Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar


2009’s Avatar is one of those movies whose reputation is giant before the trailer even came out. It’s been 12 years since Titanic and, beyond the time delay, James Cameron, Avatar’s director, hasn’t made anything but documentaries since his blockbuster, best picture winning last feature. This mixed with the biggest bill in the history of cinema have made for a huge amount of anticipation. So, I hate to be a party pooper, but I definitely don’t think it lives up. Avatar tells a huge tale, but largely it’s about a big, sinister corporation who’s discovered a valuable material (lamely called unobtainiam, as in unobtainable, sheesh) on a distant planet and is exploiting that material much to the chagrin of the natives, who they deal with like over-hormoned jocks by having ex-military guard the extraction sites. An even bigger problem is the biggest deposit is under a tree that the natives consider very sacred. So they hatch an idea to have people virtually inhabit the bodies of a local so they can do things like diplomacy but also to gather intel.
One of the people who was going to join in this experiment died suddenly before it was supposed to start and the company decided this guy’s marine twin brother would be a perfect replacement. So the marine does join in but soon is conflicted in his mission because he falls for the native people and for the princess. Then, you guessed it, the company wants to take drastic, destructive measures to get rid of the natives and get on with business and our boy eventually sides with the natives, as do a small group of defectors from the company.
To me, this movie was one of the most formulaic picks I’ve seen in a long time. Just one teaspoon more formulaic and I would’ve thought Cameron was being sarcastic and making a spoof. Literally every scene and element of this movie seemed directly borrowed from another movie. And not like Tarantino or Scorcese, who explicitly use references to past films like jazz musicians play standards in their own unique way. No, this was more like cutting and pasting. And when I say every element, I mean every element. For example, even the music felt like it was directly taken from another movie. The avatars are being hailed as the product of a vast imagination, but in Hinduism the envoys between the heavens and the earth are beings called avatars that have blue skin. Here we have this way for humans to interact with this alien civilization (envoys between the heavens and the earth) by becoming a blue skinned avatar. I’m just saying.
What this means is there’s no real drama, no real suspense, in this movie. From the fist moment to the last you know exactly what’s going to happen and how things are going to turn out. This is true even moment to moment, with the outcome of every scene being so terribly obvious from the very start of that scene that it’s not even funny. If you’ve seen just about any movie about a bad guy who’s coming down/trying to wipe out an innocent, pure good guy, then you’ve seen this movie. I mean, Disney’s been doing animated features for decades with the same storylines and plot developments. That said, there were some scenes that were fun to watch and some of the action sequences were pretty amazing to see in 3D. Plus, I’m a total sucker for stories about evil western white people getting thwarted in their attempts to exploit or damage pure, spiritual (even if stereotypical) “natives.” I know it’s majorly played but I love watching indigenous cultures kick some capitalist ass.
Long story short, the visuals are neat (though no better than many other movies), some of the scenes are fun, but overall it was a pretty big snore in my book.
SA

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whatever Works (2009)




That's the irony of going with a title like Whatever Works when you have been scraping the barrel for the last decade.

I'm a Woody Allen apologist - but lately (and by lately I mean literally the last 10 years) it has become harder and harder to stomach the same old song and dance by the once-beloved director. It's not that he's just re-hashing the same old story arc, that has been his bread-and-butter from the beginning. It's that the older he gets, the less in touch with cinema and humor itself that is the problem. That is the most depressing part.

So when I heard that Woody was working on a movie with Larry David using a script that was written in his prime, I was cautiously excited.

Whatever Works is the old standby - a brilliant and socially awkward man ends up falling for a ditzy blond whose mother wants her to marry a younger man... blah blah blah pleh.

Not only is this movie shockingly (or not) similar to the standard Woody Allen movie, but Larry David's character is painfully unfunny and overall feels like a huge waste of potential from a comedy team that could have produced a lot better. It's autopilot in the worst of ways - no box office success, no critical acclaim, no funny. Why bother?

-U
The Class is a snapshot, a "day in the life" movie stretched out to a year long glimpse into the racially, ethnically and socially diverse classroom in urban Paris.
The most interesting part about this film is that it is based on a book of real life experiences, and the author plays himself in the film. Although semi-autobiographical, it in no way glosses over the struggles, frustration and poor choices that he makes as he tries to reach, and teach, these kids.
I did enjoy the shooting style. It was filmed with three cameras shooting constantly, one on the teacher, one on the speaking student and another to catch impromptu shots. This allows for a very free-flowing dialogue that could not be scripted, especially with the real students playing themselves and having no prior acting experience.
The camera creates a very small, cramped feeling. You almost feel like you are squeezed into one of those tiny desks in the corner, watching the story unfold.
I say "story" loosely, I kept waiting for the movie to tighten up and focus on a few characters who will triumph over all odds and pass the big test at the end. This never happens. Although it meant for a very slow first 2/3 of the movie, I still appreciated the glimpse into a school and society that I would have never known otherwise.

ME: I can see why Cannes liked it, and I appreciated most aspects of it, but if you are looking for a traditional 3-act story with an uplifting ending.... you'll be dissapointed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Class


2006’s The Class tells the story of one school year in Francois’s French class at an urban Paris school. It’s clear from the outset this school is a little rough and the students are almost uniformly misbehaved and behind where they ought to be for their age. As the year goes on the students grow, learning more about themselves and their teacher as they go along. And a necessary part of this complex yearly traditional evolution is their teacher also stretching, growing and evolving. This movie was a sensation when it came out. It was France’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar and it won 2006’s Palm d’Or. To this day it has over a 90% rank on Rotten Tomatoes. The problem I had was that I felt like I’d seen this story before, too many times and, in fact, had seen better versions of it. As an American movie watcher, the story of a group of hard knock students finding themselves thanks to a more-dedicated-than-the-rest teacher is old news…big time. Without even going into the countless episodes of television and TV specials (I’m looking at you after school specials from the 70’s and 80’s), there are tons of great movies of this sort already out there, from Dangerous Minds to Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dead Poet’s Society to Goodbye Mr. Chips and the list goes on and on. It’s not that someone can’t come up with a new flick in this formula that can engage me, it’s just that it would have to be damn good to do so and this just wasn’t that damn good. It’s not awful though. The man playing Francois IS Francois the actual teacher who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. That made it seem pretty darn genuine, as did the casting of teenage non-actors to play the kids in the classroom. My biggest complaint is that the movie focuses way to much on interactions between the teacher and certain students. They don’t develop or give closure to almost anything. They will build up a story line, like so-and-so should be expelled, but his abusive father may do awful things to him (including shipping him off to Africa) if we expel him, but then the movie doesn’t even discuss the matter at all after a certain scene. It’s like, oh, we’re done talking about that, back to the classroom. Maybe this is because this is how school is for teachers, but for me, the viewer, I thought it just felt like I didn’t get connected to almost anything or anyone that happened in the movie. Everything’s just way too underdeveloped. I ended the movie not even knowing where this school was, what time of year it was, what sort of school it was, what grade anyone’s in and all this is not even to mention not knowing almost anything about any of the characters at all. So, if you want to be like one of those faculty observers from high school who used to come sit in class for a week or so simply watching, then this is your movie. This movie is about sitting in on five or so classes from a year of school and just watching. This made it somewhat interesting but not nearly interesting enough for me.
Saturday Afternoon

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Days of Glory (Indigènes)


We've been dissecting WWII for over 50 years now in film, and it seems like we have barely scratched the surface. Some surfaces are so scratched though that we're starting to wear down on the effectiveness of the material - in essense, we're kicking the dead horse.

While French film Indigènes attempts to bring us a side of the war that we haven't seen before, that of the French African involvement, they've only managed to bore most of their audience and waste a few million euros in the process.

Technically speaking the movie is sound - we've got tight, clean editing - solid framing throughout. Special effects are appropriate and everyone seems to have a handle on their respective job on the set. Except the screenwriters.

Little to no story - that's really the problem here. We'll borrow a bit from Private Ryan, do a few brotherly bonding scenes, spill some guts and cry some tears... but it's all too broad to be a good film. We don't really care about the main characters... not because we shouldn't, but because we aren't focused in on one or two soldiers and sucked into the narrative. There are a few good scenes scattered throughout the picture where we get a glimpse of how good the story could have been, but most of it gets reduced to boring transitions and a loose arc about the indignity of being a French colonist. Ok. Sure.

- MEH (that's right, I had to create a new one)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Indigènes


This 2007 Algerian film by Rachid Bouchareb, at the very least, is a view of World War II that you likely haven’t seen. Countless films on the subject are out there and from several different angles, but the vast majority of them are told through the mouths of Westerners or at most the Japanese. This one, however, is told through African soldiers fighting for the French. The French side of the story alone isn’t portrayed very often, but the voice of soldiers from the African colonies is almost nonexistent. Not only are most of the soldiers and primary characters minorities and non-Europeans, but they’re also nearly all Muslim. They leave their dessert homes and travel by land and sea to fight the Nazi’s in Europe, and spend much of the time wondering about what exactly their role is. Are they meant to merely be the guinea pigs, sent in first to tire and distract the enemy until the ‘real’ army can arrive? Are they truly considered equals? If not, then what? Many of the themes are similar to the movie Glory. Some of the soldiers seem just fine with their role and place in the hierarchy, but a handful eventually decide to take a stand and be heroes. While this may be noble, the sad truth of the matter is that they soon learn that no one in the West really cares, no matter how heroic they are, even if it’s in the name of liberating and saving the West. How many Americans truly know about the Tuskegee Airmen or the Native American code breakers from WWII? Not many. And why? Because no one really seems to want to see minorities as saving white people. It’s pathetic and watching these characters come to understand this and then to come to a determination of how to proceed makes for an interesting watch. It’s also interesting for this director to make a movie about Muslims fighting for the West in a time when these very same Near Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African Muslims are so often portrayed as against the West. Part of me thinks this is to remind us that many Muslims have always been and are now are thankless allies. Part of me also thinks Bouchareb’s trying to show that there really was a time not too long ago when the West and these groups of Muslims were largely united. They were on our side. After all, respect begets respect and right now there’s very little respect flowing in either direction between the West and most of these Near Eastern, Middle Eastern and North African countries. The performances are great (so great in fact that the entire primary cast was given the Cannes Festival's best actor award as a single unit) and the cinematography and production design were fantastic. The story got a little weak at times and some of the bits could’ve been cut entirely. But overall it was a really decent watch and certainly a perspective on the war I’ve never seen before.

S'good

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Hangover

The premise of this 2009 comedy by Todd Phillips sounds like pretty standard, nee boring, fare. In fact, it sounds almost exactly like the premise of the Tom Hanks flick Bachelor Party. A guy’s about to get married. His friends want to give him one last night of wild, crazy freedom. Substitute a penthouse in Manhattan with a penthouse in Vegas and voila. Things get crazier than anyone imagined and the groom barely makes it back in time and, since he cut it so close, he went from potential disaster to hero status. That said, Todd Phillips does arrange the story in unique way and the performances are good. Instead of a straight linear storyline, the movie starts at the end and the viewer, like the characters in the movie, has to slowly figure out what happened the night before. You see, someone slipped them all ruphies and this, mixed with a ton of drinking, led to one crazy night, a total lack of memory about it and more than a little baggage, not the least of which includes losing the groom. The movie is not only finding him but, wait for it, finding each other. Alright, so I’m jaded, but it’s true that most of this movie is pretty formulaic. Still, I laughed and occasionally I laughed alot. Zach Galifinakis is pretty funny and Ken Jeong is freaking hilarious. Long story short, it’s not great, but it’s fun and at times good for a laugh.

Saturday Afternoon

The Maiden Heist


I like heist movies. But you don't need to include "heist" in the title to make sure I know it.

Morgan Freeman, William H Macy, Christopher Walken and Marcia Gay Harden make this a fun afternoon watch. Christopher Walken steals the show and Marcia Gay Harden is a funny addition as the long-suffering wife.

Three men work at a museum and each has a particular obsession with a piece of art. They educate all who come near, then go home to read, obsess, sketch and dream about their art.
When a new curator has a plan to transfer the artwork to a museum in Europe they hatch a plan to create duplicates and switch them out for the real thing during the move.

There are some good slapstick moments in this, but the best part is watching three great actors collaborate and bumble their way through a heist.

SA - watch it if you are a big C. Walken fan, or must watch every heist movie out there.

The Proposition


I've read what seemed like a hundred Louis L'amour novels when I was growing up. I loved the rules of the wild west. The good were good. The bad were bad. Yes, there were some loners but it was typically a white hat/black hat story.
This is nothing like that.
This is a gritty, no holds-barred look at the an Australian outback in the 1880's that is wilder than the wild west. Replace Native Americans with Aborigines, Americans with Brits and Kid Curry with the Burns brothers gang.
The Burns brothers are on the run. Charlie and Mikey Burns have been captured. Charlie is given a deal to kill his older, more violent and notorious, brother by Christmas and spare their lives. The story follows him as he navigates the outback in search of his brother.
The story starts with a violent shootout that sets the stage for living the life of an outlaw being hunted by authorities who want to "tame the land". The violence is short but extreme, much the way it was. Most people don't realize that the gunfight at the Ok Corral only lasted 30 seconds. There is no need for extended and graphic gunplay when the story itself is fascinating, the way it should be.
I love movies that allow you to use your own imagination to fill out a bigger narrative. Movies that don't hit you over the head with a narrator or flashbacks or the montage. The dialogue here does just enough to make an 1:40 feel like a 3 hour epic.
Many stories overlap, the struggle between law and outlaw, trying to establish some British high-class in a rough and violent land, brotherly love and a man tired of running, justice vs town martial law, the list goes on.
Overall a fascinating story, unique music and a glimpse into a time we'll never know.

Best line: "Why can't you ever just...stop me?" - Arthur Burns.

What a loaded line, Arthur knows he is a beast, a ravaging psychopath who thrills in violence, and just wants his brother draw the line for him. For him, there is no white or gray, just black.

Rating: BA. Not many movies can accomplish this.



Monday, November 23, 2009

Grey Gardens (1975)


In 1975 Albert and David Maysles were filming a documentary about the life and family of Jackie-O when they caught wind of an aunt and cousin of hers who were allegedly living in an old estate in the East Hamptons that had fallen into absolute squallier. I don’t mean to imply they lived in a high end home that was dirty, I’m talking straight up, unfit for human habitation level nasty. Diseased animals running around, trees growing in the living room, windows broken, no heat or electricity. Needless to say, the Maysles were fascinated and created a documentary, Grey Gardens, that was so scandalous and popular it essentially created the modern form of the general audience documentary. It’s not just that these two ladies were living this way in this neighborhood, but that they were absolutely bizarre shut-in’s who, despite it being the mid-1970’s, acted like they were high society ladies from the 1930’s, talking about making it big someday as a soft shoe or cabaret act, though neither was anywhere near under 50 years old. They were clearly nuts, but their zeal and their childlike view of the world and society, not to mention their sense of style made them near and dear to the hearts of millions in the 1970’s. In other words, the Edie’s were true originals who were inspirational, sad, strange ladies who seemed just fine to be living in a setting a health inspector described as unfit even for animals and watching the bizarre, endearing duo as they waltz through their strange daily lives is both compelling and repulsive, heartbreaking and heartwarming. This movie was a giant hit and gave birth to the modern popular documentary. After this, docs were shown in regular theaters and not just college auditoriums and high school classrooms. This sparked a wave of interest in this genre of filmmaking that has yet to subside and it is certainly worth your time.


Worth Watching

Slugs


You probably already know what sort of movie this is from the title alone, but here’s another hint, it was made in the 1980’s. Got it? No? Ok, what if I told you the premise is that the health inspector and sanitation commissioner of a small town discover not only is the town built on a toxic waste dump and not only did a bulldozer inadvertently burst a pipe letting out who knows how much of those toxins, but that the toxins have morphed the local slugs into blood thirsty, and quite persistent, mutant killers? Got it now? Well, it is true that little happens in this 1988 flick by Spanish director JP Simon that isn’t right in line with what you’d expect and it’s also true that you’ve probably also already guessed what my rating at the end is going to be, but I will tell you this, it’s not nearly as bad as you’d think. I’ll admit the technical aspects of this flick are weak as hell. There’s a moment when a guy is running in a sewer and it’s obvious the floor is bowing under him (hard to do on concrete). And the audio is so bad that they dubbed over nearly all of it in post and, even with this, it’s still awful, with moments where what the actor was saying at the time of filming is clearly not what was dubbed in. But the acting isn’t terrible among the leads, though it is awful among the peripheral characters. And the stories sort of fun, though the dialogue is almost entirely rubbish. All in all, it’s a fun watch, especially if you like this kind of flick. See, I grew up watching campy gore and this is right up that ally. In fact, I can’t believe I’ve just now come across it. So, if you’re looking for some escape in the form of a gore-tastic flick that clearly spent ninety percent of its budget on special effects and the other ten on things like the caterer, this is the flick for you. If mutant slugs aren’t your thing (which doesn’t make any sense to me), then skip it.


ME

Slugs (The Alternative Take)




So I think it's fitting for my first post on this site to be about an old horror favorite. I don't know why it's fitting, but it sounded like a good intro.

Slugs is a Juan Piquer Simon film about a "nest" of mutated gastropods that are feasting on human flesh in small-town America(?). Mike Brady (no relation) is the town health inspector that coincidentally gets called on to a lot of crime scenes, and notices a disturbing trend of slime trails and large black slugs near the scene. When he finally puts it all together in a "flashback to the same movie" scene, nobody will believe his wild hypothesis except for his sanitation department buddy Don - whose wife (great-aunt?) bears a striking resemblance to Raisa Gorbachev. After a few gritty confrontations with the city council, Mike has to take matters into his own hands - or die trying.

This is one of my all-time favorite monster movies because unlike C.H.U.D., the whole cast and crew seem to really take the concept seriously. Sure there are some tongue-in-cheek moments, but the fact that they seem to be aware of the ridiculous nature of their subject while simultaneously going forward with the project makes me smile. That, and they really work hard at making the possibility scientifically feasible - so that's a good time. That said, it isn't exactly the best example of pacing for a horror flick - a bit slow in parts with some good payoff scenes for those who enjoy a good, sadistic laugh.

Observations from the film:
  1. Why use boom mics when we can always just record this in post?
  2. Mutated slugs have a hell of a grip - don't stick your hands into your gloves without looking.

  3. Why buck the trend of 27 year olds playing high school juniors/seniors? It just works.
  4. Halloween parties are, as suspected, no fun.
  5. Don't put anchovies in your salad... it just masks the slug parts.
  6. If this is "Slugs: The Movie", where is the rest of the franchise?

Best line: "You don't have the authority to declare 'Happy Birthday', not in this town!"


ME

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grey Gardens (2009)


In 1975 Albert and David Maysles were filming a documentary about the life and family of Jackie-O when they caught wind of an aunt and cousin of hers who were allegedly living in an old estate in the East Hamptons that had fallen into absolute squallier. I don’t mean to imply they lived in a high end home that was dirty, I’m talking straight up, unfit for human habitation level nasty. Diseased animals running around, trees growing in the living room, windows broken, no heat or electricity. Needless to say, the Maysles were fascinated and created a documentary, Grey Gardens, that was so scandalous and popular it essentially created the modern form of the general audience documentary. It’s not just that these two ladies were living this way in this neighborhood, but that they were absolutely bizarre shut-in’s who, despite it being the mid-1970’s, acted like they were high society ladies from the 1930’s, talking about making it big some day as a soft shoe or cabaret act, though neither was anywhere near under 50 years old. They were clearly nuts, but their zeal and their childlike view of the world and society made them near and dear to the hearts of millions in the 70’s. 2009’s HBO film Grey Gardens recreates key moments from the documentary but also gives the audience a wider peak into the lives of these two gals. Director Michael Sucsy says his approach was to look at the documentary footage and try to discern what aspects of their story they seemed to think were important and fill those out with back story. So he would show the back story and then follow it with a recreation of the relevant bit from the doc. He clearly has a deep respect both for the women and for the original doc, as his recreation is painstakingly detailed. For example, the ‘perpetual bachelor’ music teacher, who only appears in a portion of the film, wears a diamond ring and the ring the actor is wearing in the movie is the actual ring the teacher used to wear. Some of the costumes worn by Drew Barrymore are the same pieces worn by little Edie. In other words, the production design is really great. That said the very best thing about this movie was Jessica Lange’s performance of big Edie. It is remarkable. In the featurette they put some of the documentary footage of Edie against footage of Jessica Lange’s portrayal thereof and it’s truly uncanny. She really nails this role and it’s almost scary how well she captured this bizarre woman. The Edie’s were unique, inspirational, sad, strange ladies who seemed just fine to be living in a setting a health inspector described as unfit even for animals and watching this replication and expansion of the amazing Maysles doc is certainly worth your time.


S'Good

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Baker


I hate to do this, but then again, with this type of comedy you really need to be a fan of the ‘type’ to like this movie. The Brits have a history of making movies about an outsider (or a problem that comes from outside) who unexpectedly makes his or her way into a small, countryside English village. Once there, the villagers break out of their ways (in which they are way set) and band together to do something uplifting and bond strengthening. This was done well in movies like Saving Grace, Greenfingers and Calendar Girls and mocked well in Hot Fuzz. The Baker fits comfortably in that lineage. This 2007 comedy by Gareth Lewis tells the story of Milo (played by the wonderful Damien Lewis, Gareth’s brother), a professional hit man who gets caught letting a ‘job’ get away. The Company interprets this as him losing it and considers him a liability that needs to be taken out. A friend within The Company tells him to go out to his country place in a small village way outside of London. Once he gets there, however, he finds a bevy of nosy neighbors and discovers that the cover is that of a baker, which poses a problem as he doesn’t know the first thing about baking. Over the course of the next hour or so he gives baking a real chance and also takes a chance on relaxing and enjoying the town. Problem is, the town is actually a hot bed of jealousy and in-fighting and they’re all too happy to try and use Milo’s services once they realize he’s not exactly a baker, but THE baker (a name they give him as though it’s his moniker). He learns he really doesn’t want to be that anymore and they learn that they ought to be grateful for each other instead of petty and jealous. Oh, and he just so happens to meet a quirky local vet played by the beautiful Kate Ashfield (of Shawn of the Dead) who seems to just be perfect for him. Now he just needs to convince The Company to stop chasing him, avoid the hitman they sent after him, persuade the villagers to get along with one another and maybe, just maybe, get the vet to overlook his past and fall for him. Watching Milo pull it off is fun, funny and easy to watch, even if it’s pretty predictable, formulaic fare. So, if you’re in the mood for something sweet and funny with a positive message, this is your flick. If you want something gripping and original, you may want to skip it.
S’good

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Clip o' the Week

Three...Extremes


Three…Extremes is a 2004 collection of three short horror films from three of East Asia’s top film directors. It was released as a sort of exhibition experiment, but unlike other kitschy movie experiments of its kind, the filmmakers clearly put a good deal of time and money into these 45 minute vignettes. This means the visuals and the production values are really fantastic. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean the movies are all that good or all that scary. In fact, I’d say none of them were scary at all. The only one that comes close was the third one, but I wouldn’t describe even it as scary. The bad news is that none of them are all that great or frightening, the good news is the last two (and especially the third) were at least interesting and a little engaging. The first of the three is called Dumplings and is by Chinese director Fruit Chan, known primarily for Jackie Chan flicks and goofy Chinese comedies. It is by far the least worthwhile of the three. Chan is way out of his league here and serves up a dish that’s little more than disgusting and inappropriate. It’s way too on the nose about some of China’s more abhorrent practices and is never, even for a moment, frightening. It tells the story of a washed up actress who is obsessed with regaining some of her youth. She meets an odd woman who claims to have dumplings that will give you otherworldly health and vitality. The ‘scare’ comes when we learn just what’s in those dumplings. It’s too bad all of us watching it guessed it from the very beginning and were yawning our way through the rest. The second is the far better Cut, directed by Korean director Chan Wook Park, who is best known for his vengeance trilogy Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, and containing the really good performance of Byung-hun Lee. Park has a fantastic eye and clearly a vast knowledge of cinema history. His movies are visually stunning and contain good performances, but their themes are so consistent that they border on straight up repetition. For example, he’s downright obsessed with the themes of revenge and manipulation. His antagonists want to control and manipulate the worlds of their victims, driving the protagonists mad. Here is no different. The director of a film comes home to find an extra who has totally snapped that day. The extra sets up a Saw-esque situation for the director where he must choose to do something awful or else the extra is going to chop off a finger of the director’s wife every five minutes. So, once again, we have a bad guy who attempts to control and his victim like a marionette, quite literally here, and in an attempt to exact some revenge on him. It’s ok and is much better than Dumplings, but it’s still not fantastic or anything. The third is better still and is by Japanese filmmaking badass Takashi Miike. It’s called Box and is about a woman living with her memories of a tragedy that she inadvertently caused as a 10-year-old and that has all but suffocated her ever since. Her obsessions come to a head in a tense, emotional end climax that is clearly stemming from madness. It’s very well shot and well acted. The lead is really fantastic. Sounds great, right? Well, not so fast. The ending is awful. I mean, so bad it made me forget how good everything before it was. It was so out of sync with the rest of the movie that it truly ruined it for me. But oh well. Long story short, if you’re a cinophile and love to at least see what the great minds out there are doing, it’s worth a cursory look, but otherwise, I’d probably just skip it unless you happen to come across it flipping around on some lazy Saturday afternoon.

Saturday Afternoon

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bob le Flambeur


This 1956 French crime drama by Jean-Pierre Melville was his big breakthrough. It tells the story of Bob, a sort of elder statesman of the Paris crime world. Everyone likes him, even the police, but he's begun to live a pretty boring life as a expert for the police. Problem is, this means fellow criminals don't trust him and the police are always watching. His itch for adventure leads him to a plan to rob a casino. All he needs now is a plan and a team. It's classic. It may not have been the first of it's kind, but it unified a distinct style approach that influenced pretty much all movies of it's kind to follow. This and Kubrick's The Killing are basically the parents of every heist movie to follow. They may not know it now, but movies like Ocean's 11 and the Bond movies are direct descendants. Now, that doesn't mean that your liking those movies means you will like this one. Whether or not you like Bob depends on how you approach it. The acting is pretty poor and the story is really not that great. Melville also loves to keep a pretty darn slow pace. What makes it worth a watch is the style. His visuals and approach are just classic. If you like the heist genre, it's worth your time, like a blues guitarist listening to early blues recordings. Know what I mean? Seeing where what you love comes from.

Saturday Afternoon.

Sin Nombre


This 2009 Mexican drama by Cary Fukunaga follows two stories that intersect because their stories are not only headed to the same place, but are, in reality, the same story. One is that of a Guatemalan young man who goes by Casper and is a member of MS13, the nasty gang that stretches from California through all of Mexico and Central America. He is beginning to doubt his ways, but only in harmless ways, that is until something awful happens, at which point his doubts become a straight up drive to escape. He sees the possibility on a train that runs from south of Honduras clear to Texas. Problem is, the train ride itself may well be more dangerous than his life in Guatemala. But the train, has a defined end, his life, outside of death, doesn't really. The other story is that of a good, but very poor, Honduran girl, who was abandoned by her father 14 years ago. The movie picks up with her father showing up out of the blue, begging for her to come with him back to his home in New Jersey. Problem is, he's also pretty damn poor and spent just about all his money getting back to her. His solution, take that same train. This movie is really about the present state of things in our little Western world.This idea that one always has a choice, each individual shapes his or her life by their choices. This doesn't mean they are easy one's or that what we think will lead to betterment will actually do so, but it's our choice to make. It's also a movie about the quest for autonomy. We want more choices, more options. I don't mean this in a selfish way, sometimes, I can only imagine, it feels like we must seek more autonomy. What I mean is that there is something imbedded in our Western way of doing things that makes so many feel like there is always a better option out there. In the case of some characters in this flick, the grass on the other side was decidedly worse and they never should've made the decision to leave, but for others in the film, deciding to leave was likely the best decision they'd ever make. The point is, catching that train, heading out of town, to another place, another country, is indicative of our Western way and the results vary widely. Fukunaga spent two years in Mexico and Central America living with members of MS13, traveling on the very train line from the movie and trying to come to an understanding of those willing to take such risks, to go so far. He also shot the movie down there, on that train and cast many unknowns and non-professionals. It shows. The movie feels genuine, it feels truly informed. It's like, not only are you really seeing it, but you're experiencing it. The stories are engaging, the performances fantastic and the maverick style of shooting it makes the visuals very interesting. See this movie, even if you're not a subtitles kind of person.

Worth Watching.

Moon


Recently my parents were in town and we were headed to see Couples Retreat. I really didn't want to and joked that we ought to instead go see Moon. The reason this is a joke is because it appeared like these movies couldn't be more dissimilar. One is a big budget, vastly distributed and marketed, please-all comedy full of big stars. The other is a low budget, barely distributed, almost unheard of dramatic sci-fi movie starring...one person, Sam Rockwell. We arrive at the giant megaplex where couples retreat was playing and find that there are only a few seats left and they were practically buttressed against the screen itself. So, I brought up Moon again. We end up seeing Moon at one of my favorite movie houses in Portland, a place called Livingroom Theater, where it's never crowded, the seats are plush and have ottomans and waiters come in and serve you cold beer and good food on real plates, set with real silverware. Well, I'm pretty sure I can guess what Couples Retreat was like, but I was shocked by Moon. It was fantastic. Truly. Even my parents loved it, we all did. I say all this to point out the funny thing about movies and how they are marketed. One is clearly a better movie watching experience, yet most of the people who will ever read this review will never see it. The other is inferior and, even though we all know it won't have any surprises and very few memorable moments, most of us will most likely see it. Odd. Well, consider this my plea to skip the megaplex, find Moon and see it. This movie is sci-fi, but in the old school sense. In other words, it's quiet and tense, instead of action-packed and overbrimming with special effects. Moon may be low budget, but it's absolutely beautiful. Clearly every penny was well spent and in the hands of artists who knew how to use them. The acting is good too, but not over the top. Rockwell's performance was just natural, it seemed like he simply was who he was. And the story was great. Here's the basic story to get you interested, but, unfortunately, I can't tell you more without lessening the experience for you. A few decades from now America's discovered that the minerals of the moon are fuel rich, so, of course, we've begun harvesting them. Sound crazy? Well, don't think that, Bush actually proposed this in a speech about 6 years ago. Anyway, machines do the majority of the work, but someone has to be there to do repairs when needed and to send the fuel canisters back to Earth once they're full. But the moon is hostile and very very far away, so one person goes there and stays there for several years per stretch, when his or her replacement comes for a sort of shift change. Moon picks up during the last two weeks of Sam Bell's stint and, well, he's kind of losing it. Just when he thinks he's not going to crack, that he's going to make it out just fine, things get really really weird. See this movie. It is tense, interesting and never stalls for even a second, despite the fact that it's only one person on the screen for like 98% of the movie. This is a rare one and shouldn't be missed.

BA

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lessons of Darkness

In 1992 Werner Herzog took a small crew to Kuwait after the first Iraq war was over and after Iraq evacuated, leaving a wake of destruction in their path. Herzog is famous for his garrulous narration in his documentaries, but the reality he discovered upon arrival was so visually compelling the vast majority of this doc contains no narration at all. In fact, all he does is play pieces by composers like Mahler and feeds the viewer a steady diet of desolate landscape after desolate landscape, with almost no dialogue or text. What this means is the flick is interesting and at times quite moving, but overall it’s not something that’s going to keep you gripped to your seat. Then, out of nowhere, it ends. I watched it with friends and half the room said, in unison, “It’s over?!” The movie comes in at about 45 minutes too. Very odd. Herzog seems to have endless amounts to say about the true nature of subjects that seem, on the surface, to be fairly transparent. I thought, going in, that he could fill this flick, about such a rich subject as the Iraq situation, with hours upon hours of commentary and engaging subtext, but in reality the movie is little more than a montage of interesting, albeit occasionally repetitive, imagery. It’s worth a watch, in that you’ll see aspects of the war that are rarely shown and images you’ve likely not seen before, and since it’s not very long at all, it’s not like it’s hard to make it through. That said, it’s hardly at the top of Herzog’s library of films, so if you’re aiming to see most of what he’s done, it’s worth it, but if you’re new to his work and wanting only a good taste, see Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly or My Best Fiend and skip this one.

Saturday Afternoon

Monday, September 7, 2009

Inglourious Basterds


This 2009 flick and latest addition from writer/director Quentin Tarantino offers a very unique take on the WWII movie genre. Hell, all I really have to tell you is that it's a historical war drama by Tarantino for you to know that. He started out years ago wanting to do a remake of the 1978 flick by Enzo Castellari, but, he says, one day he learned that one of his favorite directors of all time (and mine I must say), Sergio Leone, was working on a WWII movie when he died. Leone's movies are tense, violent and full of bad dudes kicking a fistful of ass. Tarantino says that this sparked an idea in his head like a lightning bolt. What if he made a Leone style, western inspired, WWII movie where the jews clean house the way Clint Eastwood's characters so often did in any given Leone pic? Well, that's just what he's done. Like any good Tarantino movie, this flick is about way more than that. There are subplots and side stories galore and each one feels full and rich and perfectly necessary for the story and the overall tone. He teams up again with production designer David Wasco and cinematographer Robert Richardson, which means every last detail of every single last shot is crisp and telling and totally fantastic. The scenes and the pacing are Tarantino at his best. This movie is simply fantastic. The Leone pic he said he drew the most inspiration from was Once Upon a Time in the West, which just so happens to be my favorite. He even starts the movie with the words Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France. What this means is that Tarantino takes his time and the movie feels like a slow, deliberate boil. But, trust me, when it boils, it boils. The best thing about it all are the performances. Tarantino, as usual, casts based on how they are for the part and not whether or not they're respected actors, or even actors for that matter, there are members of the primary cast who are models, directors, even musicians, but every last person from the projectionist to the lead roles are emotionally gripping, authentic and really great. In fact, there are people in this movie who don't even have speaking roles that I can't get out of my head a day later. There are those who are in one brief scene and yet are memorable and evocative. From this sea of great performances rises three that are remarkable. First, there is the villainous and bizarre Col Hans Landa, played to perfection by Austrian TV actor Christoph Waltz. Every last detail of his presence on screen is captivating and terrifying. I was glued. Then there's his counterpart, Brad Pitt's heroic and cruel Lt Aldo Raine. Raine is an utterly unique character straight out the smoky mountains who, in the first moment you see him, says he's here to do one thing and nothing else, kill Nazi's. They call him Aldo the Apache because he doesn't just kill them, he desecrates their bodied and works real hard to make Germany absolutely terrified of him. And he's doing a damn fine job. Everything Pitt does or says is enjoyable. It all feels natural and I could have watched his performance for days more. Like any good Leone protagonist, he's a country boy everyman who has a fine knack for ass kicking. I mean, the guy has a scar across his neck that can only be the product of being previously hung or cut. But doing some crap like that to Aldo the Apache is only going to get you in more trouble. Long story short, he's a badass. There are two things you need to know before going into this flick. One, it's violent. Very violent. Or, I should say, when it is violent, it comes at you with a stark, disturbing, heavy hand. A second thing you should know is that Tarantino takes alot of liberties. This is not meant to be historically accurate, not even close, and if you know that going in and just accept this this is fantasy, you will surely enjoy it.

BA

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth


2006 Mexican film by Guillermo del Toro that tells the story of a little girl, Ofelia, who is moving to her new home in the mansion/compound of the monstrous Captain Vidal. Ofelia's mother was a worker at the Captain's factory when he fell for her and, after the death of Ofelia's father, they got together. From the first moment she walks onto the property, odd things start to happen and soon she realizes that there is a magical world all around the compound that seems to have been waiting on her for centuries. The magical beings, namely a faun, claim she is the princess of their kingdom and that their kingdom is in disrepair because she's been missing. Set in Franco's Spain, this movie has a side story going on, concerning the Captain and his mission to rid the area of rebels. Then there's the side story of the rebels themself. Then there's the side story of the cook at the compound who is aiding the rebels. And the one about the doctor who's doing the same. And the Captain's backstory and...well, you get the picture. This movie is visually stunning. Just totally amazing. The performances are pretty strong too and I love love love a good fantasy flick. The problem is the story is too scattered. There are too many characters getting too much focus. In the end, many juicy bits of story get neglected, while other superfluous bits get fleshed out. What results is a lack of much engaging or memorable story development. I left the movie feeling that it was neat, but not caring much at all about the characters or the story. No emotional resonance, in other words. I also feel like the fantasy aspect of the movie was too lean altogether. When she heads off into the magical world with it's mythic creatures and daring missions, I was loving the movie. I also thought it was the most effective aspect of del Toro's storytelling. In the fantasy bits, the viewer comes to understand more clearly that Ofelia is trying to escape the wretched Captain and his world, that she's trying to do what's right to restore her kingdom, namely her family, before it goes from mere disrepair to ruins. In other words, it's good stuff, but instead time is wasted on things like dinner parties and interrogations of rebels. Snooze. Interesting movie, with amazing visuals and a great lead performance by the very young Ivana Baquero, but in the end it was spread too thin to win me over.

S'good.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The White Diamond

To me, one of the signs of a truly gifted filmmaker is the ability to take the seemingly simple and turn it into something rife with depth and complexity. The few filmmakers I can think of who meet that description are among the best in history, the Kubricks, the Godards, the Tarantinos and someone who’s certainly up high on that list is Werner Herzog. And in 2004 he accomplished this feat again with The White Diamond. This documentary has a premise that could easily have led to a pedestrian doc that you’ve seen a hundred times on television. Basically it’s about a British scientist who is about to head to the South American rainforest to test an airship he is developing for the purpose of hovering above and studying the forest canopy. Interesting, but hardly something that’s going to have you running to the theater, right? Well, that would be the case, if it was just about anyone other than Werner at the helm. He manages to weave a tale about the depth of the human experience that at all times feels both genuine and gripping. You feel as though you’re getting nothing but the god’s honest truth and it’s revealed in a way that will have you glued to the screen. Herzog leaves the camera running just a little longer than most would and asks questions that no one else does. By the end the subjects are displaying aspects of their lives and personalities that I’m certain they never expected to display. For example, he asks the scientist about a test he’s running, which is pretty expected, but then he interrupts the guy and asks him why he’s missing fingers on his left hand. At another point, he asks them if they would take one of the local Guyanese natives up in the balloon with them. A good documentarian knows where to focus the camera and what questions to ask and Herzog certainly hits all the right notes in this one. Expect the unexpected. This movie effortlessly manages to be light, heavy, funny, sad and everything in between. It’s engaging, genuine and beautifully shot. And with it’s short running time there’s seems not a moment wasted.

Worth Watching

Monday, August 24, 2009

Chopper

Mark Read’s story is both true and truly bizarre. His parents were downright sadists, with his mother cheering as his father would beat him. They could’ve cared less about him too. He became a ward of the state and a streetfighter at the ripe old age of 14. By 19 he was living in an asylum for the criminally insane. And the story just keeps going and keeps building in bizarrity as the years continued to roll by. By adulthood he was an enforcer for mob bosses. I tell you all this to point out the fact that his story is packed to the brim with fascinating bits, which is all the more reason why this movie was so disappointing. While in prison, Mark (AKA Chopper), wrote an autobiography. It was an instant bestseller and made Chopper uber-famous. This 2000 flick about his life picks up after the book’s taken off and just when he’s about to get out of prison. When he gets out he continues to live a sordid and interesting life, albeit much milder, meaning he only kills one person in the movie. You know when you watch a movie about a person who’s been in prison for a long time and finally gets out and there’s that obligatory moment where they struggle with how to live life on the ‘outside?’ Those bits work well when they are short sections of the movie, but in this case that’s the whole flick, or at least the vast majority of it. The characters are interesting and Eric Bana’s Chopper is just fantastic, but it felt like the movie overall lacked much of a cohesive sense of story or purpose. I didn’t know what the point of it all was. Or, put another way, I felt like the whole point was summed up pretty much in the opening scene. In the end, I enjoyed parts of it, now and then, but overall I was checking my watch. There was nothing about this movie that lured me in and got me interested or engaged in the characters. How can you make a movie about a guy who made a living killing and enforcing crime bosses boring? I mean, this guy used to take people’s toes off using a blow torch. He once cut his ears off just so he could get moved to another wing of the prison and the movie was boring?! Sadly, overall, yes, it was. It’s not awful, but there’s very little here to make you think much about ol’ Chopper once you turn off the DVD player. I suggest just picking up that autobiography.

Saturday Afternoon

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rescue Dawn


When Dieter Dengler was a small boy in Germany during World War II an American bomber flew very low in his village while bombing the junk out of it and Dieter happened to catch the pilot's eye for a split second as he flew by Dieter's house. For most people this would haunt you for the rest of your life, but Dieter is not most people. For it seems nothing can break Dieter Dengler's spirit. He has an insatiable since of hope and a belief that all humans are good, even if they are presently doing bad things. This disposition will come in handy later in his life and in his story. So, Dieter spends the next decades slowly saving the money to move to America, gaining his residency, and working his way up the ranks of the Air Force to where he can be a fighter pilot of his own. On his very first mission during the very early stages of the Vietnam conflict, he is shot down and quickly taken prisoner. This is where Rescue Dawn picks up. Almost bizarrely, Dieter, though he struggles, seems to never lose his foundational respect for his captors. Even while they are torturing him, he politely asks for water and will smile and say hello when a new person walks in. They, in turn, offer him the chance to be released if he will only denounce America and release an Anti-American statement they've prepared for him. Dieter immediately turns down their offer saying he will never denounce America. His unbreakable spirit is just what his fellow POW's need and the group (from all over the world) decide to put their head together and make a break for it. But doing so not only means getting out of the POW camp, but also making out of the jungles of Laos and into friendly Thailand. The film was shot in all the same locations as the true story and, as such, they had to deal with many of the same natural elements. This is important because from moment one this movie feels incredibly authentic. When the characters are struggling with a powerful river, the actors and camera persons are also struggling with it. Christian Bale says that when Werner Herzog was interviewing him for the part the questions were things like, are you afraid of leeches, would you mind living in the jungle for the next several months in a tent, can you cut your way out of impossibly thick underbrush, and could you pick up snakes you find in the wild. It is amazing. And the actors seemed to eat it right up because not only are their performances heartbreakingly natural, but they physically invested in the part, losing frightening amounts of weight and enduring all of the physical hardships firsthand (no stunt doubles here). In 1997 Werner Herzog made a fantastic documentary about Dieter called Little Dieter Needs to Fly and was so inspired by him and his story that, in 2004, when Dieter died, Herzog wanted to pay tribute to him by making his story into a feature film. Well, he's certainly done Dengler justice, as this movie is fantastic from start to finish. I suggest pairing it in a double feature with the documentary as both are some of Herzog's best works and truly no one can get enough of the inspiring unflappable Dieter.

Worth Watching

The Hurt Locker


2008 war drama Kathryn Bigelow about the last month of Bravo Company's rotation in Iraq. Bravo consists of three bomb techs, whose job it is to go in and diffuse/destroy IED's and other explosive devises. This is one of those rare war movies that tells the story 100% from the soldier's vantage point. There are no scenes with generals making deals, no ambassadors, no colonels in strategy rooms. It is war from the ground floor. While some high officers might make a two second appearance now and then, the majority of the movie portrays no one higher ranked than sergeant. Other movies have done this before, take the particularly good Black Hawk Down as an example, but most of those movies relied almost entirely on action and violence to keep the viewer going. Hurt Locker, instead, relies very heavily on the psychology of the war. Bigelow doesn't spend time analyzing the war itself and seems to almost disregard the local culture, but her doing so seems very deliberate, as it is an attempt to portray the war as the regular soldiers see it and, let's be honest, I doubt many of them are thinking about the philosophies of the war or the nuances of the local culture. They just want to make it out alive. They say that more people have died coming back down Everest than going up and this flick is quite a bit about that idea. Bravo is almost done, they've almost made it, but that only means that things are tenser than ever and seem even the more precarious for them. The writing is smooth, the story engaging, the direction very tight (there doesn't seem to be a wasted cell of film in this thing) and the performances are very natural. Bigelow did as much as she could to make this movie seem authentic, including using Iraqi refugees as the extras, the Jordanian military as the Iraqi soldiers and by filming it there, with one of the actors having a heat stroke during filming at one point. And it really does feel like you are there experiencing it with them, which means from moment one this movie is complex emotionally and almost always very intense.

Worth Watching

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Wild Blue Yonder


The plot of this 2005 Werner Herzog feature intrigued me. I loves me some Herzog, in fact, I've never seen one of his movies that I didn't love. The premise is basically this, aliens came to earth about a century ago and by now, with the combined efforts of the aliens and the humans, earth is basically useless and long ago everyone has left. It's a simple premise, really, and Herzog tends to excel with simple premises. I mean, Fitzcarraldo, my favorite of his features, is about getting a ship over a mountain pass, that's it, and it's great. But here, Herzog falls shockingly flat. He uses footage from underwater filming, NASA footage, and historical clips spliced together with the footage he shot for the film. Sounds perfect for him, but it doesn't work. The footage is out of place, doesn't follow a linear sense of time period and often is clearly not what the characters are saying it is. For example, the alien is, in one moment, talking about how desolate the earth has become and Herzog cuts to footage of a barren wasteland, but even with his editing and post production layers you can still tell that the footage is underwater as things actually float by at a point. Then there's the alien himself, the only part Herzog actually shot and all he does is walk around in abandoned locales and talk to the camera, lecturing us about how we screwed up. Even though earth is supposed to be empty, there's actually a moment when the alien has to raise his voice because some dogs are barking loudly in the background. Werner Herzog is famous for his unrelenting focus on quality and his extreme focus on details, but neither is apparent here. In fact, this flick is very very amateurish. It's almost like what someone with tons of resources but almost no experience would produce. Because it was Herzog, it was especially disappointing.

Unacceptable

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs


This 2009 animated flick is by Carlos Saldanha, the Brazilian director who brought the world Ice Age and Ice Age: The Metldown. Yeah, you get it. The Ice Age movies tell the tale of an unlikely 'herd' of a Mammoth (a second Mammoth that joined in the sequel), a sloth and a sabertooth tiger (and two opossum that also joined in the second film). The characters are likable enough and the stories are usually sweet and enjoyable, but it's getting old. Why not take all that money, those resources, personnel, writing talents and come up with something new. Well, there's nothing new here. It's the same characters doing the same stuff. In the first movie it was a baby they find, in this one it's three baby dinosaurs. In the first one they go on an unexpected journey to save the baby, in this one they go on an unexpected journey to save Sid. Snore, snore, snore. If it's on on a Saturday afternoon and you happen to come across it, you may enjoy it and especially if you haven't seen the other two, but don't bother driving out to the theater and shilling out the big bucks (even more expensive than normal since it's in 3D). Better yet, just go rent the first one.

Saturday Afternoon.

Gran Torino


Walt Kowalski's life seems to be changing and falling apart all around him. This is a big problem for Walt, as he's a crotchety old fart who doesn't like change at all. In fact, Walt doesn't like much of anything. He has a handful of friends at the bar, a barber he likes and goes to regularly and then, it's sitting on the porch drinking PBR's with his dog. And, of course, there's his love, his Gran Torino, a car he actually helped build years ago at the Ford plant. Well, his job is gone, his neighbors are almost all gone and his wife has just died. Nothing seems the same and this grumpy guy has just gotten even crankier. The Gran Torino serves as the perfect centerpiece of this movie. It is a car that he works painstakingly to keep in perfect condition and, more importantly, the same condition as when he took it off the line decades ago. You never see him drive this car. He just polishes it. The reason this is important is because it serves as a physical manifestation of Walt's problem, namely, that he's delusionally holding onto some ideal from the past that doesn't really exist and most likely never did. And to make matters worse, some non-white kid actually tries to steal the Gran Torino from him. You see, I mention that the kid's not white because Walt is a bigot, though really he just doesn't like anything different and other races are different. But there comes a moment where he realizes that it's not about where we're from or what language we speak, but how we live our lives. He realizes that he has more in common with the traditional Hmong family next door than he does with people from his church or family. This movie finds him going through the pains of an old dog learning new tricks. He simply must let go of that ideal he has, because, in reality, it's crap and he knows it. This 2008 drama by Clint Eastwood is well shot, well written and, while a simple story, has a depth and richness that makes it really stick with you. It also has a great message, being shallow and petty is a universal language that transcends ethnicity, but, lucky for us, so are other attributes like being honorable and just.

Worth Watching

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Descent


2005 British horror flick by Neil Marshall about a group of girls who are very fit and have a common interest in all things thrilling. They rock climb together, they ride rapids, they base jump and so on. Well, after one particular rafting trip, something awful happens and the group starts growing apart and seeking less and less thrills. So the one American in the group has an idea to head to the states and attempt to be the first to explore a wicked deep cave in the Appalachian south. That way they get out of England for a bit, clear their heads and get the thrill seeking train back on the tracks. Get back on the horse and all that. Well, they do, and they do go down into this cave and that's when it becomes a horror movie. Let me tell you, I love horror. I grew up on the stuff. That said, this movie was scary as hell. The cave just gets smaller and smaller and one by one their lanterns and headlamps run out of batteries. The space around the viewer slowly tightens bit by bit. The filmmakers use the camera very very well too, as it really feels like you're getting claustrophobic. And man is it ever dark. They also certainly rely on the novel idea of being trapped underground to enhance the fear factor. Imagine, you are miles under earth and have no idea how to get out. And we're not talking about great expansive caverns and structures like in a Journey to the Center of the Earth or an Alien vs Predator. The actors in this movie are literally crawling half th time. Sheesh. It was awesome. I don't wanna say much more, because if you're into having your pants scared off, then you should just rent it. It does turn pretty gorey there at the end, so if that's not your bag you may want to consider that, but overall this is just classic thriller stuff and I totally recommend it to anyone who loves a good fright now and then.

ME

Friday, June 26, 2009

Clip o' the Week

Shoot to Kill


This 1988 thriller was Sidney Poitier's first screen acting gig in 11 years. Wait, I shouldn't lead with that, because your mind is likely to head straight to high level dramatic arts and if so, you took a wrong turn. Let me, instead begin by telling you, this 1988 thriller stars Sidney Poitier, but also Tom Berenger, Kirstie Alley, Clancy Brown (the creepy bad guy from the first Highlander and the voice of Mr. Krabs) and Andrew Robinson (the creepy dad from Hellraiser) and it's all directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who brought us such slices of cinematic heaven as Turner & Hooch and Tomorrow Never Dies (yes, the Bond movie with Teri Hatcher as the Bond girl, you know you saw it). That probably gives you a better picture of just what this movie watching experience will be like. As a boy growing up in the 80's, I loved action movies. You have a "good guy" chasing a "bad guy" through some sort of wilderness, toss in a pretty girl and a heavy dose of big action and terrible comedy and I was in. Brown plays a felon on the run trying to make it to Canada. He decides to go through the woods of northern Washington state to get there and kidnaps a guide (played by Kirstie Alley) (yeah, you heard me) to get him there. Poitier is an FBI agent from the city with a personal interest because this guy caused him grief earlier in San Fran, while Berenger is a borderline mountain man and Alley's boyfriend. And so it begins. As you may well guess, these two "good guys" are from totally different worlds and can't stand each other, but, and I don't want to give it away for you too much, end up being fast friends in the end. This movie is predictable, poorly written, terribly acted and generally awful and I recommend it to all of you wholeheartedly.

ME

Thursday, June 18, 2009

El Aura


Esteban is sick of his boring life. He's a taxidermist whose wife has just left him and his only real friend annoys the crap out of him. To make matters worse he goes on a hunting trip to get away from it all and accidentally kills someone. There are two things about Esteban that are unique: he's epileptic and he has a photographic memory. The hunter he killed was standing next to a shack in the woods. Esteban checked the shack and discovered the victim was deep in the planning phase of an armored truck heist. And so we find Esteban at a turning point. Does he do the normal thing and run to the police about the accidental death? Or does he keep it a secret, use his photographic memory and do something, finally, exciting in his life and attempt to pull off the heist himself. Well, there wouldn't be much of a movie if he picked the former and he does not. This 2005 Argentinian drama by director Fabian Bielinsky was only his second feature but it is very well executed. The pacing is great and his choice of shot sequences is really fantastic. In fact, the visuals look like those orchestrated by a master directer. They really are fantastic. The story is engaging as well and the performances seemed very natural, even the secondary characters that only momentarily appear, some of whom aren't even named. The only complaint I have is that the reliance on violence seemed to confuse the message. I understand, and like, the idea of a story about a guy who wants to do something daring to break up the monotony of his pretty sad life, but I find it hard to sympathize with someone who causes unnecessary death in furtherance of his personal identity crisis. Take the tipping point for example. Why did Bielinsky find it necessary for him to kill the guy. Couldn't he have just stumbled upon the shack? He has a photographic memory, he really only needed to read all the plans. Hell, it may have even made the scene more tense, since there would be the chance that the guy could walk in at any moment. Other innocent people die in the furtherance of the plan too. If they were necessary I would buy it, but the point of the film, for me, was that this guy was trying to get a little excitement and grow some balls. People just don't have to die for you to do that and tell a good story. This was the only thing that detracted from the story for me. Outside of this, everything about this movie is interesting, fresh and engaging.

Worth Watching

Saturday, June 6, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You


Yeah, I saw it and may I take this opportunity to aid you in avoiding doing the same. This 2009 flick by Ken Kwapis proves once again that the guy should stick to television. I don't know what it is, when he does movies they're sappy, borderline sexist drivel like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but when he does TV it's usually great stuff, having directing episodes of The Office, Malcolm in the Middle, Freaks and Geeks, ER, and on and on. I wonder if some kinds of formats just simply work better for certain types of artists. Well, either way, he definitely swung and missed on this one. This movie profiles numerous males and females who are trying to figure out the complicated labyrinth of dating and marriage. The problem is that it seems that all of these 30-somethings are either jerks or idiots. In fact, it seems the message of this movie itself is that the vast majority of guys are secretly assholes and the vast majority of women in America are really just gullible, petty, stupid girls. I for one found this message offensive. What 30ish woman sits by the phone for days on end pacing around wondering if a guy she went on one, very short dinner date with will call? I hope this type of woman is the exception, but the movie makes her out to be the rule. All the women seem obsessed with finding a man and the movie makes this seem like what all women should be obsessed with and the ultimate goal in life for you ladies is finally getting married. It's junk if you ask me. Not only that, but the women are all totally clueless, as though they are just these sweet, naiive things that walk around hoping some guy will fall in love with them and ask them to marry them that day. There's literally a scene in the movie where one woman is explaining to the others that it's actually ok for the girl to call the guy. Duh. And the women in that scene are all successful individuals. Their depiction of gay males is also nothing more than a string of stereotypes and shallow characters. I'm not kidding, all of the gay men act like Carter from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the few that are named are named Mary. Seriously, is this 1960? This movie is sexist crap and I recommend you rent something else if you're on the fence about seeing this one. Unless, of course, you're a boy obsessed 12-year-old trapped in a 33-year-old's body and want a movie to come along that you can really can relate to.

Unacceptable

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Up


This is Pixar's flick for 2009 and really that's all I have to say about it to make you wanna go see it. Oh, should I add that it's in ReelD 3D? Oh, and should I also add that it's by one of Pixar's oldest artists/directors, Pete Doctor (who not only did Monsters, Inc but even directed one of Pixar's first shorts back in the 80's)? Up tells the story of an old man, Mr. Fredricksen, who had a wife with whom he shared a happy life, full of adventure. Recently, though, she passed away and his life doesn't seem very full of either happiness or adventure. Well, before he gets shipped off to some retirement community, he decides to just go for it and head off to a remote part of Venezuela that he and his wife always swore they'd see some day. He decides to take the adventurous route and attaches hundreds of helium balloons to his house to float his way south. Of course, he had no idea that a young wilderness scout, Russel, was on his porch and now is along for the ride. Before Mr. Fredricksen can turn around and get Russel home a storm hits and he gets knocked out. Little Russel guides them to Venezuela, which is where Mr. Fredricksen finds them when he wakes up. Let the bonding and the adventurous trip home begin. Along the way they both learn that the trip and all the wilderness badges were not what they were really after, but instead they sought intimacy, happiness and friendship. Up is a very sweet, very simple story. It's inspiring and natural as usual. And of course the visuals are truly amazing. Pixar seems even better in 3D. That said, I didn't love it like I love most of Pixar's movies. In fact, it kind of seemed like alot of other movies that are out there. I'd say Bolt was nearly as good and I can't believe I'm saying that. I'm not sure if that means Pixar's raised the bar so high that other studios are also putting out great cohesive, heartwarming stories just to keep up, or if it means that this may be the first movie by Pixar that I'd classify as 'good' and not 'great.' I suppose, though, that you can't step up to the plate and hit a grand slam everytime. Sometimes you just have to be grateful for a measly home run. Well, this flick may not be a grand slam, but it is certainly a home run. The characters are memorable and the principles sound. It's charming, it's engaging and it's certainly worth a watch if you feel like feeling good.

Worth Watching

P.s. A word of caution if you'll be seeing this with young one's, this is the first Pixar movie (I think) where you actually see people die. Not many, but two adults do die in the movie and the couple loses a kid. That's pretty heavy stuff if you're not expecting it. So now you know.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Adventureland


In 2007 writer/director Greg Mottola brought us Superbad, a raunchy 80's style buddy comedy set in the present that surprised everyone with it's unexpected depth. I mean, it wasn't a Robert Bresson flick, but it wasn't just a one-note pee pee and ta ta joke movie either. What he did well there, he did better here. This 2009 flick isn't about high schooler's but it's still about akward virgins lamenting their hometown. This time the main character is a very smart guy, James, played very well by Jesse Eisenberg who I for one have never heard of and didn't recognize despite having seen several of his prior movies. Jesse finished undergrad and planned to spend the summer in Europe before heading to Columbia in the fall for grad school. Suddenly he finds out that his parents aren't planning on helping him pay for Columbia and he didn't get any scholarships. So he scraps his Europe plans and decides to spend the summer making and saving up money for New York. Problem is, he's never worked a day in his life and has a degree in something like medieval philosophy. Basically, he can't find work and ends up accepting the only offer given, to work as a carnie. As the summer wears on the experience goes from being a borderline insult to one of the best of his life. Now that may seem like many movies you've seen before and, it's true, none of the elements here are really all that original. But the movie has a vibe that feels very genuine and natural. I'm not sure what it is, but the movie just seems to exist and you just happen to be seeing what really happened in that summer of '87. Even the in-jokes about 80's style don't come off as easy default jokes. It could come from the fact that this is a semi-autobiographical piece, as Mottola worked at a place called Adventure land in rural New York in the 80's in much the same manner as James. I guess what I mean is, you believe the characters and the story. That's not easy to do and it keeps this flick from being just another story about a guy/girl who works at a crappy job and ends up learning life lessons and 'truly' finding themselves. The movie is almost like someone covering a song we've all heard before but doing it in a way that makes it worth the listen. Plus, watching Kristen Wiig spend the whole movie in 'mom jeans' and a side pony tail is worth the price of admission. It's a simple flick that is an easy watch and will bring you back to your days as a young person in the 80's watching movies like Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing.

S'good.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Changeling

What would you do if your only child went missing? Now, what would it be like if the authorities returned a random child to you and told you that child was your missing issue? And when you object to it all, the police simply tell you you’re crazy. Well, this did happen in 1928 to a woman named Christine Collins and her story serves as the basis of this 2008 Clint Eastwood drama. The LAPD were getting terrible press when suddenly a drifter claimed to have found the missing Collins boy. The police jumped at the opportunity to get some good press as the saviors of this poor mother and happily reunited her with this boy. Problem is, the boy was full of it and only wanted to get out to LA to meet his favorite movie star, but when Ms. Collins tried to convince the police of their mistake they simply dismissed her. This is part of where the movie begins to note the view of women at the time as volatile, emotional child bearers who really shouldn’t be causing a ruckus. This one does, however, and fights back by going to the press about the police’ treatment of her. The LAPD’s response? They locked her up in a mental institution and smeared her in the press as abandoning her ‘son.’ Meanwhile, who knows what is happening to her actual son Walter. This movie does everything it ought to. The entire time you just want to scream at these manipulative, inconsiderate a-holes. The whole time you just want to run onto the screen and help this single mother who lives in a time that could give a crap about single mothers. Eastwood plays this flick like a haunting singular minor chord on a violin. It is tense and maddening. Jolie is totally natural and simply great. The production design of James Murakami is detailed and fantastic. And the cinematography of Tom Stern uses Los Angeles like a paintbrush, framing every shot like an old time Hollywood photo. And of course Eastwood brings it all together very very well. It’s a tough story to hear and it’s not easy to watch, but damn is it worth if you can swallow it. It’s a great story on many levels and the fact that it’s true just makes it all the more amazing. What can I say? Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Worth Watching

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cat's Eye


This 1985 camp gem came out in the summer, but I first saw it the following summer when I was 7 and my summer camp in Indiana decided to show this and the Twilight Zone Movies as what has to be the most inappropriate double feature ever screened at night on a big screen in a gym at a summer camp for the 10 and under crowd just before sending them back out to their dank cabins in the woods. While I adore this cheesy horror classic now, it scared the ever living crap out of me in that summer of '86. Of course, as a life long horror fan, I loved that it was so scary. This movie soon ranked up there with my other favorites of the time, The Omen and The Shining. Now, of course, I see that it's much lower on the totum pole than those, but I still like to give it a view now and then, because, well, it's fun. Cat's Eye is directed by Lewis Teague who mostly directed TV shows like the Dukes of Hazard and many made for TV movies, the best of which simply must be T-Bone n' Weasel. Well, his obviously upper strata filmmaking skills are on full display here, as he really makes three short films that are united by a common cat, much like Four Rooms is short films united by the bellboy. Cat's Eye is three tales of creepy stories about doctors with weird experiments, sadistic games of jilted lovers and tiny evil trolls. The first one is the one that stuck with me as a kid. If you're in the mood for some ridiculous '80's horror fun, pick this one up, it's an overlooked classic.

ME