Sunday, March 25, 2007

Shooter / ** (R)

Bob Lee Swagger: Mark Wahlberg
Nick Memphis: Michael Pena
Col. Isaac Johnson: Danny Glover
Sarah Fenn: Kate Mara
Jack Payne: Elias Koteas
Sen. Charles F. Meachum: Ned Beatty

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Jonathan Lemkin, based on the book by Stephen Hunter. Running time: 124 min. Rated R (for strong graphic violence and some language).

Are you feeling a bit screwed by your government? Do you fantasize about just killing all the bad guys and giving ‘em what they really deserve? Do Mark Wahlberg’s biceps and large scale explosions excite you? If you answered yes to all of these questions, then the new actioner “Shooter” may be just the movie for you.

In telling the story of a sharp shooter framed by men in black for an assassination attempt on the President, “Shooter” breaks no new ground. But as a protest against a secretive system of power and greed where the grunt is expendable and top government officials pull all the strings, “Shooter” has something quite disturbing to say. Sure, Hollywood has been willing to tell us many times before that the government was bad, but this film takes the next step by stating that things might get a little better if a couple of congressmen took bullets to the head.

Politics and morality aside, “Shooter” is first and foremost a completely formulaic action thriller. Mark Wahlberg (“The Departed”) is Bob Lee Swagger, a former Special Forces sniper living as a recluse in the wilderness after his spotter dies on a mission that left the pair abandoned in hostile territory. Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover, “Lethal Weapon” series) tracks Swagger down to enlist his help in thwarting a sniper threat against the President of the United States.

As is customary in these stories, Swagger is reluctant to help an institution that left him for dead. As it turns out, his reluctance is warranted after he is framed for the assassination attempt and forced to flee through the streets of Philadelphia. Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) gets a chance to flex his own seasoned action muscles with a spectacular chase sequence that ends with Swagger plummeting his stolen car into the Delaware River.

Throughout most of the action, this film is pretty much interchangeable with any number of falsely accused fugitive plotlines, from “The Fugitive” to “Minority Report”, although the violence reaches new levels here. Wahlberg does a good job anchoring the film in what is his first full-fledged action role; Hollywood may have found a suitable replacement for Bruce Willis.

Swagger is not without his allies. His dead spotter’s widow, Sarah (Kate Mara, “Brokeback Mountain”), provides a safe haven where Swagger can lick his wounds, not to mention a sexy female to satisfy any requisite needs for the film’s target audience. And Michael Pena (“World Trade Center”) plays a rookie FBI agent, the only law enforcement officer who smells a rat in the warehouse.

Fuqua runs the tension at a good clip for most of the film. The pace only falters at the end, when he falls for the “The Lord of the Rings” curse by wearing the audience’s patience thin with three or four natural stopping points before finally wrapping things up. These multiple endings also push the level of plausibility far beyond what even this overplayed genre allows as acceptable suspension of disbelief. A scene which takes place in the Department of Defense involving a gun and a criminal in custody is the biggest offender.

There is more to observe about “Shooter”, however, than merely its merits as a thriller. I think this film is a sign of Hollywood’s and the nation’s attitude toward the world in which we are living. With its harsh conspiratorial depiction of our government’s practices and obvious references to current world policies involving issues like the importance of oil over human life, Hollywood appears to be just as fed up with the status quo as the rest of the populace and is therefore done trying to keep relations amicable with the ruling establishment. The solutions presented here are extreme and violent. Perhaps this is an example of taking too much of a cue from your own enemy’s tactics, but I’m guessing that this is an aggressive trend we’ll be seeing much more of coming out of Hollywood over the next few years.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Premonition / ** (PG-13)

Linda Hanson: Sandra Bullock
Jim Hanson: Julian McMahon
Annie: Nia Long
Joanne: Kate Nelligan
Claire: Amber Valletta
Dr. Norman Roth: Peter Stromare

MGM and TriStar Pictures present a film by Mennan Yapo. Written by Bill Kelly. Running time: 110 min. Rated PG-13 (for some violent content, disturbing images, thematic material and brief language).

It’s funny. As a film critic, I sometimes yearn for the days when I could simply watch a film and either be entertained by it or not. But I realize that while most audience members just walk into a movie like “Premonition” thinking that it looked good in the ads, I come to it with the knowledge that it has been panned by critics across the country.

At some points during “Premonition” I was actually able to recapture some of that fascination of seeing something that looked good and throughout most of the film, when I did think of what other critics might have said about it, I could understand why much of the movie going public might view critics as a bitter, complaining lot. And then I was slapped in the face by an ending so obviously telegraphed by the direction and editing that I couldn’t help but think audiences should really pay more attention to us critics.

“Premonition” is actually based on a rather interesting concept. A woman in an unspectacular marriage wakes one morning to discover that her husband has been killed in a car accident. Devastated, not so much by the loss of her love as by the destruction of their well-worn routine, she doesn’t know how to morn. The next day she wakes to discover that her husband has not been killed and nothing has changed. The day after that she finds he has indeed died, and the loved ones around her are becoming increasingly concerned with her cavalier attitude toward the tragedy. Another day later day she finds he lives again and is also becoming concerned with her strange behavior toward him.

Sandra Bullock delivers a fairly steady performance as Linda, this woman on the schizophrenic edge. She stabilizes what could be a volatile series of events. I’m not sure if this benefits the film or not. It is a safe choice for an actress who has never been one for controversy (despite her involvement in the contentious Oscar winner “Crash”.) It is nice to see Julian McMahon, as her husband Jim, released from the ridiculous confines of his most famous role as Victor von Doom in the “Fantastic Four” franchise.

Linda eventually figures out that her days as a widow and the days leading up to her husband’s death have somehow become confused. She makes a chart on which she determines exactly when her husband’s accident occurs and tries to set in motion events that will prevent the accident without disrupting the “rules” of her ailment. This sets up a series of continuity obstacles from which the film never has a chance of surviving.

There is a point in her jumbled week where she is committed to a mental facility. In actual timeline continuity this event would happen at the end of the week, although it is experienced early in her week. This situation is never resolved by the plot of the film. One of her daughters shows up one morning with her face mysteriously lacerated. This plays into the institutionalization; however, the explanation which is eventually revealed would have been clearly documented by witnesses and medical staff in a way that would negate any reason to have Linda committed.

Continuity problems aside, the true culprit in the failure of this film is director Mennan Yapo’s faith in the M. Night Shyamalan school of thriller direction. The film actually works fairly effectively until the final ten minutes, during which he gives us the Shyamalan-esque flashback montage of all the clues leading up to the climax. Since Yapo builds this montage with images that were all too obvious the first time we saw them rather than subtle ones that the audience may have missed, it acts more as an insult to our intelligence than as some form of dramatic enlightenment. He also fails to place the montage close enough to the climax, so rather than screaming at the characters on the screen to stop, the audience must wait several minutes to see what we already know is going to happen.

“Premonition” is a good example of what is wrong with so many young directors in today’s cinema. Instead of bringing their own ideas of what movie making is to their projects, directors like the German-born Yapo bring only their influences. All too many directors think an appreciation of the art of cinema is all they need to make it work. Too few have an understanding of how cinema works. Perhaps it is not the audience that needs to be educated by what critics have to say about the movies they watch. Maybe the filmmakers themselves should pay more attention to us critics.

Monday, March 12, 2007

300 / **** (R)

King Leonidas: Gerard Butler
Queen Gorgo: Lena Headey
Theron: Dominic West
Dilion: David Wenham
Captain: Vincent Regan
Ephialtes: Andrew Tiernan
Xerxes: Rodrigo Santoro

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Zack Snyder. Written by Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and LynnVarley. Running time: 117 min. Rated R (for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity).

A flash of lightning. A thunder clap. The crack of bone against bone. The rawness of the snow. The grizzly, growling, foaming mouth of a wolf. A boy in the cold. Men unlike any ever seen before. Rippling, sweating muscle. The splatter of blood against cold steel. Sweat and sex. And the rank odor of death.

Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel “300” is a cinematic montage of stunning proportions. Retelling the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where 300 Spartan soldiers were said to have taken on an army of one million Persians, “300” is a visual and visceral massacre of traditional cinematic sensibilities. Walking out of the theater afterward, I could practically taste the blood of fallen soldiers on my own lips.

There is nothing about this film that is intended to be a realistic depiction of events. It is extravagantly overdone and richly satisfying in its execution. Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead”) turns blood into a solid object here and transforms the film’s actors into gods. Never have the people on a movie screen seemed so much larger than life than they do here. I mean that literally; they appear to be larger than the same actors in a different film would be. How did they do that?

Much of what they did here was achieved through digital effects. The men look impossibly well built, and the women are sultry goddesses. The characters’ eyes pop out on the screen and you can feel their power over their world. These are people who control their lives with brute force and harsh honesty.

Gerard Butler (“The Phantom of the Opera”) plays the mighty Spartan King Leonidas, who leads his best soldiers into battle. He is a perfect specimen of male physique, as are all the Spartan soldiers. I don’t think there is any way they could have achieved the appearance of all those perfect bodies without the help of visual effects. It is intimidating just to look at these men, to see them all gathered together in one place. Even the shots with only one or two of them could make you fear for your personal physical safety. The Arcadians who help them in their stand against the Persians look like bankers and computer nerds next to the Spartans, when even they are actually very fit compared to most modern men.

Lena Headey (“The Brothers Grimm”) is the perfect match for Leonidas as his Queen Gorgo. Her striking beauty gives her as much strength as his muscular perfection. She makes it easy to believe a woman could fend for herself in this brutal world of testosterone-fueled violence.

I suppose the film could be criticized for its cardboard treatment of its characters, but in-depth analysis of meaning and motivation is not what this film is about. It is about survival in a humanity that is just as wild and vicious as the deepest jungle. There is great power in how the material is presented visually, which needs little support from the script or the performances. But the script and performances are exactly what they need to be, just as overwrought as the visual spectacle they chaperone.

Snyder gives the audience a virtual visual feast of images on which to gorge. From the female oracle that thrashes about in prophetic sexual ecstasy to the charging giant rhino beast felled with a single blow, there is hardly a frame in this film that couldn’t be hung on a wall and found to be an exceptional work of art on its own. Unlike most historical battle epics, this is not a story of mere humans in mêlée; there are beasts and mutants that seem to have ascended from some plane of hell. Even King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, ABC’s “Lost”) looms above the perfect Leonidas, suggesting that he just may be the deity he claims to be.

As with most costumed sword-and-sandal epics, the level of violence in “300” is vast. Many heads are removed from their bodies. Snyder treats the violence with the greatest amount of visual glorification. He utilizes slow motion to the point where he nearly stops the images, giving the audience a chance to study every detail of grit and gore. And when a body falls, his camera captures the full weight of death in the way the muscles ripple in lifeless relaxation.

“300” is certainly not a film for everyone. The action is exaggerated to a quease-inducing state. But it is also a wonderful reflection of a new movement in cinematic excellence. The visual style of “300” is like an evolutionary step that cinema has been in the process of making, because of the efforts of such film makers as Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino, toward becoming a more overtly visual medium. A medium where visual style replaces traditional dramatic forms of emotional exposition, where the style itself becomes the vehicle and character of the emotional impact for the cinematic experience. It is quite literally awe inspiring.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Zodiac / ***½ (R)

Robert Graysmith: Jake Gyllenhaal
Inspector David Toschi: Mark Ruffalo
Paul Avery: Robert Downey, Jr.
Inspector William Armstrong: Anthony Edwards
Melanie: Chloe Sevigny
Arthur Leigh Allen: John Carroll Lynch

Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. present a film directed by David Fincher. Written by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith. Running time: 158 min. Rated R (for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images).

“Zodiac” is a fascinating movie. An epic police procedural, it details the search for the real life Zodiac killer, who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area for nearly a decade before disappearing, in the process becoming one of the most famous serial murder cases ever to remain unsolved. Based on the book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist employed at the San Francisco Chronicle during the Zodiac slayings, this film contains a cast of characters as long as the years that passed between the first reported Zodiac murders and the San Francisco Police Department’s decommissioning of the case in the early nineties.

I went into “Zodiac” knowing very little about the actual case beyond the fact that the killer was never caught and Graysmith had written a book about it. Other than that, my knowledge consisted mainly of the countless crime films with plots loosely based on the evidence made public during the Zodiac investigation. David Fincher’s new film on the subject had me mesmerized.

Unlike most of Fincher’s previous films, which often focused on the spectacle of crime and violence, “Zodiac” takes a more methodical and meditative look at what goes into solving such a crime (or in this case, not solving it) and examines the large toll the obsessive dedication to finding the truth can take on the men who are compelled to do so. The film concentrates on three men pursuing the killer: Paul Avery, the crime beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle; Robert Graysmith, the Chronicle’s cartoonist with a knack for solving cipher codes sent in by the killer; and David Toschi, the homicide detective assigned to the case.

These men prove the film’s tagline, “There is more than one way to lose your life to a killer.” And each actor brings their own personal strengths to these roles. Robert Downey, Jr. (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) plays Avery as a man who can’t help but push the envelope by peppering his stories with personal attacks against the killer; he self destructs when he finds himself trapped in the very envelope he sealed and stamped. Mark Ruffalo (“Just Like Heaven”) brings a quiet intensity to the cop driven instinctually to the most likely suspect; but with only circumstantial evidence, he finds time erodes his personal support structure. Jake Gyllenhaal’s (“The Day After Tomorrow”) Graysmith is a hero who, after being left out of the loop during the initial investigation, proves to be the most driven of the three, at the cost of his family and personal safety, in his obsession to find a man that baffled every expert of the day.

While the film’s focus is the investigation into the Zodiac by these men and the price they paid for it, the details of the case are laid out here with absorbing effect. Although the Zodiac’s actions were impossible to predict and trace at the time, it would probably be impossible today for such a criminal to evade the police for so long, thanks to modern police procedure and investigation technology. This movie is as much a period crime investigation as “L.A. Confidential” or last year’s “The Illusionist”. It is Zodiac’s constantly changing M.O. that makes the case so frustrating for the characters and audience alike.

Covering a period of time from 1968 through 1991, Fincher does a wonderful job capturing the look and feel of this span, especially the late sixties and early seventies, which account for the majority of the film’s action. Period production design is as flashy as Fincher gets this time around, however. Whereas past films like “Se7en” and “Fight Club” were filled with thrills and twists, Fincher keeps the tone here on an even simmer. James Vanderbilt’s (“The Rundown”) superb script shows the inevitable psychological toll non-progress takes on the investigators.

The massive time span also allows for an epic cast of characters. Employing just about every B-list actor whose name you don’t know but whose face you’ll recognize, Fincher luxuriates in allowing these wonderful performers to flesh out their character’s entire make up with minimal lines and screen time. Some of the cast’s standouts include Anthony Edwards (NBC’s “ER”) as Toschi’s partner, Dermot Mulroney (“About Schmidt”) as their captain, Philip Baker Hall (“Magnolia”) as a hand writing expert, Brian Cox (“The Bourne Supremacy”) as famed celebrity attorney Melvin Belli, John Carroll Lynch (“Fargo”) as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, Chloe Sevigny (“Boys Don’t Cry”) as Graysmith’s estranged wife, and Donal Logue (“Ghost Rider”) and Elias Koteas (“The Thin Red Line”) as two of the surrounding San Francisco Bay area communities’ chief investigators.

“Zodiac” is not without its flaws. It loses a good deal of momentum going into its final act as the investigation itself stalls out for so many years while Graysmith puts the pieces together to write his book. But Fincher does a good job jump-starting the action with some suspense from a false lead late in the film, and he never loses touch with that sense of fascination that drives Graysmith to see the investigation through to the end.

“Zodiac” is an admirable film, not only for the way it diligently dissects the investigation of this unsolved mystery, but also for its devotion to its purpose as a character study of the investigators themselves. The film is never sidetracked for too long into the actual murders, which would rely heavily upon speculation. “Zodiac” doesn’t stray from its true inspiration, the people whose lives were consumed, and in some cases destroyed, by not discovering the killer’s identity.