Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You Can Count on Me

If for nothing else, see this movie for the performances. Mark Ruffalo, Laura Linney, Rory Culkin, and Matthew Broderick are wonderful. Family relationships are probably the most portrayed out of any relationship in cinema (except maybe for a romance), so there can be an attitude of "been there, see that" when it comes to those relationships. But it is rare that a movie so accurately captures the frustrations, undying love, anger and other emotions that come from the ties that bind. I utterly believed these people could be related. Sibling relationships take may different directions in cinema, but it is so very precious when the back and forths of Sammy and Terry are brutally, lovingly, and truthfully portrayed.

I hold Mark Ruffalo's performance as Terry as one of the best performances in film that I have ever seen. There's so much rawness in his Terry. He is quick to anger, but displays a tenderness that makes the character complex. For the longest time, through 13 Going on 30, Windtalkers, and the other peformances since Terry, I was worried Ruffalo could never match the skill he brought to this performance. Then I saw Zodiac and breathed a sigh of relief. Both the lead performances are very likable. Laura Linney hasn't matched her great performance since her first Oscar Nomination, but she'll always have Sammy. Her loving, head-strong, and nurturing character is one for the books.

This movie is full of great scenes where characters just talk. They sit, they stand, they lean on something, but most importantly they talk. They are witty, they are broken, they are hurtful, they are sorry, but most importantly, they are real. Put Linney and Ruffalo on screen and just watch them click, watch them work with each other, challenging the skills of the other and always meeting those challenges. It's wonderful casting and excellent writing. I want to take the scenes, the moments, and frame them and hang them up on my wall next to whatever art and movie memorabilia I have accumulated over the years.

I also want to note how well the movie portrays religion. The writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, plays a priest in the movie. Even though he is quiet and somewhat aloof, he represents a man of the cloth offering good, solid advice, and truly searching to help and guide the people around him even if it means they find their meaning of life outside where he has found his. Believers are shown as fallible, struggling with their faith and sin. There is shame, regret, and guilt. There is love, trust, and hope. The film is able to show Christianity and not focus on it, to show that Sammy is more than just a church-goer, that Terry is more than just a non-church goer, and that it's hard to be good when it's not Sunday morning.



I was hoping, deeply hoping, that the hype surrounding Ben Affleck's performance in Hollywoodland was earned rather than the product of the a comeback-hungry press. It turns out it was the latter. All the performances are sub par, including the capable stars (Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane). The film takes place in the late 50's-era Hollywood. It seems as though the actors watched a couple movies, checked out TV shows, and read a couple books from the era that were supposed to teach them how to sound authentic. Instead, they ended up so concerned with their characters accents and posturing that they neglected to invest themselves in what is not readily seen in the mannerisms and voice inflections. The performances are not above the acting we would see in a TV movie of the week depicting the same story. Certainly, this is not the kind of work I expect from the stars of this film. I can say that Bob Hoskins was good in a small role.

This is a bit cold, but the film didn't make me care about George Reeves death, the mysteries of which the movie revolves around. Even if I didn't care about George Reeves, a basic demand for justice and truth should have been awakened by the film. It wasn't. The performances distanced me from the characters. I didn't want to know about them. I just wanted Ben Affleck and Diane Lane to tone it down, to look at each other like they meant what they were saying to each other. The only character I developed any sort of positive feelings for was the private investigator looking for answers concerning the Reeves death. Brody sort of coasts by on typical down and out P.I. charm, tricks, and dialogue. There wasn't really anything about the character as it was written or the performance that made me root for the guy. I was more on board with the guy because I liked the actor playing him.

The acting must have taken a cue from the writing because it too has all the markings of an impersonation of the time rather than an act of bringing it to life. The dialogue is awkward at times, especially when somebody tries to be tough or angry.

Don't watch this movie.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Superman Returns

If you want to hear the every negatives about Superman Returns from a truly informed and articulate fan, ask Andrew Siragusa of Fredonia, NY. If you want to hear about the movie from a impartial non-fan, read on, my friend.

I have no love lost for Superman. I never read the Superman comics. I've seen the first two Superman movies. I didn't like them. I don't think they stand up to time that well at all, which is in some part no fault of the filmmakers who made something fresh and new almost thirty years ago. I had very little interest in seeing the new movie last summer, but like many big summer movies, I gave in because it received mostly good reviews and became a pop culture event. I like Bryan Singer. The guys who wrote X2: X-Men United were on board. Kevin Spacey. Enough good things for me to give it a watch.

I had a blast. It was a really fun movie to watch on the big screen. I recently picked it up from The Exchange for $5, and enjoyed the movie on the small screen just as much. I noticed flaws certainly (any discerning movie goer could pick on at least some) but I was impressed enough by the movie as a whole - the acting, the special effects, the directing, the writing, and the overall sense of storytelling that I hadn't really seen in a superhero movie (except Unbreakable, Batman Begins, and Spiderman 2).

There was a sense that the filmmakers thought really hard about what Superman means to American pop culture. Not what he was intended to be, but what he has become - America's messiah. It was interesting because the filmmakers made a point to show that Superman was a hero for the world with headlines and whatnot. But when Luther strikes, it's off the coast of the United States. Superman has to save Metropolis while other cities along the coast are ignored. Although truth, justice, and the American way have been pushed aside for a more world-wide hero, he is also shown as a product of American pop culture. He is America's saviour time and time again. I think that is where many fans focused their attention upon seeing the movie. They often point out how Superman's creators were Jewish, so a Jesus-like hero in tights was not really what they had intended. I think what they missed is that Superman is a character readily malleable to the messiah myth, one of the stories most often told in media (The Matrix movies, Dark City, etc.). You don't have to be Christian to make a movie with that allegory. It's just a good story to tell, the perfect way to frame the character in the new millennium. It was an interesting interpretation. So, instead of being just entertained by the explosions, flying, and zany villains (which I was), I was treated to a provocative look at what I thought was an out-of-date hero from comicdom's past.

But it's not all Jesus poses and moments (although those are there - Andrew can point them out to you if you missed them, but you won't). There's humor that can be zany, but never the corny punch lines of the Spiderman movies or the battle dialogue of Batman movies.

Most of the humor comes from Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Parker Posey as his accomplice in a mad scheme. I liked Kevin Spacey very much in the film. I often see superhero movie villains as key opportunities for Hollywood stars to ham it up (and Spacey does a bit), but there's also that dryness to his humor in parts and a seriously evident need to beat Superman. That's where I really took interest in Luthor. The Fimspotting guys rightfully said that it's almost impossible to give Superman a worthy villain, someone who will really challenge him in feats worthy of his extraordinary abilities. "Well said," I say. However, I disagree in the case of Luthor as played in Superman Returns. He essentially outwits and beats (you know, as much as you can beat the American messiah) Superman with an outlandish scheme which really isn't that well put together in terms of goals other than it challenges Superman. He nearly dies, folks. He's the man of steel and he gets stabbed. That's a villain for ya.

The whole land-is-the-new currency mad scheme is one of the least thought out in terms of believability. I know it's a superhero movie and you've got to give up quite a bit in the suspension of disbelief end, but I'm thinking in relation to the movie's reality. Luthor is a pretty smart guy. Smart enough to figure out how to kick around Superman. But for some reason he thinks people are gonna give him money to live on the green, rock mountain that is his new continent. And he can't be stopped by world forces because he possesses alien technology. "Bring it on!" he says. However, all we've seen this technology do is create some earthquakes, tidal waves, and electromagnetic impulses, all of which were within the U.S.. This technology makes ginormous land masses, but it occurs to me Luthor's crystals can't stop a nuclear attack on his new found cash cow. It terms of stopping Superman, it's a great idea. "Way to go, Lex!" I say. But in terms of saving his own skin from the military forces of the world, I find his scheme lacking the intelligence of what the mind Lex is supposed to possess.

"Nerd!" you shout. Indeed.

It seems to me that Superman should be out punching and kicking and swooping enemies all over the place, but he ends up just lifting things a lot. In truth, in a world where Lex Luthor is the best "super villain" you've got, car accidents, earthquakes, plan crashes, and other disasters are probably where you need a man in tights most. It just doesn't have the same popcorn entertainment of, say, Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, or really any other superhero movie. But I was entertained. Really, I was. I will watch this movie out again and again and like it. Because Superman's worth to the world is made tangible and so very clear. And because Bryan Singer knows how to make a movie. No, Andrew Siragusa, Singer did not destroy your beloved man of Metropolis despite what you think. He did manage to make one of our oldest heroes relevant not only in time, scope, and quality, but to eyes and ears searching for new ways to view old stories.

The most interesting thing anybody has ever said about Superman that I have heard come from the mind of Quentin Tarantino when David Carradine's Bill discusses him in Kill Bill Vol. 2:
"As you know, I'm quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology... The mythology is not only great, it's unique. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He's weak... he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race."

Filmspotting review (right click and choose "Save target as")

If you would like to speak further about Superman Returns (I've got opinions about the kid, Marsden, and Bosworth), leave a comment.


A Perfect World

I must say that I loved parts of this film. The majority of the scenes between Costner and the young boy were very interesting and unique. The strange dynamic of the ole Stockholm's syndrome takes effect, but the reasons behind it are what make it so interesting. It's also interesting because it takes place with a criminal on the lam and the young boy he took from his house for the ride.

Costner has that reputation for being a bland actor, but I enjoy the guy. I love Field of Dreams. I enjoy Dances with Wolves and so on. I've seen him in bad movies. I've seen him be bad in bad movies. But seeing him as a good/bad guy in A Perfect World gave me new respect for the man as a performer. It's a very good performance, perhaps his best. I marveled how the writer, director Clint Eastwood, and Costner pushed and pulled the audience in relation to Costner's character. He's frightening at first, being a criminal with a gun and all. However, the audience can see he's not all bad as he keeps his accomplice in check from committing the mayhem that character seems destined to commit. Then he takes the kid under his wing, playing the father and the friend when it seems his character never had one before, never a good one anyway. I warmed up to the guy. He seemed good enough. Then, as soon as my comfort with the character had been cemented, the filmmakers choose to make me frightened again and wary of how easily I had been charmed. That choice ends up getting out of hand a bit, but I was impressed with the skill it took to make and start to execute it. I'll get to that moment later.

I like the way the movie incorporated a lost boys type attitude to the main characters - Costner's Butch and Phillip the boy. Each was a man lacking in a father's loving touch. Something that seems so obvious, so straight-forward ended up constructing such interesting characters. You cannot say otherwise when it comes to Butch and Phillip.

There were things that bothered me, namely Clint Eastwood's character and his law enforcement gang's pursuit of Costner's character. I never found that storyline interesting. It was full of Clint Eastwoodiness. He just was so grizzled, cranky, old and wise, tough, but sweet natured under it all that I got a little bored in his scenes. I've seen him do it before. It seems that for the last fifteen years or so, that's all the veteran actor does. I understood the storyline as being a key way of revealing things about Costner's character and his past in a naturally occurring way, but I didn't really get involved in it. I didn't really invest myself in any of those characters that included Laura Dern's.

Another thing that bothered me was the hijinks moments. Some interactions were funny, good-humored bits of time. Others were too light to be in this kind of movie. I half expected for the old The O.C. hijinks music to start pouring through my speakers. That's not a good thing. Clint Eastwood's storyline gets the bulk of the hijinks that allow him to show off his typical aforementioned character traits.

And that ending. That's what I mentioned earlier. It goes on too long. It starts out with a bang - great tension, higher stakes, a bit of exciting character twists, and so on. But then it keeps going. Clint Eastwood shows up with his law enforcement gang and they get to muck it up. The somewhat overly dramatic catalyst at the end in what seemed justifiably dramatic is a head scratcher. The scene was set up for a big finish that would propel the film into memory and provocation of emotions, but Eastwood punches it too much. I never really pegged him as a subtle actor or director (and I like him as both in most) but I don't think I expected him to let it get so out of hand. It goes on too long, it involves a punch line from his character in a moment utterly lacking in humor, and so on.

But I would watch it again, if for no other reason than to spend time with Costner and the boy on their trip to friendship together. It sounds corny, but it was a thoroughly entertaining one.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Saving Private Ryan

I have a long history with this movie. This is one of the few R-rated pre-17 movies my parents let me watch during my adolescence. They had seen it previously and, like Braveheart before it, deemed it historically important enough to watch despite the language, violence, and adult situations. My aunt and uncle sought to prepare me by saying that I shouldn't eat anything before or during the opening battle scene. So, my parents, brothers, and I ignored them and chowed down on pizza during the carnage of Omaha Beach. I didn't ralph. I didn't even get queasy.

While I was thankful for that, I look back and wonder why. What transpired on screen was a bloody mess. Soldiers dying horrible deaths. Blood coloring the water in the ocean washing against the dead bodies. Lost limbs. People crying out in anguish. Mentally, I knew it was horrible. Physically, I didn't really have an expected response. It's easy to say I had already been somewhat desensitized by violence in the media I took in by that age, and that's true. However, it was because I was distanced from the event. It was happening right in front of me, albeit on a television screen, but it was a moment from long ago. Something which I had never experienced directly or really indirectly at that point. It was only after I had gotten to walk along with the eight men in search of Private Ryan that I felt a gut reaction to the horrors of war. I personally got to know the men. Their conversations, while characteristic of male soldiers (I'm guessing), were familiar enough for me to connect to them. The danger around them began to seem more immediate.

It helps that the cast is incredible. I can't believe more of these guys didn't break into the A-list with their wonderful performances. Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Barry Pepper, Tom Sizemore - all give amazing, career-defining performances.

Then there's the A-list duo of Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. I thought it was a rip off when ole crazy (Roberto Benigni) won the Best Actor Academy Award over Hanks and proceeded to leap onto the seats in the theater and stepped on Spielberg's head on his way to the podium. I liked Benigni's performance in Life is Beautiful, but a lot of his performance was grandstanding. Hanks was more natural in his performance, showing a full range of believable emotion and underplaying big scenes, sometimes allowing his co-stars to share and even steal the spotlight. Damon is only seen in the last parts of the movie, but he makes a great impression in a scene where he recounts to Hank's Captain Miller the last night he and his brothers spent together before the war. He moves through the dialogue cautiously, truly putting together a memory that had been forgotten until that moment. This is one of the scenes where Hanks allows a co-star to shine by employing perfect reactions. It's a wonderful and important scene. The whole movie has been looking at the mission as just that rather than a man, the namesake Ryan. Hanks has to be convinced that staying put and helping save the bridge is a good move when his character had previously said that his goal was to save Private Ryan to get closer to going home to see his wife. He agrees to stay, but he doesn't see how Ryan is a man rather than a mission until that conversation. You can see Hanks warm to him as he tells his story, seeing Ryan is worth saving not only for Hank's trip home, but also for the sake of saving a good man. It's a wonderfully written and acted scene.

Take everybody but Edward Burns and you have one of the best casts of the last ten years. Edward Burns has one mode of acting in all his movies - he coasts through as the macho New Yorker with either a chip on his shoulder or love in his heart, sometimes both. He pushes through dialogue as though he is an actor who has memorized his lines and decided long before shooting how bland and fake he's going to be. For a character exhibiting so much anger, doubt, and wit he has very little believable lines. Close the guy's mouth for the length of the movie and you'd have a better performance. I guess I just get tired of every single thing that he's says being soaked in bravado. I can see that the way his character is written lends itself to bravado, but Burns has no sense of how to temper bravado with a sense of naturally occuring moments. His whole performance seems incredibly calculated, planned to the point that any spontaneity probably died in him during the first read-through.

As I have stated before, the conversations between the eight soldiers are well-written, well-directed, well-acted pieces of cinema. They all reveal so much about the characters without coming right out and saying anything. Take Ed Burns story about the bra and the woman. Take Giovanni Ribisi's story about his mom coming home from work. I love that talk, coming to a realization about something from your past that only materializes in places far from anything you knew. Ribisi is so wonderfully understated, not showy at all in a moment that is his for the taking. It's a quiet moment stolen from the battles and gunfire and explosions. The quiet moments among men telling seemingly meaningless stories end up to be defining moments for the actors. Even Burn's aforementioned scene is well done.

I could gush for a long time about the movie, and all you would really learn is that I am more a loyal fan of the fan rather than an impartial critic analyzing the film. I will say that all these years after the first viewing with the pizza and the family, I have found the final moment to be too heavyhanded. I want to say the movie earned the right to push the moment, heighten the importance. Perhaps it did. All I can say now, a little cinematically smarter since that first viewing, is that it seems forced. I hear all sorts of talk about how Spielberg tacks on those happy, sentimental moments on the end of his movies, but I never really felt bothered by his loyalty to happy endings. This is probably the only time I have been bothered by his final choices. I love the framing of the film with the flag - it's not subtle, but it certainly says a lot with one image, especially at the end of the film after seeing all the horror these men had gone through in response to the call of duty. But the thing right before that (you who have seen the movie know what I mean) is the problem, in large part due to the fact that the old man is the worst actor in the film.


Sunday, August 19, 2007


It has been a good week for movie watching. I caught Waitress a few hours after watching Once. Each are excellent films with winning qualities. It's wrong to label Waitress as a romantic comedy. It's really a character piece. It's about Jenna the waitress, everybody else is just a part of her life. She was a wonderful character to spend time with. It helps that she's very funny, as is the film. Laugh out loud. And in ways I didn't quite expect.

Waitress is a charming little comedy with wonderful characters and performances. I was all about Keri Russell. She's spitfire, man. All woman.

I've seen her pine for a better life, but never in such a defeated way. Her Jenna is stuck with an awful husband who is both intimidating and menacing while remaining incredibly needy. I cringed every time he touched Jenna. I wanted to save her. But she didn't need saving. She said so herself. Russell also handled dialogue very well. She has many wonderful conversations in the movie, and she always manages to steal each one out from under the other talented performers around her. It's a memorable performance I'll be talking about for some time.

This movie is about finding happiness. Sometimes, it means messing up. Sometimes it means settling. Sometimes it means saying no to what you thought it was. Sometimes it means...well, you get the idea. Lots of definitions unique to each person.

I liked the feel of the movie. It was sweet and sassy, and sometimes dark. Jenna basically hates her unborn child and curses her every once in a while. I did feel bad for her while she felt bad for herself. And I rooted for her. I really rooted for her. I wanted her to be happy.


When she found happiness, she found strength. It was so unexpected that I appreciated it all the more. The final scene with Jenna walking hand in hand with her little girl was priceless. It was so unusual to feel so happy walking out of the movie after Jenna had been so unhappy for much of the film. The happiness she found was abrupt, a 180 move. But I believed it because the filmmakers and Russell sold it so well. I didn't believe her husband would fold so easily afterwards, but I appreciated the way she found strength when she found love. Real love. Not the kind she had with her equally charming doctor played by Nathan Fillion. It was interesting to see the two become intoxicated with each other because the film didn't really dwell on the fact that both were committing adultery. Rather the film chose to focus on how each fulfilled a missing part of each other for a spell.


I also liked how the film realistically portrayed how people rationalize doing things that are considered wrong. And I didn't blame them. They convinced me.
These people have to work things out for themselves. No amount of preaching is going to fix things for them.

I can't really complain about anything about the film. It was a great way to spend an evening.



Once is a charming backstage musical of the indie kind.

The story is ultra-bare. Basically two musicians meet-cute and dance around their attraction for each other as they talk about past loves while making beautiful music together. The film is really short (less than 90 minutes), probably because it could tell its story in a short amount of time well.

I was talking to my brothers on the way home from the movie about how the characters had so much subtext in their conversations and interactions. But there is still so much mystery to what their intentions are. Are they falling in love. I thought so. But I didn't know. That's key. I knew very little about the characters, probably because the characters don't know that much about each other or their intentions. I did want to get to know them better. I sort of wanted to spend more time with them. I liked them enough to feel that way. I wanted them to get together.

I was disappointed in the direction their lives took, but I was thankful for the time I spent with them and the genuine moments I spent with them and their music. I was thankful that somehow I was satisfied by the wonderful ending although it was different from the way I expected it to end. I was thankful people get to make deeply personal films like this and show them to me in small theaters with other thankful audience members. It's a bittersweet story about two people figuring their lives and each other out.

I will say that I wasn't totally convinced by the acting. The characters and performers are charming, but there is some noticeable hints of these musicians learning to act.


Knocked Up

This film is juvenile and crass. The guys in this film are kinda creeps. But I liked the film. It made me laugh. I guess I'm immature. I could say I loved it because of the love story and complex look at becoming a parent (which was nice and well done), but I laughed out loud like a 14 year old boy amongst all the toilet humor and rude behavior.

I liked the performances. I liked the characters (save for a few of the slacker friends of Seth Rogen's character). I wanted the two mismatched characters to fall in love and be great parents. But I knew they shouldn't. I didn't believe it when it happened. When Seth Rogen's Ben decided to grow up, it happened in a rush, in a montage. The change appeared easy because it happened so abruptly. He had spent the whole movie acting like a immature shlub, but then he got it in his head that he needed to change, and it just happened.

Reconciliation seemed forced. It ended neatly, tossing away what had been a fairly realistic approach to the awkwardness and difficulties of relationships. But I kind of expected that. It's a romantic comedy. Good things must happen. I did appreciate the sometimes awful things in the relationship that happened along the way. I guess I'm odd that way. It made for good comedy, you know, except when people were being horribly mean to each other.

I probably should give a *** rating given all the problems I just pointed out, but I was somehow charmed amongst all the uncharming behavior. Plus, I've gotta give a nice solid rating to any film that makes me laugh as much as Knocked Up did. The mushroom scenes in Vegas are classic hilarity. And despite the unrealistic ending, I was satisfied by it. It gave me what I wanted even if it shouldn't have.


Dark City

This film is very successful at being very disorienting. I was lost in the excitement of the film. It starts out like a shot out of a gun after a brief narration explaining the current situation. Then it jumps to a sleepin city, save for one man who abruptly wakes in a tub without any clue how he got there and who he is. It seems the more he tried to find out, the more I questioned what in the world was happening. To paraphrase Morpheus, I felt very much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit's hole. It was only after I was able to catch up with the plot just as the amnesiac does that I was able to see how carefully and expertly the filmmakers had constructed the feel of the film. It was otherworldy to be sure, but there was vague familiarity in the dress and locations that resembled that of 40's noir films I had seen. To be so overwhelmed by the speed and oddities of the film is easy. Starting with that first montage of the city at a sleeping standstill, the film sets up the viewer to constantly be attempting to grasp at straws - at things that make sense - but to always feel out of your element as a viewer. The film is crazy. The images I saw were frightening, beautiful and awe-inspiring. The world is bleak, and the future seems even bleaker. The city is covered in shadows and men with dark, brimmed hats, and is lit to accentuate the shady characters and the dark night. Some of the shots of the film are framed so well that I stopped in the midst of my getting lost in those early moments of the film to marvel at the skill that went into putting them together.

And then there are the "Strangers." I'll admit to be frightened by the albino, sharp-toothed, lanky freaks. Especially that little kid one. Scary movies often deem it necessary to have a creepy kid running around, but none have managed to unnerve as much as the tiny, menancing stranger quietly promising violence. The Strangers could make my hair stand up by just standing still or slowly floating about their environment. Their stark white skin against the darkness around them made for memorable images throughout the film.


The intentions of these beings doesn't seem all that bad - to find out what makes humans unique. But that doesn't stop them from being intimidating. It helps that their horribly ugly creatures who carry big knives and speak in either booming bass tones or weasly noises under their breaths.

It is not difficult to compare this film to The Matrix series. Both deal with the Messiah Myth. One man who has special abilities is called upon to free the world as they know it from their opposers. In each film, these oppressors have created a false world in which they control their subjects. Cut the kung fu, gunplay, and black leather out of The Matrix and they'd be even more noticeably similar. When I was watching the final fight between Murdoch and the chief Stranger, each floating in the air high above the city and trying to hit the other with all they had, I was reminded of Neo's final battle with Mr. Smith. It is notable that Dark City was released before The Matrix.

Only a few minor things bothered me. The only one worth mentioning was when Murdoch uses his tuning ability, a weird power signature (I am such a comic book nerd) is shown eminating from his head. It looks cheesy. As a visual effect, I found it to be noticeably inferior to the otherwise unique and excellent special effects throughout the rest of the film. I understand the purpose of the effect: it shows the tuning, or alternating of reality, was performed by Murdoch and not some unseen force or person or creature. But this was noticeably a different visual approach to tuning because the strangers did not show this kind of power signature until the chief guy broke some out in the end.


Anyone who says this film is all style without substance must have failed to work through the complexities of the plot.

I also liked the love story, however minor and unnecessary, because I liked the characters involved and was invested in the outcome of their subplot. Because I cared about their subplot, I was more invested in Murdoch's character, whose eyes are the ones we discover the truth behind all the crazy madness.

I'd definitely recommend this to any viewer, though I imagine my opinion of the film may greatly change after a second viewing now that I am aware of the full story.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Big Kahuna

I'm going to complain. I'm going to give a mediocre rating. I'm also going to specifically state that I really enjoyed The Big Kahuna.

The Big Kahuna is based on a play. It never managed to convince me that it shouldn't have stayed that way. The situation, the dialogue, the directing - it's very stagey. I'm not saying that the characters act contradictory to their personalities or motives, or that I didn't believe the characters meant what they said. I just don't think they'd say the things they said at the that time, all together on that night. Danny Devito's character is said to have been dealing with a lot leading up to that night, but it comes at a bit of a surprise that his crisis-of-sorts is a spiritual one (among other factors) when he is presently surrounded by a young company researcher (Peter Facinelli) and his friend and fellow marketer (Kevin Spacey) engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue about spirituality and the qualities of man. The film is a short, neat little film that is too short to be cinematic, and too confined to be interestingly blocked and filmed. It also showcases the nasty habit/tell-tale-sign that it's a play masquerading as a film. It uses slow motion every so often just to remind the viewer that what they are watching is in fact a film - edited and designed in such a manner. I wasn't fooled. I was bothered.

The acting is superb. The characters are essentially locked into a pattern of actions, reactions, and motives. However, that works in the small confinements of the runtime and reality of the film. The writing and actors run the risk of creating one-note performances, but each character is complicated. They're learning things about themselves, about each other, and coming to grips with where they fit into the world and their jobs. Spacey's Larry is invested in his job, cynical about the state of the people he bumps into in his line of work, and certain that spirituality has it's place in the occasional pondering without dwelling on it. Facinelli's Bob (the ring with which Spacey says "Bob" is soaked with cynicism, wit, and tiredness - which I loved each time he said it) is green in the business, but practiced in his faith and the role it plays in his life. Devito's Phil is at a crossroads where he's questioning the life he's made for himself and the role of God in his life.

Facinelli spends much of the film reacting, letting his fish-out-of-waterness show at every turn. I wasn't expecting much from him, mostly because he disappeared after his run on the FOX TV show Fastlane. He fills the role well. It's captivating to see his character truly challenged in his beliefs, to face the way he relates them to others.

Spacey is doing a conglomeration of other Spacey performances (the cynicism of American Beauty, the suit and tie mentality of Glengarry Glen Ross, and the energy/dry sarcasm/wit of The Usual Suspects/Hurlyburly/The Negotiator). When his Phil enters the room at the beginning of the film, it is in like a tornado ripping through what was briefly a tranquil conversation between Bob and Phil. And he remains that way for much of the film, save a few interesting moments where he's relaxed and in conversation with his friend, colleague, and seasoned pal Phil. I recently listened to a review of Superman Returns on (right click and choose "Save Target As" to give it a listen) to where one critic said that Kevin Spacey is the most overrated actor of the last 25 years. It's a bold statement and one that I do not agree with. I am, however, becoming more aware of Spacey's habit of falling back into his old bag of tricks (similar to the way Jack Nicholson's performances are often criticized). I love the bag of tricks, but I would like to see a performance from my once-favorite actor that forced him to step outside and try something completely new (and succeed at it).

And Devito. I forgot he can act. He delivers a mannered performance that shows remarkable restraint although it only briefly slides into staginess. He's been in limbo the last few years, although he infamously turned up as a blathering loon on The View. I wish he'd get more chances to really act again. He's got the chops.

The film is confident in its subject matter. It has something meaningful to say about evangelism, cynicism, identity related to your work, and more. But what really struck me is how honestly The Big Kahuna discusses Christianity. The film makes points, but doesn't bang the Christ gavel over the viewer's head. And I guess that's the chief message: being honest about your beliefs and your motives in relating those to other people. Try not to sell your beliefs.

I'd like to see this material performed as a play with these actors. I'd like that.


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ed Wood

I saw Plan 9 From Outer Space. I saw Glen or Glenda. They begged the question: how could someone be so stupid to make films such as these?

Ed Wood takes a different approach: Ed Wood was not stupid (at least not completely), but actually a man who was too confident in the fruits of his labors. He was a man so in love with his words, the people he made movies with, and the hope of making something someone could remember him for that he was blind to the futility of his pursuit of quality. I hate the man's movies, but I admire the man. He was in love with filmmaking and wouldn't let anything get in his way of making what he considered his art. A foolish man perhaps, but not the buffoon I assumed he must have been prior to seeing this movie.

To be fair, the reality of Ed Wood's life in the Tim Burton film that bears his name is heightened and exaggerated. I know the writers of Ed Wood are merely interpreting his life, but I never doubted the reality of the film. I believed it completely. The actors (Depp, Landau, Murray, Parker, Arquette, and others), Tim Burton, and the writers helped create characters that are somehow acutely absurd and utterly authentic at the same time.It's played for laughs. They're zany.

So zany...even more so because I have seen the director's films whose productions are depicted in the film. I recommend seeing Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Atom before seeing Ed Wood. It's hilarious to see the film's writers' reasons for why Wood's films ended up as they did. Sometimes the reasons are oddly poignant, which is strange for such a zany film. When Ed puts his friend and father figure, Bela Lugosi, in his films with a speech about how the actor is still relevant (and making an atomic master race) or a simple moment of smelling a flower in a film where it makes no sense to smell a flower, my heart swelled a bit. The scenes in the context of their respective films are ludicrous. However, in the context of the film Ed Wood, they are priceless proclamations of the maligned director's love for his favorite actor and best friend.

I love this movie. I think anyone who loves movies, want to make movies, or likes to learn about interesting people (even people who make awful movies) should give this movie a watch.


The Bourne Ultimatum

I loved this film. I was gripping my armrests the whole time. Somehow, the filmmakers managed to top its predecessors from the series in action, suspense, and memory-centric plotting and espionage.

There were times in the film when the danger was very real, moments when I thought characters were going to die, to fail, to lose their way. Of course, that is all artifice because the film is engineered to race towards its conclusion like a speeding train.

It's interesting how the film managed to incorporate a character I had little interest in from the first two movies and make her necessary and...well...interesting. Julia Stiles CIA techie matters in the scheme of the film's plot, and I really didn't expect to care so much about her. When Bourne races to save her while an assassin is hot on her trail, I desperately wanted him to be her knight in shining armor. And what's so strange is to be that invested in the fate of a character that meant little or nothing to me in her earlier forms. The credit should go to the writers, but also to Stiles. I often am less than pleased with the actress' work (i.e. - Hamlet, The Omen), but she makes great strides in Ultimatum.

It's so easy to praise the film - the assured directing, the taught script, the supporting cast - that it somehow becomes easy to pass over Matt Damon's performance. It would be so easy for an actor to phone in a performance after playing the character in two previous movies, but Damon is on his game, confident in his interpretation of his character to the point that all that cool composure, that furrowed brow, and the daring physical feats seem effortless somehow. Although Damon infuses Bourne with mannerisms and personality (or lack thereof) from the first two films, the character is still fresh while his character's search for his past is endless and bitter at every turn. I saw Ocean's Thirteen a few days after Ultimatum and the comparison of Damon's performances enhanced my enjoyment of his portrayal of Bourne. Whereas Damon's Linus in Ocean's Thirteen is so far from confident and composed, Damon's Bourne is the opposite. Linus is essentially phoned in, while Bourne shows the work of an actor striving to bring a character believably alive off of the page.

My only complaint (because I don't want to nitpick a film I enjoyed so thoroughly) is that the flashbacks of Bourne's past have grown old. They change throughout the series, perhaps progressing to a moment of complete revelation, but the familiar blurry scene, fuzzy voices, and wavy lenses and camera tilts are tired. I understand the flashbacks have been established in the first two films, and it would be very difficult and awkward to change the style for the third, but I find them almost tacky in a otherwise perfectly composed film. I mean, really! Is there no other way for memories save for the Bourne style and the pink waves and sound cues of Saved by the Bell?

Have fun. Enjoy the ride. Get Excited.


Ocean's 13

I felt pretty indifferent to this movie for over half of its runtime. The filmmakers expect us to be familiar with their characters already (which I was), so they jump into the plot with reckless abandon. It's too quick even - rushed, forced. The setup whips by the viewer too quickly to invest in the characters. I'll admit the filmmakers must have been setting up the slights of hands to come in the film's loaded third act, but I would have liked to follow the action better.

By this third film, the actors involved can sleepwalk through their parts, and they mostly do. I would say that the first film of the series is surface oriented, a unqiue kind of cool. But the third film finds the characters even less fleshed out. On top of that, many of the film's thirteen namesakes make minor ripples in the film with Pitt, Damon, Clooney, and Cheadle doing the heavy lifting. I did love the workers' strike in Mexico involving Casey Affleck and Scott Caan's characters.

Ocean's Thirteen suffers from a zaniness it embraces too tightly, giving itself over to it. Especially strange and awkward is Ellen Barkin (an old favorite of mine from Diner) punch-drunk in lust of Matt Damon's odor. I know the film is not meant to take itself too seriously, but her fawning over him wastes the actress and asks the audience to give too much up in terms of believability.

I also find it interesting that the producers and writers have been able to come up with two more situations after the original where the Ocean gang has to steal or con over $100 million from big pockets. The fact that two of the targets of the film are casinos in Vegas also shows a lack of development in the character and planning of their lives.

All this complaining, but I must recommend the film. I had fun. Once I caught up with what was happening, I was in. Sure, there's all that awkwardness, but what works actually works pretty well. After a while, I just relaxed and let myself fall into the holes the film had dug itself in. The film strives a bit too hard for the cool of the first film, but it still manages to slick through on its own merits.