Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chris Cornell concert, 10/30/07, Dallas

At House of Blues.

Chris Cornell is nothing if not a survivor. The venerable 43 year old lead singer of the now defunct bands Soundgarden and Audioslave has been making music at a high level for nearly 20 years, scoring a popular hit at regular intervals along the way. I have always been a big Soundgarden fan, and think they are extremely underrated as band. Audioslave (Cornell + the musical members of Rage Against the Machine) was great while it lasted. Recently, Cornell has ventured into solo work that is solid, if not quite as good as his work with those bands.

After Dentist provided me with a copy of a great acoustic performance of his featuring all of his hits, plus covers of Billie Jean and Cry for Freedom, I put this concert on my list. Appraiser joined me for a surprisingly good show at the very pleasing House of Blues. Its nice to go to a venue that was made for rock concerts, not shoehorned into a warehouse or a theater.

Cornell walked out unpretentiously right at 9:00 looking like a tall CBGB Bob Dylan, with too tight jeans, big boots and a Blood on the Tracks hairdo. There was no stage decor, save a small "Cornell Ave." street sign that looked like it had been stolen from the street of the same name in Highland Park. The first 2 songs were from his new album, and were good, but the crowd didn't get into it until the third song, the Soundgarden classic Outshined. I was especially pleased with this song, since it was criminally omitted from the show I attended in 1994 at the Fair Park Music Hall. After that song, Appraiser and I looked at eachother with sort of a 'whoa' expression, because Cornell's voice was amazingly strong after so many years of singing. More about that later.

The next few songs were Show Me How to Live (Audioslave), Say Hello to Heaven (Temple of the Dog), Be Yourself (Audioslave), and Rusty Cage (Soundgarden). This patch was some of the best live music I've heard in years: real, authentic rock and roll played well and straightforward. Cornell then donned a Mother Love Bone t-shirt someone had thrown on stage and played 3 or 4 new songs, and then Doesn't Remind Me and Like a Stone (both Audioslave) and then Billie Jean. This was the most impressive stretch because of Cornell's voice. The range and strength is truly amazing. It is clear, never off pitch and forceful, all seemingly without any effort. During his acoustic set it was just him and a guitar and he was overpowering the room (in a good way). The closing set and encore were a little too loud and 'thrashy' for me, except Black Hole Sun and Spoonman (Soundgarden).

All in all, the concert was great, and my respect for Cornell as a musician is exponentially higher than before the concert.

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Happy Halloween

The marketing for the new Batman, The Dark Knight, has begun, with this site putting up a puzzle today that may reveal some secrets about the movie. More info here.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Recent DVD Releases

All of the following were dutifully reviewed by my collaborators during their theatrical run.

The Lookout (2007): Original review: here. Unlike so many films that seem to crap out after a good start, this one saves its best scenes for the third act. While writing, writer-director Scott Frank probably used the conceit his brain-damaged main character uses: start with the ending and move backward. It didn’t quite catch fire as I had hoped and is not nearly as amusing as Frank’s prior screenplays. But the first-time writer director uses the bank location and landscapes expertly. B+

Mr. Brooks (2007): Original review: here. I liked the multiple story lines and the unexpected twists, but the direction is second-rate. William Hurt is excellent, but Dane Cook is miscast and needs a few hundred more acting lessons. He makes Demi Moore look like Meryl Streep. The idea that enjoying killing people is a genetic trait is ludicrous, of course. But if you squint, you can appreciate multiple characters struggling to control their demons. B-

Knocked Up (2007): Original review: here. The thing that is making Judd Apatow’s movies so special is that there are no throwaway scenes. He strikes comedic gold in the most interstitial and perfunctory scenes. The thing that makes Apatow’s movies unique is how they can be so vulgar and heartfelt at the same time. This has to be difficult to accomplish and he’s making it look easy. A-

Favorite line: Jonah Hill, making fun of a long-haired bearded friend, calls him: “Scorsese on coke”.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl - B+

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 106 minutes. Trailer.

In the spirit of Norman Bates, Lars and the Real Girl explores the manifestation of mommy issues in a lonely and slightly delusional man. The inanimate object in this film isn't a stuffed version of Lars' mother, instead it is a high end 'sex doll'.

Despite its lowest common demoninator marketing, this film was surprisingly touching and well made, with some great dialogue along the way. Lars is a self-sufficient but odd late 20's man living in the detached garage at his deceased parents' house, currently occuppied by his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus' recently impregnated wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer). Lars' mother died during his birth, and his father never could get over his broken heart to be a good father to Lars and Gus. After Gus left (at his first opportunity) Lars was left alone with his father. All of this is told or implied along the course of the film.

Karin's pregnancy stirs up Lars' buried mother/abandonment issues and he begins to withdraw from Karin and everyone else. When a co-worker (a Garreth like guy with a porn fetish) shows him a site featuring life like sex dolls, Lars privately orders one. He then develops a delusion whereby he believes she is real and he converses with her and doesn't acknowledge anyone questioning her as his girlfriend Bianca. At this point, I was assuming the movie would devolve into a stupid schlockfest with sex doll jokes and cheap laughs, but that didn't happen. The northern town embraces her as a proxy for their love for Lars, and he visits Dr. Dagmar the local family practice doc with a psychiatry degree ("up this far north, you almost have to") ostensibly for Bianca's treatments, but in reality for a diagnosis of Lars.

The film reveals Lars' psychosis and his mommy issues in several ways, and shows the impact of loneliness on Lars. Lars feels actual pain when his skin is touched by other people, and his desire for immortality in the females in his life drives him inward. Begrudgingly, I am a fan of Ryan Gosling. He is a former Mouseketeer and his success has come very easily so far. The Notebook is great, Fracture is pretty good, and he is great in Half Nelson. In Lars and the Real Girl, he turns in a nuanced and understated performance that is perfect for the role.

Paul Schneider is absolutely great as Lars' reluctant and dumbfounded older brother, giving a textured performance with great delivery of his lines. Patricia Clarkson is okay as Dagmar, as is Emily Mortimer as the maternal sister-in-law. Kelli Garner is great as Margot, the sheepish flesh and blood love interest for Lars.

Written by first timer Nancy Oliver and directed by Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock??), this was surprisingly good. There are several touching moments and hemanages to thread the needle on the tone of the film, carefully avoiding campy or melodramatic deftly along the way. He also uses light blue knitting as a matronly signal (keyed off a(but not obvious) blanket made by Lars' mother that he carries all the time) and the bleakness of the landscape to fill in the story. But for a couple of 'too cute' Bianca montages, this would've been an A-.

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Reservation Road - B

In theaters. Rated R, 102 minutes. Trailer.

Reservation Road is a wrenching drama about a car accident that changes the lives of two families. Mark Ruffalo and Mira Sorvino are the divorced parents of 12 year old Luke, and Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly are the parents of Josh. The film opens with Mark Ruffalo hurrying home with Luke after a Red Sox game. He averts his eyes for a second, and when he overcorrects his car, he hits and instantly kills Josh, thus setting the film in motion.

Ruffalo hesitates but then decides (because of the tenuous custody situation with his beloved son) not to turn himself in. Joaquin's family is devastated and the scenes where he and Connelly and their extended family attempt to deal with their loss are well done and believable, if difficult for this parent to watch. After the initial shock, Joaquin becomes fixated on finding his son's killer, and decides to hire a lawyer to help....Ruffalo's partner takes the case on without consulting him, and Ruffalo is now Joaquin's attorney.

The film parallels the agony of the two men, and their individual scenes are very good. Joaquin is earnest as a broken man trying to fill the hole in his heart, and Ruffalo is effective as a man trying to make amends and correct his inherited flaws and have a good relationship with his son. The scenes regarding the death of the child were almost unbearable for me, because it really is any parent's worst nightmare to lose a child.

Director Terry George can tell a good story, as he showed in Hotel Rwanda (A-), but for some reason this wasn't as resonant as I expected it to be. There were probably too many characters to get to know in just 102 minutes, and he uses 5 minutes to remind us that the suffering depicted in the film is just a drop in the ocean of the suffering in Africa and the East (a classroom scene). The ending is emotional and tense, but not effective.

This was one of my most anticipated movies of the year because of the cast/director, the subject matter, and the excellent trailer. The film did not live up to my expectations, but wasn't as dreadful as some of the reviews made it out to be.
The reviews for this film have been all over the place, and my guess is that those with children of their own liked it much more than those that don't have children. The emotions and weight of the film are very challenging for a parent to watch, unless you're the type of parent that would take your kid to see this movie.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Owen and Wes

New interview of Owen by Wes. Interesting. Here.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Gone Baby Gone - B++

In theaters. Rated R, 118 minutes. Trailer.

The grade for this one isn't a typo, I just couldn't give it an A-, but it seemed better than a B+. Gone Baby Gone, based on a Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) novel, is the directorial debut for Ben Affleck, who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay. The film stars Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan Morgan Freeman and Amy Madigan.

Set in present day south Boston, this film feels a lot like Mystic River with its 'triple decker' houses and gritty exteriors, as well as a plot heavy on neighborhood, crime, children and abuse. The first part of the plot, as shown in the trailer, involves the abduction of a 4 year old girl and the police and family's search for the girl. The family hires Patrick Kenzie (Casey A.) and his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan), partners in a fledgling private investigation company to work on the 'neighborhood aspect' of the case. There are several twists and turns that would spoil the movie, so I'll refrain from including anymore plot points.

The movie is really good in most parts, but with a few patches of spotty dialogue and a distracting and banal relationship sideplot with Affleck and Monaghan. The most effective scenes are when Casey has to use his neighborhood mojo to get answers or make it out of situations. Casey gives a great performance; juxtaposed against his role in Jesse James, he has shown himself to be a talented actor. Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman are predictably good, although Freeman seems to mail it in relying on the voice and aura to carry the character. Monaghan annoyed me the whole time, and her character is useless in the film.

Affleck makes good use of the Boston locale and scenery, including the people. Rather than using stock extras, he used the people that showed up each day from the neighborhood, giving the film a richer texture and more believable feel. Dottie, a classic foul mouthed Southie girl, is played by just that - a girl that walked up to Ben and said she needed to be in his movie. The screenplay is very strong in parts, the narrated introduction, for instance, but weak in others, such as the Ed Harris/Casey Affleck drunk scene. All in all I was very impressed with Ben A. with this movie. The direction isn't flashy, but it tells the story in a compelling way with some very good visuals along the way, notably the final scene of the film.

The film explores several interesting themes, but focuses on doing what is right and cutting corners and the ending of the film is ambiguous in a way that I really enjoyed. Worth seeing.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

New Trailers

1. Charlie Wilson's War - Sure fire Best Picture contender starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Congressman Charlie Wilson. Directed by Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas). Written by one of Lawyer's nemeses, Aaron Sorkin.

2. Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?
- Just kidding.

3. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly - Some Best Picture talk, looks interesting and emotional. Julian Schnabel won best director at Cannes for this, which could be good or bad.

4. The Kite Runner - Lots of Best Picture talk, but looks like a beating.

5. I'm Not There
- Bob Dylan biopic starring Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and others, all as Bob Dylan. Looks good.

6. Atonement - World War II weepy is a lock for a Best Picture nomination. Starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley.

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Daniel Plainview


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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Best Soundtracks

Next month, Vanity Fair will be releasing its list of the top 50 movie soundtracks of all time. As a teaser, they've released the top 10 list:

1. Purple Rain (disagree)
2. A Hard Days Night
3. The Harder They Come (?)
4. Pulp Fiction (agree)
5. The Graduate (agree - #1)
6. Superfly
7. Trainspotting (agree)
8. Saturday Night Fever (agree)
9. American Graffiti (agree)
10. The Big Chill

Some of my favorites include The Last of the Mohicans, The Thin Red Line, So I Married an Axe Murderer, The Departed, Rushmore, About a Boy, Boogie Nights, O Brother Where Art Thou, and on and on.

What am I missing?

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007


1. Free Fallin' - Axl Rose and Tom Petty - Too great for words.

2. Tulips, Plate 10, in the Dr. Robert John Thornton Temple of Flora set, from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. On my Christmas list.

3. Heath Ledger as The Joker (July 2008).

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News: Hopkins to Play Hitchcock in Upcoming Biopic

I usually leave the news to Lawyer, but since Alfred Hitchcock is my favorite director, I thought I'd post this. The as-yet unnamed project will be directed by "Running with Scissors" director Ryan Murphy. Click here to see a 35-second clip of Anthony Hopkins discussing the opening scene and giving a taste of the voice he'll use for Alfred.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Michael Clayton - A-

In theaters. Rated R, 120 minutes. Trailer.

"The whole concept of billing by the hour can be cankerous on your soul. You compare everything in your life to the value of your time if you were practicing law. So you say to yourself, 'Why should I mow the yard if it will take me two hours, which I bill at $300 an hour? Why not just hire someone to mow my yard or coach my kid's soccer team?' You wind up putting little value on the things most human beings enjoy doing."

Michael Clayton is a tight and mature legal thriller starring George Clooney, Sydney Pollack, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy (Bourne scribe), the film is enjoyable, challenging and effective.

Clayton is a fixer at a large and prestigious law firm. He is an attorney, but operates in the shadows as a 'janitor' cleaning up messes for the firm's clients. As with most attorneys, his job is immensely unsatisfying. He is treated poorly by his clients, his bosses, and his hours ruin his family. Michael gets a call that one of the firms senior partners has gone mad during a deposition in Milwaukee, and he heads off to handle the situation. The attorney, played by Wilkinson, has been defending a large company (UNorth) against an Erin Brockovich type 3 billion dollar class action lawsuit, and has basically snapped after the years of destroying families. Wilkinson can't be handled, and goes off the grid setting up the rest of the film. I won't spoil the plot with further details, but the remainder is a morality tale about selling out a little bit at a time.

The film has several great performances, led by Tilda Swinton. Her sad general counsel character loses her moral compass with a happy face, and anchors the deeper impact of the film - I expect her to be among the best supporting actress nominees. Watching her prepare for her interview while getting ready, and talking about work/life 'balance' is agonizing and really gets at the human condition for any professional. Clooney is great as Clayton, who lacks any of Clooney's natural charm and affability. His face transmits the intensity and tumult under the surface. Wilkinson and Pollack are great, as usual - the two of them don't turn in bad performances.

There was some discussion in the reviews about the film being hard to follow. It is written at a college level, but I wasn't lost even for a second (whereas Syriana made me dizzy the first time I saw it). The film succeeds as a thriller and a legal drama, and gets an A- for its points on selling out. The dialogue is extremely satisfying for its maturity and long sentences and complex thoughts, as well as its wit. Clayton sells out and then is redeemed, same for Wilkinson, while other pay the ultimate price for it. The quote at the beginning of the review is from this article on lawyer dissatisfaction, and it sums up the underlying theme of the film.

Favorite line, delivered by Pollack: "(pointing to the object of his sentence) He's an asshole. And he knows it."

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Last 5 Itunes Downloads

1. Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie. I am a sucker for a good hook and chorus. This song is infectious and has probably the worst lyrics of all time. The chorus: "And I'm gonna love /And I'm gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket/But Ive got to get a move on with my life/Its time to be a big girl now. Not bad for the hottest trannie on earth (note man-hands).

2. Grey Room - Damien Rice. The Reservation Road trailer features this song and its masterful chorus. Perfect for a rainy day.

3. Billie Jean - Chris Cornell. The former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman has released a new solo album including this song. His husky grunge voice is great in an acoustic setting, and his revision of this Michael Jackson classic is a favorite of mine right now. Hat tip to Dentist for finding this one.

4. What I've Done - Linkin Park. Rock/Rap sounds stupid and bad, but LP is pretty good. This song has all the classic LP elements, including rap interludes and emotive screaming from Chester Benningfield. I like the lyrics and combination of beats and angst.

5. Tarantula - Smashing Pumpkins. Main single from the new SP album souds like classic Pumpkins. One of my favorite bands and I am happy to see them back in the game. This incarnation only features 2 of the 4 original bandmates (Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain). Lord knows what James Iha and D'arcy are doing that's better than this. No matter, Corgan wrote and arranged all of the instruments on the early records, so the DNA of the band is safe.

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Radiohead - In Rainbows - B+

Released 10/10/07.

On at least one level, the Radiohead scheme to give their new album In Rainbows away for free is working. I doubt I would've gone to the trouble of buying it, but since it was free I got it and haven't taken it out of my car since.

Radiohead is one of my favorite bands, but their descent (or ascent, depending on your perspective) into inaccessible art rock over their last several albums has left me disenchanted with the band. In Rainbows is a return to listenable I said to my beloved the other day "The new Radiohead is pretty good; it actually sounds like music." Given the angelic and penetrating voice of Thom Yorke and the brilliance of Jonny Greenwood on guitar/instruments/banana peels, etc, its hard for them to make a bad song.

In Rainbows is a moody, slow album with several standout songs. The best song is #5, "All I Need." It has a slow instrumental beginning, which sounds a little like Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia." "Reckoner" and "House of Cards" are the 2 other standouts. Each other song is a good listen, and Greenwood sounds and instrumentation stays in your head after you stop listening. Not bad for 0.55 Euros. To buy it for free + the .55 Euro surcharge, go here.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Recent DVD Releases

All of the following were dutifully reviewed by my collaborators during their theatrical run.

Transformers – Original review: here. Never boring, usually entertaining, dumb fun from Michael Bay, who has never seen an inanimate object he couldn’t smash. Shia Labeouf continues to amaze moving through one ridiculous situation after another with dexterity, plausibility, and conviction. Tough to see John Turturro slumming for a paycheck though, Jon Voight – I’m used to. B-

The Hoax – Original review: here. A well-made, well-acted movie about lying womanizers with no redeeming qualities. Yet another interesting episode about the remarkable Howard Hughes is sent to the big screen - this time by the second best Swedish director ever: Lasse Hallstrom. But shouldn’t we feel bad glorifying those who only exist to be glorified? B

28 Weeks Later – Original review: here. Tons of blood and gore are not my thing. But I do like the randomness of the victims - where no one is safe. It’s effective enough with plenty of jolts for those who enjoy this type of thing. Still, it’s tough to watch the American military-as-villains become the vogue this year. Made by a bunch of libs who insist they support the troops. If it sounds like BS, looks like BS, and smells like BS, you don’t need to taste it. C+

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited - C+

In theaters. Rated R, 91 minutes. Trailer.

Ouch. It hurts to give Wes Anderson a bad grade (Bottle Rocket - A-, Rushmore - A, Royal Tenenbaums - A-, Life Aquatic - B-). He is one of my favorite writers and directors, with his first 2 movies, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, being permanent fixtures in my favorite movies of all time.

The Darjeeling Limited tells the story of 3 brothers who haven't spoken in a year (since their father's funeral) that meet up in India for a 'spiritual journey.' The journey is planned and instigated by oldest brother Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), whose face is heavily bandaged from 'running himself into a hill' on his motorcycle. The middle brother, Pete (Adrien Brody), is a married cleptomaniac 6 weeks from being a father. The youngest brother, Jack (Jason Schwartzman), is a mopey womanizer still under the spell of a cruel but beautiful ex-girlfriend.

As the group meets up in their oh-so-meticulously decorated train compartment, their tensions immediately arise, and their reliance on pain pills, alcohol and cough syrup provides a unifying element. The body of the film is their journey and the stops along the way, including several spiritual temples and participation in Indian rituals. Throughout the film they are preoccupied with their ornate luggage, inherited from their father, which is carried with them at every stop. The brothers' most affecting experience occurs after they are kicked off the train for disorderly conduct, when they happen upon 3 young Indian brothers in an accident. The Whitman brothers attempt to save the boys (to varying effect) and this leads to an extended interaction with rural Indian culture. The film then chugs towards its ending: a meeting with their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) in a Catholic convent in a far flung corner of India. After a less than fulfilling visit, the boys go to catch their train, which they have to run after and in order to catch it, they have to cast off their father's luggage (in slow motion, of course).

The film proves the statement that the whole is something different than the sum of its parts. Each character (save Brody's) is well developed and acted, especially Schwartzman. In order to experience the full effect of the movie and his character in particular, you need to watch the introductory 13 minute short entitled Hotel Chevalier, which fleshes out his character (which you can do here, for free). Wilson's Francis is basically a rich and older Dignan. He obsessively plans and controls the actions of the brothers, to their annoyance, with the help of his alopecia-stricken assistant Brendan (the interaction between the two is very funny). The direction and cinematography is well done, but uninspired.

To say that the film isn't good just because it is too similar to Anderson's other films is an oversimplification. Those elements (including the ubiquitous Kumar) are there, but I think Anderson can still succeed in his mold if he will either co-write only with Wilson (this was co-written with Roman Coppolla and Schwartzman) or direct someone else's scripts. As I watched the film it just did not connect on any level other than my appreciation for the individual characters and their Andersonesque qualities. The pieces don't fit and I don't see how any spiritual journey was taken at all, yet they are able to literally and figuratively throw off their baggage in the final scene.

This script is amateurish and seems to be content in mining scenes and characters from Anderson's other films. His lifestyle of rich, eccentric adventures seems to have pickled him so that he can't get back to any connection to reality in his films. If I chould choose his next film (which actually will be a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's book The Fantastic Mr. Fox), it would be something like American Gangster or a new film co-written with Wilson not involving brothers or fetishes. The soundtrack, as should be expected, is excellent. If only Wes could just direct montage scenes and slow motion sequences set to music, he'd never go wrong.

Hopefully Anderson can escape the words of Francis Ford Coppolla: "Few filmmakers who become known for some great work do work later on in life that equals it. And why? Partly because everyone has a certain thing that they can do, and after they express it, unless they're William Shakespeare or Akira Kurosawa, it's not easy to reinvent yourself."

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reign Over Me - C / Evan Almighty - C

Both recently released on DVD.

Finding one’s purpose in life is easy for some and impossible for others, but most fall somewhere in between. Occasionally, it changes due to an epiphany or even a tragedy. In Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler plays a widower whose wife and kids were killed on 9/11. Don Cheadle is a dentist and Sandler’s former college roommate who finds him early in the film after years of passively searching. Sandler now has enough money to sit around, eat junk food, and play video games – all the time avoiding the inevitable grieving that must be done. He shelters himself from the world with his headphones as he listens to Bruce Springsteen’s The River and The Who’s Quadrophenia.
The thing must have looked great on paper, attracting talent as diverse as Donald Sutherland to Liv Tyler to the 2 leads. But the best laid plans often go awry. Sandler just doesn’t have the dramatic chops to pull it off. Of course Cheadle is much better but even he doesn’t know how to deal with a stalker psycho patient who insists on performing fellatio on him. And the whole thing drags with many unnecessary scenes, most of which come in the third act. The movie’s use of 9/11 is suspect as well, since the journey that Sandler endures could be for any random tragedy. The movie’s title comes from The Who’s “Love Reign o’er Me”, an emotional and potentially cathartic song, featuring a knockout vocal by Roger Daltrey. The movie wants to be the equivalent but doesn’t even come close. C

In Evan Almighty, Steve Carell reprises his role as Evan from Bruce Almighty. He has since been elected Congressman and moves his family to Washington D.C. An evil powerful congressman (John Goodman) immediately encourages him to cosign a bill that will allow privatization of National Wildlife Parks. Evan is visited by God (Morgan Freeman) who tells him to build an ark. After suffering through many embarrassing situations as pairs of animals flock to him, Evan reluctantly agrees.

It is very surprising to see Hollywood put out a movie where the lead prays for direction and to make a difference. But they have reduced God to what He can do for you – an 8 year-old's view of the Almighty. As the most expensive comedy ever made, this movie does have some spectacular CGI shots of animals and the ark itself. But while spending all that money, everyone (except the inimitable Wanda Sykes) seemed to forget they were making a comedy – unless you think lots of bird crap is funny. C

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Gwoemul or "The Host" B+

On DVD, Foreign language with subtitles, 119 minutes, Rated R. Trailer.

The Host is a Korean creature feature with some real jolts that better critiques the US invasion of Iraq and our reasons for doing so than any film out of Hollywood on the subject (including recently reviewed “In the Valley of Elah”). Americans are portrayed in fairly shallow, one-dimensional ways through the majority of the film, especially the opening sequence in which Formaldehyde is poured into Seoul’s Han River, leading to the mutated “Host”. The part-lizard, part-fish, part who-knows-what eventually emerges from the river and attacks a group of on-lookers, eating some and swallowing Park Hyunseo, played to perfection by Ah Sung-Ko, an eighth-grade girl who’s father and grandfather barely escape. Having reported her as one of the dead, they receive a cell call from Hyunseo telling them she is alive and down in a sewer of sorts. It seems the monster swallows multiple people and deposits them in a "holding cell" where he can save them until he is hungry. The balance of the film deals with the families attempt to rescue Hyunseo, which is complicated by the government’s fear that Hyunseo’s father is mentally ill and the security forces that are brought in to keep rubber-neckers at bay.

The name comes from the American military’s determination that the monster is a host to a SARS-type virus, leading to the quarantining of everyone that comes in contact with the creature. In the beginning, I found the special effects surrounding the monster itself (often appearing to be a number of men running in a above-average monster outfit) to be too distracting to allow any suspension of disbelief. However, more CGI is used as the film progresses and I just got used to it, leading to some real suspense and fear as the film progresses. The acting is good, if at times overly-dramatic in the way that Asian films often feel to me (think if the cutting-of-the-tongue-out scene in Old Boy). Still, a very enjoyable film in a genre that the Asians invented and that we Americans never seem to get quite right. Probably because we think the point is the monster, when, of course, it’s the people. B+

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

License to Wed - D+

Out on DVD October 30. Rated PG-13, 91 minutes. Trailer.

I am one of the few people that still thinks Robin Williams is funny. That and the presence of The Office's Jim (John Krasinski) convinced me to push 'order' on the hotel remote. The ensuing 91 minutes erased Krasinski's street cred and made me finally reach the end of the line on Mork.

The movie starts with Krasinski (Ben) proposing to Sadie (Mandy Moore). Sadie then reveals that she has to use her priest, Frank (Williams), to officiate the wedding and he has a pre-marital course that the couple must pass in order for him to perform the ceremony. As you might expect, the course (and Frank) is zany and even non-sensical, but in the end it shows Ben and Sadie's true love for each other.

I'll hand it to Krasinski - he's funny even with terrible material. Ben is basically Jim, but not quite as cool or interesting. None of the characters are developed AT ALL past the description in the preceding paragraph. There are some decent moments with Ben and Sadie's drunk sister (Christine Taylor).

The formulaic goofiness and certain absolutely ridiculous plot points make this almost impossible to watch. Better luck next time, Jim.

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Quick Hits - CD Reviews

Foo Fighters - Skin and Bones. This is basically Foo Unplugged, but I am sure Dave Grohl wanted to stay as far away as possible from any comparison to Nirvana's phenomenal and haunting Unplugged album. There are a couple of new songs, but mostly the album gives us softer versions of their big hits. Big Me, My Hero, Everlong, are all good, but not better or positively different from their Album versions. C.

Def Leppard - Vault. I am not a big "DL" fan, but the greatness of their mega-hits can't be denied (and I was on vacation, driving a convertible around the beach, so cut me some slack). For $13.99 you get Photograph, Love Bites, Pour Some Sugar On Me, Rocket, Let's Get Rocked, Two Steps Behind, Armageddon It, and Hysteria, among others. Def Leppard is commercial rock at its zenith. A.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

We Own the Night - B

In Theatres, 117 minutes, Rated R. Trailer.

We Own the Night (the name comes from an NYPD motto of the late 80's) is propelled forward by the combustible cocktail of cops, the Russian mafia (the gangsters de jour in tinseltown this fall), drugs, families split apart, and Eva Mendes in never-been-sexier mode. Joaquin Phoenix, more mush-mouthed than usual, stars as prodigal son Bobby Green, who stepped away from the true-NYC- Blue of his father (Robert Duvall) and brother Joseph Grasinsky (Mark Wahlberg), to work his way up in the New York club scene circa 1988. Eva Mendes plays club hostess Amad Juarez, girlfriend to Bobby and the only one who knows his family’s heritage. Amad and Bobby are faithful to each other and bring an air of legitimacy to the drug-fueled circles in which they run. Even as his brother is promoted to lead a NARC task force aimed at taking down ruthless Russian drug czar Vadim Nazhinski (an excellent Alex Veadov, who sees murder as a necessary part of business, to be neither loathed nor enjoyed), Bobby is selling his dream of an uber-club in Manhatten to Nazhinski’s uncle, setting up an inevitable collision between Bobby’s family and job. Unfortunately, that collision comes at about the halfway point, at which the major internal tension driving the film (Joaquin’s ultimate allegiances) has already been resolved. New tensions are added (Who will survive? Will Amad and Bobby make it work?) but none become central. What’s more, the club scenes, which give the film raw attractiveness and power early on, are replaced by sad hotels and middle-class houses. So, while the last third of the film has some dynamite scenes, there is not much of a motor left driving the film.

The cinematography of this film is great, allowing the audience to be an additional participant in many of the scenes. This is particularly true in a spectacularly shot car chase shown from Bobby’s perspective. The action and accidents come in slow-motion, but also possess an inevitable quality, exactly the feeling of being in an accident. Blue filters are used to good effect in the beginning of the film to delineate between cop-controlled and mafia-controlled areas. The acting is also good, if at times overdone, especially as the pressure begins to mount. I think this is a function of good actors working with an average script (by James Gray, who also directs). This is most glaring in a crucial meltdown between Eva Mendes and Joaquin Phoenix. They are both trying to say too much in their inflection and actions because the words their asked to speak are so hokey and obvious.

This is ultimately an above-average movie masquerading as Oscar-fare through the use of bold camera work and quality actors. This is Gray’s third film (he also directed and wrote The Yards and Little Odessa) in fifteen years. He possesses a good visual eye and understands the importance of having a plot with real conflicts. It’d be nice to see him putting out films more often than every seven years. At this rate he’ll be ready to retire before he’s putting out his best material. B

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Book Review: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

Released September 18, 2007. 369 pages.

According to a 2006 survey, only 43% of Americans can name one Supreme Court justice; the number of Americans that can name 8 or more of the 9 justices rounds to 0%.

While I am one of the 0% that can name 8 or more of the justices, I cannot get enough information about the court and its inner workings. Jeffrey Toobin's book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court was exactly what I needed to take that knowledge to the next step. Toobin is senior legal analyst for CNN, staff writer at The New Yorker and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.

The book does not delve into the minutiae of the court and its opinions, but focuses on the mechanics of how the court does its business and the relationships and idiosyncrasies of the justices and how that ultimately impacts the lives of Americans. He goes through and profiles each justice, starting with their confirmation battle and drops interesting anecdotes (such as the fact that David Souter lives in a rural farmhouse in New Hampshire without a phone) that pull back the curtain on the mysterious and powerful branch of government.

He is obviously biased, framing any conservative gains as radical and using terms such as 'anti-abortionists', while lavishing praise on Sandra Day O'Connor for her centrist views. He does a good job summarizing the court's existing position on abortion and how it got there and which of the justices shaped that position, and does the same on racial preferences, both of which are of extreme interest to me.

The Supreme Court is a mystical and almost unendingly powerful body. In practice they operate as 9 philosopher-kings that can pontificate how they believe Americans should live, by reading their own opinions into the Constitution. Only Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito tether their judicial philosophies to the original intent of the Framers. I highly recommend this book (only 7 hours on CD) to any person that wants to be an intelligent citizen. The power and omnipresence of the Supreme Court dictates nothing less.

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - A-

In theaters. Rated R, 160 minutes. Trailer.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a beautiful film. Whether it is a great film, I can't decide. I was torn between a full A and a B+, so for now, I am rating it an A-.

Writer/Director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) tells the story of the last year in the life of Jesse James. Brad Pitt plays James, legendary late 19th century outlaw and bank robber and one of the most famous people in the world. Sam Shepard plays his oldest brother, Frank, in a small role, while Casey Affleck (Robert Ford) and Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford) round out an excellent cast.

Judging by the crowd in the theater (think Heartbreak Kid, not The Godfather) and the dozen or so people that left in the middle of the movie, the marketing of this film may be working, but it is disingenuous. This film is not a gunslinger akin to 3:10 to Yuma, and, except for the costumes and horses, its hardly in the same genre. The film is a contemplative character study and deconstruction of Robert Ford and Jesse James, in that order.

Affleck's Ford is a vacuous 19 year old wannabe gunslinger that has no self worth, except for the possibility of being Jesse James' sidekick or reincarnation. The film begins with him approaching Jesse's brother, Frank, asking to join the James Gang. Frank, along with Jesse, is weary of the James Gang's legend and the sycophantic groupies that come with it. Ford is allowed to come along, and thus the trap is laid. The film's parallel narratives focus on Ford and James, with Ford's being the most interesting. Affleck is superb as Ford, capturing his fascination and below the surface anger and general creepiness. Ford is never comfortable in his own skin, always insecure and leary of any insult or slight. His is a tale of idolatry and a peek behind the curtain of an icon, similar to the flawed Spartan soldier rejected in 300, who then is embraced by the enemy and betrays his true love. Ford's fascination murder of James reminded me of the Andrew Cunanan/Gianni Versace murder in its odd combination of murder with adulation.

Pitt's portayal of Jesse is quiet and powerful, if ordinary. It can't be hard for Pitt to play a charismatic charmer that everyone adores for no reason, or, in Jesse's case, no good reason. The "no good reason" is the dominant theme of the film, focusing on myth and celebrity culture. Thematically, the film covers similar ground as Natural Born Killers with regard to media and America's fascination with bloodlust and 'bad boys.' Dominik clearly portays James as a ruthless and cold outlaw, a far cry from his portrayal in the nickel novels of the time as a modern day cowboy Robin Hood. He is repeatedly pulled away from inappropriate (even for outlaws) violence against the innocent, and appears to believe his own hype in the thrill of the moment. As the film progresses, James unwinds into paranoia about his own fate and the clashing of his persona and the reality of who he is and what he has done.

The most concise portion of the film (and one of its strongest) is the coda about Ford's post-assassination life. In it Dominik drives his themes home through Ford's ultimately being made a pariah for killing the morally repugnant James and the sensationalism and profiteering associated with James' death and funeral. Several of the best scenes and lines are given to Robert's brother, Charley. Rockwell's delivery and dead-on depiction of the terrified sycophant to Jesse should earn him a Supporting Actor nod. The climactic scene is powerful and emotional, and Dominik uses the audience's tension regarding that moment throughout the preceding movie.

The cinematography in the film is an instant classic. The wide screen shots and use of the terrain was truly spellbinding (rock me, Ebert). Dominik shows nary a primary color throughout the whole film, even the blood and trees are darkened to take away any feeling of color. The whole thing looks like a Whistler painting. I guess because of the weird marketing, I couldn't find any shots that do the film justice, so you'll have to take my word for it. The most noticeable device Dominik employs is the use of glass (clear and distorted) in nearly every scene to further his theme of perception. In the several narration pieces focusing on James, the edges of the frame are blurred to give a more historical and dreamlike effect to the film. Between this, No Country For Old Men, and There Will Be Blood, this looks to be a banner year for bleak Western cinematography. The presence of Sam Shepard and the ubiquitous use of wheat, along with the lighting and natural feel of the film (along with its 'lyrical-ness') reminded me of Days of Heaven and the tone is reminiscent of any of Terrence Malick's films, and I mean that in a good way.

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Concert Review: Rilo Kiley, The Palladium, Dallas TX, Oct. 6, 2007

My recent obsession with Rilo Kiley and their lead singer Jenny Lewis has been well documented on these pages (see Girls that Ache, and the Under the Blacklight review), so, when I noted their tour for Blacklight was taking them through Dallas, I laid down my money and began the countdown.

After local bands Grand Ole’ Party and The Bird and the Bee worked their way through well-received sets, Rilo Kiley took the stage at 10:15. The Palladium was full, if not packed, for the optimum crowd density on a General Admission show. The look of the band and the stage was immediately reminiscent of the artwork and themes from new album Under the Blacklight, with the guys in suits or black pants and white shirts and Jenny Lewis in a sequined cocktail waitress get-up out of a B-level girly bar. Likewise, the backdrop was a tinsel curtain with an icky senior-prom-circa-1984-feel. The entire effect, matching the recent mix of songs, was fake glitz, covering up tawdry secrets backed by broken hearts of solid gold.

They lead off with the fitting, It’s a Hit from the More Adventurous album, the first of five songs from their fame-making CD, before moving quickly into Close Call from Under the Blacklight. These two disks (they pulled another five songs from Blacklight) formed the backbone of the show, but long-time fans (which, gauging from the roars for the older numbers, were in the majority) were rewarded with a sturdy version The Execution of All Things and crowd fav sing-a-long With Arms Outstretched, both from their sophomore album The Execution of All Things. Along the way they also played one song each from Jenny and Blake’s side projects (introduced as “covers”), with Jenny’s Rise Up with Fists!!! from Rabbit Fur Coat one of the best of the evening.

The band, made up of Blake Sennett on (occasionally lead) vocals and blistering lead guitar; Jenny Lewis on lead vocals, guitar, bass guitar, Hammond Organ, Synthesizer, cowbell, and some xylophone-type things; Pierre de Reeder on bass guitar, piano, and vocals; and Jason Boessel on drums, were joined on some of the more recent songs by a couple female percussionists and backing vocalists. The players moved on and off the stage and from instrument to instrument as needs dictated, with only Blake on Ukulele and Pierre on Mandarin during an excellent version of Ripchord. But it was Jenny that held the crowd, and the show, in her hands. She moved slowly from instrument to instrument (usually to a chorus of proposals to marriage and other, less appropriate, commitments), basking in the crowd’s love. It’s her voice, moving comfortably from the highs of show highlight “I Never” to the sultry alto of “15”, that’s the moneymaker for this band. Her full-bodied song never let-up and never wavered through the 15 selections.

The show ended with Give a Little Love (the second song of a two-song encore. I would have appreciated a couple more songs there), the final song off Under the Blacklight. Lewis dedicated the song to her friend in the room (ostensibly Sennett with whom she’s had a well-documented, tumultuous relationship): a fitting ending to a rocking, bluesy, and (occasionally) country night of music. A great show in a great venue. B+

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

In the Valley of Elah - B-

In theaters. Rated R, 121 minutes. Trailer.

Written and Directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), In the Valley of Elah tells the story of a man's search for the truth about his son's death. Tommy Lee Jones is Hank Deerfield, a crotchety ex-Marine of few words but intense emotions who doesn't suffer fools gladly (see, um, The Fugitive, Lonesome Dove, and Men in Black for the exact same character). He gets a call that his youngest son (a soldier) is missing from his Army base, just a couple of days after he returned from Iraq. He gets in his old Ford pickup, kisses an overacting Susan Sarandon, and heads to the base to track down his son (stopping on the way out to correct the flying of an American flag upside down, telling the culprit - "that is a sign of distress and a loss of hope."

He goes about all kinds of generic investigatory scenes with a brown haired Charlize Theron as the "tougher and smarter than she looks" single mom investigator. Ultimately it is determined that his son was killed, and he figures out who did it in spite of the bad police work of the Army and local police (I won't spoil the ending). There are some good scenes in the film, notably when Sarandon identifies the remains and any scene with Josh Brolin or Jason Patric, both in solid roles.

Up until the last 5 minutes, this was a B or B+, but the last song and severely Junior High emblematic use of the flag was an F, so it got pushed down to a B-. I saw the movie with Priest, who, as he should I suppose, let our group in on the secret that the Valley of Elah is where David and Goliath fought. That story gets told twice in the film, and coupled with the title obviously is supposed to mean something, but nobody could figure out what. The 'point' of the film was that war is hell and it takes a psychological toll on the kids we send to war and their families. Priest pointed out and I agreed that that theme is not exactly new or unknown to anyone, so the movie really served no purpose. Jones is good, but if he gets nominated, I hope it is for No Country For Old Men.

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Friday, October 5, 2007

Snap Judgments – A quick review of 5 movies

Black Book (2007) – In the final days of World War II, a Dutch Jew goes undercover within a German compound for the resistance. Some have called this Paul Verhoeven’s return to form. That's true - there's lots of violence, gratuitous sex, full-frontal male and female nudity, and the obligatory feces bath. There’s also too many characters, too many double-crossings, and too many jumbled endings to make this a good movie. But the (apparently true) story itself is interesting and it’s great to see 1945 from another perspective. C+

Next (2007) – The “umbrella scene” in Minority Report is expanded into full-length movie when Nicolas Cage is able to see 2 minutes into the future. Somehow terrorists know he plans to stop their detonation of a nuclear bomb in L.A. as the FBI plans to use him. Jessica Biel is OK as Cage’s love interest but Julianne Moore is taking herself way too seriously as the lead FBI agent. The action scenes are adequately staged by the cross-dressing Lee Tamahori and it’s never really boring. Not quite as crappy as I expected, but not quite craptastic either. They needed to let Cage loose – H.I. McDonnough-style, have Jessica Biel in her underwear (or less), and/or get Julianne Moore to curse out a pharmacist. C+

Civic Duty (2007) – Peter Krause has been great in two good television shows: "Sports Night" and "Six Feet Under". Here he tries to cross-over into big-screen leading man territory. Welcome to Carusoville. He plays an unemployed architect who becomes convinced a middle Eastern man who has just moved into his apartment complex is a terrorist. The movie is amateurish and predictable with its clunky plotting and dialogue. It’s poorly acted and really adds nothing to the discussion of a post 9/11 world that you haven’t heard before. D+

Bug (2007) – Ashley Judd is a lonely small-town woman still suffering from the loss of her son. Her abusive ex-husband isn’t helping matters when he shows up after some jail-time. She latches on to a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks the government has implanted bugs in our teeth to monitor us. Director William Friedkin does some interesting things with the camera, keeping it at waist level for the majority of the movie. His outdoor shots are beautiful as well with terrific use of the helicopter. But you can only dress up a whore so well, and this story is a big fat one - with no redeeming characters and sadness all around. Friedkin’s still got the chops; he just needs to pick a better story. C-

Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) – Set in early 1920s Ireland, this film is about 2 brothers who join the Irish Republican Army to fight against British occupation. After a treaty is signed, they join opposite sides. The realistic violence and torture scenes are brutal and the politics is at times, confusing. The pacing is slow and there is no actor that really jumps off the screen. I feel like I should have liked it more, given all of its accolades and Palme d’Or. But the whole thing was rather dull – like this “review”. B-

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Iran...So Far

New SNL short from Andy Samberg...a video for a love ballad to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad featuring Adam Levine from Maroon 5, Jake Gyllenhall and Fred Armisen (as MA). Sample lyric: You crazy for this one Mahmoud, you can deny the holocaust all you want, but you can’t deny that there’s something between us (see comments for full lyrics). Genius.

For good measure, the classic D in a box from last Christmas (doesn't get old).

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New Trailers

[click on title to go to trailer]

1. Sweeney Todd - Tim Burton's latest, starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman in the tale of a demonic barber. The trailer looks like a drama, a comedy, and a musical (don't miss Sacha Baron Cohen). Weird.

2. Valkyrie - New Tom Cruise movie (directed by Bryan Singer) about the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by traitors within the Nazi group. To be released next June. (preview feature, not a trailer)

3. Semi Pro - New Will Ferrell movie with him as a 70's basketball star.

4. Redacted - Brian De Palma's new film about Iraq. Intense and well reviewed.

5. No Country For Old Men - New Trailer, different and cooler than the first one. Scary good.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger, B-

Ryan Adams, back from a short hiatus (for him), has his usual band The Cardinals with him again on this disappointing alt-country album. Although most artist would have a high-water of song-writing if they recorded this album, the recently-sober Adams doesn't have the effortless magic on this album that marked career-best Heartbreaker (A), Gold (A-), and Love is Hell (B+). Lead-off single Goodnight Rose is a promising start, with follow-up It Takes Two (album best), about the maturing desire to be in a relationship, building on it. But after that, the album sort of stalls. The lyrics are depandably solid, and the vocals are fine, but there's nothing here that signals that we are in the presence of one of the great singer-songwriters of the last ten years. The sparkle of genius that I've taken for granted on an Adam's album, be it country, pop, or rock, never surfaces long enough to bring me to the transcendent place he can. The good news is, he's supposed to have another album out before the year is up. This one's a good album, but not special. B- (Listen here)

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