Monthly Archives: September 2006

The Guardian (2006)

Ever since 9/11 we’ve been redefining who exactly qualifies as a hero. We’re stepping away from the old line of thinking, money and fame, and reexamining those selfless few that protect us, like firefighters, policemen, doctors, and military personnel. But when the culture defines a new hero, then the Hollywood tribute canonizing that role is sure to follow. We’ve had plenty of recent films looking at those who put their lives on the line, but are we, as a friend asked, scraping the bottom of the hero barrel when we devote an entire movie to the U.S. Coast Guard? And does it help your film in this day and age to feature Kevin Costner in a leading role?

Ben Randall (Costner) is a senior officer in the Coast Guard’s team of rescue swimmers, men and women first on the scene no matter what the situation is like. He’s the lone survivor of a rescue attempt gone awry and it’s badly shaken his confidence and ability to perform. He’s reassigned to a teaching position to mold the next generation of rescue swimmers. Enter Jake “Fischbowl” Fischer (Ashton Kutcher), a champion swimmer with an oversized ego. He takes every abuse Ben can dish, and slowly but surely he learns what it takes to devote your life to a job whose motto consists of, “So that others may live.”

To enjoy this movie you must come to grips with the fact that it is born atop a mountain of clichés. I mean a whole slew of clichés, so many that you may feel genre fatigue by the end of its 140-minutes. It’s like every other military training film. The old buck readjusting to his new position as teacher. The young hotshot he butts heads with but eventually forms a father-son relationship. The tragic pasts both have that still haunt them. Old buck’s job demands cause marital discord. The many many training montages. The requisite bar fight as team building activity. The local girl who starts off as a fling but develops into something more. The lessons about teamwork over individual gain. There’s a sassy bar owner that dispenses life advice. The old buck being pulled back into the game one more time to save his pupil and consequently overcoming his guilt/fear/apprehension from losing his team. And even the heroic ending. Like I said, you will accurately be able to guess where every storyline and every character is heading because you’ve seen them all long before. You might even call the film Top Gun with fins or Kevin Costner Returns to the Water (and just when you thought it was safe to go back in).

And yet the film works. It’s a sturdy, no-frills genre movie that goes about its business in a respectable manner. I may have known every turn but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. The characters are a bit rote, but the harrowing situations they thrust themselves into and their sense of heroism was very affecting. The story is familiar but the demands of the genre almost require a familiarity for success. The Guardian isn’t going to change the world (it will definitely increase Coast Guard recruit numbers), but it’s more than suitable entertainment for a weary moviegoer let down by bigger, louder Hollywood fare and looking for something more adult.

When it comes to genre movies, great acting and great writing can elevate the material. I found the details about how exactly the Coast Guard goes about rescues to be interesting, and the movie is effective at filling in the minutia of this life. I learned a lot of things about the Coast Guard and was impressed with what they go through, despite the misconceptions and dismissals. There is intelligence to the illustration of this world, and the dialogue often has a certain snap to it. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) stages high excitement on the seas with great editing and seamless use of CGI.

Make no mistake about it; The Guardian is definitely tilted to an older audience. It’s a bit of a familiar, old-fashioned story and it doesn’t come close to rocking any boat, but it’s also a durable movie that plugs in the needs of this formula effectively and satisfying. This is a movie that will appeal to dads and granddads and, who knows, may get them to tear up. It’s hard to dislike a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and has such affection and reverence for those in harm’s way. It’s harder when the story, mountain of clichés and all, still resonates with semi-palpable emotion.

There is one very big misstep at the conclusion of the movie. I won’t go into great spoiler detail, but the film leaves you in two positions: 1) the ludicrous notion that something we saw minutes ago did not happen, or 2) a somewhat sappy but too-detailed-to-come-across-as-coincidence puzzler. All The Guardian had to do is trim a few words or made its final lines of dialogue a little more vague, then none of this would matter.

Costner seems to be settling into a nice second life as a middle age supporting actor. Here is an actor that’s had his share of setbacks and creative wounding (The Postman?), and yet he’s still immensely likeable when he turns on the grit and aw-shucks determination. He’s the film’s mentor and father figure and infuses a lot of personality into what could have come across as an idol of worship rather than a human being. After a sublimely laid back performance in The Upside of Anger, and now this, it looks like Costner is back on track and well over dud territory.

Kutcher is a mystery to me. I’ve mostly found this kid to be grating and overdoing his one-note joke of a dimwit persona. The Guardian is the first film where I’ve begrudgingly found myself enjoying a Kutcher performance. He’s got the physique for hard duty but he finally gets a chance to flex some acting muscle as well. While I won’t say he opened my eyes to the talent behind one half of Dude, Where’s My Car?, I will concede he’s worthy of taking a chance on in upcoming dramas. Don’t let me down Kutcher now that I’ve gone out on a limb for you, boy. Don’t punk me.

The Guardian is in a lot of ways very similar to Ladder 49, another fawning tribute to brave first responders. Whereas Ladder 49 idolized firefighters to the point of worship, The Guardian does a better job of molding penetrating characters. I think firefighters and rescue swimmers are heroes, obviously, but I find their courage and selflessness more admirable when we don’t place them on a pedestal. When we don’t make our heroes into something super-human that makes their decisions and acts that much greater.

I’ve been to few movies where the audience broke out in applause at the end credits. This was one of them. I could understand why. The Guardian is a familiar formula aimed at older adults and reminds them of the sacrifice and heroism of those who keep us safe. This flick is an adoring testament but also succeeds as a respectable, mostly engaging genre piece that manages to be emotionally involving without getting too sappy. It’s a meat-and-potatoes male weepie. Costner and Kutcher create a solid father-son bond and both actors reveal a bit more about themselves. This isn’t a movie that dares to reinvent the wheel, but it is worth a spin if you’re a fan of this genre and don’t mind reworking old clichés into something new.

Nate?s Grade: B-

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Al Gore is possibly the least likely movie star in the history of movies. The former Vice President and 2000 presidential candidate has been making the scene with An Inconvenient Truth, a potent documentary warning about the impending perils of global warming. Gore has traveled all over the globe giving a well-honed Power Point presentation on the topic. An Inconvenient Truth is a 90-minute big screen version of this presentation. Consider it more concert film than documentary. An Inconvenient Truth is equal parts spellbinding and terrifying. Best of all, it’s that rare film that could quite honestly change the world for the better.

This is like sitting through an impassioned lecture by your favorite college professor. Gore smartly turns the issue of global warming from a political issue to a moral issue and asks how can we let this happen to our planet. He delivers a highly persuasive science show that should shake everyday Americans out of complacency and galvanize them to action. But what’s best about An Inconvenient Truth is that it doesn’t crush you to death with data. Gore explains the perils of climate change in general, easily graspable terms and uses choice pictures to service his message. It’s downright startling to see photos of glaciers and lakes that have gone dry in such a short span of time. As the film continues, Gore gains momentum and the facts, graphs, and charts multiply, and you’ll be hungry for even more. An Inconvenient Truth is a great learning tool because it really whets your appetite for knowledge and follows through on its convictions. Gore climbs an elevated lift to illustrate on a chart where carbon dioxide emissions will be heading. The moment is both grand theater and a stupendously straightforward visual demonstration that there will be far, far, faaaaaar greater carbon dioxide emissions in the near future than there has even been in 650,000 years.

Gone is the hectoring, emotionless Al Gore that people seem to recall from his political days. An Inconvenient Truth displays a Gore rich with humor, command, and most surprising of all, guile and charm. Old Gore might have harrumphed at his critics and come across like a walking stiff, stick firmly entrenched in rear. The Gore on display here seems candid, spirited, and easily engaging, plus he never comes across as preachy. It helps when he’s presenting on a topic he’s devoted much of his life to being a cheerleader for. Nevertheless, he’s a disarming speaker and it’s easier to swallow his spoonfuls of science when he’s turning on the charm.

Gore presents an overwhelming case for the existence of steady global climate change. But why then is there still much hand wringing about whether scientists can even agree? An Inconvenient Truth seems to have the answer. We see a ten percent sample, around 900 peer-edited scientific reports, concerning the topic of global warming. Not one of the 900 reports concluded that the proof of global warming was inconclusive. However, we then see that over 50 percent of all media reports mentioning global warming cite scientific wavering, saying the jury’s still out in the scientific community when it is anything but. Perhaps this is why people still see global warming as inauthentic hippie alarmism. Gore tackles his critics and presents very levelheaded reasoning. You can tell this man believes strongly and genuinely in the topic.

Let me put aside my film critic hat, if I may for one moment. I am getting fed up with how flippantly people dismiss science when it conflicts with their own belief system or agenda. There was a time when people looked at scientific findings and accepted them, saw their extensive testing and recalculating, and chalked it up to truth. Nowadays we have people trying to define their own versions of science, whether it be a new opening to slip religion into a classroom (Intelligent Design), a new way to control behavior (suppressing FDA-approved birth control studies), or simply a way of turning back time and civil rights (erroneous abstinence only sex ed). This stuff really irritates me. Let’s trust the science to the scientists, not Pat Robertson when he says he knows condoms are unreliable. When I get a cold I don’t consult my pastor, do you? That’s why I too am frustrated by what Al Gore sees. There’s a cabal of special interests trying to turn the issue of global warming from fact to theory, and in the process delaying serious response because it affects their cash flow. Okay, rant completed.

The science side of the equation is open and shut. Global warming is taking place but what can we do about it? We learn in the movie that the United States is the biggest polluter in the world. Thankfully, An Inconvenient Truth actually suggests ways of cutting down on energy that the average American can do. The end credits are full of helpful do-good aphorisms and suggestions to combat climate change. One of those suggestions just happens to be telling your friends to see An Inconvenient Truth. Surely the makers of this film get nothing out of that option.

Less effective are the minor asides the film takes to look into Al Gore’s personal and political past. The point I suppose is to show how we can turn personal tragedy or setbacks into a rallying point to save the planet. I don’t really know. These segments clog up the engrossing horror story Gore is dictating. I don’t want to learn about Gore’s tobacco farming family or how he handled losing the 2000 presidential election, I want to get back to the doom, the gloom, the graphs, and the pictures! It’s the equivalent of listening to a grand ghost story by camp light and having the storyteller occasionally stopping to mention they once caught an eight-pound bass. Get back to the good stuff already.

You don’t have to agree with Gore’s politics or even like him to be strongly affected by An Inconvenient Truth. As a film, it’s little more than a bigger stage for Gore’s patented, visually friendly slideshow, but as a message movie its aim is true and striking. Gore lets the science speak for itself and to that end the case seems closed. Global warming is happening, despite what media reports, skeptical business big wigs, and energy polluters might say. It’s saying something about the reach and importance of a documentary when actual oil companies are releasing smear commercials to discredit its message. Gore’s impassioned science lecture is fascinating, incredibly informative, and easy on the eyes with lots of stark pictorial examples. Al Gore is right; global warming is too big to be deemed a matter of political right and wrong. It demands attention and action, and An Inconvenient Truth demands to be seen; it’s not the best movie of 2006 but it’s certainly the most important.

Nate?s Grade: B+

The Last Kiss (2006)

Zach Braff has exploded in such a short amount of time. He was underappreciated on the perennially underappreciated Scrubs, but then his breakthrough came in 2004 with Garden State, an aloof, charming love story about personal awakening. After just one movie Braff is now a name-above-the-title headliner. For his second film, The Last Kiss, Braff stars as another young man going through another personal crisis. He even selected the radio-friendly songs for the soundtrack just like he did with Garden State. This new movie is actually a remake of a 2001 Italian film, adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash). But there?s one big difference between Garden State and The Last Kiss? Garden State is actually good.

Michael (Braff) works as an architect in Wisconsin. He’s having a bit of a crisis with the state of his life close to his impending thirtieth birthday. His girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), is pregnant with his child and the two are planning for their future, but all around them relationships are falling apart. Chris (Casey Affleck) feels crushed by the demands of his newborn child and wife. Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) is looking for guilt-free sex. Izzy (Michael Weston) is a wreck after having his heart broken by his ex. Jenna’s parents (Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson) may be splitting after 30 years of marriage, not all of them blissful.

With all this in mind, Michael worries that his life seems too scripted now and deficit in surprises. Then along comes Kim (The O.C.‘s Rachel Bilson), a young flirty college student that shows a strong interest in Michael. He must decide where his life is heading and whose hand he’ll be holding.

One of the reasons The Last Kiss is hard to get into is that the film never really elaborates why this foursome of guys have it so bad. Chris complains about a dead marriage but maybe his wife would nag him less if he spent more time trying to chip in around the house instead of avoiding his fatherly duties. Kenny is all gung-ho about a hot girl who’s interested in relationship-free sex, but then he runs the other way when, heaven forbid, the girl mentions the idea of commitment. Next thing you know, Kenny is not only running away from this girl but he’s joining Izzy on his cross-country road trip. He’s laving the state because of the potential whiff of commitment. My fiancé, after we saw the movie, thought it was too stereotypical (woman: says one thing, wants other, man: scared of anything lasting). She suggested that Kenny slowly turns around his stance and wants to commit to this girl, who he obviously feels to be special. But that would mean The Last Kiss actually cares about the characters of Kenny and Izzy. These two serve more as a spare tire in a male relationship, and both their storylines are tied up with great time to spare.

Worst of all is Michael’s plight. He’s told by his buddies that he’s snagged the “perfect girl,” and from what we see she really is a lovely catch. Michael is freaking out because his life seems too tidy and empty of “surprises” now that a baby?s on the way. Boo hoo. So to jazz up his surprise-free life he has a fling with a college girl. Surprise! Isn’t your life better now, Michael? If it weren’t for the affable charm of Braff, who emits certain Dustin Hoffman Graduate vibes, the audience would feel no varying degree of sympathy for the dolt. Michael really bruises two innocent people just to needlessly reaffirm what he already knew. It’s hard to get behind all this. We don’t have to like characters, or their actions, but it hurts the drama when you’re simply watching one character hurt others for foolhardy reasons only evident to that character. In Unfaithful, we never really knew why Diane Lane had an affair but at least we saw complexity and strong repercussions.

There’s an element of maturity here and there with the screenplay, but twice as many moments of juvenile fantasies/fears (Look out, women will trap you and control you and expect equal work in return!). The movie has some adult material that works and hits its target, but it also falls apart with idiotic musings. The best moments seem to come from the examination of the fading marriage between Jenna’s folks. It’s an interesting slice of life not commonly seen in youth-obsessed Hollywood, and Danner’s outbursts about what it takes to hold a 30-year union together ring true. But this moment falls victim, like many, to a tidy, simpleminded answer. Almost every storyline in The Last Kiss ends with a bow on it all wrapped up. Michael’s told not to give up and he essentially sleeps on his porch, wearing down the anger of his girlfriend through dogged persistence. In fact, the ending reminds me a bit of Secretary, another romance that ended with one lover proving their devotion by staying in one place a really long time. It’s almost insulting that the film presents Michael behaving badly and then excuses him as long as he just sticks it out. It’s not the idea that’s insulting; it’s the fact that The Last Kiss uses this ending as a cheap and easy out.

One of the benefits of movies directed by actors is that they tend to generate good performances. Director Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon) has assembled a nice cast that gives more than the material they get. The real find is Barrett, who may just be the greatest alum of a reality TV show (she was on the London edition of MTV’s The Real World). She showed promise in 2003’s The Human Stain and The Last Kiss is really her declarative ascent. She might start getting a lot of offers that would have normally gone to a Meg Ryan or a Julia Roberts. She shows a range of emotions and her breakdowns are hard to watch because of how well she sells her distress. She handles has a natural ease about her, which pairs nicely with Braff’s laid back, unorthodox charisma. Bilson is cute and crimples her doll face in a way that makes her character seem more naïve than seductress. Braff plays his role a bit subdued. He flashes enough life to not seem like he’s sleepwalking though the same steps he plowed in Garden State. Still, it’s not a very remarkable performance for someone people keep tabbing as a potential voice of a generation (a term nobody could feasibly live up to).

The Last Kiss is an unconvincing, simpleminded disingenuous drama populated by whiny dolts afraid of the good things they have. It’s hard to sympathize with any of these flawed characters when we never really feel like their gripes hold water. Michael can’t believe his life seems planned out with a wonderful woman who’s having his baby. Solution: screw it up for variety. While it may be the spice of life, it’s also a heedless decision for someone who needs to wreck everything in order to realize what he has/had. This would all be easier to swallow if The Last Kiss didn’t tie everything up with a happy ending that lacked the groundwork. In the end, according to the film, all bad behavior can be wiped clean if you just wear down your significant other. The drama feels forced and the conclusions feel inappropriate. All human beings make mistakes and so do filmmakers.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist is a satisfying, well-staged period piece con game. It’s set in 1900 Vienna (though everyone’s accents sound British to me) and revolves around Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician that truly dazzles the crowds and leaves his skeptics guessing. He becomes a monstrous hit with tricks like making an orange tree grow from a seed and having butterflies carry handkerchiefs. The city’s Chief Inspector (Paul Giamatti) is a fan but also inquiring on counts of fraud. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is planning to marry the beautiful duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel). Little does the prince know that Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood friends forbidden to see each other because of class differences. It’s been 15 years since they last saw one another but they’re making up for lost time. The Prince sets the Inspector to ensnare the lovers and shut down Eisenheim.

The movie has a very interesting character relationship between Eisenheim and the Chief Inspector. They have a friendly, respectful relationship, with the Inspector pleading with Eisenheim not to force his hand. The Inspector enjoys magic and showmanship, but he also knows what backs he has to scratch to keep his title. I found the frustrating friendship and admiration between Eisenheim and the Inspector to be meatier than the forbidden love angle that drives the story. The Illusionist has the air of a historical romance, but it’s really more about these two men and their bond.

Giamatti has a very strong role and plays all the different shades of his well-trodden man who still keeps hold of his ethics when he’s told to look the other way. He’s just as an important a character and Giamatti has completely wiped my memory of Lady in Water (not that he had to atone for it). Norton is easily one of our greatest actors, but in The Illusionist he underplays too much, slightly smiling his way through an altogether stale performance. I know part of his acting requires a reserved knowledge, since he is setting up those around him. I just felt that anyone else could have played the role the same, with or without a teenage goatee. Biel holds her own, which is something I never would have thought possible amongst celebrated Oscar-nominees. Her role is pivotal but small and doesn’t require much speaking, but all things considered she does pleasantly surprise. Maybe there is an actress somewhere in that pinup body.

The Illusionist, like its title practitioner, knows that an audience loves to be fooled, but only for so long. A magician is the perfect profession to showcase a con game, and writer/director Neil Burger crafts an intriguingly enjoyable tale where we do want to know how they did it. Burger knows how to misdirect but also how to stretch a small budget to create a rich dramatic environment. I don’t know if the explain-a-lot-in-a-minute ending does a disservice to the film or not, but I was happy to get some answers even if they were a tad predictable. That’s the whole thing with magic — we want to know but we love being confounded.

This is an extremely well made indie period film. The production design is astute and often times foreboding, like the Prince’s hallway completely filled with deer heads whose antlers form a really creepy canopy. The special effects are used judiciously and have more impact than the mega budget Hollywood summer spectacles. The Illusionist is a nice example of a character driven mystery that seems to be overlooked all too often today. This is an engaging, satisfying, and handsome movie that entertains by hooking into our curiosity to know how the trick is done.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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