Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker

It’s funny how the best film made about our current Iraq conflict has been directed by a woman. I mean this in a completely nondiscriminatory way. It honestly is a blessing that, from what I can gather, it took a female mentality to truly understand this war.

The Hurt Locker is the first masterpiece of 2009. Director Kathryn Bigelow, most famous for her über-entertaining, macho-surfer romp Point Break, has crafted an instant, contemporary, war-film classic. This is the Iraq War film for people who don’t like Iraq War films.

Baghdad. 2004. We’re focused on an elite Army bomb squad unit. Three guys, with huge balls. They get the call, go investigate the bomb, locate the bomb, and send the squad leader in to defuse it. The other two stay back, giving succinct directions, and looking out for snipers or human detonators watching from afar. Sure, they strap on giant suits meant to protect them from a bomb blast. But we soon learn that those suits, more often than not, prove to be fruitless.

The movie opens with an incredibly suspenseful, heart-pounding sequence. When the scene was over, I was hoping to catch my breath. But I didn’t. Not once. For two hours. This is a film that truly grabs you by the throat in its first scene, and does not, for a second, let go. Even in the soldiers’ downtime, there is still danger on the horizon, lurking in a wrestling match taken too far, or some lost gloves that provoke questionable thoughts.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as the adrenaline junkie squad leader. He’s a bit of a thrill seeker, sure, but he’s the best at what he does. Plain and simple. Renner, a fine actor as is evident in North Country, 28 Weeks Later and the Assassination of Jesse James, delivers an Oscar-caliber performance. His Staff Sergeant James doesn’t have long monologues or depressing speeches. He, like the movie, lives in the moment of the job. From finding the bomb to dismantling it. It’s the best acting I’ve seen so far this year.

The rest of the three-man crew is made up of Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. You may remember Geraghty as the skinny, scared soldier in Jarhead that Jake Gyllenhaal pulls a gun on. If you don’t remember him, then you will after this. Mackie has been delivering solid work since his breakout in 8 Mile as a challenging rapper. Since then, he’s contributed standout roles in She Hate Me, Million Dollar Baby, Half Nelson and Notorious, but he’s never been better than as the aggravated, by-the-book Sergeant Sanborn, the perfect match for Renner’s rugged, on-the-fly daredevil . Look for a Supporting Actor nomination. There is also a trio of terrific cameo appearances, they may be hard to spot, but I give those actors credit for lending their one respective scenes to such a small, indie film.

The Hurt Locker was written with brutal authenticity by journalist Mark Boal, who spent some time in Iraq with a bomb squad. The details have paid off. Boal’s script is unlike any other war film I’ve seen. There’s no throwaway, morale-boosting banter. No excessive meandering into tired plot details. Everything we need is right here, every scene is essential.

If I’ve done my job, then I’ve convinced you that this film is worth seeing. That it’s worth driving dozens of miles out of your way to an independent theatre for. I’ve done my job if you believe the fact that The Hurt Locker is best film I’ve seen so far this year.

Every war has a defining film (or two). For my money, Paths of Glory takes WWI, The Thin Red Line encapsulates WWII, The Deer Hunter is Vietnam, and Three Kings nails the Gulf War. Add The Hurt Locker to that list. Add it to another list as well, the shortlist for this year’s Oscar contenders. A+

Funny People

Judd Apatow, the comedic genius who’s basically controlled American film comedy for the past four years, follows his contemporary classic that is The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the equally hilarious -if not more endearing- Knocked Up, with Funny People, a mistitled, confused mess.

Successful comedian George Simmons (one-time real-life Apatow roommate, Adam Sandler) falls ill with an evidently incurable bout of cancer. Lonely in his mansion and uncompromised fame, George recruits Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian, to be his assistant/joke writer.

So, that’s the movie, right? Funny man-child discovers himself via a deadly disease and learns the true meaning of friendship. Well, that’s the first hour. I’m not giving anything away by saying that George survives the cancer and then makes a sole goal to get back his ex-girlfriend of 12 years, who’s now married with children.

So, now we have a new film. Funny man-child tries to reclaim lost love but finds he’s actually more of an asshole than before. Such false plot lines fill the entire film. There’s a humorous scene when Ira makes an iTunes playlist for George. They laugh and mock the songs, but suddenly, a slow song comes on and the two stare at each other… are they going to cry? Hold each other? Make out? It’s never a good sign when you laugh through a scene that isn’t meant to be funny. But when such scenes are played with zero-to-no believability, it’s hard not to chuckle.

Don’t get me wrong, Sandler does good work here… at times. But overall his performance is misguided. If you’re expecting the kind of revelatory Sandler that was in Punch-Drunk Love, you’d better keep looking.

Funny People begins well enough, but quickly loses its stride and overall tone. There are a few spirited cameos, sure, (namely by a foul-mouthed Detroit rapper), but they can’t save the film. In fact, by the time the very talented Eric Bana and Leslie Mann (real-life Mrs. Apatow) show up for some third act silliness, the film is far past redemption. Sorry to say that Funny People just isn’t that, well… funny. C-


If you’ve seen the poster for Orphan, you know that there is something “wrong with Esther”. And yes, believe me, there is something most definitely wrong with Esther.

Horror films, next to musicals, are my least favorite genre. But along with Drag Me to Hell earlier this year, 2009 is proving to bang out some frightful and intelligent ones. The best part about Orphan is its R rating. It doesn’t try to hide behind the teenage friendly PG-13, or carry a go-for-broke R (a la Hostel or Saw). Instead, we live with a family how they would normally live and talk. Basically, the rating helps with the overall believability of the picture.

Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) want to adopt a child after having lost one several months ago. They already have two kids of their own, but now they feel it’s time for another. In comes Esther, an incredibly polite, incredibly proper Russian girl. On the surface, as with most child-terrorizing horror films, Esther seems perfect, and it’s no surprise that it doesn’t take long for things to go very wrong.

There are several mysteries surrounding the little girl, and why ruin those here? The fun of any well-made horror film is letting yourself be scared, not read about all the frights in a spoiler-friendly review. Having said that, the only real faults I have with the film are in its ending, which I obviously can’t explain, but after you see the film, then we can talk about it. Don’t get me wrong, the end is good, but there were a few details I was forced to laugh off.

I’d recommended Orphan based solely off of Farmiga’s performance. I’ve been a great admirer of hers since she starred in the super small film, Down to the Bone, playing a coke-addicted mother in middle town America. (If you haven’t seen that film, find it, it convinced a little guy named Scorsese to cast Farmiga in The Departed.) She brings to Orphan a torn apart mother who slowly loses her grip on what’s real. It’s a performance of sheer believable desperation. If the Academy had any balls, they’d throw her a Best Actress nomination. B+

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Favorite Scene: Sleepers

Warning: Critical plot details will be divulged in this post. The ending will be spoiled.

Sleepers, Barry Levinson’s criminally underrated film, is the best movie I have ever seen that chronicles the after effects of victimization. The plot, briefly, is the true story about four Hell’s Kitchen teens who pull a childish prank that goes very wrong, nearly killing an innocent man. The boys are sent up for a year to a juvenile home for boys where they are subjected to random, yet frequent, physical and sexual attacks by four guards.

Flash forward 15 years. Two of the boys have grown up to become gang leaders who abuse drugs and murder at random or for money. Those two bump into the head guard (Kevin Bacon, in his best screen role) from way back and blow his brains out. Another boy, Michael (Brad Pitt), has grown into a lawyer and takes the case against his two friends. Why? To get them off. All of this is narrated, rather marvelously, by Jason Patric, the last of the four boys.

This film is full of lasting scenes. The two minute, unbroken shot of Robert De Niro (a loyal priest to his neighborhood boys) as he listens to Patric describe the horror they endured at the juvenile home, comes to mind. But the shining moment of the film is its last one.

As the four friends, along with their pal Carol (Minnie Driver), sit around a table in a private room of a New York restaurant, Patric, via narration, briefly goes through the fates of each man. The two killers, he says, died gruesome deaths only years later, never leaving their life of crime, even after receiving a shot at redemption. Patric says of himself that he was promoted at his newspaper job, covering the entertainment beat, but the haunting realism is found in Michael’s description.
Patric says that Michael has now moved to the Irish countryside. He no longer practices law, and he has never married. Then, with one of the most subtlety genuine lines of narration I’ve ever heard, he tells us that Michael lives quietly and alone. “He lives quietly and alone.” There is something about those five words, taken directly from Lorenzo Carcaterra’s memoir, that says it all. That one sentence embodies everything that goes along with being victimized.

People subjected to abuse can go several ways. That’s what makes Sleepers such a fascinating story. The boys all experience the same crimes, yet they all deal with them differently. Whether it was to express themselves physically with violence. Or to bury the pain down as deep as it can go, almost denying it ever happened, or to continue life elsewhere, away from everyone you know, quietly and alone. It’s only one line of dialogue, but that line has stayed with me over a decade after having first watched the film.

Please, if you’ve never seen Sleepers, find it. Rent it, put it in your Netflix queue, or buy it off Amazon for $7.99. Either way, you won’t be sorry, and who knows, you may even discover something about yourself.

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. is one of the most horrifying movies I’ve seen in years. And with a PG rating, that’s saying something.

I went into this film with my laymen’s understanding of food. Processed food, whether it be fast or junk= bad. Organic food= good. But believe me, the deceit runs much deeper than that.
With the help of food geniuses Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, director Robert Kenner helps expose the food industry with this searing documentary. After watching the film, I’m surprised Kenner had the audacity to even bring the subject up. Here’s what I mean.

A running figure in the documentary is a middle aged mother who lost her young son to e. coli. Her child, you see, simply ate a bad burger and died 12 days later. No justice has come of this in the years since, so the mother is now a food safety advocate trying to pass Kevin’s Law, which would make food companies test for poor meat more thoroughly. But here’s the fascinating part. In one interview clip, director Kenner, off camera, asks the mother what food she eats. Simple question, right? Wrong. The mother kindly refuses to answer, saying that she will certainly be sued by the food bosses, simply for saying which food she enjoys.

And that’s just 30 seconds of the movie. Throughout the rest of the film, I learned more than I have in a slew of recent documentaries. And that’s the wonder of this film, it doesn’t use a catchy gimmick (Super Size Me) or try to pound its cause into your head over and over and over (An Inconvenient Truth), instead it presents its information, and lets you decide how to handle it.

The underlying message of the film is simple: know what you eat. Really, know. But it isn’t that easy. There is a heartbreaking segment with a poor family who drives through Burger King almost daily. Why? Because three items on the dollar menu can fill you up for cheaper than fresh vegetables at the grocery store. And that’s the point. The carrots need to be cheaper than the chips. A

Note: I stopped eating red meat two years ago due to the content I saw in a 20 minute documentary that takes place in a Parisian slaughterhouse. And while the images in Food, Inc. aren’t nearly as repulsive, they’re enough to turn you off chicken.


Here’s the thing about Sacha Baron Cohen, no matter which eccentric character of his he’s playing, he only gets one single take at each scene. One shot to make the trick work. You can’t reshoot a prank, you can’t get those genuine, appalled reactions from the gullible participants more than once. And this is why, despite whether or not you find him funny, Baron Cohen is the funniest, most respected comedian in movies today.

Brüno is just as outrageous as you’ve heard. Instead of a racist, anti-Semitic, Kazak journalist, we now get the extremely gay, tight-clothed, Austrian fashionista, Brüno. Brüno, much like Borat, is so idiotically lewd with his comments and actions, that he doesn’t even bother caring who he offends. It’s his clueless remorselessness that makes him hysterical.

The plot structure for the film is very similar to Borat. Brüno gets excommunicated from the fashion world in his native Austria, only to scurry to America with one goal, to become famous. But who cares about the plot, you came for the gags, right? Have no fear, Baron Cohen and Borat director Larry Charles go way beyond what you may be thinking, so far that I’m stunned as to how this film got an R rating.

Which brings me to a good point. If you are sexually conservative in any way whatsoever, then save your money and skip this film. Even the most hip, liberal minds will have dropped jaws in several scenes. Scenes that I will not ruin here. The fun of these films is shocking you into what you never see coming, so I’ll let you unravel them yourself.

For me, the gags aren’t what make Baron Cohen’s films memorable. I sincerely thought Borat did a great job of exposing racism, prejudice, and sexism in middle America. Likewise, I think Brüno does a great job of unveiling America’s obsession with fame, not to mention their general homophobia. A scene involving mothers auditioning their babies for a photoshoot is by far the most disgusting thing in the film. In another, I watched in horror to a crowd’s reaction of two men making out in cage-fighting exhibition. We they duped? Sure. But does that justify their reaction? God no.

Bottom line: is Brüno better than Borat? No. Is Brüno cruder? Yes. Do they both fulfill their jobs of discovering hidden prejudices in our apparent “post-racial” nation. You bet. B+

Monday, July 13, 2009


There isn’t a whole lot you can say about Moon without giving too much away. The plot takes a pretty serious twist early on, and it’s far more entertaining to try and unravel the mystery yourself than have me ruin it here.

Sam Rockwell is terrific as an astronaut who is only weeks away from having his contract up after a three year stint on the moon. His job is to keep Earth powered with resources that machines collect from the moon’s surface. He’s been up there a long time, all alone, with only his thoughts and ugly facial hair.

The film has a unique concept, but pays distinct reverence to a few too many sci-fi films. Kevin Spacey voices a robot that is nearly identical to 2001’s HAL-9000. Even though Spacey’s robot doesn’t try to kill the passengers, most everything about him is the same. But consider it an homage more than a steal. The director, Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie), knows that he is coping from Kubrick, but he does it with style. It’s also impossible to not consider how good this film looks. With only a $5 million budget, Jones does a very good job at making Moon look and feel real.

Rockwell, one of our best actors, explodes on the screen in what I assume will be yet another overlooked performance. He’s sustained a vastly multi-genre’d resume all while keeping us enthralled. From Confessions of Dangerous Mind to Matchsctick Men, from Snow Angels to Frost/Nixon, he’s one of the wittiest guys around. Give him some credit. B+

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Public Enemies

Michael Mann, the single greatest living director of crime dramas (Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) is thankfully back with a gangster tale that is unlike anything you’ve seen from the genre so far.

How can you make a movie about the most notorious American of the 1930s and not have it riled with clichés? I’m not sure, but Mann sure as hell knows. There isn’t a frame of unoriginality in Public Enemies, in fact, it’s far from what the Blockbuster crowd may be expecting. But more on that later.

John Dillinger spent most of his early life in jail, which acted as his schooling for criminality. (It’s funny, you know, that our jails actually make better criminals.) In jail, Dillinger met a slew of crooks just like him and once released, they wrecked havoc across the country, robbing banks that he felt had been unfair to the common man during the Depression.

As Dillinger, Johnny Depp delivers some of his best career work. Keeping a cool, restrained demeanor, he makes Dillinger not only likeable, but scary as hell as well. Take note, for instance, every scene Depp has with Marion Cotillard (Best Actress winner for La Vie en Rose two years ago), who plays Dillinger’s love interest, Billie Frechette. In those scenes I actually thought Depp was in love with Cotillard. His intensity bleeds through his every word. There is a moment when Cotillard is being apprehended by authorities and Depp gets out of a car, wanting to stop it, but knowing he can’t. It’s the scene that gets actors nominated for Oscars.

Dillinger was being pursued by clean-cut FBI agent Melvin Purvis, played here with familiar greatness by Christian Bale. In fact, Purvis himself was being pressured by a little guy named J. Edgar Hoover (a brilliant, Oscar-worthy Billy Crudup) to catch Dillinger, breathing down Purvis’ neck at the slightest slip-up.

If you’ve seen a Michael Mann movie before, you know the guy can direct a thrilling action sequence. But, that isn’t his main concern. He is more concerned with the story of his characters, who they are, what they want, how they want it, etc. Having said that, Public Enemies has a slew of spectacularly staged action scenes (the most thrilling of the year, in fact) but it isn’t an action movie. It’s a film that focuses on human drama, on a few short months in Dillinger’s life, which means no backstory at all.

It’s also the best looking film of the year with cinematographer Dante Spinotti shooting in gorgeous HD, a technique Mann has mastered with his recent films. The costumes are great, the dialogue is hidden yet snappy, and the gunfights will pin you to your seat.

Even if you already know what happened to Dillinger, you’re in for a fresh look at how it went down. In addition, Public Enemies boasts a denouement (n: resolve after the climax) that left me speechless, and could very well earn Cotillard another Oscar. Get ready to be blown away. A

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Here’s some good news: you don’t have to pay to see the new Transformers movie. Why? Because you can do it yourself at home, it just takes a little direction.

Here’s how. Get the youngest child you know (preferably age 3-7), and sit them down on the kitchen floor. Next, get a tween, middle school couple (preferably ages 12-15) and stand them next to the kid. Next, surround the kid with as many pots and pans as you can. Then, instruct the couple to start arguing about petty shit that doesn’t matter. Finally, tell the kid to bang away on the various cooking instruments and VOILA! you have the new Transformers movie.

That’s about as deep as this movie gets. Sure there are enough computer effects to make your head numb, but nothing you haven’t seen before. No, in fact, Michael Bay’s new film is easily one of the worst movies I have seen, of this or any year. There isn’t a stitch of substance to it.

Plot? Who cares. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox run around the world with the "good" robots to try and stop the "bad" robots from taking over the world. Apparently, you see, the robots were on Earth way before us pesky humans, and they have hidden the top baddie (aka The Fallen) in an Egyptian pyramid. So, for the next two and a half hours you get enough horrible dialogue to fill dozens of mocking YouTube clips, more slow-mo action than a cartoon, and insanely offensive antics that, I guess, Bay finds funny.

Take, for instance, the way he first shows Fox. We pan from behind, moving in slowly on her rear end, hidden by short shorts, bent far over a motorcycle. What the hell is Michael Bay saying about the objectivity of women? Am I the only one that notices this? Next, take the two idiotic robots that talk in offensive, “ghetto” slang. Sure they’re funny, if you’re a moron.

The saddest part about this pointless franchise is that so many people go to see these films, so they aren’t going away anytime soon (although, Bay released a statement saying that he would not direct a Part 3). Regardless, there are plenty of other movies out there that can amuse you with effects (Up), give you better action (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), show you real human drama (Away We Go) or introduce you to a lifestyle you only thought you knew (Public Enemies).

Take your pick, but please, do yourself a favor and skip Transformers, a jumbled, incoherent, action-figure mess. F