Tuesday, January 31, 2012

01-22-12: A country as far and wide as the sea.

THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) (Unrated) 166 mins. ***1/2 D: William Wyler. Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Chuck Connors.

A retired sea captain moves to the west to marry his fiancee and finds himself embroiled in a land war between two cattle barons. Despite being immediately looked upon as an unwanted outsider, he grows to love the land and lifestyle and aims to stay.

This western is more about civility then action and shootouts. It is also about the perception of image. In this land if you don't fight you are seen as a coward, even by those close to you. However, McKay will only fight when it's necessary and on his terms. Gregory Peck plays a gentlemen's gentlemen. He believes things can always be handled civilly but is not beyond settling things physically. Unlike the many ranch folk he encounters he handles everything his way and again on his terms. The feud that he unwillingly becomes involved in escalates to an all-out civil war and he takes action to prevent further bloodshed. The only problem is that these people are so embedded in their ways that they may be too blind to notice there are always other ways to do things.

Solid performances from the all-star cast elevate this from being just your average oater. It has a sweeping score, fine direction and great cinematography. It's an enjoyable western that is definitely worth seeing.

01-22-12: Caught between a Pageant and a hard place

MISS BALA (2011) (R) 113 mins. ***1/2 (Spanish with English subtitles) D: Gerardo Naranjo. Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azeula, Jose Yenque.

A teenager who hopes to enter the Miss Baja beauty pageant finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and becomes an unwilling pawn in the Mexican drug war.

This solid dramatic-thriller presents a fairly realistic portrayal of the drug war taking place in Tijuana, Mexico. It is unfortunate that innocent victims become pawns in their nefarious dealings. Laura is a young woman with dreams and aspirations. When she is pulled into the drug world you find yourself hoping she gets out of this somehow. As the film progresses, the situations she is put in become increasingly dangerous and deadly. Her only choices are life or death. Do as she's told she'll live. Disobey and its a death sentence. However her dilemma is that some of her dreams are being realized thanks to this association. But is it a fulfilling achievement or an empty one? How much is she willing to take?

Well written, acted and directed, the film has a few surprises and some tense moments. If you've seen the news reports of what's going on in Tijuana then you know much of this isn't farfetched at all. The lengths the cartels will go to achieve their goals is not as shocking as how far and deep their influence goes. This is an intriguing and frightening look at the hell that this city and country go through on a daily basis. In the end, there seems to be no end and sadly there will always be another Laura just around the corner.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

01-21-12: Vampires, Lycans and Leather. Oh my!

UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012) (R) 88 minutes. *** D: Mans Marlind, Bjorn Stein. Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Rea, Michael Ealy, India Eisley, Charles Dance.

After twelve years in a cryogenic freeze, Selene awakens to a new world where Lycans and Vampires are being hunted to extinction by humans. While attempting to uncover who put her in a deep freeze, she encounters a little girl who may hold the key to past and the future.

Kate Beckinsale returns to the franchise she started. More or less picking up where the second one left off, the third film was a prequel, the franchise is taken in a different direction that easily serves as a springboard for a new series of films.

The latest entry doesn't really bring anything new to the table. It's not even necessary to have seen the previous films, this one begins with a brief recap of previous events. If you're a fan of the series, which I am, it gives you what you want and with Beckinsale back you'll get it in spades. It doesn't really expand on the mythos of lycans and vampires but establishes new storylines that will help continue the series.

Beckinsale is in fine form as Selene. Unfortunately, she spends more time fighting CGI werewolves. The CGI effects are good for the most part. The fight scenes are probably more on par with some of the fights in the "Resident Evil" series.

Overall I would say it's the third best in the series ahead of "Evolution" and behind "Rise of the Lycans." This one ends with a cliffhanger so hopefully there will be another one.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

01-20-12: A social lesson lost

FILM SOCIALISME (2010) (Unrated) 102 mins. (English Subtitles) ** D: Jean-Luc Godard.

European history, society, relations and life as seen through the lens of Jean-Luc Godard.

Ummm, yeah. Last year I heard so much complaining about how "The Tree of Life" made little sense whatsoever. I could understand where they were coming from but for some reason I totally bought into the film and got it. It will mean something different for each viewer. Yes it was disjointed and many scenes left you bewildered and you are left scratching your head wondering what that was all about. I mentioned in my review of Godard's "Week End" that had I seen it when I was younger I would have dismissed it as crap. Despite the fact that it was all over the map I was still able to enjoy it and in someway follow it. I can't say the same for Godard's latest. After watching it I felt as bewildered as those who didn't respond to "The Tree of Life" and whatever Godard was trying to say was completely lost on me. Nothing registered, nothing stuck with me, I basically tuned out and lost the lesson.

Broken into three acts, the first takes place on a cruise ship, the second at a gas station and the third attempts to bring it all together. I could totally understand the metaphor of many cultures stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean. I did quite get the reason for the gas station and third act just seemed to meander. The dialogue that permeates the entire film really amounted to nothing at least for this viewer. Characters just break into random conversations about society, the past, the present, the future, morality, etc. As each character discusses something I've already forgotten what it was they were talking about early. Perhaps it has something to do with the subtitling but I attribute more to not allowing a viewer the opportunity to process things. Instead he continues to thrown things at you and in the end your brain is overwhelmed from trying to process it all that you disconnect from the film itself. I was at the point where I was just looking at the images and reading the subtitles, I wasn't actively participating in the film.

In the end it just boiled down to a bunch of images with comprehensible dialogue in incomprehensible situations. None of it made sense and I didn't care to figure it out.

01-20-12: Leaving one Breathless

BREATHLESS (A bout de souffle) (1960) (Unrated) 90 mins. (French with English subtitles) ***1/2 D: Jean-Luc Godard. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Patricia Franchini, Daniel Boulanger.

After shooting a cop, a thief seeks refuge with an American girl he has been seeing.

Godard's first feature is entertaining, charming, stylistic and influential. Considered one of the best of the French New Wave of cinema, this little thriller, if you'd like to call it that, is not so much about the crime but the people themselves. In many films, what Godard does would be considered superfluous as numerous scenes don't really propel the plot. Despite that, you find yourself very engaged by Michel and Patricia and the many misadventures they have throughout.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are great together as the lovers who aren't sure they are lovers yet. Belmondo is smarmy yet likable. Seberg is charming and sweet yet smart and sophisticated. Their banter, especially in the bedroom, is quite amusing.

Godard uses film techniques such as jump cuts and closing irises, things modern audience have become accustomed to. His style helps propel the story forward, despite all the detours and pit stops that occur in the process. It's a very entertaining film that could very well leave you wanting more.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

01-21-12: Flying with your tail between your legs.

RED TAILS (2012) (PG-13) 120 mins. *1/2 D: Anthony Hemingway. Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tristan Wilds, David Oyelowo.

The 332nd Fighter Group also known as the Tuskegee Airmen, a crew of African-American pilots, are finally given the opportunity to engage in real combat after spending months flying meaningless missions.

Just reading about the Tuskegee Airmen you just know their story will make one helluva movie. Unfortunately and surprisingly, this is not that movie. If you look at films such as "Miracle at St. Anna," "The Walking Dead" or "Glory," "Glory" is to "The Empire Strikes Back" as "Red Tails" is to "The Phantom Menace." Meaning you know what to expect but what you see doesn't even come close to it.

"Red Tails" is gratuitous in its cliches, stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. The film opens with the title card "Inspired by True Events" or something to that effect. So right away you know you're not getting the definitive story that these me so rightly deserved. I have not seen the HBO film but I'm willing to bet the characters were better developed. It's unfortunate that they had to resort to heavy-handed, obvious cliches to drive home the racial tensions that existed at the time. In fact, some of the dialogue sounded like it was written by Lucas himself.

The one moment where I literally wanted to throw something at the screen was at its conclusion. The Tuskegee Airmen are honored for their valiant and courageous duty. What should have been a truly stirring moment becomes corny beyond belief as the scene is underscored by "America the Beautiful." I'm not being unpatriotic here, the use of that song just seems to send the wrong vibe and makes you want to laugh. Which I nearly did. Lastly, the dogfights suffer from deja vu that it lacks any real sense of excitement or danger. They were pretty flat.

The men of the 332nd deserve a better film made about their service to this country. This film does them a disservice by making them out to be a bunch of generic flyboys who happened to be black. Give this one a flyover and drop a bomb on it.

01-17-12: No Divide Here, It's Just Bad

THE DIVIDE (2011) (Unrated) 110 mins. * D: Xavier Gens. Lauren German, Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Courtney B. Vance, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Eklund.

After an apparent nuclear attack, tenants in an apartment building find refuge in the building's basement. As the days pass the survivors become more weary, more irritable, more desperate and eventually violent and insane.

This movie was an absolute mess. It actually had a decent first act but once it reached its second act the film deteriorated at a rapid pace. You know going in that this was going to be a survival of the fittest thriller so it really boils down living up to what the story requires. Who's going to crack first, who's going to die, who's going to step up to lead, etc. Those are the conventions of the genre. Now when you throw a curveball that's always welcome. However when you learn the curveball really serves as a mere plot device whose only reason is to make the ending work then that's unforgivable. I expected a callback to this plot development that would explain why it went down but there isn't. The only reason that whole 15 minute sequence existed is so that the sole survivor would have a certain item in the end to help them.

The film is filled with gaping plot holes and contradictions. For instance, one character insists on sealing up the door to prevent radiation from getting in. Later he reveals there's another way out. So he doesn't think to seal that way up too? Performances are uneven ranging from pretty bad to actually pretty good. I'm a fan of Michael Biehn but his performance really came off as flat. Character actions leave you asking why the hell did they do that or why didn't they do this.
You can't really get behind someone when they are inherently stupid.

The film was meant to shock as it tries to show the depths that people will go when they are put in to harrowing situations. I was shocked alright. Shocked at how stupid it was.

Friday, January 20, 2012

01-15-12: The Lies that Bind

A SEPARATION (2011) (PG-13) 123mins. **** (Farsi with English subtitles) D: Asgahr Farhadi. Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatimi, Sareh Bayet, Shahab Hosseini.

Two families become embroiled in a trial that pushes the limits as to how far family will go to protect their own.

What starts out to be a melodrama about a divorce turns into a powerful mystery that really delves into Iranian culture, religion and justice. The complexities of it all makes it difficult to take a side in the events that transpire. At first you'll find yourself really disliking someone for their actions but eventually you learn why they did what they did and you grow frustrated because it's no longer cut and dry. You hate what they did but you see what they were up against and it becomes difficult to blame them. The drama grows even more complex as family members find themselves having to stretch the truth in order to protect the ones they love.

Well written, directed and acted this Iranian drama is very universal and could have easily taken place in any country. It doesn't force a particular point of view and doesn't try to sway you to a particular side. The mystery unfolds for the characters just as it unfolds for the audience. We learn everything just as they do. We want the best for this family that is coming apart and unfortunately this may not come to pass.

This is a fantastic drama that really pushes the envelope on issues such as religion, class and criminal justice. How collectively this will drive someone to do something they normally wouldn't and the consequences that follow.

01-13-11: Compassion and Understanding Above All

THE KID WITH A BIKE (Le gamin au velo) (2011) (UNRATED) 87 mins. (French with English subtitles) ***1/2 D: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne. Cecile De France, Thomas Doret, Jeremie Renier.

After a chance meeting, Samantha, a hairdresser, agrees to foster Cyril, a young boy living at a youth farm. She soon discovers the complexities and difficulties of caring for a foster child who has only known abandonment and is eager for acceptance, even if it comes from the wrong people.

This slice of life drama features a very strong debut by young actor Thomas Doret. Cyril is an infuriating child but you can understand why he does what he does. He's misguided and lacks a compass. He simply doesn't know better. Cecile De France is very good as Samantha, a woman full of compassion and understanding. There are moments where you expect her to just send the boy back but she doesn't.

The Dardenne's pepper the film, which they co-wrote and co-directed, with many heartbreaking moments, a number of tense moments and a fair share of tender moments. As the film progresses they raise the stakes but never lose focus of the relationship between Samantha and Cyril. Characters make decisions that will no doubt contradict what the viewer thinks should have been done, either way it makes for some good drama. However in the end, you want the best for these two and when that is in clear jeopardy the audience is left holding their breath hoping for a happy ending.

It is a well acted, written and directed drama that captures the meaning of unconditional love, even for those we barely know.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

01-06-12: Everbody's Working for the Weekend

WEEK END (1967) (Unrated) 105 mins. *** (French with English Subtitles) D: Jean-Luc Godard. Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne, Jean-Pierre Kalfon.

A married couple's trip to the country turns into an bizarre, violent and disturbing journey into madness.

Until now I have never seen a film by Jean-Luc Godard. Had I seen this film, "Week End", twenty years ago I would have deemed it as a piece of crap. My mind as a film goer would not have been in the right mindset to wrap my brain around where Godard was taking his audience. I wouldn't have had the patience nor would have put forth the effort to actually "Think" while watching a movie.

Once "Week End" begins you wonder where it is going. From a minor fender-bender that escalates into a moment of unexpected comic violence to its coda over a woman eating, the film serves as Godard's commentary on society, American culture and anything else that comes to mind. The film is quite funny at times more for the absurdity of a given situation then guffaws. It can also be quite disturbing. There is an epic tracking shot that follows a traffic jam. Throughout the sounds of car horns is blaring and after awhile it becomes very annoying. All the time you are wondering what is causing this jam and every time you think the answer is being revealed it isn't and when the cause is shown you are left stunned.

This is just a small sample of how things unfold throughout the film. As a viewer I was not prepared to sit through a social/history lesson which probably explains why I liked the film but wasn't in love with it. However, I must say it is a stroke of brillance that he made this film knowing that it would be so divisive. It's not for everyone. It wasn't for me but it still didn't prevent me from enjoying it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

01-02-12: The Best Films of 2011

Another year comes to a close and now it's time to pick the films that I felt stood out in 2011. As the year progressed I wasn't even sure if I'd see enough quality films to compile a list. It turns out this was a good year for a fair amount of decent films.

Before I get to the list of my Top 20 Films of 2011 I want to list the films that were are on my best of list but didn't make the Top 20. They include The Oregonian, Paradise Lost 3, Corman's World, Trust, 13 Assassins, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Carnage, Young Adult, Win Win, My Week with Marilyn, Beginners, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame, Mission:Impossible-Ghost Protocol, Red State, Fast Five, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, Super 8, Rango and Hanna. These are all great films that are worth a look.

This year my favorites were comprised of a number of independents and foreign language films. Only one franchise film made my list. So here ya go, my Top 20 of 2011 and for the first time ever I'm gonna rank my list.


A well, written, engaging espionage thriller featuring a fantastic Gary Oldman.


A pretty disturbing mystery-thriller that goes places I'm sure most audiences weren't expecting.


Angelina Jolie's solid directorial debut about a tenuous romance during the Bosnian War.


An engaging and powerful look at the Nanking Massacre.


Fincher makes a solid adaptation that features great performances by Craig and Mara.


An enjoyable silent film about the dawn of the talkies.


A great baseball movie that isn't really about baseball.


Fine acting elevates this civil rights period drama.


Everything "Crystal Skull" was suppose to be can be found in this exciting 3-D adventure.


A great horror movie disguised as a drama.


The saga comes to a rousing conclusion in this thrilling finale.


Alexander Payne strikes again with this drama featuring Clooney at his best and a star turn by Woodley.


A thrilling action movie that is not structured like an action movie.

BULLHEAD (Rundskop)

A fantastic mafia film from Belgium. As epic as Goodfellas featuring some stellar acting.


Disturbing serial killer drama from Australia that chronicles the land down under's most notorious serial killer.


Awesome serial killer thriller that is on the level of "Seven" or "Silence of the Lambs".


An outstanding drama that is one of the feel-good movies of the year. Shamefully overlooked.


A poetic and lyrical look at depression and the end of the world. Kirsten Dunst has never been better.


The best 3-D film of the year is a finely told mystery that grows deeper and richer with every clue that is overturned. Scorsese fired on all cylinders for this one.


I was originally going to go with "Hugo" but no other film has stuck with me the way "The Tree of Life" has. My mind was blown the first time I saw it. I had a hard to processing what it was I just watched. I spent much time talking about it with friends and many of us came up with different interpretations. This film means different things for different people. Which means some will simply not get it, others may think they get it and others believe they have it. Truly only Malick is the only one who can tell you what it all means but ultimately do you really want to have a definitive answer? It's a film that uses imagery to create pure cinematic poetry. Poetry that sticks with well beyond viewing it. If that doesn't qualify as the best film of the year then I don't know what does.

12-31-11: It's Never too Late

BEGINNERS (2011) (R) 105 mins. **** D: Mike Mills. Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic.

While grieving for his late father, who only recently announced he was gay, a struggling graphic artist finds himself in a relationship with a woman he only just met. As they grow closer he can't escape the feeling that this relationship will go down in flames like the many that came before.

This is an amusing, tender romantic-drama featuring some solid performances and a sharp, witty script. When we first meet Oliver he is cleaning out his father's home. We are told that he had recently come out and on top of that died of cancer. We learn that Oliver hasn't been able to maintain a serious relationship. While at a party he meets an actress and they begin a sweet relationship that leads Oliver to examine his life and his father's. Can he make this one work or is he doomed to repeat his past?

Plummer and McGregor are great as father and son. Laurent is very appealing as Anna. There's an amusing bit where Oliver and Arthur hold conversations throughout that is at first odd but you ultimately buy into it. All the characters are great and you really want to see some sort of happy ending for them. Is there a happy ending? Well let's just say this is only the beginning.

12-31-11: Streep disappears again

THE IRON LADY (2011) (PG-13) 105 mins. *** D: Phyllida Lloyd. Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd.

While grieving for the loss of her husband, Margaret Thatcher reflects on her early political days and her time as the Prime Minster of Great Britain.

The lynchpin for the story comes off as very pretentious and does hamper this biopic. Throughout the film Thatcher sees and holds conversations with her late husband. The unfortunate result of this is that she comes off as delusional. Yes we understand her grieving but I'm sure there could have been a much more accessible approach to the subject matter.

That being said, Broadbent and Streep are exceptional as the Thatchers. Streep, with the aid of makeup, truly embodies Thatcher. She disappears into the part much like Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Capote. If anything, the only reason to see this film is to see Meryl Streep deliver another Oscar-caliber performance.

As is, this is an adequate biopic that only scratches the surface of what could prove to be a far more interesting and enlightening film. Great performances but the film itself doesn't live up to them.

12-30-11: The Name's Mater, Tow Mater

CARS 2 (2011) (G) 106 mins. **1/2 D: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis. Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer.

After entering the World Grand Prix, Lightning brings Mater along for the ride. Upon arrival Mater unknowingly becomes involved in international espionage with danger around every turn.

"Cars" was my least favorite Pixar film, now this is. I appreciate sequels that try to change things up. Go in a different direction, tell a different story, looking at the previous one through a different vantage point. So why didn't I like "Cars 2?" It's international. Yes. It's a whole new story. Yes. What's the problem? It lacks originality. The spy homage has been done to death that the results are very dull. In fact, it felt like the original story was Lightning McQueen enters the World Grand Prix but then they realized there isn't enough story to maintain a full feature. The spy plot felt tacked on. As a result, this sequel basically becomes Mater's story and the star of the original is relegated to supporting status. It's kinda like taking the "Lethal Weapon" franchise and making the fifth film all about Leo Getz.

What surprised me, and usually I never hone in on stuff like that, was the level of violence for a G rated film. The cars are essentially people. Well throughout, cars are pretty much killed by both the good guys and bad guys. Now sure "The Incredibles" had violence in it but that was a comic book movie and it was very much part of that world. The tone from the original has shifted so drastically from the simple and genial world of Radiator Springs. McQueen repeatedly tells Mater that "This isn't Radiator Springs." I guess the audience needs to take that one to heart as well.

When I heard they were making a sequel to my least favorite Pixar film I had to ask why. I just wished they took the same time, effort and pride that they did with "Toy Story 3." I really wanted to like this, I enjoy the spy genre, but I just found it only passably amusing and only sporadically entertaining.