Monthly Archives: February 2010

Review: The Messenger

the messenger one sheetWhat does it take to be a soldier on the Casualty Notification Team, the “Angels of Death Squadron”, traveling the United States and letting spouses and parents know that someone has died while in the Army? And at what cost personally?

That’s the question underlying The Messenger, a stark film that follows decorated and troubled Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) as he joins with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on this detail. “Captain Stone will show you the ropes, he’s the expert” Colonel Stuart Dorsett (Eamonn Walker) promises, but what kind of man would be an expert in this task?
Stone explains the importance of clarity and sticking to the script but the entire process of notification is so abstracted that he doesn’t talk about the people receiving their tragic news, but refers to “noks” (next of kin). There are no hugs, no gestures of sympathy, no touching at all allowed.
There are the occasional moments of wry humor to relieve the intensity of the film: their pagers play a tinny funeral dirge when there’s news to be shared, and Stone delivers a amusing monologues on stopping for directions and inappropriate doorbell songs. 
Still, the power of “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regret…” is overwhelming, a wave of sadness that washes over both Montgomery and us, the viewer, scene after scene. The Messenger is one of the most moving films I’ve seen in a while, well crafted and provocative, well worth a viewing.

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Review: Shutter Island

shutter island one sheetThe film version of Dennis Lehane’s creepy psychological thriller Shutter Island has taken a while to get on the big screen, but it was worth the wait. With Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring role as US Marshall Teddy Daniels, it’s one of the best psychological thrillers in quite a while. With its leisurely pace, moody ensemble and positively sinister exteriors, it’s also a nice reminder that intense movies don’t need to involve massive explosions, zombies, vampires or the wholesale slaughter of innocents.

Set during a stormy weekend in 1954, Shutter Island, located in Boston harbor, is the home of Ashcliff, a mental hospital for the criminally insane, “the only facility of its kind in the whole world: people too dangerous for anywhere else”, as Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) explains to Daniels during the opening scene.  Daniels, and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are Boston-based cops sent to the facility to help track down Rachel (Patricia Clarkson), an inmate and psychotic killer who has gone missing and ostensibly poses a threat to the Boston populace.
Daniels is only a few years out of the Army, where he was traumatized by his part in the liberation of the German concentration camp Dachau at the tail end of World War II. His flashbacks are shocking and create great sympathy, even as we begin to wonder who are the patients, who are the doctors, and who’s really crazy in this place?
Shutter Island isn’t a fast-paced horror film. In fact, I can’t recall a single startling scene. The feel of this extraordinarily well assembled movie is more of a slow-motion train wreck, a story that unfolds in creepy, sinister and disturbing ways, even as you realize not everything is as it seems, nor is everyone who you think they are.  
Unfortunately, the ending is a big disappointment. In fact, I really want to believe that Martin Scorsese knows this and that that there’s going to be a “director’s cut” when the film comes out on DVD that will tie everything together quite well (it’d only take about 60-seconds of additional footage to do so). As it stands, you might well be pretty unhappy about a two hour film that ends in this manner. You’ve been warned.

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Review: Creation

creation one sheetCharles Darwin was one of the most profound thinkers of the modern era, with his groundbreaking theory of evolution and idea that rather than being created by God in “his image”, we evolved from monkeys. But who was Charles Darwin and where did he get this radical idea?  That’s the story behind Creation, as it explains in the opening titles: “Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, first published in 1859, has been called the single biggest idea in the history of thought. This is the story of how it came to be written…”

The film opens with Darwin (Paul Bettany) relating a story to his daughter Annie (Martha West) about an expedition to Tierra del Fuego, where three native children were taken by a British naval expedition, taught “Christian manners”, even met the King and Queen when they arrived in London. When they return the children to their homeland, however, they promptly tear off their clothes and return to the savage ways they’re familiar with. Nature, or nurture?
As Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) explains to Darwin early in the film: “You’ve killed God, Mr. Darwin, and good riddance to the vindictive old bugger”, to which Darwin almost faints, he’s so shocked at being confronted with the blunt implications of his theories. Huxley then entreats Darwin to pull all of his notes together and create a book about his survival of the fittest theories, a book that can be their rallying point to push out the parsons and beetle collectors and turn science into a respectable profession.
Oct 1858, he’s on Laudanum and has an ongoing stomach ache and shaking hands. He experiments with selective breeding of pigeons and is convinced that all breeds come from the common rock pigeon. “nature breeds for health, while humans breed for appearance”. Ultimately, Darwin, for all his brilliance, was a dabbler, and if he hadn’t been pushed, probably would never have published more than sporadic notes and observations.
It’s a fascinating story, and Charles Darwin was unquestionably brilliant, but does his biography form the basis of a good movie?  Sadly, the answer is no, not really. Creation feels more like a BBC period costume drama than a full cinematic production, and while it’s well acted and assembled, it’s also not going to engage any but the most dedicated of filmgoers.

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Review: From Paris with Love

from paris with love one sheetWith a story from action wizard Luc Besson and a comfortable, if detached performance by bald, tattooed John Travolta, you can easily imagine what the actioner From Paris With Love is going to be like, and you’d be right. It’s fast-paced, only makes sense some of the time, has nice visual effects, and zooms along its 92 minute running time, an entertaining bit of cinematic fluff.

The film centers on awkward wanna-be spy and US Embassy staffer James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who, when he isn’t managing the daily schedule of stereotypically priggish Ambassador Bennington (Richard Durden), is skulking about switching license plates on parked cars, clumsily planting bugs in diplomatic offices, and dreaming of saving the world while viewing everything as a simplistic black and white chess game. His beautiful fiancée Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) encourages him while pursuing her own work as a clothing designer. She is, no surprise, more than she appears.
Tough secret agent/special forces outsider Charlie Wax (Travolta) shows up in Paris and Reece is assigned as his partner, though he’s clearly just a driver and awkward straight man for the profanity-laced and extraordinarily violent agent as they create a swath of destruction through Parisian alleyways, Chinese restaurants, office complexes, and even some Parisian low income housing.
There are attempts to make the story deeper and more interesting, particularly how it glibly transitions from being a story of poisoned innocent American girl vengeance against a drug cartel to an anti-terrorist theme, but From Paris With Love never really bothers to take itself too seriously and nor should we. If you like the action genre, it’s a diversion and that’s about all.

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Review: District 13: Ultimatum

district 13 ultimatum one sheetSix years ago a highly athletic sporting event burst on the scene from France called “Parkour”. It was a bit hard to describe, but agile participants would leap off buildings, slip through tiny spaces, bounce from wall to wall, race down staircases a flight at a time and generally fly through urban landscapes, miraculously not slipping or injuring themselves. The activity was captured in a mediocre French action film called Banlieue 13 (District B13 in the USA), quickly forgotten by all but the most devoted fans.

District 13 – Ultimatum picks up the story five years later and is set in a futuristic Paris where the poor are isolated in a walled ghetto called District 13. The main characters are again the D13 guerilla fighter Leïto (David Belle) and special forces captain Damien (Cyril Raffaelli). Like the first, it’s a French film with English subtitles.
District 13 has devolved into a rough neighborhood where everyone’s involved in drugs, prostitution or gambling, as is shown in a visually exciting — though overly long — high-speed fly-through set to thumping urban hip-hop music. Leïto is fighting to break down the walls and bring opportunity to the residents of D13, even as the ganglords threaten to kill him for bringing the attention of the police and changing things, and the fly-through ends with him sticking mines on segments of the wall separating D13 from the rest of Paris.
For reasons that aren’t entirely logical, the mines have about a ten second timer, so he slaps the mine on, pushes the “activate” button, and runs to the next segment, as the last explodes. No surprise, the police show up and the first Parkour chase sequence is in motion. The illogic of placing mines with very, very short fuses is typical of the weak story in this otherwise exciting action film. If you insist on stories that actually make sense and comprehensible dialog, this isn’t the movie for you. If, however, you’re okay occasionally laughing in disbelief while watching one terrific action sequence after another, District 13: Ultimatum could prove one of your favorite films of the winter.

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Review: Edge of Darkness

edge of darkness one sheetMel Gibson has made a lot of films where he’s the simple-minded tough guy, notably the Lethal Weapon series, but the last few years have seen his personal life overshadow his career, as he careened from one gaffe to the next. Edge of Darkness represents him trying to get back into the groove, to recover his acting career, and it’s an exciting but distressingly formulaic film.

The film, based on a mid-80’s BBC drama also directed by Martin Campbell, opens with choppy home movies of daughter Emma (Gabrielle Popa) at the beach when she was seven or eight, cutting directly to Tom Craven (Gibson) waiting for the adult Emma (Bojana Novakovic) at Boston’s South Station. She arrives and is visibly ill, throwing up multiple times in the first few minutes and even having a nose bleed at one point.
He asks about her job and she responds that he has “no idea what I do for a living”. That’s the starting point for the movie because she’s right, Tom has no idea what Emma does for a living. Moments later masked thugs show up at the door and shoot her dead, in one of the most cheesy and melodramatic death scenes I’ve watched in the last decade. Surprise, the police blithely assume the criminals were gunning for Tom and it’s up to him as the rogue cop and avenging angel to launch his own investigation and figure out who killed her and why.
I was bored by this film. The overall storyline was so predictable and there were so many laughably stupid moments (which I can’t detail without adding spoilers to this review) that I was glad when the closing credits began to roll. Gibson plays exactly the same slightly unhinged, slightly crazy tough but anguished cop that he played in the Lethal Weapon series. My advice?  There are lots of good avenging rogue cop movies. Rent Dirty Harry instead.

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