Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Red Eye / *** (PG-13)

Lisa: Rachel McAdams
Jack: Cillian Murphy
Cynthia: Jayma Mays
Dad: Brian Cox

DreamWorks SKG presents a film directed by Wes Craven. Written by Carl Ellsworth and Dan Foos. Running time: 85 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence, and language).

Red Eye is a good solid thriller. It doesn’t offer anything new to the cinematic world, but it never gets tired. With a running time of 85 minutes, it has a quick pace and only concentrates on the vitals of the story, which is exactly as it should be. It has some shocking moments and a solid, albeit sparse cast. It may not be a movie you need to run out to see, but if you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned Hollywood thrill ride it does not disappoint.

Rachel McAdams stars as Lisa, a career focused manager of a high class Miami hotel, on the way home from her grandmother’s funeral in Texas. She meets a charming stranger named Jack, who through a series of seeming coincidences finds opportunity to warm up to this woman who seems to avoid personal relationships. The two find themselves sitting next to each other on the red eye flight back to Miami. Is it kismet, or something more sinister?

To pretend this is anything but a thriller would be needlessly misleading. Jack’s intentions are sinister and director Wes Craven’s heavy hand doesn’t seem interested in keeping this a secret; but that’s okay because the thrills are what the audience bought their tickets for. Jack works for an unnamed employer who has hired him to arrange for a big time financial figure to be in a certain room of Lisa’s hotel the next morning. Asking him for financial advice is not what this employer has in mind. In order to arrange this Jack is holding Lisa’s father’s life at stake. Lisa is the only hotel manager with the security clearance to arrange the room change.

Of course, the airplane cabin is a favorite film location for suspense, no wonder no real airlines allow their planes to be seen in these types of films. Craven (Scream trilogy) utilizes the claustrophobic space well, as Lisa is trapped on the window side with the knowledge that if she does anything to alter Jack’s plans, a man sitting outside her father’s house will kill him. After two attempts to let others on the plane know that something is terribly wrong with the man sitting next to her, screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (of syndicated TV shows like Cleopatra 2525) does a good job making it seem as if any more options she tries will only lead to her father’s assassination.

The film is grounded in McAdams’s performance. With this film and last summer’s sleeper romance The Notebook, she has successfully graduated from the prom queen witch with a “b” roles that dominated her early career in films like Mean Girls and The Hot Chick. Because of the nature of this film, it may not be a star making turn, but it proves she can carry a movie.

Cillian Murphy, as Jack, may be typing himself for American audiences as an all-out heavy considering this film and his other summer performance as The Scarecrow in Batman Begins, but he carries the menace well. With a boyish face that seems likeable, his full lips and large eyes give just a hint of something off-kilter, and those steely blues can be deadly. The casting is such an important element in a film that hangs so dependently on only two primary performers, and Craven gets it as close to perfection as is possible here.

It is also nice to see Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) get a turn as a nice guy playing Lisa’s dad. This gifted actor gives dad that slightly odd ball feel that all us twenty and thirtysomethings see in our own parents’ behavior that convinces us they are just about to go off the deep end. And what a discovery Craven makes with newcomer Jayma Mays as Cynthia; Lisa’s fill-in manager while she’s out of town, who gets to deal with a less than typical night from hell in the hotel business. She’s one of those nice girls who gets to run around in panic as if someone has wrapped her legs in elastic, but she does it with such comedic grace that it would be hard not to fall in love with her for it.

This isn’t a perfect movie, there are times where the writer and director try hard enough to shock the audience that the puppet strings are visible, but the whole story is so tightly paced and so focused on getting to the point that it hardly matters. There is nothing extraneous in this film. The man who hires Jack is never revealed, nor are his reasons because they don’t matter to our heroine. Her only concern is for her father’s life and the lives of the people Jack would have her set up for execution. For the audience, only these two characters matter, whose lives are brought together for a singular purpose, to provide a thrill ride that requires only a little suspension of disbelief and a desire for some thrills in a darkened movie theater.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Must Love Dogs / ** (PG-13)

Sarah: Diane Lane
Jake: John Cusack
Carol: Elizabeth Perkins
Bill: Christopher Plummer
Bob: Dermot Mulroney
Dolly: Stockard Channing

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Gary David Goldberg. Based on the novel by Claire Cook. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content).

I realize it has been a long time since I was in the dating game, and I certainly thank the heavens that I don’t have to put myself through that type of heart-wrenching torture any longer (and with continuing good fortune, hopefully never again). But as I recall it, the search for “true love” was never fraught with all coincidences and misunderstandings of Hollywood’s ruminations on the dating game. In reality rejection was quick and only briefly painful, not the Hollywood life altering version; and hope rarely dangled, except in my imagination, with a series of near misses with the one for which I was destined.

Must Love Dogs is yet another in the growing canon of Hollywood love stories about two people who should no doubt be together in the audience’s eyes and yet can’t seem to figure it out themselves until at least an hour and a half have passed away from the audience’s lives. The film relies heavily on the strength of its stars charms, with Diane Lane (Unfaithful) and John Cusack (High Fidelity) playing the two recently divorced destined lovers and Dermot Mulroney (About Schmidt) even showing up also as a recent divorcee and second potential love interest for Lane. Boy, that is a lot of broken marriages to center a love story around. The movie is bogged down by its own weight, spending too much time trying to show how tough the relationship game is and not enough time on its rewards. In other words, this chick flick is depressing when it should be fun.

Lane plays Sarah, who, it is quickly established in the first scene with her overbearing family, has had trouble getting over her split with her husband. Her family holds a sad divorcee “intervention” by cornering her in her surprisingly high end home for a pre-school teacher, the lawyers must have treated her well anyway. They each bring pictures of potential love interests to pin up on her refrigerator; many of these potentials are already married, so I guess her family doesn’t quite get the concept of fidelity, which might explain why there are so many of them. Sarah’s ever meddling sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins, The Ring Two) submits her profile to a dating website with the requirement “Must Love Dogs”, even though Sarah doesn’t actually own a dog; but she does look after her brother’s Newfoundland quite frequently because he’s experiencing marriage problems of his own. It’s an epidemic!

Jack (Cusack) is also suffering after the failure of his marriage. Apparently, he’s a hopeless romantic who has watched Doctor Zhivago more than any sensible person should, and yet somehow lost his wife due to his obsessive career as a wooden racing boat sculptor, of which he has never sold any. Don’t ask me how he is able to even buy enough food to eat. His existence can only be explained by the Hollywood mystery forces that require leads in romantic comedies to hold unique and unusual careers that magically allow them to live at the upper end of middle income America.

Jack is also a bit of a modern philosopher, something that Cusack manages to pull off as a charming characteristic even though the screenplay by director Gary David Goldberg gives his character the almost insurmountable obstacle of destroying every date he has with Sarah by talking too much and being too brutally honest. Goldberg, a veteran of TV who was largely responsible for the success of such sitcoms as Family Ties and Spin City, must have had some great tragedies in his own love life to take out all of this bitterness and emotional angst toward relationships on these two characters who really should be having a hell of a lot more fun together than they are.

One of the successes of the picture is the relationship between Sarah and her sister Carol. Perkins and Lane, who are rumored to be best friends in life, build a believable sibling rapport with two parts competition and one part love. Perkins seems to be allowing her character to live vicariously through Lane’s, although Goldberg miraculously has not inflicted marital problems on Carol as well. Carol does seem to show up at Sarah’s house at very unusual hours of the day for a woman with a family of her own -- a convenience of the plot that my own wife actually pointed out to me.

Goldberg does hit some other correct notes. Mulroney is perfectly cast, bringing the proper amount of charm to his divorcee competing for Sarah’s affection, yet keeping a little of the smarm in his back pocket so the audience will root for the right guy. And Sarah’s poet quoting father (Christopher Plummer, Alexander) gives one of the better explanations of old age philandering I’ve heard, although the fact that he brings three dates to family functions is not dealt with directly or humorously enough. But Goldberg plots far too many romantic comedy conventions. The lovers catch each other in about three too many misunderstood compromised positions. And it doesn’t have enough romantic comedy laughs. It could be he was trying to make a romantic drama, but those aren’t filled with such surface oriented characters. These characters want to be funny, but must face reality far too often for the comedy to withstand.

It is interesting that one of the characters in this movie is so obsessed with a romance classic like Doctor Zhivago, because the difference between a classic romance -- comedic or otherwise -- and our inferior modern romance standards struck me as the credits began to roll. It seems the lovers must be kept apart in order for there to even be a movie. Lovers realizing that the other lead is the person they are destined for would certainly shorten the running time of just about every romance ever made. In a classic romance the lover’s are kept apart by situations beyond their control. Modern romances have brought so much self-analysis into the lead characters that it is the characters themselves who keep themselves from seeing what is obvious to the audience. There have been some good romantic comedies made over the last decade and a half, but the last classic romantic comedy I can think of is When Harry Met Sally…. If you’re thinking of going to see Must Love Dogs, do yourself a favor and rent When Harry Met Sally… instead.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Downfall / **** (R)

Adolf Hitler: Bruno Ganz
Traudl Junge: Alexandra Maria Lara
Magda Goebbels: Corina Harfouch
Eva Braun: Juliane Kohler
Albert Speer: Heino Ferch
Dr. Schenck: Christian Berkel
Werner Haase: Matthias Habich
Wilhelm Mohnke: Andre Hinnicke
Peter Kranz: Donevan Gunia
Heinrich Himmler: Ulrich Noethen

Newmarket Films presents a film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Written by Bernd Eichinger. Based on the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest, and the book Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller. Running time: 155 min. Rated R (for strong violence, disturbing images and some nudity).

A few years ago, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature). It was a very simple interview documentary with Traudl Junge recalling her experiences as Hitler’s secretary during the Second World War. Downfall, also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category this year, is the dramatization of the final days in the Berlin bunker for Hitler and his staff. This new film is bookended by footage from the Junge documentary where she confesses not to have known of the genocidal atrocities committed by the Nazis under the orders of Hitler; although the dramatized material shows Junge seeing a more humane side to the man, his darker nature and intentions confound Junge and Hitler’s military staff, who understand little of what this madman was trying to accomplish during the final desperate days before his double suicide with Eva Braun.

It is fascinating, as an American filmgoer, to get a look at that great war from the German point of view. Admittedly, this film focuses on a period in the war when the German forces were crumbling and in general disarray, but it seems as if the Germans are still the bad guys in this one. More accurately they are the good guys and the bad guys, but nothing is so black and white in this film.

Bruno Ganz (The Manchurian Candidate) portrays Hitler as a man who once had a dream for his people. A man so convinced he is right that against all reason he chooses to remain in Berlin when it becomes obvious the city will fall to the Russian forces surrounding it, because his conviction will prove his cause’s worthiness to his people and the world, even if the Fuhrer must take his own life in the end. His military staff and their families alternate between those who see his folly clearly and want to abandon him but stay out of loyalty to the German cause, and those who are so brainwashed by their belief in the cause that they are willing to sacrifice themselves with the same vigorous insane rationale as Hitler himself. There are many who have already abandoned the cause and opted to leave Berlin to begin negotiations with the Allied Forces. Many of those people wear two faces, like Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen, The Red Jacket) who claims loyalty to Hitler’s face, while secretly opening negotiations with the Allies. “When I meet Eisenhower, should I give the Nazi salute, or shake his hand?”

It is said that most criminal acts are acts of desperation. Of course, the war crimes of the German officers of Hitler’s inner circle hang ever present over the proceedings presented here, although none of the genocide is ever actually dramatized; it has been seen enough in other films that its representation is unnecessary here. The desperation of these crimes is saturated throughout this picture, however. Hitler himself goes from soft moments of solitude to vociferous outrage during his strategy meetings, consciously defying any sensible advice due to his personal desperation to ensure meaning to his inevitable demise, while many of his officers fight in vain desperation to defend Berlin’s indefensible position from the Russian Army because that is what their Fuhrer has ordered them to do. The desperation of the German citizens is seen in the many nameless non-soldiers who are ravaged by the bombing raids and artillery fire as their leaders have abandoned their responsibility for them. A bomb hits a group of people, refugees in their own city, and seconds after the dust has cleared the people return to find out who was with them that is now lying dead in the street.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment) takes a sort of Altman-esque approach to the story, throwing a very large ensemble together, following multiple storylines. There are no real introductions to the characters, many of which need none for their infamy. Their jobs shape both their lives and the audience’s view of them. The SS commanders on the front line seem the most vulnerable. We root for them because they are in the line of fire. Although, really everyone here is in the line of fire. While Hitler himself, who shuts himself off from any realization of what is going on around him -- because of him -- becomes everyone’s enemy. Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler, Nowhere in Africa) is the consummate party girl, throwing a party in a ballroom above the bunker during an artillery raid, even trying to make the suicide pills seem fun to the secretaries. It is Magda Gobbles (Corina Harfouch, Hamlet X) who could be seen as the coldest heart, with her insistence on poisoning all the Goebbels children because “growing up in a socialist state would be worse than death.” It is a remarkable performance by Harfouch, who convinces us that someone could actually think that such an unthinkable act is the right thing to do.

Alexandra Maria Lara (Cowgirl) is the doe-eyed innocent secretary Frau Junge, who witnesses these events along with the audience. It is interesting how her role is not omnipresent, allowing the audience to interpret much of the events on their own but it is through Junge that we are treated to the rare glimpses of humanity from Hitler himself. Ganz, in his portrayal of the Fuhrer, gives a hint that he is a touch conflicted in his resolve, but he allows no other to see that he may have doubts about his mission. It is a very delicate performance in his quite moments, juxtaposed by the trapped animal that Hitler becomes for his officers who have nothing but bad news to give him.

Naturally Ganz’s performance as Hitler has gained most of the attention for this film with his range of emotions and madness, but the picture is very much an ensemble effort. The cast gives us a unique look into the psyche of a group of people who did what some could not understand for a time. These filmmakers realize that these people in that horrible bunker were people, just like anyone. Like anyone, desperate times create desperation in them all, and individuals deal with that desperation in a way dictated by their personality. Some ran away. Some pretended everything was all right. Some did their jobs. Some lied in order to survive, and Hitler thrashed like a caged animal.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Upside of Anger / ***½ (R)

Terry Wolfmeyer: Joan Allen
Denny Davies: Kevin Costner
Andy: Erika Christensen
Popeye: Evan Rachel Wood
Emily: Keri Russell
Hadley: Alicia Witt
Shep: Mike Binder

New Line Cinema presents a film directed and written by Mike Binder. Running time 118 min. Rated R (for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use).

I’ve been on a bit of a kick of late appreciating actors who have been held in less than high regard for their acting abilities. Certainly at the level to which marquee stars rise in their success they must have more than just luck behind them, even in those cases where those stars seem a bit monotonous in their performances. At about the time My Own Private Idaho made its Criterion Collection debut this spring I was watching a lot of Keanu Reeves films. His ability was arguable during his early efforts, but the kid made some incredible artistic choices in material and eventually came into his own as an actor. A few weeks ago I was surprised to find myself taking in all the William Shatner performances I could find, an underrated performer if ever there was one. I was very happy to see he snagged himself an Emmy nod for his work on Boston Legal. The new video release The Upside of Anger may just spur on my next underappreciated performer obsession with its wonderfully light and seemingly out of somber character performance by Kevin Costner.

While Costner’s performance is worth the rental price, The Upside of Anger is really Joan Allen’s movie. Allen (The Contender) plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a mother of four daughters whose husband has left them for a European rendezvous with his twenty-something Swedish secretary. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of her youngest daughter, nicknamed Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen), who fears her mother has lived her life through bitterness and anger since her father’s indiscretion. This observation is true, although her mother has a lot of help from alcohol.

Terry is a controlling woman, whose life has unraveled out of her control. It doesn’t help that this upheaval happens when her daughters have reached that age where they begin to take control of their own lives. Her oldest, Hadley (Alicia Witt, Mr. Holland’s Opus), is graduating from college with some surprises for her mom. Emily (Keri Russell, TV’s Felicity) wants to pursue an artistic career in dance, but seems to suffer from an eating disorder. And Andy (Erika Christensen, The Perfect Score) has decided against higher education all together in order to get a jump-start on her broadcasting career, taking a job at a local radio station as a PA for a womanizing producer who quickly mixes work and pleasure.

Amongst this whirlwind of female chaos Terry finds her somewhat floating along neighbor Denny Davies (Costner, Open Range), an aged (not aging) ex-ballplayer who is high half the time, drunk all the time, and has a whimsical approach to life that has appeal and relief to it. Denny saunters his way into the family, setting a series of events in motion that both add to and act as release from Terry’s slipping grasp on her life as she knows it.

The film, like its characters, segues back and forth between great comedy and great drama. Even in the tragic moments of Terry’s life there is comedy and even the levity is laced with poignancy. It is the idea of a relationship with Denny that causes the greatest distress at first. Denny is obviously glad to hear about the departure of Terry’s husband, and quickly tries to fill the physical and emotional void left in Terry. Denny, with his carefree existence as a radio jock, seems at first to be a minor league prize for a major league lady; but his charm is undeniable and soon Terry finds herself offering a roll in the sack to a startled Denny.

There are wonderful relationships explored between mother and daughters here, but the courtship between the film’s two stars is so endearing and odd and funny and real, it steals the whole show. Costner’s turn here reminds me of the wacky brother gunslinger he portrayed early in his career in the western Silverado. This character is a far cry from that one; but he is so free to be silly and just a little off kilter here, I smiled every time he came on the screen. Allen, on the other hand, embraces the severity of her character, utilizing some stern looks that have served her well in previous roles, but the character is put through such conflict emotionally that her severity works both ways, providing the wrenching drama from the actress we have come to expect and also providing stark contrasts with the way she wants to control a situation and how it comes out that her stern nature often becomes a tool of comedy.

Writer/director Mike Binder (HBO’s Mind of the Married Man) shows a natural affinity for presenting the calamity of real life. He puts just the right amount of absurdity into the lives of these characters to sell them off as the genuine articles. He casts himself as Denny’s producer and Andy’s boss/boyfriend Shep, and builds a great deal of comedic and cathartic material out of this essentially sideline player. Much of Terry’s titular anger is directed at Shep during his relationship with her daughter. Her imagining Shep’s head exploding at the dinner table one evening provides one of the film’s biggest laughs, while it is also Shep that shovels a load of hard to take truths at Terry when he can finally stand no more of her.

There are developments that should be left for the viewer to discover, but The Upside of Anger really looks at those happenings of life that people are always going through, yet can never imagine having to go through. Its absurdity and seriousness are important in their relationship to each other. Terry and Denny play important roles in each other’s lives that mirror that relationship of these seeming opposites. It is one of those films that is a pleasure to know someone had to realize it in order to conceive of it. Binder promises with this film to be a director and writer of keen insight into the human soul and condition.