Tuesday, December 27, 2011

12-27-11: What Lies Beneath

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (La piel que habito) (2011) (R) 117 mins. **** D: Pedro Almodovar. Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet.

After a tragedy left his wife permanently disfigured, a brilliant plastic surgeon has developed a synthetic skin that can withstand any kind of damage. While openly sharing his findings with his colleagues, he is secretly testing his work on a patient "living" at his home.

Almodovar has created a science fiction/horror/thriller hybrid that I'm sure most audiences will be completely unprepared for. At once it appears to be like "Frankenstein" but as the story unfolds it evolves into something far more complex, far more sinister leaving the viewer bewildered.

Going beyond the small description I gave above, it is best to not know much of anything about this film. As I watched I thought it was going one way, then it turned out to be going another way that I thought was pretty seedy and disturbing but it turns out that's not what I was seeing and was shown something far more disturbing. I'll leave it at that.

Antonio Banderas is great as the doctor and Anaya is memorable as his patient. Their relationship is quite complex and layered.

Give this one a look, just be prepared for the possibility it may end up somewhere you as viewer may not be willing to go.

The 10 Worst Films of 2011

Well considering it's almost the end of the year and what few films I plan to see I can't see any of them ending up on this list. So here it is, my picks for the ten worst films of the year.

As a film goer this has been a very different year. I use to go see any movie I could fit into a block. I wasn't very discerning. This year I was VERY discerning about what I went to see. I pretty much skipped anything that didn't look any good, wasn't very interesting or wasn't worth my time. Granted I did miss a few that turned out to be great movies but for the most part I really cut down on the crap.

There were a great number of disappointments but they weren't bad enough to wind up on this list. That being said, there are a great number of films on my list that I was looking forward to. I wouldn't attribute the disappointment to high expectations but every film on this list was poorly executed to the point of being laughable.

Without further adieu, here are what I consider the Ten Worst Films of 2011, in alphabetical order.

To me Schwarenegger was Conan. I was willing to give this one a shot but it came off as a hodge-podge of all the bad sword and sorcery/fantasy films of late. Pretty forgettable.

Love Michel Gondry but this movie sucked. I really hated Seth Rogen that I just wanted him to die. I realize that if that happened there wouldn't be a movie...so what's wrong with that?

In blackest day in darkest night...give me back my damn money alright!! Reynolds is fine as Hal. Campbell is a great director, as long as his lead is James Bond. This was a terrible comic adaptation.

The first was hilarious...this one was lazy filmmaking to the highest order. Essentially the same exact movie as the first. The joke is suppose to be that they're going through the same exact thing. The problem is none of it was funny. Alan's actions in this one were so detestable that the film lost what little credibility it had. No one and I mean no one would ever give that asshole a second chance let alone allow him to stick around.

I didn't like anyone in this movie. I didn't buy the characters. The humor was off-putting. Easily one of the worst comedies of the year.

After seeing this I hope and pray that Tony Jaa never directs or writes again. Overly long and the fight scenes are uninspired, it feels like he captured lightning in Ong Bak 1 and forgot what made him so unique now he's just a generic action star.

If you like your SyFy on the big screen, here you go! They obviously didn't see "Piranha 3-D" because if they had this could have been fun 3-D exploitation. Instead it's chum that even the hungriest shark would avoid.

Only the 2nd film ever I considered walking out on...and I NEVER walkout of a movie. The other? Uwe Boll's "House of the Dead."

This had so much potential. They spent too much time on the finer details that they failed to address one plot point that didn't mesh with the original and became over reliant on CGI. Besides the story, acting and directing, the original's stars were the practical makeup effects.

This was so frickin' good that I fell asleep and missed half the movie. It was so good that I haven't even put forth much effort to see what I've missed.


This film was frustratingly bad. I like Snyder as a director. I thought his "Dawn" remake was fantastic. I wasn't a big fan of "300" but recognized his style. I believe "Watchmen" is one of the best comic book adaptations ever made. I'll admit when I saw the first trailer for this it looked interesting.

The opening of the film had me drawn in. I was loving it. However once the transition was made from reality to this girl's fantastical POV of her environment the film completely lost me. I was BORED beyond belief. The transitions made no sense to me. The fantasy sequences lacked any suspense whatsoever. I equate watching them to watching someone playing a video game and they won't let you play.

It was pretty obvious where it was going and once it gets there I was thrilled I could get the hell out of the theatre. Like I said, I was seriously considering walking out on this one which is something I never ever do.

After seeing this it leaves me concerned about "The Man of Steel." Will we get "Watchmen" Snyder or will we get "Sucker Punch" Snyder. That is a seriously troubling question.

Yes I fell asleep during "The Three Musketeers" but no other film left me stewing and looking at my watch every ten minutes. Bad! Bad!! Bad!!!

12-26-11: Oh the stories they tell.

THE HELP (2011) (PG-13) 146 mins. ****1/2 D: Tate Taylor. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek.

During the 1960s, an aspiring author in Mississippi decides she wants to write a piece about the life of African-American maid's and their opinions about the white families they work for. At first hesitant due to the grave danger it may cause the women begin to open up about their moving, tragic, heartbreaking and sometimes funny experiences.

The direction and screenwriting notwithstanding the true stars of this film are the performances. Every character is rich, nuanced and real. No matter how much time they have on screen, everyone has an impact on the story. Emma Stone is very good as Skeeter. However the stars of this film are Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play Aibileen and Minny respectively. There performances really convey the sacrifice, the pride and dignity of these women that goes unrecognized because they are deemed lower-class. While many characters can come off as caricatures they truly capture the period and the feelings of the time. Bryce Dallas Howard is fantastic as a woman who is so blinded by her righteousness that she doesn't even recognize how racist she truly is. She pretty much serves as the villain of the piece and you really do grow to hate her.

Tate Taylor directs and adapted the best selling novel. As a southerner he really captures the look and feel of the time, there's a vibe here that only someone from the region could capture. He assembled a fantastic cast with great support from Janney, Cicely Tyson and Spacek.

It's a great look at a sad period in US history, a reverent look at the people who never received the recognition they deserved and an inspiring tale of a group of women who stood up for what's right in a time where that could have had them killed.

12-25-11: Filmmaven presents The Greatest Review Ever Wrote

POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD (2011) (PG-13) 87 mins. **** D: Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock takes a look at the ever present product placements we see in film and television. He decides to make a documentary that is solely financed by product sponsors.

The hilarity begins from the moment it starts as unbeknownst to the viewer they are already being bombarded with product placements. The viewer begins to realize that what they are watching is the film he set out to make.

Spurlock takes the viewer through the process from beginning to end. He has meetings with numerous companies and sit downs with many recognizable faces such as Ralph Nader, JJ Abrams and Quentin Tarantino. He approaches the material with clarity and a great sense of humor. One scene in particular is where he interviews an anti-advertising advocate in a Jet Blue airport terminal. What he doesn't realize is is that he's right in the middle of product placements and the scene ends with a hilarious zinger.

The most interesting aspect of the film, which is not lost on Spurlock, is the degree that he may be looked upon as "selling" himself out as a filmmaker. Just how far and how much is too much?

It's not as winning or earth-shattering as "Super Size Me" but it is still a very entertaining documentary about a subject that everyone has no choice but to watch.

12-25-11: A Boy and His Horse

WAR HORSE (2011) (PG-13) 146 mins. *** D: Steven Spielberg. Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullen, David Thewlis.

After being sold to the army, Albert's horse Joey is put into the heat of battle and has a profound impact on the people he meets on both sides of the war.

Considering the subject matter this film always ran the risk of being excessively schmaltzy. Unfortunately half-way through it does start taking dips in the cheese pool which really began to hurt the film.

One factor that comes into play is the necessary anthropomorphizing of the equine cast members. Obviously they don't speak but the audience needs to buy into the idea that these horses are thinking what they are. In the outset it's cute and entertaining but as the stakes are raised credibility starts to fall by the wayside.

Approaching the film, based on the novel and stage play, as a look at the people that this horse comes into contact with should be engaging. It's unfortunate that some of them come off as caricatures of the people they portray.

The symbolize that this horse conveys is never lost on the viewer. Some of it is pretty obvious while at other times it is subtle. There is one moment in the film that reminded of a moment in another. Here the two sides call a temporary cease fire so they can assist Joey. In another film "Joyeux Noel," in a fairly similar moment, during World War I a song prompts three battalions to call a cease fire on Christmas Eve. Surprisingly, Spielberg was outdone here. The wait and emotion that "Joyeux Noel" was lacking in "War Horse." As a result the scene came off as amusing rather than revelatory.

The film looked great, acting was good and the direction was fine. My main problem with the film was its execution. I'm not sure how they could have done it better but for what it is it was only mildly entertaining.

12-25-11: Never Forget

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011) (PG-13) 128 mins. **** D: Stephen Daldry. Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Max Von Sydow.

Oskar Schell is a young boy filled with a sense of curiosity and a eye for puzzle solving. He may also suffer from Aspergers but as he says the tests were inconclusive. After the loss of his father on 9/11, he finds a key in his father's closet and sets out on an incredible journey to discover what it opens.

Not since "Reign on Me" has a film dealt with the grief that followed the events of 9/11. I believe this is the first to see the impact it had on the children. Just the thought of it is heartbreaking but when you see first-hand how that moment changes Oskar's life is stunning.

The journey that Oskar takes is a fascinating one that you want to see reach a satisfactory conclusion. This young boy sets out on his own and meets countless people, strangers mind you, that he would never have met under different circumstances. It's an enjoyable and sad expedition of discovery.

This film rests solely on the able shoulders of young Thomas Horn. Not only is he believable as a boy who may suffer from Aspergers but also portrays the mixed emotions of a boy who not only misses his father but is struggling to understand why this all had to happen. Sandra Bullock is very good as his mother who is willing to give him the independence to sort things out on his own. Max Von Sydow is great as a man he meets that joins him on his adventure.

This is very much a film about grief and healing. It may be a hard journey to take but in the end it is very rewarding.

12-24-11: Jolie Steps Up

IN THE LAND OF BLOOD AND HONEY (2011) (R) 127 mins. **** D: Angelina Jolie. Goran Kostic, Zana Marjanovic, Rade Serbedzija. (Bosnian/Serbian with English Subtitles)

The budding romance between a Bosnian woman and a Serbian officer is torn asunder by a terrorist bombing during the outset of the Bosnian War. Some time later, through a series of heart-wrenching circumstances she is held prisoner at the camp he now oversees. Their relationship becomes incredibly complex and dangerous now that they find themselves on different sides. Can lovers remains lovers now that they are deemed enemies?

Angelina Jolie directed, wrote and produced this epic about the hardships of war during the Bosnian War. She makes a memorable directorial debut that is very assured and confident. In no one does this look like a film from a first time director. Not only does she make a solid directorial debut, she also wrote the screenplay and she did a fine job there as well. The film never drags and there are times where it goes where you think it will and then there are times where it takes an unexpected turn.

She makes a point to show you how both sides believe they are in the right and the lengths they will go to strike a blow. There are many atrocities committed, many of them off-screen yet quite effective. The dichotomy of the story is that Danijel saves Ajla by keeping her alive yet she is still a prisoner. Is that truly being saved? This is just one of the complex issues the film addresses.

The acting is very good from the two leads. They run the gamut of emotions over the course of the film which covers several years of the Bosnian War. Kostic is particularly good as Danijel, you can see he's torn between his love for Ajla and his duty as an officer.

Jolie is a fine actress and when given the right vehicle she can excel. With one film she has proven she can hold her own with the likes of Foster, Coppola and Streisand.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

12-23-11: The Fincher Version

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) (R) 158 mins. **** D: David Fincher. Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright.

A disgraced investigative journalist is hired to solve a decades old murder. In the process he takes on an assistant to help him unravel the seemingly unsolvable mystery.

A mere two years after the first adaptation, not to mention the complete trilogy, hit screens David Fincher directs the English language version of the same novel. This adaptation is in many ways equal to and at times better than the Swedish version. The only real drawback is that if you've seen the first there are absolutely no surprises. Had this been the first adaptation I would have been enraptured by the mystery as I was when I watched the first. In this case it's more like oh here's that scene, that was in the other one or that was different.

Craig does solid work as Mikael. A flawed, troubled, vulnerable person. Totally against type. Mara shines as Lisbeth. Her Lisbeth is equal to Noomi Rapace's while they are both clearly playing the same character but they are played distinctly. More emphasis is placed on their relationship which does actually change their dynamic. In the Swedish version Mikael came off as having an odd obsession with her that lacked any real romance. Not so here.

I have not read the book but on many accounts it is said to be closer to the source. It is well written and the direction is pure Fincher. From the James Bond like opening credits to the closing shot, you recognize him in every frame. This one looks much more cinematic and grander then the previous version. Like I said, because it's the second out of the gate it lacks any real suspense. Still, it's a pretty damn good movie.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

12-17-11: The Beginning of the End

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES-PROLOGUE (2011) (PG-13) 6 mins. ***1/2 D: Christopher Nolan.

While attempting to coerce information from a trio of prisoners, a CIA operative comes face to face with the criminal mastermind Bane.

Like "The Dark Knight" this is the opening of the new film "The Dark Knight Rises." It's unfair to compare the two but unfortunately it is inevitable and cannot be helped when the latter just doesn't have the impact that the former had.

The opening of "The Dark Knight" was thrilling, especially in IMAX. The Joker's introduction was memorable. The prologue left you eager to see the film which wouldn't arrive for another nine months. With "The Dark Knight Rises" I didn't feel the same way. I kinda shrugged at the fact that it was so been there-done that. It felt like I was watching a mash up of "Licence to Kill," "Cliffhanger" and even "Jurassic Park III."

Now the major problem with the prologue and trailer that I truly hope is addressed before the film opens is Bane's dialogue. You can't understand a damn thing he's saying. There are times where you can make it out but I find myself missing the movie because I'm trying to understand what he's saying. "Dlae thea tee". "I'm sorry what?" "Dlae thea tee." "I didn't quite get that, come again." Seriously.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is one of my most eagerly anticipated films of 2012. After this prologue it's most anticipated. Honestly, there's no way it will every reach the heights of "The Dark Knight" but at the very least I hope it's a damn good finale.

12-18-11: Dollars versus Averages

MONEYBALL (2011) (PG-13) 133 mins. **** D: Bennett Miller. Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey.

After losing his top players to free agency, Oakland A's GM Billy Beane sets out to put together a contending team with what little budget he has.

This solid sports drama is based on the best-seller that chronicles how Billy Beane was able to use statistics and analysis to put together a team that appeared to be doomed to fail but proved incredibly successful.

This is an engaging film whether you're a fan of baseball or not. It's a fascinating study and uplifting story about how one man was able to achieve what many consider impossible. In the process he changed the way some management approaches the game. The story begins in the early '00s when many believed the Yankees were, and many believe they still are, buying championships by spending millions to get big name players. Beane pieced together a team based on the individual player's statistics. Nowadays no one really gives this much thought since just about everyone has played a fantasy draft at some point.

Brad Pitt is great as Beane. Proud, ambitious, optimistic but at times unsure. Jonah Hill was a surprise. As of late I've grown tired of his schtick. He always seems to play the same guy or just himself no matter what movie he's in. He should do more dramas.

This is very much a baseball film but it's not about the game but the business itself. If you're a fan you're gonna eat this up. If you're not you'll be entertained by a very engaging film about one man against Major League Baseball. This is one of the best films of the year.

12-17-11: ...and you wonder where their kids get it from.

CARNAGE (2011) (R) 81 mins. **** D: Roman Polanski. Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly.

After their sons are involved in a scuffle, the parents meet to discuss what to do about their boys. Their meeting begins cordially enough but gradually their true feelings and opinions begin to surface and the fireworks begin.

Roman Polanski brings together a fantastic cast in this adaptation of the play written by Yasmine Reza. Book-ended by scenes in a Brooklyn park, the film predominantly takes place in one apartment. The film by no means feels claustrophobic or dull by the lack of scenery. The limited locations means that once the verbal sparring begins there really is nowhere to run to.

This is a dark comedy on the lines of "War of the Roses." Funny with uncomfortable moments and many moments that are shockingly funny because you're surprised they went there. The four leads immerse themselves into their characters are are more than game to plum the lower depths of civility. I loved Waltz in particular. Alan is too preoccupied with work that he really has no interest in involving himself in what he believes is his wife's, played by Winslet, responsibility.

Just sit back and enjoy, or at least try to, the carnage.

Monday, December 19, 2011

12-17-11: Not as elementary my dear Watson

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) (PG-13) 129 mins. *** D: Guy Ritchie. Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams.

Holmes and Watson find themselves in a deadly game of cat and mouse when they cross paths with the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty.

Downey Jr. and Law are once again great as Holmes and Watson. Their banter continues to be amusing. The mystery is more an attempt to put the clues together. As an audience, we already know who's behind it but we're just waiting for him to be stopped, which unfortunately makes this less engaging. It was fun to try and figure out how Lord Blackwood pulled off his return from the dead in the original. Here it's about the chess match between Holmes and Moriarty which is pretty good for the most part. Holmes and Moriarty do face off in a chess match that ends in a rather silly fashion. On top of this, it did feel a bit long.

Ritchie has upped the action quotient from the original and has a few decent sequences that continue the flourish of slow-mo that he used before. There's a fair amount of humor especially from Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother. Jared Harris is okay as Moriarty. Rapace is very much under utilized.

Through history when you think Holmes and Moriarty you think of a battle of wits on a grand scale. There is a battle but it is not as grand as one would hope it would be. It's a decent sequel but isn't as good as the original nor is it as good as it could have potentially been.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

12-17-11: A Mission to Die For

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) (PG-13) **** 132 mins. D: Brad Bird. Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg.

After being accused of an attack on the Kremlin, Ethan Hunt and his IMF team are disavowed and are left to discover who was behind the bombing.

Brad Bird, the director of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant," makes a stellar live-action debut with the fourth entry in the action franchise. Not only is it one of the best action films of the year but is the best film in the franchise. This a very well balanced action film. Plenty of action. Solid story. Amusing humor. Great characters. Finally, jaw-dropping stunts.

The film features about 30 minutes worth of IMAX footage, meaning when seen in IMAX those sequences fill the entire IMAX screen. The Dubai sequence that takes place on the tallest building in the world is nerve-wracking only augmented more so by IMAX. The IMAX set pieces are very well done and look fantastic.

Cruise easily slips into the part of Hunt. Having played him four times already it's become second-hand for him. Renner, Patton and Pegg are all great as the IMF team. Each character has an arc that you want to see reach a conclusion. There's some depth to these characters unlike most action films of late.

As I said this is the best in the franchise, directed by a director best known for his animated films. It's pretty amazing to see how easily he makes the transition. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

12-14-11: Crude, Crass with a Great Deal of Class

BRIDESMAIDS (2011) (R) **** 125 mins. D: Paul Feig. Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd.

After being chosen by her best friend to be her Maid of Honor, Annie's life begins to make some interesting turns that lead to hilarity and heartache.

I completely skipped this when it opened in theatres. When I saw the trailer it looked kinda funny but it looked to me like a female "Hangover." After suffering through "Hangover Part II" I never looked back at this one. Oh, well. Gotta kick myself for missing one of the funniest films of the year.

I was not expecting this to have so much heart. It was surprisingly touching. The humor and gags feel very natural and not set up for pure shock value like the ones in the "Hangover" films. What sets this apart is it always manages to stay grounded. The characters seem very real and they aren't stereotypically "stupid." The acting is very good and everyone is quite funny. Wiig and McCarthy really shine here.

Basically this is everything "The Hangover Part II" could have been and is easily one of the funniest "R" rated comedies of the last several years. If you missed it in theatres like I did, do yourself a favor and give it a look.

12-09-11: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011) (Not Rated) **1/2 104 mins. D: Julia Leigh. Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Eden Falk.

A university student holding multiple jobs to get by answers an ad in the paper for a job that starts out as a niche modeling type position but ultimately introduces her to an even more specialized service for particular clients.

I went in knowing very little about this film. I had read the synopsis but had not seen the trailer. In lesser hands this could have easily devolved into an exploitative mess. However, it is a mixed bag that unfortunately did not resonate when it reached its conclusion.

In a nutshell, the film is about a young woman who becomes an escort for a very particular set of clients. Elderly men who want a beautiful, naked woman lying next to them in their bed. The woman is in a drug-induced sleep and is oblivious to what transpires when she is with a client. Clients are cautioned by the Madam that there is to be no penetration and try not to leave any marks. Leigh teases the viewer by only giving a taste of what occurs. You may have an idea of what goes on but you have no idea.

While holding her new job, Lucy is struggling with her relationships, college and domestic life. It's unfortunate that I can't help but compare this aspect of the story to "Shame" which handled the impact that that lifestyle has on one's life and relationships. I found myself a bit ambivalent towards Lucy.

This had the potential of being a potent and engaging character piece. Instead it just left me cold and uninterested.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

12-06-11: Violence begets violence

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) (R) **** 112 mins. D: Lynne Ramsey. Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller.

Still struggling to come to grips with the heinous crime her teenage son had committed, a mother reflects on the past and wonders what she could have done to prevent it or did she contribute to it.

Like "The Bad Seed" and "The Good Son," "Kevin" is very much a horror film. Not the exploitative kind but the unnerving, disturbing kind that is all too real. At the start, you know Kevin did something unfathomable. As the film progresses you see flashbacks about Eva and her strained relationship with her son that began before he was even born. These are juxtaposed with her present day life, reclusive, drug addled, depressing. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, Ramsey paints a very clear picture about how a child's personality can be formed by their interaction with their parents.

Swinton and Miller and excellent as mother and son. Miller is quite chilling in countless scenes that highlight just how psychotic Kevin may be. Swinton is stellar as a mom who regrets becoming a mother and that disdain is transferred from mother to son and vice versa. John C. Reilly is great as a father who is oblivious to his son's behavior because Kevin chooses not to behave that way with him.

There are numerous chilling moments, frightening moments, sad moments and infuriating moments. It's definitely worth a look.

12-07-11: Spy vs Spy

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) (R) **** 127 mins. D: Tomas Alfredson. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy.

A retired British spy is called back into service to uncover a mole within British Intelligence.

Alfredson's latest, he last directed "Let the Right One In", is a solid and engrossing espionage thriller based on John le Carre's Cold War classic. This is an exciting spy thriller but it's not James Bond or Jason Bourne exciting. This is an action movie of the cerebral kind. It's alotta talk that I'm sure would bore the most ardent action film fan.

The film features a stellar cast of British actors and everyone is great. Once again, Gary Oldman plays the chameleon and disappears into the role of George Smiley. A man who has seen plenty while on active duty who must now investigate his own. You can see it in his gaze and posture he's not thrilled with the prospect. He is surrounded by a great supporting perfs by the likes of Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt and Tom Hardy.

The film requires you to pay attention as it incorporates frequent flashbacks and leaves you to recall that information if or when it comes into play later in the film. It is never confusing or convoluted and when the traitor is revealed it may not be who you'd think.

It's smart, engaging, well acted, written and directed. It's one of the best pure espionage thrillers to be made in quite some time.

Friday, December 9, 2011

12-08-11: Corman the Conquerer

CORMAN'S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011) **** 90 mins. D: Alex Stapleton.

You may not know the name but odds are you may have heard of or had seen something he's produced, written or directed. You also may have heard of the many stars in front of and behind the camera that he had direct influence upon. Such luminaries as Cameron, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Nicholson, Grier, Dante, Howard have this man to thank for giving their illustrious careers a start. From the mid-50s to the present he has brought us hundreds of films that earned him the moniker "King of the B's". He is Roger Corman and his life and career is the subject of this well made documentary that features many celebrities discussing Corman and his influence on film and themselves.

No stone is left unturned as Stapleton follows Corman from his humble beginnings in Hollywood to his rise as a major player in Hollywood. The film looks at how he adjusted to the times and how he churned out many films that are associated to the decade they were released. In the process, making films that he knew would appeal to the audience's interest at the time. I think my first Corman flick was either "Piranha" or "Humanoids from the Deep." He then had me hooked with "Battle Beyond the Stars." All films that were in response to "Jaws" and "Star Wars". Films I loved.

The interviews are engaging and leave the viewer wanting more. Well, at least I would have loved to have seen more. You can see the appreciation that Corman's colleagues have for him. It's amazing to see how many career's were started thanks to Corman and how his business model is still in use today. His thoughts on production and budgets is very enlightening and I'm sure would be met with much disdain from the studios. I'm also sure that many purists would probably feel offended if they were told that "Jaws" and "Star Wars" are essentially big budget Corman films.

This is a highly entertaining look at a man who sees himself as just a business man and not a big Hollywood icon or celebrity. He knows he's made a lot but doesn't flaunt it. He knows how to maximize his production dollars. He knows how to make the films that people want to see. Granted they aren't classics like a "Mississippi Burning" or "Alien" but they are still classics in their own right. I'm totally misquoting but Scorsese said that Corman's films are "ART" but at a another level.

If you love films definitely see this documentary. If you wanna get a idea of how to get started in film see this documentary. If you wanna see how to do low budget films see this documentary. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

12-06-11: War is hell.

THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011) ****1/2 140 mins. D: Yimou Zhang. Christian Bale, Ni Ni,

During the Nanking massacre of 1937, an at first disinterested American witnesses the brutality of war and tries to find a way to save the young girls that look to him to be their protector.

The Nanking massacre was a brutal period in the history of warfare, in it the Japanese army invaded the city of Nanking and killed hundreds of thousands and raped 20,000 to 80,000 men, women and children. This film captures the horror, the desperation, the brutality of that period, as well as the resoluteness of the people of Nanking.

Christian Bale is stellar as John Miller, a man who only came to do a job but finds himself put into a precarious position. You see him change from a man only interested in booze and women to one who is willing to stand up for what is right even if it could cost him his life. I was quite moved in a scene where he attempts to calm the girls by trying to put a nicer spin on events but he knows how false his words are and he begins to breakdown because he knows he's lying and knows what's in store. Ni Ni, in her first feature film, is excellent as an escort he meets. She is quite good in one scene where she describes how her life has been destroyed and how she would hate to see that happen to anyone.

Yimou Zhang gets fine performances from all his actors. His direction is assured and measured. He doesn't exploit the events and does just enough to convey the gravity of it all. He handles the last third of the film nicely as he puts the viewer through an emotional ringer. You're happy and sad, left drained and empty yet leave uplifted.

It's a haunting and brutal film that is one of the best of the year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

12-04-11: Gosling Rising

HALF NELSON (2006) *** 99 mins. D: Ryan Fleck. Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie.

A history teacher with a drug addiction strikes up an unexpected friendship with one his students. Will it be a friendship that will tear them down or lift them up?

Ryan Gosling comes into his own as Dan Dunne. A teacher who actually gets through to his students but harbors inner demons that could easily destroy everything he has taught them. Gosling does great work conveying the desire to do right by his students but shows his inability to shake his addiction. He has for the most part successfully hid his addiction but as is the case one day it will come into the light. Shareeka Epps does solid work as the student who makes a connection with Dunne. Circumstances bring them together and for what they have it just seems right.

The film is engaging as you wonder just where this relationship is going. Fleck keeps the relationship natural and realistic without getting exploitative. Outside this relationship, the interaction the characters have with other people is fairly perfunctionary. Drey's mom and a family friend aren't very memorable and the women Dunn sees is nothing spectacular.

The leads are great but the film, while good, doesn't live up to their performances.

12-04-11: Trust this Man...avoid Trust the Man

TRUST THE MAN (2006) * 99 mins. D: Bart Freundlich. David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ellen Barkin.

A brother and sister find their relationships with their partners are beginning to fall apart. Rebecca fears her husband may be cheating on her and Tobey fears he's losing his longtime girlfriend because of his commitment issues.

This dramatic-comedy about relationships fails on many levels. It is no surprise that this winning cast cannot elevate the material. It's such a waste of talent.

This film is suppose to be about relationships. My problem is I didn't give a damn about anyone, everyone comes of as a bitch or asshole. Why should I care, I don't like any of them. The story is pretty predictable and worst of all it devolves into a third act full of cheese and sit-com level humor that it implodes on itself.

After the first twenty minutes the film hadn't even begun to establish just where it was going. I was bored and it was already losing me. At 99 minutes it felt insufferably long.

So trust me when I say skip "Trust the Man."

12-04-11: Puff-Puff-Ho-Ho-Ho

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS (2011) ***1/2 89 mins. D: Todd Strauss-Schulson. Kal Penn, John Cho, Neil Patrick Harris, Danny Trejo, Tom Lennon.

A mysterious package reunites Harold and Kumar, who have gone their separate ways. After an unexpected accident, they must find a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and hi-jinx ensues.

Harold and Kumar's latest adventure is in 3-D. Much like "Piranha 3-D" it uses the 3-D to full comedic effect. Pot smoking wafting in your face, candy kanes hitting your nose, a claymation appendage that'll make you wanna duck.

Penn and Cho are still enjoyable as the stoner pair. Both are a little older but not above engaging in some immature antics. NPH makes a hilarious return as the host of a non-PC Xmas pageant.

While I enjoyed "Guantanamo Bay" I felt this was a better sequel. It's kind of reminiscent of how I felt about "European Vacation" and "Christmas Vacation". Wasn't a fan of "European" but loved "Christmas." This is by no means as good as that but it is still an entertaining Christmas movie but is not as good as "White Castle."

It's full of amusing 3-D sight gags, the usual stoner humor, some insane comic antics and a very funny homage to the legendary "A Christmas Story."

It's definitely one to see in 3-D as the gags will lose their impact in 2-D. Still overall, it's a fairly funny film.

11-25-11: The Saw is Family

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1986) *** 89 mins. D: Tobe Hooper. Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley, Bill Johnson.

After capturing on air the mysterious death of a pair of college kids, a radio DJ is terrified by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. Meanwhile a former Texas Ranger, obsessed with find the family, is hot on their trail.

With a bigger budget, Hooper has made a sequel that is tonally different from his original horror classic. The emphasis is on black comedy with touches of unsettling horror.

While not a classic, I rather enjoyed this sequel for the most part. Yes, it's nuts but still has enough blood and gore to satisfy the average gorehound. Although the violence is rather tame compared to the current state of torture-porn horror films like "Saw" of "Hostel."

Hopper is very memorable as "Lefty" the lone Ranger out to put an end to the Sawyer family. Caroline Williams is also quite good as "Stretch" and is a helluva screamer.

It's bloody, funny, gory and quirky. It succeeds where others failed when following up a horror classic. Not as good but still a worthy follow up.

12-01-11: Let's Talk About Sex

A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011) *** 99 mins. D: David Cronenberg. Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Kiera Knightley, Vincent Cassel.

While treating a patient, Carl Jung seeks the advice of Sigmund Freud and they begin to develop treatments and methods that give birth to modern psychoanalysis. Meanwhile, Jung becomes involved with the patient and finds he may have problems himself.

While to many the idea of two minds getting together and discussing psycho-babble would probably be boring. For me, I didn't get enough of that. I was more interested in their relationship then Jung's relationship with Spielrein. While the latter relationship did attribute to many new discoveries in psychoanalysis I just didn't find it all that engaging.

Acting wise, everyone is quite good. Unfortunately Knightley's Russian accent is noticeably inconsistent. I really enjoyed the discussions between Freud and Jung but there simply wasn't enough of it. I have no point of reference to say this is how they were but I felt Mortensen and Fassbender did well as Freud and Jung, respectively.

Cronenberg directed but it felt very generic. The film was based on a book but feels more like the play that also inspired it.

It was a good effort but didn't deliver what I was hoping to see.

12-01-11: Silence is Golden

THE ARTIST (2011) **** 100 mins. D: Michel Hazanavicius. Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller.

At the dawn of the Talkies, a silent film matinee idol struggles with the possibility that his career may be over and an ingenue skyrockets to fame as she embraces the new medium.

This is a very well produced, conceived, directed, acted and scored homage to the silent film era. It's unfortunate that the story itself is an all too familiar one about Hollywood itself.

Silent films can be tricky. When you factor out the score, you are solely dependent on the actors, the story and the images on screen. You can forgive the acting if it's over the top but if the story and images don't hold the viewer's attention they will drift or they will doze off. Now if the score is not engaging or doesn't fit the moment, the viewer may lose the story.

Hazanavicius succeeds in melding it all together with the exception of one key scene. In that case, how I interpreted that scene was different from what the score was conveying. I saw the character's reaction differently and the score only convoluted the matter. However, overall the score is very well done and harkens back to the olden days of live accompaniment.

I mentioned the story is all too familiar but he gets fine performances from his leads that at least make you want to see what happens to these characters. Actors like Goodman, Cromwell and McDowell give fine support in roles you've seen or can see them in before but not silent. Even the dog gives a stellar turn.

There are some moments in the film that were quite surprising, original and refreshing but I will not go into them. See for yourself.

If you've never seen a silent film before this is not a bad place to start.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

12-1-11: Les Miserables - The Motion Picture

In just a little over a year, 12-07-12, the motion picture version of one of my all-time favorite musicals "Les Miserables" will finally hit the silver screen. Based on Victor Hugo's timeless classic, the story follows Jean Valjean, an ex-con and his powerful journey to redemption.

I think this was one of the first musicals I had ever seen, not counting high school productions. It was either this or "Phantom of the Opera". I'm pretty sure it was this. My brother insisted on taking me, I was at first hesitant since I never watched that many musicals. I was blown away, I even shed a tear or three. I was in my late teens or early twenties.

It did not feature a single spoken word, every word was sung. Now I've heard that there will be spoken dialogue in the feature film which I'm fine with as long as it's used properly.

Tom Hooper, who directed last year's Best Picture "The King's Speech", is directing. I remember way back when I saw "Les Miz" for a second time the Playbill featured an ad that the film version was coming and would be directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. That never came to pass. "The King's Speech" was a fantastic film so I feel the project is in good hands.

Now my biggest concern was the casting. The film will clearly be a different experience. On stage, sitting in back you can focus on the music and not so much the acting. If you can feel the performance through their singing then they've done their job. However, with film the camera will be feet away from the performer's face which means they must not only be able to sing and sing well but have to be able to act as well.

Thankfully, Hooper is taking this to heart and is putting together a great cast of actors who CAN sing and CAN act, some who have been nominated or won Academy Awards. Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. When given the right role, he can act. Since he's been on Broadway and sang at the Oscars he can sing. Russell Crowe as Javert. Fine actor and he's in a band so he can sing. Despite this being the first film where he'll show his chops I'm confident he will do fine. Anne Hathaway is Fantine. A fine actress and excellent singer. She had auditioned for Schumacher's "Phantom of the Opera" but could not do it due to prior commitments. I thought she would have been great. As the Thenardiers, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush. Great actors and yes singers. I simply cannot wait to see the showstopper "Master of the House." Eddie Redmayne is Marius. I recently saw him in "My Week with Marilyn." He's a very good actor but I've never heard him sing so we'll see but I think he's a good choice.

This leaves the pivotal role of Eponine. The two songs and moments that have always stuck with me were "Bring Him Home" and "A Little Fall of Rain". The first time I saw "Les Miz" when "A Little Fall of Rain" was sung I was very moved, moved to tears. I could feel her performance. When I saw it again with a different Eponine, I didn't feel her performance because it felt to me like she was just singing. She didn't give the moment any depth or emotion which is why I hope they get the right actor for this part.

I've heard four names in the running. Scarlett Johannson, ummm...no. Evan Rachel Wood...I don't know perhaps. Taylor Swift...if you respect the material then NO. Finally, Lea Michelle. Yes, Rachel Barrett from Glee. Not only can she sing but she can emote the proper amount of emotion necessary for this role. Am I really basing my opinion on her role in Glee. No. Watch the following video.


Her performance here captured everything I loved about the first time I saw "A Little Fall of Rain" performed. So if the powers-that-be are paying attention, this is a no brainer, cast her!

So needless to say this is one of my most eagerly anticipated films of next year. I can't wait to see the first trailer.

If you haven't seen it on stage, do so. Otherwise, pick up the DVD/Blu-ray of the Anniversary Concert.