Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

* * * *

Sometimes a film's premise can be so original and clever that the list of faults is overshadowed by a propulsive wave of storytelling toward a powerful, even if already predicted, conclusion. Slumdog Millionaire is just that film, the screen adaptation of an Indian novel (Q&A) directed by Indie film vet Danny Boyle. Boyle's most noted works, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, are intense, dark, and gritty films, but in Slumdog, Boyle translates his intensity behind the camera into a story of hope and determination. Slumdog is centered around Jamal Malik, played masterfully by Dev Patel, and is set on location in India. Jamal is a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and the film chronicles his life as he answers the questions up to the million dollar question. The hook is that his life experiences inexplicably prepare him to answer increasingly difficult questions despite his treacherous childhood and lack of education. The story is captivating and is one of the most original coming-of-age stories in quite some time, and the way the camera captures the Indian landscape, both desolate and majestic, is breathtaking. The cast is entirely unknown, but includes several great performances, particularly Patel's breakthrough. The story follows Jamal through three time periods, so each main character is portrayed by three different actors, and the child actors are incredible, performing unflinchingly in bizarre situations. Aside from Patel, the stunningly beautiful Freida Pinto stands out as the young-adult version of Jamal's childhood love interest Latika. Slumdog has a fair share of political and social commentary, and at times feels like a thriller, but is essentially a love story. Patel's performance as Jamal, in desperate search of love (Latika) and life (freedom), drives the film through both the good and bad scenes. The story is a breath of fresh air and the locations are original, but at times the film seems to drag. The two hour movie could have easily been 15-20 minutes shorter. Most of the situations seem plausible separately, but the order in which they occur, all to one individual, is beyond unlikely. The last ten minutes are so heartwarming that they overcome the fact that everyone knew exactly how they would happen for the previous ninety minutes. Slumdog is 75% english without subtitles and 25% subtitled. The subtitles are colored according to character, which is a simple but effective touch, but in a few select scenes the accents can make the spoken English difficult to understand. Despite the difficult circumstances Jamal encounters time and time again, the film maintains a strong theme of hope which burns bright in Patel's performance. A completely offbeat music video as the credits roll feels like a slap in the face after a thoughtful conclusion to an emotional film. However, the original framework within which the plot resides, the smart story, and the intimate feel of the direction and cinematography make Slumdog one of the most unique film experiences of the year.

Good for: foreign film fans, fans of romantic dramas

Bad for: the easily bored, those looking for a fluffy film

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * *
The Writer * * * *

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Milk (2008)

* * * * *

If Brokeback Mountain opened the door for same-sex relationships to be viewed from the same emotional perspective as heterosexual relationships, Milk, the true story of San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Milk, blasts the door down with a marching parade and bullhorn, bringing the gay rights movement front and center in a deeply human context. Whereas Brokeback showcased the personal affairs associated with a homosexual relationship in an intolerant society, Milk highlights the social struggle homosexuals have faced and the barriers they have both overcome and still face, and takes no prisoners in the process. Whether you know the story of Harvey Milk or whether you come to the film blindly with no idea what is about to happen (as I did), the levity of the actual events and the artistry behind the filmmaking will stun you. Gus Van Sant, who has made other controversial and powerful films such as Elephant, directs Milk with a fevered passion that captures the spirit of Harvey Milk and the sentiment of the movement. This works both to Van Sant's advantage and disadvantage, as Milk contains truly electric and heartwrenching scenes, but also at times seems to preach. Van Sant seems to be telling the audience how and when to feel at select moments in the film, when the sheer brilliance of the acting does more than enough to convey the emotional overtones. Despite the few flaws, Van Sant captures the atmosphere of the 70s and San Francisco with great sets and locations, a well-chosen soundtrack, and the use of real footage to give the film a sense of reality. His choice to not cast an actress to play antagonist Anita Baker, but rather to let her actual footage play her part is a genius move that exhibits her wickedness in a way no actress could express, and is deserving of high accolades alone. Van Sant also chose to use choice filmstock to give many scenes a "Wonder Years" type vibe, which is incredibly effective. His best decisions, however, were his choices in casting. There are few words that can be used to describe Sean Penn's performance in the title role; only perfect comes to mind. Absolutely no one could have played this part but Penn, and this is clear from the opening scene. He embodies Milk, and his performance is physical, emotional, spiritual, and shames most actors in the business. Penn's performance is a complete transformation, portraying Milk as a human; proud but flawed, ferocious yet charming, silly and clever, loving and funny. Up against a monumental challenge, the supporting cast complements Penn's performance nearly across the board. Emile Hirsch delivers a name-making performance as Cleve Jones, Penn's campaign volunteer and was clearly inspired by Penn's virtuosity. James Franco is strong as Scott Smith, Milk's love interest and friend, and shows that his acting chops are starting to develop. Diego Luna's portrayal of Jack Lira, Milk's other companion, is the only questionable turn in the otherwise solid cast. Luna's character is eccentric, but the performance comes across as over the top and even somewhat amateur next to Penn's Milk. The supporting cast as a whole complements Penn appropriately, but Josh Brolin, as Dan White, is the only other actor to hold his own and put himself on the same playing field as Penn. In what is without question the most important supporting role in the film, Brolin has proven once again he is a serious, big-time actor with incredible talent. Brolin's portrayal of a deeply troubled man is both moving and haunting, and a scene in which he approaches Milk while intoxicated stands out as one of the best from this year. Thirty years later, some may wonder why it took so long for Milk's story to be told to a mass audience. What matters, though, is that the story was told, and not just told, but proclaimed beautifully with precision and care. The passion and fire of Harvey Milk are personified by Van Sant and company in what is a proper tribute to a great man. Although the conclusion of the story comes as no surprise (even those who didn't know about Milk find out when Van Sant tells them minutes into the film), the despair of the final moments of Milk will weigh heavily on anyone with a heart. But what makes the film and the legacy of Harvey Milk vital is the hope they inspire.

Good for: everyone, film junkies, historians, civil rights activists, Penn fans

Bad for: the intolerant

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

Friday, November 14, 2008

Religulous (2008)

* * * *

With no Michael Moore documentary (at least released in theaters) this year, and no other big name releasing a major film in the genre, Bill Maher of HBO's Real Time has stepped to the plate to tackle the issue of religion in his typical cynical, offensive, no-holds-barred style. Maher collaborates with director Larry Charles, of Borat and Seinfeld fame, to travel the world in search of mystery behind the nature of religion and faith. Those familiar with Maher already will know that he is a devout atheist and he does nothing to hide this throughout the film. This isn't an investigation into the good and bad of religion; this is Maher examining how religion has corrupted societies across the globe and contradicted its own foundations. Those who unflinchingly disagree with Maher may have trouble seeing through his rock solid bias, as his interviews involve half serious discussion of religion and half "are you serious?" mockery. His goal, however, seems to be more oriented toward opening up the conversation about the potential negative aspects of religion rather than driving home a distinct point like a Moore documentary. As the title suggests and the interviews reveal, there is a lot to be said about the irrationality behind some of the world's major religions. Religulous features shots at many of the world's most important "Holy Grounds" and contains interviews touching upon most of the major religions from leaders of those religions to average devotees like truck drivers. Although Maher always backs up his argument with factual information, he and Charles are comedians at heart and Religulous is the funniest religious movie you'll find on Netflix. There is no trickery here such as that which Charles' masterfully executed with Borat; microphones and cameras are intentionally shown on screen to make clear that all of the interview subjects were aware of the circumstances surrounding the film. Charles edits in many brief, seconds-long clips from the news, old movies, and old television shows between and during interviews that are often sarcastic, biting, and hilarious. Maher's deconstruction of religion from his own childhood and maturation reveal how those raised in faith may be attracted to new ideas. And in the long run, Maher's goal is simply that, to bring light to new ideas often trounced by political correctness or adherence to tradition. It's hard to find a large audience with a documentary, particularly one that openly mocks religion. But with Religulous, Maher has raised the dialogue about atheism and religious criticism from zero to something slightly above that without boring his audience and providing plenty of laughs with intellectual conversation.

Good for: Maher fans, open-minded thinkers

Bad for: the easily offended

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

* * * *

Leave it to the Coen brothers to follow up last year's best film, No Country for Old Men, with a film as quirky and off-the-wall as Burn After Reading. Ten years after the Big Lebowski followed their finest film, Fargo, the Coen's churn out another comedy with bizarre characters and situations, grim humor, and an outlandish premise. The Coens enlisted a star-studded cast including Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins and Coen-veterans Francis McDormand and George Clooney for their highly anticipated follow up. The story revolves around Chad (Pitt) and and Linda (McDormand) who stumble across a CD with government files that belongs to Malkovich's character Osbourne Cox, and attempt to use their discovery to get some cash out of Cox for Linda's plastic surgery. And that's only the half of it. The situations that arise are both outrageously funny and at times disturbingly sad. The dialogue is sharp and creates memorable characters, even in Coen brothers terms, especially Pitt's Chad which is easily the funniest performance of his career. All of the actors step into characters far from their typical roles and sell them completely. The film has definitive Coen style; quick and to the point with little waste. Like all of their films, Burn After Reading is full of cynical humor that points out flaws in society, and this film does so perhaps more than any of their others. The Coens are some of the only filmmakers who have the cojones to make a film like this to follow a Best Picture winner and to follow the ending of No Country for Old Men with the conclusion to this film. Some may be surprised or even disappointed with the obvious indulgence the brothers took in making such an eccentric film, but Burn After Reading is a lot of fun. It has its flaws, but just like its characters, in the end there is more to laugh about than to be turned off by, and the film is very successful as a satire of American culture and politics.

Good for: Coen Brothers fans, Brad Pitt fans, fans of dark comedies

Bad for: people who like straight-forward comedy, the easily disturbed

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

* * * * *

Ben Stiller is one of the funniest, most talented people in Hollywood, but his resume has played out like Ryan Howard's career; a few homeruns and a whole lot of strikeouts. Tropic Thunder, however, is the funniest movie this year among some strong competition, and is a classic that puts Stiller at the top of the comedy scene with the likes of Ferrell and Apatow. Stiller steps behind the camera in Tropic Thunder for the first time since Zoolander, directing an ensemble cast of Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, and newcomer Brandon T. Jackson. Stiller penned the script with Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Coen of Coen Bros. fame) about a group of actors who are sent to film a war movie. When the director (Coogan) feels that the project is suffering due to lack of motivation, he strands the troupe in the Vietnamese jungle and the line between acting and reality starts to blur. The film is an amalgam of satire and original storyline, and Stiller mixes in gag humor, witty punchlines, and countless references to past war films. Tropic Thunder is way smarter than Hot Shots but not as topical as Dr. Strangelove, and the result is a movie that is loaded with laughs of all varieties. The cast is incredible, as Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr. form an amazing squad, playing stereotypical actors far from their real-life identity. Stiller is hilarious, as usual, and plays a hothead, doofus action-star somewhat similar to some of his past roles such as White Goodman in Dodgeball (and looks surprisingly jacked). Jack Black turns in one of his best performances as a drug-dependent comedian/actor, and newcomer Brandon T. Jackson manages to hold his own among the stars as Alpa Chino. Its hard to quantify Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, who plays Kirk Lazarus, the only "real actor" of the bunch. Lazarus is so committed to his role that he "becomes" a black man, and like Lazarus who he plays, Downey Jr. is so entrenched in the role it is easy to forget the man is actually white. The performance is instant comedy legend; Downey Jr. is so good that literally every one of his lines is funny, everything he says becomes a joke. Tropic Thunder packs a surprise attack, however, that is outright brilliance; cameos. There are many guest appearances, but there are two major stars playing large roles (unmentioned in the credits and promotion of the movie) that are both lights-out, laugh-out-loud performances. Overall, the film relies much more heavily on strong, intricately detailed comedic performances than profanity and vulgarity, and Tropic Thunder is more of a "film" than most of the funniest comedies from the past few years. There is plenty of profanity and obscene violence to elicit an R rating, but the dirtiness simply complements great acting and writing, instead of replacing it. The film has a cohesive feel that shows that everyone involved embraced the project, and features such as three fake commercials/previews that precede the film are clever and add to the depth of the characters. Stiller's script is the funniest he has ever written, and the story that goes along ties together all of the character's flaws and strengths for a well-rounded, surprisingly compelling plot. The laughs hit hard and often, as Tropic Thunder is a classic war comedy that has more to say about the state of Hollywood than war.

Good for: Stiller fans, war movie fans, anyone with a sense of humor

Bad for: some Will Ferrell fans, the easily offended

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Surfer: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tell No One (2008)

* * * *

Tell No One is the story of a doctor who, while browsing the internet at work, receives a strange e-mail from his wife. The catch; she has been dead for eight years. This simple premise at first glance seems like something that should be destined for a month on the big screen and a quick DVD release. The catch; Tell No One is adapted from an American novel, but is shot entirely in French, in France, and by a young director at the helm of only his second film. Director Guillaume Canet brings a fresh, exciting feel to this suspense thriller without resorting to typical Hollywood cliche. The film stars Fran├žois Cluzet as Dr. Alex Beck, who was at first accused but eventually cleared of his wife's brutal murder. Eight years later, he is still grieving when he is mysteriously contacted by her. The police decide to reopen the investigation, and in his attempt to decipher if the message was a cruel hoax or a paranormal phenomenon, he becomes a fugitive of the police. There are many strange characters, all of which are portrayed believably by a strong supporting cast. However, the star is Cluzet who is brilliant as Beck, capturing the humanity of a husband who has lost the love of his life and the acumen of a doctor trying to solve a difficult puzzle under intensely odd conditions. Canet challenges the audience just as Beck is challenged in the film, leading the plot down many sudden twists and sharp turns and dropping little clues along the way. At times the film becomes quite confusing and just when things start to come together, another element is thrown in which completely adjusts the viewpoint. Tell No One is a mystery film on the surface, and a great one at that, but a love story at heart. The suspense of the plot is complemented by flashbacks and imagery which give an emotional depth to the events taking place. Canet is clearly influenced by Hitchcock and American suspense films of the past and creates a blanket of tension that hangs over the audience, building heavier and heavier as the film nears its conclusion. When everything starts to come together for real, the depth in the performances and story make the conclusion, which may be the best final scene of the year, that much more rewarding for the viewer. The film is adapted from a book, and there are some illogical circumstances that were likely a result of condensing a novel into just over two hours of film. The reality of the film is at times sacrificed for continuity, and although this definitely detracts from an otherwise effective portrayal of reality, the performances and script are so strong that the inconceivable situations are largely overshadowed. The basic premise seems stale at first glance, but the inner-workings of this story are very well written and original. Tell No One is the rare thriller that holds you to your seat without insulting you with mindless violence, major plot holes left unexplained, or rehashing the same old scenarios. Its a good thing the script made it past Hollywood to France. Like Guillermo del Toro with Pan's Labyrinth and Juan Antonio Bayona with the Orphanage, Canet stays true to the genre while packing so much depth into the characters ad the story. Foreign directors, of late, seem to be much more capable of providing layers of entertainment, so that the film is not merely a thrill ride but a work of art with the potential to be interpreted and enjoyed on many levels. The French perspective keeps the film fresh, and the combination of a sharp, young director and an extremely talented leading man yield a gripping thriller with more to it than what meets the eye.

Good for: fans of foreign films, people who like mysteries and suspense, a date

Bad for: people who cannot read subtitles

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

* * * *

Leave it to Woody Allen to prove once again what great writing can do to a simple premise. The master of dark humor has returned to familiar territory, framing the curious nature of human relationships within his cynical perspective. At age 71, he is as sharp as ever. Allen employs his most recent muse, Scarlett Johansson, as twenty-something Cristina, who is on a trip to Spain with her girlfriend, Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall. Vicky and Cristina are best friends yet total opposites. Vicky prefers men on the path to fortune and serious relationships, whereas Cristina yearns for whimsical flings with artists and thinkers. They just so happen to encounter an artist at dinner, Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem. The bizarre love triangle which ensues involves sight-seeing through Barcelona, a lot of wine, and the emergence of Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz. Bardem is every bit as smooth as his character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was haunting, and is great to watch in an excellent role to follow up his Oscar winning performance. Johansson is mediocre for the most part, and aside from Lost in Translation, has yet to show great skill or just what Allen sees in her. She and Hall both have bright spots within their performances, but fade in the presence of Bardem and Cruz. Although neither of their characters names appear in the title, Bardem and Cruz are the stars of the show and are thunder and lightning when on screen together. They are sexy, combustible, and truly enact the passion that has come to be associated with the Hispanic lifestyle. Cruz is on fire in one her best roles. Maria Elena is a beautiful inferno seemingly unable to control her emotions or tact. Cruz has quietly built an impressive resume in good films, and may be the most underrated actress in the business. Allen compliments the beauty of his cast by capturing the beauty of Barcelona with landscape shots and locations ranging from fine restaurants and museums to small villages and trees under the moon. The film is one of the sexiest of the past few years, but shows very little and leaves much to the imagination. A particularly evocative scene involving Cruz and Johansson in a dark room, however, is likely to be one of the film's most memorable. Like all of Allen's films, he touches on the intricacies and oddities of love, placing his characters in situations everyone can relate to and having them ask themselves questions that we have all considered, although not for sixty years like Allen has. The humor is sharp but not obvious, hitting the nail on the head for some and flying over the head for others. But for those that get it, they will be laughing hard, on the inside. Woody Allen is the dean of the romantic comedy and brings legitimacy to an otherwise atrocious genre. Once again, he shows exactly how it is supposed to be done with a spicy, intelligent film.

Good for: Allen fans, people who like romantic comedies, fans of dark humor, art film fans

Bad for: people who liked 50 First Dates

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pineapple Express (2008)

* * * *

Stoners rejoice: the stoner film genre has made a triumphant return with Pineapple Express, the brainchild of Superbad writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The central theme of Pineapple Express is, of course, marijuana, but unlike many recent so-called weed movies, the underlying premise and surprisingly detailed plot make the film enjoyable for all audiences. Starring Rogen and James Franco as a customer (Dale Denton) and drug dealer (Saul Silver), respectively, the film follows the two as they try to escape from a drug dealer who Denton witnessed committing murder. When Denton scrambles to escape from the murder scene, he drops a joint containing the potent marijuana strain Pineapple Express, which Ted Jones, the murderer, finds and tracks to Saul Silver. Chaos ensues as the two full-fledged stoners both light up joints and car tires in an attempt to not get whacked. Rogen proves yet again that he belongs in center stage, and despite his chubby, goofy appearance, he can carry a comedy on his broad shoulders. Franco, known by many more for his looks than talent, truly avoids type-casting by playing a lazy pot dealer, a character even more stoned than Rogen. Together, they make a legendary tag-team that will go down in stoner lore. Pineapple Express follows in the footsteps of other Judd Apatow classics by complementing a great premise and hilarious leads with an extremely talented supporting cast. Rosie Perez, who seemingly disappeared after White Men Can't Jump, returns as a crooked cop with a knack for violence in what may be the best role of her career. Gary Cole, like his role as Lumbergh in Office Space, brings a twisted element to Ted Jones which works wonders when he is on the screen with Perez. And Danny McBride, as Red, turns in the most notable supporting performance as he has some of the film's most memorable lines and is nearly killed time and time again. Apatow recruited little known David Gordon Green to direct, and Green delivers a sharp, stylish film that stays true to a brilliantly written script. Rogen and Goldberg crafted plenty of jokes and dialogue that will resonate with the stoner culture, and there are plenty of bizarre situations characteristic of Apatow films (Denton's high school girlfriend), but what separates Pineapple Express from Dude, Where's My Car and Half Baked is the legitimate crime/thriller storyline. Many will be surprised by how well the action scenes are executed, with shrewd detail such as characters firing guns as if they never have touched one before. And even the most toasted in the audience will snap out of their daze when they see the surprising level of violence and gore. The soundtrack frames each scene perfectly, and a black-and-white prologue featuring Bill Hader sets the tone for the film. There are definitely jokes that will go over some of the audience's head, and some dialogue is so dumbed down for those who have lost some brain cells to the wacky weed that those who abstain may not be impressed, but there is enough intelligence and creativity here to prevent any comparisons to How High. Pineapple Express is clearly a descendant of the Cheech and Chong lineage of buddy capers and marijuana glorification, but the film clearly shows inheritance from Tarantino as well, and its authenticity and originality has re-lit the cherry of the stoner film.

Good for: potheads, Apatow fans

Bad for: straight-edgers

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Step Brothers (2008)

* * * *

Another summer, and the Judd Apatow train keeps on chugging. The Apatow posse has grown larger and larger with each subsequent hit film, but with Step Brothers, he brings out his top guns Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, and pairs them with one of his best directors, Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, The Landlord). This deadly comedic combination could make laughs out of seemingly any premise, and Step Brothers is more of a testament to that statement than one could imagine. Ferrell and Reilly play 40+ year old men still living with and mooching from their mom and dad, respectively. When the mother and father, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), fall in love and get married, Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (Reilly) become Step Brothers and move into the same house. And really, thats all there is to the film. The premise itself is just an excuse to get Reilly and Ferrell on the screen at the same time. For nearly anyone else this would be a cop-out and a flop, but for this, its a riot. Both actors are at the top of their game, delivering their immature, profane, and offensive humor in large, near-constant doses. Despite starring in Walk Hard, the under-appreciated Reilly still seems to be flying under the radar. But make no mistake, he is every bit as funny as Ferrell in this film, holding his own and sometimes even outshining him. Most often, though, the two complement each other near perfectly, making a powerful comedy tag-team. There is plenty of gross-out physical humor, and brilliantly vulgar lines that will defy the imagination of even the most raunchy minds. After wading in PG-13 territory for a few films, its nice to see Ferrell return to the land of the F-Bomb, and Reilly picks up right where he left off with Dewey Cox. Although Jenkins and Steenburgen provide a few laughs as the parents, and a turn by Adam Scott as Brennan's younger, more successful, completely over the top brother sets up Ferrell for some great scenes, the film almost comes across as a two-man comedy hour that just happens to have some other actors around to take up space. The story, for the most part, is completely typical, and because of the abundance of laugh-out-loud humor, it doesn't really matter. For the same reason though, those who don't have a taste for Ferrell's adult humor will have almost nothing left to enjoy. This isn't a great film in the sense of modern cinema, and its not meant to be. The bulk of the intelligence on-hand is the bizarre creativity required to write and recite uniquely vulgar lines, vulgarity no 14 year old or frat boy has yet dreamed of. This also isn't Apatow or Ferrell's finest moment, but Step Brothers may just go down as the cult-classic of the Apatow collection. The storyline isn't nearly as original or clever as the 40 Year Old Virgin, Anchorman, or Talladega Nights, but there are just as many memorable quotes as a 2-hour stand-up comedy special, which is what Step Brothers essentially is.

Good for: Apatow fans, Ferrell fans, immature people

Bad for: serious people, deep thinkers

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

* * * * *

An unprecedented amount of hype surrounded the Dark Knight, and the aggressive marketing campaign, viral internet buildup, and mythic nature of Heath Ledger's final performance put the film in prime position to disappoint. The expectations were unheard of, yet, riding on Ledger's remarkable performance, Christopher Nolan's epic vision, and an inspired cast and crew, the Dark Knight beat the odds to meet and perhaps even exceed the cinematic and box office anticipation. The Dark Knight is to superhero films what the Godfather is to mob films, Apocalypse Now to war films, Scarface to mob films and Star Wars to science fiction. There are other great films in this genre, but the Dark Knight is the best, and the bar has clearly been raised. The story picks up where Batman Begins left off, with Gotham City in turmoil and Batman doing his part to restore justice to the city. Word comes along of a new powerful player in the crime scene who is getting under the skin of both the law enforcement and rival mobs, and goes by the name of the Joker. The ensuing battle between Batman, the Joker, and district attorney Harvey Dent involve sly backhanded negotiations, gripping fight and chase scenes, heists, twists, turns and more. Nolan deserves tremendous credit for writing an engaging plot that is sharp and fast despite running at two and a half hours, for capturing all of the performers at the best of their ability, and for framing the story within the beautiful Gothic imagery of Gotham City. The film was shot largely with cameras suited for IMAX, and although any big screen will do the film justice, the IMAX experience is one in itself. Christian Bale once again delivers a standout performance as Batman and Bruce Wayne, with the Wayne persona becoming a bit darker and more sadistic, channeling aspects of Bale's performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Aaron Eckhart, the wild card of the film, is excellent as Dent, embodying the public servant's noble and devious sides very believably. The supporting cast remains largely the same, except for a moderate improvement with Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel, and once again Freeman, Caine, and Oldman are spot-on. The film, of course, belongs to the late Heath Ledger. The maniacal and eccentric, yet painstakingly nuanced performance will go down as one of the best villains ever captured on film, haunting, and chill-inducing at times. The Joker has never been more entertaining, demented, but most of all, realistic. The Joker (or any of the characters) is no longer a cartoon character or a silly bad-guy with a big grin, but a twisted individual with a history and a reason for his insanity. The Dark Knight follows Batman Begins in that the tradition of hero versus bad-guy for its own sake is thrown out the window, and the reasons behind each character's motivations is explained to bring depth to the roles and circumstances. The performances and script aren't meant to be a thrill-ride; these characters and stories, like Batman Begins, pay homage to the original comic book writers intent of using fantasy as an allegory for the issues and circumstances the modern world faces. The film is loaded with symbolic imagery, and religious, governmental, and moral motifs. The attention to detail is remarkable, and the depth to which the Dark Knight can be dissected will thrill diehard comic book fans while drawing in many casual fans as well. There are times where the Dark Knight loses some of the ultra-realistic sense that dominated Batman Begins, leaning more toward traditional super hero movie action, but the powerful and unique performances and story seem to overshadow the film's flaws. The Dark Knight will have its place in history and pop culture for its box office successes and the media hype machine that surrounded it, but movie fans will remember it as the best of its kind, a film loaded with actors at their strongest, a writer/director capable of bringing an unforgettable vision to the screen, and a highly entertaining, yet entirely thought provoking film.

Good for: movie fans of all kinds, Batman fans, Ledger fans, Bale fans

Bad for: those who don't like long movies, people who automatically dislike popular films

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Surfer: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *
The Writer * * * *

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Batman Begins (2005)

* * * *

Batman Begins came out in 2005 and made a stir among its guaranteed audience, the legion of comic book and video game fans, but wasn't a huge hit because of its dark, nature, favoring dialogue and realistic action to the bombast action and explosions of all the previous Batman and other superhero movies. For the same reason it wasn't a blockbuster, Batman Begins developed a somewhat cult following as a truly good film, not just a box-office hit. One thing is for sure, upon its release Batman Begins was the best Batman film of all time and is solely responsible for the mega-hit Dark Knight which was to follow. Director Christopher Nolan, who gained acclaim for his 2000 thriller Memento, took the groundwork laid by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher for the first four Batman movies and threw it in the garbage, starting anew at the most appropriate place, the beginning. Whereas previous directors framed the saga of Batman within a theme park, thrill ride atmosphere, Nolan gives Batman, the only superhero without superpowers, the realistic treatment he deserves. Gone is the superfluous action and slapstick humor and silliness, as Nolan welcomes accomplished actors such as Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Cane, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, and more into the story. Batman Begins chronicles Bruce Wayne's metamorphosis into the Dark Knight, starting with scenes that we have seen in other movies and culminating in his pursuit of justice in Gotham City. Christian Bale, one of truly great actors in Hollywood, is a perfect for Batman and dons the Batsuit with more authenticity than anyone to date. He is surrounded by a plethora of solid actors, all of whom (disregarding Katie Holmes as childhood friend and love interest Rachel Dawes) deliver rock-solid performances. The script is sharp and the only action is what is absolutely necessary, but the strongest point of the film is the astounding depth, particularly for a superhero film. Batman Begins pays homage to the true essence of the original comic, exploring the nature of vigilante justice, crime, punishment, terror, and order and uses the Dark Knight as a metaphor for these deep and complex issues. The use of the Scarecrow, although played devilishly by Cilian Murphy, may disappoint some as Scarecrow is one of the less exciting on the remarkable list of Batman villains. Batman Begins isn't perfect and has some of the comic book film cliches that are nearly impossible to avoid, but Christopher Nolan took a big chance, reinventing Batman in the dark world of Gotham City with great actors, a realistic perspective, and an honest look into pertinent issues.

Good for: Batman fans, fans of the original comic, Bale fans

Bad for: action movie fans

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Wanted (2008)

* *

Wanted does exactly what it was set out to do; that being to appease the appetite of the mindless summer movie watcher with guns, girls, and gore. This film is the very definition of a Hollywood action movie and boasts all the necessary ingredients including dazzling fight sequences, stunning CGI, a mind-bending plot, and Angelina Jolie. To top it all off, the writers try to add layers upon layers of depth and allusions to societal pressures to fit in, be successful, and do the right thing, a message that resonates perfectly with the target audience. James McAvoy (Atonement) stars as Wesley Gibson, a down-and-out office worker frustrated with the repetition and monotony of his everyday life. When he finds out his dad, who has been missing since the day he was born, was a deadly, superhuman assassin, he realizes his destiny to become a member of "The Fraternity" and follow in his father's footsteps, avenging his death. Morgan Freeman plays Sloan, the leader of the Fraternity, in a performance that could literally be exactly the same as at least five other Freeman roles in the past decade. Jolie as Fox and Common as Gunsmith are members of the Fraternity and help train Wesley to attain his supernatural assasin abilities. Wanted may be one of the most cliched movies of all time, and is essentially the textbook example of an action movie. There are so many elements contrived from other films its difficult to keep count by the time the credits roll. Some scenes are so generic they become painful to watch, while others are so fast-paced, visually impressive, or downright hot (Jolie) that you can't take your eyes off the screen. The last twenty minutes involve so many plot twists that they seem to happen just for the sake of throwing the audience off the right path. The nerdy action lover who can recite lines from the Matrix series will probably follow along and find genius within the writers efforts to make a statement about taking control of your life and creating your own destiny. The rest of us won't understand what happened or why and won't care enough to figure it out either. Wanted is pure sleaze and proud of it, and people will either love or hate it for exactly that reason.

Good for: action fans, drunk people, someone not in the mood to think, Jolie fans

Bad for: artists, people bothered by violence

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

* * *

Compared to the weak war films of the past few years, Charlie Wilson's War stands out as the smartest, funniest, and easiest to watch. That's not saying too much, though, when you look at the competition. For having the word "war" in the title, the film, like the Cold War, has very few guns fired and focuses much more on the behind-the-scenes aspects of American politics. Starring Tom Hanks as politician Charlie Wilson, Charlie Wilson's War is based on the true story of a Texas politician and his overt and covert efforts to defeat the Soviets, chronicling from the late seventies to the end of the eighties. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage, Closer) assembled a star studded cast with Hanks, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman to deliver a witty script written by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing). The Charlie Wilson character is perfectly suited for Hanks who embodies the southern playboy congressman's clever and charming personality. Roberts and Adams hold their own alongside Hanks as his love interest and assistant, respectively, but once again Hoffman steals the screen and is clearly the best actor in the film despite being only a supporting character. As an obnoxious CIA agent and Wilson's partner and, at times, antagonist, Hoffman turns an average character into a memorable one with a nuanced performance equal parts funny and annoying. If only more actors could bring such depth to characters as Hoffman does; in any size part the story is enhanced by his intricate approach to his roles. The film is to the point, running right on time around 100 minutes, and for the right audience is thoroughly entertaining. Nichols manages to make a decade of political struggle and slow progress fun to watch by only including the important parts of the story, particularly the parties, sex, spying, and backhanded deals. The film isn't that thought provoking and comes across more as a "can-you-believe-this" true story than a reflection on the Cold War or politics in general. For some this will be refreshing, as Hanks and Hoffman together on screen are great fun, and for others it will be too run of the mill. Charlie Wilson's War doesn't fail on any levels, and succeeds in telling a story most people didn't know about in a way that will keep their attention.

Good for: people who study history, politicos, fans of true stories

Bad for: people who dislike politics, uptight people

The Gallery
The Economist: * * *

Friday, July 4, 2008

Get Smart (2008)

* * *

For the casual movie fan looking for a mindless summer diversion, Get Smart fires on all cylinders. Equal parts action and humor, the big screen adaptation pretty much picks up right in it's predecessor's footsteps. Starring Steve Carell, Get Smart starts before Maxwell Smart is promoted from analyst to special agent and details his first mission alongside Agent 99, played by Anne Hathaway. Carell essentially carries the movie on his shoulders and proves once again how extremely talented and versatile he is. Ten years ago, when this film was first pitched to studios, Jim Carrey was slotted to play the lead role, but Carell saves this questionable idea from being another pointless summer bust. The supporting cast was well chosen, including Alan Arkin as the Chief, James Caan as the president, and a cameo by Bill Murray. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stands out as Agent 23 in what is easily his funniest and most natural performance to date. The usually spot-on David Koechner, however, delivers a forced performance that seems too similar to his characters in Anchorman and the Office. The screen writing duo behind Get Smart are veteran TV writers and it shows as the film feels like a two hour prologue to the series. The humor is absurd but sharp, and some jokes will undoubtedly fly way over the target audience's head. There are some surprisingly raunchy jokes that will make even the most stubborn comedy fan laugh, but there are also too many lines that are completely predictable and sound like they were taken from a children's joke book. The action is up to modern standards, will impress action aficionados, and is far more over-the-top than anything ever seen in the series. Director Peter Segal has stood behind plenty of duds including Anger Management, 50 First Dates, The Longest Yard, and the last of the Naked Gun series, but also directed the gem Tommy Boy. Get Smart falls somewhere in the middle, a bit closer to Tommy Boy. Segal rode Chris Farley to huge success, and will likely ride Carell into a big payday with the fun and funny Get Smart.

Good for: fans of the original series, Carell fans, casual movie fans

Bad for: people looking to think, uptight people

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wall-E (2008)

* * * * *

Part of the magic of movies is the feeling you get when the credits roll and you know you've just participated in artistic brilliance. Pixar has become accustomed to providing movie-goers with this experience, but never more so than with their latest creation, Wall-E. The story of a robot on an Earth displaced from human habitation for 700 years and his space-journey to find love stands head and shoulders above Pixar's recent successes and everything else released this year. In fact, Wall-E isn't to be compared with this years films, but stands tall among the film classics of all-time. Wall-E is like a five-tool baseball player, strong in every possible aspect and nearly flawless in some. The combination of impeccable visuals and sound transplants the viewer into a futuristic world from the very first minute. The attention to detail by the creators, including writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), is astounding. Film references, deep symbolism, and clever observations abound throughout the entire 98 minutes, and, like usual, the Pixar visual team has created stunning animation to accompany a rock-solid script. The first 45 minutes of the film is the most phenomenal and unique sequence to appear on the big screen in years. Nearly dialogue-free, the lens follows Wall-E as we come to understand his existence on a barren, trash-filled Earth and his programmed, artificial-intelligence version of a personality. The creative minds behind Wall-E took unbelievable chances, and their fearless vision pays off time and again. The film begins to become more conventional, but no less stunning, when humans are first introduced to the story. The story that follows leaves the viewer rooting for not only Wall-E, but the entire human race. Stanton loaded Wall-E with metaphor and allusions concerning mankind and the future, but nothing is forced and every jab of wit, sarcasm, and innuendo fit perfectly into place. Ultimately, Wall-E is a film about love and companionship, and using robots as a vehicle to portray this drives home the universal nature of the subject matter. And that is what Wall-E truly is, universal. Some of the references may go over the head of the kids, but Wall-E has something for everyone to relate to. Wall-E will make you laugh, and think, but more than anything, smile. The climactic scene between Wall-E and Eve is instant film lore, and Wall-E, the robot with more personality than most humans, will be no doubt be mentioned in the same conversations as Forrest Gump, ET, Vito Corleone, Darth Vader, and Hannibal Lecter. Wall-E is the culmination of excellent film making from every imaginable angle and unthinkable creativity.

Good for: everyone, Pixar fans, children, a date, film buffs

Bad for: mean people, uptight people

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * *

Flight of the Red Balloon (2008)

* * *

Flight of the Red Balloon is a remake of the 1956 short-film The Red Balloon, directed by Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou and shot in Paris in French. The story revolves around a young boy, Simon, who continually eyes a red balloon as the everyday chaos of urban life surrounds him. His mother, played by Julitte Binoche, is a stressed out single mother trying to earn a living as a voice over actor for puppet shows while maintaining a somewhat normal family life at home. She loves her son, but has little time to spend with him if she intends to pay the rent, so she hires Song (played by Fang Song), a Taiwanese student, to babysit him. Simon and Song develop a close relationship and share their imagination to pass their time together. Hou's shooting style is very unique, as Flight of the Red Balloon plays out as an extremely slow paced movie, and his choice of a quiet, ambient score suits his camera work well. Individual scenes may last up to five minutes with the shot at the same camera angle, and there are many long, silent shots of Paris, the sky, and the ever-present red balloon. The calm, reflective pace is juxtaposed against the unsteady lifestyle of the characters, and the film is deep in symbolism. As in the original, the balloon represents the innocent spirit of childhood as Simon seems oblivious to the disordered adult-life surrounding him when he has his Playstation, piano, books, and love for his mom to worry about. The cast fit together quite well, and at times appear as if they are a real family, which makes the film successful as a meditation on urban life and unconventional families. The visuals are appealing, and the acting is engaging, but the pace is so slow that some may have trouble maintaining constant attention or even alertness for the entire film. The original short was only 34 minutes, and this remake comes in at under two hours but feels like every bit of 113 minutes. Flight of the Red Balloon is pretty and worthwhile, but material seems stretched. Perhaps Hou should have split the difference between his version and the original at around 80 minutes.

Good for: fans of French films, art film fans, diehard fans of the original

Bad for: easily bored, people who dislike subtitles, tired people

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

* * * * *

Too often filmmakers tie together complicated plot structures in the last 5 minutes of a film, explaining how the pieces of an intricately woven narrative fit, leaving the viewer with little to do but sigh. Some find this mesmerizing or even a required duty of the director, while others feel cheated out of their own interpretation. In Mulholland Dr., director David Lynch leaves the viewer with absolutely nothing at the end of a brutal two and a half hours, and in doing so has created a masterpiece. At first glance, the entire film feels like a punch to the face for no reason, but less than ten minutes after the film, the events that preceded the punch start to come back into memory and the more that you recall the happier you are you got punched in the first place. There have been few films in the past decade that leave more up to the viewer's judgment than Lynch's classic, and this works because in the 144 minutes before the credits roll he gives the viewer everything the visual and auditory senses can handle. The story is so convoluted that it is difficult to summarize, but the plot essentially involves an amnesic actress and friend trying to sort out how she arrived at a random apartment in LA after a car accident. The two lead roles are played by Naomi Watts, in her first starring role, and Laura Harring. Both actresses are beautiful, horrifying, sexy, and repulsive as they portray emotions across the spectrum in scenes most actresses would melt in and in situations most could not lose themselves within. The star of the film, however, is the writer/director, who has invented and captured some of the most creative scenes in modern cinema. Jealousy, lust, passion, greed, and countless other sins and virtues are painted on the screen in haunting detail. Scenes involving a particularly intense acting audition and a dream-like opera sequence stick with the viewer for days after, and bizarre side-plots and recurring characters tickle the imagination. Putting this Lynch film into words is difficult, which is strange because, as it becomes apparent after a first, second, or tenth viewing, there is so much to say. The imagery, symbolism, allegory, metaphor, and rhythm are nearly overwhelming, and to try to see the film through Lynch's eyes may induce nausea or insanity. Repeated viewings are a must and become more enjoyable as they become more inexplicable. Mulholland Dr. could have failed on so many levels, and it almost seems as if this massive, unthinkable assembly of thought was just the right fit, one stray piece from an explosion forming a cinematic black hole. But the glorious, otherworldly vision of David Lynch proves that film can be both entertaining and art. No film in the past decade better illustrates this.

Good for: fans of art films, smart people, people who like psychological mysteries

Bad for: the easily confused, people who give up fast, uptight people, someone not in the mood to think

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * *
The Writer * * * *

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Visitor (2008)

* * * *

The Visitor is proof that not every movie requires an attractive, A-list leading man or woman to carry the film, and that a career-defining role can come at any age. Richard Jenkins is sixty years old, and although some may recognize him from HBO's Six Feet Under, he has been a character actor playing mostly small roles for over thirty years. In the Visitor he stars as Professor Walter Vale, a quiet widower sent from his teaching-post in Connecticut to a global economics conference in New York City against his will. When he gets to an apartment he has owned but not visited for years he finds two unexpected visitors. Jenkins performance as Vale is so subtle and nuanced that it barely seems like a performance, more like a high school or college teacher most of us have known in the past. At times short tempered, Vale almost only speaks when spoken to and even then responds with only what must be said. The brief introduction to Vale would lead one to believe he would be upset and deeply bothered by the intruders living in the apartment he owns, however, he chooses to let them stay, and the relationship he develops with them reveals who he really is. The visiting couple is played by Haaz Sleiman (Tarek) and Danai Jekesai Gurira (Zainab), both of whom were well casted and are strikingly younger and more vibrant than Jenkins, creating both tension and surprise. Jenkins is in the early running for performance of the year, and Hiam Abbass, as Tarek's mother, is a strangely well-fitting complement to Jenkins in a supporting role. The drama that ensues explores how we approach someone different, dealing with loss and growing old, and the complexity of immigration in post 9/11 America. The script written by Thomas McCarthy is sharp and his direction is to the point for the most part. At times the Visitor becomes a bit too sentimental and predictable, but although you may see what is coming, the deeply human performances illuminate the issues of diversity in American life. Every scene is tightly edited, New York City is captured for its spirit and its gloom, and the film's climax will tug at your heart strings while leaving a sense of hope and life. In under two hours the Visitor packs an emotional punch with a few jabs of humor, all while raising important questions about the state of American politics and culture, a facet of film too often ignored in this year's releases.

Good for: independent film fans, the politically and socially aware

Bad for: fans of box-office blockbusters, intolerant people

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * *

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

* * * *

The past decade has provided far too many superhero movies, most of which come and go through the box office without being noticed and some of which are the top box office earners year after year. Rarely do the box office numbers correlate to a worthwhile movie experience, but Iron Man is the rare exception. Despite having the flaws that are almost required of comic-superhero adaptations, Iron Man is extremely entertaining, combining humor, action, special effects, and actual morals. One needs to look no further than the people involved to understand how Iron Man went from an assumed Hollywood trash flick to the biggest and best reviewed film of 2008 so far. Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Starks and is Iron Man and may be the best thing that has happened to the genre, at least since Christian Bale dawned the Batman cape. He commands every scene and is in his prime, using the multitude of talents he has to prove his versatility and position as one of the business's best. Like many of his other characters, there is a lot of Tony Stark in the real Robert Downey Jr., but the real RDJ is pretty sweet, even if at times he is a train wreck waiting to happen. Terrence Howard is solid, as usual, as Jim Rhodes, the armed forces commander whom Tony Stark has done business with in the past, and Gwyneth Paltrow brings depth to the role of Pepper, Stark's personal assistant. Both actors expand typical comic book characters beyond what was on the page, delivering human performances in a superhuman movie. But no supporting character is more spot-on than Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, Stark's business partner and mentor. Bridges is smooth, charming, deceptive, and deranged as Stane and is the perfect counterpart to Downey Jr.'s high-strung, GQ Starks. This batch of fine acting is coupled with a fast-paced, clever script written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, who no surprise co-wrote Children of Men in 2006. And last but not least, all of this talent is captured on-screen brilliantly by director Jon Favreau, who has once again taken a film that looks destined to fail and turned it into a sure genre classic (Elf). Despite everything that is right about Iron Man, it is still a superhero movie which means action scenes run a bit long at times, a few (much less than usual) lines are corny, and some plot twists can be expected. But unlike nearly all movies of its ilk, Iron Man is genuinely funny, feels different, isn't over anyone's head, and has a great ending. Superhero fans will be titillated by the comic book references, action sequences and state-of-the-art special effects, but even those who do not flock to the theater for each new Marvel or DC big-screen adaptation will be intrigued by the raw fun that is Iron Man. The film shows that not all movies that are destined to make millions and inspire theme-park rides are devoid of value, and some even raise legitimate questions about national security, foreign policy, science, and cast-iron suits.

Good for: superhero film fans, people who like CGI, Robert Downey Jr. fans

Bad for: people who dislike big budget movies, fans of realistic films

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Film Maker: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

* * *

Usually when box office trends reach absurd redundancy the beat-it-'till-its-dead writers of the Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie, etc. series come calling and mock Hollywood with little intelligence or humor. Who better, then, is there to call than Judd Apatow to send-up the musical biopic trend of Ray, Walk the Line, Dreamgirls, and others and to do it right. Walk Hard, the life story of Dewey Cox, played by John C. Reilly, pokes fun at countless Hollywood cliches and music icons, and does so not by shooting direct imitations of the films, but creating a refreshingly original character in the mold of the biopic. Reilly is brilliant as Cox, the musical prodigy who strives throughout his life to find love, stay high, please his father, all while walking hard. Reilly proves he is more than a Will Farrell side-man and can carry a comedy on his shoulders, and carry it hard. The casting director was brilliant in pairing two of the best female comedy actors available around Reilly to play the mother of his children and his "June Carter." Kristen Wiig (SNL) and Jenna Fischer (The Office) provide plenty of laughs and surprising depth in bizarre scenes without resorting to only gag humor. The most memorable supporting character, however, is Tim Meadows as Sam, Dewey's drummer. Meadows is, like usual, right on point with his trademark delivery of ridiculously funny lines, including a few particular sequences involving drugs that are the funniest parts of the film. There are many big-name cameos including Harold Ramis, Frankie Muniz, Jack White, Eddie Vedder, Jackson Browne, Ghostface Killah, Jonah Hill, and Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Justin Long, and Paul Rudd as the best on-screen Beatles of all-time. The script was well written by Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, and from the first scene is packed tight with sharp dialogue and sprinkled with nonsensical, loony lines that will leave you wondering where they came from. Like any farce, the jokes tend to get somewhat repetitive, and some of the parody will go over the head of those who aren't music fans or haven't seen the movie being mocked. As in most Apatow-produced films, there is enough pointless nudity, extreme profanity, and genuine humor to make everyone laugh at some point. Walk Hard, like a Cox concert, shouldn't be taken too seriously and may be best enjoyed with some type of drugs on hand.

Good for: Apatow fans, music fans, people who like parodies

Bad for: serious thinkers, people who don't like music, uptight people

The Gallery
The Surfer: *
The Film Maker: * * *

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baby Mama (2008)

* *

There are very few comedies that be carried by two female leads into the realm of movie-lore. If there are two ladies up to the task, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would be at the top of the list. Unfortunately, not even they are funny enough or consistent enough to take a film that starts behind the count from the title screen (Baby Mama? Awful) to such great heights. Written and directed by former Austin Powers and SNL writer Michael McCullers, Baby Mama is the story of Fey's character Kate, who cannot mother her own child and seeks Poehler's Angie to be the surrogate mother. The catch is the clash between Vice President, career woman Kate and trailer-dwelling, high school drop-out Angie in their effort to bring a healthy baby into the world. Literally everything that follows is exactly what everyone would expect. Every character, plot twist, scene, song, and situation is almost blatantly generic. Baby Mama is destined for USA/TNT re-runs and may have been more successful as a TV-movie. Despite the overwhelming flaws, Baby Mama contains a considerable number of laughs. Fey and Poehler are great on-screen together, and it's disappointing to see such talented actresses follow a huge laugh with a joke that has been recycled in twenty prior films. At times they look in prime form, but minutes later look like they know as well as the audience that the joke wasn't funny and appear to have a face that screams "I hope this doesn't make the final cut." It seems that if paired with a better writer or director, Fey and Poehler could make some good movies. The supporting cast is filled with big names which provide mostly average but some surprisingly funny performances. Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, and Sigourney Weaver are stale, but Steve Martin and Romany Malco (40 Year Old Virgin) do their best to give the film a bit of flavor. Not even a star-studded cast can save a bad story, particularly one loaded with horribly worn-out, stereotypical portrayals of African Americans, rednecks, and hippies plus odd references toward surrogacy, vegetarians, and other sectors of society. In the end, there are memorable laughs but only some women and huge Fey/Poehler fans will find it worth trudging through ninety minutes of blah to find them.

Good for: chick-flick fans, Tina Fey fans

Bad for: fans of Judd Apatow movies, 98% of the male population

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

* * * *

How is it possible that Judd Apatow slaps his name on multiple comedies per year and the well of hysterical, not-repetitive humor never runs dry? Yet again an Apatow produced film exceeds expectations; Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the funniest film of 2008 so far, that is until another Apatow film tops it. Although the producer extraordinare deserves his share of acclaim, the true stars of this film are the actors, including the star and writer of the film Jason Segel. Segel stars as Peter Bretter, the boyfriend of TV star Sarah Marshall. When Sarah dumps him and brings his life to a crashing halt, Peter goes to a personal hell and back (through Hawaii) to resurrect his life. The casting of the supporting characters by first time director Nicholas Stoller is brilliant. Apatow veterans Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, and Bill Hader are spot-on, as would be expected, and newcomers Mila Kunis (That Seventies Show), Jack McBrayer, and particularly Russell Brand effortlessly join the team, acting as if they have been delivering obscenely raunchy lines for years. Brand plays the rock star Sarah leaves Peter for, and his brain-dead, sex-crazed British lead singer is the most memorable and quotable character in the movie. The script, written by Segel and pitched to Apatow courtside at a Laker's game, is loaded with line after line of in your face vulgarity and subtle quips that may not hit you at first. Scenes with unabashed full-frontal nudity are paired with unthinkably original ideas such as a Dracula-based rock opera, and ingenious quick, cut-in scenes depicting a characters thoughts or words. Whereas Knocked Up combined raunch and unexpected pregnancy, and Superbad mixed the profane with adolescence, the newest film in the Apatow collection fuses a large dose of adult humor with the heartbreak and coping involved with an ending relationship. Each joke about genitals is backed up with a meaningful scene that most of the audience will be able to relate to. Like all romantic comedies there is some cliche, and the film runs a bit long at nearly two hours, but there are so many well-written characters, large and small, that the laughs keep coming, so much so that some jokes will be missed due to excessive cackling. The Apatow brand has added yet another classic to its dynasty, which now includes nearly ten films and countless big-time comedic actors. Forgetting Sarah Marshall isn't easy to forget, and provides enough laughs to make the next Apatow feature the most anticipated movie of the year.

Good for: any adults that laugh, a date

Bad for: uptight people, people offended by nudity and/or profanity

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * *
The Writer * * * *

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who (2008)

* * * *

In yet another big screen adaptation, Dr. Seuss' classic tale of Horton the elephant who discovers Whoville and his subsequent efforts to prove it exists is treated with an extended script, a star-studded voice-over cast, and vibrant computer animation. To transform a sixty-page children's book beyond a thirty minute animated special into a full-length feature movie requires a significant amount of original material, but this version of Horton stays true to the vision and spirit of the original work for the most part. The cast, which features Jim Carrey as Horton, Steve Carell as the Mayor of Whoville, Carol Burnett as Kangaroo, and Will Arnett as Vlad the vulture, is at times genius and off base. Carell is perfectly cast as the goofy, insecure mayor and brings depth and humor to the character. Likewise, Burnett and Arnett are superb as Horton's detractor and nemesis, respectively, both staying true to the original character and adding great original material. Carrey, and Seth Rogen, as Horton's best friend Morton, have their moments but are also distracting as Carrey goes way beyond what is necessary to portray Horton and is almost annoying at times, and the character of Morton is so clearly voiced by Rogen that it takes away from the unique environment of the film. The film is surprisingly very funny for children and adults, particularly for a G-rated movie, which is a credit to both the voice-acting and the writing. Original scenes, such as a short Japanese anime sequence, and original characters, such as the bizarre and hilarious Katie, are good for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The animation is stunning, up to par and beyond what is now expected from computer animation, and creates a unique atmosphere for the strange characters and events. There are many characters, small and large, and to watch them interact in the Seussian world many have come to love is great entertainment. Some dedicated Seuss fans may think too many liberties were taken with the script, which may be true, but this is simply another, more modern version of Horton for a new generation. Is it better than the original hand-drawn animated version? Probably not. But it maintains the fun and essence of Dr. Seuss to a great degree with many laughs and lessons for kids and their parents. Long-time Seuss fans will enjoy Horton for its faithfulness to the original, and those new to the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss will likely find much of what his dedicated fans have loved and more.

Good for: Seuss fans, children of all ages, the young at heart, a date

Bad for: mean people

Eastern Promises (2007)

* * * *

The formula of director David Cronenberg (The Fly), leading man Viggo Mortensen, and serviceable leading lady led to the highly disappointing, utterly awful A History of Violence; but somehow, the same formula results in the highly surprisingly, utterly brutal Eastern Promises. Italian and Irish mob films have become overplayed and run-of-the-mill, but Cronenberg's take on the Russian mob operating in London is an engaging thriller with moral undertones and strong performances. Mortensen stars as Nikolai, a callous, focused grunt on the rise, ready to take on any task handed down to him by his ruthless boss Semyon, played excellently by Armin Mueller-Stahl. Nikolai encounters Anna, played by Naomi Watts, a midwife who discovered a diary with a young girl who died giving birth to a baby. After asking her Russian uncle to translate the diary, Anna finds that the young girl and the father of her child had strange, dark ties to the mob. In her efforts to seek justice for the young mother's death and safety for the young baby, Anna must deal with the pressure from her own family to stay out of trouble and the interesting characters in Senyon's crime family. Cronenberg weaves the multiple stories involving Anna and Senyon's family masterfully with both revolving around Nikolai. This is likely Mortensen's best performance, menacingly strong, but subtle and human. The supporting cast is also well above average with noteworthy performances by Watts, Mueller-Stahl, and Vincent Cassell as Kirill, Semyon's flamboyant, erratic son. The original screenplay makes this more than just another gangster-flick, and the depth of the story will engage a broad audience. Eastern Promises is also one of the darkest movies of 2007 with a handful of scenes involving excessive violence that are difficult to watch. Although the scenes may be he necessary to convey the nature of the characters and events, some drag on and come across as unrealistic. The strong accents make the English difficult to understand, and even the most attentive viewer won't feel comfortable with the plot until nearly halfway in. At only 96 minutes, however, the movie never drags and comes and goes before you know it, so that difficult to watch and difficult to understand parts are never excessive. The fine editing, direction, and acting produce a compelling thriller that is surprisingly entertaining, but may be just dark enough to only merit one viewing.

Good for: crime-film fans, fans of dark movies, Viggo fans

Bad for: people bothered by violent films

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Bank Job (2008)

* * *

The Bank Job is a guilty pleasure; a thrill ride that is quite fun at the time but has little, if any, redeeming value. Thoroughly British, the film is based on the true story of the most lucrative and peculiar heist in the history of England. Jason Statham, most well known for his role in The Transporter series, stars as Terry Leather, a part-time villain given the opportunity to strike-big one last time before getting out of the world of crime. Saffron Burrows co-stars as Martine Love, the bombshell ex-model who gives Leather the tip on the caper. The heist is complicated but plausible, but what Leather doesn't know is the role and stakes Martine and the British government have in the heist. The back story involving government corruption, political and social radicals, and the underworld of pornography and the sex business provide a terrifically entertaining counterpart to the thrills involved with the heist itself. Unfortunately, beneath the shell of entertainment, the audience will likely find absolutely nothing. The acting is definitively mediocre, the direction rips off countless heist movies of the past, the score could not possibly be more chiche', and everything from the characters' names to most of the dialogue is pure cheese. The only noteworthy performances are by Peter De Jersey as Michael X, Britain's counterpart to Malcolm, and David Suchet as Lew Vogel, a smut-director and sex entrepreneur who has paid off Britain's finest for years. The two bad-guys are both deliciously dirty and the few scenes involving the two of them together stand out. There are more than a handful of honest laughs, most provided by the typical "team" of friends and specialists involved in the completing the heist. The laughs are supplemented by a twisting plot involving many shady characters who have a lot to gain and even more to lose. The silver-lining surrounding the entire film is that it is somehow based on truth. The plot seems inconceivable in terms of reality and cheesiness, yet the fact that the events actually happened the way they are presented takes away some of the shame felt for having enjoyed a film with zero emotional, artistic, or social value. The loony British humor and "how did this happen?" factor make The Bank Job an unexpected, yet slightly embarrassing, suspense-thriller indulgence.

Good for: heist fans, fans of "based on true story" films, British film fans, someone bored

Bad for: "film" lovers

The Gallery
The Economist: * * *

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

* * * *

Ben Affleck was brilliant in choosing the source material for his first turn as a director. Gone Baby Gone is an adaptation (screenplay also by Affleck) of a novel written by Dennis Lehane, whose last novel to be adapted for the screen was Mystic River. Affleck stayed close to home in more than one sense; the film is shot in Boston and Affleck cast his brother Casey as Patrick Kenzie in the lead role. Kenzie and partner Angie Gennaro, played by Michelle Monaghan, are two private detectives asked to investigate the case of a missing girl. As the investigation ensues it becomes clear that there is more to the story than a simple missing girl or kidnapping. The child's mother, played by Amy Ryan, is found to be a drug-user, accessory to drug-deals, and neglectful mother with strange family members, and the private investigation begins to conflict with the police investigation headed by Captain Jack Doyle, played by Morgan Freeman. Casey Affleck delivers a surprisingly powerful performance, showing he is capable of starring the show, at least with his brother in the director's chair. Supporting roles by Freeman and crime-movie veteran Ed Harris playing a cop for what has to be double-digit times are what can be expected; competent and adequate. Amy Ryan, nominated for an Oscar for her performance, effectively plays the troubled mother in what is probably the most believable and most bizarre character in the film. Gone Baby Gone comes extremely close to falling into average-movie traps with some painfully cheesy lines, scenes, and performances. The character played by Michelle Monaghan is a combination of bland acting and completely forgettable writing. But what makes the film a success is the unexpected transformation from a simple spider-web plot suspense-thriller to a contemplation on personal values, morality, and humanity. All of the twists of a mystery, surprises of a thriller, and relevance of a drama are there, and the impact of the conclusion will just be icing on the cake for most. Gone Baby Gone rewards the viewer for having attention to detail and will leave many with something to talk about for a few days after. As Affleck's first film as director, it will be interesting to see what comes next.

Good for: mystery fans, a date, philosophers

Bad for: the easily confused, those bothered by violence

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * *

Annie Hall (1977)

* * * * *

For those who have never seen a Woody Allen movie, the door to his unique-brand of cinema should be Annie Hall, his 1977 romantic comedy and Best Picture winner. Annie Hall may be best viewed as a virgin to Allen's work, so that all of his idiosyncrasies and quirks as an actor, writer, and director can be experienced in a raw, to-the-point, finely crafted film. Allen is not a great actor, but the character he created for himself, Alvy Singer, is a great character, and only Allen could play him. Neurotic, witty, pessimistic, and bitingly sarcastic, Singer is a stand-up comedian that meets and falls in love with the young Annie Hall played by Diane Keaton. Hall is a simple yet talented girl that sharply contrasts with Singer who is beyond complicated. Keaton won the Best Actress award for Hall in 1977, and her performance is subtle and elegant, but not phenomenal. Despite the lack of mesmerizing performances to draw the audience to the characters, the perfect script and timeless dialogue produce effortlessly real characters. To add to the feeling that the audience is sitting in on real life, Allen adds abrupt asides where Singer speaks directly to the camera and absurd situations the scene breaks and Singer approaches extras to ask them a question or the topic of a random conversation happens to appear in the room. Singer's cynicism and references will seem over-the-top and over-the-head of some viewers, and some of the lines and scenes are a bit indulgent, but Allen clearly understands the beauty and pain of the human relationship, and explores it in a way that is clearly distinct in film history. The opening and closing passages, spoken to the camera and in voice-over by Singer, are perfect book-ends to the perfect romantic comedy. The romantic comedy has been beaten to death in the 30+ years since 1977, leaving little relevance behind. But with Annie Hall, Woody Allen delivered an enduring blend of intelligent, sharp humor and thoughtful meditations on how essential and absurd relationships are.

Good for: Allen fans, fans of romantic comedies, a date

Bad for: those bored with art-films

Monday, February 25, 2008

Michael Clayton (2007)

* * * *

Despite having a remarkably unoriginal title, Michael Clayton succeeds due to a sharply written script, perfect casting, and strong performances from lead roles. Clayton is the directorial debut for Tony Gilroy, the writer behind all three films of the Bourne series, and stars George Clooney as an attorney who doesn't do typical "attorney" work, but works more as a fixer or legal handyman. Clooney has become synonymous with conspiracy films and this is no different, as the twisted inner-workings of the legal system are deeply explored. Clayton is responsible for pulling together the life of a manic depressant lawyer, Arthur Edens, played excellently by Tom Wilkinson, who has come off his medication and "seen the light" in terms of the case he had been working on for over five years. Tilda Swinton co-stars as Karen Crowder, one of the head-honchos for agricultural company U-North, who is trying to reach a settlement through the attorney Edens with those claiming they obtained cancer through U-North products. When Edens goes bananas, however, Swinton goes to all lengths legal and otherwise to maintain the integrity of her company and the settlement that is days from being completed. The dialogue that ensues is masterfully written and pieced together by Gilroy, as the pace of the film is quick, yet deliberate enough to envelop the viewer in the schemes being put in place by both sides of the story. Clooney fills the role of the down on his luck character who is smarter than everyone thinks he is just as well as he did in Syriana, and Swinton and Wilkinson are a double-dose of hysteria and conniving to balance the coolness of Clooney. Michael Clayton isn't anything that has never been seen before, in fact it plays like an homage to 1970s thriller/dramas that were well constructed and performed. In a genre full of average or worse entries, Clayton has a well-defined plot, doesn't over stay its welcome, and builds to an intense climax. The final scene, like most of Clayton, also isn't anything revolutionary. Unlike Clooney's last thriller, Syriana, which was too confusing for a vast majority of the audience, the plot of Michael Clayton is deep and clear. Because Gilroy built a plot in which every character's decisions, no matter how extreme, are made for a reason the viewer is shown and understands, the conclusion has much greater impact, and the case involved seems like something that could actually happen, and likely has happened. Hopefully Gilroy and Clooney will unite again in the future to continue to elevate the state of the conspiracy thriller genre and shed light on other shady dealings.

Good For: conspiracy-movie fans, Clooney fans, people who like legal movies

Bad For: those who are bored easily

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Persepolis (2007)

* * * * *

Persepolis is one of the most original, fresh movies of the year; a film that makes you feel like you have seen something unlike anything you have previously watched or thought of. The animated film, presented in French and with subtitles, is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi and was adapted for the screen and directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Satrapi's self-narrated story begins as a little girl being raised by progressive parents in Iran during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s and the fallout that occurred afterwards in the 1980s. Her account of the events involving both her family and country reveals that a girl raised in an overtly tyrannical country isn't that different from an American or anyone else growing up in the same time period. The film's best character, Marji's grandmother, provides the story's funniest humor and most lasting relevance as she lends advice to Marji and tells stories and parables. The independent spirit imparted on her by her grandmother lead to some of the films greatest scenes, such as teenage Marji negotiating a deal to buy a new Iron Maiden album on the streets of Iran and subsequently rocking out to it. Due to the increasing conflict and violence, Marji's parents send her to France for high school, and these years illuminate even more of the world's harsh realities such as prejudice and isolation. As Marji becomes a woman we see her cope with issues such as finding an identity in society and starting and ending relationships. The film is fast-moving while covering many years and many events and is proportionally amusing and moving. What makes Persepolis so brilliant, however, is the style of animation used to present the story. The black and white, nontraditional, sometimes abstract illustrations and over-the-top flashes and and cut-ins create an environment that is not only entertaining but universal in that no preconceived notions will influence the audience in any of the scenes. Whereas real actors and film may have isolated particular audiences, the drawings provide a means to portray very specific situations very few have experienced in a way that everyone can relate to. The voice-over work is nothing extraordinary and the soundtrack is fairly generic, but the story in this case is so incredibly strong that it carries the entire film on its shoulders into film history. The script and presentation of the script is legendary, so imaginative, refreshing, and thoroughly enjoyable that it is one of the best coming-of-age stories in some time. Equal parts a reflection on history and the lessons learned by fire in life, Persepolis unites the audience and drives home the point that in such a large world, the differences between us aren't that vast, and everyone has the same common pursuit of love, freedom, and happiness.

Good For: all movie fans, people interested in history, fans of foreign films

Bad For: people who cannot read subtitles, mean people

The Gallery
The Film Maker: * * * * *

The Hoax (2007)

* * * *

The Hoax is one of a very small group of movies that have very little depth or resonance but is a must-see simply for being a non-stop roller-coaster of entertainment. Based on a book and true story, The Hoax is the story of Clifford Irving, a down-on-his-luck writer who fabricated a mountain of lies to reach the top of the journalism industry in 1971. Irving is portrayed by Richard Gere, who turns in a surprisingly well-rounded performance. Irving is funny, charming, clever, creative, selfish, weak, greedy, devious, sly, obviously a bit crazy, and tremendously fun to watch. His writing partner, Dick Suskind, is played by Alfred Molina, one of the better character-actors in the business. Their friendship and partnership are constantly at edge as the high-stakes of their scheme weigh heavy on their personal lives. The Hoax, like other true stories, attains most of its drawing power from the amazement that something as unlikely and unfathomable as the events that take place actually did occur. To watch Irving and Suskind time and again hang on the fringe of failure and revelation but weasel their way forward in their quest for fame and fortune is enthralling. The supporting cast has no stand-out performances but is strong and creates an appropriate landscape of reality and reason against which the absurd events take place. Lasse Hallstrom, best known for directing the cult-classic What's Eating Gilbert Grape, stylistically presents the events in a fast-paced manner that keeps the audience guessing and at the edge of their seats, and creates the 70s environment of living to excess with a good soundtrack and real film clips. Although it could be said that The Hoax brings light to the inherent greed of both individuals (Irving) to go to such great ends to reach prosperity and of the corporate world (publishers) to be fooled so easily time and again in an effort to make a dollar, the film is much more of a thrill-ride than an expose'. It seems that only in America could something like the Hoax take place, where lies upon lies upon lies somehow begin to blur the scope of reality until something brings the truth into focus. The truth about this film, though, is that it is far from classic cinema, but will appeal to almost all audiences.

Good For: fans of conspiracy films, fans of "based on true stories" movies

Bad For: people who get frustrated with twisting storylines

The Savages (2007)

* * *

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are two of the finest actors in Hollywood, and the pairing of the two seems like a great match, but even their subtle, nuanced performances cannot make the drudge of a script very memorable. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, The Savages is the story of a brother and sister brought together to care for their aging, ailing father who is rounding the last lap of life. The film is billed as a dark comedy/drama that takes an honest look at the dynamics of family. The Savages clearly approaches the family unit from a unique perspective, that of the baby-boomer generation coping with the role-switch from care-receiver to caretaker within their own family, but the story and script offer very few laughs and plenty of awkward sadness and pity. Hoffman and Linney, as Wendy and Jon Savage, both create distinct characters that come across as very real people the audience can identify with. Many will be able to relate to the older brother, younger sister relationship and all of the disappointment, tension, cooperation, competition, and ultimately love, that it involves. The most memorable performance is likely by Philip Bosco, who portrays the Savage father, Lenny Savage. Bosco embodies the infinite spectrum of mindsets that accompany dementia and the gradual loss of one's mind and self and reminds us all too well of someone we may have in our lives. But unfortunately, the performances alone cannot carry the film as the direction and writing don't pull the viewer into the storyline or leave a lasting impression. The most memorable scene occurs in the film's first five minutes and involves the use of bodily fluids. The Savages will appeal to those who can directly relate to the characters and the circumstances, but those looking for laughs may find that the wait is pretty long and may not have been worth it.

Good For: psychologists, people who like family dramas, people who like sad films

Bad For: fans of dark comedies, Wes Anderson fans, the easily bored

Monday, January 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood (2007)

* * * * *

The acting, direction, and score of There Will Be Blood may add up to the darkest film of 2007, but it is also one of those films in which everyone involved just may have been at the top of their game. Paul Thomas Anderson, who is well-known for his film gems Boogie Nights and Magnolia, has crafted his epic, masterpiece with There Will Be Blood. Anderson loosely adapted Upton Sinclair's novel Oil from 1927 for the film which chronicles three decades of the life of oil prospector Daniel Plainview. The story explores many themes including family, capitalism, and religion and each of these is presented in the countless memorable scenes and events. From the opening sequence, Plainview is branded as a symbol of the desire, passion, cunning, and greed that is as much a part of the American dream as of the nature of man. Together Anderson and Day-Lewis, who plays Plainview, have created one of the most memorable, haunting, and disturbing characters in film history. Day-Lewis' portrayal of the oilman is astonishing and obscene and is easily the best performance of the year. If there was an award for best performance duo, Day-Lewis and Paul Dano would win hands down. The fact that Dano, who plays Reverend Eli Sunday, is even noticed alongside Day-Lewis speaks multitudes to his performance. He is the perfect counterpart to the overt menace of Daniel Plainview; Dano portrays Sunday as a man of God with the conflict of service and power running deep in his soul. His performance will surely elevate him from the unknown actor in Little Miss Sunshine to one of the most talented young actors in the business. The film pulls no punches; there is no Hollywood fluff and no rewarding plot circles. Anderson employs everything one would expect of a director of his stature; long scenes, brutally emotional dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and more than enough symbolism and allegory to keep the audience talking for days after. The biblical and historical references add layers upon layers of depth to a film which already brings so much to the table. Anderson recruited Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead to record the score, which is spot-on and adds resonance to many of the scenes. The film runs a little long at over two and a half hours, and the weight of the film will start to feel heavy on some viewers shoulders about two hours in. Like most great directors, there are a select few scenes which likely could have been more tightly edited, but remain to appease the director's vision/ego. It isn't often, though, that a combo of such powerful performances and masterful directing are brought together, and this is where the audience finds their reward. As bleak as it is brilliant, There Will Be Blood is a modern classic that is as powerful as its title alludes.

Good for: PTA fans, film fans in general, fans of epics, people who like symbolism/allegory

Bad for: people bothered by violence, people who dislike dark, long films

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Surfer: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

Cloverfield (2008)

* *

Although Cloverfield has been marketed and acclaimed for being something different from the typical movie experience, in terms of horror films, its mostly more of the same. Borrowing from (inspired by?) a multitude of previous films such as the Blair Witch Project, Godzilla, Independence Day, and even I Am Legend, Cloverfield comes across as an over-extended, ninety minute Universal Studios ride with all of the requisite wall-shakes, sound effects, and in-your-face visuals. The premise, a disastrous attack on New York City filmed from a hand-held, first person point-of-view, is interesting enough to draw in the horror audience and other movie-goers looking for a scare, but anyone looking for anything more will be disappointed. The cast of unknown actors perform average at best as a group of friends trying to stick together under the bizarre circumstances. Director Matt Reeves makes some gutsy calls in his feature-film debut, but is moving a hand-held camera around in disarray and blasting sound effects and blinking lights art or just a thrill ride? The screenplay, written by Drew Goddard who also writes episodes for the critically acclaimed Lost TV series, has a few bright spots of wit but sucks away the realism the hand-held camera was intended to create. There are some laugh-out-loud lines, which actually give Cloverfield some more depth than most generic horror films, but they appear at entirely inappropriate times. The tone of the film is so inconsistent that it is almost impossible to be emotionally invested in the "drama" of what are supposed to be dire circumstances. The special effects are reminiscent of other CGI-laden disaster flicks, but for those who go to the movies to see the unreal, watching Lady Liberty's head come rolling down a Manhattan street like a bowling ball will be worth the price of admission. Its unfortunate that Paramount owns Cloverfield and not Universal, because it would fit perfectly in the theme park; just add some water sprays, vibrating seats and some 3D goggles to the film as it is now. Most of the audience will need Dramamine just to get through to the credits already.

Good for: horror movie fans, CGI fans, people who liked the Blair Witch Project

Bad for: people who get motion sick

The Gallery
The Surfer: *
The Film Maker: * *