Monthly Archives: March 2007

Reign Over Me (2007)

Adam Sandler in a serious drama? Well it worked in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, but that was aided by Paul Thomas Anderson deconstructing the typical Sandler goofball in his glut of crude yet successful comedies. Can Sandler work his thespian skills in a story not tailor-made for him? I think writer/director Mike Binder’s 9/11 human drama, Reign Over Me, is proof that Sandler can step outside his popular persona for a worthy cause. But this movie isn’t it.

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is an ordinary dentist living his family life in Manhattan. Then one day he spots his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), zipping along on an electric scooter. He looks drastically different than Alan remembers, and this is because Charlie’s wife and children, and even his dog, were on one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Charlie’s life now consists of a new adolescence where he does what he wants because of the insurance money, so he plays video games late at night, goes to see Mel Brooks retrospectives, and keeps remodeling his kitchen over and over. He is without friends and refuses to even think about any painful memories. Alan takes it upon himself to help his former dentist school pal confront his grief and get back on his feet.

The varying elements never truly mesh, and Reign Over Me has a very haphazard, clumsy feel as it never comes to a firm landing. There’s a mixture of the serious and the sitcom, and both elements go together as well as vodka and motor oil — sure it may work in the immediate but couldn’t it be much better? Many of the connections feel tenuous and it’s hard to care about certain storylines, especially the film’s preoccupation with Alan’s midlife malaise. Are we supposed to be in Alan’s corner as he argues his adult life sucks because women at the office throw themselves at him and his wife wants him to open up? Am I really supposed to believe the film’s assertion that he covets the freedom of a 9/11 widower? Reign Over Me never shifts gears smoothly when it comes to tone. The audience is left to question why this story needs to be told through the prism of a bored dentist. It never truly feels right.

Charlie isn’t just bummed out, he is severely damaged from the shock of 9/11; this is far beyond post-traumatic. At several points he just freaks into violent fits out for no discernible reason, but people still tolerate him and don’t call for greater help. It would be naive to think that one friend could fix all of the psychological horrors of one man, but then you remember this is a movie. Charlie could use some serious meds. Friendship is important, but Reign Over Me toys with the object of abject loss without delving too deep, instead feeling that one good crying confessional and a terribly manipulative and unbelievable court battle will sum everything up.

I think that feeling was pervasive for me while watching Reign Over Me was that I felt toyed with. The drama takes a long time to wind down and even then it settles on surface-level solutions that always seem so easy in movies. Many of the comedic elements feel too dependent on sitcom generalizations. Charlie comes to Alan’s apartment late at night and asks his wife if he can go out and play. Alan chastises his friend, saying he’s an adult and doesn’t need his wife’s permission to go outside. Can anyone guess what the next moment will entail? That’s right, he asks his wife if he can go out and play. You’ll be forgiven if you hold for expectations of a laugh track. Reign Over Me even is also filled with the usual suspects like the brassy receptionist, the shyster lawyer, and the hilarious misunderstandings between the sexes that bring about sexual harassment lawsuits.

Let me stop and illuminate on that last bit. Alan’s patient is obsessed with wanting to orally pleasure the good doctor, enough that she sues when he declines a second time. For whatever reason, he sees her again and she apologizes in some ham-handed back-story about how her husband dumping her left her devastated (and if you can figure out what Binder has in store for the film’s broken female and broken male, then you too deserve a lollipop). This storyline is beyond tacky, a bit humiliating for the actress, and a prime example of how poorly the all the female roles are written. It’s shocking that Reign Over Me can examine male adult male bonding so well but completely drop the ball with every single female character. Alan’s wife seems nice and responsible but the film tries to convince us she’s sucking the life out of him because she likes jigsaw puzzles, quiet nights at the home, and knowing where her husband is when he’s out odd hours of the night. It’s appalling how this movie treats its female characters. They are either seen as flighty beings at the control of their sexual desires or as cold, non-sexual wet blankets. After the hour mark you can almost forget about seeing anything about Alan’s family except for an implausibly tidy “I’m sorry/No I’m sorry” phone call.

Sandler can be a fine actor when given the right material, and a character that retreats into an infantile existence seems like a plum role for him. He effectively channels Charlie’s disconnect from reality, but a lot of his grief tics will start to remind you of Rain Man-style autism, like repeating phrases, obsessive behavior, and moaning and rocking while upset. He gets lots in his Bob Dylan bird’s nest of hair.

Cheadle is always dependable as an actor and proves to be a stable center the film needs because of its narrative shortcomings. He’s doing primarily a lot of reaction but still manages to work above his material and build sympathy to a character that really deserves less. Sandler bounces around like a ping-pong ball and Cheadle holds steady, and the two men form a rather strong acting unit that just makes me wish the material were up to their task.

Ultimately Reign Over Me is hard to pile on because of its wealth of good intentions and fleeting moments of dramatic heft. It’s a messy film that somehow believes all its disjointed elements fit together, when in reality the movie never settles on a cohesive tone. The acing is generally strong and there’s some mature and realistic writing regarding male relationships, however, there are just as many frustrating moments. The film skims the surface of Big Issues like 9/11 grieving but never wants to develop into something more thoughtful. Instead, the film retreats much like Charlie into an easier existence where the questions are only momentary. Reign Over Me is a fine if unremarkable drama, but good intentions can only take you so far. At some point, to be memorable, you have to actually be good.

Nate?s Grade: B-

300 (2007)

The story of the 300 is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, 150 years before Alexander the Great. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santiago) has deemed himself a “God king” and his Persian army has been conquering Asian nations and acquiring the most massive military force of its time. He sets his sights on conquering Greece, and to do so must go through the narrow passage of Thermopylae.

King Leonidis (Gerard Butler) assembles 300 of his finest Spartan warriors to thwart the Persian invasion. The Spartans were the super soldiers of their time, a society that valued brute strength and the honor of combat. Children born with imperfections were cast onto the rocks to perish; the society couldn’t afford a weak link in its protection. One day a Persian emissary rides into Sparta carrying the skulls of other kings and princes and a message from Xerxes: submit or you’re next. Well, after the emissary insults Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), he refutes the message and kicks the emissary down a giant black pit in the middle of town (is this where they dump their garbage?). Thus, as they say, it is on. The Greek city-states have no sense of nationalism, so Leonidis commands little support to thwart the advancing Persian hordes. The Spartans have discipline and superior equipment, and because of these advantages they are able to hold back overwhelming numbers from the Persian army.

Back at the home front, Queen Gorgo is wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to state her case to the Spartan assembly. She needs to shore support for more troops to help her husband. Theron (Dominic West) is a member of the priesthood that looks to sexually charged Oracles for guidance. However, he’s willing to drop his pacifist stance if the queen drops her robe and grins and bares it.

Xerxes is not a happy “God king.” He tries appealing to Leonidis, insisting that if he will simply bow down and relent than he will be spared. “Imagine what horrible fate awaits my enemies when I would gladly kill any of my own men for victory,” he threatens. Leonidas replies, “And I would die for any of mine.” The two men (well one man and one God king) go back to their corners ready for another round of this epic slugfest.

The action sequences are intense and director Zack Snyder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead) heightens their realities with surreal touches. He fondly gives life to the bloodshed and exaggerated combat popularized from Frank Miller?s graphic novel. The Sin City author has created another testosterone-soaked hyper-real adventure. The movie doesn’t even flirt with the notion of rigid historical accuracy (I doubt the Spartans fought rhinos, giant mutants, and were done in by a disgruntled hunchback); the film uses Miller’s artwork as a jumping point, which means that the Spartans fight in leather codpieces and red capes and that combat is more one-on-one even after we learn about the important of the phalanx. But quibbling over inaccuracies is a waste of time, because 300 is a pumped-up, super cool action movie that plays out in a vivid dreamscape. The movie was filmed with extensive green screen, much like Sin City was, and it feels like a direct transition of Miller’s pulpy comic book. Even the farewell sex between the King and Queen is stylized and seems to be snippets or panels from a comic book.

Let’s all be honest, there’s something undeniably homoerotic about 300. The movie worships the male form, with rippling abs and bulging biceps lovingly showcased in glowing, sweaty, fawning detail. The movie also focuses on manly men primarily spearing one another with phallic weaponry while the spurting blood dances across the camera in balletic CGI spasms. There?s a definite gay appeal to this film, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, 300 also manages to curiously be homophobic at the same time (I swear this came to me independently, Phil). Xerxes is designed very as being very fey even at a massive height of eight feet. He lays his hands against Leonidis’ shoulders and asks for him to submit, and you can’t help but wonder what the teen boys in the audience are thinking. Xerxes also has a party tent filled with whores, the disfigured, transvestites, and the overall effeminate opposite of all those Greek macho muscle men the film postures as elite specimens.

The acting is set to one tempo and that’s a mesmerizing use of yell-speak; it’s part guttural and part long-standing bellow that makes any piece of dialogue sound macho. King Leonidis growls, “SPAAAAAAAARTANS! TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELLLLLLLL!” After two hours of this primal style of speech, it becomes somewhat infectious and you want to try it in everyday situations in your life. Next time you’re out with friends at a fine dining establishment, I suggest asking for the salt thusly: “DINING PAAAARTNAAAAAH, COULD. YOOOOOOOOOU. PAAAAAAAAASS. THE SAAAAAAAAAAAALT?!” You’ll be guaranteed to get a reaction. It strains my throat even writing about the 300 yell-speak.

300 is a rousing movie going experience that plays out in a beautiful, pristine dreamscape that closely resembles our planet. The action is highly stylized and frenetic. It’s just that when the film stops to take a breath you start to look elsewhere, and when you do you realize there isn’t much below the blood-caked eye candy shell. 300 is grand spectacle that elicits thrills and chills, but the movie fails to touch on emotions beyond loyalty and courage. Both are essential for a soldier, and one as dedicated as a Spartan warrior, but the lack of substance keeps 300 from being anything other than a visually arresting, if ultimately disposable, two hours at the movies. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose sole purpose is to quicken the pulse for a short supply of time, and 300 succeeds smashingly with this singular ambition. It is an ass-kicking history lesson that makes me wish I could learn more about Persian executioners with blades for hands at my local library.

Every culture has their own account of a last stand, a small group that heroically held off seemingly superior forces (remember the Alamo?). Snyder and Miller present an entertaining hack-and-slash primer through history that’s rarely dull and often enchanting to the senses. Deep down, there may not be much more to 300 than a lot of pretty pictures and a bunch of chiseled hunks, but that?s enough for most carnage fans with a free afternoon.

Nate?s Grade: B

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac is something altogether different from a genre best known for cannibalism, skin suits, and express shipping of human heads. It has more in common with All the President’s Men than director David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, Seven. This is a serial killer thriller steeped in police procedural, closed door deliberations, and the slow drip of a decades long investigation into the Zodiac killings that terrorized California from the 1960s and 70s. Watching close to 3 hours of procedure with nary a car chase or a shoot-out may not sit right for fans of the genre, but I enjoyed the film for the same reasons people will decry it — the details. I loved how methodical this film is, how dogged and stubborn it is, and I found myself being enveloped into the minutia of the case.

It all began with a young couple looking for a bit of privacy in 1968. They park at a lover’s lane and nervously engage in a bit of the old “neckin.” A passing car interrupts them, and then that car returns with its headlights blasting into the couple’s faces. This man then takes out a gun and starts firing, killing the woman and badly injuring the young man. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when a curious letter has stirred up a lot of discussion. It’s a cryptic message with a puzzle attached made up of symbols and codes. The author demands his puzzle run in the newspaper, and if not, more will suffer at his hands. There are further attacks along the California coast and the mysterious figure finally gives himself a name at the end of one of his letters: Zodiac.

San Francisco detectives David Toschi (a great, raspy Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are called in after Zodiac executes a cab driver in the city. The Chronicle‘s star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), pesters the police for details and eventually gets under Zodiac?s skin. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case through a life-long love of puzzles and the case eventually consumes him, dooming his marriage to a pretty girl (Chloe Sevigny). Thanks to the tutelage of Avery, Graymsith becomes an amateur detective of his own, and his zeal to solve the case outlasts the actual police.

The Zodiac killer was really the first mass media serial killer. As the news of brutal attacks spreads, the media ate it all up and enlarged the figure of Zodiac to grand heights. And he was eager to help inflate his image, taking credit for crimes and slayings that were not his doing. The killer used the media age to terrorize the populace and increase his notoriety, similar tactics used by today’s stream of terrorists. The detectives didn’t just have to navigate all the shifting evidence but the formation of an urban legend.

This is before the day of DNA and super computers, so all progress comes from good old-fashioned police work. Long hours are spent pouring over mounting evidence while coordinating around bureaucracy; because Zodiac has struck in several different small communities it can take a saint’s patience to figure out the correct jurisdiction and compile the various parts in various offices. The film packs a lot in its running time introducing scores of information, suspects, witnesses, and varying theories, but the film cannot be faulted for pace; nearly every scene takes place weeks, months, even years after the last.

Zodiac is Fincher’s most restrained work even at a gargantuan running length. Fincher is a master tactician with slick visuals but has a penchant for getting too dazzled by needless visual flourishes (did the camera really need to zoom through the handle of a coffee pot in Panic Room?). He tones down the excess but still maintains a refined visual palate that makes the film feel fluid. The period detail is incredibly reconstructed, giving an authentic feel for a very serious story. But Fincher knows that with Zodiac the impetus lies with the story, and he devotes his considerable style to the service of the story. The mood balances nicely with intrigue, humor (after Zodiac singles out Avery fellow journalists start wearing “I’m Not Avery” buttons), and some truly terrifying moments involving the Zodiac attacks. The violence is sparse but when it does occur it is shocking, particularly watching a knife plunge repeatedly into the writhing body of a woman at a lake. One key element of sustaining such an ominous mood is fabulous song selection. Very often pop songs can be counter-productive to a movie, coming across as a lazy attempt to cobble together a soundtrack to shill. With Zodiac, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” becomes a powerfully haunting medley for the killer and the sonic linchpin for the film.

Fincher does an excellent job of transporting us back in time and recreating the sense of paranoia that grappled many. There is a great scene late in the film where Graysmith comes to the sudden realization that he may have walked right into the spider’s parlor. The scene plays out to an agonizingly uncomfortable length, and you too feel like running out the door as fast as your legs can take you. By not knowing definitively who the Zodiac may be, the film gets a boost of suspense from a multitude of creepy suspects. In an interesting decision, Fincher uses different actors of different shape during the Zodiac attacks, playing against the varying reports from witnesses and survivors.

There?s a sizeable danger trying to find a climax to a case that remains open to this day and where no one has been officially charged. Zodiac does as good a job as possible to present a fitting, mostly satisfying conclusion. The movie presents the best theory and points a convincing finger at who Zodiac perhaps really was.

Zodiac is expertly crafted but has a handful of minor flaws that hold it back. The overall script is rather nimble with how it dishes new information to digest, however the intricacies can amass and become too great, and some scenes congest too much without needed forward momentum which causes the flow to get caught up in an expository pile-up. Still, the film is demanding but not overwhelming and not without reward. The film follows the ups and downs of the Zodiac investigation, and that means characterization runs short and simple. I fear the only false note amongst a vastly talented cast is Gyllenhaal, an actor I adore. He works fine in the portrayal of a young kid in the newsroom trying his hand at crime solving, but it’s the film’s second half where the actor falters. He fails to sell the obsession and desperation that dominates his life, instead looking wiped out but no worse for wear, like the temporary results of an all-nighter before a big test.

It was five years since Fincher’s last film, and he wasn’t sitting on his laurels when he crafted Zodiac, an exceptionally intelligent and demanding movie. Decades pass, suspects weave in and out, evidence and testimony contradict one another, it’s all a lot to keep track of but I found myself absorbed in the case just like Graysmith. This is a serial killer movie that could bring the smarts back and redefine the genre, that is, if fans are willing to sit through 3 hours of police work. If not, well they might get their kicks out of the more genre loyal The Zodiac, released in 2006. And that movie’s only 97 minutes long.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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