Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Visioneers" / "Encounters at the End of the World" / "What Doesn't Kill You" / "Push" / "Watchmen: Director's Cut"

*Nothing in the theaters for me this week (Moon and The Hurt Locker are still nowhere near me) so I'm just going to cover some movies on DVD.

Visioneers - Directed by Jared Drake, starring Zach Galifianakis, Judy Greer, and James LeGros - Not Rated (though I would put it at R)

As darkly comical as a good Coen Brothers film.

Visioneers is the straight to DVD black comedy/satire about a near future (or alternate reality) in which the Jeffers Corporation has basically taken over the United States (the President makes commercial appearances for the company) and their goal to keep people as happy as possible, even if that means removing independent thought, because if they become too stressed, they literally explode. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it makes for some very funny moments. The film obviously has a message about life in general as well, though it doesn't take it self too seriously. In many ways, this film is like other "classic" film satires like Brazil (what with the bureaucracy, corporate power, and the love story) and, well...just take your pick of dystopian films to compare this to, it's just that Brazil stuck out to me.

The film stars Zach Galifianakis (whose popularity is soaring right now thanks to The Hangover, which is also probably why this film finally got distributed on DVD) who gives a great, understated performance. He's not going for the big laughs here. In fact, I would say that this is a more dramatic role overall. Galifianakis is great at looking miserable. I find that aspect hilarious about him, but don't expect to get the same character from The Hangover because you will be very disappointed. Of course, his character, George Washington Winsterhammerman (a descendant of the actual George Washington), is quite depressed.

George has reason to be depressed. He works as a visioneer for the Jeffers Corporation, a job in which a monotone voice reminds the workers how many minutes are left till the weekend every single minute. The job is vague and deals with ultra small print paperwork. It's just funny to see how the corporation tries to keep everyone from becoming too stressed, like giving the workers giant teddy bears (then giving them a questionnaire asking about their sexual relationship with the bear). The corporation also sets up another funny aspect of the film. Since the company's symbol (five buildings grouped together, the middle being the tallest) resembles a hand giving the finger, this is the replacement for waving hello or goodbye. I just find it funny when people flip each other off while smiling and being sincere.

Aside from George's miserably boring job, his family life isn't any better. He has no attraction to his wife, who sits at home watching an Oprah-like talk show, following every order (buy this book, buy this shotgun). He has a son who is pretty much nonexistent, and neither he nor his wife seem to care. George's brother (played to hippie perfection by James LeGros) has recently moved into the backyard and started a commune that pretty much represents what George needs: freedom from everything. It doesn't help his situation at all when he starts to get symptoms for the stress explosions in a world that is becoming increasingly paranoid to the point that citizens are being issued collar-type devices that make them giggling morons.

Paranoia, depression, absurd TV shows/personalities (though I would definitely watch Mack Luster if it was a real show), mind controlling corporations, absurd plot elements, etc; all the makings of a funny, dark, low budget, dystopian film. If anything above sounds interesting, then check this out (it's on Netflix Watch Instantly). If you're only into the more straightforward comedies, you might want to skip this. I love it, though, and I think this film is capable of reaching cult status in a few years.

Encounters at the End of the World - Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog - Rated G

Herzog is at his best when he's covering reality.

Encounters at the End of the World is the documentary by Werner Herzog about his trip to Antarctica. A friend of his, a deep sea diver, sent him footage from a dive and convinced Herzog to make a full blown documentary about life on the desolate continent. I say desolate kind of ironically because most people might think of the continent as an empty, dead place, but it is quite the opposite. Herzog does a great job of capturing the wildlife and beautiful nature of the lively continent, but he also showcases the type of person who ends up in Antarctica. That is what sets this film apart. There are plenty of documentaries out there about penguins and glaciers and crap like that. That crap might be beautiful, tragic, funny, whatever, but it's all been done before. (I do have to point out, though, that a shot of a penguin walking to it's inevitable death is powerful and is probably the most memorable scene in the film, but I did laugh when Herzog said "certain death," it's his accent, I guess.) You won't find someone labeled as a Philosopher/Forktruck Driver in March of the Penguins. These people are strange, to be sure, but they are also very interesting. Maybe it's just me, but I find it interesting when someone feels the need to live in the least inhabited continent on the planet. But some of these people are long winded and Herzog thankfully (and hilariously) edits their stories down and even states that some of their stories are boring and too long. Herzog is really perfect for the job. I have always enjoyed listening to him during behind the scenes segments. His matter of fact style coupled with his German accent make him quite an entertaining documentarian. Some people may be put off by the accent, but it adds something for me. There's really not much else to say. A visual movie like this simply needs to be seen. And it's not just a long lecture on global warming or anything (though it is mentioned), there is a kind of narrative structure to it about the human need to explore to the point of annihilation, which is much more interesting to me than a scientific debate about the melting ice caps.

I also watched Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the documentary (also from Herzog) about Dieter Dengler, the American pilot who escaped from a Laotian prison during the Vietnam War. If this sounds a bit familiar, it's because Herzog made a dramatic film about the same story, starring Christian Bale, called Rescue Dawn. If there was only one you could watch, I'd tell you to go with Rescue Dawn, but this documentary is interesting if you want to know more about the story from the actual man who lived through it. Dengler (a fellow German) works well with Herzog and makes for an entertaining subject. Definitely worth watching.

What Doesn't Kill You - Directed by Brian Goodman, starring Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, and Amanda Peet - Rated R

This has its moments, but in the end, I found it a bit forgettable, just like Commodus over there.

Boston area gang movies are all the rage lately with the success of The Departed, and I was worried this film would try to be a clone of that film. I was wrong. What Doesn't Kill You certainly covers familiar ground, it's really about what a life of crime and drug can do to a family. That may not sound too original, either, but the fact this film is based on director Brian Goodman's life adds a realism that sets this film apart.

The cast helps out quite a bit as well. Ruffalo turns in yet another solid performance as the family man who wants to go straight, but can't seem to work it out. His portrayal of a crack addict was effective as well. But it's Hawke who steals the show. I'm really not a big fan of his. When I like a movie with him in it, I usually think, "that was good...even though Ethan Hawke was in it." He impressed me here, though. Hawke plays a crazed Boston gangster in such an entertaining way that it saves this movie from becoming a melodrama. He made things interesting in what otherwise was a very depressing story.

This film isn't amazing or anything. It really isn't even all that memorable. But if you're into present day crime dramas, you could do much worse than this. And the true story aspect along with Hawke's performance does make it compelling and slightly entertaining.

Push - Directed by Paul McGuigan, starring Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, and Djimon Hounsou - Rated PG-13

Stupid and dumb, just like you-know-who.

This sci-fi thriller, about people with brain powers (not sure what else to call them, if you watch the movie, they list about thirty different kinds, each dumber than the last), trying to save themselves from evil gangs and governments, was a bit of a letdown for me. It's not that I expect great things from a movie constantly compared to Jumper (for the record, I enjoyed Jumper more than this); I expected better from the director (I liked Gangster No. 1 and The Reckoning quite a bit). Sadly, this turned out to be a boring, annoying, stupid movie.

I don't want to waste too much time on the plot since it's slightly confusing, but more so because I could not care less about what happened to these characters. Evans is okay, I suppose, but there's nothing about his character that makes him that interesting. He doesn't even seem to be a very good pusher, or whatever you call them (he can't even rig a game of dice). It doesn't make sense for him to be the focus of the film. It doesn't make sense for Dakota Fanning to seem so superior to him even though he's had much more time to figure out his powers than she has. And I really wish Fanning would just stay out of the limelight for a few years so she can make a transition to being a mature actress. This "look at me cuss and drink" crap that she's doing is annoying. And speaking of annoying, those weird, screaming Asian guys were just plain goofy. Every time they took off their sunglasses and went wide-eyed I wanted to turn the movie off. Djimon Hounsou is a waste as well, playing the exact same character he played in The Island. Who are these characters I'm talking about? I honestly don't feel like going into it. If you really want to know, go ahead and check this movie out. I cannot recommend it, though. Not even for the action, which is low budget and simply not entertaining.

Watchmen: Director's Cut - Directed by Zack Snyder, starring Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Billy Crudup - Rated R

What can I say? I'm a dork. This adaptation is as good as it gets for me.

This is not a new review or anything. I just want to mention what I thought of the additions in the director's cut. First off, the extended scene with Rorschach fighting a cop after searching the Comedian's apartment was pointless (it wasn't in the graphic novel, either) and it ruins the perfect transition that existed in the theatrical cut of the old picture of the Minutemen. I don't have a problem with any other additions. Hollis Mason gets an amazing death sequence followed by a great scene in which Nite Owl finds out about it. If you're into the book, you'll definitely dig all the new stuff, as it fixes a few differences between the book and movie (like Dr. Manhattan transporting the audience after his interview rather than transporting himself). It makes the movie a bit longer (it now clocks in at 3 hours and 6 minutes), which I have absolutely no problem with. If you want my full views on the film, check out the archives, but I want to point out that I loved the theatrical cut of this film and I like the director's cut even more. I was even willing to go ahead and buy this version of the DVD, even though I know a so-called Ultimate Edition is coming out in December. I just couldn't wait that long. So, if you haven't already, check this film out. It's my favorite of the year so far and I doubt that will change.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Long Look Back at Kubrick's Last Classic

*I figured it was high time for another article, so I decided to write it about Eyes Wide Shut, which is a movie I absolutely love. There will be massive SPOILERS throughout the article.

Eyes Wide Shut was considered a bit of a disappointment when it was released. Even though it is now "certified fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes, though it is only 78%, which I find a bit low for a Stanley Kubrick film. So it may not seem like this film needs a second look when you just look at the critical response. But I have read and heard people dismiss this film over and over again. Maybe it's the whole Cruise and Kidman issue that some people just couldn't ignore, I don't know. Regardless, it's never mentioned in the same breath as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, or The Shining (I know there are more examples, but I don't want to make a long list). I am one of the few who mention this as one of my favorites. Here's why.

Despite those famous orgy scenes, this movie is not all about sex. Well, the majority of the plot might be, but there are many things going on with this film. I find myself enjoying this movie for different reasons each time I watch it. The use of color, the props in the background, the performances, the haunting score, the mysterious masked participants at the orgy, the always great Kubrick tracking shots, and even the plot concerning the ups and downs of marriage.

I want to get into the whole color aspect of the film, but I want to mention how angry this film made me the first time I watched it. The first time I watched this I ended up annoyed by the fact that the plot didn't focus on the identities of all the supposedly rich and powerful masked people at the orgy. This annoyance was pushed to the limit when Sydney Pollack's character states, "if I told you their names, I'm not going to tell you their names, but if I did, I don't think you'd sleep so well." Not only does a character blatantly tell the audience that they will never know who those people were, but he also adds to the mystery with that whole no sleeping so well bit. Man oh man that made me so angry about ten years ago. Something about the movie intrigued me, though, and that something, along with a maturing taste in film, brought me back to this movie and to my senses.

I suppose the use of color had a little effect on me the first time I watched. I always thought the film look amazing and that is largely due to the glowing windows in many scenes and the richness of color throughout. It wasn't until I stumbled upon a theory in the IMDb message boards (and a intro class on film in college) that I realized what was going on with the colors. This movie features Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) getting into some pretty shady situations. You never really know when he's safe or when he's in danger until the scene is over. The color scheme of this film echoes that. The theory is that blue represents safety, red represents danger, and green represents a gray zone where even Kubrick doesn't want to give you clues about what might happen. The prime example of this is when Cruise has that discussion with Pollack (where Pollack utters that infuriating line). Pollack is shooting pool on a red table, with green lights above it, while blue light glows from the windows. You could turn the sound off and just look at the colors and you would find out just as much as you would through the dialogue. Can Bill (and we, the audience) believe anything Pollack says. The colors tell us it's all up in the air here. Pollack was once a friendly character(blue), but he had that dirty business with the OD girl at the Christmas party(green), and he's a member of that possibly dangerous orgy group(red). Use that color scheme throughout the entire film and I promise you'll see this movie in a completely new way. In fact, pay attention to the use of color in every film, as the representations of each color typically stay the same from film to film.

The color actually explains a bit of the plot of the film, or at least why the movie is set when it is. It is so much easier to use color blatantly when the movie takes place during Christmas. The holiday aspect also brings to mind the importance of family, which adds to the plot of what is at stake during Bill's wild night out. The holiday even allows the use of background decorations to become meaningful. For example, when Bill is walking away from the creepy stalker in the city and takes refuge in the coffee shop, you can see a decoration above a doorway that is exactly like a decoration in Pollack's house; possibly a sign that the coffee shop is just as safe as Pollack's (at this point Pollack is still quite friendly). While I'm on the subject of background, you should keep your eyes open (no pun intended) throughout the film for stuff around people's apartments (books, paintings, etc.) as that stuff can be quite telling as well.

Now for some straightforward reasons why Eyes Wide Shut is a classic. Tom Cruise gives a great performance, especially when he isn't speaking. Not to say that his delivery of dialogue is sub par or anything, it's just that he is much more impressive when thinking about his wife possibly cheating on him. And I think both Kidman and Cruise were award worthy for their stoned/argument scene alone. Cruise's reactions in that scene are great.

The music is amazing as well. I actually found it quite annoying at first, but I realized that that is kind of the point. It's unnerving and haunting and if the single piano key being struck slowly over and over again gets on your nerves, then the music has done it's job. This is a film about strange and dangerous situations. What better way to accent that strange scene with the Russian costume guy and his daughter/prostitute? Or that awkward encounter with the hotel clerk (Alan Cumming)? There are many questions that go unanswered in this film and the music adds to all of the uncertainty.

Now to the plot itself and what really made me look at this film again. I used to hate this movie because I was so focused on who those masked people were. I finally realized that the identity of those people does not matter and it would be a drastic mistake if this film had focused on them. They are just another element of uncertainty. For some reason, possibly it was that Pollack line, the masked people were all I cared about. Upon repeat viewings, I realized what was truly interesting: marriage and infidelity and the complications of both. All of the possibilities of a modern relationship in this film intrigued me. The movie could almost be seen as preaching about the importance of being faithful, which didn't bother me at all. Look at what Bill's attempts at infidelity got him into. He feared for his life many times. It wasn't just the orgy. Look at the encounter with the prostitute. Just as he's about to cheat on his wife, she calls him and brings him to his senses. It later turns out that the prostitute had HIV. (Look for prominent red in that scene, by the way.) While that assessment might be a simplification of the film, it doesn't make it any less interesting to me. A movie about an adventure in marriage and the underworld that secrets and lies can create in a relationship and a family. When you look at it that way, with the haunting music and interesting color scheme, the masked people no longer matter. So forget your initial response (if was anything like mine), forget the masked people, forget Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's real life problems, and remember that there is a lot going on in this film; this final classic from the brilliant Stanley Kubrick.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


*My brother Chris to the rescue. We checked out Brüno and here is the review. One thing, though. I want everyone to appreciate what a pain it is for me to type out Brüno properly with the umlaut over the u. This website doesn't use the same shortcut way that Word does, so I have to do some copy and pasting every time I type the title of the character and film. So enjoy those umlauts.

Brüno - Directed by Larry Charles, starring Sacha Baron Cohen - Rated R

Chigurh thought this one was funnier than Borat.

First off, let me get the quick version of this review out of the way: Brüno is just as good as Borat, if not better. In fact, in my opinion, it is the funnier of the two movies. So there you go: if you liked Borat, you'll probably like this. Now here's why.

Brüno is an Austrian homosexual fashion guru who falls out of favor in Europe and decides to come to America to become a celebrity. Not exactly like Borat, but close enough to say that the plot is basically the same in the whole fish out of water concept. In his journey, Brüno shocks normal people, embarrasses celebrities (Paula Abdul is ridiculed in a hilarious interview), incites rage, and, most of all, attempts to shock the audience. This all adds to up to absolute hilarity.

I wasn't expecting the film to be this funny, though. I wasn't sure if I would even like the main character enough to find him funny. The whole "Vassup! I'm Brüno!" line from the previews was annoying (he thankfully uses it sparingly in the film) and I was afraid that this was going to be an 80 minute lecture aimed at stupid, intolerant Americans. While that element is there, this film is really more about laughs than social commentary. Besides, this movie isn't trying to change any one's mind because anyone who has an intense hatred for homosexuals won't watch it to begin with. And if they go to the movie unaware of what it's about, the graphic sex scenes and gratuitous male nudity in the first fifteen minutes will let them know that this movie is a bit too out there for them. So if the audience is already on Sacha Baron Cohen's side, what's the point of the commentary? We're just there to laugh at society with him.

And Brüno is an easy guy to enjoy the joke with. He's not as awkward and backward (that's not to say he's normal, though, just look at the clothes he wears in the previews) as Borat. He's not as clueless as Borat, either, which allows him to make fun of people rather than be manipulated by them. The Austrian accent and constant Nazi references (he refers to Brad Pitt as "Bradolf Pittler" and Mel Gibson as "mein führer") are hilarious and his wide-eyed stare in uncomfortable situations is priceless (like when asks if anyone wants a sandwich during a swinger's party). I found it easier to laugh with Cohen in this one. Borat might be easier to like, but Brüno is easier to laugh with.

I want to get into the social commentary aspect a bit more, since that is always what people talk about concerning Cohen's two films. The commentary is actually a bit lacking this time around. The whole film felt a bit more scripted, which is why I find it funnier. I don't need social commentary. It's not like I watched Borat, then had a revelation about anti-Semitism and ignorance in America. So I don't need Brüno to show me that southerners are intolerant of blatant homosexuals. It's just that Brüno is a radical homosexual, wearing ridiculous clothes and getting naked quite often. If you react angrily to that, that doesn't really mean you hate homosexuals. That means you don't want to a naked man touching you or even coming near you. But the failings of the social commentary don't detract from the film at all for me. If anything, it makes it better. If I want to hear about intolerance, I'll watch a real documentary. I watch Sacha Baron Cohen to laugh, not to contemplate America.

There is an element of social commentary that does work in this film, though. It concerns parents pimping their children out in the entertainment industry. Brüno holds a casting call for babies in which he asks the parents if their kids can lose weight, work with wasps, and operate antiquated machinery, among other things. The parents say yes to every request. The scenes are funny, and a little sickening. That says something about some people and their obsession with celebrity, which is actually the most effective point that this film makes.

There's not much else to say with about this film and I've honestly struggled to write this much about it. When it comes to comedies, I don't like to get into too much detail because it might ruin some of the jokes for some people. I do want to mention that some of the throwaway jokes in this film are absolutely hilarious. The little touches, like referring to Will Smith as Wilhelm Schmidt and the intro to his TV show in which the words "Black Guys" fill the screen, make this film funnier than Borat.

I could go on, but it would just be full of spoilers. I can't stress how funny this movie is without ruining it. Just watch it, don't look for a dissertation on American culture, look for some great laughs. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Yes Man" / "Babylon A.D." / "Roger Dodger" / "Ikiru" / Awful B-Movies

*As you can see from the title of this week's post, I watched a lot of different things recently, none of them new films. I planned on watching Bruno, but I don't watch movies by myself (not until I get paid to do that, anyway) and all of my friends were either unavailable or uninterested, so I'm just going to write about these random movies I've watched lately. This will probably not get much better, over the next few weeks, either. Harry Potter comes out next week and I have no interest in that. After that it's pretty desolate until August when G.I. JOE (not sure if I want to watch that one, though) and Inglourious Basterds (definitely watching that one) come out. So expect some very random reviews in the coming weeks.

Yes Man - Directed by Peyton Reed, starring Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, and Rhys Darby - Rated PG-13

This movie just plain, which is never good for a comedy.

First off, the order of these reviews is not from best to worst or vice versa. It's going from most recent on down (except for the B-movies, which I just felt belonged at the bottom). So don't assume that Yes Man is getting some kind of top billing because of how great it is.

Yes Man, which is basically Liar Liar with a slightly different premise, is the latest in Jim Carrey's attempt to make the most generic, unoffensive comedy that appeals to everybody yet no one really enjoys. When I look at this film that way, it's a mild success to me because it actually contains a few moments that made me laugh. Carrey does get to go crazy a few times and it ends up being funny more often than it's annoying. But that doesn't mean that this is a good comedy or anything. It's just not as bad as, say, Fun with Dick and Jane.

The saying yes to everything gimmick is funny at times (like when Carrey gives a hobo a lengthy ride home and then gives him all of his money), but it feels more like an idea that would be better suited for a SNL sketch rather than a feature length movie. I think the filmmakers realized this and threw in Deschanel as the quirky love interest. That adds to the blandness of the whole affair, however, as Deschanel has played the quirky love interest in seemingly every movie she's been in. I don't mind that all that much, though, as her wide eyed reactions are kind of amusing. There are quite a few recognizable faces in the film, but Rhys Darby is the only that sticks out to me. Fans of HBO's Flight of the Conchords should at least check this out for his performance. Darby has some funny, awkward moments as Carrey's boss and he just has a way of provoking laughs from his expression. Hopefully he gets bigger and better parts in the future.

I want to delve into Carrey's career a bit more. I mentioned Carrey's dull comedies of late and this truly bothers me. I once considered Jim Carrey to be one of my favorite actors (in my younger days because of Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber, and The Cable Guy), but now I don't even consider watching his movies in the theater and I don't even rent them the week they come out on DVD, hence the weeks late review of this movie. Carrey's attempt to throw in family friendly fare followed by misstep after misstep in dramatic films (except for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is very annoying. The man is capable of making some edgy, absurd comedy while staying within the confines of the "family friendly" PG-13 rating. My favorites mentioned abover are all PG-13, so it is not an issue of him doing gross out or adult comedy. It's an issue of choosing quality scripts over the broad, safe scripts that he's been eating up lately. I don't think it's going to get any better, but I have some hope left in Jim Carrey. The thought of what he could be added to the problems I had with this movie. I was just waiting for Carrey to be truly funny. Unfortunately, I'm still waiting.

Babylon A.D. - Directed by MathieuKassovitz, starring Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, and Mélanie Thierry - Rated PG-13

This sci-fi flick isn't awful, but it definitely isn't good.

Some of you might be rolling your eyes when you see that I'm even reviewing this movie. That might be because it stars Vin Diesel or because the director basically condemned his own film upon its release or because the preview looked completely stupid. These thoughts were definitely with me as I watched this, but I don't really hate Vin Diesel as much as most people and I'm always willing to give a sci-fi movie a chance since they seem to be few and far between these days. Babylon A.D., about a mercenary named Toorop (Diesel, doing his badass thing the whole movie) who has to escort two women from a convent (Yeoh and Thierry) to America in a kind of post apocalyptic world. Well, Russia seems to be post apocalyptic while America seems to be doing okay. Anyway, the story is overly complicated and vague and I ended up not understanding the ending at all. What was so special about the young girl Aurora? Sure, she was pregnant, but this isn't Children of Men, so why is her pregnancy so important? This question is not answered in the theatrical cut. Apparently the cut dialogue that explains her importance was one of the many problems that the director had with the film, which is why he condemned it.
The unrated cut does include the dialogue and it gives a decent explanation. The issue here is why the dialogue was cut. It couldn't have been for time because the cut dialogue is less than a minute long. I just don't understand why they would cut it. The movie isn't good or anything, but to leave a major plot point that vague is plain stupid. I mentioned Children of Men above, but that is not the only movie that this film borrows from. It's basically a poor man's combination of Children and Blade Runner. The references to Blade Runner are way too obvious. Skyscrapers feature moving Coke ads! At least change the brand name if you want to pay homage to a better movie, don't just copy it completely. Oh, and I don't care if this is based on a book, Diesel's character should've have undergone a name change. Toorop? Everytime I heard the name I thought I was watching 10,000 B.C.

Babylon A.D. isn't the worst movie out there (I'm told Bangkok Dangerous is much worse), but it could've been much better. Maybe if the studio had just left the director alone. Instead, you get a mishmash of sci-fi ripoffs with a lot of ridiculous action and fight scenes that try to be cool. Sometimes it works (I actually enjoyed the snowmobile/rocket scene) but it mostly fails (about five too many slow motion rocket blasts). But sci-fi with a decent budget is hard to come by these days, so if you're into that kind of stuff, this might be worth a rental. Just make sure that rental is the unrated version.

Roger Dodger - Directed by Dylan Kidd, starring Campbell Scott, Jesse Eisenberg, and Elizabeth Berkley - Rated R

Some of Roger's tirades are as brutal as Cigurh's business methods.

I'm reviewing this movie not only because I re-watched it recently, but also because I'm pretty sure this film flew under a lot of radars over the years and maybe somebody will check it out after reading this.

Roger Dodger is about an arrogant, smooth talking ladies man named Roger (Scott) and his attempt to educate his 16 year old nephew (Eisenberg) about the art of picking up women. That might sound like the set up for a comedy, and though this movie is hilarious at times, it is also dark, depressing, mysogynistic, cynical, and even hopeful. The handheld/close up style adds to all of this as the camerawork makes you feel like you're sitting at the table with everybody. So all of the elements come across in a very personal, intimate way.

Campbell Scott is the glue here. I don't understand how this movie didn't catapult him into stardom. His performance (and character for that matter) is reminiscent of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), though Roger is not as insane as Bateman. He rattles off to women and tells them everything about themselves in such a matter of fact and derogatory way that it ends up being exhausting and completely believable. Even though he does treat women solely as sexual objects, I actually liked him at times. In his own mean way, Roger really is looking out for his nephew on their night out on the town. He might throw him in uncomfortable positions without warning, but that's part of the learning process. Roger isn't one note, though. This film is really a character study because he shows Eisenberg this pick up tricks the same day that he has been dumped by his quasi girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini). He doesn't really hate women, he's just a confident man used to getting everything he wants and he lashes out in very negative ways when things go wrong. This doesn't mean he's a hero or anything, but he's certainly not a villain in my eyes.

Because of the more misogynistic elements of Roger's character, this may be a polarizing movie for some people (women), but I think Scott's performance will make it all worthwhile. Scott doesn't carry this movie on his own, though. Jesse Eisenberg serves as a great counterweight. He looks uncomfortable and nervous throughout and it's fun to see him learn a bit and start to stand up for himself. Elizabeth Berkley, Rossellini, and Jennifer Beals are all very good as well and they certainly make this movie more than a mysogynistic film about picking up women. Berkley and Beal are not drunk floozies that can be talked into anything. They, like Rossellini can see through most of Roger's crap, though he does succeed every now and then.

If you couldn't tell from the review already, this is a low budget, independent film. It's pretty much all talk from start to finish. So even though I compared it to American Psycho, it is not nearly as entertaining (or disturbing) as that film. But it is interesting and I think most people will come away pleased with the film.

Ikiru - Directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Takashi Shimura - Not Rated

Not Kurosawa's best, but it's still Kurosawa.

I'll keep this one short because Kurosawa already has his fans and you either think he's a genius or you can live without him. I suppose I fall into the "he's a genius" group, though I am not exactly a die hard fan of his (I don't own any of his films). I'm mentioning this film only because I watched it this week and I wanted to share a few ideas/complaints/praises about it.

Ikiru (To Live) is about a government worker, Kanji Watanabe, who gets stomach cancer and realizes, with only a few months to live, that he has been sleepwalking through his life for years. Watanabe decides to spend the rest of days living. This is the kind of existential material that Kurosawa excels at and he handles it here as well as any other film. What makes it stand out, though, is Shimura's melancholy performance. He truly conveys impending death at one moment, and tragic hope the next. The other aspect that makes this film stand out is Kurosawa's depiction of bureaucracy. The busywork and overall lack of functionality in the government serves as a perfect backdrop for a man with a wasted life.

This is where I have a problem with the film, though. I think Kurosawa gets to be a bit long winded in his approach in this film. The montage of the neighborhood women trying to get a cesspool turned into a park goes ona couple minutes too long. They get the run around, being sent from one office to the next, but Kurosawa shows them going from one office to about fifteen more. I get it; nothing gets done at these offices. Maybe he was going for viewer exhaustion with this bit to try and convey what the women must be growing through, but it just annoyed me. Also, this film could probably lose about twenty minutes. Near the end, I don't want to spoil anything so this is going to be vague, when a group of people are trying to figure out who was responsible for getting the cesspool turned into a park, the film takes way too long to show about a dozen people have a realization. It just went on and on.

On a side note, I think it's interesting that the recent Amy Poehler show, Parks and Recreation, is basically a drawn out comedic version of the side plot about turning a cesspool into a park. I guess that show is deeper than I thought it was.

Also, if you plan on getting into Kurosawa, I would suggest checking out Yojimbo, Rashomon, or Seven Samurai before watching this one.

Awful B-Movies: Bad Taste (Unrated), The Return of Swamp Thing (PG-13), The Toxic Avenger (Unrated)

These movies are so bad they're funny, just like "The Happening." The difference is these movies are meant to be funny.

I've been trying to figure out where a cheesy line from 80's movie came from recently (if anyone out there can tell me where the line, "I'm gonna cut your pecker off, and put it on a keychain," comes from I would be much obliged) and that led me to The Return of Swamp Thing. While there are some funny/stupid lines in Swamp Thing it did contain the line I was looking for. Somehow, watching that film got me in a crappy B-movie kick, so I watched the other two movies from above.

I don't want to go into details because these movies don't deserve much attention. Bad Taste is funny in a no-budget gory kind of way. And it's interesting to see how far Peter Jackson has come over the years. Though his screen presence really annoyed me in this film. I suggest Dead Alive (aka Braindead) if you want to see a gory and fun Peter Jackson film.

The Return of Swamp Thing is really only worth watching for nostalgic purposes. I slightly remember it as a kid and it made me laugh quite a bit as my memory came back with each scene. The comedic relief kids are quite hilarious ("But that's my dad's camera!") and it's all just plain awful. There are so many funny bad movies out there, though. There's no reason to pick this one over any other when you're in the mood for crap. Unless you're a Heather Locklear fan, that might add to the enjoyment to see her in an early film role, especially since it's such an awful film.

Finally, I watched a bit of The Toxic Avenger on Netflix watch instantly. I didn't watch it all but I got the gist of it. For one thing, it's a Troma movie, and Troma movies pride themselves on being cheap, gory, awful on purpose. This movie fits in perfectly. I only mention it because I found the fitness freak characters so funny. These guys smoke joints while they do sit ups, freak out for no reason at the dimwitted mop boy (the eventual Toxic Avenger), and their idea of a good time is getting a bottle of whiskey and driving around trying to kill pedestrians. In a reference to Death Race 2000, they have a scoring system. Not only do they enjoy killing random people, but their girlfriends take polaroids of the kill. It's so crazy and stupid that it's funny.

I'm not into B-movies all that much, so my enjoyment of these was kind of low, but I can see where some people would love this stuff. So please, someone find out where that quote came from, so I don't find myself watching a trio of films like this again.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


**This review looks a bit different than the rest. Something's messed up with the blog website I use. Usually posting the same review three times clears up the spacing and text size issues, but it didn't work this time and after trying it a dozen or so times, I give up. Better luck next time, hopefully.

*I know I've been kind of slacking off lately what with the single review last week and nothing this past weekend and to top it off I'm posting an old review today, but I will definitely make it up this weekend. Even if I don't get to see a new movie (Bruno, most likely, though I am on the lookout for The Hurt Locker and The Brothers Bloom), I will still write up some reviews from recent DVD releases or even some much older films (I'm thinking something from Kurosawa) and I'll get a Crappy Classic in there as well (though some might consider today's review of Knowing as a Crappy Classic). And I will have a new article by this time next week.

Now, this review is old because I wrote it for the Perry County News and I was trying to keep things separate between the paper and the site at the time. I have since abandoned that idea, so I decided to add this review to the site (with some additions) since the DVD was released this week.

Knowing - Directed by Alex Proyas, starring Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne, rated PG-13

Even with the bad acting, this visually jarring sci-fi film really struck a chord with me. And Chigurh enjoys disaster sequences.

Knowing, the latest film from Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot) almost delves into M. Night Shyamalan territory (it does feature a main character much like Mel Gibson’s character from Signs) but it saves itself with an entertaining science fiction plot and some of the best disaster sequences I have ever seen.

The story starts off in an elementary school in 1959 with a class drawing pictures of what the future might look like for a time capsule. But one troubled girl, Lucinda, writes a series of mysterious numbers instead. Cut to the present when John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) obtains the paper from his son. Koestler discovers that the numbers are actually dates and death tolls of disasters from 1959 to the present, save for three more events that Koestler must investigate and, of course, see for himself.

Koestler has to see the events so that we, the audience, can witness them as well. Proyas could’ve cut to these events and have Koestler watch them on the news, but by placing the character in the events, it adds a bit of realism to each event. I don’t want to give away what the disasters are since the shock of the first one is so great, but I will say that Proyas knows how to handle a massive, CG-filled catastrophe. He uses quick zooms and a shaking effect that allows the viewer to see everything clearly, but not focus on it enough to see the rough edges of computer effects. It also helps that the sound becomes blaring at each event, adding to the chaos of it.

The disasters themselves are enough to warrant the price of admission for this film and that’s important because this film features some awful acting and plenty of awkward dialogue. Cage does a good job of looking completely dumbstruck during the action scenes, but he’s useless when it comes to showing emotion. The character is supposed to be disconnected due to the death of his wife, but Cage takes it too far. Koestler’s son is supposed to be extremely important to him, but Cage makes each scene between father and son so awkward that you never get the sense that these two even know each other. And the alcoholic aspect of his character was unnecessary, unless it was placed there to use as an excuse for Cage being so wooden in each scene. When you throw Rose Byrne into the mix as Lucinda’s daughter it gets bad…The Happening bad. Byrne, who does a great job in her TV series Damages, is miscast here. She is even less convincing than Cage when it comes to parenting and when she starts yelling in the third act she becomes laughably bad.

The finale of this film might rub people the wrong way as well. It turns into a full bore science-fiction film with biblical connotations in the end and those elements were not necessarily there in the first two acts. There are hints to it, of course, like Koestler’s lack of faith and the mysterious people that stand in the background of many scenes and seem to be stalking Koestler and his son, but I think some people will be surprised with how far into the sci-fi genre this movie goes. I liked it, though. Proyas, who also directed the excellent Dark City (check it out if you haven’t seen it, and keep in mind that it came out before The Matrix) can make some truly thought-provoking sci-fi. The ending is different and interesting, which is something that is lacking in a lot of film endings today.

Knowing has its flaws. The acting is abysmal at times and the score can be a bit overwhelming, though that is probably because Proyas realized that he needed musical cues to tell the audience how to feel because the actors couldn’t convey it. But those problems are dwarfed by the amazing visuals during the multiple disaster sequences and the interesting sci-fi conclusion. So struggle past the acting, because Proyas more than makes up for it in action and story.

Now for my additions upon watching the film on DVD: I still feel pretty much the same about this movie and I actually like it more now that I've seen it again. Cage and Byrne are still bad, but after that first viewing I guess I got used to their bad acting and it didn't stick out to me as much as before, but it's still pretty bad. My main concern was whether or not the CG in the disaster sequences would hold up. I saw this the first time in a non-digital theater, which helps CG out at times. (I can recall being amazed by the Neo vs. hundreds of Smith fight in The Matrix Reloaded when I saw it in the theater, but when I saw it on DVD it looked like a cartoon.) The CG is a bit more apparent on DVD, but it didn't ruin anything for me. The first disaster I mention above (which is a plane crash and is in no way a spoiler anymore since previews for the DVD show and nearly every promotional picture I can find shows Cage standing in front of a crashed plane) is still great and if you have a decent speaker system it's downright awesome. Not sure why I didn't mention it the first time, but that plane crash scene is effective not only because of the shaky camera and everything, but also because it's one long take, which is odd to see when massive CG is involved. It's a jarring scene and makes this film worth a rental at least.

I mention near the end that the music is overwhelming at times in the original review. I don't know what I was talking about now. The score has this old school sci-fi sound to it that completely worked for me. Maybe they just cranked up the volume in the theater or something the first time I saw it, but it certainly didn't overwhelm me this time around.

I want to get into SPOILER territory here to discuss some of the vague sci-fi/biblical elements mentioned in the original review. This movie basically takes a turn into Christian belief when the children are taken to a new planet at the end (by "strangers" who happen to have what look like angel's wings) and set up in an Adam and Eve type situation. This is because the world actually ends. So even though the previews promised some a Day After Tomorrow type disaster movie, the viewer actually got a religion fueled science fiction revelations story. That is very interesting to me. What's most interesting, though, is that people see this ending differently than I do. The commentary track with the director hammers this home as a moderator asks many questions assuming the same things that I do and Proyas completely disagrees with the guy (for the record, Proyas sounds pretty much like a jerk throughout the commentary). I have listened to podcasts and read other reviews that have different ideas for this film as well. That shows me that this film, with all its flaws, requires a bit of thought and that is what good sci-fi is all about with or without the religious aspect.

(continued SPOILERS) I also enjoyed the end of the world scene in which Cage drives through the hectic and decimated city set to Beethoven's 7th Symphony. And seeing the entire world basically catch on fire was pretty cool as well.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Public Enemies"

**I''m posting this review earlier than I normally would and that's because of the holiday weekend coming up. I don't plan on reviewing another film or writing a new article until next week.

Public Enemies - Directed by Michael Mann, starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, and Billy Crudup - Rated R

Michael Mann's camerawork is more annoying and stupid than Bruce Banner's dad.

Public Enemies, the latest from director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral), is a strangely quiet mess of a movie. I expected the story of popular outlaw John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp in a toned down but enjoyable performance) to be more cinematic and interesting. Instead Mann decides to go with his usual painful use of HD cameras which make the film look like it was shot on home video and he also downplays the period aspect of the film, which was something I was looking forward to. I suppose that sums it up: I was looking forward to a good film and my expectations ruined it for me.

It all starts interesting enough. Dillinger breaks out some old accomplices from an Indiana state prison. There’s muted quality to the early scene which creates a bit of tension. That awkward silence continues on throughout the film, however. Moments later, in fact, Dillinger is clinging to a mentor figure being dragged by the getaway car. Should be a slightly loud, suspenseful scene, right? Wrong. It’s a very quiet scene in which the car and dragging sound effects are almost nonexistent. This is just one example of many. I don’t know what Mann’s intention was with this. Maybe he was trying to make things more emotional or trying to add to the 1930’s feel by showing how quiet the world once was. Either way, it didn’t work for me. It just distracted me and completely took me out of the movie.

As the film continues I became very aware that the sound issues had nothing to do with creating a 1930’s style for the film. Aside from the cars, clothes, and guns, this film seems to try to feel modern. Mann keeps the camera at shoulder level within groups of people, which does help to make you feel like you’re part of the action at times, but I don’t want that feeling when Dillinger is in a restaurant. I desperately wanted a nice standard establishing shot showing off a reconstructed 1930’s era Chicago. Maybe that is too normal and plain for Mann, but it would have made his stylistic camerawork much more impressive if there was something to compare it to.

That said, the “down in the trenches” style is great for the action in this movie. Some of the Tommy gun shootouts are brutally impressive and, along with the cast, they keep the film from being flat out awful. When G-Man Melvin Purvis (played with stone-faced dedication by Christian Bale) faces off with “Baby Face” Nelson (an aptly cast Stephen Graham), it’s entertaining and exciting. History buffs will notice some inaccuracies with some action scenes and the general timeline, but the changes aren’t monumental enough to hurt the film. Mann hurts the film plenty enough on his own.

The cast helps to keep this film afloat as well. The beautiful Marion Cotillard continues to impress as Dillinger’s faithful girlfriend Billie Frechette. Depp and Bale are fine, though no one will ever claim these to be their best roles. Bale’s character was really weak, leaving the actor to show determination in every scene. We get no sense of who he is. Purvis should have been played by a no-name actor and his character should have been cut dramatically to leave the focus completely on Dillinger (which it mostly is anyway). That would also have saved plenty of money for the budget which could have allowed for more period piece elements.

There is one surprising element in the cast that adds to the 1930’s era, however. That element is Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. I am a big fan of the “old timey” voices from old films and Crudup nails it here without it sounding too cheesy. I enjoyed every scene he was in and was left wishing his role was larger. Hoover sadly disappears for the last third of the film, though. This is especially upsetting since I felt like I knew more about Hoover’s character than anyone else’s, including Dillinger. The screenplay seems to require that the audience brings with it preconceptions of Dillinger rather than establishing them. I never really saw the motivation behind Dillinger’s actions, rather I just accepted them.

There is a good film here somewhere, it’s just that Michael Mann’s style, which is suitable for present day films like Collateral and Miami Vice (though even in those films the use of HD cameras annoys me), is horribly out place for a period piece like this. Public Enemies should have been a visually arresting (instead of disgusting), entertaining film, but Michael Mann and his distracting camerawork got in the way.

*I want to expand on an issue or two here, starting with the sound again. Not sure if it was the movie itself or the theater, but the sound seemed to fade in and out at times. A character would be speaking so low I couldn't understand him/her, then it would be too loud, even though the character hadn't started yelling or anything. Same goes with some sound effects as well, like gunshots and whatnot. I also need to address a couple more of those "strangely quiet" scenes. The first is when Depp and Cotillard are dancing. The only thing you can hear for a part of the scene are the shuffling steps of the dancers. Shouldn't the song being played be more apparent? What is the point of that? Later, at a crowded horse race, Depp and Cotillard have conversation and only their voices can be heard. I don't want the sound of the crowd to drown out conversation or anything, but it should certainly be there in the background. It took me out of the movie completely. Maybe this sounds like petty stuff, but just watch the film and tell me you don't notice those strange aspects of it.