Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Edge of Heaven (2007)

A common storytelling technique in films is to introduce multiple characters, establish each one individually through parallel story lines, and eventually connect them through one common bond. However, what is less common with this technique is when that one common bond is death.

These are the exact themes that Fatih Atkin's The Edge of Heaven explores -- how death and sadness can bring people closer together.

The film is a prime example of beautiful storytelling. The story begins when an elderly man named Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) befriends a prostitute named Yeter (Nursel Kose.) Ali, widowed and lonely, enjoys Yeter's company and tells her that he will double her salary if she chooses to come live with him. She agrees, and moves in with Ali and his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), who is a college professor. Where as Ali is a very crude and reactionary man, Nejat is very calm, respectful and intelligent.

The trio are all Turkish but live in Bremen, Germany. It turns out that Yeter has a daughter, Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) who she hasn't seen in years. She lives in Istanbul but she doesn't know how to track her. Nejat, who takes a liking to Yeter, travels to Istanbul to find her.

The movie is told in two "chapters," and each one is given a title of "The Death of ____" which lists which character is going to die. It obviously plays as a spoiler, but the movie was never going for suspense and surprise. The purpose of the movie is to show how the characters react to the death. In this case, it motivates them to seek human connection.

The movie's title, The Edge of Heaven, is a commentary on the feeling that one attains when death stares them right in the eye. How they behave in these circumstances is the essence of human nature that Akin, who wrote the script, tried to capture, and does so resplendently. Another theme of the film that derives from this is one of forgiveness.

Patrycia Ziolkowska and Nurgul Yesilcay in The Edge of Heaven.
The corresponding story line involves Yeter, who is a political activist involved in a group attempting to rebel against the Turkish government. But when she gets in trouble with police and is forced to go on the run, she ends up in Bremen, and finds solace and friendship with a German woman named Charlotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schygulla.) All the while, she has no idea that her mother has sent Nejat on a quest to find her. 

The film contains some beautiful cinematography of Turkish and German cities and landscapes, but the whole movie is a success all around. From the script to the acting, the whole film is an experience to behold. Davrak, as Nejat, was exceptionally proficient in his role. 

Though The Edge of Heaven revolves around death, it never gets too existential or religious. It simply tells a story, using a technique that is neither uncommon or overused, but does so in a tasteful way. It's a movie that asks the same questions we all ask, without providing any real answers, all while taking us to the edge of Heaven and back.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)

Jeff, who lives at home, is just looking for the answers in life. Portrayed affectionately by Jason Segel, he believes in the divine forces of the universes, and that every action serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things. His belief is that everything has meaning, and that one day, it will all bind together and that life will make sense.

Of course, Jeff is also a stoner and a moron. He lives at home in his mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement and his job status is unclear. His belief system is established right off the bat, as the film opens with a monologue, as he compares his blind faith in the universe to the movie Signs, saying that the movie "kind of meanders, and then everything comes together in this one perfect moment at the end... you start to see that all this randomness is leading towards this perfect moment." This sentiment, while admirable, only proves that Jeff beliefs don't derive from his steadfast faith, but more so because he's too stupid to know any better. But we love him all the same.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the latest concoction from the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, the latter of whom may be best known as a co-star on the FX show, The League. But the pair have now both written and directed three films (one being Cyrus starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill), and they are all dark comedies with a quirky touch.

The movie takes place throughout the course of one day. The adventure begins in the morning, when Jeff -- shortly after his Signs diatribe -- receives a phone call. The caller, from a wrong number, is looking for a man named "Kevin," and begins cursing at Jeff when he is told he dialed incorrectly. Though most rational beings would become annoyed by such a call, Jeff shoves asides the rudeness and thinks on a metaphysical level, and views it as another "sign."

Meanwhile, Jeff's brother, Pat, played by Andy Helms (who plays an unlikable character for a refreshing change), is having marital problems with his wife Linda (Judy Greer). It's unclear if Pat was always a, for lack of better word -- an asshole, but he has become one and it's killing his marriage.

Jeff finally leaves the house and finds his curiosity heightened when he spots a young man with the name "Kevin" draped across the back of his basketball jersey. He follows him, and that sets him on a quest that eventually leads him towards his brother.

The two don't get along at all, and have very different personalities, but eventually join forces when they discover that Linda may or may not be acting unfaithfully towards Pat. The two follow her around town to find out the truth.
Ed Helms and Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

A corresponding subplot involves Sharon receiving an anonymous email at work, supposedly from a secret admirer. Though she plays it off and even suspects that she may be the victim of an office prank, it's evident that Sharon -- who is widowed -- welcomes the sense of mystery to her otherwise mundane life.

Throughout the film, the viewer may find themselves wondering where exactly the movie is going. There is an inevitable confrontation between Pat and Linda, as well as between Pat and Jeff, but like Jeff's initial soliloquy about the movie Signs, we're wondering where all of this randomness is leading to. But along the way we get many sincere and touching scenes, including one between Jeff and Pat at a cemetery, and another with Sharon at work with her coworker Carol (Rae Dawn Chong).

The dialogue is simple, but endearing and captivating. The film, merely 83 minutes long, almost feels as if the entire thing is just one single scene. It's not an easy movie to find a place to pause when needing a bathroom break.

The Duplass brothers use a lot of close-up shots, which helps place an emphasis on the character's facial expressions. It helps us focus on exactly what they are saying, which is key, because it is all of the character's very different perspectives towards life is what defines them. The acting is fine, as recognizable actors and actresses all give the performances that you'd expect from them.

But when it's all said and done, and the randomness finally does come together, the movie will surprise many people. The film -- from the title, to the character's names, to the dialogue -- is quite simple and ordinary, but then it will take your breath away when it takes a mega turn for the extraordinary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In a Better World (2010)

Just before the midway point of In a Better World, a father, named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) sits with his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) on a bench in their backyard. Elias asks his father if he intends to enact revenge on a man who humiliating him by slapping and cursing at him in public.

"You don't go around beating people up. That's not the point," Anton says to his son. "What kind of world would we live in then?"

Although Anton tries to preach idealism to Elias, the fact of the matter is that there is too much negativity out there to skew his perception. Anton works as a doctor in a Sudanese refugee camp, and is exposed to the atrocities that the Sudanese people endure through disease, and namely, heinous and violent crimes that they commit on one another. Anton understand the malice in the world, and you can see it's with a sense of halfheartedness that he tries to keep his son innocent.

In a Better World is a Dutch film directed by Susanne Bier. The film is seen through the eyes of Anton, Elias, and a boy named Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen), who Elias befriends at school.

Bullying is a recurring theme in the film. It starts out on a smaller scale, with Elias being bullied by a fellow student, and then escalates when we watch Anton manhandled by a another father (Kim Bodnia) at a park after he tried to break up a scuffle between their infant children in the sandbox. But then we see it on possibly the most heinous scale, when Anton faces a moral dilemma at his refugee camp after a known war criminal comes in seeking aid on his injured leg.

Anton is married to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), but the two are separated and contemplating a divorce. As if that wasn't enough negativity for one movie, Christian's mother has recently died of cancer, and as a coping mechanism, is irate at his father (Ulrich Thomsen), claiming that he "didn't do enough" to save his mother.

Markus Rygaard, left, and William Johnk Nielsen.
Dealt with bullying, divorce and death at such an early age, the movie serves to show how two children, Christian and Elias now view the world after they have experienced this loss of innocence. Instead of playing sports and watching television like any adolescent boys, the two children sit atop of silos, staring at the skies and wonder how their worlds fell apart. Having been faced with adversity, they handle it differently, and things take a turn when Christian convinces Elias to take a violent approach in order to start getting the things they want. But after what they've experienced, it's hard to blame them for not knowing any better.

The film is beautifully shot by Bier, who also wrote the story with Anders Thomas Jensen. For such an ambitious task -- attempting to encapsulate the loss of innocence among two young children -- the material is handled delicately and beautifully. The film tried to capture, in my opinion, almost what Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life tried to capture, but in a much more linear and focused way.

The acting across the board is sensational as well, primarily between the three main characters, portrayed by Persbrandt, Rygaard and Nielsen, but it is the latter who impresses the most. How he manages, as Christian, to shield off all emotions and make his character seemed deadened to the world is almost frightening to see.

Though it is littered with sorrow, the film doesn't aim to be cynical, but hopeful. Just like with Anton's preaching to his son at the middle of the film, it tries to teach us that although acts of kindness may not be rewarded as they should, that they are still the right way to life your life if you one day wish to be living in a better world.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

Sometimes it is the simplest tales that evoke the most emotion. Stories of rare individual triumphs or catastrophes can certainly lead to a few tears, both happy or sad, but it is the situations in which we can relate to that truly make us feel something.

The Kid with a Bike (2011) is directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. The principle language of the film is French. The story revolves around a 12-year old boy named Cyril, played by Thomas Doret, who is in foster care. His father has abandoned him, and his mother is out of the picture for unspecified reasons. But all that matters is that he has no one.

Cyril leaves his foster home and goes looking for his two most treasured items -- his bike and his father. But he soon discovers that his father's apartment is empty, meaning that he has moved on with his life without so much as a goodbye. He finds his way into the a store of a hairdresser named Samantha, played by Cecile de France (Hereafter) who takes a liking to young Cyril. Shortly after, Samantha delivers his lost bicycle to him, informing him that she bought it off another child. Cyril asks Samantha if he could stay with her on weekends, and she agrees.

Even though he has found a loving caretaker, Cyril still desperately wants to see his father. Understanding this, Samantha takes him on a quest to find him, only to discover that his father (played by Guy Catoul) wants nothing to do with him. He tells Cyril and Samantha, quite simply, that he can't handle the responsibility of being a father.

Already a temperamental adolescent, Cyril becomes inconsolable, and finds himself in a vulnerable state in his life. Riding around streets on his bike without supervision, he finds a new friend in a young gang leader (Fabrizio Rongione) who is nice to Cyril. He offers him drinks, money and lets him play video games. But in reality, he's trying to recruit Cyril, a naive youth, to do his dirty work.

It's a prime example of how a young child can easily fall through the tracks. Parentless and rejected, he is simply a young boy looking for attention. Although Samantha loves him, and treats him like her own son, she is still not his a biological parent.

The film is shot in a very naturalistic style, almost as if it is a handheld camera. There aren't many characters, and Cyril and Samantha dominate the screen. The film conveys the bond that begins the form between the two, and the sacrifices that Samantha must make to consider herself Cyril's primary caretaker.
Thomas Doret and Cecile de France

But the mood of the film is hopeful. It shows that just because you do not have a traditional upbringing, that it does not mean you still can not have a good one. It preaches resilience, understanding and acceptance. The Kid with a Bike is a very real film about real situations, and a film that tells us that we need to not necessarily avoid making mistakes, but to learn from them.

The acting across the board is fantastic. Doret and de France share a wonderful chemistry that only adds to the realism. The two also do a superb job hitting home the emotions of the film, which become heavy at times. Although music is not heard often in the film, when it is, it is powerful at just the right moments.

The Kid with a Bike will certainly not be one of the most unique or original pieces of cinema that you've ever seen, but it flourishes on telling a simple story that many people will find no trouble relating to.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Safe House (2012)

Let's be real here. Nobody should be watching Safe House with expectations of receiving any type of intellectual stimulation. The film is anchored by two A-list actors in Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. The former of which has formed a niche playing the anti-hero in action films who mentors a younger, more ignorant up-and-comer, whether it's Mila Kunis, Chris Pine, or now, Reynolds.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, who was making his major-motion picture directorial debut, Safe House is an overall decent effort. The script, penned by David Guggenheim, is pretty much as straight forward as it gets. A young agent in the United States Central Intelligence Agency named Matt Weston (Reynolds) is in charge of manning a "safe house" in Cape Town, South Africa. His job is to simply occupy the house until it is needed -- if ever.

Weston is bored, feels unappreciated and underused -- evidenced early when he complains to his CIA superior David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) over the phone. But that soon changes when former CIA agent-turned American fugitive Tobin Frost (Washington) seeks refuge at an American Consulate after being chased by some mean people who are trying to kill him. After deliberation by Barlow, fellow CIA operative Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), the decision is made to transport Shepard to the nearest safe house, which is Weston's.

The film is very cynical towards American politics, as Frost is immediately subjected to waterboarding and other forms of torture upon arriving at the safe house. At one point, an incredulous and naive Weston questions the legality of the practice, to which he receives no answer.

Shortly thereafter, the safe house is attacked, and Weston and Frost go on the run. The film mainly revolves around the interactions between Weston and Frost. Frequently, Frost gives advice to Weston on a number of topics, ranging from work to women. Weston doesn't listen at first, but soon realizes he'd be better suited to listen to the wily old veteran.

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington
There's plenty of action along the way, and as in any political-thriller, some character's agendas aren't always how they appear. The relationship between the youthful Weston and the worn Frost evolves, and we come to learn that the fugitive may not be as guilty as he's accused. Subsequently, Weston, who is on the run with Frost, starts to wonder who exactly he should waver his loyalties toward.

But for an interesting topic, full of CIA agents and fugitives, the plot stays remarkably flat, even for an action movie. Espinosa does the best he could, using the "shaky camera technique" often, especially during the many action sequences.

You know what to expect out Washington as an actor, but Reynolds' performances in films recently (with the exception of Buried (2011)) have left me underwhelmed. However, I actually enjoyed him in this movie. Perhaps side-by-side tutelage from Washington benefited him during the filming. Also, a subplot involving Weston's romantic interest, Ana, portrayed by a beautiful french actress named Nora Arnezeder is thrown in, but she mainly just exists to serve as eye candy.

At 115 minutes, the film is easily 20 to 25 minutes longer than it needs to be. But if you're a fan of car chases (there's plenty of them), shootouts (plenty of those too), or even a good old-fashioned man-on-man brawl (one of those), then Safe House shouldn't let you down. But for a movie that had so much potential to educate and enlighten, it is surprisingly unintelligent.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Monday, June 4, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

A group of men venture out into the Anatolian steppes in search of a dead body. On the surface, that plot synopsis reads like something that would make fans of big budgeted action-adventure movies gush, but in truth, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is an intense character study full of deep philosophical subjects that foray deep into the human psyche.

It's a windy, sometimes rainy and thunderous night in the grasslands of Turkey, far removed from civilization. The two murder suspects have already been apprehended, but one, Mukhtar (Ercan Kesel) is mentally ill, and the other, brother Kenan (Firat Tanis) is slow-minded and was intoxicated at the time of the burial. That's not a good combination, and the result is an all-night search party that elapses into the following morning.

The group is full of doctors, lawyers, militia, grave diggers and policemen, but only three of them matter to us. The three prominent men are grizzled veterans of their crafts, middle-aged and have long been desensitized to the ill-conceived acts that human beings are capable of. One is prosecutor Nusret (Taner Birsel), another is police commissioner Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), and the other is Doctor Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner).

The three men are simply known by their titles and their last names. It's all you need to know because it is what they have become after years of honing their crafts. All three were married at one time, and two ended unhappily. As three battle-scarred professionals, the men respect each other, and throughout the night they talk about various topics, both work related non-work related, which range from death, marriage, politics to even lamb chops. Some scenes depict characters going off tangents concerning these topics, while the camera shows wide-angle shots with the speaker not even on screen, showing that it is the words, and not the speaker, that are crucial.

Though they are searching for a body, the men are really looking for something much deeper in their lives -- meaning. In between the conversations, they stare longingly into the night, the moon reflecting their faces, revealing lines and creases that can only come with the trials and tribulations of every day life. It is these scenes, which tell us what the characters don't say rather than what they do say, that are the most revealing.

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the film is beautifully shot, contrasting closeup shots of the weary characters with the wide Turkish landscapes. The isolated, barren scenery corresponds perfectly with the mood of the film, which is introspective and unfulfilled.

The group of men searching for body in the Turkish steppes
The script, penned by Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesel cleverly manages to weave mundane talk with deep philosophical musings, accomplishing this by using metaphors and prolonged conversations. The film tackles all the subjects that every human being ponders throughout the course of their existence, without delivering any real answers. The actors are all superb, which is impressive considering their lack of experience. Not that one would expect many Turkish actors to be household names, but checking their resumes, it doesn't appear that many of the actors in the film had an extensive film career beforehand.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will cause viewers to ponder the meanings of their own lives, and what exactly it will take for them to find satisfaction. In the film, the three men have gotten close to the top of their respective career paths, but still seem like they are simply going through the motions while they work. Rarely, over the course of their near 18-hour search party to do they complain, and that's because they all knew what they signed up for when they chose their line of work.

The search for the body becomes a little less relevant as the film progresses -- called it a "McGuffin" if you will -- but with the aforementioned clever script, the investigation does manage to come home in the end and tie into the movie's primary themes. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is indeed an example of great storytelling, but the furthest thing from a fairy tale as the title of the film suggests.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Friday, June 1, 2012

In the Loop (2009)

At the 82nd Oscars in 2010 there was a rare sort of nominated film on the ballot for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.  Some of that has to do with its being a foreign film (produced by BBC Films) but the larger part of its distinction was due to its genre: comedy.  In the Loop would go on to lose in that category to Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire which is the sort of film you might expect to win.  However, it did win at the 2009 British Comedy Awards for Best Comedy Film - so you know as far as being British and funny it was peerless among other releases that year.

Strongly based on director/writer Armando Iannucci's BBC television series "The Thick of It" on which pace, style and even some characters are borrowed, In the Loop is set in the political domain of both the US and UK.  In the British government we follow Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) who is the Secretary of State for International Development.  His notoriously ambiguous parlance that "war is unforseeable" sort of kicks off the diplomatic madness that ensues in this film.  Meanwhile, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) who absolutely steals any scene he's a part of with his vituperative scowling (thinka pissed off Ari Gold with a Scottish brogue) oversees Foster as the Director of Coomunications for the Prime Minister.  His job is to make sure Foster doesn't massively bumble anything as the PM would see it.  Additionally, there is Toby Wright (Chris Addison) who has begun his very first day as a Special Advisor to Secretary Foster.  He is young, generally bright but cocky to a fault.  Finally there is Judy Molloy (Gina McKee) who also works for Foster's department.  Judy seems to be just about the only one on top of things and as a result is usually ragged on and blamed for every slipup.  Perfectly backwards which is to describe the mood in this film to a tee.

British actors: Peter Capaldi, left, and Chris Addison, right. 
Both starred in Iannucci's sitcom The Thick of It.
On the American end we have Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy, who is trying to stave off war and her assistant, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), who wrote the only paper and/or set of facts cited throughout the many committee sessions for and against war.  In cahoots with Clark's anti-war push is Lt. Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) who lumbers around the film carrying clout and attempts to balance the scale with the UK's Tucker in terms of boisterous mouthing off and sentiment.  Also, for the US there is the dry and efficient Linton Barwick (David Rasche), Assistant Secretary of State for Policy, who is hawking for war.  He manipulates Liza's paper and is at odds with Karen Clark.  Lastly, there is Chad (Zach Woods), who is a junior staffer at the State Department.  Recognizable from The Office (US version) as Gabe, he mainly gives Liza a hard time and provides additional humor as a stereotypical D.C. sycophant.

The majority of the film revolves around the two U.S. Assistants to Secretary of State, Clark and Barwick, butting heads regarding the war.  Foster and thus the whole ensemble of British characters gets dragged into this because of his aforementioned misinterpreted quote with the press.  Both Clark and Barwick view it as a weapon either can use.  In truth, Foster is anti-war but he tries to "walk the line" as a result of Tucker's insistance.  This leads to his inability to ever clearly voice himself which Barwick seizes to his advantage leaving Clark in the dust, nonplussed and frustrated.

Filmed on location in D.C. and London, the similarities between the two Western Worlds' governments are endless to the point where it all seems to blend.  At one point Clark is patched through to Foster where she demands that someone who leaked information to the Press be fired.  It takes a moment for him to realize that as a member of the U.S. government she has no authority over him, a member of the Prime Minister's cabinet.

U.S. actors: Mimi Kennedy and James Gandolfini.
The story's turning point comes when after Simon Foster's first disasterous trip (of two) to the U.S. he returns to a constituent meet where he comes across Paul Michaelson (Steve Coogan).  Coogan is hilarious as a ticked off memeber of Foster's district who is livid about an actual wall belonging to the International Development that is collapsing slowly onto his mother's property.  Though Toby and Foster both try their best to assuage his worries, their attempts at providing Paul with weak buttresses (seen even to the "untrained eye") and empty promises.  Eventually it is this seemingly non-issue that brings down Simon Foster, capping off the ridiculousness perpetuated in In the Loop.

The film takes on something like a mockumentary style, though there are no one-on-one confessionals made directly to the camera or anything like that.  Regardless it is mostly hand-held camerawork, and at plenty of times Christopher Guest's style shines through.  Any fan of his work will surely appreciate the humor here.  On that same note, those of us who appreciate the unbridled satirization of government's inner workings will get a kick out In the Loop

Perhaps the clearest message I got in watching In the Loop was that every character seemed to have his or her own unique agenda, while none seem to heed each other, the facts, or for that matter the people who put them in power.  Thankfully, not only does this make for extremely dysfunctionl government, it makes for great black comedy.

-Review by Mike Dorfman

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Any piece of film noir should possess all the same outward traits: men in hats and five-piece suits, shadows, the femme fatale, and cigarette smoke, to name a few.  The best, however, will have you remembering those facets outside the genre's basic prototype: a great story, a stellar performance, or a distinct shot, for example.  In The Woman in the Window, adapted on to the silver screen by Nunally Johnson from J.H. Wallis's novel Once Off Guard, we are given the pleasure of such extrinsic rewards.

The film starts with Professor Richard Wanley, played by Edward G. Robinson, parting with his family to lecture in psychology in New York for the summer.  He meets with a couple of his good friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon) for dinner on his first night in town.  Outside his hotel, before their rendevous, Wanley takes some to stare at a portrait of a woman.  He explains to his acquaintances his fondness of the artist's work to which they jocularly call attention to the attractiveness of the woman in it.  He admits that might have something to do with it as well.  The three catch up over dinner and move on to cigars and drinks.  Wanley is asked if he'd like to extend the night by presumably spending it in a club or other night venue of entertainment but he denies, citing his middle age and maturity.  After his friends leave he spends some time in the lobby then goes out for a smoke and another look at that mesmerizing portrait.  To his astonishment, he finds the portrait's subject, Alice (Joan Bennett), in person watching him.  She invites him over to her apartment to gaze over more works by the artist in which she models and contradicting the very philosophy he advocated to his friends earlier, takes her up on the offer.  While there, a man, who is later identified as Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft), storms into the flat and rabidly assaults Wanley by choking him.  Alice hands a pair of scissors to Wanley who manages to stab the assailant several times in the back, releasing him of the attack and killing the man in the process.  This prompts the most pivotal line in the film, from Alice: "What are we going to do?"

Though it is an act of self-defense, neither Alice nor Wanley want the police's involvement for their own respective reasons, so they decide to dispose of the body and the crime scene.  From this point on the The Woman in the Window becomes a psychological thriller.  Thanks to the direction of Fritz Lang, with its dark lighting, dramatic close-ups and jaunting camera angles, we can't help but fret through every weave the story takes.  Of course Lalor the D.A. offers to Wanley (and us) "confidential" information regarding the progress the homocide unit is making in the case and at one point even escorts Wanley back to the crime scene where the body was found.  Nerve-racking schemes like this in the film are wonderfully put together and executed.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.
Though Robinson's acting as a conservative member of upper class who never wanted to be in this mess is superb (and at times channels bits of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov) throughout the film, its most sensational sequence comes in Alice's home when Heidt (Dan Duryea) is trying to extort her and Wanley is absent.  Heidt, a bodyguard who had been paid to follow Mazard as part of an exlsuvie sub-plot, knows of Alice and her mystery accomplice's guilt and threatens his way into her apartment to snoop around and list his demands.  He is sharp as a tack avoiding a trap Wanley has set up for him that Alice is unable to execute.  During their shared screentime, Heidt's gaudy smile mixed with that treacherous cunning has Alice's heart skip a few beats -- and likely the audience's as well.

Without giving away too much, the film ends with what I would call a controversial approach.  That is about as much as I can say without spoilers, so stop here if you prefer to avoid them.  As Alice is regrouping herself after a terrifying encounter with Heidt and Wanley contemplates suicide, events take a significant turn.  Heidt is shot and killed by the police in an unrelated skirmish and found with Mazard's pocket watch (initials engraved) on person. While the film is in the height of its culmination as Wanley sits in a chair after ingesting an overdose of heart medicine and the phone is ringing incessantly with Alice on the other end eager to break the news about Heidt's death...a slow zoom-in to Robinson's troubled face followed by a zoom-out has us back in the lobby at 10:30pm, prior to when the mischeif had all began.  In other words, it was all a dream.  Wanely has a Wizard of Oz moment when he recognizes the faces of those in his dream as part of the hotel staff and the film chooses a light-hearted, comical finish: Wanley goes outside to take a gander at the portrait (just as he did to start his dream) at which point a woman asks if he has a light for her cigarette.  He rejects her and madly runs off in the opposite direction.

While I'm not going to categorize the dream as a cop-out, it is certainly a ruse.  Its smooth, on-screen reveal (to which the credit goes to Lang helps) lessens that sentiment, but nevertheless we cannot help but feel abruptly torn away from the story to which we have been so committed.  On the other hand, this review is being written in 2012 and this film was put out in 1944, so it should be noted that today's viewers are likely more jaded by the dream outlet.  What can be agreed on by all, is that The Woman in the Window is a fresh story with quality performances bundled up in classic noir cinema.  And no unexpected waking moment is going to take that away.

--Review by Mike Dorfman

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

My Week with Marilyn begins with a soft yet seductive song and dance number by Michelle Williams, as she attempts her best Marilyn Monroe impression. The scene pans out and we see that Marilyn is being watched on a movie screen by a group of moviegoers, and at the forefront is young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the gentleman whose eventual book gave us this movie.

Though the next several scenes serve to further introduce Clark, whose perspective is what we see the movie from, the opening scene is designed to inform us who the movie is really about -- Marilyn.

In arguably the most ambitious role in her career, Williams takes on the role of one the most famous and possibly infamous starlets to ever grace this planet. The movie was heavily promoted as the "first screen adaptation" of Monroe. Thus, to say that Williams had big shoes to fill is an understatement. But she doesn't just perform the role admirably, but outstandingly. After a mere ten minutes, you can't even tell who is who.

The "first on screen adaptation" of Marilyn Monroe is not a biopic. Directed by Simon Curtis, it is an adaptation of two of Clark's books, "My Week with Marilyn" and "Me, the Prince and the Showgirl." The autobiographic books detail the alleged relationship that Clark, a young 23-year-old at the time, had with Monroe, who then, was 30, over the span of about a week. The screenplay was written by Adrian Hodges.

The film takes place in 1956. At the start, Clark is a naive, wide-eyed young man straight out of university. His family, who is absurdly wealthy, wish him to pursue a real job, but Clark wants to pursue his dream and enter the movie business. He uses his connection, none other than Sit Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who he once met at a party, to get a job through his production company as the third-directorial assistant on the film The Showgirl and the Prince, starring Olivier himself, and of course, Ms. Monroe. or should I say Mrs. Monroe, as we are informed that she just recently married the famous playwright, Arthur Miller -- Her last of three unsuccessful marriages.
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Eddie Redmayne
as Colin Clark in My Week with Marilyn.

For anyone who enjoys cinema, watching My Week with Marilyn is like watching history unfold. Monroe was already a superstar by every stretch of the word, but her most famous of her movies (Some Like it Hot) was yet to come. Oliver, also a household name, is portrayed brilliantly by Branagh as a warm, compassionate yet hot-tempered individual.

Clark is young, but he has devilish good looks. He immediately romances one of the film's wardrobe assistants (Emma Watson), before setting his sights on bigger things.

But again, it's all about Marilyn. As part of a younger generation, we've heard stories about Monroe's irrational behavior, and Williams portrays it as such. Williams' version of Monroe is beautiful, meek, lightheaded, playful, emotionally unstable and drug reliant, all rolled up into one. She is extremely high-maintenance, relying on her acting coach, Paula (Zoe Wanamaker) to get her through her emotional stretches, much to the dismay of the rest of the cast and crew.

But being young and wide-eyed, Clark immediately is entranced by Monroe's beauty and aura, and she notices it. She quickly befriends Clark, and the two begin an intense friendship that turns into something a little more in a short period of time.

My Week with Marilyn also serves to give the viewer a little insight as to how a movie is made. One of the primary settings of the film is on the set of the movie, which creates a slight paradox of a movie set inside of a movie set. Movie aficionados should find it all quite interesting.

Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier
But the film is carried by its brilliant cast, led by Williams and Branagh. Redmayne more than carries his own amongst much more accomplished actors than him, and there are also other roles of old celebrities, with Dougray Scott playing Arthur Miller, Judi Dench as actress Sybil Thorndike, and Julia Ormond as Vivian Leigh, the Gone with the Wind star who was Olivier's wife at the time.

Much credit should also be given to whoever was responsible for set design and wardrobe, for conveying the scenery and attire of 50+ years ago so sharply and convincingly. No doubt, this movie was in professional hands.

The cleverness of the film was to not get too overly ambitious and turn itself into a Marilyn Monroe biopic, but to actually surround itself around an intriguing plot that involves multiple characters and a story line that will keep the viewer more than interested. The slight distraction really gave Michelle Williams a little less pressure, but given how brilliant she was, it probably would not have mattered anyway.

 ~ Review by Ddubbs

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Man From Earth (2007)

Science fiction is a genre there to push our minds to new and expansive modes of contemplation.  Its foundation always derives from the science that we know until it inevitably seeks to make the aforementioned push.  As viewers, whether we have a firm grasp of science or not, it is our willingness to be openly taken for the ride that defines as us SciFi fans or not.  There is no better example of this internal strife that comes with dropping inhibition and going out on a limb than The Man From Earth.

Completed on his deathbed in 1998, Jerome Bixby's screenplay for The Man From Earth takes place in a single room with a cast of eleven, only eight of whom contribute substantial dialogue.  Cinematically it is not daring.  There are few, if any, camera tricks and zero special effects.  Its director, Richard Schenkman, does not set out to do much other than capture the discourse in the living room of John Oldman (David Lee Smith).  Music in the film is scant as that would only detract from the words being exchanged on screen.  There are no action sequences, and only one true moment of drama down the film's stretch.  Given all these observations, I was surprised to find that The Man From Earth was not originally intended for the stage.

The story that provides the impetus for the conversation is this: John Oldman is moving after serving 10 years on the faculty of an unnamed university.  His academic colleagues, professors from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, art history, biology and psychology, have come over to his home to wish him goodbye.  Everything he owns is boxed up minus the furniture and so once everyone has arrived he breaks out a bottle of Johnny Walker to entertains his guests.  The question on the minds of everyone he has invited eventually surfaces: Why is he moving on?  He insists that there is no reason, that he's done this before and that he prefers a change of scenery every decade or so.  His feeble answer only fuels the flame of their unrelenting curiosities until they begin to wonder if something is wrong.  It is soon after that John decides to do something he recollects only having ever done once before in his lifetime - tell others the truth.

John was born in the time of caveman (he is a Cro-Magnon to be exact) approximately 14,000 years ago.  To date he has survived the times and has witnessed pre- and modern history.  His memory of wordly events is limited in proportion to the way we can recall our past.  For example, when challenged by Edith (Ellen Crawford) to recall where he was in 1292 AD, he coolly asks where she was a year ago on this date.  This is just one bullet of the bulky Q&A session that ensues.  Just as fascinating to watch as John's ability to answer every question and foil the numerous attempts to trip him up in his "story" is how each member of the farewell party reacts in their own right to what it is he has to say. 
David Lee Smith as John Oldman
Given that his guests are intellectuals in a variety of fields, he is met with poignant and efficient interrogation.  As you would expect all begin with a healthy level of skepticism, which as the film progresses, is slowly chipped away at by John's mild-mannered and rationale response to everything that is thrown at him.  Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), the psychiatrist, who is actually called over to the house midway into the conversation by an original invitee, only ever falters and revelas his own instabilities in trying to reason with and/or diagnose John.  Edith, a practicing Christian, is the first to breakdown emotionally when John is begged to air his knowledge of religious phenomena in his lifetime.  Meanwhile, Sandy (Annika Peterson) confides that she has a romantic interest in John, which gives impetus to all other kinds of considerations given his claim.

Before John presents his secret as truth, he disguises it as a theoretical work of science fiction he may write up, and asks his friends for their input.  They play along, searching for all the different ways an author must bend the corners, toying with the bounds between the possible and impossible.  Shortly thereafter, once he discloses this concept as his actual biography, their respective rapports with him change and so do their moods.  But as viewers of a movie, we are left behind at this first stage of knowing that what we witness is science fiction.  As the proverbial fly on a wall then, we can appreciate the creativity that went into Bixby's writing John's story, but the truly fascinating stuff in The Man From Earth are those observations we can draw on regarding human nature based on the room's versatile dynamics.

While it is clear that Bixby never sought to utilize cinema's full potential in his final screenplay, The Man From Earth is an intrinsically galvanic script that lends itself to all kinds of great takeaways for its audience.  It should also not go without saying that David Lee Smith's portrayal of John Oldman is adeptly done, and at times chilling.  His calm demeanor and understated performance gives off an aura of aged sagacity.  Paired with his bottomless bag of answers it make for the perfect 14,000 year old racanteur.  So watch The Man From Earth and try, for a stretch, to envision yourself in that room.  More important than any question you could pose to John is the one single question the film poses to you:

How would you react?

--Review by Mike Dorfman

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

This Means War (2012)

After watching This Means War, one can't help but think why such prominent actors like Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy and Chris Pine agreed to do this movie. Or maybe the more the greater question is, why was this movie even made?

The genre of the movie lies in the realm of romantic comedies, with a bit of action thrown in. Hardy's character, Tuck Henson, is an agent in the Central Intelligence Agency. His coworker and best friend, FDR Foster, portrayed by Pine, also is a CIA agent.

The film, directed by McG (Terminator Salvation, We Are Marshall), starts out with an action packed scene where the two are chasing after a an international criminal named Heinrich (Til Schweiger.) The scene, while colorful and extensively choreographed as the two heroes chase the villain over a rooftop, immediately lets the viewer know that this film will not apply to the basic laws of human abilities. The scene happens fast, and before you know it, we're back at the CIA headquarters and you don't even really know what just happened.

Witherspoon, meanwhile, plays Lauren Scott, an executive for a product testing agency, and has a best friend named Trish (Chelsea Handler), who exists to try and create humor. Through certain circumstances that don't really matter, Lauren ends up dating both FDR and Tuck at the same exact time.

Tuck and FDR become aware of this -- Lauren doesn't -- and the two engage in all-out "warfare" to try and be the one who wins her over. As CIA agents, the two totally abandon their actual responsibilities, and instead use all of their resources to track Lauren using various invasive and very illegal strategies such as hidden microphones, GPS trackers and breaking-and-entering.

The film doesn't even remotely attempt to portray the CIA in a realistic way, and instead tries to portray the agency's headquarters as some new-age technologically advanced building that you might see in a movie that's supposed to take place 20 years from now. I know it's a fictional and lighthearted story, but even so, that the two men could disregard their patriotic duties in such an obvious manner with no consequences is a flat-out insult to our government.

Meanwhile, Lauren actively plays both men against each other, and pretty much portrays every stereotype women possess by being overly oblivious, needy, desperate, indecisive and blonde. Her character is a flat-out insult towards women everywhere.

I can see why Pine, whose character is supposed to be a womanizer, would have taken this role. He more than held his own in a leading role in 2009's Star Trek, and was even adequate in Unstoppable (2010). But he's not quite A-list yet, so taking a role along side names like Reese Witherspoon and budding star Tom Hardy was a no-brainer.

Tom Hardy and Chris Pine play CIA agents in This Means War
Hardy, whose character is more reserved and compassionate, is a little bit more of a mystery. My only rationale is that, at the time, knowing he would have a strenuous and taxing role as Bane in Christopher Nolan's upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, he decided to take an easier, lighter role, and at the same time, make some serious dough. However, he did excel in his role a bit more than the others, and is the only real character that you can relate to in the entire production, even if it's just a little.

Witherspoon, meanwhile, has been a big question mark ever since her career-defining and Oscar-winning role as June Carter in Walk the Line (2005), has had a hard time distinguishing herself since then. She's done a wide array of movies, including rom-coms, dramas and political thrillers, but this one by far represents herself the worst. Her character in This Means War makes her role in Legally Blonde seem as authentic and politically correct as can be.

The movie really does not have many redeeming factors at all. I suppose if you are a big fan of one of the actors, then you can try watching it. Despite it being a romantic comedy, it's not romantic and it's not funny. It purely relies on cheap, slapstick and crude humor with no real intelligence.

The movie attempts to wrap up by adding a little drama between the three characters, while intertwining it with the original plot line involving Henrich, but all it ends up adding up to is more disbelief and a giant mess.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

The use of handheld cameras is becoming a popular trend for supernatural thrillers. It started over a decade ago with the Blair Witch Project (1999), then became popular again recently when JJ Abrams incorporated it into his 2008 mega monster-movie Cloverfield. Abrams then not only employed it once again with his next film -- but even based the title around it -- in Super 8 (2011). All three of those movies were met with success, at least commercially, and officially set a precedent.

Josh Trank's Chronicle (2012) is no different. Every scene in the movie is seen through a lens as viewed by another character in the film. The majority of the time, it is through a video camera.

While this strategy is certainly unique -- and adds a feeling of realness when done well -- it is also very restrictive. In Chronicle, the video camera is explained immediately when the main character, high school senior Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) tells his drunk and abusive father (Michael Kelly) that he will be "filming things now." This is said when his dad, Richard, is trying to break down a door to enter Andrew's room. This is effective because it makes us sympathetic right off the bat, and prevents us for questioning the video camera.

Andrew's mother, Karen (Bo Peterson) isn't out of the picture just yet, but she's close to it, as she is bedridden and slowly dying from cancer. Because of this dysfunctional family, Andrew has a very meek and defeated appearance and lacks self-confidence. As a result, he gets bullied at school.

His only salvation is his cousin, Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) who is a bit cooler, and is friends with one of the more popular kids in school, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan.) Through Matt, and later through Steve, Andrew maintains some relevance in his high school.

One of Matt's friends, and romantic interests, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) just happens to be a video-blogger, or a "vlogger," which is obviously a manufactured plot device to allow the movie to be viewed through a camera when Andrew isn't on the screen.

But anyway, let's fast forward to why the movie actually exists. About twenty minutes in, Matt convinces Andrew to go to a high-school party, and while there, the two of them, along with Steve, venture into the woods when they discover an odd looking crater. They go into it, and it leads them into a tunnel that contains very bizarre crystalline objects. The objects make noise, which becomes deafening, and makes the trio pass out. When they wake up, they soon learn they have superpowers, such as telekinesis and the ability to fly.

Now, teenagers acquiring superpowers is hardly original in today's era of film. For reference, see any superhero movie ever made. But what I like about Chronicle is that the three teenagers don't use their abilities to halt bank robberies or fight crime, but they do what any teenagers would do if they were in the same situation -- they goof off.

Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan and
Dane DeHaan in Chronicle.
For example, in one scene they visit their local grocery store, and mess around with people as they casually shop, all the while laughing in the background as they film it. In another scene, they head to a local junkyard to practice their flying, and in one more scene, they flaunt their abilities during a school talent show.

Peter Parker may have had a noble agenda, but this is what teenagers would genuinely do if they were to ever miraculously acquire superpowers.

The effects are pretty solid, as well. But the movie intentionally keeps things low budget, using the aforementioned video camera which adds as much realness as you can for a movie that involves superpowers.

The first 45 minutes of the movie is like watching a more composed version of Jackass, and it is fun and light to watch the three kids fool around. But then the film takes a total 180-reversal, as Andrew's family situation worsens, and -- falling into the superhero/villain cliche -- he reaches a level of frustration that forces him to abuse his newfound powers. From there, the film goes from a light comedy to a full-out superhero/monster movie. But, hey, it makes for some great entertainment.

For unknown actors, the acting really isn't half bad. I was mostly impressed with DeHaan, especially since he had the greater task playing the more unstable character. But he was up for it.

There were definitely scenes where finding an excuse to have the action viewed through a video camera were extremely forced, but it's mostly nitpicking, since it works well the other 90 percent of the time. Lastly, Chronicle is a fun movie to live vicariously through, because, well, who the heck wouldn't want to be highschooler with superpowers?

~ Review by Ddubbs

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Great Dictator (1940)

Historical context is paramount when discussing Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. The year is 1940, and although the United States was just one year away from joining World War II, the country was still technically "at peace" with Germany. And yet, Charlie Chaplin took no notice and promptly made every effort to mock Adolf Hitler in his film.

Internationally known as one of the biggest stars in the silent film era, Chaplin undertook his first speaking role in The Great Dictator, a film in which he wrote, directed, produced and starred. Chaplin was actually born in South London, but he filmed the movie in the U.S., where it was subsequently released. And though he indeed looks the part -- there is no Jewish ancestry in Chaplin's background.

Anyway, in the film, Chaplin portrays two characters: Adenoid Hynkel -- an obvious satire of the unruly dictator himself -- and an unnamed Jew, who starts as a soldier fighting for the Central Powers, and then, back home, is a barber. He simply goes by the name, the Barber. Chaplin plays both characters because the Barber is meant to be Hynkel's doppelganger; he looks exactly like him, but could not act more differently.

The film begins with the Barber during warfare. During this sequence, and throughout the rest of this movie, Chaplin employs his special brand of slapstick humor. Though this special type of comedy may not appeal to all, Chaplin is masterful at it, and even speeds up the filming during some scenes to make his character -- already ditzy and clumsy -- look even moreso. He soon finds his ticket out of the war when he stumbles upon an officer, Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), who is in danger. The Barber hops in Schultz's plane, and flies it out of enemy territory, eventually crash-landing it and requiring medical attention for the both of them.

And then, we meet Hynkel. Whereas Hitler has an intimidating, commanding presence, Hynkel is the opposite. He is small, wimpy, and rather dumb. One humorous scene revolves around Hynkel occupying himself in his office by using every part of his body to keep a balloon-globe afloat. Undoubtedly, Chaplin -- adverse to the real life Hitler -- did not bother holding back in his belittling and satirical depiction..

While Hynkel is evil and malicious and ill-hearted, The Barber is warm and kind and good-natured. But upon his return to his barbershop, located in the Jewish ghetto, he is constantly targeted by German soldiers for prejudice. They beat him, and spray racial slurs on his shop, which eventually forces him into hiding. But before that, he befriends a fellow Jewish woman, Hannah, a sweet, idealistic and self-sufficient women who becomes the Barber's romantic interest. Hannah, portrayed by Paulette Goddard, was Chaplin's wife at the time, but the pair would divorce shortly thereafter in 1942.

Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel
The Barber is momentarily redeemed when he once again runs into Commander Schultz, who recognizes him as his rescuer from the war, and consequently issues direct orders that the Barber should not be harmed. This eventually leads to a treason charge of Schultz for befriending and aiding Jews, and he is forced to go into hiding with the Barber and eventually Hannah.

Meanwhile, not only does the film mock Hitler, but Benito Mussolini as well. Depicted as Benzino Napaloni (Jackie Oates), the fellow dictator joins Hynkel at one point to discuss foreign policy. Though the two try to employ psychological warfare upon each other, the end result is a hysterical food fight between the two leaders.

More hilarity ensues as the Barber remains in hiding with Hannah, Schultz, and other Jewish comrades who, prior to the war, held prominent positions in the world. The group decides to conspire to take down Hynkel, and end things once and for all, but humorously cannot decide who the one person will be to do it. Eventually, the plan is foiled when the Barber and Schultz are captured, and Hannah and the rest of the group escape to Osterlich (a fictional depiction of Auschwitz).

Again, I stated earlier that though the film is a satire, it is not a pure comedy. Contrarily so, the movie truly makes the viewer run the emotional gauntlet. At times you will find yourself laughing out loud, at times you will find yourself angry at the irrational displays of prejudice, and you will find yourself warmed by the innocent moments of affection between the Barber and Hannah.

Chaplin, as the Barber, with Paulette Goddard.
But, you knew that the Barber and Hynkel were doppelgangers for a reason, and eventually, the German military confuses the two. As a result, the Barber, who everyone thinks is Hynkel, is pushed to a podium to give a speech while standing in front of not only the entire German military -- but thousands upon thousands of German countrymen.

What follows is arguably one of the most important moments to ever occur in the history of film. The Barber, who is no longer the Barber anymore, but Charlie Chaplin himself, stares directly into the camera and delivers a speech that every human being needs to hear at some point in their lives. His minutes-long speech is a direct commentary on human behavior during his time period -- which was amidst warfare -- and his words could not be more relevant, even to this day. He preaches for the goodness of our race, and reminds everybody of what we all ought to be. Quoting the speech would not even due it justice, and thus, I will link to it here.  Would it take away the payoff by watching the speech before watching the entire film? Perhaps -- but it certainly wouldn't spoil the movie for you.

During a time of deepest uncertainty in the world, Chaplin courageously stepped forward and risked everything to give his insight into the state of the world. He mocked one of the most powerful figures at the height of his reign, and did not fear the repercussions. Chapin himself was investigated for Communism during points of his life, and he even requested that the film be pulled from theaters during the height of the war.

Allegedly, an escapee from Germany who worked in the Ministry of Culture, told Chaplin that Hitler privately screened The Great Dictator two times. Said Chaplin in response, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it."

So would I. Very much so.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Man on a Ledge (2012)

The title "Man on a Ledge," could not be more literal. A mere three minutes in, the film's main character, Nick Cassidy -- portrayed by Sam Worthington -- steps out of a New York City hotel window and onto the ledge. Had he jumped off right then and there, he may have saved the viewer an hour and a half of over-convoluted plot twists, cheesy dialogue and an overabundance of characters.

But, he doesn't jump. Instead, he balances himself on the ledge, forty floors up from the ground, and watches as national attention comes his way within minutes. Thinking he's on the verge of committing suicide, the New York City Police calls in its negotiator team, led by Jack Dougherty (Edward Burns) to try to talk him out of it.

Nick, however, is not a suicidal maniac. We learn that he is a former cop who was arrested after he was found guilty of stealing a $40 million diamond from businessman David Englander (Ed Harris.) Nick maintained his innocence, alleging that Englander employed policeman to frame Englander, and accomplished so by knocking him unconscious and placing the diamond on him. Englander's motivation would have been to collect the insurance money that he lost in the economic collapse.

Since nobody believed his story, Nick decided to take drastic action by escaping prison while granted a leave to attend his father's funeral. He eludes the supervision of his guards, but not after being involved in a fight with his brother, Joey (Jamie Bell). From then, he decided to get his story out to the world by standing on a ledge as a means to attract attention. However, his intentions are twofold; we soon learn that across the street, Joey and his girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are attempting to break into Englander's vault to find the diamond and prove Nick's innocence -- and that's just in the film's first 25 minutes.

Unwilling to speak to Dougherty, Nick personally requests a different negotiator named Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) who is seeking her own personal redemption. Just recently, her attempt to inhibit a potential jumper was unsuccessful, and she's been unable to sleep ever since. Supervising both Mercer and Dougherty is Dante Marcus (Titus Welliver) who tries to keep the entire situation under control, as crowds of people, including media, swarm the surrounding areas to watch the developing scene.

Sam Worthington on a ledge.
From then on, we get a cluster of different scenes, ranging from Nick's interactions with Mercer, Englander talking with his associates, shots of the crowd at the base of the building, and Joey and Angie pulling off an Entrapment/Ocean's 11-like heist as they make their way through a building en route to Englander's vault to retrieve the diamond and prove Nick's innocence. Their elaborate maneuvers involve wires, ropes, bungee cords, explosives and other tricks, which amazingly occur flawlessly even though we are given every impression that Joey is a lifelong loser and Angie is an airhead. But by far the most captivating part of the film occurs during this sequence -- when Angie changes into a tight jumpsuit, showcasing her impressively sculpted body in underwear. That scene alone is probably more interesting than the rest of the film combined.

Oh and there's one more character -- Nick's former partner Mike Ackerman (Anthony Mackie), who we quickly learn was probably not as loyal to Nick as previously believed.

The first 45 minutes or so of Man on a Ledge are bearable. While perched on the ledge, the film does a decent job developing Nick's back story, slowly informing us why he is on the ledge to begin with. But as the film progresses, too many characters are developed and the film loses its way.

Just when you are waiting for the payoff at the film's conclusion, wondering how exactly it will end, the sequence of events that materialize are almost laughable. To describe it in a word, it's a mess. Englander, who is supposed to be this brilliant, savvy businessman, makes folly after folly that ultimately leads to his demise.

But the movie puts all of it's money on a gimmick. Worthington's character spend practically all of his screen time on a ledge. To film this, director Asger Leth never shows both Worthington and the crowd hundreds of feet below in the same shot. Occasionally, we get shots from street-level that show us a man standing on a ledge, which is obviously a stuntman.

Since the movie contains so many characters, and tries to compact a convoluted storyline into a 90-minute film, I can at least vouch that Man on a Ledge never really has any lull throughout. However, I still think all parties would have been better served if Worthington's presence on the ledge lasted five minutes -- and not 90.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shame (2011)

One of the most crucial scenes in Shame occurs right in the beginning. Our film's main character, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), is innocently sitting on a New York City subway, minding his own business. Suddenly he does a double-take when he notices that a seductive redhead is sitting directly across the cart, looking right at him.

From then, the two spend minutes staring an one other, undressing each other with their eyes. We view the unnamed redhead from Brandon's perspective, as his eyes drift from her face to the laced stockings that cover her legs. Their fellow subway riders, meanwhile, go about their own business, oblivious to the sensual showdown occurring next to them.

If Shame was a romantic comedy, the scene would be endearing, with catchy, light elevator music playing in the background to entertain us. But the movie is an intense character study, and instead, we get dramatic -- almost sinister -- music playing in the background, suggesting some type of struggle. And there is indeed a struggle, and it exists within Brandon's mind.

Steve McQueen's (no, not that Steve McQueen) Shame is about a man with a sexual addiction. I say this scene is crucial because, right away, it introduces us to the daily happenings of Brandon's life, and sets the tone for the entire film. He can't even complete a simple task, like riding a subway, without being overcome with desire.

The film aspires, through a variety of different scenes, to show just how Brandon's addiction affects his ability to function in every day society. Off the bat, that ability seems fine, as we learn that the 30-something year-old lives in a high rise flat in the heart of the city. He has a good job, and he is single, while living an extremely private life. So private that no one he associates with is even aware of his sexual addiction.

Michael Fassbender in Shame.
In another early scene, we witness the advantages that come with Brandon's addiction. While at a bar with his boss, David (James Badge Dale) and other coworkers, David makes a drunken attempt to pick up a blond women who he deems is "gorgeous." We watch for a brief while as he attempts to court her, and then a couple of minutes later, Brandon steps in, and by uttering less than two sentences, he wins the girl. One of the biggest enablers of Brandon's addiction is that he both good looking and extremely suave.

But then we see the struggles that come with his addiction. While at work, he can't go a full day without sneaking into the bathroom to masturbate. Additionally, his computer gets confiscated after the technicians discover that it's chock-full of pornography.

While on a date with an attractive co-worker, we learn -- unsurprisingly -- that Brandon has no desire to commit to a girl. He tells his date that he does not believe in marriage, is in fact disgusted by the thought of it, and then he shares that the longest relationship he's ever been in lasted four months.

Brandon's life is then thrown into a tailspin when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to visit. She is a very dependent, unstable women who has had trouble functioning on her own. Reluctantly, Brandon agrees to let her stay for a few days. Sissy often complains about how she never sees Brandon, and how he never returns her calls, notifying the viewer that Brandon's private life has also caused him to essentially sever all ties with his family.

Carey Mulligan as Sissy Sullivan.
While hosting his sister, he is unable to live the life that he needs in order to feed his addiction, and he doesn't handle it well.

As the film progresses, Brandon experiences a number of incidents that force him to confront his addiction -- each more severe than the next. It almost becomes painful to watch the things that Brandon does, not necessarily by choice, but out of need.

The film contains an abundance of nudity (mostly female, but some male as well), and even more explicit and sexual language, which makes it understandable that the film received an NC-17 rating. But McQueen, who wrote the script with Abi Morgan, and with the help of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, presents the material tastefully and even artistically. Even during some of the sex scenes, the colors are so vivid that it feels like we're looking at a painting.

Shame is as clear cut a drama as you can possibly get. However, uniquely, the drama isn't between two or more people, but one. Fassbender, who worked with McQueen in his 2008 film, Hunger, plays the part brilliantly, portraying the internal struggle that lies within his character. At times, his addiction makes him feel on top of the world, but more often, it elicits a very different feeling -- one of shame.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Easy Rider (1969)

In his autobiography, Peter Fonda had this to say about the movie in which he co-starred and co-wrote; "There are so many people around the world who come up to me and tell me that Easy Rider changed their lives. Most of the long-distance riders I meet tell me that I started the whole thing. I didn't start it at all. I just put it on film."

Dennis Hopper directed the iconic picture, and also served as co-star and co-writer, along with Terry Southern, who also helped write the script with the two men. The film, released at the close of the 1960s, captured the liberation and independence that the decade represented.

Normally this may be the point of the review where I introduce the setting, but Easy Rider is a road movie, and the setting is the pavement. Fonda plays Wyatt, and Hopper plays Billy, two drug-slinging hippies who are making their way towards Mardi Gras "in search of America." It seems like five minutes never pass without seeing a glimpse of the two riding down the road on their Harley Davidsons.

The context of the film doesn't really need to be described. It's the 1960s, and we all already know about hippies, we know about Woodstock, and we know about drugs. Many who read this may not have lived during this period, but we've heard this time period discussed enough by our elders. Thus, Easy Rider will no doubt have a nostalgic feel to those who experience this period firsthand.

Wyatt and Billy are close friends in the film, which goes without saying if they are willing to travel hundreds of miles together. However, their personalities are fairly different. Wyatt is as easy-going and accepting as they come, and often plays as a calming influence over Billy, who can easily become emotional and belligerent. The two travel light; aside from their Harleys, they have the clothes on their back, including their leather jackets, and plenty of herbal sustenance -- and no, I do not mean green tea.

The two don't sleep in hotels. This the 60s, they start a fire and kip on the grass when it gets too dark. But along the way, they meet some friends. At one point they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) and drive him to his commune, where they stay for a while with their new friend and his hippie comrades.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider
Later, after getting arrested for "parading without a permit," the two share a cell with a lawyer named George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson, who gained acclaim playing intense and somewhat crazy characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Shining, instead portrays a very cool, composed, eloquent and intelligent southerner. However, his one flaw is that he's a drunk. Nonetheless, he agrees to accompany Wyatt and Billy on their quest to Mardi Gras, and for the short period he is in the film, he steals the show. Working as yet another foil to Wyatt and Billy, there is a humorous scene when he experiments with marijuana for the first time. You can easily sense his trepidation and concern in taking the druh, when he is already such an alcoholic, but of course he relents.

But the film isn't just about psychedelia and liberation. It is also about intolerance. As the trio near Mardi Gras, and are in the deep south, they stop to eat in a small rural Louisiana restaurant for replenishment. As they sit there, with their ragged appearance and unkempt hairstyles, they are heavily judged by the locals, who don't make much of an effort to keep their voices down. After a very uncomfortable few minutes where many unpleasantries are muttered from the locals, the men decide that it's best to get up and leave.

The scene exemplifies the cultural differences during this time period, and portrays to the viewer that this independent and free-wheeling lifestyle was not universally accepted by any means.

Jack Nicholson as George Hanson
The men do finally reach Mardi Gras, and the ending of the film -- in two separate scenes -- has a significant impact on the overall message of the film. Of course, I'll let the viewer figure out for themselves, but I will say this: Though the movie undoubtedly glorifies the 1960s feel of liberation and experimentation, it also tries to dispel the notion that it's all fun and games. Like any lifestyle, it's not about simply doing it, but it's about actually finding some meaning through your actions and behavior. And that is what these two men are truly seeking. Mardi Gras may be their destination, but it's really something else that they are looking for.

The soundtrack is also something to behold. With music from The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and the Byrds, the movie really went all out to capture the culture of its era, and did so by employing some of the biggest and recognizable names not only of its time, but in the history of music. For any fans of classic rock, the soundtrack alone makes this film worth seeing.

Easy Rider has since become a cultural staple, and a leading pioneer of the roadie lifestyle, and deservedly so. However, as Fonda said, it wasn't his movie that started it, it was already happening it. He just put it on film for the world to see.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon begins by immediately informing the viewer where we are: Paris, France. The camera pans out on a photo montage of the city, until we can view the actual city surrounding it. A French voice over, narrated by one of the film's main characters, Maurice Chevalier, tells us that Paris is not unlike any other major city in the world, except for two things, the first being that people eat better, and the second being that people make love -- not better -- but more often. Then, the film shows humorous shots of men and women kissing each other in different situations throughout the city, all in public.

No international city may be romanticized in film more than Paris. If it is the setting of the film, then you can almost guarantee that the movie will revolve around a love angle, and Love in the Afternoon is no exception. Billy Wilder, as usual, wrote, directed and produced the film. He was assisted in the screenplay by one of his common writing partners, I.A.L. Diamond, and the film is based off a short story by a French author named Claude Anet.

We meet Claude Chavasse, a private investigator portrayed by Chevalier, who is currently on the job, surveying an individual through binoculars from a rooftop, at the request of one of his clients. There is no better private eye in the city, Chavasse emphasizes throughout the film, and we quickly learn that he is smart and diligent, evidenced by the fact that he keeps all his previous records stowed away carefully in his drawers. However, he must keep a close eye not only on his subjects, but on his daughter, Ariane, played by Audrey Hepburn, who is ever so curious, and fascinated by her father's line of work.

She is young, and is spoiled by her father, who shelters her and tries his hardest to keep her separated from his work. But the harder he tries, the more curious she becomes. She's a musician, and is seen throughout the movie carrying around a large cello -- which is about twice her petite size -- but when she's not playing, she occupies her time by eavesdropping on her father's business conversations.

But the key is not to take everything too seriously; the mood and ambiance of Love in the Afternoon is light and airy. The slow, upbeat music that accompanies the film is almost meant to intoxicate you. The situations that arise in the film are comedic gold, thanks in large part to a witty and humorous script by Wilder and Diamond.

For instance, the first humorous situation happens when Chavasse reports his findings to "Monsieur X," (John McGiver) who hired him to find out whether his wife is cheating on him, which he suspects. After careful surveillance, Chavasse comes to the conclusion that she is indeed cheating on him with a rich American playboy named Frank Flanagan, portrayed by Gary Cooper. Upon informing Monsieur X of the news, he pulls out a gun, and says he is going to kill Flanagan. Chavasse, after an uninspired attempt to convince him otherwise, simply asks for his payment upfront, for if Monsieur X commits the deed, he would be in no position to make any transactions.

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon.
Ariane, however, overhears the entire scheme, and beats Monsieur X to the hotel to give Flanagan a heads up. After very quick planning, the unfaithful wife departs from the building via the balcony, while Ariane poses as Flanagan's mistress. When Monsieur X breaks into the hotel room, gun in hand, he discovers that it is not indeed his wife, and that Chavasse must have gotten his information wrong.

We quickly discover that Flanagan is a huge womanizer, who travels from city to city on business meeting mistresses along the way. He is unmarried, and tells Ariane, "I think people should always behave as though they were between planes." He doesn't believe in love, and puts it poetically when he says, "He who loves and runs away, lives to love another day." Though Ariane may pretend that she's fine with it, the truth is, and everyone knows it, she's in love for the first time in her life.

The lightness of the film may be distorted somewhat by the drastic age difference between Hepburn and Cooper. Though their character's ages are never specified in the film, the two actors were 28 years apart when the film was made -- 28 and 56, respectively. But Wilder handles it delicately and tastefully, never showing much more in terms of flirtation between the two other than a romantic dance or an innocent kiss on the lips. The viewer is left to insinuate the rest. The subject arises once in the film, when Ariane states her distaste for young men, saying, "Actually I don't much care for young men. Never did. I find them conceited and clumsy, and very unimaginative." This is bad news for Ariane's friend and band partner, Michel (Von Doude), who is in love with Ariane, and though he may be a more acceptable beau age-wise, Ariane is oblivious to it.

While he's in Paris, Ariane only visits him in the afternoon, when she sneaks off following her band practice, so not to arouse suspicious from her protective father. While Flanagan does indeed fancy Ariane, he continually states that it is nothing serious, and Ariane combats his lack of commitment by pretending that she is also a heartbreaker, courting man after man, and inventing elaborate stories of these alleged men to make it seem more believable. In fact, Ariane doesn't even divulge her true name to Flanagan, who eventually continues on his travels, only to return a year later on business, but also to resume his courtship with Ariane.

The film, like most features around this time, handles women in a  misogynistic manner, almost like objects, but that notion is used mostly as a vehicle to convey the overlying messages of requited love and mutual respect. Cooper in his ripe age plays the part convincingly enough, more with his eloquence than anything else. Hepburn, meanwhile, is a doll, soft-spoken and graceful, and was no doubt in peak physical form when this movie was made.

The humor culminates when Flanagan hires Chavasse to investigate Ariane's true identity, and as a result, hires him to investigate his own daughter. But the film, age difference aside, is about experiencing your first love, and realizing the importance of it when you are the recipient. Though Ariane and Flanagan both enjoy each other's company, they are polar opposites in their ideas of love. Flanagan is just living "between planes," while Ariane is head-over-heels, hopelessly in love. Again, despite the noticeable age difference, there is indeed a nice chemistry between Hepburn and Cooper, making the film that much more enjoyable. Indeed, there are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

~ Review by Ddubbs