Friday, September 14, 2007

Toronto reviews day something or other

The Brave One
Warner Bros. Pictures, 122mins, R

Directed by
Neil Jordan

Where have you gone Charles Bronson? I remember “Death Wish I” which was a hell of a good movie, followed by a couple more, which weren't. But that was years ago, and with the series completely forgotten by those younger than middle age, I guess father/son team of Roderick and Bruce A. Taylor, (with script doctor Cynthia Mort to correct mistakes in gender-related plotting) figured that it was about time for a disguised remake.

So the Bronson character isn't a pacifistic businessman this time, but a radio personality named Erica Bain(Jodie Foster), who goes around New York city with a microphone making aural portraits of various neighborhoods for her NPR-sh show. She's engaged to a nice guy named David Kirmani(Naveen Andrews) and they have a large apartment and a cute doggie. In fact, Erica is cute and mousy, that one's almost impatient for the bad guys to show up and ruin this lovely life they have. They do, in a Central Park tunnel at night, and David is killed while Erica is almost so. But she recovers damaged, gets herself a gun, and becomes a stranger to herself, a vigilante, who finds violence everywhere and does something about it. But there's someone on the case, a certain Det. Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), who's surprisingly sympathetic. He's a fan of the show.

The film is rescued from mediocrity by the performances of Foster and Howard, Foster in particular, who acts the living daylights out of what's mostly a two dimensional cartoon. Her character isn't really real, but Foster manages to push out an extra dimension out of her while she blows people away, something Bronson couldn't actually do all those years ago, but didn't have to.

Not a great action movie by any means, but worth a bargain matinee.

Across the Universe
Columbia Pictures, 133mins, PG-13

Written and Directed
by Julie Taymor

You can't say that Julie Taymor lack's guts. She's done some really brave things in her career, the Broadway version of “The Lion King”, A film version of Shakespeare's worst play, some amazingly creative stage-work that has never been recorded properly, and now this, a noble failure of epic proportions.

This is not a horrible film. Well, parts are horrible, but for the most part it's not. The problem is that it careens between genius and gross incompetence with a breathtaking rapidity going from the ridiculous to the sublime and back with panache that is both glorious and heartbreaking. If you look “uneven” in the dictionary, you may very well see this film's poster.

The film does not begin promisingly. The film begins in the early '60s, where Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess) sing to their loves [at this point not each other], early Beatles' songs on sets placed on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Lucy's beau (Spencer Liff) goes off to war while Jude goes forth in search of his lost father(Robert Clohessy), finding him at Princeton University, where our hero meets Lucy's irresponsible brother Max(Joe Anderson), who after taking him up north to meet the family, drops out and goes with Max to Greenwich Villiage, where they shack up with Sadie(Dana Fuchs), Jo-Jo(Martin Luther McCoy) and Prudence(T.V. Carpio) where they start an urban commune of sorts.

From here Lucy joins the bunch, Max goes to Vietnam, and everyone gets stoned, and yadda yadda yadda. There's not much character development, and the songs aren't exactly relevant, in fact many seem to be shoehorned in. Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite is absolutely horrible, while Joe Cocker in multiple parts singing “Come Together” is fantastic. It seems that Taymor and writers Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais don't have a clue as to what the Beatles and the '60s in general were about, and this subtracts to the whole experience. On many a review, mostly in jest, I have suggested that some films might be more fun to see while stoned, but this seems to be the mother of all those. This may get a slew of both Oscars and Razzie nominations. More's the pity. The performances are generally good, but the effect is a complete waste.

King of California
Millennium Films, 93mins, PG-13

Written and Directed
by Mike Cahill

Miranda(Evan Rachel Wood) is a sixteen year old working at McDonald's. She's been abandoned by her mother years before and her father's in a mental institution, and she's seem to have fallen through the cracks in the system. That's the way she likes it. Then her tidy little world is turned upside down when Charlie(Michael Douglas), that's her dad, comes home and begins to take over her life. He has a treasure map, and in order to make tons of money and restart his relationship with his daughter, he's going to go for it. Miranda, as expected, isn't too thrilled, but decides to go along.

The treasure map leads them to, of all things, a local Costco, where Miranda is delegated to infiltrate.

This is a platonic love story between father and daughter, and as such it works. The reason is that Wood and Douglas have such good chemistry together and the latter has such a good time chewing the scenery. It's really to his taste, and as a lunatic, he brings true joy to the proceedings, which makes the whole silly mess actually somewhat believable. There's talk about Douglas getting another Oscar nomination for this, and it's quite possible, although had it been in a better movie, it might have been a slam dunk.

Meanwhile, it's a harmless bit of fluff that'll be a fine addition to the Netflix cue or on pay-per-view sometime down the road.

Eastern Promises
Focus Features, 100mins, R

Directed by
David Cronenberg

Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife working in your average London hospital, when a badly bleeding woman named Tatiana(Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), who leaves behind a baby and a diary before expiring. Her uncle Yuri (Donald Sumpter), reads Russian but doesn't really want to get involved, but his sister [and Anna's mother] Helen (Sinéad Cusack), convinces him to translate the diary, which holds within it a business card for a restaurant owned by a guy named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is using the place as a cover for his real job, head of the Russian mob.

The diary, of which Anna gives Semyon a copy, implicates him in all sorts of awful stuff, which leads him to dispatch his psychotic son
Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and smarmy chauffeur/clean up guy Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), to take care of the situation. From here things begin to get complicated. For not everyone is what they seem, and romance, albeit rather twisted, plus internal mafia politics begins to take center stage as layer upon layer of intrigue begins unfold in Steve Knight's nuanced script.

The partnership between David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen is beginning to progress, and although it was brilliant in their previous collaboration, “A History of Violence,” this is something which straddles the line between very, very good and truly great.

While Anna is nominally the main character, it's the relationship between Nickolai, Kirill and Semyon which is the actual focus of the film and the ins and outs of the Russian mob in at the end of it's first generation since the fall of the Communist party, the culture and the human element is thoroughly explored in a particularly graphic way. After all it is David Cronenberg. This is one of those films, which is going to be deservedly showered with award nominations. Definitely worth full price.

In the Valley of Elah
Warner Independent Pictures, 119mins, R

Written and Directed
by Paul Haggis

Always beware the term “based on a true story. I don't know how close to the actual events this film is, but I guess it doesn't really matter. This is an attack on the Bush administration, and the fact that something like this actually happened only adds to it's believability. However, this doesn't make this as good a thriller as it's supposed to be. It's a procedural drama like “Law and Order” or “CSI”.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired Military policeman, who lost a son in an accident years before. He has another son(Jonathan Tucker, who's seen only in flashbacks) who's just come back from Iraq. He and his wife Joan(Susan Sarandon) are looking forward to seeing him again when he gets a call from the base telling him the son is AOL. Hank decides to go and investigate himself.

Det. Emily Sanders(Charlize Theron) is a single mother living with a young son(Devin Brochu), whom she conceived with her boss Chief Buchwald(Josh Brolin), which is something everyone at the police station knows about and holds against her. But that begins to change when a gristly murder is discovered on what turns out to be Army property, which makes it the jurisdiction of Lt. Kirklander(Jason Patric), who may or may not be trying to cover up the acts of to of the victim's buddies(Wes Chatham and Jake McLaughlin). The victim, of course, turns out to be Hank's son.

With the investigation on the one side, and a bunch of videos from the war on the other, this is an exercise in agitprop, political propaganda in the form of theater, and as such, it works. Paul Haggis gets good performances out of his entire cast, and while the ending is entirely predictable, there's still quite a bit of suspense. This is definitely worth a bargain matinee.

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