Friday, October 31, 2008

Mini-Review: Eagle Eye

Eagle Eye
Directed by D.J. Caruso
Released September 26, 2008

Now here’s a fun movie. It’s completely preposterous, and in a lot of ways exactly what you’d expect from the millions of previews that have aired in the past few months. It’s annoyingly surprising in a certain sense that I can’t discuss without giving away some of the plot, but all you need to know is that this is mindless destruction of property and brain cells just for the fun of it. A fast, frantic score supplements an action-packed, senseless ride. Who cares about lead actors Shia LaBoeuf and Michelle Monaghan when you have reckless collateral damage the whole time? There’s even a slightly decent scene close to the end of the film, though of course it’s a preposterous conclusion. Don’t expect to be wowed by anything actually good in the movie, but it’s a lot of fun for a thoughtless excursion.

D

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mini-Review: Miracle at St. Anna

Miracle at St. Anna
Directed by Spike Lee
Released September 26, 2008

Spike Lee has had two terrific hits in his career, in my opinion, “Do the Right Thing” in 1989 and “25th Hour” in 2002. Otherwise, nothing is too great. Some of it (like “Bamboozled”) is excruciating and others overlong and overpraised (“Malcolm X”), as well as inexplicably overrated (“Inside Man”). Here Lee is at it again, creating another movie where editing for some reason seems an unnecessary concept, and lengthy scenes of uninteresting dialogue win out over actual plot development. The biggest thing wrong with “Miracle at St. Anna” is the so-called miracle. The story just isn’t terribly intriguing, and I’m not sure why Lee thought it might make for a good film. It doesn’t help that not one member of the cast stands out, and an abundantly joyous score feels very much out of sync with the rest of the film and its agonizingly slow pace.

D+

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Film Review: Religulous

Religulous
Directed by Larry Charles
Released October 1, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mini-Review: Choke

Choke
Directed by Clark Gregg
Released September 26, 2008

I’m a fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” one of the few books-turned-movies that I’ve actually read. I haven’t read the novel “Choke,” but I’d hazard a guess that the source material is pretty terrific if the quality of this movie is any indication. This is one of the most immediately pleasing and thoroughly enjoyable films I’ve seen in a while. Sam Rockwell is an awesome lead, and his unique personality plays perfectly here. Add in able supporting star Brad Henke, who was everywhere in 2006 as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brother, Kelly McDonald minus her accent and plus a whole lot of awkwardness, and a powerhouse memorable turn by Anjelica Huston, and this is one outstanding ensemble. The film is so wonderfully witty as well, and director Clark Gregg is just as talented behind the camera as he is on screen. The one downside of the film is that everything’s so great, and suddenly the film has a rushed ending which doesn’t do the rest of its story justice. Nonetheless, it’s a great movie which I hope will still be seen even though it hasn’t garnered very positive reviews.

B+

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mini-Review: Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express
Directed by David Gordon Green
Released August 6, 2008

The Judd Apatow troupe has had their ups and downs over the past few years, the high points being “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and the low point being the insufferable “Walk Hard.” This film has a considerably thinner premise than the first three, but is at least a hundred times better than their worst. It’s dumb at times, as it should be, yet there’s a wonderful brilliance throughout the film that transforms it from a “Harold & Kumar” clone to an absolutely hilarious film that stays on track long enough to remain interesting and viable as a movie. It succeeds gloriously where “Tropic Thunder” failed so miserably. I laughed harder a dozen times in this movie than I have in a long time. It’s so great to see James Franco back with his old friends (I’m slowly making my way through “Freaks and Geeks”) and Seth Rogen is just awesome. I love that these people just keeping churning out movies. “Zack and Miri Make A Porno” is next – another thin premise turned into fantastic film?

B+

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mini-Review: Traitor

Traitor
Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Released August 27, 2008

I went into this film with expectations that were perhaps far too high. I was hoping for a gripping thriller akin to Showtime’s excellent series “Sleeper Cell” from a few years ago. Unfortunately, this movie never really manages to amp itself up to the point of being truly thrilling. It’s rather uninventive, and nothing seems quite as compelling because it’s really just not believable. Don Cheadle has done far better work in the past, and he doesn’t carry this film like he should (his performance in “Traffic” is a great model for what his acting should have been in this movie). The film’s surprise twist provides a nice bit of irony, but it offsets the tone of the film and doesn’t make up for a lackluster first seven eighths. Simply put, it’s very much missable.

C

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mini-Review: The Duchess

The Duchess
Directed by Saul Dibb
Released September 19, 2008

To say that “The Duchess” just never quite gets interesting is probably the kindest way of putting it. Nothing about the film, no thanks to its slow pace, stands out as original or remotely exciting. There are lavish costumes and set pieces aplenty, but the film feels devastatingly empty and devoid of content. So little actually occurs and the film’s dramatic turning point is hardly even embellished. Keira Knightley is good at this time of role but she’s far more fascinating when she’s playing someone written a bit more three-dimensionally. Ralph Fiennes has earned raves for what I found to be a one-note disappointment, especially for the talented actor recently so villainous and terrific in “In Bruges.” I was impressed with Hayley Atwell’s performance as the third wheel in the duchess’s marriage, and I think we can expect great things from her in the future. As far as this film goes, it’s probably worth it to skip it and do something interesting instead.

C-

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mini-Review: The Lucky Ones

The Lucky Ones
Directed by Neil Burger
Released September 26, 2008

Neil Burger’s tale of three wandering soldiers home from Iraq on leave begins with an intriguing setup but never really goes anywhere. It’s very much a road movie, and as such doesn’t seem to have much of a destination. Tim Robbins and Michael Peña have each turned in far better performances, though they’re certainly not bad here. Rachel McAdams, on the other hand, does a wonderful job as a talkative, sympathetic army girl searching for the family of her dead boyfriend. The movie takes some unexpected and inexplicable turns, and as a result has a much better beginning than ending.

C

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Film Review: Righteous Kill

Righteous Kill
Directed by Jon Avnet
Released September 12, 2008

“Righteous Kill” is a violent crime thriller directed by Jon Avnet and starring Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The setup is simple – De Niro and Pacino are New York City cops hot on the trail of a serial killer, who may just be a cop. Both of the film’s stars are established, veteran actors who have more than proven themselves in crime and mobster films over the past three decades. This history sets up the actors, who previously starred together in “The Godfather: Part II” and “Heat,” for an exciting reunion. Unfortunately, it’s all too clear that the filmmakers are relying solely on the actors to carry the movie, rather than trying to craft a decent film around them.

To be fair, serial killer movies are tough. “Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven” are some of the few films that have managed to pull it off well. Other films like “Copycat,” “Taking Lives” and “Suspect Zero” have faded into the graveyards of movie history because they couldn’t hope to offer anything original. “Righteous Kill,” despite its pedigree stars, falls all too securely in the latter category. Its serial killer is described as incredibly clever and inventive, while the film shows that there’s really nothing daring or difficult about the way he offs his victims or sets up his pattern. The movie isn’t content to leave viewers dissatisfied with an unoriginal plot, and therefore a shocking twist comes at the end which is only surprising because it makes so little sense. Nothing in the film leads up to that moment – it’s as if the rug has been yanked out from under everything but there’s nothing to find under it.

On top of the unoriginal storyline, the dialogue is abysmal and the characters are one-note and entirely dense. De Niro and Pacino are way past their prime, giving the same tired performances in film after film, De Niro as the irritable old grump and Pacino as the crazy-eyed mentor. Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo, so fascinating on opposite sides of the law in the recent TV miniseries “The Kill Point,” are here reduced to playing dumb cops whose startling realizations come at least half an hour after audience members should be able to solve the case. Add in a poorly used Carla Gugino, a lazy Brian Dennehy, and an unnecessarily cast 50 Cent and there’s not even one member of the cast to save the film. The film lasts only 101 minutes but feels like an unending eternity. Attempts to be gritty by using bizarre cinematography and unnecessary split-screen framing result in nothing good. It’s unusual that a film has absolutely no redeeming qualities, but this is a surefire example of how not to make a movie.

F-

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mini-Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Released September 12, 2008

I love “Fargo.” It’s one of my favorite movies. “No Country for Old Men” was very good as well. I detested “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Big Lebowski” just wasn’t for me. “Burn After Reading” falls extremely safely in the middle of those four. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a hoot. Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand are especially hilarious, and the rest of the cast, including John Malkovich, J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and George Clooney, are terrific as well. It’s a movie devoid of intelligent characters, but that’s part of its brilliance. Overall, I didn’t exit the film feeling terribly satisfied, though I did have a great time throughout. It contains some surprising moments which upgrade it from being a forgettable comedy. I’d compare it to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” – it’s an enjoyable ride that ultimately results in nothing too astounding. I am glad I saw it, though.

B-

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mini-Review: Towelhead

Towelhead
Directed by Alan Ball
Released September 12, 2008

Alan Ball has a wonderful creative mind, as the screenwriter of “American Beauty” and creator of HBO’s hit TV series “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood.” While it’s too serious to be as gruesomely enjoyable as his previous projects, “Towelhead” still contains a fair amount of the wit and sarcastic tone that Ball always employs. This time, he’s adapting from a novel, and the result is a success. It’s a well-made but thoroughly disturbing film with some terrific performances from debut lead actress Summer Bishil and “Six Feet Under” alumnus Peter Macdissi. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re willing to take a trip to dark, dark comedy and experience this troubling film, go for it.

B+

Further reading: Take a look at my feature article from The Washington Square News on the film, including interviews with Alan Ball, Summer Bishil, and Peter Macdissi.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Film Review: Transsiberian

Transsiberian
Directed by Brad Anderson
Released July 18, 2008

“Transsiberian” is a thriller from director Brad Anderson which chronicles a couple’s international voyage on a cross-country train. Anderson is best known for his previous film, “The Machinist,” and “Transsiberian” is in many respects a very similar film. While “The Machinist” followed one character’s psychological unraveling, “Transsiberian” externalizes that sense of unknowing and triviality while still delving headfirst into the emotions of its characters. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer star as a couple traveling home from humanitarian work in China via the days-long train. Their chance meeting with a mysterious young couple leads to an unexpected sequence of events. The film does a terrific job of building suspense, creating a frantic, foreshadowed panic before there is even anything wrong. The snowy landscape provides an excellent backdrop for the film, in the same way that “Fargo” benefited tremendously from a blanket of white to hide the violence and terror occurring all around. The film is subtle and allows the tension to build before assaulting the viewer with thrills. As a result, it’s rather lopsided as a movie and the packed second act can’t make up for the slow pace of the first. Something seems missing for a good portion of the film, and it doesn’t quite arrive by the end. The performances are commendable, with Harrelson acting more serious than he might usually be inclined to do, and Mortimer putting on an American accent with ease. Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara embody the other couple effectively with the right mix of friendliness and suspiciousness. Ben Kingsley adds his token screen presence to round out an able cast with no weak links. It’s an intriguing film that only gets more interesting as it goes on, but it would have been a stronger experience if it had been compelling from the very beginning.

B-

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Film Review: Religulous

I recently wrote a review of the new Bill Maher documentary "Religulous" for the Washington Square News, available here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008