Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Up in the Air" / Mini-Reviews - "(500) Days of Summer" / "Che" / "Gallipoli" / "It Might Get Loud" / "Humpday"

Up in the Air - Directed (and co-written) by Jason Reitman, starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick - Rated R

A Chigurh for this funny, thoughtful film.

Up in the Air, the latest from Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), is a funny, thought-provoking, borderline existential film that has much more to say than most comedies. But then again it isn't necessarily a comedy. I suppose the correct term these days is "dramedy." But I don't particularly like that word. Let's just call it a film, and a very good one at that.

The film is about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who spends nearly his entire life flying from city to city. Bingham's job is to fire people for other companies because they are afraid of the reaction they might get from the axed employee. This may sound like the set up for a very depressing film, but it is really much more light-hearted (for the most part) than you would think. For starters, Bingham loves the traveling that comes with his job. He has no "real" life so to speak, though, in his words, he is "surrounded" by people to connect with. There is nothing long term in his life and he likes it that way.

A wrench is thrown into the works when Bingham's company decides to take the advice of a rising star at the company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). Natalie thinks the company can save a ton of money if they start firing people in an even more impersonal way, through video conferences. Bingham isn't a fan of the idea since it would force him to settle down, but he convinces his boss to take Natalie on the road for one last trip to show her the ropes and how important it is to fire someone in person.

This set up allows George Clooney to break down the rules of quick and easy travel and this is when Up in the Air is at its best. Clooney plays the know-it-all to perfection and Anna Kendrick plays off of him well. Their banter makes for some of the funniest scenes in the film. But make no mistake, this is Clooney's film. In fact, your opinion of Clooney will make or break this film for you. I'm a Clooney fan, and this is one of his better performances. I got the feeling that he was playing himself (both he and his character are not exactly tied down), but I think that's the mark of a good performance. When you can believe that the actor is exactly like the character, then he's done something right and will most likely receive a nomination for the role.

Clooney is not alone, however. Vera Farmiga does a nice job as Clooney's love interest. The rest of the notable cast basically consist of cameos. Zach Galifianakis and J. K. Simmons have short but sweet roles as recently fired workers. Sam Elliott's appearance made for a good scene near the end. It was good to see Danny McBride show up in a semi-serious role since he's usually cast as a ridiculous, over the top character. There are more, but these appearances stuck out to me and, in the case of Galifianakis and Simmons, made the firing scenes easier to sit through.

The firing scenes are not necessarily meant to be funny, though (and certainly a couple are meant to be completely depressing). What makes some of these firings depressing and authentic is that the filmmakers got recently fired regular people and told them they were making a documentary about layoffs. They were told to treat the camera like the person who fired them and recreate their experience or say what they wish they had said. It adds a reality to the film that can get to you at times. Listening to these real people and hearing Clooney's responses get to the heart of this movie.

That brings me to the message of the film. Up in the Air asks the audience what is truly important in your life. Is it your job? Is it living life with no strings attached? Is it settling down and having a family or someone to be with? These are the kinds of questions that any adult can relate to and that is what makes this movie almost existential. Danny McBride's character asks late in the film, "What is the point?" Clooney isn't sure at first, but who is? Who hasn't asked him/herself this question at least once in their life after a bad day or an argument with a loved one? Up in the Air can't give a definitive answer to that question because it can only be answered by the individual. The film can, however, make you think about what the point is, and you might laugh a bit while you consider the answers; and maybe that's the point.

This is something new I'm going to start doing. I tend to watch plenty of DVDs through the week and I never write anything about them and many of them do not warrant a full review either because they are old movies, or because I just didn't feel like writing a full review. I'll try to keep them as short as possible, giving a concise synopsis followed by a sentence or two of opinion.

(500) Days of Summer - Directed by Marc Webb, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel - Rated R
This movie is about a relationship from beginning to end. It's been compared to Annie Hall and I think that is a fair comparison. I really enjoyed this one. It felt like a new breed of romantic comedy, one that both a man and a woman could enjoy. Let's hope this is the beginning of a new trend.

Che (Parts 1 and 2) - Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Benicio Del Toro - Rated R
I'm not exactly a fan of Che Guevara. When I see kids wearing t-shirts with his face on them I want to approach them and verbally berate them. But then I calm down, because I realize it would infuriate Che even more than me to see the American youth wearing his image, expecially if that image is on a $30 shirt. Anyway, I watched this lengthy biopic (the two parts equal about 4 and 1/2 hours) because Soderbergh makes interesting films. This film has its moments, but they are few and far between. The filmmakers didn't take a strong stance one way or the other with Che and I think that hurt the film. I just didn't have much of a response to this film one way or the other. I will say, though, that Benicio Del Toro is absolutely perfect for the role. I've heard complaints about his accent, but as far as the look goes, he was born to play Che. But even his performance does not warrant a viewing of this film.

Gallipoli - Directed and co-written by Peter Weir, starring Mel Gibson - Rated PG
I don't know why but it took me forever to get around to watching this historical film about the Australian soldiers fighting in Turkey during World War I. It is a very solid and devastating film and I suggest checking it out if, like me, you have left it off your list.

It Might Get Loud - Directed by Davis Guggenheim, starring Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge - Rated PG
Let's face it, if you're into rock music you'll probably want to check this out for Jimmy Page alone. If you're not into rock, you should skip it because this movie consists of these three guys sitting around talking about guitars and playing a bit here and there. I enjoyed it, though I thought it could've been a bit better. I guess I expected them to play together a bit more or something. But it is still very cool to see these three together, even though The Edge is kind of a whacker.

Humpday - Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard - Rated R
This is definitely one off the beaten path. It's about two lifelong friends who feel they haven't accomplished anything substantial in their lives. So they decide to make a gay porno film of themselves, even though they are both straight. I thought this film was quite funny and it understands male friendship in the way that a Kevin Smith movie does. So don't be scared off by the porno aspect of the film, because the film isn't all about that. It's more about getting older and trying to do something with your life. And it's definitely about how awkward such a situation could be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Avatar - Written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, and Zoe Saldana - Rated PG 13

For the flat out awesome experience, this film gets a Vader.

Wow...just wow. Avatar, the long awaited, majorly hyped new film from writer-director James Cameron is simply amazing. When watched in IMAX 3D it turns plain movie watching into a unique and breathtaking experience. There were times when I found myself with a grin on my face or with my mouth hanging open during this film. It completely encompasses you into the story in such a literal way that it will leave you wanting to go back in the theater and experience it all over again. Now, I've got my excited gushing out of the way, so let's get into the specifics.

Avatar takes place on the lush planet Pandora in 2154. Earth has run out of natural fuel resources, so a corporation sets up a military/scientific base on Pandora to try and come up with a way to get the precious Unobtanium under the planet's surface. To get the valuable substance, however, they have to deal with the Na'vi, the large, blue-skinned natives who are none too happy to see the "aliens" on their planet. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, who is given the opportunity to take the place of his recently deceased twin brother in the avatar program the scientists have come up with. The scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), want a diplomatic solution for the Unobtanium retrieval. To do this, they have spliced Na'vi and human DNA to create Na'vi vessels to be remotely controlled by the scientists. This way, they may be accepted into the Na'vi culture and could possibly convince them to simply move away from the main source of Unobtanium.

As you can imagine, things haven't been going so well for the corporation and they've decided to solve their problem with military action. Jake is asked by Col. Miles Quaritch (played to hardcore Marine perfection by Stephen Lang) to play along with the scientists' diplomatic mission, all the while reporting back to him for military reconnaissance. That's as far into the plot I want to go, but if you've seen the previews, you know that things eventually get violent. But you can experience that for yourself.

What helps you experience Avatar is the character of Jake Sully. He's a newcomer to Pandora and he's never remotely controlled an avatar. So he's our newbie guide and it's a perfect way to set the film up. We get to experience the beautiful world of Pandora with the same amazed grin as Jake when he first enters the jungle. The strange plant life and assorted beasts that populate the planet confuse and amuse Jake and we, the audience, are likewise amused.

Just showing off a pretty new planet to the audience isn't enough to make a great film, though. (I would argue, however, that the special effects alone make this film worth watching.) Cameron throws Jake into the Na'vi culture completely and we're treated to a rich and compelling society. The best comparison I can think of is Dances with Wolves, especially since the Na'vi, with their connection to the living planet, so closely resemble Native Americans (which is most likely why Wes Studi plays the chief/leader of the people).

A soldier entering a foreign society only to become emotionally invested in it is not all that original, but when you stop and consider what you are seeing on screen, it seems completely new and fresh. That's because you are watching ten foot tall blue creatures the whole time, not a single one of them practically made. This is all done through motion capture technology and it is stunning. I didn't consider the Na'vi to be silly CG creatures created only to show off new movie technology. I saw them as complete characters in the film and it didn't take very long for me to side with them in the struggle. Sure, you're supposed to side with them, but I usually have an aversion to films that treat the majority of the human race as greedy, hateful creatures. When it comes to fictional alien races or the human race's needs, I'm usually all for taking out the aliens for the greater good (or comfort) of humanity. But this time the aliens seem to be much more in touch with humanity, if that makes sense. Does all of this sound a bit heavy handed and even downright cheesy? I can see that argument, but I would only agree with that if the movie was terrible. As far as I'm concerned, Avatar bought itself a free pass for a sappy political message or two once I was treated to a few flybys and jungle treks in glorious 3D.

If you think nature looks amazing in 3D, just wait until stuff starts getting blown up. Cameron has long been known as a master of the action film (after Aliens, Terminator & T2, and True Lies) and he does not disappoint here. Aerial battles, ground battles, and good old fashioned one on one showdowns are all impressive and never overbearing.

Usually, I might find myself waiting for each action scene, but in this film I was always interested and fully invested, even when there weren't arrows or bombs flying through the air. Part of that is character development and story, but part of that is acting as well. I've already mentioned Lang's hardnosed turn, but that's simple stuff; his character is a human. It's the motion capture performances that sell the film. I'm not saying Worthington deserves an Oscar or anything, but he is perfect when it comes to making an awestruck face. And while the face itself may be computer generated, his performance is not. His voiceover segments of the film (done through periodic video logs) help keep the film together as well. There's a sincerity in his voice that I found completely convincing.

This all sounds great, I know. It sounds nearly perfect, but Avatar is not without its faults. First off, the Na'vi look amazing and nearly look photo-realistic, but when a Na'vi is interacting directly next to a human, it looks kind of goofy. The contrast between the species may be the cause of it, but regardless I found myself chuckling a few times when I wasn't supposed to. These moments are few and far between, though. Secondly: Michelle Rodriguez. Ugh, I have had it with her tough girl characters (Resident Evil, The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T.) that always have plenty of witty remarks to solidify their toughness. She has to be the least versatile actress in the business. Thankfully, she only has a couple of moments in the film, but I cringe every time I see her on screen. But that's not a knock against the film itself; it's more of a personal preference type of thing. I just wish Cameron could've held off from inserting yet another tough as nails female character into his film. Zoe Saldana's Na'vi character Neytiri filled the female warrior slot fine on her own. These are very minor issues, though, and they don't keep Avatar from being a great film.

There are many more ideas and aspects of the film that could be discussed but I think I've made my point. Avatar is an experience like nothing in recent film memory and everyone should see it. Whether or not James Cameron has made his masterpiece is something only time will tell, but one thing's for sure: he's created one hell of a ride. I, for one, can't wait to go again.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"The Road"

The Road - Directed by John Hillcoat, starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee - Rated R

The best apocalyptic film of the year (I consider Zombieland a zombie movie more than an apocalyptic movie).

The film adaptation to Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel The Road has had a long trek of its own into theaters. It was supposed to have been released over a year ago but was delayed time and time again until it was finally released into a handful of theaters a month ago and is now being slowly expanded across the country. Typically, when a movie is completed and shelved for over a year that means it is terrible or just too weird to find an audience. I’m happy to say that The Road is neither. The only reason I can think of for delaying the film is the marketing issues that arise when dealing with such a dreary film, though the marketing should be done already since so many people have read the amazing novel that the film is based on.

The Road takes place after the apocalypse. We’re never told exactly what happened to the world, but that’s not important. All we know is that whatever happened left the world scorched and nearly lifeless. Into this world comes a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), trying to make their way to the coast. The travelling is not easy, though. Cannibalism has become the main form of survival, but the man and the boy (their names are never given) are the “good guys” and they survive on the dwindling supply of actual food left on the planet.

So the film is a bit dark, both literally and figuratively. When you are dealing with a film, or a book, that is supposed to be about actual and moral survival and hope then the more miserable the situation is the better. Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) creates a perfectly gray world to bolster this idea. And even though it may look miserable, it also ends up being a visually striking look for the film that will stick with you for awhile.

The look alone can’t draw you into the film, though. The performances from Mortensen and Smit-McPhee complete the world. Mortensen looks absolutely haggard and his voice and face convey the character’s misery to perfection. Couple that with Smit-McPhee’s terrific turn as a frightened, yet morally strong child and you have a believable father-son duo trying to survive a harsh world. I expect a great performance from Mortensen (Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promises), but Smit-McPhee was a pleasant surprise. Whenever you’re dealing with a story with a child as a main character there is always the chance that a terrible young actor could ruin the film, but Smit-McPhee is utterly convincing in this.

Aside from the two leads, The Road is peppered with short but sweet roles for Garret Dillahunt, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pearce. Charlize Theron does a fine job as the man’s wife who is not along for the journey but is seen in flashbacks and dreams. The prevalence of Theron in the previews worried me since it seemed like they were going to play up on the pre-apocalypse scenes, which are not focused on in the novel. But, thankfully, the film sticks closely to the book.

The faithfulness to the source material is the strongest aspect of the film. The scenes that I remembered most clearly from the book were created just as I imagined them. That could be a problem for some people who have read the book, though. Everyone creates their own personal image of what a story would look like and it just so happened that Hillcoat’s interpretation jived with mine. That may not be the case with everyone. Maybe the gray misery will outweigh the hope for you more than it did in the novel, when you decided for yourself how dreary the world was. I don’t think many people will have that problem, though.

It may sound like reading the book beforehand is a requirement based on this review, but I think you can enjoy this one without reading it. I do think that this film caters to the readers though, and the readers will be the biggest supporters of the film. That may be the reason why the studio is limiting the release of this, though I would definitely recommend checking this out if it is near you, even if you haven’t read the book. You may come out of the theater feeling a bit depressed, but you won’t regret a minute of the beautiful misery.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Invictus - Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon - Rated PG-13

I think "District 9" is a more interesting film about South Africa and apartheid, but "Invictus" is still very good.

Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, is a well made inspirational film with an important message, but it falls short of greatness. The story is about South Africa after apartheid and the struggle to keep the racially divided country together. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is the newly elected president who has been given this task. With mass poverty, an economic crisis, and open hatred between the races he decides to focus on South Africa’s rugby team. He enlists their captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to motivate his team to win the rugby world cup (which is a much bigger deal in the rest of the world than it is in North America).

Invictus is not just a motivational sports movie, though. The focus is more on the political side of things. As Mandela enters the office for the first day of his presidency, most of the white office workers are packing up and leaving, assuming they are to be fired. Mandela allows them all to stay and he also makes a point to diversify his security staff (more on them later). He realizes that these small scale changes will not accomplish much and he finds his solution at an appearance at a rugby match. Mandela notices that the white fans cheer for South Africa, and the black fans cheer for England (or whoever happens to be playing South Africa), which is exactly what he did when he was imprisoned. Mandela realizes that “petty revenge” won’t solve anything, so instead of doing away with the team’s traditions, he encourages all of South Africa should embrace the team.

This sounds all well and good, but it’s a bit hard to get into a movie in which all the action takes place through a sport that is obscure at best to an American audience. I understood that the games were about more than winning, but I had almost no idea what was going on during the matches. This is actually a joke in the film as the black characters in the film are just as baffled by the game as the audience in the theater. I get the joke, but I wanted multiple, intense rugby scenes that focus on the simpler parts of the game rather than a few gags in which characters ask, “What happened? Is that good?” Eastwood does accomplish this in the final game with some great sound work and slow motion, but it was too little too late for the rugby.

Regardless of the cultural divide, the importance of the games is easy to understand. I may not have understood what was happening most of the time, but I knew how I felt when it was over. This is one of the most hopeful, uplifting movies I have seen in recent memory. In a cinematic world that seems to focus more and more on misery, death, and violence it was nice to watch a movie about human beings that overcome hate. Is that sappy? Maybe, but it’s also refreshing. But the movie does crossover into extremely sappy territory when it comes to song selection, though. Eastwood goes with an original song titled “Colorblind” that features lyrics such as, “it’s not just a game.” The music is too obvious and it’s stating things that Eastwood has already accomplished.

The musical missteps and confusing rugby scenes aside, this is a solid film. Freeman and Damon strengthen the film immensely. I don’t think they’ll be winning Oscars for their work or anything, but they do carry the film very well. Freeman is great, (as he should be, since Mandela himself has said that Freeman is the only actor who could play him) but his performance is really just a great impersonation. He does convey a presidential authority in every scene, though, and he made the film amusing at times. Damon is fine; it’s just that his character didn’t have much to do. His performance in The Informant! was much more impressive.

What makes this movie a bit more interesting, though, is the fact that the focus isn’t solely on Mandela and Pienaar. A subplot about the newly diverse security detail supplies much of the heart of the film. Add to that subplot scenes of the rugby players teaching kids about the sport, a child trying to listen to the game alongside police officers, and regular people coming together to watch the championship game and you have an encompassing picture of how important that one rugby match was to an entire country. Despite the slight missteps, Eastwood crafts an inspirational film that manages to (barely) get past an audience’s ignorance of rugby and show that a country can overcome severe differences, with the help of some born leaders and a common goal. Even if that goal involves a sport in which it is really hard to tell how goals are scored.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"A Serious Man"

*I know A Serious Man has been out for quite some time, but a theatre withing driving distance finally got this film (thank you, Kerasotes of Evansville) and The Road is still stuck in limited release hell, so I'm going to go with the newest film from my favorite living filmmakers, the Coen Brothers.

A Serious Man - Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Fred Melamed - Rated R

I was going to give this a Vader, but it only makes sense to give a great Coen Brothers film a Chigurh.

I am very glad that the Coen Brothers, riding high from the success of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, were able to make this personal film about physics professor Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg) and his struggle to deal with a plethora of problems. That synopsis sounds a bit vague (and boring), but it's a bit hard to explain the story without giving a spoiler filled interpretation. I suppose the best way to put it is that this film is an adaptation of the Book of Job, set in the late 60's in the Midwest. If you're not familiar with the story of Job from the Bible, I certainly suggest that you at least look at a synopsis of the story before you watch this film. That was the extent of my research before I saw this and it made for one of the deepest viewings of a film I've had this year.

The religious connections do not stop at the Job adaptation. This is also a film that is very much about the Jewish religion. And the film starts with a kind of Hebrew folktale about curse being visited upon a family. That emphasis on religion leads me to base my interpretation almost completely on the Book of Job. Though it is not a literal translation by any means. More of a "inspired by" take on it rather than a "based on."

There is a basic story to the film, though. Larry's wife, Judith, wants a ritual divorce so she can marry Sy Ableman (a terrific Melamed). Divorce is troubling enough as it is, but matters are made worse as Sy and Judith try to work out the details with Larry and can't seem to understand why he might be upset by any of this. Larry, for his part, seems utterly befuddled by the development. Larry also has to deal with his troubled brother Arthur (Kind), a pot-smoking son, Danny, who seems to only need his father to fix the TV reception, a daughter who only cares about her hair, financial problems, the possibility of not receiving tenure at his college, and a Korean student who is attempting to bribe him for a passing grade. In other words, Larry's life isn't going well and he doesn't understand why any of this is happening.

While this all sounds a bit depressing, the film is actually very funny. The Coens are masters of the awkward conversation and A Serious Man has them aplenty. Every interaction featuring Sy Ableman was hilarious, the excessive cussing of Danny and his friends had me laughing every time, and the meetings with the three rabbis were extremely funny. There are no real stand out comedic set pieces, but the film has general funny undertone to it. Think more along of the lines of Miller's Crossing or Fargo type humor rather than the blatant comedy of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The comedy hinges on one performance, though, and Stuhlbarg completely delivers. He is perfect at playing the exasperated Larry. What impressed me the most about his performance were his facial gestures. Stuhlbarg is able to convey so much without speaking and you really feel for the guy, even though you'll be laughing at his misery throughout. Here's hoping that he's recognized this awards season.

Laughing at someone's misery certainly doesn't sound like a good time, but the Coens pull it off. This is dark comedy at its finest. I thought that Burn After Reading was a bit too dark and unpleasant at times, but they found the right groove for this film.

The comedy makes this film entertaining but it's the deeper meaning beneath the story that makes it a lasting and rewarding experience. There are too few films out there than can make me laugh aloud while watching it and then have a serious and lengthy conversation about it when it's over. A Serious Man goes to show that a deep film doesn't have to be utterly confusing and humorless.

I'm a bit biased when it comes to Coen Brothers films, but I have to say that this is easily one of the best films of the year, possible even the best. I don't consider it their best film, though (to me, Miller's Crossing is the Coens at their best), but time will tell on that one. The Coens have a way of making films that get better with age and this one will definitely hold up well. For now, I count it among their best and that is saying something.

I feel the need to add a couple SPOILER-filled paragraphs discussing the point of the film and what the ending meant to me. So please stop reading if you haven't seen the film yet.

A Serious Man ends with Larry getting a phone call from his doctor with presumably bad news. While he's receiving this news a tornado is heading towards his son. That's not the important part, though. What's important is what happened right before the phone call. Larry gives in and accepts the bribe from the Korean student and just as he pencils in a passing grade for him he gets the call and the tornado heads toward his son. To me, this was Job/Larry failing the test that God was putting him through. (I know that Job passes in the Bible, but remember I consider this to be inspired by the story, not based on it.) The whole film was a trial of sorts for Larry and he failed miserably and got punished for it.

To back this claim up, think back on Danny's constant complaining about the TV reception. Larry has to go on the roof to mess with the antennae. As he twists and turns it he can hear reception coming in and out, like someone is trying to reach him but just can't get through. I don't think I'm off base in thinking that this is supposed to represent God's attempt to reach Larry. I feel that I am backed up by this since the poster image of the film features Larry on the roof next to his antennae.

Just my two cents on what it all meant. I'm sure there are other interpretations that are just as "right" as mine and that's another aspect that makes this film great.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Ninja Assassin" / "Gomorra"

Ninja Assassin - Directed by James McTeigue, starring Rain and Naomie Harris - Rated R

A little slow at first, but then...Ninjas!

Ninja Assassin...when a film has a name like that there should be no mistaking what you are about to see. Ninja Assassin is about a clan of ninjas that assassinate people; fairly simple, and awesome. There's a story in there about lost love and whatnot, but if you are considering watching this movie at all you are mainly concerned with the action, so I'll save the in depth plot synopsis for later.

The action in Ninja Assassin is pretty impressive at times. After all, this is from the filmmakers behind The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta. The movie starts off extremely violent as practically invisible ninjas cut a room full of gang members to pieces...literally. The film slows down to a crawl after that sequence, however, but does regain momentum in the end. It slows down to get into that pesky plot I mentioned earlier, which I think was a misstep by the filmmakers, but back to the action. I referred to the ninjas as invisible because this film emphasizes the shadow warrior aspect of ninjas. That may sound cool and everything, but it's not necessarily fun to watch. Just hearing a woosh! followed by a limb being cut off or a splash of computer generated (CG) blood is okay here and there, but when it takes up entire action scenes it can get kind of boring. The action is much better when the ninjas are forced to fight near a light source. So struggle through the boring middle of the film and you'll be pleased with the last half hour of the film, as I was.

One thing that is prominent even in the extremely dark action scenes is blood. This film is absolutely drenched in CG blood with a little bit of practical blood as well. I'm a traditionalist, so I prefer my onscreen blood to be good old fashioned corn syrup and red dye. I had a problem at first with all the CG blood, but eventually it just became comical and made some of the dark scenes funny. So I don't mind the CG when it's overused to the point of being funny, but I find it hard to believe that using a computer is cheaper than mixing syrup and dye. Maybe it isn't such a big deal to other people, but I assume if you're into movies like this, then you have a stance on the fake blood issue.

The film slows down into boring, but bloody, territory because the filmmakers felt obligated to give a reason for all the violence. Personally, I don't need a good reason to watch ninjas do battle. Just let me know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and let them fight it out for a sacred relic or something. This film, however, felt the need to make this about a Europol agent (Naomie Harris, a.k.a. the voodoo lady from the Pirates movies) who is searching out the ninja clan behind assassinations over the last few centuries. Her story is cross cut with that of Raizo (Korean pop star/actor Rain) who trains in his apartment while he has flashbacks from his childhood within the ninja clan (they take orphans in to replenish their clan). I don't mind martial arts training scenes, but I thought there were far too many in this film. If they had been done in the vein of Kill Bill Vol. 2 they could've been much more entertaining. And then there's a whole forbidden love angle tossed in there that could've been set up in much less time as well.

Of course the Europol agent and Raizo cross paths eventually and team up to survive against the hordes of ninjas stalking them. This is when the film gets its much needed jumpstart. I can't stress enough how much the last half hour saved this film. I went into this movie expecting insane ninja action and the middle of the film didn't deliver on that at all. But by the end, I was just waiting for characters to start yelling, "Ninjas!" (pronounced NEEN-juz, of course). The last part of the film is the fun, crazy time promised in the previews and it made it all worthwhile for me.

Gomorra - Directed by Matteo Garrone - Not Rated (easily an R rating, though)

Might not be a regular mafia movie, but it's still interesting.

First off, Gomorra is easier to enjoy if you have a little backstory. The title is a play on words, referencing the biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah and the crime syndicate of Naples, Italy known as the Camorra. It is based on a book of the same name that exposed the actions of the Camorra and the author of the book is supposedly under police protection for life because of the threats he has received. So this is not a glorification or celebration of the mafia lifestyle. In other words, this film isn't going to be considered cool or "gangster." It has a City of God feel to it but with more of a focus on realism and less on style. If you're looking for the Italian version of Goodfellas, you won't find it here. But it's still a good film and it may stick with you when it's over.

Gomorra consists of five intertwined stories that are not directly related to each other, but share a connection through the Camorra. There's Toto, the young grocery delivery boy who's trying to get his start in the mafia. There's Roberto, who is exposed to the corrupt side of waste management. There's Don Ciro, a money runner who is caught in the middle of a mafia war. There's Pasquale, a fashion designer who sees that some people take clothing design very seriously. And finally there's Marco and Sweet Pea, two young hoodlums who keep stepping on the toes of the local mafia. I mention Marco and Sweet Pea last because I felt that they represented a strong message. We first see these characters as they play act a scene from Scarface. These are the kids that grew up glorifying American portrayals of crime and want to live out their Hollywood fantasies with a very real mafia. I saw Marco and Sweet Pea as Gomorra's way of saying, "Hey! This lifestyle is not glamorous." I'm not knocking Hollywood mafia films or anything (I count most of them among my favorite films of all time) but they do glorify the lifestyle quite a bit, even if it's not intentional. There's no mistake that Gomorra is a condemnation of the mafia lifestyle and Marco and Sweet Pea's story is the best example of it.

Don't confuse my focus on Marco and Sweet Pea as a putdown to the other storylines. They each have their moments and I found all of them compelling, I just found Marco and Sweet Pea to be the most interesting. I suppose it is because they struck me as realistic and dangerous. The scene in which they fire guns just for the fun of it is chilling. They cheer and yell like five year olds as they fire off automatic weapons as if they were toys. They are toys to them. They have no fear of repercussion for any of their actions and their lack of respect to their superiors (even if the superiors are criminals) is disturbing. They were the most annoying characters in the film, but also the most important.

The film is not perfect or anything, though. I think it would have been better if one of the characters was dropped, but I suppose the diverse stories give you a better overall picture. I just wish that picture was a bit more succinct. And I don't know how realistic the music choice was, but these gangsters listen to some awful music. It was distracting at times, but when you're being immersed into a different culture, issues like that are bound to crop up.

There's really nothing else to say about this film. It may be a bit hard to follow, but if you devote some time to it you should come away with something. You may not be entertained and you may be disappointed, especially if you're going in hearing claims that it's the best mafia movie in years. (It doesn't help that the film starts with the words: Martin Scorsese presents...) But if you give it a chance and go in knowing that it's not a "normal" mafia movie, then you will probably come away pleased.

Gomorra is available on DVD.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Antichrist - Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg - Not Rated (if it was, though, it would at least get an NC-17)

I broke a rule for this review. I usually never read reviews of movies I plan on reviewing until I've written my own. But I had to read some responses to this film first. I mention this because I'm going to repeat what a few of them say: I (dare I say it) liked Antichrist, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone...ever. I don't want to be held responsible for putting you through the film. I'm not saying it will scar you emotionally or anything (it made me cringe, but I'll survive), but at the very least you might feel angry for having watched such a movie and then your opinion of me might never recover. Oh, and you might think I'm a sick human being for claiming to "like" the film. So don't watch this movie. But if being told not to watch something intrigues you, then read on.

I'll get into some of the reasons why I wouldn't recommend the film later. For now, let me summarize the relatively basic premise. The film opens in black and white, extreme slow motion as He (Dafoe) and She (Gainsbourg) have sex while their toddler climbs out of his crib and falls out of a window to his death. The scene plays out like a graphic opera and I thought it looked amazing. (Note: "He" and "She" are not the characters' names, it is how they are credited since they never call each other by name.) She is obviously quite depressed after the incident and her therapist husband takes it upon himself to cure her. He thinks the best way for her to deal with her grief, pain, and despair (three prevalent issues in the film) is to face what she fears the most: the woods surrounding their cabin (Eden). Then stuff gets crazy, to put it lightly.

That may not sound like the most messed up plot in the world, but you can tell that this movie isn't a feel good film. Dark, evil things happen in this movie. When that's the case you usually need a clear-cut hero to side with. Antichrist doesn't necessarily have that, but it didn't bother me. For me, the acting was good enough that I didn't care whether or not I liked the characters. I liked the performances. Gainsbourg gives a painfully impressive performance; she is thoroughly convincing as a depressed and troubled woman. Dafoe is perfect in this film, down to his appearance. I can't imagine anyone else attempting the role. His weathered face speaks volumes during the slow motion scenes.

Speaking of slow motion, this film has a great style. Lars von Trier might be full of himself (he claimed he was the best director in the world at Cannes), but he has made a beautiful film. The images, of nature or of grotesqueness or of dreamlike quality, all look great. His camerawork is interesting as well. The slow zooms were a touch I enjoyed in the film. And even the simple framing of a conversation could lead to a discussion. Well, a discussion with me, anyway. The standout images all involve the cabin, Eden, and its wooded surroundings, though. The cabin is reminiscent of the cabin from Evil Dead and that's fitting, because some creepy things happen there.

Creepy is one word, but sick might be used as well. One review referred to this as an "art house" horror film. I suppose that's fitting, but it still retains a few images that are more gruesome than any regular horror film I've seen lately. It's psychological, but it's also shocking. I'm not going to spoil any part of the film in this review, so let me put it this way: the theatre I watched this in offered squeamish guides. The guide let you know when to look away. The theatre also usually serves alcohol (it's an independent theatre, which is why Antichrist was playing there to begin with), but they would not serve any to anyone watching Antichrist due to the graphic nature of the film. While I think that may be going overboard a bit, I must say that a few moments of Antichrist stick with you. (If you just have to know what happens in the movie, go to the message boards on IMDb or check out the Wikipedia page for the film.)

Whenever a film presents such graphic and possibly sickening images, I have to ask, is there a point? I say there is. The themes of the film (there are many, but I'll just focus on a few) require some of the brutality. The film probably would've gotten its point across by just implying some of these things, but it's stronger and more disturbing by showing them. In other words, I'll remember this film for a long time, whether I want to or not.

I don't want to dwell on what this film means (especially since it's open to interpretation), but I will say that there is a point to it, and a compelling one at that. Okay, maybe I will dwell on what I think the point is for a moment. The film has been called misogynistic (it even won an anti-award for it) and I can see how people could come to that conclusion, but I would disagree with it. Sure, there are moments that might make it seem that von Trier is calling every woman inherently evil, but it could also be a statement on how some individuals succumb to stereotypes about themselves. Plus, it's not all about women and whether they are evil. The film is called Antichrist and their cabin is called Eden, so biblical issues are abound. I think it's quite easy to apply the story of creation and knowledge of evil to this film. Just watch how von Trier distorts the images of the outside world or how he shows you nature in its violent simplicity while the cabin seems to be a safe haven...from nature, anyway. There are multiple possibilities out there(one of the best involves the idea of Munchausen syndrome by proxy), but I think applying gender issues, good and evil, and nature is a safe bet.

No matter what your interpretation might be, this film will definitely lead to discussion and I find it hard to say a movie like this is good or bad (hence the absence of a "villain rating" this week). I said I liked this movie at the beginning, but I'm not sure if that's right. I did find this movie extremely interesting and I think that means something. Antichrist isn't a movie you like, it isn't a movie you recommend, it is a movie that makes you think, though, and while I may enjoy the mindless, fun movies more often than not, I still thoroughly enjoy a disturbing, beautiful, and, most importantly, thought-provoking film like Antichrist.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"2012" / "The House of the Devil"

2012 - Directed by Roland Emmerich, starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Woody Harrelson - Rated PG-13

Destruction is nice and all, but the rest is a bit weak.

"This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper." Director Roland Emmerich would whole-heartedly disagree with T.S. Eliot on that point. Emmerich destroys the planet in the loudest possible way he can and when he's showcasing the planet's destruction, 2012 works and is entertaining. When Emmerich tries to build characters and emotional connections; not so much.

2012 takes the ending of the Mayan calendar (12/21/12) and shows the doomsday scenario that some people believe in (though most everything I read or watch concerning the date now try to stray away from claiming the apocalypse is near). If you've seen the previews, you know what you're in for: mass destruction and a bunch of close calls for John Cusack and company. Cusack is trying to get his ex-wife, two kids, and their stepfather across the world to China in the hopes of catching a ride on some kind of ship being built by the world powers. Of course he's always just one step ahead of the spreading destruction. His escapes (especially the one featuring a limo) are quite ridiculous, but they look great for the most part. Emmerich, after Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, has become quite good at staging destruction.

Destruction scenes are nice and all, but it helps if you actually care about the characters running away from the danger. I didn't care one way or another about them (which is the problem I had with The Day After Tomorrow, along with the awful CG wolves in that film). I normally don't like John Cusack in anything he makes, so that didn't help matters for me. It also might have something to do with the fact that I've seen all of this before. The characters seem like they didn't make the cut for Independence Day. Of course Cusack is divorced, but there still seems to be something between him and his ex (Amanda Peet). His son kind of hates him, but if the end of world can't bring father and son together, what can? Forming the government/science side of the characters are Chiwetel Ejiofor (a waste in such an effects driven movie) as the scientist with a code of honor, Oliver Platt as the scientist without it, Thandie Newton as the president's daughter, and Danny Glover as the president. All standard doomsday movie characters, but Woody Harrelson, as the conspiracy nut, stands out and makes his short but sweet scenes genuinely fun.

The rest of the film is a series of tearful goodbyes, missed opportunities to reconnect, and characters saying variations of, "I think you should see this." Seriously, count how many times a character says a line like that, it's insane. I wanted to yell at the screen, "Hey, just stay in the room with the guy because something is probably going to happen every five minutes!" I guess it's all to be expected in a film like this and maybe the emotional scenes will actually work for some people, but it was all lost on me. One thing that wasn't expected, though, was the running time. This film lasts nearly two hours and forty five minutes. It basically pounds you into submission before letting you go with this formula: destruction, tearful goodbye, destruction, minor character death, destruction, tearful phone call, etc. It's just tiring and I was glad to leave the theater.

I suppose 2012 never really had a chance with Emmerich behind it. He made a fun summer movie with Independence Day but his latest two films don't allow for much fun. Comic relief or light hearted moments just seem wrong in a movie featuring the deaths of billions of people. How can you root for a Russian trophy wife's tiny dog to survive when you know people are dying all around? It just doesn't work, but hey, it looks impressive and it's all just a movie. It just made me want to watch Independence Day again. But it was better than The Day After Tomorrow, so that's something, I guess.

The House of the Devil - Written and directed by Ti West, starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov - Rated R

"Happy Halloween, ladies!"

*This film is in limited release in theaters at the moment, and is available to rent On Demand (which is how I watched it, since limited releases are pretty much nonexistent in this area).

The House of the Devil is the horror film made in the vein of the 1980's that is earning raves from horror aficionados. I don't count myself among the horror experts out there, but I still enjoy these types of films. I can't tell you what everything in The House of the Devil is a reference to, but I can tell you that it is quite enjoyable. This film has what all great horror films has: tension.

Before we get to the tense moments, though, I need to set up the story, which is refreshingly simple. Samantha is an innocent college girl who wants to start renting a house. She's a little short on cash, though, so she has to take a babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse. Samantha goes to work for the Mr. Ulman (the always creepy Noonan) who is in desperate need of a babysitter. The Ulmans have a slightly eerie house and you can tell something is not right with the situation. But the movie doesn't jump right into gory craziness, as most modern horror films do. Instead we get (I hate to use this term, but I can't think of anything better) a slow burn of a film that, in my opinion, has a worthy and quick payoff.

I can understand if anyone watches this and claims that it is boring. Sometimes there is a fine line between boredom and tension. The film worked for me and it's arguably slowest moment was the most tense for me. When Samantha is goofing off in the Ulman house it didn't seem pointless to me, it seemed realistic. And I was just waiting for the crazy to happen and the longer I waited, the more on edge I became.

That's only part of what makes this film work, though. I mentioned that this film was "in the vein of the 1980's" but it is actually a period piece. It doesn't make fun of the 80's or anything. I know this has been said about the film already, but I have to say that this film could pass as an 80's film. Not just because of the clothes and the just looks like an 80's horror flick.

I don't think this is the best horror film of the decade or anything (as many critics are claiming), but it was refreshing compared to the never ending flow of slasher movies spewing out of Hollywood. And even though I liked Paranormal Activity more, I'm more likely to watch this again and maybe, down the line, I will consider this a horror classic. For now, it's just a wonderfully tense and mysterious horror film.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" / "The Box"

The Men Who Stare at Goats - Directed by Grant Heslov, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges - Rated R

Some really funny and absurd comedy...with goats.

Goats are funny. At least, I think they are, which is why I read the book that The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on. I found it very interesting that the military adopted a "psychic spy" program that included an attempt to kill a goat by staring at it. (For the record, one former spy claims to have "dropped" a goat, but did not kill it.) The book is obviously meant to be a bit comedic, but it does delve into darker issues like the Abu Ghraib debacle and methods used at Gitmo. The film decides to lay off those issues and go for laughs throughout and I think it works out for the better.

The film starts with General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) attempting to run through his office wall. After he smacks into it face first and falls to the ground, you know you're in for a goofy movie. The actual story starts off with journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) interviewing a former psychic spy who claims to have killed his hamster by staring at it. Bob sees the interview as a joke and doesn't think much of the psychic spy stuff. But when his wife leaves him, he decides it's time to go and do some real Iraq.

This is where the movie lifts off, because Bob soon meets Lyn Cassady (the hilarious George Clooney) and Lyn takes him into Iraq to tag along on a psychic spy mission. That's really all the plot you need to know about, because the majority of the film is played out in skit comedy form. The movie uses multiple flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks) to tell the story of the golden days of psychic spying (the late '70s into the '80s).

It all starts with Bill Django (a terrifically goofy Jeff Bridges) when he falls out of a helicopter in Vietnam. He has a vision on the battlefield (after being shot) and gets the army to fund a journey into peaceful warfare. In other words, Django goes on a hippie trip for a few years. When he comes back, he lays out the guidelines to create warrior monks. The plan is basically to disarm the enemy with kindness. This doesn't go over very well, but when the army discovers the part of the plan that includes "remote viewing" they get interested. "Remote viewing" consists of a psychic soldier staring at a picture of a missing person (or a foreign target) and spying on them from the comfort of an army base.

The snippets shown during Django's warrior monk training make for the funniest moments of the film, like when he gets Lyn to loosen up and dance with all the other recruits. I can't help but laugh when I see a group of soldiers dancing around to hippie music in full uniform, especially when one of those soldiers is a shaggy haired mustachioed George Clooney. Clooney's earnest performance carries the film. He truly seems to believe all the craziness. I think that your enjoyment of the film hinges on what you think of Clooney. Me, I just start laughing when I see him with that moustache, so it completely worked for me. His deadpan performance works perfectly with the light-hearted mood of the film.

It's not all about Clooney, though. Bridges gives his funniest performance since The Big Lebowski. Kevin Spacey does a good job as a slightly menacing psychic spy rival. And Ewan McGregor creates a likable, though doubting, guide for the audience. I was a little worried about McGregor after hearing his voiceover in the previews. I'm just not a fan of his American accent, but it didn't bother me too often. What bothers me is that the author of the book is British, and McGregor is British, so why did they change the character into an American? Aside from that, though, it's great for the Star Wars alum to be in the movie just so he can react to Lyn's claims of being a "Jedi." It's amusing to hear Obi-Wan Kenobi ask what a Jedi is.

The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't a perfect comedy by any means, though. The reliance on flashback storytelling leads to an overall weak narrative. I thought that the film became a bit too ridiculous in the end as well. But I'm quick to forgive a film with a premise that involves killing goats by staring at them. How could it not end being ridiculous? I'm also quick to forgive its faults because those flashbacks it depends on are quite often hilarious.

While watching the film, I kept hoping for more of the supposedly true aspects of the book to show up, but I realized later that it was not the film's intention to be a word for word adaptation. It's supposed to be entertaining. And it succeeds on that front. So if you want more of a history lesson, check out the book (it is a quick, interesting read, by the way). If you want a lighter, more comedic side to the gray area of military experiments, watch the film, you should at least come out of the theater with a smile on your face.

The Box - Written and directed by Richard Kelly, starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella - Rated PG-13

The Box is weird, kind of creepy, and hard to understand at times, but it's also very interesting and it has style.

The Box, from writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales), is a weird film. The previews may make it look like a straightforward thriller with a sci-fi twist, but it is much stranger than that. The basic setup is revealed in the previews, though. A strange man with half of his face disfigured (Frank Langella in an unsettling performance) shows up at the door of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with the titular box. He tells them that if they press the button two things will happen: 1. they will receive one million dollars and 2. someone they have never met will die. You can guess what choice they make.

That sounds simple enough, I know, but this film delves into mind bending (or head scratching) sci-fi about halfway through. The film features mind control, teleportation, the possibility of aliens, NASA, NSA, a lot of nosebleeds, and some ideas about the afterlife. This is all set to the background of 1976 Virginia, which makes it a period piece on top of everything else. If I tried to explain how all of these things are connected I would just have to write the entire plot. So just know that the movie gets weirder with each passing minute and it all pretty much comes down to how decisions that lack morality can have extreme ramifications.

It may sound like I didn't care for the film based on my focus on the weirdness of it, but that is not the case. I didn't exactly love this film (I need to watch it again before I make up my mind), but I will say that it held my attention better than any other film this year. I found myself looking all over the screen and hanging on every line of dialogue. It is very mysterious and I was completely encompassed by that mystery. The film doesn't really answer all of the questions it asks, though. In fact, it leaves you with far more questions than answers. But that doesn't make it a bad film. In fact, most great films leave you with questions. Not all people like that kind of thing, though. But I predict that this will be a film that is discussed for years to come, even though it might be dismissed by a lot of people initially.

This is what Richard Kelly does. His name should be the main thing you pay attention to from the previews. If you've seen either of his first two films, you know that he doesn't make "normal" films. Donnie Darko was a time travel movie that is now regarded by many as a classic and Southland Tales was a convoluted mess of a film that turned away many viewers (though I still found it interesting). I consider The Box to be a mix of those two films. Not plot wise necessarily, but on the weirdness scale and the amount of unanswered questions.

Say what you will about the complexities and problems of this film, no one can deny that it looks amazing. I don't mean special effects (especially since a couple of the water effects look a bit goofy); I mean the way shots are set up, the way the camera moves, and symmetry of the production design. It's very Kubrickesque and I believe that The Shining must have been a huge influence for this film visually and thematically. I'm not saying that this film is as good as anything Kubrick made, but I do think it is just as interesting as any of his films. Kubrick had much more focus than Kelly does, though. I imagine I will be watching this again in on DVD and it will be one of those films that I notice something new in with each viewing.

It's not all about the visuals and the mystery; your enjoyment may depend on what you think of Norma and Arthur Lewis as well. As characters, they are easy to like. They seem to be good parents with high morals. I think Kelly takes a bit too much time creating sympathy for them, but he gets the job done. The performances are key to these characters, though. Marsden (Cyclops from the X-Men movies) does a fine job, but Diaz might bother some people with her spotty southern accent. It didn't bother me, but I've talked to people that are wary of the film based on her accent alone. Diaz's accent should not keep you from watching this film, though.

The characters and the performances were fine, but it's the mystery of the film that will either pull you in or repel you. If you need every question answered, then you need to skip this film, otherwise you'll come away disappointed. If, like me, you don't mind a little confusion as long as the film is interesting, then you should definitely check it out. Just make sure you watch it with someone, because you're going to feel the need to discuss it afterwards.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Law Abiding Citizen"

Law Abiding Citizen - Directed by F. Gary Gray, starring Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, and Bruce McGill - Rated R

Kind of ridiculous and implausible, but hey, so is the Evil Kurgan, and he's pretty entertaining.

Law Abiding Citizen is a fun movie. Is it stupid? You bet. Is it completely implausible? Oh yeah. Does Gerard Butler lapse back to his Scottish accent at times? Yup. But is it also awesome? It certainly is. This movie has enough great moments to make me forget that most of it makes no sense.

The story is straightforward enough, it just gets more and more ridiculous as time goes on. It all starts when Clyde Shelton (Butler) answers the door at home one night. Two robbers burst in and eventually kill his wife and daughter. Enter Nick Rice (Foxx), an up and coming prosecutor. He decides to give one of the robbers a plea bargain while the other one gets the death penalty. This doesn't sit well with Clyde, so he bides his time (he waits ten years to be exact) and unleashes the most intricate and implausible revenge plot in recent memory.

Clyde starts off simply by going after the two murderers. In a Saw type scene he explains what he is going to do to one murderer in gleeful detail. This is what Gerard Butler is meant to do. Enough with the romantic comedies; he needs to explain how he's going to deal out death with a smile on his face in every single movie he is in. That's why I can excuse his occasional accent lapse. He honestly seems to enjoy himself in films like this and 300.

After the two murderers are dealt with, Clyde allows himself to be taken's Nick's turn. But with Nick the lesson is going to be lengthy. Clyde looks at Nick and sees everything wrong with the justice system. So he can't simply kill everyone all at once. He needs to prove that this deal making system is broken. Clyde proves this by setting up some unlikely scenarios (how could he plan things out to exact times and how did he know what prison he would go...stuff like that) and demanding strange things. But it works and it's funny. I couldn't help but laugh a bit when he described the mattress he wanted in his cell in exchange for a confession. Or the steak dinner and iPod request in exchange for the location of a kidnapped lawyer. (More on that steak dinner later.)

Once Clyde is locked up, the story gets farther and farther out there. Apparently Clyde is capable of turning anything into a weapon and he's had ten years to perfect his art. Some of his inventions are quite ridiculous, but they're also kind of cool. I'll just leave it at that because a few of them lead to a shock or two and I don't want to deprive anyone of that.

That's enough for the story. I haven't really mentioned any other performance in the film other than Butler's but no one else really stands out. Foxx is okay, I just don't care for him as an actor. Though I will say that Foxx and Butler work well together; their interrogation scenes were entertaining. The supporting cast is strong, but no one has a character to work with.

What makes this movie stand out and what makes it enjoyable (or at least makes it a guilty pleasure) is its statement regarding the American court system. Clyde believes in a black and white/right and wrong world. There should be no bail hearings for suspicious people. There should be no plea deals. There should only be strict and swift punishment for your crimes. As faulty as this logic may sound, it always appeals to me on the screen. I know that our justice system is what it is and while it might be unfair at times, it certainly isn't broken. But when I read the arrest section and I see different bail amounts for the same crime or I hear about a murderer pleading down to a lesser charge I always get a little angry. Clyde, however, gets really angry. But the audience is with him; his wife and daughter were killed right in front of him. Is he justified? Maybe, maybe not. I was on his side, though, even though the film tries to sympathize with Jamie Foxx more than Butler. If someone is going to try and take down the justice system in real life, I wouldn't support it, but if they're trying to bring it down, literally, in a movie, then why not? If you're going to rope people in with such a premise, then you might as well go all the way with it. I though Law Abiding Citizen stopped a bit too short. It was still a hell of a ride, though.

*I haven't done this for awhile, but I have to talk about a few SPOILERS for this one.

I mentioned Gerard Butler requesting a steak dinner with an iPod accompaniment in prison. That might sound like an amusing little scene but it's actually one of the most hardcore scenes I've seen recently and it also plays on an action movie cliché in a very clever way. Let me describe the scene in detail: Butler gets his steak dinner and commences to eating it in front of an angry cellmate. He lets the cellmate join him and it seems like he's trying to make a friend out of the guy. They finish off the meal and Butler grabs the bone from the finished steak and clinches it on the sly. He moves behind the cellmate and gets him to try and find a song on the iPod via the remote. Just as the cellmate changes the song to a heavy metal track, Butler stabs him in the throat multiple times. "Stab" is too light of a word, though. It's more of a crazy punch-stab...with a steak bone. And the camera doesn't cut away. It's a shockingly brutal scene. Is there a reason why the violence was so amped up for that scene and not for the others? Maybe. The violence works. At a time when the movie was becoming borderline comedic I was jolted back into a serious movie. Even if there was no point to it, it certainly stuck with me. Years from now, I might forget the plot of Law Abiding Citizen, but something tells me I'll be able to describe the steak bone stab scene (that's what I've started calling it) for many years to come.

The action movie cliché I mentioned comes into play with the use of the heavy metal track on the iPod. Usually, in a film like this, a rock song kicks in (a Deftones song called "Engine No. 9") just as the violence amps up. But when that music kicks in its from the soundtrack. The filmmakers here found a way to make the music diegetic. I found this to be a stroke of genius (a small stroke, but a stroke nonetheless). I've always enjoyed interesting uses of music in film and that moment stood out for me. What can I say, I'm easily impressed when it comes to movie music.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are" / "Paranormal Activity"

Where the Wild Things Are - Directed by Spike Jonze, starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, and James Gandolfini - Rated PG

A great film about childhood.

Where the Wild Things Are, based on the children’s book by Maurice Sendak, is a strange film. The director, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has stated that the film is more of a movie about childhood than it is a children’s movie. I completely agree with that statement, though that doesn’t mean children won’t like it. The story of an unruly, “wild” if you will, child, Max, who visits a fantasy world filled with strange, talking beasts after a fight with his mother is something that can appeal to both children and adults.

What makes this more about childhood than for children are the deeper ideas behind it. Sure, watching the wild things get into a dirt war or jump into a huge pile might be fun, but when you think about what they represent you get into levels that most children watching wouldn’t pick up on. The most prominent wild thing, Carol (voiced perfectly by James Gandolfini), truly acts like an angry child, who throws violent tantrums when he finds out that everything isn’t going to be perfect.

The fact that Carol’s actions mirror Max’s to a certain degree leads to the possibility that each wild thing represents a part of Max or at least someone in his family. I don’t want to get into that, but since it’s even possible to make connections like that it shows that this film is not just for kids. But it does deal with the emotions of a child.

The film really delves into the loneliness a child can feel at times. It seems that Max is not understood by his single mother or older sister. He feels the need to run away to a new world of his own creation; a world where everyone will be happy. But things don’t work out perfectly even in a fantasy land and Max is forced to deal with his loneliness and fear even in his imagination.

Does this sound a bit more complicated than the book? It certainly is, but I think this movie is more than just an adaptation. It’s a statement about childhood memories. If you go back and read the Sendak book you’ll find a fairly simple story about an imaginative and rambunctious boy. Much like how you might respond to a picture of yourself as a child. You’ll see yourself with a smile and remember how simple childhood was and how you wish things could be more like that in the grown up world. But things weren’t really as simple as that picture. Childhood was not a constant happy state for anyone, though some people tend to remember it that way. Where the Wild Things Are takes those memories and shows you the darker times. It might make you remember that there were times when you wanted to run with the wild things when you were younger. It might remind you that being a child means being lonely sometimes.

So this film is a bit more depressing than one might imagine, but there is still fun to be had. For one thing, the wild things look amazing. Jonze went with a mix of practical and CG effects and they meld together to make some very realistic creatures. The visuals of this film alone make it entertaining at times and you can’t help but feel a little attached to the beasts by the end of the film.

I found the wild things to be more amusing than touching, though. If you don’t feel anything at all towards the creatures then this movie probably won’t work for you. If you buy into the world that Max creates, you’re most likely going to come away from the film with something, be it a deeper meaning, a choked up feeling, or just a smile. But the movie might not pull you in like that. It pulled me in and I had a fun time with it. I’m not going to lie; at times, it made me feel like a kid again.

Paranormal Activity - Written and directed by Oren Peli, starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat - Rated R

This movie's creepier than Chigurh.

Paranormal Activity is the low budget horror sensation about a young couple, Micah and Katie, who decide to film themselves to get evidence of their haunting. Micah seems to find the whole situation funny while Katie takes it quite seriously. Of course, things start to get creepy. While this might sound like the set up to a ghost hunter TV show, it’s actually a great set up for a truly freaky movie.

The big question with Paranormal Activity seems to be, “Is it worthy of all the hype?” It’s certainly an understandable question. The film has been creating an internet buzz for quite some time. In fact, the film gained its wide release through an internet campaign in which one million people requested it to play in their hometown. Then there are the previews (which you hopefully ignored, since the ending is arguably ruined in the TV spots) which showcase audience reactions.

My answer to that question is definitely “yes.” This movie is scary: cheap scary (its budget was only $11,000). So that means no excessive gore, no computer animated monsters, no shrill violin infused score, and no big name actors. Is that a problem? Not for me.

Cheap scary means real scary. I’ve seen countless slasher movies in which the terror is supposed to be derived from a madman with a blunt object chasing teens and while I enjoy some of those movies, I haven’t been scared by them since elementary school. I can never really imagine myself in those situations. Can I imagine being in a Paranormal Activity situation where I hear a knock, or a door creak in the middle of the night? Put myself in those positions? I’ve been in those situations. Those times alone at night where you scare yourself for no reason at all. That is what this film thrives on.

Much like The Blair Witch Project, this film preys on pre-existing fears. Honestly, if those fears don’t exist for you, then you’ll probably find this movie boring. But there might be something in the film even for the detractors. For instance, the movie is actually funny early on. Micah is the skeptic and his reaction to the haunting and Katie’s fear is hilarious at times.

The film is a slow burn, though, and the laughs stop eventually and the film becomes completely terrifying. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. It’s just surprising that the film contained so many laughs. Micah and Katie interact perfectly as a couple and their banter lightens the mood immensely. It works so well when you think about human nature. What’s the first thing people do after they’ve been scared but they realize everything is okay? They laugh. An audience at a screening of Paranormal Activity could be used as a social experiment on the human reaction to fear.

Speaking of the audience, the crowd at the theater is vital for this film. It also adds to the comedy. My theater got quite a kick out of a group that left near the end of the film because they were so scared. The audience also accentuates each fear when there’s an entire group of people hiding their eyes or screaming. I didn’t happen to hide my eyes or scream, but when that’s going on around you, you tend to tense up.

Tension is the real scare element in this film. Since the movie uses the mockumentary (á la Blair Witch Project) style, the audience is subjected to multiple scenes of the couple sleeping. It’s tense because you know something is going to happen, it’s just a matter of where. Your eyes dart around the screen, trying to catch the moment. It places you in the movie and amps up the fear. Let me put it this way: every time a night scene ended I was relieved. Not because I was bored or anything, but because it was tense to the point of being stressful.

Some of this might make it seem like Paranormal Activity isn’t an enjoyable experience. At times, a scary movie shouldn’t be enjoyable; it should make you tense and nervous. That’s what Paranormal Activity does. Does it live up to the hype? Yes. Do I ever want to put myself through the experience of it again? No way. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" / "The Girlfriend Experience" / "Wages of Fear" / "Wait Until Dark" / "A Boy and His Dog"

*I didn't think there was anything worth watching in the theaters this past weekend, so I'm just going to write a few short reviews of some DVDs I watched recently. I'll definitely have a review for Where the Wild Things Are next week and I might check out Paranormal Activity as well.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil - Directed by Sacha Gervasi - Not Rated

Anvil is the Kurgan's kind of music.

Anvil was a heavy metal band from the early '80s that debuted with the likes of Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth, but never reached the aforementioned bands' level of fame. This documentary asks why. If you're into '80s metal music and you've heard Anvil, you'd wonder why as well. The thing is that even though Anvil never hit it big, the two founding members, lead guitarist/singer Lips and drummer Robb Reiner, are still at it, trying to keep the dream alive.

That's really the theme behind this documentary: keeping the dream alive. Lips and Robb may fight and quit here and there, but they are in it for the long run. Even though they sometimes play shows with less than a dozen people at them, or they can't get proper transportation for their tour, they still keep at it and tend to stay upbeat as well. You can't help but like Lips and Robb and while it can be easy to laugh at them at times, you still feel sympathy for these guys. I, myself, ended up rooting for them and hoping for the best.

I mentioned that you could easily laugh at Anvil and that brings up the comparison of Anvil to Spinal Tap. Most people have been referring to Anvil as the real life Spinal Tap. I can certainly see the connection, but the most interesting and strange coincidence is that Spinal Tap is directed by Rob Reiner, not to be confused with Robb Reiner. I'll leave the connections at that. I suggest you watch both films if you haven't already. But certainly watch Anvil because a true story is always more interesting.

The Girlfriend Experience - Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Sasha Grey - Rated R

Soderbergh's mainstream effort was much better.

Steven Soderbergh has an interesting career. Lately he has been making about two movies a year; one mainstream, one art house. The Informant! was Soderbergh's mainstream effort this year and The Girlfriend Experience (recently on DVD) is his independent film. I guess the main question is which Soderbergh do you like? I find myself edging towards the mainstream stuff, but I'm willing to check out the stranger Soderbergh films.

The Girlfriend Experience is about...well, I'm not sure what this film is about. Let's start with the title. The Girlfriend Experience is a reference to the type of work the main character Chelsea/Christine does. She's an escort, not to be confused with a prostitute. Men pay her to go on dates, for the most part. They talk about their lives, go to movies, go shopping, etc. In other words, she is a paid girlfriend. The film follows her around on some of these dates, but it interestingly leaves the sex off screen, the point being that the sex is only a minor part of the job to Chelsea. She seems to be more worried about her future. I'll just leave it at that, but the point is that this movie is more about the business of sex than it is about sex itself.

Keeping with that theory, Chelsea's boyfriend, Chris, is a personal trainer who is also worried about his financial future and you could argue that his job has sexual connotations as well since a lot of people work out to be attractive rather than to stay healthy.

The financial aspect of the film is a prominent subplot to this film as it was written/filmed during the latest financial crisis and it seems to be the only thing people talk about in the film. It's all kind of strange and it's all told in a disjointed narrative structure that kind of worked for me, I guess, but didn't really seem all that necessary. I don't know about this one, really. I can see how some people could latch on to it and praise it endlessly, but it left me kind of indifferent. So I think mainstream Soderbergh is better this year. Stick with The Informant! unless you're just really in the mood for something different.

Wages of Fear - Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, and Folco Lulli - Not Rated

Nitroglycerin loaded trucks that could blow up any minute? Count the Kurgan in.

This French film from 1953 might seem like a random film to be reviewing, but there is a reason behind it. A few weeks back Stephen King mentioned the 1977 William Friedkin film Sorcerer in his Entertainment Weekly column. He mentioned that he liked that film, which is a remake of Wages of Fear, better than the original. I had not seen either at the time, so I decided to watch them both, starting with the original (review of Sorcerer to come in a week or two).

Wages of Fear, to put it shortly, is about four desperate men transporting nitroglycerin across a treacherous terrain. Of course they are getting paid very well for the job, hence the title. As you can imagine, a truck loaded with nitroglycerin on a lengthy trek through rocky roads creates quite a bit of suspense. This film handles that suspense superbly. I honestly found myself holding my breath at times. I don't want to go further into it, since suspense works better when you're unaware of what is coming next.

I will say this about the film, though. It is far too long. I didn't need the half hour or so beginning that took far too long to set up some rather simple issues. I suppose one could argue that the slow burn up to the actual action is part of the suspense, but I would argue that it is just plain boring and I nearly turned it off due to its pointlessness. So if you can get past that lengthy intro, you'll be treated to some great suspense. Is the remake better, though? I'll let you know what I think later this month.

One last thing: some people hate the ending of this film, but I found it hilarious and I honestly believe that Clouzot was going for a comedic look at life in general with that final moment. It's one of those scenes that comes after the characters have been through so much that my only possible response was to laugh.

Wait Until Dark - Directed by Terence Young, starring Audrey Hepburn, Richard Crenna, and Alan Arkin - Not Rated

A decent thriller, set apart by a creepy Alan Arkin.

Now I move on from the French suspense film to the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark. I came across this one because the guys on the Filmspotting podcast talked about it a few weeks ago and I had never seen it. Normally when I watch a movie like this or for this reason, I don't write about it, but I kind of liked this one.

Wait Until Dark is about Susy Hendrix (Hepburn), a blind woman who is terrorized by three men after a doll filled with heroin. The doll was smuggled into America and ended up in Susy's husband's hands. It's an interesting situation when you factor in the blindness.

What really stuck out and made me want to write about this movie, though, is Alan Arkin. I have never really seen him in anything when he was younger and he really surprised me in this. I think his performance is creepy and funny enough to warrant a watch on its own. But the film still has some good moments and it's just as good (and in my opinion, better) than most of the gore filled thrillers out today.

And if you get a chance to rent the DVD, watch the warning/trailer on the special features. The gimmick of turning the lights completely off in the theater near the end is amusing and the mention of refraining from "lighting up" cigarettes is a funny reminder that people were actually allowed to smoke during movies at one time.

A Boy and His Dog - Adapted and Directed by L.Q. Jones, starring Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, and Jason Robards - Rated R

How could a dark comedy set after the apocalypse featuring a telepathic dog not get a Kurgan?

I don't know how this one stayed under my radar for so long. A Boy and His Dog (1975) is about Vic (Johnson) and his dog, Blood. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Oh, and Vic and Blood are able to communicate telepathically...and Blood is definitely the smarter of the two. They spend their days scavenging for food for both of them and, whenever Blood is well fed, women for Vic. After a plot summary like that, I had to watch this. Also, if you're a fan of the video game "Fallout 3" you'll notice the connections between the two almost instantly.

The summary may make the movie sound a bit goofy, but it certainly has its darker moments as well. Getting women does not really mean that Vic is wanting to find a wholesome woman to date. It's more like rape, though the film doesn't show anything like that. He is about to rape the female lead, but is interrupted by marauders and eventually is treated to something more consensual. It's the thought that counts, though, and that's a creepy thought. But hey, it's the apocalypse, what do you expect. For the reason just mentioned (but especially for what happens at the end) this film is considered misogynistic. I can see where people are coming from, but I'm the type that finds the fun in the movie before I look for any kind of social statement. And if you're looking for a social statement, there's more to be said about the underground society in the film than there is about how Vic treats the ladies he finds.

Enough of that serious crap, though, this film is a comedy at heart. The banter between Vic and Blood is downright hilarious. Their conversations set the tone for the film. Yeah, this is the end of the world, but that doesn't mean it can't be funny. It's also funny to imagine how Don Johnson felt, talking, sometimes yelling, at a dog throughout the shoot. With Zombieland (a film with a similar message) doing well at the box office, I think its fair to say that A Boy and His Dog is a bit before its time.

A Boy and His Dog is dark, funny, disturbing, and quite entertaining. If you're looking for a good cult classic, you can't go wrong with this one. Just ignore the misogyny and focus on the laughs.