Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ides of March

An idealistic campaign politico (Ryan Gosling) backs a presidential contender (played by George Clooney) and finds himself immersed in a world of double-crossing dirty politics and in a morass of moral and ethical dilemmas. This is a nail-biter of a political drama, as poignant a commentary on contemporary politics as Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men or Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate. It can be taken as both a condemnation of today’s political and electoral system and as a cautionary tale about how and where we place our political trust.

With writing, producing and directing chores, Clooney, nominated for an Oscar for directing Good Night and Good Luck, delivers a smart, well-paced movie that shines with a cast that includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a crafty career campaign manager, Evan Rachel Wood as the intern that catches Gosling’s eye, Marisa Tomei as a New York Times reporter working all the angles, and Paul Giamatti as the man who throws the wrench into the works. And that wrench breaks things down. And not just a campaign, It brings the characters in this film, great and small, to a point where each must reconcile his or her ideology and integrity with what it takes to win. Few films serve as a conversation starter as well as this one, particularly given today’s abrasive political climate. After seeing this film, place yourself in the shoes of each of the movie’s main characters and ask yourself, what would you do?

Saturday, October 01, 2011


The 1971 version of this film, starring Dustin Hoffman and co-written and directed by the Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), is a classic tale of violence visited upon the innocent, and how violence begets violence. This remake, directed by a capable Rod Lurie (The Contender), stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth and is set in the rural South instead of rural England, but the story stays surprisingly close to the original.

A couple of city mice move to the country, and the hubby is a fish out of water in his wife’s home (hick) town. He’s not welcomed by the locals, relationships are strained and things get ugly, his wife is brutally violated and before all is said and done the couple's home is horribly and terribly besieged, and they must fight for their very lives.

Straw Dogs is one of those films that should not have been remade (at the very least with present company). Instead of improving on the original it only manages to come off as a grainy monochrome copy of a colorful masterwork. Like the original it is brutal and violent, but here the violence seems gratuitous and expected whereas in Peckinpah’s version it manages to shock us and disturb us and haunt us still 40 years later.

If you are tempted to watch this film, do yourself a favor and find the original, now out on Blue-Ray.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I have long been a fan of The Planet of the Apes, a series of movies, a television series and a Saturday morning cartoon all based on a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle. While the Apes television series from the 1970s is more or less kids’ stuff, the original 1968 film starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell is a classic work of science fiction. Not only does the film make social comment in the guise of a space fantasy, but it includes one of the most memorable endings in twentieth century cinema, thanks to screenwriter Rod Serling.

The subsequent Apes films became progressively poorer, and the 2001 reboot by director Tim Burton was met with mixed results.

But Apes has had legs, and remains a valuable property for 20th Century Fox, so it’s no surprise that Fox has rebooted again with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow and Brian Cox. Hollywood loves telling “origin” stories these days (Green Lantern, Iron Man, X-Men: First Class, Hulk twice, the upcoming Spiderman 4) so it seems logical that Fox feels that audiences need to be told how people Earth becomes monkey Earth.

As with many “origin” stories, Rise strikes me as an attempt to get a lot of back story out of the way so that the real apes stories can be told in later films. Indeed, there are many clues throughout this movie as to what may be coming later in the franchise. But this particular story seems rushed, and there were moments toward the end of the film that I thought the material would work better as a TV mini-series than as a feature film. The movie does a pretty good job of developing the character of Caesar, the super-intelligent chimp who goes on to lead the ape revolution against mankind, and that of Will, Caesar’s caretaker and the inventor of the serum that turns dumb apes into smart ones. But most of the other characters are so much stereotypical window dressing.

There are some nice allusions to the previous Apes movies, which should please fans: apes using the word “no,” an orangutan named Maurice (the orangutan in the original Apes was played by English actor Maurice Evans), the head of the genetics firm named Jacobs (the original Apes was produced by Arthur P. Jacobs), a chimp playing with a toy Statue of Liberty, and so on. And the portrayal of Caesar, a CG capture of Andy Serkis, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is eerie engrossing and stunning and occasionally brilliant.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is great summer popcorn fare. It has suspense, action and an intriguing story. But I can only wonder what it could have been in the hands of a J.J. Abrams or Bryan Singer. Then again, the great Tim Burton helmed the 2001 Apes reboot and….well…. I guess I’ll wait for the sequel. In the meantime, check out 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. At least that one has Kahn in its cast, and Ricardo Montalban doesn’t monkey around.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One Ring to Rule Them All

Like super heroes, not all comic book movies are equal. Marvel has done a mostly terrific job with their franchises, with a slew of super types getting ready for an Avengers movie next year. The DC hero, Green Lantern, gets the big screen treatment this year with director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Edge of Darkness) at the helm, and an A-list cast that includes Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Bassett, Michael Clarke Duncan, Geoffrey Rush (voice) and Tim Robbins.

Martin does the best he can with what a slew of screenwriters have given him. The film looks good and Reynolds is passable as the hero, but the script is talky, predictable, clunky, and not nearly as tight as, say, Iron Man or its sequel. Sarsgaard, an actor I pay attention to, is almost unrecognizable as the nasty villain Hector, and he chews the scenery and does the best with the clichéd dialogue and one-dimensional character he’s saddled with. The once-great Tim Robbins dials in a performance as a senator who….I won’t even bother. Suffice it to say he’s got nothing to do as a mere plot device any actor could have played.

And I won’t even go into the plot, except to say that a test pilot is chosen by a magic ring to save the earth, and the universe, by creating odd, Wonder Twin power-like objects to fight his battles with.

So where does this leave us? Green Lantern is a visually agreeable movie, the cast is fine and the story plays well enough for a super hero flick. I lump it in there with the 2003 Hulk, mindlessly entertaining but hardly memorable. But I like my super hero movies smart, like Iron Man, Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman and, hopefully, the forthcoming Captain America.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8

I don't go into many movies blind, but with Super 8 I did. I had read nothing about the film, nor had I seen the trailer. I only knew that it was directed by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek).

Now that I have seen it I have read up on the film. Read about Abrams's connection to Steven Spielberg in 1982, how Speilberg, having seen the teenager's student Super 8 film, hired Abrams and a friend to restore his own decaying Super 8 movies from the director's childhood days. How Spielberg encouraged Abrams to say "yes" to the Trek reboot. How Super 8 is E.T. retooled for the new millennium. And so on.

And in many ways it is something of a retelling, or homage, to E.T. And I came out of the film having enjoyed it but not knowing what I really thought about it. The first hour was enthralling. Teenagers making their own Super 8 movie find themselves involved in something strange and mysterious and terrible. SPOILER ALERT. And yes, there's an alien who only wants to get home, and while the military tries to track it down it's up to the kids to make sure the alien phones home.

It's a well-made film. The performances work all the way around, the direction is crisp and the storytelling is first rate. So why did the ending leave me a little flat? I don't know. The conclusion to E.T. was magical and light and moving. The way Super 8 ended up was just too....big. Does that make any sense? In many ways E.T. started out a small film and ended up a small film. Whereas Super 8 started out as a small film and ended up as....Cloverfiend? Independence Day? Add your own giant Hollywood blockbuster title here.

I think what bothered me is that Super 8 seemed to lose its intimacy somewhere along the way to it's massive GCI climax. And I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It is what it is. But despite that I did manage to enjoy myself for two hours in the darkened cinema. If this kind of movie is your thing, go see it. You'll enjoy yourself. Just make sure you stock up on the buttered and the Goobers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Conspirator

In the wake of the assassination of President Lincoln, a boardinghouse keeper named Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is charged with conspiracy to murder the president. John Wilkes Booth and his henchmen met at Surratt’s boarding house to plan their misdeeds, and Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline, playing this despicable character with an understated zest) is determined to see her hang at the hands of a military court no matter the facts of the case.

This is a courtroom drama with a great backstory, set in a time of fear and chaos, its plot driven by the power of the characters involved. James McAvory is the former Union captain-now-lawyer assigned to defend Surratt despite his conviction that she is guilty. He is torn between his personal beliefs and his desire to do his job to defend Surratt to the best of his ability, and it is this conflict that is central to The Conspirator. Having taken the case is already turning out to be ruinous to his career, but to win the case would mean making enemies of powerful people, including President Johnson, who are determined to see Surratt at the gallows.

The parallels to Guantanamo and the U.S. military tribunals is obvious, and at times the preachy screenplay gets in the way. While questions about denying constitutional rights to the accused in the face of terror and fear are important and critical to the story, The Conspirator as a straight historical drama would have fared better than The Conspirator as a message movie. This is Robert Redford’s eighth film as a director, and thankfully not as politically heavy-handed as Lions for Lambs. I don’t mind a political movie, no matter what the slant. I just don’t like politics getting in the way of a good story. And this movie comes close - but doesn't quite manage - to cross that line.

But politics aside, The Conspirator has a lot going for it. It’s beautifully shot, competently directed, nicely acted (Tom Wilkinson as former Attorney General Reverdy Johnson stands out) and serves as a window into a post-Civil War story that is not often told.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Source Code

In 2009, director Duncan Jones brought his film Moon to the Seattle International Film Festival. The screening was sold out and very well received. After the screening and the Q&A I wondered what this talented, energetic director would do next.

And here it is. Source Code is a tightly written, tautly directed thriller that surprised and delighted me as much as Moon did almost two years ago.

The film finds an Army captain Jake Gyllenhaal repeatedly transported to a commuter train in Chicago in order to find out who is about to blow it up. He has eight minutes before detonation, and after the explosion he must return (in Groundhog Day fashion) to repeat the same eight minutes over and over again until his mission succeeds. I won’t try and explain the “science” of how this works. The film does a decent job of it, so I won't steal Jones's and writer Ben Ripley's thunder. But I will say that the film turns and twists its way to its satisfying and very unexpected conclusion. Like Moon before it, things in Source Code land are not quite what they seem.