white world.

In this age of such cynicism, it is hard to believe that many individuals (such as Evey) or, for that matter, an entire nation could get caught up in such a revolution. (Anarchy in the UK? Unlikely.) Some scenes and subplots are too convenient and require a good deal of suspension of belief, such as the mailing of hundreds of thousands of V masks to London citizens. Setting aside the logistical problems that might pose, are we really to believe that a government that has people imprisoned (and often killed) simply for being homosexual would not have a far greater control over the mail stream?

And what about all of the lofty Shakespearean aspirations from the beginning parts of the movie? That seems to forgotten and ignored after a short time. That being said, it is still a very fun movie. With three different protagonists at any given time (V, Evey, and inspector Finch) some viewers or some filmmakers could easily lose their way, but McTeigue and the Wachowskis keep us on track and manage to make each of the three tracks exciting and enduring. It also certainly helps that the visuals are excellent; the mask of V is sure to leave a lasting impression in viewer's minds and likely will be a hit this coming Halloween. Of course it helps that Weaving is so confident and charismatic, and his voice and mannerisms are just right for the role of his vigilante. Portman is also very good, but I would have liked to feel more and see more of her inner turmoil with regards to her mindset and transformation.

The paranoia and government tolitarian power in V for Vendetta call to mind other futuristic classics such as Gilliam's Brazil or Orwell's 1984. It could very well be one of those films that grow on you over time, but after an initial viewing, I was pleased but not quite satisfied. One thing I might have done differently would be treat V as more of an enigma, perhaps following the path of the comic a little closer, and less clearly defined. Still, a solid movie that refreshingly makes you think - something that is usually missing from big budget fare.

The Verdict: B-.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bubble (2006)

Steven Soderbergh's Bubble is the Motion Picture Association of America's worst nightmare. Not because it is a slow moving experimental picture with very low production values. Nor because it employs a cast of completely unknown nonprofessional actors, certainly none of whom are part of the actor's guild. And not because of its short running time, which with just a few more cuts and edits could have fit into an hour-long time television time slot. No, it is because of the scandalous nature behind the movie's release: it was distributed to theaters, on video, and on demand television the same week. This method (or some variant thereof) is clearly the future, but as with the music industry and downloading, it is also clear that the MPAA (and theater owners) will be resistant. As with many innovations, Bubble might be dismissed as just a gimmick, but if you look closely you will see a solid movie that demonstrates sound film practices.

On the surface, Bubble is as simple as a story can be. It takes place in any small, working class town in Middle America. Young Kyle (Dustin Ashley) who still lives with his mom and matronly Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) - who lives with her dad - are workers at a doll making factory. It is a small scale operation (only a handful of other employees appear to work there), but much effort is put into the plastic hand-crafted figures. One day single mother Rose (Misty Wilkins) joins the team. Over the next few days, these people go on with their daily lives until someone meets a violent end. From there, Detective Taylor (Decker Moody) moves forward with a no-nonsense investigation into the mystery.

This is all done using a bare minimum of technical input; with seemingly only natural lighting, very few camera angles, not much in the way of costume design or makeup, a soundtrack that consists solely of some near-incessant guitar strumming, and nary a special effect to be seen. In fact, almost half of the listed crew members are some sort of "producers" or "production assistants." That's not to say that what is seen is somehow lacking a movie quality though. Despite his success in the late 90s and earlier this decade with more commercial or audience-friendly films like Out of Sight, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean's 11, Soderbergh is and always will be in the independent mind-set. It is where he made his name with the Sundance-smash Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

The best thing about Bubble is how, after a slow build, we eventually wrap ourselves up (in a "bubble", if you will) in the atmosphere of these small characters who themselves are living in a bubble in their own little (real) world. I'd be surprised if we see any of these actors ever again, and yet their true-to-life performances are better than those in probably four out of five mainstream movies. It is the small things like how Kyle mumbles in his deep voice (and with the poor sound you can barely understand what he says half the time). Or how Kyle, Martha and Rose gather each day at lunch and force themselves to chit-chat with one another. At one point when Rose mentions how she hopes to someday leave town, Martha innocently and honestly wonders why. Well, it's a poor and unpleasant looking town (as most of us would agree), but yet it is her town and it is her world. She knows nothing else.

I was a bit underwhelmed by the ending though (or, instead, maybe it was overwhelming for what it was), as it seemed a bit anticlimactic. It wasn't a surprise, but yet wasn't how I imagined that it would end. And while the dolls somehow serve as innocuous metaphors for these people lives - great pains are even made to show how similar Martha's face is to the doll's faces - they don't add a whole lot to the story. Yes, it is a gimmick to some degree. If it wasn't getting press for its unusual release pattern, it might very well have gotten lost and seen by only loyal Soderbergh fans or very trendy arthouse goers. It is a strange movie, but the more I think about it, the more I liked it.

The Verdict: B.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Before Peter Jackson was an award-winning director of big-budget smash hits of classic literature or remakes of classic cinema, he was actually a respected small-film director. One of those earlier films was Heavenly Creatures. Based on a true story in New Zealand in 1953-54, it is a stirring and lively tale of the joys and ups and downs of a childhood friendship. And, ultimately, a friendship gone very wrong. Jackson makes the interesting decision to start things off from the very end: after a short, 1950s era New Zealand promotional film which showcases its wholesome nature and lovely scenery and small-town feel, he shows us some quick cuts of two girls bloodied and running for their lives. We learn that someone's mummy has been hurt badly, but we don't yet know why.

Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) is a shy, withdrawn young teenager without many (or perhaps any) friends. That changes one day when Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), a lively rambunctious girl from a wealthy family, joins her class in school. They become close friends almost instantly and begin spending nearly all of their time together. They begin to make up imaginative and elaborate stories, and eventually harbor dreams of leaving and going to the United States to be movie stars. Meanwhile, their parents begin to get increasingly concerned about their closeness. They try to put a stop to them seeing each other, but the girls plot a ghastly revenge.

It's certainly not entirely a serious drama though - plenty of moments of humor are here, and you will marvel at some of the small effects for the fantasies. Their friendship abounds with much imagination and creativity and throughout much of the movie, their fantasies come to life. The thoughts and experiences of everyday places, people and things grow into fantastic new larger, than life things. The "heavenly creatures" are human-like incarnations in their fantasies, as large model figures, sort of like the toy Army Men (Juliet makes very impressively detailed figures out of clay). These fantasies and obsessions compromise a vast array of topics including unicorns, the British Royal family, Italian tenor singer Mario Lanza, and the hideousness of Orson Welles (circa The Third Man).

Lynskey and Winslet completely engross themselves in their roles; of course their talents would manifest in subsequent years in more adult roles. It was probably a tad easier for Winslet as Juliet is the showier role since she is very outgoing and confident, but Lynskey is also very impressive and clearly does fine work here. And Peirse is wonderful too as the disliked and ill-fated mother Honora. The scenery is also a treat, years before a cast of hobbits made New Zealand a tourist mecca.

It's a very good easy movie to watch, but may actually have been a bit more interesting if it concentrated less on the grownups and their struggles and faults (particularly the infidelity of Juliet's mom) and made the "adult" world a bit more mysterious - just like it surely was for the teens. But I really liked how Pauline and Juliet's relationship is filmed very much like an obsessive love story, as opposed to a simple tale of "girls will be girls." It's an impressive effort and easy to see why New Line would later have so much confidence in the director. And, yes, Jackson makes his customary cameo appearance in a non-speaking role (see if you can spot him).

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

The Exorcism of Emily Rose, from director Scott Derrickson, involved one of the more misleading marketing campaigns in recent memory. The trailer, commercials, and other advertisements - even the DVD menus - focused on trying to portray an eerie terror. It's not hard to understand; after all 1973's The Exorcist is often regarded as one of the scarier movies in film history. However, though there are scenes of dread and fright, much of the movie involves a legal case. Yes, it is a courtroom drama.

Purported to be "based on a true story," the movie opens on a dark, windy morning at a large foursquare home in the South. A man slowly and anxiously makes his way up to the house, and we soon learn that he is a medical examiner and he is there to inspect the body of a young woman who has just died. Apparently she had underdone an exorcism by her priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), and it didn't work. Moore is charged with negligent homicide and, after some hand-wringing, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a defense attorney with her eyes set on being named a partner at her law firm, takes the case on behalf of the Catholic Church. Through a series of episodic flashbacks, we learn details of the story about Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). But facing off against Erin is Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a smooth talking assistant DA with his eyes obviously set on hirer office. While Ethan tries to paint Father Moore as a man who did something bad and that Emily could have been treated by medically, Erin tries to convince the court that was possessed Father Moore acted in good faith.

Though the fate of Father Moore, and perhaps the memory of Emily, rests on the decision by the jury, the real focus in the movie is ultimately on Erin and her search for inward truth. Not only does she have to do deal with a previous case in which she successfully defended another man for murder (and who subsequently went on to kill again), but she also struggles with her beliefs (she doesn't know; she's an agnostic). And she must deal with "possibilities," as Father Moore calls it, the chance that maybe demons really are real. Father Moore is apparently rather prescient, and warns her that she could be under attack by strange forces and second of all, the demons are definitely real. As usual, Linney is very good in her role. Her story is marred a little bit though by a running side-plot about Erin and a superior in her law firm; it is boring and completely unnecessary to the story.

Ironically, despite the marketing campaigns attempts to disguise this, I think the perspective of looking back at an exorcism from a legal perspective is a very interesting concept and, well, at least more appealing from my point of view than yet another stale thriller, or being a retread of The Exorcist. The courtroom scenes are rather straightforward and to the point, and appropriately the issue is vaguely enough that people can make up their own minds. Unfortunately, the filmmakers try too hard to have it both ways - as a law drama and as a thriller. It loses focus, and seems to be unsure what it is really trying to be. Frankly, some of Emily's flashbacks end up being rather unintentionally funny at times. But Carpenter does her best and gives a good turn, with many contortions and strange sounds, noises, and even foreign languages. It's far from perfect, but worth a look.

The Verdict: C.


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