Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hanyo AKA,The Housemaid (2010)

Directed by: San-soo Im
Starring: Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-jae Lee, Yeo-jong Yun, and Woo Soo

Set in modern day Korea, Eun-yi Li (Do-yeon Jeon) goes to work as a maid and nanny for a rich and powerful man, Hoon Goh (Jung-jae Lee.) Hoon's wife Hae-Ra (Woo Soo) is pregnant with twins, and together the couple also has a small daughter, Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn.) Eun-yi is a simple woman, from a poor background. She has a good heart, and caring soul, and is in awe of the powerful man whom she works for. Eun-yi also develops a quick bond with Nami, the only one in the family capable of affection.  She works directly under the head servant, Mrs. Cho (Yeo-jong Yun.) Mrs. Cho is a wise old woman who hates the family she works for, but carries out her duties without question. Mrs. Cho is the key character in the story, as she sees and knows all the goings on in her surroundings.

The narrative of the story focuses on the fact that something bad is (and eventually does) going to happen. Re- made from the original 1960 film of the same title, and filmed with excellent cinematography by director Sang-soo Im, this Koren film is set with Gothic undertones. The film keeps the viewer guessing as to what is going to happen until the bizarre ending. The final scene of the film begs the question that the family continues on like nothing ever happened, or will the same turn of events happen again with another nanny?

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Help (2011)

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer

An aspiring writer, Eugina "Skeeter" Phelan (Stone) has just returned home from college and lands a job writing for a local newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work for the paper leads her to a maid by the name of Aibileen Clark (Davis.) Skeeter decides to write a "tell-all" book detailing what life was like for a black maid, and the hardships they faced working for white families. In one scene, Skeeter references the character of "Mammy" from Gone With The Wind (1939), to what working maids of the south were like, the only difference being that the maids were given a wage (which was in fact less than minimum wage.) A huge part of the narrative tells how the maids were closer to the children they tended to than their actual parents. The children of these families are raised by the maids, but the maids are in fact treated like slaves, not employees.

There are several four main ingredients that make up the narrative of this film; Skeeter, Aibileen, The white women of the community, and the racial atmosphere in Mississippi, Circa 1964.

Skeeter is the only person who seems to be courageous enough to not bend to peer pressure or the status quo. She treats others the way she wants to be treated, including people in the black community. As a child, Skeeter was extremely close to her family's maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), and that sub-plot is also a very key element of the film.  The leading role of Aibileen (powerfully played by Viola Davis) is sort of the unofficial leader to the rest of the maids in her community. It is though her strength that the rest of the maids follow in telling their stories for Skeeter's book. The character of Minny Jackson, (Octavia Spencer) brings what is probably the funniest scene to the entire film.  The cast of characters who portray the catty, southern white women in the film do a good job of showing how upper-class, white Mississippians carried themselves in those days. A good example of this is when Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) refuses to let her black maid use the same bathroom as her, then fires her for the offense.

In watching this film, you have to consider the racial climate of Mississippi in 1964. This was right at the height of the civil rights movement. The Help brings to light a different point of view in the struggle for equal rights. It tells a real human story about how hired help (the black community) was treated while The Jim Crow laws were still very much in  effect in 1964. In fact, there is a scene where some of those laws are read through narration, re-enforcing what Skeeter and the maids were doing was considered a crime. Viola Davis has already won several Lead Actress awards for her role in this picture. If she does not bring home the Oscar, I will be surprised.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause

Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer and a rich land baron, born and raised on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu.  He and his family are direct descendants of King Kamehameha. Matt is a workaholic, always away on business. He is emotionally and physically disconnected from the day-to-day lives of his wife and two daughters, 17 year old Alexandre (Woodley) and 10 year old Scottie (Miller.)  Following a tragic boating accident, Matt's wife is in the hospital, and on life support.  Matt is left to deal with his daughters and begins to re-build his bond with the two of them. It is during this period that Matt uncovers a dark secret about his wife and what his role was in the way things were going in their lives prior to her accident.

On top of dealing with the issues of his dying wife and estranged daughters, Matt is also the trustee to his family's land that is worth millions. One crucial sub-plot of the narrative is that the decision to sell the land rests solely on Matt. Selling the land it will make him and the rest of his family all multimillionaires, but he is conflicted about what the right thing to do is. The land is picturesque, "unspoiled" land that has been in his family for centuries.  The key scene plays out when Matt and his daughters travel to the Island of Kauai (where the family land happens to be) to confront someone who is involved with his wife. It is in this chapter of the narrative where Matt has a moment of clarity, and the bond with his daughters begins to really rebuild. It is also on this trip to Kauai where Matt realizes what he needs to do with the family owned land.

Director Alexander Payne is known for making films with the same plot-line of a man reaching a self-actualization phase in his life, as he did with films like About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004.) Just like the lead characters in those films, the lead in this film (Matt) has had an life altering event take place in his life, and encounters a lot of personal discovery along the way.

Clooney sheds his usual "Sexiest Man Alive" persona and brings to life the character of a greying, and hunched over 50 year old workaholic who is a failure at being a father and a husband. Both Woodley and Miller prove they are very capable of the adult nature of their dramatic performances. This film is sure to stimulate audiences both emotionally and intellectually. It will be a surprise if it doesn't do well on Oscar Night.

50/50 (2011)

Written by: Will Reiser
Directed by: Johnathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Angelica Huston

Adam (Levitt) is a 27 year old public radio producer living in Seattle. He seems to be a quiet young man with a girlfriend whom he lives with, but isn't connected to emotionally. He has a best friend who he has known for a long time. All in all, Adam seems to be living a normal, albeit boring life. The narrative wastes no time in telling that Adam has a rare form of spinal cancer. After doing some research on the internet, he finds out that he has a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Then the plot develops into how he embarks on his journey with cancer, and how it affects him and the people who surround his life.

Several Characters in the story are connected to Adam; His friend, Kyle (Rogen), his therapist (Kendrick), his mother (Huston), and two fellow cancer patients. The fellow cancer patients, played by Matt Frewer and Phillip Baker Hall are both small but very key roles in the narrative. There are several scenes that really stick out in this film. One in particular is when Adam finally has a breakdown while coming to grips with his own mortality. It is in this scene where the dialogue between Adam and the therapist begins to change.

50/50 is an an emotional story well written by Adam Reiser, who he himself is a cancer survivor (and good friend of Seth Rogen.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gone from a child actor to a fine diverse adult actor. Seth Rogen adds a good element to this drama with his witty, pop-culture themed style of humor.

This emotional journey is about how a man realizes that he wasn't really enjoying his life until he found out the real possibility that he could lose it. The film sparks emotions of sadness, but also laughter. It's the laughter that helps the main character (and his best friend) come to grasp the fate of their situation. If you or a loved one has ever been affected by cancer, or some form of impending doom, then you will identify with this film like I did.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Life as we Know it (2010)

Starring: Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel

Holly (Heigl) and Eric (Duhamel) can't stand each other. They are, however both best friends with a married couple. Eric is a bad-boy ladies man, Holly is a prim and proper business woman.  After about the first five minutes of the film, we see a montage of  Holly, Eric, and the couple...and the arriving baby of the married couple. The married couple is killed in a car accident, and in the will, the couple leaves their Suburban Atlanta mansion, and their baby to their two best friends. Happens all the time, right? Hey...what a good theme to bring to a rom-com; Oh, isn't it just so funny that this orphaned child was left with this misfit pair who can't stand each other, but find out later that they have feelings for each other?

I'm not going to spoil it for you on what happens at the end of this film. It's extremely unpredictable, like all romantic comedies are. Not.

Red State (2011)

Red State takes place in an fictional town in Middle America. Three teenagers answer an on-line sex ad and soon find out that that they have stepped into more than what they bargained for. The three have fallen into a trap set up by Chrisian Fundamentalists led by a false-prophet preacher who believes he is the Messiah. 

The plot-line then has the preacher, Albin Cooper (Michael Parks) and his followers squaring off against the the ATF, led by Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman.) In this act, the film rapidly turns into a scene reminiscent of the standoff in Waco, Texas with Branch Dividians.

Billed as a horror flick, this "B" Movie doesnt really fit into the horror genre. Sure, there is plenty of suspense tied in with blood and guts, but I would say that the film would better described as a dark comedy/thriller.

Goodman and Parks carry the whole film on their shoulders, as their characters are the only two who are really getting across any sort of message. Park's portrayal of a radical preacher rings in the tone of how someone can lead others to kill in the name of God, regardless of what religion they are. Goodman does a good job of portraying a lead government agent who is conflicted between protecting the innocent and carrying out orders to kill everyone by his superiors.

Director Kevin Smith is no stranger to controversy, and his films usually have some sort of hidden message. He covers a plethora of issues such as homophobia, religious extremism, second amendment rights, corrupt authority, and general morality. It's just hard to decipher which point Smith was trying to make most important. He has definitely stepped out of his realm with this picture though. Usually directing slacker comedies, he is far removed from his days of Clerks (1994) or Chasing Amy (1997.) This film is more like that of a Tarantino flick like Pulp Fiction (1994) or From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Ides of March (2011)

Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, and Geroge Clooney.

Politics...down and dirty, cut-throat, kill or be killed politics; that is what the "Ides of March" is all about. The story takes place during the mid March Democratic Primary Election, in the battleground State of Ohio.  Stephen Meyers (Gosling) works as the press secretary for Pennsylvania Governor and Democratic Presidential Candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney.) Meyers is an idealistic liberal who wants to believe that he is working for a man who will bring real change to the country. He soon finds out that he works with and is surrounded by dirty politicians and their staff members who have become cynical and jaded by the hardball world of American politics. Myers is set up by the opposing candidate's campaign manager and then fired from his job.  Just when it seems like his career in politics is over, he uncovers a dark secret that will turn the tables in his favor.

A star-studded cast has Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti filling the roles of opposing presidential campaign managers. Evan Rachel Wood plays a pivotal role in the film as campaign intern Molly Stearns.  Co-written and directed by George Clooney (a well known left-leaning democrat), the narrative doesn't so much as focus on democrat or republican, as does the aspect of good-vs-evil in politics. Ryan Gosling has far beyond proven that he is a great actor. In the last two years he's had outstanding lead performances in "Blue Valentine" (2010) and "Drive" (2011.)  With award nominations and wins under his belt these last few years, I look for more great things to come from him.

An  interesting side note is that the term "Ides of March" dates back to the Roman Empire. It refers to the 15th (or middle) of the month when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  In the Shakespeare play "Julius Caesar", a fortune teller warns Caesar to "Beware of the Ides of March."

Somewhere (2010)

Directed by: Soffia Coppola
Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning.

Johnny (Stephen Dorff) is a Hollywood actor and hard-partying playboy. He lives at the Chateau Marmont, a private hotel for the rich and famous, where he spends his time filled with strippers, meaningless sex and partying with superficial friends.  He's got good looks, charisma and knows how to work in front of the camera, but he seems to just go through the motions of his work, not feeling anything for what he is doing. Johnny begins to re-examine his life after a surprise visit from his 11 year old estranged daughter, and soon discovers that his life is meaningless.

Director Sophia Coppola uses the same formula she used in "Lost in Translation" (2003) of a movie star who has become disconnected with his success and more importantly, his loved ones. Just as Bill Murray fit the mold of an aged, has-been movie star in "Lost in Translation", Stephen Dorff  fits the mold well for the character he is portraying in "Somewhere."  Elle Faning plays the role of Cleo, Johnny's daughter and this young star is going to have a brilliant acting career ahead of her. Fanning connects well with her character. As in her real life, she has grown up in the Hollywood lifestyle, the same as her character in the movie has.

I will admit that the narrative moves at a rather slow pace, but in this film it seems to work to its advantage. This film is about personal discovery, and it's not a quick process. No matter how much success a man has, none of it matters if his life has no purpose or meaning. Strippers will come and go. Anonymous sex will come and go. Superficial friends will come and go. But when a man starts to take inventory of what's really important in his life he will realize that family, close friends, and loved ones are the only things that truly matter...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Contagion (2011)

Directed by: Steven Soderberg
Starring: Gweneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Lauerence Fishburne, and Jude Law.

"Contagion" is a medical thriller that should be a wake-up call for the entire world. The narrative focuses on how a viral strain spreads throughout the world through a series of hosts. The plot uncovers ground zero for the origin of the virus, and determines that it was spread from there. Beth Emhoff (Gwenneth Paltrow), a Minnesota woman contacts the virus after traveling to Hong Kong. A pandemic spreads throughout the world killing hundreds of thousands of people along the way. The American Centers for Disease Control is tasked with determining what the virus is and how to create a vaccine for it. An internet blogging conspiracy theorist, named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is skeptical of the government's true interest in solving the matter with claims of pharmaceutical companies profiting from the virus.

The narrative flows smoothly throughout the entire film, but it lacks the real "punch" the viewer is looking for. Simply stated, this film was good, but didn't leave me hanging on the edge of my seat like I thought it would, despite an A-List cast and an Oscar wining director. The plot moves at a meticulously slow pace, even though there is an element of panic involved in the sense that this could happen in real life.  There was a lot more potential in the role of Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) to be expanded further, but didn't.

If anything, this film will make you consider asking yourself: Do you wash your hands after touching things in public? Are you skeptical of shaking someone's hand? Do you really know who is serving your food at your favorite restaurant? 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Devil's Double (2011)

Directed by: Lee Tamahori
Starring: Dominic Cooper

Prior to the first Gulf War (1990 for you history buffs) an Iraqi soldier by the name of Latif Yahia was chosen to go to work for Uday Hussein, the psychopathic, narcissistic son of Saddam. Actually, a more fitting term would be that Latif was forced to go to work for Uday, as his body double. At first, Latif rejects the offer, but changes his mind after being beaten and his family threatened. This biopic film of Latif Yahia digs (not very far, unfortunately) in to the nightmare that Yahia lived through.

The storyline of this film alone would be enough to make it a great film. Unfortunately, it misses the mark on everything except the leading role(s) of Latif and Uday both played by Dominic Cooper. While the film is eye-opening, and gives a little bit of back-story to the sadistic nature of the Hussein regime, the narrative jumps around too much and is far from factually accurate. Cooper's acting skills are the only thing that makes this film (barely) watchable.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Directed and Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain

This film is about the circle of life for a family in a Teaxs town during the 1950s. The film focuses on the oldest of three boys in the family, Jack and his strict disciplinarian of a father (powerfully performed by Brad Pitt.) A tragedy occurs early in the film and sets the pace on how the characters play out in the story.  The film is on key with how life was like in American Suburbia, circa 1950s...a strict father, a naive mother (Jessica Chastain), children who actually play outside, and live their lives unquestionably through their parents. The mother and father are only known as Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien, because in those days children did not refer to adults by their first names.  You see as Jack struggles to carry the burden of being the oldest child in the family with feelings of hate toward his father, but you also can tell that his father is raising his kids to be be productive members of society. There is a scene where the father explains to young Jack that he was raising his boys the only way he knew how.

A film like this only comes around once in a great while. It's no mystery why this film is getting the critical acclaim that it has been receiving. This is what art is truly about; taking the thoughts and feelings of the artist and putting them on display for people to decipher. In this case, the writer/director showcases his art through the film.  Malick uses narration through the characters sharing their thoughts just as he did in his other works such as "The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "Badlands" (1973.) I did however think, that Sean Penn's character could have been developed more as the older version of Jack, now grown up and living in urban society. I understood that Penn's place in the film was the adult version of Jack, and how his childhood shaped him in adulthood, I just wish that it would have gone more in depth on the character's adult life.  The fifteen or so minute " earth creation" sequence appears to not mesh with the rest of the film, but if you dig deeper you soon realize that it does. The river plays a big element in the film.  The Brazos River runs right through what is now modern Waco and its history is traced back to pre-histoic times. There have been several excavations of Mammoth Elephants dating back 68,000 years found in the same area where the story of the film takes place.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Down by Law (1986)

Written and Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, and John Lurie

This is one of Jim Jarmusch's all time classic flicks. A sleeper hit of the 1980s, not too many people have heard of it, which is a shame because Jim Jarmusch is one the greatest Independent film makers of his time.

This story about a pimp, an unemployed disk-jockey, and a severely misunderstood Italian tourist takes place in southern Louisiana. All three get sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit and become cell mates. The three men break out of prison, and then the story follows them through the swamps and bayous of Louisiana as they try to make a break for their freedom.

Waits, Lurie, and Benigni have brilliant screen chemistry in this film. Benigni's character of Robert (yes, really) is the glue that keeps the men stuck together and helps form this strange bond. It's fun today to watch these actors when they were young and really starting to get into the prime of their careeers.

One of the things that make this film so great is that you have to engage in the story and the characters in order to understand them and what the narrative is trying to tell the viewer. One has to have an appreciation of film as an art to really enjoy a film like this. Everything isn't "given" to you like the story line of a mainstream film. The black and white aspect makes it that much more artful in it's presentation.

I wish more movies were made this way today. It seems like most (mainsteam) films made today are either a re-make of a re-make, CGI or computer animated, or film with a mindless script that has no feeling. Then there are films that are whitewashed by the media to seem great because they were made by a big-name director.

...but that's a post for another time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)

This film is the third installation of the documentary series "Paradise Lost" produced and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. If you haven't heard of the story of the West Memphis 3 (WM3), let me give you a small recap. It was May 5th, 1993 when three 8 year old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas were brutally murdered, their bodies left in wooded ravine. Approximately thirty days into the case, three teenage boys, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were arrested and charged for the crime. They were convicted solely on the forced confession of Misskelley (who is mentally handicapped) and a theory of the teens being devil-worshiping heathens who preyed on their victims. There was no actual physical eveidence linking the WM3 to the crime. Public opinion soon gathered into a lynch-mob mentality and the case and trial turned into a witch hunt. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life and in prison, while Echols received a death sentence.

Two documentary film makers (Berlinger and Sinofsky) were intrigued by the story, and decided to document the case for an HBO special they were going to produce. Their film would bring national attention to the case and soon become the catalyst that eventually led to freedom of the West Memphis 3 in August of 2011.

The film documents and shows how the worst case of injustice was carried out by the West Memphis Police Department and the State of Arkansas on Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin. The film also shows how the WM3 have not only proven their true innocence, but perhaps that someone closely linked to the victims had something to do with the crime.  You dont necesarily had to have watched the first two installments of "Paradise Lost" as part three shows a good recap of what had transpired in the case up until now.

This film is what documentary film making is all about. It shows that good investigative journalism, along with great film making skills can and do actually have an effect in changing the course of people's lives.

I'm also including a trailer for "West of Memphis" which is going to be screened at The Sundance Film Festival next week. This film, directed by Amy Berg digs even further into the case of the WM3 and tells the unknown (behind the scenes) story about the fight to bring out the truth in the case...and clear the names of the WM3 in the eyes of the court once and for all.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Midnight in Paris (2011)

I will admit, I am not a huge fan of romantic comedies. Most "rom-coms" make me want to vomit. However, Woody Allen's latest film, "Midnight in Pairs" breaks from the usual norm of a silly, light-hearted, meaningless love story where love conquers all.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are engaged to be married and on vacation with Inez's parents in Paris. Though they are supposed to be in love, it's easily surmised that the two are disconnected on every level. Gil works as a Hollywood screenwriter, but longs for more meaningful passion in his work and his life. Inez is a self-centered, stuck up rich girl who doesn't share Gil's lust for a maningful life. Gil is a lyrical soul who has fallen in love with Paris; he has a dream of writing a novel. Inez is in love with shopping in Paris, and dreams of living in a Hollywood mansion back home.

Gil feels that he would be happier living in another time, preferably the 1920s when Paris was alive with literary geniuses such as Hemmingway and Fitzgerald; he also wants to become a great novelist like they were.

One night Gil decides to walk back to his hotel after dinner. he becomes lost in the streets of Paris, and while sitting on the steps of a church, a vintage Peugeot pulls up in front of him right at the stroke of midnight. He climbs inside the car and is transformed back to the 1920s. He first meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, then Ernest Hemmingway, and Gertrude Stein, among other literary giants of that era.  Gil can't believe that he is hob-nobbing with the writers whom he's always admired. Moreover, Gil can't believe that these same people  are giving him ideas and critiquing the novel that he's been working on. Gil eventually meets a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and falls in love. Together, Gil and Adriana travel even further back in time, to 1890 Paris where they meet iconic artists of that time. Gil soon discovers every person has an illusion that living in another time would make them happier, no matter what era they are living in. Gil then realizes that perhaps happiness in present day is staring him right in the face.

Whether it's real or not does not matter. The idea of being able to travel back in time to visit one's heroes could work into any genre of film, or anyone's dream for that matter. But Allen's witty, nerotic humor makes this film that much more enjoyable....even if it is a "romatic comedy."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

War Horse (2011)

This is an emotional, feel good family flick, made to pull at heartstrings. The story about a bond between a horse and a boy, starts out taking place in the British countryside, just prior to World War I. The bond between the horse and a boy named Albert Narrcott (Jeremy Irvine) starts out right at the very beginning of the film when he witnesses the horse being born on a neighboring farm. A few years later, The horse comes to auction. Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullan) purchases the horse at the auction for far more than what he can afford. Ted, a well meaning drunkard sees something in the horse that no one else sees. Ted's intention of using the horse to plow his farm makes him the town laughing stock. Ted brings the horse home much to the dismay of his wife, Rose (Emma Watson.) Rose is worried that the horse will never learn how to work a plow, and demands that the horse be returned. Albert steps in and is steadfast that he can train the horse to plow the field; mother yields to her son.  The landlord of the farm shows up and threatens to take the land away if Ted cannot produce a crop. Albert then proceeds to raise the horse (naming him Joey), teaching him to come when whistled for (important part of the story) and eventually teaches him how to take to the plow. Together Albert and Joey prove everybody wrong when they plow the field, saving it from being repossessed by the landlord.

World War I breaks out, and the horse is sold by Ted to the British Army (as a lot of horses were in those days.) Albert is heartbroken when he loses his beloved horse, vowing that they will be reunited one day. The narrative of the story is then told through Joey's eyes, so to speak. Joey embarks on many adventures in the war, going to work  for both the British and German Armies, and even happens upon a French girl and her grandfather in the process. Meanwhile, Albert is now of age and has joined the British Army.  Joey becomes injured in the war and is rescued by a British and German Soldier who call a temporary truce to save him. The British Soldier takes Joey back to base to have his wounds cared for. One doesn't have to be a fortune teller to see what is going to happen next....in regards to weather or not Albert and Joey will be reunited. 

This film is about 60 years too late for its time. Back in the 1940s, cinema was highly censored. Films depicting war were censored so as to not "frighten the masses" to true nature of the horrors of war. Steven Spielberg has seemed to take a page right out of a John Ford movie when he directed this movie.  The scenes on the farm in the British countryside almost appear as though they were filmed on a set, like films were made in the Golden Era. The score emphasizes on happy, feel good sounds of birds singing in the air, tied in with music meant to tug on one's emotions. When the The sequences of the Battle of Somme come, it is late in the film and they barely touch on the brutality of that actual event.

When Spielberg directed "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) he was not bound by the censorship laws of yesteryear's. That film depicted how brutally ugly war can be and the battle sequences held no punches on the the blood and guts. “War Horse” seems to hide that WWI was a brutally ugly war, choosing instead to make the audience feel happy when in fact war should have the opposite effect.  Horses WERE in fact used in WWI, but I doubt if there was "feel good" story behind any of them.

While everyone likes to be inspired, which this film does by tugging at heartstrings, today’s society is not living with blinders on like Joey the War Horse. Today's audience is not naive to the real horrors of war as Hollywood of the 1940s thought they were back then.  Spielberg chose to take the safe route of making the audience feel good, instead of showing them what the real WWI was like.

Im shocked that his picture is getting so much Oscar buzz. The acting is good, and the well cast.  I will give Spielberg and his crew credit for cinematography, art direction, and musical score. But best picture? Maybe if you put this film a time machine and ship it back to 1945...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Drive (2011)

Going only by the name of "Driver," no one really knows who he is or where he comes from. He has no family, and lives alone in an L.A. Apartment.  Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a man who has little to say. In fact, in  the first five minutes of the film, Driver has minimal lines of dialogue. He is a contract get away driver for stick-up men, a hollywood stunt man, and also works for a low-level scum bag/crime boss, named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) as his mechanic. Shannon also sets Driver up to go to work for local gangsters with mafia ties. Driver becomes friends with and develops feelings for his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan.) He then decides to help Irene's husband get out of debt from a prison gang, and then the several sub-plots of the story soon tie together and connect to Driver.

Gosling delivers with the coolness of Steve McQueen or a young Ryan O'Neal. What makes Gosling's character appealing is that what he lacks in dialogue, he makes up for in his actions; he shows who his character is by his actions and not words. Almost reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's  "Man With No Name," his portrayal of his character leaves it up to the audience to guess what his background is.  Gosling's interaction with Carey Mulligan also lacks a lot of dialogue, but they make up for it in their on-camera chemistry and body language. Also starring Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, the casting ensemble of this film mesh together perfectly.

The action starts from the get-go with a high speed chase scene done with excellent cinematography by veteran cameraman Newton Sigel. Director Nicolas Refn shot the film entirely on location in Los Angeles, getting the most out of production value from modern day L.A. With action-packed chase scenes equal to "Bullit" (1968) and "Vanishing Point" (1971) this high-speed adrenaline rush of a film is a must see.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Warrior (2011)

Brendan and Tommy Conlon are two estranged brothers of an alcoholic father, both whom have cut ties with.  The younger brother, Tommy (Tom Hardy) who is AWOL from the Marine Corps, returns home to his father.  Tommy, deeply resentful of his father (Nick Nolte) and brother, begrudgingly seeks his father's help to train for an upcoming MMA Tournament. He makes it clear to his father that he wants nothing to do with him, other than to train him just like he did when he was an up-and- coming high school wrestling champion. Tommy has a lot of skeletons buried deep in his closet, all of which slowly start to come out as the film progresses. 

Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is an ex-MMA fighter who is now a family man with a wife, two kids, and surmounting bills to pay.  Brendan works as a physics teacher and fights in underground MMA clubs to make ends meet.  Brendan finds out about an upcoming MMA Tournament with a five million dollar purse attached to it and decides compete. At his age, everyone thinks it's a bad idea, especially his wife (Jennifer Morrison.) What the two brothers don't realize is that fate will lead them to deal with their past in the ring. The tournament will also force them to come to terms with the relationship with their father.

In recent history, other than "Rocky" (1976) and "The Fighter" (2010), there hasn't been too many good films about boxing with a solid, emotional storyline behind them. "Warrior" is the exception.  Action-packed fight scenes and an emotional story line make this an Oscar worthy film. Powerhouse performances by both Hardy and Edgerton make the audience engage in and truly feel what the actors are trying to portray in their roles. 

At age 71, a gritty faced, gravely voiced, tough as nails Nolte has delivered the best work of his career. This film would not have been what it was with anyone else playing the role of Paddy Conlon. I would be surprised if a Supporting Role Oscar nod didn't come his way.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Circumstance (2011)

Directed by Maryam Keshavarz. Starring Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy


Teenage love is not easy. It is even more difficult if that love is between two members of the same sex. Throw that mix into a country where homosexual relationships can be punishable by death, and you have the makings of a good story.

Atafeh (Boosheri) lives in a family of wealth and privilege with her mother, father and brother, Mehran. (Reza Sixo Safai.) Shireen (Kazemy) comes from the other side of the tracks, so to speak. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle after being orphaned by her parents who were killed by the government for their immoral ways.  Atahfeh and Shireen are two teenage school girls. The pair who are best friends, soon discover that they are in love.  The girls are also rebellious to Iran’s strict religious and socialist ways. They are big into Tehran's underground nightclub scene, and are friends with people who are self-liberated. Mehran, who was a former drug addict, has become a radical Muslim and informant for the Morality Police. He has planted cameras all over the house to spy on his family.  Mehran derives a plan with the Morality Police to marry Shireen after she an Atafeh are arrested by the morality police for partying at a night club. The pair discovers that their circumstances in life are forced upon them and beyond their control. They both dream of running away to Dubai where they would be free to live their lives the way they wanted to.

The story had a good plot-line; forbidden love, oppression of women, and teenage rebellion in a patriarchal country… but the narrative seemed to just graze over those subjects as a whole, when it could have gone more in depth with each of them. The sub-plot of Shireen’s home life was minimal at best. Atafeh’s mother can tell that her daughter’s relationship with Shireen is more than friendship, but that part of the story never fully develops either.  The plot seemed to move slowly at times, and with a bit of a soap opera pace, but it was good enough to keep my interest in the film. Maryam Keshavarz, in her feature film debut, does however show the impact of Iran’s strict religious culture on the two girls. The viewer does get the impression of what could happen to the pair if their true relationship is discovered. The performances of the young actresses, both in their theatrical debut, do a good job in making their relationship believable.

Winner of the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance film festival, this foreign film is worth the 107 minutes it takes to watch.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rampart (2011)

"Rampart," starring Woody Harrleson and Robin Wright-Penn is set in Los Angles in 1999, right at the height of the notorious scandal that rocked the LAPD where numerous officers were implicated in cases of police brutality and misconduct. One fact is crystal clear; Officer Brown is on a path of self destruction from the very start of the film. 

Harrelson, in the leading role, plays the character of Veteran LAPD Officer Dave Brown. Brown is street-hardened, old school cop who is both hated and loved by his peers on the job. His old school ways of thinking are becoming the sort of thing that the LAPD is no longer in a position to tolerate, as it is being exposed in numerous cases of police misconduct. Brown is racist and a bigot who thinks that he can do no wrong and feels that his conduct is a justifiable means to take criminals off the streets.  Living with his two ex-wives (who happen to be sisters) and his two daughters, the viewer sees how Harrleson's character destroys his personal relationships piece by piece. His personal life crumbles even more with his tumultuous relationship a lawyer (Penn.)  Officer Brown is suddenly thrust into the misconduct spotlight when a video camera catches him beating a person who just crashed into him while driving in his police cruiser.

Harrison's performance is strong and gritty, but the film lacks overall momentum. The narrative of the story seems to be all over the place. The numerous sub plots seem like they are going to connect at some point or another, but never do. The film has several notable appearances of famous actors (Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, even Ned Beatty) but their characters never seem to materialize to their true potential. Director Owen Moverman, who also directed Harrleson in "The Messenger," really hits the mark with Harrleson's character, but failed to take the film any farther than that. If you are looking to watch the very talented skills of Woody Harrleson, then you will get your money's worth...but not if you are looking to watch a good police drama.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill is a sports film that is more about the struggle of "rich -vs- poor" than it is about the actual game itself. Pitt plays the lead character, Billy Beane who as the Oakland A's General Manager changed the way the game is played forever back in the 2002 season. After having his best free agent players swooned with big money by the Yankee organization, Beane is forced to re- build his team  by using mathematical statistics introduced to him by Paul Brand (Jonah Hill.)

The film emphasizes on Beane's struggle with the sport with occasional flashbacks to his past experience as a player in the big leagues in the 1980s. The narration of the film seems to dictate that his past history with the sport is one of the driving forces on how he manages the Oakland A's. The relationship with his ex-wife and daughter also play a key factor in his decision making process. 

Pitt's performance is solid and charismatic and on track with his streak of solid work throughout the last few years (Inglourious Basterds,The Tree of Life.) Jonah Hill has stepped out from behind his usual comedy character role to prove that he has what it takes to be a serious actor. Other co-starring roles are on key throughout the film; Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Team Manager Art Howe being one of them.

One does not need to be a sports fanatic to enjoy this film. Moneyball is a film based on a baseball team, but it goes beyond being a film about a baseball team and more about one man's vision and determination to change the system of how the game is played.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Beginning

I've always been a passionate film buff. I have turned that passion into something more by becoming an amateur film critic. I like to go beyond "just watching a movie." I study every aspect of the films I watch. I am a huge fan of independent, documentary, and foreign films. If you are reading this, thank you for taking the time to do so. I will be updating this blog as time allows. I am also a professional firefighter in California, so my job takes precedence over my film studies at this time, however when I have free time, I will be posting my film reviews.

Peace, Love, and Happiness to all.