*½/**** starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penélope Cruz, Lambert Wilson screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richards and James V. Hart, based on the novel by Clive Cussler directed by Breck Eisner
by Walter Chaw For as difficult as it is to read a Clive Cussler novel, it's no more or less difficult to read something by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, or Nicholas Sparks. A Cussler book is exactly what it is: a bestseller written specifically for people who base their reading decisions on how many other people have bought and ostensibly read a given book--bad grammar, bad sense, and ridiculous narratives be damned. So Sahara, Breck "Spawn of Michael" Eisner's feature debut (and what star Matthew McConaughey hopes is a franchise starter despite Cussler disowning the picture and threatening to sue), is an utterly faithful adaptation of the source material in that it's destined to become one of those movies people see or avoid depending on how low their expectations are going in or how irresistible the Friday night peer-pressure gets. It's a soulless picture, a wisp of a whimsy layered across what wishes it were an epic adventure, playing fast and loose with character and charisma while slathering on the boom-crash opera. The result isn't something awful so much as a spectacle without a hint of a human centre: a blockbuster played by action figures and written by children.
*½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Joaquim de Almeida, David Keith screenplay by David Veloz and Zak Penn directed by John Moore
by Walter Chaw John Moore makes his directorial debut with the high-volume, flag-waving Behind Enemy Lines, but the film so recalls the visual excesses of Top Gun and Enemy of the State (down to a satellite surveillance sequence) that I began to wonder halfway through if "John Moore" was a nom de plume for Tony Scott. Everything else about Behind Enemy Lines, after all, is basically a retread: the third Gene Hackman "not leaving a man behind" film after Bat 21 and Uncommon Valor, and the umpteenth time the veteran actor has been asked to play a snarling iconoclast, spitting in the face of an unfeeling establishment.
THE YOUNG SAVAGES (1961) **/**** Image B Sound C starring Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, Edward Andrews, Vivian Nathan screenplay by Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller, based on the novel A Matter of Conviction by Evan Hunter directed by John Frankenheimer
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) ****/**** DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B+ BD - Image A Sound C+ Extras B+ starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury screenplay by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon directed by John Frankenheimer
THE TRAIN (1964) ****/**** Image C- Sound C starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Michel Simon, Jeanne Moreau screenplay by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis, based on the novel Le front de l'art by Rose Valland directed by John Frankenheimer
FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975) **½/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B+ starring Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Bernard Fresson, Philippe Léotard screenplay by Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon & Laurie Dillon directed by John Frankenheimer
RONIN (1998) **½/**** Image B Sound B Extras B starring Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård screenplay by J.D. Zeik and Richard Weisz directed by John Frankenheimer
by Walter Chaw There weren't many American directors who enjoyed a hotter streak in the Medium Cool '60s than John Frankenheimer. He had the pulse of the mid-decade sea change from the relative conservatism of the '50s, having clearly been cognizant of the long burn of the Civil Rights conversation and the constant, fraying wear-and-tear of HUAC and the Cold War. He rubbed elbows with the Kennedys, hosting Bobby at his house in Malibu the day before/of Bobby's assassination at the Ambassador, whereupon it's fairly inarguable that Frankenheimer began to lose his way. He'd continue to helm interesting films and damned impressive ones, too, like The Iceman Cometh and 52 Pick-Up, but none would have the urgent subtlety of his mid-'60s output. Instead, they'd become increasingly...remote? Detached, at least, if not occasionally outright embarrassing for everyone involved. (Prophecy, for instance--a film that tries to ride the contemporary-issue train but shows its fatigue and desperation in every ridiculous, strained minute.) In a way, Frankenheimer's Seconds, with its alienation and bodily remove, presages his own artistic transformation. I wonder whether he lost the nerve to surf the edge of the zeitgeist, leaving the low arc of our collective tendency towards self-destruction to its own shrinking concentric hells. It's possible that after The Manchurian Candidate's dead-eyed paranoia and Seconds' alarming prescience about the impotence of the American icon-as-hero, Frankenheimer was tired of being right. If it sounds like I'm ascribing something supernatural to his artistic acuity, maybe I am. Frankenheimer in this period is that rare filmmaker who works half in technical perfection and half in the unconscious, in the thrall of what Coleridge used to refer to as The Artist as Aeolian Harp. He was an instrument at the caprice of the winds of the age. He was, that is, until about 1968, when being the vessel of portent became, should we conjecture, painful enough that he tried drowning himself in booze and regret.
**/**** starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the book by Rajit Chandrasekaran directed by Paul Greengrass
by Ian Pugh Sucks for Green Zone that it's being released the weekend after The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture, which only makes the former look that much more antiquated. Paul Greengrass can still stick a couple of actors in front of a computer and perform those "shaky-cam" action sequences with the technical proficiency we've come to expect from him, but as proficiency is the only thing he has going for him this time around, it appears the director has finally run out of new tricks. Green Zone feels like a self-conscious relic of the previous decade and there's nothing to convince us of otherwise, particularly because it applies tired aesthetics to an impotent tirade about the American invasion of Iraq. At its best, the picture suggests an extraneous coda to the Greengrass-completed Bourne trilogy, without the benefit of its mystery, its forward momentum, or its looming implications. It immediately, unwisely lays everything out on the table for you--The Bourne Ultimatum without any damned ultimatum. The film Green Zone reminds of most, however, is former Greengrass collaborator Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton: it's so consumed with stating the obvious about corruption in the system that it fails to recognize this is hardly a newsflash. While Greengrass and Gilroy are smart guys, I'm starting to wonder if they can only work miracles together.
****/**** Image A Sound A- starring Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Alex Jackson If The Shining has dated the most of Kubrick's films, Barry Lyndon, which immediately preceded it, has dated the least. In 1976, Barry Lyndon was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award alongside Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, and Nashville. I have some reservations about a couple of those, but there's no arguing that these are a few of the most revered American movies of the last four decades. And yet, they're all inextricably linked to the year 1975. Certainly, they still work on their own terms, but today there's an unspoken contract that we will acknowledge and accept them as something produced thirty-five years ago. We don't have to make any such concessions with Barry Lyndon; there isn't anything vintage about it.
THE WIND RISES ****/**** written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
FROZEN **½/**** screenplay by Jennifer Lee, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Editor's Note: This review pertains to the original Japanese-language version of The Wind Rises.
by Walter Chaw Hayao Miyazaki's alleged swan song The Wind Rises is mature, romantic, grand storytelling that just happens to be something like a romanticized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer behind the design of the Mitsubishi A5M, which led, ultimately, to the Zero. Indeed, for a Western audience, watching Jiro's dreams of squadrons of Zeros buzzing over fields of green is chilling, and advance critics seemed unable to distinguish the Japanese war machine from the film's focus on a life lived in pursuit of dreams. In truth, separating these two aspects of the picture--the proximate and the historical--is self-defeating. (Dismissing the movie out of hand is equally blinkered.) One without the other, The Wind Rises loses anything like substance, resonance, importance. It would fall on the one side into gauzy bullshit, on the other into Triumph of the Will. As is, it's something more akin to Studio Ghibli's own Grave of the Fireflies in its humanizing of a man whose dreams were corrupted into something terrible. Einstein would be one of the West's potential Horikoshi corollaries--and if Miyazaki had done Albert's biography, I'd expect to see mushroom clouds illustrating his fantasies of relativity. For Horikoshi, Miyazaki provides upheavals and disasters as highlight to each of his life events: He first meets his wife in a train crash; in a lilting epilogue, when Jiro bids farewell to his dead wife, Miyazaki offers fields of devastation and a village in flames. Throughout, Miyazaki presents earthquakes, rainstorms, sudden bursts of wind as reminders of...what? The inevitability of change? The portents of war? The cycles of life and death? All of that; but what compels is the idea of helplessness in the face of larger forces--that although we chase our dreams, we're never really in control of our destinies.
*½/**** starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov, based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter directed by George Clooney
by Angelo Muredda There have been far worse prestige films than George Clooney's delayed Oscar season also-ran The Monuments Men, but there's rarely been a more misguided one. Hinging on a conceit that even the filmmaker appears to realize is weak sauce and based on a true story that's probably worth its weight in magazine articles that really make you think, the film follows the exploits of a team of ragtag art dealers and curators turned Allied troops, sent into Europe in the closing days of WWII to save the Western world's finest paintings, sculptures, and, yes, monuments, before Hitler could destroy them. It's perhaps a mild credit to Clooney the humanitarian that the overwhelming gaucheness of the premise--that European art is the thing most worth preserving amidst a war that saw the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews--rates not just a mention but a guilty structural response, too, in the form of a framing story that sees Clooney the actor, as team leader Stokes, lecturing his overseers on the ambiguous value of the mission. It's also to his shame as a screenwriter (alongside usual partner Grant Heslov) that the response is so ill-considered--the same canned "Art is all of us" spiel politicians who couldn't give a damn about art give in the promotional material for government-funded cultural events.
ZERO STARS/**** starring Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Henry Thomas, Richard Jenkins screenplay by Jamie Linden, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks directed by Lasse Hallström
by Ian Pugh Movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels--sentimental drivel, functionally identical--usually just bounce off my chest, but we all have our limits. Once more into the breach as Princess Prettygirl (Seyfried) falls head over heels for Johnny Bluecollar (Tatum) in a spectacularly awful Harlequin romance that juggles metaphors about coins and the size of the moon while boasting only the vaguest understanding of the English language. Dear John is little more than a rehash of The Notebook, a movie I found tedious but, again, ultimately innocuous. Yet there's a mysterious "x" factor at work in this one that attacked some vital nerve and reduced my brain to petroleum jelly. Could be that Lasse Hallström finally found the perfect vessels for the source author: Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum--actors, both, whose deadwood talents fail to stretch past sheer bewilderment. (I kind of hate Ryan Gosling as an actor, but he undoubtedly elevated The Notebook.) There's a point very early on where Seyfried remarks, "Wow, you made a fire," as her future beau demonstrates his ability to jumpstart a little kindling--and the complete lack of sarcasm (or really any emotion) in her voice led me to wonder if Tatum was going to club her over the head and drag her back to his cave. It's not an unreasonable conclusion: most of these movies forge conflict out of the idea that women are property, and Dear John is no different.
SMOKIN' ACES ½*/**** starring Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Common, Andy Garcia written and directed by Joe Carnahan
SERAPHIM FALLS */**** starring Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Angie Harmon, Anjelica Huston screenplay by Abby Everett Jaques & David Von Ancken directed by David Von Ancken
by Walter Chaw Director Joe Carnahan replicates a heart attack in the prologue of Narc, and David Von Ancken, in the action-packed opening to his feature debut Seraphim Falls, simulates a mildly hysterical bout of narcolepsy--but more on that later. Carnahan's third film, Smokin' Aces, is drawing a lot of unfavourable comparisons to Guy Ritchie's gangster sagas, but the real lineage can be traced to whatever strain of viral ADD infected Tony Scott. The film is so like Scott's Domino in its visual affectations and uniform incompetence that the two pictures could exchange scenes willy-nilly without losing a step. (Compare it to Wayne Kramer's similarly canted Running Scared for a mini-primer on when lawless misanthropy and the coked-up editor aesthetic can be wielded with delighted, visceral purpose as opposed to simply wielded.) Ultimately, Smokin' Aces is little more than a parade of sad "didn't you used to be..." stunt cameos installed for the missing "edge" that buckets of blood, rains of bullets, and a few power tools seem incapable of manifesting. With Narc, Carnahan showed real growth from his directorial debut (Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, which is actually not unlike the new one at all). Now he's just showing off.
by Jefferson Robbins The Greatest-Generation worship that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks share is appreciable and understandable, but by the close of their latest collaborative HBO miniseries, "The Pacific", you sort of hope they've got it out of their systems. That's not to say the story encapsulated here didn't warrant telling--the flash conceptualization today is of World War II as a European war, where "rules of combat" may still obtain. The fiercely bloody Pacific campaign--very much a gazing-into-the-abyss kind of conflict, making monsters of men--has become a near-afterthought. So a big-budget TV treatment, in line with the star producers' 2001 "Band of Brothers", seems natural.1 But by remaining "true" to the experiences of the U.S. Marines who fought their way from Guadalcanal to the doorstep of Japan, the story comes across as a thing of half-reconciled parts, periscopic views of the larger picture. I mean, more than a miniseries usually does--like it's two miniseries grafted onto one another.
***/**** starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox screenplay by John Logan, based on the play by Edward de Vere directed by Ralph Fiennes
by Angelo Muredda Ralph Fiennes has been building up to Coriolanus for some time. Whether as a scarred or just nervous exile in The English Patient and The Constant Gardener, respectively, or as the noseless ghoul of the Harry Potter movies, he's served as the embodiment of human refuse for a long stretch of his career--the English go-to for wanderers, burn victims, and miscellaneous banished men. It's a treat, then, to watch him take relish in the part of the ultimate cast-off, a Roman general chewed up and spit out by the city for which he earned his war wounds. The actor's hyphenate debut, Fiennes's adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a curio, to be sure: It isn't so much directed as cobbled together from the source and fed through CNN-style reportage of armed fighting in the Balkans. But as a star vehicle, for both himself and the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave, it's a powerful match between actor and character. While the general-turned-politician's fine suit hangs awkwardly on the brute it houses, for Fiennes, Coriolanus is a good fit.
***/**** starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana screenplay by Peter Berg, based on the book by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson directed by Peter Berg
by Walter Chaw Peter Berg is a great action director. He does it with verve, a good sense of space (which is increasingly rare these days), and a sense of both weight and humour. He has excellent timing, as well as an understanding of what's meaningful visual information in there among the dross of motion and impact. Moreover, he seems obsessed with working through issues surrounding what it means to be a man--how too often, it means your social interactions are limited to violence, threats to your sexuality, and hazing rituals dangerous and bestial. I'm a huge fan of his debut feature, Very Bad Things; visually, I think it's wrong to underestimate how influential is his romantic rack-focus gimmick from Friday Night Lights. I love Berg's Hancock, the movie that Man of Steel aspired to be (and if we're talking secondary influences, Zack Snyder owes much of his cinematic vocabulary to Berg). I love The Rundown, and while Battleship is inarguably a misfire, it's also less of a misfire than it could have been. With Lone Survivor, based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the titular lone survivor of a botched four-man special forces mission in Afghanistan, Berg's examinations of the masculine take their logical turn from bachelor parties to football to superheroes to military action. And for long moments, Lone Survivor is fantastic.
CHILDREN OF MEN ****/**** starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on the novel by P.D. James directed by Alfonso Cuarón LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA ***½/**** starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase screenplay by Iris Yamashita, based on the book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw Stop on any single frame of Alfonso Cuarón's remarkable war idyll Children of Men--a film that's rarely in repose, sometimes seeming composed of one long, frantic shot--and I suspect the sharp-eyed, educated viewer would be able to cull a reference to modern art, most likely one about men reduced to their base animal nature. For me, the two visual landmarks come in the form of a cue to the cover design for Pink Floyd's 1977 "Animals" when hero Theo (Clive Owen) goes to see his industrialist cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) for help and a re-creation of Richard Misrach's remarkable series of 1987 photographs documenting, among other things, a dead-animal pit in Nevada purportedly used to dispose of victims of a plutonium "hot spot." Both share a space with surrealism in the positioning of animals (artificial or deceased) in industrial spaces (London's Battersea Power Station is the iconic backdrop of the "Animals" cover) as mute commentary, perhaps, on man's destructive relationship with his environment--a read that jibes comfortably with the thrust of Children of Men, in which we're told that one day in the not-too-distant future, humans suddenly stop reproducing. (Fertile ground for science-fiction, this obsession with progeny (see: everything from Frankenstein to I Am Legend).) The picture opens with a Fleet Street terrorist bombing, a little like Terry Gilliam's dystopic Brazil--though rather than take the easier route of satirizing our current state of instability and free-floating paranoia, Children of Men makes a serious attempt to allegorize it.
Mar adentro *½/**** starring Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera screenplay by Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil directed by Alejandro Amenábar
HOTEL RWANDA **½/**** starring Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix screenplay by Keir Pearson & Terry George directed by Terry George
by Walter Chaw Marking the second euthanasia melodrama of the 2004 awards season after Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, Alejandro Amenábar's peculiar follow-up to The Others is another ghost story of sorts documenting the last, sad days of Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), made a quadriplegic by a distracted dive into a shallow tide pool. "Shallow pool" could also describe the film, a miserable little gimp-of-the-week exercise awash with clichés and platitudes that the real Sampedro would probably have found condescending and insulting. The Sea Inside (Mar adentro) is the very equivalent of an elementary school teacher taking your hand and helping you find a seat on the short ride to made-for-TV-dom. If not for its unromantic central performance from Bardem, the best actor in the world at this moment, this appallingly sentimental work would be a candidate for the most misguided movie of the year.
BROTHERS ***/**** starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Mare Winningham screenplay by David Benioff, based on the motion picture Brødre by Susanne Bier directed by Jim Sheridan
EVERYBODY'S FINE */**** starring Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell screenplay by Kirk Jones, based on an earlier screenplay by Massimo De Rita & Tonio Guerra & Giuseppe Tornatore directed by Kirk Jones
by Ian Pugh If you're feeling charitable towards Susanne Bier's Brødre, you'll probably consider Jim Sheridan's Brothers an extraordinarily faithful remake--one that follows the original recipe so closely it could be considered a step-by-step recreation. But a quick survey of what screenwriter David Benioff excised and expanded reveals that he wasn't merely a glorified script doctor, having squeezed some real pathos from a tactless source. It's still the story of a loving father, Sam (Tobey Maguire), who is forced to perform unspeakable acts as a POW in Afghanistan. Because Sam's presumed dead, his ex-con brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, finding the perfect balance between guilt and innocence) straightens out his life and grows ever closer to Sam's wife (Natalie Portman) and children. Sam's sudden reappearance in their lives is further complicated by the onset of the soldier's post-traumatic stress, but gone are the heavy-handed lines about the nature of good, evil, and death from Bier's film. In their place, moments of shaky acceptance as new members are integrated into a family--followed by stares of betrayal as loved ones become interlopers in their own home.