Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead movie poster

 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a powerful, electric return to form for the 83 year-old Sidney Lumet, director of such canonical classics as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Network, and, uh, The Wiz?

Kelly Masterson’s screenplay tells the high-tension tale of a pair of wholly doomed brothers as a non-linear narrative from multiple points of view. Each jump in time and p.o.v. is accompanied by a thrilling editing technique I haven’t seen anywhere else but Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider: the current and subsequent scene ricochet back and forth in increasing speed until we’re hurtled through time into another fragment of the narrative.

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're DeadSidney Lumet’s masterclass in blocking, Fig. A

The movie is full of examples of a fine director knowing how to use the form to the story’s advantage. For one example of how the composition of a shot reflects the subtext of the scene, note how that whenever Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawk) plot their scheme in the bar, Andy physically looms over Hank and dominates the frame with his bulk.

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're DeadStarring Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei’s boobs

The acting is great all around, including a devastating turn from Albert Finney as a bitterly disappointed father, and Marisa Tomei as a woman who cast her lot with two of the worst prospects on the planet. And in case you think Hawke and Hoffman are miscast as siblings, well… just watch.


Watch the trailer.

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The Omega Man

The Omega Man movie poster

 

Now that’s a good intro: Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) cruises through an empty city with the top down. It’s eerie, but he seems happy, grooving to jazz from his onboard 8-track cassette deck. But suddenly! Screech! Ka-pow! He brakes, produces a machine gun and fires at a fleeting humanoid silhouette. A striking montage follows of a desolated, deserted city.

Heston was once known as a liberal, and here his character entertains an interracial romance (with afro-licious Rosalind Cash) no more common in movies now than it was in 1971. Unfortunately, it’s now impossible to take Heston seriously, thanks to Phil Hartman’s classic mockery on Saturday Night Live and to Heston’s own Alzheimer’s-fueled descent into right-wing senility.

Charlton Heston in The Omega ManAl Gore can take my gun from my cold, dead hands

Interestingly, Heston’s oeuvre is dominated by dystopian sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, The Ωmega Man, and Soylent Green form a trilogy of apocalyptic despair. Remakes of Apes (by Tim Burton) and Ωmega (Wil Smith’s I Am Legend) made him nearly obsolete even before he died. Can Soylent Green (which is, incidentally, much better than its reputation suggests) be far behind?

Compared to the bestial vampires that populate I Am Legend, the creatures in The Ωmega Man are an intelligent, religous cult. They don’t attack Neville with technology (like, say, shoot him) simply because they choose not to.

Charlton Heston in The Omega ManIs the last man on earth man enough?

As for entertainment in a time before VHS, the last man alive on earth is stuck with whatever happened to be in the theaters at the time; he screens the concert film Woodstock over and over. As for The Ωmega Man’s own music, the orchestral jazz pop score is not just outdated, but bizarrely inappropriate.

The crucifixion pose at the end is a bit much. I didn’t expect much subtlety, but that’s laying it on a bit thick.


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Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl

 

Lars and the Real Girl is warm, funny, and moving, but felt a little “screenplay” to me. Aside from the indie film cliche of The Small Town (which affords an isolated community of eccentrics and an economic small cast), it seems to be a precisely workshopped exploration of a simple compelling premise: a man falls in love with a sex doll (and yes, they actually exist). However, the fine script and performances really do sell the unlikely conceit. Ryan Gosling makes a potentially unappealing character very sympathetic, and indie queen Patricia Clarkson is so sublimely calm (watch her respond to each outrageous development in Lars’ life with a blink and a pause) that I suspect she would make a great shrink in real life.

Lars and the Real GirlGuess what’s coming to dinner

If I were in a screenwriting class workshopping this script, I think perhaps I might point out one missing aspect: we see the town pull together to support Lars, but would they do so for just any citizen? I’m not sure there’s a sense of why they’re especially protective of Lars in particular.

Lars and the Real GirlEven better than the real thing?


Official movie site: www.larsandtherealgirl-themovie.com

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Baby Mama

Baby Mama

 

A true comedy auteur, Tina Fey’s acting has always come in tandem with her own writing. This double act has progressed from improv comedy at The Second City, to head writer for Saturday Night Live, to supporting player in the feature film Mean Girls, (for which she wrote the screenplay), and finally to executive producer and star of her own sitcom 30 Rock.

Baby Mama, written and directed by Michael McCullers, marks Fey’s first star turn in a project which she did not originate or write. Still, it certainly feels a lot like a Tiny Fey joint. Judging by the general tone and the chaotic improv of Fey’s partner-in-crime Amy Poehler, I suspect the two enhanced the production with a fair amount of script-doctoring. Indeed, Fey’s character fits firmly in the public persona of Endearingly Neurotic Thirtysomething Single Girl established on SNL’s Weekend Update, as Ms. Norbury in Mean Girls, and as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. The Tina Fey Notlash notwithstanding, she is evidently more grounded in real life, and married with a child. Meanwhile, the fictionalized “Tina Fey” is the idol of every girl with glasses and crush of every boy with… uh, glasses.

Baby MamaWell, excuuuuuuuuuuse me!

Fey must have an impressive rolodex, for like her flagship TV show 30 Rock, nearly every little role is Baby Mama is filled by a familiar face. When not being amused by alumni from The Daily Show and SNL, we’re treated to Steve Martin as a wild and crazy organic food magnate and Sigourney Weaver as an initially creepy but ultimately sympathetic fertility doctor. But personally, I wouldn’t dare make fun of Sigourney Weaver’s age, lest she come after me with a flamethrower or a space forklift.

Baby MamaTrashy and takin’ out the trash

Official movie site: www.babymamamovie.net

AVP:R – Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem

 

Ridley Scott’s original Alien is one of the most effective and influential horror films ever made, and a personal favorite of this Dork Reporter, who makes no apologies. Its art direction and visual aesthetic were so far ahead of their time that pretty much only the haircuts have dated, but the real keys to its longevity are its brains and depth of substance. No doubt there have since been dozens of dissertations on its gender themes and often overtly sexualized imagery designed by biomechanical artist H.R. Giger. Once you realize the portal to the crashed spacecraft is a giant vagina and the Alien’s head is an erect penis, you will never be able to un-see it.

But Alien’s most unfortunate legacy is that it has forever melded the science fiction and horror genres in moviegoers expectations. Aside from the odd exceptions to the rule ranging from the parable-for-all-ages E.T. to the gut-wrenching social critique Children of Men, we now can’t have a horror film without a rubbery alien or a sci-fi film without eviscerations and gore.

Worst of all, the Alien franchise has been cursed with diminishing returns. Probably but not necessarily by design, James Cameron’s vapid sequel Aliens completely drained the core themes and subtexts from the original in favor of the mere spectacle of spaceships and bullets. Subsequent sequels achieved the rare feats of being by far the worst films of two extraordinarily talented directors: David Fincher’s compromised Alien3 (the only installment with the traditional numeral in the title) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bizarre-but-not-in-a-good-way Alien: Resurrection.

Part of the problem is that there can be only a limited set of variations on the core premise. The original Alien found the right recipe on its first try: lone but nearly invincible creature vs. unarmed bunch of humans in claustrophobic environment = teh awesome. Most sequels multiplied the number of aliens only to find that their collective dramatic impact was lessened when all it took was a futuristic Colonial Space Marine’s rifle to dispatch one.

Aliens vs. Predator - RequiemNope, I just see two dudes in rubber suits

Meanwhile, the less ambitious Predator franchise managed to only rack up a meager two installments. Perhaps their lesser appeal is attributable to what the Alien films got right; the “aliens” are not intelligent members of a society like the Predators, whose entire culture is based upton the concept of hunting for sport. Aliens are instinctual beasts that live to eat and (especially) to breed, so savage and animalistic that their species doesn’t even have a name.

The two spent properties found a new life together in the unholy crossover marriage “Alien vs. Predator” that began as comics and video games. Inevitably, they found their way back to cinemas as Hollywood attempted to reboot the cash flow with the first Alien vs. Predator film in 2004. But this “new” series has already run out of variations on the core premise in only its second installment.

Believe it or not, AVP:R is the first Alien film set not only in the present day, but also actually on Earth. This time around we have a single Predator vs multiple aliens, with a variety of helpless human bystanders caught in the crossfire. Basically, the Predators screw up and accidentally seed Earth with a batch of aliens they had intended to breed as hunting stock. A lone Predator, perhaps fancying himself a sort of space age Mr. Fixit, attempts to whitewash his colleagues’ mess. He’s no sympathetic hero, however, for he doesn’t hesitate to take the pelt of a human as a trophy when the opportunity arises.

To go back to the aforementioned variety of helpless human bystanders: any decent screenwriter or producer (or, hell, anyone who’s seen a couple of movies) should have realized that there are three problems with this scenario: “variety,” “helpless,” and “bystanders.” The huge cast of human characters all remain underdeveloped. The lamest thread involves a bunch of so-called teenagers, obviously written by a screenwriter that was never actually a teenager. The only recognizable face (to this Dork Reporter, at least) is Reiko Aylesworth from 24, miscast as an Army soldier on leave. Her only purposes in the story seem to be to instruct the audience that guns work better if you shout while shooting, and to have someone on hand who might plausibly know how to fly a helicopter.

Aliens vs. Predator - RequiemMandible with care

AVP:R is so divorced from the six prior Alien films that there are only two tenuous continuity threads to link them. A Mrs. Yutani appears, presumably of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that, in the future, has the secret agenda of locating more aliens as it strip mines the galaxy for fossil fuels. But perhaps the one true link to the original Alien film from 1979 is a sequence involving a chick stripping down to her skivvies. In the original, the truly badass Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deservedly kicks back her heels and gets ready for a suspended-animation nap in her undies, but here all we get is a bland “hottie” stripping for her unlikely dweeb crush (an incidence of nerd wish-fulfillment that speaks volumes as to the maturity and life experiences of the filmmakers).

What should have been another major screenwriting red flag is the hugely unsatisfying ending. When the Predator, the closest thing the film has to a hero or protagonist, finally closes in on his prey, they go at it looking for all the world like two pro wrestlers in rubber suits. And then immediately… they’re both obliterated by a nuke. A small handful of the humans are only barely proactive and manage to survive untraumatized despite having watched all their families and loved ones killed.

So why do I keep punishing myself by watching each Alien sequel? I don’t ever again expect something as multilayered as the original Alien, but I do keep thinking that these kinds of movies are supposed to be at best entertaining and at worst a little fun, and yet they always turn out torturously awful. AVP:R’s best quality is its brisk 86 minute running time, even in its unrated extended DVD cut.


Official movie site: www.avp-r.com

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Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Sense and Sensibility

 

In this Dork Reporter’s opinion, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is the best of breed of Jane Austen film adaptations. Please note, however, there are two very good reasons to discredit my opinion on this subject:

I. Despite my English major, I am ashamed to admit I have read only one Jane Austen novel: Emma. Yeah, I know, I’ve got to get working on that.

II. Sense and Sensibility features two of this Dork Reporter’s all-time favorite movie crushes: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Any film featuring just one of these English roses automatically earns extra credit. Any film featuring Emma and Kate, together, equals porn (especially if they hop into bed together, as they do here… granted, as sisters keeping their toes warm, but still!). Any film featuring Emma and Kate, plus a screenplay by Emma, equals orgasm.

Sense and SensibilityKate’s got a bee in her bonnet

A few extra notes:

  • Dork Report guest commentator (and first-class Austen aficionado) Snarkbait has coined the best phrase for this genre: “Regency Era froth”
  • Actor Greg Wise (John Willoughby) later became Mr. Emma Thompson, after Kenneth Branaugh foolishly let her get away
  • Hugh Grant’s trademark stammer, persistent interest in the carpet, and out-of-control hair are still charming even in 18th Century surroundings. But it is difficult to stifle a snicker when the devilish Grant, as Edward Ferrars, expresses an interest in joining the Church
  • I wish I had Alan Rickman’s (Col. Brandon) vocal cords
  • Hey, look! It’s Tom Wilkinson in a cameo as the soon-to-be-late Mr. Dashwood! The Dork Report thinks Wilkinson is one of the finest actors working today
  • required viewing: Emma Thompson’s 1996 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar acceptance speech (not on YouTube as of this writing, but here is the text)

Sense and SensibilityIt ain’t easy being sensible

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In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah

 

In the Valley of Elah is a dark story about the psychological damage of war, certainly not a recipe for an entertaining night at the movies. This Dork Reporter will cop to finding it difficult to work up the enthusiasm to see it, fearing the resultant depression (despite my love and respect for cinema as an art form, and staunch sympathy for the anti-war movement, sometimes a person just needs a little light entertainment). But writer/director Paul Haggis structured the plot as a murder mystery, with a few pinches of wry humor, to craft an excellent film that is not punishingly sad.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a pious, patriotic, and disciplined man. But he is also emotionally detached; he investigates the mysterious death of his son as would an almost superhuman detective. Drawing upon his skills as both a former army soldier and police sergeant, he outwits both the army’s own investigators and the resident local police smartypants Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Impressively for an old coot, he is even able to locate a back-alley cell phone phreaker, in an unfamiliar town, using only a diner’s phone book. But the seemingly cold man does reveal his pain and weakness before the end, and even a hidden unsavory side involving racism.

In the Valley of Elah(Don’t Go Back To Sgt.) Rockville

The title derives from the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, a macho mano-a-manu beatdown that occurred during the battle of the Israelites vs. the Palestinians. Aside from the obvious parallels to the locale and participants of the ancient and never ending Middle East conflicts, the tale is also a metaphor for how Deerfield views manhood and how he raised his son: to stand tall against any odds. But as Deerfield learns unpleasant truths about his son (drugs, torture, prostitutes) and his country (unjustified war, institutional corruption), he must, late in life, come to reevaluate his most core beliefs. So what makes this clearly liberal anti-war film special is its respect for exactly the type of person it might indict: the god-fearing patriot.

In the Valley of ElahWhitman’s Sampler, my favorite!

Finally, I’d like to highlight one excellent scene (in every way: writing, acting, and directing): as Deerfield phones his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to tell her their son is dead, the scene begins in the middle, and in the end the camera pulls back to show Joan has torn apart the room. A lesser film would have shown the whole thing, for the sake of melodrama.


Official movie site: www.inthevalleyofelah.com

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Into the Wild

Into the Wild

 

Like many young men cursed with a privileged life of education and time to think for themselves, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) wanted only a vaguely defined “truth” and to not have to rely on anyone. Synthesizing his reading of Henry Thoreau and Jack London, he imagined for himself a life of self-sufficiency in the wilderness. So McCandless dropped out of society in the summer of 1990, leaving behind all connections whatsoever, including his legal name and identity. Despite his absolutely clean break, he never seemed to view this transformation as permanent; he mentions more than once that he may write a book when he “comes back.”

Interestingly for a young man, he also seems to make a point of avoiding even temporary female companionship. He rejects the friendship of Jan (Katherine Keener), and abandons his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone), the person with whom he apparently had the closest bond. Carine narrates the film, with total sympathy for his beliefs and actions. But even she points out that he acted with “characteristic immoderation.”

Into the WildThe Rough Guide to Self-Actualization

McCandless died alone in August 1992. He remains a controversial figure (should his asceticism be admired, or was he a fool?), and his solitary death the subject of an intriguing mystery (was he really trapped with food poisoning, or did he allow himself to die slowly as a form of passive suicide?). This film interpretation of his story does make it clear that he was a privileged kid who hadn’t truly suffered. While drinking with new buddy Wayne (Vince Vaughn), he lets slip his adolescent belief that one of the worst forms of tyranny in the world is “parents.” As we see, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) are all too human and not half as monstrous as he imagines. So perhaps his adventure was more than an idealistic reaction to mere money, society, and materialism. He was also running away from the “free” things that living in society affords, what everyone craves in life: family, friends, and lovers.

Into the WildHence the title

A note on the music: just as McCandless looks backwards for literary inspiration, he also has antiquated taste in music for a kid living in the early 90s. His new name for himself, “Supertramp” puns on the classic rock band and his new lifestyle. He christens his new and final home, an abandoned bus, after The Who’s “Magic Bus.” For the music of the film itself, director Sean Penn drew upon two musicians that made names for themselves in the early 90s: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who contributed songs to Dead Man Walking), and guitarist/composer Michael Brook. Vedder’s songs for the film were released as an album, but Brook’s excellent score is also available digitally.

Into the Wild is yet another in a long series of films I’ve seen recently that are based on books I haven’t read (The Kite Runner, No Country for Old Men, The Namesake, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc.). But even so, I believe I can detect a few remnants of the film’s prose origins as John Krakauer’s book:

  • the film is broken into “Chapters” with onscreen titles
  • voiceover narration
  • the visual device of superimposed text from McCandless’ own journals provides a second “voice”
  • episodic feel – but that’s justified by the events/phases of his journey – he keeps making clean breaks every time he comes close to settling in somewhere

Official movie site: www.intothewild.com

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd

 

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of a conversation about movies with this Dork Reporter is no doubt aware that I like musicals about as much as I like biopics. That is to say, not very much. I do, however, love Tim Burton, and count Ed Wood among my personal favorite films. So if he could make a biopic I can love, I didn’t think it unrealistic to hope that he might melt my cranky moviewatcher’s heart with a musical. But it’s been a long time since Burton has directed a personal project, instead working on existing franchises and remakes like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He did add a healthy dose of the trademark Burton flavor to each, not to mention key members of his troupe (Helena Bonham Carter in Apes and Johnny Depp in Charlie), but fans like myself are still waiting for the next burst of pure Burton madness in the spirit of Edward Scissorhands.

Sweeney ToddOi t’ink he’s up to summat

The Sweeny Todd tale originated in a prose serial form in 1846, and after several permutations, eventually became a stage musical by Stephen Sondheim in 1979. Burton’s 2007 film adaptation doesn’t quite manage to break free of its stagebound, er, staging. Despite the opportunity a film has to expand a play’s world, the action is limited to just a few locations. The rich art direction doesn’t defeat the impression that the whole thing was shot on a small soundstage. Speaking of art direction, Burton’s vision of late 19th century London is very colorful, provided that that color is blue. That said, it isn’t long before a few generous gallons of red are splashed about the place.

Sweeney ToddAnd now, the chewing of scenery, for your delight & edification

Timothy Spall, once of Mike Leigh’s British kitchen sink dramas, continues to indulge in the new scenery-chewing persona he developed as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. Helena Bonham Carter looks like she just stepped out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Sascha Baron Cohen sports no less than two outrageous accents.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street joined Waitress in the most unlikely mini genre of 2007: movies about pie shops. But while Waitress was a largely cutesy concoction, Sweeney Todd adds to the recipe a preoccupation with vengeful cannibalism a la The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover.

And finally, a technical note: the DVD edition suffers from an unusually uneven audio mix. The music is far, far louder than dialogue sequences, so be prepared to drive your remote control volume switch throughout.


Official movie site: www.sweeneytoddmovie.com

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Se, jie (Lust, Caution)

Lust Caution movie poster

 

As a public service, The Dork Report would like to issue a warning to anyone that under the impression that Se, jie (Lust, Caution) is an NC-17 erotic thriller. Judging from the marketing campaign alone, one might understandably imagine that the latest film from the director of Sense & Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman would be a sexy drama suitable for viewing with a significant other, but be warned that most of it is quite far from titillating. In fact, the first of three sex scenes can only be classified as a rape (albeit one complicated by the characters’ complex relationship).

Se, jie is set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with flashbacks to the few years preceding. A naive but sincerely dedicated bunch of Chinese student activists form a terrorist cell, with the aim to assassinate collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Theater student Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) discovers she is a natural actress and gifted improviser, which unfortunately also makes her a superbly qualified as a undercover spy.

Lust CautionA scene from what might be called Ang Lee’s “Deceive Rape Man Woman”

To fully inhabit her cover story as a married woman, she must first lose her virginity. This happens almost simultaneously with her cell losing their metaphorical virginity as they messily execute their first righteous assassination. As Paul Newman discovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, murder is hard work, and takes time.

Se, jie was released in the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and concerns many of the same themes: wartime occupation, violent resistance, and the use of sex as undercover ingratiation. But while Verhoeven couldn’t resist front-loading his film with plenty of cheesecake, Ang Lee and James Schamus take the high road and don’t pretend that the morally empty Mr. Yee isn’t violently twisted, and that Wong Chia Chi doesn’t absolutely suffer for her cause.

Lust CautionThis blog is rated NC-17 for publishing naughty film stills

Official movie site: www.filminfocus.com/lustcaution

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