Monday, February 28, 2011

A Young and Hip Oscar Recap

Well, another celebration of the film culminating in the industry's biggest show, the 83'rd Academy Awards, has come to an end. For those of you caught unawares, perhaps waiting in your fortified bunkers for news of the impending apocalypse, The King's Speech was chosen as 2010's Best Picture. This was a prediction made by many since even it's world premiere at 2010's Telluride Film Festival back in September, long before it became the massive mainstream success it is today. It's a classic Oscar pick, with stellar writing, fantastic acting (with lead Colin Firth finally winning that elusive golden statuette), and an amazing, uplifting story that really connected with the viewing audience despite worries that the film wouldn't appeal to traditional moviegoers. I'm afraid it wasn't my favorite film this past year (that would be the Darren Aronofsky ballerina horror tale Black Swan), but considering King's Speech was my third favorite film from 2010, I can at least accept that it was a quality choice, and one that appealed to the traditions of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

One of these Oscar hosts is stones silly
Of course, the Academy tried to appeal to the constituents that so many politicians would like to forget exists - the future - by marketing the 2011 Oscars as "young" and "hip", obtaining two of Hollywood's up-and-comers to host the night's festivities. Anne Hathaway and James Franco were meant to appeal to that elusive young demographic who have of late chosen to ignore the annual honors ceremony. Backing the dynamic duo up were a host of presenters who fit the same category, and the night was filled with popular youngsters like Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Hudson, Jake Gyllenhaal and Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams. This was a huge divergence from last year's proceedings, when veteran actors Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin were brought in and had a successful if samey run like so many who have hosted before them. This was the new Academy Awards; a "renewed" Academy Awards, and they wanted the future film-goers sitting one their couches to see it.

Oh, I WISH all he had done was tweet all night
Well, that didn't really happen. Not only was viewer attendance down overall from last year, but it was down among adults and women 18-49, the coveted demographic. The routine by the young hosts was panned, and next year the producers will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out a whole new way of attracting a young audience. But hey! We're not here to talk about how many new viewers ABC needs to pull in next year; we're here to recap last night's pomp and circumstance and see where things went right and wrong.

Melissa Leo wasn't afraid to cold-cock a few people to get her award
If there's one thing to be said for last night, it's that there were very few surprises. Every single acting category was won by the victors of the previous awards (Golden Globe and Critic's Choice, for instance), and were called by every reputable film follower. Yes, I picked the wrong Fighter in taking Amy Adams over Melissa Leo for the Supporting Actress category, but I also admit I didn't realize how much of a transformation Leo made before seeing her acceptance speech (and apparently the foul-mouthed actress picked up a vocabulary while filming in Massachusetts). The others - Firth, The Fighter's Christian Bale and Black Swan's Natalie Portman - were predicted by just about everybody to win their respective categories, and didn't fail in that regard. There were a few small surprises (Alice in Wonderland winning Best Art Direction over Inception, for instance), but for most of the smaller categories it was as predictable to professionals as the sunrise. It wasn't until the major categories that you had the option of major upset anyway, but even those surprises made sense in the grand scheme of the Academy Awards. Tom Hooper surpassing both Social Network director David Fincher and Black Swan's Darren Aronofsky to claim the Best Director award blew my mind, but when you think about the Academy's traditional flavors, it makes much more sense than it would initially. Despite being the "young and hip" Oscars, the vast majority of the voters are likely Old Guard veterans who weren't as big fans of the "generation-defining" Network or the horror film Swan. Even the unlikely contenders in The Kids are All Right and the token animated film Toy Story 3 would have had very little reason to think they had a chance with so many deviations from the Academy's tastes. Hooper's victory and the success of King's Speech for Best Picture make much more sense when seen in that light. It does help however that the film had the collected talents to be a great film, and a worthy winner, and even if many don't believe it was really the best film, it can still be agreed that The King's Speech is indeed a great film.

Award-winning Bromance. Feel the love!
The problem with this year's new direction was that the producers couldn't adhere to it, at least not entirely. The biggest rounds of applause for the night were not for the young presenters, but for stalwart veterans. Stroke-victim and Hollywood hero Kirk Douglas presenting the award for Best Supporting Actress was uncomfortable on more than a few levels, with Douglas taking his time to compliment each nominee (and Anne Hathaway) on their beauty and talent. That, combined with his affliction-induced stammer, meant that many TV viewers checked out what was on the other channels about that time. The other big applause was reserved for marathon Oscar host Billy Crystal, who was on hand to celebrate the Oscar pedigree of Bob Hope. So your biggest reception is for the three old guys in the business on a night when you're supposed to be promoting youth. Amazing work.

As talented a group as you can expect to ever see
It doesn't help that the young hosts tabbed to grandstand your ceremony aren't the best available. While Hathaway had some flubs, her mistakes can be attributed mostly to youthful exuberance and inexperience, rather than poor judgment. If award shows bring her to host more, the experience can only be beneficial for the talented actress. Franco, meanwhile, was a disaster. It doesn't help that in interviews and early on in the show, he appeared to be stoned out of his gourd. His delivery was flat, his best Jack Nicholson smile insincere and smug, and he had NO chemistry with his co-host. Constantly seeming distracted, Franco never seemed to get the idea that it was supposed to be an honor to host the show, and thus we all suffered. An early presentation by Timberlake and Kunis didn't help matters, as both acted as though they had dipped into Franco's secret stash.

Jesse Eisenberg, one of this year's "young and hip" nominees
Despite these missteps, the show was mostly professional and didn't take too many shots at Charlie Sheen (only one joke that I can remember). Hathaway's abilities added a lot, but it also helps that there were no rabble-rousers, with only Charles Ferguson noting (correctly) that no senior executives have been sent to jail for their part in causing the current global recession after winning the award for Best Feature Documentary (for Inside Job). Instead we were treated to many funny and wonderful moments, including award-winning (for The King's Speech) screenwriter David Seidler: "...on behalf of all the stutterers in the world: We have a voice and we have been heard." Christian Bale calling his wife "my mast through the storms in life" was sweet too, even if he did forget her name. Let's face it, he probably had to practice extensively to remember to mention, while never thinking for a second that he'd in the moment forget the love of his life's name. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law also made for a fun pairing as the two had a good give-and-take appearance to help promote their upcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel. But he highlight of the night belonged to a category nobody would have otherwise cared about. After winning Best Live Action Short Film (for God of Love), Luke Matheny became possibly the most adorable Oscar winner ever as he thanked NYU, the "great state of Delaware," his mother for providing craft services during the shoot, and his love, whom he called "my dream come true." Definitely the "Dawwwwww" moment of the night.

Last night's sweetest Oscar winner
The presentations weren't without their cringe-worthy moments however. Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem's all-white tuxedos made it look like they were set to cater somebody's after-party, and budding country star Gwyneth Paltrow was pitchy and tone-deaf during her performance of the award-nominated song "Coming Home." Any moment featuring Franco (including but not limited to his appearance in drag) was cringe-worthy. The worst moment of the night may have had nothing to do with the 127 Hours star, however. Instead, the auto-tune montage was the killer, driving me half out of my mind by making scenes from such 2010 films as Harry Potter, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 into mini-musicals that made it incredibly difficult not to change the channel. The Twilight bit at the end was a little funny, but nobody's going to have to worry about being replaced by an automated music maker anytime soon. In all, these poor moments were on par with the Academy Awards' usual misses over the years, so no harm really done.

I've never heard of you before, but I'm glad you won this round
In the end, you can't help but think this year's Academy Awards celebration was anything less than a disappointment. A mixture of the wrong hosts (I'd take back Hathaway in a second, but Franco killed it), no surprises and very little to really cheer about made for a night interesting to those who follow movies closely (like me!) but not at all for the casual viewer. I have to wonder at the longevity of this grand awards ceremony if people continue to cease watching, but that will probably be something for future years to determine. For now, if you want to see my Oscar picks and how well (or poorly) I did in my predictions, check them out below.

Category                                         My Pick                          Winner                       Result
Actor                                           Colin Firth                         Colin Firth                  Hit!
Actor in a Supporting Role            Christian Bale                    Christian Bale             Hit!
Actress                                        Natalie Portman                 Natalie Portman         Hit!
Actress in a Supporting Role         Amy Adams                       Melissa Leo               Miss!
Animated Feature Film                 Toy Story 3                       Toy Story 3                 Hit!
Art Direction                                Inception                           Alice in Wonderland    Miss!
Cinematography                           Inception                            Inception                   Hit!
Costume Design                           The Tempest                     Alice in Wonderland   Miss!
Directing                                      David Fincher                    Tom Hooper               Miss!
Documentary (Feature)                 Restrepo                            Inside Job                 Miss!
Documentary (Short)                    The Warriors of Quigang     Strangers No More     Miss!
Film Editing                                 Black Swan                        The Social Network   Miss!
Foreign Language Film                Biutiful                                In a Better World       Miss!
Makeup                                      The Way Back                   The Wolfman             Miss!
Music (Original Score)                Inception                            The Social Network    Miss!
Music (Original Song)                 Country Strong                   Toy Story 3                Miss!
Best Picture                               The Social Network           The King's Speech      Miss!
Short Film (Animated)                The Lost Thing                    The Lost Thing           Hit!
Short Film (Live Action)             The Confession                   God of Love                Miss!
Sound Editing                             Inception                             Inception                  Hit!
Sound Mixing                             Inception                             Inception                  Hit!
Visual Effects                             Inception                             Inception                  Hit!
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)    The Social Network             The Social Network     Hit!
Writing (Original Screenplay)     The King's Speech               The King's Speech      Hit!

Ugh, a mere 11 out of 24 categories. I'll be trying harder next year, hopefully you'll be joining me again then.

Somewhere, somebody's planning a gold statue revolution

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Mr. Anderson Reboot: RoboCop

The science fiction genre doesn't get as much love these days. In pop culture, you see dozens of television shows in that vein (including some great shows like Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Battlestar Galactica) canceled due to lack of viewers. The Star Trek franchise even lost their latest show Enterprise to low ratings. Sci-fi films are infrequent and often dismissed by the movie-going public. Why is this? Perhaps the reason is that nowadays there are no longer any franchise-worthy creatures or characters for fans to follow. The eighties had a bevy of movie monsters and sci-fi icons, with descriptive and simple names like Aliens, Predators, and Terminators. Of course, these creatures were the bad guys, monsters that humans fought against for survival. But what about the iconic heroes? Besides the very human characters of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, one that is sometimes forgotten to time is that of Alex Murphy, who eventually gained the moniker of RoboCop, hero to the people of  Detroit. The character first appeared in the Paul Verhoeven film of the same name, eventually spawning two sequels, two live-action television shows, five video games, four comic book series and even a popular theme park ride. The citizens of Detroit have also made their voices heard, raising money for a statue of the loved character to erect in the city (thanks to Jeff for bringing that to my attention). But it all started in 1987 with the Verhoeven's first Hollywood release, creating arguably the most recognizable sci-fi hero of all time.

Never challenge Officer Murphy in a skeet shoot
In the future, Detroit is a mess. Yes, I know; even more so. Crime-ridden, the city's downward spiral is so out of control it has handed its police force over to a private corporation, Omni Consumer Products. This financial juggernaut, in the fine tradition of Weyland-Yutani or CHOAM, of course doesn't care about the people depending on their protection. They simply want to make a profit, to drive crime down so they can build their privately-governed utopia "Delta City" in Detroit's place. Yeah, it doesn't seem to make a ton of sense, but we're talking evil companies here; They don't HAVE to make sense if they don't want to. Anyway, OCP wants to create machines to replace the existing police force, and their experiments coincide with the violent death of policeman and family man Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) at the hands of a gang of murderous psychopaths. The result is OCP's own private cyborg, RoboCop, using what was left of Murphy's body but wiping his memories clean. Slowly however, RoboCop begins to remember the life before his ugly transformation, and begins to uncover the less-than-stellar motives of the people for whom he works.

Fun note: RoboCop was given an X rating 11 TIMES before getting it's R rating
At the time of its release, RoboCop was hailed by many as one of the best films of 1987. It's easy to see why; despite its status as an action film, the movie manages to reach beyond cliched characters and storylines and actually present itself as an intelligent insight to themes concerning the media and human nature. According to newscasts, the world is a mess, with war, hunger and poverty widespread and nearly beyond control. Despite this, the media is shown with shiny smiles and happy thoughts, and the people we see seem desensitized to violence in general. The film also draws from the decay of American Industry that had recently become prevalent by the use of abandoned factories in filming. While it's easy to simply sit back and enjoy an action film of this caliber, it's just as easy to turn your brain back on and appreciate what the filmmakers thought about where society was headed at the time.

Yeah, you might want to get that looked at
Like many action films, the best actors in Hollywood were not necessarily the best for the parts available. Case in point: Peter Weller. Though a talented performer in his own right, he had been to this point mainly been a character actor with very little to his credit at the time. Put on the spot here, however, he is allowed to take on two distinct parts - the cocky police officer Murphy and the robotic, deadpan RoboCop - and blend the two together over the course of the film. His subtle performance is easily the best on the cast. Nancy Allen by comparison is merely okay as Murphy's partner Officer Lewis. She's never really given a chance to step out of a comfort zone anywhere along the film's plot, and while she does a fine job overall, it's just not as impressive as most on the cast. Ronny Cox changed his tempo from playing genial characters to playing OCP's uncouth and arrogant Vice President Richard Jones. An example of Verhoeven's penchant to cast actors against type, Cox plays his part as a heartless corporate type, only really seeing the bottom line, not the damage he's causing to achieve it. Miguel Ferrer plays Bob Morton, another OCP executive, the one in charge of creating RoboCop in the first place. Like Jones, Morton really only sees the bottom line, but comes off as slightly more sympathetic due to actually caring whether his product works, very unlike his rival Jones. Kurtwood Smith also shines as career criminal Clarence Boddicker, the man whose gang runs the streets of Detroit for much of the film. Smith, who usually plays more intellectual parts, is decisively crude and possibly even more evil than Jones in his portrayal of a man who wouldn't hesitate to kill a man, rape a woman or rob a store if he was so inclined. Delighting in human suffering, Boddicker makes for an excellent villain, and between the ruthlessness of both Boddicker and Jones, RoboCop has his hands full in the best way for the viewers to witness it.

"Hostile Takeover" has a whole new meaning now
If there's one way the film disappoints, it's in the special effects. To be fair, the SFX in RoboCop are actually pretty good when taken on their own for the time. But one only has to look at fellow monster movies Aliens, The Terminator, and Predator, films release before or at the same time, to notice that the effects in RoboCop are sorely lacking. Perhaps it was lack of budget, maybe it was the challenge of placing these effects in an urban environment rather than an unfamiliar jungle or space ship. And give the effects guys credit: their innovation created much of the unique world we're familiar with from this film, including the unintentionally-funny ED-209 robot. However, the film just looked much older than its contemporaries, and that detracted from the viewing experience somewhat.

Only Chuck Norris smiles less
It's a shame there's currently no plan to revive the RoboCop franchise. Despite the many great things about this film, the two following sequels were universally panned by critics and may have dissuaded many filmmakers from attempting to take up the reins again. Even recent attempts by MGM to create a new installment have fallen to the wayside due to financial concerns. Still, fans of the series have this first film to keep in their film libraries, as it's one of the more under sung action films in recent memory.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taken into the Unknown

In 2008, Liam Neeson made an interesting career move when he starred in the thriller Taken. In that film, he played the vengeful father of a teen kidnapped by human traffickers while on a trip through Europe. It was considered a dark and startling film (no, I'm afraid I missed it), and the Irish-born actor really made an impact with his gritty, physical role that was unlike so much of his career to date. On top of that, it was a box office success, confirming that Neeson made an excellent choice moving to the thriller genre despite enjoying much success in more traditional dramas... and Star Wars. Typically when thinking of Neeson's career you imagine his romantic comedies, period pieces, and strictly serious fare. You think of Schindler's List. Taken probably shouldn't have worked. Instead, it put new life and a nice twist on Neeson's resume. Well, three years later he's trying to repeat history by doing the exact same thing. The film he's attempting to accomplish this with is Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, based on the novel by French author Didier van Cauwelaert. In this new release, Neeson's character is faced with the loss of more than a mere daughter, and the film was the main reason people made their way to the theaters this past weekend.

"You're going to be Taken... no wait, wrong script"
Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who arrives in Berlin to make a presentation at a biotechnology summit held in the city. Arriving with his wife Liz (Mad Men's January Jones), Martin suffers a head wound in a traffic accident involving his taxi and wakes up after several days in the hospital with no knowledge of how he got there. Worse, when he finally finds his wife, she doesn't seem to recognize him, along what we are led to believe is an impostor Martin Harris (Aiden Quinn) who has ample proof that he's who he says he is, while Neeson's Martin has none. Is the man who thinks his name is Martin Harris suffering from brain damage? Or is he somehow being replaced, for some nefarious purpose?

Still better than The Phantom Menace
While Taken seems to have had some basis in plausible real-world scenarios (the trailer came complete with basic statistics on human trafficking and sex slavery), the same cannot really be said for Unknown. While identity theft is certainly a major problem in the world, even moreso thanks to the wonder that is everybody's personal information online, the story presented here takes it to such a ridiculous degree as to be both unlikely and unbelievable. What comes of this is a film that doesn't make much sense from scene to scene, which actually works since we as the audience aren't meant to understand what's happening until nearly the final credits. We're constantly wondering whether Martin Prime is the real deal or somehow just very knowledgeable of the real thing; we really wonder whether the main character is simply suffering from serious brain damage or is really having his life stripped from him unceremoniously. This is helped by taut pacing that varies between supporting either side of the argument, while never dropping us into a situation where we have no interest.

Seriously... She's German... playing a Bosnian... IN BERLIN
There can be little doubt that this film wouldn't make a dent on the American psyche without the stellar acting of Neeson. Much of the movie has him playing the every-man, and his believable distrust of his own memory pretty much makes the film as inviting as it is. Of course, he also gets to play the bad-ass, but that comes slowly, with Neeson playing the reactor much of the time, not the instigator. As that builds, we get to see his whole world fall apart, until he gets the gumption to do something about it. Diane Kruger plays an illegal Bosnian immigrant who helps Martin try to figure out what has happened. While it's odd to see a German actress play a Bosnian immigrant IN GERMANY, Kruger does a decent job with the role. Like Neeson, she also plays an everyday person, like so many trying to get out of the rut in which they find themselves. January Jones is one of those actresses who seems so out of place in this era. She would have been a natural in the days of Marilyn Monroe, but in this era there's only one role she seems to play, the seemingly innocent and frustrated housewife. There are few actresses I would accuse of being merely a pretty face, but unless Jones shows some more variety in her acting talents, I really don't want to see her play anything other than Betty Draper. Aiden Quinn is great as the "impostor" Martin, with some of the film's better scenes involving the two Dr. Harris' dialogues. Sebastian Koch has a small and unimportant role, and is only notable for his earlier performance in the excellent Lives of Others. Frank Langella has an uninteresting role that is nonetheless important to the film's plot. Since being nominated for that Oscar, Langella has certainly enjoyed his career resurgence. It's a shame not all his roles he's carried since then are worth watching. The best of this cast (besides Neeson, of course) might be Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi agent who agrees to help Martin learn who he really is. Ganz's character Jurgen reflects on how the German people are so good at forgetting, citing their ignorance of Nazi rule and forty years of communism, and prides himself on never forgetting and being proud of his history, making him easily the film's most original and interesting role.

You REALLY don't want to know what they're seeing right now...
Unknown's story is almost completely unbelievable, lacking any restraint to bring the narrative down to a reasonable level. This at times results in the film being unintentionally funny. When Neeson and Quinn try to convince Dr. Bressler (Koch) that they alone are the real Martin Harris, they deliver the same lines at the same time and with the same tremors in their voices, resulting in roaring laughter from the audience in what is supposed to be a serious moment. I wouldn't be surprised if the scene had the same effect on the players during filming, either. The dark moods of the film also have the effect of making even small one liners much funnier than they actually are. Of course, then someone gets knocked off and you're back in first gear, but the sad thing is that these scenes aren't even the film at its silliest. Yes, the plot is THAT flimsy.

"It's okay, it's almost over"
It might be time to stop taking things from Liam Neeson. Seriously, I can only wonder what revenge he would seek upon those who switch his coffee for Folger's Crystals. Still, he's the one thing that made Unknown as enjoyable as it was, and good for #2 right now on the year's Top 10. Still, you know where this is headed. Every few years someone takes something special from Neeson, and he goes on a rampage trying to get it back. Eventually it has to stop. Don't get me wrong, I mostly enjoyed Unknown; I just think that after moonlighting the thriller genre for a few years, it's high time he went back to films that have the ability to use him at his full potential, not ones that use his many talents just getting closer to that glass ceiling. And no, I'm not talking about Star Wars.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lucky Number Four

These days, I think every author of teen books is trying to replicate the monumental success of Twilight. Why shouldn't they? Besides the fact that author Stephenie Meyer's name has become nearly on par with that of Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling when discussing books for teens, she could literally fill a swimming pool with small bills and take a dip, so well do her books sell. Even the final book in the series - Breaking Dawn, which many FANS admit was a ridiculous mess - sold over a million copies just in the first twenty-four hours of sales. On top of that, the money generated from producing the movies based on the vampire/werewolf romance novels have been hugely successful, and made stars out of leads Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Sure, teen novels have been turned into films before, but not until Harry Potter and Twilight have they been so amazingly profitable. And if you're a production studio adapting popular series of books like these to the big screen, you have a franchise that can potentially make you guaranteed money for years to come. That brings us to I Am Number Four, based on the book by Pittacus Lore, the pen name of authors James Frey (he of A Million Little Pieces fame) and Jobie Hughes. Though the first book in this series was only released last August, the rights to the film had been purchased nearly a year prior by Michael Bay and Dreamworks pictures, hoping that the planned six-part book series would make for a popular film franchise. I don't know how that will work out for them, but I was interested enough in the premise to check out this film, even if I know I'm well past the age of the target audience.

So this is small-town America, huh? Looks dirty
I Am Number Four introduces us to the Loriens, aliens who live among us and are the last survivors of an extinct race. There are nine special teens, who were created to protect their home planet from other aliens, the warmongering Mogadorians, but never got the chance. Now separated and hiding on Earth, one teen (Alex Pettyfer) begins to develop the powers needed to fight these evil creatures and protect his new home from possible invasion. The Mogadorians have followed these escapees to our planet and hunted down three of their prey, with Number Four now in their sights.

This is going to make some things... difficult
When I saw Michael Bay's name pop up in the opening credits, I knew I was going to see a lot of special effects and explosions. He does demand things to be awesome, after all. I also expected to be put to sleep by uninteresting characters and stretches of boring exposition. I was right about the first part. Boy, was I wrong about the second. While the film has enough action and demolitions to excite at least three of your five senses (especially if you manage to see it in an IMAX theater), I was quite surprised to be greeted with a story that didn't insult my intelligence and characters I could actually sympathize with and enjoy. That isn't to say that the story was PERFECT. In the beginning there's a bit of voice-over to explain the highly descriptive background, and I was afraid there would be much more to come. Thankfully, after setting up the tale the voice overs take permanent hiatus until the film's conclusion, which made sense. Even if they could have avoided using them at all, the story probably needed these monologues to fully integrate the viewer into the film's narrative. Besides that, the film actually does a good job weaving a plot that uses a lot of tiny clues and things left unsaid to actually help move the story forward. Director D.J. Caruso is still learning to be a big-time Hollywood director, but it's a step in the right direction. The alien romance story, however, being between an inhuman outsider a young mortal woman just reeks of Twilight stink, not really a huge surprise but disappointing in its lack of originality.

Officer Jimmy had two days left until retirement
The acting here is much better than I would have imagined. England-born Pettyfer has plenty of experience playing teen novel heroes at this point. He's been Alex Rider in Stormbreaker, based on the book series by Anthony Horowitz, as well as the lead in this year's Beastly, based on Alex Flynn's reimagining of Beauty and the Beast. Just as 2010 unveiled Garrett Hedlund as a young talent to watch out for, Pettyfer might be one of a few names (including Olivia Wilde and Saoirse Ronan) to keep an eye on once the dust that is 2011 has settled. As the young outsider who has been constantly on the move since arriving on our planet, Four is tired of running and wishes he could just settle down like a normal human being. Pettyfer does a great job in this coming-of-age role, managing to act enough like a normal teen to fool many of the characters around him but different enough to make sure we realize he doesn't actually belong there. Timothy Olyphant adds a lot of character as Four's mentor Henri, a warrior from their home planet dedicated to protecting him at all costs. Some of the best scenes are the verbal interplay between Olyphant and the younger Pettyfer, with Olyphant's mentor role often getting the better of these exchanges. Other solid performances belong to Callan McAuliffe as Four's nerdy friend Sam, Teresa Palmer as a young woman hunting down Four for reasons unknown, and Lost's Kevin Durand as the leader of the evil Mogadorians. The only one who doesn't quite live up to the rest of the talent is Glee's Dianaa Agron as Sarah, Four's love interest. While the character, a former popular girl turned outsider and shunned by those who she once called friends, is interesting enough, she just doesn't quite get all the nuances of the part to fully carry it off. Credit for not making her a useless maiden in distress, though; Sarah is a committed young woman determined to live life her way, and the relationship between her and Four is realistic and honest.

Yes, you came at a bad time
The film doesn't skimp on the fireworks, and many of the inherent effects, including mutations, energy blasts and transformations look simply amazing on the big screen. Since I Am Number Four probably could have been transformed into a 3D film, like so many short-sighted action films before it, it was thankfully decided to bypass the concept in this release. 3D has been such an overused technology since James Cameron reintroduced it in 2009, and for every Piranha 3D or Resident Evil Afterlight that makes it work, there are titles like Green Hornet and Clash of the Titans for which there was no need or even competent implementation. It's an expensive format that costs millions more to make and costs movie watchers twice as much to see in the theaters, so time will tell just how much a game-changer 3D has truly become. Until then it's almost more brave to make this kind of film WITHOUT the 3D label and declare that you don't need all that extra glitz to create an experience worth watching.

Is The Hunger Games next for Pettyfer?
While the story is really no different from teen entertainment like Twilight or the old WB/UPN show Roswell, the fact remains that I Am Number Four is a by-the-numbers teen action film done well enough to be a great experience. It lacks some subtlety, but that's on par for a film financed by Bay. It's currently my #1 for 2011, though I doubt it will have the staying power to remain the whole year on the list. I still question whether a viable franchise can be built out of an unknown quanitity like this. Twilight was in book form for three years before a film was put out. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone took four years between book and film releases. The point I'm trying to make is that you can't force a franchise into existence; sometimes it's those happy mistakes and unforseen events that create the built-in audience you want in a motion picture. When you try to force it, you end up with disappointing returns because there's not enough teenagers giving a damn about your film to spend the money or time, as evidenced by this past weekend's box office. I may not be a Twilight fan, but even I can see how the vampire series made such an impact while Four has struggled out the gate.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Final Frontier

As a special treat today, I'm sharing this weekend's review with that of my fellow Steve's book blog Stevereads. If you've been reading his blog (and if you haven't, it's just to the right in my links) you might be aware of his ongoing musings concerning a series of novels very close to his heart: Star Trek! The next book he's reviewing in that vein is the novelization of the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first film based on the famous television series. Since Mr. Anderson is slowly becoming everybody's favorite film writer and always taking recommendations, Steve asked if I would want to review the film for my site. I was intrigued for more than a few reasons. I don't make it public often, but growing up I was pretty much the biggest "Trekkie" I knew. Of course, I wasn't alive when the original Star Trek aired on NBC in the late sixties. Not having been born until 1981, my first taste of Trek manifested in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I faithfully watched from the first season to it's conclusion in 1994. For me Star Trek meant Captain Picard, not Captain Kirk. That said, I have gone back and seen most of the original series, and while I personally hold TNG to be the superior version of the show, I've always respected the originality of the sixties' series and enjoy most episodes either for their camp value or - in the case of the truly exceptional episodes - masterful storytelling and amazing characters. It's been at least twenty years since I've seen this film, and all I seem to remember could be boiled down to a particularly large ship and a particularly bald female Starfleet officer. Though just about everybody I spoke to of this project believed Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be a terrible movie (including The Opinioness, Southland Dan and several co-workers), I still looked forward to seeing the film that first put everything fans loved about the canceled series on the big screen, and was the precursor to classic film sequels such as The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home.

Only these people know who they are, but they can all say they were in the first Star Trek film
The story to ST:TMP started out as a pilot to a new Star Trek series entitled Phase II... well, actually, that's not right. Before Phase II, series creator Gene Rodenberry had been trying to continue the franchise on the big screen, but those plans had been curtailed and turned into the new television series. After the success of science fiction films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, plans were changed again and Phase II was pushed aside to become The Motion Picture. A ship from parts unknown is on a course with Earth, and everything in its path is being eliminated with calculated precision. Starfleet has one ship available to combat this threat, a completely renovated USS Enterprise, and it's experienced crew. Assuming command is Admiral James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner); he, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Deforest Kelly) and the rest of the original crew must work to stop this menace before their home planet becomes the latest victim of this killer ship.

"Bones... what CAN.. be done... with my VOICE?"
There are two things you can tell from watching this film. One: there is a LOT of fan service on display here. Besides the obvious joy for fans to see the entire original show's cast on the big screen for the first time, there are numerous references that only Trekkies would even remotely understand. Two: there's just not enough story here for a full-length feature film. Both are obvious when you consider the sequence in which we first see the revamped Enterprise. It's exciting for the first minute in which we see the new starship in drydock, but then the scene continues without pause for an additional five minutes. That's far too much time wasted, and while I'm sure hardcore fans appreciated seeing the legendary ship from every conceivable angle, it hardly makes for impressive storytelling. And there are times when statements are made that make perfect sense to highly knowledgeable Trekkies, but alienate casual viewers being presented without any context. TMP appeals mainly to the franchise's fan base with a story structure that is reminiscent of Trek episodes, but fails to expand on any of the show's ideas to make a feasible full-length movie.

After about ten minutes of this, I woke up
The show DOES have its moments, most notably in the performances by the film's stars. Don't worry, I'm not going to praise William Shatner's heavily overwrought performance. Bill has long been a parody of himself. All these years later he has become practically revered for this silly persona, but back then "Meta-Bill" was still in its infancy. His body is really starting to go, he emphasizes all the wrong words, his dialogue muddy and poorly delivered. And yet he's so undeniably Kirk that you can get past his faults and eccentricities for the most part, tolerating his presence. Nimoy and Kelly are as wonderful as ever as Spock and McCoy, especially the classic verbal battles they wage over the importance of logic and emotion. The film naturally focuses on these three, as there would be no Star Trek without them. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite extend to the supporting crew. While it's good to see Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig), the film has them just standing around doing the same jobs they'd been doing ten years earlier. While the big three characters got promoted or retired, the rest of the crew pretty much stayed in the same job roles. It makes one wonder about how a crew so renowned for its cultural diversity couldn't muster a single promotion over so long a period of time. Maybe Starfleet isn't such an equal opportunity promoter after all. Slightly better are the newcomers who arrive for this story, Steven Collins and former Miss India Persis Khambatta. Collins plays executive officer Commander Decker, who had originally been assigned as Enterprise's new captain before Kirk took over. It's never explained if Decker is related to Commodore Decker, who appeared in the excellent Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine", but again this is something only highly knowledgeable fans would ask. Khambatta plays Lt. Illia, the Enterprise's Deltan (which is apparently why she's bald) navigator who has a romantic history with Decker. While Khambatta does a great job with what she's given (she was nominated for a Saturn award for her role) and has one of the film's best lines, I can't help but feel the character was sorely underutilized and the relationship between Decker and Illia grossly underrepresented in the main story. Both would have benefited from additional face time, but end up instead as slightly elevated redshirts.

Alright, who forgot to install the HD drivers??
The special effects are sadly inconsistent from scene to scene, with some really coming out spectacularly but others not nearly as impressive. In many scenes, I caught myself thinking - to quote Terry Gilliam in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - "It's just a model." For a film that overly relied on these effects, it's an unhappy day when not all of them turn out well. And before you point it out, yes I understand this movie was made over thirty years ago. But if Star Wars and Close Encounters can make more realistic effects with less money spent, I'm not going out of my way to praise expensive mediocrity. Almost worse are the new uniforms, which are drab and dull. I can understand that the brightly-colored go-go outfits of the original series might not have been as acceptable at the time of filming, but the alternatives were no better, colorless unisex clothing with no appeal whatsoever. Really the only good "effect" was the score by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith's Star Trek theme eventually went on to become the official theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation eight years later, and it was much to my surprise that it first appeared here.

I guess the "Hair Club for Women" hasn't been founded on her planet yet
The film has a reputation for being a failure at the box office, but that doesn't seem to quite be correct. True, it WAS a highly criticized movie, with most reviewers giving it low scores based on the weak story and over-reliance on special effects. The fans turned out in droves however, and while it's eventual $139 million in worldwide ticked sales fell below studio expectations, it really shouldn't be considered a failure. After all, it was enough to convince Paramount to make a sequel, although Gene Rodenberry's creative control was stripped for that to be doable. The biggest knock against Star Trek's moneymaking ability seems to be its budget, which had started at $15 million before delays and other setbacks ballooned it to over $35 million. No big deal, you say. After all, these days there are independent films with bigger budgets. However, if you put that number into context for the time, Star Wars and Close Encounters were made for a COMBINED $31 million, and both made at least twice what Trek pulled in. While not a failure by any stretch, it was hardly a success worth writing about when compared to these giants.

The big secret of Starfleet: They only have ONE SHIP
In closing, let me reiterate that I am STILL a Star Trek fan. Even though I've never professed to love the original series, I always thought the show had an undeniable appeal all its own, and enjoyed seeing the original crew man their stations one more time for the sake of nostalgia alone. But that's where this first film in the series fails, by taking that nostalgia and doing NOTHING of value with it. Tons of fan service can't mask a film that has little story, poor character development, and mediocre special effects that run on an epic scale until you are quite sick of them. While I don't regret seeing this film again as an adult, I can see myself going another thirty years before being tempted to see this first Star Trek movie again.

Mr. Anderson out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Biutiful People

On my (seemingly) never-ending journey to see the major films nominated for this year's Academy Awards, I found myself at the theater on Monday taking in yet another major release. This time it was the foreign film nominee Biutiful that made me travel into the downtown area, and I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. After all, I had a VAGUE idea as to what the main story entailed, but the trailer contained so much in the way of stimuli that the entirety of the tale was lost to me. I've also never seen any films by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, including his internationally-renowned Babel. So I have no idea of the story, and no perspective as to how it might be told. Top that off with an actor I genuinely respect - in this case international superstar Javier Bardem - but one I have actually seen in very little compared to his acting library. I've only viewed is work in recent Hollywood films No Country for Old Men and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two films that show two vastly different performances from the veteran Spanish actor. The result is me sitting in the theater having literally NO idea what is coming. And that's how it should be.

In Barcelona, Spain, Uxbal (Bardem) is a petty criminal who coordinates between different groups of illegal immigrants, including African street vendors and Chinese counterfeiters. Having recently learned from doctors that he has scant months to live, he must learn to accept his inevitable demise and put his final affairs in order. It's not easy when he's a single father with two children he loves and cares about, but even more so when you factor in a scheming brother, an ex-wife suffering from bipolar disorder who might end up with the children after his passing, and a Chinese business partner who runs an illegal sweatshop. As his criminal enforcer status might suggest, Uxbal has done so much bad in his life that making everything right might just be impossible.

This particular director has a habit of casting unknowns or non-actors in his films, finding talent where others don't even bother to look. That worked out wonderfully in Babel, in which two complete Hollywood unknowns, Mexican actress Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi from Japan, were nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2006 Academy Awards, with Barraza winning the prize. This time around, the supporting cast has not gotten nearly as much attention, but that might mainly be due to the fixation Bardem draws in his immediate direction. Bardem is just fantastic. It's sometimes difficult to feel sympathetic with Uxbal because he doesn't do good things even though he is a good man and a caring father. He's also something of a psychic, and while I'm thankful that particular storyline was somewhat muted, it really helped to show how figuratively and literally Uxbal is haunted by his past judgment. In all this Bardem shows a larger range than he's shown in either of the films I'd seen him in before. The movie is good because he is great, and I never get tired of seeing him act circles around most Hollywood hotshots. Maricel Alvarez, who plays Uxbal's troubled ex-wife, is also deserving of praise. Playing a bi-polar character often means changing your character's overall mood not only from scene to scene, but also moment to moment. Alvarez vacillates between a loving wife and mother and self-destructive harpy often over the course of the film, and plays a perfect foil off Bardem's imperfect rogue. Cheng Tai Shen plays Hai, a Chinese sweatshop owner, importing illegal labor to make knockoff handbags and work construction to bypass union laws. There's not nearly enough of him, but it generates strong emotions seeing the divide between his care of his family and then of his people. Other great roles belong to Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Eduard Fernandez, Luo Jin, and especially Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella as Uxbal's two children, who would steal every scene against a less seasoned performer than Bardem.

Having never seen an Inarritu film, it has since come to me no surprise that this director is practically obsessed with the idea of death. Death pervades every mood present in the film, even its few lighter-hearted moments. I'm not sure what inspired the director to focus on death and dying as film mediums, but he obviously knows what he's doing and how to make an impact visually in doing so. Like many visual directors, he has the skill to capture the perfect shot at any given time and makes many parts of the film worth seeing for the visuals alone. Whereas Clint Eastwood's efforts to instill the same interest in the afterlife in 2010's Hereafter feel forced and contrived, Inarritu obviously has great respect for his subject and manages to instill that respect into quality craftsmanship. The result is a film that feels authentic, honest and at times heartbreaking.

As you could probably guess, Biutiful is extremely bleak. While I can understand Inarritu dedicating the film to his father and basing it on his own father's experiences (or so it is according to the final credits), the film is a bit dark and depressing for that. Abject poverty, the death of children, immigration evils, the difficulties of bipolar disorder, tragic accidents and overwhelming guilt flow from this film like fluid through a sieve, and there's really very little to feel good about after the film's conclusion. There is also much imagery that, while certainly spot-on, is extremely cliche, and even predictable if you even have the remotest clue what is going on. On a final note, Biutiful has the feel of an ensemble film, with several interceding story lines involving similar themes and motivations, but ends up focusing almost entirely on Uxbal. I'm not really complaining about that; Bardem is fantastic and deserves completely his Best Actor nomination, the first ever for a 100% Spanish-speaking role. But I really wanted to know more about the supporting characters, and would have appreciated added content featuring them. These are what make Biutiful to me a good but not great film. Bardem is fantastic, and the film might win Best Foreign Film, but I already knew those things going in. I desired more, and sadly Inarritu didn't bring enough to completely seal the deal.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

You might recall back in November, I reviewed an independent film from Descent director Neil Marshall called Centurion. The film followed a band of lost Roman soldiers being chased from Pict tribes in what is now known as the Great Britain, the edge of the known world at the time. At the review's end, I predicted that the wide-release and extremely similar Hollywood film The Eagle, when it was to be released, would be nowhere close to the quality of Marshall's film, despite director Kevin Macdonald being a more renowned director (winning an Academy Award for his 2000 documentary One Day in September). The film not only takes places around the same time as Centurion, but also uses the fabled disappearance of Rome's Ninth Legion as its main plot device. In this, it is far from the first. In fact, the Lost Ninth has been the focus of many books and films, not the least of which is the 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, on which the film I'm reviewing today is officially based.With the lack of viable film releases in recent weeks and harboring no desire to be depressed into next month (sorry, Biutiful, I'll get to you soon), I decided this last Saturday to take in the historically-inaccurate action film. I certainly did not expect much from The Eagle, but I was at least hoping it would surpass my limited expectations and make for an enjoyable if brainless activity.

Marcus's secret attack - The Smolder
The film begins with the arrival of Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) in Roman-occupied Britain approximately twenty years after the legion led by his father - you guessed it, the Ninth - disappeared in the wilderness of the north, never to be seen again. Since then, Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of what is known today as Hadrian's Wall, with the intent of keeping the barbaric tribes outside of Rome's control from attacking "civilized" folk. After serving briefly as a Roman Centurion, Marcus hears rumors of the lost legion's standard, a gold eagle statuette, seen north of the wall. Intent on recovering the symbol of Rome and restoring his family's honor, he heads into the unknown world with only the Scottish slave Esca (Jamie Bell) as escort. Together, they search for the item and honor, facing the dangers of Britain's northern lands every step of the way.

Yes, I'm stealing this line from Airplane: "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?"
Kevin Macdonald made some interesting, perplexing decisions in making the film. The most obvious was his casting Americans as the conqueror Romans. Normally in film, when you have an over-lording empire, whether it be the Romans or the Sith, your average casting job in these instances calls for lots and lots of British actors. Besides the obvious talent pool you have from filming in Europe, it simply feels more authentic when your empire soldiers speak with a clipped British accent. I know that doesn't make a ton of sense, what with English not being even close to being a language at a time and Britain in fact not even being officially on the same LAND MASS as the city of Rome. But, for me at least, the British accent makes it feel more familiar and acceptable. American voices in comparison just sound so... UNREFINED. Even talented actors like those of Donald Sutherland (yes, I know he's Canadian) simply don't seem to belong in these roles, and they represent the upper echelon of acting talent. In an early scene basically spelling out the pretense of the film, Macdonald managed to secure some of the worst vocal talents this side of a Limp Bizkit concert to set up the film's tale. I mean... I GET IT. You use Americans to represent this country's history as a conquering nation, using Picts and Gauls to represent Native Americans. I can understand that just fine. What I can't forgive is the ham-handedness with which this was carried out, culminating in a first third of a film that just doesn't feel very well put together.

Yes, that will probably hurt
Another unfortunate decision was to make the film PG-13. There are numerous fights that occur through the course of the story, and if this had been a more ambitious film, it would have upped the blood and gore conspicuously absent from the film. It certainly didn't need to be as bloody as Centurion (which made a point of dismembering each representative limb at least TWICE during the length of the film) but the surprisingly bloodless battles and just-off-screen violence make The Eagle feel lifeless and dull in even these instances and practically begs for an "unrated" DVD release. There are some acts (including the murder of a small child) that would easily have knocked the film's rating up to R had it just been slightly more in the frame. This can only be seen as cowardice on the part of the filmmakers, perhaps worried that their film would not reach a prospective audience with an R rating.

What's hidden is that not one of them is wearing pants
As for historical accuracy, Macdonald had said he wanted to be as accurate as possible, but when you're dealing with a disputed legend and ancient tribes for which little is known, there's not a whole lot to work with. The best you can do is nail down the Romans, and for all intents and purposes, the director seems to at least pull that off. Of course, the only major detail they focus on - and of course they make SURE you notice it too - is the fact that the Roman helmet apparently left a distinctive (and convenient) welt under your chin. I guess I can't be too disappointed, since the film is based on a novel written for children, not any actual historical tale. Most historical analysts won't be paying much attention to this film anyway, I suspect.

Joey REALLY liked gladiator movies
The acting left a lot to be desired, though much can be attributed to a lazily-woven script rather than unambitious acting. I thought Tatum was actually much better here than than he had been in GI Joe, though any who remember that particular film know that's not saying much. At times his natural charm shines through, but at others he's still wooden and uninteresting. He's certainly got the looks to be a star; now he just needs his acting talents to rise to that same level. Jamie Bell suffers from the flaw of his first film role being the most memorable; he might likely never reach the level of success predicted for him after Billy Elliot made him an overnight sensation. Since that time he's mainly played supporting roles in big movies, and his future as a top-billed performer probably will be determined by how well his role is received in this year's Tintin movie. Still, he's the best part of this film, instilling heart into young Esca, with the audience never knowing for sure where the slave's loyalties lie. Donald Sutherland is as I have said a talented performer, but he has pretty much resorted to slumming it up in lesser films like this, chewing scenery long enough to get the story underway. I guess now that he has his official star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he feels he can stop doing the good jobs and just go for a paycheck. Well, I guess I can't blame him for that. Mark Strong (Seriously? Seems like he's in everything lately) appears as a tribesman who knows where the Eagle is, and does a fine enough job with it. And French actor Tahar Rahim puts forth a very convincing portrayal as another tribe's prince and the film's main antagonist. His performance is possibly the most consistent in the whole movie, with the only exception being Bell's.

Apparently gift horses come in all shapes and sizes
As I stated before, I didn't have high hopes for The Eagle going in. I hate to keep comparing it to Centurion, but when Neil Marshall takes the same topic and runs with it, it just comes out BETTER on all counts. The Eagle barely stands on its own feet however, and while you can plainly see Macdonald trying to make this scrap heap of broken parts into a piece of art, it too often reverts to overly-simplistic storytelling, marginally average acting, and a poorly-written story that doesn't make you care one whit about what's happening on the screen. And don't get me started on the positively stupid ending. I'm sure I'll see worse before year's end, but since I've only seen three 2011 films, The Eagle coming in at #4 just doesn't seem to do justice to how poor I though it turned out. With March looking like a packed house of interesting titles, I'm sure this film will be out of the Top 10 before too long, I'm just not sure how long I can wait for that.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Proud to be The American

I can't say I've been a fan of George Clooney for very long. I don't think I've ever seen an episode of E.R. with him. I tried watching Out of Sight years ago and gave up on it. I haven't seen The Perfect Storm, O Brother Where art Thou, Three Kings or Syriana. I haven't watched seen any of the Oceans films, that's how little of his career I've actually witnessed. But I have liked the little bit I've been privy to. He was great in his first big Hollywood film, From Dusk till Dawn. He was a big part of why the live telecast Fail Safe was so enjoyable. I loved his roles in the great films The Thin Red Line and Good Night, and Good Luck. And Up in the Air was an amazing movie for which he might have won an Oscar had he not been up against Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth at the time. There can be little doubt as to his talents as an actor, especially with his particular mix of acting talent, charm and sex appeal, so I'm happy to start paying attention to the man's career with 2010's The American, his indie thriller set in the mountains of beautiful Italy. The film is based on Martin Booth's book A Very Private Gentleman, originally released back in 1990.

Not exactly in a vacationing mood, is he?
In The American, George Clooney plays Jack, a hit-man recently chased out of hiding in Sweden by men seeking to take him out of the picture. His respite ruined, Jack returns to Rome, where his handler sends him into hiding in rural Italy, the literal middle of nowhere. There, he calls himself Edward and befriends both a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido). Jack, paranoid of the world around of him and trying to get out of the game, is tasked with one more job before he can escape forever.

Focus on the pretty one... oh, right.
The film appears on the surface to be a normal spy thriller, but as you watch it somehow doesn't feel like one. Indeed, when I was watching the special features on the film's DVD, it's stated by director Anton Corbijn that it is in fact a modernized western, which actually makes a lot of sense. Rural Italy is not unlike the old west in its wide open spaces, untapped beauty and the almost ghost-town atmosphere of the villages outside of tourist season. Jack's journey for redemption and an escape from his past are popular themes in westerns, and even his friendship with the priest and prostitute are for needs both spiritual and physical that he doesn't get from his lonesome, outlaw life. When you begin to think of the film in this way as a current-day western instead of just another spy movie, you can appreciate it's intricacies so much more than you might normally. Corbijn may be relatively new to directing, but uses his experience as a professional photographer to effect that far outpaces the tenets of his job. Every shot is perfect - notice I don't say beautiful, as sometimes the perfect shot needs to be ugly - and he obviously put a lot of thought into every single scene before committing it to film.

Oh, boys and their toys!
You could be justified in saying that The American starts George Cloony "and a bunch of European actors you don't know" but the film is at least partially successful due to the talents of that support cast. Johan Leysen plays Pavel, Jack's mysterious handler. While Jack seems to show remorse for some of his actions, it's obvious from Leysen's performance Pavel has little to no compassion in his system, and seems to be annoyed at Jack's apparent loss of edge. Paolo Bonacelli has been acting in film since 1964, but you likely haven't seen him unless you happen to frequent Italian cinema. His role of Father Benedetto tries to get Jack to confess his sins and repent, seeing through the disguise since he himself knows about the sins of man. Bonacelli's performance suffers slightly from having to speak mostly English throughout the film, but otherwise is well cast here. Another assassin is played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, who you might have seen before; she was the female assassin Sayid had an affair with in the fourth season Lost episode "The Economist." Here the beautiful Reuten plays another tough woman, obviously a young up-and-comer in the death-dealing trade. She does a great job not letting the audience too far in, keeping her secrets and still seeming open and honest compared to the insular Jack. The gorgeous Violante Placido seems young enough that she wouldn't have a lot of acting experience, but the Italian actress and singer actually has film history in spades and puts it to great effect here. As Clara, the "prostitute with a heart of gold" might seem like a trite role at this point, but she pulls it off nicely and her work with Clooney is pretty damn good. One particular scene is a startlingly strong sex scene in which she sets the mood for the entire scene with the camera almost exclusively focused on her. She's a charming, talented actress and manages to be the heart of the film. Finally we get to Clooney, who actually puts on a restrained face as the assassin whose history seems to be jumping back to bite him after so many years. Clooney plays the grim, emotionless hit-man when he needs to, but his legendary motormouth is conspicuously absent and the emotion on his face throughout makes for one of his more unique roles. It might not be his best performance, but being so different from his previous roles it's certainly one that commands attention.

Doug Ross's Doctors without Borders run didn't work as planned
The film is not without its faults. While much of the film takes place in one Italian town of Castel del Monte, Jack seems to travel to other towns to broker business. It's not clear when he's in a particular town or why at any given time, however. This is a small and mainly unimportant pacing problem. Also a bit off is the introduction of Clara, whose intro is shoved into an interceding five second scene included solely to plug her into the story. Most against the film, however, is it's predictability. I figured out in the first five minutes what the film's big twist would be, and while The American was still an interesting film to watch, the weight of knowing what was coming was too much a distraction to fully appreciate. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, with The American's expert camera work and great cast getting most of my positive attention. It was also great to see Italy's beauty on film, just begging to be visited. It might not be the best Clooney film out there, but its certainly one you won't regret seeing on the way to watching his bigger, better fare.