Sunday, October 31, 2004

Movie Review: The Grudge

Japan/United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 10/22/04 (wide)
Running Time: 1:36
Rated: PG-13 (Horror, violence)
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, William Mapother, KaDee Strickland, Bill Pullman, Grace Zabriskie

Director: Takashi Shimizu
Producers: Sam Raimi, Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Robert G. Tapert, Taka Ichise
Screenplay: Stephen Susco, based on "Ju-On: The Grudge" by Takashi Shimizu
Music: Christopher Young
Studio: Columbia Pictures


Posted by Hello
Considering the success of 2002’s The Ring (based on the Japanese film Ringu), Japanese horror appears to be the latest fad making itself into American theatres. Currently, Hollywood producers are scrambling to purchase the remake rights to the best horror flicks the Japanese have to offer; The Ring 2 (based on Ringu 2) hits America later this year, and a sequel to The Grudge (which is based on Japan’s Ju-On) is already in the works for English-speaking audiences to enjoy.

Even though I do not consider myself to be a huge fan of the Japanese horror genre (called “J-horror” by the true fanatics), I did happen to enjoy The Ring. Sadly, I cannot say the same for The Grudge. While The Grudge does have the ability to install some nightmarish images in your mind, it really only serves as a force to conjoin loved ones in a series of protective embraces from the freaky frights the film provides.

Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is an American student who is studying abroad in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Jason Behr). There, in addition to her studies, Karen is involved with in-home care for the elderly. Once Yoko (Yoko Maki) - a fellow caregiver and friend of Karen’s - turns up missing, Karen is assigned to assist in giving care to an elderly woman (Grace Zabriskie) in Yoko’s absence. However, what Karen doesn’t know is that Yoko has fallen victim to the woman’s cursed house. Karen soon comes to understand that the house she is in is cursed and that whoever enters its walls winds up dead. Karen must solve the ways of “the grudge” before she ends up being the next to witness the house’s haunting inhabitants.

Besides the relatively frightening sequences that The Grudge offers, the rest of the film is pretty much a drag to sit through—with Sarah Michelle Gellar leading the way. Gellar, who apparently just crawled out of the WB dudgeon where it seemed as though she had been stored for more than four years, finally puts up an on-screen role that isn’t in a Scooby-Doo movie. Her role as Karen is undemanding and pretty disappointing; mostly, Gellar just walks around and looks at scary things. Another stranger to the silver screen, making what seems to be his first film appearance since Independence Day, is Bill Pullman. Just like Drew Barrymore in Scream, Pullman's character dies before the opening credits even come up, and yet he is recognized as one of the film’s stars.

From its Japanese influence, The Grudge does invoke a new flavor, but with an American (Stephen Susco) adapting the screenplay, it takes on the intuition of a Hollywood horror. Just as in most horror films, The Grudge’s music helps to heighten the suspense even more than what the footage itself could provide, and the characters are conventional—going where they shouldn’t to investigate a strange noise in the attic. Speaking of the attic: why is it that the terror always has to come from a non-ground-level floor? Everything is always in the attic, under the stairs, or in the basement; it’s never, say, from the dining room or the foyer.

To avoid this type of Hollywood influence, Takashi Shimizu takes the reigns as director. When taking into account that Shimizu happens to be the same writer/director of the Japanese original (Ju-On), one could easily assume that some of Shimizu’s initial innovation may have been lost in translation. (Note: With all of Shimizu’s shots of downtown Tokyo, at times, The Grudge gives off a little Lost in Translation feel.) In fact, with the lackluster cast Shimizu had to work with, I am surprised he was able to show snippets of his vision. With that said, Shimizu tries to make up for his inferior cast by giving the audience their money’s worth in the form of stringy hair, wide-open mouths, and unsettling eyes.

Truthfully, that is how simply one can sum up the scares in The Grudge. The film’s most disturbing scenes are of a pale-faced, young, Japanese woman who happens to have a lot of the white portions of her eyeballs visible. The Grudge also tries to alarm with a creepy kid who meows out of his gaping mouth; however, this “kitty boy” doesn’t quite carry the capability of scaring you out of your skin.

Mainly, The Grudge’s terror doesn’t work by trying to get you to jump out of your seat. Instead, The Grudge operates on frights that make you squirm. Once the film gets eerie – and maintains its intensity – from time to time, you may find yourself having to make sure that both nothing can grab your legs out from under you and that the young woman sitting next to you isn’t the aforementioned Asian.

Is The Grudge scary? Yes. Is it one of the scariest movies ever made? No. In fact, without The Grudge’s spine-chilling sounds that swell up at the perfect moment – predictably right before something starling appears – The Grudge really only offers two scary sclerae. In this case, the chilling eyes work, but overall, the movie doesn’t. The Grudge is one movie that will have you turning away from the screen—not just to save yourself from the scares, but also to check the time to see how much longer you have to sit. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Movie Review: The Prophecy

United States, 1994
U.S. Release Date: 9/1/95
Running Time: 1:38
Rated: R (Violence, profanity, gore)
Cast: Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Christopher Walken, Eric Stoltz, Moriah Shining Dove Snyder, Viggo Mortensen, Adam Goldberg, Amanda Plummer

Director: Gregory Widen
Producer: Joel Soisson
Screenplay: Gregory Widen
Music: David C. Williams
Studio: Dimension Films


Posted by Hello
In some circles, The Prophecy is described as a "campy religious thriller". However, it’s really nothing more than a prime case of apocalyptic horror gone bad. Unlike The Omen and even End of Days, The Prophecy is incoherent, dumb, and dull. Considering writer/director Gregory Widen happened to be fully aware of the quasi-monotonous quality his film takes on, he obviously tried taking the campy route. But, too often The Prophecy deviates from camp and becomes crap.

The Prophecy begins with Simon (Eric Stoltz), an angel out to serve God, recollecting the first war in Heaven. Simon says that the skies were once aflame, the faces of angels were once destroyed, and when Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen) fell, Hell was created. Little did Simon know then, that a second war would occur so soon thereafter.

This time around, the archangel Gabriel (Christopher Walken), is so jealous of God’s love for humans (or "talking monkeys" as Gabriel calls them), that he wants to permanently prevent their entry into Heaven. In order to do so, he must find the soul of one of the world’s most evil men, a once cannibalistic Colonel, and use it as a weapon to win the war over the opposing angels. With the soul of the Colonel, Gabriel knows he can create an additional Hell where he can rule over all else.

Out to stop Gabriel, are two puny humans—Thomas Daggett (Elias Koteas), a former student of the seminary turned police detective, and Katherine Henley (Virginia Madsen), a school teacher. Once a few otherworldly events begin to take place, both Thomas and Katherine begin to piece together the reality of the warring angels around them. They soon realize that Mary (Moriah Shining Dove Snyder), a student of Katherine’s, received the soul of the perfect killer from Simon – just before he died – in order to keep it hidden from the conniving Gabriel. Now, Thomas and Katherine must protect Mary from Gabriel, and attempt to save all of humankind.

Truthfully, every aspect of The Prophecy, excluding Christopher Walken, is unsavory. The film’s poor special effects, distracting soundtrack, and clunky dialogue, all match the picture’s largely sardonic tone. Collectively, The Prophecy crumbles into shambles under all of its flaws with no hope of Walken picking it up. Yes, Christopher Walken is electric as the jokester archangel Gabriel, but one performance cannot serve as a movie’s saving grace.

The rest of the cast (especially Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, and Moriah Shining Dove Snyder) is wholly bland. Elias (who looks like a cross between Robert DeNiro and Scott Stapp—the lead singer from the recently disjointed Creed), Virginia, and Moriah all play routine roles that contribute to both The Prophecy’s plot and characters being dually stock and predictable.

Furthermore, the fact that The Prophecy doesn’t take itself seriously just further downgrades the entire production. And worst of all, most of the campy dialogue isn’t all that amusing. In fact, in my case, while I looked at my watch anticipating the film’s end, there were more groans and sighs than chuckles.

The Prophecy is tasteless, tacky, and without question in need of numerous rewrites. Considering this film is solely based on the completely bogus biblical passage, "Even now in heaven, there are angels carrying savage weapons," I think bogus is a good word to describe this picture as a whole. Maybe this film’s cult following is meant to be esoteric, but to me it’s fundamentally pathetic. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell won’t be taking the time to view the sequels. (* out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Movie Review: The Day After Tomorrow

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 5/28/04 (wide)
RunningTime: 2:04
Rated: PG-13 (Disturbing images)
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum, Dash Mihok, Jay O. Sanders, Austin Nichols, Tamlyn Tomita, Kenneth Wals

Director: Roland Emmerich
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Mark Gordon
Screenplay: Roland Emmerich & Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Music: Harald Kloser
Studio: 20th Century Fox


Posted by Hello
Roland Emmerich is a director who most people typically associate with destruction. In his past films, including Independence Day and Godzilla, he has absolutely annihilated New York City with both a giant lizard and an enormous alien spaceship. Here, with The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich uses various apocalyptic means of weather to destroy the Big Apple—as well as many other large metropolitan areas. Just call him the master of disaster; not that his work is masterful, but boy, he sure can obliterate cities as well as a sizeable amount of the human population—main characters aside of course.

With Emmerich's latest effort, The Day After Tomorrow is not exactly his crowning work. Its special effects provide more entertainment than anything else. The main portions of the plot are as formulaic as they can get, and the characters are as paper-thin as one of those cheap pieces of loose-leaf that you can practically see through. For the most part, we (as the audience) have trouble sympathizing with the main characters because they are not given enough screen time to develop. We know bits and pieces about each of the leads, but not enough to separate them from all of the other human beings who fall victim under Emmerich’s merciless arm.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is a climatologist who has developed a new means of predicting weather patterns. After witnessing the polar ice caps crack due to global warning, Jack’s system calculates that the onslaught of the next ice age will occur in 50 to 100 years. Jack tries to relay his research to the Vice President (Kenneth Walsh), but his claims are dismissed, and the country is left undefended from an unexpected climatic catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Jack’s son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is stuck in New York City with his high school academic team—a team that Sam signed up for only because of Laura (Emmy Rossum), a young girl that Sam has a crush on. Consequently, the storms come sooner than expected. After a series of tornados rip through L.A., and an excess of hurricanes, floods, and blizzards terrorize the entire Northern Hemisphere, Jack tells Sam to remain inside the New York Public Library, and that he will be there soon to save him.

After many years of Jack allowing his career to take precedence over his family, Jack finally realizes how his neglect of Sam has virtually ruined their relationship. So naturally, now that the world has been subjected to disaster, Jack drives from D.C. to Philly through the world’s worst blizzard (Are there even roads anymore?), and then, after the truck crashes into a snow drift, Jack and his two helpers simply get on their walking boots and stroll from Philly to Manhattan in a few days. In this case The Day After Tomorrow's plot can be considered laughably ridiculous. I mean, I know Jack is an Artic researcher who has hiked vast distances before, but come on—one-hundred miles in a few days through the worst weather conditions mankind has ever seen? I don’t know.

In this sense, The Day After Tomorrow becomes Finding Nemo all over again, only this time it’s Saving Sam—the son whose handicap is not a “lucky fin” but rather a lack of emotional expression. During all of this “end of the world” stuff, we are given the side-plot of Sam trying to muster up enough courage to let Laura know how he feels. It seems almost uncalled for considering millions of people worldwide are dying by the minute.

People typically want action, Action, ACTION (not immature romance), and with The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich gives them exactly that. At the same time, with its already over two-hour running time, it looks as if Emmerich said, "Keep the effects, and as for the central players’ emotions, we can do away with them." This is why The Day After Tomorrow managed to rake in $186.7 million during its 18 weeks in the theatres; it gives guys a monsoon of action, a few scenes of high tension, and many creative ways of afflicting eradication, and it gives girls Jake Gyllenhaal to look at—all else was apparently rendered unnecessary.

If it happens to be action you are after, you can't go wrong with The Day After Tomorrow in a home viewing setting. It may contain extremely exaggerated science, lack tremendously in the department of character depth, and rely too much on special effects, but as a whole, the movie works with what it has. With The Day After Tomorrow you positively get a generous serving of mass destruction; knowing that, as long as you don’t expect much of anything else, you’re for the most part forecasted to enjoy. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Movie Review: S.W.A.T.

United States, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 8/8/03 (wide)
Running Time: 1:58
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, profanity)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J, Brian Van Holt, Josh Charles, Olivier Martinez, Jeremy Renner

Director: Clark Johnson
Producers: Dan Halsted, Chris Lee, Neal H. Moritz
Screenplay: David Ayer and David McKenna
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Studio: Columbia Pictures


Posted by Hello
When the television show “S.W.A.T.” debuted in February of 1975, it was a huge hit. Its hour was comprised of action-packed mayhem, between an elite unit (who took care of the situations that were too dangerous for the police to handle) and a vast array of villains. On the other hand, when transferred to the big screen, this subject is hard to keep afloat for nearly two hours. Except for maybe the enthusiasts of the 1970’s TV show, most will find it diffficult to maintain interest in this motion-picture. With that being said, even the die-hard “S.W.A.T.” fans will most likely be disappointed.

S.W.A.T. is the kind of movie that gets the young ones (with accompanying parents if under thirteen) excited about becoming a cop—thinking that the action portrayed in this picture is what police men have "fun" with everyday. However, this film is so far-fetched and exaggerated that by the time those inspired adolescents hit the force, they will be disheartened with the seriousness that accompanies writing traffic citations, directing traffic, and doing paper work. The notion that there is always a constant flow of enthralling and script-worthy action out there on the real job is absolutely preposterous.

Lt. Hondo Harrelson (Samuel L. Jackson) has been summoned back into the LAPD to piece together his own S.W.A.T. unit. Hondo selects Jim Street (Colin Farrell), Deke Kay (L.L. Cool J.), Boxer (Brian Van Holt), T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles), and Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez). This special unit is assigned the task of guarding an imprisoned international drug lord named Alex Montel (Oliver Martinez). While behind bars, Montel managed to make a public statement saying that he would pay $100 million to anyone who could set him free. With that kind of offer, the S.W.A.T. unit has their work cut out for them, because every gang and their uncles want a piece of the reward.

One really cannot expect much out of a film that possesses both the cheesy slogan of “Even cops dial 911”, and the usual lackluster performance of L.L. Cool J. By the way, if you asked Mr. L.L. his name, his answer would be “Ladies Love Cool James”. That is not a name; it’s a poorly constructed sentence. Maybe if good ole’ L.L. put out a decent character role and went by his real name of James Todd Smith (he could even keep the initial thing going on and be J.T. Smith), people could then have some respect for him as an actor. Here, L.L. happens to lay down a fairly done character with an amusing “Laker Purple” line and a nearly notable chase scene. However, he ruined any chance of garnering even a sliver of respect with possibly one of the worst written lines ever, “Tell Daddy how you want it.”

The cleanly shaven Colin Farrell puts out another good performance, which gives him the record for starring in four consecutive films that all hit number one at the box office in the same year (The Recruit, Daredevil, Phone Booth, and S.W.A.T.). Samuel L. Jackson’s role comes off as extremely bland; his lines feel forced and his usual charisma is totally absent. Michelle Rodriguez is in her only doable persona—the tough girl (just as she was in The Fast and the Furious). Josh Charles, who previously starred in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead along with Aaron Sorkin’s television show “Sports Night”, was a complete miscast. Brian Van Holt, who reunites with Samuel L. Jackson after Basic, gives his same humdrum acting—except this time, he adds a mustache. Also added to the dull list of end credits is Larry Poindexter, who plays the asshole boss cliché. If someone were to page through this guy’s list of credentials, his most impressive would be his latest endeavor—a Chrysler car commercial.

The scrambling camera sequences are dizzying, annoying, and more of a distraction than a means to intensify the action. Also, the soundtrack is nothing but loud and obnoxious—that is, aside from the couple of seconds where they actually play the "S.W.A.T." theme song.

No matter what is said, all of the "S.W.A.T." aficionados out there (as well as Farrell’s female followers) will most likely pay to see this unrealistic effort. However, if you never considered yourself a fan of the 70's TV show, then it is safe to say that you can skip this one altogether. S.W.A.T. is an acronym that stands for Special Weapons and Tactics, but in this case, it should really stand for Slow, Weak, and Tiring. (*1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Monday, October 18, 2004

Movie Review: Maria Full of Grace

United States/Colombia, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 7/16/04 (limited)
Running Time: 1:41
Rated: R (Drugs, profanity)
Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae, Orlando Tobon, John Álex Toro, Wilson Guerrero, Jaime Osorio Gomez

Director: Joshua Marston
Producer: Paul S. Mezey
Screenplay: Joshua Marston
Music: Leonardo Heiblum, Jacobo Lieberman
Studio: Fine Line Features
In Spanish with subtitles


Posted by Hello
With a title clearly taken from the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer, Maria Full of Grace is a film that one would expect to be packed with religious references and symbolism. However, it isn’t. Instead, Maria Full of Grace is a straightforward, yet full-fledged, drama that deals with the innate human desire to escape poverty. Maria Full of Grace is a gripping and gut-wrenching motion-picture that works on every level. The characters are real; the storyline is well-paced and completely credible; and the overall impression the film gives off is distressing, yet ultimately bittersweet.

Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a young woman living in an economically poverty-stricken Columbia. To help with her family’s income, she de-thorns roses in a flower factory. There, in addition to getting her fingertips repeatedly pricked, Maria has a demanding boss whom she cannot stand. Eventually, Maria quits her job – much to her family’s dismay – and begins to search elsewhere for employment.

After breaking up with her boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero), who is also the father of her soon-to-be born baby, Maria meets Franklin (John Alex Toro)—a suave, nice-looking man who says he can find her a job. Maria shows interest, and Franklin leads her to Javier (Jaime Osorio Gómez), a drug lord who hires young women to serve as mules to transport heroin into the United States. Javier tells Maria that he will pay her roughly $5,000 (almost 10 million pesos) to swallow pellets (the size of horse pills) full of drugs, retain them in her stomach until she reaches the U.S., and then allow them to exit her digestive tract upon her arrival.

Not only does Maria agree to the deal, but so does her best friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega). Both Maria and Blanca end up following through in their attempts to carry the illegal cargo through U.S. customs and beyond. While they are on their journey, they are accompanied by Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a two time veteran of the process. Collectively, all three young ladies are aware that if one single pellet were to burst in their stomach, the results would be lethal. Nonetheless, they are all willing to accept the risk in order to provide a promising future for both themselves and their families.

First time director/screenwriter Joshua Marston unleashes a powerful drama that is so simple, yet still says so much. While his goals aren’t entirely political, they are still present—creating a picture with a topic that is sure to be fresh to many minds. Marston’s screenplay is crafted perfectly, and his direction of the fabulous lead actress is utterly fantastic. Marston and Moreno match each other both in size and scope. The elements of realism that they both evoke allow Maria Full of Grace to be one remarkable expression that all should be subjected to viewing.

Moreno plays her part of the bold and daring seventeen-year-old with such a bona-fide sense of intensity that it all seems natural and unforced. Her acting alone is a breath of fresh air to sit through. Hands down, Moreno dishes out one of the best female leads of the year.

With a story so enthralling about one girl’s struggling survival to break out of destitution, strive for independence, and create a better life for her unborn child, Maria Full of Grace is an all-around exceptional effort that has the potential to both pull on your heartstrings and wring your insides out. Its mid-movie extended sequence is as tense as them come—not only causing a good amount of butterflies in your stomach, but also a lump or two in your throat.

Even though Maria Full of Grace may tend to grab your stomach and squeeze, at long last, it knows when to let go—causing the tension to subside and the emotion to elevate. If you have not yet experienced Maria Full of Grace, make sure you set aside the time; it is without a doubt one of 2004’s most brilliant. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Friday, October 15, 2004

Movie Review: Basic

United States, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 3/28/03 (wide)
Running Time: 1:38
Rated: R (Violence, profanity, brief nudity)
Cast: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Van Holt, Timothy Daly, Giovanni Ribisi, Taye Diggs, Roselyn Sanchez, Harry Connick Jr.

Director: John McTiernan
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Lee Nelson, Dror Soref, Michael Tadross
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
Music: Klaus Badelt
Studio: Columbia Pictures


Posted by Hello
Some have compared Basic to The Usual Suspects, because of the way its flashbacks, narrations, and point-of-views are presented. These two titles do not even belong in the same sentence. The Usual Suspects is a stunning success, while Basic just makes a mockery of its audience. Simply stated, Basic is a cheap thriller that’s below run-of-the-mill. It contains paper-thin characters and far too many twists in plot.

Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a well-known, former army interrogator is called in to assist Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), the rookie house interrogator at Hardy’s old pal Pete Wilmer’s (Timothy Daly) base. Hardy is hired to complete one simple objective: get answers.

Hardy is told that a routine military training exercise went awry and several soldiers - one of which is Sgt. West (Samuel L. Jackson) - have been declared missing and presumed dead. Once the two survivors (Giovanni Ribisi and Brian Van Holt) are interrogated, it is found that their stories don't match up. The team of questioners, Hardy and Osborne, must crack the case before the higher authority shows up and before Wilmer (Daly) loses his job.

The summary may sound all-and-well, and truthfully the movie is, for the first hour or so, but then there comes a twist--followed by twist after twist after twist. If the number of plot turns was limited to one, Basic would have been routine and tolerable. However, the twists and turns are pushed to the absolute limit. Basic cracks two-thirds of the way through; from there, it diverts in way too many directions, and results in an overall agitating and unclear motion-picture.

Are audiences still going to be surprised after a third, fourth, and even fifth twist in the story? No; they are more likely to be frustrated and disappointed. Basic contains so many improbable twists – so close together – that viewers aren’t even given any time to allow each idea to sink in. It's like the filmmakers conjured up the most mindless and least likely twists to happen back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Eventually, it gets to the point where you can’t even tell if the movie is going to end or if it is going to add one more twist and continue to play cat-and-mouse with your brain. In the end, the audience just feels toyed with.

Basic is one of those movies that you may have to watch multiple times to patch up a few holes and to curtail a certain element of confusion. But, who wants to watch a train-wreck-of-a-film more than once just to answer a couple of minor uncertainties? The film's tension and humor may be somewhat enjoyable in the beginning, but after the car derails, you could kick yourself in the caboose for wasting one-hour and thirty-eight minutes. (* out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Monday, October 11, 2004

Movie Review: Pi

United States, 1998
U.S. Release Date: 7/24/98 (limited)
Running Time: 1:25
Rated: R (Violence, language, disturbing images)
Cast: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Producer: Eric Watson
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Music: Clint Mansell
Studio: Artisan Entertainment


Posted by Hello
To most, pi is just a mathematical symbol that equals 3.1415926, and so on—to an infinite number of decimal places. This non-repeating and non-terminating decimal, which comes from the division of a circle’s circumference by its diameter, is a mathematical marvel that has mesmerized scientists and laymen alike. Most recently researchers at a leading Japanese university have calculated pi to 1.24 trillion decimal places.

However, others know Pi to be an eerie and intriguing independent motion-picture that juggles the concepts of math, religion, and chaos. Created under a slender sum of $60,000, Pi is not only a fast-paced sci-fi feature, but it is also a superb character study of a man on the brink of insanity.

Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a mathematician who is on the threshold of making the most eminent discovery of all time. For years, Max has been working with both his mathematical super-computer, Euclid, and the number theory under the following assumptions: 1) Mathematics is the language of nature. 2) Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3) If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge; therefore, there are patterns in nature. With these conjectures in mind, Max has been trying to crack the code behind the outwardly infinite pi and its interconnection to the seemingly random and chaotic stock market, and he is getting closer and closer to mastering it by the second.

Throughout his quest to attain this form of enlightenment, Max simultaneously descents into madness. Max’s hypothesis begins to hone in on him and eat at his soul; he continually experiences delusions, nosebleeds, and pounding headaches to the point where his pills and subcutaneous shots cannot lull him back to sanity.

In the interim, Max is being hunted by both Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), an investor from a firm who learns of Max’s doings and who is determined to hire him as a consultant, and Lenny Maier (Ben Shenkman), a Kaballah Rabbi who discovers that Max may have the key to a 216 digit number that reveals the lost and true name of God. In a clash to obtain the code, it’s an all-out tug-of-war between the greedy stock brokers and the Hasidic Jews, and Max is the rope.

With his first full-length feature film, Darren Aronofsky has helmed a picture far-superior to most freshmen efforts. Here, Aronofsky takes a bold step into Hollywood and already establishes himself as one of the best of the up-and-coming. And, with his outstanding sophomore production, Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky has proved that he is here for the long run and has the potential to have plenty of good material up his sleeve. In terms of both the directors’ and screenwriters’ classroom, Aronofsky – the Harvard grad – takes a seat right up front with the best of them. As long as he keeps it up, Aronofsky can be considered an astute auteur.

Aronofsky actually took the time to ensure that Pi was made using black-and-white reversal film stock. His budget did not restrict him to use the gritty-looking black and white; instead, it was used for stylistic purposes—to add an eerie “Twilight Zone”-esque feel to the film. Besides, Pi works without color. Math is nothing but black and white; there is only the proven and the unproven. In the long run, Pi adeptly makes itself look like a window into the past rather than a new age film that combines the technological advancements of present day with the age-old mysteries of the Milky Way.

Pi uses the reoccurring quote of “When I was six, my mother told me not to look at the sun; so, I did it anyway.” This establishes the severity of Max’s obsession; he has to keep searching for the cipher in utter wonder of what he might find. This is the same thing as coming across that mysterious red button that reads, “DO NOT PUSH.” Sooner or later, someone is bound to push it just to see what results. By doing so, the upshot could be catastrophic, but nonetheless, with the human brain, speculation tends to trump logic.

While most science-fiction films devote more time to action-oriented, inane car chases and unnecessary explosions than the scientific and surrealist aspects of the storyline, Pi is atypical when it comes to mainstream affairs. Pi takes the time to enlighten you while you are being entertained. This picture not only cunningly incorporates Greek mythology into its cinemascape, but it also sways on Faustian themes galore. Pi also encompasses both the critical analysis of an inestimable number of spirals that can be found in the universe, and Pythagoras’s fascinating golden rectangle. It also takes the time to cover both how the Japanese game of Go can serve as a microcosm of the universe and how ants can be metaphorically compared to humans—in that we are both only small vessels from God here to serve a purpose. All things considered, pi may be an irrational number, but Pi, the picture, works with one high level of rationale.

Pi is truly an original and captivating work—one that will without a doubt weld you to your seat and affix your eyes to the screen. And, with its tantalizing techno score from Clint Mansell, it also provides an absorbing background for your ears. When you happen to add a phenomenal writer/director, subtract all of the Hollywood conventions, and multiply the amount of action across your synapse by ten, you end up with Pi. Pi is one slice of cinema that cannot be skipped, and on a four star scale, Pi deserves more stars than its decimal equivalent. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Movie Review: Donnie Darko

United States, 2000
U.S. Release Date: 10/26/01 (limited)
Running Time: 2:00
Rated: R (Profanity, drug use, violence)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Director: Richard Kelly
Producers: Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Adam Fields
Screenplay: Richard Kelly
Music: Michael Andrews
Studio: Newmarket Films


Posted by Hello
For some reason, Donnie Darko is a film that I chose to elude many times over. It was not that it triggered any indifference or emitted any bad vibes; it was just that once within the walls of a rental store, my interest was always drawn elsewhere.

I honestly cannot remember how many times I walked into my local Blockbuster, passed the D’s in the drama section, and locked eyes with Donnie Darko. Its black and blue cover always seemed to draw my attention and give rise to my wonder. I must have read both the front and back covers ten times or more before finally clutching a copy in hand, striding up to the register to pay, and exiting without a second thought. Finally, three years after its initial release and two years after it was originally recommended to me (by two different people on two different occasions), I can say without one ounce of hesitation, that Donnie Darko is a surefire contemporary classic that should not be avoided by any means.

From first time writer/director Richard Kelly, comes a film that took him five years in the making. With its in-depth and intellectual storyline – all underneath the label of a psychological thriller – Donnie Darko creates an experience that is unforgettable and reaches a level that is unquestionably paramount. It’s an unconventional picture, and it’s an amazing achievement under such a low budget. Donnie Darko indubitably rises to the top in its genre.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a textbook troubled teen growing up in the ‘80’s. He is a very inquisitive and likeable guy, yet underneath, he has emotional problems. Donnie sees a psychiatrist (Katherine Ross) weekly and has been on prescribed medication for quite some time. Just after Donnie takes his pills the night of October 2, 1988, he begins to envision a six-foot tall demonic-looking bunny rabbit named Frank. The rabbit wakes Donnie in the middle of the night and instructs him to follow him outside. After he leads Donnie to a golf course, Frank tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. Donnie passes out and wakes up startled the next morning on a plush green. He then travels back to his house to discover that while he was gone, a jet engine fell from the sky and crashed into his bedroom. Upon his return his family is comforted to see him, but also concerned about where he was during the night.

As Donnie attempts to juggle both Frank’s words and the jet engine’s destruction, he decides to share his visions of his new “imaginary friend” Frank with his psychiatrist. After listening to Donnie’s talks about the rabbit’s apocalyptic revelations, the psychiatrist declares Donnie a confused teenager and a possible case of paranoid schizophrenia. Donnie then searches elsewhere for answers in both his English teacher Mrs. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) and his science teacher Mr. Monnitoff (Noah Wyle). Hoping to learn something helpful, he speaks to Mrs. Pomeroy about irony and to Mr. Monnitoff about time travel. Now, with both his newly acquired knowledge and his “friend” Frank still haunting him, he attempts to put the pieces of the puzzle into place—hoping to realize the “Master Plan” that awaits.

Jake Gyllenhaal is absolutely brilliant as Donnie—making this a far better acting affair than his other 2001 one endeavor, Bubble Boy. His depiction of the aggressive high-schooler, who is apparently detached from reality, is one of the best examples of his work to date. Jena Malone is also equally excellent. In addition, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, and Maggie Gyllenhaal all facilitate in adding further zest to the perfectly-cast pair.

What makes Donnie Darko a complete package is that it’s frightening, it’s innovative, and surprisingly it’s funny. It’s brilliant in respect to time travel because it makes the use of a brain (Stephen Hawking) apparent, and it’s packed with elements of faith, love, fear, and God—making it all-the-more desirable. Every scene, every camera angle, and every step that the film takes, makes for a step in the right direction. When all's said and done, it results in a powerful package that packs one heck of a punch. If Donnie Darko has any flaws, they are far too minuscule to find.

Donnie Darko is oddly mysterious one minute, then utterly captivating the next; it keeps you guessing up to, and even after, its knock-your-socks-off ending—which is slightly open for interpretation. In that sense, Donnie Darko is like a roller coaster—not because it has peaks and valleys, snaking turns, or radical changes of pace, but because when the ride is over, you recap the rush you just received, and you’re ready to experience it all over again the instant you exit your seat. Donnie Darko is one motion-picture that will have your mind blown for days and cause so much of a hubbub in your heart that nothing will stymie you from sharing it with everyone you encounter. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Movie Review: The Last Temptation of Christ

United States, 1988
Running Time: 2:44
Rated: R
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, Andre Gregory, Juliette Canton, David Bowie

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Barbara De Fina
Screenplay: Paul Schrader (based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis)
Music: Peter Gabriel
Studio: Universal Studios


Posted by Hello
Once in a great while, a film is released that is doused in religion and spiked with controversy. And it’s true: whenever politics or religion is the main focus of a film, things can tend to get a little contentious. Just ask Mel Gibson.

Some believe that the amount of blood and brutality shown on screen in his The Passion of the Christ is abhorrent, while others simply soak in the spiritually-charging depiction of the Christian savior’s sacrifice for mankind. The highly controversial The Passion of the Christ definitely did for the new millennium what The Last Temptation of Christ did for the decade of the '80's; it got people talking. While some spent their time debating these pictures, others applauded them. Either way, both films received their publicity causing the biblical story of Jesus to be conversed worldwide. In the overall scope of things, both of these Christ-depicting films are excellent in their own right, yet each are admirable in their own distinctive way. The Passion is spiritual and earnest, while The Last Temptation is more inducing of critical thinking.

The Last Temptation chronicles the life of Jesus—the man. Jesus is shown saving Mary Magdalene from being stoned to death, gaining His Apostles and followers, and then traveling to the desert for His forty-days-and-forty-nights stay to speak with God. Also depicted is Jesus’ ability to heal the blind, turn water to wine, and resurrect Lazarus. Before the Christian Savior’s freely-accepted death, He is tempted by Satan many times. For example, throughout His mission from God, Jesus is enticed once by the flame in the desert, and again through one final effort while on the cross. In the end, it is all about the power of Christ’s love for man, His willingness to be crucified, and His capacity to overcome any and every temptation.

If there is anything that some may find offensive in The Last Temptation, it is either in one of Jesus’ hallucinations or it is merely an attempt to show the human tendencies of an initially troubled and almost burdened Jesus. With that being said, even with its “not based upon the Gospels but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict” disclaimer, it may come off as a little discomforting to Christian fundamentalists. The film illustrates Jesus making love to Mary Magdalene, having children, and growing old. Overall, The Last Temptation of Christ does not represent Christ in glory, but rather in confusion of love and violence. However, ultimately, all of the human – as opposed to divine – depictions of Jesus, serve a purpose. Considering this picture is not a biblically referenced reenactment, but rather an in-depth look at what Jesus may have gone through during His time on earth as a man, it is a captivating work that ponders how tempting a real human life could have been for Jesus. For those who don’t consider themselves austere on the subject matter at hand, this film will seriously provoke an inordinate amount of thought on the nature of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ, although beset in some very minor ways, is still a splendid picture spliced together by an equally excellent ensemble. Peter Gabriel’s original score blending the music of old with the rhythms of today is nothing less than astonishing. Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography of Morocco is both breathtaking and serene. Similarly, Schrader’s spectacular closing moments compliment Scorsese’s superb use of silence. The passion of all of the players involved easily shows through in The Passion of Jesus’ quest to become the sacrificial Lamb of God and to unite man with his Father.

Willem Dafoe plays his part of Jesus with such a high level of intensity and emotion that the strength of his characterization alone causes us to become captivated in the film. This makes it comforting to know that Scorsese did not go with his original casting selection of Robert De Niro over Dafoe. As for Harvey Keitel as Judas and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, these two don’t fair quite as well. Keitel seems a little strained in his portrayal of the red-headed and betraying-out-of-love Judas; plus, Harvey is the kind of guy who best fits the part of a New York mobster, not the role of an Apostle. In addition, I don’t know what Bowie is doing in this picture, but at least he beat out Sting for the position of Pilate. In general, the cast gets the job done, and the Romans’ British accents and the Jews’ American accents – although slightly distracting and completely unrealistic – can be excused considering Hollywood’s expected influence.

The Last Temptation of Christ may cope with a tedious pace in its first few acts, but by the film’s final forty-five minutes, it runs away with a thought-provoking and deeply intriguing conclusion. The Last Temptation is indeed a daring depiction of Jesus’ psychological hardships, but when all is said and done, this basically fictional – yet still spiritual – Christian experience will surely stay with you. That is what makes this picture highly recommendable and one of Scorsese’s better begets. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004