Monday, March 30, 2009


Here’s my problem with the majority of contemporary, big budget Hollywood movies: by the end, there is little to no mystery left. But, as a majority, American filmgoers don’t want to think. They want to go to a film, sit down, be entertained for two hours, then go on with the rest of their day.

Then there’s the other filmgoer. The type that wants to see a movie that asks questions, pushes limits and makes us think. A good movie can smoothly blend both of these elements (i.e. Slumdog Millionaire). But for the most part there is a specific divide in American film: the entertainer, and the thinker.

Tony Gilroy’s first film as a director, Michael Clayton was one of the few films to successfully mesh the two together, which cannot be said for his latest, Duplicity.

I had such high hopes for this film. Even the first hour or so is great. Two ex-spies fall for each other and form a plan to rip off two competing cosmetics companies. Their plan is intricate and unique, not to mention a blast to watch. But the joy of the film is in its flashbacks. It’s a real treat to witness Julia Roberts and Clive Owen partake in lavish trysts in exotic locations such as Dubai, Miami and Rome. The two flirt, trick and amuse one another in a way that is deliciously sexy.

But as the story begins to unfold, most of the surprises are discovered all too early. By the end of the film, there is hardly any mystery left at all, everything is sugarcoated so that the average Joe will get it. So I ask: where’s the mystery? Years from now, I’ll be having a conversation with someone and they’ll ask:

“Hey remember that movie with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen?”
“Yeah, Closer, that’s a great film.”
“No, no the one where they try to trip those people off.”
“Umm… oh yeah kind of, but not really.”

My point is that films that make you think, stay with you. When every single plot element is delivered with a nice little bow, the audience will forget about the film minutes after they leave. Duplicity can be great fun at times, and it isn’t too hard on the eyes either, given Robert Elswit’s brilliant cinematography (he won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood). But it doesn’t have an ounce of staying power. Which really is a shame. C+


Honestly, the only reason I saw this film was because of Roger Ebert’s four star review, and his boasting of the film as “one of the very best science fiction films I’ve ever seen.” Having read that, it can’t be that bad, right?

Well, yes and no. While Knowing isn’t as awful as some of Nicolas Cage’s recent films (Bangkok Dangerous, Next or The Wicker Man?), it doesn’t stand out among great films of the genre either.

Fifty years ago, students from an elementary school were asked to make a drawing that will be put into a time capsule and opened five decades later. One creepy little girl scribbles numbers on her piece of paper. Fifty years later the capsule is unveiled and each student gets one piece of paper. Nicolas Cage’s son just happens to get the numbered paper. Coincidence?

That will prove to be the entire point of the film. Do things happen for a reason (determinism) or does “shit just happen” as Cage says to his MIT pupils. It doesn’t take long for Cage to find a pattern in the numbers that relates to 9/11 and in one long night he manages to pick apart every number on the sheet. Basically, each set of numbers describes a major disaster in the world over the past 50 years. The date first, then the amount of people that died. Problem is, a few sets predict that there are some more disasters to come.

It’s a gimmicky concept, one that I was willing to go along with. And as things started to get stranger with the appearance of several trench coat wearing, blonde haired, pale skinned, creepers in the night, I was kind of digging it. Then come the effects. We get to witness two very cool, very awesome disaster sequences (one involving a plane, the other a metro car) that are incredibly thrilling. Director Alex Proyas uses long, albeit CGI, camera shots to show the aftermath of brutality. It pays off.

The main problem here is Cage. When you look at his career, it’s astonishing how many times he’s gone up and down. He delivered a revelatory, Oscar winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas which remains the most accurate portrayal of alcoholism I’ve seen in film. We’ve seen him brilliant in a duel role in Adaptation., good in Matchstick Men, The Weather Man, and World Trade Center, decent in some earlier action roles like The Rock and Face/Off, then just downright awful in his latest slew of action garbage. It appears he likes to cash big checks more than delivering solid performances. His role in this film is extremely unconvincing (very poor written dialogue doesn’t help), but even the likes of Rose Byrne (a terrific, underrated actress) can’t step Cage’s game up.

So, is Knowing worth seeing? Sure. The concept is decent, the action sequences are badass, and I promise you’ll enjoy the end. One of the last shots in the film is a sweeping view of New York City as you’ve never seen. It’s worth the price of admission. B-

Note: One of Cage’s next roles is in Werner Herzog’s new film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and I’m rooting for a good Cage performance, I really am.

The Last House on the Left

Here’s my problem with the majority of contemporary, big budget Hollywood horror movies: they go for too much snuff, too much gore, just too… much. Note to future filmmakers: when you stab a person in the heart with a very large kitchen knife, they will die. They will not get up and fight back for four more minutes. They will fall to the ground and die. Got it?

In 1972 Wes Craven made his first feature, a grotesque exploitation flick ripped off from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring mixed in with a little bit of Charles Manson sadomasochism. It isn’t a well made film, but I respect it. For its shoe-string budget, and mostly limited gore.
Flash forward to present day and we get a god-awful adaptation of Craven’s film. Now with a much higher budget to increase the gore and ridiculousness. Despite a solid, yet misplaced, cast this Last House on the Left is a real dud.

The whole point of Bergman’s film was to propose an ultimate dilemma: is it okay to kill people that have just viciously raped and murdered your daughter? The father in that film thinks yes, but with hesitations. Once the deed is done, he begs God for forgiveness, not knowing if he will be able to atone for his actions.

Here, and in Craven’s flick, the parents actually seem to be enjoying their revenge. Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn, as the parents, have few reservations about mutilating these guys into oblivion. Which, for a doctor and is teacher wife, isn’t very believable.

After an escaped convict, his brother and his girlfriend, kidnap, kill and rape two girls, they wind up at the house of one of the girls they just assaulted. It doesn’t take long for things to click into place and hell to ensue. The brutality of the murders and rape of the girls is shown in such a gruesome, tasteless manner that a few people walked out of the theatre. But I get the point, the director wants it to be awful, so he can justify what the parents do later.

I recommend pondering that dilemma after watching Bergman’s classic film. Because after a viewing of Last House on the Left, you just won’t care.

I wonder if the director’s of these torture porn films actually sit and watch their films with a live audience. Don’t they understand that the scary stuff is what we don’t see coming, the things lurking behind the corner. The moments where our minds play tricks on us. It isn’t scary to see a man get his hand stuck in a garbage disposal, or to see a naked woman get shot in the head. That’s just pointless gore. As pointless as this film. D-

I Love You, Man

Judd Apatow has had something to do with most major comedies since his 40-Year-Old Virgin was released it 2005. Which is interesting given that I Love You, Man is a great comedy that Apatow had absolutely nothing to do with.

I Love You, Man is a prototype of a film in the Apatow era. Paul Rudd, in his best comedy performance to date, thankfully deviates from his rambling smartass to give us Peter; a sweet, sensitive guy happily devoted to his finance, Zooey (Rashida Jones).

But a problem soon emerges: Peter has no male friends to speak of, no best man to accompany him at the alter. Cue the man-date montage. After several hilarious occasions with a variety of losers (some gay, some squeaky voiced), he finds Sydney (Jason Segel). Sydney waffles through life with a carefree air. He’s Peter’s polar opposite. The two bond over tacos and beer, a fascination with the band Rush, and other amusing male pastimes. Of course, second act problems ensue, but they play runner-up to the smart humor.

Plot for these movies isn’t really the point, right? You care more about the cheeky one-liners and fart jokes (of which there are a few). So don’t worry, I Love You, Man is full of subtle comedy, and (big shocker) it’s fun for you and your date.

Criticism for Apatow’s comedies is usually that they are crude and chauvinistic. Basically, the male counter point to the chick-flick. I Love You, Man couldn’t be more different. Sure, the male buddy film won’t immediately attract females, but this is the perfect date movie. Most women will find it easy to relate to Peter. Also, the supporting female characters are written rather well. Jamie Pressly, as Zooey’s best friend, is fantastic. Her riffs with her husband (played with brute force by Jon Favreau) are the film’s comedic highlights.

Other supporting bits include hilarious turns by J.K. Simmons, Andy Samberg and Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno. So if you want to ditch the raunch and get a solid does of intelligent humor, I Love You, Man will work for you. B

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Class

My oh my, how American films could take a note from the French. This Oscar-nominated wonder has no drastic revelation in teaching dangerous minds, nor does it transform the poor kids from thugs to freedom writers, and it sure as hell doesn’t have dead poets standing on top of desks. Simply put: The Class is the best classroom film I’ve ever seen.

A few years ago, François Bégaudeau wrote an autobiographical novel based on his time as a middle school French teacher in a suburb outside of Paris. Now, Bégaudeau essentially plays himself in director Laurent Cantent’s brilliant film.

The Class plays like a documentary, which is a testament to its genuine “fly-on-the-wall” feel. As another year begins, François Marin (Bégaudeau) prepares himself for a new patch of little hellions. Throughout the film, we follow one class through its ups and downs. A believe me, you’re in for an emotional rollercoaster.

One of the great things I first liked about the film was how Marin was presented. He’s a noble teacher with a few years under his belt, he tries hard to teach things he clearly thinks aren’t necessary, but he’s far from a saint. Much of the movie shows how his frustration (and his fellow colleagues) can sometimes get the better of him. Whether it’s a sneer or a nasty remark, Marin isn’t immune of being annoyed.

As for the kids, they are a revelation in film acting. During the credits, I found out the most of the character’s names matched that of the real actor. So my first assumption was that these kids were playing exaggerated versions of themselves. I was wrong. They are all professional and rather remarkable actors. They’re never over the top, never unreal, but rather, totally authentic.

All of the film takes place within the school, and the majority of the scenes are constructed in Marin’s classroom. But as the extended classroom discussions continue, you’re never bored. The razor sharp dialogue, along with some incredible camera work, make you feel like you’re just another student.

There’s not enough time to get into each individual character, or to talk about the problems they incur, but each highlighted character is presented wonderfully. When they get their moment to shine, it is never overstated, it’s just simply real. Most people will enjoy the teachings Marin tries to embed in his pupils’ heads. Not for their scholastic merit, but because of how silly they seem. I couldn’t agree with Roger Ebert more, who in his review of the film said, “I never learned to diagram a sentence, yet I have made my living by writing and speaking. You learn a language by listening and speaking. You learn how to write by reading. It's not an abstraction.”

The Class has purpose. It makes you think on a few different points, all while being unrelentingly enjoyable. It justly won the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, which leaves just one question. I’ve now seen Waltz with Bashir and The Class, both of which were heavily favored to win the Oscar last month for best foreign film. But in the night’s biggest upset, a movie no one ever heard of stole the prize. So the question is: what the hell is this Departures movie? As for The Class: A+


Gomorra is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Imagine starting a book 20 pages in, or picking up on a TV show during its second season, or coming into a conversation a few minutes late… that’s Gomorra. It’s been tried before, giving a film such a rugged authenticity that the audience has to compete to catch up, and it usually falters. However, director Matteo Garrone’s bold experiment soars cinematic wonders.

It’s true, though, trying to figure out just what the hell is going on isn’t very easy. After the film opens with a very Sopranos-friendly bang, we’re stuck right in the middle of the Italian mob underworld. But Scarface this is not. Gomorra presents the nitty gritty of a deeply unglamorous way of life.

The film plays like an extended one act film. There’s never any conflict or resolution. The characters live in a constant state of conflict and resolve what little they can as they go. There’s the simple money-man who delivers funds to widows of mob men. The middle-man boss who does the grunt work, the two vigilante kids who want to rule the world a la Tony Montana, the kid who tries not to get sucked in, and round and round.

Garrone isn’t interested in giving you backstories or explanations, he literally dumps you right in the middle of the modernly grotesque apartment structure where all the dirty deeds go down.
Once you settle in and catch up as best you can, you’re in for one hell of a wild ride. Unlike most American mob films, the violence in this Italian gem is never glamorized, even if a few of the characters try to make it look fun. Garrone understands their desire, which leads to their pathetic attempt to be gangsters.

This is a film that could benefit from multiple viewings. Knowing what to expect will eliminate some of the initial confusion. But even on the first time around, it’s impossible not to be shook.

I appreciated the film much more after I learned that it is based on a factual book written by a man who got as close as he could to the real Gomorra, took a lot of notes, and got the hell out of town. After he published the book, the Gomorra put a price on his head, which still remains. I hope he’s careful, or he may end up in the bucket of a bulldozer, riding off into the sunset. A

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


It’s rare for a fantasy film to grab me. There are exceptions, of course. The Dark Knight was a remarkable film for various reasons. Iron Man was entertaining as hell. And there are others, but that’s another story. The point is that although I don’t typically enjoy these films, I do give them a fair chance.

Having said that, I thought Watchmen was garbage. Long, boring and completely self indulgent. When the film ended, I didn’t devote one thought to what I had seen, instead I wished there was a way to get my near three hours back.

A friend summed up the movie well: when it’s on, it’s on; and when it’s off, it’s way off. That’s true. At its best, Watchmen is a pulse pounding, eyebrow raising spectacle. Its credit sequence is like nothing I’ve ever seen, re-writing history as it sees fit. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to that opening promise.

The movie, based on the beloved graphic novel that has reached über-cult status, is about a band of underappreciated superheroes who may or may not be getting picked off by some vengeful maniac. They live in 1985 America, Nixon is on his fifth term, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is a hair trigger away from jumping off.

As the characters are introduced, we discover that they have no supernatural powers, except Dr. Manhattan, who can pretty much do anything imaginable. All the other Watchmen just dress up in tacky costumes and when it is time, they kick some serious ass. But where does this ass kicking come from? We’ve seen no training, no working out, no nothing. A dorky, overweight scientist and a small hottie somehow manage to take down eight weapon-totting thugs? Huh?

The acting is so bad that most of the audience laughed at times that were meant to be serious. Jackie Earle Harley (brilliant in Little Children) is pretty convincing as Rorschach, a badass little psycho who can take anyone down. But what’s with the mask? I get the joke… the shifting ink blots that run over his face resemble that of a psychological Rorschach test, but how are the ink blots moving like that? Is the cloth mask made of some electrical device? I just didn’t get it.

Then there’s The Comedian. I’m not sure how director Zack Snyder wants us to perceive this atrocious man. He beats the shit out of a helpless woman before nearly raping her, shoots a very pregnant woman in the head, and commits other acts of ludicrous violence. Am I supposed to sympathize with this guy? Hate him? What?

Snyder’s last film was 300, a movie that had just as many fans as it did critics. I was the latter. I thought it was a contrived, over the top mess. But it’s safe to say, if you liked 300 you’ll like Watchmen.

And please, spare me the “if you read the novel you’d appreciate the film even more” bit. That’s total bullshit. Films are judge solely as what they are, films. If a book needs to be read before the viewing a film for maximum appreciation, then the entire book should be flashed on screen before the picture begins. I’ve seen hundreds of films without first reading the book they were based on, and loved them just the same. I saw Sin City several times before I read those graphic novels, and thought the movie was great from the start. In fact, I can’t wait for sequel. Not something I can say about Watchmen. D

Waltz with Bashir

Is it possible for an ending to completely win you over? By completely I mean not having enjoyed most of the movie until its final moments, then wind up fully appreciating it? If there was ever a film to bore me then suddenly grab me, here it is.

Having said that, most of my boredom was my own fault. I have a strict policy of knowing as little as possible going into a movie. I try not to watch and re-watch trailers, I don’t read reviews, I don’t pay attention to hype, and so on. So I literally knew next to nothing about this film. I knew it was animated war film, but that was it. What I plan to reveal won’t give anything away, but it may help to get a better understanding of what to expect.
It’s helpful to know that Waltz with Bashir is essentially an animated documentary, with an added narrative. Ali, an Israeli filmmaker begins getting flashes from memories he suppressed during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Throughout the film he goes to each of his fellow veterans and gets their take on what happened. While each of them speak, we see an event from the invasion through the eyes of the interviewed soldier.

Through his interviews, Ali begins remembering more and more from the invasion. And through the interviews, the film turns into an impressive, yet horrific, animated mashup. The images pulse with excitement as a rousing mix between 2 and 3-D. The final product is a marvelous and utterly original film spectacle.

In summing it up: director Ali Folman is the man that interviews the subjects. His fellow veterans really do play themselves. It’s their face, their voice, just animated. I didn’t figure this out until it was too late, and with only a few minutes left, I was trying to catch up with the rest of the film. If this was a fictional piece, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed it. But because Folman has the audacity to present this story in animation, it makes for very unique stuff.

Warning: the final images are so haunting in their reveal that they won’t escape your mind for days. By haunting, I don’t mean graphic, but something worse. What you see is reality. After that, you’ll thank Folman for presenting his film in animation. A-

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

For most of us, this 80-minute hidden indie wonder fell through the multiplex cracks before we got a chance to see it. You may’ve heard in passing that Michelle Williams was great in that “weird looking movie about a dog”, and you would’ve heard right.

Wendy and Lucy is a quiet, deliberately paced film about a desperate woman in desperate times. Wendy’s stuck in Oregon on a long journey to Alaska. Her car’s broken down, her funds are nearly depleted and her dog, Lucy, is hungry. She slowly watches as her life essentials begin to slip from under her.

Without going into details, this moving, hypnotic little film grabs you right away. In a lesser year, Williams would’ve gotten an Oscar nomination. To prepare for the role, Williams slept in her car for days, didn’t bathe for a week, and void herself of any makeup during the shoot. The method paid off, as this is some of the best acting she’s ever done. She’s totally convincing and completely engrossing.

Some people will be off-put by the HD hand-held look of the film. But it doesn’t just look gritty, it feels gritty. Besides… it’s only 80 minutes. Catch it on DVD. A-