Thursday, October 29, 2009

Michael Jackson's This Is It

Imagine watching your favorite musician half-ass song and dance numbers for two straight hours. It’d get pretty boring, right? The whole time, you’d want to hear them fully belt out a song, or break it down with some flashy moves. The whole time, you’d expect a payoff, something to make all the waiting worthwhile. If you expect that payoff with This Is It, Michael Jackson’s swan song of a film, then you’ll be waiting for a long while.

I get it. I understand all well that a singer can’t wear out their voice during rehearsal, they need to save it for the big show, for the fans that forked out all the dough. So my criticism is not aimed at Jacko at all, it’s more towards director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, for even wanting to release the film. Originally, as we’re told in an extended opening disclaimer, the footage for This Is It was shot for Jackson’s personal video library. So basically, no one was ever supposed to see it, and now we know why.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic set pieces here. The best of which has Jackson shooting it out with Humphrey Bogart via digital imaging. It’s a real treat to see Jackson dressed in ‘40s threads, running through lavish black and white set pieces. I’m sure it would’ve worked great as an opening to ‘Smooth Criminal’.

But don’t expect to hear the songs you love, the way you want to hear them. Instead, Jackson sort of croons on, or shuffles about; giving hints at his lasting greatness, but never showing us his all. Also, those expecting any insight into Jackson’s warped mentalities should look elsewhere. For the most part he comes off as earnest and tenderly controlling.

In the end, I was bored with the film but found it an appropriate end to a miraculous career. It leaves you wanting more, which of course, we’ll never get. Throughout most of the film I kept thinking, “Damn, I wonder what this would’ve looked like as a finished show.” That would’ve been a hell of a sight to see. C

Law Abiding Citizen

I’m not even gonna lie: the first act of Law Abiding Citizen is pretty good. I liked how things kicked off right away, no backstory, no tireless exposition, just send the goons in and get the movie going. I liked how the film subtly jumped ten years in one shot. I liked the fast pace and the dark tones. I was really surprised, at one point I thought, “Is this movie actually going to be good?” And then, sure enough, everything went to shit.

Gerard Butler is a loving family man who turns vengeful psycho 10 years after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered (that opening scene, by the way, is actually shot tastefully). Jamie Foxx is the assistant DA who gave one of the intruders a slim sentence due to cracks in the system. Foxx’s character is a noble guy, you see, but Butler could give a fuck. In his words he wants to “kill... everybody”.

This is where things go wrong. Okay, the dude spends 10 years masterminding this elaborate plan? I can roll with that. But why take it so far? The film may have been saved if, one: the guy only sought to kill the main people involved in the murder case (not dozens of innocent people). And two: Jamie Foxx either passed on the project or actually looked like he gave a shit. Foxx is a talented guy, as is evident in Ali, Collateral and Ray, but here it looks like he is remembering his lines at the last second, delivering them in an “ah whatever” manner.

Butler, one of the most overrated actors working in movies, caught a break with 300. But when are movie producers going to realize that 300’s huge box office draw had nothing to do with Butler? Anyone could’ve played that role. Watching him here as he desperately tries out an American accent is, to say the least, laughable.

And poor Viola Davis. An Oscar nominee for Doubt, and the scene stealer in World Trade Center, Solaris and Antwone Fisher is just wasted talent here as the mayor of Philadelphia. Someone give Davis her own movie.

But oh well.

Most young males want to see shit blow up, not analyze plot development or an actor’s timing. So as an action film, director F. Gary Gray (who’s done a much better with Friday, The Negotiator, and The Italian Job) delivers what the base wants. I guess. D+

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Than a Game

A few years ago, film student Kristopher Belman heard that a local high school basketball team that was kicking ass and taking names. After managing to get in good with their tough coach, Belman soon found himself privy to all the footage he could tape. Games, locker room arguments, practices, road trips, sleepovers and on and on.

Belman had a sneaking suspicion that the team’s star player was going to make something big of himself. The player: LeBron James. The result of Belman’s taped footage: tender brilliance.

It’d be rough to edit down hundreds of hours of footage, and not have the focus be on the NBAs most popular player. But don’t worry, this movie isn't The LeBron James Story. Instead, Belman presents a heartfelt, honest portrait of five kids with immense talent, who still struggled with everyday adolescence.

Belman began taping the “Fab Five” of Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team during their junior year season, several years after they had already been playing together. You can guess what happens for the most part. The high ups of teenaged stardom, the lows of surprise loses and disqualifications. But beyond the basketball, what really moves you are the individual stories behind each of the five players. There’s the coach’s son, a short kid with a fearless temper, the pudgy guy who was just as good at football, the loner who never fit in off the court and the star-maker who soon let fame get to his head.

The star of the film, however, is not the players, but their loyal, stern coach, Dru Joyce II, who took over after the previous coach moved up to college ball. Joyce talks often with admiration of his boys, but sometimes ventures into regret. When he speaks of his son (the hothead player), Joyce’s tone becomes remorseful, knowing he pushed him too hard as a player, and was hardly ever there as a Dad.

This is genuine, passionate filmmaking. It’s taking a chance on an idea, and following through with it, outcome be damned. More Than a Game ain’t no Hoop Dreams, but it does a damn good job living in its shadow. A-

Monday, October 26, 2009

Good Hair

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with Chris Rock’s new documentary vehicle, Good Hair, but there isn’t anything special about it either. People could say I wasn’t interested because I’m not a black female, and I have no idea what it’s like to live with weaves and wigs and hair relaxer and naps and so on. But that’s bullshit. A film is a film; I view each one objectively, no matter what it’s about.

In answer to his daughter’s question: why don’t I have good hair?, Chris Rock set out to trace the history of African American dos. Interviewing a slew of people, celebrities and regular barbershop attendees alike, Rock does his damndest to get a feature film out of a pretty weak premise.

One thing I found interesting: Rock travels to India and discovers that the source for most weaves and wigs is human hair from Hindu women, after shaving their head for God. But even with that information, Rock makes slight of the news by going from hair shop to hair shop trying to sell people “black” hair. The gag is lame, and besides… didn’t Borat already try a variation of the same joke?

I give Rock credit for seeming genuinely interested in what he learns. But I’ve always felt that Chris Rock thinks he is way funnier than he really is. Sure he’s had a few good stand-up specials on HBO, but here his jokes fall flat, and they make for a boring, unnecessary documentary. C-

Friday, October 23, 2009

Saw VI

What’s the tagline… if it’s Halloween, it must be Saw? Bet your ass. For the sixth year in a row, the torture-porn phemon is releasing another installment. The game is the same. Part six is just as bad as the previous ones (excluding the first, of course). I saw the movie 13 hours ago and couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what the hell happened. I see these movies out of tradition, I mean shit, why stop now?

You may wonder why they keep making these. The answer is simple:
Total budget for six Saw films combined: 46 million.
Total US gross of six Saw films combined: 342.3 million (and counting).

Expect more of these (they’re already developing parts VII and VIII). Let’s take bets for how long this will go on. I’ll put $100 that it reaches Saw X. Hell maybe Saw XX.

Why would you see this? I have no idea. Go see Paranormal Activity instead. D-

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

So now then. Welcome to the most complicated film of the year. How do you adapt one of the most beloved children stories of all time - a 10 sentence, ascetically beautiful masterpiece - into a feature film? A better question: how do you bridge the generational gap of fans, so that everyone can enjoy such a film?

Spike Jonze, the director responsible for two of the best, most original films in contemporary cinema (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) answers both those questions with his bold, beautiful, remarkably told new film, Where the Wild Things Are.


Spike Jonze, the director responsible for two of the best, most original films in contemporary cinema (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) falls short with his aimless, misguided, beautiful-looking new film, Where the Wild Things Are.

Truth is, Jonze’s film falls somewhere in between.

At its heart, Where the Wild Things Are is a passion piece, plagued by eight years of production hell, that is a thrill to look at, but hard to comprehend. If I were making a pros and cons list - which, ahem, I have – both columns would come out about even. At the top of the pros list would be the look and sound of the film, which is flawless.

Cinematographer Lance Accord, a Jonze regular, creates a vision that is unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years. From its rambunctious prologue, to its smooth grace once the Wild Things show up, you’ll actually find yourself grinning at how gorgeous this film is shot. Sound is three fold. Thank the sound engineers for their crisp clatter, Carter Burwell for his delicate score, and Karen O for her rowdy songs.

Next on the pros is the brilliant, eclectic cast. In the lead role of Max, actor Max Records sets a new standard for child actors. Jonze made it his goal to form a close, personal relationship with Records, and the trust has paid off. It would be a difficult role for an actor of any age, but the fact that it’s an 11-year-old kid is astonishing. It’s a tough role, and Records nails it. He’s backed by Catherine Keener (who’s just that good) as his struggling mother, and a slew of actors lending their unique voices as the Wild Things. It’s standard for actors to record their dialogue separately when voicing an animated character, but here, Jonze had the cast, including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Catherine O’Hara, sit in the same room and record together, as if they were actually in the scene. The difference pays off, as the Wild Things talk and argue over one other, while maintaining their individual identities.

Now the bad news. First off, even with its PG rating, Where the Wild Things Are is not a kid’s movie. At all. There are themes and situations that kids simply won’t understand (or enjoy). So that’s first: the film is marketed as a children’s movie, but it’s actually for adults. Next is the awkward (or sloppy) shifting in tones. I know what Jonze is doing, I think. He wants the viewer to feel like a child, where we’re happy one minute, sad the next, explanation be damned. It works initially, but grows old quickly. You’re still feeling moved from the scene before when suddenly everyone is screaming at each other over thrown dirt. It’s hard to follow, and harder to care.

I can’t call Where the Wild Things Are a “bad” film if it is the best shot, scored, art designed and sound engineered movie of so far this year. But I also can’t call it “great” if I am unable to find any distinguishable, coherent tone from one scene to the next.

Bad films leave your mind the minute you walk out of the theatre, but Where the Wild Things Are was a film I thought about for days after I saw it. This is a movie that demands your attention while you’re watching it, and refuses to leave long after you’ve exited the theatre.

Do I recommend it? Hell yes, it’s bound to be the most original piece of American cinema this year. But can I guarantee that you’ll like it? No way. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I must admit that it’s the only film so far this year that I’ve gone back to the theatre for an immediate follow-up viewing. That says something. B+

The Boys are Back

Here’s the kind of rare film that should work on every level, not fall just short of being a melodramatic soap opera. Put a respected director (Scott Hicks, who made Shine) in with a talented, ferocious actor (Clive Owen), give them a plot involving insurmountable grief, mix it with a seasoned crew, and you should have greatness, right? But instead we’re left wondering, “Where did it go wrong?”

Certainly not with Owen, who, like always, makes the best of whatever material he’s given. Owen plays Joe Warr, a talented British sportswriter living in Australia who suddenly loses his wife to a hellacious bout of cancer. Now Joe, who was gone on business most of the time, has to care for his young son, and keep his career going. (Who knew those pesky dishes were such a hassle?)

Joe’s ex wife hears of the recent tragic news and immediately demands that Joe’s older son come out from the UK to stay with Joe and his young boy. Now this is where things start to go wrong. I didn’t buy, for a second, that Joe’s ex would just ship their son off so that Joe, deep in the throes of grief, could take care of him. I mean seriously, what kind of bitch would do that? How could she possibly think that this guy could take care of a teenager, let alone a ten-year-old, after losing his wife?

Oh well, it is what it is, given its small release most of you probably won't see the film anyway. No worries, it’s not going to get any Oscar love. Which is a shame, if worked a little differently, Owen would be at the top of the short list for Best Actor. C-

Monday, October 19, 2009

New York, I Love You

I’ll never forget the closing segment of Paris je’taime, the wondrous anthology of short films that encapsulated the city of love. In that final vignette, directed by Alexander Payne, character actress Margo Martindale aimlessly wandered around Paris, independent of task and duty, her purposely poor-spoken narration fitting the tone perfectly.

Resting on a park bench after a day-long trek, she finds herself in the midst of a melancholy revelation. I won’t reveal anymore, but in those final moments, Martindale’s face expresses a lifetime of emotion. Her tender nuance, her subtle comfort; it’s all remarkably beautiful. Never have I seen six minutes of film fit together so seamlessly.

And while that segment helped make Paris je’taime one of my favorite films of 2007, I can’t say I’m surprised that its predecessor, New York, I Love You, doesn’t live up to the same standards.

Going with the same concept he used before, producer Emmanuel Benbihy enlists a handful of talented directors to tell individual stories of love in the city that never sleeps. The first major problem is the shifting from one segment to another. In Paris je’taime, each segment began with the location of the city and the director of the short. But here, not only do we get no title cards, it’s actually hard to tell when one short ends and another begins. This is done on purpose, I think. And believe me, I’m all for experimental editing, but this is silly. At times, the film as a whole feels like it was cut by an NYU film student with a shitty GPA.

As with Paris je’taime, some segments are better than others. Highlights include Yvan Attal’s shifty short which has a sultry Robin Wright Penn teasing a kind Chris Cooper outside a restaurant. In the sexiest of the bunch, Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo separately recall their recent one night stand together. But the transcendent highlight is the segment I still can’t fully figure out. Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) casts Julie Christie as an aged singer in a hotel room with a disabled Shia LaBeouf. The outcome of their conversation is warmly haunting, yet mysteriously guided.

There are a few other slight delights, sure. But for the most part, the rest of the segments aren’t nearly as engaging. I’m surprised by a couple things. First, with such a racially vast assembly of directors, I find it hard to believe that 90% of them chose to make their films starring straight, white characters. Second, why didn’t more filmmakers venture away from Manhattan? I guess Brooklyn, I Love You, isn’t as exciting.

Although I have to admit, as tired as some of the segments feel, there is great reassurance in knowing that in a few minutes, you’ll be given a brand new story. I wonder what’s next. IMDB says Shanghai, I Love You is set for 2011. Benbihy says Rio will be next. Either way, I’m always in the mood for love. B-

The Stepfather

Okay, here’s the thing. I don’t expect The Stepfather to be cinematically on par with The Godfather. No. I know damn well to sit there with an open mind and low standards.

But seriously, come on. How can anyone actually believe that some 40ish dude has been going around for decades, getting in good with families, killing them, then heading to another state to start all over?

He has no form of ID. Ok, I can buy that, not that big of a deal. He only carries cash. I’m still with you, although I do wonder where he gets his money (since he apparently doesn’t rob his victims). But here's the kicker...the cops have no fingerprints, blood samples, or photographs.

Really? No pictures? Are you kidding? It’s pretty simple really. You interview friends of the family and have them try to remember the last time he went to a drug store, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, or any damn place that has a video camera. I mean Jesus, my face was captured by four different video cameras just from walking into the movie theatre. You’re telling me they can’t trace a serial killer?

But alas, we’re already stuck in the movie, so why not stay? If you do, you’ll see Dylan Walsh (Sean, the nice one, from Nip/Tuck) having a good time as a steely cool psycho offing innocent families for the hell of it.

The movie, as you might expect, is garbage. (I mean, if this guy is such a seasoned killer, how come a fuck-up teen can figure him out in a second?) But Walsh looks like he’s having fun. Which, I guess, is good enough (not for $10, but definitely for channel surfing on cable). D

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Serious Man

I’m writing this review three days after I’ve seen the movie, but it still feels too early. You see, A Serious Man isn’t a film bogged down by silly plot devices or Hollywood caricatures. No, the Coen brothers’ new dramedy is a genuine film propelled by a solid story. Not your typical, everything-spelled-out, mainstream mess.

And therein lies its beauty… or its problem, depending on who you talk to.

The film begins as philosophically as it ends. Which means, I don’t really think we’re supposed to take either at face value. Instead, examine what you see. Talk about it. What is its reference? Its point? My god how a love a good post-film chat.

Sorry, I guess I should tell you what it’s about.

Larry Gopnik is a regular man, with serious problems. His tenure as a physics professor is in question, even before getting blackmailed by a student. His wife is angry, even before wanting to leave him for his friend. His kids are full of angst, even before school troubles and unneeded nose jobs. His brother is lost, even before law troubles. His neighbor is spiteful, even before getting technical about property lines.

Nothing is going right. But why? Why can’t helpless Larry get advice from any of his Rabbis? Why is his wife’s lover so cool about everything? Why don’t his kids give a shit about anything? Why is this colossal shit-tornado happening to him at this exact point in time? I have no idea, and much to our delight, neither does Larry.

As Larry, stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg gives an Oscar-worthy, make-or-break performance. Never forcing too much or dismissing issues with a coy demeanor, Stuhlbarg plays Larry with much-recognized emotions. Regardless of who you are or where you live, you’d probably have the same dumbfounded expression and voice inflection that Stuhlbarg has through most of the film. He carries the movie on his shoulders, to great results.

Like most Coen films, the technical aspects are flawless. From veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ steely look, to Carter Burwell’s haunting score, to the period-appropriate costumes, everything fits like a corky, Coen glove.

Much has been made about the origin of the film, as it appears to be the only semi-autobiographical work the Coen’s have ever produced. That doesn’t really concern me. The fact that the Coen’s grew up in the 60s, in a small Minnesota town, raised by educator parents, in a strict Jewish home, doesn’t make me love or hate the film. Although I suppose it is interesting.

A Serious Man isn’t for everyone, but no Coen brother’s film is. I can’t promise that you’ll understand the whole thing, hell I can’t even promise that it’ll be in theatres next month. But if you’re remotely interested in the Coens’ work, you’re sure to enjoy Larry’s downfall.

A funny thing has happened while I’ve been writing this review; I’ve actually realized that I liked the film more than I thought. I love that. It’s one of the reasons I keep writing these. Mazel tov. A-

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Favorite Scene: Leaving Las Vegas

There is Jack Lemmon destroying a greenhouse, like a ravaged animal, in desperate search of the liquor bottle he hid there hours earlier in Days of Wine and Roses. There is Ray Milland slinging two bottles of whiskey out of his window, hiding them from his suspicious brother in The Lost Weekend. There is Ed Harris flipping the set dinner table over in an alcoholic rage in Pollock. Or Jennifer Connelly smiling drearily as she clutches her huge bag of cut heroin in Requiem for a Dream.

Each of these scenes masterfully conveys the often misunderstand disease of addiction. And while these films are memorable in their own light, the most unflinching, brutal, realistic depiction of addiction I’ve seen is Mike Figgis’ modern masterpiece Leaving Las Vegas.

Nicolas Cage embodies alcoholism in a way I’ve never seen. As Ben, a helpless writer who moves to Las Vegas with the sole intention of drinking himself to death, Cage quite simply delivers one of the best acting performances of the ‘90s. His performance is unselfish, unrelenting, and immensely horrifying. It’s the type of acting film students study.

About an hour into the film, when Ben first arrives at Sera’s (Elizabeth Shue) home, they sit on the couch and discuss their awkward arrangement. Sera, a prostitute longing for some kind of human connection, has asked Ben to stay with her until he fulfills his life-ending goal.
After they talk, Sera gives Ben a few gifts, the first of which is a tacky, bright orange shirt, which Ben accepts in stride. Next, Sera hands Ben a small box, which he opens delicately. Moving the tissue paper out of the way, with the camera slowly closing in on Cage’s face, we see what he sees. A brand new, shiny silver flask. The camera stays on Cage’s face for the longest moment. He puts his hand over his mouth, fighting back tears. Then, with his voice cracking, he forces out: “Well, it looks like I’m with the right girl.”

He is completely dumbfounded. Never in his life has someone been as accepting of his disease. And that’s the power of the scene. Is it a nice gift? Of course. That’s what great gifts do, they fill a lack of want that we previously had (or didn’t know we had). But is it a noble gift? My god, no. It’s the same as giving a box of syringes to a heroin addict. Sera knows this. And she accepts it. She knows that by giving the flask to Ben, she’s only speeding up his untimely death. But there’s something tender and beautiful about the scene. Something… uplifting, but at the same time, devastatingly heartbreaking. In short, it’s the single greatest film moment I’ve seen involving addiction. It’s the scene that won Cage the Best Actor Oscar.
The underlying themes of Leaving Las Vegas are beautifully conveyed on that couch. Figgis, who has never made a better film, created a world that felt so vivid and real (thanks to his shoe-string budget and 16MM film stock), that you can’t help but fall in love with these battered characters.

I love recommending Leaving Las Vegas to people. I warn them that it’s heavy cinema and it stars a great Nicolas Cage. “What? Nicolas Cage? Great?” I know, it’s strange to hear. But it’s stranger to watch, because what we get is a performance free of any inhibitions. It’s the essence of acting: we don’t see Nicolas Cage, sell-out action star. We see Ben Sanderson, helpless alcoholic.

Watching Leaving Las Vegas is being thrown into a world that you knew existed, just not with this much severity. It’s a remarkable experience. You’ll end this favorite scene the same way you’ll end the film; feeling grimy, sad, deserted, but also terribly moved.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Maybe you’ve heard of this little film phenomenon called Paranormal Activity? But in case you’ve been living under a rock… three years ago, struggling filmmaker Oren Peli scrapped together a slim 15 grand, bought on decent camera, and shot a horror flick in his house using only two main actors.

Finding no distributor, Peli began previewing his film at midnight showings in a handful of college towns. Word spread. Like wildfire. Soon a trendy website was created where people could go on and request the film to come to their city. It worked. Big time. Every week the movie expanded to more screens. Now it’s up for a major release.

Which is a pleasant way of saying: now people all across America are about to seriously get the shit scared out of them.

No bullshit. Paranormal Activity is, hands down, one of the most terrifying movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. Coming from a guy who rarely gets freaked by films, take my word for it, you’re in for a fright.

The plot takes a lot less time to explain than the film’s origin. Katie and boyfriend Michah buy a camera to investigate a ghost that Katie thinks has been following her since she was 8. Michah, who doesn’t take the ghost stuff seriously, shoots a little during the day, but at night, he stations the camera at the foot of their bed, giving us a first-hand glimpse of what’s going down.

Things don’t begin balls-out. Each night scene is a slow progression into psychological, demonic madness. So, don’t expect all the blood and guts and bullshit that litters Hollywood horror flicks. No, instead, with this film, you create your own fear. Sure we see stuff, but for the most part the audience will be in charge of freaking themselves out, even if you don’t realize it.

This is the scariest type of cinema. The unknown. The psychological brutality of not knowing what the hell is going on. Sleep is a must, you can’t live without it. But knowing something is going to happen to you when you close your eyes… that’s troubling. And pulling it off in a way that isn't lame (ie Freddy Kruger), takes skill.

Describing the creepy antics that go down is to take the piss out of the entire film, so forget it. But let me say that it isn’t just the images that freak you out, no way. Peli’s use of sound is worth an Oscar. There is a slight sound (Bass cord? Ambient music? Guitar cord? I’m not sure), everytime something bad is about to happen. So after a while, each time you hear that noise, you know something is coming. Yet you can’t help your heart from pounding.

It’s a fantastic experiment in psychology. Like Pavlov’s experiment with dogs, Peli is using sound to produce a response, in this case one we subconsciously deem frightful.

I would be remised if i didn't admit my one major problem with the film. I’m not giving anything away by saying that Peli is seriously pushing this as a documentary, as if the San Diego Police Department found the camera and released edited footage. To me, that’s just silly. When the origin of a film is as popular as the film itself, people aren’t going to believe that it’s a true story. It worked for the Blair Witch Project because the internet wasn’t what it is today. But oh well. This fault says nothing bad about the film itself, just a slightly lame marketing tactic.

So, who should see Paranormal Activity? That’s easy. Everyone. For fans of horror films, this will rank up high with the best you’ve seen. For critics of the genre, like myself, a film like Paranormal Activity is a stroke of haunted genius. It slightly subsides our skepticism concerning a tired genre.

But be warned: sleep will not come easy that night that you see it. Or the next. Or hell, the night after that, too. A

Friday, October 9, 2009

Couple's Retreat

Given its title and trailer, you may be tempted to venture into Couple’s Retreat with your significant other. See some famous faces, have a few laughs, and so on. Don’t. For… the… love… of… god.

This movie is flat-out awful. Its 107 minutes produces not one laugh. I’m not exaggerating. That isn’t an hyperbole. I seriously did not laugh once in the entire film. And believe me, I’m a fan of most of the stars, but I suspect that the shooting location was far more appealing to them than the dialogue of the film.

There isn’t a scene acted or a line spoken that doesn’t feel forced and tired. Maybe you chuckled at the preview. Trust me, those are the only one-liners that produce the mildest of smirks. Save your money, stay away, or go see one of the other 20 movies out right now.

2009 is shaping up to be a hell of a year. Couple’s Retreat is right up there with Transformers 2 and Whiteout as the worst films of the decade. Seeing this movie is no retreat. It’s plunging your toilet, unsuccessfully, leaving shit all over the damn place. F

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

the Directors: the Coen Brothers

Who can switch gears better than the Coen brothers? They are seamless at jumping from dead serious crime drama to slapstick comedy. (Many will argue that their ability to fuse those two genres together produces their best work.)

Their films aren’t always great (or even that good) but you have to give them credit for experimenting with each passing picture. (I mean, can you believe the same guys that created The Dude also brought Anton Chirgurh (Jarvier Bardem in No Country for Old Men) to life?

Often dubbed “The Two-Headed Director” the Coens never fail to intrigue, and with their new film, A Serious Man out this month, it seems like an appropriate time to examine their work.

Blood Simple (1984)
A simply stunning film debut. Everytime I watch it, I’m somehow tricked by the exquisitely manipulated details. The Coen’s didn’t make another film like this until No Country for Old Men, and damn if they didn’t completely nail the noir tone from the get-go. Never seen it? No matter what kind of movies you like, you will surely enjoy this. A+

Interesting Fact:
Often voted as one of the best directional debuts in film history. Also, Joel met his future wife, Frances McDormand while making this film.

Raising Arizona (1987)
The Coen’s give us the first does of their zany, original humor. Usually these loopy comedies are a hit or miss, and I must admit, Raising Arizona has never done it for me. I think the comedy is forced and half-assed. But, there are several people that would disagree. You be the judge. B-

Interesting Fact:
The only main character to not cry in the film is the baby, Nathan Jr.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
A fantastic gangster film. The dialogue pops just as well as the Tommy guns. Another Coen gem that you can watch over and over without ever being bored. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better ‘20s-era gangster flick. A+

Interesting Fact:
This is one of the few movies that the Coens didn’t edit themselves (along with Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy.) The brothers usual edit under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.
Barton Fink (1991)
For this odd outing, the brothers experiment in blending their unique humor with startling suspense, to great results. John Turturro gives a tour de force performance. It’s not for everyone (ie, as the film gets longer, the scenes get weirder), but I’m a big fan. It’s one of their more little-seen films, but if you’re a Coen buff, it’s a must. A-

Interesting Fact:
The brothers wrote this movie in three weeks while suffering an extreme case of writer’s block while penning Miller’s Crossing.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Again, the Coen’s miss with their comedy. Some of this is funny, I suppose. The running gags, the over-the-top-ness of it all. But it doesn’t sit well with me, not compared to their other work. C+

Interesting Fact:
The death of Waring Hudsucker was inspired by a real-life incident. In 1975, Eli Black, the CEO of the United Fruit Company, smashed an office window with his briefcase and jumped to his death from the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City.
Fargo (1996)
What’s to say? A modern film masterpiece. Everything is flawless: the perfectly timed acting, the steely score, the icy cinematography, the geographically-specific dialogue, it’s all utter perfection. I want to highlight one particular aspect of the film that is often overlooked. Pay attention to the editing of the picture (by the Coens, naturally). The assembly of scenes is almost the best part of the movie. We don’t even meet our heroine Marge (Frances McDormand) until 40 minutes into the 98 minute film. Certain scenes seem unnecessary, which, if you’re not bored, is called character development. What’s better than two thugs banging a few hookers then cutting immediately to the four of them watching The Tonight Show? Not to be missed. A+

Interesting Fact:
The beginning of this film comes with a disclaimer saying that it is based on a true story. It isn’t. In keeping with their odd demeanor, the Coens created the “Based on a True Story” bit as a marketing ploy.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
A cult masterwork that lives up to its reputation. This is a strange movie-watching experience as each viewing actually gets better than the previous one. So if you’re off-put by the unusual humor (“Take it easy man! There’s a beverage here!”) don’t fret, just watch it again. Easily the Coen’s most successful comedy. A

Interesting Fact:
The only direction Jeff Bridges wanted before each of his scenes was to know if The Dude had “burned one down.”
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Another successful comic venture. It even holds up well as a folksy musical. Who woulda thunk that George Clooney would be a perfect fit for a zany Coen Brothers picture? Immensely enjoyable. A-

Interesting Fact:
This was the Coens first film not made from an original screenplay. They adapted the movie from Homer’s "The Odyssey".
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
I love that this film is rated R solely due to a 30 second scene of violence; the Coens never let anyone sway their vision, ratings be damned. This black and white, old school noir really hits its mark, with an impeccable Billy Bob Thornton in the lead. Although the highlight has got to be Tony Shalhoub as the fast-talking lawyer. A great, patient delight. A

Interesting Fact:
The movie was actually filmed in color, then printed in black and white via special processing.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
I’m up in the air about this one. It has its moments, but like most other Coen comedies, it falters badly as well. Some subplots are downright unnecessary. The question is, does the good stuff outweigh the bad? Sadly, I think not. C+

Interesting Fact:
I honestly can’t think of anything remotely interesting.
The Ladykillers (2004)
Another tough one to pin down. Tom Hanks is good, sure. But sometimes it feels like the Coens… just try a little too hard. It is entertaining, but it certainly drags on. J.K. Simmons is most definitely the highlight. C+

Interesting Fact:
This is the first Coen Brothers film where Joel Coen and Ethan Coen are both given directing and producing credits. They have shared these duties on all of their films, but Joel has always been listed as the director, and Ethan as producer.
Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Well, their six-minute short certainly isn’t the best of the bunch (that would be Alexander Payne’s closing segment), but it is amusing, and clearly marked with the Coen’s comedic stamp. Steve Buscemi is great in a wordless role. Pretty entertaining on its own. B+

Interesting Fact:
Each of the filmmakers had two weeks to write, shoot, edit and deliver their film to the producers of the movie.
No Country For Old Men (2007)
Right up there with the Coen’s best. The brothers justly won Best Picture and Director Oscars for their tense, deadly serious work. It takes real balls to completely throw out your style and invent something totally different. The performances are tightly wound and flawless (Woody Harrleson can act? Hmm). A lot of people bitch about the ending, not me. I think it suits the tone of the film perfectly (if you take the title quite literally, it may make more sense to you). One of the most faithful book-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. No wonder Cormac McCarthy was pleased. A+

Interesting Fact:
The Coens refused to give Josh Brolin an audition for the movie, so he asked director Robert Rodriguez to help him shoot an audition tape while Brolin was filming Planet Terror. With Quentin Tarantino directing, Rodriguez shot the tape with a $950,000 digital camera. Brolin sent it to the Coen's, their only remark: "Who did the lighting?"
Burn After Reading (2008)
Again, when I first saw it, I was indifferent toward it. During the second viewing, I completely ruined the movie for my girlfriend (her first viewing), as I laughed hysterically every second Brad Pitt was on screen. I’ll swear by this, but Pitt is much better here than in Benjamin Button (which he received an Oscar nomination for the same year). B+

Interesting Fact:
Looks like Georgetown, right? In fact, the film was mostly shot in and around New York City.
A Serious Man (2009)
Watching poor Larry, a regular man with serious problems, try and deal with one shit storm after the other is pure bliss. Definitely not for everyone, (but no Coen brother’s film is)? I can’t promise that you’ll understand the whole thing, but if you’re remotely interested in the Coens’ work, you’re sure to appreciate the philosophical, zany nature of it all. A-

Interesting fact:
This is the only seemingly semi-autobiographical film the Coen's have ever done. They too grew up in the Midwest during the 60s, to teacher parents under a strict Jewish upbringing.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Seeing a documentary is a different kind of movie-going experience. If I agree with its cause going in (The Cove, Food, Inc.) then I have to remind myself to view the film with complete objectivity. Critique it based on its cinematic merit; how well it portrays the cause, not how well it agrees with it. So, based solely on that criteria, I must say that Capitalism isn’t all that great.

I’m no fan of Michael Moore but I am a fan of his filmmaking. Whether or not you agree with his left ideals, you can’t dispute his skill to craft a documentary. His timing in use of music and retro pop culture clips is impeccable, some of the best around.

When he’s at his worst, Moore is intrusive (more than is needed), annoying, laughable and just simply unamusing. But at his best, Moore shows us some deeply honest moments, that no one but him could catch. The laid-off worker hearing “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” immediately after getting canned in Roger and Me, the K-Mart/bullet incident in Bowling for Columbine, the grieving mother breaking down in front of the White House in Fahrenheit 9/11, almost every interview in Sicko, and so on.

Capitalism has a few of those tender moments, sure, but they aren’t enough to shield you from Moore’s trying-too-hard antics.

When I “learn” something from Moore film, I take it with a grain of salt. Which means I go home and immediately research to see if it’s true. A few things in Capitalism (companies cash insurance policies on dead employees, then pay the family nothing), were shocking to see, and I found out, true. You see, I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t seen this movie. So for that I can appreciate it. I can say I learned something.

But other times, specifically near the end, Moore seems to veer way off course (cause?). He has an extended section mocking conservatives’ use of the word Socialism. Like it’s a bad, four letter word. BEWARE OF THE… SOCIALISTS! In typical Moore style, he lets the people make fun of themselves by showing actual news footage. But then something strange happens. Toward the end of the movie, Moore ends up doing the same exact thing with the word Capitalism. He starts going all fire and brimstone like Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly would (do?). And believe me, Moore isn’t doing this mockingly. He’s serious. So, now, he’s become a sort of contradiction. Making slight use of a word as if it is an all evil force (he even begs the audience to help his cause via some awful narration). I have trouble with this. And yeah, it kind of ruined the movie for me.

Sicko is long and far my favorite Michael Moore film. Why? Because I enjoy hearing about the cause. Because it feels the most real. And maybe, because Moore is in it the least. C


Liked Shaun of the Dead? Then you’ll like Zombieland (although not as much). That’s pretty much all I need to say, but of course, I’ll elaborate briefly.

A phobic geek (Jesse Eisenberg) and a bad mo-fo (Woody Harrelson), trek across a barren U.S. inhabited only by zombies. The unlikely duo run into two con sisters (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin) who want nothing more than to get to an LA amusement park, apparently zombie free.

Why see it:
-- It can be funny. Harrelson and Eisenberg play off their type-casts well and the constant stabs at pop cultural are amusing.
-- Stone, sexy in thick slabs in black eye shadow, is proving to be of worth, I think she’ll have a good career.
-- A dynamite cameo, in which an actor plays himself, is easily the highlight. Don’t ask around, don’t IMDB it, just let yourself be surprised.

Why not to see it:
-- Because you’ve seen it all before.
-- Because Eisenberg has played the same geeky, virgin character in his four biggest roles (Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, Zombieland). I mean shit, can’t the kid get laid?

But like most other horror throwaways, if you’ve paid the price of admission, you probably know what you’re getting yourself into, (although one couple did walk out early on… did they not read the title of the film?). Zombieland lacks the original wit of Shaun of the Dead, and the creeps of 28 Days Later. But it’s enough to keep you entertained on a Friday night (or maybe a rainy Sunday afternoon). C+

The Invention of Lying

I’m kind of surprised that The Invention of Lying hasn’t earned more controversy. In fact, I’ve heard very little about it except that it’s Ricky Gervais’ directorial debut. Although, I have a theory. If a film actually has to be good to gain controversy, then it’s clear why this movie has hidden under the radar.

Yes, sadly, as much as I enjoy Gervais’ slight, dry humor (as is evident in the original Office and HBOs short-lived Extras), he doesn’t have what it takes to create an engaging, funny, comedy.

In the fictional world we’re presented in the film, no one can tell a lie (we find this out via cheesy, unneeded voice over, a tell for novice filmmakers). Gervais’ character discovers he’s the only person on Earth that can lie. So naturally he advances his career, steals a lot of money and, almost, gets laid.

Gervais’ acting isn’t the problem (nor is Jennifer Garner’s or Rob Lowe’s or Tina Fey’s), no, they all exercise great comedic timing that will make you… chuckle once or twice. The problem is in the story and filmmaking in general. The script is so lame at parts that I could actually imagine the actors rolling their eyes off camera.

Oh, the controversy, right. Is it bad to spoil a film if I don’t recommend it from the get-go? In short, Gervais (an outspoken Atheist in real life) presents a film where the pleasant ending is that people find out that there isn’t a God, or an afterlife. It’s pretty ballsy, really, but I just simply wasn’t sold.

Not even a slew of spirited cameos (the best of which is a crazed cop) can save the film. Maybe in finer-tuned hands, The Invention of Lying could’ve soared. Not so much here. C