Category: 2007


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In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog dived as directly into the psychological makeup of the individuals that would isolate themselves at the bottom of the Earth as he did the gorgeous vistas of the Antarctic landscape. If you decide to abandon a life in the civilized world to work in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on the planet, clearly you aren’t operating on the same wavelengths as the normal person. And that insight into people throwing themselves onto the mercy of nature is what makes Encounters at the End of the World one of the most fascinating documentaries of the aughts.

2007 saw the release of another film dealing in something of the same subject matter. Based off the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a dramatized peek into the real life story of the doomed Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. Lost in the sea of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men as well as perennial contender for Best Film of the Aughts, There Will Be Blood, I’d always thought Into the Wild has never gotten its proper due as one of the premier films of the late 2000s, and this most recent viewing only confirms that suspicion.

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This viewing of Into the Wild made me think a lot about Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel On the Road (and by proxy, because of Kristen Stewart’s small role in this movie, the 2012 film version). I’ve always been confused by people’s interpretation of On the Road as a celebration of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic, nomadic lifestyle. Sal is a desperately lonely man looking for any meaning in his empty existence, and Dean is a mentally unhinged serial misogynist. That book has always been a piercing look into the sadness and lack of definition in the lives of youngsters unfulfilled by the materialistic excess of modern life. The road is simply the outlet for their nihilistic confusion. Into the Wild is cut from the same cloth.

In real life, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a highly intelligent and socially/politically committed young man fresh out of college at Emory University in Georgia. But Christopher suffers from some of the worst (and most realistic) PTSD in any mainstream American film caused from years of living in the shadow of his parents’ (American Gun‘s Marcia Gay Harden and Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt) violence and anger-fueled marriage, and it has made him tragically sensitive to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern existence. And one day, without telling anyone, including his beloved sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), Christopher donates his entire life-savings to Oxfam and hits the road in his car never to be seen by his family again.

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Christening himself with the road handle of Alexander Supertramp, Christopher throws his entire old life away (including losing his car early in the journey) and hoofs it on foot, train, and kayak across the entire US for two years before making his way to Alaska where his life would come to a tragically early close. The film frames the events of Christopher’s early life as well as his epic journey across America as Alexander as intermittent flashbacks during his attempts to survive the brutality of the Alaskan wild. And when Christopher’s only shelter in the Alaskan wild was an abandoned VW bus he found by accident, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.

Into the Wild could be subtitled “Listen to These People Trying to Help You, You Idiot: The Movie,” and it would be surprisingly apt. Although the film does occasionally paint Christopher in a surreal messianic light (one of the flaws keeping it from perfection), it also never romanticizes the inevitable tragedy of Christopher’s mission. Chris meets a large number of people along his way, including Synecdoche, New York‘s Catherine Keener and On the Road‘s Kristen Stewart, and time and again, these strangers offer him the affection and companionship he’s been robbed off his whole life, but he consistently throws that away to continue his crazed goal of conquering the Alaskan wild.

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And that’s the entire point of Into the Wild. For his entire life, Christopher has only known a life defined by arbitrary and hypocritical value systems: wealth, social ambition, markers of capitalistic success. And the people selling these values to him were as broken and full of shit as the values he espoused. His parents lived in an invalid marriage and he discovers he’s actually a bastard child. And this drives Christopher to seek the exact opposite of the world his parents inhabit: a naturalistic life devoid of the modern comforts (and vices) of civilized society. Only to late does Christopher realize that nature is as cruel and unforgiving (although perhaps more sincere) than his parents and the real world.

As a psychological study of what would lead a bright young lad like Christopher to give up on life and more or less willingly commit suicide, Into the Wild is one of the most powerful and overwhelmingly sad films of the aughts. As someone who has on more than one occasion found myself lost in the existential throes of wondering why this life is worth living, Christopher’s struggles rink devastatingly true. And when Christopher meets kind strangers like Catherine Keener’s loving hippie or Hal Holbrook (in an Oscar nominated turn) as a lonely old man seeking companionship, it’s perfectly clear why he throws their love away even though it’s precisely what he needs. He doesn’t know any world where that doesn’t lead to him getting hurt even more.

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And beyond the heartache of watching one man’s foolish decision to destroy his own comfortable life, Into the Wild is overflowing with moments of such honest tragedy and horror that the film never slags (despite, admittedly, being far too long). During one of the Alaska segments, a starving Christopher (visualized by constantly notching a new hole in his belt) has finally killed a moose. But before he can cook it, flies immediately lay their eggs in it and the writhing maggots make it totally inedible. It’s one of the most terrifying and soulcrushing moments in mainstream American cinema. And it marks the clear beginning of the end of Christopher’s life.

It also doesn’t hurt that Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully shot films of the aughts; in fact, it might honestly be too beautifully shot which leads to its consistent misinterpretation as celebrating Christopher’s lifestyle. There is something utterly Malick-ian about the cinematography of this film with its stunning shots of the American countryside. If you’ve ever doubted the eternal beauty of the Yukon or grain fields in South Dakota or the Colorado River, even a quick viewing of Into the Wild will dispel you of such ignorance. Few films have ever managed to be so soul-boringly sad while also being so triumphantly beautiful.

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Emile Hirsch carries the majority of this film on his shoulders and there are large spans of Into the Wild where there’s no one else on screen with him, and it was a hell of a performance from a young actor. I mostly knew Hirsch from his role in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door, but his dramatic chops were more than up to the task of portraying the toweringly complex Christopher. As Christopher realizes that he’s dying (because he’s accidentally ingested poisonous roots), I can name few actors who have more convincingly sold the knowledge that one’s life is at its end than Emile Hirsch in those scenes.

And, the film’s supporting cast borders on ludicrous. The criminally under-appreciated Catherine Keener shines as the hippy Jan who begins to see Christopher as a surrogate son to replace the one that ran away from her. Vince Vaughan plays slightly against type to great effect as the man running the combine that Christopher works for for a short time. She’s so bad in the Twilight films that I forgot what an exciting and memorable performance a young Kristen Stewart gave during her short stint in this film as a young folk singer living on a hippie commune that falls in love with Christopher during his journey.

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But, rightly so, most of the attention in terms of performances for this film went to Hal Holbrook as the old man who offers Chris a random lift but finds his life changed by their encounter. Into the Wild is one of those films that is too sad to cry in during most of its run because it’s just so brutally realistic. But, when Hal shows up, and it’s clear that he’s lived a life of total regret since the death of his wife and son decades prior, a torrent of tears suddenly opened up in me. Holbrook plays the role with such subtlety and precision. It might be the most baldly emotionally manipulative arc of the film but when it’s performed so well, not even the cynic in me can raise a major complaint.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things worth complaining about in the film. The movie might not romanticize Christopher’s doomed quest, but it sure as hell romanticizes Christopher himself as a martyr of the “too pure for this cruel world” stripe. And that’s the wrong tack to take. Although the film doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christopher borders on being mentally ill (as I said, he clearly has severe PTSD), it also has moments of him spouting faux-profound philosophical nonsense, and it’s not clear enough that you’re aren’t supposed to agree with what Christopher is saying. And, of course, the film is about thirty minutes too long.

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And, there are moments where the camera work begins to get a little too “Hey! Notice me!” for its own good. There’s a moment where Christopher is showing shot in slow-motion as he whips his hair and beard in the water that is patently ludicrous and the spinning shot out of the bus after Christopher has finally passed away nearly wrecks the somber nature of the moment. I’m not saying that a static shot of his dead corpse was the right way to go, but motion sick is not the way to sell the death of the main character of your modern American epic.

Those are small complaints against what is otherwise one of the most refreshingly sincere and powerful American films of the aughts. Throw in a perfect score by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and there are very few film lovers that I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this movie to. I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating here, Into the Wild is a messy, flawed, overlong almost masterpiece. Like Gangs of New York and Das Boot before it, it is a film that comes as close to perfection as one can while still falling just short.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. This is the first film in the block of movies that will compose reviews 401-450. And, boy, it could have barely started on a better note)

I am not a religious man. I was when I was younger, but after seemingly endless bull sessions with intellectual friends in dorm rooms and apartments, I realized that I always wanted to believe in God or a higher power more than I ever really did. And, as an adult, any experiences in my life that I would describe as “spiritual” have come from moments of exposure to pure, unadulterated beauty: the first time I listened to Ágaetis byrjun by Sigúr Ros, the time that I was front row for a Bon Iver concert, the magical sing-along of “Hey Jude” at this year’s Bonnaroo, standing atop the mountaintop at the Oracle of Delphi. If spirituality exists, it is indistinguishable from beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime moments that define high-points in our lives. Before today, I can probably only name two films that were spiritual experiences for me, The Tree of Life and Synecdoche, New York. Leave it to German director Werner Herzog (Stroszek), a cinematic philosopher if there’s ever been one, to add another film to that list.

Werner Herzog is somewhat of an enigma, and for those who’ve seen his classic films like Grizzly Man or Stroszek, it’s easy to see why he is both so confounding and exceptionally talented. Similar to Ingmar Bergman, Herzog’s films are driven by philosophical, existentialist questions. Though unlike Bergman (whose interests were in God and religion and sexuality), Herzog is very much interested in man’s doomed pursuit to conquer or supersede nature. His great early films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo all examined men bent on conquering the great unknown and failing or paying an outrageous price for their hubris. Herzog is both in awe of the beauty of nature and simultaneously terrified by its horrors and raw power. His thoroughly unromantic view of the world around us puts him in stark contrast of the majority of his fellow documentarians (though Herzog also makes narrative films). Yet, by capturing both the untapped beauty of Antarctica as well as its unmatched power of destruction and danger, Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World is an almost peerless act of documentary film-making.

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After seeing underwater footage from a friend (Henry Kaiser who scored Grizzly Man) from the Ross Sea in Antarctica, Werner Herzog accepted an invitation from the National Science Foundation to visit the South Pole to make a documentary, though in his own words he wasn’t interested in making another film about fluffy penguins. Herzog’s interests are more psychological (though he certainly captures the overwhelming beauty of Antarctica). As much as Werner Herzog is intent on documenting nature at its purest and most unspoiled by man, he also wants to know about what kind of men and women would be driven to leave the rest of the world behind and expose themselves to the hardships of the bottom of the world. Interacting with the inhabitants of McMurdo Station (which Herzog seems to relish sounding similar to the word murder), Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating portrait of the outsiders who found a community in this isolated terrain.

All the while, Herzog (who, along with his cinematographer was the entire cast and crew) provides a wry running commentary. One of the most surprising elements of the film is how funny it can be in a dark and sardonic way. One almost can’t be sure if Herzog is making fun of some of his subjects. Knowing the man’s philosophy about the murderous nature of, for example, the jungle, he certainly doesn’t empathize with those who try to romanticize their surroundings. But, at the same time, it’s also clear that Herzog is fascinated by these men and women. And when he finds a compatible soul in a glaciologist who speaks of the murder and violence of the microscopic world beneath the ice, you get a glimpse of two men conversing who have both stared into the abyss and been terrified but drawn in even further by what they’ve seen.

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I speak of the film as spiritual for a variety of reasons. Part of it is the overwhelming beauty of the film. Herzog doesn’t romanticize nature. He doesn’t idealize it. But, he also can’t deny the haunting beauty of the world beneath the ice in the Ross Sea or the luminescent structures haunting a tunnel formed by steam vents near an active volcano. Another part of the spiritual nature of the film (which reminds me of the ending of Synecdoche, New York) is Herzog’s agreement with many scientists that man (whether through our own stupidity or the inevitable corrections of nature) has limited time on this planet and this frozen wasteland will outlast us because even if we destroy it in the short term, we will disappear and it will return. There is a particular sequence where Herzog has conversed with the fatalistic glaciologist and they dive beneath the surface. There was something incredibly humbling and awe-inspiring about that journey into a world where humanity simply isn’t meant to be. It was otherworldly and alien, and a reminder that there is so much of the universe that humanity will never experience.

Herzog’s decisions on how to score the film border on genius. The film utilizes a nearly liturgical, spiritual score of chanting and organ-driven hymns of some kind, and when they are beneath the ice (I can’t even begin to stress how haunting those sequences were) or in the steam tunnels, the score kicks into high gear and Herzog has the wisdom to shut up and just let the power of the scenery do all of the speaking necessary. And there’s a moment about midway through the film where Herzog visits a camp of scientists studying the seals that live in the area and they begin discussing the nearly inorganic sounds that these seals make to communicate. One of the scientists compares it to Pink Floyd, and it’s nearly accurate. Were these not some of the most respected scholars in their fields talking, I would have thought Herzog was pulling a fast one on us and just playing unsettling electronic music rather than recording seal calls. It’s almost beyond belief.

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If you have even a passing interest in documentaries or nature, you owe it to yourself to watch Encounters at the End of the World. I fear that I’ve made the film sound too cerebral and that I may scare some viewers away from watching this powerful film. The intellectual and philosophical nature of the film is there if you want it (I certainly did), but if you just want to bask in the gorgeous and haunting scenery, you can do that as well. Encounters at the End of the World, like many of the best films, operates on a multitude of equally fascinating levels. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this film will stay with me for a long time, and I hope to return to its alien and exotic world many times in the future.

Final Score: A

 

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I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that maybe one of the reasons why I love the movie (500) Days of Summer so much is that it has one of my top five movie soundtracks of all time. Actually, it might be my number two right behind Rushmore. Every single song used in the film elevates already well-written scenes to cinematic brilliance. How can you not love the use of “Hero” by Regina Spektor as the film split-screens Tom’s expectations of a reunion with Summer against the heartbreaking reality of that fateful party. One of the more under-rated tracks on the soundtrack is “She’s Got You High” by British indie rock band Mumm-Ra. I don’t know. It kind of fits something in my personal life right now and I was thinking about this song a lot on my drive home from work today. There’s nothing wrong with genuinely happy and upbeat indie pop-rock.

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Long time readers probably know that I have  a serious case of “Bon Fiver” (pronounced “fee-vair” like “eee-vair”). I’ve always loved Bon Iver’s breakthrough album For Emma, Forever Ago from first listen and after Justin Vernon’s phenomenal Bonnaroo set, I finally was able to wrap myself around the self-titled album as well. It expanded his sound in ways that few bands whose name isn’t Radiohead or the Beatles ever dare to do, particularly when For Emma attained such cult status among indie music fans. However, what made me fall “Arcade Fire” in love with Bon Iver was the aforementioned Bonnaroo set. It’s the single greatest concert I’ve ever gone to and more of a religious experience than I ever had in a church. Justin Vernon and his collaborators make heavenly music and it just astounds in a live setting. You can truly grasp the magnitude of his lush and expansive music when you see it being made right in front of you. I’m diving into my vinyl collection for this one because I bought For Emma. It’s ironic that I’m picking this song, “Flume,” because Bon Iver didn’t do it at Bonnaroo. It’s my second favorite song on the record but I want to save “Skinny Love” for a special occasion.

(Quick side note. I promised you all I’m on a streak. Somehow, Netflix sent me 4 instead of my usual 3 DVDs, and they’re all films that I’m very excited to watch/think have the potential to be really good or great. This film was one of them. It was really good. Plus, I just bought Cabin in the Woods on blu-ray. It’s Joss Whedon. How can it not be good? We shall see though. We shall see. I’m loving this blog right now though.)

A lot of films are victims of inaccurate publicity. Brokeback Mountain is so much more than the “gay cowboy” movie. Watchmen had much grander psychological motivations than simply being another action-fueled superhero movie (although it still had plenty of action). Magic Mike was a tragic examination of the death of the American dream and a reverse-look at sexual objectification. It wasn’t just a stripper movie. When I first heard about 2007’s indie “comedy” Lars and the Real Girl, I thought it was going to be a semi-exploitative look at one man’s sexual obsession with a life-sized sex doll. Even Netflix’s description of it makes it seem that way. Thank god that’s not true. It’s a touching and intimate look at loneliness and the self-defense mechanisms we create for ourselves to protect us from the pain and hurt of the real world.

In the frozen reaches of the Dutch Midwest, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a sad and dejected loner living in the garage of his late parents’ house where his brother Gus (The Assassination of Jesse James‘ Paul Schneider) lives with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). He only leaves his garage for church and work, and despite the regular invitations to dinner from his sister-in-law, he spends time with no one. One day at work though, he hears a co-worker talking about life-sized anatomically correct female dolls, and six weeks later, one arrives of his own. He names her Bianca and has deluded himself into thinking she’s a real girl. However, he doesn’t have her for sexual purposes. She’s simply the friend and companion he’s always needed, but his eccentricity has his brother convinced he’s mentally ill, and with the help of local shrink Dr. Dagmar (Pieces of April‘s Patricia Clarkson) as well as the rest of the town, they try to help Lars through this strange patch in his life.

If that plot description seems either vague or boring, fear not. I simply don’t want to ruin the direction the film takes which is one of the most optimistic and hopeful statements on our ability to rally around and help each other in our moments of need that I can think of from modern cinema. That it manages to do so without seeming hopelessly naive speaks to the endearing idealism and hope that permeates throughout the film. And the film moves at its own stately pace, but it’s never dull. For a film that’s characterized as a comedy, it’s never especially funny. That’s alright, ultimately, because it’s an engrossing character study in loneliness and despair while simultaneously looking at those parts of small-town America that we can still cheer for (as opposed to the economic implosions, the bigotry, and the small-mindedness).

Ryan Gosling’s career is one of Hollywood’s most interesting to study. He made a name for himself as having the potential to write his own ticket after starring in one of the definitive chick-flicks of the 2000s, The Notebook. He could have played it safe and made a career as the sensitive and troubled romantic lead. Thank God he didn’t go down that route. Instead, he transformed himself into one of the indie darlings of the aughts, a role he continues to play into this decade. Along with Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl is one of Gosling’s most high-profile indie roles, and it’s easy to see why. He never turns Lars into a joke. He’s a sad and lonely boy trapped in a man’s body. And you watch him learn to accept and come to terms with his place in grown-up society over the course of the film as well as work through decades of feelings of abandonment and lost love.

The film was overflowing with great supporting parts as well. Paul Schneider is a terribly underrated character actor. If you need any proof of that, just watch the criminally under-appreciated All the Real Girls with him and Zooey Deschanel. If you’re wondering how you would react if your brother started talking to a life-sized sex doll, it would probably be something like Paul Schneider’s Gus, but he also shows some sensitivity as he wrestles with his guilt of leaving Lars behind when he left for college. Kelli Garner is also charming as Margo, one of Lars’ coworkers who has a serious crush on Lars, but he’s too shy and awkward to even notice her existence. Emily Mortimer is fine (she always is), but she has considerable difficulty suppressing her British accent during many of the most emotional parts of the film. And has there been a role where Patricia Clarkson didn’t shine?

As someone who is shy and occasionally withdrawn (which makes my past political aspirations so weird in retrospect), the parts of this film where it explores Lars’ almost pathological inability to function around other adults was simply awe-inspiring. It’s a story about a man who went far too long (and he’s never formally diagnosed in the film) without getting proper care for a serious case of Social Anxiety Disorder, and it then becomes a tale of how a community rallies around a member who needs it the most in order to help him get better. But any moment in the film where we see Lars physically unable to make emotional or actual physical contact with other people was painful to watch because of how terribly real it all felt. I’m not nearly that shy, but the fear that we’re never going to be able to connect with the others around us is so real, and Ryan Gosling and the script bring that fear to life.

That a film can make you care about the imaginary relationship between a social trainwreck of a man and his life-sized doll girlfriend is a testament to the heart and insight of the script. It’s a small, quiet film (which is shocking considering the subject matter) with a subtle grasp of the fragility of our mental state and our relationships with those around us. It may not speak to some of the largest existential questions that face us as a people but the way it so freshly captures a tiny aspect of our harried time on this planet is sublime. For fans of quirky and ultimately moving indie comedies/dramas/romances (Lars and the Real Girl covers all those bases), this film will leave you sated.

Final Score: B+

Not all Westerns are brow-beating boy’s adventure tales. Although your typical cowboys and Indians tale was the purview of John Wayne and John Ford, the genre has expanded its horizons over the years. Brokeback Mountain turned the natural beauty and gorgeous location shots of the Western into a tragic story of forbidden love. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was the striking anti-Western which explored the psychological consequences of violence and revenge. Television’s Breaking Bad may be a modern drug crime drama, but anyone who’s seen the show’s long shots of the open Arizona desert (or this season’s rousing train robbery) knows where it’s roots lie.

2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward of Robert Ford from director Andrew Dominik transforms the American Western into an absorbing, existentialist psychological drama. By taking one of the most famous figures of the American West and turning his infamous murder on its head, The Assassination of Jesse James avoids the biggest risk faced by all historical dramas. Rather than focusing on the “what” or “how” of history, it examines the why. By making the Western into a gripping character study, The Assassination of Jesse James is one of last decade’s best Westerns.

At the tender age of 19, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) was accepted into the notorious James brothers gang, led by the charismatic Jesse James (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt). Robert is a shy and sensitive young man with more education than your average gunslinger. He has worshiped Jesse James his entire life. With a list of similarities between himself and the storied criminal that he recite at whim, Robert is Jesse’s biggest fan. He even has a stash of nickel novels stashed under his bed celebrating a fictional side of Jesse’s outlaw life. So, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime when he’s given the chance to run with his hero. Naturally, it all goes downhill from there.

Robert Ford quickly learns that living the life of an outlaw isn’t as glamorous as he imagined. His hero worship for Jesse earns him the ire and cruelty of his criminal comrades (played by a wonderful supporting cast including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, and Garret Dillahunt) and the immediate suspicion of Jesse himself. After taking one humiliation after another from Jesse and crew, Robert finally gets it in his head to kill Jesse at the behest of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and must wrestle with the moral minefield of deciding to shoot his former leader for fame and wealth.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a film with such dark themes shouldn’t look this pretty. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a gorgeously shot film at an almost Malick-ian scale. Although the film makes use of lengthy expositional montages (to get across some of the more historical information of the film), it never feels too stale or dry because the lighting and coloring of the film is phenomenal. If a film is going to run for 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s got to have a lot going for it, and the always stunning cinematography kept you glued to the screen.

The film also acts as an engrossing meditation on responsibility and guilt (in a similar vein to last year’s marvelous Margaret). Although history has come down rather harshly on Robert Ford (hence the film’s somewhat ironic title), The Assassination of Jesse James paints a far more sympathetic portrait. Yet it also refuses to absolve Robert completely of the role he plays. Instead, we see a tightly wound, complex tale of hero worship gone wrong, how deep loyalty binds us, how far we go to protect ourselves, and even some slight homoerotic undertones (that perhaps I’m reading too deeply into).

Casey Affleck earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination (Javier Bardem obviously deserved the win that year for No Country for Old Men). Robert Ford has been painted as one of history’s most notorious cowards. Casey Affleck captures Robert’s wounded pride, his obvious obsession with Jesse, his growing remorse about his decision to kill Jesse, and his overall shame about the path he walks. With great performances in Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck has matured into a great actor that surpassed his brother Ben with aplomb.

Brad Pitt is also wonderful. His Jesse James is an almost mythical figure, a monster from a child’s cautionary tale. Although the film takes great pains to let you know this legendary bandit is a human being like the rest of us (we see him playing with his children, doting on his wife [Mary Louise Parker], and enjoying the company of his friends), Brad Pitt never lets you forget that Jesse is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. If he has the slightest reason to suspect betrayal, he’ll kill you without batting an eyelash. Brad Pitt channels Jesse’s paranoia, his mercurial charm, his ability to inflict fear and loyalty into everyone around him, and ultimately his weariness with the world around him. 2007 was a great year for Oscar nominees but it’s hard to believe that Brad Pitt wasn’t nominated.

The film is also buoyed by its wonderful supporting cast. Paul Schneider (Parks and Recreation) shows why he was such a believable roue in All the Real Girls as the rakish Dick Liddle whose voracious sexual appetite helps put the eventual downfall of the James gang in motion. Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) made one of his most high-profile pre-The Hurt Locker roles as Jesse’s cousin, Wood Hite, who gets his jollies from bullying the sensitive young Robert Ford. Deadwood‘s Garret Dillahunt plays the type of cowardly, in-too-deep role that has been a mainstay of his career as another member of the gang who may or may not have been planning to betray Jesse, and of course Moon‘s Sam Rockwell continues to show why he is one of America’s most under-appreciated character actors as the Cheshire cat grin-bearing Charlie Ford.

It’s difficult to stress enough how unconventional of a western The Assassination of Jesse James ultimately is. Although it delivers moments such as a train robbery, shoot-outs, and stunning vistas of the untouched American west, those genre touchstones are ultimately secondary to exploring what drove Robert to murder and perhaps telling one man’s side of the story after 150 years of having his name smeared. The consensus among Western purists is that the film is “too slow” and “too talky,” but for people who aren’t even big Western fans in the first place, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have the potential to change your mind about the genre forever. Don’t let this underappreciated gem slip under your radar.

Final Score: A-

Just because you prefer the films of Federico Fellini or Terrence Malick doesn’t mean you can’t just sit back and enjoy a good, old fashioned hyper-violent action movie every now and then. They’ve got to be ultra-stylistic or a glorious celebration of action cliche excess (Shoot ‘Em Up), but it’s great to have a movie that’s a purely visceral experience (as opposed to cerebral or emotional). These films almost never qualify as “great” movies, but for fans of film technique, stylistic action movies can give your mind a break while simultaneously stimulating your love of visually exciting film-making. 2007’s Smokin’ Aces is one of those films. And although it starts tripping over its own feet with its unnecessarily serious ending (which clashes with the mood of the rest of the film), if you can look past that failing, it’s remain a high-octane thrill ride ever since it was released.

In the realm of the Guy Ritchie films such as Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (though with only half of Ritchie’s wit), Smokin’ Aces is a crime action thriller where the only thing higher than the body count is the number of players and schemes along for the ride. After Mafioso Primo Sparazza puts a hit on mob informant and Vegas showman Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), just about every assassin worth his weight comes out to take him down. FBI Agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) race to the Lake Tahoe penthouse suite where Israel is holed up, hoping to catch up with him before the army of hit men bears down on him. On the opposite side of the law are heavy hitters including three psychotic nazi brothers, two African American female assassins (including the sultry Alicia Keys), and a man notorious for changing his face to make the perfect kill.

The film’s almost absurdly star-studded cast has to be the biggest selling point behind the clever and visceral visual style of the film. Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, it’s almost a question of “who isn’t” in this movie. You have Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, and Ray Liotta as FBI Agents. Jeremy Piven is the target and rapper Common is his primary bodyguard. There are three cast members from Lost in major or minor roles. That’s Matthew Fox as hotel security guard. Nestor Carbonell as one of the primary hit men and Kevin Durand as one of the inbred psycho assassins. Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson are the female assassins. Ben Affleck is a bail bondsman hoping to capture Israel alive before the hit men smoke him. And none other than Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, plays another one of the psycho brothers. Just to round things out, Jason Bateman is a cross-dressing lawyer hoping to not lose the bail he put down on Israel.

In the cast, a few stars obviously push their way to the front. Jeremy Piven is a wonder as always. Although he starts the film out in what can be kindly called “Full Ari Gold” mode, he generally finds himself beaten down over the course of the movie by the possibility of his impending doom and the fact that he is likely about to sell out all of his closest friends. Inhabiting the coked out, arrogant, regretful, and, ultimately, terrified Buddy Israel is simply further proof that Jeremy Piven is a talented actor who got his big breaks far too late in life. Common proves that he is a capable actor in his flirtatious scenes with Alicia Keys as well as the moments where he confronts Israel about his portrayal. Ryan Reynolds also admirably acquits himself as the FBI Agent who regularly learns that there are more and more layers to this seemingly simple case.

The film’s influences are fairly obvious. Trying to pair the quick and snappy dialogue of a Tarantino film with the gambit pileups of a Guy Ritchie movie, writer/director Joe Carnahan’s actual achievements are more of a mixed bag. When the film hits its marks, it’s a wonderful thing. Whether it’s the darkly comic (but inexplicably hilarious) moment where Chris Pine’s Tremor brother forces a corpse to mime out his apology for killing him or Taraji P. Henson’s assassin opening fire on a room full of feds with a 50. sniper rifle, the movie finds the magic balance between dark humor and a wee bit of the old ultra violence. However, when the film tries to be remotely serious, it simultaneously snaps the comically violent tone of the film while also simply failing to actually be dramatic. The awful twist ending is the ultimate example of this flaw in the film’s system.

The film isn’t going to please the art-house crowd (although I consider myself to be a part of that crowd. I can just also appreciate more broadly appealing films), but if you like smart and witty action films, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Smokin’ Aces. Sometimes all that matters for a movie is whether or not it’s fun. And if you can’t find anything fun about Smokin’ Aces, you need your testosterone levels checked (unless you’re a chick and just naturally don’t have any. Still think women can find the film appealing though). It may not be as good as stylistic thrillers like La Femme Nikita or Leon: The Professional, but not everybody can be a Luc Besson. If you need your fix of hyper-kinetic, over-the-top action, you can start here.

Final Score: B

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends at work introduced me to a new term to describe a much beloved subgenre of movies like Conversations with Other Women that primarily involve two characters doing nothing much other than talking the entire film. She called movies like that “verbal volleyball,” and having finished the 2007 film Interview, the term seems especially appropriate. It’s been a while since I watched a movie that was this “talky,” and while I wouldn’t be willing to put Steve Buscemi’s adaptation of Theo Van Gogh’s 2003 Dutch film of the same name in the same league as Conversations with Other Women or other titans of the dialogue-heavy field (like Chasing Amy or Reservoir Dogs), it was a well-acted and sharply scripted treatise on the way we exploit those around us, the often false assumptions we make about celebrities, and the psychological power of deception. Though there was a stretch in the center of the film where it really flexed its psychological insight, a more uneven and forced ending (as well as a dull beginning) kept this film from living up to its total potential.

When political correspondent Pierre Peders (The Big Lebowski‘s Steve Buscemi) is asssigned to interview tabloid-bait slasher film actress and TV primetime soap star Katya (Sienna Miller), an unexpected night of psychological games and power-plays emerges. Resenting the fact that he has to interview someone as seemingly unimportant as Katya instead of covering a breaking Washington, D.C. scandal, Pierre arrives at the interview completely unprepared and doesn’t even know the name of Katya’s latest film or the TV show she currently works on. The pair immediately despise each other and after fifteen minutes or so of bickering and Pierre being simply awful to Katya, Katya walks out of the interview (and Pierre calls her “Kuntya”). When Katya accidentally causes the taxi Pierre is in to crash (and Pierre nearly gets a concussion), Katya takes Pierre back to up nearby loft to tend to his wounds, and the real movie begins. In spite of the cruelty that Katya and Pierre inflict on each other, their passionate dislike for one another leads to an almost perverse attraction, and they spend the evening picking and picking at each others scars and scabs to get to the truth of what the other is really like.

Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller are the only characters in this film that are on screen for more than a minute so it’s no exaggeration to say that this film lives and dies based off of their performances. While I’m normally a Steve Buscemi fan (He’s one of the most innately weird and unpredictable actors in Hollywood along with Christopher Walken), I was actually slightly underwhelmed by his performance. There’s a difference between a nuanced and restrained performance and one that just seems bored and wooden. Steve Buscemi was trying too hard to keep his eccentricities and bizarreness in check and wound up overcompensating for it by sucking most of the life out of Pierre’s character. Thankfully then that Sienna Miller blew me away. It was obvious from the entire premise of the film that Katya wasn’t going to be nearly as vacuous as Pierre simply assumed she would be, but Sienna Miller really showed an intellectual ferocity as Katya that I hadn’t seen in any of her other performances. Unlike the fairly static performance of Buscemi, Miller had the opportunity to explore a wider palette of emotions and in the wake of the film’s ending (which I still don’t like but I guess it makes this more interesting), you see it all in an entirely different, second light. Her nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards was well deserved.

When this movie is exploring power dynamics between journalists and celebrities or deconstructing the way that we view those celebrities that constantly make the front page of tabloids, it’s a brilliant and witty film. The dialogue just pops off the screen and the movie often feels more like a two-person play than your conventional drama (which I’m perfectly fine with). Because the film makes Pierre such an unsympathetic character and Katya isn’t much more likeable, the film really takes the gloves off in showing these people, warts and all. And there’s that whole ironic commentary on how the film is attacking the voyeuristic fascination we have with the private lives of the famous while simultaneously giving us an intimate (or so we think) look into the life of this woman. However, and it’s hard to complain about a film’s ending without ruining it, I do feel like the movies ending came out of nowhere, and it didn’t seem to jibe with the feel of the rest of the film whatsoever. I was actually so disappointed in the way I thought it added this forced and unnatural sense of drama to the movie that it seriously dampened my enjoyment of the hour or so that proceeded it.

I have other films to watch so I’ll probably wrap up this review. Fellini’s 8 1/2 is the next movie on my Netflix Instant queue and I also have the sequel to Wings of Desire at home which I’m going to be watching next (after I watch an episode of Angel as part of my meta-structure for the blog which is movie, episode of TV series I’m reviewing, movie, repeat). Anyways, I might not have been crazy about this movie, but it was still very well-made, and if you’re a fan of psychological character studies and dialogue heavy cinema, you should definitely give Interview a try. I just recommend coming in with your expectations under control.

Final Score: B

Mad Men: Season 1 (eps. 10-13)

It took me until the final disc of the season, but I think I finally get what all of the fuss concerning Mad Men is all about. I watched three episodes of the series yesterday and just now finished the last episode of Season 1 today. While I had certainly always enjoyed the series from the beginning, I had never really understood what the obsession people have with the show was all about. It was good but certainly not that good. Well, judgments like that are what happen when you wait nearly 5 years to start watching a wildly popular TV program. It takes you a little while to realize what everyone else already knew which is that these characters are easily some of the most complex and “whole” TV creations this side of an HBO program like The Wire or Oz. I had seen flashes of what made this series brilliant in the past, but my biggest problem with the show was that I was unsure about what kind of program it was trying to be. Now, having finished season one and watched three of the finest episodes of the series thus far (I wasn’t as crazy about the finale sans the revelations concerning Peggy), I’m willing to give Mad Men its deserved title as one of the best programs on TV.

After Sterling Cooper loses the very profitable Dr. Scholl’s account, Roger attempts to cheer himself and Don up by seducing a pair of twins that were cast for a modeling gig at the agency. While Don is feeling guilty (in his own weird way) about this public display of disloyalty to his wife (which I feel has more to do with his reputation in Roger’s eyes rather than any concerns about Betty as shown by later actions), Roger is partying like a man half his age when Roger suddenly suffers a nearly-fatal heart attack. This brush with mortality sends Don seeking the comfort of Rachel Menken who finally acquiesces to the affair Don has pursued the entire season. Don finally reveals a little of his past to another human being (Rachel) and we discover that Dick’s mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to Don and Don was raised by his biological father (a drunk and abusive man) and his father’s wife who despised him. Eventually Don’s father died after being kicked in the face by a horse and he was raised by his father’s wife and her new husband. After Roger’s heart attack, he attempts to return to work far too early to meet with the head of Lucky Strike cigarettes (to ensure that the company will be okay), and he suffers another heart attack at which point, Bert Cooper makes Don an official partner in the company. Peggy also gets another crack at writing copy when her insights into a weight-loss belt (that provides more sexual pleasure than weight loss) impress the men in advertising yet again.

The disc began on Labor Day but it ends in November with two episodes centered around the election of President John F. Kennedy (Sterling Cooper was in charge of advertising for Nixon) as well as that year’s Thanksgiving. Don’s brother Adam commits suicide but before his death, he mails a box of family pictures and belongings to Don’s office which is accidentally delivered to Pete. Pete tries to lord this over Don’s head to get promoted to head of accounts services since Pete now knows that Don’s real name is Dick Whitman (even though Dick Whitman died in Korea and that Don Draper should be 43). Through flashbacks it is revealed that the real Don Draper died an accidental death in Korea while Dick Whitman was his assistant. Dick (Don) put his dogtags on the real Don Draper and switched identities with the man leading to the Don Draper we know today. Don calls Pete’s blackmail by allowing Pete to tell Cooper about Don’s past rather than give Pete the job. Cooper doesn’t seem to care and miraculously no one fired Pete for being such an asshole here. In the last episode, Betty discovers that her best friend’s husband was cheating on her friend, and she is forced to recognize that Don has likely been having many affairs over the years though she doesn’t seem to do anything about it. After really coming into her own with the weight loss belt copy, Don promotes Peggy to junior copy writer with her own official account. Peggy’s rise in the company though is potentially threatened when she goes to the hospital thinking she has food poisoning and instead, she discovers that she’s pregnant and gives birth to her child. The season ends with Don sitting alone in his house as Peggy and the children went to visit Peggy’s family, and Don may have all of the material success in the world but nothing resembling friends or true human contact.

I could probably write an entire essay about the scenes between Rachel and Don over the course of these episodes and how they equate to what I feel is the crux of the series and the crux of Don’s character. After Roger’s heart attack, Don shows up at Rachel’s apartment. They’ve had an on again/off again flirtation the entire season but because Don was married, Rachel always rebuffed his advances. Having seen his friend Roger, the epitome of power and success, nearly meet his maker during an act that was a proclamation of what his power allowed him to do, Don is feeling his most weakest and vulnerable. His entire Don Draper persona of untouchable and complete power and force of will is being challenged by the simple facts of life and that at any moment, your body can choose to betray you. Don spent his entire childhood in fear of his abusive father, in fear of a world where no one liked him or even noticed him and so he has devoted his entire adult life to being something above mere mortals. He’s a sexual god, dresses like he owns the world, and has more confidence and charisma (even if it’s feigned) than anyone else. Yet, watching his friend almost die strips all of this armor and varnish away from him, and in that moment of vulnerability, Rachel, the ambitious and powerful woman, sees past the carefully constructed version of Don Draper and finds the real artifact. She accuses Don of trying to manipulate the situation of Roger’s death as an excuse to behave poorly, but when he lays out his hedonistic worldview, you truly get the feeling that it is what he believes as a result of the environment that both his personalities were born. When Don initially wants to run away after Pete finds out about his past, Rachel realizes underneath everything Don is just a scared man and she finally leaves him. Words can’t express just how well-written I felt those scenes to be.

Back when I was reviewing the first disc, I complained that I thought the series was trying to have it both ways by being a misogynistic male power fantasy as well as the story of the beginning of feminist awakenings in its female heroes. I take that statement back. While it was certainly consequence free for many of the male characters at the beginning of the show, these last two discs have really started to look at just how hurt and broken these men are and why this environmentally pushed need to succeed drives them to act in such selfish ways. These men are still, without exception, complete pricks, but the series has really started exploring the consequences not only of their sexism and hedonism, but also what is going on in their minds and in their homes that leads them to act like this. Also, there’s only one character that I would call a feminist at all in the series and that’s Peggy (because Betty is just so frustrating and shallow to be anything other than a spoiled child). The series takes a modern perspective and shows the suffering these women go through but I don’t think it’s especially interested in painting a portrait of a beginning of the modern feminist era. Instead, the female characters simply join the men as being exquisitely crafted creations whose journeys through their complicated lives we get to see in all of its intimate and wrenching detail. Mad Men is the rare truly character driven TV show (as opposed to plot) as the stories are never that remarkable. It’s getting to unravel layer after layer of these deeply troubled protagonists that causes me to come back episode after episode for this show.

Having finished the first season of this series, I have reached a bit of a perplexing conundrum. I am thoroughly enjoying this program and over the course of this last disc, it transformed into something really special that was easily some of the best TV I’ve reviewed for this blog. Now, I really want to finish the rest of the series as quickly as possible (especially since season 5 starts in March), but I know that I also want to finish Seasons 5 and 6 of Dexter, and before I began Mad Men, my plan was to make Angel and Twin Peaks the series that I would watch after I finished up Dexter and Doctor Who (which I’m on hiatus from since I’ve finished the David Tennant years). I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do here. Whatever I end up watching tomorrow when I get home from work will likely settle the issue so that’s something I’m not going to put too much thought into til tomorrow. All in all though, if you’re looking for a new great TV fix and somehow read this review despite all of the massive spoilers, you should give Mad Men a shot. I feel like it takes the entire season to really find its distinct voice and what kind of series it’s trying to be, but once it figured it out, Mad Men became TV magic.

Final Score: A

Had this blog existed back when Lost was still on the air, there is complete metaphysical certitude that I would not have been able to sum up my thoughts into enough coherence for at least a week to even come close to rationally analyzing the final two hours of a program that had been the defining television event of the last five years of my life (I only started watching Season 1 the summer before Season 2 aired). The sheer beauty and emotional catharsis that finale provided are still almost beyond words. It was a perfect end to one of the greatest programs not just in the history of network TV (for which it is surely the greatest serial drama of all time in that regard) but in all of television history. The fourth season finale of Doctor Who which wraps up the stories of the various companions the Doctor has traveled with these last four years (Rose, Martha, Captain Jack, Donna, Sarah Jane Smith, etc) but not the tale of the Tenth Doctor may not reach the artistic heights of finales such as Lost, M*A*S*H, or Six Feet Under, it still had me sobbing uncontrollably by its end with its immensely satisfying ends to so many different stories I had been following for so long now yet still managing to include the tragic hallmarks that make Doctor Who a cut above your average sci-fi program. To paraphrase a certain time lord, molto benne.

The final disc of David Tennant’s last season as the Doctor (though he still has four made for TV movies left to go after this) begins with the Doctor and Donna on some Chinese-inspired planet. Donna visits a soothsayer who tricks Donna into destroying her entire past with the Doctor by creating a parallel universe where the Doctor and Donna never met. To say that this is disastrous would be an understatement. Rather than escaping the tunnel with Donna where the spider creature was nested back in Season 3’s Christmas Special, the Doctor dies in the explosion instead because Donna wasn’t there to coax him out. Things only get worse when the Doctor isn’t there to stop the Judoon from killing everyone in the hospital from Martha’s episode (which results in Martha’s death as well as Sarah Jane Smith). Humanity’s troubles still aren’t done. The Doctor isn’t alive to stop the Titanic spaceship from crashing into London which it does now and destroys the entire town. Donna was away on holiday with her family when it happened (thanks to the interventions of Rose Tyler who keeps appearing and talking to Donna in this alternate universe). Then, the Doctor, Donna, and Martha don’t stop the Sontarem from poisoning the Earth, and Torchwood (which means Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper, and Ianto) sacrifice their lives to save the Earth. Just as a totalitarian government has taken over England, Rose enlists Donna in a last ditch plan to go into the past to make sure Donna really does meet the Doctor even though it means everyone in this alternate universe will blink out of existence. Donna succeeds and gives the Doctor the warning “Bad Wolf” which sets up the events of the two-part finale.

Without wanting to start going on a rambling technobabble rant like the Doctor himself, Rose’s presence in Donna’s alternate universe means the walls between the dimensions are breaking down which spells disaster for the universe itself. All of the missing planets we’ve heard about this season finally come back into play. While the Doctor and Donna are in the TARDIS on Earth, Earth suddenly disappears without a trace right around them while the TARDIS stays locked in space-time. A fairly complicated (the many details of which I’m going to avoid delving into) plot involving the destruction of the universe itself unfolds as the Daleks return as part of a vengeance mission by their creator, Davros, who the Doctor thought had died in the Time War. The combined forces of virtually every living companion/friend this incarnation of the Doctor has had (including Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister[WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE!]) returns as humanity makes its last stand against the Daleks while they wait for the Doctor to arrive. Along the way, the Doctors severed hand which we’ve seen the last two seasons (back from his very first episode) comes into play as it causes a mortal half-human Doctor to be born and simultaneously makes Donna half Time Lord. They manage to stop the Daleks thanks to Donna’s increased intelligence as a half Time Lord. However, Rose must return to her parallel universe but she’s left with the mortal Doctor who tells her he loves her and they kiss. Donna is essentially mind-wiped by the Doctor because her human mind can’t handle being half Time Lord for a long time and it would kill her to have the knowledge she has. Thus, the season ends with humanity (and the universe saved) but the Doctor is back to being alone.

Those plots were much more complicated and I really left out a ton of details but let’s just say that every character got their moment in the sun and they were all brilliant. By the time “Journey’s End” came to a close, I was just a tear-stained mess. I had to actually pause the episode at one point to clean my glasses because I could no longer see through the streaks of tears that were covering the lenses. This began near the end of “Stolen Earth”, and just continued for almost every second of “Journey’s End”. When the mortal Doctor and Rose kissed on Bad Wolf Bay, I simply lost all control of my tear ducts, and it was like Niagara Falls in my bedroom. It is truly miraculous there weren’t any people around to see that. To quote Cheese Wagstaff, “That shit was unseemly.” I’ve never been Donna’s biggest fan, but her fate was so sad that even she had me in tears by episode’s end. Yeah, the episode might have relied on some ridiculous plot devices and more technobabble than even this series is known for (which is to say a ton), but it was all so satisfying that not at one point did I even begin to care. My only complaint is that I almost wish Tennant had regenerated this episode because seeing him for four more episodes without this group of people almost seems like a cruelty to a character so defined by the people he traveled with.

I want to go on about how brilliant “Turn Left” was and how (with the exception of the confusing time travel at the heart of the episode [a stable time loop like “Blink” it was not]) I actually think it was arguably a better written episode than the finales. “Turn Left” was easily the darkest and most depressing thing I’ve ever seen this series do and I loved every second of it. However, I’m tired, and I want to bring my time with the Doctor to a close for now. Doctor Who has become such a personal experience at this point that my ability to rationally analyze it is almost non-existant. I know it’s not a great show (though the last two discs certainly were), but like the Joss Whedon hey-days of old, its science fiction that can tell both serious and rewarding stories while still being able to poke fun at the genre it’s representing. There will never be another program quite like Doctor Who, if for no reason other than its longevity, and David Tennant made his name as one of the greatest Doctors of them all. I salute you Russell T. Davies for bringing such a wonderful creation back to life.

Final Score: A