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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Ten Word or Less Review: Coen’s remake John Wayne.  And?

True Grit is perhaps the most undefiant movie Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made.  The Coen’s have over the years developed an acidic and loathsome disposition towards their characters and by extension their audience.  There was nothing but thinly veiled contempt for characters of their last effort A Serious Man and if Burn After Reading didn’t make you feel like a chump you weren’t paying much attention.  Grit defies these tendencies, sort of, and is populated by strong willed protagonists who win over the audience.  It’s very straight forward and doesn’t deviate much from its source material.  It doesn’t intentionally rankle in places and the trademark quirks which typify Coen work are held in check, sort of.   It’s the oddest thing they’ve made by virtue of how straight forward the whole experience is.  It’s so ‘just a western’, that it’s almost a let down.

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is Hattie Ross, an intimidating and intelligent 14-year old who comes to a small Arkansas town to deal with the murder of her father at the hands of the vile Tom Cheaney (Josh Brolin).  Her personality is so fierce and determined that talking down to her because of her gender or age is simply not allowed.  She barters with business owners and lawmen like unbendable steel.  As her father’s killer has escaped into indian territory, she hires, more like forces, the disreputable Rooster Cogburn to catch her father’s killer.  Cogburn’s (Jeff Bridges) a trigger lovin’ U.S. Marshall who shoots easily and ask things much later, if at all.  Also after Cheaney is La Boeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger whose been after Cheaney for months.  This odd trio set out into dangerous land to catch Cheaney, as well as tolerate the other.

There’s very little criticism to aim at the performers in Grit.  Steinfeld grabs hold of her role as Ross and makes would could become tiresome and bossy robustly entertaining.  She stands toe to toe with any and all comers and is convincing at every turn.  A compliment from Damon’s La Boeuf says it best, “You’ve earned your spurs.”  Bridges, taking on one of John Wayne’s most iconic parts, turns Cogburn into a messy but noble lout.  He’s a functional drunk who looks like he’d fall out of his clothes if it were possible and who is barely hanging onto the ability to form coherent speech.  If Bridges won a legion of followers as The Dude he could win another one as this grimy smartass.  Damon amuses well enough as the diction refined La Bouef.  Brolin’s role as Cheaney is not much more than an extended cameo.

Where Grit feels off is in on an under the surface level, as in it doesn’t have one.  When not trenched in outright comedy the Coen’s are known for making types of movies which can enthrall with dramatic heft and entrance with thematic resonance.  Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, No Country, several others, time and again these movies sock you in the intellect as well as the gut.  People don’t just kill or die in these films, to kill or be killed comes drenched in consequences for scores of other characters and the demised always have something to plead before their exit.  Grit has none of this.  The pomp and circumstance which typifies their best work is all but amputated, leaving the viewer with an enjoyable and mildly quirky western, nothing more.  As strong as the work is from so many parties involved, when Grit ends, in abrupt Coen fashion, there’s next to nothing to dwell on or take away.  It’s just over and that’s that.

Plenty of filmmakers make movies without setting out to ‘SAY SOMETHING’ and are never called to task for it.  Sometimes a message is damned annoying.  Maybe it’s unfair to deny the Coen’s the right to simply make an entertaining movie.  True Grit is very entertaining.  I will make no bones about that.  But after all these years and all their films, both grand and lousy, for them to essentially say next to nothing with a work comes as a minor shock.  Those expecting the Coen’s to challenge the stature of Unforgiven should refine their expectations.  Those expecting to see Jeff Bridges chew delightfully on good looking scenery, you will be more than satisfied.

Ten Word or Less Review: The movie to spread holiday cheer like no other.

Darren Aronofsky has a singular take on character transformation.  His creations reach catharsis and achieve change like all storytellers set out to do, but Aronofsky always takes things one step further.  His characters physically manifest their changes in shocking ways or worse, become completely removed from their former selves.  Rachel Weisz became a tree.  Hugh Jackman exploded into a shrub.  Ellen Burstyn became a hollow shell.  The poor guy from Pi went from genius to mental zombie.  Black Swan takes this unique take on growth and/or regression of his to increasingly creepy places.  Swan places us squarely over the shoulder of a New York Ballerina as her dark side fights to be set free, morphing her into paranoid, avian influenced monster.   Black feathers, red eyes, bent knees and all.

Natalie Portman is Nina, the sheltered and inexperienced ballerina who lives at home with an obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), herself an emotional cripple who habitually draws pictures of her precious daughter.  Because of her singular dedication to craft, Nina’s talent is beyond reproach, but because of her lack of life experience she has no passion.  Her director (Vincent Cassell) wants to cast her in the lead of Swan Lake but fears her frigidity will stop kill the show.  Despite this inability to inject lust or spontaneity into her performance, Nina lands the lead, a difficult dual role which requires both the pure, virginal, perfection of craft which Nina excels at, as well as a dark, unfurled lust of which Nina wants so desperately to know.  So begins her feverish decent into a personal Hell.  On the surface it’s a story that seems ripe for the theme of personal liberation from an oppressive life, but never once would anyone suspect an uplifting outcome on the horizon for this doomed performer.  Nina slowly slips into paranoia and the lines between reality and her obsessions breaks down.

Black Swan is Darren Aranofsky’s creation but it’s Portman for whom he has created this vehicle.  She’s the centerpiece of this spectacle and the entire story is told from her increasingly unreliable point of view.  Portman’s transformation from repressed wallflower to mad ballerina is jarring and frightful.  While the theme of liberation is often used as an expression of uplift, here the casting off of her shackles is engrossing in entirely different ways.  Her steps of personal growth are awkward and failing.  As her grasp on reality slips away her morbid fantasies infringe on her life to the point she can no longer tell what’s happening and what she imagines.  The whole thing culminates in a finale where Nina dances the black swan, sprouting sleek black feathers which cover her body.  Portman embodies all these changes with a performance so fearless it leaves most of her past roles as footnotes.  Anyone who calls her Queen Amidala after this deserves a punch in the nuts.

Barbara Hershey returns to the big screen with a razor sharp performance as Portman’s mother.  It easily could’ve been tilted too far and turned into a ridiculous tribute to Joan Crawford’s Mommy Dearest camp fest, but her work here embodies both the intimidating and the pathetic.  A former ballerina herself, she lords over Nina, desperate for her to achieve a greatness she only came close to in her mind.  Mila Kunis’s Lily is less of a stretch for the cutesy actress but admirable because much of her performance is made up in Nina’s head.  Whether she’s an emerging friend or a backstabbing show stealer is a lot of what slowly drives Nina mad.

Gradually building into a crazed delirium, Black Swan frantically pirouettes right along side the recent 127 Hours as one of the year’s most dizzying and stressful cinematic events.  Not fearing to display a few gruesome bits of shock horror and making no gestures to appeal to peoples better instincts, Black Swan ratchets up a lot of uneasy tension in viewers.  Darren Aronofsky’s creepy show of a ballerina walking up to the cusp of insanity in the name of artistic perfection is one of 2010’s memorable movie experiences.

Ten Word or Less Review: Run around your house with flashlights instead.  It’s cheaper.

Misguided nostalgia lust has gone too far yet.  I need someone to tell me exactly when the original Tron was deemed a good movie.  Because it’s not.  It’s a terrible movie.  It’s what happens when you let a computer nerd make a movie and not an experienced filmmaker.  I think that fat bastard Harry Knowles may be behind this revisionist nonsense.  The original Tron is a tedious experience, notable only for its primitive but ambitious CGI look.  Its screenplay sucks, there’s no dramatic tension and what’s at stake if the good guys fail is really anyone’s guess.  Someone somewhere convinced a Disney executive that another Tron flick, Tron Legacy, was not only necessary, but very necessary and should cost $200 million.  So after three years in development and scores of corporate manufactured enthusiasm for the property in place, how is it?  Its screenplay sucks, there’s no dramatic tension and what’s at stake is really anyone’s guess.

Legacy picks up a few years after the first film ended.  Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is now a dad and as he stands on the verge of a magnificent technological breakthrough he vanishes.  His son, Sam, gets sad and misses him.  Cut to 20 years later and Sam has grown up into Batman Begins Bruce Wayne, I.E. a rich, directionless misanthrope who wrecks havoc with his own company.  He’s the stock movie orphan that Disney loves, one whose character is defined by daddy issues and not much else.  He also likes his dog and his motorcycle.  One day he’s coerced into checking out his dad’s old arcade, he finds his father’s secret office, turns on computer, and boom, back in the computer world we are.  The laser light show begins.  To bore you with the rest of the actual story would be pointless and cruel.

Tron Legacy is handicapped right off the bat by the fact the audience can no longer be wowed the way it used to be.  Special effects spectaculars are a dime a dozen so Tron Legacy had little hope as any kind of boundary breaker like its woe begotten father film.  Audiences hoping for gobs of visual excess and dizzying action will instead find a shockingly inert movie which runs a needlessly long 125+ minutes.  Just like the original there’s a total lack of narrative tension, character involvement and the story is not only not cohesive, it’s total gibberish.  This is a first draft screenplay that gives first draft screenplays a bad name.  Legacy’s screenplay is cursed with megabytes worth of verbal blathering which never amounts to an idea worth expressing and which no actor, regardless of strength, could make compelling.  Since there’s little story logic to be found a judicious editor and smart director should’ve just thrown this thing into the shredder and cut out about 15-20 minutes of the useless fodder floating around.  A good looking, tightly wound nonsensical light show would’ve been easier to manage than this soggy, bloated one.

Directed by newcomer Joseph Kosinski, this freshman helmer has been tasked to bring something to life that no director could do.  The material handed to him was simply in no shape to be filmed.  He looks to be at least a skilled technician but if he has strengths as a storyteller Tron was an unfortunate place to showcase them.  Legacy is punctuated by a couple of action sequences which liven things up, but as soon as the viewer thinks things are about to look up thanks to some visual razzmatazz, Legacy begins another slow march towards narrative strangulation.  As the screenplay is so dreadful, and with studio tinkering and reshoots abundant, one can maybe not be too harsh on Kosinski.  It feels like a movie no one could’ve made work without extensive rewrites.  But if this mess is what he set out to achieve, his demotion back to commercials and TV shows can’t come soon enough.

As for the actors Jeff Bridges shows up doing his Lebowski/Dude persona with some semi-amusing results.  He seems to be having a kick revisiting this amped up light show he was apart of a lifetime ago but it’s too small an effort to really kick anything up a notch.  His second performance, as a digitized younger version of himself, doesn’t work on a technical level.  The lower half of his CGI mug seems paralyzed and rubbery.  It’s an experiment in CGI advancement not quite ready for showcasing to the public.  Newcomer Garrett Hedlund is saddled with the thankless title role.  He’s a bland, uninteresting hero and if Hedlund possesses any credible acting ability, he’ll have to find somewhere else to showcase it.

No matter how minor a cultural blip the original Tron was it’s somehow been reconstructed as a viable tent pole event flick.  Disney miraculously convinced the movie going public that it fondly remembered the original and needed another.  Its apparent financial success is a bad sign to be sure.  It opens the floodgates for more remakes and sequels to properties no one liked to begin with.  Remember how stupid Krull was?  No you don’t.  It was wonderful.  You loved it.  You need Krull 2: Return to KrullBlack Hole bored you to death way back when?  No it didn’t!  It was awesome!  Get ready for Blacker Hole!  And don’t try to deny it.  You loved the original and when Howard the Duck’s Revenge comes out, you’re seeing it.

Centurion (2010) – Neil Marshall made a few fans with his ‘chicks in a cave with monsters’ flick, The Descent.  He lost a lot of those fans after the abysmally received Doomsday.  Neil bounces back a little bit with Centurion, a blood and guts actionier about Rome’s lost 9th Legion.  A very credible cast (Michael Fassenbinder, Dominec West) hold up the bare bones screenplay to a slightly higher level than it probably deserves.  Gory battles between Roman soldiers and their nemesis, the Picts, are the name of the game here.  Marshall deserves some credit for crafting an adventure film where the lines between pro and antagonist are frightfully thin.  The ‘good guys’ are invading mauraders while the ‘bad guys’ are defending their homeland and completely in the right to want revenge.  This unorthodox dynamic makes the otherwise thin experience tick just enough.
Cronos (1993) – Guillermo Del Toro’s (Pan’s Labrynith) first feature is an underwhelming one.  The imagination that came to define his strongest works is around a few corners, but this odd tale about an old man turned into a vampire like bloodsucker via renaissance age gadget doesn’t engage very strongly.  The film feels underimagined in too many places and Del Toro can’t instill much sense of consequence into anything.  Ron Perlman is kind of funny in a side role and hints at the relationship between actor and director that would eventually give us Hellboy.  Fans of Del Toro will want to check it out but the rest of the world won’t find much to hold onto here.

The Killer Inside Me (2010) – Michael Winterbottom gets an awesome performance out of Casey Affleck, here playing a small town sheriff with a propensity for cold-hearted killing when things don’t go his way.  After falling into a sexual fling with a prostitute on the edge of town, Jessica Alba, situations involving blackmail and revenge start to curl around him and threaten his being.  His solution to problems is always to kill, a twisted grin slowly creeping over his face as he does in his victims.  For him, ending someone’s life is as troublesome as taking out a bag of garbage.  Based on an old Jim Thompson novel of the same name, the rest of the movie’s plot and characters are just a shade sketchy.  Winterbottom glosses over his plot a little too haphazardly and a feeling of unimportance hangs some things.  But Affleck is always commanding of the screen as this unflappable psycho.  The rest of the cast, even in fleeting parts, put their best foot forward.  I can say I’ve seen Kate Hudson in a movie which didn’t look like eye rape from 50 miles away.

 

The Keep (1983) – The dubious directorial debut from now highly respected director Michael Mann (Heat).  A bunch of Nazi’s roll into a small Hungarian village to take possession of an ancient religious temple being guarded by the locals.  Locals tell them not to touch the fancy crosses all over the walls.  Nazi’s touch the crosses.  Evil unleashed.  Unleashed evil starts killing Nazis.  So why should we root against this evil, Nazi killing demon?  The script is terrible and the film feels nonsensical via bad writing and editing that feels like it was done with a machete.  If there was ever a coherent movie here it was chopped away with vigorous abandon.  Scott Glenn is our hero who barely gets a name and it doesn’t help that his role is retarded.  It’s his purpose in life to stop the evil demon, who looks like a naked Skeletor, and even has the only weapon which can stop it, yet he lives in another country hundreds of miles away.  Fucking moron.  Mann manages to give the movie a decent look, some of it could pass for a stylized 80’s music video, but there’s no hope for this mess.  Tangerine Dream contributes the one worth while effort of the show, a neato synth score that should’ve haunted a different movie.  Mann fans can find this goofy mishmash of crap via Netflix on demand.

 

Antichrist (2009) – Lars Von Trier’s latest attempt to piss off film critics and movie goers.  And boy did he succeeded at ticking off a lot with Antichrist.  A married couple has a wild fuck and as they’re lost in sexual bliss, their infant son crawls out of his crib and out the window of their apartment.  After his death the mother, Charlotte Gainsborough, becomes consumed with grief.  The husband, Willem Dafoe, tries to use therapy and logic to bring her around.  They get nowhere.  The two then head off for a cabin in a place simply dubbed Eden.  Here things go from bad to worse to totally fucked.  Aggressive sex is performed, stomach clinching violence ensues, a fox makes an ominous statement.  While Von Trier may be attempting to say something about the differing natures of grief within men and women, his shock tactics work against him.  His movie becomes a deranged experience very likely to send people running from the room.  It’s all beautifully shot and it’s as compelling and unique an experience you’re likely to have with a movie, but it will probably make the squeamish and sensitive folk freak out and vomit.  Had Von Trier been a little less adamant about disgusting his audience, he may have made a more thoughtful impression on people.  It’s equal parts fascinating and repulsive.

 

 

 

 

Ten Word or Less Review: Gripping, gut-wrenching, top shelf cinema

Right on the heals of last weeks tepid actioner Unstoppable comes a film which stands in direct opposition to that underwhelming experience, 127 Hours. Unstoppable had a half mile long train barreling through Pennsylvania loaded with explosives threatening to destroy towns and kill the innocent and never once did it manage to shock or surprise.  127 Hours is about a guy with his arm stuck under a rock and never once is it not completely riveting.  Tony Scott whooshed his camera around his locomotive, had helicopters buzz like flies all over it but never established a unique point of view or compelling sensation of speed.  Danny Boyle sends his camera crawling all over James Franco’s cave prison and never once shoots anything which feels tired or redundant.  In short, one movie has an epic scenario to play with and achieves very little, while the other is tied to one little 3-square foot area and surpasses it in every way.  Limitations can inspire greatness and innovation.

127 Hours is the true story of Aron Ralston, a weekend adventurer who trounces out into the wild, unmanned spaces of Utah to seek spiritual fulfillment and physical endurance.  In a combination of stupidity and bad luck, Aron decided on this particular escapade to keep his destination under hat but then finds himself trapped by a large unassuming rock.  While traversing a small ravine he places his foot on the seemingly sturdy boulder, it shakes loose, he falls, it falls, he lands with his arm firmly trapped between rock and wall.  Neither are going to move.  Thus begins Aron’s non-moving journey of spiritual examination and bodily desperation.  Desperation which culminates in him taking the kind of horrifying action no one wants to imagine but which the film doesn’t shy away from.

Essentially a one man show, 127 Hours spends all of its time with Aron, played with light, enthusiastic charm, and eventually touching remorse, by James Franco.  Franco turns in a small bit of a tour de force performing here.  An actor still finding his way in movies, Franco could’ve easily fallen into the Mathew McCounghey trap, I.E. slowly become a wishy washy movie star who coast on his ample charm and looks through increasingly detestable star vehicles.  But Franco, who flirted with that path, now seems determined to be something else.  He’s an immediately likeable movie presence and if he contimnues to find parts wish push him into new directions, he could achieve a long and interesting career.  After this and Pineapple Express he’s showing a lot of versitility that’s been hinted at for a while.

Behind the camera is Danny Boyle pushing his way through another unothodox story.  A man determined to never make the same film twice, Boyle mines through the cinematic bag of tricks to make Aron’s stationary nightmare an engaging experience from front to back.  Sketched in with just enough movie like devices, but adhering close enough to the truth of the situation, 127 Hours is a film which enthralls, wows and then terrifies.  When it comes time for Aron to perform his mortifying act of escape, Boyle doesn’t wimp out or back away for the sake of the squeamish.  The last 10 minutes of 127 Hours are paralyzing in suspense and can drive viewers with lesser intestinal fortitude right out of the theater.  You’ve been warned.

Fans of great suspense and strong performance will have a lot to appreciate in 127 Hours. While it’s not finding mass audiences in theaters it’s likely to be long remembered and championed by those who do take the plunge with it.  There are few films this year which match its exhilerating highs.

Ten Word or Less Review:  Train to nowhere.

In every story there are choices to make.  This character lives.  That character dies.  These people avoid disaster.  Those people don’t.  These decisions are what drive story telling in any form and sometimes making these decisions are hard for storytellers because they may run the risk of angering or annoying the audience by making a decision the audience doesn’t like.  Unstoppable avoids this usually unavoidable crux of storytelling by essentially telling a story in which despite all the bluster and hustle of what’s flying by onscreen, absolutely nothing important happens by the time it’s finished.  For all that happens this might as well be a movie about a runaway milk truck.

Playing a character that’s starting to feel rote as hell, Denzel Washington shows up to do his put upon, working man routine for director Tony Scott.  It worked a lot better for their vastly superior Taking of Phelam 123. He’s a good hearted train engineer with daughters he loves.  He’s about to fade into forced retirement.  He’s giving Captain Kirk a hard time for being a rookie.  One morning a lazy idiot train yard employee loses control of a train.  Unmanned and out of control it’s loaded with chemicals and rocket fuel and will blow up half of Pennsylvania if it derails.  Denzel and Kirk put aside their differences and set out to stop that train.  They discuss their emotional baggage a little bit as they do it. They don’t go gay for each other.  But what a curious decision that would’ve been.

One would figure in a movie such as this that mayhem and/or carnage might be around a few corners.  People would perish, property will be lost, and lives would be irrevocably changed at the hands of this runaway nightmare which will spare no soul in its way.  Nope.  The pacing is fast and the editing is tight and the story never sags, but Unstoppable refuses to ever play down and dirty even a little bit.  Train full of school kids?  Misses.  Horse trailer on the tracks?  Horses get out.  Helicopters buzzing around it at all times?  They never crash.  Guy hangs out of a helicopter and winds up crashing through the engine window?  He lives.  This out of control train of death does very little by the time it’s over.

Frequently frenzied director Tony Scott keeps spinning his camera around his primaries, flashing over the speeding bullet of possible destruction, cutting away to tense people saying tense things, having Rosario Dawson play with her hair.  It’s all an illusion.  For all the energy being pumped into things one slowly realizes that nothing harrowing is going to happen.  If Scott and company set out to make a big rousing action distraction which would keep people entertained but unmoved, they hit the nail right on the head.

When it’s all said and done there’s nothing really terrible or awful about Unstoppable.  It’s simply a diversion movie and not much more.  Had the powers that be injected just a little sense of danger and unpredictability then maybe we’d be talking about this a little longer.  But they didn’t so we won’t.  Good bye.