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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Sidney Lumet is 83 years old and still directing movies, God love him. The man is behind cinematic milestones and classics like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and 12 Angry Men, which goes back all the way to 1957 – 50 freaking years ago! The longevity of this man is admirable. He hasn’t pulled together a compelling film in some time, but Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stirring, character-driven crime drama that reveals itself to be a first-rate melodrama.

The film is anchored by two huge performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, playing a pair of brothers both on hard times. Hoffman’s character, Andy, has been living well outside his means to keep up appearances and to sate his taste for a local heroin den. He’s in charge of company payroll and an internal review just discovered a pair of terminated employees still drawing checks, the source of Andy’s cash to pay for his lavish lifestyle. Hawke’s character, Hank, is behind on child support and belittled by his ex-wife. He’s having a hard time even finding the dough to pay the 100 bucks for his daughter to go see The Lion King in New York City. Andy hatches a scheme to solve both their money woes: they’re going to knock over a mom-and-pop jewelry store. It just so happens that the store belongs to Andy and Hank’s mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). The plan goes hopelessly awry and both brothers feel intense pressure in the aftermath.

Lumet and debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson really know how to ratchet up the suspense. The nonlinear timeframe keeps the audience on its toes and continuously rewriting what we think we know. Unlike movies like Babel and 21 Grams, the plot is actually assisted by skipping around time and telling the story out of order. We get the basics and then the details begin to take shape, but because of the prior knowledge the film packs an increasing sense of dread that builds in intensity. As the brothers sink lower trying to cover their misdeeds, Lumet and Masterson crank up the tension to a peak. The knotted and twisty narrative exposes the fragile dynamic of this family and keeps the audience alert and hungry for more.

Hoffman is at his sleazy, duplicitous best with this performance. His character is a man accustomed to getting what he wants and he knows all the manipulative tricks to get there, be it bullying or cajoling. He’s a pusher with so much anger and desperation just below the surface. Andy never feels respected or loved by his father, and he has a great scene where he breaks down in a fit of rage and tears in response to his father apologizing for the bad upbringing. Hoffman imbues great emotional complexity to a man whose world is crashing down. It is enthralling to watch.

Not to be outdone, Hawke puts forth his finest effort of his career. He’s the baby of one very corrosive family; he misplaces trust and admiration in his big brother. Hank isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he has a distinct weariness to his worries, living day-to-day with the knowledge that the world sees him as a loser or a screw-up, losing the respect of his own daughter. When things go bad he unravels rapidly while still holding to his secrets. It’s a performance brimming with nervous anxiety, mounting regret, and self-effacement.

The secondary characters don’t get nearly the attention and consideration. Marisa Tomei is more a plot device than a character; she’s Andy’s wife but has been having an ongoing affair with the more nurturing Hank. She spends most of her scenes in some form of undress and looks remarkably fit for her 43 years of age. I’m not complaining about the ration of her screen time to nudity, however, she feels more like another notch in the complicated relationship between the brothers.

Finney is fine with a rather small role that merely requires him to be aghast or incredulous with the slow police work. I don’t know if a suitable Finney performance can compensate for a staggering leap of character late in the movie, but I suppose I’d rather have any Albert Finney performance in a movie than none at all. Before the Devil places Finney’s character on a perch and just doesn’t give him much outside of his own dawning realization of who was responsible for the botched robbery.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a gripping family tragedy that takes on a Shakespearean quality as it comes to a somber, chilling close. The wordy titles comes from an Irish drinking toast that states, “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.” The message declares the inescapable consequences of our actions. This is a film about the disfiguration of one family; it’s bleak, tragic, but whole-heartedly entertaining and extremely focused in its aims. Lumet has returned to smashing form and reminds an audience that there’s still plenty of vigor left in this 83-year-old director.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

I think the best aspect of the The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in the memory-troubled spy series, is how kinetically improvised it feels. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a human weapon and he thinks constantly with his body, feeling the situation and his environment, and he comes up with improbable weapons, be them pens, magazines, or kicking ass with just a book (knowledge is power). Bourne doesn’t rely on fancy gadgets or a caustic wit; he just outsmarts the competition by reading his world and reacting instinctively, and that is thrilling to watch. The Bourne films have separated themselves from other spy series like James Bond and standout because of how viscerally realistic they play out. That said, Bourne still survives scrapes that would kill any mortal. At this point, we know just about all we need to know with most of the characters, so Ultimatum is one long, fantastic, and gripping series of chases between Bourne and the CIA operatives that want to rub him out. Ultimatum is Paul Greengrass’ (United 93) second film in the series and he enhances the excitement through his docu-drama style of shooting. The editing is constantly roving and perfectly channels the nervous wariness of a spy that is constantly looking over his shoulder. The action sequences are stellar and raft with suspense and top notch stunt work amongst exotic locales. Ultimatum tacks on some awkward political commentary (black hoods, secret CIA torture, breaking the law to “win” the battle against terror) and tries squeezing its story into a fight between Bourne and the dangerous and lawless elements of the American government that have flourished under President Bush’s watch. It doesn’t quite work in the context of a summer action movie, but thanks for trying. The Bourne Ultimatum is a spry and refreshing action movie that serves to cleanse the summer palate of huge special effects blockbusters.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Corpse Bride (2005)

Not as good as Nightmare Before Christmas, but really, what can be? Tim Burton second stop-motion animated film is beautifully crafted and emotionally involving. It’s interesting because all three characters in the movie’s love triangle have really done nothing wrong, and our sympathies are stretched to all three. The contrast of the world of the living (drab, formal) and the dead (colorful, lively) is stark, and death in Corpse Bride is presented as simply another stage of living. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about scaring the kids with this one. The ending is a bit too conventional and the songs are all lackluster, nothing ever as remotely hum-able as Danny Elfman’s masterpieces in Nightmare Before Christmas. Despite the unfair comparisons, Corpse Bride is easy on the eyes, amusing, and nicely romantic.

Nate’s Grade: B

Big Fish (2003)

Big Fish (2003)

Premise: Estranged son Will (Billy Crudup) travels back home in an effort to know his ailing father Edward Bloom (Albert Finney; Ewan McGregor as the younger version). Will hopes to learn the truth behind a man who spent a lifetime spinning extravagant tall tales.

Results: Despite a shaky first half, Big Fish becomes a surprisingly elegant romance matched by director Tim Burtion’’s visual whimsy. McGregor’’s shining big-grinned optimism is charming. Not to be confused with the similar but too mawkish Forrest Gump, Burton’’s father-son meditation will have you quite choked up at its moving climax. Fair warning to those with father issues, you may want to steer clear from Big Fish. You know who you are.

Nate’’s Grade: B+

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Julia Roberts is who they tell you is the star, but the real star is Julia’s cleavage which screams “LOOK AT ME!!!” at the top of its lungs through the entire film. Julia is the female equivalent of John Travolta in last year’s A Civil Action — little guy/gal taking on the big/evil corporations that pollute our water. Julia hands down what is likely her best performance of her long career. It’s a one-sided take and displays the title character’s ruthless tactics and intimidation in order to reach whatever goal she wishes to strive for. The story though, isn’t much for most to work with as it is essentially sap and predictability: the hero will win, justice will prevail, the bad guys who were alluding in the beginning will be punished… etc. etc. Julia’s “woman in a man’s world” business gruff will either prove sadistically humorous or simply wickedly mean-spirited to each viewer. You’ll either love this character or hate this character but either way it will keep you watching.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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