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