• About the Reviewer

    Robert L. Jones
    Photo by Lori Montoya
    eMail me

  • Recent Reviews

  • Movie Genres

  • Archived Reviews

  • Beowulf (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | November 16, 2007

    Through the miracle of computer technology, Ray Winstone looks like Russell Crowe and Angelina Jolie looks like herself

    Through the miracle of computer technology, Ray Winstone looks like Russell Crowe and Angelina Jolie looks like herself on a Wella hair conditioner bottle

    Something Rotten in Denmark

     

    Rating: 2/5 ★★☆☆☆ 

    Beowulf. Featuring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, Sonje Fortag, Sharisse Baker-Bernard, Charlotte Salt, Julene Renee, Greg Ellis, Rik Young, Sebastian Roché, Leslie Zemeckis, Woody Schultz, Tyler Steelman, Brendan Gleeson, and Chris Coppola. Music by Alan Silvestri. Cinematography by Robert Presley.  Production design by Doug Chiang. Costume design by Gabriella Pescucci. Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Based on the epic poem of Norse legend. Screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. (Paramount Pictures, 2007, color/IMAX and REAL-D 3-D, 113 minutes. MPAA rating: PG-13.)

    If I were a snooty fillum critic, I’d probably call Robert Zemeckis’s rather loose adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf “contrived.” Because I’m just a regular guy who doesn’t take a shine to euphemisms, I’ll just call it what it is: a rip-off. But this 3D special-effects extravaganza is not so much a rip-off of its two most oft-cited (and more worthy) predecessors, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and 300, as it is of the hard-earned greenbacks in my wallet.

    This was supposed to be the movie that put Zemeckis back on top, and it has, at least for one weekend worth of box-office receipts. But, compared to his technologically groundbreaking movies Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, Beowulf pales, both visually and as entertainment—it’s a garbled mess, in both departments. Although its devotees proclaim Beowulf to be a “whole new kind of moviemaking” (Michael Medved), it’s really just an ill-conceived merging of two gimmicks: CGI and 3-D.

    You’d think with all the battleaxes, swords, and daggers flying right at you, I would have at least flinched. Sorry, but I didn’t, not even once. You’d do better watching the 1953 Vincent Price 3-D horror flick House of Wax for real thrills and chills. As for amazing action sequences, skip this one and instead click on the Schwarzenegger action classic Predator next time you log in at Netflix. That movies decades older seem more visually sophisticated makes me wonder just how much of his $160 million budget Zemeckis actually spent on visual effects.

    What he spent, he blew on a process called “motion capture,” which is similar to Rotoscoping: Actors’ movements are recorded and merged with their computerized likenesses. Thus, we don’t see pudgy, stocky actor Ray Winstone as Beowulf running, jumping, and bouncing off walls with the ease of Spiderman; we see a buff, elongated, digital representation of Winstone performing these implausible feats.

    Zemeckis first used this process in his Christmas movie The Polar Express. Motion-capture rendered his cast of youngsters so robotic and soulless it ought to have been titled The Stepford Children. Likewise, the real-but-fake-looking animated characters in Beowulf are the worst of both worlds: too awkward-looking to be cartoons, and too cartoonish to empathize with. Before directing another movie in this process, Zemeckis should spend a year with the techies at Pixar Studios. If they can move me to tears with Finding Nemo and to cheer for Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, then there’s probably something they get that he doesn’t.

    It’s called “a great story,” something Zemeckis used to know how to tell. And it’s not as if there isn’t a great story already in the source material, either. It’s that screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary couldn’t decide whether they wanted an epic or a satire. The results aren’t so much ambivalent as schizophrenic.

    Beowulf opens with a sweeping crane shot as the camera swoops over the frozen tundra of Denmark, 507 A.D., and the hills are alive with the sound of . . . drunken Thanes. They’re whooping it up in the mead hall of Hrothgar, the loutish king (Anthony Hopkins, who’s great even when he phones it in, as he does here), whose evening of merrymaking and debauchery is interrupted by an uninvited party guest, Grendel (Crispin Glover). A drooling monster, who speaks what sounds like Klingon, screams and cries when he doesn’t get his way, and bites the heads off anyone who defends against his tantrums, the resemblance between Grendel and my toddler son Evan is uncanny. What makes it truly ghastly, though, is that the wretched gate-crasher is ten feet tall.

    After leaving Hrothgar’s residence an utter shambles in his wake, Grendel retreats to his underground lair. When Hrothgar orders the mead hall closed, his girly-man advisor Unferth (John Malkovich, at his unctuous best in the movie’s best performance) recommends converting to the newfangled deity from Rome, Jesus Christ, in order to defeat Grendel. On cue, Hopkins rejoins: “The Gods will do nothing for us that we can’t do for ourselves. What we need is a hero. 

    What we get instead is Beowulf, who has the makings of a hero, but the script and ridiculous special effects undermine whatever heroism he can muster. At every available opportunity, he introduces himself by shouting “I am Beowulf!” with exactly the same cadence, volume, and facial grimacing that Gerard Butler used for “This is Sparta!” in 300.

    Another reason his heroism is hard to grasp is because the writers throw in a lot of bawdy fart and cleavage jokes, which have some mild shock value; but this is not supposed to be Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In Zemeckis’s hands, the puns come off more like a bad imitation of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” For example, when he faces down Grendel in what ought to have been the movie’s showdown, Beowulf strips naked (something else my two-year-old also does a lot lately); and as he swashbuckles his way across the screen, roof beams, goblets, and swords provide convenient cover for a certain feature of his anatomy. As if we didn’t get this sight gag, recycled from the Austin Powers flicks and old “Benny Hill” routines, a handy maiden speculates, “I wonder if Beowulf’s strength is in his legs. All three of them.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. Get it?

    Having been dismembered by Beowulf’s (actual, not figurative) sword, Grendel slinks back to die at the lair, from which we learn his vengeful mother sent him on his murderous rampage. Mother is a gold-plated siren with Prada stiletto heels growing out of her cloven feet and a twelve-foot-long armadillo’s tail protruding from her posterior. She’s more-or-less acted by Angelina Jolie, who’s perfectly cast for this odd filmmaking genre. Jolie’s breakout starring role was playing a video-game heroine. Alas, her performance couldn’t quite capture the feeling and subtlety of the Sony PlayStation version.

    Our hero pays a visit to her lair to finish the job and free Denmark’s people from her wrath. Once he arrives, though, she casts a spell over him. “Give me a son, and I shall make you the greatest king that ever lived,” she tells Beowulf sweetly, in what has got to be the most laughable Ingrid Bergman impression on record.

    Still, she manages to seduce him, despite looking like Mick Jagger in drag. Beowulf returns to Hrothgar and his queen, Wealthow, played by Robin Wright Penn. Though she gives a compelling performance, the lifelessness in her eyes renders it bloodless (I prefer to remember her as the Princess Bride). Beowulf concocts a tall tale of how he faced down and dispatched “the old hag,” though Hopkins is skeptical.

    Suddenly, the film gets serious. Hrothgar commits suicide, leaving his queen and kingdom to Beowulf. Unfortunately, the movie switches gears too abruptly into this agonizing second act, which was exceptionally well-written, even Shakespearean in its treatment of Beowulf’s dilemma.

    Having gotten everything he wanted, Beowulf finds that his crown weighs heavily upon him, as does his conscience. Drained of his lust for love and battle, he contemplates his hollow victory. “Now, nothing is as good as it should have been,” he cries.

    Yet as soon as the movie redeems itself, it switches gears back again to an anti-climactic video-game finale. Whether Beowulf himself triumphs I will not divulge; that is, sadly, beside the point. What seemed more important to its makers was that special-effects sequences triumphed at the cost of coherence and drama.

    I have no qualms with digital effects as long as they are integral to the storytelling, something director Zack Snyder managed masterfully in 300. But this anti-cinematic picture represents CGI at its worst: There are no difficult camera angles to figure out, no organic visual montages to solve, just the lazy man’s computerized quick fix of wowing the audience with impossible camera angles and unnatural movements.

    Even the music is a letdown. Composer Alan Silvestri—whose inventive orchestrations, combining upper strings with low brass and percussion, first captured my admiration over twenty years ago—ditched his unique sound in favor of the generic Hans Zimmer-cum-Carmina Burana soundtrack you hear in every action-movie preview these days.

    Worst of all, Beowulf sacrifices a noble, though fatalistic, vision of heroism in favor of cheap tricks and adolescent humor. Its powerful message—that hubris and undeserved riches can destroy a man’s soul—gets buried underneath the movie’s real message. That message is: “Look at me! Look at me!”

    As bad as Beowulf is, it’s still possible to see great Robert Zemeckis films on the big screen. But you’ll need a flux capacitor and a DeLorean to do it.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: 3D Movies, Action Movies, CGI Motion Capture, Fantasy Movies, Movie Reviews |

    We Own the Night (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | October 12, 2007

    Robert Duvall tells it straight up to wayward son Joaquin Phoenix in "We Own the Night"

    Robert Duvall tells it straight up to wayward son Joaquin Phoenix in "We Own the Night"

    Men in Blue

    Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

    We Own the Night. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall, Alex Veadov, Dominic Colon, Danny Hoch, Oleg Taktarov, Moni Moshonov, Antoni Corone, Craig Walker, Tony Musante, Joe D’Onofrio, Yelena Solovey, and Maggie Kiley. Music by Wojciech Kilar. Cinematography by Joaquin Baca-Asay.  Production design by Ford Wheeler. Costume design by Michael Clancy. Edited by John Axelrad. Written and directed by James Gray. (Columbia Pictures/2929 Productions, 2007, color, 117 minutes. MPAA Rating: R.)

    As the opening title montage for We Own the Night closes, the film cuts to a familiar nightclub scene that places the audience in the late-1970s New York disco-club scene. Debbie Harry’s sultry voice blares “Heart of Glass” through the paper-thin walls as two obviously doped-up lovers are deep in flagrante delicto.

     This wholly gratuitous scene, verging on pornography, is to let viewers know that

    picturesque actress Eva Mendes won’t be wasted in this film. Which is just as well, because Mendes is as useful to this urban tale as a box of chocolates is to a diabetic. That, and a subtitle telling you it’s 1988 (about a decade too late for the Studio 54 sound), are the movie’s main flaws.

    Mercifully, having provided the requisite number of lurid shots to fill the movie’s preview reel, director James Gray soon dispenses with the gratuity. After vampish Mendes slinks into a room of partying cokeheads, she is permitted to switch gears and just be Joaquin Phoenix’s supportive love interest. The movie then becomes visually cohesive and compelling.

    This gritty, moving cop drama is the saga of a Queens police family headed by patriarch Albert Grusinsky (Robert Duvall). Son Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) followed in dad’s footsteps, becoming precinct captain. Brother Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is the family’s black sheep: He doesn’t want anything to do with the family business, or even its name (he takes his mother’s maiden name). 

    Bobby runs the glitzy El Caribe nightclub in Brooklyn and thrives on a steady diet of coke, pot, and late-night partying. He feels more at home with the nightclub’s Russian owner, furrier Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov), and his family. Grandfatherly, yet still sporting a boychick’s face, Buzhayev looks at Bobby as fondly as he would his own son.

    Despite the estrangement from his actual family, Bobby pays his obligatory respects when his father invites him to a police social function. There, Albert and Joseph take him aside for a private meeting with a couple of their police colleagues. They want Bobby to cooperate with a narcotics investigation of his club, to be their eyes and ears. While they haven’t found any dirt on club owner Buzhayev, they suspect that his nephew, Vadim—a treacherous, drug-dealing rodent (Alex Veadov, in a strong performance)—is moving huge amounts of the white stuff through the El Caribe.

    Like so many celluloid tales of siblings on opposite sides of the law, good son Joseph’s disapproval of brother Bobby’s dismissive attitude toward the undercover gig echoes their father’s open disgust.

    “I can smell it on you,” Albert rebukes his wayward scion, referring to much more than just the stench of pot smoke on his clothes. “Sooner or later, you’re going to be with us, or you’re going to be with the drug dealers.”

    Bobby’s forced to choose sides after the police hit the club in a surprise raid. In retaliation, a would-be assassin shoots Joseph, who narrowly avoids death. Later the same night, Bobby finds himself sitting across from Vadim in a diner booth. The drug peddler brags to Bobby about the hit, confiding that the police chief is next on the list to be bumped off.

    In a matter-of-fact montage, the director conveys what the audience knows but Vadim doesn’t: that Bobby is the wounded cop’s brother and the chief’s son. The suspense in this scene becomes unbearable as Bobby listens silently to the man; only the subtlest flicker of emotion crosses his poker face, and although only a second passes before the camera cuts to Vadim, it seems like an eternity.

    Although this isn’t the end of the line, it’s where I step off this narrative train. Let’s just say that, through a series of twists and turns, the forces of good and evil collide with devastating results. What’s so refreshing is that those forces are clearly drawn, without the cloying postmodern tendency toward moral equivalence that’s rampant in today’s culture.

    For over three decades, the template for the cop film genre has been Serpico. Sidney Lumet’s biopic honoring a lone officer’s undying integrity in the face of institutional corruption has spawned dozens of imitators. In these, the audience waits for the predictable other shoe to drop, as a rogue cop in the precinct is slowly unmasked as the real villain.

    We Own the Night dares to run counter to that clichéd cynicism. Here, the men in blue are the good guys, and the drug-pushing thugs are the bad guys. Gray’s serious-as-a-heart-attack tale portrays police as the “thin blue line” that keeps civil society from backsliding into anarchy. Although many critics have compared this film to Martin Scorsese’s comeback picture The Departed (which, on balance, was a pro-cop film), it reminded me more of two of David Mamet’s best, Homicide and The Untouchables, in depicting its crime-fighting heroes as honorable and valorous.

    We Own the Night also features a refreshingly old-fashioned narrative structure. The storytelling is straightforward, with no preposterous plot machinations. Blissfully missing as well are jumbled and provocative “set pieces.” So, when the film arrives at its climactic sequence—a car chase along a crowded Queens underpass—you feel its impact more intensely. Through cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay’s adroit camerawork and John Axelrad’s precise cutting, not a frame is wasted. They simultaneously convey a logical, rapid-fire sequence of events and the murky, disorienting sense of trying to navigate an out-of-control squad car through a torrential downpour. How they reconcile these contradictory visual motifs is nothing short of genius. I experienced the scene as though I were a passenger along for the horrific ride.

    No pummeling of the ears with hyper-realistic surround sound, either. Composer Wojciech Kilar’s score hits all the right notes of solemnity and suspense. His eerie theme for vicious drug kingpin Vadim is a single note played on the organ, mezzo piano, a musical reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 spy thriller Secret Agent.

    Because of this evocative cinematic approach, neither camera nor actors overwhelm. Robert Duvall is the movie’s moral anchor, delivering the same incontestable authority he’s brought to so many roles over the decades, such as the character Lieutenant Colonel “Bull” Meechum in The Great Santini. When Duvall says it, it sounds as if “it came from the burning bush.” I enjoyed Mark Wahlberg’s solid turn as Joseph. I don’t think he’s a great actor—he basically plays himself in most of his movies—but he plays himself with conviction. Character actors Antoni Corone and Tony Musante are equally effective as Albert’s veteran police lieutenants.

    However, it’s Joaquin Phoenix who owns the screen, with a multi-faceted, explosive performance that reminded me a lot of a young Marlon Brando. The course of the picture follows him from rebellious prodigal son, to reluctant police informant, and eventually to resolute NYPD officer-recruit. Superficially, Phoenix’s character seems impelled toward this transformation by destiny, not unlike Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Yet, Gray wrote him to symbolize the power of free will. His brother admits to a bit of envy when Bobby makes the difficult moral choice of joining the force. “I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself,” Joseph confesses. “I just did what Pop wanted me to do.”

    We Own the Night is an emotionally taxing though ultimately inspiring picture. Some critics might call it “formulaic,” but its presentation of cops as good guys is a formula rarely seen on the silver screen these days. In fact, I’d love to see Hollywood apply this formula of honoring our men in blue—and their missionto our men in green.

    But I ain’t holding my breath.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Cop Dramas, Dramas, Movie Reviews |

    3:10 to Yuma (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | September 7, 2007

    American Psycho Western: Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in "3:10 to Yuma"

    American Psycho(logical) Western: Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in "3:10 to Yuma"

    Back to the Badlands

    Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

    3:10 to Yuma. Starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Vinessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Luce Rains, and Gretchen Mol. Music by Marco Beltrami. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, A.S.C.  Production design by Andrew Menzies. Costume design by Arianne Phillips. Edited by Michael McCusker, A.C.E. Screenplay by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Directed by James Mangold. (Lionsgate/Relativity Media/Treeline Films, 2007, Color, 117 minutes. MPAA Rating: R).

    I hate remakes. They are, mostly, an insult to filmgoers. Their implicit justification is either “audiences won’t go for old movies that were printed in black-and-white” or “people hate reading subtitles.” But, those were your grandfather’s remakes. These days, Hollywood is redoing movies that were originally in English, in widescreen and color, and even in surround stereo—as Tim Burton (otherwise an inventive director) did so horribly in his remake of Planet of the Apes.

    Recently, I balked at reviewing two ridiculous retreadings of iconic movies. Death Sentence neutered  Wendell Mayes’s screenplay from the 1974 classic Death Wish by turning definitive vigilante Charles Bronson into . . . well, into Kevin Bacon. I couldn’t sit all the way through the (badly) animated version of The Ten Commandments, which traded in Charlton Heston for “the voice talents” of Christian Slater. I know God is supposed to be Jewish (though to me, he’s Irish Catholic), but I had a hard time buying the former Mr. Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould, as the voice of the Almighty. What, Brad Garrett wasn’t available?

    Given this aversion, I should have hated director James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 B-Western 3:10 to Yuma, which starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Mangold’s previous film, 2005’s Walk the Line, was a remake (of sorts) of the 2004 biopic Ray: The plotting, the theme of the self-destructive genius musician, the backwater juke joints, the nostalgic use of neon lighting, and the sound editing were almost identical to Taylor Hackford’s far more convincing effort. If Mangold had cast Jamie Foxx instead of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role as Johnny Cash, I would not have been able to tell the difference between the two.

    But, as the saying goes, a director is only as good as his last picture. Judging from this long-overdue entry in the Western genre, Mangold is on his way to becoming one of the greats. A long time has passed since I saw a captivating big-screen Western. (I did see a movie last year about a couple sheepherders getting in touch with their feelings—and eventually, each other—but I don’t think that exactly qualifies as a “Western.”)

    What makes this new version of 3:10 to Yuma work is its faithfulness to Halsted Welles’s original screenplay, based on a pulp magazine short story by then little-known Elmore Leonard. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale, more than filling Van Heflin’s boots) is hard-pressed to hold onto the small Arizona ranch to which he trekked westward from New England in order to start a new life for his family. He lost his leg during the Civil War while serving as a sharpshooter in the Massachusetts State Militia. He’s now about to lose his ranch, as his landlord (Lennie Loftin) demands he pay up or move off the land to make room for the new railroad. “Sometimes a man has to be big enough to see how small he is,” he mocks Evans.

    Dan’s troubles only pile up higher when, while herding cattle with his sons, he runs across notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, doing justice to one of Glenn Ford’s few villain roles). Wade and his gang just ambushed a heavily guarded stagecoach outside the small town of Bisbee; they drove Dan’s herd into the path of the stagecoach to set up the robbery.

    Dan follows Wade into town to settle accounts for the two head of cattle that died in the crossfire during the robbery. He confronts Wade face-to-face across a bar in the town saloon. But seeing that Dan has come not for revenge but for recompense, Wade slides a fistful of silver dollars across the bar to pay him for his troubles. This tense scene holds the key to the clash of character between the two men: Dan Evans, forthright and obstinate, embodies the Western archetype of a man of few words; Ben Wade is an oily charmer who likes to ask rhetorical questions first and shoot later.

    When the town marshal captures Wade, Dan, facing imminent foreclosure, leaps at the offer of a $200 bounty to deliver the outlaw eighty miles to the station in Contention and to put him on a train bound for the federal prison at Yuma. Dan’s wife (Gretchen Mol, who’s so stunning that makeup detracts from her natural beauty) doesn’t think it’s worth it for her husband to risk his life just to get the ranch out of hock. Worse, his son William (Logan Lerman) believes him to be a coward who backs down from a fight.

    This plot element was only hinted at in the original, a straightforward story with a beginning and an end. Mangold’s version gives the story a satisfying middle, which allows the pressure and characterizations to build. While there was too much backstory in decoding the principals’ motives, I nonetheless admired the plot device of escorting Wade across dangerous Apache territory. As he picked off the marshal’s posse one by one to try to avoid capture, the raw brutality lurking underneath Wade’s polished veneer was revealed. Now, pursuing Wade’s captors in order to free him is his right-hand man, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, chewing up the gorgeous New Mexican scenery).

    Unfortunately, we don’t get to see many long stretches of that scenery in Phedon Papamichael’s otherwise sterling camerawork: The filming relies on too many close-ups and medium shots. But a Western is not just another costume drama.  Directors like John Ford and Anthony Mann emphasized their cowboy heroes’ physical vulnerability by juxtaposing them against vast stretches of nothingness. As much as the violent men who filled the screen, the desolate and unforgiving badlands were barriers to be overcome. These thematic and visual devices are part of what define the Western’s distinctive appeal. It would be hard to imagine The Searchers without John Wayne riding past the towering rock formations of Monument Valley. And in director Delmer Daves’s original 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans’s difficult mission of getting his prisoner to the station on time was intensified by vast stretches of cloudless skies and sparsely-populated frontier towns that gave him no respite from isolation.

    Fortunately, the actors rise to the challenge of having mainly to overcome each other rather than the harsh landscape. I’m not usually a fan of Russell Crowe’s acting, but he delivers a truly virtuoso performance as the loquacious outlaw. Glenn Ford was smooth in the original, but Crowe’s performance is more akin to one of Burt Lancaster’s slick leads.

    Ben Wade turns on the charm as Dan Evans finds himself alone and outnumbered, the clock ticking ever closer to the fateful hour. The outlaw tries to entice Dan to let him go, with promises of riches. But Dan is an incorruptible, silent loner who can’t be bought. Getting an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work—and seeing the job through—is what drives him. He interrupts Wade’s manipulative soliloquy “You know what,” he says coolly, “Do me a favor. Don’t talk to me for a while.”

    I can’t think of an actor capable of tying Russell Crowe’s silver tongue as convincingly as Christian Bale was able to do in this scene. He doesn’t bring Dan Evans to life either by underplaying or by going over the top. Like the rugged Western heroes of yesterday—John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Lee Van Cleef—he just plays it straight, bringing to this role the same level of quiet intensity that he did as downed Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn.

    Regrettably, “playing it straight” isn’t very fascinating to Dan’s son William, who—lured by reading adventure stories and the gunplay they romanticize—sneaks off the ranch at night and winds up riding shotgun alongside his father. Despite rescuing the old man and his fellow bounty hunters from one of Wade’s ruses, William takes a shine to the bandit’s offhand bravado.

    Oddly, Dan gets some help from Wade in setting his boy on the right path. When William falls for Wade’s pretensions of honor, seeing “some good” in the scoundrel, Wade sets him straight: “Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t rotten as hell.”

    Delivering his man to the station on time thus becomes more than just a personal mission for Dan Evans. Knowing he may never make it alive, he realizes it’s perhaps also his last opportunity to teach his son the meaning of personal integrity, of standing by one’s word.

    Will he make it? To find out, you’ve got to see it yourself, right through the final grueling shootout.

    Peter Fonda as grizzled Pinkerton agent McElroy and Dallas Roberts as a dandified railroad official deliver a pair of memorable supporting performances. The movie’s brilliant visuals are backed up by Marco Beltrami’s electrifying soundtrack, which borrows its orchestration from Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable “Spaghetti Western” scores.

    3:10 to Yuma is the most viscerally gratifying Western I’ve watched since George Cosmatos’s 1993 film Tombstone. As much as I hate remakes, here’s one I enjoyed through and through. James Mangold’s proficient direction breathes new life into a forgotten movie. Although he came close to veering into pastiche by working in elements from classics such as High Noon and Shane, Mangold has crafted a Western that once again sets the screen on fire.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Action Movies, Dramas, Movie Reviews, Remakes, Suspense Movies, Westerns |

    Resurrecting the Champ (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | August 26, 2007

     

    Down-and-out Samuel L. Jackson shows sportswriter Josh Hartnett he's still got a few moves

    Down-and-out Samuel L. Jackson shows sportswriter Josh Hartnett he's still got a few moves

     

    Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

     

    Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

    Resurrecting the Champ. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Hartnett, Kathryn Morris, Dakota Goyo, Alan Alda, Rachel Nichols, Teri Hatcher, Kristen Shaw, Nick Sandow, David Paymer, Harry J. Lennix, Peter Coyote, Ryan McDonald, Chris Ippolito, Jake LaMotta, and Jameson Trenholm. Music by Larry Groupé. Cinematography by Adam Kane, A.S.C.  Production design by Ken Rempel. Costume design by Wendy Partridge. Edited by Sarah Boyd, A.C.E. Screen story and screenplay by Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett. Based on the Los Angeles Times Magazine story by J.R. Moehringer. Directed by Rod Lurie. (Yari Film Group Releasing/Phoenix Pictures, 2007, Color, 111 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13).

    As redemption tales, boxing movies more than hold their own alongside war pictures, Bible epics, and tough-guy teachers who turn around inner-city classrooms. What makes movies like Rocky, Raging Bull, The Great White Hope, Cinderella Man, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Million Dollar Baby, and The Set-Up resonate with audiences goes way deeper than their underdog champions.

    In fact, I cannot think of one movie about a prizefighter that hasn’t been a tale not only of defeating the odds, but also of the hero battling the demons of inner weaknesses. These stories inspire us even when they end in tragedy, because they dramatize in a pure, elemental way, through the crucible of the fight game, the struggles we all face in life. The fire in the belly that moves our working-class hero to step into the ring and get beaten to a pulp—yet emerge victorious—doesn’t smolder in a full stomach. It comes from a burning hunger that only those in desperate circumstances know.

    In Resurrecting the Champ, sportswriter Erik Kernan, Jr. (Josh Hartnett) has that same hunger. The paradox is that it doesn’t show in his writing: Kernan’s dispatches for the Denver Times are dull and flavorless. He hopes for better assignments than covering down-the-card bouts, but his hard-nosed editor (played sour and dour by Alan Alda) buries Erik’s stories in the back of the sport’s pages.

    “I appreciate what you’re doing, but your copy—it’s unimpressive. A lot of typing, not much writing,” he tells the young reporter. “I forget your pieces while I’m reading them.”

    One wintry night after a match, Kernan stumbles across an ancient vagrant (Samuel L. Jackson) lying in an alleyway. The old man had just been used as a punching bag by some goons who mockingly call him “Champ.”

    “You say you’re the Champ, what are you talking about?” Kernan asks, helping Champ to his feet.

    “I’m ‘Battling Bob’ Satterfield. Number three in the world!”

    Kernan finds in the old-timer’s unlikely riches-to-rags tale a great story that, he suddenly realizes, could reverse his own fortunes on the newspaper. He starts returning to the alley to meet with Champ and get his life story for a feature he starts to write.

    Bob Satterfield hasn’t been himself lately. The fire in his belly has long ago been extinguished. He’s lost his career, his family, and finally, his home. As Kernan sits across from him in a deli booth, Champ regales him with stories about his heyday in the ring during the 1950s. Names of legends roll of his tongue, like Jake LaMotta, Ezzard Charles, and Floyd Patterson. As the homeless man relives his past glories, though, he doesn’t seem as hopeless as his circumstances might indicate. A sense of pride and drive reemerge on his face as he relates to Kernan how he beat heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano in a sparring contest.

    When the conversation turns to his family, though, Champ has only regrets. He’s ashamed of his father, and it’s been decades since his own son talked to him. A bond develops between Champ and Kernan over issues of fatherhood: When Kernan was a boy, his own father—a famous sportscaster, now deceased—walked out on him. Today, Kernan still labors under the omnipresent shadow of his absentee father as the veterans in his trade always compare him to the old man.

    As his marriage falls apart, Kernan seems fated to repeat his bleak family history. Yet, he remains determined to play an everyday part in the life of his young son. He has built himself up in his youngster’s eyes as a famous sportswriter who plays golf with Muhammad Ali and pals around with John Elway. Although at times I couldn’t buy the low-key Hartnett as a sportswriter, he is very convincing as a dad, struggling to become the hero his boy imagines him to be.

    Now, for the first time in his career, Kernan throws himself into his work, using his story about Champ to leverage a better position on the newspaper. His fight coverage improves, too, when he brings Champ to cover bouts with him at ringside. As a boxer is getting the stuffing pounded out of him by a seemingly superior opponent, Satterfield predicts the contender will take the match. “He had that ‘figured-out’ look in his eyes,” he confides to Kernan. “I seen it too many times in my opponents’ eyes.”

    Yet, while researching Satterfield’s past, Kernan keeps running into roadblocks and dead ends. There is next to nothing about Bob Satterfield on the Internet, and his archivist (Rachel Nichols) finds little more in the newspaper’s morgue. Half his queries to old-timers in the fight game result in comebacks like, “Bob Satterfield? I thought he was dead.” When he telephones Satterfield’s only known survivor, his son in Chicago, all he gets is an expletive deleted and a dial tone.

    Still, Kernan forges ahead with the pathos-filled story of Champ’s fall on hard times—the story he’s sure will bring him a Pulitzer Prize. And in fact, when “Resurrecting the Champ” appears in the Denver Times’s magazine, it catches fire. Overnight, Kernan’s whole life turns around. Job offers suddenly abound. He even lands an appearance as ringside announcer for a Showtime boxing special.

    But when an old fighter named Tommy emerges from the past and into Satterfield’s life, Kernan begins to see the Pulitzer drift beyond his reach.

    Resurrecting the Champ is one of this year’s best movies. More than a boxing picture, it’s also a heartfelt story about fathers and the legacies they leave their sons. Samuel L. Jackson gives an Oscar-caliber performance in his portrayal of Champ, and he more than carries Hartnett for the fifteen rounds of this gut-wrenching flick. I doubt any other actor except his mentor, Morgan Freeman, could have brought such dignity and emotional range to the role. Jackson’s portrayal was clearly of the “method” school—he truly lived this role, never giving the appearance of acting. But his performance is so convincing because the method itself is invisible.

    Along with Alda’s excellent supporting effort are solid performances from Dakota Goyo as Kernan’s son, Teddy; from Peter Coyote, who turns in a memorable cameo as a crusty boxing promoter; and from Teri Hatcher as a skanky producer for Showtime.

    Loosely based on J. R. Moehringer’s Los Angeles Times article of the same title, Resurrecting the Champ is a movie that delivers a great message without becoming a “message movie.” It’s one simple lesson—that honesty is the greatest virtue a father can model for his son—holds the key to the destinies of the film’s two protagonists and of the lives they touch.

    As a study of crushed dreams and personal redemption, Resurrecting the Champ belongs in the same company as The Verdict and The Browning Version. Its depiction of life’s sometimes-fleeting triumphs and irreversible errors is presented with sincerity and nobility, but never with pity.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Dramas, Independent Films, Movie Reviews |

    Manufacturing Dissent (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | August 7, 2007

    Awkward Silence: Canadian journalist Debbie Melnyk is the only person on the planet able to silence "documentary" director Michael Moore. Her tactic? Just asking him for an interview. 

     

    Awkward Silence: Canadian journalist Debbie Melnyk is the only person on the planet able to silence "documentary" director Michael Moore. Her tactic? Just asking him for an interview.

     

     

    The Ends Justify the Meanness

    Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

    Manufacturing Dissent. Featuring Dave Barber, Noam Chomsky, Peter Damon, John Derevlany, Janeane Garofalo, David Gilmour, Ben Hamper, Christopher Hitchens, Harlan Jacobson, Jim Kenefick, Albert Maysles, Nick McKinney, Debbie Melnyk, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, James Musselman, Ralph Nader, Kevin Rafferty, Sam Riddle, Michael Wilson, and Byron York. Original music by Michael White. Cinematography by Rick Caine. Edited by Rob Ruzic and Bill Towgood. Written and directed by Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk. (Liberation Entertainment/Mongrel Media/CHUM Limited, 2007, Color, 96 minutes. MPAA Rating: R.)

    I confess: I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Moore’s “documentary” Sicko. I went to San Antonio’s Bijou Crossroads on its opening night, and from the looks of the crowd, every alienated leftist in town made it to the theater. They were there to commune with the work of this filmmaker, who looms (literally and figuratively) larger than life in American pop culture.

    As Moore used cellulose acetate to compare and contrast the worm-eaten apples of American HMOs with the wholesome oranges of Canadian and British socialized medicine, I yucked it up with the rest of the crowd. It really was that entertaining, full of biting sarcasm and uproariously funny. Watching it, I became conscious of what it must have been like to have seen the “strike play” Waiting for Lefty during the nadir of the Great Depression. Moore’s agitprop films are crafted to be apprehended at an emotional level—bypassing critical thinking and sober reflection—to impel the audience to direct political action.

    Unlike Moore’s conservative critics, though, I refused to get sucked into his hunger for publicity by reviewing Sicko. On one hand, panning Michael Moore’s facile infotainment is like shooting fish in a barrel. But, on the other, giving his sophistry the imprimatur of serious debate raises it to the unmerited plane of intellectual honesty.

    As a result of Moore’s taking liberties with truth in his films, combined with his obstinate persona, some conservatives turned to the documentary medium to take on Moore on his own turf. Lionel Chetwynd’s Celsius 41.11 grapples with Fahrenheit 9/11’s many inaccuracies. Radio personality Larry Elder took on Moore’s shoddy treatment of gun control in Bowling for Columbine with Michael & Me. In his film, Elder took a page from Moore’s first feature, Roger & Me, attempting in vain to interview with the corpulent director.

    Husband-and-wife documentary filmmakers Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk began work on Manufacturing Dissent with a different purpose in mind. With their background in investigative journalism, they had already turned the camera lens on what they considered to be unsavory people in their trade. Their 1998 doc Junket Whore explored the incestuous relationship between the news media and the entertainment industry. Then they returned to their native Canada to cover press baron Conrad Black in their 2004 release Citizen Black.

    “While we were following him around, we found out he was stealing millions of dollars from his shareholders,” Melnyk told me in a recent interview. “So, we decided for our next project to do one on someone we liked, Michael Moore,” whose confrontational interviewing style Melnyk has emulated in her work.

    A self-described liberal, Melnyk has consistently voted for Canada’s New Democratic Party, which puts her considerably to the left of our northern neighbors’ Liberal Party. She and Caine oppose the U.S. war in Iraq as well as Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan. In Manufacturing Dissent, they use such documentary clichés as slow-motion and ominously foreboding synthesizer chords to depict George W. Bush’s two presidential election victories. Obviously, they wear their ideological hearts on their sleeves.

    Yet, when they hit the road in search of Michael Moore, they unexpectedly and slowly begin to uncover the real man beneath the carefully cultivated mask of the blue-collar Everyguy.

    Filmed during Moore’s 2004 “Slacker Uprising,” get-out-the-vote college campus tour, Melnyk calmly but firmly approaches Moore to ask him for an in-depth interview. He noncommittally promises an interview “after the election,” but shortly thereafter, Moore’s security detail doggedly shoo Melnyk and her crew away. After being turned back from venue after venue, Melnyk dryly narrates, “I thought Michael Moore liked Canadians.”

    Much of their film centers on reminiscences from Moore’s friends and associates. Former “TV Nation” producer Nick McKinney remembers Moore as a volatile but generous boss, who made the touching gesture of buying his protégé airline tickets so he could attend his first film’s premiere. For Democrat Party consultant Sam Riddle, Moore’s still a longtime pal with a heart of gold. Yet even Riddle admits “he can be a bit megalomaniacal at times, with a paranoid tinge.” Rock music journalist Dave Marsh remembers Moore as a jerk whose alternative paper would regularly run Marsh’s popular syndicated features, but who’d always stiff him on payment for reprinting his column. Slowly, a portrait emerges of Moore as a user who’d make even Dorian Gray blush.

    Worse, Caine and Melnyk uncover a plethora of instances in which Moore manipulated facts in order to present a warped version of the truth. While admirers like former Toronto film festival director Helga Stephenson brush aside such peccadilloes, saying that Moore’s approach has popularized what was previously an aficionado’s genre, others find his opportunism troubling.

    “He’s been found to have fabricated, or invented—carpentered—a number of distortions and outright lies into his narrative,” notes writer Christopher Hitchens.

    One example is how Moore used footage of Massachusetts Army National Guardsman Sgt. Peter Damon, who lost both arms in a helicopter accident in Iraq. Moore edited the footage in Fahrenheit 9/11 to make it appear the gung-ho troop was disenchanted with President Bush and the Iraq War effort. But Damon still supports both Bush and the war and (unsuccessfully) sued Michael Moore for taking his words out of context.

    Pioneering documentarian Albert Maysles dismisses Moore’s achievements. For the eclectic director—whose subject matter ranges from door-to-door Bible salesmen, the rock group Rolling Stones, and virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz—what’s at stake is the integrity of the documentary process as a means of imparting truth. In a recent interview, Maysles described the documentarian’s role as filmmaker:

    Hitchcock put it beautifully when he said, “In a fiction film the director is God. In a non-fiction film—a documentary—God is the director”. . . . And if you happen to be an agnostic or an atheist, then call God “reality.” We are governed by reality rather than trying to control it. [Emphasis added].

    In bonus footage in the Canadian screener DVD, Maysles expanded on this, saying, “What we need more than anything is knowledge of the real world that is unprejudiced, that doesn’t start out with the determination on the part of a filmmaker to prejudge and to be limited by a point-of-view.” Maysles doesn’t buy that Moore is a boon to the documentary trade, despite having raked in millions. “But he’s entertaining us with propaganda,” he countered a journalist supporting Moore. “So did Hitler.”

    It is not at all surprising when we arrive at the most damning evidence of Moore’s personal and professional malfeasance, in a former friend’s testimony. Jim Musselman worked with Moore during the inception of Roger & Me. They envisioned it as a document of the efforts of workers, labor unions, and liberal groups in Flint, Michigan, to keep the General Motors plant open in the late 1980s. To the idealistic Musselman, seeing his friend transform that film into an unfulfilled personal quest to interview GM chairman Roger Smith—leaving hours of footage of community efforts and rallies on the cutting-room floor—left him disillusioned.

    Moore telephoned Musselman late one night, asking him not to mention that Moore did, in fact, interview Smith—twice. “I can make it look like anything I want,” Musselman recalls Moore telling him. “It’ll just go on the cutting-room floor.”

    “Michael Moore says everyone is subjective,” Melnyk told me. “You cannot say no one is objective. There are certain truths in the world, certain things you should not do like taking people out of context, and Moore does that. He puts two half-truths together and then tells you it’s the whole truth.”

    By movie’s end, what’s left of Michael Moore’s credibility is shredded to ribbons. Melnyk and Caine started out on a quest to capture their hero on film, only to find an empty windbreaker strutting about, leaving a trail of broken friendships and a pack of lies in his wake.

    But, Melnyk also found many principled people along the way, such as Albert Maysles and Ralph Nader. “In particular, Jim Musselman had such great integrity,” Melnyk said, referring to Musselman’s refusal to fall on his sword for Moore.

    It is borne out in Musselman’s warning in the documentary, about the dangers of those who succumb to the cult of celebrity, at the expense of the evidence of their own experiences.

    “I would get calls from people who were quote-unquote pretty high up on the left, and they’d say ‘you have to stand up and lie for him,’ and they’d say, ‘the ends justify the means,’” Musselman recalled. “It’s the saddest thing, who we put our faith in. We follow leaders too much. We don’t follow what’s in our own heart and soul enough.”

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Documentaries, Foreign Films, Independent Films, Movie Reviews |

    « Previous Entries Next Entries »