Monthly Archives: November 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

This is very different James Bond and it’s about time. The Bond film franchise began all the way back in 1962, and it essentially became the blueprint for the modern action movie. Quips, alluring women, exotic locations, car chases, colorful villains, and spoiled plans for greed or world domination. But even if Bond got the ball rolling, the action movie became its own insatiable beast, thanks to the likes of studio bean counters and the ubiquitous uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The 90s Bond revival followed suit. The movies became more about extravagant fireballs, throwaway characters, and preposterous scenarios. After 2002’s Die Another Day, where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond drives an invisible car through a melting ice palace caused by a solar laser from space run by a yuppie playboy who really had the DNA of a North Korean dictator… well, you don’t need to be an expert to figure out that something was rotten in that state of Bond.

The Bond films have great history to them, but let’s not get overly romantic here; a majority of the James Bond movies are outright crap, especially the ones with Roger Moore. There were jaunts into space, men with metal teeth, Timothy Dalton, a title called Octopussy, and Christopher Walken trying to have California fall into the ocean. Let’s face it, half the movies are rubbish. Someone, anyone try and tell me the redeeming qualities of Moonraker. The last good-to-great Bond movie was Brosnan’s debut, 1995’s Goldeneye. The Bond franchise has been in desperate need for a makeover. This is it.

The producers went back to Bond basics. The long-time producers had the rights to every Ian Fleming novel, except for Casino Royale, which was turned into a cheesy comedy lampooning Bond instead of competing with the franchise. Several decades later, we’re given a serious adaptation of Royale, Fleming’s introductory book about the secret agent that rewrote movie rules. The new Bond has a splash of Jason Bourne in him and seems more tightly wound and hard-boiled. He doesn’t have time for trivial decisions like shaken or stirred. “Does it look like I give a damn?” he barks at the bartender.

Bond (Daniel Craig) is more thug with a badge than a suave secret agent. He’s just risen to double-O status and his boss, M (the incomparable Judi Dench), doesn’t feel that he’s ready or can be trusted. But then, he is the best poker player MI5 has. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is entering into a high stakes poker game worth millions of dollars. He’s playing with the money of African warlords and terrorists and has promised them a great return on their investment. Bond is assigned to gather information and stop Le Chiffre from financing terrorism. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is a representative of the bank that will be sponsoring Bond in the card game. It’s up to her to keep tabs on Bond and make sure her bank?s money is wisely invested.

Now this is what action movies should be like. Casino Royale is a terrific ride with great action sequences, great intrigue, strong acting, and some wonderfully exotic locations. The movie, like Bond to Vesper, sure feels the need to prove money was well spent. The story is smart and filled with sharp dialogue, perhaps thanks to co-writer Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash). This is Bond dialed back, stripped of fancy gimmicks and gadgets and left to battle with his wits and his brutality. This is a meat-and-potatoes action movie without irony or frills. It’s serious about its business and business, let me tell you, is good. Casino Royale is monstrously entertaining.

There was a lot of grumbling when Craig was selected as the next actor to fill the 007 shoes. Some scoffed at the idea of a blonde Bond, as if hair color had shot to the top of the list of important qualifiers. I wrote this about Craig after seeing 2005’s Layer Cake: “This man is a modern day Steve McQueen with those piercing blue eyes, cheekbones that could cut glass, and the casual swagger of coolness. We may never see Craig sweat but he still expresses a remarkable slow burn of fear so effectively through those baby blues.” This man is the perfect candidate for a Bond reboot. He has a boxer’s face, those wonderful eyes, and a sculpted body that will take many a breath away. But even better, Craig is likely the best actor that has even been tapped for 007. Connery will always be the sentimental favorite, and rightfully so, but Craig imbues his Bond with startling amounts of emotion and vulnerability. In the dramatic black and white opening, his first kill isn’t clean and quick, it’s long, drawn out, messy, and leaves Bond shaken, not stirred. His relationship with Vesper gives him even more opportunities to feel and be tortured, sometimes literally (Note: a naked torture sequence is far too intense for children, especially those with their genitals on the outside). Craig gives a rich performance. When he’s chasing bad guys you see the determination of his running, the anguish on his face. When he’s flirting with women you can practically feel the smolder. This is a far more pragmatic Bond and Craig is the right actor for the job.

Green leaves her mark as one of the best Bond girls in the franchise. Usually the Bond women are either respites for fine-tuned lovemaking, or damsels wronged by the eminent domain of evil. She has a nice moment where she sits in the shower in shock after being witness to the reality of murder. She showed a lot of promise and gives a commanding performance on her biggest stage.

Director Martin Campbell has some history with the Bond franchise, restarting it with Goldeneye. He’s a pro at orchestrating action sequences, and there are some doozies in Casino Royale. The beginning sequence is a thrilling foot chase inside a construction zone. Bond’s target, a bomb maker, bounces off walls, swings along ledges, and motors around beams and ladders like he was a trained monkey. It’s an exciting French style of acrobatics called Parkour, and it was used to dizzying effect in this year?s District B13. The chase just goes from one level to another, and the stunts are brutal and of the death-defying variety. It’s a showstopper opening. An airport sequence is also quite memorable, as Bond races to stop a bomb from reaching an airplane. Campbell has taken a hint from the Jason Bourne spy movies and made Bond more reactionary to his surroundings. Many fight sequences feel tense and un-choreographed, even though we know that isn’t the case. When this Bond gets into scuffles you don’t know whether he’ll make it out unscathed. Campbell keeps the pace steady and the visuals crisp. Best of all, Campbell allows the audience to fully see what’s taking place. There’s no MTV-style edits. The film feels totally in control like the best action movies do. You’ll feel battered, bruised, but exhilarated all the same.

However, Casino Royale is not a perfect action movie. It feels way too front-loaded; all the big action sequences seem to occur within the first hour. The film then settles in for a climactic game of… cards? I’m not one who fell into the spell over Poker on TV the last few years. It just doesn’t seem that thrilling to me to watch one guy turn over his cards and then wait for another to turn over their cards. There are only so many combinations to be had, and hoping for Bond to have a flush to beat out four of a kind is just not high drama. It’s luck. The poker scenes seem to last longer than they should, as does the film as a whole. This is on record the longest Bond movie ever, clocking in at 144 minutes. It’s a whole hell of a lot of fun, but the tacked on ending in Venice seems like an entirely different movie slapped together for closure. The villain is somewhat weak. He’s given a nifty visual item, weeping tears of blood, but it is meaningless. The plot also gets too convoluted for its own good, with double-crosses, triple-crosses, and finally a reveal as to who the Big Bad in Charge was and I could not for the life of me remember who he was. Seriously, there are so many characters and faces shoved in that the producers could throw us a bone. All I’m asking for is some clarity while I chow down on my popcorn.

Casino Royale is the Bond movie Ian Fleming would have paid to see. Craig and Campbell have given new life to a teetering franchise. This Bond is much scrappier and more cunning. The action sequences are slick and the movie is fun and engrossing, plain and simple. In the closing seconds, when the familiar notes of the James Bond musical theme come alive you will feel like the journey has been earned.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Grandma’s Boy (2006)

This Adam Sandler crony comedy came out within the first weeks of 2006. Many predicted it could very well remain one of the worst films of the year. Let me verify that belief. This is an incredibly lazy stoner sex comedy that can’t even get gratuitous nudity right. Its premise (video game tester moves in with three old women) never takes off, and much of the movie just feels like one giant drunken party. The story doesn’t even kick in until an hour in; you’re not Brokeback Mountain, Grandma’s Boy, you cannot afford to take your time and sit on your ass. This stuff just isn’t funny. You want to know how unfunny? A character thinks he’s in The Matrix. Hi-larious and oh so timely. The movie trots out a nerd’s dream girl (Linda Cardalini) for a ridiculous romantic subplot that will just continue to give people who play Xbox 20 hours a day false hope. Sandler needs to stop bankrolling his buddies’ tired pet projects (Do we really need more Rob Schneider movies?). This one is written by and stars Allen Covert and is directed by a guy whose only other credit to his name is, honestly, as an assistant to Covert on another movie. You can see how interested in quality Sandler and Covert are. This is rather insultingly unfunny for a raunchy sex comedy. It even plays it all too safe. There’s strong potential for a grand gross-out comedy involving horny old women, but this isn’t it. You mostly just feel sorry for the actors. This is a movie that doesn’t work on any level, except to keep Sandler’s buddies busy so they won’t crash on his couch.

Nate’s Grade: D

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

It’s a familiar story and it may be predictable at every turn, but this movie shines when it comes to performances. Young Keke Parker plays the title super speller with equal parts fire, heartbreak, shyness, and pure glee. You easily fall in love with her and it makes her rise among the spelling ranks worth watching. Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett give stirring performances to compliment a strong cast. The new angle Akeelah has going for it is its urban education perspective, seeing Akeelah have to hide her smarts out of fear of her peers. The movie is fun, and Akeelah’s budding relationship with a fellow speller is cute as can be. Akeelah and the Bee is a smartly written and uplifting family film with a lot of heart and a dash of schmaltz. Look for “Booger” (a.k.a. Curtis Armstrong) as the inner city school principal that pins his hopes on Akeelah.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Probably too clever by half, this Tarantino knockoff is gloriously twisty and far more twisted than you may have thought from the surface. It’s a puzzle piece that winds up being vastly entertaining. Josh Hartnett does the best work of his career in an effervescent comedic performance, playing Slevin, a nobody mistaken for a somebody who owes different mobsters large sums of money. There are a lot of balls to keep juggling, but Lucky Number Slevin finds a way to keep the headstrong momentum constantly going. The neo-noir art direction is fabulous and eye-catching. Things get really dark in the last act, perhaps too dark for some, but for me, this was a crime caper that left me captivated by clever storytelling and flashy camerawork. Definitely for fans of the noir genre and for those with hard stomachs for violence.

Nate’s Grade: B

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Clint Eastwood’s WWII epic is all about scaling down legend, deconstructing myths, and illustrating how truth can become hazy in the name of the greater good. It’s very well made, noble, reverent, intelligently written but somewhat empty at its center, feeling far too mechanical to become one of the great war movies of modern times. The structure is needlessly scattered into three interconnected storylines: 1) the ongoing battle of Iwo Jima between Japan and the United States, 2) the stateside bond tour by three of the six men responsible for raising the flag in the iconic photograph, and 3) a son in present day writing a book about his father’s war experiences in the Pacific. I really don’t feel that splintering the narrative added anything to the story; in fact, there’s a late segment that’s a barrage of character deaths that would have been far more powerful had it not been assembled into an afterthought of a montage. The battle moments are tense and bloody, with just a tinge of Saving Private Ryan familiarity (shaky cam POV, washed out colors, chaotic editing, graphic gore). I would have actually preferred more battle action but oh well.

Most of the film focuses on our three soldiers (Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach) dealing with the pressure of a spotlight they feel is undeserved. You see, the raising-the-flag picture, perhaps the most famous war photograph of all time, was a group of men replacing a flag. There were no bullets buzzing over heads, no bombs blasting; it isn’t even the first flag. The men wince at being called heroes. They’re made to become U.S. military shills, encouraging the nation to keep buying those war bonds. This segment provides lots of moments of interest by illuminating a chapter few know — the story behind the story. These moments of insider info have some juice to them, led by a suave SOB performance by John Slattery as the man in charge of drumming up dollar signs.

Phillippe is an actor I’ve been keeping tabs on ever since 2000’s Way of the Gun, and he is the moral center of the movie, showing grit and humility. It’s mostly a performance of stoic silence, but he has a very strong scene when he confronts a war widow wanting the truth and he lies between his teeth to comfort her. Beach (Wind Talkers) gets the best role as a solider of Native American blood that is still seen as a second citizen in his own nation. There are plenty of revealing moments of casual racism (people call him “chief” more than his actual name) that explain why he took to the bottle with such ferocity. Beach is an emotional wreck and deeply haunted by the disturbing memories of war. He has to be practically pried off of a widow he is clinging to and crying uncontrollably. The cast is full of young Hollywood actors and it might due some good to become acquainted with their faces before stepping into a theater. It can get confusing. Yet another reason a disjointed narrative is a bad idea.

Where Flags of our Fathers cannot make the leap from good to great is in the area of character. After two hours, you don’t really feel like you know anyone better. There’s a distance that stops the audience from fully investing. I think Eastwood and the film have such noble aims that the movie becomes more of a statement than entertainment. There isn’t any conclusive climax; the film seems to directly go right into a voice-over heavy resolution. On a technical front, Flags is very impressive and Eastwood has created his most visually lush film to date. From a human standpoint, it falters and flags. It’s admirable and attractive but I doubt come Oscar time that this war-weary ode to heroism will have many followers.

Nate’s Grade: B

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Ever think your life would make for a good story? Be careful what you wish for. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is hearing voices. They aren’t telling him to kill or do anything subversive. In fact it’s just one voice, an English woman, and she isn’t instructing Crick to do anything. No, she’s more so just… narrating. She comes in and out and expresses the doldrums of Crick?s life. He’s an IRS agent whose life revolves around order, repetition, and numbers. We can even see his inner tabulations thanks to some snazzy onscreen visual effects. Crick is sent to audit Anna (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker with a disdain for civil servants and authority. Crick is stricken by this shrewd beauty and finds himself wanting her, something the Narrator affirms for him. Crick’s life takes a dour turn when the Narrator lets on that Harold Crick had set in motion his “imminent death.” Crick is confused and seeks advice from Professor Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) an expert on literature. Then they figure out the Narrator is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a famous writer who has the unfortunate habit of bumping off every one of her main characters.

Make no mistake, Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s a different kind of funny than most people are accustomed to with Ferrell. In my theater, I kept an eye on a gaggle of teenagers sitting several rows in front of me. I just wanted to observe their body language and what I saw was a lot of fidgeting, getting up for trips to bathrooms and popcorn, and lots of whispery talk. I can only imagine the disappointment of those teenagers expecting Ferrell to rip his clothes off and run around like a buffoon. They were likely busily thumbing away at their ever-present cell phones, text messaging their friends. People that are looking for a wild, sidesplitting, slapstick comedy are going to shaking their head. Stranger than Fiction is funny, but it’s in a very dry, witty way, much like British humor; it’s a humor you can admire for being clever but might not make you roll in any aisle.

The biggest fans of Stranger than Fiction will be bookworms. This is a very literate movie that works better for those with an appreciation or outright love of literature and storytelling. Professor Hilbert doesn’t initially believe Crick until he learns that Crick’s narrator said, “Little did he know.” That, ladies and gents, is all a professor of literature needs. He has to rule out what kind of story Crick may be apart of, so he subjects Crick to a series of hilarious questions along the lines of treasure-inheriting, nemesis-making, and magical-creature befriending. Crick keeps a notebook to tally examples in his life that may point to whether he is part of a Comedy or a Tragedy. Professor Hilton even explains the difference: in grand Shakespearean tradition, a comedy ends with people getting hitched and a tragedy ends with people getting snuffed. This is all fabulously witty and extremely fun, but I can think you’ll see why hard-core fans of Old School and Talladega Nights might be heading for the exits.

Writer Zach Helm has created a wonderfully whimsical tale that’s trippy but manages to still have warmth and a firm heart. It’s far more embraceable a movie than, say, Adaptation, and less smug. He has a smart sense of humor and loves deconstructing literature, like the Jasper Fforde (The Thursday Next books) of screenwriting. We are really sucked into the movie from the moment we can hear Thompson. The story has an innocence to it and this existential comedy feels out there but still grounded; it’s surprisingly poignant and full of dramatic revelations. Even better, Helm has done something that few have achieved: he wrote a story-within-a-story that works. Kay’s narrative voice is highly droll in her observations on Harold Crick’s life. It sounds like a genuine novel, and on top of that, a novel I would enjoy reading. Stranger than Fiction is all the proof I need that Helm is a talent to keep track of.

The performers all seem to have the same affection for the material. Ferrell is making that leap from funnyman into leading man, the same dramatic territory Robin Williams first tiptoed in Good Morning Vietnam and, likewise, Jim Carrey approached in The Truman Show. Ferrell won’t turn any heads but he underplays his performance maturely, playing a sad but sweet drone of a human being finally taking charge of his life under very insane circumstances. There’s a quiet moment toward the end where Ferrell is told he must accept his fate and he sits, shell-shocked, tearing up, his voice getting softer with every word. It’s only a moment but it piques my interest in what Ferrell may have in the tank. The comedy he can do in spades, including a desperate moment when he tries narrating his own life to coax his Narrator out of hiding.

Who will turn heads, however, is Gyllenhaal. I can already see a nation of teen boys falling in love with her tattooed, punky baker. To them I say, get in line pals, Gyllenhaal has made me dot my I’s with hearts ever since her star-making performance in 2002’s kinky romantic comedy, Secretary. She’s easy to fall in love with and expresses a fragile compassion to her role. The romance between Anna and Crick is unexpected but these two people need each other, and you feel that need as you watch their eyes light up as their relationship blossoms. Late moments between them add to the tenderness of the film and you will be on your knees pleading Crick is spared so he can return to loving Anna. I think Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World” will become a potential staple on romantic teenage mix CDs sent to their sweethearts from now on.

Thompson and Hoffman have appealing supporting performances. Thompson has marvelous fun thinking of different grisly outcomes in store for Crick. Her interaction with the hospital staff to see the “not gonna make it people” is a howl. But Thompson is too good of an actress to play it straight. Once she discovers the life-altering implications of her writing she is crushed by guilt, obsessed over killing good people cruelly. Frankly, if I had anyone narrating my life, Thompson’s voice would definitely rank high. Hoffman plays a dedicated literary professor like a straight man, and everything seems on the level for him, even the fantastic. It’s a nice touch for a film that doesn’t require broad strokes.

The movie doesn’t have the depth of feeling or dark turnarounds that I know Charlie Kaufman would have done. Stranger than Fiction has a lot of fun with a very ripe premise, and is very intellectually stimulating, but you do feel like it could have gone further, exploring the reaches and implications of its metaphysical setup. What if someone who read Kay’s manuscript thought it was such a masterpiece, a shining light of literature that could move mountains, that they knew Crick must die, and that they must kill him to make certain of it. Or what about the relationship between author and character, and the role each has over the other and perhaps a battle over the future, a typewriter, and a happy ending at the end of a tunnel. However, while all of these options would further explore the novel premise, it would betray the movie’s whimsical tone. This isn’t a very dark movie. It has an authentic sweetness to it, and Crick is a gentle and kind man, and to do anything too heavy would work against the film’s tone. The movie explores existential queries and the topics can be grim, but ultimately Stranger than Fiction is life affirming.

Stranger than fiction also has a buoyant, unexpectedly pleasing romance to it. Again, it doesn’t show the depth of love and human feeling that Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine could, but this is an unfair comparison. This romance is more a subplot that carries increasing weight thanks to heartwarming performances and the winsomely adorable Gyllenhaal. The romance in Eternal Sunshine was the story, and everything else was outside variable coming into contact. It might sound dismissive to call Stranger than Fiction as decaf Charlie Kaufman, but it really is a compliment. Kaufman is the most exciting, brilliant, creative, insightful, and whacked out screenwriter working today. I would give one of my kidneys to write even one story that could be described as decaf Kaufman. Stranger than Fiction may not examine as many themes, conflicts, or relationships as Kaufman might with the material, but this movie is a sweet fable that floats by like a fluffy cloud on a sunny day. It’s just so damn pleasant you sort of soak it in and fall in love, not wanting to leave.

Stranger than Fiction is strange, all right, but gloriously so. Scribe Zach Helm has concocted an existential fairy tale aimed for bookworms and outsiders. The premise is clever but the film doesn’t stop there, and Helm explores the implications of his premise with whimsy, charm, and a sweetness that is hard to rebuke. The wacky story seems reminiscent of Kaufman’s works, but it has a more heartwarming and embraceable appeal. Great performances from a game cast help to push the material even further into excellence. It has a small handful of flaws, perhaps a too limited scope, but that doesn’t stop Stranger than Fiction from being one of the best stories of 2006 and one of the best movies too.

Nate?s Grade: A-

Running with Scissors (2006)

Ever since author James Frey imploded into a million little pieces, the memoir has come under intense scrutiny. At issue is the validity of the written word, whether these people are being honest as they recount their tortured yet inevitably redemptive lives. What is the difference between nonfiction and memoir, and does it implicitly imply personal bias? Running with Scissors is the 2002 best-selling book detailing the bizarre childhood of Augusten Burroughs. It’s a book with lots of out-there claims but they’re all held in check by Burroughs’ tart observation and witty writing. When translated to the silver screen, Running with Scissors loses credibility without the author’s voice. I doubt many people going in cold will even believe what they’re seeing.

In the 1970s, Augusten (Joseph Cross) is a gay teen growing up in the care of his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and his deeply delusional, bipolar, wannabe poet mother (Annette Benning). When their marriage hits one of its many slags they seek out a therapist, Dr. Finch (Bryan Cox). He has a room he dubs his “masturbatorium,” a resemblance to Santa Claus, and a family just as whacked as he is. His oldest daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), helps him in his practice and thinks that pets talk to her, even from beyond the grave. Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is the rebellious daughter who likes to play doctor via electric shock therapy. Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh) is the matriarch of this cracked family that also enjoys eating some dog kibble here and there. When Augusten’s mother signs over adoption papers he becomes the reluctant newest member of this dysfunctional family.

The trouble with translating a book is that you lose the author’s voice and commentary. Running with Scissors maintains the horrifying living conditions for Augusten and the stable of oddballs, but lost is the author’s snappy humor that carried him through this tumultuous time. It’s definitely weird but it’s far from engaging. Without the wit and dark humor from Augusten’s voice we’re left with a series of loosely bandaged scenes about crazy characters and crazy anecdotes, little of which contains further importance. This is a fan of the book talking here, and I’m afraid that the film adaptation has heightened some of the weaknesses of the book, namely the loose storyline. When pieced together as a film, Running with Scissors can become slightly tiresome and overly reliant on background details. The film treats its wild, kitschy production design and 70s nostalgia as a character on par with anyone. It makes for great production design, true to the spirit of the book, but also serves as a narrative distraction. Too much attention seems to be put on getting things to look right than getting the screenplay to feel right.

Without the author’s voice the results lose credibility. It’s funny to see a Christmas tree up year round, and it’s funny when Dr. Finch is convinced God is communicating to him through his bowel movements, but it all just comes off as another joke like the art direction and nothing more. When fully added together without any sense of pathos, it all seems like a joke. The subplot involving Augusten’s sexual relationship with a much older schizophrenic patient (Joseph Fiennes) seems mishandled without much insight. Running with Scissors presents all examples of dangerous, sometimes illegal, behavior and doesn’t bat an eye, nor does it pass judgment. While this may irk some and seem irresponsible it’s just another case of little mattering. Running with Scissors, as an adaptation, presents little of consequence.

Director Ryan Murphy also adapted the screenplay and knows a thing or two about dysfunction and trashiness, having created the risky TV show Nip/Tuck. His adaptation has a blunted feel, but it also seems too broad. Then again, maybe only fans of the book would notice. He has a good feel for his actors and can stage some nice shot selections, but man, someone needs to slap his hand away from the AM radio. Running with Scissors is crammed with so many popular 70s tunes that it becomes a crutch, with Murphy hitting the soundtrack button whenever he needs some kind of character catharsis. It doesn’t work and comes across as indulgent and simplistic. There are so many zippy classic pop songs you may think Elton John is owed a writing credit.

The acting is one of the elements that help give life to this adaptation. Benning has been generating Oscar buzz for her deeply self-involved portrayal of a mom held hostage by her illness. Benning digs deep and displays a comic range of absurd behavior and wild paranoia. She’s all over the place and you can’t help but loathe her, that is, if you ever take her seriously. But then, once overly medicated, she gives an entirely secondary performance as an emotionless zombie, and we feel a sliver of sympathy, a true surprise. It’s a good, meaty role, however, I actually think Clayburgh gives the more Oscar-worthy performance. In a lot of ways she’s resigned to her fate and yet manages to be the gauzy heart of the picture. She tells me more with her wrinkles than Benning does in her gesticulating outbursts.

The rest of the cast work admirably. Cross is our focal point of the story and does a fine job of, essentially, gawking and looking perplexed. He’s like a blank, gangly canvas, and I wonder what else Cross is capable of than a performance built around indignant reactions. Wood is developing into a lovely adult actress and has some of the best foul-mouthed lines. It’s just nice to see Paltrow in a movie again. Baldwin has transformed from leading man into incredibly versatile supporting actor that excels as comedic lunkheads. Cox remains one of my favorite character actors of all time. There’s nothing this man cannot do. The actors all do a good job of filling out their zany characters while leaving their own imprint.

The issue with Running with Scissors is that when you strip away the author’s caustic voice, then the movie strains credibility, even with the knowledge that it?s based on a personal memoir. The movie gets all the wackiness but misses out on some of the finer points and humor that helped save Augusten from his unorthodox housing. The story feels dulled and stretched too broad, and yet it still manages to be intermittently entertaining despite these flaws. The actors range from good to great and the art direction is fantastic, even if Murphy expects it to do more work than his screenplay. Running with Scissors isn’t as nervy, engaging, or provocative as its source material. Then again little else is. Consider the film Running with Safety Scissors.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Death of a President (2006)

It’s been called morally reprehensible and obscene. Theater chains have refused to even touch it. The White House is concerned it will spawn a deadly array of copycats. The controversial movie in question is a little independently produced mock documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush in the year 2007. It’s kind of funny that this small talking-heads piece has so many people talking, because without its central gimmick, no one would be utterly a word about Death of a President. No readers, they would all be fast asleep.

We’re introduced to various people involved in the fateful event. In October 2007, Bush is appearing in Chicago and the city is overrun with protestors armed with angry signs and angrier words. A handful of protestors even break police lines and come within a hair of the president’s motorcade (to his credit, Bush doesn’t take it personally). Then as he’s leaving a speech, shaking hands along a roped line, shots are heard and the president goes down. In the aftermath many are suspected, including disenfranchised Iraq war vets, protestors, and a Muslim man who may have a connection to al-Quaida.

Death of a President has the potential to be little more than extreme left-wing wish fulfillment. No matter your thoughts on Bush as a president and a person, I hope the majority of people would not wish death upon him. I think the appeal of this mock-doc is the ghoulish rubbernecking of watching the president die right before your eyes. The moment is quick and mostly just Bush bending over in pain. The lead-up to the kill manages to quicken the pulse. Is it offensive to flirt with the idea of killing our elected leaders while they are still in office? Is it more repugnant when filmmakers use advanced computer effects and archival footage to make the moment as real as possible? It seems that the movie is coming at the peak of an unpopular president and an unpopular war, so some moviegoers will buy their tickets just to vicariously watch Bush die. Those same folks will be surprised how sympathetic and likeable Bush comes across in passing.

Questionable ethics aside, the movie is a whodunit built around a fortuitous gimmick, but once the title death takes place the movie utterly collapses. The ensuing hour turns into an investigation into who had their finger on the trigger. Death of a President has a baffling lack of political insight. The government centers their investigation on a Middle Eastern man of Syrian descent, fudges evidence out of pressure, and tries to build support for a unilateral military response, civil liberties get trampled upon in the name of security, and yet it’s all so sadly predictable. Death of a President is merely repeating the news of our tumultuous times, and it feels so stiltedly scripted. You can?t help but think that the current political scandals are far more weird and fascinating than this ho-hum what-if political science scenario. It’s just recycling current events and changing corresponding details. There?s nothing new or interesting here. As soon as Bush gets shot down so too does the film?s chances of exploring anything meaningful.

The second half of this film is downright narcoleptic. The investigation is deep in procedural gobbledy gook and the film feels impersonal. I mean, a sitting president has been assassinated in the age of cable TV, global economy, and the war on terror, and all the film can muster is trying to piece together the minutia of how to prosecute a case? I’m sorry, presidential assassination ranks a bit above your standard Law & Order output. There are so many interesting doomsday outcomes that could come about (especially with the scary thought of a President Cheney) and yet the film finds the most boring, insignificant, tedious path. This is inexcusable. It all feels so pathetically small for an act that would be immeasurably monumental. The film is shocking in how little it has to say about anything. It is devoid of commentary and complexity.

Director/co-writer Gabriel Range stages the entire film exactly like a prime time TV news report. It’s slick and packaged well, and the cut-and-paste magic creates an eerie realism. Range uses a mix of archival footage and CGI to illustrate Bush’s assassination. Cheney’s eulogy is actually extensively culled from the speech he gave at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Don’t know if that?s respectful or not. The technical credentials are worthwhile; the heavy-handed message is not. This is not satire. This is shallow and secondary and pointless. I think Range has treated Death of a President more like an audition film, hoping for bigger and better things. At least, I hope whatever comes next for this man is better.

Death of a President isn’t a terrible movie but it’s way too simplistic, ham-fisted, myopic, and freakin’ dull. The controversy attached to this tiny movie may mislead you into thinking it’s something worth seeing. It’s not. The visual trickery and talking-head structure makes it seem like something you’d see on TV, and you should take that to heart. Wait for TV with this one. Its direct-to-TV ticket is booked as soon as audiences find out what the movie really is. That is, if you can manage to rouse them awake.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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