Thursday, December 23, 2010

2 brief movie reviews: True Grit (2010); The Fighter (2010)

Directors - Ethan and Joel Coen
110 min; PG-13
Jeff Bridges - Rooster Cogburn
Hailee Steinfeld - Mattie Ross
Matt Damon - LaBoeuf
Josh Brolin - Tom Chaney
Barry Pepper - Ned Pepper

I've heard that True Grit (1969) starring John Wayne is a very good film, a true Western in the genre sense, yet I have never seen it, and I'm actually glad because I would not want comparisons to get in the way of my judgment of the new Coen brother's film of the same name. Just when you expected something out of the Coens you get the unexpected, a pretty straight forward western with little to no overly creative plot input. Thankfully this works incredibly well. This is a great film.

Hailee Steinfeld plays the role of 14 year old Mattie Ross, anything but your typical girl in the old west. Seeking to avenge her father's murder at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) she looks to hire the nearest tough guy she can find. In steps Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), an uncouth, broke, drunken son of a bitch of a Marshall who also happens to be tough as nails when it counts. Along with Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who has his own agenda in capturing Chaney, the three form an unlikely trio as they enter dangerous territory in the name of justice and money.

The film is full of laughable moments and you may even laugh out loud from time to time, but it is in no way a comedy and we are reminded of that each time a man's head is blown to pieces. Though Brolin is fine in a limited role and Damon provides some decent scenes, this film is all about Mattie and Rooster, a 14 year old girl with pigtails and a hardened drunk who has killed more men than he can remember. An incredible performance by both is only very very slightly let down by an unnecessary coda, but with little else to criticize I'll just say this is simply one of the best films of the year.

***** out of 5

(Note: Having already done my Best Of List I will simply say this film belongs somewhere in the top 10)

The Fighter (2010)
Director - David O. Russell
115 min; R
Mark Walberg - Micky Ward
Christian Bale - Dicky Eklund
Amy Adams - Charlene
Melissa Leo - Alice Ward

The Fighter, based on the true story of Miky Ward and his half brother Dicky Eklund, does two things which help it rise above a merely average film and into a better than average film, and without both of them I'm not sure this film would succeed as it does.

1: Mark Walberg is not really the star. He is not really the focus of the film. With that in mind, his speaking parts are actually quite limited, a good thing for Mark Walberg as a leading man. Letting his actions and mannerisms speak for themselves serve him much better than trying to read a two page scene.

2: The film does not try to overdo fight scenes, which usually leads to everyone questioning the realism of those scenes which ultimately detracts from the film. This film never really asks us to believe we are watching top quality boxing matches, it simply asks us to believe that the scenes we do watch are, well, believable.

The film is carried by the performance of Christian Bale, as the half brother Dickey to Mark Walberg's Micky Ward, the two siblings from lower class Lowell, MA are boxers. Well, Dickey was a boxer who once went toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray and knocked him down, or perhaps he stumbled to the mat, no matter. Now he is a junkie and HBO is doing a documentary on him in his home town. He's so strung out he never even grasps the reality of the addiction show they are making it out to be. So what? Well, he is also training Micky, and along with his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) they hold total control over him. They are family, but we never really fully grasp the reasons for all the love from Micky. He simply states they are his family.

When Micky begins a relationship with tough talking Charlene (Amy Adams) things change. The film becomes a struggle for Micky to choose what is best for him, which may not include the family he has always relied on, for better or worse. Based on a true story the film is a very good one but falls a little short on the emotional connection you get from, say, Rocky, but I freely admit I went into this with some preconceived notions of what I was going to get from Walberg and Bale, so maybe I'm being a little harsh when I say that it was entertaining enough, but nothing about this film ever really made me think I was watching anything too special.

**** out of 5

Friday, December 17, 2010

2010 Best of Film

Had some time today and just felt like getting this done.

2010 never really felt like a good year for film, but after going through the 50 films I have seen I am pleasantly surprised to find 20 of them that I think are very good to great. I'm going to use Roger Ebert's format for this year and list my top 10 films of the year, then my second tier 10 films in alphabetical order, plus one 'Special Jury Prize'... I am also including all other films I have seen in alphabetical order as well as a few I have not yet seen.

10. The American

Fish Tank

Winter's Bone

The Kids Are All Right

The Social Network


Black Swan

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) (This was a 2009 award winner, but released in the USA in 2010)

The King's Speech

Special Jury Prize for a film that does not fit anywhere else but deserves recognition

The Tillman Story

10 other great films in alphabetical order

Animal Kingdom
Cell 211 (Celda 211)
Get Low
Let Me In (The original Let The Right One In is even better)
Never Let Me Go
Solitary Man
The Ghost Writer
The Town

29 other films I have seen in 2010 (alphabetical)

Alice in Wonderland
Easy A
Fair Game
Green Zone
Harry Brown
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel
Iron Man 2
Morning Glory
Repo Men

Scott Pilgrim VS The World
The A Team
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Killer Inside Me
The Last Exorcism
The Losers
The Runaways
The Warrior's Way
Unstoppable Harry Potter 7 part 1 Shutter Island
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

(Upcoming films I have not seen but intend to: The Fighter, True Grit, Blue Valentine)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A movie review: Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan (2010)
Director - Darren Aronofsky
108 Min; R
Natalie Portman - Nina Sayers
Mila Kunis - Lily
Vincent Cassel - Thomas Leroy
Barbara Hershey - Erica Sayers
Winona Ryder - Beth

At a certain point about halfway through the film Black Swan I started to question my full understanding and expectations of what I was watching, then, thankfully, I re-directed my focus on the beautiful and violent second half in time to come away with a deep appreciation for this Darren Aronofsky film. 108 minutes about ballet may not sound, on the surface, as the type of film you'd choose to spend your money on, but come on, this is Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis locked in a psychological battle that encompasses both the mental and the physical (plus it's got some sweet lesbian action, so it's got that going for it, which is nice.)

The film starts us off in a dream sequence and it never relents nor apologizes for the juxtaposition between the real world and fantasy. If you are looking for a film that connects the dots and at the end you can comfortably say you understood it all, this is not for you. My initial inclination is to compare the feeling I had throughout to that of Mulholland Dr. (2001), a David Lynch film that leaves you with a vague understanding of everything that is happening and just when you sort of think you understand it fully, you realize there is more to discover.

Nina (Portman) is a sheltered young dancer who has spent several years perfecting her craft - she wants to be perfect in her technique - yet she has neglected every other aspect of her life. She lives with her domineering and slightly creepy mother, played with incredible zeal by Barbara Hershey, who was once herself a dancer who never quite made it and now spends all of her time managing Nina and working on her painting in their small Manhattan apartment. When the theater director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) announces that there will be a change in the lead dancer (The famous Beth played by Winona Ryder) and that the new season will feature a production of Swan Lake, Nina plunges her soul into obtaining the part that requires the lead to portray both the good white and bad black swan. A transplant dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives around this time and is immediately perceived as a threat by Nina, something that is seemingly confirmed as Thomas and Lily appear to be getting along on a carnal level that Nina cannot understand, given her limited life and, more to the point, sexual experience.

Where the film goes from here is for you to discover, as it takes a psychological path through the mind of Nina that leaves us with a beautiful final scene that cements Portman's inevitable Oscar nomination. For my money I would also like to see Kunis nominated for Best Supporting Actress, as her role is pivotal to our understanding of Nina's journey. In the same breath I would like to note that Barbara Hershey could very well end up with a nod as well, though in a lesser role she is no less important to our overall emotional involvement in the film.

Followers of Aronofsky will undoubtedly find similarities to some of his other films, but I don't think that detracts from the overall effect. Shaky, hand-held camera angles work very well in many scenes and the tedious scenes of an artist preparing for his or her craft are well done and in no way gratuitous. A voracious score that begs you to see this in a large theater is always present and a willingness by the director to allow the cast to discover their character's inner beings is what makes this a truly special film, and though I found myself wavering on a final verdict I have decided to go with my instinct and say this is one of the best films of the year, though I'm more than willing to admit that some may find it a bit too much of an art house feel to be considered among the best of the year.

***** out of 5

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A movie review: The King's Speech (2010)

The King's Speech (2010)
Director - Tom Hooper
118 min; R
Colin Firth - King George VI
Geoffrey Rush - Lionel Logue
Helena Bonham Carter - Queen Elizabeth

Oscar season is officially open for business.

The King's Speech is a remarkable movie in that it perfectly executes the tying together of everything you want in a film: strong acting from every character; a well defined plot based on an interesting premise; a wonderful score; emotionally satisfying.

With WWII looming ever closer and his brother having just abdicated his seat on the throne so that he could marry a twice divorced American woman, Albert (Colin Firth) is thrust into a position he never anticipated. Taking the name King George VI he is to rule the monarchy as it enters war and he knows he must emote a strong and confident demeanor. There is one problem - he has a severe and persistent stutter. The film opens with an emotionally charged scene of Albert in 1925 as he addresses a crowd at the closing ceremonies of the British Empire Exposition at Wembley Stadium. Stepping to the microphone all goes wrong as he completely freezes. With his wife's (Helena Bonham Carter - the future Queen Elizabeth) ongoing support Bertie (his nickname to only his closest family and friends) goes through a multitude of speech therapists in pursuit of solving his problem. It is the eventual meeting with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) that will forever change his life. Working together closely and running the gauntlet of highs and lows, Logue works feverishly to help the, first future king, and later king as the film leads up to its most pivotal scene - the 9 minute war time declaration speech to broadcast around the world.

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Bertie and Lionel. It is such an unlikely friendship between two very big personalities that it effortlessly leads to high emotional points but surprisingly also lends itself to some very funny scenes and comments, something you may not see coming in this type of film. Firth, Rush and Bonham Carter are all excellent in their roles and it would be no surprise to me to see any of them nominated for multiple awards (though the queen's role may be too limited to be considered.)

If you enjoyed Frost/Nixon (2008) then this film is definitely for you. How can you make something that is known suspenseful? This film uses a wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat who has a long list of credits to his name int he film industry. The film never drags because it does such a wonderful job at weaving different story lines together yet never forgetting that this is the story of a unique friendship. If you enjoy this film like I did you may also find yourself looking up more information about the true history of this story - something I am finding to be very interesting.

***** out of 5

Friday, December 3, 2010

A brief movie review: Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game (2010)
Director - Doug Liman
PG 13; 108 Min
Naomi Watts - Valerie Plame
Sean Penn - Joe Wilson

Not to be confused for one second with the terrible film of the same name starring Cindy Crawford many years ago (the movie may have blown, but it was so worth the $ to slow mo Crawford) the 2010 film called Fair Game is a very good film filled with very good performances based on the actual events surrounding the outing of a covert CIA agent Valerie Plame by members of the White House in retaliation to her husband Joe Wilson calling out the President for lying about an Iraq/Africa terrorist link in President Bush's State of the Union speech that all but sealed the fate of the war.

Sean Penn is his usual self as a confident and cocky actor and he once again chooses a role that fits his style well. It is Naomi Watts who stands out in this one though as she is able to strongly convey the range of emotions this woman must have gone through during this ordeal.

I simply know what I read during the time of this, some 7 years ago, and so I can't speak too much to the validity of all the movie facts, but as a story it is quite compelling and I strongly suggest you see it.

**** out of 5

A movie review: The Warrior's Way (2010)

Director - Sngmoo Lee
R; 100 Min
Don-Gung Jang - Yang
Kate Bosworth - Lynne
Geoffrey Rush - Ron

I am completely baffled that the current ratings for the new film The Warrior's Way sit at 40% on yet 70% on How it crept over 30% on either site seems silly as this is nothing more than a film that takes a wild and creative thought and completely butchers the execution. Not only does the 70% rating blow my mind, but it makes me wonder if anyone anywhere at anytime can ever trust an imdb rating ever again (And yes, I too love The Shawshank Redemption.)

With that said, this isn't the worst movie I have seen this year. There is some decent action, but most of the good stuff happens way after the half way point, which means 50minutes of set up for a film that needs no more than 15. The problem is that it all just feels like the crew picked apart every single aspect they liked about Westerns and Ninja genres from all of time and tried to splice them together to create a super-movie about westerns and ninjas. It doesn't work well.

At the heart of the failure is Kate Bosworth (my ex-wife from the Blue Crush days) who absolutely mutilates her role as the only good looking young woman in a town of gunslingers and whores. Someone gave her the idea (the director? perhaps?) that she should play an 'aww-shucks' and 'woe is me' type of character, when in reality her character is seething with an inner want for revenge against the man who killed her family. Her training sessions with Yang (played by Korean star Don-Gung Jang) are comical at best as she goes from poor stuttering can't hit a barn wall with a rock girl to amazingly skilled ninja warrior to let me give him a kiss and giggle like a school girl. How can this possibly work? It can't.

Can someone explain to me how Geoffrey Rush got in this film? I can only assume he stumbled onto the set drunk one day and nobody had the heart to tell him to leave. The guy has an Oscar yet here he is about as useful as Josh Brolin's Jonah Hex, scarred face and all.

The movie is rated R which is good because it crosses the line in a lot of spots for a film that doesn't feel like it should be R. Pedophile rape possibilities abound as ninja warriors and western cowboys shed more blood than a Tarantino film and somewhere in the middle of it all is a plot about a baby that Yang wouldn't kill...or something like that.

* and 1/2 out of 5

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A recap post of my favorite reviewed films

There should be some pretty decent films coming out this month as everyone vies for a shot at Oscar. I figured I'd put together a list of all my 4/5 and higher ranked reviewed films over the past few years so that if you are looking to fill some nights with Netflix or Redbox you'd have something to go off, instead of blindly choosing something and hoping that Vantage Point will be a solid flick (it isn't.) You can search for the actual review of a film if you would like to read it or just ask and I'll post.

In order by date of my review, starting with the most recent, with bolded films being my personal favorites:

Unstoppable 4/5
Harry Potter 7 part 1 4/5
Cell 211/Celda 211 4/5
Never Let Me Go 4/5
The Social Network 5/5
Let Me In 4/5
A Single Man 4.5/5
Me and Orson Welles 4.5/5
Solitary Man 4/5
The American 4/5
Animal Kingdom 4/5
Get Low 4/5
The Tillman Story 4.5/5
The Kids Are All Right 4.5/5
An Education 4/5
Winter's Bone 4.5/5
Inception 5/5
The Secret In Their Eyes/El secreto de sus ojos 5/5
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 5/5
Primer I gave it 3.5/5 but it is a great sci-fi/realism flick shot for pennies
Who the %&*# is Jackson Pollack? 4/5
The King of Kong 4/5
Man On Wire 5/5
Fish Tank 5/5
Crazy Heart 5/5
Disgrace 5/5
Up In The Air 5/5
Antichrist 4.5/5 (warning - read up on this one before you decide if it is for you - very graphic)
A Serious Man 5/5
Zombieland 5/5
Cold Souls 3.5/5 - another 3.5/5 that I really like
Inglourious Basterds 4.5/5
District 9 4/5
The Hurt Locker 5/5
Hunger 5/5
Tyson 4/5
The Great Buck Howard
Watchmen 4/5
Let The Right One In/Lat den ratte komma in 5/5
In Bruges 4.5/5
Wendy and Lucy 4/5
Vicky Cristina Barcelona 4/5
Revolutionary Road 4.5/5
Milk 4/5
The Wrestler 5/5
Synecdoche, NY 5/5
Slumdog Millionaire 4/5
Frost/Nixon 5/5
Pride and Glory 4/5
Iron Man 4/5
The Dark Knight 4/5
Juno 4/5
Zodiac 4/5

Monday, November 22, 2010

3 brief reviews: Unstoppable; Harry Potter 7; Morning Glory

Unstoppable (2010)
Director: Tony Scott
PG-13; 98 Min
Denzel Washington - Frank
Chris Pine - Will
Rosario Dawson - Connie

Director Tony Scott has consistently put out good films for over 20 years including, but not limited to: Days of Thunder(1990); True Romance(1993); Crimson Tide(1995); Enemy of the State(1998); Spy Game; Man on Fire (2004). More often than not he teams up with Denzel Washington and this is no exception in the freight-train-gone-wild film Unstoppable out now in theaters. Based loosely on the actual events of an unmanned train incident that took place in 2001, this is a film that initially interested me very little. How could they possibly make this a good film, I thought, and was sure it would be filled with a lot of over-the-top sequences and completely fabricated suspense. Well, I can't say they didn't employ those tactics a bit throughout, but overall I was very impressed with the speed of the action, the development of characters (not much, but not much needed to fulfill their roles) and overall arc and conclusion of the story. Chris Pine is fine as a rookie conductor working along side the soon to be out of work elder statesmen of the industry Denzel and Rosario Dawson is competent with limited material as director of the train yard. At just over an hour and a half it is fast paced and pleasantly cathartic.

**** out of 5

Morning Glory (2010)
Director: Roger Michell
PG-13; 102 min
Rachel McAdams - Becky Fuller
Harrison Ford - Mike Pomeroy
Diane Keaton - Colleen Peck
Jeff Goldblum - Jerry Barnes

My severe and delusional infatuation with Rachel McAdams (she will be my wife, oh yes she will!) is not nearly delusional enough for me to recommend her new film Morning Glory, a story of an upstart young woman (Becky Fuller) focused 100% on her career as a morning tv producer. Thankfully, for me, I am able to say it is not because of her performance, rather a dragging plot line which fails to bring the viewer into any sort of emotional caring, as well as a hugely disappointing role by Harrison Ford as the long time anchor Mike Pomeroy (think Dan Rather) with a career derailment sending him to lowly morning talk. If you had a problem with Christian Bale and his Dark Knight voice get ready to walk out early as Ford continually scowls his way through this film with a caricatured voice of which I lack the vocabulary to adequately poke fun. Jeff Goldblum gives Becky a shot at running the 4th in ratings and almost ready to fail morning show for the network IBS. She has Colleen Peck as co-anchor played well by Diane Keaton but who cannot play well with Mike (the two are from different planets) and it is only a matter of time before everything blows up. Can Becky save the day? Her performance saves the film from being terrible, but even her overly-bright and perky demeanor throughout cannot redeem the dreariness of this one.

** 1/2 out of 5

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1(2010)
Director: David Yates
PG-13; 146 min
Daniel Radcliffe - Harry Potter
Emma Watson - Hermione Granger
Rupert Grint - Ron Weasley
etc, etc, etc

Director David Yates returns for his third installment in the Harry Potter franchise, this time with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Part 2 will be released in 2011 and will complete the series.) The magical little kids are all grown up now (seen Hermione?) but not just physically. Gone are the days of playful explosions and quiddich matches at Hogwarts - for Hogwarts figures into the plot about a total of 2 minutes. The world is a dark place with Lord Voldemort taking full control and without the aid of Professor Dumbledore things are looking pretty bleak. With just a handful of obscure clues to work with, the trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione must search far and wide for the Horcruxes which conceal the soul of Voldemort, for only once they are destroyed can he be destroyed. This film takes a decidedly darker tone (much like the book) in content and appearance. Darker colors and less playful banter throughout help to make this a very compelling adaptation and one that leaves us with a strong sense that the final film should not disappoint. It can also be noted that the acting of all three main characters is vastly improved. Hopefully children who have grown up with the series are well into their teens by the time they see this film - I noticed quite a few very young children in the theaters and simply put, this Harry Potter film has moved out of the family friendly.

**** out of 5

Friday, November 5, 2010

A brief movie review: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (2010)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2010)

Director - Daniel Alfredson
147 min; R
Noomi Rapace - Lisbeth Salander
Michael Nyqvist - Mikael Blomkvist

I'm not going to spend a long time on this third installment of the series, but I am happy to say that this film is much much better than the second (The Girl Who Played with Fire: Considering how horrible the second feature was, that isn't saying a lot, but this one does hold up just fine and answers all the questions we could hope to have spoon fed to us. The plot is absurd enough throughout all three films, especially in subtitles, that it is a welcome thing to have much of the plot broken down nice and easy for us. You may recall my high praise for the first in the series (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: and once again we have the main characters back doing what they do best.

Do yourselves a favor and see the first film. If you like it then watch the second begrudgingly, and then finish off the series with a well made and decent finale.

*** out of 5

A brief movie review: Stone (2010)

Stone (2010)

Director - John Curran
105 min; R
Robert De Niro - Jack
Ed Norton - Stone
Milla Jovovich - Lucetta

I have a strong suspicion that your judgment of the film Stone will depend greatly on factors such as your expectations, your previous knowledge of the film content, and most likely on what you have already heard or read. I think we would all love to see this cast succeed and thus when the movie doesn't completely live up to any promised hype it may in fact feel like a let down. I don't buy it, though, and for the money I am more than happy to have sat through this film - it was worth it completely to see Ed Norton pull off a pretty impressive role, but even more so for a final act rant from De Niro that made me think of the once great actor in his prime.

De Niro is a soon to be retired parole officer who is simply riding out the last month of his career cleaning up his current case load. Norton is Stone, a prisoner who has completed 8 years of a 10-15 sentence for his part as the look out in a murder and the subsequent arson of the home. Milla Jovovich plays Lucetta, Stone's wife on the outside. To retell this plot is a little absurd. It is actually a very straight forward story that relies heavily on the actors bringing their characters to life and, just as importantly, it relies on we the viewer to do some thinking throughout. This is not an easy film to watch and it is highly woven with themes of religion and lots and lots of symbolism.

I'm not sure I can say 'see it', but I think it deserves better than the 50-60% rankings it is showing on the major sites.

*** and 1/2 out of 5

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A movie review: Celda 211 (2010) aka Cell 211

Cell 211 (2009)
aka "Celda 211" - Spain (original title)

Director - Daniel Monzon
113 min; Unrated
Alberto Ammann - Juan Oliver
Luis Tosar - Malamadre

You simply cannot know how you will react to traumatic circumstances until you are thrust into the middle of the storm. If you are Juan Oliver in the film Cell 211 you quickly discover that surviving at all costs is both a skill and an instinctive response. I'm not sure how realistic this film is in the quest to portray dilapidated prison conditions which house Spain's worst offenders, but I sure hope I never have to find out. Besides, the film does not come across as a political message about the lives of prisoners in Spain, it is more or less a simple story of survival for one man trapped in a nightmare who has to make unthinkable choices at every turn. Perhaps there is more significance to those in Spain or the surrounding area, but as an American viewer I appreciated the film as an entertaining and intriguing story all by itself.

One day before he is to start his new job as a prison guard at a Zamora prison, Juan Oliver kisses his pregnant young wife and goes to take a tour of the facilities. He is given the tour by 2 of his soon to be co-workers and he learns briefly about the conditions of the DSS prisoners - those who are marked for special surveillance and spend almost all of their time in solitary confinement taking regular beatings from officers. A split second later everything changes for Oliver. A freak accident leaves him injured just as a riot breaks out in the prison. Left with a choice to help him or save themselves the two guards bolt leaving Oliver stranded and wounded in the empty cell 211. When he awakens he is foggy but must quickly determine how to survive. Passing himself off cleverly as a new inmate, Oliver must gain the trust of everyone or be killed on the spot.

Though staying on the good side of everyone in the riot is important, it is really only the opinion of the riot leader, Malamadre, that matters. A brutal killer with nothing to lose, he is well versed in the prison system and the art of negotiation. He knows that a riot is the only way to get better conditions in any form from the prison or the government, but usually once the riot is over the demands which were met are quickly dismissed. This time he has a better plan that includes the hostage taking of 3 political prisoners of great importance.

The film contains some cliche moments and some caricatured characters, but overall the interplay between Oliver and Malamadre is superb. One is a regular guy, decent, the other a complex murderer, and it is up to Oliver to make sure their relationship stays civil. Along the way Oliver must make personal sacrifices which border on the unthinkable, and in the end he must struggle greatly with a turn that he could have never foreseen.

The film is shot in a grainy texture that I admire for the subject matter, and though you have to suspend disbelief for some of the plot, the overall theme is carried well throughout and sometimes portrayed with brutal and striking violence. Psychologically this is a strong film that will leave you thinking as the credits roll. The film won 8 Goya awards, which is equivalent to a film sweeping the Oscars. I'm not sure it deserves all that, but it is definitely a worthy film of your time.

**** out of 5

Monday, October 18, 2010

A brief movie review: Red (2010)

Red (2010)

Director - Robert Schwentke
111 min; PG-13

Bruce Willis - Frank Moses
Mary-Louise Parker - Sarah Ross
Morgan Freeman - Joe Matheson
John Malkovich - Marvin Boggs
Hellen Mirren - Victoria

Everything about the movie Red is, well, below average, but everything sort of falls into place to create an ok movie with ok action and ok comedy. I paid to see it without any expectations and I'll suggest you wait for it to come out on some sort of new sci-fi technologically superior device to the beta/vhs/cd/blu-ray or Netflix. If, however, you decide to plop down some cash, I don't think you'll be too too sorry afterwards. It has some laughs and the cast alone makes it watchable. Malkovich is usually good in anything he does and he provides some of the better scenes (with the material he has.) Think of the entire film as a way for the movie makers to put some former big names together and have a bit of fun. It works and it doesn't work just about equally. If you are completely unfamiliar with the plot just know that Bruce Willis is a retired black ops sort of guy (Retired; Extremely Dangerous) being hunted down by his own government, so naturally he rounds up the ol' gang and a random love interest to try and survive.

** and 1/2 out of 5

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A movie review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

Note: If you are completely unfamiliar with this story then this review will contain spoilers to you

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Director - Mark Romanek
103 Min; R
Carey Mulligan - Kathy
Andrew Garfield - Tommy
Keira Knightley - Ruth

Kazuo Ishiguro penned the novel Never Let Me Go on which the new film by Mark Romanek is based. For those who have read it (I have not but have added it to my want list) the film will play with some slight differences but an overall similar theme of sadness. Director Romanek is responsible for another dark piece of which I am a fan, the 2002 film One Hour Photo. In both cases I probably feel about the same, that each film is ultimately lacking something yet I am inclined to remember each one for the good and not for the bad.

In Never Let Me Go, we are introduced to the British school Hailsham which houses a number of school children. They attend class, play sports and paint artwork. All would seem perfectly normal except that these children, while living what would seem to be a typical existence, are anything but typical. Raised from a time before birth to fulfill one purpose, all of these children will someday donate their organs to members of society who require them, and after they have donated enough, they will expire. The euphemisms are easy to figure out - these children are raised for the sole purpose to eventually die upon donating perfectly healthy organs, typically it appears in their late 20s or early 30s. Until they reach that age they live secluded lives with glimpses of the outside world. They experience emotions and even sex but because of the way they are raised, it appears they do not question much their existence.

The acting is superb and it is once again Carey Mulligan who leads the way. As the narrator and one of the central figures, she plays Kathy, a girl at Hailsham who grows up very inquisitive and very much in love with Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who is, like so many among us, torn away by another woman, her best friend Ruth (Keira Knightley.) The movie spends too much time, in my opinion, setting up these early years, specifically the childhood years, in which none of these actors take part since the roles are for children. By the time we get these three in their late teens and onward half the movie feels over. I would have preferred a much briefer set up and more of these three interacting as young adults.

From a movie-making perspective I thought a lot of the pacing and much of the score was out of sorts. For one, there was simply too much time with not much happening in the middle of the film, though everything felt like it should be there, it was not presented very well. I also took issue with certain scenes and an unrelenting pulse-pounding score when it just felt very out of place. With that out of the way, however, I found the film to be beautiful in many ways, especially if you appreciate films with character build up and sad themes that make we, as humans, think about our own existence. Yes it feels like an 'artsy' film at times but Mulligan does well to keep everything on track. She is a true gem of an actress.

In the greater scheme of things this film is about what it is to be human. This is not a sci fi film like The Island and it takes things much much further than, say, My Sister's Keeper. The greatest flaw, for me, is simply the lack of desperation on these young children's part once they do discover the truth. Perhaps it is explained in the book, but for the life of me I can not understand why they do not attempt to break free when given the opportunity. Perhaps it is a case of brainwashing from the time they were born to believe their higher purpose is to donate and then complete, but as the film progresses and these three characters really seem to become emotionally involved, it just feels like they have overlooked the basic fight or flight response.

**** out of 5

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A movie review: The Social Network (2010)

Director - David Fincher
120 min; PG-13
Jesse Eisenberg - Mark Zuckerberg
Andrew Garfield - Eduardo Saverin
Justin Timberlake - Sean Parker
Armie Hammer - Cameron Winklevoss
Josh Pence - Tyler Winklevoss

Like it or not, participate in it or not, we are all living in the world of Facebook. In just 7 years a program started in a Harvard dorm room by a genius programming student has morphed into a 25 billion dollar company and the clear cut favorite as the giant of 'social networking' that can now boast over 500 million members - 'friends'. How it came to be, well that is the subject of David Fincher's film The Social Network which tackles the 'too crazy to be true' story of young Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his founding of Facebook, though others have always laid claim that Mark stole the idea from them in a blatant way. This film does a wonderful job of weaving the story of 2 major lawsuits involving Zuckerberg and the back story to why they came about. Andrew Garfield is wonderful as Mark's only real friend, Eduardo, who fronts some of the money and is the chief financial officer of the start up site. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are two Olympic rowers who claim they had their idea stolen. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) had already founded The music revolution of Napster and been sued out of everything by the time he met Mark and became involved in raising funds. And in the middle of it all sat Mark Zuckerberg, an anti-social behavior type who also secretly longed to belong to some of the most prominent groups.

The film is not billed as a truly true story, rather it takes many liberties with fictionalized notions of what may have happened. Much of the court proceedings were available to the filmmakers, but with the decline of Zuckerbger to be interviewed or to talk to anyone involved it was only the recollections of those around him that could be used to piece together the events that took place. So speaking of real life I cannot do, but speaking of the film I can say it is a wonderful success. Eisenberg portrays a brilliant programmer who sees the big picture but also seemingly has no care for the money he could be making nor for the basic moral compass that leads many people to stick up for their friends, not fire them.

In a nutshell the story is shown to us as a major multi-million dollar lawsuit against Zuckerberg for his supposed theft of the basic idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins who had approached him to help them construct a website called The Harvard Connection. While seemingly doing his work for them Mark was actually spending his time creating TheFacebook, a social site for college students based on many of the exact parameters set out by the Winklevoss twins as the basics for their site. Along with his friend Eduardo (who put up the start up funds for Facebook) Mark was able to very rapidly grow the website, even while being threatened with cease and desist letters. As the lightning like speed of growth continued a new face entered the scene - Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Parker was a young prodigy himself having created the infamous Napster which is credited as leading to much of the downfall of the music industry. He saw his chance to cash in and soon he was a 7% owner of the company - Mark held 51%, Andrew 33%, another partner 7% and now new investors were starting to get their share of the pie.

The eventual lawsuits would lead to multi-million dollar settlements and Mark Zuckerberg is still the owner of Facebook. He has an estimated value of $25 billion dollars, yet his interest in money has never been strong. This film takes a look at an unreal true story of friendship and betrayal in a way which leads us to understand we will never know the full truth, but one thing we do understand is that when big money is involved, the meaning of friendship changes.

***** out of 5

A movie review: Let Me In (2010)

Let Me In (2010)

Director - Matt Reeves
115 Min; R
Owen - Kodi Smith-Mcphee
Abby - Chloe Moretz
The Father - Richard Jenkins

Let Me In is a rare re-make of a film that is barely 2 years old. We are used to a remake coming out after a generation has passed and the movie industry feels that a new audience will embrace a film that is faithful to the original but with differences. The most recent example would be the new Karate Kid movie, in which a child of a different race in a different setting is trained by a master of a different profession, yet the premise of the movie is still the same as the original Karate Kid we all now. The main difference with this remake is that the original, Låt den rätte komma in (2008) aka "Let the Right One In", is a Swedish film which was shown in the United States with subtitles. The film was a critical success but not so much of a box office boom in the US. Someone realized that the wonderful original (my review is listed in full at the end of this piece) warranted a wider audience. It is unfortunate that so many pass on movies with subtitles but it is no doubt a fact that many do. And so, just a few years after the original, we have an American remake.

Unlike some other remakes you may be familiar with, this film attempts to stay very close to the tone, theme and setting of the original. Instead of a cold and snowy Swedish setting we have a cold and snowy setting in Los Alamos, NM. The names of the main characters have changed but the premise of a young teenage boy leading a bullied and unloved life is still the main focus. When a seemingly young girl, Abby, and her 'father' move into his apartment complex Owen, a shy and sad boy, attempts to befriend her. She tells him that she cannot be his friend. That is kind of strange. And thus the movie unfolds with the reasons for that statement. As with the original this film introduces us to what the world would be like for a vampire living in our world, trying to survive without bringing attention to itself. Abby looks like a little girl, but she is not a she and she 'has been twelve for a very long time.'

There are definite differences from the original but the director did a very good job of capturing the overall sadness and despair, and Richard Jenkins as 'The Father' puts a nice spin on the role of a protector who is nearing the end of his ability or want to perform his duties to Abby. The symbiotic relationship between a vulnerable young boy looking for some type of love and a young looking vampire girl who needs help procuring life-sustaining blood is actually quite beautiful. The original does a better job at conveying all of this, but the remake receives a full passing grade from me (though I simply cannot say enough that you should see the original first.)

**** out of 5

Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
aka "Let the Right One In"

Director - Tomas Alfredson
Oskar - Kåre Hedebrant
Eli - Lina Leandersson

Let me say that this film is wonderful. It is dark and brooding and self-reflective, but not in a pompous way. Nor is it characteristic of what you might expect from a film with a plot centering on the lives of two children, each experiencing the torments of adolescence, though from, relatively speaking, views which are worlds and worlds apart.

It is a fairly common theme in movies to take the coming-of-age emotions of love and isolation and wanting and feelings of inadequacy and being needed, and to cram them into a box of 90 minutes and spit out the other side a formulaic tale of boy meets girl and goes to the dance. What director Tomas Alfredson has done is to take all those emotions and squeeze every bit of realism out of Oskar and Eli, a 12 year old boy and girl respectively played by Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, and make we the viewers feel genuine sympathy for their situations. Each suffers as children often do who are in difficult home-life situations, and each struggles to find their self-identity. What they find in friendship is a comfort to one another they have never known.Were I to stop writing at this point I’m not sure if you would want to see the film or not, but I guess I have left out an important plot component: Eli is a vampire. She tells Oskar she has been “About 12 years old for a very long time” and, judging by the lack of pigmentation and deep, dark circles surrounding her haunting eyes, we have no reason not to believe what she says. Oskar, bullied at school and a member of a family that does not really care for him, is able to see past this admitted flaw and the two begin a symbiotic relationship built on the trust that each has angst the other can and cannot understand.

I loved the storyline for this film. I was enamored by the sweeping scenes of snow-covered grounds and icy ponds and dark, dripping blood from time to time. Two more qualified actors would have been hard to find to portray such dense subject matter for the age group, and though it takes a leap of faith to believe in the topic, it does not take any such leap to believe in the acting abilities of these children.

The entire base of the film is rooted in mystical realism that I find fascinating, and I am surprised and a bit saddened that the film has not received more of a response in the USA. I believe an American re-make is in the works and I cringe at the thought of such a beautifully told tale (in subtitles if that matters to you) might be butchered. See this film and enjoy it as the piece of art for which it will most certainly be remembered.

***** out of 5

Friday, September 24, 2010

5 very brief recaps of recent (ish) films: Hefner; A Single Man; Greenberg; Repo Men; Me and Orson Welles

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (2010) - It's pretty much impossible for me to give anything but a favorable opinion of an entire documentary on the life of Hugh Hefner, but it does stop somewhere just above average. Some great footage of the early years of Playboy make this wonderful but overall it falls very short in examining fully what his life and Playboy really mean to society.

*** out of 5

A Single Man (2009) - Colin Firth is quite extraordinary in the role of a gay professor who has recently lost his partner and is now searching for meaning in his life. The entire look and feel of the film is superb and should not be missed.

**** and 1/2 out of 5

Greenberg (2010) - Ben Stiller turns out a pretty strong performance as the mentally unstable Greenberg, housesitting in LA for his successful brother. The film doesn't hold up in the long run but I applaud it for taking chances and if you like quirky offbeat themes and styles I suggest you give it a chance.

*** out of 5

Repo Men (2010) - An interesting and promising premise ultimately goes completely wrong. In a future-ish world if you don't pay for your organs as needed they are repo'ed by people like Jude Law and Forest Whitaker. Somewhere around 45 minutes into a decent movie a knife fight breaks out that seems to last for the remainder of the film.

** out of 5

Me and Orson Welles (2009) - Zac Efron as a young actor experiences what it is to be a part of stage history and in the process holds his own against a very very strong performance by Christian McKay as Orson Welles

**** and a 1/2 out of 5

A mini movie review: Easy A (2010)

Easy A (2010)

Director - Will Gluck
92 Min; PG-13
Emma Stone - Olive
Amanda Bynes - Marianne

Perhaps it has an awful lot to do with me not being a teenage girl, but this film with a very loose adaptation and interpretation of the Scarlet Letter is as close as it gets to me wanting to douse myself in lighter fluid and light up a nice fat cigar. Emma Stone, who was very good in Zombieland, is the only thing that makes this film remotely entertaining and I look forward to watching her career blossom (terrible film related pun) as she hopefully chooses meatier roles (see the last pun.)

Amanda Bynes is terrible in a role that was not written for her but merely for any blond girl with nice skin (so soft, right?) At 92 minutes you would think I could get through it, but about 60 minutes in I had had enough (well, at 20 minutes, but I gave it a shot) and I walked out of the theater packed with packs of teenagers laughing it up. See Mean Girls for a film that understands how to take the awkward teenage life and transform an outcast girl into something else. This film may have an audience with the younger crowd and if it makes a profit I give it credit, but even on a great day I don't know how you can enjoy this one.

1/2 * out of 5

A mini movie review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Director - Oliver Stone
133 Min; PG-13
Shia LaBeouf - Jake
Michael Douglas - Gordon Gekko
Josh Brolin - Bretton James
Carey Mulligan - Winnie Gekko
Frank Langella - Louis Zabel

My expectations for the sequel to an all time favorite had been relatively low ever since I heard the rumors of a follow up film with not just a cameo by the larger than life figure of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) but a film built with him as a primary figure. When I found out Shia LaBeouf (Tansformers; Indiana Jones...Crystal Skull) was going to be the lead hot shot a la Charlie Sheen's character in the original I contemplated never even seeing it. Thankfully I can say with ease that the film more than holds up and you should have no reservations paying your $10.

I was able to put aside my severe dislike for LaBeouf and will give him credit for doing the best he could with the material given, thankfully gone are his nervous twitches and over-the-top reactions to every single scene in which he has ever previously been. Really strong supporting roles are everywhere in this film, not limited to just Douglas, as Carrie Mulligan (An Education)continues to excel at everything she touches and Josh Brolin just never seems to choose a poor role (That I've seen lately). For my money it is the smallest supporting role in the film that is the best and that is turned in by Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) as an aging giant on Wall Street. Nobody acts like Langella anymore - strong and 100% in character.

The film follows the lives of a young trader and his relationship with an up and coming liberal website blogger who also happens to be the grown up daughter of the once great and powerful Gordon Gekko. His release from prison years ago and a run in with Jake produce a film about possible redemption mixed in with a modern day theme of Wall Street and the housing market crash. Overall a solid film with a lot to like, but a story that is simply too grand in scope. There is probably enough for 2 movies in this film and that makes it feel heavy, but all is forgiven when Carrie Mulligan does her thing and makes us all realize we are watching one of the next great actresses.

**** out of 5

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A movie review: The Town (2010)

The Town (2010)

Director - Ben Affleck
125 min; R

Ben Affleck - Doug MacRay
Rebecca Hall - Claire
Jeremy Renner - James/Jem
Blake Lively - Krista
Chris Cooper - Stephen MacRay
Jon Hamm - FBI Agent Frawley
Pete Postlethwaite - The Florist

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer or, perhaps, keep your female bank teller hostage even closer after releasing her. That would be my mock tag line for the Ben Affleck directed The Town which runs for 125 minutes and tells the story of a local bank robbery gang in the Boston suburb of Charlestown, revealed at the opening to be the bank robbery capital. Filmed in a style I very much appreciate - overhead city views and point of view chase scenes to name a few - Ben Affleck has followed up his Gone Baby Gone direction leaving little doubt for his talents behind the camera. He has a clear command of the shot sequences and though I prefer the work of Gone to the Town in general, they each work in style. I wish I could give as much praise for his acting.

Affleck is Doug MacRay, a born and bred Charlestown boy who grew up with a pedigree of bank robbers and surroundings of people up to no good. He never had a chance is what we are led to believe. Some 30 years later or so Doug wants out. No more bank jobs. No more Charlestown. He wants to start over in life but there are a few, well more than just a few, issues holding him back. His incarcerated father Stephen (Chris Cooper) is serving life sentences nearby and his connections to the Florist (Pete Postlethwaite) run deep. The Florist is the mastermind of the bank jobs orchestrating everything from the friendly confines of a storefront window. Doug now works for him. His mother left them when Doug was just six. The brief scene with Cooper and Affleck is one of the best in the film and really shows just how a great actor can turn nominal material into something very powerful. Then there is James, or Jem as he is often called ("Aren't you just a gem?" he would hear as a child, mockingly), played by Jeremy Renner in a strong performance. Having done a stretch of 9 years in prison related to an incident with Doug he feels owed more bank jobs and Doug talking about leaving just isn't going to cut it. They are a team from the same neighborhood.

After Doug (Affleck) and his unit take down a bank score they bring along Claire (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage, only to release her shortly after. Jem worries that she is the only one who can identify them, since they concealed their faces and bodies well with scary masks, and Doug agrees to check her out since they know she lives nearby. In a surreal turn of events Doug and Claire begin a relationship. Is Doug just trying to cover himself or is he really trying to change his life? That is the main question of the film and it is the one thing Affleck is pretty bad at conveying. The ongoing relationship theme mixed with the bank heists and shots of town life do not always gel together in a cohesive fashion. Ultimately it is clear that Affleck cannot hold screen presence in this film against the rest of the cast. Though her role is limited in range, Hall is pretty good as a bank teller who moved into the town and is finding her way in life. Renner as Jem is a strong force on the screen and Blake Lively as the junkie townie Krista also gives a great performance. We are left with Affleck trying to carry this film on his shoulders and unable to do so, perhaps a little due to his acting and a little due to some plot issues, but together they have problems.

After seemingly opening up to each other as if they were life long soul mates after just a brief period of time, Claire tells Doug of her emotional trauma over being taken hostage a few days ago, how she felt, how terrified. Doug looks deadpan at her and musters "I'm sorry" with a puppy dog look. I almost laughed. It isn't long before the two of them are discussing dead siblings and deadbeat parents like they are discussing which restaurant to have their first date. Doug just doesn't seem to have any good scenes with women in this film. Every time he has dialogue with a female it comes across like a Lifetime movie.

I enjoyed the realistic style of the bank jobs in this film, the brutal force and scare tactics which seem to feel real. This isn't a caper movie with elaborate schemes - this is a group of guys knocking off banks and bank cars and taking the money in broad daylight and running. The chase scenes which were inevitable are ok and I loved the point of view style that switched throughout, but perhaps I am being a bit petty that is bothered me so much that they were able to hold an 80 mph chase scene through the streets of Charlestown and surrounding Boston and almost never see or run into another vehicle. Those familiar with this area as I am will surely laugh out loud at the absurdity of being able to maneuver a vehicle like that. Perhaps it was a Holiday and a Red Sox game was going on and there was mandatory street cleaning closings which caused the normally heavily congested streets to part like the red sea? But I digress.

My main complaint with the film is not the love story that falls short in scope and genuine feel (it does) but more so with the lack of time comprehension. At no point could I really tell whether one job was a day ago or a month ago, or if the Claire and Doug motif was progressing at a snails pace or taking place over the course of many months. It really was distracting to me to not know. I also disliked a lot the use of attempted comic relief throughout the film. Every 15-20 minutes there was a forced line of dialogue with an attempted wittiness that made about 1/4 of the audience let out a laugh. After shooting an armed guard amidst a very chaotic and tense robbery scene one of the masked robbers steps over the fallen man and says "You should have stayed in the van" and then runs off. Why is that needed? Would that EVER happen? It is all totally unnecessary to the film and its style. See the recently released Animal Kingdom for how to film a full length film about this material without the use of cheap tactics.

I definitely never felt the relationship between Claire and Doug was strong enough to warrant the all out ending that revolves around them. It simply never made it that far to be believable. The ball was also dropped with Jem's character and his strong dislike of Doug's continuing attachment with Claire. He makes some pretty strong remarks about what he would like to have happen to her but then it all sort of goes away. He is too tough and too stubborn to not follow through with some sort of action. There is an long scene that takes place at Fenway Park which just feels very forced, almost as if Affleck felt he would be vilified if he did not have something happen outside of Charlestown. It felt gimmicky to me in an otherwise pretty well done film. About 300,000 bullets fly and you can count on one hand the number of people hit by them. Again, I am nit-picking some items and mainly feel Affleck should have stuck to directing someone stronger in the role of Doug, because the film as a whole was enjoyable if you are willing to put aside plot holes and the entire premise of Doug and Claire's relationship. Is it a robber movie? Is it a love story? Is it a redemption story? I don't think it is all and I don't think it is one. Whether Doug finds what he is longing for and whether we as an audience even care about it if he does is up to you to decide.

*** and 1/2 out of 5

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A movie review: Solitary Man (2010)

Note: This film came out earlier in the year and will probably not be showing at this time

Solitary Man (2010)

Director - Brian Koppelman

90 Min; R


Michael Douglas - Ben Kalmen
Susan Sarandon - Nancy Kalmen
Danny DeVito - Jimmy Merino
Jenna Fischer - Susan
Jessee Eisenberg - Daniel
Imogen Poots - Allyson
Mary Louise Parker - Jordan

The movie opens in a way that leaves no doubt as to what kind of film we are to see nor what kind of man Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is likely to be. Walking alone to the background song Solitary Man (A very strong version by Johnny Cash, but clearly not as great as the original Neil Diamond version) we see where the director is going to take this figure. The title says a lot, but Douglas makes it his own. Solitary Man is not breaking any new ground with material, but it does a wonderful job at portraying what can and does happen to people who burn all their bridges and live with a self-destructive nature. I wasn't sure Michael Douglas would be the correct actor to pull this off, but I am happy to admit that I was wrong.

There is a lot going on for a film of only 90 minutes and I'd like to think that this should have been a 2 hour film. Some relationships feel perfectly fleshed out, yet I find myself wanting to have known a bit more about some of them. Maybe that is the sign of a good film though, leaving me wanting to know just a bit more without feeling anything was left out.

Ben Kalmen was a successful car salesmen - 'the most honest' in the business - and a pseudo-celebrity in his region. He had money, power and fame. What Ben's life was like up until this point is not really known and it is hard to decipher from the movie, but what is certain is that around this time Ben's doctor informs him that he has a heart murmur and needs more tests because it could be very serious.

Ben does not go back for more tests.

Over the course of the next 6 years Ben's life takes a downward turn. His family life falls apart and his relationship with his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and his grandson is on shaky ground. He has creepy tendencies towards his 18 year old step-daughter (Imogen Poots) and while accompanying her on a college interview he befriends a nerdy college kid Daniel (Jessee Eisenberg) and does his best to teach him how to meet girls. He is a revolving door of sex with nameless women in bars and off the street whom he does his very best to never learn anything about and to never see again.

What happened? Well, after learning of his potential impending death, Ben decided sort of lost perspective. He got involved in a shady car scam that left him in jail for a night and on all the front page papers. He paid a very very large sum of his own money to get out of real prison, but now he is struggling just to make ends meet. His old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito) lets him work at his deli, lending advice on what it means to be faithful to a woman for 30 years and to be content with making 58k a year and living a decent life. That is not Ben's life.

Ultimately what makes this movie work is Douglas's ability to make Ben a real person. This is a person we all seem to know in life. He is out for himself, yet he is sort of guilty about it and tries to make amends with those around him. He has real problems, but he functions within society to an extent that allows him to get through the days. The ending to this movie is very satisfactory and I am not spoiling anything by revealing that it isn't some tidy neat package with a bow, which I was scared was coming with about 10 minutes left.

**** out of 5

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A movie review: The American (2010)

The American (2010)

Director - Anton Corbijn
103 min; R
George Clooney - Jack/Edward
Thekla Reuten - Mathilde
Violante Placido - Clara
Paolo Bonacelli - Father Benedetto

George Clooney was a very good choice to play the lead character in The American. The often used term Cool, Calm, and Collected comes to mind when one sees him on screen moving through the shots in a well timed manner. In this film he is also able to convey a solitary individual, alone with his past, but at a cross roads of his life. The American in this film could have been a Brazilian, or a German, whatever, but it works well to use the backdrop of small, time-standing-still Italian cliff side villages and an American, in culture, for all that it entails.

The film is beautifully shot in drawn out scenes of Jack, a man who obviously knows how to kill and handle weapons, or Edward, a man who knows he should not confide in anyone for his own sake, yet can't help finding himself in the arms of a woman. Jack or Edward, he is both and he is neither, a man without a real life or clear past. He is simply a man who is at the end of a career and is looking to make a change.

In what is to be his last job, the American is tasked with hiding out in a small Italian town while he builds and pieces together a weapon for Mathilde, the woman who will carry out the task. Who is commissioning the mission, what the mission is, and why is never discussed, it simply is what these people do, and we watch as the entire scenario unfolds.

A local prostitute, Clara, begins to mean more than just sex, and though he knows that, as in the past, he should avoid such temptations he simply cannot help himself. He doesn't really want to be the man he has become.

The film opens and closes with two beautiful scenes that encapsulate this man's life of solitude. I loved the way this film was shot, but I give fair warning here that this film will not appeal to many people who are expecting or demand a more action packed thriller. This movie is deliberate in set up and nuance, not in fighting and chase scenes, of which there is little. I did not find it too much at any point to watch the story unfold, but I did find a few too many plot holes for my liking, mainly in undeveloped characters. The role of Father Benedetto in particular bothered me. The American begins a casual friendship with the priest while he carries out his mission, and I kept expecting this story line to take us somewhere....more, but it falls flat and I feel this was a missed opportunity. It did not bother me so much that the overall theme of the film has been done before, nor that parts of it felt very much expected. It is really the indescribable effect of the way this film is shot that makes it a good viewing, and I am fairly certain that Clooney had a lot to do with keeping us interested.

**** out of 5

A movie review: Machete (2010)

Machete (2010)

Directors - Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
105 min; R
Danny Trejo - Machete
Robert De Niro - Sen. McLaughlin
Jessica Alba - Sartan
Steven Seagal - Torrez
Michelle Rodriguez - Luz
Jeff Fahey - Booth
Cheech Marin - Padr
Don Johnson - Lt. Stillman
Lindsay Lohan - April

The cast credits are long and inviting and the new film Machete does not disappoint if what you are out for a good time with a cheesy movie. In fact, this is one of the best bad movies I've seen in a long time and that is precisely the point.

A few things you will not find in this film: A believable story line; Solid acting; Great cinematography.

A few things you will find in this film: General awesomeness everywhere you look; Lindsay Lohan naked; Jessica Alba so close to naked you will strain your neck trying to see if it could possibly be true; Danny Trejo decapitating more people with a machete than you could ever think possible; Robert De Niro in an absolutely terrible role; Cheech Marin (need I say more?); and last, but not least, ever, Steven 'F-ing' Seagal.

Summing up the movie would seem to be no fun, but when you get to write a line like "Machete (Trejo) is an ex Mexican cop who finds himself in America illegally after his family is killed by a Mexican drug lord (Seagal) and offered money to kill a Texas senator (De Niro) who is platforming on tough illegal immigration laws, and along the way he kills about 300 people with every weapon he can find, including gardening tools, and just so happens to sleep with every smoking hot chick on the planet including Rodriguez, Alba and Lohan (along with her character's mother) all while trying to get revenge on DON JOHNSON's! character and asking the help of an old gun toting priest (Cheech!) all in the name of ultimately confronting the evil Mexican druglord Torrez (Did I already say Seagal?!) - well I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

The film has been called a Mexploitation piece in the same vein of the old Blaxpoitation films, and it is well justified. The film is crude and vulgar and funny in all the right places. Do not go to this movie if you are uptight or not looking for a good time. Everyone else, definitely see it.

(I withhold any type of rating on a normal scale for this film. It is too awesome for that)

A movie review: The Last Exorcism (2010)

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Director - Daniel Stamm
87 Min; PG-13
Patrick Fabian - Cotton Marcus
Ashley Bell - Nell
Louis Herthum - Louis

The instinctive thought to compare films is never stronger than when the title of the film itself contains similar words to that of another, such as The Exorcist, and the problem with that is clouded judgment. The original Exorcist film is a brilliant study in slow build up terror, in shot-making, and character development. By the time the little girl's head is twisting you're feeling the need to convert, or at least go to confession a little more often. The Last Exorcism is not a continuation of that film, nor does it claim to be, but you sort of realize it is piggy-backing off the public perception. It is fairly easy for me to write this without clouded judgment, however, because this film does a good enough job of ruining itself without needing comparisons.

We realize very quickly that what we are watching is a documentary. We view the entire film through the lens of the camera from a crew member tasked with documenting what is to be the last exorcism performed by the legendary healer and preacher Cotton Marcus. Marcus is played by Patrick Fabian in a fantastic role. I was captivated from the opening moment by this performance and it is his back we have to ride on throughout, so putting plot points aside, the film holds up well thanks to this one act of brilliance.

We learn from Cotton himself that exorcisms are a sham. Groomed from childhood to be a preacher he spent his life making money off of people who paid him to give them what they want - the peace that the devil is out of their body. He lost his faith years ago but has been doing it for the money ever since. Now, with that news that a young child was killed by some do-it-yourself exorcism performers, he wants to set the record straight and show the world his tricks. Along with a crew of 2 he takes off to the bayou back swamps of Louisiana to meet with Louis, a man who claims his daughter Nell is possessed by a demon. Mysterious things have been happening at the farm, including the brutal butchering of animals at night, and Nell covered in blood with no memory of what has happened.

I really enjoyed the first half of this film. The documentary style set up worked well (note - it is shot in a bit of the shaky hand camera style which has never once bothered me, but if you are the type who will complain about it, just don't see it) and Patrick Fabian is so wonderfully convincing as a preacher who has lost his faith that I almost forgot I was in a horror genre. That changed with the second half of the film, where more thriller/suspense began to take place. A few cliched moments take place and before you know it you can't help asking yourself all the stupid questions like 'Why would they do that?' and 'Why not just call the police?' etc. etc. etc.

The ending of the film has been criticized greatly and there isn't much I can say to refute those criticisms. I don't think it was horrible, but it certainly felt contrived and patched together. At less than 90 minutes the film is actually quite watchable and even enjoyable for the most part, but as an overall movie it just doesn't hold up. I do strongly suggest you watch this on dvd or tv or whatever at some point, or even consider seeing it as a double feature matinee. Not the best movie about exorcism ever made, but clearly not the worst.

** and a half out of 5

A movie review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Director - Edgar Wright
112 min; PG-13
Michael Cera - Scott Pilgrim
Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Ramona Flowers
Ellen Wong - Knives Chau
Jason Schwartzman - Gideon

Once again I find myself trying to review a film that is based on a graphic novel and once again I find it very difficult to formulate my thoughts, since I have no interest in graphic novel reading, and thus I end up with only one point of view to form my opinions - is the movie any good? I won't do a run down of previous films based on graphic novels, but you can probably conjure up a decent list without giving it much thought. If you find yourself counting the list in your head and saying 'yeah, I generally like these kinds of movies' then I am fairly certain you will enjoy this one as well. If you are going through the list in your head and only seeing 2 or 3 and out of those you didn't like any, then I'm fairly certain you will detest this film.

I fall exactly in the middle.

Scott Pilgrim is not exactly a geek, dork, loser, or tool, but he sure seems like he should be. Played by Michael Cera it is nearly impossible to not want to lump this character into those categories. And yet he gets laid and is in a band and isn't really the dumped on guy throughout, so you have to sort of suspend your notions a bit to get by what you think this character should be. He's 22 and after a bad break up is now dating a high school girl, Knives Chau, though they haven't even exactly held hands yet. When Ramona Flowers enters the picture it is all over for Scott - he must have this cool punk chick. Unfortunately for Scott, like all women I've ever met, Ramona has a past, and the plot of the movie follows along as Scott must defeat Ramona's 7 exes in various battles.

So yeah, this isn't a conventional movie in that it uses word bursts on screen and weaves seemingly real life scenarios in with graphic novel-esque type fight scenes, but then again, it does feel a bit conventional. The story grabbed me early but left me feeling very unsatisfied buy the ending, and I left the theater feeling that perhaps the fight scenes simply got too bland after the first few. I mean, I know he has to defeat 7, so there need to be the fights, but how many times can I get a chuckle out of a henchman getting kicked in the face and turning into a pile of coins? For the crowd of gamers who see this film you will certainly find references throughout to many of the classic video games and I found it nostalgic for a hot second only - there just seemed to be room for a lot more creativity.

I liked the play between the characters of Scott and Knives and the random people around them. It was good chemistry. I never really felt that between Scott and Ramona. They just never seemed to be in sync. Ultimately I think this would have made a fantastic 45 minute short film, but when extended out to full feature it simply didn't have enough in the tank.

** and 1/2 out of 5

Monday, August 30, 2010

A movie review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Director - David Michod
113 Min; R

Ben Mendelsohn - Andrew 'Pope' Cody
Guy Pearce - Detective Leckie
James Frecheville - Joshua 'J' Cody
Jacki Weaver - Janine 'Smurf' Cody

The Australian film Animal Kingdom won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic World Cinema in 2010 and it is easy to see why it received such high praise for artistic quality, but as a film it is greatly overshadowed by a few magnificent performances, and though I love the attempt at a unique style of storytelling and a gritty, 'real' feel, the story as a whole didn't capture me the way I had hoped for when I first saw the trailer.

It was definitely a risk for the director to shoot in such a realistic manner, portraying the Cody family in its normal everyday routine as they go about their business of planning crimes and carrying them out. They are past their prime, it seems, as bank robbery is just too difficult compared to the past, and one member of the family contemplates getting out and dabbling in the stock market. There isn't a lot of stylized scenery of the 'bad guys' getting together in a warehouse to plan their capers, rather we see them walking around the house, having a drink, snorting coke, discussing what is next. This criminal family is in a battle with a corrupt police force and the blurry line is often crossed as we discover nobody can be trusted.

The opening scenes include voice over by the character 'J', who explains to us what we are about to see - his mother having overdosed on heroin. As a general rule I detest voice over, especially at the start of the movie, and especially when the cinematic approach taken in this film simply didn't require it! I felt everything the character was saying and the emotion I was supposed to feel was evident from the surroundings, characters, etc. It was very much a moment of me wanting to scream 'show don't tell!' I also had problems with the performance of James Frecheville, portraying the young J who is thrown into the underworld of crime his family has been a part of (without him) for many years. Perhaps it was the director's choice, but his mono-emotional and over-passive style simply did not work for me, and just once I would have liked him to be a normal teenager.

The film rises well above average thanks to 3 special roles.

1. Jacki Weaver plays 'Smurf', the Oedipal grandmother of J and matriarchal figure of the entire family. Her performance oozes of creepiness and power. As the strong protector of 'her boys' she not only knows the shady business they deal in she is a major part, yet at the end of the day she likes to give a much too lingering kiss on the lips to each. I will remember her performance for a long time as the quintessential two-faced monster who at one moment will shower you will love and at another put a gun to your head.

2. Guy Pearce as Detective Leckie is nuanced and complex. At no point can you tell what his motivations are nor where his thoughts will lead him. At one moment he may be the cop looking to take down the family through a series of manipulative maneuvers, and at another he may in fact be the one we should fear. I have always loved this actor and this role just helps to solidify that stance.

3. Ben Mendelsohn seals this film. As Andrew 'Pope' Cody you will have trouble finding such a terrifying look at a psychopath. One moment he is the father figure to family and friends encouraging them to speak to him and tell him things, and the other he is a savage beast capable of murder or worse. He weaves back and forth throughout the film in subtle ways that will scare you to death when you realize people like this exist in the world.

The film is shot with one too many long, drawn out scenes with musical backgrounds - the kind that make many people say 'that was too artsy' - yet I respect the attempt and some of the scenes really aid the film. I find it hard to put a number to the film because it clearly will not appeal to everyone, yet some will find it fascinating as a film to dissect. I'm comfortable with my opinion.

**** out of 5