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Monthly Archives: August 2010

Ten Word or Less Review:  One word only.  Awesome!

By all reasonable equations “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” should add up to an awful film going experience.  It stars one-note, wimpy guy Michael Cera in another part centered on a lovelorn romantic infatuation.  It’s based on a ‘hip’, slightly irritating graphic novel that’s too cute by some degrees.  It’s infused with a love of all things related to that special type of movie poison, video games.  A medium which has never produced anything close to a decent cinematic experience, video game adaptations seemed doomed to torture movie goes forever.  Despite all these glaring, insurmountable handicaps, “Scott Pilgrim” by turn’s charms, excites and invigorates in ways very few movies ever attempt.  It’s a bold and kinetic movie that jumps off the screen and proves livelier than anything made in an age.

Scott Pilgrim the character is by all social measures a loser.  He’s got no job, no phone, no real money to speak of, he’s on the physically slight side, he survives by the grace of his gay roommate, Kieran Culkin.  In short he’s the part Michael Cera always plays.  But that’s not a drawback here.  Scott’s one noticeable skill is playing a badass base guitar in a band called Sex Bob Omb.  So though Scott has little in material possessions he often strikes a chord in the hearts of the opposite sex with his goofy charm and amazing riffs.  He currently takes heat from colleagues and family for dating a high school girl named Knives, whom he’s kind of smitten with but knows he shouldn’t be dating.  But before long, but too long for Knive’s little heart to handle, Scott’s infatuation changes directions towards Romana Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winsted), a purpled haired, wonder girl whom Scott instantly crushes all over.  This romantic triangle takes a turn for Scott’s worse when he discovers that to date Ramona and win her heart, he must defeat her 7 evil ex-boyfriends, in glorious fight sequences which invoke Street Fighter II.  This is the part where your Mom and Dad will probably check out on “Pilgrim” and turn back over to whatever BBC series is on KET.  Hearts fly off the screen when people kiss, fists fly in multi-hit combos, vanquished boyfriends turn into coins, bands battle with music that threatens to rip the screen asunder with its epicness!  This being “Scott Pilgrim” I had to use the word epic at least once.  So that makes twice.  We’re good to move on.

“Pilgrim” succeeds not only as an endearing love story for the twenty something crowd, it’s a very good one of the genre, it rocks the proverbial socks off with dazzling fight sequences that blend the tried and true joy of video game button mashing with exquisite, action scene editing.  Just the day before I bemoaned the awful, indecipherable action choreography of the idiotic “Expendables.”  “Pilgrim” shows that hyperkinetic energy and fast pace don’t have to inevitably lead to indecipherable action mush.  This marriage of sharp editing with a pseudo fantasy backdrop makes us buy into the notion of Cera as an ass-kicking super guy who can defeat Superman and Captain America in the same movie.  Well, Bradon Routh and Chris Evans in the roles of two of the evil exes.

All of this unlikely but successful romantic mayhem is deftly assembled by director Edgar Wright.  The Brit helmer who’s carved his name in fanboy lore forever with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” continues to prove himself a master magician of tricky pop culture pieces.  With “Pilgrim” he’s shown that while no one has yet to make a compelling or worth while movie out of a video game property, you can take a love of video games and infuse it with cinema to produce something unique and startlingly entertaining.  The fact that the film works as a romantic character piece as well as an action epic, that’s three times, shows his prowess lies beyond innovative CGI pyrotechnics.  Wright’s skill with directing actors, even those as one note as Cera, is perhaps his greatest strength.  If he had failed in that regard, “Pilgrim” would’ve been an entertaining sideshow for about 30 minutes and then limped off to a corner and died of repetition.

As is often the case with boundary stretching cinema, the frenetic results irk and perturb some.  Thoughts of stylistic button pushers like “Moulin Rouge” and “Speed Racer” come to mind when dwelling on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”  Those movies, like this one, get slighted at first many for being too much to handle.  A movie only kids who grew up playing Playstation and X-Box can possibly invest in.  I say that’s bunk.  Any ass level director can make a movie, edit it to pieces and barf it up on the screen in a wretched, over boiled, smelly mess.  Hi Stallone!  Wright and company have put together a movie that whirls around like a phantasm of energy, found performers who deliver emotionally affecting performances that don’t smother under the style, and put it all together in a way that creates a grin from ear to ear for nearly every minute its on screen.  It’s a ballsy experience that few directors would ever take on, and even fewer would ever succeed with.  In short, it’s epic.

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Ten Word or Less Review:  Good, engrossing thriller.  Not quite a classic.

I find it difficult to write about phenomenon.  I never wrote about “Inception.”  They usually don’t live up to the hype, “Inception” did, and it’s hard to add anything to the hyperbole that comes with them.  Such is almost the case with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  An unlikely literary success story, deceased author Steig Larsson has crafted, well I don’t know what he’s crafted because I haven’t read it.  But the Swedish movie based on his excessively popular novel is a pretty decent thing.  It’s a solid mystery and it has a grizzly edge to it in places which distinguishes it from other stories of the type.  But as solid as it is, I’m lost as to why entire nations have been swept up into this craze.  It’s a good, not quite great, thing.

“Tattoo” follows the dual stories of Mikael and Lisbeth.  Mikael is a disgraced magazine publisher facing jail time for falsifying evidence against some corporate evil doers.  Lisbeth wears leather and spikes to work as a researcher who exceeds at her skills in hunting down information but is very unstable emotionally.  Before serving jail time, Mikael is solicited by a wealthy business man to investigate the 40 year old disappearance of his niece.  Though no new leads have emerged in years Mikael is compelled to take a stab at finding out what happened to the disappeared girl.  Unbeknownst to him Lisbeth has been spying on him through his computer and gradually becomes interested in his attempt to unravel a generation old mystery.  They eventually form an unlikely partnership and their investigation takes them to dangerous places.

As a work of mystery “Tattoo” is sturdy, well thought out and crafted with care.  Its twists aren’t readily apparent from any great distance but nor are they really mind blowing once revealed.  What pushes “Tattoo” in a more provocative direction is the character of the title, Lisbeth.  We know from the get go that Lisbeth is troubled, and though her past is part of her problem Larsson throws on a vile, rapist parole officer to give the audience someone to really hate with a passion.  “Tattoo” contains not one, but two vivid sequences in which Lisbeth is raped.  Director Niels Oplev doesn’t pull many punches with these scenes and those with weaker dispositions and easily turned off by rough depictions of violence would be wise to watch something else.  It’s hard to imagine an American remake following through quite as thoroughly as the work here does.  These grim beats don’t have a lot of direct payoff within the story at hand but it’s apparent that the emotional consequences of past and present will play a part in the next two installments.

People love a good mystery, and a little sadism as well, and “Tattoo” has just enough to make someone stand up and pay attention.  I can’t quite put together what about the material has drawn so many legions of fans, but I digress.  Maybe I should just read the book.  As far as film mysteries go “Tattoo” is a little short of being a real classic of the genre, but worth a look by curious film goers and devoted fans of the source material.

Ten Word or Less Review:  Will Farrell in something funny?  How?

Will Farrell is a funny man who specializes in making really unfunny movies.  As consistently hilarious as he is in short doses, when it comes to his movies, Farrell is more than a chore; he’s pure irritant to the ass.  For years now he has specialized in playing the same over-confident, man boy moron in movie after movie.  I hate this persona and have never liked watching Farrell doing it.  “Elf”, “Talledega Nights”, “Step Brothers”, “Anchorman” and all the others in this league?  Screw’em!  So imagine how absolutely freaking shocked I was to enjoy “The Other Guys.”  Probably because it’s a sharply written comedy in which Farrell takes his overused idiot personality and abandons it completely.

“The Other Guys” is the buddy cop parody that Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out” tried so poorly to be just a few months ago.  “Other” knows the beats and routines of these films and delightfully turns all of them on their head.  Partnered with Mark Wahlberg, another dubious movie presence, Farrell stars as an emotionally repressed, constantly upbeat cop accountant partnered with Wahlberg’s chronically pissed off hot head.  After the city’s two supercops get themselves killed, funny cameos by Dwayne Johnson and Sam Jackson, it falls on this mismatched pair to solve a big mystery.  A mystery that the movie wisely cares precious little about so that it just focus on humor.

The bulk of the movie is about this woefully paired duo and the reactions they bring out in one another.  The two have an argument about lions and tuna that feels like a classic in the making.  They find out that action heroes don’t just walk away from explosions and call foul on “Return of the Jedi” in the process.  Farrell has a line about tooth paste I laugh about every time I think about it.  Wahlberg holds his own against Farrell, drawing as many laughs with his overheated rage as Farrell gets with his unflappable amiability.  He’s as tricky an actor as Farrell in that he can be unequivocally terrible in any given film, but here he goes balls out with the role and it works.  “The Other Guys” keeps setting up one set piece after another for these two and the comedic stamina doesn’t wane, at least for a while.

Like a lot of movie comedy “The Other Guys” is too long by 15 minutes.  It would’ve been better served if it had adhered to a tried and true 90 minute runtime.  After its first hour it starts to play itself out. It never turns sour; it just starts to feel tepid.  It doesn’t find its rhythm again until its last 20 minutes or so.  It recovers nicely and bounces back with enthusiasm.

If Farrell abandons the old dipshit routine and tries on different material I’ll give him his due.  “The Other Guys” reminds us that he can be funny at something other than being stupid or George Bush.  One in the same I guess.  It’s a riotous movie that tries new angles, dares to be just a little different, and succeeds in the process.  Here’s hoping they don’t make a sequel.

Ten Word or Less Review:  A big, loud fart of a movie.

I’ve often thought of Sylvester Stallone as a semi-intelligent soul trapped in the body of a big lug.  He always puts forth an articulate nature and seems to have been genuinely humbled by his drastic career downturn of the 90’s and 2000’s.  He embraces his fans and truly wants to make films that people will enjoy.  But a lot of this has to be called into question with “The Expendables.”  After doggedly gaining back enough credibility with returns to his iconic Rocky and Rambo characters, Stallone’s new feature reminds us that at his heart he’s still just a purveyor of bad action movies.  In this case, an incredibly bad action movie that feels like two or three bad action movies rolled into one.  One used to beat the audience into submission with its rank awfulness.  And all of its badness rest squarely on Sly’s muscled shoulders.

Sly’s old action vehicles had plenty of stupid to go around but they at least knew that.  Crap like “Cobra” and “Tango & Cash” had no aspirations at greatness, not even respectability.  They were garbage but they were done efficiently, effectively and never wondered off their well worn tracks.  “The Expendables” feels like a grab bag of half-assed and stupid ideas stitched together for no useful purpose.  It’s loaded with subplots that go nowhere, characters which are useless and story developments that belong in some other movie.  Blathering on about the plot details would be a waste of time because “Expendables” doesn’t know what to be about for more than a few minutes at a time.  It’s as incoherent and garbled as Gary Busey on a coke binge.

The cast is loaded from top to bottom with muscle heads from yesterday and today but most of them are sitting sideline.  Stallone and Jason Statham get the majority of the screen time but their banter doesn’t work.  They have no chemistry together.  Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, some guys who wrestle, some ripped dude from a deodorant commercial and Dolph Lundgren all pop in and out.  The thing is they could almost all pop out and never be missed.  “Expendables” is slovenly written to include lots of characters it doesn’t need.  The movie keeps getting bogged down in character beats which go nowhere and worse, aren’t interesting at all.  Only Lundgren seems to have the potential to really add something but he doesn’t get the opportunity.  He looks like a ripped, sweaty, hophead about to snap and kill an orphanage full of kids, but Stallone never turns him loose.

All of this fail falls directly on the lumpy head of Stallone.  He’s dreamed up, and even co-wrote, this project as a throwback to 80’s styled mayhem but he’s forgotten the rules of the genre he helped define.  He directs the action with a jittery, over cut, undistinguished style.  Deciphering the mayhem is almost impossible and eventually a chore.  With this dithering, derivative style and lack of a bigger budget, “Expendables” starts to feel like something that should’ve gone straight to Spike TV.  All of his dialogue is forced, trite and worst of all, really unfunny.  He should’ve locked 80’s hack sensation Shane Black in a room for a month to rewrite the whole damned mess.

When it’s all over, all the bad guys are dead and everything is blown up real good, relief sets in.  Not because the tension was so high but because you know this ride on a flaming train wreck is done.  On one hand “The Expendables” is nothing but a dunderheaded action movie with a lot of promotion behind it.  On the other hand it’s one of the most ironic movies ever made.  Stallone slowly and steadily ruined his career making dumb action movies that fewer and fewer people found themselves liking.  After years of career turmoil and failure, climbing back to a point where he could achieve something again, he’s made a dumb action movie that I can’t imagine many people liking.  Way to go Sly.

Ten Word or Less Review: Best film of the year!  Says who?

Not far from our suburbs and cities, our malls and super grocery stores, our i-pods and hybrid cars, savageness still plays a part in everyday life.  “Winter’s Bone” takes the viewer to a part of the world few films care to wonder off into, the bareback of Ozark country, replete with easily prickled, drug addicted hillbillies who just as soon skin you as to look at your Yankee mug.  The setting is daring and a rare place to set a motion picture, but the story unfolding is minor and not exactly bursting at the seams with ripe drama.

“Bone” is the story of Ree Dolly, a teenager trying to raise her younger siblings with a mentally checked out mother and a father on the run from the law.  Dad has hastily put their house up as collateral on his bond to get out of jail, and subsequently vanished.  If Ree doesn’t locate her father and get him to square himself with the law, the house is gone and she and her siblings are out on the gravel.  Standing in between herself and her father are a whole community of violence prone white trash who’ve got their own scores to settle with her missing father.  As she makes inquiries into her father’s location, she’s routinely stonewalled and threatened in not so subtle ways.

That last sentence is that catch because it’s all that “Winter’s Bone” consist of in terms of drama and story, Ree asking people about her father and people telling her to shut up and go away.  It’s a barely workable narrative as it is and the story never jumps past this.  The story is in desperate need of some more complications or turns, but none are here.

What’s drawn much acclaim for “Winter’s Bone” especially locally, is star Jennifer Lawrence, a sure talent and Louisville native.  She’s too pretty by half for a film such as this but she feels believable and authentic.  She’s what holds the film up and she makes the overall experience worth the time.  Had an actress of less talent been cast, “Winter’s Bone” would’ve been a complete washout.

All in all there are some things to note here and there, Lawrence mostly, and the movie takes great measure to present an accurate and unflinching portrayal of gritty, Ozark life, but beyond observing how this particular societal fringe lives, there’s little to become invested in.

Ten Word or Less Review – Swedes, photography, oppressive poverty.  It’s a winner!

This is an excellent drama set during the early part of the 19th century about a Swedish family dealing with their impoverished existence.  Told from the point of view of the oldest daughter, “Everlasting Moments” traces the family trials that rip and tear at the family fabric, largely being held together by an unbreakable mother.  Though father can always hold down a job because of his abundant strength, he routinely falls off the wagon and becomes an unbearable and abusive lout.  It’s sort of a Swedish version of “Angela’s Ashes.”

The saintly, put upon mother is able to find a form of emotional escape and spiritual uplift through photography, a rare hobby and highly skilled trade in 1907.  The camera itself is the reason the mother and father married to begin with, or at least it’s jokingly inferred.  She’s blessed with a natural eye for the craft but her artistic ability, and the admiration from others that it brings, infuriates her husband and inflames his ignorant and brutish impulses.  His abusiveness grows with time but the mother’s old world sense of marital obligation prevents her from abandoning him, despite all instincts to do so.

Calling the movie Bergmanesque is an easy comparison but none the less a correct one.  It’s very reminiscent of Bergman’s later life works, though maybe several steps removed from his sense of spiritual dourness.  It feels especially close in essence to Bergman’s epic masterpiece “Fanny & Alexander.”  Though it’s downbeat and often reflects the ugly reality of the lives its capturing, it’s never oppressive or a chore to sit through.  There’s a sensitivity to it which maintains an even emotional flow, never pouring too much misery on the viewer at once, and often remembering to deal with hard human suffering with a delicate and sensitive approach.  It never feels exploitative or abusive.

“Everlasting Moments” reminds us of the old fashioned merits of two art forms drastically changed by the 21st century.  Not only is it a shining example of a simpler, more resonant form of film storytelling, it reminds the audience that photography used to be something more than just a phone app.  It was something rare and special and those who used it captured fleeting moments of life now long passed.  “Moments” may not seem like a movie for all audiences, but I’m willing to bet most people, if they can get over it being in Swedish, will find themselves engrossed by it.

Precious – All the awards and recognition didn’t sway people from going after “Precious”. It was the target of copious amounts of criticism from film critics and social bloggers.  Many detractors claimed that the filmmakers had assembled a movie that was subtlety racist in old fashioned ways.  Precious the character is full of self-loathing and daydreams about having a light skinned boyfriend.  Even going so far to have Precious imagine herself as a pretty white girl.  An uncomfortable sentiment for some but considering the character and her hellish circumstances, such an idea isn’t far fetched. Other antagonistic views said that the film was an African-American pity party.  An exploitation horror show meant to make white people feel better about not being black.  Such sentiment, that white people will watch “Precious” and apply it’s story to all black people and thus feel superior, is just as racist in its own way.  That view implies that all white people are stupid and easily led on.  While these criticisms certainly make interesting points and liven the debate, they completely missed the larger reason for the movie’s success with audiences and critics.  It’s a well made drama in the long standing underdog genre with compelling performances and enough style to draw attention to the skill on display but not overshadow the story as a whole.  In short, we root for Precious to succeed, to overcome her truly awful circumstances and become a better person.  When she does the audience achieves a sense of uplift.  Such sentiment transcends race and it’s a shame so many choose to ignore that point.

Book of Eli – For all the acclaim that has been bestowed on Denzel Washington during his career, few people like to acknowledge that he more often than not appears in movies that could easily be classified as standard issue.  Some of his stuff rises above the norm and he rarely makes anything terrible, but memorable work also eludes him.  “The Book of Eli” falls into exactly this pattern.  No great or terrible things can be said about it.  It’s another post-apocalyptic action flick, Washington channeling Eastwood’s man with no name character to a tee.  It has a good twist in the end but the journey there isn’t much fun.  Director’s Albert and Allen Hughes give the movie that persistently, over styled flashiness that all big budget action movies get.  They also pour on the standard issue grungy atmosphere.  It is the apocalypse so things have to be dusty and strewn with garbage.  Nothing about “Eli” feels unique or necessary.  The once promising directing duo of Albert and Allen now seem content to make action trash like this.  It’s all a small shame because there’s a promising idea driving the story, but there’s nothing pushing it along or making it feel important.  If you’re an easy lay for action flicks, or Washington, then “Eli” will probably do enough for you.  If neither prospect seems appealing then there’s nothing here.  Rent something else.

Cop Out – This movie is like hearing the same crappy joke repeated by a drunk guy in a bar over and over for 90 minutes.  In an annoying, high pitched voice, while being stabbed in the eye with a stapler.  Fuck you Kevin Smith.  I’m done with your fat, lazy ass.