Tuesday, September 7, 2010


What the hell is Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Pusher, Fear X) smoking? I’m kidding, of course, but really…this guy is something else. Valhalla Rising, his bold and astonishing Viking movie with a silent and scarred Mads Mikkelsen as a one-eyed, mute warrior, is a masterpiece of hypnotic filmmaking, a film that Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog will likely embrace as a one-of-a-kind vision of hell on earth. Valhalla Rising cannot be compared to anything – it exists on a playing field all to itself. There’s no real plot…just the desire felt by each character to kill before being killed. Because, in all honesty and reality, in those times, I'm not really sure if life had a "plot" per se. It was probably a moment to moment existence for most people. This is an atmosphere movie (most of it is silent), a film that places a large importance on look and feel and attitude, rather than getting bogged down in politics or excessive plotting. Mikkelsen is a warrior forced into fighting to the death for the enjoyment of his kidnappers. After he kills them and escapes, with the help of a young boy, he encounters a group of Vikings who are headed to the new world in order to preach Christianity. Things get downright spooky after Mikkelsen joins the explorers. The viewer is basically taken into a literal and metaphorical “hell” and the results aren’t pretty. Ever seen hallucinating Vikings? I hadn’t. Until I saw Valhalla Rising. Artsy, uncompromising, and defiantly non-commercial, Valhalla Rising will likely only be embraced by a small group. But for those of us within that group, it’ll stand as one of the finest and most viscerally exhilarating movie experiences of 2010.

Two viewings of Inception are simply not enough. It’s pointless to try and re-hash the plot. Everyone’s heard about it…dreams within dreams and Leo all emotional and Joe Levitt walking on walls and the guy from Bronson wielding a massive sub-rocket launcher and Ellen Page designing entire cities with the blink of an eye. Oh, and that scary-sexy Marion Cotillard haunting everyone. From the epic-sized action sequences to the more intimate moments between Dicaprio and his team/conspirators, Christopher Nolan never misses a beat. This is grand, thought-provoking entertainment for people who want to have all of their senses stimulated. But you have to be patient, be ready to pay attention, and keep an open mind. One of the mesmerizing things about Inception, and more specifically, the way the screenplay has been crafted, is that the film truly will hold up to repeated viewings, if for no other reason than the fact that the film can be interpreted through any number of wave-lengths. Mixing sci-fi and action and drama, Nolan yet again delivers a big-budget but big-brained piece of work that feels like an instant classic.
No two ways around it – Cyrus is a dark, sad film. It’s also extremely funny and oddly touching at times. Jonah Hill proves that he can do much more than just be the fat guy in the room making everyone laugh. As always, John C. Reilly is lovable and engaging and Marisa Tomei continues her late-career renaissance (Before the Devil Knows you’re Dead, The Wrestler) with another perky performance. What the Duplass brothers do as filmmakers may seem easy because of their loose and shaggy aesthetic but it has to be hard as every single scene in this film feels awkwardly real and believable. Tomei plays Hill’s overprotective mother while Hill nails his bit as the clingy son. When Reilly arrives and falls for Tomei (and she as well), things get complicated as Hill tries to sabotage their relationship. Think a smarter, more honest version of Step Brothers (and enjoyable piece of idiocy that can’t be taken seriously). And that’s why Cyrus is one of the sharpest films of the year – it takes a potentially icky and off-putting idea and makes dark-comedy gold out of it.

If Sly Stallone wanted to make a big-budget Cannon movie with The Expendables than he succeeded. He’s got the Golan-Globus-esque producers behind him (Avi Lerner’s Millennium Films), and with zero major studio influence or bitching, he’s been able to craft one of the most over-the-top and enjoyable blow ‘em up’s in years. There have been better, more ambitious films this summer, but no movie left me with such a stupid, childish grin on my face than Stallone’s latest blood-bath. The Expendables is an idiotic movie, make no mistake. But it’s no more idiotic than the films it aspires to sit next too, testosterone fests like Commando and Cobra and Delta Force and Raw Deal. I loved the meat-headed attitude of The Expendables and the fact that everyone – I mean everyone – was in on the joke. The plot(!) involves, surprise-surprise, drug cartels (at least I think so), Eric Roberts in a $5,000 suit, a corrupt general, and hundreds and hundreds of faceless, nameless extras who serve has machine gun fodder for Stallone and his lumbering crew of ass-kickers (Statham, Li, Lundgren, ah fuck it, you’ve seen the ads). More shit explodes in the last 30 minutes of The Expendables to fill 2 Michael Bay movies (that man is gonna need an extra change of pants when he sees this flick). Going the hard-R route allows Stallone to revel in his new-found love of on-screen viscera; between The Expendables and the latest Rambo installment, someone should probably sit down with Sly with cup of cocoa and ask him if anything’s keeping him up at night. The Expendables is exactly what everyone has been saying it is…a throwback to when manly action films were in vogue, and I am pleased to say that the box office success all but guarantees a sequel. Now, let’s get Willis and Arnie to gear up and go to war with the rest of the crew and we’ll really be on to something. Oh, and Sly, hiring Jeff Kimball as your d.o.p. was a brilliant move.

The Kids Are All Right was the little indie that could this past summer season, and for good reason – it’s a wonderfully observed, sharply written and acted dramedy that anyone can relate too. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple with two sperm-donor teenagers whose lives are turned upside down when their kids decide to track down their scruffily charming dad, played by the always incredible Mark Ruffalo, who seems incapable of ever giving a false or poor performance. The Kids Are All Right will have you laughing out loud one moment and then covering your mouth the next as a seemingly funny moment becomes very serious. That’s one of the strengths of Lisa Cholodenko’s script, which while somewhat predictable, leaves enough to chance to keep you guessing about how things will end up for everyone. If the film has any obvious short-comings, I’d say that Ruffalo’s character doesn’t get the closure he deserves, but I don’t want to spoil anything. This is a real-feeling film that many people are going to really enjoy. My guess is an Oscar nom for original screenplay is in store for Cholodenko.

I was mostly down with Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a supremely hyper-active ode to video games and comics that feels as “in-the-moment” as any film ever has. I think it’s possible that the main reason for me not loving this wild and wacky movie is because my knowledge and interest in video games ended at the end of middle school. I’m also not a comic/graphic novel reader (this film is based on a very popular series of books). And I’m also not into alt/emo rock music, something this film revels in. But what I am down for is envelope pushing technique and form, and that’s what Wright brought to the table. Editing and shooting in a cracked-out manor that suggests Tony Scott on a paper-towel of acid, Wright obliterates any sense of reality and goes for pure fantasy and spectacle. Michael Cera is Michael Cera, err, I mean, Scott Pilgrim, a 20 year old guitar playing weasel that lives with some gay guys (they all sleep together in one of the film’s many, many homosexual references) and is dating an Asian high-schooler named Knives. There’s a battle of the bands coming up but when Pilgrim sees the girl of his dreams (played by the too plain looking Mary Elizabeth Winsted), he loses all focus. It also doesn’t help that he has to battle (to the death in arcade-style bouts) her seven evil exes. So, you have a wild idea, a wild filmmaker, and the chance to go for broke. So why isn’t this film the masterpiece it so desperately wants to be? Honestly, it needed to be shorter. Had it been, say, 3 or 4 evil exes, it wouldn’t have felt like a slog getting to the grand finale. There’s only so man times you can see a bad guy get wasted and then turn into coins before the idea becomes old. There’s lots to admire in each and every frame of Scott Pilgrim, and my guess is that another viewing will yield even more pleasures. It’s not perfect but it delivers something different and funky. I think my favorite part was the skewing of the Universal logo in the first 10 seconds of the movie!

Bourne. Bauer. Bond. Salt. That’s what director Phil Noyce, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, Angelina Jolie, and Sony Pictures want you to think. And for the most part, they’ve lived up to those super-spy names. Salt is Jolie’s latest attempt at starting an action franchise (the Tomb Raider series died after the second installment) and based on the excellent box office that the film pulled in; I bet we’ll see another one. Essentially a $100 million episode of 24, Jolie is CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is falsely accused (or was she?) of being a Russian spy. Her bosses (Chiewetel Ejifor and Liev Schrieber) chase her all around the eastern seaboard while Jolie runs, leaps, and karate-chops her way from once action set-piece to another. Wimmer’s script is absurd, but no more absurd than most of these genre entries, and the old-school professionalism of Noyce’s direction (not a lot of CGI; Robert Elswit was the cinematographer) keeps things moving at a crisp pace. Salt runs a lean 95 minutes; there’s no fat on its bones. But there’s also not a lot of personality. The filmmakers and Jolie seem so intent on moving the action to the next beat that they never slow down and allow us to really get to know their heroine. We root for Salt because we like to root for Angie as she kicks everyone’s ass. Noyce, who has done everything from Clear and Present Danger to Rabbit Proof Fence, should he come back for the inevitable sequel, could stand to take a breath and let a little more story/characterization creep into the proceedings. It’s a silver-bullet of an action-thriller, steely-cold in look, and light on its feet.

To say that Takers is Heat-lite would be an understatement. I read another blogger refer to Takers as Warmth, as the film plays like Heat for Dummies. Stylishly directed by John Lussenhop with nods to Tony Scott (the climactic gun battle is straight outta True Romance) and Michael Mann, Takers is a low-budget PG-13 actioner that doesn’t have a lot of hard-edges. What it does have is mostly average acting, mostly average plotting, and a slick, music-video buff ‘n shine style that allows the viewer to sit back and look at some pretty stuff while a lot of clichés are thrown around by the whole cast (Idris Elba, Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown, Michael Ealy, T.I., Jay Hernandez, Zoe Saldana). It’s funny how Takers, The Losers, and The A-Team have all come out within the last 5 months and all three of them feel like the same movie (slight differences aside). But what saves Takers from being totally forgettable is a totally amazing foot-chase through the middle of downtown Los Angeles that was nothing short of bravura. The sequence goes on for what feels like 10 solid minutes, all during broad daylight, on location, and it looks and feels completely and utterly hard-core. The film is worth matinee ticket price for that one scene alone. Takers will be a rental for most people, but if you’re looking for a simple time-waster, it'll do the trick.

No comments: