Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kick-Ass

I get the whole making-fun-of-comic-book-heroes-then-becoming-one-yourself bit. It’s all a little bit cheeky and overused. If done right, watching a scene where characters talk about other movies can be fascinating (as Clooney and Lopez did in Out of Sight). But if done poorly, as the title character in Kick-Ass and his lame-ass friends demonstrate, then it reminds us that we are… watching a movie. Which seems to miss the whole point entirely.

A dorky high school kid (Aaron Johnson) wants nothing more than to be respected and get laid. He manages to do both after dressing up in a wet suit, calling himself Kick-Ass and becoming a viral sensation on YouTube.

He goes rouge for a little while, actually getting his ass-kicked a few times, before meeting tiny, ferocious tween Hit-Girl (Chloe Mortez) whose character provides the film with its best and worst moments. Everything that comes out of Mortez’s mouth is a gas. Seriously, how can you not laugh at a purple-haired 13-year-old telling a bunch of thugs off with the line, “Okay you cunts, let's see what you can do now”?

But as the overly long film progresses, Hit-Girl’s antics become more troubling. Hit-Girl, along with her daddy superhero, appropriately dubbed Big Daddy, and even more appropriately played by Nicolas Cage, are the real ass kickers in this flick. The gruesome violence they leash out rivals anything The Bride cooked up in the Kill Bill films. But there’s the problem.

During the climatic good-vs-evil fight scene, Hit-Girl battles it out with a local crime boss (the very talented, soon to be well-known Mark Strong). During the fight, Hit-Girl is punched, kicked, thrown, shot at, bloodied up, and beaten down every which way. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it just isn’t very amusing to watch a 13-year-old girl get the shit kicked out of her for entertainment purposes.

Director Matthew Vaughn did wonders with Layer Cake, but in Kick-Ass he could exercise a little tact. Is it a contradiction to enjoy watching a kid curse profanely with each line of dialogue but be repulsed by the violence that comes her way? Possibly. But oh well. D+

Thursday, April 15, 2010

the Directors: Martin Scorsese

What kind of intro can possibly do this director justice? Looking at his body of work speaks for itself. He’s responsible for the best film of the ‘70s (Taxi Driver), the ‘80s (Raging Bull) and nearly the ‘90s (GoodFellas).

But he doesn’t always hit. Which is why I think he’s an appropriate subject to review. His new action/suspense/horror thriller Shutter Island is fresh off the boat, so, let’s talk us some Marty.

(Note: any loyal Scorsese buff knows that he makes just as many documentaries as fictional films. Here, I'm only focusing on his narrative pictures.)

Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1967)

Raw. Real, real raw. The movie has the stamp of a first-time filmmaker, but it also has the mark of someone with natural talent. Harvey Keitel subtly simmers, in a great introductory role to American cinema. If you’re a Scorsese fan, this is definitely worth checking out. Otherwise, you probably won’t need to bother. B+

Interesting Fact: Keitel and Zina Bethune ad-libbed several of their scenes, including their bravado, extended conversation about John Ford’s The Searchers.

Boxcar Bertha 1972

The grindhouse exploitation counterpoint to Bonnie and Clyde. I give it credit for its frank depiction of race relations in the Deep South. But the movie is pretty run of the mill. B-

Interesting fact: Once Producer Roger Corman saw the film, he told Scorsese to make something more personal. The result…

Mean Streets (1973)

The one that started it all. Not only did Scorsese assert himself as a serious big-time player in the film world, he created the most gritty mob movie in years. This movie may be most remembered for starting the Scorsese/De Niro partnership. The fresh cast, off-the-cuff dialogue, boomin’ soundtrack and startling resolution make this a completely unmissable, compulsively re-watchable, essential Scorsese flick. A+

Interesting Fact: The introduction of De Niro’s character, Johnny Boy, in this film is often regarded as one of the best character introductions in film history.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taking a break from the mean streets, Scorsese ventured out with a mother-son road movie. Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for her commanding role as the money-deprived Alice. It’s a cute little movie, but honestly doesn’t have much lasting power. However, it’s important to note that this was Scorsese’s first character study, a genre he would soon immortalize. B

Interesting Fact: Recognize Alice’s son’s friend? That’s a very very young Jodie Foster.

Taxi Driver (1976)

When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I tell them Taxi Driver. This film is everything a great movie should be. The tightly angled cinematography, the perfect jazzy score (by Psycho’s Bernard Hermann), the jolty editing, the ferocious acting; it’s all here. In a starmaking role, Robert De Niro embodies Travis Bickle in a way rarely captured on film. We are not, for a single frame, watching an actor. We are watching a man slowly fade into the depths of his own isolation, losing his grip on reality. If people thought Mean Streets was a one-hit wonder, they ate their words after Taxi Driver. A+

Interesting Fact: In one scene, Scorsese was filming on the floor, shooting up at De Niro, telling him to “keep saying stuff, keep talking.” That’s how the “You talkin’ to me” scene was born.

New York New York (1977)

I hate to say it, but this flick just ain’t that good. It’s overlong, overacted, overstylized; just plain overdone. Liza Minnelli isn’t all too blame, sadly, De Niro contributes as well. At three hours, this movie could easily be cut by half its running time. No surprise that this was a critical and commercial disaster. It is odd though that Scorsese faulted so badly between his two best films. D+

Interesting Fact: Scorsese fell into deep, hospitalized depression after this film turned out to be a catastrophe. His good friend Robert De Niro, came to visit him in the hospital. De Niro had a book with him, he told Scorsese that they needed to turn the book into a movie. The result…

Raging Bull (1980)

De Niro gives the best performance of the ‘80s as Jake La Motta, a real-life Bronx-born boxer so obsessed with rage that it literally consumes him. Shot in gorgeous black and white and edited with crisp precision; there’s danger in every moment of this film, as if De Niro is seconds away from erupting. Take note of this one iconic scene: La Motta is thrown in a dark concrete cell after not being able to post bail. He’s yelling furiously, anger taking over him. He calms down and faces the wall. Slowly he starts to punch it. Then again and again and again and again. He has no one left to fight. No opponent in the ring, no wife to push around, no brother to pound; he’s alone. That is masterful filmmaking. A+

Interesting Fact: Scorsese’s direction to De Niro reciting a scene from On the Waterfront: “You aren’t playing Brando in On the Waterfront. Your Robert De Niro playing Jake La Motta playing Marlon Brando playing Terry Malloy.”

King of Comedy (1983)

A genuine surprise. Who knew Scorsese could tackle comedy with such dry wit. De Niro, yet again, shines as Rupert Pupkin (great name), a pathetic man obsessed with TV talk show host Jerry Langford (played to perfection by Jerry Lewis). There are several laugh-out-loud moments here, but not without an overwhelming sense of pity. De Niro is, of course, brilliant, but the real star is Jerry Lewis. Lewis had an off screen reputation of being a pompous, egotistical asshole, and it takes real balls to confront that persona by playing a character exactly like that on screen. The fact that Lewis wasn’t nominated for an Oscar astounds me. A

Interesting Fact: De Niro used anti-Semitic words to anger Lewis while filming the scene where Pupkin crashes Langford’s country home. Lewis had never worked with a method actor, and was initially shocked and appalled by De Niro’s behavior.

After Hours (1985)

Murphy’s Law played out in real life. The film takes place over one dreadful night, and I have to admit that the gimmicks run too similar and grow increasingly annoying. Note the fantastic long shots of the newspaper office. By no means boring, but definitely not in the top tier of Scorsese’s filmography. B

Interesting Fact: Scorsese instructed lead actor Griffin Dunne to refrain from sex and sleep during filming in order to get a more realistic feeling of paranoia.

The Color of Money (1986)

Like After HoursThe Color of Money isn’t a classic, but it isn’t trying to be. Scorsese takes a simply story - pool sharks - and does what he wants with it. The highlight being the smooth photography of the pool games. Paul Newman won an Oscar reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise is good at playing na├»ve, but the film is simply pure entertainment. Which can actually be refreshing after Scorsese’s more challenging films. B+

Interesting Fact: Aside from one very difficult shot, Tom Cruise did all of his own pool shooting.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Scorsese’s passion project. To be honest, I’ve only seen this once years ago, but what stays with me more than its winded running time, solid acting and sturdy photography, is the story itself. The third act (once Christ gets off the cross), is one of Scorsese’s finest moments as a filmmaker. A-

Interesting Fact: Aidan Quinn, Eric Roberts and Christopher Walken (!) were considered for the lead role before Willem Dafoe was casted as Christ.


GoodFellas (1990)

Compulsively watchable. Ferocious performances, rockin’ soundtrack, game-changing cinematography, sharp-as-nails editing; quite simply the best gangster movie ever made. I could describe any scene in the film as masterful. But take its opening. The banging from the trunk. The curious glances. The kitchen knife. The six-shooter. GoodFellas grabs you right away, and doesn’t give a hint of letting go. A+

Interesting Fact: According to the real Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta in the film) Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Tommy DeVito was 99 percent accurate, with one notable exception - the real Tommy DeVito was a massively built, strapping man, in contrast to Pesci's diminutive size.

Cape Fear (1991)


Leave it to Scorsese to actually pull off a classic remake with stride. De Niro - in yet another brilliant performance - delivers possibly his most terrifying work as Max Cady. Who can forget the sight of a grossly buff, heavily tattooed De Niro straddling a horrified Illeana Douglas? Props to Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange for going pound for pound with Bobby De. But to be perfectly honest, the end action sequence is way too over the top. B+

Interesting Fact: Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, the stars of the original Cape Fear, both make cameos here.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Scorsese ditches his comfort zone for a 19th century period piece (not my favorite genre). But this film comes off as a great, sprawling romance. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pheiffer’s chemistry is so hot it’s practically on fire. Admittedly better with multiple viewings (I was a tad bored the first time). Definitely not the most viewed Scorsese flick, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked. B+

Interesting Fact: Scorsese has said that this is the most violent film he's ever made, an obvious reference to the emotional versus physical states of being.

Casino (1995)

Some of the fastest three hours ever put on film. This highly stylized and ridiculously addicting movie paints Las Vegas in such a glamorous light, that we can’t take our eyes off it. As Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, De Niro delivers a controlled, nuanced performance, leaving the theatrics for Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. While Casino boasts some of the most violent scenes of Scorsese’s career, I remember it more for its style (extreme slow motion shots of dice) and canny wit (everything that comes out of James Woods’ mouth). A

Interesting Fact: When James Woods heard Scorsese was interested in working with him, Woods called Scorsese's office and left the following message: "Any time, any place, any part, any fee."

Kundun (1997)

Another departure for America’s favorite Italian filmmaker. Here Scorsese focuses on the rise of the current Dali Lama. What’s interesting is that the film isn’t really presented as a movie, with structured, following scenes. But instead as chapters from a book. A scene may be discussing a completely different topic than the previous one, then suddenly go back to the old topic minutes later. Gorgeous photography and a pounding score are the highlights. B

Interesting Fact: Scorsese, writer Melissa Mathison and her then husband Harrison Ford were added to the list of over 50 people banned from entering Tibet because of this film.

Bringing out the Dead (1999)

Veteran Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker must have had a field day with this flick. This movie is like Scorsese’s mind on coke and acid simultaneously. The images zoom in and out the camera pans every which way upside down sideways the music blares the acting screams the colors pop the movie plays out like this sentence as in it is exhausting and feels like it goes on forever. When Nicolas Cage is good, he’s good. And here he fits the character’s mania very well. Standout supporting performances (namely by Tom Sizemore, who I have a feeling wasn’t really acting) help make the movie memorable. B

Interesting Fact: Scorsese said that one third of this movie was filmed inside ambulances and predominantly at night.

Gangs of New York (2002)

This is tough to critique. Scorsese’s interest is evident in his lavish set designs, detailed costumes and thorough retailing of history. However, this isn’t a perfect movie. Leonardo DiCaprio, for one, seriously bogs the film down. He wasn’t there yet in terms of his craft. His performance comes off as a bloated mess. Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, is remarkable as Bill the Butcher. He carries the film, and fortunately makes it worthwhile. The fighting is epic, but is that enough to save the movie from its patience-testing running time? You be the judge. A-

Interesting Fact: To get into character, Day-Lewis never spoke to DiCaprio off-camera, and often listened to Eminem before shooting his scenes.

The Aviator (2004)

When you put an entire film in the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio, it can go either way. And I must say, I am impressed, overall, with him as Howard Hughes. DiCaprio is a bit weak in the first hour of the movie, but once Hughes falls into depressed mania, Leo hits his stride. The rest of the movie? It’s good enough. Clearly Scorsese was trying to echo older period pieces, and he does a fine job, I suppose. The supporting cast helps a lot. As does a fantastically executed plane crash sequence. A-

Interesting Fact: Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Katherine Hepburn makes her the only person to win an Oscar for playing a real-life Oscar winner.

The Departed (2006)
I have virtually nothing bad to say about this movie, it is a return to form in the best possible way. Every single member of the cast pops with fierce intensity. Scorsese uses his most trademarked elements – music, editing, cinematography – to propel this Oscar winner into a pulse pounding roller coaster. To some, the film is not without its faults. To me, I couldn’t find one. A+

Interesting fact: Many know this movie earned Scorsese his first directing Oscar. But it was also his first film to win Best Picture.

Shutter Island (2009)
Shutter Island feels like a departure, but a departure from what? Most people equate the name Scorsese to the gangster film. But in actuality, he’s only made three films about the mob (ok four, if you count Casino). It just so happens that those three (or four) films are some (if not the) best gangster pics ever. My point is that Shutter Island is far from a gangster flick, but it still has Scorsese’s stamp all over it. The look, the style, the flow; it’s all Marty. But it may not be the best Marty you’ve ever seen. A worthy, if not entertaining, venture. B

Interesting Fact: This has nothing to do with Shutter, but Scorsese’s next project is rumored to be a Sinatra biopic starring Mr. DiCaprio. Hmm

Date Night

Note to director Shawn Levy: if half the audience is checking the time before your 85-minute movie is done, you should probably consider a job in television.

Date Night starts off cutesy enough, with a happily married, hard working suburban couple (Tina Fey and Steve Carell) sleepwalking through their lackluster love life. Husband decides to spice things up by taking wife out for a night on the town. Things go wrong, identities are mistaken, cops are crooked, chase scenes are dull, strippers are tasteless, etc etc.

I get the gimmick: “Let’s put the two most popular comedic TV icons in a movie together! People will see that!” And with a $25.2 million opening weekend, I guess the trick paid off.

Look, Tina Fey is at the top of her game with 30 Rock, the chick can write a sitcom better than anyone in recent memory. But when she’s not quoting her own material (or mocking Sarah Palin), her wit under delivers. (Notice how she’s great in Mean Girls, which she wrote, but lame in Baby Mama, which she only starred in.)

Steve Carell and his Office crew have been faultering for the past several seasons; the dude needs some new material. (More Little Miss Sunshine, less Michael Scott).

Date Night boasts a great supporting cast, but even they are used simply to fill the seats. Why underuse Mark Ruffalo, Kristin Wiig, William Fichtner, Taraji P. Henson, James Franco, and Mila Kunis so grossly?

Oh well, Date Night may not offer anything new, but there’s always Liz Lemon to fall back on. D+

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

There’s one funny joke here. That’s it. And it lasts for about 20 seconds. It involves a grown man in the past calling his future wife (who is currently only nine) and profanely accusing her of cheating on him… 20 years from now.

The gag comes near the end of the movie, and by that time, it’s too little too late. Point in fact: Hot Tub Time Machine is as goddamned stupid as you’d expect a movie named Hot Tub Time Machine to be.

What is happening to American cinema? F

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Warning: viewers with a weak stomach will be tempted to leave a few times during the first act of this movie. And who can blame them: it’s overly violent, plotless, unstructured and clunky. But stick around, because The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo gets good. Really good.

This Swedish import, based on the smash bestseller by Stieg Larsson, is a film that, at two and a half hours, takes it’s time evolving. But once it hits its stride, you’ll know why you paid the price for admission.

We’re introduced to two characters: Mikael is a controversial journalist who has been freshly convicted of malice against a public official. Lisbeth is a skinny, gothed-out little hottie hacker who was hired to find out as much dirt on Mikael as possible. Why? I’m not too sure, maybe I lost something in translation. Anyway, Mikael is soon hired by a wealthy, dying man who has always wondered what happened to his niece who was murdered decades ago. Who killed her, and why?

This is no ordinary rich dude. He lives on a huge estate with his very rich, very reclusive family who he pins as the main suspects in his niece’s disappearance. But, he pays well, so Mikael is game for the challenge.

To explain how Lisbeth and Mikael come to start working together is to give some of the fun away, so let me just say that once the two start really digging into the details of the case, the film hits a stride that can be mentioned in the same breath as Hitchcock. There are enough twists and turns to please any audience member, and a climax that’ll leave you speechless.

As I’ve already mentioned, my main problems with the movie are the character introductions, namely Lisbeth’s. If a director feels it HAS to be done, then sexual violence in a film should be done… tastefully, if that makes sense. Rape is the one thing I cannot stand to watch on film, but if done right, with justified reasoning, then it may come off as acceptable (much like Irreversible). Such is not the case here. I have no idea why director Niels Arden Oplev decides to hold one particular scene forever, and then have an even longer, more grisly, resolution.

But oh well. Let it pass and enjoy the rest of the ride. I hear David Fincher just signed on to direct the American version. And while those are capable hands, I have to ask: why not just leave it the hell alone? This version is great as is. A

Mother

If you’ve ever seen a Korean-made film you know that they do things a little differently. Extended scenes with no words? Bring it on. Sudden graphic violence? No big deal. Frank sexuality? Rock ‘n’ roll. They are a great reminder of how far films can push the limit and an even better wake up call to action-junkie American cinephiles.

Mother, directed by respected Korean auteur Joon-ho Bong, best known for this thrilling take on the monster genre with The Host, crafts another subtle gem about a desperate woman trying to save her innocent son. Seen it all before right? Nah, not like this.

The Mother, played to utter perfection by newcomer Hye-ja Kim – who, in a perfect world, would get an Oscar nom - knows that her mentally handicapped adult son has been framed for the murder of an innocent schoolgirl. The cops think have an open-and-closed case, so she has to go it alone to solve the crime. But this isn’t your average protagonist. This Mom will stop at nothing to reach the truth, including, in a hilariously violent scene, the hiring of a local badass to get some answers from some petty kids.

I have to tread carefully here, in fear of revealing too much. As is often the case with foreign films, the climax is completely left open, which is why I feel it is necessary to admit that the truth in Mother is clearly discovered, to our shocking, fragile minds.

This movie says a lot about human nature and it will surely provoke some great post-movie chat, but again, it’s impossible to discuss here without taking the piss out of the thing.

If you’re looking for a new country to explore cinematically, I’d definitely recommend Korean flicks. And Mother sure as hell ain’t a bad place to start. A-

The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells, better known as that other movie nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, isn’t too well known for good reason: it just ain’t that good.

It’s no shocker that animated movies aren’t my favorite genre, and this is case in point. I had no idea what was happening throughout most of it, and worse, I didn’t care.

The citizens of Kells, a small town somewhere, are busy building a giant wall to protect themselves from a deadly forest... I think. A little boy becomes curious when a wise old man ventures into town with a magical book that explains… what? I have no idea. The little boy’s uncle seems pissed off in every scene… why? I have no idea. The uncle locks the boy in a dungeon, there is a weird forest girl with white hair running around, odd townspeople, balls of ink and other incomprehensible situations.

The film’s one positive note is its animation. It’s a different style that I don’t think I’ve seen before. Also, at an hour and 15 minutes, it isn’t completely torturous to sit through. But the fact that it beat out the great Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo for an Oscar nomination is beyond me. The Secret of Kells is definitely best kept as it is: a secret. D

Chloe

Here’s a nice little flick under the radar. On the surface, indie director Atom Egoyan’s new film is a typical devious hooker story. Dig deeper and it slowly turns into something much more convoluted, and creepy, than that.

Julianne Moore, one of the very best actresses working in film, delivers yet another scene-stealing performance as a successful gynecologist who becomes increasingly curious over her husband’s fidelity. Liam Neeson, reliable as ever, fills the cookie cutter husband role with his unique gift of desperate innocence. He’s one of those rare actors that can express far more with a cold stare than an extended monologue.

So Moore, in her ingenuity, decides to hire a prostitute, Chloe, to tempt her husband, then report back the details. And damn if those steamy details aren’t enough to fog up the screen. The described encounters are so hot, Moore herself falls victim to the sexual prowess of Chloe.

We see this every few years. A twentysomething hottie who’s made a name for herself in romantic comedies or lame romance films, attempts to branch out and be taken as a “serious actress”. More often than not, the actress feels the need to be naked for most of the role; no exception here. And although I was a little skeptical of Amanda Seyfried’s ability to pull off a sexy vixen, after watching Chloe, I honestly believe she has a good career ahead of her. If you’ve seen her on HBO's Big Love, you knew she had it in her. But damn girl, stay away from the Dear John’s of the Hollywood cesspool. B+

Friday, April 2, 2010

Greenberg

Funny how a movie about a guy who wants to do nothing amounts to just that: nothing. Ben Stiller is a complete waste in the title role, a man currently living in a fuck-it-all philosophical funk, house sitting for his wealthy brother in his hot shit L.A. mansion. He kind of falls for his brother’s loyal but loopy personal assistant, annoying newcomer Greta Gerwig, and the two spend several weeks talking, fighting, quasi having sex, and talk fighting some more.

A backstory I couldn’t care less about tells us that Greenberg and his old college mates almost had a record deal, before Greenberg bitched out and moved to New York to become a… carpenter (?). The movie grows more puzzling, and boring, with each passing minute. Even if we wanted to care about these characters, writer/director Noah Baumbach (who did great work on The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding) doesn’t give us a chance to.

If there is a point to Greenberg, it is unbeknownst to me. It’s on par with Judd Apatow’s Funny People; a talented director goes all free lance on us and makes something disastrously sentimental. Oh well. If you’re smart you’ll stay away. Watching Greenberg is not only pointless, but painful as well. D-

Note: apparently this was posted outside of a theatre...