Sunday, June 24, 2012

Safe House (2012)

Directed By: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard

Ryan Reynolds stars as Matt Weston, the low-ranking CIA field operative who is eagerly trying to prove his worth to his superiors.  Weston is tasked with a mundane job of being the caretaker of a CIA "Safe House" in Capetown, South Africa. After a rogue former CIA agent named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) turns himself in to the American Consulate, he is brought to the Safe House for interrogation by the CIA. The safe house is then raided by an unknown criminal force in an attempt to get to Frost. Weston takes custody of Frost and must get him to another safe house without the both of them getting killed. Weston also must try to figure out who the inside source is who has betrayed him. At one point in the plot, it is revealed that the reason why the "bad guys" are trying to kill Frost is because has secret documents in his possession that can bring down not only the leaders of the CIA, but also the leaders of every other world agency involved with them.

David Espinosa's spy/action thriller, Safe House might as well be entitled "The Bourne- Whatever." While the idea for the movie is good, and it contains an A-List cast, this film is nothing but 115 minutes of a lot of guys trying to kill two other guys, with little or no narrative cohesion. Washington and Reynolds virtually have little "acting" time together; their scenes have the pair doing a lot of running, jumping, fighting, shooting, and stabbing, but their dialogue is limited at best.

Despite Weston not having amnesia (or being an assassin), this film is Bourne-influenced in every way...from the grainy, handheld photography to the chaotic hand-to-hand combat in foreign locales, and the break-neck car chases.  The only thing missing from this film is Matt Damon (or Jeremy Renner.)  The existence of possible sinister government forces and the juxtaposition between their conference room scheming and Weston’s visceral fight for survival echoes all the trademarks of The Bourne Trilogy.  Swap Joan Allen for Vera Farmiga, and   Brian Cox for Brendan Gleeson, and lo and behold- you have Safe House. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thin Ice (2011)

Directed by: Jill Sprecher
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, David Harbour

We meet Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) at an insurance convention where he lectures on how to strike up conversations  (asking people if the have the time.) While at the convention, Mickey meets a woman who cons him out of his wallet, stealing nearly $20,000 in credit cards. Also while at the convention, he meets a fellow insurance agent named Bob Egan (David Harbour.) Mickey hires Bob to come work for him back in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We are then introduced to an old farmer named Gorvy Hauer. Gorvy purchases an insurance policy from Mickey and Bob. When Mickey learns that Gorvy posses an antique violin that could be worth millions, the plot thickens as Mickey tries to steal the violin. A locksmith named Randy (Billy Crudup) is called to Gorvy's home, where he learns that Mickey is trying to steal the violin.  Mickey becomes Randy's unwilling partner in crime when Randy blackmails him.

 When I first heard of this movie, I couldn't wait to see it for many reasons. First, the plot of the story was enough to capture my attention: murder, deception, blackmail...everything I love in a suspense/thriller movie. Plus, the story takes place in the state of Wisconsin, AKA "Cheesland", a place I hold very near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, this film fell short of what it was trying to deliver, which was basically a rip off of the Coen Brothers memorable film, Fargo (1996.)  While the film isn't completely awful, and it does have its funny/quirky moments, the narrative is much too predictable and does not engage the audience. Greg Kinnear is convincing enough as the spineless insurance salesman; but he also wants to be a nice guy, and his character is conflicted.  Kinnear's character of Mickey has a conscience, unlike William H. Macy's character of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, who was a heartless coward. There was no mistaking Jerry Lundegaard for being a spineless snake. But in this film, I was unsure if Mickey was really a nice guy or a slimy coward. The explanation of the plot at the end of the film provides little consolation to a narrative that wasn't really coherent in the first place. Thin Ice is quite a befitting name for this film, because that is pretty much where it stands...ready to fall through.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Django (1966)

Directed by: Sergio Corbucci

Starring: Franco Nero, Jose Bodalo, Loredana Nusciak, Eduardo Fajardo,

Italian Director Sergio Leone made cinematic history with the film A Fistful of Dollars (1964.) The film starred (a then unknown) Clint Eastwood, who played the character of a "Man With No Name", a lonesome drifter, if you will. A Fistful of Dollars spawned a whole new genre of film:"The Spaghetti Western." These  Western Films usually took place around the civil war, and were produced by Italian Filmmakers, starring Italian Actors, and filmed in either Italy or Spain. Sergio Leonne had the market cornered in this genre, but there were a few other Italian Directors who made their mark with the Spaghetti Western, one of them was Sergio Corbucci with his 1966 hit, Django.

Django (Franco Nero) is an ex-Union Soldier drifting from place to place, all the while dragging a coffin behind him; he has a checkered past which haunts him, but is never revealed what it's about.  Django rescues a prostitute named Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from being murdered by a group of racist, hooded-outlaws.  Django takes Maria to a deserted town, where he finds a local war is taking place between the Mexicans, led by General Hugo Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo) and the racist outlaws led by Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo.)  When Django is confronted by Jackson, he finally reveals what he is carrying in his coffin: a giant machine gun. After wiping out half of Jackson's men with said machine gun, Django makes a deal with Rodriguez and the Mexicans to steal all the gold that Jackson has stored in his camp. Together, the Mexicans and Django steal the riches from Jackson, but Django's ulterior motives are soon revealed, as he double-crosses General Rodriguez. Django has now played both sides of the war to his advantage, but he will pay a serious price for it in the end.

What makes this film comparable to Leone's "Man with No Name" series is the fact that Franco Nero carries the film, much like Eastwood did in Leone's films.  Just like Eastwood, Django is the "anti-hero", a loner who doesn't back down and knows how to play both sides of a conflict to get what he wants. Django is a master gun-slinger, and has a score to settle with somebody, just like Eastwood did in the "Man With No Name" series.  The musical score composed by Luis Bacalov makes the film resonate within you, much like Ennio Morriconne's score did for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966.) The sound of ricocheting bullets in this film are a tell-tale sign of the Spaghetti Western, which that alone makes it stand out from an American-Made Western film, no matter when it was made.

The graphic violence in this film was unprecedented for its time. By today's standards, it is relatively mild, but for 1966 it was considered appalling.  The "ear-severing" scene was supposed to be cut from the original film, and it led to the film being banned in several countries, including the UK until 1993.  For a fan of the Spaghetti Western genre, Django is a must see.

Side note: Quentin Taratino's upcoming film, Django Unchained (2012) has nothing to do with this film, other than the fact that he uses the name for the title and leading role. There is however, a small cameo appearance made by Franco Nero. Here is a sneak peek at what is sure to be another Tarantino Masterpiece:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hell and Back Again (2011)

Documentary Film
Directed by: Danfung Dennis

Nearing the end of a six month tour of duty in Afghanistan, Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is severely wounded by enemy sniper fire. The sniper's bullet "blows half his ass off," as he describes it. 

Equipped with a customized Steadicam, filmmaker Danfung Dennis was embedded with Harris and the rest of his platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, when they were dropped behind enemy lines in Southern Afghanistan back in 2009. From the very start of the mission we witness the Marines fighting what seems to be a "ghost-like" enemy. The Taliban are not seen in the film, but the exchange of gunfire is real, as one of Harris' men are killed in the first hour of fighting on day one. Dennis got to know Harris while he was filming the combat footage, and continues the film in North Carolina when Harris returns home to recover from his wounds. The narrative jumps back ad forth between the combat footage and Harris' grueling recovery process; moreover, his return to civilian life.

It becomes crystal clear very early in the film that the "hell" of war does not stop on the battlefield.  The film documents Harris at home, dealing not only with his injuries, but also trying to cope with everyday life in American Society.  Signs of post-traumatic stress become evident with Harris when everyday annoyances like trying to find a parking space at a crowded WalMart frustrate him beyond what the average person would feel in the same situation. The injuries sustained by Harris are described and shown in graphic detail not only by the scars he has (which he reveals several times in the film), but also by the recovery process itself. Harris can not walk without the use of a cane or walker, the physical therapy he has to endure seems more painful than the injury itself.  Harris becomes dependent (even addicted) to the heavy narcotic pain medication he is on.  If there is anyone who deserves the title of "hero" in this film, it should be Harris' wife, Ashley. After surgery and rehab, Ashley is charged with the day-to-day care of her husband. She is the one who helps him with everything: from helping him get dressed to picking up his medications at the pharmacy.  It is clear that Ashley is afraid for (and at times of) her husband. She states that although she does love her husband, "there are times when he is almost like a different man."

In the combat footage of the film, Harris displays a natural ability to lead his men, not by unsung characteristics of heroism, but because he knows his job and he believes in the cause he is fighting for.  He is clearly a professional leader on the battlefield.  The scenes of Harris back home however, show an injured,  depressed, and immature kid who has an obvious unhealthy obsession with handguns. He is shown several times at home simulating Russian-Roulette, and incessantly loading and unloading a handgun which he "keeps loaded under his mattress." A veteran of three combat tours, Harris recounts how at age 18 he was the prototypical Marine who "just wanted to kill people." Now in his mid 20s, Harris reflects that being a Marine isn't as simple as just killing people. Harris wants to return to the front lines with his men; but, by the end of the film it becomes apparent to him what the audience already knows... that his injuries will prevent that from ever happening.

Was Harris' "hell" fighting in the war? or was it when he came "back?" That is the question that is left unanswered with words, but certainly not by the actions documented in this great film that unquestionably deserved a 2012 Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Act of Valor (2012)

Directed by:  Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
Starring:  Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez, Jason Cottle

In the opening introductory statement of Act of Valor, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh make note  to the audience how they were embedded with an actual Navy SEALs unit while doing research for the film. Their experience with the SEALs influenced them in their decision not to have professional actors portraying the key roles in the film. In fact if you read the credits, there are none listed for the characters of the SEALs.  Their identities are kept confidential.  

Although the film is fictitious, it is "based on real acts of valor."  The film starts with a CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez) who is kidnapped and the SEAL team is dispatched to rescue her from a jungle compound. The plot thickens when the SEALs discover that the kidnapping is tied into a wealthy drug smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov.)  Christo teams up with a terrorist (Jason Cottle) to smuggle Jihadists into the United States through Drug Cartels in Mexico with the intent of "making 9/11 look like a walk in the park."

This film is pure non-stop action, with countless special effects.  What makes the film stand out from other military-action based films is the acting...or I should say lack there of on the part of the SEAL team. Since the parts were played by active-duty SEALs, it is obvious that they lacked any sort of acting training, but that doesn't really matter because they didn't have to do any kind of dramatic stretch to make their characters believable. The dialogue of the SEALs is deeply engrossed in military jargon that the layperson may not understand, but it's not necessary to in order to understand what is going on in the narrative of the film.  It should also be noted that the original intent of the film was to be used as a military recruitment/training film...and that's just how it plays out, even up to the ending scene of the full-dress military funeral.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The 70's Road Movie

While this blog is mainly dedicated to new theatrical and DVD releases, I am also a huge classic film buff. So, from time to time I am going to dedicate a post to some of my favorite classics. The 1970s were a great time for American Cinema. Restrictions faced by film makers of earlier decades had loosened up.  Hollywood was now re-born with a new wave of independent film makers who were now free of the "studio system."  Some of the greatest genre of film came about in the 1970s.  The late 60s and early 70s brought about "The Muscle Car," and with that "The Road Movie" was essentially born. Three movies come to mind when I think of the classic 1970s Road Movie: Two Lane Blacktop (1971),  Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), and Vanishing Point (1971.)

Dennis Wilson and James Taylor were two icons of the 1970s. They epitomized everything about that, drugs and rock-and roll.  As musicians, both Wilson and Taylor were natural actors, and it's a shame that neither one starred in a single movie following this cult classic. Traveling across the country in a rebuilt '55 Chevy, "The Driver" (Taylor) and "The Mechanic" (Wilson) pick up a young female hitchhiker, known only as "The Girl" (Laurie Bird.) Actually, the girl just jumps into the car without even asking, and the the three of them make their journey across the southern part of the United States.  They make money by racing other muscle cars in small towns along the way. The trio runs into "GTO" (Warren Oates) aptly named after the car he drives, and they challenge him to a race to Washington DC. The first car to reach the destination wins the pink-slip of the loser's car.

Two Lane Blacktop is mostly about the race between the '55 Chevy and GTO. What's odd though, is that no one seems to want to win. They keep stopping to help each other out along the road, almost as if the road would be a lonelier place without the other.  A sub-plot of the film is the relationship the three men have with the girl.  The Mechanic, who seems the most care-free of the group, could really care less if he has any sort of relationship with the girl; however, The Driver and GTO both seem to be vying for the girl's attention. The title song to the soundtrack, "Me and Bobby McGee" fits in superbly with the plight of the girl, especially towards the end of the film when it becomes apparent that the girl has moved on emotionally (and then physically) from Driver and GTO. If you listen to the lyrics of the song, you'll find that the story about "Me and Bobby McGee" takes place out on the open road of America, just like the plot of this film.  Side-note: "Me and Bobby McGee" was written (and performed in this film) by Kris Kristofferson. He stated in a 2007 interview with Two Lane Blacktop Director Monte Hellman that the song is  associated with his former lover, Janis Joplin- especially the line "somewhere near Salinas, Lord I let her slip away."

If I had to guess who the protagonist of this film was, I would have to say that it was the road. Shot in sequence and on location, the back-road gas stations, motels, and burger joints paint the backdrop of the settings and the narrative of this film.

Directed by John Hough and starring Peter Fonda, Susan George, and Adam Roarke, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was more than just a road movie. Larry (Fonda) and Deke (Roarke) are small time car racing duo who rob a grocery store and plan on using the money to break into the NASCAR Circuit.  Just like in Two Lane Blacktop, the plot essentially has the two same characters: a driver, and his mechanic...except in this film, said driver and mechanic are also criminals.  They were good at only two things: racing and stealing. Their plan to escape after the robbery goes awry when Larry's one-night stand, Mary decides to tag along for the ride. Pursued by the local Sheriff, Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow) and his redneck band of deputies, the plot takes you on a wild ride through back country roads.

What I love about this movie is that the action is real. The stunts for this film were performed by actual stuntmen, including Fonda.  When a car crashed, it actually crashed- there was no CGI enhancement simulating the crash or explosion. People actually risked their lives filming a movie like this...something you don't see in today's movies. It's no surprise that this film was an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007.)  The narrative of this movie is all about fast cars, fast women, and being held down by "the man."  If you're looking for an adrenaline-filled muscle car flick with non-stop action, then Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is the film for you.

Another inspiration to Quentin Tarantino is Vanishing Point.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a Vietnam Vet. He is also a dishonored ex-cop and a failed race car driver.  He is hired by a drive-away service to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. There is one catch: he takes a bet to get the car delivered in fifteen hours.  Kowalski is chased time and again by police, but outruns them.  Throughout his journey, Kowalski is guided by a blind radio disc jockey- Supersoul (Cleavon Little.) Kowalski's mission gains a cult-like following from people as the word spreads across the radio waves by Supersoul.

Zipping across the country, Kowalski becomes the Anti-Hero. You get the feeling that Kowalski is (or at least once was) a good man who has been slighted by "the man" or "the system." His encounters with the police, tambourine-rattling faith healers, gay hitchhikers, and naked hippie chicks support this in the narrative.  What captures the viewer in this film is that Kowalski's journey becomes transcendental, and the rendezvous with the junction at the film's climax becomes his "Vanishing Point."  

Vanishing Point is another film that isn't about dialogue. This film is basic. It's about thrills and chills...and pills. If you strip this film down, it's basically a bad B-Movie; but the action will keep you bolted to your seat to see what happens at the "Vanishing Point." 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brake (2012)

Directed by: Gabe Torres
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh, Tom Berenger

What appears to be a random kidnapping, turns into so much more in Gabe Torres' latest crime thriller, Brake. Jeremy Reins (Dorff) wakes up in a large plexiglass box, and locked inside the trunk of a car. The box has a neon clock-timer at the top of it that keeps counting down time. The questions start from the onset: Who is Jeremy? Moreover, why is he being kidnapped? Without giving away too much of the plot, it turns out that Jeremy is a Special Agent in the US Secret Service. Agent Reins has been kidnapped by terrorists who want an answer to a question that only he knows the answer to. He is then driven from location to location and the stress of his situation increases as his captors keep torturing and pressing him to give up the answer to their question.  Other than the ending, the majority of the film (and I mean just about all of it) is a lone performance by Stephen Dorff. The rest of the characters in the plot are introduced through their voices on a cell phone and CB radio that are in the trunk.

The narrative and the character has striking similarities to Ryan Reynolds and his role in Buried (2010.) As a matter of fact, the lone-actor trapped in some sort of claustrophobic predicament has almost become a whole new genre of in point: James Franco in 127 hours (2010) and Adrien Brody in Wrecked (2010.) Although, unlike those films Franco and Brody weren't being held hostage, but the narrative of the aforementioned films all centered on a solo character. However, in this film Dorff manages to pull off the "one-man play" rather well by keeping the audience engaged in what is happening to him; not an easy task since he is the only character in the dialogue of the film.  The climactic twist in the plot at the end will dispel any preconceived notion that the viewer has on how the film was going to end.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beautiful Boy (2010)

Directed by: Shawn Ku
Starring: Maria Bello, Michael Sheen, Kyle Gallner

Imagine your worst nightmare. Now, Imagine your worst nightmare come true, and then imagine that that the reality of your worst nightmare is worse than you could ever possibly imagine. Independent film maker Shawn Ku examines those very feelings in Beautiful Boy. The film is about a college student named Sammy (Gallner) who goes on a shooting rampage at his school, killing seventeen people before committing suicide. To the viewer, it becomes pretty apparent that things were not right to begin with in this family. Sammy's parents, Bill and Kate (Bello and Sheen) are emotionally distant from each other, appearing to be on the brink of divorce even before the tragedy. Warning signs from Sammy are pretty obvious with his odd behavior from the get-go. The violent act happens at the very beginning of the film, then shifts the narrative to how Bill and Kate cope with the aftermath of not only losing their child, but also having to deal with the fact that he was the culprit in a epically tragic event.

Most of us can remember the events at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20th, 1999.  In the aftermath of that horrible event, we learned about the disturbed mind-set of the two killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. We learned about how the massacre affected the victims, their victim's survivors, and  the community.  In Beautiful Boy, we learn how a massacre similar to the one at Columbine affects the survivors of the one who did the actual killing. Think about it; how do you think the parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris felt knowing that their son(s) were responsible for taking human lives, and reigning terror upon their community? Think about how the parents of Seung-Hui Cho felt after he killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007.  

How this film ever slipped through the cracks is beyond me. This beautifully acted film is filled with raw, and real emotions.  The actual event of the killings is a very small part of the film. The main focus of the plot is how Bill and Kate grapple with feeling that they created a monster, which only further drives the couple apart. Finger-pointing, guilt, shame, and anger are just a few ways to describe the actions, and what the two protagonists are feeling while coping with the tragedy. The question is: will the tragedy tear them further apart, or bring them back together?

While the main theme of the plot of this film is grief, it's actually a story of hope. Taking a look into how an tragic event like a mass murder/suicide affects the survivors of the assailant makes us understand that people like Bill and Kate are real; they are normal people who have found themselves torn between anger for what their loved one (in this case, their son) has done, and grief for their loss.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol (2011)

Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist

The latest installment of the M:I series find Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his band of IMF agents trying to stop a nuclear war between Russia and The United States. After the IMF breaks agent Hunt out of a Russian prison, they accept a mission of breaking into The Kremlin to find secret documents. The team is then falsely implicated for bombing The Kremlin. The IMF initiates "Ghost Protocol", disbanding the organization.  Hunt, et al. "go rogue" to clear their names, and to stop a madman, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from getting the nuclear weapon launch codes.

The narrative of this film is all over the place, and the film has enough continuity issues to choke a horse; but, the action is out of this world! This is one of those movies where you don't really care about how realistic the plot may or may not be. The action sequences, however far-fetched they might be (in real life) are entertaining, to say the least.  The suspense of this film will keep you on the edge of your seat till the very end.

Of course, the ending of the movie leaves the viewer with a few clues about what's to come for Agent Hunt and his team. I would no doubt look for M:I 5 to be coming to a theater near you in the future.

The Broken Tower (2011)

Written and Directed by: James Franco
Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Michael Shannon

The Broken Tower is a black and white biopic about early 20th Century American Poet, Hart Crane (1899-1932.) Written and directed by James Franco, (who plays Crane) this film takes a look at a self-destructive, but brilliantly talented man who committed suicide at the age of 32 by jumping off a boat into the Gulf of Mexico. The narrative of the story follows the life and travels of Crane from age 17, when he changed his name from Harold to "Hart" and moved from Cleveland to New York, Paris, Cuba and back to New York. The story details how Crane struggled to make a living through temporary jobs, even moving back to Cleveland at one point to work for his father, who happened to be a successful candy manufacturer (a side note: Crane's father, Clarence invented the candy "Life Savers", but sold the patent before it became popular.)  Throughout the 1920's, the openly-gay Crane had some of his poems such as "White Buildings", "Voyages", and "The Bridge" published by well respected literary magazines. We learn through the film that Crane's poems were (and still are) difficult to understand, but at the same time, he was way ahead of his time and people in the literary world took notice of his work.   One of Crane's last published poems "The Broken Tower" emerged in 1931 after his only known hetero-sexual affair with a woman named Peggy Cowley.  Hart Crane is now viewed as a literary genius some forty years after his death.

I have to say that no other actor has the courage or the talent to play the character of an openly gay poet like James Franco. Just like he did with the character of Alan Ginsberg in Howl (2010), Franco opens the door to the world of an eccentric and gifted, yet incredibly self destructive person.  James' younger brother, Dave Franco, who plays the teen-aged "Harold" has proven that he is just as eccentric and talented as his older brother.  Michael Shanon, who plays the part of Hart's lover, Emile is well cast, and a natural fit for his role. The sex scenes in the movie are in fact explicit; however, the passion that is shown is felt by the viewer, making them non-offensive.  The black-and-white cinematography of the film really captures the time period for which the film takes place. It is pretty well known that Franco is a hard-working actor who is willing to take risks.  Just like the characters which he likes to portray, it's no mystery that that Franco is an eccentric person himself; but, that is what makes him stand out from the rest of the Hollywood crowd.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

Directed by:  Marc Forster
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon

Machine Gun Preacher is a biopic about a man named Sam Childers (Gerard Butler.)  Once a drug-dealing outlaw biker who spent years in prison, Sam finds God and turns his life around. Actually, saying that he turned his life around would be an understatement. Using his carpentry skills, Sam forms a construction company. He uses his construction company to build a church in his community for people like him who want to better their lives; Sam unintentionally becomes the Pastor of the church.  On a church mission to Africa, Sam learns of the horrors brought on the people of Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan by Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA.) Vowing to make a difference, Sam uses his construction resources and his own money to finance and build an orphanage in a remote area of Southern Sudan. The moniker of "Machine Gun Preacher" is given to Sam as he also grabs an AK-47 and joins the Sudanese People's Liberation Army to fight the enemy and help free child slaves from the grips of Joseph Kony.

Director Mark Forster, known for powerful films like Monster's Ball (2001) and The Kite Runner (2007), tells a compelling story about one man's impact on a nation. The narrative of the film does not over indulge in the (real-life) violence of the matter, but keeps the viewer interested in the plot by revealing a real-life issue that is drastically affecting the world we live in. Instead of over-emphasizing on the "preaching" of Sam's religious sermons, Gerard Butler instead focuses his character on a man who wants to make the world he lives in a better place because he believes it is his purpose in life and God's will.

With the exception of a few character's such as Sam's mother, Daisy (Kathy Baker), his wife, Lynn (stoically played by Michelle Monaghan), and his drugged-out best friend, Donnie (Michael Shannon), this film features a relatively unknown cast; however, the acting of all parties involved is spectacular.  After starring in romantic-comedy flops like The Ugly Truth (2009) and The Bounty Hunter (2010), Gerard Butler has redeemed himself as the rough-and-tumble action star that he was born to play.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

21 Jump Street (2012)

Co-directed by: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube.

A brief prologue of this film shows Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) in their awkward high school years: Schmidt was the dork who couldn't get the girl, and Jenko was the ever-popular jock. Fast forward to the present time and Schmidt and Jenko find themselves in the Metro City Police Department Academy. The pair quickly become best friends, and help each other graduate the academy. After a brief (and unsuccessful) stint working bicycle patrol, the two cops get assigned to a re-vamped undercover unit from the 1980s, "Jump Street." Schmidt and Jenko pose as teenagers to infiltrate a drug ring at a local high school. The stereo-typical captain in charge of the unit, Dickson (Ice Cube) is more than a little skeptical as to whether or not his new officers can actually get the job done. Schmidt and Jenko find that high-school life has changed dramatically in the seven years since they were there. What was cool then is not cool now, and vise/versa.  The once nerdy Schmidt is now seen as cool, and the athletic jock types like Jenko are ostracized by their peers as uncool. The narrative of the film has lots of laughs and action tied into a plot line of self discovery on the parts of both Schmidt and Jenko.

Based on the 1980s television show, 21 Jump Street could have been just another attempt by Hollywood to re-cycle an old idea and trying to make it new. Fortunately, the producers of the film were well aware of that trend, making note of it early in the dialogue of the film. Other than the name itself, and a few cameos by cast members of the original series, this film does an excellent job of not looking like the original series.   Both Hill and Tatum have an "Odd Couple" like chemistry in this film. Both actors look way too old to be playing high school kids, and instead of ignoring this fact, the film uses it to its advantage creating some hilarious lines of dialogue.

Being a product of the 80s, anytime I hear that Hollywood is going to re-make an 80s television show into a movie, my interest is always piqued. Nine times out of ten, the end result of the film is a let down; however, this is not the case in 21 Jump Street. The reason why this film succeeds is because it is not a "re-make." This film takes the title of an 80s show and puts a new spin on it.  Screen writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill gear the narrative of the film to today's audience, but also make sure not to alienate fans of the original series, which makes the film easy for all audiences to relate to it. It should also be noted that in case you have lived in a cave for the last few decades, or were born after the show aired, then you are probably well aware of the fact that the original series launched the careers of many stars, namely Johnny Depp. I'm not going to give anything away, but Johnny is given his proper and much due respect in this film.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012)

Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom
Starring: Ewam McGregor, Emily Blunt, Amr Waked, Kristin Scott Thomas

An extraordinarily rich sheik (Amr Waked) has a vision of bringing his love of salmon fishing to his home country in order to enrich the lives of his local people.  Sparing no expense, the sheik contacts his representative to the British Government, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) and tells her to use whatever means necessary to get the project up and running. Harriet enlists the help of the British government's leading fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor.)  The plot gets another twist when The British Prime Minister's assistant (Kristin Scott Thomas) sees an opportunity to smooth relations between the Yemen and British people by turning the salmon project into a  "goodwill" story.  What is obvious is that Harriet and Alfred are going to fall in love, even though they are (momentarily) involved with other people. What is not obvious is how the fish will actually get to the Yemen.

While the performances of all characters in the film were good, I was confused as to what genre this film should actually be in. The picture gets lost somewhere between a heart-warming drama and a romantic comedy. There are just too many different plots in this film; a love story between Alfred and Harriet, a "greater good" story with the salmon, and a political story about two countries and their different ways of life.  The fly-fishing scenes (combined with a beautiful score) in the film captured the essence of man in touch with nature. As an avid fisherman myself, I found these scenes to be quite enjoyable.  Adapted from the novel of the same name, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has all the ingredients to be a great film, but director Lassee Hallstrom comes up short in making the narrative mesh with the different plots in the story.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Sitter (2011)

Directed by: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jonah Hill, Sam Rockwell, Landry Bender, Max Records, Kevin Hernandez

Slacker Noah Griffith (a pre-weight loss Hill) is a twenty-something year old loser who lives with his mom. He is coerced into babysitting three bratty kids so his mom can go out for the evening. There is eitght year old Blithe, (Landry Bender) who thinks she is a Diva, Slater, (Max Records) who is an overly dramatic thirteen year old boy version of Greta Garbo, and Rodrigo, (Kevin Hernandez) the family's adopted Hispanic teen who has a fascination with fireworks.  Misadventures begin almost immediately when Noah gets a call from his girlfriend who promises him sex in return for scoring her drugs. Noah loads the youths into the family mini-van and they set out for New York City in search of drugs for his girlfriend. The babysitter and kids find themselves in trouble with a drug dealer, meet up with some black gangsters who end up becoming their ally, and then the kids and sitter form a bond by the rolling of end credits.

The Sitter is a much like Adventures in Babysitting(1987), only much more raunchy. With lots of sex, drugs, bratty little kids, and a babysitter who is lost in life, this film fails epically on every level imaginable. The most despicable part of the movie is the exploitation of Landry Bender in making her character out to be a grown woman trapped in an eight year old's body.  Director David Gordon Green, who once showed promise to be a fine director with his 2003 hit All the Real Girls, has instead chosen to do gross-out and drug-referenced comedies like Pineapple Express (2008) and Your Highness (2011.) I am so very sick and tired of these types of films; they serve no purpose whatsoever.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jack and Jill (2011)

Directed by: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino

Jack Sadelstein (Adam Sandler) is a successful ad executive living in Los Angles with his with wife, Erin (Katie Holmes) and two kids. Jack's twin sister, Jill (also Sandler) comes to visit for Thanksgiving and turns Jack's life upside down. Cue Al Pacino into the plot: Jack must try and get Pacino to do a Dunkin Donuts commercial, or he will be out of business. The plot thickens when Pacino develops feelings for Jill after they meet at a L.A. Lakers game.

Ninety one minutes- that's how much of my life was wasted on watching this train-wreck of a film. I have long been a fan of Adam Sandler, but his "Happy-Madison" production of comedy has been played out since Bobby Boucher quit being The Waterboy. The most painful thing to watch in this film is Sandler dressed in drag and trying to play the part of Jill. His nasally, high-pitched voice that he uses for the character of Jill is the same voice that he used for the "come to mama" routine during his stand-up and Saturday Night Live days, and it gets really annoying from the get-go. With enough ad placement to choke a horse, it's obvious that Sandler got paid well for this film that had an 80 million dollar price tag on it. I guess the almighty dollar has a way of overriding any sense of artistic or comedic value.

This film also begs the question on weather or not Al Pacino has officially lost his mind. A serious, award winning actor to his caliber has no business in a film like this. Pacino's accomplishments in film far outweigh this one bad decision, so he can easily recover from this disaster. Sandler, who will never have to worry about money in his life, should start to worry if people will ever take him seriously as an actor. Sandler does in fact have the talent to be a dramatic actor...he has proven it with such films like Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Reign Over Me (2007.) Why he has decided to stick with the style of humor in this film is beyond me.  After starring in Funny People (2009) (which was very much a tribute to the middle-aged comic) I had hoped that Sandler would be done with doing the gross-out comedy of his yesteryears.

Adam Sandler has made millions of dollars on his brand of comedy, and he has brought a lot of laughter along the way. There was a time when his films made people laugh; however, the time has now come for Sandler to ditch the "Happy-Madison" routine because audiences just aren't buying it anymore.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Directed by: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Dougray Scott

My Week With Marilyn is based on the true story written by Colin Clark in 1956. Twenty four years old athe time, Clark was working as "gopher" and director's assistant for Sir Laurence Olivier.  He kept journal on the accounts of his time spent working with Marilyn Monroe on the set of the film, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957.)

The narrative of the film, as told by Clark (Eddie Redmayne), shows how everyone working (most of all, Olivier) on the film is excited to have an international star coming to England to work with them. What ensues, however, is a battle of wills between Monroe (Michelle Williams) and Olivier (Kenneth Branagh.)  Laurence Olivier, who was considered British Royalty, and one of the finest actors in the world, despises the fact that Monroe can not act; but cannot help that he is also enamored by her beauty and Charisma.  What must be noted is that Monroe, who studied method acting under Lee and Paula Strasberg, was not much of an actress...she was a "film star."  After Monroe's husband, playwright Aurthur Miller (Dougray Scott) leaves the set of the production to return home, she seeks the companionship of the naive Colin Clark. Clark is infatuated with Monroe, and obviously in love with her; however, the insecure Monroe views Clark more as a much needed ally, than a lover.  After artistic differences between Monroe and the staff of the film come to a boiling point, the production of the The Prince and the Showgirl is brought to a halt. Monroe and Clark spend a week together in seclusion during the time off from the film. While it is led to believe that Monroe and Clark had a love affair, it is not really shown in the plot, nor is it really a necessary part of the narrative. What is shown and more important to the storyline is the close companionship that is developed between Clark and Monroe.

The casting ensemble brings many well known British and American actors together in this film.  Kenneth Branagh's role of Laurence Olivier is a relatively small part of the film, but he covers the part well; Ironically, he has often been referred to as "the Laurence Olivier of his time." The relatively unknown Eddie Redmayne does a good job of portraying the shy, innocent nature of Colin Clark. Although Colin Clark is the protagonist of the story, the character is strongly overshadowed by eccentricities of Monroe's character. It can be said that Michelle Williams really does not have "the look" of Marilyn Monroe. While Williams doesn't match Monroe's voluptuous figure, she makes up for it in every other way. From her pouty lips, soft voice, and "wiggle walk," Williams does an excellent job of portraying the seductive demeanor of Marilyn Monroe that makes you look past any flaws in the actual "looks" of her character.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Albert Nobbs (2011)

Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia
Starring: Glen Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska

The setting is 19th Century Dublin, Ireland. A middle-aged man by the name of Albert Nobbs (Glen Close) works as a butler in a small hotel. Albert works hard for the measly pay that he receives, but saves his money with hopes of one day opening his own business (a tobacco shop.) His existence is a lonely one; Albert is living a lie that will ruin him if anyone ever found out.  In case you haven't heard by now, Albert Nobbs is not really a man. Albert is actually a woman dressed like a man in order to find a good enough job to survive in a harsh world.  One night, a painter named Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) comes to stay at the hotel. Albert is horrified to find out that he will have to share a room for the night with Mr. Page.  It doesn't take long for Mr. Page to discover the fact that Nobbs is really a woman. The next morning, and to Albert's surprise, Hubert reveals her (very large) breasts to Albert, letting him know that he is actually a woman too.  Hubert is also married to a woman; but, she is forced to live a lie as well. Hubert lives as a man to avoid prosecution and public ridicule from being in a homosexual relationship with another woman.

The narrative of the story then shifts into the friendship between Albert and Hubert, and how they help bring out the best in each other. They both dream of better lives and living in a world where they can be their true selves.  Albert, who most likely has no interest in a sexual relationship, begins to court a young woman named Helen (Mia Wasikowska.) Albert sees Helen as more of a companion than a lover. Helen herself has ulterior motives; she is prodded by her boyfriend to pursue Albert in order to get to his money. Reality soon sets into the plot, and Albert's world takes a turn for the worst. The ending of the movie leads one to believe that Hubert will pick up the broken pieces of Albert's life and carry on his dreams.

The idea of a woman posing as a man in order to get a good job is not a far stretch given the time in history that the story takes place. In 19th century Europe, women had very little rights; a good paying job certainly wasn't one of them. It's also not a far cry for gay lovers in the 19th century to hide their relationship from the public. Glen Close, in her Oscar nominated role does a good job of portraying her part. It should be noted that Close spent nearly twenty years trying to make the film come to fruition, after first performing the same role on the stage back in 1982. The narrative runs at a rather slow pace; however, it keeps you ingrained   because if anything, you find yourself feeling sorry for Albert. I found myself wishing for Albert to be able to come out of his shell and live life to the fullest.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Interrupters (2011)

Directed by: Steven James
Staring: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams

This powerful and thought-provoking documentary follows the lives of the "violence interrupters" during a one year span in the inner-city ghettos of Chicago. The violence interrupters work for the community outreach group, "Cease Fire." This non-profit group has a theory that the plague of violence is similar to that of a communicable disease, therefore the treatment should be the same by going after the most "infected." Treating violence the same way you would treat a public health issue takes the criminal element out of the equation, and instead focuses on trying to stop the violence before it erupts.

A key player for "Cease Fire" is Violence Interrupter Ameena Mathews. A former drug runner, and daughter of an infamous Chicago Gang Leader, Matthews has overcome many adversities in her personal life; yet she forges on, trying to make a difference in someone's life. Matthews is shown giving "tough love" to an eighteen year old woman who has been in and out of correctional facilities. A powerful speech given by Matthews at the funeral of a youth killed in a drive-by shooting shows she is tired of seeing life wasted by senseless violence.  What is learned about "Cease Fire" is that the group gets results in stopping the spread of violence, and turning lives in the right direction. Interrupter Cobe Williams gets personally involved in the life of a seventeen year old boy with a violent past. After the boy has just been released from a youth correctional facility, Williams takes the boy to meet the victims of the crime that put him in jail. By the end of the film, we learn that the boy has made a complete turn for the better; he is even thinking about becoming an interrupter himself.

 What really get's the attention of the viewer is the segment of the film which shows the (now well publicized) video taped beating of sixteen year old honor student, Derrion Albert. The video of this brutal beating gained national media attention as it went viral almost immediately last year. It took a brutal killing to bring to light that the violence in urban communities like Chicago has turned these areas literally into war zones. Director Steven James (Hoop Dreams 1994) doesn't use a bunch of "pomp and circumstance" to get his message across in this film, relying instead on the cold-hard facts that are presented in the narrative.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

Directed by: Joe Maggio
Starring: Dennis Farina, Gary Cole, Jamie Anne Allman, Merideth Droeger

Joe May (Farina) is a sixty-something short money hustler. The opening scene of the film finds Joe checking out of the hospital after a lengthy battle with tuberculosis. Upon his return to his Chicago neighborhood, he finds that life has moved on without him. His car is towed and then auctioned off, he has very little money in the bank, but most of all, his apartment has been rented out to a single mother, Jenny (Allman) and her young daughter, Angelina (Droger.) Showing signs of terminal illness, Joe is washed up; however, he is too restless to retire from the business. When he has no place else to go, Joe is taken in by Jenny and her daughter. He soon becomes the unofficial man of the house, and he quickly bonds with his new roommates, especially the young Angelina. As the narrative unfolds, it is learned that Joe has led a shallow, pathetic life. He is estranged from everyone who ever loved him, and he is not welcomed back into the life he once led by the local crime boss, Lenny (Cole.) Despite all the bad things Joe may or may not have done in his life, he has some redeeming qualities about him. Joe struggles to come to terms with the fact that he wants to better himself.  What is also discovered in the story is that Angelina has an abusive boyfriend who happens to be a Chicago Police Detective. Joe's new life with Jenny and Angelina brings him to a crossroads where he decides to help someone in a last-ditch effort at redeeming a worthless life; but his sacrifice will cost him.

Much like Grand Torino (2008), this film is about a man who has pretty much lost everything and everyone who was once close to him, but finds himself in a new life with new friends. Just like Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) knew in Grand Torino that his former life was meaningless, and his future was hopeless, Joe May decides to sacrifice himself to save someone else from a hopeless situation. In Grand Torino, the hopeless situation was the gangsters that were threatening the lives of Walt's friends. In Joe May, the hopeless situation is the abusive boyfriend that is threatening the lives of Joe's new friends, Jenny and Angelina.

As a Chicago native, and 18 year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, this film is a perfect fit for Dennis Farrina. In fact, any film that takes place in Chicago is a perfect fit for Mr. Farrina, for he epitomizes everything that is related to Chicago. He doesn't need to change his accent or learn the lingo to make himself "fit" into character, because he has already lived the live of a Chicagoan.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Carnage (2011)

Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz

Based on Yasmina Reza’s stage play, God of Carnage, director Roman Polanksi delivers his version to the big screen in his latest film, Carnage. Actually, Polanski does not deviate from the original script, with the exception of the opening and ending scenes of the film.

Set in a upscale Manhattan apartment, the narrative of the story is about two 11 year old boys who get into a fight at a neighborhood park; one of the boys is on the losing end of the fight, and one is the victor. The boy's parents are brought together by the incident to discuss how to best deal with the situation. The entire film takes place in the apartment of the Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and Reilly.) Their son Ethan had his front teeth knocked out in a fight with the son of Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz.) The meeting, which is intended on being civil, turns from how amends can be made into whose child is to blame for the incident. Moreover, the topic of conversation rapidly escalates into who are the better parents, and who is the better person for that matter. The actual "carnage" in this film isn't from the fight beteewn the boys, but the argument between the parents.

What starts out as a late morning meeting at the apartment, soon progresses well into the late afternoon. Polanski does a good job of complimenting this part of the film by changing the lighting of the set, showing the time progression of the story.  The hilarity of the plot line ensues almost immediately after the opening shot of the fight between the two boys. The four characters in the film do an excellent job in their respective roles of upper-class, well-to-do Manhattans. Christoph Waltz nails his character of Alan Cowan; who as a high-powered attorney is uninvolved with his personal life, but overly involved with work.  His constant cell-phone interruptions during the meeting are annoying to the point of being funny, and add greatly to the narrative of the plot. However, the character who basically steals the entire script of the film is that of Penelope Longstreet. Jodie Foster does an excellent job of playing a neurotic, uptight, overbearing mother and wife.

I'm going to date myself here, but when I was a child, if two kids from my neighborhood got into a fight, it was usually settled with that. By the next day you were playing with that same kid that you just "duked it out" with the day before. Most parents I knew as a child stayed out of the "street politics" of the kids in the neighborhood. There were no threat of lawsuits, and parents didn't bicker back and forth as to who had the most well behaved child.  Boys will be boys, and although they may be unpleasant, altercations between two boys in a neighborhood are nothing out of the norm.  Roman Polanski gives a true example in this film of what our society seems to have boiled down to when it comes to raising children.  The parents in this film prove that they are making a big deal out of nothing, but is it just because they are "Uppity New Yorkers?" Or is this a showcase of the norm in today's society?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Grey (2012)

Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works for an oil company. His job is to hunt and kill wolves on the property which he works in Northern Alaska. The opening narrative by Ottway describes the type of person he and the people whom he works with as "men unfit for mankind." They are rough and tumble men either cast away from society, or seeking refuge from a world for which they do not fit into. Ottaway and some of the oil workers are brought together as they fly out on a plane that crashes in the Alaskan Wilderness. Seven of the men survive the crash, but the crash itself is not the worst of their fate; it's the wolves who hunt them. The men rapidly realize there are more wolves than them. The weather is punishing, but the wolves are unaffected by a blizzard. Ottway becomes the unofficial leader of the group as they try to make their way out of the forest for help. One by one, things start to go very badly for the men in the group.  I don't like to give spoilers, but I will say that there is a current trend in Hollywood to not have a happy ending. Keep watching after the credits...

Writer/director Joe Carnahan does an excellent job of not giving away too much all at once. I was begging for not necessarily a happy ending, but some sort of resolve in the end of this movie. Another good aspect of the film is having a protagonist (Ottway) with a deep seated issue, separate from the plot that he needs to come to terms with. The use of flashback sequences of Ottway and his wife help to explain the type of person he is.  I could tell that there was something that the writer is not telling us with that aspect of the narrative, and it is brilliantly brought out in the ending scene.

Pushing 60 years old, Liam Neeson is today's Lee Marvin...or Robert Mitchum. His sheer size alone would make any man not want to face him in a bar fight. As a matter of fact, he was an amateur boxing champion in Belfast during his younger days.  He also has the appeal of a blue-collar worker; he could easily be a roughneck or a truck driver, yet he has the grace of a royal thespian. As he reaches his golden years, the work he puts forth today is the best he's ever done.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Turin Horse (2011)

It is believed that on January 3rd, 1889, German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a cabman brutally whipping his stubborn horse in the streets of Turin, Italy. Horrified, Nietzsche runs to the aid of the horse, tossing his arms around the animal, in an attempt to protect it. He collapses to the ground during the incident, sobbing uncontrollably. Nietzsche's landlord carries him home where it is further believed that he suffers a mental breakdown. He spends the remainder of his life in a catatonic state, cared for by his mother and sisters. Whatever happened to the horse remains unknown to this day. 

Writer/Director Bela Tarr uses the incident with Nietzsche and the horse as a "jumping off" point for his fictional story, The Turin Horse.  Though it is never seen in the film, the viewer is led to believe that the man who whipped his horse is a rural farmer by the name of Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi.) He makes his living by taking carting jobs into the city with his (very old) horse and cart.  The opening scene following the prologue shows Ohlsdorfer driving his worn down horse through an eerily apocalyptic-type storm, and back home to his farm where he lives with his daughter (Erika Bok.) The man and his daughter are beyond poor. Living in a single room brick house, their only daily source of nourishment is a boiled potato, and a shot of pálinka (whiskey.) Their daily routine is the same; waking up, fetch water, heat the stove for boiling the water, and tending to the horse. Ohlsdorfer's daughter must carry the burden of doing most of the daily chores, as Ohlsdorfer himself only has the use of one arm. It is easily surmised that the old man has led a hard life; he looks just as broken down as his horse does.

The narrative of the story takes place in a period of six days. Each day the storm gets progressively worse, as does the health of the horse. The horse refuses to eat, and will no longer pull the cart. As the days progress and the horse's health deteriorates, so does the hope that the old man and his daughter will escape their situation. It becomes more evident that the end of days are nearing for Ohlsdorfer and his daughter, but the question left to the audience would be... is it also the end of days for the rest of mankind? A neighbor who comes to visit the farm gives a speech about the end of days coming, to which Ohlsdorfer replies "that's rubbish."

What this Hungarian foreign film film lacks in dialogue (which in fact their is hardly any at all, save for the scene when the neighbor comes to visit), it makes up for by getting the viewer involved with the character's in the story. It truly goes to show that you don't need words to describe what is happening. The biblical references to revelations makes one think about that possibility; but what I truly enjoyed in this film is the simple acting, and a musical score that really makes one feel that the end of the world is coming for the old man and his daughter.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hugo (2011)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Chole Grace Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Jude Law.

If you have never heard of George Melies, allow me to enlighten you. He was a French illusionist and pioneer filmmaker at the turn of the 20th century. He was an innovator of special effects, accidentally discovering the special effect, "stop trick" (filming something, turning the camera off, removing the object being filmed, then turning the camera back on, giving the viewer the illusion that the object disappeared.) By 1896, he was one of the very first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand painting the color into his films. Melies directed, starred in and produced over 500 films, ranging from one to forty minutes from 1896 to 1913.  In 1908, Thomas Edison created the Motion Picture Patents Company, which put a monopoly on the film industry in Europe and America. Melies joined the new conglomerate of film makers that Edison had created, but was unhappy with being part of a corporation. He set out as independent, but was broke and out of the business by 1913.  Méliès personally burned all of the negatives of his films that he had stored at his studio, as well as most of the sets and costumes. As a result many of his films do not exist today.  After being driven out of business, Méliès disappeared from public life. By the mid-1920s he was making a meager living as a candy and toy salesman at the Montparnasse Train Station in Paris....which brings us to Martin Scorsese's film, Hugo.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a 1930s Paris Train Station. Hugo was taken in by his uncle after his father (Jude Law) dies, and is taught how to operate all the mechanical clocks in the train station. Hugo's uncle is a drunkard, and soon passes away himself, leaving Hugo to survive by blending in with the crowd of the train station, and stealing a croissant here and there as his only means of food. Hugo continues to operate and maintain all the clocks in the station, without anyone knowing that his uncle is gone.   Before Hugo's father had passed, he had been restoring an automaton (antique robot in layman's terms) but dies before it can be finished. The main thing that is missing is the key to wind the automaton up.

Hugo then crosses paths with a toy shop owner in the train station named George Melies (Ben Kingsley.) Unbeknownst to Hugo, this grumpy old man is the original owner of his automaton, and also an early French film pioneer. The first two thirds of the film is dedicated to the relationship between Hugo and Meiles god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz.) Isabelle helps to coax Hugo out of his shell and into a world that he has only viewed as an outsider. Isabelle also holds the main ingredient to the automaton-the key.  Hugo in turn introduces Isabelle to his world (or underworld) of the innards of the train station's clock system. Hugo also introduces Isabelle to his only means of escape from his world, which is going to the cinema. Together the two children get the automaton to work again, all the while they are pursued by the mean spirited (but fun-loving) Train Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen.) The narrative of the film switches in the third act of the film to the life and works of George Melies. The automaton is used as a means of bringing Hugo and Melies together, but moreover it is used as a means to help Melies to come to grips with his past as a brilliant filmmaker, breaking him away from years of sadness after being washed out of the business. The real George Melies died in 1938, sort of ironic that this film takes place in what would be towards the end of his life.

 It is no surprise to me now as to the reason why this film killed the competition at the Oscar awards for cinematography, sound editing, visual effects and art direction. This film is the first film that I have seen in a very long time where CGI and 3D actually worked to make the film what it was. The use of Melies actual film  A Trip to the Moon (1902) in this film really showcases how the real George Melies was way ahead of his time in the world of film making.  This film is in part a tribute to Scorsese himself as a child. Hugo was lost and forgotten about in the train station, and watching the world from inside his lonely world "behind the clocks."  His only means of joy was going to the movie theater, I am sure that this is most likely a reference to Scorsese growing up as a child in Queens, New York and watching the world go by from an apartment window. Scorsese has admitted in several interviews that going to the movies was a way of "escaping" a lonely childhood. I would also say that this film is a tribute to not just George Melies, but to the creation of film making itself. I believe that this is Martin Scorsese's way to say "Thank You" to something that he has lived and loved for a greater portion of his life. On the contrary I would say Thank you to you, Marty...truly one of the greatest film makers of my generation.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow

Ten year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a child genius living in Manhattan. The narrative of the film centers on Oskar and the loss of his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks) who was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. While going through his father's personal effects, Oskar finds a key in a small envelope labeled "Black." To keep the memory of his father alive, Oskar sets out on a journey throughout the entire metropolis of New York.  He compiles a list from the phone-book of everyone with the name of "Black"and searches the people out to see if his key fits a lock they may or may not have. Along the way, Oskar meets a mute neighbor of his who communicates to him only through written notes and a "yes" or "no" that is tattooed on his left and right hands. The mute (Max von Sydow) turns out to be his grandfather. While all this is going on, Oskar becomes increasingly estranged from his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock.) The plot of the mysterious key gets lost in the middle of the story, then reappears towards the end.

A more fitting title to this movie would be "Extremely Annoying and Incredibly Obnoxious" because that is exactly how I would describe the protagonist, Oskar. He becomes increasingly obnoxious as the storyline plays out. Oskar's rapid fire questions to everyone he encounters and dialect that is way beyond the normal dialect of a ten year old child was enough to put me off from the get go. Through no fault of Sandra-Bullock's acting ability, the character of Oskar's mother was all over the place. First, she is disconnected from her child, then she is involved, then disconnected (and gone for that matter), then she re-appears at the end as if she was there all along. Although Max von Sydow is a veteran actor, and a powerful one at that, his character was all but useless in this film. He gave a fine performance, but The plot would have been just the same regardless if the mute "grandpa" was in film or not. Tom Hanks has limited screen time, but his character is ever present through the entire film. One cannot help but love everything that he does in any movie that he is in.

I will say that there were a few moments in the film that did tug at one's heartstrings. However, it wasn't the plot or the storyline that triggered those emotions in me; It was remembering the events of 9/11. Who could ever forget that horrible day?  I have mixed feelings on the film maker's use of 9/11 for that matter.  The grief felt by Oskar had more to do with the loss of his father, and not actually the tragic way he was killed at ground zero. Thomas could have died any number of ways and the rest of the plot could have remained just the same.  Did using 9/11 help the plot? I would say that it gave it the extra emotional element that made the audience feel that much sadder for the protagonist. On the other hand, one could argue that the writers exploited the most tragic event on American soil to further the effects of their fictional film. I guess the same could be said for Pearl Harbor...I'm talking about the Ben Affleck version of Pearl Harbor (2001)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beginners (2010)

Written and Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mealnie Laurent

Beginners is a tale about personal relationships and new beginnings. The narrative is seen and told through the eyes of Oliver Fields (McGregor.) The storyline jumps time back and forth between the present (actually 2003) and Oliver's childhood. Oliver's mother and father were married for 38 years; they were both very unhappy in their marriage. When Oliver's mother passes away, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet and lives the rest of life the way he always wanted an openly gay man.  Hal then passes away and Oliver is left to deal with taking care of all of his father's affairs and adopts his father's dog, a Jack Russel named Arthur. The dog's thoughts are shown on screen through subtitles. The dog seems to be tho only one in the film who is holding it together, actually. Oliver is a lonely soul who is afraid to trust anyone, for what I am guessing is a fear of abandonment. He does finally meet and begins a relationship with a French Actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent.)

This film deals with human emotions and relationships, but the narrative is excruciatingly slow. The character of Oliver's mother could have been expanded on more; why did she stay in an unhappy marriage, knowing her husband was a homosexual?  Why did Hal stay in the marriage knowing the same thing? Oliver's parents stayed together well into his adulthood, so staying married for the sake for their son was out a possible reason. However, I did like this film because it deals with real life issues, and it lets us know that it is never too late for a new beginning in life. I also like the narration through Oliver when describing different time periods in his and his parent's lives. I enjoyed seeing how the characters of Hal and Oliver evolved as the openly gay father and his son form a bond that they never had before. McGregor and Plummer gave good performances, but in my opinion, McGregor was the stronger of the two. However, Oscar buzz is swarming all around Plummer on this one. My guess is he is going to bring home the statue.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

84th Annual Academy Awards Predictions

Ah...the Oscars! My "Superbowl night" to all you sports fans out there. Keep in mind that the Oscar winner has more to do with politics than it has to do with actual talent. Sometimes the winner of the award for a chosen category is much deserved; but more often than not, it's more about who "played the game" with the powers that be at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although I think that George Clooney should be getting the award for Best Actor for his role in The Descendants, there was more buzz for Jean Dujardin for his role in The Artist. Meryl Streep is Hollywood Royalty, and she nailed her role in The Iron Lady, but the film was quite frankly, a bore. Viola Davis stole the screen with her heartwarming performance in The Help, and I feel she is deserving of her title. Speaking of The Artist; it was a great film, and I truly enjoyed it, but I don't think it was better than Moneyball or The Descendants. Moneyball will lose in all it's nominated categories for that matter, for reasons I have already stated at the start of this post. I have to give proper credit to Octavia Spencer; she was a main part of the glue that held The Help she is much deserving of her award for best supporting actress. Nick Nolte should be getting the award for best supporting actor for his work in Warrior, but the film has all been forgotten about in the mainstream. Tree of Life was a brilliant masterpiece, and a true work of art...but it will bomb in all of it's nominated categories because it is considered "too artsy." I did not care for War Horse, but I can't argue with the excellent cinematography in this film. It must be noted however, that even if an actor or director or producer does not win an award for their nomination, the mere nomination is recognition enough in the world of film.

With all that being said, here are my predictions for the winners:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Viola Davis (The Help)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Best Picture: "The Artist" produced by Thomas Langmann

Best Director: Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist)

Best Adapted Screenplay: "The Descendants" Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash

Best Original Screenplay: "The Artist"  Written by Michel Hazanavicius

Best Cinematography:  "War Horse"  Janusz Kaminski

The Red Carpet Event starts at 4pm (pacific time) on ABC networks, with the greatest host in Oscar history, Billy Crystal.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon

Curtis (Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Chastain) live in a modest house on the outskirts of an Ohio town with their hearing impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart.) Curtis has a good job working in construction which affords his family to live well. To their friends and other outsiders, it seems that all is well in Curtis's life. But to the viewer, we know something is amiss in his world. From the very start of the film, Curtis is having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic storms on the horizon, and people and animals out to harm him and his family. His dreams begin to bleed over into his waking life, and he takes measures to protect the family that he loves. Curtis also has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia, which his mother is afflicted with. Curtis feels that he is beginning to lose his mind, but he presses on by building out an old tornado shelter in his backyard which would allow his family to survive in a post apocalyptic world. Soon, everything he holds dear to him comes into jeopardy as his life starts to unravel because of his assumed paranoia. But is it really paranoia? Or is Curtis really seeing something that everyone else is not?

The question left up to the viewer is whether or not Curtis is in fact going insane. Director Jeff Nichols does a beautiful job of making Curtis's dreams and reality flow together so the audience doesn't know if he is in fact dreaming or not, the ending scene really emphasizes this fact. Most big-budget blockbuster films today rely on CGI to get them through, with minimal reliance on the acting capabilities of the cast. The exact opposite can be said about this film. Though CGI special effects were used, they are not what made the film great. Michael Shannon is a force to be reckoned with his acting abilities. With over forty five roles under his belt in the last ten years, he continues to shine as an actor who is capable of expressing believable emotions in any character which he submerses himself into. Fresh of her recent success of award winning films like Tree of Life (2011) and The Help (2011), Jessica Chastain has proven that she too is a fine actor. She really engages the audience in her role as the caring and understanding wife who is trying to hold her family together. 

The thing I enjoyed the most about this film is that is another example of how a little-known director can produce a film with powerful actors on a small budget...and get the Academy voters to take notice of his work.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

Written and Directed by: Morgan Spurlock

Have you ever noticed a character in a movie drinking a Pepsi? Do you notice that the "Pepsi" is being held in a way that the audience is noticing that the actor is in fact drinking that Pepsi product? Do you think that the actor is just drinking said Pepsi because he or she loves that particular soft drink? Ok, maybe I'm beating up a little bit on Pepsi here, (hopefully no one from the Pepsi Corporation is reading this) but the point I'm trying to make is that the brand of soft drink that a character in a movie is drinking, the shoes that they are wearing, or the hamburger they are eating is not by's called product placement.

 Film maker Morgan Spurlock exposes the world of advertising in Hollywood in his latest documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Spurlock comes up with a clever idea of directing a film about branding and product placement in films, and has the film itself solely funded by branding and product placement through advertisers. Spurlock has many doors slammed in his face when trying to find sponsors for his film. Most "Big Name" brands want nothing to do with his film. However, he finally does find financial backing for the film, and he does in fact "plug" his sponsors, just as you would see in any other film.

The most interesting aspect of the film is when Spurlock is interviewing director Peter Berg. Berg explains in no uncertain terms how corporate sponsors have the most power in film making. Berg details how an ad executive will show up on the set of a film, to make sure that their brand is being advertised. Through contractual obligations, the ad agencies will order changes the script of his films because of product placement, and there is nothing that he as the director can do about it.  Berg makes the final comment that he  works for GE (General Electric), and they are a business. The bottom line of any business is to make money, and "they don't give a flying fuck about art."

Just as he did in Supersize Me (2004), Spurlock exposes us to something we already knew was there..but didn't realize to what extent. This eye-opening film exposes the true nature of not only what ad sponsors in film is all about, but what the world we live in is all about: making money! But do advertising agencies think that the general population is so dumb that we can't think for ourselves? Sure, advertising has it's place in our world, but the over-saturation in every single thing we see and do has gotten so bad that we don't even know we are being duped into a commercial. The one place where most people to go to escape is the movie theater; now even that simple escape is being turned into the moviegoer being duped into one big commercial.  Film is supposed to be an expression of art- not a plug for Burger King.