Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The U

Billy Corben's documentary The U tells the story of The University of Miami in the 1980s as they rise from a footbal joke to a national powerhouse. Miami was a struggling football team in the early 1980s until the new coach decided to recruit from the ghetto, at the same when their was a racial upheaval and race riots in Miami. Soon the team will be transformed into a national contender and will help unite a divided city. Although they went on to win four national champions during the time, it was often overshadowed by the bad behavior of its players. Though this is interesting to a point, it is only going so far and there is no reason this documentary needs to be two hours long.
**1/2

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Now, following Winter's Bone comes another slice of American life that couldn't be any different, yet captures fully realized and sympathetic characters.  It tells the story of a married lesbian couple with two children from a sperm donor. The children decide to contact him and his male presence throws them for a loop, especially the mothers, one who may be jealous and finds his presence disrupting their family unit while the other begins to feel attracted to him (the phrase "but the parents aren't" could be added to the title). What we are left with is an honest and (mostly) fair film filled with comedy, sadness, and even great filmmaking (a moment of realization is handled as nicely as I've seen). Everyone in the film shines. The kids are wonderfully cast (which is a rarity) and look for nominations for Mark Ruffalo (the donor), Annette Bening (the domineering mother), and Julianne Moore (the more feminine mother). I had qualms with the resolution but still found this to be a wonderful film.
***1/2

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Solitary Man

Star vehicles can result in a wreck if not all of the parts are in place. Solitary Man is a vehicle for Michael Douglas, and though he is fine in the lead with some fine actors around him, it does not contain a script to keep it on track. It is about a snakey yet likable luxury car dealer who finds out there is an irregularity with his heart, and decides to live life even moreso on his own terms. Along the way, he begins to lose everything that is important to him. This is not a movie where the lead character realizes the error of his ways and changes his life, which is probably a good thing, but the movie doesn't really have a point, at least that I could derive from it. Also the script is pretty awful as well. Again, Douglas is solid as usual, as he can make even the weakest lines sound interesting. Still its not enough to sustain this uninteresting film.
**

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Salt

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The Berlin Wall fell more than twenty years ago, but it is still much alive in the movies. Here comes a spy thriller involving Russia, secret agents, and nuclear arms, yet set in modern day America. It is utterly preposterous at every turn and for the most part an entertaining and satisfying thriller. Salt opens up in North Korea with the title character Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) being tortured for being a spy, denying the claim, and being released in a prisoner swap (is her surname a reference to the armament control treaties between the U.S. and Russia in the 70s?). We jump two years forward to the present, where Salt has been assigned to a desk and it seems like a normal day. On her way home, while talking with her coworker Ted (Live Schrieber), they receive a report that a Russian defector has entered the building and go to interrogate him. After telling a ludicrous story about Russian babies being abducted and trained as spies, he then tells Salt that she is a Soviet agent assigned to assassinate the Russian president at the recently deceased U.S. Vice President’s funeral in New York. Instead of straightening things out, Salt beats up her coworkers and escapes leading to a series of fights, chases, double crosses, plot twists, and possible global devastation. Salt is directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Brian Helgeland, and here they are able to make an entertaining story out of a ludicrous plot. There is a nod to Die Hard, and I thought they were channeling The Fugitive for a while. The plot does not always go where you expect it too though sometimes it does. Ms. Jolie  succeeds in another portrayal of a kick-ass heroine, though I think that Schrieber needs to stick to narrating History Channel documentaries, as he again fails playing his usually glib character. In the end, we feel we got our money’s worth and I’m sure action junkies will be satisfied.  I think a word deserves to be said about the action sequences in the film. Noyce directs them with a skill and clarity that is lacking in most auctioneers these days. In this film, you know who is shooting at or hitting who and the scenes always seem to make sense, unlike the Bourne films where the shaky cam leaves you never quite sure. They are also sure handedly choreographed and directed, unlike the disappointing Inception, where loud and intense music was supposed to mask and enhance disappointing fight scenes. The handling of these scenes help to make Salt an entertaining experience.
***

Winter's Bone

While most teenage girl’s biggest concerns revolve around who will pay their cell phone bill and who Bella will choose in next Twilight entry, Ree has real responsibilities no person her age should bear. In addition to taking care of her younger brother and sister for her mentally ill mother, she now must track down her father, a meth-head who has put their house up for bail, and skipped his court date. Now, through the Ozarks of Missouri, Ree must confront hillbilly kin and foe on the whereabouts of her father, or lose her families entire property.Yes this is bleak, but she is not entirely alone. Her neighbor takes in their horse they cannot feed and provides mild charity. An army recruiter shoots her straight by telling her not to join the army for money and that her real responsibilities are at home right now, not in her country’s service. I imagined a more quota driven officer would not have given her this sage advice. Also, a wayward uncle eventually comes around and begins to help the family out. Every once in a while, a film comes around that acknowledges that not everyone in this country lives in New York or Los Angeles, and is intimately familiar with its place and inhabitants. Winter’s Bone, based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell and directed by Debra Granik, knows its characters and its southern Missouri locations. The performers in the movie do not feel like actors, but rather inhabitants of this land living out their daily lives. In addition to capturing this element, Granik is able to generate tension as Ree’s search becomes more hazardous and the story goes in directions you would not expect. Here is a film that is a travelogue to a rarely seen part of America and a rare kind of film that is not often seen these days.
***1/2

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Am Love

Tilda Swinton is one of our best actresses and even here playing a Russian unhappily married into an Italian bourgeoisie family, she brings extra layers to the character, all the while speaking fluent Italian. I Am Love is an exquisitely shot film taking place mostly in Milan, and tells the story of the Recchis, an upper class family in the textile business who's professional lives and personal ones as well are about to undergo seismic shifts. The fact that you don't always realize this while its happening, thanks in part to the acting, I think benefits the film. This tragic film unfolds nicely, Swinton is great as always, and the cinematography is lavish. The film does slow down in a few spots, but is definitely worth the excursion.
***

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Menace II Society

Menace II Society opens with directorial flare in a scene of senseless violence and for the duration of this scene we think that the Hughes brothers are on their way to making a fresh and original hood film. Then, sadly, the flare fizzles, the violence continues without making a statement, and the movie falls back on cliches. Still it is a notch above other hood movies. It tells the story of Caine, a young man who has spent his whole life in Watts witnessing crime and violence by his parents, friends, and  neighbors. Somehow, he has managed to graduate high school and plans to move away with his locked up mentor's girlfriend, but the cycle of crime he is in as well as the poor influences of his associates, such as the brutal O-Dog, keep him from achieving and may lead to a more impending doom. When this was released in 1993 it came with the tagline "America's worst nightmare" and many hailed it as a ghetto masterpiece. Now, some of the initial power is retained but other parts seem just senseless and unfocused. Also it is hard to root for such an amoral unlikable lead, even though it is clear the film wants us too. The film is undeniably influential and thankfully put the Hughes brothers on the map who have made valuable films since. Still it is not quite in the same league as Boyz N The Hood which created a bleak ghetto landscape while populating it with characters you cared about. On the other hand, now that I know who Caine and o dog are, a lot of rap songs make sense so that's a positive.
**1/2

Waking Life

Waking Life is about a young man caught in a series of dreams who meets several people and listens to their philosophies on life while he formulates his own opinions. Director Richard Linklater, who may be the most innovative and experimental director working today, created this marvel of a movie by filming it with a digital camera and having dozens of writers animate the film while adding their own trippy spins. This is a thinking person's movie and is not for everyone. However, it is a movie that can be watch casually or intensely, and can be revisited many times. Waking Life is a little gem of a movie that each person should at least tempt to watch. Look for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who make a welcome reprise of their characters from Before Sunrise.
***1/2

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

 
Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about various street artists that may or may not be entirely genuine. It starts out with a Frenchman who, for no particular reason at all, decides to start filming his life. After meeting up with a cousin, who has a hobby of making Space Invader stickers and placing them various places aroung the city, the Frenchman decides to follow him around with his camera. Intrigued by the street artist lifestyle, he meets and records endless hours of street artists, including Shepard Fairey (who supposedly invented the red, white, and blue Obama poster) and eventually Bansky, the infamous, anonymous graffiti artist and director of this film. From there the documentary goes in a direction no one could have anticipated. It did not bother me that the filmmakers may have been pulling our legs with this one (I was a little irked with the self-promotion associated with the various artists, especially Banksy). Exit Through the Gift Shop proves to be an entertaining if slight diversion.
***

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon is a spectacular looking film that drew me in with its dazzling visuals and maybe for the first time, left me thinking of not much else. It tells the story of a Hiccup, a young boy and misfit in a macho Viking community who is always trying to impress his chieftain dad. Since dragons are a pest and therefore the enemy,  he feels the best way to do this is to slay one. After subduing a particularly elusive dragon, he finds himself unable to kill it and befriends it instead. This leads to a clash with his father and the rest of the community. The story was ok and the film is aimed at younger viewers, unlike other recent animated fare, but again its fabulous look and texture make up for any flaws the film may have and lead to a nice cinematic experience.
***

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Inception

George Carlin once said that there is nothing more boring than listening to someone describe their own dream, and I would add that there is no movie more boring than an overblown dream film with no basis in reality. Inception arrives in theaters holding the biggest expectations of the summer, and disappoints fantastically on every level. The problem with following up a spectacular hit like The Dark Knight is the tendency to outdo yourself at every turn, which Christopher Nolan does here. At every turn.
            Inception is Nolan’s 7th feature film, one of the few that he did not collaborate on with his brother Jonathon, and the first that, in addition to not being called great, can be referred to as a downright stinker. The problem lies not in the production value or action sequences, which are all top notch. The problem has to do with the plot, which takes place in what may or may not be a multilayered dream, that is unable to generate any tension. Because everything takes place in a dream, even the most climatic scenes fail to generate any tension, although the filmmakers due all they can to try to do so.
            The “plot” revolves around a con man named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who with his partner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), enter peoples dreams, gain their trust, and get them to reveal their darkest secrets. When a mark (Ken Watanabe) decides to hire them to pull of the ultimate heist, they hire a dream architect (Ellen “Juno” Page), a muscle guy, and a dream inducer they are ready to go. That is until elements of Cobb’s reality begin to interfere with the dreams he enters. If that synopsis doesn’t sound ludicrous, trust me it gets worse.
            All directors fail. Spielberg had 1941, Coppola had Godfather III, and Shyamalan has had every movie since The Sixth Sense. Its not that Nolan has failed here, it’s the fact that he failed so poorly when the expectations were so high. That is not to say that no one will take enjoyment in the film. In fact the crowd roared when the credits began and many were abuzz in the lobby as they discussed plot points. As this movie will sure to please fanboys and action junkies, it will come across as a nightmare for anyone with any expectations at all.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cyrus

The problem with black comedies is that filmmakers opt to make them too black, utilizing unsavory material that could never be resolved. Cyrus acts like its heading down this path but winds up taking a side route and comes up with a resolution that is reasonable and entertaining. It tells the story of John (John C. Reilly), a depressed publisher who finds new life at a party with Molly (Marissa Tomei) and takes up with her. All is swell until he meets her possessive son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) who has a beyond strange strange relationship with his mother, and the young lad decides to get John out of the picture by any means necessary. The setup has Apatow/dick/fart jokes written all over it, but as we watch it, it becomes clear that it is more sincere than any of those films pretend to be. Take John C. Reilly. Due to recent roles, we forget that he is a stage trained actor and as the film opens and his ex-wife (the lovely Catherine Keener) walks in on him in an uncompromising position, we think this is going to be another Step Brothers, manboy retread. Instead, Reilly shows his depth and nuance, and his character proves to be an intelligent adult who is able to handle situations instead of falling victims to their pratfalls (what's he doing using the word overtures anyhow). Jonah Hill brings his usual and amusing comic sensibilities to the part, and the film seems partly like a dissection of his behaviors. The other characters even comment on whether or not he is "genuine" when he gives his glib replies and hides behind his goofy facades. Even Hill reveals a layer that wasn't there before and with the always superb acting from Keener and Tomei, they join Reilly and bring this to a form of comic excellence. I came across the word "mumblecore" when reading reviews for this film and it is a recently coined term referring to low budget films mostly filmed with a digital shaky-cam dealing with relationships. The Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, who directed are considered to be the forerunners of the movement and they may be on to something when it comes to human comedy and behavior.
***1/2

2010 Mid-Year Top 10 List

Not all critics do this and it seems like a silly thing (maybe all lists are silly), but they are fun compiling and may be useful in seeking out a movie. Here are the best films I have seen so far, with links to my reviews. Note that I haven't seen everything.
10. The Crazies
Sometimes a movie surprises you, and this movie did just that. Don't phone the Academy, but this film was solid education filled with some nice scares and a few well-constructed scenes. Timothy Olyphant is becoming a reliable actor.
9.  The Book of Eli 
Again its not high art, just an entertaining Western of sorts with an utterly preposterous and the usually strong performances from Denzel and Gary Oldman.
8. Robin Hood
Many did not respond to this Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe reteaming, mainly because it forgot about the fun of the earlier entries. However, I found it to be an entertaining and rousing entry in the historical action genre and stands alongside and does not merely clone the likes of Braveheart and Gladiator
7. Brooklyn's Finest
A film filled of just about every cop cliche, and utterly entertaining as we watch three major cop characters head to their fates. Maybe director Fuqua has a knack for cop movies, and its fun to see Cheadle, Hawke, and Gere at there sleazy best. Wesley Snipes makes a welcome return.
6. Kick-Ass
A film panned by many due to its violence involving kids (which I can't argue against). Yet, it is utterly original and invigorating, due to its realization of its comic book violence.
5. The Red Riding Trilogy
Barely released in theaters, The Red Riding Trilogy tells a confounding and intriguing story of the Yorkshire Ripper and goes from good to great, as each entry becomes more involving.
4. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Great Danish action-thriller is smart and involving, as it maintains interest for its duration. Looking forward to the sequels coming out this month and October.
3. Toy Story 3
Another great entry in the series, another triumph for Pixar, a studio that can't miss lately. The old characters are there with some great new ones in a fascinating and great looking adventure. See it in 2D though.
2. Shutter Island
I called it a masterpiece when I first saw it, and I stand by that statement after two subsequent viewings. Despite an ending (a great one) many claimed they saw coming, there is much to admire about this film from the master Scorsese and top leading man Leo.
1. The Ghost Writer
Although the past has recently caught up with Roman Polanski, he still has not forgotten how to make a great film. The Ghost Writer is a wonderful and smart political thriller that looks great, goes to unexpected places, and makes sense of what does not always seem to.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Muhammad and Larry

Bradley Kaplan took never seen documentary footage taken by the Maysles brothers in 1980 in the days leading up to the Ali/Holmes fight that ended the Great One's career. The two boxer's, who held mutual respect for each other, couldn't be any different as far as boxer's go as Ali, although in his twilight, was still as cocky and brazen as ever and Holmes was simple, and mild mannered (I liked how he told the camera that he only needed one house). As the fight drew nearer, it becomes clear that Ali was in no shape to fight, as his body showed signs of failing and his friends, family, doctors, and trainers told him to quit the fight. The film paints a great portrait of both fighters as well as others in their life then and now. Muhammad and Larry is a wonderful entry and one of the best in the 30 for 30 series.
***1/2

Mulholland Drive

I was a little baffled when I saw many critics placing Mulholland Drive on their Best of the Decade List, as I had remembered it being a maddeningly frustrating film that added up to very little. So, I decided to revisit what many considered to be David Lynch's masterpiece, and found it again to be a maddeningly frustrating film that adds up to very little. The DVD comes with a card entitled "David Lynch's 10 Clues to Unlocking the Thriller", and while following these cards and watching the genuinely engaging 1st hour of the movie, there are big hopes for the ending which never pay off. The story (if it can be called that) is about a plucky woman trying to make it as an actress (Naomi Watts) meeting an amnesiac who has recently been in a car crash. They are involved in a "plot" which concerns a murderer, a producer having a bad day, and a mysterious cowboy. Although intriguing to a point, Mulholland drive is an overlong disappointment that never pays off.
**

Straight Outta L.A.

Straight Outta L.A. is an offbeat entry in the 30 for 30 series and probably the most insignificant so far. It tells the story of how the cutthroat Oakland Raiders were moved to L.A. in the late 70s and how there merger with the violent L.A. was a match made in heaven. Directed by Ice Cube, he suggests that gangster rap helped promote the Raiders in that city and also helped contribute to its downfall and owner Al Davis' decision to return the team to Oakland. It was interesting in bits that actually involve Davis or the team, but I personally could really care less about Snoop Dogg's take on football or L.A. and I doubt that gangster rap groups such as NWA really did much good for the team or the sport. I just remember them turning the Raider's gear into gang clothes and ruining the team's image.
**1/2

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Neighbor Totoro

Hayao Miyazaki, considered the Walt Disney of Japan, and director of such film's as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, introduced America to Japanimation with My Neighbor Totoro, which was hailed by many as an animation masterpiece. It tells the story of two happy-go-lucky little sisters who move with their father to the country, to be near their ailing mother. In their new home, they have imaginative adventures and eventually meet the title character, a huge fluffy cat. I wouldn't go so far as to hail this a masterpiece. The animation is nice and there are some touching moments. Yet, the film is slow, slow to the point that it can be called stultifying, and although I usually admire films that take this approach,  I think its the wrong move for a film geared so much towards children. Still, there is much to admire in this film.
***

Toy Story 1 & 2

Toy Story 1 & 2 are great films that  I revisit now and again, the last time for its 3D theatrical release, which has motivated me to rewatch the Pixar films again. Still, both films retain the magic that was present in its original release. Although they are technical marvel, the first installment being the premier animated film done entirely by computer and looking great, it knows that craftsmanship isn't enough. It also contains great voice work and an Oscar nominated script that generates real concern for its characters. As many have already noted, Toy Story deserves its place in the pantheon of great films.
****

The Adventures of Andre and Wally B
This is the short that played before Toy Story during its release, and is actually the first computer animated film ever made. It tells the story of a cartoonish creature being awakened and chased by a bee. It is only two minutes long and primitive by today's standards, but earns its rating when I found out it was made in 1984.
****
Luxo Jr.
This short played theatrically before the release of Toy Story 2

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The 16th Man

Morgan Freeman narrates The 16th Man and it tells the same story as Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the film that garnered Freeman an Academy Award nod earlier this year. The title refers to Nelson Mandela, named the 16th man to South Africans rugby team after he urged the Africans in his country to embrace the whites and their rugby team, and in doing so inspired a nation, and led to victory in the 1995 World Cup. Although I was familiar with the story, I enjoyed this program and also liked how a more in depth histroy of South Africa was given.
***

Without Bias

Without Bias tells the story of Maryland basketball phenom Len Bias, who was drafted number one by the Boston Celtics in 1986, and died of a cocaine overdose a few nights later. This is an honest and moving remembrance by family and friends, as well as an examination of what his death did to this country, namely the upping of the stakes in the war on drugs. This is one of the best entries in the series.
***1/2

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Despicable Me

So far, two of the best films released this summer have been computer animated movies in the 3D format. Despicable Me is an example of fine summer fare, a film with a story to tell, a sense of humor, and a wild imagination, not to mention that it successfully utilizes its 3D (something Toy Story 3 did not do). It tells the story of Gru, voiced by Steve Carell and resembling The Penguin, the world's most evil mastermind. In a seemingly normal suburb, Gru labors below his home with his minions, developing plans to carry out his sinister plans. When the pyramids are stolen by a rival, Gru devises the ultimate plan: steal the moon and therefore steal the headlines away from his nemesis. However, three little orphans from the neighborhood stand in his way. Despicable Me is a great time at the movies and one of the few occasions where it is worth paying the surcharge for 3D. In a summer of despicable films, here is one worth checking out.
***1/2

Kings Ransom

Kings Ransom is the first entry into ESPN's 30 for 30, and details the trade between the Los Angeles Kings and the Edmonton Oilers in which The Great One left his home country for the bright lights of L.A. The film, directed by Peter Berg, details how the trade reinvigorated hockey in L.A. and America in general, but it is mainly about the loss the people of Edmonton faced and the dent it put into their team and their town-a prospect the people of Cleveland are staring dead in the eye right at this minute. Like most of the other entries in this series, this is a very fine entry, blending interviews and footage.
***

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled was John Woo's last Chinese movie before is emigration to America and it is also a maddeningly frustrating film. Hailed as a masterpiece in some corners, it is nearly a nonstop shoot 'em up for its entire 126 minute running length. It tells the story of a gung-ho cop trying to take down a gun running ring, who takes up with a wily hitman, who unbeknownst to him is also an officer of the law. Woo is a master of stylized, slow motion violence, and Tony Leung is intriguing as the undercover officer. Still masterpiece is not a word I would use to describe this movie. Influential, maybe but a film can not live on style alone and despite the nonstop action scenes and considerable body count, this is an empty film.
**

Back to the Future

In a movie filled with many of them, the best moment comes not in time travel related special effects sequence, but rather when the wimpy George knocks out Biff and the camera flashes to Lorraine, as she is lifted off the ground, and knows she has found her density (as George would call it) and we know that the young Marty will continue to exist and hopefully make it back to 1985 (the second best moment is his return trip). Back to the Future is now 25 years and anyone who has taken it cannot say that they have been touched in one way or another by the film. Aside from being a technical achievement of its time, it is a movie filled with characters we remember, relate to, and care about caught in a silly time travel plot that makes sense, that we care about, and that actually has us rooting for the hero (at a midnight screening last night, the crowd exploded in applause during the scene I described). Robert Zemeckis has crafted a masterpiece with ingenious scripting, casting, music, effects, and presentation. In scouring internet reviews today one critic said that it must be the most carefully scripted film of all time, a thought that I was wondering during the film. Another critic said, "if you don't like Back To The Future, it's difficult to believe that you like films at all."
****

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris

This is going to be one of those "tread lightly" reviews for a film that does nothing of the sort. It tells the supposedly true story of a man who has lived a good Christian life and has spent his spare time tracking down the mother who gave him up at birth (the middle child, while keeping the other two). When he finds her and she wants nothing to do with him, followed by a horrendous car crash, he decides to stop hiding his closeted self and live life as a full fledged homosexual. Soon he finds the homosexual lifestyle to be rather expensive and finds himself turning into a conman to support it, a profession he is quite good at. After being caught and imprisoned, he meets the title character and embarks on a series of jobs, cons, and escapes each getting more ridiculous then the other. This could have been a total disaster (the studios still don't know what to do with it), but it is a riot watching Jim Carrey throw himself into the role, a role that most actors wouldn't have taken. Ewan McGregor is reliable as usual as Carrey's love interest and the movie contains many laughs and a hard to believe ending.
***