Monday, September 27, 2010

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Directed by Oliver Stone, written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, starring Michael Douglas, Shia LeBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, and Frank Langella - Rated PG-13

"Stop telling lies about me and I'll stop telling the truth about you." Unfortunately, this is the only decent line I can remember from the film.

The original Wall Street was a look at an era of excess. If you look back at that film about the deceitful Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and upstart Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) you get a real sense of the world of Wall Street in the 1980s. It wasn’t just about how the stock market operated; it was also about the 80s in general. Just watch the sequence when Bud buys an apartment; a Talking Heads song plays as we see so much excess it’s almost funny.

I mention all of this because the sense of a world is missing from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. I never got the sense that the new young upstart, Jacob Moore (Shia LeBeouf), was entering a new world. Another aspect missing from this new Wall Street was good dialogue. The original is an insanely quotable film that is filled with amusing insults and witty remarks concerning the financial world. There’s a line here and there that sticks out in this film, but no one will be quoting this in the future.

Wall Street: MNS was a bit of a letdown for me because it lacked focus and just didn’t know what it wanted to be. It gets off to a good start, though. In fact, the beginning is almost like its own little short film featuring a very effective performance by Frank Langella. As I said, there are not many good lines of dialogue in the film, but Langella transcends that problem with his booming voice. Unfortunately, Langella isn’t in the film very long.

After Langella’s exit, the film’s real story begins. Jacob Moore decides to deliver some payback to the man who forced Langella out of his investment firm, Bretton James (Josh Brolin). To do that, he enlists the help of Gordon Gekko, who has reemerged in the financial world after a jail stint and a new book. Gekko is willing to help Jacob as long as Jacob attempts to reconcile him with his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who is engaged to Jacob. That’s all interesting but only because it’s unexpected. Seeing Gekko as an actual human being rather than a greedy scumbag was new, but the new Gekko is just kind of pathetic.

The revenge subplot was interesting and in keeping with the original’s tone, but there wasn’t enough actual Wall Street action. I know some people might be put off by financial babble, but that belongs in a film about Wall Street. Money Never Sleeps played more like a family drama that happens to involve players in Wall Street.

That said, the few scenes that involve finance are all great. Brolin has some nice moments (in many ways, he is the Gordon Gekko of this film) and his interactions with Douglas and Langella are entertaining.

Brolin and Langella impressed me the most, but there’s not really a weak performance in the film. Shia LeBeouf actually stands up against all of the heavy hitters; I only found him weak in a few of the sappier scenes with Mulligan. Mulligan does a decent job, but all she really gets to do is act sad throughout. Susan Sarandon is okay as Jacob’s hectic mother, but I was mainly just wondering what she was doing in the film. And Michael Douglas gets right back into Gekko mode quite easily. Of course, he’s played a lot of characters similar to Gekko over the years, but he’s still charismatic and fun to watch.

The acting was all there, but the story wasn’t. I have to blame the majority of this film on Oliver Stone. True, he didn’t write the screenplay for this one, but that’s the point. How can Stone direct a sequel to one of his own screenplays and not write it himself? That’s why the great dialogue was missing and I’m assuming that’s why this was more of a Lifetime Original movie than a Wall Street movie. If you disagree with me on the Lifetime jab, just watch the last fifteen minutes of this film and tell me that that isn’t a weak and sappy ending.

Stone’s biggest influence was his decision to not write the film, but he still tries to add a little something in the form of strange and out of place split screen sequences, dissolves and wipes, and visual aids for sequences about how communication travels and how fusion energy works. I could’ve done without all of it; however it wasn’t distracting or detrimental to the film, just kind of pointless.

Wall Street does offer quite a few references for fans of the original. I won’t say who shows up, but there are some amusing cameos. There are a lot of David Byrne songs (“This Is the Place” by Talking Heads even plays over the credits), but none of the new music sticks out like the original’s soundtrack.

The biggest fan service, though, is the fact that Gordon Gekko is in it. Sure, he’s a tame and sad Gekko, but he’s still very watchable. It’s unfortunate that the film lacked focus and Stone didn’t write it. It doesn’t ruin the original (though some will believe it did). All it really did was make me realize how much I loved the original, and that’s not all that bad.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, that ending was ridiculous. Suddenly Gordon Gekko has a heart? Screw that. If there's a film character that I never want to see change in, it's Gekko. Also, what exactly did he really do that makes Winnie change her mind? It all seemed forced and way too sentimental.

Langella's death scene was easily the most moving scene in the film.

The bailout scene was pretty great. Even before Eli Wallach mentioned the end of the world, I was thinking that the scene could easily have been put into an "end of the world" movie and you would barely have to change the dialogue.

By the way, what was with Wallach in this film? It's cool to see such an old timer still acting, but I didn't understand the whistling thing he kept doing...just seemed a bit weird.

Charlie Sheen's appearance as Bud Fox was kind of amusing, but the more I thought about it the more I hated it. He basically showed up to show that he turned into successful scumbag and learned nothing. Actually, it was Sheen playing himself. Weak.

I enjoyed Michael Douglas as Gekko in the last act of the know, when he gets to be old school Gekko. The previews set up Gekko to be like that the entire film...if only it was true. It was a good ten minutes or so, though.

Finally, for the record, I hate that "Money Never Sleeps" subtitle. Couldn't that have gone with "The Bailout" or "The Collapse" or "Too Big to Fail" or something? Hell, how about just putting a "2" at the end of the title and being done with it?

Friday, September 24, 2010

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done"

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done - Directed by Werner Herzog, written by Herbert Golder and Werner Herzog, starring Michael Shannon, Udo Kier, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, and Brad Dourif - Rated R

"So What? So What? So What!?"

Let me start this review by saying that I am an unabashed Werner Herzog fan. I absolutely love films like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Herzog’s last film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, was a weird and amazing film. If you thought that was weird, wait to you see My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. My Son is a film about one man’s descent into madness and the film itself is quite strange.

This film, strange as it is, is actually based on a true story. I suppose this paragraph counts as a SPOILER, so if you want to watch this movie fresh I would suggest skipping to the next paragraph. My Son is based on the story of Mark Yavorsky, who was in a production of a matricidal Greek play. He took his role a bit too seriously and ended up killing his mother with a sword. Okay, that’s messed up already, and that’s the true story this film is based on. Herzog and co-writer Herbert Golder managed to amp up the insanity.

My Son stars Michael Shannon, the go-to crazy man of late, as Brad (still based on Mark Yavorsky, just a name change). After his performances in Bug and Revolutionary Road, he really is the perfect choice to play an insane character. Even though madness is nothing new for Shannon, he manages to give his most impressive performance yet. Just look at the poster; this man is capable of conveying such intensity through a stare alone. Throw in some absurd dialogue and you have a great chaotic performance.

Crazy is interesting enough, but it’s nothing new. My Son stands out because of Herzog’s filmmaking. His meandering camerawork fits in beautifully with the strangeness. The camerawork is reminiscent of Bad Lieutenant, so that’s not groundbreaking. What stands out, however, are the still scenes. By still I don’t mean that Herzog freezes the scene. I mean that he asks the actors to be as still as possible while he continues to film. It actually works quite well and these scenes are what stood out to me. And I must say, it takes guts for a director to ask actors to stand completely still for an extended amount of time in a scene in which an actress is holding a plate of Jell-o. I am not joking…that scene exists, and I loved it.

Herzog didn’t just make a crazy film, though. He made a beautiful film. The scenes in Peru reminded me of his earlier work in the jungle. The images of Michael Shannon standing at the banks of a rushing river and at the base of mountainous cliffs were amazing. Some of the shots in California were beautiful as well and Herzog found some interesting architecture to shoot, too. This film may be head scratching to some, but no one can deny that it looks great throughout.

Beautiful images and Michael Shannon’s crazed stare are interesting and all, but it takes more than that to make a great film. Thankfully, My Son has a great supporting cast. Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña get to play the clichéd detectives in an interesting counter to Brad’s insanity. Chloë Sevigny also tries to keep things sane as Brad’s fiancé. But it’s the other slightly off-balance characters that stand out. (Though to be fair, Dafoe always seems a little off-balanced.) Udo Kier is entertaining as a theatre director. His voice alone adds a little something to a movie. I always imagine that Herzog casts Kier when he cannot perform the role himself because Kier has a voice that rivals Herzog’s when it comes to insane sincerity. There is no humor in it, but you still have to laugh at times. Brad Dourif also makes a strange appearance as an ostrich farmer with some very grand and weird ideas. His presence alone makes the film a bit more interesting. But it’s Grace Zabriskie as Brad’s mother who impressed me the most. As the overbearing mother she is completely impressive through her facial gestures alone. At times, she looked even crazier than Brad. It really created the idea that Brad may have gone crazy because of his mother, even if that idea was not on the page.

On top of all the insanity of the film, there is actually quite a bit of humor. Perhaps it isn’t intentional, but if you watch it I imagine you’ll agree that some of this must have been meant to produce a laugh or two. Even if it isn’t intentional, it’s still great. The scenes with Dourif are quite funny and a lot of Brad’s random lines cracked me up throughout. A movie about a man going insane has to have a little bit of humor.

This isn’t a comedy, though. I laughed, sure, but it was more of a disturbing look at madness more than anything. That concept is driven home by the score. It may be a bit overbearing at times but it was unsettling throughout and that’s the point. The music places you in an unstable mind frame, which is exactly what you need to be in while watching this film.

The movie could possibly be off putting in its slow, strange style, but I found it completely engrossing. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen it, but it hasn’t left my thoughts. I keep thinking about it and I can’t wait to see it again. If a movie has that effect on me, then I have to get behind it and promote it as much as possible.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is all over the place with the crazed performances, the random dialogue, the haunting score, and the beautiful images. It’s a strange mess of a film that somehow turned into a film that I absolutely love. I can say that this is going into my top ten of the year without a doubt, but it is out there and some people might find it stupid and boring. I think it’s worth checking out, though. If you like Herzog and you’re looking for something a bit more interesting than the mainstream has to offer, then watch this as soon as possible.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Easy A"

Easy A - Directed by Will Gluck, written by Bert V. Royal, starring Emma Stone, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, and Lisa Kudrow - Rated PG-13

The Kurgan's okay with checking out a borderline girly movie. If you give him crap about it, he'll disembowel you.

Easy A didn’t really stand out as a must-see for me when I first came across news about it. The connection to “The Scarlet Letter” was interesting (mainly because I am an English teacher), but aside from that it looked like a movie for young high school girls. Well, it kind of is, but it’s much smarter than your typical teen movie. The added intelligence and witty script also means that this is not just for high school girls (at least I keep telling myself that). This is a film for an audience that likes to think and laugh, but there’s also enough stuff here for the brainless laughers as well.

I won’t waste time giving a synopsis of “The Scarlet Letter” because the movie does that for you (along with clips from the original film version of the novel). Easy A is just as inspired by John Hughes movies as it is by the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In fact, I would say that those well versed in the Hughesverse will have much more fun with this film than Hawthorne enthusiasts (if they exist, that is). This movie strives to be its own entry along with classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. Time will tell if it succeeds, but regardless of the film’s “classic” status, it is still a very enjoyable experience and a refreshing one at that.

Easy A stars Emma Stone as Olive, a nearly invisible high school student who inadvertently starts the rumor that she lost her virginity. She gains instant popularity, much to her enjoyment. A strange feeling of quasi-nobility prompts her to stage a very public and very fake sexual encounter with a gay classmate. He gets to appear straight so people will leave him alone. She gets more popularity as the school slut. Things take off from there and, as you can probably imagine, spiral out of control.

The fake sex scene is one of the examples of brainless laughter and it is very funny. But the lasting comedy of the movie comes from Bert V. Royal’s smart script. There are doses of clever conversation and non sequiturs throughout. Olive spouts off clever lines so quickly that some of them might go over your head. But if you have a keen ear you’ll pick up on some great lines that include references to Sylvia Plath’s suicide and Kinsey’s scale of sexual orientation.

The non sequiturs come from Thomas Haden Church, who co-stars as Mr. Griffith, the English teacher who introduces Olive to “The Scarlet Letter.” All of his random lines cracked me up. Church is perfect for delivering lines like, “Remember tomorrow is Earth Day,” completely out of the blue after a long silence. I know it doesn’t sound funny when you simply read it, but trust me, it works on the screen.

Quick witted teenagers and random dialogue may have you thinking of another recent high school movie: Juno. I did not care for that film because of the dialogue. It sounded too unrealistic and just plain stupid. Well, Easy A certainly isn’t realistic, but it doesn’t sound stupid. The dialogue isn’t funny because it’s made up and new; it’s funny because the language is played with and the references are smart.

The dialogue works thanks to Emma Stone’s delivery, as well. Her smoky voice adds a level of maturity to her character (the film also makes a funny crack at how unnatural her voice might seem) and it makes it easier to believe that she could actually come up with most of the stuff she says.

The main evidence for Olive’s intelligence, though, comes from her parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. They are both as impossibly witty and clever as Olive and they are even funnier. Sure, no one actually talks like these people, but who wants realistic family dialogue in a movie like this? I know I don’t.

The movie is not perfect or anything, though. Olive’s motives do not necessarily make sense and the school’s reaction to the idea of her having sex was a bit ridiculous. We live in a country in which high school pregnancy is relatively common; it seems a bit crazy to think an entire school would freak out over the possibility of one unpopular student losing her virginity.

Christianity’s portrayal in Easy A could possibly rub people the wrong way as well. A group of Christian students come across as completely psychotic throughout the film. To be fair, they are meant to be viewed as extremists, but there isn’t a normal Christian character portrayed to counter the psychos. Although one could argue that Olive redeems the idea of faith at one point in the film, but it doesn’t really balance out the portrayal.

The whole faith issue didn’t bother me, though; I’m just putting it out there as a fair warning. I actually found it all quite innocent, but then again I’m not easily offended. Point being this film is not for everyone, but it’s not only for a select group like high school girls, either. If you want to laugh at some slightly raunchy sex humor, or laugh at surprisingly quick and smart dialogue, or reminisce about the heyday of John Hughes, etc. then by all means, watch Easy A.

Random Thoughts

Lisa Kudrow was decent in this. She usually annoys the hell out of me, but I didn't mind her as the guidance counselor in this film.

Malcolm McDowell had a funny scene early in the film. I was hoping for more, but his character simply doesn't factor in the story enough to warrant more scenes.

The recurring Mark Twain joke was great.

The opening credits were cleverly placed, especially the way Emma Stone's name was listed in the "And" credit as she narrates about being forgotten and insignificant.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"The Town"

First off, I know it's been a couple weeks, but I've been a bit busy and couldn't make it to the theatre last weekend. I plan on making it up in the next few days. Along with The Town I will also be posting reviews of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and Easy A later in the week.

The Town - Directed by Ben Affleck, written by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard, starring Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, and Jon Hamm - Rated R

Keep 'em comin', Affleck.

The Town, based on the very enjoyable novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan, is a film about Boston. More specifically, it’s about a part of Boston called Charlestown. Much like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone the city itself is a character. Ben Affleck (who co-writes, directs, and stars) has done a fine job of incorporating the city into the film. I found his ability to place the viewer into a scene much more impressive, though.

Charlestown, the film claims, contains the most armored car/bank robbers per capita in the United States. Affleck portrays Doug MacRay, leader of a crew of robbers. The gang seems to doing well, though Doug is on a different track than his cohort Jem (Jeremy Renner). Doug is ready to cash out and Jem is ready to step up to the big leagues and start working directly under the local gangster. Things get much more complicated when Doug starts dating a witness from their last robbery who could possibly identify Jem to the FBI.

The story is interesting enough, especially since it’s one of those movies in which the “good” and “bad” guy roles are reversed with the robber in the sympathetic light. The relationship aspect is what makes it a bit more fascinating because the set up allows for instant tension. The first date scene between Doug and the witness, Claire (Rebecca Hall), is quite good. Imagine the victim (she witnessed the brutal beating of a co-worker during the robbery) relating the story of being taken hostage to one of the men who took her. Strangely enough, I found myself hoping things would work out between them even though the entire relationship is based on a falsehood of epic proportions.

The Town contains enough dating scenes to consider this a romantic action film. That’s not a bad thing, really. I consider this to be one of those rare films for adults that has a little something for everyone. On the action side, Affleck films shootouts and heists serviceably with a bit of creativity here and there. I particularly liked his transitions from security camera footage into the actual scene. And there are some very effective and brutal scenes near the end that stuck with me.

The most impressive sequence in the film, however, was a twenty second scene in slow motion and almost completely muted. I don’t want to spoil it or anything, suffice it to say that it’s a scene in which MacRay feels like his world is about to collapse and it was filmed and edited in such a way that I knew exactly how he felt.

That scene may have only been impressive to me because I have read the book. Affleck completely captured that scene exactly as I imagined it. I don’t want to spend much time on a book comparison, I’ll just say that the film represents the book quite well and the change to the ending was interesting.

Of course, capturing a moment and placing the viewer in a character’s shoes is only as interesting as the performance. Affleck plays MacRay with a sincere intensity that I completely bought. Renner played the barely restrained psycho effectively and the two had plenty of good scenes together. I also enjoyed Chris Cooper’s small role as MacRay’s father. He only had one short scene, but it was a powerful one. Along those lines, I enjoyed Pete Postlethwaite as the aging gangster in Charlestown. The only one left with little to do is Jon Hamm. I would like to see the “Mad Men” star crossover into the movies a bit more, but he just isn’t given anything to do here. He is believable as the driven FBI agent, but he’s just bland. I was hoping for a showdown along the lines of Pacino and De Niro in Heat, but this film did not have anywhere near the payoff that that film had. It seemed like that role could have gone to anyone.

The weak FBI character isn’t the only issue with the film. It seemed that too many scenes were shot with the talking character with his/her back to the camera. I think it had something to do with the looping of the dialogue, which is a pet peeve of mine. No big deal, it just made the film look a little sloppy here and there.

Small nitpicks aside, The Town is a very good film that places you right in Charlestown. It moves at steady pace and never gets boring. It looks like Affleck is coming into his own as a filmmaker. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS for both book and film)

Jon Hamm's FBI agent could've been more interesting...if they had stuck with the book. Frawley in the book is a rival suitor for Claire and is more than just his job. Sure, this would've taken up more screen time, but it would have made the rivalry between MacRay and Frawley much more compelling.

I was hoping for more heist planning scenes but I understand that the point of this film isn't how to pull off a heist. It's more about MacRay and his desire to get away from it all. I suppose all the planning stuff in the book is best left on the page anyway.

Man oh man I wish they would have stuck with Jem packing the grenades for the last job. He still went out hard in the movie, but the grenades would have been hardcore. Of course, that may have turned out to be a bit over the top. But then again, I do enjoy explosions...

I called the change in the ending "interesting" above and I chose that word carefully lest it sound like I agreed with the change. I preferred the novel's more realistic and bleak ending, but I was okay with the film's much more positive finish. I have to give it up to them for deciding to go all the way and not only make the criminal the hero but also let him live and give him the hope of getting the girl.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Machete - Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, written by Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez, starring Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lindsay Lohan - Rated R

Bring on more fake preview movies!

started as a joke, in a way. It was one of the fake movie previews from Quentin Tarintino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double feature. Rodriguez claims he always thought of it as a feature, but the fact is that the preview was made before the feature film, which is definitely odd. Either way, I am very glad that they ended up making a full movie out of the idea.

The strange origins of this film aside, the cast may create a bit of head scratching as well. The star of the film is Danny Trejo, one of those actors you’ve seen a hundred times (he usually plays a tough guy), but you don’t know his name. Okay, so a character actor gets a starring role in an ironic B-movie. But he’s backed up by Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Jeff Fahey, Lindsay Lohan, Cheech Marin, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez, Tom Savini, and Don Johnson. That’s a weird cast, to say the least. But it’s also quite awesome.

The story, if you care, goes a little something like this: Machete is a federale who has been targeted by the evil Torrez (Seagal). He ends up in America, looking for jobs with fellow illegal immigrants. Machete ends up in the middle of a political and literal war over immigration. Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as serious as it sounds. In fact, if I had to classify this movie, I would call it “Mexsploitation.” That is absolutely a compliment, by the way.

Much like a blaxsploitation film, Machete is about a Mexican who is fighting the government while also getting with every lady who looks his way. It’s also made in an intentionally poor manner and meant to be funny. The important thing is that it accomplishes all of this. What makes it all possible is the use of Danny Trejo. It is great to see him as a star. I had a grin on my face just for the sheer fact that I was watching a movie starring Trejo. It makes sense for him to be a star, though. He’s not nice to look at, sure, but what a perfectly grizzled action star.

Trejo is not alone, though. Like I said, this cast is quite the anomaly. I’ll try to stick with the highlights. Steven Seagal is very enjoyable in the villain role. It was nice to see him in a theatre for a change. De Niro is obviously having fun here and he gets to ham it up as a redneck politician. Rodriguez (who I usually abhor) is actually okay in this one. Alba is just kind of there, but she does have a moment or two. Marin was fun in a short role. Jeff Fahey made for a great shady political advisor. Lohan wasn’t bad. And Don Johnson stuck out as a vigilante border patrol agent. In all honesty I had no idea Johnson was in this until the opening credits rolled (it was doubly amusing when he was credited as “Introducing Don Johnson”). My only complaint is that Tom Savini seemed completely wasted. He was set up as a rival to Machete, but it never came to pass. Here’s hoping that the DVD contains an awesome deleted showdown between the two.

The acting and casting is superb but this is still an action movie at heart and the action holds up. It’s a bit CG heavy at times (but that’s understandable since Rodriguez runs his own production company and CG is probably cheaper than practical effects at times). For the most part, this is a hilariously brutal film. It’s called “Machete,” after all, and there are machetes aplenty. So body parts get cut off and blood sprays everywhere and it’s all in good fun. If anything, though, the movie is not as bloody and action packed as one might assume.

The movie actually has a kind of statement, though it’s not to be taken seriously. Once again, this is a Mexsploitation film, which means that illegal immigrants are going to be portrayed in a heroic light. That may rub some people the wrong way (I’ve already come across some message board complaints about the film being too “left wing”). I can understand that, I guess, but this movie is so tongue in cheek that it shouldn’t bother anyone. I was just thankful that it didn’t stick with the Grindhouse look. The beginning is grainy and all, but it gets cleaned up after the opening.

Machete is a weird movie no matter how you look at it. But, more importantly, it is a very good time. I don’t care what your stance is on immigration, if you’re so bitter when it comes to that subject that an intentionally goofy movie like this bothers you, then you should stay away from film in general. If you have a sense of humor and you like a good ridiculous action movie, then you should check out Machete.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

The music, done by Rodriguez and his band Chingon, is flat out awesome throughout.

Machete uses a man's intestines as a rope in this movie...that is fantastic.

The guards at Fahey's house are great. The funniest moments in the film involve them. When Trejo pretends to be the new gardener, packing a weedeater and a pickaxe, they just let him go on by, only to ponder, "You ever notice how you'll just let a Mexican onto your property if he's packing landscaping tools, no questions asked?" (That was paraphrased a bit, by the way.)

The promised sequel titles at the end made me laugh: Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again.

Steven Seagal committing seppuku with a machete is one of the best things I've seen on screen this year. Not to mention he claims that a machete sticking through his gut is "nothing." Awesome.

I loved how they incorporated nearly every bit of the original Machete trailer into the film.

Machete packs a ridiculously long machete near the end of the film. It is damn near comical and it's completely fitting with the rest of the film.

I really wanted to see Machete use the weedeater fitted out with blades instead of strings...come on, DVD...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"The American"

The American - Directed by Anton Corbijn, written by Rowan Joffe, starring George Clooney, Johan Leysen, and Violente Placido - Rated R

Ahh...Finally some good suspense in a film this year.

I am a complete sucker for tension and suspense in films. I find a film at its most powerful when a character that is realistic, deep, and even a little likable gets put in multiple situations in which you wonder if he is going to live or die. The American is like that from start to finish. I was completely engrossed from the very first scene and the film never let up.

The American is about a hit man, Jack (George Clooney), lying low in a small town in Italy. He takes on a job there and is told that he doesn’t "even have to pull the trigger.” That pretty much sums up the movie as far as action is concerned. Those expecting a flat out action movie will be severely disappointed. This film is actually a character study…about a hit man. So there is a little bit of action, but it’s really all about Jack.

Jack is dead inside. He’s at the tail end of a career in death and it is obvious. Well, it’s obvious because of Clooney’s performance. This is a role that requires an actor who can talk to the audience without ever speaking. I’ve always found Clooney to be excellent at conveying complex emotions simply by staring, and he’s in top form here. One look at Clooney and you know this is a defeated, yet hopeful man. This is helped by his character’s fascination with butterflies (he even has one tattooed between his shoulder blades). You get the idea that Jack may be a caterpillar waiting for something to happen so he can flourish into a real life.

The only way to become a butterfly is through a woman, though. This is a problem since a hit man’s lifestyle isn’t very conducive for long term relationships. It doesn’t help that his handler thinks that women represent weakness and a loss of “edge,” but for Jack, they represent life. So yeah, this is kind of a love story. But it’s a love story in which you never know who anyone truly is.

By that I mean that this is a film that will have you looking at every single character (including Jack) with complete suspicion. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that has created paranoia so effectively. This is nothing new in the “hit man” genre, but it is handled so expertly. Director Anton Corbijn (Control) does an amazing job of putting the viewer into Jack’s shoes. You get the feeling an aged hit man most likely has: that anyone could be a potential assassin. I, like Jack, didn’t trust anyone. It’s an anxious feeling to have while watching a film, but it’s also really great.

A good location can help set up suspense as well, and a small town in Italy is perfect for this film. The American takes place in one of those nondescript old towns of Italy in which the sidewalks and roads are basically a labyrinth…which is also an ideal place to put a hit out. Imagine this: the camera follows directly behind Clooney as he walks down an empty sidewalk at night, the soundtrack nonexistent so all that you hear are footsteps, but are his footsteps the only ones you hear? That just wouldn’t work as well on a common American street. On top of that, at one point Clooney is watching Once Upon a Time in the West in a bar along these streets. How fitting is it that his character is watching one of the most suspenseful (Italian-made) westerns of all time in this film? All I can say is that the connection was not lost on me.

Corbijn also used Italy to its fullest extent as a visual backdrop. There are plenty of beautiful shots in this film and the film in general is shot very well. The few action scenes are handled very tastefully. That is to say, The American isn’t about violence and bloodshed, but when it is required the film treats it realistically and effectively.

Another impressive aspect of this film is the crawling pace of it. I know that many people will call it boring and maybe even pointless in its pace, but I think that is what makes this film so great and suspenseful. The American is about a man who is thinking deeply about his life throughout. A film like this must move slowly, though deliberately. So that means you will see very long establishing shots and you will see many scenes that simply show Clooney working on a gun or just staring into space. That kind of thing isn’t for everyone, but if you have the patience for a film like this, it can be very rewarding.

I mentioned that the film moved deliberately, but it is also very deliberate in what it shows. This film can be confusing in that it doesn’t tell the audience everything, but everything that it does show the audience has a purpose and there are no loose ends. But it is a still a very mysterious film that requires you to fill in the blanks yourself at times. I appreciate a film that has that kind of confidence in its audience.

When you boil it all down, all I’m saying is that The American is a film for adults. It has action, but it is not an action movie. It is visually appealing, but not with computer effects. It has an interesting main character, but he does not talk very much. It moves at just the right pace, but some will find it boring and slow. I think viewers of an older age will enjoy this much more than the younger crowd. But it really ends up being about your film age. Do you like to think while you watch a movie? Do you like to feel real, meticulous tension? Do you want to see a realistic character whose eyes tell more of a story than his mouth? If not, avoid this film. If so, check this out now.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I thought the picnic scene was awesome. It was handled well enough that it crossed my mind that Jack might actually be a prostitute murderer. He read that headline earlier and he had such a strange look on his face at the river that it had me wondering, "Where is this movie going?" I mean that in a good way. I know it's dumb to think the movie might have gone that way, but you have to admit, it would be quite the original move if it had worked out that way.

I find it completely odd that this slow, tense film was released wide at all, much less on a Wednesday. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that this was released in my area, but this is not a typical studio film at all. it honestly feels like a foreign film...which makes sense I guess since Clooney is damn near the only American thing about this movie.

The gun suppressor sequence was actually quite cool. I enjoyed seeing the process of something like that being made. In fact, the way the movie shows the planning and meticulous detail to something as quick and violent as an assassination was quite refreshing. Usually in a movie if someone needs a gun they make a call and they have a highly illegal weapon in minutes.

Violente Placido is absolutely beautiful.

It was a bit cold how Clooney distracted his lady at the beginning of the film before he killed her, but it was effective. A great example of how cold blooded he has to be because of his job. He could have no loose ends.

I didn't mention any of the scenes with the priest in the review, but I very much enjoyed all of the discussions, thinly veiled as they were. I know that a hit man with a conscience isn't new, but that doesn't mean it can't be handled well. Point is, I found it decently compelling.