Archive for December, 2007

National Treasure:  Book of Secrets


The Review: 


National treasure: Book of Secrets at least gets the history right before its treasure turns out to be a watered-down piece of booty.  The same cast from the first movie plus the addition of Helen Mirren as Benjamin Gates mom (Nicholas Cage returns either laughing his way through the role or laughing all the way to the bank depending on your half-glass philosophy) goes through practically the same adventure.  In true Santayana fashion “those who can not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” forever in the sequels.  


The first National Treasure canoodled the American Revolution into a mildly entertaining The Da Vinci code spoof.  Book of Secrets schlumps the Civil War into dreck.   


The conspiracy this time around involves the Lincoln Assassination, a lost city of gold, what looks like ancient Native American dildos misinterpreted as treasure locations, two desks on different sides of the world and the real reason Mt. Rushmore was commissioned.  And that great MacGuffin, The  Book of Secrets which reveals the truth about the Kennedy assassination, the missing eighteen minutes of the Nixon tapes, the moon landing, Area 51 and all the other time holes of presidential history–  all this to redeem the good name of great granddaddy Gates from the muddiness of misattribution.


This is a serious spoof of a spoof which means the facts and plot turns don’t connect in any coherent or logical way, and the action except for one good car chase in London (this is a Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza after all) mainly grinds together in anticlimactic jolts.    Yes, the cast looks happy— they trapeze around the world and got well paid for it (hopefully, in confederate notes).


When half the cast start mysteriously slipping in and out of American and British and German accents there is a sense that a little too much self-medication at the complimentary set wet bar was taking place. Nicolas Cage does the lamest cockney accent ever put on film in one scene in a mock argument between his on and off again ex played by Diane Kreuger only half-disguising her German heritage.  Even Helen Mirren frequently reverts to uttering the Queen’s English.   


We haven’t seen method from Nicolas Cage in many a moon.  He has been too busy being these lame action idiots (Ghost Rider and Wicker Man). It may not even be in his genes anymore.  Does he really like the look of himself as an action figure that much?  


America never tires of conspiracy theories and treasure hunts, so National Treasure: Book of Secrets should be a big hit.  


For me, however, it gets a lost in time grade of C+. 


The Credits:

Directed by Jon Turteltaub; written by Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, based on a story by the Wibberleys, Greg Poirier, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, based on characters created by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv and Charles Segars; directors of photography, John Schwartzman and Amir Mokri; edited by William Goldenberg and David Rennie; music by Trevor Rabin; production designer, Dominic Watkins; produced by Mr. Turteltaub and Jerry Bruckheimer; released by Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.

WITH: Nicolas Cage (Ben Franklin Gates), Jon Voight (Patrick Gates), Harvey Keitel (Agent Sadusky), Ed Harris (Mitch Wilkinson), Diane Kruger (Abigail Chase), Justin Bartha (Riley Poole), Helen Mirren (Emily Appleton) and Bruce Greenwood (the President).

“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) for bloodless violence and mild innuendo.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

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Posted: December 30, 2007 in Movies


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


The Review:


It is just like Tim Burton to wrap up a bloody valentine as a Christmas present.   Sweeney Todd amps up the guignol and tones down the Stephen Sondheim musical.  It is a horror film done as a chamber piece—were revenge is the only joy and hope is imprisoned just when it takes flight. 


Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp with a shock streak of Bride of Frankenstein gray in his hair), formerly the barber Benjamin Barker, has just returned from an Australian penal colony after serving sixteen years on a trump charge because the magistrate Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman wearing a three o’clock shadow) desired Todd’s/Barker’s beautiful wife (the vocally radiant Laura Michelle Kelly, the only professional singer in the cast).  Lusting for revenge, Todd sets up shop in his old haunt still managed by Mrs. Lovett (the splendidly gothic Helena Bonham Carter still as pale as a corpse) who secretly pines for him.  A shave and a murder and the entrails of the victims baked in a meat pie become the specialty of the house—a little fun thing for Todd to do until the right moment of revenge presents itself.  


On Broadway the music provided a distance from all the grim going-ons.  The blood and violence were cantilevered into the stagecraft.  The crimson mess was over quickly, often before the opening bars of the next song were played– the blood becoming an intellectual point. 


With Burton it is the blood that sings and the music is just a thought bubble, an imperfect cry of the pained and dying.  The blood here has a pulsating vibrancy, a squishy almost feral look to it that provides an emotional shock whenever it is spilled.    In a London and a world burnt down to the texture of ash, this blood is the only color that lives.    The whole thing is about revenge— rage as the life force of the universe, bloody, raw, up close and extremely personal. 


Sondheim’s music filled with counterpoint and angular harmonies was strongly influenced by horror music maestro Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo and other Alfred Hitchcock films) and Sweeney Todd’s imagery and plot are littered with old Universal black and white horror movie echoes.   Usually performed full-throated (it is one of the few Sondheim musicals to gain Opera acceptance) Sweeney Todd can easily be downscaled and roughed up.   It performs better with actors who can sing a little bit rather than singers who can act.  


Burton (and Sondheim who had contractual approval over director and cast—Depp and Bonham Carter actually had to vocally audition before the master) knows this little secret.   The score was recorded first followed by the vocals, essentially locking in the screen performances months before shooting.  Casting Depp (in his sixth Burton movie) and Bonham Carter (Burton’s inamorata appearing in her fifth) just cut the rehearsal time.  


John Logan (Gladiator) with Sondheim’s help streamlined the libretto by cutting subplots and numbers not related to the revenge theme– turning Sweeney into less of an intellectual and more of an emotional musical, less of a play and more of a movie. 


Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd is an emotional force, a demon of rage. Vengeance is the only thing that resides in the fiery pit of his soul.  My friend, the love song Sweeney sings to his beloved razors is an atavistic dance between fetishism and blood yearning that ignores the possibility of love, in the form of Mrs. Lovett, standing directly in back of him and out of sight.  Depp’s tenor full of rage and heartbreak gets its perfect emotional moment before the yelping pain squelches everything.   


Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett gives Todd its tragedy.    Lovett is the counterpoint of hope that is constantly being squelched.  Bonham Carter’s singing voice is soft and sometimes tenuous—perfectly suited for a woman trying to find the right thing to say and do to turn a hard heart to love, but afraid of uttering and acting the wrong way.   Bonham Carter plays Lovett as a ghost, an echo of conscience that Sweeney barely can hear over all the other mad noises swirling in his brain.   


Burton keeps it intimate, and with the help of Dante Ferretti’s set design (that combines London into a sooty lump of coal—a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow black streets and shadowy low ceilings) and Dariusz Wolski’s darkly somber cinematography it all comes together with an unrelenting death grip.  This is the gothic tale Tim Burton was born to direct; the culmination of his happiest nightmare; the movie that has been in his head from his very first cinematic thought.


Sweeney Todd gets an A.  


The Credits:

Directed by Tim Burton; written by John Logan, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim; production designer, Dante Ferretti; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Mr. Logan; released by DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

WITH: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle), Sacha Baron Cohen (Pirelli), Jayne Wisener (Johanna), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope) and Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy/Beggar Woman).

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It’s not “Hairspray.”

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

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I’m not There (2007)


The Review:



Todd Haynes did a thorough deconstruction of the 1950’s Hollywood style in Far From Heaven.  Under the smooth golden light and all the coded tension he revealed the gay throbbing heart of all those Douglas Sirk melodramas.  The outing ditched the Hayes Codes, kept the pulp and in the process elevated a gentle satire to something greater than the original.


Likewise Haynes faux Bob Dylan biopic I’m not There uses style and poses to unmask our times ultimate stylist and poseur.   If it doesn’t really explain the original it is because the Grand Jester knows how to keep a good joke to himself.  If I’m not There isn’t a better Dylan it is just as interesting. 



Haynes and his co-scriptwriter Oren Moverman (Jesus’ Son) have created six Dylan reflections—four of them real, one historical, and one mythic-poetic.   Their perfectly dramatized stories, shot in the dominant style of their times (grainy 16mm color, Kodachrome, 35mm Panavision and Black and White) are intercut on the same plane, bump up to each other but never merge.


The mystic chords of the Dylan musical inheritance are bundled up in the eleven year old black Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin).  Guthrie is a mass of contradictions: a unionist zealot who is too young to work; a spouter of folksy wisdom who weeps homesick blues songs from his battered guitar; a runaway whose ever shifting lies never allow him to find a permanent home.  He is a bluff forever taking off for the nearest boxcar whenever someone gets a little to close to his secret.  Dylan’s own musical genes doom him to wandering and reinvention. 



And when the interrogation gets too close the reinvention begins.   The folk singer (an earnest Christian Bale) yields to the hipster poet (Ben Whishaw) when the anthems change nothing and the faithful question the lack of revolution; and when the establishment press digs close to the façade of the rock idol (Cate Blanchett) that utters gnomic code and lives the mod life in London with the Fab Four it yields to the Hollywood star (Heath Ledger) enduring a failed marriage and artistic malaise.  Even his alter ego character, Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) retreats when it’s Sheriff Pat Garrett demolishing the homestead in the name of progress.


Like a Dylan song I’m not There can mean everything and nothing.  All the biographical facts are there, and all the six stories and reflections refract with dramatic action and resolve themselves in traditional ways.  Everything points to meaning and moral points are thrown about like party confetti, but the dots don’t connect— just more riddles and questions.  I’m not There is biography as metafiction.  And Dylan, who easily acquiesced to the use of the music and his life incidentals is in keen agreement with Haynes little inside joke.   Think of it as six characters in search of an author.   Like modern art it is more about the feeling than the meaning.  


Cate Blanchett’s performance as the Dylan known as Jude Quinn is I’m not There’s crystal beating heart.   The post folk break Dylan shocked his followers with an electric ballad.  It was a transformation as radical as a sex change.  Haynes plays it for all its literalness– the thin dike in the black suit and tie with the spaghetti hair existing on bennies and cryptic attitude in the middle of rock n roll London becoming the stand-in for the eternal masculine-feminine, the Dylan stuck in the middle and in between the middle of everything, the chaos that comes before faith.


Blanchett plays her Dylan as a Mona Lisa smile.   There is a scene where Jude shares a taxi with John Lennon (that other Cheshire Cat of music) and an interrogator (Bruce Greenwood) where all the recondite rejoinders become the slapstick expression of all rock star attitudes.  When the two slap on black shades it become the first inside pop joke.  This isn’t just a dead on impression, it is great acting done with sunglasses and a laugh.             


I don’t know if Todd Haynes could do a great straight picture that isn’t dependent on synthesis for its effect— but he does make a great argument for the protean Dylan.   Without all the recreations there can be no great creation.   


I’m not There gets an A. 


The Credits:

Directed by Todd Haynes; written by Mr. Haynes and Oren Moverman, based on a story by Mr. Haynes; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by James D. Stern, John Sloss, John Goldwyn and Christine Vachon; released by the Weinstein Company. In Manhattan at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

WITH: Christian Bale (Jack/Pastor John), Cate Blanchett (Jude Quinn), Marcus Carl Franklin (Woody Guthrie), Richard Gere (Billy), Heath Ledger (Robbie), Ben Whishaw (Arthur Rimbaud), Kris Kristofferson (Narrator), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), David Cross (Allen Ginsberg), Bruce Greenwood (Keenan Jones/Pat Garrett), Julianne Moore (Alice Fabian), Michelle Williams (Coco Rivington), Richie Havens (Old Man Arvin), Peter Friedman (Morris Bernstein), Alison Folland (Grace), Yolonda Ross (Angela Reeves), Kim Gordon (Carla Hendricks), Mark Camacho (Norman), Joe Cobden (Sonny) and Kristen Hager (Mona).

“I’m Not There” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sex, swearing, brief violence and drug use.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya


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Posted: December 17, 2007 in Movies

August Rush– seen at the bijou

Posted: December 8, 2007 in Movies

  August Rush (2007)


The Review:


August Rush is a visual rhapsody– a genuinely charming fairy tale of a musical prodigy who wills himself a family by wishful composition.   Visually it is a mixture of Close Encounters of the third Kind and Field of Dreams, with a dollop of Forest Gump.   Structurally it is Oliver Twist without the politics and social commentary. 

August Rush is an orphan who like all other orphans still believes that some day his parents will come back to claim him.   He is acutely in tune with the music of the world.   He can be found in the local crop field conducting a symphony as the wind breathes harmonic noise through the wheat— the soft swirls of stalks bending almost into musical notes. 

He tells the social worker handling his case (Terence Howard caught in a fog of sadness and loneliness) “The music.  I though if I could play it, they would know I was alive.   And find me.”  

I believe in music the way some people believe in fairy tales. But I hear it came from my mother and father. Once upon a time, they fell in love,” he continues.


August’s mom is a muse, Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell of Waitress scrubbed to an ivory glow till she is radiantly pure) a concert cellist who falls in love with Louis Connelly, (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) a male muse (a museum—is that the word?) transfigured into the lead singer of a musical band of Irish brothers.    August is the harmonic convergence that results.  

Lyla’s father, Thomas Novacek (William Sadler) a jealous manager of his daughter career, forces the lovers to separate and later when the pregnant Lyla is involved in a serious traffic accident, secretly places the baby into an orphanage. 

Eleven years and sixteen days later (the kid has been keeping count) August feels a musical echo of their existence and runs away from the orphanage, the compulsion (one of the many notes of Close Encounters that pop up) leading him towards Greenwich Village, the start of his composition.   Lyla feels the same tug— and soon Louis is leaving his white collar life adopting the torn blue jeans of his past and also heading to New York.  

August comes under the sponsorship of Wizard (Robin Williams channeling Bono via way of a drugstore cowboy), a Fagin with his own gang of street musician children.   Wizard encourages August’s talent, aiming to use the boy as his ticket out of homelessness.   

The raging symphony building inside of August forces him to split from Wizard and eventually he wanders into Julliard where the faculty adopts the prodigy, teaching him the skills needed to finish the Rhapsody humming inside of him.   After what seems only two weeks he has finished his course requirements— and the resulting August Rush Rhapsody in C is chosen as the headline talent of a new young composers and musician’s concert that will have a Central Park debut.  Guest who is featured as one of the opening acts?   

Kristen Sheridan a few years back garnered an Oscar nomination for co-penning along with her father Jim Sheridan (the director of My Left Foot and In the Name of Father) and her sister Naomi (a poet and writer) the ultimate immigrant fairy tale In America, which daddy Jim also directed.   It was the perfect balance of the American Immigrant Dream and immigrant angst.

August Rush is pretty much an adorned fairy tale that proudly shows it heart.  It’s filled with all the elemental tug, eyes to the skies wonder of Close Encounters without the alien worship.  There are even subtle homage’s to John Williams in the Mark Macina score.  

The screenwriters, Nick Castle (Hook) and James V. Hart (Contact) burnish all the coincidences with the ring of fate while letting the musical subtheme propel the story forward with emotional warmth and a big squishy heart.

Kirsten Sheridan layers it all with unblinking childlike innocence.  She gets the notes right, letting the fragments hang tantalizing in the air until Augusts’ composition pulls it all together.   Pieces could be heard in the wheat field, in the swoosh of the underground and ambient rhythm of traffic.  Sheridan gives the audience the first chords knowing that she can count on us to listen for the rest.   Though the final product sounds more Mr. Holland’s Opus than Mozart (another child prodigy) it sings with the joy of mother, father and child reunion.    

Only a few wrong notes mar the composition.    The constant refrain of “Run, August run” adds an unintentional layer of Forest Gumpiness.   And Augusts’ insistence of if he writes it, sings it, composes it they will come is just a fillip of “If you build it, they will come” from Field of Dreams— adding another obvious layer of unneeded symbolism.  

Even with all its faults, August Rush is the best heart warming family picture I’ve seen this year.  

It gets a B+.    

The Credits: 

Directed by Kirsten Sheridan; written by Nick Castle and James V. Hart, based on a story by Paul Castro and Mr. Castle; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by William Steinkamp; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Michael Shaw; produced by Richard Barton Lewis; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.

WITH: Freddie Highmore (August Rush), Keri Russell (Lyla Novacek), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Louis Connelly), Terrence Howard (Richard Jeffries), Robin Williams (Wizard) and William Sadler (Thomas Novacek).

“August Rush” is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested). The title character was conceived out of wedlock.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

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 No Country for Old Men (2007)


The Review:

That hairdo Javier Bardem wears as the character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men imparts a strange, scary, and almost timelessly evil quality to his strong Hispanic features.   There is a strong hint of Spanish Inquisition monk chop to go with that bad boy rock star wave and the chisel profile that echoes a stony heart.  Chigurh could be a Golem or an Easter Island Moai brought to life.   He pursues his victim Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in a breakout performance) with the relentlessness of a curse.

That’s all the history the directors Joel and Ethan Coen and Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the source novel, provide for Chigurh— but then a dramatic conception doesn’t need one.    This is a chase movie where survival is the only pay off and the money is just a McGuffin— the trick object with mystical importance that gets the plot started.

While hunting antelope Llewelyn Moss gets the kill of a lifetime when he comes upon the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone murderously wrong.  Parsing the crime scene he finds a pickup truck with bricks of cocaine in its bed, and a satchel with nearly $2 million in money in the clutch of a dead man under the shade of an old majestic tree.  The only survivor is a soon to be dead Mexican begging for water.   This wouldn’t be a movie if Moss decided not to keep the money.    

Moss who lives in a trailer with his wife Carla Jean (the Scottish actress Kelly McDonald pitch perfect in both West Texas accent and performance) is a two tour Vietnam vet now scraping a living as a part-time welder. 

I’m fixin’ to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways,” he says to Carla Jean after telling her about the money.   Under the cover of night Moss takes a jug of water to the dying Mexican— only to have the rest of the drug posse show up.   Moss just barely escapes.

The next day Chigurh (after killing the two Texas good ole boys who hired him) is on the hunt for Moss and the money.  

The low camera angles, the morbidly funny leg surgery Chigurh performs on himself and Bardem’s deliberate monotone delivery impart Terminator relentlessness to the pursuit.  Bardem even looks like a sculpted down Schwarzenegger. 

“What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”  “Call it friend-o,” is Chigurh’s self-styled existential killing catch phrase.  His murder weapon of choice is a pneumatic gun with a retractable bolt attached to a compression cylinder that can pop door locks off— the supposedly kinder, more humane weapon of the slaughterhouse. 

The old man of the title is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones at his most laconic), who acts as a semi-narrator.   He survives because he always manages to be one step behind.   His inability to find and stop the carnage has him feeling useless and despairing of whether there is really true justice in the world.  

Overlooking the crime scene from a ridge, Bell’s deputy exclaims “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?”   “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here,” Bell replies.   He is the good guy powerless to do good.  That disengagement with life leaves Bell full of regrets and feeling like a coward. 

In Cormac McCarthy’s world the survivors live life as an anti-climax, mourning the possibilities and missed opportunities.  It’s a chase where the tropes of narrative, particularly that of the Western, are reversed.   It is only by chance whether the hero lives or dies— either by the remnants of the Mexican drug posse or by Chigurh.  Or whether the evildoer gets to walk away, just barely surviving the car crash with bones poking from his skin.  It’s a coin toss.    “Call it friendo.”  The only sure thing is that no one ever gets the money.   

McCarthy’s novels deflate dramatic tension rather than resolve it.   The perfect example: the prideful bounty hunter Carson Wells (a totally bemused Woody Harrelson in for the shock of his life) who occupies twenty pages in the novel and fifteen minutes on screen gets whacked by Chigurh with barely an afterthought or a fight.  Wells whole existence is a pretentious literary game that McCarthy plays on the reader.   His novels end with a nihilistic whisper rather than a bang. 

The Coens don’t change a thing.  Their movies have always been extended sick jokes—and the McCarthy vision aligns perfectly with their own weird little cinema world.  

The whole Moss-Chigurh chase both exults in meaning and subverts it.    Life may be in the details, but in the movies the details have to lead to something important.    To have Moss floating face down in a motel pool while Mexicans drug dealers scramble to get onto a screeching pickup pulling out, or to have Moss’ wife  spit in the face of a Chigurh coin toss without showing the life or death result only makes the previous eighty wonderfully paced and  suspenseful minutes a slowly deflating, farty little balloon.   Cheating the audience this way is perfectly fine if box-office lucre isn’t the objective.   

The Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns (essentially remakes of Akira Kurosawa samurai films) of the 60’s where nihilistic to the hilt and yet were nicely dramatically resolved.  And oh, they also had huge box office.  

I call it friend-o.  Heads get an A.  Tail gets a B.   It’s a B. 

The Credits: 

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; written by Joel Coen; adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music score composed by Carter Burwell; cinematography by Roger Deakins; set decoration by Nancy Haigh; production designed by Jess Gonchor; costumes designed by Mary Zophres; sound and sound design by Peter Kurland and Craig Berkey; art direction by John Perry Goldsmith;  produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and Scott Rudin.  Released by Miramax Films.  Running time:  122 minutes.

WITH:  Tommy Lee Jones (Ed Tom Bell),  Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly MacDonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis)

“No Country for Old Men” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). A lot of killing.

Copyright 2007 by Jonathan Moya

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