Review: Deja Vu

November 27, 2006

Denzel Washington adds a considerable charge to Déjà Vu, a polished and at times gripping thriller with sci-fi overtones. Centered around the bombing of a crowded ferry in New Orleans, the film skirts some touchy issues in its quest to entertain. But director Tony Scott’s energy and skill overwhelm questions of taste and plot inconsistencies, helping elevate Déjà Vu into a large-scale and extremely good-looking adventure.

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Interview: Richard LaGravanese on Freedom Writers

November 27, 2006

When Erin Gruwell began teaching high school in Long Beach, California, in 1994, she faced a class of black, Latino, and Asian gang members seething with anger. These were the “unteachable” students, the ones who had been abandoned by the education system, the ones beset by violence and abuse before they even entered a school building. The Rodney King riots had just taken place, and the novice teacher quickly found herself stripped of her idealistic attitudes about how to best instruct her class.

Gruwell’s struggle to connect with her students forms the basis of Freedom Writers, a Paramount feature written and directed by Richard LaGravenese. He first learned about Gruwell’s program after watching a “Primetime Live” segment about the teacher. When he read Freedom Writers Diary, a book published as a result of Gruwell’s class, LaGravenese told his producing partners that it was a story that needed to be filmed.

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Review: The Aura

November 27, 2006

Released in Argentina in 2005, The Aura took the top honors at that country’s annual film awards ceremony. It is the second and last feature from writer and director Fabián Bielinsky, who died of a heart attack while working in Brazil in June, 2006. A more mature work than his previous Nine Queens, The Aura is a reflection upon the thriller genre rather than an actual thriller itself.

The title refers to the sensory signals a taxidermist receives just before he undergoes epileptic seizures. The unnamed taxidermist (played by Ricardo Darín) is a quiet, withdrawn dreamer who barely reacts when his wife leaves him. Persuaded by a colleague to go on a hunting trip, the taxidermist finds himself in the middle of a mountain forest training a rifle on a stag. One seizure later, he discovers that he’s shot and killed Dietrich (Manuel Rodal), the owner of the cabins where the hunters are staying as well as the mastermind behind a scheme to rob a nearby casino.

With the corpse hidden deep in the woods, and his companion called away by a medical emergency, the taxidermist is suddenly free to explore his theories about how to commit the perfect crime. He pieces together some of Dietrich’s plot, which involves overcoming the drivers of an armored car while they are visiting a roadside diner. But just as his epilepsy makes him vulnerable to his surroundings, the gaps in Dietrich’s plans leave the taxidermist open to unexpected complications.

Such as the arrival of Sosa (Pablo Cedrón) and Montero (Walter Reyno), two crooks who were working with Dietrich. The taxidermist not only must persuade them to accept him into the gang, but also figure out the role played by a third crook who can no longer participate. When the actual robbery goes disastrously awry, leaving corpses strewn by the roadside, the taxidermist may be in too far over his head to recover.

Bielinsky employs a deceptively simple style that mirrors the taxidermist’s second thoughts and hesitations. Viewers discover plot twists at the same time he does, leading to a growing awareness of the ramifications of the planned crime. The director elides certain key developments, but generally plays fair with the story’s clues. But Bielinsky’s intellectual approach can make The Aura feel a bit too abstract. Individual moments are finely crafted and persuasive, but as a whole the story has a few too many gaps and digressions.

Darín, one of the leads in Nine Queens, gives a carefully shaded performance that is more realistic than compelling. It’s up to the excellent character actors, like the sinister, sepulchral gunman played by Walter Reyno, to provide the real moments of suspense in The Aura.

Bielinsky’s attention to detail, in his writing but also in his handling of locations and actors, adds a distinctive austerity to the film. Undeniably talented, the director’s best attribute may have been his curiosity, the driving force behind The Aura.

Credits

Cast: Ricardo Darín, Dolores Fonzi, Alejandro Awada, Pablo Cedrón, Jorge D’Elia, Manuel Rodal, Rafael Castejón, Walter Reyno, Nahuel Perez Biscayart.

Crew: Written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky. Produced by Pablo Bossi, Samuel Hadida, Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky. Executive producers: Cecilia Bossi, Victor Hadida, Ariel Saúl, Diego Conejero, José Garcia Espian. Director of photography: Checco Varese. Edited by Alejandro Carrillo Penovi, Fernando Pardo. Art director: Mercedes Alfonsín. Costume designer: Marisa Urruti. Sound: José Luis Diaz Ouzande, Carlos Abbate. A Patagonik Film Group, Tornasol Films, and Davis Films Productions production, with the participation of TVE and Canal+. In Spanish with English subtitles.

IFC First Take/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital/138 Mins./Not rated


Review: Deck the Halls

November 27, 2006

As bland as its title, Deck the Halls is a seasonal comedy with no bite and very few laughs. With rote performances by a cast of underperformers and an absurdly thin script, the film is as disposable, and as annoying, as SUV ads on TV.

Matthew Broderick offers another of his prissy, uptight caricatures, this time as Steve Finch, an optometrist in small-town Massachusetts. Oblivious or indifferent to the fact that he is alienating his family, Finch has reduced the Christmas holidays to a tightly regimented schedule of “traditional” events. His wife Kelly (Kristin Davis) goes along with his plans, apparently because the film’s three screenwriters couldn’t think of anything else for her to do. Children Madison (Alia Shawkat) and Carter (Dylan Blue) raise a few objections to their father’s overbearing manner before withdrawing into the background.

Finch recedes as well, in part because the writers don’t know how to deal with his cold, robotic nature, but also because used-car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) moves in across the street. Yet another of DeVito’s good-hearted vulgarians, Hall is so bored by his job that he fixates on a new obsession: decorating his house with enough Christmas lights to make it visible from outer space. Hall generally ignores his airhead twins (Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge), typecast as jailbait. Lowering taste levels even further, stage veteran Kristin Chenoweth plays his wife Tia with the squeaky voice and out-thrust chest of a trailer-park hooker.

The film’s premise has DeVito and Broderick publicly profess friendship but secretly loathe each other, a timeworn ploy that requires at least a modicum of commitment on the actors’ parts. Sadly, but understandably, neither actor can generate much enthusiasm over the script’s trite examples of one-upmanship: brighter lights, louder shrieks, forged contracts, theft, arson, camel vomit. With no one to root for or care about, viewers are left to contemplate the film’s ghastly vision of consumerism run amok. Lip service is paid to family values and to celebrating the spirit of Christmas. That’s before onlookers rescue a blown-out display by holding their lit cell phones aloft.

You can’t even say Deck the Halls lacks the courage of its convictions, because it doesn’t have any. Unless the filmmakers are preaching that Christmas is just another occasion to buy things, to envy others, to ignore loved ones, and to allow the basest parts of your nature to emerge unchecked.

Credits

Cast: Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Fred Armisen, Jorge Garcia, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Sean O’Bryan, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin.

Crew: Directed by John Whitesell. Written by Matt Corman & Chris Ord and Don Rhymer. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Michael Costigan, John Whitesell. Executive producer: Jeremiah Samuels. Director of photography: Mark Irwin. Production designer: Bill Brzeski. Edited by Paul Hirsch. Music by George S. Clinton. Music supervisor: Patrick Houlihan. Costume designer: Carol Ramsey. A Regency Enterprises presentation of a New Regency and Corduroy Films production.

Twentieth Century Fox/Color/1.85/Dolby, DTS/93 Mins./Rated PG


Review: Casino Royale

November 9, 2006

This latest attempt to rejuvenate a long-running film series returns to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel to show the origins of the secret agent. In doing so, the filmmakers not only introduce Daniel Craig as the newest Bond, but also drop the overblown irony that marred the last few episodes. The result is one of the best, and most lavish, action films in years. Despite its flaws, Casino Royale sets a new standard for espionage adventures that will be hard to top.

From the black-and-white prologue, in which Bond brutally kills one enemy and then casually offs another, this is no-nonsense filmmaking, polished, efficient, and dedicated to telling a story whose problems and complications resist easy answers. Although set in the present, the script presents a Bond before his reputation was established, indeed, a Bond on the verge of being fired after a botched stake-out. This is an agent skeptical of his superiors and his assignments, but one who pursues his job with a dogged determination.

While trying to salvage the earlier mix-up, Bond stumbles across the work of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier responsible for investing hundreds of millions from “freedom fighters.” The secret agent foils a bombing plot in Miami, forcing Le Chiffre to stage a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro to pay off his debts to terrorists. Backed to the tune of ten million by Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a self-described “accountant,” Bond tries to defeat Le Chiffre at the gaming tables in an attempt to expose the other members of his terrorist ring.

The seemingly endless casino summit, with Texas Hold’em substituting for the Chemin de Fer found in the novel, is one of the film’s few missteps. Another is the long running time, resulting in part from one too many trick endings. And fans may be disappointed by the short shrift given to Bond staples, notably his high-tech gadgetry.

On the other hand, Casino Royale boasts one of the finest action sequences in all of the series, a pounding, thrilling chase through a construction site that quotes everyone from Harold Lloyd to the parkour martial arts found in films like District B13. With vertiginous stunts and insane pacing, it is reason alone to see the film.

Other actors associated with the part sometimes treated it as a joke, reducing Bond to a careless lech. Craig brings a single-minded drive and an arsenal of dirty tricks to the role, enlivening Bond’s character without cheapening it. He acquits himself admirably in the action scenes, and is suitably intense even during the quieter moments.

Vesper Lynd was one of Ian Fleming’s more complex female characters, the one responsible for Bond’s often callous treatment of women later on. Eva Green is alluring enough in the role, although she is difficult to understand at times. As Le Chiffre, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen lacks the full-bore mania of classic Bond villains. But Judi Dench, reprising her role as M, adds real steel to her portrayal of Bond’s boss.

Sumptuously photographed on locations ranging from Venice and Lake Como to the Bahamas, this Casino Royale easily stands up to any film in the series. (The novel was also the basis for a 1954 television show and a ham-fisted spoof filmed in 1967.)

Credits

Cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian, Isaach De Bankole, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic, Tobias Menzies, Claudio Santamaria, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench, Sébastien Foucan, Tsai Chin, Lazar Ristovski, Urbano Barberini.

Crew: Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis. Based on the novel by Ian Fleming. Produced by Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli. Executive producers: Anthony Waye, Callum McDougall. Director of photography: Phil Méheux. Production designer: Peter Lamont. Editor: Stuart Baird. Music by David Arnold. Costume designer: Lindy Hemming. Stunt coordinator: Gary Powell. Special effects supervisor: Chris Corbould. Associate producer: Andrew Noakes. An Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions presentation.

MGM/Columbia Pictures/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/144 Mins./Rated PG-13


Vitagraph Films at MoMA

November 2, 2006

Although New York City was the first center of the film industry, almost nothing survives from those early years. The Biograph studio on Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, where D.W. Griffith perfected his craft, is long gone, as are studios erected in Westchester and Fort Lee. Surprisingly, one of the earliest studio complexes is not only still standing, but is still being used in part as a production facility. From November 9th to the 13th, the Museum of Modern Art celebrates the centennial of the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn with Vitagraph: The Big V on Avenue M, a series of representative films from the studio.

The company was formed in 1896 as American Vitagraph by British immigrants J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Its first successes were largely faked documentaries and travelogues, such as a view of Niagara Falls that was actually shot in New Jersey. Blackton directed one of the earliest fiction films, The Burglar on the Roof, in 1897, but for the next ten years the studio struggled to survive while fending off a series of lawsuits from rivals like Thomas A. Edison. At first Vitagraph sold its films outright to exhibitors, but in 1905 Blackton and Smith realized that they could earn more money by renting their films to “exchanges” that would take over the tasks of delivering and picking up individual films.

The producers’ decision to concentrate on making films instead of distributing them happily coincided with a boom in nickelodeons, which grew from a handful to thousands within two years. Since programs changed twice a week, theater owners were desperate for product. That August, Vitagraph started work on a new studio in what was then a largely rural area of Flatbush. When it opened over a year later, the Vitagraph Studio spread between East 14th and East 15th Street and between Avenue M and Locust Avenue in what is now called Midwood. It was a state of the art facility that offered glass-enclosed stages, a tank for water scenes, a self-contained laboratory for processing film, and areas devoted to editing, props, and costumes.

The building gave Vitagraph an edge over rival studios, one that it exploited with high quality films. Vitagraph appealed to upscale viewers with films based on literary heroes like Raffles and Sherlock Holmes, but also delivered crowd-pleasing car chases, trick films, and slapstick. With their large sets and lavish production design, Vitagraph films looked better than those from other studios. Blackton experimented with animation and stop-motion photography, and was one of the forces behind Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911), one of the landmark early cartoons.

With The Life of Moses (1909), the studio may have released the world’s first feature film, although it was originally shown in five separate parts. There’s no disputing that Vitagraph was one of the key players in developing the “star” system. Florence Turner, better known to filmgoers as “The Vitagraph Girl,” is just one of many performers the studio nurtured. Others who started out at Vitagraph include Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Adolphe Menjou, and John Bunny.

Spotlighted in a half-dozen films in the series, Bunny grew up in Brooklyn before touring the country in a minstrel show. Over the years he became an actor and director in legitimate theater, working with stars like Maude Adams. In 1910 he left the stage for Vitagraph, and within the year became a sensation in a series of comedies. Over a five-year period Bunny made almost two hundred shorts, predominately comedies but some dramatic works as well. Weighing close to three hundred pounds, and with a florid, expressive face, he was an expert mime and an even greater judge of comic timing. Dressed in a suit and vest, he is like a Tenniel drawing brought to life, and wearing a straw hat, drink in hand, he is a clear inspiration for W.C. Fields. In films like Stenographer Wanted (1912), Bunny is a revelation, playing with a restraint and intuition rare for his time. He was often paired with the gaunt, shrewish Flora Finch in domestic slapstick like Bunny Backslides (1914), which features an extended visit to the old Washington Park baseball field, home of the future Brooklyn Dodgers. Since dialogue didn’t have to be dubbed or subtitled, the actor was especially popular overseas, but sadly succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1915.

After writing and directing The Battle Cry of Peace, which imagined New York City invaded by foreign terrorists, Blackton withdrew from day-to-day operations at Vitagraph. The executives who replaced him made a crucial miscalculation by failing to establish a chain of theaters to show the studio’s films. Apart from comedies starring Sidney Drew and Larry Semon, Vitagraph floundered in the 1920s. Warner Bros. bought the company in 1926, and used the Flatbush complex to film many of its Vitaphone sound shorts. The original building eventually became the site of Warners’ Ace Film Laboratory before being sold to Yeshiva University High School in the 1960s. It is now being used as the Shulamith School for Girls.

Warners built a studio across the street from the Vitagraph complex at the end of the 1920s. NBC bought this building in 1952. It was used for everything from Mary Martin’s version of Peter Pan to The Cosby Show and Another World. Since 2000, it has been the site of JC Studios. Currently the space is being used to shoot As the World Turns, a soap opera that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.