Film reviews

Road Rage

Posted on:  October 24, 2011

There are fewer and fewer reasons to go to the movies these days especially in terms of good cinema stories that when a film like DRIVE comes out, it’s an event.   But this is a good thing.  It makes movie going become rare and special.

Again it’s no secret how much I love minimalism in terms of story telling and characters that reveal themselves through action. The hero story is played out and we know it.  But as Joseph Campbell notes, the hero has a thousand faces.  And sometimes there is a very thin line that separates the hero from the villain. Both are human but only one has real humanity.  It’s in action that real character is revealed and the subtext is exposed.

In terms of story telling, Drive does something I always look for in great films:  You can’t wait to see what will happen next.   It has such an simple screen story it could have easily been boring and trite (and over written) without the care of a good film maker (in this case, the talented Nicolas Winding Refn).  Because a majority of film making today is plot driven, it suffers from a plot generated cycle of patching up holes while creating new ones.  The result are scenes that only answer themselves and not to a greater theme.  No turns in the story lead to characters explaining rather than acting.

Like the nameless George Clooney character in The American.  The kid in Drive is someone who is at a crossroads.  Someone who is ready to walk the straight and narrow.  But like anything there are repercussions and consequences for our actions.  And as the movie’s slogan denotes, “there are no clean getaways”.

The heroism isn’t in what the kid actually does (in such a brutally beautiful way) It’s the fact that he is willing to selflessly give up so much in pursuit of  freedom which in a sense, is as vital to happiness as life itself.

The Factor of Two

Posted on:  January 2, 2011

Life is seldom simple.  That is why the common tendency in telling stories is to make sure they are plenty complicated, multi faceted and from varying points of view.  After all, who wants to see a movie with a plot so basic, it would come across as plain and unrealistic? Nothing is further from the truth.

Most every life experience can be broken down to its basic elements and in the middle is usually the simple relationship between two diametrically opposing entities.  Things evolve and become complex but at the heart of it all is the intangible and primal attraction that brings living things together.
I‘ve said before how I tend not to like biopics because they are someone else’s take on historical fact.  And indeed THE KING’S SPEECH does that very thing however, it lacks that usual comic caricaturing that reduces characters into costumed actors.  What this film succeeds in achieving is making you forget about monarchial trivia and focuses you on how the relationship of two people can be affecting and downright inspiring.
If you really thought about it, what attracts us to other people is inevitably not the things we have in common with them, but their inherent fundamental contradiction to ourselves.  We are not like them so we like them.  Opposites attract. It’s over used but yes it’s relevant and especially in designing characters.
This film is superbly shot, directed and written.  The dialogue is of the period but there isn’t the usual over indulgence of english royal pomp.  What I really liked is the fact that I could have kept watching Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush talk to each other.  There’s more than enough there for another film.  But isn’t that what good films do?  Keep their characters in your head long after you’d driven off the theater parking lot?

Filling in the blanks

Posted on:  September 5, 2010

What’s good storytelling to me? Simple: It unfolds in front of you and told in one character’s point of view. No tricks. No gimmicks. And if you’ve read previous posts of mine you already know my gravitation towards minimalism.

THE AMERICAN is a fine example of what a satisfying story can be. It is interactive and engaging cinema. It succeeds because of what it doesn’t show you rather than the opposite. George Clooney has become the go-to leading man when it comes to playing the quiet, subdued protagonist with seething inner turmoil. His character (who goes by many a name in this one) is in the people disposal business and he is very good at his craft. But unlike a character like Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) Clooney’s character is weighed down by the collective baggage of his job. An acceptable job hazard for someone in that line of work.
Like a classic Sergio Leone film, the dialogue is sparse for almost three quarters of this movie as the camera focuses on Clooney and the small Italian village is is holed up in. He does a lot of things we see. It is clear in intent. His interactions with the townsfolk are all we need to get to know this man. He is there to do one job. One that is fairly simple in nature. But he is a man at a crossroads. Someone who might be ready to make a course correction. He wants the nightmares to go away. He wants to fully connect with real people. The tension band is slowly stretched in such a brilliant way that when it snaps you feel a collective sigh.
I won’t spoil the rest of this for you because films like this are rare in the era of loud, obnoxious cinema. The American is a fine example that action is not only louder than words, it is more profound and affecting. Maybe it’s because we as human beings spend most of our time thinking what we are going to do instead of actually doing.
103 Minutes
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by Rowan Joffe from a novel by Martin Booth

..but what does it all mean?

Posted on:  June 28, 2010

The book is finished (for now) so I finally have a chance to catch up on some films I missed, starting with A Serious Man written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I often rave about their work here on this blog because whether you agree with their point of view or not, their films are studies in character, setting and story telling.

As I’ve said before, their films are pseudo-cartoons inhabited by people that are not only real but hyper real, all seamlessly blended in a melting pot of genres.

On the surface, A Serious Man is about a slice of American Judiaca. Set in 1967, it’s about a series of life altering events that befall an urbane college professor which all culminate around his son’s Bar-Mitzvah. But save all the jewish tradition and culture and one still gets to the big question of the film: What is life really about? It’s as philosophical and basic as you can get.

As with any Coen Brothers film, the characters a superbly constructed and developed. Their characterizations are entertaining and amusing and most of all, the storytelling is unbridled and profound. Visually, Roger Deakins shows us once again why he is one of the modern masters of composition and lighting.

The meaning of life is what we individually derive from it. We either answer our own questions or we dont. We make choices based on the limits of our conscience and from what we know is true. The rest is pretty much out of our control.

Walking the Tightrope

Posted on:  April 4, 2010

(Swedish actress Noomi Rapace gives a stunning and courageous performance as the enigmatic Lisbeth)

What you put in is as important as what you leave out. This is a common notion that is at the heart of every creative endeavor and in how we communicate as humans.
The overall effect of how information is perceived is dependent on the messenger and how they manage the dissemination. At some point the messenger has to make the conscious decision to edit or add details to increase the impact of their message. Good messengers have good instincts. And in film, this is sometimes the difference between the good, the bad and the profound.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is good movie which I enjoyed watching. It had the elements of a classic thriller and the rather unconventional alliance it’s protagonists forge between them was intelligently developed. The film makers did their homework. The plotting was carefully planned. But after 152 minutes, what keeps this movie from being profound?
In this case the film makers spent a great deal of time making you anticipate and create empathical bonds with it’s main characters while concurrently integrating the dark unfolding mystery of it’s main plot. (as they should) Unfortunately after all this, the movie loses some focus. Rather than be subtle in execution and editing, the movie clumsily degenerates into a chase, and ends with the film makers’ odd sense to tie every last detail down. Details that had they been left to the imagination would have given the audience some room to ponder and generate their own conclusions.
In storytelling, the process of elimination is as important as the addition. It is a fine balance. A series of crucial choices. And most of the time those choices are the difference between acceptance or oblivion.

What’s in your backpack?

Posted on:  December 16, 2009

It’s utterly simple folks. People watch movies to find parallel meaning with their lives. Some small sense of validity. People want to be reminded that the characters in their movies have the same aspirations and downfalls as they do.

That is why films like this year’s UP IN THE AIR are so enjoyable to watch. Because they deal with some of life’s undeniable truths, but not in absolution. They are portrayed by characters who like real people, are self-assured yet conflicted. Righteous but vulnerable.

People are interesting because they contradict themselves. We are not who we say we are. Not so much morally but in an identity sense. Some of us spend a lifetime balancing it out as a series of compromises and perhaps in the end we can feel good about our choices.

But the reality is that people evolve through time. Even the ones who try and defy it. And sooner or later the hard line philosophies we adhere to so fervently can seem utterly meaningless. Leaving us with nothing but what we know deep down to be true and contemplating what is really important in life.

Bite Sized Reviews 2

Posted on:  October 21, 2009

Here comes another installment of mini-reviews…… Again, this is all personal opinion. I could be wrong….

TIMECRIMES (Los Cronos Crimenes) (2007) Spain – 92 minutes – writer/director: Nacho Vigalondo

Part of a six movie ensemble called the Six Shooter Film Series from Magnet Studios, Timecrimes is an intelligently devised thriller about a man who accidentally travels one hour back in time and becomes an unwitting participant in a series of peculiar events.
Using time paradox as a convention is risky for both the writer and the story because time travel stories are double edged: use too little and risk incredulity. Use too much and the audience tunes out. Timecrimes effectively uses time paradox and works within it’s fringes without imploding in it’s own weight. This is meticulous crafting at it’s best.

A lot may say there are way too many plot holes here but that is the inherent side-effect of working in the time travel genre. By the time you finish watching this indie-flick, you’ll indeed be asking “chicken or egg?”

PRIMER (2005) 77 minutes – writer/director: Shane Carruth

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Primer is another independently made, time travel film that takes a well-worn genre and gives it a well-deserved starch and ironing.

A group of young upstarts working for an engineering firm are devoting their extra time tinkering on a promising device which they hope would be their ticket to riches. Their perseverance is rewarded but in a rather unexpected way and soon they have to cope with the many consequences of their actions.

This movie sort of reminds me of a David Mamet screenplay. The characters speak in parallel of the audience but not so much that it becomes a self-serving novelty. It’s like eavesdropping on a group of people you don’t have any association with. Their jargon and terminology will be intrinsic within their network but their actions and intentions are clear. Where often films are over explained, Primer keeps you conveniently a few steps behind. But in a good way.

THE HURT LOCKER (2009) 131 minutes – writer: Mark Boal / director: Kathryn Bigelow

To say that that this movie is “intense” is one of the biggest understatements in recent history. I often talk about simplicity versus complexity when it comes to character and setting. This is another fantastic example.

Hurt Locker is a movie about war but more so, it’s warriors. Thankfully it is bereft of any political agenda that tends to cloud some films in this genre. War is merely a setting here except, we are probably a bit more informed since it is contemporary of the current world. Staff Sargeant Will James is a man seemingly living on the edge. You may or may not agree with his style but one thing is undeniable: He is good at his job. Too good in fact. But he’s no show-off or thrill seeker. This is how he ticks and the men in his new unit are left to wonder which is more dangerous: The IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device) or the man trying to defuse them.

This is a well researched, superbly designed and impeccably staged film that will have you gripping from start to finish. I know that sounds like one of those hammy movie poster captions but in this case, it’s right on the money.

DISTRICT 9 (2009) 112 minutes – writers: Terri Tatchell and Neil Blomkamp / director: Neil Blomkamp

Limitations can be a powerful ally. It forces the artist to focus and become economical and judicious. This is what made District 9 a runaway success. Along with the vision of director Neil Blomkamp.

What started out as a short film called Alive in Joburg became one of the big hits of the summer. By now most of you already know who Wykus Van de Merwe is and what happens to him. It is irony with the capital I served with humble pie. All wrapped around the sobering reality that human beings are always afraid of what they don’t understand and will justify their actions in the name of righteousness.

As far as Blomkamp is concerned, I have a feeling he is Hollywood’s new flavor of the month. I just wish he would inherit the Transformers franchise. It’s not going to happen but I can dream….

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007) 96 minutes – writer: Judd Apatow / director: Jake Kasdan

After seeing this one I was left with only one question: Why on Earth was this movie made? I’m not quite sure what Judd Apatow was going for in this painfully awkward parody of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line but it certainly left a really bad impression.

Seeing John C. Reilly over sell the campyness of his Dewey Cox character is utterly painful. Someone forgot to tell them that he is not Will Ferrell. Don’t get me wrong, Reilly is a great actor but he is more suited for dark comedies portraying pathetic, naive losers. If you’ve seen him in Boogie Nights, you know what I’m talking about.

If you’re in the mood for comedy I suggest I Love You Man which is probably the best Judd Apatow movie not written or directed by Judd Apatow.

PONYO (2009) 103 minutes – writer/director: Hayao Miyazaki

A distinctive charm is unmistakable in all of Miyazaki’s films. Each one is a unique journey that is worthy of experiencing and one that I look forward to every time his films are released. (An as he gets older, each new project becomes even more special)

In a storytelling sense, Miyazaki is certainly unconventional and for some, frustrating. He tends to get long-winded and abstract while over saturating scenes with spectacular visuals that seem unmotivated and random. But for me, this is what makes his work truly one of a kind. Where feature animation from North America is a frenetic, non-stop assault of verbal exposition, Hayao’s films leave lots of room for the audience to reflect on what they are seeing. For him it’s more effective to let emotions come from the visuals and leave things unsaid.

If you like Miyazaki’s work then you’ll truly enjoy Ponyo. Personally I still think Porco Rosso and Spirited Away are two of his best.

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (2009) 150 minutes – writers: Ehren Kruger, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci / Director: Michael Bay

How many people does it take to write 150 minutes of absolute crap? Three. And in the hands of Michael Bay this film is a legitimate form of human torture.

What disturbed me the most? I’m no activist and won’t even begin to think that I can speak for women but the way they are portrayed in this film is downright sexist and obscene.

G.I. JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA (2009) 118 minutes – writers: Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, Paul Lovett / director: Stephen Sommers

Most people would lump this movie in with Transformers 2 as not being very good and I agree. But there is one glaring and important distinction: This movie is was made for kids. But what about Transformers? On top of being ambiguous as to what happens in that movie, it’s also unclear who the intended audience was. At least with G.I. Joe they make no pretenses about who it’s geared for.

MUTANT CHRONICLES (2009) 111 minutes – writer: Philip Eisner / director: Simon Hunter

What if John Malkovich, Ron Perlman, and Thomas Jane were cast in a sci-fi action flick? You’d probably be inclined to see it right? Well, it’s true except the actual movie is horrifyingly bad.

The World War I meets Resident Evil meets Chronicles of Riddick setting is incohesive and downright confusing. How do good actors end up in bad movies? It happens more often than not and from the actors’ standpoint, they are only as good as their instincts and the people at the helm. In this case, most all of their scenes are shot against a green screen and they probably had no clue what the final product would look like. If you want to see someone’s head explode, have them have them watch this and Transformers 2 back to back.

500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) 95 minutes – writers: Michael Webber & Scott Neustadter / director: Marc Webb

Want to see something really banal and cliched? Watch this movie! Here is yet another film where the helmers spent more time tinkering with style rather than substance. (and yes, at the heart of this movie, there is some substance) I don’t know what it is about film makers who think that an overdose of offbeat and quirk is equivalent to entertainment….

The movie is about the perception and reality of being in love. A rather nice subject. But after the song numbers and cartoon bubbles and talking to the camera Ferris Bueller style, it’s one, distracted mess. Not to mention the really tired convention of the two wise-cracking, nerdy friends whose characters don’t evolve into anything and are only there to provide funny and nonsensical quips…..

Top it all off with that tried and tested non-linear storytelling style and you’ll be reaching for that bottle of Tylenol before you know it. Zooey Deschanel is enchanting as always. Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks like he’s acting in another movie.

9 (2009) 79 minutes – writer: Pamela Pettler / Story and direction: Shane Acker

Ah, yet another short trying to make the treacherous leap to feature length. Let me preface things by saying I am a fan of Shane Acker and the original short and like most everyone I was anticipating the feature film version. Unfortunately the movie is a series of scenes with small characters being chased by large ones wrapped in a poorly plotted story. Can you count how many times the Christopher Plummer character says, “he’s gone, forget about him!”

AMERICAN SWING (2008) (Documentary) 81 minutes – writer: John Hart / directors: John Hart & Matthew Kaufman

Why do we enjoy watching people attempt daring and death-defying stunts? Because we are outsiders to their world and what they do is simply out of the ordinary. That’s exactly what I felt like watching this intriguingly fascinating documentary.

It follows the rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, a 1970’s New York City night club specifically geared towards the swinging (or wife swapping) lifestyle as well as it’s owner and founder, Larry Levenson. In it’s heyday the club attracted a wide variety of clientele, some of whom appear in the documentary to share their experiences. Hearing them talk about their escapades is like hearing someone talk about climbing Mount Everest; this is simply something you won’t hear everyday.

Even more compelling is to hear them talk about the turbulently incredible life of Levenson who some view as either a well-meaning hero or a morally-depraved criminal.

SHOOT ‘EM UP (2009) 86 minutes – writer/director: Michael Davis

I’m all for outrageous, incredibly stylized action flicks. (Like last year’s Wanted) But in the case of Shoot ‘Em Up, they definitely had the outrageous but forgot about the style. As far as I know, the characters played by Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti exist in a real, physical world like ours. In The Matrix, Neo and company’s alter-egos in the virtual world can do super-human stunts. In Wanted, people can be trained to slow down their hearts and control the amount of adrenalin so they can focus into infinitesimal detail.

In Shoot ‘Em Up, there is nothing set-up that would lead you to believe they can defy gunfire and certain death. They are established as regular dudes with guns and itchy trigger fingers. So when over-the-top gunplay ensues while someone delivers a baby (and uses a gunshot to sever the umbilical cord) or while having passionate sex…. we are supposed to believe it. Right.

They tried to sell me a bunch of stuff but I ain’t buyin’ it. Not to mention that these are two of the stupidest hitmen i’ve ever seen.

WATCHMEN (2009) 162 minutes – writers: David Hayter & Alex Tse (Adapted from the graphic novel written by Alan Moore) director: Zack Snyder

I wanted to catch this in the theaters and I still regret not doing so. But having finally seen it on DVD, I was glad to have dodged the hype enabling me to watch it with a clear mind.

No doubt, this was a highly anticipated movie that had some people wondering… Could it live up to the iconic and legendary status of the graphic novel? Could phenom director Zack Snyder pull it off? The answer to both is a resounding YES. As far as I’m concerned, Watchmen is in a class by itself and probably only rivaled by The Dark Knight in scale, complexity and depth of storytelling. It delivers the cynical brooding of the graphic novel and then some.

In this alternate reality, being a superhero is a profession. A calling that very few over the years have answered with each one having a distinct interpretation and fervor for altruism.

When they are marginalized and forced to stand down, it seems their glory days are behind them. Or is it? For a few of them there is still many questions left to be answered. For a few of them there is still much justice to be served. Some of them may even have lingering doubts. But for one the answer is clear: Betrayal is a worthy sacrifice for absolute peace and the end does justify the means.

Click HERE for Bite Sized Reviews 1

Wires Crossed

Posted on:  May 27, 2009


I have to admit that the teaser trailer had me gripping since I first saw it.  
The last movie (Rise of the Machines) wasn’t bad but it certainly showed that the Terminator lore had slipped in terms of film making and story telling.  So what about this movie?  The trailers certainly showed that the level of film making had been upped.  And though McG’s reputation as a feature film director was still debatable, they did secure the services of one of Hollywood’s bankable leading men in Christian Bale.  The only real question is what kind of story would they tell in a world where the paradox of time, and the history of three previous movies will be foremost in the minds of the viewing public.
The brunt of initial reviews for TERMINATOR: SALVATION basically say the same thing:  Lots of action wrapped around a clunky narrative.  On Tuesday evening I went to see things for myself and unfortunately, I am sad to report that those reviews are spot on.
As far as the thrilling action is concerned, I would have to give McG some props.  The combat staging is well-done as well as the overall desaturated, grayed out look of post judgement day Southern California.  What baffled me is how the character moments in this film where not only poorly edited, but lacked a cohesive point of view.  What’s also interesting to me are the numerous missed opportunities to not only give the film some added depth, but to feel John Connor’s struggle, and through his eyes.  (Not to mention a rather graphically limp ending)
Amazingly the John Connor in this film is largely unsympathetic.  He is indeed the leader of the fledgling resistance against Skynet but in this world (and due to the rifts in time from the previous films) they are questioning whether his status as the de facto leader is a prophecy or a fallacy.   This is something they barely touch on that could have fueled real conflict yet John goes about his ways in a rather routine and soldierly fashion.   He’s basically become a droning military grunt whose apparently likable leadership qualities are lost on the audience.
What i’d really liked to have seen is John’s rise within the resistance and his struggle to find a balance between fate and prophecy.  This is something that had only been described in the previous films and would have probably been more compelling to see.
And what about the ending?  All I can say is that after going out on a limb for two acts and still thinking this movie wasn’t too bad, it took a turn for the worse.  It literally felt like the movie morphed into Resident Evil.  At least on that movie there where actual hordes of Zombies. Was it too much to ask to have more than 5 Terminators in the end battle?  After all this was Skynet??  The machines would have sicked every Terminator on our heroes but I guess they went on strike or on a union mandated smoke break or something.
So, see it for fun’s sake but if I were you, i’d take my duckets and spend it on Star Trek instead.  

Bite-Sized Reviews

Posted on:  March 18, 2009

I thought I’d share my opinions regarding some of the movies I’ve seen lately. I’m no professional critic or reviewer and have no desire of being one. I just call it like like I see it. This is also not about being wrong or right since art is completely subjective. So feel free to comment and interject your two cents. Here we go…..

Goodbye Lenin! (2003) Germany – 121 minutes /Writer-Director: Woflgang Becker
A clever “What if?” almost always results in a good hook for a movie and this one definitely has it. What if an East German socialist zealot goes into a coma just as the Berlin Wall falls and the country is reunited? Christiane is in such a frail condition and can relapse, or die that her son Alex goes through great lengths to make it seem that things are status quo. There is an honest yet funny cleverness to this movie.(especially Alex’s indifferent and sarcastic takes on the surge of capitalism) But the best part is that in the middle of a great premise, is a story of a family coming to grips with change while dealing with familial transgressions. I highly recommend this one.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) 122 minutes/ Director: James Mangold
Although lacking in cinematic subtlety, this straight-forward remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford film is nicely done and a good watch for any fan of westerns. Christian Bale is a civil war vet who’s upside down on his finances and is struggling to support his wife and son. For a nominal fee, Bale agrees to transport a fugitive in Russell Crowe who is the cunning leader of a gang of bank robbers to the town of Contention, Arizona where a 3:10pm train will take Crowe’s character to a federal prison in Yuma. What transpires in the interim is a predictable yet entertaining battle of wits between Crowe and Bale wrapped up in some real good action sequences. If you’re guessing a rapport between captor and prisoner develop then you should be playing Vegas more often.

Rescue Dawn (2006) 126 minutes / Writer-Director: Werner Herzog
A supposed true-to-life account of US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s ordeal as a prisoner in the Laosian jungle during the Vietnam War, this movie has the typical conventions of any POW movie except there is a unique, almost documentary feel to the way it was shot. (after all Werner Herzog is a master documentarian and had already shot a docu about Dengler called “Little Dieter needs to Fly” in 1997) Although this movie was an entertaining watch, I felt it lacked a bit of insight into Dengler’s personal story. Perhaps Herzog felt he had extensively covered this in the docu. (which I haven’t seen, for the record) Either way, if you’ve recently watched Deer Hunter and for some odd reason want to see a little more despair then knock yourself out. (And you haven’t gotten sick of seeing Christian Bale in yet another lead role)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009) 165 minutes / Director: David Fincher
The trailer knocked my socks off. The question was, would the actual movie be any good? Personally I thought that even if it fell short, David Fincher always delivers a film worth watching. And I was right. Visually this movie was beautiful and certainly not a big surprise, what with Fincher’s well established reputation as one of the premier shooters in Hollywood. Unfortunately the film feels like a re-tread of Forrest Gump. Except Gump was the better of screenwriter Eric Roth’s babies. (not to mention, the first) The parallels are endless between Button and Gump that you can’t help but compare them. Button’s reverse-aging dilemma only complicates matters for a character who I couldn’t seem to find any empathy for. There are a lot of good moments in this one but I’d have to go back to Fincher’s last one, the highly underrated and compelling Zodiac to see his genius at work.

La Vie en Rose (2007) 140 minutes / Director: Olivier Dahan
I’ll preface this by saying I’m not a fan of biopics. To me written history trumps any attempt at an accurate portrayal of anyone and especially when those who have the finances will often have an agenda for or against common conceptions. (which I have nothing against. Free speech is a right we all have) Marion Cotillard deserved the best actress Oscar without a doubt. Her transformation is remarkable here and her performance is compelling. I think she over acted a bit but given the complex and tragic character of Edith Piaf, I’ll give her a pass. The film is shot beautifully but it’s emotionally draining. The one thing it did reaffirm to me is the importance of being tenacious for the things you strive for, and how one should relish every morsel of life.

The Wrestler (2009) 115 minutes / Director: Darren Aronofsky
Like Slumdog Millionaire, this movie received a lot of critical hype and I was wary of it. After all I already felt rewarded when Slumdog lived up to all the talk. But the Wrestler was just as enjoyable and just as compelling to watch. It’s a modern day tragedy about how people find and lose redemption and the constant conflict to control our own nature. Mickey Rourke’s performance is memorable. I have yet to see Milk but I can say that I would been alright with Rourke getting the best actor Oscar. Like Danny Boyle in Slumdog, Darren Aronofksy shows us a world rarely seen and shows that great characters have many facets. Randy Robinson is a flawed man with a genuine soul whose chances in life are dwindling. What he does about it is simply amazing.

Gran Turino (2008) 116 minutes / Director: Clint Eastwood
I wish Clint filmed this as a western because it could certainly have been one. But the modern setting works just as well I suppose. Walt Kowalski is unashamedly old school and seemingly closed minded. A relic of a generation who thought and lived simply but suddenly find themselves having to survive in a complicated, modern society. The revelation here is that beneath the gruff exterior is a decent man. And no matter how he instinctually keeps people at arms length with his bigoted ways, there is no denying that he can and will do the right thing even reluctantly. In a way Walt’s character is similar to Randy Robinson in The Wrestler. Both men want ultimate victory even if it means walking on broken glass.

Doubt (2008) 104 minutes / Director: John Patrick Shanley
Based on a stage play written by Shanley, this film is probably one of the more curiously intriguing films I’ve seen as of late. What lengths would you go do find the truth? Does the end really justify the means? Does self-righteousness give one the right to condemn another? I give a lot of credit to Shanley for not only creating an authentic setting for his story but for not telling one that is not skewed so sharply. Morality is at the heart of this film which is a subject very few people will tackle not only for its sensitivity but also the enormous breadth of opinion and subjectivity. What the director masterfully does in this movie is shoot it in a way where nothing is cut and dried and the audience is free to formulate their own conclusions. Acting wise, Philip Seymour-Hoffman gives another fine performance but for connoisseurs of great character acting, check out Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius. It’s a nice study in gestures and facial expressions.

Hancock (2008) 93 minutes / Director: Peter Berg
Where do I start with this one? Well for starters I think this movie suffers from being too self-aware. There is little subtlety in the story telling and the main character lacks the charisma of a super hero, even in his inebriated, self-destructive state. I have to admit that it’s somewhat entertaining but overall it suffers from generic, mediocre writing. There are some good visual gags and special effects but nothing groundbreaking or inventive. An episode of Battlestar Galactica is probably a better option.

Starting Out in the Evening (2007) 111 minutes / Writer-Director: Andrew Wagner
Character films are always a treat to watch and this one is no exception. Leonard Schiller was a once acclaimed author whose been relegated to obscurity. As his swan song, he embarks in writing his final novel but in the interim he meets an enthusiastic young lady named Heather who is writing her college thesis about him. He is reluctant but deep down he is enjoying the adoration he’s been sorely missing. He relents and they eventually form an unconventional relationship that leads both of them to ponder each other’s true intentions. A bi-plot to this is Schiller’s relationship to his daughter, who is undergoing a mid-life crisis and is dubious of Heather’s motives. Personally I could have done away with the daughter who is rather unappealing but a good portion of the film is devoted to her and her relationship troubles. I failed to see any real important connection between both plots and would have rather just seen more of Leonard and Heather. Despite this, I think Frank Langella’s masterfully subdued performance as the aging intellectual in Schiller is worth the watch.

Meet Bill (aka Bill) (2008) 97 minutes / Directors: Bernie Goldman & Melisa Walick
There’s the notion that you can learn more from a bad film than from a good one. This movie might as well be its poster child. If you’re looking for examples of how NOT to make a coherent, focused movie then look no further. Bill is an urbane, mild-mannered push over who’s overweight, and married to a wife who no longer cares for him. What’s worse is he works in a bank owned by his father-in-law who thinks as marginally of him as everyone else. On top of it all his wife is sleeping around with the greasy anchor of the local TV station. Finally Bill says enough is enough and calls his wife out and leaves. He ends up staying with his gay brother and his domestic partner until he can sort things out. In between all of this Bill is obligated to mentor a boarding school brat as part of the Bank’s community service. Sound plenty complicated right? Right. The problem with this movie is that the filmmakers (who also wrote the screenplay) thought that complication by way of superficial conflict means complexity. They populated their movie with stereotypes with stereotypical problems instead of real people. To make matters worse they relied on comedic/romantic/dramatic clichés that not only reminded you of other movies, but those movies did them better. I don’t have a problem with using clichés. You have to probably use one at some point. But clichés are only that if they aren’t sincerely interpreted. I’ll give Aaron Eckart a lot of credit for trying his best to make things work. Too bad his directors couldn’t decide what movie to make.

There Will Be Blood (2007) 158 minutes / Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I don’t get it……. Oh, did I say I didn’t get it? Actually I did. Pure evil not only exists but triumphs over good all the time. Imagine going to see your favorite band or performer, or the New York Philharmonic. Then imagine them play a single note for two and a half hours. This movie is more of a stunt than a film. “look guys, look at what I can do!” To make things clear, I am a huge fan of P.T. Anderson. He’s made some of the more compelling films of the last twenty years. But I don’t get the overwhelming reviews from all the critics. What dope where they smoking? For the record I gave this film a chance. But after subsequent viewings I simply threw my arms up and called it quits. Like Robert Downey said about “The Dark Knight”… I guess I need a college degree to get this movie. (since I have one I guess a need a freakin’ doctorate) Someone pass me some aspirin.

No Country for Old Men (2007) 122 minutes / Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Similar in theme to There Will be Blood is the movie I like to call “The most amazing movie I’ve ever seen with a really confusing ending”. Both films show how evil can prevail especially when exacted by a determined, soul less individual. The first three quarters of this film is fun to watch. And by now we all know who Anton Chigurh is and how memorable of an impression he has made. What I don’t agree with (and accept) is the shift of point of view from Lewellyn to the Sheriff in the third act of the film. Yes he is too old and ill equipped to deal with Anton. Lewellyn is clearly the protagonist of the film but he mysteriously dies unceremoniously in a motel while the camera fades to black. Yet the critics literally wet themselves talking about this movie. My advice to you is to not listen to critics. (or me) and watch a movie for yourselves and form your own conclusions.

You Don’t Mess with Zohan (2008) 117 minutes / Director by Dennis Dugan
Where’s Happy Gilmore when you need him? I’m a big Adam Sandler fan but this movie is rather pointless save a few funny visual gags. Although I haven’t seen Bedtime Stories, which might make this movie look Oscar worthy in comparison.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) 124 minutes / Director by Shekar Kapur
I guess the serious period pieces aren’t immune to sequels anymore. Apparently it wasn’t enough to show Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in the 1998 original, that they had to show her later years as a woman looking for her love while in the midst of a diplomatic struggle with Spain. Though this movie has some good moments, it’s a rather perfunctory exercise. The original film had so much palpable tension and drama. Plus Clive Owen seems he is in this movie because someone suggested he be in the movie. (I dare to bet it was his agent) All in all it’s worth a watch if your Netflix queue has an open spot.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) 89 minutes / Director: Wes Anderson
I’m a big Wes Anderson fan. I’d watch anything he makes despite what the flakey critics say. This one was quite enjoyable and much more than The Life Aquatic. (And despite the presence of the overexposed Owen Wilson) The movie is about three brothers who board the Darjeeling Limited to reunite with their mother. Along the way old wounds are reopened and their tenuous and spotty relationship with their dead father is revisited with each having their own perspective and method for dealing with these issues. Through a series of petty quarrels and mis-adventures, the boys find themselves booted out of the train, their relationship seemingly shattered forever only to find themselves in the middle of a life-changing experience. Sometimes when we feel like we’ve figured things out, we get that much needed slap in the face and a reminder of what really matters in life. Wes Anderson has made probably the sweetest and emotional of all his films in this one and it’s worth the watch.

Before the Devil knows you’re Dead (2007) 123 minutes / Director: Sidney Lumet
This movie is about people who are at the end of their rope, not by the misfortune that life has unworthily put upon them, but from their own corruption. Andy is a finance guy who’s been embezzling money from his firm. He uses the money to fund his lavish lifestyle not to mention his expensive drug habit. His brother Hank is a simpleton whose ex-wife continually dogs him for child support or risk losing visitation rights for his daughter whom he cares for deeply. Andy hatches a plan to rob a jewelry store and bullies Hank to do the job. But Andy’s pitch has a twist: The jewelry store is the one owned by mom and dad. They only need to steal enough (using an unloaded gun) to cover both their debt and their parents’ insurance would cover the loss. The plan is diabolical and the results are a window into the darkness that inhabits people. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant once again and supported by the equally amazing Ethan Hawke. It gets a little melodramatic but according to legendary director Sydney Lumet, that’s exactly what he wanted to do.

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem
(2007) 94 minutes / Directors: Colin & Greg Strause

The most amazing thing about this movie is that it actually got made. This movie made the original AVP look like Citizen Kane. I’m starting a “Please! Don’t make AVP 3” petition to send to Walter Hill who sadly, is actually involved in making this. If you have to know the premise, the movie picks up where the last one left off. The hybrid xenomorph/predator bursts out of the dead predator from the first film and causes the ship to crash to modern day earth. (The universe being so immense, what are the chances right?) The ship crashes somewhere in Colorado. (the earth being so immense, what are the chances right?) The whole town is infected and all of a sudden….beaucoup aliens!! Of course the predator posse can’t let that stand. One predator gets the distress signal from the crashed ship and heads for earth. The rest of the film plays out like you think it does except the ending scene with the Weyland-Yutani corporation getting their hands on predator tech doesn’t make sense at all. Much like the reason I watched this movie in the first place.

Snakes on a Plane (2006) 105 minutes / Director: David R. Ellis
The most amazing thing about this movie is that it actually got made. Wait, I already said that. I guess I needed a good laugh and had to hear Sam Jackson say: “There are snakes in this motherf’’’’in plane!!” I’ll forego giving the synopsis on this one. I just don’t want to spoil it for you.

Leader of the Pack

Posted on:  February 17, 2009

I finally got to see the movie almost everyone is talking about in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I often say that “complete” movie experiences are rare these days so it’s a treat when you see one.

Slumdog has been fueled by positive reviews and great word of mouth recommendation which sometimes can be the kiss of death. (at least for me) But I can say that this movie is worth all the adoration and excitement it’s getting.

How far will you go to survive? To achieve your goals? To find true love? Some of us don’t have to risk much yet some have to do much more just to keep living. And through all of these trials one’s character is tested and real heroes are born or lost. This is the constant ebb and flow at the heart of the human experience.

won’t spoil anything else here and just say that director Danny Boyle does a spectacular job story telling both in the visual and the narrative and manages to transport the audience to a world that is rarely seen in this manner.

And if you need a little lift in the spirit department, this movie is pure rocket fuel.