Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A movie review: Hunger (2009)

Hunger (2009)

Director - Steve McQueen

Runtime - 96 min

Bobby Sands - Michael Fassbender
Ray Lohan - Stuart Graham
Father Moran - Liam Cunningham

The one thing you will not find in the Steve McQueen directed look into the events surrounding the imprisonment and eventual hunger-strike of IRA members at Maze prison in Northern Ireland in 1981 is, oddly enough, any real history or background on the who/what/where/when/why. But that is ok, and I’ll tell you why.

What we do find is an intensely traumatic look at the daily ordeals faced by both prisoners and guards, in shockingly gruesome (though watchable, with stomach turning pain) fashion, and an incredibly somber yet liberating tone that allows no real empathy to anyone, or anything.

This is not a date movie, nor is it an action movie. This is a slow movie that starts fast, but the feeling of time is especially important to this film, as it slowly, slowly, eats at you and puts you in the position of these prisoners.

Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is one of many prisoners seeking through any means possible to be declared as political prisoners, thus giving them certain rights not afforded to the general population of criminals. It is, after all, their cause which landed them there, and they were prepared for that. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is heard more than once through voice-over declaring these men as criminals, not political, but criminal.

The continuity of the film addresses the personal anguish of prison guard Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) who clearly has been beaten down by the job. The routine pummeling of the IRA prisoners can be excruciating to witness, but that is what you need to do to understand the effect of the film. The other more over-whelming focus is on Bobby Sands, as he and other inmates first take part in a strike against prison clothing and bathing (for which they are often severely beaten) and, later on, the hunger strike, of which Sands is the first to die.

Watching Sands die is a major focus of the film. We see him stripped of flesh as he ever so slowly diminishes before our eyes, exposed sores and internal injuries a constant. The film would be not much more than a course in torture, though, if not for the few impactful scenes between Sands and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham) in which they discuss in great detail the benefits and illusions of what the hunger strike might accomplish. It is in these scenes that you must pay attention to really grasp what the heart of the movie is getting at, and though the accents are a bit difficult at first, you shouldn’t miss too much.

Released outside the USA in 2008 and a recipient of numerous top awards, this movie has a style of less is more in speaking and sound, and does plenty to give us more of the visuals which still resonate with me as I write this piece. Even now, though, I am not swayed to either side of the cause, for, as mentioned earlier, though clearly a look at the deterioration of an IRA prisoner, the film does not have an immediate feel of one with political motives. Perhaps true students of history will disagree, but I will always remember this film for what it is, a beautifully crafted and hauntingly disturbing piece of art.

***** out of 5

Monday, June 29, 2009

3 movie mini-recaps: The Hangover; Terminator Salvation; Star Trek

The Hangover (2009)
Director - Todd Phillips
Phil - Bradley Cooper
Stu - Ed Helms
Alan - Zach Galifianakis
Doug - Justin Bartha
Jade - Heather Graham

EDIT UPDATE: I saw this movie again on DVD in January, 2010, and I want to invoke my mulligan. This movie is a train wreck. I understand how many people loved this and told everyone to see it, because I sort of got tricked as well. My initial viewing of this film was with a group of friends and we were having a great day and a good time, and I think our laughter just carried over to each other and fromt he audience in general. A second viewing of this film reveals a mess, with no more than 15 minutes of actual funny moments.

** out of 5



Phil Wenneck: [his answering machine message] Hey, this is Phil. Leave me a message, or don't, but do me a favor - don't text me, it's gay.

If you think that line can be funny in the proper context you'll love this film. I may be leaning a bit too high here, probably due to the lack of good comedies the past few years, but I literally laughed out loud more during this movie than any in recent memory. Sure, some of it is pretty dumb, but only some of it, and I can look past the 20 minutes that weren't funny at all and remember the parts that made me spit out soda. Plot is easy - Vegas bachelor party gone bad. Crude movie and a great time.

**** out of 5

Terminator Salvation (2009)
Director - McG
John Connor - Christian Bale
Blair Williams - Moon Bloodgood

This movie was sort of funny, so that can't be good, considering the genre. Plot? Umm... you've seen the other ones, right?

** out of 5 seems right, but I'm more than willing to go to

* 1/2 out of 5

Star Trek (2009)
Director - J.J. Abrams
Jame T. Kirk - Chris Pine
Spock - Zachary Quinto
Spock Prime - Leonard Nimoy

Star Trek was, to me, very surprisingly enjoyable, on a very base level. Kind of hokey in parts and I can't stand Chris Pine in anything he does, but from a standpoint of someone who knows nothing about the history of Star Trek I found the movie to be fun to watch. It DID NOT live up to the hype, I don't think, but I would tell people to see it if they are not sure what to see and like that genre.

*** out of 5

A movie review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Director - Michael Bay

(Is it at all important to this movie?)
Sam Witwicky - Shia LaBeouf
(Does it matter what her name is?) - Megan Fox

Michael Bay has a certain, oh, what am I searching for, a certain, je ne sais quoi, something I can’t quite grasp, when it comes to making movies. It isn’t that he’s terrible, or that he’s an ego-maniac, so much as he just wants the audience to accept what he is giving them as something good, when, in fact, it isn’t, really. I enjoyed The Rock (1996) enough, but what pattern do we see with Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), The Island (2005), Transformers (2007), and now Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)? Sadly enough, we are seeing what the movie industry has slowly evolved into, and even more so depressing, where it is going.

No plot and thinly developed are the ‘it’ thing for big budget Hollywood right now, and it really is depressing. Shelling out $200 million to put together a film that will probably gross 3,4,5x that much in worldwide revenue is what it is all about, which isn’t surprising, but it is sad.

I don’t generally care too much what people think of my opinions, they are, after all, just opinions, and everyone has one just like they have an ass. But I find myself increasingly trying to defend my stance that these types of movies are just plain terrible. I am often thrown the argument that two hours of mindless entertainment is what they expect going in, and if things blow up and hot chicks run across the screen then even better.

Listen closely: I get it.

I get it. I understand the desire or want to sit through a few hours of disbelief and just take it for what it is. I get it! I can still sit through an entire viewing of The Toxic Avenger (1984) (So I assume that makes my point clear?) But that doesn’t excuse filmmakers from putting out better material. It just doesn’t.

There are a plethora of examples of bigger budget movies with cgi or just big explosions, etc, that still count as a decent movie. There can be some thought to plot and character and meaning and still have explosions. Did anyone catch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy? You may not like the genre and thus don’t care for the films, but there is a definitive difference between what Jackson put on the big screen and what Bay gives us.

Again, I know, I get it. A lot of people want to watch a movie (this movie) that is basically 150 minutes of metal-on-metal screeching and tearing with sound louder than a 1992 Metallica concert. My main issues are the continuity of the entire film, the switching between the robot wars and the human emotion. Why not just make this about the robots? If you aren’t going to develop the human characters in any plausible or forward-thinking way, then why have a series of very lame anecdotes about their lives? And maybe I'm just getting old, but I spent about half the movie trying to figure out which robot I was watching. Do they all have to look so damn similar with their razor sharp shrapnel beards?

Megan Fox is off-the-charts sexy and that alone will bring many to the seats. But her character gives absolutely nothing else to the movie. Does she need to? No, I guess not, but I think she could have, with a little more…oh….je ne sais quoi? Shia LaBeouf is quickly becoming too smug for his stature, and it shows. Any thought of sitting back and enjoying these movies is thrown out the window when Sam Witwicky is given to us as the main hero who gets the girl and saves the world. And yes, I get it.

The plot is pretty irrelevant to the discussion, though there is a battle of the good (Autobots) and the bad (Decepticons) fighting it out on Earth over all kinds of science fiction reasons. Casting aside the numerous fatal explosions the humans survive and the countless scenarios where a robot large enough to scale the Great Pyramids can’t wipe out a few secret army personnel, we’re left with the inevitable robots leaving and shouting that they will be back.

I’m sure we will have a third installment. It makes money, right?

* out of 5

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Mini-Movie Review: The Proposal (2009)

The Proposal (2009)

Director - Anne Fletcher
Release Date: 19 June 2009


Margaret Tate - Sandra Bullock
Andrew Paxton - Ryan Reynolds
Grandma Annie - Betty White
Joe Paxton - Craig T. Nelson

In 1994 Sandra Bullock had her breakout role in Speed, a high-action suspense movie that did quite well with audiences. Since then, it seems as if she has put out at least 2 movies every year, constantly in the press, but not really what I would call a superstar actress.

The Net (1995), A Time to Kill (1996), Forces of Nature (1999), Miss Congeniality (2000), Crash (2004) - all movies I've seen with Bullock playing a role, and I would say that 28 Days (2000) is probably my pick as her finest work. Missing from this list for the most part are romantic comedies. I missed them. On purpose. So maybe I'm a bit biased when I continue.

The Proposal is a pretty awful romantic comedy, and like-wise, a pretty awful movie. It is completely formulaic with absolutely zero twists you don't know are coming. The main characters are caricatures of roles past and all supporting cast members add very little. Audiences who enjoy these types of movies will probably find some slight relief from Grandma Annie (Betty White) who pops up throughout the film with some lines that will make you smirk, but not make you forget what you are watching.

The plot is spelled out almost entirely in the trailer, if you happened to catch it, but runs very much something like this: High power and highly hated exec Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) has just days to figure out a way out of being deported back to Canada (don't ask) and, in her infinite wisdom, blackmails her assistant of 3 years Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) into marrying her to make it all good again. Paxton is a scared pushover of a man who loathes his boss. So, in an effort to trick the deportation office into believing it is all on the up and up, a trip to Paxton's home in Alaska to meet the family is in order. What ensues is a bunch of blah blah blah blah blah, with little to no innovation and a whole lot of nothing exciting.

Unlike an earlier released film Duplicity (2009) which I reviewed, starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen (which I found much more watchable) this film fails to reach us on any real emotional level and instead goes straight for the obvious, re-hashed story lines and old jokes.

* 1/2 out of 5

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Movie Review: Bottle Shock (2008)

Bottle Shock (2008)

Director - Randall Miller
Runtime - 110 min


Steven Spurrier - Alan Rickman
Jim Barrett - Bill Pullman
Bo Barrett - Chris Pine
Sam - Rachael Taylor
Gustavo Brambila - Freddy Rodríguez
Joe - Eliza Dushku

In 1976, on a wind-swept farm somewhere near Paris, France, a small gathering of French elite wine connoisseurs put their pallets to the test and, when the spittle had hit the bucket, declared by means of a blind taste-test that the chardonnay of Chateau Montelena of the Napa Valley in California of the United States was the finest white wine in the competition. Hear that today and you’ll likely shrug, for even the most casual wine drinker knows that Napa produces some of the world’s finest vintages. However, at the time of the competition Napa was unknown to all but those who lived in Napa, and the French had a strangle-hold of pride and quality on the wine market.

Bottle Shock is a fictionalized tale very loosely based on the events that lead up to that historic wine tasting event, and it is a fun one. Beautiful scenes shot on location throughout the Napa Valley and a quirky soundtrack that somehow works enhance the story and draws us into the characters and their lives.

A wonderful performance is turned in by Alan Rickman (You’ll notice him as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films) as Steven Spurrier, the British ex-patriot living in France and running one of the most renowned schools on wine who comes up with the idea to hold the contest. His droll demeanor and sophisticated acting bring comic relief throughout the film, and by the end you will find yourself remembering and laughing at his expressions as he traverses the California country-side in search of fine wines. In one memorable scene he studies the glow of the wine in the California sun as it is served to him in a jar normally used for holding preserves.

So too does Bill Pullman (Independence Day) do a fine job as the man who gave up his 9-5 job to pursue his dream of opening a vineyard. Chris Pine (Star Trek), Freddy Rodríguez, and Rachael Taylor (Transformers) play the roles of the youthful son and workers on the vineyard, and I only wish their roles were shortened substantially and replaced with more scenes of Rickman and Pullman. Though their presence is needed to further the story, and ultimately it is Bo who delivers the wine for competition, much of what they bring to the screen is a less dance-filled Footloose performance. More than one scene could have been left on the cutting room floor and no one would have known nor cared. Pine is reasonable as the hippie son unsure of his future, and Rodriguez turns in a decent supporting role, but Taylor appears to only be in the film as eye-candy (And if so it works GREAT!)

With that said, and remembering that this film is VERY loosely based on actual events, this is a fun movie with a great pace and some strong roles. Inevitable comparisons to another great wine movie will surely be made, but this is no Sideways and it never pretends to be. That film was a beautiful comedy about friendship, life and wine, whereas Bottle Shock explores the family dynamic and heart it takes to pull off a dream.

**** out of 5