Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie Review: Footnote

Footnote *** ½
Directed by: Joseph Cedar.
Written by: Joseph Cedar.
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi (Uriel Shkolnik), Shlomo Bar-Aba (Eliezer Shkolnik), Alma Zack (Dikla Shkolnik), Aliza Rosen (Yehudit), Micah Lewensohn (Grossman), Daniel Markovich (Josh).

We all want recognition for what we do. We like to think that we are somehow special, and deserving of praise. For some, it’s as simple as the recognition of a parent – and for some, they need recognition from larger external forces. It`s natural to want to be recognized for what you do – to feel appreciated and loved. But you can take that desire too far – and fighting for that recognition can destroy the things that are actually important.
The Israeli film Footnote is about many things, but the man one is about the complex, competitive relationship between fathers and sons, and that desire to be recognized. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a Talmudic scholar in Israel, who spent 30 years of his life researching the difference between the modern texts, and what was written about them at the time by intellectuals. He spent all those years compiling the differences, and just before he was about to publish his findings, a rival found an original text, which proved all of Eliezer`s findings to be true, but published his findings first – thus making Eliezer`s findings moot. He continues to research, but he is largely forgotten – that other scholar, Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) has got all the acclaim and recognition, and Eliezer has got none.

Eliezer`s son is Uriel (Lior Ashekenazi), who is also a Talmudic scholar. But while Eliezer has spent his career looking for minute differences and as a result has not published much, Uriel has become a famous academic – publishing numerous books, that become bestsellers, and he has garnered the type of awards and recognition his father could only dream of. But instead of being proud of his son, Eliezer is resentful – he barely speaks to his son, even at an event where Uriel receives a huge honor, and in his speech does nothing but praise his father. But Eliezer will have none of it. When he gets a phone call telling him he has won the biggest prize in the country, he finally feels honored to have been recognized for his achievement. What he doesn’t know is that the call was an accident – they were looking for the other Professor Shkolnik – his son. And when he finds out that it was him, and not his father, who won the prize, he is torn. On one hand, he wants the prize, because it means so much. On the other hand, he knows losing the prize will destroy his father, and whatever relationship he has with him. But is that even something worth saving.

Footnote is a winning comedy, not because it makes us laugh out loud all that often, but because the humor is organic to the characters – it grows out of them. There is a wonderful comic set piece, where about 5 people too many are crammed into a small conference room, where every time wants to get up and leave the room – which happens often – there is a struggle, chairs crashing into each, people sucking in. It is a wonderful scene full of physical comedy worthy of the Marx brothers. And yet, the scene is also heartfelt, and deadly serious. This is when Uriel is told that he should have won the Israel prize, and they need to find a way to tell his father about it. The comedy is real, but so is the mixture of emotions.

The performances help a lot. Lior Ashkenazi is excellent as Uriel, a man we immediately like and feel sympathy for, but as the movie progresses, he becomes more unglued – not that he flips out, but his pettiness and anger come to the forefront. Shlomo Bar-Aba is just as good as Eliezer. One character refers to him as almost autistic, and that’s a good description. He’s not comfortable unless he is completely in control of his surroundings and is lost in his research. He is lost in social situations. Aliza Rosen, who plays Yehudit, the wife of Eliezer, and mother to Uriel, is caught in a nearly impossible situation – especially when she is let in on the secret. We keep expect her to do something, but she is frozen – caught between these two men who she loves, but is powerless to bring together. And finally, there is Micah Lewensohn, who plays the petty Grossman, who is exactly the type of intellectual you expect to see. For him, it is not enough that he has gotten more prestige than his rival Eliezer – he needs to destroy him. Grossman has gotten all the recognition he could ever want – but it still angers him all these years that Eliezer was the only one cited by name in the footnotes of their mutual mentor’s ground-breaking book.

Cedar wisely chooses to end Footnote without the scene we have been expecting since the beginning of the movie – the conflict between Uriel and Eliezer. Instead, he chooses to end the movie before that confrontation happens, which works. Why. Because the argument these two will surely have is not nearly as everything that has led up to it. So the last image we are left with is Eliezer, who is about to get everything he has ever wanted, even while knowing it’s all a lie. Will that be enough to get him to give up what he wants? Cedar leaves it to us to decide

DVD Review: Contraband

Contraband ** ½
Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur.
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski based on the screenplay by Arnaldur Indriðason and Óskar Jónasson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Chris Farraday), Kate Beckinsale (Kate Farraday), Ben Foster (Sebastian Abney), Giovanni Ribisi (Tim Briggs), Lukas Haas (Danny Raymer), Kent Jude Bernard (Tommy Raymer), William Lucking (Bud Farraday), J.K. Simmons (Captain Camp), Lucky Johnson (Tarik), Diego Luna (Gonzalo).

You have to kind of admire a film like Contraband that throws everything and the kitchen sink at the audience. Whenever you think you know where the movie is going, it veers off into a different direction, adds another villain, another action sequence, another bloody mess. It also casts two of the great over actors currently working – Ben Foster and Giovanni Ribisi – in supporting roles. If only the two leads – Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale – were the least bit interesting the movie may have been better.
Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) was once one of the best smugglers in the world – but he has given that all up for the quiet life – wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and two sons. He runs his own security system business now, and he just wants to be left alone. But his idiot brother in law gets himself into some trouble – he was supposed to smuggle in some cocaine for Tim Briggs (Ribisi), a mean ex-con who demands the money he would have made selling that coke – and if the brother in law doesn’t pay, he’ll come looking to Chris for the money. So, to protect his family he decides to pull, say it with me now, one last job.

I liked much of Contraband. As I said, just when you get comfortable following one plot twist, the movie adds another one. You think that Ribisi is the only psychopath in the mix, and then one by one, the movie introduces some other ones to spice things up. Just when you think that all Chris is going to get involved in is a smuggling operation on a commercial shipping boat, the filmmakers throw in a violent armored car robbery gone wrong in the streets of Panama. And after that settles down, and you think you have the smuggling operation figured out, the movie twists again, and you realize that you’re wrong.
The problem with Contraband is perhaps that it twists too much. The movie spends so much time trying to pull the rug out from underneath you, and play with your expectations, that it never really settles down and tells an interesting story – or develops any of its characters. Yes, Ribisi is wonderfully twisted and evil, and Ben Foster (as Wahlberg’s best friend), does a good job matching him facial twitch for facial twitch, and Diego Luna has a lot of fun as someone perhaps even more insane then either of those two. But other than joy in watching these three performances, there really isn’t much to Contraband. Wahlberg is good as an action hero, but he is easily the least interesting character in the movie. Beckinsale is fine, I suppose, but she is just doing what every wife in every movie does – sound concerned on the phone, and then getting herself into trouble. As well a movie can only twist so many times before you stop trusting it completely.

I’m not saying Contraband is a bad movie – far from it. It will keep you entertained for its two hour running time. But I was never really involved in the movie – never really cared what happened from one scene to the next. Ribisi and Foster both certainly have the potential to become the next Christopher Walken – that actor who constantly plays the psychopath, but who you cannot help but love. But for me Contraband simply isn’t quite good enough.

Movie Review: 4:44 Last Day on Earth

4:44 Last Day on Earth ** Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Abel Ferrara.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Cisco), Shanyn Leigh (Skye), Natasha Lyonne (Tina), Paul Hipp (Noah), Dierdra McDowell (Cisco's Ex), Triana Jackson (JJ), Trung Nguyen (Li / Delivery Boy), Anita Pallenberg (Diana), José Solano (Javi), Judith Salazar (Carmen), Jimmy Valentino (Karaoke Singer), Paz de la Huerta (Girl on Street), Pat Kiernan (News Anchor).

At this point, I’m not sure what’s more a cliché – the big budget Hollywoood epic about the potential end of the world, that somehow all works out in the end, or the low budget end of the world indies where it doesn’t work out, but the world ends with a whimper instead of bang, and concentrates on just a few people going through a fairly normal day until it ends. I have seen too many of both of those movies. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia from last year managed to seem fresh, because it wasn’t a big budget, but it didn’t treat the end of the world as a whimper either – it was a melodramatic tour de force. Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth on the other hand is the same old indie, end of the world drama. Yes, it has moments that feel fresh and original – mainly because of the improvisational feel of the film, but for the most part it struggles through its slight running time.

Everyone knows the world is coming to end, tomorrow morning at 4:44, give or take a few minutes. The movie doesn’t really tell us why, but it is either because the ozone layer or global warming, or some combination thereof – and essentially, Al Gore was right, as one TV anchor begrudgingly admits before signing off for the last time. The movie takes place almost entirely in the apartment of Cisco (Willem Dafoe), a recovering drug addict and his younger girlfriend Skye (Shanyn Leigh), who Cisco left his wife and nearly grown daughter for. They go through the motions of trying to be normal – Cisco shaving, talking on Skype to his friends, and Skye tries to finish one last painting before the end.

As a filmmaker, Abel Ferrara has had an interesting career – going from exploitation films like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, into strange, violent genre films like King of New York, Body Snatchers (the most underrated of the many versions that story), and The Addiction into his more improvisational, low budget art films of recent years. Still probably best known for the extremely dark and disturbing Bad Lieutenant (1992), Abel Ferrara has grown as an artist, while still maintaining his dark, dirty roots.

In all honesty, I cannot make heads or tails of Ferrara when I look at his films as a whole – most of them contain absolutely stunning moments, but quite often, they are stranded in a sea of excess. So it is with 4:44 Last Day on Earth, which makes the most of Willem Dafoe, once again showing why he’s one of the most fearless actors on the planet. His performance is great – intense, haunted, creepy, sexual full of remorse, and even hints at something quite spiritual. By comparison, Shanyn Leigh looks like an amateur – perhaps because she somewhat is. She only has 5 acting credits to her name – and 4 of them are in Ferrara films (Mary, Go Go Tales and Napoli, Napoli, Napoli along with this one). Dafoe is so intense, and authentic, that he outshines her.

There are some great moments though – the sex scenes have a rawness to them that is rare in most movies (but not for Ferrara). A side trip that Dafoe makes outside the apartment to visit some old drug buddies gets the improvisational right, that so much of the rest of the movie gets wrong – it feels real, perhaps because the rest of the actors are better than Leigh, and seem to more fully buy into the spirit of the movie. Dafoe carries the movie throughout, but as it goes along, you get a little disappointed that with an actor and director combo of him and Ferrara, two guys who are not afraid of taking chances, play everything so safe – Dafoe’s argument with his ex-wife is like something out of a bad TV melodrama. And Ferrara’s political and spiritual points are made early and often – and quite frankly are far too safe and uninteresting.
Ferrara is unquestionably a unique film artist – he is capable of such strange visuals, and is willing to go to dark places that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare. In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, I’m disappointed he didn’t push himself farther – if you’re going to end the world in your film, you might as well go for broke.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cannes Festival Lineup

The Cannes Film Festival is still the most important film festival in the world. Often times, high minded critics end up judging the whole movie year by the 20 films selected for the official competition. While there are often a number of flops in the lineup, rarely a year goes by when a least a few of the films in competition are great – last year’s lineup included my own top two films of the year – The Tree of Life (which won the Palme D’Or) and Drive (which won the best director prize), as well as another of my top 10 films of the year in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Some leftovers from that lineup, that didn’t get released over in North America until 2012 may well end up on my list this year (most notably, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia). So I always take interest in the lineup when its announced. This year may well be a good one. Here are the 20 films in competition.

1.       Rust and Bone – Dir. Jacques Audiard – Audiard’s last film was the masterful prison/gangster/political film A Prophet. I don’t know what this one is about, but it stars the wonderful Marion Cottilard, so needless to say I am interested.

2.       Holy Motors – Dir. Leos Carax – Director Leos Carax has at least assembled an interesting cast – Eva Mendes, pop star Kylie Minogue and legendary actor Michael Piccolli. I am not as familiar with his work as perhaps I should be, but this could be interesting.

3.       Cosmopolis – Dir. David Cronenberg – I am no fan of Robert Pattinson, who has the lead role, but Dom Delillo’s novel was brilliant, and its directed by one of my all time favorite directors in David Cronenberg. Without a doubt, the film in the lineup I am most interested in.

4.       The Paperboy – Dir. Lee Daniels – Daniels follows up the Oscar winning film Precious with this film starring, of all people, Zac Efron. It does have an interesting supporting cast – John Cusack, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaghey and Scott Glenn and is about a reporter investigating the case of a death row inmate. Who knows, perhaps it will be good.

5.       Killing Them Softly – Dir. Andrew Dominik – Five years after his masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik finally makes his follow-up – a genre flick about an enforcer and a heist at a mob poker game. It stars Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Garret Dillahunt. Given Dominik’s first two films, I expect this to be a little different than it sounds.

6.       Reality – Dir. Matteo Garrone – The director of the great  Italian gangster flick Gommorah, which was about the overall corruption of Naples and the violence that plagues it, returns with a comedy? Apparently so. Should be interesting.

7.       Love (Amour) – Dir. Michael Haneke – Germany’s premiere filmmaker (and provacteur) Haneke reunites with Isabelle Huppert with this film about a retired couple dealing with the aftereffects of the wife having a stroke. Something tells me its not going to be that simple. Along with Cosmopolis, my most anticipated film.

8.       Lawless – Dir. John Hillcoat – Hillcoat made the great The Proposition, and did a fine job with The Road, so he’s certainly, this one stars Tom Hardy, Shia Labeouf, Gary Oldman, Guy Perace, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. Sounds like another genre film, but could turn out to be much more.

9.       In Another Country – Dir. Hong Sang-soo – Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has garnered a lot of critical support, mainly in festivals, over the past few years but still has never really broken through in North America. With this one, starring Isabelle Huppert, do that for him?

10.   Taste of Money – Dir. Im Sang-soo – Another Korean filmmaker who has garnered more critical than commercial success in North America. His last one was The Housemaid that got mixed reviews, so we’ll see what happens here.

11.   Like Someone In Love – Dir. Abbas Kiarostami – Iran’s premium filmmaker follows up Certified Copy with another film set outside his native country – this time in Japan. Will he find the same sort of success? Is this going to be one of his experiments, or something more conventional?

12.   The Angels’ Share – Dir. Ken Loach – Not surprisingly, English political filmmaker Ken Loach reunites with writer Paul Laverty once again to make a film about the downtrodden in England. After finding success with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his last two – Looking for Eric and Route Irish – have essentially been ignored. But he keeps chugging along.

13.   Beyond the Hills – Dir. Cristian Mungiu – Five years after winning the Palme for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mengiu makes his first solo directing effort since – again about two female friends, but this time somewhat different than the agonizing abortion film that made his reputation – or at least it seems that way.

14.   After the Battle (Baad el Mawkeaa) – Dir. Yousry Nasrallah – This Egyptian filmmaker is the one in the competition that I have to admit I have never heard of – and this film doesn’t even have a IMDB page so I have no idea what to expect.

15.   Mud – Dir. Jeff Nichols – Very quickly following up last year’s great Take Shelter, Nichols returns with this story of an escaped convict and two teenagers who vow to help him. Interesting cast includes McConaghey again, Resse Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shephard, and not surprisingly Michael Shannon.

16.   You Haven’t Seen Anything Yet – Dir. Alain Resnais – Resnais may be 90, but he’s been making movies since 1955, and he’s not going to stop now. He has done some interesting work in recent years – including his last film Wild Grass from 2009, so I suspect he’s made another interesting one.

17.   Post Tenebras Lux – Dir. Carlos Reygadas – Mexican filmmaker known for his controversial, introspective films Japon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light. He’s a critical favorite, who has not really broken through with audiences yet, so we’ll see. No idea what it is about.

18.   On the Road – Dir. Walter Salles – Walter Salles, best known for Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaires finally releases the long gestating adaptation of Jack Keroac’s road novel – with Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortenson, Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi and more. Expect to hear a lot about this one.

19.   Paradise: Love – Dir. Ulrich Seidl – Austrian filmmaker best known for Import Export and Dog Days returns with this film I know nothing about. Could be interesting.

20.   The Hunt (Jagten) – Dir. Thomas Vinterberg – Danish filmmaker, and Lars von Trier acolyte, returns with this film, starring Mads Mikkelson. None of his films have been as good as his brilliant breakthrough The Celebration (1998), but he is still an interesting filmmaker, so perhaps this is a return to form.

DVD Review: Atlas Shrugged Part I

Atlas Shrugged Part I * ½
Directed by: Paul Johansson.
Written by: John Aglialoro & Brian Patrick O'Toole based on the novel by Ayn Rand.
Starring: Taylor Schilling (Dagny Taggart), Grant Bowler (Henry Rearden), Matthew Marsden (James Taggart), Paul Johansson (John Galt), Edi Gathegi (Eddie Willers), Patrick Fischler (Paul Larkin), Michael O'Keefe (Hugh Akston), Geoff Pierson (Midas Mulligan), Michael Lerner (Wesley Mouch), Jon Polito (Orren Boyle), Rebecca Wisocky (Lillian Rearden), Christina Pickles (Mother Rearden), Jsu Garcia (Francisco D'Anconia), Navid Negahban (Dr. Robert Stadler), Graham Beckel (Ellis Wyatt), Ethan Cohn (Owen Kellogg), Neill Barry (Phillip Rearden).

Despite how bad it is as a movie, it is almost a shame that the second two parts of the proposed Atlas Shrugged trilogy do not look like they will ever be made. Producer and co-writer John Agialoro blames critics for the bad reviews they gave they gave the film for sinking it at the box office, and has effectively decided to go on strike, like the exceptional people in his movie. But it wasn’t bad reviews from liberal film critics that sunk Atlas Shrugged Part I at the box office – it`s that it really is a bad movie. After all, films like Courageous and Fireproof also got bad reviews from most critics, and marketed themselves outside normal channels to a mostly conservative audience, and did quite well. Still, it is a shame that the heart of Ayn Rand`s paranoid, right wing fantasy will never make it to the big screen. As ridiculous as I find the premise, it could have made for some good entertainment.

Last year, upon hearing that a film version of the book was coming out, I finally bit the bullet and read Rand`s magnum opus of a book – well over 1,000 pages – and one of the most popular books ever written. It was a long, slow read – and not one I particularly enjoyed, but before you accuse me of it simply being because of my liberal bias – I`m not trying to hide the fact that I am in fact a  liberal – what bugged me about the book was the stilted dialogue between the characters, and how one dimensional everyone was. People will either 100% great or 100% awful. The characters that Rand admires are logical all the time – like a race of Spock`s – and make every decision – even who to have sex with – with their brains. To me the book, as entertaining as a paranoid fantasy as it was at times, really didn’t understand human nature or behavior. This movie is the same way – without the redeeming value of being an entertaining paranoid fantasy, because the movie never really gets to that part. The movie doesn’t really end, but just stops.

The film centers of Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schiller), second in command behind her incompetent brother James (Matthew Marsden) of Taggart Transcontinental, a railway line that was once great, and has fallen into disrepair. It is 2016, and the American economy is on the brink of collapse (damn Obama!), and for some reason railway transportation is of upmost importance (the reason is that when Rand wrote her book, railway transportation was much more important than it is now). She decides to repair the railways using Rearden Metal, the brainchild of Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) which is being attacked even though it is lighter, cheaper and stronger than steel. The Government is trying very hard to ensure they regulate everyone out of business. And the worst part is that many of the country’s best and brightest are disappearing. And everyone is asking “Who is John Galt?”

There are multiple problems with Atlas Shrugged Part I. Rand’s stilted dialogue is pretty much retained word for word – and no matter how stilted it seemed on the page, it sounds even worse when spoken by the actors. The leads – Schilling and Bowler – are wooden and emotionless throughout. Although there is the presence of some fine character actors in supporting roles – Jon Polito, Michael Lerner, Patrick Fishler and Michael O’Keefe – none of them are really given a chance to develop their parts. The visual look of the film isn’t half bad – yes, it looks and feels like a TV movie, but not a horribly directed one. There is some nice art direction despite its low budget.

The biggest one though is that the movie is just so damn slow. Yes, Atlas Shrugged is a very long book – and unlike say Breaking Dawn you definitely need to split it up into multiple movies or a miniseries to get it all in there. But it appears to me that the filmmakers were so in love with Rand`s novel, they didn’t want to lose everything. This means the forward momentum of the movie quite simply isn’t there. Ayn Rand`s Atlas Shrugged was a lot of things – but boring wasn’t one of them. I may disagree with almost everything she said in her life, but she was interesting in how she said it. So no, I do not agree with the politics of the movie – but that`s not why I hated it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods *** ½
Directed by: Drew Goddard.
Written by: Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard.
Starring: Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz, (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman), Amy Acker (Lin), Tim De Zarn (Mordecai), Tom Lenk (Ronald The Intern), Sigourney Weaver (The Director).

Spoiler Warning: I really do not see much of a point in writing a review of The Cabin in the Woods if I cannot talk about the twists and turns the movie takes, and how it plays brilliantly with the horror genre. As soon as I heard the advance buzz that The Cabin in the Woods was a) great and b) had completely unexpected twists and turns, I stopped reading anything about the movie, and actually would change the channel when the commercials came on TV, because I know ads often give away everything. So I recommend two things 1) You see the movie, and 2) You don’t read or listen to anything about the film, including this review. Consider yourself adequately warned.

For a movie called The Cabin in the Woods, it certainly has an opening scene nobody would expect. The film opens with two guys who like bureaucrats or accountants, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) doing a walk and talk through what looks exactly like you would imagine a secret government facility to look like. They are talking about a failure in the Swedish branch, but that Japan has just started – and those assholes always get the job done. But they believe that good old fashioned American know how can get the job done. What the hell are they talking about?

Its only after that scene that we get the opening scene we were expecting – a scantily clad, beautiful young college student named Dana (Kristen Connolly) packing for a weekend getaway, with her friend, the newly blonde Jules (Anna Hutchison), her hunky football player boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), their stoner buddy Marty (Fran Kranz) and the newcomer to the group, Holden (Jesse Williams), who may just be the answer for Dana being single. They are all heading for a cabin in the woods for the weekend, all packed into a big RV. Their first stop is one of those gas stations that only exist in horror movies, manned by a man named Mordecai, who gives them ominous warnings about where they are heading, of which, of course, the young people pay no heed. The head to that remote cabin, and we know that something is not right – and that those seemingly harmless bureaucrats have something to do with it.

The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie that turns horror movies on its head – that really explains all the behavior you’ve ever seen in a horror movie before. You ever wonder why the kids always make such stupid mistakes, liking splitting up, and going off into the creepy woods to have sex. This movie explains that. You ever wonder why every remote cabin has a cellar full of creepy things, this movie explains that. And on and on. This movie sets up one horror movie cliché, only to knock it down again.

The Cabin in the Woods is a clever exercise in genre filmmaking, that wants to deconstruct the horror film genre, as well as be an example of one at the same time – and for the most part, it succeeds. The movie is smart, and at times an extremely funny take on the horror genre, that outdoes Scream because it sends up the horror genre, without constantly talking about the horror genre. It’s the old cinematic adage – show, don’t tell. And the amount of bloodshed, especially in the crazy finale, will keep genre fans happen. The only thing The Cabin in the Woods isn’t is scary. Because of all the playing with the genre the film does, it never really gets around to building the tension needed to be a truly scary film.
Still, it’s hard to imagine another horror film – especially an American one – being as good as The Cabin in the Woods was this year. Co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a wonderful, genre bending horror film. I cannot imagine many filmmakers would even attempt to pull this movie off, let alone succeed.

Movie Reviewl Bully

Bully ***
Directed by: Lee Hirsch.

Bullying has reached epidemic proportions in America – and around the world. I have lost count of how many stories there have been in the last year where a teenager has ended their own life just to get out from underneath the constant harassment and torment they go through at school – or on the internet. The problem is not just the bullies themselves – but the adults around them who do nothing. `Kids will be kids`, `They have to learn to deal with it themselves` are among the things most often said. School administrators complain their hands are tied – there is nothing they can do, because they simply do not have the evidence. Bullies are not stupid – they aren’t going to break someone’s arm, or leave them bloody. But the constant harassment, threats and intimidation can be far worse than the physical injuries sustained.

What the new documentary Bully succeeds at doing is putting a human face, not on the bullies, but the victims. You do see a few bullies – mainly in passing on the bus tormenting one of the subjects, Alex, of the documentary, or most memorably in a scene where a clueless vice principal makes two boys shake hands. One kid immediately sticks out his hand with a smile on his face, the other refuses, and gets a lecture from the principal. The boy tries to explain – that other boy is his tormenter, so no, he doesn’t want to shake his hand, at which point the vice principal, amazingly, tells the kid that he’s just like his tormentor – because by not shaking his hand, he is hurting his feelings, just like his feelings are hurt whenever the boy torments him – which appears to be daily. But hey, boys will be boys.

The stories that the victims of bullying in the movie tell are heartbreaking. There is Alex, who is a little strange to be sure, but also sweet, but whose bus ride every day is caught on hidden camera, and the result fairly shocking – getting punched, stabbed with pencils, having his head slammed into the seat, being called countless names and suffering other abuse. The bus driver doesn’t pay attention, and the other students cheer it on. Then there is Kelby, who was once a popular female athlete, who came out as gay, and immediately found herself ostracized from her small Oklahoma town. And Ja Meya, who was so distraught at constantly being bullied on the bus that she does the unthinkable – and brings a gun on the bus, and although she doesn’t fire a shot, is still in deep legal trouble. What she did was wrong – incredibly wrong – but yet you can see why she did it. There are also a few heartbreaking stories from the parents of teens who killed themselves as a result of bullying – and their efforts to have someone, anyone, listen to them – because the schools certainly do not care.
Bully is not a great documentary, but it a heartbreaking one. I would have preferred if they had been able to talk to any of the bullies at some point, and explored the causes of bullying. Perhaps none wanted to participate. The movie is most effective in its first hour when it tells the stories of the victims of bullying, and how they get through day after day. The last half hour lays it on a little thick – and advocates a wonderful idea in theory – that everyone needs to respect each other – that has no chance of working in the real world. And yet, I hope Bully does have an impact in the real world – that the bullied will realize that they are not alone, and they can get through it, and the bullies see what they are actually do to their victims – and that it isn’t funny, or just a joke. And that perhaps schools will start to this seriously, so more kids do not feel so hopeless that they take their own lives. O hope this movie helps that – but I have a feeling it won’t.

Movie Review: The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea ***
Directed by: Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies based on the play by Terence Rattigan.
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Hester Collyer), Tom Hiddleston (Freddie Page), Simon Russell Beale (Sir William Collyer), Ann Mitchell (Mrs. Elton), Jolyon Coy (Philip Welch), Karl Johnson (Mr. Miller), Harry Hadden-Paton (Jackie Jackson), Sarah Kants (Liz Jackson), Barbara Jefford (Collyer's Mother).

British filmmaker Terrence Davies is trapped in the 1950s – both in his mind, and in his cinematic technique. And I do not mean that as a bad thing. His best known film – Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and to a lesser extent its sequel, The Long Day Closes (1992) were cinematic mood pieces, contrasting the happy music of the 1950s pop songs, with the dreary lives he saw around him growing up in Liverpool during that time. His last film, Of Time and the City (2008), was a documentary history of his hometown Liverpool, and how it has transformed since those childhood days. My personal favorite of his films, and his most recent dramatic effort, The House of Mirth (2000), was set in turn of the century New York, and how society destroys a woman whose crime was to fall in love. While British films were revolutionized, for better and worse, in the 1960s, Davies wants to keep the style of films he grew up with alive and well. And with The Deep Blue Sea, he mainly succeeds.

Based on the play by Terence Ratigan – whose best known work, The Browning Version, was about a classics teacher at a boarding school who is being forced out, and comes to realize that everyone, from his students, to his wife, to his best friend, essentially hate him. His lesser know The Deep Blue Sea can be viewed as a darker version of Noel Coward and David Leans Brief Encounter – but one where the lovers don’t stay with their spouses, but actually leave them. While, at least one of them does.

This is Hester (Rachel Weisz), who has a good, but boring marriage, to Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), a well-respected judge. But she meets a young war veteran named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and is willing to give up everything for him. While she is madly in love with Freddie, she knows that she is little more than an amusement for him – he loves her in a way, but that isn’t very much. He cannot love anything or anyone but himself. And while a torrid love affair with a married woman is one thing, it’s actually quite hard to carry on a real life with her. Going into the relationship, Hester, not Freddie, knows that it is doomed to failure, but she goes for it anyway. Why. Because for Hester, who always done what is expected of her, Freddie is an all-consuming passion, and even a short while with him is worth it for her.

As with all of Davies’ films, The Deep Blue Sea is meticulously crafted – perhaps too much so. The period details – from the upper class home of Sir William, to the low rent apartment of Freddie, to the local pub – the movie gets the look and feel of the 1950s just about perfectly. And like all of his films, The Deep Blue Sea is more of a slow burn than a fiery romance. Weisz is asked to carry the film, and she succeeds. Weisz is one of those actresses who can be either great – like in The Constant Gardener – or hopelessly affected – like The Shape of Things. Here, she is asked to do so much by doing so little. Her performance is one of grand emotions, that she has to keep simmering just beneath the surface, and she succeeds.

Davies film is ultimately about unrequited love – and how that even that is better than no love at all. For Hester, she knows Freddie doesn’t love her – but it’s enough for her that she loves him. It’s better than being with Sir William – who interestingly is not painted as a monster, but as a good and decent yet boring man.

What keeps The Deep Blue Sea from being a great movie – at least for me – is how devoid of passion it really does seem. It’s a little too passive for my liking – a little too slow. I almost think the movie would have worked better had it been about a half hour shorter – and the movie isn’t long at only 94 minutes – but there’s a moment about an hour into the movie that pretty much says all what the last half hour movie says in one silent moment. A movie needs to find its own length – sometimes that means a movie much longer that normal (like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos), but sometimes that means shorter. Davies film goes on just a little too long for its own good.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Movie Review: The Raid Redemption

The Raid: Redemption ***
Directed by: Gareth Evans.
Written by: Gareth Evans.
Starring: Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Doni Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka 'Piranha' Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi).

The Raid Redemption begins with a quiet moment of its `hero` Rama (Iko Uwais) doing his Muslim duty and praying. He then kisses his pregnant wife goodbye, and tells his father that I`ll bring him back, and heads off to work for a SWAT team. Their job for the day will be to infilitrate the apartment building owned by Tama (Ray Sahetapy), a murderous drug lord. He has his drug lab on site, and has filled most of the apartments with the worst occupants you can find. No one goes into that building, because going in means death. For the next two hours, that is precisely what happens. The movie is short on plot and character development, and long on action – every conceivable kind you can name, from brutal guns battles, to hand to hand martial arts combat, to stabbings to torture and everything in between. After those morning prayers, the movie doesn’t take another minute to breath.

The Raid Redemption doesn’t concern itself with anything other than pure action. From the moment the fighting starts in this movie, it doesn’t let up until it’s over. How many people die in this movie? I think it’s pretty much impossible to tell. There are so many people shot, stabbed and beaten to death, so many who have their necks snapped, or get impaled on something that you quickly lose count. Because none of the characters are really established as anything other than a series of sweaty faces, you don’t have an emotional reaction to all the deaths – except for exhilaration. This is a movie in the tradition of old school Hong Kong action filmmaking that prizes action and movement over everything else. Many will be reminded of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood output, which is about as high a compliment as I can think of. But the movie also reminded me of silent movies. You don’t watch the films of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin for its deep plots or character development – but for the pure joy of movement. The Raid Redemption is the same way.

I cannot really argue with a review like Roger Ebert’s of this film when he compares it to a video game. It certainly has a set-up of one – our hero has got to fight his way throw a building room by room, floor by floor to get to the eventual “bosses”. So if you want plot or character, then this movie isn’t for you.

However, I had to admire the craft of the film, directed by Gareth Evans, whose camera moves fluidly throughout, you stages one breathtaking action sequence after another. He is certainly aided by his cast, who are martial arts experts. The hero is played by Iko Uwais could easily become the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li – he moves that quickly, that effortlessly. One of the films fight choreographers, Yayan Ruhian, also has a plum role as the insane Mad Dog, who may be little, but is as brutal as anyone who is likely to see in a movie of this sort. Evans does a great job with his action scenes – favoring longer shots rather than rapid fire editing – you are never lost in any fight sequence, as he lets it all play out in front of his camera. There are also a few moments of great tension – like when two characters hide in a crawl space, and one of the henchmen starts stabbing through the wall.
The movie does begin to wear out its welcome as it goes along – after all, there is only so much blood letting you can take before you want something else. But Evans keeps things going – and pulls out all the stops in the films last few action scenes to regain some momentum that it may have lost. So no, The Raid Redemption may not be a masterpiece – but as an example of its genre, it’s tough to beat. If you like action movies, than this is a must see.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Movie Review: American Reunion

American Reunion ***
Directed by: Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg.
Written by: Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg based on characters created by Adam Herz.
Starring: Jason Biggs (Jim Levenstein), Alyson Hannigan (Michelle), Chris Klein (Oz), Thomas Ian Nicholas (Kevin), Tara Reid (Vicky), Seann William Scott (Steve Stifler), Mena Suvari (Heather), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Finch), John Cho (MILF Guy #2), Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's Mom), Eugene Levy (Jim's Dad), Natasha Lyonne (Jessica), Dania Ramirez (Selena), Katrina Bowden (Mia), Jay Harrington (Dr. Ron), Chuck Hittinger (AJ), Shannon Elizabeth (Nadia), Chris Owen (Sherman), Justin Isfeld (MILF Guy #1), Ali Cobrin (Kara).

Like Scream 4 last year, American Reunion is an exercise in 1990s nostalgia. I like Scream 4 last year, and I liked American Reunion this year. Being the same age as the characters in the films probably has something to do with that – they seem to have gone on the same journey as I have over the years. Although the American Pie series has always been known for its gross out sex gags, it has always been rather sweet under all of those bodily fluids. For me, I sunk into American Reunion like an old, comfortable chair.

The whole gang is back, coming back to their hometown for the 12 Year High School Reunion. Life has done different things to the gang in the 9 years since Jim and Michelle (Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan) got married. For their part, Jim and Michelle are still together, still in love, the parents of a two year old boy. Everything is fine, except they have fallen into the trap of many new parents – little to no sex. When he sees the little girl he used to babysit, who is now 18, Kara (Ali Cobrin), she doesn’t seem so little anymore. Oz (Chris Klein) is the most successful of the old gang – he now hosts one of those obnoxious sports talk shows, and recently participated in a Dancing with the Stars clone. He is dating a model, Mia (Katrina Bowden), but feels there is something missing – something that rekindles when he lays eyes on his high school sweetheart Heather (Mena Suvari) – although she`s in town with her boyfriend, a heart surgeon. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is married, and although he has no kids, he is slightly bored – not because he doesn’t love his wife, but because their life seems so preordained – and he watches Real Housewives and Gossip Girl to keep her happy. When he sees Vicki (Tara Reid), thinks of what could have been. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has become a globetrotting adventurer. And Stifler (Seann William Scott) is a lacky at a big corporation, but still acts like he`s in high school. And Jim`s Dad (Eugene Levy) is still there with all sorts of awkward advice.

American Reunion is a rather pleasant, yet formless movie. It moves from one party to another over the course of the long weekend, as we catch up with everyone, what they are now doing, and where things have gone wrong, or right, over the years. I liked the fact that the movie doesn’t try to romanticize everything – the characters are not all in glamorous jobs that are completely fulfilling, like we see in too many movies, but for the most part, have sold out, taking the same sort of jobs that the rest of take – they may not fulfill the spirit, but they pay the bills. They are all looking forward to this weekend for a chance to cut loose, have some fun.

By now, the roles fit these characters like a glove – for many of them, they will forever be remembered for these roles, and little else. That is certainly true of Jason Biggs, who is still charmingly, amusingly awkward as Jim, who tries so hard, but ends up constantly embarrassed. Seann William Scott, who proved this year he can be quietly likable and still funny in Goon, still seems to be having fun playing an overgrown child in Stifler – an asshole to be sure, but at least a loyal one. Eugene Levy is still one of the highlights as Jim`s well-meaning dad, who still tries too hard to be hip. Alyson Hannigan is given the most of any of the female characters – but she`s still playing an idea of `the perfect wife`. The rest of the cast is fine – doing what they are supposed to do.

I`m not going to claim that American Reunion is great filmmaking, but for what it is, it’s enjoyable. There are several comedic highlights – trying to sneak a drunk Kara back into her house for example, or a Stifler party which ends in a way no one would expect or a run-in with some high school assholes. American Reunion is like cinematic comfort food – it may not be good for you, but you enjoy it nonetheless. If you liked the series up to this point, there is no reason why you won`t like this, probably last chapter.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Round One Playoff Predictions

I haven’t written much about the NHL this season, but I have been following it closer than ever before. So once again, the playoffs our upon us, and my beloved LA Kings have not made it easy on themselves, by losing their final two games against San Jose so that they have to face off against the President’s trophy winning Vancouver Canucks. Oh well. Here is how I see each series breaking down.
Western Conference
1)      Vancouver vs. 8) Los Angeles
Personally, I do not believe that this Vancouver team is as good as the one they had last season – and it will be worse if Daniel Sedin does not come back as expected. The Sedins and Kesler have not been as dominant as they have in the past, and you never know what Luongo you are going to get. You also wonder if having had a long playoff run last year if they are going to start wearing down at some point. Still, you don’t win the President’s Trophy unless you are a great team – they are the one team that knows that if they don’t win the Cup, it will be viewed as a failure. As for LA, they have been much better since the Jeff Carter trade. They underachieved much of the year, but they are still one of the very best defensive teams in the league, and in Jonathan Quick, they SHOULD have the Vezina trophy winner. If the Kings have learned from their last two quick playoff exits, they could upset the heavy favorites in Vancouver. 
Prediction: Los Angeles in 7. I am NEVER NOT going to pick the Kings to win. I honestly believe this is going to be a long series, and that LA could easily pull off a HUGE upset.

2)      St. Louis vs. 7) San Jose
I have to wonder if this season has been too much too soon for the St. Louis Blues. They haven’t made the playoffs in a few years, and then this year everything came together and they had a great regular season. But do they have enough experience to actually compete for the Stanley Cup? They are the best defensive team in the league, and have two great goalies if one falters. They are also hard to check, because they have offense by committee. As for the Sharks, this was a disappointing season for them, but they do have a lot of playoff experience. I do have to question the goaltending, as Anttii Niemi has had an up and down season, and they are not great defensively. They can be great offensively though. They also have to answer the bell that this team is not too old to compete lest they be blown up.
Prediction: St. Louis in 6. St. Louis may be inexperienced, but I normally take defense over offense in the playoffs, so I’m taking St. Louis this round.

3)      Phoenix vs. 6) Chicago
Phoenix won the booby prize of being the best team in the Pacific division which was weaker than most years this time. They have a hard working team, lead up front by two great veterans in Shane Doan and Ray Whitney, on the back end by one of the best, most under rated d-men in the game in Keith Yandle, and have amazing goaltending by Mike Smith. The Blackhawks on the other hand have more depth than last year, but you do have to wonder how good they can be if Jonathan Toews cannot come back. Still, they have responded well in his absence, and with Duncan Keith they have depth, with or without Toews.
Prediction: Chicago in 5. Chicago has too much depth for the Coyotes, who have not been able to overcome the first round hump in the previous two years. If the Coyotes are to win this one, they need Mike Smith to steal it – and I don’t think he’ll do it.

4)      Nashville vs. 5) Detroit
Nashville may well be the quietest Cup contenders this year – no matter how well they do, they never seem to get much respect. They added depth on defense with Hal Gill, to go along with two of the very best in the league in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. In Pekka Rinne, they have one of the best goalies in the league. With Radulov, they have added a legitimate scoring star. As for Detroit, they are always a threat. Although many of their best players – Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom – are getting older, and you do have to wonder if Jimmy Howard can backstop them to a deep playoff run. This is going to be a death match, with the victor being a legit threat to win the Western conference.
Prediction: Nashville in 7. It’s going to be tight, but I think Nashville has the defensive depth to get this done.

Eastern Conference
1)      New York Rangers vs. 8) Ottawa
The Rangers had a great season, really coming through defensively, and especially in net with Henrik Lundqvist, and just enough offense to win, with Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik finding instant chemistry together. They may not be the most exciting team in the gang, but they play a solid team game, and have few holes in their lineup. As for Ottawa, their complete rebuild that they started last year is WAY ahead of schedule. They have more offense than the Rangers with the likes of Spezza, Michalek, Alfredson and d-man scoring leader Eric Karlsson. But they have less overall depth, and counting on the inconsistent Craig Anderson in net may well be their downfall.
Prediction: New York in 5. The Rangers simply have too much depth to be beaten by the Sens this year.

2)      Boston vs. 7) Washington
The Bruins may not be quite as good as last year, but they still know how to win. Zdeno Chara can be the most dominant player in any series, and can shut down nearly any forward, so good luck Ovechkin. Though Tim Thomas is certainly not as amazing as he was last year – not to mention the fact that he let his batshit crazy side out this year – he still has the ability to be dominant. Up front, they have enough depth to make up for the fact that they do not have any real offensive superstars. As for Washington, they should have been much better than 7th this year, but for some reason, they never really came together this year. They seem like a team of individuals more than a cohesive unit. Alex Ovechkin can still be one of the best in the game – as he proved down the stretch this season. As a team though, they just do not have the depth.
Prediction: Boston in 6.The playoffs are about heart – the Bruins have it, the Caps don’t.

3)      Florida vs. 6) New Jersey
The Florida Panthers were one of the great stories of the regular season this year, ending the longest current playoff drought at 10 years (sorry Toronto, that honor now belongs to you). They did it with a team effort – no real stars, but a team that gets the job done, and relying on a resurgent Jose Theodore in net. They went to more overtime and shootouts than any other team in the league in this year, which means they can keep things close. As for New Jersey, after a disappointing season last year, they responded well this year – Kovulchuk has never been better, Zach Parise came back with a strong year after being injured last year, and Adam Henrique was one of the best rookies of the year. Martin Brodeur may be in the twilight of his career, but he can still pull out some great performances.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6. There is no shootout in the playoffs, so Florida probably doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning this one.

4)      Pittsburgh vs. 5) Philadelphia
Undoubtedly the marquee matchup of the first round, these two teams quite simply hate each other. For Pittsburgh, with the MVP of the league in Malkin and a great Crosby back, they are going to score a lot of goals. They are also deeper up front than ever before – with Sullivan, Neal, Staal, Kunitz, etc. On the defensive end, they are solid, especially Kris Letang if he can stay healthy. And they have one of the best goalies in the league in Fleury, who knows what it takes to win. For Philly, they are bigger and tougher up front than ever before. Claude Giroux is as good as any center in the league, and add in players like Simmonds, Hartnell, Jagr, Reade, Schenn, etc and they can keep pace with the Pens up front. On defense, they have a huge hole without Pronger, but they have gotten the job done. The real question mark is crazy Ilya Bryzgalov, who can be amazing or horrible depending on the night.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7. It`s going to be tough, and whoever wins this one will most likely be my pick to win the whole Conference, but I think the Pens have the skill and depth to win.