LEAVES OF GRASS (2009) / Comedy-Drama

Running Time: 105 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violence, pervasive language, and drug content.

Cast: Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Melanie Lynskey, Josh Pais
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Producer: First Look Studios
Screenplay: Tim Blake Nelson

Edward Norton (Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk) stars in Tim Blake Nelson’s darkly funny Leaves of Grass as twin brothers Bill and Brady Kincaid. (Yes, he plays both.) The film opens with each brother giving a lecture on what he knows best. Bill is a professor at Brown University; Brady is a pot farmer in rural Oklahoma. Because of this cultural difference, Bill has chosen to remain distant from his family – that is, until he receives a phone call informing him that Brady has been killed in a crossbow accident. “They’re inexplicably popular where I come fom,” he says.

So, Bill is beckoned back to Oklahoma to attend his brother’s funeral, but upon his arrival, he learns that Brady is not dead. In fact, he’s very much alive and very much in debt to drug lord Pug Rothbaum (Richard Dreyfuss, Silver City). If he doesn’t pay up soon, there’s a good chance that he will be dead. All that he needs is Bill’s assistance…

Leaves of Grass doesn’t look like much on the outside, but don’t let that fool you. It’s actually quite good, thanks to Norton’s fabulous dual-performance and Tim Blake Nelson’s twisty screenplay. Norton gives each brother their own voice patterns and mannerisms, almost making it seem like they are two entirely different people. The fact that he plays both makes it all the more interesting. And Nelson’s screenplay is riddled with wonderfully poetic dialogue and clever plot twists. The jarring tonal shifts are likely to leave the audience displeased, but they are necessary.

Excluding Dreyfuss, Keri Russell, and Tim Blake Nelson himself, the supporting performances are subpar. Susan Sarandon is flat a majority of her screen time, Lucy DeVito is annoying, and Amelia Campbell is not believable for a second of her screen time, even though her role could be considered a cameo. Josh Pais has his moments, but he consistently overacts, and Melanie Lynskey’s accent is despairingly unrealistic. A lot of this could be contributed to Tim Blake Nelson’s faulty direction. As a writer, his scripts are solid, but his directing could use a bit of work.

Leaves of Grass is not a film for everyone. Many will find how Nelson shifts from comedy to graphic violence upsetting and off-putting as they should, but for those that can handle these tonal shifts, the film is an enjoyable and oddly entertaining experience. The scenes may not transition well from one to the other, but by themselves they are somewhat magical.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

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Review: DARK CITY (R)

Kiefer Sutherland plays a mad psychiatrist in the visually stunning "Dark City"

U.S. Release Date: February 27, 1998

Running Time: 100 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Violence, nudity)

Cast: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, John Bluthal

Director: Alex Proyas

Producers: Alex Proyas, Andrew Mason

Screenplay: Alex Proyas, David S. Goyer, Lem Dobbs

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / October 21, 2011

If there’s one good thing that I can say about Dark City, it’s that it has some of the best visual effects I’ve ever seen. The editing is utterly phenomenal, the direction is stunning and well-paced, and the film as a whole is just decidedly well-made. For the eyes, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. For the ears, eh… Not so much.

The film opens with an introduction from mad scientist Dr. Daniel Schreber, played with utmost lunacy by actor Kiefer Sutherland. He describes the world we are about to see and what goes on in said word. Then we move on to the dimly-lit bathroom of a ominous hotel.

A naked bulb swings from the ceiling. A man (Rufus Sewell) awakens in a bathtub, naked as well. He doesn’t know who he is, why here’s here or what he’s doing.  Immediately, he receives a call from Dr. Schreber informing him that a group of men, known as “Strangers”, are after him. Schreber also informs him that he is John Murdoch, and is wanted for the murder of several women. After a close encounter with danger, he escapes the hotel, trying to find the meaning behind many things. Like why he remembers so fondly this place called Shell Beach. Like why he has psychokinetic powers that resemble those of the men that are after him. Like why he is wanted for murder, although he can’t ever remember killing anyone.

Already, you get the general jist of Dark City. It’s one of those amnesia-related thrillers that hit the cinema every so often.  It’s undoubtedly one of the best-looking films out there, but what it lacks is substance.

First off, most of the scenes involving the “Strangers” are ludicrous. At the beginning of Dark City, we’re expecting something totally different than what it becomes. Proyas sets us up to believe we’re gonna be watching a handsomely-made noir. That’s not at all what we get. Instead, we get huge cult-like gatherings that take place underground between alien parties. We get a fight sequence that resembles something out of  a “Dragonball Z” cartoon. People get sucked into space. A predictable and cliched ending.

Alright, so a little ridiculousness I can handle. But Dark City goes out of the realm of ridiculousness, past the gates of far-fetched, and becomes just stupid. With twenty minutes left to go in the film, I said “Enough!” How can something start off so good and end so bad? And sure, maybe this is the kind of film that Proyas intended to create. In fact, I’m sure he did. But it’s not the kind of film I intend to like.

There’s only one thing that can save Dark City from being bad and that is just the general look of it. Like I stated before, the visuals are magnificent. The production design is wonderfully reminiscent of classic film noir. Dark City seems to take place in the future, but the design scheme suggests otherwise. Part of me wants to like Dark City; the other part wants to hate it. I think that it’s a good film, but everything just unravels in the most absurd way.

I suspect that most fans of science-fiction will be astounded by the brilliance presented in Dark City. Science-fiction can be done right, but Dark City just isn’t my kind of film. It’s just completely unbelievable and in the end, fairly unoriginal.

RATING: 2.5/4

Review: RED (R)

Brian Cox has one of the best performances of his career in "Red."

U.S. Release Date: August 8, 2008

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Brian Cox, Tome Sizmore, Kim Dickens, Noel Fisher, Robert Englund, Amanda Plummer, Shiloh Fernandez

Directors: Trygve Allister Diesen, Lucky McKee

Producers: Trygve Allister Diesen, Steve Blair, Norman Dreyfuss

Screenplay: Steven Susco, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / October 16, 2011

Red is both an endearing drama and an intense thriller, and what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for with pure and genuine heart.

The story is simple, really. The hero, Avery Ludlow (Brian Cox), is fishing with his dog and best friend, Red, when a couple of teenagers happen upon them. The conversation starts off friendly but changes as the teens begin to demand money. Eventually, they take it upon themselves to shoot and kill Red with a shotgun. Naturally, this act of violence mentally dismantles Ludlow. He’s lost his only friend, and for no good reason, too. What did he–or Red–do to deserve it? Nothing. Nothing at all.

So, Ludlow takes it upon himself to track down the home of the boy who did the killing. He visits with the father (Tom Sizemore) and tells him about his son’s actions. The father is in shock, but doesn’t quite doubt it. Perhaps he doesn’t want to believe it. He calls in Danny, his son, and asks him about the shooting. Danny denies the incident, denies ever seeing Ludlow, and the father asks Ludlow to leave.

Following this meeting, Ludlow files a lawsuit against the family. He doesn’t mean to cause a scene; he just wants the truth, and won’t rest until he gets it. The story delves into much, much more, wrestling with many different themes. One that sticks out is the desensitization of violence in the modern world. The boys kill Red without any real reason, and as callous as the act is, it doesn’t affect them, so they could care less.

Another theme that is very prevalent here is what happens when a parent believes anything that their child says. You’ve all seen this before in the real world. Parents who think that their children are angels are typically misled, for their children are usually entirely different people not around them. When Mr. McCormack, the father, is confronted with the question of whether or not his child killed the dog, he immediately takes up his kid, rather than taking the question into consideration. And he sticks by this the entire rest of the film. Sometimes you just have people that are willing to risk a lot more than what it would take if they would just admit their wrongdoings.

Of course, the most attractive things about Red is the lead performance from Brian Cox, who plays the character of Ludlow with such mesmerizing subtlety.  He delivers his dialogue so honestly that you get the sense that you’re looking into the heart of most middle-aged men nowadays. So often these are the kinds of performances that people brush aside. Sure, you may not think Cox’s performance is especially brilliant, but wait until a scene involving a darkly-lit room and a slow camera zoom. You’ll be stunned.

RATING: 3/4

Review: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (PG-13)

Led by Andy Serkis, the apes take their revenge against the human race.

U.S. Release Date: August 5, 2011

Running Time: 105 minutes

MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Language, mild violence)

Cast: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based upon La planete des singes by Pierre Boulle

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / October 10, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not necessarily a bad movie; just an uninspired one. It brings nothing new to the table. Sure, maybe this just isn’t my kind of movie, and I’d agree with that, but I don’t think that my rating is utterly wrong.

You’ll see from the movie posters that it stars James Franco. He’s been the main one getting a lot of praise. But while watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you’ll soon realize that it doesn’t really star him at all. In fact, it stars Andy Serkis as Caesar, the ape. Franco is barely in the movie at all.

I don’t think I need to get into the plot. It’s a prequel to The Planet of the Apes, so you know what to expect. Man treats the apes like crap, apes get back at man. It’s kind of like an allegory for slavery or the inhumane treatment of animals.

First off, I’d like to talk about the writing. Oh dear God, the writing. What a sorry and pitiful excuse for a script. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a script so cliched and predictable (Is this a Michael Bay film?). I mean, there’s even a scene that involves a playground where the bully of the block decides to take a go at the new kid. And it’s between two apes! Following a formula is not always a bad thing. Some movies actually require one. But you have to spice it up a little. You can’t just follow it verbatim. The number one failure of this film is the predictability of the script, not to mention the cheesy dialogue. I mean, I realize that this movie is about apes and has to be about them in order to work. But was it absolutely necessary to put them in human situations? I understand that they all “super genius” monkeys, but I couldn’t take any of it seriously. It was stupid.

As for the direction, Rupert Wyatt doesn’t really do anything different. It’s the same stuff we’ve seen over and over again and it doesn’t get any better or more creative. The special effects are fine, but nothing nearly as great as you’ve been led to believe. This is the kind of movie that relies on good visuals to make its money back at the box office and they just don’t really cut it, especially since the rest of the movie is bland.

A redeeming quality was the performance from Serkis, who is used to playing characters like this. The movie theater crowds can barely even associate his name with a (human) face. He does great here, really making us think that we’re watching a live monkey. It’s not likely, but there’s a chance he might get nominated for an Oscar.

At the end, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is cheesy, cliched, and filled with unintentional laughs. Don’t see it unless you’re a die-hard fan of the series. And even then, still don’t.

RATING: 1.5/4

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992) / Drama

Running Length: 100 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language.

Cast: Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce
Director: James Foley
Producers: Jerry Torkofsky, Stanley R. Zupnik
Screenplay: David Mamet (based upon his play)

Glengarry Glen Ross is a work of considerable feat; a riveting drama and in-depth character study driven entirely by dialogue. There are no fancy tricks or crafty maneuvers to get around the matter-at-hand. The writer, David Mamet, does not avoid confrontation: he fills every single second with hard-edged dialogue, and the actors that speak these words are so natural and realistic in their delivery that you get the sense that you’re looking at what really happens “behind the scenes.”

The story is set in and around a real estate office. There are four employees: Shelley Levine (Jack Lemmon), Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), Dave Moss (Ed Harris), and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin). As of late, sales have been down, so a man named Blake (played by Alec Baldwin) is sent to “motivate” the employees by announcing that within one week, the two salesmen that have the least amount of sales for that month will be fired. The two that manage to stay on top will be granted access to the more promising Glengarry leads.

Naturally, the employees are shocked by the news. Levine, who hasn’t been so hot of lately, tries to bribe the manager, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), to give him some of the Glengarry leads, but Williamson refuses. Moss tells to Aaronow of a plan to rob the office and sell the leads to another agency, but Aaronow doesn’t want a part in it.

Mamet’s script doesn’t hide or cover anything up. He tells it like it is, and the truth isn’t so easy to handle. We watch what goes on in the sales office, all of the mud-slinging and underhandedness that occurs. The Jack Lemmon character, Shelley, is desperate when he needs Williamson’s help, but curses and belittles him once he’s sure he’s on the safe side.

Like stated before, the acting here is flawless and the casting is just spot-on. Al Pacino stands out as Ricky Roma (the same role that won Joe Mantegna a Tony Award in the play version). Roma is the most level-headed (and conceited) of the four: he’s the one that everyone looks to for advice, and he’s happy to give it. Moss and Aaronow are the two underdogs. Neither are too sure about their future with the company, so they’re the most likely to strike out against it. But the real, real talent here is Lemmon. He plays such a nasty and deceitful character, willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He may act like your friend one moment, but will turn on you with the snap of a finger when something doesn’t go his way. Lemmon fits the role perfectly. It’s unbelievable that he wasn’t at least nominated for an Academy Award.

Movies based solely on dialogue can often be uninteresting and boring, but Glengarry Glen Ross surprisingly whizzes right on by. It’s interesting to hear these characters talk, and as brutally and unflinchingly honest as it can be about the truth sometimes, you’re greatly intrigued about the outcome.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest