More Features

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2

« August 2007 | Main

September 13, 2007

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”(***)
Directed by Sidney Lumet

This fall is going to feel more and more like the seventies as we are getting new films from a trio of great directors of that golden era in American cinema: Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Brian De Palma. We’ll also see a brilliant new documentary from Jonathan Demme about the U.S. President who closed out the seventies under heavy criticism for a hostage crisis situation he could not resolve. The Coppola film, “Youth Without Youth,” is not in Toronto, but I am anxiously awaiting a press screening as it is Coppola’s first work in ten years as a director.

Sidney Lumet has been far more active but often with mixed results. The last truly great film he made was “The Verdict” in 1982, though in the fifteen years between he has certainly made some interesting films. His greatest works were in the 70s when he directed such films as “Serpico,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Equus” and into the 80s with “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict” and the criminally under-appreciated “Daniel.”

One of the great actors’ directors, Lumet rehearses his performers to perfection and then works quickly, coming in on time and on budget, which pleases his producers and studios. Actors revere him for his knack of bringing out the very best in them. There was a time when taking a role in a Lumet film meant you had a very strong chance of being nominated for an Academy Award and perhaps winning one. In the 70s and 80s, actors were nominated for twelve Academy Awards under the guidance of Lumet, four taking home wins. “Network” won three of the four Oscars for acting in its year. One of the performances, from Beatrice Straight, boasted just eight minutes of screen time!

Through his career, which now spans six decades, Lumet has directed just about every major actor and actress, guiding some of the strongest performances ever put on film including Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men,” Katherine Hepburn in “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, Rod Steiger in “The Pawnbroker”, Al Pacino twice in “Serpico” and again in “Dog Day Afternoon,” William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight in “Network,” Richard Burton and Peter Firth in “Equus” and Paul Newman in “The Verdict.” He is a master craftsman, one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema, and at 83, he’s still going strong.

Lumet’s latest film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” is fresh and alive, a nasty tale of a robbery gone horribly wrong, unfolding like a grand tragedy, almost Shakespearean in its execution. Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers, one reasonably successful, though stealing from his company, and the other not. They devise the robbery of a mom and pop jewelry store hoping to make a fast few thousand dollars, the catch being it is their parents’ store. The robbery goes as wrong as it could possibly go and their mother is killed in the shootout that was never supposed happen. Panicking, they do everything to cover their tracks, but Hank has involved outside parties who want to be compensated for their losses. Thrown into the mix is the fact Hank is sleeping with Andy’s neglected wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) who is simply fed up with her husband. When their grieving father, Charles (Albert Finney), starts poking around in their lives, he discovers that his sons were involved and the whole thing becomes a terrible nightmare for the family.

The performances in this film are superb, in particular Hawke’s as the terrified brother who knows he is responsible for his mother’s death and now fears being killed himself for his part in this entire mess. Hoffman is equal to him in every frame as the calculating, much colder brother who is upset his mother was killed, but really does not see it as his fault. Marisa Tomei has never before been this sexy or wounded; I loved every minute she was on screen. If there is anything I had trouble with it was Albert Finney’s slack-jawed father, though admittedly the performance grew in power over the course of the film. I wondered why he spent the first half of the film with his mouth open looking like an idiot. The slap on the face he delivers to Hoffman seems to wake him up and from that point on he is outstanding.

Nothing nice happens in this film, it is as bleak as they get, but well-told and nicely acted with Lumet’s direction superb.

“Man From Plains” (*****)
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Documentaries seem to be having something of heyday over the last decade, many enjoying mainstream success, with major filmmakers stepping into the role of director. Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Werner Herzog are just three directors who have gone the doc route to extraordinary acclaim. Lee was sadly ineligible for Academy Award recognition last year by not for his stunning efforts in “When the Levees Broke,” simply the greatest doc I have ever seen.

Jonathan Demme goes the way of non-fiction with “Man From Plains,” one of the best films of the festival this year, following former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on his 2006 book tour for his best seller “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which was acclaimed in some quarters and condemned in others. Though Carter’s presidency was tainted by his failure to get American hostages out of Iran, he makes clear here his thinking that rather than kill tens of thousands, including the hostages, he chose the more peaceful route and though that choice often made him look soft, in the years since, he has looked more and more like a great President and man of peace.

Indeed, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing peace to the world. The film documents his tour, beginning at home in Georgia where he attends church and barbeques, posing for endless photographs for those who love him, and then moves around the United States promoting his book, making television and radio appearances, always smiling, and certainly willing to take on anyone who challenges his beliefs in the book.

Carter comes across as a very intelligent, well-read, laser-sharp man who, in his 80s, may be in his prime. Along the way he discusses his 61-year marriage to the love of his life, poetry, his mother, history and religion and of course his thoughts on the presidency of current leader George W. Bush, who like many Americans, Carter has very little use for. I felt at the end of the film I knew Carter, and certainly had found a profound respect for the man emerging while watching the movie, and wished, oh how I wished that this man was in office right now. If he was, would we be Iraq? The film is an insightful, probing effort that is a frontrunner for best documentary feature of the year.

“Redacted” (****)
Directed by Brian De Palma

“Casualties of War” was a dark, troubling, unsettling film set in Vietnam about a squad denied liberty, who decide to kidnap a young Vietnamese girl for their sexual pleasure. They take her out of her bed, from her home while her mother weeps and hands her a scarf, take her into the jungle where they rape her for several days, brutalize her and then kill her. Only one refuses to take part and reports his buddies when they return, finally seeing them court marshaled for their actions.

The incident was true, first written about in 1969, and read by Brian De Palma who waited 20 years to make the film, casting Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox. The film is one of the finest studies of the madness in Vietnam, but audiences shied away from the all too real horror, making it of course one of the most authentic studies of that war. The late Pauline Kael hailed the film as a masterpiece, but one is hard pressed to find anyone who has seen it. I believe it to be, along with “Blow Out,” the finest work of De Palma’s career.

He too makes a profound comeback with “Redacted,” an angry, ferocious new film shot on digital video with the look of a documentary about a squad of soldiers in Samarra caught in the middle of a civil war and the madness of the war in the Middle East. Like the misguided young men in “Casualties of War,” they too take a young girl from her home and rape her repeatedly, but then murder her entire family to cover their tracks. What we see is unsettling and horrifying, as De Palma’s camera goes for the ultimate in truths. We listen to YouTube confession from soldiers who have been in the war, watch juxtaposing images that offer different points of view, but are never far from the nightmare of what these young men have done. There is a stunning moment at the end of “In the Valley of Elah” in which a clear-eyed young soldier speaks about going to food after committing a heinous act, and I was constantly thinking about that while watching this film. Are they merely trained to be killers and not given an off switch, or is it possible to give one an off switch?

There is something vital and immediate about this film, as though the soul of the young woman murdered was screaming from her grave for justice, a justice that may never come. A powerful and often frightening film, “Redacted” is among the most fearsome studies of war put on the screen.

September 12, 2007

“Juno” (****)
Directed by Jason Reitman

I first became aware of Ellen Page while watching her astonishing performance in “Hard Candy” in 2005. She portrayed a vengeful young teen out to get (and I mean get) a photographer who may be a pedophile. Page dominated the film with a confidence I had not seen in an actress so young since Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver.” She is a tiny little thing, looking much younger than her twenty years, but is one of those wise young people who seem older than their years simply by the manner in which they carry themselves.

Roger Ebert has already called for her to get an Oscar nomination for her stunning performance in “Juno,” the new film from director Jason Reitman, and it just might happen as Page all but burns a hole in the screen with her galvanizing performance. As Juno, Page portrays a young girl who tries sex on a lark and gets pregnant. Her dumb-as-a-hammer boyfriend has no clue as to what is going on around him, which makes one wonder why she would bother with him, and her parents react with the appropriate horror. Yet nothing is as it seems here, including the young couple who decide they will adopt the baby once Juno has given birth.

The film explores Juno’s reactions to those around her and makes use of Page’s hyper-kinetic personality. This is a major performance that must, simply must, be widely considered a frontrunner for the Academy Award.

In strong supporting roles are the sublime Allison Janney as Juno’s mother and Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the bizarre couple that are going to adopt the child. However, as good as they are (and they are superb), make no mistake; this film belongs to the astounding Ellen Page. To quote an old timer from Hollywood, “a star is born”

“Cassandra’s Dream” (***)
Directed by Woody Allen


Woody Allen. What to make of this career rebirth?

Having recovered from the scandal that rocked his life in the early nineties when he was found to be having an affair with one of his lover’s adopted children, Soon Yi, whom he has since married, Allen seems to be undergoing some sort of renaissance.

Now in his seventies, one of the most acclaimed writer and directors in the history of the cinema has made a career out of writing from within, creating some of the finest films ever made. Allen’s best works, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” contain finely written roles for men and women, usually stronger for the ladies, and tend to be astute studies of life and relationships. He is arguably the greatest screenwriter in film history, and without argument one of the greatest directors. To his credit, Allen has continued to evolve over the years, despite an output of a film a year, sometimes two. “Match Point,” his devilishly clever thriller with Scarlett Johansson was a return to form for the master in 2005 and a break from New York as the backdrop for his films, seeming to change up his creativity with a new landscape in London, England.

Allen’s newest film, “Cassandra’s Dream,” is not a comedy but a tragedy of the highest order, nicely acted by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, two of the oddest Allen stars ever. Both do excellent work for the director.

Cast as two young brothers, men trying to make their way in life by dubious means, of course it is going to end badly, how else can a tragedy end? Their involvement with their jet-setting Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) will divide the brothers forever and bring them to the realization that good old Uncle Howard is not such a nice man. Wilkinson is again brilliant (when is he not?) and the film again breaks Allen from his best known genre of romantic comedy allowing him, at 70, to stretch those creative muscles.

A final non-review note: much is being made here over the subject matter in “Nothing is Private,” a film I have not yet seen and may not due to schedule issues. Apparently there is a sequence in which an adult has sex with a 13 year old girl, portrayed however by a 19 year old actress. Walkouts have been by the dozen and now the film is in trouble with some critics who have sharpened their pens and moved to go on the attack. What stops me from thinking the work is simply something exploitive is that it is written and directed by Alan Ball who wrote “American Beauty” and created the HBO series “Six Feet Under.” Hopefully I can see the film, but at this moment it is the talk of the fest.

September 11, 2007
DAY FIVE - Canuck Special

With “Eastern Promises” stealing the lion’s share of thunder on the Canadian film front, I decided to try and see a couple of high-profile homegrown films in the hopes of finding some other strong Canadian product.

The Denys Arcand film, “Days of Darkness,” has not yet screened, but I am nonetheless hearing some disappointing things about the work and am not expecting the same sort of film as “The Barbarian Invasions,” which is a Canadian masterwork.

Francois Girard’s “The Red Violin” was a surprise hit at the 1998 fest and went on to win several Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscar), including best picture and best director, later winning an Academy Award for best musical score.


“Silk” (**)
Directed by Fracois Girard

“Silk” marks Francois Girard’s first film since the success of that effortless work spanning decades in the life of a violin. Based on the bestselling novel by Alessandro Baricco, the film is a sweeping romantic drama set in the late 19th century, telling the tale of Joncour (Michael Pitt), who travels to Japan to retrieve valuable silkworm eggs. In France, the eggs are poisoned and the worms are dying, leaving the silk industry on the brink of ruin. Roguish trader Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) makes the young man an offer he cannot resist, and with the help of the boy’s overbearing father, he soon finds himself en route to Japan, three thousand miles away.

Before leaving, Joncour marries the love of his life, Helene (Keira Knightley), and then embarks on the dangerous journey, returning with the eggs and becoming wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. However, the mystery and beauty of Japan puts a hook in him that will not let go, in particular a beautiful young woman he encounters who leaves with him a note that forever alters his life.

The film reminded me of the period pieces of Merchant/Ivory, only moving slower and with less passion. Michael Pitt is a proven talent, but here has little to do with the material he is given and he is not yet strong enough to make do on his own. Keira Knightley does some strong work as the young wife who suspects her husband is infatuated with another, and Alfred Molina is always superb. The pacing of the film is unbearably slow and methodical, and the picture has a true lack of passion, of lust, which is essentially what we are dealing with here. When we have a love story lacking that chemistry between the actors and the audience, we have no film.

“The Stone Angel” (***)
Directed by Kari Skogland

Kari Skogland’s “The Stone Angel” will mean a great deal more to Canadian audiences as the film is based on a beloved Canadian novel by Margret Lawrence. Skogland has done a fine job of bringing the novel to the screen, relying heavily on her actors to create authentic characters that the audience will make a connection with.

First and foremost is Ellen Burstyn as the ancient Hagar, a proud and fiercely independent old woman who knows her son and his shrewish wife are about to put her into a nursing home. Her memory is not that great, nor is her health, but she manages to cash a check and grab a bus to head off to a cottage where she once was most happy. Though she finds the cottage in ruins, her memories come flooding back and she shares them with a young man she encounters on the beach, telling him her story.

Christine Horne is luminous as the life-loving young Hagar, rebelling against her tyrannical father and marrying a man he considers beneath her. Though initially deeply in love with Bram (Cole Hauser), he proves to be an unreliable drunk and eventually, as her sons grow, she leaves him to a life of drunkenness. She returns years later to find he lost his mind to the bottle. Hagar, the young and the old, has many lessons to learn about life, and though she suffers tragedies, we see in old age she never loses that spirit that burns so bright as a young woman.

Burstyn, one of the greatest living actresses, is superb as Hagar, capturing the anguish of an old woman who cannot remember some things, and remembers some things she would like to forget. But when the memories flood back they are unforgiving, assaulting her from all sides and reminding her of the mistakes she made as a person. The actress is profoundly astounding in the role, as is Christine Horne as her nubile counterpart, suggesting with every movement and facial expression the Hagar she will become.

The film is more sexual than I remember the novel being, though I admire Skogland for her use of the ever staring, ever watchful angel who guards the Curry family plot and seems to see all, including right through into Hagar’s very soul.

September 10, 2007

“In the Valley of Elah” (*****)
Directed by Paul Haggis

Paul Haggis’s latest is a troubling American masterpiece and destined to be one of the most discussed and debated films of the year, not to mention a likely Oscar candidate. Haggis has been the golden boy of Hollywood these past few years, writing “Million Dollar Baby” for Clint Eastwood, directing and writing “Crash,” which won him Oscars for best picture and best screenplay, and contributing to the story of “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

This time he puts forth a searing indictment of the American involvement in Iraq, but more importantly, it’s a lacerating study of the manner in which the military turns young men into fighting machines and yet does not train them to turn that off once they return home. Is there really any preparation for the horrors one will see during war? I don’t think so. In this film the soldiers seem so young going off to boldly defend the country in a war many believe to be predicated on a lie.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a brilliant performance, the finest of his career, as a retired military man investigating his son’s disappearance after the boy returns home from Iraq. Within a day he learns his son has been brutally murdered on American soil and resolves himself to find the answers behind the killing. With the help of Emily (Charlize Theron), a sympathetic detective, he slowly pieces together the events that led to the killing, though the answers will startle them, leaving them in absolute horror at what has transpired.

Jones has never before dominated a film with such raw power; no-nonsense, taciturn and often harsh, he is a force of nature who is going to find out what happened whether or not he has the help of the military or the local police. If I have any quibble with the film it would be that Susan Sarandon is wasted in the role of Hank’s (Jones) wife, left with just a few scenes. However that is a very small beef with a film so full of power and anger.

The valley of Elah is where David slew Goliath, and is of course metaphorical here in two ways. The first and most obvious is the little man going up against the military machine, while the second and more complicated is the manner in which the impact of war forever kills young men, taking away an innocence that is gone forever. Only a few are able to rise above it, the Jones character being one of them. Stunning and heartbreaking, the final images of the film make an extraordinary impact and political statement. Hopefully this is one President Bush sees.


“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (**)
Directed by Shekhar Kapur

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” may just be the most disappointing film of the festival, despite a luminous performance from the great Cate Blanchett who will undoubtedly earn an Academy Award nomination for her work. The film has many narrative problems and logistic issues, beginning with the fact it takes place twenty seven years into her reign which puts her in her fifties, and yet Blanchett does not look a day over 35. Added to that is the awkward timing of the film’s release, still very close to the HBO masterwork Elizabeth I with a marvelous performance from Helen Mirren as the Queen.

What hurts the film the most is the fact that this fiery ruler is reduced to a simpering lady all but begging for a kiss from a man she had banished previously for falling in love with Bess (Abbie Cornish), one of her ladies. These issues aside, Blanchett is superb as a Queen facing the greatest challenges of her life. Spain wants very much to see her killed and replaced by the Catholic Queen, Mary of Scotland (Samantha Morton), imprisoned by Elizabeth. When an attempt is made on the life of Elizabeth and it proves Mary is behind it, she has no choice but to execute her cousin, though she is devastated by the act.

Once the head of the treacherous Mary has rolled off her body, Spain launches a massive naval attack on England which threatens to bring the country down. Elizabeth resolves to fight back, not wanting her country to fall when she is on the throne.

There are some fine supporting performances in the film, best of all Abbie Cornish as love-struck Bess, and Samantha Morton as the Queen of Scotland who is stunned when her treachery is discovered. Clive Owen, a brilliant actor, does not have much to do except look roguish and dashing in his costumes, but the man handles the role of a hero very well.

This film lost considerable ground here at TIFF. But count on at the very least a nomination for the great Cate.


“Across the Universe” (****)
Directed by Julie Taymor

A magical mystery tour springs from the fertile and wild imagination of Julie Taymor, who last gave us the Oscar winning “Frida” in 2002 and before that the expressionistic “Titus” in 1999, with Anthony Hopkins raging as the mad king. On Broadway Taymor is best known for the superb production of “The Lion King,” which won countless awards and made her the toast of the great white way, though she has been turning more and more to film these last five years.

“Across the Universe” is without a doubt her finest achievement and greatest risk. Using the music of the Beatles as her inspiration, the film is about two star-crossed lovers, Jude and Lucy (I kid you not) and their adventures with the sixties as a backdrop and the specter of Vietnam looming large. Once again Taymor uses puppetry merged with live action to drive her narrative and it works beautifully, though one must be willing to take a leap of faith with the film.

Evan Rachel Wood is outstanding as Lucy, bringing a clear-eyed grace to the screen that few young actors have. Sean Penn was heard griping about the young talent in Hollywood, but with actors like Wood I think we are alright. The film is demanding in its depiction of a cultural revolution, but ultimately a love story at its heart and full of hope. You will leave the theatre floating on air.


“Margot at the Wedding” (****)
Directed by Noah Baumbach

Spending ninety minutes with the characters in Noah Baumbach’s latest effort is like spending time with people you know you could never like, and that you quite frankly despise. They are mean, treacherous to one another and believe without a shadow of a doubt that the universe revolves around them and their needs.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is returning to her childhood home with her son for her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding to Malcolm (Jack Black). Upon laying eyes on Malcolm, Margot knows at once that Pauline is making a huge mistake because the man is clearly beneath her. There is nasty history between the sisters as they have not spoken in years, the result of Margot’s insistence of speaking her mind all the time and writing about everything that happens in the family. They are the sort of people who tell one another that what they are being told is confidential, but within minutes are confiding that secret in someone else. When they lash out, they do so viciously, finding the other’s weak spot and honing in on that.

Kidman is superbly venomous as the messed up Margot, struggling with her own marriage and petty insecurities. Leigh is as always a revelation; perhaps the Academy will finally honor her with a long-deserved nomination. However, stealing the film, and I cannot quite believe I am saying this, is Jack Black as Malcolm, the hopelessly screwed up fiancé of Pauline, who despite all of his issues – and there are many – truly loves her. Is love enough to hold them together?

Can any of these people honestly forgive one another and embrace each as family? After all that is what family does, right? Nicely directed and written by Noah Baumbach, fast becoming this generation’s Woody Allen.

“King of California” (BOMB!)
Directed by Mike Cahill

Touted high here as containing one of Michael Douglas’s finest performances, I felt embarrassed for the actor part way through this mess, wondering what exactly he thought he was accomplishing on the screen.

Portraying a father being released from a mental hospital after two years, he returns home to his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), a resourceful 17 year old who has quit school to work, bought a car off ebay (even though she has no license) and grown up very quickly in Dad’s absence. When he comes home, she finds very quickly that he has not really changed, and his latest scheme is buried treasure under the local Costco store.

Douglas seems to think that wild-eyed looks and frantic motion passes for madness on screen, and the use of that same high-pitched, eerie music from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells me that perhaps he actually thought this was his McMurphy. Not even close, my friend…a terrible performance and a dreadful movie. Poor Evan Rachel Wood, how could she have known what she was getting herself into?

September 09, 2007

Gremlins in the e-mail system have prevented my coverage from getting through to Kris these last few days and I think finally I have the problem solved. Rather than go day by day, let’s just get caught up on what I have seen these first few days.

“Rendition” (***)
Directed by Gavin Hood

Things got moving early with a morning screening of “Rendition,” the new political thriller from the director of the Oscar winning “Tsotsi,” a hit here a couple of years ago. The film stars Reese Witherspoon, which gave me immediate pause about as I am not a fan of the actress nor a believer that she deserved that Oscar she collected for “Walk the Line” two years ago. But after the film I was left eating my words.

Witherspoon does some fine work as a wife distraught over her husband’s detainment by the American government when evidence links him to a bombing in the Middle East. She is left asking the double edged sword questions: “Why would they target this good man?” and “What is there I many not know about my husband?” Witherspoon does a wonderful job conveying the sense of torment one would go through in a dilatation like this.

Stealing the film is Meryl Streep as a CIA chief with the power to order a person detained and tortured for information. What makes her truly terrifying is that she believes this is right, that what she is doing is proper for America. Never has Streep been so chilling and remote…or outright frightening. Jake Gyllenhall does alright as the young CIA operative who is left questioning his country’s methods when he sees first hand the impact on torture of a man who may be innocent.

The film is one of many politically charged films playing here this fall, and it makes a strong statement about what this sort of behavior does to one’s soul. Are we not stooping to their level by torturing one of our own, or a fellow human being? This is what the films asks. The only Oscar chances I see, however, are for Streep for best supporting actress.


“Michael Clayton” (****)
Directed by Tony Gilroy

“Michael Clayton” should do much stronger with both critics and the Academy as first time director Tony Gilroy has created a seventies style film that looks and feels like an Alan J. Pakula effort (meant with the highest of praise). George Clooney is Clayton, a high powered fixer for a legal firm who values him for his unique skills in making difficult issues go away for the firm’s rich clients. When one of the firm’s best lawyers has some sort of breakdown after discovering information that goes against the client he is representing, Clayton is sent in to fix the matter, but finds that things are not at all as they seem.

The lawyer, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), is Clayton’s friend and a brilliant legal mind, with no real reason to go this way unless he was on to something. When he disappears, Clayton realizes the stakes are much higher than he ever thought and he soon has greater problems than the personal debt he is struggling with.

Clooney is among the rare talent to balance being an actor, and a damned fine one, with being a movie star, possessing that old fashioned movie star glamour. If they were to remake “Gone with the Wind,” he would have to be Rhett Butler. He delivers a fine performance here, one full of self-doubting and regret, nicely supported by the great Tom Wilkinson as a man who has found the very thing he treasures is sick and twisted. Tilda Swinton is all icy menace as the lawyer for the other side, proving to be far more drastic than anyone realizes. Clooney and Wilkinson are good bets for Oscar attention.


“No Country for Old Men” (*****)
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

The Brothers Coen deliver one of the best films of the year “No Country for Old Men,” a modern day western full of dark humor and violence, reeking of the brand of film that has made the Coens among the most gifted filmmakers working in modern film. Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto a massacre, bodies everywhere, men and trucks riddled with bullets and a case filled with two million dollars cash. He takes the money, of course, and in doing so places events and actions in motion that will severely impact his life.

Hot on the trail of the cash is Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) a vicious, resourceful hitman who is a force of nature and seemingly unstoppable. He kills without conscience, almost for sport because in most cases he could let the person move on and does not. I cannot remember a more chilling character in movies in the last ten years. Tommy Lee Jones is the world weary sheriff close to retirement who seems to understand that this is a man not to be trifled with and is anxious to get to Moss before the killer does.

The sparse landscape adds to the film’s heat and tension, and the Coens create a screenplay that is both darkly funny and vicious in its humor.

A knockout and one of the years very best. Oscar awaits.


“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (*****)
Directed by Andrew Dominik

A masterpiece plain and simple – covered in a longer article.


“Eastern Promises” (****)
Directed by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s latest provided another opportunity for the director to work with the great Viggo Mortensen, this time cast as a Russian driver for the mob in London. When a young woman dies, leaving behind a diary, the midwife (Naomi Watts) does some digging and finds where the young woman worked. Her uncle translates the diary for her and learns that the girl was a slave of the Russian mafia, addicted to heroin by the mob to use as a prostitute at the age of fourteen.

When the book links the mob boss directly to the girl, he orders the evidence destroyed and orders the driver to get involved and make the uncle disappear and orders his own son to kill the child. Nothing is as it seems in the film, which is loaded with surprises and loads of violence. Mortensen is brilliant as the sensitive driver, getting far more involved with this young midwife, nicely played by Watts than he should. The great Armin Mueller-Stahl is quietly terrifying as the mob boss who wants the girl dead. The Academy has long ignored Cronenberg, but they may not be able to do so any longer. This is superb on every level.


“Into the Wild” (****)
Directed by Sean Penn

Sean Penn’s most accessible film to date allows him to paint on his largest canvas. He delivers a superb film with an astonishing performance from young Emile Hirsch as a rich child of privilege who gives away his college fund, all his belongings and hits the road inspired by the work of Jack London and Tolstoy, both of whom struggled with nature and man’s insight into himself.

Chris (Hirsch) is looking for something he does not see in the world, some sort of beauty that he finds in nature. There are stunning moments watching him conquer the wild, being moved to tears at the simple sight of a herd of reindeer, throwing him into this thing called life. Obviously Penn, a patriot against the war in Iraq, is making a statement here, asking Americans to look at their country through the eyes of Chris and realize it is not about possession, it is about living. Though Chris moves far from the path he was to follow, he truly lives, more than anyone else around him. There are strong supporting performances from William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his smug parents and Jena Malone as the sister who loves him enough to let him go. Just brilliant filmmaking.

Back tonight with more.

September 08, 2007

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (*****)
directed by Andrew Dominik

For reasons known only to me, a film junkie, a lover of the American western, I could not get “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” out of my mind – not while watching another movie, not in the evening as I sat down to write, and not this morning when I awoke. The film has seared itself a spot on my brain, I think forever.

There is something contradictory about the great westerns because the genre itself seems so simple. Yet that simplicity is misleading because the best westerns, those that challenge us as people are complex and powerful, asking moral questions that are often difficult to answer.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in “The Searchers” is a deeply troubled man, forever raging, yet full of love for his family, for his kin, which leads him on a six year search to find his niece, kidnapped by Indians and now being raised as one of them. To our horror we come to realize that Ethan is not searching for the girl to bring her home but to kill her as he considers her to have been defiled by the Indians he so despises. We see Ethan's hatred throughout the film, shooting buffalo for no reason other than he believes a few Indians may go hungry because of his actions, or charging into an Indian camp in the hopes they will kill the white girl. Yet when he comes face to face with Debbie, who fears him, he lifts her up into his massive arms as he did when she was a child, sweeps her tight to his body and whispers to her, “Let’s go home Debbie.”

The last thing Ethan expected to find on this quest was his humanity, yet that is precisely what he finds looking into the terrified eyes of his sole family member. Should we hate Ethan for what he was going to do, or take him into our hearts for what he did?

In Ford’s classic film we recognize that Ethan will not join the community he brings Debbie back to, as he is forever an outsider, a wanderer not unlike his Indian enemies. When the film ends it is Ethan's unpredictability we cannot shake, that knowledge that he may kill at any given moment.

Though John Wayne won an Oscar thirteen years later for “True Grit,” the greatest performance he ever gave was in “The Searchers,” followed closely by his final work as a cancer ridden gunslinger in “The Shootist.”

Brad Pitt brings that same sort of inner rage, that unpredictability, to his performance as Jesse James in this new film. Ever watchful eyes, taking in everything in the room, it is a small detail that never leaves you while watching the film and obviously, for me after. There air seems to go out of the room when Jesse walks in, as all eyes are on him but often for all the wrong reasons. His growing paranoia leads those around him to wonder when they will get on his bad side and end up dead – even when delivering praise there seems an under current of anger that frightens the person being praised.

By all accurate historical accounts of James, Brad Pitt seems to deliver an astonishing performance of great authenticity, disappearing under the skin of the character moments after the film begins. There is no trace of Pitt during the film, he is Jesse James, inhabiting the skin and finding the dark soul of this celebrity.

Casey Affleck is equally fine as Robert Ford, the bullied and picked-on little brother who worships James and cannot quite believe his good fortune at being near the outlaw. In fact this worship borders on being psychotic behavior. Speaking in a high pitched, reedy voice, an odd smile springing to his face, easily shamed, this is not a man you would want in your party with a gun at your back. We understand why he kills James, but so charismatic is Pitt’s performance that we do not want him to die, and Ford discovers, too late, that neither did he.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a masterpiece, a brilliant film that will be remembered for years to come, though I am not sure if audiences today will find the film as masterful as I did. It unfolds at a leisurely pace, unhurried, and is much more of a character study than most westerns dare to be. The director makes demands on his audience, perhaps confusing them with some of his choices in lighting and cinematography, blurring the edges of the frame from time to time, perhaps to suggest how history has blurred the legend of James, elevating him to near-mythical proportions. Hopefully it will be recognized that he has done something new, something fresh and bold, something that goes far beyond the standard mainstream fare being dumped on audiences these days. And that is something worth celebrating.

I intend to try and see the film again today, and will be first in line when it opens in theatres in a few weeks. It is utterly astonishing and may be the year’s best film.

September 07, 2007

“The Brave One”
Directed by Neil Jordan


When the film was over, my only thought was of the blatant irresponsibility of the writer and director in creating a film that not only champions vigilantism, but shows the audience a by the book cop break the rules and allow himself to be sucked into a web of murder…


Jodie Foster stars as Erica, a radio talk show host in New York City – like Woody Allen, her city, the city she loves. One night, Jane and her fiancée are attacked by a group of thugs who beat her love to death and take her dog. Badly beaten herself and left for dead, Jane recovers from the savagery, now angry, somehow changed by what has happened to her. She makes the perfectly irrational decision to buy an illegal gun and quickly learns how to use it.

Jane then takes to the streets, quickly overcoming a phobia, where it seems each time she is out and about she encounters criminal activity that requires her interference…meaning she shoots and kills people breaking the law. This happens not once but several times as the places she visits seem to be conveniently teeming with injustice.

Mercer (Terrence Howard), a detective investigating Jane’s case, befriends her and slowly realizes that she may indeed be up to no good at night. He also makes it very clear that he has the conviction to put someone away who he knows is breaking the law.

Jodie Foster is incapable of giving a bad performance as she is far too fine an actress, far too intelligent. Her work here is extremely focused, very strong, though I question why, as actress and executive producer, she would not have questioned the film's ending?

Oscar nominee Terence Howard is equally good as the cop who becomes her friend and then violates everything he believes in to protect her. But I wanted to scream at the screen, “You just blew it!!!”

Comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” are ridiculous. Travis Bickle was driven by madness while Foster is driven by a need for closure and revenge. The horror of “Taxi Driver” was that he got away with it because they believed he was saving a young girl when in fact he was feeding his bloodlust. Where these comparisons come from I don’t know, and I certainly will not be sucked into thinking the same.

This is a well crafted and well acted film, but it is horribly irresponsible in its conclusion.