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EW review: Incredible 'History'

New Cronenberg film one of year's best

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Entertainment Weekly

History of Violence
Gangster Ed Harris (left) threatens diner owner Viggo Mortensen in "A History of Violence."



(Entertainment Weekly) -- Anyone who has seen the attention-grabbing trailer for "A History of Violence," with its emphasis on images of Viggo Mortensen packing heat, might conclude that the tagline is "Aragorn: No More Mister Nice Guy."

If fantasies of the king of Middle-earth kicking butt is what it takes to bring the curious to David Cronenberg's brilliant movie -- without a doubt one of the very best of the year -- then I'm all for misdirection. But you deserve to know that the tease echoed in the picture's blunt title -- the B-movie come-on that here's an action picture about bloody vengeance in a small town -- is a perverse simplification of everything that makes the movie great.

In my ideal coming attraction, we'd see little more than scenes of utmost dailiness: Mortensen as family man Tom Stall, passionately in love with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), happy with his kids, content in the friendly business of running a neighborhood diner in Millbrook, Indiana, and blessed with average, taken-for-granted American freedom and prosperity at its most Rockwellian.

That's it, that's the setup, with maybe the merest hint that Tom becomes an unwilling local hero when he defends his place of business against vicious would-be robbers who threaten his fellow citizens. For visual spice, a few glimpses of Mortensen and Bello engaged in conjugal bliss would suffice.

Come for the calm, stay for the storm, because the movie is about the opposite of revenge. It's about the violence that surpasseth all understanding -- a cataclysm of awful (and sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying) consequence that unfolds with insidious intimacy and a Cronenbergian delight in the animal squish and shock of torn bodies.

Tom's newfound media exposure ("It's the best thing anyone could have done to them," he naively blurts to a TV reporter about his brush with the diner bad guys) brings him to the attention of menacing out-of-towners who cruise into Millbrook in a big black car, none more menacing than the silky, scar-faced thug who calls himself Fogarty (Ed Harris) and claims to know Tom as a killer named Joey. "They don't like this guy they think you are," Edie says, trying to make sense of the absurd alternate reality that begins to consume the entire Stall household. Who is this average Joe?

Whether violence begets violence, whether perception is reality, whether a destructive animal instinct for combat really is lodged in the peaceful heart of every man -- these are the themes that entertain Cronenberg, the Canadian original who made "Dead Ringers" and "The Fly." (Also up for discussion: Whether the gunshot blast that shatters the small-town peace is a particularly American scenario.)

But in his most deceptively "mainstream" of entertainments, the filmmaker is enthralled, too, by the simple mechanics -- the visceral fun -- of making movies. There's not a scene wasted in the 97-minute unspooling, not a detour that doesn't tell, surprise, horrify, delight. (At times our laughter is as shocking a response as our excitement, and there's plenty of cause for it when William Hurt makes a galloping cameo appearance.)

There's not a slack measure of music, either, in Howard Shore's resonant score, which plays off the plainspoken aural simplicity associated with Aaron Copland to convey the melody of people who feel caged by dread, even though they're surrounded by prairie bigness.

"A History of Violence" began as a graphic novel, written by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and the well-built screenplay by Josh Olson reflects the black-and-white speed of the original medium. But much of the movie's richness comes from the way the filmmaker takes detours along the road to the Stall family catastrophe, finding expressions of psychic entropy even in the way the Stalls sit at the breakfast table.

A world of change -- a fall from innocence -- is enacted in two contrasting sex scenes between husband and wife, while some of the best, most powerful moments are those that occur between Tom and his teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes, making a terrific feature-film debut), a baffled kid undergoing his own crash course in adult ethics.

"A History of Violence" is fundamentally a history of men at the throats of other men; Edie is the sole woman in this American tragedy, and although the character is given dignity and autonomy (Bello imparts information about Edie with physical precision, never standing next to Mortensen the same way twice), it's a testosterone jungle out there.

That it's also a Garden of Eden gone poisonous -- to hell -- is something no coming attraction can convey.

EW Grade: A


Reviewed by Scott Brown

Nectar Rose and David Krumholtz in "Serenity."

Reckon I'd better own up here at the trailhead: I'm a fan of "Firefly," the short-lived 2002 Fox TV series on which "Serenity" is based.

If you're not familiar with the crisp wit and ornery imagination of writer-creator Joss Whedon's rusty-nail space Western -- no aliens, no lightsabers, just human society, barely cohering on the retro-astro fringe -- your chances of appreciating this film are markedly lower, though certainly not nil. Likely you'll feel a pleasant bemusement, akin to watching an excellent foreign film with a deliberately incomplete translation.

I'm hardly exaggerating: The characters often lapse into a crisp, quasi-frontiersy patois, peppered with Chinese slang. (Let that settle in your head -- it works, honest.)

The first vision of the future to incorporate starships and suspenders, "Serenity" (helmed by first-time feature director Whedon) embraces its space-Westernness with rich, oaty literalism. The planet-hopping rust bucket of the title is home to a wagon train of untidy, un-"Star Trek" misfits prowling the "raggedy edge" of a newly colonized solar system in search of extralegal employment.

Their leader, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is a chipperly bitter veteran of a vast, interplanetary civil war. (Consider him a 26th-century version of the romantically unreconstructed Reb.) He's hiding a fugitive psychic, River (Summer Glau), on the run from her Union, er, Alliance handlers. (Fans of Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will recognize the damaged supergirl with childlike tics and godlike abilities.)

River is pursued by a nameless government operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a self-described monster driven by a placid, unshakable belief in the "better world" he's helping to nurture.

The rest of the crew -- a true ensemble on the show -- are, sadly, pencil sketches here, casualties of the two-hour running time. But each gets a "moment" that fans are free to unzip and decompress into a real character arc.

The same goes for the story beats. "Serenity," despite its simple chase plot and elegant narrative ductwork, is unmistakably a TV season's worth of roller-coastering drama, most of it balanced on the capable shoulders of Fillion, a natural leading man. Jaw set but never stiff, he gets both the Whedon wit and the Whedon grandiloquence between cheek and gum, and gives the whole enterprise the heft of a real saga.

Which it most certainly is -- especially for those who were already saddled up for the ride.

EW Grade: B

'The Greatest Game Ever Played'

Reviewed by Gregory Kirschling

What have the makers of "The Greatest Game Ever Played" done with Shia LaBeouf, that loose, off-kilter kid from "Holes" and "Constantine"?

As Francis Ouimet, the true-life 20-year-old "peasant" caddy who swatted against the blue bloods at the 1913 U.S. Open, LaBeouf trods too solemnly through this puttering Disney sand trap, frowning down at an awful lot of golf balls but rarely cracking a smile for us folks in the gallery.

At the same time, the movie is so hungry for love that the orchestra shrieks, caps fly into the air, and the slo-mo oozes in when the lad merely forces a final play-off ... and there's still 20 minutes to go! (At the end-end, grown men cry into their giant mustaches, a soft piano reprises the orchestral thunder, and a peculiar last shot pays homage to that sports classic "Casablanca.")

Disney evokes "Miracle" and "The Rookie" in its marketing, but this is Nine-Iron Will, and the big postgame question is why director Bill Paxton decided to follow up his helming debut, the 2002 ax-murder drama "Frailty," with an inert family golf movie.

EW Grade: C-

'The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Is Julianne Moore to the girdle born? In "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," Moore comports herself once again with Eisenhower-era placidity as an ideal and idealized housewife and mother -- a sister in diminished expectations to the perfectly groomed, oxygen-deprived, unhappy women she played in "Far From Heaven" and "The Hours."

Stepping off the pages of a 2001 tribute memoir written by Terry "Tuff" Ryan, Moore plays Terry's mother, Evelyn Ryan, a real-life domestic goddess who supported her family with cash and prizes won in jingle contests during the 1950s and '60s. Churchgoing mother of 10 kids and long-suffering wife of a weepy, childish, alcoholic husband (played by Woody Harrelson) who effectively counted as her 11th, this Evelyn is never less than minty fresh in rose-colored shirtwaist dresses, determined to squeeze sweet lemonade from the sour lemons of her circumstances.

Screenwriter Jane Anderson ("Normal") makes her feature directorial debut with this caramelized production, and the tone she employs -- a candy-colored perkiness that bathes every triumph, every setback, and every Ryan in the forgiving light of Simpler Times -- is very much an aesthetic choice. (I assume the surviving Ryan children, who also make an appearance, approve of the color palette.)

As a result, though, Anderson's adaptation is heavy on production numbers in which jingles come to life and light on conveying any real feelings of Eisenhower-era darkness the prizewinner herself might have felt during her decades of marriage to an abusive, drunken man. Here, nostalgia becomes its own form of defiance.

EW Grade: C-

'Into the Blue'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

In the far-off days of the early James Bond films, underwater action sequences had a hip tranquillity -- a lyrical zing. They were all about how fast you could move in a world that denied speed.

The closest that "Into the Blue" comes to that old '60s lyricism is to feature Jessica Alba, in all her tawny, rope-muscled glory, slithering through the crystal blue waves of the Bahamas.

Alba and Paul Walker are lovey-dovey Caribbean dive bums, happy to be broke -- at least, until the appearance of Walker's buddy, a yuppie oozing frat-house smarm. (Is Scott Caan glad he gets to play these roles? It sure looks like it.) Out snorkeling, they find a sunken plane full of cocaine, which leads to much underwater mayhem and above-water banality.

Walker is supposed to be lured by the buried treasure, but the actor, wearing Brad Pitt's bristle cut, is like Pitt with his sexy appetite sucked out.

EW Grade: C


Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Kingdoms of light and dark, puppets and masks startling as any at a Bauhaus ball, CG effects and digital animation employed with avant-garde panache in a live-action adventure, and the search for a magical object ... it's quite useless, really, to describe the remarkable cinema fantasy "MirrorMask" without losing somebody, somewhere, who says, "Ooh, no puppets for me" and therefore skips the trip.

That's too bad, because this dazzling reverie of a kids-and-adults movie, an unusual collaboration between lord-of-the-cult multimedia artist Dave McKean and king-of-the-comics Neil Gaiman ("The Sandman"), has something to astonish everyone.

What you do need is time and a mindset prepared to dawdle, because "MirrorMask" unspools with the rambling, intuitive digressions of a dream, especially as Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a restless 15-year-old girl working for her family's circus, embarks on her hunt for the title item. I'm particularly fond of the Monkeybirds and sphinxes who make appearances, and I'm usually the type to say, "Ooh, no Monkeybirds for me."

EW Grade: A-

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