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Judge Bill Gibron's Blog

Judge Bill Gibron • Location: Tampa, FL
• Member since: May 2002
• 347 full reviews
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Jungle Boogie
December 16th, 2006 2:54PM

Has any film arrived with more nonsensical – and non-cinematic – baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson is a notorious nimrod, using the excuse of alcohol-fueled diarrhea of the mouth to cover for what is probably a deep-seated hatred for people outside his religion/race comfort zone. But what his personal philosophy about his fellow man has to do with a movie about South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies is a mystery made even more untenable by the media. Like any major superstar – and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel – the building of a celebrity is only half the press's process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame's cyclical nature. If we are to assume that Gibson is at the bottom – he did go through a real rough patch there, and really hasn't pulled his over the hill ass out of the fire quite yet- then this film is a fine first step back into moviemaking meaningfulness. Will it wipe away the cloud of the lingering Anti-Semitic controversy? No. Does it indicate that some artists can successfully separate their craft from their convictions? You bet!

Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating what is, in essence, a thriller throwback to the days of simply storytelling and full force physical action. This is not a plodding post-modern blockbuster with all manner of metaphysical miscues messing up the stunt work. No, in a script that is elegant in its stereotypical ease, Gibson creates good guys (Jaguar Paw's jungle dwelling tribe) and unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson's gift behind the lens. There are shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely CGI spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there's a moment during Jaguar Paw's last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer.

As for the performances, it is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Naturally, there's a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. He is cruel, sadistic, slimy, sarcastic, uncontrollable and completely without redeeming qualities. At least Zero Wolf has a son that he dotes on, a bit of outside emotion that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw public enemy numero uno. It is safe to say that, thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.

While it may be bereft of real emotion – as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don't really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate – there is no doubting Gibson's ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we've never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the best movies of the year, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with those exceptional efforts of 2006 – at least from an artistic perspective. Besides, what's the better legacy to have hanging around your neck – an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling cinematic statements? Gibson should be happy that, for now, outer vision has overcome inner vileness.

8 ouf ot 10

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Seeing the Light
December 7th, 2006 9:26AM

When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn't need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world's wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception. Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13" screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick's overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, if they did, they wouldn't now be bellyaching about Darren Aronofsky's latest masterwork.

At its core, The Fountain is a film about accepting death. It's about losing someone you love and learning to cope with the pain. It's mortality as viewed through the central characters of the story, each one presenting their own position on the afterlife in ancient (Izzy) and futuristic (Tommy) terms. For our heroine, the sudden arrival of the end (in the form of an inoperable brain tumor) represents a time of reflection and peace, a chance to put all her most precious thoughts down on paper to share with the man she adores. For our hero, cancer is a pariah, a conquest to overcome, a macho measure of his manhood that will either confirm or corrupt his entire world. As portrayed by Hugh Jackman (batting a big two for two this year after Christopher Nolan's amazing The Prestige) and the radiant Rachel Weisz, Tom and Izzy are drifting apart, at cross-purposes about her oncoming mortality. He's a research scientist obsessed with saving her. She's learning to cope. He can see nothing outside his potential role as savior. She just wants attention. All throughout the story, Tom has opportunities to really connect with his wife, to make her last few months (Weeks? Days? Hours?) of life seem serene. Instead, he is Hellbent on battling her disease – both as a way of saving her life, but also as a way of avoiding the issue in himself.

Jackman does a very interesting thing here, as does Aronofsky. This is not a big picture film, no matter the amazing vistas (Mayan temples, outer space) we end up visiting or the universal emotions being explored. No, both actor and director keep the movie very insular and internalized. Sets are restricted to rooms, corridors, halls, and dense jungle glens. Feelings are set within the barest of basics - happiness and sadness, success and failure. The intriguing Inquisition sequence that starts off Izzy's book (which gives the film its title) is perhaps the sole circumstance in which the world we are experiencing does not come as a direct reflection of our lover's lives. Indeed, Aronofsky seems to be using the set-up to suggest that traditional spirituality – read: religion – is so restrictive in its positions (post-modern or otherwise) that such an outward investigation of the afterlife is warranted. Indeed, the fictional Spanish Queen is seeking such salvation. Her conquistador tempts its fate. Similarly, our interstellar traveler puts his faith in an ancient Mayan myth. His goal seems as strange and evocative as the entire process of dying.

Yet, somehow, this is all baffling to filmgoers. They see Aronofsky jumping through time and the cosmos and consider this the narrative equivalent of Billy Pilgrim – unstuck in the epoch and equally confused. But it's all so obvious, if one merely gets involved in the story. There is no "real" Mayan storyline – it is the tale Izzy tells in her book. There is no space bubble traveling to Xibalba – it's just part of Tommy's interpretation of how Izzy's tale should end. Between the daily struggles to deal with the disease, this couple is losing its grip, grabbing onto fantasy as a way of finding fulfillment and peace. If you simply view all the fantasy material in light of the individual's producing it, Aronofsky's purpose becomes crystal clear. Then, the depth of his designs, and all the little details that go with it, turn something internal and emotion driven into an epic of universe-like proportions. You don't need a perfect score on some Mensa movie maven test to understand this. There are no hidden signals or symbols one must decipher to draw this conclusion. If one would simply switch on their inherent intellect, they'd see the truth behind the tricks – that is, that The Fountain is an astonishing, evocative experience.

9.5 out of 10

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Journey Back in Time
November 21st, 2006 2:34PM

It's been relatively quite over the last few weeks here at the blog, and with fairly good reason. As the end of the year starts peering over the shoulder of the preemptive holiday season, obligations and added responsibilities have kept yours truly out of the local Cineplex. Granted, there really isn't much out there worth gravitating toward (dancing CGI penguins? Computer generated British rats? Another heralded helping of some spy named Bond?). While my personal jury is still out on Casino Royale (I am already quite hype-shy thanks to the one-two punch of The Descent and Borat this year) I may be willing to give this reinvented 007 a shot. All grousing aside, I do enjoy a big budget shoot-em up, and the trailer presented before that so called Kazakhstan comedy 'masterpiece' made the espionage exposition look like as much fun as the explosions. Still, the purpose of this project was to reconnect with the theater going experience. So this time, I left my stack of Academy screeners on the shelf and decided to check out the intriguing outsider horror festival 8 Films to Die For.

What followed was a laundry list of weirdness, missteps and movie going misery that I hadn't experienced ever in the previous six months of this experiment. A little background – we live within two miles of a pair of perfectly decent theaters. On one end is an AMC Megaplex connected to a local high-end mall. It's an immaculately clean, stadium seat loaded example of the nu-entertainment ideal. More like sitting in your living room than spending an evening at the cinema, it represents the typical experience almost everyone has who heads to the theater. But if you travel south the same distance, you run into a slapdash strip center called the Britton Plaza, and its fish out of water facility The Britton 8. Even more backstory – this is the theater that my wife and I saw our first film in together as a couple…which was Halloween, by the way. Yep, since 1979, this small movie house (which converted its one big screen into three, and then the aforementioned octet) has been a local favorite, a reminder of high school double dates and a city long gone from the backwater Florida map.

Imagine my surprise when I entered the facility to see that, in over 28 years, nothing much had really changed. The lobby was still a surreal combination of old fashioned snack bar (complete with popcorn, candy, and…Nutty Bavarian sweetened almonds???) and pre-war tiled bathrooms (purposefully decorated to accentuate Tampa's historic Hispanic heritage). Cracked flooring, stained from thousands of dirty feet, was dull and dingy while the less than contemporary video games sat stoically next to, of all things, a sticker machine. Back when the three screens went 4x4, the Britton took its balcony and converted it into a pair of mini-theaters. The last film I saw in one was Army of Darkness, and I swear I sat there in fear for my life. Nothing is more disconcerting that feeling perched directly over the top of another audience as they laugh and/or shriek along to the feature film below. I imagined that, at any moment, the Britton's second story screens could come crashing down, giving a new meaning to that old '70s in theater gimmick, Sensurround.

I kind of dug the retro feel of the theater, and walked up to the disengaged employee behind the counter (all she required was a mouth full of gum and a finger full of twirled hair to make the cliché complete). I asked for two tickets to the "8 Films to Die For Horror Festival" and I got one of those blank stares that suggested that I was a flatulating butthead. After a subtle scoff, I had my stubs and headed to the last theater on the right. Avoiding massive carpet stains strewn haphazardly down the hall, more than a few resembling the marks left by horses after they uncork their bladder and really let one fly, my wife and I found "Theater 4" and walked in.

The shock was unsettling. Old fashioned hard backed chairs with minimal helpful hinder cushioning. Row after row of bent and broken hand rests. In one seat, somewhere toward the back, what looked like a mummy or a recently reanimated corpse sat sitting, staring blindly at the screen only the occasional movement of its skeleton arm to check the time suggesting any life whatsoever. My first thought was that After Dark, in an obvious attempt to mimic the late great motion picture pitchman William Castle, had hired an actual ghoul to be part of the presentation – kind of like "atmosphere". Ew! Anyway, we found a couple of decent seats in the back, settled in, and hoped that the paranormal patron in front of us had already had its "feeding" for the day.

As the arcane ads for local businesses we'd never heard of played out on a dirty, dilapidated screen, a couple of beefy buffoons came in. High school age, and obviously playing hooky so they could see a really good gorefest, the pair plugged their pieholes with white cherry Icees and popcorn, engaging in a insular conversation loaded with self-serving slang and plenty of private jokes. As they giggled and gorged, the lights came down, and I settled in for a collection of (hopefully) competent genre shorts. As if you haven't guessed by now, I was COMPLETELY off base about what the whole After Dark movie marathon ideal was driving at, and I must admit, it was all my fault. Instead of reading about the anthology each and every time my cursor accidentally triggered the roaring shriek soundclip on that annoying web ad that's been clogging up sites for weeks, I merely cursed the company out loud, promised myself I would be more careful with the mouse, and moved on. Had I taken a moment to play caveat emptor, I would have discovered the truth behind these "too intense" for the mainstream motion pictures.

You see, 8 Films to Die For are actually EIGHT FULL LENGTH FILMS (I know, I hear the "D'uhs" – shut up!). Instead of seeing a collection of horror shorts, my wife and I got to witness one of the "audience favorites" that had been selected over the weekend. See, After Dark required audience to buy eight tickets to see all eight films, and then apparently used its website to rank the offerings. On Monday and Tuesday (11/20 and 11/21), the "best" were given the ever-popular 'encore' treatment. Today's tasty movie morsel was Unrest, a haunted hospital hackjob that was so unbelievably boring that I thought I was watching The Omen remake again. The plot was superficial and silly: a new med student swears she can "feel" the spirit of her classroom cadaver. Through a series of coincidences and standard horror happenstance, she learns the dead body is that of a female serial killer who "won't rest" until her anatomy lesson torso is put to rest.

Within this paltry premise, we get lots of shots of F/X driven vivisection, a couple of completely false scares, and your typical parade of problematic personalities, including the goofy jock and the sensitive foreigner. Director Jason Todd Ipson, who doesn't deserve to use three names, obviously thinks that he's creating something completely brilliant here. His ponderous use of pauses and long, languid tracking shots lack the gravitas he hopes to gain, and a few of this narrative flourishes (a huge tank of formaldehyde where corpses are kept like tacky tropical fish – huh?) ring ridiculous and false. But Unrest's biggest problem is that it's just not scary. Ipson has a way with mood, and there is a nice level of dread dispensed throughout the movie, but the tone is so tenuous, and the logic leaps so extreme, that we barely get our bearings before the movie goes ludicrous, lunging in a whole different direction. By the end, we could care less who lives and who dies. We just keep hoping that the film itself will seize up and stop unspooling.

Again, if this is the example of 8 Films' best, what did their worst look like? Some might suggest that my negative reaction comes straight from having my short films expectations dashed, but once I realized that Unrest was going to be the slim cinematic pickings for the entire two hour running time, I settled in and prepared to be terrified. Frankly, the surroundings, and that elderly "thing" a few rows away were much more frightening than anything onscreen. Truth be told, The Britton would have been a great place to see Saw III. The green and brown optical design scheme used to suggest rot and decay in the film is inherent in every splotch on the theater's walls. One could easily imagine that odd old bat sitting up, pulling off her expressionless wrinkle-filled face, to reveal Tobin Bell smiling out from underneath. It would be the perfect marriage of substance and setting.

The other seven titles – which can be previewed on After Dark's site – don’t seem much better, and frankly, it's hard to see how they could be. Indie horror is going through some incredibly hard times right now, with very little new and inventive coming out of the category. Far too fan-driven and reliant of referencing (better) films from the past, your standard new millennium macabre is a collection of homages and hobbles. Perhaps filmic fate was smiling down on me when I entered that former entertainment stomping ground. I got a nice, noxious case of dreary déjà vu, and I only had to stomach one of the supposedly great eight. Sitting through something like Unrest seven more times would have indeed been something to die for. And as much as I consider the concept, spending my last day on Earth watching lame scary movies is not how I envisioned my death. Eaten by some squirrels, on the other hand…

Unrest1.5 out of 5

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November 9th, 2006 6:31PM

Okay, let's get a few things straight right up front. This is NOT the funniest movie of 2006, not by a big, bad long shot. That award goes to Clerks II, with Kevin Smith's scripted genius acting as a far more astute commentary on our 'culture' than an improvising pigeon English shock comic. Hell, this isn't even the funniest mock documentary of recent years. That title would go to Lollilove, Jenna Fischer's brilliant dissection of celebrity denseness and misapplied charitable principles. There are more laughs in said film's first 15 minutes than in the entirety of Sacha Baron Cohen's one-trick pig and pony act. Anyone whose dared argue that, somehow, Borat is one of the wickedest satires ever foisted on the public in the past decade obviously didn't see the psychotically brilliant South Park film. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, noted for consistently delivering the comedy goods on their sensational TV cartoon classic, took nearly every genre of cinema to task in their twisted animated musical, and proved unquestionably that one could actually laugh until it hurt.

These statements are not meant to beat up on Borat or its creator, the obviously talented Cohen. But the truth about this film really does exist somewhere between the pre-release excitement and the actual execution. This is a very uneven motion picture, with long pauses in between the choice chuckles. The opening of the movie is wonderful, setting up the dreamlike world of the phony Kazakhstan that our main character supposedly lives in. Minor moments with the town rapist, the angry neighbor, and Borat's battleaxe of a wife linger longer than confrontational scenes between the character and obviously uncomfortable social stooges. Part of the humor Cohen taps into is that standard surprise material that Johnny Knoxville and his skater stunt rat pals have been milking for almost a decade. In fact, a great deal of Borat feels like Jackass with an agenda. Had those infamous foolhardy fellows created a narrative for their two big screen efforts in which they travel around America getting to know the real country, perhaps they'd be labeled as the next Peter Sellers, instead of knocked as a bunch of testosterone and liquor fueled losers.

And what of that constant comparison to Britain's late great method madman? It seems really naïve to argue for Cohen's place alongside one of the acknowledged greats of comedy when he can barely hold character throughout the film. His Borat changes constantly, altered to fit the mood of the situation and the tone of the response. This may work when comedy is involved, but as an actor, Cohen has a long ways to go to match Sellers in style, substance – and most importantly, subtlety. This is not to say that the movie is a bomb. In fact, it's one of 2006's most light-hearted and warm surprises. It's just not the greatest, most daring, or controversial film in the history of humor. At the time, Blazing Saddles, with its overt racism, was far more scandalous. Besides, Cohen's jokes are just recycled Woody Allen bits (Jews with horns) amplified by unnecessary repetition. Borat works when the material stays away from the dopey (the singing of the mash up US/supposed Kazakhstan national anthem) or the dumbfounding (two grown men wrestling naked is not cutting edge, it's merely scatological slapstick). A scene revolving around a "p**sy magnet" is much funnier than any trip to a Christian revivalist meeting.

As a matter of fact, Borat suffers from some of the same problems that face most motion picture comedies today. Wit is never applicable universally – someone's joke is another man's misery. There will be those who immediately take to what Cohen is doing and declare it to be the revolutionary work that current critical support suggests. On the other hand, there will be those (myself included) who don't simply buy everything in the film and cast a jaundiced eye on many of the movies more infamous moments. Could Cohen really tackle Pamela Anderson like he does without working up something "in advance" with the former Baywatch beauty? Did the high society dinner party people really call the police after their foreign guest tried to give the hostess his bowel movement in a bag? Why did the driving instructor seem so hip and into his sequence while the Atlanta hotel seemed absolutely stunned that someone like Borat would want to check in? Its part and parcel for a film that's overall dichotomy suggests the reasons for its success as well as the issues that keep it so insular. While I know I will probably need a crate of gypsy tears to protect me from the blogger backlash in the making, I stand by my convictions. Borat is a decent film. It is not, however, the shape of things to come…I hope.

6.5 out of 10

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Blood Bath
November 2nd, 2006 11:34PM

The power of gore…a thing some deplore…cleaning my soul. Nothing gives a grue-loving horror fan like myself a bigger jaundiced jolt than a movie that promises buckets and barrels of blood and then actually delivers in dynamic, drenching deluges. Usually, those of us with a craving for claret have to wait for the ubiquitous "unrated director's cut" DVD of a cinematic scarefest to get our fair share of sluice, especially with the MPAA's determination to snip and clip anything remotely repugnant out of the theatrical experience. Even the hardest "R"s – films like Hostel, etc. – are trimmed of excessive elements to make the parental replacement guardians of generic taste happy. As a result, your film is more easily marketable, especially if you can dry it down to a thoroughly antithetical PG-13. That's why home video has become the safe haven for those of us desperate for decapitations, delighted by disemboweling, and happy whenever a body is hacked, hobbled or otherwise torn into a thousand tasty morsels.

I know, it makes me sound sick, but I don't buy into the psychological dictum that argues for the universal effects of violence on the human consciousness. Will viewing excess splatter cause some people to snap, turning their attentions unnaturally to things dark and disturbing. Absolutely. Should it keep more levelheaded individuals like myself from seeing a good old fashioned zombie gut grinder? Hell friggin' no! Certainly, desensitization and the notion of becoming blasé to massive bloodletting are important ideas for study, but if I'm going to a movie about axe murders, blades better be cleaving skulls. Without the gore, what's the point? That's why I'm so shocked and amazed that Saw III managed to make it into the local Cineplex with so much of its splashy arterial spray intact. It is safe to say that those who'd rather not witness the systematic dismantling of the human carcass should avoid this film at all costs. This is a movie where rib cages are ripped open, arms and legs are twisted in two, and heads are opened so that full blown brain surgery can be viewed in complete disturbing detail.

Credit has to go to the Saw savants Leigh Whannel and James Wan for continuing the carnage they created so successfully with the original Saw. Somehow, they managed to get Darren Lynn Bousman on board as well. After helming the good, if somewhat generic Saw II, the second time is clearly the charm for this directorial newbie. He gets into the splatter spirit early and often. What's particularly fulfilling, especially in light of all the wonderfully disgusting Jigsaw puzzle setpieces in the film, is how rounded and deep the narrative is. Almost all the characters, from serial killer in training Amanda (Shawnee Smith bringing it once again) to desperate, disconnected doctor Lynn go through some major mental changes during the course of the story, and Bousman allows the movie to meander to provide such a potent underscoring. Also, unlike other franchise films, Saw III actually makes an effort to incorporate elements we saw in the first two installments to keep the overall concepts linked and truly fascinating. Considering the way the film ends, it will be interesting to see how Saw IV (yes, it's already tagged for Halloween 2007) keeps the series stable.

This is definitely not a film for all fright fans, however. As a matter of fact, anyone who thinks the original Saw pushed the limits of atrocity acceptability ain't about to cotton to III's numerous nauseating moments. Watching someone smash their own foot into a pliable pulpy mess, witnessing a 'game participant' pierced through several parts of his body, including an incomparably large bull hook through his chin, observing maggot-ridden dead pigs being 'food processed' into a torturous goo, are just a few of the foul moments in a film filled with such lunch launching inducements. Other MPAA addled moviemakers should get themselves a copy of the Saw III cut to argue for their own onscreen splatter. There are facets of this flick that, in retrospect, still cause my jaw to drop. With so many Indie filmmakers promising the pus but completely unable to deliver, it's wonderful to see a legitimate mainstream offering bringing the bile. Saw III may not be the scariest, or most successful horror film ever made, but if you're looking for your pound of fright fan flesh, you'll get a nice craven corpse-full with this shockingly sick flick.

7.5 out of 10

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October 24th, 2006 12:17AM

Sometimes, it's hard for a critic to sum up his or her feelings about a film. It usually occurs on those rare occasions – and they are indeed few and far between – when a movie literally makes you forget all the reasons why you are viewing – and eventually reviewing it - in the first place. The narrative catches you completely off guard, the plotting provides more intrigue and enjoyment than you could have possibly imagined. Even better, the themes and emotional underpinnings which motivate the expertly drawn characters are so involving and deep that, before you know it, you've completely forgotten about deadlines, word count and being a clever cinematic scholar. All you care about is the spellbinding experience in front of you. This is indeed what happened to me as I settled in to take on Christopher Nolan's latest mindblowing masterwork, The Prestige. After 135 minutes of nearly flawless filmmaking, it is safe to say that I had lost all concept of critical impartiality. This film is, without a doubt, one of 2006's greatest artistic achievements.

Nolan, a motion picture non-entity nine years ago when he arrived on the scene with his whimsical short Doodlebug, argues for his place among the seemingly small class of post-modern, post-millennial auteurs with this fascinating, finely tuned effort. With only five full length feature films under his belt – 1998's Following, 2000's Memento, 2002's Insomnia, 2005's Batman Begins and now The Prestige – this amazingly gifted Brit continues to baffle as well as make believers out of fans who just can't figure out how he does it. Before he came along, the murder mystery was seen as an old fashioned b-movie subject. But Memento's backwards narrative audacity avoided obvious gimmickry to redefine the genre and become an exceptionally fine film. Similarly, big budget superhero movies were a dime a couple dozen in the free-spending Hollywood of the last decade, and yet Nolan managed to make Batman viable again by positing The Dark Knight with a real and recognizable psychological underpinning. The result? One of last year's best efforts.

And now we have The Prestige. How does one begin to describe how delicate and demanding this movie is? How to be respectful without resorting to full bore film geek love. It is safe to say that the remarkable ensemble cast that Nolan compiles – including award worthy turns from Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine and, believe it or not, David Bowie – is matched in majesty only by the brilliant script adaptation that the director and his screenwriting brother Jonathan carved out of Christopher Priest's prized novel. This is not a film about how certain tricks are accomplished (though we do learn a few secrets along the way), nor is it merely the tale of an increasingly antagonist rivalry between two talented magicians. Instead, The Prestige takes its title literally, asking us to believe in the power that stature and esteem has over two dark, desperate men, to witness how far both will go to achieve it for themselves…and more importantly, prevent it from happening for the other. The plot is complex, weaving in and out of obsession, doubt, ovations and despair. In Nolan's completely capable hands, what could have been muddled or melodramatic is monumental – and quite moving.

This is indeed the kind of experience one goes to the movies for. It's escape, but not the pure popcorn and eye candy kind. Like a rich meal or a decedent desert, The Prestige is the kind of motion picture meal you savor, a movie that requires your utmost indulgence to deliver maximum satisfaction. If a cutthroat competition between two incredibly multifaceted men that skips across time and place to deliver its layers of intrigue and eventual decisive denouements leaves you cold, if you would rather see a pretty period piece, unevenly executed and lacking a real feel for the era in question, then by all means avoid The Prestige and pick out something else to spend your hard earned leisure lira on. But if you don't mind a test, if you're up for experiencing the sights, the smells, and the sensations of a turn of the century world, if brilliant acting by performers getting completely lost in their characters fills you with the kind of cinematic joy that's rare in this pre-packaged and focus grouped entertainment environment, then this is the film for you. It is indeed rare when a movie can make your forget the very reasons why you came to the theater in the first place. Like all the elements that make up this stellar motion picture, it is all part of The Prestige's amazing magic.

9.5 out of 10

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Crime Time
October 17th, 2006 5:15PM

Was there ever really a doubt? Who out there in the wild world of film fandom actually thought Martin Scorsese, master of the crime drama, would thoroughly screw this concept up? Come on. Take your punishment. Raise your pathetic little hands and be recognized. Sure, the man behind Goodfellas and Mean Streets may be vulnerable when it comes to bombastic biopics or violence-riddled period pieces, but back on his home turf, the sordid underworld of crooks and the corruptible, he's just plain magic. Rag on Casino all you want, but nothing this stellar director did created the void left by Sharon Stone and various underdeveloped ancillary characters. No, The Departed proves conclusively that, when surrounded by a stellar cast capable of completely understanding what this master is after, with the added ability of being able to channel it all through their own unique perspective, filmic fireworks are the result. This is, without a doubt, one of 2006's best movies, another milestone for a man whose career path is paved with such accolades.

Unlike the neo-postmodern motion picture, which paints its important facets with cinematic fluorescents and then repeats the patently obvious points until their rote in our rattle brains, The Departed is a narrative full of the subtlest of suggestions. Crucial connections are merely hinted at, major motivation locked beneath well-crafted dialogue and even more effective performance. Every single actor here is magnificent, each proving why they continually rake in the big bucks whenever Tinsel Town feels they need a basic box office guarantee. As Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson has a disheveled look about him that just screams old world rogue. Even when he's twisting ideas over in his cunning little noggin, you can see the decades of power and control crossing his cragged face. Matt Damon and Leonardo DeCaprio both offer career defining turns, using their own unique brand of individual wholesomeness to underscore the dire desperation each character exists in.

As usual, flying around the edges are perfect supporting turns by Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg. They all invest The Departed with a gravitas that elevates the occasionally pulpish material above the typical good cop/bad cop shtick. But this is really Scorsese's film, a reinvention of his typical operatic mob mannerisms. Gone are many of his most artistic ploys – the diving and swooping camera, the endless tracking shots, the cutting of scenes to the beat of some well-known rock song – and in their place is a new sense of restraint, a desire to let the narrative, not the nuances, tell the story. Again, how faithful the filmmaker is to the original Hong Kong trilogy is beyond my comprehension, and frankly, after seeing this mesmerizing adaptation, I'm not sure if I ever want to see the source. Scorsese paints such a perfect picture, giving each and every facet of the complex plot room to breath or betray, that to see it done a different way would just be confusing. From the opening introduction of Costello as he shakes down a local grocer to the rooftop finale where everything is resolved without being resolute, we are in the hands of a moviemaking master.

If there is a single flaw in this otherwise faultless film it is the decision to release it in October. Too far away from Oscar to make the necessary critical dent, but left out of a summer where it could clearly shine, Hollywood needs to understand that these are the kind of movies that fans really want. Even the best that the blockbuster season had to offer couldn't hold a single celluloid candle to what The Departed has to offer. Sadly, by the time the Academy is set to vote, the gangster goodness Scorsese provides, and the acting that certifies his skills, will be lost in a pool of hype, happenstance and narrow sighted hubris. The rest of the films arriving this fall and winter will have a ways to go to dethrone The Departed. For my money, this is a great movie, and continuing proof that creativity, not ad campaigns or test screenings, deliver stunning entertainment results. Thankfully, craftsman like Martin Scorsese are still allowed to work their wonders on the wounded soul of the cinema. Without artists like him, all would be lost.

9 out of 10

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Hatchet Job
October 11th, 2006 10:07AM

The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie is so desperate to create some indelible horror imagery that it forgets everything else that's required of a standard big screen movie macabre. It avoids providing characters or situations we can care about – or at the very least, can imagine ourselves involved in. It promises a backstory for one of the most famous fiends in all of movie history – the power tool wielding Leatherface – and ends up reducing him to a credit sequence montage profile of a typical serial killer. It gives R. Lee Ermey so many worthless one liners that he ends up becoming a dingy and decrepit redneck Freddy Krueger, and the rest of the newly named Hewitt family (what was wrong with the original Sawyer moniker, huh?) are all rube archetypes looking for a place to plant their pointless existence. Of the recent rash of terror remakes, violence porn and PG-13 putridness, this massively lame prequel is one of the worst examples of mainstream monster moviemaking since a bunch of babes went spelunking with angry albinos.

It's a shame, really. The 2003 Michael Bay produced revamp had a lot of aficionado angst piled up against it, and yet talented director Marcus Nispel managed to pull it off with a gruesome Grand Guignol majesty that made sense in our 'anything's possible' post-millennial world. Between the opening suicide (and its clever accompanying through-the-head pullback shot) to the moment where one character learns what it's like to literally be a lamb to the slaughter, Recreate Saw wasn't interested in being anything other than a balls to the wall work of unbridled brutality. It didn't care if you enjoyed the narrative – the blood and body parts were gonna fly anyway. This piddling prequel tries to keep up with the 2003 gore score, but can't get to first base when it comes to delivering anything remotely entertaining. Sure, some may say that this is not the purpose of such a cinematic effort. Death and dismemberment are not supposed to be amusing. While that's true, movies are made to be diversions for an audience. If they really believe that viewers want violence without context, there would be spectator seats in every abattoir in town.

The big problem here is focus. We are supposed to see how Thomas Hewitt became the skin-peeling pervert who used the faces of others to cover his own crippled features. But this is really the birth of Sheriff Hoyt more than it is anything else. Ermey is given the majority of the scenes, lines, exposition and most importantly, dimensional development. This non-cop goes from bumpkin to sadistic badass at the drop of a narrative necessity, and never stops snacking on the scenery from thereon in. The rest of the Hewitt house is populated with the previously seen trailer trash family, including an Uncle who gets some homespun surgery, a mother who switches over to the dark side quicker than a certain Skywalker, and that incredibly obese gal whose sole scene is a bad fat joke. As Whoeverface sulks around the basement filleting our Vietnam-bound hero, pointless conversations and illogical situations are playing out above. Poor Lee Tergesen is reduced to a couple of lines as he takes the scenic route – read: long, unnecessary walking scenes – to reach his predetermined fate. Indeed, this is a major flaw in the film. Since we know WHO will survive to show up a few years later, there is no suspense here.

In fact, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning has obviously been crafted for cretins who've never seen a horror movie before. We are supposed to feel dread when a just-fired Tommy shows up in the slaughterhouse boss's office with a sledgehammer in hand. Instead, we realize what's going to happen minutes before the characters do. When the army boy's babe is hiding under a truck, waiting for a free moment to flee, the ground level camera angle is just asking for a pair of sinister boots to saunter by. Even the ending, asks us to believe that a big behemoth of a man, stinking of blood and human remains and probably a good decade away from his last bath, could sneak into a small space – unheard and un-smelled – and work his Black and Decker death dance on someone. Yeah…RIGHT! With a final shot that tries to instill an aesthetic visual elegy on all we've seen occur (and only achieving about 5% of the 1974 original's amazing 'Dance of Death') The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a bad movie made even worse by its way too ambitious goals. Try as it might, it just can't achieve the timeless quality of its cinematic source, nor can it compete with its own recent revival. Even an unimaginably evil entity like Leatherface deserves a better backstory than this one.

1.5 out of 10

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Cut and Waste
September 26th, 2006 11:02AM

Here is what Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia is not. It is NOT a movie about the infamous Los Angeles murder of wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short. No, that heinous crime with its Hollywood Babylon imagery is merely a shuttled aside subplot that barely gets narrative recognition until the final 15 minutes of the story. It is also not a crackerjack look at California corruption ala LA Confidential. Indeed, one would not be remiss in calling this inconsequential effort an overreaching retread. The Black Dahlia is also not Brian DePalma's worst work. That title is still reserved for Raising Cain, or perhaps Mission to Mars. As a matter of fact, in many significant ways, this is a revivalist retro return to form. All throughout the near two hours of overdone plotting, DePalma offers up recognizable highlights of his four decades behind the camera. It's like a visual greatest hits package, referencing everything from Murder A La Mod to Scarface. Even through the occasionally mannered acting and the lack of any real secure cinematic focus, DePalma's lens never lets him down.

Of course, this also means that The Black Dahlia is not a wholly successful effort. As a matter of fact, it hardly even comes close. It is a lax drama, a slight suspense effort and a thoroughly uninteresting mystery. There is nothing present of Ellroy's hard-boiled dialogue – as channeled by Josh Freidman's incessantly convoluted script – or in the human dynamic between the characters to get us rooting for either vengeance or vindication. Short, positioned like a Greek chorus ghost inside an investigation that really doesn't care what she has to say, comes across as an unsympathetic combination of fragile and floozy, a victim with her eventual fate written right across her about to be abused façade. While the manner in which DePalma introduces us to the material is quite novel (one of those operatic, strategically staged set pieces that the director does so well), the rest of her case is a combination of whodunit and who cares.

Another problem plaguing The Black Dahlia is its lack of likeable, or even dramatically recognizable, characters. Leads Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson are the worst kind of narrative placeholders – individuals elevated to the status of human exposition engines, employed only when the story needs another subplot, or an additional tidbit to push us over into the next knotty situation. As Short, Mia Kirshner is given very little to do except play off of DePalma's 'screen test' gag – open eyes glued to the camera as if she can somehow pass her entire soul through its carefully ground glass. Acquitting themselves quite nicely are Josh Harnett (who could easily play Dick Tracy, should a studio find a need to revisit that classic carton character – and Warren Beatty effort – anytime soon) and Hilary Swank, though the two time Oscar winner is more vocal inflection than three dimensional diva. With a supporting cast that never optically updates the period piece parameters, and a few flashy outbursts of filmic flair, DePalma had some appealing elements at play.

All noir novelty aside however, The Black Dahlia ends up deteriorating just when it should be building up a heady helping of sleazy suspense. Ellroy obviously relishes the crooked realities of 1940s LA, and had Freidman found a way to make all the scattered pieces fit together like a fine tuned murder mystery mechanism, we'd have yet another example of post-modern moviemaking bettering the almost unbeatable days of Tinsel Town past. But even with all its visual panache and big budget details, what we actually end up with is five different stories all struggling for recognition. None of them end well, a couple complicate matters more than they help, and in the end, we feel like the best aspect of the narrative – the vivisection death of a less than innocent female – has been relegated to an annoying afterthought. After years of hoping for a real return to his sensational '70s glory days, DePalma fans will simply have to wait. The Black Dahlia is not a black mark on the talent track record of anyone involved. Yet with such a potentially powerful story, it should have been something very special.

6 out of 10

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August 21st, 2006 4:26PM

Snakes on a Plane is the missing badass cousin of the original kitschy Airport films from the '70s. It's the unapologetically more professional big brother of all those lame Sci Fi Channel originals featuring oversized crickets and killer amoeba. It's neither the camp classic the Internet hype machine hoped it would be, nor is it the balls to the walls actioner the studios were striving for. Instead, it's a perfect example of the Zen popcorn experience, offering as much goofball yin as cinematic yang. Expertly set up, with a nice drawn out opening that establishes the all important character dynamic, and enough slam bam set pieces to keep us blood and guts buffs ecstatic, this is one of the best balanced films of the entire summer. You're never left wanting as you experience this high concept hoopla. There is just enough of everything that makes an entertaining time at the movies. Heck there's even some additional elements inserted into the narrative just to appease the genre addicts in the audience.

While we will never know how Ronny Yu would have approached this material (his unrated Freddy vs. Jason is a horror fan's fantasy), it is safe to say that director David R. Ellis really stepped up and delivered here. He makes excellent use of the limited space on the aircraft, does a wonderful job of opening up the storyline with the entire FBI/snake expert scenario, and gets his stellar cast to tread lightly between cliché and cleverness for just the right amount of three-dimensional dynamic. Sure, some may grouse about the CGI (frankly, it didn't bother me in the least) and a few of the death F/X look hampered by MPAA demanded cuts (can't wait for the Snakes on a Plane: Unrated DVD in a few months). Still, this is the kind of movie that makes sitting in a theater with a group of like minded moviegoers so much fun. All throughout the running time, the audience I saw it with was laughing, clapping and grooving right along with the action on screen. Ellis had them from the very first moments, and once the reptiles made their appearance, we all simply sat back and bathed in the pulse-pounding Pavlovian pleasures.

Frankly, it's hard to see what people HATE about this film. Granted, it is not perfect. It doesn't try to transcend its b-movie trappings and turn into something other than what it is. But with a title like Snakes on a Plane, it is hard to imagine what they could have been expecting. This isn't meant to be a serious Die Hard like action film, nor is it trying to reinterpret the look and feel of the disaster films from three decades past, ala Poseidon. You go in expecting m******king snakes on a m******king plane, and that's what you get – lots of them, in ever more clever death wielding circumstances. Like the best of the Friday the 13th slasher films, Snakes finds creative ways to put the bite on its victims. No body part is safe, which naturally leads to some very funny dialogue, and the make-up work creates some disgusting, wounds and venom results. With Samuel L. Jackson running around spouting memorable, quotable lines, first rate performances by Julianna Margulies, Kenan Thompson and Sunny Mabrey, and the proper equilibrium between realism and the ridiculousness, we have a wholly realized, expertly handled horror film.

It's just too bad about all the pop culture carnival barking. New Line may have thought it hit pre-hype gold when Internet dorks began piling on the film like it was a video of some chick dancing on YouTube, but in my opinion, it ruined its chances at being a surefire summer blockbuster. Sure, Jackson can be proud that fans felt such a kinship with him as an onscreen icon that they would support his decisions and cries for a more R-rated rollercoaster experience (which, frankly, should not even be an issue – PG13 is KILLING the traditional motion picture macabre), and it's clear that had this movie been cut for a more inclusive demographic the result would have been a massive pile of PC crap. But the minute the web got a hold of this title, New Line just stopped caring. They thought the various technological avenues would translate into ticket sales. Instead of letting critics see it in advance, touting it to the mainstream film fan, and avoiding much of the overall geek feeling, they let the nerd direct the shilling. The result is a movie that may never be seen by the people who'd appreciate it the most. Guaranteed to be one of the biggest DVD releases/rentals when it finally hits stores, Snakes on a Plane could have walked away with the summer turnstile championship. It will have to settle for being one of the best overall entertainments of the season.

8.5 out of 10

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