Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Classics Rocked: A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
The reputation: Stanley Kubrick-directed film about a violent teenager in a future dystopia who gets behavioral conditioning so that he gets sick at the thought of harming anyone is highly acclaimed, and makes a muddled comment about free will.
Why it's not as good as you think: With Kubrick, everything is different, and less movie-like. Sometimes that's a good thing, but considering his penchant for graphic violence and nudity, it's most often bad. A Clockwork Orange is a very violent story, both in sexual and non-sexual ways, so that combined with Kubrick's general tone makes for a very intense film. And it's the bad kind of intensity here, the kind that makes you want to run and hide. The sets and costumes are supposed to be strange and disturbing, but come across as either comical, low-budget, or both. If you know anything about the novel that it's based on, you know it's divided into three parts, seven chapters each, for a total of 21 chapters. Well, in Kubrick's film, the last chapter and its events are cut out, and in this case, that's critical. Because of that, Kubrick's movie ends in darkness and evil, while Burgess's novel ends in hope. With the novel, we got to make up our own visuals, but when it's on film, Kubrick made up the visuals for us. Also, I'm sorry, but I just don't care for Kubrick's visual style. The choices he makes about camera angles is cool, but his sets and costumes are a joke. The white fedora, suspenders, cane, and exaggerated crotch may be iconic, but they just come off looking silly. Kubrick's genius my butt.

Your Racist Friend's retort:
I guess that's all well and good, Particle Man, but there are a number of things you're ignoring about this film. Like Kubrick's unprecedented use of music in the soundtrack, specifically established, well-known classical works. Then there's Malcolm McDowell's great performance? Kubrick said he probably wouldn't have made the film if Mcdowell wasn't available! The movie was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but then again, so was Titanic. And you talk about the violent subject matter, but it's extremely toned down from the book. Also, despite the missing 21st chapter, the indictment of the system, and how it makes young men like Alex DeLarge is very clear and intact. I stumbled across the insanely out of print DVD of this film in Newbury Comics a few months ago, intending to hock it on Ebay. But when I sat down and watched it, I decided it was too good a film for me to do that.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Classics Rocked: E.T.

In the hundred-odd years of movie history, certain films have been praised so effusively or so frequently that expressing a negative view of them is nearly unthinkable. Well, as critics, we pride ourselves on not following the crowd, and we're here to tell you why a few of your favorite movies suck. This week, Dr. Worm will rip E.T., Particle Man will bash A Clockwork Orange, and Your Racist Friend will slam Life is Beautiful. But just so your soul isn't completely crushed, each panning will get a brief retort from critics who believe these movies deserve their classic status.

The reputation: A critically acclaimed and well-loved classic about a cute little boy, a cute little alien, and a journey back home.
Why it's not as good as you think: The thing with Steven Spielberg is that he never wants to leave his audience with any doubt about how they should be feeling at a given moment. He's got that trait working at full throttle in E.T., which features a darling little boy interacting with an adorable, big-eyed, glowy-hearted alien. Some of it works, but much of it is just ridiculous and laughable, like the climactic (read: campy) scene in which people clad in space suits break into Elliott's house through the doors AND the windows. Other moments fail the schmaltz test as well, such as poor Elliott--child of divorced parents--finding his absent father's shirt in the garage and remarking plaintively to his brother, "Dad's shirt ... remember when he used to take us out to the ball games?" And when it looks like poor E.T. has finally bit the dust, what brings him back to life? No, not the ceaseless workings of highly-skilled doctors, but Elliott's love. In other words, if this movie were a cookie, and you ate it, it would give you diabetes.

Particle Man's retort: Have you no heart, Dr. Worm? This movie has a lot going for it, not the least of which is a childlike view about things. In E.T., the world is a simple place of bike rides and trick-or-treating. E.T. is the ultimate child; he has rudimentary verbal skills, doesn't understand things outside his own world, and has the courage to be who he really is because he doesn't know how to do anything else. And the fact that Elliott cared so much for E.T., enough to bring him back from the grave, is a testament to the all-reaching power of love, and how it can break through all boundaries. I find it hard to believe that such a sentiment cannot pierce your heart even a little.

Friday, January 26, 2007


“How do you measure a year?” I’m pretty sure that, by now, almost everyone has heard of this lyric, which is in the song “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway show Rent. But don’t worry if you still have no idea what I’m talking about, because it’s no longer necessary to go to the theater to see the show (it’s still a good idea though). That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, you can now watch Rent from the comfort of your own home.
Some people may still be asking what Rent is, besides just being a musical. Well, I’ll tell you. Rent is the story of a close group of friends who live in New York City. Almost all of the main characters are poor artists, willingly suffering from lack of funds in order to stay true to their art. The story begins on Christmas Eve and ends the following Christmas Eve, which leads them to ponder how one year can be measured. Throughout this year the friends have to deal with many changes in their lives, some good, some bad. Some have found true love, others are trying to just make sense of their lives. Some are dealing with AIDS and drug addiction. And through all of these things, they all look to each other as a supportive family.
First, allow me to say that I absolutely love the idea of Broadway musicals as films—mainly because I would love to see all of them, but if I had to go to a theater to see all of them then I’d never have any money. For this reason, I never saw Rent on the stage. I knew the soundtrack by heart, but I could never attach any visual elements to it until I saw this film about a year ago.
The film? It was good. I enjoyed it. However, it was nothing as spectacular as I expected Rent to be. The acting was solid and everyone had great voices—Idina Menzel, in particular, gave a standout performance as Maureen—but this musical had been built up in my mind for so long that I think it was inevitable that I was let down a bit.
For me, the music was more interesting than the film, I think because everything seemed so emotional when they were singing, but some of that emotion was lost when they were just speaking. I’m not suggesting they should have sung the whole time, but there seemed to be quite a disconnect between the sung and spoken portions.
I had been told that Rent was the BEST musical ever, which I did not completely agree with. It was good, but nothing completely outstanding. Overall, I would give the movie a 12. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, but enjoyed the dialogue a little less. Although I did learn how to measure a year.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fight Club

In case the title is no indication, Fight Club is a "guy" movie. Sorry for the support for stereotypes, but I can't put it any other way. And despite being a gal myself, I can see what appeals. It's a cool idea to think about fighting for the sport of it, getting out frustrations, building your toughness in a situation where you aren't judged for wont of it.

Fight Club starts off on a very funny, dry note. The main character, who serves as the narrator, is played by Edward Norton, and he is engaging enough to keep us interested in his sad, dull life. He is trying to fix a problem of his: insomnia. He can't sleep for days on end, and he's desperate. A doctor gives him little help, and in response to his pleas to end his suffering, tells him to go visit the local support group for men with testicular cancer to see what real suffering is.

Willing to try anything, he goes, and finds it very therapeutic. He was free, accepted, and encouraged to express emotion. And even better, he started sleeping. So begins the addiction. He starts attending as many support groups as possible, whether they apply to his specific situation or not (mostly not). It seems as though he's found the cure, until someone catches on to his scheme. Her name is Marla, and she's a fraudulent group attender as well. Suddenly his freedom is stifled, and he starts the downward spiral all over again.

And then, he meets Tyler (Brad Pitt). Pitt's character is quite a unique personality, and his free, uncaring attitude towards life attracts Norton. Their lives quickly become intertwined, and after an evening of fighting each other for the heck of it, Fight Club is born.

Now, this is the part of the movie that appeals to most guys. The idea that he could get together with a group of men to practice fighting for the sport of it--almost for the therapy of it. Fighting overtakes their lives, and causes them to see everything differently. They begin sizing people up and thinking about who they could pummel if they got the chance. They go through each day in anticipation for the next fight. Norton is satisfied again.

Then it all goes spiraling out of control, and in the process, it lost me. The first part is very different from the second, and as a viewer I didn't feel as though it worked. Fight Club keeps growing, and those who attend are faithful in their membership. It's a secret society, but inevitably, rumors start. They begin vandalizing public property and terrorizing innocent people. They do have a purpose, and that purpose is to set people free to truly experience life by letting go of things that don't matter. A great idea in theory, but in practice things get more and more sketchy. It all gets very unreal, and it quickly becomes clear that no one knows where the line is, or whether or not it has been crossed. Pitt and Norton become almost dictators to this group, and before long things start to get really ugly. Norton starts to get uncomfortable with everything going on, understandably, and then: the twist. I'm left with half of a movie with great potential.


I had actually heard what the twist was a long time before seeing the movie, but as the film unfolded, it seemed less and less possible to me, so I forgot about it. But it still came: we learn that Norton and Tyler are actually the same person. And as I sat there watching, I thought (as I frequently say), "seriously?" I mean, I guess they made it work, but to me it was like one of those kids' toys where you have to put the star-shaped block in the star-shaped hole. It won't fit in the square hole. Director David Fincher hammered it into the square hole.

My biggest question is, why did the film go in this direction? The main guy losing his mind is decent material, but it was totally out of the blue. And...seemingly without greater purpose. We get a very subtle sense throughout the movie that there's more to Tyler than meets the eye, but nothing in the way of identifying him as the other personality of the narrator. Sure, in hindsight you can look back and say "Oooh, I can see why she said that..." but there was no light bulb moment. I guess it was more of an explosion moment.

At first, I thought Fight Club had something to say, a character to redeem, or something. It was headed in good direction. The problem is, in the end, the filmmakers allowed the crazy plot twist to take over and drown out the real point. They, like Tyler, suffered from split personality. Unfortunately, the insane side won.


Rating: 4

What the heck was the second half about?? There were some decently funny parts, involving his boss and where he lives. Norton and Pitt were also great personalities to play these roles. But it started off funny, surprising, intriguing, and purposeful. It ended disturbing, crazy, mutilated, and pointless. Fight Club began as a fresh film, but turned faster than milk on a hot day.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Rocky Balboa

All throughout the month of December, there was only one movie in wide release that I was looking forward to, and that movie was Rocky Balboa. Myself, and one of my co-workers. Everybody in our department thought we were crazy. After all, Sylvester Stallone's last starring vehicle to gross over $100 million was Rocky IV, 21 years ago. His name has not been concurrent with box-office draw in this decade, or the last. It took several long years to get a studio to back this, the final installment of Rocky Balboa's story, and they would only give him about $20 million. So was their investment justified? After all, the franchise has been artistically bankrupt since the first installment.....right?
I say, wrong. Though the fifth film remains unwatchable, and I find the second and fourth films just ok, the third is a great guilty pleasure of mine. It would have been a shame for the series to end on the note that Rocky V set, and Stallone ably recovers with Rocky Balboa, the strongest film in the series since the classic first installment.
The events of the newest film take place several years after the events of the fifth film, which isn't referenced or brought up in any way. Adrian has been dead from cancer for several years, and Rocky runs a restaurant named after her, posing for pictures and telling stories for patrons. The opening sequence has him visiting her grave, talking to her as if she was still alive. Paulie (Burt Young) is still working at the meat packing plant, and Rocky's son (an underwhelming Milo Ventimiglia) works at some financial-type job as a worker bee, uncomfortable in the shadow of his celebrity father. Rocky goes on an annual tour of the city with Paulie, remembering his early courtship of Adrian, and she appears in flashback, as if she was a ghost. Weighed down by the poor way in which he treated his sister, a guilty Paulie urges Rocky to forget the past, which then visits Rocky in two ways. The first occurs when Rocky ducks into a neighborhood dive for a beer and a memory, and the bartender is "Little Marie" from the neighborhood (Geraldine Martin), whom he walked home in the first film, and admonished against hanging out with bad crowds and smoking, to no avail ("Screw you, creepo!"). Marie is now grown up, a single mother, and Rocky becomes a close friend. The second is a computerized fight run on ESPN that pits Rocky in his prime against current milk-fed heavyweight champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), and claims Rocky as the clear winner. This gets Rocky thinking, and an exhibition match is set up, as Rocky goes into the ring for one...... last...... time........ (Actually, the third "last time" since the second film.....I think. Don't quote me on that.)
Rocky Balboa has several things going for it. One is one of the best film scores of all time. Another is one of the most root-for-able characters in the history of film. Stallone performs his triple duty of star, director, and writer quite nicely. The script is a bit monologue heavy, but there are some nice touches in there, like Rocky's local celebrity and how that is handled. There are strong performances from Stallone, Young, and Geraldine Martin, who practically steals the film with her big eyes and tentative portrayal of Marie. The DP should be commended, as this is easily the most artfully shot of the Rocky films, with an apparent variety of techniques and cameras used.
Now for the bad news: I was hoping that this would be a great film, but it's merely pretty good, and here's why. First of all, Tarver isn't a very strong personality, and is a very underwhelming opponent for Rocky, despite the fact that he's 30 years younger. His character also (of course) undertrains for the fight. Shades of the Braddock/Baer fight in Cinderella Man, I think. Ventimiglia also turns in a snoozer of a "performance" as Rocky's son. I don't think all of this is his fault, as the role seemed a bit underwritten to me. Also, the story has dramatic weight, but I don't think that there's enough of it to give it the emotional impact that it should have had. I didn't feel like the stakes were as high as they were in, say, Rocky III or IV. Also, two other minor nitpicks I have that hurt the film a bit: Duke's (Tony Burton) part should have been bigger, and the training sequence needed to be more kickass.
Overall, I liked Rocky Balboa. If you're a fan of the series, you'll like it a lot. If you're not, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. I give Rocky Balboa a 10 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (a guest review by Number Three)

Tucker: The Man and His Dream is one of those rare films that is so delightful, expertly crafted, and flawlessly acted that it makes me gag at the inferior quality of most (not all) movies that come out of Hollypoop these days. This film sounded like a real toss-up when I saw it in our local library. The front cover looked like some awful burp of a schmaltzy sheen, and I almost passed it up for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Looking closer at the team of actors/director was much too compelling, though…so I got both movies. I’m glad I did!

Forget the lame title. And please, please don’t fall victim to your first impressions. This plays like a corny 50’s period drama at the start, but it quickly transforms into an impeccable show of filmmaking that transcends its own context. There is fine acting here…probably the best character piece I’ve seen from Jeff Bridges, easily rivaling his work in Fearless, The Fisher King, and Arlington Road. And there is near perfect directing here from Francis Ford Coppola as in his less known Gardens of Stone and successful Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker. This film not only transported me, but it also managed to make me feel the same emotions toward the same people at the same intensity as the protagonist did. This is hard to do as successfully and thoroughly as Coppola/Bridges do here.

Tucker (Bridges) is a dreamer/inventor. His vision for greatness and his love and enthusiasm for his family (wife Joan Allen along with some kiddies including a very young Christian Slater) seem to uniquely spill over into each other. There was a question in my mind throughout the film as to whether his vision would ever squash his family or his family would ever squash his vision. He didn’t walk the line - he straddled it - with both feet firmly planted in his vision and his family. It was precarious. There were moments when I wondered if the family was about to lose Tucker to his vision, but the next scene would quickly assure me that Tucker’s quixotic nature was well-leashed by his own sense of duty. Then there were moments when I wondered if the vision was about to lose Tucker to his family, but the next scene would quickly assure me that the family’s investment in Tucker’s vision was almost as intense as Tucker’s.

The basic story is this: Tucker wants to invent a great and superior car that far surpasses the quality of the “Big Three” cars. He wants to make money, no question about it, but deep down he’s more interested in making something great. Tucker wants to make a great car, and his bold, adventurous nature sends him on a quest to do just that. Along the way he must contend with financial backing, politics, and the Big Three’s powerful opposition. But each obstacle was simply an excuse for Tucker to demonstrate his resolve. He pressed on, often using great wit and charm to make it through each hurdle. In trying to classify his personality, think Howard Hughes meets Tom Bombadil. And by the way, Tucker does meet Howard Hughes, which had me cracking up as my wife (who doesn’t know Hughes) wondered if I had had too much Rioja. Hey, there’s even a bit of courtroom drama! And in the end, it’s not about competing financially with the Big Three; it’s about competing with their customer’s sense of quality. What makes Tucker’s car great isn’t whether or not it sells, but whether or not the people think it’s great. Well, I think the car is great, and so is the movie!

Number Three’s Score:
Mouthspeak (impact of dialog): +19
Watchfeel (impact of visuals): +21
Mouthfeel (overall watchability): +20

Number Three

Friday, January 12, 2007


I don’t like martial arts movies. The concept of people fighting each other (especially when they don’t absolutely have to) is pretty foreign to me. The Asian culture is fascinating to me, but the societal fabric of martial arts seems strange and unfathomable to my near-pacifist eyes. Thusly, I don’t like martial arts movies. However, I submit to you this: Fearless is not a martial arts movie. It’s a movie with martial arts in it.

Fearless tells the true story of one Huo Yuanjia (played by Jet Li), founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. He grew up in a fairly traditional Chinese home, with a domineering (but also just and upright) father, and a gentle (but also submissive) mother. He was a brash, headstrong child, but he got his butt royally kicked by a slightly older boy. He then vowed that as he continued to fight, he would never again let anyone beat him. He became exceedingly egotistical as he matured, but his fighting prowess was second to none. A dangerous rivalry and a personal tragedy would eventually break him out of it.

This was a pretty tough sell for me, but I eventually bought it. The point where Yuanjia has reached his lowest depth is really where the story started to have meaning for me. This was also the point where we meet Moon (Li Sun), who becomes Yuanjia’s love interest. Moon is a woman who, besides being exceptionally beautiful, is even more capable and self-sufficient than Yuanjia himself, though in a totally different way. Moon is a blind woman, but a happy, content, and peaceful woman. Even though she’s blind (or perhaps because of it), she sees something in Yuanjia that no one else sees. She shows him that no matter how awful circumstances get, life is still worth living. She gives him the resolve to go on and make things right.

Here’s the real weirdness for me, and the reason I find martial arts movies to be too far outside my ken to appreciate. Ancient Chinese culture is built on fighting, but as a competition that matches skill against skill. So people who have no grudge or animosity between them whatsoever will fight. For me, fighting is something I don’t do, don’t want to do, and hope that I never have to do. While I can appreciate the high amount of skill required and the level of artistry involved (it really is called martial arts for a reason), but the idea at the very base of it is something I don’t like: fighting. So for me, a martial arts movie would need to emphasize the human elements of the story and have a really engaging plotline, because a lot of the fighting is completely lost of me. Fearless definitely did that. The beginning was pretty doubtful, and the fact that the entire movie was in Chinese was kind of off-putting, but it really developed into a compelling story with characters I could get behind.

The presence of Moon helped matters quite a bit, and was probably the lynchpin for me. The injection of a female influence made the movie not just about martial arts, and Li Sun is incredibly appealing. I was outvoted to watch this movie at a recent gathering of friends, but I’m glad I was. It took a while, but overall Jet Li turned in a performance that I could really believe in. And the moment at the end where Moon finally sees Yuanjia with her eyes really touched my heart. That’s right! My heart was touched by a martial arts movie! And that’s why I profess that Fearless is really a movie with martial arts in it.

Iconic lines:
“Cry when you are sad. When the tears are gone, life will move on."

22 rating: 7

Particle Man

Our first hate mail!

Hello happy movie viewers!

As most of you know, we enjoy dissecting films on this blog. As a result, we're changing the world, one reader at a time! Keep up the good work!

"I can't be friends with you guys anymore. I was watching TV last night and American Beauty was on TNT… even though I hated that movie when I first saw it (you know me and deep movies ) I started watching it… and… I…. I liked it. And I understood it and started analyzing it, damn it!! I never do that! Do you know what this means?!?!?! That stupid review website of yours has ruined me!! All my life I have worked so hard to be a shallow, self-centered and empty shell, watching only action and scary movies…. And now you have robbed me of that. I've started thinking and I hate thinking!! So now I have to find some new shallow and self-centered people like me to be my friends."


Monday, January 08, 2007

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

"How could this possibly be bad?" was my reaction when I first caught wind of Talladega Nights. "It's Will Ferrell making fun of southern people!"
And, just as I suspected, Will Ferrell making fun of southern people is, indeed, quite funny. It's a slam dunk, right? Will Ferrell is the brightest light to come out of Saturday Night Live in a while, and southern people are notoriously easy to make fun of.
And yet, I'm underwhelmed.
Talladega Nights starts out well enough. After some background scenes showing Ricky Bobby's birth, a fateful day in his childhood, and his first stint as a driver, we get to the real meat of the story: Ricky Bobby ruling the road in NASCAR, and all of the comedy that comes along with that. The comedy culminates in a series of ads, in which Ricky Bobby hawks a Jackhawk 9000 hunting knife ("Available at Wal-Mart"), Maypax: the offical tampon of NASCAR ("When you work on your mysterious lady-part stuff, you should have the right tools too"), and Big Red ("I'm Ricky Bobby. If you don't chew Big Red gum, then f*** you.") That's followed by a five minute long scene comprised mainly of Ricky Bobby saying a very awkward grace, which is funny enough, but it marks the moment where the filmmakers start to lay off the humor accelerator and try to tell a story.
You see, Ricky Bobby's NASCAR dominance is threatened when Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) joins the circuit. Girard is gay and French--in other words, the antithesis of the American South--and his arrival seems as though it's about to start a perfect rivalry: American impudence, bigotry, and xenophobia vs. flamboyant French immodesty.
Unfortunately, this rivalry--and the satire it promises--never really has a chance to develop, because in Girard's and Ricky Bobby's first race together, Ricky Bobby wipes out.
Now, up to this point, we've seen roughly 40 minutes of movie, and it's all been pretty solid. But the next 50 minutes or so--between the crash and Ricky Bobby's inevitable comeback--drag just a bit. It's basically 50 minutes of Ricky Bobby rehab, and while parts of it are indeed amusing, I found myself losing interest.
Unfortunately, this disinterest sours the triumphant ending just a bit. See, it's during that 50 minutes--in which Ricky Bobby hits his lowest before picking himself up again--that we realize that we really don't care all that much about him. We're interested, sure, and we're happy for him when he wins in the end. But we don't really care.
And that, unfortunately, is the element that keeps a funny movie from being an excellent movie. It's a common problem for those who have cut their teeth in sketch comedy: When you're used a 5-minute character arc, it's hard to get used to into a 2-hour character arc. When you only have 5 minutes, it pays to start with a burst of energy and to make your characters simple. When you have two hours, however, the same strategy doesn't always work.
But that's only a complaint about the movie taken as a whole. Taken piecemeal, there's much that's very funny about it. I'd say 15 to 20 laugh-out-loud moments total, with 2 or 3 of those being solid belly laughs. Much of the credit there goes to a really top-notch cast. Ferrell and Baron Cohen both do well, but the acting honors in this movie really belong to John C. Reilly as Ricky Bobby's best bud Cal Naughton Jr. Reilly manages to be just as funny as Ferrell without ever seeming to overact. There's a long list of talented actors in Talladega Nights: Jane Swift as Ricky Bobby's mother, Michael Clarke Duncan as his pit crew chief, Gary Cole as his father, Molly Shannon as his boss' wife, Amy Adams as his secretary-turned-girlfriend. Even some of the relative unknowns turn in solid performances, such as Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell as his sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, respectively.
Yeah, it's certainly a funny movie filled with funny people, which I suppose is what you pay for. But the lack of cohesiveness and proper pacing means Talladega Nights places no higher than a 7.

Disclaimer: I watched the unrated DVD version, which is 14 minutes longer than the theatrical version. It might be that the aforementioned pacing issues weren't a problem in the theatrical version, but as the DVD only allows me to watch the longer, unrated version, I guess I'll never know.