Saturday, February 27, 2010

DUET: a review of "The Soloist"

Originally written April 30, 2009

"The Soloist" Directed by Joe Wright
**** (4 stars)

In "The Soloist," the remarkable new film from director Joe Wright ("Atonement"), there is a short sequence of such glorious power and exactness that effected me so dramatically that I felt compelled to stand upright and cheer the screen. (Never fear, dear readers. I didn't.)

The sequence occurs well into the film as Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez (the inimitable Robert Downey Jr.) has procured two seats at an exclusive orchestral rehearsal performance at the Little Walt Disney Concert Hall. The patrons for this sight include himself and Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (beautifully portrayed by Jamie Foxx), a supremely talented street musician overcome with mental handicaps who was once a child prodigy and promising student from Julliard some 30 years prior. The music, a composition by Ayers' musical hero Beethoven, begins and we are then transported into Ayers' inner-visions as he reaches a transcendental state of hallucinogenic reverie. It is the purity and solace music holds over him, his reaction and surrender to its awesome power and graceful beauty. It is the moment all of us experience when in contact with something that moves us to a place that is unexplainable. I will not go into how such a sequence has been visualized because I want you to see it for yourselves. But, it is handled with an ingenious, delicate inventiveness that for me, was simply a superior depiction of that moment of connection and quite possibly the best connection to music I have seen in any film.

High praise indeed and yet "The Soloist" is not entirely a film about music. The story, which begins with Lopez writing newspaper articles about Ayers, solely to fulfill deadlines as well as maintain his employment within an institution that is slowly dying away in an Internet age, covers a lot of ground. Topics of mental illness, the homeless population, the death of the newspaper in addition to musical themes about the creative process and our response to that process are filtered through the tenuous relationship between Lopez and Ayers, which segues between genuine concern, impatience, exploitation, lost trust and understanding.

What worked extremely well for me was that the film didn't provide any easy, trite answers to issues that continue to plague our country. Early in the film, one of Lopez's articles has inspired an elderly reader to donate her beloved cello (an instrument she can no longer play due to her arthritis) to Ayers as his violin has been reported to only possess two strings. Lopez, concerned for Ayers' safety on the Los Angeles streets, presents the cello to Ayers on the condition that he can only play it at LAMP, a facility for the homeless. Ayers is distrustful, tentative, fearful and paranoid but his desire to maintain his connection to the thing he loves most is stronger. Wright stages the many sequences set at LAMP more as a "fly on the wall" and not as a cinematic freak-show. Scenes are allowed to play longer and build naturally as we, with Lopez, get a front row seat to Skid Row and its denizens. As Lopez spends extended time with the displaced and mentally unstable, as he waits and wonders if Ayers will ever arrive to LAMP, we are able to see the humanity that still exists in the very individuals society has forgotten. I couldn't help but to think about a person's sense of resolve and what is it inside of us that allows us to continue marching, if not forward, but just in place because sometimes that is all a person is able to do.

The film also presents a quiet anger at a country, with albeit depleting resources and finances, that has allowed so many to slip through the cracks. Exactly what led these people to this station in life and who will join them? In fact, the movie may be arguing that it doesn't even matter what each person's back story happens to be, or even if they are able to be "saved" or "cured" because in many cases, they cannot. Lopez wrestles with these very issues throughout the entirety of the film and by the conclusion, he is not transformed in that cliched Hollywood fashion, but simply more informed. Food for thought that never felt like a lesson or condescended to an audience of people sitting in plush movie theater seats munching on overly expensive concession treats.

With the two lead performances, "The Soloist" often reminded me of Barry Levinson's "Rain Man." Jamie Foxx, with the flashier role, completely disappears into the character of Ayers and erases his clownish and sometimes obnoxious off-screen persona. It is easy to forget just how skilled of a dramatic actor he is and he never seems to be clamoring for an additional Oscar. In his far-off gazes, frenetically paced soliloquies and complete devotion to his art, Foxx portrays a man who is nearly unreachable (his sequences of his mental breakdowns are genuinely disturbing) but he is defiantly nobody's fool as his inability to be "saved" continuously challenges the purity of Lopez's intentions. Downey Jr. is compulsively watchable as always and like "Rain Man," he serves the same purpose as the Tom Cruise character by being a stand-in for the audience and even somehow making us question our own intentions if we were placed into the same situation. Is Lopez wanting to help Ayers because of human empathy or is Ayers simply another story to sell and greater insurance for job security in a fading industry? Downey Jr. makes every moment feel so effortless, as if he arrived on the set and just began speaking naturally. He is truly a gift to every film he appears in.

By not allowing the film to descend into melodrama and "Movie-Of-The Week" emotional falseness, Joe Wright has created a deeply moving and thoughtful work. As I keep turning the film over in my mind, I think that "The Soloist" is ultimately about all of us. We are all soloists as we speed through our lives, all seeking and desiring that moment where we connect to something or someone, expanding our collective humanity into something sublime and soulful. This is another highly effective film in the early part of this year's film-going.

SKY HIGH AND HEARTFELT: a review of "Up"

Originally written May 29, 2009

"Up" Directed by Pete Doctor
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

A few years ago, a very close friend of mine and I were having a discussion about the current state of children's entertainment and movies in particular. She has a lovely young daughter, still under 10 and I, as you know, have no children of my own. She fretted about the quality (or lack thereof) in the movies they were able to see together but conceded to me, "Not everything can be 'Finding Nemo'." With that, I replied to her, "That's true. But, everything should aspire to be 'Finding Nemo'."

I have just returned home from a screening of Pixar's lush and beautiful new film "Up," (directed by Pete Doctor who helmed Pixar's "Monsters Inc.") where before the main event, I was subjected to a trough of trailers for upcoming movies aimed at young audiences and families and it was a disheartening sight. Could the filmmakers behind the upcoming "G-Force" for instance (and no, it is not a new version of the classic Japanese animated "Battle Of The Planets" for you endless-hours-of-TV-watchers out there--it's much, much worse) honestly feel that they are making something GOOD?! And worse yet, were they even trying? Thankfully, we do have the creative team behind Pixar who have consistently pushed themselves as well as their audiences by making movies that have transcended "children's entertainment" by, at the very least, swinging for the fences in their attempts to create films for the ages. "Up" has easily earned a spot as something to treasure.

Our story begins with Carl, a timid youngster with a healthy imagination and thirst for adventure. We meet Carl sitting in a movie theater enthralled by the world travels of renowned explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) who has endlessly searched for a mysterious and believed to be mythical bird. Once Muntz is disgraced, he takes to his zeppelin and vows to not return until the bird is found. While acting out his Muntz inspired fantasies, Carl then meets his soulmate, an excitable girl named Ellie, who vows to voyage to Paradise Falls in the South Pacific to live by a waterfall when she grows up. From here, the film flows into a lovely sequence that equals the nearly wordless opening act of last year's "Wall-E" in style, tenderness, complexity, and a healthy dose of mature sorrow as we witness the lifetime romance of Carl and Ellie, two dreamers, in the very house in which they met as children.

When we next meet Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), he is of advanced age, wrapped in endless mourning for Ellie as well as youthful dreams deferred, and essentially shut inside of his precious home despite the changing of the outside world around him, including the complete industrialization of his old, quiet and quaint neighborhood. When threatened with living out his remaining days in a retirement village, Carl takes to the skies in his beloved home improbably suspended with a sea of balloons, determined to live his life by the waterfall in Paradise Falls. Unbeknownst to him is a stowaway, a chatty little fellow named Russell, a literal Boy Scout, who is eager to assist and please the cantankerous Carl on his quest.

I won't say more about any specifics but what follows is the definition of delight. "Up" is light footed, consistently inventive, very funny, and the level of playful imagination reminded me fondly of some of Director Terry Gilliam's flights of fancy over the years. But, what makes "Up" stick firmly is a curious balancing act that I am not certain how they pulled off: the balance between having a story that is lighter than air--much like the house carried by the balloons--with mature themes that make this film quite possibly Pixar's most poignant film to date. It is one of those Pixar gambles that pays off so handsomely.

First of all, we have a film, in our youth obsessed culture, that features not one but TWO cranky elderly men, neither of them wanting to be young again (i.e. "Cocoon") and both of whom have very distinct and profound reasons for their anger and hurts. One of them even delivers an act of quite surprising cruelty that I literally gasped. The pain is lived in and presented honestly. Even the problems of young Russell are valid symptoms of our accelerated culture and his insight into what makes him truly happy are touching indeed.

Secondly, I can think of three points during this brisk film (this is reportedly Pixar's shortest feature and not one minute of it is wasted) where tears spontaneously shot from my eyes. When the film goes straight for the heart, it gets you! The life lessons it presented to its characters as well as the audience never feel like corn-pone homilies. "Up" asks of Carl, Russell and Muntz what makes a life worth living, what really is an adventure, how do we deal with life's disappointments including the consequences of roads not taken as well as the deaths of loved ones and how do those personal tragedies inform our futures.

I completely understand that many people out there would possibly prefer to check their brains at the door and just be pleased with the pretty colors, jaunty soundtrack and a slew of pop-culture jokes and not take on anything emotionally weightier. (Believe me, I movie criteria goes out of the window when watching one of the "Rush Hour" movies for instance.) But, when something like "Up" comes along, I cannot help but to embrace it. I never feel as if the folks at Pixar are condescending to their audience (especially children) or are just out to make a product that can be sold and experienced only as a product. I applaud them for thinking outside of the "children's entertainment box" and pursuing stories that they seemingly would want to see themselves. The sophisticated artistry of "Ratatouille," and the future dystopia of "Wall-E," may not be a child's typical cup of tea but these are films they can grow with and not dispose of after one or two viewings. That very desire and care, obviously on display in Pixar feature after Pixar feature, is what I was getting at in that aforementioned discussion with my friend.

Making any film a successful one is hard work and in many cases, the stars need to be aligned in the right way. As with all art, our responses to them are our own and I can understand also if people happen to not respond to Pixar movies in a positive way. What I object to most are people in a creative field actively and knowingly creating garbage, selling it as garbage and not caring that they just created garbage and will happily take our hard earned money for it. With "Up," there are no such worries here and once it concluded, my heart felt as lifted as Carl's house, whose history and features are as fully developed as the walking, talking characters. Once the doors of school are let out for the summer, I happily recommend this feature to you.

(SIDE NOTE: With such a rave, why not four stars? Well...I just simply like a few Pixar movies even more than this one with "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles" as my favorites.)

WARP SPEED: a review of "Star Trek"

Originally written May 16, 2009

"Star Trek" Directed by J.J. Abrams
**** (4 stars)

THIS is what a summer movie experience should be and all future summer movies should take copious notes! Director J.J. Abrams re-boot of the classic and somewhat creatively exhausted series has breathed an amazing amount of new life into this new confection, which is essentially the origin story of the classic Starship Enterprise crew members: The commanding and swaggering Captain James T. Kirk, half Vulcan/half human First Officer Spock, the cantankerous Dr. McCoy and so on. It is a ferociously paced, smartly written, brilliantly executed experience so much so that I wanted the next installment immediately.

The film begins with a bang as a renegade band of Romulans, led by the vengeful Nero (a effectively nasty Eric Bana), are in the midst of destroying a planet from the inside thus creating a black hole. To the rescue is a Starfleet vessel, which will soon be under the doomed leadership of George Kirk, the also-soon-to-be father of James Kirk who has an appropriately dramatic birth. We then meet Spock as a young boy on the planet Vulcan being taunted by other Vulcan children for being of mixed race as his mother is human. Of course, the pummeling Spock unleashes upon his bullies provides an great introduction to Spock's eternal and internal conflict between logic and emotion. The trajectories of Kirk and Spock's rebellious early years (with Kirk as a drunken, hot rodding Iowa townie and the continued discrimination against Spock by his own culture) collide at Starfleet where Kirk has just defeated an unbeatable simulation program created by Spock. Both young men are furiously head-strong and the intensity between the two is highly charged and used effectively once all parties emerge onto the Enterprise under Captain Pike and blast off into their first adventure.

There is so much praise to be heaped upon this new film that I am figuring out exactly where to begin. Let's about the great cast! The casting is superb as all members instantly embody their iconic characters while honoring the original cast and somehow none of them resort to cheap imitations. Chris Pine perfectly captures the cocky impetuousness of Captain Kirk while Zachary Quinto (the deeply conflicted and purely evil superhuman serial killer Sylar on "Heroes") is so effective as the younger Spock that I could not imagine anyone else playing this role. Their chemistry is electric as they each wrestle for control of the Enterprise as well as their own sense of destiny while also channeling the deep friendship we all know they will have. I have to give special mention to Karl Urban who gives an eerily pitch perfect performance as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. Urban has somehow found out how to make this character his own while seemingly channeling the gruff vocal cadences of the late DeForrest Kelley. Excellent work!

Another surprising layer to this film that worked so well for me was how the film answered the following quandary: I couldn't help but to wonder how there would be any real dramatic tension over a group of characters we already know will live into advanced age and continue to have interstellar adventures. Well, thanks a time-travel element, that question is dealt with ingeniously and leads to some jaw-dropping surprises.

Mostly, J.J. Abrams and his writing crew have delivered something special: a "Star Trek" film that honors all that has come before while also being a modern movie and presented in a fashion where someone completely ignorant of the voyages of the Starship Enterprise can still arrive to this film and enjoy it. The action is relentless but not in that punishing Michael Bay fashion where every frame is edited within an inch of its life and the sound system is jacked up to 39. Once again, everything goes back to the terrific script, which gives all of its characters their due, our affection for them grows, and we end up caring about their fates.

For fans of the original series, the film also does a great job of playing off certain imagery and tidbits from the past. If any of you happen to remember an episode where Sulu goes mad and prances around the Enterprise, shirtless and with a fencing sword, you will have a taste of swordsmanship here. Or the one where the Enterprise sees an alternate reality of its crew members. Even more compelling is the film's play on the show's implied sexual tension between Kirk, Spock and Lt. Uhura. The balancing act of having elements for the veteran as well as the complete novice is a tricky one and it was all handled so beautifully.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this film is that it just took me back to my early childhood when I was a enthralled with the idea of space, planets (especially Saturn), stars and constellations and I watched the classic 60s television series in re-runs religiously. I had a toy Tricorder, a Captain Kirk shirt complete with a Starfleet insignia, a phaser gun and many book/record sets where I could audibly entertain myself with new adventures. My Dad even indulged my passion and drove me and my cousin out to a Toys R' Us in Niles, IL (nearly two hours away from my home on Chicago's southwest side) to meet William Shatner, an event so confusing and disappointing due to it swiftness--yet, somehow, as I reflect, it was a perfect example of his "Shatneresque" quality. The original series riveted me, sometimes terrified me and always captivated me. Many years later, I did watch the subsequent series here and there but I have to say that I'm not a "Next Generation" fan. Something always felt missing to me and I think my allegiance to the adventures of Kirk and Spock resonated best. This new experience made me return to those days and for a little over two hours, transported me away from my daily stresses.

It also took me back to a time when I couldn't wait for the summer movie season, for pure escapism that was crafted brilliantly, extremely well-written and acted and the special effects didn't overwhelm the story. Think of the summer of 1981, which boasted nothing less than "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" and "Superman II." Or how about 1982, which featured "Poltergeist," the highly influential "Blade Runner" and "Tron" and of course, the classic, "E.T. The Extraterrestrial." This re-invention of "Star Trek" belongs in that class.

Adventurous, thrilling, at times very funny and always compelling with edge-of-your-seat excitement, this is easily one of my favorite films of the year!

A DARK FILM FOR DARK TIMES: a review of "Watchmen"

Originally written March 7, 2009

"WATCHMEN" Directed by Zack Snyder
**** (4 stars)

In the advertisements for "Watchmen," the audience is reminded that the book, written and illustrated by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is "the most celebrated graphic novel of all time." This is no hyperbole. "Watchmen" produced a seismic shift in the art form when it was published in 1986 through its dense and dizzying narrative and its impact continues to loom large over pop-culture as we can see the effects, not simply in graphic novels produced since (i.e. "Maus," "Sin City," "Ronin," "The Sandman"), but in movies and television programs such as "Unbreakable," "Lost," "Heroes," and "The Incredibles." Even "The Dark Knight" plus the graphic novels that inspired last year's show-stopper owe an endless debt to the joint creation of Moore and Gibbons.

It has long been perceived that this work would be unfilmmable as directors no less than Terry Gilliam ("Time Bandits," "Brazil," "12 Monkeys," "The Fisher King") and Darren Aranofsky ("Requiem For A Dream," "The Wrestler") have attempted to capture this story on film but walked away from the prospect. It is a tremendously tall order as "Watchmen" tells a grim comic book tale set in an alternate 1985 where Nixon is in his fifth term as President after winning the Vietnam war, masked crime fighters have been outlawed and the nuclear tension between the United States and Russia has reached to such feverish levels that the Doomsday Clock has been set to "five minutes until midnight"-the moment of nuclear holocaust. The plot provides a springboard for a myriad of themes including the tension between utopia and dystopia, a philosophical treatise on time and consciousness as well as the deconstruction of the entire superhero mythology. "Watchmen" is a big beast of a story and for some strange reason Director Zack Snyder (of last year's "300") decided to try his hand and surprisingly he succeeds with a dark film for a dark time that simultaneously honors the source material and works on its own terms.

The film begins with the murder of The Comedian (a terrifically gruff Jeffrey Dean Morgan) by an unknown assailant. Hot on the trail is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), an alienated rage filled sociopathic masked (complete with constantly shape-shifting Rorschach symbols) vigilante who is convinced a plot is underway to murder all of the surviving former superheroes, which include:

-Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), who now resides in solitary retirement with only his crime fighting toys and memories of his heroic past as company. He now flabby, emasculated and impotent.

-Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), known to all as "the smartest man on the planet," and currently working to solve the energy crisis which would then hope to cease the impending nuclear destruction.

-Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), the token female team member/public sexual fetish object who is also the daughter of the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) who was once almost raped by The Comedian.

-Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only team member with super-powers which resulted from a tragic accident with nuclear energy. After being used by the United States government as a weapon against the Viet Cong, Dr. Manhattan has begun his evolution into a higher consciousness, which results in an extended period of solitude on the surface of Mars and an inner disconnection with humanity itself.

With all of this then add childhood traumas and repressed memories, back stories within back stories, future visions, the profound theme of trading one fear for another to attain a peaceful society, then filter it through eye-popping visuals and grisly violence you have enough material for several movies. It is a wonder that Snyder was able to streamline the graphic novel's narrative without losing the focus or substance.

Each frame is filled to the brim with visual details that brilliantly mirror the comic and Snyder's consistent usage of his dream/nightmare styled slow motion is highly effective and for me, never felt over-used. It is a visual and thematic wonder to lose yourself in and ponder long after you have left the theater.

"Watchmen" is not an immediate experience. It doesn't have the visceral emotion of "The Dark Knight." Much like Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan pastiche, "I'm Not There" or Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," this is a film that might be a few steps ahead of other films due to the amount of material hurled at the viewer for nearly three hours. It is impossible to take it all in during one sitting and it demands a second viewing.

Billy Crudup gives a striking performance as the blue skinned (and very well endowed) Dr. Manhattan. His evolving detachment from the human race is oddly touching as he cannot comprehend man's inhumanity for one moment longer. Ozymandias, The Comedian and Rorschach have also retreated from humanity to varying degrees for the same reasons yet it is Dr. Manhattan's strive for oneness with the cosmic that makes for a compelling spiritual journey.

Jackie Earle Haley is outstanding as Rorschach and it is a marvel to watch him inhabit some deeply disturbing corners (his previous role was the pedophile in "Little Children") as I remember his child actor past with "The Bad News Bears" and the always brilliant "Breaking Away." With his wiry frame, Clint Eastwood growl and almost demonically unforgiving demeanor, Haley is a gripping sight and you cannot take your eyes off of him even when his actions are horrific. The mark he makes without the use of his eyes or face for most of his screen time is remarkable and calls to mind the "faceless" performances of Hugo Weaving in "V For Vendetta" and even Tom Cruise in "Vanilla Sky."

If there were any slight drawbacks I would have to say there was the performance of Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre II. She is a stunning sight (!!) and she is quite convincing in her physical performance during the action sequences--you do believe that she can deliver a powerful punch. But with her slightly nasally, "Drew Barrymore" voice, her line readings come off a tad stiff and since she has major screen time and many dramatic moments to play, I don't think she quite hit all of the notes. But, in her defense, maybe this is quite possibly how the character should be played. As she is the daughter of the original super heroine, there is a "let's play dress up" quality to Silk Spectre II and Ackerman handles this aspect very well. While she ultimately didn't derail the movie by any means, I have this feeling you needed someone with stronger acting chops and not someone who could fill out the latex suit.

And while I am praising the movie for juggling as many themes as it does, there were moments where I felt a little over-stuffed because books are books and movies are movies. With the book, time is in the hands of the reader. With a movie, time is in the hands of each flickering frame and the speed in which each viewer processes. The passages with Dr. Manhattan reward revisiting as they all deal with the relativity of time and still the film version has to hurtle along and complete the adjacent narratives.

Even so, there has been a question of relevance since "Watchmen" is a product of the 1980's and played off the real Cold War with Russia and nuclear fears many Americans shouldered. But, I do think this film works for our current times. With our economic disasters, fears of terrorism, and two on-going wars, the concepts presented in this film are more relevant than ever. And while the tone of this tale gets darker and darker, and some unthinkable events occur, love exists and emerges and hope remains. With our very real dark times in front of us and hard struggles ahead, we need to hold onto all good things that emerge to help them remain in our world. "Watchmen" left me with those feelings and I am looking forward to seeing it a second time.

This is a challenging, demanding epic that is worth every minute you put into it but be is a rough ride.

TEARS...BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY: a review of "My Sister's Keeper"

Originally written November 27, 2009

“MY SISTER’S KEEPER” Directed by Nick Cassavetes
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

I am certain you have seen that horrific commercial. You know the one I mean. The one with the montage of abused and injured cats and dogs and set to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” I HATE that commercial and if asked, I couldn’t even really tell you what it was advertising, as I tend to click the channel away from those awful images as soon as I hear the all-too familiar piano notes and see the first mangled puppy. I am certain that whoever is responsible for that advertisement is trying to elicit responsibility and action through the sheer force of brutal manipulation, something I tend to have a natural aversion to.

“My Sister’s Keeper,” the new film from Nick Cassavetes, (director of the love-story weepie “The Notebook”) and based upon the mammoth best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult, is that kind of a movie. A tearjerker that (almost) never allows the story to work naturally and to a degree, I am not even certain if it cares about its story that much. It is a big budget Lifetime movie designed to make you cry by any means necessary. It is as if the filmmakers have decided that if they have to extract every molecule of moisture from your tear ducts forcibly one-by-one, they will do just that.

Young Kate (played by Sofia Vassilieva) has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and was not expected to live past the age of 5 years old. Her desperate parents, lawyer Sara (Cameron Diaz) and firefighter Brian (Jason Patric), decided on a path for Kate’s survival that could almost come straight out of science fiction. They would genetically engineer a child with the purpose of using said child to help keep Kate alive. As the movie opens, that child, Anna, (played by Abigail Breslin) has had enough. She has given bone marrow, blood and stem cells over her entire life and now she is faced with giving up one of her kidneys. She takes her savings of $700 to an attorney (a well-cast Alec Baldwin), whose television advertisements boast his %91 success rate, to assist her with becoming medically emancipated from any more procedures against her will.

The story and film begins with an intriguing premise and one that could extend itself to a strong ethical debate as well as an engaging and painful family drama. Issues of who has the right to live and die are front and center, while the varying family dynamics exist throughout. From a Mother whose entire focus is riveted upon Kate at the expense of everyone else, mostly her teenage son Jesse (Evan Ellingson) who is virtually ignored. To Anna, who truly loves her sister but honestly asks what the outcome of her life would be if she gives up her own kidney. And finally, to Kate herself, as she also has a secret compelling agenda, which indeed adds to the tension. Now imagine if this material were allowed to be played out in an honest fashion. As I have said before, all movies are manipulative but there is a fine line between good storytelling and cheap tricks and this film tries to have it both ways.

I have not read the novel from which this film is based, but I have been told that this particular melodramatic style is faithful to its source. OK, I’ll take that. This film certainly knows its audience and is willing to cater to that audience. But, for me, I couldn’t help but to feel that Cassavetes was cheating a bit with an over-reliance on the soft-focus cinematography meant to signify that Hallmark commercial melancholy and also an even more distracting over-reliance on montage sequences set to treacly pop-songs that are all about crying, sadness, loss and dying. When the actual script fails, another song is tossed onto the soundtrack and the effect is gagging.

This is also another one of those movies where EVERYONE is crying at some point, as if the sight of people in tears will bring forth tears from the audience by osmosis. It was something else that felt like a trick instead of just telling the story as honestly as it could. After sifting through the inner tragedies of all of the family members, we are then introduced to the courtroom Judge (Joan Cusack) who has her own inner tragedy to deal with and of course, we have to sit through her crying fits as well. When Kate has a brief love affair with another cancer ward patient, you will know the outcome the second he appears on screen. And then, there is the climactic courtroom scene late in the film that is just a sloppy construction of realizations, family confrontations and the clumsy reveal of Alec Baldwin’s inner tragedy. It was as if you have a three-layer cake that kept adding sickeningly sweet layers to it. The whole “more is more” philosophy the film seems to be taking just put me off.

Now, of course with all of this sadness running around, I am definitely not heartless. This is all a matter of taste, I realize. I am typically not a crier in movies but I will tell you that Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 epic, “Magnolia” leaves me as a dishrag for the sadness and near operatic drama steamrolls over me. It is an over-whelming experience made by a master filmmaker, in my opinion (and it is also a film that has its equally passionate detractors). Of course, I was affected by the goings-on in “My Sister’s Keeper,” but I felt bludgeoned by the manipulation and I kept resisting and resisting.

However, the film has its qualities. Again, I felt that Cassavetes knows whom the audience of this film and story is intended for and he caters to them well with an admittedly handsome production. All of the actors perform well within the confines of their thinly drawn-out characters. Diaz is an effective Mother Lioness while also living in denial in regards to life’s natural cycle. Patric is appropriately stoic while all three children are cherubic and virtuous.

And of course, there is the controversial ending! Do not worry, dear readers, I will not spoil here. I had been fully informed of the book’s ending before I saw this film and there was a brief uproar over the film as Cassavetes reported in many interviews that he had changed the book’s ending for his film. Surprisingly, the change of the ending seemed to be the best and somehow, most natural move for a story that really didn’t have any natural moments in it.

To me, the new ending felt more honest, more truthful, more realistic and ultimately, it was an ending that deserved to have a better movie to support it. Sad songs and dying children, in and of themselves, just weren’t enough to make a fully-realized film for me. The drama is inherent to this sort of material, I didn’t need all of the cinematic tricks to force me feel what I should have been feeling naturally.

DUMB AND DUMBER: reviews of "Duplicity" and "Angels & Demons"

Originally written September 7, 2009

"DUPLICITY" Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

By the time “Duplicity” finally reached its merciful and much needed conclusion, I felt as if someone had handed me a shiny present after which I removed all of the tissue paper, garnishes and glitter, all that remained was absolutely nothing at the bottom of the box. I felt bamboozled. Tricked. Hoodwinked. And not in an enjoyable way where I could appreciate and marvel at the storytelling artistry on display. Nope. I had simply been had and two hours and five minutes of my life had been taken from me, never to return and all in the service of a film that had no point whatsoever.

Writer/Director Tony Gilroy’s “Duplicity” is a hybrid of romantic comedy and corporate espionage starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as two former Government spies who become private corporate spies/moles in order to scam a large fortune out from under the noses of two mighty CEOs (well played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) in order to fund their life of love in Rome together. This would have been well and good if it were handled in the breezy, stylish, and energetic fashion of Steven Soderberg’s “Ocean’s Eleven” remake. But, no. What we are given is an endless parade of repetitive sequences of Owen looking slack jawed and opened mouthed at Roberts’ latest deceit and ultimate renewal of trust. Every single time he just could not believe that he could’ve been deceived once again by Roberts, I wanted to reach through the screen, grab him by the collar and shake him! It grew more painful each time it occurred and if you do watch this film, be prepared to sit through scenes of that nature again and again. In addition, we are also treated to a needlessly over-written and executed fractured time narrative that doesn’t enhance the plot in any way, new revelations that grow more ridiculous and a collection of shady characters whose allegiances consistently shift or you were never certain of in the first place. It was as if Gilroy was desperately trying to find or create purpose in a story that simply had none to begin with.

When I first saw Gilroy's previous film, the corporate thriller "Michael Clayton," I had the feeling that I was sitting at the kid's table. While I deeply appreciated the fact that Gilroy had made an adult film for an adult audience in an adult fashion, I felt so lost throughout the proceedings. I was confused with character's motivations, desires, and schemes and once it was over, I didn't much care. Then, I happened upon a second viewing and everything clicked. The writing became so elegant and I became so involved with the collection of characters who were either losing, selling or regaining their souls. It was a compelling and provocative piece of filmmaking that truly rewarded me on the second try.

Unfortunately, I already know that no second viewing will enhance what I have already experienced, and no amount of flashy split-screen cinematography and splashy rom-com dialogue can change the fact that I was left with as much of nothing as some of the characters in the film. Yes, Owen and Roberts give fine performances and have chemistry with each other. Yes, the production values are top notch throughout and there are some good sequences here and there. But, this is a film of which there is not even one, solitary point to write home about or come away with and what is the purpose of sitting through something like that?

Originally written November 29, 2009

“ANGELS & DEMONS” Directed by Ron Howard
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

I was not a fan of “The DaVinci Code.” My dislike had nothing to do with the controversial themes contained within that story. The book just left me cold with author Dan Brown’s turgid writing style (My God, would Langdon ever get out of the Louvre?!). As for the film version, with the story it was attempting to tell, it had a shocking lack of dramatic tension and urgency. It was a sluggishly paced movie that once it limped and crawled to its conclusion, I found myself limping and crawling my way out of the theatre. While “Angels & Demons,” Director Ron Howard’s follow-up to “The DaVinci Code,” certainly had a faster pace, I still found myself completely, entirely and brutally bored for the entire two hour twenty minute running time. It struck me as a story so ridiculous (and possessing a lead so insufferable), that I could not buy into the fantasy for even a moment.

The plot is essentially Bill Maher’s greatest Christmas gift. What we have is a race against time as Symbiologist Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks sans the questionable hairstyle from the previous film) attempts to cease the fiendish plan of the Illuminati, an ancient secret society intent on murdering four cardinals in four subsequent hours leading up to the midnight destruction of Rome-and Religion itself in the name of Science-via a scientifically designed anti-matter substance.

Sounds good and exciting enough, doesn’t it? Well, it’s funny but these films, like the “National Treasure” films, feel like Indiana Jones movies but without any true effort. When following our beloved archaeologist from one hair-raising adventure to another, we can relish in his intelligence and bravery but we also are able follow the clues along with him. Indy has to struggle despite his knowledge and we discover key information when HE discovers it. That very ingredient brings the audience along and makes the entire enterprise the enormous fun that it is.

The heroes of “National Treasure” and the Prof. Langdon stories know absolutely EVERYTHING there is to know about their subject matter and they are able to recall information at the precise second the script requires them to. In the case of “Angels & Demons,” early on in the film, Langdon, in probably the first or second of possibly 300 monologues (more on that in a bit), effortlessly describes the entire plot which means we have to wait for the movie to get there. Yes, he does some digging here and there but again, at the second he has to know something, he’s figured it out and the wheels of the plot just keep grinding along exhaustively. There are no real obstacles to overcome, the film’s key villain is SCREAMINGLY OBVIOUS, so there’s no tension on that front either.

Worst of all, Prof. Langdon is an insufferably flawless character so he ends up being paper-thin as well. Back to those aforementioned monologues, Langdon never even registers as a human being as he is completely incapable of having any conversations that do not become mountains of exposition and information. (No one could even say “Hello” to him without having to endure the historical origins of the word.) He is like the smartest kid is class that keeps informing you that he is indeed the smartest kid in the class and you just want to pummel him for it. Langdon was no one I wanted to follow. I just wanted to shut him up and just get on with it because again, this is a race against time and all he does is talk, talk, talk and talk some more.

Perhaps, in all fairness, this is not the fault of Howard and Hanks, who are respectively one of Hollywood’s most talented and versatile Directors and one of Hollywood’s most serviceable actors. Maybe the Dan Brown books are just not that filmable and do not easily lend themselves to visualization. Maybe Howard and Hanks made the best films that COULD be made from those books.

But then again, Scooby-Doo mysteries are more compelling.

Friday, February 26, 2010

DARK MAGIC AT CHILDHOOD'S END: a review of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

Originally written July 18, 2010

**** (4 stars)

Near the climax of the stunningly sorrowful "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," deeply conflicted sixteen year old Draco Malfoy skulks through the corridors of Hogwarts School Of Wizardry and Witchcraft, not with the standard schoolyard malevolence of old, but now armed with a life-altering purpose that is all but childish. He is facing down his inevitable date with destiny as if he is marching down the mythical "Green Mile" of Stephen King's novella as his classmates, shrouded in the shadows, writhe in teenage hormonal ecstasy. It is a brief image but one that perfectly hammers down the heavy steps to childhood's end in Director David Yates' beautifully rendered adaptation of J.K. Rowling's penultimate novel of the epic tale of Harry Potter.

As the new film opens, the war of the magical world has spilled over into the world of Muggles (i.e. the non-magical). London is under a series of devastating terrorist attacks orchestrated by Harry's arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort and carried through by his increasing squadron of minions, the Death Eaters. With the fate of the world in peril, due to Voldemort's relentless pursuit of our hero, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has recruited Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) for a special mission: to form a close relationship with returning Potions Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent in a performance that segues effortlessly from inebriated befuddlement to plunging torment) and discover a crucial secret that just may stop Voldemort once and for all.

In addition, Harry is dealing with a budding attraction to Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), younger sister of best friend Ron (Rupert Grint), who is himself dealing with the aggressively amorous Lavender Brown (a highly comic Jessie Cave) plus conflicted emotions for Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). There's also the obsessive matter of finding out if Malfoy (Tom Felton) has indeed been indoctrinated into the ranks of Death Eaters and finally, what is the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, whose margin drenched textbook of spells has made Harry a star pupil in his Potions class. Phew! Of course, this is a lot of ground to cover in a two and half hour film, an increasingly difficult task considering the growing lengths of the wonderful source material. To Yates and returning screenwriter Steve Kloves' joined credit, they have not dropped the ball in the least. They have truly discovered the way to make the material work best as a film on a variety of fronts, most notably by focusing on primary themes and relating all of the surrounding material that best fits the theme. It may mean some restructuring or jettisoning of some favorite moments from the novel but books are books and movies are movies. In the case of "Half-Blood Prince," they have created their finest adaptation to date, one that burrowed deeply under my skin and has haunted me days after seeing it.

In the previous installment, "Order Of The Phoenix," Sirius Black explains tenderly to Harry that the world is not simply made up of good people and Death Eaters. How that very duality of good and evil lies within us all and that our choices define us. With that speech, Black was giving Harry some important life lessons to assist him as he grows into his adulthood. If "Phoenix" was a film of anguished transition then "Half-Blood Prince" is less of an elegy and more of a benediction to childhood and all youthful frivolity--especially when living in a world at war. Yates handles this material with sensitivity, a mastery of tone and mood, deliberate pacing that never feels torpid and a stronger directorial hand that has allowed him to take a few risks with the overall presentation.

The visual palette of the film is striking. The cinematography and lighting has a slightly bleached out appearance to enhance the solemnity of the material. Places of security and sanctuary have grown increasingly sinister. Having just barely survived the Orwellian landscape of the previous installment, the magical, sun-soaked brightness of Hogwarts castle has been replaced with barren hallways, murky shadows and the feeling of lingering bad dreams of the greatest of wolves howling right outside the door. It often reminded me of the grim look and tonality of Director David Fincher's "Se7en" and this window dressing assists the story and characters greatly.

The pall of sadness I felt throughout the film stemmed from the overall spectre of death which hangs over the proceedings like a slowly descending net. But most importantly, I just felt for these kids as these characters are all trying to hold onto a time that cannot last and it gives the film a profound melancholy. Even Ron's newfound heroics on the Quidditch field (never more glowingly presented) carry a "too little too late" quality, for instance. Moreso, for this group of teenagers, and the story they are all involved with, moments of natural adolescent impulses and emotions are constantly being invaded and undercut by the outside forces of adulthood and the weight of responsibilities they must carry should they survive. A terrific sequence near the beginning of the film finds Harry in a diner flirting with a frisky waitress yet that is quickly interrupted by the appearance of Dumbledore. A hilarious love potion overdose sharply turns into a near fatal situation for one of our main characters. Another terrorist attack also nearly claims the life of another student, a situation that arrives immediately after a moment of romantic hilarity. The hearth and home of a Christmas dinner is given way to a frightening nighttime chase through a bog and concludes with the ultimate destruction of the home. Yates even takes the time to stage an elegant shot of Hogwarts at night. The camera begins with a heartbroken and tearful Hermione being comforted by Harry. The camera pans upwards to reveal Ron and Lavender in lustful "snogging." And then, the camera pans upwards even more to find Draco consumed with turmoil over his recent choices. The freedom necessary for the age is unable to remain for terribly long before they are reminded of the danger they are all in. The events of the film are the nails of childhood's coffin slowly being inserted.

Then, there is the climax of the film, the details of which I will not spoil here for the uninitiated. Yes, there have been deep changes from the novel and that may put some people off. For me, to make this work as a movie, I thought Yates' choices were brilliant. By not including certain epic sequences and ratcheting up the special effects and sound design, it provided a counterpoint to most summer movies and the cliche of the "slam-bang finish." As I keep saying, we're unfortunately living--cinematically-- in a Transformers" world where every single moment is a climax. Yates is seemingly not interested in bludgeoning the audience into submission. He wisely keeps the MAJOR EVENT of the film focused solely on character and their motivations, not effects and cataclysm. He drops the sound out, leaving great passages of silence, allowing the weight and intensity of the situation to fully take hold and be felt. It worked like a charm for me and before I knew it, I had shed my very first tears in a Harry Potter movie. Even the final scene is a small wonder as it foreshadows the relationship between Harry, Hermione and Ron in simple staging and small observations. Again this is a transitional film and Yates is deeply involved with filming the two part finale of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows." Perhaps he is saving any operatic moments for the final act. Whatever the reasons, it made for a soulful and stirring experience.

But, it is not all doom and gloom. There is high comedy throughout and the teenage and boarding school hijinks, so well executed in "Goblet Of Fire," make a welcome return. Rupert Grint again shows his natural ease in front of the camera and the aforementioned Jessie Cave is a perfect romantic foil. The adorable Evanna Lynch returns as Luna Lovegood, raising the freak flag for all teenage outcasts everywhere. Danial Radcliffe, who shows more ease and strength with each film, has now brought a deft comic timing and a perfect sense of irony with some line readings. Just listen to how he delivers his newfound confidence at being the magical world's "chosen one" and try not to burst out laughing. All of this and more balances out the darkness that surrounds them and makes for a rich experience.

I could go on and on but I do feel I should give special mention to Tom Felton and Bonnie Wright, who have to now take on a more involved presence with the films and they both rise to the occasion. Endless credit must be given to Director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two installments. He has since been given short shrift in preference for the "edgier" directors who have succeeded him in the series. But he had to build the film world of Rowling's stories from the ground up and that included his eye for casting many of the participants who have now embodied these roles. Can you honestly imagine anyone but Radcliffe, Grint and Watson in the roles of our heroic triumvirate? With the minor characters now taking on larger screen time, his original decisions have played out nicely as Felton performed a fine job of creating sympathy for a villainous character and Wright possesses a "still waters run deep" quality that makes us believe that she is indeed the right woman for Harry's heart.

And with the legendary British cast filling out the adult roles, I have to say the MVP of the series has been--and continues to be-- Alan Rickman, still one of movie's greatest villains with his "Die Hard" role. He brings the duplicitous Professor Severus Snape to life as no other even could attempt and even knowing the full outcome of this character, he still had me guessing the truth of his motivations.

As the film closes, Harry gazes at the forever changed landscape of Hogwarts and pronounces, "I never realized how beautiful this place is." What a fitting farewell to not simply a place but a time of life as he heads into his adulthood away from all he has previously known. For what began as a supremely mounted companion series to the books, has grown into a strongly film series of its own right. And to think, I once NEVER wanted these books to be turned into films for fear of the experience becoming painfully tainted and commercialized.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is one of my favorite films of 2009.

UNFOCUSED, UNINVESTED MANN: a review of "Public Enemies"

As I prepare my list of my favorite and least favorite films of 2009, I am posting reviews from the archive.

The following review was originally written July 3, 2009.

"PUBLIC ENEMIES" Directed by Michael Mann
** (two stars)

The slow, deliberate, methodical pacing of a Michael Mann film is often something to behold (especially now, in a "Transformers" world). I can easily recall the very first time I saw his 1981 film "Thief," starring James Caan as a safe-cracker. The quiet intensity, augmented with stunning visuals of rain soaked and nearly hallucinogenic nighttime Chicago streets which pulsated to the groundbreaking electronic film score by Tangerine Dream, created an experience that was nothing short of mesmerizing. His 1986 film "Manhunter," based on the Thomas Harris book series featuring the infamous Hannibal Lector, was so extremely chilling the film became defiantly hypnotic and in my mind, the more widely seen and celebrated "Silence Of the Lambs" pales dramatically. Also, while in high school as Mann's own "Miami Vice" ruled the airwaves, Mann created a subsequent series entitled "Crime Story." Set in 1960s Chicago, the series detailed the Major Crimes Unit's intricate police proceedings of a manhunt for budding crime lord Ray Luca. Led by the severely unrelenting cop Mike Torello (played by the great Dennis Farina), each week focused on the intricate steps that would bring Luca to justice by taking ample time to present the allure and inner workings of the mob, the conflicted inner workings of the police department and the brutality of violence while attempting to bring it to justice.

The series also brought into blinding focus the concept of a person's relationship to their work and their inner sense of duty to that work even--and especially-- if it is illegal. This is a frequent theme for the infinitely meticulous Mann, who showcased it to an epic degree in 1995's three hour masterpiece, "Heat" as well as his more visceral thriller "Collateral." He revisits the theme again with his latest crime epic "Public Enemies," the tale of famed bank robber John Dillinger, his pursuit and ultimate downfall. Unfortunately for me, this film was a rare disappointment from Michael Mann, especially since this material is simply tailor made for his sensibilities and talents. This is not a bad film by any degree. Just a surprisingly uninvolving one, with a ragged sense of storytelling, character motivation and execution.

To be fair, Michael Mann has always presented a left-of-center take on material that is rooted in real world events. He will never go for the predictable, Hollywood route as his excellent and controversial biopic "Ali" showed. I knew going in that he probably wouldn't delve into Dillinger's childhood, upbringing, formative years and anything else that would go to certain lengths in "explaining" this man. That said, I was frustrated with the fact that there just wasn't much to hang onto for me to become invested with. Yes, we are able to see the aforementioned concept of a man and his work and we are also able to see the sense of celebrity Dillinger attracted and which also made him an attractive figure during the Depression. He is defiantly a rock star and he knows it by consistently testing the lengths of his invincibility.

This is especially paramount during a stunning sequence where he casually strolls through the police department and the specialized unit that is in pursuit of him. Great stuff but beyond that, there's not much else and I found myself losing interest rapidly and repeatedly. Johnny Depp, truly one of our finest actors as well as being a deeply skilled chameleon, immerses himself in the role once again but it left me cold. It all felt superficial and shallow--not Depp's fault but for the scarcity of actual weight to the role itself.

Even making less of an impression is Christian Bale, an actor of continuing impressive range and strength, in the role of Melvin Purvis, the officer assigned and appointed by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup in a strong performance of prissy intolerance) to bring Dillinger to justice. As with the depiction of Dillinger, I struggled with trying to see the inner workings of a man who came off like a 1930's gangster/cop film cliche and after a while, he seemed to be somewhat interchangeable with all of the other tough talking men in trench coats, ties and wide brimmed hats. There wasn't much to distinguish him in this telling and for me, Bale ended up fading into the scenery.

Also, fading into the scenery was the sumptuous production design, which is a staple of Mann's work. For his last few films, Mann has turned his cinematography over to high definition cameras, which essentially gives a sharper sense of focus to night scenes but still have a certain video camera look, here and there. I felt the technique worked extremely well in "Collateral" and his 2006 reinvention of "Miami Vice" but with 1930's crime, I found the technique distracting to a hurtful degree. Of course, I didn't think Mann would make a lushly operatic film like Brian De Palma's 1986 update of "The Untouchables," and perhaps his aesthetic decision was a way to make him film de-glamorize the era and story by making the proceedings grittier. But, somehow, I found the look sloppy (the dreaded "shaky-cam" is in overuse here) and at times, the film felt like a 1930's episode of "Cops."

Even with all of my criticisms, there were elements I enjoyed. The bank robbery scenes were well staged and delivered and Dillinger's final moments inside and outside Chicago's Biograph theater were undeniably powerful. But, as the final credits began to scroll, I felt that the film was sadly not much more than a sluggish and repetitive loop of robbery, capture and escape. It seemed as if Mann just didn't feel as invested this time around and likewise, neither was I.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


As I am currently writing the new post, ready to bash in my least favorite films of the decade, I thought I would give you a head's up on one of the most recent entries.

Originally written October 31, 2009

“THE PROPOSAL” Directed by Anne Fletcher
* (one star)

For those of you who have taken the time out of your busy schedules to read my cinematic musings, you have no doubt come across my occasional laments over the current status of the romantic comedy film. I will not re-hash all of those criticisms here, and I know its motion picture cotton candy meant to simply be an escape. I get it. I like cotton candy too…I really do! But, why can’t this sort of cotton candy taste better than it usually does? Why can’t there be a level of excellence in the making of the cotton candy so it can be the best cotton candy there is? Continuing with the candy metaphor, there’s Snickers and then, there’s Zagnut and “The Proposal” is less than a Zagnut. It is yet another time-waster in the romantic comedy genre that equally wastes the talents of everyone involved and provides no romance and no comedy in any way, shape or form.

The story centers around the “romantic” pairing between Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), a stereotypically bitchy cold-fish high-ranking editor at a publishing company and her long suffering assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds). In order to keep her Visa status in the United States and avoid deportation to her original home of Canada (!), Margaret blackmails Andrew into a marriage proposal that will of course play out over an Alaskan weekend with Andrew’s family, which is also hosting Andrew’s Grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration. Margaret and Andrew will without fail hate each other, begin to like each other, have a series of awkward physical moments meant to draw out their latent sexual attraction, grow closer, draw away from each other and then, have their revelatory moment where true love steps in and saves the day, all set to corn pone and clich├ęd small town homilies. This also being somewhat of a screwball comedy of mistaken identities and intents, Margaret will also have to have the moment where she comes clean to the family and feels a sense of regret over her relentless malicious and duplicitous ways. Yawn!

Again, I realize very well that this is fantasy. However, I do feel that in order for the fantasy to work, the story, characters and emotions need to be grounded in some semblance of reality and knowledge of how real human beings behave. I keep returning to the recent films from Judd Apatow because no matter how outrageous the proceeding in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and especially “Knocked Up” became, all of those films were weighed down by their perceptions of human nature in relationships. There was real romance in those films, which in turn, accentuated the comedy. Another fine recent example would be the Will Smith comedy “Hitch.” While not perfect, it was a highly entertaining film that really paid attention to the emotional states of the characters and I especially ended up rooting heavily for Kevin James and Amber Valletta’s romance to end well. With “The Proposal,” none of that acute perception is on display.

Now all of the aforementioned plot details would be well and good if only, (Good Lord, if only) there was an actual screenplay that paid an ounce of attention to how real people behave. Every moment is prefabricated, none of it felt true and I just don’t believe that any of the film’s participants believed in this material above the cashing of their paychecks. Even the entire conceit of the film is ridiculous! Honestly, if you want me to believe that Margaret Tate is so ruthless, tenacious and unyielding in her highly successful career as a publishing maven, you would think she would be at least a tad more attentive to her Visa status. And then, there is this character of Margaret Tate herself and she is completely unappetizing, devoid of empathy and ferociously irredeemable and it seemed as if the filmmakers just wanted Sandra Bullock’s natural charm to carry the day. Well, it doesn’t. Even a manufactured past tragedy and a love of the hip-hop classic “It Takes Two” does not inform the character at all and it was falsely manipulative material to fake the audience into caring for her and realize that she’s not so bad. I’m sorry but Margaret Tate deserved to be alone and in an early scene, where Andrew actually defies Tate’s sadistic proposition with a curt, “I quit. You’re screwed,” and walks away, I wanted him to keep on walking…and then, the movie would’ve been mercifully over.

Additionally and worst of all, I do find it strange that in 2009, we have yet another depiction of a career woman that is so resoundingly sexist…and this film is even directed by a woman and executive produced by Bullock herself! Does every successful career woman have to be the standard bitch whose personal lives are in desolate shambles? Margaret Tate has enough clout in the publishing world to get a reclusive author an interview for Oprah but she is entirely friendless, without family and without love. I honestly do not know what the appeal was for Bullock to take this character on. I have to paraphrase a criticism that was reserved for Katherine Heigl and her recent films and it seems equally relevant here…If Sandra Bullock has an agent, she should fire that person. If she does not have an agent, she needs to desperately get one so that person can steer her in the direction of films that will serve her talent. Sandra Bullock is a very likable screen presence but she has been floundering for years in one bad film after another and if she doesn’t want to go the way of Meg Ryan, she had better start paying better and selective attention to the scripts she is receiving.

Look, I’m not trying to exude the air of a “film-snob.” I honestly just want to be entertained by a good story, no matter what it is. I try to go into each movie with the hope that I will just love it. I will admit that I am not terribly fond of movie love stories as few have really worked for me. Nevertheless, when they work…man, do they work! I want to be carried away just like anyone else but when something comes along that just didn’t care enough to try harder, to be funnier, to make me believe in the love the story is trying to cook up, I feel compelled to call them out. “The Proposal” made a fortune this summer at the box office so people did get what they wanted. Yet, sometimes, instead of just giving the people what they want, how about giving them what they need? How about giving them a story that treats the audience as intelligent people who can be rewarded for their hard labor and well-earned dollars with high quality entertainment.

We deserve better…even from cotton candy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2000-2009 TRASH COMPACTOR: The Films I Hated During The Last Decade

Yes dear readers, the time has come for me to take one last swift kick against the films that so wasted my precious time, sucked my brain cells, and insulted the art of cinema during the last decade. Certainly, I do realize that some of the films I will mention may be some favorites of yours. I truly recognize that and DO NOT intend to insult anyone's specific tastes. As I stated at the birth of "Savage Cinema," I do not profess to be a critic and I am no expert. I just know what I like and what I do not like and now, I am ready to take those gloves off one last time...

From time to time during my reviews, I have often decried the current state of the romantic comedy genre for a variety of reasons. 2009's "The Proposal" (Directed by Anne Fletcher) starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, was, for me, the latest casualty of a genre that has increasingly dumbed itself down due to lazy writing, weak characters, maddeningly contrived situations, shoddy and artless direction and as the title of this section states, no real sense of romance or comedy whatsoever. On-screen couples arrive in the world of love and happiness solely because the script instructed them to do so, not for any real storytelling or palpable emotion. As I have also stated many times, I know it is cotton candy. I know that by the very nature of being a movie, it is a fantasy. But, why do these fantasies have to be so stupid and depict a world where no sane human being would ever behave in such ways? Furthermore, when did the characters become so loathsome, where we really don't want them to end up with anybody, let alone the person they are attached to on the film's one sheet poster?

I turn to 2002's "Sweet Home Alabama" (Directed by Andy Tennant) as one of the early romantic comedy entries of the decade that made me want to scream. My feelings stemmed from the fact that Reese Witherspoon's character was so despicable, so horribly shallow, elitist, cruel and whiny that she did not deserve either Josh Lucas or Patrick Dempsey. How could this film ever think that she was someone to root for? Well, it made money by coasting off of Witherspoon's charm, I suppose. But, I'm sorry--for me, charm is not enough.

This proves to be especially prevalent for one of my favorite actors, who exudes enormous charm to go along with his immense and at times, subversive talent: Mr. John Cusack. Yet, he was the star in two awful romantic comedy films during the last decade and considering his landmark leading young man performances in Director Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing" (1985) and Cameron Crowe's seminal "Say Anything..." (1989), Cusack definitely should have known better.

2001's "Serendipity" (Directed by Peter Chelsom) was a truly frustrating experience. The convoluted plot about a man currently engaged to another woman, pursuing a possible destiny with the strange young woman (Kate Beckinsdale) he'd met, shared ice cream and skates with and somehow fell in love with years earlier. "Serendipity" featured maddening scenarios designed to keep the two apart until the film's final reel. Yes, that trait is a conceit of the romantic comedy genre, but too much of Cusack flying on one plane to a destination Beckinsdale coincidentally just departed from grew so tiresome and agonizing. Even basic plausibility was thrown out of the window in the opening sequences with Cusack and Beckinsdale's day long courtship. It was just profoundly unrealistic to me to think that Cusack would not have even once asked this woman what her name was before the plot contrivances were set in motion--because if he did, the movie would've been over immediately! Beyond that, wasn't it clear that Beckinsdale was...insane?!

2005's "Must Love Dogs" (Directed by Gary David Goldberg) was even more unforgivable as it had no concept of how real people in real situations behave and respond emotionally. The story of two divorced people, nearing 40 and finding love again is a subject ripe for romantic comedy and it featured not only Cusack but the wonderful Diane Lane. You could not ask for two more charismatic, empathetic, attractive, intelligent leads, yet this film gave them absolutely nothing to do and no characters to play. In addition, this film's cast boasts no less than Elizabeth Perkins, Stockard Channing and Christopher Plummer and wastes all of their talents entirely in this tepid time-waster.

As for 2005's completely negligible "The Wedding Date" (Directed by Clare Kilner) starring Debra Messing, in a performance that suggested a state of unhinged mania and Dermot Mulroney, an actor who has always struck me as being horribly wooden, is just not worth going into more than this.

There must have been times for all of you reading this post where you have painfully sat through a terrible movie and wondered to yourself if the people involved knew while they were filming that the material was beneath them and just not working at all. Continuing with the theme of films that tried to be comedic but failed miserably, I have to toss in two films I could not believe that any of the participants thought was comedic gold.

The 2003 Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson feature, "Anger Management" (Directed by Peter Segal) never delved any deeper than its one-sheet poster and made for torpid viewing. It was as if the inspired casting and that aforementioned poster would be good me, it really wasn't.

Those feelings were tame compared to what I felt when I watched 2003's disastrous mega-hit "Bringing Down The House" (Directed by Adam Shankman) starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. The film's tone was pitched with the delicate subtlety of a sledgehammer while the comedy itself lacked style, finesse and a little something called humor. As I watched that film, I regarded the presence of Steve Martin and wondered constantly if he thought that even one moment was funny. I mean--it's Steve Martin, comedy legend, brilliant writer, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, musician, and known art collector. He must have known, right? He's not hurting for money, as far as I know, so this just could not have been solely a financial choice, right? No one will ever know for certain but this was a case when stars and director should have shut down production entirely and said to themselves, "This isn't working at all." Yet, he and the casts of both films, laughed their way to the bank...all at our expense.

In the case of Director Frank Oz's 2004 remake of "The Stepford Wives," you may have all of the ingredients but the film, for whatever reason, just doesn't work at all for any moment. In addition to Oz, the cast featured Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Walken and Glenn Close contributing their collective talents to a screenplay written by then-hot Paul Rudnick ("Adams Family Values," and the Kevin Kline starring "In And Out") and the resulting film was dreadful from start to finish. It was nothing I felt angry with as it seemed that everyone involved clearly wanted to make a good film, but sometimes, the stars just are not in alignment.

Movies, at their very best, can be transformative and transportive experiences. Sometimes, the power of cinema can give viewers an opportunity to empathize with someone in a different walk of life than themselves. As I write, I am thinking most recently of Lee Daniels' extraordinary film "Precious," which featured a volcanic performance by Mo'Nique as the horrible Mother of the title character. What Mo'Nique accomplished in this role was to transcend the behavior and make us see a life lived and the circumstances in which it became broken and delusional. She discovered the humanity inside the monstrous behavior...and through the alchemy of direction, writing and performance, this was a character that deserved to be understood, even though her behavior was repellent.

I am beginning this section with that anecdote because there were two films during the last decade, where I cared not a whit about the leading characters and as they each continued upon their paths, I hated them more and more. And they certainly did the overly privileged and liberals no favors at all. 2002's "Igby Goes Down" (Written and Directed by Burr Steers), was a Salingeresque comedy-drama about Igby (Kieran Culkin), a 17-year-old prep-school dropout who wages rebellion against his "old-money" family as he also struggles with his cancer stricken Mother (Susan Sarandon), schizophrenic father (Bill Pullman)and philandering Godfather (Jeff Goldblum). This was a smug, insincere work where Igby was not one to sympathize with. He came across as an immature, whiny misanthropic loser who just could not understand that the world doesn't revolve around him. The film unfortunately was not a critique of this character but the one you were meant to sympathize with. I have to say that in a scene late in the film where Goldblum slaps Igby silly, I wanted to join him.

Director Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World" (2001) fell down a similar chasm as that film's leading character, Enid (Thora Birch) faced a crippling post-high school terror of the future by also whining and playing increasingly mean-spirited pranks throughout her small town and on middle-aged record collector Steve Buscemi, in particular. Her cruelty set off by her ennui seemed to only exist solely because of her privileged and pure laziness, like Igby, expecting the world to stop and bow to her just because she had no goals, no plans or coping skills.

The absolute worst was 2005's "The Family Stone" (Written and Directed by Thomas Bezucha), a holiday themed comedy-drama about a liberal family's malcontent meeting with their son's (again played by the wooden Dermot Mulroney) conservative fiancee (Sarah Jessica Parker). The family's liberalism was laid out tremendously thick as one of the members is a deaf and gay son with an African-American lover. What hurt the film was the fact that this was a family of ugly narcissists engaging in class and social warfare with the unsuspecting Parker. It was a film in love with its own politics at the expense of good, honest storytelling and when all else fails, just fall down in a pile of food in the kitchen. Ugh!

And before I shove onwards, I cannot forget 2004's "Spanglish," written and directed by the otherwise great James L. Brooks and also starring Adam Sandler. It was a mess of epic proportions and what irked me most was that it danced completely around a MAJOR subject: Tea Leoni's character's blatant bi-polar state of mind. If it is obvious to the audience, why wouldn't it be to the characters?

Even the biggest cinematic stars are capable of creating cinematic bombs and we just don't have to look much further than 2001's syrupy and god-awful, "I Am Sam," (Co-Written and Directed by Jessie Nelson) starring Sean Penn as a mentally challenged man fighting to keep custody of his 7-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning) and aided by attorney Michelle Pfeiffer. It was trealcy, shamelessly sentimental and featured one of Sean Penn's flat-out worst performances, as it was less "Rainman" and more of a big plate of ham. What was most striking about that film was its horrible and sexist depiction of a 21st century career woman as a screaming, bitchy, hysterical nervous wreck with no family or friends of her own. Terrible.

Just nothing could save 2007's "Georgia Rule" (Directed by Garry Marshall), not even the presence of screen legend Jane Fonda. This was the film that marked the beginning of the end of Lindsey Lohan's rising film career, mostly due to her personal troubles and well-reported on-set antics. It was a sad sight to watch Lohan, who had been so sweet and charming with her dual performance in the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap" as well as the terrific "Mean Girls" from 2004. But, this film was really like watching a falling star as whatever talent she possessed was being squandered and we could witness the pitiful descent within this dreadful movie.

Massive budgets do not inherently produce good movies and for as many terrible blockbusters there were during the last decade, here were some that I really regretted sitting through.

In the case of Director Bryan Singer, I will have to possibly conceed that I just may not respond well to his style, as I have not appreciated any film he has made. I know that most people really love the two "X-Men" films he directed, but I just didn't care for them at all and the most celebrated installment, 2003's "X2: X-Men United" I really hated. The film was a boring mess as it just did not understand the motives and natures of the characters from the source material. Also, he simply had no skill when handling a large cast of heroes and villains with super powers. Characters were just shuffled aimlessly from scene to scene and when in doubt, just knock one of them unconscious for half of the film's running time. It was obvious that the only character Singer really cared about was Wolverine, yet why was his story such a snooze? Singer returned to the comic book genre with 2006's deeply disappointing and interminable "Superman Returns." That film was miscast from top to bottom and with a 2 hour and 43 minute running time, I felt evey single minute of it passing by.

Director Tony Scott's "Domino" (2005) was a torturous, bloated, hyperactively over-directed, ugly, gratuitously violent disaster that should force Keira Knightly to star solely in period films where she wears corsets. And I have to give another sock to the chops of 2008's odious "Wanted" (Directed by Timur Bekmambetov). While it was aother massive hit and is about to spawn a sequel, for me, this film was completely crass, crushingly over-directed and artless in every possible wayas it stole all of its ideas from "Fight Club," "The Matrix" and every Daddy issue since Oedipus while not offering even one original idea of its own. Also gratuitously violent and special-effects filled to an almost depressing degree, this movie was just so difficult and agonizing to sit through.

But, the biggest target in my cross-hairs is Director Michael Bay, who is the death of cinema to me. He paints in the broadest of dumbed down, mass produced, lowest common denominator strokes with his ADD styled films that offer not one shread of creativity and humanity, let alone a joy of filmmaking. These are not films to watch, enjoy or be entertained by. They are films to be bludgeoned by. Worst of all is 2001's "Pearl Harbor," which exploited a national tragedy in a cynical search for "Titanic" box-office recepits by placing fictional characters within a historical setting and tacking a blockheaded, tone-deaf, brainless and hopeless love story into a ridiculously painful three hour running time. Unlike James Cameron, whom I believe was emotionally connected to his material and the tragedy of the Titanic, I do not believe for one single second that Michael Bay cared even a little bit about the history, the people, the devastation and destruction. Well, let me correct that last statement, Bay does care about the destruction..its the only thing he cared about in that damn foolish movie: explosions and carnage.

I remember exiting two major releases from huge, huge stars that angered me. What brought forth my rage aganst the screen was the unadulterated arrogance on display and contempt for the audience.

Drew Barrymoore's production of 2000's "Charlie's Angels" (Directed by McG) was nothing...and I mean, nothing more than an expensive slumber party that she happened to film. Additionally, 2004's "Oceans 12" (Directed by Steven Soderburgh) and 2005's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (Directed by Doug Liman) both featured big budgets and A-List actors, obviously enjoying the time they shared with each other, as they were paid enormous salaries in grand locales, to not act or even care about the movies they were starring in. It was the worst display of the movie star arrogance. It was as if they were all saying to us through those films, "You love us!! You love us so much that you'll pay your hard-earned money to watch us do anything or even nothing...all because you love us so, so much." Yuch!

The absolute worst film I saw this past decade came from one of my favorite Directors, Terry Gilliam. was 2005's "Tideland." It was a disturbingly repugnant, ugly, and interminable film I felt was an irresponsible act of cruelty to the audience as well as the young actress in the leading role. This child has to endure all manner of horrific situations including the junkie related deaths of both parents; the rotting, flatulent and later, embalmed corpse of her father (Jeff Bridges); a just creepy exploration of a child's emerging sexuality, and an even creepier relationship between herself and a developmentally disabled adult that flirts with the tone of pedophelia.

The theme of a child using the tools of fantasy and imagination to survive horrific realities is a theme that is suited perfectly to Gilliam's strengths but completely unlike "Pan's Labyrinth," which was a beautiful nightmare, "Tideland" is a grotesque nightmare, an endless goon show with nothing to balance the proceedings.

What REALLY pissed me off were Gilliam's naive introductory statements on the DVD about the resiliancy of children, but in his case, those statements are all in reference to a STORY, i.e. a completely controlled environment where the heroine will be OK just because Gilliam says so. The young actress has to go through so much in the story and I can only imagine what the 10-year-old may have been thinking or wondering about as she sat in the lap of her rotting father being consoled by a collective of disembodied doll heads. It all felt very wrong and uncomfortable--you all know that feeling and it was one that I couldn't escape.

Was there no one there to reign Gilliam in, to make his ideas clearer, to help him acknowledge the fact that an audience was intended to see this thing? You can't just throw a vat of feces on a wall and call it "Art" but that's exactly what Gilliam did with gleeful unrepentance (a quality to admire in some respects) but he obviously fell in love and embraced his legendary "madman genius" reputation. I will admit that there are a few brief images in "Tideland" that stand up to the best of his work, but whatever nastiness he needed to get out of his system at the time of filming his art and audience brutally suffered for it this time around.

At last!! My cnematic travelogue through the last decade is complete. But, before next week's Oscar telecast, I do have one more list to get myself through...


Stay tuned and as always, thank you so much for reading!

Monday, February 22, 2010

FROM THE ARCHIVES 2: a review of "Elizabethtown"

Now that my full list of favorite films from the last decade have been revealed, I wanted to post a review I wrote of Cameron Crowe's last film, which was not received well in any way and I now feel is criminally underrated.

Originally written February 2006

"ELIZABETHTOWN" Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Writer/Director Cameron Crowe's ("Say Anything...", "Singles," "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous", "Vanilla Sky") latest film met a painful death when it was released to theaters in the fall of 2005. For a film that is undeniably non-controversial, it was a strangely polarizing film with one camp showering praise while its' detractors voiced seemingly endless complaints which ranged from performances, character's motivations, the film's meandering tone, to even the use of its' soundtrack. I am proudly placing myself in the first group. I have seen the film several times now and while I don't think that this is a great film (or even my favorite Cameron Crowe film), it struck a profound chord with me that has remained and grown years after seeing it. I feel that this film never had the chance it deserved and it was completely undervalued and unappreciated. Thanks to DVD, it has a second chance. I am graciously urging you to give this film a try.

The opening of the film recalls elements of "Jerry Maguire" (and to some extent, the darker tones of "Vanilla Sky") as we meet 27-year-old Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), an introverted shoe designer for a Nike-ish corporation. Drew is fired for designing a disastrous athletic shoe entitled the "Spasmotica" (envisioned to give the wearer the feeling of "walking on a cloud") and the failure of his eight years in the making design will potentially cost his company to lose 1 billion dollars. This fiasco additionally costs him his girlfriend and hours later, on the brink of committing suicide, he receives an urgent call from his sister (Judy Greer) informing him of their father's sudden death. Drew is then dispatched by his mother (Susan Sarandon) to venture to his father's small Kentucky hometown of Elizabethtown to deal with the extended family and protect his father's dying wishes. On his way to Elizabethtown, Drew meets Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), an extremely cheerful flight attendant who begins to point Drew in the direction of seeing life's possibilities.

"Elizabethtown" is NOT a romantic comedy, although there is a romance in it. The outcome of the film doesn't hinge on whether Drew and Claire become romantically involved. This film is about life and death itself and the baby steps Drew takes towards embracing life. Most importantly, "Elizabethtown" shows, in graceful and subtle ways, how that very embrace comes down to the power of choice. One can choose despair or happiness, and for most of the film, Drew, still contemplating suicide, skulks around in dark clothes like the spectre of death while being confronted with Claire's relentless optimism, and the unconditional love from a family he barely knows. Through watching characters like Drew's mother (obviously consumed with grief over the loss of her husband plus being confronted with issues of her own mortality) to Claire herself (a much more complicated character than given credit for), the power of choice becomes more explicit and meaningful to Drew, and hopefully, the audience. The film concludes with a majestic and music filled cross-country road trip, selflessly created for Drew by Claire, to help him reconnect with the world and the life force that surges through all manner of people, places, and things.

As previously stated, many complaints about this film were steered towards its' slower pace and meandering tone. I felt that this was Crowe's artistic choice to make a film that approximated the rhythms of real life. Real life is not made up of a concisely driven narrative hurtling itself along to a conclusion. Life is a series of moments, which build upon other moments and sometimes, emotionally collide. Crowe gracefully etches out these moments in various fashions. A courtship while buying an urn. A tap dance during a memorial service. Dealing with death in a hotel where seemingly every other patron is part of a rambunctious, life-affirming wedding party. In this film, Crowe masterfully captures the "in-between" moments of Drew's journey and audiences need to give this film the patience and time it needs to fully resonate.

"Elizabethtown" is not an instant gratification movie. It is not about a payoff. It is designed for the viewer to take an emotional journey with Drew. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a deeply heartfelt film that means what it says about success, failure, family, loss and love and it ultimately provides a sense of hope in a world that desperately needs it.

Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown" is a love story to life.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

ALWAYS LATE: a review of "The Time Traveler's Wife"

“THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE” Directed by Robert Schwentke
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

Do you remember the following great scene from 1989's “Back To The Future Part 2”? After Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) have found themselves trapped within a grim, alternate 1985, Brown frantically attempts to explain the fractured space-time continuum to Marty on a chalkboard. He draws one line to represent the 1985 they know and love and then, he draws another line, jetting outwards from the original, to represent how and when the time line had been altered. Yes, it is a tremendously simplistic way to describe a sequence of events that may only be fully understandable through an intense devotion to string theory but hey, for the purposes of this movie, it worked. In fact, ever since that film when I have been confronted with time travel narratives in books and movies, I always refer back to Doc Brown’s chalkboard explanation. It really helps me to ground the action and events so I can follow the story appropriately. Yet, there is one other crucial element that makes any time travel tales work at their best, and that, of course, is the strict attention to the characters their motivations and the story’s emotional core. If we did not care about the trials and tribulations of McFly and Brown as people, all of the conceptual zigging and zagging would be meaningless and no one would’ve sat through one film let alone an entire trilogy.

I am beginning this review with that anecdote because several years ago, and based upon a dear friend’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of the Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. I will admit to having an air of curiosity and skepticism, as I tend to gravitate away from the massive best-sellers (aside from the Harry Potter series, of course) and my natural reluctance towards reading science fiction. My friend not only assured me of the book’s artistic quality but also that the story had a foot firmly planted in the real world with the other planted in fantasy. Without any further hesitation, I will tell you that I dearly loved this book, like so many other readers. It reached me, spoke to me and actually became one of my favorite books of the last few years. For the uninitiated, the novel takes place in modern day Chicago and follows the respective paths and love story of Claire, an artist and Henry, a librarian afflicted with a rare genetic code that enables him to time travel without warning. Throughout the novel, Niffeneger weaved a darkly romantic and emotionally wrenching tale that simultaneously bridged the gaps between science fiction, concepts of fate and a painfully epic, while also intimate, romance. In my eyes, The Time Traveler’s Wife also worked as a metaphor, quite possibly for two partners of a relationship where addiction or depression is an obstacle. Henry, afflicted through his uncontrollable time traveling remains absent, and Claire, so deeply in love, is always the one who waits for his return. It was a highly compelling novel; one that even featured a daring and emotionally ambiguous conclusion, which provided readers with a debate of whether the story was an argument for the eternal devotion to that one true love or a condemnation of endlessly waiting for someone who will never fully arrive.

As I have always said, regarding film adaptations of books-especially cherished ones…books are books and movies are movies. It is the job of the filmmakers to not only honor the source material but to conceptualize and determine how best to make the material work visually. I concede that it is a filmmaker’s trap, as whatever vision they create will never, ever match the ones created inside each reader’s brains and hearts. That said, Director Robert Schwentke’s terrible adaptation of the novel fell completely and desperately flat, as it was a series of disconnected “greatest hits” moments from the novel that never coalesced into a resonant whole.

I will try my best to describe the plot, whose time travel set-up is initially confusing. As with the novel, we are introduced to Henry (Eric Bana), the extremely reluctant time traveler, who disappears without warning and nakedly arrives in a different time and place, only to find himself returning to where and when he came from moments later. Through his specific chalkboard history of time jumping, he meets Claire (Rachel McAdams) for the first time in the Chicago library where he is employed yet for her specific chalkboard history, Claire first met Henry in a meadow at the age of six and has been waiting much of her life for this monumental reunion. It is an ocean deep love that Claire has held for most of her life and once the relationship becomes a reality, culminating with their marriage, the pitfalls of loving a man who cannot be relied upon to be fully present takes its toll. Now this is a great opening for a story, film or novel, but what made the novel succeed where the film failed entirely, was that aforementioned strict attention to characters, and when dealing with a tale that is potentially ridiculous, all you have are the characters to ground the story, making even the most preposterous feel emotionally true.

I want you to take a few moments to try and remember how you felt when you first viewed 1985's “Back To The Future.” In addition to the great concept, special effects, action, comedy and adventure, what mattered most and what made the entire proceedings so memorable was the devotion Director/Co-Writer Robert Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale paid to their characters. Having Marty McFly travel into his parents’ own adolescence and affect history to the point where his own existence rested in one fateful kiss at the “Enchantment Under The Sea” dance was the film’s beating heart. The two subsequent installments continued to focus on the McFly family but we also had the pleasure of seeing the growing love and friendship between Marty and Doc Brown. All of the wizardry, especially during the dizzying second film, consistently took a back seat to the air-tight plotting and attention to the characters.

I would also offer 2006’s “The Lake House,” whose love story consisted of Keanu Reeves in 2004 and Sandra Bullock in 2006, communicating and falling in love via a series of letters that gather inside of a magical mailbox. This film would have been entirely ridiculous if not for the classy performances and elegant depiction of two souls finding a connection.

Probably the best current example of utilizing sheer humanity in a story fraught with time travel is television’s “Lost.” This program has given viewers an increasingly dense and complicated time traveling narrative that once had roughly half of its characters surviving in 1977 and completely influencing the events that they, and the cast’s other half, were continuing to experience in 2007. For the series’ current and final season, viewers are now subjected to a narrative set in alternate timelines and parallel universes. Yet what makes viewers like myself not throw our remotes into the face of the television screens is the nearly Dickensian attention to the lives and histories of the characters and how they relate to the show’s grand themes of loss, regret, fate, consequences, and the eternal struggle between faith and reason.

And somehow, someway, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” botches every single attempt it has to make an effective drama. Granted, Eric Bana does a great job in the role of Henry. He possesses a haunted and hunted quality that serves and represents Henry effectively. The extraordinary sadness of this character does come across as his jaunts through time and space relinquish his ability to ever fully live within any moment, as they will invariably end without warning. He is a man in a constant state of displacement and Bana found the right notes to make this character real.

However, Rachel McAdams, a lovely actress I have liked quite a bit, from the great “Mean Girls” (2004), “Red Eye” (2005), “Wedding Crashers” (2005), and last year’s “Sherlock Holmes” is sadly weak and unconvincing in the role of Claire. She sucks all of the tragedy and epic nature of this romance out of the movie by treating every obstacle as some sort of schoolgirl infraction upon herself. She’s played as nothing more than a petulant teenager, even into adulthood, and her frustrations feel terribly narcissistic, selfish and nowhere near as aching as Claire is written in the novel. The ways McAdams plays her scenes also robs the character of any empathy. I mean, here is Henry faced with involuntarily sailing through time. He is forced to either repeatedly view the violent car crash death of his Mother, wistfully nurse his intense love and attraction for a teen aged Claire, or fly into the future to have conversations with the daughter he may not live to see and McAdams acts in an annoyed fashion, as if he absentmindedly forgot to call home and inform her of his lateness. In this movie, she is not defined fully as a character in her own right, therefore her pain is rendered nearly invisible leaving McAdams nothing to play but being cross and pouty.

Worst of all, Bana and McAdams have no chemistry whatsoever. I never believed they were a couple, let alone two people this passionately in love and it left me with nothing. Yet, it was not entirely McAdams’ fault…

In addition to Schwentke’s inept direction, I will spread the blame to screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. This is a writer who just should have known better as he has specialized in films dealing with variations of love stories set within the paranormal and the hereafter. With “Ghost” (1990), the deeply disturbing “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) as well as his sole directorial effort, “My Life” (1993) which starred Michael Keaton as a dying man videotaping messages to his unborn child, Rubin focused so strongly on character and ultimately crafted deeply complex and emotional stories. With his adaptation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” he and Schwentke botch even the simplest details, like firmly informing the audience of what year the story is occurring. Where the novel attaches dates to every single section, the film assigns no dates to any section leaving only the grayness (or lack thereof) of Bana’s hair as the tell-tale sign. Beyond that, it introduces but never fully grasps the novel’s darker themes of Henry’s impending mortality, the dangers of passing on his genes to any potential children, and other very grim elements as if Schwentke and Rubin could not bear to venture as far as the novel for fear of alienating the mass audience that read the book in the first place.

Also, there are at least two or three moments in the film that maybe just worked better on the page or perhaps should have worked better as something more internal. What is presented visually is sometimes just silly and at other times, just creepy. For the initial sequence in the meadow, when a naked Henry (behind a bush) accosts the six year old Claire and another sequence, set on Chicago “L” train where an adult Henry attempts to make a connection with his Mother, who perished when Henry was six, there was no sense of yearning in any possible way. In fact, I couldn’t help but to wonder why no one was calling 9-1-1!

Admittedly, the version I saw in my head and heart was not the film I saw. The one in my head was longer, darker, and definitely R rated rather than the under two-hour, sanitized PG 13 version presented here. Everything was scrubbed clean, incoherent, and terminally shallow and by the film’s end, I knew I had seen one of 2009’s worst films.