by Jerry Salisbury
Click on a movie's name to go directly to the review, or scroll down and proceed through them all.
About a Boy, Bandits, Big Trouble, Changing Lanes, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Death to Smoochy, Frailty, High Crimes, Insomnia, Life as a House,Minority Report, Murder By Numbers, No Man's Land, O, Panic Room, Scooby-Doo, Spider-Man, Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of The Clones , The Sum of All Fears, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Windtalkers
The affliction known as insomnia can be one of the most torturous and frustrating conditions that there is. Tired, but unable to sleep, thoughts racing, unable to contain, frustrations building with the mounting hours of unrest, unable to do anything about it. Christopher Nolan, working once again in the intensification of mental condition, recreates this feeling in both mood and character in his film of the same name. He takes the conventional cop versus intelligent madman idea and adds his own unique conflicts and twists using atmosphere, dialogue and timing. While some of Insomnia's tactics and ideas are all but blatantly stolen from the two best movies of this genre, Silence of The Lambs and Se7en, the delivery, patience and intelligence behind shows the skills of an accomplished film maker. Nolan turns this typical story into an in-depth character and morality study and rightfully takes his place amongst the new pioneers of Hollywood for the next century.
Normally, 3 years is a short time to go between remaking films, recently Open Your Eyes (1997) and Vanilla Sky (2001) were the closest that I could recall. Nolan tackles a Norwegian film from 1999 and Americanizes it only slightly. He maintains the details, but adds his own touches to make the actual insomnia and frustration of the matter more believable. This new version is more meticulous and slower, but also more intense and dark than the original, thanks mostly to the screenplay and the performances of the lead characters. Al Pacino is Dormer, a famous L.A. detective known for his penchant for detail and always getting his man. He is sent to a remote Alaskan fishing village to help in the mysterious death of a young girl. But all is not well in Dormer's world. He is being investigated for possible indiscretions and his partner is about to cut a deal that would give him up. He conveniently finds this out prior to setting a trap to snare a suspect in the killing. Through a series of events, Dormer possibly commits another indiscretion, thusly linking him to the real killer, who observes it. Hilary Swank is the eager young detective assigned to investigate, but who is also a great admirer of Dormer's prior work. What follows is the slow degradation of Dormer's sanity and the chess game and an unexpected possible bond with the killer. Nolan's exploration goes deeper than the original film did, using his penchant for showing man's battle with his inner demons and its effect on those around him.
Does the end justify the means? This is the philosophical quandary at the center of the film and is relevant to those who have done something questionable. It is relived over and over, from various perspectives until the flood of varying feelings nearly causes implosion. At the center of the film is a murder investigation, but on the fringe are several emotional and social conflicts; the blurry line between good and evil, the power of one's conscience, the justification of actions and of course the adverse effect of sleep deprivation. The story has the brains and character of Seven and the determination, detail and mental chess match of Silence of the Lambs. It's not about whom the killer is, but more of why they did it, can they be caught and what the investigation will bring out in the law enforcement officers. The line between those who kill and those seek them can become quite murky when they are forced to think like those that they pursue. This is explored well, but is nearly forsaken in the conclusion. But thanks to the methodical introspection of the screenplay and the solid all-around performances the film still manages to succeed.
Robin Williams and Pacino are masterful in their contrast, yet similarity. Pacino always looks like he hasn't had nearly enough sleep and his mood reflects it. As Dormer, we can see every emotion, every thought, every temptation, frustration and revelation reflected on the roadmap of his face. He contrasts Swank, who brings an unexpected energy and determination to a role that could have easily been a throwaway. Finally Williams digs into his role with a surprisingly calm, yet menacing glee. Like Jim Carrey, he has always been a physical comedian whose humor always seemed to hold the potential for something more sinister. Death to Smoochy attempted to tap into this but let Williams run loose too much and drove it into the ground. Nolan has tamed the tiger and Williams responds by delivering a chilling performance with his baritone voice and smirk reflecting something deeper and much more frightening.
Ultimately, Insomnia is an intellectual reflection and commentary on the good and evil that men can do and how close they really are to each other. We can all justify our actions, no matter how heinous or socially unacceptable they are. Our minds adjust our morality levels to conveniently fit our actions. This film shows two characters that may not be as far apart as society would have you believe. Their battle, the depths of their of their psyches and the journeys that they take could have made for a preachy or clichÚd film (like Along Came a Spider). However Nolan's patient development, helping us to empathize with the title characters affliction and his cold, distant, yet always contrastingly bright setting save the film from its occasional lapses in story. I fault not Nolan, but Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik SkjoldbjŠrg for the original story. Nolan's translation deserves mention just below the above-mentioned classics of the genre. If it makes you sleepy, then count yourself lucky, but don't count on sleeping, because thinking about the movie will indeed cause it.
Life as a House
Being an unattached, childless, slightly under achieving man approaching his mid-30s, you can imagine that the pressure and expectations from both friends and family grows with every day that this status remains unchanged. Also not helping matters much are movies like Life as a House, an ambitious, sometimes melodramatic, but truly heartfelt story of a father's attempt to atone and regain a love and life lost. There are numerous movies that deal with midlife crisis, and diseases of the week, that go straight for your heart and tear glands, failing to show actual and natural emotion, in favor of false or sugary sentiment. Life as a House comes a little heavy at times, but still has a realistic, believable appeal, and by the end, unless you are a heartless unfeeling soul, it will touch you in ways that you can digest and discuss afterwards.
Kevin Kline plays George, an architect, divorced father, underachiever, neighbor from hell, and cancer victim. His estranged wife is married to an icy businessman who hugs his children not because he wants to, but because he feels like he has too. His son is the typical gothic, dark, troubled teen, who changes hair colors, has more holes on his body than a regulation golf course, listens to the typical music, habitually uses drugs, and has trouble communicating with just about everyone.
Once George loses his job to downsizing, and gets some other life changing news, he decides that with summer approaching, he is going to try and do some repair work, both to his life, and his dilapidated dwelling. He brings his son, Sam, to his worn down house, and decides to tear it down, and build his dream house in its place, with his son's help. Of course, the son is against it, but slowly warms to the idea aided of course by the presence of a bold, but adorable classmate (Jena Malone) who just happens to live next door to her father. Winkler always has several balls in the air at once, with other storylines running concurrently, sometimes intersecting and bumping into each other, but never seeming unrealistic. At times these go a bit over the edge, with storylines involving a neighborhood mother, an angry neighbor, male prostitution, and drunk driving, but these do add a sense of flavor and realism to things, and thusly are forgivable for the sake of the films overall message.
In a story that is more about the who's, then the what's, the performances are essential, and Kline and company do not disappoint. I marvel at the range of Kline, who like Steve Martin, and Robin Williams occasionally, is an actor who can do side-splitting, scene-stealing comedy one moment, and dramatic, broad ranging emotions the next. He revels in this role, playful at times, stern and frustrated at others but always showing the varying roller coaster of emotions that parents can feel. Hayden Christiansen holds his own in a role that could have been played to every troubled teen stereotype in the book, but instead comes across as that kid that you pass on the street and thank goodness he's not related to you. Add in yet another strong supporting performance from Jena Malone along with contrastingly emotional turns from Mary Steenburgen and Kristen Scott-Thomas and the foundation that this house was built on becomes a strong one. The analogy of using a house to represent life is not lost, but also not driven into us, as it could have been. Some criticize the films heavy-handed approach to the issues, but I ask them to consider the end result, and remember your own father, and your relationship, before criticizing. Anyone who puts forth criticism over films that seem unrealistic should put themselves in a similar situation, before passing judgment, I think the perspective and opinion would be drastically different. Personally, being long estranged from my father, it is hard to relate, but not difficult to imagine, a similar reaction from myself, given the circumstances.
Ultimately, Life as a House is a well-intended, simple, but effective look at the families and social issues of the 90s, through the eyes of a man trying to make something of himself and his life. I have often been scared of fatherhood myself, because the thought of my words, actions and such completely and totally molding the mind and life of someone else, frightened to my very core. What if I make mistakes, what if my child hurts other people, and it's because of me? But as the Beatles say, and this movie proves, all you truly need is love, and to try and do your best with what you're given. The believable tension, and bond between Kline and Christiansen, the touched upon, but never completely exploited story between Christiansen and Malone, and the progressive nature of the fathers intentions, and its effects on those around, make this a movie that all fathers and sons, or families for that matter, should share. Change is so subtle, that sometimes you never even notice it's happening until it has. That sentiment is similar to the films, since you don't realize how much the movie has touched you, until the end, and you feel your heart, truly feel it, and appreciate the effort put forth by all here.
Even the great ones can learn from and redeem themselves for past mistakes. With Minority Report, Steven Spielberg shows that he has taken the things that bogged down A.I. (namely incongruent storytelling) and smoothed it into something slick and beautiful, albeit slightly conventional. Tom Cruise almost provides redemption for his Vanilla Sky fiasco, also mirroring aspects of that film in this one as well. Granted, the story starts compelling and begins to fade into typicality as it progresses, but Spielberg makes it so smart, so enjoyable and so well done, that even the expected and typical are much better than 99.9% of the regurgitated faire currently produced.
The story is based on a novel by Phillip K Dick (an author who was obviously way ahead of his time) reminded me of an updated mixture of Blade Runner (inspired by Dick's Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep?) and The Fugitive with doses of Total Recall (also based on a Dick novel, We Can Remember It For You..Wholesale) and hints at Vanilla Sky thrown in (and shown how those films could have been better). It is the year 2054 and crimes can now be foretold thanks to the gift of three psychics (or Pre-Cog's as they are referred to in the film). Their visions are captured through the monitoring of brain waves and captured for evidence and investigation. The procedure is explained in understandable detail, as are the repercussions (displayed in a great scene between Collin Farrell and Tom Cruise, involving a ball dropping off of a counter). It is these misgivings and questions that bring Farrell, an FBI agent, into things. The unit that handles things, called the Pre-Crime division, is seeking national funding so it is coming under scrutiny and analysis for "flaws or glitches" in the system. The opening scene, which shows how, the system works, is simply wonderful in its detail of combining modern technology and human intuition and observation. Cruise is John Anderton, the lead investigator of the Pre-Crime division who is far from perfect or flawless himself. He has an estranged wife, a son whose loss still haunts him and a drug habit that may end up being his downfall. When Anderton's name comes up, he must run from the unit, while trying to prove his innocence. There are other details and revelations, both into the procedure and into the futuristic world that Spielberg has created, they are wonderful to discover and encounter. This story could have been another typical futuristic cop movie in lesser hands, but in Spielberg's masterful ones, it rises above the expected. He knows when and how to use dialogue, knows how to make the impossible seem not only possible, but probable (such as the personalized commercials and nearly invisible cell phones) and still weave a story that is compelling and has some twists, surprises and unexpectedly joyful quirks to give it his own. While the story follows expected paths, it's still a joyous journey. Just as watching a favorite movie repeatedly is. We know what is going to happen and we are rarely, but occasionally surprised. Overall we are entertained, amazed and enthralled by the whole experience. Just when you think you've got him figured out though, he does have one more trick up his sleeve to reveal that keeps the audience guessing and on edge until the conclusion.
It's not the main performances from Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton or Max Von Sydow that stand out, but rather the eclectic cameos which raise this movie about the others. Cruise is in true action hero form, cocky, confidant, but flawed, while Farrell exudes a similar confidence and arrogance, albeit quieter, as he did in Tigerland. The shining stars are appearances by Tim Blake Nelson (as a futuristic warden/mortician), Lois Smith (as a reclusive genius with a flair for botany) and Peter Stormare (as a twisted, unsanitary underground physician). You can see how working on A.I. with Kubrick has gotten Spielberg in touch with not only his darker side, but also the eccentric aspects of society. These are what give the film character and style and combined with beautiful visuals from Janusz Kaminski and futuristic effects, which look impossible, yet seem believable and give this film substance. This could easily have been yet another brainless sci-fi flick with an interesting premise but typical execution. Spielberg's ability as a visual and literal storyteller makes the ordinary seem interesting.
Ultimately, Minority Report is an atypical summer movie that has not only a heart and brain, but a flair for what is visually and mentally stimulating. There are millions of great ideas, interesting premises and promising stories in Hollywood, a lot of them now coming from the under appreciated genius of Phillip K Dick. Turning these into a solid motion picture is another story and usually where failures occur. With the genius of Spielberg and company, Minority is beautiful and amazing to look at, progresses the story intelligently, resolves things satisfactorily and still gives the audience morality issues to think about regarding evil, the potential for it, the prevention of it and the effects of seeing and knowing the future. While the story doesn't do anything unique or original, it still works because no matter how many times a story is told, if it's being told by an expert storyteller. When given the majority of movies during the summer that are paraded out for initial box office jackpot, but which lack any thought excessive of marketing plans and positioning, Minority Report is a refreshing breath of recycled air filtered through the mind of a cinematic genius and delivered with a glamorous flashy panache that is deep and intellectual without being pointless or verbose.
Murder By Numbers
Stephen King was one of the most profound influences in me becoming a writer. The way he could use words, simple everyday ones to generate the extremes of emotions, mostly terror, both internal and external, is what lured me towards this profession. But if I may be so bold, one of my criticisms of his storytelling ability is the way he starts so many different ideas, most good, some out of left field and then doesn't know how to tie them all together cohesively. Books like The Stand, Christine and Cujo bear the proof of this. This is the same fate that befalls Barbet Schroeder in Murder By Numbers, a sloppily executed attempt built around an interesting, if not wholly unoriginal idea. Schroeder overdevelops his characters (a flaw consistent with his Single White Female as well) and underutilizes his story then tries to bring it all together to generate a message of inner strength and individuality. Instead, what starts off very interesting, fades into something tedious, unstable and just downright messy towards the end, ironically, the antithesis of his character's modus operandi.
The advances in the information age have bred not only smarter law enforcement officers and techniques, but smarter criminals as well. The idea of a criminal playing a mental chess game with police has been done before, Se7en did it well, Along Came a Spider had the right idea, but Murder By Numbers took a unique approach, then clouded it all up with extraneous and unnecessary details. Justin (Michael Pitt, no relation) is an intelligent loner with gothic good looks, a flashy vocabulary and an ability and enthusiasm for "taking the indefensible idea and making a case for it" As the movie starts; he gives a speech relating to the link between freedom and the fight for it and criminals. He is challenged by Richard (Ryan Gosling), a blonde haired rich kid, who seems to be the polar opposite of Justin. But there is much more to it than that. Richard and Justin have a bond, hinting not so subtly at love and it drives them to try and pull off the perfect crime. Reminiscent of Leopold and Loeb, the two commit murder and then, in a more modern twist, think through every step the police will take in their investigation. The case is pursued by Cassie, also a loner with a strong will, a feisty attitude and of course, a past. Her partner, Sam (Ben Chaplin), is thrown in, just because they needed a positive male character I'm guessing. The mind games between the cops and the criminals, make for very compelling and interesting situations, unfortunately, Schroeder gets distracted with side stories, involving Cassie's mysterious connection to a parolee and with Justin's attraction to a pretty classmate. These seem to exist to provide background into who these people are, but become more of a complication since too much focus is given to these stories. Schroeder is apparently so obsessed with us knowing these characters' backgrounds and quirks that he forgets to weave them into a cohesive story. In order to generate suspense, curiosity and interest, this must be done and that's where Numbers primarily stumbles and, in the end, collapses under. Admittedly half of this story really had me interested, but unfortunately Schroeder spent too much time on the parts that did not. The chemistry, bond and of course performances of Pitt and Gosling as the cocky teenagers was compelling and interesting when it focused on the crime, the aftermath, the tension and such of trying to pull of the perfect crime. Granted, that aspect has been covered many times in film, but rarely with two such interesting personas as these two. The smart loner, misunderstood yet attractive in his own way and the spoiled rich pretty boy, who everyone assumes must be happy, because he has it all. Their relationship, not Bullock's past, or her relations with Chaplin, or anything else, should have been the main focus of the film. Since it was not, the film fails.
As much as I love Sandra Bullock, I am not sure that she is quite ready to tackle a movie where she is the lead AND cannot flex her ability to be cute, vulnerable, clumsy and quirky. As Cassie, she does lend the occasional dose of sarcasm and playful innocence, but cannot give her the inner determination, strength and believable intellect that this character needed. No doubt she can carry romantic comedies with best of them, but she is a bit out of her league here. The best performance to take from this film is from someone I consider to be the best young actor that you've never heard of. After lending a youthful innocence opposite John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and projecting a playful, sensual indifference in Bully, Michael Pitt finally gets a chance to play a near lead role and he capitalizes as much as this story lets him. With his bee stung lips, pouty eyes and Beatle-esque bobbed haircut, he brings depth to the intelligent, mysterious, but lonely soul, seeking only love and acceptance and understanding much more about life than most of those around him. Unfortunately, his character becomes yet another casualty of Schroeder's impatient storytelling, by his inconsistent actions and dialogue towards the resolution. There was such a great chance with a decent cast, mixed with veterans and newcomers, but Murder falls prey sloppiness and impatience in the end.
Ultimately, Murder by Numbers doesn't add up to much more than an example of an interesting idea, compelling and complex characters and good dialogue and ideas, complicated by being overcrowded in an attempt to be deep and insightful. Shows like CSI, Autopsy, etc. have shown that the public has an interest in the motivations, investigations and curiosities of the criminal mind. What is it that drives people to these horrific actions and what ways do we have to catch them? Also touched on, was the attempt, as criminals do to pull off the perfect crime by trying to out think, anticipate and react to law enforcement. As I mentioned before, films like Se7en have done this, no doubt inspired by the arrogant dark memories of serial killers like David Berkowitz (who corresponded with NY Post writer Jimmy Breslin) and Northern California's Zodiac Killer (who taunted police through the mail). But the film drifts away from this ideal, gets lost and never finds its way back. Schroeder may have wanted to explore too many aspects of these questions and in doing such, muddied his vision with inconsistent characters and a story that meanders away from its premise, then totally forsakes it for an attempt at a twisting ending of sorts. In a film where there is little mystery as to the identity, there is a necessity to make the characters believable and interesting, while also making their actions consistent. Murder cannot decide if it wants to be a mental chess game, a class analysis, a story of overcoming fears, or a detailed mental analysis of the criminal mind. In trying to explore all of these things, Schroeder and company open up several different doors, then struggle to resolve them in a sensible manner. If you want to see a genuinely solid, King-esque suspense movie about the modern horror of everyday life, see Frailty and avoid this one.
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Also, check out other reviews by Jerry at his own site, The Reel Rambler