After watching A Touch of Zen, I decided to check out a few more classic martial arts movies. I decided to check in on a DVD series called Dragon Dynasty, having been impressed by the work they did on the copy of John Woo's Hard Boiled I picked up a while back. Looking through their catalog I noticed they had a movie from King Hu, director of Touch of Zen. The movie's inelegant title didn't excite me, but I decided to check it out anyway. I was quite surprised to find myself almost enjoying them movie more than Touch of Zen, even if Zen is ultimately a better work. I thought the choreography here was probably better, and the funky editing was used a lot more sparingly. The story lacks Touch of Zen's epic scope and depth, but in its simplicity it was probably easier to follow. It was also very interesting to see Cheng Pei-Pei forty years before she played the villain in Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon. I was baffled by a few things, namely a point late in the film where they start shooting some kind of arousal spray out their hands, I have no idea what the hell that was supposed to be. Also there's a strange reversal in the last five minutes where a male character suddenly turns into a hero instead of Pei-Pei. This wasn't the achievement Zen was, but as a lean little action movie it was probably more enjoyable. Also, I was right Dragon Dynasty, the visual quality of this DVD was a million times better than the Touch of Zen DVD.
Agnes Varda is a filmmaker I?ve been meaning to catch up with, and the logical way to program this personal marathon is to watch the films in Criterion?s ?4 by Agnes? box set (minus Vagabond, which I?ve already seen). This was Varda?s first film, and like many debut efforts by great filmmakers it shows a lot of creativity and promise, but it has a lot of rookie mistakes. The film is generally not very ambitious, it seems that Varda was more interested in setting the film in the titular Mediterranean fishing village than she was in telling a satisfying story. She clearly displays a good eye for imagery, but this is essentially a glorified student film and there just isn?t a enough meat on the bone to take a good bite off. Fun fact: Alain Resnais was the editor.
In the December of 2002, Martin Scorsese released his decades in the making passion project Gangs of New York to an outstanding round of indifference. The film was generally seen as a disappointment by critics, and while it was nominated for ten Oscars it didn?t manage to win any of them. Since then, Scorsese has lightened up and basically used his skills as a master craftsman to be the most prominent director for hire among commercial projects made for adults. This pattern was established with his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator and his cops and crooks crime thriller The Departed. Neither of these projects was particularly personal or wildly ambitious, but they were impeccably crafted and Scorsese was able to add a degree of depth to both seemingly breezy projects that other directors might not have bothered with. After The Departed became an Oscar winning triumph, Scorsese realized he was on to a good thing and now he?s followed it up with another glossy genre exercise in Shutter Island, a Hollywood thriller starring his new favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Set in 1954, the film begins on a slow boat ferrying passengers out to the titular Massachusetts island which is home to a federal mental institution whose patients are all violent offenders. The one of the passengers U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a splitting headache. He and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are on their way to the island to help track down an escaped patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). The institution is being run by Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who?s professional philosophy differs from his lobotomy/electroshock fixated peers and his mental hospital is meant as a testing ground for his more humane methods. But as his investigation continues, the doctors at the institution begin to seem increasingly uncooperative, as if they don?t want Solando to be found, as if they?re hiding something.
With this film Scorsese is unapologetically indulging his interest in noir and pulp trappings. DiCaprio is clad in a full Sam Spade outfit and wears it well while Ruffalo?s every line delivery is straight out of the noir sidekick handbook. The island itself fits perfectly into the sort of New England Gothic aesthetic (complete with a lighthouse), and the whole scenario feels like something out of The Most Dangerous Game and there?s something almost Lovecraftian about the way he combines setting, psychology and dread. This somber tone is of the utmost importance to the film and I suspect that generating this atmosphere was the primary thing that drew Scorsese to this material. As the movie moves on, this sort of oppressive tone will be the chief weapon that Scorsese uses to keep the audience on edge. Also adding to the atmosphere are a series of haunting and very well crafted flashbacks and dream sequences which use great special effects in order to make surreal dreamlike images.
DiCaprio, whose proving to be an actor who rarely disappoints, is always at his best when working with Scorsese and this film is no exception. I was a bit uneasy about his work in the first few scenes, but as the film goes on DiCaprio seems to ease into the role. He is again sporting a Boston accent as he did in The Departed and he seems to really be in his element when he?s playing a violent sort of streetwise type. Mark Ruffalo meanwhile has this sort of thankless task of playing a sidekick who is almost entirely reactionary, his lines rarely amount to more than ?are you sure boss? and ?if you say so.? It?s a character I would have liked to see written better.
Among the other characters in this all-star cast are Michelle Williams, who plays DiCaprio?s deceased wife in a variety of flashbacks and dream sequences, provides a pretty interesting presence and Emily Mortimer is also quite effective in her scenes. Jackie Earle Haley is playing to his strengths in a small but memorable part as an inmate and acting veteran Max von Sydow is simply overqualified for his small role as a creepy German psychologist. The one performance I would really take issue with is that of Ben Kingsley, an actor who seems to be really hit or miss lately and who seems to be on autopilot throughout this film. I felt no conviction from him throughout the film and he really brought nothing to his role.
The film inhabits a world in which no one including yourself is to be trusted, it?s almost Polanski-esque in its portrayal of Paranoia, the film?s central theme. As DiCaprio?s character progresses through the film he begins to break down, to question his surroundings and what?s real. The film walks this tightrope of paranoia and confusion really well for the better part of its running time, but is ultimately undercut by its final ten minutes. In the film?s penultimate sequence we?re given a pretty silly twist ending that?s explained with all the subtlety of the Fred Richmond speech at the end of Psycho. This ending doesn?t really add a lot to the film and it kills the ambiguity that it had inhabited so comfortably up to that point. Were I writing the film I would have avoided a simple explanation for the events and left the audience at a point where they are unsure whether or not DiCaprio?s paranoia is justified.
To many critics this ending will be the ultimate deal breaker but it certainly isn?t for me, because, frankly, I?m willing to forgive ten problematic minutes when the preceding two hours were as successful as they were here. The film?s story is mostly hokum, but this isn?t really a plot driven movie in the strictest sense, the goal is more to bring the audience along for the psychological journey of its protagonist. In this sense it is a psychological thriller in the purest sense; it keeps you on edge by, essentially, sending the character you empathize with further and further into the deep end. If you?re willing to go on this journey, the film will reward you, but don?t go in expecting this to be some sort of puzzle that you?re supposed to figure out before you?re supposed to because that will only end in disappointment. If nothing else, Scorsese displays a masterful grasp of tone, atmosphere, and visual design over the course of the film?s running time, and even though this is middling within Scorsese?s body of work, I?m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The Ghost Writer is a low key thriller of the type one wouldn?t expect to be made by a director as distinguished as Roman Polanski, and the film?s release has been similarly low key. Perhaps this is only being seen in a few theaters because this is a film targeted at adults, an audience that has become increasingly hard to market to, perhaps it?s because the film has been pretty hard to cut a trailer to without giving away a number of key plot points, or perhaps it?s because of the negative publicity its director has been getting because of his legal battles. I hesitated to even bring that last point up, firstly because the film?s advertising hasn?t really been hiding the fact that the Chinatown auteur is behind the film and secondly because I think Polanski?s work deserves to be appreciated outside of the shadow of his personal shortcomings. On the other hand, one of the most interesting things about this newest film is how aspects of the story mirror that turbulent personal story.
The film is about an author played by Ewan McGregor who?s so anonymous that his name is never revealed over the course of the movie. The character is smart but seems to have minimal ambition and no political beliefs. This anonymity makes the character the perfect ghost writer and within his field he hits the jackpot when he?s asked to help write the autobiography of a controversial former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It doesn?t take a whole lot of imagination to see that Lang was loosely based on Tony Blair, he was a popular leader, but one who seemed to be married to the United States in relation to foreign policy during the war on terror and he?d come under especially tough scrutiny for handing over four alleged terrorists to be tortured for information. Since the movie seems to take place in a world where such behavior is actually punished, he may be tried by the Haig for his actions. In order to escape the protests (and possible extradition), he?s escaped to a house in Martha?s Vineyard. The ghost writer says that he isn?t an investigative reporter and that he only wants to tell Lang?s story as Lang wants to tell it, but as he digs deeper he finds that there?s a secret out there which could shine a light on this world leader?s motives.
The central theme of Polanski?s work is undeniably paranoia, justifiable paranoia. Perhaps the film of his with the most emblematic and accessible expression of this theme is Rosemary?s Baby, a film in which a woman thinks her neighbors are conspiring to do her harm? and it turns out they were. This paranoid sensibility is perfect for the political thriller genre, a genre that?s almost defined by paranoia of this kind. That said, the Polanski film that this most reminds me of is not a political thriller but rather a supernatural thriller: The Ninth Gate. That late nineties Johnny Depp vehicle is not particularly well remembered but, it was a pretty good but it was a pretty good bit of genre filmmaking and Polanski?s sensibilities made it a lot more interesting than it otherwise would have been. That was another film about an unassuming man who stumbled onto a deep secret and kept hunting it down while besieged by people more knowledgeable about it than he does, and both of the films end on almost identical notes.
Oh, and this theme of paranoia was established long before Polanski became an international fugitive, which is something that isn?t known for quashing paranoia. His personal woes (which I won?t bother to recount here, Google it if you don?t know) seem to really parallel the life of the Prime Minister character. This is a character that?s been forced to stay in the United States or face charges; it?s an almost perfect parallel to Polanski?s situation in which leaving France would lead to extradition. Polanski?s extradition, also meant that the film couldn?t be filmed in the story?s Massachusetts location, and yet the film also has a really good sense of location. Even though the movie was filmed in Germany, they did a pretty good job of making it look like America, which is important because this foggy New England atmosphere adds a lot to the movie.
The acting from McGregor was solid, but like his character, not particularly noteworthy. I also liked Olivia Williams in the role of the Prime Minister?s wife, but it?s Pierce Brosnan?s work that I found particularly memorable. I wouldn?t say that Brosnan?s actual acting was anything to really write home about, but I think his choice to play this role was a particularly nice piece of casting. Brosnan looks like he could be a election phenomenon and he brings a certain unapologetic cockiness that seems to characterize post-Gitmo politics.
It?s interesting that this film has come out only a few weeks after the release of Shutter Island, another film that explores paranoia in a New England setting. That Scorsese film is certainly more ambitious, but in its own low key way The Ghost Writer explores the theme just as effectively. That said, the Robert Harris novel upon which this is based does not strike me as a work of genius, it strikes me as a pretty typical beach read. This is a case of a director elevating material, not a case of a director rising to the occasion. This is certainly not Polanski?s best work, but it is a good work, one worth seeing.
For the last half decade I?ve felt like I?ve been on the defensive end of a number of arguments when it comes to political movies which deal with the war in Iraq. The wide consensus is that these movies all too often sacrifice storytelling in favor of preachy messages and that the films suffer as a result. Then last year, in something of an ironic twist, the critics I?d been opposing all suddenly got behind an Iraq movie (The Hurt Locker) which I wasn?t necessarily as enthusiastic about. Make no mistake, I liked Kathryn Bieglow?s film a lot, but to me it wasn?t the transcendent war film that many held it up as. The praise for that movie was characterized by two claims: 1. that the movie was refreshingly apolitical (as if that?s an inherently good thing), and 2. that the movie avoided the peachiness by focusing on its role as an action movie. This second point was probably the most baffling part of the consensus that built around The Hurt Locker, because I frankly don?t think that movie is an action film, at least not any more of an action film than say, Platoon. Perhaps the most notable thing about Paul Greengrasses new film Green Zone is that it most definitely is an action film and a significantly more exciting one that The Hurt Locker ever claimed to be.
The film is set in the very immediate aftermath of the March 2003 Invasion of Iraq, when the war certainly felt like an injustice, but at least like an injustice that would be successful in its dubious goals. At the center of the movie is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), the Chief Warrant Officer in charge of a squad that?s looking for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. After many of the leads he was tracking down turned out not to have the weapons in question, Miller began to question the intelligence he?d been given. So, instead he begins tracking down a General Al-Raw (Yigal Naor), a former Ba?athist that Miller thinks is aware of the location of the WMDs. When a CIA agent named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) learns about this, he encourages Miller, believing that Al-Raw may help him convince a stubborn Pentagon official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) that he should keep the Iraqi military intact. Unfortunately, Poundstone has other ideas and both Miller and Brown will need to increasingly bend the rule in order to find the truth.
The central goal of the film is to prevent the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. It has been argued by many (perhaps most accessibly in the documentary No End in Sight) that this disbanding, more than any post-invasion decision, was responsible for turning Iraq into the quagmire that it became. So, the stakes of the action on screen couldn?t be any higher. That?s not where the parallels to the real world end either. Many of the characters here are meant to be loosely fictionalized versions of real figures from the war. Kinnear?s Clark Poundstone character is pretty clearly based on Paul Bremer, the man who disbanded the Iraqi army (and was subsequently given a medal by President Bush), a journalist played by Amy Ryan in the film is clearly based on the NYT correspondent Judith Miller, and there?s also a dubious intelligence source in the film codenamed ?Magellan? which is based on a real figure which was codenamed ?Curveball.?
This insertion of figures from our recent history will be jarring to some audiences, but I disagree. I think what Greengrass has done is to use the cover of a fictional narrative in order to make a pretty interesting work of speculative non-fiction. This is not too far removed from what Oliver Stone did in a number of his movies about 60s politics and which I wish he had done more of in his film W. Much the way Stone would use his films to speculate about what people like Richard Nixon was saying behind closed doors, Greengrass is speculating about the machinations involved in a post-invasion Iraq. Of course, the speculative aspects of Green Zone don?t need to stray all that far from what is already known. The truth is, very few of the claims being made in the film are all that controversial. Are there really still Bush loyalists trying to pretend that there were WMDs in Iraq? Or that disbanding the Iraqi army was a good idea? I don?t think there are many, nor do I think there are very many people who will be overly shocked by the revelations here, but the way they are presented here make them far more accessible and exciting than they ever have been before.
Paul Greengrass made his name among critics with kinetic films about real world crises like Bloody Sunday and United 93, and he made his name as a commercial filmmaker by bringing a similarly immediacy to mainstream action films like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Green Zone marks something of a combination of these two sides of Greengrass? career, it has real world significance but it?s also unafraid to add visceral action to the proceedings, especially towards the end where we?re treated to an extended foot chase through Bagdad as witnessed both on the ground and above head by pursuing helicopters. This action does not delve into the realms of the ridiculous, there are no signature stunts ala Bourne and the hero is decidedly more mortal than the title character of that franchise. The action here is significantly more active than the suspenseful, but static, bomb defusing scenes from The Hurt Locker and to me, are much closer to the tradition of the action film.
I was also really impressed by the depiction of Iraq itself, which seemed really authentic, though admittedly I?ve never been to the place and obviously don?t have any real experience to base this judgment on. The titular Green Zone itself was particularly interesting; this was a secure area of Bagdad in which the majority of the high ranking officers, intelligence agents, and media figures were stationed. This area at times looks like a resort, complete with people sitting by a pool. The whole scene is reminiscent of the English base at Cairo depicted in Lawrence of Arabia and is meant to contrast the war zone that surrounds it. This oasis amidst chaos was the main setting of Rajiv Chandrasekaran?s non-fiction book ?Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq?s Green Zone,? upon which Greengrass? film is based, and it?s one of the film?s most interesting aspects.
I enjoyed Green Zone quite a bit both on as a fan of action films and as someone who?s interested in recent history. That said, there are a few sort of clunky lines in the film that fit into some of the complaints people have been having about ?preachy Iraq movies,? there?s a line towards the end spoken by an Iraqi that is particularly egregious. I can?t say that this has the same resonance of something like United 93 (though very few movies do) and it isn?t quite the action onslaught that the Bourne films were, but this is still the work of an important filmmaker and not one to be taken for granted.
Greg Mottola?s 2009 film, Adventureland, is at this point probably most discussed for its misleading advertising campaign. Miramax took a film that was a fairly low-key coming of age film and made it out to look like a broad Apatow-style comedy through its trailers and posters. Being the follower of film discussion and criticism that I am, I was forewarned about this ruse and knew not to be turned off by the problematic advertising. The problem is that the movie I?d been told to expect was just as problematic for me as the one in the advertisements. The semi-autobiographical coming of age story genre is something I?ve grown an increasing disinterest in. It?s an over-used and often indulgent format, and even though it?s supposed to be a very personal style of story, a whole lot of them seem to follow a similar formula. Additionally, I had the displeasure of working at an amusement park in my past, and I?m really not at a point where I want to nostalgically look back on that experience. So this movie was in a place where it needed to work pretty exceptionally well to impress me, but with all the praise it?s gotten I knew I needed to give it a chance.
Set in the summer of 1987, the film is about a young man named James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) who?s recently earned a bachelor?s degree in comparative literature and plans to attend the Columbia Graduate School in the fall, but first he must earn some money while living with his parents in Pittsburgh over the summer. Brennan realizes that he doesn?t really have the experience for most jobs in the area, so in desperation he gets a job as a midway operator at a local amusement park. The employees at the park have formed something of a community together lead by married co-managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). Brennan befriends some of his co-workers like Joel (Martin Starr) and Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), but the most important person he meets is Emily "Em" Lewin (Kristen Stewart), a girl with a troubled family life but who is smart and has a lot of spirit. Brennan?s friendship with ?Em? eventually turns into a romance, but Brennan doesn?t have a whole lot of experience with girls and over the course of the summer he?s going to come to form bond with both her and his other co-workers that?s different from any of the relationships he?s had at his preppy college.
What?s probably the film?s strongest aspect is its realism. This is not a heightened movie, the characters are down to earth and as developed as they should be. These characters change over the course of the film, and they are also very capable of surprising the audience with their depth. Take the boss played by Bill Hader for example, he seems like simple comic relief side character at first, but as the film goes on he reveals himself to be a really good natured leader willing to help his employees. There?s also a refreshing economic realism to the proceedings. Most Hollywood films about teenagers are set in lavish suburbs where every young person has their own car, live in swanky houses and are played by future Maxim models. That?s not the case with film, where people are believably living with real world pressures and live similarly real lifestyles.
Unfortunately, for all the film gets right in its setting and tone, I still think it falls into a lot of the pitfalls of the coming of age genre. While I liked all the way the characters interacted, the film?s main conflict is a pretty standard issue love triangle. The movie also isn?t above a few annoying tropes like one of those scenes where a couple are in conflict simply because they?re too stupid to sit down and rationally discuss their problems. Also, this is a movie that could have been pretty well served by some actual comedy to go along with it. I knew this wasn?t going to be a broad comedy along the lines of Greg Mottola?s Superbad, but some real laughter would have really gone a long way toward distancing the film from the standard issue coming of age narrative that I?ve been mentioning a lot in this review. Ultimately that formula is probably the main thing preventing me from really embracing this otherwise very well made film. The film simply treads on one of my pet peeves and it?s hard to overcome that, I suspect it will work better for those who don?t share my distaste for that format.
[Editor?s Note: This review employs a literary device in which the reviewer exaggerates his opinion of the country music genre and its fans for comedic effect. Those who lack a sense of humor in regards to this subject are advised not to read further.]
I?m going to say right from the top, in the interest of full disclosure, that I hate country music like poison. I do sort of like folk music and vaguely country influenced rock music, but my prejudices against pure country music run pretty deep. To me country is the music of rednecks, hillbillies, and yokels and nothing will ever change that. Are my feelings rooted more in culture wars than in musical aesthetics? Maybe, but I?ll maintain that I do dislike the music just as much as the anti-intellectual culture that seems to have sprung up around it. So, it was with great reluctance that I decided to see a movie that was centrally about this most disgusting of musical creations. Fortunately for the producers of the new country-themed film, Crazy Heart, I quite like Jeff Bridges and the reviews of his performance in said film have been ecstatic. Consequently, I was willing to ignore the hick music and give the movie a chance simply because the dude abides.
The movie follows a man who goes by the name Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a washed and alcoholic up country singer who?s been reduced to playing at undignified stops like bowling alleys which he needs to travel to in a rickety old truck. Blake?s career is in a tailspin and his only real hope is the humiliating prospect of making a duet album with a protégé of his named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) whose gone on to much greater commercial success. During a gig at a small bar in Santa Fe, Blake is asked to give an interview to an aspiring local reporter named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Craddock is a single mother who?s not really in a much better position in life than Blake. They form a friendship that quickly turns into a romance that will give Blake?s life new meaning, but it might just be too late for this alcoholic wreck of a man.
The elephant in the room whenever this movie comes up is last year?s sleeper hit The Wrestler. While the two films were undoubtedly produced separately and neither is likely to have ripped off the other, the similarities are nonetheless uncanny. Both are films about entertainers who have aged to the point of irrelevance in their fields and are now playing embarrassingly small venues while dealing with substance abuse issues. Both films also have their characters forming relationships with younger single mothers who are also having career issues. Of the two movies, The Wrestler is a drastically superior take on the subject matter and Crazy Heart suffers significantly by comparison. While The Wrestler used the setup to make a grander statement about the seductive nature of fame and about addiction as a whole, Crazy Heart is a movie that operates on a much more literal level and which is also unwilling to fully explore the darkest aspects of the material. What?s more, comparing the aesthetic skills of, Scott Cooper (a not overly ambitious first-time director) to the likes of Darren Aronofsky just isn?t really fair.
Also like The Wrestler, this is a film that?s been heavily acclaimed for its lead performance, in this case by Jeff Bridges. While I liked Bridge?s performance a lot, I can?t exactly say it quite lived up to the hype for me. On the bright side, Bridge?s is a charmer and he pretty effectively conveys how his character can be a self destructive jerk at times while still remain likable. On the other hand, I?m not sure he really makes the kind of transformation you expect out of a performance that?s been hyped this much, I can definitely see The Dude shine through at times during the movie. I suspect that a lot of the performance?s praise has come from various pundit?s desire to see the long overdue Bridges win an Academy Award, and while I wouldn?t necessarily object to the actor being rewarded I don?t think his work here quite lives up to the better work done by the likes of Matt Daemon, Colin Firth, Sam Rockwell this year.
As for the film?s other acclaimed performance, that of Maggie Gyllenhaal, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, Gyllenhaal does a perfectly good job in the film with some dialogue that could have been pretty problematic in the hands of a lesser actor. However I have this nagging feeling that she was still miscast. By problem largely centers around Gyllenhaal?s age: she?s almost half Bridges? age. I?ve got to say that these ?geezer gets the girl? movies don?t really ring all that true to me, especially when the age difference isn?t really acknowledged. One could maybe argue that the comparable relationship in The Wrestler also had an age difference (albeit a much smaller one than in this film), but the relationship their never really developed into a full on romance. I also have mixed feelings about the presence of Collin Farrell in the movie. On one hand this Irish ruffian doesn?t seem like an authentic good ol? boy at all, but that may have actually been the intent. The character he plays is supposed to seem like a bit of an inauthentic phony, and from a certain perspective Farrell would seem to be the perfect actor to be just that.
Finally I?m going to have to deal with the film?s music, and as I previously explained, that was the one element of the film I most dreaded having to deal with. While the film certainly hasn?t converted me into an admirer of this cracker-ass music, I will admit that the music here was not as excruciating as I had expected. Cooper was wise to make Bad Blake a relic of the Outlaw Country movement, which is generally one of the more agreeable brands of hillbilly music. The Outlaw performers, like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, all had a rebellious aspect that put them a bit more in the spirit of rock and rollers than yokels who play most other forms of country music. They seemed like genuinely cool people who somehow fell in with the wrong crowd.
The music here was mostly written and produced by a team consisting of veteran country guy Stephen Bruton, newcomer Ryan Bingham (who has a small role in the film), and the much buzzed producer T-Bone Burnett. Jeff Bridges and even Collin Farrell performed all their own singing and seemed to do a pretty good job at it. I don?t really have much of a reference point to judge any of this stuff; the songs all kind of sounded the same to me. Even the song expected to win an Oscar nomination, ?The Weary Kind,? didn?t sound much better or worse than the rest of the music in the film even though the characters seem to think it is. The only song here that came close to impressing this hardened country-hater was a tune called ?Fallin? and Flying,? which seemed significantly better than the much hyped ?Kind? and I?m not sure why one is getting more praise than the other.
Ultimately, my ?responsible critic? conscious is telling me to set aside my petty Blue State prejudices and ignore the fact that this movie celebrates a form of music that I normally cannot tolerate. In judging the movie I?m just going to pretend that the music being played was something decent like Rock, Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, or even Folk in order to give the movie a fair assessment. All in all, this is a pretty good story and it?s a pretty well put together movie, but it lacks a certain spark of originality that it needs. As unfortunate as the film?s proximity to The Wrestler is, the project would still probably feel pretty derivative of other works even if that prior project hadn?t come out first (Tender Mercies comes to mind). So, if you can tolerate the music give this a chance, but if you?re not a fan like I am I don?t think there?s really enough here to recommend it to non-fans.
When I first heard that there was a movie called Trick ?r Treat in production my first thought was ?are they really making a remake of that heavy metal horror film that Ozzy was in?? As it turns out, they weren?t. The movie is actually a horror anthology consisting of four independent but occasionally intersecting stories all taking place on the same Halloween night. That?s a lot more respectable than a remake of the lamest horror film of the 80s, but apparently the powers that be didn?t agree, which was why this ended up going straight to DVD. This destiny has less to do with the film?s actual caliber than it does to do with quirks of the release schedules. The film has been largely accepted by horror junkies in festivals like Austin Butt-Numb-a-thon, Toronto After Dark, Fantastic Fest, and Screamfest, because of this I decided to give the film a watch in spite of its stigma as a direct to DVD horror title.
As previously mentioned, the film consists of four separate stories and while they subtly intersect every once in a while they are mostly independent. One of the stories deals with a psychotic elementary school teacher (Dylan Baker) who poisons his trick or treat candy, one deals with a group of children investigating the haunted wreckage of a crashed school bus, one deals with a group of teenagers (Anna Paquin, Lauren Lee Smith, et al.) who are staked by a vampire, and the final story deals with a cranky old man (Brian Cox) who?s attacked by a pint-sized sprite with a gunny-sack over his head. The gunny-sack-headed thing actually turns up in all the stories, if only as a background figure. Think of him as the movie?s crypt keeper, but without the winning personality. Not all of these stories are quite what they appear, pretty much all of them have a twist to them at the end.
Of the three stories, the one with Brian Cox is easily the strongest. That story comes the closest to be a legitimate piece of horror and Cox (an eminently overqualified actor) chews the scenery nicely. The rest are pretty problematic. I found the crazy principle story to be particularly weak, mainly because it was devoid of suspense and was generally a weak opener to the film. The story of the four kids also suffers, first from the illogicly short walk the kids apparently need to make in order to reach a ravine in the middle of nowhere and also because it probably had the least inventive twist of the whole film. The Anna Paquin story fares a little better than those two, it feels like that story get the bulk of the film?s budget and Paquin also elevates it a little, but its twist opens it up to a fairly big plot hole.
The biggest problem this film has is that it isn?t even remotely scary. It also isn?t suspenseful, it isn?t chilling, it isn?t creepy, it isn?t eerie, it doesn?t even have jump scares, or even a noteworthy amount of gore. If you go into this expecting a full on horror movie you will be sorely disappointed. Many will counter that this is meant as a horror-comedy, but this doesn?t impress me either because this isn?t really very funny either. What this is, is a lark of a movie that?s playing around with the traditions of Halloween and some traditional horror material. The film?s occasional adoption of comic book text boxes implies that it is trying to operate within the confines of the EC comics horror tradition that inspired Creepshow, ?Tales From the Crypt,? and to some extent this year?s Drag Me To Hell, but as silly as Creepshow was it at least had some legitimate creepiness in the E.G. Marshall segment.
This is one of those movies that has become a cause for its fanbase, because it got stepped on by Hollywood people feel the need to stand up and ?support? it. Is the movie worthy of this kind of grassroots support? No. There is more skill on display in it than in the average direct to video movie, but if I think Hollywood might have had the right idea on this one. For one thing the movie is only an hour and seventeen minutes long and I would have felt a little ripped off if I had to pay full price for it. That?s not to say that it should have been longer, the pacing probably wouldn?t have allowed for that, but it?s a problem nonetheless. Pretty much the only way I can see this really working is if you rent it on a weekend and watch it on a night with your friends when you all probably aren?t paying a particularly large amount of attention and are possibly a bit tipsy. If you?re looking for something to fill an evening like that, this will probably satisfy, but in a context that involves more scrutiny I?d skip it.
With a filmography of more than forty films made over the course of four decades, Woody Allen is an undeniable cinematic institution. He can be counted on to make a film every single year and even when they fail they tend to be pretty watchable. His newest film, Whatever Works, would certainly fall into that camp of ?watchable failure,? but as far as that caliber of Allen goes this one is particularly poor. The problem, reportedly, is that this script was actually written in the late seventies as a vehicle for Zero Mostel but was set aside after that actor?s death. The script was pulled out of a drawer as Allen was facing a purposed actor?s strike that would have threatened his film a year pace.
The story concerns Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David), a former physics professor who?s recently gone through a divorce. He?s your typical stand in for Allen himself and his apathetic outlook and neurotic habits will be very familiar to anyone who?s seen a Woody Allen movie before. One day Yelnikoff meets a 21 year old runaway named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) on the streets of New York who he takes in for the night. Melodie was a southern belle from a Christian conservative family and she ran to New York looking for success. Of course the personalities of the two clash, but Melodie tries to relate to this older, pessimistic, intellectual and eventually opposites attract and they up and get hitched. It seems like it?s working out pretty well, but then Melodie?s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and then father (Ed Begley Jr.) show up, and they are not big fans of Mr. Yelnikoff.
Probably the biggest problem with the movie is that Melodie (and most of the other characters to some extent) are stereotypes. I get the feeling that Woody Allen doesn?t spend to much time talking with anyone outside of bohemian circles in New York, London, and maybe Spain, and his insights into southern conservatives are lacking. These feel less like real people than someone?s outside perception of what ?those people? are going to be like. Allen almost gets away with this because the New York characters are in many ways just as close to being caricatures as the southern ones, and there?s also a running theme of mutual misunderstanding among all parties involved, but the whole thing just generally feels pretty far from the cutting edge of culture wars satire.
Worse than all that, the Boris Yelnikoff character is really poorly brought to life. The whole character feels identical to numerous other Woody Allen protagonists in the past both in attitude and in actions. His relationship hang-ups are familiar and tired, and his personality adds nothing new to the table either, he?s the same kind of cynical neurotic that Allen has been writing for years. Of course the character might have been salvaged if Allen had either personally delivered an inspired performance or if he had cast an appropriate surrogate in the role. Instead he cast Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld who?s excellently played himself on the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. This seemed good on paper, David is a similarly neurotic Jewish comedian who?s long been called ?the west coast Woody Allen,? but if anything this film proves that David is a writer first and a performer second. Sure, he has a shtick that has served him well on one show, but he seems incapable of doing anything else. Here he?s speaking and behaving exactly like he does on TV and he isn?t bringing anything to the material.
Some of the supporting cast comes off a little better, particularly Patricia Clarkson, who seems to be having a lot of fun playing a pretty over the top character who goes through a similarly over the top transformation over the course of the film. Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Begley Jr. also do the best they can with this thoroughly lazy and pedestrian material, but there?s only so much that either of them can do. Ultimately this is pretty clearly a film that Allen churned out to maintain his movie a year pace, and while it isn?t a complete disaster, it definitely isn?t something to be watched by anyone who isn?t a Woody Allen die hard.
Just about any time there?s a wave of movies coming out of a country or region there?s almost always one particularly famous movie that spearheads the wave. For the French New Wave it was Jules and Jim, for Italian Neo-realism it was Rome: Open City, and for the 90s American independent scene it was Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I bring this up because the movie which played this role in the ?Asia Extreme? sub-genre that?s been huge in genre circles as of late has been the film Oldboy, from the South Korean director Park Chan-Wook. That revenge epic has become a pretty substantial cult hit and has lead viewers to other Chan-Wook films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, and Joint Security Area. These are all strange and kind of twisted films with wicked undercurrents of pitch black comedy. Sometimes I think he goes a bit too far, as was the case of those two films with ?vengeance? in the titles, but in spite of his habits of extravagance he?s still one of the pre-eminent directors of international genre cinema. His newest film, Thirst, has generated a lot of excitement because it deals with vampirism and the combination of Park Chan-Wook and vampires sounds way too good to resist.
The film is about a catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) who volunteers for a very dangerous medical experiment in which he?ll be infected by a fatal illness. Sang-hyun surprisingly survives this test while the other forty-nine subjects succumb to the illness; possibly because of a mysterious blood transfusion he was given. After he returned to his duties as a priest, he comes to learn that after the blood transfusion he can?t stand the sunlight and begun to have an urge for blood and sex. Meanwhile, Sang-hyun finds himself drawn to a young woman named Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who?s married to a sick man (Shin Ha-kyun) that Sang-hyun has been counseling in his capacity as a priest. Tae-ju is similarly attracted to Sang-hyun?s newfound powers and the two begin a depraved affair, but love and lust can get pretty weird when bloodsucking monsters are involved.
The vampires here aren?t too far removed from your typical nosferatus, they can?t take the sun, they need to drink blood, they have superhuman strength, and while they can?t fly or transform they can jump really high and land on their feet. Perhaps the biggest departure from the average vampire is that they don?t have any fangs and need to pierce their victim?s jugular with a blade before they can begin to slurp down their plasma. The larger alteration to the typical vampire story is that Sang-hyun is a priest and that he feels a very inherently catholic type of guilt about his situation. The character never wanted the situation he?s in but he?s being driven both by necessity and by urges to chomp down on innocent people and by an overwhelming lust to do some very un-priest-like things with Tae-ju, who is a lot more comfortable with being a creature of the night than Sang-hyun is.
The film has a very promising set-up and it more or less delivers on this by the end, especially in the last twenty minutes where the movie really comes alive. Unfortunately I think this movie is really marred by a laggy and muddled middle act which plays out like some sort of supernatural version of The Last Tango in Paris. Large quantities of screen time are taken up by scenes of Sang-hyun and Tae-ju fang-banging in their apartment. The whole affair sub-plot just plays out in a very awkward way and the dynamics of Tae-ju?s family are clouded by a lot of inaccessible comedy that I didn?t think much of. The relationship does prove to be more interesting than the similarly oddball romance in his 2006 film I?m a Cyborg, But That?s OK, and there is payoff to a lot of it at the end, but it?s tough sailing to get to that point.
This is unfortunate because this is a movie that could have lived up to last year?s vampire film Let the Right One In, which I?ve grown to like a lot more since my first viewing. I can?t say that this works as well as foreign counter-programming to that other vampire series which will go unnamed, but it has its moments. If anything I?m just disappointed that this wasn?t better than it was. In its best moments it comes close to matching Park Chan-Wook?s work in Oldboy, but the uneven and padded really brings down the film in a good way. It?s worth seeing for the cream that will float to the top of your memories shortly after seeing, but the actual churning is quite a chore.
Sin Nombre is the first feature film from the New York based filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga, a man of Japanese and Swedish ancestry but who is not making a Spanish language film about the issues facing Latin America. The film?s production is similarly a melting pot, with financing coming from both the United States and Mexico, even if the characters hail from Honduras, and a glance at the crew list reveals list of names that are half Latino and half Anglo-Saxon. Descriptions of the film since it debuted at Sundance have been a bit confusing; some of what I heard made it sound like a movie about immigration while others made it sound like a film about Latin American gangs. In truth, the film is about both of these things and a little more, and the two issues tend to collide in interesting ways.
The film begins by telling two seemingly separate stories. The fist is of a boy who is dubbed "Smiley" (Kristyan Ferrer) after he is initiated into a gang in the opening scenes by a pair of older gang members named El Casper (Edgar Flores) and Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía). El Casper seems like an older version of ?Smiley,? he?s a criminal by necessity and while he likes the lifestyle he tends to avoid some of the excesses of it. Lil' Mago on the other hand is an out of control psychopath covered head to foot with menacing tattoos. Meanwhile, we witness a parallel story of a girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) who has embarked on a journey to America with her father and uncle. She plans to illegally cross the border and meet up with family in New Jersey to give herself a new life. Along their journey the family begins to ride on top of trains, and it?s on top of one of these trains that the two stories are going to collide and remain linked for the rest of the film.
That the film has an unconventional sense of perspective is something that sets it apart from the average indie. The movie looks like it will mainly be about Smiley at first, and then Sayra, and then El Casper, and even once it makes these shifts it doesn?t forget about the other characters it had left behind. This bucks common screenwriting conventions and makes for a story that can be nicely unpredictable at times even if it does ultimate begin to fit pretty well into the mold of a chase movie in its final act. That said, this universal perspective can be a double edged sword as there really isn?t enough time in this 90 minute film to fully explore all three of the characters that it follows at various points. We?re never given great insight into Sayra?s desire to make a new life, we never get a great idea of what being in the gang means to Smiley, the only character with a reasonable arc is El Casper. This is the dark side of trying to make a movie that?s really tight and fast moving, sometimes you really need those extra minutes and if Fukunaga wanted to make a multi-character epic he probably should accepted the need for a relatively epic runtime.
The movie is not overly political and it shouldn?t offend anyone on either side of the immigration debate who has an even slightly open mind. Really, immigration isn?t what this movie is about, even though one of the characters is trying to cross the border. The film is certainly tying to show how much trouble immigrants go through in order to make it over the border, much the way the 1983 classic El Norte did, but for the most part the film is matter of fact about this and is not trying to enter into a debate with Lou Dobbs. The gang material is similarly matter of fact and offers no easy answers. All in all this is just not a politically partisan film.
In American crime films, Mexico is a place to escape to. Whenever a criminal finds himself ?on the lamb? his last ditch plan is to head for Mexico in hopes of finding himself out of the jurisdiction of the police or to disappear from the reach of his less legal enemies. What?s interesting is that here the reverse proves to be just as true. Seeing a Latin American criminal attempt to escape from his troubles out of Mexico and into America, makes one think harder about how Mexico feels about being a vacation destination for criminals. Being able to see things like this from the other perspective is one of the best things that a movie like this can do. Sin Nombre is not the greatest film you?ll see this year, but it is a pretty effective look into this world and by the end you?ll be pretty interested in seeing if the people can get out of their predicament. It?s a pretty fun watch, at least as fun as anything with this kind of subject matter is going to be, and it?s never preachy.
Of all the Oscar contender type films filling the theaters in the December of 2009, A Single Man was not one of the ones I was looking forward to. While the film had a pretty nifty trailer, most of my enthusiasm disappeared as soon as I learned that the film?s director, Tom Ford, was a first time filmmaker who up to this point had made a significant fortune as a fashion designer. The world of fashion designers is something that I hold the upmost contempt for; it?s a pursuit for vain rich people with far too much time on their hands. Given that Ford dumped his own money into the film; the whole thing was displaying all the signs of being a vanity project. But there was one name that floated to the top of all discussions of the film: Colin Firth. Firth is not someone who would normally draw me to a film, in fact I?ve only ever seen three of the films he?s been featured in (The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Girl with a Pearl Earring), and I barely remember his role in any of them. But everything I?d heard about his work in this film was stellar, he?s been in the running for the Oscar for a while, and for the most part the film had been well received; so I decided to give the movie a chance.
The film is a study of a man named George Falconer (Colin Firth), a British ex-patriot living in Los Angeles circa 1962 who teaches English literature at a local University. Falconer is at a low point as the film opens, his gay lover has died in an auto accident and because he?s pretty deep in the closet he must retain his composure in front of most people; consequently, he?s been contemplating suicide. One person he can confide in is a woman named Charley (Julianne Moore), with whom he is a good friend. The Cuban Missile Crisis is in full swing, but Falconer hardly seems to care, he?s in the midst of his own personal crisis. The film takes place over the course of a single day, the day where Falconer will decide whether his life is still worth living.
It?s no secret that Colin Firth?s performance in this is the main thing this movie is being sold on both to the public and to award bodies, and this is mostly for good reason; Firth gives a really strong and restrained performance here. George Falconer is a very repressed character; he?s repressed in general just as an extension of him being a stiff professorial type, but these tendencies are multiplied by the pressures of being a closeted gay man during a time where being outed would have been disastrous. What?s more, he?s in a state of crisis and he?s not allowed to show his emotions in public. Consequently, Firth needs to be able to emote to the camera while showing minimal external displays of his internal feelings. That?s a really challenging place for an actor to be in, but Firth is able to carry it burden really well.
Unfortunately, Tom Ford as a director was a little to aware of the challenges the script posed and made a pretty big rookie mistake in trying to help Firth carry the burden. Throughout the movie the camera will go out of its way to highlight things that Falconer is looking at. Worse yet, Ford has ordered cinematographer Eduard Grau to increase the lighting whenever Falconer is feeling better and then saturates the picture whenever he?s on a particular down note. This intrusion is really unnecessary, mainly because there?s enough communicated by Firth?s performance that the information Ford is conveying is simply redundant. Ford should have just trusted his actor to do what needed to be done, instead he added in a bunch of distracting shots that sort of wreck the film?s style, especially during the first half.
There are, however, two really string scenes that salvage the movie from some of the director?s rookie mistakes. The first is the film?s opening sequence, in which Falconer is told of his partner?s accident over the phone and is forced to maintain a stiff upper lip to the man on the other end while he?s clearly distressed on the screen. This scene is an early highpoint in Firth?s performance and it clearly sets up the problem he faces for the rest of the film. The second great scene is a ten minute sequence late in the film?s second act in which Falconer visits his long time friend and confidant Charley (Julianne Moore). Because his friend is in on his secret, this is the one scene where Falconer is able to relax and be himself. It isn?t an entirely happy sequence but the audience is able to relax along with Falconer.
A Single Man reminded me in many ways of the 2000 Curtis Hanson film Wonder Boys, another film which showed a day or two in the life of a professor going through a personal crisis. Really, these movies that follow people through ordinary days that prove to be turning points are sort of a stock formula, but it?s a convention that usually works pretty well. I don?t want this to merely be seen as a movie that?s only good because of a performance, because I do think that there?s a lot more to enjoy than simply watching Firth?s performance, and yet I must admit that this performance is the key to why the film?s other elements work so well. I think what?s important is that I did feel for George Falconer the whole way through, and I enjoyed peeking in on him throughout this day, and that alone means the film pretty much accomplished what it set out to do.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was hyped as a major production, possibly the next E.T. from one of the greatest audience pleasers in Hollywood. This perception probably has a lot to do with why people freaking hate this movie, because if they went in expecting that they were going to be pretty freaked out when they saw a movie that was in many ways quite dark and disturbing.
This is a movie that?s all about a robot who can never get what he most desires, love, and is tortured throughout his life because of it. It?s a really dark movie to its core and in many ways it?s all the darker because of the Spielbergian sentimentality that is always out of reach for the kid.
However, I?m with everyone else who can?t get behind the film?s strange ending, which is made all the more jarring by the way we are teased by another, darker place to end. When it?s at its best, this is one of the best science fiction films of the decade, but it?s massively flawed.
For the last heretofore unseen film I?ve watched in 2009, I chose this New Hollywood tinged film about an endurance dance-contest in depression era Chicago. The whole contest quickly turns into a sadistic and dehumanizing hell being looked upon like the Romans would have looked upon gladiatorial death matches. The basic concept is a pretty original one. The whole thing conveys the desperation in the air and the set-up is a pretty interesting way to depict human suffering. The film also has some really good acting from Jane Fonda and Gil Young and the film is a great directorial debut by Sydney Pollack. That said, I think the movie works better as a concept than on an individual character level. I?m still really glad I saw though because I?d been hearing my uncle talk at length about this being the last film he saw (on a double bill with Patton) before going off to Vietnam, he remembers being baffled by the ending.
I can?t say I was looking forward to watching this, I have issues with movies about revenge and the DVD displays every indication of this being yet another violent English Tarentino rip-off crime movie. To the film?s credit, the movie isn?t really a Tarentino ripoff along the lines of a Guy Richie movie, but it does have pretty much everything I don?t like about revenge movies. The film is basically about a guy who plans to methodically murder a handful of people who abused his retarded brother while he was in the army? that?s it, there?s really no twist or much of anything more complicated than dude kills assholes for 90 minutes, it?s basically a glorified slasher movie. This isn?t helped by the fact that the movie doesn?t do a whole lot to make me want to see the victims here die, what they did to get in this position wasn?t cool, but it also didn?t exactly seem like the kind of thing to spur on a killing spree, and the kills weren?t all that effective or entertaining either. To the film?s credit: Paddy Considine gives a pretty good performance, and the English countryside works well as a setting and is filmed effectively by Shane Meadows, who would go on to make the infinitely better This is England. Otherwise this is a pretty stupid movie.
I really do respect John Cassavetes, the way he basically invented the American independent film scene as we know it today is admirable. However, the three Cassavetes movies I?ve seen really haven?t done a lot for me. This one is probably the best of them as it has a pair of really strong performances, but the story itself didn?t really grab me, and at two and a half hours the whole thing just seemed too long. Really, I did respect the movie, I just didn?t much like it.
There are few who will dispute that Buster Keaton is a master stuntman, and this movie displays that as well as anything. The extreme physical comedy that Keaton puts himself through is really breathtaking in many ways, particularly during the iconic cyclone scene. There?s also a pretty neat story about fathers and sons here and there?s a good performance by Ernest Torrence which almost upstages Keaton, at least in the non stunt scenes. It?s hard to argue against this movie, but while I watched it I couldn?t help but be solidified in my somewhat unhip view that Chaplin was, on the whole, the better filmmaker of the two great clowns. Chaplin?s movies made real attempts at pathos, while Keaton?s movies just kind of seem like elaborate and very well staged stunt shows by comparison.
This Nicholas Ray film would appear to be a standard Republic western at first sight, but it has become a staple of film school analysis because it has a number of subversive elements in its subtext. There?s an obvious anti-McCarthy allegory to the story with its sympathy toward people that are being persecuted by the elite of a town that tries to turn the gang against each other. There are also feminist elements to the film with Joan Crawford playing a very strong female protagonist and Mercedes McCambridge playing an equally strong female villain. This is definitely a step above its peers, but there are elements of cheese left over from its modest origins and it also has kind of a weak middle act between its strong beginning and stronger finish.
This is a film that failed to blow my mind the first time I saw it, but I was watching it in less than perfect circumstances and I wanted to give it another shot. This time around I think I appreciated it a lot more. Firstly I think I got a lot more out of the film?s political undertones. There?s definitely a very smart message about how white privilege can lead people to a callous disregard for the suffering of those who are unlike themselves and for how society reacts to the guilt of past racial transgressions through denial. Stylistically, I?m a bit more mixed. Haneke is certainly able to set a really strong tone of dread with his long takes and smash cuts, but the downside to this is that the movie is cold as hell. The DVD case proclaims a kinship between Haneke and Hitchcock but he?s really a hell of a lot closer to Kubrick. Cold can be a good decision but it can also have a fairly disengaging effect to it, the style is so detached from the main character that I found it a bit harder to care about the main character than was probably for the best. Still, there?s a ton of stuff to respect here.
I love this movie. I was afraid the second viewing wouldn?t affect me as much as the first time I saw it years ago, but it?s as good as I remember it. This is one of the very best fusions of harsh drama and comedic relief that I?ve seen and it?s remarkably mature for a Hollywood film of the era. It manages to deal with themes like adultery and suicide without ever becoming a self-serious ?issue? movie like Wilder?s The Lost Weekend and it?s brought to life by astonishingly good performances by Lemmon, MacLaine, and MacMurray. It?s not particularly laugh out loud funny, as its advertising and reputation seem to paint it as, but it?s really charming when it needs to be and serious when that?s called for. It was also clearly an inspiration for the AMC series Mad Men, making it all the better to watch today. It may forever be known as the movie that ?stole? Psycho?s Oscar, but I think the award was deserved, Psycho didn?t need the laurals to be remembered for the ages, this might have.