Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Punisher: War Zone

As most of you would have noticed, I've been on leave this fall due to school. Finals aren't until Tuesday, but I couldn't resist coming back early after WLC's review of Wanted, and her issues with the film. She brought up a lot of good points about violence in certain films that, much to my chagrin, are aptly illustrated in the latest failed attempt to bring Marvel Comics' dark vigilante The Punisher to the screen, in Punisher:War Zone.
A brief primer, for the uninitiated: The Punisher, aka Frank Castle first popped up in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man as a foil to Spider-Man. Castle was a former Marine whose family had been killed in the crossfire of a mob hit in Central Park, leaving Castle the only survivor. Completely shattered by the experience, he became The Punisher and declared a (very literal) war on crime, executing pimps, drug dealers, etc. Astute students of pop culture will note a resemblance to a certain Mack Bolan, Executioner. The character enjoyed massive popularity in the 1980s before burning out thanks to excessive exposure and market saturation. After several aborted attempts to revive the character, the Irish writer Garth Ennis successfully brought the Punisher back to the forefront with stories heavy with violent black humor and new depths of characterization that redefined the laconic Frank Castle. This popularity continued through Ennis' dark "mature readers only" take on the character that had little to nothing in common with the mainstream Marvel universe, in which the aging Punisher had been racking up the kills for dozens of years, and was undoubtedly the most dangerous man in his universe.
Sounds simple, right? A tortured man that had lost any chance at a normal life, who fought to end the worst evils mankind had to offer? This has been used successfully elsewhere (*cough, Jack Bauer, cough*), so how did they screw it up so badly? The story is as follows: The Punisher (Rome's Ray Stevenson) conducts a raid on a mafioso's mansion at the beginning of the film, and accidentally kills a deep cover FBI agent while cleaning up loose ends. Stricken with guilt, he decides to quit his vigilantism. Meanwhile, mafia hitman Billy Russotti (The Wire's Dominic West) survives being tossed into a glass-crushing machine by the Punisher and begins calling himself Jigsaw, and moves to take over organized crime in the city, and kill the Punisher. Throw in the dead FBI agent's partner out for revenge, the dead agent's wife (BTVS/Angel's Julie Benz, in one of the worst performances of the year) and child in Jigsaw, and wackiness ensues, as the man said.
There were a lot of different people that worked on the script for this one, and as a direct result, there are a lot of things wrong with it. First and foremost, the tone of the film isn't quite "there". It seems to be based on the early Ennis Punisher tales, and is a lot more humorous. But....what works on a comic page doesn't necessarily work on the silver screen. The filmmakers would have been better off making the film more serious. Also, there's quite a bit of terrible or cliched dialogue.....if it's 2008 or later, and you're writing a script in which an FBI agent refers to a room full of cops as "Krispy-Kreme scarfing m***********s", you might want to step back and reconsider. The Punisher's crisis of faith took far too little to trigger in such a fanatic character, and wreaks havoc with the believeability of the film.....the Punisher will likely stop hunting down criminals as soon as Amy Winehouse stops smoking crack, and this sticks out. If you need a driven character to harbor serious doubts, at least give them a deep-seated and personal reason to do so (like Batman is given with the death of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight). The violence in the film feels very fake and "video game", and that's a problem on several levels. One, it looks silly, CGI blood everywhere. What's wrong with practical effects, squibs and such? Two, there is little to distinguish the Punisher's behavior and motivations from the criminals, except that he only goes after "bad guys". This is another greviously damaging aspect of the movie. Had we been shown definitive proof that the Punisher was absolutely necessary, it would be easier to root for him. Not that it's all that difficult, but this could be one of the reasons the film didn't/isn't resonating with non-fans. Probably the worst crime of the movie is that while the character is portrayed more or less accurately, the film version of Jigsaw is a carbon copy of the Jack Nicholson's Joker from the 1989 Batman film, right down to a scene where a doctor explains that there was nothing left of his face and he had very little to work with. This kind of hackery can't even be passed off as homage, and has no place in a professionally crafted script.
Now.....for the good. I have quite possibly never seen a bad film with so many good performances, especially from Ray Stevenson. Stevenson is easily the best screen version of the Punisher, and does a lot with such a dialogue-sparse character. He excels at dry humor (as demonstrated in a scene with the second best on-screen use of a pencil this year), and handles some rough dialogue and questionable scenes with great skill. It's too bad that this material give him the opportunity to show us even more. Dash Mihok shines as the pathetic Detective Soap, police stooge for the Punisher, drawing most of the intended laughs in the film. The film has a great, grainy look with lots of harsh neons and a New York City that looks truly filthy and pre-Giuliani. Think of the look as "Dick Tracy Goes to Hell", and Punisher cover mainstay Tim Bradstreet would certainly be proud. And for all the unevenness that precedes it, it has a truly killer final scene.
While this is a vast improvement over the previous Punisher films, it's still not that great. I will see it again, and probably watch it on video, but all the while thinking of what could have been. I give Punisher: War Zone 9 out of 22 on the 22 scale, and the score is ONLY that high because I'm a big fan of the source material.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Initial Reaction: "Bleh...I feel used..."

...Used in the sense that Wanted took advantage of my enjoyment of action films. I didn't experience an action-packed, edge-of-my seat thrill ride with cool new sequences and moves. I felt I had been marketed a cheap copy of films that have actually been successful in this genre. It's one of many, and frankly I'm getting sick of it. Allow me to elaborate.

When the film opens, James McAvoy is Wesley Gibson, an account manager for company X. He's living in a crappy apartment with a girlfriend who's sleeping with his best friend, and he suffers from anxiety attacks for which he takes medication. He can't stand his life, and feels completely numb to everything around him. But something exciting is in store for Mr. Gibson. (Literally...it happens in a store.)

Enter Ms. Jolie as Fox (ha, ha) to tell Wesley that his father was one of a league of assassins, one of the greatest that ever lived. He had just been killed by a rogue assassin who--in the same scene--shows up and begins trading gunfire as Fox tries to protect Wesley. She brings him to meet their leader, Sloan (Morgan Freeman) who explains that Wesley's fate is to become one of them and to kill his father's murderer. Appropriately, the wimpy Wesley is freaked out beyond belief and runs away. But as I'm sure you can guess, he finds his way back to the group after going back to his normal life and realizing he can't go through with it anymore.

This was one of the first problems I had with Wanted. Gibson goes from being a sad, boring account manager to a giddy killer. Literally in hours. With the first glimpse of the assassin gang and the traumatizing circumstance of shooting and being shot at, he's terrified and disbelieving. Probably a good response. Then the next morning, he suddenly finds some strength to tell the people around him to f*ck off, and now becoming a killer is an enticing, satisfying option. Oh, I can see that...the last time I was in a shoot-out and captured by an assassin gang, my next day at work was extremely dissatisfying.


Next is the "Becoming an Assassin 101" part of the film. He's beaten, cut up, interrogated, and through these experiences learns valuable lessons such as fighting atop a moving train, catching a spindle, and the oh-so-cool "curving a bullet." This part is decent enough, but aside from the interesting bullet thing, just an excuse for some more violence.

And of course, our dear sweet Wesley becomes sufficiently bad-ass. He's given his first assignments and starts to live the life of a true assassin. The best part of the film in my opinion is where the plot decides to go in the second half of the film. We see a little more realness in the struggle of killing people he doesn't even know, and there's a decent plot hitch that made me more interested in the ending. The ending itself was headed in a good direction, I think, but ended up shooting itself in the foot.

Lastly, my least favorite part of the film: the moral of the story. Or rather, the anti-moral. **slight spoiler** It offers a rallying cry to its viewers to do something with their lives. But, wait...wasn't this about assassins? Are you telling me to improve my quality of life by committing murder? REALLY?? And I thought I was living a good life by NOT participating in such things. Guess I was misled. I don't care if this was only meant as a joke, because then it's even worse; it makes the lead character and practically the entire film just that: a joke.

Violence has become sort of pornographic, taking center stage as filmmakers think of creative ways to dispose of people and spatter blood across the screen. This is a trend that is turning me off to action films. I'm not so "prudish" that I can't stand any killing or fighting, I think that physical conflict and force is something that occurs naturally in the world and, while I don't necessarily condone it, can appreciate the art of fighting and the apparent justice of "killing the bad guy." But to derive pleasure from torturing and killing people is a truly disturbing place, and I think that as time goes by we get closer and closer to that end.

Rating: -6

With adequate acting, action-packed (though somewhat recycled) fighting sequences and an intriguing plot, Wanted has a lot going for it. I can see how many people liked it. But everything else drags it way down. I didn't buy Gibson's character or motivations, and the gratuitous violence and pathetic message were terrible. Not just any action-packed bloodbath will do anymore, people. In my book, this junk is just plain NOT wanted.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My fiancé is a conspiracy theorist.  While I laugh appreciatively and smile with a “you’re crazy” look on my face when she goes off on the occasional rant, there is a part of me that really gets going on the things she suggests.  I don’t let that part of myself have center stage that often, but it’s always interesting when I do.  The central idea that it believes in is that there is a hidden side to everything.  For every idea that presents one face to the world, it has twenty other faces that it hides.  It is also this part that likes the idea of numerology; the idea that everything can be broken down to numbers and the combinations thereof.

(heretofore referred to as Pi for ease of typing) brought that part out like no movie I have ever seen.  When it was over, my mind was simply buzzing with possibilities and eventualities.  Pi didn’t just have a great numbers game in it, though.  It also presented some pretty wild ideas, and did things with character and story that many higher budget movies can’t pull off.

Pi’s central character is Max Cohen, a mathematical genius doing research on ∏ and its relation to complex systems, namely the stock market.  Also, Max has a mountain of mental problems.  When he was a kid, he stared too long at the sun, and he consequently gets very intense headaches from time to time.  He’s paranoid, anti-social, unfriendly, and emotionally unstable.  One day, when his personal supercomputer named Euclid spits out a couple of stock picks, it immediately crashes afterwards, but not before printing out a seemingly random array of 216 digits.  Frustrated and saddened, Max throws the printout away.

Max is approached by a pushy Jewish numerologist who is looking for some mathematical significance in the Torah, or the Old Testament.  He and his colleagues are convinced the Torah is some sort of mathematical code sent to them directly from God, and they want to understand its mysteries.  They think the 216-digit number that Euclid printed out is the key to the entire thing.  Also confronting Max is an equally pushy financial executive who wants to have Max’s findings on the stock market.  After bribing him with a military-grade processor for his computer, he tells them of the 216-digit number.  They irresponsibly apply it, though, and in the process bring about the country’s worst financial crisis in history.  Sound familiar?

This movie presents the idea of the interconnectedness of everything, and that was really what made me appreciate it as much as I did.  Another central idea of Pi was that some ideas are just too big for us, and that genius and madness look very similar to each other.  Max is wrestling with ideas that have a huge impact on our world, and they drive him crazy.  As the film progresses, he psychoses increase and increase, and he starts seeing some pretty disturbing stuff.   You as the viewer are not even sure what’s real and what’s not.  Director Darren Aronofsky takes a very personal and claustrophobic approach to the film, using close-ups and a rig where the camera is attached to the person its filming to keep the viewer in very close contact with the main character.  You can’t really get away.

What Pi has to say about the nature of genius and the advancement of ideas is startling and harrowing.  Can we as humans only get to a certain point, and then God drives the people who exceed it insane?  Or is God the one who presents the advancing ideas in the first place, always trying to push humans in a certain direction, taking into account our free will?  Max believes at one point that God has “chosen” him.  That could very well be legitimate, but it sounds a lot like a crazy person talking.  So is it divine appointment, or serious psychosis?  Or is it both?  Did Max get chosen by God, and that made him crazy?

This is a lot of meat for a 90 minute film, and a lot of other movies can’t cram nearly as much in.  Pi is not the flashiest picture, and has a pretty small budget.  The black and white filming on high-contrast reversal film brings a lot of dirt and grime to the experience, accentuating the feeling of alienation and psychosis, bring us into Max’s world a little.  It’s a little distracting, but it successfully brings on a feeling.  Unlike Aronofsky’s second film, Requiem For a Dream, I would potentially watch this again.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m very glad I saw Requiem.  The experience was just too traumatic.  Pi, however, is a fascinating film, and even manages to bring out the conspiracy theorist in me.  My fiancé would be proud.

Iconic Lines:

“Assumption: patterns are everywhere in nature.  Evidence: the cycling of disease epidemics; the wax and wane of caribou populations; sun spot cycles; the rise and fall of the Nile.”

“If you want to find the number 216 in the world, you’ll be able to find it everywhere.  216 footsteps from a near street corner to your front door.  216 seconds you spend riding on an elevator.  When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out to find that thing everywhere.”

“There will be no order; only chaos."

22 Rating: 13

Particle Man

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

You’ve already seen this movie.  Trust me.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist has nothing new to offer, no new revelations to show, no mysteries to solve.  It won’t expand your mind or teach you anything about yourself.  But you know what?  I really liked it.

 The reason I say that you’ve already seen it is that it uses a lot of clichés and conventions, and the plot goes exactly where you expect it to go, with little to no deviation.  There’s the drunk friend, the indie soundtrack, the creepy older-guy quasi-boyfriend, the Holy Grail-like quest (this time it’s for an elusive show by an elusive band), and the climax that involves every character in the film.  If the movie were just the sum total of those parts, it would be boring, trite, and a little insulting.  But instead, it’s charming, sweet, and winning.

 Why?  This is almost completely due to the chemistry between the two leads.  Michael Cera plays Nick, a completely stereotypical emo kid: quiet, passionate, plays bass, drives an ugly car, and runs on low-octane emotions exclusively.  His girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) dumped him a few months ago (on his “b-day”), and he’s been sending her mix CDs (he’s on #12) in an effort to win her back.  She’s just throwing them out without listening to them, laughing at what she presumably started dating him in the first place for.  Norah (Kat Dennings), a frienemy of Tris’s, is fishing them out of the trash and falling in love with him, despite the fact that she’s never seen him.  Nick is still hopelessly depressed over the breakup, but is convinced to come out for a gig with his band (and put on some pants) by a rumor of a secret show by his favorite indie band (the fictional Where’s Fluffy).

 Thus begins a night of hilarity and goofiness.  At Nick’s band’s gig, Tris attends with an anonymous guy in tow, as does Norah and her vodka-soaked friend Caroline (Ari Graynor).  In an act of desperation, Norah asks Nick (not knowing who he actually is, of course) to be her boyfriend for five minutes, just to prove to Tris that she came with someone.  When Tris sees that Nick has a new flame, her mindset instantly changes, and she sets out to get Nick back.  Add to that Nick’s band members (who are both gay), who volunteer to bring Caroline safely home while Nick and Norah hunt for Fluffy.  While tons of comedic mileage is provided by Caroline’s drunkenness, her alcohol consumption is eventually shown as pretty icky and disgusting.

 Nick and Norah have an instant connection, one that is undeniable.  This is a movie couple you really root for.  I wanted to see them end up together, and the movie really would have left a sour taste in my mouth if that hadn’t happened.  In this way, it’s very good that the movie was predictable.  But their relationship is not without complications, both internal and external.  Both of them are too easily offended, but also very willing to forgive.  Then there are their ex-es.  Tris is one, and Norah’s semi-ex is Tal (Jay Baruchel), who does a pretty good Matthew McConaughey impression.  He’s older, Jewish, conniving, and so creepy he makes Travis Bickle glance nervously at his shoes.  Norah and Tal have a “friends with bennys” thing going on, and Norah just goes to him when she needs to feel special, ignoring the fact that he’s just using her for her rich father’s connections and the fact that she can make restaurant bills evaporate.  The time comes when Nick and Norah must makes choices between their ex-es and each other.  You can guess how it goes.

 There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, some great music, and beautiful New York imagery, but the real thing that makes this movie worthwhile is the Cera and Dennings pairing.  These two simply sparkle.  They’re great in their own rights, but they really shine together.  Nick and Norah, as well as Cera and Dennings as actors, have more chemistry between them than all the Brads and Angies this world can muster.

 Credit also has to be given to director Peter Sollett, who is only on his second film.  Credits that ride on the coat-tails of Juno aside, he has a good if predictable grasp of the teenager road flick genre.  The movie takes place in New York City, and Sollett lovingly peppers the movie with shots of famous NYC landmarks in such a way that you know he’s proud of where he comes from.  He also shows a sweet sensitivity and emphasis on the beautiful and touching, showing them in the most subtle way.

 While Nick and Norah doesn’t cover any ground that movies like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and Sixteen Candles didn’t, it updates the motif for a new generation, and tries to capture a modern moment the same way those films did.  It deals too much in stereotypes and is completely predictable, but the sterling performances by Michael Cera and Kat Dennings more than redeem it.  You’ve seen it already, but this is the sort of movie that bears repeating.

 Iconic Lines:

“Why would you buy these pants?”

“I love you so much it’s retarded!”

“I found Jesus!!!  He’s much taller in person…”

22 Rating: 10

Particle Man

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sex and The City

Sex and the City was a big hit when I was too young to understand the show, however after catching reruns after I got older I realized that it was a show I really liked. Naturally, I was excited that a good show was being made into a full length feature, as opposed to some of the crap we're handed these days. I had heard great things about the movie from people who had seen it before I did, which is basically anyone who saw it in theaters since I didn't catch it until it was on DVD, but now I sit here and wonder what happened.

The movie picks up five years from the series finale in which everyone gets their happy ending. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is finally with Mr. Big (Chris Noth), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has gotten word that her and her husband Harry's adoption application for China was accepted and that they'll soon be the parents of a baby girl, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) who is the one of the group who hates monogamy has fallen in love and moved to L.A. with an actor, and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is living the married life with her husband and their son Brady. So when we get to the five years later part everything seems to be in place. Of course true to Sex and The City style, something has to go wrong and the conflict is mainly presented in the pending marriage of Carrie and Mr. Big.

As I said before I was excited when I heard this movie was coming out, but I have to say that this story was better off in half hour episodes than a feature length film. It is drawn out too long and becomes very stagnant. There are some humorous scenes but you know what is going to happen in the end so it feels like there is this pointless journey. The acting was alright and some of the clothes were nice to look at (which is part of what Sex and the City is all about). Jennifer Hudson has a supporting role as Carrie's assistant and adds a whiff of freshness as the newbie on the cast. I just think that this movie was good on paper and not so good in practice (kinda like Communism). If they wanna reunite the cast they should do it in the original form. Sadly, I have to give this movie a -10.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


The main idea of Religulous seems to be pretty well encapsulated in its title's portmanteau : Religion is ridiculous. But a film that seems like it might just be a lighthearted—if slightly mean—romp through a cascade of religious idiosyncrasies takes a left turn down a dark path in its final five minutes.

In a lot of ways, this isn’t so much a documentary about religion as it is about Bill Maher, or, rather, about Bill Maher’s views of religion. And, to Maher’s credit, he does not zero in exclusively on one religion. The film has him talking to (to name just a few) Christian truckers, Jewish scientists, a Muslim singer, and ex-Mormons. He takes shots at Scientology, at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum, and at the religion of Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda—a man with followers in about 35 countries who calls himself both the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the Antichrist.

Of course, this scattershot approach means Maher really can’t go any more than ankle deep in any of these discussions. But that’s really his point: You don’t need to go beyond ankle deep. To Maher, religion is just that shallow.

This helps explain why he doesn’t spend more than a minute or so with genome researcher (and Christian) Francis Collins: It’s not as easy to make him look ridiculous (though Maher and director Larry Charles—who also directed Borat—do their best). Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and another proponent of the compatibility of science and religion, comes off significantly better; Maher’s purpose with Coyne is simply to undercut the creationist Ken Ham.

In the end, two things really bothered me about Religulous. The first was pretty predictable: The interviews were somewhat akin to bullying—just intellectual rather than physical. While Maher was certainly able to mine some comedic moments, my response as an audience member was caught in that uncomfortable place between wanting to laugh and wanting to shout “Hey! Pick on someone your own size!”

The other troublesome aspect was the film’s jarring—and somewhat unexpected—final moment. Bill Maher delivers a rousing monologue—intercut with images of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks—that essentially boils down to this: Religion has been used to violent ends in the past, and it will be again, only now we have nuclear weapons. He calls upon his allies—atheists, agnostics, even the religiously uncommitted—to come out of hiding, to break the polite code that we don’t talk about religion, and to challenge religious people’s beliefs.

Certainly, certainly, certainly, Maher means well. His intentions, by all means, seem completely pacifistic and idealistic. The problem is this: We’ve seen calls to convert the unconverted in this way before, and—even when they’re delivered by the most well-intentioned, non-violent messengers imaginable—they frequently do devolve into hatred, resentment, and violence against those not in the group with the “truth.” He’s not really speaking to religious believers in this film (as the R rating will ensure); he’s rallying his base.

In the end, one of the most prescient lines in the film comes from the unlikely source of Tal Bachman (the musician famous for his 1999 hit “She’s So High,” but interviewed by Maher because of his credentials as an ex-Mormon). Bachman, answering a question from Maher about why more people don’t leave Mormonism, explains that once you call into question the teachings of founder Joseph Smith, you’ve severed a bond with your family and friends.

Unfortunately, the moment passes with no follow-up comment. Which makes sense: There’s no reason for Maher to explore the idea of religion as a social adhesive. His goal in this film was to splash around in the puddles of religion, not to plunge into the ocean.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

If you were in charge of marketing the film, you'd have no hesitation before deciding to advertise Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the latest from producer Judd Apatow. Which is why it's a bit ironic that this film would be better if we were somehow able to completely forget that Apatow's earlier films existed.

Sure, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was written by first-timer Jason Segel, but this film (along with Superbad, the recent Pineapple Express, and the upcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is unmistakably part of the Apatow franchise. It centers around a positively Apatowian slacker-star; it features numerous references to cannabis; and, while it does cash in quite a bit on gross-out humor, it does so without checking its brain at the door.

Writer Jason Segel, recognizable as one of Seth Rogen's stoner friends in Knocked Up, also serves as the star of this film, a musican named Peter Bretter. The movie begins with Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), the star of a prime-time crime procedural drama called "CrimeScene: Scene of the Crime," breaking up with Peter, who does the music for the same show. Peter's pain is magnified by the fact that Marshall is now dating Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a vaguely Liam Gallagher-esque British rocker. The pain is further compounded when Peter takes a Hawaiian vacation to ease his pain, and ends up at the same hotel that Sarah and Alduous are staying at.

The movie cashes in on the pathos of Peter's impossibly bad trip for awhile, until he starts falling for the hotel's hospitality director, Rachel (Mila Kunis). Then there's the excitement of new love, the confused and complicated mixture of feelings for lovers old and new, the inevitable misunderstanding, and, finally, the satisfying resolution.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is helped quite a bit by the loving attention it devotes to its smaller roles, most notably the suddenly ubiquitous Jack McBrayer as a sexually confused honeymooner. It's also helped by the fact that it avoids making any character entirely into a villain. Sure, Sarah Marshall cheated on her boyfriend, but it's not like he was being an ideal boyfriend at the time. Sure, Aldous--as the new boyfriend--is kind of a tool. But he's also--as Peter admits--kind of cool.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is hurt by the fact that it seems about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. And by the fact that it's kind of, well, forgettable. But why is it forgettable? Well, that'll require us to glance back at the recent history of comedy.

When you do look back, there's actually a pretty predictable pattern with comedy franchises. There's the Discovery, the Crowning Achievement, and then the Gradual Decline. For example:

The Farrelly brothers announced themselves to the watching world with Dumb & Dumber, established themselves as a lucrative comedic force with There's Something About Mary, and then released a few more movies that ranged from decent to abysmal, none of which could come close to matching the success of Mary.

While Will Ferrell made his reputation on Saturday Night Live, he got "discovered" by the greater public by being the funniest thing in Zoolander. He was then given a vehicle that was distinctively his in Anchorman, and has yet to match the success of that vehicle.

Even a more highbrow comedic director like Wes Anderson fits this model: He announced himself with Rushmore, had his financial crowning achievement with The Royal Tenenbaums, and hasn't had any movie do as well since.

So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the Judd Apatow franchise is falling into the same pattern. He was "discovered" after 40-Year-Old Virgin, crowned after Knocked Up, and is now enjoying a very slow decline.

So what really hurts Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the same things that hurt all the other comedic franchises listed above. What makes any comedy sparkle is the element of freshness, of surprise -- the ability of a comedic mastermind to make you see something in a way that you've never seen it before. But the Faustian trade-off of the Crowning Achievement is that once you've been crowned, you're known. And your perspective--which was once fresh, unique, surprising--is now, well, mainstream.

That's not necessarily a death knell; comedic franchises can go on to have long and successful Gradual Declines (as Adam Sandler has proved). But it's nearly impossible to recreate the success and excitement that comes with the Crowning Achievement.

So for better or for worse, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is sort of what you'd expect. It offers that same Apatow sensibility that you already know, which is both its benefit and its curse. In the end, it's not an embarrassment, but neither is it a triumph. In short, it's about a 5.

Iconic lines:
"When life gives you lemons, just say 'F*ck the lemons,' and bail."
"You have Christ between your thighs... only with a shorter beard."
Aldous, in a music video, holds up a sign that reads "Sodomize Intolerance."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Becoming Jane

Initial Reaction: Well, excuse me, but I liked it.

I'm what you may call a fan of Jane Austen. Considering the time in which she lived and what she accomplished, I find her works inspiring and comforting. I've read four of her novels, and have watched film adaptations of all of her works. I could watch the movie Pride and Prejudice (both 1995 and 2005 versions) every week, and sometimes I do. The film Becoming Jane, based on her life, exceeded my expectations.

I didn't rush out to see Becoming Jane, actually I only watched it during a late night babysitting on my laptop. I didn't really have much in the way of expectations, since a few people I know (you know who you are) saw it and didn't like it. It also didn't do well by the way of the critics, if you pay attention to that sort of thing. Ironically, I think these factors probably helped me to enjoy Becoming Jane even more.

The film has the same flavor of film adaptations of Austen's books. The plot is loosely based on Jane Austen's life, since very few details about her life are actually known. Jane lives with her parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Austen, her engaged sister Cassandra, and her brothers Henry and George. She writes for enjoyment, and surprisingly, her family seems fairly supportive of this.

Only now as I sit down to write this do I realize how little actually happened in the film. But that's something that I really appreciate about Jane Austen's writing...so much of what happens with the characters is based on social interaction and internal struggles, not depending on a lot of external events to drive the story. Anne Hathaway stars as Jane Austen herself, and James McAvoy was her love interest Thomas LeFroy. In the roles she plays, Hathaway seems to carry a bit of confidence and spark, which works here. McAvoy is thoroughly believable as Thomas LeFroy, having an interesting balance of goodness and sex appeal beneath his devil-may-care attitude.

Austen, like so many of the women she wrote about, is young and in want of a husband. Her want isn't so great, however, that she would accept the first proposal that comes her way. She refuses it, in fact, because she can't justify marrying for anything other than love. She is thrown to the lions of society and criticised for her ill-advised choice by family and acquaintances alike. In the meantime she meets Thomas LeFroy, a carefree young man studying the law under his Uncle and who is determined to enjoy himself in spite of his responsibilities. After a rocky start and some witty banter, the two become better acquainted and recognize an undeniable attraction between them. As anyone who has ever seen a film will tell you, however, all is not as simple as it initially appears, and Jane and Thomas must come to grips with some harsh realities.

Negatives? There were a few ... one being that in reality, I wouldn't necessarily see Austen and LeFroy falling for each other. Their motivation for doing so is unclear to me, unless it was only physical attraction. But the audience is led to believe there was more to it than that. Also, though I think most people assume that not everything in these "based on real people" films is true, I think that many will take away what happens in the plot as more or less true, which is the dangerous thing about these movies.

One thing I very much enjoyed was the struggle of Jane in dealing with being a female author. We know that Austen was fairly respected in society and came from decent family, and she wasn't seen as a rebel or outcast or anything like that. Yet she embraced who she was and pursued her ideals in a time when doing so had serious consequences. It added some weight and inspiration to the story mostly centered around her love for LeFroy.

Rating: 14

I'll admit: I'm extremely biased to these kinds of stories. Give me an oppressed heroine in the 19th century who falls in love with a man despite what society may say, throw in a "I bid you good day," and I'm sold. Maybe this allows me to make more concessions than most, but I don't care. I loved it! I thought the acting was extremely satisfactory, the characters interesting, and the story beautiful. Take that, nay-sayers.

Monday, September 22, 2008


When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was actually -13 years old.  I was not even a “glint in my father’s eye,” as it is said (though not in my mother’s, either, I imagine).  Suffice to say, I was not around.  But all it takes is just the right director with just the right movie to put me in the correct emotional state to feel what people where feeling on that night in 1968.  Bobby was that movie.

It starts with something very simple.  Bobby Kennedy was fatally shot in a crammed hotel kitchen right after delivering his victory speech for winning the California presidential primary.  There were 77 other people in that kitchen at the time.  Emilio Estévez, the director of Bobby, had a question to which the answer was ultimately this movie: “What about those 77 people?”

Now, the cast of this movie simply boggles the mind.  There are no less than 16 very famous faces in this movie, including two Oscar winners (Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt) and two nominees (Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone).  No doubt, under normal circumstances, this movie would have an astronomical budget from salaries for the actors alone.  The only explanations I can come up with for this movie getting made with so much proven talent are these:  all the actors are Estévez’s friends, or a film about Bobby Kennedy truly spoke to them, and they wanted to be a part of it.  Both are probably true.  Despite the out-of-this-world star power this movie has, no one really grabs the spotlight from anyone else.  I am astounded that this movie didn’t even get nominated for a single Oscar.  C’mon, Academy!  You love ensemble casts!

The closest things to standout performances come from Martin Sheen (the director’s daddy) and Anthony Hopkins.  Sheen plays a rich socialite who contributed to Kennedy’s campaign and who was treated for depression.  Helen Hunt plays his young wife, a very vulnerable and scared woman.  In each other, they rediscover the meaning of love.  Hopkins plays John Casey, semi-retired doorman for the Ambassador Hotel.  He and his friend Nelson (Harry Belefonte) are struggling with old age, and John deals with it by continuing to do a job that no one has required that he do in 25 years.  William H. Macy plays the hotel’s manager who is cheating with a hotel switchboard operator (Heather Graham) on his wife (Sharon Stone), who is also the hair and nail salon manager in the hotel.  Also in the mix are two high-level campaigners in the Kennedy campaign, played by Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon, the latter of which is doomed to be an angry black man till the day he dies.  Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty play low-level campaigners who skip out on their door-knocking to get high on LSD sold by Ashton Kutcher, the three of whom provide the film’s comic relief.  In the kitchen of the hotel, Freddie Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas are both working double shifts as busboys.  Rodriguez has Dodger tickets he can’t use (Don Drysdale shattered a record that night by pitching 6 consecutive shutouts) that he gives to the head cook (Laurence Fishburne).  Vargas is upset at the racial inequality in this country that is keeping Mexicans down, but Fishburne offers a different and interesting perspective.  Svetlana Metkina plays a Czechoslovakian reporter who is very determined in her quest for just 5 minutes with senator Kennedy, but is blocked by Jackson’s character because she writes for “a communist paper in a communist country allied with the Soviet Union.”  To top it off, Lindsey “Disney Druggie” Lohan plays a young woman marrying a young man (Elijah “Frodo” Wood) solely so he won’t have to go to the front lines of Vietnam. Her confusion with the war is translated into compassion for him, but morphs into love.

And that’s not even everyone.  But the film parades all the characters out in front of you in a pretty easy fashion.  Because no one character has a very big arc, no one has a lot of screen time.  Arcs do exist, however.  Notable arcs are the ones Lohan’s, Cannon’s, Macy’s, and Sheen’s characters go through.  Almost everyone makes the most of limited screen time, and the editing is such that no one has the spotlight, yet no one seemed like they were short-changed.

But all that misses what Bobby is really about, and the reason it’s a great movie.  Bobby, more than anything else, is a snapshot of a time and place.  Bobby Kennedy is not an actual character in the movie (all his appearances are stock footage of the real man), and his assassin only has two appearances and one line.  That’s not what the movie is about.  It’s really about that turbulent turning point in American history, 1968.  The movie tells you about that time not through historical instruction or exposition, but rather through empathy.  It presents you with snapshots of several people living in that time, in the hopes that at least  one of them will connect with something you’re going through yourself.

Bobby is also about what, at its bare bones, the real Bobby’s campaign was about: that underneath all the strife, division, hatred, and miscommunication, America is a great nation made up of great people.  Flawed people, yes, but that’s part of what makes them great, and the nation great in turn.  The idea that we can put aside our differences and remember that we are all brothers, even for a moment, is revolutionary, even in this day and age.

Indeed, Bobby has relevance now that it didn’t when it was made.  Like Bobby before him, we have a presidential candidate who may have a unifying ability.  Barack Obama is a politician who, against all odds, is giving people hope for the future, and possesses a lot of promise to fulfill that hope.  Let’s just hope his fate is a lot brighter than that of Bobby’s.  Now, some believe that he’s just another suit and smile, that his program of positive change can never come true, and maybe they’re right.

But maybe they’re wrong.

Iconic lines:

“Clearance sale!!!  Everything must go!!!”

“You’re more than the shoes on your feet or the designer dress on your back.  You’re more than the purse you carry or the money inside it.  You and I are more than the stuff, more than the things in our lives.  Somewhere between our things and our stuff is us.  I don’t want to lose us.”

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

22 rating: 16

Particle Man

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Circle of Friends

When I was 12 or 13, my aunt took me to see a movie called Circle of Friends. Of course it wasn’t exactly a movie my parents would want me to see at that age, but my aunt always felt that I was more mature than everyone gave me credit for. So I sat there in the theater thinking that Chris O’Donnell was pretty dreamy and that was it. However, it was the first “grownup” movie I had seen so I was very pleased with myself. About 13 years later, I still think of the movie occasionally, so I decided to review it.
Circle of Friends tells the tale of Bernadette Hogan, Eve Malone, and Nan Mahon, who were raised in Knockglen, Ireland. The movie, set in 1957, follows these three childhood chums through their college experience (which includes love, lust, and betrayal) and how each of them comes through these experiences. The story mainly focuses on Bernadette Hogan (Minnie Driver) who is an only child who is shouldering a very unreasonable expectation. As everyone can relate to, there are times when parents think they know what is good for their children and that the children should just obey. Benny (as she known in the movie) is facing the fact that her parents think she should be with their creepy store clerk, Sean (Alan Cumming), but Benny has already fallen in love with a man she met at college, Jack Foley (Chris O’Donnell). Although Benny is obviously the heroine of the movie, we still see the lives and struggles of her two childhood friends Eve and Nan. Benny’s main struggle is that she is not classically beautiful. I would say that she is on the average to pretty side of the looks continuum. Her main problem with herself is her irrational belief that she is too fat for anyone to want her. But what girl hasn’t felt like that at one time or another?
This was an extremely hard movie to locate. I could only find it at one store around my area. This puzzled me because I remember the movie being very popular, but after having viewed it, I can somewhat understand the less than thrilling demand of this movie. The acting is average, there is nothing horrible about it, but I feel that acting didn’t wow me this second time around. I think my main issue with the acting was the Irish accents, which could have been better. It seemed like there was a constant switch between Irish and English accents.
Another problem that I had with the movie was the pacing; there were many times were I felt bored and that the pacing of the movie was too uneven. I switched from almost turning it off to being really interested in the scenes multiple times. I think that more could have been done with the story to fill in these gaps. I wasn’t expecting a fast paced car heavy shootout in the middle of an Irish village, but there was definitely room for improvement.
One interesting thing about the movie was the casting of Alan Cumming. This Scottish actor is probably most commonly known for portraying Nightcrawler in X-Men 2. Cumming played the role of the creepy store clerk with an eye for our heroine. As much as I enjoy his acting, I feel like he was type cast. He doesn’t have the conventional Hollywood look and all he had to add was a few sketchy looks and moves to transform into this creepy guy.
I like the story of this movie and did enjoy watching it for the most part. I certainly do feel that they could have done better with the acting, but it’s not like they didn’t try, like in some movies I have reviewed. Overall, I would say that the movie is worth a viewing, and Chris O’Donnell is still pretty dreamy, especially when he gets his Irish accent right. So unlike my personal circle of friends, which I would give a 22, I’ll have to give the movie Circle of Friends a 5.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Onion Movie

A few years ago, I was having a sleepless night. Rather than try to fight it, I went into my living room, grabbed a snack, and started flipping through channels. When I got to C-SPAN 2 (the least-watched channel at 4 a.m.), something caught my eye: an interview with a handful of the editors of The Onion. The Onion had been my favorite satirical news website for a few years at that point, so I stopped to watch. Of all that was said that early morning, one thing stuck with me. One of the editors (I forget who), was asked a question about some of The Onion's articles being in bad taste. He answered by saying something like: "I think there's such thing as good taste in bad taste."

That summed up The Onion perfectly for me: Sure, they'd print outrageous and inflammatory headlines (example: a picture of a janitor with the caption "Mexicans Sweeping the Nation"), but they were always irrepressibly clever or so well honed on the idiosyncrasies of our modern life that they made you double back and wonder what, really, should have been offending you in the first place.

That impossibly long intro (I'm sorry) brings me to The Onion Movie, which seems closer to "bad taste" than it is to "good taste in bad taste." The Onion Movie is primarily a series of seemingly unrelated skits, interspersed with an anchor reading random news headlines -- headlines that will seem very familiar to Onion aficionados ("8-Year-Old Accidentally Exercises Second-Amendment Rights", "Georgia Adds Swastika, Middle Finger to State Flag").

Some of the new material includes: Steven Seagal (really!) as the big-budget action hero Cockpuncher, a sultry teen singer who earnestly proclaims the innocent intentions of songs like "Take Me From Behind," and a subtle twist on a normal suburban evening when murder mystery game is replaced by a rape mystery game.

If you watched just a short glimpse, you couldn't be sure you weren't watching an example of the infernal pox that is the _____ Movies (fill in the blank with "Date" or "Epic" or "Not Another Teen"). The jokes, in general, are fairly lowest common denominator. But The Onion Movie never really tips its hand as to whether it's revelling in lampooning these easy targets or lampooning those who would lampoon. (Which, I suppose, includes themselves.) In one of the its best bits, The Onion Movie breaks from itself to get commentary from a panel of distinguished film critics, one of whom decries the film's pandering to the masses. The panel host then introduces the next commenter: The Masses (played by a frat boy wearing a "Beer F***ing Rules" shirt). "The Masses" talks about how gay the critics are and how awesome the Cockpuncher bits were, and then the movie resumes where it left off.

These brief flashes of self-awareness -- and the occassionally hilarious one-liners, such as the man who overcomes adversity to become the world's first comatose diver -- make it hard to get a real handle (a.k.a. rating) on this film. In the end, though, the pass-it-on factor seems the most fitting. With the best moments of the print version of The Onion, I eagerly pass on headlines, articles, and man-on-the-street interviews to my friends (whether they want to hear them or not). With The Onion Movie, I really wouldn't be bothered if not a single other living soul watched it. Moments of hilarity notwithstanding, that can't afford The Onion Movie any more than a -6.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Unfortunately, I watched this film for the first time so long ago that I don't remember my initial reaction. It has, however, left an everlasting impression.

I was actually surprised when I looked at the DVDs on my shelf that neither I nor Dr. Worm have reviewed this movie yet. Eternal Sunshine falls in my top 5 films of all time, and whenever I get to chance to talk it up to an unsuspecting passer-by, I jump at it. It gets better with time, and in my opinion, this is due to the great performances and incredible attention to detail by the filmmakers. I didn't watch it in full before I wrote this review, but I popped it in to refresh myself on a scene or two, and had a hard time turning if off again.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic comedy starring Jim Carrey (as Joel) and Kate Winslet (Clementine), directed by the incredibly artistic Michel Gondry and written by himself and Charlie Kaufman. In this film, the exceptionally timid Joel Barish meets and falls for the demonstrative and quirky Clementine. Seemingly an unlikely pair, the two awkwardly hit it off and begin a relationship. But the film, which jumps around in time a bit, quickly fast forwards to their break-up and a broken-up Joel. After an encounter with Clementine that he doesn't understand, during which she seems to pretend she doesn't even know him, he turns to his friends in confusion and pain. Eventually Joel learns the truth: that Clementine had him erased from her memory.

Joel can't seem to wrap his mind around this idea, so he finds the doctor who performed the procedure. Angered that she would do such a thing, he decides to undergo the same procedure out of spite and a hope that maybe this would help the pain to go away. And so most of the rest of the film happens in Joel's mind, as we track his memories of his relationship with Clementine backwards through time. As he relives these memories, he feels vindicated that the recent, tumultuous times they'd been experiencing are no longer his to remember. As he goes further back, however, he begins to realize the true meaning and the gravity of his choice. Unfortunately, once the procedure has begun, there is no backing out of it.

The other characters in Eternal Sunshine complement Carrey and Winslet to a T. Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson all stand out without being overpowering. There are some really great comedic moments, but it really isn't as straightforward a comedy as most others are, more subtle and dramatic due to the fact that it's portraying a difficult break-up.

This movie is incredibly filmed. Every time I watch it, I notice some detail or nuance that I didn't see before. Even though it jumps around in time, it doesn't happen in a way that is too confusing or difficult to put together. I absolutely loved how memory is represented, and how the filmmakers depict the erasing of those memories. Carrey and Winslet are absolutely wonderful--they have great chemistry, and they seemed to effortlessly show us honest feelings and depth of character.
Finally, I really love the main thrust of the film. So often when we experience a particularly painful loss, we want relief as immediate as possible. I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who would jump at the chance to erase someone or something from their memory. But if that happens, we lose a part of ourselves as well. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind aptly proclaims this message and helps us to see the beauty in our day to day pain.
Rating: 20
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is beautifully and creatively filmed. Joel and Clementine have a captivating story, and the outlandish nature of the plot nicely highlights some simple, basic truths about life and love. It's funny, touching, life-affirming, and well-done...just what I think a movie should be.
Favorite Lines:
"Sand is overrated. It's just tiny, little rocks."
"I'm making a birdhouse."
4-Year-Old Joel: "I really want her to pick me up. It's weird how strong that desire is."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Flags of Our Fathers

Movies, at their fundamental level, are for entertainment. They’re a way to occupy two hours, and you’ll hopefully get something out of those two hours. Now, good movies will teach you something about yourself that you didn’t know before, or connect with a part of you like nothing else can, and it will do all of this while entertaining you. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to be uplifting, but the story has to engage you, and reward you for investing yourself.

That’s part of why I didn’t like Flags of Our Fathers, and why I generally don’t like war films. I fully recognize that it was a competent and good movie. Acting, cinematography, plot flow, theme, music, etc., all those elements were in place for Flags; but it wasn’t entertaining. Why? It was about war.

War sucks. I don’t think anybody actually likes war. It’s tiring, it’s messy, it’s evil, and it crushes the human spirit if carried on too long. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it’s never glorious, never loving, and never a good thing to do. Nations will do what they have to do, but when they go to war, they better damn well have NO other options left. The idea that war is a last resort isn’t new, and has indeed been around since the first time a human did something that another human didn’t like.

Flags of Our Fathers didn’t suck, but its subject matter did. That’s not a death sentence for a movie, but war is pretty much the suckiest of the suck. To me, war is never a good place to start a story. You can have a war in it, but start with something else; a character, an event, a blade of grass, anything. There have been lots of good war movies, and Flags can count itself as one of those, but none of them have been entertaining experiences for me. Schindler’s List had that Spielbergian element of hope and goodness to it, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the dismal subject matter. Platoon had fantastic acting, but that’s very cold comfort among the horribleness of Vietnam. And I’m blanking out on other war films I’ve seen; I dislike them so much I black them out.

And therein lies the problem with Flags of Our Fathers. Because it wasn’t entertaining, I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. It wouldn’t even be all that different if it had a very good story, or more relatable characters, neither of which it had. It didn’t try to give you resolution or have a summation; none of the Clint Eastwood films I’ve seen do, actually. On top of that, it contained some pretty horrible things, because hey, war is pretty horrible. Two sequences in particular stuck with me; one in which a main character is having flashbacks of all the men he saw die during the war, and one in which some soldiers stumble across an underground bunker where some Japanese have set off a grenade on themselves so as not to be found. That’s the kind of thing you wish you could unsee.

Now, the themes of Flags were not lost on me. I totally got the idea that we should pass down things from generation to generation, so as to always learn from our forbears’ mistakes. I also saw the value in honoring those that made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, those who died abroad in order to protect the safety of those at home. Also, there was the idea of what a hero actually is, and how all the people we say are heroes would strongly disagree with us. There was even an indictment of American sensationalism, and how great things are made fake and cheap through over-attention. So don’t get me wrong; I think this movie has a lot to offer. But I can’t in good conscience recommend it since I didn’t enjoy it, and sorta wish I hadn’t watched it at all.

Iconic Lines:
“Well what’d you do, raise a goddamn flag every time you stopped for lunch?”
“With all your friends dying, it’s hard enough to be called a hero for saving somebody’s life. But for putting up a pole?”
“You want us to plant a flag on a mountain of papier-mache?”

22 Rating: -2

Particle Man

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Chipmunk Adventure

It looks like a hula-hoop isn’t the only thing Alvin wants. Recently, I caught the end of the new Chipmunks’ movie. After seeing that I was inspired to watch a beloved classic from my childhood, The Chipmunk Adventure. This 1987 movie shows us an exciting chapter in the lives of these adorable and mischievous chipmunks. Dave is packing for a European trip and Alvin is begging to be allowed to tag along. The babysitter, Ms. Miller, will arrive soon and then Dave will be off. To distract themselves from missing Dave, the Chipmunks decide to hang out with the Chippettes and play videogames. After an intense argument over who would win a balloon race in real life, they are given the chance to find out by two smugglers and the adventure begins.
I really enjoy this movie. I didn’t know if it's memories of sitting in the movie theater watching it (this was the first movie I’d ever seen in theaters) or if it was just that good. There are some just movies that just stick with us. It seemed time to give it another try and measure my enjoyment. As it turns out, I would still enjoy this movie as much if it hadn’t been the first movie I saw in theaters. I love Alvin and Brittany’s narcissistic tendencies and the way they clash with another. I love cute little food obsessed Theodore who just wants one meal without a music duel or scary henchmen interrupting it. I also love Simon and Jeanette’s pragmatic views, and how they still go along with everything Brittany and Alvin decide to do.
This movie shows us the wonder of cartoons, where anything can happen and since it is a cartoon no one is really expecting reality. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I could belt out a rock song on top the ancient ruins of Greece, or return a kidnapped baby penguin to its parents, but alas I can’t. However, I can still live this fantasy vicariously through this movie. There is also something wonderfully beautiful in the simplicity of the movie. It’s not pretentious just enjoyable. I feel like (with the exception of this summer) there have been many movies in the recent past that go for that thrill factor instead of relying on the audience's enjoyment. There were no crazy plot twists; it was just a straightforward story with no real subplots. I know my readers may think I am being a bit nostalgic, but what are some older films that you just enjoy? They may not even be good, but you enjoy them.
I am actually kinda hesitant to give this movie a rating. My enjoyment of the movie is really high up, but I don’t know if the movie is actually that good. So to appease myself I’ll give it two ratings. My enjoyment rating is 15. However, the movie is nothing that is going to change the world or knock everyone’s socks off like The Dark Knight, so this movie gets a 10. Oh yeah, and a hula hoop!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Savages

Back in October of 2006, in a review of the stinkbomb Man of the Year, I included the following parenthetical: Does anyone do hard-working-but-lonely better than Laura Linney?

Since then, I've thought of Linney as essentially a one-note actress. She plays her note faithfully, dutifully, competently, but it's just one note. Well, The Savages altered my perception. Linney is still playing essentially the same note, but it sounds so much richer when it's used in just the right song.

The Savages is the story of your average American dysfunctional family, but all grown up. Wendy Savage (Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are middle-aged brother and sister, living relatively normal and successful separate lives, when Linney receives a phone call indicating that their father has dementia. The bro-and-sis combo must fly from New York to New Mexico, clear out their father's house (their mother has been out of the picture for some time), find a good nursing home for him, and basically wait for him to die. Sundance's Geoffrey Gilmore calls it a "coming-of-middle-age story," and that's really a good way to think of it.

In that vein, it's more or less a straghtforward drama. There's no big explosions, there's no steamy sex scenes, there's no huge laugh out loud moments (though there are a few mild chuckles). It's really just a pointed look at two people dealing with one of the uncomfortable realities of being adults.

That can be tiresome if it's not well-written and well-acted. Fortunately, The Savages is. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins does excellent work by almost letting you forget she had anything to do. The dialogue isn't particularly snappy, the plot twists aren't particularly brain-twisting, the camera angles aren't particularly experimental. It just feels like you're watching a slightly edited slice of life--an effect that seems much easier to produce than it actually is.

Jenkins has ample help from her cast. Linney particularly shines (she was nominated for an Academy Award)--but, again, not so much because she transcended her estabished acting ability, but because she found a vehicle that made her specialty seem special. In Man of the Year, for example, she's just the cliché of the modern conscientious-but-overwhelmed female dealing with all the demands society puts on her. She's that here, but she's more. In the context of The Savages, something about the roundness of her eyes seems to suggest that she's not just yet-another struggling, working, lonely woman, but that she's really deep down inside still a very vulnerable child who is doing everything she can do keep from being exposed by the never-ending demands of the adult world. With that infintesiminal shift, she becomes much more watchable and much more likable.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's reputation for excellence is well-established, but he, like Linney, has also found a film that suits him perfectly here. He plays the rumpled theater-teaching realist to Linney's put-together playwrighting idealist. Both seem to be struggling with the pressures of adulthood, but she looks like she's trying way too hard and he looks like he's not trying hard enough.

It's also easy to overlook the performance of Philip Bosco, who plays Len, the dying Savage father, and that's sort of the point. Jon and Wendy Savage must deal with the storage and disposal of their father, and as much as they know he's a person, his utter dependence can't help but turn him into a bit of an object. The film lures the audience into this easy-but-erroneous categorization of old-guy-as-baggage, but at two or three points subtly reminds the viewer that Len is still a person, too. The relatively unheralded Bosco does superb work in yielding the spotlight to Linney and Seymour Hoffman but in hitting all the right old, infirm, slightly demented, and human notes that he's asked to hit.

If there's a bone to pick with this movie, is that it's not particularly earth-shattering. It keeps the interest and says something both truthful in relevant, but it's not something that will particularly change the viewer. It's just a simple, well-made film about two people dealing with a difficult task. So it gets an 10. It's not a movie you need to rush out and see, but if you're at the video store and nothing else looks good, this is a perfectly suitable choice.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

The recent comic book movie boom, despite it's ubiquitousness and financial success, has a lot to answer for, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, quality has been fairly high this year, so far, but the level of storytelling generally misses the mark when most of the films are measured against the original source material. The X-Men movies gave us a cast of dozens, who were mostly poorly introduced and developed, and swapped scrappy little Wolverine for Clint Eastwood tall, good looking, get-them-gals-into-the-theater Wolverine. The Spider Man movies were more or less faithful to the stories, but somehow couldn't resist adding a thick layer of cheese to the material that was neither warranted or welcomed, in addition to bland, uninspiring casting choices for the two most important characters in the films. Superman Returns was almost a fine return to form, if it hadn't been so quiet and slavishly faithful to the old Richard Donner films. But then came The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's follow up to 2004's excellent Batman Begins, and I say, his masterpiece thus far.
The Dark Knight picks up directly from Batman Begins: Batman (Christian Bale) and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are quickly changing Gotham, keeping the mob on the run and backing them into a corner. But, problems are still there: amateur copycat Batmen are popping up, giving Batman more to worry about when fighting crime. Also, an unpredictable criminal mastermind known as the Joker (Heath Ledger) has been making the scene, and offers his services to the mob to rid them of Batman. Add to the mix idealistic DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who both helps and complicates matters by aligning himself with Batman and Gordon, and dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhal, ably replacing Katie Holmes from the first film). Things are going to get worse before they get better.....a hell of a lot worse.
It's been said that The Dark Knight is a writer's movie, and that's putting it mildly. TDK takes the standard script/act formula for a summer tentpole and smashes it to pieces. There are multiple story subtypes in the main theme, an unorthodox act structure, multiple climaxes (!), but Christopher and Jonathan Nolan make it all work. Nolan has acknowledged inspiration from Michael Mann's Heat, and it resembles that film in some ways (a high-profile bank robbery, archrivals, lots of attention to the supporting cast, really an ensemble piece at heart), but to say that it's a superhero version of Heat is selling it short. When I walked out of Batman Begins, my mind was reeling with all the possibilities that they could continue with. Nolan took all of those opportunities, and one or two I didn't think about. We see more of Batman, his tactical genius, his detective skills, and even him working during the day as Bruce Wayne, where Batman can't go. Gary Oldman's part is substantially expanded from the first film, as he gets to hit all the right notes for Gordon: hero cop, family man, Batman's greatest ally. As Harvey Dent, Aaron Eckhart nearly owns the picture for his portrayal as a man so inspiring that Bruce Wayne wonders if he could and should replace Batman as the hero Gotham City deserves. The film has a truly epic feel, yet the dialogue is pretty minimalist: I don't think there's a single wasted word in the script. There is no kid stuff to be had here: this is a superhero movie for adults, and it's tone exceeds other dark second acts (if they make a third.....) like The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers. The film is rated PG-13, but it felt R-Rated to me. A daring status quo is established at the end of the film that makes me want to see another to see how it will play out, if for no other reason.
The thing that got some extra interest for the picture, for better or worse, was Heath Ledger's tragic overdose earlier this year. Watching him in TDK only makes that sadder, because I had no idea how much potential he had. Had he not died, there would still be a lot of buzz about him because really, he's that good as the Joker. We see performances this incendiary only once in a great while. Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class. Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Geoffrey Rush in Quills. And Heath Ledger does that here. When the Joker is onscreen, there is not a second in which Ledger isn't conveying a very palpable sense of danger and chaos that Jack Nicholson couldn't convey with his nonthreatening Joker from Tim Burton's Batman. With his unkempt hair, strange makeup, and Chelsea grin, he disappears completely inside the character (isn't that what an actor's supposed to do anyway?) The Joker seen here is the closest we've seen to the comics in terms of his unpredictability, threat level, and criminal genius, but with a touch of added anarchy. Nolan and Ledger did a fine job indeed of pulling the garish Joker into the "real world" nicely. It should be noted that Ledger does not overpower any other actor in the film, IMHO: everybody does solid, careful work with characters less outlandish than the Joker. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, respectively reprising their roles as Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox from the first film, get a lot done with very little screen time. If Alfred had a bigger role in this picture, I would say that Michael Caine deserved an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Honorable mention also goes to Eric Roberts, for his portrayal of smarmy mob boss Sal Moroni.
TDK is a summer movie in almost every sense of the definition: while a lot smarter than the typical summer movie, it's no less fun. The ante is upped with several major action sequences that far surpass the very competent, but much smaller in retrospect, Batman Begins. TDK whizzes along at a breakneck pace that makes the two and a half hour film feel much longer, without actually dragging. Multiple viewings are practically required to really absorb the story, and its subtleties. Despite that, TDK is easily the most satisfying film I've seen in years. And now, there's no looking back. Comic book movies have no excuses for playing it safe now that this film has raised the bar, and given us the crime epic that a character as great as Baman deserves. This formula can be easily applied to other existing franchises. I don't believe that Sam Raimi put Spider Man through the wringer half as much as he could have, and the character wouldn't (and shouldn't) react by simply crying and turning disco, either. Give us X-Men that are the misunderstood freaks who protect those who fear and hate them, instead of the really, really, really, good-looking mutants. I want an Iron Man movie heavy on the political/military intrigue, ala Tom Clancy. Throw Tony Stark's alcoholism into the mix ala Leaving Las Vegas, and you have something potentially very powerful indeed.
The only caveat I have with TDK (if you can even call it a problem) is that it's a pretty hard act to follow, even for a filmmaker as gifted as Christopher Nolan. Still, I believe that he is capable of it. After all, he just gave me the superhero film I've been waiting for for a very long time now. I had absurdly high expectations for TDK, and it met them handily. This movie is Best Picture nomination (if not outright deserving of the prize) good, no joke. This is genre filmmaking on a level never, ever seen before. Still, I hope that Christopher Nolan can pull off a third act that at least meets this one in quality, if not beats it. It's because of that hope that I give The Dark Knight a 21.5 on the 22 scale.

Memorable Lines:

The Joker: "You see, nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If I told people that a gangbanger was going to get shot, or a busload of soldiers was going to get blown up, nobody would panic. Because it's all part of the plan. But tell people that one tiny little mayor is going to die and everyone loses their minds!"

Batman: "Why do you want to kill me?"
The Joker: "Kill you? I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, you... you complete me."

Maroni's Mistress: "It's too loud in here, we can't hear each other talk."
Salvatore Maroni: "What makes you think I want to hear you talk?"

The Joker: "Do you wanna know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the...little..emotions. And..you see..in their last moments...people show you who they really are. So, in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which one of them were cowards?"

Harvey Dent: "The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

La Vie En Rose (or, La Môme)

Initial Reaction: Sacré Bleu!

As self-appointed foreign film specialist of TMBC, I bring you a French biopic about one of the most famed singers of France whose talent reached international renown in the 1950s and 60s. I think the reason that I enjoy biopics so much is because though I’m not really one to get interested in history or biographies, watching a film about someone’s life is totally captivating. These films offer very unique experiences, and I love being able to expand my horizons by feeling or seeing what another person has seen or felt.

Édith Piaf had a tragic, soulful voice which matched the things that happened throughout her personal life. From her childhood until her death, Piaf was haunted by misfortune and tragedy. For the most part, the movie spans her entire life, but not sequentially. It consistently jumps to different times in her life, which at first is a bit disorienting, but it’s pretty easy to catch on. As a young child, Édith went from living with her mother, who was a street singer, to her maternal grandmother, then her father, and eventually to her paternal grandmother who ran a brothel. For several years this was her home, and she grew close to one of the women there named Titine. Titine came to look at Édith as her own child, caring for her and encouraging her pray to Saint Theresa. During this time, Édith also suffered from an illness which gave her long-term temporary blindness.

Regardless of these things, Édith seemed to be happy and loved in this environment. But her bad luck came back full force when her father returned unexpectedly and uprooted her, bringing her with him where he worked in the circus as a contortionist. At first things seemed even more unfair than ever, since she wasn't even allowed to watch the acts and was forced to cook and clean for her father, but this is the first opportunity she got to experience what would be her love affair for life: singing.

One big plus for this film is the music. Mostly, the songs are being sung by Piaf herself, (a good choice by director Olivier Dahan) and aside from maybe the first number, Cotillard did a great job lip-synching. Piaf had a very unique sound and style, which was described as being “the soul of Paris.” I was ashamed to realize after watching the film just how famous Piaf was, not only in France, and I wasn’t even aware.

Now, in regards to Marion Cotillard and her performance in this movie: wow. I have a lot of respect for this actress, and she totally deserves the academy award she got. The amount of time she spent learning how to stand and sing like Piaf has got to be staggering, but she says herself that she didn’t only strive to copy the singer. She made her a real person, and embodied her spirit. Also noteworthy is that she acted as Piaf as a young woman, spanning the years until she is at the end of her life. This was when she was in her 40s, though because of extremely poor health, she looked more like she was in her 60s or 70s.

So, why should you see La Vie En Rose? While I think most will probably accept the fact that it's extremely well-done with one of the best acting performances ever, I don't think many are rushing to the rental store to pick it up. Here are some reasons why you should: the story of Piaf's life is really an incredible one. I've given you a small piece of her childhood, but her adult life is what really touches our human core as she lives, loves and continues on in spite of everything that would seek to drag her down. The music is wonderful...she is truly unique and not only performed, but sang with truth and spirit that came from her life. The film is extremely well-done, clearly fashioned with great attention to detail and a successful attempt to capture her story and her life. Finally, if none of these things appeal to you, Cotillard's performance should. I've seen her in other films before, but until I looked her up on the Internet Movie Database after seeing this movie, I didn't think I had ever seen her. She has thrown herself into this role, and in doing so has brought Piaf back to life, renewing interest in her legacy and allowing us the chance to connect with the experiences of others, no matter how far removed and distant those experiences may seem.

Rating: 18

La Vie en Rose is one of those stories that you keep thinking about after you see it. Édith Piaf is a French icon whose story and contribution to music should not go unnoticed. This movie doesn't seek to overly glorify her or paint things in ways that they didn't happen; it delivers to us a real person who, though she might not always be likeable, draws us in with her vibrant spirit, incredible talent, and tenacity, which kept her singing until her life was cut short. Mais, elle ne regrette rien.