Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Harry Brown

We go into revenge thrillers knowing what to expect, with audience manipulation being among the expectations. Therefore, if we treat them as an acting showcase for the star, the payoff can be great, and Michael Caine proves that a great actor can elevate most any material, no matter how grotesquely violent it may be. Caine plays the title character, an ex-servicemen with a dying wife, and after the gang murder of his best mate, he has nothing to left to lose and begins to take out the junkie drug dealing slime who infest his apartment complex. In addition to these clich├ęs, add to the list the lone cop who suspects a pensioner vigilante, her partner who doesn’t buy it but eventually comes around, and an entire police force who misreads the situation entirely. What is not standard however is Caine’s (usual) magnetic and restrained performance where he makes us believe, like Clint did in Gran Torino, that a geriatric could take out a band of thugs and bring peace to a turbulent neighborhood.
 ***

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cemetery Junction

One doesn't expect an affecting drama and a well shot film from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, but that is what we have with their latest offering, along with their expected humorous touches. Cemetery Junction is a coming of age story of three young men in 1973 Reading, England. While spending their days drinking, chasing birds, and goofing off one receives an opportunity to rise above his working class roots and date the girl of his dreams, although she is the boss's daughter and engaged to one of his coworkers. This isn't new territory, but great actors like Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson guide the way, with Gervais thrown in for comic relief, and the trio of friends played by likable enough actors.
***

Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy is a horrible film that takes all of the elements that made John Lennon's early life compelling and fouls them up or omits them entirely. Set during his fifteenth year in 1955, we see young John bum around Liverpool, argue with his guardian aunt, and spend time with his mentally unbalanced mother. We never see scenes of him doing any writing whatsoever and the movie implies he learned guitar from his mother in a matter of days. The actors range from uninspired to godawful and all that results is soapy melodrama and an uninteresting film about a young man who grew up to be one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
*

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

23 years after the first film, the Wall Street sequel picks up in 2008 on the precipice of the global financial collapse A free man for seven years, Gordon Gekko is now an outsider to the world he once ruled and now does tours promoting his new book "Is Greed Good?" At one of these seminars, he meets a young broker who is dating his estranged daughter. The two form a partnership with the goal of crushing a ruthless hedge fund billionaire who has wronged both of them and reuniting Gekko's daughter with him. Shia LaBeouf is out of his league with heavyweight actors who carry him throughout the picture: Michael Douglas maintains his slick ruthlessness and Josh Brolin is fine in a role similar to Douglas's in the first film. Carey Mulligan and Susan Sarandan are fine as well as LaBeouf girlfriend and mom. Also, Frank Langella and Eli Wallach are excellent in smaller roles. Money Never Sleeps makes some biting statements about the current economy and has some nice visuals as well as unnecessary visual effects. The ending is also pat and does not do the characters justice, although the ride is worthwhile
***

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm Still Here

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding I’m still here and the speculation surrounding its authenticity, what few are mentioning is how well the film is made. Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre behavior is documented following his retirement from acting and foray into the acting world and following brother-in-law and director Casey Affleck’s announcement that the movie was indeed a hoax, I was asking myself while watching this how anyone could think it was real. The film has writing credits to begin with and is clearly the work of a group of friends goofing around. Still, what is remarkable is how Phoenix maintained this persona for such an extended period, how deep the hoax goes, and how downright hilarious and entertaining the final product is. I think the film works as a lampoon of celebrity entitlement and behavior and I think the Phoenix performance, if it is indeed one, is brilliant. Many disagree of its worth as a performance or mockery, and even if it isn’t one of those things, it is fascinating and one of the funniest films of the year.
***1/2

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Bridges of Madison County

The title refers to the cover story of a 1965 issue of National Geographic, and when two grown siblings find that their recently deceased mother’s will stipulates that she wishes to be thrown off of one of these bridges, they are more than perplexed. Why would she not want to be buried in the spot reserved for her next to her loving husband? We learn the answer to that question as a four day love affair between the woman and a visiting photographer is revealed through flashback. This could have been a soapy mess, but thanks to the fine direction of Clint Eastwood, it proves to be a thoughtful rumination and honest portrait of a true love that was never meant to be. Playing an Italian immigrant, whose dreams did not involve growing up on an Iowan farm, but whose life somehow ended up that way, Meryl Streep is luminous and Clint shows vulnerability while retaining his tough guy persona as the photographer. The movie is a little long yet nonetheless intelligent, effective, and affecting.
***1/2

Breathless


Sometimes it takes only one film to open the doors to the creation of innumerous subsequent films and watching Breathless, it is clear that many modern movies were made because of it. Made at the beginning of the French New Wave, it was written by Francois Truffaut and directed by Jean-Luc Godard and implemented a style that had not been used, or not widely used in mainstream cinema. Filmed with jump cuts (two different consecutive shots of the same focal point) and implementing a free form style light on plot and heavy on rambling dialogue, I was reminded of many following films with a similar style. It stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a petty car thief who models himself on Humphrey Bogart. After killing a cop, he hides out in Paris while waiting for travel funds to come through. During this time, he romanticizes an American woman (Jean Seberg) while the two hold rambling and wide ranging discussions in their hotel rooms. Though I thought the film was maybe too loose and could have used a little more plot, it is undeniably influential and a movie that liberated the movies.
***1/2

Friday, September 17, 2010

Unmatched


The 30 for 30 series finally lets the girls play, and in what was admittedly the entry I had anticipated the least, it turns out to be one of the better ones in the series. Old friends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova get together to reminisce on their intense rivalry in which the two squared off an incredible amount of times in women’s tennis singles, forming one of the greatest and seldom mentioned rivalries in professional sports. The heart of the story lies in the friendship the two had formed over the years and the two come across as genuine people and not entitled and selfish athletes. Although it seems long even for its hour duration and we are ready for it to end by the time the Natalie Merchant song has played by for the third time, it still tells a fine story of an intense rivalry and a tender friendship.
***

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Animal Kingdom

           The film opens with a television game show being regarded by a seventeen year old boy as he sits next to his slumped over mother. As the paramedics arrive, he calmly informs them that she has overdosed on heroin. He then continues watching the TV while the men unsuccessfully try to revive his mother. This casual attitude gives us an idea of the people who will populate the film.
            Soon the boy is taken in by his Grandma, a short and spunky woman not dissimilar to Ma Barker as she houses her three criminal sons and their associate. Although she died a junkie, these were the people that the boy’s mother had sheltered from him for his entire life. Now he has been introduced to their gang, or pack if you will. Soon he will be entangled in their criminal web and immersed in more danger than anyone could have imagined.
           Several abrubt killings will take place and the teen, played with believability by fresh faced James Frecheville, will stand at the center of the film, caught between loyalty to his criminal family and responsibility to the law. Guy Pearce convincingly plays the detective who heads the case and offers a way out to the young man. 
Animal Kingdom is an Australian export and the debut film from David Michod. It is based on famous events that occurred in Melbourne in 1988, which the film wisely decides to not tell us. It is a gritty film containing despicable characters and their reprehensible acts. I thought the film was intriguing, but lacked characterization and proper pacing. I also did not buy into certain plot developments and character decisions that take place towards the end of the film. 
Still, many scenes come off with force and it is engaging throughout its duration. Also, one scene involving a character’s realization and a subsequent chase is handled with perfection, in a manner which generates chills. Despite its flaws, Animal Kingdom is an honest depiction of the criminal lifestyle and worth seeking out. It is a good film for a first time director, and the kind of film that makes you want to see what else the director will do.
**1/2

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eraserhead

David Lynch is a talented director who makes challenging films, and has a fervent following, as would be indicated by the number of people who follow him on Twitter. He is also an arrogant filmmaker, who makes baffling movies seemingly for himself. Just because a film is original and offbeat does not always mean it is worthwhile. Eraserhead was his premier film. Shot in black and white, it is a technically sound film—even ahead of its time. However, like his subsequent work, it meanders along and is loaded with pretense and supposedly symbolic imagery as we follow a man in a desolate town as he cares for his severely deformed baby amidst a series of extremely odd circumstances. It is undeniably influential and has inspired a generation of independent filmmakers, even if Lynch’s high reputation as a director is undeserved.
 **1/2

The Town

In a career of ups and downs, Ben Affleck has experienced his greatest successes in films set in Boston, the city where he hails from. Going into The Town I was expecting to be disappointed as it could have gone wrong in so many ways or been a clone of other like flicks. I walked out of the theater thinking it to be one of the best films of the year. Starring and directing from a script he adapted, Affleck has crafted a film about a group of bank robbers that gets so many things right: from the exciting heist sequences to the authentic characters to greatly capturing the city, The Town is no less than a marvel. Affleck shines in the lead role with Jeremy Renner, as his boyhood friend and hotheaded accomplice, shining in a supporting role. Renner brings a sadness to his psychotic character as he plays a man who knows he is trapped in a life of crime and poverty, and sees violence as his only option. Chris Cooper also has a brief yet powerful role as Affleck’s father, also a bank robber who delivers a hard hitting speech to his son during a visit. Also worth mentioning, maybe most importantly, is the success of the romance in the story. Movies of this nature always have a romantic subplot, which you often wish had been left on the cutting room floor. Here, in a situation that could have been contrived and false, we are given a romance between Affleck and Rebecca Miller which is handled with tenderness and comes off a genuine. The Town is an achievement and a reason to forgive Affleck for some his past cinematic transgressions.
***1/2

The Expendables


There isn’t really much to say about this one: a bunch of shit get blown up and a bunch of dudes get head tossed, knifed, and shot up—pretty much what you’d expect. I was just wondering why such a great action cast would settle for the same old same old. Why not try something new?
**

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful tells the story of a heartless producer, and although not quite in the same league as the other 1950s Hollywood scandal and corruption classic Sunset Boulevard, it is a powerful condemnation on its own. The story of powerful producer Jonathon Shields (Kirk Douglas in a commanding performance) begins when three of his former colleagues are called in by producer Walter Pidgeon to work on Shield’s latest project. All three hold the utmost contempt for him and the bulk of the film will consist of three segments, where each will tell the story as to why they refuse to work with the once great filmmaker. Barry Sullivan plays an aspiring director who teamed up with Shields and broke into the industry only to be stabbed in the back. Lana Turner plays the alcoholic bit player who is given a big break by Shields, only to be misled. Dick Powell plays a writer whom Shields lures to Hollywood , who will soon face a tragedy involving his star struck wife (Gloria Grahame in an Oscar winning performance). The Bad and The Beautiful drags at parts, but each segment is punctuated with segments of scenes and intense acting. The way the story is told is unique and engaging though, and provides a fine prism through which to view a corrupt Golden Age of Hollywood.
***

Friday, September 10, 2010

One Night in Vegas

One Night in Vegas features some affable people recounting their personal experiences with Mike Tyson and Tupac, but this documentary has no place in the 30 for 30 series as it hardly has anything at all to do with sports. Opening with a truly terrible poetry recitation and unnecessarily made into a cartoon resembling a graphic novel, ONIV supposedly tells the story of the friendship between Tyson and Tupac, as well as the Tyson/Seldon Fight attended by Tupac on the same night he was gunned down. However, there is little mention of the fight, and almost no mention of the two’s friendship. Instead we get reminitions on both men’s lives and details of their times in prison, all of which adds up to very little.
**

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Little Big Men

For most men, many of our found memories include involvement with childhood athletics, particularly the thrill of the sport and the purity of the game. The 30 for 30 entry Little Big Men, is about the grown team members of the 1980 Little League World Champion Team from Kirkland, Washington reminiscing on their glory days and the exploitation and loss of innocence that followed their great underdog victory. In the decade prior to that victory, Taiwan had dominated the Little League World Series, winning every season except for a loss one year to Japan, and an American victory another year when foreign participation wasn’t allowed. When Kirkland surprised everyone in their region and journey to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the grand tournament, no one expected much. Yet, they prevailed and the heart of the story details what followed. One of the lesser known subjects in this series, it proves to be one of the elite entries as the positive and negative aspects of Little League Sports are recounted with genuine emotion by a group of men who experienced the extreme of both.
***1/2

Barfly

Some people wallow in poverty, misery, and alcoholism. Henry Chianski thrives in them. Fighting shallow bartendeners for drinks in the local dives and jotting down an occasional inspired thought in his cramped, squalid apartment, Henry is curiously amused and seemingly content with his situation and condition. He only expresses discontent when he is taken to the nice side of town and tempted with opulence ("no one who could ever write worth a damn ever 'wrote in peace'"). Barfly tells the story of a couple days in Henry's life, and stars Mickey Rourke who takes a risk and plays him as a hunchbracked Brandolike goon who stomps around and overdelivers his lines. The result is a likable character that I found amusing. Faye Dunaway also delivers a fine performance as a boozy woman that takes him in. Written by Charles Bukowski (Chianski is his alter-ego, also played by Matt Dillion in Factotum), the dialogue is brilliant at points and although the film rambles, it is entirely likable throughout.
***

Monday, September 6, 2010

Angel Heart

Angel Heart starts out as a 1950s noirish detective story on the tough streets of the Bronx and quickly turns into a gothic nightmare, enwashed in blood and satanic rituals in the swamps of Louisiana. Starring Mickey Rourke as a burnt out P.I. given a mysterious job from a mysterious client (Robert De Niro in a small, juicy role), Rourke soon finds himself way over his head in the search for a missing person who owes a debt to De Niro. Directed and written for the screen by Alan Parker, the film functions as an example of success for style over substance. The final twist can be figured out through many clues throughout the picture, but the success of the film lies in the performances, the cinematography, and the sheer brashness of the visuals.
***

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The American

Jack (or maybe its Edward) is an assassin who lives life as reclusively as possible. Most people know very little about him and what he tells them about himself is usually lies. The woman he's currently with in a rural Swedish town clearly doesn't know who he is. After having to relocate to an Italian villa, he tells a local priest that he isn't good with machines, we soon learn that that is far from the truth. Later he visits a brothel and tells one of the girls that he is there to get pleasure, not give it, but we already know that that's a lie as well. George Clooney kicks off the fall season with a film that contains familiar elements that will probably be entirely unexpected to most viewers. The American is an exquisitely shot and languidly placed film where we experience entirely what the protagonist experiences. We see what he sees, get in his head, and soon his own paranoia soon becomes ours. Not everything is explained clearly because maybe he doesn't understand their repercussions as well. Clooney shows restraint, yet unexpectedly generates powerful emotions in key scenes. He is our premier film star, and continues to chose the very best projects. The American is a captivating film and by the time he starts running up that winding staircase we have confirmed that we are watching one of the best films of the year.
****