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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is without a doubt, the best movie of the year so far (and that means something since we are at the half-way point). Now before you think I'm just hyping this as a masterpiece and that doesn't mean anything because I'm just a lonely blogger on a little known review site, then know this- The Hurt Locker has achieved universal acclaim (not almost universal acclaim, but just 'plain-and-simple' universal acclaim). The film opened up at many festivals and was greeted with enthusiastic response from the crowds, often receiving prolonged applause when the credits rolled. The film is a definite contender to secure a nomination for Best Picture, Best Director (Kathryn Bigalow), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), and Best Actor for Jeremy Renner. This is also the first film about the Iraq War that is flawless. Vietnam and WWII both have their share of perfect films, but films about the Iraq War have been met with skepticism mainly because of the filmmaker's political agendas. The Hurt Locker is not a liberal film or a conservative film, it is quite simply about war and the men who fight it. 

War is depicted as a drug, and for Staff Sergeant William James, there is greater thrill then using a drug like war. Jeremy Renner plays James like a down-to-earth man who views Iraq as his war. James is a bomb-defusing specialist and Anthony Mackie plays his partner. The partner's job is to look out for Will while he goes to investigate the bomb scare, but more often then not, Renner's character decides to take an unorthodox approach. In one scene, James takes off his gear and says, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortably." William James is a hothead and he frightens his entire platoon (that includes David Morse, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and Brian Geraghty) to death. Yet as much as Will gets off on the thrill of battle, he still loves his family (Evangeline Lilly plays the wife) and can barely balance the idea of returning to them while somewhere else on the same planet as he is, there is a bomb to be defused and thrills to be found. In fact, in one scene, James puts his bomb gear on in his bunk while safely back at base, and he just begins to cry.

This film is vivid, brave, responsible, and action-packed. I refuse to go into any more detail at the expense of ruining one of the artfully true experiences of the year. All I ask is for you to please go see this movie as it approaches a wide release. The enjoyment and emotion to be found in this film is just as potent as the "drug" of war.

Transformers 2

To explain how I feel, I have to mention that I went into this movie with a limited set of expectations. I thought to myself, "I'm going to be watching a Michael Bay movie, so let me think of this like.... a Michael Bay movie." I already knew it was going to be bad. I knew Revenge of the Fallen would mostly be explosions with characters screaming "BITCH" and "SHIT" and "FIRE." It's a shame that when it comes to certain directors, I first rate the film as 'good' or 'bad' and if it were bad (i.e.) then I determine if it is a 'good-bad' movie or a 'bad-bad' movie. As you'll eventually see, I did the same with Public Enemies (the reason I found myself critical of the movie was because I was evaluating it as a 'good' movie but when it comes to Michael Mann, I have to then think of "how good"). If I'm not making any sense then I apologize, I did just sit through Transformers: Corny Subtitle, a film with a very loopy plot and made with horrible production values albeit the CGI.

As I speak at this very moment, the film is raking in millions at the box office because the inner child in all of us wants to escape to a land of "coolness." Consider this our generation's Godzilla, everything is just too damn "cool" that no one bothers to evaluate the movie past the gigantic eye-popping special effects that attempt to remove you from the world you know. Transformers 2 achieves this for two very long hours and because the action scenes are so audacious, it makes the more quiet moments feel that much more prolonged. Of course I'm mincing my words, because this film did not make me as angry as I expected it to. Yes the acting is horrible, the story is horrible, and there is no development with anyone or anything. As poor of an execution in filmmaking this movie is, I can't help but not care. It's great that guys like Roger Ebert and co. are calling out Mr. Bay for polluting the market, but there really isn't a response to this film of his that I wouldn't have given the others, except for maybe The Rock because that at least had Sean Connery (this film does at least have Megan Fox... but I like her for different reasons). Instead this film has an Autobot named Jetfire with an aluminum beard. Oh, and if this is an advanced robotic alien race from the stars, why do the two mentally deficient robots speak jive?

Whatever Works

In my opinion, Woody Allen has had three distinctive periods in his filmmaking career where he wrote certain kinds of stories. He started off writing zanier comedies such as Bananas and Sleeper. He then started to make romance a central part of his story and this led to a series of romantic comedies such as Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. The romance then became very depressing or serious which led to films such as Match Point (see Interiors for an earlier example). Whatever Works feels like a time-warp that goes backwards through those films. The protagonist is a man named Boris (Larry David) who fails at, well pretty much everything that has to do with life. When his marriage fails he even attempts suicide, and he messes up that just as well. While recovering from his depression, Boris (who has adopted the Woody Allen role as the "awkward jewish guy") then attempts to hit on a young rich girl (Evan Rachel Wood),who is more of a happy person (filling the Diane Keaton/Louise Lasser/Mia Farrow role of Allen's films).  The relationship moves between an awkward age gap with sexual tension to more of a friendship, so does this sound like any Woody Allen film you know?

I'd imagine that if this film came around the time of Annie Hall in 1977, it would've been a success. Boris even talks to the audience while he is complaining but this schtick has already been going on in Woody Allen films for the longest time. In short, everything old is not new again. The jokes are all recycled or too simple to bother being funny, and half the time you are wondering when Wood will drop her Southern accent or will David's character get it together and realize he is dating someone young enough to be his granddaughter. There is also nothing remotely "New York" about this movie, especially considering that this is Allen's return to the locale after four years in Europe. Overall, this is a very annoying film with a few good supporting performances (mainly from Ed Begley Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as Wood's parents), but the only other good thing about Whatever Works is that it reminds you of when Allen used to be really good at comedy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Year One

I hate it when comedies try to be "big." I'm just a fan of the more down to Earth stuff as I really wish that people would stop making stuff like You Don't Mess With The Zohan and stuff like The Love Guru and stuff like Year One. Terry Gilliam and co. were able to pull it off in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Mel Brooks did it again with History of the World Part I, but that was a time when stuff as provocative as the 40 Year Old Virgin couldn't get made so people would have to laugh at what would be deemed as the utmost ridiculous concepts for today's film industry. Year One's gags also fall way too far on the immature side of things even if a concept is amusing (like having David Cross and Paul Rudd as Cain and Abel, but apparentl in this time period, rocks don't bloodily bash your brains in). Maybe a thirteen year old will be amused but this doesn't even seem to be a satire about any part of society, instead we have a shameful attempt at humor that is only a thin notch above Dance Flick and Land of the Lost, where silliness runs wild over humorous substance. 

The comedy pairing of talented actors Jack Black and Michael Cera also falls much flatter then I expected just from the previews. Black's caveman is wild as if he drank too much caffeine while Cera is more calm and witty towards the last second of a moment once Black has shut up. The two personalities contrast so greatly that nothing they say or do together holds any prolonged interest. The supporting players are pretty interesting, especially Oliver Platt as a tribe leader and Hank Azaria as Abraham, but Harold Ramis (director of some of my least and most favorite films) throws in way too many other characters for any of them to leave a laughable lasting impression on anyone. 

I always feel bad for movies like this. There are a lot of very talented people here working out of sync and although it could be worse (on the level of a Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer film...) when I know how far concepts like these have been elevated in the past, one can't help but look upon Year One in shame. Films like these are have gone the way of previous decades but I never was a big Flintstones fan anyway.


I enjoy a brooding tone in my science-fiction films. Throw in an actor known for playing brooding characters, and you have a movie environment that I can get into. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an employee of a mining company who works on a space station that is based on Earth's moon. He is the only man up there and only gets to speak to his family every so often but at least he is accompanied by the ship's computer Gerty, (voiced by Kevin Spacey) that functions as the Hal of this trip (just take away the "evil" factor). This whole film pretty much functions as a performance piece for Rockwell, and he certainly delivers. Similar to Will Smith in I Am Legend, Rockwell is well aware that it is completely up to him to add as much emotion into his performance as possible because there aren't any other actors on board the ship with him to pick up the slack. 

However when another person shows up on the moon, and it turns out to be another Sam Bell, our Sam Bell isn't sure if he has been cloned or if he is going crazy. Similar to how Danny Boyle's Sunshine suddenly developed into the cliches of a slasher film, Moon goes from a more hardened realistic science-fiction and instead crosses into the more unreal for the reality that this film has set up for itself. Rockwell works well with the double role (and once again, it speaks to his underrated talent as an actor that he can pull off such interaction when he is the only actor on the set). However, Rockwell does go at times from a morose and saddened man to that sparkling energy that you will often find in his characters which is partly misplaced amongst the dark and sterile look of the space station. The film still has enough creativity placed in all of its aspects to hold your attention, despite boiling down to a performance piece. This film was the debut feature for director Duncan Jones and for such an audacious project, he handles it all with grace and one can't help but wonder what further heights he will launch to given more time.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Tony Scott's update of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 features what is essentially a hostage taker's worst nightmare. Ryder (John Travolta) is not like the Robert Shaw character from the original 1970's film. He will shoot the hostage if you mess with him. There is only one instance where he spares a life at the last second and it is at the expense of another, that being the career of Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) who admits to a crime to save a life. When Ryder does execute a few hostages, he doesn't pull any punches as he fires several extra rounds into their already lifeless bodies. This sense of danger keeps the film constantly on edge with Travolta playing Ryder like a loose trigger and Garber is seemingly the only man who can anchor him.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 was surprisingly entertaining, and Tony Scott both contributes and detracts from the quality of the piece as a hole. It's his eye for action and the ability to set up multiple points of view on a single instance that (while still letting us know about the characters, but part of that is thanks owed to screenwriters Brian Hedgeland and David Koepp) makes this more than just a mindless two hour thrill. Then again, Scott's visual style isn't always suited to certain moments as we get random camera swoops through the streets of city buildings and brief character interactions from what is usually two random cops (kind of like how George Lucas will just focus in on an alien in Star Wars just for the sake of seeing an alien). Despite the "get-in, get-out" style of camera work and the ruthlessness of Travolta's character, the plot of the film has been adjusted for more modern times. Ryder now has a lot more convincing motivations and Garber is much more tortured as opposed to wry Walter Matthau. Similar to the films of Michael Mann, we get a glimpse at what is really behind these characters so we can all get to know them but we are still kept at arm's length as not to be too attached to anyone in particular. 

The supporting cast is also second to none. John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, and Michael Rispoli all work together to give us this authentic feeling of a day of terror in New York City. Finally, the film is so quick-thinking and chaotic that you do feel the energy from it all rattling around in you, if you are relaxed enough. Sit back and enjoy the violence, just don't take it all too seriously, especially in a post-9/11 world. This is entertainment, pure and simple.


I can't help but briefly state my view on Francis Ford Coppola's career, and I'm aware that it is an opinion that is quite common. Mr. Coppola went from being one the most innovative minds of his generation (creating classics like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now) before going crazy with money and making whatever project fell into his lap (Jack?). Since he returned to filmmaking in 2007 with Youth Without Youth, after a decade of absence, he has still decided to adopt an independent sensibility of shooting a film on impulse. The result is something that clearly seems to be missing the care that he put into his past work. Or so that is the conclusion I can reach after watching Tetro. 

This black-and-white film features bad-boy Vincent Gallo as Tetro, a writer who has cut himself off from the rest of his family due to some secrets that Coppola tries to set on the grand scale of a tragedy. Well, outside of this turning into a holocaust film (which it doesn't), the deep dark secrets are not enough to warrant the awkwardness that the lead character exhibits toward not only his family but his friends. Coppola tries to make nothing short of an opera out of this tale and yet for all of the emotion and visually pleasing aesthetics, the story of Tetro and his family doesn't really deserve this large of a canvas. 

The bright side is that a young actor seems to have found his break-out. Alden Ehrenreich has a certain echo of Leonardo DiCaprio from his Titanic days in his role as Tetro's younger brother. Past that, if you saw the trailer and thought this looked like a student film, well it appears that Coppola has gone back to the stereotypical film school; dark and moody tales that are really quite amateur when this is a filmmaker who can clearly delve deeper into the human psyche.