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Monthly Archives: June 2011

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Ten World or Less Review: A rare movie.  Strange, uneven and likely to rankle many.

Tree of Life isn’t for everyone, though it tries mightily to be about everything.  It’s a Terrence Malick movie so if that excites you’ll have a lot to think on while taking this film in.  If his previous efforts of the recent era held you enraptured, The Thin Red Line and The New World, then Tree of Life may be further proof for you that Malick is an unparalleled maker of astounding movies.  Nothing less than a singular voice among the hordes of tone deaf movie makers of today.  But if those films tried your patience and tested the limits of your movie watching ability, or you simply avoided them, you should do something else with your movie going time as even fans of Malick may find Tree of Life to be an exasperating experience.  I feel that Line and World are two of the best movies of the past two decades but I found myself put out in places by this defiantly strange creation.  Though it’s undeniably great in places, fascinating to dwell on and provides much more to talk about than what’s out there in this routinely pedantic summer movie season, it’s equal parts defiant, enthralling and frustrating.

Most of Life, I stress most, is an impressionistic tale of a small town Texas family in the 1950’s which some speculate mirrors the director’s own adolesence.  Told with his trademark flourishes of fiercely nontraditional narrative style, repleate with shots of mother nature, cryptic and hushed voice overs offering insight into characters inner workings and a refusal to stage scenes as a movie going public is used to them, Life is textbook Malick.  The story follows Jack, mostly as young boy played by Hunter McCracken and book ended as an adult by Sean Penn.  Jack and his younger brothers are growing up under the increasingly harsh hand of his father played by Brad Pitt and loving, spiritual mother played by Jessica Chastain.  Their duality of natures is a symbol for the paths of life available to us.  It’s a story of how youth is molded by our parents, how our own instincts as people can be subverted and changed in difficult ways we may not like by those responsible for our mere existence.  On this level it’s a compelling and fascinating drama that fits exquisitely into the Malick filmography.  Resplendent with moments of unparalleled beauty that no other movie maker can equal Tree of Life flies in the face of typical flicks.

For much of the second and third act Malick follows through on his examination of Jack’s relationship between his mother and father.  Pitt’s character is revealed to us in subtle, darkening shades, his nature turning from nurturing father to brutal authoritarian and we experience these changes throguh Jack’s eyes.  It’s one of Pitt’s best parts in a career routinely peppered with great work.  His father character is a man growing unfulfilled in life, his ambitions failing and feelings of irrelevance and being marginal take hold.  In certain places Malick has captured the age old dynamic which pulls apart fathers, sons and entire families.  This father’s lack of fulfillment in life taken out on his family in ways he never knew he was capable of or even intended to inflict is the most compelling element of the story.  Chastain’s performance is less distinctly expressive in nature and with less of an arc to follow along with but she’s luminescent and touching none the less.  She feels like more of an expression of soothing sensation than a real individual.  Newcomer McCracken is a great find as well.  A young actor with scores of pathos in his performance, he captures the angst and pain that comes with realizing your parents are people, not benevolent deities there to protect you from the world at large.

But not all of Life is structured this well or as rewarding to decipher.  Mixed into the proceedings is a dizzying first act sequence which jumps into the creation of the universe, as well as a prologue which suddenly fly’s into the afterlife.  The movie begins by revealing that one of Jack’s brother’s died at the young age of 19, a point largely underserved after that.  It then cuts to the older version of Jack, played by Sean Penn, years after the death of his brother, clearly successful in life but going through some kind of spiritual crisis.  Then the universe begins.  The audience walks out.  About 20 minutes into Life a trippy space odyssey through time which depicts the creation of the universe from the big bang through the time of the dinosaurs and beyond is interjected.  Malick is driving home a metaphor about the eternal nature of existence, the beginning of life and the turmoil and conflict inherent in merely existing as it has always been.  In short, the everything of all of us.  It’s all very gorgeous and ponderous but it’s also exceedingly pretentious and it feels like a needless phantasm of artistic expression shoe horned into the movie for reasons we can only speculate.  As ambitious and gutsy a detour it is, it still feels like a detour, heavy handed and in the way of the rest of the movie.  Tree of Life doesn’t feel like it really begins until this Kubrick inspired sequence passes by.  I’m sure those who fall in love with Tree will find this sequence illuminating and maybe even transcendent, but I feel Life is stronger when this is out of the way and free to move on with itself.  It’s final scenes are also a quagmire of the befuddling and high minded.  I won’t cover them in detail but I will say that the sensation they create doesn’t exactly pay off on a ground floor dramatic level.  If your looking for real closure, seek elsewhere.  The fog these sequences create hover over the whole experience.

My screening of Tree of Life had 11 walkouts.  That’s about par for the course for Malick movies.  His artistic flourishes drive many a man mad.  You sit enraptured by the visual sensations he creates or you claw your eyes out and lose your shit because he refuses to stage drama the way 99.9% of the other guys do.  Too many shots of birds I suppose.  For a guy known for divisiveness Tree of Life may be his most challenging movie yet.  I’d like to see it again, linger over it and think upon it some.  I easily prefer his previous outings over this one but parts of Life are so strong I’m left to wonder if I undervalue the point of its loftier segments.  Maybe I just don’t go for lofty these days.  Tree of Life stands to be interpreted in many different ways and revisiting it again will probably provoke different thoughts and feelings.  That’s not something you can say about movies very often anymore.  With so many movies designed to be forgotten the minute the credits role, it’s fascinating to come across something so defiant and perplexing.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Text book example of a train wreck.

The stories of how Jonah Hex fell into the state of utter disrepair and incomprehension must be abundant and fascinating, endlessly more amusing than anything the movie has to offer.  The carcass on the table here is a slapdash 75 minutes of rote, western, comic book crap gutted of story, character and most of its plot.  Never trust a movie which begins with inordinate amounts of expository narration and montages.  As bad as it is and as long as you could spend picking it apart, there’s really only one example of its ineptitude which needs to be pointed out which demonstrates how screwed up this thing is.

When this pointless implosion of a movie reached its end credits, actor Michael Shannon’s name appeared emblazoned across the screen.  While not a house hold name Shannon is an Academy Award nominated actor (Revolutionary Road), stars in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and will be reimagining iconic comic book baddie Zod for the next Superman movie.  Josh and I looked at each other almost instantly because we both realized that Shannon had not been in the movie we just watched.  Not a line of dialogue, no scenes, nothing.  An actor being credited for a role not actually in the movie at hand is not uncommon, but it’s usually a small, insignificant supporting role.  Shannon’s name flashed across the screen after Brolin, Fox and Malkovich.  Poking around the deleted scenes we found Shannon’s scene but we’re left to wonder, how do you completely exercise a major, and talented, performer from a film but forget to take his name off the credits?  Such is the sad case of Jonah Hex, a lousy, non-starter comic book hero that joins the sad ranks of The Spirit, Judge Dredd, Catwoman, Electra, Steel and many more in the argument that not every damn comic book character needs a movie.   Especially not one like this.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Unemployment sucks.

The despondency and lack of hope that comes with job loss is approached in a direct and honest way in The Company Men.  With an economic downturn not likely to see abatement for several more years, a movie like this seems like it should be ripe fodder for the masses to take in and think upon, but no.  The Company Men is a kind of film which probably hits a little too close to home for a lot of people and dwelling on the direness of unemployment probably doesn’t sound like a winner for a Saturday night movie going experience.  If you can accept the grim subject matter you’re going to find a noble and rewarding movie which may not dazzle, but approaches a difficult subject with a mostly honest perspective.

The Company Men stands as further proof, not that much more was needed, that Ben Affleck is a full-fledged grown up.  After an up and down movie career that reached levels of parody and ridicule by the time he was 30, the newer adult Ben has embraced a resounding level of maturity lately.  In Company he plays Robert, an unapologetic yuppie scumbag making bank and loving every minute of the warped, American dream.  Hot wife, bright kids, cool car, all the works plus some.  Then one day reality takes a hard swing at Robert and floors him.  He finds himself out of work and no longer a master of the universe with an expense account and club membership.  His ego rages, his sense of denial flares and regardless of both, he’s just another asshole out of a job.  Robert is forced to join the mass of humanity out there looking for gainful employment.  He runs up against indifference, cold shoulders and harsh reality as he struggles to keep is family in the unaffordable lap of pseudo-luxury it’s accustomed to.  Paralleling his journey is Chris Cooper as an older co-worker thrown to the wolves in the twilight of a career and Tommy Lee Jones as a top level executive riddled with guilt at the life he leads at the expense of others.

These three seasoned pros turn in mostly magnificent work which honestly reflects the tumultuous state of mind that comes with joblessness.  Affleck is at front as the center of the film.  His character is at first an easily detestable and dismissible shit of a person, but as things become more dire and desperate his character loses his shallowness.  He’s a classic but understandable case of raging male ego struggling mightily with powerlessness that has never been confronted before.  His final grasping’s at stature are pathetic but entirely believable.  Chris Cooper’s part is the saddest of the bunch, an unemployable man hitting his 60’s with generations of people at his backside ready to do the job for cheaper.  His fate seems preordained but honest all the same.  Tommy Lee Jones, playing consistently noble and sad, is the only part that feels respectable but somehow dishonest.   He’s an old school ‘honest day’s pay for honest day’s wage’ kind of guy who grows to loathe his lofty and unwarranted spot in life.  He’s a rich executive with a conscience and while Jones instills the character with a lot of integrity, something about his arch feels like dramatic wish fulfillment.  If guys like this existed the world would probably not be the place it is today.

On the outskirts of the cast are Kevin Costner, Craig T. Nelson, Maria Bello and Rosemarie Dewitt.  Everyone performs tried and true but Dewitt and Costner are the stand outs.  Costner plays Affleck’s blue collar brother-in-law, a strained and contemptuous relationship if there ever was one.  Costner’s scenes are fleeting but hold a lot of under the surface significance.  It plays to Costner’s surprising down to Earth strength.  DeWitt is remarkable as the wife who sees what’s happening long before her ego warped and headstrong husband can.  Here’s hoping Dewitt gardeners more attention because she’s a fetching and compelling presence.  All of these fine performances are guided by John Wells, a longtime producer  of TV (ER, The West Wing) and movies who finally felt compelled to helm a movie for himself.  He’s a sure hand behind the camera who, until an end which feels a little too hopeful, guides his movie with a sure and steady hand.

No audiences watched or sought out The Company Men and it’s a staggering shame we live in an age in which such a topical movie goes mostly unnoticed.  Too grim and poking the wrong nerve at the wrong time for audiences looking for cheap thrills and disposable laughs it seems.  The people who do decide to roll the dice on it will appreciate the experience.  The Company Men feels like a movie which should catch on with time, if enough people champion it’s more than understandable cause.  If that kind of experience is not up your alley, there’s plenty of other fodder out there to drown out the harsh sound of reality.

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Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) has crafted Super 8 to be an intentional and loving homage to all things Steven Spielberg.  E.T., Close Encoutners, Jaws, these are the movies which greatly influenced Abrams as a filmmaker and it’s these films he had in mind as he crafted Super 8.  And while he’s borrowed classic Spielbergian elements to build his story of a large alien let loose on a small town and the young kid trying to find it, and even has Spielberg as a producer, he hasn’t turned a blind eye towards the things which hold his attention, I.E. puzzle box mystery and lens flares.  On paper the marriage of the two film making minds would seem ideal but the end result is a mismatched experience.  An emotionally convincing family drama of a son and father trying to survive the wake of Mom dying exist on one side, on the other is a lame duck story of a pissed off alien trying to escape its government tormentors.

The father-son side of Super 8 is by far its greatest strength.  Newcomer Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, a bright, innocent kid who loves monster movies, model making and doing make up for his friends homemade zombie flick.  It’s 1979 and 8 MM cameras are the age’s version of homemade digital film making.  Joe’s life has been thrown into despondency and lose at the death of his mother.  His relationship with Dad, a town deputy, is on the rocks as he struggles with her being gone.  Dad’s even passive aggressively trying to ship Joe off to baseball camp for the summer so he can mourn alone.  One night Joe and his friends sneak out to film scenes for their movie at a local train station, daring to invite cute classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) along to act in their project.  Then, in what is a show stopping sequence, a train crashes all around them and a big alien escapes.  Town’s folk start going missing, car engines and electronics vanish in bulk, the military arrives and starts acting ominous as the whole town becomes threatened.  For a while it looks as if Abrams may pull off his ambition, to create what is tantamount to a lost Spielberg classic created with his own flourishes.  But the minds of these two men don’t mesh as well as expected or hoped for.

What primarily separates Spielberg’s influencing classics from Abrams tribute piece is that Spielberg stared up to the stars and was wonder struck by the possibilities.  He introduced us to benevolent creatures who could touch our greater nature, appeal to our better instincts and perhaps teach us something valuable about ourselves.  Abrams looks into the night sky and sees angry monsters out to get you.  His creature never makes any kind of emotional impact on anyone or anything outside of sheer terror, E.T. as a 25 foot tall behemoth that’s pissed off at the world and looking to settle a score is what this is.  Abrams film keeps things shaded and mysterious until the end but when it’s revealed what our mysterious being is up to, and looks like, profound disappointment sets in.  One is left wondering why we should even care if the mistreated alien being escapes government clutches.  It’s motivations are thoroughly explained but it doesn’t change the fact that our visitor from space is not a pleasant fellow, a little brother of sorts to Abrams Cloverfield beast.  Killing and maiming as it sees fit is no way to endear an alien being to the audience or invest in its outcome.  By taking this viscous route Abrams practically cuts the legs out from under his movie.

Aside from this crippling drawback there are some nice things to take away from Super 8.  Abrams really captures the look and vibe of the late 70’s Spielberg experience, at least to a point.  While his film doesn’t work for me it provides a pleasant echo of nostalgia, though you’d be better off watching E.T. again.  On the acting side Joel Courtney makes Joe seem a little too aloof in places but he’s an otherwise nice anchor for the film.  He never feels forced or unnatural.  With no prior acting experience he acquits himself well with material that’s occasionally demanding.  The real deal is Elle Fanning, the scene stealing 13-year old would probably have made a better lead overall had Abrams had been thinking a little more outside of the demands of the Spielberg box.  Her character comes equipped with equally compelling parenting issues as Joe.  Doubling up on this character arch seems a little redundant.  Also solid is Kyle Chandler as Joe’s emotionally constipated/crippled father.  A little less successful is the casting of Joe’s friends and film making cohorts.  While there’s some respect to be earned in being honest with portraying fringe lurking adolescent nerds, Joe’s buddies are mostly a pack of obnoxious jerks and dweebs.

Super 8 was supposed to be the one real deal film this summer.  The lone event movie which didn’t seem rooted in Hollywood’s cynical summer cycle of refried, CGI overloaded faux thrills.  But instead of achieving the grandiose emotional and visceral highs of the masterpieces which inspired it, Super 8 mucks up too many important parts of the story.  It treads the kind of territory Superman Returns accomplished several years ago, dutifully paying homage to its beloved predecessors from decades past, but failing on its own merits.  When the vengeful creature crawls into his spacecraft to return to the heavens, you’re not left fondly hoping “Maybe he’ll come back one day” as much as muttering to yourself “Good riddance.”  Never a wise emotion to end a movie on.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Washes out the foul taste of X3 and Wolverine.

Every film franchise runs aground over time.  Batman, Superman, Blade, no one’s immune.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get two quality outings, three if you’re very lucky.  By the time a series of films finds itself going around a fourth time, or God forbid, indulging in a prequel, you can be fairly certain the wheels are coming off things.  Producers are grabbing cash and it’s time to wait for the inevitable reboot.  Such was the state of Fox’s X-Men franchise.  After Bryan Singer’s superior X2, the third outing was handed over to all around asshat Brett Ratner.  He ran Singer’s finely tuned sports car into a brick wall, not even getting out of the driveway.  As if not satisfied by this, Fox then decided a stand-alone Wolverine movie would be prudent, a prequel no less.  The already wrecked sports car was subsequently given a tacky paint job and rims and then paraded around as if it was something to be proud of.  When news began that Fox would next be producing yet another X-men prequel, the collective groan could be heard from one side of the internet to the other.  Prequel, fifth movie, no original cast around, nothing good can come of this.  Check that last part, something skirting the edges of very good has come of this.

In an innovative and astute move, X-Men: First Class turns back the clock to the 1960’s.  We first meet burgeoning academic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and revenge obsessed Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassenbinder) as compatible souls with differing ideologies.  Xavier is the benevolent mutant beginning to see the need to give voice to the mutants of the world.  Magneto agrees, but sees mutants as superior to humans and has little qualm about crushing them all.  Instigating his contempt for humans is his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  He’s on a quest to find one Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an unaging mutant who worked for the Nazi’s and killed Eric’s mother in an attempt to provoke his mutant abilities.  Shaw is now neck deep in a plan to dupe the USA and the USSR into annihilating each other through Nuclear War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, leaving the door open for mutants to seize control.  X-Men: First Class cleverly builds fantasy on top of history and in turn crafts one of the smarter superhero vehicles to emerge from this over prolific genre.

Though we’ve been here and seen these people before things feel fresh and reinvigorated.  Director Matthew Vaughn has gotten hold of a worthy screenplay which relies more on character building and less on special effects set pieces.  McAvoy and Fassenbinder capture the gripping give and take Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan were able to establish in the first two X features.  Both are accomplished actors and though we’re taking a trip to the comic book store, like their esteemed elders they’re taking this as seriously as it needs to be taken.  Fassenbinder in particular captures the sympathetic but poisoned soul McKellan created with Magneto.  The guy does great seething.  And though they’re playing younger versions of characters already established never does either performance feel like imitation.

Acclaimed newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) inherits the part of young Mystique.  She gives genuine shading, complexity and motivation to the menacing but aloof part created by Rebecca Romijn.  Kevin Bacon gives a good, Bondian turn as Sebestain Shaw, the heavy out to wipe out those pesky humans.  It takes a seasoned pro like Bacon to make a villain like this one tick and after being away from the major movie spotlight for quite a while, it’s nice to see him turn in some subtle scenery chewing.  You don’t realize how much you miss Kevin Bacon until you realize he’s been gone.  There are a slew of great character actors popping up behind numerous corners and some nice, and thankfully clever, cameos from X-Men past, or future.  Whatever.  The only real bad news is that with most major X-Men characters spoken for, First Class is left with a fairly scrubby B-team to use for this outing.  Laser hula hoops, hummingbird wings and a high pitched voice do not great mutants make.

The real achiever here is director Matthew Vaughn.  No longer a rookie helmer, Vaugh has been a ballyhooed up and coming director since 2004, a long time to be earmarked as something special.  He made a smooth British crime thriller called Layer Cake, parlayed that into an underwhelming and forgettable fantasy pic called Stardust, then tackled last year’s pseudo superhero/sadomasochistic action flick Kick-Ass, a movie more people talked about than actually liked or watched.  First Class is his first Hollywood produced feature which doesn’t feel misshapen or at odds with itself.  It’s big budget but smart, epic in scale but with well thought out characterizations, comic book silly but not done tongue in cheek.  You can also give Vaughn credit for making a movie which actually embraces its 60’s set era.  Wolverine took place in the 80’s and nary was a Def Leppard or Duran Duran song on the soundtrack.  There’s a great use of swinging 60’s lingerie and judicious use of JFK speeches.  With the apparent blessing and guidance of original X-Man director Bryan Singer, Vaughn has rejuvenated a franchise which looked burned to the ground.

A few months ago I would’ve laid odds on this movie being a clunker and a waste.  The preview didn’t offer up anything very special, the last two films burned the audience something awful, Vaughn was looking to be a wash out as any kind of notable man behind the camera.  I would’ve lost that bet.  X-Men: First Class is a return to form for the series and shows that when enough attention is paid to the right kind of detail, you can make these films work on a grand scale.  The fifth movie/prequel of a tired franchise which hasn’t shown signs of life in years doesn’t have to be complete shit by default.  It can be a reinvigorating and fun experience that would stand along the giants of the genre, maybe not surpassing them, but at least commanding some fair amount of respect.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Good movie you already saw on the nightly news.

Movies which critique and scrutinize the Iraq War and the Bush administration look doomed to fail forever.  There’s an entire genre of movies out there about the subject by now and all are widely seen as failures, if not critically then at least financially.  While these films vary in quality what unites them in their failure is that they’re simply combing over material which has already been analyzed and poured over for years by scores of other pundits in other mediums.  The nightly news dramatized this stuff for us for years and still does at it continues to play out to this day.  At this point there isn’t much left to say which will be revealing or insightful about Bush and his dubious legacy.  Such is the quagmire that Fair Game finds itself in.  In and of itself it’s a quality drama with good actors, tight directing and a screenplay worth being read.  But what it’s about feels less like timely drama and more like a rerun.

Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame-Wilson, the undercover CIA operative who was exposed as an agent, an act of retaliation by cronies in the Bush Administration, I.E Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and possibly Dick Cheney.  The crime they retaliated against wasn’t even hers, but her husband’s, Joe Wilson.  Wilson was sent to Niger to look for evidence of a sale to Iraq of uranium enriched yellow cake, a vital component in making a nuclear device.  He found no evidence of this sale.  The Bush administration chose to ignore his findings and in a history making speech, George Bush told the world a great big lie.  Wilson then wrote an article calling the administration out as a pack of deceivers out to push a war on the American people based on fabricated evidence.  His wife’s career within the agency was subsequently destroyed when reporter Karl Novak outed her as a spy in a newspaper article about Joe Wilson.  Fair Game rifles through the details of Joe and Valerie’s life as it slowly unravels.  Joe begins to wage an unwinnable war against the White House, but his wife remains silent, unwilling to fight against a monolithic system at the expense of her family.  It’s solid, well made and very watchable.  It’s also old news.

Fair Game stands as a mark of improvement for director Doug Liman.  Liman has been an uneven hand in his 15 years as a helmer.  While his crowning achievement to date was the first Bourne film, or Swingers if you’re into the hip thing, it’s largely overlooked now in the wake of Paul Greengrass’s superior sequels.  After that came the silly Mr. & Mrs. Smith followed up by the wildly juvenile sci-fi piece, JumperFair Game is light years more grounded and grown up.  Free of the trappings of a superstar ego gratification vehicle or special effects romps for tweens, Liman shows he’s a good director of actors and at constructing realistic drama.  Fair Game isn’t showy, condescending or otherwise compromised.

Watts and Penn are the stars here.  I’m not sure Penn is acting so much as using Wilson as a vehicle for his similarly held political beliefs.  He’s a stay at home dad who becomes an unwavering crusader.  His part is the flashier of the two.  He slowly builds up to unhinged outrages at his situation and refuses to back down to pressure from the crypto fascists pulling the strings.  Watts has to hold things closer to the chest.  Palme-Wilson had a thorough understanding of the situation, one that her husband refused to subscribe to, and it created a rift in their marriage.  She wanted to be the quiet soldier who protected her family’s interest, he the outraged citizen David throwing rocks at the White House Goliath.  While the political slandering being fired at them were well documented, Penn and Watts create a believable couple being wrongly ripped apart by outside forces.

Fair Game gets points for being an entirely respectable movie in many regards.  It’s simply unfortunate that it’s based around events which still feel fresh and fairly well known to the world at large.  In another time and another place Fair Game may have found an appreciative audience, something fans of investigative cinema would champion, but in the world we live in too many people already know too many details to grab any lingering headlines.  Movies are too slow a medium to make an impact in this regard and as a consequence fine features like Fair Game wind up in the margins of movie history.