Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best 25 Directorial Debuts of the Decade

1. Bennett Miller (Capote)
2. Todd Field (In the Bedroom)
3. Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast)
4. Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson)
5. Florian Henkel Von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others)
6. Sarah Polley (Away From Her)
7. Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow)
8. Rian Johnson (Brick)
9. Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone)
10. Neill Blomkamp (District 9)
11. Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking)
12. Martin McDonaugh (In Bruges)
13. James Carney (Once)
14. Courtney Hunt (Frozen River)
15. Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger)
16. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor)
17. Anton Corbjin (Control)
18. Lance Hammer (Ballast)
19. Steve McQueen (Hunger)
20. Robert Siegel (Big Fan)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2010 Wish List

Here is my 2010 movie list of movies that I want to see. I've met my list for the past two years but this one is just as daunting. For some of these movies I haven't even seen the trailer (even if its out) but I'm basing it off of the either the concept, the director, or the cast... depending on what's been released but even then I'm not all caught up.

The Book of Eli

Extraordinary Measures


Edge of Darkness

Dear John

From Paris With Love

I Love You Philip Morris

Percy Jackson

The Wolfman

Shutter Island

Cop Out

The Crazies

Alice In Wonderland

Brooklyn's Finest

The Green Zone

Remember Me


Tell Me

The Runaways

Season of the Witch

Clash of the Titans

Repo Men

Date Night

The Losers

Death At A Funeral




Money Never Sleeps

A Nightmare On Elm Street

Iron Man 2

Robin Hood

Shrek Forever After

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time

The A-Team

Get Me To The Gig

Jonah Hex

Toy Story 3


The Last Airbender

Knight and Day



The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Dinner For Schmucks


Little Fockers

Morning Glory

The Other Guys

Eat Pray Love

The Expendables


The American

The Town



Guardians of Ga'Hoole

Your Highness


The Social Network

The Prisoners



Due Date



Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Love and Other Drugs

Red Dawn

Bruce Lee

It's Kind of a Funny Story

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Tron 2.0

What Do You Know?

The Green Hornet

Gulliver's Travels

Some of the very talented directors of these movies include...

Noah Baumbach, James L. Brooks, Joe Carahan, Anton Corjbin, David Fincher, Ryan Fleck, Antoine Fuqua, Michael Gondry, David Gordon Green, Paul Greengrass, Lasse Hallstrom, James Mangold, Ryan Murphy, Christopher Nolan, Philip Noyce, Gavin O'Connor, Rob Reiner, Robert Rodriguez, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Kevin Smith, Oliver Stone, Matthew Vaughn, and Edward Zwick

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Good, The Okay, and The Ugly

So here is my list of all of the films I've seen classified into a GOOD, OKAY, and BAD categories. Here it is.





I Love You Man

The Great Buck Howard


State of Play

Star Trek

The Girlfriend Experience

Drag Me To Hell


The Hangover

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3


The Hurt Locker


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

500 Days of Summer

Julie and Julia

District 9


Inglorious Bastards

The Informant

The Invention of Lying


A Serious Man

Where the Wild Things Are

Black Dynamite

A Christmas Carol


Fantastic Mr. Fox

Bad Lieutenant

Up in the Air



The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

The White Ribbon



Fast and Furious

The Soloist

Rudo Y Cursi


Angels and Demons

Away We Go

Public Enemies

Funny People

Taking Woodstock


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Capitalism: A Love Story

Couples Retreat

New York I Love You


Me and Orson Welles

The Road


The Lovely Bones


The Unborn

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans




Friday the 13th

The International

Street Fighter

Crossing Over


Observe and Report


The Limits of Control

Terminator: Salvation

Dance Flick

Land of the Lost


Year One

Whatever Works

Transformers 2


G.I. Joe

The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard

Halloween II



The Surrogates

Law Abiding Citizen


The Vampire's Assistant

Saw VI

The Boondock Saints II

The Box

Men Who Stare At Goats


Ninja Assassin

Everybody's Fine


It's Complicated

Sherlock Holmes

Friday, December 18, 2009

Top 15 of the Year

This year I've seen 99 films that were released from the 1st of January to the 31st of December. You might notice that it is only the 18th but thanks to advance screenings and the internet (99% of the time I buy those on DVD at a later date) I was able to see the few remaining films that would be released this year. Of those 99, I would recommend 37 of them to others as good movies. Of those 37, here are the 15 (I tried to limit it to 10 but I couldn't) that were my favorites of 2009.

15. Adventureland (dir. Greg Mottola)
Here you have a movie that not only successfully captures wishful love between two teenager (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart) as they spend their summer working at an amusement park, Adventureland also successfully captures the spirit of the eighties (in the same manner that Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti examined their respective eras). Eisenberg excels at being this bumbling insecure type of boy while Stewart matches his insecurity with a sexually neurotic demeanor.

14. District 9 (dir. Neil Blomkamp)
The most original film of the year, District 9 uses the racial overtones of setting the movie in South Africa to then take a jarring look at how humanity would realistically react to alien visitors. The film also has a visual intensity that only increases the paranoia surrounding the dark conspiracy of what Earth's government plans to do to those that are just simply different than them. Sharlto Copley's performance is also a key component to the already emotionally wrenching story-line.

13. Big Fan (dir. Robert Siegel)
Siegel (writer of The Wrestler) takes the story of two New York Giants fans (Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan) and instead of creating this obsessiveness that moviegoers would expect from something like Fatal Attraction, Siegel is one of the first filmmakers to deal with the positive aspects of being a "fanboy." Siegel's understanding of character benefits his two actors as they both enter the realm of dramatic acting to a great surprise. I hope directors take a cue and begin casting these two comedians in more serious material.

12. The Girlfriend Experience (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
This haunting (only in tone, not in content) story of a woman (Sasha Grey) who may appear as a call-girl but is really an expert at acting intimate, is set against the backdrop of the recent decline of the U.S. economy. Normally this would be too strong of a statement to make in this kind of film, but the crew behind this low-budget movie uses that to create a sense of chaos as all of these rich men turn to this girl who is willing to, for one night, be in love with them. The film becomes something else entirely when it begins to ask, how does this affect HER sense of well-being?

11. A Serious Man (dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
The Coens are known for writing and directing films about sinners, but what about making a movie where sinners turn to faith to save themselves? Michael Stuhlbarg stars (in his breakout performance) as a Jewish man whose life completely sucks (dumb kid, cheating wife, low-paying job) so he turns to both God and pot to sort everything out. The Coens's character study of a soul trapped by society's carelessness reminds us that those who stick out, can tend to be the most sane. Oh, and there is a lot of Yiddish dialogue to listen to as well. You have to appreciate that.

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
The whole film looks like someone took a box of arts-and-crafts from a kindergarten classroom and then managed to create an animation style that is so visually detailed, you can't help but wish this caper film would slow down so you could admire everything that you are looking at. The over-the-top story, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is Anderson's first animated film but quite possibly one of his most genuine. Without the presence of human actors, he uses stop-motion techniques to create a memorably funny experience for audiences of all ages.

9. 500 Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)
This premise of this film is not just a gimmick, but it actually puts a lot of the elements of a relationship into perspective. Thanks to the performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, we gain insight into what goes into those moments where one breaks up/falls in love/has sex/gets jealous/moves in/discovers they love the same music with the man or woman that they love. Although this might seem like "Memento the romantic comedy," you instead have a film that is just as convincing when watched in chronological order... or reverse... or jumbled up.

8. Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
Jonze's third visually stunning film features these monsters called Wild Things and thanks to a variety of special effects, we come to view each one as having their own different and unique personality. In a sense, each represents a part of the imagination of Max (played by newcomer Max Records), a young boy who is just learning what it means to grow up. The film makes arguments for both the pros and cons of being a highly imaginative youth, but at the end of the day, childhood doesn't last and that is the tragedy that Jonze's film examines.

7. I Love You Man (dir. John Hamburg)
This story about male bonding is also a close examination of love and friendship and where the two intertwine and drift apart. The film is full of memorable catch-phrases, one-liners, and gags all bought to you by an large ensemble cast (led by Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, and Rashida Jones... all of whom you find it hard to dislike in most of their roles). The only movie that came close to this level of original comedy was The Hangover but I gravitated towards the deeper relationship examinations that I Love You Man allows the audience to experience. I still recommend both, if I was just forced to pick one, Rudd slapping the bass wins out.

6. Coraline (dir. Henry Selick)
This adaptation of Neil Gaiman's children's book is turned into a superior film version that uses the story (Gaiman also wrote the screenplay) to reveal this offbeat psychological study of being a "have" vs. a "have not." The protagonist of Coraline wishes for something better but only until she experiences that her life could be worse does she beg for this unconscious forgiveness (which is obviously true for most people, we don't realize how spoiled we are until we compare ourselves to the impoverished or repressed). This film is one of the few that should be watched in 3-D as the effect creates depth and doesn't just act as a way to shock or surprise the viewer.

5. Precious (dir. Lee Daniels)
Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious as this grim and depressed girl who has nothing to say. If you were to pass her on the sidewalk you wouldn't care much about any of her dilemmas. Daniels, Sidibe, and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher connect us to this poor abused girl who is the victim of despair in the inner-city. Mo'Nique gives my favorite performance of the year as Precious's abusive mother who when asked to justify her abuse (and I might add, the abuse scenes are very difficult to watch) she delivers this monologue that actually made me tear up and begin to cry. It's one of the most powerful and perhaps realistic experiences movie-goers will have this year.

4. Up (dir. Pete Doctor)
In a banner year for animation, Pixar's Up is about a man (voiced by Ed Asner) who needs adventure and friendship to remember the excitement brought on by the woman he lost. The film actually has multiple themes which leads me to realize that Pixar seems to understand storytelling so well that it amazes me how this decade (with Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and now Up) that Pixar has become the leading animation studio. They are known for making films that are equally appealing to adults as they are to children and now with Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird planning on making live action films, they've bred a new generation of filmmakers as well.

3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
The most entertaining film of the year is a dazzling vision of a fictional account of World War II in which a "Dirty Dozen"-style team of American soldiers bring down the Nazi regime with the help of a Jewish French girl (Melanie Laurent) looking for vengeance against those who destroyed her family. Filled with well-written dialogue and a variety of colorful characters, the star of the film is Christoph Waltz as Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa, an evil genius that is as charming as he is deadly (he's like a combination of Bardem's Anton Chigurh and Ledger's The Joker, and with Waltz poised to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, it seems that the best supporting roles are being written for the villains).

2. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
The Hurt Locker follows Jeremy Renner as a man who serves his country by being the brightest bomb defusing expert in the U.S. army. During a memorable scene where he takes off his bomb suit (so that if he dies, he'll "die comfortably") we get a glimpse of a character that is hooked on adrenaline. We've seen these characters before but never like this. Never in a story that has no politics but just functions as an examination of how we as humans deal with war. The film is arguably the most intense and exciting film this year aside from District 9, but The Hurt Locker should also be noted as the first film to understand the struggles of the modern soldier who at this very moment could be deciding whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire. The rest of the cast is also superb.

1. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)
This film is many things but mainly it's a smart character study, a witty comedy, and a look at the tough social and economic times we live in. Clooney (with his usual old-school Hollywood charm) stars as Ryan Bingham, a lonely man who just flies around the country to fire people from their jobs. He doesn't have much of a home or a friend but he soon discovers two women that ground him both professionally and personally. Personally there is Vera Farmiga's character whose relationship leads to this tragic reveal but professionally there is Anna Kendrick's character who makes Bingham realize why we as human beings need to be grounded to something. This performance is second only to Clooney's character of Michael Clayton but it still establishes the actor as more than just a rugged face for the tabloids as he proves many a skeptic wrong time and time again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

10 Favorite of the Decade...? (kind of)

Recently I was asked what my ten favorite movies of the decade were and when it comes to listing things, I tend to be against that. Then again, at the end of the day... one film will always be better than the other and so on and so forth. So without further ado, here I go...

1. Memento (2001, Christopher Nolan)
2. A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg)
3. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood)
4. Munich (2005, Steven Spielberg)
5. Far From Heaven (2002, Todd Haynes)
6. Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)
7. I'm Not There (2007, Todd Haynes)
8. American Splendor (2003, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
9. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
10. Dancer in the Dark (2000, Lars Von Trier)

UPDATE: I'm going to lay off of reviewing films because of this year-end blowout idea I had. Once I'm on break and school is over I'll get back to updating more regularly.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

UPDATES- October

Capitalism: A Love Story- Michael Moore's new documentary is not so much about corruption on wall street or the failing economy but it instead focuses on the social fallout of living in a nation that grows poorer by the minute. I'm often torn when I see a Moore film because I disagree with his politics but I admire how he structures his work and how he's also a very interesting host/narrator. He begins to go overboard toward the film's finale, when he goes from his usual deadpan over-the-top humor to using words such as "evil" and that we are in need of a "citizen's revolt" to describe how we should look at the antagonist that he calls capitalism-at-large. Moore strikes me as the kind of guy I'd like to listen to and laugh with at a frat party, but I wouldn't want to take a class from him. That being said, this still bears the fun trademarks that have made Moore's past work as notable as it has become. RATING: OK

A Serious Man- Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg in his brilliant breakout performance) is a man whose life is a series of mishaps. His wife cheats on him, his kid sucks, and he probably isn't going to get tenure. So how does a man deal with all of this? Well he turns to both weed... and his rabbi. Gopnik's Jewish heritage figures very prominently into the story-line as an additional lens to view Larry's situation through (and it leads to some humorous stereotyping). The Coens seem to be making some very bold decisions with how to end their films, and this offbeat and powerful concluding scene will leave you reflecting on what you've witnessed for quite a while. RATING: GOOD

Couples Retreat- The surprisingly funny and pleasantly relaxed marriage comedy from newcomer John Billingsley, features the re-teaming of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau (also starring Malin Ackerman, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Kristen Davis, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk, and Jean Reno) as part of a group that goes on a couples retreat expecting some peace and quiet but are soon plunged into tense therapy where they learn that if they are loyal to themselves, they will become loyal to their spouses. The film starts to bug me once the couples are on the island for a significant amount of time because the film becomes more impersonal as the lives of these characters move aside to allow for sight gags, sex jokes, and egos that only exist to make the audience giggle. Humorous, but it doesn't push the envelope in any unique way like other comedies from this year have. RATING: OKAY

Law Abiding Citizen- Clyde (Gerard Butler) is vengeance-stricken husband and father whose family is mercilessly slaughtered. Nick (Jamie Foxx) is a district attorney and moral-driven husband and father whose by-the-book ethics lead him make a deal with the men who murdered Clyde's wife and daughter. Soon a plot that could only be described as The Silence of the Lambs meets Death Wish meets Saw commences and when its revealed how Clyde is carrying out his revenge, the film only becomes less plausible. Rationality soon disappears and Nick's character arc as a man who refuses to budge on his morals and ethics... well that whole aspect of his character just does an unexpected 360 giving the movie no point. F. Gary Gray is a capable director but this project was originally conceived to be the fifth film by Frank Darabont, but the studios opted for the more action-oriented route. What a shame, instead this film is just a sordid mess. RATING: BAD

Where the Wild Things Are- This is based on the children's book by Maurice Sendak and is the third film from director Spike Jonze as well as the second script from Dave Eggers. The film stars Max Records as Max, a young boy who feels that life is tough. Max is a jokester and he is always looking for a way to pull one over on his mom (Catherine Keener). After he goes too far one night when his mom's boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) is over for dinner, Max is shunned to his room where he eventually escapes to the mysterious island of the Wild Things. The Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, and Paul Dano) all find themselves teaching Max one of the toughest lessons a little boy has to learn, how to grow up. Affectionately moving, beautifully shot, and meticulously designed, Jonze has once again reminded us of how imaginative his cinematic visions can be. We can only wait patiently to see what else he will unleash on our minds as his career flourishes. RATING: GOOD

Black Dynamite- Michael Jai White and company know exactly the formula to create the movie they were looking to make. White first of all plays Dynamite with this poker-face scowl but he also leaves enough open for the audience to interpret him as one of those characters who is struggling against "the man." The movie also has that progression of a guy who is trying to avenge his brother, then he starts taking drugs off the street, and finally he exposes the government as a corrupt power-hungry organization. The film has the satire needed to take a look at blaxploitation and it is enough of a de-constructor that it never acts like a film that is trying to be something that it isn't (and by that I mean something serious). Combine that with the nostalgic look and White and director Scott Sanders' penchant for comedic timing, and you have something that is like the brain child of Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song meets I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. RATING: GOOD

New York I Love You- In this sequel to Paris Je T'Aime, this anthology film takes the same concept of taking different types of filmmakers (from The Last Shot writer Jeff Nathanson to The Edge of Heaven director Faith Akin) to showcase different kinds of love (from romance to sex) with many different actors (from Ethan Hawke to James Caan) and all taking place in different types of neighborhoods (from Brooklyn to Staten Island). Like the previous installment, the film works half-and-half. Certain stories by certain directors just seem to work such as Allen Hughes's (Menace II Society) tale of pure romance between Drea De Matteo and Bradley Cooper to director Brett Ratner's (Rush Hour) tale of raunchy sex between Anton Yelchin and Olivia Thirlby in a wheelchair. Different types of love are shown by having Shia LaBeouf learn about life from the elderly couple of Julie Christie and John Hurt in a segment from Shekar Kapur (Elizabeth) to Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan dealing with cross-cultural love in a segment from Mira Nair (The Namesake). The two that stick out in my mind would be Joshua Marston's (Maria Full of Grace) tale about an old Jewish couple reflecting on their lives (they are played by the excellent Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach) and Yvan Attal's (My Wife Is An Actress) flirtatious encounters between Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn. I realize I've showcased a lot of the vignettes but I'm hoping that will get most of you to check this out (the film also has one of the last works from the late great Anthony Minghella as well as the directorial debut of Natalie Portman) but once again, I've only mentioned about half of the shorts. The other half ranges anywhere from dull and boring to downright awkward. Either way, I hope more movies come out in this series so that I can keep deciding for myself on which kind of love I find the most interesting to have captured on film. RATING: OKAY

Amelia- Mira Nair's Earhart biopic is simply just too old school. The most modern element of the whole film is the fact that Amelia's story is told in flashback as she is crossing over the ocean on her doomed flight. Even if those moments are very dramatic, we all know how this story is going to end and the film doesn't do anything to even try to remotely lead into the suspense of Earhart's final moments. The musical score is overly dramatic and the "landscape-porn" cinematography doesn't serve any purpose since there is no meaningful story attached to those images. Swank also plays the part in a borderline ultra-feminist manner. Yes women were looked down upon a lot back then but that doesn't mean that trying to supplant those ideals into a film in today's "politically correct" setting just doesn't hold that much weight with an audience. The supporting players are tolerable but the film is just too much of an ode to styles and stories that we've witnessed before. RATING: BAD

The Vampire's Assistant- Here we have a film that is more childish then those first Harry Potter films but I'd assume this adaptation of Cirque Du Freak is even worse-off because of the fact that this is a childish film with a very mature group of characters. Yet the story barely distinguishes between the different motives of the different characters and why so-and-so belongs to a certain faction over another one (like what is the difference between John C. Reilly being a vampire and Ray Stevenson being a vampaneze). The performance from Chris Massoglia as Darren is too generic and overly corny. The film is littered with subplots that go nowhere and actors such as Willem Dafoe and Ken Watanabe just appear for seconds to be forgotten in a few moments. RATING: BAD

Saw VI- Very preachy, very long, and all it does is attempt to add another layer to a story that ran out of drama five films ago. It is full or horror and gore but it has no point to it at all. Since I've subjected myself to each film of the series so far, I feel as if each installment is worse than the next and I'd frankly like it all to stop. Didn't this fad of constant horror sequels die in the eighties? RATING: BAD

Rest of October and all of November to follow soon...

UPDATES- September

College has been very crazy this semester so I stopped reviewing movies for a while. However, I've still been going out to see (as well as downloading) as many movies as I can afford. Since it is approaching the end of the year, I'll probably do a list of my favorites in a variety of categories for this year and perhaps even the decade. But for now, here is a quick run-down of all the movies I've seen since I last wrote a review. October and November will soon follow. I'll stick with a simple "good," "okay," and "bad" rating system.

The Informant- Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a man who informs on the price fixing scheme at his corn production company to the FBI. Damon pulls off this really screwball version of what is essentially Russell Crowe's character in Michael Mann's The Insider. However the humor that is advertised in the previews really doesn't reflect Steven Soderbergh's intent with this movie (which he directs with his usual distinct and yet always evolving visual style). This movie is more in line with the type of humor we saw last year in Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's Burn After Reading Surprisingly enjoyable for a movie thats about corn, a character's inner ramblings, and how Scott Bakula and Joel McHale somehow make convincing FBI agents. RATING: GOOD

The Surrogates- A semi-tolerable thriller about a world where people relax in the comfort of their homes and send out their physically-identical, self-controlled robots (known as Surrogates) to go to work. Bruce Willis stars as an FBI agent who is investigating the murder of a Surrogate which led to the death of its operator. The film has some good philosophical arguments present but the story often leaves those behind in the name of big-budget action sequences. Also, the joy of seeing Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames together again since Pulp Fiction quickly turns into a gimmick. Lately, the rule of thumb with Bruce Willis seems to be that any movie where he has hair in it, will most likely be bad. When he's bald, it's usually just okay. RATING: BAD

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men- Based on the short story by David Foster Wallace and written-directed by actor John Krasinski (of The Office fame), the film deals with a variety of relationships between unrelated characters in which a young woman (Julianne Nicholson) tries to learn about the male mind for her graduate studies by talking to the men in the respective relationships. As perceptive as the film might seem, it basically tells us that confessions can expose the truth but it seems that Krasinski and co. are unhappy with the reality that sometimes the truth is that we all have human needs that might border at times on the side of selfishness. A lot of the ho-hum plot is made up for by having a wide array of talented actors in the ensemble (Ben Shenkman, Timothy Hutton, Chris Messina, Will Arnett, Will Forte, and Christopher Meloni to name but a few). RATING: OKAY

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Taking Woodstock

The only other film about Woodstock that I've seen was Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock documentary from 1970 (one year after the 1969 concert). Wadleigh captured the large scale that was necessary to convey the grand feelings that were circulating among the attendants during that very summer in the Catskills. Taking Woodstock's director Ang Lee takes a different approach by doing a more back-door examination of how the festival started and the movie is more about organizer Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin in his first dramatic role) than it is about the festival. Unfortunately, it seems that one must use a large canvas if they really want to delve into the themes that Woodstock now represents in popular culture. The characters need to seem as grand as the events but instead Lee and screenwriter James Schamas decide to place the audience as a fly-on-the-wall and let moments (the concert itself) and flow by and the emotion (present in the characters) remain thinly veiled.

There is a huge ensemble of actors present in the film, but most of them feel like the equivalent of cameos. That is not to say that the variety of cast members are only limited to a few appearances, it is just that they come-and-go and we really only stay with the emotions that Elliot Tiber is experiencing. Imagine if Robert Altman (or even Paul Thomas Anderson) had handled a Woodstock movie? Altman was the master of these massive character studies and introduced his own narrative flow through the interconnectedness of the characters themselves (see MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, Pret-A-Porter, and Gosford Park to know more about what I'm speaking of). I think Ang Lee could've pulled it off and I'm almost disappointed that he didn't take this opportunity to do something grand (just as a reminder, Ang Lee is a massively talented and I sometimes feel widely underrated director whose filmography includes The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust Caution). By just sticking with Tiber, we often miss out on the implied events that we hear about going around in the background. Perhaps if Tiber was placed alongside those events (and there a few very well shot and choreographed moments involving large crowds) maybe we would've came to a greater understanding about both Elliot and the themes from the festival itself.

Tiber is played by Martin as a shy boy who is still struggling with his sexuality. He often has to put up with his cranky parents (his mother is played by Imelda Stauton in a wildly enjoyable and different role compared to the ones I often see her in) but he is politically active enough that he pushes the idea of having a concert in the town of Bethel to the entire town hall. This leads to some interesting scenes between Tiber and Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) who owns a nearby farm that Tiber wants to try to use as a part of the festival grounds. Perhaps it is because Levy and Martin are both comedians that of all the supporting characters, Yasgur appears to have the most interesting chemistry with Tiber. Yet it appears that Lee would rather have us take notice of Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the main Woodstock organizer. I actually found Groff to be annoying in his portrayal of Lang. Perhaps I was just uncomfortable at the sight of a bare chested hippie but Groff gives Lang this unwarranted and nearly overdone enthusiasm about practically everything. He gives a "wow" or "gosh" to just about every situation that arises while planning the concert.

The other character that I think people will find the most interesting and engaging would be Vilma (Liev Schreiber). Yet it is not because of Vilma's interactions with Elliot (as is the case with Yasgur) but instead Vilma just stands out thanks to Schreiber's convincing portrayal. The character is a former marine turned transvestite that is humorously hired for security. This leads to a few entertaining situations but there is one moment that I'd rather let viewers discover that speaks to his/her character in a very unique way. Even though the interaction between the Elliot and Vilma is not the most interesting, Vilma has a very important impact on how Tiber lives his life. Towards the end of the film, Tiber gives into his feelings and defies his parents while completely stepping out of the closet so that he can be at peace with himself. Yes, this goes along with the theme of peace that Woodstock brought about but I feel Lee still doesn't fully grasp the metaphor.

Like I said before, Lee is just not grand enough in his depiction of Woodstock. Although there are several other good performances (forgot to mention Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Emile Hirsch, and Paul Dano), the film is primarily a biopic about Elliot Tiber and his own personal struggle that would've been enhanced if Lee went the path of Wadleigh and actually used the concert itself as a perspective.


Whiteout was originally a graphic novel created by writer Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber for Oni Press. The film version directed by Dominic Sena (Gone In Sixty Seconds, Swordfish) adheres surprisingly very close to the plot of the comic book. There are a few changes in story and character, but they are all frankly expected and necessary for adapting the work from one medium to another. Yet there was something about how Rucka built up the suspense on each page and how Lieber picked a specific image frozen in time to showcase (because after all, a comic book is simply the textual aspect of a novel and the aesthetic aspect of a film). Whiteout is much more special because of the advantages of the comic book medium that Rucka chose to use. On the other hand, as a film, Whiteout is something that is conventional and nothing all that special. Under the influence of other filmmakers, perhaps something interesting could be achieved but instead we are treated with a murder tale that is highly convenient. 

The whole film is practically the pilot episode for a procedural drama that one would find on CBS. Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is a U.S. marshal working as the supervisory agent at a science research base in Antarctica. Her job there has been routine until a graphic murder is committed. We are treated with flashbacks and slow motion, the kind that we see Gil Grissom or Horatio Caine walk around to on the CSI shows. The villain is apparently made all the more scary because he walks around with a pick-axe (and Stetko doesn't feel like shooting him I guess). The original story when published as a monthly felt reasonable yet here I can't help but feel that some of the factoids about Antarctica are incorrect. I'm pretty sure that visibility would be significantly less (as Tom Skerritt's character points out, but I guess he was just speaking to pass time) and I'm also sure that Kate Beckinsale's lips would be chapped from the snow. In fact, the beauty of Kate Beckinsale is one of the few reasons to see this film, past that it is truly a predictable experience and a huge disappointment for those who've come to see Stetko as one of the most formidable and independent female characters in comic books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Joel (Jason Bateman) is one of the more desperate characters that I've seen in film recently. He owns a flavor extract plant which he operates from his cozy office even though he often has to step out to deal with a variety of matters. He is clearly more reactive than proactive, but a wild set of problems lead Joel to having to change his ways and redeem himself in his own eyes. Mike Judge perfected the "guy-who-is-a-jerk thinks his job is the problem but it turns out the guy-who-is-a-jerk is the problem" formula with Office Space, and this time he tries the same thing but by switching white collar workers with blue collar workers. This leads to a series of one-dimensional characters and typical set-ups with the characters all at least sharing one common trait, that they are idiots (reminiscent of Judge's film Idiocracy). 

Joel's partner at the plant (played by J.K. Simmons) can't be bothered to learn anyone's name, Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) loses a testicle in a freak accident, Mary (Beth Grant) is a racist who berates the plant's spanish-speaking employees, and Rory (T.J. Miller) only really uses the workers at the plant to gather an audience for his band's gigs. On the home front, Joel is married to Suzie (Kristen Wiig) who is no longer into having sex with her husband and there is also his annoying neighbor (David Koechner) who seems to be under the impression that he and Joel are friends. Matters become complicated for Joel when a con-artist named Cindy (Mila Kunis) uses Step's testicle incident as an excuse for him to sue the company as means for getting money.

The characters sound like they'd make a great ensemble cast for a TV show similar to The Office, but as interesting as these characters might seem, they are really too typical and if anything they are borderline stereotypes. The movie clearly aims to be funny but even with the good acting, the story never gets too uniquely dramatic or comedic for any of the actors to really flesh out their characters more. There are two exceptions, Clifton Collins Jr. continues to establish himself as a character actor while Ben Affleck turns in the most humorous performance of the film as Joel's drug-loving friend, Dean (this leads to a scene that may include the longest bong hit every captured on film). On the down side, David Koechner and Gene Simmons (as Step's lawyer) both phone in their performances but I suppose the intent of having those characters in the story is to annoy Joel (and they really end up annoying the audience). 

Stuck somewhere in the middle is Mila Kunis (who when I last saw her, was playing a very engaging character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Kunis's character is a mischievous girl who uses her sexuality to get what she wants but the conclusion for her character (which mirrors Joel's redemption) seems to come out of nowhere unless she somehow realized how wrong her ways were while being off-screen.

Overall, the film just suffers greatly from a general lack of focus. I was still happy to see Bateman in a lead role as it reminded me of his Arrested Development days. The film is just so unconvincing that all of the effort these enjoyable actors possess, just goes to waste.

Monday, September 7, 2009


The premise of Gamer is that several years into the future, incarcerated criminals on death row are given a 'get-out-of-jail-free-card' if they participate in thirty sessions of a real-time combat scenario. During these sessions, they are controlled by a video-game player who is relaxing in the comfort of their own homes as if you are playing Call of Duty with real people. If these hardened killers survive those thirty sessions, they can be allowed to walk free. However, it is pretty rare that a felon survives long enough, but Kable a.k.a John Tillman (Gerard Butler) is close to being the first inmate to ever be set free. Along with his player, a young boy named Simon (Logan Lerman), Kable is very close to winning but he becomes aware of a conspiracy involving the technology in the game which will be employed by the game's creator, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), to... well, pretty much just take over the world and have everyone under his control.

Gamer is a high concept film and yet the directing duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Pathology) once again decide to simply fool around with the premise without achieving any emotional connection between the characters and the audience. That is perhaps why I can't fault the acting for being so bad (and this film has a very interesting ensemble cast that also includes Aaron Yoo, Alison Lohman, Terry Crews, Ludacris, Kyra Sedgwick, John Leguizamo, Keith David, and Amber Valletta) since after all, the material is just so shallow that there truly is nothing for the actors to work with. Many topics involving video games and their cultural and technological impact are touched on in a way that might make some take notice of those topics, but the film does very little to come to any conclusion about the methodology or psychology of video-gaming. There are moments where I'm almost sure that the film wants to criticize the constant violence that takes place in video game content and how it makes human beings less adept with social skills (we see this with the real-world game called Society) and yet the film doesn't go anywhere with the talking points it showcases because after all, the film is at the end of the day a depiction of a violent action-packed blood-sport.

The film is essentially if Paul W.S. Anderson or Michael Bay had made Tron only I think Neveldine/Taylor aren't even as skilled with how they present their subject matter as their fellow action directors (and I mean that as an insult to the likes of Anderson and Bay). The cinematography of the film is meant to act like a video-game with static and fast-cutting and zooming in-and-out several times during a single shot. Those with a weak-stomach may find this headache inducing and if you couple the look of the film with the nonsensical subject matter, you are left with a very poor criticism of the social niche that video-games have introduced to society.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Halloween II

It has been well established that John Carpenter's Halloween was not what today's movie-goers would consider a typical slasher film. Although Halloween inspired many of those horrible Friday the 13th type films that horror fans like these days, at its time, Halloween was considered a very smart thriller with a highly suspenseful build-up that included memorable characters. In 2007, director Rob Zombie attempted a remake of the film, which didn't measure up to not only the original, but it wasn't even an enjoyable film. I still refuse to write Zombie off as a director even if House of 1000 Corpses and Halloween were poorly conceived gore-fests. I actually really enjoyed The Devil's Rejects. Yes it was bloody, disgusting, and perhaps certain moments were done in poor taste, but Zombie had such a handle on his characters. I know I'm in the silent minority (the only other mainstream "critic" who I've seen agree with me on Rejects would be Stephen King) but those Firefly clan characters had a very interesting arc that all made sense in the messed up world that Zombie created. When I heard that for a sequel to his Halloween film, Zombie would create his own original story-line and not follow the sequels to Carpenter's outing, I became enthused by the prospect. However, once again, Zombie not only failed but he further disappointed me because of the potential that actually exists with this film.

Halloween II picks up immediately after the first Zombie film, with Michael Myers (Tyler Mane), who was shot in the face, being loaded into an ambulance. Of course the ambulance crashes and Michael lives. Oh yeah, remember the girl Annie (Danielle Harris) who was left for dead? She is alive. Oh and Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) had his head squished/imploded and he somehow lived as well. So with those extremely unreasonable returns aside, the film once again focuses on Michael readying to go after his sister while Laurie (Scout-Taylor Compton) worries about the return of her brother. Both characters are experiencing these dreams that often revolve around their birth mother (Sheri-Moon Zombie) and a horse (?). Michael dreams about reuniting with his surviving family while Laurie slowly begins to realize her connection to Michael. All the while, the character of Loomis does an about-face and writes an exploitive book on Myers, making himself come off as a total sleaze-ball (which is hard to believe since he was a moral character in the first film, but apparently surviving a killing spree makes you a dirtbag).

Zombie demonstrates his understanding of using "evil" as a character as so many other horror filmmakers have done. Craven and Carpenter understood that good didn't always exist in everyone and would use this to add to the themes of their films. Zombie also seems to notice and understand the deep twisted connections between the members of the Myers family (I could only imagine if a truly skilled, high-class filmmaker got a hold of these characters). Yet, as Myers gets ready to go after Laurie, he runs into some teens or police or whoever and he of course has to kill them for most of the film. This is where the film turns into your typical nonsensical gore-filled slasher and it's a damn shame. Like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger, Myers has a deep history that can make for some damn good characterization but that is all sacrificed for the blood and guts. Horror really only tends to work when he can care about either the predator or the prey but everyone here is so one-dimensional. Zombie films this all in a very close (almost claustrophobic) manner with his camera peeking around corners or through windows while his characters all lurk in conveniently placed shadows. There really isn't anything worth watching to be found in this film, at all.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Why is Inglorious Bastards misspelled as Inglourious Basterds? That may be the first question I'd like to pose to Quentin Tarantino if I ever meet him. Is it because of the slight difference in pronunciation, or is just another idiosyncrasy of the highly prolific writer/director? Not that it matters, but as with all auteurs, I'd like to see how it fits with Tarantino's usual modus operandi. 

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's fifth solo film project and just like his other movies, Basterds is a deconstruction of a genre. Reservoir Dogs was a heist movie without the heist, Pulp Fiction was a gangster movie where we just followed the gangsters around all day, and Jackie Brown (a blaxploitation movie) and Kill Bill (a two-part kung-fu movie) came across as modern "badass" interpretations of their respective genres. Inglourious Basterds is a war movie... without much war. Instead we are treated to the players and their quirks but we don't really see the German-killing sprees that the misleading ad campaign would lead one to expect. Harvey Weinstein does need his money, but then again, one never knows what to expect from Mr. Tarantino.

The film takes place primarily in Nazi-occupied France and tells of two separate tales that converge towards the end of the story. The first story is about the Basterds, a special-ops team of Nazi hunting Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt). Aldo is a fast-talking, thick-accented, mountain-man from Tennessee with a smooth mustache and rope burns around his neck (they are never explained). Interesting personalities under his command include the loud, obnoxious, baseball-bat swinging Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the psychopathic, yet surprisingly calm, intolerant Nazi traitor Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schwieger). Other allies include the suave British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and the German film star turned spy Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

The second story is about a French Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent, who is often photographed in a never-ending sexual manner), who witnessed her family killed by Nazi General Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa (Christoph Waltz). She then goes to ground as the patron owner of a French theater in Paris. She catches the eye of Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a war hero who is the star of a new propaganda film called The Nation's Pride (a nod to the German female filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's work such as Triumph of the Will). Zoller proposes to Shosanna that she use her venue to host the premiere of the propaganda film and allow the attendance of the entire Nazi high command. Both Shosanna and the Basterds plan to burn the theater to the ground because if Hitler and his commanders die, the war will end early (or at least earlier in Tarantino's timeline of WWII).

Like most Tarantino films, the cast is perfect. Each character gives these iconographic performances that have only one downside, which is that they sometimes lean toward the stereotypical and therefore cartoonish side. And yet my simple defense for that is... "this is Tarantino." He creates these fantasies (in this case a war fantasy) where everything amounts to the audience's enjoyment of off-kilter entertainment. I always have to view Tarantino's films twice because of how different and odd he makes these little universes that he places his characters in. We have both a film that is serious at times when it deals with the atrocities of history, but then the film will showcase the Basterds playing their war games (all the while laughing hysterically at their own atrocities against the Nazi infantry). There is a level of indulgence here, and I could understand why someone might view certain elements of these kind of films as disrespectful or immature, but once again, "this is Tarantino." 

In my mind, the only other modern prolific director that can match Tarantino's status under Truffuat's "Auteur Theory" would be David Lynch and he tends to stay a lot further out of the spotlight than Quentin. And just as a reminder, audiences and film critics alike have come to know Tarantino as a man who never delivers what'd you expect, realistic conversational (and character building) dialogue, and interlocking stories all set to a retro soundtrack.

Enjoying Basterds is not so much a question of whether one "gets it" or not but whether one is delighted or entertained by Tarantino's bold style of filmmaking. The one thing that I hope audiences do walk away with is the genius of Christoph Waltz's performance as Hans Landa (he took home the Best Actor award at Cannes for the portrayal). The character has such a magnetic entrance that I've already read cinephiles comparing it to Orson Welles in The Third Man. He is also one of the few characters that isn't stereotyped to the point that one questions the character's purpose. I could go on, but it is something to experience for oneself and I should just leave everyone with the thought of how deep and thematic Waltz's take on Landa is in the context of the film at large. Finally, some extra quirks that Tarantino adds to this film (and I'm only scratching the surface of this deconstruction) would be the constant references to a majority of other films such as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, John Ford's The Searchers, and especially Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen.

The first big attraction of Inglourious Basterds would be that Tarantino's WWII was partly won because of the power of film. As something of a film-nut, I do kind of get excited about the prospect of film having that large of an impact on [fictitious] history. The second big attraction-... the 'Natsi' killing, of course. Even if it doesn't happen as often as an action fan such as myself would like.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Julie and Julia

After having told my friends that I sat down to watch this movie on my computer, based on their reactions, I feel the need to perhaps explain and/or defend myself for viewing this movie. I'm very much a writer/director kind of person, as in whoever wrote or directed the film will tend to take precedence in my decision to see the movie. In this case both the writer and director of Julie and Julia is Nora Ephron. She is responsible for films that range from the dramatic (Silkwood) to the comedic (When Harry Met Sally) and is capable of telling very appealing stories about adults that audiences connect with the more they grow older. The second factor would be the concept. I heard that Meryl Streep would be doing a Julia Child biopic with Ephron and that it would be told parallel to the story of a modern-day woman who attempted to also cook Child's recipes. I had no idea if it would be a drama or a comedy but I was still into that initial outline. The third aspect would be the actors/actresses involved. Now I consider Meryl Streep to be some sort of alien because that is the only way to explain this almost other-worldly effect she has had on cinema. I predict that years from now there will be film analysts/historians and thespians that study her large body of work like it's some sort of holy grail (The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, A Cry In The Dark, The River Wild, Adaptation, The Hours, Lions For Lambs, Doubt, etc.). The fourth and last factor would be how the film was advertised. Unfortunately Julie and Julia seemed slightly more feminine than I initially gave it credit but after several shining reviews from respectable critics came in, I decided to sit down and see what I thought of the film. One can rarely ever go by advertising, take Inglorious Bastards (which looks mainstream but is supposed to be more art-house) and Where The Wild Things Are (which initially looked childish but I'd be a moron to doubt Spike Jonze's sensibilities) as recent examples of films with misdirecting advertising campaigns. Apologies for the brief aside, but I just wanted to clear that up.

Now when I was young, my grandmother always used to watch the cooking shows that were either on PBS or Food Network. I remember my mom taking me to my grandmother's house before she went off to work and my grandma would always be watching this overly tall French woman on PBS. She looked like a football player as she buttered everything up and she would often squawk or coo with excitement. This was Julia Child (as mentioned above, she is portrayed by Meryl Streep in the film), the woman who wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book that consists of 524 popular recipes. From my memories of watching Child on PBS, Meryl Streep once again disappears into her role as a high-society sounding woman that really just wants to have fun. Streep captures that good-hearted, happy-go-lucky nature of Julia so well that by the end of the film, one realizes Child looked at her cookbook-writing as a way to share her knowledge (and to feed) the world. Julia Child, the character, has a full and complete character arc.

The same cannot be said for Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Julie is a cubicle worker who becomes so bored with her doll-drum life that she decides to start a blog that will follow her escapades of trying to complete Julia Child's 524 recipes in 365 days. Now this may be the first major film to be nearly centered on the experiencing of blogging and yet the premise of Julie waking up at night to check her replies... is not that convincing. Instead, I'd much rather see her remain obsessive about her quest to learn more about cooking. This is the second time Adams has played an apprentice of sorts to Streep (the first being 2008's Doubt) so Adams does a great job of being the protege but Julia's story is so much more exciting because we witness her discovery of cooking while Julie just attempts to copy what her "predecessor" accomplished. Julie is also highly single-minded about her quest, leading the character to be classified with the title of a "bitchy" person when she is sidelined, but Julie still has some similarities with Julia.

Both women are ambitious and iron-willed with somewhat strong husbands. Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) is an OSS officer who loves his wife and supports her while Eric Powell (Chris Messina) puts up with Julie's quest but he eventually walks out on her after he feels that her project is costing them their marriage (on a side note, Jane Lynch makes a great appearance as Julia's sister). The problem with the male characters is that they are completely regulated to supporting roles as opposed to co-headlining each segment. Not that Streep and Adams can't carry the film, but a male presence would've been interesting to experiment with. Nora Ephron normally work well with romance, the love is just no longer between the "husband and wife" but the love is instead translated toward the "cook and her food." And that is where I have to take note of Ephron's skill as a director, the camera is always showcasing the food making it as much of a character as the cooks themselves. The only other movie that somehow worked food into a meaningful part of the story would be Stanley Tucci's Big Night (1996). The film passes by on a slideshow or a montage several times as we go between the food and the book, the kitchen and work, and Julie and Julia. I for one could just live on rice.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

G.I. Joe

Well... what was I expecting? As if the corny subtitle wasn't a hint, this movie has about the intellectual depth of a flat surface (and yet it's sadly still better than Transformers 2). Based on the Hasbro toy-line, G.I. Joe is an international special peace-keeping task force led by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid). When a young U.S. soldier known as Duke (Channing Tatum) gets caught up in a scheme involving a weapons designer named Cullen (Christopher Eccleston) who plans to blow up the world using some missiles that can melt stuff, we get... a lot of special effects. The special effects aren't artful nor do they look particularly real and aren't even worth a 'wow, that's cool.' The acting is also surprisingly bad. I was at least hoping for their to be a redeeming quality in the ensemble cast (the talented names include Channing Tatum, Dennis Quaid, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Said Taghmaoui, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sienna Miller, Arnold Vosloo, and Jonathan Pryce while the not so talented list of names includes... Marlon Wayans). Even some of the worst movies nowadays have at least one admirable performance but nothing can be found here. What else is wrong with the movie? It's too long for something so simple, the humor is corny, and it comes off like the producers had a military fetish but decided to look at war as escapist with no realm of seriousness to be found. Nothing is developed with the whole movie coming across as a bunch of sound. The characters are throwaways, I mean Cullen hates the world because his Scottish ancestors were embarrassed years ago and the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) sits around and waits to get briefed by the Joes... a sign that he "must" be doing his job correctly. At least the girls (Rachel Nichols as Scarlett and Sienna Miller as the Baroness) are sexy giving this film one more extra-set-of-on-screen-cleavage than Transformers 2.

Oh. There's also a ninja in the movie.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People

Thanks to folk like Perez Hilton and even websites like Twitter, even celebrities can be stereotyped nowadays. You watch a Youtube clip of an interview with the latest "it" person and you'll sometimes see how conceited they can be. Lately I've seen this with comedians (mostly ones not even worthy of being called B-listers) where they can be so damn opinionated and full of themselves that they come across like the biggest dicks ever. One could surmise that that if celebrities/comedians behave like dicks most of the time then they have no friends, will be somewhat happy on the outside, and be nothing but bitter and cold on the inside. Whether it is because of this stereotype or just the general sense that someone so forward with the public must be darker than we think, we've come to expect a certain complexity from characters like this when they are put on film (see Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy or Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse's Lenny or Roy Scheider in Fosse's semi-autobiographical All That Jazz). Writer/director Judd Apatow tries to introduce us to one of these types of characters through George Simmons (Adam Sandler) in his third directorial effort- Funny People.

The story follows comedy movie-star Simmons as he learns that he is about to die from an incurable disease so in his last months on Earth he decides to return to doing stand-up (something that we see that he did when he was younger and that brought him much joy). At the same time, wannabe comedian Ira Wright (a newly trimmed down Seth Rogen) is working hard at... just trying to succeed in general. He lives with a superior joke-writer (Jonah Hill) and a crappy sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman), pines after a female fellow comedian (Aubrey Plaza), and is even ignored by his co-workers (RZA, yes as in the Wu-Tang Clan badass). George sees Ira perform and then asks for Ira to come write jokes for him because he either sees some promise in the guy or he just wants to keep him around as a personal assistant who he can tells his secrets to while remaining emotionally unattached (it really isn't clear at first). When George suddenly finds out that there is a possible chance to beat the disease, he drives to San Francisco to do something he always wanted to do, win back his ex-fiancee (Leslie Mann) from her seemingly cheating husband (Eric Bana).

A problem I've had with several movies lately comes from a lack of character development and Funny People does suffer from that in a more unique way when compared to recent films like Public Enemies and Shrink. It's not I feel there is no character development, I just expect more. The characters don't exactly need a backstory but there seems to be a lack of explaining the motivation behind why George, and even Ira and the supporting cast, act the way they do. Is it the comedy that justifies why George acts like a jerk or is there something else about him? We get vague hints that he is used to a life of fame but like I just said, the hints are too vague to draw a supported conclusion about why we never go deeper into George's psyche. Since Apatow himself comes from the world of comedians, one would think that he would be able to work further into explaining the complex emotion but perhaps it is because his first two features dealt with pop-culture references and the anxiety faced by boys, men, or maybe both. And it's not like the film is over-indulgent or self-conscious, it just seems that Apatow was very careful with how he paced each moment and placed each line of dialogue to the point where we only see the surface of how George Simmons has responded to death. The story is set up for Simmons to learn a lesson or two about cheating death and yet he doesn't learn shit. Not that I have a problem with that personally but the story nearly dictated that Simmons would finally see the error of his ways.

Now despite my issues with the content of the story, that is not to say that the cast didn't perform well with what was available to them (and I don't mean that as an underhanded statement). The movie is after all, surprisingly fifty percent comedy and fifty percent drama (a surprise for audience members who only know about the film from its marketing campaign). For anyone who doubts Sandler's acting I'd like to remind them of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and (as much as it pains me to admit it) James L. Brooks' Spanglish. He can act. We normally see him play that childish-man hybrid that I mentioned above but he still knows how to bring an audience likability to him through his performance. If there is any doubt about Rogen, well since he was the writer behind Superbad and Pineapple Express, we know that there is a high-minded individual to be found and all he had to do was apply the same level of understanding of a character to how he performs. The rest of the supporting cast performances are all well timed and handled with the right amount of care (with kudos to Bana, Schwartzman, and Plaza to playing their roles to a tee).

Once again, I don't mean to sound like I disliked Funny People, but I just expected more. Apatow is capable of mastering the same balance of characterization and laughs as James L. Brooks was (and I truly mean that as the highest of all possible compliments I can think of at the moment). So like I said, it is not a completely failed effort thanks to those performances and the humor (and Saving Private Ryan's cinematographer Janusz Kasminski giving everything a well deserved flair) but perhaps with a second viewing I'll be able to stop looking to put this movie on a pedestal and be able to appreciate some form of complexity that Apatow has laced into the plot.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Looking at the filmography of Kevin Spacey, one can find a great range of roles where Spacey has demonstrated his mastery of acting. Some say he has a unique physicality or perhaps it is that excited and yet sometimes dreary voice that catchs our attention. Spacey himself is after all, a master of impersonations. Those great roles all have something in common that not even the most intelligent of critics can pinpoint what it is that makes a character just feel as if he/she should be played by Kevin Spacey. The other roles, the ones from the film that bombed, still features the Kevin Spacey we all know and enjoy, and yet usually the script or the direction or the lack of talented co-stars bring the film down with Spacey being the only memorable part of the whole experience.

Shrink unfortunately falls into the category of a poor Spacey film and it also goes along with the recent run of independent films that just seem to want to depress the audience while still being quirky (as if the filmmakers want to create the next Little Miss Sunshine or Juno). Spacey plays Henry Cater, who is a therapist that works in Hollywood. Carter is highly cynical and bitter while still maintaining the smarts to keep his 'Shrink-to-the-stars' business booming. Past this initial outline of the character, there is hardly any development in his characterization much like the other characters in the film. Carter begins to smoke a massive amount of pot and soon his patients begin to provide an intervention for him. Robin Williams plays a sex addict for a few scenes (and no, it is sadly a failed dramatic role for Williams) and Saffron Burrows plays an actress named Kate with marital problems and throw in a few more different characters with your typical therapy problems and all of the players in this movie just sit around and talk while their therapy (and character) seems to go nowhere. The film almost feels like a vaudeville, with different acts coming on and then going away with director Jonas Pate and screenwriter Thomas Moffet having decided to not make these characters as least complex as possible.

Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) plays Jemma, a girl who is mourning the death of her mother, and she is the only character that has any promise. Once again, not much development in the character herself but Palmer's sincerity in her performance allows for Spacey to also deliver his deepest scenes of the film and for a bit you almost want the two of them to just be the sole focus of the story. But Shrink remains as a bunch of ideas and outlines with no emotion (too much plot and too little characterization). It's a shame that Jonas Pate and co. aren't talented enough to do something unique with the rhythm of therapy, but what hasn't been done on the topic? Films or TV shows such as The Sopranos, In Treatment, Ordinary People, and Hurlyburly have already dealt with the topic of the power-play that goes on behind closed doors in your shrink's office while The Player has already demonstrated the ins and outs of managing Hollywood's elite. It would take a filmmaker who is very insightful and a film that isn't gloomy like this one, to be able to deliver a newfound experience in therapy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens just moments after Order of the Phoenix where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) participated in a battle against the dark lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is leading him out of the Ministry of Magic as photographers snap a few shots at the badly beaten boy who is coming to realize his destiny in this magical world's war of epic proportions. I suppose by doing this, the Potter series reminds us of its interconnectedness which has always been a struggle for the critics and even some fans.

There have been several different directors on the series. Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) handled the first two installments which although initially liked by audiences, have been looked back upon as childish when compared to the potential they had to be more mature, even with characters that were so young. Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) finally took a step in the right direction with The Prisoner of Azkaban and almost set up a manifesto of how to handle the series with a more serious mood. Mike Newell (Four Weddings and Funeral) continued his work with the fourth film, and now David Yates (Sex Traffic, The Girl In The Cafe) has become the official series director having directed the fifth and sixth and eventually the seventh and eighth Potter adventures (Deathly Hallows will be split into two films). And just as a note, Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) is responsible for the writing for the films (except the fifth) which makes me wonder if he himself also took a while to get the hang of things.

So despite the variety of styles, there has been this more dark tone in the last several installments of the series. Yates/Kloves seem to finally understand the way to include J.K. Rowling's teenage angst, fantasy-driven wonder, light humor, and growing epic drama without having one element fully overshadow the others. The series has finally taken the full 360 degree turn from where it started back in 2001 in the early days of Harry's stay at Hogwarts. Perhaps it was because Columbus and co. did not know where Rowling was going to take the series, which is a shame because the story-line of the series at large would really benefit from a distinct direction both in style and tone. If all of the films had been handled in the same manner, perhaps The Half-Blood Prince would feel more penultimate. 

I mean, we've been with these characters for six films in over eight years, and sometimes I still feel like the relationships between everyone has been rushed because before Yates these films could've been separate entities (and I really think Cuaron and Newell did good jobs with what Columbus left them with). Maybe I'm too quick to blame the director but it is there job to ensure the quality of the project. Rowling handled The Half-Blood Prince as if it was the climax of the Potter series. She was able to ensure how we felt about these characters because her words of description were so strong when it came to explaining how Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermoine (Emily Watson) felt. Instead the plot of the film version of Half-Blood Prince exists only to work towards those final two installments (which come out in 2010 and 2011 respectively).

I suppose because the series should be looked at as a whole, the feelings I have are more overarching but now to look at Half-Blood Prince on it's own, it's actually the pinnacle of dramatic development in the series. Instead of a climax that takes place in the shocking betrayal that occurs in the final minutes, the true climax lies with the evolution of these characters. Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have grown into their roles so well that they are the embodiment of their characters in the minds of fans. I love how when the credits role, I'm able to recognize each name because the Potters series has managed to gather some of the greatest modern British character actors. Alan Rickman's Snape is always a sight to be seen and Michael Gambon's Albus Dumbledore could give Ian McKellen's Gandalf a run for his money (in fact the Harry/Dumbledore relationship has much similarity to the Frodo/Gandalf relationship in that they both go from student/mentor to a friendship of equality). 

However, Jim Broadbent steals the show with one of his most lively performances since 1999's Topsy-Turvey. There is a scene in Hagrid's hut where Slughorn fondly remembers Harry's mother and the way Radcliffe handles Harry at that moment leads to one of the most endearing moment's of the entire series. A final commendation should go to the art design and the cinematography, two elements that have always been handled well by the Potter crew.

When the series comes to an end two years from now, I think I'll be able to make more adequate and accurate statements about the individual films and the series as a whole, but for now, I'll sit back and just think about how the emotion that flows from Rowling and her memorable creations.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


If one finds this movie offensive, I feel that they simply don't 'get it.' I'm not saying that one can't walk away from this and be put off, but if they do, I feel they are missing a greater message. Baron Cohen's characters all expose a fear. Ali G. preyed on the fear of the rising urban or ghetto culture in our suburbs, Borat taught America a lesson about foreigners, and Bruno goes after the homophobia that some people don't even realize they harbor. The character of Bruno places his sexuality in our faces. There are moments that are either so utterly hilarious (such as the test screening for his new talk show) or so incredibly shocking (the crowd's reaction to the make-out session in the wrestling cage) that the movie leaves nothing off limits. Like Borat, Bruno is incredibly taboo and thanks to Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, this has the feelings of a legitimate mockumentary. 

The premise of Bruno is that Baron Cohen's Austrian fashion expert decides to go to Los Angeles to become a famous celebrity, but he soon realizes that the only way to do so would be to become a straight man. All sorts of topics are then touched on such as the adopting of children by Hollywood stars to a more subversive "gays in the military" scenario. Bruno works at making people uncomfortable (from Ron Paul to a group of hunters). Even though the character is a parody of stereotypical gay culture (and let us not forget the number of straight actors who convincingly pull off gay roles), Baron Cohen once again shows just how uptight, isolated, and unwelcoming that people can be.

The audience is even a target. How much of the gay sex-machine toys can we take? Yet Bruno is in no way embarrassed by who he is throughout most of and by the end of the film. Certain jokes may be in questionable taste but the story of the faux documentary is not what incites the hate, it is the subjects that are interviewed. I refuse to ruin much more of the gags because a lot of the enjoyment comes from not knowing which crazy part of society Bruno is going to after next (will it be the parents of child stars or fortune tellers?).

The movie also exemplifies the talent of Baron Cohen. As great as everyone claimed Mike Myers was at playing multiple roles, his Austin Powers movies didn't require the kind of improvisation that Baron Cohen takes on. There are no writers for some scenes and it is easy to tell what is staged and what isn't. It speaks to Baron Cohen as a performer that both the staged and the reality are both equally hilarious.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Public Enemies

I'll watch pretty much anything by Michael Mann, but I tend to enjoy the pairing of actors that he chooses as his leads for his crime sagas. The two leads may not always meet up in the film, but Mann is sure to treat them both with the same level of depth (which is either a lot or a little, but always in reason). We had Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in The Insider, Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Collateral, Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in Miami Vice, and now we have Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in Public Enemies. Public Enemies is (like Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice) not as heavy on the action as its summer brethren but like a typical Mann film, there are little sparks of violence that eventually explodes into a large scale battle like the street shootout of Heat, the club slaughter in Collateral, and the underrated dock assault in Miami Vice. I suppose it is the sign of a true auteur of visually stunning films that one can make similar crime sagas that feel completely different. 

In Public Enemies, the shootout takes place in the woods at night and it is the second time where Johnny Depp's bank robbing John Dillinger meets Christian Bale's FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. Depp plays Dillinger like a hardened criminal, he enjoys what he does and it is motivated out of his hate for the United States government. While Bale plays Purvis like a man of steel, but he is so damn obsessed with finding Dillinger that his stone demeanor does not take away from the emotion that one knows is boiling inside of him as seen when a fellow agent of his dies. In fact, the other main characters also battle with obsession. John and Billie (Marion Cotilliard in an amazing english portrayal for a French-speaking actress, she is probably the deepest character depicted) are obsessed with each other while J. Edgar Hoover (an energetic Billy Crudup) is obsessed with proving his worth as the director of the FBI and winning the first war against organized crime. Dillinger's crew on the other hand, are all obsessed with thrills and money and like most Mann films, I wish we could spend more time with the supporting characters, but that is a sacrifice that has to be made when you have a film dealing with multiple leads. 

Mann shot this with specialized high-definition cameras and his use of wide angles has both its pros and cons. Sometimes we never feel too close to the character when we want to like during the famous death scene outside of a theater playing Manhattan Melodrama (a film that Mann showcases in a whole new light); I wanted to know what was going in Dillinger's head but the camera has me concentrating on his surroundings and not his facial expressions (unless there is an extreme close up, which thankfully does occur). At other times because of the cameras, we get to marvel at the art direction. And Mann and his cinematographer don't indulge in the sets and costumes, everything is just there to be there making sure that no shots are wasted. 

In terms of the story, Mann pushes away the myth of Dillinger and even though his celebrity is touched on, this is more about the man. Yet because of how procedural certain moments of the story feel (mostly the planning or stopping of crimes, the true character moments are between John and Billie), one begins to wish that Mann's latest crime saga would bring us further in. Character moments are sporadic, we see characters meditating on the latest events but we rarely see them take action until a few moments later. And just for discussion's sake, the best scene of the film aside from the log cabin shootout, is when Dillinger walks into the Chicago precinct just to prove to himself that he won't be arrested, pay close attention to how Depp plays his character when he talks to the cops.

Mann's films often open to okay reviews but given a few months, they are often remembered fondly. It is because we expect a cliched experience, but once we can sit back and evaluate the newfound drama that Mann can bring us (albeit through an unorthdox style when compared to those in-your-face stereotypical Oscar nominees) we appreciate just how welcoming a story without the legends of myth can be.