‘The Mist’ Deals With the Fear of the Unknown and of Reality

There was a time when Frank Darabont created the most effective cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels. He gave us one of the all-time great adaptations of King’s works with “The Shawshank Redemption,” a classic which you can still catch it on TBS or TNT every other week. Darabont also directed “The Green Mile” which was very good and left its audience in tears at its humbling conclusion. These days, Mike Flanagan has become the King adaptation master of choice with his takes on “Gerald’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep,” both of which proved to be wonderfully unnerving. Before this, however, was Darabont’s adaptation of King’s “The Mist,” and it represented his first time dealing with one of King’s full out horror stories. Having said this, he still brings this particular King horror tale to life in way few other filmmakers ever could.

“The Mist” takes place, as many of King’s works do, in the state of Maine. We see our main character, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), doing his work as a graphic artist on something which appears to be right out of “The Dark Tower,” and it establishes what David does while simultaneously establishing the kind of movie we are about to see. It is a motion picture which deals with people whom we recognize from the real world we inhabit and the small towns we grew up in. This is not often the case as many horror films deal with stock characters we cannot wait to see done away with.

One day, there is a storm which hurls a tree into David’s work studio, and he ends up going into town with his son the next day to pick up supplies. In the process, he also ends up taking along his next-door neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) regardless of the fact Brent’s tree fell down on David’s boathouse and completely destroyed it. But while at the market, a mist starts to blanket the town to where there is zero visibility. A local townsman named Dan ends up rushing into the store crying out, “There’s something in the mist!”

From there, everyone is trapped in the supermarket as the thought of stepping outside its doors is far too fearful an action. This is largely the result of there being something in the mist which quickly proves to be anything but human, and this creates divisions between everyone trapped in the store. This division is primarily brought about by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Haden), a fervent believer in the word of the bible who believes judgment day is upon us and that the end is indeed very near.

Watching “The Mist,” you can recognize the familiar types of characters which occupy the average Stephen King story; the man who doesn’t want to be the hero but ends up being one even if it is not by his own doing, the religious fanatic who will not allow themself be torn away from they believe to be the truth, and townspeople who appear to be brave on the outside but terrified on the inside. What I really liked about this film is how Darabont never lets them become just mere stereotypical characters. While these characters may appear to be just that, it is a credit to the writing and acting that everyone involved in this film’s production rose above the genre’s conventions to give us something more human than we typically expect.

What interests Darabont here is not so much the monsters on the outside, but instead the monsters which lurk deep in our psyches. How we would possibly react when all the things we depend on in our life are suddenly taken away from us? No easy answer is given, but it is clear we are left with our instincts for survival at any cost. Darabont does excellent work in creating an inescapably claustrophobic environment where escape is easier said than done and trust can easily become a disposable commodity.

Leading the cast is Thomas Jane who first has made an unforgettable impression when he co-starred in “Boogie Nights.” He then went on to do “Deep Blue Sea” which more or less typecast him as the hardened hero who shows more courage than anyone around him. But here, he is simply an ordinary man caught up in an unimaginable situation, and he is struggling to maintain his sanity in an increasingly desperate situation.

“The Mist” is filled with many fine actors who fully humanize their roles and succeed in avoiding the mistake of making these characters seem stereotypical and easily disposable. It is great to see Andre Braugher here as the disbelieving neighbor/lawyer who makes the idiotic assumption he is being setup for a practical joke. In any other movie, we would simply just hate his character Brent for not believing the protagonists, but Braugher succeeds in making us believe why he might see how Brent could not see the inherent danger everyone is caught up in. As an audience, we of course know better of what is really going on, but it makes you think of how people would normally react in a horrifying situation like this. Could we easily believe in such things? Wouldn’t we be skeptical of what others tell us? Aren’t some us sick and tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes?

Also in the cast is Toby Jones who is a wonderful presence here as Ollie, a supermarket employee who turns out to be very handy with a gun. Then we have other character actors like Jeffrey DeMunn who plays Dan Miller, and William Sadler who plays Jim Grondin. Frances Sternhagen is also on board as a friendly schoolteacher named Irene and has some of the best and most memorable of moments in this movie. You also have Lauren Holden as Amanda Dunprey, a new school teacher who befriends David and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble).

All of these actors do a great job of making the characters all the more real to us so that we don’t simply laugh them off the screen for doing stupid things that horror movie characters usually do. You get the sense that if this were written and directed by anyone other than Darabont, it would look like just about any other horror movie we have seem hundreds of times already. But there is going with the story of this movie that makes it more than your typical horror movie.

But the best performance comes from Marcia Gay Harden who plays the seemingly crazed Mrs. Carmody. A religious zealot if there ever was one, Carmody can be easily compared to Carrie Wright’s mother from “Carrie” as both are hopelessly devoted to God and the Bible even though their belief structure has long since been corrupted. Harden is a brilliant actress, and she makes Mrs. Carmody far scarier than the monsters which constantly threaten to infiltrate the overcrowded supermarket everyone is stuck in. She also makes you believe how people would end up following her when the fate of the world continues to descend down on them all. Her crazy beliefs end up making believers out of others, and a mob mentality quickly forms a sharp division between the characters stuck in the store which threatens to bring out the worst in everyone. Harden’s portrayal of such a frightening individual has long since stayed with me after watching this film when it came out in 2007.

Not everything about “The Mist” is perfect. The monsters, when they do appear, are effectively creepy and eerie, but they are also clearly CGI, and this takes away from what we are shown. Darabont ends up creating more of an intense effect when we don’t see the monsters up close, but instead from a distance. When they are shrouded by weather they inhabit, they seem infinitely more terrifying as a result. If you have a fear of creepy crawlers like spiders, you may want to think twice about checking this movie out.

The ending of “The Mist” is different from King’s book, and King himself was quick to point this out to everyone who bothered to listen. What I can tell you about the ending is that it is both uncompromising and devastating in its impact. It makes you look back at everything which happened to where you realize the line between good people and bad people, protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains can be ever so easily blurred. The people we end up fearing the most are ourselves and of what we are capable of. We can easily descend into craziness and insanity when all the things we need most in life are suddenly taken away from us. The moment we give up on life and accept its horrifying fate is the moment when we all become less than human, and considering the times we are currently living through, this seems more pertinent than ever before.

I walked out of “The Mist” completely shaken and unable to speak. It contains a shattering ending which is unlike any we usually from any film we typically watch. What makes it all the more unsettling is that we cannot help but think of what we would do in the same situation. There are many who cannot bear to think of the answer such a question, but there are those whose drive to survive is impossible to ignore.

“The Mist” may not as good as “The Shawshank Redemption,” but it is still an effectively made motion picture with excellent performances and an ever-growing intensity. It is also one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King novel in years, and it keeps itself from sinking into the clichés of the average horror movie.

Whether or not you believe in extra-terrestrials is beside the point. We end up fearing ourselves more than anything else, and this fear can easily cripple us from doing what we want to do in our lives.

The tagline of “The Mist” was right: Fear changes everything…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Gone Baby Gone’ – Ben Affleck’s Directorial Debut

Gone Baby Gone” marked the feature film directorial debut of Ben Affleck, and it is based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. Back in 2003, another Lehane novel was turned into a great movie by Clint Eastwood called “Mystic River,” but I would actually put “Gone Baby Gone” right ahead of it, and this is saying a lot. It is a completely absorbing and emotionally devastating film involving the abduction of a child whom several individuals are desperate to see returned home safely. Their search for the child will test their levels of morality, and it will change their concepts of right and wrong forever.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play two Boston private detectives who are hired by relatives of the baby’s mother to help assist in the investigation. During this process, they come to work with two detectives (played by Ed Harris and John Ashton) to bring the child back home. As they continue their investigation, the story ends up coming with more twists and turns than you would ever expect.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut here should be labeled as astonishing, but his success here should have seemed like a big surprise. He has been a Boston native all his life, so he is a natural to direct a movie like this. He perfectly captures the feel of Boston and of the people who live there. He sucks you right into the atmosphere of the town and never lets you go. He also brilliantly succeeds in generating strong tension, and it quickly becomes one of those movies where you feel the gunshots that go off. I found myself ducking in my seat in certain scenes. Yes, it is that intense.

In addition, Ben also succeeds in getting great performances from every single actor here. What a great feeling it is to see a movie which does not contain single bad performance in it. At the top of the list is Amy Ryan who gives an utterly believable and fearless performance as a drug addicted mother who at first does not seem to care at all about her child. She is a fiend and cannot hide it, but she shows cracks in that rough façade of hers to show a mother who desperately wants her daughter back. It is an utterly realistic performance which earned Ryan a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Ben took a big risk casting his younger brother Casey in the lead role of Patrick Kenzie. It could have been a very bad case of Hollywood nepotism, something which pisses of my closest friends to no end. But Casey has proven to be a very strong actor in his own right, and he handles what is very difficult role here with a very strong performance. Casey has really gone beyond his brother’s shadow to do some great work in movies like “The Assassination of Jesse James,” and he truly deserved the Best Actor he won for “Manchester By the Sea.” He has shown that he is an actor who has taken many risks back when he was acting opposite his big brother in “Good Will Hunting,” and he continues to gives us one memorable performance after another

There is also great work done here by Ed Harris who portrays Remy Bressant, a good cop who is always trying to do the right thing. But Casey’s character sees the cracks in Remy’s façade, and Remy is indeed not all he appears to be. Harris has given one great performance after another, and this is one more great performance that he can add to a resume filled with them.

It is also great to see John Ashton here as Remy’s partner, Detective Nick Poole. We all remember him best as Sgt. Taggart from the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies and, when I first watched “Gone Baby Gone,” it felt like it has been way too long since I last saw him in anything. Ashton is, of course, very believable as a cop who has seen it all, but still won’t give up in finding that little girl.

And else can be said about Morgan Freeman which has not been said already? We see him often as a major force of morality in just about every movie he appears in, but “Gone Baby Gone” definitely puts this to the test as his character, Captain Jack Doyle, tries to give balance to a situation which threatens to go completely out of control, and the revelation made about Jack near the film’s end will hit you like a ton of bricks.

“Gone Baby Gone” is a very complex film which examines what we think are the right and wrong choices in any given situation. As it goes on, we discover there is a very thin line between what is right and wrong. All these characters spend their time doing what they feel is the right thing, but it does come with its own set of consequences. Nothing will ever come out quite the way we want it to, and there is a negative for every positive.

This is a truly haunting and devastating film on many levels. It is skillfully written and is devoid of clichés and characters that are types more than human beings. It is messy in the way they deal with certain situations, and it shows how even good choices come with severe consequences. Who truly knows if they are making the right choices in life? Can we ever be truly certain of this?

This old expression keeps playing in my head of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Not all these characters end up in hell, but many of them find the outcome they want is not what is best for everyone around them. One tagline for this film is that everyone wants the truth until they find it. That is very true for these characters here. For every positive, there is a negative; and the negative can have a far greater impact than the positive. You leave thinking about this constantly. Did the right thing happen? Is everything going to be alright? In this world, I guess we can never really know.

“Gone Baby Gone” was one of the best films of 2007, a year which featured one great motion picture after another. It proved to be a great achievement for Ben Affleck who took a of crap over the years for what even he has to admit were some bad career choices. But ever since his award-winning performance in “Hollywoodland,” things have been changed for him quite significantly, and he earned his place on the Oscar stage when “Argo” won Best Picture. Yes, there was “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but enough about that one already. He still gave us “The Town,” right?

* * * * out of * * * *

La Vie en Rose – Marion Cotillard is Beyond Exquisite

This review is for my friend Cordell as he begged me to watch this movie constantly.

Every once in a while, you witness a performance so utterly brilliant that it leaves you in a state of total awe. It’s the kind of performance which really blurs the line between the actor and the character they are portraying. You don’t see any trace of the actor because they have succeeded in fulling inhabiting a character as opposed to just playing one. Mickey Rourke pulled this off in “The Wrestler” as did Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” and this goes for every role Daniel Day Lewis played in his entire career. An actor’s job is never as easy as it looks (if you are serious about the craft of acting that is), and it involves tearing down all those protective layers we surround ourselves with to protect us emotionally. To do this requires an immeasurable amount of bravery, and if they succeed in what may seem impossible to some, they will leave you believing no other actor could have played such a role as good as they did.

You can add Marion Cotillard to this list after witnessing her extraordinary performance as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose.” She plays Edith from when she was a teenager to her death at the age of 47, at which point she looked more like she was elderly. It’s surprising to learn Cotillard was in only her early 30’s when she took on this role, and it is a performance which feels flawless from both an emotional and a technical point of view. She gives a performance bursting with emotion, and her portrayal of Piaf at the latter part of her life is never less than believable. Her Oscar win for Best Actress was seen as a surprise by many, but this is probably because they never bothered to watch the movie when it was released.

Watching Cotillard play Edith in the different stages of her life instantly reminded me of the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” It showed Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in his post-boxing years, overweight and smoking a cigar while he runs through his standup act before going on stage. It then goes from there to when LaMotta was in his fighting prime with DeNiro a lot slimmer and in better shape. I remember watching this transition and almost having to remind myself it was the same actor playing LaMotta. Cotillard accomplishes this feat as well in “La Vie en Rose” as she portrays Edith Piaf from when she was young to where her life was fading all too slowly. This is also in part due to the equally brilliant job by the makeup artists who were also deservedly rewarded with Oscars as well.

“La Vie en Rose” does follow the similar path of biopics as we see Edith Piaf from her lowly beginnings as a child, and of how those experiences end up informing the rest of her life as she grows up to become the singer we were so moved by. Dahan does not try to sugarcoat Edith’s life as it was not exactly an enviable one. We see her as being more or less neglected by her mother, and then later by her father when he leaves her for a time in a brothel which ironically gave her some of her happiest memories as she is cuddled constantly by the prostitutes who work there. When we are presented with a childhood which is absent of parental guidance and neglect, we know this is a life which defines the word “dysfunction.”

Edith as child is played by two young actresses: Manon Chevallier at age 5 and by Pauline Burlet at age 10. Both are wonderful, and their performances are not your average child actor performances that are full of over emoting and forced reactions. I point this out because it is incredibly difficult to pull off performances like these for young actors, and both do great work as they chronicle Edith’s young adventures and her inevitable heartbreaks as reality eventually comes crashing down on her.

Dahan moves the story back and forth in time which, in another movie, might seem distracting, but it helps break up the usual rhythm of your average biopic to where it doesn’t feel so much like others we have seen before. In seeing Edith confined to a hospital after her morphine addiction has long since ravaged her already fragile body, we know full well her story is not going to have a happy ending. Still, it made me wonder how Dahan was going to end the movie. Would it be at Edith’s dying breath, or at some other point in her life? I leave it to you to find this out.

Seriously, I cannot get over just how amazing Cotillard’s performance is. She brilliantly captures the stage fright which threatens to keep Piaf from going onstage, and we see how she slowly overcomes it through her first performance. We then see her move on to bigger houses to sing in, and it’s almost like she is becoming a different person in front of our eyes. From when she becomes an acclaimed star of stage and screen to her tragic demise, Cotillard nails every moment she has in the movie perfectly and never misses a beat. Watching her go from what seems like infinite happiness when she finds who she believes is the love of her life (the look in her eyes is beautiful) to the tragedy which takes it all away is simply enthralling. I am still thinking about her performance long after the movie ended, trying to figure out how she accomplished all of this without falling into the trap of playing a caricature.

Even as we see Edith’s body giving out, and her looking 20 years older than her actual age, Cotillard makes you believe you are seeing someone who has lived and experienced much more than the average human being does. This could have been where her performance would have suffered from overacting, but she keeps us entranced throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

But a lot of credit should also go to Dahan for making one of the best biopics ever, and he surrounds Cotillard with a wonderful cast who does their best to hold their own in the wake of her ultimate tour de force. Gérard Depardieu has a nice supporting role as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovers Edith singing in the streets and gives her the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience. I also loved Emmanuelle Seigner’s heartbreaking performance as Titine, the prostitute who desperately wants to adopt Edith regardless of the odds never being in her favor.

“La Vie en Rose” may tread the familiar ground of many film biographies, but this one has an immense power all its own, and it stands way above many other films in its genre. Cotillard gives, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “a performance for the ages.” I can’t stop gushing over just how phenomenal she is here. I am so glad she got the Oscar.

* * * * out of * * * *

One From Noah Baumbach: ‘Margot at the Wedding’

Margot at the Wedding poster

Noah Baumbach must have had one messed up childhood. His 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” which chronicled a divorce filled with animosity and the of effect it ended up having on the kids. In 2007 he gave us “Margot at the Wedding,” which focuses on two sisters who do their best not to explode at one another. This is sibling rivalry at its most vicious and with sly attacks throughout until the inevitable showdown where the wounds and scars reveal themselves in all of their hurt and anger. Once in a while, you will get a movie which shows the loving power of a family and how they all come together as one. This is not that movie.

Nicole Kidman stars as Margot, who is heading into the country to attend her sister’s wedding. With her on this trip is her teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) who she dotes on with increased restlessness. 2007 was a tough year for Kidman as the films she starred in, be it “The Invasion” or “The Golden Compass,” were not at as successful as they were expected to be. She was at one point the most underrated actress in movies with unsung performances in movies like “To Die For” which she was unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination for. Following her Oscar win for her role in “The Hours,” she looked to be stumbling in movies underserving of her talent. Her performance as Margot, however, reminds you of just how brilliant and fearless an actress she can when given the right role.

Margot is a bitch with a capital B, and she is one of the most unsympathetic and spiteful characters you would ever want to see in this or any other motion picture. She is cruel to those who love and hate her, and she even reacts coldly at times to her son by saying something about his appearance which could not be any less true. Kidman tears into the role with gusto, and she never tries to sweeten this character up and make her more likable than she ever could have appeared in the script. She is fearless in her portrayal of Margot, and she even lets us see beneath the character’s cruel mask to reveal the pain her character feels inside. You never completely sympathize with her, but you do come to pity her.

Margot’s sister Pauline is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the former Mrs. Noah Baumbach, and it is great to see her here. Her portrayal of Pauline makes the character pitiful in a whole other way. While Margot is cold to those around her, Pauline is much more vulnerable and is skillful in the way she throws her sister’s carefully placed insults right back at her. Pauline seems to be striving for a happiness which is just out of her reach. Leigh works at keeping her cool around Kidman’s character, but you can see through her eyes that the last time these two sisters met, it resulted in a brutal confrontation which kept them apart for years. It takes a great actor to make you see things about their characters without having to tell you what they are.

Pauline is about to get married to an unemployed musician/painter named Malcolm, and he is played by Jack Black. This is Black at his most unglamorous as he portrays Malcolm as a sad sack of a man who never looks all that happy about the fact he is about to get married. His character is utterly depressed and lost about what he wants out of life. There are times where Black falls back into those mannerisms we know him best for, and they do take away from his performance at times. But for the most part, he is really good here as he is cast against type in a more dramatic role.

In many ways, this movie is a prolonged attack leading to an explosion of emotion which we can tell has been repressed for far too long. How long you ask? Years, maybe even decades. You know the first time these two sisters meet each other that there is still bad blood between them which is eventually going to spill over. They say they are no longer mad at each other, but we know this is not true. Tension fills the air as these two test one another’s patience, and they continually betray each other in their own subtle ways.

“Margot At the Wedding” is not quite as effective as “The Squid and The Whale,” and it is easy to judge the two in comparison because they deal with the same thematic elements. They deal with broken families, divorce, parental neglect, underlying feelings of anger and resentment, etc. It has been said the best directors make the same movie over and over again, be it Hitchcock or Spielberg or anyone else. Baumbach’s specialty is in the dysfunctional relationships which he was exposed to when he was young.

Either way, you will most likely come out of this movie thanking god your family relationships are nowhere as bad as they are portrayed in this movie. You think you have it bad? Wait until you watch this.

* * * out of * * * *

In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

The two “Halloween” movies written and directed by Rob Zombie were eviscerated not just by critics but by the fans as well. Some critics, like James Berardinelli of Reel Views, said they did not even feel like “Halloween” movies. Fans were vocal in how characters like Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were unforgivably degraded compared to how they were portrayed in John Carpenter’s original. Others simply said Zombie’s take on Michael Myers just wasn’t that scary.

Well, I say phooey to all this nonsense! Zombie’s “Halloween” movies may not be as scary as the one which started off this never-ending franchise, but for me this was pretty much a given. There is no way you could recapture what Carpenter thrilled us with years ago. Zombie was aware of how Michael Myers, like other horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, had pretty much worn out their usefulness. His respect for Carpenter’s slasher opus was strong, and after making a true grindhouse classic with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I knew he would take this story and these characters and make them his own.

What makes Zombie’s “Halloween” stand out from what came before it is how he treats the backstory of Michael Myers. Granted, this threatens to take away from what made him so scary in the first place. Carpenter’s original was an unrelentingly visceral experience mainly because we were not sure what to make of “The Shape” as he became less than human throughout. But here we get a strong idea of how young Michael went bad as he dealt with an uncaring sister, a busy mother, and an abusive lout of a stepfather. Seeing all he had to deal with made it understandable, if not forgivable, as to why he went psycho in the first place.

Now whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was about Michael, his “Halloween II” was all about Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis and of how the horrific events they went through forever destroyed them. It is here we come to realize what Zombie has accomplished with these movies: They are character studies instead of the average slasher movie we have come to expect. This is made even clearer on the “Halloween II” director’s cut which is available on DVD and Blu-ray as it proves to be infinitely superior to the theatrical version.

Fans hated how Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were so different from how they were portrayed in Carpenter’s original film, but they forgot how Zombie’s films were a meant to be a reimagining of the franchise and not business as usual. Strode’s extreme emotional reactions might make her unlikable, but they soon become understandable as no one involved in what she went through can ever walk away from it unscathed. Both Scout-Taylor Compton and Malcolm McDowell deserve credit for not being constrained by what Jaime Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence created before them. In Zombie’s incarnation, these two actors inhabit their characters more than they play them.

In a time of remakes which are as endless as they are unnecessary, you have to give Zombie points for taking this long-running franchise in a different direction. It may not have been what diehard fans wanted or expected, but whereas most remakes repeat the formulas of movies they originated from with negative success, there is something to be said for a filmmaker who willfully goes against expectations. Seriously, this says a lot in a time when originality in cinema is largely frowned upon.

‘We Own The Night’ Has Surprises Up Its Sleeve

We Own The Night movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

We Own The Night” was written and directed by James Gray, and this is the first movie of his I have seen. His previous movies include “The Yards” and “Little Odessa,” and looking at the cast and stories behind those two makes me believe he is more drawn to character driven works. Those kinds of movies threaten to be a dying breed in cinema today, and it is nice to see there are some who are determined to see them still make it to the silver screen even as Hollywood is more obsessed about the latest franchise or blockbuster at their disposal.

From the outside, this movie looks like another Cain and Abel story with two brothers on opposite sides of the law. There is Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), an officer of the New York police department who, as the movie begins, is getting a promotion. He is clearly following in his father’s (Robert Duvall) footsteps, as he is also a cop. Then you have Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) who is also a Grusinsky, but he keeps his mother’s maiden name for his own business ventures. Bobby runs a nightclub which is owned by the Russian mafia, and he revels in the partying and drugs which come along with it. He also has a girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), who dotes on him endlessly.

So, the movie starts off as a story where it looks like one of the brothers is going to kill the other one, and I think this is what kept me from rushing out to see it when it arrived in theaters. From what I had seen in the advertisements, it looked like a story I had already seen far too many times before. I was afraid it was going to be “Backdraft” but with cops instead of firemen. But as the movie went on, it took a number of left turns that broke through all the clichés which threatened to stand in its way. Just when you think you know where things are going, it goes in another direction and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next.

Obviously, Gray has seen a lot of movies from this genre, and he is seriously intent on subverting the expectations of the audience throughout. Not to give anything away, but there is a serious event which occurs early on. Preceding that, Joseph leads a narcotics raid on Bobby’s nightclub which completely infuriates and embarrasses Bobby. They end up getting into a physical confrontation the next day and go their separate ways, but then that serious event happens, and it changes everything and everybody. The person it ends up changing the most is Bobby. He ends up putting his life on the line to right the wrongs which have been inflicted upon his family, and soon his job as a nightclub manager becomes almost completely irrelevant. From there, he moves over to the other side of the law. It’s like the scene where Hugo Weaving waves that sword in front of Viggo Mortensen’s face in “The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King” and says, “Become who you were born to be!”

This is a purely character driven movie which treads through very familiar waters of many other movies of this genre. At the same time, everything felt fresh and involving to me. A lot of this is due not just to the writing and direction, but also the actors. Joaquin Phoenix has long since escaped the shadow of his famous brother River (he is still missed), and he continues to give one great performance after another. From “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line” to this, he opens himself up completely on an emotional level which makes him all the braver as an actor. He makes you sympathize with a character who starts off as selfish junkie only interested in his own needs and desires. As the movie goes on, he manages to convince you thoroughly of his desire to do good, and to right the wrongs of his sins.

Mark Wahlberg has also put in some strong performances over the past few years as well. He is a guy who has been on both sides of the law, and he managed to come out of the negative elements in one piece. This is a guy who brings his life experience to each role he plays, and he makes you almost completely forget he was Marky Mark and rocking out with the funky bunch years ago. These days, he is the go-to guy for these kinds of roles, and you never doubt his believability as either a good or bad guy.

Then there is Robert Duvall, and he is an actor who cannot seem to do any wrong, and he still never gives us any less than the best of what he has got. There is a moment in this movie where he reacts to an event which has befallen to one of his sons. His reaction to it is not one which can ever be easily faked. It looks from a distance like what he does is easy to do, but it is not. Trust me, you will know the moment when it comes up.

This movie has a number of very intense moments as Bobby goes deep into undercover work and puts his life on the line without even thinking about the consequences. There are action sequences near the end which prove to be very suspenseful and keep you on edge of your seat. There is also a car chase which, while it may not rank among the best ever, is very well done and expertly staged. Seriously, this motion picture was full of surprises throughout.

“We Own The Night” is not quite a great movie as it does tread familiar ground without adding much freshness to it, but it is very well-conceived to where there is no doubt the amount of thought and time Gray put into its making. It is also a movie which cannot be boiled down into one sentence as the story touches on many themes, and that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to any filmmaker these days.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘No Country for Old Men’ was the Best Movie of 2007

No Country for Old Men poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

Now this is a great movie!

No Country for Old Man” stands alongside some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies including “Fargo” and “Barton Fink.” Some say it is a return to form for the brothers after their last two movies, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” but they can’t be as bad as people say they are. Even the worst Coen brothers’ movies are far more interesting than most American movies made today. The one thing “No Country for Old Men” proves is they never lost their touch to begin with, and who are we to think that they ever did? I mean really!

This movie is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, and he has written a lot of great novels over the years like “All the Pretty Horses.” I have not had the opportunity to read any of his books, but my understanding is they deal with a world where the goodness of human nature is a rarity as the atmosphere is overwhelmed by cruelty. His books have also been described as “unfilmable” by many, but I guess no one told the Coen brothers this (would it have made a difference?).

It all starts off with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a Mexican standoff gone bad where rotting corpses of drug runners and dogs are impossible to ignore (think of the ending of “Reservoir Dogs”). There are also a bunch of trucks laying around, and in them Llewelyn finds the only survivor who begs him for some water. But Llewelyn ends up passively avoiding his pleas as he has no water to give. Instead, he finds among the carnage a big stockpile of heroin and $2 million dollars in cash. He doesn’t bother with the drugs, but he takes the cash and stashes it back at his trailer home where he lives with his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald).

His conscience, however, keeps him from getting any sleep, so he ends up doing what even he openly says may be “the biggest mistake” he could possibly make. He fills up a bottle of water and heads back to the site to give to that Mexican. Instead, he gets ambushed by a faceless gang who take their shots at him as he escapes away. From then on, the movie is a chase to the finish. But this isn’t simply a chase movie, but a movie where the souls of the characters threaten to be every bit as barren as the desert lands in Texas.

“No Country for Old Men” is one of those movies where everything you hear about it is absolutely true. It has great acting, directing, cinematography and a superb screenplay. There isn’t a single wasted moment in it, and it is certainly one of the most quietly intense movies I have seen in some time. I think it is safe to say the Coen brothers have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s work while adding their own flavor and dark humor to it, and they drive away at one of his main themes in the book; society getting crueler, and of the end of the world as we know it.

In a sea of great performances, the one man who steals the show here is Javier Bardem who portrays Anton Chigurh, a man who is deeply psychotic but not without principles. From start to finish, Bardem gives us one of the scariest villains in cinematic history whose mere presence forces the characters to immediately fear for their safety. Those other characters who fail to do so are either totally naïve or have no idea who they are talking to.

Josh Brolin is having one heck of a great year right now in the movies. He started 2007 off early on as Dr. Block in “Grindhouse,” then we saw him play a very corrupt cop who runs afoul of Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” and he is probably in another movie right now which I have yet to see. Safe to say, this is the best performance he has given this year as he is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who gets in way over his head.

The other performance worth singling out is Tommy Lee Jones’, and he gives one of his very best ever as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. His character is really the observer of human nature and the decline of it in this story. Jones was pretty much born to play just about any part of a movie adapted from one of McCarthy’s novels. Like the novelist, he clearly understands the worldly feel of Texas and human nature, and this is echoed in the voiceover he gives at movie’s start.

I am not quite sure what to make of the ending. And what is meant by the title “No Country for Old Men” anyway? Is it a metaphor for how the old way of doing things has long since passed the Sheriff Bell by? That the lessons our elders taught us will soon become insignificant? Or is the painful truth that society has no use for men once they qualify for senior citizen discounts? The Coen brothers are not quick to give us answers, but they do give us much to think about as this is a motion picture which will linger with you long after the end credits have concluded.

“No Country for Old Men” is the best movie I have seen in 2007. As I said, there is not a single wasted moment in it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Sicko’ Makes a Strong Case for Universal Health Care in America

Sicko movie poster

The important thing to keep in mind about “Sicko” is how it is not about those who do not have health insurance in this country. Michael Moore’s movie begins brilliantly with the stories of those who had no health insurance and were forced to pay obscenely high fees for surgical operations. It’s a brilliant beginning because it distinguishes itself from what the rest of the movie is really about: those of us who do have health insurance and how we still end up paying obscenely high fees for medical treatment.

The problem with the American health care system is that it is more of a business run by capitalists than anything else. The bottom line is those who run this industry seek to gain as big a profit as they can, and that’s even if many Americans end up filing for bankruptcy when they cannot pay their medical bills. Moore makes his case strong and clear as he interviews many people who have come to him with their horror stories of the health care industry, and there were literally thousands of them. What is especially horrific is how many stories reveal the many ways people get rejected for health insurance. The CEOs are on a mission to keep anyone away who could be a possible threat to their profit margin.

The movie’s second act deals with Moore going to different countries to see how their health care industries operate, figuratively speaking. The difference between them and America are actually quite frightening. Canada and England seem to have it over everyone else as they do not bill their patients when they come in or leave because they are under a government run system which provides them with universal health care. There is a cashier at one hospital, but instead of billing patients, he pays them for cab fare if they were financially inconvenienced in their method of getting over to the hospital.

My only issue with the second act of “Sicko” is Moore never really gets into the negatives these countries deal with in regards to health insurance. I refuse to believe everything is as rosy as it is presented here. My understanding is Canadians and the English don’t completely love their health care systems to the same degree. Then again, what scares me is that if Moore did include some of the negatives of these countries and put them together with the positives, America would still look pretty bad in comparison.

With Moore’s films, he does manipulate the audience but usually for good reason. He wants you to be mad at those who keep us from having universal health care because it would affect their profit margin. He wants you to be angry at politicians on either side of the political spectrum for being bought out by the health care industry. He aims to wake you up to the problems surrounding us and to do something about them. He may not be telling you everything, but this does not make him a liar.

The last half of “Sicko” focuses on some of the heroes who rushed to the rubble of the World Trade Center in September 11, 2001 to help those in need, and on the medical woes they inherited from working in the toxic environment which was left for them after the destruction of the twin towers. Because they were volunteers and not employed by city fire departments and police stations, they were not given the same medical consideration as those who were. Moore takes them to Cuba which is reputed to have one of the very best health care systems in the world. This, of course, got Moore into trouble with the American government which provided him with some free publicity he may or may not have been seeking.

The difference between the prices for medication in Cuba and America as presented in “Sicko” are ridiculous and embarrassing. You feel both the heartache and relief of these people as they come to discover a place where those in power are not at all quick to suck all the money of their wallets. Whereas our country rewards those who limit health care services, others reward those who actually help their patients. Why the hell isn’t America doing this?

You feel for the families who go through illnesses they never asked for and having to pay exorbitant amounts for their health care and go into bankruptcy in the process. The fact they are forced to sell their homes and move in with their children feels so very unfair, and you know people will be quicker to shame them instead of help them.

There’s no denying “Sicko” is a highly effective and utterly devastating documentary which you cannot help but have a strong reaction to. You may come out of this documentary thinking Moore is very anti-American. I don’t think he is and never have. In his own way, he is a patriotic American who cares enough about this country to point out its weaknesses for everyone to see so we can face them rather than avoid them. We need more people like Moore, those who ruffle the feathers of the conservative firebrands who want you to believe everything is alright. We need someone to shake things up from time to time, and he continues doing this even when you think his career will be ended sooner than we think. Just remember, what you resist, you empower.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Ratatouille’ Awakens Your Taste Buds Like Few Movies Can

Ratatouille movie poster

Ratatouille” was written and directed by Brad Bird who also directed another Pixar movie, “The Incredibles,” which was one of the few movies made which actually lived up to its name. With this “Ratatouille,” we follow the story of Remy, a rat who ends up getting separated from his family and is washed away to where he ends up in Paris. The moment where he arrives and sees Paris is a truly brilliant scene of amazing imagery, and Pixar continues to outdo themselves in terms of this. The look of Paris is astonishing, and it had me wondering how the hell they managed to put this together. The wonder of movies still exists after all these years of cynical blockbusters, and I am ever so thankful for that!

Anyway, Remy ends up sneaking into a restaurant named after a famous cook, Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who has written a book entitled “Anybody Can Cook.” From there, he befriends a new employee named Linguini (voiced by Lou Ramano) who cannot cook to save his life. Through Linguini, Remy creates a system where he can make him cook the way he wants by pulling at his hair like he is a marionette while remaining hidden inside his hat.

Along the way, he infuriates the head chef of the restaurant who is busy selling off Gusteau’s name and likeness through frozen burritos which offers him the promise of becoming very wealthy. Linguini also meets Colette, the only female chef in the restaurant who makes it clear she is here to stay. All the other rats help Remy in a way which, if the restaurant patrons realized, would have had them running out of there at a relentless pace.

“Ratatouille” is filled with wonderful vocal characterizations which did not immediately have me thinking about the people who did them. At the time this movie was release, I was not familiar with either Patton Oswalt or Lou Romano who voiced Remy and Linguini. Both are very memorable characters who stand out among many others in animated movies. Remy himself is a genius creation who just might make you think twice about rat traps and poison. I am very tempted to go out right now and get a stuffed animal version of the character, and this is in large part thanks to Oswalt’s very enthusiastic performance.

For a while, I thought that Remy’s father Django was voiced by Jason Alexander. However, it turns out Brian Dennehy voiced this character, and he is wonderful in giving Django different layers and realizations to work with. The biggest surprise for me though was learning who voiced Colette Tatou, the restaurant’s only female chef – Janeane Garofalo. I didn’t even recognize Garofalo’s voice and thought it was Elizabeth Pena doing it with a very realistic French accent! Collette does look a bit like the character Pena voiced in “The Incredibles.” All the same, Garofalo does terrific work here, and it is so nice to see her doing something other than joking about her period.

The one voice I did recognize was Peter O’Toole’s who plays perhaps the harshest restaurant critic ever to walk the face of the earth, Anton Ego (a very symbolic name actually). His character becomes quite pivotal to the movie’s climax as the restaurant is forced to come up with a spectacular dish which will keep Mr. Ego from savaging the restaurant and its staff in a review.

Pixar continues their winning streak of great movies. Even if you were disappointed by “Cars” which really wasn’t bad, it was proof how even their weakest movies put so many other Hollywood movies to shame. They are to me what the Jim Henson’s Muppets were to me when I was a kid, creators of projects which appealed simultaneously to children and adults.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *