Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Soloist

I could honestly care less whether or not a film is based on a true story. When I see a movie, I judge as a separate, narrative, individual film. I never judge a movie based on how accurately it portrays the facts of a real event or person. It amuses me how many people believe the disclaimer on a movie poster: BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Sometimes a movie can very well depict the real happenings of a life (Antwone Fisher), often a film takes several artistic liberties (JFK, Nixon), other times that disclaimer is complete bullshit (Hostel, Fargo, The Blair Witch Project). But in reality, I could care less.

Having said that, it makes no difference to me that The Soloist is based on the real relationship of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, and homeless schizophrenic genius Nathaniel Ayers Jr. The story itself is fascinating, how a guy stretching for a story literally stumbles upon a raggedy man plucking at his two-stringed violin. But in depicting that to the screen, it tends to falter a little.

Don’t blame the actors. Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx are both brilliant in their respective roles. Foxx does a good job with a tough role as the deeply conflicted Ayers. There are several scenes in which we hear the voices rumpling through his head, and Foxx is such a good actor that we actually think he’s hearing those voices. His character goes on exasperated Rain Man-like tirades that are not only convincing but appealing as well.

But the real show stopper here is Downey. In yet another great role (I can’t think of a bad one), Downey embodies his character. He never forces the tender moments, never stretches for that high-epitome that always happens in films that are “based on a true story”. Instead, Downey plays Lopez with restrained conviction. In short, he’s the best part of the movie.

Sadly, talented British director Joe Wright (Atonement) has a little trouble finding his narrative. There are several sequences in the film that feel misguided and overused. Take for example the extended scene in which wild flashes of colors fill the screen to the harmony of an orchestra. I understand what Wright is trying to do, showing us how Ayers visualizes music in bright, vast motions across a black background. But the sequence simply doesn’t fit, in fact, you’ll find it a convenient time to glance at your watch. There are other scenes too. One involving a CG tracking shot of birds flying (WOW!), another with Lopez’s editor (Catherine Keener) getting shitfaced in front of the Mayor at a fancy banquet (but why? Does her character have a drinking problem? I have no idea), and so on.

Maybe I’m being nitpicky, because honestly, the movie isn’t that bad. The performances will grab you and that is usually enough to enjoy yourself at the movies these days. But after boasting a killer trailer, I was just hoping for a little more. It’s clear why this was pushed back from its original, Oscar-friendly November 2008 release date. The studio probably watched it, saw that it wasn’t going to get any Oscar nominations and decided to conveniently release it in the worst possible season for movies. I’ll recommend the film for its good moments (the subtle ending being one), regardless if it’s based on a true story. B-

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Informers

Bret Easton Ellis, the hyper-stylized novelist behind such cult sensations as “American Psycho” and “The Rules of Attraction” gets yet another book-to-screen adaptation of his best novel yet, “The Informers”.

Movie adaptations of Ellis’ work either nail it or fall flat. To nail it, the filmmaker needs to capture Ellis’ highly satirical view of the world, which is typically set in ‘80s New York or LA. Mary Harron did a great job by not taking her American Psycho too seriously. Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction, however, faulted badly; it’s amusing, sure, but nowhere near as iconic as the novel.

Adapting “The Informers” wasn’t going to be easy. The book has about 13 different narratives, tons of tricky dialogue and two vampires who live among society as… vampires. But with Ellis’ voice, the book works well. On screen, it fails miserably.

It’s ‘80s LA, and we’re focused, for the most part, on the snobby rich elite. The movie intertwines several story lines, most of which have nothing to do with the other. Sure the film is full of Ellis’ trademark profane, coke infused dialogue, but it’s not enough to keep it afloat.

Not even the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, Chris Isaak and Brad Renfro (his last film), can save this meandering mess. It’s not that the actors are bad, but they just aren’t given anything to do. They talk in one-note monotone which quickly loses our attention. The fact that Ellis himself co-wrote the screenplay puzzles me even more.

The whole time I was watching the film, I was waiting for the vampires, thinking it would be very difficult to pull off. I was relieved, at first, when the vampire story wasn’t even incorporated into the film. But then I realized that that was the plot line I was looking most forward too. I guess the filmmakers thought those characters would take away from the film. That's a shame, because this would've been one case where vampires actually put life into something. D

Friday, April 24, 2009

State of Play

How do you trim a rather brilliant six-hour BBC miniseries into an American-friendly, two-hour seat filler? With lots of stars and plenty of zipping dialogue to tell your clichéd story.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) hired three writers (one being Tony Gilroy) to cut the fat out of the TV show and present us with a wildly entertaining political thriller.

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is investigating a Blackwater-type mercenary group, when his lead investigator (who he just happens to be having an affair with) dies in an apparent suicide. Collins’ old college roommate turned veteran DC journalist, Cal (Russell Crowe) gets assigned the story. With the help of Della (Rachel McAdams), a blogger working for the paper, the two form an unlikely Woodward and Bernstein type-investigation to blow the whole ordeal wide open.

Standard fare for the genre, but the wonder of the film is how it grabs you and barely let’s go. Barely. There are moments between Collins’ wife (Robin Wright Penn) and Cal that take away from the film entirely. Their old affair is spoken of too often even though it never has a lasting effect on us or the plot. Aside from that hiccup, State of Play is enthralling cinema.

If you’ve caught a look at the trailers, you can guess what the best part of the movie is. Helen Mirren, as the tell-it-like-it-is no bullshit editor, is remarkable in her every minute on screen. Listening to her bark orders is a real pleasure; there is no actress out there who can better deliver the line ‘fuck you very much’ with such a sense of uncanny wit.

The rest of the cast is reliably good, notably Jason Batemen, who has a cameo as a sleazy PR executive, and Ben Affleck who does small wonders of character work with a slight Philadelphia accent. But I would’ve loved to have seen the movie as first conceived. State of Play has been in limbo for several years. When first casting, Brad Pitt was set to play the journalist opposite Edward Norton as Collins. That would’ve been devilishly good.

I give credit to this film for dealing with an issue that no other movie has brought up. That’s the eminent notion of internet takeover of print journalism. Brilliantly exhausted on the final season of The Wire, State of Play pays tribute to real stories on real paper, ink smears and all. There’s a great line by McAdams when she says how people need to read this story while holding a paper, not online.

The film remains a constant nail biting experience that had me guessing until the end. And believe me, Macdonald respects his audience, and their intelligence. Be sure to watch the amusing sequence that begins the credits, even though it would’ve made a better opening to the film. B+

Note: Viola Davis shows up briefly in a throwaway role as a coroner. Davis has delivered astonishing, albeit brief, performances in Antwone Fisher, World Trade Center, Doubt, and more. So my question is: why can’t someone give this woman a lead role already?

Observe and Report

Imagine if Travis Bickle had an annoying, not too bright younger cousin. Now you have Ronnie Barnhardt, our mall-cop hero of the unapologetic Observe and Report.

Ronnie (Seth Rogen) is a loser and then some. He roams the halls of a mall as head of security, taking his job way too seriously. When a recurring flasher shows his goods to Ronnie’s sweetheart, ditzy makeup girl Brandi (Anna Faris), Ronnie is out for blood.

But don’t think of this as a revenge picture, more like a satirical character study of an immature, bi-polar man-child, trying to make up for his inadequacies. Ronnie barks orders at the coworkers who worship him, repeatedly tells the cops how they aren’t doing their jobs, hits kids in the head with skateboards, watches his drunk-ass mom hit on his friends, and so on.

You have to respect the movie on some level for never selling out. Brandi is a self-absorbed bitch; we know it and Ronnie knows it. But the movie never has any intention of transforming her. Even after she bangs another guy (after hooking up with Ronnie) the movie doesn’t try to make the bad girl grow a heart.

For most of the film, I smiled at the jokes and even laughed out loud a few times (mostly at Ronnie’s mom, played brilliantly by Celia Weston), but then it all went to hell. There is a shocking sequence when Ronnie’s best friend (Crash’s Michael Peña) shows his true colors. It’s an amusing drug-filled montage that goes way over the top, never letting the film regain itself. From that point on, the movie plays out much like Pineapple Express did: exasperated, unrealistic action scenes that seem misplaced in the movie we’ve been watching.

The performances are what you expect. Rogen plays what we’ve seen him play six times already, as does Faris. Ray Liotta has some fun as the lead detective on the case, even Danny McBride (star of director Jody Hill’s TV show Eastbound and Down) shows up for an amusing cameo. I won’t recommend the film it for its merit, God no, but I will admit it is a balls-out comedy that couldn’t care less about your feelings.

Oh, and I do mean balls out quite literally. C+

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Adventureland


The best movie experiences are the ones that deliver way beyond your expectations. I had no real interest in seeing this film (it was a tossup with Sunshine Cleaning), but damn am I glad I did. Reviews have been mixed, but Adventureland is 100% fun and earnest. Hilarious and heartfelt. It’s far more mature than the other Apatow-like counterpoints filling the screens.

It’s 1987. James (Jesse Eisenberg) most land a summer job to help pay for his Colombia grad school tuition in the fall. After a few failed prospects, James ends up at Adventureland, a barely functioning theme park that loops the same silly songs over and over (cue “Rock Me Amadeus”).

James soon finds his stride, coming to terms with his mindless job as a game worker, and meeting several unique people. Most exciting of which is Em (Kristen Stewart), a smart, mature girl who takes an instant liking to James. Other employees include a pipe-smoking intellectual with a soft heart, an annoying over caffeinated ball-buster, a ditsy hottie, a sexy handyman (a miscast Ryan Reynolds) and the park owners, played hilariously by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

Every time they are on screen, Hader and Wiig steal the show. Hader (one of the cops in Superbad) uses his simpleton characterization to grab lots of laughs. But it’s Wiig (the awkward E! marketing woman from Knocked Up) that’ll have you choking on laughs. It’s time for these two to get their own movie.

Writer/director Greg Mottola gets more mature with this autobiographical gem than he did with his Superbad. Honestly, I’ve been getting tired of all the dick jokes, the grotesque amount of alcohol consumption, the constant need to get laid that is taking over teenaged-themed film. In Adventureland, James handles his virginity with shy confidence, not obsessively dwelling on it.

I’ve heard some criticism that James should’ve been played by Michael Cera instead of Eisenberg. I couldn’t disagree more. While I find Cera funny, his acting is always the same, that awkward one note delivery without much emotion. James is a character with strong emotional arches, and Eisenberg fills those arches out well. Great in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale Eisenberg gives James more depth that I would’ve expected.

Kristen Stewart should be the “next big thing”. She’s the most talented actress her age, with a disarming maturity that ignites the screen. She brings her usual enigmatic flare to Em, a flawed mixed up girl. Stewart, great in Into the Wild should get her own starring role soon (I’m not counting Twilight, where the book acted as the main attraction).

Adventureland really impressed me. I laughed out loud, I was emotionally invested in the characters and I truly cared about what would happen. It has its faults, sure, but simply put: Adventureland is the best American film of 2009… so far. Enjoy the ride. A-

Fast and Furious

You know you’re living in a recession when Hollywood can’t even come up with original movie titles. “New Model. Original Parts” reads the tagline for this revamp of the smash 2001 hit The Fast and the Furious. It’s true. The people, plot, action, babes, guns, and terrible acting are all the same. It’s the new model people came to see.

Did the film gross $72.5 million in three days based on its plot? For what it’s worth, Dom (Vin Diesel) reteams with undercover FBI agent Brian (Paul Walker) to try and take down a Hispanic drug cartel. The reasons for their ridiculous and altogether implausible matchup aren’t important, you care about the cars and the half naked chicks, right? Don’t worry, director Justin Lin (Tokyo Drift aka The Fast and the Furious Part III) keeps your eyes fixated.

The action isn’t that bad. An opening heist involves a speeding gasoline tanker that is thrilling for a couple seconds, until the finale. And some of the car races are cool, save a pair of CGI-heavy underground tunnel chases in which it’s very difficult to tell what the hell is going on. Aside from the brain numbing effects, everything else is rather dismal.

The acting is so incredibly one-note (not to mention terribly delivered), that several audience members in the theatre were laughing out loud during “emotional” scenes. But that isn’t the point. What’s remarkable is how much money this film has made. The first film grossed $145 million, the second (without Diesel) made $127, the third (without any original stars) did $63. It’s safe to assume that Diesel+fast cars can fill the seats.

I hope you’re not sick of it yet, because these gear heads aren’t going away any time soon. Zoom zoom. D+

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

10 Second Reviews: What It Will Be

I've decided to make my 10 Second Reviews page more interactive.

Instead of posting brief reviews of random films, I've decided to write reviews for specific groups of films.

For example (and coming soon):
Reviews for Stanley Kubrick’s entire body of work
Reviews for every Best Picture winner (that I’ve seen to date)

And more of the sort…

Suggestions are encouraged. Want 10 Second Reviews of films by your favorite director? Favorite actor or actress? The AFI Top 100 films? Let me know.

withrowag@gmail.com

Cheers.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

the Directors: Stanley Kubrick

How do you compare Kubrick’s films? He never made a film in the same genre, yet each of his films is instantly recognizable as a Kubrick film. He always managed to fuse his impeccable eye for craft into each body of work.

In fact, Kubrick may have very well been the best filmmaker in terms of craft, that has ever lived. The sweeping cinematography, the classical music, the perfectly timed dialogue, etc. Kubrick’s films have a way of growing on you. In fact, I didn’t like several of these movies the first time I saw them. But in time, they manifest themselves as masterpieces.

Here are reviews of every Kubrick film available on DVD. Forgive my repetitiveness in the grading, but what can I say, I’m a sucker for Kubrickian cinema.

The Killing1956
It’s jumpy narrative was groundbreaking at the time, showing a horse track race heist from multiple points of view. The pacing is cunning and quick. It’s great fun. One problem: the spell-it-all-out-for-you narration. Don’t blame Kubrick, it was added in post-production against his will. A+

Interesting fact: This film influenced a geeky movie-store clerk to make a little film called Reservoir Dogs.


Paths of Glory1957
How many WWI movies have you seen? Let alone terrific ones. This breezily paced film (only 90 minutes) tells the story of a battle gone wrong, and how officers selfishly do anything to mend it. We start to notice Kubrick getting into form via several long, tracking shots. My favorite Kirk Douglas performance. I dare you not to be moved during the last scene. A

Interesting fact: Kubrick married the singing woman from that final scene.
Spartacus
1960
Kubrick was hired (per Douglas’s request) after the first director fought constantly with producers. While the film is a timeless epic, it does really feel like Kubrick. But, I could benefit from another viewing. B+
Interesting fact: Kubrick never really felt like this movie was completely his, after being the second director on the film.
Lolita
1962
This film does a great job of subtly hinting at its sexual undertones. Sultry dialogue and movements had to be hidden well in ’62, but it’s great fun trying to pick apart the metaphors and analogies. Peter Sellers (in his first great Kubrick role) easily steals the show as Clare Quilty, watching him is half the fun. A
Interesting fact: One of the few films Kubrick didn’t write, original novelist Vladimir Nabokov penned the screenplay, which Kubrick made several changes to.


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
1964
Kubrick’s first masterpiece. Possibly the best satire of all time. The cast is top notch, especially in the infamous war room scenes. But it’s Sellers that wins the prize. Playing three of the films main characters, it’s incredible that he didn’t win the Oscar for best actor. Shame shame shame. A

Interesting fact: Kubrick’s only real comedy. Which is, conincidentally, his most seen film.


2001: A Space Odyssey1968
Essential Kubrick. Hated when it was released, it’s now revered as one of the very best motion picture experiences of all time. Every aspect of this film bleeds perfection. It’s true, the film will test your patience, but this is time well spent. Kubrick won his only Oscar (for Special Visual Effects) on this film. Notice how those effects are just as good as most of the effects around today. Grows only better with time. Part of the fun is philosophizing what it all means. A timeless classic. A+

Interesting fact: After the world premiere, the reviews from critics were terrible across the board. After receiving such bad press, Kubrick nearly had a mental breakdown. But one lone reviewer deemed the film a classic, and single handedly got the ball rolling on its monumental success.


A Clockwork Orange1971
Vile, repulsive, corrupt, a total masterpiece. Not for the queasy, the film appalled viewers upon its release. But time has shown how strong its statements are, whether political or moral. It contains one of my favorite film endings ever, with a final shot you’re not likely to forget. A+
Interesting fact: At one point Kubrick actually threw his own screenplay out and shot the film with the original novel as his only source guide.

Barry Lyndon
1975
I just watched this for the first time (I was putting it off due to its 3 hour running time), but this is great, Kubrick stuff. Ryan O’Neal is fantastic as a man who tastes royalty and success, and dares not let it go. This may be the best looking of Kubrick’s films (winning four technical Oscars). It’s long tracking shots, its breathtaking stillness during the gunfights, the vivid colors, etc. It’s a fast three hours, check it out. A
Interesting fact: It took nearly a month to shoot the final gun draw.

The Shining1980
A movie that didn’t catch with me the first few times I saw it. I thought Nicholson was way over the top, the movie was too long, too boring, and so on. Time only proved me wrong. The best Stephen King adaptation ever, Kubrick brought a manic horror to a man gone mad. If you have the DVD, watch the ‘making of’ special feature, you’ll respect the film much more. Great, creepy stuff. And again, the fun is guessing what it all means. A

Interesting fact: Kubrick shot the scene when the hotel caretaker explains "shining" to Danny 148 times, the most takes ever shot for a single scene in film history.

Full Metal Jacket1987
The first half is widely regarded as the most accurate portrayal of boot camp ever captured on film. Regardless if that’s true or not, this is incredibly riveting (not to mention funny) stuff. R. Lee Ermey, as the Gunnery Sergeant from hell, delivers one of cinema’s most remembered characters. The second half of the film, the Vietnam segment, is usually overshadowed by the first. But it certainly isn’t less provocative. The final reveal, when we discover the identity of the lone sniper, remains shocking. A

Interesting fact: Ermey was a real US Marine Core Drill Instructor.


Eyes Wide Shut1999
Kubrick took several years developing what would turn into his final film. Real life married couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise signed open contracts and filmed the movie over the course of three years. Most critics didn’t feel that this film lived up to Kubrick’s other work, but I couldn’t disagree more. The haunting music, the perfect cinematography, the slow reveal of a world most of us have never heard of. Sure, Cruise is a little miscast, but he certainly doesn’t ruin the film. I’ve long considered this my second favorite Kubrick film (behind 2001), and can watch it over and over. It’s hypnotic smoothness makes it nearly impossible to turn off. The film contains one of my very favorite last lines ever. A+


Interesting fact: That’s not really NYC, Kubrick spent years building soundstages in England to recreate downtown Manhattan.