Author Archives: J Caleb Mozzocco

Film Review: Lake of Fire

When I was a little kid, I used to think it was weird that we called black and white films “black and white.” See, they weren’t really black and white, I had reasoned, and it was actually fairly rare that anything within them would ever be totally black or totally white. Rather, they were a subtle rainbow of grays, so shouldn’t we call them “gray and gray” movies?

American History X director Tony Kaye’s incendiary abortion documentary Lake of Fire, the result of an epic 18-year creation process, is shot in 35 black and white, and the nature of the term has never been more appropriate. Whatever our views on abortion, too many of us tend to see the issue in black and white—certainly most of the people Kaye captures on film do—but in actuality, it’s anything but, a point Kaye drives home with nearly volcanic force by the end of this extraordinary work.

The length of time Kaye spent making it allows us to witness the issue, the activists and the shifting frontlines firsthand over the course of decades; he covers a March For Life event in 1992 at the dawn of the Clinton administration, and also the recent South Dakota statute that returned the state’s laws to a pre-Roe v. Wade status. He’s not just summing up the recent history of the abortion conflict in America, he’s seemingly filming it live as it unfolds.

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Film Review: The Orphanage

You know someone in the film business has really made it big when his credit as a producer alone is enough to sell a movie. That’s the case with The Orphanage, which comes, as the movie poster boasts “from producer Guillermo del Toro.”

Del Toro’s only one of the seven producers credited for working on the film, which is actually written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, but emphasizing his involvement isn’t simply empty marketing. The look and feel of The Orphanage, or the spookier sounding El Orfanato in the original Spanish, does feel heavily informed by del Toro’s work, particularly his little-seen 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone/El Espinazo del Diablo, which similarly dealt with Spanish speaking orphans and the supernatural.

Laura (Belén Rueda) was an orphan who grew up in a spooky old beachside orphanage. As a (rather shapely) adult and young mother, she and her doctor husband (Fernando Cayo) return to the now abandoned orphanage. They’re planning to reopen it as a school for sick children, like their adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep), who is HIV positive.

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1. Atonement Ian McEwan’s challenging British World War II romantic novel becomes an equally challenging film, thanks to director Joe Wright. The film boasts one of the most haunting single scenes of the year (the British retreat at Dunkirk), and the rest of it ain’t too shabby either

2. Before the Devil Knows Your Dead Phillip Seymour Hoffman had another hell of a year, turning in excellent performances in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War, but the best film to contain his presence was this neo-noir crime film by Sidney Lumet, in which Hoffman and brother Ethan Hawke’s jewel heist becomes the stuff of Greek tragedy.

3. Day Night Day Night A mysterious young woman prepares to engage in a suicide bomb attack in the streets of New York City, and we watch her and her handlers’ careful, methodical, practically ritualistic preparation for the act. Director Julia Loktev removes any and all clues as to the why of the attack, leaving us with no context, only the inherent drama that comes from finding oneself immersed in a ticking time bomb of a movie. Star Luisa Williams gives a commanding, if highly unsettling, performance as the bomber, getting very few lines, but every single frame of this powerful movie.

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Film Review: Juno

Director Jason Reitman’s follow-up to Thank You For Smoking bears the self-consciously hip tone and highly affected aesthetic of an emerging talent’s debut film, of the sort straddling the line between trying-too-hard to be an instant cult classic and actually being an instant cult classic.

While the 30-year-old Reitman’s got at least one incredible movie under his belt already, Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody actually is an emerging talent making her debut here, so certainly a great deal of the cuteness may be hers to take credit for/accept blame for. From the high school notebook sketch font on the credits and titles to the Wes Anderson-like reliance on soundtrack, costume and set design for storytelling purposes, nearly every frame of Juno betrays a film that could have gone horribly, horribly wrong instead of going so pleasantly, pleasantly right.

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Film Review: The Savages

It’s been almost a decade since writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s semi-autobiographical coming of age comedy The Slums of Beverly Hills, and yet there’s no signs of rust or dust on her latest, a semi-semi-autobiographical melancholic comedy about one of the least funny topics imaginable—putting your demented, dying parent in a nursing home and then watching them die.

In a somewhat surreal opening in the incredibly surreal Sun City, Arizona, a brightly colored paradise for the aged and elderly, we meet Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), who is beginning to lose his mind. When his equally elderly and sick live-in girlfriend dies and her family claims her house, Lenny finds himself without a home.

Enter his two adult children, Jon and Wendy Savage (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, respectively), whom Lenny abandoned as children and apparently abused to some unspecified degree. Both have grown accustomed to having nothing to do with their father and little to do with one another, but find themselves reunited and forced to care for him, despite having plenty of growing up to do themselves.

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Film Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

When we first meet Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, he’s naked in a Las Vegas hot tub full of coke-sniffing strippers and Playmates. But when he sees Dan Rather in a turban reporting from Afghanistan, he perks up and asks the bartender to turn up the TV.

That’s Wilson in a nutshell, a whiskey guzzling, tail-chasing believer in the good life, who just so happens to be extremely interested in the hottest front of the Cold War in the early ‘80s, Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union has just invaded (The Afghan people are, he notes, “the only people actually shooting at the Russians.”)

The two seemingly conflicting sides of the character amount to two character traits, and that’s about the extent to which director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (working from the late George Crile’s non-fiction book of the same name), and Tom Hanks flesh Wilson out. Hanks’ co-stars similarly get two traits a piece.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (under tinted glasses, a moustache and funny hair) plays a CIA agent, who’s gruff and inelegant but earnest. A blonde Julia Roberts’s Texas fundraiser/activist is an ultra-right wing holy roller who shares Wilson’s love of a good time.

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Film Review: Atonement

Ian McEwan’s novel is not an easy one to adapt to film. Sure, it’s got lots of high drama, of the sorts that usually lend themselves to the medium—World war! Tragic death! Star-crossed lovers! Hot sex! Class conflict! Rape! Delirium!—and yes, it does have an unusually high pedigree, being both a very popular and very good novel.

It’s also got a pretty idiosyncratic narrative structure which keeps a reader on his or her toes, showing the same events from different perspectives, and including a twisty shift or two which, on film, can be incredibly jarring, because the medium requires the attention of your ears and eyes to a higher degree than prose. That is, a reader is in much more control of how what they’re experiencing is perceived, while a film-viewer is at the mercy of the film itself to a greater degree when it comes to the sight and sound of things.

And man, there’s a shift in here that might knock you right out of your seat, if not the film itself for a moment.

Director Joe Wright is up to the challenge of difficult-to-succeed-at-adaptations-of-novels, of course, coming off the thoroughly charming 2005 Pride & Prejudice, the top of the heap of adaptations of that perennially popular British novel.

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Film Review: The Kite Runner

It was only a matter of time before Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini’s first novel was made into a film. The Oprah-touted, book club-beloved 2004 Kite Runner benefited from excellent timing, being released so relatively soon after the fall of the Taliban, and presenting story elements that most Americans were quick to appreciate and push, like the stark evil of the Taliban, America as land of opportunity and positive role model for Afghan people, and plenty of background on the day-to-day life of the country we still know so little about.

That it has so quickly become an awards-baiting film is perhaps just one more example of Hosseini’s luck with timing. His second book was just released this year, and we could probably use a nice big reminder that Afghanistan is full of real people facing some serious shit right about now, given the increasingly bad news coming from that front of the Global War on Terror, which, since 2003, seems like it’s merely been our other war instead of, you know, a priority of any kind.

Hosseini gets a writing credit on the film, though the screenplay is the work of David Benioff, who previously adapted The 25th Hour and the Illiad (turning it into the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle Troy), and is responsible for the so-bad-it-must-be-seen-to-be-believed 2005 psychological thriller Stay. I haven’t read The Kite Runner myself, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book, but it seems like he kept in the most controversial element—the rape scenes that caused trouble for the boy actors and their families back in Afghanistan. The film is structured in a rather cliched form for a movie of this type, however.

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Film Review: I Am Legend

This is the sort of film in which I feel almost reluctant to review, because even mentioning the actual plot in any detail ruins one of the more effective surprises that the it offers—when the physical conflict that star Will Smith’s character will spend the bulk of the film fighting against is first introduced, it’s only after a nice, long build-up of tense foreshadowing, and has the power to summon quite a few gasps (at least from the audience in the preview screening I attended).

On the other hand, given the time and financial investment it takes to go to the movies these days, and the way films are marketed, is it even possible to go into a big budget holiday release like this without already knowing what it’s about, and having seen most of the pivotal scenes in the trailer and TV spots?

And even if it were possible to experience such films in an information vacuum these days, I Am Legend certainly isn’t going to be one of ‘em, given its long life. It’s based on a book by Richard Matheson that’s now over half a century old, and has previously been adapted for film twice, though neither used the original title (1964’s Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, and 1971’s Omega Man starring Charlton Heston).

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Film Review: Margot at the Wedding

Writer/director Noah Baumbach follows 2005’s tale of warring parents The Squid and the Whale with another dysfunctional family dramedy, this one focusing on more nebulous conflicts with more players but more vague stakes.

Lacking the central metaphor and the kids’-point-of-view (as well as early ‘80s setting) of his last film, Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding has a less clear throughline and fewer laughs that aren’t of the uncomfortable variety, putting a viewer on much shakier ground here.

Every character here is crazy, and by “crazy” I mean has some kind of behavioral issues or emotional problem they’re keeping secret, like, you know, pretty much every real person you know, but none of them fess up to or communicate these problems, nor does Baumbach telegraph them. Rather, they’re simply revealed in the announcements of life decisions or unpopular opinions, in sudden bursts of crying or screaming. It’s up to the audience to diagnose them, or at least put up with them.

This certainly makes for an immersive film-going experience—you’ll likely be just as irritated with and angry at the thoroughly unlikeable characters as they are with one another—but it doesn’t exactly make for a very fun one.

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