Reviews in alphabetical order.
Scroll to bottom for non-review articles/opinion pieces, also in alphabetical order.
Review by Kathy Bugajsky
Before I review “9,” I feel I need to add two disclaimers. First, is that the movie is rated PG-13 and it may be on of the first times I have ever agreed with them that no one under 13 should see this without their parent’s knowledge/guidance. It’s not that’s it is super violent or has curse words. It’s just dark and scary. When I say dark, I mean it makes “Matrix” seem like it’s filled with rainbows and cute and fluffy bunnies. Second, do remember when you saw “Death Becomes Her” and you spent the whole last quarter of the movie staring at the hole through her stomach amazed by how it matched and how good it looked? Well, the animation in this movie is so amazing that you get distracted by it at times. There is nothing that looks like this. It is just above and beyond anything else out there.
The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and follows nine creatures. The ninth one awakens and has the back story explained to us..err..him. This character, called “9,” then accidentally awakens a beast that goes on a terror/killing spree. Hilarity thus doesn’t ensue.
I think I need to see the movie again. I was very distracted by the amazing animation and there are a few moments where I found myself thinking about other movies. For example, there is a point where in your head you hear Edna Mole’s voice from “The Incredibles” saying “No capes!” Also, the ending – I mentioned this movie was dark, right? – is a little unsatisfying in its darkness. I don’t want to give anything away, but wrapping things up and ending well aren’t always the same thing.
Should you see it? Absolutely. It is brilliantly made in every way and will most likely win best animated picture. Should you take your kids? No. Should you take your anti-depressant medication beforehand? Yes.
Directed by: Shane Acker
Release Date: September 9, 2009
Run Time: 79 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features
COMPUTERS WORKING OVERTIME
Plot/Script – **
Special Effects – ****
Review by Mark Tucci
The late George Carlin quipped in one of his routines that “Explosions are fun!” “2012” director Roland Emmerich obviously subscribes to this theory, as he packs this two-hour and thirty-eight minute disaster movie with enough explosions and mayhem to satisfy even the most ardent combustion fan.
“2012” stands, along with this summer’s other big style-over-substance movie, “Transformers 2”, as the epitome of what typical box office fare has become nowadays: Loud, over-the-top spectacles filled with state-of-the-art special effects splayed out at a breakneck pace with quick-cut editing and little regard to story, script, or characters. To this end, “2012” competes strongly for heavy-weight champion, and I haven’t even thrown plausibility into the mix.
By now I’m sure you’ve managed to see at least one trailer for this movie. If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. If you have, I’m sorry to say that “2012” is another in a long line of films that shows you pretty much everything in those 2 and a half minutes – or rather, everything you’ll really get from this movie. Ideally, a trailer is supposed to give you just a taste – a little tease to entice you into the theater where the eye-popping scenes that hooked you in the trailer are supported by a well-rounded story and characters you care about. In the case of “2012”, these eye-popping hooks are all the film really has to offer, and the talents of fine actors like John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson and Danny Glover are merely placed strategically throughout for reaction shots to the chaos that’s going on around them.
Unlike the immensely popular “Transformers 2”, where audiences had the strength and popularity of the first film to draw them in, “2012” tries garnering interest by making ties to the ancient prophecies of the Mayans, whose calendar ends on December 21st, 2012. After seeing a number of initial ad campaigns for the film that drew on these facts, it was curious to see they played no part in the film whatsoever. Not that I’m complaining. While the Mayans did get a mention or two, it was actually to the film’s credit that we weren’t bogged down in some kind of ancient biblical prophecy story line that chalked everything up to an angry God. That being said, what little explanation for the impending disaster the story crafters did see fit to include skewed so far outside the bounds of credibility that they shouldn’t have bothered. Indeed, had they gone the “Cloverfield” route and focused more on those in the middle of the chaos instead of dealing with the involvement of the government, scientists and military, we might have cared more about the characters.
To that end, this film is populated with just about every movie character cliche you can imagine, from Cusack’s determined family man to Ejiofor’s morally conflicted scientist and Harrelson’s crazy conspiracy theory guy who’s the only one that really knows what’s going on. Toss in some kids in danger, the dog someone’s got to go back for and a few brave heroes who die so everyone else can survive and well, you get the picture.
But who can say they honestly expected anything less from this movie? And when it comes right down to it – that’s really the point. If you’ve seen the trailer and are compelled enough to go to the theater, you’re probably not seeing this to be wowed by John Cusack’s acting. You’re not seeing this because you’re interested in examining the political and environmental messages this film explores. You’re not seeing this to enjoy the witty dialogue and cleverly crafted script that Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser penned. Certainly not. If, by chance, you’ve found yourself sitting in the theater awaiting the start of “2012”, I honestly hope that all aforementioned pretext has been expunged from your mind, for the sole purpose of handing over the next two and a half hours of your life is to simply enjoy the wonderfully crafted roller coaster of special effects that assail the visual senses so perfectly throughout this movie. But unfortunately even that has its limits.
After the initial 20 or 30 minutes of set-up that poses as a story, the movie, quite literally, jolts into action. From there we’re treated to the equivalent of money being poured onto the screen in the form of one explosive visual effects set piece after another for the next 60 minutes or so. Forget believability. Forget credibility. Forget even simple first grade logic. This is pure popcorn spectacle taken to a level I’ve not seen before. But after all the initial destruction and chaos that’s showcased in the trailer is said and done, the film eventually starts to get, well, rather boring.
After watching the main characters cheat death through an endless series of last minute escapes one after the other for sixty minutes, there comes a point where you ask yourself, “Just how much more of this is there going to be?” Unfortunately there’s plenty more – probably too much more, and it’s the film’s third act that really is the weakest.
There’s a point toward the end where the movie narrows its focus down to the core remaining characters, putting the fate of all the remaining survivors on their shoulders. This is the cliched point where the hero must prove himself in the face of certain death, and the audience is drawn into the moment thanks to the emotional investment they’ve been given by the characters throughout the film. The only problem is, we’ve made no such investment, because up to now the characters have really been an afterthought.
It’s also here in this third act where all remaining aspects of plausibility are thrown overboard. Not that anything we’ve seen up to this point could actually happen, but I definitely felt a line being crossed here somewhere. Just remember folks – this is Hollywood, and hope must remain a constant no matter what the odds, no matter if it’s the end of the world as we know it. One thing I will say about believability though, if there’s anyone capable of building something that could withstand Armageddon, it’s probably the Chinese.
So if you’ve read this far you probably know whether or not you’ll enjoy seeing this movie. While it embodies just about every stereotype and formula that Hollywood has become known for lately, if you’re able to overlook that and simply go along for the ride, you’ll doubtless get some entertainment value out of it.
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Release Date: November 13, 2009
Run Time: 158 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
NOTHING ANTIMATTERS, ANYONE CAN SEE…
Angels & Demons
Review by Justin Bowler
Translating a book to the big screen is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Don’t they?
It goes as follows… a wildly successful book is turned into a wildly successful movie. It’s less successful predecessor becomes more popular due to the success of the latter, thus, insuring the predecessor is turned into a movie as well. Should it work this way? According to studio bean counters… Yes.
We all know of the success of The Davinci Code the movie ($758 million worldwide). Many say it wasn’t as good as the book, but still a fine film and definitely a popular one. So, any studio head would excitedly green light any project that had to do with the same character, written by the same writer, with the same director, and the same star. But, the question that is disregarded by studio heads is… “Is it a story worth telling?” and “Can it be translated to the screen?” While I would argue that is a compelling story (if you are willing to accept it as complete science fiction and I’ll get to that later), but it simply cannot be translated well to the screen.
Without retelling the entire plot of the movie (you can read that everywhere on the internet including youporn.com under “Anals and Deepen”), I’ll just give you the basic plot. The pope has died under mysterious circumstances. And an eeeevilll ancient organization (which has been pissed off at the catholic church for 650 years laying dormant and waiting for the right time to strike (it just so happens that 2009 is the right time) (why?) (they never really address that)) has stolen and stashed a pearl size drop of antimatter somewhere in the Vatican just as the conclave of cardinals assembles to vote on the new papacy. To add to the mire, the four most popular cardinals, the preferrati, have been kidnapped and will be executed, one every hour until midnight when the antimatter will mix with matter and explode, destroying all of Vatican city. (Side note: scientists have since stated that this is completely impossible. Antimatter would not explode. They know this. It is fact, not hypothesis. So, when I say this is science fiction it’s not “Back to the Future” science fiction with a flux capacitor, it is a different-less-interesting science fiction. Author Dan Brown may just as well have written that a miniature kumquat has been placed somewhere in the Vatican and will explode when it reaches three weeks of age. And that will be tonight at midnight.) (Anyway, back to the review.) Only Robert Langdon, Harvard “Symbologist”, with his lifetime of knowledge on the subject, can sort through all of the clues to save the cardinals and the Vatican. (Or can he?) (I don’t want to give away the film.)
The acting is great. By all accounts Tom Hanks turns out another fantastic performance (even with the dialogue he was given and the tasks he had to undertake). Ewan McGregor is very serviceable as the humble priest undertaking the task of surrogate authority until a new pope is elected. Stellan Skarsgård and Ayelet Zurer are equally engaging in their supporting roles. The same can be said for the direction. Ron Howard seamlessly made the transitions from actual elegant Italy to detailed soundstages. It was 100% believable. The set design was magnificent enough to garner academy interest, I’m sure. And even the writing from David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spiderman) and Akiva Goldsman (The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man) was as good as they could do with the material they had. But, therein lies the problem. Some books just can’t be made into good movies.
Author Dan Brown’s writing signature is the cliff hanger. Every chapter ends with the reader on the edge of their seat. Someone will ask a big question, then BAM-end of the chapter. (Even if the first line of the next chapter starts with the answer to the question that was just asked, it still builds suspense.) (That is GREAT for a film.) However, his other signature is exposition: tons and tons of exposition. And I mean tons and TONS of exposition. Seriously, more exposition than you think. IT HAS TONS AND TONS OF EXPOSITION. (That is BAD for a film). How bad? Humphrey Bogart once said that if he ever had to spout exposition, there’d better be two camels humping in the background to distract the audience. Well, Angels and Demons, the film, hasn’t a camel to be found. And that happens to be the main problem with this film (the exposition, not the camels). (The camels were a joke.) (The film takes place in Italy.) (Why would they have camels there?) (Anyway…)
Without debating the merits of the book as a work of art, for my money it was a lot of fun. It was a page turner, thrilling in every way. A chapter of story, a chapter of exposition, each one complimenting and building on the other. But, when you have 500 pages you can do that. The reader knows they are in for 10-14 hours total of reading. Movies have to get in and get out in 2 hours tops. And even though Angels and Demons, the film, runs 138 minutes it just is not enough time to spill out all of the necessary exposition and build suspense and tell a story, all at the same time. Instead what you get is “Hey we have to rescue a cardinal!” “How will we find him?” “Well, let me take fifteen minutes to tell you the massive amount of information I have learned over my lifetime to deduce the clues to where the cardinal is.” Then, they go after the cardinal. Whether they save the cardinal or not, I won’t mention, but, then they repeat the previously mentioned cycle FOUR MORE TIMES. It’s tough to build any kind of momentum or suspense when you have to pause for 15 minutes of exposition every 10 minutes.
I don’t blame anyone associated with the film other than the Hollywood machine. The Da Vinci Code was too successful not to insure that this movie (good or bad) would make money. And it did. Furthermore, I can’t suggest how to make this film any better. Ron Howard and company are far better filmmakers than me, but that doesn’t mean that I have to support it. While they are members of the Hollywood machine, I am not. I say skip the film at the theater and wait until it’s free on cable.
DANCING IN THE DARK
Review by Mary Gent
BREAKING THE WAVES and DANCER IN THE DARK were soul crushing, films that still live lonely in the recesses of my mind. Tragically submissive to love, Emily Watson relates her sexual exploits to her bedridden husband, Stellan Skarsgard, upon his request. A demanding, tyrannical love. A degrading and abusive love, but she forges through losing her sweet naivete every time she spreads her legs. I have seen the BREAKING THE WAVES once, and I can’t say if I will ever watch it again. It left me hollow and tortured.
DANCER IN THE DARK, eliciting a most brilliant performance from the reclusive Bjork, was like being hit in the head with an anvil, forcing all rationale and logic out. Or, more appropriately, removing my heart, throwing it on the ground and stomping on it. Repeatedly. The fact that this film is essentially a musical only adds to the tragedy befallen upon Bjork. Either Von Trier is an evil misogynist, or he understands that women can ultimately endure much more than men both physically and emotionally.
That being said, he stays somewhat true to this ideal in ANTICHRIST.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s grieving mother is nothing if not fragile, tormented and weak, preyed upon by Willem Dafoe’s condescending and pedantic psycho babble. After you suffer through the four chapters of ANTICHRIST, you see a glimmer of feminist hope when Gainsbourg’s grief and fury are unleashed violently on Dafoe. But not so fast my female compatriots. Perhaps misogyny prevails after a bizarre act of violence spurs on more random violence with Dafoe as victor.
The performances in ANTICHRIST are exceptional. There is some cinematic artistry and choice sounds that, pursued further, could have created a different type of film. Some of the imagery was dark and luscious, reminiscent of David Lynch, but without his blood beating through it, giving it a life of it’s own. With Von Trier, it was gimmicky and trite, out of his element. I understand creating a “horror” film based around the stages of grief, but he leads us astray more often than not and his message gets muddled in with some idea of nature as “Satan’s church”, which makes no sense in the confines of the story (the story being one of irresponsible love making leading to the death of their child). Therefore, sex plays a huge part in the twisted script and becomes their final demise. Their internal punishment. Their shame. The difference between David Lynch’s eccentric vision and Von Trier is that you take what you need from Lynch at your own discretion. Lynch does non-linear better than most. Von Trier has already proven he is a dark storyteller, one that we all glean a similar experience from. He does not need to be “obscure” or “artistic”. He needs to go back to BREAKING THE WAVES and DANCER IN THE DARK and remember his craft. Remember what his gifts are and then go back to the drawing board.
Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Release Date: September 25, 2009
Run Time: 104 Minutes
Country: Denmark, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Poland
Rated: No Rating
Distributor: Zentropa Entertainments
Review by Joel Frost
A viewer can look at “Avatar” a few different ways. First and most obvious, it’s a visually-stunning thrill-ride through space and time, aided by digital 3-D. You put on the glasses, munch the popcorn, and the movie swirls around you with light and color. It’s hard to resist “Avatar” from this angle. Never before has a film so successfully married special effects and live-action, and with the added third dimension, it’s truly a spellbinding sight to behold.
The actors, whether made of actual flesh or zeros and ones, are thick and prominent. The world that “Avatar” takes place on, Pandora, is stunningly detailed as a living, breathing, lush jungle that is magically alive, and apparently alive with a kind of magic. “Avatar”’s meta quality is brilliantly conceived…the main character, Jake Sully (the reasonably understated Sam Worthington), is involved in a project which transports his conscience into a manufactured body of Pandora’s indigenous humanoid species, the Na’Vi. The viewer is similarly transported into the film. Until our technology can create something like what’s occurring in the film (in 2154), we’ll have to settle for what we can get along those lines, and for now, “Avatar” is a pretty fantastic way to have an out-of-body experience.
Another way to view “Avatar” is to try not to be seduced by the sound and fury, for the purpose of really taking in the story and the souls of the characters. It’s a test for any film, and while “Avatar” gives you just about everything a movie can on the shock and awe front, it deserves the respect of scrutinization of its heart and mind. The story: Pandora holds valuable reserves of the clumsily/brilliantly named “Unobtanium”. A large, well-armed corporation from Earth wants the stuff, bad. The Avatar Program, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (nice to see Sigourney Weaver stretching her space-legs again), was created as a way of trying to understand and communicate with the Na’Vi, but so far they haven’t offered up any of the rocks. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, doing his best squirmy Paul Reiser-in-“Aliens” impression), the head Corporate asshole, is getting impatient. He’s ready to unleash the company’s private army, led by the cartoonishly menacing Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), on the Na’Vi… a tribe of whom live right on top of a fat reserve of the special rock. Selfridge gives Dr. Augustine and her team three months to explain the situation to the Na’Vi and convince them to move. Jake Sully, a former Marine who lost the use of his legs in the service, finds himself involved in the Avatar Program as a replacement for his recently deceased brother. The Avatars themselves are linked to their human controllers, and Jake is a reasonable substitute, from a scientific standpoint, for his brother. He is not, however, a scientist with a whole lotta book-learnin’ about the big blue, cat-nosed aliens. This is a source of concern for Grace and her team, but they seem to feel they need Jake and his Avatar, so in he goes. He soon finds himself blue-cattin’ around with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the daughter of the tribe’s Chief. She takes a shine to him, as does the rest of the tribe, not without some growing pains. He’s a warrior, see, not a scientist… so the tribe’s warriors (apparently most of the tribe) like him. He has the common touch. He used to be a Marine. He doesn’t speak Na’Vi, but he says “Hu-ah”, and that seems to need no translation.
Any of that sound familiar? Sure it does. Ever seen “Dances With Wolves”? If you have, you’ve seen “Avatar”, without 3-D glasses and big blue cat-people. Heck, the Na’Vi even wear feathers. They ride horses, bare-back, and use bows and arrows. Their speech patterns are clearly reminiscent of those of Native Americans (at least those in the movies). It’s obvious that James Cameron is making an analogy to the history of our country. He’d likely say that human history is a litany of the big guy beating on the little guy, and “Avatar” uses this time-honored story as a framework. That’s reasonable. Still, it’s hard not to leave the film, starry-eyed and all, not feeling like it’s a little obvious, a little bit rote. One even has to wonder if the 3-D glasses were gone and the effects weren’t quite as magnificent, if the film would seem little more than an obvious re-tread.
Which brings me to a third way of viewing “Avatar”, and it’s likely the best option: Don’t be a critic. Sure, it’s fallible. Not every film can be “Dances With Wolves” (“Avatar 2: Dances With Blue Cats”?), try as it might. It won’t win any awards for originality or quality of writing, but it’s far from offensive in those areas. There are plenty of films these days that look fantastic, but really basically stink. “Avatar” is not one of those movies. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll kiss 15 bucks good-bye…more if you check out the 3-D IMAX version, which I recommend. There’s really no reason not to see “Avatar”. Even the lady Na’Vi’s blue breasts don’t jiggle while they jump, swing, fly and run, so you can bring the kiddies. Perhaps a little less reluctance to jiggle and a little less samey-ness could have helped make “Avatar” a real well-rounded classic, but what do we care? Did you see that explosion? Holy shit.
Directed by: James Cameron
Release Date: December 18, 2009
Run Time: 162 Minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
KUNG FU TREACHERY!
Review by Paul Preston
In this movie, Black Dynamite goes to Kung Fu Island. If that’s not enough to get you to see it, then stop reading and watch the trailer below. If you don’t want to see it after that, there is no hope for you.
The brainchild of star/co-writer Michael Jai White (“Spawn”), co-writer Bryon Minns and director/co-writer Scott Sanders, “Black Dynamite” is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year (bear in mind I haven’t seen “The Pink Panther 2”). “Dynamite” is an awesome homage to the blaxploitation films of the seventies that turns into a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-let-the-funniest-stuff-stick-finale.
The movie establishes early on that it’s going to go into great detail in emulating all the characteristics of the ’70s black gangster flicks – the grainy look, the awkward quick zooms and camerawork, the sketchy performances, and, my favorite, the “Dynamite! Dynamite!” music punch when Black Dynamite is kickin’ ass, or even sometimes when he enters a room. The filmmakers are smart in that when they feed us a bit that’s a direct spoof of the films they’re sending up, they feed us the bit once, then lay off. This leads to more new gags as the film goes on, instead of repeating the same tired stuff (example – only one boom mic in the shot). And the end…oh, man…the end, it’s just…it’s out of hand!
All you need to know is that The Man killed Black Dynamite’s brother. Dynamite (even his mother calls him Black Dynamite) uncovers an ever-widening conspiracy from there, making for some instant-classic scenes: a showdown at a billiard room, Dynamite making it with a nurse and a conference of pimps who feel their line of work is threatened (perhaps my favorite scene).
This is a huge tour-de-force for Michael Jai White, who puts his massive, ripped body to good use, often employing old-school nunchucks! White had a great role in “The Dark Knight”, but he’s built for leads, and will hopefully see more after this. Unlike the very funny “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” from 1988, White, Sanders and Minns’ script doesn’t go at its comedy with a wink to the audience. They, instead, live in the world more, even during the most outrageous moments, and that pays huge dividends. (I lied, my favorite scene is in a diner, when Dynamite and his friends try to figure out the plot of the movie!).
This is a very tight script, that hits you hard and somehow makes film conceits of the 1970s seem new and exciting. Our Movie Guy Adam said the film was refreshing in that it didn’t collapse in the third act, as most comedies do. As movies go, this is hilarious and very satisfying. As a genre spoof film alongside lame wastes of time like “Epic Movie”, “Meet the Spartans” and “Superhero Movie”, it’s a towering achievement.
Directed by: Scott Sanders
Release Date: October 16, 2009
Run Time: 90 Minutes
Distributor: ARS Nova
MIND THE BULLOCKS
The Blind Side
Review by Karen Volpe
When I first saw this trailer in the theater, I teared up. Something about it caught my attention right from the start. I know, I’m a sucker for an underdog movie, but I think I was welling up because I knew Sandra Bullock was going to kick major ass in this movie and I was right. (Oh, and she looked hot as hell too!)
Let’s not beat around the bush, I loved this movie. I had no idea that it was based on a true story until the end when I saw footage of the real Michael Oher. I don’t really like sports movies and I am not a huge football fan, but that’s not what this movie is about. This movie is about doing what is right even if it’s the harder thing to do.
This is the real-life story of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), her husband Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) and their unlikely new “son” Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). Leigh Anne is a wealthy southern spit-fire who speaks her mind and knows what she wants. One night when she spots Michael walking in the cold rain without a coat, that’s it, from that moment on, Michael’s life would never be the same.
Michael’s father left when he was just a baby and his mother is a drug addict. Even though he is homeless and wanders from couch to couch, his spirit is never broken. He has the body of a giant and the heart of a lamb. He just needs a chance and thanks to Leigh Anne, he gets it.
The love that Leigh Anne and her family show Michael is honest and real. I especially found the relationship of the children and Michael to be unique. I kept waiting for the cliché scene where the “legitimate” children are jealous of Michael and all of the attention that he’s getting. Thankfully, that never happened. I think that speaks volumes to what great parents Leigh Anne and Sean were. Their children learned by their example and did not pass judgment on Michael just because he was poor and from the projects.
For me, the major theme in this movie was: What does being a Christian mean? How many good Southern Christians passed by Michael that night when he was walking in the cold? How many people go to church every week and give to the local food banks but would never pull the car over and invite a huge African-American boy into their car and, eventually, into their life? Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t even stop to think that she might be making a mistake until long after she took the young man into her home and tucked him into bed. That’s a Christian who talks the talk and walks the walk.
Oh, and who knew the movie would be so funny?! Tim McGraw (who was so believable as the husband that I didn’t even recognize him) has some of the funniest lines in the movie. His performance is rock solid and he holds his own next to Bullock’s fast and feisty Leigh Anne. Jae Head, who plays the Tuohy’s son, steals scenes with his quick wit and enthusiasm. He’s a perfect match to Michael’s quiet, Ferdinand The Bull energy.
So, could this finally be Sandra’s ticket to the Oscars? I can’t be sure of that. But I can be sure that this movie was pretty great, even without Bill Murray in it. (Who knew that was possible).
Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Release Date: November 20, 2009
Run Time: 128 Minutes
Distributor: Alcon Entertainment
DEAD PEASANTS’ SOCIETY
Capitalism: A Love Story
Review by Paul Preston
I have to admit at the top of this interview that I’m a rampant liberal. I’m all for universal health care as an option for people who need it (if you think there’s no money for it, re-think the places we’re inappropriately spending money now), I think harmful greed needs to be kept in check to ensure that corporations don’t abuse their workers, I think money needs to be taken out of politics and I think there are politicians in America whose highest priority is to see the current president fail and whose second or third priorities are to actually vote for or create legislation that could advance America.
Hmmm, might I like the latest Michael Moore film? “Capitalism: A Love Story” is a call to action. Moore has a beef with the way capitalism has run roughshod over hopes, dreams and lives in America. Does he have a legitimate gripe? Yes, but these are some of the shakier waters Moore has delved into in yet. Capitalism is the reason most people choose to live in the good ‘ol U.S. of A., how can you rail against it? Moore makes some good points:
– Ronald Reagan appointed the CEO of Merrill Lynch to the Secretary of Treasury, sparking the beginning of the marriage of business and politics
– Businesses are taking life insurance policies out on their employees and are naming THEMSELVES the beneficiary. Companies are starting to make money if you die. A little something called “Dead Peasants”.
– The richest 1% of America makes more money than the bottom 95%. This inequality creates instability in the country.
Moore methodically tells fifty or so quality, involving stories to back up his case that the financial status quo in the U.S. needs repair. But it’s the percentage inequality that resonates most with me. When a country doesn’t care for its most downtrodden, the downtrodden get desperate. That’s memorably shown in this film, too.
Over the course of reviewing Moore’s films for a decade now, I’ve often stated that he’s created his own genre, infusing himself into the documentary template. Even more than in “Sicko”, Moore’s takes an on-screen back seat. The footage, the stories, carry the day. Moore has only a couple of scenes where he does his routine antics, and they are carried out with full knowledge that everyone is on to him. The result is hilarious.
One of the things that struck me most about “Sicko” was the British Parliament member who said people in Europe keep the government in check, and in America, the government keeps people in check. That theory is further expanded upon here. Moore is trying everything to bust through American sit-on-your-hands apathy and crying out for action! These guys are outnumbered, and if more people who felt they got a bad slice of American pie stood up, the voices would be deafening. “Capitalism” shows a microcosm of this in the story of Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors, firing its entire unionized workforce of over 250 people, giving them only three days notice, and failing to pay legally required vacation and severance pay. This was a compelling story when it happened and is still compelling today. It made national news, it caused national reaction, but these reactive moments are few and far between. (Moore probably wisely leaves out Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s role in helping the Republic workers. Although he was instrumental in bringing their plight to media attention, he later turned douchebag).
The highlight of the movie is an eye-opening bit of previously-lost film in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt lays out a proposal called the “Second Bill of Rights” for America. This would provide, for all Americans, a living wage, a home, medical care, and education and freedom from monopolies. Coming out of WWII, this was an excellent course for the country that was never followed through due to FDR’s health. Never has a president handled war and the economy as deftly as FDR, hearing his never-realized vision told directly to camera was a haunting and sad moment.
Making the media rounds recently, Michael Moore often told the story of Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine. You know what he did with the vaccine once he created it? HE GAVE IT AWAY. It was better to help people survive than to make money. That concept seems lone gone in the world brought to light in “Capitalism: A Love Story”. We must be in the part of the love story where the Titanic sinks. I hope we make it to the part where we throw the expensive diamond in the ocean.
Directed by: Michael Moore
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Run Time: 127 Minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Review by Kathy Bugajsky
This may be one of the best non-Pixar movies in years. Bruce Campbell as the mayor, Mr. T as an overzealous cop and Neil Patrick Harris as “Steve,” a talking monkey, do you need much more to convince you to see it?
“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” is loosely based on the kid’s book with the same name. It revolves around Flint, an aspiring scientist who has had more failures than successes. He finally gets one right with a machine that turns water into food, but it gets accidentally launched into the clouds causing it to rain food. His small town hits the big time with all the attention and Flint falls for the weather girl with a hidden nerdy past. That is until the food starts becoming more and more unstable.
There is a very touching father/son story underneath all the humor. By the way, the humor is both for kids as well as adults. It has some great moments and tiny little details that are very endearing. I love the posters on young Flint’s wall including one of Tesla as a rock star scientist. Steve the monkey has an obsession with gummy bears that has a hilarious payoff. Aside from that, it may be the only time I have ever found Anna Faris anything other than extremely annoying. I can’t think of a single moment of the movie that I didn’t enjoy.
No matter if you see it in 3-D or not, I give it four out of four stars.
Directed by: Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Release Date: September 18, 2009
Run Time: 90 Minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Animation
LUKE WARM COCO
Coco Before Chanel
Review by Paul Preston
What do you want in a foreign period film?
All that’s missing is urgency.
Coco Chanel is a French legend. The designer of the ground-breaking haute couture style, creator of the huge fashion brand Chanel, and a forward-thinker in terms of women’s independence. Chanel is a complex and dynamic personality. Makes me want to see a movie called “Coco During Chanel”. But “Coco Before Chanel”? Not so much.
Audrey Tautou does a commendable job of playing Chanel in her early years (and looks a lot like Chanel in the movie’s later scenes). Adding complications to the idea is the fact that there is little known about Chanel’s youth, and what is known often has conflicting stories. But be prepared, what does happen in “Coco Before Chanel”, happens slowly. This, in a movie that portrays the French elite as people with crazy money, outlandish parties and a constant desire to quench their boredom. I desired the same.
Although she often denied it, Chanel was brought to an orphanage early in life (this was denied mainly to prevent preconceptions of her as an undesirable). The film sharply cuts to late teens/early twenties Coco (real name, Gabrielle), singing with her sister in clubs to make a buck. It was the plight of women in the 1890s to find a man or fear being lost in society. Coco’s sister was beholden to a man for thirty years, and he FINALLY married her after his parents died so he wouldn’t have to explain to them that he married an orphan (for shame!). This assnine mentality is certainly worth rebelling against, but Coco remains passive for too much of the movie. She is taken in by a wild playboy named Balsan (expertly played by Benoit Poelvoorde) and is mistreated by him for years. Chanel wants to answer to no man and wants to design clothes that avoid the feathers and corset that alter a woman’s natural body. But again, this is done with little dramatic flair and many, many pages of slow-moving script. Coco came off as a little too inert for a little too long.
This movie is the first of the late-year potential Oscar nominees. Tautou’s performance is a maybe, but the costume design is a sure thing, and rightfully so. The Chanel style is famous, they have to nail it, and they did, while also building gorgeous period outfits for the rich, end-of-century French culture and a few military outfits as well.
The score by Alexandre Desplat does a lot to enhance a few of the scenes, and the cinematography is lush. I want to give a special nod to Alessandro Nivola, who’s very good here and very good in everything, but the guy doesn’t appear in enough high-profile stuff. He sits very comfortably in the French language here and smolders in some of his more romantic moments like a poor man’s Ralph Fiennes.
A traumatic event late in the film propels Coco to launch into her designing full speed. That moment felt a little rushed and the whole ending follows suit. What I wanted at the end was the “Coco During Chanel” movie to start, so, then, that could be kind of a success for the film? But remember, I wanted “Coco During Chanel” going in, so really, the whole ‘before’ story just felt like slow filler. Frills, perhaps? Padding?
Directed by: Anne Fontaine
Release Date: September 25, 2009
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Distributor: Haut et Court
Review by Justin Bowler and his wife
My wife and I recently saw “Couples Retreat”. Our comments/conversation below:
JUSTIN: Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman and Kali Hawk all look great in a bikini.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The little boy was cute.
JUSTIN: It’s a funny movie, but not necessarily a good movie.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The images during the closing credits were fun. It made me want to go to Bora Bora.
JUSTIN: The story arc lacks the dynamic and artistic elements that form a coherent structure pertinent to believable in-depth character development.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The fake sharks looked really fake.
JUSTIN: Vince Vaughn is at his comedic best when he is writing for himself.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The color of the ocean was a pretty green/teal color. It made me want to go swim.
JUSTIN: It was blatantly missing nudity.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: Vince Vaughn got really sweaty. He needed a fan.
JUSTIN: The story felt very choppy.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The natural portrayal of hair in the humid climate was unusually uncharacteristic of a romantic comedy.
JUSTIN: Too predictable for a John Favreau script.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The alcoholic drinks looked idiotic. The bottles just had fake leaves taped on them.
JUSTIN: Vince Vaughn plays the likable asshole better than anyone else in Hollywood.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: The “going to the bathroom” scenes were crude. No movie needs to have bathroom scenes.
JUSTIN: Not all movie relationships need to end with the couple promising “to change” and stay together.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: I don’t want to watch a movie about characters who want to have an affair. Everyone should love each other.
JUSTIN: Overall this was a valiant attempt by Peter Billingsley to direct a John Favreau script; unfortunately it felt like the studio stepped in and didn’t give him the freedom that John Favreau would have received.
JUSTIN’S WIFE: There should have been more music montages with island activities like learning to square dance.
ME: See it, ONLY as a date film.
MY WIFE: See it, only if he won’t go see “Fame” with you.
Directed by: Peter Billingsley
Release Date: October 9, 2009
Run Time: 113 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
THE SWEETER THE SONG
Review by Joel Frost
There is a shot in “Crazy Heart” where a very drunk Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) keels over on to his bed. The viewpoint is from below and to the side of the bed, and Bridges collapses toward the camera, staying in the frame as he comes to some form of delirious rest, half-on and half-off the bed. He is old, pathetic and almost lifeless. The shot captures his careening, teetering world on the way down in abrupt detail. It’s a simple shot, in some ways. The camera is stationary. It doesn’t last long. All Bridges has to do is fall. The shot lingers on his face for a few seconds, and then it’s over. The narrative of the film wouldn’t have been lost if it hadn’t made it into the final cut. But in that short, precise moment, Jeff Bridges shows why he will win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He has crafted the best performance by a male actor of this year, and the best of his career. This short section of the film is a character summary of Bad Blake, at least to that point in the film…a slowly falling man in a precarious spot between some form of comfort and a likely sad end.
Bad Blake is a 57-year-old country singer who travels from town to town and plays his aging songs for an aging audience. He is beloved by some…liquor store owners and floozies, venue-owners and the new band members he meets at each stop…but his star is surely fading as he drinks away his ebbing brilliance. From bar to bowling alley, staying in cheap hotels, he drives his Silverado around the south, chasing whatever money his agent can find him.
At one of these stops, he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal, quite good and therefore overlooked this award season). She’s a writer for a local paper and she interviews him about his life, career and music. There’s a spark between the two, and in it we see some of Blake’s charm, brought to life deftly by Jeff Bridges. As old and hazy as the man is, he is roused a bit by this pretty and interesting reporter, and he manages to show some of what made him important to those looking for a little something sweet and sad in their country music. Jean is clearly taken by Blake’s remaining soulfulness and vulnerability. Gyllenhaal manages a fine performance as Craddock; walking the line between the seemingly innocent enthusiasm of an impressed young fan and an intelligent woman who is nobody’s fool, not even of the charming ol’ coot who she almost immediately falls in love with.
Robert Duvall shows up as a good old friend of Bad Blake’s…the owner of a bar in the town they both live where Blake often performs. Duvall is comfortable in his element, a gentle and wise southern fishing buddy. He carries out his task easily. Also showing some fine acting chops is the resurgent Colin Farrell, himself a man who once almost lost his career to the bottle. Farrell’s accent and physicality are just right for the younger, more popular country star who looks up to and tries to help out Bad Blake.
The movie is adapted for the screen by Scott Cooper from the novel of the same name by Thomas Cobb. Cooper also directs, his first such endeavor, although that is only evident from his imdb.com profile. Aside from the shot of the falling Blake, there are numerous instances of Cooper’s elevated sense of composition and pacing. He does a fine job.
Of course, it helps when the main subject of the film is a character who is being performed so brilliantly by an actor like Jeff Bridges. Bridges finds the soul of Bad Blake and plays him with a calm power, a man losing a struggle with alcohol, who feels he can’t overcome his demons, mistakes, and regrets. There is an easy, resigned nature to Bridges’ performance. The character is frequently drunk, but Bridges makes no great show of just how drunk at any given moment. He is not demonstrative or forceful. It’s the calm, self-assured work of an actor who has accumulated as much experience in his craft as Bad Blake has accumulated bad habits. Bridges appears effortless as he explores and owns the world of the character, but this is no easy performance. Creating a character this nuanced and quietly haphazard is not a simple task. It’s as if Jeff Bridges painted a portrait and then soaked it in whiskey. The lines are still there. The beauty is still evident, even as the sadness for what has faded is evident… the new piece, however, is perhaps more powerful, more unique.
Bridges has been nominated a few times for Oscars, but has never won before. That will almost certainly change this year. “Crazy Heart” is his film, and fortunately it keeps up its end of the bargain. The story and script are very good, with some familiar themes (viewers of last year’s “The Wrestler” may note a similarity or two). The supporting cast, right down to Jean Craddock’s little son (Jack Nation) are quite good. The directing does not appear to be the work of a first-timer. The accompanying music is perfect, sweetly languid, the work of T. Bone Burnett. Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell do their own singing in the film, quite admirably, which adds to the immersion into the world of these characters.
Jeff Bridges finds the soul of this aging singer, a man whose next fall may be his last, whether his descent is a thing of beauty to behold or just the sad exit of an artist who could have been more. Because of some quite brilliant acting, we get to see it all at once.
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Release Date: December 16, 2009
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Butcher’s Run Films
Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 7 Premiere
Review by Matt Todd
For some people the water glass is half full, for others, it’s half empty, for Larry David, the glass could have been filled with bottled water instead of tap water. It’s September, and other than football, I love it because that means network and cable TV comes back for another season of hilarious and compelling programming. Speaking of the hilarious, HBO this past Sunday night debuted the season premiere of Season 7’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Larry David returns to HBO after a longer-than-usual hiatus to bring back one of the best damn sitcoms still being made.
Really quickly, let’s see where we last left off at the end of Season 6. Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) had gotten a divorce from Larry and had started a new relationship with the guy who invented the “No Fly Zone” underwear and Larry fell in love with Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox) who along with the rest of the Black family, were taken in as charity by the David’s as victims of Hurricane Katrina (yes, that’s how damn long this show has been off the air, a Hurricane Katrina reference!). In the new season, to anyone who has been living under a rock, we have been promised as the main story arc a “Seinfeld” reunion show within the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” universe. This basically means that all the actors from the show will be playing themselves, but with just a little bit different spin on how their personalities are in reality. Over this seasons’ scant 10-episode run, this storyline with the “Seinfeld” cast will only span about 5 episodes. Episode 1 is not one of them.
Early disappointments aside, I loved the season premiere episode. It is clear that Larry David hasn’t lost a step in his great ability to reign in funny story outlines with hilarious improvised performances. Curb vet Larry Charles once again helms the directing chair. What I find great about all Curb episodes (and of course, this is what obviously gave “Seinfeld” its popularity, too) are their ability to put Larry into situations that everybody can pretty much relate to.
What’s even more funny is that Larry’s initial reaction to most of these scenarios isn’t exactly surprising or different than how most of us would react. The big difference however, is how far Larry takes his obsession with being a neurotic nebbish about things and pushes the bounds of normalcy. In one episode he will take something he finds verboten, make himself look ridiculous trying to defend his point on why that is verboten, then, be told by everyone around him that he is wrong, only to eventually perform that verboten thing himself later in the episode (and maybe take it even further) and again be told how wrong he was to do what he did. Now that’s great story writing!
The basic plot outline of the season premiere is simple: Loretta possibly has cancer (No, it really does get funny, I promise). Larry gets invited to a secret attendance dinner party Susie Greene (the wonderfully profane Susie Essman) is throwing. Larry then has an uncomfortable interaction with Loretta’s doctor, which leads to Larry getting taken up on an offer to “babysit” Marty Funkhouser’s (Bob Einstein) insane sister Bam-Bam (Catherine O’Hara in an amazing guest performance). Larry takes his assistant Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) to watch after her. Next, at the dinner party we see that Marty, his wife, and Bam-Bam were begrudgingly invited and a crisis is almost averted. Larry has to leave the dinner party in order to pick up prescriptions for Loretta and wants to fill his hunger with take-out at a familiar spot. At the restaurant, he finds Cheryl dining with Wanda (Wanda Sykes), and he catches-up on how things are in Cheryl’s life. The last scene is where Larry finds out the result from Loretta’s biopsy. Without ruining the punch line for you, let me only say that based on the look splayed on Larry’s face, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that this is the same man who wrote the “Seinfeld” episode where George Costanza is ecstatic after his fiancé dies from licking too much cheap envelope glue.
Overall, I never watched a Curb episode I didn’t like. There is a reason that Larry David, Larry Charles, and the entire creative team have developed crisp 1/2-hour episodes and full seasons that never come close to 23 episodes, as most every other sitcom does. They believe in the adage of quality over quantity, in keeping it short and sweet. There is nothing wrong with this approach. I just hope that if there are to be more seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, Larry doesn’t wait 2 years to bring us his special brand of humor.
Review by Mark Tucci
District 9 is a sci-fi action adventure film by first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp. Produced by Peter Jackson, District 9 originally started out as a 6 minute short that Blomkamp directed back in 2005 called Alive in Joburg. It was on the strength of this short that Blomkamp was approached by Peter Jackson to direct the now failed Halo film. Once Halo died in pre-production, Jackson gave financial support to Blomkamp and they decided to expand Alive in Joburg into a feature-length film. The result is pretty freakin’ awesome.
Starring a cast of unknowns, the movie plays out like a kind of documentary or sci-fi version of Cops, with the special agents of the MNU Corp. infiltrating and policing an alien shanty town set up when their spacecraft makes an unscheduled pit-stop above Johannesburg. While the lines the film draws to racism, cultural oppression, slavery, poverty, abortion and other sociopolitical issues are pretty obvious, it’s handled in such a flippant, laissez-faire way that it seems to simply exaggerate these situations with absurdity. Usually disgusting over-the-top absurdity.
Throughout the first two thirds of the film, our MNU protagonist, Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley, encounters all sorts of nasty aliens, Nigerian crime lords, testosterone fueled military wingnuts, and lots of fun-tastic weapons. Wikus eventually manages to get himself into a level of trouble that leaves him wanted by just about everyone in the movie.
While the film does eventually devolve into a straight-up action picture reminiscent of first-person-shooter video games (and I could totally see the video game version of the movie in my head while watching this), the fact that the first two-thirds of the film were so good really made up for this. By the time you get to this point, you’re so vested in what’s happening to the main characters, that you end up just rooting for them to succeed. And to be perfectly fair, the action sequences were indeed thrilling and managed to keep me on the edge of my seat. The seamless integration of the CGI aliens within the hand-held, ground-level and in-your-face camera angles was simply superb, and made the whole experience that much more believable.
The movie is well served by casting relative unknowns and having the protagonist as a kind of nerdy everyman. The fact that the hero is a rather dim-bulb bureaucrat as opposed to some jarhead makes it much more believable in a way. Had this been a true Hollywood film, it could easily have been Will Smith or Nicolas Cage or Ben Affleck in that role, and it would probably have sucked. The fact that I can TOTALLY envision Will Smith in this movie, running around spouting out stupid one liners while thumping his chest and taunting the aliens with his cock-eyed expressions just illustrates how far removed from that kind of formulaic Hollywood crap we are with this movie.
Not everything was immune from formula though. It was a pretty violent and graphic film. Definitely not for the squeamish, but it does pay homage to a lot of other sci-fi films of years past (Alien Nation, Starship Troopers, E.T., Aliens, and The Fly all come to mind).
The plot of the film, while simple in concept was far from perfect. There were a lot of unanswered questions and curious actions that occurred, and while I suppose that could be chalked up to following standard sci-fi dogma or setting the stage for a sequel (which the film does very well), it may leave the viewer wanting more. I certainly wanted more of an explanation as to some of the plot points, but I guess that will either come in the sequel, or within the director’s commentary track on the DVD. Regardless, this was certainly a fun film and one that I would recommend seeing.
Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Blomkamp was originally onboard to direct a big screen version of Halo. After witnessing the crazy shoot-em-up action in this movie, I wonder what, if any influences or ideas were mined from the Halo draft script that Alex Garland wrote. In all likelihood it was probably not much, because the Halo film rights were transferred back to Microsoft when the project died and the film is still listed as being “on hold.” Still, after spending five months in pre-production, it’s pretty apparent that Blomkamp took enough away to make District 9 the closest thing to a Halo movie that fans will see for a while.
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Release Date: August 14, 2009
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Country: USA/New Zealand
Distributor: Tri-Star Pictures
SWALLOW YOUR SOUL
Drag Me to Hell
Review by Mark Tucci
I approached Sam Raimi’s new film, Drag Me To Hell with caution. It had been quite some time since I’d seen a horror film in the theater and even more time since that film had Raimi’s name on it. I have fond memories of seeing The Evil Dead 2 in the theater years ago and I longed for a similar experience, but horror movies lately have left me rather unimpressed. Recently we’ve been treated with scores of mundane and overly-formulaic horror films sporting similar themes, be they the ignorant tourists, the child-spooks, the clever traps, the mindless zombies, or the 80s remakes. So it is with great relief that I can proclaim: Drag Me To Hell is none of these.
Drag Me To Hell is about as close as I could expect to come to reliving the mixture of humor and horror experienced during the Evil Dead films. What a pleasant surprise.
To be fair, the film’s story does have a familiar feel to it – but this familiarity stems from much older horror movie epics of the past. The innocent maiden, the gypsy’s curse, the haunting demons, and the Indian mystic all harken back to a time before we were blessed with Jason, Freddie, Jigsaw and scary little kids.
The set-up is pretty straight-forward, and anyone who’s seen the trailer will have learned all they need to know about the movie’s premise. Once those scenes have played out and the curse begins to take hold, the fun begins and it’s vintage Raimi. He provides just the right mixture of humor with his horror, and stretches the PG-13 rating to it’s absolute limit. Fans of Raimi will spot the obvious homages to his other films as well as his signature filmmaking flourishes. They’re all here (including the infamous Oldsmobile).
I felt the title of the film came in to play in more ways than one, as poor Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) endures a hell of a lot in this picture, as does Mrs. Ganush, the curse-casting old woman played by Lorna Raver. Nary a scene goes by between them where there isn’t some exchange of fluids and body parts. This is typical Raimi gross-out humor/horror – in much the same vein as The Evil Dead trilogy. While this device is often used as a surrogate for truly scary moments in a horror film, I’m happy to say Drag Me To Hell has those too.
Raimi does a good job of keeping his demon mysterious and ambiguous, never letting the audience in on just what it is poor Christine is dealing with here. As a result, the typical horror movie goer might be a bit frustrated, but it only makes for a better film and some of the scarier moments to appear on screen in quite some time.
The cast of the film is well-played in their roles, each character hitting their notes to progress the story to where you think it’s supposed to end up. And that’s the one truly great thing I can say about Drag Me To Hell. At a certain point it eschews the traditional formula and takes us somewhere I didn’t expect to go. Thankfully, it was not straight to hell like most of the other horror movies I’ve seen lately.
So bottom line: if you’re a fan of Raimi, you’ll enjoy this movie. If you’re a looking for a horror movie that does more than have people or animals jump out at you beneath a wailing violin every so often, you’re in luck, and if you’re bored with a lot of the same old stuff that Hollywood has been throwing at you, you now have a great alternative. Drag Me To Hell lives up to the expectations, and even manages to live up to its name.
Review by Paul Preston
Nick Hornby is a very successful English writer. About ten years ago, Hollywood came calling, and his relationship with film came out of the gate on fire. “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” were both winning movies, with great lead actors (John Cusack and Hugh Grant) and a wry, subtle sense of humor. “Fever Pitch” was a mild success, adapting a Hornby story about football (yes, soccer to us Yanks) into a love letter to the Red Sox. Lead actor – Jimmy Fallon. But now, “An Education” has led to heaps of critical praise and three Oscar nominations.
So, why am I so underwhelmed?
“An Education” is a coming-of-age tale about a sixteen-year-old named Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a cultured British girl who is won over by a much older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard). David sees the fire in Jenny, her desire for adventure, arts and sophistication (she’s really into the Parisian scene). With David showing the promise of living the lifestyle Jenny covets, she easily wants to go with him.
Turns out David isn’t the perfect man. He gets coarse with Jenny when she questions how he and his real estate partner Danny run their business, and the subjugation of Danny’s girl Helen (Rosamund Pike) doesn’t look too enviable.
This sets up “An Education” with two problems. It feels familiar. The slow peeling of David’s layers isn’t all that fresh. I mean, “Valentine’s Day” just had a guy-who-isn’t-who-she-thinks-he-is plotline. And number two, it isn’t all that entertaining to watch a young girl get mistreated. The bright spot is out-of-nowhere Carey Mulligan as Jenny. We see the transformation from girl to woman all over her and she carries the movie with a contagious energy and likeability. She made me care for Jenny more than I would have if, oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus played her and this was another American translation of Hornby’s work (matter of time, people).
David and Jenny’s relationship starts out very innocently, and it’s up to David to woo Jenny’s parents to allow her to participate in his artsy outings. This makes for the best scenes in the film. Jenny’s parents are protective (and should be) and a bit conservative, so David has to turn on the charm to pry Jenny out to a concert or even a trip to Paris. The dialogue is hilarious as David works Jenny’s folks, the kind of Hornby dialogue I hoped for more of having loved “About a Boy”. Another great bit of casting is the great Alfred Molina as Jenny’s dad. His resolved dad/mushy interior is played sublimely.
When David and Jenny’s relationship turns sexual, there’s the usual accompanying feeling that comes with a sixteen-year-old girl getting boffed by an older guy – IT’S CREEPY. I didn’t like David much earlier than perhaps the movie wanted me to.
So there you go. If you like statutory rape and the mistreatment of women, go see “An Education”. There’s no doubt Jenny “grew” and “learned something” in her time with David, but perhaps not for her betterment, or ours.
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Release Date: October 8, 2009
Run Time: 95 Minutes
Distributor: BBC Films
Review by Joel Frost
Mike Judge, the writer and director of “Extract”, got his start with a little cartoon called Beavis and Butthead. A trademark bit from that show, about two adolescent idiots who often watch MTV and criticize what they see on it, showed Butthead choking horribly, likely to die, while Beavis is completely unaware of his companion’s plight. It goes on and on, with Beavis continuing in various mundane activities while Butthead is in mortal distress. The message? Don’t rely on the idiots around you for anything. People are selfish and blissfully unaware and probably don’t give a rat’s ass about you when you really need help. It’s a hilariously poignant moment in a show that has a firm spot in the recent history of TV culture. Beavis and Butthead was at times transcendent and often richer with dark humor and metaphor than its audience likely understood. It was cultural commentary in the guise of a dumb cartoon, fodder for the buttheads of the real world to chuckle at while they participated in the same general activity that the two were known for: staring at MTV and criticizing it.
Lately, moviegoers have been seeing a lot of a particular type of exploration: the fear that a man feels at his own advancing age and all that comes with it. Fear of responsibility. Fear of loss of sexual prowess. Fear of a lack of the kind of freedom that the man used to have, or never actually had but feels he ought to have had. From “Old School” to “The Hangover” (perhaps the best two recent comedic examples), there have been plenty of examinations of the conundrum.
Extract shows the owner of a small company that sells various flavored extracts, Joel, in this similar predicament. His company is doing well, and soon he may make a fortune by selling it to General Mills. He used to be a bartender, and he’s clearly grown up past his friend Dean (Ben Affleck, boring as usual) into a world of mundane responsibility. His wife Suzie (Kristin Wiig, whose great comedic talent is woefully under-exploited here) seems to him to have lost interest in sex. Will Joel head to Vegas? Will he start a fraternity?
Before he gets to either of those possibilities, Mila Kunis shows up as Cindy, the hottest con-woman in town. Soon, Joel is faced with the American everyman’s dilemma du jour: To bone the hot chick that seems to be interested in me, or stay responsible and faithful to my seemingly disinterested wife. Dean suggests a wild scheme involving a male gigolo, and we’re off to the races.
But Judge doesn’t get off to the races, and here’s why: the dark, caustic wit and commentary of his Beavis and Butthead youth has morphed into a very recognizable and mundane version of itself. Judge seems no longer to believe that his mission as a cultural critic has to stay independent of an apparent desire for normalcy. He’s an idealist it seems, moreso than a cynic, and he genuinely seems to believe that nice guys finish first, even in the crazy mixed-up world of “Extract”.
It’s disorienting, and there’s an element of bait-and-switch. Mike Judge has, from Beavis and Butthead to “Office Space” to “Idiocracy” and now with “Extract”, created a world that is built on his own keen eye for social satire, where dumb and absurd are the rulers. More and more in his work though, we find that the hero “wins” by being a “good person”. Call it a question of taste but for my money, in the worlds he creates, those guys just wouldn’t win in the ways he lets them. Judge seems convinced, or at least he’s trying to convince himself and us, that there’s a happy ending if you play it straight and don’t get side-tracked by money, hot grifters, or drugs. That all may be true sometimes, that all may be true in some movies, but his own satirical style is at direct odds with that angle.
Joel is rescued as the rescuer. He is liberated from the crazy world around him by learning Mike Judge’s rule: be a nice guy. It’s quaint. It undercuts Judge’s satirical ability. “Idiocracy” needed another re-write or two and a larger budget. “Office Space” was almost perfect, but had hints of what cripples “Extract”; insane hilarity is eventually conquered by real-world good old-fashioned values.
“Extract”’s script is a bit plodding. The film is, therefore, as well. The best jokes (Mike Judge in a cameo as a savant plant-worker, showing up at just the right moment for the story’s needs? Fantastic.) are breezed over. Judge keeps pointing the audience in one direction… what seems to be a dark examination and critique of the consequences of craziness in a crazy world… but he loves his lead characters too much. He feels their pain. He won’t let them suffer for long. Extract suffers for it.
Mike Judge is at his funniest and most searing when he leaves his buttheads choking, not when he gives his characters CPR.
Directed by: Mike Judge
Release Date: September 4, 2009
Run Time: 92 Minutes
Distributor: 3 Arts Entertainment
IS THIS POSTER SELLING iPODS,
COCA-COLA, OR “AMERICAN IDOL”?
Review by Karen Volpe
Okay, I didn’t hate it. I know, I know, I might be the only one. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling nostalgic these days or maybe it’s because it’s my time of the month, but there was something about “Fame” that won me over. It was based in the life of “real” artists, it echoed some of my own experiences and it had heart. Or maybe I just really liked the teachers.
Sure, it was overloaded with performing arts movie cliché’s: parents who don’t understand, a student that attempts suicide, teachers who are tough as nails, and the obligatory big musical number in the lunchroom, but between those moments were real acting techniques and serious lessons about the life of a performing artist.
The movie was a series of scenes that followed students from Freshman auditions until Senior year. This device both helped and hurt the movie. It helped by giving us an idea of the students progression through the four years, but it also hurt by reminding us just how much of the movie was left when things got slow. And by slow I mean long, mediocre performance numbers filled with too much dancing and bad original music. Don’t even get me started about the graduation finale. Really, that’s the best they could do?
I appreciated its attempt to respect the arts and not be about the superficial aspects of fame. In an homage to the original movie, the great Debbie Allen delivered an in-your-face speech about fame and what it means to be a performing artist. She nailed it. I especially liked the line “we don’t care about your head shot or your dress size or your dreams of being in OK magazine,” Nice. Maybe they should have added more Debbie Allen and less poppin’ and lockin’.
For years I have been saying that it doesn’t matter how well you sing if you’re don’t know what you’re singing about. There was a scene about that in the movie. Yeah! Also, I felt for the teachers who themselves were once the hopeful artists and eventually things didn’t work out and life lead them down a different road. They had strength and true love for what they were doing.
So, overall, this was not an awful movie. In this get-rich-quick, the-prettiest-girl-wins entertainment industry we are currently in, it has a true respect for the performing arts you hardly see anymore.
You know, maybe “Fame” should be required viewing for all “American Idol” contestants. It couldn’t hurt.
Directed by: Kevin Tancharoen
Release Date: September 25, 2009
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Distributor: United Artists
EAT IT UP
Review by Mark Tucci
The most interesting element of “Food, Inc,” the new documentary from director Robert Kenner featuring novelists and food activists Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, is how it manages to be about so much more than just food.
Being a vegetarian for over 14 years now and married to a nutritionist, I was an shoo-in to see this movie. Having read Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, “Fast Food Nation” as well as Pollan’s “Ominivore’s Dilema”, upon which this film was loosely based, I would probably be considered the prime viewing audience for this movie and the “choir” to which it would preach. Indeed, upon leaving the theater, my wife turned to me and said, “That was excellent. Everyone should see this, but I’m afraid it will end up just preaching to the choir.” If there is a flaw in this film, it would be the fact that it’s likely to draw only people like me, or similar socially-conscious individuals who may already have a fundamental interest in where their food comes from.
Speaking to several of my friends regarding the movie and the importance of it, I was often responded to with, “Yeah, well – I already saw “Super-size Me” or “Who cares – everything in moderation!”, or other excuses relating to the feelings of guilt they would likely endure while being preached to.
But this is far from the case, and the sad fact is that the simple, willful ignorance from those who could not be bothered to see a film like this is ultimately the core issue of this movie.
Years ago, there was a great documentary series on the Discovery Channel called “Connections”. James Burke, the creator and host of the show, spent each episode demonstrating the unique links between various inventions and discoveries, and how quite often the simplest thing snowballed into unimaginable results. The lessons behind “Food, Inc.” and the tapestry that it weaves demonstrates just how involved and complex our industrial food machine really is. And yes, it is a machine.
The film draws connecting lines between the food industry and everything from big oil to the freedom of speech. As mentioned earlier, it ends up being about so much more than food. The ultimate realization is that virtually every major social and economic dilemma we’re facing today has ties to the complexities of the agricultural and food industry. Poverty, obesity, energy consumption, global warming, the spread of disease, the resistance to antibiotics, corporate corruption, government corruption, censorship, globalization, healthcare, and yes, hunger – all have their ties to how and what we eat.
It’s frightening to see these connections played out so clearly before you throughout the film, yet it does not come across as being heavy-handed or preachy. The movie has no narrative structure, no central Michael Moore-type figure that takes you through the film. Rather, it merely does an excellent job of presenting the various components that make up the complex mess of our food production industry. Schlosser and Pollan make appearances throughout the film to help bridge these pieces together and connect the dots, as do a number of other recurring characters, each with his/her own ties to the industrial food complex.
While the movie does a good job of laying out the problems, the one area that it does lack in is offering up solutions. This portion of the film is the shortest section, and while it does offer some suggestions that would give hope for turning things around, it ultimately resides in putting the onus on us to take further action. As often is the case with documentaries lately, it encourages the audience to get involved through the film’s website. Understandable, and hopefully the film’s message is powerful enough to motivate people to do so, but when faced with the onslaught of the summer movie season, it’s easy for a film like this to get lost and overlooked. WIth some luck there will be an outlet for this that goes beyond the big screen – something that will get it in front of more people, because from where I sit, the biggest hurdle we have to overcome in dealing with the issues that this film raises is educating the masses about this spiraling and self-destructive cycle we’ve managed to get ourselves into. Seeing this film would certainly help that.
LAST COMIC STANDING
Review by Paul Preston
To enjoy Judd Apatow’s latest film, you kind of have to be a fan of ApatowLand. For example, I LOVE Coen-BrothersLand. You know what you’re getting when you enter their world – originality, eccentricity and, regardless of the story, they will totally NAIL the tone. In ApatowLand, you know what you’re going to get – wise-asses, insane profanity, bromance and shallow behavior. I LOVE THAT! I’m a little late getting to the “Funny People” table, which opened July 31st, and there’s been much talk about the movie as “Apatow’s James L. Brooks movie” and “his attempt at drama”. Fear not, the feel of an Apatow comedy is thoroughly in place, even though he’s taken on deeper themes than usual.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, an eternally selfish and mean stand-up comic in L.A. who learns he has a deadly blood disease. While he undergoes an experimental Canadian medicine, he plots a return to stand-up (after years in apparently lousy, but successful films). He employs the services of young, naïve comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to help him write jokes and do all sorts of other, demeaning services. I know Judd Apatow came to prominence in the L.A. comedy scene, and he’s brought authenticity to locations, players and attitudes in the live comedy game. At times I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be watching these personal recounts. Most of the cameos are entertaining, too, especially a who’d-have-thought appearance by Eminem.
A common oversight by moviegoers nowadays is to mistake Judd Apatow-directed movies for Judd Apatow produced movies or movies that were made attempting his style. There’s a big difference. And the difference usually shows itself here:
– An Apatow-directed film will have an underlying sweetness or vulnerability that makes me care about the characters, warts and all. Films he produces often go straight for laughs, bypassing the story elements that really draw us in (see “Step Brothers” or “Walk Hard”)
– An Apatow-produced film just isn’t as funny as one he produces AND directs. He’s a good director! (see “Year One” or “Drillbit Taylor”)
– Films not directed by Judd often force the emotion into the scene. Romantic montages seemed out of place and awkward in movies like the over-rated “Wedding Crashers” and films like “I Love You Man” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” try too hard to build relationships that Judd Apatow has made look easy. One movie that handled the romance skillfully was “Adventureland”….too bad it wasn’t crazy funny.
That being said, I was concerned that Apatow would abandon everything he’s used to make a successful formula up to now and turn “Funny people” into something too earnest, too (gasp) emotional.
“Funny People” thankfully avoids overdoses of sentimentality. Every moment that seems like it could be an unnatural, forced turn of schmaltz is undercut by great, comic dialogue. Even a climactic fight scene plays out with a level of truth because the characters are lumbering and inept, as I would expect comics to be when asked to ramp up the machismo.
Eric Bana provides the machismo as the new husband of one of Sandler’s exes. He’s got one of my favorite scenes, providing f-word-laced commentary to an Australian Rules Football game. Sandler’s ex is played by the more-stunning-with-age Leslie Mann, following up on what I thought should’ve been an Oscar-nominated turn in “Knocked Up” with another conflicted late-thirties adult dealing with ghosts of the past and a conflicted marriage of the present. She deftly takes on a lot of the emotional weight of the plot, which wisely leaves the gags up to Rogen and Co. I was relieved to see Sandler’s character be unrepentantly callous. It’d be easy to give George Simmons the “Regarding Henry” treatment, but it’s more complicated (and therefore, more satisfying) to go the route Apatow took. I live in L.A. There are plenty of pricks out here like George Simmons. I know he borders on over-saturation (he did appear in 11 films in the last two years), but the best thing about this movie is Seth Rogen. He has an expert comic delivery in every one of Apatow’s films and it’s wonderfully on display here. This brings up the final note I’ll make about the acting – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Judd Apatow has what people are calling a “gang” at this point, and he succeeds when he keeps it in the family. Mann (Apatow’s wife), Jonah Hill, Rogen, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long (in a cameo) have been in Apatow projects before, and they work well here.
Don’t mistake “Funny People” for a hilarious movie, even “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” were funny more for the relationships and the way people talked than for any huge comedy moments. Same here, there are no big laughs, but I could’ve listened to the dialogue for another hour.
The flaws, then? The narrative gets a little wonky as the true nature of dying comic George Simmons is tested while re-visiting past relationships. Apatow’s previous films were essentially showing the rocky path on the road to romance. In tackling something bigger here, the storyline does stray here and there. When I saw “Evan Almighty” many moons ago, there was a scene early on where newly-elected-to-Congress Evan is settling into his new D.C. home. There’s an establishing shot of his children in the living room before Evan enters the scene. It’s an innocuous five seconds of set-up. But fellow Movie Guy Adam Witt wisely noted that Judd Apatow would’ve used those five seconds to allow something funny to happen. That’s what makes Apatow great.
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Release Date: July 31, 2009
Run Time: 146 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
RATED “M” FOR MINDLESS
For the average moviegoer: **
For anyone with a lot of testosterone and a few drinks in them: ***1/2
Review by Justin Bowler
Is every film worthy of critical dissection? ABSOLUTELY NOT!
Is every film out there worthy of the critical dissection of “A Clockwork Orange” or “Pulp Fiction”? No. So, let’s not pretend “Gamer” is on the same level (the previews clearly show it isn’t), and judge it for what it is… Action, Bullets and Boobs densely decorated throughout an almost slightly plausible story (I repeat, slightly plausible). In short, it is a video game.
Most other reviews will tell you how terrible this film is. The plot is unrealistic, the action is overwhelming, and the photography/editing is assaulting. However, I’d be really surprised if anyone who goes to see this movie is expecting anything different. Brought to you by the team behind “Crank” and “Crank 2”, “Gamer” is simply another member of that over stimulating family.
The film is set “Some years from this EXACT moment.” (No, they never explain the particulars of this phrase, and if you need it explained, then, already, you are expecting too much from this film and are probably not the target audience.) The entire world is desensitized to violence & pornography, and any gamer can play online games with real life avatars: no consequences for the gamers, but possible death for the people who play the avatars (They are convicts or out of work actors.) Gerard Butler is a wrongfully convicted death row inmate who is trying to get released so he can join his family. He will earn his freedom if he can survive 30 urban battles as an avatar. That’s the set up. But, believe it or not, there actually is a tiny bit more of story, so don’t feel like the preview gives all of the plot points away (just most of them). (Actually, the trailer gives the target audience all it needs to know in order to arouse desire in the film: neat premise, fast action, and rated “R” for nudity/violence.) Basically, the movie’s script and style mimic a video game. Action sequences are followed by a bit or story which are followed by a bit more action and even less story. But, not to worry, you will never be confused between which is which. The action sequences are full of quick edits, loud music, bullets and explosions, while the story sequences are full of quick edits, loud music, bullets and boobs. (That is exactly what every gamer wants, who plays “M” rated video games.)
The bottom line… Is it a good movie? NO. Is it well thought out? NO.
However, if you are ready for some purely mindless action and nudity a la the “Crank” films, then, go have a few beers, pump up your testosterone, take out your frontal lobe, and enjoy this fodder for what it is. NO CRITIQUE NECESSARY.
For the rest of the world… Skip it and go play the latest Halo game instead.
For adults: **
For teenage boys: *****
Review by Kathy Bugajsky
If I were a teenage boy, this movie would be awesomesauce. It has all the things a teenage boy needs: explosions, video games, virtual reality, half naked girls, cameos and a strange out of place musical number by the guy who plays Dexter.
“Gamer” is about a future world where you can control another living person in one of two different environments designed by an odd genius. One is an adult playground where you can do anything, and the other is controlling death row inmates through a virtual game war zone. The death row inmates can earn their freedom if they survive enough games. The movie centers around one guy played by Gerard Butler, who is only a few games away from his freedom, but the creator of these virtual worlds doesn’t want him to survive.
If you are not a teenage boy, then the movie is just okay. The plot line is interesting, but over the top. There are quite a few plot holes with an ending that is both unsatisfying and unrealistic even in a virtual world. And did I mention the strange musical number? There are also odd cameos from random television shows like USA’s “Psych” and NBC’s “Heroes.” Overall, it’s watchable, but missable at the same time.
I’d give it 2 out of 4 stars if you aren’t a teen boy and 5 out of 4 stars if you are.
Directed by: Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor
Release Date: September 4, 2009
Run Time: 95 Minutes
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Review by David Beach
Well, I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised. Against better judgement, I recently sat thru “GI JOE- The Rise of COBRA”. I had heard nothing but bad things. ( Well, not entirely true. The usher at the theatre said he liked it. But, I do believe he was the only one I had heard say so.)
What can one say about a movie based solely on a toy-line and cartoon? Within minutes, during the opening credits, you are reminded not once, but twice, that this is a product of Hasbro. So, since you won’t be needing it for the viewing, you can conveniently place your brain inside your official GI Joe footlocker (which I clearly remember playing with as a youth) . This movie is simply a “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl discovers weapons grade nano-technology and plans to help destroy the world” summer good-time movie.
Steven Sommers is the director. He is no stranger to action and that pretty much sums up this cinematic masterpiece. It’s a fast paced and heavily CGI’d cotton candy romp. Sommers is responsible for several MUMMY movies which could well explain an uncredited cameo appearance of Brendan Fraser as Sergeant Stone. One wonders if he is uncredited as a favor to Sommers, or perhaps out of fear of how bad this flick could be. But all in all, if you settle in and enjoy the ride, it’s not the worst movie I have seen.
Credibility ? Not even close. Chase scenes that are ridiculous and campy. Dialogue that is painfully stilted and comedy that seems out of place. A plot line that pretty much revolves around the simple “Pinky and the Brain” mindset of planning to take over the world. But leaps of deduction and the strange ability to know the enemies plan and the construct of weapons, base, and technology keep you well inside the realm of willing suspension of disbelief. However, this isn’t my childhood JOE. There is as disturbing a twist to the JOE universe as the loss of Mr Phelps as the leader of the IMF force. Baroness ? Really ? An ex-fiancee of Duke? Ana? (Baroness never had her real name revealed in the cartoon world ). Also missing is the comfort of seeing parachutes from each crashing plane or two cobra soldiers running from each destroyed vehicle. There is violence and even death. The violence is at least in typical GI JOE form, incredible tame, with little blood and even the possibility of nano-life resurrection. But there is blood
and even the gratuitous death scenes. The French lose the Eiffel Tower, but let’s face it, if it weren’t for the Joes, France would have lost a lot more many times over, movie world or otherwise.
There are also plenty of vehicles and weaponry to ensure at least a brief resurgence of the GI JOE line of toys, though, one must assume with the simplicity of the movie, that was their only target market. The movie only revolves around seven or eight characters of the GI JOE universe. Each character given a chance to suddenly suffer a flash back with a wistful look or slight upward tilt of their head. This leaves one to wonder just how many sequels are planned. The numbers at the box office seem to support the possibility and I know with all the snow and water in this movie I was surprised that my favorite JOES: Ship-wreck and Polly, Frostbite, Snow Job, even Torpedo and Iceberg were missing. But, I suppose you cant just throw all the Joes into one movie and expect it to make coherent sense. Will they be in future films ? Perhaps they did what they could. They also
left out of the movie any need for real acting. I mean, cmon, it’s a cartoon world. Would I recommend it ? Well, Im sure some of the fun will be lost on DVD small screens, but, since even the GI Joe toys shrank in size in my life time, why not take the movie and shrink it down too? Out of five ? Ill give it a two. Yup, a two. Now you know, and remember, knowing is half the battle. YOOOOO.
Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Release Date: August 7, 2009
Run Time: 118 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS…IS HILARIOUS
Review by Paul Preston
The majority of the last decade of film comedy has given us “American Pie” rip-offs and Judd Apatow rip-offs, so it’s refreshing to see Todd Phillips return to a situational comedy with great relationships and great dialogue. “The Hangover” is a hard R rating, but I was never overwhelmed with that all-we-have-for-you-is-gross-out-material feeling that other, more desperate films resort to. The confidence of the acting and direction in “The Hangover” is easy to tag along with, and the ride is worth it. The story doesn’t seem like anything new – four guys go to Vegas for a bachelor party and things go horribly, horribly wrong. The quartet wakes up the morning after to find they can’t remember what happened and the state of their hotel room is chaotic.
The biggest enjoyment of this film is watching reveal after reveal as the guys discover just what mayhem their night consisted of. And the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper as the plot unfolds, and the movie gets funnier and funnier. This film is a great starring vehicle for perennial supporting actor Bradley Cooper, whose turns in “Wedding Crashers” and “Failure to Launch” first got him noticed in the movies. The other main members of the crew are Ed Helms (SO funny on “The Office”) and Zach Galifinakis, (funny in comic circles for years, finally getting his due in a big movie). It’s a great casting turn to use these guys ‘cause the scenes don’t get dominated by the routine antics you’d expect from someone like Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and even Seth Rogen, to a point. Every lead guy in this film is a wild card, and that’s a huge asset to the movie.
“Bromance” seems to be the theme to many of today’s comedies, and despite a male-centric story, “The Hangover” avoids lapsing into forced sentimentality and as a result finds more time for more laughs. Especially hilarious is the security cam footage from Mike Tyson’s house and a visit to the wedding chapel where a particularly drunken event occurred the night before. The Mike Tyson cameo is hit and miss. It seems like the filmmakers wanted to exploit his eccentricity, having him sing along with a Phil Collins song, but he works best as a straight man to the madness of the party-goers.
Maybe Tyson should’ve been more imposing, ‘cause if I had one storyline issue, it was the lack of really threatening characters that would add a whole new level to the mystery of what happened the night before. Two police officers question the boys, but their relationship soon devolves into SNL-type characters and the guy’s first run-in with Asian gangsters is hilarious in that what-have-they-gotten-themselves-into kind of way, but it’s disappointing to learn that their boss (despite a hilarious entrance) is more cartoonish than intimidating. Watching our heroes squirm out from under a more ominous gangster might’ve been a more compelling choice.
Those are minor issues with an otherwise funnier-than-hell movie that has dialogue I wish I spoke and characters I wish I knew….for one night.
I’m curious what women think of the result of all the debauchery in “The Hangover”. In the end, the guys get away with EVERYTHING! They don’t get scolded for their actions, the one stripper they meet has a heart of gold, the “bitch” of the story gets tossed to the curb, they make the wedding, everything seems to go right. For me, a guy, watching this, it’s a cathartic tale of scruffy heroism. But what does a female think? Should the boys have ANY comeuppance?
SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRITS
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Review by Joan Afton
Harry Potter! Harry Potter!!
We, the embarrassingly-avid adult readers of the books, tend to approach the advent of the latest film with a mixture of excitement and trepidation: will the effects be cool? Which famous British actors will they round up? Which important plot points and characters will be conflated or ignored, this time?
Upon seeing the latest Harry Potter flick, the answers, for this geek (who had the UK versions of the books mailed to her so as not to be tainted by lame Scholastic Americanisms, this is how deep runs her geekiness) were: 1) yes, 2) yay, Jim Broadbent! and 3) too many to recount without creating a massive spoiler-foo-review.
A little distance from the book experience helps; a few years since putting the book down minimizes thoughts of “this didn’t happen here” or “that’s not what she is supposed to look like.” Instead, let go of most of those quibbles and be swept up in the gorgeous cinematography. This sixth of the seventh books in the series is the first to show scenes in the larger muggle world without Harry’s presence in it, and the movie responds by opening up in a way we had not seen before. Bruno Delbonnel, new to the series, brings a new, austere and grey look to both the muggle and wizarding worlds, elegantly reflecting the feeling of encroaching doom. His touch makes a departure from the previous films, which were either more lush or cartoonish in their visual style.
Some balance to the visual grimness is provided by the elements of humor and romance, but it is tricky to maintain such abrupt changes in tone over the course of a whole film, so the overall pacing suffers. A lot of little moments of laughter and reactions to comic bits are stretched, which instead of adding lightness, often merely slow things to a halt.
But on the whole, for the fans of the movies and the books alike, there is plenty to like here: the young actors are their usual charming and diffident selves, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and fully-wackadoo Helena Bonham Carter continue their effortless brilliance, and the wizarding world, from Inferi to Quiddich to cocktail parties, are all beautifully and ingeniously realized.
Certainly, Half-Blood Prince offered specific challenges. Turning the 607-page hardback (UK edition!) book into even a 153-minute movie would be bound to leave some purists disappointed. In the cause of keeping up the pace and keeping Harry to the forefront, it may be defensible that much of the book’s exposition and subplots have been so boldly streamlined. Changing the climactic scenes, though, and in very fundamental ways [has anyone who is planning to see this movie not seen it yet? Really? Just in case, vagueness to avoid spoilers here], finally broke me out of the suspension-of-comparison I had maintained until then. And this is not mere book-snobbery: to my friend who saw it with me, who hasn’t read the books but has seen all the previous movies, the ending felt kind of anti-climactic and rushed, “which is kind of weird, isn’t it, when we’ve been there three hours?”
Rumor is, the final book (interestingly, also 607 pages) is going to be divided into two movies, so perhaps the pacing issues will be solved. Bill Nighy! Rhys Ifans! And how will they handle the Horcruxes?
I can hardly wait.
Directed by: David Yates
Release Date: July 15, 2009
Run Time: 153 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Review by Mark Tucci
Would you perform gay sex with your best friend in the name of art and the chance to win top honors at an amateur porn festival? This question sums up the underlying theme of writer/director Lynn Shelton’s indie film, Humpday.
While it’s easy to read that summation and dismiss the film as another in a long line of raunchy buddy comedies, Humpday breaks itself apart from the recent spate of Apatow-inspired “bromance” movies and offers audiences something much more thoughtful and inspired.
The two friends in this film, Ben and Andrew (played impeccably by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) reunite after a decade apart. They both have led very different lives, yet each seems to envy the other in an unspoken kind of way. Ben admires Andrew’s free spirit and worldly experiences, while Andrew appreciates Ben’s success and his traditional comforts of home and family.
What starts out as little more than a drunken dare at a party, results in a very real and very honest portrayal of friendship, commitment and sexual exploration. But before you roll your eyes and write this movie off as some typical existentialist indie bore, please understand that all of this is achieved through very hilarious means. Indeed, I felt this film was one of the funniest I’ve seen this summer.
Many people have been calling Lynn Shelton the female version of Judd Apatow. Leave it to a woman writer/director to create the quintessential male buddy film. Humpday is a far more sophisticated and smart film than anything Apatow and company have put out recently, and it also happens that it’s outright hilarious. While there have been cringe-worthy moments of embarrassment between men in movies before, nothing quite stacks up to the moments shared between Ben and Andrew in this film, and it’s all done to hilarious effect.
Shelton has made known in several interviews that there was no set script for this movie. The cast simply reviewed the purposes of each scene before-hand, were given the scenarios and motivations as well as the outcomes, and were left on their own to improvise the dialogue. The end result, along with the intimate camera work, conveys a very real, almost voyeuristic style that is most effective. The entire exercise brings something really special to this film, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this technique used more often on other films.
Incidentally, as I was leaving the theater, I overheard a female patron talking with one of the ushers. She remarked at how wonderful the movie was but how skeptical some of her male friends were about seeing this film. Apparently this was “some gay movie” to which they were not the intended audience. Too bad for them, as it really couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Stepping back from the misconceptions in marketing, it’s easy for me to see how this could have been yet another Paul Rudd and Seth Rogan vehicle. Marketed to the Anchorman crowd, Hollywood would have ripped the soul out of it for more fart and puke jokes. It would have had a big opening weekend on the strength of it’s stars, followed by a 70% audience drop-off in week two once the next distraction opened. Thank goodness that wasn’t the case here. This film deserves better than that. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to pull in the same kind of money as a result, but that doesn’t make it a film less worth seeing.
As a smart comedy, this film manages to rise above the lowbrow laughs and gross-out humor to present a very poignant look at relationships, male bonding, and what true friendship is all about. Male or female, gay or straight, this movie is not one to miss if it should happen to grace a theater near you. Oh, and if you happen to be in Seattle this October, you can check out Humpfest – the real life amateur porn festival that’s the centerpiece for this movie. I have a feeling there may be a few Humpday-inspired submissions this year. Here’s hoping they’re just as funny and entertaining as this was.
Directed by: Lynn Shelton
Release Date: July 10, 2009
Run Time: 94 Minutes
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
WAR IS A DRUG
The Hurt Locker
Review by Paul Preston
“War is a drug” are words among the first to appear on screen in Kathryn Bigelow’s extraordinary new film, “The Hurt Locker”.
DRUG (n): An often illegal and sometimes addictive substance that causes changes in behavior and perception and is taken for the effects.
The main character in “The Hurt Locker”, Staff Sgt. William James, a bomb diffuser, enters the story after his team’s previous bomb specialist dies in action. Death in the line of duty doesn’t deter Sgt. James. War for him is addictive, and he participates for the effects (I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you think the war is “illegal”. Even the film shies away from political grandstanding).
“The Hurt Locker” is about Sgt. James and the team assigned to protect him and work alongside him as they scour Iraq for IEDs and other hidden explosives. Documentarian Ken Burns, in creating his recent series “The War”, mentioned once that a big difference he found between the World Wars of the early 20th century, and the current war in Iraq is the mission. In World War II, soldiers fought for the cause – fight off Japanese oppression, end Nazi occupation, etc. Today, in an era when the overall mission can be unclear, soldiers fight for the man or woman next to them on the front line. In the case of “The Hurt Locker”, that leads to a very complicated and sticky relationship.
Routinely under-heralded Anthony Mackie plays Sgt. Sanborn, head of the team that goes into the most dangerous zones of the war to uncover and diffuse bombs hidden in the ground, in the walls, in cars, nearly everywhere. Sanborn is counting the days until he leaves the desert, certainly a different mindset than war-addicted Sgt. James., yet it’s clear that he and Sgt. James would die for each other. That male bond is brought vividly to life by director Bigelow. She doesn’t employ tricky effects like David O. Russell did with his brilliant but different “Three Kings”, her direction is more drenched in reality, one I would never want real for me. Jeremy Renner plays Sgt. James with a fiery deliberateness, and he referred to Bigelow’s direction as that of “a voyeur”. This is a great asset to the film. The movie has top-notch production value, but never announces it. Instead, we get a very credible relationship drama about people under intense pressure.
The film was written by Mark Boal, who wrote the great and very underrated “In The Valley of Elah”, also about the Iraq War. That movie (and other Iraq-themed films) tanked, but I’m glad Boal remained undeterred and continued to write about the war. It’s paid off, as “The Hurt Locker” is a money-maker, and is destined for Academy Award consideration. An acting teacher of mine often praises work in class when the relationship is “complicated”. Too cut and dry, too easily-explained, and we’re bored. Boal nails the complicated world of an Iraq soldier, who balances grief, fear, anger and exhilaration on a daily basis. They make life and death choices for themselves and others over and over again. “The Hurt Locker” is the first film to really portray Iraq as the most dangerous place in the world. Nearly everyone these soldiers come across could be guilty of planting bombs. Is it because they hate Americans? Is it because they are tired of Americans in their country? Do our soldiers belong in harm’s way? Are they keeping peace? The end result…is complicated.
SPOILER TALK: How great is it to see Ralph Fiennes in the middle of all this? Then he gets offed. Same with Guy Pearce, as if to say, “Yeah, we’re an indie film. We don’t need no stinking movie stars!”.
The scenes near the end of the film are a true masterstroke for Boal and Bigelow. Sgt. James returns home and slides right back into cushy family duties like cleaning storm drains and shopping at a horribly bland grocery store bathed in bright light. I suppose we take those situations for granted as being safe and most likely we are happy to do them. Drumming out our little existence in our little corner of Earth is the goal of most people. But, damn, if “The Hurt Locker” didn’t make normal life seem DULL.
Review by Matt Todd
Just saw this on Friday, and I have to say with absolutely no hyperbole: Best Modern War Movie EVER! It was as close to representing an actual war as “Platoon” did with Vietnam and “Saving Private Ryan” did with WWII. Also, like “Platoon” especially, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were so smart not to make the troops’ actual enemies clear.
Yet again like “Platoon”, and unlike the ultimately disappointing Peter Berg Iraq movie “The Kingdom,” the script doesn’t judge the Iraq citizens, or the American soldiers in a positive or negative light. Bigelow and Boal just portray them as they are and let the viewers make their own decisions. It’s smart movies like this which don’t spoon feed a conscience to the audience that I fucking love! It’s atmosphere is also more realistic to what has actually transpired than any Iraq movie to date.
Speaking of which, but “In the Valley of Elah” benefited from great acting in Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, but the writing to that story – especially the symbolism at the end with the American flag, YUCK! – was pure SHITE! I still enjoyed it overall, but IMHO, it cannot be called great. “In the Valley of Elah” cannot hold “The Hurt Locker’s” jock strap! Just for the simple fact that Bigelow shot some of the most raw and gritty war footage ever captured on a camera. Nothing could have looked like the real thing more, unless it was a documentary. So much so that I felt like I was embedded with actual troops the way that Bigelow shot the footage without using any stabilizing tripods or the like. Shaky cam when used properly, like in “The Blair Witch Project,” can really create a realistic payoff.
What I do know is that Bigelow will finally get the respect she deserves from mainstream Hollywood (in fact, if this movie doesn’t get nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and all the tech awards – save Makeup and Costume – I may actually boycott the Oscars for the first time)! I would assume a lot of people know Bigelow from “Point Break”, if they know any movie she has done in her repertoire, but what about “Near Dark” and “Strange Days?” Two vastly greater movies than even “Point Break” which was good (love ya’ Swayze!).
“Near Dark” was amazing with its Western-Vampire-Biker Gang vibe and the diverse cast (3 of them having all appeared in “Aliens” a year before. It’s good to have a one-time loving relationship with James Cameron). And “Strange Days” had a great futuristic story with probably some of the best work I have ever scene from Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Tom Sizemore. Juliette Lewis in that film is what she has been ever since she started in “Cape Fear”: a lunatic! Granted, she has played the part well from “Cape Fear” to “Natural Born Killers” to “Strange Days,” but methinks, based on interviews I have heard with her, that art imitates life.
But I digress. “Near Dark” and “Strange Days” were the fucking bomb diggity and nobody ever talks about those films outside of circles like this website. It’s as if no one even remembers they were made or had the pleasure of seeing these gems in any form, Theatre, Video, or TV. I really hope that same act of ignorance mixed with indifference doesn’t hurt “The Hurt Locker” (pun intended, why not) when it comes awards time. I’M WARNING YOU ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES!!!
SPOILER TALK: Totally agree on the pleasant surprise of offing Pearce and Fiennes not soon after they are introduced. Haven’t seen that kind of daring choice so memorably since Wes Craven offed Drew Barrymore in the first scene of “Scream.” Also, how great was David Morse’s cameo? Another unexpected gem. His character could have starred in a completely different Iraq movie of his own and it would probably be just as entertaining.
By the way, in the scene where Sgt. James was in the supermarket, immediately I thought that it was a dream sequence. And when he was blankly staring at the cereal aisle, I thought at that moment, it was going to turn into a nightmare in which a bomb goes off and he wakes-up in some kind of cold sweat. It was of course, obvious that it wasn’t a dream sequence when in the very next scene, he’s cleaning the gutter and helping with dinner and talking to his baby son. In hindsight I am glad that Bigelow didn’t go the dream/nightmare route, avoiding an unnecessary cliche in a movie with no cliche’s whatsoever (Unless you count the combination “Lethal Weapon Character Cliche” concerning Sgt. James. In one of the earlier scenes, he goes from being a reckless Mel Gibson-as-Riggs type to saying in the very next scene – the one where he gets drunk with Eldridge and Sanborn – he actually says verbatim like Danny Glover-as-Murtaugh “I’m getting too old for this shit!”. But maybe that was a wink from Bigelow or Boal to the audience who loves movies like us. I’ll let you be the judge on that).
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Release Date: July 24, 2009
Run Time: 131 Minutes
Distributor: First Light Production
SPIES LIKE US
Review by Joel Frost
By now, stories of corporate chicanery and malfeasance are old hat to most cinema-goers. From Norma Rae to Erin Brockovich, the tale of one person standing up to his or her higher-ups in the name of what’s right has a firm place in our culture. Stories like this make us feel as though, when push comes to shove, one citizen can make a difference if he or she doesn’t back down against much greater odds and remains stalwartly honest.
Mark Whitacre, played with paunchy zeal by Matt Damon, is not one of these citizens. The Informant tells the true, slightly embellished story of a high-level executive in the corn-based food additive business who backs into the job of informant to the FBI. Whitacre is a liar, and therefore a very well respected executive at his company. Caught up in a messy scenario that is largely of his own invention, Whitacre spends most of the film trying very hard to foolhis bosses, the FBI agents he works closely with, and mostly, himself.
The film inhabits a place that director Stephen Soderbergh enjoys visiting… a world where moral ambiguity is standard, and truth and lies are obfuscated by the bottom line. You know, the real world. Treading a tightrope of keeping the story moving, he shows us the drab reality that an army of Norma Raes and Erin Brockoviches couldn’t possibly beat down. A glowing visual style and a peppy score by Marvin Hamlisch help the film along, but sometimes the farce comes across as a bit forced. The story, as Soderbergh seems aware, is not a triumphant one of a lone good man standing up for what is right. Rather, it’s the story of a deeply flawed individual who trips his way into a grey area between heroism and villainy. All of this is set in the ho-hum world of 1990’s corporate America. And it really happened. The film tries very hard to be a farce, but the story itself isn’t one.
And yet, it all kind of works. Matt Damon is excellent as the perennially-in-denial Whitacre. He carries the extra weight he put on for the role perfectly, and gives us the perennially-raised-eyebrows of a man saying, “I didn’t do it!” Perhaps you’re familiar with that look. Personally, I have no idea what it’s like.
Kurt Eichenwald’s book is adapted by Scott Z. Burns and they, along with Soderbergh, are quite aware that this is not a typical story of one man’s fight for what’s right. Mark Whitacre is no Mitchell McDeere, his hero from The Firm. That’s because Mitchell McDeere is a fictional character, and Mark Whitacre is cloyingly human. He fancies himself a hero. He tries to cover his own ass. He bumbles. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t sad.
The truth of the history that this film addresses is that the corn-additive business became a juggernaut in the 90’s. The mighty High-Fructose Corn Syrup and its cronies infiltrated our food supply with precision, making Mark Whitacre and his bosses a whole heck of a lot of scratch. It should come as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to the history of corporate corruption, whether through the prism of cinema or in plain reality, that Joe Consumer took a hit in the wallet and in the love-handles in the process. The Informant addresses this with a calm satire that some might call cynicism, or perhaps misinterpret as avoidance. Soderbergh, Eichenwald and Burns don’t beat us over the head with a point. After all, no one wound up in cement boots. The victims are you and I, and we’re still here, laughing in the theaters.
Mostly, there’s no clear hero. Mark Whitacre doesn’t fit the bill, so in this story, it hard to root for anyone. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are both very good as Whitacre’s FBI associates, but they make their own big mistake: they feel sorry for Whitacre. They recognize that he’s in over his head, as he tries to control his world. They can see he doesn’t realize how little control he has in the face of much larger, richer, more powerful forces.
We all can see it. It’s a familiar story, although not the one Mark Whitacre thought he was involved in. It’s the human condition set in modern-day United States of America. For every one fictional Mitch McDeere, for every one sensationalized Erin Brockovich, there are thousands more Mark Whitacres. Somehow, The Informant is a good film about the most common of things: not rising to the occasion.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Release Date: September 18, 2009
Run Time: 108 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.
TWO DIFFERING OPINIONS ON ‘INGLORIOUS BASTERDS’
Review by Joel Frost
THIS ARTICLE IS SPOILER-HEAVY
Quentin Tarantino has been in the business of making fairy tales for almost twenty years now. From “Reservoir Dogs” to “Kill Bill”, he’s done one particular thing very well over the years: taking cinematic fantasies and dragging them, kicking and bleeding, into the real world. There is nothing truly controversial in most of his films. Violence? Sure. Sex? Some. But the brazen irreverence that exploded from the mind of a man who isn’t confined by the rules of the movies he seems to adore has given viewers a stark and often quite delightful splattering of fresh takes on common stories. The Bank Heist Gone Wrong. The Getaway. The Avenging. The Consequences. His characters bleed, even as they trade whip-smart dialogue. He has taken liberties with our world, of course… directing the action as a comic book artist might. The palpable feeling that almost anything can happen next is what made “Pulp Fiction” truly brilliant. At one point in that film, Bruce Willis ducks into the nearest store to evade his pursuer and finds himself smack dab in the middle of the diabolically perverted world of its purveyor. Sweaty with anticipation, Willis’s new captors even spring a masked “Gimp” from out of a trunk in their basement, apparently to join in the impending sexual romp. It’s scary, hilarious, and delicious.
The problem with “Inglorious Basterds” is that we all know what happens next. Adolf Hitler and his extended family of Officers and Soldiers perpetrated one of the worst crimes in the history of humanity. They systematically exterminated around 8 million actual, real, living men, women and children. I’ll wager that any one of those folks would have loved to have been saved by the concerted, violent efforts of a gruff Tennessean with a history of moonshine-running and “Injun” blood (played without much subtlety, as I expect he was directed to, by Brad Pitt) and his Jewish soldiers. Heck, most of those 8 million human beings who were murdered wouldn’t likely have cared who it was that saved their lives in the nick of time, who it was that forced the downfall of the Third Reich, who it was that stopped the poison gas from finding its way into their lungs. They’d just have liked it to happen. It didn’t.
The film shows us a world where Brad Pitt’s down-home American everyman and his cohorts end World War 2, with the assistance of a particularly awful Nazi Officer (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz). Through a bit of coincidence, luck, brutality and oh yeah, planning, every Nazi who matters (with the exception of Heinrich Himmler, who was perhaps Hitler’s clearest successor, but who is never mentioned in the film) is placed in a theater in France to watch Joseph Goebbels’ latest Propaganda Extravaganza about a German soldier who has snipered his way into the heart of the Fuhrer, to the tune of 300 dead American GI’s. As it happens, the owner of the theater is a Jewish woman who managed to escape from/was spared by the aforementioned awful Nazi Officer a few years earlier. That event is told in the opening section of “Inglorious Basterds”, and is vintage Tarantino. Everything is a Mexican standoff to Tarantino. Shoot me and you die too, either now or later.
The scene involves a French Dairy farmer/harborer of Jewish neighbors who is visited by the awful Nazi Officer. As the Officer slowly explains to the farmer that he knows there must be Jews hiding in the farmer’s house, it is reminiscent of the great scene from “True Romance” (penned by Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott) between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. Hopper has no power in the situation in that scene, but still manages to get the upper hand, despite being killed by Walken (playing an awful Mafia Officer). In “Inglorious Basterds”, however, the farmer has no way of getting the upper hand, and the scene plays out as it must… with the Officer ordering his soldiers to kill the hiding Jews…. except for one young woman who makes a break for it. The Officer seems to have a clear shot at her, and there is a moment when it seems this opening scene will serve as a sad reminder of the utter hopelessness of those many, many people who died at the hands of the Third Reich.
But he does not shoot her. He lets her get away. For no apparent reason.
Okay. We’ll give Quentin that. He’s earned some trust with his audiences over the years. As it is with any good filmmaker, he has always tried very hard to be true to the story. There must be a reason, that he’ll no doubt reveal in some deft maneuver down the line.
But he does not. He lets it get away. For no apparent reason.
Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), the young escapee, is apparently only left to live so that she can somehow inherit a movie theater in France, be desired by the young sniper who Goebbels has made the film about, and eventually die at his hand. She is a deus ex machina. She should be dead, but here she is, stumbling into the revenge scenario of her dreams. She can kill all the important (sans Himmler) members of the Third Reich with one fell swoop in her very own theater, with the help of her lover and a whole lot of very flammable film stock. Where do Brad and his Nazi-killers come into this? Well, they’ve been stomping around behind enemy lines, scalping Nazis for a while. They are contacted to join a mission (explained by Mike Myers, looking and sounding like Austin Power’s stuffy old uncle) to blow up the same theater.
Bingo. Lots of explosives and fire. Hitler and everyone important around him (except Himmler) dies. The war is over. The Jews are avenged. It can’t possibly be that easy.
But in this world, it is. Without bothering with too many more details (Quentin doesn’t, so why should I), let’s just say that lots of people die in that deliciously Tarantino-esque orgiastic way. Blood. Fire. Explosions. The Jewish soldiers unload their machine guns on Hitler himself, and then go down in flames too. Pitt lives, of course, as does one of his buddies, the temp from The Office. Can’t kill that guy. He got paid more than scale.
Oh yeah, the awful Nazi Officer suddenly turns allegiances and collaborates with the Americans at the end of the film, which directly leads to the theater carnage and the end of the war. Why? Self-preservation, it seems. Who can say? During this section, we hear the disembodied voice of Harvey Keitel, obviously playing The Wolf, his wonderfully and absurdly human character from “Pulp Fiction”. Why? For kicks. In fact, there are a few bits of self-referential Tarantino-esque bits in this Tarantino film. A Sam Jackson voice-over. Some brief character exposition pieces, shown as comic book asides. You know, Tarantino-style. Quentin’s really good at doing Quentin. We get it.
Tarantino has sometimes been referred to as brilliant, and for good reason. He’s sometimes been referred to as obscene, but up to this point, anyone who’s said that of his work had little ground to stand on. He has never been truly obscene. He’s been brazen. He’s been bold. He’s been absurd and ridiculous. He’s rolled around in the entrails of his characters. It’s been a gorgeously bloody body of work.
“Inglorious Basterds” is obscene. Not because he goes too far with any of that typical fare. Carve swastikas with your hunting knife into the heads of Nazis all you like, Quent. Bash their heads in with baseball bats. Shoot them in the balls. Whatever. If it makes the story work, or at least doesn’t work to the story’s detriment, go nuts. We’ve got strong stomachs these days. We’re desensitized. We know it’s not real. Have a blast.
But a story about Hitler and the Nazis that alters the history of those monsters is just simply obscene. Quentin Tarantino knows how to shock. Quentin Tarantino knows how to surprise. What he has shown with “Inglorious Basterds” is that he does not know how to really scare. There is nothing more frightening than the real horror that human beings can enact on each other, so obviously depicted by the real and actual history of the Third Reich. The film feels like a comic book version of a history that is worse than anything that can be witnessed on a movie screen. Is it fun? Sure, at times. Is it well acted? Absolutely, almost across the board. Is it irresponsible? Utterly so.
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL
Review by Paul Preston
Quentin Tarantino DARES you to like his new movie, to the point where he’ll trash any conventions he sets up, kill off any characters he wants, stray from a storyline for an eternity, cross-pollinate genres and styles and basically give the audience the ‘ol “Fuck you, I’m making MY movie, come along if you want, but I don’t need you.” Such searing macho bravado is annoying in the hands of other directors (this was pretty much Michael Bay’s stance making “Transformers 2” – “If I want a hot chick Transformer, I’m gonna do it, sensibility be damned!”). With Tarantino, I was IN early on, and stayed hooked for 153 minutes.
Tarantino mastered a dialogue style in “Pulp Fiction” that I find brilliant – the anticipation of violence. When Jules and Vincent start talking about European food, the dialogue is fun and engaging. When they stop and get guns out of the trunk, there’s obviously something more at work here then guys driving, talking about Le Big Mac. What they’re doing is, however, delayed and delayed for more banter. They talk about T.V. pilots, they talk about foot massages, they even get to the door where SOMETHING is going to go down, and they pause even further to “get into character”. The scene is fascinating, with whip-smart, funny dialogue, and it all feeds into the violent payoff like a symphony reaching its grand chorale. I say this is a Tarantino style, ‘cause he’s certainly employed it again (“Kill Bill, Vol. 2” – The Bride meets Bill and they talk and talk before ever getting down to business, but the talk is electric and soaked in history).
“Death Proof” had A LOT of talk, and, to me, wasn’t as effective because there was nothing underneath the chatter. It was just that, a lot of chatter for the sake of being hip. In “Inglourious Basterds”, Tarantino’s new World War II epic, the film opens with a “Once Upon a Time in the West”-style meeting between a Nazi officer known as The Jew Hunter and a French man accused of hiding Jews in his home. Right away, the gamesmanship displayed was masterful, both actors steadily at odds, and the sociable dialogue masking the tension and intention of its characters. To see Tarantino deliver an opening scene so solid, controlled and authoritative meant the “glourious” return of a director who I thought was delving into the excess pool a bit too often in his last few projects.
But then, just when you get a handle on the movie, he’ll do whatever he feels like doing again. “How’s about DIRK DIGGLER-esque on-screen text to introduce one of the characters? You like Sam Jackson? I got him, for no reason other than we’re friends. Has Mike Myers been in too many lousy movies lately? I’LL CHANGE THAT.” The balls on this guy! And yet, it’s conveyed with such audacity, it ends up wildly entertaining.
Think about the title of the movie: “Inglourious Basterds”, a group of Nazi-hunters in WWII. But we don’t meet them until after that brilliant opening scene. Then we get a taste of the Basterds, but QT has other stories to tell. We meet an escapee from the opening scene who now owns a movie theater, and the Nazi soldier who is smitten with her. We meet a British soldier who gets new orders to be part of Operation Kino, and we get to see the operation in full effect (and ANOTHER scene where we wait and wait for the violence as layer after layer of the tavern-goers gets peeled away in deliberate conversation). So, if we’re going to be sidetracked from Nazi scalp-hunting, Tarantino better bring the goods. This is where the film keeps our attention because the stories intertwine, and a true, can-they-pull-it-off narrative kicks in with an infusion of patented Tarantino energy.
Universally thought to steal the show in this movie is Christoph Waltz as Colonel Landa, The Jew Hunter. He does a great job of playing Nazi soldier as charmer, counterpunching with smarts. He is the real bastard. Tarantino gives him an interesting shift in paradigm near the end of the film that is bold and intriguing, but not wholly satisfying. Brad Pitt is good as Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds, often eliciting laughs from his no-nonsense approach to killing NAH-ZIS. Diane Kruger is good in the complicated role of actress Bridget von Hammersmark, an otherwise high-class citizen who finds herself ingrained in dangerous war scenarios. She also has the line of the movie: “Do you Americans speak any other language than English?”
Much has been made of the end of “Inglourious Basterds”, and I have to admit it was a little surprising, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility, given the way the film built to the end. Stops were pulled out, extremes were explored, so why not just GO FOR IT? But even in a pulse-pounding finale, there’s pause to be had watching Jews enact revenge on Nazis in a blood-soaked fashion similar to that employed by the Reich itself. The climax is a blazing, cinematic extravaganza, and when layered with thought-provoking imagery and haunting ghosts dancing in the smoky light of a movie projector, the result stays with you longer than a baseball bat to the head.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: August 21, 2009
Run Time: 153 Minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Company/Universal Pictures
The Invention of Lying
Review by Mark Tucci
The Invention of Lying is a high concept comedy written and directed by comedic juggernaut Ricky Gervais along with fellow first-time director Matthew Robinson. The movie shares the same category of romantic comedies sporting supernatural overtones such as Groundhog Day, Liar Liar, What Women Want, Bruce Almighty, Click, and even Gervais’ previous big screen outing, Ghost Town. With the rom-com genre being so overly saturated lately, these quirky twists that have carried many recent films have given rise to a whole new sub-genre of the category. Call it “Sci-Fi-Rom-Com” or whatever you like, but it seems that a lot of the best science fiction concepts are being used in comedies nowadays.
For those not familiar with this particular offering, the twist within “The Invention of Lying” is that no one in this parallel universe’s setting is capable of telling a lie. We know this to be the case because Gervasis’ character Mark tells us so in the opening voice-over narration.
In the opening scenes, Gervais and Robinson use this fact to show us just what our world would be like without the white lies, empty promises and outright mistruths we so often use as part of our everyday language with others. From being brutally honest in your opinion of others to disclosing sensitive and personal information in mixed company, there are many points through the early part of this film that not only make for good comedy, but also a clear example of just how much our life in this universe is wrought with subtle and willful deception.
Gervais’ character, Mark, is not that far removed from many of his other on-screen personas. It’s hard to say whether this detracts at all from the film or not, but I seemed to take an instant liking to this familiarity. I suppose it’s safe to say that anyone who is a fan of Gervais’s prior work probably won’t be disappointed here.
Gervais is joined on screen by co-star Jennifer Garner, who portrays Mark’s love interest, Anna. Garner dances through the role with willful aplomb, breathing fresh life into what could have been a boring and routine character by now. Louis C.K. plays Mark’s good friend Greg with Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Lowe and Tina Fey rounding out the cast. Beyond this core group of talented actors and comedians lies a host of other cameo appearances from the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John Hodgman, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, and even Shaun Williamson and Stephen Merchant of Extras and the British version of The Office.
The movie moves along briskly and does a good job of showing us just how miserable everyday life would be like with people being so honest about everything from their appearance to how they’re really feeling that morning. The turning point comes when, as the movie’s title suggests, Mark learns how to lie, and becomes the first (and only) person in this universe to do it. The implications of Mark’s actions and how it affects not only him, but everyone around him, unfolds throughout the remainder of the movie – and it’s here that the film has a chance to really examine human nature and the manipulation that goes on as a result of Mark’s ability. While it does try hard to do this, and even succeeds somewhat, it never seems to be able to break the stringent mold of the Hollywood formula that’s holding it back.
Masked in the comedy set pieces and the cliched stereotypes of every other romantic comedy film, there’s a not-so-subtle sub plot that stems from Mark’s desire to ease his dying mother’s suffering. The ripple effect of this, while played out to strong comedic effect (and maybe even offensively so to some) never truly takes root or gets resolved by the end of the film. The film draws some very interesting lines of comparison (what happens in a world where people believe everything you say?), but the problem is that it never goes all the way in any direction. We’re given a few scenes that (in this reality at least) should have lead to much more world-changing events, yet just as the film seems to start heading toward new ground, it gets jerked back to its romantic comedy storyline of boy meets girl, boy loses girl…you know the rest.
As with most conventional romantic comedies that adhere to traditional formula, there’s often story contrivances and plot holes present in order for us to arrive at the inevitable outcome. I would have loved to see “The Invention of Lying” break this mold and go elsewhere, but in the grand scheme of things, it remains what it is – a light-hearted comedy in the broadest sense. As such, it held my interest and there are good laughs to be had throughout, but it won’t rank up there with the likes of other more polished comedic fare. Its supernatural element is above average, but unfortunately the film never quite reaches the level of sophistication as the earlier mentioned “Groundhog Day”, nor fortunately does it overdo things like the emotionally heavy-handed “Click”; however, that doesn’t mean this film has nothing interesting to say.
Though sporting a cool concept and showing us hints of greatness, “The Invention of Lying” winds up being merely average, and that’s the unfortunate simple truth.
Directed by: Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Run Time: 99 Minutes
Distributor: Lin Pictures
RUGBY HAS A WORLD CUP?
Review by Paul Preston
Can Clint Eastwood make a movie any more without getting an Oscar nomination of some kind? In “Invictus”, Morgan Freeman was nominated for playing Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon was nominated for playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team. If you had to nominate anything in “Invictus”, Freeman and Damon are the movie’s best assets in an otherwise routine sports movie.
It’s interesting that “Invictus” is the Nelson Mandela movie that got made. For a decade or so now, it’s been rumored that Freeman should play Mandela. And given Mandela’s prison sentence and his rise to lead the country that imprisoned him, there had to be scripts out there that reflected Mandela’s story as a great epic movie. Yet, this Mandela story is about his first year in office, and one of his goals to unite a country still in the shadow of apartheid – winning the Rugby World Cup.
The challenges are abundant. The people are conflicted, even Mandela’s security force is compromised of black and white men who have trouble working together. Mandela’s personal appearances don’t always lead to cheers from the crowd, and rugby is a mostly white man’s sport, with mostly white players and Mandela wants to rally the country behind them. Mandela won’t even change the long-standing name of the rugby team, The Springboks, which Mandela himself once called the team of ‘white South Africa’, because he wants to integrate ideals without disregarding the country’s history, and make The Springboks the team of ALL South Africa. I have to admit I’m reminded of Obama’s desire to ‘reach across the aisle’, and Barack could use a little bit of Mandela’s resolve.
Another big challenge is the underdog South African team taking on the dominant New Zealand team, who in playoff games, had crushed their opponents by a high double-digit margin every game. In order to motivate and train the team to compete, Mandela enlists the support of Afrikaner Pienaar. Their relationship is smartly drawn, one of respect.
It’s a prestigious picture, with a prestigious director. The scenes have weight and deal with a lofty, adult subject. So what doesn’t work? First of all, Eastwood is known for making long, languid movies that take their time . He doesn’t quite jive with the sports picture. And I know “Invictus” is about more than sports, but the second half of the film deals mainly with “the big game”, and the movie doesn’t have the same fire in its belly as, say, “Rocky” or “Hoosiers”.
Plus, I suppose it’s admitting being uninformed to ask for a clearer explanation of the rules of rubgy from “Invictus”, but I could’ve used it. A movie like “The Color of Money” made billiards clear and “Tin Cup” made golf a little more palatable for all audiences. During “Invictus”, every time I thought I knew what was happening in the rugby games, I was off. The weirdest thing about not taking time to explain the rules of rugby to the non-rugby-initiated is that there was an opportunity. One character (one of Mandela’s security agents) wasn’t much of a rugby fan, and the opportunity for us to learn all about the game while he did was passed over. I’m sure they didn’t want to use a goofy cinematic device to learn us the ways of rugby. But I needed it!
Lastly, here’s something that I never thought would infect an Eastwood movie – BAD CGI! The final game is LOADED with green screen and computer-generated crowds. There are plenty of shots of crowds, but whenever there was a shot of a full stadium, it was computer-generated. Pretty lame. I know Clint’s used computer effects before (“Flags of Our Fathers”, for example), so he’s not entirely foreign to them, but there are so many shots of big, fake crowds in this movie it TOOK ME OUT.
And with the predictability of a benign sports movie at the controls, it was tough to get back in.
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: December 11, 2009
Run Time: 133 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
The Last Station
Review by Paul Preston
Hey kids, looking for a nice holiday treat? How’s about Tolstoy?! “The Last Station” certainly isn’t Christmas-time super-fun entertainment, it’s obviously Awards fodder. But is it good? Again, do you like Tolstoy?
“The Last Station” is about two things – the prickly relationship Leo Tolstoy has with his wife, Countess Sofya, and the re-negotiations of Tolstoy’s will the year before his death. Tolstoy’s empire of followers had grown so huge, his underlings were making plans for who will run the faction after his passing, and the two storylines smack into each other when the Baroness suspects she will be overlooked in the legal documents dividing his fortune.
Blah, blah, blah. The point is: PAUL GIAMATTI is in this movie. There has been awards talk for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer is the lead, but any movie with Giamatti is worth watching. And get this! Giamatti is sniveling! He’s a great sniveler, and he’s a weasely little bastard in “The Last Station”.
Caught in the middle of all this is Tolstoy’s new secretary, Valentin, played by James McAvoy. McAvoy came on the scene in “The Chronicles of Narnia” and quickly went art-house with “The Last King of Scotland” and “Atonement”, then went balls-out with “Wanted”. McAvoy is fast making a name for himself as one who can slide between period dramas and effects-driven blockbusters with style. His Valentin reveres Tolstoy and their first meeting is very funny as that awe is too-well on display. McAvoy also deftly handles the poignancy of a young man watching the slow collapse of his hero’s stature.
It is an understatement to say that the Tolstoy’s relationship is complicated. Mirren is a lock for another Oscar nomination as her Sofya swings rapidly between mismanaged anger and desperation that wrecks your heart. Plummer, for a British gent, looks remarkably like the old photos I’ve seen of Tolstoy, and he also manages a delicate balance in his performance, that of the witty and wise writer, but also he’s believable as a man losing control of his own empire. These two leads are so strong, I found myself rooting for both of them as their relationship unraveled.
“The Last Station” also gives a glimpse into the Tolstoyan movement in Russia, based on Tolstoy’s writings that taught non-resistance and a disbelief in governments and personal belongings. His followers lived in communes dedicated to celibacy and veganism. This is where Giamatti comes in, as Vladimir Chertkov, who founded the Tolstoyan movement, he pressures Leo to leave his estate to the Russian people. This would be in keeping with the Tolstoyan way, but Leo himself, as well as Valentin, has broken his rules in lusty fashion. Chertkov has a point, but so does Sofya, making the will battle more interesting than if one side were straight up evil, and one angelic (although Giamatti does a great amount of literal mustache-twirling to make you question his ethics).
Why do these British, Scottish and American actors play Russians, you ask? ‘Cause they’re good. There’s something to be admired in there being NO attempt to perform with dialects in this movie. It has a two-fold effect. It furthers the belief that in Hollywood if you’re foreign, you’re speaking British. But they also avoid the pitfall of bad dialects dominating a performance. The actors of “Memoirs of a Geisha” struggled so much with English, it hampered the film. Here, the cast gets to live in their characters without fumbling over distracting accents, and early on I realized I didn’t miss thick, Russian dialects.
This story could easily be trapped in the stuffiness of the worst PBS special. But great actors and lush production elevate it to a memorable two hours culminating in an excellent ending, reminding you that despite the greediness and instability of men, love rules all.
Directed by: Michael Hoffman
Release Date: January 15, 2010
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Egoli Tossell Film Halle
HEAVEN CAN WAIT
The Lovely Bones
Review by Paul Preston
Why fear death? Thanks to the magic of Hollywood filmmaking, it seems there’s lots going on in the afterlife. And it’s pretty. Really, really pretty.
Thanks to what we learned in “Ghost”, “What Dreams May Come” and “Defending Your Life”, you won’t just be wasting time rotting and being eaten by maggots. You’ll have to discover who killed you, support your claims that you lived a meaningful life, plus there’s possession and haunting, busy, busy, busy.
“The Lovely Bones” certainly seems like it’s going to present an afterlife that would be teeming with responsibility, but in the end, it’s just pretty. Pretty dull.
The story involves a young girl named Susie who is lured into a trap by a neighbor, where she is raped and murdered. She then ascends to “the in-between” (not quite Heaven, not quite Hell), where she can see what’s happening back on Earth. Susie is encouraged by others there to move forward and not spend so much time focused on what’s happening on Earth. In death, she discovers who her murderer is, and she watches her family attempt to make that same discovery.
That’s the story, but in the end, Susie is a bit too passive in the afterlife. She can’t connect with the real world, like Patrick Swayze in “Ghost”, she can’t appear in spirit form as Reese Witherspoon did in “Just Like Heaven”, she just….watches.
She does find time to live fantasies like imagining herself as a dance party star and frolicking with another spirit she meets in “the in-between”. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to it, outside of showcasing some groovy special effects. And there’s a lot of them, as director Peter Jackson and the Weta team go all out with digital mastery to make “the in-between” look dream-like, with gorgeous imagery and shifting landscapes.
Mark Wahlberg plays Susie’s father, and although he showed how horrible he can be in a fatherly role in “The Happening”, he does a respectable job showing his determination to find Susie’s killer. Michael Imperioli is wasted in a lame part as a policeman who is also trying to track clues to Susie’s death. Susan Sarandon comes into the story like a tornado, throwing around charm and wit as Susie’s grandmother, but too soon she takes a back seat to the growing mystery.
“The Lovely Bones” biggest asset is Stanley Tucci as the murdering neighbor. This guy has been great in nearly every movie he’s been in. Unfortunately, he’s been cursed with being great in a lot of sub-par movies (like “The Terminal”, “The Core” and, unfortunately, “The Lovely Bones”). As killer George Harvey, Tucci undergoes a physical transformation, donning a blond wig and blue contacts. I haven’t read the book, so, to me it seemed like this could be his ‘latest’ disguise as he moves from town to town, avoiding police on his tail. But perhaps it’s just the actor’s attempt to look as the character is described in the book. Either way, it supports a performance that is very lived-in, an immersion into an unstable and unsettling man. Tucci’s Oscar nomination is much-deserved.
In the end, however, the story just isn’t compelling as it must’ve been as a best-selling page-turner. It’s not a who-dunnit, it’s more of a will-they-find-out-what-we-already-know, and in that there’s some suspense, but few surprises.
SPOILER TALK: The end of this movie infuriated me! Susie, in life, had a crush on a boy at her school, and at the end of the film, it’s considered a big dramatic moment when she possesses the body of a schoolmate to experience a kiss with this boy. I’m sorry? You can POSSESS people? WHY DIDN’T YOU POSSESS THE INVESTIGATING OFFICER AND HAVE HIM ARREST GEORGE FOR YOUR MURDER???? Seems like a dopey device to throw in possession at the end of a movie for emotional purposes when it could’ve been used for practical crime-solving all along. Whoopee! Susie got her first kiss. If THAT’S what this movie was really all about, they sure wasted a lot of time focusing on a murder-mystery.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Release Date: January 15, 2009
Run Time: 135 Minutes
Country: USA/UK/New Zealand
Distributor: WingNut Films
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Review by Joel Frost
“The Men Who Stare At Goats” opens with a sentence on the screen, “More of this is true than you would believe”, and indeed that seems likely, depending on who you are. It’s a glib introduction, but it also has an extra element of self-conscious awareness. The story is so inherently weird and subjective that believing it completely would be somewhat foolish. A movie about this particular series of events couldn’t possibly be 100% accurate, and “The Men Who Stare At Goats” is not a film that is overly concerned with trying to portray historical facts. The opening sentence is a warning for the audience, that things like this can’t be perfectly explained.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a reporter at a small newspaper in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He finds himself recently cast aside by his wife and in need of distraction, if not complete rebirth. He finds the first, and possibly the second, rather accidentally, in Kuwait City in the form of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former Special Ops military man. Bob had recently written a newspaper story about Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), a man who claimed to have psychic powers of his own, as well as knowledge of the US Army’s involvement with psychic research and the possible military applications of such capabilities. From that story, Bob recognizes Lyn Cassady’s name as someone who was also involved in the program that Lacey described to Bob. Wilton attaches himself to Cassady at this point, and Cassady leads Wilton down the rabbit hole, through the Iraqi desert, and into a crazy world of Military Intelligence, the classic oxymoron.
Cassady explains himself as having been the most successful psychic soldier, a “Jedi Warrior”, in fact, of a program in the US Army called the New Earth Army. The NEA was the brainchild and proposition to the Army of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, perfectly cast), a Vietnam veteran and new age hippie. Django is the most unlikely of soldiers, and he guides his troop of men through various exercises to attempt to create a peaceful army for the new millenium, using the power of positive energy, psychic strength, and dancing. Yes, dancing. If the history of this bizarre story is to believed, a group of Army soliders danced together regularly, in uniform, on a military base, in a free-form style, to rid themselves of inhibition in order to become more powerful soldiers of love and good mojo.
This was back in the 1980’s, the Reagan era, and President Reagan himself was said to be a supporter of this kind of research. It seems the Soviets were themselves attempting to employ psychic powers to gain an advantage in the cold war… or perhaps to end it, one would assume… and our side didn’t want to fall behind on a potentially ground-breaking front.
Clooney plays Lyn Cassady sympathetically, as a man convinced of his own supernatural ability and driven by a desire to do good and perhaps help reform the Army, if not the human race, through the techniques and belief system he has committed his existence to. Cassady is not a young idealist any more, as the bulk of the movie takes place in the early part of this decade, years after the New Earth Army has dissolved and given way to the Bush era. The current administration is attempting to use some of the techniques and findings of Django and Cassady for torture and other nefarious practices. You may have heard of the Army using the music of the big purple dinosaur Barney as a torture device against captives in Iraq. That’s one of the things that Cassady refers to as part of “the dark side”. Cassady is an aging idealist, and he sees Bob Wilton as a tool for redemption… a man who can tell Cassady’s story to the world. Cassady is, in the frame-work of the film, a mystifying figure; insane or brilliant, pathetic or heroic. Clooney deadpans the part as he must, since any over-playing of Cassady’s cards would almost certainly betray the man as a buffoon and a liar. And anyway, George Clooney doesn’t know any better than you or I do, even after seeing the movie, what is real and what is not.
But that’s beside the point, or perhaps it is the point. As Clooney and McGregor (our former Obi-Wan is hilariously confused about the way of the Jedi) tumble through this movie, almost nothing factual becomes clear. We see some desperate men in the process of trying to do some good running up against the standard problems that confront such people… the will of those in power who do not concern themselves with morals, but rather attempt to “succeed” and “win” at any cost. There is a hilarious scene wherein two security companies full of soldiers-for-hire, all of US origin, accidentally find themselves in a firefight sparked by misunderstanding and machismo. It is classically FUBAR (a military term for screwed up), and as Clooney, McGregor and an Iraqi man they have recently befriended skip out of the skirmish (“my house is near here”, says the Iraqi), the message is simple: Fear and aggression are powerful forces that can consume anyone, and good mojo and innocence are easy targets. Sometimes it’s best just to get out of the way.
Kevin Spacey makes a nice turn as Larry Hooper, the opportunistic Vader to Clooney’s Luke. Or perhaps Jeff Bridges is the fallen Anakin Skywalker. Perhaps Reagan is the Emperor. Hard to say, although I’m almost sure the actual goats who show up in the movie could be considered droids… dutiful and helpless at the hands of the men around them. The desert setting, with all this Jedi talk zipping around, can’t help but evoke Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Tattooine.
“The Men Who Stare At Goats” is a sad yet somehow triumphant tale of good persevering over evil, if only in the hearts and minds of a few fairly powerless humans. In our time, in this crazy, mixed-up, violent and fearful world, what else do we have, anyway? Love, dancing, and the movies…
Directed by: Grant Heslov
Release Date: November 6, 2009
Run Time: 93 Minutes
Distributor: BBC Pictures
IT ALWAYS FEELS LIKE SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ROCKWELL
Review by Paul Preston
Who could you watch in a movie if they were roughly the only actor in the film? It worked with Tom Hanks. “I am Legend” was a hit for Will Smith. Could probably work with Denzel Washington and maybe Brad Pitt. Who came up with the idea that Sam Rockwell, eternally under-appreciated lead actor often used in supporting roles, could pull off such a feat? If you’re a Rockwell fan (I am), you know he’s up to the task. He delivers big-time as a harvester of energy resources on the Moon, who encounters an unusual, yet familiar individual. There are obvious tips of the hat to “2001” all over this movie, but that’s a good film to emulate. Director Duncan Jones does a great job at establishing the isolation of Rockwell’s character, Sam Bell, left on the Moon to communicate solely with order-keeping robot, GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey.
Let’s go into everything above in depth. “Moon” doesn’t pack the budget of a film like “District 9” or “Star Trek”, but successfully creates a plausible Moon surface, lunar domicile and hi-tech mining machines. Its main asset is not in whiz-bang visuals, but in creating an eerie existence for its main character, Sam. In doing so, “Moon” hearkens back to a not-often-visited form of science fiction – the thinking-man’s sci-fi genre. Think of the great movies in this class – “The Thing”, “Outland” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. That’s good company, and “Moon” belongs there as an excellent mood piece.
Unsurprisingly, Sam deals mostly with boredom and restlessness as he finishes up a three-year contract mining The Moon for Helium-3. Space being a lonely place isn’t exactly a new concept, but it’s handled well here as Sam’s reminiscence and longing for a return to his family is coupled with a mysterious (and perhaps nefarious) company that has hired his services. GERTY is Sam’s only friend, but being a computer, GERTY is more interested in the tasks at hand than anyone’s well-being.
I know what you’re saying, “Yeah, that’s 2001”. And you’re right. I think the thing that makes “Moon” unique is Rockwell. I think this film benefits from his status as a not-so-leading man. He can embody all the different sides of Sam Bell with equal ease and a great sense of humor. All that time alone on The Moon allows Sam to get to know himself, and he gets more of an extra opportunity than most of us. And as Sam discovers how Lunar Industries is using questionable methods to prolong his employment, Rockwell brings real pathos to his situation, and makes “Moon”, in the end, a moving film as well as intriguing science fiction.
So, with all this praise, why not four stars? I thought the ending was a little abrupt. When such care is taken to build up this plot to the climax, I wanted a little more time with the denoument…and a cigarette. Finally, all the homage, in the end, makes “Moon” a touch too familiar to take me completely out of my comfort zone like “Blade Runner” or “Dark City” did. I think Duncan Jones proves with “Moon” that he can graduate successfully from commercials to features, and in the future, he won’t need deference to great works in order to make his own.
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Release Date: September 25, 2009
Run Time: 97 Minutes
Distributor: Liberty Films UK
Review by Paul Preston
Welcome to OppositeLand. In OppositeLand, I think differently than the rest of the world, apparently. I’m the guy who loves the much-maligned “Nine”, from director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”). Across the country, it has been considered everything from a failure to an out-and-out DISASTER. Man, I do NOT see it that way. I thought “Nine” was a vibrant, splashy, well-executed movie musical that shares characteristics of some of the best musicals of all-time while having a superb sense of humor.
The story of “Nine” is based on the great Frederico Fellini film “8 1/2”. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, an Italian film director with a major creative block. The film explores the various female muses in his life, from his mother (Sophia Loren) to his wife (Marion Cotillard) and his mistress (Penelope Cruz). As Guido struggles to devise what the story of his next film will be (in typical big-budget fashion, he has a title and a lead actress (Nicole Kidman) before he has a script), these muses visit him, either in the flesh, in dream sequence, or in flashback, and help him face demons or face the music.
Director Rob Marshall employs the similar movie musical style that helped “Chicago” win Best Picture in 2001. That film used the ‘dream cabaret’ to heighten emotion, explore secrets or introduce characters. It worked brilliantly, not just because of Marshall’s expert use of this concept and an outstanding group of artists backing him up, but also because it allowed both aspects of the story, the real-world Chicago and the fantasy world, develop solidly without crashing into one another, and mucking each other up. With Guido being a filmmaker, the majority of ‘dream’ musical sequences of “Nine” take place on the film set at Cinecitta Studios, and the end result cutting between the two locales, although not as fresh as before, is certainly dynamic and exciting.
This movie is bathed in gold. Over half the major players have Oscars – Daniel Day-Lewis, Kidman, Cruz, Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, The Weinsteins, editor Claire Simpson, co-writer Anthony Minghella, cinematographer Dion Beebe, set decorator Gordon Sim, plus nominees Kate Hudson and Rob Marshall. All the award-winning talent is on display here, the film looks good, the acting is smooth and easy, and pretty much all are up to the task of singing and dancing, especially Hudson and Marion Cotillard.
Oddly enough, one of the most impressive performers in the cast is a first-timer: Fergie (from The Black-Eyed Peas). She kicks-out the movie’s best song, “Be Italian”, but equally portrays the sexiness and desperation of an Italian prostitute who influences a young Guido in flashbacks. Equally good in a larger role is Penelope Cruz as Guido’s mistress Carla. After deriding Cruz in many of her early Hollywood efforts like “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Vanilla Sky”, she’s on a roll with “Nine” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona”. Not to mention, she’s sexy as hell! Rob Marshall, again, has assembled a group of leads and chorus girls who are the hottest ladies walking.
I never saw the stage musical this film is based on, so I can’t make a comparison there, but I thought the “new” songs for the movie version were excellent! “Cinema Italiano” represents the glamour and style that would seduce an American reporter to flirt with Guido and tempt him once again to cheat, and “Take It All” is a furiously emotional number added for Cottilard who strips down (literally) to expose her emotion and show Guido how she is abused by him. Continuing the inevitable comparison to “Chicago”, I have to admit the music overall isn’t as strong or memorable here. Songs like “Guarda la Luna” float by without impact and Day-Lewis is probably the least accomplished singer here, and his songs are the least effective as a result.
Day-Lewis plays Guido with a little too much passivity, making him harder to like, but he brings no shortage of humor and as I watched him caught in all the so-called trappings of movie-making sin (infidelity, selfishness and abuse), I still rooted for him. I was on the verge of tears as this film ended, not sure if I was moved by Guido finally longing for redemption or if I was just REALLY impressed.
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Release Date: December 25, 2009
Run Time: 118 Minutes
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
HEH, HEH…YOU SAID ASS…
Review by Paul Preston
Many people think the title of this film is redundant. But good news! This isn’t the story of a ninja who kills people, it’s the story of a guy who kills ninjas. A ninja assassin!! I mean, you can’t kill ninjas, right? Please understand that numerous ninjas have been in and out of the room where you’re reading this review right now. They’ve done what they wanted, taken what they pleased and the only reason you’re still here is because they allowed you to live. Yet the title of this movie promises a guy with the awesome power to execute stealthy ninjas at will.
“Ninja Assassin”’s biggest problem is that this really isn’t the whole plot. WAY too much time is spent in a secondary plot surrounding a forensics expert and FBI agent as they uncover the resurgence of long-since dead ninja cults. In this secondary plot, no one’s head gets cut off at the mouth, no one gets sliced to pieces with throwing stars and nobody’s dead remains are sloshing around in a washing machine. That fun stuff is in the other plot…the one we like…the one that doesn’t get a whole movie devoted to it.
Naomie Harris (“28 Days Later”) is the forensics expert, and her plot meets up with the Ninja Assassin’s when they find themselves tracking down the same people. The assassin is played by Rain, a former boy-band member who is adequately ripped, but traditionally bland as many action stars are. There is no chemistry between Harris and Rain. The actor with the most success here is Sho Kosugi as head of the ninja cult. He is sufficiently ominous as he should be, having spent years in ninja movies like “Enter the Ninja” and “American Ninja”.
The uncovering of a ninja cult mystery could’ve played out interestingly. “Ninja Assassin” was directed by James McTeigue, who directed the very engaging and exciting “V for Vendetta”. That film had equal parts human drama and slick action (not to mention a healthy dose of subversive behavior), but that choice blend is not on display here. When the cops show up, the movie screeches to a halt and plays out like a lame-o TV cop drama.
Plus, any slow-down in the action after the first five minutes of this movie, is especially noticeable. “Ninja Assassin” begins with the usual bad-guy bravado you get in low-rent actioners like “Punisher: War Zone” or “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”. An Asian gangster is getting a tattoo, and he’s yelling, pulling guns, talking about how powerful he is, bitching at anyone who steps to him. You know that soon, he’s toast, and the film wastes no time in dispatching him and his gang, introducing ninjas to the moviegoer. This dispatching is ludicrously violent, and orgy of bload-soaked decapitation and shadowy death the likes of which we don’t see again in the rest of the film’s 94 minutes. This makes the opening work against the movie in two ways: if “Ninja Assassin” wanted to be a gory, fun, cult hit, the energy shown in minutes 1-5 is not sustained. If the film wanted to be a heady, high-class, Kurosawa-esque exploration of the covert killers known as The Ninja, too late.
I wish I could sing the praises, however, of the ninja action here, too. But outside of some impressive stuntwork, there’s WAY too much computer generated imagery for my liking. It seems like there’s little CGI I like nowadays, painting me as an old douchebag, but in “300”, the whole movie, practically, is enveloped in computer effects, so CGI blood seems stylized and part of the big picture. In “Ninja Assassin”, the computerized blood just looks fake. Look at what Takashi Miike can do with real-world-liquid-blood arterial spray, THAT’S what we need here. The impact of fists, swords and flying stars, despite the sound effect, are lessened with computerized blood. I need my ninja movie blood in buckets, not pixels!!
The ghost-like abilities of the ninja are also given the CGI treatment here. Early in the film, the cinematography is such that the ninja remain mysterious, stepping out of shadows, and sometimes not even being seen when they dole out death on everyone in the room. But soon, these camera tricks give way to computerized images of the ninja turning to dust and re-assembling from dust on the other side of the room. I know the ninja are magical, but are the outright wizards? Are they like that still-undefined-and-pretty-much-now-ignored black smoke monster from “Lost”? I need my ninja nimble and lethal, not Voldemortesque.
What I’m saying is I don’t need my ninjas like they are in “Ninja Assassin”.
Directed by: James McTeigue
Release Date: November 25, 2009
Run Time: 99 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
THE UNNAMED DEMON PROJECT
Review by Paul Preston
Low in cost but high in originality, “Paranormal Activity” is the kind of horror film I’ve been screaming for for years. In the midst of the “Saw” and “The Hills Have Eyes” franchises and a seemingly endless parade of uninspired remakes, “Paranormal Activity” doesn’t shock with gore or “have fun” with its thrills. It straight up scares the holy shit out of you.
Things are going bump in the night in the home of Micah Sloat, so he decides to videotape what happens in his bedroom while he and his live-in girlfriend are asleep. From there, things get creepy. I knew nothing about the plot of this film going in, so I’ll spare you the details, it’s best you don’t know. What I will tell you is that the film sets up its storyline very methodically in the first half-hour or so, allowing the majority of the film to just focus on the thrills and scares.
Much has been made of the low-budget nature of “Paranormal Activity”, that it only cost $11,000 to make. But what shouldn’t be forgotten is the skill the filmmakers possess. It may not have cost much, but writer/producer/director/editor Oren Peli have expertly employed a P.O.V.-style look and feel of the film that suggest “found footage” (similar to “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield”). This method is budget-friendly, but also allows the movie to generate real thrills, not just the envelope-pushing kind that involve effects and makeup other films spend millions on.
Lead actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston carry the movie nicely. This is their first big movie and it will no doubt lead to more (Featherston has already signed with APA). The natural way they come across on screen was pretty impressive for newcomers. With no credits, not much love is given on screen to the name Mark Fredrichs. He plays a psychic involved in getting to the bottom of what’s haunting Micah and Katie. Most people’s attitudes towards psychics are pretty skeptical, believing that, along with horoscopes, their services are “for entertainment purposes only”. Fredrichs’ psychic seems sincere, and he lays down a set of rules early, and half the fun is watching those rules followed, and yelling at the screen when they’re not!
Speaking of yelling at the screen, this is one of most interactive movies I’ve seen in a long time, the group experience in the theater is unmatched this year. Peli wisely utilizes minimalism and fear of the unknown to frighten, and often silence does more than Freddy or Jason ever could. The girl two seats down from me was so vocal, I thought she had an orgasm, multiple times. What? I know what that sounds like. This film is an all-time winner, though, ‘cause I also think it would work wonders at home on DVD. When you turn it off and return to your empty home, your imagination will go to work, and it’s not pleasant.
It’s your own imagination that does the most work to scare you in “Paranormal Activity”. The “demon” in Micah and Katie’s home is a bit vague, leaving you to fill in the gaps. Plus, the P.O.V. camera-work doesn’t allow you to see everything you want to see, you can only imagine what’s happening juuuust out of your line of sight.
Kudos to this team of first-timers for getting huge buzz for their indie film on a national scale. They deserve it, don’t see it alone.
Directed by: Oren Peli
Release Date: October 16, 2009
Run Time: 86 Minutes
Distributor: Blumhouse Pictures
Review by Paul Preston
Pirate radio was a response to the banning of rock n roll British radio stations in the 1960s. Radio personalities took to the seas and broadcast from ships off the coast of England. How did this movement start? How did the government initially react? Who knows? The film “Pirate Radio” deals with other, less interesting stuff.
The film picks up where Pirate Radio is in full swing. An American DJ leads a gang of ne’er-do-wells through the day’s programming of rock music, profanity and other raucous behavior. And we’re quickly introduced to Carl, the godson of the ship’s captain, who’s come aboard to get his life together after being expelled from school and also to slow down the plot. Tell me your favorite parts of “Caddyshack”. GO! Um…Bill Murray chasing the groundhog…Rodney Dangerfield pissing off Ted Knight, and…uh…Chevy Chase being the ball. Rarely do people mention the caddies when it comes to the best parts of “Caddyshack”. That’s because they’re not. And Carl is the ‘caddy’ of “Pirate Radio”.
Early on Carl meets the Captain’s niece, Marianne, and falls for her, only to discover soon after that she’s jumped in bed with one of the DJs, Dave, a fat, gnarly mess of a guy. This, after Dave has taken steps to help Carl make it with the girl. As a result, this makes us not like the niece or Dave, neither of whom have sensical reasons to act as they do. So, congrats “Pirate Radio”, early in your film I don’t like two of the main characters. Remember that during all this, I’m already not interested in their story and want to see more ‘rock-n-roll vs. The Man’ adventures.
“Pirate Radio” was written and directed by a superstar of British comedy, Richard Curtis, who got his start writing on “Black Adder” and wrote the films “Notting Hill”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and adapted the “Bridget Jones” books into screenplays. He hit huge with his first directing effort, “Love Actually”, a film I find absolutely beautiful, but has been accused of being schmaltzy and glib. If he can be glib, that glibness is on display in “Pirate Radio”. Characters are shallow for no good reason, and no relationships or situations have real weight. That would be all fine and good if “Pirate Radio” were funnier.
The film is full of actors I normally like: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost, Bill Nighy, but the chemistry here just doesn’t add up. There’s a ‘Name the Celebrity”-type game early in the film that’s pretty funny and sets the stage for Curtis’ penchant for dialogue and relationships, but the plot gets in the way of that penchant ever taking the stage again.
Kenneth Branagh plays a government official out to stop the Pirate Radio broadcasts. His sour attitude yields some funny moments (like a particularly awkward dinner at home), but the radio station doesn’t do enough to provoke utter hatred. A few swear words here, they announce someone losing their virginity on air, but they’re not that randy, even for the sixties. In their personal lives, the DJs and staff of Pirate Radio are more rude and somewhat contemptible, and that, unfortunately, yields few laughs. This left me wanting more of the overall power and reach of “Pirate Radio”, which, unfortunately, is passed by quickly.
It’s Christmas, people, go rent “Love Actually”, if you take the stick out of your ass long enough, you’ll love it.
Directed by: Richard Curtis
Release Date: November 13, 2009
Run Time: 116 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
The Princess and the Frog
Review by Mark Tucci
Thank goodness for John Lasseter. His return to the helm at Disney Animation Studios has been widely apparent in their recent animated releases and “The Princess and the Frog” is no exception.
With the release of their first cel-animated feature in years, you would think that Disney might try to play it safe by using a lot of the latest movie gimmicks such as 3D or a large-format release like IMAX. Thankfully, discretion prevailed and what we got instead was one of the better movies of 2009.
Eschewing the traditions of many past 2D outings, Disney instead opts for keeping “The Princess and the Frog” routed in the contemporary society of New Orleans during the early part of last century.
The story starts out looking somewhat familiar, but soon takes a turn of originality that sets the stage for the rest of the film. Rather than create a modern day remake of a classic tale, writers and directors Ron Clements and John Musker turn the frog prince story on its head, and instead place us firmly in the frog’s world – the twist being that his intended princess Tiana, played perfectly by Anika Noni Rose, must now share the same fate and endure life as a frog.
As with most Disney movies, there are, of course, villains as well as heroes and “Princess” is no exception. Keith David’s Dr. Facilier handles the villain’s role deftly. His familiar deep baritone voice commands attention whenever the character is on screen, which is, unfortunately, too little, in my opinion.
The film basically takes place in two realms (the human inhabited world of New Orleans, and the Louisiana swamp inhabited by reptiles, insects and amphibians), and it does a good job of balancing between the two. The swamp portion follows Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) and Tiana as they try to find a way to reverse their frog spell, while the New Orleans scenes focus on Facilier’s underworld dealings and Naveen’s jealous servant, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), as he tries to win the affections of the scene-stealing Miss Charlotte, played with spunky aplomb by Jennifer Cody.
“The Princess and the Frog” is not as big a spectacle as some of the other memorable Disney films. It does not have the vast expanse of “The Lion King”, or take place in realms the size of “Aladdin” or “The Little Mermaid”. The characters have a much smaller footprint in their world than the characters in these other films. That’s nothing to fault it over; however, “Princess” feels like a much smaller, more intimate movie as a result.
I’m happy to see that Disney tried hard to leave some of their traditional cliches out of this picture. No inanimate objects or animals that can talk to people (the animals can talk to each other, but not to people – well, not ALL the people) no single-parent heroines (though they did keep the tradition there alive in the case of Charlotte), and no villains falling to their death from great heights.
Randy Newman’s music is memorable and well-suited to the film, and the singing throughout is top notch, with a particularly engaging show of the pipes by Keith David. If the film has any faults at all, it’s that we didn’t get to see enough of Facilier. While he does have some truly spectacular scenes, and there’s stuff in this movie that’s likely to frighten the pants off some smaller children, I didn’t get a real good sense of his back story or motivation for his underworld dealings in the first place. Keith David is such a good villain – I wanted more of him, and he departs way to early in my opinion.
Rose does a great job playing it straight to Campos’ slapstick, but without a doubt the real standout in the swamp is Jim Cummings’ firefly, Ray. Ray is one of the better sidekick characters to come along in quite a long time, and he steals a good portion of the film toward the end. In the real world of New Orleans, Miss Charlotte is the big stand out. Indeed, the venerable comedic talents of Jennifer Cody’s voice work were even nominated for an Annie Award, and it is well deserved.
All in all, “The Princess and the Frog” is a film that’s deserved of high praise both for being a great film, but also for taking up the challenges of a traditional 2D animated film in a time where 3D has ruled the mantle.
Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker
Release Date: December 11, 2009
Run Time: 97 Minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Chick Flick Review by Karen Volpe
Okay, I’m not your typical intellectual heady movie reviewer. Seriously, it only takes a few special ingredients for me to love a movie. These include Sandra Bullock, Bill Murray or an irresistibly cute doggie actor. The Proposal fulfills two out of three of these requirements.
Sandra Bullock is back at it, doing what she does best, romantic comedies. She is funny, charming and very naked in this flick. Her co-star, Ryan Reynolds holds his own with both the comedy and nakedness. Yummy!
Oh, and let’s not forget Kevin, the little white puppy. He is an excellent actor and even does a few exciting stunts. Kevin has extended scenes with Bullock and I’m sure they will definitely make it to his actor demo reel.
So what if we’ve seen this romantic comedy recipe before. If you buy your ticket and go the movie, you know what to expect and you will not be disappointed. This is a fun, light, very romantic, comedy. So there. If you want to see something bloody and earth shattering, literally, go see “The Hurt Locker”. Ugh.
To recap, Sandra Bullock, naked. Kevin the puppy, excellent actor. “The Hurt Locker” way too intense.
If you want a fun, light, night at the movies, take my advice and accept this proposal.
Review by Mark Tucci
Michael Mann’s latest gangster opus, Public Enemies is a cinematic blend of history and technology – the depression era meets the modern age of filmmaking. But what does all this attention to historical detail and latest technique have to do with the story, which ultimately matters when it comes to the final product? In the case of this movie, not much, as the film, while entertaining, never quite achieves the greatness it strives for or could have reached with a better script.
The movie begins with a prison break and then jumps around trying to establish the supporting cast of characters without really going into too much detail. Indeed, what Mann strived for in the authenticity of the costumes and the sets, he disposed of pretty handily in terms of historical accuracy. While there are too many to list here without giving away plot points, suffice-to-say that students of history shall not walk away with any arcane knowledge of John Dillinger, Melvin Purvis, Pretty Boy Floyd or Baby-Face Nelson.
Johnny Depp plays out the last mad, dying days in the life of John Dillinger with the same like-able style that he so often exudes in his roles, and while it’s not an oscar-worthy performance, it isn’t entirely ineffectual either. Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis redeems himself slightly from the wooden and one-note performance he turned in for Terminator: Salvation earlier this summer, but he simply isn’t given enough to really do in this film to make him stand out, nor is Billy Crudup in his role as J. Edgar Hoover (and what was up with that old-time movie-speak he used?) The big stand out in this film, however, would have to be Marion Cotillard for her role as Billie Frechette. Indeed, her character sustains probably the biggest emotional arch of anyone. But that’s not saying much. The fact that this movie contains so many different characters, each vying for screen time, each trying to show relevance to the story, it’s inevitable that we’re going to come up short. And we do. Bale and Crudup are not the only characters left without much development on screen. Many of them merely show up to deliver their lines or perform their said actions in order to get us to the next big set piece.
If Public Enemies has a fault, it’s that it wants to be a sweeping biopic but gets caught up in the signature familiarities of Mann’s filmmaking style, reaching for balance and greatness between drama and action, but always coming up just a tad bit short.
I wonder if we’ll be treated to a longer, more expansive version of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray, for it seemed to me that there might be a lot that was left on the cutting room floor. In addition to Bale’s underdeveloped role, the movie gives very few details about Dillinger’s background. We’re treated with just a few lines of dialogue regarding his origins into the world of crime rather than anything of substance that would help define his character and give Depp an emotional stepping stool upon which to climb.
Also missing are many of the things that made Dillinger such a legend of the time. Other than one small scene in a movie theater, we really don’t get to experience much of Dillinger’s effect on the general public, and what made him such an anti-hero to so many people of the day. For someone that was often regarded as a modern-day Robin Hood, Mann’s focus for Dillinger seems set squarely on his relationship with Frechette, perhaps at the behest of Hollywood’s need for romance and an underlying love story in every film no matter the subject.
Many readers will probably have heard that Mann chose to shoot this film in HD video rather than 35mm. The result provides the movie with an interesting look, but I’m not sure it was entirely effective at times. In numerous scenes there was a very distinct level of noise artifacts on screen. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this, but I found it down-right distracting at times, particularly on indoor scenes with low lighting. At times it reminded me of the way old broadcast cameras used to boost luminance gains to upwards of 18db in order to compensate for lack of light. There was a noticeable shift in colors between a lot of the scenes too. To be fair, it was unique, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it added much to the overall quality of the film.
All in all though, I do give Public Enemies a green light to go see. It was entertaining and held my interest, even if there were faults that kept it from being truly great. Fans of Mann’s other films will surely enjoy this one, even if it doesn’t raise the bar much, and as far as gangster films go, it’s probably worth the price of admission.
Directed by: Michael Mann
Release Date: July 1, 2009
Run Time: 140 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
BIG TROUBLE IN HUGE CHINA
Review by Justin Bowler
THE BEST MOVIE OF 2009! It is that rare and breathtaking theatrical experience for those of us that truly love, revel, and live in movies.
Take the battle scenes from “Braveheart”, add 10,000 more extras on horses, then cover it with the imagery of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, film it as if it were visual poetry, and toss in some of the coolest hand to hand combat you’ve ever seen, then you almost approach the awe-inspiring grandeur of this epic project (simply to call it a film grossly undervalues it’s magnitude).
Most John Woo fans, who love him for his Hong Kong cinematic art like “A Better Tomorrow” or “Hard Boiled”, have long been disappointed in his Hollywood fluff for the masses. Even the best of his US stuff, “Face/off” and “Mission: Impossible II”, are considered mostly cheap imitations of his past Hong Kong efforts. But, now, he has returned to his roots: artistic action (not the overdone cookie cutter crap of slow motion jackets flying in the wind behind the hero (thank you “Face/Off”), or the slow motion jumping sideways, arms extended while shooting (thank you any Michael Bay film) or the constant panning across horsemen with flags approaching the windy battlefield (thank you “Kingdom of Heaven” (Jesus, that movie had a lot of waving flags in it))). No, this art is entirely new and inventive. There isn’t any need for slow motion as the energy created in his battle scenes are frenetic and too full of momentum to slow them down. And this is not just on a grand scale. The minutia of the battles, that is, the hand to hand combat (though not usually one on one but more like one on ten) is exact, energetic, and impressive. No stranger to Asian cinema, Woo pulls from classic films like “The Seven Samurai” to depict real life generals as different masters of their individual skills. So, every battle brings a new general with a different method of attack. “Creative” is far too limited of a word to describe the many different uses of a spear by action director Corey Yuen.
Furthermore, the grandiose battle sequences do not falter either. The masses of fighting foot soldiers, naval battleships, and armed cavalry overwhelm the viewer in the most wonderful way possible. Battles this epic have never been put on camera before. This is the kind of groundbreaking grandeur that Cecil B. Demille created. It makes sequences from “Braveheart” look like small skirmishes. Thousands of extras carrying shields, or riding horseback, dance their battle formations in perfect harmony (knowing how hard it is to direct extras just to walk across the street on cue, one must ask if the extras on these sets were paid infinitely better, or forced into perfect submission, much like the soldier drones they were portraying). True, chi was incorporated quite a bit to remedy this problem. Furthermore, the chi of the naval sequences at times scream computer generated, but any faults of this film are forgiven pretty quickly, mostly due to the sincerity and respect that this film pays to itself.
The action is astounding, the acting is subtle, and the imagery is exquisite.
The plot is very intricate and difficult to explain simply (it would be like trying to explain the different factions at war in “Return of the King”). However, the set up is relatively simple. Evil Prime Minister wants to destroy opposing kingdoms. Two of the said kingdoms resist, culminating in the greatest war story in Chinese history. It all takes place in a location called Red Cliff, which is as famous to the Chinese as Gettysburg is to Americans. If you want more than that, go to IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0425637/plotsummary). Simply put, it is a war film. But, what makes it so impressive, is not just that it is about war; rather, it is about the individual stories of the people who are forced to fight that war and the real life game of chess that they must play. There are too many stand outs to list all of the great performances. But, rest assured that the cast will be handsomely decorated with acting honors.
Fault finders can find fault in any paradise, but for my money, the biggest fault is that, as Americans, we are only getting the shortened 2.5 hour version of the film. Overseas, Asian audiences get the true 4.5 hour version (apparently the distribution companies think that we, as Americans, won’t watch a film that is 3 hours or longer, even though we invented the epic genre (FIFTY YEARS AGO!)). Sometimes I think distribution companies are run by envious unfulfilled directors from the 50’s who “know a thing or two about movies kid” and “that Cecil fella was full of crap”).
So, now the question remains, how many Oscar Noms will it pick up? With ten movies in the Best Picture category this upcoming year, no doubt a place is secure, along with all of the ancillary noms that come with a foreign epic period piece such as this: foreign film, production design, costumes, etc. The real question is, since this project is so ambitious, so massive, so groundbreaking in its execution…will it achieve the Oscar status of “Titanic”? Fourteen noms is quite a bar to reach, but if the producers of this film are as motivated to get nominated as they were to make a phenomenal film, then yes. However, they do seem pretty much content on creating art, so playing the Hollywood game of getting nominations may not appeal to them much. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. Plus, if it is nominated for a metric assload of Oscars, then we may get the full 4.5 hour version in limited release in the US. I can only hope.
FOUR STARS. SEE IT! (Then take a friend to SEE IT AGAIN!)
Directed by: John Woo
Release Date: November 25, 2009
Run Time: 150 Minutes
Distributor: Beijing Film Studio
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.
Review by Joel Frost
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
At one point in “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Viggo Mortensen’s voice narrates a section from the book, about trying to dream as a child would and trying to lose oneself in the imaginings of a child’s mind. It’s an understandable exercise and desire, as Viggo’s character is a father who is caught in nothing short of a nightmare; a post-apocalyptic world where he must try to care for himself and his young son in the face of cannibals and a treacherous, dying world. The more complicated and unforgiving the circumstances of a person’s life and environment, the more often a person will attempt to simplify matters and fill in what seems insurmountably awful with hope and indeed, delusion. A lack of full awareness of one’s terrible circumstances and bleak future can be a tool of survival, just as it can be a hindrance. Nobody cares to spend time thinking about the likelihood of being raped and eaten (as well as seeing that done to one’s progeny) and if those things are in fact possibilities, a child’s naivete can prove valuable, at least for one’s sanity.
At another point, the father tells his son that as long as the boy is dreaming of terrible things, that means he is still fighting; once he starts dreaming of good, then he will have given up. It’s a pointed contrast to the earlier rumination, and it helps define the conflict that the father feels at trying to make his son aware of the dangers of their world, while still letting the boy have some freedom to dream and hope of better things. The father knows what faces the two of them, but cannot expect the boy to fully understand it… nor does he want his son to. At the same time, he knows he must instill the boy with a clear understanding of the seriousness of the world’s treachery.
Various flashback scenes show the brief history of the two travelers. The boy was born shortly after an undetermined cataclysm (in the book, it is perhaps less ambiguous). The world has been dying, with little to sustain those people who remain. The father’s wife… the boy’s mother (Charlize Theron, doing her best with a small part) becomes aware that there is little left in the way of hope. She cannot bear to live in a world where she will likely be raped and killed, just as her son may be.
In the book, the wife’s despair is a bleak and powerfully persuasive voice. She is not weak. She has not given up, so much as she has merely understood the reality that she and her men live in. She understands herself as a liability. She knows her husband cannot protect both her and their son — if he can protect anyone at all. She soberly explains the situation to him, and it is the most convincing single argument that Cormac McCarthy makes in his novel: If this woman, this mother, is so deeply aware of the situation that she is driven to suicide, then the world must indeed be as dead as she feels. She determinedly destroys herself “with a flake of obsidian… sharper than steel… the edge an atom thick”.
In the movie, while Charlize Theron does convey a certain resigned quality, there is not the same stark, defiant truth to her decision. Moreover, to demonstrate her death, Hillcoat has her merely walk off into the night. It suggests the filmmaker or the producers of “The Road” thought audiences could not forgive a mother leaving her child, but it is a poor choice. It is their job to convey the character’s feelings and her situation, and they fail in this case. Of course, any great work of literature (as The Road most certainly is) often finds itself at a disadvantage when it is relocated to the movie screen. Cormac McCarthy is a masterful chooser of words. He constructs images in a more complex way than a cinematographer could ever hope to. It’s almost unfair to compare what John Hillcoat and his cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe have presented for us: a gray world, with trees that uproot themselves and burn, an earth that groans and quakes. The locations and tactful CGI use help frame the dying landscape that these characters travel in. The dead and dying that the father and son encounter on their way are not typical film zombies, but the groaning, bleeding humans that surely would populate a world like this, should it ever exist. The film is valiantly crafted, and yet it can’t possibly reach the complexity of McCarthy’s vision. McCarthy’s Road makes a reader feel lost; Hillcoat’s Road shows a viewer the way.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the young boy with a wide-eyed disbelief, as his father attempts to deflect the world’s harshness. Smit-McPhee is well-cast as an innocent, and it is not hard to believe him as he seems to be able to keep his head fairly clear of the nightmares around him. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as usual, delivering a well-toned performance as a man who cannot hope to accomplish what he wants… the eternal protection of his beloved son, as they “carry the fire” together. The father gives in to his own impending death while giving his son all he can, and somehow keeping the boy from being consumed by fear and hatred. It is clear that these two characters share the same soul, as one exits this terrible world and another just begins in it.
It is that beginning, at the end of the film, that also deserves scrutinization. The tone of the end of McCarthy’s book is much different than the film’s finish. Again, it seems the filmmakers felt it necessary to rescue the viewers from the bleakness of the world that these characters live in. Whether a nuclear bomb or some other equivalent destructive force created this world is not of absolute importance to know, but apparently a nuclear family is what will carry the boy through it. It’s what a child might imagine as salvation… a Mommy who hadn’t copped out. A Daddy with a bigger gun. A couple of brothers and sisters to play with. Heck, even a dog. The boy is left in about as good hands as he possibly could be, and that’s somehow not quite satisfying.
The Road is a great novel, but it is only a good film. Since this site is called The Movie Guys, and not The Book Guys, we’ll have to settle for the latter. There is real suspense, tension, sadness, despair, trauma and hope in this film. But John Hillcoat gave in to the imaginings of a child’s mind, and therefore stopped fighting for something a little scarier, a little more real, a little less innocent. It could have made for a great film.
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Release Date: November 25, 2009
Run Time: 119 Minutes
Distributor: Dimension Films
A Serious Man
Review by Joel Frost
There is a shot in the opening prologue-scene in A Serious Man where a husband and wife in 19th century Poland, while debating the origin of a visitor to their home, stand next to each other and look through the camera, out into the audience. It is an interesting perspective, as the two of them stand side-to-side and represent polar opposites of a disagreement. The wife is convinced that their visitor is a “dybbuk”, a malicious possessing spirit, believed in the Jewish faith to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. The husband is sure the visitor is merely an old man who is need of some warmth and soup. The end of the scene provides no definitive answer to the dispute. The tale is allegorical, meant to show that the mere perception of impending evil can in itself create a kind of curse. Or, perhaps, it shows that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a modern-day descendent of the couple and “hero” of A Serious Man, was cursed long ago by a demon. The perspective of the film has been set to be viewed in two disparate ways. The couple stares out at the audience and we are left to choose.
The Coen Brothers pick up with Larry and his family in 1967. Larry is a physics professor who is married, with two young children: whiny adolescent daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) and her younger brother Danny (Aaron Wolff), who is about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, the Jewish ritual of transition to manhood for 13-year-old boys of the faith. From the beginning of our acquaintance with Larry, it’s clear that he does not have a solid command of his domain. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) has taken up with another man, his son seems only to care whether F-Troop will come in clearly on their television, his neighbor is intimidating, and he is a victim of an attempted bribe by a student who is looking for a better grade. His brother Arthur has come to live with the family in their drab suburban home, and he spends much of his time in the bathroom, draining a persistent sebacious cyst. Judith asks Larry for a divorce.
This is Coen Brothers country, and as usual it is populated by ugly, desperate people. Larry attempts to make sense of his world and control it as best he can, but finds himself floundering amid the forces of an oppressive community and the various twists and turns of a dull existence. Larry is dumbfounded by the confluence of negative events that come his way all at once, and is completely incapable of extricating himself from the jaws of the monster that is slowly devouring him and his sense of fairness and nobility. He attempts to seek the advice of several rabbis. He smokes a little weed. He tries to do what’s right.
The film is an excruciating discovery of the helplessness of a man who simply is not equipped to surmount his many perils. Larry Gopnik is the anti-Odysseus, as he stays in one place and repeatedly fails God’s trials, never finding his way to the home he imagines… with a loving wife and children. With fairness. With hope. With triumph.
The Coen Brothers have crafted another eviscerating examination of humanity, this time via the prism of the Jewish religion and community. It’s not hard to imagine that they themselves likely grew up in a similar world as the one the viewer sees on the screen. Or, perhaps, it is merely their perception that makes the world look as stark and bleak as it is for the fictional Larry Gopnik. Either way, if the view and presentation of the Coen Brothers can be trusted…and perhaps they have earned that by now… then their unflinching willingness to show Jewish stereotypes that they are clearly well-acquainted with is in itself shocking.
The most gorgeously grotesque scene in the film takes place at young Danny’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony. He has gotten high in the bathroom with his buddies and must then walk to the stage, stand at the bema (altar), and perform his end of the ritual… davening (singing prayer) for all the members of the congregation. As riveting and convoluted as any scene the Coen Brothers have ever crafted, this scene allows the audience to see through the eyes of a freaked-out young man as he peers at all the attendees in the Temple. Some are bored. Some are happy. Some are scared. They all are the denizens of Danny’s fears and nightmares. There is levity, terror, ugliness. There is comedy.
Near the end of the film, Larry’s brother Arthur (the sublime Richard Kind) tells Larry that Larry has received great gifts from God, while Arthur has received no such gifts for himself. From Arthur’s point-of-view, that may be true. From the audience’s point-of-view, things don’t look great for either of them. Larry is perhaps even worse off than Arthur (who is also having legal trouble stemming from his sexual appetites), but Larry seems utterly incapable of turning his ship away from the coming storm. He is too afraid of changing course. This fear has festered and enveloped him, and by the end of the film, Larry has no choice. No way out. He is ultimately a victim of the defenses that he and his community have erected. He is his own hostage.
If you know the work of the Coen Brothers, you know none of these themes represent new ground for them. But in what is perhaps their most introspective and controversial film to date, they have afforded us all a unique perspective. Go to the doctor. Kiss your children. Receive tenure. Keep your chin up. Life is beautiful.
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features
Review by Justin Bowler
As a fan of “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” I was waiting for a Guy Ritchie film I could really enjoy again, and I found it in “Sherlock Holmes”. It is not without flaws, but they are overshadowed by a fun update to this character with perfect casting of Robert Downey, Jr, and Jude Law.
Without completely summarizing the plot as stated in many other reviews, the set up is relatively simple. Murderer and self-proclaimed master of the dark arts, Lord Blackwood, vows he will return from death, after he is hanged, to kill again and, like Cromwell, take over England. It is up to Holmes and Watson to scientifically expose him and stop this evil secret plot. Yes, it is much more complicated than that, but, I’m not a fan of spelling out the entire plot in a review. And this particular story (not one from any actual Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book) could only be written 100 years after the time period that the story takes place. The harsh critic could call it slightly outlandish, and if the truth is told, the “scientific” plot devices used in this film are something akin to those used in the “Brisco County, Jr.” series. But, as I said, the faults are greatly outweighed by the favors of this film.
Hands down, the most enjoyable part of this film is the relationship between the two leads. Portrayed on paper as an elderly bickering couple, Downey, Jr. and Law depict the perfect bro-mance. They argue over who is wearing whose clothing. Holmes tries to curb Watson’s gambling addiction. Watson must constantly remind Holmes not to forget/misplace his revolver.
Furthermore, their portrayal of their characters is a fresh take for new audiences (and only a mixed bag for Holmes purists). Downey, Jr.’s Holmes is not the clean cut, deerstalker-wearing dandy. He is a dark-humored, fight-ready, self-loathing, spazmatic (who may or may not be under the influence of drugs like the original depiction). He is a Ritchie character though and through. A staple of Ritchie’s Holmes is to use his knowledge of the human body to precisely pinpoint the absolute best tactic to immobilize his different opponents. This is an excellent update of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character. It is perfect for today’s audiences, but also a believable trait that the original Holmes may have undertaken IF he ever had fought anyone. While Law’s Watson undergoes a greater transformation from bumbling sidekick to a well trained military man who is Holmes’ equal partner. This is mostly evident when Watson punches Holmes square in the face and speaks a humiliating truth to Holmes to knock some sense into him.
Though it feels new and interesting, we are completely immersed in the old world of Sherlock Holmes, there are several shots of the steps that lead to 221b Baker St, as well as wonderful Holmes quotes from the books, though we never hear a single “elementary” (we don’t miss it). Writers Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg obviously did their homework.
The score, by Hans Zimmer, while simple, is mostly plucked violins and stringed instruments that we are familiar with, but used in a completely unfamiliar way. Once again, this is everything we know about Holmes, but slightly skewed.
The biggest mixed bag is Guy Ritchie himself. His style is his greatest adversary as well as his greatest enemy in the film. It works perfectly with flash cuts firing like Holmes’ synapses, at a million miles a minute, illustrating with perfection his cranial capability. Furthermore, this is intertwined with slo-mo bare knuckle brawls and we get something akin to the marvelous boxing sequences of “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”, plus more. However, that is where Ritchie’s style also hurts him. One visually stunning dock explosion doesn’t seem to have any real danger (other than for the actual actor, which is still cool by the way). But also, the climactic battle between our hero Holmes and villain, Blackwood, doesn’t produce any genuine risk; rather, it is just a textbook movie finale: fighting and CGI, interspersed with appropriately placed clever quips from our hero or villain depending on who has the upper hand.
But, don’t fret, Guy Ritchie has set himself up to come back for the sequel, and if the rest of his team is on board, then I am too.
Overall, a fun movie experience for Holmes’ purists and new fans alike.
3 ¼ stars. So, see it in the theatres.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Release Date: December 25, 2009
Run Time: 128 Minutes
Distributor: Village Roadshow Pictures
SINGLE FOR A DAY
A Single Man
Review by Paul Preston
“A Single Man” is not necessarily ‘style over substance’ in that the movie has more style than substance, but the style is definitely more interesting here. Colin Firth, in what will surely be his first Oscar-nominated role, stars as a gay Los Angeles teacher who is immersed in sadness following the death of his lover. The audience is also mired in this tragedy to the point where I forgot to be entertained.
Now I don’t need a movie to be horribly exciting to be entertaining (The slow-moving “Junebug” remains one of my favorite movies of the last decade), but there was something about watching Firth’s character George sludge through this depressing film that wasn’t making me want to know what happens next.
The movie is provocative, presenting this story in the tight-assed, closeted ‘60s, where the idea of living outwardly gay is by no means celebrated, and where mourning is an even more silent, painful, lonely process. The early scene where Firth learns that his partner has been killed in an auto accident is expertly filmed. Firth, who can do a lot by underplaying a scene, is filmed close-up as a very blunt phone call informs him only family will be able to attend the funeral. The dialogue, sturdy cinematography and Firth’s performance, his character not knowing how to react to such sadness and callousness at the same time, create a commanding scene. Unfortunately, the rest of the day the film covers, meandered too much to maintain that command.
Also good in the film is Julianne Moore as a lonely L.A. socialite who seems to have lost the people and the society around her and enjoys time with Firth, even if only to drown sorrows. Moore is an exceptionally good actress and this type of repressed sorrow is conveyed well by her. But, yes, she’s sad, too.
This is the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford (who also co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel), so when I say the movie has style, this is the result of someone who’s made a career of style. The “Mad Men” design team and DP Eduard Grau give the film the right period look, but also find time to fashion shots just off-kilter enough to remind the viewer that things are out of focus under the surface. Especially good are some memorable shots of Moore on the phone with Firth. She’s often looking in a mirror, primping herself and the distorted face in the magnified reflection communicates the literal ‘face’ she’s putting on to mask her sadness.
Despite this professional craftsmanship, the film never allows itself to lift the story out of the gloom surrounding it. George flirts and is flirted with by others, including a young student played by Nicholas Hoult, and a handsome Latino stranger. But none of it rings as if it’s having much of an effect. Even if there are moments (brief ones) of levity or joy, they don’t seem to move the landscape much, perhaps that’s further contributing to the muted emotions of the time, but by the ending (apparently the same one in the book), I felt like the whole story was relatively pointless.
So come for the style, Tom Ford has made a film that will engage the senses, but outside of pain, pain and more pain, this movie didn’t engage my care.
Directed by: Tom Ford
Release Date: December 17, 2009
Run Time: 101 Minutes
Distributor: Artina Films
Review by Paul Preston
We know what to expect from a “Star Trek” movie, thirty plus years after “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Perhaps this is because the franchise has kept it all in the family up till now. The majority of films have been directed by people involved in the “Star Trek” universe for years. The thought of an outsider venturing into the realm of “Star Trek” and directing the re-launch of their precious franchise is enough to make a Vulcan’s ears straighten out. I mean, the last time an interloper put his stamp on a “Trek” adventure, the result was the Stuart Baird-directed “Star Trek: Nemesis”, considered a failure on all fronts.
So, it’s refreshing to see TV guru J.J. Abrams not just succeed, but overwhelmingly so in delivering a fresh, relevant and exciting take on a new “Trek” tale. Even more impressive is that “Transformers” scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann developed an ingenious device to appease long-time Trekkers and newcomers alike. Said device is a black hole that creates an alternate “Trek” universe early in the film. This allows the filmmakers to have fun with shades of the “Trek” characters we know and love, yet gives them a chance to re-make and re-discover them in a new adventure. It’s a great story design and that rare occasion where a time travel story has no glaring flaws. “Back to the Future II”, a movie that is built on traversing space and time, had a major error in its depiction of time travel* and even another “Star Trek” film, “First Contact”, mishandled time travel*. But if you follow the characters of this movie in and out of wormholes, go home and draw out a schematic diagram of exactly what happened, it make sense!
The plot details involve Spock traveling back in time on the heels of Romulans, who are convinced Spock caused the destruction of their home planet. The Romulans are bent on revenge and destroying Vulcan with a mysterious substance called Red Matter. At this point in time, youthful Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest of the crew are getting their feet wet on the bridge of The Enterprise after the original Captain, Christopher Pike, is captured by the Romulans.
The tech aspects of the movie are top-notch, killing the old notions of cheesy FX that have haunted this franchise in the past. Also top notch is the casting, succeeding in many different ways. Chris Pine as Kirk brings the right machismo and sense of humor to rival straight-as-an-arrow, logic-based Zachary Quinto, nailing the role of Spock. The early-relationship standoffs between Kirk and Spock are a lot of fun, almost playing out like the romantic comedy couple who hate each other that you know will be together in the end. There is romance in this film that wakes Trek fans out of the coma they’ve been put in by Picard’s stodgy relationships (he deserved sexier times). There’s a romantic liaison between Spock and Uhuru (a concept straight out of “alternate universe”) that works as a romance and for comedy fodder as something else to come between Kirk and Spock. Karl Urban has his best role since “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as “Bones” McCoy. His role isn’t as re-imagined as some of the others, instead, he flavors his role with the best parts of DeForest Kelley’s original portrayal, to hilarious effect.
Eric Bana does a fine job as the revenge-bent Romulan, reminding audiences that a real THREAT is essential to an adventure movie. Once the threat is real and potent, a movie can have all sorts of fun underneath that umbrella, and “Star Trek” does. Take note, Indiana Jones. In fact, George Lucas, why don’t you give J.J. Abrams a call…
THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT, I GOTTA STAY HOME
AND HAVE A ROBOTIC VERSION OF MYSELF EXPERIENCE IT IN MY PLACE.
Review by Paul Preston
“Surrogates” proposes a fascinating vision of the future, but unfortunately delivers a sub-par movie to explore this future. The idea is that technology has advanced to where people can control movements of robots with their mind. The robots eventually take on the physical characteristics of their “operators”, to where people rarely leave their homes, allowing the counterparts to experience life on their behalf. This can lead to extreme behavior, as there is no risk involved for the operator, the robot will take the brunt of any abuse or aggression in the physical world.
One day a surrogate is murdered (kind of a short-circuiting), causing the simultaneous death of its operator, a situation previously thought impossible. Bruce Willis plays Tom Greer, whose surrogate begins the investigation into the weapon that may have caused this death. Willis is well cast, because he’s a rare actor who can look youthful enough to pull off the robotic action hero, and ragged enough in his fifty-some years to be a world-weary policeman.
Director Jonathan Mostow has made serviceable action films before – “U-571” is especially good and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” has its moments for a movie that never should have been made. But you can get the idea that he doesn’t have a directorial signature, and that leaves “Surrogates” to be a capable feature that never gets too radical or risky. For example, Paul Verhoeven’s “Surrogates” would have gone to great lengths to examine the excesses in pleasure and danger one could experience through a surrogate. David Fincher’s “Surrogates” would’ve been DARK, and the characters would’ve been a bit more flawed.
But where Mostow’s “Surrogates” lacks in style, it makes up in devotion to story. By no means is this film empty, as the filmmakers have put together a decent who-dunnit with some nifty surprises and a direction that leads the tale back to the running theme of the importance of humanity.
The special effects are hit and miss. It seems like movies with the scope of “Surrogates” long to have a few F/X shots that can show how big they can be. These shots usually come with the cost of the viewer saying “Hey, look, it’s a big CGI shot”. Instead of saying “ I have nothing to say here because I’m busy being invested in the story”. Sure enough, the surrogate factory is one such “Holy shit, it’s a green screen” shot. There is, however, an excellent chase scene as Willis’ surrogate chases a man into a ‘humans only’ sanctuary.
Supporting roles are well served as Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis reunite and nobody gets ass-raped. Radha Mitchell is very good as her character and her character’s surrogates undergo many changes. She’s up to the task. James Cromwell is as good as ever as the designer of surrogate technology.
I hope I’m not contradictory here, but I could’ve used a little levity in this movie. Normally, I think action movies foolishly trade in danger for “let’s have fun!”. But often the fun is in the danger. Look at the trailer for the upcoming “2012”, as actors trade gag lines while MILLIONS of helpless people are perishing all around them. “Surrogates” treats its mystery very soberly, and I appreciate that. It’s not often that I find myself then wishing for a little more humor, but I could’ve used it here. You know Bruce Willis would’ve delivered the comedy goods as smoothly as he does the distress.
This film falls in line with similar-themed sci-fi projects of late. It has elements previously seen in “Gamer”, “I, Robot”, “The Sixth Day”, TV’s “Dollhouse” and classics like “Blade Runner”, “The Matrix” & “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. The fact that so many movies are being made about Americans losing their soul may be more of a statement than any of the movies individually make.
Review by Kathy Bugajsky
I believe that Bruce Willis is incapable of playing a happily married man through an entire movie, especially if he is playing a cop. This movie is no exception.
“Surrogates” is set in a world where you can stay in the safety of your own home and send a robot out to do all your dirty work. Robots can do whatever without any risk to the person operating them. That is until a weapon is created that can fry the brain of said person. Bruce Willis and his partner investigate a couple of murders and unravel deeper conspiracies.
It’s a solid sci-fi movie. The whole back story gets explained over the opening credits and all the other details get filled in as you go. It is a good murder mystery with only a few weaker moments that just play into clichés. I’m kind of sick of the really fat guys who pretend to be really hot girls either through robots or in virtual worlds in general. Aside from that, I think you will be generally entertained watching this futuristic who-done-it.
I can recommend seeing either at the theater or renting. I give it 3 out of 4 stars.
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Release Date: September 25, 2009
Run Time: 104 Minutes
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
FLASH CUT, FILM GRAIN LOOK, SLOW MOTION, REPEAT
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Review by Adam Witt
Taking of Pelham, 1, 2, 3 is about this guy that looks like John Travolta who hijacks a train and holds the passengers hostage, turning an innocent MTA Dispatcher who looks like Denzel Washington into a defacto hostage negotiator. And then a lot of stuff happens, they both have secrets, and somebody wins only after having become the sort of person who could win. Blah, blah, blah – to explain further would deny the existence of IMDB.
What’s interesting about it is that somewhere on the way to Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, Director Tony Scott got interesting again. A comparison between the first Beverly Hills Cop and the sequel has always been my metric for what’s interesting about Tony Scott. While the original Beverly Hills Cop is superior, the sequel answers the question of what the original would look like if it was always sunset, the rooms were smokier and Brigitte Nielsen were in those rooms. I loved Tony Scott, it would be at LEAST a month before I started complaining if I were stuck in the town from Too Wong Foo with only a dvd of The Last Boy Scout.
Rapid music video editing and fake-gritty, Flashdancey photography were the common complaints of Tony Scott’s style, which is actually his charm. You want not-80’s? Go watch Rain Man, it doesn’t feel 80’s at all. Have fun, I’ll be watching Top Gun and thinking about how much easier it is to solve a Rubik’s Cube with Billie Jean on. Just because Beverly Hills Cop II and Cool As Ice are shot similarly, doesn’t make Beverly Hills Cop II suck. I was a fan, but when Tony Scott didn’t show any growth between The Last Boy Scout and The Fan, I tuned out. The Fan felt like The Last Boy Scout of baseball movies made from the guy who made the Top Gun of race car movies.
In 2004’s Man On Fire, Tony Scott decided to make no apologies for his style and instead, blew that style up to 11. Four and Five cameras shoot in as many formats and framerates, and all angles make it to the screen in editing who’s pace is fast, but is no longer dictated by a freeway chase or robbery. Tony Scott embraces his own style and shows how masterful he is with the much maligned techniques now courting more attention while being at the service of something more subtle. Well, subtle compared to The Last Boy Scout. It’s a clash that makes Tony Scott finally become a director of distinctive technique, and legitimate interest.
Take the director of Man on Fire and give him a compact single-location real-time drama similar to Scott’s wonderful Crimson Tide, but with The New York Subway system instead of a Submarine and you’ve got Taking Of Pelham 1, 2, 3 . Scott’s new style was forged in some wild and open settings, now the style is compressed into a claustrophobic location to interesting effect. Scott excels, and creates a solid thriller peppered with enough character moments to give the film a little depth and mystery, but not so much that the film forgets what it is. It’s not going to bring your Grandmother out of the coma, but it will certainly distract a grieving family while awaiting her death.
REMEMBER THE TIME
Michael Jackson’s This is It
Review by Paul Preston
“This is It”, the first concert film I can think of that’s entirely pieced together with rehearsal footage, is a noble, perhaps necessary topper to Michael Jackson’s career. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t know this, but when Jackson died this summer, he had been rehearsing at Staples Center in L.A. for a 50-show engagement in London. This film is a compilation of the rehearsal footage lovingly (and meticulously) edited together by director Kenny Ortega in a love letter to the entertainment behemoth Jackson was.
Here’s my theory on Michael Jackson. When the music was brilliant (“Off the Wall”, “Thriller”), he was a musical genius who had a bit of controversy over his relationships with children. When the music went south (“Invincible”), he was an alleged child molester. The most disappointing part of Jackson’s late career was that he didn’t perform often enough, leaving the world to focus solely on the allegations and tabloid minefield that was his personal life. He needed these London concerts. This thought came racing to my mind immediately upon seeing Jackson’s first song in “This is It”, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”. He floats, pops, locks, and lives in the music. He reminds you immediately that he is a performer not to be ignored, and unfortunately it took his death to get the most attention he’s had in a decade.
The concert footage here cuts between three or four different shoots (or more), of varying degrees of film and video stock quality. But “This Is It” comes pre-packaged with a built-in pass on all tech elements. I knew it wasn’t ‘finished’, so I wasn’t expecting Kubrickian prowess (any excuse to use the word “Kubrickian”). There was even one moment where a big stage show effect (a bulldozer crashes through the stage) was never realized, so the film cuts to the 3D rendering of what the effect might look like, but you can’t fault the filmmakers for this move, it was all the footage they were working with.
One tech element needs to be mentioned by name – Editors Don Brochu, Tim Patterson and Kevin Stitt. Not only was the footage meshed together in a palpable concoction, but I couldn’t help but wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Jackson looks really good in this. Was there really no drama? No celebrity tantrums? If they were captured on video, they were cut around nicely by the editors. Perhaps too nicely. The MJ fans will love the way their hero is represented. Movie fans might want to see more of the challenge in putting up this monstrosity of a show. There isn’t much backstage in this show that’s compelling. There are shots of the making of the short films included in the concert and extra rehearsals with the band, but nothing ever really seemed to be problematic. I mean, even Scorsese couldn’t get the Stones set list until right before they went on.
I think I also enjoyed “This is It” more than I thought because the film stuck to my personal favorite MJ tunes – “Billie Jean”, “Black or White”, “Thriller” and the outstanding, high-energy “Smooth Criminal”. With as large a catalog as Jackson has, it’s impossible to include all the songs you might like, but I was fine doing without the inane “Bad” or any of the other songs from the luke-warm “Dangerous”. And there is a SICK amount of dancing in this movie. We get a very brief introduction to the dancers at the top of the film, who couldn’t be more excited to land the job of working with the legend himself. As the rehearsals progress, they dance their ASSES off. Too often, I think the lightweight flakes that have emerged in Jackson’s wake over the last ten years employ dancers because they really don’t have much else going on – no band, no lyrics to really sink teeth into and no personality. In “This is It”, the dancers are the icing on an already tasty cake.
The unforgettable moment of “This is It” comes during the end of “They Don’t Care About Us”. As the song ends and the lights fade, just before darkness covers the stage, Michael Jackson drops all the attention he’s given his show, he sheds the focus he applies to rehearsal and the desire to get it right and he settles into a brief, but utterly playful smile. Even with an empty arena, on stage is where Michael Jackson was ultimately happy, where he knew he could get the only unconditional love he had left. Then the lights faded.
Directed by: Kenny Ortega
Release Date: October 28, 2009
Run Time: 121 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
True Blood, Season 2 Finale
Review by Matt Todd
HBO has been known for being the first premium cable channel for giving us shows that push the envelope; both in language, sex, and subject matter. Things they broadcast are the stuff of pure entertainment bliss that no major network could touch because of the content restrictions that cable doesn’t have to worry about. True Blood is one of those shows that take advantage of this.
True Blood isn’t a series that week to week has a completely different story line like most sitcoms or crappy dramas. Instead, this series, now ending its second season this past Sunday night, has followed a 12-episode arc, just like the first season. So, what this means for those still scratching their heads, is that if you had all 12 episodes, you can watch them end-to-end in a 12-hour marathon and it would connect perfectly, like, say, the show Lost.
Like Lost, this show ends all of its episodes (with the exception of the 9th episode, “I Will Rise Up”) with a cliffhanger. Because of the cinematic qualities of this show, to do a review of the season finale, I will have to discuss the story arc of the entire season leading up to this episode. SPOILERS of the season’s storyline will be included here, so if you haven’t caught-up to the last episode, DO IT NOW!
In the tragic tale of the love between Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and Bill Compton, (Stephen Moyer, who also has a real-life love connection with his now fiancé Paquin) the local living residents of Bon Temps have come to terms accepting their nocturnal monogamous relationship. The vampire community still doesn’t accept their relationship and they see any vampire who falls in love with a human as weak. But is Sookie just a normal run-of-the-mill human or something much greater (more on that later)? Season 2’s story arc revolves mostly around a special character named Maryann Forrester (Michelle Forbes) who we have learned is a Maenad.
A Maenad is a female worshipper of the Greek God of wine and fertility, Dionysus. In the beginning of the season, Maryann was a helping hand to Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), when she was in jail and had nobody, not even her mother, to turn to. Maryann gave her food, clothing, shelter, and a little more than Tara bargained for. After Tara feels better and wants to get back to work at Merlotte’s and resume her life, Maryann decides to move into her life literally, by taking temporary shelter at the Stackhouse residence where Tara now lives. Joining Maryann are her manservant Karl (Adam Leadbeater) and Tara’s love interest Benedict, nicknamed Eggs (Mehcad Brooks). Throughout the season, Maryann seems to have a charm that influences everybody in Bon Temps; every human that is.
The other major storyline this season involves the problems that plague the relationship of Bill and Sookie. When we left off last season, Bill had become a vampire maker of a young, nubile, virginal (and might I say in a bit of editorializing, SEXY) Jessica Hamby (Deborah Ann Woll). As her maker, he has become less a fellow teacher of a vampire, then a pseudo father figure. To make matters more complicated, Season 1 bad boy Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård, son of the great Swedish-American crossover Stellan Skarsgård, but in my opinion, much more of the ladies man than his father was) seems to like Sookie a lot more than he let on previously. He senses something unique about her as Maryann does when the two butt heads. It’s at this point where we realize that Sookie is more than just a mind-reading waitress. She has a metaphysical strength that even Sookie is unaware she had. It reminded me of the powers that X-Men Jubilee had.
Tying both storylines together, are of course, the supporting characters Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), the shape shifting bar owner, Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s easily influenced brother with a better head on his shoulders this season, Hoyt Fortenberry (Jim Parrack), Jessica’s human love interest and a mama’s boy determined to get out of his shell, Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer), the recovering alcoholic detective who is determined to prove his worth to the community, and to save my personal favorite actor for last is Nelsan Ellis who plays Layfayette Reynolds, Tara’s cousin, and the spirited homosexual cook at Merlotte’s who owes his loyal servitude to Eric for letting him live.
If you have caught-up to the last episode, you will know all the ins and outs of the plot, of which, I will not start to delve into for brevity’s sake (that word I do not heed as often as I’d like). Nor will I ruin the course of events that transpire in the season’s conclusion; after all this is a review, not a spoiler-rich discussion. What I will go into is the driving force that gives way to the final climax and afterwards.
By the end of the 11th episode, we know that Bill has sought help from the Queen vampire Sophie Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), who has a playful attitude that doesn’t seem to strike the right note with me. It almost seems like a joke that bombed. The main writer of this season (Alexander Woo) and perhaps the novels on which this series is based (Charlaine Harris, which I have not read) tries too hard to create a dissonance in tension with the queen living in a fantasy enclave feeding constantly on willing slaves and then playing Yahtzee with them. It comes off not as funny and random as the writers thought it might, but awkward and false.
Well, Queen Sophie gives her vague advice to Bill in what she thinks is the best way to kill Maryann the Maenad who by now has caused chaos and death in Bon Temps with her control over the entire human population. She has them do nothing but drink, party, cause lawlessness, and have massive orgies whilst being entranced in her spell. The director gives a clue to anyone under Maryann’s spell, by making the characters appear to have total blackened eyes, like a sharks eyes (or like a doll’s eyes as Quint from Jaws would say!).
Sam Merlotte has been chosen by Maryann to be the ultimate sacrificial lamb (or dog, or fly, or whatever he shifts into) for her to bring Dionysus to life once again, or something like that. It is up to Bill, Sookie, Sam, Jason, and Andy to figure out how to defeat this creature and save Bon Temps, as they are its last residents who aren’t entranced. Yet.
Episode 12 begins with Sookie getting taken prisoner by the entranced Lafayette. What transpires to lead-up to the ultimate showdown is creepy and fun, kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives style fun where the sane person is the token minority. I really enjoyed the tension built in the first third of the episode. Only the twisted mind of series creator Alan Ball (who also did a brilliant job with the macabre in HBO’s Six Feet Under) could devise such a show where death, blood, and gore can come off as a humorous element and still pull through a great and sincere love story that sincerely tugs at the heart.
The only thing I will give away is that this will probably be the last we see or hear of Maryann. I for one will not miss her. Her character was at first intriguing and devilishly interesting, but as the season wore on, so did the boredom that resulted from her screen time. First off, Michelle Forbes isn’t exactly a venerable actress. Also, there was a one-note performance that I felt throughout the entire season with no character growth. It only made matters worse that every viewer kind of knew not many interesting things would happen until the showdown in the very end.
After the showdown, things begin to calm down a bit in the story and it’s this second third of the show that I found to be lagging for obvious reasons. In the course of 24 episodes for this series, the one thing that has always bugged me (if there was one major thing) was the pacing. It shifts way too much from one speed to another and despite the episodes only being an hour long, this can distract the viewer and lose the momentum to carry it through to the final third.
The season finale is no different. Whereas the final third is really exciting as it opens up the possibility to lots of great stories lined up in Season 3, I am just upset that the creative team decided to smash it all together in the last 10 minutes. It feels a bit rushed and as a viewer, I feel somewhat cheated.
That being said, the way this episode closes is one of the most satisfying of season-enders I have seen in a while (maybe since Lost back in May). May the secular God bless Alexander Woo (see, I can praise him too) for giving Sam a new outlook and mission in his life. I felt bad for his character and the actor playing him alike, as it seemed they were both in a rut. Not anymore. In fact, it looks as if the third season will open the door to a new world of creatures and intrigue through Sam’s adventure.
Also interesting is where the love triangle has blossomed between Sookie, Bill, and Eric. Eric becomes conflicted with what he should do as a vampire (and what the Queen commands of him) and what his emotions give way to. Not to mention Sookie’s unspoken infatuation with Eric after being duped to drink his blood. To top the tension off, the always-overprotective Bill, hasn’t trusted Eric’s intentions and wants to make a life-changing step with Sookie.
Overall, True Blood remains a show that continues to push the creative envelope with high levels of sexual frustration and murderous playfulness that would make any devotee of HBO content proud. It has a rabid fan base and I am no exception. Season 3 can’t come soon enough!
FISH IN A BARREL
The Ugly Truth
Review by Justin Bowler
It is easy to write a review when the title says it all.
However, rather than write an in-depth review of how disappointing “The Ugly Truth” is, here is a compilation of quotes from other reviewers.
“The film is so predictable that it might as well have been written as a test classroom exercise in RomCom 101”
“The vaguely inhuman female lead, Katherine Heigl, who must learn to bend a little and appreciate the hunk in her midst, the one smitten with all her nutty foibles. If only the foibles were funny foibles. If only the characters seemed like earthlings.”
“Aside from being relational Science Fiction, ‘The Ugly Truth’ feels about 150 years out of date – or would, if the script weren’t so clinically dependent on the topics of masturbation, genitalia, and raunch.”
“This is a cynical, clumsy, aptly titled attempt to cross the female-oriented romantic comedy with the male-oriented gross-out comedy that is interesting on several levels, none having to do with cinema.”
“The director…appears to have instructed his actors to over play their roles for the hard of hearing and hard of seeing”
“Gerard Butler, who spends much of the movie struggling to disguise his Scottish brogue under one of Mel Gibson’s old American accents.”
“For all the discussion of oral sex, masturbation, and faking orgasms, as well as the level of F-bombs more usually heard in films by Martin Scorsese, Heigl doesn’t even take off her bra when she goes to bed.”
In short, “The Ugly Truth” is a raunchy, tasteless and vulgar “romantic comedy” that is rated “R” for sexuality and crude humor. Ironically, it isn’t funny at all, so you can’t really call it a comedy. Also, the raunchy, tasteless, and vulgar part is way too base for the average female. Plus, the “sexuality” doesn’t mean nudity and isn’t nearly titillating enough for the average guy. Furthermore, it is full of antigay comments, so the gay audience won’t enjoy it either. Finally, it is rated “R”, so 12 year old boys can’t attend. So, who was this movie made for? Well, Katherine Heigl is the Executive Producer, so I guess this is the type of movie she would enjoy watching.
Skip this movie and go out to see “(500) days of summer”. Or stay home and rent “When Harry Met Sally”.
Directed by: Robert Luketic
Release Date: July 24, 2009
Run Time: 96 Minutes
Distributor: Lakeshore Entertainment
Review by Paul Preston
Surprise, surprise, Pixar has made a wonderful film. “Up” is a true original, loaded with unique characters, outstanding design, and some wild, vertigo-inducing action. Through it all, the Pixar brand of wit and humor is fully intact. John Lasseter and his team have chosen another rather risky project for a Memorial Day weekend release: an old man ties balloons to his house to travel to a South America, a location he’s desired to go to since his youth. Outside of “Gran Torino”, this is the only film that’s taken a risk on putting an octogenarian front and center of a potential blockbuster. But “Up’ gives it’s lead a real warmth and humanity that is all but missing in Hollywood’s general portrayal of the elderly, who, when not pointing shotguns at the local hoodlums, are normally the butt of the joke.
“Up”’s main character is Carl Frederickson, and Pixar deals a masterstroke in telling his backstory in an remarkable montage set to Michael Giacchino’s dazzling score (Giacchino scored both “Star Trek” and “Up” and deserves an Oscar for the love of god – he was unfairly passed over for his GREAT “The Incredibles” score years ago). The montage of Carl’s life elicits laughs, tears and strongly establishes why Carl is doing what he’s doing. The house with balloons is as memorable a cinema icon as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Dorothy’s house flying through the tornado. But it’s the reason for Carl’s quest and the metaphor of the house as the baggage he’s carrying that makes the story of “Up” go from memorable to truly magical.
The voice talent is strong throughout, and like “Wall-E” before it, there are no superstars driving the show. Ed Asner’s voice brings all the weight of his years to Carl, and he’s matched pitch-perfect by Christopher Plummer. In a hilarious turn, young Jordan Nagai kills as the Explorer scout constantly bothering Carl. “Up” has been shown in 3-D, and I get why theaters are doing that. With pay-per-view, on demand, online, blu-ray and DVD options for people to see a film, the in-theater option is pulling out all the stops to get you to come out and spend up to $14. But “Up” is so strong in character and narrative, there’s no need to add the special effect of exploring the third dimension. An added plus, for sure, but not necessary. “Up” excels in its animation, robustly coloring every frame, whether it’s with thousands of individual balloons or the painter’s palette worth of color on a unique South American bird.
“Up” also fires up the Pixar humor to uproarious effect. Particularly funny are a pack of dogs who “speak” through collars that read their thoughts. The combination of the absurd and the direct translation of a dog’s actions into words make for some pretty funny stuff. They also get a lot of mileage out of Carl’s grumpiness, without making him unlikeable.
Gush time. Pixar makes the best films in Hollywood right now. An eclectic mix of top acting talent, dazzling animation, inventive and risky storytelling, every time. Next up, they’re re-distributing “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” this fall in 3-D. Again, whether the 3-D is necessary is debatable, but it’ll be great to re-watch the first feature length film that put Pixar on the national map. They came out of the gate so strong, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to see the possibilities in risky plots and never waiver from a formula underneath that is the most watchable cinema out there.
A VIEW FROM THE TOP
Up in the Air
Review by Joel Frost
Freedom. Perhaps you don’t think you have enough of it. Perhaps you’ve imagined that if you really had it, you’d get the hell out of here and do whatever you wanted. You’re a wanderer at heart. Why, you sometimes wonder, do I stay here? I could have made other choices. I still can make those choices, and I can leave all this… whatever this is… behind. I’ll do it my way. I’ll take off.
Where would I land, though?
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a man who seems to have found a way to never come down. He travels constantly, working for a company that provides the service of firing the unwanted employees of other companies. With his slip-on shoes and his various preferred-member cards, he performs his job with ease. His frequent-flyer miles are adding up, heading him toward a goal he’s looking forward to, although not as a finish line. He never stays in one place too long. He swoops in, executes, and leaves. Ryan likes it this way. He has found his routine, above it all, or so he believes.
Sometimes though, as they say in the movies, life has a way of catching up with you. Ryan’s boss Craig (Jason Bateman) calls Ryan in to let him know that the company is changing the way it operates. The young, ambitious Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has been brought onboard to oversee and install the changes. The plan is to use video-conferencing, rather than face-to-face meetings, as a way to further avoid conflict between the terminated and the terminators. Ryan’s job description will change drastically, and he will no longer be able to stay in motion, the way he prefers. Complicating matters, he has just met Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a traveling businesswoman who is, as she describes herself, “just like you, only with a vagina”.
What follows is a simply magnificent story about human discovery and finding oneself someplace neither here nor there… right where you are. George Clooney is splendid as the disconnected Ryan, who seems to have it just as we all might imagine: the Rock Star in the business suit, laying down devastation and women as he pleases and always making his getaway. It is a great credit to George Clooney that he has taken his handsome face and nice smile to deeper and more interesting places on the screen than he likely had to. His performance is understated and nuanced, never too earnest.
Such as it is with Vera Farmiga and Jason Bateman. Farmiga’s Alex is the perfect female reflection of Clooney’s Ryan… playful, warm and fun-loving, yet always miles away. Farmiga is an excellent actress and it’s a pleasure to see her perform this character with equal parts weight and transparency. Bateman plays a similar character to those he’s played in most of his recent roles, the sleepy-eyed yet astute boss, rising just above a monotone with his voice at all the right moments. It is a credit to the director, Jason Reitman (yes, Ivan’s son), who has drawn the best performance of this character out of Bateman.
But it is young Anna Kendrick, as Natalie Keener, who just about takes this movie and runs away with it. Were the film less strong on any other fronts, Kendrick could easily have devoured it with her pitch-perfect performance. She expertly metes out the vulnerability of this young, driven character for the audience. She makes Natalie Keener the human example of modern-day American ambition, without losing a note of her humanity. She is a fine young actress, deserving of her Golden Globe nomination for the part, as well as the Oscar nomination that will likely follow. It won’t surprise me if she wins both.
In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if “Up In The Air” wins just about every award it’s eligible for. This is a true American classic, timely with the way it addresses many issues: the current financial crisis, the change that advancing technology brings with it, the (primarily, although not solely) man’s desire to remain as free as a child and not be affected by the world, as he lets it turn beneath him.
The film makes none of the mistakes that such stories often do. There are few, if any, easy answers. Ryan and Alex’s romance is sweet and fun, and just as flawed as it should be. Ryan re-connects with his estranged family on the weekend of his sister’s wedding and is the hero for a while. As it is when things are truly up in the air, there seems just as much if not more potential for a happy ending as not. Certainly there can be plenty of fun, even if it’s the kind you get at corporate conventions where Young MC is the entertainment. The film never falters, though, because it makes promises and fulfills them. It is a consistent world that Jason Reitman adeptly navigates us through. The script is an adaptation by Reitman and Sheldon Turner of a novel by Walter Kirn. Having not read the book, I can’t attest to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but this is a fine, fine, movie.
Ryan Bingham steps out of the line, and when he tries to get back in, he sees that he is at the back of it. For a man who always makes his flight, it is somehow not a surprise when he misses his connection.
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Release Date: December 25, 2009
Run Time: 109 Minutes
Distributor: Cold Spring Pictures
YOU MAKE MY HEART SING
Where the Wild Things Are
Review by David Beach
I’ll admit it. I was looking forward to this movie for quite some time. I had been seeing production stills for a while and was really looking forward to a beautiful movie. I am also a fan of the book, though I was never really sure why. As books go, it’s pretty light. Very little plot. Very few words. But, it’s attractive. A picture book, essentially. It’s a book that has stuck with me since childhood. Although based on Maurice Sendak’s original, Dave Eggers has written a longer book and is credited with this screenplay, and Spike Jonze is the director.
It was interesting hearing groups debate the movie on the way out of the theatre. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those “love it or hate it” movies for you.
I personally enjoyed it.
A great deal.
It was (a word that I may use a lot in this review) beautiful. Granted, the movie was all over the place with plot and character. But, it made sense in this world. This is the world of a kid. Max. A Wild Thing. This isn’t really just a movie, if I may, this is art. And art’s job is to create a reaction or emotion. This movie is a study in psychology. A movie about play, fear, and the need for love and especially the desire to be a “part of the pile”. Not just being a part of the pile, but a fear of losing that pile, and, as Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini ) points out…losing teeth. That one day, you see spaces between them and the next day they’re just gone. That fear of loss or helplessness that may have occasionally made you angry…made you wild…made you run away from home. Max ran.
Max Records really does an incredible job as Max. If you can remember being a kid and dealing with those issues that kids have, Max shows them. I was never pulled away from the world they created and to me, that’s what makes this movie work. Though the characters change emotions on the turn of a dime, I can remember those times as a kid.
There were moments in the movie that brought house laughs and then, just as quickly, you felt those emotions of “what just happened and why?”. But once again, Max’s world. Everyone will probably relate in one way or another to Max or one of the Wild Things. Whether its Alex (voiced by Paul Dano) never being heard, or Judith (voice of Catherine O’Hara) always feeling like an outsider, the fears and fun of childhood are pretty much covered. The characters motivations didn’t always seem deep or complete, but, they were in a sense complete because of their lack of depth. Childhood. Where anger makes you smash something one second, and the next second, you have the realization that something that meant a lot to you is now gone. That’s this movie.
Henson’s creatures were amazing. Once again, I’m biased with my love for the genius that is Henson. What could have been cumbersome combinations of puppets and CGI never bothered me (well, okay, the occasional flying/leaping shots sort of seemed odd…but the throwing each other was pretty amusing). I’m not a huge fan of CGI, and if it had taken me out of the world I was in, I would have been opposed. But no, once again, it fit. The scenery and sets were fascinating and beautiful as well. All of this movie seemed to fit into one fantasy ride. An island with a vast desert and underground caverns, as well as huge forests and rocky coasts.
The voices of the Wild Things, including Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Forest Whitaker, also fit. Soft voices in gentle tones. With a movie of Wild Things, how easy to fall back on the standard growl or echoing boom, but no. Had I for a moment thought, “Oh, Sopranos” or “Hey, that’s the ‘Waiting for Guffman’ lady!”, I may have lost a part of the picture, but no, also beautifully portrayed, in my opinion. Unlike the book, these Wild Things had names and each had an emotional take that perhaps, if examined closer, represents a portion of childhood, definitely a portion of Max. The potential to hammer those connections into the audience was there, yet gratefully avoided. The movie was just a fun escape.
Yeah, there were moments that didn’t fit. Lines that seemed out of place, actions that seemed odd. Yet, it was a fantasy world where a small boy would occasionally realize that perhaps attacking those that are bigger as way of getting attention would also just as likely have his igloo crushed or worse – be eaten. Maybe it’s the napoleon complex in me that saw this, or perhaps it was almost always feeling like the new kid in school growing up, but, I could and can relate to Max and this movie gave it justice.
Not everyone looks at the same piece of art and is struck in the same way.
What did surprise me ? Well, its not really a little kid’s movie, and it is a children’s book. I am sure it could be pretty scary for some kids to see such huge monsters with teeth and seeing the occasional bones of past kings that visited this island. Perhaps the fighting and loss of limb may also prove a little much, but, if they can be assured these are primarily gentle giants and that we all have a little Wild Thing in us, then this movie will be in their minds for a while as well (if not, perhaps, as a nightmare…)
Can I suggest you see this movie? Yes. Out of four stars, I say 3.5. Will you like it? I’ve learned over time that I have different tastes than many of my friends, but, if you have ever wrestled that Wild Thing inside you or felt like an outsider, or perhaps even wanted to just howl at the sun because of happiness or sadness, then give it a chance. Its a very nice piece of art. Okay, I’m done being sappy.
YOU MAKE EVERYTHING….SNOOZY
Review by Paul Preston
Maurice Sendak’s book, “Where The Wild Things Are”, is embedded in the minds of most people of adult age because of the wonderful character and landscape designs that enthralled them as a kid. Plot? There really isn’t much. Max gets angry, Max imagines wild world where he vents anger and pals around with monsters, Max longs for home, eats dinner. That story doesn’t beg for cinematic interpretation. So, the first challenge for co-writers Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers was to make Max’s adventures fill a feature length movie. The challenge may have been too much, as this adult needed more than the gorgeous design to get through 100 minutes of Max’s world.
The film “Where the Wild Things Are” is essentially a nine-year-old’s adventure. The production elements, acting, music and design all lend themselves to telling the ADD-saddled story of a kid with issues. Max has problems at home. He’s upset with his mother (Catherine Keener) dating a new man (presumably after her husband’s death), he’s upset with his sister not getting his back, he’s upset with his sister’s friends for mistreating him. He needs to get away. After acting out and biting his mom, he finds a boat that takes him to the island where the Wild Things live. You’d think if a book is thirty-seven pages long, you wouldn’t have to make any cuts, but Jonze and Eggers make the boat trip somewhere outside of Max’s house. In the book, one of the more memorable images is Max’s room transforming to into a jungle. That magical illustration is lost here.
So what’s added to beef up the story? The opening is exciting, as Max chases his dog around the house in the trademark “Wild Thing” outfit from the book, and soon we see his vulnerable side as he builds a snow fort and watches it get destroyed by his sister’s friends. When Max gets to Wild Thing island, they add a bunch of action you would find in a nine-year-old’s adventure – mud fights, they smash stuff, they pile on each other, they build a fort. I’d love to say all these events touched my inner child, but it all adds up to a meandering plot that never really engaged me.
Under it all is the idea of the Wild Things making Max their king. Max’s “reign” as king has different effects on the Wild Things. Some question his leadership, some are disappointed in his role, and Max lies and feels the repercussions. Jonze and Eggers probably do the right thing in keeping the story simple (as opposed to Bruckheimering it up), but at times I was just (I hate to say this about a movie that presumed ‘hip’) bored.
The Wild Things are given individual personalities they weren’t afforded in the book. Their leader is Carol, who is all destructive id, K.W. is the voice of reason, Alexander is the none-too-subtly devised goat, always condescended to and left out, there’s a twitchy bird character named Douglas and a “couple”, Ira and Judith, who mix parental adoration with pessimism. It is no doubt the purpose of fleshing out these characters to give them characteristics a young child deals with on a daily basis, either owning them or facing them.
Voicing these beasts are James Gandolfini as Carol, going for vulnerability, but having difficulty escaping his Tony Soprano voice. I expected him to drop an F-bomb. Paul Dano is excellent as the sheepish Alexander and Lauren Ambrose is nurturing as K.W. The Wild Thing designs are a marvel, mixing Henson Creature Shop full-body suits with CGI-built faces, providing a wide variety of expressions. The two technical achievements are seamlessly combined. One misstep I feel the film made was not including the bodysuit performers alongside the voice actors in the end credits. You have to search deep in the scroll to find out who did all the on-set work with Max. They did a great job and I want to rectify that misstep here:
Vincent Crowley – Carol Suit Performer
Sonny Gerasimowicz – Alexander Suit Performer
Nick Farnell – Judith Suit Performer
Sam Longley – Ira Suit Performer
Angus Sampson – The Bull Suit Performer
Mark McCracken – The Bull Additional Suit Performer
John Leary – Douglas Suit Performer
Alice Parkinson – KW Suit Performer
Garon Michael – KW Additional Suit Performer
Hard to believe this information isn’t even available at imdb.com! Sonny Gerasimowicz was one of the suit designers, too, and deserves special mention.
Other tech elements are superior, too, as the production made full use of the Australian countryside where they shot. Deserts, forests, beaches and rock canyons all provide eye candy and the fort design and other visual FX blend in nicely. The music by give-him-an-Oscar-already Carter Burwell is great, working with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to provide a whimsical score, reminding us that even when the Wild Things act violent or outrageous, they’re childish at heart. DP Lance Acord shoots the proceedings at a kinetic pace when necessary, and lush when called for.
Acting first-timer Max Records is impressive as Max, in that he inhabits a bratty kid as well as flawlessly interacting mostly with expressionless puppets on the set. But perhaps it’s the brattiness in Max and in the Wild Things that left me a little cold in the end. Few of these characters are sympathetic and there’s no real dramatic thru-line to get involved in.
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Release Date: October 16, 2009
Run Time: 101 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Review by Kathy Bugajsky
I now understand how roller derby works. “Whip It” explained it much like how “Knight’s Tale” explained jousting to me. It makes you want to throw on some skates and come up with a roller derby name.
“Whip It” is about a teenage girl (Ellen Page) stuck in a small town, rebelling against her situation by joining a last place roller derby team. She has a spunky friend, a crush on a punk band lead singer, has a high school cheerleader as a rival, and has managed to make enemies with the roller derby darling. This is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore and she put together a great cast including Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis and Jimmy Fallon.
It is not the most original plot line, but it is a very enjoyable movie. Ellen Page and Marcia Gay Harden have great mother/daughter chemistry that added a nice sentimental subplot to the girls beating the crap out of each other. The characters are great and there are some nice twists on some traditional moments. I may even have to pick up the soundtrack.
In conclusion, “Whip It” Good! Oh come on, you knew that was coming. I give it three out of four stars.
Directed by: Drew Barrymore
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Run Time: 111 Minutes
Distributor: Vincent Pictures
Review by Kathy Bugajsky
Sometimes you walk out of a movie and it feels like you watched a play or a music video. This movie feels like you watched a good graphic novel (also known as a long form comic book), which makes sense since this movie is based on one.
“Whiteout” is about an investigation of a murder at the South Pole by a U.S. Marshal played by Kate Beckinsale. A few days left at the end of a two year assignment and everyone is getting ready before a winter storm hits. A body is spotted by a pilot and requires U.S. Marshal Stetko to investigate. One body seems to lead to another until the killer goes after her.
It suffers from a few cheesy moments that work in print, but don’t translate well to spoken word. Some scenes are done specifically for a movie, but don’t seem to really fit either. Do we really need to see Kate Beckinsale take a hot steamy shower? Aside from that, the majority of the movie is a good murder mystery that really uses the Antarctic background really well.
While not something I can recommend seeing in the theater, this is something I can recommend renting or catching on cable.
Directed by: Dominic Sena
Release Date: September 11, 2009
Run Time: 101 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.
X-Men – Origins: Wolverine
Review by Adam Witt
Is it proper to start a movie review by telling you why you shouldn’t listen to me? I guess if I knew how to write a movie review, I’d know, but; I’m as biased a reviewer as exists when it comes to Superhero movies.
Since the days of Richard Donner’s Superman, and The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman TV shows, live-action Superhero movies have been the most exciting thing that exists for me. During a thin decade known as the 90’s, I was the guy that showed up opening day for The Phantom or The Rocketeer, which would be the only Superhero movie you’d get for the entire year. I’ve seen Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin more than once, I’ve seen all three Punisher movies, and my review of Ghost Rider was: “I loved every minute of that awful awful movie.”
This might seem a self-indulgent way to begin this review, but let’s not kid ourselves, nobody who meant to go see Grand Torino will feel Wolverine to be an appropriate substitute. If you think you might like a movie about a guy named “Wolverine” who has superpowers and metal claws surgically grafted to his wrists so he can fight crime with a group of other superheroes, then I’m here to tell you, this movie’s for you. Wolverine is as good a movie as it needs to be.
The best Superhero movies are perfectly comfortable living in their own world and offer you a look into it rather than present it to you. Wolverine’s greatest success is it’s lived-in feel. It makes no apologies for being in the middle of it’s own story as some Superhero movies seem to. Nothing’s more annoying than the license some Superhero movies feel to only speak in plot and explanation – pleading over my agreeable head to the guy behind me who says “yeah right” when he sees someone fly. While being far from the Pulp Fiction of Superhero movies (apparently that’s next summer’s Kick-Ass), the characters in Wolverine act well-used to their world’s rules, and that’s an atmosphere that really sells in any Superhero movie.
Wolverine features a large cast of mutants. Everyone always says that more than one villain ruins a Superhero movie, but I think the whole purpose of Superhero movies is to get as many characters from that universe as you can on the screen. I wish Two-Face, Riddler, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze were ALL in Batman Returns.
In Wolverine William Stryker, played by Brian Cox in X-Men 2 and some guy who’s really really not Brian Cox in Wolverine, puts together a team of Mutants to do his bidding, such as stealing the metal basis for the Adamantium which later finds it’s way into Wolverine’s skeleton or kidnapping young mutants who’s powers Stryker is combining to create more an more Soldier/Mutant weapons. His team consists of five mutants right there, among them are the kickass Wade Wilson and Agent Zero who’s mutant powers are wielding swords and shooting guns. Well…it’s cooler than it reads. The team is a much grittier bunch of badasses than we’ve seen in the previous X-Men films. On his journey to take out Stryker, Wolverine comes across another another mutant, Gambit, and when Wolverine gets to Stryker’s hideout, there’s like ten more mutants in the basement that he’s kidnapped. This, plus the ongoing story of Wolverine’s relationship with Sabretooth brings us to, like, fifteen more villains than Spider-Man 3 had. This helps Wolverine do a better job of being X-Men 4 than I expected or needed it to.
Okay, here’s four things I like in a movie. Any movie that has these four things – I’m in.
1) Any movie where someone puts together a “special team”, specifically any movie where someone says: “I’m putting together a special team.”
2) When anyone who’s planning revenge against a villain and tells them: “I’m coming to get you.”
3) When a hero agrees to join someone, but only if he gets to do it his way with no law or code of conduct.
4) Any movie where the bad guy types “kill” on a computer screen and then someone or something does exactly what he typed.
Wolverine: Check. Check. Check. Check.
While Wolverine is all that I require of it, my only gripe is that: At it’s heart, Wolverine is a love story. Yes, there is a woman, for whom Logan deforests, she tells him some Native tale of Wolverine’s and then she’s killed (or is she?). While the love story in Wolverine is far from the most incongruous, still, why is this in every movie? I have this theory that somewhere in Hollywood is a single office that all scripts have to go through. And that one guy gives the same note: “Where’s the love story?” Why does Spider-Man, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Superman, Elektra, Daredevil, Transformers, and Batman Any – have to encompass how hard love is? Just encompass how hard flight is, okay? Encompass how hard it is to get a grappling gun to actually catch-and-hold the side of a church while standing on a freeze gun falling down a cliff face. In what world would I walk out of a love-story-less Wolverine and say – “I understand the difficulty of being a government experiment on the run, but who would Wolverine want to screw?” But it pisses him off nice and good and that’s how I like my Wolverine, so be it.
There’s plenty of bad stuff, like a performance as bad as Will.i.am’s stupid name, and a boxing scene that appears to have been from a much earlier draft but somehow made it to premiere night, but somehow Hugh Jackman sells it, as he sells Wolverine constantly, as he has since minute 25 of X-Men 1. What would be harder? Recasting Wolverine after Hugh Jackman or Superman after Christopher Reeve?
Wolverine is lacking all those things I don’t necessarily need in a Superhero movie. Things like…well, just watch X-Men 2 – the basis for the story in Wolverine. For all I love about Wolverine, it really made me see more clearly what a masterpiece X-Men 2 is. I would put X-Men 2 somewhere close to the top of all Superhero movies, just below Superman: The Movie, and Batman: Dark Knight. Because X-Men 2 finds time to cover the entire plot of Wolverine, while engaging in five other plots and being an engrossing character piece on top of it. Wolverine does none of this, but I didn’t need it to.
ONE AND DONE
Review by Paul Preston
“Year One” is not very funny, and I hope putting a number in the title doesn’t presuppose sequels. This story of two caveman misfits trying to fit in, explore the new world and save their loved ones occasionally encounters a funny situation, but mostly relies on cheap, cheap gags to get its laughs, rarely succeeding. What do you need? Poop? Pee? Vomit? Circumcision? It’s all here, and it’s all lame. You can drive a wooly mammoth through some of the dead zones at the end of scenes here that don’t work.
Especially disappointing in the cavalcade of talent not measuring up:
– Jack Black. He’s given standard schtick to do, and it’s a shame that a comic talent like him can have a performance described as “standard schtick”.
– Michael Cera. It can also be argued that Cera is doing his “same old routine” here, too. But his routine usually hits big, and it’s just not successful surrounded by bawdy slapstick. He’s meant for more heady fare.
– David Cross. His opening scene is an example of why most scenes in this film fail. He plays Cain and he, as the Bible story goes, killed his brother Abel. Make a joke and move on. But the film lingers on this scene too long, doing a weak “I’m not dead yet” riff and sucking the life out of the comedy. He also comes back to the film too often, dispelling the energy he originally brought, almost as if the film’s idea was to have a lot of David Cross around, when the idea should be to have a great character in the film and let’s get a good character actor to play the part. You want Cross? Don’t miss “Arrested Development”.
– Harold Ramis. How come Ramis hasn’t made good on the promise of “Groundhog Day”? That film signaled his arrival. Even after helming two legendary comic masterpieces in “Caddyshack” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, it wasn’t until “Groundhog Day” that Ramis really went A-list. There was a lot more than laughs in “Groundhog Day”, there was romance, there were life lessons, consequences, relationships and Ramis handled it with panache. Outside of “Analyze This”, he hasn’t capitalized on his then new-found status. In “Year One”, he shot for Mel Brooks glory, but landed somewhere below “Dead and Loving It”.
– Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg, the writers of “Year One”. Bad news for those excited about “Ghostbusters 3”. Meet its screenwriters…
Coming out looking good in all this is Hank Azaria. His turn as Abraham, although saddled with dick jokes that are funny at first, but unfold much slower than the viewer’s attention needs them to, is good. His commitment to character enlivens the scenes he is in. Combined with his great Jeremy Irons impersonation in “Night at the Museum 2”, he’s got some of the best comic performances of the summer, in two of the worst films.
Review by Justin Bowler, Living Film Critic
“Zombieland” is such a fantastic ride, it is hard to find fault with it. The first five minutes with the opening sequence and credits set up the exact style of this film. You know right off the bat that it’s funny, quirky, scary, gory, and a new bend on an old idea. It is a wonderful black comedy, so much so, that you will be hard pressed to predict moment after moment.
Seldom is violence so entertaining. Other than Nazis, zombies are the perfect enemy. They live, only to kill, completely devoid of any positive trait. So, watching shot after shot of zombies getting their comeuppance is satisfying on a colossal scale. The main characters (played by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin) are constantly finding new ways to kill, dismember, squash, and destroy zombies. And watching it done has never been so enjoyable. Sure, at times the violence is for comedic effect, but elsewhere in the film it is used as a release from a genuinely tense chase scene.
Furthermore, this means the movie is genuinely scary. This is not just a hack remake of the same thing we have seen a thousand times before. This is fully new and inventive. From moments full of heart pounding tension to moments that make you jump, the movie does not disappoint. There were several audible gasps, screams, and guffaws from the audience throughout the film.
Also, seldom do you find a touching love story in a zombie movie. Since, zombies, by their very nature are thoughtless, irrational creatures that are void of any emotion other than rage; you would not expect any hint of a romantic storyline. Furthermore, most zombie movies are hell bent on inspiring fear. So, to find an emotion connected to a zombie film that is even remotely connected to an inspiring heartfelt one is almost absurd to imagine. Yet, they are able to create one here. I give total kudos to writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who so poignantly point out the true difference between the walking dead and us as humans. In a world where zombies live to destroy and kill, we as humans still live to connect and build.
Finally, it’s nice to see Woody Harrelson back on the big screen in a role that allows him to play cocky, brutish, and stupid: three characteristics worthy of “Zombie Killer of the Week”. Eisenberg also steps up his game, proving that he is equal to his more popular twin Michael Cera.
While some may say that the zombie genre is overdone, I say as long as there are new and inventive ways to kill zombies, I’ll keep watching.
Review by Patrick Kane, Undead
A more horrible movie I don’t think I’ll see all year. An affront to the recently dead all over America and beyond, “Zombieland” doesn’t entertain for one frame, and spends much of its time glorifying violence.
The Earth is built on survival of the fittest. Naturally, a film suggesting that the living dead will advance beyond the animate and control more of the planet’s population is a bit threatening to the alive who now run things. But such condescension as in Mr. Bowler’s review is offensive and, quite frankly, pathetic. Are these the type of quotes that will uplift the sentient?:
“Zombies…live, only to kill, completely devoid of any positive trait”
“zombies, by their very nature are thoughtless, irrational creatures”
“zombies live to destroy and kill”
Perhaps somewhere between supposed human intelligence and the equally supposed lack of civility in those zombified lies Justin Bowler’s intellect level.
f o0bm ; ,/;npi , gb
Sorry about that, a spleen I was chewing on slipped out of my mouth and splattered on the keyboard, disrupting my typing. Apologies.
The undead don’t even get a chance to evolve in this movie. There is simply rampant genocide portrayed as sport. I’d like to see what primitive man was like in attempting to put together some kind of organized civilization. I’m sure there were many issues that their uncultivated personalities encountered when trying to build a culture. What if an elitist group of entitled persons thought it would be “entertaining” to execute man for fun in “new and inventive ways”. Well, we would be robbed of Mr. Bowler’s “hilarious” comments about movies. God forbid!!
Hopefully I made my last point clearly, as I had blood and pus oozing from a giant gash in my forehead and it seeped into my eyes, blurring my vision.
And how can a young, flowering talent like Abigail Breslin appear in this movie? Wasn’t she “Little Miss Sunshine” with Alan Arkin and “The Santa Clause 3” with Tim Allen? They’re zombies, she should have a little respect and remember where she came from. And –
Sorry, I’m trying to maintain the pace and thru-line of this article, but four hours actually passed between that last paragraph and this one. Turns out, and I wasn’t aware of this, a horde of the re-animated crowded my office and I was compelled to join their infectious mass as they tore through an internet café in Escondido, CA, leaving a wake of devastation and a grim reminder that death is not always the end!
In fact, I’m feeling a fierce desire to tear into human flesh again and must bring this article to a close. To re-iterate, “Zombieland” is not good for society as a whole, and fear not, Justin Bowler, we eat brains. You’re safe.
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Run Time: 88 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
AVATAR DAY IN L.A.
By Paul Preston
There’s much to say about a BIG glimpse at one of the year’s most anticipated movies, but if you don’t want pre-conceived notions going into the film, you may not want to read on…
James Cameron has a history of thinking up scenes for his film projects that can’t possibly be completed. Then, his team sets out and creates the technology to get it done. Examples: Although it was technically done first in “Young Sherlock Holmes”, Cameron’s “The Abyss” was the first movie to extensively use a computer generated character in the water column that explores the vessel. “Terminator 2” created a monster, having in it the first computer generated human-like character in the T-1000. The jet sequence in “True Lies”, the Titanic splitting in two, Cameron gets an idea, technology gets it done.
Now Cameron has thought beyond the realm of earth and humanity, imagining the far-off world of Pandora. In “Avatar”, a paralyzed soldier gets the opportunity to visit this planet through the use of an avatar, an alien “body” his soul inhabits as the human race attempts to colonize Pandora…or something like that. Tough to tell from an 18 minute preview, but that’s what lucky fans got to experience on “Avatar Day”, Friday, August 21st.
Much is being made of “Avatar” because it’s a true original in a year full of sequels and franchises, with many more on the horizon. Just for fun, let’s list them:
Crank: High Voltage
Night at the Museum 2
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Pink Panther 2
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Fast & Furious
Twilight: New Moon
Angels & Demons
ON THE HORIZON:
Iron Man 2
The Wolf Man
Sex and the City 2
The Final Destination in 3-D
Alvin & The Chipmunks 2
The Brazilian Job (Walhberg sequel)
Toy Story 3
Wall Street 2
Resident Evil: Afterlife
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 & 2)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
NOT TO MENTION THE REMAKES:
Friday the 13th
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Clash of the Titans
My Bloody Valentine 3-D
Race to Witch Mountain
Last House on the Left
Land of the Lost
ON THE HORIZON:
A Christmas Carol
Alice in Wonderland
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Green Hornet
Now, that’s not everything that’s playing in 2009-10, but it’s a HUGE percentage!
Before attending the extended preview, I saw the teaser trailer for the film. Sadly, the two words the first came to mind were PHANTOM. MENACE. In order to envision what Cameron wanted Pandora to look like, loads of computer generated imagery is employed. This will be a huge detriment to the movie, from what I’ve seen. There is a real world established in the early scenes we were privy to. In this real world are actors Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver. They’re in a real lab, they handle real examination equipment, etc. But when the action switched to Pandora, it just looked fake.
Granted, the world of Pandora resembles very little of our world here, and CGI may be the only way for us to see it all the way Cameron intends. But compared to the real-world footage shot for the film, Pandora looks like the world of Myst. It doesn’t look like Pvt. Sully is transported to another planet, it looks like he’s transported into a computer, and that’s a disappointing realization.
Cameron’s new technology this time around is the Fusion Camera System technology, a new, crisp way to shoot HD 3-D. There’s so much CGI in this clips we saw, I couldn’t grasp just how effective the 3-D IMAX footage shot on camera was. I was initially disappointed when the footage didn’t come close to filling up the IMAX screen, even less screen space than “Watchmen” or other faux-IMAX screenings I’ve seen this year.
The best thing was the sound design, which was detailed and thunderous, although it did seem like the voices sat on top of the other noise, rather than blending in. And the script was a little unimpressive, relying on dialogue that signals all the movement, choices and action of the characters. It’s bad enough that CGI characters are prone to overact, but making them over-speak is cumbersome.
Am I too harsh? Well, Cameron put it out there, and the reaction in the 3/4-filled house was rather tepid. I was ready to be wowed, and instead saw a great movie craftsman succumb to computer effects and I wasn’t impressed. Am I old? I mean, this guy crashed helicopters into racing vans, blew up Miami skyscrapers with a AV-8B Harrier and ripped a giant cruise ship in half. Now, his vision looked like fake aliens in a flat background with Naboo-esque creatures all around.
It will take one HELL of a story to turn around my pre-conception of “Avatar” brought about by this preview. And despite my negativity, I’m really rooting for that.
JENNIFER CODY – THE TMG INTERVIEW
Interview by Paul Preston
Jennifer Cody has enjoyed an eclectic and successful career on the stage, including nine Broadway shows. She’s originated the role of Little Becky Two Shoes in “Urinetown” and has also appeared in “Shrek: The Musical” and “Seussical”. Now, she’s making a big splash in movies, providing the voice of Charlotte La Bouff in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”, and right out of the gate she’s been nominated for an Annie Award for Voice Acting in a Feature Production, alongside the likes of Hugh Laurie (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) and John Leguizamo (“Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”).
Cody always seems to be working, and always getting better. I caught up with her while she was performing “On the Town” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ to talk about her impressive debut in the movies:
This is your first time providing a voice for an animated character. How did you approach the role, and did your stage training and experience help?
“Well, the audition process was over a year long. The first time I went in, I just read a few scenes and sang and tried to make her sound how they had listed her on the breakdown. My audition was video-taped, but I approached it as a voice-over audition so I didn’t really physicalize her. Then, each time I went back in (sometimes months later), I just tried to become her in the auditions. I dressed appropriately and always spoke and sang in the dialect. Toward the end, I felt like I knew Charlotte better than the writers.”
Do you think that what you brought, then, in turn influenced how they created Charlotte visually?
“Definitely. What she started off as and how she ended up were very different. They even re-wrote the end after screenings. I can’t give anything away but Charlotte had a new end in the movie. She is also shaped a lot like me…she’s curvy and has my butt.”
You’ve appeared in the original casts of “Urinetown” and “Seussical”. Of your Broadway credits, which role is your favorite?
“I’ve had the chance to originate some great characters in NY. On Broadway, I think I enjoyed creating Little Becky in ‘Urinetown’ or Poopsie in ‘The Pajama Game’. But off-Broadway, my favorite experience was creating Mae in ‘The Wild Party’ and Junie B in ‘Junie B Jones’.”
Knowing you are part of Disney’s first hand-drawn animated film in five years, were you ecstatic upon hearing you were cast?
“Because the process was so long, I was always surprised when they would call and ask me to come back in. I assumed many times that it was done. That last week, my agent called and said that the other girls up for the role all had CDs, and they needed me to go into a studio and record myself singing four songs and e-mail them immediately. I said, ‘Am I still up for this?’. So, after they got the recordings, they called and asked if I was Jen Cody or Jennifer Cody. I kept saying, ‘why does it matter?’ Then, two days later, my agent called and told me I got it and I was sitting alone in my apartment…completely in shock. I called my husband and said, ‘I’m gonna be a Disney princess!!'”
I have to believe many actors were up for this part, what do you think you brought to the audition that put you over the top?
“I think that my take on Charlotte was more comical than they originally intended. While she is spoiled, she has incredible heart and is never mean. My read was that she was never intentionally mean to anyone, she was just focused on what she wanted. Oh…and I squeak a lot!!!”
I imagine Dr. Facilier is the real villain of the movie, then, and he probably doesn’t squeak much.
“He is so scary!! He is Disney scary like the witch from ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Adult scary…he does not squeak!”
Making an animated film can be such a non-linear process, what was your relationship to the directors John Musker and Ron Clements?
“They were incredible. I was doing ‘Shrek’ in NYC during the last seven months of recording. They made it possible for me to record here so that I wouldn’t miss shows. So, they would direct via television screens from LA. The process was the best of my professional career. The room was always filled with laughter and creativity. They made me feel I could say or do anything. It was very collaborative and I think you can tell when you see the film what a great job they did in getting such full characters from the actors. No one is two-dimensional….even the tiniest role is defined.”
As loose as the process seemed, was there room for improvisation? I’ve often heard that’s hard to do in animation.
“There was a ton of improvisation. They encouraged different lines and sounds. We all were a part of finding how Charlotte spoke…sometimes I would just talk like her and a phrase would come out of it…like “cheese and crackers!” There were many sessions that I would squeak and giggle and wonder if it was going to end up as someone’s answering machine outgoing message.”
Your character Charlotte is reportedly very spoiled and bratty. Um…how much of yourself did you bring to the role?
“When you see her, you wouldn’t say Jen Cody. But the minute she talks or moves, it’s freaky. I think the bratty part is definitely me. I’m not much of a debutante in real life, but Charlotte isn’t really either. Her energy is all me….a locomotive.”
There’s a southern dialect in Charlotte’s voice. Did you work with someone on that or did you find it naturally?
“When I first went in, I just did a generic southern voice. Then, I actually tried to find a mix of Scarlett O’Hara and Foghorn Leghorn.”
Ooh, did you get to throw in an “I declare!” or “I say, I say, I say…”?
“She says some doozies! Like ‘I’m sweatin like a sinner in church’ or ‘It’s the bees knees!’. You’ll have to hear her and tell me if you hear Foghorn Leghorn…”
Don’t you think Charlotte deserves a song? What would the title be?
“She actually was supposed to have a song, but there were too many. I think it was something about ‘Someday My Prince Better Come’…Dang it.”
You previously worked for Disney in their theme parks. Who knew you hadn’t hit your peak employment with the company?
“I’ve been a Disney baby for a long time. Started with Disney World, then I did the Dalmations show at Radio City Music Hall, then I did ‘Beauty and The Beast’ on Broadway in 1999 and now this…it keeps getting better. Maybe Charlotte will have her own movie next!!!”
Did you watch Disney animation growing up?
“My favorite is ‘The Little Mermaid’, but I had a ‘Cinderella’ backpack growing up. I remember, every Sunday night at 7, watching ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ on my Grandma’s TV. At the beginning of the movie, the castle with the stars came on…and I started to bawl. I realize kids fifty years from now will be watching “The Princess and the Frog” on their grandma’s TV…it’s a bit surreal for me.”
How has your career changed already, before the film has even come out?
“I got an email from the French Disney fan club….asking Charlotte to come to France…c’mon…cool.”
If you could kiss a frog and have it turn into anyone, who would that be?
What’s next for Jennifer Cody?
“I am leaving for South Africa with my husband on Jan 2nd…”
Who was the most handsome actor ever to play your father on stage? Don’t hold back here.
“Well, that’s hard. John Goodman was my Dad in the film, and that unbelievably handsome Paul Preston….too hard, next question.”
“The Princess and the Frog” is playing in NY & LA. It opens wide across the country December 11th.
GOIN’ DEEP…WITH ROLAND EMMERICH
By Adam Witt
Recently on another movie review site that uses varying degrees of vegetable decay to declare the validity or invalidity of any given movie, Roland Emmerich listed his top 5 favorite movies in response to a question that nobody’s ever wondered the answer to.
Get this, he likes “The Godfather”, damn, that shit is deep. Not only that, he likes “Lawrence of Arabia”. I mean, this is one well thought-out auteur; he also lists “Citizen Kane” amongst his favorites, WOW DEEP CUTS!
Either Roland Emmerich is as standardly interesting as every film studies professor I had in College, or Emmerich totally forgot to fill out the questionnaire, but didn’t want to admit that to the interviewer.
Here’s his complete answers:
“Lawrence of Arabia
It has the most incredible images. The only movie [from] the 60s that you can look at today and [have] it feel totally modern and real.”
I’m going to deduce from this that he hasn’t seen “Lawrence of Arabia”, because, while I will admit that they aren’t wearing bellbottoms or humming Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning, it doesn’t feel all that modern.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind
[Thematically,] it’s very much like my movies. Extraordinary tasks placed on regular people.”
Extraordinary tasks placed on regular people, that does sound like Roland Emmerich’s movies. Come to think of it, that sounds like ALL movies.
Then, Cinema Paradiso, because it’s about a director and his dreams. Very close to my heart. It deals with just a kid who kind of falls in love with somebody in film, and film is also the relationship with a projectionist.”
I’ve never seen “Cinema Paradiso”, but I’ve read the back of the video box, and that’s what it said.
I have to say The Godfather. [Laughs] Incredible movie. The performances, how it’s told. That’s the longest opening scene in film history — an hour or so. The whole wedding, and then the movie starts.”
I’ve never had an extreme opinion of Roland Emmerich, I don’t think he’s all things evil like some. I loved “Stargate” and “Independence Day” (but refuse to call it ID4 because that’s not an abbreviation of those two words). Roland seems like the rich man’s Uwe Boll and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. However, “The whole wedding, and then the movie starts.” – IS the sort of thing an asshole would say.
And then comes Citizen Kane. And that’s just how it’s put together, how it’s structured. It’s just a modern film. Sometimes I wish movies like this still get made. It’s just super radical in every aspect.”
Yes “Citizen Kane” is a good movie, good eye Roland. Go long.
AND NOW ADAM WITT’S TOP 5 MOVIES THAT I WOULD LIST IF I WANTED TO GIVE THE ILLUSION OF DEPTH, ACCOMPANIED BY DESCRIPTIONS THAT ARE CLEARLY FROM 80’s COMEDIES.
DESPAIR (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Since the beginning of time man has asked the question: What would it be like if a bunch of crazy people and Jon Murray ended up in traffic school together? Well this movie offers one possible answer.
FACES (John Cassavetes)
Fate is examined in this meditation on a cosmic coincidence when two people wear a single red shoe on a day that will change their lives forever.
MADE IN USA (Jean Luc Godard)
Can honor be taught? Can virtue be taught? Can honor and virtue be taught by Mark Harmon, in the summer, to a group of misfit kids? The journey unlocks the answer for a group of kids who like horror movies.
LUCIFER RISING (Kenneth Anger)
The epic struggle of cartoonists to protect musicians from greedy land developers through boat racing is one of the most classic stories in literature, but it resonates no better than in this version of the tale.
MY HUSTLER (Andy Warhol)
What are the moral choices that we must face when creating a human being with an Apple IIC and a scanner? The question gets no deeper answer than in this faustian tale.
Why a Remake of Indy 4: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Long Overdue
By The Lazy Film Critic
It’s a popular myth that there has to be a certain passage of time before a movie can be remade. If you subscribe to the theory that Evil Dead 2 (1987) is basically a remake of Evil Dead (1981) then I guess 6 years seems to be about the minimum.* Whether that’s true or not, and I truly don’t care if it is, I think that we should destroy the myth that there has to be anything called a “reasonable passage of time before a movie can be remade”.
If you don’t count the MPAA, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Director’s Guild, Screenwriter’s Guild, SAG, the Boards of Directors for each of the studios, or the FCC, there’s no such thing as a “governing body” involved in the making of motion pictures. That being the case, this idea of a “reasonable passage of time before a movie can be remade” is a purely arbitrary idea and therefore untrue, at least as far as the conceit of this article is concerned.
I think if a movie is bad enough a studio can quickly save face by saying “Don’t worry, we’re already planning a remake which will be out in time for Christmas.” Then when the Christmas version comes out (and let’s face it, all you need to make a movie a “Christmas” movie is set it in the winter time and have one scene where people wear Santa hats and drink egg nogg) the studio can doubly cash in by re-releasing the original which came out a few months earlier and bill it as “See the movie that was so bad the studio immediately created a remake”. Or maybe a double feature? “See the crappy original then be dazzled as we show you how awesome we should have made it the first time”. Or if you don’t like either of those ideas you can make up your own good idea and tell everyone that I came up with it.
I don’t want to be unduly harsh on Indy 4 by saying that the studio should have released a remake just a few short months after it came out, but now that more than a year has gone by I think we’re ready. The problem is one of standards. If a movie called “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” with no association with Indiana Jones came out we would have all gone to the movies and said, “It was a decent ride. I liked it more than ‘Congo’”. But the standards that we hold the people involved in this movie to gave us the right to demand a truly great movie.
First of all Steven Spielberg directed it. That immediately makes everyone think, “This is going to be awesome!” George Lucas produced it and wrote the story for it. No matter how much you may hate Jar Jar, when it comes to stories this guy is the shit and you know it. David Koepp wrote the screenplay. Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, The Paper, Panic Room, Spider Man. I don’t care how many Zathura’s he’s written, those movies were great and he deserves a lot of credit for how great they were. Harrison Ford starred in it. The most successful actor in the history of motion pictures. And finally, IT WAS AN F-ING INDIANA JONES MOVIE!!
With all this greatness, it should have been better, it HAD to be better. You can argue all you want that expectations were too high but that’s just an excuse used after the fact if something doesn’t work. After he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel no one told Michaelangelo that he should have stopped at sculpting David because expectations were too high. Or that Beethoven should never have composed his 9th Symphony because #5 was so good. These guys held themselves to an immeasurably high standard and as a result we remember their later work as fondly as their earlier work.
The question is one of starting anything in the first place. Now, as a very lazy man, I can appreciate this. You don’t want to do anything if it’s going to suck so it’s better not to do anything at all and at least leave people with the wondering if you COULD have done something great. For all we know Beethoven thought about composing a 10th Symphony but he quickly realized that there was no way to top the 9th so he retired (or died, I can’t remember).
Indiana 3 was a perfect ending for a truly great movie hero. After preventing Christ’s cup of immortality from falling into the hands of the most evil people ever (i.e. Nazis), Indy literally rides off into the sunset with his dad (Sean Connery!) and everyone’s happy. Everyone except the fanboy jerkoffs who couldn’t leave well enough alone and somehow arm-twisted everyone involved into thinking making a 4th Indy was REALLY what we wanted.
But since making a 4th Indiana Jones movie was such a bad idea and was such a terrible execution of a bad idea, the only way to make up for it is to do a quick “do over” by making a 5th movie. Erase #4 from our memories. Treat it as a bad joke. Or even better, capitalize on it by releasing Indy 5 as a big “Psych! Here’s the real Indy 4!” Then over time people will gradually only remember the remake Indy 4 (which is really Indy 5) and the studio can quietly pull the original Indy 4 off the shelves and pretend like it never happened.
The remake should be directed by Spielberg, produced by Lucas and written by Lawrence Kasdan (no offense Dave, I just like Kasdan more), but it shouldn’t have any of the original faces. It should have someone perfectly cast as a 20-something Indy (off-hand I can’t think of anyone) and it should co-star Jessica Alba who should get naked at least twice. Just fill in a few other blanks and in a few short decades we’ll all be saying “Harrison Ford was in Indiana Jones 4? I don’t remember that. I thought it was (insert name of the perfectly cast actor here).”
Now all of this hinges on making Indy 5 an impossibly fantastic, head-blowingly awesome movie. That seems to be a big part of the movie-making process. Assuming they can do that the rest of my plan is perfect. I’m practically handing Paramount a guaranteed winner on a silver platter here by coming up with the entire marketing plan and the film release strategy and giving everyone involved a shred of a chance to preserve their dignity. All they have to do now is make the movie. I’ve done all the hard work, now let’s get to work on that remake so we can all pretend to ourselves that none of this really happened, including this article.
*Per my ongoing commitment to you, I have refused to do any ACTUAL research because that would require ACTUAL effort which I find to be an ACTUAL pain in my ass.
Sledge: The Untold Story
Review by Justin Bowler
A well written, masterfully executed mockumentary that all fans of film need to see, then buy it!
US indie filmmakers have a tough job. In today’s climate, studios only produce movies with big stars. Their distribution wings, for the most part, only distribute other studios’ big movies. Yes, they all own smaller companies that purchase and distribute indie features, but with the state of Hollywood the way it is… A-listers make movies with Studios, B-listers have to take smaller parts, do indie films, or go to television, C-listers, who used to make a living, are scraping by with 5 and unders, and the newcomers are left unheard of. So, if you are someone new, who is in an indie film, then the chances of anyone seeing or distributing your film are very low.
Enter David Leitch. He is well known throughout the industry as a stuntman. Every single one of his top 30 credits on IMDB are major releases, but not as an actor or writer. And sadly, that doesn’t carry a lot of clout with a distribution company when he is your star. Furthermore, add director, Brad Martin, who is another exceptionally well known stuntman, but relatively new to the major directing circle. Toss in producers Todd Grossman (known professionally as a camera operator/DP) and Zachary Kahn (known industry-wide as a location manager), executive producer Bobby Sheng (seasoned EP) and you have a professional legitimate “Hollywood” production crew. So you’d think that distribution would be a slam dunk? But, sadly, no.
Add to that mix a list of characters that include Ben Stiller, Kelly Hu, Angelina Jolie, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving (I know, you are wondering why on earth you haven’t heard of this movie), Eric Roberts, Debbie Allen, Dax Shepard, Sean Young, Ernie Hudson, and a dozen other well-respected B-listers known throughout Hollywood. Now, distribution has to be a foregone conclusion! The answer is no. Let’s give the distribution companies one excuse to hold on tightly to…the genre is a mockumentary.
“Nope”, “No, thank you”. No one wants to “spend the money on it that it deserves”.
As an indie filmmaker, these are the toughest words to hear. The movie may be good, or even great, but no one wants to follow through with their pocket books. So, the project sits for FIVE YEARS!??! YES, FIVE FRICKIN’ YEARS!!!!! Why? Well, Christopher Guest is the only one who can make money with that genre. Right? We will never know, because he is the only one who gets to release them. So, finally, after HALF A DECADE, Shoreline Entertainment and Lightyear Entertainment stepped up to release it on DVD in January of 2009. Well, even if the distribution company bean counters have their heads up their behinds, it should not stop moviegoers from checking out this film.
“Sledge: The Untold Story” or “Confessions of an Action Star” (as listed on Netflix) is an absolutely brilliant film, finely crafted, wonderfully executed and done with such precision it’s sets a new bar in the world of mockumentaries.
It tells the rise and fall of fictional Hollywood stuntman, Frank Sledge. With a long list of Hollywood personalities, some real, others “impressioned”, it plays on the absurdity of Hollywood: spoofing real movies with such accuracy it makes you realize the absurdity of the very movies it’s spoofing. Many mockumentaries show entertaining character reactions to big budget events that take place off screen. (This is done for budget’s sake, obviously, or because an idea is often funnier than the execution of an idea.) This movie takes every idea, and delivers it to its fullest Nth degree with brilliant execution. In fact, the absurdity of some of the film’s premises are so well done it’s not hard to believe they could actually happen in the twisted behind-the-scenes world of Hollywood.
Christopher Guest may hold the current bankable monopoly on this genre, but if Leitch and Martin continue down this path, that will soon change. The only difference between Guest and Leitch & Martin is time. While I understand this genre is not for everyone, as it requires more cerebral exercise than the average, idle, text messaging/movie going monkey has. However, if you enjoy mockumentaries and certainly if you are a student of film (not literally, but in general), than you need to move this film to the top spot of your Netflix cue. And when you love it and appreciate it for what it is, then support it, by buying it for a friend for the Holidays.
Directed by: Brad Martin
Release Date: January 20, 2009
Run Time: 83 Minutes
Rated: No Rating
Distributor: Smashcut Films
The Gadfly – Your Recommended Serving of Socio-Political Video Fare
One: The Movie
Review by Lewis Patrick
A good friend of mine – an accomplished filmmaker, writer and editor, among other talents – recently submitted his work to a faith-based film festival, which featured an online viewing mini-site where visitors could vote on their favorite entries. While his piece was essentially a light, engaging work without an overt or specific religious message or subtext, we both soon discovered that this was not the case with the other entries. The works submitted ranged from poorly-executed evangelical faux-arthaus re-imaginings of Jesus’ last hours before crucifixion, to a confused film noir-ish crime story send-up that made no attempt to conceal its dearth of acting chops or storylines. They were, I concluded, not “films”, per se, but mere propaganda pieces captured on a camcorder. Each one, without variation, stuck to the same, tired formula: to tell the audience how much Jesus really loves them. And filmcraft be damned.
My broadly-talented artist friend wondered to me, after it was clear that the voting viewers weren’t treating his submission as favorably as they were these other skewed, cloyingly campy works:
“Why is it that most stuff that is faith-based is a massive display of hack-work? I wish someone would come along and change that, ’cause I get tired of having things forwarded to me from religious nut friends of mine only to find that the “entertainment” they’re sending me is dogshit! AND THEY LOVE IT! The best religious entertainment is not as good as the worst godless, heathen crapped-out art work. Example: Fahrenheit 9/11 – brilliant, provocative and fascinating; “Fahrenhype 9/11″ – excruciating, preachy, angry bullshit.”
Regarding hyper-fanatical religious filmmakers – – and I use the term “filmmaker” in its most liberal sense, here – what hamstrings them, chiefly, are two crucial factors:
(1) Their “passion” – if any is to be found – is for one thing: the almighty J.C. …and little, if anything, else. It isn’t a burning desire to be an excellent craftsperson above all else. Nor is it to honestly examine themselves or assess or otherwise challenge their belief systems through their work. It’s simply another medium through which to proselytize, to cajole, to convert (they hope). It’s tragic, though… It’s like they keep telling themselves, “Well, god will find a way to…(make my shitty editing job a shining example of cinematic perfection).” When they set about to “create” anything, given their questionable state of mind and abilities, it’s going to be safe and predictable, and it’s going to be half-committed, and it’s mostly disturbing, having been sourced wholly from fantastical, delusional pursuits and mindsets.
At the same time, the end result is also tame and bland, as it would never run the risk of offending the populace, and it never really makes the viewer “think”, because, well, the more extreme religions operate by shutting down the logical part of human thought processes altogether. Plus, the subject matter? We’ve heard it before. Seen it before. Been shoved down our throats a million times before. It’s a global cultural artifact. There are only so many ways to get the whole “Isn’t it awesome that He was tortured and murdered for us” thing across, without it seeming like an already-well-worn journey down Collective Memory Lane. One can’t really dress up the age-old theme and shoot it from a different angle, and hope to cause viewers to have some deep, cathartic revelation about themselves or the human condition, now, can one? If by some chance non-fanatic viewers DO have a catharsis – and I do not mean a religious conversion – then it’s totally by chance and not by design, and there, the viewer gets credit for that – – not the religious would-be artist. I’m talking about secular, humanistic revelations, here. Fanatical folks seem wholly unable to address those things, because they’ve rewired and deformed their brains into total avoidance of them.
(2) Hyper-religious followers, by virtual definition – even though they may aspire to be artists – don’t take real artistic risks. They don’t defy norms–especially their own. They rarely question the status quo, unless it disapproves of their ilk. They don’t look deep into the abyss of the human condition, and into their darkest of hearts, and pour forth creations of discomfited beauty and profound meaning. Safety is their thing, and they cling so mightily to convention, to their dogma, and to ultra-conservative views, that nothing generally challenging or provocative or unconventional could possibly arise from their efforts. They question very little, except why the Our Father isn’t said before every courtroom trial or football game. They don’t deal well at all with ambiguity, or nuance, or anything that isn’t readily presented as a binary (good vs. evil) model. (In fact, they run headlong in the other direction.) They hate free speech, and despise free thinking, and loathe freedom from religion.
All of which is to say that any kind of “art” that they might attempt – and art should be a search for and revelation of some kind of truth, no? – isn’t really art at all. It couldn’t be. Rather, it’s propaganda. Always. Deeply dogmatized, thinly-veiled, poorly conceived, and already scripted, before they even attempt it. Therefore, very few deeply “religious” works have the power to move most humans, especially those outside of the faith tradition in question. And most especially, thinking persons. Do you agree?
But what of artistic works that seek to honestly wrestle with broad, nondenominational questions of faith and spirituality — films made by the non-fundamentalists among us? A viable candidate for consideration is certainly “One: The Movie”.
I found the backstory of how this project came into being quite interesting: a middle-aged fellow from suburban Detroit awakes one morning and decides, despite never filming anything besides his kids’ first steps, maybe, that he’s going to make a feature-length movie that gets at the essential “Meaning Of Life” questions. His quest is a secular one, and a profoundly human endeavor: what is it that might unify us, across all of these thousands of tribes, sects, and cultural and religious divides? Are we all, in fact, one? What is the common thread that links us? While the central questions of this project might strike the cynical among us as somewhat new-agey, I assure you, the way that these filmmakers go about attempting to ask and answer them is not. It is honest, and humble, and heart-warmingly revealing in ways not anticipated. The genius of their quest, and its end product, lies in the questions that they asked, and of whom they asked them – – regular folks, important spiritual masters, influential authors and futurists, and icons and iconoclasts, including Llewellyn Vaughn Lee, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hahn, Robert Thurman, Deepak Chopra, Father Thomas Keating, Mantak Chia, Barbara Marx-Hubbard and Riane Eisler. In a brilliant and unexpected move, they also interview a homeless teenager in Colorado. (His unassuming responses will very likely stay with you long after the piece is concluded.)
The questioner serves up each loaded topic like an entire meal, such as “What do you think happens when you die?” “When is it appropriate to kill another?” “What causes war?” “What is god like?” “Why are we really here?”
My favorite question was, “Without using words, describe how you feel that god views the current state of the world.” The “answer” from Robert Thurman (actress Uma Thurman’s dad, incidentally) becomes a centerpiece of the film, in fact, and the entirety of it is included in the bonus materials for the film. It is unsettling, and piercing, and moves the viewer to provide his or her own interpretation of what’s being demonstrated. It’s remarkable.
Yes, there are some amateurish, disjointed vignettes interspersed throughout the film, almost inexplicably, where an actor, shot in grainy, handheld black and white is seen undergoing some sort of re-enacted self-destructive downward spiral, like something you’d see on an A&E crime show hosted by Bill Curtis. Hence, we are to presume, the crisis conditions under which many of us are prompted to question our faith and ask these sorts of larger questions. However, this could have been executed better, or perhaps eliminated altogether.
In the end, what resonates is the commonality of asking these questions in the first place. Our humanity is linked and reinforced by the universal urge to come to grips with our mortality, in the myriad ways in which we attempt to find meaning and purpose to life as we know it. In this, the film succeeds greatly, and it comes as no surprise that viewing parties have cropped up all over the world since its release two years ago. It triumphs where the aforementioned evangelical hack pieces must fail, for want of the intellectual honesty, human diversity, and artistic inquiry that this documentary so finely champions.
For more information, visit www.onetheproject.com
Director: Ward Powers
Release Date: April, 2009
Run Time: 79 Minutes
OVERLOOKED GEMS, PART 1
Reviews by Steven Lewis
We all have ‘em: movies that we like, even love, which somehow get lost in the grand shuffle called “posterity”. They may have been hits in their day – or they may have bombed undeservedly – but whatever the case, no one is talking about them anymore, and they are not likely to appear on anyone’s “must see” list as they go trolling the video store shelves, or adding to their Netflix queue. What follows are some random films from my own “overlooked gems” collection, with accompanying reviews.
The Far Country
This is, quite simply, the best Western movie I have ever seen, and my favorite of all-time.
Now, admittedly, I’m no ardent student of the genre. As a matter of fact, I’ve tended always to shy away from Westerns because, in spite of all their critical cachet as America’s primal stories (or whatever), they seem to me to forever devolve into tiresome retreads of either “shoot up the Injuns,” “the big gunfight,” or “Hey, let’s form a posse!” In other words, it always seemed to me a genre so rooted in and tied to convention, that it left precious little room for surprise or originality.
But when I saw this movie for the first time on TV, I finally got it: I understood, at least in theory, what the Western mythos has to offer as a serious thematic preoccupation (aside from just action and thrills). It is the push-pull between lawlessness and order. The American West represented freedom, but also the prospect of the wild, the untamed; respectable folk could get hurt out there. Which, of course, meant that perhaps – just perhaps – it wasn’t meant for respectable folk, and that the only residents should be the amoral and the shifty, those who dispensed justice strictly from the barrel of their revolvers, and where kill or be killed would ever be the law of the land. In such an environment, of course, the true heroes are the ones who are ornery and free-spirited enough to be out there in the first place (and so reject “society,” at least as it manifested itself on the Eastern seaboard), and yet have enough sense of justice to believe that a society based on chaos and fear just IS NOT RIGHT. Catching and examining that disparity between law and disorder in the main character himself is, I believe (after seeing this movie), the highest and truest goal of any Western. Sadly, it is so often not the case, as the white hats are completely white, the black ones completely black (and let’s not even get started talking about the Indians, ok) and there is precious little shades of gray in between.
Not in this one. Jimmy Stewart plays a blatant fortune hunter who follows the trail of miners before him into the Alaskan wilderness to prospect for gold. He is joined in this by his lifelong buddy, played by Walter Brennan (perhaps the Western cliché character to end them all – but nevertheless enjoyable here, as always) – and no one else. Pointedly, they are out for themselves, and while Stewart displays his patented charm (come on, we could never really dislike the guy, now could we?), we are left with little doubt that his is basically a self-centered, self-interested character: none of his “Gosh” or “Oh golly gee” humanism is allowed to come through. Or, rather, it has to be EARNED, by the end of the picture, in the way I described above. He must confront the amorality in his own, essentially mercenary, nature – and weigh it against the need for order and justice which are so blatantly lacking in the border town which serves as the miners’ starting point on their gold dust trail. This town is ruled tightly by its wicked sheriff, Mr. Gannon, played by John McIntire in one of the best “bad guy” performances I’ve ever seen. He comes on with so much charm and humor, and has such a relaxed and interesting rapport with Stewart, that it actually takes awhile to recognize that he is the bad guy – so that when it finally sinks in, it does so with double force. Further, by establishing a type of breezy (if necessarily guarded) camaraderie between McIntire and Stewart, the film plays up the notion of how close in temperament they really are – and so how far a moral distance Stewart must walk by the end of the film.
I won’t go through all the twists and turns the plot takes – see those for yourself (as well as the rugged and gorgeous Alaskan scenery – filmed on location, mind you, not cheap painted stills that the studio made up). What’s key here is how much this story focuses upon character, with great dialogue and interaction substituting for gunplay much of the time – although the film has just enough action and adventure to prevent it from ever being static. Definitely one of the greatest performances I’ve seen from Stewart, showing he could play the renegade, the “man’s man” just as convincingly as the decent and upright guy next door. If anything, in fact, his everyman qualities lend greater strength to his characterization, making him seem less mythic or overblown – -like, say, Eastwood or John Wayne – and more a three-dimensional personage. His relationship with Brennan is well-played: understated, but nevertheless touching (with a faint suggestion of George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” – an altogether different type of “western”).
I certainly have more Westerns to see, but this is for now my favorite, and the yardstick by which I will necessarily judge all the others. It deserves to be much better known and appreciated than it is.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Any film made during the “Swinging Sixties” is almost sure to look silly to us today – a plethora of “groovy man”s as well as doped-up pontifications about “letting it all hang out” and becoming one of the “beautiful people,” all served up with garish camera tricks and gaudy production design. You know, “Austin Powers” but without the wink-wink knowingness.
On the surface, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice seems to be in line with such films: it is, after all, about how a quartet of middle class “squares” become indoctrinated into the hippie values of free love and “doing your own thing.” However, the film uses that set-up as a means to deflate – gently and good naturedly – those very values. For, as the group becomes more uninhibited and “with it,” the more goofy and ridiculous they all seem. This is particularly true of Robert Culp and Natalie Wood (Bob and Carol), as they take on the hippie philosophy full-bore and unquestionably. Casting here is impeccable: seeing the square-jawed, All-American looking Culp (then the epitome of middle-brow, as star of “I Spy”) utter lines straight out of the Dennis Hopper – Peter Fonda playbook is just unutterably funny; he’s got the words all right, but the music is woefully wrong. Same thing with Natalie Wood; can there be anyone more whitebread than her? The more she attempts to be “groovy” the more perfectly square she seems, particularly as Carol appears to just be parroting everything her husband says and does in adopting this new lifestyle. Quite the opposite of “liberation”, wouldn’t you say?
Perhaps funnier, though, are Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon as Ted and Alice, since they get to register all the (comic) shock and horror of their friends’ complete abandonment of rationality. And the equally strong undercurrents of jealousy that their friends are getting to enjoy all the freedom and sexual gratification that they themselves, as good well-behaved members of society, are missing out on. Cannon’s neurotic sessions with her psychiatrist – where she continually broaches, and then backs off of, what’s really troubling her – provide wonderful moments of comic denial and delusion.
What the film ultimately exposes is the moral vacuity of much of the hippie philosophy – that happiness and feeling good about oneself are not all there is to life, and that focusing too narrowly on them leads ultimately to emptiness. It also makes the subtle point, however, that much of what might initially have been good about hippie thought (or at least, the thoughts of those who inspired the hippies in the first place) was oversimplified and thereby corrupted when the middle class tried to incorporate it, seizing only upon those elements of it which seemed “fun” or “a turn-on” to them. Let’s face it: how much of the so-called Woodstock Nation really had any deep political or philosophical commitments; most were just middle class kids turned on to the immediate buzz of easy drugs, free sex, and rebellion for its own sake. Likewise, cosmetic changes such as longer hair or listening to rock’n’roll didn’t necessarily change the minds or policies of many in the power structure. As John Lennon said in 1971: “The Sixties didn’t change anything. The same bastards are in power now, it’s just they’ve all got long hair.”
I don’t mean to suggest that the film gets into issues like this directly; it is never less than a pleasant and even sunny comedy. But these issues in a very real way undergird the film and make it ahead of its time. Released in 1969, B&C&T&A displays a jaundiced attitude about the counterculture – at least, the middle-class embrace of the counterculture – that wouldn’t come widely into vogue until at least a decade later. Indeed, the film almost seems contemporary in its bemused and dismissive view of Sixties mores. Austin Powers fans would do well to check it out.
For the most part, films that bomb badly usually deserve to, but Ishtar is a curious exception. For the life of me, I cannot understand the critical drubbing it took upon its initial release. Admittedly, it did go way over budget, and none of that opulence is visible on screen (the film has a murky and washed out look to it, and its sets and locales are not particularly impressive). But this is a comedy after all, and so lives or dies based on the quality of its jokes and situations, not its production design. And on that level Ishtar not only gets by, but succeeds wonderfully.
Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play two dim bulbs who fancy themselves songwriters and pair up in an attempt to become the next Simon and Garfunkel. The tortured lyrics these guys come up with must be heard to be believed. The scenes showing them working on their songs or presenting their act to audiences are some of the most screamingly funny ever committed to film. If for no other reason than to see these scenes, you should rent the movie.
Perhaps the film might have been funnier (and better accepted by critics) if it had focused exclusively on the show business dreams of its stars. However, early on the two get a booking to play an extended gig in Morocco (that alone should tell you how bad they are); they get waylaid in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Ishtar where they become inadvertently roped into a shady CIA dominated plot having something to do with rebellions, arm shipments and military coups. It’s all rather hokey and confusing – but deliberately so, in the best screwball sense. And through it all Hoffman and Beatty truly shine: the bafflement on their faces and in their gestures as they are shepherded from place to place as dupes in a plot they don’t understand is just priceless. Who would have thought that two such intelligent actors could play stupid so convincingly? Even more, who would have imagined that two such prima donnas could put their egos aside to work off each other so well and become a truly great comedy TEAM? No matter how crazy the plot may get, Hoffman and Beatty are never less than a delight as they hold down the center of the film.
Oh yeah, and if that weren’t enough, there’s also the treat of the wonderfully droll and deadpan Charles Grodin as the CIA operative in Ishtar. He’s the villain of the piece, but his beautifully underplayed exasperation at the exploits of the two stars makes you like him almost as much as you do them.
So if you like a good, well done comedy with sharp performances and a kooky atmosphere, check out Ishtar today. Don’t allow all those sourpuss, stone-faced critics to ruin your fun.
All the above titles are available on DVD.
PAUL GOES TO COMIC-CON
By Paul Preston
The road to San Diego was open wide, as my friend Randy and I made it down to the city where they self-proclaim that “Happy Happens”. For two movie freaks who also have a fringe love of comics, TV and fantasy, this was the beginning of a beautiful day, and we raced down the 5 Freeway in under two hours to the San Diego Convention Center.
We weren’t the only ones…
The comedian in me wants to say that Comic-Con is like the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, only gayer. So I’ll say it. I saw waaaaaay too many Slave Leias who look like Carrie Fisher…today. Including one who had bruises on her legs and arms. Isn’t that when you decide to go Hoth Leia?
The Movie Guys were represented at the Freebies table:
All I wanted to see was something worth the drive.
I needed to see something out of the ordinary.
The studios, companies and businesses represented here are all trying to one-up one another.
I saw an early winner:
The Darth Vader bust whose proceeds go to Breast Cancer research. Darth Cancer.
First up was a promotion by Fox Home Entertainment called “Feed Your Fear”. This was a compilation of Fox horror movies viewed through virtual-reality-type headgear. It wasn’t 100% effective, ’cause I was hoping for wrap-around vision and peripheral thrills, but it was still just a square screen, just REALLY close to my eyes. The sound, however, was the highlight of the event. Killer surround in headphones backed up by a sub-woofer in the chair. Electric chairs, at that.
Clips included “Misery”, “Hannibal”, “Child’s Play” and more. No “I Love You, Beth Cooper”?
We spent ALOT of time on the Exhibits floor, and there’s certainly lots to see there. But navigating between the exhibits floor and other venues that hold the panels is a big problem. The main hall, Hall H, which housed the “Iron Man 2” preview, the “Extract” preview and the “Zombieland”/”2012” panels, holds 6,500 people. When the Con can draw upwards of 125,000, that leaves a bunch of people out in the cold, or, in this case, the 100 degree heat.
What ends up happening is people can get into Hall H at the beginning of the day and stay there all day long, seeing big-time panel after big-time panel. Then, they only let in enough people to fill the seats of the people who leave after the end of each panel. So, let’s say 600 people leave a panel, but 5,900 stay. Then, they’ll let in 600 people at the beginning of the next panel, leaving up to 1,000 outside. 1,000!! I think events should held in two Halls and ticketed, first come first serve when you register for Comic-Con. Hell, they could’ve filled PetCo Park across the street with people anxious to see “Iron Man 2” footage. So, we went back inside…
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS:
Playboy Playmate Tiffany Taylor looks different than last time I saw her…
Good to see the Heavy Metal booth is still running at full strength.
This guy is floating a ping pong ball in a tube with his mind. This is the concept behind a Jedi toy developed at LucasArts. The headgear measures the guy’s concentration levels. The more he concentrates, the more a fan blows the ping pong ball up the tube. Bullshit? You decide. Or decide not.
A box of crackers.
I got to meet MAD Magazine and Groo comic artist legend Sergio Aragones! A very cool moment that put me in touch with my inner kid.
I met Tyrese Gibson, there plugging a comic he wrote called MAYHEM.
After running into these goobers:
I noticed that a very busy trade show floor can get ridiculously backed up by a sweaty mob taking pictures of a gaggle of costumed nuts. I got so fed up with the roadblocking of these hordes that I stopped being a part of the masses and instead took pictures of regular folk. I made of fuss of being able to get a candid pic of non-costumed dudes. Like this guy:
…and this dude:
…and this dude:
(no idea what’s on his head)
One of the more telling moments of the whole event was when I was in line at the DC Comics booth, waiting to scrape up a small bag of swag that included a half-dozen pins, a free comic that turned out to be more of an advertisement for an upcoming comic series, and a poster for a project I’ve never heard of.A tall, overweight, sweaty, awkward guy – wait, let me be more specific – a tall, overweight, sweaty, awkward with glasses was standing behind me and uttered, almost as if he didn’t expect anyone to hear him, “It didn’t used to be like this”. They guy was from San Diego and had had enough of the crowds and the “Hollywood Presence”. He missed the days of low-key San Diegoans gathering to share their love of comics as opposed to juggernaut marketing machines firing up publicity engines. Unfortunately, his words fell on half-deaf ears.
I LOVE THAT SHIT!
The day ended with the craziest marketing machine yet. Disney. They built a life-size Flynn’s Arcade in downtown San Diego. You may remember Flynn’s from a little movie called “Tron”. It was full of ’80s video arcade games – Space Invaders, Spy Hunter, Asteroids, Crystal F-ing Castles, Centipede and more:
The arcade was filled with ’80s music, too, culminating in Journey’s “Separate Ways”. At this point, the music morphed and got louder. It had become something resembling a film score. And in dramatic fashion, the back wall of the arcade opened up, revealing a hallway behind it.
Like pop culture sheep, everyone in the arcade turned and walked into the darkened tunnel. Lining the walls were designs for light cycles. Soon, it was easy to determine that these were the light cycle designs for the new movie, “Tron: Legacy”.
Our dimly lit trip down the tunnel ended with a FULL-SIZE LIGHT CYCLE on a rotating platform, not unlike a new car being unveiled at the L.A. Auto Show. It was bathed in light blue light and accompanied by the swelling music score:
Next year, I will return. But I will get a four day pass. One day is not enough. A multi-day pass means I can spend a day on the exhibits floor, and another day in Hall H. I just hope as I come back, year after year, the madness gets even bigger and more all-encompassing. As I gaze at the nerd-stampeding, wallet-emptying turmoil, I’ll say, “It didn’t use to be like THIS! It used to suck in comparison!”.
SINS OF THE MOTHER
Rant by Mary Gent
RANT CONTAINS SPOILERS
I’m taking a deep breath now because I am about to enter the delicate and ferocious world of the movie geek, or cinephile, if you must. But I don’t care. I love Hitchcock. I may not have seen ALL of his films but I hold him close to my heart. So settle down little cinema creeps, I’m going to talk about this film and it isn’t going to be some scene anatomy breakdown, or secret editing formulas. It’s just going to be about why I will always love this film.
It is a mythical and historical notion, a mother’s fervent love of her son. Throughout the elements of time, legendary bonds have been formed. One notorious example was Jocasta, Greek mother of Oedipus, who returned to Thebes to kill his father and then proceed to marry his mother. Four children were born to them and once the knowledge of their parent’s incest was revealed, Jocasta hung herself. Or Shakespeare’s tragic “Hamlet”, who, after his father’s death, witnesses his mother’s remarriage to his Uncle Claudius, which drives him mad. It seems to me that in many of Hitchcock’s films, the mother figures, if they exist, are represented as cold and distant (i.e. “Marnie” and “The Birds”), absent altogether (“Vertigo”) or completely naive (“Shadow of a Doubt” – my other Hitch favorite!) I could go on and on but this is not a term paper for some Freudian graduate class. This is about Norman Bates. Mother-hater extraordinaire.
MATRICIDE: n. murder of a mother by her son or daughter.
The story of Norman is a familiar one. Domineering mother creates clingy son who doesn’t have relationships outside of her. She then meets a man who Norman feels has replaced him, which then leads him to murder both his mother and her lover. This horrific act steers Norman down the dark hallway of madness. His mind splits off and creates the mother figure who, in the end, dominates the little bit of Norman that is left. I love this story. It shows us an aspect of one of the basest of human behaviors: Dominance. The power structure in the animal kingdom is inherent. In rational human beings, it is challenged. Why a mother’s love for her son is all consuming, is strange but bittersweet and natural. He will carry on her legacy. In Norman’s case, she took advantage of his love for her and used it to control him. He was discouraged from having other female acquaintances. He was under the impression that women were lewd, whorish and sneaky creatures that were only capable of seduction. As a result of his repression, his lust for the female flesh would take over, but Mother’s voice was louder. She would force Norman to do her bidding and rid the world of these “women of loose morals”, these tramps, these sluts. And he would.
Marion Crane, potential womanly threat, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Janet Leigh is so brilliant in this role. You will never forget her somewhat cold and unnerving creation of Marion. You just don’t feel completely comfortable with her. At certain points I feel that the choices she makes can only lead to her demise. But the minute she pulls into the Bates Motel and its raining and dark my heart softens towards her and I feel compassion. The same compassion I feel towards Norman. Here are two lonely people whose paths cross for a moment in time and both are trapped in their own private hells. It could’ve been a beautiful moment, however, desperate feelings can lead to desperate measures.
An interesting observation: You will notice that when Marion tells him she is from Los Angeles, his hand moves from the key rack to the key for room #1 (next to the office). Apparently Los Angeles equals deviant behavior (wink, wink!).
What happens next is cinematic history. Dinner, conversation, a little peepshow, internal struggle and then penetration of the female flesh. A date of sorts. The penetration isn’t sexual of course, but the brutal murder of Marion Crane in the infamous shower scene. And what a breathtaking scene it is, both aesthetically and horrifically. It is executed with the eye of a true artist (as a side note, this scene consumed one week of the month long shoot). This was also renegade filmmaking in the sense that Hitchcock tricked us into thinking that Marion Crane was the central character. At that moment we realize that this story is about Norman.
The rest of the film is a detective story. The sister Lila (Vera Miles) confronts the boyfriend, Sam Loomis, who then are questioned by a private investigator, Arbogast (Martin Balsam). We already know that Marion has run off with $40,000 stolen from her boss. So the next hour of the film is the three of them trying to find her. Arbogast has a run in with Bates and in a fantastic piece of cinematography meets his grisly death in the Bates house. Lila and Sam proceed to pay Norman a visit and find out the truth about the invalid mother. Another scene that is so elegantly crafted is when Lila finds the mother in the fruit cellar only to realize it is her corpse propped up in a chair with a single light bulb above her head. This is the milestone of the film. The ghoulish skull of the mother teemed with Norman entering the room dressed as a woman carrying a butcher knife and screaming in his mother’s voice. Chilling.
This may not be in some opinions Hitchcock’s best film but it is certainly his most terrifying. It holds up to today’s standards as a masterpiece of horror. Norman Bates has become iconic in the film world. And no one but Anthony Perkins could ever become him. It was the pinnacle of his film career. Unfortunate for Perkins for he never talked about Norman Bates until the eighties when he finally made peace with the monster he had created. Lesser directors have tried but will never be able to recreate the simple malevolence that Hitchcock created with “Psycho”.
“Mother, mother oh god the blood!”
“Psycho” is available on DVD.