Monday, March 30, 2009

"Twilight" / "Punisher: War Zone" / "RoboCop" / "Big Stan"

Note: I have not read the Twilight books and do not plan to. I am reviewing this movie as a movie, not as an adaptation.

Twilight - Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, starring Robert Pattinson, Kristin Stewart, and Billy Burke - Rated PG-13

For those that know me, you may have heard me claim that I would never watch this movie. Well, as with many similar statements I make regarding certain popular movies, I went back on my word. But this is a vampire movie and I tend to watch every vampire movie that is released. My oath to never read or watch Harry Potter still stands, however.

So I had a bit of a preconception coming into this movie in that I thought the books were tween garbage and a movie studio was cashing in on a craze that will be all but forgotten in less than ten years. After watching Twilight, I think I'm mostly right. The film, about vampires in a high school and the love story that develops between a human, Bella (Stewart), and a vampire, Edward Cullen (Pattinson), appears cheaply made, right down to the pale makeup. I had read and been told that sometimes the makeup is a bit messed up and I did notice that sometimes the neck didn't exactly match the face of a character, and it all looked pretty fake in general. The action isn't handled very well, either. When a vampire does something supernatural, it gets kind of blurry and the speed of the film is slowed down and sped up. It just doesn't look good. This film should have at least had some gret visuals of vampires engaging in fights and flying and whatnot, but it all came out wrong. The location looks great, though. This film could almost double as a tourism ad for the Pacific Northwest. But there was potential to create a real style for this film (and series) and it was missed, probably due to the fact that this film was rushed to come out at the height of the Twilight craze.

I don't really have much to say about the acting because it didn't stick out to me in any way. Everyone was just okay. Though I must say that Peter Facinelli looks plain stupid with blond hair. I would say more about him, and the rest of the Cullen family, but they are not given any character development. It's basically like this film was just meant to show the lineup of returning characters for the sequel. Here's Cullen girl, she hates Bella; here's another Cullen girl, she likes Bella; and the rest of the Cullens, who don't seem to care one way or another about anything except walking around in slow motion with brooding looks on their faces.

The look of the vampires are down (look as in facial gestures) but the lore is a bit much for me. These "vampires" can walk in daylight. Sure, it's cloudy all the time, but it's still daylight! And when they get hit with direct sun? They just shine like they're covered in diamonds. That is not a vampire. If they would call themselves something else, I would be fine with it. They do drink blood and have different powers, but the sunlight issue bothered me.

What can I say, though? I actually want to know what happens next. It's the vampire lover in me, I guess. So I will will watch the next Twilight movie (on DVD), if only to see if they give more information on the characters. I'm a sucker for the history of vampires. I want to know about the Cullens' origin and this film gave a very short explanation for it. So this film, to me, a non-reader, is just sequel bait, but it did slightly work on me.

Punisher: War Zone - Directed by Lexi Alexander, starring Ray Stevenson, Dash Mihok, and Dominic West - Rated R...hardcore R

First off, I really enjoyed the Punisher film with Thomas Jane from a few years ago. I've never read the comic book, so I don't know if Jane made a faithful Frank Castle, but I liked him as the character and I thought that film worked well. The movie studios, and critics, and many fans as well, disagreed and they decided to release this re-boot of the series. (This is the third time the Punisher series has been attempted, by the way.)

Punisher: War Zone was meant to amp up the action compared to the Thomas Jane film. I thought the previous film had plenty of action, but whatever. So this time we get a bloodbath in the first five minutes. In the first scene, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, cuts off an old mobster's head, breaks an old lady's neck, shoots a dozen guys in the face, and stabs a few guys in the top of the head. That might turn some people away, but it drew me into the movie. I'm a big fan of violence used for ridiculous/comedic effect (hence my love of zombie movies) and this movie has that every five minutes.

There's a story, but who cares? You get Dominic West who gets to ham it up as a Jersey mobster (his accent is very over the top) and then gets to go overboard when he's transformed into the maniacal Jigsaw. Stevenson, as Castle, doesn't really say anything. He just walks around with an angry look on his face, killing everything in sight. This guy punches through a guy's head. I know I just went back to the violence in the film, but that's all this movie is and if you go in looking for something more, then you'll be disappointed. For instance, the lengthy origin plot of the previous film is abandoned for a short flashback sequence. Who cares why Castle is doing this? As long as he keeps killing in the most violent way possible, it doesn't matter what his reasons are.

Punisher is worth a watch if you want some crazy violent fun, but there's not much else there. And I did have an issue with the use of CG blood, which is just a pet peeve of mine. It can't be that expensive to mix up some corn syrup and red dye, and the CG blood looks stupid.

RoboCop - Directed by Paul Verhoeven, starring Peter Weller, Miguel Ferrer, and Kurtwood Smith - Rated R

I don't want to get too in depth with this movie. I just want to point out that this film holds up very well and, in the spirit of Punisher: War Zone, deserves a viewing just for the insane violence alone. Verhoeven was the king of the 80's action/sci-fi movie and he's at the top of his game in this one. The stop motion animation is hard to watch in a few scenes, but this is a completely enjoyable film. Weller does a good job as a robot (not sure if that's a compliment or not), Ferrer is perfect as the weasly corporate guy, and Smith is phenomenal as the evil drug lord. It's just good 80's fun.

Big Stan - Directed by and starring Rob Schneider, M. Emmet Walsh, and David Carradine - Rated R

I thought about skipping this, but I thought it deserved a mention. This is the directorial debut of Rob Schneider, and as frightening as that sounds, it has its moments. The story is about Stan (Schneider) who is sent to prison for fraud, but gets six months to prepare. It's very unoriginal and there are far too many montages, but the weird humor that is always present in a Rob Schneider film is there and it makes this worth a watch. It's not hilarious or anything, but if you're a fan of prison rape humor, you'll be rolling on the floor. That is another unoriginal aspect of this movie. The whole fear of rape thing has been done in Let's Go to Prison, Half-Baked, Naked Gun 33 1/3, etc. So the jokes grow stale very quickly, but the presence of Carradine (in a real stretch as a martial arts master) and M. Emmet Walsh keep things fresh. Don't buy it, but if it comes on HBO, check it out.

Next: The Fall, Into the Electric Mist, and Death Race.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Let the Right One In" / "Happy-Go-Lucky" / "God's Little Acre"

Note: I did watch Knowing this weekend, but I reviewed it for the Perry County News and I want to keep that separate from this so if you're interested in my views on Knowing, check out this Thursday's edition of the Perry County News. (It will also be available under the Opinion section at

Let the Right One In - Written and directed by Tomas Alfredson - Rated R

Call this Twilight for adults, or don't, since I've read a few message board entries complaining about the comparison. Like it or not, the best way to describe this movie is in comparison to Twilight. It's about a young Swedish boy who is bullied at school. He dreams of a violent revenge on his mean classmates and a new neighbor, who happens to be a teen vampire, befriends him. I've never read any of the Twilight books and I have no plan to watch the hit movie, so I'm not sure if there's any similarities to this past the fact that it involves a young person as a vampire. It's close enough for me to quickly explain what this movie is like, though.

That said, this is not family friendly stuff. There is a decent amount of blood spilled (and drained) and there are a few gory sequences. It's not gratuitous at all, though. This is not a film that revels in blood, but when you deal with vampires, you need to have it. That doesn't mean it can't be handled well, though. For instance, there is an amazing and brutal fall in this movie. Remember in Titanic, when that guy falls and hits the propeller on the way down? This tops that. I had to scan back a couple times to see if I could spot a CG effect...I couldn't. And the make up effects for just one deformed character put the CG of Two Face in The Dark Knight to shame. The deformed guy in this film truly looks miserable and in pain; Two Face looked okay I guess, but I was very aware of the CG.

This movie is not all about the shock of violence and gore, though. There's actually very little of it, but I wanted to point out how well it was done first. But I don't want to get too deep into the story, though because, aside from the inclusion of a vampire, it isn't very original. This is very much your basic bully/revenge story. Of course, the vampire aspect makes it much more interesting, but it's still nothing to go on about. Also, anyone hoping for a lot of vampire lore/origin stuff will be disappointed. There are a few things, like the title itself referencing the idea that a vampire must be invited into a home (it's also from a Morrisey song), but it doesn't delve too deeply into it. This really shouldn't be called a vampire movie at all. It's a movie with a vampire in it. It's certainly worth a watch, though I don't think it was one of the best films from lat year (as some critics do). If for no other reason, you should watch it so you can claim the original is better when the American remake comes out in January. That is not a joke, it is in development with the new title: Let Me In. Hundred bucks says the gore and violence is tripled in the new version.

One more thing: The DVD offers the original Swedish audio track or an English dub. I thought the dub was awful, but if you just hate subtitles, it should get the job done for you.

Happy-Go-Lucky - Written and directed by Mike Leigh, starring Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan - Rated R

I was kind of dreading watching this one. Just look at the picture of Sally Hawkins in character. She looks annoying enough, just wait until she starts with her constant unfunny jokes. So I didn't like her from the start and that's the main issue for this movie because the plot is really just about her boring little life. She teaches kindergarten, drinks with her friends, and puts on a smile no matter what. Then the big plot point develops: she decides to take driving lessons. So this is a character film. That's fine, but I don't like the character. In fact, I spent most of the movie wanting people to yell at her and tell her to shut up, just please shut up! But she doesn't shut up. She can't. Even when Eddie Marsan, as the driving instructor, freaks out on her, she just takes it all in stride and keeps on with her constant barrage of annoying jokes. I could go on, but I won't. This is a well made movie and all; I just hated the main character, which means I hated the movie.

God's Little Acre - Directed by Anthony Mann, starring Robert Ryan, Tina Louise, and Michael Landon - Unrated

I was referred to this 1958 movie recently so I decided to go ahead and review it. I really don't have much to say, though, because I always find it hard to faithfully judge an older film. I'll do what I can, though.

God's Little Acre is about a family in the deep South. The father believes that there is gold buried on his land and he makes his sons help him dig up most of the property looking for it rather than use the land for farming and actual profit. While he searches for the gold, his family starts to break down around him. His daughter-in-law (Tina Louise) still loves an old boyfriend and this causes some problems; his daughter is a bit wild (between Louise's low cut tops and a bathtub scene with the daughter, this is a pretty racy old film, hence the unrated version on DVD), his oldest son wants nothing to do with him and seemingly foolish search for gold, and his son-in-law (the old boyfriend of Louise) is a drunken, depressed failure. His subplot adds a bit of Communism to the mix as he wants to be a hero to a group of striking millworkers by restoring their jobs. With Communism all but dead now it isn't that big of a deal, but I'm sure it got some attention during it's original release.

The film is enjoyable enough in it's 1950's goofiness. The father gets excited so quickly and becomes so cartoonish that you have to like him, but then things get deadly serious for a bit and you start to realize that this guy is the reason the family is so messed up, no matter how many sentimental speeches he gives. I ended up disliking the character the father character because near the end he talks about how love and family and God are all that really matter, yet he jumps up and down and prattles on like a maniac when he searches for gold in the backyard. But money doesn't matter, it's all about go get me a glass of ice water while I dig some more! He's a complete hypocrite and it angered me that none of his sons stood up to him and let him know about it.

Apart from his character, it's a nice look into what films used to be like: sweeping musical scores, overacting, melodrama, and the appearance of a message. Though I'm not sure what to make out of the subplot concerning the albino (Landon) and the mystical powers for finding gold that he possesses. That along with the sexuality/adultery and the hint of Communist made this film controversial and makes it still interesting today.

Next: Nothing in theaters right now interests me, so I'll just be reviewing more DVD releases.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Synecdoche, New York"

Synecdoche, New York - Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, and Tom Noonan - Rated R

Where to start with this one? Synecdoche, New York is a complicated, funny, depressing, disgusting, impressive, ambitious, and beautiful film about playwright Caden Cotard (Hoffman), who may or may not be dying and his attempt to stage a play about everything that takes place in a constructed New York within a giant warehouse with people becoming characters and characters becoming people. So this is standard stuff for Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) but maybe not so standard for the average filmgoer. The story is much more complicated than I just put it, and looking back at my sprawling single sentence description, that's saying something. The trick is to watch this movie without trying to understand every bit of it. It's a lot like reading Shakespeare (I'm not saying this is as good as anything Shakespeare wrote, but the the best way to watch/read this film is similar to reading Shakespeare). You might come across words you don't understand in Shakespeare, but the language sounds great and if you can get the main point out of the overlong speeches, then you'll do okay. If you sit there and try to understand every word of a Shakespearean play, then you will probably not enjoy it. Same goes for Synecdoche. If you ask yourself why does this character age and this one doesn't?, or who is this new character and why is she taking up so much screentime all of a sudden?, then you will not enjoy this film. You can analyze it, but looking for some definite meaning behind it will only leave you angry. So don't just try to figure out "what's really happening" in this film, allow yourself to watch it first.

Now that my opening rant is over, let me say that I did enjoy this film. It wasn't life changing or anything and it didn't really make me evaluate my life (more on that later), but I was constantly interested and Philip Seymour Hoffman gives possibly the best performance of his career. I know he's done the whole depressed, mumbling artist before (The Savages), but I hated his character in that film. I found myself hoping for the best for Caden Cotard in this film, even though he comes across as a bit pretentious and selfish. Okay, not a bit, he is completely selfish and completely obsessed with himself. He puts on a play of his own life, then has somebody not only play him, but also play him directing him, while he watches it all. It's a fine line between ambition and selfishness, yet I enjoy watching him. And he plays an old man to perfection. It's almost creepy how much he changes throughout this film. And the performances around him are very good as well. I thought Samantha Morton was great and Tom Noonan really stood out as Caden's stalker/portrayer. Catherine Keener did a good job, but I wish she would stop playing these disconnected, miserable wives who end up being even more selfish and despicable than the disconnected husbands that she's leaving in the first place. So she was good in that I hated her character, which may not have been the point, but it created a reaction for me, so there you go.

It may seem like I haven't necessarily explained what the movie is about, so I want to point out that this film is really an examination of life in general. There may be theories of the afterlife, the subconscious, the fear of death, the awkwardness of relationships, but all of that adds up to life in general. Just listen to the characters discuss the play. When they talk about the play, they are talking about the movie. It's almost like breaking the 4th wall, but I thought it was an interesting way for the filmmaker to reach through to the audience and say, "you are all right and you are all wrong. It's about life, so it's going to be different for each living person." But the film isn't so strange that it's all about interpretation. There is a straightforward story here, but it's about more than just a play. Also, one of the strangest things is the film is a constantly burning house. This may turn some people away as being too stupid or absurd. But it is a cool and funny idea, really. And if you can accept it and continue with the movie, you'll be doing yourself a favor.

The burning house is just one of the interesting visuals. Just imagine a portion of New York City in a giant warehouse, with a second warehouse and a second NYC , and then a third. Anyway, it looks amazing when you see a New York skyline with a warehouse roof above it. It's massive and impressive, without being too showy. Obviously this is not an effects driven movie, but it does contain some impressive visuals that are there for the story, not vice versa.

Now on to Kaufman himself. I'm not sure if I really like his work. It's all interesting, but sometimes it comes off as being complicated for the sake of being weird. I didn't get that feeling with this film. It might be because he directed this one. It's his first directorial effort and that might be the most impressive aspect of it; that he would attempt such a complicated film for his debut. I don't think he'll match this film, but his directing career is certainly going to be interesting.

I had to wait on DVD for this (since I think it expanded to a total of 50 theaters before it was pulled) and I checked out a few special features. There's a behind the scenes type thing that covers multiple aspects of the making of the film. A featurette with Hoffman talking about his character which I turned off because it was late when I watched it and it was about to put me to sleep. There's a conversation with Kaufman and some British guy that I did fall asleep during because the British guy didn't seem to know how to talk to Kaufman. But there is one interesting feature, a five-person conversation about the film with five critics/bloggers. It's interesting and a must-see if you want to know about some of the philosophical references (which I completely missed because I'm just not into philosophy, which might be a philosophy all it's own...). Apparently Caden's last name of Cotard refers to a syndrome in which a person believes that he/she is dead, dying, or missing/losing organs. There's a few more, but you're better off watching the feature for yourself. Just make sure you have a dictionary handy, these guys are pretty uppity and love to throw out references to obscure films and they love to use words that nobody uses in everyday language. But there's good information in their conversation, even though I think their emotional reactions to the film are exaggerated; one guy claims he must drink after watching the movie, one claimed that he went into a two week depression after watching it, and at least three of them admitted to weeping either during or after the film. Maybe these critics are much more in touch with their emotions than I am, but I think the majority of the people out there are not going to be that changed by this film. It is just a movie after all. The critics also claimed that this film will cause you to examine yourself more than the film. I have to disagree. I was able to look at the film for what it was, not as a referendum on me, personally. Sure, I can relate to aspects of it, but you know what? I can relate to aspects of Transformers, but we don't mention reactions to movies like that. I'm sorry, but Synecdoche, New York and movies like Transformers do have something in common, they're movies and they are meant to entertain. So ignore some of the more pretentious critics of this film and remember that it is not an essay on philosophy and it's not a pyschological exam made just for you. It's a movie, enjoy it.

Few more things: There's a podcast called the Slash Filmcast (you can find it on iTunes or at that recently reviewed Watchmen along with Kevin Smith. It's lengthy and they talk about almost everything that I wanted to talk about with it, so check that out if you want more Watchmen stuff. And check it out if you like movies in general, because those guys are by far the best of all the movie podcasts out there. They don't just agree with each other, like most podcasts, they have actual conversations. And they are going to do a show on Synecdoche, New York soon and it will certainly be interesting, with many different interpretations.

Almost forgot, if you're wondering about the title, it's part a play on words because the film takes place in or near Schenectady, New York. And the word synecdoche itself is a figure of speech that uses a part of something to refer to the whole (i.e. faces in the crowd referring to complete people) or vice versa. Look up some more examples if mine doesn't make sense. But the point is that the play he's putting on is a part of life referring to life in general, but sense it's a play, it's really not life...or maybe not. That's what I gathered from it, though. But everyone's different.

Next: Happy-Go-Lucky, possibly a retro review of RoboCop, and I might check out Knowing.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"What Just Happened" / "The Mosquito Coast" / "Watchmen" (second viewing) / "Milk" DVD

What Just Happened - Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, and John Turturro - Rated R

What Just Happened is a behind the scenes look at what it's like to be a producer in Hollywood. It's based on a book by real-life producer Art Linson (who also wrote the screenplay). With De Niro as the producer and Bruce Willis playing himself, I expected this movie to be hilarious, but it is mediocre on nearly every level. First of all, the book used true stories and included the names of actual actors involved in them. Even though the stories are still the same, I wanted to know who these stories were based on. Especially the British director (Michael Wincott, who steals every scene he's in) subplot about changes that are forced on him. The changes involve a scene in which a dog is shot in the head onscreen, which I found hilarious because I've comented a hundred times about the fact that a villain can kill countless humans and no one bats an eye, but hurt a dog and you are evil incarnate. So I enjoyed that aspect and Bruce Willis appeared to be having fun in his freak out scenes (he plays himself and he refuses to shave his beard for a role).

But that's where the fun ends for me. The sped up car scenes were annoying. I didn't care about De Niro's most recent divorced wife, much less the older one. I had no feelings toward his character whatsoever, really. I didn't want his film to fall apart, but I didn't want it to succeed, either. If this movie's goal was to show that no one cares about anything in Hollywood, then it succeeded. And that may very well have been the goal, but when it creates an indifference in me, the viewer, then I'd rather not watch it. That's really it. I expected to laugh a lot, but I was completely indifferent to the whole thing. I assume actual Hollywood people like it, though, so about 0.005% of the audience was pleased.

The Mosquito Coast - Directed by Peter Weir, starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix - Rated PG

I know this came out in 1986, but I want to throw in an older movie now and then if impresses me. The Mosquito Coast is about a troubled genius (Ford) who decides to uproot his family and move to a Central American jungle devoid of civilization and build an ice factory. When I read the synopsis I was instantly interested. Something about people going deep into the jungle where only a boat can reach always seem to appeal to me (my favorite films include Apocalypse Now, Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo). I guess I've skipped this for so long because the poster for it is ridiculously boring. Sure, Ford has a troubled look on his face, but that's all it is, and doesn't he look a lot like Kurt Russell there?

Early on this movie had my interest. Hearing Ford rant about the problems with the world and how a war is about to happen is pretty entertaining. He goes off with such ease so I instantly bought into his character. Hell, a lot of the stuff he says makes sense, now more than ever. When he takes his family to the jungle and starts to build his own mini-civilization I was still with him. I even found it believable that his family would go along with no complaints because it is established early on that he is eccentric and moving to the jungle might not seem like that crazy of an idea to all of them. But it's not all good times and eccentricities. Eventually, you start to see that Ford might be losing it. He treats his children with extreme harshness at times (mentally, not physically). And while his wife (Mirren) is adamantly by his side, his two sons start to see the problems. Especially River Phoenix, who also provides narration. Phoenix stands up well against Ford and the two truly seem to have a familial connection onscreen.

Weir doesn't do anything special in this film, but he does have a few nice shots of nature and river travel, which leads me to believe that he was heavily influenced by Werner Herzog (Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo). I half expected Ford's family to come across Klaus Kinski hauling a steamboat up the side of a mountain at one point. The world of Fitzcarraldo and The Mosquito Coast is not too far apart. And if you haven't seen either of the Herzog films mentioned, please check them out, you won't be sorry.

There are tons of thought provoking questions to this film. Is civilization becoming too material? Where does God fit into all this? (That question is handled with a kind of bookended plot involving a missionary priest.) What do humans really need to survive? There are more, but the point is that this film makes you ask yourself how you would handle life in Ford's new civilization. I wouldn't last nearly as long as the characters in this film.

Watchmen - Second viewing

Just a few things here. I wanted to check out Watchmen on a regular screen the second time to compare, but I ended up in IMAX again, so I've got nothing on that. I will say that I enjoyed this film just as much the second time as I did the first. And that was the main thing I wanted to find out: does this film stand up to a second viewing? For me, it absolutely did and I want to watch it at least one more time before the theatrical run is done especially since the screenwriter (David Hayter) has now put out a call to all Watchmen fans to watch it again to boost the box office take because he thinks, and I agree, that if this movie doesn't make more money then no studio will allow another one like it to be made again.

Milk - DVD

I also watched Milk again and while I disagree with the Academy on giving Penn the Oscar over Rourke, I still think this is one of Penn's best performances. And I mentioned something about the weird shots of Milk and Dan White talking (where they are in the bottom half of the screen and a large amount of the screen is taken up by the ceiling and walls) and I realized what was going on this time. When they first talk, they are small on the screen, the next time they are medium, and when it's getting close to the assassination their heads fill the screen. This visual clue to the conflict brewing between them was really cool, I thought. Also, the DVD has a few deleted scenes and some featurettes, but just watch the old documentary if you want a good story about the real people from the movie.

Next - Synedoche, New York, and Happy-Go-Lucky.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Watchmen - Directed by Zack Snyder, starring Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Ackerman, and Matthew Goode. Rated R

I'm going to skip over what the film is about since that would take up too much space and I already wrote something like that and it can be found in the Opinion section on

Watchmen is an entertaining, epic, extremely cool movie and fans of the book will love it and newbies will at least be entertained by it. Having said that, this is a difficult movie to review because there are such high expectations for it. It would be so much easier if I hadn't read the book, but I did. One problem was making myself accept this as its own film, but I couldn't help but notice changes here and there. So I'll start with the faithfulness of the adaptation.

Zack Snyder and the writers (David Hayter and Alex Tse) stuck very closely too the source material with this one and only the most hardcore fan of the book would be angry with the changes made. The most important thing is that the Watchmen world is intact. Does it seem like a completely different America? No, but it's different enough that it becomes a kind of character in the film. It's just impossible to translate the world completely from the book. The ending is different and quite a few things were cut out but, dare I say it, many of the changes improved on the story. That's not necessarily a knock against Alan Moore. It's more about the fact that a book and a movie are two very different mediums and certain things don't work in each. For instance, a long fight sequence in a graphic novel is not going to be suspenseful and it certainly isn't going to have a wow factor. The fights in Watchmen the movie are amazing and there is very little in the book to go on for the fights. Snyder made sure that he expanded and added plenty of fighting into this not only to make the film more entertaining, but also because the viewer needs something to go along with the long scenes of character development. But the book has a more intricate story that can't be displayed on film unless you want a six hour movie that has very little action. So I liked the changes because it made the movie its own piece of work, rather than just being a moving replica of the book. Things move faster and the stuff that was left out wasn't really vital to the story anyway. Plus, if you love the source material that much, just read the book again.

This brings me to the style of this film. I've never seen so many great pull back shots that reveal such massive and amazing visuals. This is all made that much better on IMAX. The giant screen makes it so much more impressive than it would be in a standard theater and the sound is phenomenal as well. It's just cool to see the opening panels of the book (closeup on smiley face button that pulls back to the apartment the Comedian was thrown out of). It's an experience that warrants multiple viewings. Snyder also goes from backstory to backstory almost seamlessly and it keeps the movie interesting. It wouldn't be as good if Rorschach was narrating the entire film. I liked hearing Dr. Manhattan take over the narration for awhile. This movie is taking some flak for the pacing, but I loved it. It goes from an impressive and brutal fight sequence to a meditative backstory and it feels natural. One review I read complained about all of the origin/backstories but I wanted more.

Of course those stories wouldn't be interesting if the actors didn't do their jobs. Jackie Earle Haley was the perfect choice for Rorschach. His voice is perfect and he looks strange enough to pull off the scenes without his mask. He's offputting as a character, but you get on his side pretty quickly in the film. Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan is great as well. It's hard to get past the visual effects of his character (which also look great on a big screen), but his voice has a simplicity to it that is perfect for the character. It is devoid of emotion, which it should be, but there's a hint of humanity in it that makes you identify enough with him to not be put off by his indifference. Jeffrey Dean Morgan really brought the Comedian to life. He has some of the best lines in the film ("What happened to the American dream? It happened. You're lookin' at it.") and even though he's an awful man, you want to laugh with him. My only problem is that he has minimal screentime, but that's in keeping with the book. Malin Ackerman, Matthew Goode, and Patrick Wilson are all fine, with Wilson standing out a bit. I just think that their characters are the least interesting so the actors had the least to do here. But they still have their moments and they don't disappoint by any means.

I normally wouldn't comment much on the soundtrack, but it's been catching alot of heat from critics as well for being uninspired. Ride of the Valkries plays during a Vietnam sequence, Sound of Silence plays during a funeral, All Along the Watchtower is used...sure it's been done before, but the songs fit. I'd rather hear a known song than some strange one that was picked just because it was unknown. If it works, use it, and these songs work. Plus, the music during Dr. Manhattan's origin story is very effective.

Is this a perfect movie? No. Some changes and omissions hurt. I thought Rorschach's mask should have been explained and Richard Nixon, as a character, should've been toned down. My problem with Nixon is that they used the most ridiculous fake nose ever put on film. All that thing needed was some red paint and it would've doubled as a clown nose. I don't understand how they let that get on screen. I cringed each time I saw it. But the problems are easily overshadowed by the sheer volume of this film. The fighting is top notch and plentiful, the visual effects are impressive and rarely out of place (Dr. Manhattan sticks out a bit awkwardly at times), the acting is impressive at times and never below average, the film in general looks beautiful at all times, and it follows the book so closely at times that you notice shots that match up exactly with some of the comic frames.

I just don't know what this film is like for someone who hasn't read the book. The people I went with who hadn't read the book loved it, so I suppose this film works for more than the fanboys. I can't imagine how the story works for someone like that, though. I knew everything going in, so there were no surprises and it always made sense to me. But I know about every aspect of the story the book and I can't just forget that information so I can analyze the story. That would require quite a few more viewings. That factor aside, I was extremely entertained by this film and I found myself noticing little nods to the book here and there in the background. The detail of this film will make this film interesting to me for many, many more viewings and that's always a major factor in a film for me. So check it out if you want to see a well made film that is different from all the rest of the comic book movies out there. Watch it on IMAX if you can, because that screen does justice to the painstaking detail and style that was put into this great movie.

Also, the opening credit sequence was easily one of the coolest I've ever seen and it developed quite a bit of history for the alternate 1985 U.S.A. as well. And after reading some of the reactions to the film (i.e. people bashing it on IMDB) I realized that there were a few more problems with the film that I failed to write about, but there is almost certainly going to be a director's cut of this movie and I'll wait for that before I overanalyze this version. Let me make this clear, though: I had forgotten a few of the minor issues with plot and character (can't really get specific about it because it involves spoilers) because the film was so impressive on multiple levels. I'll probably watch it in the theaters one more time, then I'll write my reaction upon a second viewing.

Next week: Something on DVD, maybe What Just Happened? and a couple others.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Choke" / "Redbelt" / "Australia"

Just a few DVD releases to review before I gear up for my Watchmen review tomorrow night. By the way, if you are interested in Watchmen and want to read an article I wrote about it, go to and check out the Opinion section. Or just buy a paper if you're in the area.

Choke - Directed by Clark Gregg, starring Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, and Brad William Henke. Rated R

Choke is about Victor (Rockwell), a "historical re-enactor" at a Colonial theme park, and his problems with his mother and his sex addiction based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club). If you know Palahniuk's work, then you know that this is going to be a strange film. Victor goes to restaurants and starts choking on food, getting a (hopefully) rich person to save his life...then start sending him money because they feel like they are responsible for his well-being. That works well in the book, but I thought it wasn't focused on enough in the film. The film dwells on the sex addiction aspect, which is equally funny and strange, but it felt like that was the focus because the filmmakers hoped it would lead to a buzz or some controversy or something, but it didn't. It just seemed like their was no heart in any of this film. I don't mean that in a moral way, but in a filmmaking way.

The acting is fine throughout. Rockwell turns in yet another good performance (when will this guy get some wide recognition?) and Henke is great as his co-worker/best friend Denny. THey work together well and I found myself hoping they would be in more scenes, but that would get in the way of all the sex scenes, wouldn't it? Huston is okay as Victor's senile mother and Macdonald does a decent job as a doctor, but they really didn't have much to do in this.

This film suffered from a bad translation from the novel. That's all there is to it. It was not nearly as dark as the book and it lacked focus. If you haven't read the book, then you might enjoy it, but I'm a Palahniuk fan and I was extremely disappointed in this. Even with a bad translation, there should have been a slew of great lines and interesting situations, but it just isn't there. By the time the movie gets into the whole second coming of Christ plotline, it had already ran out of steam and I no longer cared about any of the characters. It did make me want to read the book again, though, so I'll be entertained once I get into that.

Redbelt - Written and directed by David Mamet, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Ricky Jay, Alice Braga, and Emily Mortimer. Rated R

Redbelt is hard to label. At its heart, it's about jujitsu and mixed martial arts (MMA). But that is just used to get into a story about honor, betrayal, scandal, alcoholism, Hollywood, crime, suicide, money, and a magic trick or two (it does have Ricky Jay in it). This may make it seem like Redbelt is a mess of a film, but Mamet's writing (which is what he's known for, there's little visual style to this film) handles it all well without letting it become too complicated. The story starts with Mike Terry (Ejiofor), owner of a jujitsu gym, who gets into a money problems. But that seems like it's going to change when Mike helps out movie star Chet Frank (Allen, in an all too brief serious role) in a fight. Chet takes a liking to Mike and wants him to help out with his new movie. Just when it looks like the film is going to turn into a behind the scenes look at Hollywood, though, it changes gears and gets into a crime/loan shark situation. All of this leads to a MMA tournament.

But Mike doesn't believe in fighting in competitions. Which brings me to Ejiofor's performance. With a lesser actor, you might end up hating Mike, what with all his sage-like advice and pretentiousness. He comes off as kind of a jerk in the beginning. Ejiofor has a presence that keeps you on his side, though. Even when he plays a villain (Serenity), I always seem to understand his side of the argument. So when he gets to play the (for lack of a better word) hero, it's that much easier to get on his side. And that is vital for this film, because when Mike has to defend what he believes in, if you don't agree with his sense of honor based on the actor's performance, then the film isn't going to work at all.

Once again, this film moves quickly plotwise so if you watch it you're going to notice a few things I didn't mention, but if you want to see a compelling film about what it takes to uphold what is right, not just in martial arts, but in life, then you won't be disappointed. You will be disappointed if you see that Randy Couture (he just plays a commentator) is in this and you expect to see a lot of fight scenes. There just isn't much fighting in this film, though the few fight scenes are pretty good. It's like a serious writer/director decided to make a Jean Claude Van Damme movie and he realized that the fighting isn't as important as the reasons behind the fighting, that's what makes this film great.

Australia - Directed by Bazz Luhrmann, starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, and David Wenham. Rated PG-13

Australia has been called a beautiful mess by some critics and a trainwreck by others. They complained about the narrative structure of the film, but it all worked for me. It starts off with Sarah Ashley (Kidman) tavelling to her husband's cattle ranch in Australia. She shows up to find her husband murdered and a shady cattle baron and his trusted second in command (Wenham) trying to buy her land. She is convinced that she should take over the cattle ranch herself and drove the cattle to be sold for the army during WWII. She enlists the help of the Drover (Jackman), who doesn't like her at first, but guess what happens there. On top of that, she becomes protective Nullah, a boy of mixed Aboriginal and white descent. That is the subplot of the film. Children like Nullah were known as the Stolen Generations. The film explains what that is near the beginning, so I won't go any further into that. Just know that that is what makes for some of the suspenseful moments of the film.

So the drove is on and this is where the so-called narrative issues start. The drove plot is resolved about halfway through and the film continues with the war and the treatment of the children as the focus. Some claimed that it made this feel like two films. I liked it because it added variety to the film. I didn't want to see nearly three hours of cattle droving, that would be pretty boring. Also, this lets Luhrmann create many different visuals for the film. You have the beautiful Outback scenes on the drove and the interesting camera angles and movement, then you have an impressive bombing sequence, and the rain scene after the ball. It kept the movie interesting and kept things moving. Add a bit of goofiness to balance out the melodrama and you get a great film that is epic in length and scale alike. It may not be very original; in fact, it's downright predictable, but it's fun.

The acting is pretty good as well. Kidman and Jackman have good chemistry, but Jackman shows her up in this. You get a sense that he's having fun in this movie, with his exaggerated accent and the slightly comical fight scenes. The child actor who played Nullah is great, which is extremely important since child actor's usually take a lot of criticism. Nullah is never annoying and his narration adds a bit of humor and heart to the film. David Wenham, as the villain, appears to be enjoying himself as well. He gets to ham it up in a few scenes and while you hate him, you also enjoy the scenes he is in.

Australia came out on DVD Tuesday with only a couple of forgettable deleted scenes for a special feature. I would've liked a making-of doc or something, but the film is enough for me. If you're into westerns, war movies, romance, melodrama, comedy, amazing visuals, culture, and a bit of history then you'll love it. That list of genres might sound like a mess to some, but it sounds like entertainment to me.

Check back late Friday night (I'm watching Watchmen on IMAX and that's an hour's drive, so I won't be at a computer until later) for my Watchmen review.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Taking Chance" / "Quarantine" / "Blindness" / Top ten for the year

I'm going to keep the reviews to just one paragraph each this time since I'm also putting my top ten list on this post and I don't want this to be epic in length.

Taking Chance is an HBO film starring Kevin Bacon as a number crunching Marine who has a guilt complex for not going to Iraq, so he volunteers to escort the body (PFC Chance Phelps) of a fallen Marine home to Wyoming. This is based on a true story and it is definitely as depressing as you might imagine it is, but I found this to be a powerful film. It's kept short and it shows a side of strangers in this country that is refreshing. By that I mean that strangers treat Bacon very well and show reverence for his situation. It's rare to see a film that doesn't make everyday regular people out to be immoral shells. That, along with the idea of a young man dying for his country and the effect it has on people that didn't even know him, makes this an extremely emotional film. That doesn't mean it's completely depressing, though. When a film makes you feel something, anything, it reaffirms your own humanity and that is anything but depressing. Also, this is based on a true story, which certainly makes it easy for the viewer to connect with it.

Quarantine is a horror film about a group of people who are, you guessed it, quarantined in an apartment building due to a strange sickness that causes people to act with rabies-like symptoms. Quarantine shocked me for two reasons. First, a few parts made me jump, so it came through with a few legitimate scares, thanks to the claustrophobic setting along with the use, and lack, of lighting. Secondly, this film is extremely entertaining and I expected it to be a complete ripoff and mishmash of every horror film released in the last ten years. Is anything new done here? No, but just because the film isn't innovative doesn't mean it isn't fun to watch. I enjoyed the Blair Witch style (not too shaky like in Cloverfield, due to the plot point of an actual cameraman using the camera) and the noises the infected people made were truly freaky at times. Also, there are a couple of very good stunts in this that will make you rewind the film just to see if it was actually done practically or if it was CG (I'm talking about the fall from about midway through, not the shock fall earlier on, though that first fall is surprising). Oh, and if you're into firefighting at all, the first fifteen minutes, which are meant to set up a few main characters and explain why the camera is there in the first place, is actually entertaining and does not feel like a forced set up at all. So, this movie, which I didn't even plan on reviewing at all, turned out to be a fun little horror movie that deserves a watch, even though a scene from the preview completely spoils the ending. And check out the behind the scenes featurette on the DVD if you want to see how complicated it actually was to edit this film to make it seem like a long continuous take. There's also something on the makeup and a short featurette on the stunt I mentioned above.

Blindness is an interesting film that asks the question: what would happen if people started going blind for no reason and in mass amounts? The answer is not always pretty. First off, the government takes all the blind and locks them in a dilapidated hospital/sanitarium and does not attempt to help them hardly at all. They are given food, but no medical supplies and no one monitors them other than shooting them if they try to leave. The only help the blind have is Julianne Moore, who is immune to the blindness virus, who followed her blind husband into the quarantined area. This film is quite miserable. Some of the characters (no one is given a name, perhaps to add to the fact that people stop acting like humans when they lose their sight) engage in such awful behavior (murder, rape, theft, etc.) that the film seemed to have no faith in humanity at all. Sure, the main characters (Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover) seem to hold onto their morals, but they become so tired and hopeless that it doesn't matter. I found myself getting angry with so many of the characters that I wasn't able to relate to anyone and I was just waiting for them all to die or escape or anything just so long as the movie came to an end. It is filmed with decent style and it is truly interesting, but the misery was just too much for me. Also, I remember this film had a little controversy over the depiction of the blind. I usually think people are too sensitive when it comes to movies, but I can completely understand their issue. Yes, people would be a bit useless at first when hit with blindness, but to say that mass amounts of blind people would turn into savages is a bit harsh, especially when the mastermind behind the immoral activity in the sanitarium is a regular blind person. I'm not saying the movie should be boycotted, but it does send a kind of negative message about the morals and abilities of the blind.

Okay, this is going to turn out to be epic, but I'm going to add my top ten anyway. I know it's pretty late for a top ten list, but I had to wait a while to see most of the late-year releases.

Honorable Mention - Iron Man, Milk, Doubt, W., Rambo, Gran Torino, Man on Wire

10. Valkyrie - I was impressed with this film's ability to maintain suspense even though the viewer knows the plan doesn't work. Bryan Singer created an entertaining film the features some decent action and some strong performances (Tom Cruise does not ruin this film, as some reviews have claimed).

9. Pineapple Express - There were quite a few comedies that I enjoyed this year (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Step Brothers, Tropic Thunder, Get Smart) but this one stuck out to me because of the great performances by Franco and Rogen and the interesting direction of David Gordon Green (check out the direct-o-rama featurette on the DVD to see the strange direction he gives his actors at times, like asking Keving Corrigan to do Karate while he delivers his lines). So those others are funny, but this one rose above with the funny dialogue and the ridiculous, and hilarious, action in the second half.

8. Hellboy II: The Golden Army - This is just a fun film that features some amazing character design that was done practically for the most part. They stepped up the goofiness a bit from the first film, but it remains funny rather than stupid, and it retains the interesting mythology from the first film. Perlman is still perfect for the role of Hellboy and the action is amped up a bit so this is just entertaining on so many levels that I had to add it to the list.

7. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - This movie is being bashed almost across the board but I don't care what everyone thinks. This movie is entertaining and it is in keeping with the rest of the Indiana Jones series. Sure, the whole alien thing is different, the CG animals and vine swinging and the nuke scene was too ridiculous for some, even though we're talking about the same character that used a raft as a parachute, which he then rode down a mountain and into some rapids. I'm just angry that people suddenly expected Indy to be a realistic hero, which he never was. I could go on a dork rant some more, but the point is that I enjoyed it very much and I loved all the ridiculous stuff because most of it led to some great visuals (I think the shot of Indy overlooking a mushroom cloud is one of the best shots in the series).

6. The Dark Knight - Lately I've been talking about what's wrong with this film because it is being heralded as one of the best films ever by so many fanboys, but even though I'm tempted to down it these days, I can't help but admit it was one of the most entertaining films I've ever seen, even if it is too long and Bale sounds stupid at times ("I'm not wearing hockey pads!!!"). Ledger is great in it and it really is a compelling crime drama coupled with the fact that it is a comic book movie.

5. Frost/Nixon - To save space, just refer to my review on this site for reasons why this is on the list. I will mention that I probably like this more than most because of my unhealthy interest in all things Nixon.

4. Australia - It bombed and most critics thought it was two movies in one that lacked focus, but I thought this was a great epic in the vein of David Lean. This film is worthy of being compared to such epics as Lawrence of Arabia as far as I'm concerned. It features characters that are likable, a story that spans a number of interesting issues (war, racism, love, etc.), and some beautiful visuals. Baz Luhrman is known for his visual style and he put a lot of work into making one of the best looking films of the year. So ignore the critics and decide for yourself whether this old-fashioned epic is a good film or if it's an overlong jumbled mess. It's out on DVD this Tuesday. (Note: I originally planned to have this at number 10 and possibly not even on the list, but that was mainly because it had been so long since I watched it. Upon reflection I realized just how much I enjoyed this film.)

3. In Bruges - The crime dramedy features three hilarious performances from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. They all work so well together and they deliver the hilarious dialogue in such a way that they make it their own. I can't think of anything bad to say about this film. A great, beautiful setting, perfectly cast, hilarious, shocking, and even a little depressing here and there.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - I loved this dream-like movie because David Fincher created a world all with this one. Not many movies do that these days and this one really stuck with me. And the effects are great and Pitt shines through them at times. Blanchett also gives a strong performance that should have been nominated (though I had a hard time understanding her in the old age scenes). It's been criticized for being too much like Forrest Gump, but what is truly original these days? If it's entertaining and it has style, then I don't care if the story is similar to something else.

1. The Wrestler - Once again, just refer to my past post for a full review of this. Great direction, compelling chracters and story, some awesome wrestling scenes, and an amazing performance from Mickey Rourke. This film worked on all levels for me and I think in the coming years people will look back and ask how this wasn't even nominated for Best Picture and how, did the Academy not give the acting award to Rourke? The best thing to do is ignore the Academy and enjoy the film.

Next: Choke and Australia on DVD midweek, then Watchmen for next Sunday. I'll have a lot to say about this so I'm keeping it to just one movie on Sunday, especially since I'll be watching it on IMAX, which I haven't seen yet, so I'll have a bit to say about that as well.