Saturday, March 21, 2009


Starring Nicholas Cage in his usual form - an intense, slightly spaced-out MIT prof,  slightly lost single father, his wife having tragically died a few years earlier, rearing a son with an unusual "hearing" problem. Professor John Koestler drinks too much and is estranged from his dad, a retired pastor. John's sister regularly stops by to look in on her bro, hoping to bring about a reconciliation, but no go. Faith has failed the professor, so he turns away from dad.

For the first three quarters of the film, I was into it - sort of a Da Vinci Code, can-ya'-figure-this-out adventure centered around the opening of an elementary school time-capsule.

50 years earlier, children were asked to draw a picture of what the future might look like. One little girl, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), maniacally writes line after line of numbers, both sides ... the teacher snatches it away before she's finished, and then tucks it away in an envelope with all the others for burial in the time-capsule.

Later in the day, the little girl is missing, only to be found by the teacher, Mrs. Taylor, in the basement beneath the gym, hiding in a closet, scratching numbers on the closet door with bloodied fingers.

Now, 50 years later, when the capsule is opened and the envelopes given out to the students, John Koestler's (Cage) son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) receives Lucinda's letter.

Professor Koestler cursorily examines it, and then, something catches his attention. In an all-night frenzy of analysis, he determines half the numbers as dates for disasters, with the number of people killed - most of which have occurred. He shows it to an MIT colleague who's intrigued, but finally dismisses John's theory - "we see what we want to see."

But the next day, a day predicted for 81 to die, John is on the road to pick up his son for school, he looks at his GPS for alternative routes, and suddenly realizes that the remaining numbers on Lucinda's note are coordinates. That very moment, an airliner crashes beside the road, with 81 deaths, at the very spot indicated.

Okay, what's going on?

The plot unfolds well. John locates Lucinda's daughter (Diana Wayland played by Rose Byrne) and granddaughter Abby, only to learn that Lucinda died a few years earlier, alone in a trailer in the woods. John also locates Mrs. Taylor, now very old, but she confirms this to be Lucinda's letter and tells John about the closet in the basement.

Things now become a bit melodramatic - apparently, no one sleeps - searches of the trailer in the woods, and a lot of things, happen at night. I thought, "Why not wait until daylight?" Oh well.

Then, strange men begin appearing. Caleb can "hear" them whispering. So can Lucinda's granddaughter - she calls them the "whisperers."

A cataclysmic sun flare erupts - as predicted - the world is warned to take cover, and there ensues all the typical mob panic scenes, stores being looted, etc.. Thrown together by "fate," John and his son head for the caves with Abby and her mother.

Well, to make a long story short, the last quarter of the film falls apart, as far as I'm concerned - a good story in search of an ending - ominous music throughout segues into soaring chords of heavenly music ... "ET" meets God meets Ezekiel's wheels meets "Close Encounters of a Third Kind" meets a new universe and the tree of life, or something like that. In the end, and I mean end, John, his parents and his sister, have one final hug, but he knows his son and Abby are safe, having been snatched away in ... well, you'll have to see it for yourself.

If you like Nicolas Cage (and I do), you'll like it and will forgive the corny, rather unimaginative ending.

The acting is generally good, but the children have to spend a lot of time appearing mystical.

Worth seeing in the theater? Sure, why not?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watchmen - reviewed by good friend Michelle Welker Scott

I am delighted to welcome a guest reviewer - fellow filmnut and excellent writer, Michigan's very own, Michelle Welker Scott.

Watchmen is not your parents’ superhero movie. While Spider-Man gives its audience the scrubbed-faced, boy-next-door hero of Peter Parker and Batman offers a brooding-yet-sensitive Bruce Wayne, the good guys in Watchmen are, well, not so good.

Based on the 1986 limited comic series by Alan Moore and directed by Zack Snyder (of Sin City and 300 fame), Watchmen takes place in a 1986 that never existed. Richard Nixon, having won the Vietnam War by unleashing the destructive capabilities of Dr. Manhattan, has been re-elected for a third term. The cold war is in full swing, with Russia and the U.S. poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation. In the United States, pandemonium reigns in the form of massive demonstrations and social unrest. Things, to put it mildly, are a mess.

In such a chaotic world, the death of a single man, Edward Blake, doesn’t seem like much of a tragedy. But when Rorschach, a hot-tempered socially-maladjusted crime fighter, delves into Blake’s death, he uncovers a diabolical plot that is putting the entire world at risk.

What makes Watchmen such a fascinating movie is its penetrating look into human nature. The movie takes such a dour view of humanity that even a hard-core Calvinist might blanch at its depiction of total depravity. Surely people aren’t that bad! Yet there’s hardly a likeable character on-screen. The hardened, embittered Rorschach, though apparently on the side of ‘good’, is as cruel and ruthless as the villains he captures. And the Comedian, whose sardonic nature is personified by the bright yellow smiley button he wears, is both avenger and savage murderer; lover and rapist.

Divinity, too, is called into question. Dr. Manhattan, whose matter-bending abilities make him nearly godlike, is an odious creature. With glacial calm, he dismisses the world of humans, shrugging off their imminent doom by saying, “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”

Not every character is abhorrent, however. Some, most notably the Night Owl and the Silk Spectre struggle bravely against nihilism. They fall in love; they act heroically in the face of danger; they even attempt to reach out to their wretched comrades. But, in the end, these acts of decency are simply far too puny to stop the impending Armageddon.

Yes, Watchmen is a grim film; a twenty-first century update of classic film noir. Nearly all the scenes are set in seedy apartments and squalid city streets. Yet the highly-stylized cinematography makes the movie a visual delight. Even violence is elevated to a kind of grotesque poetry.

And there is plenty of violence. People die in massive numbers. Arms are cut off, limbs are broken, skulls are hacked apart with cleavers. In one horrific scene, a pregnant woman is gunned down by her lover. The sound-effects alone can be stomach churning. Watchmen is no Spiderman. Even The Dark Knight pales in comparison.

Watchmen has other drawbacks as well. The movie is, at times, terribly confusing, especially to the uninitiated who have not read Alan Moore’s comic book series. Flashbacks and multiple points-of-view needlessly complicate the narrative. Additionally, the length (three hours) is astounding. Even hard-core fans of Watchmen feel the need for editing.

Yet, overall, the movie works. Despite its hard-core cynicism, there is salvation at the end. It is poor and wretched and comes at a magnificent price, but it is there. Billions of lives saved; millions are lost. Some relationships are restored while others are irreparably damaged. The good die for the causes they believe in, allowing humanity to enter a golden age. Yet, as the curtain closes, there is an undeniable sense that society will once more revert to its darker nature.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Crossing Over

Starring Harrison Ford in a classic role for him, this sort-of-heavy message movie is, nonetheless, worth seeing, especially for its commentary on immigration policy, both its down and its up sides.

Harrison Ford, an aging immigration official responsible for raiding  factories to find illegals, is a man of conscience with a heart, doing his his best to mitigate the suffering he unintentionally inflicts on illegals, who, in spite of their status, are working hard to make a life for themselves and, in many instances, their families. It's a tough job, and someone has to do it, and no one does it better than Ford.

Played with his usual fire-beneath-the-surface style, Ford offers a sturdy, steady, performance.

Ray Liotta is brilliant as an  immigration official who processes green card apps, and suggests to a young lady (who wants to be an actor) that her app might move through the process in exchange for a few favors.

It's not that he's evil, just sleazy, with a touch of innocence, if not stupidity, and a relentless self-interest - a role Liotta plays well. I don't know if Liotta enjoys those roles, but he does them well. In the end, after she rebuffs his offer to divorce his wife and make a life with her, he relents and lets the young lady (Alice Eve) off the hook and then processes her green card favorably - it seems that that sleaze bag fell in love with her after all.

By the way, Alice Eve is terrific, with a striking resemblance to Nicole Kidman. Her willingness to be humiliated to get a green card is more than self-interest; she's hoping to help her lover, also an illegal, to find a life here in America. It's a complicated role she brings off well.

Liotta's wife, Ashley Judd, a lawyer specializing in immigration cases on behalf of the accused, is completely blind-sided when her husband is arrested for granting a green card in violation of requirements.

The first half was interesting to watch, sort of, but without any serious emotional pull. It's the last half that picked up speed and hooked me - with a message that's complicated, as these multiple stories and tragedies are woven together.

Cliff Curtis, successfully portrays a conflicted immigration officer, himself an immigrant, who's immigrant brother and father execute his sister and her lover for bringing shame on the family. In a remarkable shoot-out scene in a convenience store, he saves the life and future of a young immigrant who, in the end, becomes a citizen.

A bit confusing, all these stories? Similar to "Traffic" and "Crash," but without the smoothness of those two films.

The message: current immigration policy causes a great deal of pain, but lots of folks make it through the system to become naturalized citizens. The story doesn't attempt to offer answers, but through multiple stories of weal and woe, to reveal the human story in every immigration headline.

Worth seeing? Sure, but this one could wait until Netflix.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The International

A first-rate thriller, directed by Tom Tykwer.

With an eye on today’s financial crisis, Clive Owen, an Interpol agent, seeks to uncover the nefarious arms dealings of a multi-national bank, working closely with a Manhattan assistant district attorney played superbly well by Naomi Watts.

The cast is suiably fit for each of their roles, but I’d like to call attention to Armin Mueller-Stahl who portrays the bank’s senior world-weary attorney – who knows better, but has become ensnared “in the ways of the world."

I couldn’t help but think of so many otherwise decent folk who become entangled in the schemes of power because they choose to close their eyes. A tragedy, indeed, that can only end as it does.

The ultimate source of evil is the head of the bank - well-dressed and surrounded by toadies – done well by Ulrich Thomsen - powerful and full of himself, self appointed royalty - he’s taking chances way beyond the limits of reason, and now, having brought the bank to the edge of the precipice purchasing arms on the margin to later sell to a rogue government, he can only fight all the harder to eliminate any and all threats, while manipulating international relationships with assassinations.

A financial expert suggested that such dealings were more fanciful than real, and that may be the case, But the story hits home: banks have taken risks way beyond reason, for want of internal restraint and lack of external oversight, bringing the entire banking industry to ruin.

The film is well-paced, and if you like gun fights, here's one of the best, in of all places, the Guggenheim Museum.

“The International” is a story for our time, and it’s fun to watch!