Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Leaves of Grass

When thinking of great performances by actors in multiple roles throughout the history of cinema, Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou), Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove), and Nicholas Cage (Adaptation) come to mind. Now you can add Edward Norton to the list for his performance(s) in Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass. He plays twin brothers from Oklahoma who couldn't be any more different. Bill is a respected philosophy professor at a New England college. Brady is a pot dealer trying to go straight on account of his girlfriend being pregnant with their child. And, as is the case in the movies when anyone wants to go straight, there's somebody who wants to bring them back in. So when a Jewish druglord won't let him out on account of a debt, Brady concocts a scheme that will bring his estranged brother back home to Oklahoma and relieve him of his debt to the druglord. Despite the use of unnecessarily violent scenes, Leaves of Grass (also the title of a Walt Whitman collection of poems) plays kind of brilliantly as it blends styles and its characters philosophize is their own way. I was turned off at first by Norton's performance as the redneck brother, but soon both of his roles prove excellent, and Leaves of Grass ends up being a worthy film.
***1/2

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Wolfman

The Wolfman is a well-made remake of the successful Lon Chaney classic that, like many films these days, gets bogged down by special effects. Benicio Del Toro stars as a young man summoned home to see his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) after his brother has been slain by a beast. Soon he is bitten by the creature and assumes the title identity and will have to fight not only his new alter ego but will have to confront his past. This movie has a nice sense of time and place and the actors are all fine. Things get out of control when the full moon appears and the special effects take over which are over the top, unnecessarily gory, and actually quite cheesy.
**1/2

The Fall

Creativity and imagination are endangered in today's Hollywood, and when a film comes along that exudes both of them it is almost too much for the mind to take. The Fall, released in 2008, was shot by the director Tarsem over a four year period throughout 18 different countries and the result is an original and beautiful film that tells a wonderful fantasy story that hearkens back to the olden days of movies. Set in an early 20th century Los Angeles hospital, The Fall is about a heartbroken and physically hurt stuntman who befriends a young girl hurt while picking oranges, with the objective of having her steal a deadly dose of morphine for him. In order to do this, he tells her a tale of a group of bandits setting out for revenge against the tyrant who has done them all in. Soon fantasy and reality blend with results no one could have pictured. Every section of this film is handled with care, and as the parallel stories draw nearer and become more clear, The Fall, with its vivid scenery and wonderful fantasy story, becomes a masterpiece.
****

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Band That Wouldn't Die

The Band That Wouldn't Die is a well made film from Academy Award winning director Barry Levinson, but, as a Cleveland Browns fan, I can't write an objective review of a documentary that makes a hero out of Art Modell and tries to draw sympathy for a city who had their team ripped from them and then did the same exact thing to another city . What about Cleveland? The documentary has very little mention of Cleveland's heartbreak. At least we didn't steal another city's team when we got our team back, and the fact that our team was replaced 3 times faster says something about our fans and how much more our team was missed. This documentary is unfair and is in fact sickening for any true Clevelander or for that matter, anyone with a sense of football history.
ZERO STARS

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

Does a movie with a title like that even deserve a review? This is a film that I found hilarious when I was 14, so when my 14 year old cousin wanted to watch it, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and see if I found it to be as funny as I did 13 years ago. Sadly, I found myself laughing more often than not at this downright stupid spoof of early 90s hood movies, done by the Wayans brothers. Made in the same vein as the Zucker/Abrahams spoofs, DBAMTSCWDYJITH is good for a few belly laughs, even if you do leave dumber when the credits roll, than when you first hit play. (The picture is from the Bernie Mac cameo, the funniest part of the movie)
**

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Red Rock West

Red Rock West is a neo-noir from 1993, and the kind of a thriller that makes you nod in approval at correct choices made by the filmmakers, yell at the screen during intense moments, and lock your doors as soon as it is over. Directed by John Dahl and cowritten by his brother Rick, it opens with Nicholas Cage, an unemployed Texan at the end of a 2,200 mile drive in Red Rock, Wyoming, where his latest plan for employment has gone bust, but a case of mistaken identity offers him a lucrative opportunity, or more likely more than he bargained for. Red Rock West plays perfectly until an ill conceived ending, which I found to be sloppy. Still, it is a film that plays well for most of its running time, and it is a fine entry in the noir genre. I rented this after the passing of Dennis Hopper, who has a juicy role in the film and it is a reminder of how he will be missed as an actor. It is also worth noting how much J.T. Walsh has been missed in the 13 years since his death, who also has a devious role in the type he was so good at playing.
***

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

My review of this film should read like this: See review of first Harry Potter film than subtract 1/2 star for lack of inspiration. But for the sake of being superfluous here is my review. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second film in the J.K. Rowlings series, plays just like the first film delightful in this first part, than bogged down by special effects and extreme overlength. The great film critic Roger Ebert said that no great movie is too long and no bad movie is too short, but to make a film this long in the first place and not having it be great is just pompous. I also have a problem with the world that Rowlings has created. Many compare it to the worlds created in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien she is not and her supposed creative imaginings also come off as bombastic. Furthermore, with the recognition that child actors are hard to cast, the casting of the Hogwarts students is horrible (with the exception of Emma Watson). And still, with these derisions out of the way, Harry Potter 2 isn't entirely without entertainment value. The films look great and some scenes were memorable (particularly a flying car sequence in the beginning). I look forward to future installments when the series changes directors and hopefully gears.
**1/2

Friday, June 25, 2010

Chariots of Fire

Despite winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1981 with considerable competition (Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds), Chariots of Fire is a forgotten about masterpiece. Not only is it an overlooked classic, it is one of the great sports films, and maybe more impressive it is a film that makes running intriguing. It tells the story of two rivals playing in the same event for the same country: a devout Christian Scotsman and a Cambridge Jew with a chip on his shoulder. As they prepare to run against each other for England in the 1924 Olympics, we learn about each character's motivations and circumstances come into place that allow them to both achieve gold. Here is a historical film that feels as if it is being shot at the time it records, yet just as engaging as the latest summer blockbuster. The theme music is awe-inspiring and Chariots of Fire proves to be a forgotten treasure that deserves to be rediscovered.
***1/2

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Knight and Day

Knight and Day is a capable and maybe even sound spy actioneer but your enjoyment of it will probably depend on whether or not you like Tom Cruise. The story opens up with super spy Cruise meeting up with ordinary Cameron Diaz, and becoming entangled in an espionage plot and a romance that takes them around the globe by ways of planes, trains, & automobiles. The plot is silly and Diaz's reasons for being involved are more than tenuous, but this is the kind of (mindless) entertainment that at least I seek out in the summer. There is also a memorable chase scene worth mentioning taking place during the Running of the Bulls. Director James Mangold does not direct masterpieces, but instead makes those kind of movies that are just fun. Tom Cruise, though many think he has worn out his welcome in Hollywood, still has the star power to carry this film and Diaz is fine just as well.
***

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Eastwood Factor

This is the third retrospective I've seen by Time Magazine's Film Critic Richard Schickel, and just like the looks at the careers of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, Schickel wonderfully blends interviews from the masterful actor/director with footage from his career, with Morgan Freeman narrating. Eastwood, once thought to have been pinpointed as an actor, remains an enigma as he keeps churning out challenging and entertaining motion pictures. He discusses his career as an actor and the choices he made to prevent from being type cast. The documentary then shows the unusual choices he made as a director up until Unforgiven when his directing career took off as few have done before.
***1/2

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tigerland

Tigerland is an under the radar film about a group of soldiers training for combat in Vietnam in 1972. Few people have heard of it and it provides an excellent look at its subject. Released in 2000, it was also the film that introduced Colin Farrell, an actor who has grown on me, to America. Here he plays Roland Bozz, a rebellious soldier training at Fort Polk, Louisiana also known as Tigerland, an infamous last stop before departure to Vietnam. Although he challenges authority and the reasons behind war, Bozz proves to be a formidable soldier who cares for and looks out for the other men in his unit. Although we have to be reminded with outings like this one, director Joel Schumacher is capable of making good films as well as films that don't require a lot of shit blowing up. Tigerland is the kind of film that makes you happy you found it, and eager to tell others about it.
***

Toy Story 3

If you were asked to think of a name you associated with reliability in Hollywood, one of the first among the few names that comes to your mind should be Pixar. With Toy Story 3, they have added what may be their best film in an already impressive series by again using computer animation to tell a comedic, dramatic, and action story. Just this time on a bigger scale. As for the plot, Andy has grown up and is on his way to college. Having little use but much affection for his toys, he decides to take Woody with him and pack the rest of the gang away in the attic. Through a few mishaps, the toys end up as the latest donations to a daycare, which seems like a utopia to the toys where they believe they will be played with until the end of their days. However there is a sinister side to their new residence, and decisions and choices must be made as to where the toys want to end up. Despite the utter uselessness of the 3D (save your money and see it in 2D), Toy Story 3 is wonderful film that contains all the elements we seek out when going to the movies.
***1/2


Day and Night
This is the short animated film that precedes the feature. It shows a cartoon version of daytime meeting with his counterpart nighttime and explores the differences between the two. It is classically animated (I think) and is actually pretty inventive and a nice intro for the great feature.
***1/2

The Square

The Square is an Australian neo-noir film from the Edgerton brothers (Nash directing, Joel writing) who seem to be directly influenced by another pair of filmmaking brothers who have also dabbled in this genre. We meet Raymond, a married construction foreman who is currently seeing and planning to run away with a significantly younger woman. Actually the only thing stopping them has been money, and when she brings him a bag full of cash from her gangster husband it seems that their problems will soon be over. Instead, this even signifies their descent into a nightmare where neither of them will be able to escape. The Square (which refers to a significant spot on Raymond's development he is currently working on) is a little rough around the edges and it is not filmed in a high quality style. Its strengths lie in its plotting and use of scenarios that help develop the noirish elements of the plot. Film Noir can be the most exciting of films, and The Square proves to be an exciting and challenging film.
***

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Crazies

It's nice when a B-picture in a less than reputable drama turns out to be a pleasant (wrong word) surprise. The Crazies, a remake of zombie king George Romero's 1973 film unseen by me, brings the goods. It tells the story of a small town that is slowly being taken over by zombies. The cause of the zombie takeover is even more sinister then the zombies itself, and the town sheriff, his deputy, his wife, and her assistant are soon on the run from the zombies in an effort to find out the truth behind the attacks. This is not a movie masterpiece or a modern classic, but rather just a good horror movie that gets the boo! moments right and constructs some other situations nicely as well. Timothy Olyphant in the lead, is an actor I've come to like, as he doesn't seem to overstep his acting boundary, or reach to far. He seems comfortable in his B-movie roles as a small town lawman, and I say if the shoe fits then wear it. The Crazies is a nice little time waster an a nice little (though not pleasant) surprise.
***

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Piano Teacher

There is no doubt that German director Michael Haneke is a masterful director. His films are among the best of the art house films, and always hit home. Yet, despite his films being masterpieces on a technical level, only some of his films serve a point and qualify as brilliant (see Cache or The White Ribbon). Some films, such as this one and Funny Games, just serve to disturb and do not bring across the point that Haneke hopes to establish. Here we have the title character, a middle aged woman who still lives with her mother while her father wastes away in an asylum. After spending her days methodically and even cruelly teaching piano, she spends her nights engaging in voyeuristic activities. When she meets a new student and takes up with him, it becomes clear just how deeply depraved she really is. Like I stated before, there is nothing wrong with the film technically speaking. The material is extremely disturbing, the characters were unlikable, and there was no point to be gotten, at least by me.
**1/2

Cleopatra

When Cecil B. Demille's Cleopatra from 1934 came up on my list, I shuddered a little bit as I was wary that I'd be getting a stilted and dated historical retread. Instead, I was more then pleasantly surprised to realize that this film was as alive and full-blooded as most of the historical epics that I'd seen. This story tells Cleopatra's exile from Egypt, her romances with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and when war was declared on her by Rome. Claudette Colbert makes an excellent and seductive Cleopatra and the sets, costumes and battle scenes are extremely well done, which should be no surprise since DeMille was at the helm.
***1/2

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fingers

Fingers is a 1978 indie from director James Toback about a young man who goes about New York City picking up women and collecting debts for his loan shark father all the while aspiring to be concert pianist at Carnegie Hall. The film is populated with some nice and some not so nice locations in the city, and there is a wonderful background soundtracks that eminates from the protagonists piano or from the stereo which he carries with him around the city (this method of using pop songs was popular and relatively new at the time). Keitel also shines in the lead, but the languid pacing detracts from the overall effect of the film.
***

Jeopardy!: An Inside Look at America's Favorite Quiz Show

As an avid fan of the popular game show, I decided to check out this 2005 DVD which is actually only five famous episodes of the show: The first episode, Ken Jennings final game, and the three episodes making up the finals for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions. The good stuff is in the bonus features which shows a history of the show, an introduction to three of its most interesting champions, and a behind the scenes featurette showing what goes into a show and what you don't see during a show. Though the bonus features were intriguing, the main material, which was just 5 episodes like I said, seemed like it was hastily thrown together to capitalize on their resurgent success at the time due to Jennings and their high stakes tourney.
**1/2

Monday, June 14, 2010

Billy Madison

They don't make 'em like they used to. I never thought I'd be saying that about Billy Madison, but in regards to comedy, they really don't make 'em like they used to. When this was released in 1995 people complained about its infantilism and gross-out gags, but it appears to be mild compared to today's comedic fare. Even Adam Sandler's own film have become less inspired while favoring even more off-color gags and immature behavior. But Billy Madison was a film I thought was hysterical as an adolescent, was told then that that movie was geared towards a certain age group, and yet still continues to crack me up today. Even more so then the supposed "great" comic films being released in these days.
***1/2

Friday, June 11, 2010

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

After the immediate success of the animated series, Trey Parker and Matt Stone released this full-length feature in 1999. On top of being a hilarious and scathingly satiric film, it is also a great musical. It even garnered an Academy Award for Best Song. Another remarkable thing about the series is not only how Parker and Stone have kept the show funny, but also how they have actually improved it over the years. The film, although hysterical, was released at the height of its popularity when it geared towards an audience that appreciated its bawdy langauage over intelligent humor. Since then, the material has improved although the movie remains a classic.
***1/2

Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

Until I saw this documentary, the only alternate pro football leagues  I had  heard of were the CFL and the ill-fated XFL. Yet, in the 80s there was a moderately successful league called the USFL. Playing in the spring, the USFL drew good crowds and modest ratings and actually attracted three straight Heisman Trophy winners as well as some other players who would go on to be stars in the NFL. Despite the success, the league eventually collapsed and many of those in the documentary attribute this to the greed of owners such as Donald Trump who wanted to try to contend with the NFL. This is another interesting entry in ESPN's documentary series.
***

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Billy Wilder Speaks

Billy Wilder is one of the best writer/directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood and left a lasting impression in many fine films. This 1986 interview, which he didn't want released until his passing (it was released in 2006), is filmed in two languages and covers different parts of his career. Though obviously not as interesting as watching one of his films, it was still interesting to hear the legend speak of his career.
***

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

How do review a movie that disappoints until the final act, where it wraps up nicely? For the first 2/3rds of Get Him to the Greek, the Forgetting Sarah Marshall spin-off, I was preparing to tear into the film for trying to capitalize even further on a surprise successs and I was also ready to pounce on critics for overpraising a turkey. Then, as the film was winding up, there were some genuinely humorous and touching moments that would have justified the price of admission...at a dollar theater. Get Him to the Greek is about a record company worker (Jonah Hill) who has an idea to revive his struggling label: Have a massive concert in LA with the burnt out rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). The higher ups approve and assign Hill the job of escorting Brand from LA to NY to Vegas to LA, which will obviously prove to be an arduous task. Although I liked both stars in the original, Hollywood has never heard of the phrase "too much of a good thing." Brand starring for the entire film as Snow proves to be a mistake and cannot match the laughs provided by the character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The usually affable Hill does what he can with the material, but it is just not that good. A recent article said we are in a golden age of comedy and we just don't realize it yet, referring to the Apatow films. I personally feel that they have grown tiresome and await for comedies to take a new direction.
**

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Son

A man who teaches carpentry at a reformatory accepts a recently released boy into his program, and immediately begins to follow him. Details about the man and the boy are gradually revealed as the story progresses. The Son (Le fils) is a 2002 Belgium film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Filmed without background music, The Son relies a lot on sound to generate tension and while watching it, I was reminded of No Country For Old Men. Although they are two entirely different films, both effectively employ the same techniques to generate intense results. Aside from its technical craft regarding sound, The Son is also a profound film with a different take on the notion of revenge.
***1/2

Man Push Cart

Man Push Cart is the first feature from Iranian-American independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who specializes in portraits of American immigrants. Before we we're introduced to his kindly African cab driver in Raleigh in Goodbye Solo or his young Latino boy selling car parts in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Chop Shop, we were introduced to Ahmad, a Pakistani ex-rock star selling coffee, donuts, and bootleg DVDs to busy Manhattan residents. As the story progresses we learn about Ahmad's situation and his past, and join him as he forms sadly tenuous relationships. Man Push Cart is an excellent debut for Bahrani but a far cry from his best work. It does contain moments of power in a story brought to the screen in an unconventional manner.
***

Friday, June 4, 2010

Invincible

When I see the credits WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY WERNER HERZOG followed by the phrase "Based on a True Story" I think Yeah Right. How could the imaginative Herzog direct a factual film. Even his true life documentaries contain elements of fiction. Yet here we have a story written and directed by the eccentric German director about a Jewish strongman living in rural 1932 Poland. When the poor man enters and wins a strength contest to pay back a debt, he is noticed by members of the rising Nazi party and recruited to be in the sideshow of a clairvoyant (played by the smarmy and remarkable Tim Roth) where he is presented as an Aryan and as an argument for German superiority. All the elements of a Herzog movie are in place here such as the bizarre and memorable images, and this is not a typical Hollywood story about Nazis and Jews. The acting is off as Roth seems to be the only trained actor in the film.This is not among Herzog's best work but still better than a large percentage of crap playing in the local cinematheque.
***

Babel

Babel represents the final entry in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's so called trilogy. All three films are hyperlink films, meaning that they contain multiple characters who are linked with a plot that is weaved back and forth through time. Babel is his most successful and most ambitious work to date and it tells the story of how four seemingly unconnected groups of people are connected through one event and how each group struggles with a language barrier: a man trying to find aid for his injured wife in a foreign country, a Mexican woman trying to explain an awkward situation to border control, and a deaf Japanese girl struggling with a tragedy. The film is beautifully shot and well acted with Brad Pitt standing out in a talented cast. However, it is unsuccessful at pulling these four threads together and maintaining its theme. I felt I was watching four different albeit well-made stories, which were not at all related by plot nor theme. Also, and again the hyperlink movie has become tiresome and I think that although Inarritu has established himself with this genre, that he has done all he can with it. He recently debuted his new film at Cannes with great success and I look forward to that film with great interest.
***

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gosford Park

The first two words that come to mind when I think of director Robert Altman are unconventional and ensemble, and with Gosford Park Altman provides with an unconventional take on the mansion murder mystery told with an ensemble cast. It is 1932 and an assortment of upper class Americans and Brits, along with their servants, are gathered at a mansion on the English countryside for a weekend of shooting and gallivanting. The film is actually a dissection and comparison of upper class and working class, and the murder only serves to carry on this entity. Gosford Park is slow going at times and engaging at others, and is not recommended for the ADD viewer. However, for its acting, beautiful photography, nice moments, and realization of time and place Gosford Park is worth the visit.
***

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Letters from Iwo Jima

In late 2006, I had the good fortune of being able to see both of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima's films he had released that year in the same night. Although Flags of Our Fathers had been released a couple months prior, it opened in the dollar theater the same night Letters from Iwo Jima made its initial run. So I attended Flags of Our Fathers and after being underwhelmed by that film as well as tired, I was not sure I could handle another film. Yet, I convinced myself to go see Letters from Iwo Jima and it turned out to be not only a great theater going experience, but also what I believe to be the best war film, and possibly one of the best movies ever committed to film. Letters follows the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side, and follows it from several different kinds of soldiers to gain different perspectives. From the brilliant general who does not proscribe to the ancient Japanese methods of war, to the traditional officers, to the lowly soldier who misses his family back home, and even the ex-Olympian turned officer, Letters from Iwo Jima portrays the war in several different lights, resulting in an all encompassing portrait of battle. Ken Watanabe is wonderful as the conflicted general and Kazunari Ninomiya is affecting as the lowly baker turned soldier. Letters from Iwo Jima paints a horrible picture on a beautiful canvas, that results in Clint Eastwood's best work in a brilliant career as well as a multifaceted war picture.
****

Before Sunset

Before Sunset picks up 9 years after the couple in Before Sunrise left each other at the train station, but really it picks up right where the original left off. Jesse has written a book about his one night stand detailed in the first film and is now on an international book tour. At his last stop in a book store in Paris, he meets up again with Celine and the two basically continue their conversation as the more mature and slightly changed couple walk the Parisian streets and discuss what's happened in the interim and ultimately decide what their future together should be. This film was actually received better than the first one for the most part, and was actually given a screenplay nod to director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I myself found it to be more or less the same as the original and I had mixed feelings about seeing how the two characters wound up. Still, the charm of the original is maintained.
***