Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"The King's Speech"

The King's Speech - Directed by Tom Hooper, written by David Seidler, starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, and Guy Pearce - Rated R

Awards bait about a stuttering king? Give it a chance, it's pretty great.

Every year a film is released that screams, “Oscar!” and this year that film is The King’s Speech. Unfortunately, some people are turned off by films that seem destined for awards because the very synopsis of such films comes off as pretentious. It’s understandable why some would be put off by the story of a stuttering Duke of York in pre-WWII Britain. That’s right; The King’s Speech is all about a king with a speech impediment. It’s easy to see why some would be dismissive when they hear “awards” in relation to that plot synopsis. But people should not dismiss this film because it truly is deserving of awards consideration. It’s compelling and, more importantly, it’s entertaining.

The King’s Speech takes place in the two decades leading up to World War II. The Duke of York (let’s just stick with Albert for his name from here on out) isn’t in line to be king, but he still has to be able to speak to the public. His father, King George V (a great Michael Gambon), pressures him and doesn’t seem to understand that the problem can’t be fixed by sternly commanding him. This has left Albert short tempered and touchy. His wife and main source of inspiration, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), devotes her time to finding the best speech therapist and this is where the film really begins.

This film is actually about the friendship between the Albert and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Lionel has a unique approach to therapy and he requires Albert to follow his rules and open up about his personal life. Albert, who is intensely protective of his personal life, reacts with outrage early on, but can’t ignore the results Lionel gets. Their sessions are combative for the most part, but a bond is created. Their friendship is realistic in that Albert can have outbursts, but Lionel accepts them and continues on in his own stubborn way. The two men are both stubborn, it’s just that Lionel is much more understanding.

Albert and Lionel’s friendship is also the source of entertainment for the film. Their sessions are amusing enough (some of the speech exercises are a bit goofy), but the way the two characters play off each other is the real entertainment. It helps that Firth and Rush are great actors. Rush is a natural when it comes to creating sympathy, so Lionel is an instantly likable character. It would be easy to dislike Albert, but Firth plays him with such sincerity that you understand his personality and want things to work out for him. The ability to mimic a stutter is only one aspect of Firth’s impressive performance. Firth’s facial expressions throughout tell more about the character of Albert than any stuttered lines of dialogue ever could.

Helena Bonham Carter is great as Elizabeth, as well. Elizabeth is very devoted to her husband and Carter embodies that quite well. On the opposite side of devotion to Albert’s cure, Guy Pearce does a fine job in a short role as Edward. Edward, Albert’s older brother and heir to the throne, likes Albert the way he is because he can control him by poking fun at his impediment. Rounding out the cast is Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. It’s a short role and Churchill is mainly a bystander in this film, but it’s still a fun performance.

The King’s Speech serves as a bit of a history lesson, as you may have noticed from all the real characters involved. (Warning: SPOILERS FOR HISTORY.) Many may be unaware (as this reviewer was) of Edward’s abdication of the crown due to his relationship with a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson. The idea that Albert wasn’t really meant to be king adds much more gravity to his problem. Fixing his speech is not just about being able to communicate. The struggle turns into his ability to be the voice of the people of England. The fact that this is all set during the buildup to World War II make the stakes that much higher.

This film isn’t as completely serious as it sounds and it is definitely more visually appealing that some might expect. The training sequences are fun, but they are also shot in an interesting montage. Director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen zoom in during one exercise and zoom out to reveal a different exercise. It’s all very seamless. The framing of the scenes in this film is interesting as well. You get to see a lot of the sets and they are all unique and/or historical. In short, the film looks great.

The King’s Speech may appear overly serious if you only read about it or just watch a preview. Ignore the serious hype the film is getting and you’ll realize that this is a touching, funny, and interesting drama about friendship, devotion, and patriotism. Does it deserve awards buzz? Yes, but, more importantly, it deserves a large audience.

Random Thoughts

This isn't really a comment on the movie, but more of a comment about the historical situation. It's interesting that this problem, a leader with a speech impediment, would be quite impossible in America. Since England is a monarchy, Albert becomes the voice of the people through birth alone. And there is no way a person without the ability to speak properly could be elected in any kind of democratic office in the modern world. I just find it interesting how time changes what type of person can be a leader.

There is a bit of a rating controversy concerning this film. The dreaded f-word will get you an R-rating if it is used twice. This film is fairly squeaky clean until a scene in which Albert lets out many expletives as part of an exercise. It's a great, funny scene...and it is the sole reason for the R-rating. It would be nice if the MPAA could rate movies based on the context of the use of "obscene" language. The point is that The King's Speech is not really an R-rated movie.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"TRON: Legacy"

TRON: Legacy - Directed by Joseph Kosinski, written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, story by Kitsis & Horowitz and Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal, starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, and Michael Sheen - Rated PG

TRON: Legacy made my eyes and ears bleed in the best possible way.

The original TRON is an unlikely movie to receive a sequel. It was considered visually interesting, but there wasn’t much to it (I am inclined to agree, but will admit that if I had been in my teens when that film came out 1982, I may have loved it). On top of that, it didn’t become wildly popular. But TRON did gain enough of a cult following for Disney to put up some money for a sequel. Though strangely enough, Disney has pulled copies of the original TRON from stores leading up to the release of TRON: Legacy, perhaps hoping that this new film is the first experience many viewers have with the world of TRON.

Keeping new viewers out of the loop may be a smart movie for Disney, especially since this new TRON starts off with Flynn (Jeff Bridges) recapping the first film by way of a bedtime story to his son, Sam. New viewers simply do not need to see the original. All new viewers need to know is that TRON is about a human entering a physical world of computers/videogames known as the Grid, where programs are personified…and hostile.

After the introduction/bedtime story, TRON: Legacy really begins with Sam (Garrett Hedlund) dealing with the disappearance of his father, who went missing right after telling young Sam that bedtime story. You can probably guess that Flynn is actually stuck in the Grid, and Sam ends up going after him.

The Grid is the true star of TRON. The world created (or I suppose “updated” would be more accurate) by the filmmakers is fully realized. It’s dark, yet filled with neon light. It’s a dead world, yet populated with millions of programs/people. It’s loud and it has its own soundtrack (a perfect fit of a score by Daft Punk). The Grid is absolutely visually and audibly arresting (especially if you get the chance to see it in IMAX 3D). Aesthetically speaking, TRON is one of the best films of the year; you feel like you’re in the Grid with Sam and Flynn.

It’s important that you feel like you’re in the Grid because action is always better if you feel like you’re involved. The famous (or famously parodied, I should say) light cycle races from the original are back and better than ever. The other gladiatorial game involving the light discs (think fatal Frisbees) is amazing as well. TRON is primarily an action movie and it is an entertaining action movie at that.

Visuals aside, TRON is still an interesting film, for the most part. Most people can identify emotionally with the father-son relationship, but the actual struggle of the film has its moments as well. Flynn is not just stuck in the Grid, he is there to try and stop Clu, a program he created in his own image that has become overlord of the Grid. This is the where the story starts to struggle a bit. There are ideas tossed around about how certain types of programs can change the outside world, but Clu had them wiped out in a computerized genocide. It’s all better if you try not to think too hard about it.

It’s easy to forgive TRON for its story issues because of the sensory qualities and because of the cast. Hedlund does a fine job as Sam. He’s not given too much to do, acting-wise, but he is charismatic and likable. Bridges, on the other hand, is given a bounty. As Flynn, he gets to play this Buddha-like character, proclaiming non-violence and inaction as the correct path. As Clu, he gets to sneer, yell, and give dictatorial speeches. He must have had a lot of fun in this movie because he is very fun to watch.

Rounding out the cast are Olivia Wilde and Michael Sheen. Wilde plays Quorra, a wide-eyed program eager to learn about the real world. Wilde is great at portraying wonderment and she looks amazing as well. Sheen plays Castor, an eccentric club owner. (Why is there a night club for computer programs? Who cares?) Castor is basically a coked up David Bowie, so Sheen obviously gets to ham it up in this role and it is very entertaining.

The acting, action, and score of TRON are all great, but most people seem to be interested in Jeff Bridges as Clu. It’s not because he’s playing a villain, though. It’s because he’s playing a villain that looks like Jeff Bridges twenty years ago. It’s being argued about on the message boards, but I thought it looked decent and even realistic at times. In a few scenes, Clu looked like he was made of plastic, but that problem can be argued away with the fact that he is a computer program, not a person (but that’s venturing into hardcore dorky argument territory there). Anyway, the de-aging will work for some, but it will take others out of the movie. It’s hard to imagine how it could “ruin” the movie for anyone, though.

Arguments over de-aging aside, TRON is great to look at and listen to. The story might be convoluted or nonsensical at times, but you should be able to get past that and enjoy yourself. This is a film about physically entering a videogame, to put it simply, and it should be treated as such. Put on some 3D glasses and enjoy the show.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Early in the movie a potential rival to Sam appears in the way of Ed Dillinger's son, Edward, played by Cillian Murphy. At first, I thought, "Cool, Cilliam Murphy's in this movie. I didn't even know about that." But he's only in that one early scene. Don't get me wrong, cool cameo, but I was really hoping for a bigger part for him. Maybe it's all just a setup for a sequel...

Not since Nick Cave's appearance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has the musical score provider(s) cameo been more justified. It was pretty damn cool to see Daft Punk in the Michael Sheen club scenes.

That dorky argument stuff above about the de-aging? Well, that only works in the Grid. The film does start with a de-aged Bridges in the real world and he does look a little strange. I'll accept the Grid argument for scenes in the Grid, but I have to admit that the de-aging looked a bit weak in that first scene and no computer program argument can explain it away.

Finally, a few questions that I don't feel like thinking long enough about to come up with an answer. How was Quorra able to go with Sam into the real world? Her information disc was left in the Grid. I thought you had to have your disc with you to travel to the real world. If that's the case, then Flynn should have made the journey with them since Sam had his disc. Did I miss a major rule about traveling between worlds?

Oh, and is there any doubt that the explosion at the end didn't actually kill Flynn (or possibly even Clu for that matter)? I suspect Flynn survived somehow (he is the God of the Grid, after all) and if there's a sequel, Dillinger (Murphy) will be the one trying to mess things up.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"True Grit"

True Grit - Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, and Josh Brolin - Rated PG-13

The Coens made a neo-western with No Country, now they've made a plain old western. I'm glad they did.

Remakes seem to be almost universally hated in the film community these days but there are some (including me) that don’t get up in arms about every single remake. Why is it so terrible that filmmakers want to give their own spin on a story? Worst-case scenario: it sucks; you ignore it, and then watch the original again. Case in point, True Grit, the latest remake from the Coen Brothers, will probably not replace the John Wayne original in most viewers’ hearts, but it doesn’t hurt to see a new take on the Charles Portis novel, especially when it’s made by the Coens.

The Coens, no strangers to the remake game after 2004’s The Ladykillers, have said that their new version of the story is a new adaptation of the novel rather than of the screenplay and that holds true. This version is definitely darker and more violent than the original. It’s not just about darkness and violence, though. The novel had a bittersweet quality to it and more of a focus on the young heroine, Mattie Ross; whereas the 1969 film focused a bit more on the grizzled antihero, Rooster Cogburn. Enough about the original, though, True Grit is its own film.

True Grit takes place in Arkansas in the latter half of the 1800s. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) takes it upon herself to track down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has fled into Indian territory, which is a haven for outlaws. She enlists the help of a hardened, drunken U.S. Marshal, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and receives unwanted aid in the form of a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).

At its heart, True Grit is a film about determination and retribution, but it is also a film about the friendship, or lack thereof, between Cogburn, Mattie, and LaBoeuf. There lies the true action of this film. LaBoeuf and Cogburn trade barbs while Mattie decides which man is more admirable. At certain points, it seemed like the two men were more worried about maintaining their dignity in front of Mattie than actually finding Chaney.

Mattie is the focus of the two male leads of the film and she is the rightful focus of the film itself. The rough Old West lawman has been done to death, but the determined fourteen-year-old girl of the Old West is untouched material. Thankfully, the film doesn’t get stuck on the ridiculousness of a young girl hunting a fugitive (although the acknowledgment of the fact does lead to a good laugh or two). Instead, the focus is on her character. Mattie is a stubborn girl who argues for what she thinks is right no matter what. And Steinfeld completely inhabits the character. From her first moments, her steely gaze convinces you that not only can she handle the character of Mattie Ross, but she can even outshine the likes of Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges. She handles the Coens’ rapid-fire witty dialogue with complete sincerity and ease. Steinfeld is easily the best part of the film and deserves some recognition this awards season. (For the record, she did win the IFJA’s Supporting Actress award.)

Steinfeld is more impressive than her co-stars, but that doesn’t mean their performances are weak. Bridges does a fine job and gives a very amusing turn as Cogburn. He basically plays it as if Bad Blake from last year’s Crazy Heart was a lawman and there is nothing wrong with that. No one is going to forget about John Wayne or anything, but Bridges does a great job. Damon is just as entertaining as the egotistic LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper (who is nearly unrecognizable here) also turn in good performances, Pepper more so than Brolin.

Humor might seem like an odd word in relation to what’s supposed to be a dark western, but this is a Coen Brothers western. The dialogue of any Coen Brothers film is a star in itself and that applies to True Grit. The bickering between LaBoeuf and Cogburn, the bartering of Mattie, the rambling of a strange bear hunter/dentist, etc. is all great and makes what could be boring scenes become funny scenes.

This isn’t a complete comedy, though; True Grit does contain some scenes of sudden and brutal violence (don’t worry about that PG-13 rating, this movie has blood). It is all very effective, but more importantly, it looks beautiful at times. Director of photography Roger Deakins has filmed yet another beautiful film. Teamed up with the Coens, Deakins creates slow, meandering tracking shots, interesting wide shots of great locations, and low-lit scenes of intensity. Add an effective, old school score by Carter Burwell (with great touches that are reminiscent of Miller’s Crossing) and True Grit is a very aesthetically pleasing film.

True Grit may not be the action packed western some may hope for, but if you let the film sink in you realize how effective it really is. Most effective, though, is the Coens’ slavish devotion to the source material. Much like No Country for Old Men, the Coens never stray very far from the novel the film is based on. The ending of the film truly benefits from this. Others may find the film’s finale a bit abrupt or anti-climactic, but it is in keeping with the realistic tone of the rest of the film.

The film is not without its faults, though. The devotion to the source material may go too far at times; most notably with the mentally challenged outlaw who makes animal sounds. A reader will recognize that character, but a viewer may be left confused. Aside from that, there is really nothing wrong with True Grit. If anything, though, a Coen fan may be a bit disappointed by how straightforward the film is. The discussions created by last year’s A Serious Man (my #1 film of 2009) are nonexistent here. You can’t fault a film for abandoning the deep end, but it may keep this film off of top ten lists and the like.

Top ten lists and awards probably don’t mean much to the Coens. They are more likely worried about making an enjoyable and beautiful film and they certainly have accomplished that with True Grit. If you want John Wayne and an ending that comes complete with a bow on top, then by all means, watch the classic 1969 film. If you’re looking for something fun, well-acted, dark, and beautiful, then watch this new version. Remember, it’s not a really a remake, it’s just the Coens’ own vision of a novel and it’s a vision worth seeing.

Random Thoughts

Barry Pepper plays Ned Pepper. I just thought that was amusing. Not since Kevin Dunn acted in a film with a character named Kevin Dunn (Snake Eyes) has such a coincidence occurred. Aside from that, I can’t stress enough how vastly different Pepper looks in this film. His performance will make you wish he had been the main antagonist throughout, although Chaney isn’t truly an antagonist, either, to be honest.

I dug Cogburn’s intro via an outhouse, just a really great way to introduce the character.

I can’t find any confirmation of this, but I am 99% sure that the voice of Lawyer Daggett is none other than J. K. Simmons. It was a nice touch adding his voice, assuming I am correct, that is.

The nearly word for word adaptation of the court scene from the novel was great. It was as if the Coens handed the actors a copy of the novel rather than a script, which is a possibility.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"The Fighter"

The Fighter - Directed by David O. Russell, written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson (story by Tamasy, Johnson, and Keith Dorrington), starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Jack McGee - Rated R

Much like Bardem before him, Bale gives the standout supporting performance of the year.

The Fighter has all the elements of a boxing drama that might lead people to worry about it being a clichéd, dull retread of every boxing movie from yesteryear, but the film dashes aside the notion that a boxing drama must be 100% drama and ends up being a surprisingly light, effective film featuring an amazing performance from Christian Bale.

The film is the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older brother/trainer, Dicky Eklund (Bale). The focus of the film is on Micky and his battle to get out of his brother’s shadow and become the champion his brother never was. That sounds simple and basic enough, but the family drama is what makes this film truly effective. Dicky still believes he has a chance of a comeback, and it seems like the rest of his family does as well. No one, aside from his father George, seems to care about Micky’s career.

It’s easy to see why Dicky gets all of the attention. Micky is the quiet type, just sitting back and letting everyone else take care of him. Dicky, on the other hand, is outspoken and charismatic, though he suffers from crack addiction. The film becomes interesting here for two reasons: the treatment of the addiction and Bale.

Drug addiction is usually shown in a very negative light, with terrible consequences. In The Fighter, though, it’s handled a bit differently…with a bit of comedy. Don’t take that the wrong way, the effects of drug use are still shown, but some of Dicky’s antics are humorous. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t intend for some moments to be funny, but the end result is humorous at times. This is not a bad thing. Drug abusers in films tend towards the melodramatic; it was refreshing to lighten it up just a bit.

The main reason the character of Dicky works, though, is Christian Bale. Bale has given many impressive performances, but he truly inhabits this character. It is obvious from the first frame that Bale is doing something amazing in this film. Bale made every scene he was in better not just with his accent but with pure physicality. There is an element of weight loss, but it’s the way Bale moves in each scene. Whenever he’s talking to a character in a two shot, I kept wondering what Bale was up to when the camera wasn’t on him. While his character doesn’t get much action in the ring, he still manages to turn every conversation into a simulated boxing match. If he doesn’t get the Oscar for Supporting Actor it will be a travesty.

The other performances pale in comparison to Bale’s, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. Wahlberg is decent and is notable for the fact that he is back in his range playing an athlete. Amy Adams handles herself well as Micky’s new girlfriend, though I saw her as just a more serious version of her character in Talladega Nights. Jack McGee has quite a few fun moments as George. And Melissa Leo gives yet another strong performance as Micky and Dicky’s manager/mother.

Leo represents the real conflict of the film. She favors Dicky over Micky no matter how many times Dicky screws up. The sincere shock on Leo’s face when anyone stands up to her ridiculous favoritism is enraging and effective. That, along with other situations, makes The Fighter an easy film to get caught up in and enjoy.

One aspect that is hard to truly enjoy is the boxing. Some of it is handled decently and the fights are easy to follow, which is the best you can expect from a film about boxing. Isn’t it time that boxing films ditch the Rocky sound effects, though? Every punch, even blocked punches, carried an overly loud sound effect that became distracting at times. Visually, though, the fighting is exciting and occasionally interesting.

The film is engaging almost throughout and because of that it is easy to get past some of the more melodramatic scenes. The light tone stays intact for the most part, though, only tilting off the rails momentarily.

The nearly comical tone of the film and the realistic family struggles make this an enjoyable film. Christian Bale elevates it to one of the year’s best. It can’t be stressed enough that Bale has given arguably the best performance of his career; no small compliment when you consider Bale’s past roles in American Psycho and Rescue Dawn. Enjoy The Fighter, but be awed by Christian Bale.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I liked the framing device of the documentary. Good way to bookend the film, especially since it starts with Bale on his own, bringing Micky in and ends with Dicky getting up to leave the camera alone with Micky.

The melodramatic scene I referenced above is the part when Dicky’s toddler son wants to watch the documentary. I don’t know, it just seemed over the top at that point.

I dug the soundtrack; it helped keep the tone consistent and it placed the film in its time period well (except for that Chili Peppers' song from Stadium Arcadium, though it sounded right for the scene).

It was interesting that Mickey O’Keefe, Ward’s real life trainer, played himself in the film. That role was not a cameo. I was impressed with him enough to look him up and find his other roles. I was quite surprised to find out who he was.

The funny aspects of drug abuse, just to be specific, were Dicky’s escape route from the crack house (out the window into the trash) and when he knocked out George. Describing it only makes it sound more serious, but those who see it will understand that it could be viewed as funny.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"The Tourist"

The Tourist - Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie, and Julian Fellowes (based on a film by Jérôme Salle, starring Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, and Paul Bettany - Rated PG-13

Much like Bruce Banner's dad, this film just couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be.

The Tourist, the latest from Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, is a film that never figures out what it wants to be and ultimately becomes a boring, forgettable film. The film is about Frank Tupelo (Depp), an American tourist who gets stuck in the middle of an elaborate international sting operation. Elise (Jolie) is the ex-lover of the criminal the sting is after. She is watched constantly, so the criminal tells her to find someone who matches his height and build so the cops (and the mobster he stole money from) think that the stranger is him. This all seems fine and just complicated enough to be slightly interesting, but it’s only interesting on the surface.

The Tourist never really takes off and this is due to a lack of chemistry and interesting dialogue. There is supposed to be this immediate fire between Depp and Jolie, but it simply is not there. Because of this, the film contains many quiet moments of these two actors staring awkwardly into space or at each other. When they do talk, it is almost never interesting. Frank asks bland questions that Elise never answers. A lot of the film consists of Depp and Jolie riding boats in silence in Venice. Speaking of Venice, the locations end up being one of the only interesting parts of the film.

The lack of chemistry would be forgivable if the film made up for it with style, but the filmmaking is quite boring as well. Co-writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck shows none of the promise from 2006’s The Lives of Others. Aside from one moment near the end of the film, the look of The Tourist is as forgettable as its content. Perhaps von Donnersmarck was held up because this was a big budget studio remake of a 2005 French film. Here’s hoping he does something more original for his follow-up.

The stars themselves are some of the only redeeming qualities to this film. Depp and Jolie may not have much in the way of chemistry, but they are still decent actors. Jolie is outshined by Depp here, though. Jolie is forced to play this heartbroken, depressed woman and that is not cinematically interesting in a movie that is meant to be more entertaining than heartfelt.

Jolie doesn’t fit into the action movie aspect of the film, but The Tourist isn’t an action movie. Is it a comedy, though? Depp’s character seems to point in that direction. Depp gets the only funny things to do in the film: be slightly bumbling, speak Spanish to Italians, get chased in his pajamas, etc. Some of this stuff works and is amusing at times, but then the movie changes pace again.

Just when it seemed like the film was some kind of light action comedy there would be a scene that made it seem like the film was a serious drama about Depp and Jolie’s relationship. Then the mobster stuff was thrown in and the film became a bit dark and serious as people started getting murdered. But there was never a true sense of danger. Then there’s the whole mystery of who Elise’s criminal boyfriend really is. That mystery may be what the film tries to focus on, but it never gained my true interest.

The mystery aspect could potentially make The Tourist one of those films that requires you to watch it again to look for clues, but it is all so boring and the stakes of the film are so unbelievable that it never works. Who cares if Frank or Elise ever find true love? Who cares if the cliché mobster gets his revenge? Who cares if the bitter Scotland Yard inspector (a wasted Paul Bettany, who does his best to make the role worthwhile) finds the criminal? Who cares? If a film can’t hook you into slightly caring about its characters, then it can’t keep your interest.

Normally a film devoid of emotion like this could at least keep you happy with a bit of visual flair, but The Tourist fails in that regard as well. It’s possible that the star quality of Depp and Jolie will be enough for some, but if you’re looking for true substance and interesting filmmaking, you won’t find it with The Tourist.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I just have to say that I was honestly expecting this to be a good film considering all who were involved. A true missed opportunity.

The revelation that Depp is actually the criminal the whole time should have been a payoff that made me want to watch the film at least once more to look for clues, but I really did not care. I was just happy the film was over. Maybe the whole twist thing will work for some, though.

I enjoyed Timothy Dalton in his few scenes.

That one visual flair, when all the mobsters get hit with sniper fire in slow motion, was pretty great. If only there were more moments like that.

2010 Indiana Film Journalists Association Awards

This marks my first awards season as a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association (IFJA) and I am very proud to present our awards for 2010. A little commentary on the awards first, though. I want to point out that this is not my personal list or anything (I'll be posting a Top Ten list later on this year), but I feel this is a very strong list and I can't really disagree with how the voting came out. A few points that would have come out differently if I had my druthers, though: Black Swan would be the best film of the year with Aronofsky taking directing honors as well (though I am very happy to see Nolan's name there). I loved James Franco in 127 Hours, but in the end I felt Jesse Eisenberg gave the best performance of the year.

More importantly, I emphatically support our selection of Hailee Steinfeld for Best Supporting Actress (True Grit) and Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor (The Fighter). And, as you probably know if you read my Black Swan review, I am in complete support of Natalie Portman winning Best Actress.

Enough of my rambling, though; here are the IFJA's 2010 Awards, enjoy!

Indiana Film Journalists Association announces 2010 Awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of journalists dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is pleased to announce its annual film awards.

"The Social Network" took top honors, winning Best Film as well as Aaron Sorkin for Best Screenplay. "Inception" received two awards, Best Director Christopher Nolan and the Original Vision Award.

Winners were declared in 12 categories, with a runner-up in 11 categories. In addition, a total of 10 movies (including the winner and runner-up) were recognized as Finalists for the top prize, Best Film of the Year.

Natalie Portman was named Best Actress for "Black Swan." James Franco won Best Actor for "127 Hours." Hailee Steinfeld took Best Supporting Actress for "True Grit" and Christian Bale was named Best Supporting Actor for "The Fighter."

"How to Train Your Dragon" was named Best Animated Film, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" Best Documentary and "Lebanon" Best Foreign Language Film.

Andie Redwine was honored with The Hoosier Award for her work on "Paradise Recovered," a film about a woman from a cloistered religious sect forced to view her community from a new perspective, which was partially shot in southern Indiana.

To be eligible, a film must have played theatrically in Indiana during the 2010 calendar year, screened to state critics in advance of a 2011 general release date, or play in a Hoosier State film festival such as Indianapolis International Film Festival or Heartland Film Festival.

Below is a complete list of honored films. A word of explanation about the last two categories:

The Original Vision Award is meant to recognize a film that is especially innovative or original.

The Hoosier Award recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with Indiana roots. As a special award, no runner-up is declared.

Best Film of the Year
Winner: "The Social Network"
Runner-up: "Inception"
Other Finalists: "127 Hours," "Black Swan," "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "The Fighter," "Never Let Me Go," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "True Grit," "Winter's Bone"

Best Animated Film
Winner: "How to Train Your Dragon"
Runner-up: "Toy Story 3"

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Lebanon"
Runner-up: "Biutiful"

Best Documentary
Winner: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"
Runner-up: "The Tillman Story"

Best Screenplay
Winner: Aaron Sorkin, "The Social Network"
Runner-up: Christopher Nolan, "Inception"

Best Director
Winner: Christopher Nolan, "Inception"
Runner-up: Debra Granik, "Winter's Bone"

Best Actress
Winner: Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"
Runner-up: Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone"

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Hailee Steinfeld, "True Grit"
Runner-up: Melissa Leo, "The Fighter"

Best Actor
Winner: James Franco, "127 Hours"
Runner-up: Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network"

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"
Runner-up: John Hawkes, "Winter's Bone"

Original Vision Award
Winner: "Inception"
Runner-up: "127 Hours"

The Hoosier Award
Winner: Andie Redwine, writer/producer of "Paradise Recovered"

About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009 with six founding members, and has since expanded its roster to 11. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.

Bob Bloom, Lafayette Journal & Courier
Caine Gardner, Greencastle Banner-Graphic, The Film
Eric Harris,, The Perry County News
Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal
Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
Christopher Lloyd, The Film, The Current
Richard Propes, The Independent
Nick Rogers,, The Film
Joe Shearer, The Film,
Matthew Socey, WFYI
Gina Wagner, /

Contact: Christopher Lloyd,, (317) 253-3014.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Black Swan"

Black Swan - Directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder - Rated R

"It was perfect." I find it hard to disagree.

Director Darren Aronofsky is on a tortured performer kick…and he can stay on that kick as far as I’m concerned. First, he made 2008’s The Wrestler (my favorite film of that year), a film about a washed up wrestler striving to reclaim both his professional and personal life. Now, with Black Swan, Aronofsky looks at the beginning of a career rather than the end, but the professional and personal struggles of a performer are still the center of attention.

Black Swan takes place in the world of New York City ballet, which may be off-putting to some. I admit that I was not exactly thrilled to hear that Aronofsky’s next film was going to be about ballet. Of course, I was completely wrong to doubt the filmmaker. Ballet is just the backdrop for a truly disturbing psychological drama (and/or horror) film featuring an amazing performance by Natalie Portman.

Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a soft-spoken and sheltered young woman trying to reach the top of her ballet troupe. Perhaps “sheltered” is too weak a word. Scenes in Nina’s apartment, which she shares with her former ballerina mother (a very effective Barbara Hershey), feel like prison scenes. Nina’s mother seems to hear everything and is unwilling to allow Nina the smallest of privacies for more than a few moments.

It doesn’t help that Nina has a physically and mentally demanding job. She is trying to win the lead in a version of “Swan Lake,” which is being produced by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is known for being a bit too intimate with his dancers. Nina performs well and she is a perfectionist, but this role requires her to be the White Swan (perfect and pure) and the Black Swan (spontaneous and seductive). Therein lies the problem. Becoming the Black Swan means bending the rules and rules are what keep Nina sane, although one could argue whether or not sanity is worth it if such a sheltered life is required to retain it.

Nina’s sanity is also tested by the idea of becoming obsolete. Thomas’s former “little princess” Beth (Winona Ryder in a powerful and unstable performance) is taking a forced retirement at a relatively early age and Nina is filling the void. There is a bit of guilt there, but that is not the troubling aspect of the situation. Just as Nina is getting her moment to shine, Lily (Mila Kunis), a younger and more confident dancer, shows up.

Finally, add sexuality into the stress pile. As stated above, Nina is sheltered and treated like a child, so serious boyfriends have never really existed for her. Suddenly she is facing Thomas and being challenged to be sexy in her new role. Thomas believes that the Black Swan role must be seductive. Then there’s Lily, who represents this forbidden sexuality that has been festering in Nina for years.

Lily works as a foil to Nina in many ways and that is the crux of the film. Black Swan is all about duality. This is where the psychological horror element comes into play. The movie is told through Nina’s perspective, so we see what she sees, and it is disturbing at times. This film demands an attentive viewer. Characters’ faces change, physical transformations appear to take place, and art seems to move. The surroundings of the character are telling as well. Much like Stanley Kubrick, Aronofsky is a director that demands you pay attention to the sets.

Some of the aspects of the sets are obvious; there are mirrors everywhere, so you’re constantly looking at a reflection of Nina…or are you? You know, that basic identity paranoia stuff. But look around Nina’s apartment and you’ll see little touches…like the butterfly wallpaper. Most films don’t deserve that close viewer attention; Black Swan does.

Black Swan deserves an attentive ear, too. Go ahead and enjoy the classical music and the entrancing original score by the always impressive Clint Mansell, but pay attention to the little sounds. The similarity of a striking lighter’s sound to the sound of a pervert on the subway (sounds weird, I know, but the scene transition that takes place when those sounds occur is interesting). The flutter of wings that sounds eerily similar to two subway trains passing. This movie is full of nuances like that.

The comparison to Kubrick above is not done lightly. I consider Kubrick to be the best director of all time and I only throw out a comparison if I find it truly worthy. With Black Swan, I’m starting to think of Aronofsky as a filmmaker on the same level as Kubrick. He has developed a signature sound and visual style and he has that ability to make hypnotic scenes turn into nightmares in seconds. The scene in mind is the fundraising event. The scenes melt together like the ballroom scenes in The Shining or the Christmas party scene in Eyes Wide Shut. Then things get strange in the bathroom. That is just an example of how precisely similar the two filmmakers can be. The truth is they are quite different in overall style.

Kubrick would have filmed the ballet sequences as you would see them from the best seat in the house. (I am aware that Kubrick did film a ballet sequence in his early years for Killer's Kiss, but I feel that that was early enough in his career that he had not developed a signature style just yet.) Aronofsky sends the camera along with the dancer. No offense to the art of ballet, but I don’t want to see a beautiful, lengthy production of “Swan Lake.” I would rather follow a single dancer into the foray and let the camera be part of the story and the struggle. It is extremely effective and the ballet scenes end up being as intense and beautiful as anything I’ve seen this year.

The aesthetics of Black Swan are undoubtedly superb and the style definitely adds to the substance of the film, but a lot of credit goes to the (basically first-time) screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin. That lengthy summary above concerning the character of Nina? It’s because of their screenplay. There are so many elements in this story that work and that are intriguing that to summarize Nina as simply “troubled” would be a disservice to the character. (I write this wholeheartedly as a man who hates the wasted space of summary.) Nina is easily one of the best written characters on screen this year. Thankfully, Natalie Portman inhabits her in the performance of her career and the performance of the year.

The casting of Portman adds its own part in the story of a woman breaking out of her shell. Sure, Portman has had her edgier roles (Closer), but she is usually the sweet girl that no one worries about. The expectations an audience may have for her help the performance very much, but they don’t make it. She shows true dedication and ability in this film. In a movie about transformation, I truly believed in her character’s changes. That’s another connection to The Wrestler, Aronofsky gets a performance from Portman that rivals Mickey Rourke’s.

The final connection to The Wrestler? It’s one of my favorite films of the year. Black Swan works on every level for me. The direction, writing, production values, music, and acting are all top notch. It is a film I plan on revisiting over and over in the future. Much like a Kubrick film, I imagine I’ll see something new and different each time.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Yes, Portman and Kunis have a bit of a love scene in this movie. There is a point behind it and while it is quite sexy, it quickly gets creepy and weird.

I loved the first time one of the portrait's eyes moved in Nina's apartment. It happens so quickly it's easy to miss, but very effective if you happen to catch it.

Another connection to The Wrestler: both films end at the end of a performance with a crowd cheering. Gutsy, but appropriate. Also, fading out to the sound of applause is kind of a cool way to end a film.

Oh, and the last line of "It was perfect"? Gutsy as hell. If the movie sucked, then Aronofksy would catch a lot of crap, though I highly doubt he cares what I, or any other more accomplished critic, thinks about his work.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"127 Hours"

127 Hours - Directed by Danny Boyle, written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book by Aron Ralston, starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, and Treat Williams - Rated R

I know it's been a Vader heavy year for me, but I can't deny my highest rating to a movie that left such a powerful impression on me.

How far would you go to survive? It’s a theme that has been visited many times but is always interesting. Films like 127 Hours allow the viewer to ask, “What would I do if I was in that situation?” If you can ask such a question, then you can also place yourself in the story. It also helps that Danny Boyle is directing because he is a filmmaker who can place an audience within a film and he’s willing to put his camera anywhere. It is also easy to become interested in a movie when you have an actor like James Franco to completely embody a character and create entertainment as well as inspiration.

The fact that 127 Hours is a compelling film is doubly impressive because it is based on a true story. If you want to go into this film completely fresh you need to stop reading right now. I don’t plan on spelling out everything that happens in this film, but the information I will cover would be considered a spoiler for other films, so fair warning.

Franco stars as Aron Ralston who, in 2003, went biking/hiking/rock climbing in Utah without telling anyone exactly where he was going. He fell into a crevice, knocking a boulder loose in the process. The boulder fell with him, pinning his right arm against the canyon wall. This is where that true story aspect becomes troublesome. If you remember the story from the news, or you’ve seen publicity for the film, or if you notice the “Based on a book by Aron Ralston” credit at the beginning of the film, then you know that he survives. That would seem to ruin the suspense of the film, but amazingly, it doesn’t.

Prior knowledge may put a damper on things, but 127 Hours makes up for that with intensity and an amazing performance. I can’t stress enough how great Franco is in this. One scene encompasses his entire performance. Ralston pretends to host a morning talk show playing the host, guest, and caller. It is equally hilarious and disturbing. The writing takes care of a bit of that, sure, but Franco makes the scene memorable. A role about physical and mental survival already demands a certain amount of ability, and Franco surpasses that to create humor and likability, two essential elements that allow a survival movie to rise above all of the rest. His performance had me rooting for Ralston more than any other character this year. Simply put, it’s one of the best performances of the year.

Franco nearly makes the movie by himself, but Boyle has quite a bit to do with it. It’s one thing to place the camera in an enclosed spot with a character; it’s another thing to place the camera inside a character. There is really no place too small for Boyle to give the audience an angle: a water bottle, inside a video camera, inside an arm. Those shots are visually interesting but they also help create a sense of claustrophobia.

This claustrophobic sense helps place the viewers inside Ralston’s head, as well. No, Boyle doesn’t have a shot inside Ralston’s brain or anything, but getting close to the character makes it easier to seamlessly integrate hallucinations, dreams, and memories. None of these moments felt forced or strange. It all felt natural.

The film isn’t all about being close, though. Boyle’s willingness to show the large scale images sets up an interesting comparison of two extremes. One shot may be inside a character’s arm but there is also a shot from miles above the canyon as well. That shot, which starts with Franco and pulls back, gave me chills.

In fact, many moments in this film gave me goose bumps. It also made me cringe. Stories of survival always contain their less pleasant moments, but 127 Hours shows these moments with such intensity that the film will undoubtedly be very difficult to watch for many viewers if not all. Brutal things have to happen on screen in this film, but unlike recent horror films, the point of the gore is not to dare you to look away, but to do you to imagine yourself in the character’s shoes. Yes, it is obviously impossible to truly know the pain Ralston went through without experiencing it yourself, but the filmmakers used more than just visuals to place you in the scene. The sound effects of the film are just as disturbing as the visuals. While they are not realistic sound effects, they do a much better job at simulating the sensation than reality could ever do.

127 Hours is one of the best films of the year simply for being able to put the audience through the emotional gamut. Add Boyle’s direction and camerawork (I haven’t mentioned it but I also liked his use of split screens) and you have something even more special. Round it out with an award-worthy performance from James Franco and I believe you have a movie that will stand the test of time. Does that make it the best movie of the year? Not necessarily (it has been a very good year for film, after all), but it has certainly made my shortlist.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I've seen this movie three times and I still grit my teeth and cringe when he gets stuck on that nerve. All of the foreboding details about the dullness of the knife made it that much worse.

Boyle puts the camera in a water tube and sends urine into the camera. There's close and there's too close. Just kidding, it's not a fault of the film or anything, I just wanted to make sure that I put that on the internet: Danny Boyle shoots a close up of urine traveling through a tube into James Franco's mouth.

I don't think I'll ever look at Scooby Doo again without thinking of a severed arm. That random Scooby Doo stuff was one of the film's many small, but nice touches.

I liked Treat Williams as Ralston's dad in those few short scenes. The man just has a real fatherly look about him.

When Franco rises into frame and yells, "Good morning, everyone!" I laughed aloud. Still laughing after subsequent viewings...I guess it's the crazed joy in his voice and the maniacal look on his face.

I can't recall being happier for a character than I was as Ralston was making his march to the helicopter. His appearance and the music made it an amazing end to an amazing movie.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Faster - Directed by George Tillman Jr., written by Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton, starring Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen - Rated PG-13

It's not a glorious return to action for Dwayne Johnson, but at least he's trying.

Do you remember back in 2003 when The Rock (Dwayne Johnson these days) starred in The Rundown? There was a scene in that enjoyable action comedy in which Arnold Schwarzenegger tells The Rock, “Have fun.” That was Schwarzenegger handing the action star reins to Johnson. I love Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was wondering who could possibly fill his void once he entered politics. The Rock was the perfect candidate. Then something terrible happened: for some reason The Rock became Dwayne Johnson, star of kids’ movies and inspirational football movies, and even one that’s both (I’m looking at you, The Game Plan). It was troubling to see all of these decidedly non-action films until finally, Faster was released and Johnson was back in action territory.

Is Faster a triumphant and glorious return to action, though? Not really, but it’ll do for now. The setup had plenty of potential for awesome action. Johnson plays an ex-con out to avenge his brother’s death. The character is pretty one-note in that all he wants to do is kill every single person who had any involvement in his brother’s death. He’s so one-note that he is never given a proper name and is only known as “Driver.” That’s fine; I don’t need to know much about Driver, aside from the fact that he wants bloody vengeance.

Faster does deliver on the vengeance. The film features quick and brutal action and it operates at a brisk pace. It’s also a very loud movie. When a gun is fired, you know it. In a pop culture that features constant gunfire it’s nice to see a film that still regards gunfire as a jarring experience. This is all put together in a 1970s vengeance film style that made the entire film an enjoyable, visceral experience. Faster probably won’t be remembered in the long run, but it’s not a stretch to say that some people will recall the opening credit sequence set to a 70s song or some of the images (such as Johnson, head out of frame, holding a gun near the head of a preacher). Overall, though, I look for this film to be forgotten.

Faster is fine for right now, though, as long as you don’t look too closely at it. My friends and I took this film apart piece by piece on the way back from the theatre. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are plenty of moments in this film that make little or no sense. The ridiculousness of some character traits and motivations actually made me enjoy the film more. Certain characters as a whole, however, could have used some work…or less work, as it were.

Dwayne Johnson is not alone in this film. After Driver’s first kill, a troubled detective (Billy Bob Thornton) known only as “Cop,” starts looking for him. Thornton seems to be sleepwalking through the clichéd role, emphasis on the cliché. This cop character is a few weeks from retirement, is estranged from his wife, doesn’t connect with his son, and is a drug addict. It would’ve been better if the screenwriters had stuck with one cliché and just ran with it, rather than lumping all of this stuff together. Thornton’s sleepwalking actually makes sense because of the drug addict aspect, but I didn’t think he did anything special with the role.

Driver and Cop seem like enough characters for a film like this, but unfortunately, Faster didn’t know when to stop. A third character (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), known as “Killer,” was tossed in there and the lacking character development for the other two leads got kicked into overdrive. Killer is a British thrill seeker who overcame issues with his legs as a child. He also has commitment issues with his girlfriend. He talks with a therapist and is on medication. Why would you give a nameless character such detail? Isn’t the point of the generic titles that these guys are simple and determined? That’s true for Driver, but the other two needed some names. Or better yet, they needed less character traits or, in Killer’s case, should have been cut from the movie completely.

The attention to the third character is what disappointed me the most. I really could have done without the second character, much less a third. I wanted Dwayne Johnson stomping through nearly every scene creating havoc with each step. I only got one third of that. But that one third was enough for me, mainly because I’ve been waiting for a Dwayne Johnson action movie for so long that a subpar movie is decent just for existing.

Faster exists therefore it’s worth checking out. It’s mostly forgettable and terribly uneven in the character department, but The Rock is in it and it’s not meant for children and no one is inspired to play football in it, so there’s always that.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Strange how Tom Berenger is listed as part of the main cast yet his role can best be described as a cameo. I liked his one scene, though.

Dwayne Johnson is largely a mute in this film. He finally starts talking a bit in the second half. I'm not sure which character I liked more. It's not that Johnson can't handle dialogue, he truly can, but I found him much more imposing as the silent killer rather than the softer talker.

Speaking of killing, what was up with the fight in the strip club? First off, what kind of a strip club has some sleeping elderly man as a bathroom attendant? Maybe he's an old friend or something, that's fine, I guess. But as for the fight itself, it really looked like a death scene when the camera zoomed in on the stabbed man's face. That's why I figured Driver didn't finish the kill. Then I thought that Driver had realized he hadn't killed him and had had a change of heart after calling the victim's son. No, he decides to drive to the hospital to kill the guy on the operating table. I don't know, my explanation isn't doing the strangeness of the scene justice. I still can't figure out exactly what the point of it all was other than there needed to be an excuse to have Driver and Cop have a shootout in a hospital corridor.

After The Big Lewbowski, it should be against the law to use "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" in a movie ever again.

Killer's quick marriage, then target practice honeymoon was easily the dumbest and most pointless part of the entire movie.

I'm guessing the writers introduced the strip club victim's son (who sounded way too calm for someone who just found out his father has been shot on the operating table, by the way) so they could set up something like the potential (though extremely unlikely) Kill Bill sequel in which the avenger has vengeance taken out upon them. Can't wait for Faster 2: The Quickening or maybe they'll just go with Fastest.

Regarding sequels, Johnson's next movie is Fast Five, the latest in the Fast & the Furious movies. I guess he just really likes the word "fast"? Oh, and don't get used to seeing the action star, Johnson is working on Journey to the Center of the Earth 2: Electric Boogaloo as Brendan Fraser's replacement. The subtitle is a joke, but that is actually happening. So be prepared for my review of The Rock's next action movie comeback in 2015!

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The Next Three Days"

The Next Three Days - Written and directed by Paul Haggis (based on a script by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans, starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, and Brian Dennehy - Rated PG-13

Hey America, wizards are cool and all, but Russell Crowe deserves some attention, too.

Russell Crowe is a refreshing rarity in the cinemas these days: he consistently makes movies for adults. While the masses clamor for an aging action star (a la Stallone, Willis, Neeson), Crowe has chosen roles in films that feature minimal action (even Robin Hood was light on the action as far as historical epics go). Unfortunately this means almost no one will watch movies like The Next Three Days. A very small percentage of the movie-going public wants to see a slow moving thriller these days and Crowe isn’t the draw he used to be. I’m glad he still makes movies like this, though, and hopefully a bigger audience will develop soon.

The Next Three Days is about John Brennan (Crowe), a Literature professor enjoying a quiet life with his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), and their young son. They’re enjoying breakfast one morning when the police barge in and arrest Lara for murder. Cut to two years later and Lara has been convicted and is most likely going to die in prison. John decides to take matters into his own hands and break her out.

You may be thinking, “All right! Action packed prison break movie!” That is certainly not the case. This is a realistic movie about what it takes to break someone out. It’s not just about the logistics, though. It’s more about determination and just how far someone is willing to go to save someone they love. At this point, a good question might be, “Is John’s wife guilty of the crime?” In other words, is she even worth breaking out? The Next Three Days is interesting in the fact that all we have is John’s belief to convince us of Lara’s innocence. The pieces of evidence we sporadically receive seem to point towards the guilty verdict.

Planning and determination doesn’t scream entertainment, sure, but it works for character development. It really works when Russell Crowe is that character. I find Crowe utterly convincing in nearly every role and he continues to impress in The Next Three Days. He’s great at showing intense determination and it’s easy to get on his side in a film. He’s the only one who believes in his wife’s innocence? Good enough for me, I believe him.

Believing in a character is important, but when it comes to prison break movies, the plot must be just as believable. The Next Three Days, as far as I can tell, is very realistic…or at least it seems realistic. Now, I don’t know how hard it is to actually get reliable fake passports or anything like that, but this movie at least makes it seem more difficult than most films. Usually it’s a phone call and the documents are there. In a film like this, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The entire process of how to possibly break someone out is set up early on in a cameo with Liam Neeson (don’t be fooled by the preview, Neeson is only in the film for a couple of minutes). He talks about how difficult it is to break out and how luck is a major factor. While this film is realistic, it also relies on luck quite a bit. I didn’t find the good or bad luck to be ridiculous, though.

Because an entire process is set up in this film, it might start to feel long. I didn’t really mind watching the planning stages, though. It was nice to see a movie about the “how” of an event rather than the event itself. That’s not to say this film doesn’t have any action. There are some very tense chase sequences and a great scene in a drug dealer’s house. The Next Three Days also includes a surprising and visually impressive scene featuring an out of control car. I don’t want to give the details, but I imagine you’ll be impressed when you see it. Director Paul Haggis (In the Valley of Elah, Crash) seems to be growing as a filmmaker with this one.

Haggis also adapted the script, from the French film Pour Elle, though I can’t say if it’s a faithful adaptation or if he even made it his own because the original film isn’t very available. Either way, I felt that he wrote a well thought out film. Whenever a new character showed up, like Olivia Wilde as a potential new love interest for Crowe, I asked why this character was wasting screen time. But the questions were always answered. In fact, one might say that the film answers too many questions. The film answers the question of Lara’s guilt. I thought that was questionable. I liked the ambiguousness of Crowe’s quest.

I call it a “quest” because Crowe mentions Don Quixote earlier in the film and questions the idea of the quest and what kind of world the hero lives in. Crowe is obviously a quixotic character in that he is a common man attempting to commit an ambitious crime even by veteran criminal standards. I found this connection very interesting and it tied into the whole theme of determination in the face of seeming uselessness.

The Next Three Days leaves something to ponder, provides an emotional punch, contains some tense action, and tells the story of a determined man planning a nearly impossible task. It feels long and gives a few more answers than I would like, but I was still very impressed with it. It was good to see a slow film that builds character and suspense. Even though I’m in the minority, I hope Crowe keeps this up…and I hope the studios keep putting the money up for it.

Random Thoughts

It was great to see Brian Dennehy in this. He seemed wasted for most of the film, but his quiet performance really pays off in the end.

I didn't mention it above, but Banks does a very good job in this film. She worked well alongside Crowe in their prison visit scenes.

Of course, Kevin Corrigan as...the drug dealer. It's great to see Corrigan, but he plays the five minute scumbag role far too often. I really hope he breaks out in some bigger roles soon.

I acknowledge that this film is completely implausible at times (the tennis ball to unlock a car is a bit whacky), but it works. When compared to Law Abiding Citizen, this movie is a documentary, so I give it a pass for the minor transgressions.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Unstoppable - Directed by Tony Scott, written by Mark Bomback, starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Lew Temple, and Kevin Dunn - Rated PG-13

Unstoppable features the most ridiculous out of control cinematic train since Highlander II: The Quickening.

Director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington must have really loved playing with train sets in their youth. Unstoppable marks their second film in two years that deals with transportation on tracks. I enjoyed last year’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, even though I felt that it was over-directed by Scott. When I heard about Unstoppable it seemed almost like a joke. Why would these guys make another movie about trains so close together? I’m glad they made another train movie, though, because Unstoppable is totally decent and coupled with Pelham it makes for an unlikely, slightly above average double feature.

Unstoppable is based on the “true” story of a runaway train loaded with hazardous chemicals in Ohio in which no one was hurt. In the film, which takes place in Pennsylvania, the drama is ramped up considerably. Not only is the train moving at higher speeds than the real train (upwards of 70 MPH in the film compared to 46-47 MPH in reality), but there is also a train of school children on the tracks, and the train is heading into a highly residential area. Add some police cars chasing alongside of it and even throw in some gunfire (there is real news footage of a deputy actually trying to shoot the fuel tank of the train) and you have yourself a movie. I’m not being sarcastic at all. I dug the “what else could go wrong?” plot.

What makes the film work, though, is Scott’s overbearing direction. This is a loud movie and I mean that in the best way. Scott places the viewer on the tracks and it gets intense. He also does a good job of making everything seem much more frantic than it really is; the train is on tracks, you know, and 70 MPH isn’t that insane of a speed. But I did get a feeling of urgency throughout and the film never slows down or becomes boring. With that said, I did feel like Scott used too many extremely similar shots to the point that I thought he was just reusing footage after awhile. And he does have to throw in the occasional pointless camera swing that has become his annoying trademark, but it is toned down in this film.

Scott has the train sensation down, but you still need to care about the people on the tracks. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (Star Trek) are the two unlikely heroes who take it upon themselves to run the train down in reverse and try to stop it. Of course, Washington is fine. He’s not doing anything new, but that’s okay. I still enjoy his work even though he’s getting dangerously close to becoming a caricature now that he’s a regular target on “Saturday Night Live.” After a lampooning on “SNL” I can’t look at Mark Wahlberg without laughing; I hope the same doesn’t happen with Washington.

Pine handles himself well opposite Washington as the young whippersnapper to Washington’s disillusioned veteran. Their relationship is a bit uneven in the early moments of the film, moving too quickly back and forth from buddy-buddy to angry rivals, but by the end, they had earned a nice scene in which they talk about Pine’s marital status while speeding backwards in a train. The absurdity of the moment worked for me.

The rest of the cast is rounded out well. T. J. Miller and Ethan Suplee are amusing as the goofy rail workers who allow the train to get away. Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan have some decent scenes from the command post. Kevin Dunn gets to slime up the screen as the greedy company man. My favorite performance, however, comes from Lew Temple as Ned, the overzealous, cowboy rail worker who shows up from time to time to yell at people. He really added some much needed humor to the film.

Speaking of humor, this film ends very strangely. Not to ruin anything, but for the first 95 minutes this is a relatively serious film, but the last five minutes are almost complete comedy. There’s even a cheesy montage that lets us know what happened to all of the characters that is clearly trying to evoke some laughs. It seemed out of place to me. Maybe the point was that after watching a loud train barrel down a track for nearly two hours, the audience was entitled to relax and laugh a little. It didn’t really work for me, though.

So is Unstoppable as ridiculous as the previews lead you to believe? Yes, actually it’s even more whacky than you may have thought. But if you just go with it, it ends up being an enjoyable time. I can’t lie, though; I hope Denzel Washington and Tony Scott have gotten trains out of their system. I’m not sure I can handle a trilogy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Due Date"

Due Date - Directed by Todd Phillips, written by Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel & Todd Phillips, starring Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, and Jamie Foxx - Rated R

Planes, Trains & Automobiles this isn't, but it's still pretty funny.

Comedy is my least favorite genre to review. I love a good comedy as much as anyone, don’t get me wrong, but to critique it is an exercise in futility. Comedy is subjective; it’s all about the viewer’s personal sense of humor. I suppose you could make this argument for all genres of film, but I find comedies are much more susceptible to divisiveness. The point is I can’t tell you whether or not Due Date is funny; I can only tell you if I thought it was funny.

With all that said, I thought Due Date was funny. I didn’t find it uproarious or anything, though. This movie, from writer/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover), tries to be a bit more than a laugh a minute comedy. Due Date wants to be Planes, Trains & Automobiles but it lacks the heart of that superior film. This movie does have insanely funny moments, but it’s mainly a film of polite chuckles rather than uncontrollable guffaws. I’m okay with that and I did like Due Date, but it is not a potential comedy classic.

I make the comparison to Planes because Due Date is a road trip movie in which an odd couple of men have to make it across the country in a set amount of time. Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter, the Steve Martin of the film, who is trying to make it home to L.A. for the birth of his child, hence the title. Zach Galifianakis plays Ethan, the obnoxious, but sympathetic John Candy role, who is traveling to L.A. to become an actor after his father has died.

Your enjoyment of Due Date doesn’t really hinge on great comedic writing; it’s more about the two stars. I’m starting to pick up on a bit of Galifianakis backlash lately and I can understand why: the guy is in everything it seems. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see a preview, TV show, internet video, or movie that features his bearded face. I don’t mind because I find him hilarious. Others might be starting to tire of him.

Galifianakis, like John Candy in Planes, is disgusting at worst and only slightly annoying at best. Downey Jr. does a great job just reacting to the craziness. Sure, it’s funny enough when Galifianakis uses one of his antiquated exclamatory phrases (“I have never!”) and stomps off in a furious ladywalk, but just seeing the look of befuddlement and anger on Downey’s face is enough to make me laugh. It gets even better when Downey loses his cool and gets loud and violent. My favorite moments in the film involve Downey punching and spitting. That may sound odd, but when you see it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The stars work well together and most of the big set pieces, while completely ridiculous, are pretty entertaining. The few action-type scenes are filmed well. The supporting cast is amusing (though I thought Jamie Foxx was a bit underused). The point is this movie is completely enjoyable and worth checking out. But it does fail in a very noticeable way that may put some viewers off a bit.

This film tries very hard to have a heart. It’s understandable that Phillips would want to make a film with a little more drama to it since his previous films (Old School, Road Trip) are all laughs and little or no heart. The emotional scenes in Due Date are so unexpected and awkward, though, that they fail to produce any sense of drama. First off, Galifianakis is hard to take seriously and you want to laugh at the guy. I like to laugh at his stupidity, though, not at his grief. In a scene in this film, Galifianakis’s character is attempting to showcase his acting “skills.” It’s funny enough, but in the end of the scene he starts sobbing over the death of his father. When he switched over to the tears I heard multiple people in the theater laugh, not realizing that the funny scene just went sad. It’s not good when a movie makes you inadvertently laugh at someone’s grief. So Phillips has a way to go in the drama department. I would be okay with him never attempting again, though.

Due Date is the film that wants to have a heart but doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it is a bad movie. I enjoyed the majority of the film and I laughed consistently. This isn’t a comedy for the ages or anything, but it’s just fine for now. If you’re a fan of the stars, you should enjoy it. But remember, this isn’t a funny movie; it’s just a movie that I found funny. The comedy is up to you.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

It might be wrong of me, but seeing Downey Jr. punch a child in the stomach and spit in a dog's face made me laugh and laugh.

I'm pretty sure they should have been arrested at the end of the movie. They did cause quite a lot of damage at the border.

Danny McBride's short scene was funny. Even though the line is in the previews, I still like the idea of someone making reservations at Chili's.

Speaking of the preview, way too many jokes were given away. I was hoping they would take the example from Get Him to the Greek. That comedy's previews barely featured any footage that made the final cut. It showed the tone of the movie without ruining any of the jokes. Due Date's previews spoil a big chunk of the movie. But what can you do? It was really hard not to see any of the marketing for this film.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Monsters - Written and directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy - Rated R

This one just barely squeaked by with a Kurgan.

Monsters is the latest low-budget indie film to catch the attention of film geeks, so of course I had to check it out, especially since it became available On Demand. With a budget of $500,000, Monsters is pretty impressive from a purely economical standpoint. As an effective film, however, it staggers a bit.

The story goes like this: an alien invasion occurred six years ago in Northern Mexico. The governments of both Mexico and America worked together to quarantine the area. That is the backdrop for the story of Samantha (Whitney Able) and Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a runaway daughter of a media mogul and a struggling photographer, respectively. Of course, these two have to navigate their way through the quarantined zone on their way to America.

The couple is short on cash, so they have to use (figuratively) underground methods to reach America. Are you sensing the irony, yet? Oh wait, did I mention the characters are American? Okay, now, how does this sound: two Americans forced to illegally enter America? Start asking about whom those titular monsters really are and you have yourself an allegory. If you’re picking up on a bit of sarcasm (and I imagine you are), it’s because I didn’t really buy into the message of this film. It’s not that the message is pointless or anything, it just felt heavy handed. Normally I would excuse a fault like this in a film, but the rest of the movie isn’t good enough to warrant a blind eye.

The problem with the rest of the film is that it is too meandering. Long scenes of boring travel interspersed with near encounters with alien creatures. That would be fine if there was more tension in the film. I just didn’t find the characters compelling enough to warrant so many long stretches of them walking, sitting, and talking. I didn’t care all that much about them and that is a vital component of a film like this.

Monsters is an alien movie, though, right? So what about these aliens? Well, the low budget aspect really sticks out with the creatures, which sometimes look painfully cheap. That’s forgivable for me because I loved the creature design. The aliens would be right at home in an H. P. Lovecraft story, with all of their tentacles and strange noises. The design worked for me, but you don’t get too many good looks at them, which I’m sure is due to the budget.

Despite some budget issues with the aliens, the rest of the film looks great. There are some truly beautiful images in this film. The image (slight SPOILER) of the border fence as seen from the top of an Aztec temple, though geographically questionable, is amazing.

Visually, the film manages to work and even though I found the characters weak, I was still emotionally connected to the story. That mind sound contradictory but it is what it is. I was compelled by the relationship between the characters but not by the characters themselves. I chalk that up to the chemistry between the actors. They may not be the most impressive performances of the year, but they were genuine enough for me.

Something else that worked for me was the editing of this film. I don’t mean that in terms of cuts and transitions, but in terms of order. I’m not one to ruin anything (so stop reading this paragraph now if you want to watch this movie “fresh”), but I will say that you should pay very close attention to the beginning of the movie or, if you have the chance, watch the first few minutes of the film again after it’s over. I just thought it was really cool what the filmmakers did there.

Speaking of filmmakers, I think writer/director Gareth Edwards has a bright future in the industry. I may have found his message a bit preachy, but I imagine his future projects will only feature better writing because an attempt to hide a message in an actual story shows that he is ambitious, and Hollywood could always use more ambitious writers.

Monsters ends up being slightly on my positive side, but not by much. I would suggest just waiting for this to rent or even show up on a movie channel. It has its moments, but it isn’t very memorable or even original, really. But it looks great despite its budget, has a cool editing twist, and features some interesting creature design. Be warned, though, this film is called Monsters because you’re supposed to ponder the title, not take it literally. Do not expect an alien action bloodbath; you will be disappointed. (For the record, I was not expecting said bloodbath, but I am aware others might.) This is just a little sci-fi film with a message and it’s worth a look, if you get the chance.

PS – I am very proud of myself for not mentioning District 9 a single time in this review. Oh, wait…damn it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Paranormal Activity 2"

Paranormal Activity 2 - Directed by Tod Williams, written by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst - Rated R

The Kurgan is still shakin' in his boots after this one. True, those boots are made with the skin of his enemies...but they're still shakin'.

Quick, did you like the first Paranormal Activity? No? Don’t watch this then. That may be obvious advice, but just in case you thought this sequel might try and get all Blair Witch 2 on you, be assured that it does not. Paranormal Activity 2 (a thankfully straightforward horror sequel title) is exactly like its predecessor in tone and style. If you thought it was stupid the first time, why would your mind change for a second go around? If you’re like me, though, and thought the original was a refreshing and chilling horror film, then read on.

Paranormal Activity 2 was a pleasant surprise for me. I honestly expected this movie to be complete garbage. I came close to skipping it completely, but good word of mouth and a decent score on Rotten Tomatoes convinced me to give it a try. I’m glad I did. While this sequel doesn’t surpass the original, it is definitely a worthy addition to the franchise. Yes, I said franchise because after this film’s opening weekend you can bet you’ll be seeing a Paranormal Activity every Halloween for the foreseeable future a la Saw. I’ll come back to that later, though.

This film worked for me mainly because of its connection to the original. This film actually turns out to be a prequel of sorts (Micah and Katie show up sporadically) and that was surprising to me. I figured the filmmakers would go with a standalone story for the sequel. But they actually ended up tying it all together nicely. Paranormal Activity 2 follows Katie’s sister Kristi and her family. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t go into specifics. Basically it’s the first film with a teenager, a baby, and a dog thrown in. A crying baby and a barking dog in the middle of the night? Throw some mirrors in and we have some creepy stuff. What, you have two mirrors? Oh crap.

Which brings me to what I love about these two movies. This series is essentially the “Where’s Waldo?” of the horror movie world. You have to constantly scan the screen to look for something amiss. This is mainly fun in the early minutes of the film because things get progressively obvious. I love those first few nights, though. I find my eyes darting all over the screen, not wanting to miss a thing. I’m sorry, but if a film makes you pay that close attention to it, then something is going right.

The scares get more blatant near the end, but that doesn’t diminish the film at all. I have found that creepy, loud noises in the middle of the night are very relatable scares. Everyone’s been home alone at one time or another, so it’s easy to place yourself within this movie. The unseen horror of it all adds to the fright factor. A stomping invisible menace is flat out effective.

The film not only adds more characters, it also adds more cameras. The reasoning is justified and there are enough blind spots to keep things suspenseful. Overall, everything that was effective the first time around still works; it only lacks the “gotcha!” of the original.

The only other thing I felt that this film lacked compared to the first movie is the character development. I liked the young couple from the first film. They were amusing and believable. This time around we get believable characters, but we don’t get to know all that much about them. The teenager gets some nice moments, but for the most part I didn’t find myself caring about this family as much as I did for Micah and Katie. Let me put it this way, I remembered Micah and Katie’s names, but all I could remember from this film were the mother’s name (Christi) and the baby’s (Hunter). I think the teen had a name that started with an “A”…not sure, though.

Now back to that whole franchise business. I rejoiced when the first film crushed the Saw sequel last year (and I hope this takes down Saw 3D this weekend). I loved the first Saw but felt that the series had spiraled out of control from the second film on. I was glad to see this sequel work, but I don’t see how they can keep the story connected for future films without it getting extremely tiresome. It might be unfair to judge like this, but I can’t imagine any future outings working this well; as a story, that is.

The scare tactics of this film will work for a while, though. I don’t know if they will work for seven movies, however…or for 3-D for that matter. And here’s hoping that we’re not talking about Paranormal Activity 3-D this time next year.

As it is, we can be happy that this sequel to the unlikely phenomenon from last year turned out to be a surprisingly effective follow-up. If you liked Paranormal Activity the first time, watch this. If you didn’t, well, whatever disparaging comments you had for the first film…repeat them.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I liked the touch of the framed photo from the original showing up onscreen.

The scenes in the basement in the end were a bit too close to those of REC (or the remake Quarantine) for my taste...still scary, though.

Anyone notice the message these movies are sending? Men don't believe in spirits and ghosts until it's too late and they pay for it with their lives.

What happened to the dog? Was it in the last scene? I didn't notice it. Maybe it's still in the hospital. Or it's dead...

They did review the security footage a few times, but a reasonable family would have checked that stuff out much more consistently when most of this crap started happening.

Way to amp up the dragging scene in this one. I loved how she got away for a bit, just to be dragged again.

Katie Featherstone snaps necks with the ease of a Steven Seagal in his prime.