Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mortal Kombat (1995)

In the waning days of the arcade's dominance over the video game market, one of the more successful arcade titles was Capcom's fighting game Street Fighter II. Though while its popularity and its influence upon the medium are not disputed, one could argue that it may have been surpassed by an imitator that garnered not only the same amount of recognition as Street Fighter II, but caused an insane amount of controversy as well.

First released by Midway Games in 1991, Mortal Kombat featured incredibly graphic violence and gore that brought it instant notoriety, and along with Doom, it even helped to bring about the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. It was also an enormous hit, and a series of sequels saw release during the '90s both in arcades and on home gaming consoles.

As the franchise's popularity grew, it was decided that Mortal Kombat would venture into the world of live-action movies. And though its release closely followed the disastrous cinematic adaptations of Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter, the Mortal Kombat movie proved that it was possible to make a video game movie that could reach for a plateau higher than previously thought.

Once every generation, an ancient tournament known as "Mortal Kombat" is held, organized by the mystical Elder Gods in order to pit the finest fighters on Earth against the dark realm known as Outworld. If Earth's fighters lose in ten consecutive tournaments, the forces of Outworld will be able to invade our plane of existence and conquer it. And it just so happens that Earth has lost nine in a row, and as our story begins, the tenth one is preparing to start.

But while the team representing Earth in this tournament are united in protecting their home, each member has their own reasons for participating in Mortal Kombat. Action movie star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is out to prove that his martial arts skills are the real deal; Special Forces agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is after the blood of Kano (Trevor Goddard), a particularly vicious crime lord who has entered the tournament just for the fun of it; and Shaolin monk Liu Kang (Robin Shou) has signed up in order to avenge his brother's death at the hands of powerful Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who serves as Mortal Kombat's master of ceremonies.

And although they have Outworld princess Kitana (Talisa Soto) and one of the Elder Gods, Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert), on their side, Earth's defenders are up against tough odds. To be victorious, they'll have to go through not only Shang Tsung himself, but through his minions: the supernaturally-powered masked ninjas Scorpion (Chris Casamassa), Sub-Zero (Fran├žois Petit), and Reptile (Keith Cooke), and Mortal Kombat's reigning champion, a four-armed leviathan named Goro (Tom Woodruff, Jr., with the voice of Frank Welker).

Since its release, Mortal Kombat is often acknowledged as possibly the best video game adaptation of all time. And I won't argue with that. But that doesn't mean it's a great movie. It's actually just a silly B-movie whose legacy time has been quite kind to. I don't want to sound like I'm dogging the movie or anything like that, but while the movie is a very strong adaptation of the games, it probably would have either flopped or gone directly to video had it not carried such a marketable brand name. I'm not even sure the movie would have been made if it weren't for the super-hot success of the Mortal Kombat games.

However, it must be said that the movie actually a lot of fun. The movie might be goofy and could be accused of being mediocre at best, but it's an entertaining flick that, despite a lack of the game franchise's trademark blood and gore, is the best Mortal Kombat movie they could have hoped to make.

First up is the direction by Paul W.S. Anderson. Working as a director for only the second time in his career at this point, Anderson seems to understand that the movie is pure Saturday matinee schlock, and he films the movie as such. He and cinematographer John R. Leonetti craft a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, a movie made simply to be entertaining and let its audience have a good time. Their work on the action scenes is especially good, which goes a long way since the movie revolves around its fights.

It also helps that Anderson's effects teams do a good job too. The CGI work, especially in Scorpion's trademark spear throw, isn't all that bad, considering that the idea of computer-generated effects were still relatively new in 1995. The makeup effects, primarily Goro, are especially well done. An eight-foot-tall monster with four arms would probably created entirely with CGI nowadays, but the movie's effects team does some fantastic work in bringing him to life. Anderson's work is also assisted by a soundtrack very much influenced by techno and electronica, from bands of that style to the score composed by George S. Clinton (no relation to Parliament Funkadelic's George Clinton). The style suits the movie to a T, and goes a long way in helping establish the proper atmosphere.

Next is the screenplay written by Kevin Droney. The script is extremely light on plot, and sets things up mainly to move from one action set piece scene to the next. Not that that's a bad thing, since there wasn't a whole lot of plot to the original Mortal Kombat game either. While that aspect remains the same, Droney does deviate from the source material; had he stayed closer, the movie would have ended up being a overly-violent, potentially mean-spirited gorefest that would have made for an unappealing movie despite being a fun game.

Droney has written a fantasy film that has its tongue planted firmly in cheek, allowing the movie to form a playful silliness that makes it appealing. While his dialogue is wooden at times and many of the gags are above-average at best, it doesn't stop the script from being charming. And really, that's all I personally wanted out of it.

Last but not least is our cast, the majority of whom do a fine job. Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame is good as Rayden, taking a role that was somewhat limited and making it seem bigger. Robin Shou and Bridgette Wilson both hand in acceptable performances, while Linden Ashby and Trevor Goddard are both quite entertaining in their roles. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is hammy but fine as our villain, while Frank Welker contributes some intimidating voice work as Goro.

And though practically nothing is asked of Chris Casamassa, Fran├žois Petit, and Keith Cooke outside of a fight scene or two for each of them, they're not bad at all. Unfortunately, Talia Soto is unfortunately just kinda there. She doesn't really do anything to stand out, though I'm sure it's mostly due to her character being one step above filler.

In the more than ten years since it hit theaters, Mortal Kombat's reputation has, for the most part, gone unequaled and unrivaled. It is the one video game movie all others are compared to, and it's for good reason. Though not the first movie based on a video game, it certainly is one of the best. It's thoroughly engaging and frankly, a lot of fun. It's an easy movie to like if you go in with the right attitude, and it works well as 101 minutes of pure escapist entertainment. The only really bad part is that it inspired that lame sequel. What did anybody do to deserve Mortal Kombat: Annihilation?

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Battle Royale (2000)

In the long existence of the medium, motion pictures have not been without controversy. It's always been that way, it'll always be that way. Though we here in the United States have our fair share of movies that have rubbed people the wrong way, they're not exactly limited to North America. In fact, a thorough search will lead you to Japan. A lot of ire-raising movies have come out of the Land of the Rising Sun, with one movie particularly standing out. Based on a popular yet equally controversial novel written by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale hit theaters in Japan on December 16, 2000, and was met critical and box office success.

In addition to winning the praise of critics and the money of moviegoers, Battle Royale also got people talking primarily about its content. If there's any reason why the movie has never been officially released in the States in any format, it would probably be due to the content. And although the movie does have something of a cult following, I just don't believe that Americans at large would be ready for a movie like Battle Royale.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Japan is falling apart. Unemployment is at an all-time high, and students are boycotting school en masse, sometimes going as far as to physically assault their teachers and other adults. To combat the growing number of juvenile delinquents, the Japanese parliament passes the Millennium Education Reform Act, otherwise referred to as the BR Act. Under the BR Act's provisions, a program known as "Battle Royale" is created. Once a year, a ninth grade class is randomly chosen and forced to fight one another to the death until only one student emerges victorious.

The movie tells the story of one such class. When they embark on what they believe is a run-of-the-mill field trip, they're gassed and shipped directly to a deserted island. There, they are reunited with their embittered seventh grade teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), who will be serving as this year's referee. Each student is provided with a duffel bag containing some basic survival tools — food and water, a flashlight, a compass, a map — and a randomly assigned weapon.

While some get lucky and pull things like machine guns, hatchets, sickles, and crossbows out of their satchels, the less fortunate ones end up with seemingly useless objects like pot lids and paper fans. Yeah, some weapons those are. They might as well been handed bullseyes to stick on their foreheads. Anyway, the students have also been fitted with irremovable collars laced with explosives. If they try to flee or enter one of the island's numerous forbidden areas, the guilty party's collar will detonate. And just to make sure they play along, all of them will detonate if more than one student remains alive at the end of seventy-two hours.

Once they've been briefed on the rules, they're sent out and told to kill or be killed. Some resign themselves to their fates, preferring suicide over being forced into mortal combat with their friends and classmates. Others just try to stay alive as long as they can. Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda), both of whom were shafted when the weapons were distributed, team up to take a defensive stance, and are eventually befriended by Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto). A past Battle Royale winner, Shogo has willingly entered himself into the game a second time in order to avenge the death of his girlfriend, who sacrificed her life so he could win.

Other students decide to give "The Man" the finger and take a more proactive role against those that have stuck them in this situation. One in particular, anarchist computer hacker Sinji Mimura (Takashi Tsukamoto), has gathered his friends to formulate an intricate plan that would bring down the system and liberate their classmates. But then there's the two participants who get way too into the game: Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), a frighteningly silent young sociopath who has willfully signed up for Battle Royale in order to commit a few government-endorsed murders, and the psychologically troubled, would-be femme fatale Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki), who will use anything and everything at her disposal to systematically dispose of her rivals.

Battle Royale isn't the only film to have been made with a story like this. Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man and, more recently, The Condemned both feature characters that are dropped into a remote location and forced to fight for their lives against their will. But what sets Battle Royale apart is that all but one of the characters is a teenager. That's probably why it's earned the reputation it has developed over the years. Its "Lord of the Flies with guns" vibe not only adds to its notoriety, but to its potential to offend people.

Aside from the rumors I've heard about Toei Company quoting relatively unreasonable terms for American distribution, I'm sure that the idea of a movie featuring 14- and 15-year-olds killing one another is something that some distributors wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole, lest they incur the wrath of the ultra-conservatives and the bleeding hearts evoking the memories of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres. And while both of those tragedies are horrific, it's a real bummer that copies of Battle Royale are hard to find in the United States, because it's an amazing movie.

The movie, oddly enough, could be viewed as something of a collaboration of the styles of John Woo and John Hughes. It's both an unpredictable action movie and a "teen movie." The characters all have their own relationships, their own ways to cope, and their own lives that have been thrown into turmoil, just like the classic teen movies that Hughes wrote and directed in the mid-'80s. It's also evident that the high school clique system is still very much in effect, even as the characters mow one another down. The cool kids try to prove their dominance, the bully tries to take people out, the misfits try to stake their place, the rebels try bucking the system, and everyone else just tries to get by. It's that sort of thing that makes the movie that much more compelling and that much more disturbing. Plus there's all that wild bloody violence.

Just about every part of Battle Royale is well done. The direction is top notch, the score is fantastic, and the acting is superb. Respected Asian filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku — perhaps best known to Western audiences as the co-director of Tora! Tora! Tora! — sits in the director's chair and crafts a visually enticing film. Battle Royale would mark the final film helmed by Fukasaku before his death due to prostate cancer in 2003, and he handles the material well. The restraint he shows really helps the movie, because had it been too stylized, it would take the viewer right out of the movie.

Assisting him is cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, whose camerawork is absolutely fantastic. Even in the most violent moments, the movie retains a poetic look throughout, setting a somber mood that truly benefits the story being told. It also helps that the movie boasts a powerful score composed by Masamichi Amano. Combining his own original material with classical compositions from Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Strauss, Amano's music makes the events of the movie much more effective.

Up next is the screenplay, penned by the director's son, Kenta Fukasaku. Having never read Koushin Takami's novel, I really can't compare the movie to its source material. But what I can say is that the screenplay goes above and beyond the call of duty, taking material that could be a typical exploitation movie and rising to a higher plateau. Battle Royale has characters that we can like and care about, and situations that can shock and terrify while leaving we the viewer emotionally drained. If this were any other movie, it would just be nothing but soulless violence that wouldn't accomplish anything other than numbing the viewer's senses. But because the script boasts such intriguing, watchable characters, each death bears a strong emotional resonance.

I also got the feeling that Quentin Tarantino also served as something of an inspiration during the writing process, as evidenced by the lighthouse scene. Those of you who have seen it know what I'm talking about. To the uninitiated, I'll try and set it up without spoiling too much. In this scene, a number of girls have taken refuge in an abandoned lighthouse. Things go pretty well for a while, but when a spark ignites mistrust, the mistrust ignites paranoia, and the paranoia ignites violence. It's a moment that feels as if it were lifted from Reservoir Dogs, an intense scene that highlights the fantastic job that the Fukasakus and the cast do.

The only real problem I had with the screenplay — and the movie as a whole — is that the logistics of the BR Act don't make a whole lot of sense. First off, the opening scene seems to evidence that the Battle Royale program is a major newsworthy event. But then why does it seem like none of the participants the movie centers around have heard of it? One could argue that they're so caught up in their own self-serving lives that they pay little to no attention to the world around them, but that completely defeats the entire purpose of Battle Royale. You'd think that if your program is supposed to scare kids straight, it would help if they knew what it was and what it was supposed to accomplish.

Secondly, I don't get the whole "random selection" thing. If Battle Royale was established to thin out the ranks of the hoodlums overrunning Japan, what happens if you randomly pick a class full of students with bright, promising futures? It's like picking a class full of Rhodes Scholars and Nobel Prize winners when a class full of violent gang members is right there. And why would you encourage someone to win Battle Royale to begin with? Whoever wins will probably walk away with severe emotional scarring, perhaps some latent homicidal tendencies, and most certainly a big ol' bucket of other issues. Would you want to let someone like that loose in society? Expecting a psychologically fractured teenage killer to function well within society doesn't seem like a very good idea. Yeah, the movie does lose some of the entertainment value when you start thinking about the sociological effects of the events depicted, but it's hard to overlook this stuff sometimes.

Moving on, let's talk about the cast for a little while. Every single member of the cast brings their A-game, no matter how minor and inconsequential their character is. Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda, as the emotional centers of the movie, work well together and handle what's asked of them. However, at times I felt that they were outshined by other members of the cast.

Taro Yamamoto is fun, hitting all the right notes and playing his role quite well. His performance is enigmatic and sympathetic enough that you come to like Yamamoto's character very much, which I'm sure was the intention. Kou Shibasaki and Masanobu Ando stand out as well, committing acts of cold-blooded violence like it was second nature to them. Ando is especially notable, playing his role almost as if he were the Terminator. The scene where he shoots two girls in the back, then uses their megaphone to project their dying cries across the hills... I get chills thinking about it.

I'll also give honorable mentions also go to Eri Ishikawa, Takashi Tsukamoto, Chiaki Kuriyama (who you may recognize as Lucy Liu's schoolgirl bodyguard from Kill Bill: Volume One), and Sousuki Takaoka, who all turn in fine performances.

But it goes without saying that the best contribution comes from Takeshi Kitano. Credited here as "Beat Takeshi," Kitano is wonderfully intense as Battle Royale's master of ceremonies. His character brings a lot of dark humor to the movie, and he is up to task. Take, for example, the scene in which he introduces the students to the concept of Battle Royale. The students are informed of the program's rules and regulations through an unsettlingly energetic instructional video, and Kitano's reactions to that video are worth the price of admission alone. Alternating between spiteful and upbeat, Kitano's performance nearly makes the movie worth seeing all by itself.

Numerous reviewers, both in print and online, have noted that Battle Royale is supposedly a scathing commentary on Japanese society. The thing is, I know very little (if anything) about Japan's society or culture, so I really can't judge anything like that. However, I'm not so ignorant that certain things went unnoticed. The movie very much speaks of the ever-broadening generation gap, how the adults fear the youth and how the youth have little respect for the adults.

But even when viewed at its most shallow, as a complete and total orgy of violence tinged with dark humor, Battle Royale is actually a fairly solid action movie. Of course, the fact that all the characters are teenagers creates something of a quandary; is it wrong to be entertained by a movie that is essentially about forty teenagers being forced to kill one another? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that not only is it entertaining, but it's a damn fine film. Just because I live in a country where school shootings happen as often as the seasons change doesn't mean I can't let myself like a movie. So I'm going to give Battle Royale four stars and a seal of approval. If you can track it down — be it through an imported DVD or VCD, or downloading it with your favorite file-sharing software — it's definitely worth your time.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters (2007)

If you're a fan of late-night television, then you may or may not have heard of Adult Swim. First launched by Cartoon Network with the help of Williams Street Productions on September 2, 2001, Adult Swim was crafted to present viewers with adult-oriented animation with an incredibly irreverent slant. And although Adult Swim's style has evolved over the years, two things have remained the same since its inception. One is its brazen attitude, and the other is its longest-running show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Though the airing of its first episode actually predates the birth of Adult Swim by nearly a year, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has become an integral part of the programming block's success. The show initially began with simple goofball humor, but as time went on, it underwent its own evolution, branching exclusively into the realms of abstract and surrealistic humor, almost to the point of full-blown absurdity.

The show has remained popular with Adult Swim fans over the years, and Williams Street apparently felt brave enough to turn their silly little cartoon into a feature film. While it played in only 877 theaters and made nearly no impact on the box office at all, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters (yes, that's the full title) did manage to stay true to itself by being one of the silliest, most insane movies ever released.

This is the point in the review where I would normally do a plot summary. But the thing is, this movie doesn't have much of a plot. It's mostly just about sticking its characters in as many wacky situations as it possibly can. For the sake of appearances, I'm going to try and summarize all this madness. The movie primarily focuses on the three anthropomorphic fast food items that comprise the Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Master Shake (Dana Snyder), an narcissistic, selfish, smart-ass milkshake; Frylock (Carey Means), an intelligent, scientifically-minded container of French fries; and Meatwad (Dave Willis), a childlike meatball whose IQ is probably in the single digits.

After the trio finish assembling a workout machine called the Insanoflex, the machine grows to immense proportions and starts rampaging through the New Jersey city they call home, using their white trash neighbor Carl (Dave Willis) as its power source. Their attempts to stop it not only bring them into an uneasy alliance with several of their recurring nemeses, but eventually direct them down a path that leads to the knowledge of their own creation. Or something like that.

I honestly don't know where to begin with this review. Everything about this movie, from its silly Borat-esque title to every second of its 85-minute running time, is utter lunacy. Most movies adapted from television shows don't quite retain 100% of the feel of the source material, but the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie does, to the point that it doesn't even feel like a movie at all. While adaptations like Beavis and Butt-head Do America and South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut made attempts to go above and beyond the limitations imposed upon their source material, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie is pretty much an episode of the show that happened to acquire a theatrical release. You could probably compare it to the two Jackass movies, in that they're just extended, uncensored episodes of the show that inspired them. And like the Jackass franchise, the humor here is hit or miss at times. But for the most part, it's inspired insanity that is hilarious, although it is ultimately an acquired taste as well.

The animation looks exactly like it does on the show, except for the rare occasion of half-assed CGI work. Things look pretty cheap, but the low-rent look and feel of the animation actually adds to the movie's charm. It's almost refreshing to see an animated movie that isn't some big-budgeted, over-polished production like Pixar's body of work. Don't get me wrong, I like Pixar and their movies, but there's something to be said for independent animation as well.

But where the movie primarily exceeds is in both its writing and its voice performers. The script, penned by Aqua Teen Hunger Force creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis, is comedic psychosis on a grand scale. Apparently working under the assumption that you don't need to make any sort of sense to be funny, Maiellaro and Willis have crafted a movie that runs on pure stream of consciousness. I wouldn't be surprised if Maiellaro and Willis had no idea at all what they wanted to do with the movie before they started working on it, and just wrote down every random thing that came to mind before cobbling all their ideas together into what they called a script. (For example, how many movies can say they open with thrash metal band Mastodon parodying that old "Let's All Go to the Lobby" pre-movie cartoon?)

Just like the show, things simply happen for no real reason, but the randomness of it all is what makes it so funny. The script is also heavily dialogue-driven, so Maiellaro and Willis make sure to write dialogue that is absolutely hilarious. I don't know how many bits of dialogue could be quoted repeatedly, but it's most certainly funny.

And then there's the cast, who operate with a snappy comedic timing. The eight main performers — Willis, Maiellaro, Dana Snyder, Carey Means, Andy Merrill, Mike Schatz, C. Martin Croker, and rapper Chris Ward (credited as his stage name, "mc chris") — have been playing these characters since the beginning, and each of them do a great job. They give an irreverent life to their characters, making each of them likeable and entertaining in their own ways. The cameos from B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, Rush drummer Neil Peart, and Saturday Night Live alumni Chris Kattan, Tina Fey, and Fred Armisen are all hilarious as well, each of them giving fun performances in their small roles.

Truth be told, I wasn't sure how I was going to critique this movie. I say that because I don't know if I can really recommend it to anyone who isn't already a devoted fan of the show. If you dislike the show, or if you just don't "get it," then you'll probably skip the movie. Even if you're just a casual, "once-in-a-while" fan of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the movie might not be for you. But if you're hopelessly addicted to the absurd adventures of the Aqua Teens, then the movie will be right up your alley.

Though the premise lends itself more to the quick ten-minute episodes that air on Adult Swim, the movie still manages to keep a frenetic energy that makes it entertaining even when it starts running out of gas. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters is an absolutely irreverent, borderline schizophrenic piece of silliness. Nothing about it resembles coherency or sanity, but if you drink deeply from the Adult Swim cup, then you'll probably get a kick out of it. And truthfully, any movie or television show featuring characters like the Mooninites is just fine by me.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, September 3, 2007

Mystic River (2003)

I think it's safe to say that we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world full of violence, of hate, of perversion, and while some people lead blissfully unaffected lives, others are haunted by a dark cloud that hangs above them. It is a dark cloud compelling those it follows to venture deep into the blackest depths of their souls. Some can ignore it, living their lives the best that they can. Others, however, aren't as lucky.

This sort of thing is the focus of Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's mystery novel. It's a dark, complicated tale of not only those followed by that damnable dark cloud, but also of those affected by the repercussions of the actions of others. And the fact that it was beaten by the third Lord of the Rings movie for the Best Picture Oscar is a shame, because Mystic River is a fantastic movie.

Our tale of tragedy opens with three young boys — Jimmy Markum (Jason Kelly), Sean Devine (Connor Paolo), and Dave Boyle (Cameron Bowen) — playing a round of street hockey in their Boston neighborhood. After the gutter swallows the last of their hockey balls, the trio is suddenly left with nothing to do. Jimmy, rogue that he is, suggests "borrowing" a car for a spin around the block. When Sean shoots that down, Jimmy's attention turns to a section of wet cement in the sidewalk. He impulsively writes his name in the cement, Sean following behind him.

But when it's Dave's turn, he only manages to get through the first two letters before they're interrupted by two strangers, one of whom appears to be a plainclothes cop. He starts getting on their case for "destroy[ing] municipal property," forcing Dave into the back of their car so he can be taken back home to his parents. When Jimmy and Sean report what happened to their fathers, they notice things don't add up and start looking for him. Four days pass, during which Dave is sexually abused by his abductors before he finally manages to escape and return home.

Twenty-five years later, the three kids who wrote their name in wet cement have become adults. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a hot-tempered ex-con hardened by both prison and the death of his first wife. He owns a corner grocery store and has a happy family with his strong-minded second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), but the propensity for crime is still within him.

This is oddly balanced by Sean (Kevin Bacon), who works for the Massachusetts State Police's homicide division. His wife left him six months ago for reasons unrevealed, but continues to call him on a daily basis, though she never says a word during any of these calls.

The third member of the trio, Dave (Tim Robbins), has started his own family. He loves his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and their son Michael (Cayden Boyd), but Dave is sadly a shell of a man thanks to the deep emotional scarring left behind by the trauma of his youth.

While their lives may have taken them in separate directions, their paths converge once again when Jimmy's cherished daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is found murdered. Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned the case, and they whittle the list of suspects down to two: Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry), the boyfriend that Katie kept hidden from her father; and Dave, who returned home late on the night of the murder, covered in blood and claiming that he'd gotten into a violent, perhaps fatal, brawl with a mugger. But as Sean and Whitey conduct their own investigation, Jimmy is looking into it himself. With Annabeth's three roughneck brothers assisting him, he's determined to find his daughter's killer and dole out a little justice of his own.

I don't really follow the Oscar scene, mainly because the majority of the Best Picture candidates are movies that I'd never watch in a million years. In fact, by my count, I've seen less than one percent of the movies that have been nominated since the conception of the Best Picture award. But I took a shot at Mystic River, and I'm glad I did because it's a thoroughly engrossing movie from start to finish. Everything about it is fantastic, from the direction and writing, to the cast, and even the music. It isn't hard to see why Mystic River earned six Oscar nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, but I'm personally bummed that it didn't take home more awards than what it did.

But enough about Mystic River's performance during the award season, let's talk about the movie itself. That's why we're here, right? Mystic River tells a story about sadness, about love and loyalty, about how sometimes, one bad experience in the past can wholly ruin someone's present. Through the work of movie's writer, director, and cast, we are pulled deep into this story. We're drawn to follow, to see how things progress and how the characters develop. It's an engrossing movie, to say the least.

Let's begin with Brian Helgeland's screenplay. Helgeland takes a minor liberty or two with Dennis Lehane's novel, but the adaptation he has crafted is a fantastic one. The movie is more of a character study than an actual mystery, and the writer handles the characters delicately. Helgeland lets them develop, and in doing so, makes us care about them. And in caring about them, we become more invested in the journey of the characters, rather than their destination. Each of them follow their own paths on this journey, yet all of them are connected, affecting one another as they go. Their interactions and their development really show the mark of great writing, both in Lehane's novel and Helgeland's script.

Up next is the direction of cinema legend Clint Eastwood. Mystic River marks his twenty-fourth film as a director, and his talent and experience are evident here. Eastwood doesn't do anything extravagant or flashy behind the camera, nor does he need to. He and cinematographer Tom Stern team up to give the movie the gloomy, brooding atmosphere that it requires. Even the production logos at the opening of the movie echo the emotion of the movie; instead of the brightly colored animated logos that Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow Pictures usually use, we see simple, unanimated grayscale logos.

The way Eastwood and Stern compose their shots, you can watch the movie with the sound turned off and still comprehend exactly what's going on. Eastwood is a masterful storyteller, and I believe that's evidenced in two scenes with the Dave character. He twice shows Dave getting into a car, both as a child and as an adult, staring out the back windshield at the street behind him. Both times, you just know that the person who got in that car is never going to come back.

And really, that is the saddest part of the whole movie. Because one tragedy had befallen Dave, his entire life from that point forward was stained. The fact that he only managed to get half his name etched into that cement is a telling metaphor for who that character is. Just as the writing of his name was interrupted, stuck in an unfinished moment, Dave is stuck in that one horrible incident that robbed him of his childhood.

And as the movie progresses, and another tragedy threatens to similarly rob him of his adulthood, we see and understand that Dave will never be able to escape the horrors that have haunted him since his kidnapping. And that's through the work of Eastwood's masterful direction. His work is also greatly assisted by the moody, melancholy score that he has composed. Performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Eastwood's music is both beautiful and haunting, wonderfully supporting the movie's tragic content.

Last but most certainly not least is Mystic River's excellent cast. Everyone puts on a spectacular show, and if there is one reason for you to quit reading this review and run out to go rent this movie, it's the cast. First up is undeniably the movie's best performer, Sean Penn. Critics have hailed Penn as one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood, and his work here is evidence why. He excellently plays a man bottling up the ever-mounting rage and sadness inside him, seething to the point that the viewer almost needs him to explode just to let us have some sort of emotional release.

Honestly, I do believe that this is a performance that will be included on highlight reels of Penn's career for the rest of eternity. Two scenes in particular — one in which he tries to press through a police barricade at the site of Katie's murder, woefully begging for his daughter; another shortly thereafter when cracks begin to appear in his armor during a conversation with Tim Robbins's character on his back porch — are proof enough that Penn deserved the accolades he received for this performance.

Tim Robbins also deserved the awards he garnered for his work, playing a character who, thanks to the trauma suffered as a child, has grown into an awkward, emotionally fractured adult. Dave can't help being the way he is, and Robbins understands this; he plays the role with a peculiarity that brings Dave a greater, more resonating depth. Robbins was awarded a Best Supporting Actor trophy at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the SAG Awards, and like Penn, I think he deserved the recognition.

The third of our three primary actors, Kevin Bacon, is also great. Though his character is the least developed of the three, Bacon is our emotional middle ground. He is our chance to catch our breath, playing his character almost as an outsider looking in, almost as if he were a member of the audience. His performance is wonderful, bolstered by the entertaining work of Laurence Fishburne as his character's partner.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic. I've already mentioned that I enjoyed Fishburne, and I have to say that I found everyone else worth watching as well. Laura Linney and Tom Guiry are both solid, and although her screen time is limited to just one scene (thanks to her character being to Mystic River what Laura Palmer was to Twin Peaks), Emmy Rossum is likable in her role.

The best member of the supporting cast, however, is Marcia Gay Harden, whose performance is exemplary. She plays the complete opposite of Linney's character, someone who's been completely pushed away emotionally from her husband, which causes her to doubt both him and their relationship. Harden plays the role as a fragile, worried woman that hopes for the best, but slowly begins to believe that "the best" might just be a pipe dream. Her performance is almost as good as those from Penn, Robbins, and Bacon, for sure.

I know I've spent pretty much the entirety of this review unabashedly singing the praises of Mystic River, but it really is a fantastic movie. Though the final six or seven minutes — the epilogue at the parade, specifically — probably could been excised in order to end things on a note more befitting the overall tone of the film, Mystic River seems nearly flawless in its execution. There aren't a whole lot of movies that can be said about, but this is certainly one of them.

If you can watch the movie and not at least appreciate its efforts on some level, then you're out of your mind. It boasts a combination of both an amazing cast and an amazing crew, and due to this, I can give Mystic River nothing lower than the full five stars and a hearty seal of approval. So drop what you're doing, run to the local Blockbuster, and rent a copy of Mystic River right now.

Final Rating: *****