Friday, December 23, 2011

Dark, Dreary and Disturbing: Dragon Tattoo Becomes Another Must Watch from David Fincher

    Many of my (not very smart) friends would claim that I don't like anything that is popular, and I would even go out of the way to not watch, read, or listen to something if too many people like it. This statement is usually wrong. When it came to Stieg Larsson's bestselling "Millennium" trilogy--which begins with the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--the statement rings more true: at one point in time in the past couple of years, it seemed like every living human was reading one of the three books, with their colorful covers and unique titles.
     So I decided not to read the books, particularly once I learned that David Fincher was adapting the first book of the trilogy into a film (same title). My thought: Fincher, one of the best directors working today, would make the story the best version possible. I still haven't read the books (though after watching the film my interest has risen), so I cannot attest to the versions of the characters, plot points, plot twists or narrative of Larsson's written word. There will not be any comparisons here. What I'm sure of is simple: Fincher has created another great film, continuing that trend from last year's incredible The Social Network. It's brutal, doesn't hold back any punches, and although the climax comes quickly and is a little less exciting than I expected, the American film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the year's best, anchored by Fincher's deft direction, Trent Reznor's beautiful and haunting soundtrack, and Rooney Mara's star-making turn as the wounded and wound-giving Lisbeth Salander.
     The story is extremely complicated at first for the uninitiated (me). Remember the first scene of The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend (who is actually played by Rooney Mara, if you can believe it) are talking fast and hurtful? Words fly by at a bullet's pace, snapping and insinuating in a sarcastic tone. The first part of Dragon Tattoo is like this too, except its about libel and a murder investigation and everyone is speaking in a Swedish accent. The basics: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, looking disheveled and tired), a journalist/publisher who does stories for Millennium magazine, loses a libel case against a man named Erik Wennerstrom with money to burn. He's in trouble, and his reputation has been flushed down the shitter. Soon after, he's invited to an island by a man named Henrik Vanger. Vanger knows that it would be beneficial for Blomkvist to leave town and let the dust settle after his court case, so he commissions Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his great niece Harriet, who wandered off 36 years ago never to be heard from again. Vanger will pay him double his normal salary and even give him some inside information about Wennerstrom (that would help overturn the libel case) if he figures out what happened to Harriet. Commence the murder mystery.
     Throughout all of this, we meet Lisbeth Salander, an asocial gender-bending badass who is an expert at computer hacking and surveillance. Lisbeth and Mikael's paths cross when Mikael realizes that Lisbeth's talents would be extremely beneficial to the investigation of a family that lives cut off to the outside world (on the cold, snowy island) and hold secrets like lovers hold hands. As Lisbeth and Mikael's relationship grows, so do the lies and complex plot twists involving the Vanger family and that fateful day 36 years ago when Harriet either went missing, ran away from home, or was murdered.
     Girls kicking ass: it holds a soft spot in my heart. Clearly more audiences want an interesting female heroine to root for, myself included. Men shooting each other and uttering corny catchphrases is only interesting for so long. Lisbeth, surely, is one of the best female characters of the year. A self-admitted psycho, she is a ward of the state due to her violence and anti-social behavior. As previously stated, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is brutal. Most of that brutality deals with Lisbeth and men that take her strength for granted. Her scenes are not for the weak of heart: they involved forced blowjobs, anal rape and extreme violence. She's had a tough life, and we know that because it's depicted with a wounded ferocity by Rooney Mara. Every sarcastic reply, tear, scream and expression of sadness is portrayed brilliantly by the total physical transformation and acting of this great young actress. Her ability anchors the sometimes disjointed plot and occasionally predictable twists.
     The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't David Fincher's best directorial effort. But that doesn't especially say much, considering he made the classics Seven, Fight Club, and The Social Network. It's still one of my favorites this year, even if when you take away all of the stylistic flourishes, awesome acting and setting the story boils down to a murder mystery that would be right at home in a show like AMC's The Killing. But that's okay, though: the dark direction is impeccable, the pacing incredible, the acting awe-inspiring. When the credits roll on the other two stories in Lisbeth Salander's trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, my only hope is that the same cast, crew, producers and musicians are listed, because I surely will have been wowed again.     (A-)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Choose to Accept Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

   After John Woo's crapfest Mission Impossible II, the already-getting-tired series took a new direction as TV wonder boy J. J. Abrams took the helm. It was a great success: Ethan Hunt's adventures turned darker and more serious, predominantly due to Abram's directing efforts and Philip Seymour Hoffman's scary turn as a villain with no mercy. (Is there any other kind in films like these?) For Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (MI:GP), Abrams and his producing company handed over the franchise to another exciting director, Brad Bird, making his first live-action film after three animated classics: The Iron Giant and Pixar's The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The jump to real life is a smooth one: Bird and the new and returning cast have created one of the most exciting, vertigo-inducing, action-packed films of the year.
     You've all seen the advertising (and the movie poster to the right). It has Cruise dangling off the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, wearing gloves that would make Spiderman shoot sticky white stuff. I almost shot out a different bodily fluid because of some of the incredible IMAX-camera-shot scenes that are not for the faint of heart if you're not a big fan of heights. It's the movie's best action set piece, and MI:GP is full of them: an elaborate prison break set to the soothing voice of Dean Martin, a break-in to the inside of the Kremlin in Russia (involving some of the most creative gadgetry seen in these types of spy films), a lavish party set in a mansion in Mumbai--they're all here, and they're all, particularly in IMAX, breathtaking to behold.
     The plot is typical and not especially important, which is one of the few detriments of the film. It involves the typical foreign baddie looking for nuclear codes, nuclear devices, nuclear anything. The world will end unless the IMF team stops it. It's not hard to imagine the climax of the film involving a countdown and a missile flying through the air. It does, however, have one cool twist: after a bombing at the Kremlin in Russia, the U. S. Government initiates "Ghost Protocol" (hence the title), in which they denounce any undercover agency. The IMF team is alone and in the dark.
     That leaves Hunt to lead his team through various exotic locations of the world. The characters are more interesting than typical: Simon Pegg is back in the role of Benji, and he gets to flash much more than his wit this time around (though he is the most amusing of the characters). Paula Patton is the feisty, big-breasted Jane who is out for revenge after her lover--another agent--is killed by a woman assassin. Nothing like a little girl-on-girl. Jeremy Renner, who lately seems to be great in any scene that he acts in, is the best new addition; he's a calm bad-ass with secrets that plays as a nice foil to Cruise's more frantic, nervous Ethan Hunt. They all have integral roles in each action set-piece, playing off of each other like a cast that has been together through numerous sequels.
     You would never guess that this was Brad Bird's first live-action directorial movie. But it does make sense: many animated films have high-action (particularly the ones that Bird has directed in the past). Like The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is, at times, incredible. But like all action spy films, some things are ridiculous and some things are predictable. But you don't walk into a theater and buy tickets to this movie expecting to be surprised or expecting the subject matter to be very serious. You walk in wanting your pulse to jump higher and your eyes to look in awe and wonder. On that account, Mission Accomplished.     (B+)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Different Sort of Clooney: The Descendants Review

     Alexander Payne's films are divisive, quirky, and hit-or-miss. It's been years since I've seen Election, but it didn't particularly leave an impression on my one way or the other. 2004's About Schmidt was the sort of sad, slow slog that turns many viewers off when thinking of independent pictures with critical acclaim. 2002's Sideways, on the other hand, is an incredible story of hope, friendship, and wine that would easily fit on the list of my favorite films ever. It's been seven years since that wonderful journey of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, and Payne's newest film--The Descendants--had very high expectations. Fortunately, it's more Sideways than Schmidt. George Clooney's newest is a tale that is sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful and always sad and uncomfortable. It's the anti-Transformers, a film that is, above all, real.
     A film starring George Clooney as a father raising his cute family on the beautiful beaches and hills of Hawaii? Sounds like a good, safe time. Luckily, the film isn't just that. It begins with a great shot of Matt King (Clooney)'s wife smiling and basking in the tropical sun as she rides a watercraft across the blue sea. It's the last time we'll see her in a non-vegetative state. You see, Mrs. King is a thrill seeker, and her latest endeavor had a major cost: her livelihood. She's in a coma, and Matt must take the reigns and learn to raise two teenage girls alone. He's a self-admitted "back-up parent," and really has no clue how to deal with the seemingly crazy 10-year-old Scottie, a rambunctious ball of energy, or the 17-year-old Alex, who has recently started to dabble in drinking and drugs in an act of rebellion.
     Matt's stress only starts here: his family can be traced back decades and decades in the lovely land of Hawaii, back to some of the original land owners. His family (mostly cousins) holds a vast landscape of untouched beaches and turquoise waters that many of them want to sell for millions of dollars. Although the 25,000 acres are owned by his entire family, for unlucky reasons Matt is the sole trustee. He is the one to make the final decision. Hotels and golf courses would be built immediately, if he sells. Obviously, most of the population on this particular island in Hawaii doesn't want the land deal to go through--they are protective of their virgin views, and a Donald Trump-like entity willing to destroy the natural beauty with condos, roads and thousands of tourists is the last thing in the world that would be beneficial.
    Matt's luck worsens when he realizes that his wife has been having an affair. It's through all of these horrible events in Matt's life that we realize there are no simple answers to the difficult events that life throws at us. Clooney is great in this part, a much different turn than his usual smiling, cocky and slick roles where he has no real problems. Everything is connected in complex ways: his wife's growing unhappiness before her unfortunate accident, his children (particularly Alex) coming to grips with difficult decisions and possibly losing a parent, the land deal which would ruin an incredible landscape but make a select few tens of millions of dollars, and his wife's lover, a man that's important in every aspect of the film. We follow this journey with Clooney, through every action, facial expression and thought. He's never been better.
     We care about the characters in The Descendants. Their problems might echo some of ours, but even if they don't it's easy to relate to them. That's what director Alexander Payne is great at, as we've seen throughout all of his films: thoughtful, realistic characters that deal with problems in a way in which you or I might. We understand the decisions that the King family makes, even if some of them are not agreeable. And even if our descendants, in the coming years and generations to come, face much bigger and different problems, we can only hope they take them head on with the same type of thoughtful poise and passion as the characters in Payne's films.     (A-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sitter Belongs in The Shitter

     A few months ago, I made the mistake of receiving director David Gordon Green's first comedy of this year, Your Highness, in the mail. I ran to the mailbox in a state of joy, invited some friends over, and popped the Blu Ray into my PS3, hoping to experience hilarity ensuing in a similar fashion to Green's perfect comedy, Pineapple Express. James Franco and Kenny Powers himself couldn't let me down, right? Wrong. Your Highness was total dog shit. The type of dog shit that gets into the treads of your shoe and then gets transferred and smeared into your carpet and no matter how hard you try, you can't get the stench out of the room. Then you accidentally get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and remnants get squished beneath your foot and get lodged underneath your big-toe nail. Terrible, to say the least. Now comes along Green's second comedy of the year, The Sitter, starring pube-head Jonah Hill (still morbidly obese at this time) as a babysitter who goes on an adventure involving drugs, sex and racial stereotypes. Fortunately, The Sitter doesn't reach the depths of a toilet bowl after a Chipotle cornitas-and-corn-burrito-fueled dinner, but it still reeks of any average turd.
     The plot is simple and super predictable: Hill, feeling bad that his single mom has to miss a date because she can't find a babysitter, decides to look after three kids for a night to be nice and maybe earn some Brownie Points at home. He's a sit on the couch "do what I say or I'll kill you" kind of babysitter, if you haven't seen the trailer (which contains the best parts of the movie). The kids and Hill end up leaving the house and going on an adventure, since the girl Hill has been seeing in a cunnilingus-only relationship calls and realizes she wants to take their relationship to next level: sex. She also wants an 8-ball of Coke, a perfect plot device to get Hill and the children into some hairy situations. I said hairy not hilarity, and hilarity most definitely does not ensue.
    The children in the film are not really at fault, but they don't add much to the picture either; they're rarely very funny. Blithe, the young one, is a girl who dresses up in slutty clothing and recites vulgar rap lyrics. You can picture her singing Katy Perry songs, even if she's not mature enough to realize that the song is about binge drinking and fucking strangers. Slater has anxiety problems and is on a myriad of medications, which I assume is the films not-so-subtle stab at parents over-medicating their children. He's the one that eventually comes to a realization about his young life, with the help of Hill's babysitter (like he would be extremely insightful about life lessons). Rodrigo is the token adopted Hispanic, the trouble maker, the one who puts cherry bombs into toilets and watches them explode. So we follow Hill and the kids on the search for sex, drugs and rock & roll. Not much really happens--surely nothing that can be considered laughable--but luckily the film's 82 minute run time is short enough to not have to suffer too terribly.
     These types of movies are growing tiresome; no, I'm not talking about raunchy comedies that throw every vulgarity in the book at you faster than Deadwood. I'm talking about boring comedies that are not funny and are, above everything else, lazy. Nothing here is original, and situations get thrown at the characters that don't make much sense. The scenes that do follow a logical plot line are too predictable to enjoy. Recently, Jonah Hill shed a huge percentage of his body weight to get healthier, live longer, and--I can only assume--try and land a beautiful girl. Here's hoping the shedding of the fat will help him regain some laughs.     (D+)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hugo: Scorsese Turns Back the Clock in a Timeless Classic for All Ages

       It's clear that Martin Scorsese has all of the tools that a director needs to create incredible and fascinating films that deal with violence and criminals barely holding on the edge of our society. Whether it be Robert DeNiro portraying Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), men with violent tempers and even more horrible minds, or Daniel Day-Lewis playing the murderous Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, Scorsese's knack for crazy characters, quick cuts, tracking shots, and wounds spurting blood raises heart rates and turns stomachs (in the best way possible). Scorsese's newest film, Hugo, does a complete 180° compared to his usual subject matter. You won't see heads getting squished into vices or pens getting jabbed into jugulars here; Hugo is one for the family. And if this is what family entertainment is like, consider me a family man: Hugo is an epic story that is different than any other picture Scorsese has directed, yet it ranks among some of his greats. 
     Don't call this a kids movie though. It surely isn't just that. A big-budget movie released during the holiday season (in 3-D no less!) may seem like the typical family fare. Instead, it's atypical: filled with an innocence that is lost in just about every other film played by and played for children (other than this year's super Super 8) and many hidden metaphors--the most noticeable of which deals with a plea of film preservation--Hugo defies even the most skeptical of expectations. 
     Hugo the film is based on a 2007 book titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret written by Brian Selznick. Like the book, the story is about a boy named Hugo (played well by Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Paris railway station, taking care of all of the clocks that need tuning and setting every day. This ain't the digital age: these clocks are super fucking intricate, with thousands of mechanical pieces and moving parts, some of which are ten times the size of Hugo himself. Hugo has no family to speak of, so instead of getting dragged off to the orphanage (a place that the film portrays as horrible), he lives in secret rooms and passages throughout the walls of the huge train station. Hugo is like a mouse, rarely making a peep and stealing food and mechanical parts when he gets the chance. Most mice have entities that want to destroy them, and Hugo is no different: Mr. Inspector Gustav (a great role for Mr. Ali G himself, playing more subtle than showy, which is a nice change) is constantly on guard with his ferocious dog, ready to pull any orphan boy kicking and screaming to the cage in his office. 
    Hugo's father was a clock maker and his uncle was the former clock tinkerer in the train station. The last time Hugo saw his father, Hugo left with dad's most prized possession: a broken automaton, a self-operating machine with the intricacies of a clock, the look of a human-like robot, and a wind-up keyhole with no key. Figuring out the Automaton and the missing key is the mystery for the rest of the film. Will the machine wake up with a message from father? Will it stand up and dance, like this freak? Or will it stay broken forever, its difficulty of operation sealing its secrets? Scorsese's deft direction of the adventure is God damned great. Hugo meets many colorful characters along the way, the most significant of which are train station toy shop owner Papa Georges (acted by Ben Kingsley, always awesome) and his granddaughter, who hold many important secrets of their own. 
     As the extravagant adventure unfolds, the real metaphor of the film takes shape: it's truly a call-to-arms about film preservation and the importance of cinema as a whole. Films are like dreams, and nobody in their right mind would want to live without either. They transport us to places we never expected or never even knew we wanted to go. It's an interesting choice, to say the least, that Scorsese chose Hugo as his first 3-D movie, a technology that has grown totally tiresome over the last year. Thankfully, Hugo, which was shot with 3-D cameras and not converted-to later, like most of the shit-stained films that try to "utilize" the technology, is easily the best 3-D film to date (sorry, Avatards). Like with subtitled films, you know the movie is good when you forget about them. You forget about the 3-D here because it's so seamlessly used in the enchanting world that is this peculiar Paris train station.
     Hugo, ultimately, is about the birth of many things: the world of film and special effects, the first spark of love when holding hands with another, the discovery of what you were meant to do in this machine-like world. It teaches us a lesson: you don't have to be forgotten, as long as you do something that you find meaning in. And it does what movies do best, transporting you from the problems and concerns of everyday life to another world in which love blooms and dreams are born. Ben Kingsley's character Papa Georges has a line that's sad but all too often seems true: "Life has no happy endings." But I disagree. With directors like Scorsese and films like Hugo, how can one not be hopeful of their own happiness?     (A)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moneyball Bats a Great Average

     Nowadays, I find watching baseball to be a particularly boring experience. It has a slow pace, it's expensive and uncomfortable to see live at the ballpark, and the excessive number of games in each season start to bore after the first month or two. Conversely, it was a damn fun game to play: whether you're jogging out to the field, filled with butterflies when the first ball is smashed in your direction or up at the plate ready to crush any ball that is thrown into your wheelhouse, baseball's a sport that incorporates a wide variety of physical prowess and intuition. Moneyball, with its great cast and direction, is much more like playing baseball than watching it, making the behind the scenes deals and discussions as exciting as demolishing a line drive to the gap.
     Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics' General Manager and the interesting way he built a ragtag bunch of misfits into a Major League Baseball contender. The year is 2002, and the Oakland A's have the lowest salary in the entire sport. They are losing their three best players, and they don't have enough money to sign any big names (along with not having enough money to give away free refreshments in the clubhouse). Beane, portrayed with wit, charm and a great deal of anger and sadness by Brad Pitt (a performance that should be recognized at the end of the year), is faced with the huge challenge of rebuilding the team (basically) from scratch. Beane meets an interesting individual in his travels of trying to sign good and cheap players; that man is Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill in a performance that should net him plenty of screenplays outside of the comedy realm. Brand's got an economics degree from Yale and uses his unorthodox intelligence to create a cost/benefit analysis for hundreds of different free agents.
     Brand's statistical equations are extremely opposite from normal baseball scouting, and they seem very complex. But the results are quite simple: find the best players that no other team wants (even if they have off-the-field troubles or nagging injuries in their past), specifically the ones that get on base the most. For most baseball commentators and other General Managers, the team that Beane and Brand throw out onto the field is laughable at best and atrocious at worst. The humor from Moneyball comes from Pitt's and Hill's great relationship and the way that they defy the horrendous odds in the face of ESPN analysts and tobacco-spitting scouts. The opposition also comes from within the team in the beginning, specifically Beane's team manager Art Howe (played with the typical fuck-you-I'll-do-what-I-want mood by the always watchable Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Howe lives with a pride that is detrimental to the new system being implemented, starting players that Beane and Brand do not want in the game. It makes for some great tension between the well-acted cast.
     In case I haven't made it clear, you don't have to enjoy the game of baseball to love Moneyball, just as you don't have to enjoy signing into Facebook to love one of last year's great films, The Social Network. It deals with the backstage happenings of how something important came to be. One might argue that Beane's strategy didn't come to be anything; the A's didn't win the World Series that year, which was Beane's ultimate goal (though they did break the record of consecutive games won). Ultimately, the story of Moneyball wins something else entirely, something more important in my book: our hearts and minds. It's a story of going against tradition, of doing something that makes others scoff, laugh, and call you a failure. Can a statistical equation on a computer come up with a better baseball team than the experience and intuition of a Major League Baseball scout? Maybe not, but I don't care. It's the story and emotions of Moneyball that get the W. in my win column.      (A-)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To My Surprise, Just The Thing I Was Looking For

     1982's The Thing, directed by John Carpenter and starring the great Kurt Russell, can easily be classified as one of my favorite horror films. Its cold, claustrophobic story mixed with entertaining characters and cool creature effects gel together to create an icy horror great. Thankfully, 2011's The Thing pays homage to the original ideas without disrespect, and although the story is more-of-the-same (technically, the new film chronologically is a prequel), it shoves enough scares and gore down the throats of the audience that any horror-freak's blood lust would be satiated. And although the film relies on a bit too much CGI as it chugs along to the semi-questionable ending, it always provides enough tension to make you forget you're not watching real effects like the 1982 version.
     A thought that passed through my head about a year ago: Hollywood executives decided to remake Carpenter's The Thing (which is already a remake)? Sounds like a fucking terrible idea to me. A thought that passed through my head about a month ago upon witnessing the first trailer for the new version: Hmmmm...that actually looks sort of cool. Slick and scary, similar to the Americanized Let Me In (a remake of the slightly superior Swedish film Let the Right One In). A thought that passed through my head last night: I'm officially surprised. The filmmakers told a new version of the story with successfully adding worthwhile horror and scares, and although they relied on too much CGI, it was still pretty damn effective. 
     The story of The Thing (any version) has the potential to always be entertaining and worthwhile. It's about an Alien life form that can manipulate its cells to imitate any living creature. No one is safe, and it's very hard to determine who has the "virus". Eventually, "the thing" that is living inside the human or animal it is mimicking reveals itself, and that reveal is always totally horrific and generally disgusting and vomit-inducing. It's got just about any appendage that is able to penetrate human flesh and bone, it seems like a spider and lobster's love child and it lets out a piercing scream that would send shivers down the most skeptical of spines.
     It helps that the last couple of film versions take place in a very uncomfortable and claustrophobic place: The South Pole. Some scientists and general laborers find an ancient spacecraft and the body of an unknown creature enclosed in ice nearby. The Ice thaws. General hysteria ensues. You see, all of the humans are in an isolated research base and major storm is blowing through. (Isn't it always when you need it the least?). Anything that comes into contact with The Thing or its blood could be infected. Who is who, and could anyone still be human? That is the basis for these films, and it serves up paranoia and tension at an extremely quick pace. There's no reason to speak about the actors: Scientist #1, Bad-ass #1, and Frightened Female #2 play their roles with the grace and honor of a total pro.
     This most recent incarnation of The Thing is a great concept with cool moments but is also a little overblown at times in regards to the excessive use of CGI effects instead of more natural looking creatures. However, that fact doesn't particularly hurt the overall enjoyment. When watching The Thing, you take the story for what it is and accept it without much of a sense of disbelief. Characters blow shit up with flamethrowers and slowly creep down dark, narrow corridors, and the viewer watches between the tiny cracks of their closed fingers, hoping they don't end up like many of the film's stars: eaten, half-digested, spurting blood and pieces of skin, shrieking that terrible scream.     (B)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Primary Pressure: The Ides of March Review

     I know what you're thinking. Another blog post with a few paragraphs about how wonderful an actor Ryan Gosling is. It's not my fault that his movies seem to be the only ones worth watching lately: after seeing the incredible Drive a few weeks ago, no new release seemed to spark my interest enough to get into my car, shift into drive, and head on down to the local Cinemagic. That is until The Ides of March was released this past Friday. Even still, my interest was barely sparked: a political drama that looked solid if unspectacular, starring great actors but looking like a less interesting version of 2010's great book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. Unfortunately, my suspicions were more confirmed than denied. The Ides of March, though a very well-acted and sometimes absorbing drama, is a been-there-seen-that story that is good but not great and oftentimes tells a lesson that most people know: politics can and do corrupt more often than not.
     The Ides of March tells the story of Governor Morris (portrayed by George Clooney, in a typical George Clooney fashion), a Presidential hopeful that is full of ideas that many liberals wish Obama would produce, myself included (basically atheist beliefs, pro-gay marriage, etc). Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager played by the aforementioned Gosling, is what you would call Hot Shit. He works hard, has great ideas and is fully invested in his commitment to Morris and his beliefs. Meyers' boss, the main campaign manager, is a hardened and experienced man played with typical vulgar cleverness by the always amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman. You might think that with Clooney's real life political beliefs (Democratic) that the film tears Republicans apart. Fortunately, it doesn't: the entire picture deals with one Democratic primary, and Republican ideas are barely mentioned and the entire film is enclosed the state of Ohio's Democratic primary bubble.
     Morris is going against Senator Ted Pullman, though we don't see too much of him. What we do see is plenty of his campaign manager, played with a rat-like cockiness by the great Paul Giamatti. The film deals with many issues that plenty of Presidential hopefuls must face: betrayal within your own team, unforgiving hatred toward the other side, and different types of scandal. Above all, it shows us something. Something that isn't a new idea but it still worth questioning: can any Presidential hopeful rise above the dregs of the political process and win without sacrificing an aspect of themselves that totally defines why people love and believe in them? The answer, though a complicated one, seems to be a resounding No.
     The problem, you see, is that this question had an obvious answer. Between the plethora of books, magazine stories, television shows, and documentary films that deal with the subject, it's pretty clear that the political process is as ripe with betrayal and scandal as much (if not more so) than any other profession. No candidate can follow through on all of their promises: it's virtually impossible. There is no clear hero or villain in The Ides of March. Every character evolves in one way or another, and they nearly always act out of their own self-preservation instead of the greater good. You can hate and love each character, even in the same scene.
     The George Clooney-directed The Ides of March is a wonderfully-acted story dealing with behind-the-scenes whispers and wild allegations. It just didn't surprise me enough to love it. The title, however, is quite appropriate. In modern times, the term Ides of March refers to the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., where at least 6 conspirators took it upon themselves to stab Caesar 23 times in an unbelievable act of betrayal. Clearly the metaphor is more than fitting: in politics, its kill or be killed, whether it's with words, back-stabbing actions, or a very sharp knife.      (B-)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Stylish Drive with Major Acceleration

     You don't need to know much about Ryan Gosling's character in Drive, the third great film in a row (after Bronson and Valhalla Rising) by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Hell, you don't even need to know his name. You see, he's a driver, just with two different occupations. By day, he's a part-time stunt driver for the sorts of movies that call for police cruisers to flip at wonderfully over-the-top angles. By night, he's for hire for the sorts of jobs that call for dangerous robberies and tension-filled chases. It doesn't matter which job he is attending to at the moment; Driver succeeds at each with the same looking-straight-ahead determination and steely resolve.
     Driver is smart, though: when we first meet him, during one of his occasional criminal drives, he outsmarts police cars and helicopters with a sneaky, quiet swagger that would make any Grand Theft Auto player squeal with delight. As other reviewers have mentioned, Gosling's character (Driver) evokes the "man of few words" style and all-around badass-ness of (most notably) Clint Eastwood's 1960's westerns. He does something, We see it, and he doesn't feel the need to talk about with anyone.
     That's not to say that Driver is emotionless. There are a myriad of moments that define who he is in Drive that don't need to be said aloud. Drive, ultimately, is a stylish, slow-burn story about doing what you think is right and being loyal to the ones you care for. Driver lives in a shitty, dark apartment and helps out down at the local garage owned by Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston, in a thankless role that doesn't really mean much). Occasionally, Driver runs into his neighbor Irene (portrayed by the always-cute Carey Mulligan) and soon they become to grow fond of one another. Here is a major aspect of how Drive and other Action/Chase movies differ: Refn's superb direction of the quiet moments: instead of unrealistic dinner dates and quick cut scenes to tops coming off, the director captures the quiet moments that happen during the zygote-stage of a relationship. Every expression, smile and tear is captured in intimate detail, aided by the always wonderful music selection of Refn (becoming a great signature of his work). It's extremely realistic, and it succeeds it making you feel like you're in the scene instead of watching it.
     In fact, everything in regards to the film making is realistic. This is an adult film with adult emotions, tension and violence. A Michael Bay film this ain't. Driver learns that Irene's husband is in jail, and he's getting released right on the cusp of Driver and Irene's potential love. Surely this is going to change the dynamic of Driver's recent relationships. There's no sense to go too far into the plot, but soon enough the slow ride of the film turns into a quick-turning roller coaster filled with thrills and chills that evoke recent and great Japanese revenge films and some of Stanley Kubrick's controversial masterpieces. Danger lurks everywhere, and nobody seems safe.
     Drive is based on a novel by James Sallis, and surely he must be pleased with the result. The film feels like a novel, with a great buildup that is rarely achieved in cinema nowadays. Instead of mindless car chase after car chase and mind-numbing shootouts with quick cuts and fast violence, Drive's scenes linger. They linger on shy smiles and I-mean-business looks, they linger on the intricacies of driving a car to its full potential, and they linger on ruthless acts that are committed in the name of loyalty. Consider me a loyal follower of Drive.     (A)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Crazy, Stupid and Highly Lovable

     I have no trouble admitting that Steve Carell's shtick grew tiresome for me soon after he really hit it big. After the wonderful The 40-Year-Old Virgin, there were not many directions to go instead of down. I watched the first episode of the American version of The Office and since have never witnessed another minute (not that it could ever compare to the British version anyway, as entertainment hardly ever does). He's a schmuck in Dinner for Schmucks, and he's his normal shitty self in Date Night and Get Smart. But--like most things in life--there are exceptions: he was good on The Daily Show and was likable in Little Miss Sunshine. A romantic comedy that came out last weekend is another one of those exceptions. Crazy, Stupid, Love, anchored by a super comedic performance from moist-pantie-inducing Ryan Gosling and Carell's slight variation of his character from Virgin, is a heartwarming little tale that is at times highly amusing and always worth watching.       (B)

My blog just lost about 3 paragraphs of this review. God fucking damn it.    (F, for this blog post)        

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cliché Cowboys and Aggressive Aliens

     I've always had a soft spot in my heart (along with a soft-on) for the wonderful slow-burning stories of the Western genre. The basic plots are always timeless, and they evoke a time past where everyday life was much simpler and you settled debts with coins or a revolver. Between Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in the amazing Unforgiven, Guy Pearce in the incredible and surreal The Proposition, and Jeff Bridges in last year's remake of True Grit, Westerns have had a resurgence in quality and awards potential during my lifetime. This is why I had such high aspirations for Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens, which I was hoping would be some of the best summer entertainment I'd see this year. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be: Cowboys and Aliens, although entertaining enough for the general public, left me wanting much, much more. Filled with Western and Alien genre cliches and I've-seen-it-all-before action sequences, Cowboys and Aliens tastes like the leftovers of a tasty but underwhelming concoction.
     None of the fault lies on the actor's shoulders, that much is sure. Daniel Craig plays a "stranger" who has just woken up and isn't quite sure who he is, where he is, or what his purpose in life is. But he does have a mysterious bracelet around his left wrist, and he's one bad-ass mo-fo (that part is quickly known, as he dispatches three or four cronies armed with guns in the first five minutes). The Stranger (whose name is Jake), saunters towards the nearest town, presumably to find out what has happened to him. While there, he manages to embarrass a cocky little prick named Percy, the stereotypical my-father-runs-this-town-so-I-can-do-what-I-want cowardly piss ant, portrayed by Paul Dano, who was incredibly more effective in the western-themed There Will Be Blood. Percy's dad, played by a gruff Harrison Ford, doesn't take no for an answer, especially when he learns that Jake is a wanted criminal that has harmed him in the past. This first bit of story has plenty of potential, with some interesting bit characters (Sam Rockwell's Doc and Keith Carradine as the Sheriff come to mind), but the story falters once the Alien ships start causing trouble.
     The film's problems begin with the Aliens (which is basically the story and screenplay) and end with Jon Favreau's competent yet straightforward direction. Just as you think Jake might be totally screwed in regards to his situation, Aliens show up (the townsfolk call them Demons, because what else could it be when the notion of extraterrestrials doesn't even exist), and his bracelet kicks into action, revealing itself to be a powerful weapon against this inhuman foe. Jake and his once-enemy townsfolk go on the run, tracking a creature far from town and ultimately coming up with a plan to try and destroy this unknown, ruthless force. Along the way, they clash with native Indians and Jake's old criminal crew (one of which is portrayed by the wonderful Walton Goggins), but--ultimately--none of this really matters, because Jake's mystic bracelet always seems to kick in when he gets into trouble. Part of this is why the screenplay could use some tweaks: you never really get to know these characters past their stereotypes. Jake is mysterious and powerful, and obviously has a soft heart buried beneath his confusion and sadness. Ford's character is old and battle-worn, but you just know that he's looking for a chance to show his tenderness, especially with a young boy who has recently lost his grandfather. Even (the great) Sam Rockwell's arc is predictable: throughout the film he's sort of a bumbling and incompetent man, who tries to be accurate when practicing his rifle but never hits his target. Do you think he hits his "target" when it counts?
     The Aliens, in regards to their look and ruthlessness, are pretty cool, but the battle scenes involving them failed to stir much excitement or emotions in me. And that's mostly Favreau's fault: in both Iron Man's (specifically the first one), he staged action set pieces with equal parts humor and pomp. Here they're just same old shit. Aliens were scarier in Alien and War of the Worlds, and Cowboys were more realistic and entertaining in Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma. Overall, that's the main problem with Cowboys and Aliens: its bits and pieces never cohere into one complete, fun unit. All of this has been done better before, and with the talent involved in this film, any ol' gunslinger could call Cowboys and Aliens a mild travesty.     (C)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on Harry Potter's intense climax, that same climax flying at your face in 3-D, and the unfortunate plight of this blog for the next 6 months

     I have never read a word of any of the Harry Potter books. No, not because I think they are pussy or poorly written or only for children. It's because I watched the first few films in the series without having read the books, and the trend just continued from there. I'm sure they are good enough, and maybe someday I will read them with my kids, but for now, I'm satisfied with the most successful (monetarily) franchise in film history. It's also why I don't really feel the need to write a full review of the final chapter. Instead of writing paragraphs full of back story and character names that I can't even spell without looking up, keeping it simpler is pertinent: I'm not sure if I ever loved any Harry Potter movie, but every single one of them was entertaining enough. And the final chapter was the darkest and most emotional of them all. If Deathly Hallows Part 1 was a film filled with travel and set-up, Part 2 is a two hour epic battle between Harry and Voldemort that does not disappoint. It's fun. It's sad. Above all, it's a satisfying ending to an epic film franchise.  (B+)

     I will tell you one thing though: I am getting fucking sick and tired of 3-D. From this day forward, I am boycotting any 3-D film that wasn't originally filmed in 3-D (Such as the latest Jackass or Avatar). 3-D--in the majority of films--leaves the image blurry, dark and muddy. I'm tired of it, and many others are too. Throughout the country, there's an underground movement of cinema lovers that refuse to see films in 3-D due to the sub-par image quality and hassle of having to wear bulky, dorky-looking glasses. After seeing the 3-D IMAX Harry Potter (a week after seeing the latest Transformers in 3-D), I'm taking a stand; and you should too. Stop letting film companies charge extra prices for lesser image quality just to make an extra buck. It doesn't and never has improved anything. That is, until 3-D porn starts entering the market. That's something I'm willing to see.

     On a final note, the day is here: the NFL lockout is finally over! It's been a nerve racking few months for professional football fans, but it's official. Correspondingly, I just joined my 5th league today. Consequently, I will be spending a lot more time reading and analyzing anything football for the next 6 months, and one of my hobbies is going to take a hit. There's never enough time to do everything when outside of the hell that is a 40-hour work week. Some of what will be sacrificed will be the time I spend on this blog. I will still write a review for every film that I see in the theater, and you can count on my top 10 list at the end of the year, but other than that, who really knows? The time has come to see if Vick and the Vaporubs can 3-peat.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Netflix This:

Last Cup
     Documentaries are great for a myriad of reasons: they tell the story of an interesting person's life, an important political or social issue, the savagery of war, or a world-changing event in history. Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong is a documentary about an obscure (in the eyes of many non-college goers) sport that involves drinking copious amounts of beer and throwing ping-pong balls into cups. Like any entertaining documentary, Last Cup takes a subject that the majority of the world population doesn't give a shit about and makes it exciting, funny, and emotional. And that's mainly due to the human touch: similar to the wonderful King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (which followed the underdogs and the champion at professional arcade Donkey Kong playing), Last Cup tracks a select few twosome groups as they vie for the top spot in the  World Series of Beer Pong (which, at this point in time, pays out $50,000). That's the simple plot. Cameras follow these people who have decided to make it their life's mission to travel around to various bars and events, training to reach the apex of plunking ability.
     For the uninitiated (any old people who are reading this) the basics of Beer Pong (also known as Beirut) are pretty straightforward. They need to be, since after a few games your buzz may outweigh your hand-eye coordination by a large margin. You have a table with two distinct sides. You have a team of two on each side. You line a pyramid of cups half full with beer in each and take turns throwing a pong ball into the the other team's cups. Drink the beer in the cup when a ball is made. If you and your teammate both make the ball, you get to shoot again. And boy are the characters in this film awesome at it. You've got Tone from New Jersey, a roided freak with rage to match his passion for making clutch shots and playing shirtless. You've got The Iceman, a morbidly obese Jonah Hill-lookalike (seriously, he looks exactly like him) who makes a risky decision to take an eccentric rookie partner to the World Series. Shawn takes it to another level of obsessiveness: a skillful computer engineer, he designs a program and tracks every single shot and analyzes his statistics for hours after every match.
     These people and their unbelievable love of the game is entertaining enough, but add the beer and things get really interesting: spectators get in for free, and as time passes, beer and emotions flow. Crowds scream at competitors as they shoot, and they especially take a cruel (but funny) heckling to the shirtless Tone. It isn't all just fun and games though--there is real drama here. These guys have been training for months for this moment, and they act as if their livelihood depends on it. And that's ultimately what Last Cup is about: although some may find the plight of these men pathetic and joke-worthy, it's better to be the best at something than be the best at nothing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

No Transformation for the Transformers Franchise

     Are you feeling bored on this lazy Sunday afternoon? Maybe you've got some free time after a long 9-5 workday at some point this week? Maybe you're thinking about going to your local cinema to check out the new (of course in "glorious" 3-D) worldwide hit, Transformers: Dark of the Moon? My advice: don't. Instead, grab a group of friends, head to the nearest scrap yard and spend $15 each (the price of IMAX admission) on various pieces of jagged, big and colorful junk metal. Head home, go out to your back yard, and smash these pieces together as fast and as loud as you can. It'll help if you utter tired, cliche catchphrases in a deep, booming voice. Have your hottest female friend run around looking stupid, preferably in a pair of sexy panties or a low-cut shirt that exposes most of her perfect breasts (not that you'll actually get to see them; this is "family" fun after all). That would be money more smartly spent. Transformers: Dark of the Moon--though better than the atrocious Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen--is an overlong and incoherent mess of a film, stuffed with a who-cares-plot, hilariously unfunny humor and a confusing assortment of action set pieces.
     Things begin in the past: we learn that mankind's mission to the moon was actually a secret plot to investigate an alien crash landing that occurred on the "dark side" (hence the film's title). We get a lot of old and real news clips intersected with the alternate version of what really happened on the moon. This alternate history plot starts off cool enough, but things go quickly downhill from there: this crashed ship was carrying the "good" transformers away from their home planet so they could continue their struggle against the evil bots. The human beings, led as always by the annoying Sam Witwicky (a role that Shia Ladoof must be dead tired of playing by now) are as disposable as ever: there's his new supermodel girlfriend (forget the Transformers, to watch these films your biggest suspension of disbelief has to be this little shit getting chicks this hot), the hard-ass government agent played by Frances McDormand (clearly just waiting for a call from the Coen brothers), a couple of elite warriors portrayed by Tyrese and Raylan Givens' twin brother, and Patrick Dempsey in a villainous role. Actin' class this ain't.
     Enough about the humans. Clearly, they are not what these films are about. They are about millions of special effects dollars spent on intricate transformations of robots and the big metal battles that ensue. Unfortunately, these battles are as emotionless as Sam's new girlfriend's Botoxed face. (Sometimes I wonder why these films make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, but then I remember that millions of people watch Fox News on a daily basis.) Obviously, a lot of the problems with the huge Transformer fights fall right into the lap of director Michael Bay. This dude, who used to make entertaining action films such as The Rock, has clearly got an enormous ego to match his rock-hard erection for gigantic explosions, bangs and clangs. His trilogy of Transformers films are as predictable as his tiring and head-scratching fight scenes. Step 1: show hot girl or Sam with his cringe-inducing parents, usually with a terrible rock ballad playing in the background. Step 2: have important people or government agents talk about the fate of Earth and how it is in peril for one reason or another, usually reasons that don't make much sense. Step 3: Show a loud action set piece showing any combination of humans, good and bad Transformers, and exploding cars and buildings. Repeat.
     These movies actually had potential to be entertaining. With a little more narrative coherency, a more emotional and original way to portray each machine's plight and battle, and actual, real humor, the Transformers franchise could have been taken in a much more rewarding direction. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, like its predecessors, left me feeling empty. Lately, internet rumors have stated that this will be Michael Bay's last journey into the Transformers universe and that Jason Statham may take over the lead actor role, two sparks that might ignite a fire into this franchise (we can hope). But for Bay, his trilogy involving Transformers was a massive success. He's wiping his ass with $100 bills, and I'm stuck in the theater's public restroom using one-ply.     (D+)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What You'll Want to be Watching:


    The originality and exciting nature of Nicolas Winding Refn's direction has been discussed before: starting with the Pusher trilogy and following with the great and insane Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn's films are (from now on, especially) films in which I totally get excited for. This won't change anytime soon when on September 16th, Refn's film Drive gets released into cinemas. It is easily one of my most (if not the most) anticipated picture of 2011. Early word is that it should be one of yours too. But the direction clearly isn't the only thing to get pumped for: it's Tobias Grindal I mean Ryan Gosling in an action-movie role. Lately, Gosling has been showing us all what it's like being a fucking great actor who can make any film better, something that anyone would be well aware of if they had seen 2001's The Believer when it was released. 
      If you've seen Refn's other work, it's easy to surmise that the plot of Drive has potential to be exciting and ultra-violent: based on a 2005 book of the same name by James Sallis, Drive deals with a Hollywood stunt driver (played by Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminal activity. Things get crazy when he realizes a contract has been put on his life after a heist has gone wrong. It definitely has some potential in the right hands; this film is clearly in the right hands. The novel, at only 158 pages, was a fast, noir-ish thriller with mystery and extreme violence. Some say Gosling's character reminds them of old school movie heroes, who don't talk much but speak with their actions. Early reviews say those actions are totally badass and shocking. I've tried to stay away from specific plots points about the film, because I want the suspense to be totally unspoiled. Like many old westerns and Samurai films, the action is supposed to unexpected and brutal.
     I am expecting to be in love with Drive when it is released. Every aspect of it sounds great. Take a look at the co-stars: one is Bryan Cranston (known around these parts as Walter White). Another is Christina Hendricks, better known as the big-titted, huge-assed Joan from Mad Men. The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles looks to be another "co-star". They are intense images that are not often seen in films. Since many of the scenes take place inside of a car, Refn employs a "biscuit rig", which is a camera system that allows its actors to focus on acting instead of driving. Drive opened at the 2011 Cannes film festival to significantly rave reviews, with many saying the film has potential to become an international hit instead of just a noir geek-gasm that it will definitely be. I'm pumped. You should be too. See you September 16th. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Netflix This:

     The granite-hard abs of Ryan Reynolds are undeniably super sexy, and though I am "Interested in: Women", even I can admit that if I were a budding young broad my panties would become drenched just thinking of him. This some-would-say-disgusting, others-would-say-funny statement is interesting for a couple of reasons: what's the first thing one thinks of when hearing the name Ryan Reynolds? Most women and 'mo's would state his bangin' bod (and clearly some hot-blooded American heteros such as myself would say the same thing). This makes 2010's film Buried even more impressive. It's a great movie, an intense thriller, it showcases a wonderful performance by Reynolds, and it does not feature his stomach in a prominent role!
     I feel like there are probably some major misconceptions about this film: since Reynolds is such a fantasy for women and gays, the title can be a bit misleading. Women: this movie is not about Reynolds burying his freshly-shaved Brut-slathered face in your tits, as much as you would like it to be. Gays: this movie is not about Reynolds burying his enormous (you hope) package deep inside your rectal cavity. Now, I love gays and women as much as the next socially-liberal intelligent person, and I'm sorry to burst your bubble about what's getting buried in this film. You see, Reynolds himself is buried (not in the nude either).

Randomly throwing this in here for my gay and women readers (all 3 of you?):

     If you could boil Buried down to its basic elements, it plays like the great scene in Kill Bill Volume 2 where The Bride is buried alive inside of a coffin. Only in Buried, it's for the entire run time. Reynolds spends the whole movie inside a coffin. There are no background or flash-forward scenes that take place outside of the small wooden box that is (maybe) 6 feet underground. He is buried alive with a few items (not sex toys), one if which is a cell phone that barely can make calls (due to the obvious of being inside of a coffin). Now I know this sounds like a dream come true for many of you, trapping R. R. alone inside of a dark space with nothing but the stench of his sweat and his labored breathing, but get your mind out of the gutter because this film is intense (not in a sexual way). 
     Years ago, I watched Van Wilder when it came out, and I thought it was hilarious. Maybe I wouldn't appreciate it as much on repeat viewings, but it clearly shows that Reynolds can be entertaining. Since then, his choice of roles has left something to be desired for film lovers--unless you count co-starring with Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy a good thing (which I don't). Buried is different. It's exciting, claustrophobic and it doesn't cop-out at the end. The fun is unraveling the mystery of why he is in the coffin, the phone calls he chooses to make with a dying cell, and his dealing of an unwanted visitor. Some might say the film is just a worthless stunt, and others might say it's just a film that shows Ryan Reynolds can carry a non-romantic comedy film on his own (which he actually does). I say it's a discomforting, anxiety-filled nightmare of a situation that is portrayed beautifully onto film due to its acting and direction--perfect for a dark and rainy weekend evening. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What You'll Want to be Watching:

                                       Hell on Wheels

     In my humble (but usually correct when it comes to film and television) opinion, the series Hell on Wheels sounds like an absolute perfect fit for AMC network. I've discussed my love of Breaking Bad and Mad Men before this moment, but with the network's recent good-on-first-watch The Walking Dead and the occasionally brilliant The Killing, with its sure to be surprising season finale this Sunday, AMC has easily solidified second place in the television station battle of great dramas. Surely they will continue nurturing their strengths with this potential gem: Hell on Wheels is set just after the Civil War, and it portrays the story of a former Confederate soldier (played by Anson Mount, a newcomer to a stage this big) who is on a mission of revenge--a mission that takes him to the building of America's first Transcontinental railroad.
     Who doesn't love a good Western? I know I do: throughout the past few years, westerns have been some of my favorites; last year's True Grit was obviously great, and 2007's There Will Be Blood is one of my favorite films of all time. A 10-episode series set in the Western time period on one of the most exciting networks today? Consider me fucking pumped. Early word is that it's a modern-style thriller set in the West, and apparently the revenge involved deals with the former soldier tracking down the Union soldiers who murdered his wife, presumably by working on the railroad in the same area in which they live. 

The Badass trailer:

     The trailer isn't the greatest quality, but it's fairly easy to see that the show has potential to be essential Sunday night (I'm assuming Sunday night) entertainment. There's no word yet on a release date, but I'm assuming in the fall, maybe in the 10 P.M. slot after The Walking Dead. Many would say that I am stating this due to the fact that I am alive and viewing shows during this time period, but in my eyes the last 10 years have been the Golden Age of Television. Never before have there been so many stellar television series that continue to push the boundaries in terms of quality and boner-inducing moments. After the great final season of Big Love, the solid Game of Thrones, the upcoming seasons of Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, and the soon-to-be airing Hell on Wheels, here's hoping the quality continues. I'm confident it will. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Monster Summer Movie: Super 8

     Thirty years ago this weekend, Steven Spielberg hit his stride with directing the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. As we all know, that great film combined action, adventure, humor and danger to form two hours of pure fun. It's fitting then, that J. J. Abrams, a Spielbergian protege, steps up to the plate decades later with Super 8 to take his swing at creating a summer blockbuster that reminds us of watching films when we were younger, when the world was at our feet and our eyes were filled with wonder over what was transpiring on the large screen. Tony Soprano once said that "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." Thankfully, that does not apply to movies: Super 8 is like remembering that essence of childhood that adults barely remember, and above all, remembering what it's like to witness a wildly exciting and touching summer film.
     And it is like those old Spielberg films, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. But it's a new and exciting take that uses all of the advances in film technique, style, and story to tell a completely new tale. Kids riding around on bikes and making movies with old super 8 cameras, the first feelings of being fascinated with girls, the terrifying excitement of witnessing a disastrous event--these things transpire with an attentiveness and awe that is hardly ever reached for most other take-your-entire-family summer entertainment. Mentioning films that are similar to a new film is usually a detriment, but here it actually works, and it's like watching The Goonies for the first time as a child.
     I'm deliberately not going to delve too far into the story, so here are the basics: set in a small town in the 1970's, a group of friends (all with vividly different personalities and interests [all of which come into play in creative ways later in the film]) are making a short film to enter into a local contest. These are hardcore future movie makers, not unlike Abrams and Spielberg were as children, and they take their job very seriously, so when a train is about to pass through one of the pivotal scenes in their homemade film, they are excited about the added production value. Thing's don't go as planned when the train is derailed (accidentally or intentionally?) and explodes in front of them.
     From this point on, Hell breaks loose in the lives of the kids involved. At this young point in his career, J.J. Abrams is already very adept at creating new and exciting ways for Hell to break loose: his previous two directing efforts were the action-packed (and best of the trilogy) Mission Impossible: III and the awesome reboot of Star Trek that I would watch any day over the dated and shitty old versions, and he also was the co-creator at the beginning of ABC's Lost, when it was just great network television and hadn't gotten all alternate reality/purgatory on us. That's not to say that Abrams is only a one-trick pony, executing cool action scenes with ease: quite the contrary. Some of the best parts of the film are the realistic portrayals of relationships--the relationships between teenage boys and girls, their friends, and their parents, whether they're still on this Earth or not. The film slowly unravels the mystery of the crushed train's cargo on a backdrop filled with boyhood's love of summer, girls and butterflies in the belly.
     Super 8 edges out Source Code as my favorite movie so far of 2011, and the way that the year is shaping up in regards to future releases, I can easily surmise that it will be near the top in the end. Like many reviewers have said, it's like watching an early Spielberg film for the first time. The key word is Nostalgia, something that I'm not usually a sucker for but works wonders when it's done correctly. Super 8 does it correctly. As Don Draper once said: "Nostalgia: it's delicate, but potent."     (A)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Pretty Kickass First Class

     Plenty of good things are inside the 131 minute run time of X-Men: First Class, director Matthew Vaughn's second major studio film after Kickass. However, there are two great things: Michael Fassbender's wonderful acting, which is at times over-the-top (in a good way) but is always powerful, and Betty Draper's (January Jones) luscious--with a size that I never would have imagined--tits. It's safe to say that January Jones is a wooden actress, who is generally bad at showing emotion (which is why her bitch character on Mad Men works so well), and it's also safe to say that there is a reason why most of her scenes are in bras or bikini tops that seem two sizes too small: her acting may be wooden, but that won't change the fact that most of the male audience will be wooden in a different way. As in they will have wood. (Boners.) But I digress: First Class is a fun movie with a 60's feel, it has many interesting and exciting performances from great talent, and although it may not be the best comic-based film to be released this year, it's still a fun time with new takes on old characters.
     Speaking of that 1960's feel, the film's plot puts the tensions of the timeline into good use; its major catastrophe deals with the missile crisis. As anyone who has seen the trailer should know, First Class takes place before the decades of all of the X-Men films that have been released to theaters. It's an origin story for certain characters, taking a look at the beginnings of two of the old-as-we've-seen-them main characters: Magneto and Professor X. We see Magneto (Fassbender) as a child, as he learns to move metals with his mind. In a different part of the world, Oxford, we meet Professor X (James McAvoy), who is a genius when it comes to genetic mutations and creatively uses this knowledge to try and pick up attractive girls at bars. Once the two characters meet, they realize they have a common (and ruthless enemy): a man by the name of Sebastian Shaw, in a role that Kevin Bacon looks like he is having fun with. With the way Shaw acts, shooting unarmed women and using his genetic mutation to absorb energy around him to powerful effect, it's no wonder that the CIA finds him to be an essential threat. So when the CIA recruits Xavier and the mutants that he has found to help stop Shaw (along with Magneto), high-tech gadgetry, violence, and humor ensue on a backdrop dealing with a potential world-ending event.
     Much of First Class deals with a young high-school to college age group of mutants that X. and Magneto recruit to train and let them know that they are not alone in the world--they can use their amazing powers for good causes.  Unfortunately, this is also where the film falters: yes, some of these young freaks have cool powers that are used in the great climax action sequence in the film, but overall, I was wishing that I was watching Fassbender ham it up as Magneto. The young glances of love and the immature nature of the childish characters was more like watching X-Men: Twilight instead of a badass summer comic book movie. Maybe I'm overreacting a little bit, and maybe it's just a testament to Fassbender's screen presence: after his heart-breaking turn in Hunger, his small but brilliant role in Inglorious Basterds, and his charming yet frightening characterization in Fish Tank, I wonder how many times I will have to mention him before people realize that he is one of the most exciting actors to watch and will be for a long time to come.
     As I stated before, director Matthew Vaughn's previous film was last year's Kick-Ass, which was my 6th favorite movie of 2010. First Class isn't nearly as good as that film, but it is still packed with action, explosions and witty humor--just of the PG-13 variety. It's a serviceable comic-book action movie with flashes of brilliance, mainly due to the two lead actors and their respective acting prowess. But it also has moments of eye-rolling, with some of the interactions between the younger characters, the stupidity of the government portrayal, and the acting of January Jones coming to mind. But with a scandal breaking that director Matthew Vaughn had an affair with and impregnated Ms. Jones during filming, it sort of makes sense: who needs acting when you have a pair of tits like that?     (B)

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Bridesmaids Review

     I'm not one of those guys that refuses to see a film with a female-driven story with actresses talking about their menstrual cycles and relationship problems. I refuse to see films with female-driven stories with those issues that suck, which--unfortunately for many women and their poor men who get dragged to these piles of feces--is the majority of movies about weddings and finding your one true love. Thankfully, I could tell that Bridesmaids was one of the good ones, one of the ones that was made for the viewer's benefit and not the economic bottom line. Starring and partly written by SNL's Kristen Wiig (who is starting to turn heads in films such as Paul and MacGruber), Bridesmaids is a great success for a few reasons: the film shows the true comedy, emotions and insecurities that all women feel when their friends are getting hitched, it does an amazing job of dealing with the entire eclectic mix of women that get introduced (and keeping them distinctly original and separate in character), and Wiig's performance, which is both emotional and physical, is one of the most honest I've seen in a comedy.  Above all, Bridesmaids solidified my thinking in that most weddings (and more specifically wedding planning)--no matter the who/what/where--bring out the worst in people.
     Wiig portrays a girl named Annie, whose cake shop has gone under since the beginning of the economic recession. She's been best friends with Lillian for years and years, and they get together often to drink wine, read Us magazine and talk about how weird penises are, especially when a man rests them on their face while sleeping. Annie's also involved in a one-sided relationship with Jon Hamm, who beautifully plays a rich, douchey, even more sex-obsessed version of Don Draper. She's down on her luck, stuck in a limbo of emotionless sex and a dead-end job at a jewelry store (the setting for some great scenes due to her brash honesty about relationships and friendship to love-drunk customers). What could be Annie's rock bottom? That is a question that constantly gets raised and then one-upped throughout the film, starting with her best friend Lillian's engagement.
     You see, Lillian has been best friends with Annie forever, but ever since meeting her soon-to-be-husband, Lillian has also becomes friends with Helen (her husband's employer's wife), a rich bitch that is clearly trying to drive a wedge in between Annie and Lillian's long-term friendship. Helen, portrayed in an extremely cunty (but effective) way by Rose Byrne, needs everything to be perfect. She is also in the wedding party (Annie is the maid of honor), but she is one of those people that loves planning every little detail of any major event. As Helen consistently tries to steal Annie's ideas about the engagement party, bachelorette party, and the wedding itself, drunken jealousy, dirty looks, insecurities and anger reach a boiling point of hilarious hijinks.
     Back to Wiig: the movie is great because of her. Yes, there are many highlights from the other members of the bridal party, but they are usually a little more obvious and over-the-top than Wiig's honest and insecure performance of a woman who feels left behind in a world of successful careers and loving relationships. The key is that both men and women can relate to her plight. Every human experiences some form of jealousy and self-consciousness during major events (like a wedding), and sometimes we just want it to be over and done with. And although, as the film reaches a higher and higher minute in runtime, the movie does subscribe to some of the same old tired tropes that many women- or wedding-centric films rely on (specifically Wiig slowly realizing she wants a sweet and generous man instead of just a misogynistic fuck-buddy), Bridesmaids puts smiles on faces and warmth into even the most skeptical of hearts.     (A-)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Netflix This:

Blue Valentine
     Realism is unbelievably important when making a good film about the highs and lows of a marriage or relationship. To raise above the general bullshit chick-flick films about empowered women and princely men, a filmmaker must tap into much deeper emotional wells to make sure that the viewer relates to the man or woman--the good aspects or the bad. I'm talking about the tiny things that occur during an argument, a joyous occasion, or spontaneous sex: a disappointed look that hurts much worse than a punch to the head, an exclamation of tearful laughter, or the slight breath that escapes during a moment of pleasure/pain. Blue Valentine, a film by Derek Cianfrance and starring the great Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, succeeds not only because the wonderful actors involved, but particularly because of these small moments that truly make you feel like you're witnessing the full spectrum of events in a relationship, including make-ups, break-ups and cunnilingus.
     The film basically portrays a marriage that maybe wasn't meant to be. It isn't told in chronological order, so the scenes skip between before, after and during the courtship. Blue Valentine starts off close to the end chronologically, and it's a great way to begin because of all of the questions that are raised: you see, normally we see Gosling as a hip, slick, well-dressed gent in nearly all of the films he is in. But from the first moment we see him in Blue Valentine, he's chubbed up, has a receding hairline, wears glasses that resemble a pedophiles, and--best of all--wears a black sweatshirt with a picture of an eagle on it, similar to something a 5th grader or a mildly-retarded amateur bass fisherman would throw on in the morning.  Clearly, the love between Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) is not what it once was. They have a daughter, and are just going through the motions, with Dean being a house painter who starts drinking The King of Beers around 8 A.M. on weekdays, and Cindy working as a nurse with a sketchy Doctor co-worker. The film then jumps back in time from there, depicting many events throughout their once loving now hating relationship.
     This film works much better than other similar films because of one reason (a reason that causes all of those little realistic moments that the viewer can relate to): the improvised nature of the script and the film in general. Much of the film was unscripted, with Gosling and Williams improvising their dialogue between each other on many occasions. Many of the fights seem extremely honest and real (and may be tough to watch for some people); for instance, there is a great scene that includes an incredible back-and-forth between Dean and Cindy about a former lover that Cindy sees in a liquor store that is especially poignant. Also, one of the better scenes of the entire year of 2010 involves Dean and Cindy both losing their shit inside Cindy's workplace. There's a reason for this naturalistic approach: prior to filming some of the more intense fights between the couple, the director had Gosling and Williams rent a home for a period of time and only have the money that their character's income would produce. They had much more time to represent a real couple with real problems than many other actors.
    One of the small problems with the film deals with the question, "what exactly went wrong?" Maybe it's my sexist subconscious speaking, but I feel like Dean didn't really do anything wrong to deserve the hatred that Cindy feels for him in specific scenes during the movie. And if you agree with his point of view, it's hard to see what more he could do. Blue Valentine, although clearly about a relationship, can more specifically be described as a cautionary tale about some people who can just, simply, fall out of love. The excitement that is felt at the beginning of a relationship can quickly morph into something more destructive: the slow decline of hope of what is still to come.