Review: Cassandra’s Dream

 

More like Cassandra’s nightmare. This “Dream” marks the year’s biggest tragedy. You could say I’m talking about the plot that sees two brothers played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell contemplating murder for personal profit but I’m actually talking about the film’s dismal reception and performance. Namely, it came, it went… and it died. Those who bothered to see and/or review the film received with a resounding meh. The reason?: same old story I’m afraid. Allen, a master in each and every decade he has worked in, is faulted for not making a “perfect” film every year. But not simply faulted, assaulted! Salon called the director out of touch (original) while Permiere accused Allen of “waisting his actor’s time” (what, like they could have better spent it on sequels to “The Island” and “Miami Vice”?). Roger Ebert even noted that Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a film with a similar brother-centric plot, acts as “a master class in how Allen goes wrong.” Well, I say perfection is boring and, if anything, Allen schools Lumet by showing him that a crime story can be simple and modest and still grab you. The filmmaker is out to explore avenues that interest him, not blow your mind with razor sharp tragety or comedy. Granted, Allen’s blade may have dulled a bit but it’s steadier than ever and still capable of inflicting deep wounds. 

So, yeah, this is notthe crime masterpiece that “Match Point” is. So what?! The film holds its own as a profound mythlogical (instead of Russian novelistic) tragedy where fatalism is the order of the day–while the consequences of murder are served as the main course. “Quick, simple… no witnesses. Just let it fade into history” McGregor tells his brother before crossing a moral line in which he can never return. This film shows how nothing fades into history because the fates wont let it. I suppose viewers were underwhelmed by the oh so slight nature of this simply spun family morality tale. After all, the careful narrative lacks surprises and gimmicks. I, however, found myself enthralled by the dark shades that Allen paints. I saw the film a year ago and feel it has yet to faded into history.  

This is a story of two British brothers of a humble beginnings. Their fates are intertwined even if their personalities are not. One dreams big, wants to drive nice cars, live in nice houses, date high profile women and, of course, desires to “make it” in California. The other is a salt of the earth mechanic who is content with his small dwelling, small town girlfriend and small gambling problem. Okay, a big one. This notion of gambling grabs hold of the film’s plot and theme after his “lucky streak” do what lucky streaks tend to do: end. Now he’s down 90k and desperate (Ferrell has a face made for brooding). Enter a rich and decident relative played by Tom Wilkinson who makes the boys an offer they can’t refuse but would sure like to. Now one has a shot of making it while the other has a shot of making it… out of the hole.
At one point characters discuss the nature of tragic Greek myths and it would certainly be in keeping with Allen, an atheist, to play the role of a jokester god in his film’s universe. Look on the bright side, there’s no ironic Greek Chorus a la “Mighty Aphrodite” but we can almost feel one just off to the side of the screen. As characters marching inevitably towards their own destruction, digging their graves with each action and passing moment, it soon becomes ourconscious that act as the surrogate Greek chorus. So be ready for lots of woes and hos (of the boat variety of course as boats and the ocean inform the film’s deeply symbolic narrative). Allen also weaves in a hearty Biblical allegory that finds one brother motivated by greed while the other ruled by desperation and a sense of what is right. So if Brothers + the Bible is any guide, I’m sure you can see where things end up.  
grade: A-

Pollack

Strange, that a man who has never made anything close to what I feel to be a masterpiece will be missed so much by me. I liked Sydney Pollack for his simplicity and candor. He’s never been an “auteur” or even much a stylist but a director that makes films. The industry need more filmmakers coming from such a humble place. What’s never been adequately addressed is how Pollack the actor managed (in my view) to surpass his work as a director. Pollack is one of the best character actors of recent times! One quite deserving of an Oscar nom. Dude got an Oscar for the so-so “Out of Africa” but was woefully neglected as an actor. He could be funny (“Tootsie”) in the friend-type role, he could be ambiguous (“Eyes Wide Shut”) in the rich friend role, scary as hell (“Changing Lanes”) in the boss roll, or, as he showed last year in “Michael Clayton,” nuanced and smooth.   

Pollack Films Ranked

  1. Tootsie
  2. The Yakuza 
  3. Jeremiah Johnson
  4. Sketches of Frank Gehry
  5. Havana (underrated)
  6. Sabrina
  7. The Firm
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Shoot Horses Don’t They?
  10. Out of Africa 
  11. Absence of Malice 
  12. Random Hearts
  13. The Interpreter 
  14. The Electric Horseman

Stellar Pollack Performances Can Be Seen In…

  1. Husband and Wives
  2. Eyes Wide Shut
  3. Michael Clayton
  4. Tootsie
  5. Changing Lanes 

 

Review: Indiana Jones

  • What’s Good: Fun! Family! Flying objects! Great cinematography too.
  • What’s Not: Plot issues get in the was and Blanchett’s acting for the first time since “Shipping News” (and before that: ever) sucks. 
  • Food Equivalent: Snickers tie-in “Adventure Bar.” Look, the Snicker bar is perfect but throw in some coconut and you got yourself a mouth party (ewwwww). Sooooo good it’s better than the movie. 

 

Da-da-duh-duh-da-da-duhhhh! Indy’s back and somehow I seem to care. The first is a classic and one of, oh, say the 100 best films ever crafted while the second also belongs to a list: that of the 20 worst. The third was rock and roll when it came out but tedious and old fashion from today’s perspective. So, then, by my calculations “Crystal Skull” gets the series back to a .500. It made me miss a series I didn’t know I missed.

Besides nostalgic window gazing I really wanted to see what Spielberg would do with a fourth “Indy.” A hard and maybe even harsh critic of Mr. Spielberg, I have been intrigued (if not always buying into) the director’s blue period that includes the Kubrickian “A.I.” and “Minority Report,” the apocalyptic “War of the Worlds” and the audacious “Munich” (Spielberg’s lone good film made in my lifetime). Another note is the fact that all the “Indy’s” were made pre synthetic CGI and, thus, retained the perfect pulpy adventure feel. How will (or, indeed, how can) the b-movie luster of the series’ tone hold up against the ultra crisp aura of prefab and, lets face it, plasticy Lucas Ltd. digital? Action set pieces such as whirling paranormal events and ant chases (WTF?!) may belong more to a “Mummy” movie but the technical crew strikes gold with near silent film chase sequences equipped with charming choreography (Indy jumps, falls and crashes from car to truck to car boat), sword fights, whip flashing (hehe) and good old fashion archeological death traps that include poison dart shooting natives (“savages” are so un-PC it’s funny) tumbling down waterfalls and even some vine swinging action. What more can you ask for?

… uh, how about a plot for one. The story is set some years later from the WWII setting that defined the previous two entries (chronologically speaking). Twenty years down the river, Indy seems to have grown up (and grown old) along with history. This film now locates the lovably atonal Dr. Jones smack dab in the Cold War. Evil, godless Russians fill in quite adeptly in place of godless Germans. Both do plenty of squinting and grinning and neither comes close to upstaging the heroes. The beauty of the series is that it is both set in its own hermetically sealed time and place and very much apart of real times and places of the past. In that sense, history clashes with fantasy in ways “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure” could never pull off. When a character describes “not space, the space between spaces” he is referring to a key plot point but might as well be talking about the series its self.

 

 

That quote, by the way, occurs at the tail end of the film when the plot literally flies off the rails and into dimension X (I tried to forget it directly ripped off the final hilltop moments of the “X-Files” movie). But Spielberg’s idiosyncratic genre shifting surprise related to that crystal skull’s origins wins me over if for no other reason that I’m a sucker for goofy sci-fi pap (hope that’s not too much of a spoiler). All I’m saying is that “Indy 4” has a lot in common with “Close Encounters”/“E.T.”/ and “War of the Worlds.” The plot also weaves in a fare number of nods to past films as well as nice little family dynamic that sees *minor spoiler* Dr. Jones Jr. teaming up with and slapping some sense into what turns out to be Jones Jr. Jr. Spielberg’s crush, er, I mean ingénue, ack, I mean, uh, just Shia LeBeouf (side note: ribbing Speilberg’s unwholesome fondness for glistening young boys never gets old) comes across as a Fonzie version of Indiana Jones who wealds combs and switchblades instead of whips and guns. An arrogant but not altogether terrible performer, Shia’s douchebaggery burns only at 80% in this film. Also joining the reunion is Indy’s love interest from thirty something years ago. Karen Allen reprises her role and is so happy to be in a movie –any movie– that her enthusiasm damn near breaks the fourth wall. New characters include Ray Winstone as Indy’s cockney British cohort (god, I love that guy), the crazy Don Quixote-ish Oxley, John Hurt, who holds all the film’s secrets in his insane mind. The big bad Russian heavy is played by the small, sleek and chiseled Cate Blanchett who sports Javier Bardem’s haircut. She’s also a psychic soldier or something. Of course the Russian femme fetal stands in everyone’s way and rides Indy’s accomplishments all the way to the bank (damn near every treasure hunting sequence if followed by guns being pointed at Indy, then an escape, then more treasure nabbing etc.). Look, I’m not looking for logic but the screenplay errors big time when both good and evil characters ultimately end up in the same place, at the same time, and have the same goal. Isn’t Indy supposed to oppose the bad guy or something? The actress is of course one of my favs but she’s too broad and gimmicky here as a villain. 

Yes, this is a big dumb summer movie but Spielberg’s DP should be singled out. Perhaps one of the best visualists of our time, my theory is that anything good to be had in Spielberg’s post “Schindler’s List” films is thanks to Janusz Kaminski. Here he adds a retro gloss and glow that practically preserves the film in “Jurassic Park’s” golden amber. The jungle greens can practically be smelled while the signature earth tone pallet vibrates; as do Kaminski’s playful visual metaphors such as the way Indy is introduced by his shadow and, on the topic of shadows, the way a silhouette of Indy’s head bounces off a mosquito net and casts its image over his entire body. Okay, I suppose I should give Spielberg some credit too. It’s going to be short but here it goes: the director lightens up on or perhaps even transcends his erstwhile blend of cynicism subverted by schmaltz. But, even here, not entirely. There’s a buttload of schmaltz in this Indy, with the difference being that it seems almost… earned. Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones (is there a difference?) is so iconic and warm that to see him return is to want to give him a big ol’ hug. The film works better as a semi-sendoff to the character than a springboard for his son’s future adventures. If saying goodbye to this character is not schmaltz worthy than I don’t know what is. And, sure, he’s called “Gramps” this time around by that young greaser prick of a son (it’s interesting how Indiana Jones in this film is almost playing the Sean Connery part from the last film) but I got to hand it to the guy for silencing all those who counted him out.

 grade: B-

Ten Best American Superhero Films

Favorite Superhero Films

  1. Unbreakable–the most pure superhero myth ever. 
  2. Hellboy–funny, scary and a lot of heart. the dorks finally got their x-men! 
  3. Blade II–another del Torro entry! this is the film that made him an auteur
  4. Iron Man–flawed but quite sturdy. the action, the storytelling, the homoeroticism 
  5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm–that’s right, this is better than any live action batman
  6. Judge Dredd–brilliant cheese. underrated in every way
  7. Batman Begins–okay, I’ll admit to liking it. this film never gets old
  8. Blade–“some motherfuckers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.” 
  9. Robo Cop–okay, a man dies and gets reincarnated as a robot…a robot cop! 
  10. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–this is the pick that gives you good cause to question my taste. give it a shot!

What are yours?

Review: Iron Man

 

Odd that a film whose theme and central character is dedicated to eradicating the need for harmful weapons is simultaneously into such weapons to suit (suit, get it?) its needs. The film is one big shiny fetish piece that takes great pleasure in idolizing man’s mastery over his mind and body. From comic to screen, Iron Man and military ideology are, of course, inseparable (he’s the less dorky Capt. America) but, more than that, the film’s agenda is to allow us to gaze upon the breathtaking sight of a man flying around in a cool suit as bullets pow and ping off his steely panoply–the ultimate metaphor for the masculine guard we all put up. That the film goes ahead and makes the man under the suit compelling is why it soars and ultimately lands on a plateau alongside the best superhero films ever made.   

grade: b+ 

flame on to the rest 

 

G.M. Douglass

Review: Day of the Dead (2008 remake)

 

Set in one of humanity’s last zombie free zones, the original bunker busting “Day of the Dead” (1985) is a claustrophobic classic that espouses grand notions on humanity and the inevitable fall, and re-fall, of man due to his gnarly hubris and an innately human force of hatred and xenophobia that surpasses whatever “evil” the simple-minded zombies could cook up and tear out. Sadly, the new “Day” has as much to do with that “Day” as Monday does to Friday. Arriving straight to DVD (shudda gone straight to hell) with no buzz and even less interest from fans (a baaaad sign), famed horror director Steve Miner’s “Day of the Dead” is quick cash-in flick that comes out of nowhere and will return just as quickly to that void. It is a remake in name only and a defanged one at that. Unlike Snyder’s “Dawn” remake, this film does not even attempt to improve on Romero’s idea. In fact, it doesn’t even do much to improve on itself. Set in present times and starring Mina Suvari (I guess we can now call her the poor woman’s Sarah Polly), “Day” is a small town zombie movie with aspirations that match the newly infected citizen’s goals in life. To do nothing but consume, vomit and consume some more.

flame on to the rest