Monday, January 31, 2011

"The Mechanic"

The Mechanic - Directed by Simon West, written by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino, starring Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, and Donald Sutherland - Rated R

“I’m going to put a price on your head so big that when you look in the mirror, your reflection is gonna want to shoot you in the face!”

Hit man movies have become a genre unto themselves and many of them have tended to be about introverted hit men (like 2010’s The American). The Mechanic attempts a bit of introversion, but, thankfully, it fails and ends up being a fun action movie.

The Mechanic is actually a remake of a Charles Bronson film from the 70s and it is a bit more understated than this update, though it has its action moments as well. That movie has its fans, but it is very much a 70s movie and it’s not unreasonable to give it an update. The original film, and this new version, is about experienced hit man Arthur Bishop teaching the hit man trade to his mentor’s son, Steve McKenna.

Jason Statham replaces Bronson in the Bishop role with Ben Foster taking over the Steve McKenna part. There is no need to go into a lengthy plot synopsis with this one. Just know that The Mechanic is essentially a mentor movie, with Statham showing Foster the ropes of the professional killer industry.

Here’s the twist, though: the movie sets up the rule that most kills should be controlled and discreet then shoots that rule in the head and runs it over with a car for good measure. There is almost nothing professional about the kills in this movie; it is one screw up after another. This is not a condemnation, though. Hit man movies can be boring at times because the hit men are portrayed as these perfect killing machines that never mess up. In The Mechanic, Murphy’s Law is in full effect. Admit it, a hit man movie is much more entertaining when the plan falls apart and the killer(s) have to just wing it.

The fact that the characters have to improvise makes the action fun and, at times, a bit crazy. There is a moment in this film (spoiler for a kill coming up) when Statham is about to stab a guy in the face, but instead throws him out a bus window into oncoming traffic where he is brutally killed by a speeding car. It was almost as if Statham stopped and considered what the audience would rather see, then acted on impulse.

The main question, though, is who is this audience that wants to see something like that? Well, in a word: dudes. This is a movie for the guys. Just look at the poster: it’s a gun made out of other guns. That’s not to say women won’t like it. Plenty of ladies out there dig action flicks, but it’s not crazy to assume that this isn’t a movie aimed at both sexes. For example, the only female characters in the film are only there for sex scenes set to rock music and one of these scenes takes place against a dumpster. The sex scenes were a bit too blatant of a way to pander to a male audience, though.

The testosterone is in the casting, as well. Jason Statham is the go-to man’s man actor these days. He does a decent job here. Statham is always convincing as the professional with all the answers. The more interesting casting choice is Ben Foster, who immediately elevates every film he is in. Never one to play a regular Joe, Foster gets to portray a slightly unbalanced young man with a desire to kill. He works well with Statham and adds an element of fun to the film.

The leads are very well cast and they make the film an overall enjoyable experience. This isn’t a compelling film or anything, though. The dynamic between the two characters doesn’t achieve a proper payoff. The ending was just, well, stupid, and made everything that happened before it kind of pointless. Thankfully, The Mechanic is not a plot-driven film. This is an action movie, pure and simple.

The story didn’t come to a logical conclusion, but it didn’t take away much from the film. The Mechanic is forgettable fun. This is a movie in which lengthy shootouts and car chases happen in the downtown area of a major city and the police never show up. Police do not exist in the world of The Mechanic. That will either leave you shaking your head at the sheer ridiculousness of it or it will have you giving the thumbs up, saying “Who needs the police in an action movie?” If you’re part of the latter group, then go check this movie out as soon as you can.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Seriously, where are the police? It's one thing to never have them show up during firefights, but what about the slew of evidence that gets left around? Are you telling me that there's no way you could track Foster to the house of the gay hit man? He was bleeding all over the place and he certainly wasn't wearing gloves. And he was seen having drinks with the guy before it happened. Did no one look into that brutal murder? Once again, this did not tuin the movie for me (or even really diminish my opinion of it), but wow, what are the police doing in this city?

The ending is stupid, plain and simple. In the original, both men die, and rightfully so. In this film, Bishop lives. Why? Because it's Jason freakin' Statham? Does this guy have a "can't be killed" clause in his contract or something? I'm not sure he's died in any of his films (I think Jet Li may have killed him in War, but aside from that...). There is really no reason for him to live in this film. He was duped into killing his friend and mentor and had seemingly accepted the fact that Steve was going to kill him to avange his father. Then he does this ridiculous monkey roll out of his truck before it blows up. All for what: to set up a weak call back to a Latin inscription on a gun? By the way, that call back would've worked even with Bishop's death. Pointless, pointless, pointless. This is just Hollywood saying we need to keep someone alive at the end, and it might as well be the more bankable star. Were they hoping for a sequel? Statham returns to train another new prospect, only to kill him? Sounds like a franchise to me.

Note to self, write a new article: Jason Statham cannot be killed onscreen...except by Jet Li.

I enjoyed Tony Goldwyn's slightly cheesy performance, hence the over the top line quoted at the beginning of this review.

Why did Statham have to drive a boat to get to his house? He has that car there and Steve starts to take off in it at the end. Was he actually going to be able to go somewhere, or was he just going to drive laps around Bishop's property? I get the secluded aspect of it, but it still didn't add up.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Biutiful - Directed by Alejandro González Iñárittu, written by Iñárittu, Armando Bo, and Nicolas Giacobone, starring Javier Bardem - Rated R

It's very fitting that I can give this movie a Bardem-worthy Chigurh.

Biutiful, the latest from filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárittu (21 Grams, Babel, Amores Perros), is not a pretty film. The film, which is mainly about death, is gritty in the best sense of the word. The world of the film is lived in and realistic, even though the film itself has a supernatural undertone. It’s a tough film to sit though, but it is ultimately very rewarding.

Consider the above paragraph the full review if you want to go into this one fresh, which I highly advise. This isn’t a big twist ending kind of movie or anything, but if you only have a vague idea of what the film is about it will most likely be a much more rewarding experience. The rest of the review won’t be filled with spoilers or anything, but it will spoil the supernatural element, so be warned.

Biutiful is about Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a single father who is about to die of cancer. He has to deal with an estranged wife, dealings with illegal immigrants, and the fact that he can talk with the recently deceased. Yes, you read that last part right. Don’t be alarmed, though, this is not a Spanish version of The Sixth Sense. The supernatural element is extremely toned down, but the issue of death in general certainly is not.

Death is in Bardem’s eyes throughout this entire film. He gives a truly understated performance (it was great to see him get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor this week). Much of the film focuses on Bardem’s facial expressions and you can see such desperation in his face. It’s a very sad performance that will stick with you after the credits roll.

When the camera isn’t focused on Bardem’s face, there are some interesting things going on. A careful viewer is rewarded with very slight visual effects (reflections, shadows, etc.) that make the film a bit unsettling at times. Unsettling is a good thing when the film in question is about death. If you miss out on those details, the film may be a bit too slow and languorous; so make sure you focus on this one.

There are strange audio aspects of this film, as well. The soundtrack is a bit different here and there, but that’s not it, exactly. The sound design of the film (usually something that doesn’t draw attention) is a bit odd. When characters hug, it sounds like they are wearing microphones. But you can also hear their heartbeats. It’s an effective use of sound. There are many moments that stick out in this film because of sound and they work to develop Uxbal’s character. Uxbal is all about order and discipline at the dinner table, that’s obvious from how he reacts to his son making too much noise as he eats. But the sound puts you in Uxbal’s shoes. The grating sounds of a fork on a plate and a table leg being kicked are amplified to the point of annoyance. The entire film shows Uxbal’s perspective in ways like that and it ends up being very effective.

Biutiful does have its faults, though. At two and a half hours it runs a bit long. This wouldn’t be an issue if the film maintained focus on Uxbal. But Iñárittu couldn’t resist adding more storylines. The subplot with the Chinese couple could’ve been left on the cutting room floor. The characters are needed for the story to build Uxbal’s character and to show why he needs redemption, but there was no need to follow their story when Uxbal wasn’t around. This is just a minor problem; though the film would have been better if it had been limited to two hours.

Biutiful is an interesting film that leaves the viewer with plenty to think about. It won’t hit you over the head with a message or strong visuals, but if you pay close attention to it you will find it very deep and possibly moving. In a cinematic world that seems to be obsessed with astounding visuals and straightforward messages, it’s nice to see a low-key film like Biutiful.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Just wanted to point out the interesting things I spotted during my viewing:

Uxbal's reflection when he bends over to pick something up in front of a door doesn't move, even though he backs away into the street.

The shadow of the fork Uxbal uses when he gets home from the nightclub is a bit behind (or ahead?) of the actual fork's movement, though this one is fairly obvious.

The butterflies on the ceiling lead to some speculation of their meaning. There are plenty of theories out there, depending on what culture you belong to. Either way, it's something to talk about.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Season of the Witch"

* I know this one is a bit late, but I didn't feel like watching the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman romcom and The Way Back wasn't playing anywhere near me, so here it is, my review of Nicolas Cage's latest.

Season of the Witch - Directed by Dominic Sena, written by Bragi F. Schut, starring Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, and Claire Foy - Rated PG-13

I wish I could give this one The Wind (from The Happening), but it isn't all that bad, which is too bad.

Certain people (this critic included) have expectations of Nicolas Cage. Cage is capable of inoffensive, popcorn entertainment (the National Treasure movies), dramatic, compelling stories (The Weatherman), plain, forgettable action movies (Windtalkers, Next), and, most importantly, completely insane films (Bad Lieutenant, The Wicker Man). His insane performances are by far the most fun films in his filmography. Unfortunately, Season of the Witch does not feature one of those performances. Witch isn’t so bad it’s good, and it’s not really all that bad in general…it’s just there, and somehow that makes it a very disappointing film.

Season of the Witch isn’t just about witchcraft. It’s also about the Crusades, the Black Death, and the role of religion in one’s life. It’s kind of like The Seventh Seal, but not nearly as thought provoking. Consider it the B-movie version of Ingmar Bergman’s classic, though to call this a B-movie is to imply it’s a fun film, and it most certainly isn’t. A bit of credit is due for making the attempt to include issues of God into such a film; the problem is that it’s been done so many times before, and in relation to the exact same events. Just watch The Seventh Seal or the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven if you want entertainment and intellect.

The basic outline of Witch involves two AWOL crusaders, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), who leave their crusade after being involved in the slaughter of women and children. This is the first instance of questioning God since the Crusades were carried out in His name. Then the two come across a plague-stricken area. Cue the next questioning of God. They learn that the plague may be the work of a witch that the church has captured. Behmen and Felson agree to take the witch to a monastery so she can stand trial. Then the film delves into a road trip movie with some very dark undertones.

However you go about watching Season of the Witch, don’t do it with a historically critical eye. The eras are messed up (the Crusades had ended by the time the Black Death rolled around) and it is all oversimplified as Cage and Perlman jump from one battle to the next. The biggest problem with the Crusades stuff is how bland the action is. The battles were just boring and the CG was spotty at best for the larger battles. Aside from the CG, though, this movie looks pretty great. The locations and production design more than make up for the weak CG.

This film could have been somewhat of a guilty pleasure had Cage insisted on going crazy. He never truly freaks out in Season of the Witch. There is a line or two that is amusing, but Wicker Man this is not. Cage is sleepwalking in this one. Perlman was a bright spot, though. He seemed aware of how weak the movie was and infused some cheesy humor into it. Maybe he was aware of how out of place he and Cage looked wearing that armor and charging into battle.

If only more of the filmmakers had been in on the B-movie qualities present. Season of the Witch could have turned into something at least memorable. As it is, this is destined to disappear with other Cage misfires like Bangkok Dangerous. It’s a real shame, too. This film features witches, demons, holy war, zombies, possessed wolves, etc. All that stuff thrown together could be a gold mine for B-movie fun. This film is woefully serious, though.

It may be odd to wish that a movie was really bad as opposed to just plain bad, but it’s all about enjoyment. If you’ve seen a really bad Nicolas Cage movie and actually liked it despite the awfulness, then you’re probably chomping at the bit for more craziness. Who wants a movie that will be all but forgotten by next month (hell, this review is so late some of you may have already forgotten the film)? Season of the Witch doesn’t suck out loud, but it would have been great if it had.

Random Thoughts

Stephen graham is kind of wasted as one of the travellers, though it was good to seem him in something slightly high profile. Thankfully, he is also in "Boardwalk Empire" so most people are seeing him perform in something worthwhile.

Christopher Lee is kind of a random addition as a plague ridden cardinal. He had a nice little scene, thought they were a tad hardcore with the plague effects on his face, though.

Speaking of plague, I did like how they included some historical elements like the practice of blood letting and flagellants.

I dug the cheesiness of this line: "We're going to need more holy water." It had a Jaws vibe to it that I liked.

Nicolas Cage doesn't get all crazy, but he does get to yell out, "Cut off their heads!" It's not much, but you have to take what you can get with this one.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"The Company Men"

The Company Men - Written and directed by John Wells, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, and Kevin Costner - Rated R

"The world's a f***ed up place."
Yes, it is.

The economy has been the subject of quite a few movies lately, mainly documentaries. Documentaries like “Inside Job” were marketed with the promise that they would infuriate the audience. Most regular films have only used the economy as a slight plot point, aside from “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” but that film lacked the focus to make much of a statement about the situation. Enter “The Company Men,” the fictional film that will probably infuriate you just as much as any documentary. “The Company Men” stands out because of its stellar cast and identifiable characters.

“The Company Men” takes a look at the effect of the financial crisis from the top to the bottom. The focus is on downsizing within a ship-building corporation. The film shows the effects from three different perspectives: the executive trying to do the right thing (Tommy Lee Jones), the young, ambitious sales manager (Ben Affleck), and the older manager (Chris Cooper). Affleck gets the most attention, as we see how a bit of wealth can lead to intense pride. Cooper’s tale is the saddest, as he is close to retirement age, but can’t afford to retire. And Jones is the one questioning all of the elaborate spending and telling everyone that what they are doing is wrong.

It is easy to root for Jones and Cooper because both actors have always been so earnest that you almost have to respect them. Affleck, on the other hand, is very hard to root for in the beginning. It’s not because he’s the clichéd corporate lackey (though that certainly doesn’t help), it’s that he is so obsessed with keeping up his wealthy appearance. How can you like a guy who still drives around a Porsche and pays his country club dues while he can’t afford his mortgage payment? Everyone around him accepts it, but he is blind…and it’s maddening to watch. In fact, the easiest person to like in Affleck’s story is his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner). Costner is a common working man and he serves as the film’s voice for the lower middle class. In other words, he gets to say all the things the audience wants to say to Affleck.

Affleck does a fine job in “The Company Men,” but Tommy Lee Jones steals the show. There has never been a better actor to play the sane man in an insane world. When he argues with his old firend/boss (a rage-inducing Craig T. Nelson), you feel his frustration. Jones is by far the most disenchanted character in the film. He has a wife who has grown very used to their lavish lifestyle (she asks if he can get her the company jet after he tells her about a bad meeting with a fired employee) and he is discovering that his voice is easier to ignore than to listen to at the office. Jones’s story is closely tied with Cooper’s. It is Cooper that propels Jones’s story arc.

“The Company Men” can easily be described as an angry and depressed movie, but it is compelling and engaging. Sure, the scene in which Nelson shows off the company’s new building, pointing out that an entire floor is going to be used for just five or six executives might have you gritting your teeth. You might want to shout support for Costner when he asks Affleck if he thinks the CEO that makes 700 times more than the common worker works 700 times harder. And if you pump your fist in agreement every time Jones talks, then that means this film has done its job.

This film may enrage you, but there is a light at the end of the film’s tunnel. The little bit of hope saves “The Company Men” from being a very nihilistic film. Ultimately, this is not a film that simply condemns corporations and businesses. The script, by writer/director John Wells, is realistic enough to not suggest bringing it all down and rebuilding it. That might sound appealing to people, but let’s face it, that is impossible. Instead, “The Company Men” wants people to expect a bit of morality from corporations or hope that there is a real person like Jones’s character: someone near the top who speaks his mind and tells people that what they are doing is wrong.

The answers this film provides may not be original, but that doesn’t matter. These answers are what the audience needs. “The Company Men” is as infuriating as a true story about corporations, but while it may raise your blood pressure, it will calm it down just a bit. If a film can affect the audience that much, then it deserves all the attention it can get.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Costner was very enjoyable in this, though he is attempting a bit of an accent. His accents have never bothered me that much, but they seem to be a spot of contention for plenty of people, so there's that. But his character is fine.

As soon as the film ended, my intial response to Affleck's resolution was negative. I wanted him to keep working with Costner and make a living as a regular worker. After thinking about it for a bit, though, it just made more sense that he would join up with Jones's new company. Also, if he would have stayed a worker, the ending would be far too much like "Office Space."

Eamonn Walker was enjoyable as a fellow fired worker opposite Affleck.

I didn't think it was all that necessary to have Jones involved in an affair with Maria Bello, but I can respect the tension it was meant to add to some of the downsizing scenes. It made the film a bit too busy at times, since so many characters and problems are being followed. But it wasn't detrimental to the film as a whole.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"I Love You Phillip Morris"

I Love You Phillip Morris - Written and Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, based on a book by Steve McVicker, starring Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, and Leslie Mann - Rated R

Much of the humor of this film might be considered dark, but the Evil Kurgan only enjoys dark comedy.

I Love You Phillip Morris
has had a shaky road to the big screen (and odds are you haven’t had a chance to see it, even on the big screen). The true story about gay con man Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and his intense love for his boyfriend Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) isn’t the most marketable of films, though it is ultimately a quick paced, funny movie. Once you watch it, you’ll wonder why this was kept off the big screen for so long. Sure, homosexuality certainly isn’t accepted by the entire population, but there have been wide releases with gay main characters in recent years; it just doesn’t make sense why this movie has been put off.

The movie can be a bit “in your face” but that adds to the humor of it all. The film never tries to be exploitative and it’s not really about homosexuality at all. In fact, the homosexuality is used to good comedic effect. Jim Carrey’s prison walkthrough with a new inmate stands out and the matter of fact way the leads deal with the gay relationship is often funny. The phallic imagery may have been a bit forced when it cropped up here and there, but for the most part, this is a movie about a con man.

Con man movies can be polarizing, though. If they get bogged down in the rules of the con, they can become so esoteric that you almost need to take notes to keep up. Then there are the movies that spend too much time explaining how each con works. Phillip Morris rides the line in between those two extremes. The film moves at such a brisk pace that it’s hard to question how the cons work, it’s just accepted.

It helps that Jim Carrey makes a very convincing con man. He exudes such confidence that it is completely believable that he could fake his way into so many different situations. Those situations lead to so many different places it’s hard to summarize the plot other than to say that it is about a gay con man desperately trying to stay with his lover. But that description doesn’t do the light hearted tone of the film justice.

The film may have failed with less able actors in the lead roles. Carrey gives his best performance in years. He is funny, sincere, and realistic. When he is given the right roles (such as Truman in The Truman Show) Carrey proves to be more than just a comedic buffoon. McGregor is channeling his character from Big Fish in this film (the main difference being his sexuality) and that is not a bad thing. The hopeful and playful innocence of his character proves to be an interesting foil to Carrey’s dishonest con man.

First time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don’t try anything too daring with the camera in Phillip Morris, but it is still an impressive debut effort. They know that momentum is everything in a film like this and they just let the film run. The writer-directors must have known that this film would have suffered immensely had they slowed down to focus on the “how” of the film.

The film’s pacing works for the most part but it may push the film too far into the fantastical realm for some. Sure, the film starts with the claim that “this really happened” and is backed up with “it really did.” That sets up the idea that it is an unbelievable story. But that doesn’t necessarily excuse the film from being over the top at times. Still, it’s an easy film to excuse because in the end it is very fun. And if you research it a bit, it turns out that most of Russell’s outlandish escape attempts actually happened.

This is a film after all, that handles multiple suicide attempts with humor. The homosexuality might be overt at times, but its willingness to add humor to potentially dark situations excuses any gimmicky qualities of the film.

Phillip Morris is also interesting in that it is really a character study of Steven Russell. It’s hard to pinpoint his motivations and even his voiceover doesn’t give insight into his thought process because he doesn’t seem too sure himself. One thing is for sure, though, it’s all enjoyable to watch since the tone is so light. That is what makes this film so interesting in the end; it could’ve been such a dark, potentially depressing film but it ends up as a comedy and it’s a better film because of it.

If you can track it down (it shouldn’t be all that long before it’s on DVD and Blu-ray) you should check out Phillip Morris. Yeah, it’s Jim Carrey’s “gay” movie, but not really. The film rarely trails off into gimmicky territory, but it consistently stays in the entertaining realm. Some dark things happen, but the film never asks you to worry about it. I Love You Phillip Morris only asks you to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and it’s easy to do so.

Random Thoughts

I loved the evolution of the lawyer joke. It always amuses me when someone butchers the retelling of a joke in real life and this film recreates that in a fun little montage.

The film can be categorized as many things, but it stuck out to me that the corporate business man con scenes were very much reminiscent of The Informant! That isn't a bad thing at all, by the way. Just an observation.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"The Green Hornet"

The Green Hornet - Directed by Michel Gondry, written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, and Christoph Waltz - Rated PG-13

Balls Deep in Shit-Kickin' Dudes by Kato is definitely on the Evil Kurgan's bookshelf.

Superhero movies have become so prevalent in Hollywood that they are basically a genre to themselves at this point, which means they can be very tiresome unless an original approach is taken. The Green Hornet takes a slightly different approach than most super-serious hero tales and while it may not be the first film to take this approach, it is still an extremely fun film.

The Green Hornet takes a very comedic approach to the superhero genre. In fact, this movie has just as much (if not more) comedy as action. Serious movies like The Dark Knight are great and all, but it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie that doesn’t take itself very seriously. This is possible because the source material is not a comic book with a rabid fan base. The Green Hornet originated as a radio program in the ‘30s and was a short-lived TV show in the ‘60s in its most popular incarnations, so not a lot of mythology (or fans) to have to live up to.

The basic story of The Green Hornet involves Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), an heir to a newspaper, dealing with the death of his father, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). Britt is a hard partying, pampered rich jerk. But once his father dies his life changes, but not the way you would expect. Britt doesn’t want to take up his father’s quest to help the city. Instead, he gets drunk with his father’s mechanic/coffee maker Kato (Jay Chou) and talks about how much of a jerk his dad was. Britt and Kato decide to go on an adventure not to fight crime, but to vandalize a statue of Britt’s father. It’s only when they stumble across a couple being attacked that they decide to fight crime. And that sets up Britt’s plan to fight crime by posing as criminals.

The plot is more complicated than that, but this movie doesn’t have much payoff in the story department. There is no sense of a need for justice in the streets and you never get the idea that the characters are fighting crime out of a sense of duty or honor. In fact, both the heroes and villains are egomaniacs. That may sound a bit dark but the film is never meant to be taken very seriously. The characters may not be all that likable, but they are fun to watch.

Comedy is, of course, subjective, but for this film it will be easy to predict if you are going to find it funny; just ask yourself: do I find Seth Rogen funny? The film is, after all, written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who have also written Superbad and Pineapple Express. The dialogue of The Green Hornet is very reminiscent of those films, though it is cleaned up to a PG-13 level.

Most of your enjoyment of the film will hinge on your opinion of Rogen, but if you’re on the fence about him, maybe Kato can sway your opinion. Rogen handles most of the funny dialogue, but Jay Chou gets all of the cool moments. He has “Kato Vision,” in which things slow down and he can pinpoint weapons and take out plenty of bad guys in seconds. He also has plenty of regular action moments, but the “Kato Vision” sequences are the coolest. Chou’s performance is not just physical, though. He gets his share of jokes. Kato’s disgust and disdain of Britt at times is quite amusing. Kato is not some servant to the Green Hornet. They are equals and, in many ways, Kato is superior, though Kato has ego issues that match Britt’s.

Christoph Waltz represents the Green Hornet and Kato’s opposition in this film, though the role is much more secondary than most villainous roles. Even though he is not a prominent villain, Waltz is given a very funny introduction. (If you want a certain cameo to be a surprise, skip to the next paragraph now.) Waltz is introduced by being verbally berated by James Franco. Franco hilariously cuts Waltz to pieces, critiquing his facial hair, his suit, etc. It makes sense; Waltz does appear to be a bit plain, but there is more to him. Waltz stands out because of his eccentricities (his gun of choice is a strange double barreled handgun) and insecurities (he is constantly, sincerely asking people how he can be more intimidating).

The characters all want to be like comic book heroes/villains. This isn’t a deduction made by the viewer; the characters flat out state this. That is the other aspect that makes this film a bit more interesting than the standard hero movies: the characters acknowledge that comic books and movies exist. It’s kind of like Kick-Ass, in that the film wants to be an entry in the genre while also poking fun at the ridiculousness of it. Much like that other film, though, The Green Hornet fails to make much of a message because it ends up becoming exactly what it was attempting to satirize. It’s easy to forgive that if you don’t take the film too seriously, though.

The story may be a bit disappointing to some, but fans of director Michel Gondry will be the most disappointed. The usually stylish director is a bit toned down in this mainstream effort. There are still visually interesting moments like the “Kato Vision” and a split screen segment, but for the most part this is an ably directed action comedy, no more, no less. There is nothing really wrong with that, it’s just if you’re expecting something along the lines of The Science of Sleep you are going to be sadly disappointed.

Gondry does a fine job of creating chaos, though. The last act of this film is pure action insanity. Leave your disbelief at the door or you’ll be shaking your head so hard during the last twenty minutes you’ll become dizzy. If you can accept the ridiculous action, then you’ll most likely enjoy it.

Concerning visuals for this film, this film was released in 3D, which seems more and more to be a controversial element in movies. This is one of those dreaded post-conversion jobs, but it actually looked decent. The 3D itself wasn’t all that necessary, though. The “Kato Vision” scenes certainly benefited from it, but there are not enough of those scenes to warrant an entire film to be converted to 3D. Overall, it was decent, but not worth the extra price in admission.

Disappointment of the film is based on individual expectations, but it’s hard to believe anyone could enjoy Cameron Diaz in this film. Her performance isn’t all that terrible, it’s just that she is so clearly tacked on for some much needed female presence in the film. There should have been a more fleshed out character added. The conflict the character created between Britt and Kato led to some amusing stuff, but the character itself was very weak.

All in all, The Green Hornet is a surprisingly funny action film in the normally dreary January deluge of dumped films. Rogen and Chou work together well and Waltz gets to be goofy and evil. It may not be what you expect, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t need to lower your expectations, just change them a bit and this film should entertain you.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I know the gas gun bit was shown in the previews, but the payoff of the joke is still hilarious in the film. The fact that it knocks him out for eleven days cracked me up.

Balls Deep in Shit-Kickin’ Dudes by Kato may be the best title I’ve ever heard.

A minor issue I had was with the timeline of the film. The opening scene (which I found kind of pointless) claims to take place in 1990. The computer on Wilkinson’s desk was not a 1990 computer. I remember computers from that time period and they did not look like that. Once again, minor, but it bothered me.

I loved the fact that the film acknowledges the progression of time when a Britt is figuring out what has been going on. Normally time freezes while this happens in a film, leading the audience to believe that the character just had a moment of instant realization. In this film, Britt thinks it all through, and then a character mentions that he has been staring into space for five minutes.

Cool to see a couple Edwards in this. Edward James Olmos does a nice job playing the serious man to Britt’s man child in the news office. And Edward Furlong was a strange sight as a meth cook, haven’t seen that guy in anything high profile for awhile.

That was excellent use of Johnny Cash’s cover of “I Hung My Head” after Wilkinson died.

Even though there isn’t much of a fan base to please, it was still cool that they stuck with the original design of the car and masks and stuff. I also liked seeing the sketches of Bruce Lee. And the use of the theme song at the end was amusing.

Who’s to say that a car cut in half can’t drive around?

Great...okay, maybe not great, but what I consider to be an amusing line from Christoph Waltz: “I’m ungassable!”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hating and Loving the Films of Terrence Malick

Recently a trailer for Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life came out and it was showered with praise (for the record, I thought it looked quite interesting, but I’ll wait for the full movie before I cast any judgment). Because of this, I felt compelled to write another article, my first since August of ’09. I find it fitting that I’m writing about Malick after a long hiatus in article writing since the filmmaker takes so long between his films (although he’s working rapidly now as he already has another film in the post-production stage). Since I’m in my twenties and didn’t start seriously looking at film until a few years ago, I’m going to focus on the second half of Malick’s career. I think Badlands and Days of Heaven are fine films that deserve plenty of contemplation; I just don’t feel like I’m the guy to contemplate them.

Instead, I want to write about The Thin Red Line and The New World. But I am not reviewing these two films. No, I’m going to write about how much I hated them after my first viewings and how much I love them now and how this happened. I’ll start with The Thin Red Line.

I was fourteen when The Thin Red Line came out and I had some unfair expectations for the film: I wanted it to be just like the other WWII movie of that year, Saving Private Ryan. I, of course, hated it because it was meandering (a word fourteen-year-old me would never use), had way too many shots of nature rather than action, and the biggest stars of the film were relegated to what were essentially cameos. I wrote it off and moved on.

Cut to eight or nine years later. I’m not writing any reviews or anything at this point, but I am certainly a self-titled “movie buff.” I had watched Malick’s latest, The New World and hated it just as much as The Thin Red Line. To be fair, my reasoning was a bit more justified this time. There was still the nature love fest and whispered voiceover that had annoyed me before, but my expectations were much more reasonable this time around. I wanted a realistic portrayal of the Jamestown colony sans all the Disney John Smith and Pocahontas nonsense. The New World turned out to be a slow moving look at Jamestown, with a focus on the Smith-Pocahontas relationship. There were historical facts, but it wasn’t as epic as I wanted it to be. (Epic as in epic films like Lawrence of Arabia not “epic” as in the new parlance in which it is a synonym for “awesome.”)

For whatever reason, I couldn’t dismiss The New World. I watched it again, and again, and again. Then I bought it. Then I bought the extended cut. I loved it. I went back and watched The Thin Red Line again. And again. I loved it. I bought it. What had happened? How did I go from calling The Thin Red Line a “boring movie” in which characters just “talk shit to nature,” to calling it a great film?

There is no real explanation for why I would hate two films then completely reverse my opinion. Sure there have been some films that I didn’t care for after the first viewing that stuck with me. But Malick’s films are the only ones I can think of that I flat out dismissed only to change my mind later. Somehow that whispered voiceover became almost poetic. Those “meandering” nature shots were now beautiful. Malick hadn’t cut out the stars of The Thin Red Line for no reason; they just didn’t fit into the composition he was creating.

I started to notice things about the two films. When you combined all of their elements, they were really examples of master filmmaking. They didn’t fit into the expectations that I had made for them, but that is quite a ridiculous way to judge a movie. Accepting the films for what they are, I started to realize that even my initial problems were unfounded. The Thin Red Line boring? There is a nearly hour long battle in the film. The New World? Multiple battles with the Natives. Meandering? Hardly a negative quality when the purpose is to show as many viewpoints on a subject as possible. This doesn’t apply to The New World, which I find to be quite a focused film, actually. But with The Thin Red Line the meandering is precisely the point. War can be seen through so many different perspectives: nature, excitement, insanity, fear, opportunity, anger, etc. The narrative needs to wander among the men involved to get all of these perspectives.

It’s not strange that I would notice these ideas only years after first watching a film. I can sometimes blind myself to the positive qualities of a film when my initial reaction is negative. What’s strange is that I attempted to like The Thin Red Line after I started taking movies more seriously and I still hated it. Somehow, enjoying The New World opened my eyes to Malick. The fact that I can’t explain why I now love these films actually helps to compliment them. Malick makes films that are tough to enjoy at first, but somehow, for no discernible reason, they become beloved. Surely this is not the case for everyone, but I doubt that I’m alone.

None of this is to say that Malick is some perfect filmmaker and anyone who doesn’t like him just hasn’t opened their eyes yet. That is certainly not the case. As someone who once hated his work, I have no problem accepting that some people hate these two movies. Perhaps the point of this article is that if you are one of those people, you may want to give these films another chance someday. If you already enjoy these films, check them out again anyway, they seem to get better with each viewing.

The Thin Red Line and The New World went from crap to classic in my book because my expectations were not met and I looked back to see what the films were trying to be. I am, for the first time, really looking forward to a new Malick film. I don’t know what to expect from The Tree of Life, so maybe I’ll enjoy this one the first time through.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Casino Jack"

*January is a notoriously weak month at the theatre. I didn't bother with Season of the Witch (though I may check it out in the coming days since I am a huge Cage fan) because it wasn't playing at my local theatre and I didn't feel that it warranted the trip to Owensboro, KY. I'm facing the hard truth of life in Cannelton, hours away from any of the screenings I get invited to. But I do have some screeners left that I haven't reviewed yet. After this review of Casino Jack (which should see a wider release in the next month or so after opening in a handful of theatres for awards consideration back in December), I will review I Love You, Phillip Morris, Biutiful, and The Company Men. All of which should have at least a limited release soon.

The point of all this is that I won't be able to review the big releases (like The Green Hornet this weekend) until I can make it to the theatre after its release. No more reviews published the day the film comes out...

Casino Jack - Directed by George Hickenlooper, written by Norman Snider, starring Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, and Jon Lovitz - Rated R

"I'm Jack Abramoff and I work out every day!"

Jack Abramoff is a character. It just so happens he is an actual person as well. Abramoff was a hotshot lobbyist for years in Washington, D.C. until his world came crumbling down. A rise and fall in D.C. hardly makes a compelling character, but Abramoff had enough idiosyncrasies to warrant not just a documentary (the informative and entertaining Casino Jack and the United States of Money), but also a fictionalized retelling of his story. Unfortunately, it turns out that the documentary was good enough for his story. This film just seems like overkill.

The story of Jack Abramoff is interesting. He was a lobbyist, mainly for Native American casinos (hence the nickname), and was eventually brought down due to extreme corruption and betrayal. It is a story meant to be dramatized: a lobbyist who abuses tax laws to keep sweatshops open, deals with mafia-types, is obsessed with movies (he actually produced a couple Dolph Lundgren movies), and seems to always need to prove himself. It all somehow ends up being a bit boring and pointless.

Casino Jack is not a complete exercise in futility, though. Abramoff is portrayed by Kevin Spacey and it is a great performance. The film begins with Spacey giving himself a pep talk in a bathroom mirror. It’s strange but mesmerizing at the same time. As Spacey says emphatically, “I’m Jack Abramoff and I work out every day!” you realize that a determined performance is taking place. Spacey’s outbursts and seemingly random comments make this movie worth watching, but in the long run it’s not enough to make Casino Jack a great film.

It can’t be stressed enough that the documentary about Abramoff contains all the information you could ever want from this story. It’s very strange that both the documentary and the dramatization would come out so close together. Even stranger is the fact that director George Hickenlooper, primarily a documentarian (and a gifted one at that), would be the filmmaker behind the dramatization. (As a side note, Hickenlooper’s untimely death in October is doubly saddening because of his promise as a filmmaker.)

The film’s downfall isn’t that the documentary preceded it; it’s the fact that the documentary does a much better job at explaining the circumstances of the situation and the downfall. A dramatization is never really meant to provide the real story, anyway, but Casino Jack fails at being entertaining as well (aside from Spacey, that is). It’s not so much the characters that surround Spacey that make things boring; it’s the uninspired casting. There’s Barry Pepper as the young hotshot. Fine, but how many times do we have to see Pepper in that role? Then you have the sleazy businessman played by Jon Lovitz. Lovitz is usually a comedian, but how many times has he played a disgusting sleazebag? It’s a boring combination of clichéd characters and typecast actors. To be clear, Pepper and Lovitz both do fine jobs here, it’s just that they could play these roles in their sleep.

Casino Jack could be inoffensive in its clichés held together by a great Spacey performance, but oddly enough, the film’s score makes the film nearly unbearable. The old saying is that a good score is never noticed. That only rings true when a film needs a plain score. Casino Jack needed a plain score. What it got was an insanely annoying and far too loud score that sticks out like a sore thumb. It cannot be described in words; you must hear it to understand how annoying it is. It was as if the score was trying to force a lighthearted tone that doesn’t exist. The film would be much better off with a soundtrack and nothing else.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Casino Jack, however, is the fact that it really doesn’t have much to say. That isn’t necessarily a problem for most films, but if the film deals with political corruption and lobbyists, it is pretty much required that there is a message about why things went the way they did or at least a warning about how to keep them from happening again. The film tries to be a character study about Abramoff, but lacks the focus to make that case. Kevin Spacey is the only aspect of the film that warrants any close attention.

If you’re looking for an inside story concerning Abramoff and Tom DeLay (among other politicians), then check out the documentary. If all you want is an above average Kevin Spacey performance, then check out Casino Jack. Be warned, you won’t learn much and you may want to cover your ears every now and then.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Top Ten of 2010

Here's the list of my favorite films from 2010. I've kept it down to ten this year (with some honorable mentions as well). Since I received screeners for awards consideration this year, I'm able to give my first proper list without mentioning anything that I missed out on or couldn't see.

I welcome you to put your own lists in the comments section, or just your favorite film of the year. I also welcome you to tell me what you disagree with (I also like to hear what people agree with, as well). Remember that a Top Ten list is absolute opinion and taste and nothing more. I see more and more bashing of these lists each year. I hope your own lists and favorite films are not the same as mine. How miserable would movie conversations be if they were just people all agreeing about how awesome one movie was?


1. Black Swan I loved nearly every aspect of this film. Aronofsky has made a disturbing classic featuring the best female lead performance of the year from Natalie Portman. I thought it was great how Aronofsky took the pure, beautiful world of ballet and showed its darker, uglier (but still just as beautiful somehow) side. Aronofsky has cemented himself as one of my favorite filmmakers.

2. Inception Jaw-dropping and utterly impressive. This is what a summer blockbuster should be. It has action, it is deep (insanely, literally deep at times), and it has an amazing cast. Christopher Nolan does a masterful job of staging a ridiculously complicated set up in such a way that it is easy to follow. That feat alone makes it one of the of the year’s best. All of the other elements, like the overpowering score or Tom Hardy’s scene stealing performance, are just a bonus that propels it to my #2 spot.

3. The Social Network The story behind Facebook is engaging and funny. Aaron Sorkin’s quick witted, rapid fire dialogue screenplay is the best of the year. David Fincher tones down his style a bit to create a grounded, yet still visually interesting film. Jesse Eisenberg leads a great cast in what I found to be the best male lead performance of the year. This is a film that requires multiple viewings to let all of the great dialogue and interesting camerawork to wash over you.

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World A movie made by and for geeks. Many people may have been turned off by the frenetic pace and video game references, but certain types of people (this critic included, obviously) loved the film for those very reasons. Michael Cera breaks out of his wimpy stereotype to play a fun and (dare I say it) badass hero. Director Edgar Wright obviously loved the source material and because of that the end result is a love letter to geeks. I, for one, am thankful.

5. 127 Hours The most intense film of the year. Great, frantic direction from Danny Boyle keeps what could have been a slow movie very fast paced and interesting. James Franco gives the best performance of his career (of the year, some would argue). The fact that this survival story is based on a real event makes it that much more effective and uplifting. It never received the true wide release it deserved and it is catching some backlash all of a sudden (I’ve noticed it on one or two “most overrated” lists), but I thought it was great and it needs to be seen by more people.

6. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans/My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done This is my Werner Herzog double feature pick. Bad Lieutenant technically came out in 2009, but I only got to see when it was released on home video this year. My Son, My Son was basically a direct to DVD release. I think it is okay to pair these two up not only because of director Werner Herzog’s involvement, but also because both films deal with insanity. Nicolas Cage goes all out in Bad Lieutenant and the result is funny and ridiculous. Michael Shannon does the same in My Son, though it’s a bit weirder and more disturbing. Both films are very interesting and I loved every minute of both of them.

7. The Fighter This story of a boxer and his family works because it is funny and real. Mark Wahlberg returns to form in an understated role and Christian Bale is flat out amazing as his crack addict brother (by far my favorite male supporting performance of the year).

8. Shutter Island This movie was a delight from a directing perspective. Martin Scorsese shows how skillful he is in his depiction of madness in this thriller. The strong visuals and distracting score all piece together a portrait of insanity. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance, but Scorsese is the star of this one.

9. True Grit The Coen Brothers have made a funny and refreshingly straightforward western. It is not a very deep film, but it is still on par with their best work. It’s light on the action, but that’s okay when you have a cast with the likes of Jeff Bridges in the Rooster Cogburn role and Matt Damon as LeBoeuf. Hailee Steinfeld was a surprising aspect as she gave my favorite female supporting performance of the year.

10. The King’s Speech This film about a stuttering prince who would be king may seem like awards bait, but it is a very impressive, interesting film. It is all held together by the performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Their friendship in the film provides the real backbone of the film and it ends up being quite touching.

Honorable Mentions-

Get Him to the Greek - One of the funniest movies of the year; I'm still talking about "furry walls" and "jeffreys."

The American - Tension filled slow burner of a thriller featuring a nice, understated performance from George Clooney.

Robin Hood - This movie received quite a bit of hate from most people, but while some found the historical focus boring, I found it interesting and entertaining. Plus, it's Ridley Scott and I enjoy nearly everything that man directs.

The Town - Affleck made an entertaining film about Boston featuring a good performance from himself and an even better one from Jeremy Renner.

TRON: Legacy - It's great eye and ear candy. I had a lot of fun with this one.

Exit Through the Gift Shop - A thoroughly entertaining "documentary" that gives an interesting look into street art.

Kick-Ass - Ultra violent and funny...and Nicolas Cage. That's enough for me.

Knight and Day -
This movie was just a hell of a lot of fun. Totally enjoyable and crazy. Good action and comedy. A nice inoffensive movie you can just sit back and honestly enjoy. Does it deserve awards? No. But it's nice to know movies like this can still get made. Keep it up, Tom Cruise; I don't care what you believe because your movies are still fun to watch.

The Book of Eli - I dug this post-apocalyptic Denzel Washington movie. It had some good action, a cool look to it, and it was a lot of fun.

My Trashy Honorable Mentions-

These movies were not meant to be taken too seriously and I loved 'em for it.

Jackass 3D, Piranha 3D, Machete, and MacGruber

Nothing much to say about these movies (you can always check out my archived reviews of each film), they speak for themselves. Hell, just look at the titles.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Little Fockers"

Little Fockers - Directed by Paul Weitz, written by John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey, starring Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, and Owen Wilson - Rated PG-13

"Are you ready to be the Godfocker?" Noooooooooooooo!!!

When Meet the Parents came out back in 2000, it was a surprisingly funny comedy with the payoff of a main character having the name Focker. Then came 2004’s Meet the Fockers, which was decently funny, though the Focker joke was wearing thin. Now with Little Fockers the question is, “Do we need more jokes about a last name that sounds like an expletive?” Well, not really, but Little Fockers is a harmless enough comedy to sit through.

The third film of the franchise deals with Greg and Pam Focker (Ben Stiller and Teri Polo) dealing with marriage and young children. They worry about keeping their relationship fresh while also worrying about how to properly raise their children. Of course, things get much more complicated as their parents get involved, especially Pam’s father, Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro). The added aspect this time around is that Jack has lost faith in a different son-in-law and is now looking to Greg to be the patriarch of the family…or as Jack puts it: the “Godfocker” (shudder).

The problem with this film is that it takes the kitchen sink approach to comedy sequels: throw in as many returning characters as possible…and then add a few new ones to top it all off! It’s just too much. The dynamic of the original film is enough, why mess with it? The awkward conversations between Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro are what made the first two films enjoyable. There are still a few of these, but they get squeezed out of the film to make room for outrageous visual gags (puke and erection stabbing) and needless co-stars (this film didn’t need Laura Dern, Jessica Alba, or Harvey Keitel added to it). The first movie was memorable and funny for its more random moments (“Mums” champagne and an overly lacquered altar carved from one piece of wood). This film has no room for things like that.

The Stiller/De Niro moments are still funny, though. And those, along with a few other aspects, make Little Fockers passable. One of the other aspects is Owen Wilson. His ridiculous character, the overly perfect and rich ex-boyfriend, is still amusing in his over-the-top proclamations and gestures. But the funny elements don’t outweigh the mundane in this comedy.

It can’t be stressed enough that this movie has too many characters in it. Here’s the cast list: Stiller, De Niro, Danner, Polo, Streisand, Hoffman, Wilson, Alba, Keitel, and Dern. This isn’t a Robert Altman film, for God’s sakes. It’s not that these actors are bad or even unfunny. The problem is that none of them have the screen time to make a good impression. The movie is just a mess. It could have been easily solved by scaling back this cast.

Streisand and Hoffman were zany enough to be slightly amusing the last time around, but they should have been cut from this one. Apparently Hoffman felt this too as he initially turned down the role. Unfortunately a deal was struck and some scenes of him dancing the flamenco like an idiot were crammed in. Keitel appears as a conniving contractor and his few scenes showed promise but then he utterly disappeared from the film. It is quite possible that there is a more focused, funny film that was left on the cutting room floor.

Little Fockers also suffers from repetition. Obviously the name joke is repeated, but the plot is as well. Who would have guessed it? Ben Stiller gains De Niro’s trust only to start acting suspicious seconds later. Lie upon lie stacks up leading to a ridiculous and lame conclusion. Sure, no one expects a great story from a movie like this, but it’s hard to ignore such shortcomings when the laughs are so sparse.

Comedy is subjective, though. My audience laughed consistently (well, consistently more than I did, anyway). Some people still get a kick out of the use of the word Focker, particularly when De Niro says it with such degradation. That’s the thing with the kitchen sink approach; at least some of it ends up being humorous. It depends on the viewer as to how much of it is humorous, though.

Judging Little Fockers from a comedic filmmaking standpoint, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that it just isn’t a very good movie. Overused gags, disappearing characters, needless subplots, petty gross out humor, these things are too much to ignore. But if you are able to look past the faults more power to you. There are worse comedies out there. But even the fans of this latest installment have to agree that the series has run its course. Here’s hoping that these Little Fockers are the last Fockers we ever have to see.

Random Thoughts

Was it really necessary to add the plotline involving erectile dysfunction pills? Even the most boring of people consider Viagra jokes lame these days.

To immediately contradict my previous comment, the boner stabbing scene did make me laugh for one reason: that crude drawing Stiller's kid makes of the scenes was pretty funny. Well, it was to me, anyway. Subjective! Remember?

Further contradicting: I am sick of the Focker stuff, but it was funny when De Niro was saying "Focker" into the oxygen mask near the end and the paramedics asked why he was cursing at them.

This movie really made me want to watch the original...I think I'll go do that right now.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review Round-up: "Never Let Me Go" / "Rabbit Hole" / "Fair Game" / "Blue Valentine"

*Before I post my Top Ten of 2010 (by the Wednesday at the latest), I wanted to post this collection of short reviews for films that are either in very limited release, or in that purgatory between theatrical and home video release. Never Let Me Go - Directed by Mark Romanek, written by Alex Garland (based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro), starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley - Rated R

A somber, effective film that deserves a close viewing.

Never Let Me Go is a very subdued, somber film about mortality and morality in a slightly sci-fi setting. The film follows a group of “donors” from childhood into adulthood. A “donor” is exactly what it sounds like; in this alternate reality, cloned humans are kept and raised to eventually donate their organs to the regular population. What makes this film subdued is the fact that hardly anyone seems to acknowledge the fact that everyone is going to die very young. They all just accept it, which gives the film a very unnerving quality.

Because of the somberness, this film may not be very effective the first time through (I know I wasn’t impressed with it after one viewing), but if you can, watch this movie at least twice. This movie focuses on the small things. The way people try to pretend to live normal lives. These things are not very easy to pick up on it everyday life, much less in a film. The second viewing will open your eyes a bit more and may affect you more than you expect.

One thing that is easy to pick up on in one viewing is the acting. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield are great, and Keira Knightley turns in a very good performance as well. Garfield gets to yell and freak out at times, so he has a noticeable performance. But Mulligan is the best part of the cast. The movie is told through her perspective, and she holds the movie together very well. You can see so much in her sad expressions throughout.

Never Let Me Go is not a masterpiece or anything, though. Somber or not, the film tends to crawl at times and can be terribly boring. But there are enough redeeming qualities to make this a film that should be watched and watched again. Only time will tell if this film will have a lasting effect, but for now, it’s worth focusing on for a moment or two.

Rabbit Hole - Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart - Rated R

A well made film, but just too miserable for my taste.

Rabbit Hole is one of those intentionally miserable movies about a family tragedy, in this case the tragedy being the untimely death of a couple’s young son. The film is not about the death itself, but about how the surviving couple copes with their lives post-parenthood. Do they have another child? Do they move out of their old home? Do they get a divorce? Do they have affairs?

The most important question, however, is do you, the viewer, care what these two do? If you can get past the misery (I would file this film under the genre of “misery porn,” so some might be put off by the dire tone of the film), then Rabbit Hole will most likely work for you. The casting takes care of most of the work. Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman are both more than able to hold a film like this together. Also, they are believable as a couple and as troubled people. They make the film interesting and effective.

Rabbit Hole is not an easy film to watch, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. You just need to know what you want to see. What this movie presents is realistic emotional issues and that doesn’t scream entertainment to most people (this reviewer included). Frankly, it sucks having to witness major problems play out with a couple with no clear answers to their problems. The fact that this movie might depress you or frustrate you is a testament to the effectiveness of the film. Rabbit Hole is not entertainment, but it never pretends to be. Just ask yourself, “Do I want entertainment or do I want misery?”

Fair Game - Directed by Doug Liman, written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (based on books by Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson), starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn - Rated PG-13

Infuriatingly interesting.

Fair Game is the dramatization of the Valerie Plame scandal in which Plame was revealed to be a CIA agent after an op-ed was written by her husband, Joseph Wilson, about how he didn’t find evidence that Iraq was buying yellow cake uranium from Niger. Of course it’s a bit unfair to try and explain the plot of such a situation in one sentence, which is why you need a full length film for this interesting story.

This film is not just a recreation of the interviews and commentaries that aired on the news stations when this story first broke back in 2003. Director Doug Liman has made a kind of behind the scenes look at what happened before the story made national headlines. The story itself flows nicely and coherently and since it’s a true story, it’s instantly interesting because the stakes for the characters are real.

Speaking of characters, this film is excellently cast. Naomi Watts handles the roll of mother and field agent quite well. The most important aspect of her performance is believability and she seemed legitimate. Sean Penn steals the show here, though, as Joseph Wilson. His character is basically that of an angry intellectual and Penn is just perfectly cast. The best scenes in the film involve dinners that Joseph and Valerie attend in which they have to pretend they don’t have any more information about Iraq than their friends. Penn shows such restrained fury in these scenes that you can’t wait for him to verbally berate everyone at the table. He may be in his comfort zone with this one, but that doesn’t make him any less impressive.

Penn’s performance alone may enrage you as you watch Fair Game (that’s a compliment, by the way), but if he doesn’t, the subject matter itself will. This is a film that is really about the search for weapons of mass destruction and we all know how that search ultimately turned out. It’s not even so much that the executive branch had false information (perhaps knowingly so); it’s how bureaucracy turned national intelligence into a ridiculous mess.

Fair Game is infuriating in the best way. It makes you care about a real story involving government. The acting is great, it moves at a decent pace, and it’s always interesting. Fair Game is entertaining and educational (the two can co-exist from time to time). Watch it and get angry.

Blue Valentine - Directed by Derek Cianfrance, written by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, and Cami Delavigne, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams - Rated R

(See comments on Rabbit Hole.)

Blue Valentine is a film that is simultaneously about the beginning and end of a marriage. Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are shown falling in and out of love and it is uplifting and hopeful one minute only to be depressing and miserable the next.

Honestly, the cross-cutting of the film was confusing at first. It was a bit hard to tell the difference between college-age Gosling and early thirties Gosling. It seemed pointless for a bit; a needlessly stylized structure thrown in just to spice things up. But that cross-cutting is what makes the film emotionally jarring.

Aside from the film’s initial NC-17 rating (which has now been rightfully changed to an R), Blue Valentine is being recognized for the performances of the two leads. Praise is understandable for Gosling and Williams. Though I didn’t find their performances to be the most impressive of the year, they were still very real performances. It wasn’t hard to believe that these two characters were in love and were struggling with that fact. Although I feel like I’ve seen Gosling and Williams play these characters before.

The struggle is the heart of the film, and that makes this film a bit tough to watch. Like Rabbit Hole this is a film that takes an honest, painful look at a relationship. As far as content goes, Blue Valentine is not for me. I’m not a fan of watching marriages disintegrate. I don’t find that terribly compelling. The film itself is well made and all, but the subject matter is too bleak and depressing for me. The structuring and the performances are not enough to get past that bleakness.