Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Mist

Mist by a mile...

Frank Darabont, who penned and directed superior adaptations of Stephen King's work with The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, made an interesting choice when he chose to take on King novella "The Mist" as his latest project. The written story is short, shocking, and bloody, and as far as novellas go, it makes for a good way to spend a couple of hours. I wish I could say the same for the film version, which Darabont himself said in an interview recently was a complete departure from the norm for him. As I sat in the theater, squirming in my seat for 124 minutes, I wished no less than a dozen times that he had left well enough alone and kept making good movies.

What we have here is a classic formula of "archetypes stuck in a small space who must fight for their lives" after a storm blows through a small Maine town, bringing with it a thick fog filled with all manner of creepy crawlies that have a taste, naturally, for the dumbest people in the movie. The small space in this case is a grocery store, where a trip for emergency supplies following the storm becomes the stage for showcasing the number of crazies who apparently like to live or vacation in the Maine countryside. Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, one of the smarter ones, who is there with his little boy Billy and his pompously lawyeriffic neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Brougher). Also shopping for canned goods are Resourceful Nerdy Guy, Hot Blonde Sexual Tension Device, Tough Old Lady Who Should Have Been the Hero, Dumb Hick #1, Dumb Hick #2, and Dumb Hick Who Goes Crazy. Of course we can't forget the most pivotal of the town folk, Religious Nutcake who Eats Fire and Brimstone for Breakfast. This one is played by Marcia Gay Harden in a role that indicates that someone attempted to act in this movie.

The Mist suffers heavily from Lost Script Syndrome, a disease that a movie contracts when it becomes clear that everyone involved in making the picture lost their script and decided to just wing it. This is evidenced by a hasty first act, a lumbering, meandering second act, and choppily delivered dialog. "There are... things out there. Things." It's not very often when a major motion picture has the same awkwardness with its lines as a first-time host of Saturday Night Live who can't break eye contact with the cue cards.

Certainly there were some well-done aspects to the movie. A lot of the visuals were genuinely frightening. I jumped a few times, and the creatures from the mist had an other-worldly quality that were more than faithful to my imagination's depiction of them from the original story. I also enjoyed the Resourceful Nerd character, Ollie Weeks, who delivered the much-needed response to the culminating insanity brought about by Religious Nutcake.

But for the genuine scares and shocks brought about by The Mist, the film could not escape the weight of the over-the-top idiocy of its characters. In a typical movie of this genre, there is always one guy who everyone wishes would just go ahead and die already. In this movie, there there were several.

As if all this weren't enough to warrant a below-average rating, the ending of the film brought about such overwhelming feelings of outrage and disgust, I couldn't recall walking out of a theater so angry in a long time. Without revealing too much, I will say that I felt tricked in a most disingenuous sort of way, like someone who was just fed a sandwich made with moldy bread and was given a glass of spoiled milk with which to wash it down. Frank Darabont should be ashamed for choosing to wrap up this movie in such a way.

Suffice to say, if you have missed The Mist, you haven't missed much.

Gouda's Final Grade: D

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for This Man...

What level of pain, fear, and guilt would you be able to suffer in order to keep two million dollars? Would you be willing to be chased by a pit bull, shot at by a gang of angry drug dealers, be separated from your spouse, or stalked relentlessly by a homicidal psychopath armed with a pneumatic cattle gun? This is the question that brothers Ethan and Joel Coen ask of us in their latest movie No Country for Old Men, and it is a question that is answered so candidly, so brutally, that the dream of stumbling upon a satchel full of cash has gone from being a dream come true to one of my worst nightmares.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a poor man who lives with his young wife in a trailer in the no-man's land sector of west Texas. While out hunting, he stumbles upon a crime scene that could only be described as a big drug deal gone bad. Dead bodies, bullets, and vehicles litter the dusty landscape, and a few hundred yards away, on the lap of a dead man, lay the money that no one got. Moss examines the scene carefully and views the stacks of $100 dollar bills with the air of a man who knows what kind of trouble he'd be getting himself into if he took it, but can't resist his human reaction to the sight of so much cash.

His story is but part of this highly-woven tale. Anton Chigurh is a hired gun out to recover the 2 million dollars for the business man overseeing the botched heroin deal. Chigurh is played by Javier Bardem in a way so convincing and terrifying in his almost robotic lack of humanity that I am hard-pressed to think of any cinematic psychopath who is more memorable. Bardem is a Spanish actor best known for his breakthrough, Oscar-nominated role in 2000 in the film Before Night Falls, but he's been in several films since, and his versatility is striking. Here he is nearly unrecognizable, with watery, merciless eyes that absorb all light. This is a man who does not bargain; although, if he is on the fence about killing someone, he may flip a coin so one may spare oneself the fate of having a small spear driven through one's brain. Early in the film, when he chokes the life out of a police officer who briefly apprehends him, his facial expression evokes the only sign of life and emotion we ever see in him.

Tommy Lee Jones is as stalwart as ever as the town Sheriff, Tom Bell, who is chasing the blood trail that Chigurh is leaving in his wake. Bell is a man who is worn down by the cruelties and stupidities of humankind, of which he has undoubtedly seen much in his neck of the woods, where the border between two very different countries becomes incredibly blurred. When things start turning ugly, and it becomes clear that Chigurh has no intention of returning to the money to his employer (should he recover it from Llewelyn Moss), a smooth-talking bounty hunter by the name of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), who is quite familiar with Chigurh, also gets involved.

This is not a simple tale to talk about, however. There are twists. There are turns. There are subtleties that may downright confuse you or that you may mistake for plot holes, but trust me when I say that such nuances are ultimately irrelevant to what this film is about. It is a penetrating character study on evil. It is a glaring look at the follies of human nature, on how nothing in this life comes free of strings. It is about the breathtaking cinematography of the stark Texas landscapes, the spellbinding performances, the emotive score, the tiny, human details like the sweat in people's armpits, and perhaps most importantly: the pitch-perfect dialog that plays in the ears like an intricate piano concerto and could only be found in a Coen brothers film. Every single ingredient these filmmakers needed to best their masterpiece Fargo is here, and the final product is every bit as outstanding and demanding of repeat viewing.

Although there is still over a month left in 2007, I'm going to go ahead and make the call. This is the best film of the year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A+

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beowulf 3D

Ray Winstone as he likely looks in his wildest dreams...

How does one describe in words something that is more than "over the top?" I suppose it would suffice to say that a movie like Beowulf has traveled far beyond the summit that most movies in its class (300 is the first to come to mind) have attained and is still trying to find a place to land. I have never seen a movie quite like Beowulf, with its striking dichotomy of brazen audacity and comedic irony, and I doubt I will again.

The story of Beowulf is a legend of old, usually told in the form of a poem, about a hero who travels to a Danish kingdom to slay a monster that is terrorizing its residents. The monster, Grendel (Crispin Glover), is the byproduct of a love affair between the grizzled King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and a sultry, gold-plated, perpetually almost-nude water demon with stilleto heels for feet played by Angelina Jolie. Apparently Grendel's mom was getting a little impatient with Hrothgar's deadbeat dad ways and allowed her boy to wreak havoc on daddy's newly-built mead house and its drunken patrons. The carnage is as great and ugly as Grendel himself. In fact, if the Grendel scenes had been done in live-action, Beowulf would have likely received an NC-17 rating. Beowulf later goes to slay Grendel's mother and instead finds himself seduced by her promises of power and wealth, and likely her hot bod. Later on, after Beowulf inherits the kingdom and an overwhelming burden of guilt for not doing as he promised, his demon spawn comes looking for papa. I detected an underlying theme throughout this movie: Guys, keep it in your pants.

But let's talk more about the medium in which Beowulf was made, which is motion-capture animation that uses real actors overlaid with heavy artistic embellishments (hence Ray Winstone's six pack abs). Robert Zemeckis seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with this style of movie-making, and I have to admit that I've never been much of a fan of the technique. While I think both The Polar Express and Monster House (the two previous movies made in this style) are wonderful movies, the animation has always been something of a distraction for me. The characters don't look "live" enough to look real, but they don't look "animated" enough either. It's some strange middle-ground between reality and fantasy, and I find it a tad unsettling to watch, which in effect removes me from the story. Seeing the movie in 3D, although thrilling, tended to enhance this problem for me.

Speaking of story, Beowulf was a victim of more than just a problem with its format. It has a tendency to wow the audience into wide-eyed, shocked laughter in one scene and bore them into a stupor the next. The fact that this movie was as long as it was suggests an air of self-indulgence on the part of Zemeckis, something of which he has been guilty in movies past.

But I really enjoyed the lively, tongue-in-cheek spirit of this film. Laughs were plentiful, and I don't think this was unintentional. The makers of this film knew they were telling a fantastical story and made the film mirror those sentiments through and through. Beowulf most certainly has the heart of a dragon. The heart just suffers from a little arrhythmia.

Gouda's Final Grade: B-

Saturday, November 10, 2007

P2

You might not want to turn around...

P2 opens like a classic horror buffet spread with all of the trimmings. Meet Angela (Rachel Nichols), the driven career woman working late into the wee hours on Christmas Eve in an ambiguous law firm in an ambiguous high-rise office building in New York, who is trying to rush out the door to be with her family for the holiday. Meet Tom (Wes Bentley, maintaining the same creep factor he wore so well in American Beauty), the overnight parking attendant who, with his vicious rottweiler Rocky, is appointed to the post of supervising a deserted garage on a night when most people are off sipping spiked eggnog before a toasty fire. He also, from what we eventually gather as the night decends to a certain level of hell for our heroine (a level that is undoubtedly labeled “P2”), has had an eye on Angela for quite some time and has been waiting for an opportune time to introduce himself and maybe invite her to dinner. What Angela doesn’t realize is that such an invitation would come laced with chloroform, handcuffs, and skimpy lingerie. What I realized as the credits rolled was that this ended up being a much better-crafted film than I originally anticipated.

Based on its premise, P2 was a film that was begging to be bad. As with most horror films involving a woman in peril, we expect nothing less than sheer stupidity from our protagonist--the kind that would have us almost rooting for the killer to just put her (and we the audience) out of our misery. Not so with P2, where Angela is actually a pretty smart woman. She is resourceful and strong, and Rachel Nichols plays her at a perfect pitch. While she makes clear that she is most unhappy with her unexpected “date,” she also acts with a sort of self-preservation that is quite convincing. We don’t have to yell at the screen to tell her everything she “should” have done, because in most cases she’s already done those things. Just unsuccessfully. And when her endeavors to escape her captor fail, we feel a little bit of the dread that she must have felt. Tom, on the other hand, is not a cunning, sadistic psychopath. That’s not to say he isn’t a psychopath at all, because he wears that particular badge quite clearly. But aside from a slightly unpredictable temper, the lonely security guard just wants Angela to love him. He deftly tunes out the woman’s terror and attempts to charm her instead. He makes her a nice dinner, pours her wine, and doesn’t even get mad when she stabs him in the shoulder with a fork, reacting like a loving parent would with a wayward toddler. Although it is clear that his patience is on borrowed time, Tom is really just kind of a sad guy. If he weren’t a mentally ill stalker-type, he would actually make a pretty decent boyfriend.

P2 was a pleasant surprise. I was surprised by how smart all of the characters acted. I was surprised by how well the suspense and the effects were staged, and how the movie didn’t go too far out of its way to shock us with sheer cruelty. I was surprised that the only things I could find to really complain about were the weak dialog and the shallow character development. Sure, there are infinitely more superior films to choose from this fall, and P2 won’t be garnering any Oscar nominations, but horror/thriller fans have a decent reason to go to the theater right now, and whatever money this movie makes will actually be justified.

Gouda's Final Grade: B

Sunday, November 04, 2007

American Gangster

American Sociopath

Watching a movie like American Gangster, I always walk away with the impression that the world was much uglier and dirtier 4o years ago than it is today. I mean, cops don't appear to be as depraved and corrupt as they were in this movie, and they certainly don't own wardrobes or hairdos nearly as horrific as those prevalent in the early 70s, but then again, I've never ventured very far from suburbia and something tells me that the seedy underbelly of places like Manhattan or Harlem never quite recede. They just dig deeper to stay hidden.

Frank Lucas (played here by Denzel Washington in his typical stunning form) was a man who was king for a time in this seedy underbelly, and by virtue of following what I like to refer to as the "Wal-Mart" formula, managed to become one of the most powerful drug lords in the Northeast during the late 60s and early 70s. By the "Wal-Mart" formula, I mean that he bought decent product (in this case, heroin) direct from an Asian supplier and sold it on the American streets at discount prices. By doing this, he put many of his competitors (namely other organized crime families) out of business. This feat was made easier due to the Vietnam War. With so many soldiers returning home in coffins, there were plenty of places to stash the drugs and get them into the country. What customs official was going to actually search a fallen soldier's coffin? Exactly.

But it's not merely Lucas' clever business practices that skyrocket him to the top of the drug chain. He makes a point to not stand out in a crowd. He is able to carry on his business for so long while escaping the attention of the authorities because he doesn't make ostentatious displays of his wealth, and he avoids what he refers to as "loudness" in his choices of dress and lifestyle. But while he manages to maintain a quiet, smooth-talking facade, beneath lurks a deadly form of ruthlessness. Intolerant of anyone making the slightest deviation in his very disciplined protocol, he strikes at his own business associates with the speed and brutality of a rattlesnake. His money goes to furnish a beautiful new home for his mother and buy Thanksgiving turkeys for families in Harlem, but Lucas doesn't do this to be humane. He does it to curry favor and goodwill in his neighborhood. And he'll eventually need it, because even the most well-built empires weaken over time.

This is where New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe in an equally Oscar-worthy performance) enters the picture. In demonstrating the topsy-turvy world of moral turpitude that was the law enforcement community during those times, Roberts' possession of ethics was nearly his downfall with his police brethren. Because he turned in a million dollars worth of unmarked drug money that found its way into the trunk of his car, he was deemed too honest to be trusted. His troubles are compounded when his sights are set on taking down Frank Lucas, whom his law enforcement colleagues deem a "cash cow" they don't want to see end up behind bars. When asked by a New York cop why he would want to arrest Lucas, Roberts responds: "We're crazy on this side of the river. Over here, police take down the bad guys." And with tireless patience, he does just that.

But American Gangster is not exactly a "gangster" movie. It parallels the lives of these two vastly different yet intelligent men and it brings them together in the end not to shoot it out, but to talk it out. The dialog and chemistry between Crowe and Washington, when they finally get together, is stellar. Actually, therein lay the problem. We do not see enough of these two great actors together. In fact, we are over an hour and a half into the film before Roberts even realizes that Lucas is the one he needs to apprehend. While this movie is marketed as a cat-and-mouse sort of plot, it is anything but that. The film gets so mired down in the laborious pursuit of fleshing out these characters individually that we don't get nearly enough of the magic that happens when they interact. This is particularly problematic with Roberts, with whom we have to sit through yet another tired cliche of "nagging wife who feels ignored and neglected by husband's noble pursuit." Sure, it's nice to know that Richie Roberts, for all of his professional integrity, has some personal stumbling blocks, but it detracts from the story of Frank Lucas and what went into bring him down.

As a movie with a runtime of 160 minutes, it suffers from the problem of going from 0-60 in 1.34 hours. Because of this, American Gangster falls just shy of achieving greatness, but it is still a very solid execution.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Gone are the days of Casey Affleck's celebrity ambiguity

The first question people will ask when they look at the director credits of this movie is whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that it's written and helmed by Ben Affleck, he of Gigli and other countless commercial and critical failures over the last decade or so. The next question people will ask is whether Affleck did the right thing by putting his lesser-known kid brother in the lead role.

I am going to answer those questions first.

1. Yes, it is a very good thing that Ben Affleck chose to direct this film. If anyone (other than maybe Marty Scorsese) knows or writes Boston better than he can, I'd like to see him. I know it sounds like an eon ago, but try to remember Good Will Hunting and also remember that he and Matt Damon wrote the script and won (very well-deserved) Oscars for doing so.

2. With both this film and The Assassination of Jesse James under his belt, kid brother Casey Affleck is probably going to be holding a gold statuette of his own at some point.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (who was also the author of the novel behind Clint Eastwood's Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is the fourth installment of a series of books devoted to the private investigator duo of lovers Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Genarro (Michelle Monoghan). Kenzie has a way of tracking down thugs and other lowlifes due to his ability to insert himself into the ugly underbelly of Boston. He wears the accent well, knows the street lingo, and has a way of moving that suggests to us that he's never been far from his hometown and will likely be there to stay. Angie is not quite bred from the same stock as her boyfriend, but they compliment each other well, at least in the beginning.

When a 4-year-old girl, Amanda McReady, goes missing in the neighborhood, Kenzie and Angie are hired by the child's aunt (Amy Madigan) to assist the police in their investigation. The reason the aunt is asking for help is because the little girl's mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), is so steeped in alcohol and cocaine, that she's more of a liability than an asset to the search. When they express some reservations about taking on the assignment, the beleaguered relative pleads, "But, you can't do any harm!" And with that in mind, they begin their work in seedy bars and homes unearthing clues. The officers running the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris in an Oscar-worthy performance), Nick Poole (John Ashton), and Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) are at first reluctant to let these two into their investigation, but realize that Kenzie's street-savvy has a certain value. Before we know it, Kenzie is neck deep in a ransom exchange involving some stolen drug money, a Haitian coke dealer, and a whole slew of surprises and twists that I will not reveal here.

The common police procedural has a way of keeping the viewer guessing, but rarely surprises people. Anyone who has seen a single episode of C.S.I. knows the rule that the first person who looks guilty usually isn't, and the person who looks the least likely to have pulled the trigger is usually the one who has traces of gunshot residue on their hands, and a hidden motive to go along with it. What I admired the most about Gone Baby Gone was the skilled construction of a plot that made seemingly insignificant elements in the beginning important keys to understanding later in the film. Some might complain that the film's pace takes a little bit of a dip between the second and third acts, I would argue that the events that take place there are crucial to the development of Kenzie's character, and are also engrossing and brilliantly executed.

Of all of America's major cities, the one I'd least like to be lost in is Boston. It has a long and tattered history, at least by American standards, and with that age comes a legacy of dirt and moral ambiguity that one would be unlikely to find in a place like Desmoines, Iowa. In Gone Baby Gone, this sort of grittiness is captured with such deft skill that if I hadn't known ahead of time that this was someone's directorial debut, I would have pegged it the work of a seasoned auteur. The craft of the script from plot structure and dialog, to the cinematography, the acting, and the very authentic mise en scene all accomplished the goal that any great movie should: to remove me from my seat in the theater and transport me through the screen and into that world. I walked the streets of Boston with Patrick Kenzie. I could smell the soured beer that was likely on the floor of the Murphy's Law tavern. I felt the heart-wrenching sadness and sense of loss of the missing little girl's family (what few of them that were worth a damn) and the constant struggle to find a moral balance that Kenzie experienced in the face of some incredibly difficult choices. I'm still feeling that, actually.

After it's all said and done, Gone Baby Gone presents us with a set of moral and philosophical questions that asks us decide not between right and wrong, but right and right. This sets the stage for debates that have likely raged in many a car on the way home from the cinemaplex after seeing this movie. I was having that own debate with myself. This film is intelligent enough to let us decide for ourselves, but the feelings that are generated by exploring such questions linger long after the closing credits roll.

This is one of the best movies of the year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Sunday, October 21, 2007

30 Days of Night

Yes, Mr. Vampire, it is a bloody mess...

Attempting to review the turgid pill of a vampire movie 30 Days of Night is something of a chore. There are a few things working against me at the moment, not the least of which is a severe headache that started creeping into the right side of my brain about 80 minutes into the viewing. Upon reflection and several Excedrin, I have achieved just enough clarity to become convinced that the headache was not a coincidence. Because of this, I'm going to make it easy on myself and share with you the notes I took during the course of the film, and this should explain volumes:

dialog about as interesting and lively as an insurance seminar
plodding pace in first act
decent art direction
Josh Hartnett miscast
who wrote this screenplay?!
vamps not frightening
frenetic, ineffective editing
interesting overhead perspective shot
long lulls in action--needs some trimming
idiot plot device galore
no real sense of passage of 30 actual days
find something derogatory to say about the lead vamp
what a joyless, bloated, boring piece of crap!

I think that should pretty much sum it up; although I do want to clarify the ire I had with this film. It wasn't the plot. In fact, I think such an idea as a remote town in Alaska that becomes overrun by vampires during it's annual 30-day stint without sunlight is rife with the potential for a romping good time. I do not claim to have read the source material, which is a graphic novel, but as a film, 30 Days of Night contains all of the life and exuberance of a paperweight.

The director, David Slade, seems to have had a difficult time finding an adequate pace for this film. Having helmed the shocking yet good Hard Candy, he seemed in that film to demonstrate a talent for tortuously drawing out time. But in 30 Days of Night, the torture stopped being interesting almost from the beginning. This is due mostly in part to the fact that the performances are two-dimensional and leaden. Josh Hartnett plays Eben, the sheriff of the sleepy Barrow, Alaska, a town that looks almost as if it were comprised of a group of ice shanties and is filled with hardy residents who seem awfully resilient to frostbite as they trudge through white-outs in blizzards. He is involved in a legal separation from his wife, Stella (Melissa George) (and oh how I begged for Eben to scream that name to the top of his lungs during the course of the film) in what can only be described as a desperately needed plot device. We are not told why they are separated, but it's not necessary. I'm giving away nothing by telling you that they will eventually reconcile their differences and fall in love again through the harrowing obstacle of fighting a marauding mass of bloodthirsty undead folk. Hartnett has shown a wealth of acting talent in his previous projects, but with his still slightly boyish features is unconvincing here as the heroic sheriff of this frigid burg.

And speaking of undead folk, I'd like to bring up what is perhaps the biggest problem with 30 Days of Night: the vampires. Folklore generally paints these immortal creatures of the night as charismatic in some sense. Their centuries of life have developed in them a sense of cunning and style that makes their legend somewhat compelling. There are countless variations on the theme, of course. You have your Bella Lugosi version, your tortured, homoerotic Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt/Anne Rice variety, and there is the classic Bram Stoker interpretation. I've never been much of a fan of the brainless, over-zealous, demonic vampire. For one thing, they are just not interesting. If I want an evil eating machine, I'll watch a George Romero film. For another, their actions become incredibly repetitive. After 113 minutes of hearing roars, hisses, and shrieks and being witness to people being repeatedly pulled under their houses or dragged from their cars and having their jugulars ripped open and being "gang-slurped" by a team of humanoid leech/zombie hybrids, I was quite simply bored.

Although it is easy enough to praise the film's visual achievements, namely in lighting, special effects, and art direction, 30 Days of Night contained no surprises and few innovations, with characters that act more like caricatures, and dialog that never managed to make my brainwaves spike above the level of a post-operative bypass patient on a heavy morphine regimen. It's a one-trick pony, and the trick becomes tedious mere yards after crossing the starting line. This film would have fared much better in the hands of a director like Robert Rodriguez whose prowess with both visuals , energy, and dialog has already been proven in this genre with movies like From Dusk Til Dawn and Planet Terror. After sitting through two hours of this chore of a film, I'm more inclined to rename it 2 Hours of Blight.

Gouda's Final Grade: D

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Eastern Promises

Veni, Vidi, Viggo.. or at least the Russian equivalent...

David Cronenberg, director of Eastern Promises, has come a very long way in his career. From a start in low-budget horror films in the 70s, he has bloomed into one of the best dramatic directors in work today. He reminded people of this two years ago with the surprisingly good, Oscar-nominated A History of Violence, and he re-teams with the star of that film, Viggo Mortensen, in a dark, tense Russian crime drama.

In classic Cronenberg form, the movie's first scene is memorably graphic. Perhaps not Scanners "exploding head" graphic, but it's cringe-inducing enough to set the tone for this bloody exploration of a Russian crime family who have transplanted themselves to London. This is not a by-the-numbers mafia story, however. It is told through the words and experiences of vastly different people: Mortensen, the driver and bodyguard for the Vory V Zakone family, a midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), and a 14-year old pregnant Russian girl who died during the birth of her baby (at which Anna was in attendance). The girl left behind a tattered diary detailing the final months of her tragic life. Anna takes it and has it translated by her Russian uncle. The contents of the diary eventually lead her to the restaurant/business front of the Vorys, where the deceptively dangerous patriarch, Seymon, (Armin Mueller-Stahl) becomes aware of the dead girl's words, which are, to say the least, incriminating. The lives of Anna, her family, and the newborn baby are eventually put in grave danger.

That is about all of the plot I'm willing to reveal here. Suffice to say that it shifts gears several times throughout the film's 100 minutes, and the surprises are best served fresh. What I would rather do is extol the many virtues of Eastern Promises, starting with the screenplay. It is exceeding well-written by Steven Knight, whose other credits include the very good Dirty Pretty Things and inexplicably, episodes of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Here the dialog is engaging, appropriate, subtly witty, and not too aware of itself. The pacing and construction of the plot is also pitch-perfect. The film is exactly as long as it needs to be, and tells only the parts of the story that need to be told without making the viewer feel like something is missing. Often films of this genre act like an Encyclopedia Brittanica of mafia life, leaving the audience feeling exhausted by the time the closing credits start rolling. While you might not want to eat immediately after seeing Eastern Promises, you might feel up to running the rest of your day's errands.

The performances here are also not to be ignored. Naomi Watts continues to be one of the better actresses working today, and her role here as the unwitting target of a very dangerous group of people is strong, but with just enough vulnerability to give an otherwise cool movie a little bit of warmth. And then there is Viggo Mortensen, the film's violent and mysterious centerpiece. Clearly a method actor, Mortensen delves into his roles and appears to be consumed by them. He not only played Nikolai. He was him, and watching him fight completely naked in perhaps the most violent and authentically-staged fight scene (I'm sure you've heard, since that's what everyone is talking about) filmed in recent years only increased his worth as an actor in my eyes.

I would like to say that this is one of the best mafia movies I've seen in years, but Cronenberg did not really make a mafia movie. His films tend to transcend genre and instead become fascinating examinations of human nature. He is also a director who continues to surpass himself, and with Eastern Promises he has set his own bar for future efforts higher than ever. I for one can't wait to see what he does.

Final Grade: A

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Kingdom

Saudi Arabia: Not an American vacation destination

The Kingdom, in every sense, begins with a bang. A very loud and bloody bang. For those who have been living off the radar for the last 80 or so years, you might not be aware of the fact that there are people in certain Islamic countries who don't so much appreciate American presence on their soil, and this resentment is normally expressed in the form of powerful explosives. In The Kingdom, we are shown a very powerful attack on an American housing compound in Saudi Arabia. As someone who has never given more than a cursory glance into the machinations of this country, I had no idea such establishments existed. Inside the walls of these compounds, one would see a microcosm of American society. The women roam free and uncovered. There are plenty of Chevys and Fords. There are cookouts featuring lots of pork products. There are baseball games, and those with a high vantage point outside those walls can grab their binoculars and get a glimpse of how the West lives. Imagine if those peeping toms were terrorists.

Jamie Foxx plays Special Agent Robert Fleury who is tasked to investigate the brutal bombing of this compound, and he is accompanied by a small team of other experts that include the most laid-back bomb expert I've ever seen named Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), a young, sarcastic techie guy named Adam, (Jason Bateman), and Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) who has the distinct honor of being not only the lone female in the FBI team, but also one of the few females in the film showing more than an inch of skin above her ankles. Their arrival in the country is not initially welcome. The Saudis and the United States agree that since the bombing was perpetuated by American presence on their soil, the addition of American investigators would only exacerbate the problem. But Agent Fleury manages to convince the Saudi Ambassador (through a meager amount of blackmail) to make the deal happen, and the team is on the first plane to Prince Sultan Air Base.

But don't get the idea that this is a by-the-numbers procedural drama. There is also the element of a buddy film here, and it is between two unlikely characters. The Saudi police officer in charge of accompanying the Americans in their investigation, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) starts off as a very strict and guarded officer, tasked with ensuring the safety of the team, even if it completely halts the gathering of evidence. As the film wears on, and after the team is granted permission by one of the Saudi princes to devote a full effort into solving the crime, a friendship begins to form between Agent Fleury and the Colonel, in spite of their vast cultural differences. There was a very clear attempt made by the makers of this film to balance pro-American and anti-Muslim views, and this makes The Kingdom have a thoughtfulness that you might not expect in a film of this genre. While one could spend an afternoon trying to dissect the core message from The Kingdom, it eventually becomes clear: the forces of good, no matter how diverse, can unite from across vast oceans and deserts to defeat evil.

A quick mention must also be made of The Kingdom's technical achievements. Although this was directed by the very competent Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights), the great Michael Mann was also a producer, and his signature, sharply frenetic camera work is all over this picture. The acting here was also superb all around, with Jamie Foxx as skilled as ever, and Chris Cooper managing to prevail in even a pared-down role such as this. The scene-stealer award, however, must be handed to the little-known Ashraf Barhom, whose Colonel Al Ghazi gave this movie the heart it so desperately needed.

A movie like The Kingdom invariably welcomes an opportunity to grandstand or pontificate on the repercussions of mixing Western and Muslim cultures. After all, this is the sort of plot material that demands your emotions get involved. The scenarios depicted here are all too possible, and they hit very close to home. In today's climate of fear and anti-Muslim sentiments, one might even question whether a film like this is even appropriate. But I'm not here to make those judgments. I'm here to review the film, and on the basis of plot, acting, and technical achievement, The Kingdom more than exceeded my already high expectations. At the risk of sounding a tad too on the nose, I was blown away by this film.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

Eh... What's up, Doc?

Ladies and Gentleman, meet Clive Owen: dashing Oscar nominated film star of such great films as Closer and Children of Men. In Shoot 'Em Up, he brings his steely visage to the big screen as none other than a modern-day Bugs Bunny, foiling the plans of a modern-day Yosemite Sam, also known as Paul Giamatti.

Why, do you ask, is Shoot 'Em Up being likened to a Loony Tunes cartoon? Let me count the ways.

1. Mr. Smith (Owen's character) is undeniably resourceful and clever, like our favorite animated Wascally Wabbit. He also lives in what could be described as a hole, at least in the figurative sense.

2. Hertz (Giamatti) has a very nasty temper and really likes firing a big gun.

3. Mr. Smith has an insatiable appetite for raw carrots.

Of course, there are some deviations from the classic cartoon formula. For instance, Bugs Bunny never impaled people in the throat or the eye with said carrots. Bugs also never used carrots to discharge firearms. Bugs also didn't appear to have a taste for lactating Italian hookers. Nor did he get mixed up in a complex plot that involved a Senator with leukemia, who is harvesting babies in order to get matching bone marrow, and who is the target of a deadly gun lobby who wants to kill the Senator before he can pass a gun-control bill in Congress.

Yes, that is (more or less, anyway) the plot of Shoot 'Em Up. Not even I could make this stuff up.

Let me first say that this film in many ways is appalling, particularly if you are a parent. In no other movie have I seen a one-day old infant being jostled around so much, being wrapped in a flak jacket for protection, whose diapers were made of newspaper, and who was being fed pureed baby food almost immediately out of the womb. As a mother, I didn't want to think about the possibility of the baby going deaf from being subjected to the likes of constantly thundering gunfire and heavy metal music, or having its eye taken out by flying shards of glass.

But that's just the mother half of me that was appalled. As an action movie fan, I was enthralled in spite of myself. This is one of the most preposterous, over-the-top films I have seen in quite some time, but it was sold 100% due to the strength of the acting on the part of Owen and Giamatti, who made their characters entertaining and compelling. I also couldn't help but notice that under the construct of this utterly INSANE (yes, insane in CAPS) plot lurked a wink of satire about, of all things, gun control.

This will be a polarizing film, and I debated whether or not I should recommend it. Certainly, there will be people who will absolutely loathe it from top to bottom. I was not one of those people. I actually felt myself kind of loving it, and I admit wholeheartedly I was a little ashamed of this fact. This is, plain and simple, unabashed action for the true action lover. But it is well-acted action, and although most of the stunts are stupendously stupefying, I think that was the intent. Simply put, it is hard not to admire Shoot 'Em Up's sheer audacity.

Gouda's Final Grade -- B+

3:10 to Yuma

A western hasn't looked this good in years...

The western film has been with us since the inception of cinema. It appeals to the heart of American values, which in great part stem from the gritty lawlessness on which this country was settled. The appeal of the genre has faded over several decades, however, but occasionally a great one is pulled out of the dusty cowboy hat that briefly reignites the flame in the heart of true American culture. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was one of them, and although 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 film of the same name, I think it is safe to say that director James Mangold has successfully returned cinema to the frontier, making one of the best films of 2007.

Most westerns work as parables told on horseback, and this one is no different. Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a wounded Civil War veteran turned horse rancher who is down on his luck and has become something of an embarrassment to his wife and eldest son. Their land is on the brink of being seized by a local businessman to whom Evans is indebted. An opportunity to make money and regain some credibility in the eyes of his loved ones all but falls into his lap when ruthless robber and outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured in his town following a bloody stagecoach robbery. Evans is among a small assembly of men, who include among them a bounty hunter (played by a very grizzled looking Peter Fonda) and the banker whose money was stolen, who volunteer to escort Wade to the town of Contention where a train will carry the outlaw to Yuma prison and his eventual death. Ben Wade's gang is still on the loose, however, and they are determined to get their boss back.

That is the plot in a nutshell, but the plot is not what 3:10 to Yuma is actually about. It merely sets the stage for a fascinating character study. Ben Wade is a cold-blooded killer, but he's not simplistic. Russell Crowe plays him with an intelligence that makes him all the more dangerous and unpredictable. He is very comfortable in the lifestyle of a villain, and gives the air of a man who looked conscience in the face long ago and shot it point blank. He runs with a gang of cold-blooded lunatics who follow him with an unerring loyalty, and his right-hand man Charlie (Ben Foster) almost appears to be in love with him. There is a also an unmistakable sort of honor about Wade. He carries a certain measure of respect for his worst enemies and lets them live until they deliver a brutal insult to his dignity.

This is where the dynamic between him and Bale's character becomes incredibly magnetic. We get the sense that the two men admire one another in spite of their vast differences. Dan Evans is a failed man in many ways, but he is honest and true, and he never deviates from his mission to deliver Ben Wade to the train to Yuma. He has a respect for Wade nonetheless. He sees in him a confidence and strength that he has rarely been able to muster for himself. More surprising, however, is Wade's development throughout the film. He might not feel in himself the capacity for morality and humanity as Evans, but he sees it in the other man and he performs acts that are surprising not only to the audience, but apparently to himself. Without giving too much more of the film's plot away, the final act of the film is one of the most gripping 30 minutes of cinema I've experienced this year.

It is without question that westerns are movies that we can turn to when we as a country feel disconnected from the values and confidence that once made this nation swagger. One would think that a western that features two male leads who respectively come from England and Australia would be kind of ironic if not ill-fitting, but when you think about it, that in itself is also very much American.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A+

Friday, August 31, 2007

Halloween

He's just a victim, guys!

Rob Zombie created something of a stir awhile back when he revealed he was going to remake the John Carpenter's horror masterpiece Halloween, making most of the American public sigh with a resounding "why?" After all, when something was done perfect the first time, what exactly is there to improve upon? The Carpenter film had it all: a compelling leading girl, chilling atmosphere, haunting soundtrack, and a villain that was made all the more frightening by his silent, masked, psychopathic brutality. We didn't know why Michael Myers was such a monster, but suffice to say that his presence was enough to make us quiver in fear. The skillful filmmaker managed to make the audience not only witness the terror, but live through it, and it is that very thing that has made the film endure for nearly 30 years. Knowing this, was the creator of shock-horror flicks like The Devil's Rejects and House of a Thousand Corpses able to do John Carpenter proud?

This fledgling critic must give a resounding "No!"

It isn't too hard to pin down what was wrong with the Zombie picture. For one, he changed the nature of the Myers mythology. In this modern age, it isn't enough to simply accept that there is a psychopathic killer on the loose who foils the not-so-innocent endeavors of lusty teenagers. The public demands, in this age of rampant psychological diagnosis and treatment, to know why people are so evil. So Zombie started at the beginning -- in Michael Myers' childhood, where we learn that he was the product of a stripper mother and an abusive stepfather (the perfect formula for brewing a serial killer, as we all know). He also had a penchant for killing small animals. You can see where this is going. After Michael spends several years spiraling down into a silent (but deadly) stupor after killing most of his family, he manages to escape the mental institution with a bloodlust unsullied by years spent jacked up on Thorazine.

First and foremost, Zombie's picture violated what is perhaps the cardinal rule in scaring people: he unmasked the villain and killed the suspense. What the Carpenter film did so well was staging the action through the eyes of the victims that Myers stalked during his murderous rampage. The white mask lurked mostly as a still figure in the background, or in short, striking shots in the foreground. Michael Myers was originally billed in the Carpenter script as "The Shape," and that was exactly what he was. Certainly, the original Halloween was violent by that day's standards, and could be viewed as understated by today's, but that wasn't the source of its scares. What this film attempted to do was show us Michael's trek from the psych ward back to suburbia through his eyes, effectively removing the audience from the picture and turning us into witnesses of senseless, over-the-top violence.

Forget that the film had some visual appeal. Forget that there were some amusing one-liners, and that Michael MacDowell made a very competent Dr. Loomis in the absence of the legendary Donald Pleasance. What we are left with is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill, joyless, nauseating slasher flick on about the same level as the Texas Chainsaw remakes, if not a notch down. This is yet another film that continues to foster the ADD mentality of the average moviegoer, where mindless bloodletting has taken the place of actual storytelling. If you get your kicks by sheer blood spatter, this may be your film. If you want to be genuinely frightened, and feel what it's like to have the heat slowly turned up beneath your seat, pop in the 1978 DVD and let one of the masters of real horror rock your socks Hitchcock-style.

Rob Zombie, you might have a way with a camera, but John Carpenter you ain't.

Gouda's Final Grade: D-

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hot Rod

Go get 'em, Rod!

In my attempt to not spend most of my vacation behind the blog, I must bring to you a quick, poorly-written assessment of the new film Hot Rod, starring SNL's Andy Samberg as a stuntman hopeful in the vein of Evel Kinevel, only with a moped.

Rod's stunts are always failures in the most absurd, hilarious proportions, but he is never swayed in his determination to become world-renowned, mostly because he is driven by the memory of his late stuntman father. At home, he is equally determined to become an equal with his stepfather (Ian McShane) and the two engage in cringe-inducing, yet humorous fights in a way to work out their rivalry, while the mother (Sissy Spacek) looks on with a straight-faced nonchalance that is almost as funny as the fights themselves. When the stepfather becomes ill and is in need of a heart transplant, Rod is determined to raise the money for the operation so that his stepfather can become well enough again to engage Rod in combat. The way to do it: Stage a huge event in which he will jump fifteen school buses on his moped (which would break Kinevel's record of fourteen). But in order to even do that, he has to raise the money to secure the venue.

The fundraising opportunities are gut-busting. Rod sets himself on fire at children's birthday parties. He stands in the direct path of a swinging clothes dryer. He allows himself to become a human pinata. His crew supports him all along the way, sharing his vision with the same innocent naivete that makes the characters pitiful, yet likeable.

Samberg and his co-stars are the writers and creaters behind the SNL Digital Short videos that have become immensely popular thanks to the internet. "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in a Box" should ring a bell. This film showcases their unique style of humor that will have you laughing from start to finish, although it does borrow in many instances from the Napoleon Dynamite school of off-kilter, understated humor that you will either get or be left bewildered by. Dynamite is still the superior film, as its pacing is more consistent, but Hot Rod makes up for it by being over the top and being stupid while not holding its characters in contempt.

There are many reasons to see "Hot Rod." It's quotable, stupid, and downright hilarious, but the most memorable moment in the film comes when Rod goes to his "quiet place."

You'll get it when you see it.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The situation has become Harry...

The brilliance of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is its ability to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy even as its main characters face ever-darkening challenges and enemies. After all, even when there is evil afoot, we are seeing it through the eyes of teenagers who are dealing with the every day ins and outs of attending school and struggling for that ultimate prize of adulthood. No matter how scary things can get for them, we are supposed to feel a sense of awe and glee when kids manage to triumph over adversity. Those of us who have followed the adventures of Harry Potter and his friends, either through the novels or through the previous four films, understand this feeling, have felt drawn into this "world within a world" dynamic, and have made these stories ones that will endure for generations to come. If you are expecting to feel any of these things after viewing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, however, you may feel a tinge of disappointment.

Harry Potter, and his friends Ron and Hermione, enter their fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry quite a bit differently. At the end of the previous film, Potter faced and survived an encounter with the freshly-returned Dark Wizard to Rule Them All, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes is back in feisty form). The problem is, Harry is the only one who was witness to this battle, and although the school's headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) believes Harry, the wizarding world at large is in a massive state of denial, particularly the head of the wizard government, Cornelius Fudge.

In response, a secret society of rebellious wizards and witches has been formed, The Order of the Phoenix, to try and build an army against Voldemort's growing forces. A lot of familiar faces from the previous films resurface, among them Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), and Harry's godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). The Ministry of Magic is determined to keep Harry and Dumbledore silenced about Voldemort, however, and they install one of their own bureaucrats to oversee the running of Hogwarts and make sure that students aren't being improperly influenced to go against the Ministry's official statements. This person is none other than Dolores Umbridge, played with a sweetly sadistic air by Imelda Staunton, who employs methods most cruel and unusual in attempting to keep a reign on the students and their teachers.

Indeed, the performances here are great, particularly by Staunton who plays her role with a poisonous congeniality that makes you want to kick her teeth in, and the performances by our three main stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, strengthen with every film. Harry Potter after year upon year of trials, has become a brooding, intense, disgruntled teenager, a world apart from the smiling, goggling child from the first films. His transformation is powerful and believable. The production values here are stellar, with CGI effects that have never looked prettier flying off the end of a wand. The overall look of the film is also a marvel, with a darkness that is both frightening and gorgeous to behold.

The problems enter with the film's pacing. Previously, these movies have been criticized for being a little on the long side. David Yates, with his first time at the helm of a Potter film, has seen to it to trim things down a bit. The novel of Order of the Phoenix was over 800 pages long. The film version runs around 138 minutes, making it easily the shortest of the series. With this stripping-down of plot points and characterization comes a feeling of being rushed from scene to scene. The veterans of the previous films, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane, have disappointingly been reduced to bit parts. Other elements of school life at Hogwarts have also been eliminated. Eventually we begin to wonder if these kids are actually in school. The final battle in the film at the Ministry of Magic is a technical masterpiece, but the suspense was not properly built-up, so that when things finally do begin to happen, they have little impact.

The Order of the Phoenix would have been better had it actually gotten the Peter Jackson treatment. Audiences can withstand a long movie, provided it is written and directed in such a way as to make time cease to exist, and another 30 minutes just might have made the difference between a mediocre film and a great one. David Yates is set already to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, due out next year, and I implore him to take his time with this one, and allow the viewer to be immersed in and savor this world and all of its charms and idiosyncrasies. He might want to begin by watching Harry Potter and The Prizoner of Azkaban to get a better idea of how to master this feat. Yates attempted to cram an entire world into a pillbox, and even though it might have made studio executives happy, it is a disappointment to the fans. Spells were flying a'plenty in The Order of the Phoenix, but the film was ultimately short on actual magic.

Gouda's Final Grade: B-

Saturday, June 23, 2007

1408

Mike Enslin encounters yet another exhibit in the museum of creep that is room 1408

The modern horror film has become an exercise in cruelty, where typically the viewer is expected to take some form of twisted joy in the torture and mutilation of innocent people at the hands of a sadistic killer. Not that there isn't a time and a place for this type of entertainment, but I am of the mind that such viewing is perhaps best had in small doses, as it can dull the mind's ability to experience the true terror that can be found in a movie like 1408.

A Stephen King short story of the same name, 1408 began life as 25 pages of that eerie, subtle form of creepiness that had the power to burrow surreptitiously under your skin and take up residence for awhile. Director Mikael Hafstrom's interpretation of this story works in much the same manner, developing what was a very effective, yet starkly told tale (in terms of plot and character development) into a well-rounded, chilling exercise in what could be more easily termed psychological suspense than horror. John Cusack plays Michael Enslin, a moderately successful author who makes a living off of traveling to supposedly haunted destinations and writing about the specters he sees, or more accurately doesn't see. Enslin is clearly a man who doesn't believe a word he writes. Initially compelled to find a shred of evidence for the existence of an afterlife after the death of his young daughter, Enslin has become cynical. His uneventful trips to remote country inns and the gravesites of serial killers have become exercises in receiving paychecks rather than visits from spirits.

When he receives a postcard in the mail depicting the historic Dolphin Hotel in New York City, with the admonition on the back, "Do not enter room 1408," Enslin sees the opportunity for a good finish to his latest novel about haunted hotels. Procuring a reservation for this room proves to be difficult, but Enslin is not prepared to back down. The Dolphin's manager, Mr. Olin (a small role played very effectively by Samuel L. Jackson), pleads with Michael to not stay in this room, detailing 1408's very bloody history (56 deaths have occurred throughout the hotel's long history) and the fact that no one has ever lasted more than an hour inside. Enslin is not swayed, brandishing the swagger and sarcasm of a man who has heard it all and who insists on being granted access due to some fuzzy civil rights law. Olin sees he's fighting a losing battle and hands over the key. An old-fashioned brass key. According to Olin, magnetic card locks do not work on 1408.

Once Enslin is ensconced inside the modestly-appointed suite, he settles down for what he assumes will be another night of emptying the mini-bar, making occasional quips on his voice recorder. What ensues, however, are escalating events that could only be described as the terrifying personal hell of a deeply wounded man. It isn't clear what exactly haunts 1408. Certainly, the room's victims make appearances, but the room has a hallucinatory effect on Enslin's mind, altering the room's spatial reality and giving the helpless viewers the impression that the man is slowly losing his mind.

From this point, 1408 operates more like a one-man show, hinging almost all of its credibility on John Cusack's performance, which is nothing short of stellar. We believe that he doesn't believe, and we believe when he finally begins to. We are convinced that this is a man whose grip on reality has been drastically altered in a very short span of time, and we sympathize with him when his real wounds are ripped open by the room's ghastly presence. Although there were a couple of points where director Hafstrom went a smidge over the top in his attempt to frighten the audience, and the false endings made the film feel a tad longer than its 125-minute length, he generally kept the reins in and didn't stray into the realm of the cheap and tasteless. The film is held together by solid acting and a genuinely creepy atmosphere, and it made me feel in no particular hurry to stay in a hotel room again anytime soon.

It is true that 1408 might not horrify the majority of its viewers, but I'm not so sure that was its aim. It is a cold visitor that wants to come and sit with you for a couple of hours, stroke your cheek, and leave you feeling relieved to step out into the sunlight again. This is a film that offers a lot of substance for those who have not been desensitized in this culture of gratuitously showcased bloodshed and entrails, who prefer their frights to be experienced on a more cerebral level, and who retain the ability to empathize with a painful loss. On that level, 1408 not only skillfully made, but it is surprisingly refreshing.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A-

Friday, May 25, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Keira Knightley pleads with the King of Editors to please have mercy...

I love chocolate cake. In fact, I could probably eat chocolate cake a lot more often than I do if my scale were not guaranteed to depress me with the results of that kind of enjoyment, and even if the calories were promised to magically float away into the cosmos without making any contact with my hips, I could not chow down on chocolate cake for three hours straight. Watching the third and final installment of the wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was like doing just that, and similar to the effects of eating a mountain of chocolate cake, my body went into a numbing state of shock afterward. Frankly, my brain is still threatening to vomit hours after the onslaught.

This is not to say that At World's End is a bad movie. In fact, it was a very skillfully made, thrilling marvel. Like chocolate cake, it was actually quite delicious in parts. The special effects were top-notch, the action was near perfection, and the movie maintained the same affectionate sense of humor of the previous films, and even as the adventure passed the 2-hour mark with no discernible end in sight, I found that I was still engrossed. But (going back to the chocolate cake analogy that I intend to wear you out with in the same manner that director Gore Verbinski attempted to do with this bloated swashbuckler) it was the same kind of engrossment that one has when they go into binging autopilot; taste failed to enter the equation after awhile, with the act of chewing and swallowing taking center stage for the final 45 minutes.

I could try to describe the plot here, but would be like trying to taste each individual ingredient in every single taste of the now trite chocolate cake. It's simply impossible to do. About halfway through the film, I found that it was easier to swallow the whole thing in one big mushy gulp. Basically you have a giant conglomeration of pirates, none of whom are trustworthy and all of whom have a specific agenda. After about the eighth or ninth double-cross, I simply ceased to care because I assumed that it would all eventually come together in the end. I suppose it did. Either I masterfully figured it all out, or I was just too tired to give a damn, but I'll give you the basic sketch as I saw it. The infamous Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, as brilliant as ever, even if his performance was weighed down by extranneous plot elements is in Davie Jones' Locker, and the other regular players, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) have to rescue him. Apparently Sparrow's presence is needed at some big meeting of the world's pirate lords that will determine who will win in the big showdown between the pirates and the big bad Brits of the East India Trading Company.

But of course, it's never that simple. Every person aboard this ship has made a deal with or against someone else to get something else in return. Will wants the main ship, The Black Pearl, to make a deal with Davey Jones (the man with the be-tentatcled face) to free his father from the Flying Dutchman's crew. Jack Sparrow wants to make a deal with Norrington, the head of the East India Trading Company, in order to do something that would net him immortality after he slays Davey Jones and takes over as captain of The Flying Dutchman. Somewhere in there Keith Richards comes in and makes his cameo as Jack's Father. Oh and yeah, there is the whole deal with this goddess of the sea, Calypso, who is supposed to be freed from her bodily form by the pirate lords so that she can do... something. I don't know. I simply don't remember. I simply don't care. Trying to sort through the plot twists of this movie is like attempting to organize by color the scattered bits of confetti littering the streets after the New Years Eve party in Times Square.

What this all boils down to is whether the third and final Pirates of the Caribbean film is worth seeing. I guess that depends. Of course, if you are a fan of this franchise, then you will see it no matter what I say. And I won't lie -- the final 45 minutes of the movie were an absolute wonder to behold. But are those 45 breathtaking minutes worth the 2 hour near-doldrum that precedes them? Barely. A three-hour movie is only successful if one fails to notice that their butt is numb from sitting for so long, and I was shifting in my seat well before the credits rolled.

The producers of this film need to realize that just because we love Johnny Depp's unique characterization and the endearing antics of his scurvy crew, we are not required to be force-fed to the point of bursting in order to be satisfied. Like a deliciously rich chocolate cake, it's best served in smaller slices. And speaking of slicing, I would have been a lot more satisfied if the editors had considered doing even a smidge of that in post-production. I'd much more prefer this movie on DVD. At least then I'd be able to get a doggy bag.

Gouda's Final Grade: C

Sunday, May 13, 2007

28 Weeks Later

There's no light at the end of this tunnel...

Oh hey look! It's a post-apocalyptic horror movie featuring zombie-like creatures and mostly little-known actors! It is obviously going to be a recipe for cheesiness, disappointment, wasted money, and the loss of a couple precious hours that could have otherwise been spent doing more productive things. Right?

Hold on there, chap. Apparently you've never seen "28 Days Later," hailed as one of the best movies of the genre, and I will be the among many who will hail its sequel "28 Weeks Later" as very nearly that movie's equal as well as one of the most unnerving horror movies I've seen in quite some time.

"28 Weeks," as you can guess by its title, picks up a few months from where the first film left off. Britain has been decimated by a "rage virus" that turns its victims into marauding, bloodthirsty nutbags. Most of the diseased have died off from starvation, and the U.S. Army has moved in to help clean up and bring people back into areas that have been designated safe and free of infection. The film's plot focuses on two children, Andy and Tammy, who reunite with their father Don (Robert Carlyle) after a long separation in which the children's mother was lost to groups of diseased people who were still roaming the English countryside. Although the Army keeps a tight control over the city's "safe zone," it is inevitable that the virus would find a way to penetrate the barrier, and when it does, all hell breaks loose.

Downtown London is a vision that is bleak and frightening, as we see streets and buildings devoid of life and piled with the debris of a civilization recently obliterated. This realism is enhanced by brilliantly realistic art direction, a raw soundtrack (although silence permeates a good deal of the film, which is equally effective), and grainy, washed-out cinematography. The editing is very jerky and frenetic, something about which I'd normally complain, but actually admired in this type of setting, which is designed to make us feel as confused as the characters themselves.

Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who also penned the screenplay, does a fantastic job of staging an atmosphere that is nothing short of chilling, and he never fails to instill this gnawing sense of unease and dread. A stand-out scene in the film involves our main characters moving through a pitch-black subway station with the aid of a nightscope. I was reminded briefly of the final scene in The Silence of the Lambs, and every muscle in my body was taut with anxiety the entire time. Also escalating the tension is that one never quite certain when one of the protagonists is going to bite it (or get bitten, as the case may be). Although this is a typical feature in most scary movies, what makes "28 Weeks Later" different is that we are actually made to care about many of these characters. Even the soldiers are portrayed as human in this film, when they could otherwise have been made to be cold, mechanized, stereotypical killers. We see their horror when they are ordered to kill every living thing on site (even uninfected citizens) in order to contain the infection, and we feel it as well.

It's rare to find a film in the horror genre that delivers on so many levels: technical skill, genuine scares, and sincerely heart-wrenching dread. "28 Weeks Later" doesn't let up, and we feel drained at the end. My only question is, are we going to be getting an update on the status of this apocalypse in 28 months?

Gouda's Final Grade -- A

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grindhouse

**The following review will be written in the same frame of mind as the viewer who was watching this film. This is because in the course of watching this film, the viewer experienced something of an age-regressing, multi-orgasmic, beautifully/painfully gorgeous epiphany that made her realize that it's been years since she has had so much fun seeing a movie, let alone a double feature.

First up -- Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror:

Okay, so, right? We have this these crazy soldier guys (one of them is Bruce Willis) in masks and stuff, and we're not sure why at first, until they take them off and then their skin gets all "EW," you know? Well it turns out that this yucky gas stuff kind of acts like a virus on whoever comes in contact with it and turns them into evil zombies who eat people's brains! Well, there is this guy who kicks all kinds of ass named El Wray played by Freddie Rodriguez who has all of these awesome skills with guns and knives and whatnot, and he has this go-go dancer girlfriend named Cherry Darling who only has one leg. Well, when they start kicking all kinds of zombie ass, El Wray hooks up this huge gun to the stump of Cherry's leg and she walks on it and then lifts her leg and blasts all of those fuckers to kingdom come! I was like OMIGOD! How in the hell is she even firing that thing, because she doesn't have any kind of a trigger and shit, and then I was like "I DON'T CARE!" because how often to you see some hot stripper chick firing missiles and shit from her LEG? How about, like, NEVER, okay? So where was I? Oh yeah, this movie has it all! Great characters, awesome gore, and all kinds of funny dialog, stunts, and references to other Rodriguez/Tarantino movies. You have, like, no idea! All I know is I was totally into this flick. Oh yeah, and it even had that guy in it from the original Terminator movie! You know, the one who played Sarah Connor's boyfriend? Totally cool! This movie was outrageous, over the top, gross, perfect, and PERFECTLY GROSS! Dude! All by itself it would have been worth the price of admission, like, a bajillion times over. Robert Rodriguez has amazing skills as a filmmaker. Planet Terror gets an A all the freakin way!

Next Movie -- Quentin Tarantino's Deathproof

Alright, so I'm not tryin to come down on my boy Q or anything like that, but I have to say, after being hammered by Planet Terror, it was kind of hard to get immediately into Deathproof. That's because Tarantino likes to flex his dialog muscles overtime, and in the first part of this movie, that's ALL he fucking did was have his characters talk, talk, talk! I mean I'm not stupid and I don't have some short attention span or anything, but God, ya know? I was still interested, though, because Kurt Russell plays this creepy guy who drives this scary looking 1970 Chevy Nova stunt car, and it turns out he's this crazy serial killer who likes to trap women in his car and take them for a bloody ride, right? So, like, that was cool and stuff. There were some pretty sick gory shots early on with the killer's first victims. But then the movie kind of slowed down again and introduced us to this whole OTHER set of characters, Russell's supposed next victims. And then I was like OH. MY. GOD what is going on here?? It's like we're starting ALL over again, right? I mean, the characters were funny and shit, talking that classic Tarantino jive but I gotta say, there just wasn't enough happening. It was like the momentum from the first movie totally died! But then... Well, I'm not going to spoil it for you, but Quentin totally makes up for it with the last half hour of the movie because there was the most awesome car chase scene I've ever watched right up there on the screen, and I was practically wetting my pants during the whole thing! And then it just hit me when it was all over that I totally sold Tarantino short initially! If I had seen this movie by itself I probably would have liked it a lot more from the get-go. So, based on that, I'm giving Deathproof an A-. Planet Terror was still the better overall movie, but this one is great in its own right.

And don't even get me started on all of the cool little extras like the fake movie trailers! The first one, Machete, was the best one, although the Thanksgiving one by Eli Roth was a goddamn riot.
Grindhouse was, by far, one of the best theater experiences I've had, and will probably have this year. Rodriguez and Tarantino know how to entertain, and they dished up something here that was unique, nostalgic, unforgettable, and something that makes you want to get down on your knees and thank God for the movies.

Gouda's Final Overall Grade: A

Friday, March 09, 2007

Zodiac

Director David Fincher's achievement in bad 70s hair is nearly as masterful as his movie

David Fincher is a filmmaker who was quick to achieve cult hit status with enthralling visual and suspense masterpieces like Fight Club, Seven, and The Game, but with Zodiac, he makes a slight departure from his norm, embarking on something almost resembling a period piece. But true to his form it's a gruesome period: the terrifying reign California's Zodiac Killer from 1968 until the mid-late 70s that claimed an estimated 37 lives.

Zodiac
, based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) attempts to illuminate that the serial killer didn't only end the lives of his victims with knives and bullets, but through hollowing out the existences of the investigators and journalists who were obsessed with catching the murderer who taunted them with clever codes and belligerent letters.

Graysmith is a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, a former Eagle Scout, and an all-around good, smart kid who takes a keen interest in the Zodiac from the onset, but for the most part is unnoticed in an office filled with journalistic old-timers and hotshots. The most popular reporter is Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr. in yet another spectacular performance), who manages to have a talent valuable enough to the paper to allow him to get away with drinking his breakfast every morning at a local tavern. The two make an unlikely pair, but they manage to form a bond whenever the Zodiac's letters start rolling in. The narrative eventually jumps to the law enforcement side of the story, introducing us to Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner William Strong (Anthony Edwards) who are faced with the hard task of trying to coordinate their efforts with the four other precincts in which the Zodiac has claimed lives. The process is chaotic and at times sloppy, leading one to wonder what would have been accomplished had the murders occurred in a more modern era. The two sides (law enforcement and journalism) manage to at times help and hinder one another during the course of the investigation, and we can almost see the Zodiac himself pulling their strings from above.

Let's start with the obvious merits of this film, the most important of which is Fincher's claim to fame: his visual style. From the muted, almost yellowish overtones to the film itself, to the impeccable art direction featuring everything (lots and lots of polyester) that made that decade aesthetically unappetizing, Zodiac gives the impression from the onset that this isn't just a story about the 1970s, but that it was plucked directly from there. There are also the scenes involving the Zodiac's murders which are nothing short of bone-chilling. This killer was not afraid to strike in broad daylight, and it was the most frightening scene in the film. Fincher's staging of these murders was perhaps most indicative of his abilities as a visual storyteller; he manages to shock the audience without the overly-gratuitous use of blood and violence, something lost on most modern directors.

The weak points come with character development and actual story structure. It might seem hard to believe that a movie that runs over 2 and a half hours in length would be lacking in either of those things, but it's true. The characters with whom we are supposed to be sympathizing often feel cold and detached from the viewer, and we get a sense that there was supposed to be a lot more to the story that was trimmed out. As a result, certain characters feel completely out of place -- namely that of Graysmith's wife played by Chloe Sevigny. Also, there were plot threads that only seemed to serve the purpose of inserting artificial thrills, and those could have been sacrificed in order to better flesh out the main players. I anticipate the DVD release in the hopes that an uncut, full-length version would solve these problems. Despite those flaws, however, the film remains utterly fascinating.

What becomes apparent, as we witness the lives of these men (Graysmith, Toschi, Strong, and Avery) become consumed with the tracking down of this cold-blooded killer, is that the Zodiac is always at least one step ahead of them. Because of the allure of this psychopath, otherwise good people succumb to failed marriages, lost jobs, and drug addictions all in an effort to solve this mystery. Ultimately, we are left feeling as frustrated by the lack of hard answers as they must have been. If that was Fincher's mission, it was most skillfully accomplished in spite of the film's narrative issues.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A-

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reel Gouda Capsules

This time of year, as most of you know, is a desolate wasteland in terms of decent moviegoing fare, which has given me a good excuse to start exercising my Netflix muscle again. Below, you will also find a short review of the film "Dreamgirls."

1. Dreamgirls -- The broadway show makes a big splash on the big screen, featuring a story that is supposed to parallel that of The Supremes, about a trio of singing ladies and the trials and tribulations of their rise to fame and the drama that ensues afterward. While the talent in this film was prodigious (particularly on the parts of Jamie Foxx and Academy Award nominees Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson), I do believe that this film was slighly overrated. The narrative was a tad cold and inconsistent, and as a result it failed to pluck the heartstrings. In my opinion, it got all the right Oscar nominations. If anything, see it for Hudson's astonishing vocal and acting power.
Gouda's Final Grade: B+

2. Hard Candy -- The mind-twisting beauty of independent cinema is perfectly showcased in this film that features a 30-something man who entices young girls on the internet. His latest choice, however, has an agenda all her own. The acting between the two leads (particularly the young Ellen Page) is superb, the subject matter is compelling, and events as they unfold are often difficult to watch. You will feel nothing if not manipulated, and you will question yourself for days. Trust me when I say you have not seen a movie quite like this.
Gouda's Final Grade: A-



3. Feast -- Told in the traditional vein of the classic B-movie cult horror gore fest, Feast is an entertaining, gratuitious adventure centered around a group of strangers who are stuck in a remote dive and are forced to fend off a group of bloodthirsty, gargoyle-like monsters who are hungry for human flesh. Gasps and laughs abound in this Project Greenlight release, thanks to the witty one-liners and liberal use of bodily fluids. Sometimes, though, the movie tends to wink at the audience a bit too much, and the dialogue is not as strong in comparison to similar films, such as the fantastic recent romp Slither. Also the editing is a bit too jerky in places to be effective. I would have sacrificed some of the juicier gory bits to have smoother action sequences. Still, Feast is more than worth the price of a rental, and it does a good job of feeding life into a genre that has withered a bit over the years.
Gouda's Final Grade: B

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Not your typical fairytale creature...

There is something to be said for the immersiveness of a foreign film, especially one with subtitles, because of the way the brain must be engaged in order to comprehend what's on the screen. There is also something to be said for this irony: My review for "Pan's Labyrinth" will perhaps be one of the worst ones I've ever written, even though it is one of the best movies I've seen in awhile. And even funnier: I'm not even sure WHY it's one of the best movies I've seen in awhile. So let's break this down here, so that perhaps by the end of this piece, I'll have a better grasp on my own appreciation for this remarkable piece of cinema.

First of all, I'm not even sure what kind of movie "Pan's Labyrinth" is. It's a fairytale, it's a drama, it's a thriller. The only genre this film misses out on is romance. Here is the basic blueprint:

The time period is 1940s Spain, where the country is in the throes of Fascist rule. A young girl, Ofelia, travels with her pregnant mother into the country to live with the man her mother just married -- a cruel, ruthless captain of the Spanish army. Because the child's mother is restricted to bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy, and because the girl's existence is nothing short of lonely and grim sharing an old, creaky house with a cruel, sadistic stepfather, Ofelia finds herself in the midst of a fantasy of her own creation, a world filled with imagery that is nothing short of frightening and enthralling. She's a creative girl, and the creatures who fill this dreamscape are an exercise in artistic brilliance. In a better world, Ofelia would have made a hell of an author. An example of this is the Faun creature, who looks something like a minotaur meshed with a tree trunk, as envisioned by someone who has had a healthy dose of toxic mushrooms sprinkled on their breakfast cereal. This Faun guides Ofelia on a series of quests that, upon their completion, are supposed to transport her to a magical kingdom, of which she is a princess.

That brief synopsis makes Pan's Labyrinth seem rather simplistic, and it is anything but. The film itself is a labyrinth of ideas and story, and Ofelia's adventures in her "wonderland" are frequently interrupted by goings-on in the real world, particularly by the cruelties enacted by Captain Vidal against the rebels of the country's regime. There are images in this film of unabashed greusomness, and a lot of it is not for the faint of heart or stomach.

Visually, Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece and should be a sure Oscar contender for Art Direction, not to mention Best Foreign Film. It is refreshing to see such stark imagery on the screen. For the second theater experience in a row, I have been taken on a unique, visceral journey. I'm not entirely sure this is coincidental, because both films (the previous one was Children of Men) were made by foreign directors (Alejandro Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, respectively) and both challenge American convention. Perhaps that reason, above all others, is why I admire and recommend this movie.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

As a side note: this film heavily earns its "R" rating and is decidedly NOT for children, although I wouldn't be entirely averse to showing it to someone around 12 or so.