Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Never Let Me Go

What a damn fine film this is.  And a damn hard one to review, too.  Much like Catfish, saying too much is ruining the whole thing.  If you’ve been unfortunate enough to read reviews from the assholes at “People,” “Entertainment Weekly,” and other various media outlets, then the core drama of this beautiful film is all but busted.

Three youths become fast friends at a boarding school in England circa 1960.  But this isn’t your average school.  Something is different.  Again, to describe that “something” is to take the piss out of the whole thing, so forget it. 

At the age of 18, the trio of friends - the quiet, reserved Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the curious Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and the sorrowful Ruth (Keira Knightly) – are released from the school and sent to live in the quasi real world.  Even though they live in public, their lives are lived in a bubble, so sheltered from the way they were raised.

Most films with such suspicious plot elements hold out the big surprises for the final moments.  Not here.  Even as young children, the characters in this film know what is in store for them.  In short, you’ll know after 20 minutes of screen time what the big secret is.

So instead of dwelling on that, I need to convince you that this is a film worth seeing, even though you know next to nothing about it.

Never Let Me Go is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s triumphant novel, a prose that “The New York Times” dubbed as one of the best of the decade.  And here, it is delicately brought to the screen by director Mark Romanek, whose only other film credit is the very good, very fucking freaky One Hour Photo.

What Romanek does with this film, on nearly every level, is breathtaking.  The film spans 25 years, but every time period is visually displayed in the same exact way.  Through sepia-infused cinematography and brown-muted costumes, the characters in Never Let Me Go appear as though they live in 1930s Britain, which is interesting, given that the film goes all the way to 1994.

The acting, on all accounts, is enough to get the attention of any Oscar voter.  By shedding some pounds off her already slender physique, Keira Knightly delivers by long and far her best performance yet, and Andrew Garfield excels as the film’s moral center. (Remember his name, he’s the second lead in Fincher’s new Facebook flick, as well as the rumored lead in the Spider-Man reboot.)

As I stated in my Wall Street 2 review, Carey Mulligan is proving herself as an actress of incredible emotional depth.  Never Let Me Go marks her fourth movie in which she has a substantial role, which is another way of saying that she’s stolen four movies over the past two years.

Now for the criticism.

The aforementioned reviews are having a blast picking and pulling and tweaking every little detail of this movie.  Why?  Well…

American’s, for the most part, like their cinema like they like their food: fast and cheap.  A lot of the criticism for this movie stems from the fact that not a lot happens.  Meaning there are no clichéd conversations in which every single problem is resolved in five script pages of dialogue.

So let me say this: something doesn’t have to be happening for something to be going on.  Inaction can still be an action.  Ever seen a Terrence Malick flick?  No?  How about Ingmar Bergman?  Still cold?  Try Jim Jarmusch, David Gordon Green, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky.  All have proved that movies don’t necessarily have to have action on the surface, for there to be something stirring underneath.  Look at Mulligan’s eyes in this movie, they say more than most actors do in an entire film.

And the other big thing: why don’t the characters in Never Let Me Go question what is to happen to them.  Well, that is simple.  Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth inhabit a world that doesn’t change.  They live in a world where their fate is their only option.  Escape isn’t a thought because… escape isn’t a thought. 

I haven’t been able to shake a single moment of this film in the time since I watched it.  It’s destined to be one of the best movies of the year. A


How do you review a movie which is so surrounded in secret, that simply revealing what the seemingly irrelevant title means will ruin the whole film?

By now most of us have heard of that suspicious little movie in which a twentysomething from New York City meets a Michigan family online and soon begins to have a “Facebook” affair with the family’s 19-year-old daughter.  If you’ve seen the brilliantly realized trailer, then you know that’s just the beginning.  What Catfish promises is thrills and shocks and scares.  And ,dun dun duuuun, the truth.

After one of Nev’s photographs lands the cover of a New York publication, he soon receives a painting of his photo in the mail.  It’s from Abby, a talented 8-year-old Michigan girl who sells her paintings for thousands of dollars.  Nev’s older brother and friend, both amateur filmmakers, break out their equipment and decide to document the entire thing.

Nev’s relationship with Abby is sweet and tender, so no, the movie doesn’t take a To Catch a Predator turn.  Through Abby, a ridiculously prolific Facebook user, Nev meets her entire family.  Abigail, the young mom; Megan, the of-age sister with model-like looks; Alex, the musician brother, and several others.

Nev and Megan quickly hit it off, but something is up.  He wants to meet - drive to Michigan, whatever - but she’s never game.  She stalls and makes excuses and dodges most of his advances to actually take their relationship to the next level.  You know, the actual meet-you-in-person level.

That’s about all I can say.

It’s obvious from the trailer that something happens that deters the course of the film.  This is true.  But it isn’t what the trailer leads you to believe.  Catfish is, in no way, a horror movie.  Nothing spooky happens.  But, I feel it is necessary to hint at the fact that some of the people in this Facebook family are not exactly who they appear to be, but you probably already guessed that.

Without revealing the final third of the movie, which, I see no reason to; it’s hard to describe the moral dilemmas that the film raises.  Which leads me to my next, and probably biggest point.

Is it real?

I have no idea. Much like Casey Affleck’s film I’m Still Here, we are presented a story in a way that appears to be 100 percent fact.  Affleck recently admitted the exact opposite of his movie and while I appreciate the Catfish filmmakers fighting to declare their film as authentic, in the back of my mind, I keep wondering when the GOTCHA moment will come. As in, “nope, just kidding, it’s all bullshit.”

So let me say this: if it’s real, then it’s the work of three very skilled, very dedicated filmmakers who got very very lucky when they decided to film what started off as a meaningless correspondence.  If it’s fake, then some of the “actors” deserve Academy Awards.  One woman in particular, who I won’t name, delivers a “performance” that trumps anything Robert De Niro has churned out in the last 12 years.

But that’s only if it’s fiction.  If it’s real, her “performance” is just plain sad.  Not pathetic sad, but troubling sad.  As in we feel for her. Because, fact or fiction, we really do. B+

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

What made the first Wall Street good (not great) was that it broke down very complex, segmented issues for those who were fiscally inept.  But its sequel, alas, falls short of this criterion by a long shot.  And them some.

For most of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone’s follow up to his much better 1987 film, I hadn’t the slightest idea what the hell the main characters were talking about.  Like Stone’s last film, W., a lot of the characters in this Wall Street sit around large tables in large conference rooms talking about a familiar concept (money) by using complicated terms that only 5 percent of the American population will be able to understand.

I don’t expect to be able to comprehend every single detail of every single film, but if I don’t understand it, the material should at least be presented in a compelling way.  I have no idea how to diffuse a bomb, but that doesn’t make The Hurt Locker any less interesting.

Following the aftermath of the last film, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has just served an eight year bit in prison, and now, on the eve of the biggest American financial meltdown in history, he’s become a successful writer and motivational speaker.  After delivering one amusing speech, he’s stopped by stock market prodigy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) who tells Gekko that he will soon marry his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).

That should be enough for a plot, but Stone weighs his film down with stock market revenge games involving the VP of a firm (Josh Brolin), Jake’s mentor (Frank Langella), and a bunch of suited-up rich dudes.  Other plot elements include Jake’s debt ridden mother (Susan Sarandon), and his fascination with… motorcycles.

I mean, Jesus Christ, why so much?

My main hesitation walking into this film was LaBeouf’s ability to pull off a lead role opposite Douglas reprising his best role.  To say LaBeouf pulls it off is an understatement.  The 24-year-old actor damn near carries the film, that is, unless his scenes are being stolen from Mulligan, who has every right to be argued as one of the best actresses of her generation.  The tender relationship the two share (which, of course, resulted into them having a real life relationship) is the highlight of the film.  The way Jake proposes to Winnie is touching and original; it’s a standout scene.

The rest of the acting is top notch. Brolin has a blast playing the gutless villain while Douglas fits seamlessly into the role that won him an Oscar more than 20 years ago.  And there is an obvious but extremely rewarding cameo that should earn applause from the audience. But the film is simply not compelling.  Maybe it’s because there is too much going on, maybe it’s because, at times, it’s hard to understand exactly WHAT is going on.

The blogosphere is blowing up with criticism surrounding this film’s ending.  I didn’t have a problem with it.  But maybe by then I was just glad it was over.  C

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town

The best line in The Town, Ben Affleck's second directorial effort after his masterful Gone Baby Gone in 2007, will go missed by many because of its subtlety. 

Most of what  made Gone Baby Gone so memorable were the seemingly minor details that we picked up on during a second viewing. The throwaway lines, the quick glances, and so. The Town is just like that. Is it better, or even as good as Affleck's first? I'm not too sure, let's find out.

We are offered quotes in the beginning of the film stating that the troubled, crime ridden, Boston neighborhood of Charlestown has produced more bank robbers than any other neighborhood in the world. The Town is the story of four of them.

Doug (Affleck) heads a team of  thorough thieves who knock off armored cars and banks. He leads the crew with of his intelligence and precision, while his best friend, Jim (a flawless Jeremy Renner), enforces all the violently necessary tasks.

After the crew has to resort to nabbing a hostage (Rebecca Hall), they get some serious heat from the FBI, namely a go-for-broke agent (Jon Hamm).

With The Town, Affleck proves that Gone Baby Gone wasn't a fluke; the dude can direct. Period. 
In this film, he so perfectly stages a car chase that it reminds us of The French Connection. And a lengthy, detailed shoot out can be mentioned in the same breath as Heat. But beyond his excellence use of technique (dropping and bring back sound, reversing a time-lapsed sunset) Affleck will grow to be known as a guy that can seriously direct his actors.

Fresh off his should-of-won-the-Oscar performance in The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner steals every second he's on screen. As a psychopathic, tatted up badass, Renner outacts every one in the picture, which is saying a lot.

You've seen Rebecca Hall in a few things (The Prestige, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Please Give), but she's never been better than she is here. The "babe in the woods" routine of a hostage falling for her captor has been done tenfold, but not with Hall's convincing charm.

But by far the biggest surprise comes in the form of a young, smoldering blonde named Blake Livley.

I've never seen Livley act before (sorry, no Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Gossip Girl... shocker) for which I am grateful. As Doug's coked-out, oxy'd-up ex, Lively draws us in so convincingly, we forget who she is. Don't make the mistake of crediting her beauty. With a performance like this, looks have nothing to do with it. There's a scene she plays with Hamm that demands a broad range of emotions in a matter if seconds. She nails it. Lively does what Amy Ryan did in Gone Baby Gone, only better. Oscar, pay attention.
Blake Lively
If there are faults in the film, they come from Affleck the actor. He's had his moments in previous roles, and he does all right here, but I kept thinking how much more I would believe his character if it was played by someone else (Bale? Damon? Norton?). Oh well.

The Town stands pretty damn tall against the other crime "thrillers" released this year (The Losers, Takers, Armored). But that's not saying much. Everyone should enjoy this movie. It ain't perfect, but it's the work of a very skilled, only-to-get-better director.

Oh and that line. Towards the end of the film, Hamm reads a brief note that was left on his car. His silent reaction is amusing, but watch who he hands it to and listen to what he says when he does it. It's as perfectly-timed as anything he's delivered as Don Draper. Blink and you'll miss it. A-

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

2010 Fall Movie Preview

Save a few rare exceptions, 2010 has been one of the worst years in recent cinematic history.  Here are a few films that hope to curb that. Clicking the titles links you to the film’s trailer.

The Town: Sept. 17
Directed by Ben Affleck
After exceeding any and all expectations with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s Boston-set crime drama is already earning rave reviews.  I’ll go in skeptical, but most likely leave surprised.

Directed by Oliver Stone
Stone has made it very clear that Michael Douglas reprising his role as Gordon Gekko will be a supporting performance to Shia LaBeouf.  Mistake?  Maybe.  But I’m there.

Directed by David Fincher
Casting Jesse Eisenberg as your lead, in this case the founder of Facebook, could be disastrous.  But Fincher has no idea how to make a mediocre, disinterested film.  My favorite film critic, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, has already called this “the film of the year.”  That’s enough for me.

Directed by Daniel Alfredson
If it’s anything like the first two, this final installment to the Swedish trilogy will be supremely badass.  Better news: Noomi Repace just hired the same publicist that helped an unknown Marion Cotillard earn the Best Actress Oscar in 2007.  Here we go…

Hereafter: Oct. 22
Directed Clint Eastwood
“I like to think of this as a chick flick, but one that men will like too.”  That’s about all Eastwood is telling us, but considering that Clint has been on a masterful streak since 2003’s Mystic River, you can expect this one to hit as well.

127 Hours: Nov. 5
Directed by Danny Boyle
Not many directors could pull off a movie in which its main character is pinned down by a rock for most of its running time.  The film will rest entirely on star James Franco’s shoulders.  If we don’t believe him, then it will flop. Which… I doubt.

Fair Game: Nov. 5
Directed by Doug Liman.
The true story of ousted CIA agent Valerie Plame is to be played by Naomi Watts with Sean Penn as her husband.  Count me in.

Black Swan: Dec. 1
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
The man responsible for the best film of 2008 (The Wrestler) will deliver again with this creepy, pseudo sci-fi mystery about two dueling ballerinas. 

The Fighter: Dec. 10
Directed by David O. Russell
Easily the film I’m looking forward to most this fall.  Mark Walhberg is finally able to bring his years-long passion project, about real-life boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward, to the screen.  Christian Bale, who got Machinist thin for his role as Ward’s drug-addicted trainer, could finally score that Oscar nom.

True Grit: Dec. 25
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coan
The Coen brothers take on the same novel, about a drunken U.S. Marshall who helps a girl find her father, that landed John Wayne his only Oscar.  The Wayne film isn’t particularly great, but I imagine this will be.  Could Jeff Bridges be the first actor since Tom Hanks to land back-to-back Best Actor Oscars? 

Biutiful: Dec. 29
Alejandro González Iñárritu's first film since Babel.  Sold.

Another Year: Dec. 31
Directed by Mike Leigh
Leigh is one of the very best living filmmakers, and his latest, about an aging married couple, earned raves at the Cannes Film Festival in May. It makes no difference what Leigh’s films are about, as long as they have his unique stamp, I’m there.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams brought the house down at Sundance for their portrayal of a tumultuous couple who fall in and out of love.  Details are mum, which is good.  Expect serious awards attention. 

And a few more to keep track of:
Never Let Me Go is full of murky plot details, but it’s impressive cast and talented director should make it worth while. Sept. 15

Catfish appears to be a… documentary?  Maybe?  Who cares.  It boasts the best trailer of the year. Sept. 17

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is Woody Allen’s annual film (he’s made nearly one a year since 1976), for better or worse.  Sept. 22

Buried has exactly at stake what 127 Hours does. Can Ryan Reynolds pull off a solo act of a guy trapped in a coffin with just a lighter and cell phone?  I don’t know, but I’m intrigued. Sept. 24

Waiting For “Superman” examines America’s flawed education system.  Should be a tearjerker. Sept. 24

Let Me In (Oct. 1) and Paranormal Activity 2 (Oct. 22) won’t be as good as their originals, but I’ll give them a shot.

Conviction is serious Oscar bait for Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell.  Could come off as a bit too melodramatic though. Oct. 15

The Next Three Days looks a little too far fetched.  But Paul Haggis’ hands are capable enough I suppose. Nov. 19

The King’s Speech is already generating some serious Oscar buzz for Colin Firth.  The Academy is always a sucker for those period British flicks. Nov. 24

Miral is Julian Schnabel’s latest, which means that I have no idea what it’s about, but I’m sure it’ll be great. Dec. 3

Somewhere is Sofia Coppola going all Lost in Translation on us, which is worth (another) shot. Dec. 22

The American

I knew after its first five minutes that I was going to love The American.  The opening scene, which I see no reason to reveal here, sets the tone perfectly. We know that we’re in for something different.  Something deliberately paced (i.e. slow), something expressionistic (i.e. not a lot of explaining) and something bold (i.e. George Clooney minus the charm).

In fact, The American is the best foreign film (that just happens to be an American film) that I’ve seen in years.  Save the title and its star, there is nothing inherently American about this movie.  Which, for the purposes of exploring familiar themes using unconventional methods, is a very good thing.

Clooney plays an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village after being mysteriously ambushed.  While hiding out, his employer contracts him to build a weapon from scratch for another would-be assassin.  He soon meets and falls for a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and decides that this job will be his last.

That’s pretty much it.  On the surface, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot going on here.  And that’s just the way skilled director Anton Corbijn wants it to appear.

In a three-sentence plot description, The American comes off as a flick full of clichés.  Not a chance.  First off, focus on the scenery, which itself acts as a character.  Corbijn, much in the way of the great Michael Haneke, shows you something, but doesn’t guide you.  There’s no sudden close up urging the viewer to LOOK OVER HERE.  No.  You have to find the clues for yourself, which is very un-American as far as filmmaking goes.

Next, throw in one of the most recognizable faces in the world as your lead, and have him play a character unlike any other he’s played.  As Jack (or Edward, or who ever) George Clooney delivers the most controlled performance of his career.  His dialogue is sparse (it maybe adds up to 10 script pages of talking) which causes him to tell his story with his eyes and face, something Clooney is often ignored for doing in other roles.

Lastly, how about that “one last job” bit?  For every movie that has done this brilliantly (Heat, Inception), there are four that have failed at it.  This one succeeds because Jack’s final job is underplayed by the elimination of risk (making a gun isn’t as tough as, say, killing a high profile figure) and the fact that it is mentioned only once in passing.

Watching The American, I was reminded of the great foreign directors.  Parts of the film – the dialogue as an afterthought, the extended shots of landscapes, little exposition – are supremely Ingmar Bergman.  Other parts – the nonchalant sexuality, the quick action sequences – were reminiscent of Antonioni.  And all the better.

Given the film’s modest box office take, it’s obvious that people aren’t flocking to see this. That’s a shame.  If they did, they’d know that The American is one of the very best films to be released this year.  Go for something different.  A

Monday, September 13, 2010

I'm Still Here

Here is my original review for I'm Still Here, followed by a not so subtle amendment:

Most everyone saw, or heard about, Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre, basically incoherent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman last February. The blogosphere exploded with speculation.  Was it a hoax?  Was Joaquin really quitting acting, only to be known as JP, an aspiring rap artist?   Or, was it, gulp, for real?

Casey Affleck’s unsettling, if not suspicious documentary, won’t answer all your questions, but it knows it doesn’t have to, either.

Affleck, Phoenix’s good friend and brother-in-law, followed Phoenix around for almost a year shortly after the two-time Oscar nominee announced he was giving up acting for good.  The result is quite remarkable. 

Over the course of the movie we witness Phoenix snort cocaine, order prostitutes off the internet, snort cocaine off of the breasts of said prostitutes, go ape shit on his best friends, punch out attendees at his rap performances, piss off Sean “Diddy” Combs, and, yes, bomb on Letterman.

Much in the way of D.A. Pinnebaker’s brilliant 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, I’m Still Here doesn’t fully explain Phoenix as a man, or really unveil the true reason he decided to quit a profession he was, mostly, quite good at.  Instead, we’re presented a portrait of someone with very little self esteem, who was, suspiciously, all right with having cameras on him 24/7 for a year. 

I’ve used the word suspicious twice because as Phoenix’s gut grows larger and his beard becomes scruffier, his antics become increasingly more out of control.  Several times during the film, I wondered how much of what I was seeing was real, and how much was simply faked or improved upon.

After much pondering, I think Joaquin Phoenix did truly want to find new life inspiration by becoming a rapper.  I do think that most of what he does in the film – the tirades, the drugs, the sex – did indeed happen.  Is he playing up for the cameras?  Of course.  But I think the root cause is genuine. 

There are a few moments in the film which led me to believe this.  Phoenix admits multiple times that his music is shit and that he doesn’t know how to clean his slate.  Also, it’s hard to say that Phoenix escaping from a limo and fleeing into the woods directly after his Letterman appearance, sobbing hysterically in the arms of his best friend, is fake.  If it is, it’s the best acting he’s ever done.

As a film, first-time director Casey Affleck uses some groovy editing techniques (speeding up a long tracking shot of Phoenix getting girls into his hotel room is a highlight), but really, the star here is the film’s subject.  We may not know any more about him, but, like he asks of the audience in his opening monologue, we may not necessarily judge him (as much) anymore.

It’s just been released that Phoenix will sit in Letterman’s guest chair on Wednesday Sept. 22.  I suppose he is still here after all.  A-

Amendment to original review:

Well, Casey Affleck recently told the New York Times that his film was all a complete lie. No no... "performance art," as he calls it.  Bullshit.  If Affleck admitted up front that this was a mockumentary, in the way of This Is Spinal Tap, then we all could've rolled with it.  But admitting that your film is all fake a week after its release is just lazy.  The Blair Witch Project did that, rather successfully, and it hasn't been done well since.  We knew from the get-go that characters in Paranormal Activity were actors, but that film was still scary as all hell.

Admitting up front that I'm Still Here was going to be a piece of "performance art" would've been fine.  Audiences love watching real actors play caricatures of themselves (Curb Your Enthusiasm comes to mind). 

But finding out it's a hoax, which most of us were expecting anyway, is just flat out fucking lame.  If you read my initial review it is obvious that I was fooled. Affleck says that wasn't his intention, but I'm still pissed anyway.  In my review I said that if the film was fake, it was the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix's career.  Because I still partly believe that, I'll go easy with my new grade of D-.  But it probably deserves worse.

The Tillman Story

What more do you possibly need to know about Pat Tillman and the events surrounding his death?  The story was poked and prodded for months after Tillman died under mysterious circumstances in Afghanistan in April 2004.  But director Amir Bar-Lev wanted, like every good documentarian should, to look closer.

Shortly after 9/11, Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman turned down a multimillion dollar contract and enlisted in the Army Rangers.  Two years later, he was killed in action.  People got curious.  Rumors spread, controversy was uncovered, politicians were made to look bad, and then the story went away.

Tillman’s mother Dannie, wasn’t pleased to learn that officials had initially covered up the fact that Tillman and members of his platoon were gunned down by friendly fire.  She also knew that the story didn’t end there, so she began digging. 

Revealing all she uncovered is to reveal everything that the film uncovers, which is no fun to read in a review.  Let’s just say that, if Dannie was 100 percent correct, Tillman’s death was covered up by everyone who knew about it, which goes high up the political food chain.

But the details surrounding the cover up aren’t nearly as riveting as the Tillman family’s inability to cope with not necessarily what happened, but how it was told to them.

None of this is conveyed better than in the speech Tillman’s younger brother, Richard, gives at Pat’s memorial service.

Jumping up on stage in a white tee shirt tucked into blue jeans, Richard looks around, takes a swig of his tall Guinness, and speaks.

“Wow, there are a lot of people here, thanks for coming,” he says almost sarcastically.  “Pat's a fucking champion and always will be.  And, he’d want me to say this, but he's not with God. He's fucking dead. He's not religious. Thanks for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead."

The comment is startling in its delivery, which is calm and precise, and echoes in your mind long after you exit the theatre.  It’s raw and real.

Like the best documentaries made recently, The Tillman Story doesn’t offer a full resolution to its subject.  Dolphins are still being slaughtered in a hidden cove in Taiji.  Father Oliver O’Grady is still alive and well and living free in Ireland, even after admittedly molesting hundreds of children. We’ll never know if Jesse Friedman actually raped boys with his father.  We’ll probably never hear President Bush admit that he knew Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, only to lie about it later.
Although The Tillman Story isn’t nearly as good as those other films, it carefully and believably presents an issue that may very well never find a satisfying resolution.  A good documentary doesn’t have to give you all the answers; it just has to make you care.  B

Sunday, September 12, 2010


When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino made their deliciously underrated throwback flick, Grindhouse, a fake trailer for a movie about an ex-Federale framed for an attempted assassination, opened the film.  Three years later, Rodriguez releases the feature film formed around that trailer.  Kept is its name, Machete, it’s star, Danny Trejo and its basic plot. 

It’s fair to assume that, based solely on that initial trailer, Rodriguez expects most of us to dismiss the full-length Machete as ‘70s pulp trash.  Yeah… and?

Rodriguez knows what he’s doing.  He’s making a carefree, ultraviolent, gut-bustlingly funny film that involves little to no thinking.  It’s in the same vein as Piranha 3D and The Expendables; If you can’t have fun with it, don’t even bother coming.

We’ve all seen Trejo before.  With damn near 200 film and television performances over the past two decades under his belt, he’s one of the most prolific character actors working today.  But here, as Machete, he finally gets his name above the title.

Years after witnessing his wife killed by a drug lord (a wonderfully bloated Steven Seagal) Machete tries to blend in with the rest of the illegal immigrants in a Texas town, getting whatever day-laborer work is thrown at him.  But one day he’s picked up by a creeper in a suit (Jeff Fahey, yes, the Lawnmower Man) and offered some serious dough to take out an ultra right-winged Senator (Robert De Niro, having a blast).

But after Machete is framed for the near fatal shooting of the Senator, he seeks revenge to clear his name.  With the help of babes like Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and, yes, Lindsay Lohan, Machete kills his way to the top, which results in a fantastically overblown showdown of Texas hicks vs. Mexican immigrants.

Of course the whole flick is completely over the top, but that’s the point.  It boasts  virtually no substance, but doesn’t for a second pretend to be something other than it is.

Fans need not be dismayed, as the final credits tell us, Machete will return… twice.  As Machete cuts and stabs and shoots his way to the top, none of the bad guys can stop him, and Machete can’t miss.  Rock ‘n’ roll. B

Friday, September 3, 2010

Get Low

With little effort, one could make a very convincing argument that Robert Duvall is America’s best living actor.  Just a few months shy of his 80th birthday, Duvall has been igniting the screen ever since his haunting, underplayed debut in To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Really, can you picture anyone else as Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen in the Godfather’s?  Or sleazy publisher Frank Hackett in Network?  You know for a fact that no one else could pull of a line as bizarre as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” as well as Duvall.  But that’s not fair, a lot of actors had their heyday in the 70s. 

So how about a list of very mediocre films that Duvall not only stole scenes in, but actually made the film worth watching: Deep Impact, A Civil Action, Phenomenon, John Q, Lucky You and on and on.  Mix in brilliant turns in The Paper, The Apostle and Sling Blade and you’ve got a bonafide master.

In his latest feat, Duvall plays ragged hermit Felix Bush, who in 1930s Tennessee gets the wild idea of having a living funeral. He wants to invite the whole town, most of which fear him, with the help of a fast-talking funeral home owner (Bill Murray) and his loyal partner (Lucas Black).

Bush has secrets.  Big ones.  That he’s kept tight-lipped for 40 years.  And this is where a film like Get Low can either falter or excel.  Bush’s secrets are talked about throughout the entire film, details are hinted at, criminal activity is suspected, but nothing is ever confirmed.  Where it gets tricky is when the audience finally finds out what the big secret is. 

Of course I won’t reveal it here, but I will say that once we find out, it is done with such effortless conviction that Duvall will effortlessly waltz into the Kodak Theatre in February to eagerly await his second Oscar (he won in 1983 for Tender Mercies).

For a first time feature film director, Aaron Schneider delivers beyond expectations, fully immersing his set with believable details. (This guy ain’t no rookie, though.  He won an Oscar for Best Short Film in 2003.)  And with the help of Murray, who is clearly having a blast, and the talented Black (who continues to raise his own bar after a remarkable debut in Sling Blade, with roles in Friday Night Lights and Jarhead), Get Low is most definitely a world to trek in to

“It’s about time for me to get low,” Duvall says in an early scene.  And something tells me that if it was anyone else, we may not care as much.  B+