Monday, December 28, 2009

A Movie Review: Up In The Air (2009)

Up in the Air (2009)

Director - Jason Reitman
109 Min; R

Ryan Bingham - George Clooney
Alex Goran - Vera Farmiga
Natalie Keener - Anna Kendrick
Craig Gregory - Jason Bateman

Following the critical success of his two previous films (Juno; Thank You for Smoking) director Jason Reitman seems to be on his way to a trifecta with the just released Up in the Air, a film which does an excellent job at weaving distinct story lines into one coherent and cohesive picture. It certainly appears that George Clooney’s agent is earning his paycheck, as there really could be no better fit for the character of Ryan Bingham who spends the majority of his life on airplanes and in hotel rooms all while in pursuit of one of the most special recognitions frequent fliers can obtain – major, major mileage accrual.

Of course a film just about a guy collecting airline miles would probably become as dull as flying all those miles every year, and thus we have the reason for his travels, or travails as it were, Ryan fires people. He works for a company that is paid by other companies to do the dirty work of corporate downsizing, in person, and to do it professionally. Business is booming for the company, which, of course means lots of people are losing their jobs. Welcome to present times. It is soon revealed by his boss Craig (Jason Bateman) that fresh-faced and spunky Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has proposed an idea that has been accepted on a trial basis which effectively grounds all the ‘road warriors’ from doing their jobs. Firings will no longer take place in-person; instead, to save a lot of money the company will be testing a new tele-conference system which allows the company to conduct all its business from Omaha.

For some the idea of a life more grounded and full of routine is a welcome announcement, but for people like Ryan, it is all but a death sentence. The need for a family and a home are not pressing, and he spends some of his time at speaking engagements where he presents his view of ‘unpacking items from your backpack of life.’ But now there will be no more coming and going, working at your own pace, on your own terms, meeting who you want, when you want, as he comes to do with a fellow traveler herself, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), or even just the welcome solitude that the road life can bring to some people. Sure Ryan has his moments, as most do who travel extensively for work, where he feels the isolation. Clooney does a very good job at portraying the range of emotions a person like this goes through – sometimes in love with the lifestyle, other times wishing for something more ‘stable.’ It is, after all, not a lifestyle suited to everyone.

The film becomes a mentoring project as Ryan takes Natalie on the road for some hands on training in the art of firing people all while awaiting the implementation of the new cold and more heartless video system firing makes its debut. Keener is a by the numbers tough chick eager to make her mark, while Ryan is a man who has perspective on his side. Together the two make an interesting couple with a nice dynamic, and ultimately it is Clooney who really pulls off this part of the film, with this well times smirks, nods, and just his general ability to make his character very believable, which isn’t always easy to do with someone like Ryan, who lives a life most people cannot relate to on any real level. After all, most people get married, buy a house, have kids and go to the same job at the same place most days, so for the audience it takes an actor like Clooney to bring us into his character’s world and keep us there, not wishing for him or against him really, just realizing him for what he is as that character.

Casting many real-life people who have been let go in this manner ads a nice touch to the film and lends some realism to the scenes. A film that is ‘about firing people’ is also very much about a personal journey for two very different characters, and the different ways in which they choose to find something out about themselves. The film does not overly glorify nor condescend the life of the ‘road warriors’ but finds a nice balance.

I’d like to add a personal note of bias to this review, as I myself am very much like Ryan, with a road warrior job that keeps me on the move as much as 40+ weeks in some years (and yes, collecting miles and hotel points is a major part of my life), and the portrayal in this film is very fair. To oversimplify the character would have been an injustice, but not as much as if it had been overdone and preachy, trying to force us to feel pity for Ryan. In the end, I felt like I had watched a slice of someone’s life who I can relate to, but I never felt like I was being asked to judge him, and I thank the director for that touch.

***** out of 5

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

3 quick 2009 reviews: Observe and Report; Julie and Julia; The Messenger

Director - Jody Hill
86 min; R
Ronnie Barnhardt - Seth Rogen
Detective Harrison - Ray Liotta
Brandi - Anna Faris

I suppose I laughed a few times at this quirky noir-comedy, but in reality it is pretty unwatchable. Both this film and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) suffered from their similar release dates with similar subjects, and I guess to be quite honest, from lack of good writing. The film does contain some dark-comedy that some may enjoy, but I don't think the general viewing public is going to find most of this entertaining. Give me a movie like Punch-Drunk Love (2002)any day. Prepare yourself for a lot of crude humor and vulgar language. You really lose nothing by skipping this one.

* and 1/2 out of 5


Director - Nora Ephron
123 min; PG-13
Julia Child - Meryl Streep
Julie Powell - Amy Adams

I was pleasantly surprised by this cute film which traces two storylines in a side-by-side narrative, that of the life of Julia Child and her rise to world-wide cooking sensation, and that of Julie Powell and her project to spend one year cooking her way through the famous chef's famous cookbook. The film does not reach any major conclusions but it leaves you feeling satisfied, and the fact that it is based on a true story makes it all the better. Is this a top theatrical presentation? Who cares! It is watchable and definitely would work as a date movie.

*** out of 5


Director - Oren Moverman
105 min; R
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery - Ben Foster
Kelly - Jena Malone
Captain Tony Stone - Woody Harrelson
Dale Martin - Steve Buscemi

A wartime film that follows the lives of two soldiers who hold the distinguished and anguished job of delivering news of death to next of kin. Wonderful performances by both Foster and Harrelson make this film worth seeing, and some of the scenes where they deliver their message are beautiful and powerful, including 2 scenes with a father (Steve Buscemi) that are the best of the movie. Ultimately it falls apart for me as the direction of the film takes a turn towards a strange plotline which I did not feel gave any depth to the subject matter and only left me wanting to see more of these soldiers as they perform their duty, not as they each fight seemingly self-imposed demons.

*** and a 1/2 out of 5

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A retro-review of Frost/Nixon with DVD updates

2008 was a pretty damn good year for films. It had a lot to live up to from 2007, and never quite did, but still we got The Wrestler, In Bruges, Milk, The Dark Knight, Revolutionary Road, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and of course, my favorite movie of the year, Frost/Nixon.

Below is my original review of the film, but I'd like to add these comments as I just finished watching the DVD and the extra features.

This film is magical as far as acting and direction go, and this is only enhanced by the bonus features.

1. Multiple deleted scenes bring forward the greatness of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen as we get to see longer, uncut scenes with Langella speaking as the President, some of them would have even been great had they been included in the film.

2. There is a very nice segment on the Nixon presidential library in Yorbalinda, CA. It talks about the history and you get great views of the grounds and the house where he grew up.

3. There is a good segment on the making of the film

4. The best part is the Ron Howard commentary. You can watch the entire film with Howard giving his thoughts, and he speaks almost the entire time. I couldn't believe how much I wanted to just watch the entire film back-to-back first without and then with his commentary, as it truly gives a wonderful insight into the world of the actors playing this great scene of not just American history, but world history.

If you skipped this film last year or if you haven't heard of it (It made less than 20 million world wide, yet is praised by almost all who see it, and unfortunately had to go against the more mainstream Slumdog Millionaire at Oscar time) please go out of your way to watch this film and if moved to do so, watch it with the commentary afterwards.

It is very possible this film is in my top 10 of the decade.

Even if you know close to nothing about political history it is safe to say you have probably heard of Watergate. It is also safe to say that you correlate Watergate with the 1970s and President Richard Nixon. In Ron Howard’s new masterpiece Frost/Nixon we are taken back to the Summer of 1977 to play witness to a series of interviews between TV personality David Frost and semi-exiled Ex-President Richard Nixon. What transpires over the course of the film is nothing short of brilliance in the way of character performance, equaled shot for shot by Michael Sheen as Frost, the successful foreign showman who is trying to climb back into the NY picture, and Frank Langella as Nixon, a proud, larger-than life figure battling his own demons while trying to clear his tarnished reputation.

I am not a political historian, but in doing some basic research on the film it is apparent that liberties were taken with some of the facts and sequences, but after all this is not billed a documentary and that should not deter you in any way from enjoying this as a fictionalized piece imbrued with mostly fact, or factual like scenarios.

The movie takes you through the tormented minds of two very different people over seemingly very different issues, but ultimately, what we find, is that these two are more alike than either could have ever imagined, and the culminating scenes of the film draw us in deeply to the minds of these two as they fight man to man in a verbal battle that will ultimately lead to a staggering conclusion.

The film itself sets up as a character piece early on, in which we come to learn of David Frost and how he went from the top of the world in terms of US stature to fighting his way through talk shows and entertainment venues in Australia. He badly wants to get back to the top in the capital of the world- New York City. After the resignation of Richard Nixon and subsequent Presidential pardon, there was no closure, no apology, no admission, and simply no acknowledgment by Ex-President Nixon. He simply moved to California and did not speak of such things.

Though Sheen gives an impressive performance and is as much the driving force of the film as anything, it is simply the work of Langella that reaches out and grabs you by the neck and says “Hey! This is what acting is all about!” His portrayal of the disgraced Ex-President, looking for redemption, seeking something he cannot quite grasp, is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on the big screen. I was captivated by his movements and even more so his larger-than-life presence. With each cut to him exiting a vehicle, or psyching himself up with a quick jog to music, I found myself feeling both sympathy and pity for this man, but you never forget the reason that this film exists, and those faults will follow his legacy forever.

I will not give out more details though it is widely known how the interviews turned out. I am simply going to say that this is an absolute must see film and is my choice for the top movie of 2008.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A movie review: Brothers (2009)

Brothers (2009)

Director - Jim Sheridan
Runtime 105 min; R
Tommy Cahill - Jake Gyllenhaal
Grace Cahill - Natalie Portman
Captain Sam Cahill - Tobey Maguire
Hank Cahill - Sam Shepard
Isabelle Cahill - Bailee Madison
Maggie Cahill - Taylor Geare

The ensemble cast of the new war and family themed film Brothers is about as good as any this year. I left the theater with a feeling that I had just watched a very real slice of actual life, somewhere not too far away from where I live, and that these people exist everywhere in the world, just as they are, flawed and human. I am no expert in praise of direction, but it seems fitting to me that Jim Sheridan deserves a lot of credit here, and I hope the maker of In the Name of the Father (1993) is honored this year.

Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is preparing to return for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, once again to leave his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters behind. The timing coincides with the release of his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison just a few days prior. Throw into the mix their alcohol abusing and Vietnam Vet father Hank (Sam Shepard) and this film has all the makings of a serious family drama.

Let me start by stating my view that this film is really only 25% about war and the consequences of war, and 75% about what it means to be a family. There has been talk about an anti-war message but I don’t really see that coming through too strong, more along the lines of war is bad in general, and bad things happen because of it. In the case of this movie, Sam is presumed dead after his vehicle goes down in battle, and in the aftermath of grief it is Tommy who steps in to help Grace and the children cope. Tommy is flawed, a failure at everything he has ever done in life, and Hank is quick to point it out and to also make clear that Sam is the hero of the family, the one to be praised, not the criminal and quitter that Tommy has always been. Grace, having never liked Tommy, slowly allows him access to her life, if for nothing more than someone to share the grief load with, and soon Tommy begins to prove his worth.

No sooner does it seem that Tommy has his life on a better track, helping with Grace and the kids and receiving the praise from his father he never had, does Sam reappear, having been held captive all along and now, months later and a funeral ago, unsure of how to cope with the situation. What did Sam have to do to get back to his family? What emotions are the brothers feeling toward each other? How do a wife and children accept a man back into their lives who is not the man they once knew?

Psychological issues are deep in this film, and though Maguire is being singled out across the board for his break-through performance, it really is the entire cast, including a wonderful job with a range of emotions by Bailee Madison as daughter Isabelle, that brings this film together. This is not a film about a beginning, middle, and end. This is a family in motion, with real issues, and nothing is easily answered.

Unlike the excellent film from this year The Hurt Locker, which deals entirely with war at its worst, and in the zone itself, this film takes the horrors of war and transcribes them onto the American family in ways that no other film in recent memory has done. I would not be surprised to see multiple award nominations in multiple categories for this film.

**** and ½ out of 5

A movie review: Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009) (Viewed in 3D)

Director - James Cameron
Runtime 162 Min; PG-13
Jake Sully - Sam Worthington
Neytiri - Zoe Saldana
Dr. Grace Augustine - Sigourney Weaver
Colonel Quaritch - Stephen Lang
Trudy - Michelle Rodriguez
Parker - Giovanni Ribisi

The word “hype” is thrown around quite freely in the world of cinema, but in recent memory has there been a more hyped film than James Cameron’s $250,000,000+ blockbuster Avatar. Years in the making, hardly a week or two would go by without progress updates detailing the enormous task of undertaking new and untested grounds in CGI, 3-D, and movie-making in general. The world waited in anticipation as the self-proclaimed King of the World (A bit brash, but it probably felt true after his Oscar dominance in 1997 with the epic film Titanic) toiled away on his baby, waiting for this year’s award season to finally release what was billed to be the most spectacular achievement in filmmaking. From the man who brought us innovative techniques in films such as the Terminators, Aliens, and the Abyss we are given a new frontier. So? What is the verdict???

In order to answer that question we must first explore the world that Cameron has literally created, Pandora, and the inhabitants, of which there are many. I felt like a little kid again when I put on the (thankfully better designed) 3-D glasses and watched previews, building the anticipation as characters and scenes around them came to life. It would be a mistake to not first praise the visually stunning world of blues and greens and magical whites and floating mountains, of giant wonderful trees that tower up and out beyond comprehension with branches that span and tangle and grasp the world around it, or the rhino-like creatures that stampede about while flying dragon-like animals roam the sky, or breathtaking scenes of waterfalls and mysterious trees with beautiful dangling white strands. It is apparent from the very first viewing of this world where all that money went, and, conversely, it quickly becomes apparent where that money did not go (everything else.)

This is not a CGI-hater critique, as it may be known that I am not a general fan of the overused technique which often leads to terrible plots and even worse acting, and it calls to mind immediately the atrocious Transformer films of recent years. In fact, without the incredible visuals employed in this film it would not even be worth the time to write about, for the plot and acting in this film are mediocre at best. This may just be the one film of the decade that is saved completely by the astounding technical work and, mixed with the hype, will surely leave audiences feeling they got what they deserved.

That is not to say the film is anything special outside of the visuals, for it is not. This is too big for one film, and much like the epic and infinitely better Lord of the Rings films, this movie would have benefited greatly if it were released in two or three parts, with expanded scenes detailing some of the head-scratchingly overlooked details of this fantasy world infused with our own. In particular, so much attention is placed on the scenery that it would be impossible for the plot to not suffer. We are dealing with a storyline that involves humans conquering a foreign land to raid it of its natural resources, at whatever cost necessary, and in that storyline we have several plot lines of individuals that just cannot be fleshed out in one sitting. That many compare this to a Dances With Wolves theme and/or tie it to the political greenness and liberalism of today is without fault, as the messages of this film are loud and clear. I only wish Cameron didn’t take such a hard-line against our own people – maybe he should move to France if he dislikes his own country so much?

In the year 2154 a team of science based humans led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) are on a mission to infiltrate, study, and with the government breathing down their necks and the push of company man Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) and military might Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), to harvest a precious resource found on Pandora no matter what the damage to the local Na’vi people, who live a life in harmony with nature causing no threat to anyone nearby. Team members, including Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is thrown into the program without training after the death of his twin brother, venture to the world of Pandora where air cannot be breathed without masks by humans in the form of an avatar, a 10’+ and blue-tailed representation of the Na’vi people, and all from the comfort of their Matrix-like pod.

Through a series of events Jake is brought to the inner circle of the Na’vi people by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a local Na’vi woman who just so happens to be the most attractive blue creature on the screen since smurfette. Jake is to learn their ways and ultimately to become one of them, and along the way he must fight his emotions for the people and the land and the ultimate goal of having them leave so resources can be harvested. The rest of the story is fairly predictable.

I’d like to take a moment hear to voice my frustrations with the film. To start, the main character is completely miscast. Worthington plays the role of a jaded marine butting heads with everyone around him with the grace of a bull in a china shop, lashing out in one moment then gleefully yelling as he swoops down in a helicopter over the Pandora countryside like a giggly school-girl. He has a temper and it shows throughout, but it seems misguided as he tries to earn the trust of the locals. I would have liked to see him as a strong actor, less campy, and more grounded with the film. My second biggest complaint, and this is oddly enough just a minor blip in the film, is the choice of foul language used for no reason, spread throughout. This is a PG-13 movie, so liberties are allowed, but the use of language should have some purpose to the film, not simply having a character shout out ‘I’ll shoot you’re bitch-ass!’ at random intervals. It may seem minor but it really bothered me, as it was almost on cue every 20 minutes to get some shock value, like, ‘hey, I spent $250,000,000 on this film and if I want a character to say ‘shit’ then that character is going to say ‘shit’.’ As pointed out by others, Giovanni Ribisi is not a good fit as the company man. He simply feels out of place and fumbling, and never reaches a high or low that would evoke some sort of emotional response from us.

This film would probably be pointless to see in anything other than 3-D, so please pay the extra few bucks and enjoy this magical world, but be prepared to lose a bit of the novelty as the film progresses, and don’t feel bad when you leave if your world hasn’t been turned upside-down – just be happy that you sat through something better than Transformers and 2012.

*** out of 5

A movie review: The Brothers Bloom (2009)

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Director - Rian Johnson
Runtime 114 Min; PG-13
Bloom - Adrien Brody
Stephen - Mark Ruffalo
Penelope - Rachel Weisz
Bang Bang - Rinko Kikuchi

Is there anything worse in the world of cinema than making your way about 15 minutes into a film and feeling like you already know everything that is going to happen, as if the director and writer took a cookie cutter and stamped it over the entire genre, leaving a perfectly crisp and predictable outline for you to follow? It’s a rhetorical question, sort of, but thankfully it does not apply to 100% of the The Brothers Bloom, a film by Rian Johnson, in which we are taken for a ride on a common topic (the con man) but given enough change from the status quo to keep us interested (almost throughout.)

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are brothers, the former 3 years older, who, from the time they can consciously understand the value of money (say, 10 years old or so) decide to con people out of it. Stephen is the brains of the operation, coming up with the scheme worked out in a series of steps and bubbles on a piece of paper, with each one involving his younger brother as the star of the con. Bouncing from foster home to foster home they continually find themselves on the move and soon we find thirty-something versions of the two as they pull off yet another in a long long line of successful and complicated capers.

The life of a con man is tiring Bloom, unsatisfied by the written life his brother gives to him. A series of cons in which he is to get the trust of a woman, get close to her, and then without so much as a goodbye, take his leave, has left him jaded and wanting to lead an unwritten life. Perhaps a clean break with his brother and partner is what is needed, and so he leaves for Montenegro, and there he is, by himself, a new life… for 3 months. And then his brother comes calling again, and he cannot resist “one more big con to end them all” on an eccentric young heiress from New Jersey.

Whisking us through different periods in time and some wonderful scenery, this film takes on an often formulaic theme and gives us something not quite revolutionary, but different enough to warrant our attention. Along with Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), the Asian con-woman who just showed up one day to help them and who likes to blow things up but almost never speaks, the team makes their way throughout the world conning con men and being the best at what they do, until ultimately Bloom’s desires for a real life come to a head with the meeting of their final mark, the young, eccentric and beautiful heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The majority of the film is concerned with the elaborate con of the woman and had the team making this film held out with just a bit more conviction they could have found something special here, but unfortunately they fall pretty to third act problems, so prevalent with recent films it makes your head spin, and we are left with a bit of sour taste at the end wondering what could have been.

This is not a must-see film but it is worth a look, if for no other reason than it is a nice change from a lot of the same ol’ same ol’ being produced in Hollywood, and the characters are all acted nicely throughout with some well timed deadpan humor that keeps us smiling. This film doesn’t break the mold, but it expands it quite well.

*** out of 5

A mini-movie review: The Limits of Control (2009)

Director - Jim Jarmusch
Runtime 116 min; R
Lone Man - Isaach De Bankolé
Nude - Paz de la Huerta
Blonde - Tilda Swinton

A film of brutal methodology that leaves us wanting to take our own lives, The Limits of Control (2009) fails to engage us past the initial intriguing sequences, as we follow the Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) through beautiful scenes of Spain as he trades his soul for diamonds and other illegal affairs. 116 minutes is 110 minutes too long, even with the beautiful Paz de la Huerta as Nude woman, well, nude all the time, and you should skip this one.

* Out of 5

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mini Reviews: 2012 and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Director - Roland Emmerich
Runtime - 158 min; PG-13
John Cusack - Jackson Curtis
Amanda Peet - Kate Curtis

Exactly what you would expect, nothing more, nothing less. I suppose 2/5 is fair, considering the bad acting, terrible plot lines, and over the top cgi - come on John Cusack, you can do better - but overall not as terrible as I expected)

Director - Werner Herzog
Runtime - 121 min; R
Nicolas Cage - Terrence Mcdonagh
Val Kilmer - Stevie Pruit
Eva Mendes - Frankie

Nicolas Cage with a great performance as a drugged up cop post Katrina, but the film by Werner Herzog is a bit out there in terms of cohesivness and though I'd love to proclaim it a best of the year candidate it seems to fall short in believabilty which isn't good in a movie that is somewhat trying to be 'real'... It simply does not flesh out many parts of the film enough and leaves too much dangling... 3.5/5 reluctantly because I feel it should be higher.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Movie Review: Moon (2009)

Moon (2009)

Director - Duncan Jones
Runtime: 97 min; R

Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell
Kevin Spacey – GERTY (Voice)

The low-budget film Moon can actually be summarized in a few sentences, and yet it has a little more going for it than just a simple topographical view. I’m going to keep this review short mainly because I know that much of what I would want to say would revolve around a pretty major spoiler, and I’m content with just a quick discussion of the overall premise.

It is a time when those on earth have discovered a way to harvest energy from the moon, and Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has been living in the space station on the moon for almost 3 years. He is starting to lose it, in a sense, and his lack of reliable communication with those on earth, including his family, is really starting to drive him mad. His only real contact is with the computer GERTY voice by Kevin Spacey in a monotone way reminiscent of other sci-fi films we all know.

The isolation that Sam experiences and the strange circumstances that befall him are at the heart of the film, and it is a very intriguing premise which I was completely willing to let draw me in…

Unfortunately there is something lacking in this film that keep it as a very good idea and a well executed low budget film, but not quite fleshed out enough to make it something special. Sam Rockwell is really wonderful here, carrying the film and showing a complete devotion to his character. I am fairly certain that this film will be seen as astounding by some and boring by some, but for me it is an above average film that is worth a look, but not something I’m ready or eager to push upon you.

*** out of 5

A Movie Review: Antichrist (2009)

Antichrist (2009)

Director - Lars von Trier
Runtime - 104 min; Unrated

Willem Dafoe – He
Charlotte Gainsbourg – She

It is very likely that many movie-goers will seem to recall the name Lars von Trier as someone they are vaguely familiar with, someone who they are sure they know a little about, but cannot really say exactly what it is they know, when in fact, it is more likely that they don’t know anything about the 53 year old director from Denmark. I make that blanket statement based on my own knowledge, as I simply could not recall much other than he was ‘the guy who did Breaking the Waves (1996)” and that I think I enjoyed it when I saw it, many years ago. Well, he has given us a new film that is challenging, beautiful, horrific, and inspiring, though I’m not sure in which order those belong.

Antichrist is a little unlike anything I can think of for comparison, so I’m going to simply do my best to convey what the film meant to me and how it affected me, leaving it up to you to decide if you want to put yourself through the same emotional swings.

I saw this film by myself and am thankful I did, for I’m not sure how one is supposed to interact with another person for the rest of the evening upon leaving the theater. Perhaps your pre-panned cappuccino break will be put on hold.

On the one hand the film begins with an absolutely beautiful 10 minutes mixing slow motion, cinematography of a winter wonderland, and a breath-taking Aria by Handel (Lascia Ch'io Panga). The scene is juxtaposed with the most beautiful (love making) and the most horrible (death of an infant) with no words, only music and light and shadows, and my eyes were fixed to the screen in a way I am not accustomed. On the other hand, the final 30 minutes of the film contain some of the most horrific scenes of violence between man and woman I have ever watched, and let me be very clear that for me to actually turn my head away or close my eyes while watching a film is extremely rare, and I did it on more than one occasion.

It is in this disposition that I find it so difficult to conclude that this film is a wonderful piece of art, and I am excited to have seen it, and though I feel it is too easy to simply say “he went too far with the scenes of sex and violence” it is also too easy to say that it is all acceptable for the art…I’m not sure what to say of certain scenes, exactly, only that once I removed myself from the theater and gave some thought to them, I am comfortable finding a reason for all of them, and the reasons they were placed where they were left important feelings with me that were central to the film.

Though I am not certain what the title has to do with the film exactly, the very idea that the film takes place primarily in the woods at a cabin known to the couple as Eden, and subsequently depicts the fall of man and woman, sort of brings it to light.

The film is broken up into chapters which seem to mirror the stages of grief a human goes through on the way to recovery, although I’m not so sure that is what is happening in the film. Willem Dafoe as He and Charlotte Gainsbourg and She are man and wife who lose a child, and the rest of the film is them dealing with this, mainly through He’s use of his role as a psychologist and She’s role as the grieving mother. The film is deeper than that, and as you get into it more you will find a lot of imagery and symbolism that ties things together and, at the same time, rips things apart.

The film is quite shocking in the use of explicit sexual deviance and torture, though as many critics point out this is not torture-porn, it is more a way to hammer home the underlying themes of the movie. I am going to be quite blunt here and say that this film is simply not to be seen by anyone who is not already fascinated by cinema in general, or interested in off-beat films with limitless boundaries. Also, a strong stomach and an open mind are requirements. I would also like to add a strange notion, that you could go see this film and watch it only up until the scenes of violence begin, for the film itself is beautiful and should be considered a work of art, but those ending scenes are not for many people.

I am still thinking about the film more than a week later, and it took me this long to formulate my thoughts and put them to paper. Much like Synecdoche, New York (2008), a film I rather enjoyed but did not entirely understand nor completely want to recommend (though I did) I am giving this film a specific niche nod and feel that, if you think you are the type of person who would enjoy this type of event, it is a must see.

**** ½ out of 5

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Movie Review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Director - Grant Heslov

Runtime - 93 min; R

Lyn Cassady - George Clooney
Bob Wilton - Ewan McGregor
Bill Django - Jeff Bridges
Larry Hooper - Kevin Spacey

So it turns out that the actual men who stare at goats is a secret US military group created to harness the power of positive thinking, mind control, and attempting to run through walls. I’m not sure what I thought it was going to be, but I guess that’s as close as whatever I could have come up with…and then there’s the invisibility factor, but we won’t go into that too much.

The driving force of this film is George Clooney, portraying Lyn Cassady, an aging former member of the disbanded secret group who is on some sort of secret mission in the Middle East. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is along for the ride as he searches for a great story while his wife back home is sleeping with his editor. These two actors give great charisma and have great chemistry, and the result is a lot of laughs early on that keep you very much engrossed in this story. When we meet the founder of the group Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) it just seems to get better. Played simply as a parody of his role as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski, Bridges brings life to a character who you simply cannot be sure is based on a real person, but apparently, according to the opening credits, he is. With the introduction of group member Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) we have our core players and we are ready to get into the meat of the movie.

Unfortunately, that is where the best 30 minutes of the movie ends and the remaining 60 minutes begins. How a film can start off on such a high note and carry such momentum into the middle stages and then seemingly just fail on so many levels is almost beyond me, but I guess it is easy to sum up how it happened here: A movie that is a supposed to be a comedy and that should be looking for quick laughs starts out as such, and then, inexplicably, attempts to be a serious movie with serious themes and serious scenes. How the director and writers came up with this method is beyond this reviewer, and I can only assume someone felt the early tone could not carry itself throughout.

Regardless, it was a major flaw and it hurts the flow of the film so badly that I wondered it could recover.

It could not, sadly, recover the early brilliance and I left the theatre disappointed.

There are some very bright moments in the film, mostly all dealing with Clooney and Bridges portraying some really well written characters, but the fable cannot sustain itself. The story of these men in the desert and the back-story of a group of people using their minds in unconventional ways to develop new warfare techniques is intriguing, and perhaps some of you will enjoy the entire film, but I’m recommending you save your money for more anticipated films of the November and December.

** and ½ out of 5

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A movie review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009)

Directors - Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Runtime – 105 min; R

Larry Gopnick - Michael Stuhlbarg
Uncle Arthur - Richard Kind
Sy Ableman - Fred Melamed

It is no coincidence that the bearded figure who plays a prominently minor role in the new Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed film A Serious Man, holds the last name of Ableman. He is after all, an able man, an all-knowing, community-respected, and generally speaking, a serious man, one who can sort of back door his way into taking your wife away from under your nose and still bring wine to your house for dinner and give you a lesson on how to enjoy it. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), upon learning all about Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and a plethora of sticky life situations, wants to also be a serious man, of sorts - how to go about it, that’s the problem.

I find myself a bit puzzled as to how to write about this film, since, for one, I have no working knowledge of the Book of Job or of 1960s Jewish culture (both of which play roles in the film.) I do, however, have a pretty good grasp of what excellent writing and perfectly timed humor can do to an audience, and in my case, an audience filled primarily with sexagenarians was laughing without pause. Of course, as with some films that can be considered comedic and serious, this is not simply a bunch of crass jokes, rather an intricate weaving of layers that lead from one laugh to the next, getting there by way of some seriously messed up situations.

We begin with a curious fable of sorts that lasts 10 minutes, with a scene conducted in Yiddish from century’s old Poland in which a small debate of good and evil can be surmised. Think about this scene as you view the film and just try to get a general grasp of its meaning, why is it there at all? You may not come up with anything, but I think it can be revealing in many ways which help you understand the nature of Larry and the world in which he lives.

The film takes place in the suburbs of the 1960s. As a professor of physics and mathematics, Larry works a great deal with certainty and the notion that the world has answers for everything if you know where to look. It is with a series of Rabbis that Larry ultimately seeks advice and it is within these scenes that we get the skilled writing of the Cohen brothers blasting us with wit and sarcasm, but also furthering the story along. The Cohens are masters of keeping us coherent of the characters in their movies, even when they are not on screen, and you never forget that the son is off smoking dope or the daughter is stealing money for a nose job or the neighbors are redneck hunters trying to encroach on Larry’s property boundaries – all of these sub-plots are fresh in your mind throughout, so that when the writing calls for the audience to remember that the uncle is a deadbeat cyst-sucking waste of space, the audience is already in the moment and can move with or against the flow of sympathy or repulsion.

I’m pretty sure some of you will see the resemblances to the film Election (1999), another dark comedy concerning a teacher going through a lot of life issues. I’m not going to stretch it too far and say they are ‘similar’ but I did think of it while watching and it is such a guilty pleasure movie for me I wanted to tie it in somehow. Like the teacher played by Matthew Broderick, Larry finds himself mixed up with a student in an unconventional way, and one which threatens to bring down his standing in the community as well as professionally. This all leads to some hilarious situations which, 2 days later, I still find myself laughing out loud.

The broader aspects of the film, those concerning Jewish culture, but, just as much, those concerning human nature, are portrayed wonderfully through this film as only the Cohens know how to do. A disconcerting score at times is weaved beautifully with classic sounds of the era, and every time you hear some of the score you realize just how important it is to the film itself. I don’t know who to recommend this film to, but I feel it is so well done that everyone should give it a chance.

Now that my review is complete, I look forward to reading any and every review I can get my hands on, because I know there is much much more to this film than I have covered.

***** out of 5

Monday, October 5, 2009

A movie review: The Informant! (2009)

The Informant! (2009)

Director - Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 108 min; R

Mark Whitacre -Matt Damon
FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard - Scott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Dean Paisley - Allan Havey

I like Matt Damon as an actor. I actually like almost everything he does. He has great role selection and I’m sure he will continue to pick challenging and proper roles for his personality. I also like Steven Soderbergh as a director. He always seems to ‘get it’ and that generally makes for a great viewing experience.

I am not sure, however, that I can confidently say that I liked The Informant!, a movie based on factual events that really do make a very interesting story, but, unfortunately, just do not translate well in this film. Damon does a great job as Mark Whitacre, a high ranking corporate executive at a large and prosperous company who finds himself in the middle of a global price-fixing ring. With the involvement of the FBI and an incredible story of lies and back-stabbing and a really great performance by Damon, this movie has all the makings of a great piece of art.

Unfortunately it drags. It drags and drags and drags. Every time you feel some momentum, it slows down, and then it gets complicated. If you pay really close attention, you just may understand everything that is going on, but if you take even a one second break you will find yourself asking what is happening?

This is the type of movie I fear – it has great acting and a great story but just doesn’t come across well and leaves you wondering why? Why did I feel so unsatisfied? Was it the hokey musical backgrounds as Whitacre walked down the aisles of his work place? I wish it were that easy, but Damon really gives a great performance here and I wish I could capture just what was missing. It was a decent movie and a great real life story (search for the real story online and you will be amazed at what transpired) but something was missing and I cannot in good faith suggest you see this movie right away, although I do believe it would work well in 6 months as a rental or something on cable.

** and a ½ out of 5

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A movie review: Zombieland (2009)

I was told by someone that a certain cameo in my review would be better left out. I'm not going to edit it, so be warned if you do continue to read you will discover who does the cameo. For what it's worth, I was on and they have this person credited, so I was unaware it was a surprise.

Zombieland (2009)

Director - Ruben Fleischer
Runtime: 80 Min; R

Columbus - Jesse Eisenberg
Tallahassee - Woody Harrelson
Wichita - Emma Stone
Little Rock - Abigail Breslin

I’d love to write a long review of the film Zombieland but I’d be afraid of giving away too much, and this is a movie not to be ruined. See this film immediately, and see it with a group of good friends. This is perhaps the funniest movie of the year, and yet you get sprinting zombies, a great zombie-killing machine in Woody Harrelson, a hot, tough chick in Emma Stone, and some seriously awesome dialogue for Jesse Eisenberg. You will laugh out loud a lot and be happy that you saw this film.

Just to give some basic plot points, the world is experiencing an epidemic of a disease that has turned most of it into zombies. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg of Adventureland )(all characters named for the places from which they came, basically) is a survivor with a set of rules on how to survive (Cardio and seatbelts being two that have treated him well so far.) He soon meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) who is a straight-talking redneck who has one mission: to kill zombies. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are sisters also making their way through zombieland, and together these 4 characters make their way west in search of something more.

An awesome appearance by Bill Murray is not to be missed, and when you aren’t wincing from some of the zombie head-bashing you’ll be laughing at the witty exchanges between Columbus and Tallahassee, or, if you’re into women, a strong desire for Emma Stone, who comes off as uber-sexy in this film. Overall not a fault to be found, and though I’ll take some heat, I put this comedy above The Hangover (2009) as the best of the year. Total re-watch-ability for this film and one that I will definitely own.

***** out of 5

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Movie Review: Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates (2009)

Director - Jonathan Mostow
Release date – September 25, 2009
Runtime – 88 min; PG-13

Bruce Willis – Tom Greer
Ving Rhames – The Prophet
Radha Mitchell – Peters

The definition of a surrogate is “One that takes the place of another; a substitute.” I wish I could have had my own surrogate attend the viewing of Surrogates I sat through, and maybe report back to me.

Bruce Willis is agent Tom Greer, a man we initially come to know as a chiseled chin, perfect skin and flowing, parted hair attempt at a modern day god of a detective, but who we quickly come to realize is just an average couch potato at home, balding and out of shape. Why the dichotomy? Oh the humanity! We initially meet Greer’s surrogate, a robot-esque humanoid which roams the real world while it’s’ owner sits safely at home connected via wires which allow sensation and a ‘real world feel’ without any of the complications.

The idea is intriguing (though not new) and I suppose a good story is somewhere to be found, but it is not here. Too much of this film is formulaic (for no reason!) and too much of it is harshly edited to keep us un-nauseated. Why the director (Jonathan Mostow – of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines fame) chose to gloss over all the important and potentially exciting aspects of a world where people sit at home and control themselves through surrogate robots is beyond me. Instead, what we end up with is a conventional story that quickly deteriorates into an obvious who-dunnit detective piece. If you don’t figure the entire story out by the half way point you either A: Fell asleep; B: Went to get popcorn and decided not to go back; or C: you were absurdly high.

The gist of the film is as follows: In a world where 98% of the population uses a surrogate to live life, and 2% resist this new technology, there is little crime and no murder, since the surrogate is a robot and the controller cannot be harmed in real life if the surrogate goes splat – or so it always was, until a strange killing device is employed and all hell breaks loose. Tell me again why there are so many surrogate cops in this movie when most crimes are no longer happening? No worries, it’s just one of a thousand questions I don’t really want an answer to from this film.

Without giving away any of the awful details, Greer is dismissed by his superior for improper conduct (shocking, this has never happened in a cop movie before) and he goes rogue to find out information. This is some serious writing folks. The end is just what it always was going to be, and the questions you think you want answered about what you just watched will not be answered. I mean, if your surrogates have sexual intercourse…well… you know, all those crazy questions.

If you look at the cast credits you’ll notice Ving Rhames is credited as The Prophet. The Prophet. Ving Rhames. If that doesn’t just scream to you that his role will be nothing more than a stereotype of so many movies with a fringe society that threatens the evil-doers nothing will. Any of the intriguing characters in this story are so quickly dismissed in depth that it is difficult to understand why they were even cast. With all that said, the film is not as bad as I thought it would be, and at just 88 minutes it isn’t pretending to be more than it is, which has to count for something.

** ½ out of 5

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Movie Review: Cold Souls (2009)

Cold Souls (2009)

Director - Sophie Barthes
Runtime - 101 min; PG-13

Paul - Paul Giamatti
Nina - Dina Korzun
Claire - Emily Watson
Dr. Flintstein - David Strathairn

I think the notion that removing one’s soul to gain some clarity is a pretty cool idea. It’s also pretty cool that you can see it, touch it, and store it in a cool (temperaturely speaking) environment. Cold Souls, a well-crafted look at what happens when people decide to hastily try new and untested scientific adventures, is a film by first time feature film director Sophie Barthes, and I think she has done a very competent job in giving us a thought-provoking film that is really more along the lines of a noir sci-fi imbued with utter realism.

Paul (Paul Giamatti) is an American actor who is sort of the Paul Giamatti of our world and he is working on the play Uncle Vanya, by Chekov. It is a deep role which requires range, and Paul is struggling to find the correct tone. Alone in his apartment one evening he sees a story written in the New Yorker about a research lab that will extract the human soul and store it in cold storage for a period of time all in the likelihood that by doing so it will free you up from many burdens.

All of this will be done, for a fee of course, by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) and his egg-shaped looking futuristically designed shell of an x-ray machine, which will actually remove the soul and drop it into an airtight container. Once removed, Paul is a bit upset to see that his soul resembles a chick-pea – such is his life.

The resulting story follows Paul as he struggles to enjoy his life now free of the burden of his soul, and his search to have it re-implanted. Confounding such plans is Nina (Dina Korzun), a Russian mule of souls who crosses continents right and left trafficking souls back to Russia where they can be removed in a much unregulated environment and sold to the highest bidders. Paul and Nina come to share a bond that only those who have had their souls extracted can really understand; “soul-brothers or sisters” does not quite do it justice.

A re-telling of the plot of this film does not quite do it justice, as it sounds simply like a hokey attempt at the sci-fi genre. In fact, this is a gritty film told from the point of view of many who are suffering, but done so in a way that allows for many laughs and some great performances. This is the exact role that Paul Giamatti was born to play. He exemplifies the struggling actor weighed down by life, who can put on a wonderful and moving performance and still knows how to make you chuckle. David Strathairn is really superb as the doctor who will remove your soul but does not really want to talk too much about the how and why. He simply wants to run it as a business and speaks of soul removal in such a light-hearted way that you might think it is as ordinary as a simple dental procedure.

The film has some plot flaws which, really, just come in the form of some undeveloped thoughts, and I think if the director and writer were given a chance to remake this film in 3 years it would be excellent. Other than that I don’t find much fault here at all, and was pleasantly moved by the dialogue and human interaction set among some far-fetched notion of what the soul is and how we can control its’ functions. This is a slow moving film but at 101 minutes does not feel too long, and if you are the type of person who only sees one or two small-screen released independent type films a year, I suggest you add this to your list.

*** and ½ out of 5

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Director - Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 153 min; R

Lt. Aldo Raine - Brad Pitt
Shosanna Dreyfuss - Mélanie Laurent
Col. Hans Landa - Christoph Waltz

As the credits rolled for the new Quentin Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds, my initial gut-reaction was to give it 4 stars out of 5. I mean, it was very entertaining on a simple measurement of ‘was it good?’ and there was a fantastic performance by Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa (The Jew hunter) that just obviously deserves an Oscar nod, and then there was the compelling story line of an alternate WWII ending set among some wonderfully shot scenes of countryside and an old, romantic cinema-house.

After taking some time to review the film in my mind, I’m more inclined to give this one more notch on the rating scale. This film falls just short of a 5 but is definitely above a 4, especially when you mix in the drollness of Waltz and the scenes of dialogue that command your attention. I recently gave The Hurt Locker a 5 star rating and, though I am not opposed to giving out multiple high ratings, I just don’t see this film quite fitting into a full-blown 5.

I’m not going to delve into the plot details (they are readily found if you want to search, and yes, quintessential Tarantino gore is to be found) but needless to say the entire movie is an interesting premise that is in many ways two separate films fused by a common enemy (The Basterds and the story of Shosanna are independently film-worthy.)

Though it is Waltz who steals the movie, I am more than happy to admit this film gives us a decent performance by Pitt who, though his character calls for an over-acted part, doesn’t over-do it, and instead finds a nice balance of caricature. The women in the film are well cast as are the secondary characters.

Is this QT’s finest film? I don’t know. I think a strong case can be made for a few of his other works (works which we all know) and I find it difficult to vault this film into the stratosphere so quickly (I look forward to a second viewing of this film.) Tarantino does have a special way with creating scenes you will never forget, doesn’t he? (Baseball bats and swastikas will not be soon forgotten.)

**** and a ½ out of 5

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Movie Review ((500) Days of Summer)

(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Director - Marc Webb
Runtime - 95 min; PG-13

Tom Hansen - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Summer Finn - Zooey Deschanel

It took me almost the entire movie, but I finally placed the actress who was playing Summer Finn in the feel good (sort of) flick (500) Days of Summer; Zooey Deschanel was Jovie in Elf (2003) along side Will Farrell, where she played a sort of cynical department store clerk who falls for, well, an elf. That realization is not all that important to my thoughts on this film, but it is worth noting because it sort of distracted me. As for her role here, she is much more defined and much more believable.

The title of the film refers to the 500 days that Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets, obsesses, falls in love with, and loses Summer, the new assistant at the greeting card office he has called home for 3 or 4 years. He was once an aspiring architect, but life just sort of got in the way.

After 5 minutes I found myself squirming in my seat, wondering if this would in fact end up like just another in a long line of formulaic, unoriginal, romantic comedies. We are greeted with a narrator giving us some background and we see images of Tom with his friends in situations that lead us to understand he is a sappy, star-struck kind of guy. Tom believes in Fate. Enter Summer, and the story takes off. She is the opposite of Tom in all ways involving love, and so we have our two heroes of the story at odds over a pretty typical life scenario: dating.

Throughout the 95 minutes (the perfect runtime for this film) I found myself thinking of what to compare this to, and here is what I came up with: This is a feature length film with vignettes of the television show Scrubs, the narrator of the Woody Allen movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and most recognizable, multiple aspects of Juno (2007). In any event, I felt like this film was original in parts (nice use of different screen techniques) and formulaic in parts (skipping back and forth in time over the course of a relationship), making for a breezy but frustrating viewing. On the one hand, I cared about this relationship between two young people and I was interested in how it would turn out, but on the other hand, I never really cared for Tom at all, it was all about Summer.

There was one brief scene that almost had me spit up my drink, and I’m not giving anything away by retelling it:

A very intoxicated Tom is on a blind date after one of his numerous, extended fights with Summer, and they end up at a frequently used karaoke bar. As he sings along to the tune and blubberingly falters around the stage, his date gets up and leaves the bar.

Tom (into the microphone, slurring): “Go then! Waste of time, you don’t look anything like Summer”

So I say “Go then”, it’s not a waste of time.

*** ½ out of 5

A Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

District 9 (2009)
Director - Neill Blomkamp
Runtime - 112 min; R
Wikus Van De Merwe - Sharlto Copley

It doesn’t take long for us to actually see the aliens in District 9, and that is very refreshing compared to so many films that make you wait in anticipation for more than half the film to get a glimpse of what the hubbub is all about. These aliens are not Close Encounters of the Third Kind-like, rather they are surprisingly similar to the alien in Predator, only not so much on a mission to kill as a mission to eat cat-food.

The plot can actually be summed up quite simply: In 1982 a spacecraft hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa, for reasons unknown. 3 months later humans entered the craft and found several aliens cramped and mal-nourished. Fearing a global backlash at anything inhumane, District 9 was set up as a shanty city in which the aliens would live and be loosely governed. Now, 28 years later, the people are fed up with it and want them out. MNU (Multi-National-United) is the corporation that is going to move all 1.8 million aliens several hundred miles away to a new tent-city. This is the main job for Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a corporate man who needs to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. Of course, it doesn’t all go smoothly.

There were aspects of this film that bothered me on a purely critical level, specifically some plot continuity and reasoning, and there are also the clear political aspects of apartheid and South African history in general, but I’m not even going to touch that here, because this film is just too much fun to take any shots at it.

Definitely see this film and prepare yourself for a good old-fashioned sci-fi ride. There is death and destruction and other-worldly notions along with laughter and deeper meanings, all of which add up to a well told story held completely together on the wonderful role of Wikus. Sharlto Copley deserves an award simply for making us care about him, and the range he delivers throughout is outstanding. He is able to take a standard corporate worker personality and, by the films startling ending, have us believing everything that has changed about him.

At just under 2 hours the film turns sort of conventional with 30 minutes to go, and I wish it could have held the originality of the first half throughout. With that said, I believe you will find enough interesting shots in this film to keep you engaged and guessing, and I think re-watch ability will be high.

**** out of 5

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A movie review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Director - Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime - 131 min; R

Jeremy Renner - Staff Sergeant William James
Anthony Mackie - Sergeant JT Sanborn
Brian Geraghty - Specialist Owen Eldridge

Normal people do not voluntarily approach bombs. They just don’t. They run away from them – quickly. They also don’t poke at them and cut wires and try to diffuse them. Again, they just don’t. War changes a lot of things about normal people.

I’m afraid that I lack too much in the ways of communication to accurately convey just how wonderful The Hurt Locker is from start to finish. I haven’t seen every ‘war’ movie ever made, so I can only draw on my knowledge of those films I have seen, those that have dealt with The Great Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and now, Iraq.

Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) is a cocky but very self-assured US soldier who voluntarily diffuses bombs. He does so in an over-sized protective suit that, in all likely-hood, will do very little in the way of protection. He knows this. He still does his job. Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are there covering him as he does his job. These men are not friends, but they are a team, and though they are not perfect, they figure out ways to survive.

Films about the war in Iraq have had very little acclaim. Either they just haven’t been done well, or people just aren’t willing to give them a chance. In the Valley of Elah (2007) was a wonderful film and everyone should see it, but it tackles the subject of war from an onlookers perspective. What director Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel (1989)) gives us is the perspective of the soldier, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I was particularly gripped by the realistic feel of this movie. We don’t get all the information we need to always know what is happening, but we get enough to understand what is happening. We realize there are ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys and ‘neutral’ guys, but we don’t really know a lot about whom is whom, and we don’t really need to know, because this film is not so concerned with any kind of cathartic conclusion, rather, it is dealing with a few specific soldiers in Iraq and the turmoil they go through (physically and emotionally) as they do their job in the desert.

This film works with changes in day and night beautifully, and leaves us filled with tension as we follow these men through a barren land in the harshest of circumstances. People are changed by war. The people in this film are changed by war. But they do their jobs and they count the days until they can leave.

***** out of 5

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Funny People (2009)
Director - Judd Apatow
Release - 31 July 2009 (USA)
Runtime - 146 min; R

George Simmons - Adam Sandler
Ira Wright - Seth Rogen
Laura - Leslie Mann
Clarke - Eric Bana
Leo - Jonah Hill
Mark - Jason Schwartzman

As the title implies, Funny People is a movie that follows the lives of some funny people. They’re funny, all right, but they are also real people struggling with real life issues, and in a dramatic turn it is the humor of the movie that takes a back seat to more pressing concerns.

Director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up (2007); The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)) does not give us the same type of laugh out loud antics of his previous films, but, like each of those films, the comedy of the actors and the way they choose to present it is the true driving force. Adam Sandler is reminiscent of a favorite role of mine as the main character in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), his first true attempt at a darker version of a human being. With his portrayal of superstar actor and comedian George Simmons Sandler has achieved something very special.

In just a few short days of release I have heard many people say they were somewhat disappointed that this film was not a more typical Sandler farce, which they couldn’t believe it was almost two and a half hours and had such a serious tone. I can’t really speak to those people because I don’t understand them; I honestly don’t understand that mind-set.

This film is wonderful. The first half is heartfelt and funny, and the second half, though not as strong as the first, brings home a lot of nuances in characters that leave you really thinking about people in general, their motives, and the ways in which they go about projecting themselves on others. This is a film about how people can deceive themselves, but with a message of potential redemption.

Seth Rogen doesn’t steal the movie from Sandler, but that is because he doesn’t have to – they are both excellent in their roles, and, in my opinion, both deserving of awards. As upstart and struggling comedian Ira Wright, a chance encounter with legend Simmons, fresh off the news that he may be terminally ill, leads to a working friendship that changes both of their lives. They form a loosely based team while Simmons works through his demons and struggles to come to terms with what his life has become, and what he has left behind.

This movie did not need to be so long, but it also didn’t need to cut anything out, if you follow. If only the second half of the film had not become a bit too fabricated for my tastes it would have been perfect. As it is, this film made me feel real emotion for these people, and I cared about what happened to them. No one here is perfect – all very far from it, but they each seem to understand that, and it works for them. Life is very unpredictable and like the characters in this film, it is filled with funny moments and very sad moments. How we work through those moments with the people around us is what this film ultimately becomes.

**** ½ out of 5

Friday, July 17, 2009

Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Ok - Unlike most of my reviews, this is just a bunch of random thoughts associated with the film. It is a big film though, so I feel like I have to comment. There are spoilers and rants, so proceed at your own caution if you intend to see this film:

I saw it today.

Really have no desire to do a full write-up so here are my random thoughts.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Director- David Yates
153 min; PG
Basic same cast as the others

Oh man was I completely unsatisfied when I left the building. And on the entire ride home. And even now. This entire movie had the feel like something was missing. I mean, every 10 minutes I was wondering when it would get interesting.

And to be clear - I loved the entire book series and felt this book was probably the best of all 7. This movie just fell flat on every level.

The most glaring and obvious terrible mistake was the ending - how the hell they left out the tower fight scene is beyond me... I was at least expecting that to save the movie.

Young Tom Riddle was awesome. Slughorn was awesome. Other than that, yeah, I get it that they are growing up and have boy/girl feelings... what about all the muggle world having to fear dark magic? I mean, it is completely forgotten after the opening sequence.

Harry/Ron/Hermione were all averagely fine. Not bad, not great.

I know this was a set-up of sorts for the final, but I'm sure they could have had a little more action throughout 150+ minutes.

I'm not going to rip it to pieces, because I still love the series and love the premise and it was ok for entertainment, but this was very average.

** 1/2 out of 5

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies (2009)

Director - Michael Mann
140 min; R

John Dillinger - Johnny Depp
Melvin Purvis - Christian Bale
Billie Frechette - Marion Cotillard

John Dillinger was a bank robber. And that’s it.

Johnny Depp portrays the 1930s Chicago-area gangster in a way that leaves little to no interpretation of who he is and what he wants, though you may wish you learned just a bit more. Stark, brazen, and intent on moving forward with his own conceived invincibility, Dillinger led life one day at a time and always focused on the next score, no matter who stood in his way. He is cocky, arrogant, suave, cool and collected.

Michael Mann does not direct a lot of films, but when he does you can generally expect something pretty spectacular. Directing just 3 films in the 90s, you tell me where there is a flaw: The Last of the Mohicans (1992) Heat (1995) The Insider (1999). Just like in his masterpiece Heat, this film takes to the extreme the shockingly realistic feel to gun fight between lawmen and criminals. What better era to encapsulate than the 1930s with Tommy Gunns blasting round after round after round after round? You will not be disappointed at the action in this film.

But is the action of the film enough to make this a really great film? I suppose it just barely misses out on some level. I found so much of this movie to give wonderful amounts of action, suspense, score, cinematography and acting, but on some level I think I did need just a little bit more about this one man wrecking machine. What do we know? We know he lives life fast. He robs a bank for the money, which he spends, and then robs another. He breaks out of jail like he’s walking through the park on a sunny afternoon. He picks up a woman with little more than a look and 2 sentences. But what does he think about in his alone time? What drives him? Where did he come from and where is he going? I don’t suppose I needed all that answered, but I would have liked some of it.

In pursuit of Dillinger is Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) appointed by J. Edgar Hoover himself to head up the Chicago office with the sole purpose of ending Dillinger’s reign of terror. Along the way they find themselves confronted by a bevy of other criminals in the Dillinger circle, including Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) who gives a masterful performance as nothing more than a hardened criminal. Bale gives a pretty good look at what it takes to be in charge of a unit without enough resources hunting a man with nothing but resources. Marion Cotillard brings Billie Frechette to life as Dillinger’s love interest, and the woman who he ultimately pledges his allegiance to, no matter what the cost. She needs him for something more, and he needs her (perhaps any ‘her’ would have done) to validate his own narcissism.

I am reminded of the wonderful film The Untouchables (1987) in which another wonderful cast of cops and robbers (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery and the pursuit of Al Capone - Robert De Niro) fight it out with flying bullets and civilians and storylines that can only end in the way they were intended. This film does much in the way of giving the audience a great show and great value for their money. There is a magnificent sequence in the tree-soaked hills of Wisconsin in which Bale and his band of lawmen encounter Depp and his band of thieves. The foot and car chases throughout the 15 minute scene are on par with the great bank heist of Heat, and this one takes place at night, outdoors.

See this film. It is very good. It just lacks a little bit of the character depth I would have liked to learn about this man, John Dillinger, who ‘robs banks’ and not much else.

**** 1/2 out of 5