Friday, December 18, 2009

Eleven Favorites From 2009

In no particular order, here is a listing of the best movies, released in 2009, that I saw in the theater. As is typical with most years, I missed a lot of potentially great movies in the theater that I intend to catch at home . This list is in no way comprehensive and has not been pared down from dozens/hundreds of movies. I'd love to make another list of the great movies I'd watched at home or in re-release at a few of my favorite arthouse theaters (like Rashomon at Chicago's Music Box Theater), but there just isn't time right now.

For my own edification, and in no particular order:

The Hurt Locker: Expect director Kathryn Bigelow to win Best Director at the Oscars this year. I wouldn't be surprised if Jeremy Renner gets nominated or even wins Best Actor, as well. Taut, suspenseful and powerful. If this film had been in 3-D, it would have given you a stroke.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Finally, a Wes Anderson movie that benefits from his overly fussy attention to details. Thoroughly enjoyable, with incredible animation, plus some career-best work from George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman... hell, every single person brought their "A" game to this. I haven't cackled louder in a theater this year -- and I literally cackled -- then when I was caught off guard by, "You wrote a bad song, Petey!" scene.

Coraline: Just a total head trip (in 3-D, no less). Granted, I was a bit inebriated and couldn't recall for you the plot if you put a gun to my head, but between this and Mr. Fox, a massive case was made this year for the return to stop motion or non-computerized animation. Plus, how can you go wrong with Ian McShane and John Hodgman?

I Love You, Man: They can't all be the Sistine Chapel, and I'm not the kind of dude who is going to pretend that I only admire films as art. I mean, I've watched The North Shore over 15 times, man! I Love You, Man was a sweet, funny and dare I say touching homage to the bromance. This wouldn't have worked without the genius cast, down to even Lou Ferrigno as himself. Ladies, please take note that all you really need to keep a man happy is allow him his own man cave.

Adventureland: I had mixed emotions about this film, and still think it only works on about a 70% success level. For example, I don't buy for a minute Kristen Stewart falling for Jesse "the poor man's Michael Cera" Eisenberg (nor do I buy for a minute the Lisa P. character wanting to go out with him). Part of the roadblock for me was my own hope that the comedy would be a little more zany, a little more funny, and less of a relationship movie. Still, it's a tender, surprising little movie that is much better than its advertising let on. Great soundtrack too, and not the kind of movie that seems like it's trying too hard to be cool (AHEM (500) Days of Summer).

Star Trek: Other than maybe enjoying the camp of the original TV series and the first two movies with the original cast, I have no real love for "Star Trek." I was actually prepared to hate this thing, but instead, the 2009 Trek flick kicked my ass. I have a newfound respect for Zachary Quinto, whom I find annoying on "Heroes," and I have a newfound crush on Zoe Saldana.

The Hangover: Overrated, for sure, it's still probably the one of the funniest movies of the year. Some of it just doesn't work, but the parts that do (like almost anything Ed Helms or Zach Galifinakis says) are insanely funny. Worth the price of admission just for the song Helms sings at the piano as the gang waits for the tiger to pass out.

Inglourious Basterds: Too talky and a bit long (is EVERY scene in this movie an interrogation?), it's still a hell of an engrossing film once you get past the fact that it's actually barely about the titular Basterds and their exploits. The ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy, with an ending that rewrites history with a massive twisted grin on its face. I do have to ask, how big of a pile of cocaine did Tarantino snort to think that the inclusion of David Bowie's "Cat People" made any goddamned sense at all?

Brüno: Watch it with your mom.

Lovely, Still: This tiny little flick may not actually see a wider release until next year, but I caught a sneak preview in Omaha, where it was made by a young filmmaker named Nik Fackler. There is a somewhat gimmicky twist that I won't spoil here, and the film walks a fine line of good and bad taste because of this twist, but its heart is so obviously in the right place that you can trust Fackler's intentions were not to exploit this character's weakness in making this bittersweet love story. Without the delicate, touching work from Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn (who has a wordless scene in a hospital that is especially powerful and clinches the entire picture), I'm not sure how well things would have worked. Fackler's direction is staggeringly confident, especially for someone not only his age but also making his directorial debut. The most interesting and somewhat daring element of Lovely, Still is the fact that, until you learn the twist, it seems like it's sloppily constructed and amateurish as far as plot is concerned. Once the pieces fit into place, you realize that Fackler was brave enough to make the movie seem this way to help pull off this bit of storytelling. Whether you wind up feeling manipulated or surprised, you really have to ask yourself, "Is this better than MY first movie?" What's that? You didn't make a first movie? Thought so.

Soul Power: I suppose this is listed as a 2008 release in many places, but I saw it in '09 and that's good enough for me. A loose documentary about the Zaire 74 music festival, which was to coincide with the legendary Ali/Foreman fight documented in the incredible film When We Were Kings, Soul Power is a fun, infectious collection of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and more. Featuring an absolutely chilling performance by Withers (that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it), a surprisingly super-funky runthrough of "The Thrill is Gone" by King, and an electric showing of James Brown and one of the all-time best outfits ever worn by the Godfather of Soul, it's like The Last Waltz with afros.

Friday, October 23, 2009

#141: Black Sheep


Black Sheep
Written and Directed by Jonathan King
Released March 29, 2007 (New Zealand)

Want to hear four words that can get me to automatically rent a movie, sight unseen? How about "Genetically engineered killer sheep?"

Still, as slapped my money down at the rental counter for the New Zealand-made Killer Sheep, I tried my best to keep my expectations at bay. I remembered seeing a feverish preview of this film floating around online a few years back that made Black Sheep look like an insane bit of Sam Raimi-esque, Evil Dead meets Peter Jackson's Dead Alive craziness.

And for a brief moment, that's what you get. After an extended prologue that sets up the relationship between the young versions of our protagonist Henry and his evil brother Angus, along with the establishing the roots of Henry's fear of sheep, we meet the adult Henry upon his return to the family farm. Returning to wrap up some unfinished business with his brother, Henry cannot wait to leave his past behind.

Meanwhile, his brother is up to no good, having turned the family farm into an experimental genetics lab that has -- for reasons I can't seem to remember -- begun working on a mutated form of the seemingly harmless woolen animal.

This is a horror film... what do you think happens? If you guessed, "The sheep hits the fan," you're right.

Problem is, as batshit crazy as the premise sounds, the potential for insanity here is touched upon but never capitalized on the way you might want from a movie like this one. It's not that the film takes itself too seriously, though there is a danger of that, especially early on in the film where everything is played straight (save for the arrival of two completely annoying environmentalist hippies).

There's a scene right after the "outbreak" begins where a sheep pretty much goes all Toonces the Driving Cat, hilariously taking the wheel of a truck and plummeting to its death. I cheered inside, thinking that this was finally turning into the movie I wanted to see. Bring on the camp! Bring on the gore! Bring on the insanity!

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty here to crack up about. I just wanted more. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like the comic timing was just a little... off. Perhaps there was too much exposition, or maybe there were too many long (and not all that funny) exchanges between Henry and Experience, the female environmentalist. Once that Toonces moment hit, Black Sheep should have just gone off the rails and never let up. As it stands now, there are just too many breaks in the action.

There's still plenty to be impressed about here, especially in the cinematography and special effects work. The movie looks and plays better than any movie with a plot like this probably should. One of writer/director Jonathan King's most impressive feats is how he manages to make something like a sheep slowly chewing grass, or a herd of sheep advancing over a hill, seem completely terrifying by not doing much more than letting his camera roll. The special effects (done through Peter Jackson's WETA Workshop) were equally impressive, and again almost done too well for a horror comedy.

Good but not great, Black Sheep does master one particular idea of successful entertainment: always leave your audience wanting more.

For more on Black Sheep:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Some pretty decent reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.

The aforementioned Toonces scene:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

#138 - #140: October Horror Begins!

Anyone who may have been following this blog last year might remember that October marked the most fruitful, challenging task I set for myself: reviewing one horror movie per day for the entire month.

Fortunately, this time around finds me in a loving relationship with a few better ways to spend that time every night than punishing my psyche sitting through soul crushing filth like Cannibal Holocaust. I am, however, also fortunate enough to have found a woman who appreciates a good horror movie... or at least appreciates my enthusiasm about horror movies enough to allow me to force her to sit through them.

So, tonight I'm posing a handful of brief reviews of movies recently viewed. While I obviously won't be putting myself through the ringer this month, I'll try to post reviews of as many movies as possible before the Trick or Treaters hit the pavement.

(Oh, and if you live in Chicago, please do me a favor and allow me to live vicariously through you if you happen to check out the 24 hour horror marathon going down at the Music Box Theater's "Music Box Massacre 5." Looks to be an amazing festival, and it all winds up with tonight's lead off movie...

#138: Carrie
Written by Lawrence D. Cohen (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Released November 3, 1976

Do I even need to give a plot synopsis here? I mean, if you're reading this column you had to have seen Carrie by now, right? If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, I guess I'd just say: "Don't fuck with the weird kid in school, because you never know when they might have psychotically triggered telekinetic powers."

While this wasn't the first time I'd seen Carrie, it was definitely the first time in at least a half dozen years. I'm happy to report that this classic Horror flick (mostly) stands the test of time. Sure, there are moments when the score sounds ridiculously dated, and sure, William Katt's hair is a singular monument to the indescribable excesses of 1970s awesomeness.

But man, once you get to that third act Prom Night scene? The build up of tension starting at the moment the titular Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar that she rightly lost to Faye Dunaway for her performance in Network that year) begins preparing for her date all the way through to her return home is almost unbearable. By the time Carrie steps out of those heavy gymnasium doors, I honestly felt relief. It helps, I must add, to have your television turned up loud for this sequence.

Carrie was the first Stephen King novel ever adapted to the screen, and it was also one of the most successful and well made. Director De Palma, who made a career out of aping Alfred Hitchcock, puts his own stamp on things here (or at least apes a director with less identifiable hallmarks).

I can't stress enough how much this entire movie falls on the shoulders of Spacek and, even more so, Piper Laurie (also nominated for an Oscar here) as her religious, overbearing and abusive mother. Had the relationship between these two stunk for a moment of inauthenticity or comedy, the entire film would come crumbling down. Picture a lesser actress doing those reaction shots where Carrie taps into her telekinetic powers; you'd be howling with laughter.

One caveat if you intend on watching this movie through Netflix's streaming service: they use the (inexcusable) fullscreen version of the movie, making the entire flick look like it was shot for TV. This effect is especially frustrating during the moments of split-screen violence in the Prom sequence, or the dance scene where the camera spins dizzyingly around Katt and Spacek.

Remember kids, unless you're watching on a 10" TV, ALWAYS GO WIDESCREEN.

#139: Zombieland
Written by Rhett Reese Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Released October 2, 2009

Getting a little too hyped for its own good lately, the Woody Harrelson action/comedy Zombieland is merely an okay horror movie, a better-than-average entry into the Zombie Horror subdivision with a few decent scares and a handful of laughs. Though inspired by Shaun of the Dead it reaches but can't hope to match the heights of that film's perfect balance of satire and unflinching violence.

Harrelson does an okay job as basically a redneck Natural Born (Zombie) Killer, though he is given some hard to stomach lines ("Nut up or shut up," comes to mind) and a somewhat annoying character motivation (finding the last Twinkie on Earth, though his explanation for this fixation at one point is actually acceptable). Jesse Eisenberg fares okay with his mannered Micheal Cera impersonation, and the first scene where his character lays out his Rules for Survival is amusing and fresh.

Zombieland is definitely entertaining, and those of you out there who may be less jaded or inundated with zombie lore might enjoy it even more than I. Director Ruben Fleischer comes up with some cool, memorable moments, especially in the hilarious opening credit sequence. Perhaps a little too stylized (we are reminded via onscreen text of Eisenberg's "rules" about two or three too many times), the film falters when trying to be poignant by finding the humanity among all the onscreen destruction. Problem is that the film establishes itself so early on as an anarchy-fueled amusement park ride that you just don't trust it when it tries to get your waterworks going.

HOWEVER, and this is a massive HOWEVER, there is a 10 minute segment of Zombieland featuring a brilliant cameo from one of my all time favorite comic actors, that elevates this flick from "okay, not bad" to "you have to check this shit out." Some sites out there have taken to spoiling the surprise, but trust me, even if you know the identity of the person, you won't be prepared for how batshit crazy this segment of the movie gets. Take what you want from the rest of Zombieland, but I defy you to keep your jaw from hitting the floor when you see what happens to this "character."

#140: Deadgirl
Written by Trent Haaga
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel
Released 2008

Gee, what a surprise that a movie directed by the same hands that made films like Operation Midnight Climax, in collaboration with a writer who normally acts in dreck like Tales From the Crapper, turns out to be absolute shit.

What's really surprising is just how abhorrent a film Deadgirl is, starting with the basic premise: two high school losers explore an abandoned mental hospital and find in its basement a naked female strapped down to a gurney. The two quickly realize after a few violent encounters that this woman cannot be killed. So, what do they do? Do they call the cops? Do they let her go?

Nope. No, in today's world of torture porn like Saw, they do what pretty much no human being on the face of this Earth would do (especially after discovering that this "woman" has a deadly bite): they decide to keep her as a sex slave. Imagine, if you will, that shudder-inducing scene in Kill Bill where we discover the disgusting abuse Uma Thurman's character suffers in her coma... then multiply that by at least a thousand.

I'm not trying to take moral high ground here (with a movie like this, it's really not hard to do). I love plenty of movies that, on the surface, are hard to explain from a morality standpoint. Hell, I'm a big fan of shows (and music) like "Metalocalypse," where sometimes millions of people are murdered as a punchline or a slapstick gag.

It's just that I don't understand why this movie was made at all. I mean, I get why something like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead exists as both a horror movie and an allegory for consumerism. People are constantly trying to re-adapt the symbolic or allegorical meaning behind zombies (though thankfully, the aforementioned Zombieland seems to not give a shit about double meanings).

But what's the allegory here? What's the greater meaning, and is it really a lesson that anyone with more than a lizard brain needs to learn? The even better question to be asking: what kind of person invests their money in something like this? I understand there's always that need in a Horror film to shock... to go to that place no one in the audience thought you'd go. This, though, this is something else. The level of misogyny on display here is utterly disgusting, especially since the "redeeming" character, who spends the whole movie fretting about going to jail, exhibits just a modicum less disdain for women than everyone else in the movie. I mean, at least he never stabs her, right?

Even despite these protestations, the movie still fails on the most basic levels. Lame dialogue, idiotic characters making unbelievable decisions and a pacing that is just too slow to even maintain suspense are all weaknesses. It could have been a provocative film with a better, smarter script. Instead, we get this irredeemable shit.

For more on tonight's films:
- Deadgirl at IMDB.
- Zombieland at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Carrie at IMDB and Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

#137: (500) Days of Summer


(500) Days of Summer
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by Mark Webb
Released September 7, 2009 (UK)

I'm sad to say that, considering my near love for lead actors Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer (I will be dispensing of the parenthetical after this mention) has turned out to be just a little less than the sum of its parts.

It's not that I don't appreciate the fact that director Mark Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber at least tried to bring us a love story (or, a story about love) in a fresh way. There are some really fantastic moments of whimsy, like an out-of-the-blue dance number set to a Hall & Oates song or a brief black & white homage to European cinema.

Unfortunately, these little scenes serve to highlight the fact that the filmmakers were capable of doing so much more, of having much more fun, of being so much more creative, than what we're left with for the rest of the movie. For every truly moving and interesting segment (like the split screen presentation of how Gordon-Levitt's Tom hopes a dinner party will turn out, juxtaposed against the images of how it actually turns out), there are pat, conventional ideas like the karaoke scenes or the not-so-clever observations about the sentiments behind greeting cards.

I read a review of this over at IMDB which said Days was "one hundred times more authentic than the usual romantic comedy fare churned out by Hollywood." Problem is, this isn't true. I just don't understand where this idea of authenticity is coming from. Is it because the soundtrack features The Smiths instead of Carrie Underwood? If you've seen the movie, think about that awful ending and try to tell yourself that it would seem out of place if Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson were the woman sitting on that couch.

Sometimes I worry the indie crowd is too easily swayed by something that, metaphorically, is wearing the same t-shirt that they wear. I have been in far too many heated arguments about why I think movies like Juno or Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist suck despite the fact that their characters may like what I like. (To put it more succinctly, if Juno was a kitten, I'd put it in a burlap sack and drown it in a fucking river.)

There's a line in the movie that, while directed at Gordon-Levitt's character and his seemingly instant affection for the titular Summer, perfectly sums up my feelings about these kinds of movies:

"Just because she's likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn't mean she's your soul mate."

While I might appreciate the fact that I get to hear a montage set to the sounds of a Band of Horses song instead of a Nickelback fart, I'm still not going to be an easy lay. These things -- songs, images, pop culture references -- are supposed to accentuate a film, not define its personality.

These kinds of cues are really just a product of lazy writing. Why explain a certain character's background or worldview when all you have to say is, "He loves Joy Division" and your hip little audience will know exactly what you mean? And if they don't know about a certain band and therefore don't understand your shorthand, well, fuck them for not being cool. As a huge fan of The Shins, I can't tell you how embarrassed I was by the "The Shins will save your life" scene in the awful Garden State. Say what you will about typical populist Hollywood romantic comedies, but at least you can't accuse them of being elitist.

Another unique but not necessarily enjoyable quirk about 500 Days of Summer is the fact that the relationship presented in the movie is a story told in an episodic, out of order fashion. We learn from the beginning that this relationship is doomed to fail, and then explore the chronology to find the good and the bad. I found myself wondering if, without the gimmick of telling this story out of order, this movie would be a crushing bore. By cutting it into bite-sized pieces, Webb adds a little chaos into what would be a somewhat predictable bummer of a story. There are a few moments that are served well by this kind of editing, most explicitly the opening scene from Day 488 of their relationship which shows Tom holding Summer's hand as she wears a wedding ring.

Beyond those few scenes and the likable aforementioned moments of whimsy, the most enjoyable thing about Summer is the undeniable chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel. Levitt's performance is especially affecting, as he is asked to cover the gamut of human emotions throughout the movie. He and Deschanel could have been just as satisfying reading the phone book to each other, as proven in this video for "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here," a song from Deschanel's collaboration with musician M. Ward. The three minutes in this video are more intoxicating than any moment in the movie:

For more on (500) Days of Summer:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Check out movie clips, bloggage and more at the official movie site.

The trailer:

#136: The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released October 10, 2008 (Italy)

Anybody else out there used to watch the A&E show The It Factor? When I lived in Chicago with two of my best friends, we obsessively watched a season of the short lived reality/documentary show which followed nine unknown actors and actresses in their daily lives in Hollywood. While the program was chock full of weirdos and inflated egos, there was one stand-out performer whom seemed so dedicated and yet humble that you couldn't help but root for the guy every time he was called for an audition.

Ever since that show, I've had my fingers crossed for Jeremy Renner. Near the end of that series, he lands the lead role in a motion picture about serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Renner would occasionally pop onto my radar after that, most notably in midsize rolls in movies like S.W.A.T., The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and as the hero in 28 Weeks Later.

With his lead role as bomb defusing specialist Staff Sgt. William James in director Kathryn Bigelow's (Point Break, Strange Days) newest film, Renner has taken the next and biggest leap in his career: a near definite Oscar nomination. That's because Renner makes what could have been a typical action movie role -- the "wild man" soldier whose addiction to high stress situations puts those around him in danger -- and throws in layers of complexity (charisma, humor, anguish) that humanize what could have been an unsympathetic superhero.

Of course, Renner is not without help from a fine supporting cast that includes bigger names like Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce, and lesser known talent like Anthony Mackie as Sgt. James's conflicted, by-the-book and utterly frightened next in command. While the movie follows Renner's company in the final days before its tour in Iraq is complete, the true focus of the movie is in following how everyone reacts to the presence of Renner's seemingly reckless bomb expert.

For Bigelow, who has made an entire career out of skewed takes on genre films (her Near Dark is an underrated classic vampire flick), The Hurt Locker is her masterpiece. In one sense it's an action movie, but it moves at a pace and level of constant tension that almost no action movie can pull off. Like an action movie, it revolves around a handful of setpieces, but unlike typical action movies these setpieces are not car chases or plane crashes, but rather isolated locations booby trapped with explosive devices. An action movie lets an audience live an adventure vicariously through its hero; by contrast, every time a character in Locker steps into a setpiece, we beg them to just walk away.

The other interesting element here that makes The Hurt Locker different from most other action or war movies is the fact that there is no conventional plot or story arc. There is no face you get to conveniently attach the "bad guy" moniker to, and no ratcheting up of the action to help us know that things are coming to a conclusion. No, in this war, every single day of this company's tour could be its last. Your fate remains the same on your final day as it did two months prior: wholly uncertain.

One of Bigelow's greatest achievements with the film is the fact that, unlike most movies covering the war in Iraq, its stance is apolitical. There's definitely a message here (highlighted and hammered home a bit obviously by a quote in the opening frames), but it's not what you'd call a "message movie." For the soldiers portrayed here, politics are irrelevant. A ticking time bomb does not take sides; it obliterates all with equal prejudice. That's not to say the film lacks depth, because it's absolutely no stretch to see this movie (especially the final 15 minutes) as an allegory for our country's addiction to war.

No female has ever won an Academy Award for directing. If any one has ever had a shot, it's Bigelow. (Special note must also be given to the sound editing and sound design here. Oscars for these categories are typically awarded to big budget, bloated action flicks, but I think this year The Hurt Locker is going to give tripe like Transformers a run for its money.)

For more on The Hurt Locker:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Check out movie clips and more at the official movie site.

The trailer:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

#135: The Good Life


The Good Life
Written and Directed by Stephen Berra
Released November 4, 2008

Holy Film School 101, Batman.

I don't know why, but I cannot seem to resist watching movies set in my home state of Nebraska. At this point I should probably know better, since the movies -- with a few exceptions -- are typically horrible (if you happened to read my review of the Dave Foley disasterpiece California Dreaming, I touched briefly on this compulsion).

In all honesty, it wasn't the setting that drew me to this movie, but the appearance of Zooey Deschanel and the convenience of it streaming on Netflix.

Its title taken from Nebraska's state motto, The Good Life is writer/director Stephen Berra's cinematic and questionably unintentional manifestation of every jaded high school poet's secret diary. Berra creates a fictional Nebraska town (I guess this is supposed to be Lincoln?) that looks more like a bad part of Detroit, inhabited by one of the saddest fucking sacks of a character named Jason (played convincingly by Mark Webber).

Jason is basically a mutt of a puppy that gets kicked around before our very eyes for 100 minutes. His father tells him he's ugly, and the rest of the family barely pays him any mind. He gets harassed and punched in the face by the town bully (a believable, if cartoonish, performance by Nebraska native Chris Klein). He works two jobs, one at a run down movie theater that somehow survives screening movies to two people a night, and the other at a gas station where every single patron threatens or abuses him.

Deschanel appears here, as she does in most movies, as the beautiful and sexually aggressive dream girl whom would normally be unattainable if she weren't a complete writer's construct. Examine her catalogue of performances, from Gigantic to even The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, if you don't believe my claim that she has been officially typecast.

There is some question about her character's background and her sanity, until a completely unbelievable reveal late in the movie makes her character even more ridiculous. The chance encounter that enlightens Jason to her identity is the kind of coincidence that most teachers of creative writing must beat out of their adolescent students.

The plot itself can be boiled down to a singular thought that every whiny emo kid from any "small" town has had while toiling through Junior High: "These people don't get me, and I can't wait to get out of this town." But at no point in the film does Berra prove that it's the town that is holding this morose little mope-bag down. He shows us nothing to make us believe that Jason has squandered potential (beyond having Deschanel literally say it at one point), that he has an extraordinary mind or that he'd blossom under a different set of circumstances.

Sad to the point of being absurd, this shoe gazing wank fest's most redeeming qualities are its consistency of tone (DOUR) and some quality lighting and photography. Berra has definitely made a good looking film that never visually slips into the amateurish and pretentious traps of his script where he asks the audience to understand barely touched upon plot points and how they might affect our character. For example: we don't wind up understanding why he hates football, or even the city in which he lives; we are simply told how he feels.

The movie even manages to make the ultimate mistake by having its main character, in a bit of narration, LITERALLY SPELL OUT WHAT HAS HAPPENED. Here, read this and try not to roll your eyes:

But it's not pain. It's laughing with your friend at a time when you shouldn't. It's the sweat in your palms wanting to know someone you see and the pit in your stomach when they actually see you. It's being touched by hands that aren't your own. It's the thrill of an escape that almost wasn't. It's the embarrassment you feel, naked for the first time. It's helping a friend find something they lost. It's a smile, a joke, a song. It's what someone does that they like doing. It's what someone does that they like remembering. It's the thinking of things you may never do and the doing of things you may never have thought. It's the road ahead and the road behind. It's the first step and the last and every one in between, because they all make up the good life.

Holy shit, right? To make matters even worse, this monologue plays over the exact scenes from the movie the character is referring to, as if we've finally decoded some secret of the universe. Ugh.

The Good Life opens with a tracking shot that follows Jason to what seems like the site of his suicide. As the movie flashes back to the events leading up to this moment and you witness the pinnacle of hopelessness that has become his life, you'll almost find yourself hoping that the kid really goes through with it. It's the only ending that makes sense after this movie spends so much time staring at its own shoes.

Unfortunately, Berra doesn't let Jason or his audience so easily off the hook, giving us a completely unbelievable last minute reversal of fortune that rings even more hollow than anything preceding it.

I think Film Threat's review says it best in the opening sentence of their review:

"Honestly, the fact that I didn’t shoot myself in the face after this movie amazes me."

For more on The Good Life:
- Movie information at IMDB
and very little at Wikipedia.

The trailer:

Monday, August 10, 2009

#134: Funny People


Funny People
Written and Directed by Judd Apatow
Released July 31, 2009

Have you ever met, or known, a stand-up comic? They're certainly a strange lot. I've known or befriended a few in my day, and the first thing that you realize after spending some time with a comedian is that they just aren't funny. I knew a guy who was pretty uncomfortable to be around in social situations. He was loud, kind of rude and never seemed to be able to engage anyone on a personal level because it always seemed like he was trying out material.

Onstage, when the time came to ply his craft, he was actually pretty good at what he did. Shit, the dude even won Star Search. But he was living proof that funny people, for the most part, aren't funny.

The same can be said for Judd Apatow's new overlong and heavy-handed film about comedy. It's weird, socially awkward and really just not all that funny.

Funny People was not helped by a confusing ad campaign that not only misrepresented what the audience was getting into (is it a comedy? is it a drama?), but totally GAVE AWAY THE FUCKING MAJOR PLOT POINT that Adam Sandler's character beats the potentially fatal disease that forces him to examine his life in the first place.

I'm sure you already know by now, but Sandler plays a version of himself named George Simmons, a once-hilarious stand-up comic who has gone soft over the years by whoring himself out doing terrible concept comedy films about mermaids and dudes who have been turned into babies. Simmons professional life has gone the way of Eddie Murphy and, well, Adam Sandler, raking in piles of money at the expense of his credibility.

Upon receiving the news of his imminent demise, Simmons is inspired to get back to his roots in stand-up. After a disastrous surprise visit to a comedy club, Simmons meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming (and fairly unfunny) comic whom he hires as his assistant and joke writer.

This was all Apatow needed for a plot, but he takes what could have been an informative and incisive look at comedy, fame and celebrity (shit, maybe even mortality) as seen from behind the curtain and instead totally fucks up his entire movie by throwing in a ridiculous third act attempt by George to reconnect with The One That Got Away.

It's with this turn of events that Funny People essentially becomes Dicks, with virtually no character becoming likable or doing anything that isn't completely selfish or despicable. We're presumably supposed to aim our laughter in the direction of Eric Bana's cheating husband Clarke, but by the end of the movie, you'll have more sympathy for him than any of the other characters.

It's an unfortunate thing that Apatow decided to go this direction, because the first half of the movie -- while still mostly devoid of big laughs -- is still fairly interesting, ambitious and handled pretty well. Rogen pulls of a friendlier than usual character, and Sandler -- while a bit detached -- has the dramatic chops to bring Simmons' angst to life. Funny People certainly looks a thousand times better than any Apatow movie that has come before, primarily due to cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. Paired with tighter editing that does away with the typical Apatow-ian element that makes it feel like all the dialogue is being improvised, it's definitely the director's most "professional" work.

This tight editing is failed, however, by the movies absurdly long running time. Go see it with anyone you know... your best friend, your mother... and ask them when the movie is over which parts they would have left on the editing room floor. Chances are that the 20 to 30 minutes of footage they could do without might be different for each person, but each person's edit would more than likely result in a better film. Cut the ex-girlfriend, cut the James Taylor shit, cut the montage where George sings with his hired band. Hell, even cut the Eminem scene, probably the funniest scene in the movie but tonally stands out like a sore thumb. Give any jerkoff a pair of scissors and access to the negative and you'll probably wind up with a less boring film.

I realize my review sounds a little more harsh than I may have intended. It's not that I hated Funny People, it's just that I saw so much potential in it and was disappointed to see that potential squandered by the 90 minute mark. By going the direction he chose to go with his characters, Apatow winds up teaching them and his audience nothing about this world in which he has lived for the past twenty years. At best, the life lesson that George Simmons learns when all is said and done is essentially "I should be less of a prick."

For more on Funny People:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Check out the fake NBC homepage for Yo Teach!, the terrible sitcom that stars Jason Schwartzman's character. A similar fake page exists for the works of George Simmons.

The trailer can be found HERE.

Monday, May 25, 2009

#133: Terminator Salvation


Terminator Salvation
Written by John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris
Directed by McG
Released May 21, 2009

To paraphrase Ahhh-nuld from Total Recall, consider this a divorce.

Terminator Salvation sucks robo-cock.

Astoundingly, it's not entirely the fault of hack director Joseph McGinty Nichol, also known as "McG," or almost as frequently as "the bag o'douche who made the two Charlie's Angels movies."

No, for the most part, McG does a serviceable job here. The film has a definite aesthetic (washed out and grainy) and tone (dead serious) and moves at a steady pace that belies it's 2+ hour running time. The sound and special effects are decent (a few scenes, like the one where Christian Bale's John Connor jumps from the back of a plane into the ocean, don't work so well) and there are a couple of memorable set pieces scattered throughout.

Okay, so he's still probably to blame for a few missteps. The main one I want to harp on is the insistence on using call-backs or references to previous movies. Look, we're sitting here paying to watch the fourth installment of a series that really didn't need to exist after the first sequel. Some of us in the audience have even watched your spin-off TV show. We are FUCKING NERDS. We don't need a character saying "I'll be back" in every single movie. We definitely don't need to bring back that terrible Guns N' Roses song that didn't even belong in T2. If I'm sitting in the theater even after the turd that was the series' third movie, that means we're 4 films into this relationship and you can stop bringing up our first date.

Beyond that, the real disappointment here is in the writing, dialog and acting. I have to admit that my interest was piqued when I heard Bale had signed on. Not that dude hasn't made a few stinkers/cash grabs (anyone else remember him as the heavy in the Shaft remake?), but at least it was reassuring that the producers were possibly putting some thought into this endeavor. The addition of Helena Bonham Carter was the cherry on top.

Not so much. Bale punches the clock with a unmemorable performance that makes you half expect for part of his face to fall of and reveal the character to be a cyborg. Bonham Carter fares much worse as the "face" of Skynet. It blew me away when I read they filmed her performance over the course of 10 days, since it plays like she was given 10 minutes and was held against her will at gunpoint.

The script is laughable (one of my favorite moments is when a robot motorcycle launches an attack and a character yells "Moto-Terminators!") and full of insane coincidences like characters figuring out how to make a working radio signal at the precise moment that Connor is addressing them. There's even a mute kid who happens to have on hand the exact item needed at several crucial moments in the movie. I just spilled a ton of gasoline for a getaway and you just happened to have a road flare on hand? This kid is a walking Bat Utility Belt.

I think this thing is heading down the same path of George Lucas's recent Star Wars prequels: a long wait for very little return. My guess is that this series takes at least one to two more movies to get to the very boring conclusion of Kyle Reese finally getting sent back in time to the original Terminator. Six movies to finally show us a time machine.

Patton Oswalt has a great routine about how the Lucas prequels tell a story that we didn't even want. "I don't give a shit where the stuff I love comes from, I just love the stuff I love!"

For more on Terminator: Salvation:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- The trailer can be found here.

Sexman disagrees with me:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

#132: The Wrestler


The Wrestler
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Released 2008 (wide release January 2009)

Look, what can I possibly write that hasn't already been written about Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler? It's the role of a lifetime for the actor, and not a second goes by where Rourke isn't 100% sincere and believable.

The hype is true; The Wrestler is his glorious comeback (though, for my money, I'd actually place Rourke's comeback a few years earlier with his work as Marv in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City). Everything else that happens in the movie is incidental to his work. He could be fishing or reading the phone book, who gives a shit? You won't be able to take your eyes off that surprisingly expressive slab of meat on Rourke's shoulders.

The real revelation that everyone seems to be ignoring is a real stunner: that Darren Aronofsky can make a down-to-Earth, gritty and realistic film that doesn't feel as ponderous as a bad acid trip in a library of Philosophy textbooks.

If you've ever tried to sit through The Fountain like I tried a few weeks back, you know where I'm coming from. Even Aronofsky's finest hour as a filmmaker, Requiem for a Dream is an incredibly well made but emotionally taxing experience that few people could subject themselves to more than once, if at all.

He must have known full well that he was at the helm of the Mickey Rourke Show, because he goes incognito here and keeps the camera work handheld and -- from what I can tell -- digital. Considering the quick cuts and general business in his other work, his restraint here is impressive. Plus, it's pretty unbelievable that the same guy who made Requiem and Pi could make a scene that prominently features Ratt's "Round and Round" both poignant and romantic.

I enjoyed The Wrestler, but the movie as a whole is nothing compared to Rourke's performance. If you've ever seen a sports movie in your life, you'll be able to pick up the cues on where this is all heading for "The Ram." Tomei is okay here, though she isn't given much to work with. Evan Rachel Wood fares better with the few scenes she has as Rourke's distant daughter. Really though, the most flavor comes in scenes where Rourke mingles with actual wrestlers. The respect and love these guys have for each other behind the scenes really drive home why a battered old man could have such a hard time leaving the life that is destroying him.

For more on The Wrestler:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.

The trailer:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

#131: Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Released 2008

Last year saw the release of one of the most mesmerizing, haunting and unsettling films ever made about what it would be like to be loved by a vampire. And it had nothing to do with some veiled, Mormon, neutered vampire wish-fulfillment fantasy for undersexed middle-aged women.

Suck it, Twilight fans.

Much like Twilight, Let the Right One In is essentially the story of a member of the walking dead falling in love with a mortal human. What Twilight gets wrong is that this idea should be FUCKING TERRIFYING.

I will stop the Twilight comparisons right here, because Let the Right One In is working on such a higher level of atmosphere and storytelling (and let's not even get started comparing the acting) that the guilt by association factor could be crippling to any hesitant movie lovers reading this review.

Plus, the email and hate letters I'm going to get are going to be unbearable.

Anyway, Let the Right One In is a Swedish film, based on a 2004 Swedish novel, about a quiet and fairly odd 12 year old boy named Oskar. When Oskar isn't being picked on by the school bully or playing alone in the depressing courtyard of his apartment building, he's out back working his angst out by stabbing a tree with a knife, or secretly collecting a scrapbook of grisly local murders.

Those local murders start getting a lot more local with the appearance of a mysterious pair of new neighbors, a young girl and a doting old man. Oskar doesn't see much of them at first -- they keep the windows covered with cardboard, after all -- but he is soon joined on his nightly visits to the courtyard by a pale, somber young girl who may not be as young as she appears.

Director Tomas Alfredson has created a genre masterpiece here with a unique and subtly frightening film that somehow manages to evoke the undercurrents in The Omen and The Ice Storm. Its reach exceeds most horror movies, touching on themes of parental neglect, pedophilia and schoolyard retribution.

Everything about the movie is exquisite, from the cinematography to the icy soundtrack. I was only disappointed to learn after viewing the movie that the translated subtitles in the American release of the DVD were "dumbed down." Apparently, a recent re-release will fix this problem.

In addition to all of the perfect notes struck by Alfredson and his cast, there's a fantastic climax and a ending sequence that carries a massive sense of doom beneath its veneer of innocence. I can almost guarantee you that the upcoming American remake will change this and many other elements of Let the Right One In. Get over your fear of subtitles and check this version out before its too late.

For more on Let the Right One In:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- The official movie site (U.S.)
- Buy the DVD.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

#130: Punisher: War Zone


Punisher: War Zone
Directed by Lexi Alexander
Written by Nick Santora, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Released December 5, 2008

Or, Why I love my brother, Reason #447:

My brother called and woke me up this afternoon (hey, I work 13 hour night shifts) for the explicit purpose of convincing me to rent and watch Punisher: War Zone immediately. The chat went something like this truncated version:

RYAN: Okay, I don't know if you're busy today, but you have to watch (the movie) as soon as possible. It may be one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

ME: Whoah, that's a bold statement. Worse than Ghost Ship?!

RYAN: WAY worse than Ghost Ship! (For some reason, Ghost Ship has become one of our gold standard bearers for the running title of Best Worst Movie Ever Made.) It may be the most violent movie I've ever seen, too.

ME: What? More violent than Rambo?

RYAN: It is at least AS violent as Rambo. Seriously, you've got to see this movie.

RYAN's WIFE, JAMIE: Why are you telling him to watch it if it's such a bad movie?

RYAN: Because bad movies are fucking awesome! Why doesn't anyone else get this concept?!

My brother was so enthused about the inherent badness of this new installment of The Punisher (aside from the terrible 2004 movie starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta, there was also an even worse flick from 1989 which starred Dolph Lundgren)that I immediately sought it out on the Xbox live video marketplace, plunked down my bucks and took in the awful glory.

How do they keep fucking up The Punisher so badly? It's not like it's a hard story to tell: war veteran Frank Castle and his family witness a mob hit and are executed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Papa Castle survives, goes underground and becomes an armed-to-the-teeth vigilante.

Fairly simple. Action Movie 101 kind of stuff. And yet here we are, 3 movies down and each one a ridiculous failure. The primary issue in all three films has been the miscasting of pivotal roles, namely the titular crime fighter. Thomas Jane probably got the character closest to realization, despite the fact that the dude is probably a hair shy of 5 feet tall.

This time around, Castle is played incredibly dead-eyed and charisma-free by Ray Stevenson, so good in HBO's Rome and so, so boring here. Even more disappointing is the work of Dominic West as head baddie/mob boss Billy Russoti (who adopts the nickname Jigsaw after a comically violent clash with the Punisher early in the movie). West played Jimmy McNulty on another HBO series, the acclaimed The Wire and rightfully became that show's shaky moral -- or amoral -- center. West's performance here is a massive disappointment, especially when you compare the believable accent he pulled off on The Wire to the Italian (more like SLIGHTalian) one he employs here.

For fans of laughably bad movies, this shitheap is a true gem of cinematic ineptitude. You might think, "What idiot wrote this piece of shit?" Here's how terrible Hollywood is: it took THREE idiots to write this piece of shit! It took three guys and a reference library of hundreds of Punisher comics to bounce around ideas before coming up with a final line of dialogue like, "Ugh, now I got brains all over me." I'd actually love to see a copy of the final draft, because I would really like to know if "cut to a montage of lots of guys loading lots of weapons" appears a dozen times on paper, or if all that garbage is just implied by the type of movie we're dealing with.

Did three guys all really collaborate and decide that having one of the bad guys menacingly say, "Yummy yummy yummy... in my tummy tummy tummy" was not actually hilarious? Or how about the part where Frank pulls an axe out of his buddy's chest, intoning, "Don't die on me!" Dude, your homey took 3 axe blows to the heart. He's going to die on you.

Oh, that reminds me about the violence! Wile E. Coyote would piss his ACME trousers if he saw some of the stuff that goes down here. At one point, Castle kicks a chair leg into someone's eye, and later on smashes a man's head like a melon with a single punch. He shoots a punk rock meth addict acrobat (I'm not making this up) out of the sky with a rocket launcher (I'm not making that up, either). After blowing off the kneecaps of one thug, he tosses him off a building, impales him on a fence, and then jumps off the roof to deliver a neck-breaking death blow with his foot.

It's actually pretty deplorable. That sound you just heard was Wile E. Coyote ingesting a stick of lit dynamite to try and forget it all.

Just totally fucking inept. At one point, Jigsaw and his gang tear apart a victim's home, searching for large sums of money in CD drawers and dish racks. These guys are terrorists aiding the annihilation of New York City, and yet here they are dicking around shooting the heads off stuffed animals like some astoundingly idiotic evil Daniel Stern from Home Alone.

The bad guys have so little instinct for self preservation that one literally shrugs when a grenade is rolled at his feet. He doesn't dive for safety or try to kick the grenade back. He just shrugs, as if he had been having some sort of existential crisis and just found his purpose in life with the delivery of said grenade.

Just awful. And yet, awesome.

I once dragged a buddy with me to see Deep Blue Sea, that shark movie with Samuel L. Jackson, simply to try and share the joy in schlock cinema that I had found with my brothers and friends back home. As we left the theater, he seemed shocked or dismayed.

"Wow," he said, embarrassed. "That was really bad."

"Fuck yeah it was," I replied. "Awesome."

For more on Punisher: War Zone:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Don't buy the DVD. I can think of tens of thousands of better things to do with that money. Maybe hunt down a few issues of the comics instead?

The trailer for Punisher: War Zone:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

#129: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by Gordon Dawson, Frank Kowalski and Sam Peckinpah
Released August 14, 1974

There's nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that's in it. Or you... or me.

From the disturbing Straw Dogs to the seedy The Getaway to his ultraviolent ode to the demise of the Old West, The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah's films have never been known to be packed with the sunny frivolity that puts dollar signs in the eyes of Hollywood executives.

And yet Peckinpah was, like almost all great directors, still beholden to the studio system. Never forget that movies cost money, and sometimes paying the paper can make a man do brutal, undignified things.

Coming not-so-hot on the trail of his 1973 box office bomb Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah unhinged and unencumbered by the need to please anyone but himself. You don't have to look hard to see the movie as a sort of twisted autobiography of Peckinpah and his dealings with producers, studio execs and film critics. Even Warren Oates, the film's lead actor, said that he fashioned his character and his appearance after the director.

Oates plays Bennie, a lowlife bartender in a tiny town in Mexico who is one day visited by a couple of henchmen employed by a powerful crime boss named El Jefe. The henchmen are looking for a man named Alfredo Garcia, who abandoned El Jefe's daughter while pregnant with his child. While the henchmen offer Bennie a substantial sum in return for the titular head of Mr. Garcia, he doesn't know that the real bounty is actually $1 million.

Bennie has his own secret: he knows that the Alfredo Garcia these henchmen are hunting for has actually been dead and buried for a month after a fatal car accident. Bennie and his wife (Garcia's former lover and the only person who knows where his body is buried) must get to -- and decapitate -- the body before knowledge of the accident gets out.

Bennie's macabre journey sets off a series of disasters and murders that sends the "protagonist" into a tragic downward trajectory. As Bennie slowly loses his sanity en route to the delivery of his package, one can't help but picture Peckinpah grinning behind the camera lens, perhaps thinking just how apt the metaphor of a man bringing his evil bosses their million dollar "baby" was to his situation.

The movie itself is something different. It moves at its own pace, meandering at times and shockingly abrupt in other moments, and is punctuated by a handful of bloody, jarring gunfights. Beware of any moments of idyllic beauty, because you know a guy like Peckinpah isn't just here to watch a pretty sunset. Look for a cameo from Kris Kristofferson as a creepy biker and potential rapist.

While surely not his finest hour (The Wild Bunch is heralded as a classic for a reason), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a unique and strange film with a layered, career-defining performance from Oates. The actor shares a couple of tender scenes with Isela Vega as his wife Elita. Without these few moments, the movie would have no heart to shatter in front of us.

Worth noting: the DVD doesn't have many bonus features, but it comes with an engrossing commentary track from a couple of Peckinpah scholars and friends which makes a second viewing worthwhile, especially in their debate about Peckinpah's controversial portrayal of women in his films.

For more on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD

The trailer for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#128: Hell in the Pacific


Hell in the Pacific
Directed by John Boorman
Written by Alexander Jacobs and Eric Bercovici (story by Reuben Bercovitch)
Released December 18, 1968

All you really need to know: Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin, together.

If you must know more, Marvin and Mifune play -- respectively -- a marooned American pilot and Japanese naval captain. As the movie begins, the two men awaken post-battle on a deserted island and must decide whether to kill their enemy or work with him to survive.

A movie plot really can't get much more simple than: 2 enemies stranded on a desert island.

The movie itself is pretty primal. Amidst some beautiful scenes of nature, there is very little spoken between the two characters (obviously, there is no shared language), and the first act plays out like a bit of real life "Tom and Jerry," with Marvin and Mifune tricking and chasing each other like cartoon characters.

It's not too much of a leap to see the basis of the movie itself as a sort of two-man play about culture and war. Here we have two men representing two very different worlds fighting over a finite amount of space and natural resources. What little communication they do have is violent or threatening, even though both men possess things the other needs to survive.

Of course, the literal translation in which two men from two warring factions see beyond what they've been taught and find the humanity inside of his enemy is just as powerful.

Hell in the Pacific may require a little patience from a viewer who is looking for a more gimmicky storyline. It brings to mind a movie like Cast Away, where you might spend 4 or 5 minutes just watching a character build a fire. For those willing to give Boorman time to set up his premise, you will be rewarded. Mifune and Marvin (both of whom actually fought on opposing sides in World War II) give believable transformations as their characters gradually begin to bond and work together. It's fun two watch these two very physical presences come clashing repeatedly into each other on this little stretch of beach.

One of the most interesting and effective choices made by Boorman in the making of Hell in the Pacific was the decision to not use subtitles, leaving most of the audience (whether Japanese or English-speaking) in the dark about the other character's thoughts, while essentially giving both audiences the same experience.

Boorman and the film's writers hide the movie's ultimate message -- that sometimes it may just be too late to begin treating each other like human beings -- in a shocking, abrupt climax that I obviously will refrain from spoiling for you here. Seeing the progress these characters have made, you may find the ending frustrating, but I doubt it's anything less than intentional.

For more on Hell in the Pacific:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD

The trailer for Hell in the Pacific:


Monday, March 9, 2009

#127: The Steel Helmet

(Image by Eric Skillman)

The Steel Helmet
Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
Released February 2, 1951

"If you die, I'll kill ya!"

The Steel Helmet, one of director Samuel Fuller's earliest films, was made on a shoestring budget over the course of 10 days. It's a little firecracker of a movie, bravely facing issues of violence, war and -- most importantly -- race, nearly a decade before the birth of the Civil Rights movement.

Remarkably, it's a Korean War film that was made and released a mere half year into the United States' war with Korea. This is no piece of pro-war propaganda; in fact, Fuller was subsequently investigated by the FBI (under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover) for possible Communist sympathies.

One of the primary reasons for Hoover's interest was the mention in Fuller's screenplay of the United States' practice of internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I'm sure his ire was also drawn from the complex questions about the dilemma of race in America through passages of dialog like the following exchange between a Korean P.O.W. and the African American medic tending to his wounds:

P.O.W.: I just don't understand you. You can't eat with them unless there's a war. Even then, it's difficult. Isn't that so?

Medic: That's right.

P.O.W.: You pay for ticket, but you even have to sit in the back of a public bus. Isn't that so?

Medic: That's right. One hundred years ago I couldn't even ride a bus. At least now I can sit in the back. Maybe in fifty years, I'll sit in the middle. Someday even up front. There's some things you just can't rush, buster.

If you ask me, that's pretty frigging progressive for a movie from 1951.

Of course, none of this progressive thinking would matter if there wasn't a good movie from which to hang all of these interesting ideas. The Steel Helmet does not fail to deliver with brutal action, humor and even touching friendship in its 83 minute running time.

I love a great entrance in a movie, and few introductions can top Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack crawling across the battlefield with his hands tied behind his back. He is aided by a young South Korean boy who has been orphaned by the conflict. The movie has barely begun before the race issue is breached, with Sgt. Zack barking at the boy, "You look more like a dog face than a gook!"

With the young boy refusing to leave his side, Zack nicknames him Short Round (yes, Indiana Jones fans) and they're off. Soon Zack stumbles into a platoon of survivors from other battles who bribe him into joining them. It's basically The Bad News Bears by way of the second half of Full Metal Jacket.

I'm not sure what compelled me to watch The Steel Helmet... perhaps the cool black and white photo of Evans on the DVD cover, grimacing in reaction to what turns out to be a crushing revelation. Having seen the movie, I feel lucky to have given it a shot. It's a powerful, groundbreaking and ballsy "independent" film with a great performance from Evans.

For more on The Steel Helmet:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.

Holy shit! Tarantino, Scorcese, Jim Jarmusch and Samuel Fuller talk about The Steel Helmet. If this doesn't sell you on the film, I give up:

Watchmen redux:

I realize that my review of Watchmen was already verbose, but as any true nerd knows, you don't just review something like a movie made from the Bible of comic book geeks -- you furiously dissect and redissect it. And then your girlfriend leaves you.

Recently I shared an email exchange with two friends that I felt touched on a few more areas that I wanted to hit. I guess you could consider this the "DVD commentary" for my previous post.

SPOILERS AHEAD. You've been warned.

Matt writes, after catching the movie in NYC last night:

Way-too serious. Not a whiff of satire. And absolutely no reason to care about any of it.

It felt like the movie achieved the perfect mimicry of the text that Synder was questing for, but at the expense of surrendering any real narrative tension. It only proves the subtlety of moviemaking: you can capture every frame of the comic and recreate every utterance, but still fail to tell the story.

Not to get carried away with the meta-criticism, but I honestly felt like I too was experiencing the world as Dr. Manhattan. As the plot plodded along faithfully (however truncated) with the text, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was just watching the preordained future unfold and going through the motions.

I respond:

I was conflicted because there's some interesting shit there, especially for a "superhero" movie.

Then I remember the hilariously bad sex scene in the sky (wow, completely inappropriate use of "Hallelujah") or the exclusion of the side characters that give the original book any sense of humanity, and I get angry again.

The squid thing is pissing me off waaaay more then I ever thought it would. When I had heard it had been changed, I was relieved because I thought that would be the audience killer. But now that I saw what they did instead, it's a fucking travesty that they cut it. I mean, you curb nuclear destruction by blowing up the 5 or 6 biggest cities in the world and pinning the blame on the very much American Dr. Manhattan? And this will stop war... how?

Besides, anyone who complains about a faked alien invasion after sitting through 2 hours and 30 minutes of THAT movie is just being ridiculous.

Brian, in his reply, knocks it out of the park:

I posit the following query as a representation of my movie going experience.

You're hanging out with a guy you've met on a couple of other occasions (lets call him Kaz). You're not sure how you feel about this dude. He's kind of a wearout, but he was sorta cool at least one other time you hung out. As it turns out, he is a huge Watchmen fan, and in fact won't stop talking about the legend behind the series. You've never read it, but have heard the story and think it sounds like something you might be into.

Upon hearing of your interest, Kaz becomes very serious to a point where you think he's fucking with you. Kaz stands in front of you and proceeds to read the entire book aloud in an austere and flat voice, while paying almost creepy reverence to any scene of violence.

Several hours later, when Kaz reaches the last panel, he closes the book, puts it back in its plastic dust cover and places it back on a stand in his shrine. In the meantime, you are looking for the shoe you kicked off at one point and wondering how a couple of beers with this guy turned into 3am. As you're gathering your things and your head, Kaz turns to you and says, "so now you understand."

What is your response?

Friday, March 6, 2009

#126: Watchmen


Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons)
Released March 6, 2009

I tried going in with my expectations low. I tried to leave the comic books out of my mind completely. I gave Zack Snyder my full attention, with my guard down. I really did.

While I'm a huge fan of the Watchmen comics (and the eventual "graphic novel" spawned from the 12 issue series), I can't say I'm one of the people who obsessed over them for the past two decades. While I grew up a comic book reader, I didn't read Watchmen until about 5 or 6 years ago, when I lived in Chicago and had a friend who ran a major comic book store out there. My buddy Eric, sympathetic to my poverty, would loan me piles of books to read in my infinite free time. The very first thing I had to read was Alan Moore's dark, satirical and groundbreaking work about a group of very flawed, very human (except one) masked crimefighters.

While the book was called "unfilmable" by its creator (and thousands of others), I always saw it as something that would make for an incredible miniseries. Director Terry Gilliam agreed when he decided to shelve his attempt at making the film in the late 1980s, saying the only way he could attempt it would be a minimum 5 hour series.

Snyder's Watchmen clocks in at under three hours, and considering his simplified version of the story, that running time could have easily been trimmed.

While I appreciate that Snyder remained faithful to a lot of the elements of the book, I think the movie suffers for that in certain ways. First and foremost, the movie should be able to stand on its own and make sense to anyone who has never read so much as a plot synopsis. I think it fails at this, and then goes on to fail the true fans of the book, as well.

For those who have never read the book, this part of the review is just for you:

Don't you think a movie that takes place in an alternate reality where masked vigilantes have been banned from America, a country that -- under the continued leadership of Richard Nixon, in his 5th term after winning the Vietnam war (with the help of the only true "super man" around) -- teeters on the edge of nuclear destruction, should seem kind of nutty, edgy and (in a nod to Gilliam) Brazil-ian?

At the very least, it should be fun. Now, when I say "fun," I don't mean it should be a barrel of laughs or an action packed rollercoaster ride. I just mean "entertaining." "Interesting." "Worth investing my 3 hours."

Watchmen is a god damn bore. I wouldn't have a problem with how talky the film gets if the "action" scenes that offset this dialogue weren't so generic and lifeless. One of Snyder's few directorial tricks has been his disappointing abuse of slow motion photography, especially during fight scenes. While this may have worked in 300 (a movie so in love with violence that it is basically pornography), it winds up making the movie drag more than the slow scenes. If given the choice between listening to hammy dialogue that moves the plot forward or lame fight scenes where a room full of faceless antagonists takes on a hero who is obviously going to beat every one of them with a single punch, I'll take dialogue, please.

Most of the performances barely register, and even some of the decent ones are hindered by the movie's insanely melodramatic tone (you've got Tricky Dick Nixon driving the United States to the brink of extinction... HAVE SOME FUN WITH IT and get fucking nutty) or just plain bad make-up (Nixon looks like shit, Carla Gugino looks even worse).

The only exception is Jackie Earl Haley's take on Rorshach, the scene stealing psychopath whose refusal to give up crime fighting is the engine that propels all the other characters to react. Haley is so good, riveting and believable in the role that you'll catch yourself wondering if he's acting in an entirely different movie. Seriously, Haley is once again killer in another role that proves that this Bad News Bear had been criminally ignored for far too long by Hollywood. Few actors are good enough to make a character this insane so sympathetic. There's a scene where Rorshach gets shouted at by his friend Dan Drieberg/the Nite Owl that is one of the most touching, humane moments in the entire brutal movie. There's a scene near the end, where Rorshach and Dr. Manhattan share a final moment, that will make you realize just how much of this entire film has been carried on Haley's shoulders.

For the non-believers, I can only hope this movie inspires you to check out the book, if only to answer the question, "What was the big deal about making this movie?"

Now, for the fans of the book, the rest of my review:

Look, fellow geeks. I understand how much you want this movie to be great. God forbid someone make an actually decent movie out of the work of Alan Moore, an incredibly talented writer who has been dealt nothing but shit from Hollywood (in the form of turds like From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is easily one of the worst movies ever made).

Snyder should be given some credit for keeping so much of the source material intact. I mean, who would have thought that a studio would allow -- for example -- Dr. Manhattan to actually walk around completely nude?

For me, the biggest weakness of the movie is the fact that it plays things so straight. I understand why you would cut the Tales from the Black Freighter story-within-a-story, but that story is a huge chunk of the brilliance of the book. What's going on in that comic informs so much of the many subplots in the story. Plus, the Minutemen have been reduced to a few photos in the opening credits. It's like taking the footnotes out of a David Foster Wallace book. It may help tell the main story better, but you sure lose the heart.

And what's up with Bubastis in this movie? Why even have the cat in the movie if you're going to change the ending and not even discuss the genetic engineering that lead to the finale of the book? There's no mention of where this crazy lynx comes from. . . it's like it's just there to please us geeks.

Originally, I could also understand why the "giant squid" was cut. But now that I have sat through this unforgiveably boring adaptation, I have to say that this thing was screaming for an ending like the giant squid. Even if you alienate some of your audience, it would have made for an infinitely more memorable ending than the one we've got here. Kudos to Snyder for at least having the balls to kill a few million people, but turning the smartest man on Earth into a lame ass mad bomber? Snore.

The more I think about the squid, though, the more I'm bothered by it not being there. Moore could not have created a more poignant and accidentally pertinent metaphor for our current times than his squid that destroys New York. Ozymandias decides to distract the superpowers from their nuclear war and unite them against a "common enemy" by creating a false alien attack on a major city. Any 9/11 conspiracy theorist would shit their bed with the conclusions one could draw!

I can already hear angry fanboys sharpening their knives for their next attack. I wanted this movie to be great just as much as any of you guys. The book is biting, incisive and like nothing I had ever read. It creates its own world, parallel to ours but with just enough creative licensce to seem like another universe. It's serious, but it doesn't take itself too seriously (see, I don't know, the giant fucking squid for further proof). The movie, for me, does not maintain this vibe at all, creating a world that seems much like ours, just a lot more oppressive and with much more rain.

Shit, when I see trailers online, I still get excited to see the movie. It's like I wanted this so much that I feel like it could still be good, regardless of my knowledge of the truth.

I have read a few blurbs that mention Snyder may assemble a full Director's Cut version of Watchmen that brings back in deleted scenes and the Tales from the Black Freighter story. I'd be willing to scrap this review and give that version a second chance.

As it stands now, Snyder's movie (to paraphrase the book) is just a bunch of photographs of lifeless stars.

For more on Watchmen:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official movie site
- Learn more about the comic books. Your time would be much better spent reading those. Hell, even reading the Wiki entry about the books is much more entertaining than the movie.

The Watchmen trailer:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

#125: Man on Wire


Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
Released August 1, 2008 (U.K.)

"If I died, what a beautiful death... to die in the exercise of your passion!"

Man on Wire is essentially a documentary presented as a sort of historical crime film. It tells the story of one of the greatest crimes ever conceived... and yet a crime which hurt absolutely no one and even helped illuminate the beauty of the crime scene.

That crime? The crime of tightrope walking, of course.

In 1974, tightrope walker/acrobat/larger-than-life personality Philippe Petit and his team of assembled collaborators sneaked into the World Trade Center towers and installed a tightrope that stretched the 200 foot distance between the buildings. How they pulled of their heist is at the heart of Man on Wire.

Rightfully awarded an Oscar the other night, the documentary tells the story of how Petit first came across drawings of the World Trade Center, years before they were fully constructed, and immediately knew his fate was to walk between the 1300 foot tall buildings. It was lucky for Petit that he had a magnetic, determined and charismatic personality -- not only because it attracted a (fairly) faithful team of co-conspirators but also because it kept him for doing any significant jail time. These days, a stunt like this would get him thrown into Guantanamo.

Some viewers may see Petit's stunt as reckless or careless. Those of you who can step back and really appreciate this kind of moment where a human being does something no other human being has done before, you're going to love this movie. I will never, EVER know what it's like to have walked a thousand feet above New York City... to have laid down on my back on a cable half an inch wide and stared up at the sky, but thanks to Petit, I can respect and even covet the kind of insanity it would take to go there.

There's a lame joke here somewhere about getting my head out of the clouds. Oh, there it was.

The movie combines interviews with Petit and his multi-national crew of friends with footage of their preparation and wordless re-enactment scenes. I'm usually wary of any staged footage in documentaries, but it works perfectly here. The music is beautiful, the interview subjects are expressive and interesting and the photos/footage of Petit in action is riveting.

Man on Wire earns extra points for never discussing the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. You won't be able to help but think about that day as you watch the movie, but it just makes Petit's love and knowledge of the buildings (he makes a wooden replica of the two rooftops as part of his meticulous planning) and his feat that much more bittersweet knowing what we know now.


For more on Man on Wire:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official movie site

The Man on Wire trailer:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

#124: Miller's Crossing


Miller's Crossing
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (inspired by Dashiell Hammett's "The Glass Key")
Released October 1990

"If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?"

I have a long standing tradition of watching a favorite movie for my birthday (the 33rd of which came and went a couple of weeks ago). Almost all of my birthdays were based around movies when I was growing up. When you live in Nebraska and it's the dead of winter, you really don't have many other options for a birthday. The arcades in town were either totally seedy or owned by the PTL (Omaha's Family Fun Center, pretty much the only game in town these days, had "Praise the Lord" engraved on each of their tokens).

Thanks to Netflix finally streaming into my home, I had about 500 movies at my fingertips. Instead, I went to my DVD rack and grabbed one of my absolute favorite movies: the Coen Brothers' flawless Miller's Crossing.

To anyone who may have known me in college, I can already sense the eye-rolling coming from your direction.

For the rest of you, that would be because I watched this movie dozens of times in my 4 years slugging away at my first degree. If you ever imbibed with me at my apartment or in my dorm room, I made you watch this movie.

I wish I could make the whole world watch this movie. I almost want to stop writing this review to wait for all of you to watch it, then come back and discuss things without having to worry about spoiling anything for you.

Miller's Crossing is, in a way, a mob noir movie. Since we're talking about the Coen brothers here, this is a mob story in the same way that The Big Lebowski is a detective story: there's a genre at the root, but everything around it is kind of crazy and kind of special.

Gabriel Byrne gets an actor's dream role in Tom Reagan, the trusted adviser to a powerful mob boss (Albert Finney... just fucking killing it here) around the time of Prohibition. The movie opens with Finney's Leo O'Bannon hearing a proposal from rival mobster Johnny Caspar (another fantastic role, owned by sweaty, scenery chewing Jon Polito), in which Caspar spells out the most basic plot of the entire movie in three words.

"Friendship. Character. Ethics."

After offending Caspar (and disregarding Tom's advice) and sending him on his way, Leo and his newly spurned adviser set up their whole relationship and the battleground for the small war that follows. You'll have to watch the movie a second time, with the story under your belt, to really see how subtly telling Gabriel Byrne's acting is here. Five minutes go by and you're so hypnotized that you never notice there was no opening title or credits.

Enter the gorgeous score from the Coen's go-to composer Carter Burwell. It's impossible to believe that this is the same guy who created the insanity of the Raising Arizona score ("Wheeeeeeeeeee-eeeee-eeee-eeeeee...."). Making a movie score that doesn't overstep its bounds and force the viewer to understand the emotion behind a scene can't be an easy task, but that is achieved here. There's a sort of downer, defeated yet proud vibe to the music, and the movie would feel wrong without it there.

Damn it. Look. Just rent the thing.

You like John Turturro, right? He has never been better than here as the disloyal, distrustful Bernie Bernbaum. Remember how Marcia Gay Harden won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pollack? Well, they gave her that award 11 years late, because she deserved it for her fiery Verna. Seriously, she's an anti-heroine for the ages. Then there's J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, perhaps the most macho, menacing homosexual character in the history of filmdom.

I feel like I'm telling you about a sunset that is going down right over your shoulder. I could keep going on, or you could just turn around.

There's so much good dialogue (Byrne doesn't have a single wasted word), you'll want to live in an era where people said things like, "What's the rumpus?" or "He's giving me the high hat!" or "You's fancy pants, all 'a yas."

The way the thug says, "Jesus, Tom" after getting hit with the chair.

The part where the fat kid gets slapped.

"Well that's a penny you owe him!"

All three scenes at Miller's Crossing.

"If I'd have known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I'd have memorized the song of Solomon."

The scene where Leo smokes and listens to "Danny Boy."

Is Miller's Crossing the most criminally overlooked movie of our time? Perhaps.



Do it before the Oscars on Sunday, so you can remind yourself how often they get it wrong.

For more on Miller's Crossing:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

I'm only giving you the Main Title theme (with some movie stills) tonight. The trailer gives away too much:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Snippets: #120 - #123


Obviously, I've got some catching up to do around here.

Which brings me to a new thought, or one of my half dozen New Year's Resolutions. With my next semester just 8 days away, the thought that this one could be even worse than the last have me wondering how I'm really going to pull off watching at least one movie a day - adding up to about 15 to 20 hours a week - and writing about everything.

I'm still not ruling out the possibility of meeting my goal of documenting 365 movies this year. I'm just trying to be more realistic. So, from this day forward, this blog is going to be more of a long-term project, not to be completed when I reach the 365th flick. Who knows, maybe by movie #2,000, I'll actually be good at this reviewing thing.

Anyway, in attempt to clear up the clutter for the new year, I'm going to post a bunch of smaller reviews of films I've recently taken in. Some of these I may have even watched weeks or months ago, but was left uninspired or just too tired to even discuss.

#120: Dark Star
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon
Released February 9, 1979 (West Germany)

I added this one to my list after watching 2001 and finding out that Dark Star was not only supposedly a spoof of the Kubrick masterpiece, but also the first major film from director John Carpenter. As it turns out, Dark Star has only a few allusions to 2001, and calling the film itself a "major motion picture" is stretching the meaning of those words. Still, with a minuscule budget, Carpenter and O'Bannon got the attention they needed to further their careers (O'Bannon would go on to write Alien, using several plot points from Dark Star). It's a stoner space comedy with a few amusing moments. As a curiosity for fans of Carpenter, Dark Star is worth checking out. Fans of the band Pinback need no longer wonder where they got the band name, as it is the surname of O'Bannon's character in the movie.

#121: Postal
Directed by Uwe Boll
Written by Uwe Boll and Ryan C. Knight
Released October 18, 2007

Uwe Boll has been responsible for some of the worst movies ever made. I don't even think the previous sentence qualifies as an opinion, since it's indisputable. House of the Dead. BloodRayne. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. Boll's lovable German sense of humor is on full display in Postal, as he opens the film with two suicide bombers who have hijacked a plane and are about to crash it until they get into an argument about how many virgins they were promised in the afterlife. They decide to live, and just as they divert the plane's path to the Bahamas, the American passengers break into the cockpit and cause the plane to crash into a skyscraper. What's that? You're not laughing? Well get ready for 90 more minutes of idiotic shit.

Dave Foley, whom I thought had swam to his absolute depth in California Dreamin', shows up here as some sort of hippie guru, giving us a long and unpleasant gaze at his cock and taking a shit within moments of his character's introduction. Most of the plot revolves around the public's desire to buy some sort of doll that looks like a penis. This "joke" is so unsubtle that the name given these dolls is unsurprisingly "Crotchy Dolls." This is the kind of wit we're dealing with, people. At least the 9/11 bit was tasteless enough to warrant a response. The rest of this thing is just pathetic.

#122: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (based on the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Released December 25, 2008

I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a make-up or visual effects artist in the running for an Oscar this year, and then see your hopes dashed upon the rocks as you saw the mindblowing work on display in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Maybe next year, make-up geeks.

As for the movie itself, it's really good but a bit hard to love. Perhaps part of it is the emotional distance kept by director David Fincher, not exactly our most sentimental film makers. Of course, for people like me who cringe at many films' blatant attempts to get an audience to cry, this approach is actually kind of welcome. Still, there are little bits of corny sentimentality to be found (namely, the ridiculous presence of a hummingbird that annoys like that feather in Forrest Gump.

Since I'm mentioning Gump, I have to add that Button felt like the more likable but less ambitious cousin to that mushy slab of Conservative propaganda (Jenny's reward for protesting Vietnam = getting the AIDS, etc.). Frankly, Benjamin Button doesn't really do all that much. He gets laid here and there, makes more money working on a boat than anyone in history ever has, kinda fights in a war (but really, basically falls down and survives a major incident) and meets the love of his life.

Of course, with Fincher behind the wheel, the whole thing is exquisitely made and looks fantastic... it's just that the heart beating inside of it isn't doing enough to keep it, or us, alive. The blood is there, but it's the push that is lacking.

#123: Cat Dancers
Directed by Harris Fishman
Released December 18, 2008

I'm dying to reveal to you the double-twist tragedy that sends this documentary from being merely a portrayal of an eccentric entertainer named Ron Holiday, his wife Joy and their "partner" Chuck Lizza, into the stratosphere of weirdness. It's that twist that will have you talking and debating with your co-viewers, and it's that twist that would make this review infinitely more readable.

Sure, there's plenty of other bizarre material to attract you to Cat Dancers, mainly Ron's multiple wig and costume changes, paired with some of the insanely hilarious stuff that comes out of his mouth (watch, for example, his students' faces when he talks to them about soup made out of tiger penises).

As you watch Ron and his tales of near-stardom, you begin to realize that there's something dark on the way, a flickering and dying lightbulb at the end of his narcissistic tunnel-vision. When it finally does come, you'll come up with a hundred questions before the doc's end credits abruptly arrive. Fishman's failure to answer those questions may make your blood boil.