Sunday, September 30, 2007

Enough Already: Rush Hour 3

Rush Hour 3
Directed by Brett Ratner
Released August 10, 2007

This film takes the predictable route far too often taken by the latter installments in popular film series. The jokes are all pretty much the same old thing, the fight scenes are no longer enthralling, and even the relationship between our charismatic leads is not as fun as it should be. Worse than that, this installment picks up where the second one left off without even a passing thought to developing the characters or anything of the sort. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker just start dancing to songs with no explanation as to why; audiences are just supposed to remember an arbitrary fact from the first films. This would be fine generally, but the gaping plot holes do not justify letting it pass. Sure, a good deal of the movie is funny enough, but the originality and fun of it all is almost completely gone.


Not A Great Western: 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold
Released September 7, 2007

I should note that I saw this film less than ten minutes after the credits of "The Assassination of Jesse James" rolled. My expectations were for another serious and memorable western. I was disappointed from the first frame. The attitude was just too playful and Russell Crowe's character was simply treating everything far too much like a game. Both Crowe and Christian Bale are great actors but have absolutely nothing to work with here. This is very much like the "Fracture" of westerns, an instantly forgetabble and far too light feature with an underdeveloped plot. Very few of the actors actually fit in with the time period, save for the always-adaptive Bale and Dallas Roberts as a railroad businessman. A lot of praise has been written for Ben Foster, who does do a fine job as a hotheaded and crazy henchman. The reckless disregard for human life is is too much to take, especially given the film's non-serious nature. I was ready to yell at the screen by the time the film reached its preposterous conclusion.


A Great Western: The Assassination of Jesse James

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Released September 21, 2007

This long-delayed film is a fantastic surprise, and seems not to suffer at all from its many postponements. The title summarizes the film well enough, but this is not merely a simple one-plot premise which fails to expand upon its opening. The entire cast is uniformly excellent and truly fit into the mood of the film, spearheaded by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in wonderfully nuanced performances as the title characters. The music is awesome, and it really feels like a western. The scenery and shots are beautiful, and the film only begins to drag a tiny bit towards the very end of its 2 hour 40 minute run time, but by film's end, it is clear that was necessary to get to a stable and satisfying end point. If the voiceover narration is too much for you, just wait for a stunningly well-done scene about half an hour in that will have you hooked for the rest of the film.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Decent Thriller: The Kingdom

The Kingdom (Advance Screening)
Directed by Peter Berg
To be released September 28, 2007

Peter Berg's new action-thriller is essentially "Syriana" spiced up with a good deal of humor and a fair amount of action towards the end. The four main characters all crack jokes most of the time and then kick ass the rest of the time. Several friends of mine hated this film for the exact same reasons I enjoyed it. Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, and Chris Cooper all do their jobs appropriately, but it is former "Arrested Development" star Jason Bateman who deserves special mention for his nervous but constantly sarcastic performance. Richard Jenkins and Jeremy Piven also appear in memorable cameos. There is nothing earth-shattering in the form of originality, but it is refreshing to see an action movie with brains that can keep the audience engaged for the whole time. This film is at times devastating in its images but at others a fast-paced thrill ride that the audience with whom I saw the film truly loved.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Imagined Futures in Sci-fi: Zardoz

I am taking a course called "Utopia/Dystopia: Imagined Futures in Sci-fi" which focuses on science fiction films from the fifties to the present. I will be writing a few words about each of the films I watch in class.

Directed by John Booman
Released February 6, 1974

This has got to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The problem here is not the fact that it was made a while ago and might seem dated. The first scene features a talking head with a drawn-on goatee, and then another floating head decreeing that "the penis is evil." It does not get much better after that. The real mystery is just how few clothes everyone can wear. Sean Connery is beyond ridiculous as the token "brutal" who infiltrates a society of immortals. The story is inane and ridiculous, and sure there are echoes of "1984" and a message buried under the rubble of ludicrousness. Nonetheless, this movie is as crazy as you can get. It is hard to get through it because it is just so wholly preposterous. Try it if you dare.


Mellow and Thought-Provoking: In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah
Directed by Paul Haggis
Released September 14, 2007

How could director Paul Haggis follow up the massive but controversial success that was the Oscar-winning “Crash”? This is the answer. Here is another disturbing and affecting film which will upset some with its semi-ambiguous notions about war and the military. Tommy Lee Jones, in a truly excellent and reserved performance, portrays the stubborn father of an MIA soldier, someone who will stop at nothing to get to the truth. The premise, as it stands, might not seem starkly interesting or original, but Haggis’ take on the story helps it rise above normal expectations for this kind of film. The best surprise here is Charlize Theron, who gives her Typical Sympathetic But Seemingly Powerless Cop character her all. The film’s message is a bit unclear up until the very last frame, but the film as a whole is still an intriguing and worthwhile experience.


Violent and Captivating: Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises
Directed by David Cronenberg
Released September 14, 2007

David Cronenberg’s follow-up to “A History of Violence” is a stark and moody thriller which inhabits its environment very well. The dark tale of a midwife who gets tangled up with the Russian mob is deeply violent and utterly entrancing. The script is excellent, and Cronenberg’s direction is sharp. The cinematography is great, and the performances only add to the film’s impact. Naomi Watts as always does a great job in her role as the curious but cautious Anna. Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl offer terrific support as the powerful and vicious members of the mob family. Even Viggo Mortensen, who I usually do not completely love, fully inhabits his character of the mob’s driver, and is barely recognizable throughout a good portion of the film. Squeamish viewers should beware that this film is far more violent than “A History of Violence”, and a good deal of it is squirm-inducing. The violence is all a part of the brutal world of this clever and twisty film.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Home Video: The Matador

The Matador
Directed by Richard Shepard
Released January 6, 2006

I found this film flipping through satellite offerings, and knew that it garnered some buzz two years ago when lead actor Pierce Brosnan surprisingly made it onto the Best Lead Actor in a Comedy or Musical list at the Golden Globes. I can say that he is hardly deserving of that honor, as his performance demands little and he gives little effort to match that. Greg Kinnear is also lost in an unfortunate role that he can do nothing about (that seems to be a trend with him lately). The film is just plain bizarre, unclassifiable in any genre, and inexplicable in regard to a number of elements. Its pacing is off, the plot is overwhelmingly predictable at times and impossible to grasp at others. It seems to be a comedy, but a very unsubstantiated one at that. It is a decently enjoyable ride if you can get over the fact that it is just so random.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Way Out There: Across the Universe

Across the Universe
Directed by Julie Taymor
Released September 14, 2007

Julie Taymor's Beatles song-filled fairy tale is a colorful and mostly senseless film that is certainly entertaining but far more puzzling. The singing is pretty much incessant, and unlike "Once", it cannot successfully tell the story all by itself without leaning a bit on the development of the plot. The film drags on for a long time before reaching its generally satisfying conclusion. While the direction is artful and original, a good portion of the film can best be described by the word "trippy". There are dancing priests, bleeding strawberries, conveniently-named characters, and anything else you probably would not think of. The acting is nothing special, and the continuous singing is distracting and very often irreverent. Basically, there is a lot of potential for craziness here, most of which is fulfilled, but it is too unbalanced and the ultimate result is an uneven, wildly bizarre movie.


Imagined Futures in Sci-fi: Forbidden Planet

I am taking a course called "Utopia/Dystopia: Imagined Futures in Sci-fi" which focuses on science fiction films from the fifties to the present. I will be writing a few words about each of the films I watch in class.

Forbidden Planet
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
Released March 15, 1956

This tale of a spaceship crew that finds a seemingly wonderful new world is a clear predecessor of fare like "Star Trek" and "Alien." It is also a film that, while evidently important for historical reasons, suffers far more than both "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Lost Horizon" because of its heavily outdated nature. The crew seems all too goofy, the lines too funny, and the girl who had never met humans is all too bizarre and eager to kiss all the men. The effects are beyond corny, and the mysterious villain looks way too much like the Tazmanian devil. The whole storyline is very Freudian in nature and definitely interesting, but the shock effect has been more than somewhat diminished over the past fifty years.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Violent and Unbelievable: The Brave One

The Brave One
Directed by Neil Jordan
Released September 14, 2007

Best described I think as a "vigilante revenge thriller", this film oversteps its boundaries only a few minutes in. The story, about a woman who goes on a justice-inspired killing spree after the brutal murder of her fiancee, is intriguing enough but the plot becomes stretched so thin that it is hard to keep up. Not to say that is anything is confusing, but rather too many unrealistic developments occur one after another, and there is nothing grounding the film. Or its characters, who for that matter are actually pretty underdeveloped which is especially surprising and disappointing given that the movie is about the main character's journey. Her speedily formed buddy-buddy relationship with a cop on the case seems forced and fast-forwarded. Normally great actors Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard deliver unenthusiastic and unmemorable performances that do little to enhance their already flawed (both in the sense of the writing and in the sense of their personalities) characters. Though it is only about two hours long, the continually thinning sense of believability makes it seem all too lengthy.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Imagined Futures in Sci-fi: Lost Horizon

I am taking a course called "Utopia/Dystopia: Imagined Futures in Sci-fi" which focuses on science fiction films from the fifties to the present. I will be writing a few words about each of the films I watch in class.

Lost Horizon
Directed by Frank Capra
Released September 1, 1937

This film is one of those that you can see the merits of and its place in the time it was released, but it has become irreproachably dated, to the point where nearly half the film is unintentionally funny. Regardless, the message of a peaceful utopia is pure, and while many people would not consider unlimited horse riding and singing lessons in a temperate community hidden away in the harsh, cold mountains their idea of perfection, the idea is clear. As a film, it succeeds remarkably well in firmly establishing its small cast of characters. Lead character Bob Conway is particularly likeable because we rarely see nowadays someone so willing to embrace the unknown without shooting at it or at least yelling at it first. H.B. Warner got a respectable Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Chang, the liaison between the utopian community and its guests. The film won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing, and I can certainly comment that the film fades in and out a lot but still feels completely connected. The film as it stands now is missing seven minutes of visual but not audio footage, so those parts are filled in effectively by still photographs. This is a well-made and important film whose effect might not be lost as long as you remember that most of the humor of the film is created by the difference between today's society and that of the 1930s.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Provocative and Wonderful: The Bubble

The Bubble (Ha-Buah)
Directed by Eytan Fox
Released September 7, 2007

This great new film from gay Israeli director Eytan Fox ("Walk on Water") is not what you typically see in theatres in the USA. The story of a same-sex romance between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian is full of explicity sexual content and disturbing elements surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nonetheless, it is a powerful and effective journey which is so perfectly described by its title. The cinematography feels dreamlike, and the scenery is great. The most impressive aspect of the film is the cast. Ohad Knoller and Yousef Sweid have such immediate chemistry on screen and play their parts so fantastically. Alon Friedmann gives a true performance as usual third wheel Yelli. The true relevation in the film is Daniella Wircer as activist and unhelpful jewerly salesperson Lulu. All the actors really inhabit their roles, and enhance the film. A wondrous experience throughout that requires some suspension of disbelief but ultimately becomes extremely fulfilling.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Adventurous and Engaging: Into the Wild

Into the Wild (Advance Screening)
Directed by Sean Penn
To be released September 21, 2007

This tale based on a remarkable true story about a young man seeking desperately to cut himself off from civilization and explore the wonders of nature succeeds wondrously in capturing his spirit and determination. The film is full of beautiful scenery and accompanied by an impressive array of mostly original songs. It is truly possible to get into the mindset of Chris, the main character, and the film makes an awesome journey with him. Emile Hirsch, who I have been a fan of since his breakout role in 2002's "The Emperor's Club", wholeheartedly throws himself into the role of Chris, losing and gaining weight as necessary and delivering an accomplished performance. The film is sprinkled with supporting players who do a marvelous job, including Catherine Keener, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn, and Kristen Stewart. Especially of note is Hal Holbrook as a man who becomes, like everyone else, very emotionally attached to Chris. The film features a healthy amount of humor thrown in here and there, and director Sean Penn (who answered questions following the screening, though said nothing particularly memorable) crafts a lengthy adventure which stays actively interesting the whole time.


Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Imagined Futures in Sci-fi: The Day the Earth Stood Still

I am taking a course called "Utopia/Dystopia: Imagined Futures in Sci-fi" which focuses on science fiction films from the fifties to the present. I will be writing a few words about each of the films I watch in class.

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Directed by Robert Wise
Released September 28, 1951

I really do enjoy watching this movie. I had seen it once before viewing it in this context. It is wonderfully corny but works remarkably well despite its obvious dated nature. The fact that it won a Golden Globe award for "Best Film Promoting International Understanding" is very telling of its signficance in the time as far as its importance to ideals of peace and war, and that does not even touch upon the fact that it was a crucial step in the evolution of science fiction. The immediate negative reaction of the people towards the arrival of the aliens and their first impulse towards fear, hatred, and violence serves a dual role in representing relations between both men and other men and men and the unknown. And I can honestly that I was actively interested every moment, something which I find rare when watching older films.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Funny but Fluffy: Death at a Funeral

Death of a Funeral
Directed by Frank Oz
Released August 17, 2007

There is no denying the fact that the audience was laughing pretty much the whole time at this offbeat British comedy about, well...death and a funeral. And it is true; I c0uld not help enjoying myself. But immediately after it is over, I felt a lingering sense of unfulfillment. From the amusing opening credits, the film is laugh after laugh and does have a decent enough plot, but it is just too out there and ungrounded to constitute a good film. It is impressive that everyone, despite heavy British accents, is completely understandable. Throw in non-Brit Peter Dinklage (from the ultimate independent film "The Station Agent") and you have a recipe for lots of laughs but not too much thinking. The cast is pretty uniform, though Alan Tudyk deserves extra praise for his performance as a nervous son-in-law who accidentally takes some hallucinogenic drugs. All in all, just remember that despite the fact that all the stars come from overseas, there is no hidden wisdom here, just a bloody good time.