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Saturday, Sep 29, 2007


When the western finally wore out its welcome on both the big and small screens, it required that most reactionary of entertainment ideals – revisionism and/or deconstructionism - to mark it’s marginal return. Beginning with the sensational spaghetti phase, and working through phases both existential and esoteric, filmmakers found hidden facets of the genre, exploiting realism and debunking myth in an attempt to make the category compliant to a contemporary audience. While many still can’t cotton to its outlaw glorification and “violence answers everything” ideal, the creative forces in filmmaking still try to revive its fading fortunes. With a few startling examples – Unforgiven, for example – the horse opera is still considered an artifact of a less sophisticated entertainment era.


Perhaps that explains the lax, almost lost quality of Andrew Dominik’s fascinating if flawed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Not really an oater in the traditional sense, yet restricted by the undying spirit of the wild, wild west, this is a biopic as a beautiful collection of landscapes, a project where vistas and visuals are far more impactful than characters or individual interaction. Instead of giving us reasons to care about the title icons, people who’ve remained intrinsic to the pulp culture collective since fading from physical view, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is hollowed out history. It’s a Ken Burns documentary without all the style and none of the substance. It’s one big long love letter to the notion of a nation without laws, and a stunning example of overreaching aesthetic dismantling a rather decent idea.


Our tale begins with Ford trying to join Jesse’s gang. Brother Frank (a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Sam Shepard) rejects the oddball kid outright, but the celebrated criminal finds his fawning…interesting. After a set piece train robbery, the boys disband, heading to safe houses in and around the Midwest. James meets back with his family, while the Fords - Robert and his older sibling Charley (an excellent Sam Rockwell) – head to their sister’s farm. There, they get involved in various personal problems, including unnecessary romantic relationships, conspiracies against Jesse, and back door deals with local law enforcement. Naturally, James finds out about these transgressions, and uses his own brand of six shooter justice to right the wrongs. As the Fords continue to befriend the seemingly psychotic criminal, it’s clear that James is planning something sinister for his compadres. It is up to Robert to act, even if it means destroying everything he’s ever cared about.


At the core of director Dominik’s take on this material (by way of Ron Hansen’s novel) is the idea that fame always has its flunkies, that even a notorious murderer and criminal like Jesse James would have at least one glorified groupie on the range who’d desperately want to emulate him. Our fanatic is the noted weakling Ford, a spineless sycophant with as many nervous tics as personal problems. He’s an obsessive, a stalker in an era where such menace was begged off as eccentricity, or ignorance. By the time this film finishes setting up the last act killing, it’s not a surprise. Instead, it becomes a natural extension of our current tabloid take on such matters. Ford may seem forced into acting – he’s supposedly saving himself and his brother from James’ unpredictable nature – but his is a response to rejection, not a matter of actual self defense. 


All of this could make a fine film, especially one that never looses its focus to feature unnecessary supporting characters and insignificant subplots. But The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost all ancillary players and narrative asides. Whenever we are introduced to a new member of the gang, or walk into the home of a distant relative, Dominik disembarks from the story at hand to bring us backstory, historical context, and expositional explanations. It’s like listening to a lecture by an old time recreationist, complete with a vernacular heavy narration that frequently undermines the mood. No matter how much we enjoy the company of Charley Ford, Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, or Ed Miller, we spend way too much time with them.


And then there is the acting. When it comes to supporting performances, everyone is aces. They bring a nice level of authenticity, never coming across as too contemporary or overly modern. But our stars are scattered to say the least. As James, Brad Pitt decides to invest his killer with a Zen sense of nature, as well as a weird sort of insomnia that only arrives when the story needs him awake. He’s like Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys on personality altering chemicals and a couple of quarts of moonshine. It’s a take that kind of grows on you, as well as a Method maneuver that never really pays off. As Ford, however, Casey Affleck is quirkiness incarnate. When we first meet him, his line readings resemble the disconnected ramblings of a borderline imbecile. His toothy grin and stammering, starstruck qualities are downright creepy. But when viewed in contrast to what Pitt is producing, a sly symbiosis occurs. It’s as if, by allowing his actors to go in totally different directions with their interpretations, Dominik is trying for a single three dimensional whole. And he nearly achieves it.


What he does get right, however, are the gorgeous cinematic compositions that give The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford its optical splendor. While there are rumors swirling around the production of interference from studios and stars (Pitt is an executive here, as well as Ridley Scott), it’s clear than Dominik has an eye for pretty pictures. From the dynamic night robbery with its snow-covered, near monochrome menace to a stunning shot of Jesse riding down a hill toward a guilty co-conspirator’s shack, there are enough evocative sequences here to stir even the most hardened motion picture heart. Yet they continue in the service of a narrative that never comes alive, that fails to fulfill the story’s numerous possibilities, and trudges along tentatively, only to go on for another half hour after the finale.


Oddly enough, the epilogue material is indicative of what’s right – and very wrong – with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. When we learn of the conflicting feelings toward Ford, of how James’ unusual fame produced a clear cut dichotomy between people who loved his criminal bravado and those who suffered at his hands, it’s a fascinating bit of history. Likewise, the stage show where the killing was recreated nightly, plus the eventual backlash that caused Ford to go into hiding, are similarly evocative. Soon however, we realize where the flaw in the film exists. When dealing with James and Ford, their unintentional battle of wills intertwined with their individual shortcomings and psychosis, we get the outline for something truly remarkable. But when viewed in response to the rest of the movie proffered, the reaction is far more muted.


Fact is, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should have been better. It should have followed the real focus on the story and done away with at least an hour of subplotting. Good work by genial actors just can’t make up for a lack of direction or an overreliance on atmosphere. Director Andrew Dominik gives great mood, and when paired with the right project, the results should be astounding. But this movie is a western for those not steeped in the genres generic trappings, who see majesty in the mundane and brilliance in the disconnected and dour. The only thing epic about this otherwise slight film is its ambition. You can tell that everyone involved thought they were creating a post-modern masterpiece. What we end up with, however, is a collection of pretty canvases without a single gallery conceit to hold them all together. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been heroic. As it stands, it’s nothing but scattered.



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Friday, Sep 28, 2007


Here it is, the last Viewer Discretion Advised before SE&L settles in for its annual examination of horror in all its many film-oriented facets. As usual, the pay cable channels are challenging the very notions of quality, providing limp action, dull drama, and uninspired comedy as its main cinematic starting points. Only a fascinating look back at the War at Home circa 1945 holds any worthwhile allure. Things aren’t much better on the Indie and Outsider scene either. It looks like every movie-based network is waiting for the calendar to turn over so they can indulge in a little movie macabre thrills and chills. So play it safe this weekend – tune in to the suggested selection, and then get ready to get your creepy crawly on. You’ll have 31 days of dread before the haunted holiday itself signals an end to all the ghosts and goblins:


Premiere Pick
Flags of Our Fathers


It was an ambitious decision. With the success of Saving Private Ryan and books like The Greatest Generation, Hollywood and the viewing public’s newfound love affair with World War II was about to get a whole lot trickier. Clint Eastwood announced that he intended to take on the Battle of Iwo Jima – one of the conflict’s worst and bloodiest – and present it from two perspectives. The first would be this Western/Allie/American side of the story, with that famous photo of the flag raising beginning the dramatic dissertation. From there, the hero worship accompanying the soldiers, plus the search for the real story behind the shot, are given an equally evocative treatment. For many this was the lesser of Eastwood’s daunting double feature. The all Japanese Letters from Iwo Jima would be considered the material’s masterpiece. Still, this is a wonderful motion picture, addressing issues not usually associated with a war movie. (29 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Miami Vice


Michael Mann’s uninspired update of his seminal ‘80s TV series avoids all of the arch art direction and soundtrack spoils that gave the MTV-inspired crime drama its signatures. Instead, we getting Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx doing Scarface for an audience more interested in pastels and Glen Frey than undercover acrobatics and moral indecision. (29 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

Running with Scissors


Movies based on books run the risk of angering more than one demographic. You have devotees to the tome, individuals hoping for complete authenticity. On the other hand, you’ve got film fans who just want an engaging entertainment. This adaptation of Augusten Burroughs autobiographical work satisfied neither. It missed too many of the memoir’s finer points, substituting obvious quirk in their place. (29 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

Failure to Launch


Here’s a weird idea for a romantic comedy – let’s focus on the adventures of an amiable slacker who won’t leave home, even after he hooks up with a socially acceptable hottie. Matthew McCanaughy is the likeable sponge. Sarah Jessica Parker is the horse-faced catalyst who’s supposed to inspire, and then spring him. It’s all very touchy feely and phony as Hell. (29 September, Showtime, 8:15PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Kill Your Idols


Kill Your Idols starts off with a stellar premise for a documentary. Hoping to trace the history and growth of the No Wave scene in mid ‘70s New York, director S. A. Crary rounds up a few of the usual suspects – and a couple we desperately hope to hear from – and turns the camera on their open, opinionated selves. For anyone who grew up in the period, only ‘hearing’ about artists like Lydia Lunch or Suicide from their more hip and haughty pals, this is a chance to get in on the ground floor of the significant sonic movement and see what all the fuss was about. In many ways, this approach will probably copy your reaction to this fine, fragmented film. On the one hand, you will definitely find these aging musical anarchists an intriguing and engaging bunch. But there will be folks who hear the racket these reasonable people made and bristle at such an atonal attack. For them, no amount of erudition can make up for their lack of melody. (01 October, Sundance Channel, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
American Splendor


Paul Giamatti is writer Harvey Pekar, a miserable man who channels his angst into the title comic. Along with friend Toby Radloff (the genuine nerd of Cleveland, Ohio), they work as file clerks for the VA. This astounding biopic follows the cult figure’s rise to prominence…and the pitfalls along the way.  (01 October, IFC, 9PM EST)

Debbie Does Dallas Uncovered


One of hardcore’s penultimate titles gets a documentary breakdown thanks to director Francis Hanly’s overview. This is really nothing more than a UK look at America’s obsession with smut, an episode from Channel 4’s sensational The Dark Side of Porn. Still, it definitely deserves a look. (02 October, Sundance Channel, 2AM EST)

Dahmer


He remains an icon of evil, a man so disturbed that he could only satisfy his psychosexual cravings via vivisection and cannibalism. When he was caught, the slaughterhouse state of his apartment indicated a darkness much deeper than anyone thought. Too bad this small indie effort fails to capture any of these elements. (03 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Circle of Iron


In an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, this elemental Bruce Lee vanity project (which was completed posthumously after the noted Asian action star died) will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. For many, Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations. Still, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration. (01 October, Flix, 12:45AM EST)

Additional Choices
Bikers Beware!


It’s Billy Jack vs. Marlon Brando as TCM’s Underground brings chopper riding reprobate to the late night audience. Both movies here – The Born Losers and The Wild One – have been featured before, so if you love ‘em, here’s your chance to enjoy them all over again. If you’ve never seen them, you’re in for some remarkable man vs. motorcycle madness. (05 October, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Red Shoes


British auteur Michael Powell and his longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger created this decidedly adult take on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, and critics have been beside themselves ever since. Remarkable in its use of color and art design, yet equally imposing in its acting and dance performance, this is a masterpiece for the ages. (30 September, Retroplex, 11:40PM EST)

The Capture of Grizzly Adams


Okay, so it’s a TV movie. Sue us. We here at SE&L just can’t get enough of Dan Haggerty’s hokey mountain man persona, and this old fashioned melodrama has enough wonderfully weepy elements to push all of our guilty pleasure buttons. Come on – it’s got wrongful accusations and kids being threatened by a trip to the orphanage. How can you say no? (02 October, Drive In Classics Canada, 10:30PM EST)

 


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Friday, Sep 28, 2007


Apparently, people just can’t be ‘people’ in the movies. Gone are the days when individual idiosyncrasy and outright character quirks gauged a personality. Now – or at least in the universe of the post-modern motion picture – issues outside a human being must dominate who they are. A person whose father is a drunkard, who used heroin in the past, and dreams of a life where material wealth will fulfill every single one of his heart’s desires, doesn’t process said problems and then convert them into an overt philosophy. Instead, they are solely defined by them, limited in cinematic scope to be hobbled by such insurmountable social hurdles. The new film by two time Oscar winner Robert Benton, Feast of Love, is a veritable smorgasbord of such ills-defined scrubs. What wants to be a multifaceted look at how emotion moves and manages us becomes a cardboard collection of movie of the week warning signs.


What we have here is a story where everyone is carved out of crisis. Professor Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman) is all broke up inside since the death of his son. While his wonderful wife Esther (Jane Alexander) tolerates his moods, she’s desperate to see him back in the classroom. While on extended leave, he frequents a local Portland coffee shop (Jitters – tee hee) run by the unlucky in love owner Bradley (Greg Kinear). Having recently lost his wife (Selma Blair) to a lesbian lover, he’s empty and vulnerable. Still, he hopes to find love, and believes he may have when he meets real estate agent Diana (Radha Mitchell). Unfortunately, she’s not the faithful friend he thinks she is. Elsewhere amongst the staff, young barista Oscar (Toby Hemingway) has just fallen head over heels with little girl lost Chloe (Alexa Davalos). In an odd twist of fate, the energetic couple has two massive burdens to overcome. One is his drunken, dangerous father Bat (Fred Ward). Hers is a psychic prediction that Oscar is destined to die.


Human interaction just doesn’t get this overstuffed. If Feast of Love was indeed a food, it would be a purposeless pan pizza decorated with every topping on the melodrama menu and extra schmaltz inserted into the talky, twice baked crust.  Instead of simplifying the story to make everything crystal clear and highly important, Benton believes in getting lost in untold undercurrents. No one is just discontented – they are plagued by literal curses. Happiness doesn’t come from simply being together. No, couples must copulate and spend endless minutes spooning in pre/post sexual congress to illustrate their attraction. Replete with social suckers and lustful losers, this is a movie of misfits, a film better suited as a cautionary example vs. a work of celluloid substance. If we could get a handle on what this director was aiming for, that would be one thing. But the way this sappy story is told, the parts never create a significant sum.


At first, we feel this will be a tale about redemption. Freeman, who basically wears dignity and grace on his brilliantly aging face, could be the center of an intriguing take on forgiving one’s flaws and accepting the horrors of the past. His character has the most inner stability, the most well rounded relationship, and offers more advice than doctors Phil and Laura put together. Unfortunately, he’s one of those ‘unable to practice what he preaches’ teachers. For every beneficial bon mot he gives out, he spends another sleepless night blaming himself for this son’s demise. It’s a tentative situation, one that could easily unsettle a viewer hoping to see something other than 100 minutes of self pity. But Freeman pries more out of his moments than the sloppy script (by Autumn in New York scribe Allison Burnett) actually offers. Sadly, he’s the only actor who can.


On the opposite end of this paradigm is the pathetic Greg Kinnear. It’s unclear what’s more upsetting about his Bradley character – the fact that he’s such a clueless sap, or that this noted performer can’t find a way to play him properly. Maybe in the hands of a more gifted, or daring star, we’d have something to hang onto. But Kinnear actually buys into this guy’s good natured denseness. In a surreal seduction scene where wife Selma Blair is getting mentally bi-curious with a Sappho softball player, our hapless lead sits back and smiles like he’s just let the world’s biggest fart. It doesn’t help matters that every line of dialogue he’s given sounds like a passage from the dimwitted optimist’s primer. We’re supposed to view his unbelievable blind faith as something good. But when it comes out of Kinnear’s mouth, it sounds downright desperate – and rather pathetic.


Part of the problem is the screenplay. It feels like Burnett simply skimmed the chapter headings of Charles Baxter’s book and then inserted emotional signposts from a Lifetime Original Movie. In other instances, she leaves characters so vacant that others must try to fill in their blanks. As Oscar, the dreamer with a Dad who’s consistently two and three quarter sheets to the wind, Toby Hemingway is all tribal tattoo - and that’s it. His after-sex speech about dreams and fantasies sounds like the incoherent ravings of a well potted weed head. This means that Chloe, as essayed by a decent Alexa Davalos must do all the heavy cinematic lifting. Not only do we have to believe in her amiable if aimless gal, but we rely on her to provide her partner with some manner of sympathy. After all, we learn he’s going to die about halfway through the film, so in order to make that event (if it ever comes) resonate, there’s got to be some identification or empathy there.


But Feast of Love will have none of that. Instead, it aims for the little plastic tips at the end of your heartstrings and hopes that by slightly nicking them, the inadvertent and ever so slight tugging will leave you satisfied. In fact, all it really does is make us angry. When the Professor reaches out to Chloe, when Diana’s man whore boy toy calls her the C-word and slaps her face, the movie actually offers up some life. We sense a spark that other sequences have no intention or ability of creating. Even worse, the intersecting narrative with its Altman-esque sense of scope destroys any real sense of drama. Since Benton isn’t out to replicate said American auteur’s epic nature (the running time is kept to a bare focus group friendly minimum) and hopes to keep each important thread in its own isolated arena, elements that should help are left hanging. It says a lot about this film that Kinnear and Freeman end up living next door to each other, yet that fact vanishes from our memory almost immediately.


In truth, it’s hard to assess what would help this haphazard effort. Perhaps if Benton had tossed aside the entire same sex subplot and made Kinnear’s character less of a cuckold king. Maybe Fred Ward’s drunk on a rampage routine could have been scaled back or simply excised. Did we really need the nauseating meet-cute moment when Chloe and Oscar make cow eyes at each other while the Professor predicts their Greek god-like level of love? Even the ‘dog bribe’ bit was a pointless exercise in tacky tween greed. When viewed through all these flawed facets, Feast of Love comes across as a budget buffet instead of a banquet. Baxter’s inspiration for his novel was apparently a reworking of the Bard’s celebrated A Midsummer’s Night Dream. One thing’s for sure – this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s barely Benton, when you come to think of it.



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Thursday, Sep 27, 2007


The current War on Terror offers some tenuous propositions at best, perhaps the most confusing being the President’s preemptive belief that we are “fighting them there to avoid fighting them here”. While such a stance is all well and good – and guaranteed to please the sanctimonious and security minded – it fails to fully address the notion of safety for our citizenry abroad. While Baghdad has become the main battlefield, radicals are still blowing up hotels, destroying bars and discotheques, and occasionally combating Uncle Sam on his own military turf. The 1983 barracks bombing in Beirut and the 1998 US Embassy disaster in Africa proves that, while 9/11 remains a monumental tragedy in the history of our nation, fanatical fundamentalists will continue to strike at those who their twisted dogma determines deserve it.


And when they do, here’s hoping that the maverick FBI team at the center of Peter Berg’s controversial action thriller The Kingdom are called to duty. In a world no longer clearly drawn along good guy/bad guy lines, this sensational adrenaline pumper plays by some mighty black and white rules. When an American oil facility in Saudi Arabia becomes the scene of a devastating terrorist attack, our nation’s number one law enforcement agency wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the secretive Arab country has a closed door policy when it comes to outsiders participating in crime scene scrutiny.


This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from gathering a team consisting of specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion to the Saudi embassy, the FBI is allowed in. They are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.


Brazen in its “all Muslims are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Middle Eastern culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the jingoism, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.


One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience used to only seeing the aftermath, not the actual incidents, is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge. Indeed, everything in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script is set up to draw a straight line between patriotism and payoff.


Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking Arabs. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.


And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. Splitting location work between the United Arab Emirates and Arizona, Berg gets the stifling, hot desert atmosphere down perfectly, and when our leads have to kick it into Rambo mode, the firefights and fisticuffs are just outstanding. Indeed, the ample action and unswerving dedication to ‘Islam as iniquity’ plays right into a mindset fed up with ineffectual polices and gross government negligence.


It will be curious to see if any firestorm actually occurs – though it’s clear that the lack of subtlety probably demands one. After all, if Aladdin can get dragged through the pro-PC fire for its depiction of Arabs, what will a movie that makes all Saudis (except one) suspicious actually earn? Some will argue that entertainment is not reality, and that all villains are exaggerated for the sake of cinematic drama. But there is no buffer here, not even with Barhom’s Col. Al-Ghazi as a like minded Muslim. We are supposed to see his hardworking dedication and determination, and excuse all the extremism. Just as one terrorist fails to speak for an entire populace, the well-meaning and noble cop is in no way indicative of The Kingdom’s kind. Instead, it’s all flared nostrils and anti-American polemics in caustic, copious amounts.


Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.


All of this makes The Kingdom a very curious film. It is beyond thrilling at times and accurately chilling on more than one occasion. It draws on individual instincts so primal and enigmatic that it’s almost automatic in its joy circuits, and offers fictional justice in a circumstance that demands factual fairness for all. There is no excusing the abominations visited on the peaceful peoples of the world by religious-based vigilantes, especially when their target is so random and their rationale so suspect. But The Kingdom wants to correct that corollary by making everyone evil – except the USA, that is. While it’s great for morale, it seems slightly old fashioned for a movie. It’s not the only out of date premise here, which bodes well for your overall enjoyment, if not your overall understanding.



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Wednesday, Sep 26, 2007

Since the overwhelming success of Jaws (Steven Spielberg) back in 1975, the summer has become a dramatic battleground where Hollywood studios briskly compete for the audience’s attention and hard earned dollars. During this season, we are bombarded every week with at least one movie that promises unsettling action, unearthly landscapes, and emotional bliss. Faithfully accompanying these flicks to the combat zone are their music scores, eager to reinforce on the perception of the viewer the magical worlds promised by the tag lines. Thus, this time of the year is also the best moment for soundtrack lovers to look for majestic, brooding, or melancholic music. Fortunately, three of the films released during the month of July feature alluring compositions and performances.


Music from the Motion Picture The Bourne Ultimatum [rating: 9]


The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass), which follows The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004), is the latest entry in the successful trilogy of gloomy spy flicks based on the clever books written by the late Robert Ludlum (1927-2001). While there is no contest that Jason Bourne is not as popular as James Bond, it is undisputable that the Bourne films played an influential role in the gestation of the latest Bond adventure, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), which is by far the grittiest and most violent of the series. Arguably, a substantial contribution to the success of the Bourne movies has been their dynamic scores composed by John Powell. Perhaps the most inspired action film music in years, the soundtracks for these three films are structurally similar on their aggressive use of percussions to underscore the brutal action and brooding suspense.
Released by Decca, the soundtrack for The Bourne Ultimatum presents a generous amount of music in an extraordinarily crisp recording. Composed for full orchestra and electronics, the music places a strong emphasis on the percussions and the low strings, creating a dark acoustic atmosphere. As with the previous films of the franchise, The Bourne Ultimatum is underscored with music that perfectly highlights its unbearable tension, exotic locales, and relentless pace. In addition, The Bourne Ultimatum often reprises the two main motifs from the previous scores, which are the driving force behind the lengthy tracks “Tangiers” and “Waterloo”. Underscoring the two main action sequences of the flick, these tracks are relentless in their use of percussions and rhythm to accelerate the frenetic tempo of the images they accompany. On the other hand, “Thinking of Marie” is a meditative and melodic composition, which serves as a neat balance to the aggressiveness found in the rest of the score. In this regard, this soundtrack is an authentic acoustic tour-de-force that perfectly demonstrates why the music for the Bourne movies has become a staple of modern action film scoring. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]
Another continuing series of popular movies are those in the Harry Potter franchise. But contrary to the consistent musical structure of the Bourne films, the Harry Potter series have featured three different composers over the course of five flicks. Indeed, the legendary John Williams provided serviceable scores for The Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001), The Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002), and The Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004), while Patrick Doyle composed surprisingly effective music with overwhelming dark overtones for The Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005). Now, for The Order of the Phoenix (David Yates), the musical wand was in the firm hand of composer Nicholas Hooper. Arguably, Hooper’s greatest challenge in the scoring of this film was to follow the giant footsteps left by two of the most distinguished composers in the business. While the resulting score is not a breakthrough of musical underscoring, Hooper succeeded in creating an elegant and charming score.
For The Order of the Phoenix, Hooper composed a score for large orchestra and choir in traditional symphonic fashion. As such, Hooper appears to showcase a solid understanding of classical music structure, composition, and orchestration. For this score, Hooper cleverly balances all the sections of the orchestra to enhance the magical content of the moving image. Some of the highlights presented in the soundtrack CD include “Possession” and “Death of Sirius”, two dark passages which feature harps, high strings, and whispering voices. Equally satisfying is the reprising of the Hedwig’s theme, which was originally composed by Williams, and now can be found in “Another Story”, “Hall of Prophecy”, “The Room of Requirement”, and “A Journey to Hogwarts”. But nevertheless, the compositions feel fresh and avoid a simple re-hashing of the original. Overall, The Order of the Phoenix feels as one of those instances where the score proves to be far superior to the film itself. No Reservations Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]
While The Bourne Ultimatum and The Order of the Phoenix belong to well known franchises, No Reservations (Scott Hicks) is one of those summer flicks which are rare to see these days: it is not a sequel, nor a remake. A romantic comedy that takes place in a high brow restaurant, No Reservations mostly relies on opera arias than on an original score. For instance, the soundtrack CD includes “Celeste Aida” and “Nessun Dorma” performed by the late Luciano Pavarotti, and “La Donna e Mobile” interpreted by Joseph Calleja. As such, only a fool would dare to criticize the composition and performance of these pieces. In this regard, perhaps the only wise comment is that the music fits nicely the kitchen locale of the movie.
The CD also includes a couple of popular songs, such as the unforgettable “Sway” by Michael Buble and “Mambo Gelato” by Ray Gelato. The rather brief original music found on this soundtrack was composed by the celebrated Phillip Glass using his characteristic minimalist style. However, the only two tracks with Glass’ music are “Zoe & Kate Watch Video” and “Zoe Goes to the Restaurant”, which are very brief and quite likely to disappoint the artist’s fans. A mixed bag of goodies, the soundtrack for No Reservations ultimately provides an overall unsatisfying listening experience.

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