Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Piranha 3D

Piranha 3D is the kind of movie that knows exactly what movie it wants to be. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see a silly summer throwaway flick that knows it's a silly summer throwaway flick. (The Expendables fits this bill as well).

If you choose to walk into Piranha 3D (and, for my money, you should) then expect a ridiculously over-the-top gorefest; a real slapstick romp. There is not one single shred of scientific accuracy in the entire film. But, it never tries to justify itself as being accurate. The film is absurd. And it knows it.

When a lone beer bottle (really, a beer bottle? It couldn't have been a brick, or perhaps an anchor?) falls out of a boat and lands on the lake floor, it sets off a massive earthquake that releases century's-old piranhas.
 Because this takes place in a town similar to that of Jaws, the lake is littered with college spring breakers partying their asses off, and the cops (led by a badass Elisabeth Shue) are initially afraid to cease what will certainly be a huge monetary week for the town.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out where this is going.

There is, of course, the standard lame plot (as if violently starved piranhas aren't enough to carry a movie), but don't let that bog you down. 

There is no reason to praise Piranha 3D; believe me, I'm not going to sit here and defend it against its critics. But those pointing out every flaw are taking it far too seriously. There are flaws because gifted director Alexandre Aja (he made the scarily good High Tension) wants there to be flaws.

Honestly, how can you not enjoy a delirious Jerry O'Connell as a tequila'ed and coked up porn director?  Or Ving Rhames getting all medieval on some piranhas' asses? Or a  possessed Christopher Lloyd, playing the oh so convenient character who just happens to have a clay mold of the type of evil piranha sitting at his desk?

Because a sequel is already in the works, I have no shame in telling you that the ending is a complete cop out. But oh well, this ain't Citizen Kane. Hell, it isn't even Alien. But then again, it doesn't pretend to be. B

Note: Am I the only one that finds it ironic that the most grotesque (and hilarious) death in the film has nothing to do with a piranha?  Think a long ponytail and a faulty boat propeller.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

the Directors: Steven Soderbergh

Welcome to the wonderful world of Steven Soderbergh. The man has had one of the most varied careers in recent cinema. He began with a startling debut, then faded away for a decade behind little-seen oddities. Once he hit his stride in Hollywood via Ocean’s Eleven, he partly turned his back on Tinseltown, making many flicks for next to nothing, starring people we've never heard of.

Soderbergh is one of the rare filmmakers who can do just as much with $100 million as he can with $200,000. Because he directs, shoots, edits and camera operates the majority of his films, Soderbergh can selflessly be dubbed a true auteur. And with 12 flicks (and one TV show) under his belt in the 2000s alone, the dude is damn prolific, too. Basically, when I’m asked who my favorite current filmmaker is, Soderbergh is always one of the first names out of my mouth.

(Note: Soderbergh’s second film Kafka, made in 1991, is seemingly nonexistent. I’ve tried various outlets – Netflix, Amazon, used film stores – to no avail. Likewise his 1996 documentary, Gray’s Anatomy.)

sex, lies and videotape (1989)

An incredible debut film with the stamp of a true visionary. The audience immediately falls into Soderbergh’s unique world with the help of a bizarre story, and an intriguingly mysterious lead character. As the quick-witted banter flies off the screen, we slowly become all-consumed in Soderbergh’s psychological study on sexuality, lack of truth, and yes, videotapes. A

Interesting Fact: What do the titles 46:02Retinal Retention, Charged Coupling DeviceMode: Visual and Hidden Agendas all have in common? They were other possibilities for the title of this film.

King of the Hill (1993)
A moderately amusing tale of a young teen struggling to make it in the Depression-era Midwest. While the film looks good, the story and catchy gimmicks quickly grow old. There’s a reason you’ve probably never seen this movie. Not awful, but not among Soderbergh’s best. C+

Interesting Fact: Spalding Gray, the interest of Soderbergh’s little-seen documentary Gray’s Anatomy, has a brief cameo in this film.

The Underneath (1995)
A mediocre, yet highly stylized, crime caper. While the acting is good on all parts, namely William Fichtner as a psycho baddie, the story is weak and predictable. (Hint: if the first scene of a movie features an armored car, you can safely assume that it will be robbed by the film’s end.) B

Interesting Fact: Take notice of the use of different tint colors and canting camera angles, devices Soderbergh would soon perfect.

Shizopolis (1996)
When a movie opens with the director staring into the camera telling his audience that the film they are about to watch is the most important film of all time, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. At least that’s Soderbergh’s thought. This on-the-fly, cinema vérité experiment is great if viewed as a film with little-to-no meaning. Its satirical theme is amusing, but its gimmick runs dry pretty fast. B-

Interesting Fact: The movie was written, produced, directed, shot, and scored by Soderbergh himself. It cost $250,000 to make, and grossed just $10,580.

Out of Sight (1998)
Easily the most important film of Soderbergh’s career, as it put him on the mainstream map. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez practically light the screen on fire, their chemistry is that hot.  It doesn’t get any better than Clooney and Lopez, thief and cop, stuck in the trunk of a car, talking the night away. Also, notice how the different narratives are fused together through seamless editing, a technique that would soon become Soderbergh’s trademark. A

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh shot the trunk scene 45 times, each time in one long take. In editing, he realized he didn’t like any of them, so they reshot it with multiple setups.

The Limey (1999)
An underrated, ferocious little gem of a film. Soderbergh takes his loopy editing device from Out of Sight and explodes it. The film, about an old British hood seeking revenge on his murdered daughter, plays out like a brutal jigsaw puzzle. Terence Stamp in the title role, and Peter Fonda as a Hollywood goon, are perfectly cast. A great, hidden film. Check it out. A-

Interesting Fact: The DVD commentary for this film, with Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs, is almost as well known as the movie itself. Much of the track plays out like the film, with weird sound effects and repetition. And, most notably, the constant arguing between the two subjects on how the film was produced.

Erin Brockovich (2000)
I’ve always thought that Julia Roberts got way more credit in this movie than she deserved. The film’s technique, as usual, is the star, with extended cross dissolves and over-exposed photography. Albert Finney is great, but Julia just doesn’t do it for me. B-

Interesting Fact: Roberts received an unprecedented salary for her role, making her the first woman to make $20 million for a movie.

Traffic (2000)
In January, I chose Traffic as the best film of the 2000s, a decision I proudly stand by. I have not one negative thing to say about this film, which is a flawlessly detailed examination of drugs in America. Not only Soderbergh’s finest achievement as a director, but as a cinematographer as well. Casting each story in a different colored hue was sheer genius. The final scene of this movie is one of the best captured moments in all of film. A perfect cinematic experience. A+

Interesting Fact: The first names of the four men who won Oscars for this film are Steven, Stephen, Stephen and Benicio.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
A dazzling throwback to the Rat Pack glory days of Hollywood. In a bit of perfect casting, George Clooney excels as the suave Danny Ocean. Equally good are his thieving counterparts Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Elliot Gould. Honestly, have you ever talked to someone who flat-out hates this movie? It’s one of the most genuinely entertaining movies of the 2000s. A

Interesting Fact: If you’ve ever been tempted to watch a DVD with the commentary on, do it here with the Damon and Pitt track. It’s one of the funniest I’ve ever heard.

Full Frontal (2002)

Soderbergh’s first foray into indie mystery after achieving A-list status. Like his later tiny-budget films, you either like Full Frontal or you don’t. I’m not going to argue that it can be too Hollywood insider-y for the average viewer, but I didn’t see it as a complete failure. As an exercise in stripping movie powerhouses of their vanity, it definitely succeeds. But is the flimsy story enough to carry an entire film? You be the judge. B

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh attached a list of strict rules to the screenplay of this low budget film. The list included the fact that there would be no sets, no drivers, no hair and makeup, no trailers, no craft service, and a promise that the persons involved would have a great time.

Solaris (2002)

Hands down the most underrated film of Soderbergh’s career. Despite being produced by James Cameron, the film was released to dismal box office returns and harsh reviews. I’ve always thought Solaris was a patient, brilliantly realized story with convincing acting and a powerful conclusion. But not many would agree with me. A

Interesting FactSolaris was originally given an R rating due to two shots of George Clooney’s naked bottom. But in a landmark appeal, Soderbergh argued his case before the MPAA, citing that similar content (and worse) had appeared on network television. The movie was soon given a PG-13 rating.

K Street (2003)

This short-lived HBO series (it only lasted one season) was a ballsy, fly-on-the-wall approach to the inside working’s of the D.C. government infrastructure. Fusing together real people with fictional characters, Soderbergh, along with co-creator George Clooney, delivered an improvised, captivating work of modern television. Sure it only appealed to a select sect of people, but I have I feeling it would’ve grown into a superb show if given more time. A-

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh knew that in order to be current, he would have to discuss the most recent political news. For 10 weeks, he would film Monday-Wednesday, edit Thursday, complete sound editing and final touches on Friday, send to the studio on Saturday, and the show would air on Sunday.

Eros: "Equilibrium" segment (2004)
Soderbergh is one-third of this colossal disaster. With names like Wai Kar Wong and Michelangelo Antonioni, you’d expect something worthwhile. Such is not the case. The three short films of Eros each present their take on love and sex. The only remotely interesting one is Wong’s. Sadly, much like King of the Hill, there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of this movie. D

Interesting Fact: I got nothing.

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Probably the most hated of Soderbergh’s better-known films. But, like Solaris, I think this sequel is great, and dare I say, possibly as good as the first Ocean's. Ditching his controlled filming style used in Ocean’s Eleven and opting for a more insider’s perspective (à la K Street), Ocean’s Twelve makes better use of its characters, but admittedly slacks on its story. The scene where the Ocean’s crew discuss their new plan in a cramped hotel room is one of the best of Soderbergh’s career; a great, improvised work of art. A-

Interesting Fact: Clint Eastwood was rumored to make a cameo as Linus’s (Matt Damon) father, but had to drop out. Peter Fonda shot a scene as Linus’s father, but it was cut. Linus’s father was eventually played by Bob Einstein in Ocean’s Thirteen. Einstein is best-known for playing Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Bubble (2006)
For this little wonder, about a murder that shakes up the lives of a few doll-factory workers, Soderbergh traveled to a barren Midwest town, cast all nonprofessional actors, used their houses as sets, improvised all their dialogue, shot only for a few days, and then released it simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and On Demand. The result is a revelatory 73 minutes of independent film. Roger Ebert called this the second-best movie of 2006 for a reason. A-

Interesting Fact: Honestly, the whole damn setup is interesting. Just rent it.

The Good German (2006)
You’d think that if anyone could nail a Berlin-set, post-WWII romance, it’d be Steven Soderbergh. Especially if his cast has names like Clooney and Blanchett. But sadly, this Casablanca-esque, lovers-in-peril film never fully delivers. Blanchett is perfectly cast as a femme fatale, as is Tobey Maguire as a psycho soldier  And although The Good German is nearly technically flawless, the story is unbearably weak. You need more than luscious cinematography to keep a flick afloat. B-

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh only used film equipment that was available during the ‘40s. Essentially, the film is shot as if it had been made in 1945.

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
The third and final Ocean’s flick plays out like a revenge film after one of the crew members is injured by a new Vegas pusher, played by Al Pacino. I suppose I enjoy these films because it seems like everyone involved enjoys them so damn much. Still, Thirteen is so clearly the weakest effort of the trio.  B

Interesting Fact: During the final scene in the airport, Pitt tells Clooney to “try and keep the weight off between jobs next time,” a reference to Clooney’s weight gain for his role in Syriana. Clooney retorts by telling Pitt he should “settle down and have a couple of kids,” which Pitt has, and then some, with partner Angelina Jolie.

Che (2008)
Broken into two segments, Soderbergh’s epic chronicling of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is best viewed in one very long sitting (258 minutes to be exact). Not all of it is great: Soderbergh takes his time establishing the tiniest details with painstakingly long wide shots, expansive dialogue and seemingly endless subplots. For me, the reasons to appreciate it outweighs the reasons to bash it. Benicio Del Toro gives his best performance since Traffic as the dynamic Che. You believe his every gesture. The extended battle in the deserted town that concludes the first section of the film is the highlight of this expressive passion project. A-

Interesting Fact: Del Toro was Soderbergh’s first and only choice to play Che. But in the event of an emergency, Soderbergh’s Che back-up was none other than Val Kilmer.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Only Steven Soderbergh would cast a real life porn star in a film about a high class escort, and not have a single sex scene. Which sums up this tiny indie pretty well: it’s all about the tease. Porn star Sasha Grey, beyond all reasonable doubt, turns out solid work as the confused Chelsea. Grey seems to adapt to Soderbergh’s come-what-may method rather well. Fans of the auteur in question will be delighted by this film’s loopy narrative, which is, of course, a return to form. A-

Interesting Fact: Much like Bubble, this film was shot in a matter of weeks with mostly unknowns and, while cheap, didn’t nearly make back its money.

The Informant! (2009)
Matt Damon gives one of the best, and by far most zany, performances of his career as real-life whistle blower Mark Whitacre. Initially portrayed as a complete nincompoop, Damon slowly gives Whitacre sincere depth, diving further down into his emotional despair. I was genuinely surprised that this film didn’t garner serious awards attention. From Damon’s revelatory performance to Soderbergh’s corn-colored cinematography, it’s a real delight.  A-

Interesting Fact: According to Damon, Soderbergh used “perfect direction” when he told Damon to issue Whitacre’s final apology to the judge as if he were accepting an Academy Award.

The Expendables

You know what, I can't even lie: I enjoyed every single minute of The Expendables. No bullshit. It's a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, which is nothing more than a rock 'em sock 'em action flick. 

It's total crap, of course. The acting is forced and the dialogue is treated as an afterthought, but that didn't bother me. Here's why.

Director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone set out to make a balls-to-the-wall, '80s style action romp. And he's done just that. Most action movies today substitute real explosions for god-awful special effects. They depend on characters staring into computer screens to hack into some system, or use some piece of false weaponry that no one has ever heard of.

Sure there are a few CGI shots used here, but for the most part, shit really blows up, and guns and knives are used instead of infrared-thermal-nuclear-rocket-exploding-device... things. The Expendables never puts on a pretense. It's a throwback to the golden area of the genre, and it most definitely succeeds as just that.

Stallone and his gang of buffed-up badasses  have a blast as a crew of mercenaries hired to... hell I don't even know. Overthrow some foreign military general? Who cares.

The price of admission is worth the final blowout scene alone, most of which is set in the dungeon of a huge estate of said military general. As the men kill dozens, hundreds, seemingly thousands of bad guys without so much as receiving a scratch, they suddenly all get pinned down. Game over. Then, out of no where, one of them comes barging down the hallway blasting the shit out of anything that moves with an impossibly large shotgun. Awesome.

I shouldn't have liked this movie. It isn't my preferred cinematic cup of tea, to say the least. I should've balked at an obvious, cheesy line that Stallone delivers towards the Governor of California (who steals a scene with Mr. McClane), but instead, I laughed. I should've rolled my eyes at a barely comprehensible perfromance by Mickey Rourke, but instead, I just went with it.

Take the Transformers films for example, the most worthless clusterfuck of a film franchise that has ever been greenlit. Michael Bay actually thinks he's making The Godfather of action films; he thinks his films are masterpieces. The Expendables never gives off that impression, because it isn't trying to be great. It's just trying to blow shit up, and have fun doing it.  As Rourke would say: "Amen, brother." B

Eat Pray Love

Is it possible for one scene to completely change your opinion about a movie? Can one brilliantly staged and acted sequence make a dull movie great, or at least worth while? Food for thought (get it?!...sigh), but more on this later.

If you're one of the millions of people who read Elizabeth Gilbert's insanely popular memoir, you know the gist.

Between an ugly divorce and a fleeting relationship with a younger man, Liz (Julia Roberts) has a quasi nervous breakdown when she comes to terms with the fact that she's sick of her dull, passionless NYC life. She whips up an idea to spend the year eating in Italy, praying in India and loving in Bali.

It's a novel, commendable choice for a middle-aged woman to just up and go go go. And on the page, Gilbert's whimsical (if not too winded) prose casts a sense of solidarity with the reader; we feel like we know her and her experiences. Not so much with the film.

Director Ryan Murphy knows how to shoot some groovy b-roll (as was evident in his first TV show Nip/Tuck). The way he shoots and cuts together the opening segments of Liz arriving to each city is exhilarating (namely the India segment, which is perfectly scored to M.I.A's "Boyz"). But once the actors actually sit and talk, all, more or less, goes to shit.

The film rests solely on the shoulders of Julia Roberts. If you like her, you'll like the movie, if you don't particularly care for her (ding ding) then you won't be pulled into the drama. Watching Roberts kneel on her bedroom floor and pray for the first time, I knew I should be feeling something. I knew it was a pivotal, emotional scene for the character and the film itself. But I didn't care. At all. Because she didn't make me care.

Most of the scenes play out like that. In my mind, the star of the Italian segment was the food, in India it was the cranky old Texan Liz grows to admire (played to perfection by Richard Jenkins), and the effortless Javier Bardem stole all the Bali scenes.

But, can shots of food and two male actors keep a film afloat? I'm not sure.  Which bring me to the scene I mentioned earlier.

An hour and 15 minutes into this film, towards the end of the India segment, Roberts and Jenkins share a scene that is so well done, it damn near saves the entire film.

As the two sit, Jenkins slowly delivers a monolouge of perfect restraint and utter heartbreak. Director Murphy does a very wise thing here: he doesn't move the camera, not once. There is no cutaway shot of Roberts' swollen, crying face, no slow zoom-in to Jenkins' grimaced expression. It just stands still.

Richard Jenkins
This is what great acting is all about. You forget about the technique of filmmaking and the fact that you're watching paid actors. I can imagine Murphy's direction to Jenkins in this scene: "It's just you. Do what you can with it."

Before the film started, I never thought I'd predict that Eat Pray Love would be dubbed as an Academy Award contender. But Jenkins makes this the case. The actor has been stealing scenes for years in minor roles as the ghost dad in Six Feet Under, a love stricken boss in Burn After Reading, and most notably, as a isolated man in The Visitor. But in Eat Pray Love, and this scene in particular, he delivers his best, most controlled work to date. It's one of the very best scenes of the year. See the movie for Jenkins, he gets an A, the film as a whole, give it a D+.

Eat Pray Love?  Forget that.  How about Gym, Tan, Laundry?

Step Up 3D

What's to say, honestly? Maybe I'm at a disadvantage for not having seen the first two films in this critically acclaimed franchise. But come on, how can you turn down a dance flick in 3D?

Admirers of the first two Step Up's should have a fun time here, watching inner city kids battle over dancers for a monetary prize which will fix everyone's problems.

Fans probably aren't concerned with the acting, which is a... step up above that of a porn star's. Or the fact that when the actors face the camera mid-dance, the 3D makes their limbs look like Stretch Armstrong's.

Nothing is believable, everything is forgettable. Just another summer at the movies. D


Joel Schumacher has had one of the most staggered careers in recent Hollywood. He started strong (St. Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys), made one of the most widely mocked films of all time (Batman Forever) then made a sequel to it (Batman & Robin).  He's made a few great dramatic films (Falling Down, A Time to Kill, Tigerland) and now just keeps under the radar with mediocre flicks.

Schumacher has always had in interest in examining nice people doing not so nice things, such as in Twelve where the lead character, White Mike (awful name) is a sober drug dealer trying to hustle a living after his mother's death.

White Mike, as played by Gossip Girl pretty boy Chance Crawford, walks around New York City in his designer pajamas, dealing weed to trustfund babies on spring break, none of which speak like they actually attend Harvard or Yale, as is evident by their inability to form a coherent sentence, ending every thought with the words "you know" and/or "like."

Crawford plays White Mike, or  Schumacher directs him, as a guy full of moral fiber. He's so much better than the people he deals to; he has like, you know, morals.

Whatever. White Mike's thugged-out hookup (50 Cent, really stretching here) wants Mike to start dealing Twelve, a new sort of smack that comes on like cocaine but fades into an ecstasy high. But Mike wants no part of it. He's, like, you know, too good for that... stuff.

The film barely strings together a slew of characters, none of which you'll care about. And when the movie (finally) ends, you won't even care that it was due to a cliched, laughably predictable blowout.

You probably didn't get a chance to see this in theatres; it didn't last too long. And trust me, don't seek it out on DVD. Because, like, you know, it... sucks. D-

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Life During Wartime

You gotta give it to a guy like Todd Solondz. The dude’s movies get weirder and more perverse with each passing festival circuit. He aims to shock, appall and, most importantly, make you think. It would be easy to write Solondz off as a smut hack. Don’t. Look closer.

Solondz’s first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was an indie sensation. It dealt with teenage angst in a way American audiences hadn’t seen. Happiness, an epic character study about love, loss, pedophilia, sexual harassment and more, is indeed great, even if its content is grimacing. But since Happiness, Solondz has taken his extremes to new levels.

Storytelling is less remembered for its multi-narrative format than for Solondz’s infamous antics surrounding it. (He mocked the MPAA by plastering a huge red square over the bodies of two actors during a particularly rowdy sex scene.) In the little-seen Palindromes, the main character, a 12-year-old girl, is played by eight different actors of various genders and races. If anything, you remember how these films shocked you, and not how they were uniquely conceived.

Now we get Life During Wartime, a quasi-sequel to Happiness with a complete re-cast of characters. Michael K. Williams (unforgettable as Omar in The Wire) replaces Philip Seymour Hoffman was a prank-calling pervert. Ciaran Hinds steps in the shoes of Dylan Baker as a seriously disturbed pedophilic monster. Lara Flynn Boyle is now Ally Sheedy, and so on. The reshaping of the cast isn’t important, it’s just a gimmick. What Solondz wants you to realize, I think, is that no matter who says or does it, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s been said, or done.

Taking its title from a Taking Heads song, Life During Wartime is presented far more abstractly than Happiness. At its root, it’s still about a family of three sisters and their struggles with sex and life and love. And while little is explained, one of the film’s biggest downfalls is that you need to have seen the first film to fully be able to keep up; not a fair conclusion for a movie that came out 12 years ago.

If there are highlights it’s in Ciaran Hinds and Paul Reubens (yes, Mr. Herman). Fresh out of prison, Hinds’ first few scenes are wisely wordless as he slowly makes his way to the Florida coast in search of his family. We’re not entirely sure what he is planning to do, but with Hinds locked in a steady look of utter conviction, it’s impossible to not want to follow him.

Reubens, taking over Jon Lovitz’s role, pops up in a few scenes as the tortured ghost of Shirley Henderson’s ex boyfriend. Watch Reubens’ eyes as they swell red with anger and self-regret. I haven’t seen Pee Wee in a while (Blow, maybe?) but damn if he doesn’t steal the show.

If you’re a Solondz fan, you’ve probably already bought a ticket for Life During Wartime. If you’re a newbie to Solondz’s warped view of American culture, then save this one for later. Either way: be warned. Solondz’s dialogue is written specifically to cut directly to the bone. Something he has seemingly perfected, but always to your liking. B-