Monday, October 31, 2005

Movie Review: Saw II

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 10/28/05
Running Time: 1:33
Rated: R (grisly violence and gore, terror, language, and drug content)
Cast: Donnie Wahlberg, Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Franky G, Beverley Mitchell, Dina Meyer, Glenn Plummer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Erik Knudsen, Tony Nappo, Noam Jenkins, Lyriq Bent, Tim Burd, John Fallon

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Producers: Peter Block, Jason Constantine, Stacey Testro, James Wan, Leigh Whannell
Screenplay: Darren Lynn Bousman and Leigh Whannel
Music: Charlie Clouser
Studio: Lions Gate Films

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Following the success of last October’s overrated independent horror hit Saw, Lions Gate Films and Twisted Pictures immediately began scampering around like chickens with their heads cut off. What they sought was an already written screenplay to adapt into a Saw sequel. Luckily, they found Darren Lynn Bousman’s “The Departed”—a story that features eight people trapped in a house of torture.

Once the rights to Bousman’s script were acquired, returning screenwriter Leigh Whannell was instantly assigned to work with Bousman in morphing his premise into what would be Saw II. While the duo’s product does preserve the same dark, gritty texture of Saw—equipped with another revelation ending, this time – with a new writer/director – Saw II features a tighter plot, improved acting, and more crimson-colored liquid.

When Jigsaw (Tobin Hall) is captured by the authorities, the police believe that his games have ceased. However, upon uncovering Jigsaw’s lair, detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) also unveils a series of monitors, which display a video-feed of eight people trapped in an unidentifiable house. Among these eight people are Eric’s son (Eric Knudsen) and a previous survivor of one of Jigsaw’s tests named Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Eric is told that his son and the seven others will die in two hours due to a nerve agent that poisons each player with each breath. Considering there is a tremendous lack of leadership within the group of eight, Eric and his one-time partner Kerry (Dina Meyer) must figure out the location of the house and not forget that at all times they are subjected to Jigsaw’s rules.

Even though N.K.O.T.B.’s Donnie Wahlberg and “Becker”’s Shawnee Smith aren’t exactly the cream-of-the-crop off of Hollywood's shelf, they still dole out better acting than the original’s Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, and Danny Glover combined. In addition, Tobin Hall takes center-stage and leads the cast with his sadistic portrayal of Jigsaw. His dialogue with Donnie Wahlberg’s character – explaining his motives – is the film’s highlight in terms of spoken word.

There is no doubt that Saw II – like its precursor – is not for the squeamish. In some of the film’s most disturbing scenes a man must extract his right eyeball in order to live, a pyromaniac is burned within the walls of an oven, and a drug addict is literally thrown into a pool of hypodermic needles. On the other hand, these scenes should come as no surprise to any fan of the first film—considering (right from the get-go) the villain forewarns, “Oh yes, there will be blood.”

In more ways than one, Saw II is most certainly a step ahead of its predecessor. Even though common gripe would be the lack of character development given to each of the victims, individual backstories of expendable characters are typically unimportant in the horror genre. For pumping out a sequel only one year after the original’s release, the result is pretty impressive. On the flipside, with more funds in the Saw cash drawer, it is evident that both Bousman and Whannell must have purchased a whet stone pre-production—because this time around, the blade was wisely sharpened prior to pushing the record button and allowing the butchery to begin.

Surely, the Saw films have defined themselves as the horror franchise of the new millennium. While Saw II isn’t exactly faultless, you get more bang for your buck--compared to the original. Bring on the third and fourth installments. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Movie Review: 11:14

United States, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 10/11/05 (DVD)
Running Time: 1:25
Rated: R (Violence, sexuality, and pervasive language)
Cast: Hilary Swank, Colin Hanks, Rachael Leigh Cook, Henry Thomas, Shawn Hatosy, Barbara Hershey, Patrick Swayze, Ben Foster, Clark Gregg, Blake Heron

Director: Greg Marcks
Producers: Mark Damon, Stewart Hall, Jeff Kwatinetz, Sammy Lee, David Rubin, Hilary Swank, Tripp Vinson
Screenplay: Greg Marcks
Music: Clint Mansell
Studio: New Line Cinema

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Subsequent to trumpeting through the festival circuit in 2003 and garnering all positive remarks, 11:14 never received the widespread US distribution that first-time writer/director Greg Marcks desired. Instead, more than two years after his picture debuted at various film festivals, New Line finally released 11:14 - in one theater - and then dumped it on DVD. It is truly an indignity that so few eyes have been privileged to this film; this ultra-limited release truly is a treasure of a find.

The definitive reason why a major production company did not purchase Marcks’ feature sooner was that no studio could decide on how to market the film. Was it a clever gimmick, a black comedy, or an insistent drama? Well, the answer is: all of the above. 11:14 is a screenplay that any writer would be proud of; it’s taut, original, and capable of captivating an audience as it folds back upon itself in a deeply intriguing manner.

11:14 has already been called a combination of Go, Crash, and Memento. Yes, it’s an intertwining ensemble piece, and yes, the story unfolds in a non-chronological order; however, this film applies an entirely different central premise than the aforementioned.

In eighty-five minutes, 11:14 connects the lives of 11 characters in five separate storylines. Each of these character’s actions crisscross with negative consequences, as the clock strikes precisely 11:14 pm—unveiling murder, deceit, and a series of sorrowful emotions. Providing any more details would most likely lessen the shock-value of each plot element as it is revealed.

While Marcks’ direction is superb—for a new-comer to the game, his concept of the reality of time seems a little distorted. For instance, Cheri’s last 20 minutes feel more like 45. In addition, Marcks could have easily tacked on an additional 15-20 minutes to the conclusion to both provide closure and allow the characters to breathe. Nonetheless, this writer/director wholly succeeds with a crisp script packed with creative characterizations and sharp twists—making his name one to keep an eye on in the future.

A sterner gripe can be made with Clint Mansell’s soundtrack. After handling the score to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (one of the best cinematic score’s of all-time), better is expected. Also, with a lackluster rendition of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” playing over the film’s final minutes, one has to ask, why would such a distractingly unpleasant track be chosen to match such a finely-crafted closing?

Nevertheless, in stressing the repercussions of unethical acts and the power of karma, Greg Marcks’ well thought-out debut is worth every penny spent, as well as your time. Go out and rent it; heck, go out and buy it. And, if you really want to impress your friends, start the film at 9:49 pm—that way, as the credits roll, the clock will read precisely 46 to midnight. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Friday, October 14, 2005

Movie Review: Babette's Feast

United States, 1987
U.S. Release Date: 10/1/87
Running Time: 1:43
Rated: G
Cast: Stephanie Audran, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Bibi Anderson, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Ebbie Rode

Director: Gabriel Axel
Producers: Just Betzer and Bo Christensen
Screenplay: Gabriel Axel, based on the short story by Isak Dinesen
Music: Per Nørgård
Studio: MGM Studios
In Danish and French with English Subtitles

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When it comes to films on food, some focus on the fattening, sentimental, or even social qualities of cuisine, while others spotlight its comforting capability over the mind, body, and spirit. Babette’s Feast is one such film that conforms to the latter perception. By depicting love through both sustenance and creed, Babette’s Feast establishes itself as an elegant and profoundly religious plate-of-art that binds us all together as living, loving, and sentient beings.

Based on the short story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast tells the story of twin sisters, Martina (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer,), who live on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, during the late nineteenth century.

In their younger years, Martina (Vibeke Hastrup) easily attracted the likes of Lieutenant Lorens Lowenhielm (Gudmar Wivesson), while Philippa (Hanne Stensgaard) effortlessly enticed Achille Papin (Jean-Phillipe Lafont)—a famous opera singer. Nevertheless, the sisters declined their respective suitors in order to remain dedicated to their father’s (Pouel Kern) ministry of helping others.

Thirty five years later, now that their father has been long deceased, the two saintly siblings continue to carry on their father’s preaching of responsibility and charity and serve as the heads of the small Danish village’s religious sect. Practicing what they preach, the sisters graciously welcome a stricken French woman, named Babette (Stéphane Audran), into their home. After realizing that Babette was sent in the name of Achille Papin and that her entire family had been killed in Paris, Martina and Philippa embrace their guest and begin to teach her how to boil cod and make ale-bread soup—the mainstay diet within the poverty-stricken sect.

It isn’t until after 14 years of service, that Babette feels as though she is truly able to repay the sisters with a splendid French feast. The sisters allow Babette to cook the extensive meal for the 100th anniversary of their departed father’s birth, and it just so happens that the now decorated General Lowenhielm (Jarl Kulle) is invited.

Despite Babette’s Feast being slow-moving during its first half, the pace quickens in the climactic second half throughout the preparation, presentation, and consumption of the feast. At this point, Director Gabriel Axel skillfully conducts Babette’s kitchen as if it was a symphony—providing the utmost attention to detail. In both the preparing of the food and the presenting of the drink, Axel utilizes the bubbling of the pots, the fizzing of the champagne, and the soft clanking of the silverware to a blissful extreme. In doing so, he wisely avoids any type of musical fanfare that forces the audience to feel a certain way; instead, he allows the near silence to reveal the sincerity that Babette pours into making each delicacy as perfect as humanly possible.

Babette’s Feast is a beautiful reminder of how bountiful the banquet of life can truly be. It is a picture that promotes peace and tolerance and trumpets the importance of overcoming self-doubts, displaying God-given talents, and uniting a community in meal, song, and praise. With the capacity to both make your tastebuds dance and fill your heart with hope, Babette’s Feast is guaranteed to satisfy.

When asked to recommend a film that champions food and its ties to the body and soul, no other film is more exquisitely superb and wonderfully nourishing than Babette’s Feast. This 1987 Oscar winner for “Best Foreign Language Film” reigns queen of all that is culinary and cinematic. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Movie Review: The Milagro Beanfield War

United States, 1988
U.S. Release Date: 3/18/88
Running Time: 1:57
Rated: R (Profanity, violence)
Cast: Chick Vennera, Carlos Riquelme, Christopher Walken, Sonia Braga, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Melanie Griffith, Julie Carmen, Richard Bradford, Ruben Blades

Director: Robert Redford
Producers: Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Redford
Screenplay: David Ward and John Nichols, based on the novel by John Nichols
Music: Dave Grusin
Studio: Universal Pictures

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Much like John Nichols’ 1974 novel of the same name, The Milagro Beanfield War is difficult to label as either a comedy/drama or a fantasy/shoot-‘em-up western. Despite this uncertainty of the film’s genre, Milagro displays a few fine moments of dramatic folklore and joy. However, in all of its warmth, the film possesses too many instances where its elation is broken up by unnecessarily erratic scenes.

In Milagro, New Mexico, a town that translates to “miracle” in Spanish, a clash between the quirky residents and the unjust authorities ensues. It all starts when Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera) accidentally kicks a water main open—causing water to trickle down into his father’s old bean field. The only problem is that the water does not belong to Joe; it belongs to a band of developers, headed by Ladd Devine (Richard Bradford), who plans on transforming the town into a recreational center—equipped with condos, ski-slopes, and an 18-hole golf course.

By using the company’s water, Joe divides the town into supporters and cynics. Among the supporters are: Ruby (Sonia Braga), a local garage owner, Charlie Bloom (John Heard), a former attorney who now serves as the town’s newspaper editor, Herbie Platt (Daniel Stern), a NYU sociology student who is conducting research on the locals, and Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme), the town’s oldest citizen who talks to angels and his pig. Meanwhile, as the town sheriff (Ruben Blades) attempts to mediate the far-from-gun-shy townspeople, a hired gun – named Montana (Christopher Walken) – is out to stop Joe from irrigating his land and end the community’s quarrel with modernity.

With The Milagro Beanfield War, it is difficult to distinguish exactly what Redford wants to stress. Is he pushing the preservation of land, the rise of the working-class, or the influence of the Anglo/Spanish/Indian culture? All of these themes – while intriguing in their own rite – appear to lose each other in the mix.

Sadly, between both Milagro’s fantastical scenes and Dave Grusin’s Academy Award winning score, a few weaker scenes jut out. For instance, Redford’s incorporation of numerous construction scenes – that are egregiously louder than any of the dialogue – is enormously distracting. In addition, scenes like the playful dancing of the angel at the beginning of the film followed by the argumentative town meeting further allow the film’s focus to become fuzzy.

In the case of The Milagro Beanfield War, most will exit their chairs feeling neutral—moved by its communal sentiments, yet unhappy with its unevenness. Nonetheless, it is inspiring to know that such a collective movement can be spiked by a simple batch of legumes. It’s just too bad Redford didn’t apply the correct concoction of water and sunlight to this screenplay. With a bit more emotion and focus, and less seams in the storyline, The Milagro Beanfield War could have been a picture worth harvesting. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Movie Review: Flightplan

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 9/23/05
Running Time: 1:28
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, profanity)
Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Erika Christensen, Marlene Lawston

Director: Robert Schwentke
Producer: Brian Grazer
Screenplay: Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray
Music: James Horner
Studio: Touchstone Pictures

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Taking on only her sixth role in ten years, Jodie Foster tackles the task of playing a bereaved mother in distress. Similar to her most recent role in 2002’s Panic Room, Foster puts her guts and brains to the test and allows the waterworks to flow for her young daughter. However, unlike the airtight, white-knuckling, and entirely feasible Panic Room, Flightplan is mild on might, mediocre on suspense, and not wholly credible.

While aboard a newly-designed double-decker 474 airplane, aeronautics engineer Kyle Pratt (Jodi Foster) awakens to find that her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) is missing. The funny thing is: when Kyle demands the crew to search for her only offspring, not one soul onboard even remembers ever seeing the child. In fact, the airline’s records show that her seat was never paid for, and when the plane left the ground, it was unoccupied. Already tried by the recent death of her husband, Kyle must prove her sanity to the captain (Sean Bean) or else solve the mystery on her own.

Flightplan is much like The Forgotten in a sense that the female protagonist’s child disappears, and despite what the mother exclaims, the lack of evidence dismisses her claims and deems them senseless. Even so, Flightplan is a step ahead; its lead is capable of carrying the picture beyond its inconsistencies, and as a thriller, the production is bearable.

Perhaps, the film’s most redeeming quality is the adamancy that Foster exhibits. She is absolutely unrelenting in her search to unite with her daughter, whom she believes to be alive. Unlike her costars, her emotions run high. Peter Sarsgaard, fresh off of his make-out scene with Liam Neeson, is largely lethargic, yet convincing when he needs to be. On the other hand, Erika Christensen, Sean Bean, and Marlene Lawston are all underused.

While Flightplan is a tad mindless, especially in both clarifying some of its unclear aspects and justifying how a few conversations go unheard, it still doesn’t come up bankrupt—like so many airline companies today. Even though one scene in particular – where the aircraft’s passengers applaud – is inexplicable and the screenwriters come off as a little lazy, Flightplan still remains mostly engrossing. Sadly, if you have seen the trailer, you already know nearly 70% of the storyline.

Flightplan doesn’t exactly soar, yet it doesn’t necessarily crash and burn either. The million-dollar question is: are its errors subtle enough for the majority to overlook them? Unfortunately, the answer is no. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005