Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

DAN - “The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” This quote from the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is a suitable introduction to the man himself. Gonzo is a documentary about Thompson, a rogue journalist and author who gained notoriety throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The film’s title comes from the term “gonzo journalism,” which was used to describe Thompson’s eccentric style of reporting. Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney composed this film from archive footage and interviews with those who knew Thompson.

Those of you who are familiar with Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or the film adaptation starring Johnny Depp) are aware of the doctor’s other-worldly nature. The unashamed pot smoker once ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and was highly involved (no pun intended) in politics for the majority of his life.

A large portion of Gonzo focuses on Thompson’s role in the presidential election of 1972. The reporter adamantly supported George McGovern, who lost to Nixon. This was one of the most intriguing segments of the film for me, as I observed parallels with America’s more recent elections.

A two-hour retrospection is hardly enough to capture the essence of a character like Hunter S. Thompson. The author once said, “...the public version of the news or whatever event, is never really what happened.” This documentary can only go so deep into Thompson's psyche; it’s more like a beginner’s guide to the man.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Changeling

STEVE - Clint Eastwood’s latest film stars Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins, mother of young Walter Collins who goes missing in the city of L.A. in 1928. Her life takes a tumultuous turn when after months of searching the L.A. Police claim to have found her lost son. It is only when mother and son reunite that Collins realizes that the child is not her own.

There is no doubt that Clint Eastwood is a master behind the camera. He has stylized his film to near perfection with his common use of cold colors and bleak tones, and is this film bleak. Eastwood carries the audience on an emotional rollercoaster causing us to feel anguish for Ms. Collins, hatred for the corrupt L.A. Police Department, and a tingle of horror at the eventual outcome.

Eastwood directs a fine movie, but unfortunately falls short of the mark that is expected of him. The film is saturated with over-the-top performances that play down the intensity and drama of each scene. It’s unfortunate as Michael Kelly gives one the most understated performances of the film as the only non-corruptible cop in L.A.

As a director, Eastwood’s favorite themes deal with issues of evil, the bad things that happen to decent people. As I was watching this movie, mad at the unfairness and poor treatment that Ms. Jolie’s character was experiencing as she was lied too, treated as inferior, and then tossed away in a psychiatric ward with no just cause, I couldn’t help but ask the question, why is this happening? Why are these people treating her this way?

And I couldn’t help but wonder if answering those questions might not have been a more interesting tale to tell than the one I was watching. No doubt the tale of Ms. Collins and her son was a true account that needed to be told. Audiences should always be reminded that a governing system which goes unchecked can have terrible consequences on us all. But the tale wasn’t as capturing nor at the same level of greatness as other Eastwood films dealing with similar issues such as Forgiven, Mystic River, or Million Dollar Baby.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quantum of Solace

DAN - The latest James Bond film comes from Marc Forster, director of such films as Stranger Than Fiction and The Kite Runner. The story is a direct continuation of Casino Royale, which is unique for a Bond film.

I did not grow up on 007. I started regularly watching the franchise when Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role, and I’ve only seen a handful of the classic films. I, like many, was thrilled by Casino Royale when it came out two years ago. It fit the mold of a Bond film while simultaneously breathing new life into the series.

Solace isn’t as innovative as Royale; instead it seems to rely on the success of its predecessor to hold the audience’s interest. In that sense, I find it difficult to think of this as a stand-alone movie. It’s more like an afterthought of the previous film. And I like it.

The action sequences worked for me, but you’ll hear a lot of people complaining about them. I don’t need to see every punch and crash from a distance in order to follow what’s going on; in fact, that would be a little too disconnected for me. I like to feel each jolt as if I were in the middle of the action.

The main villain and his Chinatown scheme weren’t entirely memorable for me, but they served their purpose in allowing Bond to purge himself of lingering ghosts. He’s still a “blunt instrument,” but he’s on his way to becoming the suave spy we’ve come to recognize. This is the story of a man with a thirst for revenge. He simultaneously redeems and loses himself by fighting through the (literal) fires of hell.

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STEVE - For 46 years and 22 movies, audiences have attended regularly to see Ian Fleming’s iconic British spy. James Bond was a household name long before Michael Phelps was treading water. He was fighting Russians during the cold war. Ridding the world of cheesy villains through the 80’s and 90’s, and has been seducing women and drinking shaken martinis to the present, all the while evolving but still keeping the charm, wit, and rapport that is James Bond.

However, after 46 years it would appear that neither the producers nor director of the latest Bond outing have seen a James Bond film. Because I can tell you that this is not a James Bond movie. Where are the gadgets, the drinks, and cool cars? Q and Miss Moneypenny?

There are Bond girls, two, as are typical of all good Bond films, the first he quickly seduces and then tosses to the side. The other, however, gets away without even a hint of debauchery? What? How is this possible?

Every good girl knows that if James Bond offers to share his bed with you… then you take that opportunity. Sleeping with James Bond is the one exception to the rule when in comes to intercourse with strange men Okay… maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration. But nonetheless, things that are meant to happen in a Bond film, staples of the Bond convention, are tossed aside without thought or concern. No shaken Martini, no famous, “Bond, James Bond.” Not even a dry subtle quip or pun.

I grew up with James Bond. Watching old Bond movies with Dad over the holidays while stuck at Grandma’s is holiday tradition. I know what a James Bond movie is. This is not a James Bond movie.

This is a sad and tormented James Bond. Not that I have an issue with that, but A.O. Scott of The New York Times brings up an interesting point, “Is revenge the only possible motive for large-scale movie heroism these days? Does every hero, whether Batman or Jason Bourne, need to be so sad?” Indeed every hero needs something to push them while fighting bad guys, but does James need to be sad? Does he need to have revenge? I say no, Bond is better than that.

Overall, this movie is nothing more than a very mediocre, poorly edited, poorly shot action movie that had potential, but fell short of the mark. I still believe that Daniel Craig is the best Bond to date, rivaling if not overcoming the epic Sean Connery. Unfortunately, this movie suffers from being a little too Jason Bourne than James Bond.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Elegy

DAN - Isabel Coixet’s most recent film is based on a novel by Philip Roth. Roth has been known to write stories that feature sexually promiscuous characters, and this one is no exception. Elegy is the story of David Kepesh, a professor who becomes infatuated with Consuela, a student in one of his classes.

The film features Sir Ben Kingsley and Penélope Cruz as the two central characters. These roles require heartfelt performances from the actors, and they are successful for the most part. At times Kingsley seems detached from his character. He tends to stare blankly, which forced me to remember that I was sitting in a theatre, watching a movie. Dennis Hopper plays a supporting role in this film that, in my opinion, is one of the most authentic of his career. Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard round out this noteworthy cast.

At first glance, the story may seem somewhat shallow. The relationship that develops between Kepesh and Consuela is immensely physical. Kepesh is accustomed to having flings with a number of women, but through the course of the film, he and Consuela experience a great deal of change.

At this film’s center are themes of fear, change, and loss. Kepesh becomes enraptured by his mistress, and he fears that she will eventually realize their age difference and lose interest in him. At the same time, Consuela wants their relationship to last, but her lover’s fears are apparent to her.

The characters’ motives are never made entirely clear, which allows for some healthy speculation. It’s worth noting that the novel on which this film is based is entitled The Dying Animal. It’s not made clear to whom this title refers, but I would suggest that the “animal” is Kepesh, whose behavior is somewhat animalistic. The transformation of Kepesh in this film is preceded by this quote from Hopper’s character: “We’re so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside.” Consuela provides him with a second chance at something more than a physical romance.

I saw Elegy in a screening at the Canton Palace Theatre. Each Thursday, the Palace shows films that wouldn’t normally appear in mainstream theatres, and they always make for great conversation. If you live in the Canton area, I encourage you to visit cantonpalacetheatre.org to see what’s playing next.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Editor's Note: This review was originally written for Malone University's student newspaper. Steve didn't bother to write a non-Malone centric version for criticinema.

STEVE - As I was sitting in the theater, watching Zack and Miri make a (word I can’t repeat at Malone) I quickly began to wonder, “How I will I review a movie like this for Malone?” With words like “Bleep” and “Bleep” and other “Bleeps” I questioned if such a “Bleeping” review could be written without being “Bleeped.”

I should begin this review with the world’s largest disclaimer. Zack and Miri make a (word I can’t repeat at Malone) does indeed involve Zack and Miri making a (word I can’t repeat at Malone), so viewer be warned. This movie stretches the bounds of the MPAA R rating, leaving little left unseen, including the stretch marks.

Of course it’s hard to imagine anything less from writer director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma, Clerks 2). His films have always pushed the limits of sex on screen in terms of its lewdness and sheer shrewdness. Where Judd Apatow mixes smut with charm, Smith mixes sex with…well… anything and everything. However, Smith’s potty-mouth freshman humor that he heavily incorporates into each of his films does aid in creating some of the most heart warming moments on screen.

The plot is simple, and could easily be found in any fare of romance. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are best friends. They went to high school together, they live together, hang out together, do every thing together… except have sex together. So when their water and electricity gets shut off, and they have no money left to pay the bills, they do what no dignified person would do. They make a… well you know. And when it comes time to do the dirty deed, instead of having sex, they do what any couple who have been together that long do, they make love.

Like I said, the story is as conventional and formulaic as they come, but Smith puts on his own unique spin that makes it become something special. Smith is a poet of vulgarity. His dialogue is as masterful as it is shocking. And the performances of his dialogue are exceptional. It should be pointed out that Craig Robison (Darryl from The Office) is especially hilarious.

All said and done, I have never seen as shocking nor raunchy a movie as Zack and Miri Make a (word I can not… aw screw it) Porno. It’s rude and crude and social unacceptable. But beneath the offensive coarseness and bad manners lies a witty story about two people being in love.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

W.

DAN - Academy Award winner Oliver Stone’s latest film chronicles a fictionalized version of the life and times of George W. Bush. Though the story is based on actual events, many scenes and conversations are created to support Stone’s comedic vision of the president.

I’ve never been a fan of Oliver Stone. Alexander was painfully long and boring, and World Trade Center seemed like an attempt to take advantage of a crisis for personal gain. W. is a politically charged film, and I get the feeling that Stone created it for the primary purpose of drawing in crowds.

Having said that, this movie is all right. Although Stone makes it clear that he does not approve of President Bush, this is a film that can be enjoyed by democrats and [open minded] republicans alike.

Josh Brolin (Goonies, No Country for Old Men) delivers a surprisingly effective impression of Bush. He succeeds in going beyond the typical caricature, providing a character that feels human. I found myself sympathizing with this variant of Bush, which I’m sure is also due to the screenplay by Stanley Weiser.

The rest of the ensemble cast is impressive, consisting of James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen Burstyn, and plenty more. Each performance is funny and unique, emphasizing the strange variety of characters that have been a part of this administration.

The most powerful and thought-provoking moment in this film takes place after the credits. The very last image we see is a symbol of the crucifix morphing into a “W.” Stone is a self-proclaimed Buddhist, so I’m not sure if this is a jab at Bush or Christianity.

Other than that, this is a pretty basic movie, serving as a retrospective of sorts. I’m interested in seeing how people will perceive this film in the future; will it be the definitive representation of Bush’s presidency? I hope not.

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STEVE - When I first heard that controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone was tackling a project about our current president I was (to say the least) shocked, appalled and very intrigued. A fictional biography on a living, still in office president… you don’t say?

Of course a film dealing with a major political figure, conveniently coming out around the time of presidential elections is sure to have political undertones, which this movie does about a third of the way into the film. However, this doesn’t keep W. from being a riveting and engrossing drama about the man in the White House.

The film focuses on the life of President Bush (the second one), and not so much on his political decisions, which was a wise choice by the filmmakers that easily paid off do to actor Josh Brolin. Brolin is intoxicatingly funny, gripping, and riveting as George W. Bush and I wouldn’t be the least surprised if he received an Oscar nomination for his performance. Equally as enjoyable was James Cromwell who was brilliant as Bush Sr.

Director Oliver Stone made excellent casting selections. Not only do his actors look and sound similar to their real life counterparts, but each actor brings to the table engrossing performances that drive the momentum of the story. The movie works for this very reason.

Great performances and a riving script that surprisingly tells it as it is makes W. a must see.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Tell No One

DAN - Tell No One is a thrilling French mystery from director Guillaume Canet, based on a novel by Harlan Coben. The film follows Alex Beck, a doctor whose wife was murdered eight years ago. When new details emerge concerning his wife’s death, Beck must run from the law in search of the truth.

After seeing this film, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a sucker for French movies. Maybe it’s the romance of their language, or maybe I just don’t expect to see such well-made films from foreign countries. Either way, I liked this one.

François Cluzet plays the protagonist well. I’ve never seen him before, but I enjoyed this performance. The supporting cast of characters, a few of whom I recognized, also works well.

One thing that I found somewhat odd about this movie was the music. There are a lot of lighthearted songs that don’t seem to fit the story, and it doesn’t help that most of them are in English. The presence of U2's “With or Without You” was especially jarring for me, but it led to a moment that suggested a romantic side of the film.

I loved the stunts in this film. Beck takes a few punches, jumps from windows, and nearly gets run over on a highway, and it all looks convincing. Even something as simple as tripping and falling onto the pavement made me cringe. It looked painful.

There were several points in the movie where characters made references to something I didn’t understand, and I’d say to myself, “What did I miss?” But it would all be cleared up before the end of the film. There’s a particularly lengthy scene of exposition that ties a lot of loose ends together, and it was a relief.

Tell No One threw me for some loops, but it all worked out by the time the credits rolled. I was never certain what to believe, and I didn’t see the twists coming, which is a good thing for any mystery. Good story, good performances, and good direction.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Body of Lies

STEVE - Leonardo Dicaprio and Russell Crowe star in the latest film from Director Ridley Scott. Body of Lies is a spy film set in the middle of the Iraq War. DiCaprio plays Agent Ferris, a solo on the ground CIA spy who tries to stop terrorism single handedly, while Crowe plays as Ferris’s ever watchful boss Ed Hoffman, who is always observing from the sky.

Real locations and sets serve the mise-en-scene in creating Ridley Scott’s dirty and depressing modern day Middle East. The cinematography aids in creating a stylized and fast paced film that unfortunately becomes sluggish due to a creative but Hollywood contaminated plot.

I recall talking to a friend about the overall plot after viewing the film. There where many sideplots and subplots and loveplots and subparplots. And the main plot (for which the title is named) becomes sandwiched between all these other plots and ultimately is left with itty-bitty-little space to breath. I believe when attempting to describe how the main plot was executed the word my friend used was, (insert high pitch voice) “Bloop!” And I think that pretty much sums it up.

Body of Lies isn’t anything special. Good acting and decent cinematography regrettably doesn’t make up for a poor plot(s) that could have been salvaged into something superior. It’s an ordinary, middle-of-the-road, run of the mill film that leaves you with nothing more than a few, fun, distracting hours. The movie attempts to send a message, but it ultimately was lost. After watching I just kinda felt like… well… I’ve had better.

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DAN - Ridley Scott’s latest film is an espionage thriller set chiefly in Jordan. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a CIA operative with a plan to infiltrate a terrorist organization, and Russell Crowe acts as his boss at Langley.

There’s not much more to it. This film follows the recent trend of terrorist-related movies set in the Middle East (Syriana, The Kingdom). Throughout most of the movie, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it before. I wanted something new, but this felt like a rehash.

Near the end of the movie, Crowe’s character says, “Ain’t nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There’s nothing here to like.” As far as films go, I tend to agree. I’m bored by the deserts, worn buildings, and warfare.

I didn’t have an emotional investment in any of the characters, and I rarely felt that they were in danger. There’s a romantic subplot that develops halfway through the film, and it seemed out of place.

I was bothered by a couple of things that should have been irrelevant, but they caught my eye. Most of them aren’t worth mentioning, but here’s one example. Ever since I saw the trailers for this movie, I’ve been annoyed by the characters’ hair. I know it should be trivial, but there’s no reason to dye DiCaprio’s hair pitch black (including his goatee). And Crowe’s hair doesn’t need to be grey and spiky. It was noticeably fake and distracting.

I was surprised to see Mark Strong as a Jordanian character, but he pulled it off. Strong has played supporting characters in several notable movies, such as Sunshine, Stardust, and a few Guy Ritchie films. Sure enough, his character in this movie has awkward grey streaks in his unnaturally black hair.

Even with all of my complaints, Body of Lies is a decent movie. It’s just not very inventive. I want more from the likes of Ridley Scott.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Man on Wire

DAN - In 1973, construction was officially completed on the World Trade Center. One year later, a tightrope walker named Philippe Petit walked between the roofs of the Twin Towers on a high wire, and he did it without anyone’s permission. His antics are chronicled in Man on Wire, a documentary by James Marsh.

This is a magical film. The story, visuals, music, and “characters” are presented in a way that had me wholly captivated.

The story is told firsthand through interviews with Petit and his cohorts. Each person has a distinct and genuine personality, and it is evident that they are each proud (and sometimes ecstatic) to have been a part of this inverted scheme. Petit in particular is a fantastic and physically active storyteller.

The film’s visuals, aside from the interviews, consist of archive footage, photography, and reenactments. I was surprised by how cohesive all of this material is; the cinematography of the black and white footage from the ‘60s meshes perfectly with the modern segments. It’s a delight to see Petit and his friends running through tall grass and wrestling like giddy children.

The film’s music supports a sense of wonderment. In particular, Erik Satie’s “First Gymnopédie” left an impression on me.

Man on Wire serves as an uplifting memory to associate with the World Trade Center in light of more recent events. It is a true heist story in which there are no victims, and nothing is stolen. Rather, Petit provides his audience with inspiration.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Eagle Eye

STEVE - Improbabilities, impossibilities, ambiguities, and implausibility would just be a few of the words needed to describe the outlandish and dubious plot of Eagle Eye.

Unlike other movie reviews, I won’t attempt to explain the plot to you. I’m not sure I can. Instead I recommend you watch the various trailers bumbling about on the interwebs. That should give you enough to understand what the movie, at the very least, attempts to do with the plot.

The film is the most ridiculous of the over-the-top action, adventure genre. Insane happenstance after insane happenstance pushes the audience further and further in asking, “WTF?” To quote the great Roger Ebert, “This whole movie is a feature-length deus ex machina, and if you don't know what that is, look it up, because you're going to need it to discuss ‘Eagle Eye.’” Amen.

However, even with that being said, you couldn’t help but enjoy the adrenaline pumping, shaky camera, action sequences which have become a staple in the action genre. As well as the conventional and eventual outcome of the film, which we all know the due to operational aesthetics. And if you don’t understand what that term means its okay, I learned it from Andrew Rudd.

For those of you film bloggers out there, this movie has fridge moments, nuke the fridge moments, and other refrigerator moments that I haven’t even heard of yet. After viewing this movie we may need to make one or two.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

DAN - Woody Allen’s newest film is built around two friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson), who decide to spend a summer in Barcelona. They meet a mysterious and alluring painter named Juan (Javier Bardem) who invites them to visit his home in the countryside. Complex romances soon evolve among the characters.

I’ve seen a few of Woody Allen’s most famous movies, but I was never impressed. I was put off by the thought that he had written and directed those films for the purpose of casting himself in the role of a nerd who sleeps with beautiful women. It would push me even further away if he continued this in his old age, but he fortunately doesn’t appear in Vicky Christina Barcelona.

I enjoyed this film a bit more than I expected, but it’s not a complete victory. I suppose this is a character-driven film, though the characters’ behavior is sometimes difficult to understand. This movie might appeal to lovers of romance, as long as they aren’t offended by the loose and shallow nature of its characters.

Not much was required of the actors except for Penélope Cruz, who plays a semi-psychotic lover. The rest of the characters are fairly conventional. The presence of a narrator was distracting, as he provided insights into the characters’ minds. Narration only works if handled well, as in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Concerning fine arts, this is a beautiful film. Soulful Spanish guitar accompanies breathtaking scenery in Barcelona and Oviedo. The characters drink wine, express themselves through art, and enjoy life. A few brief scenes in New York City provide noticeable contrast.

I appreciate this film, though it hasn’t left much of a lasting impact on me. I was left wondering if the characters had learned anything through the course of the story, and I wasn’t sure if I had any personal gain.

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STEVE - What starts off as a proposition to a weekend of sightseeing and a threesome, quickly develops into a well crafted film on the subject of love and happily ever after.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a terrific and engaging movie. The film is full of witty dialogue and smart characters, some of whom are logical, and others who are reckless and passionate. The film delves deep into the topic of love, and makes a beautiful exploration of the subject through the characters with their neurotic and sometimes irrational behaviors.

The plot follows two close friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson), who have decided to spend the summer in, of all places, Barcelona. It is the meeting of an attractive painter (Javier Bardem) and his proposition of a romantic weekend away…involving all of them that pushes the plot into interesting territory.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a rare and skillfully made film, which makes it such a joy to view. Though surely this isn’t the screenwriter and director’s best work in his catalogue of over forty films, it is defiantly a wonderful refreshment from a summer of mediocre blockbusters (The Dark Knight excluded).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading

DAN - Burn After Reading is a comedic pseudo-spy film from writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen. When the memoirs of a disgruntled CIA employee end up in the hands of deviously dim-witted gym workers, the situation quickly spins out of everyone’s control.

The Coen brothers earned four Oscars for last year’s No Country for Old Men, including Best Picture and Best Director. Their choice to follow such a film with a farcical comedy was interesting, but I was concerned. The Coens’ last two comedies, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, weren’t exactly up to par with their previous efforts.

Fortunately, the brothers have managed to whip up something special again.

Though the cinematography and setting (Washington, D.C.) didn’t initially thrill me, the characters and plot won me over. The cast consists of some of Hollywood’s most highly-regarded actors in less than flattering roles. John Malkovich’s short-tempered performance is a treat, and George Clooney nicely rounds out his “trilogy of idiots” with the Coen brothers.

Carter Burwell’s boisterous score stands out nicely, and it sets a tone for the film and its unduly pompous characters. In Joel Coen’s words, the music is “something important sounding but absolutely meaningless.”

For those of you who were upset with the conclusion of No Country for Old Men, this one doesn’t require quite as much soul searching. If you enjoyed Burn After Reading, I recommend Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, both from the Coens’ collection.

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STEVE - Burn After Reading is by far one of the most bizarre, screwball, tragicomedy that only could originate from the uncanny minds of the Brothers Coen.

This movie is littered with big name performers like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and J.K. Simmons. All of whom give very unique, comical, and vastly different performances than you’ve seen before. Both Pitt and Clooney are hilarious, Pitt with his gum chewing, uneducated, gym instructor dialogue, and Clooney as the sex-addict, cheating buffoon. But it’s J.K. Simmons, who only appears for 5 minutes of film that brings the house down.

This film is made with expert execution and style, not to mention some terrific dialogue. But even with all of that, I found myself looking at the clock more than once, which isn’t a good thing when the film runs a total time of 96minutes. The issue lies in have to bring together so many different characters that the pacing of the film ultimately suffers.

Though it is by far one of the better ensemble casts that I’ve seen, and is quite comically screwy, Burn After Reading fails (for myself at least) to create an emotional connection with its audience. I’ll give it credit for its smart screenplay, fine cinematography, and first rate performances, but with all the scheming, affairs, and unique basement contraptions, it just didn’t hit home.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bottle Shock

DAN - In 1976 a competition was held in Paris in which obscure Californian wines were compared with the best that the French had to offer. At the time, France was producing what was considered to be the best wine in the world. This event, which came to be known as the “Judgment of Paris,” was the basis for Bottle Shock, directed by Randall Miller.

Even without seeing this movie, its ending shouldn’t be difficult to predict. The film’s tendency toward convention is its most obvious weakness. Sure, there are some unique moments here and there, but they’re all contained in a color-by-number story.

The movie takes place largely in Napa Valley, which provides some beautiful scenery. This is one of the few positives that stood out to me.

Bottle Shock suffers from a lack of character development. Friends betray one another, friendships are seemingly broken, but everything is conveniently back to normal fifteen minutes later. The cast’s performances weren’t noteworthy, though I’m sure they’d benefit from a better screenplay. Even Alan Rickman, who is usually fun to watch, didn’t have much to work with.

Little risk was taken in the making of this movie. Perhaps the producers’ only gamble was in making a film about wine fanatics. It’s not exactly blockbuster material.

At one point in the film, the characters say, “Through hardship comes enlightenment... in grapes.” If the movie’s producers had adhered to this philosophy in regard to film, they might have ended up with something more than mediocre.

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STEVE - What starts off as an intriguing film of a love affair between a man and good wine slowly becomes a movie bogged down by a sour and uninteresting family relationship that kills the feeling of a good movie buzz.

Bottle Shock is one of those “based on a true story” type of movies. You know the type… the kind which is “loosely” based on a true story. And because it’s “loosely” based on a true story it allows the writer to take certain “privileges” of the plot in order to create those typical “Hollywood Movie” clichés, because that’s what “sells” these days. It’s really quite unfortunate, because Bottle Shock could have been something unique. Instead it became another typical film of the modern Hollywood cinema.

However, this film does have a strong point, that point being Alan Rickman. Bottle Shock truly works best when focusing on the character and story of Alan Rickman’s Steven Spurrier. Spurrier is a British wine lover who owns a little shop in France called “The Academy of Wine.” The year is 1976, and it’s his idea to host a wine tasting contest between the two countries of France and America (this is the true story part). Rickman gives a wonderful performance as the snobby connoisseur of wine. His character and performance is so enjoyable that whenever he walks on screen you are simply unable to pull your eyes away. Unfortunately, every moment he’s not on screen, the film becomes a boor.

The movie is filled to the brim with mediocre plot, acting, and everything else. And it’s only because of Alan Rickman and his character’s storyline that I give this film a pass. Ironically enough, the movie works best when it focuses on the true events of the story, and not dealing with the “loosely based” characters and their family issues.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Pineapple Express

DAN - Pineapple Express, directed by relatively unknown David Gordon Green, is a stoner comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. One of the characters witnesses a murder, and the pair of potheads are forced to run from hitmen and cops alike.

I’ll preface this review by saying that I didn’t get much sleep the night before watching the movie, and I found it difficult to stay awake through the second half. But I persevered for the sake of providing well-informed opinions for our readers, who will settle for nothing less.

This movie is odd. It wanders through comedic takes on various genres, most notably action and adventure. There are drug lords, assassins, and moments of violence that surpass Grand Theft Auto in over-the-top offbeat gore. It’s as if Cheech and Chong wandered into a poor-man’s combination of The Fugitive and Kill Bill.

I’ve noticed that I’m becoming increasingly tired of comedies like this that use improvised dialogue. It’s too obvious, and it bumps me out of the film. The man behind this trend is Judd Apatow, who produced similarly-styled films like Step Brothers, Superbad, Knocked Up, and Anchorman.

Having said that, there were a number of good scenes. Danny McBride, who is on his way to becoming a big name in comedy, provided some of the best moments in this movie.

I’m sure Pineapple Express was meant to be viewed while on the reefer, because even though it’s a comedy, I didn’t laugh enough. Maybe I just need to loosen up. If only there were some sort of inhalable substance that would keep me laid back... legally, of course.

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STEVE
- In late 2007, the Hollywood Insider came out with a list. This list ranked, in their opinion, the fifty smartest people in Hollywood. Conditions for such a list ranged from rules such as not only making smart films and movie decisions in the past, but to making smart movies now, while in the process, pushing the industry forward in a new and unique way. At the top of this great list, which contained legendary filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and celebrated actors such as Meryl Streep and Will Smith, was none other than Producer/Director Judd Apatow. The reason he topped such a list? Well, to put it simply… smart and very funny movie making.

Mr. Apatow has brought us such classics as Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Knocked Up, Superbad, and my most recent favorite Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Hit after hit, Judd Apatow has produced (and sometimes directed) many of our modern day comedy classics. After all, how many times did you or your friends find yourself confessing love for a lamp after seeing Anchorman for the umpteenth time?

So maybe now you can see why Judd Apatow is deserving of such a spot as the smartest man in Hollywood, and maybe why I was excited to see his latest produced comedy, Pineapple Express. So it burdens me with a heavy heart to reveal my sincere disappointment in what I was hoping to be a good movie.

Star and writer Seth Rogen (whom had impressed me once before with his witty and hilarious script in Superbad) failed not only to impress me as an actor, but also as a screenwriter. Rogen’s acting skills never impressed me to begin with, even though sometimes, when in the right role, the man can charm the pants right off of ya (not here however). It was nevertheless, his script’s dialogue, which in many scenes felt improvised and awkward, that caused this film to feel disjointed and uneven. And perhaps that was the issue; they should have stuck to the script instead of improvising. However, the larger offense done to the audience in this movie was its exposition.

In a horrible attempt to push the movie along it’s merry and at many times jarring plot, was some of the most ridiculous and unbelievable explanations and exploitations of plot and unlikely circumstances. True, this movie is in many regards what some would call a “pot-smoking movie” being that it contains much smoking of pot and or weed as it is sometimes referred to in many intellectual circles. And true, the movie was aimed at those certain intellectual circles that smoked said weed. Nonetheless, such horrible writing and execution of plot is truly unforgivable. And this here is where the problem lies.

Director David Gordon Green, whose previous experience was on serious independent drama up until this point, failed in many ways to form a cohesive and smart film. He should have called a halt to the improvising, which was truly out of hand in this movie, and made a more conscious effort to bring the film under the reigns of some of intelligence and coherent thought.

Now true, this was a “pot-smoking movie”, and yes it did and was meant to stretch the bounds of believability… which I’m all for. But you can’t force feed me a poorly constructed vehicle to drive the plot and expect me to get into that vehicle and ride in it to the end of the movie. It doesn’t work! Just like I’m sure my use of literary terms didn’t just work, or maybe it did. I don’t know… I go to Malone.

To be quiet honest, I think the real issue for me was that this movie had an important missing element… that wonderful, good feeling, Judd Apatow comedy charm. This movie had no charm. I didn’t fall in love with the characters, I didn’t route for the underdog, and my emotions weren’t carried away in the story. I was stuck in a theater… and I had gum on my shoe.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

STEVE - It was perhaps the most anticipated movie of my lifetime. As I told a friend, “I can’t ever remember wanting to see a movie this bad.” True, I’m a big Bat fan, but nonetheless you also have considered the rest of the variables in this film equation. You have a great director, who on more than one occasion has wowed me with his skill at pointing a camera. Legendary actors such as Michael Cain, Christian Bale, and Gary Oldman just to name a few of the top A list actors in this film. And of course you have the hailed performance of the unfortunately late Heath Ledger. So many great things to look forward too… and usually when I’m close to this level of excitement about a movie, I almost always tend to be more than a little disappointed after the experience. Thank the heavens that every once in a while, the Hollywood Studio System gets things right.

So many wonderful things in this movie were done right. So many, that I can’t list them. Thank you Warner Brothers for letting a wonderful vision come to life. Thank you Mr. Chris Nolan for a wonderful movie going experience, and thank you cast and crew and everyone else involved for making a top notch movie worthy of multiple nominations and awards. The performances, music, cinematography, direction, action… all outstanding!

It isn’t a perfect movie but the flaws are few and far between and it would just be nitpicking for me to point them out. So I won’t, all I say is that this is a must see, one to see over and over again with many multiple viewings after that.

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WARNING - Dan's review contains spoilers. Do not read it unless you've seen the film.

DAN - The Dark Knight is easily the most hyped film of this year. I had great expectations for it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the result. My initial reaction was basically this - I knew the movie was amazing, but I couldn’t fully celebrate it for two reasons.

1. I had invested too much hope into the idea that this would be a great movie. It met my expectations, but I’ve been on sort of a Dark Knight high for a while now. As a result, I didn’t really feel much exhilaration while watching it. This was minor, though. I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even if the “wow” factor wasn’t entirely there.

2. What surprised me most was how depressing this film is. This is where the spoilers kick in.

First, Rachel Dawes’ death took me by surprise. Granted, I wasn’t very invested in her character, but she was a good, innocent person. What’s worse are the effects of her death on other people.

I honestly cared about Harvey Dent. I was convinced that he was what Gotham needed in order to become a better place. He seemed like a truly selfless person who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what is right in the face of death, and I was rooting for him. The fact that he became evil (and ended up dying in that state) made me lose a little hope in the world. I knew all along that he would become Two-Face, but I didn’t want to accept it.

Also, the Joker is just... mean. Unpleasant. And knowing that he is the cause of Harvey Dent’s downfall, and that he enjoyed it, makes me mad. And now he’s (theoretically) sitting in a jail cell somewhere, happy with what he accomplished, and planning a way to escape and cause more damage. It worries me that such a person exists, albeit in a fictional world.

On a lighter note, I was glad to find myself laughing at some of the Joker’s moments and mannerisms. Despite his evil nature (and the knowledge of Ledger’s death), I was able to enjoy the performance.

In addition to this, there were some morally uplifting moments in the movie. The people on the ferries, even the prisoners, make the right choice. I take that as a sign that Harvey Dent made a good impression on the people of Gotham. Even though Dent is gone, he seems to have created a legacy that is already taking hold in average citizens and criminals alike.

Also, I gained a new love for Batman, himself. He’s willing to look like a villain in the eyes of the people he’s protecting for the sake of keeping Dent’s honor alive. It’s comforting and admirable.

All in all, I think this is an awesome movie, but it has taken me time to process some unexpected reactions. Ultimately, I admire the fact that Nolan and company didn’t make a “Hollywood” movie with a happy ending. Elements of the real world are reflected in The Dark Knight, and though they may be hard-hitting, they are truthful. I’ve thought about the relation between this film’s themes and reality more so than with other dark movies, such as No Country for Old Men. This is definitely more than a comic book movie. Not only is it entertaining, but it has meaning.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

STEVE - “Don’t touch anything!” should have been the words that Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones directed towards George Lucas instead of Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams. Regrettably, even if he had he would have been too late. So instead after nineteen years of been stuck in development hell, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford dust off the old fedora and return once more to the world of everybody’s favorite archeologist, this time bringing along a new cast, new characters, and a new adventure.

I won’t lie to you; it was a little weird seeing Indy on a new journey. I’ve watched the old movies so many times that it was hard for me to believe that I was watching Indiana Jones in a new motion picture. Nevertheless, as strange as it was to see my favorite action hero venture out on a brand new quest, it was more amazing to see him come back to life. Sure he’s a little older and little worse for the wear, but that look in his eyes, and the gruffness in his voice, and the fedora… oh Indy… I’ve missed you.

However, that doesn’t stop the fact, that for whatever reason, George Lucas has it out to destroy ever grown man’s childhood! Why, George, why?! Indy may be out on a new expedition, but it’s the silliest, brainless, most ridiculous escapade ever! EVER!!! Did you know that the reason it took nineteen years to make a new Indiana Jones movie was because Lucas had this stupid plot in his head from the beginning, but Steven and Harrison had enough sense to say no? Well, now we know that if we ever want to get anything out of Spielberg or Ford all we have to do is ask, and then wait nineteen years for them to cave in. Which I’m kind of glad they did, but then I kind of wish they didn’t.

I mean it was great to see Indiana Jones fighting the bad guys again (even though the bad guys were Russians instead of Germans) and solving strange historic puzzles, and digging up buried artifacts. But the story and the special effects got in the way. Whose idea was it to make digital gophers? Come on… those things looked so ludicrous and ridiculously fake. I’m actually surprised… for an ILM movie these special effects were below par. They didn’t have me believing a good portion of what I was seeing, which is rare for ILM. Very rare. And as far as the story goes all I have to say is one thing. A REFIGERATOR?!! REALLY?!!

Actually I lied, I have more to say about the story, but more on that later.

As for the direction, I can say that I was glad that Spielberg returned to the director’s chair. Considering what he had to work with as far as the script went, I was glad he came back. And I’m very glad that Ford returned, because that my friends, is where the real magic happened. Nineteen years later and Ford proves that he can still be and is Indiana Jones. I was afraid at first that he wouldn’t be able to return to the role, and during the first few minutes of the film I didn’t believe that he was back. But then, once the action happened, I was caught… and I believed… and I’m sorry that I ever doubted you Harrison.

As for the rest of the actors; I hate to say that I was surprisingly disappointed. I expected a lot from the likes of Ray Winstone and Cate Blanchett. Unfortunately they did very little to impress me. Even Karen Allen returning in the role of Marion Ravenwood from the first movie disappointed me. Her acting seemed stilted. There was a moment early on in the film that I found myself really missing Sean Connery’s Henry Jones, Senior in the picture. I loved him in Last Crusade and his absence in the picture left a little bit of a, much needed to be filled in, hole. However, Spielberg has found his boy wonder… and he is Shia LaBeouf. The kid has what it takes, and I immediately fell in love with him and his greaser character Mutt. At one point I even began to care for Mutt as much as Indy. A hard feat to accomplish Mr. LaBeouf, and therefore my fedora is off to you.

And now to the script... it was weak, it was very, very weak. The action, direction, everything, with a few exceptions from the special effects department, was good. But the story left so much to be desired. The climax felt so anticlimactic, and I hated it! It was so un-Indiana Jones. But my biggest complaint concerns that of the relationship between Marion and Indy. It’s been twenty some years since these two have been together, and yeah we learn a little bit of history about them, and why they didn’t stay together after the first film. But after a quick spat, these two suddenly fall in love again? How?! You can’t leave someone, go off and have another life, and then all of sudden pick up where you left off twenty some years ago. It doesn’t work like that. There needed to be more development between these two than what was shown on screen for me to believe that they are still in love. No, it didn’t work for me. And neither did the McGuffin. Again, un-Indiana Jones like. Get over yourself Lucas, and quit ruining everybody’s favorite characters with weak story and plot lines!

So should you go see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? If it was any other action movie, with any other action hero, I would tell you no and that you would be better off staying at home and watching something else. However, this isn’t any other action movie, and this isn’t any other action hero… its Indiana Jones.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

DAN - Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a romantic comedy directed by Nicholas Stoller (Fun with Dick and Jane) and produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up). Jason Segel plays a man who falls into depression after his celebrity girlfriend dumps him. In an attempt to lift his spirits, he takes a trip to Hawaii. When he arrives, he soon finds that his ex-girlfriend is there on vacation with her new boyfriend.

I had a decent time watching this film, but I’d like to preface my review with an observation: the crowd with which you see a movie can have a big impact on your experience. I saw this film at a matinee, and the theater was barely occupied. The audience wasn’t up for a riotous afternoon of laughter, which isn’t helpful when seeing an edgy comedy.

The humor in this film ranges from subtle wordplay and nonverbal interaction to raunchy jokes and full-frontal male nudity. I chuckled a few times, but I couldn’t help wishing I was surrounded by a crowd that could really get into the movie.

The cast does a pretty good job, as they do in any Apatow film. Segel, who also wrote the screenplay, was charismatic and fun to watch, but some of my favorite moments in the movie involved cameo appearances by other actors. Russell Brand, an actor who is well known in England, was great as a carefree musician living the rock and roll lifestyle.

Overall, I enjoyed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it really wasn’t anything great. I probably could have benefited from watching it with a better audience, but it was still a good time.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Mist

DAN - The Mist, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, was recently released on DVD. Directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), the film takes place in a small town as it is flooded with a thick fog that seems to hide something dangerous. A portion of the townsfolk shut themselves in a grocery store. As they attempt to make sense of the situation, crazy stuff starts happening, both inside and outside of the store.

I’ve enjoyed Darabont’s previous works, and some Stephen King adaptations have been great (The Shining), but something went wrong with this one. The writing, acting, and special effects are all outstanding, but they stand out in the wrong ways.

The characters’ actions and reactions rarely make much sense. They are immediately at odds with one another, but without any apparent reason. They mistrust and condemn each other, but I seldom spotted any understandable motivation for doing so.

The actors’ performances are prominently bland and laughable, though I suppose they did the best they could manage with the screenplay they had. It was especially painful to watch Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden in her role as a self-righteous, hypocritical religious crusader who blames the mist on the sins of mankind. It was ridiculous.

I’ll avoid spoilers by saying that there are computer-generated effects in this film, but they are hardly convincing. Come on people, this is 2008. Jurassic Park did it better 15 years ago.

You’re likely to hear people talking about the ending of The Mist. I was happy to see a non-traditional conclusion; such a thing isn’t popular in modern cinema. Even so, the ending was hindered by the aforementioned lack of believable motivation.

I have more complaints concerning this movie, but not enough room to discuss them in one review. In my opinion, The Mist has few redeeming qualities. But as always, I encourage you to make up your own mind.

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STEVE - Writer and Director Frank Darabont is the authoritative figure when it comes to adapting a Stephen King story from novel to the big Screen. After such huge successes with translations of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, it’s pretty hard to imagine Darabont failing when retelling a Stephen King classic. And when it comes to the mist, nothing has changed; Frank Darabont still writes and directs just the same as his previous Stephen King films… oh yeah, except this time it was bad.

Well no, no bad might be a little too strong in this situation. Let’s see… hmmm… while watching I honestly felt as if I was watching a Sci-fi channel original movie… a “B” movie. And nothing good can come from a “B” movie science fiction adaptation. So I wouldn’t say the movie was bad, but perhaps a little too mediocre.

Not bad, not good, but mediocre. Seriously… just straight up mediocre. Everything in this movie was mediocre. Everything! The acting was mediocre, the script was mediocre, the CGI was mediocre, and the direction was mediocre. Mediocre does not describe writer and director Frank Darabont. The man is better than this.

However, the movie wasn’t a complete lost. The camera work and cinematography was pretty decent. And the ending, oh boy, the ending was nothing short of amazing. If you’re going to watch this film for any reason, watch it for the ending. It almost made up for two hours of medicoreness... almost.

So ladies and gentlemen, it is my recommendation that if you desire to see a pretty cool ending and you don’t mind sitting through two hours of mediocreness, than by all means watch the mist. Otherwise, avoid this film at all costs. And Frank Darabont, if you’re reading this than I have two questions for you. First, why are you reading criticinema, you’re better than this! Secondly, why are you making “B” movies, you’re better than this!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Persepolis

DAN - Persepolis is a French animated feature co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the film is an autobiographical account of Satrapi’s turbulent life as a young Iranian girl. Satrapi’s world is drastically changed by the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s, and she is forced to mature at an early age.

Although I knew next to nothing about Iran prior to seeing this film, I found no difficulty in involving myself with the story. Persepolis presents the country’s recent history from a first-hand perspective, which I suppose made it easier to take in. The rise and fall of Shahs and Ayatollahs didn’t become a confusing distraction.

The movie’s primarily black and white animation style was simple, yet strikingly effective. Founded on Satrapi’s own drawings, the film is full of images that are beautiful in their use of contrast, composition, and movement. While watching, I often thought, “I want to animate something like this. It wouldn’t be too hard.” I’m not sure how true that is, but the film was inspiring nonetheless.

This version of the film was in the original French with English subtitles, and I recommend it. There’s something enchanting about the French language; even without the subtitles, this movie would be a treat. In my opinion, dubbing should always be avoided.

The score by Olivier Bernet works with the film’s visuals and themes, though at times it sounds synthesized. Some musical cues reminded me of Koji Kondo’s Ocarina of Time soundtrack, which has a certain nostalgic appeal for me.

Persepolis conveys elements of humor, despair, loneliness, and love while simultaneously telling a personal story that is relevant worldwide. This film reminded me that even though people live in a wide variety of strange cultures, we are not entirely different.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie

DAN - I’d like to take a moment to give recognition to one of my generation’s long lost classic films. It has been nearly thirteen years since Bryan Spicer unleashed the masterpiece that is Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. The film follows the six heroic rangers as they battle Ivan Ooze, the most wretched and purple villain to ever grace the big screen.

The choreography of the battle sequences far surpasses anything that had previously appeared on the Power Rangers TV show, effectively setting the bar for all future kung fu movies; we would not have The Matrix, Enter the Dragon, or Walker: Texas Ranger were it not for MMPR:TM.

The cast delivers stellar performances with no exceptions. David Yost, in particular, delivers a heart-wrenching portrayal of a teen who must simultaneously struggle with the pressures of an authoritarian school system while battling the galaxy’s most venomous foes. Needless to say, Paul Freeman delivers a performance the likes of which had not been seen since his delivery of Dr. Rene Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Truly chilling.

Graeme Revell’s score packs a powerful punch that brings a tear to my eye every time I listen to the soundtrack. This, when combined with Paul Murphy’s immaculate cinematography, creates a cinematic experience that is literally impossible to dislike in any way.

If, by chance, there are any readers out there who have yet to see this consummate piece of art, you must watch it. Right now. Turn off your computer and run (don’t walk) to a video store and buy (don’t rent) this film. You will not regret it. Go Go Power Rangers!


(Note: If it were up to me, I would give this movie 10 out of 5 stars, but that might defy the laws of physics.)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

I'm Not There

DAN - I’m Not There is a tribute to Bob Dylan as directed by Todd Haynes. Although being in a biographical format, the film doesn’t feature a singular representation of Dylan. Instead, six different actors portray various elements of Dylan’s life, be it truth or legend. The result is an intertwining set of separate narratives that amount to the director’s impression of one of his favorite artists.

Even though I know very little about the real Bob Dylan, it is apparent that this film’s construction of his character is unique. Dylan is depicted as a child, an outlaw, a poet, a prophet, and more. Each side of his personality is filmed in a different style; some segments are black and white, while others are in color. These stories could have been presented individually, but are instead intercut with one another, creating a unified presentation on the character of Dylan.

The effect of this myriad of plot lines can sometimes be disorienting. It’s clear that director Haynes is expressing himself through artistic editing, but I wasn’t always able to catch the intended meaning. Haynes’ style of storytelling, though unconventional, is not off-putting. It simply requires a greater level of attention from its audience.

Haynes previously directed a film called Velvet Goldmine that was based on the life of David Bowie. That film was more difficult to follow than I’m Not There, despite having only one actor in the role of the main character.

This film’s cast delivers a cornucopia of terrific performances. Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and the late Heath Ledger are standouts in an ensemble that lacks any notable flaws. I am impressed that black, white, male, and female actors are all able to convey something that resembles Bob Dylan.

The film’s soundtrack comprises Dylan’s music; some songs are original recordings, and others are covers. The music complements the film well, though at points there are some obvious problems with lip synching.

I’m Not There is an experimental film that is far from being mainstream. It’s an impressive outing for cast and crew alike. I imagine it would help to be a Dylan fan when watching this movie, but it merits a viewing by any interested audience.