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Reservoir Dogs review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:15 (A review of Reservoir Dogs)

It's been an unusually good year for the discovery of first-rate new American film directors: Barry Primus ("Mistress"), Nick Gomez ("Laws of Gravity"), Allison Anders ("Gas Food Lodging") and Carl Franklin ("One False Move"), among others. Now add to the list the name of Quentin Tarantino, the young writer and director of "Reservoir Dogs," a small, modestly budgeted crime movie of sometimes dazzling cinematic pyrotechnics and over-the- top dramatic energy. It may also be one of the most aggressively brutal movies since Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs."

"Reservoir Dogs" is about a Los Angeles jewelry store robbery masterminded by a tough old mob figure named Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). The principal characters are introduced in an extended precredit sequence in which the thieves are seen relaxing over lunch sometime before the job.

The camera looks on with the indifference of a waitress who expects no tip. One guy holds forth on the meaning of the lyrics of popular songs, with special emphasis on the oeuvre of Madonna. His discoveries are no more profound than those of academe, but his obscene jargon, which disgusts some of his colleagues, is refreshingly blunt and more comprehensible than any deconstructionist's. It's a brilliant scene-setter.

Cut to the initial postcredit sequence, just after the heist has been carried out and two of the hoods, played by Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth, are fleeing the scene. Mr. Keitel is at the wheel of the car while Mr. Roth lies across the back seat, bleeding badly and clutching his stomach as if to hold in the organs. Something obviously went wrong. One of the hoods became panicky during the holdup and began shooting. It's also apparent that the police had been tipped off. Mr. Roth begs to be taken to a hospital, or just dumped somewhere near a hospital, but Mr. Keitel refuses. They go on to the warehouse where the gang members were to meet according to the original plan.

Though all of the film's contemporary action takes place inside this warehouse, "Reservoir Dogs" cuts back and forth in time with neat efficiency to dramatize the origins of this soured caper. One of the elements of old Joe's plan was the anonymity of the men he hired for the job, to protect them from one another and from the police.

To this end he gave them noms de crime (Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange and so on), which especially offends the man dubbed Mr. Pink, who thinks it makes him sound like a sissy. In the course of the film, some of the men do reveal their real names, which leads to a certain amount of confusion for the audience when the men are talking about characters who are off screen.

Though small in physical scope, "Reservoir Dogs" is immensely complicated in its structure, which for the most part works with breathtaking effect. Mr. Tarantino uses chapter headings ("Mr. Blonde," "Mr. Orange," etc.) to introduce the flashbacks, which burden the film with literary affectations it doesn't need. Yet the flashbacks themselves never have the effect of interrupting the flow of the action. Mr. Tarantino not only can write superb dialogue, but he also has a firm grasp of narrative construction. The audience learns the identity of the squealer about mid-way through, but the effect is to increase tension rather than diminish it.

"Reservoir Dogs" moves swiftly and with complete confidence toward a climax that matches "Hamlet's" both in terms of the body count and the sudden, unexpected just desserts. It's a seriously wild ending, and though far from upbeat, it satisfies. Its dimensions are not exactly those of Greek tragedy. "Reservoir Dogs" is skeptically contemporary. Mr. Tarantino has a fervid imagination, but he also has the strength and talent to control it.

Like "Glengarry Glen Ross," another virtually all-male production, "Reservoir Dogs" features a cast of splendid actors, all of whom contribute equally to the final effect. Among the most prominent: Mr. Keitel, whose moral dilemma gives the film its ultimate meaning; Steve Buscemi, as the fellow who has thought long about the messages in Madonna's songs; Mr. Roth, the English actor who gives another amazing performance as a strictly American type; Chris Penn, as Mr. Tierney's son and heir; Michael Madsen, as a seemingly sane ex-con who isn't, and Mr. Tierney, who more or less presides over the movie.

The film also marks the American debut of Andrzej Sekula, the Polish-born director of photography. Mr. Sekula's work here is of an order to catapult him immediately into the front ranks. One of the principal reasons the film works so well is the sense of give-and-take that is possible only when two or more actors share the same image. Mr. Sekula and Mr. Tarantino have not been brainwashed by television movies. They don't depend on close-ups. "Reservoir Dogs" takes a longer view.

Pay heed: "Reservoir Dogs" is as violent as any movie you are likely to see this year, but though it's not always easy to watch, it has a point.
nyt


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The Da Vinci Code review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:08 (A review of The Da Vinci Code)

The arguments about the movie and the book that inspired it have not been going on for millennia — it only feels that way — but part of Columbia Pictures' ingenious marketing strategy has been to encourage months of debate and speculation while not allowing anyone to see the picture until the very last minute. Thus we have had a flood of think pieces on everything from Jesus and Mary Magdalene's prenuptial agreement to the secret recipes of Opus Dei, and vexed, urgent questions have been raised: Is Christianity a conspiracy? Is "The Da Vinci Code" a dangerous, anti-Christian hoax? What's up with Tom Hanks's hair?

Luckily I lack the learning to address the first two questions. As for the third, well, it's long, and so is the movie. "The Da Vinci Code," which opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, is one of the few screen versions of a book that may take longer to watch than to read. (Curiously enough Mr. Howard accomplished a similar feat with "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" a few years back.)

To their credit the director and his screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman (who collaborated with Mr. Howard on "Cinderella Man" and "A Beautiful Mind"), have streamlined Mr. Brown's story and refrained from trying to capture his, um, prose style. "Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair." Such language — note the exquisite "almost" and the fastidious tucking of the "which" after the preposition — can live only on the page.

To be fair, though, Mr. Goldsman conjures up some pretty ripe dialogue all on his own. "Your God does not forgive murderers," Audrey Tautou hisses to Paul Bettany (who play a less than enormous, short-haired albino). "He burns them!"

Theology aside, this remark can serve as a reminder that "The Da Vinci Code" is above all a murder mystery. And as such, once it gets going, Mr. Howard's movie has its pleasures. He and Mr. Goldsman have deftly rearranged some elements of the plot (I'm going to be careful here not to spoil anything), unkinking a few over-elaborate twists and introducing others that keep the action moving along.

Hans Zimmer's appropriately overwrought score, pop-romantic with some liturgical decoration, glides us through scenes that might otherwise be talky and inert. The movie does, however, take a while to accelerate, popping the clutch and leaving rubber on the road as it tries to establish who is who, what they're doing and why.

Briefly stated: An old man (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is killed after hours in the Louvre, shot in the stomach, almost inconceivably, by a hooded assailant. Meanwhile Robert Langdon (Mr. Hanks), a professor of religious symbology at Harvard, is delivering a lecture and signing books for fans. He is summoned to the crime scene by Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), a French policemen who seems very grouchy, perhaps because his department has cut back on its shaving cream budget.

Soon Langdon is joined by Sophie Neveu, a police cryptographer and also — Bezu Fache! — the murder victim's granddaughter. Grandpa, it seems, knew some very important secrets, which if they were ever revealed might shake the foundations of Western Christianity, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, one of whose bishops, the portly Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) is at this very moment flying on an airplane. Meanwhile the albino monk, whose name is Silas and who may be the first character in the history of motion pictures to speak Latin into a cellphone, flagellates himself, smashes the floor of a church and kills a nun.

A chase, as Bezu's American colleagues might put it, ensues. It skids through the nighttime streets of Paris and eventually to London the next morning, with side trips to a Roman castle and a chateau in the French countryside. Along the way the film pauses to admire various knickknacks and art works, and to flash back, in desaturated color, to traumatic events in the childhoods of various characters (Langdon falls down a well; Sophie's parents are killed in a car accident; Silas stabs his abusive father).

There are also glances further back into history, to Constantine's conversion, to the suppression of the Knights Templar and to that time in London when people walked around wearing powdered wigs.

Through it all Mr. Hanks and Ms. Tautou stand around looking puzzled, leaving their reservoirs of charm scrupulously untapped. Mr. Hanks twists his mouth in what appears to be an expression of professorial skepticism and otherwise coasts on his easy, subdued geniality. Ms. Tautou, determined to ensure that her name will never again come up in an Internet search for the word "gamine," affects a look of worried fatigue.

In spite of some talk (a good deal less than in the book) about the divine feminine, chalices and blades, and the spiritual power of sexual connection, not even a glimmer of eroticism flickers between the two stars. Perhaps it's just as well. When a cryptographer and a symbologist get together, it usually ends in tears.

But thank the deity of your choice for Ian McKellen, who shows up just in time to give "The Da Vinci Code" a jolt of mischievous life. He plays a wealthy and eccentric British scholar named Leigh Teabing. (I will give Mr. Brown this much: he's good at names. If I ever have twins or French poodles, I'm calling them Bezu and Teabing for sure.)

Hobbling around on two canes, growling at his manservant, Remy (Jean-Yves Berteloot), Teabing is twinkly and avuncular one moment, barking mad the next. Sir Ian, rattling on about Italian paintings and medieval statues, seems to be having the time of his life, and his high spirits serve as something of a rebuke to the filmmakers, who should be having and providing a lot more fun.

Teabing, who strolls out of English detective fiction by way of a Tintin comic, is a marvelously absurd creature, and Sir Ian, in the best tradition of British actors slumming and hamming through American movies, gives a performance in which high conviction is indistinguishable from high camp. A little more of this — a more acute sense of its own ridiculousness — would have given "The Da Vinci Code" some of the lightness of an old-fashioned, jet-setting Euro-thriller.

But of course movies of that ilk rarely deal with issues like the divinity of Jesus or the search for the Holy Grail. In the cinema such matters are best left to Monty Python. In any case Mr. Howard and Mr. Goldsman handle the supposedly provocative material in Mr. Brown's book with kid gloves, settling on an utterly safe set of conclusions about faith and its history, presented with the usual dull sententiousness.

So I certainly can't support any calls for boycotting or protesting this busy, trivial, inoffensive film. Which is not to say I'm recommending you go see it.


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Phone Booth review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:06 (A review of Phone Booth)

A haunting slogan from the golden days of radio, spoken by the disembodied voice on ''The Shadow,'' was the boast: ''Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows,'' followed by an insinuating cackle. In ''Phone Booth,'' Joel Schumacher's flashy stunt of a movie, a contemporary descendant of that phantom voice unleashes a similarly nasty, all-knowing snicker every few minutes during the protracted phone conversation that consumes most of this clanking, overheated thriller.

The target of derision, Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), is a scruffy young New York publicist who resembles an up-to-date version of Sidney Falco from ''Sweet Smell of Success.'' Stu's grubby little world is shaken one afternoon when he picks up the ringing telephone in the Midtown Manhattan phone booth he uses to make secret calls to his prospective girlfriend, Pamela McFadden (Katie Holmes), and finds himself the captive of a mysterious male caller who seems to know every detail of his life.

Pamela, an aspiring actress whom Stu has been stringing along with career advice and vague promises of introductions to showbiz biggies, is unaware that Stu is married. Nor does Stu's pretty blond wife, Kelly (Radha Mitchell), who works in a store on Columbus Avenue, realize that hubby has a wandering eye. Although gussied up with all sorts of cinematic tricks and a jittery, ticking soundtrack, ''Phone Booth,'' which Mr. Schumacher directed from a screenplay by Larry Cohen, is essentially a one-act radio play in which a sadistic voyeur with a high-powered rifle plays humiliating cat-and-mouse games with an urban everyman and taunts him into breaking down and confessing his sins.

Early on, the omniscient caller warns Stu that if he doesn't cooperate with every instruction, he will be shot dead from one of the thousands of windows looking out over the street. To prove he means business, the sniper summarily kills a loudmouthed pimp (John Enos III) who has been pestering Stu (with a baseball bat) to vacate the booth so his girls can use it to make dates.

Naturally Stu is assumed to be the killer. And when it turns out the sniper has thought ahead and stashed a gun in the roof of the booth to make him appear guilty, Stu (who came without a weapon) seems to be a goner no matter what happens. If the sniper, who again demonstrates his marksmanship by grazing one of Stu's ears, doesn't kill him, the police officers who arrive in force surely will.

''Phone Booth'' begins to lose its tenuous grip on reality once the law appears. Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker), who leads a force of itchy-fingered sharpshooters, tries to negotiate with Stu, whom the caller coerces into inventing reasons he can't leave the booth. As the standoff drags on, what little suspense the movie had built up rapidly drains away.

Desperately stalling for time, the movie, which opens today nationwide (after being postponed from last fall because of the Washington-area sniper attacks), starts padding itself by taking tangents into the police captain's failed marriage. When a frantic Kelly appears on the scene, Stu (presumably to protect her) pretends she's a crazy woman who has been stalking him. By the time it dawns on the captain (for no particular reason other than that it's time to end the movie) that Stu may not be the killer, ''Phone Booth'' has used up its last quarter.

''Phone Booth'' is bogus on every level, right down to its half-hearted trick ending. The urban realism (foul-mouthed prostitutes and tough-talking cops) is as garishly clichéd as the media circus that builds around the killing. As a moral fable, ''Phone Booth'' is entirely meretricious. For one thing, Stu is awfully small potatoes compared with the big shots the sniper boasts of having executed in similar circumstances. Stu may have lust in his heart, but technically he still hasn't cheated. When he finally blubbers out his failures, there's nothing on the list that ought to get a metaphysical vigilante so riled up.

Mr. Farrell, who resembles a younger, bushier-eyebrowed Brad Pitt, acquits himself decently enough as the scuffling Bronx-born hustler who favors Italian suits. But this likable Irish actor, touted as Hollywood's studly flavor of the last several months, ultimately lacks the soulful magnetism that signifies a major screen presence.

So what is ''Phone Booth'' good for? If you want to soak in some more bad urban vibes to add to the ones already floating around, the movie could be your masochistic treat.


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Fight Club review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:05 (A review of Fight Club)

Of the two current films in which buttoned-down businessmen rebel against middle-class notions of masculinity, David Fincher's savage ''Fight Club'' is by far the more visionary and disturbing. Where ''American Beauty'' hinges on the subversive allure of a rose-covered blond cheerleader, Mr. Fincher has something a good deal tougher in mind. The director of ''Seven'' and ''The Game'' for the first time finds subject matter audacious enough to suit his lightning-fast visual sophistication, and puts that style to stunningly effective use. Lurid sensationalism and computer gamesmanship left this filmmaker's earlier work looking hollow and manipulative. But the sardonic, testosterone-fueled science fiction of ''Fight Club'' touches a raw nerve.

In a film as strange and single-mindedly conceived as ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' Mr. Fincher's angry, diffidently witty ideas about contemporary manhood unfold. As based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (and deftly written by Jim Uhls), it builds a huge, phantasmagorical structure around the search for lost masculine authority, and attempts to psychoanalyze an entire society in the process. Complete with an even bigger narrative whammy than the one that ends ''The Sixth Sense,'' this film twists and turns in ways that only add up fully on the way out of the theater and might just require another viewing. Mr. Fincher uses his huge arsenal of tricks to bury little hints at what this story is really about.

''Fight Club'' has two central figures, the milquetoast narrator played by Edward Norton and his charismatic, raging crony played by Brad Pitt. The narrator has been driven to the edge of his sanity by a dull white-collar job, an empty fondness for material things (''I'd flip through catalogues and wonder what kind of dining set defined me as a person'') and the utter absence of anything to make him feel alive. Tormented by insomnia, he finds his only relief in going to meetings of 12-step support groups, where he can at least cry. The film hurtles along so smoothly that its meaningfully bizarre touches, like Meat Loaf Aday as a testicular cancer patient with very large breasts, aren't jarring at all.

The narrator finds a fellow 12-step addict in Marla, played with witchy sensuality by Helena Bonham Carter and described by the script as ''the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it -- but you can't.'' As that suggests, Marla's grunge recklessness makes a big impression on the film's narrator, and can mostly be blamed for setting the story in motion. Soon after meeting her he is on an airplane, craving any sensation but antiseptic boredom, and he meets Mr. Pitt's Tyler Durden in the next seat. Surveying the bourgeois wimp he nicknames Ikea Boy, Tyler asks all the hard questions. Like: ''Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is?''

Mr. Norton, drawn into Tyler's spell, soon forsakes his tidy ways and moves into the abandoned wreck that is ground central for Tyler. Then Tyler teaches his new roommate to fight in a nearby parking lot. The tacitly homoerotic bouts between these two men become addictive (as does sex with Marla), and their fight group expands into a secret society, all of which the film presents with the curious matter-of-factness of a dream. Somehow nobody gets hurt badly, but the fights leave frustrated, otherwise emasculated men with secret badges of not-quite-honor.

''Fight Club'' watches this form of escapism morph into something much more dangerous. Tyler somehow builds a bridge from the anti-materialist rhetoric of the 1960's (''It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything'') into the kind of paramilitary dream project that Ayn Rand might have admired. The group's rigorous training and subversive agenda are as deeply disturbing to Mr. Norton's mild-mannered character as Tyler's original wild streak was thrilling. But even when acts of terrorism are in the offing, he can't seem to tear himself away.

Like Kevin Smith's ''Dogma,'' ''Fight Club'' sounds offensive from afar. If watched sufficiently mindlessly, it might be mistaken for a dangerous endorsement of totalitarian tactics and super-violent nihilism in an all-out assault on society. But this is a much less gruesome film than ''Seven'' and a notably more serious one. It means to explore the lure of violence in an even more dangerously regimented, dehumanized culture. That's a hard thing to illustrate this powerfully without, so to speak, stepping on a few toes.

In an expertly shot and edited film spiked with clever computer-generated surprises, Mr. Fincher also benefits, of course, from marquee appeal. The teamwork of Mr. Norton and Mr. Pitt is as provocative and complex as it's meant to be. Mr. Norton, an ingenious actor, is once again trickier than he looks. Mr. Pitt struts through the film with rekindled brio and a visceral sense of purpose. He's right at home in a movie that warns against worshiping false idols.
nyt


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The Sixth Sense review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:03 (A review of The Sixth Sense)

And this year's ''Touched by an Angel'' award for gaggingly mawkish supernatural kitsch goes to Bruce Willis's newest film, ''The Sixth Sense.'' The star, who plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a gifted child psychologist in Philadelphia, also earns the Robin Williams-manque award for ineffable, twinkling, half-smiling misty-eyed empathy with adorable tots.

But since Mr. Willis has only one basic facial expression in all his films, it isn't his icky smirk that telegraphs the doctor's extra-special sensitivity. (Mr. Willis wears exactly the same smirk when he's about to shoot someone in the face.) No, it is the movie's treacly soundtrack by James Newton Howard, the Hollywood maestro du jour for smearing on goo whenever it's time to clench back tears.

In its first hour, ''The Sixth Sense,'' which was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, half-heartedly poses as a horror film about to erupt into gore. Its opening scene finds the doctor and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), tipsily celebrating his award from the city of Philadelphia for outstanding something-or-other. As the Crowes, flushed from imbibing a $100 bottle of wine, are about to tumble into bed, they discover an intruder in their bathroom. The uninvited guest turns out to be Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), a former child patient of the doctor's, now grown up and in full maniacal froth.

''You failed me!'' he screams and pulls out a gun and shoots the doctor in the stomach before turning the weapon on himself.

We jump ahead several months. The doctor has apparently recovered from his wounds, but his spirit is broken. Still haunted by his ''failure,'' he takes on a new patient, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a waifish 9-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), and whose severe psychological problems are uncannily reminiscent of the young Vincent Gray's.

This time, the doctor vows to himself, he won't fail his patient. And after much game-playing and hanging out with Cole (the doctor seems to have nothing better to do all day than follow Cole around, smirking empathetically), the boy reveals his secret. He claims he can see the dead. And every so often, the movie gives us creepy little glimpses of the corpse-strewn world as it appears through Cole's tormented vision. At first, the doctor doesn't believe the boy. But then, well, let's not take the story any further lest its colossally sentimental payoff be compromised.

Because it unfolds like a garish hybrid of ''Simon Birch'' and ''What Dreams May Come,'' with some horror-movie touches thrown in to keep us from nodding off, ''The Sixth Sense'' appears to have been concocted at exactly the moment Hollywood was betting on supernatural schmaltz. For Mr. Willis, the movie continues the unpromising track he took with ''Mercury Rising,'' in which his character goes through hell to save the life of an autistic child.

For Mr. Shyamalan, ''The Sixth Sense'' is a slight improvement over last year's ''Wide Awake.'' But that isn't saying much. That insufferably coy drama of another wee Philadelphian searching for proof of God's existence barely registered at the box office. The Willis name should insure that ''The Sixth Sense'' stays around a little bit longer. ´
nyt


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Seven review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:02 (A review of Seven)

In "Seven," a grim urban environment is rocked by horrible murders, each more gruesome than the last and each with strong ties to the local library. It seems that the killer, showily conversant with Dante, Milton, Chaucer and no doubt Agatha Christie, has devised an orderly string of crimes that deliver a collective message. Each one interprets a deadly sin in terms that smack of Hannibal Lecter. Pride: A beautiful model is butchered, with her nose cut off to spite her face. Et cetera.

In case these crimes, however disgustingly rendered, are not formulaic enough, "Seven" also throws in two familiar detective types: the brash new guy (Brad Pitt), and the steady-handed veteran who is on the verge of leaving the force (Morgan Freeman). The new guy has a loving, patient wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), and so the film treats her in ways you wouldn't treat a dog. As for the veteran, if you guess that he has only one week to go before retirement, naturally you're right.

Although the director, David Fincher (with a strong track record in rock video), and the screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker (inspired to write "Seven" while working as a clerk at Tower Records), borrow so many familiar elements for their story, they seem determined to give it an uncommonly nasty spin. So the crime scenes are rendered in sickening detail, and the whole film has a murky, madly pretentious tone. Visually, the effect is that of spending a long time looking at a bowl of oatmeal on a rainy day. Only during its last scenes does the film brighten, partly because of the actor who is revealed as the killer and partly because the action finally moves outdoors in broad daylight.

Mr. Freeman moves sagely through "Seven" with the air of one who has seen it all and will surely be seeing something better very soon. His performance has just the kind of polish and self-possession that his co-star, Mr. Pitt, seems determined to avoid. Demonstrating an eighth sin by frittering away an enormously promising career, Mr. Pitt walks through this film looking rumpled and nonchalant, mumbling his lines with hip diffidence to spare. He remains too detached to show much enthusiasm, except for times when the screenplay begins moralizing about what a sick world we live in. Films like this one and, say, "Kalifornia" aren't making it any better.

"Seven" is also notable for an excessive running time and a lot of shrill or rumbling sound effects that deliver more jolts than the action can. Not even bags of body parts, a bitten-off tongue or a man forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh (think "The Merchant of Venice") keep it from being dull.
NYT


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The Silence of the Lambs review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 12:00 (A review of The Silence of the Lambs)

All sorts of macabre things have gone on, and are still going on just off screen, in Jonathan Demme's swift, witty new suspense thriller, "The Silence of the Lambs."

Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer nicknamed Hannibal the Cannibal, once liked to feast on his victims, daintily, in a meal designed to complement the particular nature of the main dish. He would, for example, choose a "nice" Chianti to accompany a savory liver. A fine Bordeaux would compete.

Hannibal is a brilliant if bent psychiatrist, now under lock and key in a maximum-security facility.

Still at large, though, is a new serial killer, known as Buffalo Bill for reasons that can't be reported here. Bill's habit is to skin his victims.

At the beginning of "The Silence of the Lambs," Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), the F.B.I.'s man in charge of Bill's case, seeks the assistance of a bright young agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster).

Her assignment: to interview Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), arouse his interest and secure his help in drawing a psychological profile of the new killer.

The principal concern of "The Silence of the Lambs" is the entrapment of Buffalo Bill before he can kill again. Yet the heart of the movie is the eerie and complex relationship that develops between Clarice and Hannibal during a series of prison interviews, conducted through inch-thick bulletproof glass.

Hannibal, as grandly played by Mr. Hopkins, is a most seductive psychopath, a fellow who listens to the "Goldberg Variations" and can sketch the Duomo from memory. It's not his elegant tastes that attract Clarice, and certainly not his arrogant manner or his death's-head good looks. His smile is frosty, and his eyes never change expression. It's his mind that draws her to him. It pierces and surprises. Hannibal is one movie killer who is demonstrably as brilliant and wicked as he is reported to be.

In their first interview, Hannibal sizes up Clarice from her expensive bag and cheap shoes, her West Virginia accent and her furrow-browed, youthful determination not to appear intimidated. Hannibal isn't unkind to her.

He is at first skeptical and then amused. Finally he is seduced by her, at least to the extent that his egomania allows. She is flesh and blood and something more.

As played by Miss Foster, Clarice is as special in her way as Hannibal is in his. She is exceptionally pretty, but her appeal has more to do with her character, which is still in the process of being formed. She's unsure of herself, yet clear-headed enough to recognize her limitations.

Clarice has the charm of absolute honesty, something not often seen in movies or, for that matter, in life. She's direct, kind, always a bit on edge and eager to make her way.

When Hannibal finally agrees to help Clarice, it's with the understanding that for every bit of information he gives her, she will tell him something about herself. Because Hannibal, by nature and by profession, is an expert in prying, the questions he asks, and the answers he receives, both frighten and soothe the young woman.

For Hannibal, they are a turn-on.

Through the bulletproof glass, in dizzy succession, Hannibal and Clarice become analyst and analysand, teacher and pupil, father and daughter, lover and beloved, while always remaining cat and mouse.

Miss Foster, in her first role since winning an Oscar for "The Accused," and Mr. Hopkins, an actor of cool and eloquent precision, give exciting substance to the roles written by Ted Tally, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Thomas Harris. An earlier Thomas novel, "Red Dragon," in which the homicidal doctor also appears, was the basis of the 1986 film "Manhunter."

Miss Foster and Mr. Hopkins are so good, in fact, that Clarice and Hannibal sometimes seem more important than the mechanics of "The Silence of the Lambs," which is, otherwise, committed to meeting the obligations of a suspense melodrama.

Mr. Demme meets most of these obligations with great style. The buildup to the dread Hannibal's first scene is so effective that one almost flinches when he appears. Never after that, for good reason, does Hannibal become trusted, though he is always entertaining to have around.

Eventually, though, the demands of the plot begin to take precedence over people and plausibility. Hannibal not only can help with the Buffalo Bill case, but he also knows who Buffalo Bill is. About halfway through, so does the audience, at which point the movie shifts to a lower, more functional gear even as the pace increases.

The screenplay, which is very effective in detailing character, is occasionally hard pressed to feed the audience enough information so that it can follow the increasingly breathless manhunt without a roadmap.

I'm told it helps if one has read the book, but reading the book shouldn't be a requirement to enjoy the film. At a crucial point the audience must also accept, as perfectly reasonable and likely, some instant surgery that allows the story to continue moving forward.

This may be hair-splitting. "The Silence of the Lambs" is not meant to be a handy home guide to do-it-yourself face liftings. Yet the movie is so persuasive most of the time that the wish is that it be perfect.

Although the continuity is sometimes unclear, the movie is clearly the work of adults. The dialogue is tough and sharp, literate without being literary.

Mr. Demme is a director of both humor and subtlety. The gruesome details are vivid without being exploited. He also handles the big set pieces with skill. The final confrontation between Clarice and the man she has been pursuing is a knockout -- a scene set in pitch dark, with Clarice being stalked by a killer who wears night-vision glasses.

Mr. Glenn is stalwart as Clarice's F.B.I. mentor, but the role is no match for those of his two co-stars.

The good supporting cast includes Anthony Heald, as another doctor who might be as nutty as Hannibal, and Ted Levine, as a fellow who spends more time making his own clothes than is entirely healthy. Roger Corman, the self-styled king of B-pictures, who gave Mr. Demme his start in film making, appears briefly as the director of the F.B.I.
NYT


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Memento review

Posted : 4 years, 9 months ago on 27 November 2012 11:57 (A review of Memento)

Memory - it is one of the key elements that separates human beings from animals. It is one of the basic building blocks of personality. Who we are is shaped as much by our experiences as by our environment. Memory can also be unreliable, not to mention easily influenced. Ask three people to describe the same event, and none of those accounts will be the same. But, although memories are skewed by perspective, they are critical to the human experience. Memento is very much concerned with all aspects of memory, especially the manipulation of it, and this endlessly fascinating, wonderfully open-ended motion picture will be remembered by many who see it as one of the best films of the year.

When I initially saw Memento at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in competition, I recognized this as a shoo-in for a spot on my year's end Top 10 list. There's no way this film could miss. Had it been released last year, it would have landed in the #1 or #2 position (right ahead of or behind Requiem for a Dream). This is a great motion picture, and, as an added bonus, it has a tremendous "replayability", meaning that subsequent viewings are almost as rewarding as the first. The only downside is that, with a small distributor like Newmarket Capital Group, it may be difficult to find, especially for those who don't live near major metropolitan areas.

Memento stars Austalian actor Guy Pearce (one of the crossdressers in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the "straight" guy L.A. Confidential) as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator and crime victim who is trying to find the man who raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox). His goal is simple - he wants revenge through execution. Nothing less will satisfy him. But there's a small matter that complicates Leonard's investigation. He has no short term memory. During the attack that ended his wife's life, Leonard suffered brain damage. Now, although his long-term memory is fine, he can't remember any recent events. He can meet the same person a hundred times and won't know their name or who they are. To combat his condition, Leonard relies upon a series of annotated Polaroid snapshots - not exactly the ideal tool by which to seek out a killer who even the police can't locate. Along the way, Leonard is aided (or perhaps hindered) by the ubiquitous Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who is always on hand to offer advice, and he becomes involved with the mysterious Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), whose motives may not be as straightforward as they initially appear to be.

Memento doesn't stop with a great premise. In fact, what really distinguishes this film is its brilliant, innovative structure. Nolan has elected to tell the story backwards. He starts at the end and finishes near the beginning. The main narrative is presented as a series of three-to-eight minute segments, each of which ends where the previous one began. A second thread, which starts at an unspecified time in the past and moves forward to intersect with the main storyline, is used to buffer the "reverse" segments as well as to provide background information. (It also tells the important "Sammy Jankis" story, which becomes increasingly important the deeper we get into the film.) Although this approach might at first seem confusing, it doesn't take long to get used to it, and to understand how well it works with this material.

By presenting events in Memento backwards, Nolan allows us to get into the mindset of the main character. Like Leonard, we don't have a clear indication of what happened before the current segment of time. We know some things from the past, but not the recent past. Like him, we are presented with numerous cryptic clues, some of which may mean something other than what they initially appear to represent. And, although it might seem that an approach which reveals the story's conclusion in the first five minutes would lack tension, that's far from the case. Memento builds to a surprising yet completely logical finale, and there's plenty of suspense along the way to keep the viewer riveted.

Those who enjoyed the dubious pleasure of piecing together the plot of The Sixth Sense in retrospect will be delighted by Memento, which only reveals the entire landscape when the end credits start rolling. Unlike The Sixth Sense, however, Memento does not rely upon an easily-predicted twist ending to give the storyline meaning. This movie is constructed as a series of clever and logical revelations. It builds to the final scene rather than attempting to ambush us. In addition, since many aspects of Memento can be interpreted in more than one way (for example, during one critical conversation, it's up to each audience member to determine whether or not Teddy is telling the truth - Nolan does not offer a "definitive" answer), it's possible for one movie-goer to have a completely different vision of the film's backstory than the person sitting next to him/her.

In some ways, Memento can almost be described as anti-Groundhog Day. (The presence of Stephen Tobolowsky in supporting roles in both movies strengthens the connection.) Both pictures toy with timelines and memory, but, while Groundhog Day re-treads one period of time, constantly re-shaping recent history, Memento represents the past as a vacuum. Bill Murray's character in the 1993 film has multiple memories of a single time period. Here, Leonard has none. Another movie that comes to mind when discussing Memento is the Dana Carvey comedy Clean Slate. The two films have pretty much the same premise, but, while Clean Slate does little with it, Memento draws every ounce of potential from this rich well.

Lead actor Guy Pearce gives an astounding performance as a man struggling to avoid being manipulated in a world where he can easily become anyone's pawn. It's a tight, thoroughly convincing performance. Able support is provided by Carrie-Anne Moss, who is quickly moving far beyond her label as the "Matrix Babe", and character actor Joe Pantoliano (the newest addition to the cast of "The Sopranos"). But the real star here is Nolan, and the way he has edited this masterful thriller into its final format.

Every festival has a defining film. Sometimes it wins awards; sometimes it doesn't. For Sundance 2001, Memento was that movie. Despite its diversity of genres, the festival couldn't boast anything better; now, in the bleak movie-going climate of early spring, Memento is poised to breathe life back into art houses and independent theaters that have been as stung as multiplexes by mediocre fare. For those who love films and don't mind endings that don't wrap everything into a tidy package, Memento is not to be missed, even if you have to make a long trip to reach a theater showing it.


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10 Items or Less review

Posted : 5 years, 4 months ago on 28 April 2012 05:07 (A review of 10 Items or Less)

Morgan Freeman projects a natural affability. More than most screen actors, he seems like he'd be fun to hang out with. Wise beyond its intentionally small scope, "10 Items or Less" knowingly plays on Freeman's high likeability quotient and the extent to which it's landed him buddy roles opposite the likes of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.

"Items" is a buddy picture of sorts in which Freeman plays a facsimile of himself -- a conceit reinforced by not giving his character a name -- who becomes unlikely friends with a grocery store clerk (Paz Vega). He's a Hollywood actor famous for blockbusters co-starring Ashley Judd. There's a scene of him uncovering a video of one -- their unmistakable mugs are splashed all over the cover, although the title, "Double Down," is bogus -- on a remainder table at a Latino supermarket on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

He's at the store researching a role in an independently made movie, a departure for a big star like him. The budget is so minuscule that the producer's cousin is dispatched to drive him to the hinterlands in a dilapidated turquoise van.

Like Russian nesting dolls, "Items" keeps opening up to self references. It also happens to be an indie, not the sort of project the Oscar-winning Freeman usually is found in. But you can see why he signed on -- besides it only requiring a couple of weeks of his time. The script is terrifically engaging, and Freeman, decked out in a leather jacket, shades and an earring in one ear, gets to spoof his own image. Writer-director Brad Silberling exhibits more heart and soul and a more fluid camera than he did in his overblown "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "City of Angels."

At the market, the unnamed actor immediately spots star potential in a pretty clerk, Scarlet, who can correctly guess the total of the 10 items or less at her checkout stand before adding them up. Her name is no coincidence. As played by Vega (whose breakout role was supposed to be in "Spanglish," except no one went to see it), Scarlet is as feisty as Miss O'Hara and outshines everyone around her.

Also like her namesake, Scarlet has ambitions to better herself. Later in the day, she's interviewing for a secretarial position at a construction company. When the producer's cousin fails to return to chauffeur the actor back to his Brentwood home, he hitches a ride with Scarlet.

They wind up spending the afternoon together, during which he mentors her on how to get that job. To him, it's just like auditioning for a movie role and requires the same positive thinking.

His years working with wardrobe departments convinces him that Scarlet needs to look the part of a secretary. He goes shopping with her at Target -- he's never been in one before and finds it amazing -- and picks out a blue top that looks professional and sexy at the same time.

It costs a mere $8, compared to the $100 designer T-shirt he's wearing. In one of the film's many lines designed to make you smile all the while wondering about its veracity, he tells her that Clint Eastwood convinced him the shirt was worth it because the sleeves cuff at his triceps, creating an appearance of being taller.

Freeman and Paz winningly play off each other. They show the affection their characters develop for each other and how it borders on the sexual while remaining strictly platonic. Scarlet seems to have rarely if ever received the level of attention from men that the actor focuses on her. He asks her to list the 10 items she can't do without, and really listens to her reply.

As Scarlet enters the building for her interview, he instructs her on maintaining an erect posture and a steady, unhurried gait. "10 Items or Less" proceeds at that pace to an ending that is as inevitable as it is poignant.



Read more: [Link removed - login to see] is a buddy picture of sorts in which Freeman plays a facsimile of himself -- a conceit reinforced by not giving his character a name -- who becomes unlikely friends with a grocery store clerk (Paz Vega). He's a Hollywood actor famous for blockbusters co-starring Ashley Judd. There's a scene of him uncovering a video of one -- their unmistakable mugs are splashed all over the cover, although the title, "Double Down," is bogus -- on a remainder table at a Latino supermarket on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

He's at the store researching a role in an independently made movie, a departure for a big star like him. The budget is so minuscule that the producer's cousin is dispatched to drive him to the hinterlands in a dilapidated turquoise van.

Like Russian nesting dolls, "Items" keeps opening up to self references. It also happens to be an indie, not the sort of project the Oscar-winning Freeman usually is found in. But you can see why he signed on -- besides it only requiring a couple of weeks of his time. The script is terrifically engaging, and Freeman, decked out in a leather jacket, shades and an earring in one ear, gets to spoof his own image. Writer-director Brad Silberling exhibits more heart and soul and a more fluid camera than he did in his overblown "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "City of Angels."

At the market, the unnamed actor immediately spots star potential in a pretty clerk, Scarlet, who can correctly guess the total of the 10 items or less at her checkout stand before adding them up. Her name is no coincidence. As played by Vega (whose breakout role was supposed to be in "Spanglish," except no one went to see it), Scarlet is as feisty as Miss O'Hara and outshines everyone around her.

Also like her namesake, Scarlet has ambitions to better herself. Later in the day, she's interviewing for a secretarial position at a construction company. When the producer's cousin fails to return to chauffeur the actor back to his Brentwood home, he hitches a ride with Scarlet.

They wind up spending the afternoon together, during which he mentors her on how to get that job. To him, it's just like auditioning for a movie role and requires the same positive thinking.

His years working with wardrobe departments convinces him that Scarlet needs to look the part of a secretary. He goes shopping with her at Target -- he's never been in one before and finds it amazing -- and picks out a blue top that looks professional and sexy at the same time.

It costs a mere $8, compared to the $100 designer T-shirt he's wearing. In one of the film's many lines designed to make you smile all the while wondering about its veracity, he tells her that Clint Eastwood convinced him the shirt was worth it because the sleeves cuff at his triceps, creating an appearance of being taller.

Freeman and Paz winningly play off each other. They show the affection their characters develop for each other and how it borders on the sexual while remaining strictly platonic. Scarlet seems to have rarely if ever received the level of attention from men that the actor focuses on her. He asks her to list the 10 items she can't do without, and really listens to her reply.

As Scarlet enters the building for her interview, he instructs her on maintaining an erect posture and a steady, unhurried gait. "10 Items or Less" proceeds at that pace to an ending that is as inevitable as it is poignant.


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You Don't Know Jack review

Posted : 5 years, 4 months ago on 28 April 2012 05:03 (A review of You Don't Know Jack)

The fascinating legal issue at play in You Don’t Know Jack comes down to the splitting of hairs. The courts, as they are shown by the film, deal with Dr. Jack Kevorkian based on reactionary whims. One prosecutor is dogged in his pursuit, driven by religious conviction that God is the sole arbiter of life and death. His successor doesn’t want to spend any more taxpayer money on a failed case and allows Kevorkian to go about his business. But then Kevorkian crosses the line.
How does he cross the line? Instead of placing a rudimentary clip on lethal substances to be released by the patient with a string, he administers the substances himself. The other details are the same: a suffering patient who documents his wish to die is helped by Kevorkian to do so. Just a difference of string. “He’s gone too far!” bellows the new prosecutor upon seeing Kevorkian’s latest mercy killing on 60 Minutes. He seems to consider it more a personal slap in the face than a breach of the law. How dare he do publicly what he had already been allowed to do privately! Says the judge, upon giving him the maximum sentence, Kevorkian has flouted the laws of the state. The family of the deceased is no longer allowed to testify about the mitigating circumstances because it’s not an assisted suicide anymore. It’s murder, and the context of the crime — that is, its whole meaning, motivation, and purpose — is no longer relevant.
Just a little bit of string.
I think the string is just a convenient abstraction, an excuse not to deal with the unpleasant issues Kevorkian desperately wants us to deal with. His real crime was taking away our illusions.
You Don’t Know Jack is an excellent character study and a provocative moral quandary. Kevorkian (Al Pacino) stands on a soap box to advocate his position, but the film doesn’t. Its focus is intimate. Directed by Barry Levinson, it tackles the political through the personal, taking each life as complete and important, and not a statistic for debate. Whether we accept or condemn Kevorkian’s behavior, it’s important to see it for what it is. The administering of death is a frightful procedure to watch. The declaration of intent is heartbreaking. We don’t want to think about it. We need to. After the deaths, Levinson shows us the bodies with their name and number — the number referencing the number of patients Kevorkian has treated.
The opposition frames the debate in false terms. A protester in a wheelchair holds a sign saying, “Please don’t kill me,” but of course Kevorkian doesn’t assist anyone who doesn’t want to die, and he turns away a good many who do. Only God can choose when a person lives or dies, say others, but no one objects when doctors interfere with God to save lives. In Kevorkian’s last trial, in 1999, the prosecutors drop the assisted suicide charge because it’s easier to convict for a murder without anguished family members testifying about the deceased’s quality of life. That’s the whole point of Kevorkian’s euthanasia, but it gets in the way of legal action.
Levinson cuts through the fervor on each side and approaches the subject in necessary shades of gray. He and screenwriter Adam Mazer clearly side with Kevorkian, and in doing so paint the campaign against euthanasia too dismissively to make this a truly balanced film — they’re all religious zealots and self-righteous moralists — but they wisely avoid turning Kevorkian into a heroic figure. He’s principled, but stubborn and arrogant, a martyr for the cause so fixated on the nobility of his martyrdom that he often does his cause a disservice. Pacino plays him with an outsize personality but a very internal emotional life. He’s not a very nice guy. His bedside manner could use work. But he doesn’t want to be liked. He’s content to be right. That’s his downfall: when it comes to the law, being right isn’t always enough.


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