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So it’s Tim Burton doing “Alice in Wonderland”. Do you KNOW what kind of films Tim Burton makes? Do you know what kind of a work “Alice in Wonderland” is? If so, you already know whether you want to see this movie or not. Frankly, a review of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” seems as superfluous to me as . . . well, a review of Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”!
But I suppose a few things should be said. First of all, to get it out of the way right up front, this movie is indeed everything you’d want and expect from Tim Burton doing “Alice in Wonderland”: imaginative sets, trippy visuals, creepy-yet-not-TOO-creepy action, and characters that, delightfully, more closely resemble (in both performance and physical presentation) beautifully crafted life-sized marionettes than actual people. I loved every minute of it.
But I saw a recent review of this movie which placed it alongside such junk as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “G.I. Joe” as an example of busy, overly digitized studio product designed to appeal to the ADD set by constantly throwing things at you. Well . . . sure, it kind of is. There’s definitely a sensory overload aspect to the picture, and the frame often feels cluttered. What sets it apart from those other films, though – and this is crucial – is that Burton fills his frame with visions and ideas that are all wonderfully inventive, clever and imaginative. To me, that goes a long way toward forgiving the clutter. I don’t know about you, but I find that when my senses are delighted, they don’t mind so much being overloaded.
Now, as for the story. As has been widely noted, it’s not really “Alice in Wonderland” so much as its sequel. In the film, Alice is nineteen and due to be married, when she follows a white rabbit down his hole into an alternate universe she remembers from her childhood dreams. Once there, she finds the kingdom in great disarray – and discovers she is the Chosen One, who must save Narnia by defeating Voldemort and restoring to the throne Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Obviously, the plot is stitched together from some very standard fantasy-adventure tropes. But so what? It works – at least as enough of a through-line from which to hang those wonderful and lovingly created visuals I mentioned above. And in any case, there’s no real “story” to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books anyway – they simply follow the protagonist from one phantasmagoric setting to another until they finally tire themselves out and return her home. One could argue that by imposing a structure – even one as rudimentary and derivative as this – Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton provide the pace and forward momentum necessary for this material to succeed as a FILM, rather than simply a coffee table picture book masquerading as a movie.
But maybe it all comes down to how you like your Burton buttered. One could make the fair point that the director’s early films – the ones that really made his name and sealed his reputation – were themselves largely plotless affairs, and succeeded more on the strengths of their tone and visuals than through the imposition of tight, rigidly worked out storylines. We’re talking here of Pee-Wee and Batman, the two Eds (Scissorhands and Wood), “Beetlejuice” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. The Burton who made those films might very well have chosen to do a straight adaptation of “Alice”, preserving its loose structure and emphasis on mood and spectacle over focused narrative.
Thing is – and here’s my big boatload of bias, so pay attention – I find THAT Burton to be pretty much a waste of time. Oh, visual artistry oozing from every frame no question. But I find the meandering nature of those films, and their indifference to dramatic structure and plausible character development (plausible even within the worlds they’ve set up for themselves) annoying in the extreme. To me, Burton does not get interesting as a filmmaker – that is, a COMPLETE filmmaker, not just a visual stylist – until “Sleepy Hollow”. For, that is when he starts putting care into marrying his visual invention to the telling of actual STORIES. The stories themselves may not, in themselves, always be the freshest or most inventive – but the fact that they exist, and have at least been logically worked out from start to finish, gives the director’s visual talent something solid to be in the service of.
That’s my take on Tim Burton, anyway. I am quite aware it is not everyone’s. However, the extent to which you either enjoy or feel let down by his “Alice in Wonderland” will likely have everything to do with the template you have in your mind for what a “great” Tim Burton film should look and feel like. No way to know for sure except by taking a plunge down the rabbit hole.
Directed by: Tim Burton
Release Date: March 5, 2010
Run Time: 108 Minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Anton Corbijn is a name that is not associated tightly with feature films. Yet anyone who’s taken a look at the iconic cover to U2’s masterpiece, “The Joshua Tree” or at most visual representations of Depeche Mode in the 1990’s, has peered at the work of the director of “The American”, the brooding and picturesque new film starring George Clooney. Corbijn, directing only his second feature film, gives us the story of Jack, an aging assassin who’s looking to leave the life after one last job. Corbijn’s visual style is deep, wide, and highly recognizable. From the panoramic vistas of the Italian countryside, to the panoramic vistas of Clooney’s profile, “The American” is a collection of painstakingly conceived shots strung together over the story of a man who seems to have one last chance to save his soul, and the hooker who loves him.
Jack, Clooney’s character, has apparently spent his young-to-middle-age life killing for money, or at least facilitating killing for others. He is being hunted by some Swedes (always a scary thing) while in Italy to provide the proper rifle to another assassin, Ingrid (Irina Bjørklund). He’s instructed to stay in one particular town, but his instincts tell him to move to the next one over. Good thing, as this town has the sparkling whore Clara (Violante Placido) in it, and she quickly falls for Jack, despite (or possibly because of) his apparent lack of emotion. Jack is worn down by his years in the business, and Clooney plays down his own usual charm in order not to overwhelm the character. Clooney manages fine with this, which shows his maturity as an actor. He has always been able to find different levels of energy for his parts, but his biggest struggle has perhaps been to control his burbling charisma. Jack is not the George Clooney with the smiling eyes and good-natured smirk. He’s a serious and weary man, as he must be. Clara’s affection for him is sparked in one of their early sessions. She seems to see, or imagine, the George underneath the Jack. From an audience’s perspective, it’s not hard to understand, as we have a context for George. For Clara, in this world, it shows a bit more wishful thinking and naivete.
“The American” relies on a kind of story-telling conceit that can sometimes ruin a film. Adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe, from the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, it does not spend much time with backstory and exposition. Certainly, too much clumsy exposition can drown a story, but the opposite is true as well. Relying on implication as a substitute for history and context suggests a laziness and/or pomposity by the story-teller. Jack is the prototypical aging criminal who wants to get out of the life as it is crushing his soul but needs the money from one last score so that he can live happily with a woman who sees the good in him that he doubted still existed. Fair enough, but the reason an audience accepts this context is because we’ve seen it time and again at the cinema in the past, not because it is well-represented on the screen in this particular case. There is minimal dialogue in “The American”, in fact, and it seems clear that Corbijn’s direction, as a man trained and highly skilled in artistic, beautiful imagery, has pointed the film away from explanation and toward representation. Shot after shot is lit perfectly. Shot after shot gives us all the angles. The film is truly a feast for the eyes, yet Corbijn seems to prefer that his pictures not be overly muddled by discussion. For a visual artist who has never worked extensively with dialogue and exposition, this is understandable. “The American” takes a hit from it, though.
By no means does the film utterly fail. The tone and pacing are perfect. The tension created by the abounding silence is scintillating at times. The leap required to care about Jack is longer than it ought to be, but there can be no doubt that his situation is dire. Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a priest in the town Jack has taken up short residence in, attempts to befriend and suss out Jack, and this relationship accounts for the only fairly extensive discussions in the film. Benedetto is understandably concerned for and about Jack, while Jack is wary of and somewhat ruefully bemused by the priest. Their discourse shows Jack more obviously as guarded and not particularly unique… one gets the sense that in the world of The American, this very priest periodically deals with intrusions by wandering assassins in his little mountain town. Standard fare in the countryside of Italy, one might surmise. That’s not to say that Benedetto isn’t alarmed at Jack, especially later in the film when he witnesses some of Jack’s handiwork. The point is that the character and story are not represented as unique to this film. An audience knows Jack because an audience knows this type of story, and an audience cares for Jack because an audience cares for George Clooney, not because the film has fully done its job.
What “The American” does do well is all about framing and tension. Clooney slides his angular jaw into each shot like the pro he is, and Corbijn’s ability to create and capture shots is masterful. Certainly his apprenticeship as a still and music video photographer has furnished him with a singular ability and style. Purely from a visual standpoint, “The American” is delicious. One gets the sense that if Corbijn had been allowed to make a film with no dialogue, with the only audio provided by Herbert Gronemeyer’s fine score, he would have gladly agreed. That may indeed have been a better film, and it certainly would have fit more seamlessly into his life’s work so far. If Corbijn truly wants to become a great director, he ought to pay more attention to how dialogue intertwines with his visuals. A full understanding of that element is what keeps “The American” from being a great film.
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Release Date: September 1, 2010
Run Time: 103 Minutes
Distributor: Focus Features
Australia arguably has produced and delivered some powerful actors and films. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t always privy to it’s talents. This behemoth country colonized by criminals of every level has developed a seductive mystique to it’s vast landscape. The curious beauty and solitude of the outback to the gold coast, the eccentric animals to the salt of the earth occupants. The elusiveness has captured my heart and imagination. There is a definite morbid fear of this strange continent and rightfully so. Tales, legends and mythology have lent themselves well to Australia’s allure. Tales such as the one “Animal Kingdom” is “based” on.
We are all familiar with family crime dramas. Scorsese made it almost commonplace. So for all intents and purposes, this film is about just that with Melbourne as the backdrop instead of, let’s say, New York City or Las Vegas. Except our family has a matriarch behind it’s evil ways. Jacki Weaver, pulled out of acting seclusion, gives one of the most bone-chilling performances I’ve ever seen. The sugary-sweet “mum” who dotes over her thuggish brood with Oedipal-like behavior and a Cheshire Cat grin spewing venemous sentences punctuated with “sweetie” and “baby.” There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this lioness.
Her boys, the Cody boys, are common criminals, with her oldest, Andrew “Pope” Cody, as their reclusive leader. Hiding out from law enforcement, Pope’s history of armed robbery is the stuff of legend. The other two charmers are Craig Cody, who’s made quite a living dealing drugs as well as ingesting his own product enough to fuel his violent nature, and Darren, a weaker, watered-down version of his brothers. A tight knit group of infidels, Pope’s best friend Barry Brown is treated like family. Barry, tired of the business, is at a crossroads at the film’s start. At the heart of this snarling pack is their recently orphaned nephew Joshua “J”, son to the only daughter of the Cody clan, a teenager rendered mute by the chaos that surrounds him. Needless to say, J’s penchant for a life of crime does not run naturally in his blood, leading to future events that put him in a precarious position.
Now, I could go on and on about the plot, but it speaks for itself. What I will say is this film pushes all sorts of envelopes and takes all sorts of risks which make it that much more interesting. I left the theater feeling like something ugly and permanent had snuck into my soul. Yes, it’s dark and gritty. Yes, it’s violent and disturbing, but in ways that are almost inexplicable. There is a very creepy, insidious tone that snakes itself around the audience for two hours. I felt that pit in my stomach the entire time……just waiting for something redeeming to happen. The performances are ununparalleled – great Australian actors who’s careers may get a chance to cross hemispheres after this film. Sullivan Stapleton, who plays the drug fueled Craig, is like a younger, more visceral version of Russell Crowe. James Frecheville, first time actor, lends his beautiful talent to the silent J, who barely speaks or manifests emotion, but when he does, it’s acting at it’s finest. Of course, the amazing Guy Pearce. When he chooses the right roles, there is nobody else like him. It is wonderful to see him work in his homeland, comfy in his own dialect. As Detective Leckie, he is effortless and mesmerizing.
Then there is Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. This is the type of role that actors secretly hope they will land but aren’t quiet sure they want to take. Not ONCE do you ever feel comfortable around him. You keep waiting for horrifying things to happen when he is on screen. This is a deep, dark, sociopathic predator who’s quiet brooding doesn’t hide the monster inside. Quite simply, this is the performance of a lifetime. After seeing the film, I read a great article about him. I needed to make sure he was just “acting.” I also read a little piece on David Michod, writer and director. Apparently, this script was eight years in the making. Perfection takes time. Sometimes years. Long lingering shots increasing discomfort, beautiful use of slow motion and an interesting soundtrack. Let’s just say that Air Supply’s “All of Out of Love” will never be the same.
After “Inception”, I was feeling let down by cinema. What could be better than Nolan’s masterpiece? Thankfully, I was lucky enough to see this film, restoring my faith for a second. As we all know in cinephile land, “Animal Kingdom” is one of those rare, important films that will have limited viewing capacity, and that is shameful. A week has gone by since I saw it and I STILL feel it writhing around in my bones. It has awards waiting at it’s doorstep. Let’s hope it gets the recognition it so righteously deserves. BRAVO.
Directed by: David Michod
Release Date: August 13, 2010
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Porchlight Films
“The A-Team” is the greatest movie ever made. Okay, sometimes I get emotional after seeing a truly kickass movie and I have no shame about proclaiming various things the best thing ever, only to have that change upon the next awesome thing I see. However, as of this writing, “A-Team” is the best thing ever, and I think it has something to do with being based on the greatest show that was ever on TV.
A TV adaptation? Didn’t we have one of those last year?
There’s a common bullshit, poorly-conceived opinion that adapting a TV show is a lowbrow indication that Hollywood has run out of ideas. People are excited to appear important by decrying the idea as if they’ve somehow espoused a deep meditation on the state of entertainment by saying the same thing everyone else says. Unless you can really explain how Hollywood has ruined the purity of a cartoon created to sell a toy without laughing, then sit down, Comic-Con Q&A denizen. Your argument is predicated upon a fact that doesn’t exist: that all movies without a “2″ in the title are super-original. “Avatar” anyone? It’s not an adaptation or a sequel, but would it really matter if it had been?
Movies based on a different medium are a GREAT idea! It presents a certain set of challenges to the creators. Does anyone really think because “Family Ties” was already a TV show that adapting it to a two hour movie with a satisfying three-act structure is easy? The GREAT thing about reboots, origin stories, and adaptations of pop cultural entities is that the audience comes into the movie with a pre-existing list of tropes that they’re excited to see. In “Casino Royale”, we wait in anticipation to hear “Bond, James Bond”, in “Batman Begins”, we wait for the cave, the gadgets, the Batmobile, and those two movies know where their audiences want their bread buttered.
When we think of “The A-Team”, we think of pitied fools, crazy Murdock, and Hannibal’s love of plans coming together. It’s all there and more because the writers, director Joe Carnahan (“Narc”), and Producers Ridley and Tony Scott (?!?!) have delivered a movie that hones in on an essence of “The A-Team” that a lot of us may have forgotten. They are an impossible missions team, and the “plans” so haphazardly thrown out in the show’s catchphrase are what the movie zeroes in on as it’s entire concept, the script constantly creates impossible situations that require a masterful plan to get out of, and a montage that includes a blowtorch being lit to put that plan into action. In this way, “The A-Team” is an incredibly successful adaptation. It’s as if the creators saw the thrilling and elaborate Hong Kong kidnap sequence from “The Dark Knight” and said: “let’s try and pull that off seven or eight times.”
On the story level, the film is actually an adaptation of the opening title monologue of the 80′s television show. The team is wrongfully accused of a crime they didn’t commit and they spend the movie trying to clear their name. The actual plot, divorced of these characters and this television property could actually play best on the Who Gives A Shit Channel. There’s a thingy and they have to get it, but somebody else wants to get the thingy, but if that person gets the thingy, then our heroes will lose, and who wants a hero to lose? Not this American, that’s for sure.
Sidenote: I always admired “Ronin” because it called out it’s Thingy plot by not even stating what it was. Because who cares? That’s not the point of “Ronin”, that’s not the point here either.
Aside from nailing the various physical action tropes of “The A-Team”, the movie also hits all the trademarks of the four 80′s TV icon characters. Hannibal and Face are much more alive than they were in the TV show as the basis of their characters (Mr. In Charge and Mr. Smooth) intersect more with the plot than B.A. and Murdock (Mr. Mean and Mr. Unpredictable) who play support and don’t get much quality interaction. But all four are a dream cast for the big, big, big childhood A-Team fan that’s writing this.
The really impressive thing about “The A-Team” is the action sequences.
In Michael Bay’s “The Island”, there’s a climactic highway chase where train axles and wheels are thrown off of a truck into oncoming traffic. I remember watching at the time and thinking “Oh, okay, so we’ve run out of action sequences”. Because train axles are different than everything else that’s been thrown out of a van or off a car hauler into traffic, you see?
I say that because, like you, I thought I’d seen every possible iteration of action sequence since the invention of the genre, and yet, the plans, and impossible missions, and the constant success of the A-Team at nailing those missions happens in seven or eight action sequences that I’ve never seen, including a fantastic action setpiece ending that I won’t ever forget, and probably have to go back and see tomorrow.
If only any of the “Mission: Impossible” movies had been half as entertaining with their impossible missions, or had half the inventiveness of “The A-Team” then…then… well, then I guess I wouldn’t be writing this sentence. But what do you expect, “Mission: Impossible” is an adaptation of a TV show. A TV show that I can only presume is about a lone agent of an Impossible Missions Force that are all killed in the first episode.
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Release Date: June 11, 2010
Run Time: 117 Minutes
Distributor: Dune Entertainment
Ever since the “Boardwalk Empire” project was announced, I have been patiently waiting for what was sure to be the greatest series in television history. The most expensive episode of television ever produced, coming in at a whopping 60 million dollars; elaborate sets, stunning costumes, and direction from none other than Martin Scorsese. The question at hand is did the premiere meet my expectations? The answer is YES.
Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is a local politician (as well as a gangster) at the start of prohibition in 1920 Atlantic City. The first episode is a setup for what’s to come (as they usually are), only in this case there is a whole lot more stuff to introduce. We learn that Thompson seems to be a really likable guy with a heart of gold, lending himself to pro-women groups and helping a local pregnant immigrant in need; at the same time, we see that he is a money-hungry, ruthless gangster who is excited for prohibition because he knows how much loot he is gonna make. Buscemi has always been one of my favorite character actors, it is nice to see him wearing the pants of a lead character.
Lots of great supporting character performances. The best probably being that of Jimmy (Michael Pitt) who is Nucky’s right hand man and has worked for him since he was twelve. It is obvious that Jimmy will become a crucial part of the story line as we get further into the season, Pitt is excellent and perfectly cast.
The sets of Atlantic City are immaculate and stunning, my only complaint is that they did kinda look like sets…they were a bit too clean. The costumes (John Dunne) were totally incredible, capturing every alluring detail of the period.
Overall, the chance to see an episode of television directed by Martin Scorsese is great all in itself, even if it hadn’t succeeded. My favorite series of all time was “Deadwood”, I’m thinking this may come close.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: September 19, 2010
Distributor: Home Box Office
I had the pleasure recently of seeing a new Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon called “Coyote Falls”. This was another attempt by Warner Brothers to re-capture the feeling of the original Looney Tunes cartoons of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And unlike previous attempts, I thought this was a rousing success!
I could fault many Hollywood movies for recycling plots this summer, but for some reason, Wile E. and RoRun have been able to churn out the same plot over and over again and avoid audience disdain every time. Here’s the plot this time (and every time):
WILE E. is hungry + WILE E. tries to eat ROAD RUNNER = EPIC FAIL
Current Executive Producer Sam Register and Director Matthew O’Callaghan seem to be in no hurry to screw with a formula that’s worked for fifty plus years, and that’s a great benefit to the short, which flies from one slapstick moment to another. This time, in order to capture the Road Runner, Wile E. has ordered a bungee cord (from ACME, naturally) to swoop in and snag the lightning-fast bird when he stops to eat some cleverly-placed birdseed (not so clever after all, as it’s in the road, where traffic will be the demise of Wile E.’s plans).
This short is made with 3D computer graphics, which is normally a tired way to boost the interest in a sub-par feature film. But the trend has been kind to animated movies, never looking as if there was some bogus “conversion” from a 2D print. Here, the 3D and colorful visuals bring Wile E. and The Road Runner briskly back to life.
But none of this would matter if “Coyote Falls” wasn’t funny. Fortunately, this short is funny in all the ways you expect. Broad slapstick and best of all, unrealistic situations which would definitely cause the death of the Coyote a hundred times over. I was happy to see that a new, P.C,-friendly Looney Tunes didn’t take over and try and teach kids that you can’t live when you fall two-hundred feet from a cliff to the hard desert surface below. I’ve no desire to be taught a lesson at a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Certainly, part of the success of this re-vamped Looney Tunes short was in the wise decision to revitalize characters that didn’t have distinct voices attached to them. So, you don’t spend a lot of time disappointed that “that really doesn’t sound like Foghorn Leghorn” or “that isn’t the REAL Kermit”.
“Coyote Falls” (great title by the way) is the first of three Wile E./Road Runner shorts coming out this year. The second is before the long-titled Owl movie and the third will precede “Yogi Bear” this Christmas. I remember being a kid and laughing my ass off at the Road Runner cartoons, then looking over at my dad, who was similarly laughing his ass off. That broad appeal can be a hit again if they stay with the formula they’ve revived with “Coyote Falls”. Well done, WB – ***1/2!
Oh, and following “Coyote Falls” was a really terrible sequel to “Cats & Dogs”.
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Release Date: July 30, 2010
Run Time: 82 Minutes
Distributor: CD2 Films
My new least favorite perspective:
“Well, it was fun. You know, you turn your brain off and it’s a good popcorn movie.”
Since when is THAT enough? Did I miss some memo that went out in the last twenty years that gave permission to artists to be “less challenging”? You know why that isn’t said about “Avatar”? ‘Cause “Avatar” is ABOUT something. It has something to say about humanity, the environment, friendship, self-worth and peace. But it also has the most kick-ass special effects in the history of the movies. That combination will only get you the most popular movie of all time.
“Clash of the Titans” is about nothing. It’s about being bloated and noisy and wasting the talents of many a good actor.
“Titans” is this year’s period-action-movie-entry into the spring box office sweepstakes. Many moons ago, “300” made a ga-zillion dollars in the springtime, normally a wasteland for money-making movie adventures. Since then, “10,000 B.C,” and “Watchmen” have attempted to recapture that magic. But only “300” was attempting something really new: an arresting visual style coupled with overflowing machismo and faithful recreation of visuals from the graphic novel brought people out. “Watchmen” was so faithful to its heady source material, wide audiences couldn’t connect. “Clash of the Titans” falls more into the “10,000 B.C.” category, a film that incorrectly thinks bigger is better.
I’m sure you know “Clash” is based on a 1981 film starring Harry Hamlin and Laurence Olivier. It concerns Zeus’ son Perseus and his quest to save Greece from The Kraken. The real stars of that film, however, were the classic stop-motion animation creatures of Ray Harryhausen. And even with the tens of millions of dollars spent in special effects by the update, the visual result mostly doesn’t compare. One impressive sequence in the new film is the action scene with giant scorpions. They look pretty damn real and are as intimidating as they need to be.
In sharp contrast is the Medusa sequence, which in the original was really scary! Here, it’s just OVERDONE. It may seem unfair to compare the two movies, but the “Clash” original and the remake comparison reveals what’s wrong with the idea of remakes and sometimes what’s wrong with big-budget moviemaking today. Medusa’s lair, in the original, was small and dark with few places to hide. In the remake, with their misguided idea of BIG, BIG, BIG, Medusa’s lair is huge! There is fire everywhere, it’s bright and has a GIANT LAVA PIT at the bottom. It’s way, way, way too much. In keeping it simple, the original has made a creepier sequence. Even Medusa’s big weapon, turning someone to stone with her stare, was more effective with a simple look and those sinister eyes. Now, she rushes their face, and with rubbery-CGI-precision, screams, sprays venom, shoots lights out of her eyes. It’s all too much.
That can be said of the whole film. It’s even too much to rush the 3D conversion on this and the many films they plan to convert in the next year. I saw it in 2D, ‘cause I was told the 3D was a little hack. I was told that you could see the 2D image behind a lot of the 3D effects. The worst part is, this hack process has been rewarded with $145 million in domestic box office. Theaters LOVE 3D ‘cause it gets people to the cinema as opposed to renting or downloading your favorite movie. But if they continue to treat it as a fast-food commodity, the popularity will fade and fade quickly. Thank god “Iron Man 2” isn’t in 3D…
Sam Worthington is a solid lead for any movie, but he shows his least amount of depth yet. He looks good and trudges through the movie as a true battle hero, but there’s no vulnerability, nothing to relate to as an audience. He showed more emotion as a cyber-creation in “Terminator: Salvation”. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes chew scenery as the gods Zeus and Hades, respectively, but maybe this looked cool thirty years ago, but now I gotta admit it was kind of goofy to see these grown men traipsing around Mount Olympus in goofy costumes.
Looking pretty good in the end is Mads Mikkelson, the villain from “Casino Royale”, practically unrecognizable as Draco, in charge of training Worthington’s Perseus. But soon they’re both involved in a dopey sword fight. You know, the kind where Draco is teaching Perseus, but the two basically swing with lethal force at each other to where one of them could die if there’s the slightest misstep. These guys aren’t supposed to kill each other, but they could at any moment. It’s the kind of scene you only get in a moronic movie. And the Kraken, as oft-repeated as “Release the Kraken” will no-doubt be for years to come, isn’t very effective. He barely gets to cause any havoc before he meets his fate.
Director Louis Leterrier, who I thought improved on the original when Universal decided to reboot “The Incredible Hulk”, doesn’t have that luck here. In retrospect, I should’ve noticed that Leterrier decided to reboot a lame movie in “Hulk”, which had a shaky-looking CGI Hulk. Then he decided to “improve” that by adding another CGI-Hulk-ish creature in The Abomination. So, he thought more was better then, and continues to think in that vein.
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Release Date: April 2, 2010
Run Time: 106 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you, the saying goes. “The Crazies”, Breck Eisner’s remake of the 1973 George Romero film of the same name, shows a world built on the foundation of this axiom. The “Government” of Romero’s vision is a shadowy extension of our regular fears, likely to lose control of the terrible forces it is attempting to harness in the name of the supposed greater good, to the detriment of us regular folk. There are real examples of such things, from the small-pox on blankets that the Government gave to Native Americans, to the Three Mile Island disaster, and many others in-between. Paranoia, insight, delusion, and various forms of logic (faulty and well-founded) about real and imagined events have informed a fantastic fringe cultural history that is populated by aliens, assassins, secret government agencies and agents, and of course, zombies. The homicidal brain-washed victim of the Government’s tampering is the perfect villainous embodiment of these fears, because the zombie is one of us. He’s our neighbor. Or maybe, if we don’t watch it, he’s ourself.
After all, the Government did produce a kind of zombie, with some regularity, in asylums in this country around mid-century. A lobotomy, a removal or simple scrambling of the frontal lobe of any of us, could easily make us drooling hulks. We’d probably not want to eat each other’s brains, but since few of us spend much time around the lobotomized, it’s hard to say.
“The Crazies” concerns a small town in Iowa, Ogden Marsh, with its cornfields and farms and baseball, that is the unfortunate accidental recipient of a Government-engineered virus. The bug gets in the water supply, and before they know what hit ‘em, most everyone in the town has been turned into a murderous maniac. The early parts of the film, as the first people are infected and commence waving around shotguns, knives and gas cans… killing their loved ones and strangers indiscriminately… is the most compelling section. The town Sheriff, Timothy Olyphant, tries to make sense of what’s going on. People are acting crazy, all right, but can it be explained? The shotgun-wielder at the baseball game used to be a drunk, after all. He must have fallen off the wagon. The ambiguity of motive and drive is the more interesting story than what the Sheriff and his deputy soon discover… The Government is behind it all.
The tension breaks at this point, or at least changes. Sure, there are still some nasty folks to deal with, but with the real villain defined so clearly, the film loses a bit of traction. There are flashes of the original tension… there is a short period of suspense over whether the Sheriff’s deputy has been infected or is just acting crazy… but the script doesn’t really tackle the kind of crazies that can, and likely would, infect “sane” people if they were running from an army of homicidal maniacs, all the while not sure if they or anyone they were next to was likely to turn into one of those undead. That’s the kind of fear that could drive someone to inhuman lengths, whether that person had indeed been robbed of his or her humanity by the Government or not. “The Crazies”, for all its suspense… and there is plenty of that… just doesn’t want to get involved with the nuts and bolts of real fear, real paranoia, real danger. It’s got all the elements of the genre… indeed, the original film practically set the rules for the genre… so it functions as a manifestation of basic human paranoia, rather than an investigation into the nature of insanity. The scapegoat is the Government, infecting wholesome innocent people with homicidal madness… something that just wouldn’t occur without intervention from outside sources, the film seems to say. It’s a simplified vision, and even Breck Eisner’s capable if not derivative directing style and the best efforts of a fairly respectable ensemble can’t dress this film up beyond what it is… a decent re-tread of a movie that provides a skewed kind of comfort: If something goes wrong, blame it on the Government.
“Shutter Island”, Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, makes no such mistakes. Unlike “The Crazies”, “Shutter Island” is not confined by what has come before, or by what is expected of genre films. “Shutter Island” cleverly side-steps genre-definitions at every turn of the script, all the while dancing with various recognizable styles and forms. It is in that dance that Martin Scorsese creates a brilliant film that perfectly supports the excellent script.
In the first few minutes of “Shutter Island”, we see the island itself, looming through a parting fog. It’s a vision out of classic films of the early century… we may expect to find King Kong traipsing about on an island like that. Certainly, some kind of monster must inhabit it.
What is discovered on the island is a kind of insanity that a film like “The Crazies” doesn’t bother delving into. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a Federal Marshall who is investigating a recent disappearance on the island. One of the inmates, it seems, has escaped. The mystery unfolds and thickens all at the same time, as Daniels attempts to get to the bottom of things. The woman has escaped, or perhaps just vanished into thin air. Odd, it is, and Teddy Daniels is nothing if not suspicious. Some might say paranoid.
Daniels, we discover through flashbacks, was one of the first soldiers to come upon Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, at the end of World War 2. He is clearly traumatized, and it seems as though his experiences during the war, and particularly at Dachau, are to blame. A flashback scene shows him standing over a bleeding, dying Nazi, who had flubbed an attempt to kill himself. Daniels sees the Nazi lamely trying to reach for the gun that is just out of his reach on the floor next to him, and Daniels moves it away from the dying man with his foot. It’s a simple, quick choice. Perhaps it’s the right one, by some definition. It is, however, no less violent than any other murder. Whose fault it is isn’t the point… the Nazi surely brought the situation on himself… the damage is what’s in focus. Daniels is an innocent everyman, drawn into a savage situation, perpetrated by the clearest real-life example of the kind of Government conspiracy that a film like “The Crazies” imagines. He is collateral damage to the sort of callous barbarism that man can act upon himself. The Nazi bleeds and dies and Daniels allows it to happen, and he is scarred because of it, of course. It’s that kind of weight and damage that a lesser film, a lesser script, a lesser director could easily pass over in the supposed interest of suspense, revenge, style and just plain fun. Quentin Tarantino’s much lesser Nazi film, “Inglorious Basterds”, is laid wide open and bare by not even the whole of “Shutter Island”, but only just this section.
In fact, by making a film like this, that takes into account these levels of fear and real human cost, Martin Scorsese (with a script by Laeta Kalogridis, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane) has served notice that he has only matured and grown as a director and social critic. His whole career, it could be argued, has centered around examining the consequences of violence. Martin Scorsese is interested in showing us who we are, or who we might be… without any Government to blame.
There are many riveting scenes in “Shutter Island”. Indeed, there are perhaps none that are not riveting. One in particular stands out as the real hinge of the film, and maybe of Scorsese’s vision overall. Daniels, while wandering around the island, is picked up and given a ride by the Warden (Ted Levine… Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs”). The two engage in a discussion on the nature of violence, with the Warden starting the conversation. He explains the nature of man as it is married to violence… the Zen of the brutal imprisoner. He describes the cage that the two men are in… that they would both love to destroy the other, if given the chance. Sane violence versus the violence of insanity. It’s a brilliant and terrifying scene… one of the best in a great director’s long career.
“Shutter Island” was released at a strange time of the year. It has apparently been ready for release for over a year. Perhaps some thought it would not receive its due if it were released amid 2009’s Oscar contenders. That may be true, as it is a thick, creepy, complicated film. It has set the bar high for the 2010 Oscar race, though, and deserves to be remembered when those votes are tallied late this year.
Ben Kingsley stands out, as he always does, in the wonderful cast. Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson… not a weak one in the bunch. There are many reasons to see this film again, not the least of which is to enjoy the ensemble cast’s excellent work.
The main reason may be to connect the dots for oneself, as the film certainly throws audiences off the scent time and again. The conclusion is perfectly drawn, with some room for ambiguity… just enough to satisfy the kind of paranoia of everyday life. The film studies that paranoia in a more complete and interesting way than “The Crazies” could hope to.
The next-best reason, though, is to enjoy and learn from a film that doesn’t pander to a modern audience’s lowest expectations. “Shutter Island” is dressed up as a thriller, or even a horror film. But unlike most films of those genres, it takes responsibility for itself. The violence and danger involved is not the kind that we like to see up on a movie screen that helps us convince ourselves that we’re safe, normal, sane in our own world. It’s the real kind… the kind with stacked bodies and the Nazis responsible for them. The kind with scrambled frontal lobes if a patient… or an investigator… doesn’t step in line. The kind that’s really scary… much more than Government created zombies could ever be. It’s real violence, and real danger. You can’t blow its head off with a shotgun, because then it infects you too.
Directed by: Breck Eisner
Release Date: February 26, 2010
Run Time: 101 Minutes
Country: USA/United Arab Emirates
Distributor: Overture Films
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: February 19, 2010
Run Time: 138 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
If you’ve seen the trailer, the film Cyrus looks like another comedy ripe with antics such as those in other films starring the two lead actors. That it ends up being something completely different works both to its favor and its detriment.
Borrowing a simple and somewhat familiar plot, the movie sets itself up as a standard relationship triangle between long-time single guy, John (John C. Reilly), single-mother, Molly (Marisa Tomei), and Cyrus (Jonah Hill) – the major difference being that Cyrus is Molly’s son, and he’s 21 rather than 10. While this sounds like the makings of an over-the-top, vindictive, slapstick comedy of embarrassment, what we get is much more subtle and subdued.
Directors Jay and Mark Duplass (Baghead, The Puffy Chair) continue to expand on their mumblecore movement roots – mumblecore being loosely rehearsed, roughly sketched scenes and improvisational dialog. That it succeeds at all in this film is largely thanks to John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill’s skilled performances and on-screen chemistry.
However, Cyrus is a film that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be. I know what the marketing people want you to think it is: 2010’s Step Brothers. Indeed, many of the people in the theatre were expecting exactly that, and I heard plenty of grumbling afterwards about its failure to deliver on what the trailer seemed to promise. Once again, the trailer showcased 90% of the film’s funnier moments. Keep this in mind before checking it out below.
Make no mistake: Cyrus, though billed as a comedy, is really more of a dramatic exercise in passive-aggressive behavior and restraint. That this happens to present comedic situations and exchanges feels more like a bonus rather than part of the plan, thanks again to the talents of Reilly and Hill. There are plenty of moments in this movie where you think you know what’s going to happen. You think you know, because you’ve seen similar scenes in other comedies where it does happen. The often surprising thing with Cyrus is that it doesn’t happen here.
I applaud the directors and actors for choosing the road less travelled and not devolving into cliche, the only problem is that what we get instead isn’t necessarily the better option. It’s precisely because of this that the movie tends to feel a little lost – trying often to let nuance, drama, and good acting carry the scene rather than the expected easy gag. Sometimes this works quite well, other times it doesn’t. Such is the gamble with the mumblecore movement.
Another place the film tended to break down was in the pacing. 92 minutes felt more like two hours and the awkward, uncomfortable situations seemed to linger on screen just a little too long. However intentional this might have been, it didn’t seem to work for me. Oh, and can we officially call an end to the whole constantly-moving-and-zooming camera style? It didn’t work as intended here and often drew too much attention to itself.
Beyond the technical aspects though, there is much good to be said about the film’s two leads. Reilly and Hill’s combative relationship on screen plays out nicely, and they really do a good job of bringing their characters to life. Reilly deftly wrestles with the conflicts of his relationship with Tomei, as well as with the antagonistic, unnerving behavior brought on by Hill. Hill is in a whole new element here and he takes to the challenge quite nicely. This is a role unlike anything we’ve seen him in before and his performance constantly keeps the audience guessing as to whether he’s as messed up as he seems.
Reilly and Hill comprise just about everything that is good in this film. Marisa Tomei, while having her moments, is just not as believable as her two male co-stars, and the rest of the cast seem to exist entirely so John can bounce his frustrations off someone.
As a case study for improv acting and the appreciable talents of people like Reilly and Hill who can pull it off, Cyrus succeeds and has merit in viewing. There are moments of real brilliance, real emotion and real comedy – they just don’t all add up to a real movie.
Directed by: Jay and Mark Duplass
Release Date: June 18, 2010
Run Time: 92 Minutes
Distributor: Scott Free Productions
“Despicable Me” is proof that if you do everything exactly like Pixar does it, you’ll succeed. You may know from my reviews that I’m a FREAK for all things Pixar. I think they’re the best storytellers in Hollywood and because their shot composition and other film elements are computer-generated, they’re underrated as some of the industry’s finest filmmakers. It didn’t take long for others to emulate them in a big way.
“Despicable Me” stars Steve Carell’s voice as Gru, a supervillain who is dealing with some low self-esteem in the wake of another rising supervillain (Vector, played by Jason Segel’s voice) doing bigger and better things. In an effort to steal ideas from his upstart nemesis, Gru adopts a trio of girls to gain access to his opponent’s home, only to have his heart undone by the young orphans.
This is the first film released under the Illumination banner, a new studio founded by former Fox Animation frontman Christopher Meledandri. With movies like the “Ice Age”, “Robots” and “Horton Hears a Who” under his belt, he knows how to make a hit. But with “Despicable Me”, it seems Mel (what I call him) is out to dig deeper than the goofy laughs delivered by his previous films. Cue the Pixar formula. And this is tough to do, ‘cause Pixar doesn’t really have a formula.
The ’89-’99 decade of Disney dominance of 2D animation had a formula. It worked, but was still formulaic to itself – young lead looking for independence (mostly a girl – Ariel, Jasmine, Belle), score & songs by a Broadway veteran (Menken, Rice, Schwartz), cute sidekicks (Meeko, Flounder, Terk). Pixar doesn’t really have a character or element that is signature to their success. Their themes vary from friendship, loss, change, individualism, responsibility, persistence, family pursuing your dream, humility and self-worth and lonliness. And the characters are rival toys one minute, to a lonely robot the next, and an old man, a dreamy rat, a superhero family and talking cars in between.
I suppose the one characteristic besides Randy Newman that makes more than one appearance in the Pixar catalog is heart. And it’s heart that made “How to Train Your Dragon” the best DreamWorks movie so far, and it’s heart that’s propelled “Despicable Me” to over $200 million at the box office this summer. It’s also a huge dose of heart that has made Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” the highest-grossing animated film of all time. My fear? If heart becomes too prominent a theme, there may be backlash! Maybe people will want to return to the detached irony of early DreamWorks Animation and the impressive-graphics-only Disney 2D animation of the ‘00s (“Treasure Planet”, anyone?).
OK, that will never happen, but here are two more thoughts on this recent wave of 3D animation:
- In the end, the emulation of Pixar by the other animation sudios is a really good thing!. Remember that ‘90s golden age of 2D Disney animation? Quick on its heels came TONS of other animated films – REALLY BAD ONES. You know how right when improv was reeeeaaally cool, the market got reeeeaaally saturated, and mostly bad? Remember how great YouTube was, and now every jagoff imaginable puts dopey, un-thought-out shit up there and it’s over-saturated? That’s how the 2D animation business got in the ‘90s in the wake of Disney – “Hey, we should do it, too!” That attitude led to:
“We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story”
“Quest for Camelot”
I fear that already, the 3D market, fifteen years after “Toy Story”, is saturated. “Open Season”, “The Ant Bully”, “Bee Movie”, “Space Chimps”, “Planet 51” and more films like them are mucking up the animated film scene today. So if more movies figure they better have more developed and intricate stories and loads of heart if they’re going to keep pace with Pixar, that may boost the overall quality of the genre.
- However, all through “Despicable Me”, you can’t help but think of “The Incredibles” over and over again. The production design is similar, the characters are similar, the theme of family runs through it. The difference? “Despicable Me” still relies on phrases like “chillax” to get its point across. This keeps the movie from being timeless. I know, “timeless” is a LOFTY goal for your film to achieve. But think about what goes into the timeless animated films of our time. It’s not hipster gags and pop culture references. And if you’re participating in the “golden age” of computer-animated movies, get timeless or get out.
So this is more of a rant about the current state of animation than a review of “Despicable Me”. As far as the Carell-voiced movie goes….it was pretty good.
Directed by: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Release Date: July 9, 2010
Run Time: 95 Minutes
Distributor: Illumination Entertainment
Julia Roberts takes a “journey of self-discovery” to various parts of the world in this adaptation of the best-selling novel. Maybe a novel has more time to examine the psychological implications of a global jaunt like this, but reduced to a two hour running time, Roberts’ character seems a little rushed in her decisions, and that made the ride a little rough for me.
Roberts plays a woman who’s used to headlining blockbusters in this August release, and finds herself pairing up with men in Italy, India and Bali. It’s kind of like the “drinking around the world game” you can play at EpCot Center, but the world is real and the drinks are sex.
Truth is, in India, she doesn’t find romance (which is tough to do in the “PRAY” part of the story), but the man she does befriend there is the GREAT Richard Jenkins, who is compensated for not sleeping with Julia by delivering the best monologue of the year so far.
Before “EAT”, it all starts with her being mildly annoyed by her husband and then leaving him entirely. There are flashbacks and everything to prove what a jerk he was that one time. He is authentically desperate and heartbroken in their separation, but off she goes. Adding to the quality of the (in my opinion) undeservedly-dumped husband is another good performance by the criminally underrated Billy Crudup.
“EAT” takes Roberts to Italy, a country impossible to film non-gorgeous, where she first throws caution to the wind with overeating and a fling with a young Italian language teacher. The locals are ADORABLE and sun gently makes everything glisten. But despite her jump off the cliff, eating a crap-ton doesn’t seem much like a personal revolution.
The “PRAY” section gets a little boring, as does praying, so not much can be expected. Julia reunites with an old guru who is praying for a decent set of teeth and begins to look inside herself. This sends her to Bali, where she struggles with “LOVE”, only to realize there isn’t another word in the title to escape to.
Overall, there’s real competence on display here, especially given that it’s Ryan Murphy’s first feature, after building a name creating the not-toned-at-all-like-this “Glee”. Roberts is solid, but the film didn’t sway me from preconceptions based on what I’ve heard about the book. It’s a bit featherweight, neither diving deep into drama or comedy. Let’s just call it “EAT PRAY LIKE”.
Directed by: Ryan Murphy
Release Date: August 13, 2010
Run Time: 133 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
I wouldn’t call myself a Mel Gibson apologist. That would presume I’m OK with the fanaticism that seems to follow his real life. But, artistically, I’m a HUGE fan. Naturally, I wish there wasn’t a “Bird on a Wire” or “Maverick” mucking up his imdb.com profile, but his career high-points include some GREAT acting that may get underappreciated.
For example, Gibson’s first great role was Martin Riggs, and a role he’ll probably be remembered for forever. “Lethal Weapon” was a huge hit, and a universally enjoyed movie, but where was the Oscar nomination? Gibson probed some DARK areas of the heart and soul to create a true action movie original. I thought the award praise should definitely have accompanied the box office love.
Riggs’ passionate drive was so strong and compelling, Gibson’s best work usually involved that truthful exploration of the dark side. Gibson’s “Hamlet” was obsessed and tragic, easily up to acting alongside stalwarts like Alan Bates and Paul Scofield. Perhaps his performance was undervalued because the whole film underachieved as it cut Shakespeare to pieces.
Gibson’s performance in “Signs” was heartbreaking, in an otherwise flawed sci-fi film. When his character, Rev. Graham Hess, held the last conversation he would ever have with his wife, who was pinned to a tree by a car, Mel MADE that scene. It was a tall order in the script, and he delivered big-time. But in a dopey alien movie, perhaps Mel’s acting took a back seat as far as accolades are concerned.
Perhaps the most oft-occuring theme in Mel Gibson movies is the man who’s had something taken from him, and the nasty revenge story that follows. This played out beautifully in “Braveheart”, “Ransom”, “Payback”, “The Patriot” and now in “Edge of Darkness”. The intensity Mel brings to these roles is often-times the movie’s greatest asset (certainly the case with “Payback”, and probably not so much with “Braveheart”, which succeeded on so many levels, it’s tough to pick a ‘greatest asset’!).
In “Edge of Darkness”, Mel plays Thomas Craven, a police officer whose daughter is murdered, and you KNOW he’s gonna kill everybody who gets in his way until he finds out who did it! Do you need anything more to see this movie? Why’d you see “Ransom”? They kidnapped his son. Why’d you see “The Patriot”? They killed his son. It’s a shame that Gibson’s off-screen extremism kept people from coming out in those same droves to see “Edge of Darkness”, because the ride was just as intense and Mel was in his element.
Officer Craven’s daughter is offed VERY early on in “Edge of Darkness”, dispatched quickly and non-cinematically. Director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) wastes no time putting Mel on the revenge trail. Peeling back layer after layer of those behind his daughter’s death, Craven reveals a deep conspiracy that is topical and socially relevant, further building hate for those responsible.
Is it wicked cathartic to watch Boston’s Finest Thomas Craven settle the score? HELL YES! And it’s also an involving and complex police story. The fun of the movie (and it is fun, although it’s very dark) is determining where the story will go next. Craven runs into bent politicians, questionable allies and a very unique character in Jedburgh, a government operative played by Ray Winstone. Craven and Jedburgh’s conversations are razor-sharp and Jedburgh has some of the best lines of the film. The script was written by Andrew Bovell and Oscar-winner William Monahan (“The Departed”). Monahan has a gift for putting realistic, intelligent dialogue in the mouths of his characters that apparently have a Boston dialect.
It’s difficult to go on about this film without giving away key elements of the plot, but it unfolds nicely, as we learn what Craven learns, as he learns it. There is a great supporting cast, too, including the great Danny Huston, Jay O. Sanders and Denis O’Hare. If you don’t know these actors by name, “Edge of Darkness” is a great way to get introduced.
Martin Campbell is one of the quietest high-quality action directors in the business today. His resume includes “The Mask of Zorro”, “Goldeneye” and “Casino Royale”. There are bumps in the road, but never has he cheesed it up like Michael Bay or Tony Scott, keeping his films decidedly adult. That’s very much on display here and very much refreshing. Next up for him is “Green Lantern”, and I feel the franchise is in good hands. It doesn’t hurt that Campbell was involved with the original BBC miniseries that “Edge of Darkness” is based on.
Are there flaws? Sure. There isn’t a whole lot of humor, some “villains” are pretty easily spotted. But overall, this is a major return for Mel Gibson to above-the-title acting. I hope this leads to non-January releases that get people in the theater to see one of the best, back in the business.
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Release Date: January 29, 2010
Run Time: 117 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- “Macbeth” (Just wanted to quote Shakespeare in a Stallone review)
SO much machismo is being blustered around the screen in “The Expendables”, the real expendable here is the audience. We really don’t need to be present during this movie. As much as it looks like a movie “made for fans”, no one in the movie is really having any fun, and neither was I as a result. The tone is morose, the plot is unnecessarily complicated, it’s all the setup for a great ‘80s movie bogged down by the style-over-substance requirements of the 2010s action movie formula.
Early in the film, a man’s torso is blown OFF OF HIS WAIST, leaving his legs and feet standing there where the rest of his body was moments ago. Was there a doubt you weren’t sure what kind of movie “The Expendables” was going to be? If so, that moment killed all doubt. Sylvester Stallone, his skin tautly holding his insides together and always seeming to wear his hair or a beret as a hat, leads a team of protein-powder junkies on a killing spree through South America to de-throne a dictator.
I really wanted to like this movie. With this childhood-memory-inducing cast of meat, how could you not? But none of it is engrossing somehow, and no star looks as comfortable here as they do in their own vehicles. Jet Li isn’t often understandable, reminding us why his dialogue was limited in “Lethal Weapon 4”. Steve Austin practices that “say little and kick ass much” mantra and comes off better. Dolph Lundgren, perhaps the ‘80s leftover who looks the best, is mired in a double-cross plot that has about the same weight and interest as Mac’s does in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”. Who’s Mac, you say? Exactly.
Jason Statham fares pretty well here, but if “The Transporter” has taught me anything, he needs to do his own thing. He has a certain set of rules he abides by, he shouldn’t team up with anyone. Mickey Rourke is wise enough to get a great monologue in the mix about “the horror” of war, as if to say “Let’s remember, I’m fresh off an Oscar nod and am in no hurry to appear in the ‘Double Team’ sequel”. Unfortunately, a lack of exciting individual characteristics leaves Randy Couture and Terry Crews being merely serviceable.
The fight scenes aren’t staged particularly well, either, and are mostly over-compensated for with bludgeoning sound effects and fast-cut editing. This film and “Rambo” have this belief that shooting lots of people is enough. Action has evolved, Sly. After the complexity of “The Dark Knight”, the intricacy of “The Matrix” and the heroic consequences of “Spider-Man 2”, watching John Rambo spend the last ten minutes of “Rambo” mowing people down with a high-powered machine gun was dull. One big setpiece in “The Expendables” has Stallone and Statham approaching the bad guys in a plane, and then shooting them all. Dull. Give me more, Sly, ‘cause if you don’t, Christopher Nolan will.
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Release Date: August 13, 2010
Run Time: 103 Minutes
Distributor: Millenium Films
Opinion. We like to think it’s all equal. Ask most folks, and they’ll tell you that it’s their opinion that everyone’s opinion is equal. It’s a democratic view. One might say a truly American view; that the perspective of any person is just as valid as the perspective of the next. It’s comforting. By suggesting that no one can have a better opinion than anyone else, the general public maintains a sense of fairness. You might think something, you might suppose it, you might say it, but if I say different, then the reality is called into question. I have thusly provided a check and balance to your power. I have provided a valuable counterpoint; in fact the presentation of any counterpoint is valuable, inherently. You insist upon tomato? Well, have you considered tom-ah-to?
“Fair Game” is the true story of Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, a married couple with connections to the opiners and deciders in Washington DC. Plame (Naomi Watts) is a C.I.A. agent, and the film quickly draws the viewer into her world. She is a real-world equivalent of James Bond, which is to say her existence is not much like Bond’s at all. She performs missions that are laced with subtlety and nuance, rather than shooting and explosions. Her tools are bribe and (occasionally strong-armed) persuasion, rather than sports cars and (occasionally silenced) 9mm’s. The stakes, and therefore the tension, are much higher. Valerie Plame was a boots-on-the-ground, covert, globe-hopping force for the security of the United States in the early part of the century, at a time when such a job was especially integral to the safety of the country.
Early on in the film, Plame is asked by her superiors at the C.I.A. if her husband, a former U.S. diplomat who had worked in Africa and Iraq, (he was once called a “true American hero” by George H.W. Bush, for his actions in helping evacuate Americans and other nationals from Iraq during the first US/Iraq war) and who has worked as an advisor to the C.I.A. in the past, can be of service on a particular mission. The C.I.A. is investigating a possible sale of Yellowcake, a weapons-grade nuclear material, from Niger to Iraq. Plame is mutedly reluctant to involve her husband in her work, seemingly from an understanding of how complicated and potentially dangerous such situations can be. She is nothing if not a good soldier though, and she offers her recommendation for her husband with the awareness that in such serious matters, the incisive mind of a trusted expert is not a thing to be squandered. Joe is not to be paid for the gig (fact-finding about the sale, as he has particular connections to and experience with Niger), but it’s an opportunity for him to assist in an important way, and perhaps expand his resumé a bit… something the not-consistently employed Wilson could use.
Wilson (Sean Penn) makes his trip to Africa and discovers that there is almost certainly nothing to discover. The story of the Yellowcake sale is a terrifying one, but the likely reality is rather mundane: From a practical standpoint, as assessed by a man quite clearly qualified to assess such a thing in this particular country, the sale and transport of the material could not have been made. Wilson comes home with his recommendation and his latest stint working for the government ends.
Around this time, the film also shows a meeting at C.I.A. headquarters that Plame is involved in, wherein the matter of whether Iraq has acquired a type of aluminum tube that can be used to fashion nuclear weapons (presumably combined with the Yellowcake in question) is discussed. It’s quite clear to Plame and her team that the tubes being discussed are not in fact able to be used for such an endeavor. The team has been working on the issue for months and has exhaustively sussed this out. Plame herself had apparently seen the tubes themselves during a covert mission. There is a dissenting voice during the meeting, though; a fellow from another agency who has compiled a report that does not take into account the facts and science and insight that the clearly more thorough C.I.A. team has. What’s explained in the meeting is that while it’s valuable to imagine and suppose and investigate the potential depths of potentially harmful “intelligence”, it’s even more valuable to weed out the noise, and that can be done with the hard work of those who are qualified. Unfortunately, those who are most qualified are not always the deciders.
As a matter of history, we know now that the Bush administration seized on the stories of Yellowcake and tubes, branded them evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and sold this all to the American people as justification of a new war with Iraq. The climate in the United States at the time, so soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, was one of fear and anger. The Bush administration brought in a fellow named “Scooter” Libby (nailed here by David Andrews) to advance this agenda, via cracking down on the C.I.A. itself… as if the C.I.A. was somehow an impediment to the real important business of Homeland Security, rather than an essential force for the preservation of it. Scooter Libby is an extension of the administration; he is concerned with the kind of decisive action that the American public seemed to desire at the time, and he’ll be damned if actual facts and the informed opinions of those who were in a position to advise him well stand counter to his mission. Libby is concerned that there is a chance that the C.I.A. is wrong, and from his standpoint (one of narrow scope and ignorance on the subjects) it makes sense that they could be. If there is any chance at all that they’re wrong, this is apparent justification for the need to use the kind of force that makes for awesome and shocking movie scenes.
Around this time, Joe Wilson writes an exposé about his Niger mission that is published in the New York Times. He’s been seeing on the news the administration’s misinterpretation and mis-use of the pertinent information, and he’s fed up. Also as a matter of public record, we now know that this led directly to the public outing of the identity of Valerie Plame, effectively ending her career in the C.I.A., but more importantly, as the film details, causing actual (still) potential harm to the security of the United States, via the abandonment of several important projects she worked on.
“Fair Game” is essentially about the volatile mix that can occur between two worlds; one with the information and one with the power. It doesn’t matter (it didn’t matter in this case, for sure) that the information ran counter to the fear and anger-based agenda of those in power. Prudence is hard to find in moments of heightened emotion, and yet it’s at those times when prudence is often most important, especially when the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at stake.
Valerie Plame was an easy target to be discredited after being outed. There is a stereotype of the dumb blonde woman; a kind of bigotry that suggests that people who look like her haven’t had to work as hard. They haven’t earned their positions. They can’t possibly look like that and know what it’s like to struggle. It’s supposed (read: leaked into the media by the administration) that Valerie Plame got where she was (as if her job at the C.I.A. was a “position”, rather than a merit-based occupation) largely by getting a pass for her good looks, her privilege. Such people do exist, after all. One can often tell such a person by the self-centered assurance that he or she seems to have that runs completely counter to an ability to understand the difference between opinion and informed understanding. The irony here is that, from their actions, the stereotype of the privileged beauty applies not at all to Valerie Plame, but rather to Scooter Libby, and perhaps some of the men he answered to.
Sean Penn and Naomi Watts shine in their roles as the embattled married couple. These are both actors who have shown themselves willing to sacrifice some vanity for a part. Ms. Watts manages to inhabit the somewhat self-conscious prettiness of a woman who is concerned with, and has a deep connection to, duty and courage. Sean Penn carries some extra actual weight around the middle and some perceived heaviness on his shoulders, all the while projecting a defiant and principled man. The two actors make it easy to see their characters’ love and respect for each other, as they navigate the slings and arrows of these outrageous circumstances.
“Fair Game” is not a thriller in the typical sense. Adapted for the screen by the Butterworth brothers (Jez and John-Henry), from both Joe Wilson’s and Valerie Plames’s memoirs of the events (“The Politics of Truth” and “Fair Game”, respectively), it’s directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) with measured tension that occasionally seems to want to burble into an action movie style. Fortunately, it does not. The nuance and subtlety of the real-world intrigue involved is much more compelling, as represented in the film. There’s a time and a place for chase scenes and knife fights, but “Fair Game” depicts a slice of history that doesn’t need an assist from such bombast to shake an audience. The disconnect between the worlds of knowledge and power is a much more frightening thing.
But, you know, that’s just my opinion.
Directed by: Doug Liman
Release Date: November 5, 2010
Run Time: 108 Minutes
Distributor: River Road Entertainment
When we first met Aldous Snow, Russell Brand’s cinematic rockstar alter-ego, he was mucking about with Sarah Marshall in 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. Aldous was introduced as a self-centered yet not boorish bon vivant who was likely to steal any man and everyman’s girl without thinking twice about it, but not out of spite. He was the embodiment of the average fella’s nightmare… the foppish, flamboyant, famous and foreign fancy fellow who meanders in and performs his carnality without even trying. The world of women is not as mysterious to guys like him, with his rakish charm and bankable talent, his street-cred and tight jeans. He leaves a wake of sighing women and cuckolded men in his path, Sarah Marshall is just another notch on his belt… not that he’d bother to pause and notch.
“Get Him To The Greek” finds Aldous Snow adrift after the recent dissolution of his seven-year (not remotely) monogamous relationship. He has fallen off the wagon and headlong into hedonism, with all the panache and aplomb that a true British dandy with a recently broken heart can muster. His music career is losing traction (he’s “in his greatest hits era”, as he ruefully states it), and he’s as lost as a perennial wayward gent can be.
Soon, though, he is found by Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), a rotund young music industry gopher who has been dispatched to shepherd Aldous from London to L.A. for a large anniversary concert meant to celebrate Aldous’s legacy. Aaron is the anti-Aldous; green and eager and unattractive (except to his girlfriend). Aaron idolizes the British rocker, and relishes the opportunity that his boss Sergio (Sean Combs/Diddy) has granted him. A recent domestic spat with his girlfriend has left Aaron somewhat adrift himself, and the stage is set for hijinks and lojinks between the ca-razy rocker and the na-ormal industry suit in their quest to deliver Aldous himself to the Greek Theater.
The road comedy is a Hollywood staple. From Hope and Crosby to Martin and Candy to Cohen and that weird fat guy, a mismatched pair on a quest is a framework that allows for twists and turns, laughing and crying, ups and downs, craziness and some more craziness. Like Odysseus, these characters try to make their way “home”, fighting ogres and avoiding (or not avoiding, in the case of Aldous) the sirens on the way. The real journey is, of course, the internal one that the characters travel, and how that is dealt with is likely the reason a comedy of this genre is successful or not.
“Get Him To The Greek” is rather and quite successful, precisely because it deals with that internal journey as much or more than it deals with the external one. It’s mainly Aldous’s story, this picture, and it’s not the story of a wild rockstar doing wild rockstar stuff so much as it is the somewhat painful (yet still quite funny) depiction of a lonely man coming face to face with things he can’t quite handle and doesn’t particularly want to. Aldous is running, but not just to get to the show on time. He’s a layered superficial rockstar, a tipsy contradiction, a heroin-fiend who’s a loving father. Russell Brand, a man who has perhaps lived through some version of Aldous Snow’s trip, is a fine creator and care-taker of the Aldous paradox. The two are convincingly one.
While certainly not as nuanced a depiction as some rock movies (“Almost Famous”, “Walk The Line”), “Get Him To The Greek” manages a certain amount of depth without compromising the laughs. Jonah Hill, playing the normal-guy who doesn’t constantly use profanity, as opposed to the normal guy who uses lots of profanity (his two characters to date), is the right foil for Brand’s Aldous. Hill subs for the audience in the film, puking and careening his way through the rockstar world, concerned that the boss will have his head for his irresponsibility. Diddy is well-cast as Sergio, a man seemingly driven into straight-faced yet hollering insanity by the music business itself and, one gets the idea, individuals like Aldous. Diddy is not much of an actor, but a role like this is right in his wheelhouse, and he delivers.
Colm Meaney shows up as Aldous’s tormented and tormenting jackass of a father, for a scene that deserves a spot in the drug-fueled what-the-hell-is-happening scene hall of fame. The next time you hear people chuckling about a “Jeffrey”, and “stroking the furry wall”, you can thank Nicholas Stoller, the writer and director of this pretty damn funny flick.
So, the two fellows travel a long way and find things about themselves and each other. There is laughter. There are tears. There is rock and roll. In a scene reminiscent of “Almost Famous”, a delirious Aldous leaps into a pool at a party, defying and inviting death. In “Almost Famous”, the hero walks away physically unharmed. In “Get Him To The Greek”, Golden God Aldous winds up with a bloody compound fracture, yet the show must go on. There might not be any moshing at a screening of “Get Him To The Greek”, but cheering certainly isn’t out of the question.
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller
Release Date: June 4, 2010
Run Time: 109 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
What a shame that no one saw this movie! Universal did everything they could to get your ass in a theater seat, and you still didn’t do it, did you? From the star of “The Bourne Supremacy”! From the director of “The Bourne Ultimatum”! You saw both of those movies, didn’t you? So, why didn’t you see “Green Zone”? You missed one of the best movies of the year.
Director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”, “Bloody Sunday”) is one of those rare commodities in Hollywood. He’s never made a bad movie. Same can only be said of a few filmmakers – Pixar, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, for example. “Green Zone” continues Greengrass’ streak of making smart, dynamic action films that engage the brain and your adrenaline.
Perhaps “Green Zone” didn’t hit with audiences because it’s part of the great denial Americans have towards what’s actually happening in Iraq. “The Hurt Locker” had awards HEAPED on it, but it still wrapped up awards season as the least-seen Oscar winner in years. People just don’t want to know what’s happening over there in the war. And there’s certainly plenty of distracting entertainment out there for people like that. But “Green Zone” has wisely wrapped an informative story about the search for WMD in kinetic, hi-tech entertainment.
Matt Damon plays Roy Miller, a Chief Warrant Officer in Baghdad in charge of finding the stashes of weapons of mass destruction. So, right away I know that this isn’t going to be a feel-good movie. The filmmakers have established at the beginning that our hero will not accomplish his mission! There are no WMD. This part of the film made me angry. It’s frustrating as hell to see a depiction of our soldiers on a fruitless mission. The one thing that I’m told you can’t mess with is intel, and the belief that Iraq was harboring WMD is the result of people screwing with intel to suit their own war-mongering means.
We’ve seen this played out in movies like “W” or “Wag the Dog” (in which a war was created to cover up a sex scandal, as opposed to the more nefarious reasons of personal revenge and making money, which is more true to our current real-life situation in the middle east). What I haven’t seen is the direct effect on our soldiers, which “Green Zone” portrays. They’re lost, following pointless orders, dying on missions which serve little purpose and being mishandled and misdirected in many ways (and my personal view would add that we never needed an army to fight terrorists, we needed special ops. We’re not fighting an army. We need five Navy Seals to slip into a camp, take out the folks who plotted 9/11, then disappear into the fog, Jesse Ventura-style. But as “Green Zone” and THE NEWS have taught us, U.S. troops weren’t invading Iraq to fight terrorists, we were on a flawed mission of nation-building where we didn’t belong).
Miller goes rogue after learning that his mission is doomed, determined to expose the real reason Americans invaded Iraq. A tall order. Helping him is journalist Lawrie Dayne, played by the great Amy Ryan. Based on the lightweight, no-questions-asked coverage of the war by the media, journalists are a dying species of people to put your faith in. Helping more is the even greater Brendan Gleeson as Marty, a CIA operative who leaks the true nature of America’s presence in Iraq to Miller and gets the ball rolling. The eternally underappreciated Greg Kinnear is also great as White House stooge Clark Poundsgate. Gleeson squaring off with Kinnear is great to watch.
For reasons unkown, Greengrass is the only filmmaker in my book who gets a pass with the ‘shaky-cam’ action style. He does it ad nauseum, but I don’t seem to mind. I have a theory on why that might be. Perhaps the frantic pace of the filmmaking is in service of something greater than “I got nothin’, so let’s shake the shot around so people think we’ve got something”. Watch the god-awful “Another 48 Hrs.” or the popular, but shaky-for-no-reason “The Rock”, and you’ll see the camera goin’ crazy in scenes where it shouldn’t. This is overcompensation. When Greengrass does it, it’s part of a bigger picture that’s ramping up intensity or disorientation, and it gets a pass.
No surprise, Damon’s very good in this part. There may not be a more sure thing of a lead actor going today. And tech elements are fantastic, especially the you-are-there feel of the sets, putting the viewer in a country torn up by one needless war after another.
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Release Date: March 12, 2010
Run Time: 115 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
When speaking about this film to others during the weeks prior to its release, the mere mention of its name often drew bizarre looks of disbelief from those who’d not seen the trailer. What? “Hot Tub Time Machine”? Are you serious? That has to be a joke. Who would make a movie called “Hot Tub Time Machine”? That’s ridiculous.
Well, that’s the point. Anyone walking in to a theater with “Hot Tub Time Machine” on the marquee should understand that this is going to be a pretty ridiculous film.
The very premise itself sounds ridiculous to even explain, and I can only imagine how the pitch session for this film went. “Okay, we’ve got three middle-age guys and one teenage son who are basically all losers. They go on this ski trip to this resort where they used to party years ago. During a wild, alcohol-induced evening, they all stumble into this hot tub that’s actually a time machine, and the next thing they know – boom! They’re back in 1986! Oh, and Chevy Chase is the only one that can help them get home, for some reason.”
If you can accept that premise, remove any sense of plausibility and ignore all manner of far-reaching plot contrivances, you’ll probably enjoy this movie a whole lot, if you haven’t enjoyed it somewhere else before already.
“Hot Tub Time Machine” treads familiar water with both its characters and its brand of humor. Stars John Cusack (2012), Craig Robinson (The Office), Rob Corddry (The Daily Show) and Clark Duke (Sex Drive), are all very good and bring their own particular talents to bear upon these retread movie characters, but with such a great cast, I was hoping for something a little more original. The stand-out in this group though is Corddry, whose comedic talents really get to shine in this role.
Director Steve Pink, who helmed 2006’s “Accepted” and wrote and produced “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity” with star John Cusack, never sets the bar too high for this film, opting for low brow gags and gross-out humor at every turn. This is not to say that the film isn’t funny or that the humor doesn’t work in places, but it certainly doesn’t rely on situational humor like other, smarter comedies that have come before it.
With such an over-the-top premise, the movie all but ignores any effort to explain the how and why of this unbelievable predicament and instead chooses to focus on more familiar paths such as changing past mistakes and taking advantage of future knowledge, after all – there’s much more fun to be had in scenes like that versus figuring out how the hell a hot tub could actually be a time machine, and why it would be found in a dumpy hotel ski resort? The movie’s lone attempt at reason makes note of the butterfly effect, which forces the characters to try and do everything exactly as they had 25 years earlier, lest they jeopardize the existence of young Jacob, played by Clark Duke.
The great 1985 movie, “Back to the Future”, often came to mind when watching this film, as it was the last really good time travel comedy that was made, in my opinion. “Back to the Future” proved that you could make a successful movie that had a simple premise, was funny, yet still managed to maintain some sense of credibility through an infusion of science. If it wasn’t for Doc Brown, most of us would never appreciate the dangers of disrupting the space-time continuum, know what a flux capacitor can do, or what power lays behind a 1.21 gigawatt jolt of electricity. Perhaps “Hot Tub Time Machine” assumes that we’ve all seen “Back to the Future” and are schooled about such matters, hence its reason for not going there. But in the long, slow, dumbing-down of movie-going audiences between 1985 and 2010, it’s obvious that the Hollywood bean counters know what puts butts in seats: gross-out gags and bathroom humor, not science. How ironic then, that these characters end up in 1986. It’s just too bad the rest of the film didn’t go there as well.
Not that they didn’t make the attempt. For the most part, the movie does a good job of trying to put you back in the 80s. But ultimately it feels more like being in the “Cafe 80s” from “Back to the Future: Part Two” rather than the actual 80s. There are a number of homages and references to classic 80s movies, and I found myself laughing at many of them that went over the heads of the younger audience members. If you’re a child of that era, you may get some added chuckles.
Plot holes, plausibility and familiar territory aside, I did find myself laughing quite a bit at this film, but the scenes played out like individual skits rather than as part of a complete movie. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, as it plays out gags containing just about every form of bodily fluid from blood to bile to urine and then some. In the end, the laughs did not make up for the weak premise and shaky foundation this film was based on. Chevy Chase’s character is wasted and felt like an afterthought. For a movie about time travel, there wasn’t a good sense of time passing at all in this film. Events dragged on and characters stumbled through what seemed like endless evenings and days. If it weren’t for Chevy showing up every now and then to try and instill some degree of urgency to their plight, you’d have no idea that these guys were trying to actually accomplish something.
With the exception of a funny and particularly twisted sub-plot involving Crispin Glover, most of this movie can be grasped by simply watching the trailer and TV commercials. Yet another example where the ads for the film provide you with almost everything there is to enjoy about it.
I’ve seen far worse comedies in my day, but far better ones as well. Depending upon your tastes, “Hot Tub Time Machine” could be good for a few laughs or a lot, but either way you could probably wait to do your laughing from home.
Directed by: Steve Pink
Release Date: March 26, 2010
Run Time: 100 Minutes
Welcome, DreamWorks Animation. I know, they’ve been at it for close to ten years now, but “How To Train Your Dragon” is the first movie I’ve seen from them that fires on all cylinders. In close to ten years of films, DreamWorks has made a name as the little brother to Pixar, finding major box office, but not always finding respect (unlike Pixar, they’ve had some projects that didn’t sweep the country – “Bee Movie”, “Over the Hedge”). It seems they always went more for laughs with “Shark Tale” and “Madagascar”, but they show that with a little heart, their movies are capable of being a more complete entertainment.
“Dragon” is about a young Viking named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), whose village is routinely attacked by dragons, who take the resident’s sheep and livestock. Dragons are the sworn enemy of the Vikings, who vow to kill as many of them as possible. Killing a dragon is a badge of honor, but Hiccup doesn’t share this bloodlust, much to his father’s chagrin. Once Hiccup befriends a dragon, the traditions of the village are challenged. There are familiar elements here, most notably “Beauty and the Beast”, with themes of misunderstanding and befriending an enemy of the town, plus Hiccup fancies himself an inventor, much like Belle’s father, but it’s scattered with enough original choices to make it fresh on most fronts.
“How to Train Your Dragon” is based on a book, which might be another reason for the film being the first I’ve seen from DreamWorks Animation that really has heart (I know “Shrek” was a novel, but that movie was all about snarkiness). I rooted for Hiccup, and the directors (Dean Debois & Chris Sanders) do a good job of keep the danger very real for our heroes so that it never feels trite. Sure, it’s a fantasy world, but if the characters don’t invest in it, why should I? “Dragon”’s characters are alive in their world, in humorous, dramatic and exciting moments, never skimping on one to serve the other.
I’m with nearly everyone else I talk to – on board the “done with 3-D already” train. But “How to Train Your Dragon”’s digital 3-D projection was quite excellent. As with most other 3-D films lately, in my peripheral vision, on the corners of the screen (also the outer edge of the glasses), there was some color distortion and blurriness. Small, inconsequential, and not entirely distracting sections of the screen, mind you, but is there something preventing 3-D glasses from being giant, bug-eyed glasses like the ones Elton John used to wear in the seventies? This way, NO part of our vision gets away from the effect. I think the result would be more immersive. Then you could throw in a boa, and it’s a party.
Gerard Butler appears in his fortieth movie in the past year, here voicing Hiccup’s father Stoick. Craig Ferguson is great as Gobber, the Viking who’s in charge of training the young dragon fighters. This brings up a weird, ongoing thing. For some reason it works that these Scottish actors are convincing playing Norse Vikings. It plays into the ongoing trend that if you need foreigners…hire the British!! They don’t even need to change their dialect! Anthony Hopkins just got hired to play Viking Odin in “Thor”, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes just chewed up the set of “Clash of the Titans”. It’s especially weird ‘cause it works. Foreign = British. So be it.
The animation here is also the best I’ve seen from DreamWorks. The textures and colors are vibrant. The dragons are just colorful and decorated enough to be imposing without being entirely scary – until the end, when an expertly imagined action scene introduces a truly intimidating and foreboding dragon. I think the crisp, digital 3D I saw contributed to the impressive you-could-touch-‘em surfaces of the world of the film.
The film surprises with big laughs as well as poignant moments, including real consequences for the big, impressive action sequence towards the end. Baruchel provides just the right voice for Hiccup, a young hero worth following for 98 minutes. I don’t think there’s anyone live-action under twenty who I’d want to watch for 98 minutes. So, job well done.
Directed by: Dean Debois & Chris Sanders
Release Date: March 26, 2010
Run Time: 98 Minutes
Distributor: DreamWorks Animation
For the first forty-five minutes or so of “Inception”, Christopher Nolan’s latest brash endeavor, one has the sense that things are teetering on an edge. It’s a familiar precipice, not unlike the expectant fitfullness one can feel before sleep. That period of time can seem interminable, no matter how long it lasts. There’s an expectancy, a hope for the pleasant haze that often follows. There’s no certainty, however. A rough jolt into harsh reality may be all that’s in store. The exposition of sleep, let’s call it. If one focuses, one can start to see and feel the end of it. Ideally of course, there’s little need for this phase to be protracted. Sleep, movies, and reviews… all best if they don’t muddle too much in the in-between portion of matters. Best to get to the point.
Fortunately, “Inception” does eventually get to the point. This is a tale of two films, really. The first section is a long preamble, filled with stilted exposition and loose detail (broken up by one magnificent on-foot chase sequence) that has an inherent immaturity. Nolan is so in love with his idea for this film that, for a while, it comes off as an eager and panting adolescent who’s dying to tell you the good part of what he’s just come running from, yet knows it won’t seem nearly as interesting without the fairly mundane set-up. The best writers and directors can usher an audience through this section without it feeling stilted and rote. Nolan hasn’t perfected this aspect of his artistry.
Ever so slowly, though, the film rounds into form. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a dream infiltrator. He is a master of stealing thoughts and ideas from the sleeping minds of those who have thoughts and ideas that make money. Cobb, with the help of a B-Team of assistants, find themselves inside the slumbering head of the enunciation-challenged Saito (Ken Watanabe). He dodges their best efforts and then, when they all wake up, asks to hire them for a mission of great importance to him and his bank account.
Money isn’t the only motivator here, though. We learn that Cobb is a fugitive from his homeland (the USA), a situation that arose from some kerfuffle with his now-dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, a bright light we long to go toward). His children are still in the US and he’s dying to return. Saito has the power, with one phone call, to clear the path for Cobb. It’s not an easy thing that Saito is asking of Cobb and his cronies, though. Inception (from the title), or the planting of an idea, rather than extracting one, is what Saito needs. He’d like a rival to come upon an unlikely decision, and he knows that if anyone can insinuate the idea into the head of the rival (Cillian Murphy), it’s Cobb.
What is slowly revealed in “Inception” is that the dream world that is shown is fairly similar to the “real” world that Cobb exists in. As Mal points out to him during a dream sequence, the way in which he is pursued by anonymous agents (apparently to hasten his extradition to the US) in the “real” world is almost indistinguishable from the way various inhabitants (increasingly violent representations of the dreamer’s subconscious, it is explained) pursue him and his cronies in dreamyland. The question then arises: Is Cobb a denizen of the real world who occasionally visits dream worlds, or is his reality perhaps a dream in itself. Mal complicates Cobb’s perception of this by tearfully asking him to come join her and the children by waking himself up… by shooting himself. Counter-intuitive, of course… but perhaps the right choice.
Ellen Page is along for the ride as the architect of most of the depicted dreams and contributes as either bland or understated, depending if a viewer is alert or half-awake while she drones her lines. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, fresh from the worst movie ever made in the history of mankind, “(500) days Of Summer”, manages to serve his duties decently (let’s hope he remains a perennial side-kick). Michael Caine shows up and delivers a few lines. In particular, he asks Cobb to “come back to reality”. Whose reality, though, is reality?
It’s this device that lies at the heart of “Inception”. It’s also the stumbling block of many stories, whether depicted in film, literature, oral tradition, etc., for ages: usage of the deus ex machina that “nothing is real”. It can often be the thinnest of ruses, the sign that a piece is flawed and shallow. For if no reality matters except the one that the writer chooses at a particular moment, then a writer (and consequently an audience) is often utterly adrift in directionless nonsense, disguised as complexity (see: “The Matrix”).
“Inception” manages to narrowly avoid this central pitfall. Nolan finds his stride after an early clumsy lull. The sense that Cobb, Mal, et al are in-between realities is not abused or manipulated as a license for carte blanche. Nolan reels the audience in with a thin tether, and the effect of not knowing with absolute certainty whose reality is the absolute truth does not feel empty.
Cobb carries, as each of the dream inhabitants do, a personal token… in his case a small top that he spins. It will eventually succumb to the physics of the world around it; in the “real” world, gravity soon ends its activity. “Inception” calls into question the very physics that we take for granted, though, with many fine MC Escher-esque panoramas and situations. When one is constantly immersed in these various worlds and indeed can construct them and inhabit them happily, while also manipulating the minds of others and one’s own, how can one rely on the spinning of a small top as the absolute proof of what is real? Nolan sets this up as the core question, and it pays off in a teetering yet somehow rewarding ending. There. Now I have planted the idea in your head to see this movie. That wasn’t so hard.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: July 16, 2010
Run Time: 148 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
“If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him”
- Ivan Vanko, “Iron Man 2”
2008’s “Iron Man” was an astounding hit, both in that it seemed to have broad appeal for a superhero movie (maybe not such a rare thing since ‘08’s double success of “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight”), and that it’s star, Robert Downey, Jr. hadn’t headlined a summer release EVER. “Iron Man 2” is essentially a revenge tale. Ivan Vanko, whose father developed important technology with Tony Stark’s father, but received none of the credit, is out to knock Stark off of his pedestal. It seems, based on intial reviews of “Iron Man 2”, that critics are out to knock the film down in Vanko-esque fashion.
Don’t believe the hype.
“Iron Man 2” is great entertainment, and a fitting continuation of the characters’ journey. There’s certainly no betrayal to the main character here, as Tony Stark’s egomaniacal, playboy mentality are flamboyantly intact at the beginning of the movie. Downey nails this again, and steps up to the more complicated matters his character faces this time out.
And this is where “Iron Man 2” succeeds as a good sequel. The stakes are raised across the board. Much like the very successful sequel “Spider-Man 2”, the main character’s ability to sustain his heroic intentions are put to the ultimate test early, and there are real consequences. Unlike the not-so-successful sequel “Batman and Robin”, “Iron Man 2” handily juggles an onslaught of new characters, including the great Sam Rockwell, perfectly balancing desperation and buffoonery as the anti-Stark, Justin Hammer. Hammer, always second to Stark in defense technology, is happy to back Danko’s revenge by tapping into his knowledge and drive. The plot, although complex, is relatively simple. It’s the revenge story, coupled with S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrating Tony’s life to set up the groundwork for the formation of The Avengers. It sometimes unfolds a little slowly, but great casting saves those moments.
And the film makes no apologies for moving full steam ahead towards The Avengers. Marvel Comics is bankrolling its own movies, and they’ve got “Thor” AND “Captain America” coming out next year, followed by “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” coming after that. Comic geeks will be in heaven, everyone else will have to do some research to catch up on what’s coming. But hopefully, the films will make everything plainly clear in the formation of this superhero supergoup. Stick around through the end credits of “Iron Man 2” for more info.
Mickey Rourke is great as Vanko, the next step in a perfectly-orchestrated movie comeback. After the critical success of “The Wrestler”, he’s now going to get commercial success with “Iron Man 2”. Don Cheadle admirably steps into the role of Stark’s military buddy James Rhodes, but his plot is the most contrived. He objects to Tony’s self-destruction, and his way of protesting is a rather elaborate fight sequence that could’ve been something much more simple (Rhodey knows how to operate an Iron Man suit?). Rhodes’ loyalty to the military complicates his relationship with Tony enough without a special-effects-laden action scene.
That being said, director Jon Favreau, who very deftly handles the characters and dialogue here, as he did in the first film, has improved on his ability to build a good action climax. The Downey/Jeff Bridges finale was not the high-point of “Iron Man”, but here the fast-moving showdown between Iron Man and Iron Man-knockoffs is exciting and hi-tech fun.
“Iron Man 2” is released in glorious 2-D, another good sign that the filmmakers are confident in the material without the need for theatrical helping-up. This can’t be said in the confidence behind another potential M. Night Shyamalan debacle in “The Last Airbender”, NOW IN 3-D! I predict people will come out for the return of Tony Stark and it will still make more money this summer than any other theatrical release charging an extra $7 per ticket to take you to the third dimension.
Too me, summer has peaked too early. There isn’t another movie this big on the horizon all season. “Prince of Persia”? Girls won’t come out for that. “Sex and the City 2”? Guys won’t come out for that. Everybody will come out for “Iron Man 2”. And they won’t be disappointed.
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Release Date: May 7, 2010
Run Time: 124 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
If you see “Jonah Hex”, I dare you to remember it. This summertime graphic novel adaptation is full of stuff the filmmakers think you want to see with no care given to actually reasoning out why said stuff should be paraded in front of viewers.
Josh Brolin plays a bounty hunter and former Civil War soldier who is called upon to track down Quentin Turnbull, an 1800s terrorist who has gotten his hands on a weapon of mass destruction. Turnbull is the same man who, in a fit of revenge for the death of his own son, killed Hex’s family and horribly disfigured his face. There is also a level of the supernatural here that gives Hex the power to talk to and raise the dead. Oh, and he has a huge machine gun.
The shoddy filmmaking on display here dooms “Jonah Hex” from the start. Director Jimmy Hayward wants to have fun with the anachronisms of a sci-fi-laced, mystical old west, but instead of living in it and kick-starting a genre, he gets caught up in hack action scenes.
The actors might have been able to save this, and much has been made of Josh Brolin being the shining light in this sinking ship, but even his grumble gets tiresome fast. Which is to say he’s good, but the concept of a dude with his mouth half-shut growling through a feature-length movie isn’t appealing. It’s like mumblecore in the old west. Brolin has appeared in so many prestige projects lately (“No Country for Old Men”, “Milk”, “W”), that I guess he wanted to do something in search of mass appeal. Please stop. You’re SO good in everything else, avoid the summer movies at all costs or fear becoming Billy Bob Thornton, who can no longer cross back into anything of substance.
John Malkovich further nails the coffin shut on his serious acting career. It’s SO SAD to see that this guy hasn’t ATTEMPTED to give a performance that means anything in years. Nowadays, he just takes parts where he can be over-the-top and perpetuate his “I’m a loon” late career goals.
Will Arnett is hilarious, but “Jonah Hex” is proof that he won’t become a crossover comic any time soon. Megan Fox is a non-presence, showing up to make you swoon and then actually looking offended that you don’t. Wes Bentley is determined to make you forget that you first saw him in “American Beauty” and thought at the time he had promise, and the worst offense is that the great actor Michael Fassbender even appeared in the project, after such a top-notch performance in “Inglourious Basterds”. Stick to the fringe, Michael.
Most of the ‘score’ was by the rock group Mastodon, to desperately remind you “HEY! We’re not a stodgy old western, we’re hip! Please like us!”. VERY quickly, their pounding rock pummels your head to the point of needing Tylenol. There is some orchestral presence by Marco Beltrami, but most of the time, Hayward wants to make up for the lack or real action by backing whatever’s happening with unrelenting rock. It doesn’t work.
And take this for what it’s worth. Listed among the thirteen producers for this film is “Friends”’ Matt LeBlanc.
Opening “Jonah Hex” opposite “Toy Story 3” could be considered counterprogramming, but it also could be read as “we have no faith in this”. That attitude is also seen in the production quality. The special effects don’t meet Warner Brothers-summer-blockbuster standards. That money must’ve gone to “Inception”, which I know the studio has HUGE hopes for. I’m shocked “Hex” didn’t get dumped in late, late August, if not the fall.
“Jonah Hex” has a running time of 81 minutes, another sign that the filmmakers really didn’t have a lot to present us here. And stop me if I’m overreacting or using too-strong words, but I was offended by how short this movie was. Ninety minutes is usually the minimum for a comedy or animated film, with most other stories running longer. These credits run so long, the actual time the movie is being told is not much more than an hour. They should pay US for them doing so little work.
Directed by: Jimmy Hayward
Release Date: June 18, 2010
Run Time: 81 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Oh, man, what a great trip to the ‘80s “Knight and Day” is! Remember when Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez could crack jokes and dodge bullets, or when Eddie Murphy would make us laugh, then kill a dude. That feeling is alive and well in “Knight and Day”, the new action comedy from unlikely director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”).
Based on the trailers, this movie looked like it was going to try REALLY hard to make you (and by you, I mean everyone) like Tom Cruise again. After a nasty spate of PR, this looked like the “I’m sorry I was a nut. Remember how much you like me as a movie star?”-project that he hoped would launch him back to the top of the box office, where now reside the likes of Johnny Depp, Sandra Bullock and Robert Downey, Jr.
The thing about Cruise’s performance is that it DOES work. He’s perfect in this part, as long as you’re willing to go along with the movie’s conceit that despite the presence of bad guys, twists and turns and death everywhere, there really isn’t a presence of danger. There’s just enough peril to bring our leads together and create some truly impressive action sequences.
The plot is about rogue secret agent (Cruise), positive that those he used to work for are now out to get him. He’s come across a limitless power source (a SUPER-battery), who’s creator (Paul Dano) must be kept safe. But how rogue is Cruise? In it for himself perhaps? These questions dog June Havens (Diaz), who stumbles into his company and gets stuck there for her own safety, for the thrill of it all, and because she’s the number two billing on the feature.
The ‘80s have actually been pretty good to movies this summer. “The Karate Kid” is a certified hit, and although “The A-Team” didn’t fare as well, there are two action sequences in that film that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen (they involve a tank and the huge finale at the Port of L.A.). If “Knight and Day” is really an ‘80s action movie at heart, it, too, delivers the goods big time when it comes to action. Not by providing completely unique setups, but by doing the common EXTREMELY well. This is probably because Mangold is at the helm, the director of the very strong western “3:10 to Yuma”. A lesser director would probably spend half the time trying to impress with whiz-bang overuse of style. For example, Mangold takes the car/motorcycle chase and presents it without excessive shaky-cam and A.D.D. cutting to where the stunts and choreography are remarkable. Not to mention the film globe-trots like a Bond movie, moving from one exotic location to another, and Mangold’s shrewd camera captures each place in all its splendor.
Cruise and Diaz have an interesting relationship, too. It’s almost non-romantic, even though shades of that are shoved in there once in a while. Cruise’s character, Roy Miller (strangely the same name of Matt Damon’s character in “Green Zone”), is SO good at what he does, the ease with which he dispatches action puts him more in the role of her protector than her lover. Diaz does the Goldie Hawn thing pretty well, doing the usual “I don’t know how to use this gun” bit. But thankfully, she didn’t scream too much to where Indiana Jones had to get an elephant to splash water on her. She wasn’t totally helpless, which is WAY too ‘80s a female character trait to work in 2010.
It usually the humor of a film like this that can sink it. But “Knight and Day” thankfully bypasses trying to be hip and instead gets a lot of laughs out of character and situation. Especially good are a couple of hilarious montages where one character is in and out of consciousness, but is apparently traveling a great distance, despite their hazy ability to gauge it. Also, there’s a great bit with an auto transport vehicle that sends up a long-standing movie gaffe.
It’s a shame Tom Cruise went crazy, ‘cause I think this film could’ve been another in a long list of easy-to-enjoy summer actioners, but it’s considered a flop, taking a backseat at the box office to “Grown Ups”, the obligatory annual Adam Sandler offering. Now Mel Gibson has proven that he, too, is a crackpot. Their demise can lead to a ton ‘o’ laughs, but deep down it’s saddening. These are two of the strongest leading men in the movies in the last twenty years.
I don’t know what criteria is required to have a comeback work. It seems like “Knight and Day” would be all you have to do. Mel is probably finished, jury’s out on Christian Bale, but his “Terminator Salvation” and “Public Enemies” last year did good business. Russell Crowe seems to have rebounded from his anger issues and led “Robin Hood” to the biggest moneymaker team-up with Ridley Scott since “Gladiator”.
Matt Damon is probably the closest thing we have to Cruise in his prime. Maybe DiCaprio matches Gibson’s intensity, but DiCaprio chooses more flawed characters. But when I look at who’s next to replace Cruise and Gibson, I’m reminded that I don’t want to do that yet.
Directed by: James Mangold
Release Date: June 23, 2010
Run Time: 109 Minutes
Distributor: New Regency Pictures
Wow, M. Night Shyamalan just sucks. I’d love to throw down some pithy critical spewage about his filmmaking abilities, but if you watch “The Last Airbender”, you’re going to come away saying, “Man, that guy sucks”. So I’m not going to deny myself that opportunity and mask it in analytical jargon. He sucks. Perhaps more important to address is the “what happened?” factor of a career that started with such promise.
“The Last Airbender” is based on a Nickelodeon TV show full of anime and/or content that doesn’t speak to my demographic, preventing me from having seen it. But the mythic plot is interesting – the elements of the world (earth, fire, water, air) are run by “benders” who can manipulate them. The benders await “The One” who can control all elements at once. Meanwhile, the Fire World aims to take over the other worlds. In the middle are two annoying kids.
As the writer (adapter) of the script AND the director, Shyamalan is squarely to blame here. He’s backed by some impressive special effects and the movie actually shows some life when they’re employed. Otherwise, nearly every scene is characters sitting around, talking about the plot, and most of the time, we’re already a step ahead of them. The most heinous users of this inane dialogue are the two kids, the two grossly-white-in-the-middle-of-an-all-ethnic-cast kids. They act like they’re in some bad afternoon tween sitcom on The Disney Channel, and any notion that the plot is still “mythic” is gone.
Cliff Curtis is a fine actor, wasted here. Dev Patel is a fine actor, HORRIBLE here. His overacting tried to be explained away that he was a younger brother eager to please, but that manic, unfocused energy never gets finessed into any other emotion. Shyamalan has a penchant for cheese, otherwise ruining a good thing. In this case, the cheese is young Aang (“The One”), played by Noah Ringer. I see where Shyamalan might’ve been going with this character, ‘cause despite his abilities, he’s essentially just a kid in the end. But he talks like a kid you’d probably beat the crap out of at school. Of course, you couldn’t beat the crap out of him, because he has mystical powers, which makes him more annoying.
The worst offender is Aasif Mandvi, as Zhao. I have chosen to believe that his performance is a direct result of Shyamalan’s direction. Mandvi barks, shouts and over does every line he has, and I can picture M. Night just off camera going, “Yes, we need drama, so give me drama!”, both actor and director forgetting that the movie doesn’t need drama, the movie needs us to believe the characters, and that never happened.
Remember one of the final scenes in “The Sixth Sense”, where Toni Collette is talking to her son Cole, and Cole tells her a story about her childhood that Cole couldn’t possibly know about? But he does know because he spoke with Toni’s dead mother to rectify an old misunderstanding? That’s my favorite scene in the film. The restraint showed by Shyamalan and the expert discovery and realism of the actors did the finale a great service, packing nearly as much emotional punch as the ending did shock.
That was eleven years ago.
There isn’t a TRACE of that skill on display in “The Last Airbender”. Relationships are on display for the sake of storyline, they’re not lived-in or genuine. Plot hustles by because, if you remember, the actors just said it would. All leading up to an egregious announcement that the battle isn’t over! There will be a sequel! This has been threatened the whole movie, as it opens up with the on-screen graphic: ‘BOOK ONE”. Spare us. The Academy-Award winning steaming pile known as “The Golden Compass” had a similar, leading ending and is most likely over and done. I beg “The Last Airbender” to go the same route.
He sucks. But perhaps the empty-headed moviegoers who helped this film to a SEVENTY MILLION dollar opening weekend are worse. Stop giving Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt. Paramount’s money is better spent elsewhere.
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Release Date: July 1, 2010
Run Time: 103 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The general structure of a MacGruber skit on Saturday Night Live is this: A bomb is about to go off, and MacGruber must defuse it. His side-kick Vicki is there, handing him various things he needs to do the job, and letting him know just how much time he has left. There’s often another person in the room, usually the show’s host, and the discussion between MacGruber and that person winds up distracting MacGruber from defusing the bomb. So it blows up. That’s the gag. Week after week on SNL, often more than once a show, MacGruber, Vicki, and someone else are apparently blown to smithereens. It’s satisfying in a way, since MacGruber consistently shows himself to be a pompous simpleton with no particular actual talent for defusing explosives. Watching MacGruber get his comeuppance time and again is a central part of what makes the skit funny. It’s satisfying to watch a dummy fail because of his bravado and lack of ability to focus.
The general structure of “MacGruber”, the film is this: MacGruber comes out of retirement in order to settle the score with the man who killed his bride. In the process, he gets to save the world, prance about naked with a piece of celery sticking out of his ass, and also rip people’s throats out with his bare hands. It’s MacGruber like you’ve never seen him before: with an R rating and no pesky TV censors. It’s MacGruber without rules! As nasty as he wants to be! It’s better!
Except that it’s not. It’s dumb, lifeless and most importantly, not funny. In the process of moving a decent SNL skit to the big screen, the same thing that usually happens has happened again. They fucked it up.
How did they fuck it up, you ask? I could say that the beauty of the original skit was utterly ignored. I could postulate that the structure that made MacGruber work on SNL, entirely ignored in the movie, was at the heart of what made the skit funny. I could say that MacGruber, being a pompous blowhard, is best viewed for short periods and then blown sky high. If I were to spend time analyzing MacGruber, I’d probably speak of the skits as having a firm place in the history of a certain style of comedy… that they were each a joke of the same kind, like a knock-knock joke. I could point out how Will Forte’s general comedic vision has to do with repetition. He likes to do something absurd over and over. Pound a point home until it’s funny. There’s a kind of disbelief in laughing at Forte’s comedy. What the hell is he doing? Can you believe it? He’s genuinely insane! There is a nervous twinge in the best laughter that Will Forte causes. It could be said that he parodies insanity itself.
But really, why bother? “MacGruber”, the film, is so bad that it defies analysis. It tries to parody action films of the 1980’s. It fails. It tries to make MacGruber a quirky, crazy, yet loveable hero. It fails. It tries to be shockingly violent and gross for the purpose of humor. It fails. It seems clear that the idea with “MacGruber”, the film, was to try to put it so far over the top… to try to make the explosions bigger, the poop and dick jokes nastier, the gore spatteringlier… that it couldn’t be ignored. “MacGruber”, the film, is meant to shock and alarm in a way that MacGruber, the skit, never did. It fails. I can’t say if this is all WIll Forte’s fault or perhaps the fault of those around him. I’d like to think it’s the latter, of course, but it doesn’t matter anyway. The film is dismal.
Initially, I was pleased to hear the film had an R rating. That seemed to suggest it wouldn’t pander to a middle-of-the-road sensibility. Somehow, though, that’s exactly what it does. “MacGruber” is frat-boy crazy, meaning it’s not really crazy at all. There’s nothing tense or dangerous or provocative about it. The humor, if it can be called that, rests completely on the kinds of things that make 13-year-olds laugh, and perhaps that’s not giving 13-year-olds enough credit. I suspect that a MacGruber film that didn’t have the leeway that an R rating includes could actually have been funnier, as it tried to tiptoe around the kinds of things it shows. For some comedy, an R rating is liberating, as it unshackles the writers and performers. For others, it’s an excuse to dwell on toilet humor. In the case of “MacGruber”, there is actual toilet humor, as in a joke about a toilet and poop, along with the general style of toilet humor. A PG-13 rating would have allowed “MacGruber”’s target audience to actually see the film, and might have made it better for those of us who left that age, and an appreciation for tired shock comedy, in the past.
The film isn’t utterly devoid of laughs. The parody aspect works well once or twice: there’s a section that starts in the style of a typical 80’s sex scene, ala Top Gun, and quickly devolves into a stark angle on a sweaty, grunting, climaxing MacGruber. At a couple of other points, watching MacGruber desperately offer to perform fellatio isn’t entirely without humor. But even at its funniest moments, which can be counted on one hand, MacGruber’s sleaziness is unlikeable. Unfortunately, we don’t even get to see him blow up at the end. This movie attempts to mock action movie cliches, and in the process, winds up in the blast area of another one: “MacGruber” is a bomb.
Directed by: Jorma Taccone
Release Date: May 21, 2010
Run Time: 90 Minutes
Imitation, it’s said, is the sincerest form of flattery. So it should have surprised no one that the internet imitated cable television in certain ways as it began to grow in the 1990s. Content was needed, and, as Giovanni Ribisi’s character laments in an early scene in “Middle Men”, George Gallo’s re-telling of the formative years of web porn, “there’s nothing to whack off to on the internet”. Someone was bound to marry the two things, and it should also surprise no one that it was a couple of sleaze-balls who managed to not just supply a lot of that early content, but, more importantly, make it financially viable. “Middle Men” tells us that a couple of guys named Buck and Wayne (Gabriel Macht and Ribisi) were the dopey-savant duo who put together the first pay-porn site on the internet, via a program that took credit card numbers from customers online.
Sounds simple enough, right? The internet was fairly uncharted territory in the mid-90’s, but getting people to buy sex, or a reasonable facsimile of it, is the easiest trick in the book. Soon though, Wayne and Buck have somehow managed to sell a significant percentage of their new income stream to the Russian Mob and the wild-haired Nikita Sokolov (Rade Serbedzija). He can provide the two entrepreneurs with more and better content, via his stable of strippers. Wayne and Buck are stricken with an alarming lack of imagination though, despite their minor stroke of inspiration, and soon find themselves at odds with Sokolov over their desire to spend all their recent riches. The windfall from those who jerk off has turned these two jerkoffs into coked-up Vegas train-wrecks who don’t pay their debts, and the Mob is displeased.
Enter Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), the guy who’s been narrating the film so far. He’s a respectable businessman out of Houston who is hooked into the proceedings by a seedy business associate, Jerry Haggerty (James Caan). Like Wayne and Buck, he’s got some money troubles, so he allows himself to get involved in a business that he and his wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett, over a decade removed from MTV’s “The Real World”) don’t really approve of.
So, here we have porn, drugs, sleaze, money, violence, Vegas and a voice-over. Mobsters and hookers, Humvees and hummers. The trappings of a modern-day cautionary tale about the rise and fall of some eager, desperate, and naive men and the women who “love” them. It all looks enticing, titillating even. There’s an R-rating. There are jiggly camera shots and jiggly other things. Giovani Ribisi plays a coked-up dumb-ass. Who’s this George Gallo guy? Well, hmm… he has “The Whole Ten Yards” (screenplay) and “Homeland Security” (writer/director) on his resumé. Not promising, but not prohibitive either, as long as he doesn’t take this opportunity to mix every easy cliché that any film-maker ever stole from Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson and put them in a cuisinart with a couple of Tony Scott films and hit frappé.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what he does. Apparently the proper way to depict unstable people in drugged-up and violent situations is to wobble the camera, make quick cuts to close-ups, and insist that your actors yell all the time. At least, that’s a loose interpretation of how some of the aforementioned, much better directors sometimes manage to depict and convey unsettling situations and moods. “Middle Men” has a laundry list of moments that seem eager to earnestly evoke some of the techniques and devices that certain other directors have used with much success. Gallo doesn’t present homage, though. He presents a hack-job. The “Goodfellas”-inspired narration by Wilson and the use of the music of The Rolling Stones, among other things, are clear allusions to Scorsese. The occasional Mexican stand-off, thank you Tarantino. The cocaine-assisted haze juxtaposed with a sudden starkly contrasting event and/or epiphany. Here’s your royalty check, Mr. Anderson.
It’s no crime to borrow and reference one’s betters. Tarantino is a clear disciple of Scorsese in many ways. Anderson owes to both of them, and they all owe to directors before them, sometimes perhaps in ways that can expose them momentarily as not quite the geniuses they often seem to be. George Gallo, however, will never be mistaken for any kind of genius, as long as he continues to slap-dash the most recognizable parts of other people’s work into a soulless construction that’s meant to lead an audience through a story that Mr. Gallo clearly has no original ideas about how to address. “Middle Men” sounds great in concept, but what George Gallo has done is make the most cloying, pandering version of this story… one that could have been deliciously icky and hair-raising. His lack of originality and apparent fear of departing from the tropes that the story and screenplay seem to lean toward are in shining display here. He cannot be forgiven for falling victim to an immovable script, bad as it is, because he is a co-writer of the script (with Andy Weiss). He is thoroughly to blame.
Luke Wilson, not our best actor, sleep-walks through his part. At times, it seems as though some of the actors (Ribisi and Barrett, in particular) are trying desperately to break free of the limitations of the script and production in general. There’s a welcome interruption by the fairly captivating Laura Ramsey (porn star Audrey Dawns) and a somehow understated showing by Kevin Pollak. Really, though, no one in this film, including Wilson and the great James Caan, can be fully faulted for his or her performance. Gallo backs them all into the same boring corner.
It’s a charitable saying, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, yet the saying is often misinterpreted. Sincerity is the absence of artifice. It is the window through which one can witness the soul of the imitator. Ideally, that sincerity leads to a clarity of vision and interpretation that honors the flattered. Either way, upon investigation, an imitator will be exposed. George Gallo is splayed open as an unimaginative copycat here, and “Middle Men” is a middling movie, at best, because of that.
Directed by: George Gallo
Release Date: August 6, 2010
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
To find out where you can see these Academy-Award nominated films on the big screen, check out the Shorts International website. Links are provided for some of the shorts that are online!
A business man at a fancy Parisian café discovers that he has lost his wallet. The upside… This is a funny and unpredictable short film. Ahh… those funny French. The downside is… it has a less than stellar ending. Good, but not great.
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
A grandmother tells her own version of the Sleeping Beauty story. The upside…This is VERY FUNNY and irreverent. Geared for Adults, but children will absolutely enjoy it. I hope it wins. The Downside… it’s up against Wallace & Gromit.
The Lady and the Reaper
A woman who is ready to die is unwillingly brought back to life. This is very family-oriented except for the subject matter. Funny, but the laughs are geared mostly to kids, which makes it a bit of an oxymoron. The upside… Antonio Banderas is a producer on it. The downside, it’s an oxymoron.
A police pursuit wreaks havoc in an unusual city. The upside… this short film is exceptionally clever and Ronald McDonald plays a vulgar mass murdering “Natural Born Killers”-type character that EVERYONE can appreciate. The downside is… this short is more of a series of references rather than a good story.
A Matter of Loaf and Death
Wallace & Gromit must discover the identity of a serial killer. The upside… It’s awesome as usual. The downside is… well, let’s face it, there is no downside.
Watch the trailer on YouTube.
One man tries to make sense of the Chernobyl tragedy. The upside.. it’s a true story and it’s the perfect type of subject matter for an Oscar: international tragedy, impoverished community, and an adorable child. The downside is… I’ve never felt more like I wanted to kill myself inside of 17 minutes. Jesus, it’s depressing.
Instead of Abracabra
A magician attempts to impress his new neighbor. The upside… This is an exceptionally endearing, funny, and heartfelt film. It’s everything that you want a short film to be. I really hope it wins. The down side… it’s not your typical Oscar type; no tragedy, no third world country, no children.
Watch the trailer on YouTube.
A boy must choose between a difficult life and an uncertain future. The upside… It’s well made AND in a third world country AND a tragedy AND the MAIN CHARACTER IS A CHILD! Then they up the ante and go all in by making it a film that raises awareness about a cause… modern day slavery. Yes, that’s right SLAVERY! And the filmmaker… A young white guy from USC. (The academy will feel good about awarding a “Cause Awareness” film, but they give it to “one of their own”… you know, a rich white guy. It’s perfect. The down side… really? How could I NOT look like a total A-hole if I wrote something bad about this film. It would only come off as jealousy.
An eight-year old has an unexpectedly memorable birthday. The upside… it’s a really well made film and there is a child. The downside… I felt like I’d been sucker punched in the crotch when the film takes a VERY dark turn.
Watch it on Qoob.tv.
The New Tenants
Two men move into an apartment with a disturbing history. The upside… This is a very funny black comedy and Vincent D’onofrio is in it. The downside… first time director and no children, the tragedy isn’t really a tragedy (since it’s so funny), and it takes place in the US.
Watch the trailer on YouTube.
I will start off by saying that you absolutely need to be an avid Phish fan to get any enjoyment out of “Phish 3D”. As I am huge Phish fan, finding myself at shows whenever possible, I could not resist the opportunity of seeing them in 3D, especially since it is only in theaters for a single week.
Phish got back together in 2009 after a long 5 years of soul searching and drug arrests, and it seems like they intend to stay together for the long haul. Festival 8 took place on Halloween weekend at the Polo Grounds in Indio, California (known for the Coachella festival). They are essentially massive temporary cities of people that come to camp, party, smoke tons of weed, and listen to eight full sets of their favorite guys from Vermont. If you don’t know already, the band consists of Trey Anastasio (guitar, lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass), Page Mcconnell (keys), and Jon Fishman (drums) who are four buddies that met while at the University of Vermont.
The film opens with the lively “AC/DC Bag”, which is a crown favorite and a logical choice to open up the film. You notice the 3D effects right away on Fishman’s Drum Kit and you get a real sense of the depth of the stage and how far the guys are actually standing from one another. I was more impressed with the 3D effects than I expected to be. The balloons and glowsticks in the crowd seemed like they were right in front of your face.
The next song was “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan”, which is a track from the new album “Joy”, kind of a hypnotic tune that has grown on me since the release of the album. “Undermind” was the next selection which I thought was a strange choice to put in the film, but it was surprisingly good, certainly not a favorite of Phish fans. Next is the well known, “Tweezer” which went on for quite some time and went right into “Maze” which was one of my favorites of the film – great energy and lots of great 3D effects, including awesome visuals of these huge fire-breathing sculptures on the field. The final song of the first section of the film was “Mike Song”, which is obviously performed mainly by Mike and is another crowd favorite, a solid performance.
On 11/1, the band performed a full acoustic set at 12 noon and the next section highlighted this rare occurrence. “Back on the Train” happens to be a song that has been a favorite song of Trey’s solo career, which he often played acoustically when on the road with one of his many solo band incarnations. The Phish acoustic version was pretty much the same, always a tune I enjoy. The rest of the acoustic selections included “Strange Design”, “The Curtain With”, “Sleep Again”, “Train Song” and finally culminating with “Wilson”, which drove the afternoon crowd into a THC-rattled frenzy.
The only real behind-the-scenes footage (which I really wish there was more of) was a rehearsal of “Suzy Greenberg” with members from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, which consisted of a 3-piece horn section, Sharon Jones and another girl on backups. It was a very small glimpse, but very cool. It prepares the viewers for the final section of the film.
The Phish Halloween tradition is that they create a musical costume by covering an entire album by another artist. At Festival 8, there were a bunch of possible albums, but the final choice of “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones wasn’t revealed until the band hit the stage. “Loving Cup” is already a song that is in heavy rotation with the band and it always amazing, this version with the horns and the backup vocals was the best I have ever heard…totally amazing. “Happy” was next followed by “Shine a Light” which was amazing, and finally “Soul Survivor”, which was led by Fishman, who is not known for having the best voice, but it was OK.
The film wrapped up with a great version of “Suzy Greenberg”, which was a final chance for the film to have some of that Phish energy, and culminating in “Tweezer Reprise”, which is always the case when the band plays “Tweezer” at another point during the show.
This certainly wasn’t the best concert film I have ever seen, but seeing it in 3D was pretty savvy. I am pretty into Phish, so they really can’t do too much to wrong me, but this definitely had the potential to be a whole lot better. I think it fell short with song selections, I would have liked to have seen some more intense jams and things that Phish is known for, but overall I enjoyed it.
Directed by: Lawrence Jordan & Eli Tishberg
Release Date: April 30, 2010
Distributor: AEG Live
Maybe it was the death many thought should’ve happened at the end of “Jaws”, or maybe Dreyfuss, after being blackmailed, apparently, to appear in “Piranha 3D”, lobbied to put it in his contract that he get out early. Whatever the reason Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss had to be done with his involvement in “Piranha 3D” about five minutes in, he was luckier than me.
“Piranha 3D” is another in a series of great kitschy throwback concepts with cult potential that fails to connect, following on the heels of “Snakes on a Plane”. I know not to take this movie seriously, taking my cue off the director and all the actors, but I also didn’t have the fun I’m sure they were certain I would have.
The biggest major distraction is the horrible 3D conversion. The most solid proof yet that the third dimension is only successful in animated movies, “Piranha 3D” might have you checking to see if your contacts are in correctly, as parts of the screen are blurry and all the foreground images are surrounded by the haze you see coming off of the hood of a hot car after it’s been running for an hour in August.
Just when I was wondering what Christopher Lloyd has been doing lately, harsh reality set in as I learned the “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” star has gone mad. With no further calls from Robert Zemeckis, Lloyd is relegated to giving this downright LOONY performance in “Piranha 3D”. Elisabeth Shue isn’t aware what movie she’s in, adding gravitas as a local sheriff rescuing her kids from the deadly piranha attack (need I deliver the plot? ‘Cause I realized this is the first time I’ve mentioned it – ancient piranhas are, for reasons unknown, unearthed from under a lake bed and wreak havoc. You said that with me, didn’t you?)
The characters make really stupid decisions in this film, and that’s made up for with excessive nudity, and the film delivers TONS of blood. This brings me to the one aspect of “Piranha 3D” I really respect. They used practical blood effects! That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but more and more now movies are going for the CGI blood, which worked in what’s basically a cartoon in “300”, but in something like “Machete” and “Ninja Assassin”, computers can’t take the place of real arterial spray. Kudos to the waters flowing red in “Piranha”, but the film is otherwise base and unappealing.
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Release Date: August 20, 2010
Run Time: 88 Minutes
Distributor: Dimension Films
Easily the worst “Predator” movie of the franchise (And THAT is saying something)!
SPOILER ALERT! THIS MOVIE IS TERRIBLE AND I GIVE SPECIFIC EXAMPLES. (With that said, I still recommend you read the review and save yourself 1.5 hours of your life.)
Some movies I can accept as bad and move on without being exceptionally harsh. However, when Hollywood reboots/re-imagines/capitalizes-on property that already exists, naturally it merits a comparison to the original. So, I feel completely justified in examining every excremental ingredient that went into creating this boiling hot pot of fecal stew.
It seems to me that a filmmaker really has to go out of his way to make a film this bad. It is one of the worst films I have seen in a long, long, LONG, L-O-N-G TIME! It isn’t just bad. It is the trifecta of bad. It has terrible over-acting, excruciatingly awful writing, and beyond unbearable direction. I almost feel as if the whole world isn’t in on the massive joke that Robert Rodriguez and Nimrod Antal are playing on us. Let us take a look at each leg of this fantastically awful film.
While I personally think Adrien Brody is an exceptional actor who not only earned his Oscar, but also had an extremely emotional and awesome acceptance speech, his talents were lost in this film. Clearly, he was directed to play this character as “tough”. And as everyone knows, all tough characters speak in raspy and gravelly voices. Unfortunately, Adrian’s was better suited for a sex hotline, than an action hero. With many laugh out loud moments, he delivers a particularly good comedic performance.
I have a 7-year old nephew, Jeffrey, and I have heard the dialogue he uses when he is playing with his Batman action figures. Now, I can’t personally verify that he was hired to write the dialogue for this film, but I have a pretty good idea that he did. Oh, I’m not saying he came up with the storyline. That would be absurd, he’s only 7. However, with the low level of dialogue in this film, one wonders if the writer was either a child (who has only seen low budget crappy action films from Bulgaria), or if the writer speaks English as a second language AND his only writing credits actually include… low budget crappy action films from Bulgaria (You make the call… the writers don’t have many credits on IMDB). (But, my sister has been calling my nephew “Alex” a lot lately.) (Hmmm.)
Shouldn’t the director see the plot holes if the writer doesn’t? Early in the film, one of the characters, who was aware of the 1987 “Predator” event, conveys that the only survivor covered himself in mud so he would not be seen by the Predator. Well, the experienced warrior, or the smart warrior, or even the slightly better than retarded warrior, would immediately cover himself with mud. Instead, our “heroes” completely disregard this info altogether (thus making the entire conversation pointless). (BTW, a good writer would have cut the pointless dialogue.) (But, really, I can’t expect my 7-year old nephew to think of everything, so I blame the director.) Next, the “heroes” come across a Predator’s gun, cloaking helmet, and body armor. After seeing it demonstrated on a human (so they can see that THEY CAN USE it), they disregard it, instead they, apparently, load up on some random FLARES. (Understand, these weren’t super flares. They weren’t magic flares. They weren’t even good flares. They were just flares. (You know the kind… the ones that light up the area, alert the Predator to your position, and then go out 15 seconds later.)) Finally (and the most absurd), in the finale, our “hero” has the drop on the Predator… I will set the scene. First, Adrien Brody takes off his shirt. (There is no reason for this, other than we needed to see he is more than just a guy with a tough voice.) Second, he lights everything on fire. This is so the evil Predator won’t be able to see anything with his heat sensitive vision (Remotely clever, I’ll admit). Then, it gets a little unclear… I’m not sure if the Predator forgets how to take off his helmet so he can look at things with regular eyes… or if the Predator just is too intimidated to look on Adrian Brody with his shirt off, but FOR SOME REASON the Predator keeps his helmet on, remaining “blind” so Adrien can go after him with a hatchet. (Yes, that’s right, I said hatchet.) “Why not a gun?” you ask. EXCELLENT QUESTION!!!!!!! It wasn’t because he didn’t have one, because he did, less than THIRTY SECONDS BEFORE. Yet, he uses a hatchet, and the Predator gets the drop on him. Then, it is up to someone else to pick up the gun Adrien should have used in the first place. The entire sequence is stupid, contrived and amateur. But, at the same time, that is so representative of the entire film. And these are just highlights. I have not even mentioned the overused camera shots to “show suspense” and the absurd and unnecessary twists in the story.
I am very surprised that Robert Rodriguez had his fingers in this fresh, hot baked pie of crap.
Skip it. (And tell your friends to skip it.) (In fact, tell strangers on the street to skip it while you are at it.) I give it half of a star.
Directed by: Nimrod Antal
Release Date: July 9, 2010
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Did Jerry Bruckheimer produce “Prince of Persia”? Yes. Does it look like he did? Yes. Is that because it’s good? No.
Have you ever Googled Jerry Bruckheimer? Sure, it’s a profitable resume, but it’s full of bad movies, successful or not: “Days of Thunder”, “Pearl Harbor”, “Gone in Sixty Seconds”, “Bad Company”, “Déjà vu”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “G-Force”. All bad. But still, his films will be touted as “From the producer of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’”. Oh, yeah! The FIRST one was GREAT!
That’s the problem with Jerry. You could make a list of equally good movies he’s made because money and size don’t seem to be an issue with his projects: “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Crimson Tide”, “American Gigolo” and “The Ref”.
If the pendulum swings between good and bad with each film, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is a definite swing towards the bad. And although there are levels of ineptitude throughout the movie, greenlighting this awful project falls first on Bruckheimer. I blame him.
By now, this movie is three plus weeks old. I was so uninspired in ANY way by this movie, I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it until today. Unfortunately, the awkward scenes and over-production etched in my brain haven’t left my noggin since I saw it. I think I was also secretly hoping that might happen…
“Prince of Persia” was directed by the once-great Mike Newell, a director known for relationship comedies and dramas like “Enchanted April”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and the outstanding “Donnie Brasco”. In 2005, he tasted big-budget action moviemaking by helming “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and now, apparently, is hooked, as he returns to bring the Ubisoft videogame “Prince of Persia” to life with unintelligible flair.
The climax and finale of this movie don’t make sense. If you like special effects, there are plenty of them to distract you from the fact that what you’re watching DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. Previous setups get ignored, characters act irrationally, it just doesn’t make any sense and the worst part is that I want to go into detail about how much it fails to follow comprehension, but I’d be invoking spoilers. As a critic, I feel the need to adhere to the don’t-spoil-it mantra, and I feel icky remaining beholden to something that doesn’t make sense.
The performances aren’t good, either, and fail to save the film. Jake Gyllenhaal has beefed himself up to play an action hero (I already thought he was beefed up for “Jarhead”, a much more worthy film to get ripped for). My history with Jake is spotty. When he first came on the scene, he bored me to tears in movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Moonlight Mile”. It seemed, however, that he was turning things around with “Jarhead” and “Brokeback Mountain”. Alas, the pendulum has swung here, too, and poor Jake just looks lost as the hero/warrior type. He stumbles his large frame around the desert with no real charm and no chemistry with Gemma Arterton.
Arterton is saddled with playing the worst kind of character in this type of action movie. She spends the majority of her on-screen time spouting (loudly) the rules of the mystical dagger that stirs up trouble in the film with its ability to turn back time. She’s always yelling shit like, “THE DAGGER MUST BE RETURNED TO THE MYSTICAL CAVE WHERE ONLY THE ONE WHO IS CHOSEN CAN ENTER WITH IT.” Boring. Brain-cavingly dull stuff.
Alfred Molina adds decent humor to the proceedings and Ben Kingsley adds clout, but not much else. That leaves a bunch of character actors playing Gyllenhaal’s brothers, all vying for the throne. Two weird things about that:
- They mostly overact in that “Let me at ‘em” kind of way when discussing overthrowing a neighboring kingdom
- And they’re all British. It’s that thing again where all the Persians speak with a British dialect. I get it, Ben Kingsley’s British, but Jake Gyllenhaal actually ADDS a British dialect to be a more authentic PERSIAN. Again, weird.
I suppose the stakes shouldn’t be high when going to an adaptation of a video game. I can see why they went to Bruckheimer. They want a hit. I wanted a good movie.
The El Capitan Theater in Hollywood had, on display, the magical dagger that turns back time. Should I:
- Kill myself with it after seeing “Prince of Persia”?
- Go back in time and stop Disney from making it?
Directed by: Mike Newell
Release Date: May 28, 2010
Run Time: 116 Minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
In the case of Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood”, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
This is not the story of the swashbuckling outlaw that fights against King John for the poor people of Nottingham. Instead, this script plays out more like “X-Men: Origins – Robin Hood”, where the film ends with the merry archer we all know and love. The Robin Hood Scott and five-time collaborating star Russell Crowe create is so sober, so battle-weary, he’s tougher to love. That doesn’t mean that his story isn’t interesting or complicated enough to admire. It’s the kind of movie you’ll go back and forth on again and again like an ex-boyfriend you’re not sure if you should keep dating.
We’re thrust right in the middle of a huge, Ridley Scott-esque epic battle from the opening scene, as Robin is part of Richard the Lionheart’s army just returned from the Crusades. The mercurial Lionheart seems to take a liking to Robin, but he nevertheless throws him in the stockade for being harshly honest. But soon King Richard is slain, and Robin and his counterparts escape and happen upon another adventure, that of returning the King’s crown to the Queen. During this mission, they are also charged with returning the sword of a dying soldier to his father. The soldier’s name is Robert Loxley and soon Robin ends up assuming the dead man’s name and identity, and he falls for Loxley’s wife, Maid Marion.
So, there’s a lot going on, but don’t get all catty, ‘cause that’s really only the first half hour or so. I haven’t revealed too much. And if it feels like Robin Hood himself, the title character is a participant in a larger tapestry of a story, you’re right. “Robin Hood” is less about following the notorious outlaw as it is seeing how the events of the day built him up to finally taking a stand against the politics and politicians of the day.
Like “Wolverine”, “Revenge of the Sith” or other origin stories, you know how the film’s going to end, leaving the resulting films with a handful of drama, but no palpable sense of threatening danger.
Earlier this year I reviewed “Edge of Darkness” and admittedly couldn’t get enough Mel Gibson, despite his flawed personal life. Another Aussie who gets a lot of grief for his behavior is Russell Crowe, but he, as well, is pretty solid in nearly every film he’s in. It’s an odd bit of casting in that he’s perfect for this serious telling of the Robin Hood tale, but I can’t imagine he’d be that good if Ridley Scott were telling the tale of Robin vs. The Sheriff of Nottingham, as the glint in the eye and the wise quips would have to zip out of Crowe’s persona like an arrow out of Robin’s bow, and that would require more selling to get me to believe I’d see it (although his part in the GREAT movie “3:10 to Yuma” showed that cocky nature).
Guess what?!…Cate Blanchett is very good. She’s ALWAYS very good (except in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, which only has one good moment in the entire film, and she wasn’t in it), but there is one awkward kiss Robin and Marion share on a blood-soaked battlefield. She’s such a strong presence, everywhere else Blanchett succeeds, her strong point may not be “maid”. Although his screen time is brief, Danny Huston is memorable as Lionheart. Huston, also in “Edge of Darkness”, is getting to be a sure-thing casting bet, and I’m a big fan.
Speaking of sure-thing casting bets, “Robin Hood” gives Mark Strong another meaty villain role. After “Stardust” and “Sherlock Holmes”, he’s somehow succeeding at not seeming like the same guy in every villainous role, but frequently getting the nod when movies need a bad guy. The Merry Men are largely character actors really enjoying some time in a higher-profile role, especially Kevin Durand as Little John, who wears dumb beefcake well on his sleeve, while remaining likeable.
Production values are solid throughout, as you would expect in a Ridley Scott film. Lush cinematography and authentic re-creation of place and time fill the screen. The score by Marc Streitenfeld is good, providing a staccato accentuation to the fast-moving action. The editing was good, but it had to try and handle a re-occurring problem with the picture in that the battle scenes didn’t have enough variation. The battle at the castle and the battle at the village and the battle at the beach were all very similar, from staging to cutting to choreography, with only a few notable exceptions in each arena. The unfortunate effect of that move is that the scenes end up being only bludgeoning and less effective.
And so can be summed up the whole film, a lot of sound and fury signifying…..not exactly nothing, but less than what I desired. The real drive of Robin Hood and his life and loves were never delivered on as personal a level as I hoped. Again, he was swept up in a the greater expanse of a continent-wide power struggle between English factions and the French. I can’t imagine millions of moviegoers are going to get swept up in the continent-wide power struggles between English factions and the French.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Release Date: May 14, 2010
Run Time: 140 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
The most striking thing about “The Runaways”, Floria Sigismondi’s film about the all-girl rock group of the same name, is that even as it navigates its way through a certain amount of standard rock-biopic fare, it is telling quite a unique story. A band in its early stages, a meteoric rise, the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll, the pissing on the guitars of the asshole headlining band while they’re on-stage. It’s all there, of course. What makes the film different, and what made The Runaways, themselves, unique is not exactly what they were doing, but that they were doing it at all. The Runaways were the first commercially successful all-girl hard rock band… one of the first all-girl rock bands at all… and try as hard as they could to fuck it all up with their wild and intoxicated judgement, they were actually pioneers. Rock and roll is still a bit of a boy’s club, but in 1975 it was almost exclusively so. Girls didn’t play electric guitars, as Joan Jett’s guitar teacher explained to her, as he tried to teach her “On Top of Old Smokey.” With assistance from a producer and a lot of grrl power, The Runaways helped turn that all around.
At the beginning of “The Runaways”, we meet Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), just as she gets her period for the first time. While it seems a little late for that in relation to Cherie’s age (15), it’s a poignant moment for the film… she’s not a girl anymore. She’s growing up fast, in the ways that an alcoholic/often absent Father and a distant, soon-to-leave-altogether Mother help spur along. She and her twin sister Marie rely on each other for support, and Cherie dreams of stardom.
Meanwhile, Joan Jett (Kristin Stewart) is in the midst of her own, somewhat similar struggle. She’s got no twin sister to rely on (or to rely on her), but she’s also adrift in the world of the 1970’s teenage girl with no parents to speak of. Her spirit and drive lead her to Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a record producer who she recognizes. He’s a no-bullshit extrovert who takes a shine to Joan and soon he’s got her and drummer Sandy West rehearsing together with a promise of rock stardom. He finds Cherie in a sweaty and dirty rock club in her Bowie make-up and pulls her on-board. Robin (Alia Shawkat) and Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) are there to round out the line-up. Fowley directs, cajoles and insists that the girls understand and take seriously what they’re involved in. The band begins to take shape, fashioned by their drive and talent, Fowley’s direction, and the inevitable struggle against a hostile reception.
It’s in this that we understand what made The Runaways a good rock band, beyond a gimmick. Their edge is sharpened on the hard stone of the establishment of popular music. There’s irony here, of course, and the girls seem to know it, all while Fowley refuses to allow them to fall victim to it. Rock and roll was born from rebellion and was meant to be the voice of youth. The musical sexuality of teenagers. Yet, these teenagers must run up against the same latent (and sometimes overt) sexism that rock and roll, at its soul, challenges. It’s your parents who don’t want girls to rock, and your parents have no place in rock and roll. The Runaways were helping to carve out and define the freedom of rock music, into an avenue that it somehow hadn’t yet truly explored. It makes perfect sense while being utterly shocking: up until this band came along, rock had little room for girls, unless those girls were screaming about the boys.
It’s no shame on the members of The Runaways that they were helped along by a male producer. They were kids, after all… something the film allows them to be. The vibrating freedom of the youth and sexuality of these girls is palpable, scene to scene. The film is not exploitive with this, but it does not shy away, and that is very important. To attempt to neuter or clean up their history would have been a crime and disservice. It’s perhaps easier to imagine, via the prism of our moralizing culture of today, that the sexuality of 15-17 year-old girls is at all ignorable in the context of a story like this. It’s not. The camera works mainly in close shots, giving us a hazy yet unflinching view of who these people are as they try to create and have some control over their world(s). Their sexual drive is a powerful force, and it drove their music, but it in the hostile, condescending world they were forging through, at their young ages, it wasn’t easy to find satisfaction. The film carefully addresses the ways that these girls looked to each other for assistance in that area, without purporting a frat-boys fantasy of a sapphic orgy. Joan is depicted as the caretaker of the band, and in that capacity she serves as a guide for their sexuality as well.
Dakota Fanning couldn’t have found a better role to cross over from child-star to ingenue. She manages disaffection without being boring. She gives us vulnerability without pity. Her scene in a supermarket, wearing an outfit fit for a rock-star onstage, drunk and wavering while buying two onions and a bottle of vodka, is the heart of the film. The metaphor is clear and palpable: young girl, trying to do things her way in the established world, and of course stumbling along a bit. The supermarket’s lights wash her out and expose her as much as the stage lights make her look like a Goddess. The shaft of the vodka bottle with the two round onions seems an intentionally clumsy symbol of masculine oppression.
Michael Shannon has been systematically carving a place for himself in Hollywood as an eccentric. He was a creepy revelation as the human catalyst in “Revolutionary Road”, and he serves a similar purpose, with a much different character, in this film.
It’s Kristin Stewart, though, who anchors the film with her portrayal of Joan Jett. her physical and vocal work is on display in affecting Joan’s posture, attitude and soul. Apparently Joan Jett was played a version of one of the Runaways’ songs that Kristin had re-recorded the vocals for and Joan did not recognize that it was Kristin’s voice, thinking it was her own. That’s the kind of inhabiting that Ms. Stewart takes on in this film. Her growl seems just right.
The growl of this film in general is close to just right. The script isn’t perfect, perhaps… some parts a touch awkward or stilted. But what “The Runaways” loses in precision, it makes up for in emotion… like a lot of good rock and roll. There are some very powerful moments in the film, culminating in Joan and Cherie’s encounter at the end of it. At that point, with the short history of The Runaways over, what passes between the two characters is riveting. The sense is that these two women have experienced something together that no film could ever really explain. “The Runaways” makes a thumping, feedback-heavy, howling effort to do so and it’s a whole lot of fun watching it try.
Directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Release Date: April 9, 2010
Run Time: 109 Minutes
Distributor: River Road Entertainment
“Salt” tells the story of what happens when one half of the famous Hip-Hop Act, Salt N Pepa, goes on a soul=searching mission to find herself with the help of N’ Play.
Haha, we have fun here at The Movie Guys, but that’s not really what the movie’s about, silly. Now get out of here, and I mean it.
Actually, “Salt” is a movie about a CIA agent with a strange last name who’s name gets shouted for two hours. Why does it get shouted from CIA headquarters, to moving cars, to highway overpasses, to the White House, to NORAD?
Salt’s name is shouted by various CIA agents because Salt is on the run and may very well be a part of a top-secret Russian experiment to raise super-obedient children. Which is bullshit. I spent my summer watching various parents trying to get various children to eat what the kids said they liked the day before. Try getting one of these kids to even remember the name of a Russian Premier, much less pledge allegiance to the son of a bitch. Why would the Russians need super-obedient kids? A) To wait thirty-five years to attack America from the inside and B) To clean up all these goddamn toys!
Ironically, the film was released very closely to the Republican attempt to inject the idea that radical Islamic immigrants are having babies here in America that, after eighteen years of McDonald’s and movies with Angelina Jolie nip slips, will somehow hate this country. The children would then, presumably, get a weird look in their eye like the hypnotized Insurance Seminar Audience in my 1978 VHS copy of Spider-Man: The Deadly Dust, and trade their patriotic desire to get a blowjob in a Ferrari, in favor of bombing everyone on Newsmax’s Spam list.
“Salt” stars Angelina Jolie, America’s frailest talent, and Liev Schreiber, who I hope someday stars in a movie called “Liev Schreiber Eats Soup” – just to see if I’d rent a movie to watch him do anything.
The movie gets major points for getting to the point. I was worried early-on when the movie spent thirty seconds showing me how much Salt and her husband were in love. They’re having breakfast and they’re cute and loving in a way that people aren’t first thing in the morning and he’s the very frumpy German model of a guy the real Angelina Jolie would pay to have beat up. Nothing’s more annoying in a summer action movie than watching two people relate to each other in what I have grown to call a “Godzilla relationship,” where they only insist on long scenes with the leads so that we’ll reward the movie for not being “all about the bang”, like it’s math. Like if Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are on screen long enough without action, we’ll magically be wooed by sheer time of possession by the opposing team. Yes, when you apply a football analogy to Summer Action Movies, dramatically tempoed scenes are not the home team.
But twenty minutes into this movie, we know everything we need to know, Salt’s name is being watchably shouted by Liev Schreiber, and Angelina Jolie is jumping off expressways onto moving trucks, which is really really hard. But could this be evidence that she’s a secret Russian agent?
That’s the gist of the movie. It’s a quick setup, “The Fugitive”, and then – “is she or isn’t she?” for an hour. The script, which deftly sweeps Salt from action setpiece to action setpiece while asking the above question, was written by “Equilibrium” Writer/Director Kurt Wimmer; who had his “Director” hyphenate removed from him in an outpatient procedure following the release of “Ultra Violet” – the only movie I ever wanted to walk out on that actually ended itself for me. The film actually broke and I got paid to leave. It’s one of my happier days.
I liked “Salt” way better than I thought I would, but, in interest of full-disclosure, I’ll watch any movie where someone was made a killing machine in their long-forgotten past and then gets fucked with by the wrong guy. You’re with me on that, right? Rambo, Jason Bourne, Machete, even that stupid one with Benicio Del Toro. I’ll watch it every time.
But once, JUST ONCE, I want to see someone jump off the top of a Highway overpass onto a moving truck and botch that move. Just – bounce, bounce, and into traffic. I jumped off a bike going TEN miles an hour as a kid and got FUCKED UP. Here’s the valuable property of physics that I learned and it must apply to overpass truck jumping.
The road is going ten miles an hour. You aren’t.
6/10 – Somewhat recommended.
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Release Date: July 23, 2010
Run Time: 100 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
STACEY PILGRIM: Did you really see a future with this girl?
SCOTT PILGRIM: Like….with jetpacks?
SHAME on you, America!
“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is an endlessly entertaining movie, so crammed with laughs, visual gags, references and hipster attitude it’s overwhelming. So why didn’t you see it?! Again, shame. On. You.
Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”) has created a blisteringly sign-of-the-times, of-the-moment masterpiece that provides some scenes and situations that are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Quiet an achievement nowadays when seemingly EVERYTHING’s been done.
The film is adapted by Wright and Michael Bacall, from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The story centers on a do-little twenty-something kid from Toronto who plays in a rock band and is ‘between jobs’. Immediately, you’re asked to buy in to the premise of this film, which lives outside reality and jumps at the chance to bend your expectations on their head. Soon, Pilgrim is attracted to a girl and needs to fight her evil ex-boyfriends to win her heart. This plot is merely an excuse to throw nearly every pop culture reference from the last thirty years at you, and create some unique, memorable situations as well. And somewhere in the middle of it all, there’s a little heart behind Scott’s unremitting attraction to Ramona Flowers.
Perhaps “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” bombed because it seems like a movie for young people, but the references were largely to twenty-five-year-old video games like “Donkey Kong”, “Pac-Man” and any number of the Tekken-based fighting games that youthful, XBOX-ians may not comprehend. Maybe, then, two big demographics were alienated.
I also think that there’s a huge demographic outside of the city I live in (the “How will it play in Peoria?” camp) that may not get the Super Mario Brothers references as swiftly as those in cities who are already used to everything in their life being fast, furious and technology-provided. Then again, I don’t think either demo is going to know what I mean by “How will it play in Peoria?”.
This, of course, is all post-post-production speculation as to why U.S. filmgoers widely avoided a great and hugely enjoyable film. What’s apparent is that the filmmakers didn’t care about any of that. They ripped forward with the movie they wanted to make, and the energy and passion is unmistakable in every scene.
One interesting facet of this movie is that most twenty-somethings I see in real life look and act like people I would want nothing to do with. Slacker care-littles that are too smug and hip for their own good. But somehow, that all remains true in “Scott Pilgrim”, but I like them. I root for Scott, who seems dumber than a person of twenty-two should be and has about as much ambition to better himself as a block of fudge. However, the dialogue and rampant comedy inherent in their situations in the movie kept me engaged throughout. It’s just a fucking funny movie.
One of the funniest characters in the film is Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (technically Scott is staying at HIS place), often introduced as “He’s gay”. Wallace is played with deadpan hilarity by Kieran Culkin, who showed real promise in 2002’s “Igby Goes Down”, but has only appeared in three films since then. “Scott Pilgrim” is a welcome return for Culkin’s dry delivery. Michael Cera is also good here as Scott, even though there seems to be some backlash against him appearing in critically acclaimed indies (“Juno”, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) and big-time moneymakers (“Superbad”). Despite his talent, I fear his bankability is now in question.
The ex-boyfriends are no small task to conquer, as they include Captain America and Superman – Chris Evans and Brandon Routh, respectively. Routh is a riot (and built like a brick shit-house!) as the bass-playing vegan who exudes super-confidence until his vegan powers are in question. Evans plays a movie star whose one-liners (“The only thing separating me from her is the two minutes it’s gonna take to kick your ass”) are straight out of a bad Seagal movie, and are delivered as such.
Edgar Wright, cinematographer Bill Pope and the FX team deserve heaps of praise for the original look of this film. There are fight sequences and sci-fi imagery in “Scott Pilgrim” that many action films wished they had. But the “fights to the death” hold about as much mortal weight as a video game. It’s all in the name of fun, and everyone I know who has seen “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” has loved it, and critics followed suit.
So, well done, filmgoers. I guess I won’t get to see “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe”. “Vampires Suck” has made more money. What do you people have against fun?
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Release Date: August 13, 2010
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Shrek and Company return for “The Final Chapter” of the Shrek film series, and thankfully, this time the “Company” is smaller. I always thought that the Shrek sequels had a case of Schumacher-Batman-itis, piling on too many supporting characters, losing the charm of the main characters we came to see in the first place in the process. “Shrek 2” added six major characters to the fold, and “Shrek the Third” added close to a dozen. Outside of some extra ogres, “Shrek Forever After” really only adds two new characters to the mix, and the film remembers to have tons of fun with the team of goofballs we loved from the beginning.
The newest character is a good one: Rumpelstiltskin, wonderfully and weasely voiced by Walt Dohrn. Rumpelstiltskin creates contracts granting wishes, but always wants part of the deal to include him gaining ultimate power over the kingdom. The other character is The Pied Piper, who has no dialogue, but does Rumpelstiltskin’s bidding using his flute.
After domestic bliss turns sour for Shrek, he wishes he could go back to the good ‘ol days where he was a mean ogre flying solo. When Rumpelstiltskin grants his wish, an alternate universe is created, and Shrek regrets his decision, determinedly setting out to put his life back together. This is a great plot device for a fourth movie. This late in the franchise, you can just PLAY, and there’s freedom in making jokes and outlandish action scenes in this context, instead of having to pull together a million characters into a clogged finale, as was the case in “Shrek the Third”.
Myers, Murphy and Diaz do a great job bringing life to Shrek, Donkey and Fiona, but the highlight this time out is definitely Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots. EVERYTHING he says is funny. The writers and Banderas are very game to spoof the dramatic intensity Banderas has brought to characters like Zorro, and the ante is upped here when Puss is in the alternate universe and isn’t quite the adventurer he’s been in the past.
There’s a plague, however, that’s affecting all animated movies these days. Even the smallest roles seem to go to name performers, but with minimal results. There’s a whole separate movie’s worth of actors in supporting roles in “Shrek the Third” that were unmemorable – Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Ian McShane, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri and Amy Sedaris. If you go to “Shrek Forever After” to hear Jane Lynch, Kathy Griffin, Meredith Viera, Ryan Seacrest and Lake Bell, prepare to be underwhelmed, ‘cause you really can’t tell they’re in the film till you see their names in the credits. It’s stunt casting to deepen the voice talent roster that doesn’t need the help. You had me at Eddie Murphy.
This makes it all the more exciting to see Walt Dohrn, up till now an ancillary voice talent in the Shrek universe, make such an impression as Rumpelstiltskin (he has a different wig for his various emotions. Very funny).
Another lingering issue is the “Shrek” films’ dependence on too much modern music. It’s funny when Donkey sings pop songs, but it seems just a little more desperate when The Pied Piper’s mind-controlling numbers are all disco tunes like “Shake Your Groove Thing”. The concept of ogre-control works without the pop culture help-up.
The BEST use of music in the movie is when Shrek first enjoys his return to true Ogre form and he sets off on a spree of scaring people and terrorizing villages. It’s juxtaposed with The Carpenters’ “Top of the World”. The montage of the mayhem Shrek creates combined with the innocence of The Carpenters’ simple-life lyrics is a riot.
The movie manages to give us Shrek making a bad decision at the beginning of the film (wishing he didn’t have a family), but somehow getting us to root for him soon after. And it’s FUN to root for Shrek again. All that King Arthur stuff just got in the way in the last film. Wanting Shrek and Fiona together again is enough.
I saw “Shrek Forever After” in 3D, although it wasn’t entirely necessary. But at least it wasn’t a HACK job. The 3D effects of “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon” were pretty impressive, leading me to believe that animated films work best with this technology. That being said, there was still color distortion on the sides of the movie screen, a detriment to the hard work of some quality animators. 3D is probably a no-win situation for film purists.
Overall, if the previous Shrek sequels kept you away, this finale for the big, green lug is worth taking in.
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Release Date: May 21, 2010
Run Time: 93 Minutes
Distributor: DreamWorks Animation
“Shutter Island” is the latest film directed by Martin Scorsese that also stars Leonardo DiCaprio. For this outing, Scorsese foregoes the safety net of familiar territory to instead craft an effective and often mind-bending tale of psychological anguish, despair and violence.
Set in the early 1950s, the entire film takes place on a remote island off the coast of Boston. The sole inhabitants are comprised of employees and patients that make up a large psychiatric compound housed on the island. From the opening frames of the film, Scorsese begins to weave subtle elements of foreboding, and from the very first moment we set foot on the island, there is an eerie sense that not everything is right nor those we encounter entirely honest.
The premise behind the story is simple and betrays nothing insofar as the overall film is concerned. The two main characters, DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo’s Chuck Aule, are U.S. marshals sent to investigate the strange disappearance of one of Shutter Island’s patients. What slowly reveals itself beyond this is something else entirely, as we’re left confined on the island to endure the deteriorating mental state of Teddy as he tries to make sense of the situation and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Scorsese is very effective at crafting an unsettled mood and breathing life into it through the fine performances of his cast. Teddy Daniels is perhaps one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s best roles to date and he does an incredible job of bringing believability and honesty to someone that could have been a mere caricature in the wrong hands. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow are brilliantly placed to cast just the right amount of menace and uncertainty into the story as the institution’s head doctors. The remaining cast members round out an ensemble of suspicion and second guesses as evidence of a larger cover-up continues to invade Teddy’s thoughts.
The film makes no obvious intent to hide the fact that secrets are being kept from Teddy and Chuck. The fact that we as an audience know this from the beginning, yet are as taunted and as frustrated as Teddy, is a testament to Scorsese’s ability to infuse this film with such an effective sense of mood.
While the mood, style and performances in “Shutter Island” are all top notch, the story itself is a whole other issue. Without disclosing any spoilers, it’s safe to say that by the end we’ll realize this ground has been covered before. While that may be true, the way that Scorsese gets us there is certainly effective, and the film does a great job of wrapping things up in a way that is satisfying without treating the audience like a child.
Undoubtedly “Shutter Island” is the type of film that will have those who’ve seen it discussing what happened long after the final shot. Because so much of the film deserves scrutiny once it’s played out, it’s may not be for everyone. This is a film that will make you think and keep you thinking long after you’ve seen it. While the payoff is worth the effort it takes to get there, for those that prefer to have every shot handed to them with an unquestionable clarity, you might want to skip “Shutter Island”. Then again, this is Scorsese we’re talking about here, so you might as well get out of your comfort zone for a while and enjoy it.
I said earlier that violence plays a part in this film, but unlike some of Scorsese’s other works, “Shutter Island” didn’t seem to me to be overly violent. Without question, there are violent acts that are displayed, but “Shutter Island”’s violence tends to be revealed just after the fact. We witness horrific things, but always seem to show up a few frames too late, like a driver passing by the scene of an accident. We know what happened, but we just didn’t see it. This happens throughout the course of the film, mostly through flashbacks, and gradually gets worse and worse as more facts begin to be revealed. While some people may be off-put by what is depicted, I didn’t find it nearly as bad as some of the brutality played out in films like “Goodfellas” and “Gangs of New York”.
Ultimately though, solipsism plays a big part in “Shutter Island”. We are trapped on the island and we are trapped in the mind of Teddy Daniels. As reality begins to unfold, and the characters we meet create yet another wrinkle into what is going on, we begin to wonder who is crazy and who isn’t? There’s a point made that once someone is labeled crazy, everything that person does to deny it merely reinforces this belief. As the film builds toward its conclusion, Scorsese does an excellent job of taking the audience along with Teddy’s downward spiral to eventually question everything and everyone. The fact that “Shutter Island” is so unforgiving in this way, may again be frustrating to some.
But even if you consider this to be the film’s fatal flaw, it can certainly be spun to support it as its greatest asset: its ability to force the audience, like Teddy, to question everything they’ve seen and heard along the way . While some may think this is a cop-out, my guess is that subsequent viewings will reveal this to be the case.
“Shutter Island” is by no means flawless, but Scorsese manages to put together a refreshing take on the noir thriller. It’s certainly an exciting ride that will keep you guessing, but it’s one trip you’ll be happy to make, even if the company you’re forced to keep makes you crazy.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: February 19, 2010
Run Time: 138 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Testimony is assumed to be 85% emotionally charged and 15% perjury, legal assistant Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones) explains to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). So what is a biopic but the visual representation of testimony? With this line, spoken near the end of The Social Network, the new film directed by David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin wrote into the script a caveat that needs to be heeded. The film is not meant as a historically accurate visual document. It is a representation of the criss-crossing views, rememberings and perjuries of the many people involved, brought to life with an emotional charge. It’s the story of the inception and rise of Facebook, a website that we all know is full of different perspectives. So what, then, if it didn’t go down exactly like this. Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of the site, is surely happy with the number of participants (500 million or so, as the tagline invokes) in the Facebook story. Expecting accuracy and clarity amidst the jumble of that collective consciousness is naive at best.
The story begins in the fall of 2003, which some of you may remember as “just the other day”. Zuckerberg, a sophomore at Harvard, is a smart and awkward (Eisenberg plays him with a dollop of Asperger’s Syndrome) kid whose burgeoning self-conscious ego manifests via his computer-programming skills. Dumped by his girlfriend, he takes out his frustration via the internet… he creates a site called facemash.com, which allows Harvard users to compare the faces of their female classmates. It’s Zuckerberg’s first foray into the web of internet privacy issues, a place he’s occasionally gotten stuck in the years since. Facemash is a huge hit. The Harvard servers crash. Zuckerberg gains infamy, and is placed on academic probation. For many, an event like this might hinder their future ambition. For Zuckerberg, it’s confirmation that he has the coding ability he’s been cultivating since a young age, but it’s also an episode that seemed to spark Mark’s interest in how people view themselves and others via the internet. He seems to begin to understand that an effective social endeavor online would have to pay respect and service to the conflicting impulses of a voyeuristic populace. Zuckerberg isn’t “cool” in the classic sense. He feels a bit like an outcast, apparently longing to have the social success that his roommate and Facebook collaborator Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is beginning to enjoy by being invited to join one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs. Mark is no milquetoast, though, and he combats his occasional pinings for standard social success with a focused and oddly self-assured fervor. He’s better than all that crap, one seems to be able to see him thinking.
Enter the Winklevoss twins (somehow played by the same actor, Armie Hammer). With their chiseled jaws, blond hair and blue eyes, and Crew-cut physiques, they are the elite Harvard men that Zuckerberg at once envies and despises. They’ve heard of Mark through the facemash scandal, and have an idea that he may be able to help them with a social networking site based around Harvard’s student body. “I’m in”, Mark says, but he isn’t really. He spends the next several weeks putting off the Winklevosses (or the Winklevai, as he refers to them) and putting together the first version of Facebook, then titled thefacebook.com.
Aaron Sorkin clearly delights in his ability to mix and transcend genres. As far back as A Few Good Men, Sorkin has avoided writing easily pigeon-holed scripts. He takes his subjects seriously, of course, but manages to adroitly meld various styles, characters and objectives all at once. In the conflict between Zuckerberg and the twins, we see clear hints of 80’s movie plots. Zuckerberg exacts his version of Revenge of the Nerds on the two preppies, and just as this situation rises to a level of potential violence, one of the twins invokes a specific 80’s film, saying they can’t go after Mark in such a way that would place them in “skeleton masks, chasing the Karate Kid”. It’s a quick, brilliant touch for the script, at once a toss-off and the summation of the self-consciousness of children raised post-meta. The Winklevosses won’t play the part of the obviously overprivileged self-important antagonists who are defeated by the upstart geek. They seem rueful at the notion of it. Yet, merely by who all these players are, they can’t quite help themselves. It is Sorkin’s art imitating life imitating art. The Winklevai are pawns in Zuckerberg’s chess game, and are almost to be pitied. Almost.
Truth is, no one’s the clear-cut hero or enemy here. Sorkin has weaved enough nuance and ambiguity into this story to give the impression that an audience is watching the events of the real world on the screen. It’s perhaps because the script is so strong that some may argue vehemently (Facebook itself is none too pleased, it seems) that the film mis-represents history. That may be so. Perhaps the film is essentially fiction. But what is not fictional is the soul of it. Sorkin fleshes the characters out by exposing the issues that are central to the non-fiction history of human ego, especially as that history has played out in the past several years, with the internet as the new catalyst. The story of Facebook is not the story of when exactly Mark Zuckerberg did what to whom or who did or did not have the idea for Facebook when. (As Zuckerberg states to the Winklevosses in the film, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”) The real story of Facebook is what it means as it relates to the millions and millions of people who use it every day. Sorkin doesn’t get caught up in the net of detail. He gives us a window into the psyche of humanity as it exists in the Facebook world. The word “friend” is re-defined by Facebook, and The Social Network spells it out. In case you thought it was just a fun little web-site, think again. The film shows us the watershed.
A little gentle snooping on Facebook can lead an interested investigator to a late-night party video where Mark Zuckerberg himself strums “Wonderwall”, by Oasis as a group of his pals sing along. There’s another song by that band that includes this line, “Where were you when we were getting high?” There are juxtaposed shots in the film of Harvard party debauchery and then Mark Zuckerberg at his computer, writing code that changed the world. The Social Network gets to the point: We all missed it, even those who were seemingly there from the beginning. As Zuckerberg says in the film, “We don’t even know what it is yet. We don’t even know what it can be.” So maybe he can’t explain it either. It seems he’s a savant, but he’s not a calculating monster. There’s innocence here, for sure. Sorkin won’t let us ignore that, fortunately.
Oh yeah, David Fincher directs, although he’s like a good umpire… he’s not the story here. He never gets in the way, and seems to make the right calls while tamping his recognizable style down. There’s really only one clearly Fincherian section in the film, during a rowing-race, unless one counts the use of music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. That score provides an appropriate uneasiness to the proceedings. Justin Timberlake shows up and chews up the scenery for a while as Sean Parker, fresh off his “success” at Napster. Timberlake is a work in progress on the big screen, but his personal strengths in showmanship and commitment serve the part well. As far as performances, this is really Jesse Eisenberg’s coming-out party. He’s shown some promise before in films like The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland, and Zombieland, but he nails the disaffected, awkward, yet hugely tenacious Zuckerberg of Sorkin’s script.
The “true” story of Facebook’s rise may never get told perfectly. Perhaps the WInklevai deserved more credit. Perhaps Eduardo was ambushed and de-friended harshly. Perhaps the activities fed to an audience by The Social Network are exaggerated or even fabricated. At the end though, one thing matters most, and it’s the quality that Eisenberg and Sorkin’s Zuckerberg stresses about facebook.com: whether it is cool or not. As long as enough people click the “like” button, there’s your history.
Directed by: David Fincher
Release Date: October 1, 2010
Run Time: 120 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
The wave of documentaries about The Iraq War and its fallout have been of surprisingly consistent quality. “The Tillman Story” falls right in line with sharp storytelling skills and an amazing family as the core subject.
Pat Tillman was a college and pro football defensive phenom, as original and confident in his demeanor as he was on the field. He decided to quit pro ball and join the army, getting sent to Afghanistan with his brothers. Pat died in a firefight and prompted an investigation by his family as to what actually happened to their proud son and brother. The U.S. government made Pat’s sacrifice the poster boy for patriotism and the war, but what the Tillman’s family uncovered turned Pat into the poster boy for government war sales and scandal.
Pat’s situation reminded me of that of the Iwo Jima soldiers, a troubled group of men who found themselves the subject of a historical moment. That moment was exploited by the military to sell war bonds, regardless of the toll on the soldiers, or the truth of the moment that legendary American flag was planted.
I’ll admit I have little respect for politicians. From their desire to raise money over raising concerns, to working to get re-elected instead of working for the people who elected them, their self-involved, face-saving nature is nothing to admire. That behavior is on display ALL OVER THE PLACE in “The Tillman Story”. Politicians like John McCain show up at Pat’s funeral to promote their OWN patriotism. This is not unlike Fred Phelps showing up at the funerals of gay men to protest their homosexuality. Neither is a service to the family. And numerous political types spend the majority of the investigation into Pat’s death denying knowledge of anything or passing the buck.
Throughout, The Tillman family is relentless, from Pat’s mother Dannie, who won’t sit on her hands and take shit from Washington to Pat’s brother Rich, who gives a very memorable, deflating eulogy and is outspoken in all the ways we wish we were.
As invigorating as the documentary is, there is something depressing about it that goes beyond the initial sadness of a fallen soldier. This “machine”, whatever it is, that does things like promote illegal wars, abandon sacrificial soldier lambs after they’ve served their purpose, create and promote lies and profit-seeking agendas despite the cost on the country, may finally be too large to conquer. When a ferocious family like the Tillmans don’t have much luck in the fight, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.
Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev
Release Date: August 20, 2010
Run Time: 94 Minutes
Distributor: A&E Indie Films
“The Town”, Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort makes his first one, “Gone Baby Gone”, look like a movie I haven’t seen.
In “The Town”, Affleck plays a bank robber who robs a series of banks with a crew consisting of one hothead and two other guys. They are pursued by a vigilant cop as they plan one last final last robbery, but it just might be the job that gets them all killed as…wow, describing this plot just gave me a weird sense of Deja Vu. You know that feeling like you’d rather be describing the plot of Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu”?
Yes, it’s “Heat”, with Boston accents. But really, who doesn’t love both of those things?
The real twist in “The Town”, and what sets it apart from what I just described, is the relationship that Affleck’s character, Guy McBoston (or something), has with a bank teller (played by either Vicky or Cristina Barcelona) who becomes a hostage in the film’s initial bank robbery. Guy cases the the woman down to eliminate her, but then falls in love while the FBI noose pulls tight around their key witness to the robbery and Affleck’s gang.
These films would be nothing without a dedicated detective, who in this case is played by the famously watchable Jon Hamm (who may have an “h” in his first name). The tension notable as the Detective and his team get closer and closer to Guy’s crew as the hours tick down until the final robbery, a Heat-like firefight inside Fenway Park. Tension enough, but heightened to a new degree because of the conflict created by Affleck and his former victim.
The film may not be groundbreaking but it tries hard to be original in the places where it mimics, the bank heists are thrilling, tense, and balanced nicely with the Affleck’s relationship – the latter plot also reveals that only one person should direct Ben Affleck, himself. I mean seriously, where did THIS Affleck come from?
The film also stars someone who I’m told is Jeremy Renner, who will be playing Hawkeye in “The Avengers”, so that’s enough to get me excited about him.
7/10 with one point taken off for a complete lack of Casey Affleck, so 6/10
Ben Affleck, the legend goes, burst into Hollywood on the arm of his friend Matt Damon and won an Oscar before most people knew who he was. He co-wrote “Good WIll Hunting” with Damon, the Academy Award was for that endeavor, and has since gone about the business of convincing audiences that writing, or maybe almost anything else aside from acting, is where his talent lies. Since “Hunting”, he has strung together a series of underwhelming performances in equally underwhelming films. Along the way, he directed the fine “Gone Baby Gone” (he also co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from Dennis LeHane’s novel), and spent a visible portion of his time next to the home dugout at Fenway Park, cheering and grimacing for his favorite team. His blood, it would seem, is as red as his sawx, and as awkward as he’s appeared in some of the forgettable action films he’s done over the years, he is never more comfortable than when he is safe at home, somewhere in the Olde Towne.
This time around Affleck is quite comfy in “The Town”, which he directed, co-wrote and stars in. The film is a convergence of all Ben’s strengths and weaknesses, a kind of glimpse into the psyche of the star and (therefore) who he imagines himself to be. It’s Ben Affleck the action hero, the director, the writer, and the Boston boy all rolled into one, set on the back-drop of a heist film. Ben plays Doug MacRay, a goodfella from the mean streets of Charlestown, the blue-est of blue-collar neighborhoods. Doug is smahta than the average robbah, and Ben plays the character easily and lovingly as the unlikely, perhaps even inexplicable, hometown hero that Ben might like to be. Tough yet kind, he’s concerned with the safety of his cohorts, cops, and local kids… all while toting automatic weapons into banks in order to rob them. His father (Chris Cooper) is in jail, pinched for similar crimes, and Ben semi-reluctantly carries on the family business. There’s a mob boss (Pete Postlethwaite), a volatile friend/co-robber (Jeremy Renner, chewing it up), and of course an innocent love interest, Claire (Rebecca Hall). Jon Hamm does his level best with a fairly thankless role as the two-dimensionally drawn FBI man in charge of taking Doug’s crew down. Hamm muddles this old-fashioned tale the best he can, but it’s Affleck’s spirit that’s in charge here. Throw it all in a blender, with a dash of Michael Mann’s “Heat”, and there’s your recipe for a party at Ben’s place: splashy, fun, and forgettable.
It’s not an easy task, creating an anti-hero. A writer, actor, and director is dancing on the line of vulnerability and softness. Ben fits into Doug’s skin easily; the actor is at his best when he’s allowed to drop his r’s (pahk the cah). The same comfort and ease that Affleck showed on the screen in “Good Will Hunting”, and not much since, is evident in The Town. It’s not a stretch for Ben to play this guy… one gets the impression that he knows Doug, or people like him. That kind of guy probably took his lunch money during recess. Ben’s best work has, and almost certainly always will, come when the subject matter and setting is his beloved Boston. “Hunting”, Gone Baby Gone, The Town… a trilogy of Affleck’s best work.
“The Town”, though, while it includes some of Ben’s best acting work and competent directing, lacks strength in the area that the other two films excelled: the script. It’s a rote heist film, that manifests in various forms. Anyone who saw “The American” a couple of weeks ago saw a different variation of the same story: the bad guy who maybe isn’t quite so bad, at least when the young lady is around, wants to leave the life so that he can be who she wants and imagines him to be… some idealized and naive version of himself, that he can see clearly in his reflection in her eyes. Robert DeNiro goes through the same thing in “Heat”. Doug MacRay is not drawn believably or interestingly enough to keep the film engaging for long, though. There’s plenty of shooting and car-chasing to look at, and almost none of that bores. But as the film wears on, we’re reminded of Ben’s limitations. He’s never been able to hold a film together as the leading man, and as ambitious and bombastic as “The Town” is, it’s no exception.
The performances are generally quite impressive. An Oscar nomination or two may well arise from them. Blake Lively does excellent work as Ben’s low-class, jilted ex-girlfriend (an echo of Amy Ryan’s character in Gone Baby Gone). Hamm is delicious in a couple of spots, and Renner gives it his all. By performance standards and by action standards, “The Town” excels.
But if we know one thing about Ben Affleck, it’s that he has a hard time pulling together all the pieces into a whole. “The Town” is a nice place to visit, but it would be better if Ben Affleck didn’t live there.
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Release Date: September 17, 2010
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Much like Pixar’s ability to make original movies that rank among the best films every year, they show again that they can generate a sequel better than most franchises as well. It’s wise of Pixar to re-visit “Toy Story” before any of its other features, it has the strongest, most universal themes – friendship and loyalty. In “Toy Story 3”, these themes are put to the greatest test and lead to a very satisfying conclusion.
In the world of “Toy Story 3”, time has advanced exactly as it has in real-world time. It’s fifteen years since Buzz Lightyear first squared off with Sheriff Woody in Andy’s bedroom. Now, Andy is off to college, and the fate of his toys hangs in the balance – put them in the attic where they can live out a peaceful if not entirely fulfilling life, or end up in the trash. When an unexpected third option appears (donation to a day care center), the toys must choose whether to embrace their new life or make the trek back to Andy one last time.
Every time a new Pixar movie comes out, I brace myself for their first failure, but it just doesn’t happen. I make myself emotionally ready for the possibility of a Pixar film being more like a low-rent, pop-culture-filled, constantly-winking product of some lesser animation company, jam-packing it’s roster with expensive, high-profile voice talent to overcompensate for by-the-numbers storytelling. And it just doesn’t happen.
Laughs, adventure, tears, drama, double-crossing, and glorious animation. It’s all here. And despite nods to prison dramas, The Great Escape, Return of the Jedi and more, writer Michael Arndt and director Lee Unkrich wisely return to the basics whenever possible, focusing on the great relationships of the characters, toys holding onto and enjoying each other in the face of an uncertain future.
“Toy Story 3” adds on new characters, and where most franchises would suffer under the weight of too much addition (“Shrek”), the new characters here are expertly drawn and never take the front seat away from Buzz and Woody. There’s Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend, voiced by Michael Keaton, reminding us once again that when he shows up, he’s awesome. But where does he go between high-profile projects? Lotso-Huggin’ Bear, voiced by Ned Beatty, “runs” the day care center with ominous Southern-gentlemanly charm. His back story may be among the darkest things you see in the movies this year, but where the story could tug another heartstring, and feel a little too familiar (like Cowgirl Jesse’s back story of abandonment), instead it’s told with such over-the-top DRAMA, it actually plays out fun.
A special shout-out is deserved for Timothy Dalton, who plays a “classically-trained” toy who, with his friends, treat their relationship with kids as one big acting gig. He plays it so straight, the laughs are huge. Perhaps he deserves a “where you been?” too!
The old characters get into all sorts of mischief, and by now the voice talents are in prime form, especially Tim Allen, whose Buzz Lightyear is as warm as he’s ever been, but a string of mishaps have him barking out “Cool Hand Luke”-type orders and the result is hilarious. John Morris, the voice of Andy in all three films, lends great warmth to Andy, allowing us to like him regardless of what he decides to do with his toys. Apparently growing up with a single mom, Andy turned out OK.
As if just doing a third movie of any franchise wasn’t risky enough, the Pixar team chooses the more precarious route whenever possible, and the payoff is the audience’s to enjoy.
The final moments wrapping up the relationships of all involved moved me more than I expected. For a franchise that is so much fun, the theme of loss is surprisingly prevalent in all three films. Loss of worth, loss of time, loss of friends, these things threaten the toys and Andy at every turn. In the finale of this trilogy, Pixar very deftly handles fate of those characters we love. Andy and the toys have a more mature relationship than most adults in movies today.
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Release Date: June 18, 2010
Run Time: 103 Minutes
Distributor: Pixar Animation Studios
Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and entertaining films to play in theaters last year. Yet its ending opens up such a messy can of worms, it’s kind of worth considering apart from the film itself. If you don’t already know about that finale by now (and for God’s sake stop reading at this point if you don’t – or at least consider yourself warned), Quentin essentially alters the ending of World War II (European theater, anyway). He has his “basterds” successfully infiltrate and blow up a movie theater attended by Adolf Hitler and all of his top brass. End of the Nazi power structure, in one neat and clean stroke.
Now, Quentin seems to always find a way to smuggle audacious scenes or plot developments into his movies and make them work. But even for him, this is a doozy – and I’m hard-pressed to explain why it doesn’t bother me. It should, shouldn’t it? I should at least feel – shouldn’t I? – that the Academy should have snubbed the script at Oscar time, withholding a nomination as penalty for such a blatant crime against history.
I mean, it’s not like the film does anything “intelligent” with this re-write of the facts – like use it as a springboard to create an alternative history, such as many sci-fi stories do. No, it simply uses it as an action climax – deciding that the defeat of the Nazis deserves a bigger bang for the modern cineplex crowd. Makes you wonder how a “Die Hard” film where John McClane single-handedly averts the 9/11 terrorist attacks would play. Or another World War II thriller where daring undercover American operatives kidnap Emperor Hirohito and ransom him for Japan’s surrender – thus ending the conflict in the Pacific without need for America’s A-bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But hey, if we’re gonna re-write here, let’s re-write something that REALLY calls out for it. Tarantino himself would be the ideal candidate, in fact, to write and direct “The Passion of the Christ, Volume 2″. You know, the one where Jesus rises after three days to go on a bloody rampage against all those who set him up and sold him out? I mean, come on! – the actions of Uma Thurman’s Bride would be as nothing compared to the supernatural Wrath of God shit that Jesus Christ would have at his disposal to reign down (to say nothing of the six years of FX and CGI improvements that QT would have at HIS disposal to portray all of it). And it would finally give the Gospels the dramatic action finale they’ve been crying out for, for the last 2,000 years.
But perhaps I overstate. Maybe the reason “Inglourious Basterds” does not inspire (or warrant) outrage about its ending is that, even though Tarantino altered the facts, he didn’t alter the outcome. After all, he doesn’t make the Nazis WIN the war, does he? And he even takes care to set the main action of the story late in the conflict – close enough to the REAL end to make an audience member plausibly say “Ok, the Nazis are just a matter of months from losing anyway — this isn’t a SERIOUS breach of history . . . ah, what the hell, let’s just give it to him. OK, in Quentin’s universe this is how the war ended – I can live with that.”
In which case, here are a few alterations of my own I’d like to suggest to any would-be makers of historical epics. They wouldn’t change anything drastically – just simply allow the documented outcomes to “play” a little better, movie-wise:
* “Washington’s Last Stand” – This could be an exciting, emotionally stirring movie about George Washington coming out of retirement to lead American forces against the British in the War of 1812. True, Washington had actually been dead for thirteen years at the time, but that shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a surefire hit narrative. Think of it: Washington in his old age, having already served his country nobly as warrior, statesman and president, is roused out of the civilian comfort he has so justly earned by yet another British invasion. Reluctantly, but with grim determination, he laces his boots up one last time and repels the limey hordes once again, dying gloriously on the field of battle. Not a dry eye in the house – guaranteed!
* “Inglourious Coloreds” – We all know (don’t we?) that the South was eventually brought to its knees in the Civil War by the scorched earth campaign of General Tecumseh Sherman – his famous “March To the Sea” (from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia) destroyed all Southern property in its wake. It was a savage, bloody campaign which applied the concept of “total war” for perhaps the first time in American military history. And wouldn’t it make a cool movie for it to instead be waged by an all-BLACK regiment of soldiers? We know – if not from history, then certainly from the movie “Glory” – that such regiments existed by the end of the conflict. Why not set it up so that the powers that be decide to set one loose to wreak maximum carnage: The South laid waste by the very people it had been enslaving! “I want me some Confederate scalps!” I can practically hear Brad Pitt exclaiming to his charges, as the defiant General Sherman himself. Throw in Samuel Jackson as well as a cool posse of rappers-turned-thespians as the soldiers and you’ve got yourself a crossover hit of massive proportions.
* “Reagan’s Heroes” – No one’s ever made a movie about the end of the Cold War – and no one ever will. Know why? There’s nothing sexy about it. No final climactic event to really send things out with a bang and get audiences cheering. Oh sure, there’s the Berlin Wall coming down – but then, America didn’t really have anything to do with that. Or did we? Suppose we’d actually sent in a crack team of covert operatives – a secret team recruited by Ronald Reagan himself before he left office – to slip in behind East German lines, act as agitators, and get the populace riled up enough to push for a final breakthrough. Sounds plausible to me. Or at least entertaining.
As you can see, history truly has so many wonderful stories for filmmakers to tell. And these increase exponentially if they allow themselves the freedom of not being constrained by the facts. Thanks again, Quentin for showing us the way!
SPOILER – Seth Rogen wears a Green Coat.
So I’m a big Superhero guy. I like comics, but more than that I like Superhero movies. I was at “Ghost Rider” opening night and I’ve seen “Elektra” more times than most people have forgotten it was made.
But there’s something that hasn’t made sense for a long time. Back when 1989’s “Batman” made many teens like myself take craps in their tight-rolled Bugle Boys Hollywood got the hint, we wanted to see some Superheroes dammit. So what did they roll out in the few years that came after it? “The Rocketeer”, “Dick Tracy”, “The Shadow”, and “The Phantom”. Did their statistics somehow show that Grandpas were what made “Batman” so popular? What no Lone Ranger movie?
Not that I was complaining, the last Superhero movie prior to “Batman” was “Superman IV”, I was happy to have any. But is it just me or are the above-mentioned heroes and The Green Hornet not special in any way? I love watching the 1966 Green Hornet, but it was made before America knew how to be entertained. The concept literally is “a guy in a Green Coat stops thefts.” Substitute “Rocket” for “Green Coat” and you have The Rocketeer. Substitute “Rocket” for Purple Suit and you have Syfy’s newest tv show, The Phantom. Yes, just like the movie from the 90’s with the premise that could only be described as exotic and fascinating by an Amish guy. “A guy in a Purple suit who people thought died stops criminals who go to all the trouble of going to the jungle he lives in.”
All superheroes are good for me, but I really don’t get the fascination with these old fart radio drama heroes, and Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet? Is that the weirdest career left turn you’ve heard since “A League of Their Own” somehow signaled to Hollywood that Geena Davis might make a good Pirate. Seth Rogen? The pot guy? I always saw him as more of a Doc Savage: Man Of Bronze type.
One of the most tired arguments as to why someone didn’t like a movie is to say, “The book was better.” I have never understood this argument. I mean that literally; I do not understand what this argument even means.
A movie is a story communicated through visuals and audio, and with the exception of the occasional Mel Gibson indulgence, requires little to no reading. A book is a story which is entirely dependent on reading (if you don’t count those cheaters who listen to audio books). Comparing the two media is like saying, “I liked the painting but the opera was better.” It’s like comparing apples and an heirloom pendant of an orange.
Full disclosure: I don’t read fiction because I don’t like reading fiction. I prefer to get my fiction in the form of movies. That being said, the argument still holds because the premise underlying the statement “The book was better” is that somehow the two media are competing to best communicate a story. They’re not in competition any more than a Hemingway book can take the place of actually going to the sea.
Movies and books both communicate a story but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Yes, a book is better at giving you a richer description of the psychological motivations of a character. Yes, you’re a genius if you can read a Tom Clancy book versus the rest of us morons who prefer listening to Sean Connery’s Scottish-Russian accent. But movies aren’t trying to be a book. If they were, you would just have frame after frame of words and you wouldn’t have to mess around with all that unnecessary artistic direction, music score, set design, cinematography and editing which makes movie-making so cumbersome.
I love the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”. It was so good that I actually read the book afterward. But while I was reading the book I wasn’t criticizing it for not being visual enough (although a “Silence of the Lambs” picture book might be a fun addition to any family’s book shelf).
The only reason people like saying “The book was better” is because they want the pat on the back that they read. What strikes me as funny about that though is that people are usually bragging about a book like “Twilight” or “Harry Potter”, not exactly modern equivalents to “Finnegan’s Wake”.
So, okay book-readers, here’s your official pat on the back from all of us movie lovers. Now here’s a much harder whack on your head to get you to snap out of your snobbery and realize that movies don’t want to be books any more than books want to be movies.
Making an indie film is incredibly difficult. There is an insurmountable amount of cash that has to be raised, no one is paid what they are worth, plus, getting the schedules of people working (for free) to line up is nearly impossible. Furthermore, since you aren’t paying anyone, you must have a script that is good enough so people will believe in it. Then once it is made, the first question every distribution company rep asks is “Do you have any nudity in it?” When you respond “No”, they lose interest at an exponential rate. This spells utter disaster for the film unless it wins an absurd amount of awards, thus making it difficult for the average indie watcher to ever see the film and, consequently, the target audience for the film will most likely never see it. (You know, the audience that doesn’t want nudity in their films.) (I’m not sure if these people really exist.) (They might be in Canada.)
BUT (and we are talking a Rosie O’Donnell-sized but here), despite these many setbacks, sometimes a DVD may happen to fall into the hands of someone who still appreciates the value of such a film. Such is the case with “Drawing With Chalk”.
Todd Giglio stars, writes, produces, and directs (but if you’ve ever made an indie film, then you know the person leading the group does about 1000 more jobs as well) this wonderfully relatable film. As he puts it, it’s a “midlife coming of age story”. It is aptly described. It’s not a “wow” film, but an “I thoroughly enjoyed that” film in the style of “Dave” or “Waitress”. But, for me, it was even closer to home (not that I have an Indian wife and some kids). Anyone who is past thirty and still pursuing “the Hollywood dream” can relate to this story. Though not titled as an autobiography, this film pinpoints the tribulations of such hopefuls. We’ve never given up the dream, the passion, but in trying to marry the oddity of “pursuing the dream” with the normalcy of “I’m married and raising a child”, we find the many trials we must overcome. Hearing our families telling us to give up and get a real job, finding out our trusted spouses don’t truly believe in our ability.
And the non-artists, OH THE NON-ARTISTS, you know who they are, the ones who think entertainers aren’t really entertainers unless the whole world has heard of them. The ones who talk during plays because they don’t see real people on stage, they see a television, or, as in “Drawing With Chalk”, the ones who “think live music is just background noise”. (Is this review turning into a rant?) (HELL YES!) But, I’m ranting to make my point (a point that the people I want to make it to, will never understand because they are NON-ARTISTS)! You know exactly who I’m referring to. They are the idiots who don’t ever have their phone on silent! I saw “Next to Normal” on Broadway, and in the middle of a performance, the cell phone of a woman four seats away from me went off. Not only had she disregarded the numerous announcements to silence it, but after it went off (full volume), SHE ANSWERED IT!!!! I scolded her to put it away. Unhappily, she did, yet for some reason I’m the one who got the dirty looks from her grandchild.
But, I’ve digressed.
Anyway, as I was saying, it is those trials that Todd Giglio’s character Jay must deal with (effing non-artists). And it leads us to the question that we all must ask…how long can I pursue the dream? How much am I willing to sacrifice? Can I live in the house I grew up in, in the Midwest, for a few years? Can I survive a manual labor job or deal with my traditional Indian wife’s family looking down on me? Can I tolerate one more argument about how playing a gig is (yes, fun) but also hard work, too, and just because I enjoy it, doesn’t mean I can’t be too tired the next morning to resurface the porch, and oh by the way, I’ve never put down anyone pursuing a career as a doctor. Yes, I know it takes a very long time and yes, I know its grueling hours, day after day, but don’t demean us musicians! JESUS!~!@!
All right, now that I’ve had a smoke I feel better. (And by a smoke, I don’t mean a cigarette, I mean fifteen minutes of yoga, centering my chi, followed by a ½ dozen celery sticks) (I feel better and I will continue).
Such are the questions (approximately) we are all forced to face. And such are the answers found in “Drawing With Chalk”. The film is more than just a struggle of a man, but an allegory that all can learn from. Without giving away the ending, it presents us with a happy (?) compromise. For all of us that pursue the dream, either under thirty or over thirty (though I know those of you under thirty think, “if I haven’t made it by the time I’m thirty, I’m out. I’m not going to be an over-thirty loser”) (Well, just you wait and see you little expletives) (It happens to you easier than you think)… But, Todd Giglio’s character… (NO. In fact, I dare you under-thirties to have a condo near the beach and still struggle and strive at your day job to pursue the dream. I dare you to keep it going. After all, it is SOOOOOOO EEEEEEEAAAASSSSSYYYYY!) …sorry, back to the review.
If you have the chance, I highly recommend this film. It’s made with a personal touch that brings the specificity of our lead character’s turmoil to a universal level where all of us feel/relate to the joy, anguish, and resolution. While so many indie films fall short of the precision acting required for film, this entire cast is excellent. Particular kudos go out to Christopher Springer for his portrayal as the protagonist’s friend Matt, whose unrewarded life has caused him to disregard the plausibility of dreams, but secretly, he still feels Jay is his only chance, if it is possible at all. The beautiful Pooja Kumar plays the likable and supportive wife, who is tolerant of her husband’s “failures” until it is too much to bear. This is to say nothing of the impressive filmmaking displayed here. The story very accurately captures the pros and cons of a married artist’s everyday life. The good and bad are subtlety weaved into the fabric of this touching, angering, and true-to-life story. All and all, Todd Giglio shows he is a solid filmmaker. Distribution agents should line up to meet him, if not for the appeal of this film, then at least, to get first shot at his next, larger project. I anxiously await it and hope he is rewarded for his hard work on “Drawing with Chalk”. And to you a-holes who don’t bother to see high-level filmmaking displayed in this lovely tale, I’d like to see you make a better film, THEN we’ll talk. Until then, I’m heading to the gym to blow off some steam and prepare for our encounter. Idiots, beware.
Editor’s note: Justin Bowler is not a musician nor does he own a porch.
“Drawing With Chalk” is available at Indiepix.
Directed by: Todd Giglio
Rated: No Rating
Distributor: Drawing Chalk Pictures
“Official Rejection” is an entertaining and enlightening look at the world of “independent” film festivals that all independent filmmakers MUST see!
I watch a decent amount of documentaries. They are mostly the big ones, the ones Netflix recommends and the ones my wife brings home (so, yes, I’ve seen more about pageants and dance competitions than I care to review) (As if I don’t get enough of that stuff from the TV that I have to watch… I mean LIKE to watch with my adorable wife). “Official Rejection” is one that I was asked to watch. And I’m glad I was. “Official Rejection” is an entertaining and enlightening look at the world of “independent” film festivals. It achieves what the perfect documentary should achieve: insightful revelations, combined with excellent narrative, and solid filmmaking. It is not only entertaining and enlightening, but also, the subject matter is of vital import to new filmmakers. Every student of film should be required to watch this movie. The documentary follows Scott Storm and his production team on their journey through the film festival circuit with their feature film “Ten ‘til Noon”. Through their story, you see the real “criteria”, politics, backroom dealings, triumphs and tragedies of the independent scene.
Scott Storm is a director with a finished feature film called “Ten ‘til Noon.” He’s very happy with it. His cast and crew are happy with it. All of his friends are happy with it. It has strong sexual content, nudity, violence and language. And it was shot on film to boot! Basically, it has all the stuff you want from a film. But, for some reason, he can’t get it into a film festival. Why? So, the story begins.
This documentary is incredibly informative. It provides an in-depth look into the inner mechanics of how many of these film festivals work. It gives a realistic look at what new, and even old, filmmakers can expect from the film festival circuit: the relentless rejection, the ongoing expenses, and the wear and tear on the personal lives of the filmmakers (and their significant others). From interviews with fellow filmmakers to programmers and film screeners, Scott seeks to find out why certain movies get picked and others do not. Are all the submitted films watched? “Of course they are” says one former screener, as he goes on to completely negate that answer. Following that logic, another filmmaker suggests intentionally sending blank screener discs to the festivals to make sure the screeners actually try to watch them. If they contact you (and that is a GIGANTIC “IF”), then you know they tried, and now you have just set yourself apart from the other 1000 submissions (because THEY contacted YOU). Is that what it takes to get into a festival? Apparently.
While investigating and informing, Scott and his team poke fun at themselves and the system. In one segment, the filmmakers illustrate the problem with many festivals: movies are not accepted unless they have big stars. Determined not to make that mistake with this documentary, instantly, the filmmakers cut to their own interviews with well known names like Bryan Singer (yeah that one, Bryan “I made ‘The Usual Suspects’” Singer), Kevin Smith (yup, Kevin Smith, Mr. Independent film himself, Kevin “I effing made ‘Clerks’” Smith) (which is really cooler than Bryan Singer in my opinion), and Traci Lords (yes, that’s right, I said it, TRACI LORDS, Mrs. Traci “I made a lot of underage porn” Lords). (And she is not just naked this time; she has something to say about… something). (This is actually a smart maneuver on the filmmaker’s part, since putting her in the credits makes one wonder if there is nudity in this documentary. Ahh yes, the distribution angle. I like it.) (Well does she get naked? You will have to watch the movie to find out. I don’t want to destroy this brilliant marketing idea from the filmmakers.)
This is first rate filmmaking. Documentaries are not an easy animal to tame. You usually have far more footage than you need. Then you must decide which aspect of the story to really focus on. From there you must still present it in a format that others will actually find entertaining or compelling enough to watch (that’s typically the biggest challenge). Director Paul Osborne, Scott Storm and their team make it look easy. From comedic moments to poignant moments, to truly outraging moments (mostly dealing with unbelievable idiocy from idiotic idiots), the film carefully tells the story of its heroes who are, like so many filmmakers, ordinary people with extraordinary dreams. I would like to say that the film satisfies in the end, but, and this may be a test of the filmmakers to see if I ACTUALLY watched the film, (and to answer your question, YES I DID), unfortunately, my screener died ten minutes from the end of the documentary (NICE TRY GUYS!). So, if there is a bittersweet catharsis, I did not get to experience it; rather I was left with my empathetic angst that was forming from the film’s final conflict.
Three days later, the filmmakers got me another copy, “swearing” it was not intentional . The end of the film provides exactly the optimistic POV we hope for. It’s fulfilling and moving while still realistic.
Overall, as I said, it is a truly entertaining and informative film. Every future, educated, daring, or wannabe filmmaker needs to see what the road ahead looks like. The downside is, for the filmmakers of “Official Rejection” (and I’m sure they have thought of this), though they made an excellent documentary (with stars, this time) (and maybe some nudity from them) (no, I’m not talking about Kevin Smith, that would be gross), the antagonists of their movie are the very people who hold the keys to the festivals they wish to be accepted to (truly, a poetic irony). I say, Scott and Paul, you and your balls of steel need to submit to every film festival you can. But, as you do, you need to make a sequel to your documentary that chronicles the story of “Official Rejection”’s official rejections. Yes, I realize that is a lot of money to spend, but it must be done. (By the way, I’m typically very passionate when it comes to spending other people’s money). Your target audience needs to see your film! The good news is… they will actively seek it out, when they hear about it. (I’m glad I could help spread the word.) (Keep up the fight!)
3 stars for the average person.
3.5 stars for filmmakers. Find it, watch it, learn from it, and revolt.
Until it gets wide release, here is where you can see “Official Rejection” in 2010:
- Los Angeles United Film Festival, Friday, April 30th @ 9:45pm
Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, 1822 Vermont Ave., LA
And until they make they make a film documenting their rejections, you can follow the festivals “Official Rejection” DOES get into here.
Directed by: Paul Osborne
Rated: No Rating
Distributor: Conspicuous Pictures
Hollywood films are rarely made by a small production team; rather, they are the product of a dozen producers, bowing to the whims of the major production company heads. Of course, their interests lie in the many ancillary aspects of the “film world”. Because these companies are so big, they worry about pleasing (or more importantly, not offending) every person on the planet. This is merely a business decision: the bigger the company (Sony), the larger the chance one of their other non-movie products (cell phones with pretty colors) would be marketed to someone (Jane Christian-woman) that would have nothing to do with an artistic film, no matter how good it was (District 9). But, that giant corporate production or distribution company (Universal) must water down (or strip completely) any major film (The Wolfman) so it no longer has anything interesting (let alone artistic) to it at all (Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Feces). Why can’t there be both (The Empire Strikes Back)? Well, those production companies (20th Century) are more concerned with hiring people who think like market-eers, instead of filmmakers (George Lucas).
Thank God that we have fantastic indie films that don’t have to cower to the whims of the Great and All-Powerful Oz-es of the film world (Michael Eisner). So, we can enjoy solid films (Ten ‘til Noon), made with skillful and unconventional storytelling (Ten ‘til Noon), like Scott Storm’s crime thriller Ten ‘til Noon (Ten ‘til Noon).
Though this film had a rough time on the festival circuit (see the documentary “Official Rejection” for further details), this movie has everything that true movie fans want: intrigue (violence), high production value (nudity), and excellent story telling (actual thought that is put into the script). Told in a nonlinear fashion about a series of events that all take place at the exact same time (11:50 am (ten minutes until noon)), this film keeps you engaged and wanting more at every given turn (though it’s acting is a little rough at times). I would compare it to a good episode of the series “Lost”, except this writer (Paul Osborne), understands how to write a third act (he actually answers the questions that he raises) (That’s right, I said it, J.J. Abrams doesn’t write 3rd acts, he just extends (repeats) acts 1 and 2 over and over (and over and over and over and over again)) (Look for more on that rant somewhere in future reviews).
I’m a fan of unconventional storytelling as long as it is done for a purpose (Pulp Fiction) and done well (Pulp Fiction). Scott Storm (director) and Paul Osborne (writer) achieve both. There are several traps in this script that a lesser team would have been caught in. (And by “lesser team”, I mean any aforementioned Hollywood big machine producer or market-eer.) For example, without giving anything away, if “Ten ‘til Noon” were a Hollywood film, the gay man would have been an over-the-top flamboyant stereotype and the kickass gun-for-hire wouldn’t have been a female. Additionally, the Hollywood machine almost never (Pulp Fiction being one of the exceptions, because it was laced with well known faces) allows this kind of unconventional movie making. Similar to Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock, Storm and Osborne kill off major characters that, as an audience member, you have invested in and care about. Furthermore, like the Coen Bros, some of their important deaths occur off-screen.
The script is solid and so is the filmmaking. I would, however, love to see these two team up with a really talented, but well known, cast so the rest of the world could appreciate them as much as I do. Sadly, until that day, I’m afraid the Hollywood machine won’t let them in. This film is too unconventional for them, which is why it had so much trouble finding its way. (Once again, see the documentary “Official Rejection” for further details). But, stealing the cast members from any Coen Bros. or Quentin Tarantino film would yield some amazing results.
Even though I give this film high marks, it is not without folly. As I mentioned, two members of the very talented ensemble are not the caliber of the rest and overact a bit. Additionally, I’m not a fan of the last ten minutes of the film. Seemingly shot as an afterthought, in the middle of the credits a “denouement” takes place that I not only found unnecessary, but also done without the care and skill that the rest of the movie had. So, I recommend watching this fantastic film until the credits and then turn off your DVD player. Now, I only say this because the rest of the film was done so well that the bar is simply too high for the last scene. In a lesser movie the final scene would have been acceptable, but with the skillful storytelling exemplified in everything before the credits, the final scene just doesn’t seem to fit. But, overall, I say Definitely SEE IT! (And then see “Official Rejection”) (Then watch “Ten ‘til Noon” again).
I give it 3.5 stars.
“Ten ’til Noon” is available on Netflix.
Directed by: Scott Storm
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Distributor: Shut Up & Shoot Pictures
THIS ARTICLE OBVIOUSLY CONTAINS SPOILERS
Have you ever been watching a movie and thought to yourself, “I could have come up with a better ending than that!”. Or maybe you say to your friends afterward “This movie was alright, I guess, but it was way too long. That second sub-plot could have been cut entirely and the whole thing would have been so much tighter.” We all have these thoughts from time to time about the movies we see. Bad films could be made at least palatable, good films great, and great films – well, even greater . . . if only someone had asked YOU for an opinion of the script before it went before the cameras.
There is nothing so frustrating as the film that ALMOST works. You want to love it, or at least like it – but something about it keeps it from being complete or fully satisfying. Now, no one is going to give you a couple million dollars and unlimited access so that you can go away and fix what needs fixing. But that doesn’t mean you have to simply resign yourself to its flaws, either – not anymore. Why? Because The Movie Guys website exists, dammit – and is the perfect forum for film geeks of all stripes to put their two cents in, and by God we’re going to USE it!
And if we’re going to have the audacity to “fix” a film in the first place, there’s no point pussy-footing around on the margins. Might as well shoot straight for the top with a classic. So here we go with re-writing a classic! Today’s pick . . .
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Now, first off, there’s no question that “The Silence of the Lambs” is fully worthy of its “classic” status. It is truly one of the great horror/thriller movies of the past twenty years (yes, movie buffs – next February it will celebrate its 20th anniversary). The story of FBI Agent Clarice Starling’s pursuit of the serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb is gripping from start to finish, and fires simultaneously on the twin cylinders of ferocious, white-knuckle suspense as well as a fully engaging character study. Clarice’s fierce intelligence and drive, her struggles as a woman in a man’s world, and her emotional need to protect the innocent and helpless are grippingly presented, and serve to fuel and complement an already compelling, well-plotted tale.
As everyone knows, the heart of the movie is the cat-and-mouse chess match of wits between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. It’s interesting, in fact, how Lecter is largely recalled as the “bad guy” of this film, rather than Buffalo Bill. That speaks, of course, to both how well his character is written, and how wonderfully embodied he is by Anthony Hopkins. But it also leaves one to wonder – why ISN’T Buffalo Bill more memorable? This is, after all, a guy who keeps women imprisoned in a dungeon, starves them, and flays them alive – certainly acts as horrific as those attributed to Lecter. And for all that, what do we really remember about this guy? Next to nothing, save for him dancing in front of the mirror with his willie tucked between his legs. It seems to me that the film tossed away an opportunity to deliver us TWO of the creepiest movie monsters of all time, and it settled for just one.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER?
And yet, the second-class status of Buffalo Bill is not what I’m concerned with here. Because I have a bigger bone to pick with this movie. For, to my way of thinking, sitting at the center of this otherwise masterfully conceived and plotted film is a glaring structural flaw that cries out for redress. I’m talking here of Lecter’s escape from custody. Now, the scene itself is crackerjack: creepy, tension-filled, and with a payoff that makes you jump right out of your skin (pun, ahem, intended). As far as execution goes, it’s probably the single best scene in a movie full of great scenes. Only problem is, it has no reason to exist.
That’s right – Lecter’s escape is an absolute waste of time in story terms; it serves as a show-off moment for everyone involved at the expense of moving the film forward. It serves no purpose in the larger picture because Lecter himself plays no role in the rest of the plot. This is a problem for a character of his stature. His character SHOULD play a role in how the film turns out – he’s too important not to – and I know how it could have been accomplished.
SEEING THE LIGHT
So picture this with me now – the final, climactic showdown between Clarice and Jame Gumb, in the crazy man’s basement. The room has just gone dark, and we see Buffalo Bill putting on his night goggles (damn, but this is still one of the most frighteningly intense sequences I have ever witnessed in a movie – such pure, unadulterated terror!). Oh no, we think – Clarice has had it. He’s got the jump on her, there’s no way she can defeat him now.
All at once, the lights flip on (we don’t know how), she sees Gumb with a gun pointed at her and she shoots. Gets him! As she’s busy handcuffing him and removing his gun, checking his wounds, etc. the camera does a slow pan around the room, then through the hallway, past the pit where the girl is screaming, up. . . up. . . up to the very top of the stairs, where a man’s hand rests upon the light switch. Pull back to see it is Lecter. He smirks knowingly to himself, makes a small flourish while putting on his panama hat, then closes the door and leaves. The rest of the movie – including the final phone conversation between Lecter and Clarice – plays out exactly the same.
Now, this change takes away none of Clarice’s bravery or heroism, or her brilliant detective work in getting to Gumb’s house in the first place. It just provides her a little bit of extra help (from above, as it were) And it’s a type of “help” that’s totally in keeping with Lecter’s character to provide: he’s not going down in the basement to fight alongside her, after all – there’s nothing decisive in his switching on of the lights; it’s still Clarice’s fight to lose or win. But, as with all their previous encounters, he’s going to give her a little positive push in the right direction, because . . . well, because he kind of likes her, and he considers it sporting to help her a bit (at least, up to a point). And it’s totally the type of controlling, patriarchal thing he’d do.
Now, as to how to establish he was there in the first place, and as to how he would know just the right MOMENT to flip that switch, let’s do some backtracking: Earlier in the sequence, have some establishing shots of Clarice walking around the town, being spied upon through the inside of a car, whose owner we never see. At first, we think it might be Gumb (although the smarter of us also ask, “Hey – Clarice isn’t big and fat like the other girls he goes after, so why would he be interested in her? Unless it’s someone else. . .”). The concluding event in the basement would establish that it had been LECTER, all along, who had been tailing Clarice – acting as a creepy sort of guardian angel. This would break no rules, as it’s clearly understood Lecter knows who Bill really is, and so of course would know the right town to go to. The perfect-ness of the timing in the actual switching on of the light is a thriller conceit that we would buy if everything else was in place. (After all, the way the sequence actually DOES end, with Clarice hearing Bill’s gun cocking, is a bit of hokum in and of itself.)
So there you go. That’s what I would do to convert “The Silence of the Lambs” from a Great movie into a PERFECT movie. And a gentle beginning to this feature on the website too, because I don’t have to run the film into the ground in the process of making it better. Not so with the next “classic” I have in my sights: Alfred Hitchcock’s unjustly lauded “Vertigo” – a fuckup of a movie if ever there was one. But oh how it could have been great . . .
“The Silence of the Lambs” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
The Academy Awards are upon us, and to mix things up, there are TEN Best Picture nominees this year. Which means we have the always-exciting five nominees not worth including. This move is important to ABC and the attempt to get higher ratings, it’s not a creative decision to reward more films. A cynical view, I know, but it’s the equivalent of making the baseball All-Star game determine World Series home field advantage.
We never asked for it.
But, if they’re gonna play that game, then my annual Top Ten of the Year will show you where they went wrong, and where I went right (in my humble opinion…). Read on!
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009:
(with links to original reviews, where applicable)
The lists feel weird this year, as most critics think it was a weak year and “not so great” movies made it on the lists. I think it was a weird year because so many of the best films were wide-audience entertainments. You rarely see that, and I think critics take great pleasure in holding art-house fare sacred and heaping praise on movies you’ve never heard of so they can feel smart. But what if the most popular movies were some of the best? Then you have 2009.
10. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY – It doesn’t seem like a movie made on such a small budget should be alongside big Hollywood films, but if your project sets out to achieve something and NAILS it, you win. Oren Peli’s small-time horror film delivers big-time scares and held my attention a hell of a lot longer than “An Education”, “Invictus” or other ‘prestigious’ fare. Newcomer lead actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston anchor the film with effortless realism. The film deals with a spirit that’s haunting a young couple as they sleep and the genius stroke of the film is when each night arrives, you never know what’s gonna happen. Eventually, the mere change of scene to the couples’ darkened bedroom brings dread. You can’t stop watching.
Click here for full-length review.
9. WATCHMEN – Not the first of very polarizing films that made my Top 10. The ‘unfilmable’ graphic novel was brought to contentious life by Zack Snyder, keeping the unflinching look at the future and the challenging nature of the superhero in tact. It’s a shame Alan Moore despises Hollywood so much, ‘cause after screwing up the first two films based on his work (“From Hell”, “LXG”), “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen” reverse that trend and get it right. But not before Moore removed his name from all Tinseltown adaptations of his writing. Is “Watchmen” perfect? No. But it shot higher than most adventure movies this year and provided for some of the year’s most memorable images, ripped right from the comic – Rorschach’s unsettling prison stay, Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian destroying Vietnam and Richard Nixon leading the U.S. in his fourth term. “Watchmen” is about old superheroes searching for the killer of one of their own, and along the way, the viewer can soak in buckets of blood, style, and heavy, adult themes. I’m not stupid, and I thank Snyder for being such a fanboy that he made “Watchmen” with the proper reverence that it requires a smart audience. KILLER opening credits, too. Perhaps the best ever.
8. THE MESSENGER – What? There was a SECOND Iraq War movie this year? In the shadow of “The Hurt Locker”, this great, personal drama never found a decent-sized audience, but certainly delivered the goods. Ben Foster showed the promise of a great career in “3:10 to Yuma”, and with more roles like Will Montgomery in “The Messenger”, I will be following everything he does. Will is a broken man, beaten and changed by war, and upon returning, he accompanies Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) in casualty notification duties. Harrelson also shines as a tough yet vulnerable veteran of this undesirable duty. From Samantha Morton to the smallest role on screen, EVERYONE is good. Some unknown actors with one scene left me in tears. So, unknown no more, I say – Peter Friedman and Halley Feiffer. “The Messenger” also goes into great detail about the rules and protocol in notifying loved ones of the loss of soldiers in Iraq. That information is just as fascinating and well-told as the relationships.
7. UP IN THE AIR – We’ve said it numerous times in print and on video at themovieguys.net, George Clooney is the most interesting actor out there. You are guaranteed something worth watching when he’s in a movie. After a couple of cornball comedies, “Up in the Air” is the PERFECT movie for Clooney, his best performance since “Michael Clayton”. The story of a loner corporate hatchet man who comes face-to-face with a romance and his job’s technological future, it’s refreshingly, unapologetically ADULT, never stooping to dopey jokes about the characters’ situations or pushing some hot newcomer into an awkward relationship with our star. Instead we get the sexy maturity of Vera Farmiga as a fellow traveler and a great performance from Anna Kendrick as the thorn in Clooney’s side. Jason Reitman joins Pixar and Alexander Payne as one of those rare filmmakers who’s never made a bad film. And despite the topic (corporate downsizing), it’s funnier than you’d think.
6. NINE – My other polarizing Top 10 pick. Actually, it may not be so polarizing. I think everyone else hated it. But, I can’t deny the old-school musical pleasures I got out of watching and Italian movie director lout named Guido confront his female muses and decide whether he even WANTS redemption or not. Rob Marshall is off to direct the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, but his strength, evidenced here and in “Chicago”, is reigning over a wide canopy of a story with inventive and energetic musical numbers. The ‘dream cabaret’ conceit, used so well in “Chicago” is used again here, and although perhaps not as fresh, it’s an idea that lends itself to the story as the movie set returns over and over again to explore the themes in Guido’s world. Slick production, great music, dynamite cast, sexy as hell, this movie is just cool, man.
Click here for full-length review.
5. BLACK DYNAMITE – Year after year there’s room in my Top 10 for the funniest movie of the year. After a second viewing, this year’s entry may be one of the funniest movies of all time. “Black Dynamite” is a send-up of the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, and all you need to know going in is that The Man killed Black Dynamite’s brother, and now Black Dynamite’s gonna make all those jive turkeys pay. A tour-de-force for star/co-writer Michael Jai White, there’s not a scene in “Black Dynamite” that isn’t out-and-out hilarious, by going either ridiculous or straight-faced or both. Released at a time when Hollywood shits out self-referential garbage like “Epic Movie” and “Meet the Spartans”, “Dyamite” reminds you of how to get it done. You can’t just mention Paris Hilton and expect to get a laugh. And “Black Dynamite” has a great ending, not just the outrageous final scene, but also the entire third act yields some of the biggest laughs in the film, the same time most comedies are dying out. If you see a listing for this movie as a midnight screening anywhere, GO. It’s the kind of film that will bring people back over and over again.
Click here for full-length review.
4. STAR TREK – Man, did this seem like a bad idea on paper. If there’s one franchise, outside of “Star Wars” or “The Godfather” that just don’t look like can be re-done, it’s the genial space-tripping utopian thrill of the “Star Trek” universe. But in the hands of J.J. Abrams, this re-boot not only vaults the franchise into a new hi-tech arena, but makes all the old relationships fresh again. Where do the writers of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “The Island” get off making a script so thorough that it hits on ALL counts (action, romance, intelligence, humor, sci-fi) where previous scripts couldn’t successfully cover ONE of those themes? This latest “Trek” concerns a Romulan warship on a fierce quest to hunt down Mr. Spock, and there are LOTS of time travel concerns, normally the kiss of death for sci-fi franchises when they should just keep it simple, but “Star Trek” NAILS it, keeping you thinking AND entertained at the same time. Imagine that. So as you can tell from this mini-review, “Star Trek” isn’t so much a movie that provides fantastic entertainment as it is a film that avoided all the obvious traps in front of it and flourished. And a HORDE of critics heaped praise on this film when it was released in May, but for some reason by year’s end, they want to appear more cultured, rewarding something like “Precious”. Make no mistake, “Star Trek” is easily one of the year’s best.
Click here for full-length review.
3. THE HURT LOCKER – Well done, Kathryn Bigelow. Yes, it’s the director of “Point Break” that has put together the best film yet on the Iraq War. I think the debate is over now as to whether it’s “too soon” to make Iraq War movies. This unnecessary occupation has lumbered on for 8+ years now. “Apocalypse Now” came out four years after the Vietnam conflict ended, and I think any opinion about the Iraq War is worth putting up on screen. As even-handed and more-or-less non-political as “The Hurt Locker” seems (it’s the story of an IED-diffusing team that seeks out explosives in the cities of Iraq), the mere depiction of our soldiers as walking targets that could be offed by anyone, anytime suggests that the Iraq conflict is not a war. A war is a conflict between two groups. “The Hurt Locker”’s Iraq, as laid out by been-there screenwriter Mark Boal, is the devil’s playground, an unstable, dangerous country where our soldier’s mission is unclear and our servicemen balance grief, fear, anger and exhilaration on a daily basis, and it’s riveting. Jeremy Renner is great as a sergeant who’s addicted to the danger, causing a sticky relationship with his fellow soldiers. To him, war is a drug. I found “The Hurt Locker” just as addictive.
Click here for full-length review.
2. UP – Annual Top 10 list resident Pixar is back again. There isn’t an emotion out there that isn’t present at some time in “Up”, a fantastically unique animated masterpiece from writer/directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. 78-year old Carl Fredricksen sets out to visit the wilds of South America and encounters an adventure he didn’t plan. I have the feeling, fifteen years into Pixar’s brilliant streak of critically-acclaimed blockbusters, that you could give them ANY plot (a shoe and a lemon run for the same State Senate seat, an old barn wants nothing more than to sing showtunes, a can of soda re-thinks the health risks he might be providing people), and they know just what to do. They’ll add their trademark humor when necessary, there will be dizzying action scenes, memorable music, and the highest quality animation that buries the studios that have followed in their wake. “Up” has all that, plus an emotional foundation more effective than half of this year’s dramas. “Up” is one of the decade’s true originals.
Click here for full-length review.
1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – A second viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s audacious World War II extravaganza locked it into the top spot of 2009’s best films. At first look, I was drawn in by QT’s bravado and was entertained as hell. Upon second look, I saw the specific, authoritative control of a master at work, and was duly IMPRESSED. It’s no secret that Quentin will emulate the filmmaking techniques of some of the greats when necessary. He brandishes that like a code of honor. He loves old movies. SO DO I. So, when he borrows from Leone for some great shots at the beginning of the film, or uses the music from “The Battle of Algiers”, I’m right there, it’s fun. But when it’s time to get down to business in this movie, he wastes no time and no line of dialogue is frivolous. This is evident in the opening scene, the brilliant “Operation Kino” tavern sequence and the fantastic scene with Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz over a strudel. “Wait for the cream!”. Whereas “Death Proof”’s characters talked and talked and talked for no reason, the payoff of all these scenes (or, ‘the cream’) is very satisfying. There are enough intriguing and interesting stories and relationships in “Inglourious Basterds” to fill four lesser films. “Basterds” juggles them all into a vibrant, intense storyline leading to a blazing, cinematic spectacle of a finale that manages to be both wildly fulfilling and thought-provoking. Tarantino is back on track.
Click here for full-length review.
AVATAR – James Cameron, although not delivering too much new in the way of themes, is one of the best action-movie directors EVER. The finale of this 3-D adventure is literally unbelievable.
DISTRICT 9 – A great sci-fi/horror movie where the humans are the monsters.
DUPLICITY – Not Top 10-worthy, but MUCH better than it’s tiny box office would lead you to believe. From “Michael Clayton” writer/director Tony Gilroy, it’s a smart (perhaps too smart), funny look at the evils of corporatism.
FUNNY PEOPLE – Not all the drama works here, but right when it seems to be going south, something funny happens. Then something else funny. Judd Apatow is just funny.
THE HANGOVER – Not as funny as “Black Dynamite”, but pretty damn good!
THE INFORMANT! – This movie deserved more love from critics and audiences. Steven Soderbergh employs all the right cinematic tricks to tell the story of a whistle blower that’s hard to like but impossible to stop watching.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG – More good news from the Disney/Pixar merger. Their 2-D animation department has been overhauled by John Lasseter, too, and this movie fits right in with the new classic years of Disney’s 1990s animation.
THE WORST OF 2009:
I’ll admit right out of the gate that some movies were so bad I didn’t even see them – “Old Dogs”, “G-Force” and “Bride Wars”, for example. But of the bad stuff that did eat up two hours of my life, here’s what stunk:
G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA – What has happened to action movies? When “Star Trek” or “District 9” are out there, why do we need this? And Stephen Sommers has never, ever, ever, ever, ever made a good film. Go ahead, imdb the guy. NEVER MADE A FILM WORTH WATCHING.
THE LOVELY BONES – A total misfire for Peter Jackson. Quick, take back the reins of “The Hobbit”.
NINJA ASSASSIN – Of course this was bad. Now “John Woo’s Ninja Assassin” or “Jet Li’s Ninja Assassin” might’ve had a chance.
PIRATE RADIO – More depressing than bad ‘cause Richard Curtis can do so much better than this convoluted comedy.
THE ROAD – I heard it was a good book, but this father/son wasteland adventure story had NO POINT.
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN – One of the worst things to look at that I’ve ever seen. Like, I don’t even care was was happening, I couldn’t LOOK at it.
YEAR ONE – Unfortunately, comedy wasn’t invented till year two.
And, since 2009 brings the decade to a close, my
TOP TEN FILMS OF THE 2000s:
10. IN AMERICA – Jim Sheridan’s Irish-family-in-New-York-City story is his most personal film yet. And his most effective in years.
9. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 – Changing the landscape of what a film can be and what a film can do, a brilliant cry for revolution from the cheap seats.
8. JUNEBUG – Keep it simple, and wonderful things happen. Phil Morrison’s slow, superb North Carolina drama will catch you off guard.
7. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK – There’s not a bad frame in George Clooney’s period work of genius with great performances throughout and modern-day resonance.
6. CHICAGO – An exhilarating musical comedy that stands among the best movie musicals ever. Makes me wanna take up jazz and liquor.
5. SIDEWAYS – My favorite relationship of the decade is Miles and Jack in this hilarious comedy. Even when it’s a downer, it’s hilarious.
4. MICHAEL CLAYTON – Right now, there’s nothing more relevant than corporate criminals. This film will anger you and get your panties in a bunch. Not just ‘cause Clooney’s in it.
3. THE DARK KNIGHT – Christopher Nolan’s crime story is so compelling, you almost forget it’s a superhero story, too. But both angles of this bleak, complex work are equally handled with a master’s touch.
2. UNITED 93 – Eight years after 9/11, I hope everyone can finally give Paul Greengrass’ excellent film a viewing. Emotional and aggravating, it’s a riveting film showcasing great work from an unknown cast.
1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – A thematically OVERWHELMING piece of work from The Coen Brothers. This movie has sparked hour-long conversations every week since I saw it three years ago. The writing, cinematography, acting, sense of place and time and direction are flawless. It’s suspenseful and endlessly provocative. Brilliant.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney, “Up In The Air”
Colin Firth, “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman, “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”
Glaring Omission: I thought Michael Stuhlbarg had a shot here. Since “A Serious Man” got a Best Picture nomination, I thought maybe it’s main character would get some love, too. Plus he had some previous nominations. Maybe Robert Downey, Jr., because of his Golden Globe win, but I don’t see “Sherlock Holmes” standing up next to the more prestigious films represented here.
Runners-up: Matt Damon in “The Informant!”. He is so weasely, and deftly handles the mountain of stories he has to tell to frustrate the hell out of Scott Bakula (there was nothing more fun to watch Bakula’s slow burn). Ben Foster in “The Messenger” was every bit as good as Woody Harrelson, and I would’ve nominated him here over Morgan Freeman, who is essentially doing his man-of-respect thing. James McAvoy continues to be good in nearly everything he does, same can be said for “The Last Station”, but he’s clearly outdone by his supporting cast legends Mirren and Plummer.
Great Inclusion: Jeremy Renner, for his out-of-nowhere manic energy performance in “The Hurt Locker”.
Will win: Jeff Bridges. But at least it’s a good performance for a career win.
Should win: They’re describing the race as between Bridges and Renner, but this is one of Clooney’s best performances to date. To me, that’s a pretty brutal three-way race from which to have to pick a winner. I’m going with Renner, because Bridges’ Bad Blake visits familiar territory for a movie about a musician, and Clooney is so well-cast, it’s mostly his personality at work, without a huge stretch. That leaves Renner to win in my book, from the toughest category to pick such a thing.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Matt Damon, “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer, “The Last Station”
Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones”
Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
Glaring Omission: Alec Baldwin for “It’s Complicated”. Man, I thought that movie blew, but there was talk, and I thought that talk might be enough to keep this Emmy darling in the Oscar hunt.
Runners-up: Is it possible to nominate Christopher Johnson to be nominated from “District 9”? I felt more for him, rooted him and understood his horrible situation more than, say, Matt Damon in “Invictus”. Christopher Johnson, Best Supporting Actor, I like the sound of that. Also, this could be the Stanley Tucci category, as his turn as Mr. Child from “Julie & Julia” was quite good, too. Being the “Watchmen”-lover that I am, count me in for a Jackie Earle Haley Best Supporting Actor nod. He brought the complicated Rorschach to life with vivid energy and was a blast to watch.
Great Inclusion: Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones”. Horrible movie, with a transformative performance by Tucci, you just want him to burn.
Will win: Christoph Waltz, the most sure thing of the evening.
Should win: Waltz. Col. Hans Landa will be an enduring cinematic figure for years in the vein of Anton Chigurh and The Joker, former winners here.
Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren, “The Last Station”
Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”
Glaring Omission: This is pretty much how the list was expected to turn out. One nod people thought might happen is Meryl going up against herself in “It’s Complicated”. But again, that movie was crap, so I’m thankful that’s not happening. Did Zoe Saldana have a shot here for “Avatar”? We’ve yet to see an animated performance, whether vocal or screen-captured, be Oscar-nominated. This came close to being worthy, but there’s too much relying on the post-production of her performance to nominate it.
Runners-up: Marion Cotillard in “Nine”. It’s pretty much an ensemble cast, but since she has two songs, maybe Marion can get upgraded to this category for a heartbreaking performance. Audrey Tatou was very engaging as Coco Chanel in “Coco Before Chanel”, playing the span of years well and the quiet desire to come out from under man’s thumb and stake her claim in the fashion world.
Great Inclusion: Helen Mirren, “The Last Station”. A firestorm of wild emotion, her take on Countess Sofia Tolstoy was a wonder.
Will win: Bullock, for stepping up to the plate and making us forget “Premonition” and “The Lake House” even came out.
Should win: Here’s another case where the race is supposedly between Bullock and Streep, and they’ve been trading awards leading up to The Oscars. But as sharp as Bullock was and as good an impersonation as Streep did, Helen Mirren is a force to be reckoned with in “The Last Station”. Her character evokes sympathy, then does something to deny you that feeling. She’s playful, then heartbroken, so all over the map and BELIEVABLE in every compass point, she takes it if I were giving them out. Sorry, Sandra. Hopefully this role is the start of streak.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Penelope Cruz, “Nine”
Vera Farmiga, “Up In The Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick, “Up In The Air”
Glaring Omission: More than a glaring omission in this category is a glaring inclusion – Maggie Gyllenhaal, who hasn’t been nominated for any other major awards up to The Oscars for “Crazy Heart”. Yet, here she is. Who does that leave in the lurch? Probably Julianne Moore for “A Single Man”. The Academy is dying to give her an award, but timing hasn’t been on her side.
Runners-up: Diane Kruger was SAG-Award nominated for “Inglourious Basterds” and rightfully so, I might’ve slid her in there before Gyllenhaal. Kruger was funny, tough and fearful at all the right times.
Great Inclusion: Penelope Cruz in “Nine”. An otherwise critically-trashed movie got a teency amount of love from The Academy with Cruz’ nomination. She’s sexy and pathetic at the same time, reminding me that I didn’t like Cruz at all just three years ago, but she’s on a roll now.
Will win: Mo’Nique
Should win: I’m gritting my teeth here, but I’m gonna go with Mo’Nique, too. The abusive parent role isn’t all that new but she delivers the fearful goods. Her connection to the material late in the film and the dark places she goes showing vulnerability in her monologues are pretty impressive. Mo’Nique.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and The Frog
The Secret of Kells
Glaring Omission: “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”, which seemed to be out solely to have some fun with 3D, but was in the end a little more substantial. It was, however, outdone by what must’ve been a hell of a marketing campaign to push “The Secret of Kells”, a movie no one reading this has seen. And you won’t see it before Oscar night.
Runners-up: “9” perhaps? Let’s be honest, though. That wasn’t too great. Disney brought 2-D animation back to life this year, but when 2-D was phased out, it wasn’t doing well. Perhaps 3-D animation is getting a little saturated, too? There seemed to be a lot of animated releases this year, but only five worth nominating. “Planet 51”, anyone? UGH.
Great Inclusion: Two more nominees! Expanding this category was actually worth doing. Previous years only saw three nominees, but that never made sense to me. This year squeezed out five nominees, hopefully future years won’t have to try so hard, but there should be five total.
Will win: “Up”, probably the second lock of the night, behind Christoph Waltz
Should win: “Up”. Pixar leads this category all year long, they lead it Oscar night, too.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria
Glaring Omission: “A Single Man”, nominated for a Golden Globe. The “Mad Men” team nailed the period of “A Single Man”, but it seems Oscar certainly seemed to be more entranced by time periods not close to current day or our current world.
Runners-up: “District 9”. As it is, thanks to “Black Hawk Down”, “Blood Diamond”, “Hotel Rwanda” and more, I won’t be going to Africa. “District 9” will keep me away, too, and it’s not even REAL. Nice work. Am I the only one who thought the goofy banks in “The International” were a lot of fun? That coupled with the destruction of the Guggenheim at least gets you think of a nom.
Great Inclusion: “Nine”. The huge film set and all its various uses alone should get the nomination, then throw in all the gorgeous Italian locations and it’s a done deal.
Will win: “Avatar”, in a run on tech awards.
Should win: “Avatar” probably should win, but am I an old fart to not be so impressed with what computers can do as opposed to what can be created in terms of a tangible world in which the characters interact? But with no “District 9” on the radar, I guess “Avatar”, but I’m not saying that enthusiastically.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
The White Ribbon
Glaring Omission: Eric Steelberg’s work on “Up in the Air” seems like the kind of solid camera-work that The Academy loves. Thought I’d see that nominated here.
Runners-up: The “Watchmen” lovefest continues. Larry Fong’s work here was hypnotic and fed Zack Snyder’s vision well. Dion Beebe made “Nine” look like an Italian wet dream, lush, gorgeous and seductive.
Great Inclusion: “Inglourious Basterds”. Robert Richardson is one of the best shooters in the last 25 years, he made “Basterds” and “Kill Bill” look awesome. Special shout-out to “Avatar”. A friend of mine said he was impressed that the computer-animated sections of the film look as if they were “shot” by a camera in an environment. I concur, nice work in pulling off that effect.
Will win: I’m admittedly undereducated here. I missed “The White Ribbon”, but will predict its win because it won the Cinematographer’s Guild Award
Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”. Some kind of award has to be given out to a movie that has the “Giant Face” in it.
Coco before Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria
Glaring Omission: “A Single Man”. Um, this movie was directed by Tom Ford, who has made a career out of FASHION. No nomination here’s gotta sting for him.
Runners-up: C’mon, Academy! “Brüno” was wall-to-wall giant, gay, glorious costumes! “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” was such a lousy film, anything should replace that here. How’s about “The Hurt Locker”, which had no partnership with actual military to make its film, yet the uniforms of the soldiers look very authentic? And the “Watchmen” lovefest continues, as Michael Wilkinson built garb for our heroes that suited what fans of the comic remember, and they had lots of fun with the period superheroes, too. “Public Enemies” also nailed the gangster look of Dillinger.
Great Inclusion: “Nine”, not just because of my love of the film, but every year this category gets hooked on period pieces or fantasy films, and I always wanna show love to flicks as close to my time period as possible. “Nine” was a great representation of 1960s Europe mixed with luxurious musical theater dress.
Will win: “Coco Before Chanel”
Should win: “Coco Before Chanel”. Matching Chanel’s wardrobe is a tall order, and they stepped up to it.
James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up In The Air
Glaring Omission: This is the first year where I can’t rant that a Best Picture nominee doesn’t have an accompanying Best Director nomination. They did cover their bases by having ten nominees this year, but still I can’t help think that the Academy gets so used to nominating Clint Eastwood every year that they’d just do it, whether “Invictus” was nominated or not.
Runners-up: If you saw my Top 10 of ’09, you can get the idea who I think should be recognized here. I’d pull Lee Daniels and replace him with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson of “Up”. “Up” required more imagination to pull off, and I always applaud that.
Great Inclusion: James Cameron, “Avatar”. The magnitude of work required to pull off that film is staggering and time-consuming. He did it.
Will win: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”. She’ll squeak out a win past Cameron on the heels of her DGA win and it’ll be history-making, the first woman Best Director winner.
Should win: Tarantino. Sorry, history, QT’s made the year’s best film.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home
Glaring Omission: “Capitalism: A Love Story”. Three of these nominated films are high-profile and I was surprised to see the two other less-heard-of movies get the nod over Michael Moore. I also thought the emotional push of “Michael Jackson’s This is It” would get it a nod. But it’s not a great documentary, although it’s a unique concert film.
Runners-up: I was a fan of Moore’s movie
Great Inclusion: I think the race is between “The Cove” and “Food, Inc.”
Will win: “The Cove”
Should win: Flip a coin, but I think the world knows our food is bad and it’s killing us, we just don’t care. “The Cove” can enlighten people about something new. I’m going with “The Cove”
China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Music by Prudence
Rabbit à la Berlin
Um….next. Haven’t seen ‘em. Good luck, nominees!
The Hurt Locker
Glaring Omission: Look, “Avatar” is pretty much an animated film, so why not nominate Editor’s Guild Award winner “Up’? The Carl/Ellie relationship montage alone edited to the brilliant Michael Giacchino score could win the award.
Runners-up: “Star Trek”, with crazy-exciting action scenes. Editing around the lens flares alone is award-worthy. “Up in the Air”, with all of the scenes that cut along with Clooney’s monologues. I especially like the descriptions of how he flies while barely breaking pace in the airport. “Nine” cut together spectacular musical numbers, often sliding between the real world and the musical numbers fluidly.
Great Inclusion: “Avatar”, it’s tough to cut footage that doesn’t exist in the real world.
Will win: ACE winner “The Hurt Locker”
Should win: “The Hurt Locker”, barely beating out “Inglourious Basterds”. “Locker” built scenes of vital suspense that worked very well, thanks in part to the editors.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
El Secretro de sus Ojo, Argentina
The Milk of Sorrow, Peru
Un Prophete, France
The White Ribbon, Germany
Um….next. Haven’t seen ‘em. Good luck, nominees!
The Young Victoria
Glaring Omission: TWO MORE NOMINEES! I say this every year. There’s worthwhile work out there. I’ll mention it next.
Runners-up: How’s about “The Road”? Can’t be easy to cover people in grime every day and be continuous with it. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” – half the characters in this movie look bugged out – Wormtail, Dumbledore, etc.
Great Inclusion: “Star Trek”. Year after year this franchise is chock full ‘o’ nuts – Romulans, Vulcans, etc…
Will win: “Star Trek”
Should win: “Star Trek”, the most flamboyant choice, the others are mostly age makeup.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Glaring Omission: “STAR TREK”!!! Michael Giacchino is represented here for “Up”, which is great. But his “Star Trek” score is phenomenal, a throwback to blaring trumpets and pounding timpanis and a very memorable theme. This is one of the second best score of the year, being bested only by himself for “Up”, it’s a crime it’s not nominated. Once upon a time, the latest “Harry Potter” film would be in this category. That was when John Williams or Patrick Doyle waved the baton. Now, with Nicholas Hooper, the most memorable part of the score is still Williams’ original theme. I also thought Randy Newman had a shot with his jazz score for “The Princess and the Frog”, but the songs may have been more memorable than the score. I also thought Marvin Hamlisch had a good chance of being nominated for his throwback score to “The Informant!”. It was a good year for film scores.
Runners-up: I like everything listed above. Did I mention the “Star Trek” score was great? I also liked Karen O and Carter Burwell’s score for “Where the Wild Things Are”, a movie that underwhelmed me, but the score captured the feel of the whimsical childhood imagination. I hope Burwell wins an Oscar one day.
Great Inclusion: “Up”
Will win: “Up”
Should win: “Up”. Not only is it the year’s best score, but this will be payback for criminally neglecting to nominate Giacchino’s awesome score for “The Incredibles” a few years back.
Almost There, The Princess and the Frog
Down in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog
Loin de Paname, Paris 36
Take It All, Nine
The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart
Glaring Omission: I thought, even though it’s not a stand-out song, that the Academy would nominate I Want to Come Home from “Everybody’s Fine”, just to get a live performance out of writer/performer Paul McCartney at The Oscars.
Runners-up: “Cinema Italiano”. Outside of Be Italian, this new song is the most memorable song from the film, based on the original Maury Yeston musical, and the number in the film is staged great.
Great Inclusion: Take it all from “Nine”. This is a situation for me where I don’t even remember much how this song goes, but the delivery of it in the movie is most memorable, with Marion Cotillard baring it all to her husband, showing the pain and passion of their relationship.
Will win: The Weary Kind
Should win: The Weary Kind from “Crazy Heart”. Almost There is the standout from “The Princess and the Frog”, but The Weary Kind embodies the whole film “Crazy Heart”. In fact, the title alone could be Bad Blake’s nickname.
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up In The Air
Glaring Omission: I thought going to ten nominees would allow The Academy to go with Clint again, but “Invictus” didn’t get the love.
Runners-up: Check my Top 10. Pull “Avatar”, “The Blind Side”, “District 9”, “An Education”, “Precious” and “A Serious Man”, add “Star Trek”, “Black Dynamite”, “Watchmen”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Nine” and “The Messenger”. It looks weird, but it’s a hell of a Top 10.
Great Inclusion: Even though it just missed my Top 10, how cool is it to see dark, violent, bloody mess “District 9” represented? That’s cool.
Will win: “The Hurt Locker” sprints ahead of “Avatar”. “The Hurt Locker” won the Editor’s, Writer’s, Director’s and Producer’s Guild Awards. If “Avatar” still wins, it’ll be an upset at this point. But hey, $700 million in box office for “Avatar”? Everybody wins.
Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)
A Matter of Loaf and Death
Glaring Omission: “PRESTO”!!! How can Pixar’s BRILLIANT magician/bunny showdown go unnoticed. “Presto” was one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year, hilarious and lovingly detailed and crisply paced. It would’ve made Tex Avery proud.
Runners-up: See “Presto”
Great Inclusion: “A Matter of Loaf and Death”. Anything Aardman touches is super entertaining, and this is a new Wallace & Gromit short!
Will win: “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, a hilarious short about a grandma reading the classic story to her grandson, and slanting the story to become a treatise about how pretty people get everything handed to them.
Should win: “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, and I think the race is between “Granny” and “Loaf”, but the Wallace & Gromit shorts may have peaked too early, and the frantic pace of action and gags may not come as fast in this short as they did in, say, “The Wrong Trousers”, allowing fresh newcomer Granny to win. I’d agree, by a hair.
LIVE ACTION SHORT
Instead of Abracadabra
The New Tenants
Glaring Omission: Not sure what else was out there
Runners-up: Not sure what else was out there
Great inclusion: “Miracle Fish”, an Australian drama with a slow reveal and shocking ending making the first five minutes of deliberate pace and style worth it.
Will win: “The Door”, ‘cause it panders to all the stuffy things that make Academy voters feel important – period (1980s), drama (Chernobyl), foreign content (Russian location, Irish film), and culture.
Should win: It’s great to see “Instead of Abracadabra” here, a loose and fun comedy about a rather lame magician. Fun and easy, it’s a total winner about potentially undesirable people. I’m rooting for it to upend the more serious fare.
The Hurt Locker
Glaring Omission: “District 9”, perhaps? Any movie introducing new sci-fi elements and plausibly editing them is deserving of a nomination, but I can’t think of anything you’d remove from this nominee list to make room!
Runners-up: “Nine”, the blistering songs of Maury Yeston matched with the bedlam of the Italian film scene made for an overwhelming aural experience. I don’t care what you say, that’s a great sentence.
Great Inclusion: “Up”. I’m always a fan of animated films making this cut, ‘cause NO SOUND IN THIS MOVIE IS NATURALLY BORN. It’s all edited in the final cut. Brilliant work, here.
Will win: “Avatar”, keeping its tech sweep alive
Should win: “Up”
The Hurt Locker
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Glaring Omission: “Up”, just ‘cause “Transformers 2” is a horrible, horrible movie and needs to not be Oscar-nominated…with that in mind, you could nominate “The Blind Side” here, a perfectly mediocre movie whose nomination won’t be as embarrassing as recognizing “Transformers 2” for anything.
Runners-up: “District 9”, “Nine”, “Watchmen”
Great Inclusion: “The Hurt Locker”, in a category mostly dominated by action movies, same goes for the “Basterds”
Will win: “Avatar”
Should win: “Avatar”, ‘cause if you create a world visually, you have to create it audibly, too.
Glaring Omission: Here’s a year when five nominees are necessary. There were TONS of great effects all over Hollywood this year – “Where the Wild Things” are seamlessly blended the Henson puppets and CGI. “2012”: it’s a shocking upset to see that film passed over. Whatever you think of the dopey-ness of that popcorn trash, the destruction of the world was pretty impressive to see. How about “The Lovely Bones”? The afterlife didn’t make any sense but it was good to look at. Wait, I just talked myself out of that one..
Runners-up: “Wild Things”, plus “Watchmen” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”
Great Inclusion: “District 9”, the effects were one of a number of things that made that film unique
Will win: “Avatar”
Should win: “Avatar”. If Cameron isn’t recognized for tackling an enormous task, then the category’s a joke.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
In The Loop
Up In The Air
Glaring Omission: Nothing really ‘glaring’ here, but I thought Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach would get a nod for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, the Academy loves them. Instead, “In the Loop” snuck in.
Runners-up: “Star Trek”, for taking an old property and making it more fresh than ever, and “Watchmen”, for paring down a massive graphic novel, and making it palatable.
Great Inclusion: “District 9”. This ridiculously original idea needed to be rewarded (the feature script is based on the filmmaker’s short)
Will win: “Up in the Air”, a fine choice
Should win: “Up in the Air”. The only thing wrong with this adaptation is that this book about corporate downsizing and straining economy was written nine years ago, but it still relevant…
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Glaring Omission: I thought maybe here that “(500) Days of Summer” would find it’s one nomination of the night, but not so, they went with “The Messenger”.
Runners-up: I would crap myself if “Black Dynamite” got nominated. It’s funnier than anything else nominated, does that mean anything?
Great Inclusion: “A Serious Man”. ALWAYS nominate the Coens
Will win: “The Hurt Locker”, the war movie.
Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”, taking the war movie and turning it upside down.
Well, there you have it. There’s a rant for you. Share it, print it out, and by all means, if you disagree, LET US KNOW. I’m not entirely right. Just mostly…
And the producers of The Oscars this year are taking steps to trim down this year’s broadcast. Was the first step to add five more Best Picture nominees? Good luck with that…
Best Supporting Actress:
Who should win: Mo’Nique
Who will win: Mo’Nique
In a year of as many close to sure-things as any year in recent memory, this is perhaps the easiest call. Mo’Nique was absolutely stunning as the damaged mother of the title character. Her culminating scene with Mariah Carey and Gabourey Sidibe was a thing of beauty, even as it displayed the character’s deep ugliness. Anna Kendrick was excellent in “Up In The Air”, but Mo’Nique was just about perfect in “Precious”.
Best Supporting Actor:
Who should win: Stanley Tucci
Who will win: Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz has run the table with the awards leading up to the Oscars, and for good reason. His deft, subtle precision made for many riveting moments during an uneven film. However, Stanley Tucci’s performance as the child-murderer in “The Lovely Bones” was creepier and more visceral. It’s no crime if Christoph Waltz wins this award… he certainly deserves it too. For my money, though, I have Stanley Tucci’s performance just a touch deeper.
Who should win: Meryl Streep
Who will win: Sandra Bullock
Sandra Bullock was a bright spot in this otherwise cartoonishly middling film. Try as she could, she couldn’t raise the proceedings to her level. In fact, as the movie wears on, it seemed as if the whole endeavor wore her performance down. When Meryl’s around, the bar is set high, and for all of Sandra’s effort, I still feel Meryl had the better showing. Again, it’s not a tragedy if Sandra wins. However, all things considered, Meryl’s level of work is just a bit higher.
Who should win: Jeff Bridges
Who will win: Jeff Bridges
In the second-easiest to call category, Jeff Bridges is almost certain to take home the statue. Academy voters love a tale of redemption from an admired veteran. Bridges isn’t getting a free pass here, though, as he certainly deserves the award. George Clooney, Colin Firth and Jeremy Renner all essentially cancel each other out as dark horses in this category… each likely to siphon off an equal number of votes, none likely to unseat Bridges.
Best Animated Feature Film:
Who should win: Up
Who will win: Up
In any other year, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” would be the front-runner. Visually, it’s a bit more interesting… at least less obvious… than “Up”. However, “Up” is a complete picture and no slouch as a nominee. If it lacks anything in the sense that it fits easily into the “formula” of the Pixar canon, it makes up for it in story and humor. This category possibly has the largest chance for an upset, but that chance is small by usual standards. “Up” deserves the award, and is likely to take it home.
Best Original Screenplay:
Who should win: “A Serious Man”
Who will win: “Inglorious Basterds”
The Academy voters will likely want to find a way to give Tarantino his due for this film, and this may be the easiest way. “Up” and “The Hurt Locker” give “Basterds” some stiff competition, but I’ll take the rich, lumpy Coen Brothers piece over either of them. This category is a tight race. Don’t bet the house on any of these scripts.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Who should win: “Up In The Air”
Who will win: “Precious”
This is a three-horse race. “District 9″ also has a shot, although I suspect that film’s outsider status (made in South Africa) might unfortunately keep it from getting as fair a shake. “Up In The Ai”r was an excellent film which somehow doesn’t seem to be the front-runner in any category. This may be its best chance to take home a statue, but in the end, I expect “Precious” to prevail.
Who should win: Jason Reitman
Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow is the favorite for this category, and certainly could take the Oscar. James Cameron has a chance too, and after having seen the “making of” special for “Avatar”, I can certainly understand why. I’m in the Jason Reitman camp for many reasons, from his shot-selection to the performances he managed from his actors. The deciding factor here, not that Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t deserve the award on the merits of her work, may be that this award has never been won by a woman. In a tight race, that extra push of recognition is likely to cement the win for Bigelow.
Who should win: “Up In The Air”
Who will win: “Avatar”
“The Hurt Locker”, “Up”, and “Precious” all have a shot in this category. “Up In The Air” does as well. However, “Avatar” isn’t going home empty-handed, and it’s hard to argue with a $700 million in domestic box office gross. Those people buying tickets have voted with their pocket books, and the Academy is likely to take note. Purely looking at the films, frankly I don’t see “Avatar” as in the same class as the others. It’s visually stunning but only a so-so story, without any great performances. Cameron certainly did his job as the director of this film, but ultimately it doesn’t have the weight of the others. “Up In The Air” isn’t a vastly superior movies to the other close contenders, but I liked it better than any of them. In the end, what is this all but just a big popularity contest anyway?
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.
Funny Farm (1988)
Now, admittedly, I saw this during a period of my life when I believed Chevy Chase could do no wrong (I have since come to my senses), but even so, this is one that holds up, and was unfairly lambasted by the critics. From the ads (if you can even remember that far back!), this looked like it was just going to be a “Vacation” rip-off, sort of “The Griswolds Move To the Country.” Believe me, the humor in this film is much more sly and more charming than anything in the “Vacation” pictures (of which the first is a classic, the second and fourth abysmal, and the third one has its moments).The film is about a sportswriter (Chase) who quits his job in order to move out to the country with his wife (the wonderful Madolyn Smith) and write the Great American Novel. The movie details his gradual comeuppance, as he realizes that neither country living nor his talent is all that it’s cracked up to be.
The film wonderfully skews the convention of the innocent country rubes moving to the big city and being overwhelmed by its meanness and craziness. Here, it’s the cityfolk who move wide-eyed to the country – and are amazed to find there a roll call of crazies, misanthropes, and just plain weirdos. Does this view of rural life have any basis in reality? Probably not, but then the film isn’t really trying to be a satire but instead a pure lunatic comic fantasy. And it gives us a rich array of supporting characters – from the town sheriff who travels by cab because he flunked his driving test, to the Mad Max-like mailman who refuses to stop or slow his vehicle in order to make his deliveries, and even the little old lady who runs the local antique shop, yet who seems to be selling nothing but her own family heirlooms. All these characters are priceless, and the film just keeps coming up with more and more of them – until it has created this pleasantly bizarre and warped Otherworld, of a kind that only comedy can truly provide.
Best of all is the way in which Chase and Smith react to all of this and try to make some sense of it. I very clearly say “Chase and Smith” because the film belongs equally to both of them. It had to be billed as a Chevy Chase Comedy, of course, since he’s the big star here, but this is no star trip; from the very first, the wife is made an equal partner in the trials and the laughs, and it’s the way the two go through their new life together that provides much of the comedy. It also helps take the edge off of the usual Chevy Chase persona: in “Funny Farm”, he’s neither glib and disinterested nor over-the-top silly. He comes across instead like a normal, personable guy who just finds himself caught in insane circumstances.
Finally, the climactic sequence of the film – wherein the townspeople respond positively to a bribe forcing them to put aside their various peccadilloes in order to replicate a bogus “Norman Rockwell” presentation of small-town life – is one of the most brilliantly sustained comic set-pieces you’ll see in any movie, of any era. Funny Farm is the type of movie which gives you a great time and leaves you with a big, dopey grin on your face after it’s all over. Even if you don’t normally like Chevy Chase, you should not have a hard time loving this movie.
I’m not normally a fan of Oliver Stone, but this movie just blew me away. The reason I usually don’t like Stone is that, though he is a great technical director and visual stylist, his scripts are generally heavy-handed and one-sided to the point of absurdity. But not here. In fact, the script is perhaps the most impressive element in this whole movie, not only for how ambiguous and even-handed it is in dealing with Nixon as a character, but also for the brilliant way it moves around in time. It starts with Nixon, feeling embattled in the White House in 1973 as the Watergate hearings are upon him, and uses the device of him listening to his secret tapes to jump back and forth to previous eras, flawlessly moving between past and present to give an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic overview of the man’s life, instead of following the staid and ho-hum linear approach most movie biographies take. You know what I’m talking about – the “this happened … and then this happened” approach which makes the biopic about the most boring type of movie Hollywood produces. (Obviously, for those of you out there who don’t think so, you can probably disregard this review – it’s not meant for you!)
Another reason to see this film is the brilliant, absolutely overwhelming lead performance by Anthony Hopkins; his Nixon may not look or sound exactly like the 37th president (but come on, except maybe for Ed Sullivan, who does?) but he embodies his qualities – strengths as well as weaknesses – to such an enormous degree that he simply BECOMES Nixon, at least for the three hours the movie is on screen.
Cinematically, the film is an absolutely stunning achievement, employing nearly every trick in the filmmaker’s arsenal (montage, quick cuts, sped-up photography, film stock experimentation, etc.). It also contains some interesting stylistic of both “Citizen Kane” (cavernous high ceiling scenes, a “March of Time”-type newsreel on Nixon, a dinner scene between Dick and Pat Nixon set at a long, impersonal table) as well as “The Godfather” (the burnished, half-dark half-light cinematography, several “chamber of power” scenes in tight, dark and claustrophobic rooms) that I found, in context, to be totally appropriate. It paints both Nixon and the times he (and the country) lived through on a grand and mythic scale that was truly awesome and, once again, entirely appropriate. Yes, it’s a film that is at times big, loud and bombastic (because so, after all, was Nixon himself) but, just as often quiet, contemplative and told at an achingly human level. The contrast between these two states is what gives the film a good deal of its overall power and, as I’ve said, I never would have believed that Stone would have been capable of doing the smaller, quieter scenes so well.
This is a good film to own on DVD, in order to go back to again and again. First of all, it’s so long, and so dense with facts, characters and events, that you’re not likely to want to watch it all the way straight through more than once (the first time I saw it was in the theater and though I was held spellbound, I began wishing for an intermission at about the two-hour mark, not so much to stretch my legs but to give my brain a chance to process all I’d seen and heard so far). But the film is so monumentally great, so engrossing and well-acted and visually stylized from scene to scene to scene, that you can pop it in anywhere and have a rich, fully realized cinematic experience. One of the most watched and returned to films in my collection, for sure.
Fierce Creatures (1997)
This film was famously marketed as the “equal” (rather than sequel) to “A Fish Called Wanda”. That is, it was not meant as a continuation of the same characters, but rather featured the same lead actors (John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin), in roughly the same configuration and relation to one another as in the previous film. Ok, now first of all, before even talking about the film itself: how great an idea is this? I love it! I wish more blockbuster films would take this approach: rather than going the sequel route – which usually ends up being an uninspired retread of the original tale, especially with comedies – take the same ACTORS and put them into a different context. This allows for the benefit of originality and familiarity all at once. For instance, how much better than “Ghostbusters II” would it have been to have taken Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson and found some brand new story to house them all, with new characters to play?
And the sad thing is that “Fierce Creatures” showed how well this type of arrangement could work. Certainly, the movie is not as hilarious or memorable as “A Fish Called Wanda” (few films are). But it works better than most sequels do and, as an audience, we come in primed in a way we normally would not be to like and engage with the characters, due to the spillover effect of our pleasant associations from “Wanda”. Beyond that association, the film has going for it an inspired silliness, as well as a sweetness and general good spirit that I find pretty darn hard to resist.
The story itself is rather convoluted, and one could make a fair claim that it seems more a hodge-podge of stitched together ideas than a seamless thru-line. That is so, and yet since it is a hodge-podge of almost entirely good ideas, it’s harder to find fault with. Cleese stars as an ex-cop who is hired by a huge Rupert Murdoch-like conglomerate to run an English zoo that they have picked up in a mergers acquisition. Needless to say, the zoo has absolutely no inherent interest to the company, but they are willing to keep it going if it can return a profit. Cleese plans to do this is by appealing to people’s bloodlust, and only keeping the most dangerous and fearsome of the animals (the “fierce creatures” of the title). Things change somewhat when Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline show up to take over Cleese’s job (but keep him on as an employee). A brainstorm by Kline (playing a character every bit as hilariously slimy and petty as his counterpart in Wanda) introduces the notion of corporate sponsorship into the zoo-going experience. Eventually, all the employees are decked out in animal costumes (like mascots at a “Zoo Land” amusement park), and Kline has even begun the process of introducing animatronic creatures behind the bars. All the while, a budding romance between Cleese and Curtis is playing out behind the scenes, and the two eventually join forces to try and save the zoo from the clutches of the crass and evil conglomerate.
Any one of the comic scenarios the film-makers bring up would be worth exploring to the end. The fact that they cannot seem to keep one satirical conceit going for any stretch, and feel the need to overhaul the plot in a new direction every twenty minutes or so, definitely lessens the impact the movie could have had (and of course stands in marked contrast to the airtight construction of “Wanda”). And yet, for example: just because the writers beg off early on the “fierce creatures” idea doesn’t make it any less hilarious – both as a concept and in execution. The scenes of the kindly zookeepers trying to sell their individual cute little animals as dangerous is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. But then, later, when that concept has been forgotten, and we instead see Kevin Kline leading around a group of potential financial backers, giving them his notions of how corporate sponsorship could work at the zoo . . . well, that’s one of the funniest scenes too. What I’m saying is, though a strong focus is something the film lacks, it makes up for it by filling its running time with enough entertaining and well devised comic moments to make you feel like you got your money’s worth.
The performances help. As in “A Fish Called Wanda”, Jamie Lee Curtis is not particularly noteworthy as an actress or a comedienne, but she gets by on her general sultriness and willingness to play cheerfully along. Most importantly, she keeps out of the way of the big boys and lets them do their stuff. Cleese seems a little moldier here than usual, but there’s still no one who does high-strung fussiness better, and he holds down the screen nicely, particularly in several madcap scenes reminiscent of “Fawlty Towers.” As with Wanda, though, it’s Kevin Kline who really steals the show – this time in a dual role, as the Murdoch-like head of the conglomerate and his stupid slimeball son who has big plans for the zoo (as well as getting into Curtis’s pants). The sheer energy he throws out is infectious, and his ability to “play off” himself – in the scenes between father and son – is nothing short of superb. Blessedly, the dual role bit is revealed as more than just an actor’s stunt by the way the movie is resolved: had Kline not been playing both roles, the movie could never end the way it does. That, too, was a nice touch.
Genial, breezy, good spirted – this is “Fierce Creatures”. Nothing in the masterpiece league but, especially if you’ve seen “A Fish Called Wanda”, it’s a nice evening spent with old friends – with some new and well devised jokes thrown into the mix.
All the above titles are available on DVD. “Nixon” is also available on Blu-Ray.
RANT CONTAINS SPOILERS
“Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are in my Top 10 movies of all time, so in my book, Stanley Kubrick forever has an asterisk next to his name denoting “genius” (his “Lolita” and “Paths of Glory” were none too shabby, either). But right here, with this movie, is where ol’ Stan began – in my mind – to vanish into his own hermetically sealed vault of cinematic pretension and designer, knee-jerk nihilism. The movies he made for the remainder of his life are cold, opaque works that don’t engage on any level, save for an appreciation of the technical artistry they demonstrate: meticulously constructed sarcophagi, where lie entombed the spirit of a once-puckish, daring, and wonderfully alive filmmaker.
At least with “Clockwork”, Stan still retained the power to provoke (he lost even that right after this release) – but he goes about it all wrong, and to extremely dubious ends. I should say upfront that I read the book (by Anthony Burgess) first, and it had a profound effect on me. The first part – which chronicles Alex and the violent, pillaging activities of he and his ‘droogs’ – filled me with such revulsion and hatred, that I took sadistic glee in seeing the ‘reformed’, post-Ludovico Alex get his nasty comeuppance in the second half of the book. However, when the story took its final twist at the end by giving Alex his ‘freedom’ back, I was furious. Here’s a guy who (the narrative makes clear) has learned no lessons or morals from his predicament – who feels no remorse, and will doubtless return to a life of ‘ultraviolence’ as soon as he gets the chance; I was rooting for him to remain a robotic pawn of the state. The book’s fundamental challenge lies just in this: convincing (or at least presenting powerfully to) the reader that even brutes and reprobates such as Alex deserve the dignity of free will, and that there can be no justification for revoking that. (The challenge is, indeed, open-ended – inasmuch as I’m not entirely convinced; after all, isn’t prison a revocation of someone’s ‘free will’, too? Isn’t any form of punishment? But at least the book’s presentation makes it an idea worth wrestling with.)
Kubrick’s mistake, as I see it, is in making Alex such a charming and charismatic figure. In the book, he’s a single-minded brute; he still is in the movie, but by filtering his thoughts through the purring, dulcet tones of Malcom McDowell, and filming even his most violent and heinous acts with pop-art style brio, Kubrick leaves little doubt about his affection for this monster. Further, he does so within the context of making EVERY OTHER SINGLE CHARACTER in the movie a caricatured and annoying drone – so much so, in fact, that it is actually they who become the monsters. Quite a flip from the book.
As such, Kubrick upsets the entire balance of the piece (at least as Burgess envisioned it). We get no sense of Alex’s crimes against humanity – because, in fact, there’s no ‘humanity’ here: only the kind of ciphers and waxwork grotesqueries that would become Kubrick’s definition of ‘character’ for the remainder of his career. Perhaps that’s his point, after all (no doubt it is): that, in fact, under a bogus sense of decorum, society consists of nothing but droning, annoying hypocrites, and there’s no use in spilling a tear for any single one of them. But when you are watching a woman being violently raped and made to feel nothing for her, through a clinical presentation of the act as well as a directorial emphasis upon the playfulness and mischievousness of the perpetrators (the famous “singin’ in the rain” parody), then something rather sick and insidious is going on.
Burgess’ book was written as a warning against the dangers of social engineering, no matter how well-intentioned. Kubrick’s movie plays more as a blatant indictment of humanity as a whole. Its underlying, none-too-subtle message is that in a society so plastic and corroded, only violently murderous free spirits like Alex are truly worth anything: he may not be nice, but at least he’s not dead inside like every other single person on the planet.
Personally, I think the only humanity Kubrick ends up indicting by such an approach is his own. But maybe that’s just me.
“A Clockwork Orange” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
At this point, over sixteen years after its release, Schindler’s List is what it is: it has become a cultural touchstone, and its reputation rightfully precedes it. It certainly has an aura and a cachet that goes beyond any single endeavor to praise or criticize it; therefore, I plan to do neither, but merely to share some of the thoughts I had while watching and then reflecting back upon it. Some will be positive, others negative – but none are meant (or will be able) to diminish what Spielberg has achieved with this movie.
First off, I must say that all the scenes with Schindler himself I found riveting: Liam Neeson – not an actor I usually warm up to very well – was absolutely mesmerizing: he gave the character an authority and a charisma that was totally captivating, while still preserving the basic enigmatic nature of the man. (He reminded me again and again of a young Richard Burton when he was at the top of his game.) The tug-of-war of conscience in the scenes between him and Stern (Ben Kingsley, underplaying nicely) were, though a bit schematic and obvious, nonetheless powerful – no doubt because of the enormity of the topic at hand. Holocaust movies, of course, can very easily get a free pass because of that very enormity, and Schindler’s List is no exception: scenes that might otherwise have seemed simplistic or overplayed are imbued with power because of the context in which they occur.
One scene that stuck out for me, though – and not in a good way – was the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. It is of course a tour-de-force of filmmaking and technical prowess (a foreshadowing, say, of the Normandy Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan), but its reason for being I found suspect. Ostensibly – on the level of the story, anyway – it was there to bring Schindler face to face with the horror and waste of the Nazi policy toward the Jews, and so to suggest a reason why he converted from shameless profiteer and exploiter to Jewish savior.
Except, as such a scene, it doesn’t quite wash. Schindler indeed is displayed as witnessing the liquidation, but from his vantage point – a hill overlooking the ghetto – he would in no way have been able to see the scene in the detail, and in all the different locations, that the movie makes us privy to. No, this scene is designed not to be played before Schindler, but to be played before us, the moviegoers.
So why does that bother me? Well, it seems to me a break in form. A movie that had been, up until that time, focusing narrowly on one man, suddenly opens up to wanting to display the panoply of characters and lives that were directly affected by the Holocaust. Problem is, by adopting such a large-scale approach, no one individual (or family) is able to claim our full attention, and so Spielberg becomes guilty in his own way of `ghetto’-izing the Jews – that is, grouping them together facelessly as victims, rather than showcasing any of their dignity or humanity as individuals.
My bias, I suppose, in films dealing with the Holocaust, is that the enormity of it is just lost on most of us. It’s impossible – unless we lived and survived through it – to do justice to both its scale and its horror. Therefore, a film-maker shouldn’t try. Not that Holocaust-themed films shouldn’t be made; it’s just that, to be honest and effective (not necessarily the same thing – particularly when the artist is Spielberg) they should focus themselves on a small microcosm of it – a family, a person, a survivor – and attempt to suggest the full horrors, through the particulars of that person’s story. Actually trying to show those horrors outright (to put us, as it were, ‘inside’ the Holocaust) is frankly impossible, and I think Spielberg’s ambitions to do so, through this liquidation scene and other similar ones in the movie – are, though perhaps high-minded, ultimately wrong-headed.
But, as I say, when he’s focused narrowly on Schindler himself, the film works wonderfully – and is far more able, in my opinion, to get across the horror and waste of the Holocaust than when it’s concentrating on its big (but impersonal) ‘herd up the Jews’ scenes. The making up of the list itself is extremely powerful in this regard: `More names! More names!’ Schindler demands, and his mania in doing so tells us all we need to know about the absolute desperation of the times (particularly as it comes from a formerly amoral man only interested in himself).
And as such, I must take exception to all those (and there are many) who find the last scene – Schindler’s breakdown – to be completely maudlin and ill-advised, a detriment to an otherwise marvelous motion picture. To me, it was the best scene in the movie. For, in the character’s hysterical insistence that he `could have done more’ – coming on the heels of all the people we saw that he did save – it serves to remind the audience, in absolutely unambiguous terms, that what Oskar Schindler did, though momentous, wasn’t even a drop in the bucket compared to the number of lives taken and/or disrupted by the Holocaust. That this man – driven to bankruptcy and ruin by his (eventual) unceasing efforts to save the Jews – could claim that he `didn’t do enough,’ only shows how much there was to do, and how much of it was left undone. That, to me, is the kind of moment that brings home the enormity of the Holocaust – not the use of hundreds of extras to be herded onto trains and into showers. We can tell ourselves (and be right) that those scenes are fake (staged for the movie). The point made through Schindler’s breakdown at the end is the deepest kind of truth – the kind that never should be forgotten or cast aside.
“Schindler’s List” is available on DVD.
I recently attended the opening night of a film festival that seemed more interested in pleasing their audience with a good lineup than with glitz and hype.
The Los Angeles United Film Festival kicked of April 30th with a pair of features and three shorts, with Q&As and even some giveaways.
The Fest had a kickoff night on Thursday, but Friday yielded a well-put-together comedy and a documentary about film festivals:
And good news for the fest, when I arrived, there was a line:
First up was “Jeffie Was Here”, an uneven comedy, for sure. But it’s got plenty of funny stuff and good performances. Alan, a college professor and his wife travel across country to attend a funeral. To share expenses, they put an ad online for a third traveler. The guy they end up with is as odd as can be and has an agenda.
Alexis Raben plays the wife and she is SO easy to fall in love with. I appreciated the complications filmmaker Todd Edwards threw into the mix, but some of those situations made the husband very unlikeable. This was definitely on purpose and challenging, but in the end the only person I rooted for was Raben’s character. That being said, Jeffie, the unwanted traveler, has some very funny hippie songs and uncomfortable comic moments.
Many members of the cast (including “Heroes”‘ Christine Rose, who kills as Alan’s mother) were on hand for a Q&A:
Edwards also directed one of the shorts that played before “Jeffie Was Here”, a great music video by the band Hanson. It’s a terrific homage to the “Shake Your Tailfeather” scene from “The Blues Brothers”. That short can be seen in full at our page, THE LATEST.
Next up was “Official Rejection”, recently reviewed here on this site, so I won’t go into details about what the movie is about (except to say it’s a documentary about the film festival circuit, and it showcases how frustrating life on that circuit can be). This gave me a chance to ask some follow-up questions to director Paul Osborne.
I imagine that any immediate negative reaction to OFFICIAL REJECTION by some film festivals would be to avoid programming it. Have you gotten responses that have been more insane?
Other than the occasional angry phone call, I’m not aware of any other insane reactions. Now, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been violent outbursts, or incidents of programmers jumping up and down furiously on our screeners or something. It just means I haven’t been privy to it. Who knows what sort of demented, irked actions OFFICIAL REJECTION has inspired behind the scenes at certain festivals.
We got a shit screener of OFFICIAL REJECTION to review the film for our site. What gives?
Ugh, so sorry about that! DVD screeners are horribly unstable. It certainly wasn’t intentional, and we did rush to replace it.
This is true. But I imagine it feeds into one of the things working against the indie filmmaker. How unstable do you find screeners, and what else can be beyond your control that leads to your film’s demise when it comes to being considered for a festival?
DVD screeners are just generally sketchy, but their playability also depends largely on the quality of the programmer’s player. If it’s an older machine, the chances of DVD failure are really high. We had our DVDs burned with high-quality equipment at a proper dub house, so the fact that they freeze as often as they do is quite disturbing. In terms of other things that can bar you from festivals that are beyond your control, I’d say one of the biggest is the mood of the programmer. Those poor souls are plowing through hundreds of submissions, and the state of mind they’re in when they finally pop in your screener can really effect how your film is perceived. Especially, you know, if it’s the fiftieth one of the day and the damn DVD freezes two minutes in. That sucker’ll hit the trash can pretty damn fast.
One of the things I got from OFFICIAL REJECTION is that having a star in your film will get it noticed by programmers. If I have, like, Conrad Bain, is that enough?
Conrad Bain is a very particular celebrity, so I’d say it would depend on what he was doing. For example, if you have him adopting two young black orphans, and then he molests, murders, and eats them, you might be able to really trade in on his fame and get the attention of programmers. Incidentally, if you go for Conrad Bain, you should also get Conrad Janis, because the “two Conrads” are destined to be way bigger than the “two Coreys”.
In that vein, Best Live-Action Short at The Oscars this year went to the only short with a name actor in it (Vincent D’Onofrio). Are the Oscars following suit with the festivals, or vice versa?
I don’t think it’s news that the Oscars are politically influenced. And we’ve seen how the size of an Oscar campaign can influence who ultimately wins. Oscar campaigns cost money, celebrities have money. But the Oscars have never claimed to be about discovering new talent or giving a voice to alternative cinema, so their celebrity mongering is more on point with how they define themselves.
So, would you consider the LA United Film Festival “ballsy” for showing OFFICIAL REJECTION?
I would consider them super-cool for doing so, but I’m not sure how ballsy it is when you consider the context. Los Angeles United is run by filmmakers who program their festival based upon their taste and not because of celebrity content or studio favoritism . The content of our flick fits perfectly into their wheelhouse, so it makes sense for them to program OFFICIAL REJECTION. I have to say, I’ve been really impressed with them. It’s not “just another” film festival in Los Angeles. These guys are running the real deal.
After the screening, Osborne continued the same fever-pitch promotion he did with “Ten ‘Til Noon”, the subject film of “Official Rejection” by handing out one-sheets to the whole audience. He brought up his kids, Film Festival guru Chris Gore (who handed out T-shirts of his own) and filmmaker Blayne Weaver, also featured in “Official Rejection”.
Indies United, indeed.
The LA United Film Festival continues through May 6th at the Loz Feliz 3 Cinemas in L.A., 1822 Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027. The closing night looks great at The Vista Theater in Silverlake: Screening of “The Shark is Still Working”, a documentary about the making of “Jaws”. “Jaws” screenwriter Carl Gottlieb will be on hand to receive an award.
The United Series of Film Festivals runs around the world in New York, London, Tulsa and other cities. For more info, go to their website.
It was quite a week in Los Angeles. LOTS going on. Pearl Jam at the Gibson Amphitheatre, Steve Martin at the Coronet Theater, “August: Osage County” national tour at The Ahmanson Theater downtown, Kathy Griffin, Halloween Horror Nights, MASS HYSTERIA! Well, at least I made it out to geek nirvana for one night…
October 1st was the U.S. premiere of the latest theatrical event from the “Star Wars” juggernaut universe, “Star Wars: In Concert”. An event so big, theaters couldn’t contain it, it’s coming to an ARENA near you.
If you don’t know what this show is, it’s your favorite themes and music from all six “Star Wars” films, played by a live orchestra, all set to super-gorgeous HD clips on a HUGE screen, with lasers, fire and smoke thrown in dramatically now and then for effect. Go here for a look at the stage and more specifics about the cities the show is visiting. Here was my experience:
First of all, like any “Star Wars” fest, you’re greeted by non-commissioned dudes like this:
Beyond the spectacular live show, this event is a good excuse to bring out all the old props and designs from the making of the films. This provides some insight…
…and lots of photo ops:
Godzilla attacks Coruscant!
The Battle Droids were never as menacing as in this picture…
The only thing I had to defend myself with against Darth Vader was my “Force Unleashed” iPhone app.
Gotta be on your guard here. At any moment a nerd could swoop in with a sneak attack.
Here’s a little something I whipped up while waiting for the show to start. I call it “Future Land with Dangling Thingys, Wires and Whatnot”
This still makes me sad.
They had a petting zoo.
On to the show. The voice of James Earl Jones introduced the host (as “A part of the rebel alliance, and a traitor”), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO). He did an admirable job mixing wonder with weight as he delivered summations of the six films’ storylines, leading into the various numbers.
I’ve seen U2 and Eagles at the Honda Center in Anaheim, and it is a decidedly great place to see a concert, if you have to go the Arena route. I’ve found Staples Center very noisy and sometimes distorted, but the symphony at Honda Center sounded top-notch for “Star Wars: In Concert”. They even sounded better than I’ve heard orchestras sound at The Hollywood Bowl. Next week the show moves to the Nokia Theater in downtown L.A.
The Lasers at work!
I’ll freely admit that I’m a prequel-hater. Not that they’re entirely without merit, but they certainly aren’t as much fun as the first three (REASON: NO HAN SOLO). As scenes fall apart or special effects run ridiculously rampant, one thing is consistent – John Williams’ score. The saga-crushing Padme/Anakin love story is atrocious, BUT is accentuated by a brilliant, moving orchestral piece (“Across the Stars”) that can even breathe life into Hayden Christensen. Even Jake Lloyd clips are improved when slow-motion is employed and the dialogue is taken out! And when the prequel clips are strung together quickly, it certainly looks like something important is happening, and that may be the best way to see “Attack of the Clones”.
This orchestra, not any that recorded for the film, but pieced together of excellent musicians, brings all the music vividly to life. The original “Star Wars Main Theme” is the greatest, most triumphant piece of movie music ever created. After the THX logo theme shushed the crowd, the Main Theme filled the arena to the lovingly non-organized ignition of light-sabers throughout the audience and loud, exuberant cheers. Awesome.
There was an inconsistency in the use of clips that I found odd.
Daniels went to great pains to tell the story chronologically, from Episode 1 – VI, but the clips didn’t necessarily follow suit. Example – when a clip series is introduced as Han Solo narrowly escaping an asteroid field, don’t also cut in Jango Fett flying through an asteroid field from a completely sterile scene in “Attack of the Clones”. If you introduce the segment as “Narrow Escapes”, I’ll expect as much, but when it’s introduced as “Han Solo dodging Asteroids”, that’s what I want. I always want more Han Solo.
That’s a minor nitpick in what was overall a greatest hits of crowd-pleasing music from the most popular film series of all time.
One of my favorite pieces of the original trilogy is “The Rebel Fleet” that ends the best film of the series, “The Empire Strikes Back”. Am I a dope if I say I got choked up watching this? The haunting music that ends this film doesn’t help calm our fears that things aren’t going well with our heroes. It’s brilliant. Other big hits with me were “The Imperial March”, “The Cantina Band”, “Princess Leia’s Theme” and “Duel of the Fates”, which included a live chorus on stage.
I have to believe the “Star Wars” crowd doesn’t go to the symphony much. That, coupled with the fact we’re in an arena made me believe that the audience was calling for an encore. Instead, it led to three sessions of bows by Daniels, the conductor and the orchestra. Deserved, for sure, but they may want to work up “The Raiders March” or “Free Bird” to satiate the masses at the end.
Overall, I’m pleased to say “Star Wars: In Concert” is a classy entry into a franchise that can be prone to milking itself a bit too often. Skip “The Clone Wars” and go here. It’ll make you reflect kindly on the best parts of the legend…
PAUL: Steve, it’s come to my attention that when I said in the “To & From: Julie & Julia” video that “When Harry Met Sally” is just a lazy combination of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”, you TOOK UMBRAGE, correct?!
STEVE: Well, since “When Harry Met Sally” is one of my favorite romantic comedies, and since I generally find Woody Allen’s films to be wildly overrated – particularly the two you mentioned – yes, it’s fair to say that your comment didn’t quite sit well with me. It’s not like I didn’t realize, even at the time of its release, that “Harry/Sally” shared certain stylistic traits with some of the Woodman’s more prominent films (in particular the all-standards soundtrack, the picture-postcard shots of New York City, and the ending montage of previous scenes from the movie).
But so what? You could just as easily dismiss “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as an “Annie Hall” ripoff because the lead character speaks directly to the camera. Ultimately, any film deserves to be judged not by whether or not it reminds you of other movies, but on how well it maps out and achieves its own particular tone, approach and intent. And I’d say “When Harry Met Sally” does a fine job on all counts.
PAUL: Steve, you ignorant slut. It’s not that “When Harry Met Sally” shares sylistic traits with Woody, it’s that it shares the entire “particular tone” you say it individually maps out. I’ll admit, I laughed a lot at “When Harry Met Sally”, there are loads of good jokes, and not just ones that are “jokey”, but good relationship stuff and the classic “I’ll have what she’s having” line. It spoke to me, too, ’cause it was a 1980s movie, and that was the era in which I grew up.
But it was AFTERWARDS that I saw “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” (a late bloomer), and was surprised at how much of what “Harry/Sally” accomplished had been done in the ’70s. Taints the memory a little. Heh-heh….taint. But now that you mention it, did “Ferris Bueller” rip off “Annie Hall”‘s style, too
STEVE: Paul, really! “You ignorant slut”? I laughed, until I realized that comedic territory had aready been mined back in the ’70s by Dan Aykroyd on ‘Saturday Night Live’. What a ripoff artist you are! . . . But seriously now, to get down to cases: you say Woody’s movies already scoped out Harry and Sally’s territory years earlier. I’d say not. First of all, Woody’s films are told relentlessly from HIS CHARACTER’S POINT OF VIEW. This is a crucial difference. It makes the films, particularly “Annie Hall”, stories not of a relationship per se, but rather of one man’s reminiscences of a relationship (or relationships – several are touched on) and his attempt to draw meanings and conclusions about his life based thereon.
By contrast, Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron are almost schematic about ping-ponging back and forth between the Harry and Sally characters, making sure the film is about each equally. Secondly, Harry and Sally populate a landscape located squarely within standard rom-com convention: i.e. this is a story about how boy gets girl (or vice versa, as your sensibilities dictate). The success of the film comes from the way it adheres to, yet also rings changes upon, that fundamental convention. Woody’s films are much more interested in examining FAILED relationships, and so already exist outside of standard formula. A more apt comparison would actually be to John Cusack’s “High Fidelity” or this year’s “(500) Days of Summer” (both wonderful films, by the way). So there’s a complete difference of INTENT between the films we’re talking about – and that’s before we even get to the jokes!
PAUL: Ah, gotcha. Instead of saying “You ignorant slut”, I should’ve maybe thought of my own idea and forged out my own comedy path instead of re-treading what was done in the ’70s. That’s a great idea. So noted. I’ll easily give you the difference in point of view. Woody’s certainly more narcissistic than most filmmakers, and his films show it, making them unique.
So, perhaps I need to refine my argument that if Reiner and Ephron are starting from a different INTENT (and I do like the old couples reflecting on their SUCCESSFUL relationships), why re-tread the tone as a way to follow-through with the intent? I know “When Harry Met Sally” is the gold standard for recent romantic comedies, but I think I can safely now say that I go more for the films that don’t wear the genre on their sleeve, like “There’s Something About Mary”, which is so goddamn funny you forget it’s really a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-chance-to-get-girl, boy-spends-YEARS-pursuing-girl romance. Or “Groundhog Day”, which mined a concept for laughs, but quickly used it expand a relationship. It’s just a shame that the ‘gold standard’ is populated with some contrivances.
STEVE: So let me get this straight: you identify Woody Allen’s films as displaying true quality, yet somehow disparage “When Harry Met Sally” for seeking to emulate that quality? Sounds like your argument is along the lines of “Since ‘WHMS’ is just a dumb romantic comedy, I expect it to well and truly BE dumb! Why introduce wit and sophistication into a genre that gets by just fine on dopey physical schtick, wacky plot contrivances, and overly calculated three hanky emotional moments?” What I love about “WHMS” is how it eschews all those standard rom-com devices and manipulations; instead, it utilizes beautifully crafted scenes and dialogue to offer pithy, hilarious takes on the male-female condition. And its development of friendship transforming into romance is still a damn sight more mature than 9/10ths of the movies following in its wake (for which it’s supposedly the “gold standard”).
Now, I could go on from here to detail the ways in which I feel the movie’s approach to dialogue and situation is very different from Woody Allen’s (his characters grope and stumble for words, whereas the conversations between Harry, Sally and their friends flow with the confident rapidity of a 20th century Shaw or Oscar Wilde – if anything, their rhythms are closer to “Seinfeld” than to Woody Allen), but I feel that’s somehow no longer even the argument. Your statement of preference for romantic comedies that “don’t wear their genre on their sleeve” leads me to suspect that your REAL problem with “Harry Met Sally” is that it’s too rich and sophisticated to be in the genre ghetto it has consigned itself to. That is, if the movie was going to be so adult and clever and mature anyway, then why didn’t it just go the extra mile and make itself into something more idiosyncratic and personal LIKE Woody’s movies are, instead of staying tied to its more streamlined, conventional approach. Is that what I hear you saying?
PAUL: That is definitely NOT what you hear me saying. I think I’ve made the disappointment I have over “WHMS” becoming too much like ANYTHING else quite clear. And what are the kids saying nowadays anyway? “WHMS” or “Harry/Sally”? Again, I’ll say that I like the film, but too much of it was verbatimly (yes, I made that word up) familiar, specifically pulling montages from two Woody Allen films, including the ending! When “Casablanca” came out, if it ended with the Rosebud scene from “Citizen Kane”, it would’ve lessened the movie, no?
It’s the very definition of a genre gold standard to stand above everything else IN the genre, and indeed many have come in the wake of “H/S” and failed to maintain “W/H/M/S”‘s quality. But I certainly don’t praise the film as highly as you. Over the course of this argument, you’ve gone from liking the movie to comparing Nora Ephron to Oscar Wilde. Hmmm….that’s debatable.
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Distributor: Castle Rock Entertainment
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