Monday, March 16, 2009

 

Movie Review: Watchmen





Synopsis

In an alternate reality, the America of 1985 is radically different from what we remember. Super-heroes are real, and they've been ostracized. Richard Nixon is still President. And the world stands on the brink of nuclear war unless the super-heroes it has rejected can (or will) save the day.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

3 on a scale of one to five. Neither terrible nor great.

Extended Review:

The massive hype surrounding the Watchmen movie has been, for many of us, the biggest thing since last year’s Presidential election. So many questions, considerations and fears. How faithful will Zack Snyder’s adaptation be? Is it even possible to make a movie of such a ponderous comic series? What about all the nudity and cursing? What about the SQUID? Oh, for the love of God, what about the SQUID!!

Alan Moore, writer and co-creator of the Watchmen comic book series, never misses a chance to take himself oh so seriously. Moore has disavowed the movie adaptation of Watchmen, and there’s certainly a contingent of Moore loyalists who’ll either skip the movie, or else they'll see it and trash it simply because of Moore’s strongly stated belief that the movie shouldn't exist. So sayeth Alan, so sayeth all of us... that will be a popular sentiment among many.

Not that I’m unsympathetic to the idea that Watchmen simply doesn’t make sense as a movie adaptation. I said I didn’t think it was a good idea back in October of '06. Part of what makes Watchmen special is that it’s a comic book about comic books and about comic book readers. Remove these characters and this story from it’s original medium and you lose a lot of the subtext.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I think I was pretty much correct. Watchmen the movie offers stunning visuals, one very good performance (more on that later) and a tight, complete story. It even has a better climax than the original story (sorry, squid-lovers). What it lacks is the sense of immersion and immediacy that made the book so special. The movie showed me a world with real-life super heroes. The book took me into that world. If Watchmen the book was quality escapism... the kind that really takes you somewhere ... then Watchmen the movie is just a postcard from Zack Snyder: "Having an AWESOME time! Wish you were here!"

And don’t get me wrong, I’m no Mooreophile. I've read and heard a lot of what Alan Moore has had to say and I think the guy is an asshole. And an overrated asshole at that. Watchmen is the only thing he’s turned out that I think is actually any good. Some people are still upset that League of Extrordinary Gentlemen, based on a Moore title, was a crap movie. Well, guess what? It was a crap comic, too. Garbage in, garbage out.

Zack Snyder’s movie is not crap. It isn’t a bad film. But there are issues. It isn't Snyder's fault that, at this point, it's nearly impossible for anyone to see the film without preconceived notions. And Snyder really has tried to turn out something worthwhile. But the fact remains that this story just doesn't work outside of it's original medium. It's not an action-filled story, but Snyder has really upped the action for the screen. Other bells and whistles (the CGI, the new and improved climax) are nice, but they don't make up for what the story loses in translation. I almost feel disqualified to review the film simply because I've read the book. And I'd also be inclined to disregard any review from a movie-goer who hadn't read the book. This is a real greased-pig of a film. It's hard to get hold of it.

If you do go see it, you'll probably leave the theater with mixed emotions. You’re certainly going to enjoy some really artful visuals. And you’ll enjoy a wonderful performance by Jackie Earle Haley as Rorchach, the most interesting character in the book and in the movie. Haley's performance is the one and only thing that I think completely brings an element of the book to the screen. He leaves the other actors in the dust with the work he does here. But, then again, he did get the plumb part.

What you won’t get if you go see this film is any sense of what makes the comic book series so special to fans.

So, should you go see it? Sure, I guess. It’s at least as good as 51 percent of the other stuff in the multiplexes right now. Just don’t go in expecting The Dark Knight, because this ain't that kind of comic book movie.

And don’t go in expecting to see the film and then understand why so many people love the book. If you want to get a sense of that, the only way to do it is to read Watchmen. The book itself is something I can recommend without any reservations at all. It really is very, very good.

Frank Zappa once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. He was right. You just can’t convey any sense of what music is in a conversation. With Watchmen, Zach Snyder is dancing about architecture. The final product is interesting, mostly enjoyable, odd, occasionally frustrating, sometimes nonsensical, too long and nowhere near long enough. It’s a mess, but to be fair, it’s an often glorious mess.



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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

 

Movie Review: What Just Happened



Synopsis

Ben (Robert De Niro) is one of the thirty most powerful movie producers in Hollywood ... but he's rapidly falling off that list. His latest film infuriates test audiences and his next picture may be shut down if the star (Bruce Willis) refuses to shave his beard. Ben's personal life is in a shambles, too, as he struggles to reconcile with his ex-wife and relate to his teenage daughter.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

2 on a scale of one to five. Wasted potential.

Extended Review:

There's an air of pretension about movie makers who make movies about the process of making movies. The end result sometimes seems contrived and disingenuous. Especially when the movie aims to mock Hollywood for it's hypocrisy, it's phoniness, and it's laser-beam focus on the bottom line. It's as though the people involved in the movie are saying "We're part of this industry, but we're somehow above it."

I think it's the same elitist attitude that allows Hollywood liberals to mock their own country.

Still, a good satire is a good satire, and who knows the movie industry better than movie industry insiders? So we see these movies so we can feel like we're "in on the joke." Especially movie geeks like me, who spend an inordinate amount of our free time obsessing about movies anyway.

Barry Levinson's What Just Happened is one more case of a big-named director and some huge stars biting the hands that feed them, and I'd imagine that everyone involved thinks they've turned out something subtle, smart and funny. But they haven't. What Just Happened never seems insightful, in fact it never even seems to want to offer insight. Worse still, it's just not very funny. A satire that's neither funny nor penetrating isn't much of a satire at all.

Not that What Just Happened is a terrible film. It has it's charms. Robert De Niro has a real affinity for dry comedy (see Levinson's Wag The Dog) and it's nice to see him get to play something other than a cop, a grizzled cop, a psycho or a psycho cop. I'd like to see him get more roles like this. Most of what does work in this movie hinges on his sympathetic, relatable performance. Other talented character actors (Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Catherine Keener) have less to do with smaller parts and sometimes seem to be playing it a bit too low key. Comedy doesn't have to be broad or physical, but it should at least be apparent.

The highlight of the movie is Michael Wincott as a moody, drug-addled director; sort of a cross between Keith Richards and Jim Jarmusch. Wincott seems to be the only performer in the whole movie who's having any fun, and he really makes his character pop with a physical, high-tension performance. In fact, Wincott steals all of his scenes and ends up the film's MVP. This isn't the first time I've noticed that Wincott's work was the best in a film (The Crow, Dead Man, Before Night Falls), and it's a shame that he always ends up in second-tier roles. Michael Wincott is a talented actor with skills in comedy, drama, even action. It's long-past time somebody gave him a starring vehicle.

Other characters in the movie are broad parodies of real people. Bruce Willis plays himself via Christian Bale, trashing sets and threatening co-workers and pouting and preening. Sean Penn, as an artsy-fartsy Hollywood darling named Sean Penn, is just right for his role. But neither of them bring much more to the film than a certain brief novelty, and that novelty wears off long before the movie is over.

And the the best parts of the movie are the parts that seem incidental and unrelated to the plot. Satiric jabs at the trappings of modern life provide the movie's best moments. The Wincott character says about the mood stabilizers prescribed to him that they're so powerful you could "watch your own mother get gang raped in broad daylight and still appreciate the weather." De Niro and his ex-wife attend former couple's counseling with the absurd goal of becoming so happy with their divorce that they never want to get back together. After a one-night stand, a self-conscious De Niro uses Just For Men hair dye ... and he uses it everywhere.

Given the tremendous talent behind it, What Just Happened could have been a much better movie than it actually is. It's a shame that Levinson and company seem to have been more interested in turning out 104 minutes of precious navel-gazing and dialed the satire back to 0.5 instead of turning it up to eleven.


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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

 

Movie Review: Religulous



Synopsis

Bill Maher is an atheist/agnostic. This film chronicles his travels and interviews with a number of people who adhere to various religions, and the film aims to present the subject matter humorously.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

3 on a scale of one to five. Keep it in context and it's not bad.

Extended Review:

Bill Maher's Religulous is a better movie than I thought it would be, which is to say that I was able to watch it without getting viscerally angry... and that I don't dislike Maher any more after watching it than I did before.

It isn't a great movie, either ... but it's actually pretty good if you take it for what it is. This isn't serious theology, nor is it a real documentary. It's a documentary only in the Michael Moore sense. The movie consists of scenes wherein Maher travels from place to place interviewing mostly earnest, simple people, and setting them up so he can make them look silly with clever editing, subtitles and (occasionally) quick rejoinders.

The danger of a movie like this is that other simple people (or young people) will see it and take it for more than it is. Maher doesn't really prove anything here beyond the strength of his own convictions. But he does so with enough humor and style to make his perspective easy to adopt. I don't think Maher would disagree with me that it's incumbent on each of us to reach our own conclusions about life, the universe and everything. It's unfortunate that he doesn't do enough to encourage his viewers to do the kind of intense thinking and soul-searching that he has apparently done himself.

For the most part, Maher spends the majority of the movie tilting at straw men. Most of the people he goes after in the movie are easy targets, and many of them really deserve his attacks. People who twist religion so that it justifies a political agenda, or so that it defends hatred, or so that it can be used to dupe people out of money. Those kinds of people are clearly vile. Beyond that, those people do a terrible disservice to the many, many kind, honest, decent religious people in the world. Maher spends his time interviewing the wackos who make up a very small minority of the world's faithful. He talks to people like Fred Phelps followers, the proprietors of the Creationism Museum, and a Jewish "Rabbi" who denies the Holocaust and aligns himself with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Clearly none of these people are fair representatives of their various faiths.

But this is, of course, a movie. And a comedy at that. So Maher had to talk to people who could generate laughs. Maher didn't talk to normal, sane religious people for his film because they'd have been boring. So that's the context, and a viewer would do well to keep that in mind. This isn't really a movie about religion. It's a movie about weirdos. This is like interviewing Michael Jackson and implying that he's a fair representation of all musicians.

Still, I have to give Maher credit for a couple of things: For one, he really went after Islam with the same zeal he had for Christianity and Judiasm. I didn't think he'd have the balls for that. And there were a few scenes wherein he seemed to go out of his way to return the kindness and courtesy he has received. One exchange in particular, involving congregants at the Truck Driver's Church (of all things), seemed mutually warm and friendly.

I enjoyed Religulous to some degree, and given my own doubts about God and religion I found myself mostly sympathetic to Maher's point of view. I was sometimes aggravated by his arrogance and his over-simplification, but I went into the film expecting Maher to get on my nerves and he didn't disappoint.

Maher hardly comes off as the smartest or most reasonable person in his own film. No, the most reasonable and interesting person in Religulous is Father George Coyne, the former Vatican Observatory director who lost his job because of his strong defense of Darwinian Evolutionary Theory. Coyne points out (rightly, I think) that religious fundamentalism of all kinds is "a plague." It doesn't matter if you're a Muslim fundamentalist, a Christian fundamentalist, whatever. Once you get so devoted to a doctrine that you stop using the Brain God gave you, you might end up doing more harm than good. Fundamentalism is the real cancer that Maher is railing against. He makes that point with a heavy hand in the closing scenes. And that's fine. But it's a shame that he's painting all religious people with one brush. Or, if you'll allow me to mix metaphors, Bill Maher is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.



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Monday, February 23, 2009

 

Movie Review: Splinter



Synopsis

Polly and Seth are a yuppie couple who are on a camping trip. Before long they're kidnapped by Dennis and Lacey, a couple of criminals on the lam. Tensions between the two couples are just starting to rise when they end up trapped in a gas station, trying to survive an attack by a horrific, unknown parasite that eats people and uses them like puppets.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

3 or maybe 3.5 on a five scale, with that scale curved to allow for the genre. This movie is good fun for horror fans.

Extended Review:


Splinter is a smart little horror movie. By that I mean that it's smart enough not to try to be smart. Too many horror movies try to justify their scares and gore with attempts at metaphor, deeper messages, subtle commentary on politics and society, etc. That's almost always a bad idea. A movie shouldn't get out of it's own depth. Splinter is a B-movie and seems damn proud to be one. It's scares and gross-outs are what they are, and as such, they work just fine. This movie is a quick, satisfying little jolt of adrenalin that pulled me in and delivered the goods. Genre fans will love it.

At the same time, Splinter is all about story, and the story is pretty good. It's not gratuitous or pointless, and it's not insultingly juvenile. Yeah, this movie does what it does within the classic b-movie template ... but it does it quite well.

And, I have to give Splinter credit for some originality. The source of the horror is a parasitic, alien force that attacks people, kills them, takes over their bodies, etc. Think The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and any basic zombie movie. What makes the parasitic monster in Splinter a little different is that the invaders in those other movies required a complete human body to use as a host. Not so in Splinter. The parasite in this movie only needs some of the body of a host. In other words, if you manage to severe the arm of an attacking infected body, you'll end up with two attackers: The body and the arm will keep coming at you. This results in a clever mix of scares, black humor and some really nerve-wracking creepiness.


The characters in Splinter are template standards. You've got your science geek who's more fascinated by the monster than scared of it. You've got your surprisingly resourceful babe (Jill Wagner from the ultra-goofy gauntlet TV game show Wipeout! ... and she's actually pretty good here). And you've got your rough-n-ready bad-guy who really wants to change his evil ways. Etc, etc. Splinter isn't trying to reinvent the wheel with regard to horror movie characters. And it doesn't need to. Putting tried-and-true genre standards up against a creepy new variation on a classic monster is justification enough for this tight, 80 minute thrill ride.

If you like horror films and want something you can enjoy without too much thought, Splinter is a safe pick. It's neither dumb nor pretentious, just a straight forward little monster movie, and entirely enjoyable on those terms.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

 

Movie Review: The Reader



Synopsis

Michael Berg is a professionally successful but personally unhappy lawyer in modern Germany. When he was 15 years old, he had a brief affair with a 36 year old woman (Hanna Schmitz) who'd liked to hear him read aloud. Later in life, Michael found out that the Hanna had once been a Nazi SS camp guard. The long-term effects of their affair and the secrets that they share are the focus of the film.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

5 on a 1 to 5 scale. One of the very best movies I've seen in a long time.

Extended Review:

Very few films try to say something serious about human beings and the things that bind us to one and other. Most of the ones that do try end up failing. I suppose it's hard to sustain genuine emotional intensity in a film without stumbling into melodrama or unintentional parody.

The Reader is one of those rare films that tries to convey something meaningful and manages to actually do so without collapsing under the weight of it's own ideas. This movie walks a very fine line. Any film dedicated to this subject matter could have become unintentionally silly, falsely sentimental, self-important or just plain insulting. The Reader never stumbles. This is a fine, strong film and I recommend it enthusiastically to mature viewers who're in the mood for something demanding.

Kate Winslet has been nominated for a number of awards for her work here, and she deserves to win them. Winslet has turned in good performances in movies as divergent as Heavenly Creatures and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but she's never been as strong as she is here. It's really a demanding role; she has to play a statutory rapist and former concentration camp guard and make it possible for an audience to feel some empathy for her character. It's remarkable that Winslet pulled it off. Finding humanity in a character like that and actually making that humanity palpable isn't the kind of thing I typically buy into. The very idea seems too uncomfortably close to a kind of moral relativism for me. It is to Kate Winslet's tremendous credit that I found her performance compelling, believable, and, yes, human.

A few thoughts on that subject; the idea of feeling empathy for a Nazi: There are people who feel understandable outrage about the idea of a film with a sympathetic central character who is a former SS guard. But I never got the impression that The Reader intended to send a message as simple and repugnant as "Nazi's are people, too." The movie never asks the viewer to shed tears for Hanna Schmitz. Instead, this movie seems to want the audience to consider important questions. Is it possible, for instance, to do something genuinely awful without even really thinking about your actions? How often do any of us stop to really examine our own moral imperatives? Most provocatively, the movie poses this question: If you possess information that might generate sympathy for someone who is clearly guilty of horrible crimes, are you morally bound to reveal that information?

I like that this movie neither attempts to offer simple answers to those questions, nor seems to posit that the questions are unanswerable.

The Reader seems to want it's audience to genuinely consider those issues, and I think it's possible that some worthwhile conversation and debate might be generated in the process. Even so, none of that is what really impresses me about this film. What impresses me about this movie is how smart and honest it is about the negative things that can play roles in the forming of our lifetime bonds. Things like forgiveness or the unwillingness to offer forgiveness. Things like desperation and anger. Things like the commitments we might make more out of shame than love.

And yet the movie finds it's way to a genuinely positive ending. The Reader is a movie about secrets, shame and guilt. But it never glamorizes those things. Instead, the movie ends with a message about the importance of avoiding a life shrouded in secret. So, yes, the end of this movie is positive, but it isn't false or sentimental. Maybe love doesn't conquer all, The Reader seems to say ... but love is the only thing that enables any of us to ever conquer anything.


Trailer



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Monday, February 09, 2009

 

Movie Review: American Movie



Synopsis

A documentary about Mark Borchardt. Borchardt is a struggling movie maker who's trying to bring his magnum opus, Northwestern, to the screen. As production shuts down on that movie once more, Mark decides to shoot a straight-to-video short horror film ... with the hopes of raising the money to begin working on Northwestern again.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

5 on a 5 scale. 10 on a 10 scale. However you want to qualify it. This is a great, great movie.

Extended Review:

Life is fall-down funny, life is also down-to-the-bone sad, and sometimes all at once. Life is deadly serious, and never more suited for mockery than when it's at it's most serious. Life is good. Life is bad. Life is, above all else, utterly absurd. And I've never seen a movie that captures all of that better than American Movie.

I can't write about this movie ... I can't even talk about it with strangers ... without becoming giddy with joy. If this review reads like a twelve year old describing a really gnarly episode of Heroes, it's because this movie reduces me to that kind of scatterbrained enthusiasm. I probably actually do the movie the disservice of over-hyping it, but I can't help it. I love, LOVE, LOVE this movie.

I'm surprised I haven't reviewed it here before. A quick look shows I never even reviewed American Movie at the old film geeks site. (I did mention it once, briefly, as one of my top ten favorites.)Wow. How could I have skipped it? American Movie is my favorite documentary of all time (and I really enjoy good documentaries), and it is one of my favorite films of any kind, ever. I just can't say enough good about it.

This can be a hard movie to track down. I rented it eight or nine years ago at our local video rental place and fell in love with it with one viewing. Some time five or six years ago I ordered the DVD from Amazon and it's probably one of the best entertainment investments I've ever made. I've probably watched this film eight times, maybe more.

How do I describe a film like this? It reminds me of This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman, but it's total nonfiction. American Movie is about Mark Borchardt, a fellow so wonderful that he'd have to have been invented if he weren't real. Borchardt is a struggling film-maker, and the degree to which he has the chops is up for debate. What he does have, however, is boundless enthusiasm, absolute disregard for even rudimentary responsibility, and an intense focus on his dreams that's matched only by his penchant for undermining himself. He's a goofball and a fireball. Mark Borchardt is both completely driven and utterly driven to distraction. He can be a real jerk, and he can show the patience of Job. Mark Borchardt is the best and the worst in all of us. I love the guy. (I didn't say I always like him, though. I don't always like me, either.)

Along the way, as Mark tries to make his movie(s), we meet all the wonderful people in his life. Mark's friends and family are made up of characters as unforgettable as he is. There's his ex-junkie buddy Mike, probably the most earnest, unaffected guy you'll ever see in a movie. Mike's just awesome. Then there's Mark's elderly uncle Bill, the most unconventionally endearing person in the whole film. (I defy you to not care about this man. Really care.) Mark's mom, with her thick accent ... and his dad, a veteran who's frequently bewildered by his son ... make big impressions as well. And the actors who are trying to make Mark's movie with him are a blast.

I won't try to describe individual scenes or give away conflicts, twists and turns. I always try to avoid spoilers, but even ruining a second of this film for anyone is a spoiler. Every scene is something to cherish.

This movie cheers me up when I'm depressed. And not in a temporal way, but in a real way. It makes me glad I'm alive. Sometimes I don't even have to watch it, I just have to think about it. That's real. This movie makes me want to hug people. Do you have any idea how rare that is? This movie makes me want to do volunteer work at a nursing home. Really WANT to. This movie makes me want to call my mom.

This isn't a feel good movie. It's not some three minute happy-buzz that fades by the time you get your car unlocked in the parking lot. This movie is more than that. This is a movie that makes me feel that life is good.... and makes me want to interact with other people accordingly.

Just go get it. Go rent it, go buy it, or download it, do whatever you have to do to see it. Just see it, man. Just see it. American Movie, at the risk of using a cliche, really transcends cinema. It's a film you will never forget.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

 

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionare



Synopsis

A dirt poor "slumdog" in Mumbai, India competes on his country's version of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire TV game show. His chances of winning the jackpot are slim. His real goal is to attract the attention and win the heart of the girl he's loved since childhood. Those chances are slim, too. But sometimes "destiny" has plans of it's own.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

3 on a five scale. It's OK.

Extended Review:

Danny Boyle has a history of turning out very good movies that I just haven't enjoyed much. His cautionary tale, Trainspotting is visually bold, aggressive, even brilliant in some ways. But it didn't do anything for me. Boyle's take on the horror/zombie genre, 28 Days Later, didn't even phase me in the theater. I didn't appreciate 28... at all, in fact, until a reluctant second viewing on DVD. And Boyle's version of a family film, Millions, is smart, funny, winning and warm ... and yet, for whatever reason, it nearly bored me to sleep.

It's as though Danny Boyle and I don't speak the same language. He makes fine films, I realize that. I appreciate his movies in a sterile, emotionless way. For whatever reason, the real heart and soul of his films is seemingly always lost on me.

Take, for instance, his latest: Slumdog Millionare. I realize that I should have enjoyed it very much. All the elements were there: The acting was good, the story and characters were engaging and appealing, the direction was suburb. And yet, once it was over, I essentially duplicated the experience of walking out of the theater after 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Millions. The people around me were very happy. They'd just seen a movie they'd loved. I was happy for them ... but I was bored and utterly indifferent.

Slumdog... has been marketed as a feel-good movie, and I think that's somewhat disingenuous. I'm not saying that just because the movie failed to make me feel good. I'm saying that because there is a surprising amount of violent and disturbing content in the movie. There is gun violence, a scene involving torture with a car battery, another scene involving the torture of a child, and a fair amount of knives, blood and death. None of that detracts from the story's essential love-conquers-all message. After all, love has to have some nasty things to conquer, right? But I didn't expect so much of the nastiness to be on screen, and it's the kind of thing that might ruin the movie for some people. This isn't a feel-good movie along the lines of Love, Actually. This movie is grittier than that, and it earns it's R-rating several times over.

The performances are good all around. Especially Dev Patel as the main character, the "slumdog" the movie is named for. He's sufficiently convincing as a simple, wide-eyed boy who still carries a torch for the girl he's loved since childhood. In fact, his performance is the main reason that the movie works when it does work. A lot of the story is totally implausible. Serendipity comes into play time and time again, and Patel's good-natured acceptance of the things that happen to him and around him is key to the selling of this tale.

Without getting all spoilery, I will say that the things you expect to happen going into the movie all happen in a more-or-less believable way. Will the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks get the girl and win the money? What do you think? Boyle isn't trying to retell Rocky here, and the concept of winning just by doing your best never enters the picture. That may be part of the reason I was essentially disappointed in the film. I was hoping for some surprises. Other than the unexpected violence, there weren't any surprises to be found.

So, like I said, Slumdog Millionare is a perfectly good movie. To my knowledge, Danny Boyle hasn't really made any bad movies. And as I said earlier, he hasn't really made any movies that have really won me over, either. Slumdog continues that tradition. A lot of people have seen it and loved it. Once again, I'm happy for them.

Trailer:



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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

 

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon



Synopsis

In 1977, disgraced former President Richard Nixon sat for a series of interviewers with British TV personality David Frost. This movie tells a story about the events that lead up to those interviews and the impact that the interviews had on the lives of everyone involved.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

3.5 on a five scale. A good show.

Extended Review:


Having been born in 1968, I have two clear childhood memories of important events on television. One of them was Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run in the spring of 1974. The other was Richard Nixon's historic resignation of the office of the President in August of that same year.

I suppose Aaron's achievement would have played a role in shaping my life if I'd been a particularly athletic child. But I wasn't. Instead, I had an interest in things like history, drama and politics. Nixon's resignation had plenty of all three, so it's probably not surprising that the broadcast effected me very much. Throughout my childhood, and to this very day, I've always been fascinated by Nixon and Watergate. I wrote enumerable papers on the man and the scandal in high school and college, and I've watched more movies, read more books, and video-taped more TV specials related to the topic than I can remember.

Because I've studied Watergate closely over the years, I've learned that one has to approach movies like Frost/Nixon with very specific expectations. Frost/Nixon is ostensibly about the series of interviews that Nixon gave interviewer David Frost in 1977. But movies about history are usually inaccurate by degrees, and Frost/Nixon really presents a version of Richard Nixon, a version of David Frost, and a version of their famous exchanges. To really be fair to the movie, it's best to set aside what one might know (or might think one knows) about the real men and the real events and try to simply watch the film as though it were an entirely fictional work.

Of course, that's impossible. But you gotta try. You have to try to remember that this is just a story, with a beginning, middle and end ... and that the movie hopes to establish it's own morals, it's own conclusions, and it's own deeper meanings.

With that in mind, I have to say that I really enjoyed Frost/Nixon. Removed from it's historical context, this is a story about two skilled spin doctors, each trying to use their televised exchanges as a means toward his own end. Both of them are politicians of a sort, and each of them hopes to leave the experience having secured a political goal. The older of the two men wants a chance to reframe his public persona. The younger wants to establish a reputation as a smart journalist and effective interviewer. Each of them attempts to manipulate their shared situation and each also tries to manipulate the other. Essentially, Frost and Nixon are presented here as opponents, playing a kind of game of chess with words. A game that only one of them can really win.

As Nixon, Frank Langella is really very good. In fact, he presents the best screen-version of Nixon that I've seen. It's certainly better than Anthony Hopkins's manic turn in Oliver Stone's '95 film. And I think that Nixon supporters would probably feel that the movie treats Nixon fairly. The Richard Nixon in this film is clearly very smart, somewhat paranoid, and, by 1977, utterly exhausted. He hopes at the beginning of the movie to somehow restore his reputation and find a way back into the political life again. At a critical point in the movie, Nixon realizes that the life he's been tolerating since he left the White House, the life of a famous but unimportant curiosity, is really the only life he's going to have from then on. It's a moving and important moment in the film, and Langella is especially impressive in that scene.

Michael Sheen, who plays David Frost here, is very good, too. The David Frost in this movie is personally invested in this series of interviews in every way possible. He's put himself in a make-or-break situation and the pressure to deliver is enormous. Sheen is especially good in early interview segments when Frost realizes that he's utterly outmatched by the old, skilled politician. As the story comes to a head, Sheen's Frost manages to convey mingled panic and focus in a very convincing way. I found myself feeling as involved in this story from his point of view as I was from the perspective of the former President.


How historically accurate is the movie? Well, it doesn't matter. There are real lines from the real interviews interjected into the movie's recreations, but I actually found that to be a trivial distraction. I was more interested in the way the two men were at odds with each other, each trying to steer the conversation, control the pace, tone and subject matter, all the while seeming congenial. The performances were very good when it came to that, and that's really what the movie was about. Since that's what the movie was really about, looking for discrepancies in the story's recreation of the public record would be splitting hairs. As I said earlier, this movie presents a version of the Frost/Nixon interviews. And it presents it's own version very well.

There are moments along the way that might be twisted by viewers, I suppose, into some sort of half-assed metaphorical commentary on the George W. Bush Presidency, the war in Iraq, and the most recent political scandals. Some people are always going to look for that kind of meaning "between the lines." But I think it's a ridiculous stretch to find anything like that in Frost/Nixon. This movie isn't about modern events, it isn't even really about events from the 70's. This is a character study, and a good one. And that's all it is.

Speaking of the 1970's, to me Frank Langella will always be Dracula. To a number of people, Richard Nixon will always be Darth Vader. And to a lot of people, David Frost might always be remembered as the David who slew Goliath in the interviews reenacted here. But, really, that's dumbing this movie down to something less than it is. Frost/Nixon is a movie about manipulation, language, and the power of strong personalities. It is it's own unique story, regardless of the historic events that it proposes to dramatize. And purely concerning story and acting, Frost/Nixon is a success on it's own terms.

Trailer:



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Monday, January 26, 2009

 

Movie Review: Let The Right One In



Synopsis

Oskar, a twelve-year-old Swedish boy, is bullied, neglected and miserable. His new neighbor, Eli, appears to be a twelve year old girl. But Eli feeds on human blood, and as she and Oskar grow closer, the boy discovers elements of his personality that he didn't know were there.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

4 on a five scale. A smart, unsettling, extra creepy horror film. I point to movies like this when I defend the horror genre. If you like 'em smart and scary, this is a must-see.

Extended Review:

Put this one on the short list with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Descent, The Devil's Backbone and Signs. Wow. Let The Right One In really is that good, that scary, that smart and that inventive. This one's a keeper. This is Carrie for the modern age.

This decade has seen scads of horror films churned out by the big studios. There have been franchise gore fests and Hollywood lame-downs of decent Japanese horror films and there have been more stupid, pointless remakes than I can count ... but there have been very, very precious few genuinely good horror films.

It's no surprise, I guess, that you have to look to an independent Swedish production for the scariest and best horror film of the past year.

Let The Right One In really is what the recent Twilight proposes to be. It's a movie that examines the turbulence of adolescence through the eyes of a vampire, and finds much to be afraid of. Yes, this is a horror film, but it is not mindless escapism. I thought about things like Columbine and teen suicide while watching this film, and I was very impressed with the movie's artful approach to very real subject matter. Let The Right One In treats desperation and loneliness very seriously and the movie is very insightful with regard to those topics. I think it's a safe bet that Twilight's version of Sweet Valley Vampire High didn't get anywhere near these heights.

As the two principle youngsters in the film, Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are both outstanding. Especially Leandersson, who's performance as the vampire Eli often genuinely scared the hell out of me. Let The Right One In doesn't rely on make-up or special effects for it's scares. The terror all hinges on Leandersson's performance. I had no doubt that her character could and would kill without remorse, and this kid made me actually shudder a number of times.

As Oskar, the abused and lonely boy, Hedebrant is very good, too. In fact, it's probably fair to say that he's exceptional, since his was probably the more difficult role. For the movie to work, a viewer has to care what happens to Oskar. And this is a character with very real, very upsetting problems from the get-go. Even before he develops a relationship with a vampire, it's clear that this kid is headed for an unpleasant future. He's bullied brutally at school and doesn't have any resources to help him productively deal with that treatment. Instead, he clips newspaper stories about murders and he tortures pretend victims with his pocket knife. Oskar just oozes with detachment and suppressed rage throughout the film.

Eli's vampirism is introduced almost immediately in the film, and it's presented with a great deal of gore and blood. She isn't a sterile, Hollywood vampire who leaves two small fang-holes in her victims' necks. Eli rips out jugular veins, spewing great fountains of blood when she feeds. The violence in the film may be upsetting to many, but I found it to be an organic and necessary element of this particular story. It was the physical manifestation of what was going on in the lives of the characters. Vampirism in this movie's world isn't gothic or romantic. Like much else here, it's about violence and survival.

Director Tomas Alfredson made some interesting choices, too, that I thought fit the movie very well. His visual pallet in this film is dominated by white (block walls, tiled floors, endless snow outside) and bursts of red (a bright red sweater, a solid-red toy Indian warrior, and, of course, blood). The motif conjures up a pervasive coldess and the potential for sudden violence that establish the context of even the quiet scenes. And as with all of the better vampire tales, the blood exchange is an obvious sexual metaphor; this time a commentary on the tumult and upheaval that comes with puberty. Very few modern horror movies even bother with subtext. Alfredson was very smart, I think, to treat Let The Right One In as a straight story wherein one of the major characters happened to be a vampire.

Most people don't see horror movies because they're looking for a genuinely upsetting experience. People see horror movies to laugh, to get off on gore-porn, to see just how far the studios take the carnage this time. So people who like those movies probably won't find much to please them in this film. But if you're up for a smart and crafty treatise on the very real pains and fears of adolescence, then Let The Right One In is for you. Early in this review I listed a few very good horror films and said that this movie is in their league. But this movie didn't remind me of those films. It reminded me of movies like Kids and Alpha Dog and Undertow, and of books like William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. Like those works, Let The Right One In is really a story about adolescents in terrible danger. The closing credits found me with my thoughts racing, more than a little unsettled. If that doesn't sound like your kind of thing, maybe you enjoy Twilight instead.

Trailer:



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Saturday, January 24, 2009

 

Movie Review: Gran Torino



Synopsis

Walter Kowalski is elderly, bitter, widowed and alone. His new neighbors, immigrants from Southeast Asia, seem like the last people he's likely to befriend. But a series of sudden, violent events leads to Walt reluctantly taking the neighbor's teenage son under his wing. As the old man and the young man get to know each other, a genuine friendship develops. Meanwhile, members of a local ethnic street gang have nefarious plans for the both of them.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

Three and a half or maybe four on a five scale. Eastwood's own resume gives this movie a lot to live up to, but on general terms it's a fine film.

Extended Review:

Clint Eastwood has implied that Gran Torino will be his final effort as an actor. If so, there are certainly worse ways that he could have ended his on-screen career. Gran Torino is a compact and efficient little story that hinges on a classic Eastwood performance and a lean script from screenwriter Nick Schenk. It won't be remembered as Eastwood's best movie, neither as an actor nor as a director, but this is a film he can be proud of.

Clint Eastwood will turn 79 this May. His character in Gran Torino (Walt Kowalski) turns 80 during the course of the movie, and for the first time on screen, Eastwood really looks his age. Walt wears his pants up around his mid-torso, lights cigarettes with a Zippo, and spends a lot of time reading on his front porch. Walt Kowalski is a grouchy old fart, and Eastwood plays it real, warts and all.

The best thing about the character is that he's not just a harmless movie-version of a grouchy old fart. For most of the movie's two hours, Walt is a very unpleasant man. So much so, in fact, that this character might alienate himself from the audience as thoroughly as he seems to have alienated himself from his family and neighbors. Walt is a racist and a sexist who constantly uses racial slurs, mocks the religious faith of his loved ones, and is generally cruel to everyone except his dog.

In fact, Kowalski's constant racist epithets might really offend the most sensitive moviegoers. Personally, I thought that the characters racism was one of the many things that made Eastwood's performance so genuine. Look, it's this simple: many (maybe most) of the old men I know are racist to one degree or another. Old white men, old black men, old men of every color and creed are pretty often cantankerous in every way possible. To have made Walter Kowalski politically correct would have been disingenuous. The old bastard just doesn't care what he says or in who's presence he says it. I know old men like that and I totally believed this character.

Best of all, this is a movie that proposes that there are things that are actually worse than racism. Imagine that! We live in a society that embraces nutty concepts like "hate crimes," the idea that some murders might be worse than others, depending on the motives involved. (Aren't all murders crimes of hate?) Gran Torino is, in at least one way, a very bold movie. It suggests that, with some people, racism might be a hundred miles wide ... but only an inch deep. No wonder the same Motion Picture Academy that piled Oscars on Crash a few years ago didn't quite know what to think of this film. Walter Kowalski is an unabashed racist, but he's not beyond redemption. That's not exactly the clean, neat, acceptable way to present a racist character, even if it is honest.


As a matter of fact, the politically incorrect dialogue in the movie is used to tremendous effect in one scene in particular: This movie is essentially the story of Walter begrudgingly becoming friends with a young Asian man in his neighborhood. Early in the film, before he develops affection for the young man, Walter constantly peppers him with racial slurs out of genuine disrespect. But as he develops regard for the young man he wants to make it clear to him that he likes him. Lacking the ability to simply say "Hey, I like ya, kid," Walt instead takes him to his local barber shop so that he can hear the way that he and the Italian barber trade ethnic jabs as a way of horsing around. Walt even attempts to instruct his young Asian friend on the proper way to "talk like a fella." The scene works for two reasons... one, it makes it clear that at this point in the story Walt's slurs toward his young Asian friend are the old man's dysfunctional way of expressing affection. It's really all he knows. And, two, that scene ends with the young man delivering the funniest punchline I've heard in any movie in a long time.

Like my all time favorite film, Eastwood's masterful Unforgiven, Gran Torino revisits the themes that have defined the actor/director's best work. Forgiveness and redemption and sacrifice are the keynotes, here. This movie's dramatic apex is sort of an alternate version of the climactic scene in Unforgiven, with selflessness substituted for revenge to tremendous effect. It isn't necessarily a realistic way for the story to end, but viewed through the prism of Eastwood's career, it's meaningful and quite moving.

Gran Torino doesn't quite reach Unforgiven's artistic heights, but it certainly doesn't fail, either. Eastwood fans will find a lot to enjoy in Gran Torino, as will fans of good movies in general.

The trailer for Gran Torino



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Friday, January 09, 2009

 

Movie Review: The Wrestler



Synopsis

Randy The Ram is a washed up professional wrestler who's twenty years past his prime. After suffering a major medical setback, Randy is forced to consider his place in the world, the relationships that he's lost along the way, and his possibilities for a future.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

At least four on a five scale. A remarkable movie if you can handle all the open wounds, both literal and figurative.

Extended Review:

Writer and director Darren Aronofsky usually makes movies on a huge scale. He's good at it. His 2000 release Requiem for a Dream is surely one of the best films of the past ten years. With his latest movie, The Wrestler, Aronofsky has dialed back the high-concept and flashy visuals and produced a small, quiet character study. As it turns out, he's good at that, too.

Micky Rourke, as Randy "The Ram" Robinson (the wrestler the movie is named for) will probably win all kinds of awards for his work here. He really ought to, anyway. This is the kind of movie that requires it's star to carry a world on his back. Rourke is suburb here. I don't suppose I've ever seen him turn in a performance anywhere near this good before. Randy is a guy suffocating in regret, loneliness and physical pain. It's a credit to Rourke as an actor that his performance never became tedious or overwrought in the movie's 115 minutes.

The Wrestler also features Marisa Tomei as a stripper named Cassidy who infatuates Randy. A number of Tomei's scenes feature the actress nude or nearly nude. Tomei's been doing a lot of nudity in her recent movies, possibly because she's proud that she still has the body of a twenty year old even though she'll turn forty-five at the end of this year. Still, Tomei's physical form (as lovely as it is) isn't the best thing she brings to this movie. Her performance is the equal of Rourke's, and may garner supporting actress awards for her as well. In fact, Tomei is so good here that I'd expect her to win top awards for females in lead roles if she only had more screen time.

The connection between Rourke's wrestler and Tomei's stripper is obvious, but never made overt or acknowledged in any way. Both of them have chosen paths wherein they sell themselves, physically, to paying audiences. One traffics in sex; the other, violence. Both of them need the attention and the money, and neither of them seem to have many other options. But unlike Randy, Tomei's character dreams of another life. She has a family in the form of her son ... unlike Randy, who has driven away his adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with years of negligence and broken promises. To Cassidy, stripping is just a means to an end. To Randy, wrestling is everything. Ultimately, one of them just can't stand to be in the other one's audience.

It's painful to watch the two characters interact as one hopes to begin a new life and the other waits for his life to end. There's a rawness about their scenes together that's really exceptional in it's honesty. It's funny that we live in a world full of "reality TV" that is nothing like reality, and here's a scripted movie featuring an actor and an actress who speak volumes of truth about desperation and sadness.

I can't recommend The Wrestler to every movie fan, but I think you'll enjoy it if you're the kind of viewer who enjoys films like, for instance, No Country For Old Men. The Wrestler is subtle, unconventional, and extremely understated. That's ironic, considering that professional wrestling itself is the bombastic polar opposite of this film. I expect that a large number of wrestling fans will see this movie and leave the theater unhappy.

At times, The Wrestler reminded me of Ray, Raging Bull, Saturday Night Fever, even Citizen Kane in some ways. Those are all fine films about men who are addicted to fame and pain. Men who punish themselves in spite of the glory they seek. Each of those films features remarkable lead performances. Each of them was directed beautifully. If I have a complaint with each of those five films, it's that they are all painfully direct. This is the kind of movie that might force anyone to contemplate whatever is hollow inside of them.

The Wrestler rubs shoulders with greats in terms of it's impact, it's integrity, and the power of it's story. This is one of the finest movies I've seen in the past twelve months.

Trailer for The Wrestler:



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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

 

Movie Review: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button



Synopsis

Benjamin Button is born with the physiology of a man in his late 80's. As he ages, his body grows in reverse, so that by the time he's really in his late '80's, he has the body of a baby. This is the story of his adventures, his loves and his loses, his tragedies and triumphs.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

2.5 or 3 on a five scale. Eeeh.

Extended Review:

Ah, man. What can you say about a movie like The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button? You know going into it that you're supposed to like it. And you know, two-thirds of the way through, that if you find yourself bored and unimpressed, people are going to condemn you as an incorrigible grouch. Generally I was bored with ...Benjamin Button, I felt like I'd seen it all before. There's nothing new here, and that's especially disappointing, considering that director David Fincher usually has something original to offer, even in his lesser films.

And, just for the record, I went into Benjamin Button totally prepared to enjoy it. My expectations were appropriately low. I'd set my phazers on stun with visual effects, and I was ready to allow myself to be pulled into the Hallmark Card sentimentality that I expected from the film. If you go into these kinds of big, showy movies, you can enjoy them. I'd remembered the lesson of Forrest Gump, a movie I'd hated because I'd expected too much out of it. I was prepared for a Titanic style experience. (I actually saw Titanic in the theater several times and I'd really enjoyed it because I'd turned off my quality filter and just enjoyed looking at the big, pretty boat and all the pretty people drowning in the cold, cold water.)

I'm not sure what went wrong along the way, but I have to fault the movie more than myself. I was enjoying the special effects, the way the movie presented a Brad Pitt who really did look both 85 years old and four feet tall. And for a while I enjoyed the cookie-cutter characters, too. Most of them were based on tried-and-true movie character templates ... but admirable templates, like the loving adoptive mother, the dancer with a heart of gold, and the friendly, mysterious foreigner who opens up the world for the young protagonist. And lets not forget the young protagonist himself. I gotta give it to Brad Pitt; there must be a special challenge in wearing tons of prosthetic devices and makeup and acting believably as a ten year old boy in an octogenarian's body. Generally speaking, Pitt pulled it off.

But after the first hour or 75 minutes or so the movie began to meander and never really got back on course. I got bored and found myself with time to draw parallels between Benjamin Button and all the movies like it that have come before. For instance, Forrest Gump had a commissioned officer in the military who later became his captain on a private commercial boat. Working backwards, appropriately, Benjamin Button had a captain on a private commercial boat who later became his commissioned naval superior.

Forrest Gump lost a beloved, secondary friend in war. So did Benjamin. Forrest kept drifting in and out of the life of his one true love. So did Benjamin. Oh, and for Titanic fans, there's even the death of close friends after a tragedy in icy ocean waters.

Once the movie began to bore me I never got interested again. The last hour of this movie dragged on and on and on like few movies I've seen before. I'd honestly have walked out if it weren't for the fact that my wife was enjoying the movie and did want to see how it ended. She did a better job than I did of suspending the critical eye of a serious movie fan. It was my loss.

When all was said and done I was thrilled to see the closing credits. Several people in the theater were wiping tears from their faces. They'd really enjoyed the movie. I was jealous of them. I was sure then, and I'm sure now, that if I'd managed to stay in the right frame of mind I'd have somehow enjoyed this movie. It was not a life-changer, this wasn't Ikiru or Schindler's List ... and it hadn't meant to be. This was the cinematic equivalent of a get-well card and a box of candy. It's what I think of as a "housewife movie," like Big Fish or The Notebook. There's nothing wrong with that. If you're in the right mood. I guess I just wasn't.

On our way into the theater, I had found myself standing in line behind an older fellow who was talking to a friend of his whom he'd met up with by chance at the theater. One friend asked the other what movie he was here to see, and the other had responded "Oh, uh ... it's The Lifestyle Of Benjamin Franklin." I had a quiet little laugh at the old guy's expense. But in the end, the laugh was on me. A movie about the supposedly outrageous habits of Ben Franklin would have surely been more entertaining than this one was. Shorter, too.

Trailer:



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Sunday, December 28, 2008

 

Movie Review: Domino



Synopsis

The late Domino Harvey lead a life that might make Buckaroo Bonzai look like Walter Mitty. She was a fashion model, a bounty hunter, a drug addict and a television star. This is her story, told in a hyperactive, violent style with lots of flash, blood, color and volume.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

One star, maybe one and a half on a five scale. A well made piece of crap.

Extended Review:

Director Tony Scott has turned out quite a few films that I've really enjoyed. Some of them (Man On Fire, Days of Thunder) are slightly guilty pleasures. Others (Enemy of the State, True Romance, Crimson Tide) are as good as action movies get.

Last Black Friday, Wal-Mart had a number of DVDs on sale for two bucks, and one of them was Tony Scott's Domino. I figured it was just bound to be worth two bucks. The Tony Scott brand-name alone was worth two bucks, right? Plus, the movie featured Mickey Rourke, and was one of the movies he's made since his mostly praiseworthy comeback. Christopher Walken was in there, too. He's always entertaining. I figured it was a no-brainer. I mean, geez, you can't even rent a movie for two bucks these days.

Well, I've just finished watching Domino and, yeah, I guess it was worth my two bucks ... but not a dime more than that. I don't see me ever watching it again, it's just gonna gather dust on our DVD shelf from now on. This isn't the worst movie Tony Scott has ever turned out (that would be Top Gun), but there is very little to recommend it. I'd kinda like to be able to take it back and retrieve my two bucks.

Domino is loosely based on the true story of Domino Harvey, who was a bounty hunter and may have also been a fashion model. She certainly had the looks to be, as does Keira Knightley, who portrays her in this film to the best of her limited acting abilities. If I'm honest, though, even an actress with the talents of Emma Thompson would have had a difficult time creating a memorable performance in this loud, bombastic mess of a film. Tony Scott gambled this movie's potential on a heap of jumbled edits, odd camera angles, bizarre narration, nonsensical subtitles and unhinged imagery that makes Fight Club look like Gosford Park.

Sometimes a big, kinetic, messy movie can be entertaining in it's own right. See Oliver Stone's demented morality tale U-Turn for a mostly successful example. And sometimes a director can emphasize style over substance and still manage to convey something meaningful about the human condition. For instance, I think that Danny Boyle's Trainspotting succeeds as a cautionary tale because that movie's hallucinogenic blur is an organic element of the story.

Now and then (very rarely, but occasionally), a movie can get by just on the strength of it's visuals. The Matrix, for example, and Tarsem Singh's The Cell both entertained me, and neither had much more to offer than their distinctly rich visual pallets.

And then there's Domino, a movie with nothing to offer but style and nothing new to offer even in those terms. Tony Scott is just rehashing his own body of work here, and borrowing from Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, and others.

Domino features one of the most incoherent stories I've ever seen in a movie. It may be full of plot-holes, too. I don't know, though, because I found the story impossible to follow. None of the characters were interesting or appealing enough to make me want to follow the story. And the movie's satirical subtext, about the emptiness of so-called "reality TV" and our culture's fascination with the cult of celebrity, is a little bit tired.

But I have to admit that Rourke and Walken both got about as much as anyone could have out of their cheesy characters. And seeing Tom Waits turn up late in the film in a small, unbilled role put a smile on my face. (That's a surprise I suppose I've just ruined for you. Sorry 'bout that.) And I have to admit that I enjoyed the soundtrack, including a number of Waits songs. They gave me something fun to at least listen to while the movie as a whole was failing to entertain me.

The worst movie I've seen in years and years was Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween. Domino was nowhere near that bad. Then again, a 200 degree vodka enema wouldn't have been as bad as watching Zombie's awful movie.

Still, it doesn't speak well for Domino that the best thing I can say about it is that it wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen. the cardinal sin for loud, flashy, violent, bloody, offensive movies is if they're also boring. This movie commits that sin. I think it's safe to say that everyone involved in this film will do better work than they turned in here.

Trailer:



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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

 

Movie Review: Pineapple Express



Synopsis

A pothead and his pot dealer get caught up in a murder, along with the dealer's dealer. But this is a comedy, so nobody is particularly good at what they're doing. Not the perpetually stoned pothead and his dealer, not the maladroit trafficker who wants them all dead, not the two bumbling hitmen who are working out their own jealousy issues, and not the competing Asian drug cartel which starts a drug-war just as all of this goes down. Understand? I didn't, either.

Pros:


Cons:


Generally:

1.5 on a five scale. And it wouldn't score that high if I just didn't flat out like Seth Rogan.

Extended Review:

Pineapple Express is the latest, and the least, in the string of commercially successful comedies from Judd Apatow's cinematic cabal. Like the superior comedies that preceded it, this movie has been brought to the screen by a pack of producer/writer/actor types, including Apatow, Seth Rogan, Danny McBride, Evan Goldberg ... and this time directed by David Gordon Green (of all people), the indie darling behind All The Real Girls and Undertow.

There are a number of possible reasons to explain why Pineapple Express falls short. Maybe it was that the director's "artistic" sensibilities conflicted with the slapstick anything-for-a-laugh approach that Apatow's productions employ.

Maybe it was that Apatow and crew were a little giddy about their first chance to make a movie with guns, squibs, explosions and fake blood. They sure throw the violence around everywhere in this film without ever really establishing a "motif" for the violent content. Movies like Kill Bill take the violence to a ridiculous extreme to establish that the story takes place in it's own world, not the real world. Other films, such as Blackhawk Down, use violence to establish a gritty realism. Then there are movies like Shoot 'Em Up, where stylized, bloody violence is played entirely for laughs, like a mock Looney Tunes cartoon.

Pineapple Express seems to want the violence to do all of that, and then some. So there's no real context for it. One character is shot something like seven times over the course of the film and brushes it off. His bullet wounds become a running gag ("Am I really stoned or have I just lost that much blood?") Other characters are shot in the head with bloody, violent, sudden realism. There's a huge fight between three men who trash a house (ala The Three Stooges) and try in vain to hurt each other. That bit is funny, but the bigger fight toward the end, involving the destruction of a barn, is just a bloody mess.

I don't mind violence in a movie if it makes sense. If it establishes and adheres to it's own context. If it doesn't, violent content can become a distraction. Too much of it can ruin a movie. Maybe it was all the gunfire and blood that ultimately drove the Pineapple Express off the rails.

Other elements of the film were, I admit, pretty good. If you enjoy Seth Rogan's modern slacker stoned-Albert-Brooks routine, you'll probably enjoy his performance here. I happen to like the guy and I did enjoy watching him schlub his way through this series of misadventures. His characer had, as he always does in these films, his big "come to Jesus" moment when he realized that he needed to change his life. But it seemed tacked on here rather than part of the larger theme.

And that's another complaint with Pineapple Express: The absolute absence of a larger theme. Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The 40 Year Old Virgin, are all vulgar comedies built on timeless coming-of-age templates. The characters have actual arcs, the stories have clear beginnings, middles and ends, and when the film is over we feel like we've had a ... well, an experience ... by watching the movie.

Not so with Pineapple Express. This time we've just watch Rogen bumble his way through a great deal of violence. There are laughs along the way. A gag involving a car chase with the driver's foot through the window was a hoot. James Franco and Danny McBride both get a couple of big laughs with their understated delivery of a couple of classic one-liners. Best of all, Pineapple Express contains the funniest non sequitur Jude Law reference that I've ever heard. That one joke is almost enough to justify the mess you have to wade through to get to it.

But not quite.

I can't recommend Pineapple Express to fans of the Rogan-Goldberg-Apataw comedy formula. That formula itself is probably still a great receipe for guffaws and wet-snort laughter and, gosh darn it, a good lesson learned along the way.

This time, though, they messed with the formula, added violence and lots of blood and references to talk radio and villians played by the oddly out of place Gary Cole and Rosie Perez. This ain't a good mix.

I don't know, maybe throwing Jonah Hill in there somewhere would have brought balance to the force. I doubt it, though. They'd have probably cast him as another gun-crazy thug.

Hopefully they'll get back to the good stuff with the next film, the Apatow directed Funny People. I can't wait to find out. After all, it's gonna take more than one rotten pineapple to totally stop the Apatow/Rogan comedy express.


Trailer (Explicit language)


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