Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shock and Losses

Well, 2008 is coming to a close. The Entertainment world has endured it's share of shock and losses with the deaths of Heath Ledger, Bernie Mac, Paul Newman Eartha Kitt and others.

They will be missed.

But the thing that sticks in my craw right now is the delay of my beloved Watchmen. God how I want to see this film. Ever since I saw the trailor and read the entire graphic novel standing up at my local Borders, I have been salivating for it. But, alas, I wait for it. Still.

The same way I waited for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and Twilight. WTF Were these worth waiting for? No.

Now, I realize my rants on this blog have not been as prolific or frequent or even as good as others, but I have enjoyed reading the blog and trying to stay abreast of the entertainment world.

Dominick you do a fantastic job reviewing these films and your blog entries kick ass everytime.

Amy darling thank you so much for allowing me to continue to contribute, inspite of myself.

I wish you both a Happy New Year and luck and fortune with it.

Movies I do not want to see again:



Dead and Breakfast

any of the Horrorfest 7 films to die for.


The shock of them sucking so bad and the loss of money from seeing them is why I haven't blogged enough.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Year's Worst Movies: A List

I figure, with us at the tail end of 2008 now, I'd start working on those obligatory year-end lists. However, I'm still a few films short of being able to do my Best of 2008, that'll be coming next week. What I do feel comfortable writing on, having seen over 100 films released this year, is the worst films of the year, as I don't think most of the Oscar bait coming out will be terrible enough to make the cut. So, without further explanation, my Ten Worst Films of 2008

Special Award: The Happening

Now, here's the thing. Is "The Happening" one of the worst movies of the year? Without a doubt. Therein lies a dilemma for me, though; as god-awful as it was, I've wanted to watch it time and time again. The film has transcended being bad, to the point that it's a must-see film in that audaciously bad, "Troll 2" sort of way. I can't rank it as one of the year's worst, because honestly, I look more fondly on my viewings of it more than I do for a lot of the films I saw. As an illustration of my point, enjoy:

10. W.

You might think it strange that such an acclaimed movie made my "Worst" list, but I thoroughly believe that said acclaim came from a bunch of super-liberal film critics who found this film an absolute revelation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to play politics; I'm moderate across the board, and I voted for Barack. The fact is that when you remove topicality from the equation, you have a movie that may as well have been called "Satire For Dummies." Josh Brolin fails to infuse George W. Bush with the same humanity that Frank Langella gave to Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon," but that's no fault of his. The fault lies with the script, which basically draws everybody but Colin Powell as a bunch of bumbling idiots out of the Three Stooges. For as edgy as this film seems to think it is, "Saturday Night Live" covered all this territory already, and a hell of a lot better. The coup d'etat, though, is director Oliver Stone's attempts to delve into Bush's daddy issues and amoral history in order to make him sympathetic. Even worse, critics believed that he succeeded. This movie is about as even-handed as "JFK," and I'd really like to meet the people who said that this film was fair, so that I can get a good look at just how far up their asses their heads are.

9. RockNRolla

I can't express enough how truly, deeply sad I am to have to put this film on this list. I wanted it to be Guy Ritchie's post-Madonna return to form, the confirmation that "Revolver" was just an unfortunate aberration. I don't know what happened, but the frenetic energy that seemed to be on the verge of ripping straight out of his earlier films is completely gone, replaced with the kind of dull, laborious plotting that populates dime-a-dozen crime films. Gerard Butler and Toby Kebell do their best to elevate the film, but there's no redeeming a script that takes over half the running time to establish the story, and on top of that talks down to the audience, giving us fifteen-minute scenes of expository dialogue to make sure we don't get lost along the way. Though it's not the year's worst movie, it might be the most disappointing. Then again, there's #3...

8. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

I can only remember two things about "Prince Caspian":

1.) At some point, a CGI grizzly bear appears in the middle of multiple pivotal scenes, without having any reason for being there. I laughed my ass off.
2.) There was a couple sitting in front of me that I'm pretty sure were fucking in the theater, thinking they were being discreet about it.

I can't recall a single other detail, other than my thoughts immediately after the film that it was nothing but a laborious, instantly forgettable "Lord of the Rings" for children. I think that says it all.

7. Stop-Loss

When I was done watching "Stop-Loss," I was moved to remember Danny Boyle's 2007 misfire "Sunshine," which was a phenomenal film that was turned into an awful one by a terrible plot twist late in the film. The same thing happened with this film, but on an even greater level. For two-thirds or so of its running time, "Stop-Loss" is a compelling look at the moral issues present within the titular law, which states that those enlisted in the military can have their required time of duty extended without warning, and must accept this or face the full penalty of law. The film has the conviction to say that sometimes, running is justified if you've been screwed by the system. However, without warning or any plot provocation, the film completely cops out, and ends with the final idea that there is nothing more important than doing what you're told to do, even if you don't want to and even if it may very well get you killed. If the film had adequately built to this conclusion, it would have worked; as it stands, it seems like the studio told director Kimberly Pierce that she could make an anti-war movie, as long as the overall purpose was rah-rahing patriotism. If you can see the logic in that, please explain it to me.

6. Sukiyaki Western Django

The idea is fantastic: A spaghetti Western with an all-Asian cast. The execution...well, frankly, execution implies that something was accomplished. As it stands, Takashi Miike (director of a number of stomach-churning J-horror films, including "Audition) apparently though the best way to run with this premise was to teach his stars English phonetically, and in Southern accents. Because of this, you feel like the English-language film needs subtitles, just to help you wade through the awkward speech patterns. Worse still, for a Western, there's next to no action, just a lot of talk about rival gangs, roses and a woman who knows karate. The whole film feels like it's about an hour longer than it is, and rather than being excited, or at least campily amused, you're just staring at your watch, wondering when the whole debacle will come to an end. When Quentin Tarantino gives the best performance in a film, you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

5. Hancock

If you've already seen "Hancock," do me a favor. Go online and find the original script, titled "Tonight, He Comes" (which would have been the best movie title in history, but I digress) and read it. You'll see how great this movie could have been before however many polarized forces got involved and ripped it apart. Watching this, I could tell that studio executives had quite a bit to do with the production and cutting of this film; only people with no proper training could have edited this movie this poorly. The film is half comedy and half dark, philosophical superhero drama, and I've made it sound a lot more intriguing than it ends up being. They awkwardly and without warning switch from the first style to the second, and try to do both in less than 90 minutes of running time. The result is an awkward, jumbled mess, a waste of a charismatic star capable of making this character iconic with a better script, and a major letdown given how good this film could have, and should have, been.

4. 10,000 B.C.

I love "The Day After Tomorrow," without a hint of irony. It's an incredibly fun, if scientifically hideous, disaster epic that I'll watch every time it's on TV. Apparently, that film's director, Roland Emmerich, decided that he would lose his sense of humor, and for that matter his goddamn mind, for his follow-up, "10,000 B.C." Apparently, at that particular era in time, slaves were building pyramids, jungles were located directly next to vast deserts, and the best way to stop a sabertooth tiger from disemboweling you was to ask it not to do so. Oh, and the big villain, hidden until the end of the film, looks like an evil, possessed shower curtain, with long fingernails. This is clearly the stuff nightmares are made of. I was hoping this film would be so bad it was good. It was just bad.

3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This movie is the cinematic equivalent of depression. It acts like it has some spark, puts on a facade so that everybody else won't worry about it, but as soon as you're with it long enough, you know it just wants to be dead. Watching "Crystal Skull," I couldn't help but wonder if anybody involved in the making of it gave a shit whatsoever, outside of everybody needing money in these strained economic times. The film seems content to fly by solely on nostalgia, throwing in Shia LeBeouf to make it relevant to a younger audience. Now, as likable a man as Shia is, when you're depending on him to save the fourth installment of one of the all-time legendary film franchises, a franchise George Lucas is a part of, something's not right. Maybe Lucas is the problem, though. I can understand why he felt compelled to do this film, for what it's worth; he didn't quite kill "Star Wars" enough with the idiotic "Don't jump or I'm going to fuck you up with my lightsaber" scene at the end of "Revenge of the Sith," so he needed to do more damage to everybody's childhoods. Thus, a woman being killed by knowledge and a UFO buried in Mayan ruins. Epic fail.

2. Semi-Pro

A bad movie is a bad movie, but a bad comedy is arguably worse, just because you're cringing at how painfully unfunny it is. A bad Will Ferrell movie is the next step down the ladder, because he and his casts never fail to swing violently for the fences. Sometimes it works, as with "Anchorman," and sometimes you get the cinematic equivalent of afterbirth, which is what happens here. There is literally not one laugh in the film's hour and a half running time, mostly owing to the fact that the script seems like it was written by twelve year olds. The film mistakes long streams of profanity for comedy, frequently; there's a scene set around a game of poker that's so terribly put together that it leaves the audience sitting in a seat, wondering where the nearest sharp object is so they can destroy both the screen and themselves, so that they won't have to live with knowing they paid to see this godforsaken movie.

1. Funny Games

Since April, this piece of crap was going to be at the top of this list. I knew as soon as I left the theater that, no matter how many more movies I saw this year, nothing could possibly be worse. Lo and behold, nothing was. I won't recap all my thoughts on this film (look in the archive to the right of this article, under "April 2008," for my original review,) but I will say that in reflection, the film was nothing more than a slap in the face to people who don't "get" art. My only additional thought is that I do often worry about the American moviegoing public, and the films they pay to see. I've never been prouder of humanity than when even critics met this vile, sadistic, nihilistic, hopeless, pretentious, supposedly provocative affront to cinema with complete indifference. A film this awful doesn't warrant discussion.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Review: The Spirit

There's no real way to write an accurate review of "The Spirit" in the style of a critic. This is half because on a normal four-star scale it's not a good movie, and half because I'm too much of a fanboy to be objective. So, I'm just going to outline some of the things that happen in the film. By the end of this list, you'll know whether you want to see this movie or not.

-Shit blows up.

-Shit makes dramatically shaped clouds when it blows up.

-Scarlett Johansson's entire purpose in this film is to be hot, spew serial-comic-circa-1950 dialogue and rock gravity-defying cleavage. Seriously, it could be seen from space.

-Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a Nazi for one scene, gives a dramatic monologue and then melts a kitten.

-Eva Mendes shows up as a femme fatale named Sand Saref, partially naked at one point. A Xerox of her ass is a major plot point.

-The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) utters lines like "I'm gonna kill you all kinds of dead" with a totally straight face.

-There is a fight sequence in which a toilet is used as a weapon. After it's used, the line "Toilets are always funny!" is exclaimed.

Now, it might seem unclear exactly what my opinion of this film was based on these things, but let me illustrate it this way. A friend of mine pointed out that if you combined the reviews of the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times and another local paper I can't recall offhand, the film would get three stars. If you combined every review in the country, that is how I felt about this movie. Seeing it on Christmas night made me believe in the holidays again. Colors were brighter. Sounds and vistas, sharper.

Bottom line: Frank Miller directed a fanboy's masturbatory fantasy. Most people will say that it's trash filmmaking. I say please, sir, can I have some more?

Review: Gran Torino

There's not another actor alive that could have played Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino," except for Clint Eastwood. This isn't because the role is deep, though it is, or because there's script convolutions of any kind. The truth is that, had any other actor been filmed growling like a bear in close-up, it would have been so silly that the audience would have been lost beyond the point of repair. Enter Eastwood, the penultimate tough guy. The reason he works in this role, and the reason "Gran Torino" is so good, is because this is how we imagine he functions in his day-to-day life, and have imagined him ever since he played Detective Harry Callahan all those years ago.

The film starts off with the funeral of Walt's wife. He's miserable, because at the funeral his granddaughter shows up in a tube top, his grandsons in football jerseys, and it's evident that his sons, their parents, could care less. His wife's priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) informs Walt that her last wish was for Walt to go to confession, and Walt dismisses him. To Walt, the final straw is when a Hmong family moves in next door. Walt is a Korean War vet, and one of those ornery old men so racist that they can drop a term like "gook" into casual conversation and not even see anything wrong with it.

Walt also lives in the "old neighborhood" of Detroit, which is becoming more of a ghetto with each passing day. One day, Walt sees that a local Hmong gang is harassing the boy next door, Thao (Bee Vang). He doesn't care, until they end up on his lawn. At that point, Walt storms outside, rifle in hand, and demands that they get off his lawn. Thao's hyper-smart sister Sue (Ahney Her) informs him that he's a hero to the neighborhood, which would explain all the meals and flowers being left on Walt's porch.

The film doesn't exactly break any new ground as far as the "old man grows to care for younger kids, learns something about himself along the way" subgenre goes, and so I'll stop synopsis here. What the film lacks in innovation, it more than makes up for in raw emotional impact. Walt realizes over time that the neighborhood isn't the place it used to be, and that it's a lot more dangerous. The key here is that there's no monologue about how he feels old or can't handle the changing times. Walt knows the score, finds it unacceptable and goes about trying to fix it the only way he knows how; he teaches Thao how to be a man, allows Sue to educate him on a foreign culture and violently threatens anybody who he sees as a wrongdoer.

Eastwood doesn't direct himself/portray Walt as anything more than an older version of his past characters. There's no sappiness to be found here; Walt's still a mean old racist at the end of the film, even if he's allowed a few people into his life that he hadn't before, there's no unnecessary character arc to leave the audience feeling good when they leave the theater. He makes a decisive choice at the end of the film that is genuinely heartbreaking, because it seems like it might be the first truly selfless choice he's made in his entire life.

Review: Seven Pounds

"Seven Pounds" is quite possibly the most perfect example I've ever seen of how melodrama, however heavy-handed, can work when placed in the right hands. Leave it to Will Smith, the world's most infinitely likable actor (Tom Hanks lost the right to that claim after "The DaVinci Code") and the creative team behind Smith's last heavy-handed Oscar bid, "The Pursuit of Happyness," to get it right on the second go-around.

Allow me to clear up the plot through the incredibly frustrating, vague trailers. Ben Thomas (Smith) is an IRS agent, who at the very beginning of the film calls in his own suicide. The film then jumps back an unknown length of time, to Ben selling off all his possessions and endlessly perusing lists of names, shouting them at himself repeatedly. He calls a blind phone salesman (Woody Harrelson) and cruelly berates him. He creepily tails Emily (Rosario Dawson) in a hospital before informing her she's being audited, only to then tell her that he's going to make sure she is out of the reach of the IRS for half a year, in order to help her pay off her medical debts.

Through this, and a number of equally odd episodes, Ben seems to be flying on an entirely different plane. He seems vicious at times, aloof at others, but the one constant is that he is perpetually depressed. Smith, to his credit, conveys this without one line of the script to help him. We see brief flashes of something horrifying that happened to Ben, but are not told just what this is until the very end of the film. He appears to be on the verge of giving up and dying, but something compels him to complete the series of goals he keeps obliquely referencing.

Then, a complication ensues: Ben falls for Emily, and she for him, even though he only intended to meet her as part of his suicidal endgame, whatever that may be. Because of this, he forces her along with him on his emotional roller coaster; he leads her on with hints at his broken heart, but whenever she begins to care enough to try and understand him, he forces her back to an arm's-length away. Despite this, they grow closer, even though Emily admits she is on the verge of dying and Ben knows he will be as well, though for wholly different reasons.

It's pretty easy to see why this film wasn't an easy sell for Columbia, because there's no real genre or central story to lump it into. The film is at once a tender, subtle romance that moves at an almost indie movie-style pace, and a journey towards death reminiscent of Nicolas Cage's in "Leaving Las Vegas." All the while, we are pulled in, wanting to know what drove Ben to this point and just what he has in mind. And when we finally find out....well, I can't give it away conscionably, but just let me say that the film ends with one of the most surreal sequences since the frog downpour in "Magnolia." It's not as out-of-left-field as that film, given that here the eventual end is hinted at earlier on, but it's no less affecting. This film will likely go down as one of the year's buried treasures, because it's affecting in a way that doesn't resonate instantly. It takes time to really understand how beautiful the final revelation is.

Review: Yes Man

I remember fondly the Jim Carrey of my youth, the one who ran headlong onto an airport tarmac in "Dumb and Dumber," but I have long since accepted that he is no longer the same actor. Frankly, he's better off now. Full disclosure: I adore serious Carrey, given that "The Truman Show" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" are both among my favorite films. However, with "Yes Man," he returns to the territory that made him a star: high-concept movies that allow him to turn his face into rubber and his body into the world's punching bag.

Being that this is a high-concept movie, the entire plot can be synopsized in a sentence or two. Carl Allen (Carrey) is a maladroit bank employee who hasn't been out with his friends or done anything fun in nearly three years, ever since his ex-wife left him. However, he has a chance encounter with an old co-worker, who sells him on a Tony Robbins-like "Yes!" seminar. Carl goes, and the guru (Terrence Stamp) shows him how joyous his life can become if he says yes to anything and everything offered to him.

The premise itself is extremely similar to "Liar, Liar," but where that film allowed Carrey to unleash his id all over those around him, there's something uncomfortable about this premise. For much of the film, Carl is terrified of the things he's saying yes to, but is essentially a slave to the premise, and that's the reason this movie doesn't quite work; we like Carl, well enough that we don't want to see him suffer through being fellated by an octogenarian or being stuck in the middle of nowhere in the California hills after offering a ride and his cell phone to a homeless man. The latter at least has a positive effect, as it leads to him meeting Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who becomes attracted to Carl because of his seemingly carefree way of approaching life.

This romance is what saves the film from being pointless, as Carl really begins to come alive (both in the film and to the audience) once Allison comes into his life and makes him push his boundaries. Inevitably, there is that moment in every romantic comedy where the film's central conceit leads to the lovers being separated, but unlike many, the reason given here actually makes enough sense that it doesn't seem as silly or unreasonable as they often do.

What really helps the film along is the way that it uses all the things Carl picks up while on his journey later on. In most movies, his learning Korean, taking flight lessons and signing off on every loan request in his bank would simply serve as a brief laugh before being discarded. Here, though, Carl turns into a sort of superhero, using everything he's learned to better the lives of others. The film's funniest scene, which I won't spoil here, involves Carl using his guitar lessons to save a man's life, and this (along with a few others) gives the film a heartfelt center that feels natural, rather than forced.

The trouble is that while there is heart here, there are too many dumb sight gags. At the screening I attended, the audience didn't start laughing until about halfway into the film, and this might very well be due to them being raised on the same Jim Carrey that I talked about earlier; because they know all his physical comedy tricks, they don't earn the same easy laughs that they used to, and only when the film ups its game in the second half does the audience start to go along with it. I'm all for a slow build in a film, it doesn't happen enough, but it shouldn't take this long in a broad comedy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Review: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

I sometimes hate movie trailers. A lot. The reason I bring this up is that if you watch the trailer for "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button," it essentially spoils the entire film, right down to the ending. Also, please note that this isn't a suggestion that you watch said trailer, as it will ruin a great movie for you, or at the very least ensure there are very few surprises.

On with the review, though. The film is the life story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who begins the film by stating that "I was born under unusual circumstances." Oh, how he was. Benjamin was born as a baby, but with the body of an old man. As he grew older, he aged in reverse. If it seems unusual that I'm using the past tense, it's because the film is told in memory. From whose, I will not reveal, because the film doesn't opt to do so until about halfway in.

As a baby/old man, Benjamin lives in a retirement home run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin's father (Jason Flemyng) abandons him on her porch after his wife, Benjamin's mother, dies in childbirth. Queenie takes him in and loves him like a child, especially since she's unable to bear her own. He grows up with an old man's body, but with the mind of a child. This leads to a chance encounter with Daisy, when Daisy is a little girl. This will prove fateful for Benjamin, as Daisy grows up (into Cate Blanchett, no less) and becomes Benjamin's lifelong lost love.

Once he's young enough in body to leave the safety of the retirement home, Benjamin voyages out into the world, and without giving too much away, he experiences all the joys of life in much the same way as the rest of us. He finds work as a hand on a boat, spends time embroiled in an affair in Russia and does a great many other things, but all the while, he feels as though something is missing, without Daisy present in his life. Each time they reunite, they marvel at how they are nearing in age, without either being willing to admit the inevitable: As he grows younger, so she grows older.

Being that this story comes from the slow-boiling prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film has a gait to it instead of being a race towards an ending like many others out right now. However, it's a testament to the quality of this film that at no point in the film's three-hour running time does it feel as though it's dragging. Aside from the conceit of Benjamin's situation, there's really nothing unrealistic going on, but yet, the film feels as though it possesses a magical quality. After leaving the theater, I thought of another film about an unusual man's strange journey, "Forrest Gump," and I believe that this could catch on in the way that film did. Some will argue that there's no real point to this film, but did that one really have one? It was about the journey, not the destination, and here, it's about how sometimes, taking that journey is what some of us are really put on this planet for.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: The Band's Visit

I'm a firm believer in one of the entries in Roger Ebert's Little Movie Glossary, which (in paraphrase) states that if a critic ever uses the word "ennui" (meaning boredom) in the review of a film, particularly a foreign film, it's going to be pretentious and boring as hell. I think that with "The Band's Visit," I've found an exception, because although it is an exercise in the ennui of being trapped in a small town with little hope of true escape, the film is anything but boring. In its own extremely subtle way, it's one of the year's funniest films.

The film opens with a fairy tale statement of sorts: "Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many people remember this, it wasn't that important." And really, it isn't. The band arrives in Israel to perform at a new Arab cultural center, only to find that the van scheduled to pick them up has failed to appear. They send the group's lothario, Haled (Saleh Bakri) to ask for the first available bus, but due to a combination of nomenclature issues and Haled's flirtations with the customer service girl, they end up in Bet Hatikva, a tiny, dreary town where the only sign of life is the local cafe owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who kindly informs the band's conductor Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) that not only is there not an Arab cultural center, but "No Israeli culture, no Arab culture, no culture at all." A regular at the cafe helpfully adds "Bloody nothing."

Eventually, Tewfiq and Dina strike a deal, and she convinces a couple of the regulars to entertain the band for the evening and give them a place to sleep. From here, the film does not really progress a plot, nor does it have a real point. But then, a film doesn't have to all the time. This often leads to meandering art pieces, but here it works, for it follows the rhythm of real small-town life, where the most profound moments can be found in the tiniest silences and quirks, and something can be touching without being grandiose.

Over the course of the night, three of the band reside in the house of a man whose dreams of musical grandeur are briefly revitalized by the presence of a band, even a tiny police band. Haled goes with a young man to the local roller disco and attempts to help him flirt with and seduce a woman. The real crux of the film, however, is the tentative semi-courtship between Dina and Tewfiq. I say semi because neither of them is really chasing the other, or anything for that matter. For different reasons, neither wants to be involved with a lover again, but what they find in one another is arguably more important.

The film goes in unexpected directions, but it does not shy away from the inevitable. It's not really a spoiler to say that in the morning, the band goes on their merry way, and the small town continues to be unimpressive. We don't spend enough time with these people to know whether the events of that fateful night changed them, but we can surmise that it has at least touched them, and that might be all that we can ask.

Review: The Wackness

(The following is a revision of a review I started writing back in late August but never finished.)

"The Wackness" is one of those films that doesn't seem all that remarkable when the credits first roll, but stays with you long after the fact. Now that we're approaching the end of the year, and now that I've seen upwards of 100 2008 releases, I'm somewhat shocked that I'm still contemplating this film, a sweet coming-of-age story that takes place over the course of a balmy summer in 1994 New York City.

The protagonist is Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, and yes, the Josh Peck from Nickelodeon's "Drake & Josh"), an awkward young man fresh out of his upper-crust high school and lacking in anything resembling direction. He's content to pass his days listening to hip-hop, fantasizing about his gangsta delusions and selling pot out of an ice cream cart in a NYC terrified of Mayor Giuliani's 100 percent crackdown on drugs. His state of inertia is interrupted by a series of events that take place at the start of the summer. First, he figures out that his parents are on the verge of losing their apartment. Then, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), his dream girl, takes a sudden active interest in hanging out with him. This is complicated by the fact that one of his few friends (and a dealing client), Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) is Stephanie's stepfather.

At first, Stephanie is a dream come true for Luke. (It takes a special kind of actress to perform a teenage boy's masturbatory fantasy, figuratively and literally, and Thirlby is more than game.) She follows him as he deals, asking about the finer points of the profession, loves the East Coast rap mixtapes he makes for her and invites him back to her family's house on Fire Island for drinking and the loss of his virginity. Luke is in heaven, and not even Dr. Squires' warnings that it's only a fleeting thing can't stop him. Inevitably, Stephanie is not what she seems, and this leads to Luke having to confront maturity head-on.

There is a lot to this film that has been done to death in other films, but rarely this well. Peck is marvelous as Shapiro, lending him a sad-eyed charm that lies buried for much of the film beneath a Notorious B.I.G.-induced swagger. It's hilarious to watch his posturing come unraveled in visits to his dealer (Method Man), when he realizes that he's surrounded by real gangbangers, dangerous ones at that. Kingsley, acting considerably against type even for such a chameleon as himself, is even better as Squires. He adopts Luke both as a friend and a son, because Luke reminds him of himself when he was young and still had idealism on his side; Squires is trapped in a loveless marriage, with a stepdaughter that regards him with indifference and a job that he hates save for its ability to allow him to help Luke.

Is it ridiculous for a film to get nostalgic for an era not yet fifteen years past? Maybe. The upside to this gambit is that the film takes on a certain sense of relevance that this genre needs in order to reach its audience. As another film in the subgenre paved by "The Graduate," it works better than many of its ilk. The summer ends, people of all ages grow up, and even if the road ahead isn't the happiest one, there's a pretty badass soundtrack to carry everybody onward.

Review: Let The Right One In

"Are you looking at me? Well, squeal! Squeal, pig!"

This is the first thing we hear Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) say in "Let The Right One In," and also the first thing that Eli (Lina Leandersson) hears him say. Oskar is one of those completely unremarkable boys we all remember from grade school, the one who only seems to even be present in a room when he's getting harassed by bullies, who pursue him because they know they can and they know he won't retaliate. He fantasizes often about torturing them and having his revenge, and in general, he fits the mold of a boy that could end up on the news for bringing a gun to school a few years down the road.

His parents ignore him, and he has no positive attention in his life, but this turns around one day when he meets Eli. All he knows is that she "smells funny" and doesn't know her birthday (she says that "I'm 12...but I've been 12 for a long time") and for some reason tells him during their first conversation that it's probably best if they don't become friends. Oskar tries to act tough, but it's obvious this stings him. The next day, though, Eli is back, and they begin to befriend each other using morse code along their shared bedroom wall, and Oskar begins to come alive, just a little bit.

There's just one nasty little snag: Eli is a vampire, one who depends on a strange older man living with her for sustenance in the form of blood from random people he assaults in desolate areas and drains.

In a turn refreshing for the genre, Oskar doesn't run from her with terror or tell her that he's only afraid of being without her. He approaches her with curiousity, and also with tenderness; regardless of what she is, she's a friend to him, and he knows this. He also begins to become attracted to her, but this is also a problem. In the film's best exchange, one of the year's best altogether, Eli confesses something unusual:

Oskar: "Do you want to go steady?"
Eli: "Oskar, I'm not a girl."
Oskar: "Well, okay, but do you want to go steady or not?"

Soon, Eli's need for blood begins to rear its head, especially when the friend of one of her victims begins to seek vengeance. She also inspires Oskar to retaliate against the bullies who abuse him, which is at first thrilling and later potentially life-threatening. All these consequences come together in the film's brilliant final twenty minutes, in which both Oskar and Eli are forced to come face to face with the reality of their friendship and must face the consequences of being in something that resembles love.

In my review of "Twilight" earlier this month, I mentioned that that film was a castration of the vampire genre. "Let The Right One In" is the absolute antithesis of that film, as it examines in a far more honest light the love between the mortal and the immortal, and the lengths to which both will go to protect the other. In addition, it doesn't really occur to you until the film is over that the film is also a surprisingly tender parable about the awkward need for closeness in the lonely time of adolescence. Pretty neat trick, huh?

Review: Doubt

And now, ladies and gentlemen, Oscar bait. This is "ach-ting" with a capital A, the kind of sweeping, grandiose performance fodder that sucks up awards like a Hoover. If my tone sounds condescending, or at least negative, there's a reason for that. "Doubt" has recieved surprisingly mixed reviews, but that surprise comes more from those who heard the pitch (Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman together in a film about a still-relevant issue, released in late December) and saw the trailer, and thus were convinced that this film would go off like gangbusters.

It hasn't, and more than anything, I think it's just because this film simply isn't as good as it should be. Maybe that's unfair to say, but I thoroughly believe that a film must be judged on its own merits; for example, I wouldn't review "Shoot 'Em Up" (a film I deeply loved) in the same way I would review a film like this. One expects more of a movie with such a casting pedigree, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, and directed by the playwright. One should expect more, and has the right to be mad if it doesn't live up to its potential.

"Doubt" is the story of the battle between two extraordinarily headstrong individuals. One is Sister Aloysius (Streep), the principal and head nun at St. Nicholas Parish/School, a predominantly Irish Catholic church in the Bronx, in the 1960s. She rules with an iron fist; the nuns dine with her in silence, rightfully afraid that a single word out of them will unleash a cuttingly sarcastic fury. Even the sweetest of those in her charge, Sister James (Amy Adams) can't help but inform her that "All the children are uniformly terrified of you." She becomes threatened by the presence of Father Flynn (Hoffman), who brings with him Aloysius' worst nightmare: notions of progress and change.

Thus, when Sister James hints that something might be happening between Fr. Flynn and the school's only African-American student, Aloysius immediately assumes the worst. She begins a crusade to force a confession without having even a slight amount of damning evidence, even going so far as to bring this to the attention of the boy's mother (Viola Davis), who in an absolutely jaw-dropping scene, changes the entire dynamic of the film by hinting that perhaps, something illicit is happening involving the priest and the boy, but not in the way Aloysius means.

Now, the dialogue is top-notch, as are the performances. Streep manages to make Aloysius human, even as she does horrible things; in the hands of any lesser actress, this character would have been reduced to an enraging caricature, but Streep lends her a certain amount of sympathy that makes it difficult to simply write her off as a monster. Hoffman is also reliable, as he plays Fr. Flynn both shadily enough and honestly enough that it is nearly impossible to figure out his true role in the whole situation. Despite this, I was reminded of a film Hoffman starred in last year, "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead." The film was superbly acted, extremely well written, and yet it didn't even come close to being one of the best films of the year. Why is this?

In the case of the former film, I have no idea, but I think I understand it here. The film is filled with so much bombast and artistic vagary that instead of being compelling, it just becomes monotonous. As great as it is to see a film that does not hold the audience by the hand, there is a point at which it gets ridiculous. Without saying too much, let me just state that when a film seems to show you everything about a character, and in its very last line of dialogue completely alters the dynamic, that's not a final reveal, it's just cheap. I'm sure many would disagree, but I stand by this opinion.

In addition, John Patrick Shanley, director and scribe/director of the original play, directs the film with more visual melodrama than most war epics. Lights are burning out, the wind is constantly howling and half the dialogue exchanges are framed in sharply tilted angles. I perfectly understand what he means to accomplish, but it becomes downright comical at times, which for a film with this much of a desire for gravity is near-fatal. That's not to say it's a bad film, not at all, but one can tell while watching it that there is a masterpiece in here somewhere that failed to be found.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Review: Choke

Director Clark Gregg has to have some serious balls. Why else would he take on the task of adapting an unadaptable book, to say nothing of the fact that it's the second Chuck Palahniuk novel to be bought to film, after a little movie called "Fight Club"? The fact is that no filmmaker could have fully adapted "Choke," mostly because the book is pornographic and a straight adaptation wouldn't have made it past the MPAA. With this in mind, Gregg has done a pretty great job of bringing the sordid tale to life.

The film is the story of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), med-school dropout, sex addict and all-around terrible human being. He fakes choking episodes in restaurants in order to cover his mother Ada's (Anjelica Huston) medical bills. The logic? Once somebody saves your life, they feel protective of you to the point of taking responsibility for you like a child. His only friend is Denny (Brad William Henke), a masturbation addict who frequents 12-step meetings with Victor. However, where Denny is actually trying to get better, Victor could care less. What's so strange about Victor is that he's fully aware of the fact that he's a horrible person, and sees nothing particularly wrong with it.

Then, he meets Paige (Kelly MacDonald), his mother's nurse, and everything comes unhinged. I won't spoil anything particularly huge, but she manages to convince Victor of what to him is the worst possible thing imaginable, relating to his true origins. This forces Victor to confront his station in life and his addiction, which leads him to forcibly shove himself down the rabbit hole of depravity, running desperately from having to feel anything resembling an emotion. He also has to deal with Denny falling in love with a stripper, for Victor refuses to believe that anything deeper than lust can exist in people like him.

Gregg brings some devilishly funny touches to the table. Often, when Victor looks at anybody, the film cuts abruptly to them naked, or to a flashback to Victor having already conquered them, which puts us right inside his head. What really does the trick, though, is Rockwell's performance as Victor. He's the perfect actor for a part like this, because at the core, we are supposed to like Victor, or at least empathize with him, or if nothing else, laugh at the sheer misery of his life. In the hands of a lesser actor, he would've just been a prick, but the perpectual twinkle in Rockwell's eye allows for him to be endearing even as he's answering online wanted ads for fake-rape fantasies.

It's unfair to say that "Choke" is or isn't good because of its relation to the book. The book is a modern masterpiece, and it's inevitable that things have to be excised or retooled. As a film, on its own, "Choke" is stellar. It pulls off that most difficult of tricks, tittilating at the same time it manages to have something to say. Deeper than that, Gregg had it right when he set out to adapt the book: "I saw it as a punk rock love story." Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review: Encounters At The End Of The World

"Encounters At The End Of The World" might just be the cinematic equivalent of exchanging stories in a bar. One guy tells a tale, and then another to up the ante on him, and all the while, the stories range from touching to hilarious, sometimes both, and sometimes just heavy. The difference, however, is that where exaggerations are likely to take place when stories are being told, "Encounters" captures them on camera. It's a stunning illustration of the idea that the truth is often far stranger than fiction.

Documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (best known for "Grizzly Man," where he filmed a man who lived amongst grizzly bears and befriended them, until one day they got hungry and killed him) takes his examination of those individuals who live their passion to Antarctica, to film everybody from scientists seeking a deeper understanding of new life to working men with a lifelong case of wanderlust. Along the way, Herzog makes some conclusions about where the world is headed, if even the last utopia of the world (as he views it) is slowly falling apart.

The film is lushly shot, though Herzog seems to have fallen so deeply in love with the vistas of Antarctica that he tends to labor upon shots for minutes at a time. This is also the film's biggest handicap, because for as gorgeous as it looks, it eventually gets redundant, as though he's continually trying to tell us how beautiful the place is even as he's already shown us. The film's best scenes are those that center around the people. As Herzog talks to a penguin researcher, his overhead narration marvels at how the man has become so engrossed in his work that he lacks the ability to converse with humans.

There is another scene during the film when the trainer talks about how penguins will occasionally, for reasons not yet understood, bolt for the mountains, running away from safety and towards certain death. This is another of the overarching themes of the film: following one's muse regardless of the consequences. Many of the men and women Herzog talks to have led wonderous, bizarre lives. One woman relates the story of her three years living on the run with African rebels, and how she was kidnapped and trapped in firefights on numerous occasions. Most of them do manual labor jobs to support themselves, but never do they complain; you get the distinct impression that everybody living in Antarctica wants to be there. After all, if they didn't, from what Herzog implies with this film, they wouldn't last long.

(Note: The film also has quite a statement about global warming, one that I would argue is even more effective than the fact assault of "An Inconvenient Truth." Because of this, I can see this film taking the Best Documentary award at the Academy Awards this year.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still

This might sound terrible, but I think I felt more excitement watching the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" trailer before "The Day The Earth Stood Still" than I did watching the film itself. That's not to say the film is bad, certainly not as terrible as many are claiming, but it's just not very good either. It feels as though the filmmakers were trying to sell the 1950s version to a modern audience, but the problem is, they had to either deliver a full reproduction (excluding, perhaps, men in robot suits) or create an entirely new film. What they've delivered is some bizarre in-between.

Brief synopsis of the plot: Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) is called one night and pulled out of her home by government officers, forced to leave her son Jacob (Jaden Smith). They cannot tell her why this is happening, because not even they know. A colleague of hers (Jon Hamm) informs her that she's been selected to be part of a special team planning for a strange interstellar object colliding with Earth. However, the object slows down, and lands in Central Park. It's a huge sphere, glowing and appropriately alien, and when a vaguely human form steps out, the military's first instinct (as is the case with movie military) is to open fire on it. The sphere gets angry and sends out a warning, in the form of a giant robotic man.

From there, the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) reaches the conclusion that the aliens are hostile, and Helen has to prove her wrong. The man the aliens sent identifies himself as Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), and he claims to be here to save the Earth, but continually informs the humans that their demise is rapidly approaching and unavoidable. Helen simply tries to convince him that mankind can change its ways enough to warrant not being killed off.

The film is surprisingly slow-burning for an American disaster movie; until about two-thirds of the way in, there is simply a building of somewhat ominous tension, before things start getting disentegrated and/or blown up in the third act. The film's best scene, and also its most compelling, is when Helen brings Klaatu to a Nobel Prize-winning friend of hers (John Cleese), who does not beg Klaatu to spare humanity, but simply sits down and debates its merits with him, as though they were discussing a scientific theory over tea.

Reeves is not horrible here; any actor could play this role, as he simply has to remain emotionless, and it just so happens that he's played this role too many times before for there to not be a little bit of parody present. Connelly is good as always, though she has that most thankless of disaster movie roles, the constantly weepy female lead. Smith is probably the star performer in the film here, playing an embittered boy who understandably has issues with the strange alien driving around with he and his stepmother. If anything, when the inevitable acceptance of Klaatu by Jacob rolls around, it's a little too abrupt; Klaatu essentially stops him from tripping and falling, and that seems to change the whole game.

Oddly enough, the film pulls off the "global warming as apocalypse" angle far better than a film I enjoyed considerably more, "The Day After Tomorrow," but within that comparison lies its greatest flaw. "Tomorrow," for all the grandiose special effects and melodrama, had a certain humor about its situation, and you never forgot that it was above all else a Hollywood production. At times, while watching this film, I felt almost like I was watching a documentary of something that did not happen, and not in the good "Cloverfield" sort of way. The film is so matter-of-fact that even when tiny aliens are ripping Giants Stadium apart, there's no sense of mirth or wonder, just apathy.

Review: Frost/Nixon

Most actors spend their careers seeking roles as meaty as the two main ones in "Frost/Nixon." On one side, you have British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), known more as a well-groomed personality than a hard-hitting journalist. Frost briefly had a taste of American fame when his syndicated talk show premiered in New York, but it was quickly cancelled. As Frost tells his manager (Matthew Macfayden), "Success in America is unlike success anywhere else."

On the other side, you have disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). After resigning the presidency under fear of impeachment in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Nixon was unable to retain his former glory. Near the beginning of the film, we see Nixon telling witty anecdotes to a mostly bored crowd at an orthodontics society dinner, which then does nothing but slam him with questions about Watergate. Nixon, more than anything, wanted the glory and public adoration that goes along with the spotlight back, and so when his agent (Toby Jones) informs him that Frost has offered him $600,000 to do a full-coverage interview, Nixon takes the opportunity. One of his biggest motivations was a lack of confidence in Frost; the former president figures that Frost is not at his level, and will be a fine stepping stone on the road to rehabilitating his image.

Most people share this opinion; not only because he's a foreigner, but an "illegitimate journalist," not a single U.S. broadcasting network will co-finance the interviews. Frost has to wheel and deal and call in every favor he has, essentially putting all his eggs in one single, fragile basket. He hires Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), a political contributor for ABC at the time, as well as James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), a professor at North Carolina who fears that Frost will botch the greatest possible opportunity to show Nixon to the world as a crook and a liar.

At first, Frost could really care less; this is nothing more than a lark for him, an invitation to those American high-society parties he so desires. Nixon sees this and takes full advantage; he knows he can outsmart Frost, and does so with exchanges like the following:

Nixon: Have a pleasant evening?
Frost: Yes.
Producer: Camera in 5, 4, 3....
Nixon: You do any fornicating?
Producer: Roll camera.
(Frost stutters)

However, as he gets kicked around in the first few interviews, his facade of confidence begins to break, until a fateful conversation between he and Nixon, which shows him that maybe, the man known as "Tricky Dick" is only human after all. He pounces on this during the Watergate portion of the interview, and if you don't know how the real-life interviews unfolded, I won't ruin it here.

Sheen, so great as Tony Blair in "The Queen," is great as Frost, with his perpetual game-show grin. Langella, however, owns this movie. Both actors have worked with these characters for years onstage before director Ron Howard brought them to film, but his Nixon is not only a dead ringer, but also surprisingly human. Unlike Oliver Stone's backhanded "W.", Nixon is not a caricature based on popular opinion of the man; he is broken by his attempted coverup, and wants nothing more than for the whole thing to just go away so that he can continue his life, and maybe attain a small amount of his former glory. Some perspective on how hard this role is to pull off: it seems odd to imagine, but Nixon was once seen to be as much of a disgrace to the presidency as many now consider George W. Bush to be.

Monday, December 15, 2008

New trailer for Wolverine Origins

Get pumped, because Gambit's in the trailer!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: My Winnipeg

If ever there was not a movie made for the masses, this is it. Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg" is dense and bizarre, and even the hardiest of filmgoers will be pressed to comprehend it on a single viewing. The greater trouble is that many will not give it the benefit of repeat viewings because of the aggravation the first one might very well cause. This would be a shame, though, because whatever you say about the film, you can't deny that it approaches greatness, if it falls just a bit short because of its own imposed limitations.

The film is Maddin's middle finger/love letter to his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba (in Canada, but I hate adding that to the end; it'd be like saying "Chicago, Illinois, United States"). Maddin starts the film with a frenzied rambling that he sustains throughout, starting off with the highly questionable statistic that Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world, and that it is law that when a sleepwalker shows up at their old home, or a place they used to frequent, the current resident has to take them in for the night.

There's a lot of weirdness like this; as the film goes on, Maddin also asserts that many of the city's streets are named after famous prostitutes and that a seance was once performed in the capital building that involved a "spirit bison" and several of those prostitutes. The central idea of the film, though, is Maddin attempting to discover exactly what has kept him in a town he mostly hates for all these years. As he says, "After a lifetime of failed attempts, I'm getting out for good this time. Again!"

To pursue this, Maddin hires a series of actors to play his childhood family, including his actual mother. He recreates episodes from his childhood mainly in order to understand her, because he feels that her lap is the magnetic pull that keeps him coming back to Winnipeg. His narration conjures images of feverish rambling, as he often repeats himself over and over and returns to the same ideas, trapped inside the same loop that's kept him in town. He has to keep reminding himself to stay awake long enough to escape Winnipeg, because if he falls asleep, he'll sleepwalk right back home.

For all Maddin's disdain, though, he loves his hometown deep down. This comes through in a lot of the film, particularly when he talks about how the Winnipeg Ice Arena, where his father played and where he spent much of his young life, was torn down by the city after its attempts to bring in the NHL failed, and it could not generate money. Maddin has what I believe is actual footage of the dynamite destroying only the additions to the arena designed to placate the NHL; the skeleton remains intact, and citizens can be heard chanting "Go, Jets, Go" in honor of the Winnipeg Jets team. Not only that, but in Maddin's fevered imagination, there is a team of old Jets players, now of geriatric age, called the Black Tuesdays, who continue to lace up their skates and play in the arena even as wrecking balls demolish it around them.

Even at the end, when Maddin is inching towards his great escape, he cannot help but imagine a superhero, Citizen Girl, who will continue to look after his town and his mother when he leaves for good. Even if the film uses everything from animation to silent film cards, Maddin has told a story that every single individual in the world can understand, about the inextricable pull of "home," whatever or wherever that may be, and the inability of anybody to ever truly leave it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

100 Greatest Movie Characters

Empire put out their list of the 100 Greatest Movie Characters up on their site. Don't know if I agree with all of them (Tyler Durden as number 1? Citizen Kane in the 90s?), but take a look and see for yourself: http://www.empireonline.com/100-greatest-movie-characters/

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

The film starts off with a question, posed in the style of the show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" It asks, "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?" The possible answers: He cheated, He's lucky, He's a genius, or It is written. The police have Jamal (Dev Patel) in custody, because they see things as they are: He serves tea to telemarketers, and has spent the majority of his life on the streets. They wonder, "What could a slumdog possibly know?"

As it turns out, everything.

You see, Jamal has been forced, ever since he was young, to survive on his wits and intelligence. This is familiar territory for director Danny Boyle, whose oeuvre includes other stories of the fight for survival like "28 Days Later" and "Trainspotting." The main difference between "Slumdog" and other films of his are that where the others were steeped in darkness before finding the light, there's a vibrant joy to this entire movie that no movie released this year, or even in the past few, can match.

That's not to say there's not darkness in it, though; the story follows Jamal and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) throughout their lives as they try to stay afloat in Bombay, which as they get older becomes the industrial nirvana of Mumbai. Along the way, they lose their mother in an anti-Muslim riot, encounter a host of dangerous people and fall in and out of each others' lives. What keeps Jamal fighting through adversity time and time again is the lust for life instilled in him in the form of Latika (Freida Pinto), who he meets when they are children and who he spends his whole life trying to be with.

This relentless optimism serves Jamal well even when he makes it onto "Millionaire," especially with the host (Anil Kapoor) smugly playing Jamal's history for laughs. Jamal also refuses to indulge the police inspector (Irfan Khan) who believes strongly that Jamal is somehow cheating, and then fails to understand Jamal's motives for going on the show even when he becomes convinced that Jamal might just be telling the truth.

The film unfolds in flashbacks, as each question asked of Jamal on the show ties back to an event in his life. Boyle's visuals are unlike anything in his other films; gone are the monochromes and darknesses, replaced by an almost Bollywood-style splash of color. The entire film is shot in India, with many scenes populated by everyday citizens in lieu of extras. For this alone, Boyle deserves an Oscar; in interviews, he has talked about how he accepted things like people staring into the camera, as it was the truest way of showing the "real India" to a world that right now knows it more for being the site of brutal violence than anything else.

A story like this could have collapsed under the weight of treacly sentimentality, but it is a testament to cast, crew, writer and filmmaker alike that at no point in the two-hour running time does anything onscreen feel forced or unreal. In fact, more than anything, "Slumdog" might just be one of the truest love stories to come out in years, and it does it without a hint of grandstanding or obviousness. This might just be the year's best film.

More on War Inc

War Inc, another little film that could, had a limited realese in movie theaters. Thanks to John Cusack's MySpace campaign, the word was spread far and wide about this film by regular fan's and critics of President Bush's policies and politics alike.

When I said, see this movie and open yourself up to new ideas, I meant it.
Right now, we are at war and in the middle of a recession driven by greed and ignorance. The idea that corporations, like the fictional Tamerlane Industries, exist and operate the way they do for profit is not far fetched. It is frightening.

It is also a very close reality. See the film and then do the research for yourself. You can't learn everything from a blog.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Review: WAR INC.

Another film that was looked over by this year's Golden Globes, WAR INC. John Cusack co-wrote and stars in this political satire set in fictional, war-torn country of Turaqistan which is occupied by a fictional American corporation Tamerlane industries.

In this bleak version of the immediate present and future, America is a country that is in the business of making war for profit--i.e. after blowing the country to smithereens we sell and spoon feed Democracy to the Turaqistani's. It is a bitter pill to swallow. A future where great coporations spend vast amounts of dollars shaping the worlds nations into what they see as profitable ventures. Where everything even human life and limb is profitable. This is a frighteningly real concept, and alot of truth can be said in jest.

As "Hauser" John Cusack is a hitman hired by the corporation's CEO (played by Dan Ackroyd) to kill a Middle Eastern oil minster. Hauser's cover will be that of a Trade Show producer hired to put together some kind of show and organize the wedding of Central Asian popstar Yonica Babyyeah (played very well by Hillary Duff). Rounding out the cast are Marisa Tomei, Joan Cusack and Ben Kingsley.

As the film progresses, we see Hauser is not unlike John Cusack's hitman in the film Grosse Pointe Blank. He is very charming, enigmatic, and other than Hagelhuzen (Tomei) the only one with a heart and a conscience. I mean, the man tortures himself by drinking hot sauce straight up from a shot glass. What a guy. And while the moral and emotional implications of what he has to do mount around him in a mass of dark humour, we the audience can't help but laugh.

Marisa Tomei's character, is a left wing investigative repoter who also becomes a love interest to Hauser along with Yonica Babyyeah. It is an interesting triangle to say the least.

Overall, after giving you this little bit, the film is a well told tale. Much better and funnier then Wag the Dog. War Inc is a polically scathing black comedy that pokes holes in the image of American Captalism and reveals greed for what it is--evil.

See this movie and open your mind to new ideas.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Golden Globes Analysis

I'm taking a break from my recent prolific burst of movie reviews to talk about the Golden Globes nominations, just announced today. I feel as though I'm coming full circle, as my very first post on Livewire last year was on the same subject. Anyway, I'm going to give thoughts on the top categories, and only in film, though I must give a shout-out to "30 Rock," the single best show on television that a disappointingly low number of people are watching. I'm asking nice. Please don't let it get cancelled, general public. You already took "Arrested Development" away. I'm going to list the nominees and go category by category:

Best Picture (Drama)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

My take: If there is a God, "Slumdog" is going to win this award. It's this year's Little Movie That Could, only unlike "Juno" last year, it's actually good. "Reader" looks like typical Oscar bait in every way, and the Weinstein Company still can't successfully release a movie to save their lives. "Frost/Nixon" will probably get more love in the acting categories. I saw an early showing of "Benjamin Button," and that was great too, but the one that could take it is "Revolutionary Road," because not only does it look great, but the power of Kate and Leo together for the first time since "Titanic" might be too much to deny. However, I can see one thing working against it: the same people who hated "American Beauty" because it hit too close to home will likely be cringing in their seats for this one.

Best Actress - Drama

Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kristin Scott Thomas - I've Loved You So Long
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road

My take: Too close to call. There's not one weak performance here. "I've Loved You So Long" doesn't have the same press machine behind it as the others, but Thomas is phenomenal. I honestly can't even speculate at this one.

Best Actor - Drama

Leonardo DiCaprio - Revolutionary Road
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

My take: Now, Sean Penn is the master of commanding awards, especially with a movie that's as relevant as "Milk." Leo's due for an award, and Langella has honed his Nixon impression for years onstage before bringing it to screen. Rourke might get all the comeback goodwill that Robert Downey Jr. was robbed of in the best actor category, but I have to give the early nod to Pitt for playing a role that reminded me of Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," and I hear he did okay.

Best Picture - Musical or Comedy

Burn After Reading
Happy Go Lucky
In Bruges
Mamma Mia!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

My take: What the hell? This is an extremely indie crop of movies save for "Mamma Mia!," which was not very good. I'll say that "Happy Go Lucky" is going to win it, just because that's the most critically lauded, though don't count out "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" or "In Bruges." I'm just elated to see the latter film nominated, because movies that come out in February are often forgotten, and this one is worth it.

Best Actress - Musical or Comedy

Rebecca Hall - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Sally Hawkins - Happy Go Lucky
Frances McDormand - Burn After Reading
Meryl Streep - Mamma Mia!
Emma Thompson - Last Chance Harvey

My take: I haven't even heard of the movie Thompson is nominated for. This is actually a weak crop save for Hawkins, who's excellent and has the most hype on her side.

Best Actor - Musical or Comedy

Javier Bardem
– Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Colin Farrell
– In Bruges
James Franco
– Pineapple Express
Brendan Gleeson
– In Bruges
Dustin Hoffman
– Last Chance Harvey

My take: Please let Franco win this award. Either of the "In Bruges" guys or Bardem would be fine, and I like Hoffman, but as far as an actor stretching, you can't get any further from type than Franco did here.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler
Kate Winslet - The Reader

My take: Cruz has been getting buzz ever since the summer, but "Doubt" is the kind of actors' movie that award ceremonies love. Tough call.

Best Supporting Actor

Tom Cruise - Tropic Thunder
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Ralph Fiennes - The Reader
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

My take: Now I'm conflicted. I want Ledger to win so badly, but I almost want to see Downey get it for what was the very definition of a scene-stealing role. I'm surprised Hoffman is in this category, and he'll be tough to beat. One final note, though: Am I the only one who didn't think Cruise was funny in "Tropic Thunder"? Apparently.

Review: Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Kevin Smith has done it again. I really can't find enough words to impart how deeply I loved "Zach and Miri Make a Porno." Granted, "Clerks" is the reason I've become a complete film geek, and why I'm writing here, and why so many other things, but this film is for anybody who ever doubted Smith's talents as a filmmakers because of his vulgarity, his low-fi production or anything else.

The film is the story of Zach (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), platonic best friends and roommates. They're three months behind on all their bills, because of Zach's habits of buying things like ice skates and Fleshlights with his paychecks. If you don't know what a Fleshlight is, Google it, it'll make you laugh; just don't do it at work. Eventually, their power is turned off in their apartment, and they realize that if they don't find a way to make money, they'll be homeless. Zach finds inspiration at their high school reunion, when he meets Brandon (Justin Long, in a showstopping cameo), an adult film star who stars in such all-male fare as "Shut Your Mouth Before I Fuck It."

Zach gets the idea to make a porn movie and sell it to their old high school classmates, and he enlists not only Miri, but his coworker and friend Delaney (Craig Robinson), as well as a host of locals, including Lester (Jason Mewes), Deacon (Jeff Anderson, another Smith regular) and Stacey (real-life porn star Katie Morgan). After some hilarious misunderstandings, Zach ends up filming the movie in the coffee shop he works in after hours. However, when it comes time to film his scene with Miri, they are both forced to wonder exactly what having sex will do to their friendship.

From there, the film goes to some wonderful places that I can't give away here. Suffice it to say that it might just be the most deeply, unabashedly romantic film of 2008, even though it involves a fecal explosion as a major third-act plot point. In the vein of Smith's other films, much is said about the power of sex to change the dynamic between friends and lovers forever. Rogen is fantastic as always as Zach, but the real surprise here is Banks, who started as the hot chick in "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and went on to do a bunch of other hot chick roles, before most recently playing Laura Bush in "W." The role of Miri was originally written for Rosario Dawson, but when she backed out, Rogen personally recommended Banks. She plays Miri as every guy's dream girl, with pinup looks and an X-rated vocabulary, but when the plot turns more dramatic, she's absolutely heartbreaking; there is a scene where she coldly informs Zach that sex is just sex, and when he responds, the look on her face is that of somebody who just gambled their entire world and lost.

The film was met with a bit of controversy, as Smith's often are, but it was regrettably passed over. This is a shame, because it's funny, heartwarming and easily one of the year's best films. Look for this on my year-end Top 10.

Review: Repo! The Genetic Opera

It's been a long time since I've seen a movie get so viciously torn apart by critics across the board for a less legitimate reason. Now, I've listened to director Darren Lynn Bousman ("Saw"s 2-4) talk about how he knew exactly what he was bringing on himself when he cast Paris Hilton as just one of his eclectic cast. What I doubt he expected was the half-star review from Rolling Stone that essentially bashed her for a paragraph and barely even discussed the movie. Or, for that matter, the slew of other reviews that all followed suit.

Then, there's the uphill battle that "Repo!" has encountered just in trying to get into theaters. Lionsgate, they who buried "Midnight Meat Train," a film I was looking forward to, decided that there wasn't a market for this movie, and so they dumped it in eight theaters nationwide and left it to die. Then, a funny thing happened. It didn't. Word of mouth spread like wildfire, which led Bousman to starting a road tour, touring with the film and trying to spread his enthusiasm. The road tour screenings went off like tent revivals; the film hadn't been released nationwide, and people were still showing up in costume and singing along to the songs.

However, I've managed to go two paragraphs without actually talking about the movie at all. Based on my prior statement, yes, "Repo!" is a rock opera (the filmmakers beg of you not to call it a musical) about a whole lot of things. Mainly, it's about GeneCo, a company that capitalized on a massive epidemic of organ failures by leasing organs to those in need. The company was soon overrun by greed, and now Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), the CEO of GeneCo, uses Repo Men to repossess the organs of those who default on their payments. Rotti is dying, and he knows that his children are unfit to run his company. There is Luigi (Bill Moseley), who suffers from a severe rage problem; Pavi (Ogre, of industrial legends Skinny Puppy), who cares more about his fake face than anything else, and Amber Sweet (Hilton), who is addicted to both surgery and a futuristic drug extracted from the dead.

A parallel plotline involves Shilo (Alexa Vega), a young girl bedridden by a mysterious disease. Her father Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head) is trying to find a cure, but by night, he is also Rotti's top Repo Man. There is bad blood between Nathan and Rotti, and it gets worse when Shilo's curiosity is piqued by two mysterious figures; the Graverobber (Terrence Zdunich, one of the writers of the film), who acts both as a pimp and drug dealer and the film's Greek muse, and Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), a star chanteuse for GeneCo who wants out of her contract.

In case it isn't obvious by now, there's a lot going on in this film, all set to people singing. Even those who have championed the film have said that it's incomprehensible, but I disagree; I've now seen it twice, and I perfectly understand what is going on. While watching it, I couldn't help but think of another much-maligned film that came out this time last year, Richard Kelly's pop-trash madhouse "Southland Tales." Both films were a labor of love, and both swing for the fences with a gonzo, wild-eyed aplomb. "Repo!" is considerably more comprehensible, but somehow, it's suffered an even worse fate.

I implore you to seek out this movie. It'll be on video in January, and some of the more successful stops on the road tour (Chicago included) have brought it back for return engagements (it'll be playing at midnight at the Music Box Theatre the weekend of December 26th). If nothing else, just think about this: This film is destined to be the next great cult phenomenon, in the vein of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Don't you want to be able to say you knew about it when it first started?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Got to Love Lonley Island

So this is not technically movie-related, and probably most people have seen this, BUT when I saw this I could not stop laughing. For those of you who are slow on the uptake like me, Andy Samberg has struck digital gold again with his new Digital Short with Lonely Island cohort Jorma. I think the title says it all. And if this is your first experience with Lonely Island amazingness, definitely either check out their official site or simply YouTube "Lonely Island." For the newbie, may I suggest Just 2 Guys or Bing Bong Brothers?

Jizzed in My Pants:

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Australia

"Australia" inspires one of the oldest cliches in the book, used by critics for many years now: They don't make 'em like this anymore. It's true, though. Very few filmmakers would be able to get away with making a costume epic that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a theater in the 1940s, with a massive budget. Then again, Baz Luhrmann isn't your everyday filmmaker. The mad mind behind the retelling of "Romeo + Juliet" and the remake of "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann has made a name for himself by tweaking the tropes of Old Hollywood and repackaging them for a modern audience that wouldn't know who Clark Gable is if you asked them on the street.

The film has been slammed by critics as a misfire, a failure of grand proportions. I couldn't disagree more. I think that in order to fully appreciate the film, you have to understand exactly what it's doing. That is to say, you have to embrace the cliched nature of the thing and work from there. The film is the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a spirited high-society English type who storms off to pre-WWII Australia to retrieve her husband from the cattle ranch they own. Her husband arranges for her to be escorted by Drover (Hugh Jackman) a (wait for it...) cattle drover with a fondness for brawling and for the aboriginal culture of the Australian wilderness. He and Sir Ashley are looked down upon by the nobility of the country for hiring natives to work on the ranch, due to the racism still heavily prevalent at the time.

Upon reaching the ranch, Lady Ashley finds her husband dead, and this sets off a sprawling adventure, in which she tries to save the cattle ranch from the Carney company, which holds the monopoly on Australia save for her ranch, Faraway Downs. She also has to deal with her budding attraction to Drover, and also protect a young half-aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who is in danger due to a law that actually existed in Australia at the time, and continued to do so all the way up until 1973, which allowed natives to be shipped to missions and be domesticated in the "white" way, so that they could live as servants to nobility.

The film is gorgeously shot by Lurhmann, but his most delightful touch is the use of traditional hand-painted backdrops for nature shots in lieu of CGI. While this might come off as hokey to some, it gives the picture that old-fashioned feel that it spends so much time seeking. The plot also has that same feel; the villains may as well be twirling their curled moustaches and the main characters are a grizzled man's man who forces himself to be alone and a spirited young woman who teaches him to love again. The film also has some ethnic stereotyping, which it has drawn fire for, but I don't think it's fair to criticize this, as it celebrates the almost magical quality, romantically so, of the ancient cultures that the "civilized" world essentially gentrified into oblivion. The people calling the film racist for it are the same ones who thought "Crash" was an absolute masterpiece, because it appealed to the white guilt impulse that far too many seem to possess. (For the record, I loved "Crash," though I'm also very aware that it was exploitative as hell, but I digress.)

The performers play the roles exactly as they need to be played. Jackman never once loses the devilishly playful twinkle in his eye, and in the inevitable scene in which he shows up to a ball as Ashley's date, clean shaven and dapper, he looks like an Old Hollywood star in every possible sense. Kidman is even better, and I say that having liked her in very few of her movies, but here she channels her inner Scarlett O'Hara and chews scenery with a gleeful ferocity that most actors wish they could enjoy. Special note must be made of Walters, who lends a depth to Nullah that actors far older than he often struggle to attain. During one sequence, in which he stares a cattle stampede right in the eye, he is as steely and tough as any other performer in a film this year. Regardless of the writing, which is knowingly old-fashioned, every actor in the film plays their roles with the kind of swing-for-the-fences glee that actors of the Golden Era would.

I cannot do anything but credit Luhrmann for following whatever muse inspired this film. Considering that there isn't much of an audience for a movie like this (it's three hours long, it looks cheesy if you don't understand the logic, the trailers did it no justice at all), it takes serious courage to make this film. However, if you can appreciate it for all of its winking flaws, it just might be one of the most entertaining films to be released this year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Review: Cadillac Records

Based on a true story, "Cadillac Records" is the story of the Chicago-based record label Chess Records, which brought the blues to the masses in the 1940s and eventually called itself home to legendary artists like Etta James, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. The film unfolds over somewhere in the vicinity of two decades, following label founder Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody) and the various artists he signed. The primary players are Waters (Jeffery Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), with Berry (Mos Def) and James (Beyonce Knowles) entering the picture later.

I'm not sure how much of the story told here has been documented in the past, to be honest, which is probably a large part of why I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Seeing Muddy Waters as a debt-ridden womanizer or Etta James as a heroin addict, while kind of like watching "The Wizard of Oz" knowing Judy Garland was a drunk, makes for compelling viewing. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all is the decline of Little Walter, because as the film tells it, his friendship with Waters led him astray, and after being introduced to the drink, he got into drugs and squandered his career in the process.

The film falls into a large amount of cliches (the saintly wife who turns a blind eye to her philandering husband, the power of respect and tradition over all else), but unlike many music biopics, it never feels factory-made. This is wholly because of the casting depth present. Wright plays Waters as a man who lost all perspective upon finding success; he squandered all his money to the point that even when the label was folding under Chess, Waters was still asking him for money to cover child support and his mortgage. The film's title is also telling, as it refers to Chess' habit of purchasing a Cadillac for every new artist signed to the label.

The film's weakest point is its third act, in which the part of the story surrounding Etta James takes over the film. Given that Beyonce is credited as an executive producer, this shouldn't be all that shocking. However, the film loses momentum when all the other characters are temporarily forsaken to follow Chess' budding romance with James, up until he met his untimely demise. In general, the film is one of those Great American Sagas, the story in which a bunch of people that came from nothing rose to something, and then threw it all away without planning for the future. To quote Billy Joel, "I guess that's why they call it the blues.'

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Review: Synecdoche, New York

"Synecdoche, New York" is not only the saddest American film of the year, but of the past few. This is the kind of film that you'd expect a filmmaker to create near the end of their career, or even their life, but that's the kind of courage that writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Oscar winner for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") brings to the table. This is about as fearless, brutal and uncompromising as a film can get.

As is expected by this point of a Kaufman screenplay, the story is labyrinthe, but unlike most, there is no big revelation of the deeper point at the end; I've now seen it twice, and feel as though I need several more viewings to appropriately wrap my head around it. The story, at least at the outset, follows Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) through an indeterminable amount of time. It starts in 2006, when Caden develops a mysterious illness that nobody knows how to explain; every doctor he sees sends him to another doctor, who sends him to another, and so on and so forth. Worse, his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) takes his daughter Olive to an art exhibition in Germany and never comes back.

However, in the midst of this, Caden recieves a MacArthur Genius grant to create his masterwork, and this is where the film begins to take shape as a wildly inventive, borderline psychotic narrative; without warning, Caden is thrust several years ahead without realizing it and without warning. There are lots of strange sequences from the outset; Caden's caustic therapist (Hope Davis) responds to Caden's asking "Who would kill themselves like that?" with "Why did you?" In another scene, a dying woman's flower tattoo begins to wilt, causing petals to fall off her arm.

As the film goes on, Caden begins to wonder exactly what is happening to him; not only is his perception of time disturbed, but he begins to become consumed by his art, to the point where he loses the ability to distinguish reality from fiction, and even worse, fiction begins to become reality and vice versa. This film is reminiscent of "Adaptation," another Kaufman script, insofar as it poses major questions about the nature of creativity and art itself. More specifically, they examine that theoretical point at which an artist becomes so absorbed in his art that he forgets to live in the process.

The film spirals further and further out of control, and has a habit of doubling and tripling characters and locations until the audience is no longer able to comprehend what's going on. The movie has been severely criticized because of this, but I disagree with the claims that Kaufman lost control. A film like this can get away with a lot as long as it obeys the rules that it has created for itself within its own world; this is why "Cloverfield" worked, and why this film works. The film continues to follow Caden as he races towards the inevitable, having to admit that he spent his life trying to play God and failing, and it ends with a brutal, bleak final line. The line, when you consider who delivers it, how they do it and who it's delivered to, is quite possibly the only ending that this film could have.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Kym (Anne Hathaway) is that family member that everybody speaks about in hushed tones before a major gathering, all full of smiles upon hearing of her imminent presence but secretly hoping that something will get in the way and she just won't show up. Everybody loves her, however grudgingly, but nobody wants her to ruin things, and everybody knows that she's the exact type who would ruin things just to look upon the rubble.

Compounding this is the fact that the reason Kym is coming home is for her sister Rachel's (Rosemary DeWitt) wedding. Her fiancee Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of indie outfit TV On The Radio) has arranged for a festive wedding filled with music and culture, but without much warning, Rachel feels her big day being taken over by Kym, who's been let out of rehab for two days to be a part of the festivities. Kym seems hell-bent on centering attention on her despite wanting desperately to be a part of the wedding, and to Rachel's great dismay, her father (Bill Irwin) plays right into Kym's hands.

The thing I find most fascinating about this film is that Rachel is not played for sympathy; in the case of a lesser script, she would be irritating and childish, but a damaged young girl desperately needed to be loved would constantly be lurking just beneath the surface. Instead, we are shown all of Kym, all the lovability and the manipulation and the self-destruction that brought her to the point in her life at which we meet her. We are given a very valid reason for the family's tentative approach to her, and we are given explanations, but we can also see that Kym has serious troubles that she has to fix on her own.

Jonathan Demme, director of an eclectic mix of films including "The Silence of the Lambs," has shot the entire film with handheld cameras, giving the picture a documentary feel, though God help us all if we ever see a story this venomous unfold in an actual documentary. From the very first scenes of the film, Kym is bitterly abrasive, railing against anybody who tries to show her affection while simultaneously clawing at everybody for it. Rachel, meanwhile, is furious that her sister's attention-grabbing fits are going to steal her wedding day away, and as we learn, Kym has already taken a considerable amount away from Rachel.

Hathaway, as Kym, gives what is by a mile her best performance here, as she is beautiful enough that we can see why Kym is so good at getting whatever she wants out of life, but at the same time, there is a damaged quality to her that makes the audience want to reach out and hold her and reassure her that she will be alright. For reasons I will not reveal, at the end of the film Kym ends up bruised and battered, and in the film's loveliest scene, as Rachel does in fact get married, Kym looks proudly at her sister, smiling radiantly with a massive black eye.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review: A Christmas Tale

The premise of "A Christmas Tale" sounds like something out of a bad major-studio Christmas movie (one of which I sat through last weekend, but I digress): A family, fractured and split up by years of infighting and drama, comes together one Christmas when the matriarch of the family announces that she has cancer, coupled with a terminal illness that even if treated will only give her two more years or so. Now, you'd think that this synopsis would end with something like "And they all learn heartwarming lessons about the value of family," but arguably the most wonderful thing about Arnaud Desplechin's film is its stubborn refusal to accept any one family cliche at any point. To that effect, it might be the most honest portrayal of a family at Christmastime ever put on film. Certainly, it's the most brutal.

There are a massive amount of plotlines that the film juggles with a delicacy I lack, so I'll just introduce the players. Junon (Catherine Denueve) is the mother of the Vuillard family, and she is dying, but oddly upbeat about the whole situation; at any time, she seems like the only one in the room who's not worrying about her demise. Her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) just wants to bring his family under one roof one more time. This hasn't happened in years because of Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), the perpetually depressed oldest daughter. Six years back, she bailed her ne'er-do-well brother Henri (Mathieu Almaric, also onscreen right now in far more theaters as the latest Bond villain) out of debt in exchange for his promising that he will never come near family get-togethers again as long as she is present. The youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupad) is the problem solver, trying to hold everybody together for Junon's sake, if just for a few days.

There are far more people involved, such as Henri's girlfriend who seems bemused at the entire situation, or the young man who continually comes to Vuillard gatherings year after year despite not actually being a part of the family. The film is about the people more than the holiday and its trappings, and what a delightfully unhinged clan they are. The film does not allow us the satisfaction of understanding motives or thoughts, most of the time, even when at certain points, characters will break away from a scene and talk directly to the camera, filling in some of the narrative blanks. The film is two and a half hours long, and oddly, it feels too short, like there is much more to be understood about these people.

By far and away, Almaric is the standout performer in a film full of them. As Henri, he storms the family celebration like a whirling dervish, taking out his rage, depression and vendettas on everybody. In his very first scene onscreen, Henri falls face-first into the street while stumbling home drunk in the middle of the day, and this speaks volumes about his character. The more fascinating dynamic is between he and Elizabeth; they hate each other, but the film never really tells us why, and by the end it starts to appear as though they don't even know. At one point, Henri needles Elizabeth's husband to the point where her husband beats the hell out of him on the kitchen floor, and after, Elizabeth tends to his wounds while laughing, and more oddly, Henri will only let her attend to him, shouting at anyone else who tries.

The film is full of scenarios like this; the entire family has been blackened by years of rage towards one another, but yet they show love, at least love as far as they understand it. This means tolerating one another, or putting up with Elizabeth's crying and Henri's manic self-destruction and Junon's cold detachment from all her children, for the sake of keeping the family together. In its own bizarre way, "A Christmas Tale" captures the true essence of why family becomes so much more valued at this time of year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: Twilight

I feel obligated to give about a paragraph of full disclosure before writing any kind of review of "Twilight." First of all, I have read the first book in the incredibly popular vampire series, because I don't believe in drinking the haterade just to drink it; to a fault, I'll give just about anything a fair chance to impress me. This has led to watching way more of "The Surreal Life" than I'd like to admit, but it keeps me honest. The second thing I feel the need to mention is that I think the series is castrating the vampire genre, but I'll get to that later, in context.

On with the review. "Twilight" is the story of Bella (Kristen Stewart), a young girl who leaves her mother and stepfather in Arizona to live in Forks, Washington with her dad, police chief Charlie Swan (Billy Burke). She becomes something of a local celebrity, and soon catches the eye of Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Edward seemingly despises her, judging by the fact that the first time she comes near him, he looks like he's having a seizure and a spastic orgasm at the same time. However, this is because Edward is a vampire, and is undeniably attracted to Bella, at first on a PG-13-friendly physical level, and then later on a much deeper, more romantic, but no more physical one.

Now, as an adaptation of the novel, "Twilight" is about as good as it was probably ever going to be, even if done by a more noted filmmaker than Catherine Hardwicke (director of the incredibly unsettling "Thirteen"). The issue with "Twilight" is that the book is good because of the introspection gained from it being a first-person narrative, from Bella's point of view. When she describes all the feelings Edward stirs within her, it's interesting if a little bit Harlequin-lite. This can't really translate to the screen, though, and as a result, there's a lot of downright comical scenes where Bella and Edward exchange longing glances, and don't communicate the same sense of gut-wrenching need that the books get across.

Speaking of Edward, I've watched interviews with Pattinson, he's a charming, well-spoken and funny guy, but this movie does him no favors. The other issue of translating the books is that something has to be cut (the books are all pretty huge, actually), and what was cut first was all the lighter, funnier interplay between Bella and Edward. As a result, Pattinson spends more than half the film over-emoting and delivering lines like "You're like my particular brand of heroin" with an all-too-straight face. This having been said, when the film picks up in the second half (as actual danger comes into play beyond the love story), Edward becomes more interesting to watch, and Pattinson steps up to the plate ably; he even briefly plays the role of action hero near the end, and it works. Stewart, as Bella, looks bored for the first half of the movie, but again, as the film picks up momentum, so does her performance. I'm not sure what it is, but there's something about her as an actress, a certain quiet strength that makes her seem like a poor fit for a damsel in distress on the level she's playing here, but she fits well enough.

The film as a whole is just okay; it's laughably overdramatic at times, but not horrible, though purists of the series will beg to differ. It's just hard to watch a vampire movie where sunlight makes them sparkle and the main characters can barely even kiss without conflict. The fact is that the "Twilight" series is the perfect set of books for the Disney Channel generation, because Edward is the perfect heartthrob for it; he's beautiful, would rather watch a girl sleep all night and talk about her feelings than try for anything more and is totally safe for the average suburban 12-year-old to fantasize chastely about without her parents getting upset. The movie reflects this; it's pseudo-edgy enough to attract a modern crowd without actually stepping on a single set of toes.