Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Movie Review: The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Director - Steven Soderbergh
David Levien (written by) & Brian Koppelman (written by)
Runtime - 78 min

Christine/ Chelsea - Sasha Grey
Chris - Chris Santos

From the man (Steven Soderbergh) who gave us perhaps the first truly recognized independent film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) 20 years ago, we are introduced (or re-introduced for some) to Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, the new independent movie reportedly shot for around 1.5 million and purely done in digital.

As in that first film, this one deals with topics of sex and sexuality, but in a slightly different way. In a very brief but very well paced 78 minutes, we are given a glimpse into the life of Chelsea (Sasha Grey), a high-class and high-priced escort, as she balances her working life with her personal life, moving from one john to the next while maintaining a relationship with Chris (Chris Santos) who is also trying to balance his life as a personal trainer.

Scene after scene shows us Chelsea at dinner or undressing in a hotel (though there is almost no actual sex in the film), while wealthy men (some married, some not) discuss things with her as they would a girlfriend…you know, more intimate than a cheap hooker experience. Except, they aren’t REALLY treating her as they would a girlfriend. She is, after all, a high-priced whore who just happens to pretend to like to listen to them talk about their lives.

Ultimately the film succeeds because it is so well framed by the time-period in which it takes place. Much of the conversation in the film revolves around the economy, specifically pertaining to late 2008 and surrounded by the upcoming Presidential election. Chris wants a promotion to make more money. The wealthy johns are freaking out about their stocks and confiding in their $10,000 a night escort and looking for acknowledgment of their dire predicament. Chelsea fears the new girl in town taking over her clients, and is seeking ways to invest her money and also take herself to the next level. The entire film is obsessed with it all, and it all works.

I’m not going to say this is a magnificent achievement, as it does, in fact, have the feel of a pet project in script and acting, but overall I enjoyed the cinematography and wonderful music set at appropriate times. Sasha Grey, a real life adult actress, holds her own just fine as a stoic woman in a profession that requires a stoic look. There are some comical scenes underlying this darker subject matter, and I think the director does a good job of keeping us caring just enough about these people to want to see what happens next. That we only see this small slice of these character’s lives is something I found refreshing for this type of film, as it could have easily tried to delve deeper into their pasts and create more character depth, which, for me, would have ruined the immediacy and intimacy of the course of the film.

*** 1/2 out of 5

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Movie Review: Angels and Demons (2009)

Angels & Demons (2009)
Director - Ron Howard
Release Date - 15 May 2009 (USA)

Robert Langdon - Tom Hanks
Carmerlengo Patrick McKenna - Ewan McGregor
Vittoria Vetra - Ayelet Zurer
Commander Richter - Stellan SkarsgÄrd

Following the success and popularity of writer Dan Brown’s controversial novel turned movie The Da Vinci Code (2006), director Ron Howard returns with the follow-up project Angels & Demons, again starring Tom Hanks as super-hero symbolygist professor Robert Langdon, who makes his way rapidly through the streets of Rome and the Vatican City following a series of clues as he strives to save the entire city from the impending doom of a cataclysmic explosion caused by the recently stolen vial of anti-matter, created during a secret experiment by physicists including Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), and being used to reap revenge on the Catholic church during it’s time of conclave while it awaits the anointing of a new Pope, and all signs point to the secret society of the Illuminati, a group throughout the centuries consisting of scientists and rationalists oppressed and at odds with the church.

If the pace of that paragraph felt a bit rushed, so did the movie. As in the The Da Vinci Code, a film I enjoyed a bit more, the events that take place are hurried and unreasonable. With just a matter of hours to uncover a somewhat reasonably sophisticated plot, Robert Langdon doesn’t miss a beat. With each statue and turn of an old manuscript, he is able to solve some fairly complex puzzles without much effort (though, to the credit of this film, not everyone survives.) The introduction of a female side-kick in physicist Zurer leaves us questioning her necessity. Sure, she is instrumental in solving parts of the mystery, but her entire character feels forced into Langdon’s world of decryption.

Along with the uncovering of plot there is the on-going story of the death of one Pope and the election of another. Ewan McGregor does a fantastic job as a clergyman who is the rightful holder of the Pope’s responsibilities during the Cardinals conclave, and his role is central to pulling all aspects of the film together. There is an ever-present dialogue between characters discussing science and religion, and whether they exist together or at odds with one another. The discussions do not get very deep or preachy, but with so much being packed in to such a short time, there really isn’t any room for it anyway.

Unfortunately, leave it to the sequel (although not a sequel in any real terms) to try and turn it up a notch and end up with a slightly less satisfying and butchered project. Much like the 2004 film National Treasure, which I found to be hokey but fun and very watchable, National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) was a complete mess and always felt hurried, like it was trying to make a profit faster than the original.

Considering the seriousness of the situation the characters in this film find themselves, I found some attempts at comic-relief to be out of place and distasteful. In bad need of a change of clothes after encountering a pool of blood, and after a conversation that clearly indicates the professor’s non-faith, Carmerlengo Patrick McKenna issues Langon clothes resembling his own. He asks: “Would it surprise you to find these clothes fit you?” to which the professor replies “It would surprise the hell out of me.”

Filled with the expected twists you will never see coming (believe me, you can try and you can think you have it nailed, but you won’t ever really get it, even at the end, a lot is left on the table I still don’t get) it is still a fun ride with some nice views on location, and Hanks has his normal charm as the main focus. If nothing else see it for Ewan McGregor’s performance. If you liked the first one, you’ll probably enjoy this one, but I would think slightly less so.

** 1/2 out of 5

Monday, May 11, 2009

Movie thoughts: Powder Blue (2009)

Ok no formal review here and probably has spoilers- so just going off my general reaction and not thinking too deeply about the film, my initial thoughts are as follows:

I think the film was on the verge of being better than average, but ultimately it is an average watch. It almost ended up feeling like an R-rated made for tv movie. I could not get past some pretty bad acting for the most part, but the real killer was that the story lines just didn't add up in the end.

Jessica Biel was simply not that good (not surprising to me at all) and yes she is sexy as hell, which may have helped save the movie a bit. Her story line is kind of absurd - the kid in a coma? I mean... I don't know...

Ray Liotta had the type of part that could have played out pretty cool, but it was over-acted and too obvious throughout.

The mortician kid had a reasonably dark role and I think he did the best job of acting a difficult part - his role saved the movie for me. I would have liked to see more of his day-to-day life.

Forest Whitaker - maybe I'm way off here - someone tell me please - but man I thought he was bad. It could just be that his script was pretty bad, as far as what he was given to work with, but I just thought he overplayed the mopey poor-is-me role.

I'm struggling with how to rate it actually... I don't think I can suggest to people that they see it, but I also can't say stay away... I really think a ** 1/2 out of 5 is about right.

I think the word cliche is what comes to mind for me in a lot of this, but not quite as bad as it could be???

Definitely would like to hear other opinions if you see it because I'm torn on this one. Part of me wants to say it wasn't very good and part of me wants to say it was ok.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A documentary review: Tyson (2009)

Tyson (2009)
James Toback – Director
Documentary - 90 minutes

At the height of his career Mike Tyson was the undisputed, undefeated, unified heavyweight champion of the world. He had unlimited supplies of cash, women, and cheering fans. At the height of his career, Mike Tyson was one of the most recognizable (and feared) people on the entire planet.

Everything that happened before and after is another story.

Director James Toback allows Mike Tyson to control this film, through never before seen, up-to-date interviews, and lots and lots of archived footage over the years. Tyson tells us what is on his mind in somewhat shockingly candid moments. Seeing the most feared man alive choke up when he speaks of his love for trainer Cus D’Amato and being a pall bearer at his funeral (only) slightly makes us remember he is human.

Hard-core boxing fans probably know the story, but it may not be widely-known by the average sports fan that Mike Tyson came from a terrible childhood. Spending his youngest years watching his mother and women-figures in his life prostitute themselves drove him to the streets. On the streets he was picked on at an early age, especially for being overweight. After one particular beating, Mike Tyson vowed to get revenge on anyone who made him feel like that again.

It was an eventual meeting with boxing trainer Cus D’Amato that would change the course of Mike Tyson’s life, and ultimately shape boxing history for much of the 80s and 90s. D’Amato took Tyson under his wing, just a young kid, not even 20 years old, and trained him to be an animal in the ring. But as much as a life saving force he was for Tyson as a trainer, it was his father-like presence that gave Tyson the mental stability to focus his rage against the world on to opponents in the ring.

This documentary gives us wonderful fight archival footage of very early years and junior Olympics, through his victory over Trevor Berbick to take the title and his loss to Buster Douglas in Japan and his first ever knockdown as a boxer.

Along the way we are taken inside the mind of this man with his own words, telling us the raw details of his life with Robin Givens and their failed marriage, his conviction on rape charges which landed him 3 years in prison at the prime of his career, leading to his conversion to the Muslim faith, and his eventual fallout with promoter Don King and his downslide as a once great champion to a fallen champ to the journey man Kevin McBride in 2005.

This is a fantastic documentary for anyone with the slightest interest in the life and career of Mike Tyson, though is definitely lacks some very key aspects: We needed more on the rape conviction and time in prison, for one. It is almost glossed over in this film (no denying it took place, just no unraveling of the details) and it played such a prominent role in his downfall as a champion it was really surprising not to see more. There was also very little of his relationship with Don King. I think most people would associate what they remember about the Tyson years was Don King promoting all his fights, and then hearing later on how he swindled Tyson out of tens of millions of dollars. All of this is summed up pretty quickly near the end.

Leaving aside those over-sights, this will go down as a must see sports documentary for me, as it really gives you open access to mind of a child trapped in an adult body, one full of rage and disdain, but almost unbelievably searching for redemption, which is what we hear from Tyson as he speaks of his faith and his love for his 6 children, now ranging from toddlers to college age.

**** out of 5

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mini-Reviews: X-Men Origins:Wolverine and EARTH

Director - Gavin Hood


Hugh Jackman - Logan/Wolverine

Liev Schreiber - Victor Creed/Sabertooth

Having not ever completed a viewing of any of the previous X Men films nor having ever read any of the comics nor having read anything about any of it, and always having passed it all off as about the lowest form of film I would ever degrade myself to watching, I'll say this about the new film X-Men Origins: Wolverine : It was entertaining enough.

Plot holes? Umm...yes? Pretty much the entire movie is one gaping plot hole, sucking everything in and around it into a black abyss that pretty much rapidly sucks any chance of you giving thought to character and plot right out of your head. Special effects are on the low end for sure, and acting is what you would expect.

Having said all that, I actually enjoyed myself for 2 hours. It takes the right frame of mind to get through movies like this, but if you are in that rare form, well, you can sit back and just enjoy the carnage. Pay full price? No no no... but matinee or gift card worthy? Not exactly. BUT! Make it a double feature, and then yes, passable

** out of 5

Earth (2007/9)

James Earl Jones - Narrator

Based on a previously released tv series known as Planet Earth, the feature film version in the United States carries voice over work from James Earl Jones, and details through voice and amazing photography the incredible Earth on which we live.

With over 4000 days of shooting edited down to 90 minutes, much is left on the cutting room floor. What is presented to us is breath-taking views of all the wonderous nature we rarely witness, from migrating birds flying high over the Himalayan peaks to baby mallarads taking their first flights to melting ice caps wreaking havoc on polar bears.

If you like documentary style films that are not preachy but mearly present nature in all its ups and downs, you could do a lot worse than Earth. Unfortunately, the film is basically a re-telling and re-clipping of the mini series on tv, meaning if you have seen any of it before this film will feel a bit re-hashed. If seeing it for the first time, it makes the grade but certainly shouldn't make anyone's top list of documentaries.

*** out of 5

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Movie Review: The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard (2008/9)
Director - Sean McGinly

John Malkovich – Buck Howard
Colin Hanks – Troy Gable
Emily Blunt – Valerie Brennan

The Great Buck Howard is a film told through the eyes and voice of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a young man heavily pressured by his father to become a lawyer, though it is clear from the start that such a conventional career path is not in the cards. Troy answers a job ad and finds himself face-to-face with “The Great Buck Howard” (John Malkovich) the famed ‘mentalist’ and magician who is well past his prime. Still, Buck Howard is doing his thing, playing to small, but enthusiastic crowds of people in small towns around America, and he needs a new assistant. This is where the story begins.

Malkovich immerses himself into the role of the once-great man who feverishly announces just how much “I love this town!” and “I love these people!” at each and every show. The man himself is never really revealed to us, as we move through this film as an observer, but we do care for him, and we do feel for him. Howard, as we come to learn, appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johhny Carson” dozens of times, but was never called once in the 10 year run up to Carson’ retirement. He never really understood why and we never really know either, but we can guess that it is simply a changing of the guard. The acting here is superb and each person who moves in and out of Howard’s life is subject to a potential thrashing with the tongue, as only Malkovich can do. Whether it is the wrong type of water or the wrong reporters being present, Buck wants things his way or it’s the highway.

All this talk of a past-his-prime role might lead one to think of last year’s gem, The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke beautifully portrays a star wrestler past his prime, playing to small crowds and living a meager life. But it would be unfair to compare these two roles, since we don’t see Buck as a man worn down through time, rather we see a man who is eccentrically happy with his life and career. Sure there are moments of self-reflection in which we genuinely feel that Buck wants to be back on top, but at what cost? A hinge point in the film takes place when, after completing an astounding feat that is to be the big leap to his comeback, Buck finds himself back In Las Vegas, a town he used to play on his own quirky terms. With young gun producers making changes and controlling the routine, we finally see Buck struggle to pull off his most famous money shot trick. But did he really struggle?

Eventually Troy must move on from his job as assistant, but he revisits Buck at one of the many venues he spent so much time at over his career with the aging great showman, and in these final moments we are left with questions that will never be answered about this man or his trade, but ultimately we are left with a smile from ear-to-ear as we realize we are watching a man who does what he does because it is who he is, and that is not often easy to find.

**** out of 5

Clarification of my new rating system moving forward on all reviews:
* = Unwatchable and completely absurd/terrible/stay away/do not watch
** = Not very good. Maybe a stretch or two with some worthwhile moments, but overall trash
*** = Passable. Average. You might say you liked it or kind of liked it.
**** = Ok, now we’re talking. Script and acting in place and the movie does not fail
***** = Must see. All around great film.