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Rating History

Black Book
Black Book (2007)
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[i]In the end, Black Book may be one of the most fun movies ever made about how people basically suck.[/i]
- The Onion A.V. Club

This is Paul Verhoeven's best film since either Robocop or Starship Troopers. I have seen only one of his early Dutch works (Turkish Delight: as far as promiscuous bohemian romance/tragedies go, it's not bad) but I'm willing to bet it would stand up to the best of what he had to offer before making the trip over to the U.S.

Teaming back up with a previous collaborator, screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven manages to get back to his roots and delivers some terrific adult entertainment. The script, written by both men, manages to juggle several genres (action film, thriller, war film, mystery, revenge, and a touch of soft-core porn) and keep the pace tight for nearly 2 and 1/2 hours.

It's based mostly in Holland in 1941 when a Jewish woman (Carice Van Houten) joins a Dutch resistance group to get revenge on the local Nazi force stationed in the area. Houten's family (and nearly every one she comes in contact with early in the film) were gunned down by Nazis in an ambush. Sensing a double cross, she gets involved with the Dutch resistance and finds herself in a position where she must infiltrate the Nazi headquarters, seduce and extract info from a high-ranking office (Sebastain Koch) that will help the resistance. Things get dicey when moles are discovered on both sides and the Nazi officer seems to be more sympathetic to Houten's character than she realizes.

And I'll stop there because the rest of the film is so full of twists and double-crosses that you'll need to experience. Some you'll see coming, others you won't. This isn't a rushed or clumsy attempt at complexity like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels or the back-stabbing manipulation of another Verhoeven flick, Basic Instinct. The film manages to find time to flesh its main and supporting characters so that you're never confused.

As it is a Verhoeven film, the violence is bloody, shocking but well-staged (the early Nazi ambush and the escape attempt in the 3rd half are good examples). There's also well-placed humor and an unforgetable scene involving a bucket of shit (don't ask).

The performances are great despite the fact that I'm only familiar with Koch (he stars in The Lives of Others and is in possession of the saddest eyes since Giancarlo Gianini). But the film belongs to Van Houten who is equal parts intelligent, sexy and courageous. She hits the right notes all the way through and you're rooting for her every step of the way. Her character has to endure some brutal experiences but she's a survivor. I'd say this is a star-making performance for her and I can't wait to see in future films. (she'll be in Valkyrie, a Bryan Singer-directed vehicle regarding a famous Hitler assassination attempt by German officers)

But, a good return to form by Verhoeven who should no longer have to deal with dreck like Hollow Man or Showgirls.

American Gangster
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's not the greatest gangster movie, it's far from being the greatest Ridley Scott movie but what it really is is a very entertaining crime film given lengthy treatment. And I believe the length works in the favor of both the stories of Frank Lucas and Ritchie Roberts. Witnessing in great detail how Lucas builds his empire, what people and methods he uses is frankly just as important as how Roberts keeps himself an honest cop - endangering his rep, career and life - while being a dishonest husband.

And I love how the languid pacing continues as Roberts finally gets to work with men he can trust and slowly but surely makes a case for Lucas (by following the money) while Lucas has to deal with his brothers making careless mistakes (he makes some too) and I love how the end of the Vietnam War, of all things, threatens to derail his operation.

And yeah, upon reading the reviews and taking in the info about Carla Gugino's character, I was rolling my eyes, thinking "here we go again, the stock character of the cop's wife who wants him to choose between her or the job and threatens to leave if he can't decide or chooses the job". Why the hell waste a role like that on Gugino? But to be honest, when I finally saw the scenes I didn't think they were that bad. They were brief and illustrated what a bad husband Roberts is. Gugino actually doesn't come off like a shrew but a responsible woman and mother. If you cut them out, I feel you'd just make the bastard look like a saint and what fun is that?

Despite Crowe's great contribution, the movie does belong to Denzel and I disagree with the notion that he's just riffing on past performances. He's as dangerous as the narc cop in Training Day but not as unlikable. I actually felt that if his character resembles anyone, it's Malcolm Little in the first act of Malcolm X when he's a gangster in Harlem. The same demeanor, observational skills and bouts of violence (when pushed) are there. Only Lucas is not as arrogant, at least not so much that it'll get him killed early on. Also, I never see the man high on anything, including his own product.

The period detail and soundtrack is fantastic (it uses "Across 110th Street" as well as Jackie Brown did). Great camerawork by Harris Savides (who lensed "Zodiac") with equal use of steadicam and handheld shots; this one really doesn't look like any of Scott's films.

What a cast, too, aside from those already mentioned: Ted Levine, RZA, Common, Armand Assante, Ruby Dee, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin (in 2nd consecutive slimeball role, nailing it), Joe Morton (his 'stache is ridiculous) and John Ortiz.

Casting Washington and Crowe against type was a damn good move. Saving their meeting till the very end is ballsy but logical; there's no reason Roberts would cross tails with Lucas before and at this point, all that's required is to wrap the case up. The two size each other up, explaining the consequences of their actions. If you want to see a film where these two share quite a bit more screen time, see Virtuosity; here's the kicker: it's not a good movie.

3:10 to Yuma
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
8 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I had one last chance to see 3:10 to Yuma last week before it was taken off the showtime list from the only theater still playing it in my area. As a matter of fact, the same fate happened to Assassination of Jesse James.... but I had to choose between the two and 3:10 was something I had always wanted to see but could never get off my ass to do so.

As it turns out, my choice and suspicions were correct and 3:10 to Yuma is one of the best westerns ever made and one of the most entertaining films I've seen this year. The best westerns I feel are character studies masked as action film and this film provides one of the best matchups the moment Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) finally meet, early in the film, and by that time their characters are so perfectly established that we know the verbal and psychological butting of heads to follow will be the driving force of the film.

Evans is a Civil War veteran (complete with a prosthetic on one foot that was shot off in war) having the hardest time trying to make ends meet living on a land that the railroad will soon pass through. Greedy local landowners have pressured him for money (to the extent of burning down his farmhouse) and now want him off the land to get the extent of the rewards of his land. On the day Evans attempts to make ends meet (to no avail), he finds himself in a position to transport Ben Wade, a known criminal whose gang just took down a heavily armed coach containing money.

Wade has been captured by local lawmen and volunteers have been chosen to escort him to another town to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma where he will be tried, convicted and possibily hanged. Evans volunteers for a certain sum of money that could save his family, the wife and eldest son of which is slowly but surely losing respect for him. The only thing that makes this job hazardous for the small group taking Wade is his loyal murderous gang led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) the 2nd in command.

The rest of the film involves the small band - made up of a bounty hunter (Peter Fonda), a doctor (Alan Thyduk), a man who puts up the money for transporting him, one of the thugs that burnt down Evans farmhouse (Dave Matthews, out of all fucking people) - and their efforts to get him on that train while eluding Wade's gang and trying not to get killed by rival posses, Apaches or Wade himself. Things get more interesting when Evans' eldest son, taken by Wade's charisma and rep, joins the band.

Really, everything works but the key ingredient to this film's success is the battle of wits between Evans and Wade. Wade, clearly intelligent and more thoughtful than his lifestyle showcases, finds a worthy opponent in Evans for the simple fact that there is something in the man that just will not bend. He taunts and tempts Evans about his life, the straining relationships within the family and the promise of more money if he lets Wade go. Evans is a man of principle, however, and while he finds glimpses of honesty and truth in Wade's dialogue, nothing will prevent him in finishing the job.

I mentioned before how Evans' son William (Logan Lerman) joins the group because he's fascinated by Wade. What a relief it was to find out that he's useful and not a burden and that the experience could do him some good.

Anyway, it all comes down to one of the most suspenseful showdowns in a hotel of the town where the train will stop: time is almost up, Wade's gang is surrounding the hotel with guns on every possible exit, Evans and Co. know they're fucked and Wade is still talking and making deals, not to be annoying but because he'd rather not end the situation in a bloodbath.

It's the dynamic between Evans and Wade that is the greatest strength and what a blessing it is to have Bale and Crowe on hand, two great character actors (despite their top billing status) who sink their teeth in the roles. Great supporting cast, too: Foster is chilling and mean as hell, you will hate him; Fonda was unrecognizable under his beard but he was good; Matthews is brief but long enough to be memorably slimy; Lerman is quite impressive as a young man who finally sees his father for who he is and grows up as a result; Gretchen Mol and Vinessa Shaw provide some sex appeal as the women in Evans and Wade's lives; and Thyduk is always a treat to watch.

It reminds me of Open Range, the Kevin Costner-directed Western of a few years ago, which opted for a more traditional and focused approach to characters, mannerisms and action. But while that film nearly went on for too long, this film is so tightly paced and constructed that not a moment is wasted. The ending took me completely by surprise (never read Elmore Leonard's short story, of which its based on) but after I thought about it, it made all the sense in the world.

The Duellists
The Duellists (1977)
9 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes


Debuts can be important. Either they show promise in a perfectly crafted film or a flawed one or they don't work at all. For the filmmaker, it's a starting point to learn from and draw strength and experience for future works. Sir Ridley Scott has had quite the career and while not all of his films are successes, they are fascinating even when the notion is to be entertaining.

With his debut, The Duellists, it works as an entertainment but you can sense an attempt for a theme that is epic in scope: honor. The film is concerned with honor and how it applies to society and the individual and how two soldiers in the French army (during Napoleon's reign) use it as an excuse to duel with each other in the course of 15 years.

D'Hubert (Keith Carradine) is given an order to track down and arrest a fellow officer, Feraud (Harvey Keitel), who is dueling swords with another man at the very beginning of the film. You find out that Feraud is quite skilled with his instrument but you also observe that he has the taste for a duel, almost as a recreation. He wins the duel and kills the other man who happens to the mayor's son in the town in which the soldiers are stationed. D'Hubert finds Feraud while he is visiting an acquaintance with the message that he is to be placed under house arrest. Feraud believes that D'Hubert has insulted him (willingly or knowingly is beside the point) and challenges him to a duel. D'Hubert wins, wounds the other and it sets off a long period of Feraud trying to get revenge for a insult.

A handful of duels is intersperced within the film's running time during the war and after it and weapons and environments change, from swords to pistols, to close-quarters combat to horseback, to springtime (early mornings in the fields still wet with dew) and cold harsh winter (during a close skirmish in the battlefield).

D'Hubert is a man of principle who would rather make friends with the other and go about his military career. Feraud is egotistical, arrogant but persistant and effective a soldier enough to follow D'Hubert up the ranks during the war, always finding him.

But the real issue here is not whether either man will strike the killing blow but who will prevail with the cooler head. It is honor, differently defined and executed by both men, that keeps them constantly duelling. It is a curiousity that Feraud's motives are never explained; he's not a stupid man and surely he could sense that D'Hubert means no harm (to some extent, he gets his payback by wounding him in an early duel) but no, it's the principle of things. Honor must be upheld and for Feraud, it will only be upheld the moment he kills D'Hubert, after which one can assume he'll find another target.

D'Hubert is the man of reason and therefore the one you'll root for. He never overextends his abilities in the duels, never taking an opportunity to kill Feraud even after he wounds him. He keeps attending the matches when they occur and loses one love (Diana Quick) in the process. One of the film's small pleasures is, of course, the duels and the great choreography. There's little of the ballet-like movement and one-liners; this is a harsh and realistic conflict. Death is a possiblity as much as serious injury. Some duels (like the third one with broadswords) take a toil on the man; they fight until they literally collapse from exhaustion. There is great suspense (the horseback duel in which Carradine is shaking with fear as Keitel charges) and humor (how Feraud is repeatedly denied the killing blow he so desires, even when the duel falls to his favor).

This was a low-budget production and most of it lies in the choices Scott and his collaborators made. There are scenes of soldiers in the battlefield but no battle sequences. There is great attention to period detail, costumes and mannerisms but no big crowd sequences. We never see any big historical figures.

Scott's films are always beautifully shot and this one is very high on a "best looking" list if you could conjure up one. A lot of the shots compliment the action and narrative rather than calling attention to themselves. Take the last shot of Feraud as he overlooks a cliff to see a huge view of a town as it pans left to right, ending with a sun slowly but surely peaking behind the clouds; you'll see that it's gorgeous but notice how the mood is conveyed and how the focus should not be on the scenery but how it conveys Feraud's thoughts or state of mind (he never speaks during this sequence).

It's nicely paced and not very long, focusing on a small story within a bigger canvas. By the end of the film you'll understand what honor means to the two men and how one finally transcends his notion of honor and the other never does.

Zodiac (2007)
9 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

[size=2] At this particular juncture, no other film resembles Zodiac to my mind except for Oliver Stone's JFK and Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, each with their separate reasons. JFK involves a man's exhaustive quest to find the truth to an assassination and prosecute a suspect at the most and bring public attention to the possibility of a coverup at the least. Summer of Sam is not so concerned about the killer but about how his murders influenced a city to a great level of paranoia and violence.

Zodiac shares some of these qualities but as for the quest, it's a fruitless affair. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the most persistent of the 4 main characters to track down and identify the killer who was never identified or caught but why does he do it? The Jim Garrison of JFK knows that the mystery will make or break the future of the country and the relationship between the government and its public; there is a sense of patriotism and nobility to his quest.

But for Graysmith, it's a matter of defining a life that could easy have continued unaltered and unthreatened. Graysmith, a political cartoonist and introvert (the kind that no one invites for a drink after work), really has no business in getting involved but his "looming" habits draw him to editorial conferences in which letter after letter by the Zodiac and his silent rooting for the detectives to arrest someone or for crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) to include him in for the ride. What startes as curiosity leads to active involvement which leads to the book he will so publish that inspires the film. There is a great sequence later in the film in which he investigates a lead at a man's house who worked with a suspect; what follows should've scared Graysmith so much (and its his paranoia more than any tangible threat that does) but he remains undeterred ("there must be two killers then..."). That Graysmith dates and marries a woman (Chloe Sevigny) who will eventually leave him is not surprising at all.

In David Fincher's opus, the weariness and paranoia transfers from the public to the media and law enforcement and we see firsthand how they're not safe from an individual who plays them like a piano, even when he's not active.

The two detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony "Goose" Edwards) go through the motions, sifting through evidence, interviews, possible suspects and always finding a dead end. The film's narrative is terrific as it shifts focus from the detectives, Avery and Graysmith in their efforts with varying results, to suggest that any participant can become swamped or burnt out in the pursuit.

As much as it is about paranoia, the film touches upon miscommunication between different police departments and newspapers. Different precincts from different counties want quid pro quos for cooperation with evidence and suspect interrogations (this is long before fax machines and the internet can speed the process up); murders occured in different places and some officers want the chance to catch the goof themselves. Suspects come and go, any piece of evidence is doomed to become circumstantial because nothing physically connects anyone to the crime. The task of finding a culprit with the description (of the few witnesses at hand) and the demeanor and past criminal record to match is unbelievable in how it quickly seems tedious.

There's a terrific cast on work here. Gyllenhall is on screen the most and there's a slight deteoration in his physical appearance but the hint of mania he brings to the character makes him convincing. Ruffalo and Edwards are great as the cops. Downey Jr. dominates as usual and I found myself missing him as he disappeared from the last third of the film. There's also: John Caroll Lynch as the most famous suspect, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevingy as Graysmith's suffering wife (but not annoying), Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney (with slight beer gut, no less) and a nice cameo by Ione Skye (whose father, Donovan, composed the title that accompanies the opening set piece)

The film is quite longer than Fincher's previous efforts but the scope of the story deserves it. This isn't the catch-the-killer-before-time-runs-out approach but a clever and cinematic representation of how police procedurals can be and was around 30-plus years ago. The beautiful cinematography by Harris Savides (who worked with Fincher on The Game) perfectly captures the look and feel of California and suspense films of the 70s (that it opens with a vintage Paramount logo is a nice touch).

The only times I felt restless occured later in the film, not because I was bored (on the contrary, I was riveted) but because in the refusal of Graysmith to give up. You keep waiting for the moment that the sheer size of the case will kill him or suffocate him and it never happens. Nothing like an obsession to bring out persistance.