Sunday, February 26, 2012

Act of Valor: A Parable of Propaganda or Fist-Pumping Patriotism? Neither.

     You may have seen the movie trailer for Act of Valor during the Super Bowl a few weeks ago. At first, it seemed like a commercial for the Navy, one of those ads that ends with the words, "Be One, Be Strong, Be Navy" (or whatever those recruitment commercials state at the end). But then the preview continues, showing some impressive military action for just a small commercial. Then the realization truly sets in: this is a film starring active duty Navy Seals, a fictional account using the military's newest and brightest tactics and technology. It was difficult to not be a little curious, or even excited if you were or are a member of the armed forces. Due to it's peculiar nature (initial filming was even supposed to be a recruitment video for the Navy), Act of Valor is a unique film to review.
     Let's get a few things out of the way first: these are my impressions and opinions on Act of Valor as a motion picture. I don't care if you're pro-war or anti-war, if you think a movie starring active duty Navy Seals is a glorification of violence against people of other nationalities, or if you think this film is meant to brainwash your children to strap on an M4, sign up for the military, and go blow the head off of some Jihadist (I surely am no closer to signing my name up--action movies are called "escapist entertainment" for a reason). I care about how this movie works as a movie. On that account, it basically succeeds: Act of Valor is an entertaining movie with sub-par acting but awesome action set pieces. Sort of the way it would be if you made a movie starring non-actors who killed people on dangerous missions for a living.
     As I said before, the film started out as an idea to recruit people on the fence about joining the Navy. From there, the filmmakers realized that the action was exciting and thrilling enough to turn into a motion picture. Act of Valor is essentially based around two Seal missions: one is about rescuing a kidnapped CIA operative who has been taken to a fortified encampment in the jungle. During this mission, the Seals recover a phone that provides information on a terrorist plot against America. The second mission is stopping this threat in the cartel-controlled towns and maze-like underground tunnels on the Mexi-Cali border.
     These two missions and the execution of them provides the film with all of its thrill and excitement. If my grade of this film was solely based on these great action scenes, I would give it an A-. The jungle extraction starts with amazing stealth and sniper head shots. The violence is quick and brutal, which each shot landed sounding like a squished watermelon. As the team moves closer and closer and then finally into the village, the combat switches to quick close quarter shooting within the shanty buildings. The truck chase and boat combat that follows is just icing on the bloody cake. This sequence of events was my favorite in the film. But the mission on the Mexico border was great too: full of bombs, grenades, and heroic acts of bravery, this dark and gritty portion of the film was violent and filled with a sense of sadness. The only detriment to the action scenes in Act of Valor was the director's overuse of the first person camera angle. I know you want video game players to purchase tickets for your movie, but over reliance on this technique caused a few minutes of the battle to feel like Call of Duty 17: Navy Seals. If I wanted to wish I had a controller in my hand, I would have stayed at home and grabbed a controller.
     Everything other than the missions and execution of them is the worst part of the film. If my grade of this film was solely based on the acting, character development, and interaction between the Seals and their families before and after the missions, I would give it a D. The Seals in the film were portrayed by real Navy Seals. I surely didn't need any convincing of that after the first three minutes of the film's run time. There is no need to speak of any specific performances, as they are all interchangeable. Two cringe-worthy scenes come to mind: one in early in the film as two Seals sit at a bar table drinking beer, and one announces that him and his wife are having a baby. The conversation is hollow and robotic. The other scene is one of the same Seals saying goodbye to his wife as he leaves for deployment. It's as if you grabbed two random strangers and had them read the script in monotone. Unfortunately the acting isn't so bad it's funny, like in The Room--it's just bad.
     One may argue that these dudes are cold, calculated killing machines, so you can't expect them to show emotion. And that's fine: but you can still show no emotion and be good at acting. Does anyone remember Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men? When in combat, these fellas don't need to act, because combat's what they are incredibly good at. It's natural. But take them out of that, and it doesn't make for a great motion picture. Luckily, the intelligent, brutal, gadget-filled action scenes hold the movie well above the shit pile. Act of Valor doesn't bother with the important questions about what happens to these men after they get maimed or injured, after they get sent home to little fanfare, after their friends brutally die in front of their eyes. It leaves those questions for the next documentary. Act of Valor focuses on which direction the next threat is coming from and how fast the Seal team can foil the plot.     (B-)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Netflix This: Blood Simple

     A person would have quite a job on their hands to find one of their friends or family members that doesn't love at least one or two Coen brother's films (assuming they watch movies at all). Whether you're laughing hysterically at "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski or pondering the Biblical allegory that is A Serious Man, the Coens' films never lack their signature style and wit. Me: I'm a Fargo and No Country for Old Men sort of guy and could do without half of their other cinematic oeuvre. (Does anyone remember The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty?) I was fortunate, then, to recently revisit their first ever film, Blood Simple, as it has many of the violent and thrilling tendencies that my two favorite Coen films have.
     Blood Simple was released the year that I popped out of the womb (10 pounds-12 ounces), 1984. It took me over twenty years to look into the back catalog of the Coens' films (the past has a way with catching up with you), and out of their fifteen major releases, Blood Simple is my third favorite. If there was one word that could describe the 1984 film, I would use Tight. I don't mean Tiiiiiiiiiiiiight like the kids on the streets with their pants hanging below their ass crack and rap music blaring would say (though it surely is that too). I also don't mean Tight like how a Catholic Priest would describe a choice piece of 10-year-old boy. I mean Tight: simple, short, effective and every scene seems placed and played out to perfection.
     The plot and performances are great: Julian owns a bar, and he has thoughts of hiring a private eye to murder his wife and lover. The wife, Abby (Frances McDormand, who is so great in Fargo), is having an affair with the bartender of the joint, Ray. The private eye, Loren, is portrayed by M. Emmet Walsh, a familiar face who has appeared in over 100 film and television projects. What follows is a film full of twists and turns of betrayal and murder that are still exciting almost 30 years after the theatrical release date. The characters act like real human beings as they make decisions and mistakes that come back to haunt most of them by the time the end credits roll.
     Blood Simple taps into some basic fears that we all would feel if we became involved in a similar situation. A character is shot and blood pools on the hardwood floor. What would you use to clean it up? I hope--for the character's sake--that blood splatter analysis isn't as perfected as it is in Showtime's Dexter. How do you dispose of a dead body? A better question: how do you live with yourself after disposing of a dead body? The motive for all of the action is almost always selfish in its nature--surviving, no matter what the cost. The film is dark but comic too. And a few of the plot twists are a bit over-the-top, but everything seems necessary to add excitement to the proceedings.
     The direction, though, is where Blood Simple really shines. Some of the camera angles and shooting techniques are still super cool and original to this day. It's an early example of the masterful work that the Coens have applied in their more thrilling films. The Coens are two brothers that love making films, and that statement is obvious from the first scene in Blood Simple to the last. It introduced the audience to their clever and darkly humorous storytelling abilities and solidified the fact that they were two filmmakers to watch for decades to come, a fact that has come to fruition since the year I was born.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Netflix This: Cube

     I recently revisited Splice, the freaky 2009 film starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley about a couple who delve too deep into human/animal gene splicing. The film was a story about how science is almost about to catch up with fiction, creating a world in which a creature with human genes and animal genes seems entirely possible. The film's directed by a man named Vincenzo Natali, and I came to the realization that I had seen another one of his films a few years ago (his first film, actually). That film is called Cube.
     Cube is a simple and effective little sci-fi thriller that is extremely memorable in it's sparseness. A man wakes up. But he's not on a warm comforter-covered pillowtop mattress--he's on the hard and drab floor of a 14 by 14 foot cube. He has no clue where he is or how he could have possibly woken up there. Eventually he discovers that he is in the middle of a gigantic maze of interlocking cubes with six other people with no food or water to speak of. In case you didn't know, you need food and water to survive for longer than a short period of time, so the group must work together, moving from cube to cube to find a way out.
     Sounds pretty simple and boring, no? Thankfully (for the viewers of the movie Cube, not the characters locked inside), as the people move from box to box, they come across clever and brutal booby traps that pose problems for the seven individuals. Maybe one cube has a swinging, sharp blade that they all have to navigate if they don't want to lose a limb. Maybe another cube has a pressure sensitive floor that turns the cube into a fire-filled boiler. Whatever the problem may be, the cast does a great job with not much to work with: there's Quentin, a police officer who becomes the leader for the group. Holloway is a doctor who becomes overwhelmed with the stress of the situation. Rennes is a criminal escape artist who can't figure out how to escape. There's also Leaven and Kazan, a math teacher and autistic man, respectively, and their talents with numbers bring the group closer to the truth of their plight.
     The characters bring many theories to the table about their situation: could it be a government experiment to see how people react in a secluded environment? Could the group have been abducted by aliens and placed in a futuristic puzzle? Or is this just some rich man's "entertainment"? Ultimately, the answer doesn't particularly matter. Cube is a film about human beings and the helpfulness or betrayal that occurs when a group of people come together for a common goal: getting the fuck out of the cube, no matter what.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lilyhammer, Netflix's first foray into original programming, already an interesting watch for fans of The Sopranos (and Norway)

     Early on in the first episode of Lilyhammer, Steven Van Zandt, playing a New York mobster named Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano (not unlike his role as Silvio Dante in HBO's The Sopranos), does something that Silvio would never do, even if it meant spending life in a maximum security prison: give all of his information to the FBI to become--what is known in the mob world--a rat. The authorities ask him where he might like to spend the rest of his life in the Witness Protection Program. Florida or somewhere else in the States? Too easy to be found and get whacked. The Bahamas? Frank's not too keen on the "melanoma". No, Frank chooses to be sent to Lillehammer, Norway (the show's title is a play on how Frank pronounces the place), the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. It seems nice there, he assumes.
     So begins this fish-out-of-water story that could--after the first episode, at least--be titled, The Sopranos 2: Silvio in Snow. And that's not a bad thing: much of the same dark humor, drama, violence and vulgarity is present here, even if the show isn't quite as expertly crafted as HBO's classic. Lilyhammer also looks absolutely great--shot mostly in Norway, it looks as cold and unforgiving as it probably is in real life for someone not used to the conditions. Frank sticking out like a sore thumb is most of the fun: he can understand some of the language, but dumb people will want to avoid Netflix's first show due to the many subtitles. The first episode is about the many funny interactions that occur upon his initial arrival and a myriad of misunderstandings that Frank chalks up to "cultural differences".
     You've gotta hand it to Netflix, though: jumping into the original series realm that is dominated by HBO, AMC and Showtime is a ballsy move but also a necessary one. There's a reason HBO doesn't let Netflix stream any if its wonderful classics or new hits. It feels almost like an experiment: Lilyhammer was released this past Monday, and all eight of its Season One 45(ish) minute episodes (commercial-free) are available for instant streaming subscribers at any time. It's a new and hopefully fruitful undertaking for the company, as my Instant Queue was getting pretty stale in the new-and-exciting-show department. Later this year Netflix brings us House of Lies, directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, and in 2013 we get another new season of Arrested Development before the movie. Here's hoping Netflix continues in this new direction instead of hiking up the price to my Blu-Ray rentals every month. But for now, time to click play on Episode 2 of Lilyhammer.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Top 10 Films of 2011

     I consider the year 2011 to have been an off year for new, original and incredibly great cinema. Nine out of the ten top-grossing films in the world this year were sequels, and the odd film out was The Smurfs (six of the ten were sequels of sequels, and five of the ten were sequels to already-shitty films). Despite the negativity, I saw 62 (and counting) films released from January to December. The year 2012 is looking like it's going to totally blow 2011 out of the water in terms of quality, especially due to The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, Gravity, and Django Unchained. Enough bitching and complaining, you say? Okay, okay. There were some bright spots in 2011, as there are with any year. These were the greats, the one's that will last in my memories for years to come, the ones that I thought about far after the credits rolled and the theater's lights flickered back to life:

10.     The Guard

     The poster for The Guard states that it is like "Hot Fuzz plus In Bruges...Better than both." Unfortunately, that statement rings false, as it is better than neither. No worries, though: The Guard--directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges director Martin McDonagh)--is the funniest comedy of the year. Filled with Irish slang and vulgar expletives, The Guard tells the story of Boyle (Brendan Gleeson in the best role of his career [and he's been in some wonderful stuff]), an unorthodox cop who has to team up with an uptight FBI agent to take down an international drug smuggling group. It's hilarious, violent, and contains some of the best dialogue heard this year (a lot like In Bruges back in 2008). Every quip and sarcastic remark is stated to perfection, and when the credits roll, you'll be cheering when Gleeson's name crosses the screen.

9.     Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

     Like most things in the movies, the real-life counterpart is probably a whole lot less exciting. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the real life version of international espionage, and--although there are no invisible cars, rock-hard chicks in bikinis, or intricate fights with hand-to-hand combat--it shows us that excitement can be found anywhere where betrayal is present. The title of the film contains the code names of four of the main characters. Which one, if any of them, is a spy double-crossing their own government and giving important information to the Soviets? It doesn't particularly matter, not when you're watching an all-star cast of British actors smoke cigarettes, fly spiteful and accusing words at each other, and break into classified files looking for an answer. It's confusing and sometimes a bit slow. But it feels right. And it feels real.

8.     The Descendants 

     Anybody who knows me can ascertain that I am a huge fan of Alexander Payne's Sideways. It is one of my favorite films of all time, and my roommate Steve Cooper and I used to watch it on a (it seemed like) weekly basis. So it's safe to say that I had high expectations for The Descendants, Payne's follow up to Sideways, starring George Clooney as a father and husband whose wife--who may be carrying on an affair--ends up in a vegetative-state coma. That's not a great premise for comedy, but the film isn't made just for laughs: it provides a delicate and thorough look at real-life characters and the unpredictability the occurs on a daily basis. It's not as good as Sideways, and it doesn't need to be. It's about people. Not specifically good people or bad people. Just people, figuring out life for themselves, whatever their motivations may be. 

7.     I Saw the Devil

     American horror movies have nothing on other country's. It's not even close. Don't tell me an American-made horror film you watched the other day is really disturbing if you haven't seen some of the brilliant stuff that comes out of France, Japan, or Korea (specifically Inside, Martyrs or Audition). Add South Korea's I Saw the Devil to the list: easily the most graphically violent (it makes Hostel seem like a Pixar film) and disgusting movie of 2011, it is sure to unsettle your stomach and make you watch through your fingers during the most horrific scenes. A police inspector's wife is murdered, so he begins a secret investigation to find the serial killer. Quickly into the film's run time, he finds the killer and instead of arresting him or killing him on the spot, he let's him go over and over again, just to catch him again and again, always with violent and torture-filled results. Although I Saw the Devil is unrealistic and a bit over-the-top at times, it's graphic nature and masturbatory revenge-fantasy plot makes it one of the most entertaining watches of the year 2011. 

6.     Moneyball

     It's time to start taking Brad Pitt seriously as an actor. I've been doing it for years: from his early disturbing turns in Twelve Monkeys, Seven, and Fight Club to his later-career serious roles in Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Tree of Life, the man's got a talent far and above many of his contemporaries. In Moneyball, he takes his best role yet. As chair-throwing, tobacco-spitting Billy Beane, the Oakland Atheletics' general manager who created a baseball team with statistics instead of talent and almost led them to a championship, Pitt fills the role with an emotional heft that is unexpected and brilliant. This isn't a sports movie in the traditional sense, which makes it all the more watchable for people who find watching baseball kind of boring (me). It's a movie about going against tradition and history. And even if you're not successful, at least you went against the flow and tried something creative, exciting, and different.

5.     The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


     Nope. Still haven't bought or read any of Stieg Larsson's bestselling trilogy starring punky heroine Lisbeth Salander. And after director David Fincher's adaptation of the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I still don't really feel the need to. How could it be better than this? Lisbeth's portrayed by Rooney Mara, in a star-making turn that recently earned her a best actress Oscar nomination (well deserved). The story is good, if not a little typical, like a long version of Law and Order: SVU Sweden. But Fincher's deft direction (and--to a lesser extent--Trent Reznor's haunting and fitting soundtrack) really sets it apart. Just like with one of last year's best, The Social Network, Fincher elevates his subject matter into something that is at times disturbing but always watchable, due to his perfected use of the camera and music. The rumor is that most of the cast has signed on for the inevitable sequel. All except for Fincher. Here's hoping that whatever project he chooses to direct next, he continues his streak of epic entertainment.
4.     Super 8

      It doesn't happen very often nowadays: you park your car, walk into the movie theater to purchase your ticket, take a seat in your favorite spot, and become filled with a sense of wonder and awe that takes you back to some of the finest childhood movie-watching experiences. Super 8 did that to me. Director J. J. Abrams is a master at doing this (think of some of your favorite first season moments of Lost and the great remake of Star Trek), but his talent really comes into fruition with this. A film that harks back to classics starring children such as The Goonies, Super 8 is as much about the joy of making movies and creating something meaningful than kids discovering an alien force negatively affecting their small 1970's town. It doesn't fizzle out your senses with mindless action or cheesy dialogue. It treats the children and their plight with honesty and a tenderness that is rarely seen in cinema nowadays. 

3.     Attack the Block

     Kids vs. Aliens. Seems to be a running theme here. But don't let that minor plot point fool you: as much as Super 8 is an homage to the Spielbergian films of yore, such as E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Attack the Block turns the story into an action/horror/comedy in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead.  Starring unknowns (other than the hilarious Nick Frost) basically picked up from the London streets, Attack the Block simmers with street talk, humor, violence and a great pounding soundtrack to accompany the alien-killing action. When creatures start falling from the sky, a street gang who owns the block with their crime and attitude must band together to take out the alien "big gorilla wolf-looking motherfuckers". And let me tell you, Bruv, the excitement that follows is a lot sicker than staying at home and playing FIFA.

2.     Hugo



     Leave it to Martin Scorsese to restore some faith in a typically tired gimmick. I'm talking about 3-D, of course. One of the most overused, money-grubbing techniques in film making today, 3-D almost always makes a film worse than it would be without it (let alone make it better in any way). There are exceptions of course: Avatar is exponentially better in 3-D, and Jackass 3 was at least an original way to employ it. But Hugo, a movie ultimately about the importance of cinema and film preservation, is one of the first films to make me forget I was wearing 3-D glasses. And that's a bold statement. Hugo's about a boy searching for a secret in a Paris train station, a secret his father left for him that unlocks many mysteries in his life. It's dazzling and extravagant and provides a nice lesson about the history of film. Movies may not mean much to some people, but sitting in the theater watching Hugo, I was home.

1.     Drive



      He does it again. No, not Ryan Gosling, who had a great year starring in films such as this, The Ides of March and the (quite) funny Crazy, Stupid, Love. I'm talking about Nicolas Winding Refn, the director who can take any interesting subject and turn it into violent and essential art-house cinema awesomeness, as he did with two of his previous films, Valhalla Rising (on this list last year) and the incredible Bronson. Drive stars Ryan Gosling as Driver, a Hollywood stuntman by day and criminal getaway wheel man by night. Driver slowly falls in love with his cute neighbor (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) and gets involved with the wrong sort of gangster (portrayed with effective eccentricity by Albert Brooks). As Driver rides the highway to hell, a heist goes bad and--like some of the vehicles in the movie--his life spins completely out of control with flashes of brutal violence, masked gunmen and dying love. Go ahead. I know you want to. Take the wheel. Experience the rush of Drive.