The Queen, the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, received a lot of acclaim upon its release, making a big splash at the box office and being nominated for several Academy Awards, among other honors. I very much enjoyed The Queen when I saw it in theatres in 2006, and so I was intrigued to learn recently that the film was in fact the middle of a trilogy of films, all written by Peter Morgan, that depicted the political career of Tony Blair. First there was 2003′s The Deal, a film made for British television, written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears. Then came The Queen, which was also written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears. Then there came The Special Relationship, which aired on HBO and was written by Mr. Morgan though this time directed by Richard Loncraine, rather than Mr. Frears. (I have read that Mr. Morgan had intended to direct the film himself, though in the end that didn’t happen.) In all three films, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was played by Michael Sheen.
I had never seen The Deal nor The Special Relationship, so I decided to first track down The Deal, and then continue to watch the other two films in this informal trilogy.
The Deal tracks the political careers of two rising stars in Britain’s Labour party (the long out-of-power liberal opponents to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the eighties), Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) and Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen). In the nineties, after toiling in obscurity for years, the two men and their Labour party find themselves with a chance for a political victory. And while Gordon Brown had long been presumed the leader-to-be among the Labour party, suddenly Tony Blair was becoming a figure of rising popularity. Thus the two former allies found themselves at loggerheads as to who would step forward to lead the party and attempt to become the Prime Minister. The title of “The Deal” refers to an agreement that the two men apparently struck in 1994 in which Mr. Brown would step aside so that Mr. Blair could run in — and eventually win — Parliamentary elections and assume the role of Prime Minister. Though the film begins in the moments before that fateful 1994 meeting, we then shift back to Mr. Blair’s first meeting with Mr. Brown back in 1983, and we then follow the two men’s political careers over the course of the next decade.
The Deal was made for British audiences, rather than Americans, and at times it assumes a familiarity with British politics that I must admit I do not possess. However, the … [continued]
I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot (click here for my review), though not nearly as much as most of the rest of the world seemed to. I loved seeing Star Trek brought to life, finally, under the big-budget it always deserved, and I was incredibly impressed by how successful they were at recasting the iconic roles, something which I had believed to be impossible. But the script was a mess, full of plot holes you could fly a Constitution class starship through.
Star Trek Into Darkness is more of the same. The film is gorgeous to look at, epic in scale and realized with extraordinary skill and craftsmanship. The cast is terrific, every single member of the ensemble is great, and getting to once again watch Spock and Bones bicker and a million other little moments of interaction between the members of the classic Enterprise crew is a delight.
Sadly though, this film’s story is even more nonsensical than the previous film’s was. It’s catastrophically bad. Star Trek Into Darkness is not only hugely inconsistent with Star Trek canon (even when you taken into account the “alternate universe” setting of his rebooted film series), but it is also inconsistent with it’s own story-telling and narrative logic. Even when you forget all previously established Star Trek lore, and only consider this film’s story on it’s own, it is wildly inconsistent and contradictory.
I am not going to reveal every beat of the movie in this review, but I will be heavy with SPOILERS as I dig deep into the film’s problems. So if you’re going to see Star Trek Into Darkness, I suggest you hold off on reading this review until you’ve seen the film, then come back here and we can see where we agree or disagree.
The film’s opening sequence encapsulates much of what works and what fails in J.J. Abrams’ two Star Trek films. The Enterprise crew is attempting to contain a volcano explosion that threatens to wipe out the pre-industrial inhabitants of an alien planet. Things go wrong immediately, with Spock trapped inside the active volcano while Kirk and McCoy are being chased by the angry natives. Things quickly build to a classic Prime Directive conundrum in which the only way to save Spock is to break the Prime Directive and reveal the existence of the Enterprise to the natives. This is an extraordinary sequence, as beautifully realized a Star Trek action scene as I have ever seen. It’s incredibly fast-paced, as we bounce between the Kirk/McCoy chase scene to action inside the volcano with Spock and Sulu/Uhura on an Enterprise shuttlecraft. The visual effects are gorgeous, the action and suspense are compelling, … [continued]
I immediately fell in love with Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the first time I saw it in theatres in 2007. I’ve seen it several times since, and after watching it again a few months ago, I was surprised to realize I’d never written about the film on my site!
The film, adapted by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Dennis Lehane, is set in Dorchester (a neighborhood of Boston). A young private eye couple, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Amanda McCready. The first two-thirds of the film covers their investigation over the next several days, looking for Amanda. Patrick and Angie eventually learn that Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), was involved in an attempt to scam drug money from a local drug lord named Cheese. Working with the police detectives assigned to the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), Patrick and Angie set up up a meeting to trade the stolen money for the kidnapped Amanda. But the deal goes badly, and the panicked criminals throw Amanda into the water, where she apparently drowns.
That feels like the end of the story, but in fact it’s all just set-up for the film’s third act, in which Patrick and Angie are faced with an impossible moral dilemma.
I absolutely adore this film. It’s extremely well-made. The story by Dennis Lehane is extraordinarily compelling, and Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard have crafted a phenomenal adaptation, one that is sharp in all the right ways. I can’t believe that this film is the work of a first-time director, as Gone Baby Gone looks like it was crafted by someone extremely confident in their abilities. The movie is tense from start to finish, and Mr. Affleck brings a rich emotional depth and a taut narrative intensity to the whole film, both the scenes of action and violence and the scenes of conversation. The film is gorgeous, with a rich color palette and beautifully composed shots. More than that, the story is put together with exquisite skill, as Mr. Affleck takes us through both a complex narrative and a deeply-felt, emotionally harrowing journey without ever losing complete control over his audience, what we are thinking and feeling. And then, at the end, he leaves us to ponder the film’s ending and to make our own decisions, rather than directing us to what he wants us to think. I’ll talk more about the film’s powerhouse of an ending in a moment, but for now I’ll just say that it couldn’t have been pulled off by anything less than an exceptional … [continued]
Iron Man was a magical film, a movie that caught a very specific, crazy sort of lightning in a bottle. I remember seeing it in a theater that very first time and realizing immediately that it was something special. It was intense and bad-ass but also incredibly funny and light-hearted. The special effects were terrific, the character arcs were compelling, the ending was magnificent and the post-credits epilogue blew my mind, promising a whole new universe of possibilities (one that I still find it hard to believe came to such spectacular fruition with The Avengers). Yes, I remember seeing Iron Man for the first time (click here for my original review), and I also vividly remember seeing it for the second time, about 24 hours later, because it was a movie I just had to see again, immediately.
The filmmakers stumbled with Iron Man 2, a listless film that seemed to re-tread a lot of the same ground the first film had covered, while at the same time promising us hints at other story-lines and characters (S.H.I.E.L.D., the Black Widow, Howard Stark) that would only come to fruition in future films. (Click here for my original review of Iron Man 2.) But I am pleased to report that Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as written in the closing credits — and good god do I love that) is a triumphant return to form, a thrilling, action-packed romp that is a true sequel to the first film and a rollicking, riveting start to the Marvel movie universe’s Phase Two. It’s not as perfect as Iron Man — there are a bunch of niggling plot holes that bug me, which I’ll discuss at the very end of this review — but it’s a pretty terrific super-hero adventure film, one that I hope to see again very soon.
Although the heroes won the day in The Avengers, Tony Stark is shaken by how close he came to death during the big battle in New York City. Faced with the existence of aliens, not to mention super-soldiers, gamma-irradiated behemoths, and Asgardian deities, Tony has had to face the brutal truth that he’s just a mortal human being in a metal suit. He’s tried to find solace and comfort by building new Iron Man suit after new suit, trying to prepare himself for any eventuality, to give himself some sort of guarantee that he’ll be able to protect himself and Pepper, the woman he loves. When his buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, returning to the role of Happy even though he’s no longer behind the camera as the film’s director) is injured by a terrorist attack by the mysterious … [continued]
Oblivion, the new sci-fi movie from director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and starring Tom Cruise, comes very close to greatness. Tantalizingly close. It’s a shame, then, that the film falls short, that its reach exceeds its grasp.
I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot. You’re better off going into the movie absolutely cold. I will tell you that the film is set in the future, after Earth has been devastated by war with an alien race. Humanity won and the aliens were defeated, but at the cost of the planet being rendered uninhabitable. Humans have abandoned Earth to settle on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a soldier/repair-man, one of the last humans left on Earth. His job, along with his partner Vica (Andrea Roseborough), is to tend to the mechanical drones that are extracting the last of the planet’s resources.
Oblivion gets off to a rocky start with an impenetrable, exposition-filled opening monologue by Tom Cruise’s character, Jack. Mr. Cruise tells us, via voice-over, all sorts of information about the backstory and the story’s history, but two seconds after his monologue was over I had forgotten all of it. I was paying attention, but so early in the story — not yet knowing anything about the characters or the world they’re living in — it was all just words, meaningless to me without context. I found it to be a terribly clumsy way to start the film. That backstory would have been better communicated through the unfolding of the story. Much of what Mr. Cruise tells us in that opening voice-over is made obvious by the next 30-45 minutes of the film, in which the film shows us the world and situation of Jack and Vica, without needing to explain everything. And the film actually includes a much more sensible moment for all of that exposition about a third of the way in, when Jack (Cruise) discovers another human, Julia (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko). We get a scene of exposition, set at the dinner table, in which Jack explains things to Julia (and the audience), basically repeating everything he said in the opening! So why have that opening monologue at all?
The film would have been far stronger had that opening monologue been removed, and the audience just dropped into the story. Because, after that dreadful opening, the next 45-minutes or so of the film are absolutely fabulous. We follow Jack Harper through what turns out to be an eventful day, learning about him, his routine, the perils that he faces, and his relationship with his partner Vica. Without any exposition, just through the visuals and the action, … [continued]
In a very cool effort to promote the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation on blu-ray, Paramount/CBS/Fathom Events have held a few events screening some of the newly-remastered episodes on the big screen, in select theatres around the country. I wasn’t excited by the two season one episodes they chose to screen last year, and while I wanted to see the two season two episodes shown in the fall, I wasn’t free the night of the screening. But when they announced a few months back that they would be screening the two parts of “The Best of Both Worlds,” edited together into a movie-length presentation, I made damn well sure to arrange my schedule so that I could be there. This past Wednesday night, I was delighted to join fellow Trek fans in enjoying one of the high-points of televised Star Trek, gorgeously presented on the big screen.
Part one of “The Best of Both Worlds” was the moment when Star Trek: The Next Generation exploded. Star Trek had never before done a season-ending cliffhanger, and while some shows certainly had before (the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” being one of the most well-known examples), those sorts of cliffhangers where no where near as ubiquitous back in 1991 as they were today.
After two shaky seasons, in its third year Star Trek: The Next Generation really came into its own. Under the hand of new show-runner Michael Piller (who deserves almost all of the credit for the lasting success of Next Gen) and a group of phenomenal new writers, many of whom would go on to extraordinarily successful careers in Trek and elsewhere (Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Ira Steven Behr, Rene Echevarria, Naren Shankar, and more), suddenly The Next Generation transformed itself into a confident, ambitious sci-fi series. Season three of Star Trek: The Next Generation is arguably the best season of a Star Trek show ever. (In fact, back in one of my very first blog posts for this site, I sang the praises of Next Gen season three!) There is not a clunker in the bunch, and many of the very best Next Gen episodes come from this season. There’s “Sins of the Father,” in which we visit the Klingon homeworld for the first time as Worf returns to challenge the accusation that his dead father committed treason. There’s “The Offspring,” the heart-wrenching story of Data’s failed attempt to build an android child for himself. There’s “Deja Q,” in which Q becomes mortal. There’s “The Defector,” a phenomenal Cold War-type tale of a possible Romulan defector. There’s “Hollow Pursuits,” the episode that introduces the wonderfully flawed, holodeck-addicted Lieutenant Barclay. There’s “Sarek,” in which Spock’s father appears and … [continued]
I don’t know what exactly I was expecting when I sat down to watch William Friedkin’s latest film, Killer Joe. A violent crime caper, I guess. And that is indeed what I got, though the film is far more twisted and disturbed than I had ever expected. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your mileage, I guess!
When we first meet the trailer-park-dwelling Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), they are plotting the death of Chris’ mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, so they can claim the money from her life-insurance policy. Chris has heard of a guy, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) — a policeman and also contract-killer — who he thinks they can hire to do the deed. Chris and Ansel think they can pay Joe with a portion of the insurance money, but Joe demands payment in advance. Since Chris and Ansel are broke, they obviously can’t pay, so Joe suggests an alternative: let him take Chris’ young sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.” Chris and Joe agree, leading to what I thought (wrongly) would be the most disturbing scene in the movie: Joe’s “date” with young Dottie (whose age isn’t specified but who is certainly depicted as a young, innocent girl) that ends up in their having sex. What follows is a series of double-crosses winding up in a tense confrontation between Joe and Chris, Ansel, and Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in their trailer-park home, a scene even more horrifying than Joe’s date/seduction of Dottie.
There is much about Killer Joe that is impressive. The cast is spectacular, each member of the ensemble turning in a fantastic performance. Matthew McConaughey is the stand-out as the titular Killer Joe. Mr. McConaughey is absolutely terrific, a true revelation in the role, presenting us with a character who is a stone-cold killer. In many ways, Joe is completely inhuman, without any seeming semblance of heart or humanity. He sees what he wants and he takes it, no remorse and no regret. And yet, Dottie seems to spark a genuine emotion in him. However repugnant Joe’s advances towards the much-younger Dottie might be (and they are mighty repugnant), one senses that Joe wants to attach himself to Dottie not just because he has lust for a young pretty girl, but because he feels a real connection with her. That perhaps makes Joe an even more twisted character, but it also makes him a more interesting one.
Emile Hirsch is great as the troubled Chris, but it’s Thomas Haden Church as his father, the beaten-down Ansel, who really impresses. Mr. Church brings to Ansel a woeful sense of powerful hopelessness, that of a dim … [continued]
I’m not someone with a deep love for The Wizard of Oz. To be frank, as a kid, I always found that 1939 film to be rather boring. I am sure that, at some point in my life, I have seen the whole film from start to finish, but I have no recollection of doing that. So I had no immediate connection to the world of The Wizard of Oz, nor to Frank Baum’s Oz books (I’ve never read any of ‘em). I went to see Oz, the Great and Powerful purely becadoe of director Sam Raimi. He’s not perfect (cough Spider-Man 3 cough) but over-all I think he is a tremendously skilled, creative director, so I was intrigued to see his spin on the world of Oz.
To be honest, I wasn’t bowled over. Oz the Great and Powerful is a perfectly fine, entertaining movie. But it never rose to anything beyond the just OK to me. I never found it to be particularly funny, or exciting, or surprising. It’s perfectly well crafted, and there’s absolutely nothing about the film that is bad in any way. But there’s nothing great about it either, nothing surprising or unexpected. Other than the one beat of the revelation of the Wicked Witch, the story is very by-the-numbers. It unfolds pretty much exactly as you’d expect. Spoiler alert: the somewhat selfish, good-for-nothing failed magician we meet at the beginning eventually finds his heart and his courage and saves the day.
The film is beautiful to look at, and I was quite impressed by the design and execution of the magical world of Oz. Particularly once Oz’s balloon crashes in magical Oz, the next several minutes are quite a visual effects extravaganza, and I was extremely dazzled by the weird, brightly-colored vistas of Oz. I found it to be a far more successful realization of a magical wonderland than the garish, overstuffed version of Alice’s wonderland in Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland. I was also very impressed by the realization of Oz’s big fake head at the end of the film, and of the design and animation of the little teacup girl throughout the film. She’s a vey striking, effectively-realized creation. Though, good lord, the visual effects really fell down every time Oz was supposed to be holding or interacting with her. All of those shots looked extremely fake to me. In fact, there were plenty of dodgy CGI effects to pair with all the amazing sequences. Oz the Great and Powerful feels like a film whose reach somewhat exceeded its grasp in terms of all of the visual effects stuffed into the film. But I respect the film’s ambition, and really, the … [continued]
I never watched the TV show 21 Jump Street, and though I was mildly curious about the apparently comedic take on the material in Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum’s 21 Jump Street film, I missed the film in theatres when it was released last spring. I wasn’t too broken up about that. But then I was shocked to start noticing 21 Jump Street on quite a few best films of the year lists at the end of 2012. Had a really great comedy slipped by me?
Well, pardon me for disagreeing with what seems to be the generally accepted viewpoint, but no.
Maybe my hopes had been raised too high after reading so much praise for the film, but while I found 21 Jump Street to be a decently funny film, a comedy classic it is not.
The idea of turning what, to my understanding, was a fairly serious TV show — in which a squad of young-looking cops investigate crimes in schools — into a comedy is an interesting approach. Perhaps one that is a little disrespectful to the source material, though on the other hand I was pleasantly surprised by the third-act surprise guest appearance in the film that made it clear that the film took place in the same universe as the original show, just set twenty-or-so years later.
I think Jonah Hill has a terrific comedic voice when used well (Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be my top two examples) and the idea of pairing him with the tall, buff, movie-star good-looking Channing Tatum is inspired. The two have a great charisma together, and what works in 21 Jump Street is mostly due to the fun of these two playing off of one another. (I also was taken by the sweetness inherent in the idea that the jock king of high school and the dorky geek could grow up to be best buds.)
The movie is funny, but rarely did I find it to be laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a silly action movie, reminiscent of Hot Fuzz in the attempt to combine comedy with an over-the-top, Michael Bay-in- Bad Boys approach to action. The film is certainly enjoyable but without any particularly brilliant comedic gags or surprises. The story unfolds as you might expect. Sent back undercover to high school, Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum’s characters wind up reliving their own high school days, just from the opposite viewpoint: Mr. Hill’s character is suddenly cool, while Mr. Tatum’s character falls in with the geeks. The two men start off working together, then have a fight, then reunite in time for an action finish in which they save the day. It’s a simple story, but then … [continued]
In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a handsome, smugly arrogant Democratic Congressman from North Carolina. His easy-street string of running unopposed is broken when two corrupt businessmen (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) convince someone to run against him. That someone is Raymond Huggins, played by Zach Galifianakis. Raymond is a weird, squirrely little man, and he is chosen because of how simple and easy to manipulate he is. As the simple Raymond is transformed into a canny political operator, he becomes a real threat to Cam, and the two men soon set out to destroy each other.
After digging deeply into real-world politics with Recount (which chronicled the weeks of indecision following the 2000 Presidential election — click here for my review) and Game Change (which focused on Sarah Palin and the 2008 Presidential campaign — click here for my review), director Jay Roach decided to stick with politics but move into a fictional, more straightly comedic film. I thought that was a good idea when I first read about The Campaign, but I was disappointed by the execution. I found The Campaign to be only mildly amusing, far from the laugh-riot I had hoped for from the pairing of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.
But even more than that, what dissatisfied me about The Campaign was that — particularly in comparison to the incredibly sharp films Recount and Game Change — I could never quite see the point of The Campaign. What message does the film have to tell us? That politicans can be stupid and/or arrogant? Wow, what a groundbreaking idea! Had Raymond started out as a fairly normal character, who then was turned into a cruel, selfish politician, that would have been a story-arc. Not a particularly original or insightful one, but that would have at least shown me that the movie had a point of view, and was commenting on the corrosive effects of the state of politics in 2012 America. But Raymond starts out the film as a total nutball, equally as weird and unlikable as Will Ferrell’s John Edwards-like Cam Brady, just in a different way. So… what’s the point of view of the film?
Which leads me to conclude that the film has absolutely nothing substantial to say about politics, and is just using the political arena as a setting for a funny story. Coming after Recount and Game Change, that would be a little disappointing to me but still a perfectly reasonable approach to take. Except that the film isn’t nearly funny enough to make that work. If The Campaign was intended by Mr. Roach and his team to just be a fun yuk-fest, then in my opinion … [continued]
In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jason Segel plays Jeff, a young man searching for himself. Jeff seems like an intelligent and affable fellow, but when we meet him we also see that he’s something of a lazy bum, and he still lives in his mother’s basement. Ed Helms (The Daily Show, The Office) plays Jeff’s brother, Pat. Pat is successful in all the ways Jeff is not (he has a job and a house and a wife and a car), though as it turns out, Pat’s life isn’t so swell after all (not the least of which because his wife, played by Arrested Development’s Judy Greer, might be cheating on him). Susan Sarandon plays their mother, Sharon. The film chronicles one eventful day in the life of this family. In the morning, Jeff gets a phone call at home that turns out to be a wrong number. But Jeff, a firm believer in destiny, becomes convinced that the call holds a clue to something he should be doing. He holds fast to this conviction over the course of the crazy day that follows, in which his and Pat’s lives come crashing together.
This lovely little movie made it onto my Best Movies of 2012 list, and deservedly so. I love it. It’s a very funny film, though it’s not a laugh-a-second joke-fest. The film is sweet and warm, a tough tone to pull off without being sappy, but writers/directors Jay & Mark Duplass give the film enough edge that the story maintains its bite throughout. The Duplass brothers and their cast also carefully walk the tricky line of likability. There’s a lot to dislike about all of the main characters — particularly Ed Helms’ Pat — but they are careful to bring enough humanity and, I’ll use this word again, warmth to all of the characters that I quickly found myself falling in love with the whole ensemble.
Everyone in the cast does superlative work, particularly Mr. Segel and Mr. Helms, who both mine their characters’ sorry lives for big laughs without ever turning themselves into simplistic cartoons. I loved their chemistry together, and the way in which the slothful, jovial Jeff and the prickly, high-strung Pat bounced off of one another throughout the film was a lot of fun to watch. I also really enjoyed Susan Sarandon’s work in the film. Her character, Sharon, starts off as just the one-note nagging mom to Jeff & Pat, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see that, by the end of the film, Sharon’s story had blossomed into a journey of self-discovery of her own. Judy Greer and Rae Dawn Chong round out the ensemble cast, and … [continued]
I have written many times here on the site that I am a big fan of revival screenings of classic films. I am delighted whenever an opportunity comes to see a great movie back on the big screen. I loved when Back to the Future returned to cinemas in honor of its 25th anniversary, and I was thrilled when Ghostbusters was screened at theatres nation-wide on several Thursdays in October last year. I don’t understand why the studios don’t do more of this sort of thing. I can think of so many classic films that fans like me would eagerly pay to get to see back on the big screen again!
Lately, one of the ways that we’ve been getting to see the occasional older film back in theatres is through a conversion to 3-D. I loved seeing Toy Story and Toy Story 2, when they were re-released as a 3-D double-feature in 2009 in advance of Toy Story 3. I didn’t get to Titanic 3-D (which I had interest in but never had time to see — I like Titanic, though I consider it one of James Cameron’s lesser works), and I didn’t have much interest in seeing Star Wars: Episode I in 3-D. But when I read about the re-release of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 3-D, I knew I wanted to be sure to see it.
I love Jurassic Park. Seeing that film for the very first time in theatres back in 1993 remains one of the great movie-going experiences of my life. The film absolutely blew me away. It wasn’t just the extraordinary visual effects (so groundbreaking at the time for their use of CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life), though that was of course part of it. It was the whole visceral experience of the film. The movie scared the hell out of me. Right from the prologue scene at night on Isla Nublar, and of course straight through from the T-Rex attack all the way to the Velociraptors-in-the-kitchen sequence at the end of the film, I was gripped by the intensity of the filmmaking. I remember the experience like it was yesterday.
I have seen Jurassic Park many times since, over the years, on TV or video and then on DVD, and I’ve always enjoyed it. But the opportunity to see the film again on the big screen? How could I not eagerly snap that up?
Well, no surprise, seeing Jurassic Park in 2013 of course couldn’t live up to my memories of getting my hair blown back by the film as a kid back in 1993. But I nevertheless had an absolutely marvelous time experiencing Jurassic Park on a … [continued]
I went into Take This Waltz knowing full well that this wasn’t going to be the usual kind of Seth Rogen film. Frankly, I was excited by that idea! I have been a big fan of Seth Rogen since his work as a young kid on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. And while I haven’t tired of his adolescent-profane schtick in movies (I am eagerly looking forward, for instance, to This is the End), I am always curious to see a comedic actor take on a more straight dramatic role.
In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams stars as a young woman named Margot. Margot is a writer, and as the film opens, we see that she has taken a job writing promotional copy for a Sturbridge village type old-timey recreation town. While wandering around the town, she meets Daniel, a curious and charming young artist. Sparks fly between the two, and do so again when they see each other on the plane-ride home. It turns out Daniel lives on Margot’s street, only a few yards down. This would be the charming “meet-cute” of a lovely romantic comedy, except for one small problem: Margot is married, to a chef named Lou (Seth Rogen).
I really wanted to like Take This Waltz, and I know this film has been very well-reviewed. But I must confess to having found it to be a total bore. After an hour, I was totally emotionally disconnected from the film, and I had a very hard time getting through the second half, probably the hardest time I’ve had finishing any movie in recent memory.
At no point in the film was I able to make any connection, as a viewer, with Margot. The problems for me started early, as right from the opening scenes I just didn’t get her. She has all sorts of weird, quirky mannerisms, and she seems so on edge and prickly when we meet her, particularly when Daniel initiates a conversation with her. I wasn’t at all sure what to make of her. It wasn’t just that I found her mannerisms unlikable (though I did), it’s that I honestly didn’t understand what the heck was going on with this woman. It wasn’t clear to me why she was at the park, why she acted so weird around Daniel, and whether she really needed a wheelchair. You see, it turns out that Margot is uncomfortable traveling so she pretends to need a wheelchair on flights so that she can be cared for and shuttled around by the airline crew. By the time we got that revelation, only 10-15 minutes into the film, I was starting to sort out who this character was, … [continued]
A group from a Seattle magazine decides to investigate a classified ad that caught their attention: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” The writer assigned to this little story (Jake Johnson) thinks it’s a joke, but when one of the two interns with him, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), actually meets the man who placed the ad (Mark Duplass), she begins to think there is more to him than just a nut. Is that just wishful thinking on the part of this isolated young woman, desperate for a friend?
I included Safety Not Guaranteed in my Best Movies of 2012 list, and for good reason. I was really taken by this small-scale little movie.
I’m a sci-fi fan, so it’s no surprise that my interest was captured by the film’s sci-fi hook, but this isn’t really a science fiction movie at all. It’s more a character study of this small group of people, each broken in their own way. (Although I could argue that in the best sci-fi, even films set in outer space with aliens and exploding space-ships, the sci-fi element(s) are tools for exploring drama, be that political ideas or an exploration of characters. So that’s very much the case here, in which this story of a man who might have built a time-machine is the jumping-off point for this character piece.)
Mark Duplass is terrific, playing his role in a way that allows you to see him as totally sincere or as a total nut-ball as the film progresses. I’ve been discovering his work as a writer and director over the past few years (I really dug the film Cyrus that he wrote and directed with his brother), but apparently Mr. Duplass is also a very skilled actor. I bow my head in appreciation of the man’s many talents. He’s really the anchor of this film — if his performance didn’t work, if he played the role as too kooky or too off-puttingly weird, the film would fall apart. Instead, he creates a figure of intriguing mystery, one who we — like Audrey Plaza’s character — spend the whole movie trying to get to know and to understand.
Mary Lynn Rajskub (The Larry Sanders Show, 24) and Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) are fun to see in small cameo roles, and Jake Johnson does great work as Darius’ grade-A asshole co-worker, the lead writer assigned to the story. But the film really belongs to Aubrey Plaza, who shines in this leading role. Parks and … [continued]
I wasn’t much interested in Chronicle when it was first released. The “found footage” device felt over-played to me, and the footage in the trailers I saw had a low-budget vibe that made me feel like this would be super-heroes done on the cheap. But I kept reading great things about the film, so I decided to give it a shot. I am so glad I did, because the film is fantastic!
Written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank (the two men are both credited with developing the film’s story), Chronicle is the story of three high school kids who gain super-powers. The three boys don’t generally travel in the same circles. Andrew and Matt are cousins, but Andrew is a withdrawn, lonely kid with few friends. Matt seems far more well-adjusted but he’s a teenager too, with plenty of awkwardness and insecurities of his own. Then there is Steve, a very popular, well-liked kid. The three boys are very different from one another, but suddenly they find they have an incredible secret to keep together from the world and, as the boys begin developing their powers (which they eventually discover include telekinesis and flight) they become fast friends. But as their powers grow, and Andrew’s already-tough life grows even more difficult as he continues to suffer abuse from his cruel father and humiliations at school, a schism forms between the trio. Andrew becomes increasingly angry and withdrawn, and Matt and Steve worry that, with his powers, Andrew could become a danger to himself and others. Things go badly from there.
Chronicle is a terrific film, a classic case of taking a super-hero story very, very seriously. There are no costumes or capes or spandex in this film. I’d say it’s closest companion would be M. Night Shyamalan’s phenomenal and underrated film Unbreakable. Both films dig deep into the idea of what would really happen if normal people somehow attained super-powers. But whereas Unbreakable is slow, quiet, and stately, Chronicle is a rock-and-roll version of a super-hero film, fast-moving and, at the end, jaw-droppingly action-packed.
The first half of Chronicle is a lot of fun, as the boys euphorically discover their new-found abilities. But the film attains its power in the second half, in which Andrew begins a slide into evil and Matt soon realizes that he is going to have to stop his cousin, at all costs. I love this story-line. Andrew’s descent into cruelty and villainy is what Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side should have been in the Star Wars prequels. It’s agonizing to watch as the tragedy begins to unfold. The filmmakers did an incredible job of showing us how life slowly chips … [continued]
As soon as I heard the title John Dies at the End, I knew this was a movie I had to see. That was well over a year ago, and at the time I didn’t know anything about the film or anyone involved in it. I just knew that the title was awesome and that I had to see this movie.
Well, unfortunately, while there is a lot to enjoy about John Dies at the End, the film totally fails to live up to that incredible title.
The film, it turns out, is a pretty crazy, genre-bending comedy-horror film adapted from the novel of the same name written by Jason Pargin (though the novel claims to have been written by David Wong, a character in the story). The film adaptation was written and directed by Don Coscarelli. (Mr. Coscarelli wrote and directed Bubba Ho-Tep, a film that I have long wanted to see but regrettably haven’t gotten to yet, in which Bruce Campbell plays a zombie-fighting Elvis Presley. C’mon, that sounds awesome, doesn’t it?)
The plot of John Dies at the End is a little hard to describe, but let me make an attempt. David (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) are young men who are, apparently, some sort of paranormal investigators/monster hunters. Early in the film we see them take on some sort of demon made from meat products, with the help of their mentor Albert Marconi (played by Clancy Brown). When John takes a mysterious drug called “the sauce,” given to him by a Jamaican who either is completely crazy or has access to the secrets of the universe, David and John’s strange lives get even stranger. Soon the two men find themselves Earth’s only hope against an invasion by some sort of villainous aliens/monsters from another dimension.
Hmm, I wrote “some sort of” several times in that brief plot description, and that is because even having watched the whole film, I don’t really have any understanding of what the heck happened. The film jumps all over the place in time, as we move from seeing when John and David met, forward to a time apparently after the bulk of the events in the film, in which we see David telling the story of what happened to a disbelieving reporter (Paul Giamatti). This mixed-up timeline doesn’t help one follow the film’s deliriously crazed hundred-car pile-up of crazy ideas. This is at once the film’s most frustrating aspect and its most endearing quality. While I wish the film’s narrative had been clearer, so I could have some sense of what was going on from moment-to-moment (something which probably would have given me a greater connection to the story), I … [continued]
Each year, in preparation for my end-of-the-year “Best Of” lists, I watch a lot of movies. It’s become a bit of a tradition here on the site that, after posting my year-end lists, I write a series of “catching up on insert-the-previous-year-here” posts, reviewing some of the movies that I crammed in at the end of the year, that I hasn’t yet had time to write about individually. This year was no different, except that I’m a bit delayed in writing about many of those 2012 films I saw at the very end of the year, including Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (both of which made it onto my Best Movies of 2012 list), Chronicle, Take this Waltz, Killer Joe, Joe Dies at the End, Paul Williams Not Dead, 21 Jump Street, The Campaign, and more. So look for reviews of those films in the coming weeks! Today, I want to talk about Brave.
After an incredible run of absolutely spectacular, perfection-level films, from Finding Nemo to The Incredibles to Ratatouille to WALL-E to Up to Toy Story 3, I was stunned to realize the other day that I had missed the last two Pixar films: Cars 2 and Brave. Cars was by far my least favorite Pixar film, so I wasn’t that interested in the sequel. I’d like to watch it at some point, but I haven’t felt any rush. Brave definitely interested me, but it got very mixed reviews and I was so busy over the summer that by the time I had a chance to try to see it, it was already gone from theatres. But I was looking to watch it, as soon as the film was released on DVD.
I’m glad I did. Brave isn’t at the level of those Pixar films I listed above, but it’s still a very clever, very entertaining film.
Why don’t I think it’s as great as those other amazing Pixar films? Mainly because while those films were each so wonderfully unique, bringing to life a world and a set of characters so totally unlike anything we’d ever seen before, Brave’s set-up feels very familiar. This is the story of a headstrong princess who doesn’t want to get married. That’s story-ground that has been pretty well-mined by many previous Disney animated films. It’s a little surprising to see a Pixar film start from such a familiar place.
But that being said, I love the world that is brought to life in Brave. Though the basic story set-up is familiar, by setting the story in Scotland we get to explore the flavor of a world that has NOT been explored before in animation. I found … [continued]
I saw Layer Cake in the theater, probably because I loved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and so I was excited for another British crime flick, and because the great Colm Meaney (who I had grown to love because of his years portraying Miles Edward O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was in it. I remember absolutely loving the film, right up to the final minute, which I absolutely hated. Hated! The ending totally soured me on the movie. For quite a while now, particularly after becoming more of a fan of director Matthew Vaughn, I have been wanting to revisit the film to see what I would think of it on a second viewing. I am pleased that I loved the first 99% of the movie just as much as I did when I first saw it back in 2006. As for the ending? Well, I’ll get to that in a moment.
Daniel Craig plays a smart, calm British drug dealer. He’s fairly low-level in the larger scheme of things, but because he is clever, patient, and risk-averse, he has managed to thrive and to build a fortune. He is ready to get out of the business, but his boss, Jimmy Price, asks him to do him a small favor: find the missing daughter of a fellow crime-boss, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). Meanwhile, a shipment of ecstacy has been stolen from a Serbian drug lord, who has sent an assassin to kill the thieves and return the drugs. These two events will soon collide, with Daniel Craig’s character stuck right in the middle, forced to bloody his knuckles and to use every ounce of his cleverness to try to navigate the conflicting goals of all of the violent criminals surrounding him in order to get away with his head intact.
Layer Cake is a ferociously entertaining, complex, twisty crime caper. It’s far more serious than the jokey Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, though there are a few moments of humor in the film. Layer Cake is a complicated story of double and triple crosses, as a large cast of characters collide, each competing with one another for wealth and power. The film was written by J.J. Connolly, adapting his own novel, and I love how incredibly dense the film’s story is, daring the audience to keep up with the layers upon layers of twists and turns.
I first became aware of Daniel Craig when I saw his riveting supporting role in Road to Perdition (a vastly underrated movie that I should write more about one of these days). Layer Cake was Mr. Craig’s first big lead role, and he is … [continued]
Well, a few months ago I reviewed the newly-released complete soundtrack to Star Trek: First Contact, and that immediately made me want to go back and re-watch the film, which I did. After reviewing the soundtrack to Star Trek: Generations last month, I had the same compulsion! It was fun to go back and re-watch Star Trek: Generations.
First of all, let me say that I cannot believe that this movie is already almost twenty years old. That is insane!!
It’s all the more disappointing to consider that almost two decades have passed since the release of Generations because I feel, looking back on it, that the powers-that-be totally screwed up the Next Generation film series, and what began with such promise really fizzled out. The Next Gen gang never got their truly great big-screen adventure. I wrote in my soundtrack review that I think that Star Trek: Generations – flawed though it most certainly is — just might be the best of the four Next Gen films. Perhaps First Contact is better (that film is far more action-packed and intense, though it too is chock-full of problems), but certainly I think the hour-long middle-section of Star Trek Generations – the section after the Enterprise B prologue and before Picard enters the Nexus — is the best representation of the Next Generation TV show on the big screen. First Contact is fun, but it doesn’t really reflect the tone or style of the Next Generation TV show (not to mention the fact that with a whole new Enterprise, new sets, and new uniforms, it LOOKS very different). But that middle hour of Star Trek: Generations is Next Gen realized on the big screen in a glorious way, full of exciting new twists and flourishes but very faithful to the TV show, and I love it.
OK, buckle up, let’s dive into my analysis.
The film gets off to a terrific start with a 20-25-minute prologue set at the christening and launch of the Enterprise B. Although I never thought it was necessary for the first Next Gen film to in any way cross over with or even acknowledge Classic Trek adventures — after seven successful years on TV, I felt Next Gen could more than handle its own feature film all on its own — I absolutely love this lengthy prologue section on board the Enterprise B. First of all, it;’s very cool to finally see the “missing” Enterprise realized on-screen. The Enterprise A was in Star Trek IV-VI, the Enterprise D was the Enterprise of The Next Generation, and we saw the Enterprise C in the classic Next Gen time-travel episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” So we’d never … [continued]
In Part One of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, I listed numbers 15 through 11, and in Part Two I listed numbers 10 through 6. Let’s bring it home with the final installment of my Best Movies of 2012 list!
5. Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino’s fierce, fiery, take-no-prisoners assault on the institution of slavery in America is at once a very serious attempt to look this great evil of American history straight in the eye, while also being a phenomenally entertaining, funny, exciting, action-packed and blood-soaked Spaghetti Western adventure. That Mr. Tarantino’s film succeeds so wildly on both counts is a testament to his enormous skills as a filmmaker. Django Unchained is unquestionably the product of Mr. Tarantino’s wonderfully distinct cinematic vision. The film is filled with astoundingly beautiful dialogue, incredible tension, various (very funny) anachronistic touches, spectacular (and very bloody) action, and a glorious musical score — all of which are Mr. Tarantino’s specialties. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are both absolute perfection as the twin anchors of the film, totally commanding in their roles, with each creating iconic, memorable cinematic characters. Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson are both equally spectacular as the film’s abhorrent villains. Django Unchained feels transgressive, it feels dangerous. It is without question fiercely alive and engaging from the very first frame to the very last, and I found it to be one of the most fun, visceral, intense experiences I had in a movie theatre this year. (Click here for my original review.)
4. Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have together created an astonishing cinematic document that powerfully brings to life not only the complex, often seemingly hopeless decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, but also the vast human cost (on all sides) of that pursuit. For almost three full hours, I sat riveted by the drama on-screen as CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), assigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, worked — together with other operatives, interrogators, and analysts — for year after long year, trying to piece together a chain of evidence that would lead U.S. forces to discover the hiding place of Osama bin Laden. This film revels in the details, in the minutia of Maya’s world, without dumbing anything down or over-explaining anything to audiences. This is a film that assumes a lot of its audience: that we are decently well-versed in the historical background, and that we are capable of paying close attention to the film as it unfolds. Jessica Chastain does magnificent, star-making work as the driven but haunted Maya. The action sequences are phenomenal, particularly the climactic assault on bin Landen’s compound in … [continued]
Click here to read part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, in which I listed numbers 15-11. Now, onward!
10. Looper – In this smart, original sci-fi flick written and directed by Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe. Joe is a Looper, someone paid to kill guys the mob from thirty-years in the future send back in time to get whacked, long before the law might be looking for their bodies or any evidence of the crime. One day, the guy sent back in time for Joe to kill turns out to be Joe himself, now played by Bruce Willis. Old Joe gets away from Young Joe, and things spiral out of control from there. Bruce Willis hasn’t been this much fun to watch in an action movie in years, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as well. I loved watching these two play off of one another. Emily Blunt (making her second appearance on my Best of 2012 list, as she also starred in The Five-Year Engagement) and Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels are all fun in supporting roles. This is a twisty sci-fi tale that is mind-bending without ever losing sight of the character drama at the heart of the story. (Click here for my original review.)
9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Though not the masterpiece that the three original Lord of the Rings films were, this first of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is still a ferociously entertaining fantasy adventure. At nearly three hours in length, this film is stuffed to the gills with extraordinary sights and thrills, with characters and with circumstance. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins (inheriting the role from Ian Holm who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who actually reprises his role as “Old Bilbo” in one of this film’s many prologues), a great every-man anchor to the story. He’s great, and I also loved seeing lots more of Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as Gandalf and is magnificent as ever as the gruff, temperamental wizard. The film is filled with many great new characters (all of the Dwarves) as well as the welcome return of many familiar faces from the original trilogy (Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum). The “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum alone makes this film worth seeing, but there are so many other wonderful moments, from the long opening scene in Bag End with all of the dwarves (highlighted by Richard Armitage as Thorin and the other Dwarves singing the somber “Misty Mountains” … [continued]
Back in 2010, I had a hard time coming up with ten movies I liked enough to put on my Top 10 Movies of the year list. Last, year, in 2011, I thought there were so many great movies that I had a Top 15 list (and I even squeezed in a few extra movies by including several ties). I thought 2012 was another fantastic year at the movies. I could have easily had a Top 20 list this year, but I thought that might have been excessive.
There were a lot of great films I saw in 2012 which didn’t make this list, including: Silver Linings Playbook, Wanderlust, Skyfall, This is 40, Ted, Chronicle, Paul Williams Still Alive, and many more.
As always, I also like to make mention of the many films that interested me that I just didn’t get a chance to see in 2012. These include: Killing them Softly, Flight, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hyde Park Hudson, Butter, Hitchcock, Wreck-It Ralph, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holy Motors, Smashed, Detention, and Savages. So if you loved one or more of those films are are wondering why they’re not on my list, well, now you know.
Here now is my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012:
15. The Five-Year Engagement – This film has really grown on me since I first saw it, early this year. I love how unusual its structure is — whereas most romantic comedies keep the two main characters apart until the very end, this movie starts with Tom (Jason Segel) proposing to Violet (Emily Blunt). Things go downhill for there. For a romantic comedy, this film goes into some grim territory — since much of the movie is about the happy couple slowly growing apart, there are certainly some parts of the film without a lot of yuks. That threw me a bit the first time I saw the film, but I have come to really love and admire this film for its weird structure and premise. And while there certainly are a few serious moments in the film, everything else is is pretty much jam-packed with big laughs and wonderful, very memorable characters. Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) and Alison Brie (Mad Men, Community) steal the film as Tom’s best-friend and Violet’s sister, who meet at Tom and Violet’s engagement party and quickly fall in love, get married, and have kids before Tom and Violet even make it to the altar. (Chris Pratt singing to Alison Brie at their characters’ wedding is one of my favorite moments I’ve seen onscreen all year.) But wait, this film also has substantial, … [continued]
Kathryn Bigelow has directed some terrific films. I’m a sucker for Strange Days (the futuristic sci-film from 1995, written by James Cameron and starring Ralph Fiennes) and The Hurt Locker (click here for my review) was terrific, but I’d say with Zero Dark Thirty she has made her masterpiece.
Based on true events (though to what extent the film is completely factually accurate seems to be a subject of much debate — more on that in just a minute), the film begins on September 11th, 2001. Over a black screen, we hear intercut bits of dialogue — mostly phone calls — of panicked people on that terrible day. The film takes us through the long hunt for Osama bin Laden until May 2, 2011 — almost a full decade later — when he was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by US forces. The focus of the film is on a woman named Maya (we never learn her last name), played by Jessica Chastain. A CIA operative, when we first meet her in 2003, she has been assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan, with her focus being the hunt for bin Laden. In several difficult-t0-watch early sequences in the film, Maya observes a fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), torturing a detainee with suspected ties to al-Qaeda. One tidbit of information that he mentions turns into the breadcrumb that Maya spends years following, trying in many different ways to turn a potential hint of a lead into something concrete.
The film is an incredibly complex piece of work. For almost three full hours, we live with Maya through the myriad twists and turns of the CIA’s investigations during their hunt for bin Laden. The film piles on the details, not in a confusing way but rather in a way that illuminates the insanely daunting needle-in-a-haystack nature of the search. Kathryn Bigelow’s patient, taut direction works in perfect concert with Mark Boal’s dense, sophisticated script to bring all these details to life and to make them sing. It is in the accumulation of details, in the way the film thrusts us into the head-spinningly complex web of secrets and doubts in which Maya and her fellow CIA investigators must live as they push forward their work, that the film weaves its magic and the story gains its power.
This is not a film for someone not willing to pay attention. The movie does not spell everything out for the audience. (I was reminded of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the way the film throws around names and terminology without bothering to explain things, immersing the audience in the jargon of this world.) There are many characters in … [continued]
As has become my yearly tradition, the past few weeks have seen a mad rush of movie-watching as I have attempted to catch up on many of the previous year’s films that I had missed, as I work to prepare all of my Year-End Best-Of lists. My Best of 2012 lists will be going live starting a week from today, so let the anticipation begin now! In the next few weeks I will be writing reviews of many of the films I have seen in my recent movie-watching binge. Today, I wanted to begin by writing about a wonderful documentary that I saw a few weeks ago: Paul Williams Still Alive.
You might not recognize Paul Williams’ name, but I’d wager you certainly know his music. Mr. Williams wrote “The Rainbow Connection,” as well as numerous popular hits for The Carpenters, David Bowie, Three Dog Night, and many other familiar names. He wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun,” he wrote “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” he wrote the music for Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, I could go on and on. I knew a little bit about Mr. William’s work, and I recognized his cherubic face from various TV and film appearances in the seventies and eighties, but I confess to not knowing much more than Mr. Williams than that before seeing this film.
Unlike me, filmmaker Stephen Kessler knew exactly who Paul Williams was, and he was a huge fan. Growing up, Mr. Kessler adored Paul Williams’ music, and he was saddened that the pop star had passed away in the eighties. Except, one day Mr. Kessler was searching on-line and realized that Paul William’s hadn’t died. He was still alive. So what the heck ever happened to him?
Paul Williams Still Alive is a sweet look back at the work of Mr. Williams, his songwriting success, his growing fame that led to a plethora of TV and film appearances, and eventually to alcoholism and drug abuse that nearly cost him everything. But Paul Williams is still alive, still working and still touring. Over the course of the film we get a fascinating insight into Mr. William’s apparently quite content and happy life today. There’s an interesting moment in the film in which, while being interviewed by Mr. Kessler on-camera, Mr. Williams points out that his life doesn’t have the sad, tragic ending that might have made for a classic documentary ending. And yet, the film is also an interesting window into a man whose work is still so beloved by so many, while he himself is nearly forgotten. It’s a fascinating contradiction, and I was quite captivated by Mr. Kessler’s explorations into how deeply this did or did … [continued]
I’ve never read any of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Childs, so I didn’t come into the film Jack Reacher sharing the pre-conceived upset that many Reacher fans had at the casting of the very short Tom Cruise as the 6’5″ tank of a man described in the books. I did go into the film thinking that the title of Jack Reacher was very stupid and not nearly as cool as that of the book from which the film’s story was adapted: One Shot. (I guess the filmmakers wanted to emulate the huge success that was the John Carter of Mars adaptation John Carter…) I was mostly interested in seeing Jack Reacher because it was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script for The Usual Suspects.
Overall, I felt the film was a decently entertaining crime flick, well-made though not particularly memorable.
At the start of the film, we see a sniper ruthlessly murder five pedestrians on a sunny day in Philadelphia. The police are easily able to apprehend the shooter, a young man named James Barr, who upon capture insists that he will only speak with Jack Reacher. Reacher (Tom Cruise), once a military police officer in the army, has left the service and dropped off the grid entirely. Luckily, for reasons that are made clear as the film progresses, Reacher is aware of what has happened and arrives on the scene, saving anyone the impossible task of locating him. He doesn’t feel he is needed, but the defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) convinces him to assist her investigation. The two soon discover that a fierce crime-lord known only as the Zec (Werner Herzog) is involved, as well as possibly someone in the D.A.’s office.
Tom Cruise is solid in the lead role. He gives Reacher a more dour attitude than many of his previous action-hero roles (like Ethan Hunt), and that feels like the right choice. Mr. Cruise is pretty convincing kicking ass in the film, and I wasn’t bothered by his height in the role whatsoever. His handsome face and innate charm help convey Reacher’s power, and why he is so effective at getting people to do what he wants, even though he lacks almost every social grace.
I’ve been a fan of Rosamund Pike ever since her great work in the otherwise-very-mediocre Bond film Die Another Day. I think she’s a terrific screen presence, and she is perfectly good as the noble defense attorney Helen, though the character is pretty thin. Reacher does most of the real investigative work, and unfortunately Helen is relegated to being a damsel in distress by the end of the film.
The film’s piece of genius … [continued]
Nothing in the plot description of Silver Linings Playbook really caught my attention, but the fact that it was written (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) and directed by David O. Russell automatically made the film something I was interested in. I don’t love all of Mr. Russell’s films, but they’re all very interesting and unique, and I really dug his last film, The Fighter (click here for my review). I was very pleasantly surprised to find Silver Linings Playbook to be just as enjoyable as The Fighter. The two films have a similar feel in that Mr. Russell has crafted a film that feels honest and filled with Mr. Russell’s quirky style, but also just on the right side of mainstream-crowd-pleasing. That’s a very difficult balance to strike, and I am impressed by the skill with which Mr. Russell and his team have been able to again walk that line.
In the film, Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a young man with bipolar disorder. At the start of the film, he is released from a mental hospital into the care of his parents. It seems that several months prior, Pat had an “incident” caused by a confrontation with his wife (an event that is gradually explored over the course of the film). Pat is eager to return to his old life and to patch things up with his wife, but it’s clear that he has mental and emotional issues that will not be so easy to resolve. At a dinner with some friends, Pat meets a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). It’s clear that Tiffany has plenty of issues of her own, though sparks immediately fly between her and Pat. The crux of Silver Linings Playbook is the burgeoning friendship between Pat and Tiffany, and the question of whether the two of them can each get over what is going on in their own heads in order to form a successful, stable relationship with the other.
That description sounds pretty dreary and heavy (which is a large part why the film didn’t immediately interest me when I first heard about it), but Mr. Russell maintains a light touch with the material throughout. While the film is not what I’d call a comedy, it is quite humorous, and there’s a playfulness to the proceedings that I found very endearing and engaging. The movie is dramatic enough that we become invested in Pat and Tiffany and we feel their ups and downs, but the movie is light enough that we don’t get too bogged down in Oscar-baiting seriousness. (And there are a few really big laughs, none better or more-earned than the moment towards the end in which … [continued]
I’m an enormous Judd Apatow fan. I’m proud to say that I watched and loved Freaks and Geeks (the criminally cancelled-before-its time TV show created by Paul Feig and executive-produced by Mr. Apatow) back when it originally aired. Same goes with Undeclared, Mr. Apatow’s equally-great-but-nevertheless-also-painfully-cancelled follow-up show. I think The 40 Year-Old Virgin is one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen in my life, and Knocked Up is almost as great. I have mixed feelings about Funny People. (Click here for my original review.) I love the ambition behind the film, and I love how personal a film it feels like it was for Mr. Apatow, even though I acknowledge that there is a lot about the film that doesn’t completely work. When I wrote about Funny People, I commented that it felt like Mr. Apatow was aspiring to create a James L. Brooks film, one that is funny but also personal and emotional. I think he succeeded – Funny People feels very much to me like a James L. Brooks film, and that is a huge compliment. In the film’s emotional honesty, in its ability to land a screamer of a punch-line, and also in the shaggy nature of its narrative, Funny People has a lot in common with Mr. Brooks’ work.
I feel the same way about This is 40. The film is very funny and is filled with a ton of throw-away hysterical lines laced throughout the dialogue as well as complete comedic sequences (Pete and Debbie’s drugged-out weekend away; Pete’s confrontation with an angry school-mom played by Melissa McCarthy), both of which are a mark of Mr. Apatow’s strongest work. But it’s also a film with a strong emotional through-line, and a difficult one at that. Pete and Debbie are married with two kids, but as much as they seem to love one another they also are at in a point in their lives together when they drive each another crazy. They each have personal issues they are wrestling with, they have financial problems, and they struggle to raise their kids well while still having some semblance of a life of their own. They are often quick to snipe at one another and to put one another down. There are still sparks between them, and they have a long history together, and two kids they are trying to bring up, but can their marriage survive the pressures (both external and self-imposed) that they put on it?
These are weighty issues for a comedy film to grapple with, and for the most part the film avoids easy answers. The film also wisely avoids the simplistic emotional arc of most romantic comedies, instead taking … [continued]
Watching Django Unchained, the new film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, I kept thinking to myself that I can only imagine this must have been what watching Blazing Saddles was like, back in 1974 when it was originally released. Both films deal with slavery and America’s ugly racial history head-on, but filtered through an unexpected genre. In Mel Brooks’ case, the story was told via a raunchy comedy. In Quentin Tarantino’s film, the story is told via an exploitation action/adventure. Using their unique prisms, both films tackle the issue of slavery, and all of the horrendous dehumanization that entailed, far more directly than any straight “dramatic” film I can think of.
Mr. Tarantino has raised some eyebrows recently by claiming that he feels his film is more authentic even than the seminal TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. I don’t want to wade into that drama at this time, but I bring up Mr. Tarantino’s comments in order to illustrate what seems clear to me was the film’s goal: to use the visual language and style of the spaghetti western to make a powerful statement about America’s original sin.
In this, I would argue that Mr. Tarantino succeeded dramatically. The genius of Django Unchained is that it is on the one hand a potent statement about race relations (both in America’s past and today) and about slavery, while on the other hand being a fantastically fun, entertaining revenge flick/cowboy movie. This is a fiendishly difficult tone to strike, but Mr. Tarantino makes it looks easy.
There are some jarring transitions. I found the scene of “mandingo fighting” (that comes soon after we meet Calvin Candie) to be extremely difficult to watch, and it took me a while to shake that and allow myself to get back into the fun. But it seems to me that this is by design. Mr. Tarantino wants us to have a good time watching his film, but he also doesn’t want to take the easy way out in his depiction of slavery. He wants to make us look right at these terrible crimes that man committed unto his fellow man.
But make no mistake, Django Unchained is a phenomenally entertaining time at the movies. Mr. Tarantino’s two primary skills are on constant display as the film progresses. One: the beauty of his dialogue, and his ability to wring enormous tension out of mere conversation. There are some extremely memorable monologues and exchanges in Django that rank with the very best of Mr. Tarantino’s work. Two: his fearless use of extraordinary violence, and his ability to turn that gruesome violence into a sort of poetry. A lot of blood is spilled over the long run-time of … [continued]
Directed by Ang Lee, The Life of Pi is an adaptation Yann Martel’s novel (which I will state right here at the beginning I have not read) in which a young boy manages to survive a shipwreck and many months alone at sea on a tiny boat, with only a Bengal tiger for company. Piscine (who adopted the nickname of Pi to stop his school-mates from making fun of his full name’s similarity to “pissing”) is relocating with his family from Pondicherry to Canada. They are traveling by boat, along with all the animals from the zoo Pi’s family used to run. (His parents were planning to sell the animals to earn enough money to start a new life.) Unfortunately, their boat is destroyed in a terrible storm, killing most of the animals and people on board, except for Pi and the tiger named Richard Parker. What follows is the story of Pi’s survival, which is as much a story about God and spirituality as it is about the adventures of a boy lost at sea. Up until the last ten minutes, I was thoroughly engaged with the film, though those final few minutes nearly ruined everything for me. More on that in a few moments.
I am continually amazed by director Ang Lee’s ability to reinvent himself from film to film. I have loved some of his films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk), while there are others I have respected more than I have actually loved (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain), but I am always intrigued when news of a new film directed by Mr. Lee is announced. Each one of his films is quite different from the previous — in tone, in style, in genre. Looking through his filmography it’s hard to believe his films were all directed by the same man. What unifies his projects, I think, is his sharp eye for creating a beautiful image on-screen, bound with a tight focus on character. In both of these senses, The Life of Pi feels very much like a quintessential Ang Lee film.
For starters, the film is extraordinarily beautiful. As the fairy-tale-style story of Pi and Richard Parker at sea unfolds, we are treated to one astonishing vision after another, created by a masterful combination of practical effects and CGI. I have to assume that the tiger Richard Parker was mostly (completely?) realized through computer-generated effects, but it’s impossible to tell. The tiger looks PERFECT. I never for one instant doubted that Richard Parker was really there, just feet away from young Pi. It’s an absolutely extraordinary achievement, on par with the very best visual effects films of recent years (Avatar, Rise of the … [continued]
During the buildup towards the release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Hobbit, I found myself having a hard time imagining Mr. Jackson and co. being able to top the magnificent achievement that was his Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m sure there were times when Mr. Jackson himself had the same thought, which is why when work on the adaptation began in earnest, he was not originally slated to direct. The films (at the time the plan was for two films) were due to be helmed by Guillermo del Toro, but when the project hit the brakes because of New Line’s bankruptcy, Mr. del Toro left the project and Peter Jackson stepped in. I’m pleased that’s how things worked out. While I would have loved to have seen del Toro’s version of The Hobbit, that would have been a very different film indeed, and as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey began, I was delighted to find myself back in the world of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.
Is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as good as any of the Lord of the Rings films? At the moment my feeling is that it is not, but I have seen all three Lord of the Rings films so many times, and my love for them has only grown over the years. Having only had one senses-pounding viewing of The Hobbit under my belt, the film hasn’t quite sunk in for me yet, and it’s definitely conceivable that the film will rise in my estimation once I have seen it a few more times. But for now, while I would rank this film slightly lower than the Lord of the Rings films, I still found it to be an absolutely magnificent achievement, and a ferociously entertaining time in the theatre. I’ve avoided reading too many reviews of the film before seeing it, but I’ve seen a lot of headlines that seem to describe the film as being just OK. I am here to tell you not to believe that hogwash. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a spectacular fantasy adventure, huge in scope but also filled with rich character work and deep emotion.
The film feels fully of a piece with Mr. Jackson’s original trilogy. Many characters recur, of course (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Gollum, and others), and Mr. Jackson’s team have faithfully recreated many of the iconic locations that we first saw in The Lord of the Rings: Bag End, Rivendell, etc. There are a ton of little nods and winks to the events of the original trilogy (when I write “original trilogy,” I feel like I should be talking about Star Wars!): Gandalf once … [continued]
Hey, anybody remember when George Lucas was a great filmmaker?
It’s funny, all the recent hullabaloo over the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney has been treated, by most of fandom, as great news. Can you think of another occasion in which the sale of a beloved property from its creator/owner to a huge, soulless corporation was treated with such uniform glee as being GREAT news? This is a testament to how far George Lucas’ reputation has fallen. After living through the massive disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, most Star Wars fans — and I count myself among this list — have come to feel that George Lucas no longer had the ability to make a good Star Wars movie (or, for that matter, a good movie of any kind). Pretty sad, no?
It’s easy, now, to re-write history and take the point of view that George Lucas was NEVER any good and that everything that once seemed great about Star Wars was really because of his collaborators: people like Lawrence Kasdan, Irwin Kershner, and others. But for all that the original Star Wars film seems somewhat simplistic today when compared with the magnificence of The Empire Strikes Back (which, in my opinion, is one of the five greatest movies ever made), I think it’s a silly argument to suggest that the original Star Wars was anything short of a visionary, game-changing masterpiece, and while perhaps George Lucas can’t claim ALL the credit, he surely deserves the lions’ share.
All of this is a lengthy introduction to taking about Mr. Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. Made five years before Star Wars, this is a marvelous film, one that surely stands as a strong argument in favor of the massive cinematic skills that George Lucas once possessed.
Set in 1962 in Modesta, California, and hugely inspired by Mr. Lucas’ experiences as a teenager, American Graffiti follows a group of kids on one momentous night at the end of their high school years. The kids are all part of the (now almost-forgotten) culture of “cruising” — driving around in their cars, looking for fun and/or trouble. The film plays to Mr. Lucas’ strength, as there are many long stretches with very little dialogue. The story is told primarily through the visuals (Mr. Lucas and his collaborators developed several ingenious ways to shoot the kids in their cars while they were speeding around the roads of Modesto) and the phenomenal rock-and-roll soundtrack.
About that soundtrack: the film has no score — the mood is set entirely through the careful selection of the over-forty songs that make up the soundtrack. (Don’t for a minute believe that Quentin Tarantino invented this technique!) The lack of … [continued]
With the simple title of Lincoln, one might expect the new film from Steven Spielberg to be an all-encompassing biopic of the life of our famous stovepot-hat-wearing former President. However, quite cunningly, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed playwright) Tony Kushner (basing their work in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) chose instead to focus on a very short period — about two months — at the end of Lincoln’s life, in which he endeavored to bring the Civil War to a close and to pass the 13th Ammendment, abolishing slavery in the United States of America.
It’s an ingenious choice, and as a result Lincoln stays far away from many of the familiar beats of the biopic. The film is one-part character study, allowing us to spend time getting to know this most iconic of men, and one-part peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage of politics gets made — or, at least, how it did back in 1865.
The film is thrilling, and the way Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner made a two-and-a-half hour story about how an amendment gets passed into such an edge-of-your seat piece of entertainment is absolutely astonishing. The script is terrific. The film has a huge ensemble (I’ll get back to this in a minute), but it’s never overwhelming, never confusing. We’re introduced to a breadth of characters each of whom has a distinct personality and point of view and each of whom helps, in a small way, to illuminate the story being told. Through these characters we are brought into the world of the bitterly divided America of 1865, still caught in the final throes of Civil War, and we are given keen insight into the political process of the day. We see all the different points of view on the amendment, we learn why these different individuals hold these different points of view, and we see in intricate detail the work done by Mr. Lincoln and his team (several of whom are exceedingly grudging temporary allies) to, step by tiny step, move the pieces into place in their attempt to pass this momentous piece of legislation. This The West Wing: 1865, and I don’t mean that to belittle the film in any way but rather as a huge compliment. Lincoln is exciting and humorous and tragic, filled with colorful figures and eager to show the audience the nuts and bolts of our political process, warts and all.
All of this, of course, is anchored and elevated (if I may mix my metaphors) by the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. I cannot believe this is the … [continued]
Well, my friends, I have a new front-runner for my favorite film of 2012: the magnificent, heart-breaking, life-affirming Cloud Atlas.
I was never a rabid fan of The Matrix, but I certainly loved that film and felt it represented a bold promise of continuing great work by Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski. At last, thirteen years later, I feel that promise has been fulfilled as the two, working with Tom Tykwer (who directed the phenomenal Run Lola Run — click here for my review), have written and directed a film that feels to me like a masterpiece.
Adapted by the Wachowskis and Mr. Tykwer from the novel by David Mitchell (which I have never read), Cloud Atlas tells a series of connected, over-lapping stories. In 1849, a young man faces great peril as he crosses the sea in an effort to deliver an important contract to his father. In 1936, another young man talks his way into an apprentice-ship with a great but aging composer, hoping the old man will be his sponsor and partner as he works to create what he believes to be a great symphony. In 1973, a young woman puts her life at risk to investigate the claims made by a now-dead whistle-blower at a nuclear power plant. In 2012, an elderly book publisher runs afoul of gangsters and his own brother, eventually finding himself committed to an old-age home where he feels he does not belong. In 2144, a genetically-engineered fabricant created to do nothing more than serve fast-food to the “consumers,” her customers, discovers a chance for freedom from the life for which she has been designed and built. And 106 winters “after The Fall,” a primitive but good-hearted tribesman is visited by one of the “Prescients,” the few-remaining technologically advanced humans on the planet, and he joins with her on a momentous quest.
Each one of these stories is fabulous and compelling, but the way they weave in and out of one another is nothing short of astounding. I cannot imagine the challenge of editing this movie together. There isn’t a simplistic pattern of regularly cutting from one story to another. Instead, the stories dance in and out of each other. Sometimes we might cut away to one story for nothing more than a quick shot, or a line of dialogue, before moving on, and other times we linger in one of the time-periods for an extended amount of time. Sometimes I felt like the film would circle through all six of the main time-periods, while at other times it felt more like we were just traveling back and forth between two or three of the tales, letting those stories play … [continued]
Marty (Colin Farrell) is a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to get going on his next film. His friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) gives Marty the idea to write a film called Seven Psychopaths. No surprise, Marty quickly finds his life intertwined with that of several real-life psychopaths — seven, it turns out.
With Marty writing a film called Seven Psychopaths based on his experiences with seven psychopaths, while we (the audience) are watching a film called Seven Psychopaths about Marty’s experiences crossing paths with seven psychopaths, we obviously are in for some meta fun.
But sadly, Seven Psychopaths is just a warmed over, less-clever version of Adaptation (click here for my review of that far superior film). Every self-referential trick used by the film feels like something I’ve seen before, done more cleverly. (And the film even sort of cheats by not giving us seven psychopaths, but only six! We’re supposed to think that is a neat twist, but I thought it was lame.) Unfortunately, in my opinion the film’s story isn’t interesting enough, nor it’s characters funny enough, to be able to stand on its own if I’m not interested in the overall self-referential premise. The film boasts a stupendous cast, but everyone feels rather stranded to me.
I really like Colin Farell, and I think he’s a better actor than he is usually given credit for. He tries gamely to be entertaining, but I was not at all interested in this Hollywood screenwriter’s fantasy of a Hollywood screenwriter — fiercely handsome and able to stand toe to toe with violent sociopaths without backing down. I think Sam Rockwell is one of the best actors working today, but he too struggles and ultimately fails to make his character anything other than a weird collection of tics and characteristics that only come into play when the plot demands. Christopher Walken is fun to watch, and I think his is one of the few characters in the film that I found to be interesting or entertaining, though I suggest one not think too hard about the late-in-the-film revelations about his character. (I found those revelations hard to square with the character as played by Mr. Walken.) Woody Harrison and Abbie Cornish are also fun, though again I didn’t feel they we able to elevate their characters above two-dimensional plot devices. It’s always fun to see Harry Dean Stanton, so props to the filmmakers for that. Props also for the clever Boardwalk Empire team-up in the opening scene with Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt. That was fun.
But overall, sadly, I found Seven Psychopaths to be very mediocre. It’s not bad, and I suppose if I’d never seen Adaptation I might think … [continued]
Well, after an unexpectedly lengthy hiatus, James Bond has returned, just in time for his fiftieth anniversary. To the pleasure and relief of fans of Bond, James Bond, Skyfall is evidence that the redoubtable secret agent (and his franchise) has plenty of gas left in the ol’ Aston Martin tank, though I must confess that this is the second Bond film in a row that doesn’t quite succeed at living up to the promise suggested by Casino Royale.
NOTE: This is a hard film to write about while avoiding spoilers. I will avoid ruining any of the big plot twists, but I would nonetheless advise not reading this review until you’ve seen the film.
The Opening/The Music: Skyfall’s opening sequence is thrilling, surely ranking amongst one of the very best Bond opening sequences. It’s a spectacular extended chase sequence, from car to motorcycle to train and beyond. (It’s a far more coherent action sequence that Quantum of Solace’s thrilling but hard to follow opening car chase.) It’s a tremendous, thrilling opening, and I was totally hooked in. But thing got a little shaky as soon as Adele’s theme song began, and for much of the next hour I was a little worried about how things were going. More on that in a few minutes. I am lukewarm on Adele’s theme song. It’s fun to have a Bond song once again using the same title as the film (after two films in a row in which the songs had different titles than the film, a divergence from the standard Bond-movie procedure), though trying to make a song based on the bizarre title of Skyfall, without spoiling the terms’ meaning in the film, is a task in which Adele and her team do not quite succeed. Also, I tend to prefer my Bond songs to have a bit more of a propulsive beat, and to be a bit more hummable.
The bad: After the terrific opening sequence, the film hits the brakes and it takes a good long while, in my opinion, to really get going again. The first hour is very hit and miss. The film looks gorgeous with some truly stunning, cleverly designed sequences. Bond’s fight with an assassin atop a Shanghai skyscraper, bathed in the reflection of neon lights, is particularly notable. But I found myself filled with questions as to the unfolding story. All sorts of little plot points niggled at me. Why the hell did Bond keep those bullet fragments in his arm all that time? Why perform surgery on himself when hes right in the middle of MI6, with plenty of trained medics all around him? Wouldn’t that only further damage the usefulness of … [continued]
With Skyfall almost upon us, I’ve re-watched Daniel Craig’s two previous James Bond installments: 2006′s Casino Royale (click here for my review), and now Quantum of Solace. (You can click here to read my original review of the film from when it was released back in 2008. You can also click here to read my friend Josh Lawrence’s advance review of Quantum of Solace, which I referred to several times in my own original review.)
The film: Quantum of Solace remains a somewhat perplexing film to me. On the one hand, there’s a lot that is great about the film. On the other hand, it’s a clear disappointment as a follow-up to the terrific Casino Royale. I’ve now seen the film several times, and in my mind it comes down to the following schism. Quantum of Solace is great in that, like Casino Royale did, it treats Bond seriously, crafting a tale that — while filled with high adventure — feels gritty and “real.” Most importantly, there is a serious and compelling emotional arc for the character of Bond, as he wrestles with dealing with the emotional fallout of Vesper’s betrayal and death from the end of Casino Royale. That emotional story-line was absent from pretty much every single previous Bond film (let’s not kid ourselves, you know I’m right), and that basically the whole purpose of the film Quantum of Solace is to explore the consequences of the previous film’s ending continues to delight me at every turn.
The problem is that, on the other hand, the action-adventure/spy story (basically, all of the events that occupy Bond while he is dealing with these heavy emotional issues) is extremely thin, and falls back on one hoary, weak Bond-movie cliche after another. After the breath-of-fresh-air that was Casino Royale, it’s a disappointing relapse.
The good: First of all, Quantum of Solace looks dynamite. It’s a gorgeously filmed movie, filled with exotic locations from around the globe that were beautifully photographed by the cinematography team. (And I LOVE the playful, differently-styled text graphics on-screen for each different location in the film! It’s a really nice touch.)
After the rather-talky Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace really ups the action. The film is packed with action, particularly in the first half, with one inventive set-piece after the next. There’s the car chase that opens the movie; Bond’s foot-chase of the MI6 traitor in and around the streets and rooftops of Sienna, Italy that culminates in their fight tangled amongst construction scaffolding; the boat chase after Bond rescues Camille (Olga Kurylenko) from General Medrano’s men; the shoot-out at the opera where Quantum’s leaders are meeting; the plane fight over the desert … [continued]
Guest-blogger Josh Lawrence lives in London, where the latest James Bond film Skyfall has already been released. Josh submitted an advance review of Quantum of Solace back in 2008, and was kind enough this morning to send in his thoughts on Skyfall! My own review will be up next week, after I see the film this weekend… Take it away, Josh…
Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, is an enjoyable action-packed movie that nonetheless will leave the avid Bond fan a bit disappointed.
After a rather tepid mission in Quantum of Solace, Bond is back to the darker, broodier character introduced in Casino Royale. But instead of the newly-minted “00” agent humbled and hardened by the loss of the love of his life, this time around Bond’s dark attitude stems from anger at M.i.6. for interfering with his current mission and, the movie hints, from some deeper secret. Needless to say, this deep secret is connected to “Skyfall” — how else could one explain such a bizarre title.
For the old-school Bond fan, the movie follows a very familiar trope: Bond saves the world from say nuclear disaster—and is clearly the only agent capable of doing so—but M and his or her cohort and Q all treat Bond like some sort of a rakish self-centered idiot who can’t be trusted to do anything right. Maybe it would be better for Bond to take a break and recover from his shoulder injury, his superiors suggest, as he is probably not fit for service? Bond agrees but of course goes rogue — this time it’s personal — identifies the criminal gang behind the next threat, gets some grudging support from key people at headquarters, and then is welcomed back into the fold when he saves the day.
This time around the villain does not have a diabolical plot to radiate the gold supply or give racing horses steroids (phew!), but predictably has spent years developing a needlessly elaborate form of revenge for his grudge. The story strains to make the point that non-state actors are the real risk in the modern world, and that the cloak-and-dagger services (and “00” agents specifically) are still relevant.
Of course the bigger challenge is in making the Bond films continue to be relevant, and this is where the movie was less successful. As with Casino Royale, this movie owes a lot to the Bourne movies for its big action scenes, though director Sam Mendes is not as adept at using close-action cameras that lent Casino so much grit and brutalism.
The central problem is that the plot does not stand alone, or rather, could only be credible as a plot … [continued]
So, about a year ago I had an idea that I’d try to watch one or two Bond films a month, starting with Dr. No. I thought this would be a fun way to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise in 2012, and a great lead up to the release of the new Bond film. Well, I wasn’t able to get too far in my efforts! (But you can click here for my in-depth review of Dr. No, here for From Russia With Love, here for Goldfinger, and here Thunderball.) I love Bond, and I do intend to continue re-watching the series in order, though it might take me until the NEXT Bond film before I finish! Meanwhile, with the release of Skyfall fast approaching, I decided to skip ahead and re-watch Daniel Craig’s two previous Bond films: 2006′s Casino Royale and 2008′s Quantum of Solace. Let’s dive into Casino Royale today, and I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Quantum of Solace. (Then of course I will have my review of Skyfall up as soon as possible!)
The film: Casino Royale really knocked my socks off when it was first released, and it has held up extremely well after multiple viewings in the years since. This felt to me like the Bond I’d been waiting for — serious and intense, with great action coupled with a compelling (and suitably downbeat) emotional arc for the main characters. The Bond franchise has been rejiggered before during the transition between Bond actors, but this was the first time the series was ever started over from zero. (What we like to call a “reboot” these days.) I tend to despise prequels, and I was worried that Casino Royale was just an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the success of Batman Begins from the previous year. And while there is no question in my mind that Casino Royale would not exist without the success of Batman Begins, that connection has justifiably been forgotten because the film works so fabulously well.
Bond, James Bond: One thing that never worried me in the days leading up to Casino Royale’s release was the terrific casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond. That whole kerfuffle over his hair color, etc., just seemed ludicrous to me. Craig is an absolutely FANTASTIC Bond. On the one hand, I love the way in which his Bond seems to be, of all the Bonds, the most similar to Connery’s version — the man is, in many ways, a thug. Craig’s Bond has a brutality and a dangerousness that I don’t think any of the Bonds have had since Connery. On the other … [continued]
Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) returns to our cinema screens with a wonderful, perplexing yet phenomenally engaging new film: The Master. It’s a film that I’m not quite sure what to make of, but one that I’ve really been thinking about ever since seeing it. It’s a hard movie to shake, one that I found to be weirdly captivating despite it’s often stately, leisurely pacing. Without question it’s the work of a true master of cinema.
Joaquin Phoenix (appearing in his first film since 2008, not counting his weird sort-of-not-really documentary I’m Still Here) plays Freddie Quell. A navy-man during World War II, in the film’s opening section we watch Freddie repeatedly trying and failing to make a go of any sort of regular life in the years after the war. He seems to be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, though the film lets us draw our own conclusions. He’s clearly unstable, an angry, intense, young man with a serious habit of heavy-drinking. Out of work, he stows away on a boat that it turns out is hosting a lengthy excursion to sea by a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear-physicist, and theoretical philosopher.” Despite their being complete opposites in nearly every way, Freddie and Mr. Dodd have an immediate connection. They bond over their love of the potent alcohol that Freddie likes to whip up, and while Dodd feels he can help Freddie and straighten him out, Freddie seems to find in Dodd a friend and father figure absent in his life.
As soon as one of Dodd’s followers refers to him as “master,” we know there might be another side to this charismatic writer and speaker. Indeed, as Freddie (and the audience) spends more time with Dodd and his close-knit family and followers who seem to be constantly with him, we begin to see how many in his group are following his writings and his philosophies as a complete way of life. Much has been made over whether the film is or isn’t based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I did not read the film as an attack on scientology in specific, nor did I feel the point of the film was in critiquing any religion or cult. (And please note that I am not equating the two!!) There are definitely moments when one might raise one’s eyebrows at certain things we see Dodd’s followers saying or doing. The film shows the positive power of the community of close-knit followers who surround the man they call “master,” and also the dangers of creeping, unquestioning group-think.
But it seems to me that … [continued]
It’s always a great delight to see an original sci-fi film. We were all excited for Prometheus this past summer, but while that big-budget, mega-hyped film was a dud (click here for my review), I was positively thrilled by Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper.
The year is 2044. Time travel has not yet been invented, but it will be. The mob of the future uses the outlawed technology of time-travel to dispose of people they want out of the way. They just send them back in time, where a hit-man, called a Looper, is there waiting to shoot them as soon as they appear. The Looper then disposes of the body, and all is well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a Looper, Joe, whose careful life unravels when he fails to kill a target sent back from the future — who turns out to be himself, thirty years older (and played by Bruce Willis). Joe’s mob bosses will kill him if he doesn’t kill his older self (“closing his loop”), so Young Joe sets out after Old Joe, who meanwhile has a plan to make a key change to his history.
It’s a delicious set-up, one that is only enhanced by the fantastic casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as different-aged versions of the same character. There’s some great prosthetic work that reshapes Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s face just slightly, to make him more resemble Bruce Willis. (It’s particularly noticeable when you see him in profile.) Both men are fantastic, and I loved watching the two of them go at it. In particular, it’s great to see Bruce Willis in a bona-fide good action movie again. The man is just awesome playing a bad-ass in an action movie, and he plays everything with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to keep the audience hooked into his performance. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the way the story keeps shifting the audience’s sympathies back and forth between Young Joe and Old Joe. It’s very clever.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt and Mr. Willis are far and away the anchors of the movie, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the high-wattage of the supporting cast. Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Garret Dillahunt, Piper Perabo all do fantastic work in their roles. Jeff Daniels in particular is great fun as the man sent from the future to run the Looper organization in the present-day.
For such a relatively low-budget film ($30 million dollars, from what I have read), the film looks dynamite. From the trailers I expected the film to be set in present-day, but instead the film’s present-day is 2044, with the future era (when time-travel exists) 30 … [continued]
I’ve picked up a few of Universal’s gorgeous 100 Year Anniversary editions of their most classic films, including Born on the Fourth of July (click here for my review), The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
What can I possibly write about Jaws that hasn’t already been written? Its reputation as a masterpiece is solidly deserved, and the film really hasn’t aged a day. Of course the film is dazzling on blu-ray, crisp and clean. But more than that, I can’t really point to a single moment in the movie that seems obviously fake or phony. The visual effects hold up because, unlike many modern blockbusters, Jaws isn’t a film about visual effects. As the often-told stories go, the mechanical shark Mr. Spielberg had on-site hardly ever worked, forcing the young director to find ingenious ways to shoot around the fake shark and find ways to depict the creature without our actually seeing it (resulting in, for example, the brilliant use of the yellow barrels as a way to suggest the shark’s menacing presence without actually showing it) and to build suspense and horror based on NOT seeing the shark.
But even more than that, Jaws holds up because, visual effects or no visual effects, there is far more to the film (whose screenplay was written by Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley) than just the shark. The film isn’t about the shark. It’s about characters. It’s the characters who leave the biggest impression on the viewer — Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint — not the shark.
Jaws has an interesting structure. The film is basically divided into two distinct halves. The first half is set on land, as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) gradually grows more and more concerned about the shark he believes is menacing the small, picturesque community of Amity Island, where he is the new Chief of Police. The second half of the film is an entirely different movie, set on board Quint’s raggedy old ship, the Orca, as Brody, Hooper, and Quint set out to chase down and kill the shark. The brilliance of the film — and, I think, a critical component to its success — is that both halves work equally well. I love the first half, particularly for its exploration of the many colorful characters of Amity island. I love the gradual way that we get inside Chief Brody’s head, I love the dynamic between Brody and his wife (Lorraine Gary) and son, I love every moment with Amity’s mayor (played so wonderfully by Murray Hamilton) and the other government officials, I love it all and I don’t want the film … [continued]
I’ve been a fan of Ben Affleck’s ever since I first listened to his hilarious and endearing contribution to the raucous DVD commentary track for Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. (Seriously, track it down and give it a listen — it’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, second only to the track that same gang recorded for the original Criterion Collection DVD of Kevin Smith’s follow-up film, Chasing Amy.) I’ve always found Mr. Affleck to be an earnest, engaging performer, capable of nimbly balancing comedy and drama. Yes, he appeared in quite a number of terrible, terrible films, but that’s more a critique of his choices rather than his skills. But whereas Mr. Affleck has, in my opinion, always been a strong actor, he has proven to be a truly spectacular director. His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is a phenomenal film, one of my favorites of the last decade. I wasn’t quite as taken with The Town (click here for my review), but with the stunningly magnificent Argo, Mr. Affleck has solidified his reputation as one of the strongest directors working today. I do not believe I am exaggerating.
Based on the true story, declassified by President Clinton in the late nineties, Argo is set during the Iranian hostage crisis. Unbeknownst to the Iranians (but, to quote Spaceballs, knownst to us), six American embassy staff-members were able to escape and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. After months in hiding, the Iranians are beginning to close in on them. C.I.A. “exfil” (exfiltration) specialist Tony Mendez is brought in to find a way to safely bring the six Americans out of Iran. He concocts a loony-sounding scheme in which he will enter Iran and then help the six pose as a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a sci-fi film, Argo. Using their new covers, the plan is for Mendez and the six to walk, in broad daylight, right into the Iranian airport and fly out of the country to safety. It’s an crazy, insane story, all the more crazy and insane because the whole thing is true.
The film is riveting, and Mr. Affleck’s direction (ably assisted by a tight screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) is fantastic. It’s great to see Mr. Affleck moving out of the Boston location that was so central to his first two films, and I was extremely impressed with the way the he and his team were able to recreate 1970′s Iran, Washington, DC, and Hollywood.
The film’s opening immediately sets the stage for the story, and the intense tone for this true-life tale. In the opening … [continued]
After watching The Hustler (click here for my review of that 1961 film), I immediately had to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. This has to be one of the weirdest sequels ever made. Released twenty-five years after the original film, made by a different director, shot in color as opposed to the original’s black-and-white, The Color of Money is a completely different film than The Hustler. And yet, I was impressed by how connected the two films were, mostly because of the story — which, though set years later, seems to draw a direct line from the end of The Hustler — and, of course, Paul Newman’s reprisal of his classic role as “Fast” Eddie Felson.
Like The Hustler, The Color of Money was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. Following the events of The Hustler, Eddie stopped being a pool shark. He seems to have made a fine (though not especially successful) life for himself, but when he sees an incredibly talented young pool player, Vincent (played by Tom Cruise), Eddie begins to hunger once again for the action. He convinces Vincent to let Eddie take him on the road, so he can teach Vincent the pool shark game and hopefully make the both of them a lot of money.
As in The Hustler, the film succeeds primarily because Paul Newman is so fantastic in the role of “Fast” Eddie. Mr. Newman may be an older man, but he’s still incredibly compelling and charismatic. You can see in the way he talks, and the way he moves, the powerful young man that “Fast” Eddie once was. As the film progresses, the narrative keeps the audience in genuine doubt as to whether Eddie still has what it takes to beat the odds and get the score, or whether he’s just a washed up old man with memories of glory. Mr. Newman’s powerful yet subtle performance allows the audience to envision both possibilities.
The beating heart of The Color of Money, of course, and the film’s whole reason for being, is the pairing of elder statesman Paul Newman with the young Tom Cruise as Vincent. Mr. Cruise is electric in the role. Vincent is brash and loud, full of energy and enthusiasm and lust for life, but totally without patience and not exactly possessing of a plethora of brains. The twenty-four year-old Cruise commands the viewer’s attention, and when he and Paul Newman share the screen (as they do for much of the film’s run-time), their chemistry is palpable and exciting. It’s a terrific dynamic, and certainly one that helps you understand why the filmmakers felt like a return to “Fast” Eddie and the world of … [continued]
In this 1961 film, adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, Paul Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, an incredibly talented pool shark. He and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) have been scamming their way from pool hall to pool hall, with the dream of one day taking on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is considered the best of the best, and Eddie hopes to beat him and win a big score. Of course, things don’t quite go as planned, and soon Eddie finds himself broke and directionless. He meets up with a beautiful but hard-drinking young woman named Sarah, and sparks fly. Will Fast Eddie try to settle down and make a life with this woman who loves him, or will he return to his hustling ways and attempt another confrontation with Minnesota Fats?
The first 45-50 minutes of The Hustler — the introduction to Eddie and Charlie and that first extended pool game with Minnesota Fats — is absolutely electric. I don’t know anything about pool, but I was riveted to every moment. Robert Rossen’s direction is superlative, and the force of personality of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason is extraordinary. You don’t need to understand anything about pool — Mr. Rossen makes clear everything you need to know, and the sharp characters draw you in immediately. It’s marvelous.
Things slow down significantly once that big game of pool is completed. The film pauses for a significant middle section of the movie in which Eddie meets Sarah and the two fall into a relationship. After a while I did become invested in the story of these characters’ relationship, but after the high of the pool game it is quite a drop-off in intensity. (Let’s face-it — I was bored.) Things do pick up again as the film builds towards its conclusion, and Eddie and Sarah’s courtship is interrupted by events.
Piper Laurie is quite intriguing as Sarah. Her deep voice and her mannerisms create a rather unique woman. Sarah is no wallflower — she’s an independent woman who has clearly done a lot of living. I was fascinated to see how this pretty young lady who “meets cute” with Fast Eddie in a train station is gradually revealed to be as damaged and self-destructive — if not more so! — than is Eddie himself.
Watching The Hustler it is clear why Paul Newman was a super-star for such a long period of time. The man is electric — a live-wire performer. He’s incredibly handsome and charismatic, a fully-formed leading man, but not a simplistic pretty-boy. Take a look into his sharp eyes or take a listen to his fantastic voice — deep and gravelly — and layers of emotion … [continued]
I’ve picked up a few of the Universal 100th Anniversary blu-rays that they’ve been releasing this year, highlighting films from the studio’s 100 year history. Two that I’ve watched recently are Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ll be back soon to write about Jaws, today I want to write about Born on the Fourth of July.
After re-watching Platoon a few months ago (click here for my review), I knew I wanted to re-watch Born on the Fourth of July soon. I’d only seen the film once, in college. My friends and I set about to watch a number of films that we hadn’t ever seen but that we felt were important for us to see, and that brought us to Born on the Fourth of July. My recollection was really enjoying the film, though feeling that it was very intense and difficult to watch in places. It wasn’t a film I was rushing to see again, because it was a tough story.
Well, there’s no question that Born on the Fourth of July is tough to watch in places, but I’m glad to have re-watched it. I think it’s a terribly effective film, and one of the greatest anti-war films I’ve ever seen.
Whereas Platoon focused exclusively on the events of a soldier’s one-year tour of duty in Vietnam (based largely upon Mr. Stone’s own experiences), Born on the Fourth of July’s focus is at once more expansive and also far more focused. Based on the true-life story of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (and the book he wrote about his experiences), the film follows Ron from his childhood through adulthood. We see him as a young boy and as an idealistic high school student, fervently accepting the lesson his family, teachers and community taught him about the importance of doing one’s patriotic duty to serve in the military. We follow Ron through two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he is confronted by the horrors of war and is eventually shot and paralyzed. We stay with Ron during his horrific experiences in a veterans hospital, his attempt to return to his home and family, his terrible depression about his paralyzation and his feelings of isolation from the world that drive him to drinking and drugs, and eventually down to a brothel in Mexico. We see how his anger at the anti-war protesters eventually transforms him into an anti-war protester himself.
The power of Born on the Fourth of July is that it is an epic film, but also a profoundly intimate one, focused with laser-sharpness on the experiences of this one young man throughout the fifties, sixties, and … [continued]
What a fantastically enjoyable surprise this little movie was! A romantic (but not really romantic) drama that is very funny (but which I wouldn’t really call a comedy), Celeste and Jesse Forever is a wonderful little film for adults. It’s somewhat raunchy and juvenile but also remarkably sophisticated and unexpected, eschewing the usual romantic comedy formula for something a little messier, a little rougher-around-the-edges. I loved it!
The film was written by Rashida Jones (who made her bones on The Office and is now a part of the spectacular ensemble on Parks and Recreation) and her friend Will McCormack (check out this article that explores the pair’s relationship, much of which served as an inspiration for the film’s story), and stars Ms. Jones as the titular Celeste and SNL’s Andy Samberg as Jesse.
Rashida Jones was instantly terrific on The Office, and she’s been pretty great in some supporting film roles recently (such as I Love You, Man — click here for my review, and My Idiot Brother — click here for my review), so it’s great fun to see her take a leading role. She’s spectacular, able to be extremely funny while also able to absolutely convincingly sell the film’s dramatic moments. But she’s been great in everything I just mentioned, so this isn’t a huge surprise. What is a surprise is how fantastic Andy Samberg is. Of course it was clear he could be funny, but I think he gives a terrific performance creating a very fleshed-out character in Jesse. He knows when to flash his huge grin, but he dials back his zaniness to just the right level, creating a character who is a lovable goofball but very much a human being. When it comes to the dramatic moments, he’s every bit Ms. Jones’ equal. I love their chemistry in the film — I could watch these two actors play off of one another all day long. There are some early moments between the two that are so funny (their weird German-accented menu-reading, and of course their off-color lip-balm routine) that it’s pretty impossible not to buy into the idea that these two are soul-mates, made for one another. Which of course is the point. Which makes the fact that the film is all about their NOT being together all the more agonizing. Which, again, is sort of the point.
Obviously I’m not going to spoil the ending (well, at least not before my big spoiler warning a few paragraphs from now), but I am not ruining anything to note that five minutes into the film we learn that Celeste and Jesse are very much not together as a couple. What follows … [continued]
Earlier this week I wrote about Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance. The second part of my little personal Tony Scott in memoriam double-feature was his 1995 film, Crimson Tide. I saw Crimson Tide back in theaters when it was originally released, but I haven never re-watched it since. I remember being really excited to see it, but I also remember that I was a bit disappointed by the finished film. It just wasn’t nearly as good as The Hunt for Red October, a submarine film that I adored, and to which I was constantly comparing Crimson Tide in my mind while watching the film. I’ve never seen Crimson Tide since then, but I know a lot of people who love the film, so I’ve been meaning to re-watch it for quite some time.
The film is better than I remembered it being, but I definitely agree with high school me in thinking that, when compared to the masterful Hunt for Red October, it doesn’t compare favorably. There’s something a little too simplistic about Crimson Tide, a little too action-movie silly as opposed to truly dramatic. The film isn’t a check-your-brain-at-the-door piece of Hollywood stupidity, but there are definitely some choices (in the pacing, in the editing, in the music) that indicate that the film wants more to be an exciting action-adventure than a realistic drama. Now, that’s not necessarily bad — I LOVE a great action adventure! But that also puts a ceiling on the film’s potential right from the get-go.
The heart of the film is in the conflict between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. Both men are terrifically cast, and the whole film rests on the idea of these two powerhouses colliding with one another in the middle of a potentially world-ending nuclear showdown scenario. Mr. Hackman plays Captain Ramsey, commander of the U.S. nuclear sub the U.S.S. Alabama (and was it Mr. Scott or Quentin Tarantino, who performed an uncredited re-write on the film’s script, who chose the name Alabama, which was also so memorably the name of Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance?). Captain Ramsey is an experienced veteran of naval combat, experienced in the ways of war, and conditioned with a fairly simplistic soldier’s mentality of following his orders without question. Denzel Washington plays the Alabama’s newly-assigned X.O., Lt. Commander Hunter. Hunter is an intelligent and well-regarded officer, but he’s never been in combat and his analytical approach puts him into immediate conflict with Captain Ramsey. Things come to a head when the Alabama receives orders to launch a nuclear first-strike on Russian rebels, but then receives another message that is cut off when the sub comes into conflict with a … [continued]
The recent passing of Tony Scott prompted me to pick up two films, both directed by Mr. Scott, that had been sitting for quite a whole on my “to-watch” shelf: True Romance and Crimson Tide. I hadn’t seen True Romance since college, and Crimson Tide since it was originally released back when I was in high school, and I’d long been thinking about re-watching both of them. As my own personal little memorial to Mr. Scott, I sat down for a fun double-feature last week.
I can’t decide if True Romance’s title is meant to be ironic or genuine. It’s a jump ball to me. But the story works either way you look at it. The movie is a fairy tale, albeit a blood-soaked, crazy, fever-dream of a fairy tale. It’s totally implausible from the very beginning to the very end, but it’s so endearingly insistent in maintaining a tone of over-the-top madness that it’s hard not to get swept away by the story. It helps that the two leads, Christian Slater as Clarence and Patricia Arquette as Alabama, are so likable. You can’t help but root for this crazy couple to survive all the drug-dealers and double-crosses to find themselves a happy ending. Watching this film, I can understand why Christian Slater was once a big star. He’s electric in the role, manic and dangerous but with a hundred-watt smile and such a huge amount of cheerful affability that he’s incredibly lovable, even when the movie dares you to turn your back on him. (We’re not too far into the film before he decides to hunt down and kill a dangerous pimp, spurred on to do so by a vision of Elvis. You read that right.) And I’ve never enjoyed Patricia Arquette quite as much as I do in this film. Yes, she’s written as a comic book nerd’s idea of a perfect woman (sexy and tough and into kung fu triple features), so that of course makes her hard to resist, but she brings so much life to the role. She’s street-wise but also innocent, naive without being a dim bulb. Her chemistry with Mr. Slater is magnetic.
True Romance was written by Quentin Tarantino (it was released the year after his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs), and the film is dripping with Mr. Tarantino’s particular wit and influences. Like most of Mr. Tarantino’s work, the film is intense and very violent, but also incredibly funny and filled with characters discussing their love of film and music and other geeky things. Clarence and Alabama meet in the middle of a Sonny Chiba triple feature, what more do I need to tell you? It’s interesting to see Mr. Tarantino’s … [continued]
Ted is the live-action, feature-film directorial debut of Seth MacFarlane, the man behind Family Guy and it’s various spin-offs. It’s a triumphant debut film, confidently made.
Ted takes a fairy tale premise, that a lonely young boy makes a wish that his teddy bear will come to life to be a real friend for him, only to find that his wish is magically granted, and asks: what happens when the boy grows up? Thus we get John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a 35-year-old stoner who is barely able to hold onto his low-paying job at a car-rental joint in Boston. His best friend is still Ted, his now somewhat raggedy and far-from-innocent talking teddy bear. He’s in a great relationship with a wonderful girl named Lori (Mila Kunis), but she’s beginning to grow tired of John’s arrested development. Has Ted become an anchor keeping him trapped in an unending childhood?
Ted manages to take the best qualities of Family Guy — it’s uproariously raunchy humor, and bizarre pop-culture asides and digressions — and weave them into a film that has a surprisingly big heart. There’s a gloriously gleeful, anarchic feel to the film, a bold we’ll-do-anything-that-is-funny feel that I love. But I have often written on this site that, for me, the best comedies are ones that are ridiculously funny while also telling a real story, with real characters and real stakes. Ted manages to do that shockingly well. I found myself really caring about the characters and, in particular, really caring about the walking, talking, somewhat foul-mouthed little teddy bear in the title role.
The combination of incredible visual effects (I assume mostly CGI, though I don’t know that for certain) and Mr. MacFarlane’s voice acting bring Ted completely to life. At no point in the film did I ever stop to question the character’s existence. Ted feels totally real. You’re not focusing on the effects, you’re just enjoying the character. It’s an astonishing achievement, really incredible. (I’m very much reminded of the effects in Paul — click here for my review — that brought another foul-mouthed short little fantasy character to totally believable life.)
The movie is hysterically funny. There are some classic Family Guy style digressions and pop-culture references (John’s Airplane! fantasy memory of his first date with Lori is one of the funniest things I have seen in a movie in years) but the film thankfully doesn’t ladle them on TOO thick so as to overwhelm the story.
Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis are very enjoyable in the lead role, and their work really helps to sell the fantasy idea of a talking teddy bear being a factor in their lives. Joel McHale is a riot as … [continued]
Although I really enjoyed Batman Begins, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how spectacular the follow-up, The Dark Knight, was going to be. I didn’t expect it, and that film knocked me flat. I’ve revisited The Dark Knight several times in the last few years (I just wrote about it last week!) and I continue to be dazzled by its grim majesty.
The Dark Knight is so good that it immediately puts its sequel in an unenviable position of having to equal or top a masterpiece. The Dark Knight Rises is not at the level of The Dark Knight – it’s rather unrealistic to hope that it would be. It is definitely more flawed than its predecessor. But it is a ferociously entertaining film, smart and serious and with bold intentions, and it brings Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to a sure-footed conclusion.
The Dark Knight Rises is a huge film — it’s scope is far larger than the previous two films, as are its ambitions. The film is set over a period of many months (which I love, as it really gives the story and the characters room to breathe). Crazy, crazy stuff happens in and to Gotham City in the second half of the film. Sure, the Joker terrorized the city in The Dark Knight, but what happens to Gotham in the film’s second half takes the scope of this tale to a whole other level.
The main ensemble continues to shine. All the main surviving characters from the previous two films return and each gets his time in the spotlight. Michael Caine’s Alfred gets some big emotional scenes, and the great Mr. Caine is, as always, tremendously effective. More than ever before, Alfred is the heart of this film, and the lone anchor keeping Bruce Wayne tethered to some sort of reality. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox. He gets a great “Q” scene early in the film, and I was pleased that Lucius stayed involved in the story as Bane’s grip on Gotham city tightens as the film progresses.
Gary Oldman is spectacular, once again, as Commissioner Gordon. I got a bit worried at first when Gordon gets sidelined to a hospital bed — in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight I wished there was more of Gordon. (The whole Gordon-pretending-to-be-dead bit in the middle of The Dark Knight is one of that film’s only mis-steps.) But luckily the Commish gets a lot of meaty scenes in the film’s second half. Gary Oldman just IS Commissioner Gordon at this point — he is absolute perfection in the role. When the Batman film series is inevitably rebooted, I suspect this is going to prove to … [continued]
My excitement is building for The Dark Knight Rises, which opens today! I hope to be seeing it soon, and of course I’ll be posting my thoughts right here as soon as I do. In the mean-time, let’s continue my look back at Christopher Nolan’s previous two Bat-films. Last week I wrote about Batman Begins. Of course, after re-watching that film, I was eager to dive right back into Christopher Nolan’s first Bat-sequel, The Dark Knight.
I have written about The Dark Knight before on this site. Here is my original review of the film, which I wrote soon after having my brains blown out the back of my head by my first viewing of this magnificent film. I stand by my rapturous review. Having now seen the film several times, I think it has held up extremely well. When I first saw it, I was continually shocked by the film’s plot developments, but even knowing what is going to happen I think the film still totally works. In fact, knowing what is to come, there’s a powerful sense of additional dread watching the story unfold. You know it’s not going to end happily.
I have read this film described as “Batman Loses” and that pretty much sums up the story. Bruce Wayne gets smacked around for pretty much the entirety of the film’s long run-time. This is the way a super-hero sequel should be. Once you’ve established your super-heroic character, you need to really stack the deck against him/her. It needs to be nearly IMPOSSIBLE to conceive of a way that your hero can overcome these tremendous odds, and boy oh boy does The Dark Knight do that in spades.
Key to this, of course, is the incredible success of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. Everyone went crazy, back in 1989, for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, and rightfully so. It’s a spectacular performance, and one that was long-deemed un-toppable. But Mr. Ledger’s work absolutely blows Mr. Nicholson out of the water. This Joker is DANGEROUS in a way that Nicholson’s never really was. Ledger’s Joker is creepy and weird and scary. He clearly has a brilliant tactical mind (a point driven home by the film’s terrific opening sequence, an intricately-orchestrated robbery of a mob-controlled bank) but also a wild unpredictability. Pretty much every single Joker scene in this film is instantly iconic, from his magic trick making a pencil disappear, to his various stories about how he got his scars, to his taunting of Batman in the police station’s interrogation room, to his conversation with a scarred Harvey Dent in his hospital room.
Which brings me, of course, to Harvey … [continued]
With Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman film only weeks away, I thought it would be fun to go back and re-watch his first two Bat-films.
Having seen so many great super-hero films in the years since 2005, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Mr. Nolan’s achievement was with Batman Begins. Finally, here was a filmmaker ready to bring to movie-screens the character of Batman that I have loved for so long in the comics, and to treat that character seriously. I love Tim Burton’s Batman, but while that’s a great film, it’s not in my mind a great depiction of the character of Batman. Then, of course, the later films descended into ridiculousness and camp. In the minds of many in the public, the Batman they knew was still the Adam West Pow! Book! Zap! version.
But Mr. Nolan took Batman seriously, and he and co-writer David S. Goyer set about to dig into the character of Batman: who he is an how he came to be. (Comic fans know, of course, that I am paraphrasing a chapter title from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal four-part story Batman: Year One, to this day the definitive origin story of Batman and a text from which Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer borrowed liberally for their screenplay for Batman Begins.)
The genius of Batman Begins is that you don’t spend the whole movie just waiting for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl. The details of Mr. Wayne’s adolescence, as depicted in the film, are rich and fascinating, and fully hold the audience’s attention for the first two-thirds of the movie. Indeed, it’s the final third, in which Wayne finally becomes Batman, that is the weakest part of the film, but I’ll get to that in a few moments.
I love how well-thought-out and focused the film’s script is. Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer seized on the idea of fear as central to Batman and Bruce Wayne. I love how the film, and the characters, continually return to that idea. Ducard (Liam Neason) constantly needles young Bruce Wayne on the subject, exhorting him to identify and conquer his fear. The choice of the Scarecrow as one of the film’s villains further plays into this subject. That’s smart screenwriting. They didn’t just choose a random villain, they chose one who really meshed with the story being told.
Speaking of villains, I love Liam Neeson’s role in the film. Yes, Liam Neeson has played this type of mentor character many, many times before. Yes, when he and Bruce Wayne are training with swords on a frozen lake I can easily imagine him with a lightsaber in his hand instead … [continued]
I know some people who don’t care for the peculiar stylization of Wes Anderson’s films, but I am an enormous fan of his work, and the arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is always a cause for excitement for me. I particularly adored Mr. Anderson’s most recent film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (click here for my review). I loved it almost as much as The Royal Tenenbaums, which still stands as my favorite Wes Anderson film, though Fantastic Mr. Fox is very, very close. I was a little worried that, coming off of that great film, Moonrise Kingdom might be something of a let-down (in the way that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was somewhat disappointing to me after Tenenbaums, though I have subsequently come to really enjoy that film). But such was not at all the case. Moonrise Kingdom is magnificent.
The film tells the tender story of the young love that blooms between two twelve-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to run away from their respective homes together. Sam is an orphan, who doesn’t seem to be loved by his new foster parents and who is ostracized in the Khaki Scout troop in which he finds himself a member. Suzy’s parents are still alive, but distant from her, wrapped up in their own failing marriage. Susy’s discovery that the mother is having an affair proves difficult for the young girl to make peace with. So Sam and Suzy make plans to set off on an adventure together.
The two kids are both fantastic. There are times when the performances of the young actors might feel a little stilted, but the two kids are both so genuine and honest that it’s hard to complain. Sam and Suzy are very different from one another, but the connection that forms between them is a magical one, and young Mr. Gilman and Ms. Hayward bring their childhood romance to beautiful, heart-rending life. The film wouldn’t work if these two weren’t believable, and let me say that the film works very well indeed.
The adults in their lives are just as wonderfully fascinating, if not more so! Bruce Willis has been stuck in “Bruce Willis” mode for a while now, so I was shocked by how great he is as the sad, lonely police captain on the small New England island on which the story is set. It’s a very tender, restrained performance, and it’s absolutely wonderful in every respect. Equally great is Edward Norton as the earnest leader of Sam’s Khaki Scout troop. Scout Master Ward is an adult, but he’s another great child-at-heart Wes Anderson creation, more at home in his life as a … [continued]
I went into the theatre very dubious about the prospects for The Amazing Spider-Man being any good. I adored Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies. I felt they captured the character of Spider-Man absolutely perfectly, and they were a heck of a lot of fun. Spider-Man 3 was a huge mis-step, but I felt there was still plenty of life in the series, so I was disappointed when Mr. Raimi and Sony parted company. I would have liked to have seen him have an opportunity to make a great Spider-Man 4 that would erase the bad memories of the third installment.
But as disappointed as I was to hear that Mr. Raimi wouldn’t be returning to the series, and that Sony planned on re-casting all of the main roles, I was even more disappointed to hear that they planned to start the series over from zero, and re-tell Spidey’s origin. What is the point of that? Why waste half a movie re-telling an origin that everyone knows, and that everyone saw so recently in the wildly successful first Spider-Man film?? I would have vastly preferred had they just re-cast the roles, maybe spent five minutes at the start of the film (maybe during the opening credits) re-establishing the origin, and then gone on to tell a great new Spider-Man story with these new actors.
So I was greatly surprised that I actually quite enjoyed the first hour of The Amazing Spider-Man. This revamped version of Spidey’s origin wasn’t dull or ridiculous, I found myself surprisingly taken by it, and by the family drama we were watching unfold. I don’t think the perfect origin story crafted by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko all those years ago needed all the added drama of making a big deal about the disappearance of Peter Parker’s parents (the movie suggests that they were up to big secret things, and that they left young Peter in the care of his Uncle Ben and Aunt May because they feared for their lives), but as executed in the film I didn’t have a problem with this new version of events. The film totally re-works the chain of events leading to Uncle Ben’s death, changes that were totally unnecessary bordering on baffling, BUT somehow I still felt it all worked. The moment is powerful, and I liked the new way they found to made Peter culpable (in not stopping the criminal, earlier, when he had a chance). It’s a dreadful, horrible moment, and it works.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of The Amazing Spider-Man is such a disappointing mess!
I have a lot of problems with the film, but they boil down to three main mistakes.
1. … [continued]
After enjoying the newly-released complete soundtrack to Star Trek: First Contact, I decided to re-watch the film itself. Star Trek: First Contact terribly disappointed me when it was first released (I can’t believe that was over fifteen ago!!). It’s grown on me in the years since, and I think it’s probably the strongest of the Next Gen films. (Which indicates the low quality, over-all, of the four Next Gen films. What a tragic failure of a film franchise. But I digress.)
When First Contact was originally announced, I was overjoyed. A big-screen feature film focusing on the Borg seemed to promise the type of epic confrontation with that great group of villains that we’d never gotten to see on the small screen. (After the amazing two-parter, “The Best of Both Worlds,” we only got a few more glimpses of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they always seemed disappointingly small-scale.) But now, at last, we’d be getting a great Federation-versus-the-Borg story that I’d always wanted to see. (Something on-screen to match the amazing Federation-versus-the-Borg story I’d already read, in Peter David’s magnificent Star Trek novel Vendetta.)
But that’s not at all what we got with First Contact. Yes, there’s a big battle with the Borg, but it’s just two-minutes long and is quickly dispensed with at the very start of the film. Instead, the film turns into a time travel story, in which the defeated Borg try to destroy humanity by traveling back in time and disrupting the beginning of humanity’s journey to the stars and the eventual founding of the Federation: Zephram Cochrane’s first warp-flight.
Not only is that a pretty naked attempt on the part of the producers to smush together two previously-popular Star Trek story-devices, the Borg and time-travel, but it is totally contrary to the whole idea of the Borg. The Borg are great villains because they are merciless and unstoppable. They don’t strategize, they don’t scheme, they just roll over you like a bulldozer. If one Borg cube is destroyed, they wouldn’t then use a time-travel plot to destroy humans. They’d just come back with another cube, and another, and another, until the humans are defeated.
So the whole story of First Contact never made any sense to me, and always seemed like a big-cop out to the fact that, as created, the Borg really were pretty unstoppable bad-guys.
If I can put that aside, which is hard to do, there’s a lot to enjoy about First Contact. There are some great sequences of mounting terror as the Borg gradually assimilate the Enterprise, and I love the idea of the familiar Enterprise turning into a dangerous house of horrors. (Those … [continued]
It’s been ten years since the last Men in Black film. (Men in Black 2 came out in 2o02, and the first Men in Black came out back in 1997.) That’s a long, long time for a movie series to lie fallow. Is there an example of a sequel to a film franchise being released after such a long dry spell in which the new sequel was any good? I’m hard-pressed to think of one, though I can think of many examples where the opposite was true, and the long-awaited sequel disappointed fans terribly. The Godfather Part III. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of the first two Men in Black films. I remember quite liking the first one, and being disappointed by the second. I was excited by the prospect of a third film being made, because I definitely feel the concept still has plenty of juice, but I was dubious as to whether they could capture lighting in a bottle after so much time. Well, to summarize, Men in Black 3 isn’t nearly as good as I had hoped, but it’s not as bad as I had feared (or as I’d heard it was). It’s an entertaining film, though a frustrating one. The concept of the film is solid, and with that story idea and these performers, there is a great film in there somewhere. Men in Black 3 isn’t it, though.
As I just wrote, the central concept of the film is strong, and I can see why this story lured all the major players (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld) back to the table. A vicious bad-guy who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) had put away forty years previously breaks out of prison and uses a time machine to go back in time and kill K in the past. Agent J (Will Smith) must travel back to 1969 to save the life of the young Agent K, played in the past by Josh Brolin.
The problem (well, there are many problems with the film, but let’s start with this one) is that the first section of the film, set in the present day, is absolutely terrible.
Let’s start with the prologue, in which Boris the Animal breaks out of the MIB’s prison on the moon, and begins his plan for vengeance against Agent K. Director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage this sequence. It has a weird, goofy tone. In my opinion, if the filmmakers wanted to set up Boris as a real threat to our … [continued]
Sigh. I guess I’m just never going to see another good Alien movie, am I?
Who’d have thought it would be so hard? Ridley Scott’s 1979 original seemed ripe for further exploration, not one of those movies that would be impossible to ever sequelize. And let’s not forget, A GREAT ALIEN SEQUEL HAS ALREADY BEEN MADE! I’m speaking, of course, of the very first sequel to Alien: James Cameron’s magnificent Aliens. That film happens to be one of the very best sequels ever made, and it’s so good that to this day people debate which is better: Alien or Aliens.
But since then, it’s been strike-out after strike-out. (One of the very first posts I wrote for this site contained my lamentations at the way the Alien franchise had gone off the rails.) I had high hopes for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe, Prometheus. (And make no mistake, despite all the perplexing statements in the press by Ridley Scott, writer Damon Lindeloff, and other members of their team in which they claim that Prometheus is NOT an Alien prequel, from the film’s very first trailer it was obvious that it was.) I mean, surely Ridley Scott, one of the finest filmmakers of our time, and the man who directed the original Alien back in 1979, could finally craft another worthy follow-up to that film?
Sorry, my friends, such is not the case.
Prometheus is jaw droppingly gorgeous. The film is a real work of art, the stunning product of a brilliant director who has the visual effects tools to create anything he can imagine, and the complete mastery of how to use those tools to greatest effect. Plenty of other directors with budgets far larger than that of Prometheus have used CGI effects in garish and ugly ways, but Prometheus is staggeringly beautiful. The other space effects, the look of the Prometheus itself, the realization of the Engineer’s lair that Dr. Shaw and her teammates discover, image after gorgeous image unfold, each more mysterious and beautiful than the next.
Too bad, then, that the story of the film is so maddeningly incomprehensible.
OK, SPOILERS AHEAD so please beware.
I repeat: SPOILERS.
The original Alien has a simplicity that is impressive. In the first half of the film, the crew of the Nostromo answer a beacon and investigate the extra-terrestrial space-ship they discover. In the second half, they are mercilessly hunted by the Alien creature they unwittingly unleash, and try to survive. That’s it, that’s the film. And for all that the Alien is, let’s face it, made-up sci-fi hogwash, there’s still a simplicity to the life-cycle of the creature that is elegant and easily understood … [continued]
In his new film The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the deranged dictator of the made-up country of Wadiya. Aladeen has unparalleled levels of wealth and power, but a power-striggle with his trusted uncle and advisor Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) leaves him stranded like a homeless bum on the streets of New York. He’s befriended by a hippie named Zoey (Anna Faris). Will she be able to help him regain his throne? Does she want to?
It’s hard to imagine Sacha Baron Cohen being able to continue making films like Borat or Bruno indefinitely. He’s too well known now, I think, to be able to take people by surprise and get honest reactions from them in the same way. But I’ve never been that worried about seeing Mr. Baron Cohen move into more scripted fare. Two of my very favorite performances of his came in scripted movies: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Hugo.
With his new film The Dictator being a more traditionally-scripted comedy, I was eager to see how Mr. Cohen did as the star of this more conventionally-made film. (Though I wonder how scripted the movie truly was. Seeing as how the script is credited to three of the key creative minds behind the plotted-but-not-scripted Curb Your Enthusiasm, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, I’d imagine the script for The Dictator left a lot of room for improvisation.)
However, despite the involvement of those three very funny writers (who also worked on Seinfeld) and another Seinfeld vet, director Larry Charles (who also directed Borat and Bruno as well as Religulous), The Dictator never succeeds quite as much as I had hoped.
It is very funny at times, no doubt. There are some absolutely laugh-out-loud moments. The sequence in which Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen)and his partner Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas) take a helicopter tour of New York City and absolutely freak out the midwestern couple with them is a riot. And I adored the scenes late in the film when we see how Aladeen has used his skills as a fascist dictator to remodel Zoey’s hippie grocery into a far more efficient store. (I really laughed when you first hear one of the employees refer to him as “Supreme Grocer.”)
My favorite moment in the movie is hard to describe on paper. OK, it takes place in Kathryn Hahn’s uterus. I will say no more!
But the film is all over the place. I usually admire films that are ferocious about pursuing jokes. There definitely are some great movies that don’t really concern themselves with plot, but rather focus on just moving from the funniest possible line or moment to the next. … [continued]
I really enjoyed the Brad Bird-directed fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series (click here for my review), and that made me want to go back and watch the third installment. I’d really enjoyed Mission Impossible III back when it was released, and it was great fun to re-watch.
I have some issues with the first Mission: Impossible film, but overall I think it’s pretty successful. I think the first 40-45 minutes of Mission: Impossible II are pretty great, but then the whole thing collapses into a big awful mess. The third and fourth M:I films have been far more successful than the first two, in my opinion — J. J. Abrams and Brad Bird have crafted films that are much closer to what I’d like these Mission: Impossible films to be.
Mission: Impossible III represents J. J. Abrams’ theatrical directorial debut, but you’d never know it by watching the film. The movie looks amazing, and is directed with incredible confidence and grace by Mr. Abrams. His camera is constantly active — not to the degree that you’re distracted by it, but in a way that throws the audience right into the middle of the visceral action.
And boy is this film action-packed. I had forgotten just how many spectacular action set-pieces there are in the film. There’s that helicopter chase through a field of wind-powered turbines. There’s the complex break-in and kidnapping staged in the middle of the Vatican. There’s the brutal helicopter and drone attack on the IMF convoy traveling across a bridge. There’s the death-defying break-in to the skyscraper in Shanghai. I could go on! Each of those sequences could be the centerpiece of another action movie, they’re that good. Each sequence is a delight of twists and suspense, marvelously well-orchestrated by Mr. Abrams and his team.
Although there’s plenty of super-spy craziness in the film, all of the action in Mission: Impossible III feels far more gritty and grounded than that in the first two films. J.nJ. and his team make clear, right from the start, that they have set out to create a different type of M:I film. I love the very scary and very intense scene that opens the film (in which we see Ethan Hunt captured and tied to a chair, while Philip Seymour Hoffman counts down ten seconds before he says he will execute Ethan’s wife in front of him). It’s a terrifying moment, and also a very simple one — just three people and a gun in a darkened room. It’s not at all the way I’d expect this big-budget, fantasy super-spy movie to open.
The other strength of Mission: Impossible III is that, for the first time … [continued]
Boy do I absolutely adore Out of Sight. It’s one of those films in whose world I wish I could go on living. There’s just something so magical about the combination of the script, the direction, the acting, and the whole tone that is created in the film. When watching Out of Sight, I never want the story to end. I wish there were ten more films featuring these characters in further adventures. It’s that good — just a (too short) little slice of perfection.
The film is directed by Steven Soderbergh (it’s by far my favorite Soderbergh film, so far above the dreadful Ocean’s 11 movies as to be laughable), and adapted (by Scott Frank, doing a bang-up job) from the novel by Elmore Leonard. (Every time I watch this film I say to myself that I need to go read the original novel immediately. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet, but I do look forward to getting to that some day.)
When the film begins, we meet Jack Foley (George Clooney), a man who seems to be at the end of his rope. So, what is there to do but walk across the street and rob a bank. He fails, of course, but that’s just the beginning of the story. Out of Sight has a deliciously twisted narrative, jumping back and forth between different characters and different time periods. (The joy of discovering, late in the film, just what happened to so royally piss off Jack at the start of the movie is immense.)
George Clooney is absolutely dynamite in the lead role. It’s a true movie-star performance. He gives Jack ENORMOUS charisma and likability, even though he’s a thief and a scoundrel. Mr. Clooney brings a lot of layers to Jack, and I love the way the character is depicted as very smart and adaptable, though not super-humanly perfect. Jack does screw up, and he makes bad decisions. But we root for him to succeed every step of the way.
Jennifer Lopez plays U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco, and I would argue that she has never been better on-screen. Ms. Lopez is sexy and smart, and her chemistry with Mr. Clooney is palpable. Their first meeting — locked together in the trunk of a stolen car (you just have to watch the film to see how they got into that situation) — remains one of my favorite scenes from any film. The dialogue bites, but the scene succeeds because Mr. Clooney and Ms. Lopez sell it perfectly.
And how great is the rest of the supporting cast? There’s Dennis Farina as Karen’s dad. There’s Ving Rhames as Jack’s partner-in-crime Buddy. There’s Steve Zahn as the hapless criminal … [continued]
After watching The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another famous Vietnam war movie that I’d never seen: Platoon.
Oliver Stone wrote and directed the film, based on his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam in 1967-68. Oliver Stone is an interesting director to me. I respect his work as a writer and as a director, though I haven’t really seen many of his films. Maybe one of these days I should do a re-watching project (like my De Palma series which, by the way, I will be getting back to eventually…), but for whatever reason there aren’t that many films in Mr. Stone’s filmography that really interest me. But Platoon is a movie I have long wanted to see, and the film didn’t disappoint.
Platoon has an interesting structure. It depicts the one year posting in Vietnam of a young infantryman, Chris (Charlie Sheen), the Oliver Stone stand-in character. Most of these war movies tend to begin with a sequence in basic training to introduce us to all the characters before they get to the war. But Platoon skips over all of that. The film begins the moment the plane carrying Chris and his fellow soldiers touches down in Vietnam, and it ends a year later when Chris steps back onto a plane to take him away.
The film is basically divided into two halves. The first half is a series of vignettes of Chris’ experiences in ‘Nam: suffering on long marches through the jungle, struggling to stay awake on watch in the pouring rain, being in combat, and dealing with incredible stress and fatigue, not to mention the brutal heat, the disease-carried mosquitoes, the red ants, and many more terribly unpleasant experiences. As we watch these events unfold, we, like Chris, learn about the experience of the war from the perspective of the infantrymen. Because these scenes were all based on Oliver Stone’s real experiences, the movie has a powerful verisimilitude. I understand, of course, that this is still a Hollywood version of the Vietnam experience, but the events I was watching felt honest and real to me, which I enjoyed and appreciated. I think it’s why the first half of the film works so well.
We also gradually meet many of the other members of Chris’ platoon, most notably the two very different leaders: the kindly Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the vicious, scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). Willem Dafoe often plays the villain or the weirdo, so it’s delightful to see him playing the tough but fair Elias, a good man trying to do his best in a tough situation. Tom Berenger, meanwhile, is a nightmare come … [continued]
In the opening scenes of The Five-Year Engagement, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) get engaged after having been dating for exactly a year. They seem perfect for one another, and the engagement is quickly followed by a movie-perfect sweet/off-color engagement party. Bring on the wedding, right? Well, as you can tell from the title, not quite. Violet gets accepted into a post-doc at the University of Michigan, so the couple decide to put off the wedding-planning temporarily to move from sunny San Francisco to cold, wintry Michigan. The movie isn’t called The Two-Year Engagement, so obviously further obstacles spring up in Tom and Violet’s path.
I’ve been enjoying Jason Segel’s work ever since Freaks and Geeks. It’s hard to believe that the weird, gangly kid who the networks refused to cast as the lead in Judd Apatow’s follow-up series, Undeclared, despite Mr. Apatow’s championing of him (and who, as a result, Mr. Apatow snuck into episode after episode in the supporting role of Eric, Lizzie’s stalkerish ex-boyfriend) has over the last few years become a big-screen leading man. I’ve never stopped being a big fan of his work. In project after project, Mr. Segel can always be counted on to bring a certain oddball weirdness to all of his characters, but that weirdness is usually tempered by an inherent innocence and goodness. He’s a fearless performer (yes, Mr. Segel is naked at times on-screen in this film, as he often is) and one not afraid to dive deeply into the well of psychosis. My favorite section in the film is Tom’s descent into depression, as his two-years in Michigan slides into four and he becomes increasingly bitter about the chef-career he gave up for Violet. Tom gets weird, and hairy (he sports a hysterical wild-man beard-thing), and obsessed with hunting, and the whole thing comes very, very close to being off-putting, but I thought it was an absolute riot.
The Five-Year Engagement is the third film directed by Nicholas Stoller. His first film was the absolutely brilliant Forgetting Sarah Marshall (click here for my brief review), which he co-wrote with Jason Segel (who also appeared in the film, in his first major starring role). Mr. Stoller also directed the sort-of sequel Get Him to the Greek (click here for my review), and he co-wrote The Muppets with Jason Segel (click here for my review). So clearly Mr. Segel and Mr. Stoller are a well-oiled machine, and The Five-Year Engagement, while not quite as great as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is a pretty terrific film that benefits greatly from their strong partnership.
It’s also a film that is unabashedly bizarre. It’s a comedy, … [continued]
A few years ago when I was watching the documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (a really incredible short documentary that is well worth checking out — click here for my review), I commented that of Mr. Cazale’s five films, the only one that I hadn’t seen was The Deer Hunter. When Universal decided to release a nice new blu-ray of the film as part of their 100 year anniversary celebration, it seemed like it was finally time for me to remedy that.
The Deer Hunter is a powerful anti-war film, co-written and directed by Michael Cimino. It concerns the effects of the Vietnam war on a small group of friends from a Pittsburgh steel town. The very long (over three hours) film basically has three distinct sections.
The first act, well over an hour long, depicts a tumultuous day and a half in the life of Mike (Robert de Niro) and his steel-worker buddies. When we meet them, they are finishing a day’s work in the steel mill. They head to a bar to relax, and we learn that that night is Steven (John Savage)’s wedding, an event which the film depicts in geat detail. I don’t recall this lengthy an on-screen wedding celebration since The Godfather. The weddings in both films serve a similar function: slowly introducing us to all of the characters and their relationships.
I love how Mr. Cimino (working from a script he co-wrote with Deric Washburn, which was adapted in part from a script by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker) takes his sweet time with the opening act. We really live with these characters for a while, and I think that gives the film’s second and third segments that much more power. We spent time in this opening act learning some character details that don’t really go anywhere in terms of the film’s plot — I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Meryl Streep’s character Linda and her abusive father — but which enrich our understanding of these people and their lives. The wedding itself takes up a huge chunk of screen-time, but none of it feels extraneous or wasted. Indeed, the 30-40 minutes we spend at the wedding might be my favorite part of the film!
The film’s second act takes place in Vietnam. We skip right over all the usual basic training sequences, and also over seeing our characters’ reactions to arriving in Vietnam. Instead, we jump right into the middle of a harrowing sequence in which Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are being held captive by a group of Viet Cong soldiers. The captured American soldiers are forced to play Russian … [continued]
Well, here we are at last. The brilliant post-credits scene of 2008′s Iron Man (click here for my original review) promised the beginning of a bold experiment by the fledgeling Marvel Studios — launching stand-alone films starring several of their major characters (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) which would then be followed by all of those characters teaming up in an Avengers movie. It was a gloriously outrageous idea, one common to comic-books but never before seen in movies. Marvel Studios was actually planning on making a super-hero crossover film, and one featuring all the same actors who starred in the individual films! And not only that, but the individual films would actually connect, with story-points and characters overlapping to create a building momentum for the eventual climax in The Avengers.
It was a bold plan, and I am so happy and relieved to report that Marvel Studios has stuck the landing. Not only does The Avengers work, it works crazily well, and I think it’s the strongest Marvel Studios film since 2008′s Iron Man (and I say that as a big fan of both Thor — click here for my review — and Captain America: The First Avenger — click here for my review). It’s hard to believe that I live in a world in which a film version of The Avengers actually exists!! And that it not only exists but that it kicks so much ass makes the whole thing the stuff of beautiful fantasy.
There is surely a huge list of people who must be given credit for the success of this enterprise, but at the top of the list is co-writer and director Joss Whedon. I am a huge, huge, huge fan of his film Serenity (which he wrote and directed) and that film clearly showed that Mr. Whedon was the perfect man for the job of helming The Avengers. Serenity not only looks amazing, boasting some fantastic visual effects sequences and completely selling the reality of a futuristic, sci-fi world despite being made for a relatively small budget (FAR less than The Avengers). But more importantly, in that film Mr. Whedon was able to balance nine main characters, giving depth and life to every one of them, presenting them as very different people with different goals and different attitudes and different ways of speaking, and also giving each one of them moments to shine in the course of the film, without one character overshadowing the others.
Mr. Whedon brings the same deft touch to The Avengers. The greatest pleasure of the film isn’t just that the characters are all appearing in the same film (though just the … [continued]
Well, my apologies, gang, for the long delay between installments of my look back at all the James Bond films. I’ve been eager to get back to this Bond re-watching project, but I’ve just found myself busy with other things and continually drawn to other films. In the months since my last installment (my review of Goldfinger), I’ve had to change the title of this series from (Almost) Fifty Years of 007 to just Fifty years of 007, without the (Almost)! Yes, we have arrived at the fiftieth anniversary of the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Can you believe that? But I’m not here to talk about Dr. No. (I did that already — click here for my full review of that first Bond film!) No, let’s dive into Thunderball:
The film: Thunderball is probably my least favorite of the first batch of James Bond films, starring Sean Connery. (It’s way better than the later film that featured Mr.Connery’s return, Diamonds Are Forever, and my recollection is that it’s also better than the remake, Never Say Never Again.) Thunderball isn’t a bad film — no, it’s still a pretty great Bond film and a pretty great film, period. But for me, it lacks some of the magic of Mr. Connery’s first three Bond films, as well as the next film, You Only Live Twice.
The opening/The music: The film gets off to a rocky start with an opening sequence in which Bond attends the funeral of a SPECTRE operative. But it turns out the bad guy isn’t dead, he’s just pretending to be one of the mourning old ladies. Bond spots him, of course, and soon engages in an extended fight sequence with the dressed-as-a-woman SPECTRE agent. Disregarding the lunacy of the whole set-up (if the SPECTRE agent was just pretending to be dead, why did he attend his own funeral?? Why wasn’t he 10,000 miles away??), the whole Bond versus a dude in drag fight is just ridiculous, and even less compelling than the Bond versus an old lady with a knife in her shoe climax of From Russia With Love. The fight also hasn’t aged well, as there are so many obvious camera tricks (over-cranking the film to speed up the pace, stunt doubles a-plenty) that render the scene silly to the modern viewer. The whole thing has nothing at all to do with the rest of the film, and is best forgotten altogether.
Things pick up with the terrific theme song, sung by Tom Jones. I tend to prefer it when the Bond themes are sung by women, but damn if Mr. Jones doesn’t turn in a winner of … [continued]
Well, after finally watching, for the first time, Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another gaping hole in my film-watching history: Raging Bull.
I of course knew that Robert De Niro starred in the film as real-life boxer Jake La Motta. Raging Bull follows Jake’s life for about twenty-five years, from his early days as a lean, hungry-for-a-chance boxer to his middle-age as an over-the-hill, over-weight ex-con. As was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is a tour de force acting performance by Robert De Niro. (It’s amazing to me that the Robert De Niro we see today in the Meet the Parents films is the same man as this incredibly intense, powerful actor seen in these films from three decades ago.) I suspect everyone reading this blog know the stories of Mr. De Niro’s astonishing weight-gain (during a planned hiatus in filming) so that he could portray with full emotional honesty the fat failure De Motta became after the collapse of his boxing career. Frankly, it feels to me like a bit of overindulgent actorly nonsense that Mr. De Niro believed the only way he could portray the over-the-hill De Motta was by gaining the weight himself (rather than using any prosthetics). I could name many great actors who have created AMAZING performances when buried under prosthetics, thus bringing all manner of often-otherworldly characters to incredible light. And I’m not just talking about actors in sci-fi or fantasy movies. Yes, there were some tremendous prosthetics-enhanced performances in, say, the Lord of the Rings films (John Rhys-Davies as Gimli comes to mind), but how about Orson Welles in Citizen Kane?? (Read my thoughts on Citizen Kane here.)
Be that as it may, there is something viscerally shocking when we get our first glimpse of the rotund late-in-life La Motta, knowing that the flabby form we’re seeing is Mr. De Niro’s real body. It’s hard to believe that the lean, well-muscled boxer we saw earlier has transformed into this sorry sight, and even HARDER to believe that one actor made the same transformation in just a few months.
But there’s far more to Mr. De Niro’s performance than just the gimmick of his weight gain. In fact, in some ways, I think all that focus on the weight gain distracts from what a phenomenally compelling performance Mr. De Niro delivers in the film. As in Taxi Driver, Mr. De Niro’s intensity reaches out from the screen and grabs the viewer by the throat, forcing you to keep watching him, daring you to look away. In his own way, the angry, jealous, wife-beating La Motta is just as … [continued]
I came into the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ hit novel The Hunger Games without having read any of the novels. So my comments on the film will not contain any reflections on the film’s successes or failures as an adaptation of the source material. My review will simply address whether the movie stands or falls on its own, as a film.
In that respect, I found Gary Ross’ film The Hunger Games to be a very entertaining, if rather unremarkable, adventure tale.
For a film adapted from an apparently family-friendly young-adult novel, I was pleasantly surprised by how intense and grim the film was. While the film keeps the gore almost entirely off-camera, there is still quite a lot of violence, and I found the fights to be very energetic and engaging. The final bit of hand-to-hand combat atop a ship was especially gripping. Now, I’ve read Battle Royale, the Japanese manga published from 2000-2005 that tells a far more graphic, violent version of a similar story (schoolchildren forced to fight to the death). So, compared to that, The Hunger Games is hopelessly tame. But, that being said, I was impressed by the adult approach taken to the material. I didn’t feel things were softened in order to appeal to a four-quadrant demographic.
That adult approach taken by Gary Ross and his team was clear throughout the film, and was the most appealing aspect of the movie for me. This is an A-level adaptation, one in which a lot of care has clearly been taken to bring the world to life, and a lot of money spent to make it all look great. The cast is spectacular across the board. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (click here for my review), and I thought she was also great in X-Men: First Class (click here for my review) and in Like Crazy (click here for my review). After seeing her gripping performance in Winter’s Bone, playing Katniss Everdeen seems like a walk in the park for Ms. Lawrence, but that’s not to short-change her abilities. She’s in almost every scene of the film (and, indeed, the few scenes that shift from Katniss’ perspective all seemed extraneous to me) and she absolutely anchors the story, giving the audience a character to invest in and root for.
Woody Harrelson is marvelous as Haymitch, the drunk survivor of a previous Hunger Games competition who is assigned to mentor Katniss. Mr. Harrelson brings a world of pain and backstory to his performance — you can see it in his eyes, in the way he holds Katniss and her fellow “tribute” Peeta at arms length — that made … [continued]
So, yeah, we all know that Joss Whedon (mastermind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and many more pieces of beloved work) co-wrote and directed Marvel’s huge film The Avengers, opening in a few weeks (and which I am desperately anticipating). But did you realize that he was also involved in a horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, that was made back in 2009?
Yep! Mr. Whedon co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Goddard (a frequent collaborator with Mr. Whedon who was also an author on Lost and the co-writer of Cloverfield), who made his directorial debut with the film. Unfortunately, the movie was never released by MGM, due to the studio’s financial turmoil. Eventually the film was sold to Lionsgate and finally released a few weeks ago.
Go see it. Go see it right now!
Don’t let anyone tell you anything about it. Don’t read any reviews. (Really — I’m going to be super-vague but I invite you to stop reading this piece.) For goodness sake don’t watch any of the trailers. Just trust Joss Whedon and trust me and go see this film.
It’s almost impossible to write about The Cabin in the Woods without spoiling any of the wonderful surprises. There are some great actors in the film that I had no idea were in the film. They’re extraordinary, but I don’t even want to name their names!
So what CAN I say? I’ll say that the scene that interrupts the opening credits made me think that I was pretty sure I was going to like this film. Then there’s the moment, much much later in the film, when all the elevators open at once. Five seconds later, I was pretty much convinced that The Cabin in the Woods was the greatest friggin’ movie I’d ever seen!
Well, with some further reflection, it’s clear that The Cabin in the Woods is not, in fact, the greatest friggin’ movie I’ve ever seen.
But it is damn good.
The film is a deliriously clever twist on the horror genre. I don’t really like horror films, but I dug the heck out of the Cabin in the Woods. It is a horror film, don’t get me wrong. There are real scares and some grisly deaths. This is NOT a sweet romantic comedy!! So there are certainly aspects of the film that I know won’t appeal to everyone. But the film is based on an absolutely genius idea, and the main delight of the film is watching the petals of that genius idea slowly unfurl, and as the realization slowly dawns on the viewer and on one or two of the main characters as to what … [continued]
Justice League: Doom is the latest direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated feature. The story is adapted from the “Tower of Babel” story-line that ran through issues #42-46 of JLA back in 1998. Those original comics were written by Mark Waid and Dan Curtis Johnson and illustrated by Howard Porter, Drew Geraci, Pablo Raimondi, and Steve Scott. This adaptation was written by the late Dwayne McDuffie.
In the original story, villain Ra’s al Ghul is able to take out the Justice League using strategies specifically tailored to disable or destroy each individual member of the league. The hook of the story is the revelation of the inside-the-League source from whom Ra’s was able to attain the specific information he needed to create his stratagems. (Every on-line review I have read of this DVD has spoiled the identity of that member of the Justice League. I understand the reasons for doing so, since a) most comic-book fans know this story and so know who it was, and b) the identity of that Leaguer is really cool, and the story behind that betrayal is at the heart of this tale and part of what makes this such a great, fascinating story. But I’m going to try to preserve the surprise for anyone reading this.)
Justice League: Doom is a very, very loose adaptation of the “Tower of Babel” story-line. Though the central hook remains the same, the villain has changed (here it is the near-immortal Vandal Savage, rather than Ra’s al Ghul), many of the tactics used to attack the League members have been changed, and the villain’s ultimate goal (and his methods for achieving that goal) have changed. After the very-faithful animated adaptations of Batman: Year One (click here for my review) and All-Star Superman (click here for my review), it came as somewhat of a surprise to me that this adaptation played so fast-and-loose with the source material. On the one hand, I don’t think the original “Tower of Babel” story was so perfect that any change is a mistake. Still, I was surprised by the degree to which the story was altered.
First of all, I have no idea why the villain was changed from Ra’s to Vandal Savage. Why not use Ra’s? He’s a terrific villain, and his connections to Batman provide a great extra layer of resonance to the “Tower of Babel” story. (Also, since this DVD used so many of the original voices from Batman: The Animated Series and the Justice League cartoon — more on that in a minute — I would have LOVED to have seen the great David Warner reprise his role of Ra’s, who he voiced so memorably in Batman: … [continued]
Can you believe I’d never seen Taxi Driver?
I’m fairly well-seen when it comes to famous films, and I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese. But somehow I’d never seen Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Well, last month I finally saw them both. I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Raging Bull, but for now let’s dive into Taxi Driver.
Holy cow, what a great movie!!
The film feels just as potent and dangerous as it must have felt back in 1976. I was on edge right from the very beginning. From the first instant we meet lonely, insomniac Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), it’s clear this young man is a time bomb just ticking down the moments until it’s going to explode. Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro’s partnership has never been more powerful than it was in this film, their focus laser-sharp on the roiling emotions of this lost young man.
Robert De Niro is simply astounding as Travis, jaw-dropingly fierce as the self-descibed “God’s lonely man.” He seems almost gentle when we first meet him, quietly applying for a job driving a taxi. When we see him start to somewhat haplessly woo the young campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), though, it’s more uncomfortable than comic, since it’s clear this isn’t going to end well. We see a hint of charisma, and an intriguing intensity, when he marches into Palantine’s campaign office to ask Betsy out on a date, and watching that intensity turn brittle and then angry at the world around him is the tragedy of Taxi Driver.
The film is not a war movie, but I found it impossible to watch Taxi Driver without feeling constantly that the film was deeply rooted in the social and psychological ramifications of the Vietnam War. Travis is a vet, and although his experiences in ‘Nam are never explicitly discussed in the film, to me that piece of backstory flavored everything I was watching unfold. This character who is a stranger in his own skin, who had difficulty fitting in to society’s expectations, feels similar to the struggle that countless Vietnam veterans must have gone through following their return home. That Travis also finds himself drawn towards violence feels all the more tragically unsurprising because of his Vietnam experiences.
As was often the case with Mr. De Niro’s early performances, the physicality that he brought to the part was a critical combination with his riveting intensity. Much has been written, of course, of Mr. De Niro’s dramatic weight gain to depict the late-in-life Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, but in Taxi Driver Mr. De Niro brings exactly the opposite physical presence. There’s a scene late in the film, … [continued]
After watching Game Change (click here for my review), I was in the mood for another political film, so I decided to check out the handsome new Criterion Collection blu-ray release of The War Room. This 1993 documentary, directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, chronicles Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. Specifically, the film focuses on the campaign’s “war room” in Arkansas, headed by Lead Strategist James Carville and Communications Director George Stephanopoulos.
The War Room is an unusual documentary in that there is no narration, and no effort is made to label (with a caption or chiron) or otherwise identify any of the characters on screen. Some clever editing (of news footage, newspaper headlines, etc.) in the opening minutes provides some back-story and context (giving the viewer a hot-knife-through-butter run-through of Clinton’s victories in the Democratic primaries) and then the film settles into a fly-on-the-wall approach. Much of the footage in the documentary was filmed in the campaign’s war room in Little Rock, and with a you-are-there approach the filmmakers drop the viewer into the campaign HQ to watch events unfold.
It’s a fascinating approach. There were certainly occasions when I would have appreciated the occasional extra bit of explanation or identification of a character on screen. I’m fairly well-versed politically, and I certainly recognized Mr. Carville and Mr. Stephanopoulos, as well as Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers, Mary Matalin, and others, but there were plenty of other characters who we see on-screen who I didn’t know, and I would have loved for them to have been identified. On the other-hand, the fly-on-the-wall approach is very visceral and immersive. There’s something compelling in watching the campaign staff converse and joke and strategize together, without any obvious self-consciousness about being filmed. It feels alluringly intrusive somehow, like we’re watching something we’re not meant to see.
The filmmakers weren’t given access to Bill Clinton, which forced them to focus on his campaign staff instead, but you don’t miss his presence. For the one thing, the film is put together in such a way that what snippets the filmmakers did have of Mr. Clinton are well-integrated into the finished film. (I’m not sure, though, how they managed to get the candid shots of Mr. Clinton on the phone in a t-shirt that open the film…!) And for another, Mr. Carville and Mr. Stephanopoulos are fascinating enough characters that they more than carry the focus of the proceedings. It’s a hoot to watch them work. There’s an extended sequence when the campaign staff think they have footage that proves that the Bush campaign was spending money to print Bush/Quayle signs outside of the UUnited States. That particular political story winds … [continued]
Back in 2008, Jay Roach directed the excellent HBO movie Recount, which covered the incredible-but-true contested 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. (I wrote briefly about Recount here.) Just a few weeks ago, HBO premiered another political film directed by Mr. Roach: Game Change, an adaptation of the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 Presidential election.
The film is excellent. I’m a junkie for political films and documentaries, and I was absolutely gripped by Game Change. Mr. Roach and writer Danny Strong (who also wrote Recount) are able to bring the ins and outs of the political maneuverings of a campaign to life, mostly by focusing (as did Mr. Heilemann and Mr. Halperin) on the outsize characters involved.
The huge change that Mr. Roach and Mr. Strong made, in their adaptation, was to focus their film almost exclusively on the McCain/Palin side — specifically on the story of Sarah Palin. Whereas the book Game Change also spent a huge amount of time detailing the Obama campaign and the fierce primary battle between Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the film Game Change spends almost zero time with the Democrats. Because the picture that the film paints of Sarah Palin is an extremely negative one, that unfortunately results in Game Change’s feeling totally lopsided to me. I loved that Recount was balanced between the Democrat and Republican sides, constantly shifting viewpoints from one campaign team to the other. Game Change misses that. While I understand narratively the reason for focusing on Ms. Palin — she’s without question the most fascinating figure from the campaign, and there was clearly enough story about her alone to fill up a two-hour movie — I can see this film being off-putting to anyone with a Republican viewpoint.
It’s hard to separate politics from one’s thoughts about Game Change, because Ms. Palin is such a polarizing figure. Those who love her will dismiss this film as character assassination. Those who hate her will see this film as proof that they were right. I don’t believe this film will change many minds.
Certainly, the notion that the Sarah Palin presented in this film might have been one heart-beat away from the Presidency is horrifying. The main story-arc of the film is the way that the key members of John McCain’s campaign, particularly Mr. McCain’s chief campaign strategist Steve Schmidt and senior campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace, became convinced that Ms. Palin was shockingly ignorant and potentially dangerous. For the most part, I was familiar with the events covered by the film so wasn’t terribly stunned by any of the plot developments. But one thing that I’d never … [continued]
Remember the Walt Disney Company’s 40th animated feature, released in 2000, called Kingdom of the Sun? It was an epic tale set in the Inca empire about a selfish king who briefly switches places with a poor farmer who happens to look just like him, and an evil magician with a plot to block out the sun. The film featured the voices of David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Carla Gugino, and Harvey Fierstein, as well as six songs written for the film by Sting.
No? You don’t remember seeing that movie?
That’s because after three years of work, Disney management decided to completely rework the film, throwing out much of the material they had created (along with all six songs recorded by Sting). The film that was ultimately released to theatres was called The Emperor’s New Groove, and featured the voices David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Wendie Malick and Patrick Warburton, with two entirely different Sting songs in the film (“Perfect World,” performed by Tom Jones, and “My Funny Friend and Me”, which played over the closing credits).
The long, torturous process by which Kingdom of the Sun became The Emperor’s New Groove was captured in Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson’s amazing but long-shelved documentary The Sweatbox. In addition to being a filmmaker, Trudie Styler happens to be Sting’s wife. When he agreed to be involved with the music for the film, he got the studio to agree to allow his wife to document the process. She got a lot more than she bargained for.
The first thirty-to-forty minutes of The Sweatbox unfolds as one might expect any in-depth look at the making of an animated film to go. We spend a lot of time with the film’s lead director, Roger Allers, who was a star at the studio after his work co-directing The Lion King, which had become a huge financial and critical success. We meet various other key personnel on the Dinsey animation team — the co-director Mark Dindal, the producers, the lead animators tasked with bringing to life the film’s main characters, and more. Meanwhile, we follow Sting and his collaborator David Hartley as they work to write and record six songs for the film.
Then, about forty minutes in, we witness the fateful day in which an early story-boarded cut of the film is screened for the heads of Disney Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider. They hate the film, declare that it is not working, and begin a process of totally scrapping and reinventing huge chunks of the story. Characters are totally changed (the villager Pacha changes from a teenaged boy who looks just like the king into a heavyset married fortiesh … [continued]
Included in the spectacular 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane (click here for my review, in case you missed it!) is HBO’s 1999 mini-series chronicling the troubled production of Citizen Kane, called RKO 281. (RKO 281 was the film’s production code — RKO being the name of the studio.) I think it’s very cool that this film was included in the Kane set, and I was particularly excited because I’ve been wanting to re-watch this HBO film for years.
The film boasts a strong cast. Liev Schreiber stars as Orson Welles. I was surprised that Mr. Schreiber eschewed any of the grand Wellesian mannerisms that I’ve seen so many actors playing Welles use (such as Angus Macfadyen in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock — click here for my review — or Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles — click here for my review). Liev plays the role very straight — his Orson seems like a normal human being (albeit one who is at times brilliant and at times intensely frustrating, and often both). As the film progressed, I found myself quite taken with this interpretation. Mr. Schreiber focuses our attention on Mr. Welles’ struggles to live up to his wunderkind reputation, and he shows us Welles’ incredible stubbornness and his extraordinary command of his skills as an actor. He also doesn’t hesitate to show the ease with which his interpretation of Welles will use manipulation of all sorts to get what he wants.
John Malkovich plays Orson’s on-and-off buddy Herman Mankiewicz, who worked with Welles on creating the story for Kane and who wrote several drafts of the screenplay (and who would latter struggle with Mr. Welles over who should get the credit for that screenplay). Mr. Malkovich is great fun in the role, and he has terrific chemistry with Liev Schreiber’s Welles. The two men are like oil and water, which is what makes their scenes together so much fun. (It feels to me like there’s been a lot of playing with reality to cast Welles and Mankiewicz as such close friends, but their relationship works in the film so I can’t really complain.) James Cromwell plays William Randolph Hearst — this was perfect casting. For the first half of the film Mr. Cromwell doesn’t have much to do other than glower and say nasty things about Welles, but when the focus shifts towards Hearst in the film’s second half, he really gets to dig his teeth into the material. There are some great scenes in which Hearst results to some ferociously nasty tactics in order to block the release of of Citizen Kane, and Mr. Cromwell is terrific in those scenes in … [continued]
The 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane topped my Best DVDs of 2011 list, even though back in January I was still in the process of making my way through the expansive three-disc set. Over the last few months I’ve had a great time watching the film, listening to all the commentary tracks, and making my way through all the special features (including the 1995 Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and HBO’s 1999 film about Kane’s troubled production, RKO 281). Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the best movie ever made, and while it’s not my personal favorite film of all time, it’s a film that I really, really love. More than seventy years after it was made, Citizen Kane remains a magnificent film, and the blu-ray set is phenomenal.
I feel a bit under-qualified to write about Citizen Kane. The film has been the subject of so much scrutiny and attention over the past seventy years, and film scholars far more knowledgeable than I have written voluminous tomes about the movie. The two commentary tracks on the blu-ray set, by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, are both two-hour-long scholarly dissections of Kane above anything I could hope to write.
I first saw Citizen Kane in a film architecture class I took while at college. The course was a history of set-design in film, but it was also a history of the movies themselves. Each week the professor screened several films on the big-screen (using a projector in one of the lecture halls). I encountered quite a few major films for the first time through that class (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Battleship Potemkin, and many more), and Citizen Kane was among them. I was smitten with Kane immediately. I’m sure it helped that my first viewing was on such a large screen, where I could really soak in Orson Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s marvelously innovative cinematography. I have seen the film many times since then, and I never fail to be impressed and engrossed. This new blu-ray edition is absolutely gorgeous. The film is dazzlingly pristine, yet not scrubbed so clean that it loses its character. (Don’t judge the image quality by the opening few minutes — that newsreel footage is SUPPOSED to look crummy!)
I’m a sci-fi nut and I love big visual effects films, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite aspects of Citizen Kane is the extraordinary depth and variety of visual effects trickery used by Mr. Welles to create the look of the film. Citizen Kane is a visual effects movie, make no mistake! In just the opening shot alone (the slow … [continued]
Horrible Bosses focuses on three average guys, each of whom is beset by a particularly horrible boss. There’s Nick (Jason Bateman), an advertising executive who works excruciatingly long hours in search of a promotion, only to be shot down at every turn by his supervisor (Kevin Spacey), who delights in the perks of his position (large salary, a huge office) while gleefully forcing Nick to do all the work. There’s Kurt (Jason Sudekis) whose happy life at a chemical company is overturned when his friendly boss (Donald Sutherland) dies and the company is taken over by his deceased boss’ drug-addicted, profane, selfish son (Colin Farrell). Then there is Dale (Charlie Day), a dental assistant whose beautiful boss (Jennifer Anniston) harasses him sexually at every turn, even going so far as to threaten to blackmail him in order to force him to have sex with her. So, left with no other option, the three put-upon men decide that they have no other option: they must band together and kill their bosses.
Horrible Bosses is not generally the type of comedy I’d rush out to see. From the premise, it’s clear that this is a comedy without much footing in reality. That the bosses are so outrageously over-the-top evil, and that the three guys come up with such a scheme to get out from under their heels, means that this movie is clearly a cartoon. Now, that sort of outrageous fantasy can certainly be funny, but my preference is for comedies where the humor and the characters are slightly more grounded in reality.
But I was intrigued to see the film, primarily because of the phenomenal cast. As an Arrested Development alum, Jason Bateman has my fandom hooked for life, and all of the accompanying players have proven themselves to be strong comedic forces. And the film was directed by Seth Gordon, who helmed the superlative 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters about the sub-culture of people, world-wide, who compete annually for the top score in Donkey Kong.
But ultimately, while there are certainly a lot of laughs in Horrible Bosses, the film never really grabbed me. Part of this might be personal preference. As I wrote above, I tend to be less into films where the characters are such caricatures. Though there are certainly plenty of films that would fit that description, such as Bruno, that I absolutely love. So maybe there’s more to it than that. There’s just nothing terribly original or memorable in Horrible Bosses. There are some funny moments and some good laughs, but for me the film faded quickly from my memory. Even a few days later I had trouble recalling the details … [continued]
Wow. Coming off the one-two punch of Blow Out (click here for my review) and Scarface (click here for my review), two Brain De Palma films that I quite enjoyed, comes 1984′s Body Double. This is a terrible movie, and by far the worst of the six De Palma films I have watched so far.
Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully, a down-on-his luck actor who just can’t seem to catch a break. He gets fired from the movie he’s working on, then catches his girlfriend sleeping with another guy. Things start to look up, though, when a fellow actor tells Jake that he can stay in the swank house in which he’s been house-sitting. The house’s best feature? The sexy housewife next-door, who likes to do an erotic dance in her lingerie, in plain view of the window, every night at the same time. After several nights watching her, Jake becomes somewhat obsessed, eventually spending an afternoon following the woman all around the city. His infatuation turns to frantic concern, though, when he starts to suspect that someone else has been following her, and is out to do her harm.
Body Double is basically an R-rated retelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. That actually sounds like it could be a decently entertaining idea, but I found Body Double to be a complete bore from start to finish.
The film’s biggest problem is that Craig Wasson is a totally uninteresting milquetoast character. Part of that is the fault of the script, which wastes no chance to portray Jake as a total loser. But Mr. Wasson’s performance is just terrible. There’s a scene, early on, after he discovers his girlfriend having sex with another guy, when Jake heads to a bar to have a drink. He starts drinking heavily and barking at the bartender. The implication is that Jake has hit the bottle before, and I guess we’re supposed to think that this is a darker guy, with more internal demons, than we’ve heretofore suspected. But Jake’s sudden turn into grumpy drunkenness, rather than giving extra layers to the character, just comes of as laughably ridiculous. It’s like a kid pretending to be a tough guy.
Things don’t get better from there, and whether I was watching Jake floundering through the weirdest acting class I’ve ever seen or making puppy-dog eyes at the beautiful woman next-door, I was totally disconnected from the character.
Body Double is supposed to be an erotic thriller, but as with all of Mr. De Palma’s films I found the sex and nudity to be totally over-done to the point of silliness. I could imagine the film containing some creepy/sexy scenes of a guy … [continued]
Buckle up, my friends, I have a lot to say.
I adore Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the film adaptation of the first book, A Princess of Mars, for quite a while now. I’ve also been mystified — as I have written about several times in the past few months — by the staggeringly abysmal marketing campaign of this film. From the stupidly truncated title, to the bland, boring posters, to the weird trailers that studiously avoided ANY reference to the word “Mars” (thus rendering them incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already know the story), the whole thing felt like the studio was running away from the sci-fi pulpiness of source material. Which made me wonder, why make the film at all? The involvement of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (making his live-action directorial debut) gave me some hope, but I was very, very dubious when sitting down in the theater to see this film.
There is a lot that John Carter gets very, very right. There are also a number of very unfortunate mis-steps. The result is a film that is far from great but also far, far better than the ad-campaign would have you suspect. I feel sorry for the filmmakers that their movie has been so brutally maligned in the press as a huge flop. The bad press will almost certainly keep anyone on the fence away from seeing the film (thus ensuring the film’s status as a major money-loser), which is a shame, and I think it’s doubly unfortunate that a big, sci-fi spectacle that has actually been made with some intelligence is going to be seen as a major failure, thus lessening the chances of getting future great sci-fi films made, while meanwhile they’ll continue to churn out Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.
Let’s start with what’s good:
Tar Tarkas is absolutely perfect. Perfectly voiced by Willem Dafoe, and brought to life via stunning CGI effects, this fierce Jeddak of the Tharks who befriends John Carter is, to me, the heart of the story. I feel the filmmakers HAD to get Tars right in order for the film to succeed, and man did they nail it. Reading the books, the existence of the Tharks — a multi-armed, huge green race of Martian aliens — seemed to me to be one of the biggest obstacles in anyone ever translating the story to the screen, but I found the depiction of the Tharks to be amazing. The filmmakers wisely made a few tweaks to Burroughs’ descriptions (these Tharks have four arms, rather than six, and while they are much taller than humans they are not quite as humongous as in the book) … [continued]
And so at last we arrive, in my journey through the films of Brian De Palma, to one of his films which I had already seen: Scarface. I watched this film several times back when I was in college, though I don’t think I’ve seen it much, if at all, in the last decade.
Just as I felt that Blow Out (click here for my review) was a large leap forward for Mr. De Palma from his earlier films, Scarface represents another huge jump in his prowess as a filmmaker. Of all the De Palma films which I have seen so far, Scarface is the one that has aged the best. There are a few moments when the somewhat over-wrought soundtrack dates the film, for me, but otherwise this movie feels just as vital and dynamic as a film made this year, rather than one that is almost three decades old.
Scarface is a live-wire of a film — a visceral, go-for-the-gut primal scream of a movie, filled with all the passion and excesses of it’s main characters. But for a film that was shocking at the time of its release for its graphic violence, I must say I found Scarface to be the most restrained of all the De Palma movies I have watched so far, at least until the lunatic orgy of violence at the film’s climax.
Scarface, restrained? OK, I realize that might seem to be an absurd comment, but hear me out. Yes, Scarface is incredibly violent. But my major complaint about Mr. De Palma’s films so far in my viewing project has been that there has been so much extreme content (mostly of the sexual/nudity variety) that seemed totally gratuitous to me. I think those films would have been stronger films had some of the gauzy shower scenes, for example, been cut out, because those scenes just make me laugh or shake my head, pulling me out of the movie I was watching.
But in Scarface, I don’t feel the violence is gratuitous, at least not until the very end. Let’s take one of the film’s most shocking scenes: Tony Montana’s botched money-for-dope exchange in a Miami hotel room which results in a bloodbath. When I think of Scarface, I think of this scene even more than the “say hello to my little friend” climax. It made an enormous impact on me when I first saw the film, and even knowing exactly what’s coming when I watch it now, I still find it to be incredibly gripping — tense and horrifying. It’s terribly violent, but let me make two points. One, the scene is not actually as on-the-screen gruesome as you might remember. … [continued]
I had pretty much finished putting together my Best Films of 2011 list when I saw The Guard, but the film was so good that I had to rework my list to add it in! I noted in my list that The Guard was the last addition, and that I’d be writing more about the film soon. That time has come!
This little Irish film was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, and features Brendan Gleeson in the role of his career as the Irish Garda (policeman) Gerry Boyle. Gerry has created a fine if unremarkable life for himself as the apparent master of a teensy little corner of Ireland. He knows the people — both his fellow cops and the various criminals — and he knows the land. But much larger problems land on his doorstep when a gang of drug-smugglers arrive, leading to murders and the involvement of the FBI, personified by the by-the-book agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). The two wildly different men are oil and water, but they must pool their efforts in order to stop the bad guys.
Yes, it’s a buddy-cop movie, but a deliriously unique, off-color one!
Mr. Gleeson commands the screen with his presence. The gruff, profane, incredibly un-PC Doyle is an astounding creation, and without question one of the finest acting performances of the year. (No surprise, Mr. Gleeson was entirely ignored by the Academy.) But who cares about the Oscars — we have this film and what more do we need. Mr. Gleeson is an absolute riot to watch — Doyle is blunt and to the point, always saying what he’s thinking no matter how many feathers he ruffles. In fact, he positively delights in the ruffling of feathers — the more the merrier, particularly if he’s dealing with anyone who could be considered an authority figure. He says some completely outrageous things in the film — particularly to the African-American Agent Everett. But the twinkle in Mr. Gleeson’s eye makes clear that Doyle is only saying those things to get a reaction out of whoever he’s speaking to. It’s his way of testing the measure of the people around him, be they cop or criminal. He’s a small-town hick, but he’s more than happy to play up that cliche image of himself if it serves his purpose. He is honest and noble, but willing to bend the rules of procedure without a second thought in order to do what he feels is right. Doyle is a magnificent character, and Mr. Gleeson has never been better.
Don Cheadle has the far less showy job as the straight-man, but although his is a quieter, more subtle performance, it’s integral … [continued]
In the film Our Idiot Brother, Paul Rudd plays the titular idiot, Ned Rochlin. Ned is an extremely sweet, well-meaning goofball, but he has an uncanny knack for wreaking unintentional havoc on the lives of everyone he encounters — along with his own! When we first meet him, he’s being busted for selling pot to a police officer — who solicited him IN UNIFORM! It’s a great introduction to Ned, because not only do we see that he is pretty naive and clueless, but we also see clearly his inherent decency. He takes pity on the officer who comes to him with a sob story of how tough his life has been, which is why Ned agrees to sell him some pot. Paul Rudd brings his 100-watt smile and every ounce of his powerful likability to the role, and it’s a great fit for his particular charms and skilled comedic mannerisms.
But Our Idiot Brother isn’t just about Ned, the idiot. It’s also about the “Our” in the title — that being Ned’s three sisters, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer. The three women are extraordinarily well-cast, and this assemblage of comedic and dramatic powerhouses is a huge part of what gives Our Idiot Brother it’s charm.
Elizabeth Banks plays Miranda. She’s a fast-talking, city-living journalist for Vanity Fair. She’s struggling to make her breakthrough at the magazine, and isn’t above using some unscrupulous methods to do so. She and her neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott, so brilliant on Party Down and these days on Parks and Recreation) are clearly perfect for one another, though Ned is the only one of the three of them who can see that. Zooey Deschanel plays Natalie, whose hippie lifestyle involves her living in a commune-style apartment with her girlfriend, Cindy (Rashida Jones, just as much fun and as brilliantly cast as the actresses playing the three sisters) and several other roommates. Emily Mortimer plays Liz, a stay-at-home mom married to Dylan (Steve Coogan, with his smarminess turned up to eleven, which of course only makes him more entertaining), a documentary filmmaker who is cheating on her with the Russian dancer who is the subject of his latest film.
All three women (four, if you could Rashida Jones’ Cindy, and we really should) are fascinating, strong, sharply-drawn characters. The film wouldn’t work if they weren’t as interesting as they all are. These women are all fully-realized people, with strengths and flaws. As Ned bounds into their lives, his unflinching honesty results, with unswerving consistency, in overturning the carefully-constructed patterns of each of their lives.
Our Idiot Brother is very funny, but there are dramatic aspects to the story as well, and director … [continued]
After some delay (sorry about that!) we return to my Days of De Palma series, exploring the films of Brian De Palma!
Much has been written about the way in which Brian De Palma’s films feel heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Already in my De Palma viewing project, I have seen the ways in which this is so. But Mr. De Palma’s 1981 film, Blow Out, isn’t so much a Hitchcock film as it is a more lurid, mainstream re-telling of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent 1974 film The Conversation.
In Blow Out, John Travolta (who had a very small role in Mr. De Palma’s film Carrie) plays Jack Terry, who works as a sound-guy on shlocky B-grade movies. One evening, Jack is out on a bridge recording sound (they need better “wind” for their horror picture) when he witnesses a terrible car accident, in which a vehicle careens off the road and into the water. Jack dives in and rescues a woman, Sally (Nancy Allen, in yet another De Palma film after Carrie and Dressed to Kill), but the driver perishes. When said driver is revealed to be a popular Presidential candidate, his people urge Jack to forget he was ever there and never speak to anyone about the woman in the car, so as not to sully the now-dead politician’s reputation. The story the press reports is that the candidate’s car suffered a fatal blow-out which caused it to crash off the road, but Jack’s sound-recording of the event leads him to suspect that he can hear a gunshot the instant before the blow-out — meaning the man was murdered.
The start of the film had me very worried. The film begins with a long point-of-view shot of a stalker lurking outside some sort of women’s dormitories. We’re given just the sort of cheap thrills and gratuitous nudity that has so bugged me in Mr. De Palma’s films so far. Of course, this dorm is filled with women having sex, women frolicking in their underwear in full view of the windows, a woman lying on a couch masturbating, women showering, etc. The whole thing is eventually revealed to be a movie within-the-movie — we’re actually watching the cheesy horror film that Jack and his boss are working on. It’s supposed to be a joke, but the gag would be a lot funnier if this sort of gratuitous exploitation wasn’t EXACTLY the sort of stuff Mr. De Palma’s films have been jam-packed with, up to this point!
Luckily, things pick up from there. Blow Out contains some of the most effectively tense sequences of any of Mr. De Palma’s films that I have seen … [continued]
In preparing to write my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, I made an effort to watch as many 2011 films as I possibly could. I’ve already written about many of those movies here on the site, but there were many that I saw that I haven’t had a chance to write about yet. I’ll be trying to remedy that with my “Catching up on 2011″ series this week and next.
Let’s start with The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s acclaimed novel.
As I’m sure most of you know, the novel and the film depict the lives of several African American maids working in wealthy white homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. The story is set in motion when the young, white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson after finishing college. After several years away, Skeeter is able to see her town in a new light, and she finds herself shocked at the way the African American “help” is treated by her friends and neighbors, and even by her own mother. Skeeter’s path eventually crosses with two fascinating African American women, Aibilene Clark (played by Viola Davis) and her friend Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer).
I haven’t read the novel, so my evaluation of The Help is based entirely on the film. For the most part, I found the movie, which was adapted and directed by Ms. Stockett’s friend Tate Taylor, to be entertaining albeit a bit slight. There is no question that the story of the generations of African American women who worked as maids/house-keepers/etc. to affluent white families in the South is an important subject. And I respect the desire by Ms. Stockett and the filmmakers to try to wrap that story in as entertaining a package as possible, so that while we’ll hopefully feel the emotion of the story, we won’t be too depressed by too “heavy” a presentation of the subject-matter.
But I think the filmmakers erred in going a bit too far into the light and fluffy side of town. (And while it seems to me this is likely a flaw of the source material, as I wrote before I can’t say for sure having not read the book.) For instance (and there are some small spoilers ahead, but even I knew of this plot twist before watching the movie, without having read the book), there’s the whole matter of the shit-pie that Minny baked for Hilly (played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard). Quite a lot of the film’s story hangs on that event, as Hilly’s desire to cover it up is the leverage that Minny and the maids have over her. But the event is such … [continued]
Yes, yes, I know my “Days of De Palma” series has been missing for several weeks. Rest assured, I’ve already seen and written about several more Brian De Palma films, and those reviews will be posted on the site for the next several Fridays in a row. But for now, as part of my “Catching up on 2011″ project, it’s time at last to circle back to my “Days of Terrence Malick” series to write about his 2011 film The Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life is about, well, that’s sort of hard to say. The bulk of the film chronicles the life of an American family living in Texas in the 1950s. Brad Pitt plays the stern father of three boys, and Jessica Chastain (having quite a break-out year after also starring in The Help) plays his wife, the sensitive, loving mother. We also get glimpses of one of those boys as an adult, played by Sean Penn. We also witness the creation of the world and an extensive sequence set in the time of the dinosaurs… as well as the apparent ultimate destruction of the Earth and a possible glimpse into the afterlife.
I feel like I might sound somewhat dismissive of the film in the way I wrote that plot summary, and that’s not really fair. The Tree of Life is a staggeringly beautiful film, and a staggeringly original one. I can’t think of any other film I’ve ever seen in my life that is at all similar to this film (except perhaps some of Mr. Malick’s prior films). Narrative and character development are apparently inconsequential to Mr. Malick. The entire film, start-to-finish, is a montage. Mr. Malick weaves imagery and sound together in the way of an artisan working an enormous loom. The film has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, in the fashion of memories that slide together in one’s mind as one thought leads to another recollection leads to another, with no regard for chronological consistency or continuity. What a bizarre, wonderfully unique way to make a movie! When The Tree of Life delights it’s in realizing what a unique creation one is watching unfold, and allowing oneself to be swept along by the river of gorgeous imagery of life (and death).
But while The Tree of Life is beautiful and original and transporting, I also found it to be deathly dull and incredibly frustrating. I really had to force myself to keep watching during the last hour. I was enjoyably … [continued]
In Wanderlust, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) find their New York lifestyle overturned when George’s firm goes under and Linda’s depressing documentary about penguins gets rejected by HBO. With no jobs and no way to afford their apartment (tiny though it might be), the two are forced to leave the city so George can get a job working for his brother, Rick (Ken Marino). On the way, though, a small mishap (involving an encounter with a wine-drinking nudist played by Joe Lo Truglio and their car flipping over), they’re forced to spend the night at a place called Elysium. At first George and Linda assume Elysium is a rural bed and breakfast, though they quickly discover it’s a commune (or “intentional community” as the denizens call it) inhabited by an eclectic bunch of free-spirited men and women. They’re oddballs, but they all seem to have achieved a certain peace and happiness that George and Linda have never known. Is this a better lifestyle for them than the hustle and bustle of big-city modern life?
Wanderlust was directed by David Wain (who also directed the very funny Role Models) and written by Mr. Wain and Ken Marino. I really enjoyed Role Models, and as I mentioned in Monday’s post I’ve become a huge fan of Ken Marino based on his work in Party Down. So I was interested in Wanderlust, and the film’s stellar cast was an added bonus.
The film did not disappoint. There’s nothing dramatically revelatory in the movie, and I can’t say that mining humor from the hippie lifestyle is a particularly original idea. But I found Wanderlust to be a very funny, weird, and even sweet film, one that I quite enjoyed.
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are both strong in the lead roles. Neither actor strays too far from his/her comfort zone character type, but in a way that works for the film as we start from a place of feeling like we know and like these two people. Both George and Linda are normal enough characters that they work as audience surrogates when they encounter all of the weirdness at Elysium. But Mr. Rudd and Ms. Aniston are also skilled enough comedic performers that they’re able to give George and Linda some surprising weirdness of their own, whether it’s George’s increasingly insane way of motivating himself in the mirror before trying to have sex with the beautiful Eva (Malin Akerman), or Linda’s strategy for halting the groundbreaking for a casino that certain businessmen are trying to construct on Elysium’s land.
But while Mr. Rudd and Ms. Aniston are strong leads, the film rises or falls depending on how funny and interesting the … [continued]
I love watching the Oscars every year, though I am dismissive of them as an institution for judging great movies. It’s rare that I agree much with the nominations, and even rarer that I agree with who wins. Still, I love the spectacle of the show, and am always hoping for a great comedic performance from the host. I also see the Oscars as a great occasion to hang out with friends and talk about movies for hours, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!
Here are the 2012 nominees for Best Picture:
War Horse — click here for my review.
The Artist — click here for my review.
Midnight in Paris — click here for my review.
Moneyball — click here for my review.
The Descendants — click here for my review.
Hugo — click here for my review.
Tree of Life – My review will be up next week!
The Help — My review will be up next week!
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – this is the one Best Picture nominee that I haven’t seen yet.
To read MY opinions on the best films of 2011, just click here. Despite that fact that I listed fifteen films instead of my usual ten, only two of my selections (Hugo and The Artist) were nominated for Best Picture. Though I do take some comfort for the fact that, for the first time since I started MotionPicturesComics.com, my choice for best film of the year — that would be Martin Scorsese’s Hugo — was nominated for Best Picture. (In 2010 I selected Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as my favorite film of the year; in 2009 I selected Where the Wild Things Are, and in 2008 I chose The Dark Night. Not only did none of those films win the Academy Award for Best Picture, they weren’t even nominated!) So that probably means bad luck for Hugo, but we’ll see!… [continued]
So last year I really struggled to come up with my Top 10 Movies list. I had a hard time finding ten films that I felt were really GREAT. What a difference a year makes! This year there were so many films that I loved that I wanted to include on my list that, for the first time, I decided to expand my Top 10 list to a Top 15 List! AND I cheated even more and made my number 15 a three-way-tie!
I thought 2011 was a really terrific year for movies, and there were a lot of great films that didn’t make it onto this list. I really enjoyed Moneyball, 50/50, The Ides of March, Like Crazy, The Descendants, 30 Minutes or Less, Your Highness, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, The Rum Diary, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris, and Our Idiot Brother, but they didn’t make the cut in this strong year. (Follow the links to read my reviews of those films.) But, wow, those films could have been on my Top 10 list and that would have been a really strong Top 10 list, one that would have held up quite well in comparison to my previous years’ Top 10 lists! That’s how good a year this was.
I saw a lot of films in 2011, and particularly in the last month I’ve crammed in a lot of movie-watching, trying to catch up on all the 2011 films I wanted to see. There are a lot of films that I saw in the last few weeks that I didn’t think warranted inclusion on this list, but about which I’ll be writing reviews on this site in the coming weeks. These include My Idiot Brother, The Help, Tree of Life, Horrible Bosses, and more. So you can look for those reviews soon.
As I always do, before I dive into my lists I want to mention the films I wanted to see, but never got to: A Dangerous Method, Shame, The Debt, Drive, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Larry Crowne, Beginners, The Trip. So if you loved one of those films and want to know why they’re not included on my list — well, now you know. Hopefully I’ll get to track down some/all of those films in the near future. (They’re all on my Netflix queue, so all I need is time!)
15. Marvel’s Summer Movies: Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class — I do love me a good super-hero movie, and this summer mighty Marvel gave us three of ‘em, each one a really terrific, fun … [continued]
Let’s get this clear from the outset: I haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s original novel, nor have I see the Swedish film adaptation. What put the American film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my radar wasn’t any connection with the source material, but rather my great love for the films of director David Fincher. (Click here for my review of The Social Network, here for my review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, here for my review of the Director’s Cut of Zodiac, here for my review of Fight Club, and here for my review of Se7en.) So I’ll be judging this film purely on it’s own merits.
Do I really need to summarize the story for anyone? Even I, who had never read a word of Mr. Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, was quite well-acquainted with the basic story going in. Well, OK, let’s keep it brief: disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) gets hired by wealthy, elderly Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the death of his young niece, Harriet, thirty years earlier. Eventually Mikael’s path crosses with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) a young, brilliant but extremely maladjusted computer hacker and investigator, and the two wind up working together to solve the decades-old mystery.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an extremely weird movie. There are elements of true genius at work, but also aspects of the film that I felt were not entirely successful.
The most notable aspect of the film is Rooney Mara’s fierce interpretation of Lisbeth. Ms. Mara dramatically transformed her physical appearance in order to create this character, but that’s just the beginning of the way in which she sunk into the role. Ms. Mara’s Lisbeth is a haunted, withdrawn, almost alien creature. The way she looks, the way she talks, the way she interacts with other people is distinctly abnormal. There’s a humanity there, but it’s buried deep down underneath the fortress that Lisbeth has constructed around herself. She is an abused and lonely young woman, but she’s also a superhero with extraordinary cunning, mastery of technology, and great physical strength. There are times when Lisbeth is extraordinarily sympathetic, and times when she’s extremely difficult to like. There are times when her thoughts and emotions are writ large on her face, and times when it’s almost impossible to determine what’s going on in her head. Ms. Mara’s work as Lisbeth is the center of the film, and by far the most interesting aspect of the whole proceedings. It’s a staggering performance, and one that stayed with me long after having seen the film.
The bulk of the movie — the middle two hours … [continued]
Well, I was already a big, big fan of star Jean Dujardin and director Michael Hazanavicius from their two OSS:117 French-language James Bond parody films, Cairo Nest of Spies (click here for my review) and Lost in Rio (click here for my review). Now, after seeing the two men’s jump into “serious” movie-making with the beautiful, heartfelt film The Artist, my opinion of those two artists has only grown.
In The Artist, Mr. Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a super-star of the silent film era. At the premiere of one of his films, a young woman, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), accidentally bumps into him and the two are photographed together. This is Peppy’s first blush with stardom, and that brief bit of exposure helps land her a bit part as an extra in a film, and from there her career begins to skyrocket. Mr. Valentin’s career, unfortunately, is on the opposite trajectory, as the advent of movies with sound (“talkies”) dooms a silent-film stars like himself. The film follows several years in the lives of Mr. Valentin and Ms. Miller, and the way that the two characters keep bouncing back into one another’s orbit.
The Artist isn’t just a film about the silent film era. It is, itself, a silent film. The film begins by throwing us right into what is, after a few fun-filled minutes, revealed to be Mr. Valentin’s latest silent film, A Russian Affair. But even after that film-within-a-film ends, The Artist continues to be, with just a few (very, very cleverly-used exceptions), a silent film. There is no dialogue and there are no sound effects, just a rousing, gorgeous score by Ludovic Bource (who just a few days ago won a Golden Globe for his score for this film). One might imagine that a full-length silent film, in today’s era, might stretch an audience’s patience. But I did not find that to be at all the case. The film is beautiful, emotional, and very, very funny, and I found myself completely swept along in the story.
Enormous credit for that, of course, goes to the lead actors. Mr. Dujardin is an incredibly skilled performer. He’s incredibly handsome, and his movie-star good-looks serve him well in this role as an enormous movie-star. His comic skills were on fine display in the OSS:117 films, and are well-utilized here. Mr. Dujardin has an infectious smile, and when he unleashes it it’s clear why his character was such a big star in the silent era, and of course it also draws in the modern audience watching from their seats in the theatre. But I was also quite taken by how well Mr. Dujardin sells the dramatic … [continued]
I was absolutely taken with the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Sir Alec Guiness, which I watched just a few weeks ago. It was terrific preparation for the equally wonderful feature film adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel, starring Gary Oldman and a phenomenally robust ensemble.
The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also directed the fantastic, creepy Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In) is a delightfully taut, twisty tale of spies and spy-masters. I was stunned by how much of the story from the six-hour miniseries made it into the two-hour film. The script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is stuffed full to overflowing with plot and incident, but the film never feels rushed. In fact, under Mr. Alfredson’s steady hand, the story unfolds at a carefully measured pace. As in the mini-series, the scope of the story builds gradually, as scene after scene of conversation (often between men who we, the audience, don’t quite know who they are, talking about things that we’re not sure we quite understand) accumulates and comprehension gradually dawns on the audience as it does on George Smiley himself.
This is a spy story, but it is not an action film. It is very much a drama, and a drama in which the tension is drawn not from gunplay or chase-sequences, but from quiet conversations in dark rooms. I’ve read many rave reviews of this film in which the reviewers commented that the film was good on first viewing, but GREAT on second viewing, at which time you could really understand who everything was and what was going on. I certainly was glad to have watched the mini-series before seeing the film, as that enabled me to follow the story without any confusion right from the beginning. (It also gave me the delight of seeing characters and scenes from the mini-series reprised and reinterpreted by these new performers.) I certainly don’t think one has to have seen the mini-series, nor have any prior knowledge of the film or the story, to be able to really enjoy this film. But it helps! This is a movie that is built for repeat viewings. The film (like the mini-series before it) does not spoon-feed the audience any information. There’s little-to-no exposition to spell-out who people are or what their relationships are to one another. You need to figure those things out for yourself. In this way, the film draws in the audience, and puts you, in a way, into George Smiley’s investigative shoes. As in the mini-series, I found this for-the-attentive-viewer style of story-telling to be tremendously compelling.
Smiley, so memorably portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness … [continued]
At this point in Woody Allen’s amazing career (and whether you love or loathe the filmmaker himself, you must acknowedge that the man’s writing and directing a film a year for the last forty-some odd years is an amazing achievement) I think that my level of enjoyment of his new films rests largely on which side of the familiar I feel his new films land.
Many critics object to the been-there, done-that feel that they get from Woody’s films these days. And I certainly feel that way myself, sometimes. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a great artist continuing to explore certain themes or ideas throughout his work. Painters do that, as do musicians, so why not filmmakers?
Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, opens to a gorgeous montage of images of Paris, set to a piece of jazz music. This is a device that Mr. Allen has used before in his films, most notably in the opening to Manhattan (click here for my review of that seminal film), in which we’re presented with a montage of images of New York City, set to a wonderful piece of music by George Gershwin. Watching the opening of Midnight in Paris, one might sigh and say, “been-there, done-that, this is just the same as the opening of Manhattan.” But, despite the similarity, I still loved this device as a way to open the film. It felt like a stylistic echo of Mr. Allen’s previous work in a way that was like spoons fitting comfortably together in a drawer, rather than repetition done by an artist out of ideas. (It helps that the images of Paris in the opening to Midnight in Paris are so beautiful, and the jazz music so wonderful.)
On the other hand, when we’re presented with scenes, in the early part of the film, in which we meet Gil (Owen Wilson)’s shrewish wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) who is hassling him about his pursuit of “artistic integrity” and who thinks he should just relax and take the easy pay-check (that his Hollywood screenwriting job affords), or when the two argue about Paul (Michael Sheen), with whom Inez is enchanted but who Paul dismisses as an airhead intellectual, I felt that we were on the BAD side of the familiar.
I’ve seen those character types, and those arguments, time and time again in Woody Allen’s films, and I was disappointed to see those same “talking points” returned to here. These character dynamics were interesting to me in Woody’s films from thirty years ago, but now, to me, they feel played out. I would have rather seen Mr. Allen push himself a little … [continued]
I really loved Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film from two years ago, and so I was thrilled that they went into production on a sequel so quickly. (That the first film ended with such a delicious promise of further adventures didn’t hurt, of course!)
But, unfortunately, the follow-up installment, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, left me rather cold.
To be honest, I’m having a bit of trouble putting my finger on what exactly went awry. I still love Robert Downey Jr.’s manic interpretation of Holmes, and I thought Mad Men’s Jared Harris was terrific as Professor Moriarty. There are some big laughs in the film, and also some terrific sequences of action/adventure. The chase through the forzen woods, in which Holmes & co. are barraged by artillery fire, is pretty thrilling (much more effective in its entirety than it was in the film’s trailer, in which I thought those slo-mo shots looked pretty silly). And Holmes and Moriarty’s final confrontation — a chess game that moves into an intense battle of wills, all inside their heads — is genius, and probably the reason-for-being for the entire film.
So why did the whole thing leave me feeling somewhat empty?
Well, let’s start with Professor Moriarty. We’re told, over and over again, that the genius professor is an evil mastermind, and a mental match for Holmes. But except for one moment in the middle of the film, in which Holmes admits that “I made a mistake” and finds himself unable to stop an assassination, we don’t really see Moriarty as a genius mastermind until that final confrontation at the very end of the movie. I wanted a sense of urgency throughout this film. I wanted to feel, over and over again, that Moriarty was two steps ahead of Holmes. But I never felt that way at all. In fact, Moriarty makes a big mistake early in the film in which Holmes is able to rescue Noomi Rapace’s gypsy character, Madam Simza, from death. So right away we see that Moriarty isn’t infallible and, of course, Simza ultimately proves key in helping Holmes unravel Moriarty’s plans.
It’s not until that final battle-of-wills-to-the-death between Holmes and Moriarty that we’re really given a sense of Moriarty’s genius. I understand that the filmmakers wanted to save that mental duel for the film’s climax, but the result is that everything that comes before feels somewhat underwheming to me. This is a story-telling problem that, in my opinion, the filmmakers weren’t able to solve.
The result, as I noted before, is a film that I found to be rather lacking in intensity. Take the opening scene. (SPOILERS ahead now, my friends, so beware.) I was … [continued]
In a season of generally serious movie-fare, Young Adult is a blazingly funny film that still carries some serious dramatic heft. It’s an absolute knockout of a film from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (who previously collaborated on the great 2007 film Juno).
Charlize Theron plays Mavis. She was clearly the queen bee of her high school, though her life these days seems to be anything but great. She’s divorced, living alone in the city, and the line of high school-set young adult novels that she’s been ghost-writing has been cancelled. When she receives an e-mail notification that her old high school flame, Buddy, has become a father, Mavis decides to head back to her small home-town of Mercury to win back her old beau (his wife and child be damned).
Ms. Theron has never been better, in my opinion, than she is as Mavis. Mavis is still gorgeous on the outside, but Ms. Theron (guided by Ms. Cody’s take-no-prisoners script) is fearless in showing us how absolutely twisted and broken she is on the inside. Mavis is a terrible, terrible person, and of course for the whole film you’re rooting at her to fail in breaking up Buddy’s family. But at the same time, Ms. Theron is able to create a character who doesn’t totally turn off the audience. She’s so hysterical in her bad behavior that she’s completely compelling as the lead character in the film.
The comedian Patton Oswalt is equally terrific as Matt Freehauf, a high school classmate who Mavis bumps into at a bar when she first returns to Mercury. Matt was (and still is) a geek, and to say that he and Mavis travelled in different circles in high school is to put it mildly. And yet, the two strike up a weird sort of friendship during the week that Mavis is in town. There are a few times when the film hits the “geek” aspect of Matt’s personality a bit too hard (there are plenty of lonely geeky guys out there, I’m sure, who don’t still play with action figures), but for the most part I found Matt to be nearly as interesting a personality as Mavis. Most of that is due to Mr. Oswalt’s energy and charisma. Matt is a depressed, lonely guy, someone who contains a lot of pain and sadness inside, and yet even as Matt says he hates his life, Mr. Oswalt gives him an almost childlike joie do vivre that I found tremendously entertaining. Physically and personality-wise, the pairing of Mavis and Matt (and Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt) is an inspired study in contrasts, and yet the two are both so similar in their loneliness. … [continued]
When I first saw the trailer for War Horse, I dismissed it almost immediately. Something about the swelling music and the dramatic shots edited together rubbed me the wrong way, as if the trailer was screaming for us to understand that THIS IS A SERIOUS (read: Oscar-bait) FILM!! Equally unappealing to me was that, on the other hand, what appeared to be a story about the adventures of a miraculous horse seemed to be to be incredibly silly and childish. If the words “a Steven Spielberg film” hadn’t been in there, I would have immediately resolved not to see the film.
But there’s just no way that I can miss seeing a new film by Steven Spielberg on the big screen, and I’m glad that I didn’t write this film off because War Horse, while not a masterpiece, is a very solid film and a much different type of story than I was expecting.
The weakest part of the film is the first thirty minutes or so. That’s the part of the film that is most like what I feared the movie would be. A boy forms a miraculous bond with a beautiful horse, and then that amazing horse plows the field that everyone declared was impossible to plow. Now, I’m no farmer, but the film presents us with two pieces of information that every character accepts as fact: that, a) the horse Joey is far too small to be a plow horse of any kind, and that b) the rocky field is considered to be un-plowable by even the biggest, best plow-horse. So, of course, Joey is able to plow the field, which brings us right into fantasy-land. I was worried.
But then World War I breaks out, and the boy, Albert, loses his horse to a young man going off to war, and the film really begins. I was worried that War Horse was going to be the adventures of this amazing horse at war. Luckily, though, with one small exception (the scene in which it seems that Joey volunteers to pull the heavy artillery, in order to spare another, injured horse), the film is not about the heroic actions of an anthropomorphized heroic horse. Rather, Joey is the vehicle for telling a series of different vignettes about World War I. As Joey passes from owner to owner, and the war progresses, we meet various different characters on all sides of the conflict (British, French, and German) and so are presented with stories covering a wide range of the spectrum of experiences … [continued]
Steven Spielberg has only directed one film since Munich (click here for my review) in 2005, and that was the tragically disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 (which I prefer to pretend never happened). That’s a long dry spell for one of the masters of modern cinema. Luckily for us all, Mr. Spielberg burst back onto cinema screens in a big way, late last month, with the release of not one, but TWO new films, released just three days apart from one another: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. I saw them both during a terrifically fun late-night double-feature. I’ll be back here soon with my thoughts on War Horse — for now, let’s dive into The Adventures of Tintin.
The film is, of course, based on the long-running French-language comic-book series written and illustrated by the Belgian artist Hergé. It draws upon material from several of the Tintin books, including The Secret of the Unicorn (which was, at one point, the sub-title for this film — I’m not certain when that was dropped), The Crab with the Golden Claws, and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Tintin, Boy Reporter, purchases a model of a three-masted sailing ship, The Unicorn, at an outdoor market and immediately finds himself embroiled in a globe-trotting adventure involving various parties’ search for the wreck of the actual ship The Unicorn, which is rumored to contain an enormous treasure.
The film is magnificent, a viscerally entertaining romp all the way through. When the film ended and the lights went up, I couldn’t believe it was over — the time had passed so quickly. I’ve heard people comparing The Adventures of Tintin in tone to Raiders of the Lost Ark. While Tintin doesn’t equal that masterpiece, there certainly are similarities in terms of the film’s pulp-inspired adventurous spirit, and the rapid pace in which we (and the hero character) are thrown from one exciting action-sequence into the next.
Actually, what the Adventures of Tintin reminds me of, even more than Raiders, is the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, depicting one of young Indy (played by River Phoenix)’s adventures. Not only is our protagonist a fairly young boy who is surprisingly tough and clever for his age, but there’s a delicate balance between intense action that features peril for our hero and an almost slapstick comedic sensibility.
That’s a tough balance to find, but with Steven Spielberg’s hand at the helm (not to mention producer Peter Jackson’s), it’s a balance that The Adventures of Tintin makes look effortless. There are so many thrilling sequences that stick out in my mind, from the film. There are the … [continued]
Well, one thing’s for sure: the opening of Dressed to Kill isn’t one I’m going to be forgetting any time soon. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but an extended shower scene featuring full frontal nudity of the lead character (played by Angie Dickinson, though apparently the actual nude body on display was that of a body double) who, after getting herself nice and soaped up, begins masturbating and is then surprised and raped.
Oh, it all turns out to be a dream, but it’s an eye-opening sequence and that’s putting it mildly. In my review of Carrie, I commented that I felt the opening shower scene was totally gratuitous and really weakened what was otherwise a strong start to the film. Well, this opening shower scene is WAY more graphic (in terms of the nudity shown), and while it feels a bit more of a piece with the erotic thriller that follows, it still feels totally gratuitous. In mean, it isn’t even an event that actually HAPPENS in the film, it’s just a dream! I suppose one could suggest that the dream is an introduction to the weird sexual inner life of Angie Dickinson’s character, Kate. And the concept of dreams and the line between fantasy and reality is a major theme of the film. But it’s hard to argue that this opening isn’t just a way to start one’s movie off with a bang and titillate the audience. I guess that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but (and I made the same comment about Carrie), it makes it hard to take the rest of the movie seriously.
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a wealthy housewife unsatisfied by her husband. She admits her desire to have an affair to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), and eventually does pick up an unnamed guy in a museum. I’m reluctant to spoil what happens next, so I’ll just say that a spree of sex-related murders begins, and eventually a call-girl, Liz (Nancy Allen, returning from Carrie) and Kate’s young son, Peter (Keith Gordon) team up to try to stop the killer.
Angie Dickinson is terrific in the film, with her star-wattage turned up high. She’s electric in her early scene in Dr. Elliott’s office, and also in the extended near-wordless sequence in which she picks up a guy (or allows herself to be picked up) in the museum. It’s great fun to see Michael Caine in the film, and he brings great dignity and presence to the role of Dr. Elliott. Having these two movie-stars in the film really elevates the often … [continued]
Two years after Carrie, Mr. De Palma directed The Fury, another story of telekinetic teenagers. But while the initial description of the film does sound a bit like more of the same, The Fury is actually quite different from Carrie in terms of tone and execution.
Carrie was focused on the telekinetic teenager in question. It was very much a coming-of-age story (albeit a very bizarre, horrific one!) But The Fury is more of an espionage story. And while we do follow the telekinetic girl Gillian (Amy Irving) throughout the story, I felt the main character — and the heart of the film — was the adult character, Peter. In the film’s opening, Peter’s son, Robin (who we learn has telekinetic abilities) is kidnapped by mysterious men who try to kill Peter (and, indeed, Robin believes they succeed). Throughout the rest of the story, we follow Peter in his increasingly desperate attempts to locate his son.
Peter is played by Kirk Douglas, and he’s terrific in the film. We don’t learn a lot about Peter’s background, but he clearly has experience and training in the military. The script doesn’t give Peter too much character — the story is far more concerned with the plot mechanics of twists and double-crosses, rather than character development — but Mr. Douglas’ performance fills in all the blanks we need. He plays Peter’s friendly charm and charisma, as well as the tough-as-nails, willing-to-do-whatever-it-takes side of him. He’s a ton of fun to watch, and frankly whenever the film cut away from Peter’s story I was impatient for it to get back to him.
That’s not to criticize Amy Irving (returning from Carrie), who is lovely and endearing as Gillian. In the movie’s early-going, Gillian discovers that she possesses unusual gifts. She eventually winds up checking into the Paragon Clinic, a boarding house devoted to young people with special abilities (shades of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters!). The clinic’s director (Charles Durning) seems friendly, but it is soon revealed that he has connections to the shady operative (John Cassavetes) who arranged for Robin’s kidnapping.
I enjoyed watching this non-super-hero take on kids with special powers unfold, and I enjoyed how the script and (by John Farris, adapting his novel) and Mr. De Palma’s direction treated the story seriously, without camp. As I wrote above, The Fury is structured like a spy/suspense film, and I think that was a very successful choice. (This distinction is made clear right from the film’s opening, an energetically staged assault on an Israeli beach designed to mask the effort to … [continued]
Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name I think of when I think about family-friendly adventure films, but with Hugo, the master proves once and again his incredible control of the medium of film, no matter the genre. Hugo is a breathtaking work of genius, and I found myself enraptured by the film’s propulsive energy and the exuberant love for film and, indeed, for all works of art, that pores out of every frame of the movie.
The Hugo in Hugo (adapted from from The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, which was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick) is a young boy living in the walls of a Paris train-station in the 1930′s. His parents are dead, and the uncle who adopted him is a drunkard who eventually abandoned him. But not before teaching young Hugo how to mind all of the clocks in the station, a task which Hugo has secretly continued to do. All the while he has scrounged tools and supplies to work on repairing a broken automata (an elaborate wind-up figure), which he and his father were working on together before his father’s death. When Hugo is caught, mid-theft, by the crochety old man who runs a small toy booth in the station, Hugo agrees to work for him to repay what he has stolen. He is quickly befriended by the intelligent, well-read young girl, Isabelle, in the man’s care. The bond between Hugo and Isabelle grows as they start to realize that the old man, whom she refers to as Papa Georges, hides secrets of his own, including a possible connection to Hugo’s automata.
In my first paragraph I described Hugo as a family-friendly film, but don’t take that to mean that the film is childish or simplistic. Quite the contrary, I found Hugo to be richly layered and nuanced. There is fun adventure to be had as the tale unfolds, but also great sadness and melancholy. (If you’re looking for something to compare it to, in tone, I would direct you to Pixar’s Up.)
Right from the opening frames, the film is gorgeous. Mr. Scorsese uses visual effects with extraordinary aplomb. The opening shots juxtapose the gorgeous city-scape of 1930′s Paris with the complex gears and inner mechanisms of a clock, and the sequence is thrilling and clever. The environment of the city, and of the city-within-the-city that the train station represents, is brought to fully-realized, teeming life. I don’t know where the beautiful costumes and sets end and the computer-generated effects begin, and that’s just the way I like it. Every frame of the film is packed with fascinating imagery — if my eye ever wandered from the main action, there was always … [continued]
I’ve really enjoyed all three Mission: Impossible films, though none of them quite reached perfection in my mind. Probably my favorite part of all three films is the first 30 minutes of the first one, where we got to see an awesome team of super-spies engaged in some really fun, twisty covert operations. Then, of course, they all get killed off and the film (and the sequels) turns into the Tom Cruise super-hero show. J.J. Abrams’ third installment was a big step back in the right direction, but even in that film I felt the team was too-quickly sidelined.
What a delight it is to report, then, that I think the latest installment, Ghost Protocol, is the strongest film in the series so far! I saw the film in huge, glorious IMAX, which is how I highly recommend that you see it as well. People are all atwitter about 3-D these days, but I think that seeing a film in IMAX represents a far more immersive experience than the often-distracting 3-D effects. (Although I did just see Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, in wonderful 3-D — check back here on Wednesday for my full review). Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible film takes full advantage of the huge canvas that IMAX has to offer.
I’ve long-worshipped Brad Bird, from his work on The Simpsons to his amazing animated films The Iron Giant (GO SEE IT right now, you won’t regret it), The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is Mr. Bird’s live-action directorial debut, and it represents a triumphant announcement of an incredible talent.
The action in this film is phenomenal. Ghost Protocol is alive with action, from start-to-finish. This film MOVES. There are so many gleefully inventive set-pieces that I hardly know where to begin. There’s the opening break-out from a Russian prison, with the film’s playful withholding of the identity of the man being rescued. There’s the fiendishly clever way the IMF team infiltrates the Kremlin. (I LOVE the screen employed by Ethan and Benji in the hallway.) Then there’s the gangbusters sequence in which Ethan (Tom Cruise) is forced to scale the exterior of the tallest skyscraper in Dubai. In the trailers, I actually thought that scene looked rather silly. But in the film I found it to be a bravura sequence of phenomenal special effects and mounting tension. Here is where seeing the film in IMAX really pays off. There’s a terrific shot in which Ethan steps out of the window onto the side of the building. Suddenly the camera follows him out, and we the viewers are right there vertiginously hanging off the building right along with him. As the sequence escalates and things … [continued]
I’ve often enjoyed here, on the site, taking some time to watch or, in some cases, re-watch, a series of films by the same director. One of my very first blogs on the site was a look back at several of the films of David Mamet, and more recently I re-watched the last decade and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg (click here for my reviews of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, The War of the Worlds, and Munich) and took a look back at the first three films by director Terrence Malick (click here for my reviews of The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and Days of Heaven).
I’ve decided now to turn to a prolific director whose films are very well-known, and yet somehow I’ve only seen a few of them: Brian De Palma. Of his lengthy filmography, I’d only ever seen Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, and Mission to Mars. There are a ton of other famous films, directed by Mr. De Palma, that I’ve been meaning to see for years: Carrie, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Femme Fatale, and more. So I was excited by the opportunity to finally check out those films. I was also intrigued by Mr. De Palma’s reputation, in that he seems to be a filmmaker who some love, while others loathe. Personally I didn’t yet have a strong opinion on Mr. De Palma, having seen so few of his films. That’s about to change.
I decided to start with one of Mr. De Palma’s most famous films, and the one I had been most wanting to finally check out: Carrie.
The film is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Sissy Spacek (just three years older than she was in Badlands) stars in what might be her most famous role as young Carrie White. Raised by her single mom, a religious fanatic (Piper Laurie, dialing the crazy all the way to eleven), Carrie has lived a sheltered life. Now, as a teenager, she is almost completely clueless as to the simple social realities of how to connect with the other kids at school, and in the movie’s still-shocking opening, Carrie is horrified when she has her first period in the school gym’s shower. Carrie has no idea what is happening to her, and in the film’s first step into weirdness, that traumatic incident provides the spark that ignites Carrie’s burgeoning telepathic powers.
The opening scene in the girls’ locker room encapsulates everything that works, and doesn’t work, about this film. Stephen King’s original idea, of taking the terror … [continued]
Ok, so it took me a little longer than I’d anticipated to get to the next installment in my “Days of Terrence Malick” series, looking back at the films of this acclaimed director. Re-watching The Thin Red Line (read my review here) made me want to watch the two films that Mr. Malick made in the 1970′s: Badlands (read my review here) and Days of Heaven. Both films are considered masterpieces by many, and I was eager to finally see them.
In Days of Heaven, a young and very handsome Richard Gere plays Bill, a poor worker forced to flee his steel-mill job in Chicago after he knocks down his boss in a moment of anger. So he and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and young sister (Linda Manz) hop a train out of the city. The threesome eventually find themselves in the Texas panhandle, where they find work (along with hundreds of other migrant laborers) in the wheat fields of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard, who I’ll always associate with his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). The farmer takes a liking to Abby, and Bill urges her to move in with him, so that the three of them can take advantage of the farmer’s wealth. Needless to say, things don’t turn out well for anyone involved.
There is very little dialogue in Days of Heaven. At times it feels like a silent movie, or a tone poem in which the beautiful imagery is called upon to carry the weight of the story. There are moments in Days of Heaven in which Mr. Malick is able to harness the awesome power of cinema to create some truly breathtaking moments, all the more notable for their near-total lack of dialogue or narrative exposition. There are long stretches in which the film lets the absolutely gorgeous shots of the rural Texas landscape carry the viewer along, and I found myself endlessly fascinated by the scenes showing the men and women hard at work harvesting wheat. Those moments have a poetic beauty that surprised me. Then, most notably, there is the sequence, late in the film, in which a fire spreads through the farmer’s wheat fields, eventually building to a mighty conflagration. The escalation of this sequence is incredible and terrifying, a bravura achievement.
And yet so much of the film feels to me as if Mr. Malick was purposely trying to make his film difficult to understand. I continually found myself struggling to understand the dynamics between the characters, or the simple set-ups of what was going on. Bill and Abby make a decision, in the early minutes of the film, to pretend that … [continued]
Last week I saw The Muppets and then The Descendants, in what has to be one of the weirdest double-features ever. I was really excited about The Muppets, and while I enjoyed that film (read my review here) I was surprised to end the evening having far preferred The Descendants!
The whole world seems to have gone ga-ga over Sideways, Alexander Payne’s last film (which was released all the way back in 2004, wow). I really enjoyed that film, and it deserves credit for showing the whole world how great Paul Giamatti is, but I’m going to say that I found The Descendants to be a stronger film over-all.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off real-estate lawyer living in Hawaii. He describes himself at the start of the film as “the back-up parent,” but he’s forced out of that comfortable-to-him role when his wife falls into an irreversible coma following a boating accident. Matt suddenly finds himself the primary care-giver for his two daughters, the teen-aged Alex (Shailene Woodley) and the ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). In the process of traveling around the Hawaiian islands to tell friends and family about his wife’s condition, things become even more complicated when Alex reveals to Matt a secret about his wife (her mom) which all the trailers for the film spoiled but which I’ll avoid revealing here.
The above paragraph isn’t really a description of the plot of the film. Well, it sort of is. But it’s more like the framework around and within which the events of the film — mostly a series of moments in the lives of this threesome — transpire. Not a whole heck of a lot happens in The Descendants, and that’s part of the film’s charm. Things seem to unfold at a slightly laid-back, Hawaiian pace. There is some learning and some growing, but I felt the film stayed pretty far away from schmaltz, and the character arcs felt earned, rather than just being driven by what Hollywood Screenwriting 101 might think is necessary.
OK, maybe I’m overstating things to say that not a whole heck of a lot happens in The Descendants. It’s interesting to compare this film to Like Crazy, which I reviewed last week. Now THERE’S a film where not a whole heck of a lot happens! Compared to Like Crazy, a movie that strove for often-times painful naturalism, The Descendants is incredibly dense with plot. And I will admit that there is quite a lot of drama that befalls George Clooney’s character in the week-or-so depicted in the film, perhaps more than would realistically befall you or me, even in one of our most tumultuous weeks. But … [continued]
The beginning of The Muppets, the new film starring Jim Hensen’s creations, presents us with a world much like our own: one in which the Muppets have been pretty much forgotten, passed over in favor of more modern sources of entertainment. Beseeched to get the gang back together and once again put on a Muppet Show, Kermit at first refuses, concerned that there’s no way for the Muppets to ever regain their former status, that the world has changed too much.
It’s a clever way to reintroduce us to these beloved characters as, indeed, it’s been a long long long time since these characters felt at all relevant. Though I adored The Muppet Show as a kid (and I must have watched the first three films — The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan – dozens of times), I haven’t seen any of the kiddie Muppet films released over the past two decades. Whatever you think works or doesn’t work in this new Muppets film, we can at least hopefully agree to thank Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin for spearheading a project that takes the Muppets seriously, and that is intended to be enjoyed by kids AND adults, just as the classic Muppets shows and movies were.
There’s been some grumbling in the press by folks like Frank Oz (a tremendous talent who I revere greatly) and other Muppets performers that Jason Segel and the other young turks responsible for this film haven’t been respectful to the Muppets, but that claim couldn’t be further from the truth. The Muppets is positively dripping with admiration and adoration for these characters, and I was pleasantly surprised by how many loving references to classic Muppets characters and bits were woven into the film. Most of all, the film’s entire story is clearly designed to prove to the world that the Muppets ARE wonderful characters, and that they CAN still be just as funny, relevant, and entertaining today as they were in the ’70s and ’80s.
One might expect that folks like Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller would try to stuff the film full of crass jokes and dirty humor, but that doesn’t happen at all. (If anything, the film is a bit TOO square for my tastes. More on that in a moment.) And the characters are NEVER played for laughs. The Muppets generate jokes, but we’re never laughing AT them. This is an important distinction. Though most of the characters are voiced by new voice actors (Jim Henson has of course long-since passed away, and Frank Oz declined to participate in the film), the character of each Muppet has been wonderfully preserved, and … [continued]
If Like Crazy is playing anywhere near you, I really encourage you to seek out this wrenching little film.
The movie stars Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov in J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot) and Felicity Jones (getting a tremendous amount of acclaim, and deservedly so, for this breakout role) as a young couple who meet at university in L.A. and quickly fall crazily in love. Jacob (Yelchin) is an aspiring furniture designer, and Anna (Jones) is a writer. The two immediately spark to one another, and Anna chooses to stay the summer in L.A. rather than returning home to London. But overstaying her VISA gets her into trouble when she does eventually return home to London, and she finds herself barred from re-entering the United States. The bulk of Like Crazy follows Jacob and Anna struggling to maintain a connection during the months and eventually years that follow, when, despite their efforts, they are unable to get Anna’s travel ban lifted.
I could imagine that plot summary being written about a big-budget Hollywood romantic film, with two super-stars in the lead roles, in which the separation of the two characters leads to silly hi-jinks (Maybe they experiment with phone sex!) and eventually to big heart-felt moments (A dramatic speech! A kiss in the rain!) scored to pop songs or to rousing orchestral music. Thankfully, none of that is found anywhere near Like Crazy.
The film is presented in a stripped-down fashion, with the focus tight on the two lead characters. The camerawork keeps us often intimately close to these two people, and the story is unflinching in its sometimes brutal exploration of the painful emotional truths of love and relationships.
Like Crazy was made on a shoe-string budget. In an interview, the 28 year-old director, Drake Doremus, said that the entire film cost only $250,000, and was filmed entirely on a $1,500 camera. The shoot lasted only a few weeks, and the scenes were mostly improvised by the two actors. Working from a detailed 50-page outline, created by Mr. Doremus, the actors developed the scenes, and the details of their relationship, through the process of filming the movie.
It’s clear to me that the film benefitted extraordinarily from the aesthetic choices necessitated by such an on-the-cheap, on-the-fly process of filmmaking. I really connected to the movie’s unadorned technique, and the fly-on-the-wall, almost voyeuristic position into which we, as the viewers, are placed, as we watch this couple struggle through their long-distance relationship. The film asks tough questions of the characters, and their responses to the situations in which they were placed felt very real to me, very emotionally true. Both Jacob and Anna are presented as likable … [continued]
I’d been reading about Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, the British sci-fi/horror/comedy film Attack the Block, all year. The low-budget film was a hit on the festival circuit, and was trumpeted by several of my favorite on-line film reviewers, notably Drew McWeeny at Hitfix.com and Devin Faraci at badassdigest.com. It received a U.S. theatrical release, but sadly came and went from theatres pretty quickly. When the film was released on blu-ray last month, I was excited to track it down.
The film is terrific, and I’d wager that if you enjoyed UK-based action/comedies such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Layer Cake, then you’ll really dig Attack the Block.
The titular “block” refers to a low-income housing unit in Kennington, England. The film’s main characters are a small band of kids from the block who try to escape their lives of poverty and boredom at home by wreaking havoc on the streets. When we first meet them, they’re egging on their leader, Moses (John Boyega in a star-making role), to beat an unidentifiable creature to death. Then they mug Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young single nurse who also lives in the block. It’s the start of a fine evening for the boys, until an alien invasion spoils all their fun. Yep, turns out the creature they beat to death was a little alien, who has a lot of angry friends.
The genius of Attack the Block is the way it marries sci-fi alien invasion movie conventions with the street-level young-tough humor of Guy Ritchie’s early films. Generally these types of alien invasions strike New York City, not a run-down English inner city. But, of course, watching these street hudlums face an alien apocalypse is the deliriously clever premise of the film, and the source of all the fun.
Not that Attack the Block is all fun and games. In fact, the early-going isn’t that funny at all. The gang’s mugging of Sam is an unsettling sequence, not the type of scene you’d expect to find in a film with comedy on its mind. But writer/director Joe Cornish cleverly sets the stakes of the film to be very high right from the beginning. This is a world in which bad things happen. That mugging scene demonstrates that the characters in this film face real peril, thus escalating the dramatic tension. It also gives a real character-arc to the boys in Moses’ gang. I intensely disliked the boys at first, but absolutely grew to love them by the end. It’s a pretty impressive achievement of story-telling, and is a critical reason that the films works as well as it does.
The other is in the way in which, while the … [continued]
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good, angry political thriller, so I quite enjoyed George Clooney’s latest directorial feature, The Ides of March. Perhaps thriller is the wrong word, since that word conjures thoughts of films featuring mysteries or action/suspense or damsels in distress. And while there is an unfortunate damsel in The Ides of March who is subject to a great deal of distress, when I write “thriller” I refer not to the presence of any violent murder in the plot, but rather to the film’s bubbling sense of dread and urgency, which builds to a fierce boil as the story approaches its climax.
George Clooney is a fine actor. I’ve long held that he — like Brad Pitt — is a far better actor than he needs to be, what with his movie-star looks. But while Mr. Clooney might be a fine actor, he’s a damn magnificent director. His first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, remains one of my very favorite films ever (and the movie that cemented my abiding appreciation for the great Sam Rockwell), and his second, Good Night, and Good Luck, is an equally beautiful, confident, urgent piece of work. There’s a direct line that can be drawn from the beating political heart of Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism, to the Ides of March.
Set during several tumultuous days leading up to the Ohio Democratic primary, The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling (who blew my mind, back in the day, in The Believer — and, if you’ve never seen it, go out and find that searing film about a young Jewish boy who becomes a neo-Nazi) as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic number two in the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). I’m loathe to reveal any details of the plot, but suffice to say things get a little rough for Stephen and his candidate. The Ides of March casts its gaze at the dirty back-room political in-fighting that goes on behind the scenes, far away from the bright lights of the network camera crews. The film clearly has some broad points to make about our modern political races, but the film is first and foremost a gripping dramatic tale.
Ryan Gosling is terrific, charismatic and compelling as Stephen. He plays the film’s light early scenes with grace and charm, clearly showing us why Stephen has, at a young age, become such a skilled political operator. When things turn increasingly desperate, Mr. Gosling takes us right down the rabbit hole along with him, and the genius of the film is the way in which we’re forced to wonder, in the final … [continued]
In the DVD’s special features, Zooey Deschannel describes the film Your Highness as a dirty version of The Princess Bride, and I’d say that’s as good a description as any for this very profane, very funny fantasy film.
I won’t call it a spoof, because Your Highness isn’t out to make fun of the conventions of fantasy films. Rather, Your Highness is an unabashed fantasy adventure, albeit one in which the main character is totally out of place in this sort of film! That’s the genesis of the film’s comedy.
Danny McBride plays Prince Thadeous, a pampered, cowardly fellow who has been forever living in the shadow of his more heroic brother, Prince Fabious (a perfectly-cast James Franco). Fabious is the sort of young hero who is usually at the heart of these sorts of tales, but it’s Thadeous who is thrust into the spotlight when his brother’s fiancee Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux).
The film is a terrific spotlight for Mr. McBride’s specific brand of foul-mouthed, man-child energy. He’s enormously endearing even while being extraordinarily selfish and crude. Mr. Franco also is given a real chance to shine in the role, reminding me of the exquisite comedic chops he displayed back in Freaks and Geeks. Fabious could have been a boring straight-man character, but Mr. Franco brings a gleeful energy and over-the-top chippiness to all of his scenes, making Fabious just as entertaining as his brother.
I’ve never heard of Rasmus Hardiker before, but he’s quite funny as Thadeous’ faithful man-servant Courtney, who dutifully accompanies Thadeous and Fabious on their quest. Equally entertaining is the great Toby Jones’ as Fabious’ far-less-faithful servant Julie. Director David Gordon Green comments, in the special features, at how he thought the comedy would work best if the ridiculous elements were surrounded by the best, most serious actors he could find — the actors who would be cast in the “serious” version of this film — and watching Toby Jones, Charles Dance (most recently seen as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones), and Damian Lewis (Lt. Winters from Band of Brothers) act their hearts out in the film only makes the story’s lunacy that much crazier.
Speaking of acting their hearts out, Justin Theroux knocks it out of the park as the wizard Leezar. Mr. Theroux has popped up, as an actor, in places as disparate as Zoolander, Miami Vice, John Adams, Parks and Recreation, and (most notably to me) as the Werner Herzog-esque host of the Tropic Thunder faux making-of documentary DVD special feature Rain of Madness (click here to learn more about what the heck I’m talking about). He’s also a solid … [continued]
It’s not getting much notice in theatres, it seems, but I found myself quite taken with The Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, starring Johnny Depp.
I am not at all a devotee of Hunter S. Thompson. I have not read the novel on which this film is based, and I must somewhat ashamedly confess that much of what I know of Mr. Thompson is drawn from the character of Duke from Doonesbury. Still, I’m familiar with the man’s reputation, and The Rum Diary serves up a fine dose of the debauchery, booze, journalism, and a dash more debauchery I was expecting from an adaptation of one of his novels.
Johnny Depp plays the main character, Paul Kemp (seemingly a stand-in for Mr. Thompson himself, which makes this film Mr. Depp’s second go-round at playing him, after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). We meet Paul on his first day in Puerto Rico, recovering from a hell of a bender that apparently is not an aberration for Mr. Kemp. He’s taken a job at a dying newspaper in Puerto Rico, and the film never quite makes clear whether this is borne from Kemp’s sense of adventure or simply because this barely-functional drunk can’t hold down a steady job anywhere else.
The role is a fine showcase for Mr. Depp’s talents, talents that I was beginning to think were lost and gone after one too many horribly cartoonish performances in Tim Burton films. While Paul Kemp is gloriously weird and teetering on unhinged, Mr. Depp keeps the weirdness dialed just within the realm of believably human. And he brings a charm to the character that allows us to continue to sort-of root for the fellow, even as we watch him be pretty much a complete boor for much of the film.
Kemp repeatedly states (most often to his boss at the paper, Lotterman) that he’s trying to cut down on his booze-intake. It seems clear that he says that just to appease his boss, or because he knows that’s probably what he should be saying to people. But Mr. Depp is able to squeeze just enough decency into the character that we wonder if maybe he does realize, somewhere in the back of his brain, that maybe his booze-and-drugs-fueled lifestyle is not the way to go.
Not that Kemp really learns that lesson by the end of the movie, which is part of what I loved about the film. We do get a rousing “call-to-action” section late in the film, in which a series of events finally drives Kemp to actually want to do some real journalism. He unleashes a stirring speech about the power of the … [continued]
I had previously seen Mimic once, back when it was originally released to theatres in 1997. I think I went to see it because the trailers looked interestingly creepy, and because I had so enjoyed Charles S. Dutton in Alien 3. (I still think that Mr. Dutton is one of the best aspects of that sadly misguided Alien sequel.) I remember thinking Mimic was OK, but it wasn’t a film I was ever drawn to re-watch.
Years later, when I began to discover the films of Guillermo del Toro, and I realized that he had directed Mimic, I began to think it might be interesting to go back and re-watch the film. That desire to rediscover an early del Toro film was counteracted by what I’d periodically read or hear, in interviews with Mr. del Toro, about how difficult an experience making Mimic was for him, and how many of the decisions represented in the finished film did not at all represent his intentions.
I started hearing rumors, a few years ago, about a possible director’s cut of Mimic, and so I was thrilled when this was finally released to DVD and blu-ray this past summer! It’s rare — and so always a cause for celebration — to see a filmmaker given an opportunity to go back and try to restore a film that was taken away from them (I’m thinking of the Richard Donner version of Superman II as one example — click here for my review). As Mr. del Toro describes in the DVD’s special features, there were many things that he had wanted to film but was unable to, so many aspects of his original plans for the film are not represented in this new director’s cut. What he has done is to go back and trim out much of the second-unit footage that was included in the original edit, footage which he did not direct. He was also able to re-incorporate into the film many scenes and plot-threads that had been excised from the theatrical cut. The result, Mr. del Toro describes, is a film that is as close to “his” as we’re ever going to get.
Mimic is, at its heart, a B-movie. (The plot does involve bugs that grow to mimic humans!) Mr. del Toro readily admits that in his commentary, and he discusses how his filmmaking strategy has always been to elevate B-movie ideas by taking them 100% seriously and applying as much care as he possibly can in the telling of those stories. It’s a technique that has served Mr. del Toro very well. Mimic, though, even in this new director’s cut, never really breaks out of it’s B-movie essence. … [continued]
OK! As I wrote about last week, after re-watching Terrence Malick’s 1998 WWII film The Thin Red Line, I decided the time had come for me to track down Mr. Malick’s first two films, both of which had gotten so much acclaim when they were released back in the ’70s. The first of these was Badlands, Mr. Malick’s debut film which he wrote and directed.
Set in the 1950′s, Badlands centers on two main characters: Kit and Holly. Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, is a fifteen year-old girl living with her father in a quiet South Dakota town. Her life changes forever when she meets Kit (played by a ferocious, impossibly young Martin Sheen). Kit is the epitome of cool to her: he is quiet and enigmatic, he’s older (Kit is twenty-five), and he looks and dresses sort of like James Dean. What’s clear to the audience, though not to Holly, is that something is definitely off about this young man. During the scene in which we first meet him, working his route as a garbage-collector, Kit seems socially awkward and more than a little weird. But what I did not see coming was Kit’s tendency towards violence. That tendency explodes when Holly’s father forbids Kit from seeing her, and only grows from there. Once Holly finds herself in Kit’s orbit, she gets swept up in an American odyssey of violence and murder.
That sounds like the plot of an exciting action film, but Mr. Malick was after something entirely different. Badlands is as quiet and weird a film as Kit is as a character. There is not an inordinate amount of dialogue in the film, and what little there is is fairly banal stuff, not really connected to the incredible events that are transpiring. Both Kit and Holly are rather still, quiet, almost passive characters. (Somewhat paradoxically, Kit’s passivity only lasts until he picks up his shotgun.) Though Kit and Holly are the main characters, the film does not go out of its way to get us to like, or even to sympathize at all with, either one of them. That cold, almost dispassionate way in which Mr. Malick’s film presents the events we watch unfold is quite striking, and part, I think, of what makes this such a unique piece of work.
Even on the battered version of the film I watched (the image on the old DVD I got from Netflix was a far cry from the gorgeous, newly-restored image of the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of The Thin Red Line!), I still found Badlands to be a beautifully shot film. Mr. Malick’s camera takes the time to explore the incredible vistas of the American … [continued]
Is anyone else as amused as I am by how closely Brad Pitt, in the new baseball film Moneyball, resembles Robert Redford in the classic baseball film The Natural (click here for my review)? It’s spooky, man!
Anyways, Moneyball is adapted from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. The book (which I have never read, but it’s been on my to-read for a while now and has been bolted up to the top of that list after I watched the terrific film adaptation) elaborates upon the technique of sabermetrics, a type of baseball statistical analysis that focuses on in-game performance as opposed to other intangibles (like leadership, heart, etc.). The book, and the film, focuses on the Oakland A’s 2002 season, and on their General Manager Billy Beane, who was one of the early adopters/pioneers of this strategy.
I’ve always loved baseball, but these days with my incredibly busy life I don’t follow the game with anything approaching the passion and devotion I did as a kid. Growing up as a die-hard Mets fan, I listened to almost every single game on the radio (WFAN New York) and when I couldn’t (like when I was away at summer camp) I would voraciously devour the box scores (which my parents would faithfully mail to me several times a week). Moneyball is a fantastic film and, more than that, it’s a fantastic baseball film, and it really brought me back to my days as a kid analyzing, with my friends, the ins and outs of every game and every player. The film really made me miss those days!!
Baseball is a magical sport, and has always fascinated me the way no other professional sport does. Although one aspect of Moneyball is to debunk many of the assumptions of the game (and to reveal the inherent unfairness in which certain ball-clubs with enormous payrolls — cough Yankees cough — can spend their way to victory after victory, leaving the small-market teams in the dust), the film also pours over with a love for baseball and a fascination with its complexities and mysteries. The sequence, late in the film, chronicling the A’s incredible win-streak from the 2002 season is thrilling, an incredibly-realized reminder of the powerful pull of baseball at its best. It’s as good a celluloid love-letter to the game as I’ve ever seen.
I also really love the scene in Mr. Beane’s office right before the trade deadline, in which he works the phones, wheeling-and-dealing to acquire the players he thinks he needs. All that talk of trades is a bit inside baseball (to use a very appropriate metaphor), steeped … [continued]
I was really disappointed by this summer’s Green Lantern. I had high hopes for the epic space adventure promised by the trailers, but what we got instead was a lame, Earth-bound mess. (Read my full review here.)
I wondered if the “Extended Cut” of the film released on DVD and blu-ray would address any of my criticisms of the film. Sometimes I find that extended versions of films can really flesh out the stories and characters in a way that alters my opinion of a film that I had previously disliked. Sadly, that is not the case here.
Basically, the only change made to Green Lantern in this new, longer version is an extended flashback, set at the beginning of the film, in which we get to see Hal, Carol, and Hector as kids, and we witness firsthand the death of Hal’s test-fighter pilot. It’s a great sequence, and never should have been excised from the film. It’s a much more coherent way of presenting this important back-story than the laughably ridiculous Airplane!-style stress-induced flashbacks that Hal gets, in the theatrical version, when trying to out-maneuver Ferris Airlines’ new pilot-less drones when we first meet him. It also enables us to start the movie by sympathizing with Hal, which is far better than starting the movie thinking he’s a jerk the way we do in the theatrical cut.
After watching that long new introductory sequence, I was jazzed — this movie is already a whole lot better, I thought! Sadly, if there were any further changes or extensions to the film after that point, I didn’t notice them. The rest of the film is as turgid as before. They even left-in the ridiculous flashbacks in Hal’s test-flight early in the film!! That makes that whole sequence even MORE stupid than it was in the theatrical cut, when at least the flashbacks were presenting us with some new information. In this version, we just saw ALL of those scenes literally minutes beforehand!! Having to sit through those scenes again is beyond stupid.
But Green Lantern is afflicted by this sort of ham-handed story-telling from start-to-finish. Take the whole introduction to the film, and the escape of Parallax (the film’s main villain). We hear, in prologue, all about the Green Lantern Corps and about their great enemy, Parallax, who only the great Green Lantern Abin Sur was able to defeat, and imprison in something called “the Lost Sector.” First of all, as much as I loved Geoffrey Rush’s voice in the narration, and the cool sci-fi imagery on display, I think telling the audience everything we need to know about the villain right off the bat deflates all … [continued]
Terrence Malick directed two highly acclaimed films in the 1970′s (Badlands and Days of Heaven, neither of which I’ve seen, but I plan to remedy that soon — more on this later), and then he dropped out of sight for twenty years. Mr. Malick finally returned to the world of filmmaking in 1998 with the release of The Thin Red Line, his lengthy adaptation of James Jones’ novel, set during the battles of Guadalcanal during World War II.
I had previously seen The Thin Red Line once, in theatres back in 1998. It had nowhere near the effect on me that Steven Spielberg’s WWII film, Saving Private Ryan (which had been released earlier that year) did. (I still remember my shell-shocked, emotionally drained reaction after seeing Saving Private Ryan in the theatre. My friends and I sat silently in our seats for a good while after the film ended, and it took a while into the car-ride home before we began to unwind a bit and find ourselves able to discuss the film we’d seen. These days I am well aware of the film’s narrative weaknesses and tendencies towards over-emotionalities, but I still bow before Mr. Spielberg’s skill in crafting a film that, upon my initial viewing, on the big-screen, left me so emotionally devastated. The only other film that’s affected me quite that way, when seeing it for the first time on the big screen, was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.)
But even though I didn’t have anything like that reaction upon seeing The Thin Red Line for the first time back in 1998, I remember thoroughly enjoying the film. I was entranced by the gorgeous imagery and beguiled by the dense, inter-weaving inner monologues of countless characters, each sharing some of their own insight and reflections on the conflict and on larger issues of human nature and mankind.
When the Criterion Collection released a new blu-ray edition of The Thin Red Line, I was eager to see the film again. The blu-ray, no surprise, looks and sounds absolutely immaculate. The barrage of imagery in what I once read described as Mr. Malick’s “tone-poem” remains as sumptuously gorgeous as I remembered. The juxtaposition of the jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes and imagery of animals and nature with the unspeakably brutal realities of human conflict during war gives the film a potent and heart-rending thematic punch.
I do find myself wishing, though, that the film’s dense ideas and philosophical musings — not to mention the sheer amount of filmmaking mastery on display as one watches the film’s gorgeous imagery unfold — could have been melded with a narrative that was more effectively coherent. Because we’re constantly jumping around from character … [continued]
Back in 1986, Frank Miller turned the comics world on its ear with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This four-issue prestige-format limited series, which Mr. Miller wrote and pencilled (with inks by Klaus Janson and gorgeous colors by Lynn Varley), told the story of a bitter, middle-aged Bruce Wayne. In Miller’s story, Bruce had retired from being Batman following the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin, who was actually killed in-continuity in the Batman books a year or so later in the “A Death in the Family” story-line). But disgusted by the cess-pool of crime and corruption that Gotham City has become, Bruce puts back on the cape and cowl and resumes his one-man war against crime, leading to his final confrontation with the Joker and, ultimately, with Superman, who is now in the employ of the U.S. Government. Violent, gorgeous, and compelling, The Dark Knight Returns blew my mind when I read it (at far too young an age, back in 1988), and it still stands today as one of the finest comic book stories ever made (and certainly as one of the very best Batman stories ever told).
One might have thought that such a work could never be equaled, but the following year, in 1987, Frank Miller returned to Batman and told a story that is as good — if not even better — than The Dark Knight Returns. For four issues in the regular Batman comic (#404-407), Mr. Miller and David Mazzucchelli retold Batman’s origin in the story called Batman: Year One. Whereas The Dark Knight Returns was a huge, epic saga, Batman: Year One is a street-level, entirely stripped down Batman story. In fact, the genius of the story is that it isn’t really Bruce Wayne’s story at all. The focus is on a young James Gordon, as he attempts to survive his first year on the force in Gotham City. Batman: Year One is a tough, violent, gritty tale, populated by the corrupt and the broken. Even our heroes, Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, are presented as being far from perfect — but their heroism derives from their striving to battle past their flaws and imperfections and attempt to do the best they can in a city without hope. It’s one of Frank Miller’s very best-written tales, and David Mazzucchelli’s art continually takes my breath away with its gorgeous stylization (the man knows how to spot blacks better than pretty much anyone else in the business) and astonishing detail.
Like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One sits at the very top of the heap of comic book story-lines. It’s been mined for inspiration by several of … [continued]
As you’re probably aware, back in 2010 Conan O’Brien’s stint as host of the Tonight Show was unceremoniously cut short when he refused to comply with NBC’s plan to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 AM in order to give Jay Leno back the 11:30 PM time-slot. After just seven months as the Tonight Show host, Conan was out. (The whole crazy business was chronicled in the book The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, by Bill Carter, which I reviewed here.) Conan eventually started a new late-night show on TBS, though his agreement with NBC prevented him from appearing on television until his new show launched in the fall of 2010.
So in the intervening months, Mr. O’Brien and his crew of writers and producers launched the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour, a mad-cap series of live shows all across the country. The documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, directed by Rodman Flender, chronicles the tumultuous several months of the tour.
Having been unable to get tickets to any of the sold-out shows, I was first and foremost interested in a glimpse at what the shows were like. In that, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop delivers in spades. Throughout the film we get to see a lot of hysterical footage of the live shows — the song parodies, the big production numbers, the comedy bits with visiting guest-stars (like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), and more.
But the film is far more than that. It’s a compelling warts-and-all depiction of Conan O’Brien at a very stressful point in his life. The film highlights Conan’s incredible work ethic and easy charisma, both of which helped to make him such a successful entertainer. We also see how difficult he could be, at times, to work with (such as in the much-written about scene in which he mercilessly mocks 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer without any apparent justification, or in the many times we see him be curt with his assistant, Sona, among other examples). Mr. Flender told the New York Times that he said to Conan, before beginning the project: “I don’t want this to be U2 Rattle and Hum. I don’t want to deify you. I want this to be honest.”
And honest the film is. But Mr. Flender’s documentary isn’t out to get notice just by depicting a big star at its worst. Mr. Flender is clearly a fan of Conan’s (in addition to their being friends since the two were at Harvard together), and over-all Conan comes off as a hard-working performer trying hard to make the best of a tough situation. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a … [continued]
In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young man who is diagnosed with cancer. (His physician gives him a 50/50 chance of survival, hence the title of the film.) While his relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is rocked by this news, Adam finds surprising strength from his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen). 50/50 was written by Will Reiser and, as has been widely reported, is based on Mr. Reiser’s real-life experience of being diagnosed with cancer in his twenties, and his friendship with Seth Rogen.
Balancing comedy and drama in a film can be a very tricky thing, especially when true-live events come into play. I thought about this issue last month after watching 30 Minutes or Less, a film about a young pizza boy (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who is kidnapped and has a bomb strapped to his chest, at which point he is forced to rob a bank to get money for his kidnapper. That situation actually happened to a poor fellow back in 2003 (although the filmmakers claimed not to have been inspired by that incident). Still, the parallel with real life events (that ended tragically) give the film a tension that runs throughout. Sometimes I felt that helped the film, in that the story-line felt dangerous in a way that kept me engaged. Other times I felt that hurt the film, in that it occasionally felt hard to laugh too hard at events that I know, in real life, ended up in a death.
Over-all I enjoyed 30 Minutes or Less, but compared to 50/50 that film feels like a fairy trivial, superficial lark of a movie. 50/50 aims for something deeper, and while it doesn’t always succeed, I really enjoyed the filmmakers’ ambition in crafting a story that is very, very funny, while also tackling some serious issues about mortality and friendship.
Yes, 50/50 is a comedy about cancer. I suspect that topic kept many people away from this film, but I’m glad I saw it. The film was directed confidently by Jonathan Levine (who also helmed the little-seen film The Wackness which I really loved), and more than just the presence of Seth Rogen reminds me of the work of Judd Apatow. The focus on the friendship between guys, and the willingness of the film to mine comedy from tough real-life situations are all aspects I’ve really enjoyed in Mr. Apatow’s work. 50/50 is able to find that tricky balance of tone, allowing us to laugh along with the story while also engaging with the characters and their struggles.
Did you know that Ghostbusters is back in theatres??? It’s true! At select cinemas across the country, Ghostbusters screened last Thursday night, and there are showings scheduled for this Thursday and the following Thursday as well! I was delighted to have been able to be at one of the screenings this past Thursday, and it was a blast.
One of the best movie-going experiences of my life was getting to see Ghostbusters on the big screen, about a decade ago, at one of the big Boston movie-theatre chains. This theatre used to screen old movies at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights (for all I know, they still do!), and although I didn’t have the stamina to go every week, I certainly did attend a number of those midnight screenings. They were always a huge amount of fun, and I relished getting to see great films like The Goonies, Batman, Beetlejuice, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc., on the big screen and with a packed house of fans. But by far the best midnight screening I ever attended was the showing of Ghostbusters.
Although I distinctly remember seeing Ghostbusters 2 in theatres, I am pretty sure I never saw the original on the big screen. My memory of seeing it for the first time was watching it on TV with my dad (and running out of the room during the scary parts!). So when I went to that midnight screening, I was excited to get to see this film that I loved so much on the big screen for the first time, and that was indeed super-cool. But I was unprepared for the crazy energy of that sold-out theatre, stuffed to the gills with Ghostbusters fans. People went crazy right from the opening shot, singing along to the music, laughing and joking around and having a grand old time. About half of the people in the theatre were doing all of the lines right along with the characters. Even better, the other half of the people weren’t just saying the dialogue, they were making jokes and shouting things at the screen that were funny because of the line of dialogue that we all knew was coming a second later. It was like seeing the Rocky Horror Picture Show! An amazing movie was made even more spectacular by the insane energy and love for the film felt by everyone in the theatre.
I knew nothing could ever top that particular screening, and sure enough, when I saw Ghostbusters this past Thursday night, the crowd was far more sedate! But that is not to diminish the great pleasure of getting to see Ghostbusters — one of my favorite films! — back … [continued]
It was Zodiac that cemented David Fincher in my mind as one of the most amazing directors working today. I knew he was associated with Alien 3, but that he had that film taken away from him. (I have a warm spot in my heart for the third Alien film, even though I still see it as a total betrayal of everything that made James Cameron’s Aliens so great.) I knew he had directed Se7en and Fight Club, but while I immediately recognized that both of those films were clearly made by people with an enormous amount of skill, neither was a film I really loved. (I have since come to really, really dig Fight Club, but that first time I saw it I think I was a bit overwhelmed by it.)
Something about Zodiac really intrigued me when it was released, but despite that I never got to see it in theatres. It was only when the film was released on DVD that I tracked it down and watched it. (I own the Director’s Cut DVD. This is the version I’m reviewing now, and the only one I’ve ever seen, so I can’t compare it to the theatrical version.)
It blew me away, and I am still in love with it when re-watching it now.
Every frame of the film feels like the result of an incredible amount of focus and creative effort. It’s clear that an extraordinary amount of detail was pored into the sets, the costumes, the cars, the props, everything, all guided by the skilled eye of a visionary director: David Fincher. Set over several decades, Zodiac beautifully captures the feel of the different eras, both through subtly altering the look of key sets (like the San Francisco Chronicle office set) and through some stunning visual effects shots (such as a shot made to look like a time-lapse reconstruction of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid).
Speaking of the film’s visual effects, the DVD’s top-notch special features reveal that Zodiac is awash in incredibly subtle, absolutely photo-realistic visual effects that were used to recreate key real locations in the San Francisco area from the ’60s and ’70s. Most notably, in my mind, is the corner of Washington and Cherry at which the Zodiac killer murdered an unfortunate cab-driver. The scene when inspectors Toschi and Armstrong arrive at Washington and Cherry to investigate the murder is a tense scene, but when watching it I didn’t give one thought … [continued]
This was a fun one! Last week I watched The Sting, the 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, for the first time. I’m a big fan of David Mamet’s con-man films (like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner – click here for my thoughts on those films and several more by the great Mr. Mamet), so it was fun to go back and watch this terrific Best Picture-winning film.
Robert Redford plays Hooker, a street-tough grifter who, one day, working with his partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones — and yes, I did recognize his voice so I wasn’t surprised to look him up on-line and discover that he was James Earl Jones’ father!) scam a mob runner out of a lot of cash. This, of course, brings all sorts of heat down on the pair. Hooker winds up in Chicago, and tracks down a man he’s heard is the master of the long con: Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Together, the two hatch down a scheme to take down one of Chicago’s major gansters: Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
It’s easy to see why the pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman made this film such a hit back in 1973. The two movie-stars are in top form, and the film gives these two charismatic and handsome actors plenty of room to play. There were a few moments when I felt Mr. Redford laid it on a bit too thick in his portrayal of the young, stubborn Hooker, but for the most part he’s an engaging lead, and his charisma is potent. Mr. Newman is an absolute pleasure to watch from start-to-finish, absolutely smooth as silk as the seasoned confidence man. Mr. Newman is able to convey enormous intelligence and cunning behind Gondorff’s poker-face, and the first time we see Gondorff in action (during the poker-game on the train), it’s clear that he’s a master at his trade, played by a real master of his trade!
Robert Shaw is probably most famous for playing Quint from Jaws, but I’ll always think of him as Donald Grant from From Russia With Love (click here for my review) and also as Mr. Blue from The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (click here for my review). He is absolutely fabulous as the mean, take-no-prisoners gangster Lonnegan. Mr. Shaw puts on an Irish brogue that might not be entirely convincing, but which I loved nonetheless. This man plays the bad-guy like nobody’s business, and he presents a real, credible threat to Hooker and Gondorff.
Hooker and Gondorff surround themselves with a cadre of fellow con-men in order to pull off the scheme, and I particularly … [continued]
Last week I wrote about the disappointingly mediocre Me and Orson Welles, and I commented that the film covered familiar ground as Cradle Will Rock, the 1999 film written and directed by Tim Robbins. After writing that blog post, I realized that it had been years since I’d last seen Cradle Will Rock, and I was in the mood to give it another viewing.
Set in 1937, Cradle Will Rock focuses on the tumultuous production of the musical written by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), directed by Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and funded by the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the depression-era Work Progress Administration that helped bring theatre to millions of people nation-wide. The play Cradle Will Rock depicted the struggles of working-class union members, and as such was seen as extremely controversial by some. But the sprawling story of Tim Robbins’ film covers far more than just the production of that one play. It also tells the story of the artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades)’s creation of an enormous mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) that was destroyed when Mr. Rockefeller disapproved of the left-leaning imagery of the mural. We also see an elderly ventriloquist’s struggles in the face of the demise of vaudeville, the House Un-American Activities Commission’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project, and more. Through all these stories, Cradle Will Rock tells the stories of artists struggling in the face of economic depression, and the collision between art and politics.
Mr. Robbins has assembled an incredible, enormous ensemble for his film. Each one of these characters could be the headliner in a film focusing solely on them. (If I have any criticism about Cradle Will Rock, it’s that it might have been nice to have spent some more time with some of these characters, had the film had a narrower focus. But they’re each so good, and their characters’ stories so interesting, that I can’t really complain.)
When the film opens, we meet Olive (Emily Watson), a beautiful young singer who has been forced to sleep in movie theatres because she is broke and homeless. She eventually finds work as a stagehand in Orson Welles’ production of Cradle Will Rock. Mr. Welles is portrayed by Angus Macfadyen. It’s a much broader, comical portrayal that that of Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles, and watching these two films in such short succession I found that I preferred Mr. McKay’s portrayal. But that’s no knock against Mr. Macfadyen, who is still one of the best things about Cradle Will Rock. He is a hoot as Orson, loud and vivacious and argumentative and brilliant. It’s a really fun performance to watch. He bounces beautifully … [continued]
Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (one of my very favorite films, and the film that made me forever a fan of Sam Rockwell), Adaptation (click here for my review), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, which he also directed. (To this day, that is the first and only film Mr. Kaufman has directed.) Based on Mr. Kaufman’s pedigree, I was of course eager to see Synecdoche, New York when it was released. But I missed it in theatres, and when I read mixed reviews of the film, my enthusiasm to see it dimmed a bit. It remained on my list of movies-I-want-to-see, but that is a very LONG list, and so it was only last month when I finally sat down to watch Mr. Kaufman’s movie.
Synecdoche, New York is a very bizarre film. It is very difficult, at times, to watch (both because of the somewhat confusing narrative but also because I found much of the film’s subject matter to be incredibly depressing). But it is also very funny in places, and I found the film’s wonderfully weird, almost dreamlike structure to be quite unique and engaging.
From the very beginning, the film is constantly, subtly playing with the idea of what is reality. At first it seems like we’re watching a sad, quiet relationship drama, not unlike many other small-budget indie films. We can see that the marriage between the playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is crumbling. But, without fanfare, in the early scenes there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments when the film seems to slip into Caden’s head, and what we see on-screen is not reality but rather what Caden is thinking and feeling. I’m thinking, most notably, of several amusing instances in which Caden imagines himself in the middle of whatever he is watching on TV.
As the film progresses, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. After Adele leaves Caden and heads to London without him, we see Caden reading a magazine, and he comes across a spread in the magazine all about Adele. At first I assumed that was a moment of fantasy, in which Caden was imagining Adele being completely happy and successful without him in London. (It must be fantasy, because how could she have a lengthy article written about her only a week after she went to London?) But later scenes caused me to question my interpretation of that scene. The sit-up-and-take notice moment, for me, came a few minutes later (about 30 minutes into the film). We see Caden meet Hazel (Samantha … [continued]
In Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater, high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) somehow finds himself cast in a small role in Orson Welles (Christian McKay)’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre. As the brash, brilliant, egocentric Welles struggles to realize his vision for the production, Richard enters a master class in theatre and life as he struggles to hold his own in the production while also finding himself attracted to Mr. Welles’ pretty, driven young assistant Sonja (Claire Danes).
Whenever Me and Orson Welles focuses on Mr. Welles, and his efforts to mount his production called Caesar, the film soars. Christian McKay is wonderful as Welles. He commands the screen whenever he is on it, just as the real Orson Welles did. As Welles, Mr. McKay is dynamic, funny, and outrageous — an oversized personality, bursting at the seams with brilliance and ego. There’s an element of caricature in the performance, but it never falls over into silly parody. Mr. McKay shows us the beating, human heart of the man — his failings, and his burning desire to succeed in his endeavors despite all the obstacles in his way. It’s an incredible performance, and I hope that Mr. McKay goes on to have a long, successful career.
I was fascinated by the film’s glimpses into Welles’ production: the way he turned constraints into creative devices (choosing to set the film in modern day because he didn’t have money for costumes), and I thrilled to the glimpses we were given into the staging of certain scenes and Mr. Welles and his actors’ debates as to how to bring certain moments from the play to life (such as the death or the poet Cinna). He ensemble of actors in the film who portray Welles’ ensemble at the Mercury Theatre are very strong (James Tupper, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, Leo Bill, and more) and could each almost be the lead of their own film.
Unfortunately, where the film falls flat is in the story of the main character, Richard, played by Zac Efron. While I’m certainly not a fan of Mr. Efron’s (I’ve never seen High School Musical or any of his work), I not a hater, either. I was eager to see what this young actor/musician could do in this serious role. Sadly, he’s just terrible. Mr. Efron plays his scenes with an arrogant smirk that caused me to have an immediate, visceral dislike for his character. Throughout the film, it’s impossible to tell when Richard is being genuine or when he’s just spinning lies to get the girl or to get a job. (When Richard first meets Orson Welles, he clearly lies through his … [continued]
In the new film 30 Minutes or Less, Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick, an affable though fairly hapless pizza boy. Aziz Ansari plays Chet, Nick’s closest friend. The two have been buddies for years, though Chet seems to have figured out his life (we can see that he has a steady job and a nice, clean apartment) in a way that the aimless Nick clearly has not. But what finally threatens to drive a wedge between the two friends is Nick’s infatuation with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria). Meanwhile, another pair of buddies are concocting a scheme that will turn Nick and Chet’s lives upside down. Danny McBride plays Dwayne, a frustrated, gun-loving loser living in his father’s basement, while Nick Swardson plays his loyal follower, Travis. Dwayne’s father, “the Major” (played by Fred Ward), is wealthy after winning the lotto, but he seems to have no interest in passing any of his money on to his son Dwayne. Spurred on by a suggestion made by a topless dancer (Bianca Kajlich) with whom he is infatuated, Dwayne devises a plan to hire a hit-man (Michael Pena) to kill the Major. How will he get the money to pay this hit-man? By strapping a bomb to the chest of a sucker, who Dwayne can then coerce into ribbing a bank for him. Enter: Nick the pizza-boy, and the movie is off.
When I was a kid, I remember there being a lot of action-comedies — movies like Lethal Weapon that were very funny, but that were also serious action films (rather than just farces). It doesn’t seem to me that there are too many movies in that style these days, so it was fun to see a group of filmmakers make the attempt to create that sort of movie. The way in which 30 Minutes or Less throws a lot of crazy comedy into what is, when you think about it, a pretty terrifying story (and one which seems to be based on a real-life event that ended with the poor pizza delivery man being killed), really caught my attention. Though there’s no action in 30 Minutes or Less that’s on par with the Richard Donner-directed Lethal Weapon, the film is definitely cut from that type of cloth, and that’s a compliment. (I haven’t seen Lethal Weapon in years, so I have no idea if it holds up, but I have very fond memories of that film from my youth.)
In a similar way, 30 Minutes or Less feels, to me, like the type of movie that The Pineapple Express wanted to be. I quite enjoyed The Pineapple Express (click here for my review), but I did feel … [continued]
After re-watching David Fincher’s 1995 film Se7en (click here for my review), I couldn’t resist taking another look back at Fight Club. As with Se7en, I had seen Fight Club only once before. I’d really enjoyed it, but because of the violence and the extraordinarily down-beat tone, I’d never been driven to revisit it.
The first thing that struck me upon re-watching the film is that, while the film is just as violent and anti-social as I’d remembered, it’s also incredibly funny. Maybe my shock at the brutal, casual violence that runs through the film had blinded me to this when I first saw it, or maybe I’d just forgotten. But Fight Club is very, very funny. Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (which I really need to read one of these days), the script by Jim Uhls (which was apparently rewritten by an uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker, who also wrote Se7en) is very sharp. Fight Club is a tough, take-no-prisoners social satire. The film has quite a lot to say about our commercial society, and the way advertising holds so many of us in its thrall. (I love the pan, in the film, of the main character’s apartment, when we can suddenly see on-screen the labels for each purchased-from-a-magazine item of furniture.)
Through the character of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the audience is swept along in the appeal of this society-rejecting rebel. Tyler has abandoned commercialism and the accepted ideals of how we should be living our life. Rather than a fancy, well-furnished apartment, he prefers to live in squalor in an abandoned, decrepit building. When he discovers this do-what-you-want, live-how-you-want lifestyle, Edward Norton’s character (and, by extension, the audience) finds it to be incredibly freeing. With no one living within a mile of him and Tyler, the two can do whatever they want, whether that’s hitting broken bottles with golf clubs or beating the snot out of one another.
The film — and Tyler — slowly drags Edward Norton and the audience along into weirder and weirder places. At first, the idea of a fight club — where men find themselves by engaging in brutal one-on-one fistfights — might be horrifying. But Tyler — happy, sexy, joyous Brad Pitt — is able to sell it to Edward Norton’s character, and to us, as a way to throw off the smothering curtain of “civilized” behavior. There’s an appeal there that Norton’s character grabs ahold of with both arms, and which the audience can understand.
The fun of the film, of course, is the way Tyler Durden’s behavior eventually causes the viewer to question, and perhaps (or maybe I should write “hopefully”) ultimately reject … [continued]
I saw Se7en on the big screen back in 1995, and it freaked the hell out of me. I’m not sure what prompted me to go see it in the first place, but I know that I was entirely unprepared for the brutal film that unfolded before my eyes. It was tough, shocking stuff, and while I really respected the film I never felt any desire to go back and watch it again.
Almost a decade and a half later, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network have cemented my opinion of David Fincher as one of the finest American directors working today. With the release of Se7en on blu-ray, I thought it would be interesting to give the film another look.
Even so many years later, Se7en remains as punishing a movie-watching experience as it was back in 1995. There is some truly vile, stomach-turning stuff on display in the film. Some of which we see on-screen (I remember my first glimpse of that horribly obsese corpse — the first murder victim discovered at the start of the movie — from 1995, and I found it just as unsettling the second time around), and some of which is just discussed (such as the terrible fate of the prostitute). But the two blend together into an almost unrelenting parade of horrors, from the first frame to the very last.
All of which, of course, was certainly the intention of David Fincher and his collaborators. Watching the film, today, I can step back a bit from what I’m watching on-screen to recognize the extraordinary skill on display by the filmmakers. On crisp blu-ray, Se7en is absolutely beautiful in its unremitting ugliness. The filmmakers have created a word of unending gloom, from the seemingly never-ending rain in the unnamed city in which the action takes place to the sickly yellow light of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman)’s refrigerator. The oppressive urban decay and the constant rain remind me distinctly of Blade Runner, and there’s even a great shot of Brad Pitt running across a street and jumping over cars, his weapon drawn, while the rain continues to pour down, that is a direct quotation of an iconic shot of Harrison Ford from that film. But Mr. Fincher and his team have gone beyond homage to create a distinctly real, potent environment that is unique to this film. This city breathes and sweats, and we (and the film’s characters) feel it as an oppressive force. In Se7en, the city is as much the enemy as the serial-murdering John Doe.
Mr. Fincher has come to be well-known for his meticulous attention to detail, and that is on fine display throughout … [continued]
In the biting, acid film Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott stars as Roger, a handsome, well-off, and very arrogant New York advertising executive who seems able to use his sharp tongue to talk any women he wants into having sex with him. One day his 16 year-old nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up in his office. Nick is in town looking at Columbia, and while he’s there he wants his smooth-with-the-ladies uncle to teach him how to talk to women. Although he’s at first put-off by the idea of having to deal with this kid, Roger quickly agrees to school Nick in That Which He Knows Best, and the two begin a crazy night that will take them all over the city and in and out of the lives of several fascinating and beautiful women.
I don’t know what on earth prompted me to rent this film on DVD five or six years ago, but it really blew me away as a unique, hard-to-define, I can’t quite believe what I’m watching film. I’ve been meaning to see it again for ages.
Written and directed by Dylan Kidd, Roger Dodger is an extraordinarily well-written and well-made film that demonstrates the skill of an artist in his prime. (I really want to know what the heck Mr. Kidd has been up to since 2002!! I wish he’d made six movies in that time!) The script is exquisite, with rat-a-tat dialogue that is fiercely intelligent, funny, and very biting. If you told me that David Mamet had scripted this film, I would easily believe it.
Right away from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie unlike many others. The film opens with a lengthy post-meal conversation over drinks and smokes between Roger and his friends. In between some light banter with the people around the table, Roger unloads a lengthy monologue describing how he feels that evolution and technology are combining to gradually render the male species obsolete. Roger’s dialogue demonstrates his keen intelligence and verbal skill, and also his arrogance and his close-minded, gender-focused worldview. The scene is shot in a fascinating style that Mr. Kidd will utilize throughout the film. There are never any master shots used (wide shots that show us the setting for a scene and where all of the characters are in relation to one another). Instead, the scene plays out through a series of close-ups, filmed with a hand-held shaky cam that is continually moving around and observing the central characters through visual obstacles (over the shoulder of another character, obstructed by a glass or a table center-piece, etc.). It’s a bit disorienting, but also extraordinarily vibrant and energizing, and a terrific way to … [continued]
Despite the silly title, I had pretty high hopes for Cowboys and Aliens. The idea of uniting Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones/Han Solo) is genius, and the film boasted a strong supporting cast, a solid director (Jon Favreau, who directed the magnificent first Iron Man film), and the trailer boasted of some nifty special effects and fun sci-fi action.
But in the end, I was disappointed. Cowboys and Aliens isn’t terrible, but it’s pretty mediocre. Though Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have a great eye for material (they have been involved with a number of geek properties that interest me, including Star Trek and Transformers) and they seem like nice fellows, I have not liked any of the scripts that they have written. And I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t over-estimated Jon Favreau in my mind. He’s a terrific actor and a very funny guy, but in the end he’s really only directed one film (the first Iron Man) that I’ve really loved.
The main problem with Cowboys and Aliens is that the movie has no teeth. The first 20-25 minutes promise us a confrontation between two tough bad-asses, Craid and Ford, in the midst of some crazy sci-fi mayhem, but that never comes.
The opening scene to the film is terrific, and it immediately establishes Daniel Craig’s character as a dangerous, kick-ass dude. We open the film at the moment that Daniel Craig wakes up, in the middle of the desert, with a bizarre technological device attached to his wrist, and no memory of how it got there or of any events that happened before he woke up. He can’t even remember his own game. Moments later, some tough guys find him and threaten to kill him, but in a quick, brutal action scene, Craig wipes them out. It’s a great set-up to his character, and a terrific way to open the movie.
We then spend a while hearing about Harrison Ford’s character, Colonel Dolarhyde (but don’t call him Colonel!). He is built up as a man to be feared, and when we finally meet him in the flesh, we see Dolarhyde mercilessly torturing an unfortunate soul who Dolarhyde believes has betrayed him.
We all know that these two characters are on a collision course, and when the sci-fi menace (that we know is coming) rears its ugly head, I was excited to see these two take-no-prisoners mean bastards, played by two movie icons, collide with one another.
That would have been an awesome movie!! But that’s not at all what we got. The film immediately backs off from the toughness of those two characters, and quickly shows us that they’re both really softies … [continued]
When I first started to read about the possibility of a new Planet of the Apes film, a few years back, I thought the central concept was at once incredibly gutsy and yet at the same time quite boringly predictable.
The idea of remaking not the first Planet of the Apes (the way Tim Burton catastrophically attempted to do, ten years ago), but rather the FOURTH one — re-telling the story of Caesar and his ape revolution — seemed to me to be a rather gloriously insane notion. Who would be interested in such an “inside baseball” approach (exploring this obscure piece of Apes lore, from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, that I suspected few had ever heard of)?
On the other hand, since Hollywood seems insistent on churning out prequel after prequel these days, it also seemed very boringly of-the-moment to do a Planet of the Apes “Begins” story. Urgh, when separated from the loopy time-traveling fun of the circular narrative of the original Planet of the Apes films of the ’70s, what was the point? Did we really need yet another prequel explaining how a beloved fantasy world came to be?
Well, my friends, I am extraordinarily pleased to report that director Rupert Wyatt, along with writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, have managed to create a new Planet of the Apes film that is the best of both worlds. Set in the present day, the film succeeds as a totally accessible, stand-alone piece of speculative fiction that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if you’ve never seen a minute of any other Planet of the Apes film. But for those of us die-hard Apes fans, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a wonderfully engaging, clever re-imagining of the series, and one that fits shockingly well into the continuity of the original 1968 film.
James Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant young scientist whose passion to create a drug that can repair deficient brain cells is based on his desperate need to help his father (played by John Lithgow), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. As the film opens, Will believes that he is on the cusp of incredible success, because one of his ape test subjects has demonstrated enormous leaps in mental cognition after taking Will’s drug. But things quickly turn sour, and Will’s project is shuttered. His apes are put down, but one of Will’s co-workers is able to save one baby ape. When Will discovers the remarkable intelligence possessed by this ape, who he names Caesar, he begins to suspect that maybe his drug was a success after all. But his noble efforts to cure a terrible disease might have catastrophic … [continued]
My friends and I discovered the Planet of the Apes films in college. We’d taken to visiting the local rental store, trying to fill in the gaps in our movie-watching histories. Basically, we rented films that we felt we really SHOULD see, since we considered ourselves movie-fans. When we realized that none of us had seen Planet of the Apes, we decided to give that a viewing. Suffice it to say, we LOVED it, in all its silly/serious glory. When we realized that there were actually FOUR MORE Planet of the Apes films, we decided, well, we’d better watch them all too! We had a great deal of fun watching the entire series, and the Apes films quickly became the movies we were prone to throw on, late at night, when in need of some entertainment.
So back in 2000/2001, when we heard that there was actually going to be a NEW Planet of the Apes film, and that it was going to be a big-budget version helmed by Tim Burton (a filmmaker we all held in high esteem), we were pretty much blown away with excitement and anticipation. Though we were well out of college by then, several of us gathered together on opening weekend, to take in this new Apes film together.
I don’t think any of us HATED Tim Burton’s film, but we were pretty underwhelmed by what we saw. I had such a dim view of Mr. Burton’s movie that, despite being a huge fan of the Apes series, and despite the many times I have re-watched the original five Apes films during the subsequent decade, I have never once been driven to sit down and watch Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes film again.
But I’d been having so much fun, recently, re-watching all of the Apes films in preparation for the new Apes movie that I decided, what the heck, it’s been ten years, let’s give Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes film another go. Maybe now, removed from all of the hype and my built-up expectations, I’d think more highly of this film.
No such luck. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is pretty much exactly the dud I remembered it being.
Things get off to a bad start right a way with a lugubrious opening credits sequence in which the camera slowly floats around an ornate object extreme close-up. Gradually the camera pulls back, and we see it’s an ape helmet. I thought this was cool when Mr. Burton did that with the Bat-Signal during the opening credits of Batman, but here it felt boring — been there, done that.
Things pick up somewhat during the sequence that … [continued]
We have made it, at last, to the fifth and final film in the original Planet of the Apes series! (Click here for my review of Planet of the Apes, here for my review of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, here for my review of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and here for my review of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.)
Though released only a year after 1972′s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this final installment is set ten years after the events of that film. In the intervening years, two key events have transpired: Caesar (Roddy McDowell)’s revolution of the apes has succeeded, and much of the planet has been laid waste by nuclear war. The mute apes we saw in Conquest have now all gained the ability to speak (though whether this is due to education by Caesar and friendly humans, or to mutation from the nuclear radiation, is never clarified). In a fairly primitive, jungle village, we see apes and humans living together, though tensions between the two species continue to run high. A gorilla general named Aldo opposes Caesar’s wish for peaceful co-habitation and plots to kill all of the humans and take control of the ape society. Caesar, meanwhile, is distracted by a quest to learn about his parents (the deceased Cornelius and Zira) by traveling into the radioactive Forbidden Zone and accessing the video-tape archives stored there. Will Caesar and his new society be undone by the violent gorillas, or by the mutated remnants of human society living in the Forbidden Zone?
After the society-shattering events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes seems fairly small in scale. This is the cheapest-looking of the five original Apes films. I can imagine that, by this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in, and this film probably had a smaller budget than its predecessors. Battle also tells, to me, a far less interesting story than did Conquest. Whereas Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still stands today as a pretty shocking, envelope-pushing film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes covers pretty familiar ground: tension between the different species of apes, danger from radioactive mutants, and a few peaceful apes and humans who just want to find a way to get along.
That’s not to say that Battle for the Planet of the Apes is entirely without merit. The film still boasts an admirable willingness to address some interesting, thorny issues in the way that the very best science fiction does: by presenting real-world issues in a different setting, the better to make … [continued]
I’m entering the home stretch of my journey back through the Planet of the Apes film, as I’ve just taken in the fourth installment: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! Click here for my thoughts on Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Escape From the Planet of the Apes.
After the silliness of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, this fourth Apes film shifts back into serious mode. VERY serious. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is, I think, by far the most grim and down-beat of all five original Apes films.
Which is not to say it isn’t also chock full of silly and ridiculous things. Like the incident, at the start of the film, which sets the whole movie’s events in motion. Kindly Armando (Ricardo Montalban) has secretly been raising Milo (who has choosen the name Caesar), the child of Cornelius and Zira. All is well. That is, until Armando decides, for no reason that I can fathom, to take Caesar right into the middle of a large human city. Here, we see that in the years since the last film, mankind has begun to domesticate and enslave apes, forcing them to serve a servants and menial laborers. Caesar is, of course, horrified by what he sees. He promptly stirs up trouble, and finds himself on the run while Armando is arrested. But why oh why did Armando take him on his little tour of the big city filled with enslaved apes, in the first place??? It boggles my mind.
Anyways, after a lengthy opening sequence that shows us all the horrible things the humans are doing to the apes, we follow Caesar as he finds himself mistaken for an ordinary ape and treated just like all the others. But Caesar quickly gains control of the situation, and begins fomenting a revolution of all the apes, urging them to rise up and overthrow their human masters.
The film ends with a lengthy, violent sequence as we witness the fateful night that Caesar leads the apes in their successful revolution. It’s a pretty shocking climax to the film. The movie doesn’t pull any punches in depicting both the vast number of apes who are killed by the fearful humans, as well as the way many humans are brutally murdered by the throngs of rampaging apes. We’re a long way from the scenes of Apes going shopping and sipping grape-juice plus in Escape From the Planet of the Apes! All of these films have had tragic endings, but I think this ending is the most brutal one of the whole series.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is … [continued]
And so we come to it at last, the final piece in the puzzle before next summer’s unprecedented super-hero cross-over movie, The Avengers. There was Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, and now we have Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America is overly simplistic and a little corny at times, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a rollicking good time in a movie theatre.
As with all of the Marvel Studios films so far, the film sets itself up for success with its impeccable casting. Chris Evans was the best thing about the terrible Fantastic Four movies, and he’s found an even better role here in that of Steve Rogers/Captain America. He absolutely looks the part, and more importantly than that he’s able to sell Steve Rogers’ aw-shucks good-hearted nature without coming off as silly. He’s an un-ironic heroic lead, and I found his honest, open-faced portrayal to be quite compelling. This performance is assisted by some wonderful CGI effects that create the 90-pound weakling version of Steve Rogers that we see in the first act. This isn’t The Curious Case of Benjamin Button style photo-realism, not by any stretch. But the effects are convincing, and after a few moments I really did stop thinking about the visual effects and just accepted skinny-Steve as a fully-realized character. It’s a terrific achievement in effects.
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) creates yet another iconic villain in the role of Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull. Putting on what sounded to me like his best impersonation of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Weaving chews a lot of scenery but never tips over the edge into camp. The Red Skull is a big, bad, totally EVIL comic-book villain, and I thought he was just terrific. (Possibly the best bad-guy in a Marvel Studios film so far.) I loved the look of his make-up effects, and I was pleased that once his fleshy mask comes off, it stays off for the rest of the film.
I was surprised at how large a role Tommy Lee Jones has in the film. I thought this would just be a cameo, but his Colonel Phillips becomes a key character throughout the film, and Jones just kills. He gets many of the film’s best lines, and his gruff, warm presence is a delight. Most of the rest of the film’s best lines go to Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the inventor of the super-soldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America. This was another surprise for me, and I appreciated that we really got to know Dr. Erskine in the film’s first … [continued]
I’ve made this comment in my last several Harry Potter film reviews, but it bears repeating one final time: what an astounding achievement it is, that this eight-film series has made it all the way to the end with the same ensemble of actors all the way through (save for the late Richard Harris). And, even more than that, what an amazing stroke of luck it is that every single one of the young child-actors who appeared in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has grown into such a marvelous actor in his or her own right.
Though perhaps it’s not luck at all. Though Chris Columbus’ two installments (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) are by far my least favorite films of the series, the man clearly deserves ENORMOUS credit for his great skill at casting. The strength of the ensemble he assembled for those first two films has enabled this series to blossom in ways I never could have predicted when walking out of the theatre after seeing that first movie. It’s a pretty unprecedented achievement.
Somehow I have watched the entire story of Harry Potter on film without having read any of the books (save for the first one, which I read the day before seeing the first film). Heresy, I know! But nothing in the first three movies made me want to read the books, and when I really started digging the film series during movie four (which was the first Harry Potter film that I really liked) and movie five (which still stands as my very favorite of the films), I figured that, at that point, I preferred to continue discovering the story through the films. (Now that I have made it through to the end, I’m sure I will some day soon read through all seven of the books.) But, for now, as in the past, I will report my comments on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II as someone taking in the film, and the film alone (rather than drawing a comparison to the novel).
I have written before, on this blog, when contemplating the end of long-running television shows, just how difficult it is to craft a satisfactory ending to a long-form story. From everyone I know who has read the books, it seems that J.K. Rowling accomplished this feat when writing the seventh and final book, and I am pleased to report that the makers of this eight and final film have done the same.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is an exciting, emotional ride from start to finish, and I felt it provided a wonderful … [continued]
I can’t help it. I really love The Transformers. As a kid, I loved the cartoon show, I loved the toys, I loved the crazy-dark animated movie, I loved Marvel Comic’s comic book series, I loved it all. And that’s why, even after suffering through the abysmal Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (click here for my review — and in hindsight, I went VERY easy on that terrible film), I bought a ticket to see Michael Bay’s latest installment, the woefully titled Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
This third film isn’t nearly as terrible as Revenge of the Fallen, but since Revenge of the Fallen was one of the worst movies I have ever seen, that’s not saying much.
Somewhere, buried deep within Transformers: Dark of the Moon, is a good movie. That would be a movie about the Autobots miraculously discovering their original leader, Optimus Prime’s mentor Sentinel Prime, alive and well. But they’d gradually discover that their once-great leader had become broken by the long millennia of bitter war with the Decepticons, and that his discovery would lead to a terrible betrayal which would decimate the Autobot ranks and leave Earth helpless before a Decepticon invasion. In the rubble of a shattered planet, a brave few Autobots and their human allies would fight desperately for some way to turn the tide and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
That would be a pretty damn good movie, I think! That story, accompanied by Michael Bay’s clear mastery of constructing action sequences, plus the technical wizardry of the ILM craftsmen who can bring living, talking, Transforming robots to breathtaking life, could be the elements that would combine to form a powerfully entertaining piece of summer popcorn entertainment.
Sadly, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not that movie.
First of all, Michael Bay and his writers (this time the script is credited to Ehren Kruger) seem relentlessly unwilling to allow any of the actual Transformers to be the main characters in the movie. That was sort of understandable in the first film, in which it made sense to allow the audience to discover these crazy, outlandish characters (big talking robots who transform into planes, cars, etc.) through the eyes of a human “everyman” audience surrogate character. But here in the third movie, every time I found myself watching scenes of Spike Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) trying to get a job, or bickering with his parents, or engaging in ridiculous physical “comedy” (and I use the term loosely) with Ken Jeong, I found myself desperate for the movie to cut back to the robots, already!
We do actually get to spend a bit more time with … [continued]
Last week I began my project to re-watch all five original Planet of the Apes movies by re-watching the original Planet of the Apes from 1967. Today, we move to discuss the first sequel: 1969′s Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
For whatever reason, Charlton Heston only participates in this sequel in a very limited role. We see him in reused footage from Planet of the Apes at the start of the film, and in a handful of new shots, and then not again until the end of the film. But somehow, shockingly, I don’t find myself missing him all that much.
In Chuck’s place, we meet a new protagonist: Brent (played by James Franciscus). Brent is pretty much the exact same character as Taylor. He’s a human from modern time who was catapulted through time and space to crash land on the Planet of the Apes. (The film postulates that he was sent on a rescue mission to find Taylor and his crew, who never returned home. But the first film told us that, due to the time dilation effects of space-travel, Taylor and his team weren’t supposed to have returned to Earth until 700 years after they left! So I’m not quite sure when/why a rescue mission would have been sent after them, but whatever…) Brent even LOOKS like a dead ringer for Taylor! This is the type of thing that would usually have me groaning in agony at the stupidity of it all, but somehow when I watch this film I always find myself liking Brent — in many ways, even more than Taylor. Mr. Franciscus’ performance has none of the scene-chewing histrionics that made Mr. Heston’s work in the original film so memorable, but in some respects that actually helps the story. Brent seems like a much nicer fellow than Taylor, and he certainly acts more like one would imagine an astronaut would. Mr. Franciscus isn’t a BIG STAR like Mr. Heston, but he does a fine job carrying the film’s story on his shoulders.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes expands on the world of the first film by playing up the differences between the different types of apes: the conservative, political-minded Orangatuns, the weaker, scientifically-focused Chimpanzees, and the war-like Gorillas. I find this concept intriguing and it allows for a hint of the social commentary that was such a primary aspect of the first film’s narrative, though the idea that there are just three ape personality types is rather simplistic.
And, anyways, this installment — with its radioactive mutants and their perilous forbidden zone — is clearly far more of a pulp adventure than the first film. Oh, yes, there are … [continued]
Well, we’ve had two very solid super-hero films so far this summer, Thor (click here for my review) and X-Men: First Class (click here for my review), and while neither were quite as perfect as I might have hoped, I found both to be very solidly entertaining films. But with Green Lantern, sadly, we have our first big super-hero swing-and-a-miss of the summer.
Green Lantern isn’t terrible, and there are certainly a lot of things that work in the film. But it’s very, very mediocre, and it’s painful to see the potential for a much better film that was squandered.
What works? The film is, for the most part, well-cast. Ryan Reynolds does a fine job as Hal Jordan. He certainly looks the part, and there are moments (such as his desperate, through-gritted-teeth declaration of the Green Lantern oath late in the film) that really made me believe in him as Green Lantern. The voice actors chosen to portray the alien members of the GL Corps (most notably Geoffrey Rush as Tomar Re and Michael Clarke Duncan as Killowog) are spot-on, and Mark Strong is absolute perfection as Sinestro.
But all are completely wasted in the film! Let’s begin with Hal Jordan, who is barely a character. The film wants him to be Tony Stark from Iron Man (the self-centered asshole with incredible abilities who eventually learns to see beyond himself and his own ego to become a hero), but his character arc is so barely sketched in as to be laughable. It all seemed very predictable and perfunctory to me. I never felt that we really got to know Hal Jordan at all — who he is and why he behaves the way he does. (And, no, the painfully on-the-nose flashback during Hal’s test flight at the start of the film didn’t do it for me. That sequence seemed right out of Airplane!, and that’s not a good thing!) When he stepped into the role of a hero, it didn’t feel earned the way that Tony Stark’s transition did in the first Iron Man film.
Speaking of Iron Man, the whole vibe of Green Lantern felt totally derivative of that film. The movie desperately wanted to be hip and cool while also telling a fairly earnest super-hero story, just like the first Iron Man, but Green Lantern was never able to find that tone.
I had thought, from the trailers, that Green Lantern was going to be a cosmic adventure film. That the film opens in space, and keeps cutting back to events taking place in space (rather than starting with human Hal Jordan and staying with him until he discovered Abin … [continued]
I am a big, big fan of the original five Planet of the Apes films (released between 1967 and 1973). They’re so marvelously ambitious and earnest and, at the same time, so laughably silly, that I’ve always held a great fondness for the series. While all four sequels represent a steep drop in quality from the original Charlton Heston-starring film, the sequels go in such bizarre, unexpected directions, and they’re so filled with their own charmingly quirky touches, that I find an enormous amount to enjoy in all of them. (I am not afraid to admit, gentle reader, that my enjoyment of all five of these films is assisted, and sometimes enhanced by, the consumption of generous quantities of grape-juice-plus while watching them.) With the I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-happening arrival of a new Planet of the Apes film this summer (the ridiculously titled — and that’s saying something for this film series — Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco), it seemed a suitable excuse to go back and revisit the five original films. (I might re-watch Tim Burton’s 2001 Apes film — which I’ve only seen one time — as well, I haven’t decided yet.)
So let’s begin with the first and the best: the original Planet of the Apes from 1967. Charlton Heston plays Taylor (not sure if that’s his first or last name), an astronaut who leads a deep-space mission that goes terribly awry — their ship is knocked off-course and crash-lands on a planet where Apes are the dominant species and humans are just mute savages and slaves. (“It’s a madhouse!”) Heston’s comrades quickly meet unfortunate ends, but Taylor himself befriends two brilliant and inquisitive chimpanzees: Zira (played by Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). He also befriends (if that’s what they’re calling it these days — wakka wakka!) a beautiful human girl (played by Linda Harrison) whom he decides to name Nova. When Taylor’s ability to speak is discovered, he is put on trial by the incredulous ape leaders (including Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans) who cannot believe that a human is capable of speaking the way apes can. Taylor is eventually freed, and despite Dr. Zaius’ warning (“Don’t look for it, Taylor! You may not like what you find.”) sets out into the “Forbidden Zone” in order to discover how it came to be that apes took over the planet. What he discovers brings him to his knees, and has become an indelible image in our pop-culture ever since. Just in case you didn’t know the surprise ending of the film, it’s spoiled on the DVD box cover art. (And just in case you missed it on the front cover, the image … [continued]
I’m only three films into my year-long (if not longer) project to revisit all 22 James Bond films, and I’ve already arrived at my very favorite Bond movies, and one of my very favorite films of all-time: Goldfinger.
The film: The greatness of Goldfinger lies in how the film contains everything that is iconic and wonderful about the Bond series, side-by-side with moments that are outrageously jaw-droppingly dated and unintentionally hilarious. The film features an incredible theme song; gorgeous, ridiculously-named women; a compelling villain; a menacing henchman; an Aston Martin, gadgets, deathtraps, and great action. The film lives and breathes a tone of “cool” — that unique 1960′s vibe and the allure of a hero who is never without a quip, a fancy drink, and a three-piece suit. The script is fast-paced and very witty, stuffed-full of very funny bon mot. Then, of course, there are the moments that are astoundingly out of date and quite unintentionally laughable: Bond’s casual sexism (never more on display than in this film), weak special effects, and, of course, that terry-cloth robe. But rather than hurting my enjoyment of the film, there’s something so innocent about those flaws that they actually enhance my enjoyment! I can enjoy myself just as much laughing at something the filmmakers wanted the audience to laugh about (like Felix’s good-natured resignation at how his friend James can always be found preoccupied by “a drink or a dame”) as I can laughing at those moments that were definitely NOT intended to be funny (like the over-the-top miming done by the actors playing the hoods as they’re being gassed by Goldfinger). There’s literally not a single moment in Goldfinger that I don’t love.
The opening/The music: This is the first time that a Bond film began with an opening sequence that had absolutely nothing to do with the main plot of the film. It’s basically just a fun action set-piece designed to draw the audience into the film. (This would become a common device used by a majority of the Bond films to follow.) Even though I’ve seen Goldfinger countless times, I often still forget just how jam-packed the opening sequence is with iconic, often imitated moments. There’s the scene in which Bond pulls off his wet-suit to reveal a perfectly pressed white tuxedo underneath (mimicked by Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies), or the moment when Bond sees an attacker reflected in the eyes of the woman he’s kissing (imitated in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery). There’s a great fight scene (my wife felt sorry for the girl, when Bond uses her as a shield against the attacking thug, but I always thought the implication was that
I really enjoyed the two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro, and the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth made me a fan of his for life. Last year I tracked down his 2001 Spanish-language horror film The Devil’s Backbone, which I really enjoyed (you can read my review here), and I was delighted when, a few months ago, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection released a beautiful new edition of Mr. del Toro’s 1993 debut film, Cronos.
Jesus Gris is an elderly antiques dealer. One day in his shop with his granddaughter Aurora, he discovers an ancient, scarab-shaped amulet hidden in an old relic. The amulet turns out to be a powerful device that offers its user the promise of immortality — but at a great cost. When Jesus inadvertently allows the scarab to prick him, he quickly finds himself drawn into a nightmare in which his humanity seems to rapidly spiral out of his reach.
Cronos is an impressive achievement for a first-time writer and director. (Mr. del Toro wrote the script in addition to directing the film.) While it’s clear that many of the ideas and stylistic techniques that Mr. del Toro would hone in his future films are, as yet, unpolished, Cronos is still a very competently made horror film. There are some genuine scares in the film, and some suitably gross makeup effects. But Cronos isn’t just a film designed to make you jump or squirm. As with much of Mr. del Toro’s work, there’s a fascinating, original story that drives the film. The kindly Jesus’ descent into, well, into events that I won’t spoil for you here, is tragic because of Mr. del Toro’s skill at establishing characters who you really care about. I’m also continually impressed by the originality of Mr. del Toro’s stories and designs. The scarab device and the other creatures and effects in the film are all singularly unique creations that aren’t in any way derivative of other films or other stories. I was totally surprised when, late in the film, it becomes apparent that this story is actually Mr. del Toro’s take on a familiar genre of horror. But because his approach to that genre was so new and clever, I wasn’t able to predict where the film was going at all. Even in his first film, it’s clear that Guillermo del Toro possesses an unparalleled imagination, and the skill to bring his unique imaginings to the screen.
As with The Devil’s Backbone, I wasn’t at all bothered by having to watch this Spanish-lamguage film using the subtitles. The story and imagery are so strong that the subtitles weren’t an impediment at all to my engagement … [continued]
J.J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, is an unabashed love-letter to the late ’70s and early ’80s films directed by Steven Spielberg and, as such, seems like it was designed from top-to-bottom to tickle every movie-loving funny-bone in my body. I’m sure I’m not alone. Super 8 has some narrative problems that prevents it from ever reaching the heights of the great Spielberg-directed films it was designed to emulate, but that doesn’t stop it from being a rousingly entertaining film of a type that we really don’t see too much of anymore.
It’s the summer of 1979, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just recently lost his mother to a terrible accident in the factory where she worked. As the school-year ends, he finds solace in the project he’s working on with his friends: filming a make-shift zombie movie on a super 8 camera. Somehow, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the boy directing and masterminding the film, has convinced a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a part in their movie. Joe is immediately smitten, but his father (Kyle Chandler) forbids him from having anything to do with her, due to a bitter feud with her father. One night, after having all snuck out to film a scene of their movie, the boys and Alice witness a terrible train derailment. Soon after, all sorts of mysterious events begin happening in their small town, and the military arrives to supervise the investigation of the train-wreck. As things escalate, the boys begin to suspect that something terrible was released when the train crashed, and the super 8 footage they shot that night might hold a vital clue.
It’s interesting that I began that description of Super 8 by writing about some of the character story-lines in the film, rather than the monster-on-the-loose sci-fi story. That’s because where Super 8 succeeds — and succeeds brilliantly — is in creating several wonderfully layered character story-lines (several of which I have only hinted at in my above summation) that engage the audience and pull at one’s heart-strings. It’s on the monster side of things where the film wobbles a bit, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Many of Steven Spielberg’s early films were told from the point-of-view of a child or children (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is the best example), and like that film, Super 8 spends a lot of time fleshing out the characters and personalities of the different kids who form the main cast of characters. I’ve read several reviews that commented on how Mr. Abrams and his team echoed the device used in E.T. of allowing the kids to be constantly talking over one another in the film, the way real … [continued]
I was beginning to think I’d never get to see another great X-Men movie!
I’m a big, big fan of Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films. I think they’re pretty much perfect, the first two steps in what seemed like an epic cinematic saga. When the final shot of X2 tantalized viewers with the promise of the Dark Phoenix saga (probably the single greatest X-Men storyline ever), I was overcome with gleeful anticipation. I think I’m still recovering from the disappointment at how badly the film series fumbled things from there. The studio rushed X-Men 3 into production with another director, as a big up-yours to Bryan Singer, who had been hired to direct Superman: Returns. X-Men 3 has a decent first 45 minutes or so but then things totally collapse, and the brutally awful handling of the Phoenix storyline was crushingly disappointing. And in the years since, the only new X-Men movie we’ve gotten is the abysmally terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine (share the pain and read my review here).
When I heard that they were finally putting together a new X-Men film, and that it was a prequel, I was not pleased. I really hate prequels, as readers of this blog are probably aware. I think it’s a lazy approach to story-telling, and I’d always rather see a story move FORWARD rather than circle back upon itself. That we’ve been so deluged with prequels these past few years makes me absolutely crazy. Why do I want to see the young versions of characters I love? I want to see the experienced versions of these characters, in their prime, kicking ass and going on new adventures. Why has that seemingly been so difficult for the masterminds behind the X-Men film franchise? Can no one in Hollywood think past a trilogy? X-Men 3 was flawed, but it still made a TON of moola. Hire some new writers and get to work on X-Men 4! Of all the franchises in the world, the X-Men seems like the easiest no-brainer in the bunch. There are SO MANY great characters and story-lines in the comics to choose from. Is Patrick Stewart getting too expensive? No problemo! The comics were constantly writing Professor X out of the stories for long periods of time. Let’s see the films adapt some of the great X-Men stories from the eighties, in which Prof X was gone and Magneto tried to reform and take over the X-Men. That would be awesome! It just seems so simple to me — we should be getting brand new X-Men films every 2-3 years, like clockwork.
But, obviously, that hasn’t happened. Just one god-awful Wolverine solo flick and a prequel. … [continued]
After watching and enjoying Lost in La Mancha last month, I was in a documentary kind of mood, so I decided to track down a film I remembered reading really positive reviews about upon its release: Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
This is a really crazy film!!
This documentary chronicles the Australian film scene of the 1970′s and 1980′s. During those years, a large group burgeoning filmmakers in Australian produced scores of what some would consider “exploitation” films — meaning low-budget films filled with a ton of sex and violence. Written and directed by Mark Hartley, Not Quite Hollywood delves into the development and spread in popularity of these films and filmmakers. The documentary is divided into sections focusing on different types of these Ozploitation films — the sex-comedies, the horror films, etc. — while also spotlighting many of the directors, actors, and actresses who worked on these films.
Sometimes you watch a documentary and it’s clear that, while the film is interesting, it’s pieced together from interviews with just a few subjects. Not this film. There are literally HUNDREDS of people who have been interviewed for this film. It’s clear that Mr. Hartley and his team did an extraordinary amount of work to track down so many of the people with stories to tell about the making of these Australian films. No stone was left un-turned. It’s impressive, and at times a bit overwhelming! The film is edited at an extraordinarily rapid clip — with quick interview snippets running one after the other, often-times running over (or sharing a split-screen with) clips from the many films being discussed. I can’t remember ever seeing a documentary that unfolds at such an energetic pace. The result is a film that feels as crazy, unhinged, and FUN as the films being discussed!
And boy, there are some crazy films being discussed. Other than the Mad Max films, I haven’t seen a single one of the many, many films spotlighted in Not Quite Hollywood. On the one hand, watching this documentary makes me want to track some of these films down! On the other hand, it’s a tremendous amount of fun watching this only-the-best-bits summations of all of these wacky films, and I’m not sure they’d be quite as much fun at full-length. As with the interviews, Mr. Hartley and his team have assembled an extraordinarily vast collection of clips from all sorts of these crazy-looking Australian films. I should warn you: there’s a LOT of nudity in these clips, and also a lot of crazy, bloody scenes of horror. But it all seems so silly and good-natured (yes, even the horror has such a childish spatterific … [continued]
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has been raised in total isolation in a frigid, rural setting by her father Erik (Eric Bana). When we first meet Hanna, it becomes immediately clear that Erik has been training her to be a fierce warrior — tough, smart, and fearless, with a keen tactical mind and skills with all manner of different weaponry. Erik has apparently been in hiding from government agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett) for years, but now that Hanna has become a teenager she has grown tired of her isolation. So Erik allows Hanna to let Marissa know where they are hiding, setting young Hanna on a violent collision course with Erik and Marissa’s secret past.
Hanna is a violent, fast-paced thriller. This story could have been a slow-burn story of intrigue and subterfuge, but while there is no shortage of intrigue and subterfuge in the tale, Hanna is a kinetic, adrenaline-pumping film right from minute one. The throbbing, techno-beat pumping of the score reminds me of Run Lola Run, and it drives the action scenes forward with at a propulsive pace that is also reminiscent of that terrific German film (read my review here).
This was not exactly the type of movie I expected to see from Joe Wright, the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. But his second collaboration with Saoirse Ronan is incredibly potent, and Mr. Wright brings extraordinary skill and style to spare to this film. And truly, Hanna is an exercise in cinematic style from start to finish. There’s nothing exceedingly unique about the story of spies and their dark secrets, but the execution by Mr. Wright and his team give the film a truly distinct flavor all its own.
They are ably assisted, of course, by the terrifically talented threesome of Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett. I haven’t seen Atonement, the first film that brought Ms. Ronan national attention a few years ago, but she is a captivating presence here. There’s a bright intelligence to be seen behind her piercing blue eyes, and she is entirely convincing as the brutal, feral warrior she has been raised to be. She also completely sells the moments of naive innocence exposed in Hanna when she’s confronted with aspects of the modern world that she’s never before experienced.
Cate Blanchett is touch as nails and entirely unlikable as Marissa, which of course is exactly what the role calls for. Ms. Blanchett dials back her charisma to create, in Marissa, a woman who is clearly a shell of a human being, totally devoted to her job and her pursuit of secrets that has become her whole life. She’s a great villain.… [continued]
When you combine the two main creative forces behind Freaks and Geeks (one of the greatest television shows ever made) with some of the funniest actresses working today, is it any result that the resulting film is an uproariously funny, ferociously entertaining comedy from start to finish?
Kristen Wiig stars in Bridesmaids as Annie, a young woman whose life is on a bit of a downturn. Her boyfriend left her, which would be painful enough if the withdrawal of his financial backing didn’t also cause her bakery business to go under. Annie is at first happy to hear that her life-long best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), has gotten engaged, but soon that happy news turns bitter as Annie begins to feel that Lillian has found a new best friend in one of her bridesmaids, the wealthy, perky Helen (Rose Byrne). As she feels Lillian slipping away from her, Annie tries ever-harder to plan perfect wedding-related events for her friend, but those efforts wind up exploding in increasingly spectacular fashion.
In addition to starring in the film, Kristen Wiig co-wrote Bridesmaids with Annie Mumolo. No one could possibly survive and thrive on Saturday Night Live for as long as Ms. Wiig did without clearly having a strong comedic voice and some writing skills, but this film firmly establishes her as a powerhouse talent. She and Ms. Mumolo have crafted a script that is screamingly funny but also endearingly human. There is some exaggeration in the film, to be sure, and there are some characters who drift closer to comedic archetypes than they do to real people. But the central story-line of the film is very real and very honest. The description of the film’s plot in the above paragraph could just as easily be the plot for a somber, depressing drama. Obviously, Bridesmaids is anything BUT a depressing drama! But the idea of a life-change driving a wedge between long-time friends is a story that rings emotionally true, and that gives the film a weight that many other raunchy comedies don’t have.
Having a potent, real emotional story at the core of the craziest of comedies has been one of the reasons why the films directed by and produced by Judd Apatow over the last several years have been so terrific. Mr. Apatow produced Bridesmaids, and I can see immediately why he responded to the script by Ms. Wiig and Ms. Mumolo. It’s also easy to see why this story appealed to Mr. Apatow’s former Freaks and Geeks collaborator, the amazing Paul Feig. (Mr. Feig created Freaks and Geeks, while Mr. Apatow served as the executive producer. Mr. Feig directed Bridesmaids, which was produced by Mr. Apatow.) You might not … [continued]
The phenomenally high-quality Moon (starring Sam Rockwell — read my review here) guaranteed that I’d buy a ticket for director Duncan Jones’ next film. Well, that film has arrived, and although it took me several weeks to find the time to get catch it in a theatre, I’ve finally seen Source Code.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Captain Colter Stevens. He wakes up on a train heading towards Chicago, but doesn’t have any idea how he got there. His last memory is flying a mission in Afghanistan. Across the seat from him is a woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to know him, but he has no idea who she is. Also, she calls him Sean. After a few frantic minutes trying to figure out what’s happening to him, the train explodes, killing Captain Stevens, Christina, and everyone on board.
But Captain Stevens doesn’t die. He wakes up in some sort of pod. A woman on-screen in a military uniform identifies herself as Goodwin and begins to lay out some of the details of Captain Stevens’ situation. A terrorist detonated a bomb on that train and has threatened to decimate Chicago by detonating another bomb, this one with nuclear material. A technology known as Source Code will allow Captain Stevens to relive the last eight minutes of life of one of the passengers on the doomed train. He has that long to try to identify the bomber and prevent the threatened destruction of Chicago. They’re going to continue sending him back into that eight minutes until he does.
Let me get this right off the bat: Source Code is no Moon. It’s an entertaining sci-fi thriller, and it certainly has some fun mind-bending concepts, but it’s nowhere near as memorable as the incredibly original, tightly-structured Moon.
Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan do fine work as the two leads. They’re both talented and charismatic enough that they capture our interest even though we don’t really get to learn much about either character. The focus of the film is far more on the intricate sci-fi plotting than it is on developing characters. That’s not a criticism — I love twisty plot-driven films. But when comparing this film to, say Speed (which is certainly not great cinema but is a rousing action adventure that also focuses on a man and a woman trapped in an enclosed moving vehicle in a tense situation), it’s clear that we certainly get to know Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s characters far better than we do those of Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Monaghan. I adored Ms. Monaghan’s work in the magnificent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and the also-terrific Gone Baby Gone, and I’ve been waiting … [continued]
Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.
Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly. I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest. And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious. The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded. Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions). I think that was a big part of the film’s success. Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).
But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters. How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.
And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers. This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!
As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting. There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect. Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek… [continued]
I had a chance last month to see Rango, the new film by Gore Verbinski (who most recently helmed the three Pirates of the Caribbean films). Johnny Depp voices the titular Rango, a lonely but imaginative chameleon. In the opening minutes of the film we see that Rango, living alone in the small glass box owned by a suburban family, has dealt with his solitude by inventing an enormously rich inner life for himself. But his carefree life of imagination is violently interrupted by a car-accident that leaves him stranded on his own by the side of the road. Rango eventually makes his way into a tiny town called Dirt, populated by a motley assortment of animals. Through some good luck, Rango manages to kill a hawk that’s been menacing the town, and so finds himself appointed sheriff. But that quickly puts him in conflict with the sinister forces attempting to control the town for their own devices, and Rango will need more than just imagination to keep his head attached to his shoulders and, just maybe, save the town and win the girl.
Rango is a slight, though endearing, fairy-tale fable of the Old West. All of the familiar Western archetypes are there, just pleasantly twisted by having the roles played by various animals. The film is chock-full of references to other movies. There’s the over-all Chinatown plot, of course (no incest, just a businessman attempting to use a drought to his own nefarious purposes), along with a ton of little winks and nods to various other cowboy films. (Many of which, I’m sure, went right over my head, since I can’t say that my knowledge of westerns is that deep.) These aren’t really in-your-face gag-references, like you’d see in the Shrek films. Thank heaven for that! No, these are more subtle references that add a fun layer of texture to the film’s story. (Well, mostly subtle. The character who portrays the Spirit of the West is just who you’d expect it to be. But that scene is still so much fun that I couldn’t possibly complain.)
Rango is the first feature-length animated film produced by George Lucas’ incredible visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. As such, no surprise, it looks incredible. The film has a very different look from that of the Pixar films — the stylization of the animation leans less towards cartoony simplification and more into hyper-detailed weirdness. That’s not to say it looks better or worse than a Pixar film — just that it looks different. And, again, thank heaven for that! Pixar is not going to ever be beaten at its own game, so it was wise of the artists at ILM to … [continued]
I have fond memories of watching The Natural with my father as a kid, but it’s been quite a number of years since I’d seen it last. When I saw a blu-ray of the film on-sale at Amazon for just a few bucks, I snatched it up. What fun it was to revisit this fine film!
In Barry Levinson’s 1984 ode to baseball and Americana, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs. As a young man he is clearly gifted with amazing skills at the game of baseball, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stand in his way to become the best ball-player to ever play the game. But one moral mis-step cuts his dreams short. Roy gets a second chance sixteen years later, when as a middle-aged rookie he comes back to the majors to help a losing ball-club on it’s quest for the pennant.
There’s a dramatic through-line to the film, of course, but The Natural really is a fairy-tale. That had always been by recollection of the film, but I was still surprised, re-watching it now, just how prominent those fairy-tale aspects of the film are. Watching the film, you might notice that the dangerous females all wear black, while the honest, noble heroine wears white. But it cuts deeper than that. The film is, at essence, a morality play. It’s clear that we’re meant to understand that young Roy Hobbs is struck down by the woman in black not out of some random chance, but because he chose to break faith with his girlfriend back home (Glenn Close). Then, later in the film, during his come-back season, when he takes up with the duplicitous Memo (Kim Basinger), his seeming invincibility at the plate suddenly ends. In the world of The Natural, only the morally true can succeed.
I found this puzzling as a kid (I didn’t really understand why one moment Roy Hobbs could hit nothing but home runs, while the next he was striking out, and I was totally befuddled by the motivations of the woman in black), while now as an adult I find it to be endearingly sweet. Such a simplistic, moral story could collapse into silliness, but the film is carried along by strong direction by Barry Levinson and some great performances by a high-wattage cast.
At the top, of course, is Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. Other than Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with such a striking representation of truth, justice, and the American way. The performance works because Mr. Redford — as did Mr. Reeves — plays the role with such straight-faced honesty and enthusiasm, with … [continued]
It seems to me like Paul, the new film from Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, has been flying far under the radar. That’s too bad, because the two men (who, along with Edward Wright, were responsible for Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz) just might be the finest comedy duo working today. They’re each great individually, but there’s something magical that happens when the two get together. Paul doesn’t reach the comedic heights of Shaun of the Dead, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.
Pegg plays Graeme and Frost plays Clive, two geeky Brits who have traveled to the US to attend the San Diego Comic-Con and then take a driving tour of the locations of famous UFO sightings. The last thing they expect is to actually encounter a real-live extra-terrestrial: the fast-talking, good-times-loving alien named Paul who is on the run from mysterious government forces. Will the nerds be able to help Paul escape the men in black and meet up with the space-ship sent to take him home?
The movie hits the geek jokes a bit hard in the early-going (making fun of the costume-wearing crazies who attend Comic-Con is a pretty easy joke) but the film quickly settles into a nice rhythm… and then builds towards a frenetic, hilarious finish. I like comedies that are also able to get audiences to invest in the adventure story being told (I hold up Ghostbusters as a prime example of this), and I was quite pleased by how engaged I was by the film in the third act, when the chase was really on.
Although I missed Edgar Wright, it’s hard to complain with someone as talented as Greg Mottola at the helm. Mr. Mottola directed Superbad and Adventureland (a vastly underrated film that I just re-watched last week and loved as much as the first time I saw it). The man is a keen comedy director, giving his cast room to play but also keeping the film moving at a fast clip.
One could play a fun game connecting the dots from Mr. Mottola’s past work to see how he assembled such a terrific ensemble to surround Frost and Pegg. From Superbad, he brought in Seth Rogen. Mr. Rogen voices the alien Paul, and it’s brilliant, inspired casting. Once you hear Mr. Rogen’s voice emanating from the short, big-headed alien, you know what type of a film you’re in for. Rogen really sinks his teeth into the role, and his line delivery is impeccable.
By the way, I should also note that the visual effects work on Paul himself are incredible. This isn’t a movie that I expected to dazzle me with state-of-the-art visual effects, but … [continued]
I’m here at last with the long-delayed final installment of my Spielberg in the Aughts series with a look at Mr. Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. This was pretty much the only Spielberg film from the last decade-and-a-half that I’d unabashedly loved when I first saw it in theatres, and I’m pleased that I found the film to be just as strong when re-watching it last month.
In September, 1972, eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich were held hostage and eventually murdered by members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group. Following those terrible events, the film postulates that an Israeli Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) is asked to lead a small, secret group of Israeli agents assigned to hunt down and assassinate the men who the Israelis hold responsible for the Black September plot.
I think that Munich is one of, if not the most, mature and emotionally devastating films that Steven Spielberg has ever made. There’s no question that Mr. Spielberg is one of our preeminent masters of the pop crowd-pleasing adventure film, and he’s also shown great skill at tackling more serious topics in films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and more. In all of those films, though, the lines between good and evil were very clearly drawn. What fascinates me about Munich, and what gives the film a power equal to if not surpassing those films I just named, is that this story is all about shades of gray. There are no clearly defined heroes or villains in this film, and while one might enter the film with pre-established sympathies for either the Israeli or the Palestinian side in these events, the film wisely avoids painting either side as entirely heroic or entirely villainous.
As Avner and his team set about tracking down and killing their assigned targets, we see not only how Avner and his men (who each begin the assignment with varying degrees of idealism and toughness) begin to feel the mental and moral effects of their bloody work, but also how their actions — however justified they (and some audience members) might feel them to be — serve to extend the cycle of violence. When Avner’s team kills a target, it’s not long before another terrorist group strikes back against Israeli targets, and so on and so forth.
Note that the film’s making a point about how violence serves only to beget violence is a subtly — but critically — different message than saying that the actions of this Israeli team are entirely without justification. I don’t think the film gives that message at all. I remember reading some criticisms of this film, from Jewish … [continued]
A few days ago, Devin Faraci wrote a great piece over on Badassdigest.com (a really phenomenal site that I can’t recommend highly enough) about the terrible ending of the classic Bill Murray film, Stripes.
Mr. Faraci is right on the nose — the last 30 or so minutes of Stripes are really quite terrible. Now, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the first two-thirds of Stripes, either. I think I saw the film way too late in life to really connect with it the way other children of the eighties did. Despite my long-held love for Bill Murray’s movies of the 1980′s (epitomized by my near fanatical worship of Ghostbusters), somehow I missed Stripes throughout my childhood — I only finally saw it when I was in college, and by then I just didn’t find it all that funny.
But Mr. Faraci’s article got me thinking about other good films undone by their endings… and wondering if there any films, as Mr. Faraci asks, whose first two-thirds are so good that I forgive their weak ending?
(Let me state that, obviously, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD for the films under discussion!!)
Let’s begin with some films that start off strong but are, in my opinion, completely ruined by their terrible endings:
No Country for Old Men — I was totally engrossed in this tense, beautiful film for much of its run-time, but the ending totally sunk my enjoyment. After following the character of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) throughout the film, and totally investing in him, I couldn’t believe how that character was completely abandoned and ignored in the final few minutes of the movie. The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) indicates to me that the Coen Brothers intended the film to be the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s. But the movie never earns that. It never shows us the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene. What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss that so affected Sheriff Bell? For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply? We’re never told, and ultimately, as a viewer, I didn’t care too much about Sheriff Bell — I was invested in Llewelyn! And having the end of his story be cut off by the finale really disappointed me.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence — Not that the first two-thirds of this film were so perfect to begin with, but had the movie ended … [continued]
I’m always intrigued, but a bit worried, when I hear that another Philip K. Dick story is being turned into a movie. Many adaptations of Mr. Dick’s work have been pretty horrid, and even the ones that are great (such as Total Recall and Blade Runner) tend to diverge pretty far from the source material. But the promise of one of Mr. Dick’s short stories being used as the basis for the script, along with an intriguingly talented cast, piqued my interest in the new film, The Adjustment Bureau.
Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young, hot-shot rising-star politician who, nevertheless, has just lost the race for the New York Senate seat. In the moments before he’s to give his concession speech, he meets a beautiful young dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom. She’s hiding out from security in the men’s room because she just crashed a wedding in the same building. Sparks immediately fly between the two, and she inspires David to give a surprising off-the-cuff speech that almost immediately begins to revive his political career. When the two meet again soon thereafter, bumping into one another on a city bus, it’s clear that they have a powerful connection. But almost immediately David finds himself confronting a mysterious group of men who seem determined to keep the two apart. These men are the Adjustment Bureau. They claim to be the instruments of a higher power, helping to keep people on their proper paths. They warn David that he and Elise are not fated to be together, and that if he does not let her go, the consequences will be disastrous for them both.
For a film based on a story by Philip K. Dick (his 1954 tale Adjustment Team), the film is actually surprisingly light on the science fiction. It’s really more of a fantasy about belief and faith and fate than it is a sci-fi adventure. That’s not in any way a criticism. The film incorporates the fantastic with a fairly light touch, keeping the focus squarely on David’s real-world emotions and his struggle to find a way out of the impossible situation in which he finds himself.
The glimpses we were given into how the Adjustment Bureau functions were fun — just tantalizing enough to leave us intrigued but not bogged down by exposition. I loved the look of their books (which map individuals’ destinies), and I thought that their system of traveling incredible distances in the blink of an eye through doors that they could turn into portals across the globe was cool (even if the thunder of this device was stolen slightly by Monsters, Inc. — still, Mr. Dick’s story came … [continued]
It is absolutely unbelievable to me that it has been nearly FIFTY YEARS since the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, back in 1962.
(I don’t think the 1954 television version of Casino Royale counts.)
Let me say right at the outset that I am an enormous James Bond fan. My enthusiasm for the film series began when I was in college. After a bunch of my friends and I went to see Goldeneye in theatres, and enjoyed the heck out of it, we decided to go back and start re-watching all of the earlier films. Over the next several years, a group of us became quite fanatical about the Bond films, watching and re-watching them all the time (often — I will admit, gentle reader — in various stages of intoxication).
But time passes, and I realized the other day that, while I’ve watched the two Daniel Craig Bond films several times, it had been quite a number of years since I’d seen most of the earlier films. So I’ve decided to go back to the beginning, and re-watch the series in order. I’m not going to rush things. I’m not commiting to watching a film a week or anything like that. Like a fine bottle of 1953 Dom Perignon (which is probably a lot harder to come by today that it was when James expressed his preference for it back in 1962), this is a series that should be savored!
The film: What a pleasure it was to re-watch Dr. No. It’s astonishing to me how well-made the film is. Despite its age, I think it holds up remarkably well. It’s a taut action thriller, one that takes its time to develop the story without ever losing any of the fun or the tension. Dr. No is a much smarter film than much of what passes for action movies these days. But it’s also very fast-paced, keeping the film interesting to a modern audience. (A number of participants on the wonderful commentary track on the DVD comment on the groundbreaking nature of Dr. No‘s editing. It might not seem fast-paced to us today, but the filmmakers took great pains to cut the film in a manner that would keep the story zipping along. I think that’s a big reason why the film still works so well today.)
Dr. No was made on a tiny budget, but you’d never know it. I continually find myself amazed by the broad canvas of the film — it takes place in countless different locations and sets, and everything looks convincingly real to my eyes. I’ll discuss this further later in my review, but the impressive set … [continued]
Although I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, somehow I had only seen Rushmore – the film that broke him through to a larger audience — one single time. I saw it on VHS back in 1999 or 2000. I didn’t know a thing about Wes Anderson at the time, I just knew it was a Bill Murray comedy that had been well-reviewed when it came out. But since my idea of a great Bill Murray comedy was something like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day, I was totally unprepared for Rushmore. I didn’t like it at all.
Thinking back on it, I think the problem was that I was expecting a totally different kind of movie. I didn’t know quite what to make of Mr. Anderson’s little film. It was a much more somber, sad film than anything I would readily describe as a “comedy.” I do remember laughing at a few points — particularly the mid-movie montage in which Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s characters try to destroy one another — but those moments were few and far between. It also probably didn’t help that I was watching the movie on a tiny little TV screen, late at night when I was exhausted.
For years now I’ve been thinking that I really should go back and revisit Rushmore. It’s GOT to be a better film than I remember it being, I thought! After watching Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, last year (click here for my review), I was all set to re-watch Rushmore. But somehow, months passed, and I never got to it.
But last month, finally, I did!
As I expected, I thought much, much more highly of Rushmore this time. I still think that The Royal Tenenbaums is far and away Wes Anderson’s greatest film (though The Fantastic Mr Fox certainly would give it a run for its money — click here for my review of that film), but I quite enjoyed Rushmore, and I can see why it was such a critical darling upon its release in 1998.
Jason Schwartzman turns in a star-making performance as the Max Fischer — an overachiever who has founded countless school clubs and written and directed a series incredibly elaborate plays but who, nevertheless, is in danger of flunking out of Rushmore Academy. Max strikes up a friendship with Herman Blume (Bill Murray) a rich local businessman who finds that he likes the eccentric Max far more than his own “popular” sons. The two men are both lost and lonely, and they’re able to find deep common ground between them, despite their age difference. That is, until they both fall in … [continued]
Last spring I wrote about OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, a French parody of the Sean Connery era James Bond films. I really liked the movie — I thought it was a spot-on Bond parody and very, very silly — and so I was very excited to watch the 2009 sequel: Rio Ne Repond Plus. (The English subtitle is Lost in Rio.)
Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, French secret service agent code-named OSS 117, is assigned a new case: to track down and pay-off an ex-Nazi, Professor von Zimmel, who has a list of French collaborators from WWII. Hubert is quickly intercepted by a group of Mossad agents, who want von Zimmel captured and brought back to Israel for trial. So Hubert reluctantly teams up with Israeli colonel Dolores Kulechov. They decide to locate von Zimmel by using his son, but quickly find themselves beset by double-agents, masked wrestler/hit-men, groovy hippies, and a lot of Nazis.
Once again, Jean Dujardin plays Hubert. The over-the-top Francophonic Hubert is arrogant, racist, and misogynistic. But in an endearing way! Well, fairly endearing. Lost in Rio pushes the humor of the series even further outside the bounds of political correctness than the last installment did. For the most part, the boundary-pushing humor works, because Mr. Dujardin imbues Hubert with such happy cluelessness that he’s hard to dislike. And the film is pretty clear that it is Hubert himself who is the buffoon, and the subject of our laughter.
The key to this is for the film to ensure that Hubert, rather than any of the people he mocks or puts down, is the primary idiot in every scene. He can laugh about how useless his female partner is, but since we can clearly see her being extraordinarily brave and heroic, we know that the joke is on Hubert. The only major mis-step of the film, for me, was the running subplot about the various Chinese hit-men chasing after Hubert all being hard to understand. Hubert’s jokes about their accents are a little less funny because the actors portraying the hit-men DO all speak in a sort of silly accent. The film wants us to laugh a little at the Chinese hit-men, not just at Hubert himself, and I think that’s a mistake.
But over-all, the film is extremely funny. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had from the continued tweaking of Bond-era styles, from Hubert’s wardrobe — which includes a tiny blue Goldfinger-esque terry cloth robe — to the insanely over-the-top use of split-screens in certain sequences. Some of the humor is very low-brow physical, while some is clever word-play. (There’s an Au Revoir, Les Enfants joke that … [continued]
And so we come at last to the final installment (for now, at least!) of my “Catching Up on 2010″ series, in which I’ve been writing about all of the 2010 films that I watched in my very busy January attempt to catch up on as many of the 2010 films that I’d missed as possible.
Martin Scorcese’s new film, Shutter Island, didn’t much interest me when it came out last summer. But it was a new Scorsese picture, so it automatically had my attention. I never got around to seeing it in theatres, but I was able to catch up to it on DVD last month.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall dispatched, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane located off the coast of Massachusetts. The woman, Rachel, seems to have vanished without a trace from within her locked cell.
Right away from the beginning of the film, I was a bit put off by the over-wrought score. Every beat in those early moments was punctuated by bombastic, creepy music that seemed to state loudly, just in case we missed it, that SHUTTER ISLAND IS EVIL and something REALLY BAD is going on there! I felt that the dour overcast skies, the deranged-looking inmates, the imposing architecture, and the unfolding story would have been more than sufficient to establish a suitably fearsome, unsettled vibe, which is clearly what Mr. Scorsese was going for in those opening scenes. I didn’t think there was any need for the over-the-top score to shove that in our faces.
But once the plot began to unfold I thought the film settled down into a nice rhythm. There are some great actors at play in this film, and I enjoyed watching the mysteries of the story develop and deepen. I was also quite struck by the backstory given to Mr. DiCaprio’s character, Teddy. It turns out that he was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of WWII, and he is haunted by the atrocities he witnessed — as well as the reprisals against the German soldiers of the camp that he participated in. That particular story point caught me off-guard. I had no idea that the Holocaust played any part in the story of Shutter Island. (The trailers wisely left that tid-bit out.) I was intrigued by this revelation of Teddy’s back-story. It indicated to me that perhaps there was far more going on in Shutter island than just a ghost story, and that Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators (including Laeta Kalogridis, adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) had … [continued]
I noticed the small Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom, on many critics’ 2010 Top 10 Lists, so I decided to track the film down myself to take a look.
Whoa. I was not at all prepared for the level of terrible spirit-crushing oppression contained in this joyless look at a family of Australian drug-dealers. I can totally understand why many critics connected to the unique voice represented by this fierce film, but I found it tough to get through at times and, overall, a pretty dour movie-watching experience.
In the film’s opening scene, seventeen year-old J (for Joshua) discovers that his mother has died of a heroin overdose. With nowhere else to go, he calls his grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), and she agrees to take him in. Very quickly, we discover what young J apparently already knew: that Janine and her sons are a pack of vicious criminals involved in drug-running and armed assaults. Things get even more complicated when police detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) begins pushing J to inform on his family. Though Leckie’s intentions seem honorable — to pull J out of the terrible environment in which he’s living — he winds up putting J in the hot-seat with his family, particularly the brutal “Pope”.
Writer/director David Michod has crafted a tough, take-no-prisoners film. Like J, we are thrust right into the proverbial lion’s den of this family and their fearsome matriarch. Jacki Weaver’s performance as Janine is the highlight of the film. At first she appears sweet and friendly to J, but once we see the way she kisses her sons (with uncomfortably lengthy kisses on the lips), it’s clear that this woman is somewhat off the reservation. As the film unfolds, we learn that she might be the hardest, most dangerous member of the family. It’s a powerhouse of a performance — Ms. Weaver creates a truly dangerous character. We never know whether her face will be full of sweetness or of death.
James Frencheville does strong work in the lead role as J. It’s a tough role. J is pretty passive, with a deer-in-the-headlights look for most of the film, but once he does finally start to take action we really see Mr. Frencheville come to life. (There’s one particular scene, late in the film, in which J breaks down in a bathroom, that is really emotional, powerful stuff, really well-played by Mr. Frencheville.) I love Guy Pearce, and it’s great to see him in this film. His detective is portrayed in marked contrast to the Cody family, yet Mr. Pearce gives him just enough ambiguity that we must wonder whether he truly has J’s best interests at heart. I was … [continued]
In The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the novel by Jim Thompson, Casey Affleck stars as Texas sheriff’s deputy Lou Ford. At first, he seems like the good-natured heroic main character of the film. ”Around here, if you’re not a man and a gentleman, you’re nothing,” Lou intones in a monologue that opens the film. My initial reaction was that Lou was describing the way he tries to live his life — the importance of striving to be a gentleman. The reality, as we quickly learn, is much darker. Lou is certainly not a gentleman and barely even a human being. His statement reflects his cold, blunt knowledge of that fact.
The Killer Inside Me is worth watching purely for the phenomenal lead performance of Casey Affleck. I am continually amazed by Mr. Affleck’s insistence on taking on challenging, outside-of-the-mainstream roles, and also for his extraordinary versatility as an actor. He can play straight comedy in the Ocean’s Eleven films, a heroic but conflicted lead character in Gone Baby Gone, and then the most horrible type of evil in this film. It’s an extraordinary range for an actor to display, and with each film Mr. Affleck seems to get better and better. In The Killer Inside Me, one can’t help but be captivated as Mr. Affleck reveals layer upon deeper layer of the cruel, horrible individual who Lou Ford really us. It’s a raw, electrifying performance, and one from which you really can’t look away.
The rest of the film is a little more difficult to praise. The film is outrageously violent, and there are several extremely gruesome and graphic depictions of Lou Ford’s violence towards women that verge on the nauseating. I don’t have a strong stomach for violence in films, I will readily admit, and this film really pushed me to my limits. It’s not that there is constant violence throughout the film — it’s more that there are several instances of intense, terrible violence. In particular, one female character meets a shocking demise about of a third of the way into the film. It’s a stunning moment — not only because I had expected that character to stick around for the rest of the film, but also because of the extraordinarily painful, extended, right-on-camera depiction of her death. It’s really rough stuff. I don’t think the violence is necessarily gratuitous — I do understand what Mr. Winterbottom was intending to accomplish — but it’s so tough to watch that in many ways those moments pull me right out of the story I’m watching unfold.
Though what really cripples the film, for me, is the loony left-turn that the narrative takes in the final … [continued]
While I try not to let a filmmaker’s personal life interfere with my enjoyment of their work, I must admit that I didn’t exactly feel a burning desire to rush out and see the latest Roman Polanski film, 2010′s The Ghost Writer. However, while Mr. Polanski’s somewhat sordid past did give me pause, I must of course acknowledge his tremendous skills as a filmmaker. So, in that respect, his involvement in The Ghost Writer also piqued my interest in the film. I wondered what sort of spin Mr. Polanski had brought to a story that looked, on the surface, like a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller. This push-pull on my interest resulted in my passing on the film in theatres, but adding it to my Netflix queue once it came out on DVD.
(And that, my friends, is a little extra free-of-charge insight into how my brain works!)
In the film, Ewan McGregor plays the titular ghost writer. (Interestingly enough, his character’s actual name is never given.) He’s a professional author, hired to help famous people complete their memoirs/autobiographies/etc. The ghost writer’s services are called into play, at the start of the film, to help beleaguered British politician Adam Lang. Mr. Lang, once the British Prime Minister, is now under fire for allegedly allowing suspected terrorists to be tortured while he was the PM. That, plus the untimely death of his last ghost writer, has put a wrinkle in the progress of his upcoming book. With the political scandal reaching fever pitch, the book’s publisher is desperate to get the book completed and on the shelves in great haste, and so Ewan McGregor’s character is dispatched to the Lang compound to begin work immediately.
Except, no surprise, things quickly become very complicated for the ghost. He finds himself faced with Mr. Lang, a politician under siege, who seems extraordinarily affable at times and yet reluctant to open up about himself or his past; Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who seems sympathetic but also extremely tightly-wound; and a growing mystery about Adam Lang’s past and what may or may not have happened to his ghost writer predecessor.
Pierce Brosnan was widely-praised for his performance as Adam Lang, and rightly so. He brings all the charisma and bluster of a great politician to the fore, while also hinting at a dangerous edge that just might lie right below the surface. He constantly keeps the audience guessing as to whether he’s a noble politician beset by pernicious enemies, or whether Adam Lang is in fact a much more sinister character. Speaking of keeping the audience guessing, so too does the wonderful Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, Rushmore) as his wife Ruth. She is wonderfully creepy … [continued]
I was really captivated by The Squid and the Whale when I first saw it, and I think that first viewing made me interested for life in whatever future projects writer/director Noah Baumbach would undertake. I was bummed to have missed Greenberg when it was released to theatres last year, but was happy to catch up with it on DVD last month.
Ben Stiller plays the titular Greenberg: Roger Greenberg. A tightly-wound fellow, Roger Greenberg has returned to Los Angeles after many years away (and, apparently, a brief stay in a mental institution). While his wealthy brother, Phillip (Chris Messina) is out of town with his family, Roger has moved into his large house. While Phillip has given Roger some projects as an ostensible reason for his visit (namely to use his carpenter skills to build a new doghouse for the family pet), it’s clear that the main reason for his stay is to somehow find himself again, and perhaps to return some stability to his life.
Though the film is called Greenberg, the movie opens by allowing us to spend a significant amount of time with a young woman named Florence (played by Greta Gerwig). She is Phillip Greenberg’s assistant/nanny, and she’s assigned with taking care of some household chores in the family’s absence, and also to assist Roger if he needs help. It’s that last assignment that proves tricky. Though there’s a spark of attraction between the two, the young, cheerful Florence doesn’t quite know what to make of the occasionally depressed, always difficult forty year-old Roger.
As always, director and co-writer Noah Baumbach (he shares story credit with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) is able to mine a lot of comedy from the painfully awkward collisions of slightly-damaged people. Well, in this case, I think it’s fair to say that Roger Greenberg is more than just slightly damaged. Mr. Baumbach and Mr. Stiller make brave choices in allowing their lead character to be extraordinarily unlikable at times. The film is very funny on occasions, and much of that humor is derived from Greenberg’s neuroses (such as his proclivity for writing long letters of complaint to any agency or business that has offended him in the slightest). But the film is also tough to watch at times. Greenberg’s insecurities cause him to lash out at those people trying (perhaps against their better judgment) to be in his life. In particular, he’s terribly cruel to Florence at several points in the film, in a way that really dares the audience to give up on this character.
But somehow — and this is really a testament to Mr. Baumbach’s skill as a writer/director — we never quite do, and
When I first heard about The Fighter, I thought “here we go again, yet another boxing movie.” But then I realized that, though I could certainly list a TON of boxing movies, I haven’t actually seen that many of them. I’m not at all interested in the “sport” of boxing, and though I definitely enjoy some dark, downbeat films, I’m not a big fan of a lot of violence or gore in movies. All of which means that it’s rare for me to want to go see a boxing film.
But something about The Fighter sparked some interest in me. Perhaps it was the cast, or perhaps it was the story of Mark Wahlberg’s years-long effort to bring the real-life story of boxer Micky Ward to life. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I decided to see the film, because it is absolutely terrific.
Mark Wahlberg has turned in some strong performances over the past few years (even when he’s in films that I don’t really like, such as The Other Guys). He was, for instance, absolutely brilliant in The Departed (click here for my review). Born in Dorchester, MA, it’s clear that Mr. Wahlberg felt a strong connection to the scrappy fighter from Lowell, MA, and that shows through every moment of the performance. Mr. Wahlberg is completely believable as a welterweight boxer, but he also brings an endearing gentleness to the portrayal. His Micky is soft-spoken and desperately eager to please. It’s fascinating to me that the film’s narrative arc rests on Micky learning to actually be a little bit selfish and make a decision that will do right for HIM, rather than for his mother, sisters, or brother.
Speaking of his brother (really his half-brother), as good as Mark Wahlberg is as Micky Ward, this movie absolutely 100% belongs to Christian Bale and his performance as Dicky Eklund. Dicky was once a great boxer and “the pride of Lowell,” but now he’s a crack-addicted shambles of a man who’s convinced himself that training his brother to fight will be his road to a comeback. Mr. Bale’s performance is mesmerizing. Dicky is a whirlwind of tics and energy that threatens to fly apart any room or situation that he’s in. We can see the echoes of his charisma that once made him a local hero, and that perhaps also explains why his loved ones tolerate his behavior. And his smile. Oh, his smile is devastating. It conveys such warmth from the heart of this man-child, but it’s also devastatingly sad and pathetic as we quickly see what a self-destructive force Dicky has become.
(The extraordinary high esteem in which I held Christian Bale’s performance as … [continued]
I really can’t believe how much I enjoyed director Tom Hooper’s new film The King’s Speech!
I was a bit dubious going in. I’d heard that the film was good, but it looked like a classic “Oscar-bait” type of movie to me. You know: period setting, famous actors, a character struggling to overcome a disability as well as his own personal demons, etc. Didn’t strike me as the type of film I’d be at all interested in.
But I’m glad I decided to go see it, because I think the film is marvelous.
The King’s Speech opens in 1925, when Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), gives the closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The speech goes poorly, because Prince Albert is afflicted with a terrible stammer. Though the Prince has grown weary of dealing with doctors who have been unable to help him, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges a meeting with a speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). At first the Prince is put-off by Lionel’s casual manner and techniques, but gradually the two men form a strong working relationship and, possibly, a friendship. Things grow more complicated when Albert’s father, King George V, dies, and Albert’s elder brother, Prince Edward, decides to abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman. This leaves Albert in line for the throne, and about to face a terrible threat to his nation: the rise of Hitler.
The King’s Speech rests squarely upon the shoulders of Mr. Firth and Mr. Rush. Their complex relationship is the central dynamic of the piece, and it is because of the enormous skill of those two actors that I found the story as compelling as I did. (Though the smart script by David Seidler helps enormously, too!) Both Mr. Firth and Mr. Rush craft layered, nuanced performances, and I found their interactions with one another to be electric. There are some enormous world events that form the backdrop to this story, but despite that I found the most dramatic scenes of the film to be the ones when it was just those two men, sitting in a room, talking.
There’s a strong dramatic arc to Prince Albert’s story, but I was pleased that the filmmakers didn’t ladle on the drama too heavily (a cardinal sin of the “Oscar-bait” types of movies I mentioned above). Indeed, the story is told with a fairly light touch — there’s a lot of humor in the tale.
I’m all for films where the characters are unlikable, broken people — that can lead to some really complex, engaging story-lines — but I think The King’s Speech is well-served by just … [continued]
In Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right, we meet Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a loving lesbian couple who have been raising two kids together: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Their lives aren’t perfect, but over-all it’s a stable, happy family unit. But when Laser convinces Joni to help him find their biological father (though Nic gave birth to Joni and Jules gave birth to Laser, they share the same sperm donor), the foundations of the family are shaken.
I was really quite taken with this film. I think it’s an interesting story filled with complex, human characters, and all of the lead actors give terrific performances. I was ultimately dissatisfied with where the narrative wound up (more on that later), which lessens the film’s total impact slightly for me, but it’s still a very solid, enjoyable, aimed-at-adults movie.
I’ve been complaining a lot recently about films with one-dimensional characters. I don’t mind films having heroes and villains, and likable and unlikable characters. I simply tend to prefer films where the characters aren’t completely black and white. (Ex. This father is a TOTAL JERK with no redeeming qualities.) So major props to writer/director Ms. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg for crafting a story filled with truly human characters. No one in The Kids Are All Right is a total saint. The characters have positive qualities and some negative ones as well. Likable characters make some bad decisions. It’s thrillingly refreshing.
This top-notch material is elevated by a wonderful cast. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are both phenomenal as Nic and Jules. These characters felt completely REAL to me, and their relationship felt equally honest. It’s sweet and messy and complicated and feels really true. I like that we get to see the two sharing some tender moments, as well as the times when they seem completely distant from one another.
Equally wonderful are the two kids. Mia Wasikowska was one of the few good things in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (read my review here), and it’s delightful to see her looking and acting like a real human being without all of that accompanying Tim Burton weirdness. Ms. Wasikowska is able to bring to life Joni’s innocence, as well as to her growing temptation to leave her childhood behind and step into the trappings of an adult. Josh Hutcherson is also strong as her brother Laser (pronounced Lazer). He’s already begun to push at the boundaries of conformity and acceptable behavior, but Mr. Hutcherson keeps reminding us of Laser’s good-natured side as well (a product, one can assume, of the strong upbringing he’s received from his two moms).
Then there is Paul … [continued]
Back in June I posted a trailer for Rob Reiner’s new film, Flipped, and I wondered if, at last, Rob Reiner (the mastermind behind This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and A Few Good Men) had broken his long dry streak and finally directed a good new film. Unfortunately Flipped was only in theatres for about five seconds, so I never got to see it — but I was happy to have a chance to catch it on DVD.
And I am happy to report that the film represents a strong return to form for Mr. Reiner!
Adapted from the book by Wendelin Van Draanen, Flipped tells the story of Bryce Loski and Juli Baker. When Bryce is seven, his family moves into the house across the street from Juli’s. She immediately develops a crush on him, while he finds her attentions to be annoying in the extreme. By the eight grade, though, Bryce finally begins to see what’s so special about Juli… at the same time as she starts to think that maybe Bryce isn’t the amazing kid she always thought he was.
While I wouldn’t argue that Flipped is of a level with the amazing films listed above that Mr. Reiner directed earlier in his career, it’s a really fun, sweet film that I quite enjoyed. Mr. Reiner has always had the ability to craft what one might call “family” films that avoid the simplicity and schmaltz so prevalent in “all-ages” types of films, and that skill is on fine display here. Flipped isn’t edgy, it isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s an extremely well-crafted little story that I found to be really endearing.
The film employs a device (which, I gather, was a main hook of the original book) of continually switching back and forth between Bryce’s & Juli’s perspectives. We see event unfold narrated by Bryce, and then the film cuts back and we see the same events from Juli’s perspective. As the film began I wondered if that device wouldn’t get tedious, but in Mr. Reiner’s skilled hands nothing of the sort happens. He knows exactly how to cut the footage so that he shows us just enough, on the second run-through, of what we need to know without boring the audience by replaying every single second, and the narrative is so-cleverly crafted that our second viewing of the events always shows us something we hadn’t learned before. (With one notable exception. Towards the end of the film there’s a scene in which Bryce is talking to a friend about Juli in the library, and although we don’t see her at the time, I found it … [continued]
I’m not really sure quite how to put this so I’ll just go ahead and say it:
Black Swan freaked me the fuck out.
And I pretty much loved every second of it.
The one-two punch of The Fountain and The Wrestler have made me a big, big fan of Darren Aronofsky, and with Black Swan he’s pretty much made me a fan for life. Black Swan is one of the most viscerally engaging experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre in quite a while. The film is intense and erotic and gruesome and it grabbed me by the guts and never let go. It only squeezed harder as the film built to the absolutely wonderfully madcap insane final twenty-or-so minutes.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is cast as the lead in her theatre company’s new production of Swan Lake. The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), knows that Nina has the technical perfection to play the White Swan half of the role, but he worries that her dancing is too cold, too polished, for her to embody the more sensual Black Swan half. As Nina pushes herself harder and harder to satisfy Thomas, things start to fall apart for her in a big way.
Right from the beginning, Mr. Aronofsky and his team establish a creepy vibe for the film. Nina is clearly an extremely tightly wound creature, so one immediately knows that the pressure of the starring role might be trouble. This concern is only magnified when we’re given a glimpse of her home life. Nina still lives with her mother (played by Barbara Hershey), and it’s clear that the two have a very weird relationship in which Nina seems to be extraordinarily infantilized. For example, her little room is decked out with stuffed animals and other pink, frilly things as if she were as seven year-old girl. There’s a great scene in which Nina is reluctant to eat a cake that her mom has bought her to celebrate her being given the lead role in Swan Lake, and her mom’s extreme reaction to this minor rejection clearly indicates that this co-dependant relationship is fraught with problems.
As the tension and pressure on Nina builds, things get creepier and weirder. The film really plays with the notions of reality. We never quite know if what we’re seeing is real or just in Nina’s head. There are a few really quick, subtle visual effects shots that are dropped in at just the right moments to give the audience (and Nina!) a jolt. Mr. Aronofsky’s camerawork also serves to keep the audience on our toes. We’re continually pushed right up close to the characters’ faces. The cinematography really keeps the … [continued]
Some movies are so bad that they are soul-crushingly painful. It kills me when I sit down in a movie theatre with great hope and anticipation for a new film, only to watch my dreams slowly shatter as the turd-on-film unfolds. I’m not talking about films that disappoint, I’m talking about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull spirit-demolishing catastrophes. These films are just sad.
Then there are the films that are also terrible, but in a different way that makes them laughably ridiculous (as opposed to shoot-me-now painful). These are the films that are so over-the top bonkers, so wrong-headedly BAD, that you just can’t help but laugh at the madness you’re watching on display.
The Green Hornet definitely fits into the latter category.
I didn’t have high hopes for this film, but I have great respect for the talents involved (including Seth Rogen, who I’ve found hysterical ever since Freaks and Geeks, and director Michel Gondry, who helmed the amazingly beautiful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and so I had some interest in checking out what they had done with the pulp story of the Green Hornet.
Wowzers. This film is so unbelievably terrible right from the first scene that it’s jaw-dropping.
I’m not kidding. RIGHT FROM THE FIRST SCENE this movie is awful. That first scene shows us Seth Rogen’s character, Britt Reid, as a child, being berated by his father (played by Tom Wilkinson). I guess this scene is supposed to show us the complicated father-son relationship between these two, and also perhaps instill in us some sympathy for young Britt. But the scene does neither because it’s so over-the-top in every single respect as to be ludicrous. Tom Wilkinson — one of the finest actors working today — plays Britt’s father James, and he has never been worse in a film. He’s stiff and forced to spout silly, over-the-top dialogue that hits us over the head with the idea that he’s a jerk who is insensitive to his son. Meanwhile the music is going full-bore ominous, there’s a crazy sound effect when James pops the head off his son’s toy, and right there I was shifting in my seat thinking “uh oh.” Everything is dialed up to eleven. James isn’t just a jerk, he’s a JERK with capital letters who is completely, one-dimensionally horrible to his kid. The music is over-the-top. The sound-effects are over-the-top.
And the WHOLE MOVIE is just like that scene.
Oh, sure, there are some jokes that are funny. I mean, you can’t have Seth Rogen on screen for two hours and not laugh occasionally. But the ratio of jokes that hit to jokes that miss is … [continued]
I’m always intrigued by the idea of world-building in film. Whether we’re talking about fantasy worlds a long time ago and far, far away, or the depiction of distinct real-life settings or time-periods, when I watch a movie I love to be immersed in a fully-realized universe in which the story takes place. In some movies, the setting is barely mentioned and basically irrelevant to the story. In others, the setting becomes almost a key character in the story, and the filmmakers expend great time and skill in bringing that particular universe of the story to vibrant life.
Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and written by Ms. Granik and Anne Rosellini (adapting the novel by Daniel Woodrell), definitely falls into the latter category. The story is set in the Ozarks, a rural area of Missouri. I have no idea if the world of the Ozarks as depicted in this film bears any connection to real life (I assume that it does, but I certainly can’t verify that myself), but whether it does or not, I have found it difficult to shake the picture of this downtrodden community that Ms. Granik has created in her film.
Winter’s Bone focuses on Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17 year-old girl who has assumed the role of caretaker for her family (a sick mother and two younger siblings) in the absence of her father, a meth cooker who has vanished — either dead or on the run for the law. Though she harbors a dream of joining the army and leaving her home behind, when we first meet Ree she seems to have settled impressively well into her role as head of the family. She exhibits great responsibility and maturity in taking care of everything that needs to be done, without complaint, and she gives enormous amounts of care to her mom and siblings. But her precariously-balanced existence is thrown into grave jeopardy when the local Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her missing father (Jessup) had put up their house and all their possessions as bond. If he doesn’t show up to his court date, Ree and her family will lose everything. With her back up against the wall, Ree begins trying to locate her father by making inquiry with her neighbors — most of whom seem to be related to her in some way, and most of whom seem to be involved in the same criminal activities that her father was. They are proudly defiant of the law and as such refuse to help Ree track down her father. With the clock ticking, the young girl feels her options waning.
I’ve read reviews of this film that describe it as depicting … [continued]
If there was any doubt in your mind that Emma Stone is a bona fide movie star, that should be erased by Easy A. She’s clearly a vibrant, intelligent, beautiful young woman, and she’s very engagingly watchable. She has no trouble carrying this film on her young shoulders.
Unfortunately, other than watching Ms. Stone dig her teeth into her first starring role, I found precious little to enjoy in this movie.
The biggest problem is that, as talented as Ms. Stone clearly is, she’s just way too vibrant, intelligent, and beautiful a young woman to be believable as the totally unnoticed zero that she claims she is in the film’s opening monologue. Much of the plot of the film depends on our accepting Olive (Emma Stone’s character) as a lonely looser, but nothing in her scenes on-screen leads me to buy that reality! The problem is not contained just with Ms. Stone. As the film progresses, we get to meet the young man who’s the real object of her affection: the boy she nicknames “Woodchuck Todd” (Penn Badgley). I guess he’s also supposed to be something of an oddball, since he doesn’t seem to hang out with the “in” crowd kids, and he’s apparently the school’s mascot (a woodchuck, hence the nickname). Except that when we see him without his shirt (which is often), Mr. Badgley is clearly an extraordinarily handsome, well-built fellow who looks more like the football team’s star quarterback than the goofy team mascot. As with Ms. Stone, he’s entertaining, but I just don’t buy him in the role.
The rest of the actors supposedly playing high school kids all look equally too old and too good-looking to really be high school kids. Look, maybe I’m spoiled by my devotion to Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Greeks, a show where the high school kids ALL ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE HIGH SCHOOL KIDS!! Easy A certainly isn’t the first movie or TV show to cast older, more impossibly beautiful people in the role of high school kids. But it seems particularly egregious here. (It doesn’t help, by the way, that the film features Joan Jett’s song “Bad Reputation” on the soundtrack at a key moment. I can’t help but compare your movie to the brilliant Freaks and Geeks when you ACTUALLY USE FREAKS AND GEEKS’ THEME SONG IN YOUR FILM!! Sheesh!!)
But while I didn’t believe Emma Stone to be a lonely, unseen kid, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t really enjoy watching her in the role. She truly is a lot of fun, and when the movie works it works because of her charisma. She effortlessly takes on the lead role.
I also really enjoyed the scenes … [continued]
Despicable Me seemed like a movie that I’d really dig. It’s an animated film about dueling super-villains, which is a great hook, and it features a spectacular voice cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Jack McBrayer, Danny McBride, and more.
Boy, what a disappointment!
First of all, despite what the trailers indicated, the film isn’t about dueling super-villains at all. Jason Segel’s character Vector, who is presented in the trailer and in the opening scenes of the film as a rival for Steve Carell’s villain Gru, hardly factors into the story at all until the very end. Instead, the plot of the film really focuses on Gru’s adopting three cute little girls (as part of one of his dastardly plans), but instead of manipulating them he grows fond of the girls and discovers that he can be a great dad.
Boy oh boy, this film failed on pretty much every level for me. It’s more interested in cutesy-moments (whether featuring the three oh-so-cute little girls or the oh-so-adorable little yellow “minions” that work for Gru) than actual jokes. There are a few funny moments, but they’re few and far between.
The plot, as it were, is very thin. The idea that Gru could adopt those three girls is more ludicrous than any of the super-villain hi-jinks in the film. There are a few perfunctory scenes with the girls in their orphanage, run by a cruel woman named Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), which are clearly only in the film to minimize the horror of the idea of this bizarre man being allowed to adopt three innocent little girls. (“Hey, at least he’s not as bad as SHE is,” we’re supposed to think!) Then the film attempts to mine some drama from Vector kidnapping the girls at the end, but there’s no tension because he’s clearly no match for Gru. After the opening scenes, the film has tried to mine laughs from Vector being presented as a total doofus.
The film doesn’t even really bother to explore the premise that it sets up — a world where there are apparently no super-heroes and super-villains are allowed to operate with impunity. Where are the heroes? How does society react to the free reign these villains apparently have? Are there other villains out there besides Gru and Vector? How did Gru create his minions? I could go on and on. Compare this to the fully-relized universe created in Pixar’s super-hero film, The Incredibles. Not only did that movie feature three-dimensional characters and a compelling story-line, but it also managed to really explore the world being presented. We learned about the effect that the heroes … [continued]
This week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly features a brief interveiw with the Coen Brothers, in which the writer congratulates Joel & Ethan Coen on True Grit, a “four-quadrant” movie (meaning a flick that appeals to men and women, young and old), and the biggest box-office success of their careers.
It’s delightful to see the public embracing True Grit to the degree that it has, because while this film might be more easily categorizable than the last several Coen Brothers films (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men), it’s still a Western that has been filtered through their unique and sometimes bizarre sensibilities. And I love it all the more for that!
Hailee Steinfeld plays fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross. Her father has recently been murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney, but despite her efforts, it doesn’t seem like any lawman seems much interested in pursuing him. So Mattie hires herself a bounty hunter: the aging, cranky, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). She also encounters a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been pursuing Chaney, under a different name, for another murder that he committed. At first she takes a strong disliking to the pompous Ranger, but as the chase commences and she & Cogburn continue encountering LaBoeuf, Mattie begins to wonder if she hasn’t hitched her wagon to the wrong horse.
I found True Grit to be great fun from start to finish. There’s a strong emotional throughline — Mattie’s increasingly desperate efforts to find someone who will help her achieve vengeance for her father’s death — and the film is very well-paced. I thought it was intriguing and engaging throughout. As always, the Coens know how to stage an action scene, and there are several sequences that are true nail-biters (including the shoot-out outside of the cabin about half-way through the film, and of course the climactic encounter with Tom Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang). The film is intense and violent at times, but it’s never gory. True Grit is rated PG-13 (in that EW interview, Joel Coen comments: “It seemed obvious to us that because it’s a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, 13- and 14-year-old girls should be able to see the movie”), but it never feels dumbed down or softened the way I often feel PG-13 movies are.
But the real joys of True Grit are the tremendous performances. Jeff Bridges proves once again that he is unbeatable when directed by the Coen Brothers. His protrayal of Rooster Cogburn is one of those iconic performances that I suspect we’ll be seeing clips from in highlight reels for years to come. Rooster is tough and cunning, but … [continued]
It’s very possible that John Cazale has the greatest batting average of any actor in history. He only appeared in five films, but they were, in order: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. It’s an amazing streak of five phenomenal performances in five phenomenal films, although that only emphasizes the tragedy of Mr. Cazale’s death at the incredibly young age of 42.
Anyone in the cult of The Godfather, like me, already knows the name John Cazale. He, of course, plays the sweet but hapless Fredo, brother of Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan). Although not one of the big-star names in the film (like the afore-mentioned Mr. Pacino and Mr. Caan, along, of course, with Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall), Mr. Cazale’s work as Fredo is absolutely amazing. He creates, in Fredo, a role of enormous depth and sophistication. Fredo is a character who is, on the one hand, all surface — he’s unable to hide his thoughts and feelings the way his brother Michael can — though Mr. Cazale brings enormous soul to the character and shows us deep layers of emotion and feelings behind his amazingly expressive eyes.
Those eyes are often commented upon by those who loved and admired Mr. Cazale in the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shephard. The film is aimed at introducing movie fans to this incredibly talented, yet sadly somewhat forgotten, actor.
Even at the time, Mr. Cazale’s talents were often overlooked. The film points out that, while the five films he starred in were nominated for a total of 44 Academy Awards (quite a haul!), Mr. Cazale himself was never nominated. And in a sad scene early in the documentary, we see pedestrians in New York City asked to identify Mr. Cazale from a picture of him as Fredo from The Godfather. While many are able to recall the name of his character, not one knew Mr. Cazale’s name. (I always wonder if scenes like these in films aren’t the result of judicious editing to make the point that the filmmakers want, but in this case I have no doubt that most people have never heard John Cazale’s name.)
The film spends a few minutes giving us some insight into Mr. Cazale’s background and childhood, but for the most part it focuses on his work in his five films. A plethora of actors and directors — including Francis Ford Coppola (who directed Mr. Cazale in the first three films in which he appeared), Sidney Lumet (who directed him in his fourth film, Dog Day Afternoon), Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert … [continued]
In the film Cyrus, written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, John C. Reilly stars a John, a pretty pathetic fellow whose self-confidence is not improved by the news that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is about to re-marry. Jamie convinces John to join her and her fiancee at a friend’s party. To John’s great surprise, he actually winds up hitting it off with a beautiful woman named Molly (Marisa Tomei). They go on a couple of dates, all of which go very well. Molly seems wonderful. But when he notices that Molly never seems willing to spend a whole night at his place, John begins to wonder if she’s married, or if she’s hiding some other secret from him. When he follows her home one day, he discovers what that secret is: her 21-year-old son, Cyrus. Molly has raised Cyrus by herself, and neither has ever been able to separate from the other. He still lives with her, but that’s the least of it! To call their relationship co-dependant would be a dramatic understatement, and John is forced to wonder whether he can ever fit into the life that those two have created for each other.
I’d read some rave reviews about Cyrus when it played at festivals earlier this year. Even though it’s release to theatres fizzled this past summer, I was eager to watch it on DVD. I’d read that this was a black comedy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the weirdness on display in this film!! It certainly goes to some places I did not expect. There’s a lot that I enjoyed about the film, though I can’t really say that it all worked for me.
The biggest problem with the movie, for me, was the first twenty-or-so minutes before we meet Cyrus. The film takes this time to establish John as a character. I understand that we need to learn that he’s lonely and odd, because we need to understand why he doesn’t head for the hills at the first whiff of weirdness between Molly & Cyrus. The filmmakers need to show us that John is a man pretty desperate for love and companionship, and that is what causes him to stick things out and try to fight for Molly’s affections. But, boy, I think the Duplass brothers went WAY too far over the top in presenting John as such an extraordinarily pathetic loser in those opening scenes. Those sequences are just PAINFUL to watch — I didn’t find any humor in those scenes, they just made me squirm.
The film comes to life, though once we meet Cyrus. Jonah Hill has come a long way since the first movie he appeared in … [continued]
Before I finalize my Best of 2010 lists (which will be coming in a few weeks), I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the movies/TV shows/comics/etc. that I’d missed during the past very busy twelve months. One of the films that I was bummed to have never gotten to was the recent documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. I was able to watch the film on DVD, and it is fantastic. (I have a feeling this might have just bumped another film off of my Best Movies of 2010 list! We’ll see…)
Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the film follows a year in the life of the 77 year-old working comedian. For so many people these days, Joan Rivers is basically a joke — a nasty woman criticizing people on the red carpet line while herself looking pretty hideously plastic as a result of inordinate amounts of plastic surgery. Being a big comedy fan — and, in particular, stand-up comedy — I’m actually fairly familiar with her early work, when she was a pretty sharp, hysterical comic. But I still had the same perception of her, these days, as most. I had respect for the comedian she’d been, but that only made it more painful these days to see her hocking gawdy items on QVC.
But after watching Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it’s clear that I didn’t know Joan Rivers at all. The film does an incredible job at humanizing Ms. Rivers. Not by glossing over her faults — no, the film pulls no punches when it comes to moments when she doesn’t appear in the best of light. But in many respects this warts-and-all presentation of Joan Rivers forces audiences to look at her and her work in a new light, and to reconsider our caricaturish perceptions of her.
Most importantly, the film emphasizes what a vibrant, FUNNY comic she still is. The film contains some terrific clips from her glory-days on the stand-up circuit and, of course, some of her appearances on The Tonight Show, but it also contains generous clips from many of Ms. Rivers’ current stand-up gigs, and she is a RIOT. Crude, unflinching, and hysterical. (After the film was over, my wife Steph and I turned to each other and said, “boy, it’d be fun to go see her perform live!”) I was totally unprepared to laugh at any Joan Rivers material post 1980.
The year chronicled by the film (2008-09) was a fascinating year for Ms. Rivers, containing many low points (her disappointment at the criticisms leveled at her play after performances in London; her decision to part company with her long-time manager) and … [continued]
Before the start of James L. Brooks’ new film, How Do You Know, there was a trailer for a new Adam Sandler film. Apparently, Sandler’s character likes to wear a wedding band, even though he’s not married, in order to score chicks. Then he meets a girl he really likes, but when she finds his wedding band, he’s too embarrassed to admit what he’s been doing, so he pretends he is actually married, to his assistant (played by Jennifer Aniston). But then Aniston mentions her kids in front of Sandler’s new girlfriend, so NOW he has to pretend that he’s married AND that Aniston’s kids are actually HIS kids.
This is exactly why I can’t stand most of what passes for mainstream studio comedies these days. I simply have no patience for films in which we’re supposed to be laughing at characters behaving in the ways that no actual human being possibly would — doing outrageous things and spinning increasingly outlandish webs of deception.
What a refreshing change of pace, then, to watch a film like How Do You Know, in which the characters all actually behave like real people might, and in which the situations seem like actual real-life situations. Sure, there’s some exaggeration for comedic effect, and sure, there are some coincidences involved in the plot (such as two main characters in the story happening to live in the same building), but with only one small exception (which I’ll get to in a minute), the comedy in How Do You Know is drawn from actual, recognizable human behavior and emotions. Thank heavens for James L. Brooks!
Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an athletic, driven young woman who nevertheless, at the age of 31, finds herself past her prime in her sport and cut from the USA women’s softball team. She’s recently started dating Matty, played by Owen Wilson, an affable though somewhat dim professional baseball player. George, played by Paul Rudd, has suddenly found himself under indictment for suspected unethical stock transactions. He’s pretty sure he’s innocent, though the cost of his defense will most certainly bankrupt him and if he loses the case he could wind up in prison. He’s pretty sure that his father, played by Jack Nicholson, who is also the head of the company where he works, knows a bit more about the situation than he’s telling. Even after a set-up dinner that goes pretty poorly, Lisa and George seem to continue to find themselves drawn into each other’s orbit, as they both struggle to find a way to get through this low-point in their lives when the hopes they had and the plans they’d laid out for themselves are coming crashing down around … [continued]
The original Tron (read my review here), released in 1982, boasted incredibly stunning special effects but was hamstrung by a pretty simplistic story.
The new Tron: Legacy, released last week, boasts incredibly stunning special effects but is hamstrung by a pretty simplistic story.
I’ve got a lot more to say about Tron: Legacy, but really, it all boils down to that.
At the end of the original Tron, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his friends (Alan and Lora in the real world, and their digital counterparts Tron and Yori in the digital realm inside of computers) had defeated Ed Dillinger and his Master Control Program. The programs residing in the digital realm had been freed, and Flynn had seized control of his company Encom back from Dillinger. All was well. But, as we learn in Tron: Legacy, he mysteriously vanished several years later, leaving his son, Sam, an orphan. Though Alan tried his best to mentor his lost friend’s son, Sam has grown into an angry young man whose only association with his father’s company is his repeated attempts to prank and sabotage Encom’s initiatives. He’s grown to disbelieve his father’s wild stories of “the grid” that he heard as a child — but, of course, we know it won’t be long until Sam finds himself sucked into that computerized world himself. There he will encounter the father who he thought abandoned him as a youth, and do battle with the dictatorial program, Clu, that wears his father’s face and has taken control over the grid.
If I were only to judge Tron: Legacy by the visuals and the music, then this would be a fine film indeed. The visual effects are, quite simply, astounding. (With one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a few moments.) The whole look of the original Tron, which was so ground-breaking back in 1982, has become quite dated when viewed in 2010. Director Joseph Kosinski and his team had an enormous challenge before them of capturing the “feel” of the digital world created in Tron, but updating that for modern audiences and expanding it using the most cutting-edge tools available to them. They succeeded admirably. The thirty-minutes after Sam is sucked into the grid represent the high-point of the movie, as we find ourselves stunned, along with Sam, at this astonishing world we have entered. It’s a blast seeing several classic images from the original Tron — the interceptors, and of course the light-cycles — brought to a whole new level of life. In short-order, Sam finds himself captured and forced to compete in a series of disc-wars and, finally, a light-cycle chase. These sequences are … [continued]
Before seeing the new, big-budgeted sequel Tron: Legacy, being released this week by the Walt Disney Company, I decided that I really needed to go back and watch the 1982 original.
That proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated! I’d assumed that Disney would cash in on the building excitement by releasing a snazzy new DVD/blu-ray edition of the film in advance of Tron: Legacy‘s release, but that didn’t happen. (There’s speculation that Disney was afraid that people would watch the dated 1982 Tron and get turned off on the idea of seeing the new film.) Either way, the decade-old previous DVD edition is out-of-print and apparently fiendishly hard to get a hold of. Thank heaven for my phenomenal local video store, the Video Underground. They had a copy of Tron, and though it took me a few visits until it was finally in, I was ultimately able to rent the film.
I’ve seen Tron a few times before, but it had been quite a while since my last viewing, so I was excited to give it a whirl.
Jeff Bridges (yes, that Jeff Bridges) stars as Flynn, a brilliant but sort of slackerish computer programmer who has recently been fired from Encom, a large computer company. Flynn has been trying to hack into Encom’s computer systems, in an attempt to prove that the new head of the company, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole his work as part of his rise to power. Unbeknownst to Flynn and the rest of the world (but, as Mel Brooks would say, knownst to us), in taking over the company, Dillinger has allowed an emergingly-sentient computer program, the Master Control Program, to take control of all of the company’s systems and begin a process of taking over other powerful computer systems across the globe. Meanwhile, Flynn’s ex-girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan), and her new boyfriend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), both of whom still work for Encom, learn that Dillinger has discovered Flynn’s hacking attempts, and they try to warn Flynn to stop what he’s doing. But Flynn convinces them that Dillinger needs to be stopped, so the three of them break into Encom in an attempt to find the evidence Flynn needs to bring Dillinger down.
All of that is really just set-up for when the Master Control Program zaps Flynn with a laser and digitizes him, sending his conscience into the mainframe of the system itself. There Flynn learns that, inside the world of the computers he has spent his days and nights programming, exists an entire universe of life. Programs that he and others have written as lines of data exist here as individuals, trying their best … [continued]
In 2005 Steven Spielberg returned to sci-fi with his version of H. G. Wells’ famous story from 1898, War of the Worlds.
Not surprisingly, rather than being a period piece, Mr. Spielberg set his adaptation in the present day. Tom Cruise reunited with Spielberg to star as Ray Ferrier, an affable but cocky guy separated from his wife (played by the beautiful Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings). When she and her new husband go away for the weekend, Ray has to look after their two children: Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Despite his efforts, he finds that he has trouble connecting to either one of his kids. Then aliens attack.
Mr. Spielberg, along with writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, have chosen to take us through the story of an alien apocalypse through the eyes of these three “every-person” characters. We witness the horrific events of the invasion through their eyes, as they struggle to survive. While that’s not exactly a ground-breaking choice, I think it’s an effective way to structure the film. We don’t have a sense, until the very end, of what exactly is happening — who the invaders are, what they want, or what the governments of the world are doing to fight back — and that only adds to the tension and terror of the film. Ray and his kids are swept up in cataclysmic phenomena, and so are we as the audience.
There are some extraordinary visual effects sequences in War of the Worlds. This big-budget sci-fi film was clearly made by a director who is a master of his craft, ably assisted by a huge assortment of talented artists, designers, and visual effects wizards. Ray’s initial encounter with a tripod — and his frantic flight away from it while the monstrosity tears across city blocks and vaporizes other terrified civilians — is a tour de force sequence that make clear that Spielberg & co. meant business with this story. The tripods’ attack on the ferry, the battle on the hilltop towards the end of the film… these are extarordinarily well-realized sequences, dark and violent and intense.
I love that, in many respects, Steven Spielberg chose to make a much grimmer film than is his usual practice. There’s not a lot of fun to be had in War of the Worlds, nor are there many rah-rah crowd-cheering action moments (of the type found in, say, Independence Day).
But somehow, War of the Worlds still leaves me a bit cold. I can’t say it’s a movie that I can get too excited about. Is the problem that the film is TOO grim? Or … [continued]
When we first meet Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Jamie Randall at the start of Edward Zwick’s new film Love & Other Drugs, we learn immediately that Jamie is a fast-talking salesman who seems to be able to convince anyone to buy anything, and also that he is quite a ladies man who is not above having sex with a woman he knows to be involved with someone else. In this case, the “someone else” happens to be his boss, which results, no surprise, in Jamie’s quick exit from that job. His brother, though, is able to help him land a job selling drugs for Pfizer. Since this film is set in 1996, it’s not a tremendous surprise that this fast-talking salesman soon finds himself involved in selling a certain call-your-doctor-if-your-erection-lasts-more-than-four-hours love drug. While all that is happening, Jamie gets involved with Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a vivacious, free-spirited young woman who, for reasons that become clear later in the film, is reluctant to let their sexual encounters deepen into anything more meaningful.
Quite a lot has been made of all of the nudity in this film, and with good reason. We certainly get to see quite a lot of the skin of both of the two good-looking leads. Ms. Hathaway, in particular, spends an enormous amount of screen-time in the nude. Note to filmmakers: there’s no better way to get a guy interested in your romantic comedy than by including copious amounts of Anne Hathaway nudity.
And make no mistake, Love & Other Drugs is a romantic comedy. I get the sense that the filmmakers had something a little more serious on their minds with this film, what with the third-act shift into dramatic territory as Maggie and Jamie struggle with the implications that her illness has on her future, and on the possibility of their building a life together. But despite that, the film follows the standard romantic comedy tropes. The couple meets cute, sparks fly, there’s an obstacle that causes them to separate, and then they’re reunited in the end, happily ever after.
There’s a lot that I enjoyed about Love & Other Drugs. (BESIDES the Anne Hathaway nudity!!) Both Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Hathaway are dynamic, charismatic leads. I think they have a strong chemisty on screen together, and I enjoyed watching them interact. The first half of the film has a fun, jaunty tone with a lot of humor. And I respect the filmmakers for trying to introduce some narrative ideas of more depth into the film’s second half. But ultimately, I was disappointed to find that the film was unable to break out of the boringly familiar romantic comedy formula.
And, also, in the end … [continued]
The fifth and final film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Airplane! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, here to read about film three: Tropic Thunder, and here to read about film four: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)
The spoof film from which all other spoof-films pay homage (and to which they all pale in comparison). I find this film just as uproariously funny today as when I first saw it as a kid (though perhaps for different reasons). Every single inch of this film is funny. There are jokes piled upon jokes piled upon jokes. (A few years ago I was able to see Airplane! on the big screen at a midnight showing at a local Boston theatre, and for the first time I could read some of the titles on the magazines in the airport newsstand. All were funny, of course!)
Loosely based on the 1957 film Zero Hour (which one of the filmmakers once referred to as “the serious version of Airplane!”), the film was written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker. They would go on to write and direct many other funny movies, but I don’t think any of their later efforts ever topped Airplane!.
The cast is amazing. David Zucker commented that “the trick was to cast actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. These were people, who up to that time, had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were.” He was right — how funny are those four men in this movie??? They’re all pretty much perfect. The film is filled with cameos. Many of those faces aren’t that familiar to audiences today, but I don’t think anyone will ever forget Barbara Billingsley (from Leave it to Beaver) as the jive-speaking passenger. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert helpfully listed many of the film’s small roles and the films that their inclusion were parodying: “The movie exploits the previous films for all they’re worth. The passenger list includes a little old lady (like Helen Hayes in Airport), a guitar-playing nun (like Helen Reddy in Airport 1975), and even a critically ill little girl who’s being flown to an emergency operation (Linda Blair played the role in Airport 1975).”
And, of course, there’s Robert Hayes and Julie Hagerty in the lead roles. They have to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to keep what little story the film has moving forward through … [continued]
The third film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Tropic Thunder! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)
Tropic Thunder knocked my socks off when I first saw it! (Click here for my original review.) It’s so fearless and so, so funny, right from the first frame to the very last.
Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote and directed the film) stars as Tugg Speedman. Though he was once a hugely successful action-movie star, Tugg’s recent effort at more serious fare (“Simple Jack”) was met with disdain, so he decides to appear in the war film Tropic Thunder. The film (within the film) is an adaptation of the Vietnam experiences of the hook-handed veteran John “Four-Leaf” Tayback. Along with Tugg, the film stars the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and the rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). This pampered assemblage of prima-donnas has trouble getting anything done, so the frustrated director (Steve Coogan) decides to drop his actors in the middle of the jungle, in an attempt to capture some “real” drama. Chaos ensues.
The cast is stupendous. The stand-out, of course, is Robert Downey Jr., portraying “a dude pretending to be a dude disguised as some other dude.” He came in for some criticism when the film was released, not only for his performance as a white actor pretending to be a black man, but also for the “full retard” speech he gives to Ben Stiller’s character. But I think that Downey Jr. is pure genius in the role – and that speech happens to be screamingly funny. The point of his performance – and, indeed, the point of the entire film – is to skewer how seriously actors take themselves. (It’s funny – not long after seeing this film for the first time, I found myself re-watching the amazing WWII mini-series Band of Brothers. It’s an astonishing mini-series. When I finished, I watched some of the special features – but after having seen Tropic Thunder, I could not take at all seriously any of the actors patting themselves on the back for how much the conditions of the shoot really rivaled the experience of really being in combat!!)
But the rest of the ensemble is also phenomenal. Stiller is great in the lead role – he’s just likable enough that you sort of root for him, even though he’s a total loony-tune. (LOVE that he likes to watch Classic Star Trek on his ipod, though!!) Jack Black is perfectly cast as Portnoy, and … [continued]
The second film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country!
I respect J.J. Abrams for what he accomplished with his Star Trek reboot. (Click here for my review.) I enjoyed the flick, and am thrilled that Trek is exciting and “cool” again. But THIS — Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — is my kind of Star Trek: dark, sophisticated, and adult. This vies with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the position of my favorite Star Trek film, depending on my mood.
An ecological disaster on the Klingon homeworld leads them to make the first gesture of peace towards the United Federation of Planets, their bitter enemies for so many decades. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are sent to escort the Klingon chancellor to a peace conference on Earth, but a brutal assassination sends the two galactic super-powers once again hurtling towards war.
Star Trek VI is a serious, dark film. Yes, there is some action/adventure to be had, but for the most part it’s a rather somber film. The film is brave in presenting our hero, Captain Kirk, in a pretty unsympathetic light: Kirk is still filled with anger at the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons (in Star Trek III), and is shown to be remarkably cold and callous at the prospect of the terrible fate about to befall their empire. “Let them die,” he quietly tells a shocked (and disappointed) Spock, early in the film. I love this portrayal of Kirk – it’s a very human depiction of this heroic character, and it gives Kirk a real journey to go on over the course of the film that has nothing to do with warping across the galaxy. It’s a potent, emotional core to the film.
Trek VI has an incredibly smart, literate script. The film is filled with references to literature and history. Some of those are obvious (such as the Shakespeare-spouting Klingon villain, General Chang) while others are much more subtle. (One of my favorite moments is when, during Kirk and McCoy’s trial on the Klingon homeworld, General Chang angrily shouts at them “Don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!” This, of course, is a nod to Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis.) Even the film’s title, I probably don’t need to point out to you, is a reference to a famous line in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. The film’s central story – the prospect of peace between long-time enemy super-powers, and what that means for the “Cold Warriors” so used to hating their enemies – was inspired by the … [continued]
It is very rare for a film or TV franchise to have an opportunity to craft a finale for its characters and storylines on its own terms. So often these long-form tales are interrupted by cancellation or poor box office, or they just peter out as subsequent sequels drain a once-vibrant franchise of originality and interest.
On TV, show-runners are occasionally able to craft a series-ending finale, but more often than not shows find themselves cancelled before they have a chance to do so. In film series, the opportunity for a true finale is even more rare. How many can you think of? George Lucas brought his Star Wars series to a close with Return of the Jedi – a film that, while not eliminating the possibility of sequels, certainly wrapped up most of the story-lines and character arcs from the original trilogy. (Of course, as we all know, Lucas did eventually continue making Star Wars films – to my eternal dismay.) The original Star Trek cast had an opportunity to have a triumphant swan song in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (a film that, as it happens, I’ll be waxing poetic about on this site next week!). There’s Back to the Future Part III. Can you think of many others?
Did Die Hard with a Vengeance really serve as a true finale, in any sense, to that series? Did Lethal Weapon 4? Did Jurassic Park 3? Will the Bond series ever have an ending? I mentioned Star Trek above, and that’s a double-edged sword. As great as it is that the original cast got a fine film finale, their Next Gen successors were denied that privilege as their series met its untimely end following the dismal box office of Star Trek: Nemesis.
Obviously, the Harry Potter films are a horse of a slightly different color, as the films aren’t charting their own course – rather they are adapting J.K. Rowling’s seven-novel story. Still, that the film series has made it so far, so successfully – that every single novel has been adapted to film featuring almost entirely the same ensemble of actors and actresses – that most of the films have actually been pretty darn good — and that the film series is now preparing to take its final bow, not with a whimper but with an enormous bang – is really downright astounding.
I was luke-warm on the Harry Potter films at first, but I thought things started to turn around with film four: The Goblet of Fire. Film five: The Order of the Phoenix remains my favorite of the bunch, but I was also quite taken with The Half-Blood Prince (even if I still … [continued]
For years, Star Trek fans spoke of the odd-numbered curse that afflicted the Trek movies. The odd-numbered films (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek V: The Voyage Home) seemed markedly inferior to the even-numbered ones (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). True Trek fans, though, knew that there was nothing supernatural at play. The simple fact is that the even-numbered Trek films were of a higher quality because those were the three Trek films that benefitted from the involvement of Nicholas Meyer.
This talented filmmaker wrote and directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI (the two darkest and most adult entries in the franchise) and was heavily involved with scripting Star Trek IV (by far the most commercially successful film in the saga until J.J. Abrams’ recent Trek reboot). The commentary on the DVD of Star Trek IV reveals that Mr. Meyer basically wrote every scene of the film that takes place back in 1986 (while Harve Bennett scripted the opening and closing scenes set in the 23rd century). Basically, this means that Nicholas Meyer wrote the bulk of the film! (Mr. Meyer states in the DVD features that the first line of his part of the movie is Spock’s wonderfully deadpan comment that “judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, we have arrived in the latter half of the 20th century.” Such a good line!)
As an enormous fan of Mr. Meyer’s work in the Star Trek universe, I have long wanted to check out his 1979 film, Time After Time. For years I’ve been hearing about this film that Mr. Meyer directed, featuring H.G. Welles travelling through time to combat Jack the Ripper. (Though somehow in my head I had gotten the idea — which has been my impression for YEARS now! — that it was Sherlock Holmes traveling through time, not Welles… go figure…) But, while well-received at the time, Time After Time is a pretty forgotten film these days, and my personal “must-watch” list of movies is pretty long, so it took me until last month to get to see the film.
I know this film has some fervent fans, but I can’t really say that it’s an undiscovered treasure. Time After Time was clearly made with a lot of love and care, and there certainly is a lot to enjoy in the film, but over-all I must say that it hasn’t aged terribly well.
In 1893 London, H.G. Welles (Malcolm McDowell) unveils his newest creation to his stunned dinner companions: a time machine. Welles intends to … [continued]
A friend of mine at Walden Media was kind enough to invite me to last night’s sneak peek at the latest Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Thanks, Evan!) I am happy to report that I quite enjoyed the new film (though I recognize that I’m not quite the target audience).
I adored the Narnia books as a kid, reading them over and over (though it’s been a long time, well over a decade-and-a-half, since I’ve last read any of the books). The first film adaptation, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, left me cold (read my comments on that film here). It seemed like a film that wanted to be The Lord of the Rings, but wound up being just a pale, half-hearted reflection. I found the drama as unconvincing as were many of the special effects. I was far more taken, though, with the follow-up: Prince Caspian. My understanding is that the sequel did not live up to expectations at the box office, but I thought it was a terrifically rousing installment. It was a much darker, more serious film. The special effects were worlds better than the first film (I found the landscapes of Narnia to be extraordinarily beautiful and believable), and the story-line was far more compelling. (Edward’s duel with the evil Miraz was a particularly stand-out moment.)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader falls somewhere between the first two films, in terms of style and tone. The film preserves Prince Caspian‘s greater emphasis on creating a compelling, dramatic narrative through-line for the film as well as the high-quality of its fantastic visual effects, while at the same time returning to a slightly more family-friendly tone that is closer to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn’t have quite the same life-or-death stakes that I felt Prince Caspian did, and it certainly has FAR less of a body count! As such it seems to me that it will be a more palatable family film than was Caspian. While the darker and more violent tone of Prince Caspian appealed more to me (as an adult fan of fantasy films), I suspect that the fine folks at Walden Media and 20th Century Fox are hoping that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader hits just the right middle-of-the-road sweet spot with audiences. Based on what I saw last night I have every reason to suspect that the film will.
In fact, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader reminded me quite strongly of the first two Harry Potter films. Its episodic nature; its efforts to present some … [continued]
I’m a big, big fan of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That film really took me by surprise — it’s a very, very funny film, but also one that is remarkably endearing.
The breakout star of the film was, of course, Russell Brand’s rock star Aldous Snow. Snow was a delirously lunatic creation — a jovial, high-life-living, self-absorbed maniac of a musician who stole every scene of the movie that he was in. Many of those scenes co-stared Jonah Hill, who had a small role as a hapless waiter who idolized Aldous.
Get Him to the Greek is a feature-length attempt to recapture the energy of Mr. Brand and Mr. Hill’s interactions in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Russell Brand repises his role of Aldous Snow, while Mr. Hill portrays a new character: Aaron Green, a young music executive. Aaron has come up with an idea for Pinnacle Records, the company at which he works: in an attempt to revitalize Aldous Snow’s career, and their flagging record sales, they’ll schedule a concert at the Greek Theater in LA on the ten-year anniversary of Aldous’ previous triumphant performance at that venue. All that Aaron needs to do is to ensure that the hard-living musician arrives at the theater on time to perform.
It’s a familiar set-up, and one can see the road-map for the film’s story a mile away. Clearly, Aaron is going to have a lot of frustrating moments trying to keep Aldous en route to the theater, and one can also reasonably expect the straight-laced Aaron to be tempted and perhaps at first overwhelmed by the singer’s partying lifestyle. Perhaps Aldous might also learn some lessons in responsibility from Aaron.
And that, in a nutshell, is the movie. So don’t expect Get Him to the Greek to turn any comedy film tropes on their ear. Nevertheless, I was quite taken by the film’s relentlessly entertaining nature. Director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller has assembled some amazing comedic performers, and he pretty much lets them all cut loose and bounce off of one another for the duration of the film. There are plenty of scenes that seem to go one for longer than they should, and plenty of scenes that don’t really serve much of a purpose in the film’s story. But I didn’t mind terribly, because it’s a lot of fun watching these characters interact with one another, and I enjoyed the time we got to spend in their world.
Brand and Hill are reliably hilarious. For me the biggest surprise was Rose Byrne, who knocks it out of the park as Aldous’ former musical partner and lover Jackie Q, who is now living with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (who ahas a … [continued]
You might have thought that Tom Hanks had a crazy accent in Catch Me If You Can, but that was merely a prelude to the ludicrously silly sort-of-Slovic voice that Mr. Hanks puts on for his role as Viktor Novorski in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, The Terminal.
Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has just arrived to New York City from the Eastern European country of Madeupistan. Er, excuse me, Krakozia. Unfortunately, his country undergoes a military coup while Navorski is in the air. By the time he arrives in New York City, all relations between the United States and Krakozia have been severed, and due to a variety of legal permutations, Mr. Navorski is unable to enter the U.S. but is similarly unable to return to Krakozia. In short, he finds himself stuck, indefinitely, in the airport.
Let the comic hijinks commence!
I commented in my review of Catch Me If You Can on my feeling, when I first saw the film back in 2002, that it was a surprisingly slight film for Mr. Spielberg to make. That probably caused me to dismiss the film a little too quickly at the time. Well, if Catch Me If You Can is slight, then The Terminal is practically nonexistent.
That sounds harsh, which isn’t my intention. There’s certainly some fun to be had in The Terminal. It’s just that while Catch Me If You Can was a light, fun film, it did have a pretty dramatic emotional core. The Terminal sort-of shoots for that as well, but there’s just not much there. What’s left is a fun, frothy film, but one without a whole heck of a lot to say.
(My wife thought that Viktor’s predicament — in which he is forced to go to some extreme lengths in order to adapt to survive the stranded situation in which he finds himself — reminded her of Mr. Hanks’ role in Cast Away. I’d never thought of The Terminal in that way, but she’s right! The difference, of course, is that The Terminal doesn’t have any of the dramatic underpinnings of Cast Away. That’s putting it mildly!)
The Terminal has a fairly episodic structure. Through a variety of vignettes, we see Viktor adapt to his crazy situation and somehow make for himself a remarkably pleasant life living in the airport. He gradually bonds with several of the other off-beat but kind airport employees — played by Chi McBride (Boston Public), Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Milk), Gupta Rajan (just as entertaining here as he was in The Royal Tenenbaums), and a pre-Star Trek Zoe Saldana (and, by the way, it’s a riot to … [continued]
When I began this project of rewatching the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg, I was hoping that I’d discover (or rediscover) some great films that I had perhaps dismissed too easily when I originally saw them in theatres. I wondered if watching the films now, years later and separated from the hype and expectations that came with their original theatrical releases, would allow me to appreciate them more and perhaps cause me to re-evaluate my original opinions.
So far, though, that hasn’t happened. I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), re-watching The Lost World, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, but for all four films my opinions have remained almost exactly what they were when I first saw them. (In a nutshell: mediocre, good, horrible, mediocre.) But then, this week, I arrived at Catch Me If You Can. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this flick!
Based on the autobiography of Frank Abergnale, Jr. (and co-written by Stan Redding), Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who, for years, successfully conned people into thinking he was an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and who forged millions of dollars worth of checks.
Mr. Spielberg skillfully strikes a deft balance with the tone of the film. There are some great moments of humor to be found in the tale (I particularly loved Hanratty’s knock-knock joke), and over-all the film has a fun, light tone. And yet, at its core, Catch Me If You Can is really a profoundly sad story. To me, the relationship between Frank and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is the back-bone of the film, and it is heartbreaking. In Frank Jr. we see a young man who, for all of his experiences, is still basically a child, looking for his father’s approval and desperately hoping to find a way to return his life to his idealized vision of how things used to be — with him, his father, and his mother all living happily together in a nice suburban house. Frank Sr., meanwhile, has seen his business slowly fail (in the film we see him continually dogged by the IRS, and one assumes, despite Frank Sr.’s repeated claims, that this is not without good reason) and his wife leave him, but he is too proud to admit when he needs help and too angry at the government (and the society that allowed him to fail) to push his son to stop the increasingly elaborate con that he’s spinning.
Mr. Walken’s unique line-delivery can make him a ripe subject for parody. For me, his one scene in Pulp … [continued]
There’s no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today. There’s only one of his films that I haven’t seen (his first — Following — and I do hope to remedy that situation soon), and I have thoroughly enjoyed every other movie he’s made. His worst film is probably Batman Begins, and I think that’s a pretty damn good film!
Contrary to my previous statement, my sense is that the general consensus about Mr. Nolan is that Insomnia, his follow-up to Memento, is his weakest film. But I remember enjoying Insomnia back in 2002, and I really loved it when watching it again on blu-ray last week.
Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Swedish film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard and directed by Eric Skjoldbjaerg. I’ve never seen the original Insomnia, though I understand that it’s pretty well thought of. I realize that, had I seen it, it’s possible that I might be as dubious of a remake as I am of the recently-released re-do of Let The Right One In (the new American version is titled simply Let Me In). But having not seen the original, I am free to judge Mr. Nolan’s version exclusively by its own merits — and it’s quite excellent.
Al Pacino plays beleaguered L.A. homicide detective Will Dormer. The L.A. police department has been rocked by allegations of misconduct, and Dormer believes that the I.A. investigators are ultimately after him. In the midst of that, Dormer and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are dispatched to a tiny Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teen-aged girl. Heading up the local investigation is a young, well-meaning cop named Elie Burr (Hilary Swank). She clearly worships Detective Dormer, and he seems to appreciate her enthusiasm. But the case is a difficult one, and Detective Dormer soon finds himself stymied by his main suspect, a local author named Walter Finch (Robin Williams). As the film progresses, Dormer gradually unravels, his struggles with the case exacerbated by his persistent insomnia (caused perhaps by the fact that, because of how far North as the Alaskan town is, the sun never sets during this season – or, perhaps by Dormer’s growing guilt over the mistakes of his past and a terrible event that happens soon after arriving in Alaska).
This was a high-profile role for Hilary Swank, coming as it did not long after her Academy Award-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Ms. Swank is solid if unspectacular in the film. The real superstars of Insomnia are Al Pacino and Robin Williams.
Though unquestionably one of the greatest actors of our time, I’ve often felt that … [continued]
When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report in theatres back in 2002 (the only time I’d seen the film until I watched it again on DVD last week), I remember it becoming startlingly clear to me that the man has trouble with the endings of his films.
I recognize that the present-day epilogues to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are overloaded with schmaltz and are completely unnecessary to the story, but I’ve never been bothered by those endings (the way others have been, most famously William Goldman, who eviscerated Saving Private Ryan in his famous review). I was so emotionally engaged with the stories and characters in both of those films that I was not bothered with their endings (even though the logical part of my brain did realize that Mr. Spielberg was laying the emotion on a bit thickly). But as I wrote last week, I thought the final 25 minutes of A.I. were abominable and possibly the worst 25 minutes Steven Spielberg had ever put to film. The ending of Minority Report isn’t quite at that level of jaw-dropping terribleness, but I think the first hour and 45 minutes of the film are a very solid, dark sci-fi thriller that is completely undone by the last 35 minutes or so.
At first, Minority Report kept me very engaged. It’s easy and popular to hate on Tom Cruise these days, but I think he’s a far better actor than he gets credit for, and he’s an engaging lead here. Mr. Cruise plays the generically-named Tom Anderton, the top-cop at the new Pre-Crime division that has been set up in Washington, DC. Using three “pre-cogs” (psychics kept under sedation), the Pre-Crime team are able to intercept murders before they happen. After six years of operation, in which the team has virtually eliminated homicides in DC, a national referendum has been set to determine whether Pre-Crime divisions will be set up in other cities across the U.S. In advance of this, John and his team are under investigation by Federal Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell). Everything goes to hell when the psychics predict that John himself is about to commit a homicide. He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence, but finds himself setting in motion events that might undermine the legitimacy of the entire Pre-Crime unit.
For that first hour and 45 minutes, Minority Report is a solid, gritty little film. It goes to some surprisingly grim places. There’s an early scene in which we learn that apparent super-cop John Anderton is actually a rather broken man. With the rain falling outside, John sits in the dark in his cluttered apartment, watching holographic projections … [continued]
Director David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) has assembled a powerful new documentary, Waiting for “Superman,” about the deep problems in the United States’ public school system. These problems may seem extraordinary and insurmountable, but Mr. Guggenheim’s film argues that the solutions are actually fairly clear, if the public and our leaders have the will to enact them.
The situation in our schools is a deeply depressing topic, and that might cause many to skip this film. (Who wants to go to a movie theatre to be bummed out?) But I encourage you to give Waiting for “Superman” a try. Mr. Guggenheim has crafted a film that is never boring, and while he covers a lot of ground in the film, the narrative zips ahead at an energetic pace, assisted by several clever techniques. Mr. Guggenheim utilizes some simple but interesting bits of animation to help illustrate his arguments. The film’s narration (spoken by Mr. Guggenheim himself) keeps the documentary on target and focuses our attention on the points Mr. Guggenheim is trying to make, without falling into bombastic rhetoric or frustrating oversimplification. (While Mr. Guggenheim is never a character in his film to the degree that, say, Michael Moore is in his films, I appreciated the way that Mr. Guggenheim wasn’t afraid to include himself in the film. We hear him asking questions of many of the interview subjects, and he doesn’t shy away from discussing how and why he and his wife chose not to send their children to public school.)
But most of all, the film succeeds because Mr. Guggenheim has chosen to focus on several engaging individual subjects. Rather than making the movie solely about vast statistics and broad national problems, he grounds his film in the stories of five children (and the parents trying to find the best schools for them) as well as on two controversial figures attempting broad reform to the public school system. These small stories help illuminate the larger problems before us.
The kids featured in Waiting for “Superman” are well-chosen. They are from different parts of the country, and from different ethnic and social backgrounds, but each of them (along with their families) are faced with the same dilemma. All five are good kids who have an interest in learning — but all five are located in districts with public schools that, to put it mildly, are not known for excellence. In more blunt terms, these schools are “failure factories” — one of the many nick-names for these sorts of public schools that can be found across the nation, from which the vast majority of kids fail to graduate.
I defy you not to fall in love with … [continued]
After re-watching Jurassic Park (click here for my review) and The Lost World (click here for my review) last month (as part of my look back at the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg) I figured, what the heck, why not take another look at Jurassic Park III (executive produced by Mr. Spielberg and directed by Joe Johnston).
While not as bad as I’d remembered, like The Lost World this third Jurassic Park film is a pale reflection of the first one.
In some respects, I think I like Jurassic Park III better than the second installment. Whereas The Lost World was slow and rambling — with a story that was all over the place — Jurassic Park III has a much leaner, meaner narrative: a group of people crash on the island and must find a way to survive long enough to reach the coast where rescue hopefully awaits. That’s a simple hook, and I think it serves the film well. The story gets going quickly, and from there moves right along like gangbusters straight through to the end. There’s an intensity and sense of danger that I felt the second film was completely missing.
There are also some terrific action set-pieces. Here is where Joe Johnston’s background in the world of visual effects serves him well. We finally get to see some Pterodactyls (teased by the first two films), and they’re worth the wait — the whole sequence in the Pterodactyl cage is a tense, exciting adventure. I also love the Spinosaur/T-Rex fight early in the film (shades of the King Kong/T-Rex fight, I felt, but that amused me rather than annoying me), as well as the Spinosaur attack on the river, in the rain, that takes place late in the film.
Whereas The Lost World chose — mistakenly, I think — to focus entirely on Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, this third film wisely returns the focus to Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. I love Mr. Neill in this role, and it’s great to see him back front-and-center in this film.
Unfortunately, despite those strengths, there’s also quite a lot of weaknesses to Jurassic Park III, things that keep the film squarely mediocre in my mind.
First of all, other than Sam Neill, I think the film’s ensemble is pretty weak. One of the key components to the first film’s success was how many great characters there were in the piece — and the great actors chosen to portray them. But like The Lost World, while the lead character in Jurassic Park III is interesting and sympathetic, the rest of the ensemble is flat. I love William … [continued]
In celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary (and also, not coincidentally, to promote yesterday’s release of the trilogy on blu-ray), movie theatres across this great nation of ours screened Back to the Future this past Monday night. I’m thrilled to say that I had tickets to the showing here in Boston, and it was an absolutely magnificent event. It’s been a long time since I’ve had more fun in a movie theatre!!
What a delight it was to get to see this spectacular film on the big screen! The film played like gangbusters — the audience I was in was captivated by the movie from minute one. Of course everyone in the theatre knew the movie backwards and forwards, but that could lead to an audience laughing at the film, and the experience becoming more like watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a different experience from when an audience is really engaged by a film’s story.) But the audience I was with was kept spellbound by the film all the way through — laughing hard at all the jokes (even the subtle ones) and cheering at all the key places.
It’s hard to believe that Back to the Future is a quarter-century old. The film holds up remarkably well. The acting, the direction, the score, the visual effects — everything works almost exactly as well as it did back in 1985 when the film was released. OK, there are one or two dodgy moments (like the effects shot when Marty & Doc whip around to look at the fire tracks left by the just-vanished DeLorean in the Twin Pines Mall — if you look closely, Marty and the Doc appear to be floating in the frame) but these are barely noticeable and, really, sort of endearing if you do pick up on any of those tiny flaws.
At the screening, the film looked and sounded amazing. The print that we were shown had been gorgeously restored. The image was sharp and with vibrant colors. The dialogue was clear, the music was rocking, and the effects were booming (especially the climactic clock tower lightning strike!).
There were so many aspects of the film that were really highlighted when seeing it on the big screen. First and foremost is the eyeball-acting of Christopher Lloyd. Seriously, I could spend the entire run-time of the film just watching Mr. Lloyd’s eyeballs pop and squint and wriggle. Lloyd is a riot, and he makes then most of every single second he has on screen. Take the scene in the Doc’s garage, when Lorraine shows up (having trailed Marty there). Doc has maybe one line of dialogue in … [continued]
I was blown away by Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and so I was of course eager to see his second film: The Town. While I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as Gone Baby Gone, The Town is as an engaging and confident sophomore effort from Mr. Affleck, and definitely worth your time.
As with Gone Baby Gone, The Town is set in Boston (in this case, specifically, Charlestown). In both films, one of Mr. Affleck’s primary accomplishments has been in bringing that Boston setting to life to the degree that the film’s story is indelibly linked with the Boston location. By shooting in Boston, by casting naturalistic actors (as well as a variety of local non-actors), and by a million other details that Mr. Affleck and his team get just right, the streets of Boston become the film’s beating heart.
In addition to directing and co-writing the film (“It’s going to be awfully tough to walk away from this one,” Mr. Affleck told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last month, referring to his triple-threat role), Mr. Affleck stars as Doug, a hardened young man who works for a sand and gravel company breaking rocks — that is, when he’s not robbing Charlestown banks with his crew. In the heist that opens the film, Doug’s close friend (the two are practically brothers) Jem briefly takes the young bank manager, Claire, hostage in order to have some insurance in case the cops show up earlier than expected. They let her go, but Jem worries that she could incriminate them, so Doug agrees to discreetly find out what she knows. He arranges to accidentally bump into her at the laundromat, but quickly finds himself drawn to this young woman who, to Doug, represents his idealized vision of a life outside of The Town.
That doesn’t stike me as a terribly original hook for a film (troubled guy falls for a girl who makes him, you know, want to be a better man), and nothing in the narrative of The Town feels especially surprising. This, to me, is the main reason why I didn’t find The Town to be nearly as gripping as the edge-of-your-seat, where-the-heck-is-this-all-going narrative of Gone Baby Gone. I haven’t read Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince of Thieves, on which The Town is based, but I can’t imagine it’s as strong a source material as was the novel by Dennis Lehane that was adapted for Gone Baby Gone.
But, OK, though The Town isn’t as good as Gone Baby Gone, it’s still a very well-made and entertaining thriller.
Mr. Affleck is a way better actor than he’s usually given credit for, and … [continued]
Now that we’ve arrived at 2001′s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I can finally start calling this series looking back at the recent films of Steven Spielberg by the original title I’d thought up: “Spielberg in the Aughts.” (My first thought, last month, was that I’d look back at the last decade of Mr. Spielberg’s films, none of which I’d ever revisited after seeing them in theatres — but then I realized there were several of his films from the ’90s that I wanted to revisit, too, while I was at it! Click here for my review of Jurassic Park, here for my review of The Lost World, and here for my review of Amistad.)
I hated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence when I saw it in theatres. Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought the first three-fourths of the movie — right up to the point when Haley Joel Osment’s David finds himself trapped underwater staring at the Blue Fairy but unable to reach her — was a solid if somewhat dour sci-fi film. But then the movie kept going. I felt those last 25 minutes-or-so were the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg had ever committed to film. Those 25 minutes were so bad that, for me, they entirely destroyed the film.
So what did I think, a decade later?
Well, after nearly ten years of having the thought in my head that the final 25 minutes of A.I. were the worst 25 minutes of film that Steven Spielberg had ever shot, those 25 minutes had been quite built up in my mind, so not surprisingly they didn’t quite live up to the heights of awfulness that I had remembered. Also, after having seen the entirety of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I can no longer state with certainty that the end of A.I. represents the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg has ever put on film.
But I will say that I still thought the ending was entirely awful on almost every level.
The basic plot of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was developed, over many years, by Stanley Kubrick. As the story goes, Mr. Kubrick worked on the film for years — and often discussed the project with his friend Steven Spielberg — but for a variety of reasons never actually made the movie. Following his death, Mr. Spielberg got involved with the project in an attempt to realize this unfinished work that Mr. Kubrick had begun.
As a movie-fan back in 2001, I was ecstatic that Steven Spielberg (the man who made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was returning, at long-last, to sci-fi. I was intrigued … [continued]
It’s hard for me to a recall another film that has so bravely allowed its lead character to come off as so completely unlikable. In The Social Network‘s power-house of a first scene, Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is clearly presented to us as a Grade-A, prime-cut jackass. It’s a hell of a way to start a movie!
As you are all probably aware, this arrogant Harvard undergrad is the man who will go on to become the billionaire creator of Facebook. Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaire, The Social Network follows Mark from his days at Harvard through the world-wide explosion of Facebook and the eventual lawsuits brought against him by several former Harvard classmates, including the young man who had once been his closest friend.
There has been some questioning of the accuracy of The Social Network, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin defends the film. He told Entertainment Weekly: “If we know what brand of beer Mark was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago when there were only three other people in the room, it should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and to the events.” Producer Scott Rudin makes similar statements: “You can’t make untrue statements about someone without running the risk of getting sued. Look around and notice that nobody has sued us.”
While of course I myself have no idea about whether events truly unfolded the way they are depicted in The Social Network, I can say that the film FEELS real to me. All of the characters in the film — including Mark Zuckerberg — are depicted in a three-dimensional way. There aren’t easy heroes and villains in the film — most of the characters seem likable and unlikable at different points in the narrative, just as real human beings are. (This, to me, is in contrast to a film like A Beautiful Mind, in which it seemed so clear to me as a viewer that the filmmakers had shaved away any unlikable aspects to John Nash in order to create a more heroic lead for the film.)
But knowing that the parties involved strongly dispute just what went down over the course of the creation of Facebook, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin cleverly decided to embrace that ambuguity with the film’s structure. As we watch events unfold chronologically, the film regularly cuts forward in time to the depositions in the two lawsuits eventually brought against Zuckerberg. In those scenes, we see the participants debate and argue about the moments that we, the viewers, just saw occur. This is a really smart way to allow the film … [continued]
After re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird last month, I couldn’t resist re-watching the famous film adaptation from 1962 starring Gregory Peck. I’d seen the film before, many years ago, but I hardly remembered it. After having devoured Harper Lee’s magnificent novel, reminding myself in the process of what an amazing achievement in literature it is, I was eager to take another look at the film.
Sadly, whereas re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird only elevated it further in my mind, I found myself fairly disappointed by the film version.
It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Almost all of the key characters and scenes from the novel are present in the film. Events are slightly re-organized, and the time-frame is condensed (the film takes place over a single year, from one summer to the next, while the novel is spread out over two years and three summers), but nothing major is left out. Yet the whole thing seems sort of flat and lifeless. The familiar scenes are all there, but they’re drained of much of the emotional context that I felt in the book.
Where the film really fell down, for me, was in the performances of the kids. Frankly, I just didn’t care for any of the three child actors chosen to play Scout, Jem, and Dill. I have written often on this blog that I think the failure or success of child actors rests on how they are handled by the director, so I don’t just fault the kids. I also acknowledge that standards and styles of performance were quite different in the 1960′s than they are today. One can’t expect to see the type of viscerally honest performance by a child actor such as Max Records as Max in Spike Jonze’s recent adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (click here for my review of that amazing film) in a movie from that era. But whatever the reason, I just didn’t feel the performances of the three kids. It felt like three kids acting out scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than my believing that I’m watching three real characters interact.
Where the film didn’t disappoint me, though, was in Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch. Although he’s been in a number of other famous, well-made films, Mr. Peck has become indelibly linked with Atticus, and after thirty seconds on screen one can see why. Mr. Peck is perfectly cast. With his deep voice and large frame, Mr. Peck is powerfully believable both as an erudite lawyer as well as the town’s best sharp-shooter, and he embodies all the wiseness and kindness of an ideal father figure. While I felt that the kids (and several other … [continued]
In an attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (in which he released two films in a single year, the dramatic historical film Schindler’s List as well as the crowd-pleasing action spectacle Jurassic Park), in 1997 Mr. Spielberg released both the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World as well as the historical epic Amistad.
In 1839 a group of African slaves broke free aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad and killed most of the crew. When they were intercepted by an American naval vessel, the slaves were imprisoned and brought to trial. A group of abolitionists became aware of the case, and hired a young, inexperienced lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to take the case. Mr. Baldwin was forced to retry the case multiple times, as the politics of a nation heading towards Civil War bestowed upon this small case an enormous weight in the potential fate of the nation. Ultimately, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) assisted Mr. Baldwin in arguing for the release of the Amistad slaves.
As is often the case, Mr. Spielberg assembled a talented group of actors to embody the characters in the film. Mr. McConaughey does a fine job as the jovial, slightly naive lawyer Baldwin. The role doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him (particularly after playing a lawyer the year before as the lead in 1996′s A Time to Kill), but he reins in some of his more over-the-top mannersisms which allows him to fit well into this historical drama. Fresh off of The Lost Word, Pete Postlewaite pops up again as an equally unlikable fellow — this time, he’s the lawyer assigned to prosecute the Amistad case. Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman play the abolitionists who are drawn to help the Amistad slaves. Though neither has much to do in the film, both make the most of their small parts. Other familiar, talented members of the cast include Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin van Buren, David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, State and Main) as Secretary Forsythe, Xander Berkeley (24) as the presidential advisor Hammond, Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) as Queen Isabella, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had forgotten that Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Spartan) has a fairly substantial role as the translator who assists Mr. Baldwin in communicating with the Amistad slaves.
But the two standouts of Amistad are Djimon Hounsou as … [continued]
Last week I began my look back at the last decade-and-a-half of Steven Spielberg films with Jurassic Park. Now my project to revisit all of the films that Mr. Spielberg has made since 1993 — films that, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, I have only seen once — continues with Mr. Spielberg’s 1997 Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World. (I’ll be calling this series Spielberg in the Aughts, but I can’t really use that title for a film made in 1997…!)
I remember being very disappointed with this film when I saw it back in 1997. It was the first time I had gone to see a Steven Spielberg film in theatres and come out disappointed. (But not the last…) So when I watched this film on DVD, I was curious to see if I liked it any more now, so many years later and divorced from all the hype of the time.
In a word: no.
I will say that The Lost World looks great. Mr. Spielberg and his frequent collaborator, genius-level cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, have darkened their palette this time out. Whereas the first Jurassic Park was quite bright for much of it’s run-time, The Lost World has a much more shadowy look to it, and that is effective at adding a layer of spookiness and mystery to the proceedings. The dinosaur CGI effects still look pretty great. One of the few scenes that takes place in bright daylight is the introduction to Pete Postlewaite’s great white hunter Roland Dembo and his team, as they attempt to capture a number of dinosaurs in the midst of a high-speed run across a plain. There are no shadows in which to hide dodgy effects, but none are needed — ILM’s CGI creatures (combined with some top-notch work from Stan Winston’s animatronic workshop) look fabulous.
But that’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about The Lost World. I found the story to be a mess, and the characters flat and uninvolving. From the get-go, The Lost World was operating at a disadvantage to its predecessor, Jurassic Park, because its source material was much weaker.
I still remember being blown away when I first read Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park (well-before the movie came out), and I was so excited when the news broke that he was working on a sequel book. But I was underwhelmed by The Lost World when the novel was released. It just didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting as the first. Wisely, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp chose to jettison much of the source material — but what they came up with in its place … [continued]
I once considered Tim Burton one of my very favorite directors, but recent years have changed that somewhat for me. I still think he’s an extraordinary talent who has given us some incredible films, but since 1999′s Sleepy Hollow, in my opinion Mr. Burton has directed two mediocre films (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd) and two absolutely terrible films (Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
When I first heard that Mr. Burton would be directing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, I thought at first that that was an inspired idea — that the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland would be a great match for Mr. Burton’s bizarre sensibilities. But when I started seeing trailers for the film, I thought it looked terrible. The glimpses I got of Johnny Depp’s totally wacky portrayal of the Mad Hatter didn’t interest me, the design of the film looked garish, and it seemed to me that the dark terror of Sleepy Hollow had been replaced by lowest-common-denominator all-ages pap. For the first time that I could ever remember, here was a new Tim Burton film that I was not interested in seeing. Once I started to read the poor reviews (and, in particular, the on-line eviscerations of the 3-D conversion), I decided to pass on seeing the film in theatres.
But, you know, it’s a new Tim Burton movie! Even though it didn’t look like a film I would enjoy, I do admit to remaining sort of curious to see what Mr. Burton had come up with. Was the film really as bad as it looked to me in the trailers, and as I’d read? When I saw the film in the “new releases” section of my local video store, I decided to rent it so I could see for myself.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not a total catastrophe. There are some bits and pieces of the film that I liked. But as you could probably tell from my recent cartoons, I found the whole thing to be exceedingly mediocre, and quite a disappointment coming from the talented Tim Burton.
The film started off well. I quite liked Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Alice. She’s certainly quirky enough to feel right at home as the lead in a Tim Burton film, but her Alice also felt recognizably vulnerable and human. Her trip down the rabbit-hole and entrance into Wonderland was sufficiently weird and spooky, and I quite liked the build-up of hints that this wasn’t Alice’s first trip to Wonderland. That was a surprising choice on Mr. Burton’s part (and that of screenwriter Linda Woolverton), but I really dug it. I liked … [continued]
1993 was a banner year for Steven Spielberg. That year saw the release of two films that he directed: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. Both were phenomenally good, though two more different films I can scarcely imagine. To my younger self, those dual accomplishments in 1993 embedded Steven Spielberg in my mind as a director at the top of his game who could pretty much do no wrong. If he could succeed at making both a potent, emotional historical drama, as well as a nail-biting sci-fi action spectacle, then the man could do anything.
I remember very clearly when I first saw Jurassic Park on the big screen. It scared the hell out of me! That seems sort of silly now, but I wasn’t prepared at the time for how intense a film it was. Seeing it projected on the big screen, I was totally blown away by the visual effects, and also by the incredible sound. Jurassic Park is one of the first films that really made me think about the sound design. I think it was the incredible sound-scape that contributed to the intensity of the film as much as the amazing imagery.
Watching Jurassic Park, today, on DVD, the film doesn’t have anywhere near that intensity. It does, however, hold up rather well. The CGI effects that were so ground-breaking at the time still look great. That’s a pretty amazing achievement — I’m sure you don’t have to think too hard to come up with a lengthy list of films whose visual effects were groundbreaking at the time but are pretty laughable today — and it’s a testament to the quality work done by all the artists involved with the film. It’s pretty amazing to me how well-made the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are. There wasn’t a single shot that jumped out at me as being silly or fake-looking. This is important in allowing the film to retain its effectiveness, even almost twenty years later. It’s critical that the dinosaurs work as believable creatures — otherwise I think you’d be plucked right out of the story.
But the reason why Jurassic Park still works today isn’t just about the dinosaurs — it’s also about how carefully and successfully Mr. Spielberg (and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Crichton, adapting Mr. Crichton’s novel) establish a believable, interesting ensemble of characters to hang the story around. It takes almost a full hour of the film before the dino-mayhem really begins. That time is well-used, as we get to know and care about the folks who are about to be terrorized.
Sam Neillhas never been better than as Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist hero of the film. He’s ornery … [continued]