Sunday, March 25, 2007


Written and Directed by Mike Binder

Charlie Fineman: I don’t like this.
I don’t like remembering.

Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to shut a man down and sometimes it happens little by little over time and no one knows until its already happened. REIGN OVER ME is the story of two such men who find themselves in similar positions despite the drastically different paths that got them there. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is a successful New York dentist, who has his own practice, a gorgeous apartment and a family that loves him. He is coasting comfortably on his success until he happens to cross his college roommate on the street one day. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) doesn’t do any coasting, except on his motorized scooter. Charlie lost his wife, three daughters and family dog on September 11th, 2001. They were on one of the planes that crashed into the towers and he was on his way to meet them at the airport when it happened. Charlie had his life taken from him in one moment while Alan has let his slip through his fingers over the course of his entire life.

Writer/Director, Mike Binder (THE UPSIDE OF ANGER), has placed all the elements carefully to allow for these two men to heal each other only he has forgotten to connect them or give them any personality of their own. The film itself does its own coasting as it presumes that its supposed bravery to deal with post-traumatic stress experienced by those touched directly by the events of September 11th is original enough to sustain itself. The presumption is that anyone with a soul will allow their heart to go out to this man because they can still feel the pain from that day. I have a soul and I still feel the pain but my heart doesn’t automatically go out to a man just because you tell me he’s ruined. Even Sandler, who showed great dramatic promise in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, relies too heavily on audience expectation, allowing his Dylan-esque mess of a haircut and inability to sit still to show his hurt. The alternative is to show what Charlie went through that led him to this place in his life but no one needs to be bombarded with that imagery again. Only, the planes crashing into the towers was just the beginning of Charlie’s experience. The emptiness that followed is what specifically hollowed Charlie Fineman and there is no trace of that pain in the film until it is too late.

Binder also had a difficult time balancing out the two separate experiences of his characters. As Charlie has the showier, more intense trauma to deal with, Alan’s lessons to learn become an afterthought. The divide is uneven but I almost wish Alan’s plight had been given little to no thought. It is both tired and tedious to tell of a man who achieved all of his goals but somehow eluded happiness. It is then also all too simple and increasingly irritating to blame these problems on the wife. Alan’s wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) makes him dinner, wants to speak openly with him and spend time together learning new things. She is making an effort and doing her part and all he can do is resent her for it because it’s a lot easier than facing the fact that he is responsible for his own happiness. Helping Charlie becomes a convenient way to avoid both his own problems and his wife. Of course, he learns that his wife is not to blame for his dissatisfaction but you know that he will from the moment you see there is a problem. There is no other solution that could lead both the film and the character to resolution. In fact, ultimate resolution is what removes all urgency from the film. Charlie and Alan meet and there is no question that they will learn from each other. So obvious is the point of this film that it becomes entirely predictable.

REIGN OVER ME opens and closes with shots of the streets of New York City. As the people scurry through the maze, it is obvious that there are stories of pain and loss from September 11th still waiting to be told. This one however never quite feels real. Instead, it feels calculated and constructed which is made even sadder as it misses the emotional pay off it seems so bent on getting. Charlie doesn’t want to remember that day. He doesn’t want to remember everything he once had, that he was once happy without having to try to be. He is hardly alone though. Many have tried to forget that day and the wounds that were suffered. I seriously doubt that REIGN OVER ME is the way they will want to remember again.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Written and Directed by Sean Ellis

Ben: What is love anyway?
And is it really that fleeting?

It would be real easy for me to say that CASHBACK is so offensive, it will make you want to demand your precious cash back. Only that isn’t fair. Writer/Director Sean Ellis’s expansion of his 2004 Oscar nominated short film of the same name can be juvenile, unconvincing and entirely misogynistic, but it somehow manages to retain some level of tenderness and endearment that makes for a more often soothing than not experience. Having just broken up with his first serious girlfriend, Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) loses the ability to sleep. He quickly grows tired of flicking the lights on and off repeatedly and reading all of the novels he always meant to, sometimes twice, to pass the time, and decides to get an overnight job at a grocery store a week into his new sleepless existence. (He is a speed-reader, apparently.) Here, he meets a group of quirky coworkers who provide a safe place for him to heal his wounds and let his imagination run wild in the cereal aisle. Somewhere between frozen foods and canned goods lies the secret to understanding love – how it begins, how it grows and how it spoils. If only there weren’t so many breasts to distract us.

Despite its earnest approach, CASHBACK’s quest to understand love needs a serious cleanup in aisle four. From the opening shot, the film’s slanted view of the male/female love experience is clear to all. In close-up and slow motion, a woman stares directly into the camera and goes into a psychotic rage. Her hair is flailing; her eyes beam with uncontrollable hatred. Not before long, she is throwing things. The shot introduces her as an irrational lunatic while the director frames this scenario as typical, supposedly relatable for any man. The film then cuts to Ben. He is docile, put upon and glassy-eyed. How could this be happening, he asks himself. He has such an innocent face. There could not possibly be any justification for this crazy woman’s fit. In this situation, she is the devil and he is the innocent. Ben’s narration is all we hear throughout this exchange, which leads me to wonder if maybe Ben is not more responsible for the love lost than Ellis appears to be suggesting. Yelling though she may be, Ben isn’t listening to a word she is saying. All progression begins with listening.

Ben does spend a lot of time listening to the sound of his own voice mind you. It keeps him isolated from his peers and keeps him from having any genuine human interactions. In fact, to pass the time while he works, Ben imagines that time has stopped and that he is the only one who can walk freely through it. What does this young artist do with this remarkable ability? Why he exposes the private parts of the female grocery store patrons by pulling up shirts and pulling down skirts of course. He proceeds to whip out his sketchpad and draw these half-naked beauties while reminiscing about his life’s experience with the opposite sex and the discovery of the female form. An encounter with a Swedish boarder when he was pre-adolescent exposed him to the wonders of the female anatomy and it seems he has not been able to see anything else since. But if he is capable of seeing artistic beauty in an open bag of peas on a grocery store floor, then how is it that everything that is beautiful about a woman is found only in her nakedness and never in her soul?

Somehow, Ben deriving art from his time-stopping, breast-exposing experience justifies what would ordinarily be seen as sexual assault. By telling this story, Ellis positions himself in a similar position on the fine line between art and objectification. While CASHBACK did get me to see love as life slowing down with someone else so that you can see all the beauty it has to offer together, it also made me feel uncomfortable. I was not at odds with myself and the physical act of watching so many nude bodies fill the screen. I was not even scandalized by the demeaning imagery. By now, I am accustomed to the male gaze. I was more so embarrassed to be watching a new filmmaker with such a romantic longing and vivid eye offer an art piece that does nothing more than expose an ego that thinks with the wrong head.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon
Directed by Zack Snyder

Additional review writing by Trevor Adams

Spartan King Leonides: Pray that they are not so dumb.
Pray that we are lucky.

Have you ever heard of a little argument called, “Style vs. Substance?” If you haven’t, I’m afraid I cannot help you. You must stop reading now. No, seriously, of course you know the debate. In a visual world, what holds more relevance, the way something looks or what is ultimately being said? When related to film, some would argue that style can and should exist without the burden of having to show meaning, that a provocative, effective aesthetic can stand alone. Others would argue that beauty is only skin deep and that without meaning or attention placed on other areas of focus, one is left with an empty experience. In this review, this argument will be applied to Zack Snyder’s 300, a film that is drawing mass hordes of people to the theatre to feast upon its blood soaked violence, based on the Frank Miller (SIN CITY) graphic novel. Included amidst these masses are my roommate, Trevor Adams, and myself. Trevor will argue for style and I will argue for substance. Trevor has a background in animation and special effects and carries with him a childhood love for comic books and video games. All of these influences lent weight to his enjoyment of 300. If you’re a regular reader and you know me at all, you know that I am most satisfied by well-strung words that are given even more meaning by appropriate and innovate visuals. Trevor and I are two people with often similar views that left the theatre entirely polarized. Whereas he saw art, I saw a failed attempt.

TREVOR: Truthfully, I’m not so much a fan of blue/green-screen filmmaking. If the recent STAR WARS films are examples of using this technology to create an entire feature, why would I be interested at all in seeing this 300 film? 300 Spartans acting in front of a screen that would later be replaced by computer graphics just didn’t appeal to me as a concept. I blame the trailer for convincing me of otherwise. In its 2 minutes, I knew that this was going to become an important art film that would have to fight to assert its value. The frames are painted in a way that they create an astoundingly beautiful, living comic book. I’ve treated myself to reading a number of comics in the last few weeks and although the stories and dialogue make my eyes roll in a way that sometimes gets me dizzy, the drawings, color and composition keep me heavily interested and eagerly turning to the next page. 300 is no different. A single film frame can be worth a thousand words of script. The fight sequences are so strikingly rendered, I found myself at points begging for the director to slow down so I could absorb more of each and every frame … and in fact, at times, that was exactly what he did. My appreciation of this film lies not within the 300 naked Spartans or the violence they promote that brought on the comic book geeks and raving macho WWE crowd, but rather within the frames of perfection that I was given. I was so filled with love for what my eyes were witnessing, the style became the substance of this film.

JOE: It’s not that I cannot applaud 300 for its innovation and effort. The framing at times approaches a higher level of art and the tonality and quality of the film are engrossing, despite the obvious GLADIATOR influence. What GLADIATOR had that 300 does not is depth, a more personal sense of urgency and purpose. Spartan King Leonides fights with passion and love for his empire but his almost entirely faceless army fights blindly alongside him. 300 spends little time establishing itself historically and even less time developing its cast past their drone status so what you are left with is a bunch of boys in battle. It is violence for its own sake and its energy is not enough to overlook the banalities of their dialogue or the ridiculous fashion in which that dialogue is delivered. Even the look wears thin. As one fight leads to another with little to no other development taking place in between, the cheaper elements of the design unveil themselves. Gimmicky monsters appear to attempt new levels of excitement and the skimpy outfits and painted-on abs of the Spartans draw attention to the film’s thinly veiled intentions. 300 is nothing more than a stylized masturbatory fantasy of violence, blood and misogyny. In other words, it is pure Frank Miller.

TREVOR: The story is simple in 300. It doesn’t try to hide itself under any complicated military strategies, nor does it weave in any intricate politics within the Spartan government. Zack Snyder simply connects the simple dots of Frank Miller’s story and then beautifully paints his colors within and around those lines. It’s not that I couldn’t go on and on about the elements that bothered me in this film (i.e. the Golem-like ogre character; the horribly-acted Xerxes; or the simple fact that this was based on a Frank Miller comic book), but I‘d rather take the same approach I did in exiting the cinema: Focus on what I loved. No film is perfect, but there can be perfect moments. This film had about 300 of them.

JOE: There are certainly a select group of film and graphic geeks, like Trevor, who will see this film with the sole purpose of devouring its visual extravagance. It is their art and I do not begrudge them of it. As far as I am concerned though, when a filmmaker spends all of his focus on one element of style and allows for so many other formal aspects to just get by on their own, you are left with a hollow shell. 300 is beautiful but beauty fades fast when there is nothing underneath.



Sunday, March 04, 2007


Written by James Vanderbilt
Directed by David Fincher

Melanie: Why do you need to do this?
Robert: Because nobody else will.

Who doesn’t like to play games? You face the other players dead on and you struggle to retain control over the board, keeping everyone else guessing as to what your next move will be. In the 1960’s and 70’s, one such game player, who called himself the Zodiac, decided all by himself that he would start his own game. He would decide who the players would be and he would make up all the rules. The stakes in his game though were a slight bit higher than your average game of Risk. Drawing his inspiration from a 1932 film entitled “The Most Dangerous Game”, where a man hunts other humans because he feels them to be the most dangerous animal of all, the Zodiac began a series of senseless killings that terrorized the people of San Francisco. And this was just the start for this game. The Zodiac sent letters to several prominent San Francisco media outlets, demanding that they print his confessions and their accompanying ciphers on their front page. Fearing that the Zodiac would make good on the threats his letters contained if they didn’t, the messages ran and the public went into a state of mass paranoia and fear. As the killings and messages went on for years, the Zodiac baffled the police and the public with a mystery that remains inconclusively unsolved.

Another man who clearly enjoys his game play is director David Fincher. In SE7EN, he toyed with our morals; in FIGHT CLUB, he split personalities and teased our collective subconscious; and in PANIC ROOM, he locked us in a tiny space and made us feel like we couldn’t breathe. He even made a movie entitled THE GAME at one point. For his first film in five years, Fincher plays with our basic need to understand and to make sense of something. ZODIAC bounces back and forth between an exhausting police investigation that spreads across numerous jurisdictions, the frightening killings themselves and the life of a cartoonist who develops a fascination with the Zodiac that eventually becomes a crippling obsession. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, the real life man who went from drawing satirical cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle to writing the definitive book on the Zodiac killings. Graysmith is a natural when it comes to solving puzzles so when he is exposed through his position at the SF Chronicle to private information regarding the killings, he needs to piece this one together too. It is the mother of all puzzles and there is no way he can let it go unsolved.

Subsequently, we too need to figure this whole mess out. Fincher makes it so Graysmith’s obsession becomes ours as well by allowing us to have only certain pieces of the puzzle at certain times. The sheer vastness of how far the Zodiac’s murders were spread out meant that many clues went undeveloped because they needed others to be brought to light. Fittingly, ZODIAC is one of the darkest films I’ve seen. Yes, I meant that to suggest that it is twisted and sick like any serial killer film should be but I was referring more to Harris Savides’s stark use of lighting throughout. Light tends more to showcase than fill which keeps the viewer just as in the dark as the police and the San Francisco public. Even the humour is dark. James Vanderbilt’s script is dizzying as it travels back and forth between the vast number of lives affected by the Zodiac but he still manages to find laughs amidst a mass murder investigation. The laughs may feel awkward but ZODIAC is meant to be uncomfortable and, like any harrowing and consuming experience, it would be impossible to make it through it if we didn’t laugh every once in a while.

Captions constantly remind the viewer that time is passing by at a rapid rate yet at no point does the film feel long. While the passage of time reflects the reality of the events that took place, it also ensures the viewer knows how frustrating the entire investigation was. All involved went years without coming to any substantiated conclusions. With the central focus of their lives not making any sense, it became impossible to connect with the rest of their surroundings. ZODIAC is an intensely involving mystery that is both chilling and infuriating in all the right ways. It is itself its own puzzle remaining to be solved. Without understanding, there is no security or certainty. Just like a game of checkers or going out on a first date, success depends on figuring out the other player as much as it involves understanding yourself. The same applies to the investigation of the Zodiac killings. You will need to know how and why it happened but you will not really want to, considering to fully understand this mystery means staring into the eyes of a murderer who kills for sport. Good game, Mr. Fincher.