Posted on 10/02/12 04:44 PM
It's been a good fifteen years since I've seen Sam Peckinpah's original "Straw Dogs", so I wasn't too upset when the remake was released just recently. And considering that this version was getting some good reviews from only a handful of critics (Roger Ebert gives it 3 stars), I figured I'd give it a try since it seems that much of the movie-going public was giving it bad reviews.
The story concerns screenwriter David Sumner and his wife, actress Amy Sumner, as they return to Amy's small Mississippi town to rebuild her parent's vacant home after it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But as soon as they arrive in the small community, they run across Amy's old high school friends, apparantly led by her ex-boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard).
The locals immediately welcome their hometown hero into its arms, but this stranger she has brought with her...not so much.
Unfortunately, with it being such a small town, and with work needing to be done on the dilapidated home, David has no choice but to hire Charlie and his friends to fix up the house and it all goes downhill from there.
The plot, much like the 1971 film is practically intact (watch out for that bear trap!), as we watch as David tries to remain passive about his increasingly uncomfortable situations -- we become aware that he's the type of person that prefers to avoid any type of confrontation, even to the dismay of his wife.
One morning after jogging, she comes across the workers and stands there in disbelief (and anger) as they leer at her sweaty body, covered only in small jogging shorts and a tank top. When she points out to David what's just happend, all he can do is point out how she's dressed.
Her little act of revenge on him is also a part of what made Peckinpah's version so controversial -- SPOILER ALERT!!!
-- the eventual rape sequence of Amy sets up many questions, especially back in 1971 before "No Means No" became common -- was Amy "asking" for it? What happens to her is in no way justified, but her walking around practically half-naked, flirting, even exposing her breasts at one point...was she fanning the flames with her actions?
She never tells David about what has happened, but becomes even more angry at him as he keeps looking away from the troubling events that have been plaguing the young couple. Even at one point, calling him a coward.
A side story involving a 15 year-old girl's flirtations with a dim-witted town local and the actions her father, who also happens to be the town drunk (played by none other than James Woods) takes, starts off as something minimal, but ends up leading to the film's violent climax...a climax which is also what made the original so controversial -- how a man with no anger or hatred in his heart could be pushed to extremes and how far he has to go in defending his home and family.
In today's world, where violence is seen everday, whether it be on television or in real life, back in 1971, the film's violent conclusion, much like 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde", pushed many people away. Even Dustin Hoffman is said to have hated the finished product of "Straw Dogs".
But these two films have done what many of today's films find hard to do -- endure the test of time.
This version of "Straw Dogs" may not be considered a memorable 20 or 30 years from now...it is, after all, a remake of what many consider a classic. But at least this film prevents itself from turning its characters into cliches or stereotypes. Have you ever met people like the locals David and Amy run into? Have you ever been someplace you didn't feel comfortable, or felt out-of-place, or just plain not welcomed?
Believe me, I have and this film touches on that subject very closely.
In all, "Straw Dogs" is a well-acted, violent, and very tensioned filled movie with an ending that is symbolic of a town's shattered peacefulness, and quite possibly of a man's shattered psyche.
Posted on 10/02/11 03:07 PM
Nicolas Winding Refn first intrigued me with his unusual storytelling method in the fascinating character study, "Bronson". Albeit much of the fascination centered on its lead character, portrayed with wild-eyed fury by a young Tom Hardy (the villain Bane of next year's "The Dark Knight Rises").
But with Refn's next effort, "Valhalla Rising", I was thrown off by its muddled storyline. The director expanded his visual style with this picture, using extreme moments of violence to upend extreme moments of silence. But in his efforts to capture or reimagine visions of earlier, better filmmakers (his obvious inspirations being Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, The Wrath of God", and the works of Stanley Kubrick), Refn's own vision was lost, causing "Valhalla" to lack any coherence or distinctiveness.
Yet with "Drive", this unique director has bounced back with what I think is the best picture I've seen this year. Ryan Gosling stars as a person known only as Driver, a stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. His talent, as explained by his employer and close friend (played by Bryan Cranston), is that he knows how to handle a car, as proven in the film's opening scenes.
His life is going smoothly when he meets his next door neighbor, Iris (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. The two begin seeing each other on a regular basis, and he soon becomes very close with this family until she tells him her incarcerated husband is being released and will be home soon.
With this premise, the movie takes off from there. Yet what really intrigued me about this film is not just its storyline, but its 1980's retro sound, look, and feel. Anyone familiar with early 80's cinema, especially those who grew up during this decade, will immediately get it, especially with its opening credits -- the cursive lettering, the background music played with a synthesizer keyboard -- I had flashbacks of such early 80's classics as "Cat People", "Thief of Hearts", Michael Mann's "Thief" and "Manhunter", and even the over-the-top synthesizer score of "Scarface".
From the very beginning, I was hooked on "Drive" as I could see that Refn was heavily inspired by this particular decade in film. And unlike "Valhalla Rising", he actually makes this film into something of his own stylish vision.
Along with the directing and visual style, the chemistry between Gosling and Mulligan couldn't be anymore perfect. Driver and Iris don't say much to each other and really don't need to. You can see their relationship working in their eyes; the way that they look at each other and their small gestures and movements. Nothing really is said, yet you know exactly what's going on.
My favorite scene is where Driver, Iris and another man are standing in an elevator, and sensing danger, Driver gently pushes Iris back against the wall -- notice how the light bulb behind them illuminates only her face, and then the both of them as he gently kisses her, then grows dark as he unleashes his anger...
I could go on about the acting in this film -- Mulligan, Cranston, Ron Perlman as the greedy second-in-command, and in an inspired bit of casting, the usually gentle comedic actor, Albert Brooks (check out my favorite film from him, 1991's "Defending Your Life") plays the leader of the local mob.
As for Gosling, he's on a winning streak of roles, especially since being snubbed at this past year's Academy Awards for "Blue Valentine", a role for which I think was arguably the best lead role of the year. He steals every scene he's in in "Crazy, Stupid, Love". And I sure as hell can't wait to see him in George Clooney's "The Ides of March".
But here, Gosling exudes "coolness". Driver hardly says much, and when he does, it's either something very clever, or something very threatening.
Following in the footsteps of James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause"; Steve McQueen in any number of movies (a coincidence between the Mustangs that Driver and "Bullitt" drive?), and even Mickey Rourke (check out "Rumble Fish") -- Driver, sporting his 1980's style, silver, nylon jacket, clutching a hammer, chewing on a toothpick (a healthy replacement of what was once a staple of 80's cinema, the cigarette), he walks down a dark hallway looking for vengeance -- how cool does that sound?
Posted on 8/01/11 03:20 PM
I remember watching the made for t.v. movie, "Captain America", when I was almost 7 years old, and I admit, I liked it....back in 1979. Starring Reb Brown (a surfer-looking muscle-bound, beach-blonde straight out of Muscle Beach, California), this was one of those superheroes with a cool suit and cool gadget-filled motorcycle on which he placed his cool transparent shield from which deflected oncoming gunfire. That was then.
Now, watching Conan O'Brien show clips of that exaggerated, cheesy, and very dated failed t.v. pilot, I wasn't too interested in watching the new "Captain America: The First Avenger". But considering that, like the entertaining "Thor", the fascinating comic-book-like "The Incredible Hulk", and the exciting "Iron Man" (the first one, not the way too over-the-top sequel), and that many people are giving this film an 80% on RT, this film would be a great origins-type predecessor to 2012's highly anticipated "The Avengers".
Well, I should've stuck to my first instinct and waited for this one on DVD.
Don't get me wrong, this movie has some good production values, and has some entertaing performances (Chris Evans in the title role; Hugo Weaving as the experiment-gone-wrong Red Skull; a very dry and humorous Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips; and especially Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, in a small but important role), but that's about it.
The film starts out promising and contains some involving sequences -- the very beginning where we watch as a very puny and anorexic-looking Steve Rogers tries to enlist in the army, but is denied every time. And we begin to root for him as he shows us is loyalty for his country, and that his spirit can never be broken, even when being pummeled by a man twice his size.
But as soon as he steps out of Howard Stark's experimental chamber, "Captain America" goes downhill from there.
The film has stretches of somewhat uninteresting dialogue that seem to drag on a little too long. Hardly any action sequence feels important enough to carry on with very much urgency. And except for Jones' perfectly timed one-liners, this movie was hardly humorous.
With Captain America's overall presence, there is never any sense of real danger for Steve or his alter-ego. We know he's going to survive everything they throw at him -- he is a one-man army who uses his powers for good, and thrashes everything in his sight with hardly a scratch to show for it. Where's the excitement in that? We already have the Hulk to show for those traits.
And as for the other superheroes, Thor has his mighty hammer and Tony Stark has his Iron Man suit. But with Rogers' power, what are his weaknesses? The mortality of his friends?
With what happens to his best friend, I expected that, but in the end, it felt like a throw-away character. And as for his friend/love interest, Peggy Carter, it would've been hard for anyone to feel any kind of emotion if it weren't for one of the final lines of the film, when she and Steve set up a date to go out dancing.
In the end, "Captain America" may be a required set-up for 2012's cinematic event of the year, but this film's lifeless screenplay should have contained more emotional energy rather than riding on its limp action.
Before next year's "Avengers", I think I'm going to watch Reb Brown's laughable version of this American superhero before watching this film again.
Posted on 7/31/11 06:24 PM
Terrence Malick's highly personal, ambitious, and perhaps most confusing work in his almost 40-year filmmaking career, "The Tree of Life" takes the key elements of his previous four films -- love, life, loss, innocence and the evolution of human emotions -- and combines them into an opus of such thought-provoking visual imagery, most viewers will be scratching their heads as the final credits roll, and be left wondering, "WTF"?
Although this movie could be considered slow-moving, pretentious and unintelligible by many (six people walked out during the middle of the screening I was at), for those of you interested in unique visions that deal with Creation, spirituality, and containing minimal dialogue, "Tree" will satisfy those of you content with themes of an art-house nature.
The film begins in 1950's Texas, with two parents recieving news on the death of their teenage son. We watch them deal with their loss by prayer and understanding, but Malick soon switches the setting to darkness, with just a hint of color and light in the background. And with a sudden shift, we are introduced to The Big Bang, and the creation of our universe and all the particles that would make up our solar system.
This sequence of events may grow tiresome and even insulting to some viewers, but Malick is blunt about his choices portrayed on screen. The cooling of the Earth, and how life would have begun out in the ocean, and evolved into life existing on land (yes, there are dinosaurs in this movie!), at times, even feels like an extension of Stanley Kubrick's own "2001: A Space Odyssey".
The setting is then changed back to Texas and a newly married couple, played by Brad Pitt (in an Academy Award-worthy performance) and Jessica Chastain. We soon watch them grow as a family unit, as Chastain's character gives birth to three boys, one of them which would grow into a man set in the present time, played by Sean Penn.
Midway through the film, we find that Malick's storyline is not just about humankind's faith in religion or of other's beliefs in Darwin's Theory. But of human nature and the human psyche, and how people evolve in their ways of thinking and their varied opinions of faith and spirituality during childhood, most notably portrayed by Chastain's character as an angelic figure, while Pitt's character is a man of a hard nature and strict upbringing.
We watch as the three boys grow to both love and fear their parents, as well as respect and rebel against them at the same time.
In the end, Penn's character appears to be searching for the meaning of life, but only comes across several nameless faces, and what he finally discovers is the meaning to "his" life -- his family.
Posted on 6/26/11 08:17 PM
After watching Jake Kasdan's 2007 effort, the very funny, very underrated, and very overlooked Judd Apatow produced "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" again a couple of weeks ago, I was actually looking forward to "Bad Teacher" this week, a film that I knew would be full of bad taste, but with a little more humor, wit, and intelligence than say, an Adam Sandler film.
Unfortunately, Apatow had no part in the making of this film, and whether that was a good thing or not, this film failed to meet up with any of my expectations.
Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a woman who has just finished her year as the teacher to a bunch of seventh-graders, and is leaving her job in the hopes of marrying her wealthy fiance'. But upon arriving home, finds her future husband and his mother sitting on the couch with plans of their own.
Fast-forward three months later, and we find Halsey back teaching at a job she despises, co-workers she hardly knows (or wants to know), and with kids that she decides to educate with movies that teach the priorities of higher-learning ("Stand & Deliver", "Lean on Me", "Dangerous Minds", etc.).
Soon, opportunities arrive where she finds she can get rich off money-making schemes that will do nothing but harm those around her, and quite possibly give dozens of laughs to the people watching this movie.
Unfortunately for us, the film's only real laughs are the ones shown in the movies trailers.
In sharing a vaguely similiar title with 2003's brilliant "Bad Santa", "Teacher" shares nothing else -- none of the dark humor and sadistic charm that "Santa's" director, Terry Zwigoff, brought to his film; none of the chemistry that existed among Billy Bob Thornton and his crew; and especially no emotional pay-off that showed that such a hopeless case would have met any sort of redemption.
Diaz's Halsey is not only selfish, but frigid, unbearable, hardly funny, and just plain unlikable. And that might possibly have worked fine if any of the rest of the cast weren't unlikable either -- Justin Timberlake tries his best, and almost succeeds as the kind-hearted yet nerdy new teacher (almost resembling Mr. Schuester from television's "Glee") who's taken advantage of, but he's just reduced to a secondary character dragged down to the same repellent level as Halsey.
And Lucy Punch's take as the friendly and timid teacher soon turns into a character of such spite and paranoia, you actually stop caring for her mid-way through the film.
"Teacher's" only saving grace is Jason Segel's mostly restrained performance as a gym coach hoping to score a date with Halsey. He loses his temper every once in a while, to hilarious effect, but he's not used enough to save the film from its own shortcomings.
"Bad Teacher" could have been so much more, and even succeeds at times (one scene involving the "warning" of a teacher testifying against Halsey, as well as the dry-humping sequence between Timberlake and Diaz and its aftermath had me laughing so hard, I could hardly catch my breath), but in the end, fails in its overall attack on good, as well as bad taste.
Posted on 3/12/11 07:45 PM
With all the negative reviews that "Battle: L.A." is getting, I'm not going to really try to defend it, but I really did enjoy this film!
If you've seen the trailer, than you already know the plot: Los Angeles is invaded by extra-terrestrials and it's up to a squad of Marines to clear an area of the city of civilians in order to prepare it for a massive bombing to destroy the invading aliens (this isn't just in L.A., but for some reason, the aliens are landing on every coastline on every continent).
Aaron Eckhart stars as Staff Sergeant Nantz, a somewhat disgraced soldier who is handing in his retirement papers after returning from an earlier battle overseas in which he was the sole survivor. His commitment and heroism is immediately questioned -- why did he survive, and the rest of his platoon get massacred?
At the same time as this is going on, meteorites are being tracked heading for Earth, and people are being warned to be very cautious (of course they'd rather be out on the beach witnessing the meteor shower).
To make a long story short, Nantz is ordered back into active duty when the threat is realized and is placed in a squad of Marines headed by the young Lieutenant Martinez, who are all aware of Nantz's "lone survivor" story.
What follows is a very exciting trip through a near empty city and the search for survivors and difficult escape as the troops themselves are being hunted down.
The whole cast, including Eckhart aren't great, but then again, they don't have to be because the story mainly relies on some pretty good battle sequences where we don't know who's going to get out alive. This mainly works because as the storyline progresses, we get to slowly know what makes each of the troops tick.
One of my favorite characters happens to be Michelle Rodriguez's Air Force Sgt. Santos -- she may at first seem a peculiar addition to the ragged group of Marines, but her presence is soon made clear and....well, there's just something that's hot about seeing a woman in uniform who knows how to handle a machine gun.
Eckhart's character may get the brunt of the criticism in this film because he's so over-the-top in his emotions and over-all acting, but then again, during the middle of the film, Nantz is actually compared to John Wayne, and anybody who's seen a John Wayne movie knows that HIS characterizations have bordered in over-the-top heroics that have resulted in a near-iconic stature.
Let me repeat this so that I don't offend any Wayne fans -- Eckhart is no John Wayne, but their character's roles in films are something different.
As you watch "Battle: L.A.", many sequences will recall other films such as "Independance Day", "Black Hawk Down", "District 9", "Saving Private Ryan", "Starship Troopers", and even the highly-dismissable "Skyline", but that's not to say that this film doesn't have some notable scenes itself. One intriguing sequence involves the dissection of a still-living alien and the efforts to find out how they can be destroyed -- it may be all latex and makeup, but it's still not for the squeemish.
In the end, to recommend as well as dismiss this film is up for discussion and debate -- for every "The A-Team", "District 9", "Less Than Zero", and "The Big Chill" (all which I really liked), there is always a "The Losers", "Skyline", "Twelve", and "Grown Ups", respectively (all which I really didn't). In the end, opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.
Posted on 2/26/11 09:26 PM
From the guy who directed "Stand By Me" and "A Few Good Men", I would have expected something more empathetic and understanding towards its characters, something even containing far less loopholes.
Using He-said/She-said narration from the two lead characters (reminiscent of the storytelling method used in "Goodfellas"), "Flipped" tells the story of a young girl and boy and their uneven relationship over the next several years of their pre-teen lives.
Bryce and his family are new to the neighborhood, and as they are moving in, catches the eye of the little girl across the street named Julianna, who immediately becomes smitten with her new neighbor.
I really wanted to like this film, but although Reiner wants to portray the relationship between Bryce and Julianna as "puppy love", it just comes out more as something uncomfortable, even painful to watch as the young boy continuously, albeit unintentionally, hurts the young girl that yearns for his love.
The viewer is soon left wondering if Bryce may grow up to be some sort of a stalker or control-freak and we begin to root for Julianna to drop him and look for someone better -- something the film's producers and director didn't intend to happen.
With many if the characters never fully realized, "Flipped" borders, even succeeds in some circles as being lazy entertainment -- Bryce's father, played by an unlikable Anthony Edwards comes off as a bigoted alcoholic who looks down on the less fortunate. Close to the end, his exterior begins to chip as we soon discover what might be dwelling inside that causes him to act this way, but Reiner refuses to dig any deeper and cuts away from this little story arc in favor of searching for happiness for the two pre-teens.
Julianna's family also suffers from Reiner's short-sidedness -- her father, played by Aiden Quinn (who does as much as he can with the role) and mother, played by a nearly unrecognizable (and miscast) Penelope Ann Miller, suffer from so many financial problems, we never know enough about them to care if they ever climb out of the hole they're in.
Even the key factor to Quinn's character's financial woes is briefly discussed, even explained. But once again, is soon dropped from the storyline altogether.
The only shining light to this film is John Mahoney, playing Bryce's grandfather. Bringing depth, understanding, and common sense to all of these flawed characterizations, he is a welcomed addition to the cast, yet a character that isn't on-screen as much as he should be.
With a sudden and somewhat downbeat ending that calls into question the future of all of their lives, "Flipped" needed at least another 20 minutes to its hour and a half running time to clear up the loose ends. Are we talking a sequel? Highly doubtful.
Posted on 2/13/11 10:39 AM
Mike Leigh's tribute to friends living out their twilight years over the course of one year, "Another Year" shares the story of Tom and Gerri, a couple who is the center of the world for a small group of friends and family who drop by weekly for brunch or supper and share stories of how well (or miserably) their lives are going.
Among them are their only child and son, Joe, whom they ask everyday if he's found the love of his life so that he start a family of his own; Mary (Lesley Manville), Gerri's lonely, hard-drinking co-worker and divorcee who always manages to start a relationship with the wrong kind of man; Ken (Peter Wight), Tom's unhealthily overweight friend who himself is a borderline alcoholic and heavy smoker who is trying to get over his depression; Ronnie (David Bradley -- fans may remember him from "Hot Fuzz" as the unintelligable and mumbling farmer), Tom's brother who suffers an unexpected loss; and Karina Fernadez, a new addition into Joe's life who quickly makes an enemy of one of Gerri's friends.
Leigh's script starts off slow as we get to know Tom and Gerri (played magnificently by veterans Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), but we're drawn into this family's life and as we get to meet each character, we are fully immersed in the lives of everyone involved, and hope for an ending that will bring peace to those with broken lives (which may or may not come, depending on how you look upon it).
The acting and cast are all standouts, including Manville, who portrays her character with such emptiness and sympathy, you really want the best for her, but you know her choices in life and unwillingness to change may leave her living in a world of pain for years to come. My personal favorite is Wight as the pitiful and bloated Ken, a man looking for anything to love and everything to cling on to. He's lonely and you can tell by the way he drinks, smokes and eats to the point of having diffifulty breathing -- it's amusing as well as torturous as we watch him fall deeper into depression as he's rejected from even the one woman whom he's sure would understand the state he's in.
I'm not a big fan of Leigh's work (although his magnificent and nearly perfect "Vera Drake" almost won me over, 2008's overrated "Happy-Go-Lucky" almost alienated me again), but with his Oscar-nominated script for "Another Year", I was drawn into his world of intriguing characters that had me wanting the best for all involved, even if the ending did leave me wanting more than just looking into the face of a helpless and very confused woman.
Posted on 2/13/11 09:38 AM
A film consisting of old-school animation and something of which most of today's film lack -- a heart, "The Illusionist" is directed by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplettes of Belleville -- one of the best films of 2003), and written by the late Jacques Tati (whom the title character is modeled after) and tells the tale of a nameless magician and his pet sidekick (an amusing rabbit that snaps at anything that gets within biting distance) and his efforts to stay employed in the changing world of the mid 20th Century.
Along the way, he unexpectedly attracts the attention of a young hotel maid named Alice who is fascinated by the eccentricity of this man, and ends up following him to Scotland, after his efforts to find work in Paris turns up dry.
While in Scotland, their lives are changed as they meet other talented stage performers (including a ventriloquist, a clown, and three acrobats) who themselves are becoming unemployed and in the end, obsolete, as the public is clamoring for other more live and exciting entertainment such as the Beatles-like band named "The Britoons" that is always playing at the same venues they play at.
Amusing, entertaining, and in the end, heartbreaking, "The Illusionist" is the story between a man and a young girl (many speculate Tati wrote the script as a love letter to the daughter he abandoned as a child), and all the other lost souls they encounter.
A surprise nominee at this year's Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Film, I'm glad it was nominated over possible contenders "Tangled" and the somewhat entertaining "Despicable Me" (a film that was all hype an no pay-off).
It won't win over heavyweight "Toy Story 3", but if I had a vote that counted, I would definitely cast my ballot for this film. "The Illusionist" may be old-school, but it shows that you don't always need high-tech CGI and new era 3D to tell a great story that can bring a tear to your eye -- it just makes it much more magical.
Posted on 2/06/11 09:25 AM
"Jaw-Dropping" reads The Hollywood Reporter? "Suspenseful" as reported by Vanity Fair? "What the Hell?" I remark. Some other critic even calls it "Hitchcokian", which is just plain out of line.
"Catfish" is an interesting sort of documentary, as it follows an online affair between a photographer from New York named Nev, and the three people he's been communicating by phone and online with -- Angela, and her two younger daughters -- all of whom apparantly have talents of one sort or another. It soon turns into a cross-country trek to find out who the people on the other end of the line are.
I'd like to say that I was intrigued as much as I was disappointed by the outcome of this film. Yet, I was actually more impressed with how the marketing team fooled us into thinking this was a a thriller, maybe even a horror. Then again, everybody was hoping for maybe the combination of two big hits at the time -- "Paranormal Activity" meets "The Strangers". Ironically, it turns out to be more of a "Sybil".
After almost an hour and a half, when the credits started rolling, I couldn't believe I found myself watching this film over again to catch where everything had started going wrong -- I guess I really was entertained by this film because I hardly grew bored.
"Catfish" is considered controversial in one way or another -- was it true or was it staged? But for me, I found myself interested in what was going to happen to everyone involved, which curiously enough, was basically nothing.