Sunday, November 30, 2008

SERIOUSLY


If you haven't seen this film yet, or enjoyed it thoroughly, you're a heartless asshole. I mean it. There's no excuses for not having carved out 80 minutes of your life to watch this gem. I know ONCE came out last year and it's old news at this point, but on my way back home from vacation today, I listened to the soundtrack, yet again, from start to finish. A masterpiece, just like the film. SEE THIS FILM IF YOU HAVEN'T. It's one of the best movie romances of the decade.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

TWO QUICK DVD REVIEWS

Gus Van Sant has been on a serious roll as of late. He's been alternating between small, personal, highly-stylized movies like ELEPHANT, GERRY, and LAST DAYS while still finding time to mix in studio product like GOOD WILL HUNTING, FINDING FORRESTER, and the upcoming Harvery Milk biopic, MILK. With PARANOID PARK (***1/2), he's made another one of these tone-poem films which revolve around disaffected youth which fits right in with his work in ELEPHANT, which centered on a Columbine-esque story about troubled high-schoolers. In PARANOID PARK, Van Sant focuses his attention on skate-board culture, and in particular, one teen who happens to be at the wrong place on the wrong day at the wrong time. Casting the film via Myspace and using non-professional actors (like he did in ELEPHANT), he gets fairly solid work out of his young cast who at times can't help but feel a bit stiff. But that might've been the point Van Sant was trying to make; kids can be awkward and stiff and unsure of themselves, especially when confronted with the many intricacies that life has to offer. Alex (Gabe Nevins) is an emotionless high schooler with a few skating buddies who are all afraid of boarding at a spot referred to as Paranoid Park, where all the top skaters seem to hang out. Alex's parents are splitting up and he's got a sexually forward girlfriend named Jennifer (Taylor Momsen, very good) who's only interest seems to be in losing her virginity just for the sake of it. Alex has another female admirer, Macy (Lauren McKinney who is a natural), but he's too blind to recognize her affections. One night, in a moment of sheer teenaged stupidity, Alex hitches a ride along the side of a freight train. He's chased after by a security guard who starts hitting him with a flashlight in order to get him off the side of the train. What happens next is shocking, sad, and very brutal. Alex's natural reaction to the situation inadvertently leads to the guard's death. The film, with its super-long stedicam shots and long takes, is more about atmosphere and attitude than it is about plot points and structure. The film has an austere but rich visual texture which is the real highlight of the piece. Running less than 90 minutes and basing the film off of a young adult novel, Van Sant and his extraordinary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (2046, RABBIT PROOF FENCE), paint a portrait of a confused, scared, and paranoid kid who's life is forever changed by one moment of action. Because Nevins barely hints at any emotion with is portrayal of Alex, it's tough to muster up any real sadness for him, but that was probably the direction that Van Sant pushed Nevins in as an actor. We remain detached from Alex psychologically yet somehow we still feel his internal pain. While not as emotionally draining as ELEPHANT, PARANOID PARK works a considerable spell on the audience, and by the end, leaves you with a feeling of pent-up dread.

HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE ME? (***) is a cute-enough French sex comedy that happens to feature a mostly-naked Monica Bellucci for much of its running time. That in and of itself means you should rent it. Bellucci, a decent-enough actress, has been blessed with some of the finest physical features of any actress in the history of cinema; she's simply gorgeous to look at. So it's no wonder that the director Bertrand Blier would craft a story such as this one around her seemingly impossible beauty. Francois (Bernard Campan) wins the lottery and enters a Paris brothel where he makes an offer to the sexy prostitute Daniela (Belluci): come live with me and I will pay you $100,000 per month until my winnings run out. She asks him how much he's won -- he tells her $4 million. She says lets get outta here. The one catch is that Francois has a heart condition, thus making their relationship highly dangerous. What's a guy with a weak heart doing with an uber-hot woman like Daniela? What follows is a highly theatrical comedy where the characters learn to live and love. It wouldn't surprise me if someone attempted to adapt this movie into a play, as the setting is mostly confined to a few locations, and there are only a handful of key characters. There's lots of sex and nudity but all of it playful and tasteful and rather romantic at times. There's a twist (I a'int telling...) but the movie is mostly about what drives people, both financially and spiritually. It's a fast-paced movie with a few flights of narrative fancy and it all goes down pretty smoothly. It's not a great film, but you'll be entertained. And if you, like me, can appreciate the female form, then it'll be something you'll want to check out at some point.

REVIEW: HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (****)

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (****) is a deceptively simple British film from writer-director Mike Leigh that happens to be the surprise of the year. In its own low-key way, this charming little movie engages the audience right from the start, but it’s hard to tell where the story wants to take you. With splendid performances from its entire cast, this is one of those small, talky films that might seem to be going nowhere but you realize how deep the narrative is cutting by the end. This isn’t a film with a “plot” per se; rather, it’s about people, their relationships, and how the human spirit thrives in each and every one of us. There are no “bad guys,” no massive plot twists, no shoot-outs or car chases. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a movie about the human condition, and beneath its sunny exterior, lays some dark truths that everyone faces at one time or another in their lives.

Sally Hawkins, in a monumental performance, is Poppy, an eternally good-natured woman living in London with her friend and sister. She’s a teacher, a great friend, a caring sister, a party animal, and above all, a woman with the capacity to love, respect, and think positively about anything and anyone, no matter how flawed they may be. We see her in class, working with her students, trying to give them a better education. We see her with her friends, having a blast, and bringing joy to their lives. This must have been an extremely tough role to pull off for Hawkins, as she has to imbue Poppy with the sunniest of dispositions and never once stray from her upbeat spirit. Even when things around her aren’t quite working right, she never loses her cool, and always remains upbeat. For instance, after her bike is stolen, the first thing that crosses her mind is sadness in that she wasn’t able to “say good-bye” to her precious set of wheels. Never mind that some asshole stole it; that’s just part of life to Poppy. She’s upset that she didn’t get to say good bye. Hawkins has been receiving a ton of praise for her performance, and has to be considered a shoo-in for a best actress nomination at next year’s Oscars. It’s a commanding piece of emotional acting that rings true on all levels. More cynical people might find her to be annoying, too upbeat, too optimistic. But those people need to realize that there are plenty of Poppy’s out there in the real world. We just don’t often get a chance to spend time with them when we go to the movies as storytellers tend to dwell on the depressing or the dark. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is just that – a film that’s about the celebration of life and how some people can raise the spirits of everyone around them, no matter how problematic their lives may be.

This theory is put to the test when Poppy starts taking driving lessons from a rather unpleasant driving instructor named Scott, brilliantly played by veteran character actor Eddie Marsan, who made memorable appearances in MIAMI VICE, THE NEW WORLD, and most recently, HANCOCK. Scott is damaged goods and Poppy knows it. But she doesn’t let that deter her. Through their weekly lessons together, Poppy starts to work her happy-magic on Scott, who alternates between being receptive to her charms, and completely shut off from them. Scott’s got a whole series of issues and through his interactions with Poppy, some of those issues become more troubling, and some are put to rest. Marsan gets to unload in a fiery, explosive scene towards the end that is the most emotionally hard-hitting moment of the film, and quite possibly, of any film this year. It’s an Oscar-clip moment and if there’s any justice, he’ll get a supporting actor nomination for his work in this film. He’s just terrific.

And so is the film overall. I didn’t know too much about the film before I walked in and neither should you if you plan on seeing it. It’s not a film that demands to be seen on the big screen, but if you decide to check it out, you’ll be plenty happy that you did. A film like HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is rare in that it celebrates all that’s wonderful about people rather than focusing on the inherent flaws of human beings. And while there is a dark subtext to some of the narrative upon further reflection, we are swept up by Poppy’s unending optimism and her ability to make all those around her smile with delight. Mike Leigh, in films such as SECRETS & LIES, VERA DRAKE, NAKED, and TOPSY-TURVY, is a filmmaker interested in behavior, decisions, and the elegant way in which people interact with each other. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a pure delight from start to finish and a wonderful change of pace.

THE END

**SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS**
Creator Shawn Ryan knew precisely how to end his masterpiece THE SHIELD last night. Everything about the final episode of this landmark program was dead-on perfect. Everything. I sat in twisted agony on my couch as all of the pieces fell into place, and the fates of all of the characters were sealed. I have been watching this show since the very begining and I never missed an episode. For the last seven years (or thereabouts), I have been enthralled by the antics of Vick Mackie and his Strike Team. And last night, when Ryan's executive producer credit flashed on the screen, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief: it all came together in the end. Mackie didn't die, but his life is forever changed for the worse. Shane ate a bullet, but only after he killed his wife and son, who were innocent pawns caught up in his web of deceit. Gardocki is going to jail, and it was crushing to see him being hauled out of The Barn. Claudette has terminal cancer, but her spirit will live in that precinct for ever. And Dutch finally got his man. During the final five minutes, I kept telling myself that the show was going to end with this shot, or that shot. But in the final moments, with Mackie looking out that window of his new office and hearing the screaming sirens of cop cars on the street below him, I felt haunted by all that has happened in this brilliant show. When Mackie tucked his pistol behind his back and walked off frame, wearing a face that suggests he'll never stop fighting crime, I clapped out-loud and felt beyond satisfied. Everyone deserves Emmy's for this season; I hope the show gets rewarded next year. Damn am I going to miss hanging out with this crew.

A NOTE OF THANKS

With Thanksgiving on tap for tomorrow (and with me traveling over the next 5 days), I thought I'd offer up a bit of thanks. First, the important ones:

I am thankful that I have the best parents and sister that any guy could ask for.

I am thankful that I have the best fiancee that any guy could ask for.

I am thankful for the good health of everyone nearest and dearest to me.

I am thankful for all of the good will that has been spread my way these last few months.


Now, here's what I'm thankful for when it comes to my favorite obsession:

I am thankful that there are so many great-sounding films on the horizon these last six weeks of 2008.

I am thankful that next year, we'll see new films from Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Tony Scott, Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, Terry Gilliam, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, and Zack Snyder.

I am thankful for the fact that I will be able to see giant fucking robots destroying each other on an IMAX screen next June.

I am thankful for this blog, which has introduced me to a variety of cool, movie-obsessed people like myself.

I am thankful for the fact that there are people like Charlie Kaufman who are able and willing to go over the cinematic edge and produce work that lingers in the mind days after you've viewed it.

I am thankful for the cinematic lunacy of Werner Herzog, who keeps getting better and better as time progresses.

I am thankful for a filmmaker like Tarsem, who with THE FALL, has made one of the most unique films that I've ever had the pleasure of viewing.

I am thankful that we got a whacked-out superhero film like HANCOCK, which shatters genre conventions and dared to be different.

I am thankful for the ability to pop in DVD's of my favorite films and just sit back, relax, and enjoy 'em all over again.

I am thankful for someone like Christopher Nolan, who took the comic book film to new heights in THE DARK KNIGHT.

I am thankful for the eclectic output of David Gordon Green, who made two of the best (but very different) films of 2008, with SNOW ANGELS and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.

I am thankful for Netflix, which furthers my appreciation of all genres of film, and enables me with the opportunity to see films that I have never heard of or otherwise would never have had the chance to see.

I am thankful that after living in Los Angeles for six years, I was able to meet (and work with) my idols: Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony and Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, and Werner Herzog. I met a lot of other people, but those were the key players.

I am thankful for the brilliance of Shawn Ryan, who knew EXACTLY how to end the greatest cop show of all time, THE SHIELD.

I am thankful for the brilliance of Matthew Weiner, who with MAD MEN, has created one of the finest television shows ever to air.

I am thankful for everyone who continues to create films and expand the language of cinema for my enjoyment and the enjoyment of others.

Happy Thanksgiving and thanks to everyone who has ever read this blog.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

TODAY ON DVD

It's funny that one of the most underrated films of the year happened to gross over $600 million at the worldwide box-office. Unfairly smacked down by critics (it only managed a 38% at Rottentomatoes though it had its share of notable admirers, including Ebert, Denby, Dargis, and Travers), Peter Berg's wise-ass superhero action-comedy HANCOCK opened huge at the domestic box office over the Fourth of July weekend last summer, due in no small part to star Will Smith's continued box-office fire-power. The film wasn't perfect, but as I said a few months ago, it was just the kick in the ass that this getting-tired genre needed. I am really looking forward to checking out the unrated director's cut of the film, which hits stores today. There's roughly 10 minutes of new, supposedly racier footage (the film was initially given an R-rating which the filmmakers cut down to a more audience friendly PG-13) and a plethora of behind-the-scenes features. Sadly, no commentary is listed, which is a shame and a surprise considering Berg has done great commentary tracks on his other recent films, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and THE KINGDOM, both of which are terrific. What HANCOCK managed to do was toy with the conventions of the superhero movie while still honoring what makes these types of entertainments the films that they are. The tone of HANCOCK swings back and forth between serious and funny, action and comedy, drama and cartoon. Berg's continued fascination with edgy, hand-held camerawork brought a distinct visual texture to a genre which has gotten increasingly slicker and more polished. In the near future, I will try and post a full length review as I only posted a brief write-up this past summer. If you missed HANCOCK in the theaters, make sure you check it out on DVD. It's a blast and very different from your average superhero blow 'em up.

STILL CAN'T SHAKE IT

It's been over two days since I saw Charlie Kaufman's deranged masterpiece SYNECDOCHE, NY and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It's a film that demands repeat viewings; it's simply not possible to fully understand this magnificently layered accomplishment on one sitting. It's a film that requires active involvement on the part of the viewer while watching; you can't sit passively while taking this film in. I am almost scared to try and "review" it because it's a film that defies critical reviewing. It is what it is, and Kaufman is probably the last filmmaker to care whether or not he's satisfying the demands of his audience. This is a private piece of filmmaking, and it further establishes Kaufman as a true cinematic original. I doubt I will have the opportunity to catch this film again in the theater, but I will be at Best Buy the moment this film is released on DVD. In the mean time, I am going to continue to mull it over before I attempt writing anything substantial about it. But needless to say, it's one of the best films of 2008.

IT'S ALL ABOUT TONIGHT @ 10PM

What's going to happen? Who will live? Who will die? Who will go to prison? Who will ride off into the sunset?

I know I will be on the edge of my seat.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

QUICK TV NOTES

Tonight's season finale of ENTOURAGE was amazing. Simply perfect. What a way to end one of the best seasons yet.

And it was also a treat to see Jack Bauer again; it's been too long.

And this week marks the end of an era -- THE SHIELD era. The series finale airs this Tuesday. It promises to be utterly riveting.

UPDATED: TOP 20 OF 2008

Tarsem’s THE FALL (****)
Charlie Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE, NY (****)
Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (****)
Jonathan Demme’s RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (****)
Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E (****)
David Gordon Green’s SNOW ANGELS (****)
Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELING (****)
Werner Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (****)
Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES (****)
Joel & Ethan Coen’s BURN AFTER READING (****)

Marc Forster’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****)
David Gordon Green’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (****)
Ben Stiller’s TROPIC THUNDER (****)
Matt Reeves’ CLOVERFIELD (****)
Mike Leigh’s HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (****)
Martin Scorsese’s SHINE A LIGHT (****)
Roger Donaldson’s THE BANK JOB (****)
Stephen Walker’s YOUNG @ HEART (****)
Kimberly Peirce’s STOP-LOSS (****)
Jay Roach’s RECOUNT (****)

MASTERPIECE

Charlie Kaufman's diseased masterpiece SYNECDOCHE, NY is one of the boldest films I've ever seen.

I can't imagine how I will ever write a review of this incredible piece of work.

Fellini-esque in its ambition and scope, SYNECDOCHE, NY makes all of Kaufman's previous scripts (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ETERNAL SUNSHINE, ADAPTATION, HUMAN NATURE, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MINDS) seem positively normal.

This is easily one of the best films of the year, if not the best. I am still mulling it over. For now, if you want some non-spoiler reviews to look at, I suggest you read reviews from Ebert and Dargis. They say it better than I'll ever be able too.

http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/10/24/movies/24syne.html#

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081105/REVIEWS/811059995

Friday, November 21, 2008

QUICK THOUGHTS

Just got back from HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (****), which is the surprise of the year. Sally Hawkins gives a performance I'll never forget; she will certainly be nominated for an Oscar this year. I really, really liked this film, possibly loved it. It's a small, internal, talky, and perfectly told story with a lot of spirit. And it's deceptively rich in subtext and theme. This is a strong film from Mike Leigh.

Full review will be up soon.

MOVIES FOR THE WEEKEND

I plan on seeing at least one (but hopefully both) of these films: Mike Leigh's critically acclaimed HAPPY-GO-LUCKY and Charlie Kaufman's critically acclaimed directorial debut SYNECDOCHE, NY.

I will be going nowhere near a major multiplex this weekend; I fear the TWILIGHT groupies would be enough to make me sick.

On the Netlfix front is PARANOID PARK, an early 2008 release from director Gus Van Sant.

Comments/reactions to follow...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****)

Simply put, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****) is the best action picture of 2008. This year has seen a dearth of high-octane action thrillers so I was beyond happy when my ass got kicked by James Bond in his latest (and most brutal) outing. Directed by Marc Forster (MONSTERS BALL, THE KITE RUNNER) and written by the team of Robert Wade, Neal Purvis, and Paul Haggis, all of whom combined forces on the previous Bond picture, CASINO ROYALE, this new 007 adventure has clearly been inspired by the kinetic style of the last two Bourne films, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, both of which were aggressively directed by Paul Greengrass. Those two films have featured a streamlined narrative and have employed an in-your-face shooting style buoyed by hand-held camera work and jagged editing patterns. Forster’s decision to move the Bond universe in this direction comes as a surprise after the more classic action stylings of CASINO ROAYLE helmer Martin Campbell. Some viewers may complain that Forster has stripped away too much of the Bondian flavor that was reinvigorated by Campbell in the last film. But I am all for the changes that have been made. Gone are the over-the-top gadgets (refreshingly so), the wise-cracks (don’t really need ‘em), and the ludicrously named villains in favor of a more realistic spy scenario with a more believable nemesis and a more violent attitude to the action sequences. I enjoyed CASINO ROYALE, mainly for Daniel Craig’s excellent performance as Bond, and for the wonderful action cinematography. But the plot was a bore in many spots, and way too much time was spent watching actors sitting around card tables and taking each other’s money. I responded well-enough to the love-story angle in CASINO ROYALE without ever becoming totally gripped by it; Bond has never been a passionate lover and it seemed in CASINO ROYALE that the filmmakers were attempting to make the film more of a romantic drama (albeit one spiked with action) than an out-right spy caper. QUANTUM OF SOLACE does things very differently, and for me, much more successfully. I don’t need to see a Bond in love. Bond in lust is fine; that’s the way he’s always been. Bond is a man of action, someone who can assess a particular situation and then get the results he needs. In Forster’s brutally effective film, Bond goes looking for the answers that eluded him by the end of CASINO ROYALE. He’s back to being the “blunt instrument” that M. so astutely referred to him as in CASINO ROYALE, a bluntness that I found to be quite entertaining to watch.
Picking up about an hour after CASINO ROYALE ended, and starting mid-car chase, QUANTUM OF SOLACE packs in the action and keeps the story moving at an extremely brisk clip (it’s the shortest Bond movie ever clocking in at roughly 100 minutes). It’s also the first time that a Bond film serves as a direct sequel to a previous installment. Still reeling after the death of his lover Vesper Lynd at the end of CASINO ROAYLE, Bond is picking up the pieces and trying to get to the bottom of her supposed betrayal, while exacting revenge on anyone he feels that may have played a part in her death. He follows his leads until he crosses paths with the oily Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, looking eerily similar to filmmaker Roman Polanski), a member of the Quantum organization who is posing as an environmentalist. It seems that Greene intends to stage a coup d'├ętat in Bolivia in order to take control of its water supply. He plans on acquiring barren dessert land which secretly holds a plethora of underground water. By draining the area, he’ll have a control on the water supply, and as a result will make a windfall by privately selling off the water to the impoverished inhabitants of the area. The C.I.A seems to be mixed up in all of this as well, as Bond comes into contact with his supposed ally Felix Leiter (an underused but sly Jeffrey Wright). Bond is joined by the mysteriously alluring Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), who has her own vengeance issues to deal with. Bond hop-scotches across the globe (naturally), from Italy to Chile to Austria to Panama, seeking to uncover the key participants in the Quantum group while also trying to solve the many questions regarding Vesper’s demise. Routinely scolded by M. (Judy Dench, excellent) for leaving too many dead bodies in his wake, Bond is operating in a more cold-blooded manor in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, which befits his attitude after the tragic ending of CASINO ROYALE. One element in QUANTUM OF SOLACE which bodes well for the plot is the beefing up of M.’s presence in the story. Dench is finally able to get some quality material to work with, as her character starts to really understand who Bond is, and who he’s shaping up to become. The interplay and dialogue between Craig and Dench is a solid asset to the entire film. By the end of QUANTUM, most of Bond’s questions will be answered, but a whole new set of problems will have been created, which would seemingly be the impetus for the next film.

Craig really has nailed the character of Bond. He’s buff without looking like a superhero, and his steely gaze (along with those piercing blue eyes) is almost enough on it’s own to suggest the inner turmoil of his character. Speaking in short, terse sentences, he doesn’t waste words, and he’s more than ready for the many physical demands of the production. It’s quite clear from Forster’s tight framing that Craig is doing most of his own stunt work (the car stuff is extremely impressive), which heightens the intense visceral nature of all of the action beats. Craig moves with cat-like agility during the many chases yet he still has a graceful calm when the scene requires it. He may not be old-school suave like Sean Connery was, but Craig has the right mixture of all the ingredients that make up a potent Bond: edge, smarts, sex-appeal, and brute force. Amalric downplays the more obvious and cartoonish impulses that have plagued Bond villains over the years. He’s relaxed, sophisticated, and always one-step ahead (or so he thinks…). By not going over the top and playing it close to the chest, Amalric registers as one of the more believable baddies in a Bond picture in years. Kurylenko, for her part, is sexy and tough, and she’s actually a pretty solid actress as far as these roles go. She’s got her own arc and she’s not just along for the ride as so many other Bond girls have been. One interesting aspect of the film is that Bond never sleeps with her; that’s saved for a quick roll-in-the-sack with a fellow British operative named Fields (played by the cute Gemma Arterton). Because the narrative moves so fast and Bond and Camille have so much to accomplish, it never seems to cross his mind that he should be getting in some sexy-time with his gorgeous counterpart. And Dench, once again, makes for a perfect M.; she’s got more to do in this film than she ever has before and it’s a real treat to see her character get the attention she deserves. All of the other supporting turns are solid.

But what about the action? Because after all, that’s what the Bond films have always been about, right? Boasting the biggest budget ever for a Bond film (reportedly close to $200 million), the action is nothing short of breathtaking. Working with his long-time cinematographer Roberto Schaeffer, regular editor Matt Chesse and editor Richard Pearson (who cut the BOURNE films and UNITED 93 for Greengrass), Forster shoots in a gun-metal, grey-black palette, splashing the frame with blood-red every now and again. There is an icy, desaturated visual motif to much of the film which really looks terrific. From the stylish, extreme close-ups that begin the film which lead into a hard-charging car chase along twisty Italian mountain roads, Forster goes for a more frenetic pace which adds to the immediacy of the entire film. Many people seem to hate fast-paced editing and tightly-framed action compositions. Not me. I feel as if I am in the picture, rather than just watching it. I got the same vibe from last year’s hot-blooded actioner THE KINGDOM; everything is juiced up to the extreme in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Forster exotically intercuts footage of the Palio horse race in Italy with a heart-pumping roof-top foot-chase and then later, elegantly cross-cuts between the lavish opera Tosca and a violent stand-off between Bond and his enemies. There is a fantastic boat chase, a dizzying aerial pursuit, and an extremely explosive finale set in a green-themed, hydrogen-fuelled hotel in Bolivia which is probably the major highlight of the film. Working with master second unit director/stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, also a Bourne veteran, Forster demonstrates some serious action chops, which have never been exploited before. He’s an interesting filmmaker who has bounced all over the genre map; his films include the searing family drama MONSTER’S BALL, the quaint FINDING NEVERLAND, the surreal thriller STAY, the meta-comedy STRANGER THAN FICTION, and last year’s under seen adaptation of THE KITE RUNNER. He always brings a professional polish and unassuming style to whatever picture he’s creating, but with QUANTUM, he ups his game considerably. There are some individual, point-of-view insert shots in QUANTUM OF SOLACE that are incredibly hair-raising; look no further than the wild final action scene in the hotel for evidence of this.

My one complaint would be that Forster and composer David Arnold skimp out on the iconic Bond theme; you hear it from time to time and there are some nice riffs on the classic song, but I could have used a bit more. Forster’s intent was to make a Bond film that didn’t really feel like any of the other Bond films, so in that respect, I get what he was doing with downplaying the more obvious moments of the Bond template. QUANTUM OF SOLACE represents a new type of Bond picture, one that might disappoint older fans of the series, but should delight most paying customers. There’s action aplenty, a suitable story, solid performances, and a quiet but powerful style that feels very contemporary. This is my favorite Bond picture that I have ever seen, but I should also note that I have never considered myself a passionate fan of the series. I have seen a handful of the older entries, and I suffered through the garbage that the Pierce Brosnan era brought us (although I really enjoyed GOLDEN EYE). The Bond series has been the most enduring Hollywood franchise of all time. It’s amazing to think that for the last 40 years, audiences around the world have been entertained by the same character. As times change and filmmaking styles evolve, the Bond films have been weary about mixing things up. It’s great to see that the overlords of the Bond pictures, The Brocoli’s, aren’t completely against making changes to their beloved character. QUANTUM OF SOLACE gave me exactly what I wanted and I felt very satisfied when the lights came up at the end. I can’t wait to see it again.

TOP 20 OF 2008

As the year progresses, and I have the chance to re-watch movies on DVD that I first saw in the theater, my list continues to change. Here's my top 20 for the year thus far:

Tarsem’s THE FALL (****)
Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (****)
Jonathan Demme’s RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (****)
Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E (****)
David Gordon Green’s SNOW ANGELS (****)
Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELING (****)
Werner Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (****)
Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES (****)
Joel & Ethan Coen’s BURN AFTER READING (****)
Marc Forster’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****)

David Gordon Green’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (****)
Ben Stiller’s TROPIC THUNDER (****)
Matt Reeves’ CLOVERFIELD (****)
Martin Scorsese’s SHINE A LIGHT (****)
Roger Donaldson’s THE BANK JOB (****)
Stephen Walker’s YOUNG @ HEART (****)
Kimberly Peirce’s STOP-LOSS (****)
Jay Roach’s RECOUNT (****)
Tom McCarthy’s THE VISITOR (****)
Chris Bell’s BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (****)

These are the 20 films I have seen so far this year that I basically have no problems with. For me, they all delivered in their respective genres, and in some cases, stand as landmarks (THE FALL, THE DARK KNIGHT). Some are more thematically challenging than others. Some are pieces of pure escapist entertainment. But whatever the reason, these are the best films that I have seen so far this year. And from here on out, things get interesting, as the awards season pile up is about to begin. I love this time of year as the studios start trotting out their big, end of the year prestige pictures. There's lots to look forward too over these last six weeks of 2008.

ACCORDING TO ROTTENTOMATOES...

...these are the top 20 best reviewed films of the year:

1. Man On Wire (haven't seen it...can't wait to see it...hits DVD on 12/9)
2. Taxi to the Dark Side (a sad, dark, but important Iraq-war doc)
3. Surfwise (haven't seen it)
4. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (haven't seen it)
5. The Order of Myths (never heard of it...)
6. Trouble the Water (haven't seen it but curious...)
7. Blindsight (never heard of it...)
8. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (a brilliant, masterpiece-level film...unforgettable)
9. Let the Right One In (really, really, really want to see this film...)
10. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (a great documentary and one of the best films of the year)
11. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (haven't seen it...)
12. The Pool (never heard of it...)
13. WALL-E (a brilliant film and one of the best animated features ever produced)
14. Moving Midway (never heard of it...)
15. The Dark Knight (the best big-budget, studio blockbuster of the year)
16. The Counterfeiters (haven't seen it...won last year's Oscar for best foreign language film)
17. Happy-Go-Lucky (seeing it this weekend, really looking forward...)
18. My Winnipeg (haven't seen it but has a trippy trailer...)
19. Alexandra (never heard of it...)
20. A Christmas Tale (want to see it...just got a limited theatrical release last weekend...)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MORE BRILLIANCE FROM HERZOG

I will definitely be posting a full review in the near future, but I just have to say that after watching Werner Herzog's fascinating, brilliant documentary ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, I am now completely convinced that he's one of the craziest, most important filmmakers ever to pick up a camera. Stunningly photographed and beautifully mounted, the film offers glimpses at a continent that one never really gets to see. I have never seen a Herzog film that I wasn't impressed with, but this is certainly one of his finest efforts, right up there with his masterpiece GRIZZLY MAN. How does Herzog find these people? How does he come up with some of his theories? He's one of our greatest treasures in the world of movies; there's nobody else out there like him. When I worked for Jerry Bruckheimer, I was always reminded of his mantra: I'm in the transportation business. I transport people from one place to another. That's the way he views himself as a producer. Well, Herzog also seems to subscribe to the same basic principle as Bruckheimer in that regard. Herzog always takes you somewhere special and new and completely unique in his films. ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, which is all about Antarctica and the people who live and work there, is another spellbinding addition to his already legendary body of work. And he's finally gotten Academy recognition; the film made the short-list (released yesterday) for Best Documentary at this year's Oscars. After the ridiculous snubbing of GRIZZLY MAN, it would have been beyond insulting not to include Herzog's latest film in the running for the Oscar.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

OUT TODAY ON DVD

I don't normally flip out for an animated movie but this past summer saw the release of one of the best animated films I have ever seen -- WALL *E.

Here's a re-post of my mini-review from last July:

I'm not one to normally gush over an animated movie, but WALL*E (****) was a delight from start to finish and easily one of the smartest, most entertaining films of the year. Andrew Stanton's beautifully animated tale about a lonely robot cleaning up trash on earth long after people have vacated it has nods not only to Chaplin but to Spielberg, while also working in the time-tested Disney/Pixar way that has brought smiles to both children and adults for the last 10 years or so. I knew from the trailers that I was going to have a soft-spot in my heart for the little robot but I never knew I was going to absolutely love the adventure he goes on. There is sly, subversive commentary on our culture embedded within the narrative of WALL*E, while also still providing what little tykes like: a cute main character and an exciting plot. Echoing sections of Mike Judge's criminally underseen and underrated futuristic comedy IDIOCRACY, the humans in WALL*E have regressed into fat, uneducated slobs, content with floating around on mechanical beds, with fast food at their finger tips, always glued to their phones and televisions. WALL*E is a waste containment robot who is making cubes of trash in his compactor somewhere on earth. One day, another robot shows up, looking for signs of life. This robot, a girl named Eva, has a meet-cute with WALL*E, who is immediately smitten. He hitches a ride into space when Eva's ship shows up to take her back and lots of craziness ensues. I really loved this film. No other animated movie in recent memory has made me laugh like this one. And the opening 25 minutes, which are essentially silent, are some of the best moments of purely visual storytelling that have been put on screen in a long time. WALL*E is bright, funny, sharp, and excessively cute.

This is a remarkable movie, one that will delight both children and adults. And if you have a Blu Ray player, I have heard that this is the ultimate reference title; the full 1080p presentation is supposedly the best ever committed to disc.

OUT TODAY ON DVD

Ben Stiller's fantastic war-movie/Hollywood satire TROPIC THUNDER hits DVD today. It's well worth renting (if you haven't seen it) or buying (if you saw it and enjoyed it like I did).

Here's a link to my original review:

http://actionman-nickspix.blogspot.com/2008/09/review-tropic-thunder.html

The film was released this past August to mostly positive reviews (83% overall at Rottentomaotes with an 83% cream of the crop rating) and very solid box office ($110 million domestic).

This is one of the funniest movies of the year, as well as the decade. I never thought Stiller would top ZOOLANDER but he did with TROPIC THUNDER.

Monday, November 17, 2008

QUICK REVIEW: ROLE MODELS (**1/2)

ROLE MODELS (**1/2) was an amusing but ultimately disappointing R-rated comedy from cult-favorite filmmaker David Wain (THE TEN, THE STATE). Starring a too-glum Paul Rudd (who I normally love) and an extremely funny Sean William Scott as two losers who work as energy drink salesmen, the film attempts to wrap vulgarity with sweetness ala ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO but it doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Rudd has a cute girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks, busy this year) who dumps him because he’s a terminal bore and always unhappy. In a fit of desperation, Rudd drives his company truck (which looks like giant bull complete with nose ring) into a statue at one of the high schools where he and Scott are hawking their product. Faced with potentially doing jail time, the two guys instead enroll in a Big Brothers-type program where they bond with two kids, one of them a crude, potty-mouthed black child (the scene stealing Bobb’e J. Thompson) and the other a Live Action Role Playing uber-dork played by McLovin, I mean, Christopher Mintz-Plasse from last year’s SUPERBAD. The movie trudges along with some a few funny moments and some outrageous bits of profanity, mostly provided by the ebullient Thompson, who really seems to be enjoying the fact that he’s a little kid who’s been asked to cuss up a storm on the big screen. Throw in some gratuitous but nonetheless appealing female nudity, the lively comedic work of actress Jane Lynch (who plays the guys’ deranged boss at the Big Brothers program) and you’ve got the makings for a decent comedy that fits the bill as good-enough, rainy-day weekend fun. But it falls well short of the two major comedic landmarks from 2008, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and TROPIC THUNDER. Rudd’s character is so sour that he’s borderline unlikable, until the last 20 minutes of the movie. This is a shame because he’s one of the most likable screen presences in major studio comedies currently working. But Scott is proving, in films as varied as SOUTHLAND TALES and this one, that he’s an underrated actor who typically has something up his sleeve. ROLE MODELS had a solid premise but the work done by the four credited writers (Rudd included) feels too familiar and predictable to register as anything other than merely adequate. It’s worth a Netlfix.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

QUANTUM OF ASS-KICKING

LOVED the new James Bond adventure. Cut from the same cloth as Paul Greengrass' THE BOURNEL ULTIMATUM, Marc Forster's QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****) is the best action picture of the year. Daniel Craig owns the role of Bond. Tight scripting and even tighter direction really propel this hard-edged movie; it's the darkest Bond yet. I found the film to be very stylish in an artsy, unique way and extremely kinetic with its cinematography and editing decisions. My full review will be posted soon, but I really, really had fun with this film and I can't wait to see it again. It's a rush. And what an explosive finale.

QUICK THOUGHTS

Went to see ROLE MODLES, the new Paul Rudd/Sean William Scott comedy yesterday. It was a'ight. I laughed a few times. But I expected more based on all of the rave reviews that the film got. There is a smattering of female nudity, some crude humor, and the little black child featured in the trailers steals all of the scenes he's in. It was an amusing time killer on a rainy Saturday but it was nowhere near as good as 2008's other comedy juggernauts, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and TROPIC THUNDER (which hits DVD this Tuesday!)

A fuller review will follow, but not really sure how long of a review is even necessary.

Friday, November 14, 2008

MOVIES FOR THE WEEKEND

Without question I will be seeing the new James Bond adventure QUANTUM OF SOLACE. It looks like a blast. Plan on seeing it Sunday.

I'd also like to see ROLE MODELS with Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott; hopefully will get to that one on Saturday.

I will probably re-watch CASINO ROYALE on Saturday night to get in the Bond spirit. I am really looking forward to QUANTUM OF SOLACE. I just want to see a tight action movie as there haven't been that many this year to hit theaters.

Nothing new from Netflix this weekend...DVD's are in the process of being shipped back so nothing new until next week. I watched a strange French comedy called HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE ME? last night and will have a mini-review in an upcoming DVD round-up. It was a fun, sexy, slightly incoherent movie with lots of delicious nudity courtesty of the stunning Monica Bellucci.

Happy viewing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

REVIEW: CHANGELING (****)

At this point in his career, it’s tough to argue with Clint Eastwood. To say that the man has been on a roll the last five years would be an understatement. MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA reaffirmed him as one of the best filmmakers that cinema has to currently offer. After a string of middling efforts (BLOOD WORK, TRUE CRIME, ABSOLUTE POWER), Eastwood has turned a major corner in his already legendary career as a director. With his latest effort, the wholly engrossing CHANGELING (****), Eastwood delivers possibly the best film of his career as a filmmaker (I still think that his underrated masterpiece from 1993, A PERFECT WORLD, could be the feather in his cap). This is a Los Angeles crime saga on par with such classics as CHINATOWN, HEAT, and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. Although very different from those films, CHANGELING works on multiple levels. It’s a harrowing character study, a riveting true-crime procedural, and a damning social comment on Los Angeles circa the late 20’s and early 30’s. The outstanding screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski cleanly lays out a ton of information, characters, details and scenes. And when combined with Eastwood’s patient, stately, old-school direction, CHANGELING never becomes convoluted or messy as it could have been in lesser hands.
CHANGELING centers on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie in a career best performance), a single mother of a ten year old son, Walter, who works as a supervisor at the Los Angeles telephone company. Collins goes to work one Saturday after a shortage of staff is reported at her office. Left with nobody to watch Walter, she tells him to stay inside and if he is to go outside, to stay close to their house. They live in a seemingly safe neighborhood and there are a few neighbors who could serve as help if Walter needed any assistance. When Christine comes home from work, Walter is missing. She frantically starts to look for him around her neighborhood but he’s gone. Without a trace. The police offer no initial help; they tell Christine that little kids often disappear from their homes and then always return a few hours later. They can’t step in until someone’s been missing for more than a day. Five months go by and Walter still hasn’t shown up and the police have no solid leads. Then, the duplicitous Captain J.J. Jones (an evil Jeffrey Donovan) makes an announcement: Walter has been found. He has Christine meet him at the train station so that she can be reunited with her son. But upon arriving at the station and seeing the boy that the police claim is Walter, Christine immediately knows that something isn’t right. This child isn’t Walter. She’s positive of that fact. Jones, fearing further embarrassment for his force, tells Christine that she’s mistaken and that the boy is definitely Walter. Jones tells Christine to take the boy home and just “try him out.” Confused, scared, and totally unsure of herself, Christine heads home with the boy, even though she knows in her heart that it’s not Walter.

But where is Walter and what happened to him? That answer, while not conclusive, appears to be connected to a string of child abductions and murders at a chicken ranch in Wineville, CA, just outside of L.A. city limits. An honest cop named Lester Ybarra (an excellent Michael Kelly) stumbles upon the chicken ranch and is confronted with a twitchy boy who has a dark story to share with him. From this point in the narrative, CHANGELING bounces back and forth between Collins’ dogged determination to find out the truth about her son to the extremely unsettling unraveling of a potential serial killer named Gordon Northcott (the terrifying Jason Butler Harner). Christine, who is sick of the complacency and lies of the L.A. police force, continually challenges them on the work they’re doing and how they don’t care about helping her find her son. Seeing her as a nuisance, Jones, along with the slimy Chief of Police Davis (the always welcome Colm Feore), throws Christine in a mental institution. Threatened with electro-shock therapy if she doesn’t behave, Christine becomes a character straight out of a Kafka-esque nightmare. She knows she’s right but everyone around her seems to be against her. But not the crusading Reverend Gustav Briegleb (a fine John Malkovich), who spends much of his time lambasting the L.A. police force for murderous practices and general ill-will. He demands to know where the police have sent Christine and he makes it his mission to get her out of custody.

I shall say no more about the plot or where this story goes as I want you to discover all of the surprises and twists that I did. This is a somber, painful story to take in at times. The idea that a woman like Collins would receive the treatment that she did is downright despicable and hard to accept. The way that the police just shrugged her off was inexcusable, not to mention the disregard they showed Collins by throwing her – unfairly – into an insane asylum. But what makes CHANGELING watchable even in its darkest moments is Jolie’s startling and truly mesmerizing performance. I have never been a huge fan of Jolie. She’s worked best for me as an action hero; she is, in my opinion, the only major actress who doesn’t look silly when brandishing two guns and kicking ass, as she has in glossy entertainments like WANTED and MR. & MRS. SMITH. I was somewhat let down by her work in last year’s similarly themed A MIGHTY HEART, where she played murdered journalist Daniel Pearl’s grieving wife. There she seemed too self-conscious of the material and a little too practiced. But in CHANGELING, Jolie has the character and the material to totally convince as a mother driven to her breaking point. Jolie is an extremely contemporary actress and celebrity, so initially, I wasn’t sure I’d buy her in period costume and attitude. She really proved that she’s got the acting chops; it’s an Oscar worthy performance. Every single performance in the film hits all the right notes, but Jolie tears her way through this epic story and the results are nothing less than devastating by the end of the film.

Eastwood has crafted a gorgeous yet menacing reimagining of Los Angeles in the early 1930’s. Tom Stern’s slightly muted but painterly cinematography balances perfectly with the fluid, unfussy editing rhythms of Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Eastwood, as usual, serves as composer on the film, working in a simple yet elegant musical score with more than a few haunting cues that amp up some of the films more frightening sequences. Getting a chance to see old Los Angeles up on the big screen is a treat and with someone like Eastwood calling the shots, you know that no expense has been spared. Just wait until you see the amazing final shot of the film. Next to his back-to-back war epics, CHANGELING is the most physically demanding picture that Eastwood has tackled. The film is as beautifully mounted as it is sensitively observed, a testament to Eastwood’s strength as a filmmaker in that he’s able to pay attention to both the big and the small details that set his films apart from most others. And the fact that the story is all true makes it even harder to forget or ignore.

CHANGELING is an emotionally demanding (and draining) film that takes the viewer on a trip to an era where women were treated as third class citizens and had to fight for the truth and for what they believed in. It’s disturbing to think that women were treated like this just 75 years ago in this country. Jolie, who I was initially hesitant about in the lead role, pulls out all the stops in her work as Christine, a woman who would never settle for anything less than the truth about the fate of her son. Eastwood finds honest compassion for Christine and never allows his film to go over the top or become overly sentimental. This is a hard film to watch on more than one occasion, but thanks to Eastwood’s masterly grip of storytelling and confident technique, he’s made one of the best pictures of the year.

LOOKS LIKE A MASTERPIECE

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

15 MOST ANTICIPATED FOR REST OF YEAR

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Revoltionary Road
4. Gran Torino
5. Synechdoche, New York
6. Quantum of Solace
7. Australia
8. Milk
9. Valkyrie
10. Defiance
11. Nothing But The Truth
12. Doubt
13. Frost/Nixon
14. The Reader
15. The Day The Earth Stood Still

Monday, November 10, 2008

BEST OF 2008

Tarsem’s THE FALL (****)
Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (****)
Jonathan Demme’s RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (****)
David Gordon Green’s SNOW ANGELS (****)
Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELING (****)
Martin McDonagh’s IN BRUGES (****)
Joel & Ethan Coen’s BURN AFTER READING (****)
Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E (****)
David Gordon Green’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (****)
Ben Stiller’s TROPIC THUNDER (****)

Matt Reeves’ CLOVERFIELD (****)
Martin Scorsese’s SHINE A LIGHT (****)
Roger Donaldson’s THE BANK JOB (****)
Stephen Walker’s YOUNG @ HEART (****)
Kimberly Peirce’s STOP-LOSS (****)
Jay Roach’s RECOUNT (****)
Tom McCarthy’s THE VISITOR (****)
Chris Bell’s BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (****)
Ridley Scott’s BODY OF LIES (***1/2)
Peter Berg’s HANCOCK (***1/2)

Kevin Smith’s ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO (***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)
Brad Andersen’s TRANSSIBERIAN (***1/2)
Errol Morris’ STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (***1/2)
Jose Padhilla’s ELITE SQUAD (***1/2)
Oliver Stone’s W (***)

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)
Mark Osbourne’s KUNG FU PANDA (**1/2)
Mitchell Lichenstein’s TEETH (**1/2)
Noam Murro’s SMART PEOPLE (**1/2)
Doug Liman’s JUMPER (**)
Kent Alterman’s SEMI-PRO (**)
Pete Travis’ VANTAGE POINT (**)
Michael McCullers’ BABY MAMA (**)
Peter Segal’s GET SMART (*1/2)
M. Night Shymalan’s THE HAPPENING (ZERO)

DVD ROUND UP

TRANSSIBERIAN (***1/2) is a nasty little thriller. Directed by Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST) from a lean-and-mean script he co-wrote with Will Conroy, the film centers on Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), two American’s who have been working in Beijing and decide to take a six day train ride from China to Russia. They meet a mysterious couple on board the train. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) has smoldering, wandering eyes while his girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara) is aloof and slightly suspicious. Roy is a train enthusiast who loves the idea that he’s on a big-time train trip and Jessie seems happy enough to be along for the ride. Carlos and Abby seem like they could be trouble but the script is so slyly drawn that you never quite know what’s what and who’s who. Ben Kingsley also stars as a Russian police investigator who is trying to solve a sketchy murder and drug theft. For the first 75 minutes or so, there is a sense of dread and foreboding (much like the atmosphere of THE MACHINIST) and the genius of the film lies in the brilliant misdirection of Anderson’s cool directorial style. You’re waiting for something to happen and then it doesn’t. When you’re least expecting something to happen – it does. Then, the film takes a positively sinister turn in its last act (get ready for an intense bit of on-screen torture), and while there is some action aboard the train that strains credibility in an otherwise credible thriller scenario, TRANSSIBERIAN closes out in a satisfying way. The performances, especially Mortimer and Noriega’s, are all excellent, and the snowy landscapes of Xavi Gimenez’s desolate cinematography are visually arresting. This is one of the better thrillers I have seen this year, but be prepared for a wallop of a last act.
You know, it’s funny. Whenever you finally get around to seeing a classic movie you’re always at odds with your expectations. Example: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD. As a kid, I never saw Sly tearing up the Pacific Northwest. My parents made the decision that RAMBO would be off limits. So, over the years, the film escaped me, I never had any real interest in catching up with it when I got older, and I formed a distinct idea in my head of what Rambo was and is. Then, after I finally saw the movie a few years ago, I was struck by many things: how smart the script was (at least the first and second acts), how little violence there was (relatively speaking), and how introspective the film was at times. Because it took me so long to see the film, my expectations had been shaped by the media, reviews, and what the name “Rambo” has come to mean in our society. A similar situation occurred recently when I finally sat down to watch Blake Edwards’ BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (***), which was nothing like I expected it to be. George Axelrod’s screenplay, based on the novel by Truman Capote, was a lot fizzier than I imagined. Over the years, the title “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has come to mean something to me, something the film didn’t necessarily live up to. Not that that’s a bad thing; I found the movie to be enjoyable and while nothing was ever truly at stake within the narrative and I called all of the twists that the plot took, I was never bored and wanted to know what was going to happen at the end. I had imagined a completely different movie, one with a serious story. Maybe something involving a girl named Tiffany and an important breakfast. Audrey Hepburn was extremely hot but damn, did she need to eat some burgers and fries – way too skinny. The racial stereotyping of her Asian landlord was interesting in that a depiction like that would never be allowed by today’s standards. And the idea that Hepburn’s romantic interest in the film starts the story off as a gigolo must’ve felt very subversive at the time. The problem with watching classic films out of social context is that they have a tendency to lose their immediate voice when viewed from a remove of years. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S ultimately struck me as a cute little rom-com that felt like a cross between MTV’S The Hills and any one of the recent female-star-of-the-moment rom-coms that pop up every few months at the multiplex. And by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed FIRST BLOOD.

I don’t really have much to say about KUNG FU PANDA (**1/2). Animated movies aren’t normally my bag, but I had some interest in this Dreamworks production based on the idea of a cute panda who’s an expert at martial arts. The colors are vibrant and shiny, the script is cute enough, Jack Black does some humorous vocal mugging, and the action moved along at a brisk clip. But, as with so many other animated films, I just didn’t care about what I was watching. I am sure that little kids loved this movie and I am sure they’ll all love the sequel which is now in development. But KUNG FU PANDA is a long way away from the brilliance of something like WALL*E or RATATOUILLE. Everyone is just a shadow of the Pixar giant.


BABY MAMA (**) was a supreme disappointment. You’ve got a ton of excellent comic performers – Tina Fey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin, Amy Poehler, Dax Shephard, Romany Malco, Sigourney Weaver, and Will Forte – all surrounded by a lame, unfunny script by Michael McCullers (who also directed) that should have been more vulgar and envelope pushing. The idea of BABY MAMA had some potential. Fey is a career-woman who never had time to get married and settle down. All she wants is a baby. So she enlists the help of Weaver who runs a posh child-surrogate company who hooks her up with the skeevy, white-trashy Poehler as her “baby mama.” A clash of cultures ensues between the two women while an unlikely friendship is tentatively born. Kinnear plays a juice-smoothie store owner who has a meet-cute with Fey but everything in this film is dry and wooden. There were maybe one or two honest-to-goodness laugh-out-loud moments but for the most part, McCuller’s script is stale and not edgy enough. He’s also done no favors by his flat looking visual sensibilities. Horrible lighting and poorly timed editing didn’t help matters either. Had this been rated R and had a different director been at the helm, than BABY MAMA could’ve possibly been the female version of KNOCKED UP. In the end, all you’re left with are a few throw-away laughs (mostly generated by Martin as a New Age, douchey corporate slug) and the always cute and watchable Fey. This is the epitome of the “in-flight movie.” Go watch some 30 ROCK repeats instead.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

QUICK THOUGHTS

Clint Eastwood's CHANGELING (****) is a near-masterpiece. I am still sussing it out, but the film is an incredible piece of multi-layered storytelling propelled by a career best performance from Angelina Jolie. The evocation of 1930's Los Angeles is spellbinding in CHANGELING. This is yet another triumph for Eastwood.

Full review will appear soon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

DVD ROUND UP

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (***1/2) is another incendiary documentary from Errol Morris (THE FOG OF WAR, THE THIN BLUE LINE). Exposing the atrocities that went down at the infamous Abu Grahib prison scandal is hardly the stuff of pure entertainment, but Morris, in his usual stylish way has presented the facts in an up-front and unflinching manner and has backed up his information with detailed interviews with most of the key military personnel that were involved. Morris doesn't offer up any easy answers as to why these soldiers acted in the disgraceful manner that they did. Rather, he posits that these various underlings were just following orders and doing what their superiors told them to do. It's a damning portrait of further military incompetence at the hands of Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, and assorted high-ranking military commanders. Morris re-creates some of the psychological torture tactics that were used on the detainees and combined with Danny Elfman's propulsive musical score, he underlines the horrors of what went on in that compound of humiliation. I thought that Alex Gibney's similarly themed (and Oscar winning) documentary TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE was a bit better than STANDARD OPERATING PROCUDURE, but I recommend that you check out both of them. They are hard-hitting pieces of expertly detailed journalistic reporting.

Noam Murro, a much-heralded commercials and music video director, made his feature film debut earlier this year with a small ensemble comedy called SMART PEOPLE (**1/2) and while I enjoyed some of his first effort, it didn't completely win me over. This is another sad-sack story about mostly unlikable characters drifting through their various turmoils. Dennis Quaid is a widowed, disheveled college English professor who gets a chance to score with one of his ex-students, played by the always-smiling Sarah Jessica Parker. Quaid's stoner brother played by Thomas Hayden Church steals all of the scenes he appears in and Ellen Page is also along for the ride as Quaid's sarcastic daughter. Everyone in this movie is a sour-puss of sorts, and Murro's visual style is simple and straight-forward. I just wanted a little more to latch onto as there really is no plot, per se, and what does develop between the various characters is only moderately engaging. Church really nails his stuff and Quaid is his always appealing self. Page is going to get annoying real quick unless she ditches the sarcastic humor routine; it’s getting old quickly. The script has it’s moments but if mostly uneven. It’s sort of funny but not funny enough. When the films goes for dramatics it falls a little flat because nothing ever feels truly at stake. It's not a bad movie, just a bland one.

After making the riveting documentary BUS 174 a few years ago, Brazilian director Jose Padhilla steps up to the feature world in a big way with his explosively violent actioner ELITE SQUAD (***1/2). The film is a companion piece (of sorts) to CITY OF GOD, and while ELITE SQUAD doesn't reach the brilliance of that film, it gets a lot of things right along the way. Set amid the dangerous slums of Rio De Janeiro, ELITE SQUAD centers on a bad-ass cop who works for a SWAT-like task force. The pope is coming to town so he and his fellow officers are tasked with cleaning up the streets and getting rid of as many drug dealers and potential assassins as possible. The film exhibits a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality when it comes to the work of the police. It’s like Dirty Harry on crystal meth. A voice-over narration keeps things moving along at a brisk clip and while some of the film might seem over-heated, I think it just further proves the point that Padhilla is trying to make -- this is one of the scariest, most dangerous places on earth. It’s a rip-roaring action film and Padhilla is turning into a distinct stylist.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

REVIEW: ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (***1/2)

One should never underestimate Kevin Smith, the crass auteur whose career was launched back in 1994 with the low-rent, crudely hilarious indie CLERKS. Now, almost 15 years later, Smith has been overshadowed somewhat by the Judd Apatow factory of potty-mouthed big-screen comedy. Over the years, Smith has decided to make films that almost exclusively feature recurring characters that were created in his early films like CLERKS, MALL RATS, and CHASING AMY (still his best, most complete picture). His latest happens to be his sharpest movie in a few years, primarily due to his decision to move away from familiar characters and settings. Smith has always had a big heart as a writer. While his movies are obsessively profane, they always have a down-to-earth human element which reminds you that he’s a big softie inside. Whether or not he’s skewering religion as he did in DOGMA or trashing Hollywood in JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, Smith has always infused his movies with emotion and sentimentality which work as a buffer against the dick, fart, and bodily fluid jokes. His latest opus (and one of his best) is ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO (***1/2), which stars regular Apatow funny-man Seth Rogen and the delightful, sexy Elizabeth Banks.
Rogen is Zack, a schlubby barista at a local coffee shop who shares an apartment with his life-long best friend Miri (Banks), who holds some sort of menial job at a local shopping mall. They live in run-down Pittsburgh in an old-and-gross apartment; to say that the two of them barely eek by would be an understatement. After attending an embarrassing high school reunion where the two of them are constantly reminded of how dead-end their lives have become, they both realize that they need to make some big changes. Then, the next day, their water gets turned off. Next up to go is the electricity. What to do? Make a porno of course! Zack and Miri, who have never slept together, decide to put together a rag-tag filmmaking and acting team in order to produce a cheesy porno flick which they feel will make them some fast-cash. With nothing to lose, they set out to find their crew. Zack recruits the one guy he knows with money – his low-key (and married) friend from work, Delaney (the brilliant Craig Robinson from television’s THE OFFICE) – to be the film’s “producer.” When Delaney realizes that he’ll be involved with casting the actresses in the film, he immediately signs on. The film is immensely aided by Robinson’s constant underplaying of dialogue and situations; he provides the film with some of its biggest laughs. Also along for the ride is Smith regular Jeff Anderson (Randall from CLERKS) as the film’s cameraman; Jason Mewes (Jay from CLERKS and other Smith adventures) as a well-hung actor named Lester; and real-life adult film stars Katie Morgan and Traci Lords as the other actresses. The big question that the film asks is what will happen to Zack and Miri’s relationship after their big scene is filmed?

The film plays out in relatively predictable fashion but I didn’t mind. The movie is about its dialogue, and the heart and soul of the story rests on Zack and Miri’s friendship and their unexplored love. While nowhere near as realistic as Smith’s best film, CHASING AMY, and not as risk taking as something like CLERKS or DOGMA, Smith reminds Apatow and his cronies who kick-started this smutty type of filmmaking with some of the filthiest writing I have ever encountered in a major Hollywood production. I am not surprised, at all, that the film initially received an NC-17 rating, based solely on its language. When it comes to actual nudity and sexual activity, the film does have some fun in those areas, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Rather, it’s the frank discussion of body parts, sexual practices (both hetero and homosexual), and general level of casual vulgarity that serves as the film’s show-stopping elements. The performances are all solid, but Rogen and Banks are both terrific. Rogen, in films such as KNOCKED UP and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, has built an amazing reputation as his generations leading man of funny. And Banks, who is on quite a roll this year with terrific work in wide-ranging films such as DEFINITELY, MAYBE and W., hits all of her marks and exhibits major star power. She’s cute, she’s hot, she’s funny, and she’s ready to get down and dirty with the guys. I’m a huge fan. ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO could best be described as a raunched-out version of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. By the end of the film, while nothing will be a major surprise, you’ll have witnessed two characters, who begin the film as platonic friends, fall in love and discover that the emptiness that has encompassed their lives has now been fulfilled.

Monday, November 3, 2008

REVIEW: W. (***)

I wish I had more to say about Oliver Stone’s W. (***). Not that it’s a bad film; rather, it’s just a decent one. I liked it. I found it to be entertaining and darkly humorous at times. It’s just that I expected more from Stone. He’s made, more or less, one masterpiece after another throughout his politically charged filmmaking career. Even in a film like ALEXANDER where not everything worked, there were still moments of brilliance lurking in the shadows. But look at the list of some of the films that Stone has been responsible for over the years: SALVADOR, PALTOON, JFK, NIXON, WALL STREET, THE DOORS, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, just to name a few. There is fiery passion and a combustible filmmaking style in every one of the films listed above. But for whatever reason, Stone, and his WALL STREET screenwriter Stanley Weiser, have played it safe in their latest outing. What should have been an angry, tense, and damning portrait of our deer-in-headlights President, W. never catches fire and is content to be a solid, down-the-middle excursion into father-son rivalries. And while W. is never bad at any point, it’s never better than good, except when it comes to Josh Brolin’s magnetic performance as our current schmuck-of-a-President, George W. Bush.
The film goes back and forth in time, documenting a college-aged Bush getting into alcohol fueled trouble at Yale, then segueing into his post-college years as an aimless boozer and womanizer who mucked up every job he ever got his hands on. From his life-long obsession with baseball (which Stone and Weiser cleverly use to bookend the film) to his family’s political importance, Bush was never particularly good with whatever came his way. We get to see Bush become a born again Christian and swear off alcohol after he realizes that he’s letting the drink run (and ruin) his life. We spend time with Bush and all of his supporting characters: Dad (the regal James Cromwell), Mom (an underused Ellen Burstyn), wife (Elizabeth Banks, radiating warmth as Laura Bush), Dick Cheney (a snarling Richard Dreyfus), Karl Rove (an oily Toby Jones), Condoleeza Rice (a squinting, grinning Thandie Newton, one step removed from an SNL skit), Donald Rumsfeld (a miscast Scott Glenn), and Colin Powell (a quiet, forceful Jeffrey Wright). Skipping over 9/11 and it’s direct aftermath as well as not covering any of his elections, Stone and Weiser instead opt for a tired expose on how W. never felt his father’s love and how he always felt overshadowed by his brother, Jeb, who gets almost zero screen-time in the picture. What we’re left with is all stuff we’ve seen or heard before, thus raising the most important question of all: why make the film to begin with?

However, it must be said that Brolin delivers a phenomenal performance. Never going over the top and infusing Bush with as much humanity as possible, it’s a difficult performance to pull off without ever feeling like a cheesy imitation. The media and Hollywood have been taking cracks at Bush for the last eight years so it must’ve been a challenge for Brolin to ignore all of what’s come before him (Will Ferrell’s SNL-skewering, Michael Moore’s documentaries, etc.) He’s got the drawl, the walk, the gestures, and the attitude down rather perfectly. But beyond simply mimicry, Brolin does something that I never thought possible: make Bush seem like a regular person. When he was cast, I thought it was an odd decision to hire Brolin for the role. Now, having seen his work, I can easily state that there is nobody else out there who could have given this particular performance. It’s a great piece of acting in a film that should have added up to a whole lot more.

This is not the review I wanted to be writing about this film. I love Oliver Stone as a filmmaker and I love the way he used to make movies. In his previous picture, the wrenching and often-times emotionally moving WORLD TRADE CENTER, Stone tamped down his visual pyrotechnics and told a straight-from-the-gut story of survival and dedication. It was the most un-Oliver Stone film that he’d ever directed but the material required a sobering approach to aesthetic style. And while W. is competently shot (by Phedon Papamichael) and edited (by Julie Monroe) and moves along with a nice pace and is never boring, there is nothing visceral or immediate about the film. Where has the razzle-dazzle gone, Oliver? This lack of immediacy is shocking considering how timely the film is; releasing a film about a sitting President has never been done before. Stone got his financing for the film from foreign producers and had no studio suits sitting over his shoulder telling him what he could or couldn’t do. Why didn’t Stone take more chances? W. feels more like an experiment, a film that plays like a supposed mirror of our times. And most interestingly, for a guy who has despised Bush for years, Stone goes soft on Bush throughout much of the picture, even creating a feeling of sympathy (or at least empathy) that I never imagined possible. And I just don’t get it. Who the hell wants to watch a movie about Bush and walk out feeling slightly sorry for the guy? I know I sure as hell don’t.

Maybe Stone and Weiser should have waited a few more years before making this film. In his masterpieces JFK and NIXON, Stone had the advantage of time and perspective on his side. W. is so in the moment that we’ve barely had time to reflect on everything that Bush has done to screw our world up. The broad-strokes are all well know, but the problem with W. is that it’s only the broad-strokes that Stone wants to show on screen. I liked the film but I wanted to love it. And while Brolin’s incredible performance ranks as one of the year’s best, it’s just about the only thing that I can recommend the film for. It registers as something of a disappointment for me, if for no other reason that I expected a completely different film from a filmmaker like Stone when it comes to material like this. He should have excoriated Bush. Instead, he makes nice. This is truly a shame.

QUICK THOUGHTS

I very much enjoyed the gleefully filthy new sex-comedy ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (***1/2) from master-of-crude Kevin Smith. It's probably the raunchiest written studio movie I have ever heard up on the big screen. It's also extremely funny, very heartfelt, and well acted by the entire clowning-around cast. Seth Rogen can do no wrong in my book and I have a major movie-crush on Elizabeth Banks. Also, the film is given a boost (big time) by the sly humor of Craig Robinson, who kills every week on THE OFFICE. His dry underplayment of every line of dialogue is priceless; I hope he continues to get work in feature films. ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO isn't high art but it's a lot of dirty-minded fun and ranks as one of the top three movies of Smith's career.

My full review will be posted soon.