Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Greenberg" (2010)

Ben Stiller was a risky choice to play Roger Greenberg in "Greenberg," the latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding"). It's not that Stiller doesn't pull it off, because he does, it's just that the idea behind the character is too flawed to begin with. Roger is a man who just got released from a mental hospital after having a breakdown. "Life is wasted on people," he says keeping himself distanced from healthy connections with other people. At the age of 40, he purposely does nothing with his life and spends his days writing complaint letters to companies like American Airlines and Starbucks. He would really just like to write a letter to the world telling about all the stupid people that inhabit it. He is mean and close-minded and the opposite of likable, and yet there is a girl who falls for him.

The girl is 25-year-old Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig) who is gentle and sweet. She is plain-looking but not unattractive, and although one may at first think she has low self-esteem, this is not the case. When Roger makes the mistake of telling her, "You have value," she gives him a look of disgust and responds, "I already knew that." It's not that Florence doesn't know what she wants; it's that she just hasn't gotten it yet. She wants a relationship, one that isn't just frivolous sex after sex. The question for us then becomes, why Roger Greenberg? Florence is the assistant to Roger's brother and his family, interacting with the kids and the dog. She does the planning, buys the groceries and makes sure everything is in check. When the family heads off to vacation in Vietnam, that's when Roger moves in for a few weeks to house-sit while Florence occasionally drops by. Being an assistant always serving others, one would think Florence would like to do something for herself. What she finds in Roger isn't that but quite the opposite. A relationship with Roger is a huge undertaking.

The movie rightfully opens with a profile shot of Florence, and we're first introduced to her before getting sucked into the angry misery to the point of exhaustion involving Roger. He was part a band earlier in his life, one that he singlehandedly dismantled. Even upon reuniting with a former band member, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), Roger still doesn't get it. Ivan tries to help his friend the best he can, but you can't help those who don't want to be helped. Roger also meets up with his ex-girlfriend, Beth, who is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and while she only appears briefly in two scenes, she is greatly effective. The look she gives Roger signals to him that he is impossible, and we can't help but agree. There is one moment during a wild, teenage party thrown at the Greenberg household where we get insight into Roger's thinking. And while Stiller, in his equal bouts of rage and solace, makes Roger work as a character, it is Greta Gerwig who is the revelation. The fact that she convinces us that Florence could be interested in a person like Roger is a revelation in itself.

"Hurt people hurt people" seems to be the permeating theme, and Baumbach's other movies followed suit with "Margot at the Wedding" about feuding sisters and "The Squid and the Whale" about a bitter divorce. And while it's intriguing to watch these people figure themselves and each other out, here it gets more frustrating than anything else. It's hard to get into simply due to the turn-off provided by Roger, and even once you get past that and get settled in, it remains uneasy. Roger and Florence work together only to a certain level because we like her so much more than him. Whether Roger can finally cope or not is left unclear, but worst is that we end up not caring either way. "Greenberg" ends on a good note, a really good note, but by the end you're also a little too relieved it's over.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"How To Train Your Dragon" (2010)

The latest from DreamWorks Animation, "How to Train Your Dragon," is the first great animated feature of the year and extremely deserving of that title. Do yourself a favor and go see it in 3-D because it really cannot be viewed in any other way. It is the most brilliant use of the technology I have seen. In no way gimmicky, the swirling and eye-popping 3-D is used to amplify the visual and emotional potential the movie has to offer. The first moment when the young Viking, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), takes flight with his dragon, named Toothless, is one of visual wonderment and splendor. It evokes feelings comparable to even "Avatar." The textures, the artistry, it is all so, so gorgeous in many instances, and this is in large part thanks to Roger Deakins (talented live-action cinematographer for the likes of "No Country for Old Men") who worked was a visual consultant on the movie. This helps to make "How to Train Your Dragon" such a purely magical delight.

Hiccup lives among a population of Scottish-accented, tough-talking and brute-looking Vikings on the island of Berk where they're forced to deal with some large pests: dragons. At the movie's start, the island is under siege from a team of them setting the village aflame while Vikings grab shields, swing swords and launch catapults to thwart off their enemy. This is when we learn Hiccup isn't fit for this environment, and it doesn't help that the leader of the village, the massive and powerful Stoick (a growling Gerard Butler reliving his "300" days), is Hiccup's father. Slaying dragons is the common career since the Vikings have been fighting them off for generations. During this initial battle, Hiccup haphazardly launches a slingshot catapult and not only takes down a dragon but the most dangerous dragon that no Viking has ever laid eyes on. It's the Night Fury, only seen as a purple streak in the sky, and it is just one of a dozen different dragon species all of which are distinct, creative and colorful.

Hiccup finds the dragon in a secluded spot in the woods with a wounded tail preventing it from flying away. He tries to slay the dragon like his ancestry tells him, but he can't bring himself to follow through. Instead, he begins to interact with the dragon and soon realizes that everything the Vikings know, or think they know, about dragons is wrong. They can be tamed. Hiccup's connection with Toothless, with its cat-like, yellow eyes and black, slender body like a lizard, is never too sugary or sweet. It is challenging and ultimately tender. The details in the way the dragon moves, looks and reacts are all so finely nuanced that the moment where Hiccup first bonds with Toothless becomes the movie's most breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Their bond tightens when Hiccup fashions an artificial tail, provides bails of fish and saddles up to fly. Toothless is both ferocious and adorable, and the way Hiccup earns the dragon's trust is enchanting.

Back at the village, Stoick is openly disappointed and embarrassed of his son's lack of skills. While Stoick and the other Vikings head off in search for the dragons' nest, Hiccup and the other young Vikings begin their dragon slaying training under Cobber (voice of Craig Ferguson). The fellow trainees with Hiccup are a fun bunch including the voice talents of Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (of "Superbad"), America Ferrara (of "Ugly Betty") and Kristen Wiig (of "Whip It"). Wiig is the voice of Hiccup's interest, and they have a charming love-hate relationship. Their training sequences reminded me greatly of the "Harry Potter" series whenever the wizarding students fended off against dragons. It's here when Hiccup's skills with dragons shine but not in the way the Vikings would hope. While he is the first Viking to ever ride a dragon, he is also the first to be against slaying one.

Similar to the one created in 2008's "Kung Fu Panda," the environment here is rich, alive and feels like something pulled out of a classic fairy tale. It's no Pandora, but when those mountainous tops are standing atop the mist in the distance, you can't help but recall "Avatar." A soaring musical score from John Powell accompanies the exciting and fast pace of "How to Train Your Dragon," and while the story could be considered conventional, there is power in the simplicity of a boy and his dragon. Hiccup is an endearing main character because he is so nice, likable and easy to root for, and Toothless is just as lovable. The way this heartwarming story is packaged and delivered is what makes it so exceptional.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Archive: "Lars And The Real Girl" (2007)

A movie about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll could've gone completely wrong. It's a premise that could've lent itself to a movie much worse than what it wonderfully turned out to be, and that's what makes "Lars and the Real Girl" such a welcome surprise. There were so many opportunities for the movie to turn out badly, but it sidesteps all disaster and goes an unexpected route by treating a seemingly hollow premise with the utmost sincerity. All of this makes the poignant little comedy the sweetest, kindest, and most innocent movie around right now.

The movie is aided in no small part by Ryan Gosling who yet again proves himself worthy; here, he plays the quirky and overly shy Lars who is so timid that he can't even stand another person's touch. So few actors could've struck the correct balance the way Gosling does. His situation isn't the butt-end of bad laughs, but more so, a study of his character. He plays Lars with a genuine tone that carries throughout; his behavior is perfect and understandable, painful at times, but ultimately uplifting. Through Gosling's performance, we are given a glimpse into the loneliness and hope of Lars' world.

Lars' mother and father both died, and now he lives in a small cottage-like garage behind the house occupied by his older brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer). Karin desperately tries to get Lars involved in their life by inviting him to family meals, but Gus insists that it's just the way his brother is. Lars stays at home in complete solitude every evening. During the day, he goes to his office job where on one particular day his cubicle buddy shows him a website where you can create your very own sex doll. Jump ahead six weeks later when a large box is waiting for Lars when he comes home. Meet Bianca; she is a foreigner, a missionary, she's in a wheelchair, and Lars has all the reasons why she doesn't talk or eat.

When Lars introduces his new girlfriend to Gus and Karin, neither of them knows how to respond. Lars asks if Bianca can stay at their house and if she can borrow Karin's clothes. Realizing that the doll is there to stay, Karin accepts it while Gus is horrified and begins blaming himself for what has happened. They both visit a therapist, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who tells them that the only way to deal with it is to go along with it. Dagmar begins bringing in Bianca for pretend treatment while actually treating Lars. She concludes that Bianca provides Lars with exactly what he needs: unconditional love. Yes, it is deduced that Bianca does indeed have a special "orifice," but Lars doesn't use her for sex; she is somebody nonthreatening to be with, somebody to talk to, a companion. He treats her with respect just like any person would want to be treated.

What's so endearing about the plot is that eventually the community reaches an unspoken agreement to treat Bianca like she's real. They play along because they love Lars, and they would never want to hurt such a sweet guy. And so, they get Bianca involved in as many volunteer activities as possible with the church and hospital. It's all very humorous, especially witnessing people's reactions to the sex doll, but most of all it is charming and immensely touching. During all of this, there is a girl from Lars' office who likes him, and she copes with Bianca just the same while inching closer to Lars. It all comes to a satisfying end, an ending that makes you realize that something truly remarkable has been achieved with this film. "Lars and the Real Girl" is about loving and supporting those around us. It will not only lift your spirit but will reaffirm your hope of the goodness in people.

Archive: "American Gangster" (2007)

Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" is a perfectly compelling crime epic. In terms of being an exercise in the genre, it doesn't get any better than this. The movie is a recipe for success to begin with anyway, taking a big name director with a big name producer, Brian Grazer, and then adding in two big name actors to tell one big story about crime, corruption, drugs, and redemption. It's a dense and richly satisfying film based on a true story, and one that opens with a bang: Drug lord Frank Lucas torches one of his victims and then pumps him with bullets as he burns to put him out of his misery.

The story takes place in the late 60s and early 70s, and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) rules the streets of New York City. After his boss Bumpy Johnson dies, Lucas vows to keep his traditions alive by treating everybody with respect, keeping a low profile in his business, and silencing all opposition, and even passing out turkeys on Thanksgiving. He also realizes that the Harlem drug trafficking business has a fatal flaw of allowing the goods to pass through the Mafia. Lucky for Lucas, it's Vietnam and the soldiers fighting over there are using heroin; and so, he flies over to Thailand to import the goods directly through military cargo planes. He's in control of what's coming in, and he works for nobody. He calls his product "Blue Magic," and it beats all of his competitors because it's half the price for twice the potency. Overall, Frank Lucas is an excellent businessman, but it just so happens that his business is in drugs.

Nobody suspects Lucas because he's a smart man, but more so, because he's a black man. He enlists the help of his five brothers from North Carolina, positioning each of them at different fronts for drug distribution points. He also brings up his mother and buys her a large house where upper-class white people would normally live. Unlike Lucas' flamboyant rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who dresses fly and talks out a lot, Lucas stays low, dresses modestly, and strives to not draw any attention to himself or his activities. That is, until he gets himself a nice wife from Puerto Rico; her sole mistake is buying him a large fur coat and hat. Lucas wears them to a boxing match where he sits down next to a well-known Mafia man just as undercover cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is watching.

Richie Roberts is an ex-detective who is recruited to work undercover to go after drug traffickers and corrupt narcs in the city. He got a bad reputation in his previous department for finding $1 million and turning it in instead of easily keeping it for himself and his buddies. And that's not the only thing on Roberts' mind; he has a wife who makes him choose between his family and his job, and they eventually get into a lawsuit. Well, the job triumphs, and Roberts dedicates himself to catching Lucas even against tough opposition (Josh Brolin). The irony here is in each of these men's lives. Lucas has values and devotion to his family and takes his mother to church every Sunday, and he's extremely successful in business; the problem is where his success comes from. Richie Roberts, on the other hand, has a troubled family with a life in shambles but a job that works towards good. So, who exactly comes out to be the better man after it all? It's tough to really say.

The plot is unique in that it's told through two parallel story lines. Lucas does his thing, while unknowing to him, Roberts is slowly working towards his capture. The movie's writers do a superb job of holding our attention all the while these two separate streams of narrative occur simultaneously without converging until the final scenes of the entire movie. The two protagonists don't come face to face until the very end in a final confrontation that is justly rewarding. It's no give-away that Lucas gets captured; his sentence, however, is shortened because he helps Richie reveal that three-fourths of the narcs in the city were corrupt. It ends on a conversation between two intelligent men who realize they have met their match and that they need each other.

Denzel Washington is mesmerizing with his best work to date as Frank Lucas, the man who knows he's in charge; he is reserved and calm on the outside but can be entirely ruthless if necessary. Then there's Russel Crowe's Richie Roberts, the polar opposite of Lucas, as a man who has the uncanny ability to alienate himself entirely. He's like a badgered bulldog just plodding along until he finally reaches something worth struggling for. If it weren't for these two men, there would be no story; if it weren't for Richie, Lucas' business would still be going, and if it weren't for Lucas, Richie would still be stuck somewhere else.

Washington and Crowe turn in strong performances, enabling "American Gangster" to never have a dull moment. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, the movie is fully engrossing. It moves briskly and smoothly, it's finely made, and it's a meticulously detailed look into a captivating true story.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Archive: 'No Country for Old Men'

Movie Review
No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is the movie we've been waiting for. What we have here is absolutely brilliant filmmaking that could only come from the brother directors, Joel and Ethan Coen. The audience I saw it with probably felt the movie was was a simple, conventional suspense thriller, one full of bloodlust and vengeance with an unsatisfying ending. I know this from the grumbles and groans I heard leaving the theater. These people, however, are terribly misguided and obviously shouldn't have been seeing it to begin with. So, have no worry, "No Country for Old Men" is an undeniably great movie. It's stunning, assured, intelligent, and even if December has yet to deliver probably some of the season's best movies, I can safely state that this is the very best film of 2007.

The movie takes place in the barren countryside of West Texas in the 1980s, and it opens with the solemn voice of Tommy Lee Jones. He explains about a 14-year-old boy who killed his girlfriend in what the papers called a crime of passion. When he sent the boy to the electric chair, he asked him about the murder, and the boy responded that it had nothing to do with passion; he had been thinking about killing someone for as long as he can remember. The tone of this story sets everything up perfectly for the rest of the movie. Jones' character is a sheriff and he, along with the other sheriffs, doesn't understand the crimes of today. Other movies have used war to describe dehumanization, but this film is above preaching. This certainly is no country for old men, and no country for any man, for that matter. And to think out there is a man of such incomprehensible evil.

The man is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), and his presence on the screen can silence and chill a theater. He carries with him the worst hairstyle imaginable and a tank of compressed air, a cattle gun. This is a man who quietly asks his victim to get out of a car, and then proceeds to place the device on the man's forehead, blowing a hole through his head. Chigurh takes care of his victims calmly without breaking a sweat. And he can easily repair whatever wounds he receives. He is the scariest villain to come along in a movie for a long time, one of such dark evil with just a hint of perverse humor and also a smile that makes your skin crawl. In one scene, Chigurh enters a lonely gas station and, unknowing to the old man he's speaking with, they begin talking about whether or not Chigurh will kill him. The killer retrieves a coin from his pocket, flips it onto his hand, and tells the man to call it. The stakes are drawn, and this is Chigurh's game; he gambles with the lives of others through a coin toss. It's scary, that randomness in life.

And then there's Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who, while hunting in the vast expanse of prairie, randomly comes across the site of a drug trade gone wrong. There are abandoned trucks surrounded by dead bodies, even dogs, and a truck bed full of heroin. But, where's the money? Moss follows more tracks to find it in a briefcase, all $2 million of it. Amidst the carnage is also a man begging for water. After stopping at home to tell his wife (Kelly MacDonald) to stay with her mother, Moss makes the bad move of returning to the site with a jug of water for the man. While out there, a second pair of headlights appears, shots ring out, and Moss is officially on the run. It's not entirely clear how Chigurh is tied to the money, but something is assumed; Moss is attempting to keep the money for himself, and Chigurh is hot on his trail to get it back.

In pursuit of the two men is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is trying to save Moss from the trouble he's in and trying to stop Chigurh's murderous rampage. There's also a cocky bounty hunter named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) who compares Chigurh to the bubonic plague. All of these people understand what they're up against, but they really have no idea how to stop it. The chase takes Moss from motel to motel where all of the clerks get a visit from Chigurh. The suspense is heightened by a persistent and haunting silence. During one scene in particular, Moss waits in the dark for Chigurh to arrive; the only sound is the increasing beeps of a tracking transponder, warning of the approaching mayhem. It's truly scary, and this is not the only scene so flawlessly constructed. There are countless sequences that you don't want to end, but then when they do, there's something even better to experience next.

Josh Brolin is excellent as a common man thrust into a hellish world where he believes he's smarter than he really is. Moss is a man possessed by something beyond him, and Brolin adds a much-needed human touch to the role. And Javier Bardem's inexplicable ability to terrify is astonishing all on its own. Then there's Tommy Lee Jones, who is right at home playing the worn-out sheriff dealing with the worst of all evil. He has those tired eyes and long drawl, which is immensely fitting for the role. These three actors make every single line of dialogue count and all give Oscar-worthy performances. Now, as for that so-called disappointing ending, I believe it is pitch-perfect, bringing everything full circle and ending on a fittingly sentimental note that will reverberate in your soul long after the credits roll.

"No Country for Old Men" is based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The Coen brothers have adapted the story for the screen with the infusion of their signature dark humor. This is top-notch writing with a fine script, combining for absolutely great storytelling. The cinematography comes from Roger Deakins, and there's an effectively controlled sense of style, which is hauntingly bleak and violent, yet beautiful. Similar to Joel Coen's Best Picture nominee, "Fargo," the Coen brothers have a certain fascination with empty rural areas and the people who occupy them. This directing duo's latest effort is by far their best work yet.

This is a movie that drags you in, and as the minutes fly by, you'll find yourself entirely engrossed without a blink. It's hypnotizing, and at some points, you may even have to remind yourself to breathe. The movie is a meditation on time, the complexity of good and evil, the morality of choice, the immorality of injustice coincidence, and the unpredictability of fate. And all of this is tackled by the Coen brothers in a world that is all their own. The best part is that it's also damn entertaining and, yes, a masterpiece. Don't miss it.

'The Emperor's Children' Gets An Adaptation

Claire Messud's critically-acclaimed 2006 novel, "The Emperor's Children" is getting a film adaptation that will star Keira Knightley, Eric Bana and Richard Gere.

I've personally read this novel and fell in love with it. It's a very mature, complex book about the changing relationships between a trio of 30-year-olds living in New York coping with the melding of their personal and professional lives.

The way the novel plays out, I would expect it to be difficult to adapt, and so luckily the director taking on this project is Noah Baumbach who recently released "Greenberg" starring Ben Stiller.

Baumbach's films are primarily about the quirky and dry relationships of white, upper-class people and so the content of this novel is ideal for him to adapt. I'm excited to say the least.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Archive: 'Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"

Movie Review
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

"May you be in heaven half an hour...Before the devil knows you're dead."

The opening scene is of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character having rough vacation sex with his younger wife, played by Marisa Tomei. This isn't the only dirty thing you'll witness people doing throughout the course of this wrenching drama. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is the latest film from 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet about a family's life torn into shambles after a jewel heist gone horribly awry. It's remarkable that after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award three years ago, Lumet is still at the top of his game and making worthy movies such as this.

Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are brothers, although you wouldn't know it from looking at them; you would have to observe the way they interact because you get the feeling they've shared some history together. Andy is a payroll executive at a Manhattan real estate office who acts tough with every hair slicked back into place; however, the marriage with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), only has the appearance of being stable, and he has a bad drug addiction that leaves him strapped for cash. Hank works at the same office with Andy and is rundown, in a divorce, distant from his daughter, and in need of money to pay for child-support.

It's Andy who comes up with the plan to rob a jewelry store. The place he has in mind is a small mom and pop shop in the suburbs; the catch is that its their mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). Andy assigns Hank to do the job alone, and he figures if it's done without a gun on a slow Saturday morning with no customers around, it's a victimless crime that insurance can cover. Well, without giving too much away, everything goes wrong. It's from here that the movie begins to ring with emotional resonance and intensity that is absolutely devastating.

The plot isn't linear and is told in fractured segments, and what's so ingenious about this construction is how richly layered it is. After the opening scene, it cuts to "The Day of the Robbery," and then from there, it flashes back to different perspectives, jumps forward, and then doubles back again, all within the course of one week. This method comes from debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson, and it allows for each individual scene to be reconstructed, revealing more each time, and melding each piece together to create a startling cohesive whole.

The aftermath of the robbery only gets more complicated when Hank and Andy's father starts investigating for himself. It also doesn't help that Andy's wife is seeing Hank every Thursday. It's painfully fascinating to watch this family slowly inch their way to a shatteringly climactic disaster. We're not watching criminals on the screen, but rather, ordinary men driven to the point of committing criminal acts. These are people who turn to the worst possible means to resolve their problems. And all you can do is sit back and just watch the shockingly bad behavior unfold and await its consequences. Through it all, the characters feel a sense of remorse and grief, and yet, keep on with their familiar ways.

The movie's strength is in the demanding performance from Hoffman, who has key moments of loud outrage and silent despair. He taps into his dark side and is searing as a man who oozes charm but is then pushed to the edge; his gruesome aggressiveness gives him frightening strength in the end. His co-star, Hawke, is in the shadow as the hurt, younger sibling dragged under the corrupt current of his persuasive older brother. These two actors work together to make a strange connection of twisted trust between conflicted brothers.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a movie you have to experience for yourself to understand. It's one to discover through the intricate way its told, and simply reading about it doesn't do the movie justice. It's a juicy bite into a thought-provoking melodrama that dives deep into a progressively escalating tragedy of loss that vibrates with energy.

Archive: 'Beowulf'

Movie Review
Beowulf (2007)

I just love this melding of school literature and a major motion picture. Upon first hearing about "Beowulf," I figured it would be a pile of crap, but I would see it anyway just to poke fun at the thrilling memories of trudging through the Old English epic poem in English class a year back. Ah, yes. Well, I couldn't have been any more wrong, and it just so happens that this is actually one of the most exciting times you'll have in a theater right now. It's hilarious how this centuries-old poem has been kicked into high-gear and transformed into one awesomely kickass action movie. I think even Mrs. Ladd would be proud. Good ol' Beo!

Director Robet Zemeckis uses the same motion-capture here that he used in "The Polar Express," except back then it looked pretty surreal. Although still slightly eerie, things have definitely changed because this time around, the style of animation looks more realistic and absolutely stunning. And the movie looks like it was specifically made for 3-D with plenty of things flying out at the screen towards you. I saw it in IMAX 3-D, and it was loud, exciting, eye-popping, and insanely entertaining. If you plan on seeing it, do yourself the favor of seeing it in 3-D; most theaters are offering it that way, and it's really the best way to experience it.

Plot summary is like reviewing for a test on Beowulf because it's actually quite faithful to the original poem with familiar names and places. It takes us to a land long ago where Danish king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is holding a celebration in the mead hall, a place where there are lots of women to fondle and mead to guzzle. Out in the distance, however, there is the monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover), who is known for hating joyous celebrations and therefore has a nasty habit of destroying mead halls. Grendel is conceived rather well, I thought, considering how the original poem would've intended for him to look. He's partially man, which is correct, but horrendously slimy and gross looking, also correct. King Hrothgar offers a reward to any man that can slay Grendel, even offering his younger queen wife (Robin Wright Penn).

And so arrives Beowulf (Ray Winstone) with his faithful friend Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and other thanes to slaughter the beast, all boasting in manly robust talk. A man named Unferth (John Malkovich) questions Beowulf's abilities and mentions a swimming race Beowulf had with another man named Breka. This is humorous to me only because I distinctly remember Breka being briefly mentioned in the poem, and now in the movie, it's blown-up into an extended flashback showing that the reason Beowulf lost the race was because he was too busy splitting open and gouging the eyes out of sea monsters, all shown in gruesome detail with blood raining down on your 3-D glasses. Later on, Unferth even turns around and offers Beowulf a sword called Hrunting, also mentioned in the poem. So, it's faithfulness is definitely there; however, it's when Grendel's mother comes into the picture that some liberties are taken with the plot.

Yes, Angelina Jolie plays Grendel's mother, and she would not at all work in the context of the poem as she's supposed to be an ugly hag. In the way the movie wants to use Grendel's mother, though, Jolie couldn't be a more perfect match. When she first emerges from the pool in that single iconic scene, Grendel's mother is sexy, seductive, and tempting, covered in patches of gold to cover up her personals and even donning spike-heeled feet. And no, that's not actually Angelina Jolie's naked body you're looking at. Grendel's mom tempts Beowulf, adding needed intrigue to the story, and it really works out quite nicely. An innovative new layer is added to Beowulf's character, as well, which allows him to be not only a hero, but also a normally flawed man.

There are some unintentional laughs and occasional outbursts of snickering along the way, especially during a scene where Beowulf strips down completely naked to take on Grendel. Throughout the brutal manslaughter, Beowulf leaps around the mead hall with conveniently placed objects to cover himself. For the most part, though, people just sat and watched in silent awe. This was particularly noticeable during a final fight sequence against a giant fire-breathing dragon. Dare I say, FBD? This final fight's purpose, especially, strays far from the original epic, but this too ends up working out quite well with the rest of the movie's story.

Ray Winstone is fitting to Beowulf with his random outcries of triumphant phrases, reminiscent of "300," as this movie will probably appeal to the same audience. I actually liked this better than that for whatever reason; perhaps it's my English class connection. The movie is also bordering between its PG-13 rating and an R-rating, and it likely would've obtained the latter had it not been animated.

If you're looking for something fun to see in theaters right now, this is by far your best bet; just slap on those 3-D glasses and enjoy the rush. However weird I feel saying it, "Beowulf" is a really great movie.

Archive: 'The Mist'

Movie Review
The Mist (2007)

Along with "1408," this is another superb translation of a Stephen King novella onto the big screen. "The Mist" is even better because it manages to be what all R-rated horror movies should be: tense, spooky, surreal, eerie, and with just enough gore to keep you on the edge of your seat. Enough of that torture porn already. Director Frank Darabont, who also directed Stephen King's "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," is uncompromising here and has created something that is dark and shockingly pessimistic. It's definitely not the feel-good movie of the season, especially with a bleak ending that actually departs from the originally unresolved conclusion.

Most fascinating about the movie is how Darabont uses the interplay between characters that are in a threatening and frightening situation. Fear brings out the worst in people, and as the movie progresses, we witness a small group of isolated people gradually become more hostile and on-edge. There's something to be said about mob mentality, insanity, paranoia, prejudice, trust, religious fanaticism, and absolute hopelessness. And that's all without even mentioning the real danger of the creatures, which all linger outside in a menacing mist.

It all starts when a family man named David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is painting in his studio when a turbulent storm hits. He, his wife, and his son all head into the basement, and in the aftermath, they discover the storm's damage along with a thick mist over the water. David goes with his son and neighbor into town to a local supermarket where a blackout is causing all sorts of chaos; too bad that's hardly the worst yet to come. A siren sounds, and the mist envelopes the entire area surrounding the store. Suddenly, a man comes racing into the store covered in blood, screaming about how something is out there. Soon thereafter, David and a group of store employees go into the back room and accidentally come across just what exactly this "something" is.

Among the people trapped inside the supermarket is a crazed religious woman named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). She believes the mist is a sign of the apocalypse and that it is God's punishment for all the sin in the world. In shouting tyrants, she claims that the only way to save themselves is to sacrifice those amongst them who don't believe her. As tensions mount and the danger is fully realized, the people break off into three groups: those who go along with Mrs. Carmody's enraged rants, those who pretend that there is no real threat, and those who believe there are monsters and want to take action. It literally boils down to weighing the options between the evil on the outside and the evil on the inside.

Marcia Gay Harden is absolutely bone-chilling as Mrs. Carmody, and her insane preaching will certainly get to you. Without giving anything away in relation to her, let's just say it was the first time I've ever clapped during a movie. Thomas Jane as the protagonist, David, is ideal as a level-headed, reasonable man who is just the type of leader you would feel safe following; he's simply trying to keep everything together while using as much common sense as possible. Meanwhile, there are those people who are easily able to violently rally together in times of such unease.

Increasingly freaky monsters start emerging from the mist, including one sequence where a hoard of massive-sized bugs start landing on the glass front of the supermarket. You can only imagine what ensues when the glass finally gives way. The CGI isn't the most spectacular, but it doesn't need to be; the best and creepiest moments happen when all you see are the monsters looming out in the mist. This is especially true during one horrifying and awe-inspiring scene late in the movie. The majority of the time is spent inside the supermarket, and the biggest frights are when different groups of people attempt to leave their safe spot.

The main thing detracting from the experience is a faulty attempt at an explanation as to where the creatures and the mist all came from; it feels entirely unnecessary and obligatory, and it would've been better for the source to be left to our imaginations. Even so, "The Mist" avoids all horror movie cliches and presents an experience that is unpredictable and surreal; it really does play out like reading the actual novella. Best of all is that this is a horror movie successfully dealing with not only literal monsters but also the monster of humanity.

Archive: 'I Am Legend'

Movie Review
I Am Legend (2007)

If there's one thing "I Am Legend" does right, it's in making people wonder how in the world they got New York City to look like that. It's 2012, and the streets are overgrown with weeds, there is a sea of abandoned cars, wild animals are prowling on the loose, the skyscrapers look decrepit, and there is only one man left on earth after a deadly virus wipes out everybody else. This awe-inspiring opening sequence sets the stage for a scarily relevant perspective on how the end of the world would look. Better than the movie's relevance, though, is its ability to keep shocking its viewers and also its lead actor's ability to keep us enthralled.

Will Smith just loves the roles where he's saving the world in a swirl of special effects, and this is definitely one of the better movies in which he's done so. Sporting a newly buffed physique, he plays the last man on earth, Robert Neville. He spends his days roaming the deserted streets of New York hunting deer, sending out radio signals, and waiting on the same pier for any response each day when the sun is highest in the sky. He has an alarm set on his watch signaling night; Neville closes himself up in his barricaded house because that's when the creatures come out. They are humans transformed from the virus into fierce, hairless things that have gnashing teeth and no traces of humanity left. In Neville's basement, he has a laboratory where he is desperately searching for a vaccine to reverse this horrible virus.

Neville's faithful companion in all of his endeavors is his loyal german shepherd. Will Smith does a fine job of holding his own; it's a better performance than one might expect in terms of the genre. He carries with him sanity that is slowly wearing away and a burden of guilt of what has happened to the earth. He is desperately lonely and sets up mannequins around the city to interact with, but it's mostly his dog who he talks to. One devastatingly emotional scene early on involves Neville chasing his dog into a dark warehouse where the creatures are bound to be lurking. This is also where we get our first disturbing glimpse of these creatures, a glimpse which should've been left at that. Later, the creatures' faces are revealed, and although terrifying running at full speed in large groups from afar, they are a bit hokey up close.

I don't like to call the creatures zombies because that'll give the idea that this is strictly a zombie killing movie; that's only a small portion. It's like three movies in one: an apocalyptic disaster movie, a tale of survival, and then the zombie thriller. All three of these seemingly very individual genres all mesh together into one exciting and satisfying package. There are some superb action sequences throughout, including flashbacks that reveal the beginnings of the quarantine of New York City. The movie is slick, well-done, scary, and inventive, but it's the first two-thirds that is the most downright fascinating to experience and is superior over the finish.

"I Am Legend" is the third movie to be adapted from the 1954 Richard Matheson novel, the other two being "The Last Man on Earth" and "The Omega Man." The original creatures were literal vampires instead of leaning more towards super-powered zombies. I guess the vampire part is intact because the creatures are harmed by sunlight. People have complained that the movie is too reliant on special effects. I say if this is where advancements in CG have taken us, let them show us what they can do.

Archive: 'Atonement'

Movie Review
Atonement (2007)

"Atonement" is certain to be the Best Picture nominee to beat. It has all the components that make Oscar voters swoon such as eloquent English people, a lush romance that is torn apart, and a backdrop of war. All of this would be a bit much if it weren't for how worthy the film happens to be. It's a movie that takes an environment and setting we think we know and turns it on its head to reveal the dark passions, lies, jealousy, and deceit that lurk beneath. The beginning of the film is so full of brightness and hope, a stark contrast to the tragedy and despair to follow at the film's end.

It's a hot, lazy day at a large English country mansion. Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the beautiful and bold oldest sister of a rich family. Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is their housekeeper's (Brenda Blethyn) son, who has potential thanks to Cecilia's father. The two of them meet at a fountain outside, and Robbie, holding a family heirloom, clumsily breaks a piece off and drops it into the water. Cecilia dives in to retrieve it, and emerges in a soaking wet white gown that is now revealing her nearly naked body. Robbie stands in admiring silence as Cecilia stands before him on the edge of the fountain. From a bedroom window above, there is Cecilia's 13-year-old sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who watches intently. She believes she is witnessing Robbie forcing some rude sex play on her older sister. In actuality, though, she is witnessing their first true moment of mutual love.

Briony has an active imagination as she is already writing plays, which easily allows her to dramatize what she sees. She also has a crush on Robbie, which stirs her emotions to the level of resentment. Robbie back at home sits at his typewriter trying to find the right words to express how he truly feels for Cecilia. In his frustration, he types a letter including a certain four-letter word starting with a "c" that was never supposed to or meant to be read. Robbie hand writes the real letter he intends to deliver, but accidentally picks up the wrong one, putting it into the hands of the vindictive Briony. During a dinner gathering, Robbie and Cecilia retreat to the library where they can't help but have a fit of erotic passion. Briony walks in just at the most intense moment and takes it as an act of violence. All of Briony's false perceptions lead her to accuse Robbie of the rape of her cousin, which tears him away from Cecilia for good.

These opening scenes are what set "Atonement" apart from what one may expect. The flipped perspectives shatter any feeling of it being something like a Jane Austen novel adaptation, like director Joe Wright's other film, "Pride and Prejudice," actually was. This film is a faithful adaptation of the Ian McEwan best-seller, and by the looks of the movie, it seems like the novel would be impossible to translate onto screen. And yet here it is, remarkably done.

Robbie is sent to war in France while, off-screen, a maturing Briony realizes the terrible consequences for her act as a child and tries to atone for what she did. Years pass, and the movie shifts between glimpses of the war and London before the bombing. Cecilia is a nurse in London, as is a now 18-year-old Briony (Romola Garai). There is a single, unbroken shot of Dunkirk where a dismal beach is crowded with soldiers waiting to be evacuated. A line of horses get shot because there's no food to feed them, a ferris wheel spins in the background, a choir sings, buildings are bombed-out, and troops lie in bloody messes all in one beautifully prolonged pan, which is breathtaking in its harsh surrealism of the war. And amidst this, Robbie and Cecilia continuously write each other, waiting desperately for the day they can rejoin.

Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony do have one single meeting, and Briony's grief swallows her whole. Knightley is as elegant as ever, talking with such eloquence and grace, she simply belongs in these types of roles. McAvoy officially proves himself a worthy actor with a dynamic role, presenting all the necessary nuances in expression. The real stand-out here, though, is actually Ronan and Garai, playing the two younger stages of Briony. Ronan's piercing blue eyes, especially, are haunting and enchanting.

There are many accomplishments within this movie: the acting, the writing, the direction, and a beautiful musical score by Dario Marinelli, whose percussive beats build from the continuous clacking of Briony's typewriter keys. The ending to "Atonement" will blindside you, and strike you with words containing a powerful force behind them. A now elder Briony (Vanessa Redgrave) is a retiring writer who is getting a TV interview about her last novel. Redgrave does not have to be on the screen for long; her voice reveals a lifetime of grief and remorse in an intense close-up. She poses questions about all we have seen, about betrayal, and about the true meaning of atonement.

Archive: 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street'

Movie Review
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Stephen Sondheim's 1979 macabre musical and director Tim Burton are the ideal match. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a bloody good time, a masterpiece of a musical that combines Sondheim's original intent with Burton's infusion of his trademark style. This feels like the movie Tim Burton was born to make as it includes all of his favorite elements: the grotesque, the bizarre, the unbelievable, and the romantic. In this tale about a throat-slitting barber in 19th century London, the murder is cold, the revenge is bittersweet, the music is soaring, the meat pies are made fresh, and the blood flows like water.

Casting Johnny Depp as the demon barber is ingenious. His untrained singing voice is rough, and yet it's powerful with his force and conviction. He blurs the line between acting and singing, combining both together into something memorable. Tapping deep into Sweeney Todd's rage, he makes the character his own, making us feel his anger and pain. Beside him is Helena Bonham Carter as the petite, sad-eyed, and pouting-mouthed meat pie maker, who rivals Depp with an equally untrained and stringy voice that is wondrously fitting. The two of them are stupendous together, both sporting pale faces and dark makeup in their eye sockets that give them complementary corpse-like complexions. In these two actors, Tim Burton has found his perfect instruments; not only in the fact that Depp has worked with Burton since "Edward Scissorhands" and that Bonham Carter is Burton's wife, but also in that nobody could fit the roles better.

It all begins when Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is wronged by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), sent to jail, and has his wife and child taken away from him. Barker's little girl, Johanna, is now older and the judge's ward and prisoner. Barker escapes from prison, sailing on a ship back to London with a young man named Anthony Hope, who eventually becomes Johanna's lover. Barker races through the streets of London to find his former barbershop with the same landlady downstairs in her pie shop. She's Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who makes the worst pies in London. She explains to Barker the fate of his family and follows him upstairs to his barbershop now in ruins. He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and decides to reopen for business, but with different motives this time.

Sweeney is seeking revenge on the Judge and anybody else who dares to challenge him. This includes a cameo played by Sacha Baron Cohen as Adolfo Pirelli, an obnoxiously French rival barber who tries to blackmail Sweeney. Big mistake. Cohen even gets a chance to sing, reaching a surprising falsetto within his far too tight pants. This initial kill is what strikes up Sweeney's new business. Holding out his "friend," the straight razor, he proclaims that his right arm is finally complete again. His ultimate goal of killing the Judge requires the deaths of plenty of other customers along the way, and that's where Mrs. Lovett benefits: those victims are the meat for her meat pies. Soon enough, business is booming, and the citizens of London are all unknowing cannibals dining at her pie shop.

Mrs. Lovett sings that the victims "will never be missed," and Sweeney agrees, gazing over the rooftops, singing that "they all deserve to die." And so they do. As often as he can, he lures the dining guests up for a shave, and Burton skips no scene in showing the savagery. The ensuing geysers of blood against a singing Sweeney and a red glistening blade will give you chills. The blood is not at all realistic, which is good, as the color is artificially bright. Sweeney crafts his chair to flip backward, sending his victims into the basement where they are ground up; down the chute they go with a sickening thud at the bottom. Down on the streets, witnessing it all, a constantly shadowed beggar woman sings of a "city on fire."

There are strong performances with every person getting a chance to sing, even Alan Rickman, who oozes sexual longing and desperation in his number, "Pretty Women." And Bonham Carter is charming singing "By the Sea," about her longing for Sweeney. Every song is beautifully scored and although many have been cut from the original 3-hour-long Sondheim musical, the ones that remain are all great. All of the songs carry the weight with no real show-stoppers; this keeps the story flowing smoothly with song after song meshing together and returning in the background.

"Sweeney Todd" is darkly funny and full of raw emotion surrounding a story of vengeful murder and ultimate redemption. It ends on a mixed note, a satisfactory one, yes, but one that leaves you stunned. This is no joyful romp, but you'll find yourself chuckling. It's also no downer, and yet there are moments of despair. In the end, Sweeney Todd, covered in blood, kneels down and is finally overcome with his emotions. It's an astonishing moment, one of both tragedy and beauty.

Archive: 'Juno'

Movie Review
Juno (2007)

"Juno" is becoming more and more the "Little Miss Sunshine" of this year; it's the little movie that could and one that you'll want to hug. Its popularity is growing immensely and with good reason. This comedy is indie all around from the opening credits to the songs, especially, by Kimya Dawson from The Moldy Peaches. It also happens to be very funny and very touching from start to finish. There's not one spoiled or missed moment within a screenplay that is, in a word, perfect. With a movie this warm-hearted and sweet, it can't help but be at the top of the year's best films.

"It all started with a chair," says Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), the wise-cracking and extremely likable 16-year-old teen. It's a chair on which she and her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), decide to engage in a risky experiment that ultimately gets Juno pregnant. After a scary trip to an abortion clinic, Juno decides to have the baby and give it away to a couple who really wants it. Her friend Leah convinces her to check the Penny Saver for adoptive parents. The movie transcends the genre of the teenage comedy, making sure to shatter all of the usual stereotypes. This is first apparent when Juno reveals the news to her parents. They are warmer, brighter, and more sharply observant and humorous than any other parents you'll ever meet in a movie. Juno's step-mother, Bren (Allison Janney), and father, Mac (J.K. Simmons), have reactions that are more human than you would expect. Upon hearing Paulie is the father, Mac turns to Bren and mumbles, "I didn't know he had it in him."

Mac goes with Juno to meet the potential adoptive parents out in the suburbs. Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is consumed in desperately wanting a child, while Mark (Jason Bateman) seems to not have yet given up being a child. During the meeting, Juno takes a special interest in the couple; she likes Mark, especially, as he has an interest in playing guitar, watching old horror films, and listening to weird music. While stopping by to deliver pictures from the ultrasound, Juno sits and simply hangs out with Mark while Vanessa's at work. As Juno continues to get closer with her adoptive parents, this relationship adds an intriguing dynamic to the story.

Director Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking") and first-time stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody have collaborated to craft a movie that slowly reveals surprises, which I simply cannot go on to spoil. These surprises are not only in plot, but also in rich character development. We follow Juno along her nine-month journey in segments indicated by change of the season, with the consistency of Bleaker's high school cross-country team running past each time. Through this period, hidden feelings come to light and themes about certain truths in life are presented.

A most darling moment arises when Juno sits down with Mac to discuss the probability of two people loving each other and staying together forever. Another is when Juno bumps into Vanessa at the mall and insists that she talk to her belly. And then there are the times of honest humor, which reveal thoughts we were already thinking to ourselves, including when Bren tells off the ultrasound technician.

"Juno" is marked by whip-smart dialogue that is quirky and intelligent. Most of all, though, it is highlighted by a magnificent performance from 20-year-old Ellen Page who, without a doubt, deserves an award for Best Actress. She stands out next to Michael Cera's still enjoyably boyish presence and inexplicable ability to be awkward in any situation. As Juno, she treats her pregnancy and enlarged belly as a mere inconvenience, cracking jokes about it all the way. Gradually, though, we see what lies beneath her witty exterior, and Page remarkably shows us a girl that we immediately fall in love with. Ellen Page is brilliant, creating a character we won't soon forget. It's certainly a challenge to make an Oscar-worthy comedy, and that's exactly what "Juno" succeeds to be.

Archive: 'The Savages'

Movie Review
The Savages (2007)

Here is yet another one of the best films of the year. It's the story of two unhappy siblings who rejoin to take care of their estranged father, now suffering from vascular dementia, putting him in a nursing home where he will eventually pass away. Now, a premise like this immediately sounds dull and miserable, but it turns out that "The Savages" (fittingly titled after the family name) is terrific. What's so refreshing is its willingness to be real and tell it how it is. It's the opposite of charming and sharply unsentimental, dealing with the harsh realities of life, death, and what pulls us together in the end.

Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a college professor working in Buffalo, and Wendy (Laura Linney) is a struggling temp in New York City. Jon is consumed by his writing on a book about Brecht. Wendy spends the days in her office writing letters requesting grants so she can fund the play she's writing. Jon is allowing his girlfriend for three years to move back to Poland because he's too afraid to marry her. Wendy is sleeping with an older married man to keep her sex life alive even if she's more in love with the guy's dog. They are both disgruntled, in the midst of a middle-age mid-life crisis, and are forced to come together due to their elderly father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who was found cussing out his ill girlfriend's caregiver by writing in feces on the bathroom wall.

Wendy receives the call of her father's early signs of dementia, and she drags a reluctant Jon along to fly to Arizona. Once there, they discover their father living with his same-age girlfriend, Doris, until she quickly passes. Wendy doesn't hesitate to take the dead woman's prescription painkillers. Having no place to live, Wendy and Jon fly Lenny back to Buffalo where they plan to put him into a nursing home; he is too far along in his condition to be able to handle just assisted living. Wendy feels like a terrible person for doing this to her father, but Jon believes its best. While temporarily housing together, the two of them argue over what establishment to keep him in, which leads from one tragically funny scene to another.

I just love Laura Linney. She and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in top form here. Linney is heartbreaking as Wendy, a woman who cherishes her cat and her symbolic ficus. She is desperate, aching, and painfully humorous in her attempts to make things better. Hoffman delivers another dynamite performance to go along with his two other big performances this year in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "Charlie Wilson's War," playing Jon, a worn-out guy who cries over his girlfriend's eggs, stuffing all of his emotion behind a nonchalant attitude that doesn't fool anybody. Even Bosco presents a convincing picture of an elder who has lost it, and yet not entirely, because he still can roll his eyes at his children's usual quarrels. There are so many refined nuances within these winning performances that make the movie what it is. It's so beautifully nuanced with acting so good that we see these actors playing real people, not just characters. We see traces of ourselves within them, as hard as that may be, with all of their flaws.

Writer and director Tamara Jenkins delivers her own nuances within the script, expressing realism without any frills, which makes it so endearing. The writing finds comfort and humor in small moments, which is really what life is all about. One scene, in particular, involves Jon throwing his back out during a game of tennis; he and Wendy come home to put him in a hanging neck brace that takes strain off his back. He looks hilarious, telling Wendy not to laugh, but while telling her, he's laughing himself. In times such as that, Linney and Hoffman truly make us believe the sibling dynamic underneath their relationship; it's superb. They both know what they're doing at every exact moment, playing off each other with great collaboration, and they do it with energy and are both very funny.

"The Savages" is a movie with uncommon appreciation for life just how it is. It's comedic without even lifting a finger and contains genuinely dark humor with just the right bittersweet taste to make you either want to laugh or cry. This is a movie that shows us the paths in life we must travel, crappy as they may be, and the people that are created at the end of them.

Archive: 'Charlie Wilson's War'

Movie Review
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

This sure has been a great year for movies. But what "Charlie Wilson's War" has over the other movies this Oscar season is that it's appealing and pure entertainment for the adult crowd. This is the type of movie you go to see after a dinner out, enjoy while you're watching it, and then pretty much forget about it after you go see it. Not to say that the movie isn't good, though, because it certainly is; it's just not great. It's a perfectly breezy, fast-paced political satire that's more of a hoot than one would expect and hits all the right marks without diving into anything too deep.

Directed by Mike Nichols with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, this is the true story of Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) in the 1980s who single-handedly helped to end the Cold War. He's a good ol' boy with a personal life that isn't perfect, but everybody loves him, which is why he keeps getting reelected again and again. He has an office full of voluptuous young women (who are also very smart) at his every call, and he's never without a drink in his hand. It's as if Charlie Wilson stumbled upon the career move of his life on accident when he initially decides to double the budget for Afghanistan's defense against the Soviets.

When we first meet Charlie, he's sitting in a hot tub in Las Vegas surrounded by a bunch of naked Playboy women and cocaine usage. While sitting there, he witnesses some Dan Rather footage on the adjacent TV about the situation in Afghanistan. After his first sudden reaction, the wheels really start turning when Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a rich Houston socialite, gives him a call and opens his eyes to what's really happening. He has always taken an interest in her, and they casually sleep around together. While he's soaking in her bath tub, she tells him about the Afghans needing weapons to shoot down the Soviet helicopters, and since Charlie is on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he would ideally be the man to help. The problem is that they need to get the weapons from somewhere else. The solution is to use Soviet weapons left in the hands of the Israelis and transfer them through Pakistan to the Afghans.

To aid him in his covert arms plan, he finds the only helpful person in the CIA: Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This pot-bellied, hard-hitting guy full of resentment is just the man for the job. After a planned visit with the president of Pakistan, General Zia, meetings with a few other men, and the help of a friendly belly dancer, Charlie Wilson pulls off the deal. He eventually raises the funding for Afghanistan from a useless $5 million to a whopping $1 billion, all done in secret. The whole ordeal is done so frivolously, it makes you wonder if politics really can be this fun. It's also amazing how so much information actually fits into a 97-minute movie that's basically comprised of one semi-comic scene after another. Talk about an easy history lesson.

With three excellent performances under his belt, it's going to be tough to choose which one to recognize Philip Seymour Hoffman for this year. He steals every scene he's in, whether he's hitting on Joanne or exploding in rage and breaking a window. This isn't Tom Hanks' best performance, but it's still pretty good, as he gets a chance to be somebody we've never seen him as before. He has a good time with the role, being sexier, sleazier, and more wry, creating a person we immediately like. Julia Roberts isn't even in the movie very much, which is actually a shame because the relationship between her and Charlie could've been fleshed-out a bit more. Although somewhat of a letdown, she's still enjoyable to watch. And then there's "Enchanted"'s Amy Adams, who's as charming as ever, playing Charlie Wilson's assistant. She keeps him in line, keeping track of his schedule, and admiring him all the way.

"Charlie Wilson's War" has an underlying wit of irony about it in that we wonder if Charlie Wilson's commitment to his cause was truly intentional. The audience also realizes that although all of what Charlie did looked good at the time, it opened the bag for all that is happening now with the war in Iraq. The "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan became the Taliban, using those same weapons against us, and things only escalated from there. There's a message on the fact that it didn't end where the movie ends. Charlie had a right for what he did, that's for sure, but he wanted plans for reconstruction that Congress didn't follow. As he quotes at the end, "We fucked up the end game."

Archive: 'Once'

Movie Review
Once (2007)

Back when "Once" was still in theaters, I knew it was something I wanted to see. I just never got around to it and watched as it kept getting more and more acclaim. Now, this little film is on many critics' top ten lists and available on DVD, which gave me even more reason to check it out. It felt like an indescribable movie, something that I had to see for myself to know if I would truly, really like it. Well, I rented it, watched it, and they were right.

The formula is simple. Take a budget of nearly nothing and 88 minutes and create a movie filled with pure emotion and absolutely great songs. The movie contains hardly any dialogue and is driven by the heart behind its music, and it doesn't even have names for its main characters. Taking place in Dublin, it's simply about a guy and a girl who meet one day and decide to make wonderful music together. The Guy (Glen Hansard) is a street musician playing for money, and the Girl (Marketa Irglova) stops to listen and loves his music. She's a pianist herself, and he wants to hear her play. They go to a nearby music store where she knows the owner, and she sits down at a display piano to play him something. He then offers a song of his own for them to play together. And so they do. There is the longest delay before anything else happens next; we are simply watching and listening, completely drawn into the moment, which is exactly what the movie wants.

The relationship that grows between these two is so warm and sweet because these are two good-natured people. They are falling for each other, yes, but they aren't merely picking each other up. Even better is that we sense the real passion for music these two real-life musicians have. Glen Hansard is known in Ireland as the leader of the band The Frames, and Marketa Irglova is an immigrant from the Czech Republic and only 17. They are simply playing themselves, how they would be in the real world. They actually love music as much as they want us to think they do. And that's what is so pure about it.

The Guy decides he has become too cynical to write lyrics for his own love song, and he enlists the Girl to help him. Soon enough, they decide to gather a group of other street musicians together to record a demo of his songs. They get the job done, and their story progresses mostly through terms of song. We meet her daughter and find out she has a husband, which both come as a surprise. And we find out he's taking his music to London, and he has a girlfriend he dumped. This is not just a conventional love story; their bond occurs by chance and grows into something deeper and riskier than anything of what it could be.

John Carney's "Once" doesn't aspire to be anything more than just down to earth. It doesn't hold any great ambitions and simply wants to express the joy of making and listening to music. And it communicates this longing so easily and honestly that it's magical from start to finish. This is the kind of movie that you silently watch in awe, holding your breath in admiration. Every single musical number soars, and you'll be swooning right along with each one. It's a movie where you wonder if it knows how good it is, and then you're so happy when it never missteps. Even the mixed emotion bittersweet ending, too, you'll realize, is perfect. This is a winning movie.

Archive: 'The Diving Bell And The Butterfly'

Movie Review
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is the remarkable true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of the French magazine Elle, who had a paralyzing stroke that left him in a condition called "locked-in" syndrome. He couldn't move from head to toe aside from being able to blink with his left eye. This blinking became his only form of communication through the help of a gentle speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze). She arranges an alphabet in the order of most frequently used letters and reads it off to him, waiting for him to blink to choose a letter. Soon, a caring amanuensis (Anne Consigny) takes her place, and it's in this way, letter by letter, word by word, blink by blink, that Bauby wrote his personal memoir, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," in 1997 shortly before his death.

It's an amazing story, but how does something like this translate onto the screen? Adapted by director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, they transform seemingly impossible material into a beautifully filmed experience. Great creativity has been exercised to take us inside the mind and memory of Bauby. We're not merely shown a man sitting in bed; we're shown what he sees, the people around him, and his viewpoint, and we dive deep into his memories and fantasies. In the first moments of the film when we're looking through Bauby's single blurred eye with doctors hovering over him; we hear him speaking but soon realize that only the audience can hear him. Bauby gets his right eye sewn shut, and as we witness it, we hear him screaming in horror, and yet, nobody else can.

We're shown Bauby's past, revealing that he was a womanizer who left Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), the devoted mother of his children. He leaves her for a mistress who doesn't even have enough courage to visit him in his condition. Even at the hospital, Bauby continues to be surrounded by beautiful women including his speech and physical therapists, and even the still devoted Celine, who still comes to his bedside every single day. Bauby even creates a fantasy lover who, in his imagination, keeps his ability to have lust and love full and alive. All of these people in Bauby's life keep reminding him to stay true to the man he is inside, and from that, he begins to frown upon any thoughts of self-pity. Everything we hear in the film is filtered through Bauby's consciousness, which leads to moments of genuine insight and humor.

Mathieu Amalric plays the man of Bauby in two respects. He is the unmoving man who talks to others one blink at a time, and he's the man very much alive in memories. He shows great tenderness in a scene between Bauby and his father (Max von Sydow), which is their last meeting before Bauby's stroke. Later in the film, his elder father tries to speak to his son again in a devastating phone call to the hospital. Greatly colorful cinematography from Janusz Kaminski protects the film from being a downer and actually turns it into a fascinating exploration of feeling and a celebration of life. Highly experimental camera techniques mixed with human emotion and experience combine to make something daring, different, and wondrous. These filmmakers have created something of a small miracle.

This is a movie so imaginatively made, so in tune with the indescribable something that makes life what it is, and so in touch with the pleasures of everyday senses that it's surprising. It's a masterful and viscerally emotional film, one that is miraculous in how beautifully it has been pulled off without falling victim to becoming locked-in itself. It opens up to us with visual ambition and gorgeous storytelling while approaching delicate subject matter with honesty and passion, telling a true story that to just say is inspirational would be an understatement. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is French, but it shares a message that is ultimately universal on the strength of human consciousness and the human spirit. I mean, to write an entire memoir essentially in your mind, that's an amazing feat.

He's Living As A Ghost

Movie Review
The Ghost Writer (2010)

An author (Ewan McGregor) is hired to write the memoirs of a controversial former British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and from the moment he takes the job he's referred to as the Ghost. Throughout Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," the Ghost is never given a name. He is a man without a past, without any family or other ties. Throughout his work as a ghost writer, he is more often referred to as a literal ghost than a ghost writer. He is a man who might as well not even exist and who can be easily wiped clean. Ghost writers are expendable anyway and fully replaceable as this ghost is actually the successor to another one who drowned mysteriously. Whether it was suicide, an accident or something more ominous is unclear. The Ghost is played by Ewan McGregor in a performance that sets the ideal tone for the film. The complexity of the Ghost's situation and his condition is expertly realized as he unravels the muddled backstory of Adam Lang.

As the Ghost arrives at Lang's secluded beach house, he soon realizes that he's gotten himself mixed up in something bigger than himself. The Ghost's goal was to take the dry and overlong draft of Lang's original memoirs and trim it into something more approachable for readers. He wanted to include personal anecdotes from Lang and infuse the work with personality because the Ghost himself isn't much of a man for politics. Outcry about war crimes committed by Lang starts spreading like wildfire, and angry protesters stake their claim outside Lang's home. His house on Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts mainland acts as a fortress from the outside world; it is eerie and almost unnatural. The Ghost is first greeted by Lang's assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall of "Sex and the City") and later by Lang's severe-looking wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams of "An Education"). Both of these women are cordial and yet have the air of being a potential suspect because in the world of Lang, everybody is a suspect and nothing is ever certain.

The circle of unrest grows as the Ghost navigates his way through this uncertain world. Based on the novel by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski, the story works like a spring coiling tighter and tighter until it finally releases at an explosive climax where papers fluttering around never held such meaning. The tension, sprinkled with bits of dark wit, builds not out of action, but rather, out of lack of knowledge and a series of revelations. What we know is limited to what the Ghost discovers, and no bit of information can ever be taken for granted. The sequence where a navigation system leads the Ghost to the house of a man named Paul Emmett (a calm and calculating Tom Wilkinson) is haunting in its implications. A rain-soaked trek on a bike around the lonesome island and a close encounter on a ferry all leave the Ghost in an entanglement of the absurd yet dangerous. The accompaniment of a tantalizing score by Alexandre Desplat perpetuates the tone of unease and playfulness.

A lot is peculiar about the job the Ghost has agreed to, especially considering the fact that he was only trying to make some quick cash. The manuscript of the first draft can never leave a certain room, Ruth's discontent with her husband is nearly impossible to read and even the servants seem like they're up to something. There are holes and lose ends, too, spots where everything just doesn't seem to add up, and yet it's easily ignored considering the circumstances. These are strange waters we're treading in, and Polanski pulls off the feat of embedding it in realism. There is no denying the true life political undercurrents with Lang resembling Tony Blair. Robert Harris worked closely with the former prime minister in reality.

Also in reality is the current condition of 76-year-old director Roman Polanski ("The Pianist," "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown") who is under house arrest in Switzerland for his U.S. case back in 1977 for having sex with a minor. But hey, let's focus on his latest movie, his first in four years, the taut and intelligent thriller where political conspiracy gets personal, "The Ghost Writer." It's great.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Archive: 'There Will Be Blood'

Movie Review
There Will Be Blood (2007)

"There Will Be Blood" will be attacked with the same ferocity that it presents. This is a movie that left me feeling like I just got punched in the gut. My best advice for viewing it is to just sit back and let it engulf you in its monstrous beauty. The resonant and hypnotic voice of Daniel Day-Lewis helps to draw you in, and his character is a man with such bruising relentlessness that you won't believe it. This is a man who, in the first minutes of the film, falls down a mineshaft and breaks his leg only to get right back up to start again. He is a raging force of brutality that intensifies as the movie progresses through the first three decades of the nineteenth century. After the epic is over, you will feel pummeled, having to take a moment to get your head clear again. It's worth the effort.

This is a large departure for director Paul Thomas Anderson who also made "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," and "Punch-Drunk Love." The movie is very loosely based on the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel "Oil!," but don't go expecting that same muckraking spirit. There's still an attack on society, but something much different is being implied with Anderson's highly original and visionary work. There's something murky and dark lying beneath the American success story, and it's shown in full detail here. As an enthralling American epic, this one intrigues, disturbs, shocks, and provokes with stabs at the worst of corruption of power and exploitation.

Sitting resolutely in front of an audience made up of a small rural town, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) exquisitely states, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am an oilman." His greed in the business begins when a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano from "Little Miss Sunshine") visits him unexpectedly and tells him where oil can be found. He leads Plainview to his father's goat farm, and Plainview easily buys the land from the old man for cheap so he can begin drilling. There is another son, though, Eli Sunday (also Paul Dano), who is identical and is a devout preacher wanting to raise money for his church, the Church of the Third Revelation. This other son puts religion directly in Plainview's path, and when Plainview ignores Eli's wish of a blessing upon the drill, a lifelong feud ignites.

Daniel Plainview is a man with no lover, no friends, and no remorse for anything he does. The only piece of family he carries with him is his son, H.W. One day, there's an accident, and the oil well blows over and bursts into flame. Plainview's son is deafened by the blow of the explosion, and he immediately becomes a burden. Plainview ships him off to school, that is, until he realizes a new way to exploit his son. He needs him as a prop, and even when H.W. tries to forgive his father many years later for what he did, Plainview still responds with a vileness that cannot be compared. He does show some sympathy, however, when his supposed half-brother comes to help him in his endeavors. But even then, Plainview discovers a lie and turns on him. "I look at people and see nothing worth liking," he states.

"There Will Be Blood" is magnificently bleak, strange, and brilliant. It not only tells the haunting story of an indestructible and soulless man, but through Paul Thomas Anderson, there's huge attention to detail, making for amazing execution in storytelling. It's yet another astonishing look at the barren landscape of Texas, similar to that of "No Country for Old Men," with shacks and derricks dotting the horizon. When an oil well erupts with black smoke billowing from tall flames, there's a certain poetic feel to it. In its style, the movie transcends its own historical context because for a story that takes place in older days, its terrors are relatable to the modern day. And for telling a story with such a time span, the focus is shockingly intimate and breaks the boundaries of the contemporary.

In Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis provides a horrifying character who is blackly comic. He delivers a powerhouse performance, one that is more than intense, explosive, volcanic, or all of those words combined. It's the performance of the year, and Day-Lewis will certainly win a nomination if not the Oscar. His preparation for the role involved him refusing to leave character even when the camera wasn't rolling. You can't help but wonder why someone would want to dive so deep into a character who's so dark, and yet, it worked damn well. For somebody so revolting, he's endlessly fascinating. He's a dangerous man who's moody and usually drunk, and comes alive with fury, anger, and hatred. And Paul Dano is almost equally frightening as Plainview's sole formidable opponent.

To fill the voids of silence within the film, there's the searing musical score by guitarist and composer Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead. On the surface, the music doesn't fit the scene at all, but in the context of the film's style, it's perfect. It builds with a demented tension that rises and falls with the action of the film, and it's like nothing we've ever heard before. The juxtaposition to that is the intermingling of music from Johannes Brahms that, when introduced, signals some of the most key moments of the film, such as the explosive ending.

Taking place in a bowling alley in Daniel Plainview's home, the climax is a final confrontation between him and a blackmailing Eli. This last sequence turns into a bloody mess, keeping the promise of the title. Several audience members around me were shaking their heads in what I would guess to be disgust. I would be curious to ask these people, how possibly else would they have liked it to end? After witnessing all that has happened, I couldn't possibly think of a more suitable ending, as terrible as it is. Paul Thomas Anderson is unconcerned with expectations, bashing all Hollywood clich├ęs. "There Will Be Blood" is actually quite the anti-crowd pleaser, and that's what makes it so good.

Archive: 'Cloverfield'

Movie Review
Cloverfield (2008)

Shrouded in mystery from all the rumors, "Cloverfield" has finally arrived, but was it worth the hype? While others may disagree, I think so. It's a stylish and clever little gem of a movie that is more than just a monster movie for the YouTube generation. As a hybrid offspring of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Godzilla," the movie is better than you would expect and packs quite a punch. The purposely in-your-face feel brings a sense of unbalance and panic to the entire ordeal as it's entirely shot in a queasy camera fashion that'll have your head spinning and your heart pounding.

Directed by Matt Reeves and labeled with the name of producer J.J. Abrams (creator of "Lost"), the movie opens with a black screen stating that the following is a government file entitled "Cloverfield," a still strangely neutral title that is never explained. Also never explained is the origin of the giant monster ravaging through Manhattan. This massive thingamajig is literally indescribable as it's some bizarre cross between a reptile and a spider that also happens to release mini spawns of itself that run around the streets biting victims, especially in dark subway tunnels. And unfortunately for the small group of people we follow throughout the course of the film, the refuge of a subway tunnel is exactly one of the spots they find themselves escaping through.

We first meet the small group of attractive, mainly self-absorbed twentysomethings at a farewell surprise party through home-video style footage. The party is for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is just about to leave for a promotion in Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) is given the job to tape goodbyes on Rob's video camera for him, but he pawns the job off on his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) who becomes our cameraman and narrator for the rest of the time. There's also Lily (Jessica Lucas) and another woman, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who Hud is especially attentive towards. She says she's on her way to meet some friends, but she never gets there. Something hits, the room rumbles, the lights flicker, and everybody heads to the roof to get a better look.

There's an explosion out in the distance, and things really get underway when everybody runs down to ground level and the head of the Statue of Liberty comes barreling down the street. The initial scenes of destruction are explicitly reminiscent of 9/11 with crumbling skyscrapers causing billows of smoke to spread across the street, making people frantically run out of the way. Even the movie's working title was "1-18-08." You can't help but wonder why they would evoke such similarities, but then again, how could they avoid it when telling the story in this particular way?

The destructive creature is scariest from a distance through clouds of smoke and debris as a giant presence looming about the city. It's less effective during a full frontal viewing of the thing's face. The building suspense comes from only seeing glimpses of the horrifying thing, which is still impossible to describe coherently. No unnecessary explanation of its existence is needed, either, due to the focus on the action in the video tape. The hand held camera brings a sense of immediacy that couldn't otherwise be portrayed, and it is what makes the film uniquely its own. The camera guy also brings some comic relief to the situation with his own side remarks about everything.

The movie makes up for its high costs in stunning special effects of demolishing New York with a low cost on no-name actors and actresses. Their acting, which isn't so much acting, is what makes them seem like people we could very well know. It puts a face on the victims of mass destruction, faces that could be our own, looking into the depths of something we do not and cannot understand. The characters work to the movie's benefit because there are no stereotypical roles with no real hero. They're all selfish but also selfless, especially Rob who puts his own friends in unnecessary danger to save his sweetheart, Beth (Odette Yustman). These people are meant to be everyday people, and the movie very well makes them appear that way.

The screenplay by Drew Goddard (who worked on "Lost" and "Alias") is smarter than you think, throwing in some unexpected turns while still containing everything within the context of the video footage. It's comprised of a string of well-crafted and harrowing sequences that are actually pretty scary. Along with the subway scene, there are numerous others involving the collapsing of the Brooklyn Bridge and the scaling of a ruined skyscraper leaning against another. And at only 80 or so minutes, it's over before you know it, making for perfect popcorn cinema. But stay tuned at the end because, although the movie is entirely void of any music, the pounding score through the credits is worth giving a listen, along with something else.

Archive: '27 Dresses'

Movie Review
27 Dresses (2008)

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. That's the story for Jane (Katherine Heigl), a good girl who is always watching out for those she cares about while never really caring for herself. She has been a devoted bridesmaid 27 times and has saved all of the shameful dresses packed away in her closet to prove it. And she just one day wishes that one of those special days will be her own. "27 Dresses" is the ultimate in romantic comedy cliches and predictability and yet, in spite of this and its insipid storyline, the movie works. And this is in no small part due to the presence of Katherine Heigl who holds her own for the second time after her success in "Knocked Up." Replace her with a lesser actress, and there would really be nothing worth seeing here.

Aside from basically having the part time job of planning weddings, Jane works as an assistant to an advertising executive named George (Edward Burns). She is secretly in love with him but never has the courage to tell him. And then there's her globe-trotting sister, Tess (Malin Akerman), who sluts around Europe but conveniently comes back to New York just in time to swoop up George. After an initial meeting that devastates Jane, things only get worse for her as the courtship between Tess and George escalates to a proposal, and in a sudden whirlwind, the two are engaged and Jane is left to plan their perfect wedding. While Jane goes along with this, at least she has her best friend Casey (Judy Greer) who doesn't mind tossing her a reality slap. Complicating things is Kevin (James Marsden), a cynic of a guy who musters up enough romanticism to write the tenderhearted "Commitments" column in the New York Journal. This leaves Jane wondering if he's really sincere or if he just comes up with a bunch of swooning crap to collect women.

It's hard to find any cliche that director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (who also wrote the edgier adaptation of "The Devil Wears Prada") didn't hit throughout the course of their movie. Plot entanglements include Tess lying to George and ensnaring Jane's ideal wedding and Kevin preparing a column about Jane as the ultimate bridesmaid without her knowledge. But in terms of the romance, it really boils down to this: the introduction, the banter, the growing on each other, the big argument, the resolve, and there you have it. Sorry if I spoiled it for you. Honestly, though, the target audience for a movie of this caliber isn't out for any originality. They're ready for the routine complications and the mushy gushy kiss at the end, and in terms of that, the movie delivers. All a movie like this really needs is two fine actors to convince us they're in love, and the casting here triumphs.

Katherine Heigl is simply the perfect woman lead for a romantic comedy. She's likable, relatable, pretty, and doesn't mind breaking down once or twice. She's just as appealing here as she was alongside Seth Rogen, and she understands a thing or two about comedic timing. She also has the uncanny ability to bring real emotion to a scene that would otherwise feel forced. Co-starring with her this time is James Marsden, who is, I must say, quite the charmer. The two of them have great, casual chemistry together, and while I may have been cringing for some good portions, it was this aspect of the movie that helps it to occasionally shine. While at the bar, the two of them have a little too much to drink and stand on top of a table together belting out "Bennie and the Jets," the only surprise in their romance.

"27 Dresses" shockingly doesn't suck even for a romantic comedy that doesn't stray from the formula, not even for a second. These filmmakers stay on the path so adamantly, that you would think they were afraid of something. It's baffling why a movie obviously marketed towards moviegoing couples wasn't held until a month later when the biggest date movies are to be released. It would've been a surefire hit. But anyway, I found it mildly enjoyable, in part thanks to Katherine Heigl, even if I knew exactly where the entire thing was headed.

Archive: 'Persepolis'

Movie Review
Persepolis (2007)

The same year that brought us the magnificent "Ratatouille," which redefined the way we watch animated films, has also brought us "Persepolis," a witty and touching coming-of-age tale about a young Iranian girl named Marjane. The movie is based on two autobiographical graphic novels by Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi and is directed by her and Vincent Paronnaud. While told entirely through 2-D black and white animation with tinges of gray and splashes of color here and there, it's a story that's full of intelligence, surprise, charm, and warmth.

The movie wouldn't work if it were animated any other way, and especially if it wasn't animated at all. Without it, the story and experiences couldn't be dramatized as they are. Marjane's actions are sometimes outspoken, she makes mistakes, and she's certainly no heroine. But she is a woman who indeed comes of age, and without this animation, her story couldn't have been so interestingly and engagingly told. There couldn't be the same level of expression because, yes, there is a wide range of expression within such simplistic features. The scenes are beautiful, bursting to life with bold black lines, so much to the point that you may begin taking the film's gorgeous execution for granted. In an age of CG-animated films, it is nice to see that honest storytelling doesn't rely on the technology. Its stylized depiction of tragedy and recovery makes it more effective, more magical, and yes, more real. It tells a complicated tale through cinematic poetry in black and white.

Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) fondly recalls upon the first ten or so years of her life as she's comfortably surrounded by her loving and independent family. She loves Bruce Lee, pop music, and her Adidas sneakers. Soon though, the Shah's dictatorship falls, the Islamic revolutionaries rise, and soon the nation is under the rule of the mullahs, changing everything. Marjane's mother and grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) are forced to wear scarves and aren't allowed to show themselves or wear any makeup. There's also no drinking, no smoking, and no contact from the opposite sex. As Marjane grows older into her teen years, even under her own scarf, she rebels with a strong sense of independence and love for punk music.

The political history behind Marjane's story is smartly and vividly told through clever illustrations that include the horrors of war, torture, and execution. The movie's focus, however, is more on the uncertainty and confusion that comes with adolescence and growing up. There's excellent juxtaposition of the political and the personal with a sassy and nonchalant tone. While the history of the matter is presented, no real generalization or conclusion is brought up; we're just following Marjane as she moves along in life. This includes being sent away to Austria to avoid the worst of the regime's restrictions.

While away, Marjane begins losing herself even more, finding nothing true to hold onto within the alternative European culture. She hates herself and gets lost in the carefree ways of casual sex and drug use. She even begins introducing herself as French rather than Iranian, which still doesn't give her the respect she desires. And so, missing her roots, she returns home to Iran where she's still homesick for a country that no longer exists. She, along with the real Marjane Satrapi who lived the tale, realizes her need to find her place not only in the world but also within herself where she can yet again feel at home and comfortable. Through the help of her feisty grandma, who hilariously presents the outspoken feminist, she begins to grasp the meaning of a sense of self, asking the world to bring it on. After a period of depression, Marjane especially means business in her adorably humorous rendition of "The Eye of the Tiger."

Marjane certainly has her ups and downs from beginning her tale in 1978 all the way through to 1992, and yet no synopsis of her experience will ever be enough to convey the experience a person will have watching it all unfold with such fluidity and grace. It's a truly enchanting film, one of such imaginative breadth and richness in character that you wouldn't believe it coming from the seemingly plain 2-D images on screen. While "Persepolis" did actually come out late last year, it's just now getting released around here in its original French-language version with an English dub soon to follow. It's a movie not to be missed in any language as it sparkles with sincerity, whimsically finding such meaning and universality in its simplicity.