March 31, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow, 2012


The C.I.A. is working tirelessly to track down the world's biggest fugitive, Osama bin Laden. Intelligence is pulled from anywhere and everywhere, and Maya (Jessica Chastain) is at the forefront of the pursuit. This film is a reunion of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who won 6 Oscars for their work on The Hurt Locker in 2008. Very much like The Hurt Locker, this film is set in the Post-9/11 Middle East.

Jessica Chastain is introduced immediately, and you really witness the progression of an innocent bright eyed intelligence agent to one who becomes affected, sleep-deprived, and unwilling to regress. A woman who will stop at nothing to track down the #1 target. Maya is the movie version of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) from Homeland. Shes a type A personality who similarly wouldn't be able to maintain a romantic relationship because she is so heavily committed to her occupation. Chastain bears a resemblance to Bryce Dallas Howard, but she separates herself from her beautiful red-headed counterpart with her distinct acting chops.

The camera work in Zero Dark is near-perfect. A lot of impressive shots behind things, camera sitting on a desk, shots with corner of building in the right frame, birds-eyes of daylight marketplaces. Some of the cinematography early in the film reminded me of Soderburgh's style of clean shots in narrow spaces. These clean shots are constantly juxtaposed with some gritty images of torture huts, back-room offices. Some of the most impressive work came at the climax. While film-making is usually dependent on adequate lighting I have no idea how they were able to work with such an absence of it. When they descend upon the Pakistani Compound, you feel like you are there with them. I was literally standing up watching these events unfold. You obviously know whats going to happen, but knowing almost creates this noticeably pronounced anticipatory feeling. The brilliant application of tension in Zero Dark is very reminiscent to the techniques used in The Hurt Locker.

While I believe some of the elements in the film are fit for criticism (the intelligence gathering in the middle of the film seemed to get a bit monotonous), it still returns to form quickly. The story of killing Bin Laden is so compelling that it deserves the cinematic treatment. It's a story we'll be telling our grandchildren we witnessed. The assault on Bin Laden's compound is the modern-day equivalent to Hitler's Eagles Nest.

March 30, 2013

This is 40

Judd Apatow, 2012


A.K.A. This is 40 Minutes Too Long

          This sort-of sequel to Knocked Up focuses on the life of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). It is a fly-on-the-wall observation of a married couple reaching their mid-point in their lives. Watching the exhaustive process of raising two girls (with one in her pubescent phase), managing careers, and keeping the passion alive is enough to intimidate any young couple in their early years of marriage.
         While I LOVED Knocked Up, this film had some really endearing features but I believe it fell victim to Apatow's typical treatment of letting a film run too long. If this film ran 90 minutes instead of 134, I feel it would have succeeded. Some of the jokes and pop-culture references feel too forced, as if Seth MacFarlane were one of the punch-up writers. 40 also has that Big-Hollywood liberal plastic family feel to it. I would think that married couples in their mid-40's living in Oklahoma will have a tough time relating to the trials and tribulations of a family living in the perfect house and driving the $70,000 BMW and Land-Rover. I found myself laughing late into the film, but really only holding on to the scattered comedic moments and while having trouble adapting to the dramatic elements. Unfortunately because of all of the quick-cuts and choppy-edits, you never really get a chance to maintain footing. That's disappointing, because along the way there is some really great acting by Leslie Mann, Albert Brooks and John Lithgow.
          Apatow clearly has a lot to say, and this may be his most personal film. While I do think there is plenty of fat that could have been trimmed, I appreciate this film in the sense that Judd gave you some access to his own life, more than in his earlier films. He's the guy with the cupcake problem, the guy who sits on the toilet phantom-pooping with his iPad, and the guy who is trying to keep the love alive. Maybe we just didn't need it all at once.

March 26, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

Rich Moore, 2012

Ralph (John C. Reilly) is sick of being the "bad guy" in his popular arcade game while watching good guy Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) get all of the praise. After feeling ignored when he didn't receive an invitation to the 30th anniversary of the video game, Ralph decides to rebel against the long-enforced arcade rules to try to prove himself as the good guy. If Tron and Toy Story had a baby, it would be Wreck-it. The film is loaded with eye candy that at times make you feel like you're playing Candyland on acid. Sarah Silverman really delivers the stand-out performance as Vanellope. Wreck-it feels nostalgic, with recognizable video game characters from my youth. The vibrant visuals are augmented by an 8-Bit soundtrack. While Wreck-it is imaginative, positive, and loaded with familiar cultural references - it ultimately feels formulaic and predictable. But that's okay, because there's really something in it for everyone.

March 25, 2013


Chan-Wook Park, 2003

          Dae-su Oh is suddenly abducted and put in solitary confinement in what looks like a run-down motel room for 15 years. He is released without knowing why he was imprisoned. What follows is a pursuit of answers, and revenge. Chan-Wook Park delivers a masterpiece that is so well made, that it really sets the bar high for the Revenge-film genre. Every single element in Oldboy from the Cinematography (Chung-hoon Chung), Editing (Kim Sang-beom) to the Music (Jo Yeong-wok) is so impeccable and they all maintain a noticeable presence as you watch. There are fight sequences that will remind you of The Raid: Redemption coupled with imaginative visual elements reminiscent of Watchmen. The Korean landscape in Oldboy is bleak and paints a picture of a very scary world. A world in which if you live recklessly enough and without conscience, there are dark forces out there that can literally sweep you up in the blink of an eye. In Oldboy that sweep happened to come with a beautiful elevated shot as the camera ascended above a telephone booth on the rainy night streets. The artfully crafted blood & violence in the film is not overdone, very much unlike the over-gratuitous gore in Kill Bill. There were a lot of twists in the story-line that I didn't see coming, and the climax of this film is among the best I've ever seen. This film packs a punch, and does not dumb itself down. It will stick with you. I ended up watching it twice in one day and it was even better the second time around. I was very disappointed to hear that Spike Lee is filming a remake of this. Makes me wonder why we can't just let good foreign movies sit in the form in which they were originally created (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Let the Right One In). 

March 22, 2013

The Princess Bride

Rob Reiner, 1987

          The Princess Bride falls in love with a local farm-hand, someone who lives much lower on the social ladder than herself. Soon after they acknowledge their love for each other, he is called off to war. She soon receives word of pirates attacking his ship and vows to never love again.
          This film has the quirky love-tale elements of Robin Hood: Men in Tights paired with the comedic mythical elements of Cabin Boy but in the end is a much better looking offspring. The film is so well edited with such beautiful scenery and set design. The comedy lands exactly where its supposed to, over thirty years later. I am late to the party on this film. I heard so many familiar references that I had heard so many times before without knowing their exact origin. My favorite character was Vizzini, played by character actor Wallace Shawn. Favorite scene: the sword fight between Westley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin! WHOA! Saul from Homeland?! Had no idea). Currently #192 on IMDB's Top 250, and clearly deserves a spot on the list. This exceeded my expectations, and it won't be the only time I see this film.


Bruce McDonald, 2008

          Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a lifer alcohol-fueled disc-jockey who drags himself into a snow-covered dreary studio to do his night shift - expecting it to be a very typical broadcast. He soon realizes the impending blizzard has also brought something else with it, a mysterious virus that has an immediate sweeping effect on the small town of Pontypool. Soon enough it makes its way to the Studio where he is left with limited resources, company, and the facts on what is causing it. His two producers, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) look to him for guidance, and he is left to rely on his experience and quick-wit.
          This film is rather refreshing given the already over-saturated pool of zombie films. It's a twist on the genre that I have not seen before, and was quite surprised and impressed when it revealed itself. I really liked the bleak colors used and the look of the aged studio with its paint-peeling walls and long neglected decor. McHattie and Houle really stood out in their roles. The filmmaker really played with audio which seems to be a less-traveled road where zombie film-makers tend to rely more on heavily stylized gore. There is a scene in the first act where Grant Mazzy pulls over on the side of the road after he drops his cell phone on the passenger-side floor. A woman who he believes is his daughter knocks on his door and he immediately realizes is a hallucination. As she disappears there is an ambient, repetitive voice that echoes for about 10 seconds or so. The subtlety of that moment haunted me and stuck with me more than any other single moment in the film. McDonald was able to hold onto that technique though, and it continued to play out through the rest of the film in slightly varied incarnations.
          You serve as Grant Mazzy's invisible companion over the course of the night. Grant Mazzy is lonesome yet approachable. He seems heart-torn but remains a curious intellectual. You later end up dealing with the same level of uncertainty as he is, where the frantic speculators make phone calls to the studio which ultimately turns into actual physical bodies OUTSIDE the studio doors. You need to feel comfortable with Grant Mazzy because he's all you got. And it's not so bad.

March 20, 2013

Madness in the White City

Bill Kurtis, 2007


The world was on the edge of their seat waiting for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The fair, called The Columbian Exposition, would showcase the world's first Ferris Wheel, the first fully electrical kitchen with a dishwasher, spray painting, and even a newly created popcorn confection that would later be called Cracker Jacks. Little did the visitors to the fair know that nearby there was a hotelier, H.H. Holmes,  murdering his occupants in his very own fun-house. What carries this 45 minute documentary is the story. There is beautiful black and white archival photography of the Guilded Age. The large scale of actually creating the fairgrounds is amazing and impressive. It's unique that while such a large scale construction project is really displaying the American spirit at its best, there is a Psychopath right across town revealing the worst side of humanity. Because it is a TV movie you should expect poor reenactment footage, and you will get a dose of that. Overall, an interesting quick watch that should please.

March 18, 2013

12 Angry Men

Sidney Lumet, 1957


Twelve men of various ages and socioeconomic backgrounds are on a jury to decide the fate of a boy accused of stabbing his father to death. If there is a guilty verdict, that boy will most certainly be put in the electric chair. They take an immediate casual vote to see if they are all on the same page and can end the case quickly so they can quickly adjourn and get on with the rest of their lives. This doesn't happen so efficiently  The one "not guilty" vote by an anonymous juror creates turmoil. What follows is an examination of morality, compassion, and honesty. While Lumet's Network feels dated, this film does not. These themes are timeless. The film was shot so well, especially given the limited amount of space used. The entire film is basically set in the deliberation room. The room was humid and grimy, with the constant curls of cigarette smoke inching its way toward the ceiling off the broken-in wooden table. The build up of the humidity in the room climaxed with a thunder-storm that paralleled the tension. The perfectly crafted TENSION is brilliantly applied. They enter this room almost certain of their decision. As the lone challenger begins to scrutinize the details of the case, they not only examine the case with such detail but they are ultimately forced to look into themselves and their pasts. Their compassion builds as they put themselves in the shoes of the boy. You as the viewer do the same. By the end of the film I was even questioning my own personal stance on capital punishment. 12 Angry Men was nominated for 3 Oscars and is currently #6 on IMDB's Top 250, and deservedly so. You can feel the influence that it has on so many films that have followed.

March 9, 2013

The Fourth Kind

Olatunde Osunsanmi, 2009


          Alaskan psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovavich) is alarmed when several of her patients are experiencing similar memories that seem like alien abductions. She uses her skills hypnosis to try and tap into the root of these memories in an attempt to provide treatment.
          A poor script, bad acting and forced fake archival footage ruin this film. The premise of alien abduction victims seeking therapy is actually not a horrible one. You get your hopes up when you see that Jovavich is in it, who has really provided some great performances (The Fifth Element) in the Sci-Fi genre in the past. Unfortunately this wasn't one of her best roles. If Aliens HAD landed in Nome, Alaska I wish they would have taken this footage with them as well. The constant overlay of fake archival footage is distracting and takes you out of the moment. You will have neck pain from constantly having to shift your focus left and right at the "archival footage" and the Actor recreating the moment from the opposite side of the split-screen. They should have just relied on good acting because the film was very obviously fictional from the beginning. The disclaimer at the beginning by Milla Jovavich, warning you of the disturbing images you are about to see, will make your eyes roll. Such weak writing when the sheriff tells her she is under arrest after a traumatic event during one of the therapy sessions. What exactly, officer, was she being charged with? There is a long build-up during the length of the film but it falls flat at the end and is dull throughout the whole process. There is nobody to get behind. 
          The only positive of this film was the periodic images of the Alaskan landscape, which provided a marginal aesthetic. But this film could have very well been filmed in Colorado. Apparently Universal tried to hype the film up by releasing fake newspapers prior the release. You really shouldn't have to try that hard. 


Searching for Sugar Man

Malik Bendjelloul, 2012


          Rodriguez was one of the best singer-songwriters to come out the 1970's, and nobody knew who he was. His albums never experienced commercial success. Although he sounded very similar to Bob Dylan, he never came close to gaining the same level of fame. His music had soul. You hear themes of struggle, love, desperation. He faded into obscurity in the United States, but unbeknownst to him - he was a HUGE musical figure in South Africa. In South Africa, he was bigger than Elvis. South Africans found comfort in his music while they were in the oppressive grips of apartheid. He inspired them... and he never knew it.
          This is the best documentary that I've seen in 2013 thus far. It deservedly won the Oscar for Best Documentary. I had heard so much buzz on this film that I wondered if it could live up to the hype. It exceeded my expectations, and you are better off going into this film knowing NOTHING. Go in blindly because there are some really great twists that add to the already compelling story. It's also well shot. Great pan shots of Detroit city streets, empty parking lots with glowing street-lit snow piles. Deteriorated motor city brownstones with plywood windows. Beautifully gritty stock video footage of 1970's Detroit, displaying theater-fronts with unlit marquees and newspaper littered streets. It even shows you historical poverty-stricken sections of Detroit, reminding you that their economic woes are not only limited to this past decade. Rodriguez came from a blue collar working American family, pouring years of sweat on the Chrysler assembly line. That only adds to the irony that someone who is arguably MORE American than Bob Dylan never caught on with the American people. What was it? Was it his ethnicity? Was it because the name Rodriguez doesn't have that Rock and Roll edge to it? Did people just write him off when they heard his name, like he was a Latin-American musician? I wonder if he appeared today, would a more open-minded American public be more receptive to his music?
          My biggest question that went unanswered was what happened to the band-members? You hear Rodriguez' music, and while the vocals and the songwriting is very prominent - there is also impressive musical work going on as well. Where are those people now? Are they still in the music industry? Did they feel ignored by America like Rodriguez did?

March 7, 2013

The Prestige

Christopher Nolan, 2006


          Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are rival magicians with a long history together. This was not always the case, as they had started their apprenticeship together in earlier years. Any bond they had was eventually torn by tragedy, which planted a seed of disdain and envy that grew into a complicated hatred as the years went on. The jealousy also grew as they continued to try to outdo each other in their performances. When Borden finally introduced his "Transporting Man" demonstration into his act, Angier HAD to figure out the method. Seeking help from Nicola Tesla (David Bowie), he was determined to reveal Borden's trickery, if only for himself to outdo in his own repertoire.
          A day later this film is sticking with me. I am mad at myself for waiting so long to see this, especially after hearing so much positive feedback from everyone. It reeks of Nolan immediately, of course in a good way. Christian Bale is an amazing actor and Nolan really knows how to direct him well. Hugh Jackman, who is usually hit or miss for me is great and really delivers a memorable performance, probably the best performance I've seen from him. With such sophisticated attention to detail this film clearly deserved its Oscar nod for Best Art Direction (although I cannot fault the Academy for giving the award to Pan's Labyrinth). Scarlett Johansson was stellar in her role as Angier's assistant, Olivia Wenscombe, someone who is passionate and multi-layered. Rebecca Hall, who played Sarah Borden, was also really impressive. There really wasn't one bad performance in the film.
         I don't believe ANYONE other than Nolan could have made this film. The direction was so flawless and the story-line really made you feel as if you were an audience member watching the magician's perform. Nolan jumps around in the timeline of the story, in that Nolan-esque way. The film has everything: suspense, love, death, surprise, spectacle, and DAVID BOWIE! The ending was very satisfying, in fact I am still thinking about it.

March 6, 2013

Friends With Kids

Jennifer Westfeldt, 2011


          Jason Fryman (Adam Scott) and Julie Keller (Jennifer Westfeldt), best friends since college, are enjoying their bachelor status. They watch as their four best friends transition to a life with children. They quickly see their laid-back lifestyles erode and become frantic, tense and stressed. Their once stylish New York apartments are now filled with tipped-over plastic firetrucks on the floor and toddler screams echoing the walls. But they are also getting the itch to have children of their own. They decide to experiment with an idea of having children together as friends, but continuing to maintain their serial dating lives while raising the child and splitting all of the costs down the middle.
          From a film-making perspective, there is so much quick-cutting early on that it is hard to maintain focus. The backdrop of New York City provides a nice visual aesthetic to the film, but it lacks all of the charm and sincerity of some other romantic comedies filmed in New York (ie. When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall). The tense dynamic of Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex's (Chris O'Dowd) relationship seems cartoonish, like caricatures of a married couple with the resigned husband and the nagging wife, reminiscent of Everybody Loves Raymond. You get excited to see so many of the cast-members from Bridesmaids, but the comparison between the two films is night and day.
          Ultimately the film seems too far-fetched and unrealistic. While the plot itself feels original, the story becomes predictable. There is also some bad acting that really takes you out of the moment. There is a plot-hole late in the film that feels lazy, followed by a poor ending. There is already an over-saturation of mediocre romantic comedies out there, and here is another one that can join the herd. 

March 4, 2013

The Queen of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield, 2012


Schadenfreude -  is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

This is a documentary that is basically a "riches to rags" tale. It follows the Siegels, a wealthy couple who at the beginning of the film are building a replica of the Palace of Versailles as a home, only to hit a rough patch with their wealth that comprimises the construction of their dream home. You don't feel sorry for the couple, and why would you? The house is a monstrocity, and they are an epitome of everything thats going wrong with our country. Jackie Siegel, the wife, at least has some compassion, some sense of generosity. The problem is her greedy naïveté overshadows these qualities. David Siegel is even worse. You see that he is nothing but an arrogant shell of a person. When things are going good he is a lukewarm, egotistical narcissist. As soon as the fortune begins to dwindle you see the real David appear. The douchiest of douches. They make you grateful for your status quo. They are not able to stop and smell the roses, because there are no roses. There is only a garage filled with unused bicycles from past Christmases, and endless white carpets covered in ignored dog feces. The half built construction site is a symbol of their empty souls. The best thing that could happen to these people is they lose everything and get brought down to the same level as the rest of humanity. The only praise I will give them is that they were willing to let the camera document so much over the course of two years, through what they considered difficult times for their family. As far as the filmmaking went, the structure itself seemed loose but there was noticeably impressive editing. Its no surprise that the Siegel's ended up filing a defamation suit against Greenfield after this film was released.

March 3, 2013

Louis C.K. - Live at the Beacon Theater

Louis C.K., 2011


You are doing yourself a great disservice if you have not seen Louis C.K. perform. You're missing out on someone who is in their prime, performing at the top of their game. He is writing a new hour, EVERY YEAR. He throws away the old hour completely, even though that material was KILLING in front of crowds of 2500 people or more. This is unbelievable considering there are many stand-up comedians who are still using the same material they were using a decade ago. He's raising the bar, and inspiring the stand-up community. I don't believe any stand-up would argue with you if you said hes the best stand-up out there right now. He's put in his time, he deserves every minute of this success.


Sidney Lumet, 1976


Network immediately feels dated, but once it settles in you really get a sense of what makes this film appealing. The exchange of dialogue and performances by Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall and Peter Finch is what carries Network. The film itself is devoid of a score, the set design is limited to the confines of high rise office space, and the occasional narration is raspy and monotonal. Its similar to Glengarry Glen Ross in the sense that the dialogue is so hypnotic that you don't really need anything else and it relies heavily on individual performances. I found myself glued to three or four of the big exchanges in the film (most notably the board room scene and the fight between Dunaway & Holden late in the film). The film is definitely guilty of having some overacting. Network achieves its goal of being a satire piece on the relentless pursuit for ratings in television, sacrificing ethics and personal relationships along the way. It's also quite impressive how prophetic the film actually is, given the endless amount of trash that is put on broadcast television nowadays for shock value. This film deserved the Best Screenwriting Oscar without question. While I am glad I saw Network for its historical cinematic importance, it is not something I feel too inclined to see again anytime soon.

March 2, 2013

Mesrine: Part 1 - Killer Instinct

Jean-Francois Richet, 2008


If Scarface and A Prophet had a baby, it would be Mesrine. The comparison may be a bit misleading, because this film is on a different level than Scarface. It's one of the best gangster films I've ever seen. Its the biopic of Jacques Mesrine, a real-life notorious French gangster. The setting is in the late fifties through the late sixties. Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, and its the best performance I've seen from him. All of the acting in this film is spot on. There a noticeable Scorcesian sense of grittiness. Cinematography is perfect. Not one bad shot in the film, and the scenery in France, Spain and Canada only added to the overall beauty. I really enjoyed the opening of the film with the split-screen multi-angle shots. Because the film's timeline spans across a decade, there are some sudden jumps but it always remains fluid. It doesn't dumb itself down for the audience, one of my favorite qualities of foreign films. Jacques Mesrine is a fascinating character. There is a warm-hearted innocence to him early on in the film but that quickly washes away and gives way to a dark, depraved core. He doesn't mind blood on his hands, and develops a distorted set of principles. He is abusive, doesn't respect women, and is over-compensating for his fathers pacifistic dynamic he had with his mother. I won't detail any of the film because I do not want to give away any plot points at all. I can't wait to jump into part two. Had no idea it was a two part series until the final credits started rolling.

March 1, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed

Colin Trevorrow, 2012


Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni and Mark Duplass star in this film about a magazine doing a piece on a Craigslist ad from a mystery man looking for a companion to go back in time with. The film jumps right into the introduction of Plaza's character Darius. Darius is a sad sap, still living at home, who is looking for a minimum wage job to spark some kind of progression in her life. She settles for an intern gig at Seattle magazine. She has immediate interest in the investigative piece on the time travel ad, and ends up going away for a few days with the two other men who work for the magazine. One guy is the misogynistic frat-guy type who has the ulterior motive of hooking up with an old fling while they are away (even though it was his idea to pursue the Craigslist ad), and the other guy is an intellectual Middle-Eastern introvert in his early twenties. He's only working for the magazine to add some extra color to a presumably long list of academic and occupational achievements on his resume.

From a cinematic perspective the film is cleanly edited, has witty dialogue, good music and a genuine romantic element.  I am REALLY picky with comedies these days - in fact I don't even remember the last really good one I've seen. I was happy to see Mark Duplass outside of The League, and he seems to have some range because his character Kenneth was quite distant from his League character Pete. I was really impressed with Aubrey Plaza's performance. She fits nicely into that category of comedic actresses who play on that awkward/uncomfortable theme (Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Kristen Schaal).

The films in the "romantic comedy/time travel" genre do not have a lot of company... So you're already in pretty unfamiliar territory when making a film like this. It also puts you in the company of films like Back to the Future, so there are also high expectations. This film succeeded in the sense that it doesn't even matter if the time machine exists. The humor hits when it needs to and the love feels real.