Willem Dafoe

Daybreakers (2009, Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig)

According to the gaggle of morons who saw the film in the same theater I did, the end of Daybreakers is stupid. Why anyone would release what’s essentially a film noir slash action slash vampire movie in American theaters is beyond me… at least outside of areas with high literacy rates (I live in a low literacy rate area, lucky me).

It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s violent, Daybreakers is the kind of movie no one makes anymore. It has a lot in common, in terms of execution (it’s well-directed, well-written, well-acted), with Carpenter’s Escape from New York. It’s a genre picture, there are effects, but it’s not for the pleebs. I can’t even imagine how Lionsgate tried to advertise it.

The film keeps its vampire conventions simple and traditional so it can play better. It’s future America with vampires is frightening banal. From the start, the world of vampires isn’t a leap of the imagination, it’s completely believable.

The Spierig’s direction is, just like it was in their first film, fantastic. Here they do a lot more, since it’s such a mix of genres. I’m actually glad Daybreakers isn’t a hit, since it’d be terrible to see them do a Matrix someday. Though I would love to see them do a romantic comedy. They’re fantastic filmmakers.

The acting’s all great, especially, shockingly, Sam Neill, who finally learned how to chew scenery. Willem Dafoe’s hilarious in his part of a good ol’ boy (written by Australians).

Wonderful stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig; director of photography, Ben Nott; edited by Matt Villa; music by Christopher Gordon; production designer, George Liddle; produced by Bryan Furst, Sean Furst and Chris Brown; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Ethan Hawke (Edward Dalton), Claudia Karvan (Audrey Bennett), Willem Dafoe (Lionel “Elvis” Cormac), Michael Dorman (Frankie Dalton), Vince Colosimo (Caruso), Isabel Lucas (Alison) and Sam Neill (Charles Bromley).


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Wes Anderson)

The problem with The Life Aquatic reveals itself quite clearly in the final act, as the cast all gives Bill Murray shoulder squeezes of support. The scene is supposed to mean something profound. It’s Murray confronting not just his Moby Dick (a quest for vengeance lost in the film, maybe because they knew it was a silly idea as a major plot point), but also himself. His mortality, his place in the world, you know, the yada yada. And it is the yada yada, because the viewer isn’t watching Murray’s character confront himself, he or she is watching Murray play a character confronting himself. The Life Aquatic manages to create a particular suspension of disbelief–the little stop motion undersea creatures are exquisite and fully part of the film’s reality–but it never manages to convince (or even try to convince) the viewer he or she isn’t watching a construct. A hipster event picture. It’s a great hipster event picture, maybe the best (since who makes decent hipster pictures except Anderson), but there’s no depth to it. It’s a fake.

The Life Aquatic wasn’t expensive by Hollywood standards–it was pretty cheap actually, considering the cast, effects and water shooting–but it’s a huge Wes Anderson picture. There are action scenes–Anderson’s pretty good at them too, incorporating both his self-aware style as well as the action scene necessities. There are huge sets–Mark Friedberg’s production design–is wonderful. There’s always something to look at in The Life Aquatic, which is good, because the film frequently gets boring.

Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach think swearing is funny. Swearing can be funny and some of the swear-based jokes in Life Aquatic are okay (they don’t get belly-laughs, but they’re okay), but they rely on them all the time. Or uncomfortable situations. It’s like Anderson sat down and watched the trailers to Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and thought he should make a feature-length trailer. There’s not an honest human moment in the entire film, as the actors deliver their lines to the camera, not to each other. Owen Wilson–who really should have co-wrote the picture instead of acted in it–is the worst. His Kentucky fish out of water is an affected performance, with the whole hook being him being Owen Wilson acting in another Wes Anderson movie. None of his scenes are bad, but seeing him opposite Willem Dafoe, who hurls himself head first into his role as an insecure German crew member, is painful. Dafoe pushes through to the other side with his performance, while Wilson’s happy with staying celluloid.

After Dafoe, Cate Blanchett gives the film’s second-best performance, even though she has little to do… watching Blanchett act–even in a shallow character–is great. Murray’s fine, so is Anjelica Huston. Jeff Goldblum’s okay, playing the standard post-Jurassic Park Goldblum standard. Bud Cort’s got a great small part.

The Life Aquatic is a frustrating film. As filmmaking, it’s masterful and exciting. As a fiction, it’s a complete waste of time. There’s more insight into the human condition in mediocre fortune cookies.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Anderson, Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bill Murray (Steve Zissou), Owen Wilson (Ned Plimpton), Cate Blanchett (Jane Winslett-Richardson), Anjelica Huston (Eleanor Zissou), Willem Dafoe (Klaus Daimler), Jeff Goldblum (Hennessey), Michael Gambon (Drakoulious), Bud Cort (Bill Ubell) and Seymour Cassel (Esteban de Plantier).


Inside Man (2006, Spike Lee)

Inside Man has got to be the cleverest remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three made to date, starring Denzel Washington as Walter Matthau and Clive Owen as Robert Shaw and Jodie Foster as Martin Balsam. Okay, just kidding. Kind of. Inside Man, rather pointedly, follows in the Dog Day Afternoon tradition of the present action being the robbery and hostage situation and the film’s running time being divided, more or less equally, between cops and robbers. And Denzel Washington is playing Walter Matthau, or the same kind of role Matthau played in Pelham… a non-specific cop role with a little back-story but only enough to confuse the most gullible viewer he’s not just a cog in the plot. Washington turns in Inside Man’s least compelling performance (except maybe the–until this film–always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofar, who follows Washington around and gets shown up by Daryl Mitchell in a practical cameo)–Washington wears a hat to make him stand out. In terms of being an actor’s role or an actor’s film, it’s embarrassing, but Inside Man doesn’t offer either of those things. Instead, it’s a real solid, traditional bank robbery movie.

One of the film’s most traditional elements, after it opens–almost as a tease to the audience–different (more in line with a Spike Lee “joint”), is Terence Blanchard’s score. It’s classic Hollywood music for the genre. It’s really good and effective, but it’s the norm. Spike’s direction reminds a lot of the third Die Hard, probably the first time I’ve ever thought of John McTiernan during a Spike Lee film, with only one patented walking shot and a few too many dolly zooms (like four–Spike’s a little too good of a director to use exclamation points).

Clive Owen’s excellent, turning in the film’s best performance (though the morality angle of the script is kind of cheap and uninteresting). Jodie Foster is okay in her role, though it seems like they really wanted her name on the poster or something, because any number of non-Academy Award winning prestige actors could have played the part. Willem Dafoe has a smaller role and he’s excellent, getting in to the communal spirit of the cop scenes in a way Washington cannot. Even Ejiofar manages well in those moments, but Washington is in a movie star role and can’t break for the small stuff. Christopher Plummer–in the hiss-friendly villain role–does a little less than he could, even if the character is terribly defined in the script.

The script’s high points are the plotting–which Spike and Blanchard had a lot to do with making great–and the heist itself. They aren’t so good in the character moments. Also really good are the cop moments, though it’s weird to see Spike do a traditional cop movie after he made such pointed changes–with great success–to Clockers. There’s a neat little Clockers reference in Inside Man, but I’d imagine the films are for very different audiences.

I do have to say, I find the film’s reputation for it’s plot innovations a little silly. Besides being predictable–except perhaps in regards to its MacGuffin–it’s essentially a remake of Quick Change, only serious….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Spike Lee; written by Russell Gewirtz; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeline White), Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case), Willem Dafoe (Capt. John Darius) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell).


Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)

In the last ten years, Tom Cruise has turned in a number of excellent performances (well, four… four is a number) and a bunch of decent ones. He’s only been bad once (of the films I’ve seen). So, Born on the Fourth of July was a jarring reminder to the early period of Cruise’s acting career (before his wingnut career), when he was staggeringly awful. Cruise is so bad for most on Fourth of July, I actually had to look up a good adjective to use to describe that awful acting. Of course, Cruise’s inability fits Stone, maybe even more than Charlie Sheen’s inability fit him. Stone’s shot composition in Fourth of July is beautiful, but absolutely useless for a narrative. It’s slick and colorful, that neo-Technicolor Bruckheimer-produced films use. To get the film to move, since the shots don’t do it, Stone uses a lot of quick editing in Fourth of July, the same quick editing Bruckheimer appropriated a few years later. Maybe it was immediately (I never saw Days of Thunder).

Stone makes Fourth of July as melodramatic as possible, then bumps it up a notch. For a film based on a true story (I’ve read the actual book and a lot of the movie was a surprise to me), it’s beyond any reasonable license. Only at the end, in the last ten minutes, when the character finally gets to be a real person, does Cruise’s acting rise to being near-poor. It’s when the true story becomes somewhat worthwhile… but the film skips the character’s major personal development. There’s nothing about him becoming active in the anti-war movement. One minute he isn’t, the next he is, then the movie ends. Since it’s shed everything else we’ve had to sit through (his family, his girl, his relationship with other vets), Fourth of July hits a reset button and all of a sudden Cruise is a guy in a wig, not the guy who started the movie without the wig, then got it inexplicably later on. Still, it’s ten minutes and it’s laden with Stone’s idea of nuance, so it doesn’t help. It just gets better.

I was going to make note of all the people who starred in Fourth of July and went on to bigger things. Jake Weber even shows up for a shot. Then, I realized Stone used all three of the non-Alec Baldwin brothers and I decided against giving him any credit for casting discoveries. However, a handful of the performances are good. Raymond J. Barry is good as the father and Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine (Stiles from Teen Wolf–I recognized him but didn’t know who it was until I looked it up) are both good as Cruise’s friends. There’s a whole period where Cruise and these guys play their characters in high school and all of them look about ten years too old.

I keep trying to remember other things–the timeline goofs were obvious to me and I was born twenty years after the era depicted–but, in the end, I think I’m sad Oliver Stone doesn’t get to make his movies anymore. He still works, he still writes, but he doesn’t get to do this kind of film anymore and–good or bad–Born on the Fourth of July was a socially relevant piece. During the scenes in the awful veteran’s hospital, my fiancée turned and asked me what I thought vet hospitals looked like today. Stone had a real audience until Natural Born Killers and, while he did manipulate them, he did it for a good cause. I’m not sure there’s been any manipulative filmmaker since who’s been able to reach such a broad audience and actually had something good to say….

Those last few sentences are an observation, not a defense of or recommendation to see Born on the Fourth of July, though I do suppose John Williams’s hideous score needs to be heard to be believed. Oh, and I can’t forget this one. Stone rips off Coppola’s fan as helicopter blade metaphor from Apocalypse Now, but I guess it’s all right, since Spielberg went on to steal a flag shot from Fourth of July for Saving Private Ryan.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Oliver Stone; screenplay by Stone and Ron Kovic, based on the book by Kovic; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by David Brenner; music by John Williams; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; produced by A. Kitman Ho and Stone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic), Kyra Sedgwick (Donna), Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic), Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic), Jerry Levine (Steve Boyer), Frank Whaley (Timmy), Willem Dafoe (Charlie), Josh Evans (Tommy Kovic) and Jamie Talisman (Jimmy Kovic).


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