Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Shutter Island

Once again, I choose to open this review with another confession. For the last several months I’ve been parading around on this website, waxing philosophic and bragging that I’m some big, badass movie nut. That I, more so than you, know what good movies are all about. Which is true, obviously. But, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that, despite all my bold statements and broad assumptions about the art of film, I have not seen most of Scorcese’s movies. And probably never will.

Yeah. And what are you gonna do about it, huh? I’ll tell you what... Nothing!

Because, much like my argument on foreign films, there are just too many damn movies out there. And, while I’m sure that Raging Bull and Goodfellas are great movies, I’ve just got too much shit to do. So get off my back already.

Jesus.

However, I feel, this puts me at an advantage when it comes to reviewing Shutter Island. Since I don’t have this echelon of expectations for Mr. Martin, I can look at a new movie with a fresh set of eyes and see it for what it is, and what it should be viewed as: a new movie. Rather than the next chapter in some director’s legendary career. This is a barrier I find myself always needing to conquer with most newer Coen Bros movies.

Shutter Island was a refreshingly good movie. I haven’t seen a movie like it in a long time. Well directed, beautifully shot, disturbingly (but not gratuitously) violent, containing well thought out characters living through a well thought out story. Nothing earth-shattering. Just a good, honest movie that was consistently fun to watch.

Personally, the best part about the movie was its lack of attempts to be earth-shattering. I would like to believe that Scorcese recognizes the fact that his day of changing the medium are done. So now he’s just comfortable to recline in his director’s chair and make good movies. Not great, but good. An important distinction. The pretension of most films attempting to be great is what turns me off of the “Adult Drama” genre in the first place. The chance of a director actually blowing my mind are pretty rare. More often than not I end up losing interest and wish I was doing something else. Like, say, watching a better movie. I think this is what’s kept me away from most Scorcese pics in the first place.

Sure, I saw Taxi Driver. I got the point. Social commentary and so on. But it was, by no means, a fun movie to watch. And I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. Shutter Island on the other hand could easily warrant another viewing. After the twist inevitably reveals itself, even I didn’t want to believe it, because I was so invested in the protagonist’s wellbeing. But a lot of that was due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting ability. He has officially bridged the gap from teen heartthrob to serious actor. And this is the movie that finalized it.

Congrats Leo. You’ve come a long way. Baby.

Here's the Deal.................

So, I know I haven't posted in a while. And I'm sorry for that.

I actually have been to the movies a couple times in the last few months. But the titles I picked were so mediocre I honestly didn't have 500 words to say about them.

For a quick update, I'll give you a brief rundown:

Daybreakers - Some comical violence. A somewhat well thought out concept, ultimately undermined by it's own cheesieness. And Willem Dafoe is just too damn weird for his own good.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Theif - Meh. If I'd been ten when I saw this, I would have really enjoyed it. Since I'm not, I'll just wait for Clash of the Titans... Maybe.

I promise to do better. There's some good looking stuff on it's way. This was a bad season.

Iron Man 2's coming out on May 7th. And believe you me, I'm gonna review the shit out of that movie.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Avatar

You’re a real son of a bitch, James Cameron. You know that?

You think you’re so cool. Just waltzing around Hollywood with your huge blockbusters. Creating one of the most successful sci-fi franchises of all time, cleaning up the Oscars in one fell swoop, almost single-handedly handing Mr. Schwarzenegger his political office by putting him in such legendary characters.

Show off.

Then you just disappear for like ten years. You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t make a movie. I can hear you, saying to yourself, “I’m James Cameron and I can do whatever I want. Everyone else can eat crap. George Lucas wishes he was as cool as me.”

And then, out of nowhere, you just drop this movie Avatar into everybody’s laps. Like it’s no big deal. “Yeah, I wrote and directed it. It’s probably got the best special effects to ever be put in a movie ever. Most likely it’ll revolutionize the film industry. And it’s in 3D. But, you know, it’s no big deal.”

God, I hate you so much.

I mean, where do you get off, huh? Maybe the film industry didn’t want to be revolutionized. Did you ever think about that? Maybe we were all doing just fine with our low grade CGI and lackluster backdrops. Maybe everyone in the world didn’t need to have their minds completely blown by some of the most fantastic visuals to ever hit the big screen. Jeez. Think about the rest of us every once in a while, would you?

When you get right down to it, you’re really just a big loser. If you think about it. You spent, what, like three hundred million dollars on this movie? And have been working on it for something like three years? You wrote the first draft of the script back in the early nineties. So I guess this makes your precious movie a labor of love, huh? And then, you actually created a new language for your native blue people. Their own language. Somebody watched too much Star Trek growing up.

Nerd.

You know, I heard you even invented a new camera in order to film this movie in 3D. Is that true? Who does that? Clearly you have WAY too much time on your hands.

I really think you need to be a little more considerate to our needs as consumers. I for one wasn’t ready to have my entire world rocked by what could possibly be the biggest motion picture experience since the Star Wars trilogy. The first time it came out. And there are rumors floating around that you might turn this Avatar thing into a trilogy all it’s own. Which is only going to further justify your role as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. What the hell, man?

Since when was it okay to change the world? What gives you the right?!

Screw you James Cameron. You and the earth-shattering movie you rode in on!

Asshole.

***

1/6/10

Last night I saw this movie in IMAX 3D. The last time was just in a regular theater. Everything I said above is now multiplied. By a million! Seriously, that was, without a doubt, the greatest cinematic experience of my life. Imagine seeing Star Wars back in 1977. And the dialogue didn't suck. And it was in 3D! Sweet Jesus! It's not fair!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Have any of you ever heard of Steampunk? Apparently it’s a style of fiction, often associated with sci-fi or fantasy, generally set in Victorian England, with a specific attention to being all around bad ass and action oriented. Think Charles Dickens, but fun to read. Featuring steam-powered gadgets either present at the time or fictional evolutions of modern technology. According to Wikipedia it’s been around for like thirty years. Weird, huh? Until Sherlock Holmes, I’d never heard of it either.

The first twenty minutes of Holmes are busy, loud, and abrasive. Introducing the heroes, villains, the general plot, and (most importantly) the world all at once. And all of it wrapped up in thick British accents. It isn’t until the chase seen resolves and everybody calms down do we actually get to catch our breath and realize that what we’re watching is fun, rather than overwhelming.

Once given a chance to get to know these characters, we see how well thought out the movie is. Sherlock Holmes, brilliantly played (as per usual) by Robert Downey Jr., isn’t just a smart, ├╝ber-observant guy. He’s a nearly autistic, utterly brilliant, complete basket case of a man. Watson, Jude Law (everybody’s favorite Brit), is literally the ONLY man who can contain/deal with his train wreck of a partner and keep him working.

The film also offers us an interesting twist on traditional fight scenes. Holmes, being the weirdo that he is, actually maps out how he’s going to win the fight before he engages it. And, of course, he’s always right. He is the world’s greatest detective. Except, of course, for Batman.

Their villain is a man who conducts black magic, and stuff. Convenient, since his name is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. He’s creepy and running some huge conspiracy to totally change the world and insists that he and Mr. Holmes are at the center of it all, forever wrapped up in an eternal struggle. And so on.

The real star of this movie, which brings us back to this whole Steampunk thing, is the city of London in the 1890s. Nearly every action sequence or great act of detective work fully incorporates the gritty, dirty world of the late industrial revolution. A sword fight a top an unfinished version of the London drawbridge. The ragged street folk constantly milling around the background. All of this atmosphere shapes up to be the most interesting character of the whole movie.

All in all, I’d say this movie isn’t a raging success. Despite its twists and turns on the classic vision of an old character, it still manages to just add up to a traditional action movie. But it’s still a good movie and fun to watch. Robert Downey Jr. always carries an irresistible charm to a film and he turns it up high on this one.

He almost makes this character as loveable as Tony Stark.

Almost.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Serious Man

So, here’s the thing…

I watched this movie like three weeks ago. I kept intending to write a review, over and over again. But, due to a mixture of business and laziness, it just kept not happening. So, as a way to make up for it, I’m going to write my version of a tribute to my favorite (and who should be everyone’s favorite) filmmaking team. Five hundred words be damned!

Not long after I really started to appreciate film as an art form I discovered the Coen Bros. They hit the scene hard with Blood Simple and just kept on hitting it over and over (and over) again. I kept asking myself: “When are they gonna give in? Every filmmaker makes one bad movie. But these guys just keep delivering solid f-ing gold!”

The running streak lasting nearly fifteen years and eight movies could take a man’s head off, it was just that awesome. And unheard of. Consistency of that quality is nothing short of superhuman.

Let’s take a brief look, shall we?

Raising Arizona – One could be tempted to use the term Magical Realism, before it was trendy. And who ever thought Nick Cage could be hilarious? Not to laugh at, but with.

Miller’s Crossing – Eat your heart out Coppola and Scorsese. Every piece of this movie makes you long for a time when filmmaking was this smooth.

Barton Fink – I don’t think even the Bros knew what they were making with this picture. It’s bizarre and terrifying. And John Goodman is a badass, through and through.

The Hudsucker Proxy – A live action film that looks and feels in every way exactly like an old Looney Toons episode? How the hell do they do that? “You know, for kids!”

Fargo – Black comedy has never been so hilarious. And black. Why Steve Buscemi never won an Oscar for this keeps me up at night.

The Big Lebowski – Some would call it their opus. I’m inclined to agree. There are no words to describe this movie. Either you’ve seen it or you’re not cool.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Not my favorite, but still a great one. If anyone ever doubted George Clooney’s ability for comic timing, watch this.

The Man Who Wasn’t There – Another incredibly bizarre contribution. But one that leaves you deeply disturbed and strangely uplifted all at the same time.

Then came Intolerable Cruelty, a Coen Bros take on a rom-com. Cute, occasionally funny, but not the type of stuff you’d expect from a power-house team like these guys. And what about The Ladykillers, you ask? To be honest, I’d rather not talk about it. Remaking a movie that wasn’t all that great to begin with into a movie that’s feels so overblown and lackluster… sigh.

Only to be followed up, three years later, by their adaptation piece, No Country for Old Men. They won a bunch of much-deserved Oscar’s for it. And it was a great film, don’t get me wrong. The complete lack of musical accompaniment can only be interpreted as sheer brilliance. But there was a hint of disappointment in the back of my throat. An adaptation, really? You guys are so capable of mind-blowing yarn-spinning of your own, why do you get all the attention for a story you didn’t make up?

Burn After Reading was overrated. Yeah, I said it. With a similar, comedy-of-errors feel that was so successful in Lebowski, it became clear they put way too much stock in the cast to carry the movie, rather than make up for it with the script.

But it’s okay. I still have faith. You know why?

A Serious Man.

And thus, we begin the actual review…

The thing about these guys that I’ve always loved and admired so much over the years is their capability to concoct such original material, so brilliantly and artfully conceived from start to finish, and yet so very recognizably theirs all the time. Brilliance like that doesn’t come along everyday.

I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to get a return to form for these guys. This is old school Coen Bros right here.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg - never heard of him? Me either) is a Jew living in sixties mid-west America. And his life SUCKS. That’s the story in a nutshell. Any more explanation would require lengthy description that takes up too much time.

The cast is filled with unknowns. A couple faces you might have seen on TV here and there. Uncle Arthur is played, wonderfully, by Richard Kind, also known as that guy on Scrubs and Spin City.

The dialogue feels like a warm blanket, familiar and free-flowing. Not to imply that the story is uplifting. It’s quite the opposite. However, you can’t help but smile when you hear that snappiness of old. The deconstruction of a man’s entire life has never felt so rhythmic and smooth.

I’ve read people saying that perhaps this movie was the most “personal” film the Bros have put out yet. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. They did grow up as Jews in sixties mid-west America. And maybe the scene where Danny, Larry’s son, stands on the stage for his own Bar Mitzvah, stoned to the gills, frozen and unable to recite the scripture is autobiographical. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me. But who knows. Who cares?

The only thing I didn’t like about the movie was the opening scene. An older Jewish couple, somewhere in Europe, a long time ago, encounters a ghost, try to kill it, and get a curse put on their family. Or something. I think this was supposed to be the justification for Larry’s undoing. His family received a curse way back when. But it just felt disjointed. The Bros have never needed an otherworldly reason to make some epic black comedy before. Why would they need one now?

And make no mistake, this is an epic black comedy. Of biblical proportions.

So, anyway, go see it. Or wait for video. It’s not a big screen must. But it is still a must. And go see every other movie the Coen Bros have ever made, if you haven’t already. Because they are what good film is all about.

I heard through the grape(internet)vine that one of their later projects is The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. One of my favorite books. I’d rather they make something of their own, but if they’re gonna adapt a book, it might as well be one as good as this. And they’ll do it justice. The Coen Bros have proven that much at least.

God bless em.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

It would seem that someone has asked Hollywood a question: Can we make an avant-garde artsy film out of kid’s movie? Let's ignore for a minute that this person, whoever they are, has never see WALL-E, and notice that two of Hollywood’s most applauded artsy young directors answered the call. Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited) offers us a claymation version of Roald Dahl’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox, set to come out around Thanksgiving. And Spike Jonze gave us Where the Wild Things Are.

I’ve always been a big fan of Spike Jonze. Adaptation is, in my humble opinion, one of the best movies of the decade. Being John Malkovich was an intensely successful mind-bender. And then… oh wait. That’s it. And both of those movies were written by Charlie Kaufman.

Nobody that’s seen his old music videos from the 90s can disagree that Spike has an incredible gift for visual conception. Said gift is very much alive in Wild Things. But, well, let’s see… How can I put this best?

Maybe I’m a purist. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe the world is changing around me, and I’m not ready to deal with it. But I’ve always been of the opinion that when you’re making a kid’s movie, you should at least attempt to make it appealing to children. I watched a few of the featurettes on TV and the internet about the movie. I heard Mr. Jonze say countless times that “it’s important not to look down on kids.” And in the process, he made a movie that sails so high over kids’ heads, I don’t think it can even see them.

While I agree children are very capable of perceiving and experiencing emotions that adults often don’t give them credit for, they also like things like slapstick, stupid humor, and all around silliness. Three things which this movie is completely lacking.

I get where he was going with it, I do. The monsters represent various personality traits of the psyche. The general conflict present is the feeling of helplessness and loss of control that every child experiences while growing up. And all the pain that can cause. But, goddamnit, I remember that book being a lot of fun to read. This movie, however, is not fun. It’s downright depressing.

The monsters spend more time moaning and groaning than they do enjoying themselves. Their world is slowly falling apart and they’re freaking out about it. Why would any kid want to watch that?

Strange that someone with such deep roots in Jackass could make a movie that lacks any sense of letting loose and going nuts for a while. Even the “wild rumpus” that Max announces is a let down.

There are very few occasions I find myself wishing a production studio would intervene with a clearly talented director. Jim Jarmusch, for example. There’s such a strong foundation there, but the director gets so caught up in the dream of his vision, he forgets that the rest of us aren’t up there with him.

I’m not saying the movie is a complete failure. But don’t take your kids to see it. They won’t forgive you.

Paranormal Activity

I was sixteen when The Blair Witch Project came out. And it scared the shit out of me. I’ll never forget the epic conclusion. Heather and Mike running through that old house, screaming their heads off. Heather comes into the basement, finds Mike in standing in the corner, the screaming stops and her camera hits the ground. The dirt floor flashes in and out of focus. When the screen went black I literally got up and ran out of the theater.

Ten years later…

The screen is graced with Paranormal Activity, a film so unabashedly similar it almost seems like a joke. How could somebody practically remake a movie as unique and stand-alone as Blair Witch? But here we are, and there it is. And as the movie runs its course, the similarities only continue to stack up. Shaky cam, improvised dialogue, awkward angles, long drawn out suspense sequences. The list gets longer and longer.

But here’s the thing: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Paranormal Activity was, in fact, a much better movie than Blair Witch!

I know, I know. It’s hard for me to believe too. I certainly didn’t want this to be the case, but here we are. Granted, it didn’t shake me to the bone quite like its predecessor, but I’m not sixteen anymore. Thank god.

The plot: Katie and Micah (pronounced Mee-kah) live together. Ever since she was a little girl Katie has been haunted by a ghost. Something she failed to tell Micah before moving in. When creepy things start happening around the house Micah gets the idea to buy a video camera and keep a record of their attempts to figure out what exactly is going on. When they contact a psychic he informs them that she’s actually being stalked by a demon, not a ghost. Which is not his field of expertise. Needless to say, shit goes sour from there.

What makes this a better movie than Blair Witch? It’s called Simplicity. Witch had some genuine moments of terror laced through it, but large portions of the film are spent building characters and subplots between the three hikers. Not to mention a slew of other people smattered all over the first twenty minutes, mostly providing humor, rather than building suspense.

Paranormal keeps it slim and trim with no other characters than Katie, Micah, and the psychic (who’s only in the movie for about five minutes). The camera never leaves the house, except for a few brief moments shot in the backyard. We are stuck in this house, with this demon, just like the film’s protagonists.

The overall success of the movie is the constant curveballs thrown for us. Nighttime is not always the right time for scary shit to happen. And, unlike Witch, only the demon is invisible, not his actions. Sheets blowing, possession, shadows cast, and (my personal favorite) Katie being dragged out of bed by a hand you can’t see. I definitely lost some sleep over that one.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say. Except when it’s the sincerest form of just being better.