Sunday, December 27, 2009

Up in The Air

I was quick to jump on the bandwagon of director Jason Reitman's last outing, Juno, after seeing it two years ago. I loved it. After reading the script, I loved it less. Reitman and his cast gave these quirked out suburbanites' quotable dialogue nuance that was present on screen and glaringly missing on the page. Simply put, you had to see it to believe it.
Working from his own adaptation of Walter Kirn's Novel of the same name, Reitman's Up in the Air succeeds where Juno lost its footing. Its script is amazing. Its cast is impeccable. And this time, Reitman has raised his own game visually.
George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a "termination facilitor". It means people hire him to fire their employees. He fancies himself a professional. It's clear in early scenes that he excels at his job as much as one could hope to. He's quick on his feet and focused. What I misjudged first as callousness reveals itself later as resignation to the inherent difficulties of his job.
His character has also resigned to the idea that he's better off moving about free of emotional and relational tethers. He's a man without a home by choice.
It's when he's faced with the prospect of staying foot that Bingham starts drowning. His final trip to train an overeager corporate upstart (played beautifully by Anna Kendrick) lays it out for us. Faced with staying put and digging in at his supposed home of Omaha takes a backseat to one last venture out in his beloved airplanes to stay in hotels, eat lounge dinners, and swap drinks and spit with a bewitching fellow traveller (played with deceptive layers by the excellent Vera Farmiga).
It's not terribly surprising that along the way he comes to question his choices, his relationships and lack thereof. What is surprising is how natural Reitman and Clooney make it appear. Even when the answers seem easy, they're not. Even when the glass is half-empty, it remains half-full and vice versa. It's this balance of sweetness, humor, and grim reality that mix to create a film for now. It's been called "The Film of this moment" too often to actually fit the bill. With that in mind, it comes damn close. There isn't a false note to be found in the movie. The emotionally heavy-lifting isn't there. But the movie is more than skin deep, too. It's just right like Baby Bear's porridge. Clooney, Farmiga, Kendrick, and Reitman know well enough that drama comes both from action and reaction. So rather than calling it the movie of this moment in time, let's call it "a reaction to this moment" and soak it in for it what is: one of the best films of the year.

Also, somebody tell Reitman that his half-empty/half-full ending is just what Up in the Air needed.



I want to speak in specifics, but I'm left only with abstract superlatives. Avatar blew me away. I was exhilarated in ways few movies have made me. Visually, Avatar was far superior to what I was expecting. I'm not talking about the 3D (though that was fun). I'm talking about the CGI performances of those long blue natives you see runnin' around in the television commercials. They're much better on the big screen. I was surprised by the amount of emoting these Avatars were able to do. Zoe Saldana in particular turns in an amazing performance under the guise of a blue alien. So much reality comes through in her voice and on that blue creature's face (created through motion capture), that you BUY IT. THIS CRAZY NONSENSE WORKS. Sigourney Weaver, however, loses something in translation in blue alien form. Don't know why. What works on both sides of the coin is Sam Worthington's performance. It's not groundbreaking thematically, but he's able to carry the story (an epic one at that) all the way through with ease. It's hard to explain. Let's just say that the awkwardness of his performance in Terminator Salvation is lost. He's at ease as an actor. He's found his stride as a performer.

James Cameron has always excelled more as a visual storyteller and as an idea man than a screenwriter in my eyes. Some of that military grunt and scientific babbling blah blah blah is still here, but the extraordinary visuals have a grounding in these characters. Even as the supporting characters weave in and out of their degrees of value and credibility, Worthington and Saldana are there to bring us back. And don't ever question the visuals. Simply put: they're amazing.

I was surprised at how involved I became in the story. I literally sat on the edge of my seat biting my fingers. I was into it. Whether or not that fascination wanes upon further viewing remains to be seen. For now, I am satisfied in calling this one of my favorite films of the year and the easiest to recommend to everyone. You'll like it. Unless you're stupid. Just kidding. Mostly.


The Box

It's hard to praise The Box. It's so stylized, that any sort of originality or individuality is blurred. Its source material, a science fiction short story, has previously been played out in a Twilight Zone episode. It's that same sort of melodrama and tweaked atmosphere that is played out in Richard Kelly's film. I wouldn't be able to stand the musical score of the film, an amped up pulp orchestration, unless I viewed it as a key component of Kelly's intent. This is not a modern film. Some guy in the late 70's, early 80's could have matched the result (minus some of the special effects). Kelly wants to tell a tale in a slightly more innocent time on the cusp of 80s greed and subsequent immorality. What Kelly has going for him is the conceit. What would you do? How would you deal with the circumstances?

Also working for Kelly is his casting of James Marsden. The former Cyclops has acting chops. He makes the most of the hackneyed dialogue that Kelly gives him. It's his eyes, his urgency, his increasing fear that comes across the best. Unfortunately, Kelly's A-Lister, Cameron Diaz can't save her dialogue. It might be the accent that buries her, but she's hard to believe for much of the film even as the unbelievable happens around her and her husband. Frank Langella acts past his characters facial deformities to create a mysterious villain (?) worth remembering. It's when his intentions become clearer that the film breaks its brakes and nosedives towards its climax that the film loses traction.

It's freaky, intentionally so. In a dark theater with surround sound, it's scary. Still, sitting there I was thinking ahead to watching it at my house on my 13-inch TV. There, it might be silly, laughable even. Time will tell. In his effort to make us scratch our heads, to question what we see and what we hear, Kelly may have pushed the style too far. I shouldn't be giggling. I should be squirming in my seat uneasily. Sometimes at the theater, I was.

The film bends under the weights of its director's need to mind-screw his audience. The final scenes don't work. As far as the questions Kelly raises, I kept asking myself these long after I left. As cinema, The Box is slight. As science fiction, it's intriguing. I would watch it again to see how it holds up. There's good there hiding out amongst the missteps.



Carriers comes hot off the success of its star's other big 2009 movie, Stark Trek. Chris Pine has made a name for himself. That name wasn't enough to get Carriers much of a theatrical release, but it was enough to lure me in for a viewing. The prospect is enticing: a unnamed virus is making people sick - not zombies - and two brothers and their respective love interest head for the beach and some notion of outlasting the carriers. Nobody's biting anybody else. But the virus is easily caught and acts quickly. Chris Pine plays a brother quick to dismiss the victims, while his younger bro, Lou Taylor Pucci (of Thumbsucker fame) reacts uneasily at every turn to his brother's callousness. That dynamic creates the friction the film will carry to its uneasy end.

Pine shines in a complex role. It's a bit showy, but Pine shines with these kind of opportunities. His seemingly numskull frat beard has seen some things/done some things that have shaded him differently. It's how Pine lets these unseen experiences compel his character that shape the performance. More so than the poorly titled, Jim Sheridan helmed melodrama Brothers, this film throws two siblings into harrowing circumstances and let's 'em rip. Pine sets the pace, but Pucci can't match it. His character is meant to be a pushover, a well-meaning-yet-toothless intellectual. Pucci just plays it bland. Emily Van Camp plays his maybe main squeeze while Piper Perabo plays Pine's long time girlfriend. Both turn in understated performances, and Perabo in particular impressed me in her scenes mid-film.

In the end, the film has a good setting and atmosphere, but cannot flesh beyond the surface of what could have been an affecting, bleak outing. Their plight is real, but none of the circumstances stemming from that plight payoff quite as much as I'd like them to. The filmmakers teased me. First, we have the scenes with Christopher Meloni and his daughter seeking out a cure at a outpost with the four weary travelers. Heavy stuff. Yet, the filmmakers only dip their toes in danger before moving their characters on. Next, they meet up with a creepy bunch of hazard suit survivors at an old resort. Again, the tension and stakes are high only to be dropped when our four stars head out to the next stop. It's meant to be post-apocalyptic fears played out between four road trippers. What works is their sparring. What doesn't is the lack of stakes outside their car. And please don't have Pucci drip profundities in voice over in the last scene as though it meant more. It could have, but it didn't. Carriers only sweeps the surface.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

I felt strong pangs of nostalgia during this movie. More awkwardly, I heard the restless wrestling of the youngins' and their regretful parents around me. This was far too deep for humans not old enough to reminisce. Perhaps you have to be older than 18 to enjoy it, to be able to look back at your youth with regrets and longing. Max is a 9 year old to a fault. His haphazard imagination is full of tangents and half-thoughts. It's the moments of passing clarity (Max's fear when his Wild Things avatar, Carol, is off the handle; KW isn't wrong to seek out new friends; emotions are strange) that will fly over the heads of those 9 year olds in the audience. We old timers (at 27, I feel simultaneously part of the target hipster and the silly nonsensical kid demographics without wholly belonging to either) see the insecurities masquerading as confidence in Max. I got a lot out of it. The rivers in the land of the Wild Things run deep. Even as the Wild Things cumulatively lose the plot, I saw value in the confusion it created. It's about feeling alone and out of place even amongst a crowd, even in your own mind.

Spike Jonze steps out of the Charlie Kaufman shadow he helped create to claim his own vision. This is the work of a visionary cued to the artistic instincts of a master getting better, staying true to his gut. The film has moments of exquisite beauty, but the aesthetics are strictly rough around the edges - like Roger Deakins' family vacation home movies. If the film has failed to connect with viewers - I might just have to play the snob card - they just don't get it...or aren't old enough to get it yet. A child's psyche is a place where Wild Things roam. It's not high and mighty to realize I want my mom sometimes, and I don't ever have to say so. I can always go home. Even if cliches always say otherwise.


The Men Who Stare at Goats

This movie wasn't awful. Interested now? Oh, not really? Well, good. You see, after all the characters have ended their journeys, I was left feeling "meh". So what? The character arcs were utterly dissatisfying. George Clooney tried his best, but the script is too preoccupied with it's oddball cast of characters to tell their story. Yeah, they're goofy; but SO WHAT? In the climatic scene, where George Clooney and his mentor free the minds of the too serious, too sad, too capitalistic U.S. Army and its psychic advisers through LSD shenanigans only to disappear into the desert, I just wondered why it was supposed to matter to me. I liked Lynn (Clooney's character). He's about all I really LIKED about the film. Still, his triumph felt shallow. Ewan McGregor's accompanying journalist remarks about the profound effect Lynn had on him, but I can't really see why. What did any of these guys really do in the end? Why is their satisfaction important to me?

Note to producers: do not cast McGregor as your straight man. He can't do it. He's best as the wide-eyed, edgy dreamer. Would he have been better cast as Lynn? Nah. But he's lost to connect with the character he's given.


Sadly, I think there was a good story here. If any of the background behind this story is true, I find it fascinating. This journey of enlightenment for McGregor and relevance for Clooney cannot match its potential. I guess I'll read the book.


Monday, December 7, 2009


What was a genuinely engaging sci-fi thriller went off the rails two-thirds of the way through and never really recovered. If you're a Ben Foster fan, see it. If you're a Dennis Quaid fan, you'll rethink things two-thirds of the way through. Pluses: tense atmosphere, scary creatures, Ben Foster, that sleeping creature sequence near the end. Minuses: Too many plot twists. As a straight forward horror movie in space, this movie could have excelled. And why do blood-thirsty creatures show nobility for no reason? Ughh. That last 45 minutes was messy. But I liked it?


The Fantastic Mr. Fox

I've been raving a bit about this film. The pure joy wasn't known to me immediately after the film. It's thinking about the movie now and giggling and smiling to myself that I truly grasp the entertainment that flowed forth out of Wes Anderson's (and ole Roald Dahl's) whimsical mind.

I am not familiar with the source material, but I have to say that this feels like vintage Anderson (whatever that means, right?). That odd sense of humor and peculiar eye is let loose through the animation. It's as though anything that Anderson was unable or unsure of in live-action is up-for-grabs when it comes to animation. Case in point: the strobe-light-like battle between the rat and Mister Fox. In what other film could Anderson justify a fight sequence like that? And it works.

Kudos to Jason Schwartzman for stealing every scene his tiny avatar was in. The voice casting was superb. Even non-actor Eric Anderson (Wes' brother) fit perfectly into the world. I've always felt that lead George Clooney was best rattling off complex chunks of dialogue. Anderson gives him a platform for that. But the wacky side of Clooney that has felt overdone in recent films feels perfectly used here.
The film moves at the speed of light, but I think it's a frenetic energy that comes naturally to the story - as though it was only meant to be told as such. The humor is quick and witty, but also old school quirky in the typical Anderson fashion that he has both been acclaimed and panned for. I laughed out loud of my own accord throughout. The gravity of, say, Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums isn't there. However, there are still lessons to be learned and a great story to be told. Joyfully.



Out of the way: I haven't seen the original Danish film on which this is based. Therefore, my comments are on this film alone.

I enjoyed Brothers. It's a gut-wrenching film, but I like to have a lump in my throat. The performances from the three leads were uniformly excellent. The subject matter was handled well and I thought Maguire returned to earlier heights. The scene depicted above is my favorite from the film. It's tragic. It's haunting. It's scary. It's sad. It's affecting. That having been said, allow me to nitpick. The script seemed to rush through its dramatic beats. Even though it was 2+ hours long, I felt as though the developments in both characters and plot were rushed. Case in point: Gyllenhaal's quick insertion into his brother's family. It was too quick, too easy. The actors handled it well. I just thought that there were scenes missing. The ending also felt abrupt. If the intention was to lend a taste of ambiguous closure, screenwriter David Benioff nailed it. But to go wide on the two characters with Maguire's voiceover before credits rolled seemed lazy, almost like there was a different ending that was scrapped. Maguire and Portman nail the intense emotions of that scene, so I'm not going to argue otherwise. I will say that we go from those emotions to the credits too quickly. Gyllenhaal's character becomes a footnote when the three of them were of equal importance up to the endpoint. And let me say that Sam Shephard's (whom I love) scenes had an air of artificiality to them. His lines were contrived, and he couldn't save them.

Still, let me call back to the three lead performances and the promising debut of Bailee Madison as Portman and Maguire's eldest daughter. Top-notch work from talented actors.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009


It's bothersome that 9 is getting such mixed reviews. Honestly, this is one of the best films of the year and deserves to be championed as such. It takes 3-D animation in a new, mature direction. The visuals are stunning and the story accessible, with a grand new talent in director Shane Acker sounding his arrival. The casting of the voice talent is impeccable and the story streamlined to start creating awe with the first frame, never diminishing through the final shot and voice over. I like that the film is serious about its content. The characters each have their unique personality, essential considering that these "stitch punks" are the only protagonists we are offered. Their plight versus a machine that has sought to take over the world until there is no human or hope left is familiar. We've all seen it done before in big sci-fi event hullabaloos (The Matrix and Terminator franchises cannot be dismissed during the film), but I've never seen it done like this. There is something refreshingly small-scale to this story, creating an intimacy and mystery even as dazzling visuals and complicated action sequences are used to tell it. It's thrilling, scary, and touching without ever being overly aware of its need to get these responses from its audience. If its too slow or too short for some audiences of critics, I invite them to try to remember a film this "slow" or "short" that entertained this effortlessly.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Favorite Movies of 2009 (So Far)

1. (500) Days of Summer

This may come back to haunt me. Like Garden State in 2004, this might be my flavor of the month. However, with much respect to the cast and crew and screenwriters of (500) Days of Summer, I say that this movie defines my tastes here and now. This is how I wish I could write - moments that only happen in movies grounded in emotional truths (found in the performances of leads Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel and the script). It's witty, sad, funny, conventional and yet altogether new. I grow fonder with each viewing. There are a spade of "indie" movies hitting theaters right now - complete with quirk, hip soundtracks, and stylish aesthetics. I say now that (500) Days of Summer is the best among them - all these staples of the new movement coupled with skill and deep introspection. All props given to Joseph Gordon Levitt (the best male performance of the year to date) and Zooey Deschanel (beguiling and maddening in the best ways possible).

Dear Joe and Zooey,
Work together often and I will never ask a thing of you two again.


2. The Hurt Locker

I followed the buzz right into the theater and was not disappointed. I didn't expect much from director Katheryn Bigelow having seen her earlier works Point Break and Strange Days. She, in turn, gave me a true vision of war from the soldiers up. Working from an ace script from journalist Mark Boal, Bigelow creates a real tension that never lets up from the first frame to the pulsating rock of the final shots. It's not all visceral. There's an emotional depth to the plight of the Iraq bomb squad played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. Their job seems to be the most dangerous in the world, and yet is it cyclical in its danger. Once escaping certain death, they return at a moment's notice to face it again. The real drama comes from deciding what kind of men it takes to be under that constant state of duress. It's harrowing to the point where your heart will beat emphatically of its own accord all the way home from the theater.


3. Inglorious Basterds

There was a big chance I wasn't going to like this movie. The trailers were fun without promising more than a genre-and-style sendup from cinefile QT. Thankfully, I was given a lesson in grand suspense and astute dialogue and theatrics. Basterds is less an exercise in genre than Grindhouse. Instead, QT makes his own mark in the storied World War II genre. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Basterds was not the star vehicle for Brad Pitt that I had imagined prior to my viewing. Rather, Basterds is an ensemble piece shifting focus from Pitt's Lieutenant Aldo Raines' "Apaches" to the verbose SS Colonel Landa's polite viciousness to the victim-turned-opportunist Shosanna Dreyfus's lust for vengeance. And instead of grandstanding scenery chewing, Pitt's character fits quite perfectly into the tone of the movie. It's (quietly) his best performance in years. And Christoph Waltz's performance as Landa is deservedly generating the biggest Oscar buzz of the young year.

The scene I can't quite help myself from raving out loud about - the slow-paced German bar tension build. LOVED IT!!!


4. Duplicity
5. I Love You, Man
6. Watchmen
7. Star Trek

8. Funny People

Has there been a better movie to receive a badder rep this year? I think not. I found Apatow's third film to be another addition to his body of trend-setting comedy with all the heart, guffaw-inducing crude humor, and subtle graces of his past films. It might not be as FUNNY as 40 Year Virgin or Knocked Up, but I find it to be truer and leaner - surprising for a film running nearly 2 and a half hours. Props to Adam Sandler for willing to play an incredibly flawed character. I don't know how much of the real-life Sandler can be found in his fictional George Simmons, but I have to hand it to him for how layered he made a Hollywood buffoon. Seth Rogen continues to improve his chops. He's becoming elastic, able to be both the punchline and jokemaker with equal skill. He's an underdog worth rooting for and an everyman inserted into the zany Hollywood life of Simmons. This was an incredibly poorly advertised film. While I found this film to be incredibly funny, more enjoyment and entertainment is found diving into the lives of FUNNY PEOPLE. They are flawed AND funny human beings operating differently than the casual joke teller. Their interactions are constant rehearsals of material both good and bad. And apparently they are incredibly reliant on humor derived from the discussion of genitalia. That said, there is gravitas to the story here. What other comedy with dick and fart jokes will send you home contemplating your own mortality? Besides Dude Where's My Car(?)?


9. Away We Go

Dan Walton, you are correct. This is another one of those quirky indie comedies trying build on the popularity of Juno, Garden State, and Little Miss Sunshine. It may be worse than any of those movies, but let me say now that it is dear to me. I don't understand love or the complex state of home, but I think this movie knows why. It's different for everyone and there are no easy answers. That's an admirable wisdom even in its simplicity. While the cast of characters along the way may be dialed "up to 11", I must say that I was able to stay engaged and intrigued due to the performances of the leads, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. Matty Ballgame and Adam K over at Filmspotting can't seem to find any truth or skill to these performances, but I found each to be winning. While the cloud of quirk swirls wildly around them, Krasinski and Rudolph are able to interact and not be sucked into its doldrums. That isn't to say they aren't funny. They are funny "AHA!". But there's a nuance to the performances whereas their friends and casual acquaintances are funny "ha". It's an unbalanced film, but one I found to be touching and funny. And if you're gonna go quirk, it's okay with me to go Mendes.


10. State of Play

Saturday, July 18, 2009


There were three reasons I wanted to see this movie: 1)Rourke as a hitman, 2)Levitt as a hitman, 3)I enjoyed the Elmore Leonard book on which it was based. The first was the only thing that really panned out.

There is really only one redeeming quality to Killshot, and that is Mickey Rourke's subdued hitman. His character is partnered with a loose cannon criminal played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levitt is an amazing talent, but he utterly fails at lending authenticity to the larger than life villain. It starts with the accent and continues through to his twitchiness. The character is supposed to be annoying. But I don't imagine he was supposed to be utterly ridiculous. The story, while entertaining in novel form, loses its step on screen. Carmen, the film's heroine played by Diane Lane, is intimately fleshed out in the book, but her character onscreen feels utterly slight and Lane doesn't do her any favors. Likewise Thomas Jane, as her rough and tumble husband, adds to the ridiculousness of the cast. I like Jane. More recently, I enjoyed his lead performance in The Mist. Here, he's just a lug with a square jaw. I want more. Ditto for Rorario Dawson in her small role. Just skip it altogether.


The International

My bar was set low.

I had heard mostly mixed reviews out of this 09 thriller. It was in and out of theaters before I could see it as it should have been. Still, the film's pedigree (director Tom Tykwer, actors Clive Owen and Naomi Watts) at least warranted a rental. I was pleasantly surprised. Owen is typically solid in his loner heavy role. Watts is solid. Tykwer is uncommonly subdued in his direction, though I thought it was fittingly in service to the story and action. Oh...the action...consists primarily of a go-for-broke shoot out in the Guggenheim Museum. The scene is startlingly violent within the context of all that comes before and follows it, but wonderfully choreographed and executed cinematically. It's stripped of any slow motion or camera tricks or balletic dives and sweeps of modern film. It's thrilling, and in opposition of one good friend's opinion, not mindless. It's key to developing the story and Owen's character - marking a breaking point in his limits. The story itself, while not groundbreaking, was intriguing enough to hold my attention and eerily topical despite being based on the misdeeds of an international bank in the late 80s and early 90s. I love the ambiguous ending, the cynical approach to justice, and the aesthetic beauty of the architecture. There are times when characters speak pseudo-profoundly in circles, but the film is at its core very accessible and entertaining.


Public Enemies

My bar was set high.

Public Enemies is at times mesmerizing and at others overwrought. Each of the principal actors seems to struggle to find their character's voices (figuratively and literally) before hitting their strides. The dialogue can sound foreign at some points and lyrical at others. It's the film's weaving in and out of these increasingly vague extremities that left me lukewarm. What I did love was some of the supporting performances. Jason Clarke as Dillinger's right hand man was subtle and natural in a land of big characters. John Ortiz (he of the "bigger is better" school of acting) lends a quiet touch to his criminal. Stephen Graham and Billy Crudup both take big bites into their characters and somehow remain credible and engaging. I also loved the cinematography. The action and drama is beautifully framed, though I think in this case Michael Mann should have shot on film instead of his beloved HD. There's an odd graininess to the picture that makes the period lose some of its authenticity. As public enemy #1, Depp offers glimpses of brilliance. When there is worry behind Dillinger's arrogant facade, I was riveted. When Depp showboats, it's to the character's detriment. Marion Cottillard does her best to flesh out her gun moll, but there isn't much gravitas that can be drawn out of the character (save for her bitterly defiant interrogation and face-off with Dillinger's killer). Christian Bale looks a bit lost in his supporting role. It's a spare role necessitated by the director's need to cover the other side of the story, so there isn't much room for Bale to shine. It's a good movie that seems to brush off greatness.


A Christmas Tale

This was a very French movie. And though I cannot quite articulate what that means, I am certain that is an accurate statement. There is much to love about this ensemble family drama. Mathieu Almaric adds another richly textured performance to his resume. Although his character is the black sheep cynical loser of the family, he is strangely appealing both with his beady eyes and tiny frame and his relentless and seemingly inherent desire to unsettle his family's gatherings. The rest of the cast is refreshingly natural, headlined by cinema icon Catherine Deneuve. Her scenes with Almaric are wonderfully unpredictable. Indeed, it's Almaric's one on one scenes with each family member that are the keepsakes. Writer/director's stylish and narrative flourishes that distanced me from really connecting with the movie. There were times when I was paying full attention and felt the writer/director was hurling drama over my head. While the French family's dysfunction and morality differs from my own, there were pieces of me hidden in each family member - the distraught Paul, the contemptuous Henri, the lost Simon, the enigmatic Junon, etc.. I could benefit from a second viewing.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Role Models

Look, I've been on a comedy binge lately and I'm about to give Role Models *** right after giving Observe and Report ***. That isn't to say I liked them the same. They're different types of movies. Role Models is more accessible and funnier, though disappointingly conventional. I could see the ending coming from a mile away. It had an 80s nerd comedy feel to it (albeit much more crass).

It has it charms. Its supporting cast is wonderfully fresh and exciting comedically. And while the leads piece together some happy smiles, there isn't anything terribly memorable about the journey to its grand finale on the battlefield.

The language is profane and often so only for laughs, but there are some R-rated hijinks that won me over in spite of my better judgment. These "littles" throw their "bigs" for loops, and it's when Rudd and Scott are reeling in disgust and/or exhaustion that the film won me over. It's a fine little diversion.


I Love You, Man

This is the funniest movie I've seen in years. Paul Rudd is so delightfully awkward that he induces raucous laughter even with a wonderfully failed accent. As good as he is, Jason Segal is even better as the new friend that gets Rudd in touch with his basic masculinity. Apatow movies have played up the Peter Pan complex of modern men, but ILYM plays up a different side - the need for male camaraderie. Is there another movie that plays up male friendship more comedically (or more honestly) than ILYM? (Sure there is, but allow me to play up my gleeful hyperbole.) The fun is watching Segal and Rudd together. A perfect comic duo, each playing off of each others' types while challenging the limits of those types. Segal's character is supposed to have a devil-may-care attitude about life, but he cares. Rudd's character is supposed to out of touch with his primal manhood (and all the shenanigans that includes), but he's better adjusted to adulthood and romance than either will admit. The movie winks at romantic comedy staples - the tearful breakups, breaking up the wedding, first dates - without breaking from its story. And it's a good story well told and well acted. I laughed out loud.


Hamlet 2

There isn't much to crow about in Hamlet 2. It's a sock to the gut of the familiar inspirational teacher movies (and they might have needed a good sock or two), perhaps too obvious to win me completely over. But Steve Coogan as the obliviously optimistic, faux inspirational drama teacher in lame duck Tuscon, AZ (take that, Tuscon) is a revelation. It's one of the single most amazing comedic performances I've seen. There are obvious jokes made by the man, but Coogan always plays it straight to the max. He is funny without playing down to his character. He's a loser, but there's a real humanity there comes out of Coogan's portrayal that you may not have expected from such a farce of a film. Playing to the obvious rise-fall-and-rise of our hero's quest to save drama, gain respect, and become the talent he always hoped to be, Hamlet 2 doesn't offer too many surprises. It how Coogan pushes his character's obvious flaws and winning optimism that kept me glued to my 13 inch TV set. And he dances, too, to a Grease-like rock number for the ages.


Observe and Report

This was a hit and miss, balls-to-the-wall film. It pulled no punches, but in the process went too far or too hard. Subtlety will get you everywhere. This is a dark, dark comedy - perhaps a bit too heavy on the dark. This is Seth Rogen's movie. Everyone else is merely a distraction from him. It's a brave performance. Rogen is a likable guy. His mall cop is not all that likable. He wants to be liked, so at least he's moving in the right direction. It's sometimes too sad to see him trying so hard to be liked, to useful, and loved. Hence the dark in the dark comedy. The best laughs are from the physical comedy. Rogen tearing down opponents on the police academy obstacle course was hilarious. And though it was crude and obscene, the final chase and subsequent shooting at the end were just the sort of absurdist water the fish shenanigans I hoped for. I expected less, and they went further at that moment (for once successfully). The plot is slight and doesn't stretch far. The key is Rogen, who mines his awkward a-hole asides for light chuckles. But a one-man-light-chuckle band does not for a great movie make. The talent is there: Michael Pena has one or two good scenes but mostly falls flat as Rogen's right hand man; Anna Faris is an all-too-familiar slut and tease party girl; and Ray Liotta is a detective pushed past any tolerance of buffoonery. But these are one note characters. And though Rogen's mall cop is beyond abrasive - he at least has an arc, a motive, and intriguing qualities. By the time the tidy bow is tied at the end, he grew on me. The movie had not.


Fast and Loose

updates with corrections to be made later

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Star Trek

It seems weird to give a summer tentpole four stars, especially when it has glaring flaws. But that's the grade for Star Trek. I'm grading the experience, paying tribute to the fun I had. Star Trek moves at warp speed (!), but unlike the previous weekend's boxoffice champ XO: Wolverine, Star Trek is happy to develop it's characters (each and every one). The visuals are exciting, the humor surprisingly amusing (I was expecting campiness), and the science fiction nerdery in the plot just accessible enough not to anger the audience but keep us talking about more than the budget after the movie.

Flaws? Well, Eric Bana has very little to do as the villain. His ship (oh, what a COOL ship!) makes more of an impression than he does. I'll fault the writing over Bana, but still, a film with such rewarding heroes needs villains to match. The acting? Solid, but I still think some of the actors (Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy) were trying to emulate rather than create. Obviously, this was a danger from conception. Luckily, Chris Pine (!) makes Captain Kirk his own. He's charming, disarming, funny, and just badass enough to be an adventure's hero. It's not the calling card of the next great actor of our generation, but it may be a calling card of the next great star(?).

And for the filmmakers, the summer blockbuster earns its stripes. It's epic and sprawling while moving quickly and deliberately while remaining accessible and entertaining. Director J.J. Abrams and writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman have made me care about a storied franchise that meant little to me before. And they did it with style.


The Wrestler

The Wrestler seems to alternate between very good and mediocre. Mickey Rourke is excellent, but his level of skill isn't enough to lift the film to great heights. And in criticizing it's flaws (as I'm about to do), I don't want to insinuate that The Wrestler isn't a very good film (it is). Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, while both capable actresses doing solid work in each of their roles, seem to be the movie's weak points. The story, which is often void of underdog or indie drama cliches, seems to gravitate toward mediocrity in Rourke's scenes with either actress.

In truth, the film loses some of its authenticity when Tomei's stripper with a heart races to the arena for Rourke's title characters triumphant return. It's awkward. And even when the wrestler goes the unconventional route in that scene, it feels forced, awkward though clearly true to character. Good final shot though. Ram Jam.

In it's favor, The Ram is a real man. He is sad, incorrigible, sweet, kind, and manipulative in real ways. When he tells Wood his sob story, I sobbed. Rourke earned that kind of genuine response. Even when the story doesn't take us to unexpected places, Rourke is new. He's a completely new (thing). He doesn't look the same. He doesn't sound the same. He doesn't ACT the same. It's a highlight of his career, clearly, but also one of the best male performances of recent years.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Doesn't Kill You

What Doesn't Kill You is an actors' showcase for it's stars and a fine drama for any interested in honesty over style (or honesty as style). Their isn't much pizazz to the way the filmmakers tell this story, but there is plenty to love about writer-director Brian Goodman's autobiographical tale of men making or avoiding the tough choices that make good men just that. I get a sense this is how "organized" crime really works. Strip away the style and larger than life characters of The Sopranos or Goodfellas and I suspect you'll get WDKY - mid-level lackeys miserable and depraved with only the notion that it's supposed to be better to move them on to each new day.

Ethan Hawke has never been better. The twitchiness to his "method" is toned down and instead of the sniveling loser or dreamy eyed slacker, Hawke becomes a witty, dangerous man with vague ambitions and no smarts to achieve more than he's already know. Lead Mark Ruffalo is excellent as well, lending an intensity and vulnerability to his character. Goodman has an ear for authenticity and a no-nonsense sensibility, but he needs to learn dramatic pacing, editing, and develop a more captivating aesthetic to match his actors' skills. I'll say this - he can cast like a crackerjack. The child actors who play Ruffalo and Amanda Peet's (solid as usual in a supporting role) quietly suffering offspring. They don't show off. They're not playing at anything (over-thinking, over-physicalizing, etc.), they're just being real kids in a rotten situation.

WDKY hit me like a ton of bricks, but it's dramatic finale was stale - a kin to a Movie of the Week. It's as though Goodman, in wanting to avoiding a Hollywood ending, didn't know how to provide any sense of closure to match everything that came before it. Still, for the performances and the real dramatic heft to it's story, WDKY (kudos for ending the title at that) is one of my favorite films from 2008.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

While not an utter failure, XO: Wolverine does create a considerable amount of disappointment in this fan's memory. From the opening scene, something Watching the sickly young Wolvie lashing out in grand fashion was played for drama and shock, but instead introduced the audience to the film's most glaring fault - actors playing for dark, deep drama and missing at most every turn. Nothing about about XO: Wolverine rings with any authenticity. After facing this flaw early on, I was ready and willing to just accept the film on another level - a fun summer blockbuster. That doesn't really work either. The film employs a mess of side characters and a blistering pace to head toward its even bigger mess of a climax. At the point Wolverine learns he's been duped, I said to myself, "Well, duh. It was choreographed a long time ago." When Ryan Reynolds (?!) shows up ragged and mad and evil in the end, I was not surprised nor interested at all. Was he really ever a good guy? Was he ever important to the story before this? No for both. How about after the bad ass surgeries? No. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is really the only bright spot (though the opening credits war montage was stunning in its own irrelevant way). It's clear Jackman cares about the character and brings that interest to the role each time out. But he can't make any new impressions when the director Gavin Hood, writers David Benioff and Skip Woods, and their film editors won't allow their story to find any footing in any given scene before blasting off to the next sequence (even if it's just Jackman and the awful (but awfully attractive) Lynn Collins chatting and/or making lovey dovey eyes at each other. A sense of real weight to ANY (ANY!) of the scenes would have paid huge dividends. Sadly, Liev Shreiber (my great hope for a compelling villain) can't save his dialogue. Likewise, the wonderful, Danny Huston (please see The Proposition) fails to improve or match Brian Cox's performance as General Striker in X2. I'll watch it again with lowered expectations with the hope of new entertainment, buy my first viewing left me hungry for Terminator: Salvation (and McG?!?). Wolverine is a great character. The franchise is far from dead. I just hope new blood behind the scenes can renew my interest again.


Friday, April 24, 2009


Transsiberian was the not the nail-biter I expected from writer director Brad Anderson, but it was a tense thriller worth checking out if you have patience for plot and characters to develop. Anderson was the filmmaker behind The Machinist. That film made a big impression on me to the point where I'll check out anything Anderson makes from here on out. Transsiberian, his most recent film, doesn't shake me to the core the way watching Christian Bale waste away physically and mentally did, but it does offer another excellent lead performance from Emily Mortimer. Her plight is a traveler's nightmare's ditch that only gets deeper as she stands quivering with a shovel wondering if she'll ever make it home alive. Transsiberian is not Hostel. It is not Saw. Its scares and thrills are earned. And even when the plot zig zags haphazardly to a close, Anderson knows how to satisfy his viewers at the end. I've been thinking "Hitchcock" since I've seen the movie, but maybe that's just because of the Russians, trains, and women under duress. And honestly (don't stone me in town square) I'd rather watch an Anderson movie than Hitchcock's best.


State of Play

There's nothing mind blowing about State of Play, save for the fact that it is a tightly plotted, well-acted, all-around solid thriller. I kept going back into my head during the movie to compare and contrast with All the President's Men. Both seem geared toward that Watch Dog journalism heroism that made Woodward and Bernstein icons both of their profession and popular culture. Russell Crowe is not nearly as noble a man as either of the Washington Post reporters. That's because while the conspiracy in questions is on a grand scale it is on more personal level for our hero. His old pal Ben Affleck as U.S. congressman is caught up in a scandal that may or may not be of his own doing. The other theories point toward a soldier-for-hire corporation under the congressman's scrutiny. The situation allows the filmmakers to comment on the current state of the flailing newspaper medium, corporate politics, corporate espionage, and other hot-button topics. But again, it's the personal interests of Crowe's potbellied reporter that make for an above average thriller. Ben Affleck, that much maligned actor, has long been a guilty pleasure of mine, though I'll stand proud next to him now that he's taking his career seriously again. He CAN act, and when he chooses the right projects (State of Play, Changing Lanes, Dogma, Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy) to allow him to flex those acting muscles, I'll be there to watch. There's no performance here that's going to get any award season attention, but it's a great cast doing solid work on a good project that deserves attention from adult audiences. Three screenwriters worked on the script at different stages, all of whom are writers of note. Tony Gilroy of the Bourne franchise, Duplicity, and Michael Clayton fame took over after the director wanted to separate this version from the BBC version. Billy Ray of Flightplan, Breach, and Shattered Glass fame made unknown contributions. But it's ole Matthew Michael Carnahan of Lions for Lambs and The Kingdom fame who brings his liberal politics to the project. I'm not against what State of Play has to say about politics, but it's not surprising that a conservative republican senator is a shady bastard in a Carnahan script. The script's twists are surprising, but if you really want to surprise me, present the issue objectively.


Thursday, April 16, 2009


A brave turn for Gus Van Sant, not for the film's honesty or subject matter, but rather for allowing the story to unfold according to its subjects needs rather than experimenting with minimalism and vague profundities of past pictures under his direction. He doesn't play it safe by any means visually or thematically, but he shows restraint where restraint is due. Though it only follows 8 (?) years in the life of Harvey Milk, Dustin Lance's screenplay and Sean Penn's performance paint a detailed portrait of Milk's essence. He's alive on screen. When first viewing the trailer, I began to worry that Penn's performance would be overly mannered (that he would play at the character rather than "being" Milk) as I've seen in other roles. That worry was unearned. It's really a great performance. I was also impressed by James Franco and James Brolin in supporting roles. The hoopla surrounding their roles seems a bit much though. As supporting actors and characters, they serve well to tell the story. In my opinion however, recognition should be given to the best performance in a supporting role, not the best supporting performance (best at supporting to be more specific). A small gripe that takes nothing from the film. It's a great biopic that never glamorizes, play down, or sensationalizes for its own sake. And while it's bias on homosexual rights and morals is clear, I did not find it offensive. While Dan White is clearly wrong and disturbed, I sympathized with his plight and confusion - to the film and fimmakers' credits.


The Newton Boys

The Newton Boys makes for an interesting story, but not an entertaining movie. While it's clear fun was had making the film, the thrills are scarce beyond that notion. A whimsical entertainment along the lines of The Sting seems to be the goal, but Matthew McConnaughey is not up to the task as lead. He's playing at charisma instead of exuding it, and I've seen his real charisma come through before. Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Nonfrio, while both fine actors, fail to make impressions as two of the brothers. Though their crime spree spans years and various locations, there isn't more for these performers to do other than play types and stick to them. They don't really change. Skeet Ulrich, whom strikes me as the least talented of the top-billed cast, does some good work as the reluctant but loyal youngest brother. In the end, I didn't care in their fates. And rather than rooting for their success (as in such films with charismatic criminals as Catch Me if You Can and The Sting), I thought they deserved all the punishment they could get - a death sentence for this type of film.



Luc Besson is hit and miss for me. I thoroughly enjoy The Professional and Unleashed, but can't really stand The Fifth Element nor have more than mild amusement from Angel A. I won't even watch The Transporter films. But I had hopes for Taken. Liam Neeson can act. His performance in Les Miserables is astonishing (also check out Geoffrey Rush in the same film). The movie was a bona fide box office hit. However, there isn't much more to enjoy in Taken other than Liam Neeson cracking skulls. The prospect of Neeson as action hero ends up to be more promising than the result. He is a bear of a man and a true intimidating force, but the story and/or dialogue lacks heft. To make matters worse, the film takes 30-odd minutes to set up his skills and relationship with his daughter when 5-10 solidly written minutes would have served the film better. Awkward exposition through needless secondary characters and a pointless interlude with a pop star detract from the positive elements. It's a swift moving ride once it gets going. I can sympathize with Neeson's character's goal - to get his daughter back at all costs, but it seems as though he leaves behind so many innocent victims along the way. And I was left cold by the tied-with-a-bow ending. Everything is not really okay, Mr. Besson. It most definitely is not.


Short Circuit

I can include Short Circuit in that same 80s category as Gremlins - kitch classic and nothing more - if not for Johnny 5. He (or it) is a more interesting creation for me than Gizmo and his more vagrant pals. For all his corniness and glee, he was entertaining. Sadly, Steve Guttenburg and Ally Sheedy are void of chemistry and charisma in their roles, but they're really secondary to the main event - ole Johnny 5. For him, a passing grade.


Slumdog Millionaire

Whatever questions or wariness I may have held after my first viewing of Slumdog Millionaire are banished by my second viewing last night. For the first time in a good long while, if only for a moment, I forget who and where I was. The moment ended when overly zealous vocal enthusiasts reacted, but to be so immersed in the story was bliss. Also, able to take note of new elements, I found new admiration for the editing - not only structurally cohesive, but also utilizing seamless transitions both eye catching for the trained eye and clean enough as though not to draw attention. A masterwork. I was afraid I'd fall into Slumdog backlash, but I'll save my uncertainties now for my second Ben Button experience.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Doubt is the explosive acting clinic you'd expect from its cast. It's almost pitch-perfect, save for director-writer's John Patrick Shanley's inept metaphors hitting his audience over the head. It's not enough us to see for the winds to literally change and lights to go out, but Meryl Streep keeps telling us. And I understand these metaphors would have more effect on the stage, the story's original medium, but it's a film and it's okay to adjust. That gripe having been made, it's still a potent film about doubt and the forces that pull us toward either spirit on opposite shoulders. For Amy Adams, it's Streep vs. Hoffman, but it's never clear which power is wearing the horns, so to speak. And bravo for that, because I am still mulling over the ambiguities weeks later.


Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road is the disintegration of marriage and the hopes that lead two people into that union. Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet turn in Award-caliber performances free of pretense and ego. Their fights are intense ands frequent, and in those moments the two performers are at their best. Leonardo Dicaprio has never been better. He's raw, stripped down to his nerves and regrets while trying to maintain some of the manliness he showed off in The Departed and Gangs of New York. Winslet is as good as I've seen her, save maybe for her work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the past and in my estimation, she's been an actress of fantastic spurts who falls under the spell of highly mannered acting. She keeps the manners to a minimum here, and her performance benefits from the absence. Thematically, Revolutionary Road is devastating. I felt awful after watching it, and perhaps so much so because I was so captivated by the increasing sadness and madness of the couple on screen. They're electric to watch together, and I'll take this melodrama over melodrama on a sinking boat any day.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009


There are times when Knowing feels incredibly inauthentic, but admittedly, I am not usually interested in authenticity when I head out to the theater to watch a sci-fi movie. There are times when the capable Rose Byrne and Nicolas Cage cannot make their dialogue believable - make me believe they believe what they are saying. But Knowing doesn't rise and fall with its characters. This is a movie of grand ambition and atmosphere. The air of dread that director Alex Proyas (director of The Crow and the excellent Dark City) creates is what carries the movie to its arm rest clutching suspense thrill heights and popcorn thrills. There's more to Knowing than its entertainment. It raises good questions about if it is better to know your fate or, in contrast, if ignorance is bliss. On a thematic scale, you can place Knowing along with M. Night Shylaman's Signs. Each shows a once religious man turning his back from faith after the loss of a wife. It's only when a strangely complicated holy plan begins to reveal itself that Mel Gibson in Signs and Nicolas Cage in Knowing begin to think otherwise. Knowing is a capable big idea thriller, but doesn't elevate itself to the point of greatness. Proyas' skill cannot hide the screenplay's shortcomings.


"Love and hate and 'Knowing' -- or, do wings have angels?" by Roger Ebert 3/22/09

"Knowing" Review by Roger Ebert

"Knowing" Review by Joe Neumaier of NY Daily News 3/19/09

Saturday, March 21, 2009


There's much disparaging about Duplicity being difficult to follow and there being one twist too many, but I disagree. Trying to keep up with the plot is half the fun of con movies. Who knows what when and who can trust who is more than the other half. Add the palpable chemistry between stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen first put to use as one of the bickering cheating couples in Closer, and you have quite the recipe for a fun movie. Writer-director Tony Gilroy has a lot of credit in the fan bank with me after his great Michael Clayton, and he only adds to it with this film. Duplicity is a slick, lean, breezy film adding the unique romance to the genre with wonderful dialogue and plotting. Even when I figured it out, I hadn't figured it out. But if a twist is the only thing you're after, you'll be surprised that the acting and directing are up to snuff as well. There's a great supporting cast that utilizes deft performances from no-name character actors and Paul Giammati and Tom Wilkinson (both past Oscar nominees) in small, but fun roles. Duplicity is the fun kind of movie that's fun to take off the DVD shelf every other month or so that also delights each time out.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mad Max

I finally saw the beginning of my beloved Mad Max franchise. I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. All the superior elements of the franchise are there: a brooding Mel Gibson, spectacular CGI-less car stunts, crazy (CRAZY) villains, and notable cinematography and style. The problem is that all these elements aren't perfected until The Road Warrior. Mel Gibson, despite of all his charisma, shows his lack of experience. The stunts are still there, but they're certainly less necessary. When the cars and/or motorcycles aren't driving across the endless asphalt, there isn't a whole lot to love in Mad Max. There are some very memorable shots in the movie, but these shots only punctuate the droll interlude between them. Thank goodness for Hugh Keays-Byrne's work as Toecutter, the psychotic leader or a motorcycle gang out for revenge after their even crazier former compadre is killed in the film's opening car chase. Toecutter is the snarling, edgy precursor to The Might Wez and Lord Humungous (The Road Warrior) and Master Blaster (MM: Beyond Thunderdome) of subsequent films. While he feels a bit out of place in Mad Max, it's clear writer/director George Miller is honing his world and style here. It's a good film with great moments, but it pales in comparison to its sequels. A great finish to a lackluster beginning.



Push isn't a necessary addition to the superhero genre, but it is a nice diversion. It looks great with it's bleached tones and vibrant colors. Some of the action pieces are well-photographed and staged (chiefly a short chase in a Hong Kong market). The basis of the plot seems so simple, but screenwriter David Bourla throws in a needlessly convoluted device to catapult the film through its climax. Like a time travel movie, it's hard to follow the movie through each step of its paces. When it ends, it's hard to tell if the whole thing works because you're still trying to figure out if the device works and, more importantly, if it was necessary at all. What Bourla gets right is his lingo. Each super-powered human type gets its own term ("mover", "sniffer", "watcher", etc.) that actually adds a unique aspect to the film. Chris Evans plays the lead and doesn't add anything special, but does prove that his solid work in Sunshine wasn't a fluke. He's not an A-list talent, but he fills this type of role just fine. Dakota Fanning, moving into teenage roles, is not a unique talent anymore. She's a fine actress, but this role isn't tailored for her skills. She's doesn't have the dry wit to pull off the attitude or her dialogue. But she's scores above Camille Bell, the beauty playing the question mark of the film. She's unquestionably beautiful, but she has all the charisma of a mannequin. Djimon Hounsou's talents are also wasted as the head villain. All in all, Push is pretty good; but is only notable for how good it could have been.


Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is nothing special and doesn't really have anything working for it other than its fanbase and mythology from the previous two films of the franchise. I count myself as a part of that fanbase, and on that basis, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. If you don't give more than a hoot about any of the Underworld movies, you can skip Underworld:ROTL with nary a regret. I enjoyed seeing Michael Sheen reprise his role as Lucian and fight Billy Nighy (though Nighy has abandoned all restraint he may have possessed). The two actors have fun, even when saying the preposterous dialogue. All three Underworld films share a screenwriter, but something is lost when the dialogue is put back into the Medievalish language. Rhona Mitra is a rare beauty, but she cannot fill the heroine role the way Kate Beckinsale does in the first two films. Kevin Grevioux, one of the orginators of the franchise with a strangely deep voice and muscled physique, reprises his Underworld role. However, his talent is sorely lacking and more apparent with a larger role in this installment of the franchise. In the end, the film is a fun diversion on a Friday night and a welcome pleasure for fans who like their vampire films to take themselves seriously without actually being serious. Are there anymore of us out there?


Sunday, March 8, 2009


I could have sworn that I wrote a review for Leatherheads last April, but I can't find it anywhere. That makes it harder to recant my old star rating. I imagine the gist of the review would have read something like this: An throwback to old school screwball comedies that doesn't have enough laughs to cover up its self-concious stlye." Two stars (**) would have followed.

I purchased the movie for my mom's birthday present (along with a Snuggie) and she wanted to watch it that night. It being her birthday, I agreed while fully expecting to be unamused by the film again. The movie, for me, benefited from a second viewing. It's not a classic or a football lover's dream movie, but for what it lacks in original hilarity, it makes up with its considerable charm. It is self-concious in its style, and not all the comedy bits work, but there was far more to like than I remembered. Clooney hams well. John Krasinki was more natural than I remembered. And Renee Zellweger (!), that oft-talked-about cinematic creation is right at home with this style of movie. She's not a terrific actress, but she is terrific in this kind of specifically-mannered role. Not too many actresses can pull off the look and the talk of a 1920's dame, but Zellweger can.


On Watchmen...How This Fan Watches the Watchmen by A. Gates

About a half hour into Watchmen, as the rude and crude Comedian was being laid to rest with Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" playing sweetly in the background I thought to myself, "Oh, no. This is self-important pretentious posturing." Then, fairly, I thought back to the source graphic novel - the comic geek's War and Peace if you will. "Was that self-important pretentious posturing as well?"

The truth is, these concerns quickly subsided as I again surrendered myself to the story and, in this oddest of cases for this comic geek. the incredibly reverent storytelling. Watchmen, the graphic novel and the film, are self-important pieces of fiction stemming from the arrogance of the brillant weirdo Alan Moore. But, as anyone who really works through the deconstruction of the superhero myth that Alan Moore laid out 20+ years ago, it is objectively important. A social commentary, epically told superhero story with heroes afflicted with the human condition in all its debilitating glory.

Rorshach, easily my favorite character in both mediums, is a psychopathic sleuth with a brutal, uncompromising sense of justice. He's a jarring character, an socially inept weirdo in a costume who is also a mentally and emotionally scarred deviant working outside the law. On the page, his words are put in scratchy, sketchy balloons and we as readers are left to imagine what sort of unusual voice would deliver such oddly drawn speech patterns. And perhaps that's where the gift of the film begins. Jackie Earle Haley, that newly rediscovered talent from the 70s, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2006 for his work in Little Children. I thought the whole performance was overrated. After seeing his work as Rorshach, I reconsider. You see, his characters, although both scarred social outcasts, are on opposite ends of the performance spectrum. His brutality, his growl, his stiff anger as Rorshach is the foil for his Little Children's character's weakness, sadness, and quiet anger. And that growl(!), I am more than pleased to say, is exactly how I imagined Rorshach would sound even if it never occurred to me until I heard Haley's first words in the trailer.

But each of these performers in the movie playing these characters firmly placed in my memory is for better or for worse the perfect person to play their part (save maybe Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter, playing it campy). I say for better or for worse because naturally some of these characters work better on the page than on the screen. Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Spekter II), is one of those characters. And I won't fault Malin Akerman for any of it, though many reviews I have read turn quickly on her. She fits the part to a tee and executes it wholley reverently. But something about Laurie fits within comic panels better than the confines of the silver screen. As the naive and sweetly sexy ingenue heroine acting as knowing commentary on the comic book medium, Laurie Jupiter works. But that role in a film, that medium where we haven't seen that obligatory gal in spandex to the same effect, the character seems an odd fit. And to see her and her mother as the transition from the Golden Age to whatever the geeks are calling this age makes eerie sense in the comics and very little on film where the Golden Age has all but been ignored completely.

Kudos to Patrick Wilson, Haley, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Matthew Goode for their insight into bringing the pages and characters to life. Each is an uncanny fit for their character counterparts and whomever cast this film has to be pat on the back. Haley and Crudup are the standouts receiving all scant critical praise, and deservedly so. Crudup, in particular, delivers a performance of tremendous subtlety and restraint (albeit through a CGI avatar). His character is more than a comment on superheroes. Dr. Manhattan is a comment on religion and on God seen through a glass darkly. The insights, while not my own on this subject, are fascinating and bracing. It's a difficult character to bring to life, but Crudup and Snyder's team of special effects wizards more than conquer the challenge. Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, perhaps even more so than in his graphic novel incarnation, is an indelible film creation.

Zach Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse are aware of how to tell the story in this medium. The unnecessary parts of the graphic novel (or, for the fanboys who just gasped at the hint of anything in Watchmen being unnecessary, "medium-specific") are left out and the good stuff is left in. The big change to the ending pleased me the most. The crux of the graphic novel is perfect for that medium - a ugly monster spelling possible doom for the world and our heroes. But that doesn't work on the big screen where even the most outlandish of villains (I'm looking at you, Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin, and you, Colin Farrell as Bullseye) are more real than what is depicted in the last fourth of the graphic novel. So, bravo for the change. There's the fact that it is minor yet still makes the whole calamity at end actually work. The Black Freighter allergorical interludes and newstand gang on that iconic corner are largely absent from the big screen version. Good. These were my least favorite parts of the graphic novel and have no place in the big screen story. After all, we're watching the story of the Watchmen and there's enough of that story to adequately fill its runtime and more.

I like Zach Snyder. With Dawn of the Dead and now Watchmen, he has proven to be a visually savvy storyteller with a leaning towards the sensational. But anyone who has seen 300, fans and non-fans alike, can tell you he knows nothing of subtlety. His fetishizing of slo-motion and violence in 300 isn't at full-throttle in Watchmen, but he certainly isn't afraid to push the limits. The violence is brutal and graphic, but he eases up on his slo-mo habit enough to keep Watchmen watchable.

I was worried after I finished reading Watchmen for the first time last Spring. "How can they make this movie? No one will want to see it?" I say this knowing that, like me, there were leagues of fanboys frothing at the mouth at the mere prospect of a big screen adaptation. The "no one" in question is the general public, the ones who go to see the Spider-man, Batman, or (Heaven forbid) the Fantastic Four movies but more than likely would not care to see their heroes deconstructed. There was talk of this public being ready for a movie like Watchmen after the success of The Dark Knight, but I knew and you will know that this is a hasty comparison. Bruce Wayne as Batman is haunted and conflicted, but he is not the deranged Rorshach. If you could love the Joker (and some of us really did), then maybe you'd like Rorshach, but not as hero. In the end of the Dark Knight, after all the darkness and despair, Batman rides off as the "hero" in every sense of the word. In Watchmen, "hero" takes on its own meaning and the term "anti-hero" doesn't fully capture the complexity of its characters. Watchmen is not The Dark Knight, and I expect to see a sharp drop off in box office after all the marketing hoopla and hype dies down and that general public tells their general public pals it wasn't what they wanted.

This calls into question the audience. Who is this movie for? Zach Snyder has said that the movie is for fans first. I believe him. An editor for, after being told by another reviewer that non-fans won't be able to follow the epic story and mythology, said something along the lines that they, like she, won't care to. That's probably the case. So, what do we have? We have Warner Brothers thinking a $150 million dollar (reportedly) production budget (along with anywhere from 20-35+ million dollars for marketing) for a film taken from a cult comic book with critical acclaim will appeal to its targeting ticket paying audience. And they're wrong. The movie is good for me. I love the movie. And Warner Brothers will likely make enough money through box office receipts and DVD sales and countless special editions to make a profit. But in today's Hollywood, making $100 million dollars domestically isn't enough. Time will tell if Watchmen is viewed as a success for Warner Brothers. My question is what happens when they want to make something faithfully for us fanboys next time? I don't think it'll happen so easily (a joke if you consider Watchmen's 20 year production hell).

Let's just say for now, for me, I love it. I got chills several times. The kind where you see something imagined realized for the first time. And that's a special feeling Watchmen offers me and my geek brethren that we might have to wait another 20to feel again. Watchmen has always been something you finish with your emotions deflated and exhausted and your head spinning around the implications of it ending. Hopefully, not every one will leave the theater talking about what's in the movie and what isn't or what they wish it would have been like, but rather discussing that ending. After all the hoopla and hype are gone, that ending resonates over even the harshest of critics.


Joe Morgenstern Wall Street Journal Watchmen Review 3/6/09
Roger Ebert Watchmen Review 3/4/09
Box Office Mojo Weekend Report 3/8/09

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mystery Men

When the superhero myth is broken down, it seems as though it is often to the detriment of the heroes themselves ala Watchmen (though that is a true literary marvel). They are given the basest of desires, insanity, doubt, and other human weaknesses. Mystery Men essentially takes that conceit and turns it on its ear for the comedic betterment of its genre and audience.

I can't say that I would have enjoyed Mystery Men as much if I wasn't already a comicbook enthusiast (aka geek). The fun of the movie is knowing how these characters and world are supposed to look and then seeing it through its funhouse of mirrors. Its not an artifact of comedic or cinematic genius, but it is perhaps a rarely well-told underdog story for grownups who still read about men in tights.

These characters are funny and unique and its their interactions (often in their favorite little diner) that make the movie worthwhile. Many of jokes in the movie are one-note, such as the Disco Boy henchmen, but it was that sort of lunacy that endeared the film to me. As long as I laugh, I won't argue with how you got me to.

There's nothing groundbreaking here. The jokes are broad enough that you don't have to be a fanboy to get them, but it helps if you are. For gravitas and groundbreaking, I'll wait for the fast-approaching Watchmen film adaptation. For a fun ride while I wait, Mystery Men does just fine.


Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

It's hard to praise the third installment of The Mad Max Franchise, because it is essentially a retread of its own now familiar territory. Mad Max is a great character and anti-hero and his journey to stay alive without giving too much of himself to others is an intriguing one. I've read that before starting to plot out The Road Warrior, writer-director George Miller immersed himself in old Samurai and western films. Mad Max certainly fits within those forebearers' walls. In Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, he is even briefly referred to as the "Man with No Name," a not so subtle shout out to Clint Eastwood iconic character in Sergio Leone films.

But Mad Max places it's anti-hero in an original backdrop - a post-apocalyptic, gasoline and morally starved Australia whose inhabitants have taken to dressing like punks and renaissance fair rejects.

It's an intriguing setting for action, and it seems that, above all, that is the chief component of the Mad Max series.

When Max is thrust into the gladiatorial Thunderdome of the title, it's a sensational set piece - strange because it is used only once and because it echoes the poorly conceived gauntlets of the syndicated 90s American Gladiator show. Then, echoing the amazing final action set piece of The Road Warrior, director Miller sets the reluctant Max driving away from a horde of baddies on his tail. It's a bit too familiar, but still finishes in grand fashion.

Thunderdome features unique aspects, too. Tina Turner (?!) as the head miscreant rivals Lord Humungous for spiteful power. A little person using a masked brute as his vehicle/bodyguard who starts the film as a odd bully grows to be the more valuable of supporting characters. But most important and entertaining of the new additions is a group of Lord of the Flies/Lost Boys tribal kids who think Max is the one prophesied to take them to their own Promised Land. The scenes with the kids and Max eerily echoes the introduction of the Lost Boys in Hook to the point that my brother was blindly shouting "Rufio" over the action onscreen.

As I said earlier, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome isn't anything superbly new or exotic when compared to its prequels, but it is supremely entertaining and opens the Max's world to let more imagination in. And though Thunderdome is softer than its predecessors, it is dark and odd enough to rightfully be claimed a part of the Mad Max franchise.



I caught up with this 80s hit this weekend and half enjoyed it. It has some genuine scares. Those little delinquents with bad skin problems are pretty mischievous (what with their murder and vandalism). I think there's a good horror film there, but old mister Speilberg and Joe Dante (with ole Chris Columbus) decide to place the mayhem in Mayberry on Christmas. All scares and frights are dulled by the Norman Rockwell landscape and small town hijinks. Gizmo himself is a fun creation and when the Gremlins, his offspring, are introduced, it's strange and frightening enough to witness. It's when the Gremlins take to smoking a drinking and laughing incessantly in the town tavern that they lose whatever lurid allure that they once had. They're lunch-box villains with bad attitudes. It doesn't help that the human hero played by Zach Galligan has less charisma than his puppet co-stars. It's nice that Columbus and gang nod to their genre influences (homages to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.), but there's not much to take this above a kitch classic.


Judge Dredd

There are few times that I will intentionally sit down to watch what I assume is a bad movie. Most of those times stem from the weird fascination with Hollywood disasters - what possessed these people to make these movies at these times? Judge Dredd seemed like just such a disaster, so sitting down to watch it last Saturday (with a sore throat and achy limbs) was an accepted diversion.

It turns out Judge Dredd isn't so bad. It is bad. It is a disaster. But it's not the train wreck that I had hoped for. It clear that Hollywood had inserted its formula in place - take the hero, add a beautiful babe with moxie, add a wise-cracking shlub, and let a dramatic actor run amuck through the film as the villain. Judge Dredd has an interesting central conceit - what if there were citizens acting as the enforcers, judges, and juries on our streets? Put that conceit in a dire and drab post-apocalyptic city and you have a possibility for an intriguing film even when Sly Stallone is your hero.

Instead, the filmmakers go for the faux-blockbuster punch of action and comedy (however slight). Rob Schneider offers the comedic (?) relief, and Diane Lane is the beautiful babe with moxie whose loyalty shows Dredd that there's more to life than the law he had based his life on. Lane shows none of the nuance or subtlety she showed in her Oscar-nominated turn in Unfaithful, though I'll place the blame on the screenwriters and director here.

Remember in the 90's when stars would take roles as villains so they could crazy-ham-it-up and chew the scenery in ways they'd never get away with as the heroes. I'm thinking John Travolta in Broken Arrow/Face Off/Battlefield Earth. Well, take Armand Assante (?!) and give him free reign and you have the worst part of Judge Dredd. As Rico (!?), Assante had never met a scene that didn't need a bit more "pizzazz".

This even distracts from the always wooden Stallone who might actually have been the best example of casting for this film. He looks the part, he grunts the part, now if we could just make the part worth playing...And if we could make the super-Judges plot make sense at all. What exactly is the nefarious councilman's end goal? To make the best Judges ever? Not so nefarious.


Saturday, February 28, 2009

100 Female Performances from

I found this list on IMDB's links of the day. It gives me some ideas for netflix choices.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Yes Man

Yes Man serves as Jim Carrey's return to concept comedy antics ala Bruce Almighty and/or Liar Liar. Liar Liar is a not-so-guilty-pleasure of mine, so I took a trip to the dollar theater with a friend and checked this out.

Yes Man is not as funny as Liar Liar or (I suspect) most of his more successful comedies. It has some charm (mostly from the out-of-place but still sublime Zooey Deschanel) and laughs (Rhys Darby is a hoot doing a take on his Flight of the Conchords character), but is too brisk and simple to make any lasting impression. There simply isn't anything terribly memorable from the movie. When it was over, I had to search deep into my memory to recall why I had guffawed during the movie (it was because of Darby and Deschanel and a neat little role from Terrance Stamp). It's better than most Hollywood comedies, but I must say I enjoy depth with my laughs and introspection from my Carreys. Yes Man has neither.

Highlights - Deschanel sings! Darby theme parties! Carrey and a Persian wife?! Stamp as guru!


The Salton Sea

I re-watched The Salton Sea for the first time in 4 or 5 years and really enjoyed it. I thought of my old review on the Wonderreviews site oh so long ago. Rather than writing something new (I'm lazy), I'll post it here:

It's difficult to do anything innovative with the film noir genre. It's hard to make a film involving noirish elements that's not derivative of all the other movies in the vast film noir history. So, taking this into consideration, "The Salton Sea" is all the more impressive. Sure, it follows the path set by other modern film noir pictures, but it's also highly original in its approach to its converging genres. Besides film noir, it also belongs in the "undercover cop in over his head" sub-genre. Add the "vengeful husband looking for his own brand of justice" sub-genre and you've got a melting pot of storytelling techniques. Stir in a who's who cast of character actors playing off kilter characters and you've got something special.

Val Kilmer ("Tombstone," "Top Gun," "Batman Forever") plays Danny Parker and Tom Van Allen, which one he is at the moment escapes him, as he tells in the opening narration. He is playing a trumpet while flames engulf the room around him. It's freaky and kind of unexpected, especially when the opening narrative is more cryptic than informative. But, like most good pieces of the genre, the script is aware that too much too soon can ruin a good story. So, we are introduced into the world Danny Parker has immersed himself in, that of the "tweaker." A "tweaker," as we find out through visuals and Kilmer's narration, is a crystal meth enthusiast/heavy user.

There are several plot twists and exposition devices that can help you understand the plot and make you want to see the movie, but I am wary of mentioning them even though they are mentioned on the back of the video. Let's just go at this in a general, basic sort of offensive.

Danny Parker/Tom Van Allen/Who Knows[?] has inserted himself into the underground tweaker culture in hopes of finding the men who murdered his wife. He was the trumpet playing Tom Van Allen prior to the tragedy, but that part of him died when he embraced the tweaker way of life, even resorting to large body tatoos and body piercings. Tom Van Allen could not watch himself lose himself, so he became Danny Parker because he needed an alias and, presumably, because it's a cooler name. That's the gist of the plot without giving away the twists and turns, of which there are many.

The film dances around time in a manner similar to that of "Memento," although it stays away from the reverse chronology concept. The visuals are gritty and bleached so that everything appears as though its shadows are about to swallow its light. It's a nice visual approach to such a unusual film.

But the real revelation is that Val Kilmer has not forgotten how to act, or for you skeptics, found a way to act. Kilmer is best utilized as a memorable sidekick or playful nemesis ("Tombstone" and "Top Gun"), rather than the leading man roles he often mistakenly takes at the behest of his ego. As Danny Parker/ Tom Van Allen, he shines in a kind of subdued cool role. He doesn't have the catch phrases and nicknames of past roles to fall back on, so he just has to draw it out naturally. Many may say Kilmer drawing cool out from himself is like trying to draw blood from a stone, but he's actually quite cool. It's one of those roles that can turn around a career headed to the straight to video sections of your local video rental establishment (editor's note: he is that straight to DVD guy now).

To make you happy, the viewer is treated to several crazy characters, mainly that of Pooh Bear (expert character actor Vincent D'Onofrio). Also rounding out the cast are Luis Guzman, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Sarsgaard, B.D. Wong, Anthony LaPaglia, Doug Hutchison, and Adam Goldberg. I realize the list of names by no means constitutes the stars you wanted to see in some movie, but they are all highly talented actors and will not disappoint you.

The best thing about "The Salton Sea" is that, just when you think you know what kind of movie it is, something surprises you. The only problem is a lack of control that director D.J. Caruso exhibits in certain scenes. His attention span isn't quite as short as Michael Bay's, but he does give you the impression that maybe he could have captured some shots with more direction, perhaps more definition. Alas, it still is a fine film with a nose for something new.