Tuesday, September 30, 2008

REVIEW: BURN AFTER READING (****)

In their deranged new black comedy BURN AFTER READING (****), writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen give new meaning to the idea of the cinematic imbecile. The Coens, always ready to show off at least one crazy character per picture, populate their latest film with a group of idiots, each one dumber or more clueless than the other. In a fit of frustration, one character even refers to the rest of the characters in the film as a "league of morons." BURN AFTER READING is an interesting hybrid; it mixes C.I.A. skullduggery, sex farce, modern American gym culture, and violent incident into an off-the-wall concoction that you'll either jive with immediately or want no part of whatsoever. In its manic spirit, BURN AFTER READING is closer to THE BIG LEBOWSKI and THE HUDSUCKER PROXY than it is to something like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or FARGO. I must also admit this much: I have never been let down by any of the Coen brothers' films. I like some more than others, but there hasn't been one effort that I can honestly say that I didn't enjoy on one level or another. They have a distinctive style -- both visually and narratively -- that really appeals to my filmic sensibilities. I love their stylized, sometimes unnatural way of writing dialogue, while their visual precision is something that could serve as a lesson in formal control and impeccable technique at any film school. Their movies have gotten bigger over the years (bigger stars, bigger budgets) but they have never lost sight of the most important aspect of each and every one of their films: themselves. BURN AFTER READING is their first film since they won multiple Oscars last year for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and the two films couldn’t be any more different. And even though you might feel that BURN AFTER READING feels a little slight compared to their brooding, existential thriller from last year, their new effort, in its own way, is no less accomplished.

Osbourne Cox, deliciously played by John Malkovich, is a C.I.A. analyst who is getting the boot by his superiors. They feel he has a drinking problem, but considering he waits till exactly 5:00 p.m. to pour his first drink, Osbourne disagrees. He's stuck in a loveless marriage to a cold shrew of a woman named Katie (the peculiar yet always engaging Tilda Swinton), who is in the midst of an affair with the goofy Harry Pfarrer (a bumbling, terrific George Clooney), who happens to be a Federal Marshall, not to mention a complete sex addict. Cox decides, in one of many fits of rage displayed in the film, that he's going to write a memoir about his life working as a government spook. When the disc containing his book falls out of his assistant's gym bag at her gym and into the hands of two moronic gym employees, things start to get very hectic. Just how lame-brained are these gym rats? Linda Litzke, the incomparable Frances McDormand, is so self-conscious that she feels that overhauling her body with plastic surgery is the only way she can continue to lead a satisfying existence. Never mind that her adoring boss Ted, the great Richard Jenkins, loves her exactly the way she is. Linda's best buddy, the extremely dim-witted yet good-hearted Chad (a never-been-funnier Brad Pitt), comes up with a plan. They will blackmail Osbourne into giving them money in exchange for giving him back his memoirs. They've seen enough movies, Chad reckons, for their plan to succeed. To say that Linda and Chad get in over their heads would be an understatement. That's about all of a plot summary that I'd like to offer up. The film zigzags from one character to the next, giving everyone equal time, and making sure to bring all the parties together to complete this absurdist amalgam of spy movie and quirky character study. The plot moves in unpredictable ways and offers more than one surprise, and is injected with sudden, graphic bursts of violence (customary in almost all of the Coen's work). There is a bleak subtext of how inept our government's information gathering methods are that runs through the entire film, which is book ended brilliantly by scenes with two C.I.A. higher-ups, played by Coen regular J.K. Simmons and a stony faced David Rasche.

BURN AFTER READING is, above all else, extremely funny. But its humor isn't of the knee-slapping, laugh-till-you-cry variety. This is a smirking, smart-assed film, one that is in love with itself, while simultaneously hating almost everyone depicted in the narrative. The Coens have crafted characters, that are, at least on paper, almost all totally unlikable in one form or another. Granted, each of them has their sympathetic moments, but they're all so stupid or self-absorbed that when something terrible happens to them, the audience isn't exactly sure how to react. Clooney, playing another oaf for the Coens (this film marks the third film in their supposed "idiot trilogy," which started with O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY), gives one of the best performances of his career. Harry is a lout and a cheat, but there is something strangely endearing about him. Just wait until you see what he's working on in his basement. Pitt, who has never done comedy like this, is absolutely hysterical every time he appears on screen. Sporting an absurd haircut and chomping gum through many scenes like a grazing cow, he provides the character of Chad with just enough innocent naiveté that plays against his inherent stupidity. Malkovich, playing a vulgar, seething, intensely modulated character, amps up the level of menace every time he's on screen. The sweetness that McDormand brought to her character in FARGO is glimpsed at from time to time in BURN AFTER READING. However, Linda is a classic example of the clueless character that will never be able to get her life fully on track. The film, as is customary of the Coens, looks fantastic; the incredible cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezeki (CHILDREN OF MEN, THE NEW WORLD) shoots in steely grays and muted colors which reflect the morally ambiguous characters. This is the first time in nine films that the Coens haven't teamed up with their normal director of photography, the legendary Roger Deakins. Lubezeki's work fits right in line with the off-kilter world that the Coens have been honing and crafting with Deakins over the last 15 years. The Coens are master subverters; there is always more than one theme being explored in all of their films, and BURN AFTER READING is no exception. When I first left the theater after watching it, I knew that I had been entertained. I knew that I really enjoyed it. But I wasn't sure how much I liked it overall, and it was hard for me to place it within their oeuvre. It didn't leave me feeling blown-away like I felt when the lights came up after NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or FARGO. Yet, at the same time, I was floored by the dark, angry, mean-spirited undercurrent of the film in general. And after thinking about it over the last few weeks, it’s gotten stronger and I cannot wait for a second viewing. BURN AFTER READING is the kind of film that makes you laugh, but then asks the viewer why you're laughing at the antics of insipid, morally bankrupt people. It's a tightly plotted, fast moving, darker-than-dark comedy that ranks as one of the year's best films.

BEST OF 2008

Tarsem’s THE FALL (****)
Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (****)
David Gordon Green’s SNOW ANGELS (****)
Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E (****)
Joel & Ethan Coen's BURN AFTER READING (****)
David Gordon Green’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (****)
Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES (****)
Ben Stiller’s TROPIC THUNDER (****)
Matt Reeves’ CLOVERFIELD (****)
Roger Donaldson’s THE BANK JOB (****)
Martin Scorsese’s SHINE A LIGHT (****)
Kimberly Peirce’s STOP-LOSS (****)
Jay Roach’s RECOUNT (****)
Peter Berg’s HANCOCK (***1/2)
Steven Spielberg’s INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (***1/2)
Timur Bekmembatov’s WANTED (***1/2)
Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN (***1/2)
Adam Brooks’ DEFINITELY, MAYBE (***1/2)
Woody Allen’s CASSANDRA’S DREAM (***1/2)
D.J. Caruso’s EAGLE EYE (***)
Bharart Nalluri’s MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (***)
David Mamet’s REDBELT (***)
Louis Letterier’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK (***)
Michael Patrick King’s SEX AND THE CITY (***)
Olivier Assayas’ BOARDING GATE (***)
Nick Stoller’s FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (***)
Hammer & Tongs’ SON OF RAMBOW (***)
Anne Fletcher’s 27 DRESSES (***)
Zak Penn’s THE GRAND (***)
Sly Stallone’s RAMBO (**1/2)
Doug Liman’s JUMPER (**1/2)
Kent Alterman’s SEMI-PRO (**1/2)
Mitchell Lichenstein’s TEETH (**1/2)
Pete Travis’ VANTAGE POINT (**)
Peter Segal’s GET SMART (*1/2)

Monday, September 29, 2008

REVIEW: TROPIC THUNDER (****)

TROPIC THUNDER (****), Ben Stiller's ribald and hysterical satire of Hollywood excess, eviscerates Tinsletown in a way few films have in recent memory. Not since THE PLAYER have I seen a film with this much contempt for the Hollywood system. And make no mistake: TROPIC THUNDER is an extremely different take on Hollywood satire than THE PLAYER was. Where THE PLAYER mixed a murder mystery with cynical notions of the Hollywood studio system, Stiller and his writers (Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen), lay to waste everything about Hollywood: actors, agents, producers, studio chiefs, mid-level creative executives, directors, and writers -- hell, even the key grip gets a scolding! Movies that make fun of Hollywood and the process of filmmaking are said to play the best out in Los Angeles (and in New York), but it's clear that the $110 domestic cume for TROPIC THUNDER has suggested that if a movie brings the funny, who cares what the story is all about? Stiller, who previously directed the comedic masterwork ZOOLANDER, matches his last effort scene for scene, laugh for laugh. From the pricelessly funny fake-trailers that open the film all the way to the rambunctious action-climax, Stiller drops one laugh-bomb after another. It's outrageous, completely asinine, very smart when it wants to be, and above all else, enormously entertaining.



TROPIC THUNDER revolves around a group of actors who are in the midst of shooting the most expensive Vietnam War film ever attempted. Stiller is Tugg Speedman, a has-been action star whose last film completely flopped at the box office. Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor with four Best Actor Oscars and a massive ego: in order to play the film's black platoon commander, Lazarus undergoes irreversible skin pigmentation surgery. And not only does he change the color of his skin and adopt a grizzled, jive-influenced way of speech, he hilariously states that he won't drop character until he "completes the DVD audio commentary." Jack Black is a drug-addled comedian named Jeff Portnoy who has made a mint dressing up in fat suits and appearing in NUTTY PROFESSOR-type comedies. Younger actors Jay Baruchel (KNOCKED UP), as a nerdy up-and-comer, and Brandon T. Jackson, as a rapper-turned actor named Alpa Chino, round out the squad of soldiers. Nick Nolte is the weary Vietnam vet, Tayback, who wrote the book that's serving as TROPIC THUNDER's inspiration; he's also around as technical advisor. The film's director, Damien Cockburn (the wild-eyed British comic Steve Coogan), watches nervously as his magnum opus spins out of control. Tayback suggests they take the pansy-ass actors out of their comfort zone of catered food and trailer-lodgings and drop them off in the middle of the jungle without any connection to the outside world. They will rig up the jungle with explosions and hidden cameras and shoot the film guerilla style. What they don't know is that the jungle is also home to a vicious group of Asian drug smugglers who don't take kindly to Americans dressed up as soldiers. The actors, being the numb-nuts that they all are, never realize that they're in mortal danger; to them, it's all a part of making the film.

This is Stiller's largest film to date, and he's aided hugely by the phenomenal camera talents of master cinematographer John Toll (THE THIN RED LINE, BRAVEHEART), who shoots the film as he would one of his normal, big-budget epics, which helps make the movie-within-a-movie feel all the more real and substantial. A few cameo appearances are thrown in for excellent measure, with Matthey McConaguhey as a slippery yet good-hearted agent, and a bearded, fat-suit wearing Tom Cruise as a repellent studio chief. All of the stars, Downey Jr. in particular, ace their roles. Black hasn’t been this funny in years, and while Stiller’s Speedman character is more or less brothers with Derek Zoolander, Stiller doesn’t go completely over-the-top, which was nice. The graphic war-movie violence is both shocking and funny at the same time, and the core ideas that TROPIC THUNDER shares about the rigors of filmmaking and the inflated self-seriousness of A-list actors is refreshing and biting. One of the film's more controversial running jokes is that Speedman tried courting Oscar by playing a handicapped simpleton in a major box office bomb called SIMPLE JACK. In one of the film's many laugh-out-loud scenes, Lazarus explains to Speedman that you "never win when you go full retard." A list of real life performances are rattled off by Lazraus that either won or lost the Oscar based on how handicapped the actor was in the role. This is as politically incorrect as a $100 million action-comedy is going to get these days. Four letter words run rampant, racial stereotyping is constant, homoerotic jokes are the norm, and drugs are discussed and desired. But the biggest surprise to me was how caustic and nasty the film was when it came to depicting the inner workings of Hollywood. Cruise, who it must be said, steals the entire film whenever he's on screen, playing an over-bearing, mean-spirited studio honcho with such vulgar gusto that I can only imagine what the suits at Dreamworks/Paramount thought when they saw the rough cut. But, all that matters at the end of the day in Tinsletown is whether or not studio product makes a profit. The joke's not only on the audience, but on the filmmakers, critics, and actors who all subscribe to the vagaries of Hollywood culture.

REVIEWS ON DECK

Over this past weekend I went to see the ludicrous but entertaining new techno-thriller EAGLE EYE. It was derivative fun but very stylish and action-packed. Nothing brilliant, but an satisfying way to kill two hours on a rainy Sunday. My review will be up soon.

I still have reviews coming up for TROPIC THUNDER and BURN AFTER READING; those will hopefully be posted sometime this week.

On DVD, I caught up with the delightful period piece MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY; my review on that will be posted soon as well.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT (****)

There isn’t much left to be said about THE DARK KNIGHT (****) at this point. The film has grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide and its critical acclaim (95% fresh at rottentomatoes) suggests that it might figure into the Academy Awards (as it should). For what it is, it’s a masterpiece, the best piece of Batman anything, that’s been created. Picking up right where he left off after his excellent franchise re-boot BATMAN BEGINS, director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan proceeds to make his first installment look like a student film when compared to his new epic. And I use the word epic confidently; this is a massive crime saga, more in line with Michael Mann’s HEAT and Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES than any other comic book/superhero film has ever dared to be. By placing Batman and all of his cronies and adversaries in a real world setting, no matter how stylized his Gotham City is, Nolan creates a film that feels all the more visceral and immediate. It’s the best piece of pop-culture entertainment in years.

Batman, again played with gritty determination by Christian Bale, has his hands full in THE DARK KNIGHT with his arch nemesis, the Joker, played with menacing glee by the late Heath Ledger, who’s destined to receive a posthumous Oscar trophy. The plot is multi-layered, convoluted yet not impenetrable, and steeped in crime movie mythology that speaks both to classic film noir and the graphic novel roots that Nolan is working from. The Joker is out to bring down Batman, while also trying to put a stranglehold on Gotham’s City’s overall criminal element. From the steely, Mann-esque precision of the film’s opening bank robbery sequence; you get the sense that Ledger’s Joker isn’t a playful clown, but rather, a certifiable psychopath. The way he licks his scarred lips and the way his sinister cackle fills a room with eerie rage are just two of the ways that Ledger left an indelible mark on this classic comic book icon; I wonder if any other actor will be up to the challenge in future installments. Harvey Dent, an excellent Aaron Eckhart, is trying to clean the streets up from city hall, and Jim Gordon, played with low-key integrity by Gary Oldman, is working his way up the police chain of command. Various gangsters figure into the plot and there is a morally complex chain of events that figure into the film’s gripping climax. But the real show is the duel between Batman and the Joker, and it’s here, with two of the comic-worlds most beloved characters, that THE DARK KNIGHT really excels


Nolan, again working with his phenomenal cinematographer Wally Pfister, bathes the film in shadows and blacks; this is a dark movie, both in theme and in appearance, but in the end, serving a stylistic and narrative purpose. The tragic nature of Dent’s character is highlighted in a powerful character arc that exposes the character’s many faces. There are a few surprises along the way from a story stand point, and the major action scene, occurring at the half-way mark, is a tour de force of choreography, seamless CGI integration, and old-fashioned movie magic. By the end of this haunting and beautifully crafted piece of propulsive entertainment, the viewer can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. THE DARK KNIGHT is the first superhero film to never feel like a traditional superhero film. And it’s the first time that a film of its sort could potentially be a factor at the various year-end awards ceremonies. And with good reason: it’s a massively successful (both on a creative and business angle) motion picture with ambition, smarts, and style. It’s one of the best films of the year.


REVIEW: PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (****)

David Gordon Green, the indie auteur of such films such as GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, UNDERTOW, and SNOW ANGELS, was just about the last person I’d ever expect to get the directing job on a stoner-action-comedy like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (****). His style, thus far, has been more Terrence Malick than Judd Apatow (who produced PINEAPPLE EXPRESS). But almost to prove a point that he can play in the big leagues of studio financed product, Green steps out of his comfort zone and has crafted, along with screenwriters Seth Rogen (who also stars) and Evan Goldberg, the best stoner movie I’ve ever seen. Mixing simple yet extremely effective pot humor with the sensibilities of John Woo’s ultra-violent action-movie period of THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED, Green mixes genres and crafts a hilarious buddy comedy that will only get better and better upon repeated viewing.

The set-up is easy-bake. Rogen, playing a weed-loving process server named Dale Denton, stops over at his dealer’s apartment to grab some ganja. His dealer, Saul Silver (the priceless James Franco, in a role that if there was a God, would nab him a supporting actor nomination), has the best stuff in town: Pineapple Express. After getting a new stash, Dale heads over to serve someone with their papers, only this someone, happens to be the city’s main importer of the fabulous mary-jane. What Dale also doesn’t expect to see is this guy, Ted Jones (a funny as always Gary Cole), shoot a rival in the back of the head in the living room of his glass-walled house. Fleeing the scene, but not before throwing his roach of Pineapple Express out the window, Dale high-tails it back to Saul’s to tell him what he just saw. Ted see’s Dale trying to escape, heads out to the street, sniffs the roach, and because Saul is the only one that he’s hooked up with the Pineapple, he knows immediately where to start looking. The film speeds along with Dale and Saul on the run from Ted and his goons, getting stoned every chance they get, and finally culminating in a wonderfully graphic shoot-out that would make Woo and Michael Bay blush.

What’s so fun and unique about PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is the blending of genres. The first portion of the film is an easy-going stoner comedy, with Franco’s Saul tossing out one incredible one-liner after another. Franco seems baked in this film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. Rogen, who can do no wrong at this point, plays the guy we’ve come to love from films such as KNOCKED UP and THE FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is, at its heart, a bromance of a film; Dale and Saul love each other, and like any lovers, they have some fun, they bicker, and then they get back together. Whether it’s the two of them blowing clouds of smoke onto unsuspecting caterpillars or wielding double shotguns and blowing people away, they are a duo that can’t be separated. A great supporting cast is also along for the ride, including Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Rosie Perez, Nora Dunn, Ed Begley Jr., and the sexy Amber Heard. And when the action-fireworks take place during the film’s final and extremely bloody act, you’re all the more invested in the characters because of the time spent with them watching their characters evolve. I am not saying that PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is high art, or even low art for that matter. It has a crude, jocular style at times, and Green, while no slouch, isn’t a shooter with a Tony Scott eye quite yet. But what he does is meld together two very different types of movies into one genuinely entertaining whole. With this film and SNOW ANGELS, which was released in early 2008, there’s a chance that Green will make two appearances on my Top 10 of the year list.

Monday, September 22, 2008

DVD ROUND UP

A BRONX TALE (****) is a film that I've seen countless times, and I am sure there will be more viewings in the future. It's perfect, really. Serving as DeNiro's directorial debut, this film was released in the early 90's, and is based on Chazz Paliminteri's one-man stage show about a young boy named Calogero (nicknamed "C") growing up in the Bronx during the 50's and 60's. His father, played by DeNiro, is an honest, hard-working bus driver who wants nothing but the best for his son. C's life is forever changed when one day, while sitting on the stoop to his apartment building, we watches as local gangster Sonny (Paliminteri) shoots a man dead in the street. When the cops as C to identify the killer, he doesn't turn Sonny in; he ain't a rat. What develops is an uneasy father-son story, except C's got two fathers -- his real father, teaching him decent values, and Sonny, giving him a study in crime. DeNiro got the film made with the help of Marty Scorsese, and their frequent collaborations clearly rubbed off on DeNiro the director. There is an Italian-soaked authenticity to everything in this wonderful, sad, and uplifting film. The entire cast is superb, and the mafia character actors are all sublime. The 50's and 60's were dangerous in the mean streets of the Bronx, and DeNiro and Paliminteri don't shy away from some of the more painful race relations that were bubbling to the surface during that time. It's a vibrant, colorful, violent film, with a final 20 minutes that really packs an emotional punch. DeNiro has only directed two films, this one, and the supremely underrated birth-of-the-CIA epic THE GOOD SHEPHERD. I hope he continues to work as a director in the future.

David Mamet's REDBELT (***) is typical Mamet. Staccato, often impenetrable dialogue. Manly codes of ethics. A con or two thrown into the plot. Enough characters to choke a horse. And a narrative worthy of two or three separate thrillers. The neat trick while watching a Mamet film is waiting to see how he's gonna bring all of his storytelling strands together. He might have bit off more than he could chew in the end with REDBELT, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining and crafty. Chiwetel Eijofor is Mike, a Los Angeles jujitsu instructor who is about to lose his dojo. He gets caught up in a tangled web of intrigue by a down-and-out actor (Tim Allen), Allen's sleazy manager (Joe Mantegna), a shady fight promoter (Ricky Jay), and a random stranger (Emily Mortimer). Mike has one rule: he'll never fight in a competition or for money. Wanna bet if he'll be able to keep to his personal mores? Mamet is a filmmaker interested in character first, and action second. He's always been a better writer than director, and in REDBELT, he seems to lose control a bit towards the end. Unlike his last film, SPARTAN, which is his best as director, Mamet seems unsure of how to end his flick around the 3/4 mark. But then, like any good magician, he pulls out an ace from his sleeve, and shows you a final act of deception before the end credits roll. The acting is all solid, Bob Elswit's unshowy camerawork is crisp, and the dialogue crackles with irony and dark humor. It's always fun being in the grips of a master manipulator like Mamet.

OPEN HEARTS (****) is yet another emotionally draining but superb melodrama from Danish director Susanne Bier. Bier, who has made nothing but great films (THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, AFTER THE WEDDING, BROTHERS), made OPEN HEARTS while subscribing to the Dogme 95 aesthetic, which essentially means no artificial lights, all hand-held camera work, no effects or music, no extraneous props; basically, nothing you'd find in Hollywood. The results are raw and piercing. This is the sad but illuminating story of a young couple struck by tragedy. Cecile and Joachim are about to get married, when, in a moment of sheer bad luck, Joachim is hit by a car, and paralyzed from the neck down. Devastated, Cecile seeks comfort in the form of Joachim's doctor, the married Niels. The catch is, it's the doctor's wife, Marie, who was driving the car that hit Joachim. The film is tough to watch at times, as Joachim grows to resent Cecile while he recuperates in the hospital, and Cecile develops a heartbreaking relationship with Niels. If it sounds like I wanted to put a gun in my mouth after watching OPEN HEARTS, well, I'm not saying that exactly. This is a film that wants the audience to confront their fears of losing someone that they love, and it paints a realistic portrait of lives that can never be untangled from one another. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Niels, has been in a few of Bier's films, and the two of them have a terrific actor-director rapport. This is an engrossing, sexy, and deeply human film, one that you won't forget if you can deal with intense dramatics.


If light, whimsical, and cute is what you're after, look no further than SON OF RAMBOW (***), and entertaining British picture from the creative team of Hammer and Tongs (DA ALI G SHOW, THE HITCHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). This is the story of two lonely boys who become unlikely friends during the summer of 1982. One of them, Will, lives oppressively with his religious freak mother, where he's not allowed to watch TV and told to keep away from all of the other kids at school. Will ends up crossing paths with the school bully, Lee, who makes pirated copies of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD. What would happen if an 11 year old, with zero interaction with movies or television, were to see a movie like FIRST BLOOD? Well, if they were as creative as Will, they'd grab their own video camera and make their own version of it. So that's what Will and Lee do. This is a creative, subversive, and very stylish coming-of-age dramedy that hits a few poignant moments, and offers some big laughs. It's also a little slow, with pacing that sags in the mid-section, but it's still a solid piece of light entertainment that demonstrates a real love for movies, moviemaking, and the power of the filmed image to inspire the minds of young boys. I really enjoyed watching this flick.


Zak Penn's THE GRAND (***) isn't as funny or sharp as his last mockumentary (INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS) and it's not up to par with the films that it wants to sit right next too (BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND), but it's a fun little comedy nonetheless. A ridiculous cast of comedians and characters populate this asinine, semi-improvised poker comedy; along for the zany ride is Woody Harrelson, Ray Romano, Cheryl Hines, Richard Kind, Werner Herzog, David Cross, Mike Epps, Dennis Farina, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, and Michael McKean. The plot, if that term really applies to this free-wheeling slice of idiocy, concerns Harrelson, a drugged-out has-been poker player, trying to take back an in-the-family casino from McKean during a big-time poker showdown. Some of the material is extremely funny; some of it isn't all that amusing. But one thing's for sure: You'll never see Herzog like this anywhere else, or probably, ever again. He's blisteringly funny as a card shark named, appropriately, "German," who lugs around small pets (cats, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits) and is frequently shot in slow-motion with gangster rap playing in the background. The film stinks of a friendly, "we're all just joking around" atmosphere amongst all the actors, and a little discipline might've resulted in a better film. But it's a fun movie to thrown on, tune into, and forget about the next morning.


AN AMERICAN CRIME (**1/2) was a very hard movie to watch. A true-life tale of a deranged woman (Catherine Keener) who took in multiple children as boarders in her Ohio town in the 60's, the film is perched between real-life crime procedural, and icky torture exploitation. Ellen Page is Keener's object of obsession, and the two actresses certainly bring their A-game to the film. The problem is that director Tommy O'Haver doesn't have a firm grasp on what sort of film he's trying to make: Is this a court room drama or a horror film? He tries for both, and the results are mixed. The performances are all well-honed and professional, and in the case of Keener, excellent. But the material is so repellent, and the outcome so unpleasant, that the film stinks of desperation on the part of the filmmakers to turn a heinous act into a piece of pseudo-entertainment. A much better film, like David Fincher's masterpiece ZODIAC, took a series of real life murders, and wove them into a compelling, journalistic ride through police and investigative work. AN AMERICAN CRIME works well enough, but not well enough to outright recommend to the casual movie watcher.

DESERVING

Congrats to the entire team working on AMC's brilliant show MAD MEN, which deservedly won the Best Drama Emmy last night. This is the best show on television right now, and it easily ranks as one of my personal favorite shows of all time. My only disappointment was that John Hamm didn't take the Emmy for best actor and John Slattery didn't take the Emmy for best supporting actor. Maybe next year. In any event, the show's win is big for AMC and the show in general. Still registering as a cult-sized hit, the Emmy win should boost the show's ratings a bit through the rest of the currently-running stellar second season. But what it will really do is fuel the sales and renting of the second season's inevitable DVD release, which would hopefully result in a larger audience for the third season.

Appointment television for me is as follows: FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, MAD MEN, LOST, ENTOURAGE, THE SHIELD, RESCUE ME, IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, SOUTH PARK, THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, TELL ME YOU LOVE ME, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, 24, CALIFORNICATION, and CSI.

It's a crime that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was snubbed, yet again, for a best drama nomination. When will people realize that this is one of the best shows around? And Kyle Chandler, who plays the head coach, definitely needs to score an Emmy in the next year or so. His work has been nothing short of phenomenal.

MAD MEN is just amazing. From the layered writing to the pitch-perfect performances to the stylish direction and sumptuous production values, the show transports the viewer back to the 60's with creative flair and narrative force not seen by me since the days of DEADWOOD and THE SOPRANOS. Those shows dealt with different eras and different modes of storytelling, but the attention to detail in both the big and small elements are the same.

If you haven't gotten into MAD MEN yet, I highly reccommend that you pick up the first season on DVD and then catch up with the second season via ON-DEMAND. Eight second-season episodes have aired so far, with the ninth set for air next Sunday. It's a masterpiece of television, and it's the first time in a long time where the Emmy for best drama has gone to the truly deserving program.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

GETTING BURNED FEELS GREAT

BURN AFTER READING, the new film from the Coen Brothers, is yet another gem from this wacky duo. A verrrry dark and caustically funny espionage satire, the film cleverly mixes all the elements that the brothers love and are famous for: violence, sex, bleak social commentary, inspired humor, and bizarre plotting. It's not their best film but it's a damn good one, and I laughed out loud repeatedly. All of the performances are dead-on, with Brad Pitt (as the biggest idiot you've ever seen) and John Malkovich really owning the film. Everyone in this film is either an idiot or worse, and the lunatic humor that floats around the script perfectly matches the playful attitudes of the cast. My full review will appear soon, but the film is yet another winner from the Coens, and a further reminder that they are two of the most creative and interesting individuals working in Hollywood.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THIS YET...


You need to make it a priority to watch it.
Rent it. Buy it. Steal it. Do whatever it takes to see it. It's the best film of the year. Easily.

NEW BOND TRAILER IS SMOKING HOT

Can't get the video uploader to work properly so here's the link:

http://www.joblo.com/video/joblo/player.php?video=quantumtrlr2

This looks tight. Very tight. Love the look of the action. And the new Bond girl. Mmmmm.....

Friday, September 5, 2008

FALL 2008

The offical fall movie season is upon us. Here is a breakdown of the films I'm most interested in seeing, in no real special order:

Burn After Reading (The Coen Brothers, Pitt, Clooney, and Malkovich...wouldn't miss it...)
Body of Lies (Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe. Leo DiCaprio. Terrorism. Ass-kicking ensues...)
The Road (Viggo Mortensen in an end-of-the-world tale of survival from novelist Cormac McCarthy...)
Appaloosa (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen in a Western...I'm so there...)
W. (Oliver Stone's seriocomic look at Bush...should be a riot...)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow is back with a supposedly blistering Iraq war combat film...)
Righteous Kill (even though the buzz is bad, I can't pass up the chance to see Pacino/De Niro on screen together)
Blindness (Merrielles is a genius...)
Eagle Eye (Looks like slick fun...)
Choke (I love Sam Rockwell...)
Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee's Private Ryan...?)
Flash of Genius (I love the story...will it be good...?)
What Just Happened? (Inside Hwood satire from Barry Levinson with DeNiro...love the sound of it...)
Rachel Geting Married (Jonathan Demme is back...)
Max Payne (maybe...very cool trailer but...)
Pride & Glory (Gritty NYC cop movie with Ed Norton and Colin Farrell...right up my alley...)
The Changeling (the latest from Clint "Leather" Eastwood...)
RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie's latest...I want it to kick my ass...)
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (The trailer is hilarious...)
Religulous (Bill Maher destroys all religions...can't wait...)
Quantum of Solace (Give me my James Bond...)
The Soloist (Love the cast...)
Australia (The latest from Baz Luhrman...should be good...right...?)
Milk (Fantastic trailer and excellent cast...)
Doubt (What a cast...dark subject matter...should be intense...)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Will either be the surprise of the season or the stinker of the season...)
Seven Pounds (Will Smith can do anything...)
Defiance (Ed Zwick's latest...will he succumb to the schmaltz again...?)
The Reader (Sounds complex and challenging...I'm there...)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher. Brad Pitt. 'Nuff said. Oh yeah, phenomenal trailer...)
The Brothers Bloom (I loved the director's previous film -- Brick -- so I am looking forward...)
The Spirit (Frank Miller and lots of hotties...)
Revolutionary Road (From Sam Mendes and starring DiCaprio and Kate Winslet...I smell Oscars...)
Valkeryie (Tom Cruise in a WWII espionage thriller from Bryan Singer...should be intense...)