"That's a nice-a donut."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Cache (2005)

Cache is one of those films with a lot of promise, but ultimately fails to deliver on any of those promises. To take an obvious cliche, it has a lot of bark but no bite. The French language movie, from writer-director Michael Hanecke, opens with a still shot on a sleepy French residential street one morning. Cars are parked on the street, and a couple people pass by here and there as the city begins to awaken. We soon learn that this scene is being videotaped, and a tape ends up on the doorstep of Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliet Binoche). There are millions of possibilities at this point; and one is quick to wonder what in the world is going on and where will Hanecke take us?

Things begin to get scarier for Georges and Anne as more tapes begin to show up at their place. Later, some strange drawings are sent. The stalker is obviously a very sick (and potentially dangerous) person; there is no telling what they might get next. A few scenes even appeared to be "live" but were later revealed to be video, adding another dimension to the mystery. The frightening crises reveal some cracks in the marriage, which leads to some tense shouting matches, filled with accusations that the one lacks trust in the other, and so on and so forth.

The film begins to choke when it goes into these dull lapses in marital and family conflict. But the movie is good when it focuses on the stalking with its mysterious tapes, mail, and even phone calls. I especially liked the repetition of showing outdoor locations such as their street and house exterior, and the use of rewinding and fast-forwarding the tapes. These elevate a simple drama into adventure territory (temporarily at least...). The performances from the leads are solid, and Binoche of course always elevates the French films she is in, though perhaps that just owes to the familiarity from her role in hit Chocolat from a few years back.

However, the promise of the adventure is nullified by a final act that provides nothing, but one lightning-fast shock scene that quickly dissipates. The truth behind the Laurent's stalker is related to an obscure event from Georges' past, and perhaps even stretches back to the French-Algerian conflict. Or does it? The story is too vague for its own good. The film's title, translated as "Hidden" in English, becomes both its strength and major weakness, though the payoff is probably rewarding if you are willing to search for it.

The Verdict: C.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

You know the story by now; you've got to. Snakes on a Plane has ...snakes on a plane! But that's not important right now. What is important is that despite one of the most memorable marketing campaigns since probably the standard bearer, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and a very intense cult fanbase (even before the film's release), the movie opened last weekend to rather disappointing box office returns. In effect, it suffered from part of what made the film concept so great in the first place. People simply expected it to be a bad film. With "eh, that looks like pure shite" from one group of people, while others were more optimistic: "it's so bad, it's good."

Here's the truth: Snakes on a Plane is not going to win a single Oscar or critic's group award. You probably already knew that already. But here's what you didn't know: Snakes on a Plane is a fun movie and is actually - dare I say... - pretty good.

Other than the opening title, the rather pedestrian beginning of the movie leaves not a hint of what is to come. Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) is riding his motorbike in Hawaii when he stops momentarily and happens to witness a brutal slaying by well-known crime lord Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Soon thereafter Kim's henchmen show up at Sean's place, but FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) saves the day and convinces Sean to testify against Kim in court. This, of course, requires Flynn to escort him to LA on Pacific Air flight 121. Naturally, being the evil genius that he is, Kim manages to get a stockpile of exotic (and poisonous) snakes onto the plane in the cargo area. If they don't kill Sean directly, then maybe they will manage to create enough chaos to bring the whole plane down.

Eventually, after some gruesome deaths, Neville starts to take control of things. It's a fight between man and snake, with his eye on protecting his important witness but also on helping his fellow passengers and flight crew, including ER's Julianne Margulies as a flight attendant on her very last trip.

Through all this crazy mayhem, Jackson delivers an honest-to-goodness refreshing performance. He quite obviously had a grand time making the movie. He is in full-on kick butt, scene-stealing, Sam Jackson mode, taking the pieces of his best and most memorable roles such as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction and Zeus Carter in Die Hard with a Vengeance. He makes great use of facial expressions, providing for several hilarious moments on the plane, such as a scene in the cockpit near the climax. And the infamous line that was added to the movie after principal photography had ended, allegedly after the suggestion of fans on the Net, is delivered with as much glee, terror, and conviction that you could possibly hope for from Neville the hero: "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf**king snakes on this motherf**king plane!"

For those in the "it's so bad, it's good" crowd, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. Sure there are a few plot holes, leaps of logic, and a couple other technical flaws, but none of them are fatal. It is funny (in a good way), terrifying and dramatic (where it needs to be), and audience-friendly (as it should be). In fact, Snakes on a Plane is one of the more audience-friendly films I've ever seen in the theater. Director David R. Ellis and company deliver everything they intended. It is a ton of fun and pretty much the perfect escape movie. I liken it to Independence Day, as far as just being a fun, entertaining movie. I completely recommend it to anyone looking for a good time.

The Verdict: B+.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Why We Fight (2006)

With the current "war" and situation in Iraq seemingly getting worse every week, it seems only natural to wondering why we are fighting. And I don't just mean why we are fighting there, but why we fight at all. Director Eugene Jarecki attempts to answer that very question in the provocative, illuminating, very interesting, and aptly-named documentary Why We Fight.

One of the central themes running through the film is that there are outside forces at work that sometimes point the U.S. in the direction of military conflict. It isn't always such a simple matter as does it make sense, does it serve a legitimate purpose, or is it right. Things are rarely that simply, actually. But in fact outside interests, such as Defense Department contractors in the private business and corporate worlds often have as much at stake in the U.S. military as the politicians and the government itself does. Jarecki keeps going back to former President Einsenhower's very prophetic farewell speech in January 1961 where he first introduced the notion of the "military-industrial" complex. As cynical as it might sound, war is often a business more than anything else.

It is this aspect of the film where it is strongest and most sure-footed, as we see plenty of old footage and commentary that provides good support for Jarecki's theories. There are also several ongoing substories. One involves on ground footage from the first day of the Iraq invasion as a quiet, early morning Baghdad awaits its fate; another involves a young adult from New York City who has decided to enlist in the Army. Naturally, it dovetails into a thinly-veiled critique of the current situation in Iraq and the Middle East. It tries to alternate between points of view from both sides of the Bush administration policies, though it clearly falls on the anti-war side, and you can't fault it for that. But these parts aren't as well-focused as the very scary matters of the military-industrial complex.

Another ongoing plot involves a retired New York City police officer, who lost a son in the 9/11 attacks. It is interesting how at first he comes across as a warmongering man out for blood. In the beginning he was all in favor of hitting Iraq - anything to get back for what happened (an opinion that many people in the country shared) - even spending time on trying to get his late son's name on a bomb that would get dropped on Iraq. But his feelings turn towards anger and disillusion as he realizes that he was lied to by our government. The film loses its focus in the later portions of the film, as it strays from trying to understand "why we fight." By the end, it had completely lost sight of its original goals.

I suppose that Jarecki was trying to link back these feelings about the quagmire into a sort of essay on how the military-industrial complex is more powerful than ever today. But he doesn't spend enough time on these matters (for example, only briefly illuminating the criticism of Cheney and the Halliburton contracts) and is never able to fully build the puzzle. It could have been a very good, even brilliant, examination of the United States military and war policies; perhaps even by becoming a multi-part study of the last 60 years, sort of the inverse of its namesake, the propaganda "Why We Fight" informational films from the 1940s. Still, it's a fascinating, thought-provoking film. I'm not sure if did enough of what it could have done. Though I'm not sure whether it will actually succeed in changing anyone's viewpoint, it is not as incendiary as Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, and at the very least it is something that everyone should see.

The Verdict: B.

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

There have been a number of movies created from stories written by late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Some have been good such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report, and others such as Screamers or Paycheck have been rather bad. But one notable feature of most of them is that they did not adequately depict what was written by Dick, as the sometimes strange or surreal aspects of his stories has made them difficult to adapt directly for the big screen. But they have always been fun and intriguing stories, and perhaps this is why Hollywood keeps going back to the Dick library for more ideas.

With A Scanner Darkly, director Richard Linklater - someone who is certainly not afraid to crossover into many different genres of film - boldly took Dick's story and somehow managed to both make it faithful to the original story and make it his own. The result is a fascinating, engrossing and highly impressive work that may very well end up being the best film released in 2006.

Before diving into details on the plot, it is important to note that the movie is animated. But not the sort of animation you might normally think of. Linklater went back to his groundbreaking rotoscoping animation technique that he first employed in the seldom seen, good but flawed, Waking Life. With rotoscoping, everything was filmed in live action and then traced over and redrawn into by animators. ...And I couldn't imagine the film being done any other way - the animation is beautiful. Everything appears so authentic, yet still dreamlike as in a magnificent watercolor painting. It thoroughly captures the essence and lucidity (or lack thereof it) of the complex story.

Keanu Reeves is Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer who works on tracking drug users, specifically of the very addictive Substance D, with a larger goal of taking down a high-level drug dealer. But to accomplish this he sometimes wears a "scramble suit" as codename Fred, a headspinning costume that completely hides the identity of the wearer by constantly changing into the clothing and faces of millions of different people. It also obscures his voice. The effect is that someone would have no idea who is behind the scramble suit, even the person's age, race, or gender, including Bob's boss who also wears one when they meet.

Meanwhile, Arctor is living with several other users of the illicit drug including James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane, who you'll recognize as the main stoner in Linklater's first real critical hit Dazed and Confused), and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). He is also dating Donna (Winona Ryder), who is the drug dealer. Arctor is so undercover that he begins to become addicted to the drug himself. But to make matters even more trippy, "Fred" is tasked with watching Arctor - he is spying on himself. Eventually Arctor's hectic life begins to unravel and things go quickly downhill for him, personally and professionally.

Given that it is a very talky, conversational picture, with pretty much no "action" to speak of, it was very crucial for it to be well-paced. And it is, helped no doubt by the animation but also by the incredible acting of the lead characters. Downey Jr. was born to play the role of Barris; it's not quite scene-stealing because everyone else is amazingly just as good, but he completely brings himself into it, undoubtedly calling upon his own life experiences, to create a very memorable film character filled with intense paranoia, wisdom, and humor. Of course, Harrelson and Cochrane are clearly very good at playing stoners, and Ryder is gives a fine comeback, noteworthy for it being her first real performance since her infamous shoplifting bust some five years ago. Even Reeves, often lambasted for being too stone-faced and affectless in his movies, seems to be just right. Certainly his work in the Matrix films, with all the pseudo-psycho-philosophical babble has paid off.

Being an adaptation of a Dick story, there are admittedly several aspects to the story that are somewhat hard to follow and don't quite make sense at first. For instance, after seeing it, one of my first thoughts was trying to remember what the title even meant. But the movie is constructed in such a way that the main plot is never hard to follow. It's certainly an ambiguous ending, but in a good way, and the abstract nature of the metaphors and other elements will provide food for thought long after you've seen it.

The Verdict: A-.


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