October 29, 2013

Pacific Rim

Guillermo del Toro, 2013

As giant alien creatures (known as the Kaiju) ascend from the middle of the earth to destroy humanity, humans join together to mobilize a defense. They decide to fight fire with fire as they create massive robots called Jaeger's that rival the Kaiju in size. These robotic machines are human operated involving two people bound by the mind. They are able to gain a bit of a foothold in the war with their machines but are intent on destroying the crevice in which they emerge from.

A film likely to be adored by thirteen year old boys across America. And only them. Guillermo del Toro proves that he should stick to the Fantasy genre, and not enter the world of big Hollywood Blockbusters. Toro goes from treating viewers to such haunting, imaginative creations in Pan's Labyrinth to removing all layered storytelling and just shoving big budget effects down our throats. Like the monstrous Jaegers in Pacific Rim, the film is bloated, too big for its own good, uninspired, and derivative. The premise itself feels imitative. The look of Iron Man. The interface of Avatar. The utter destructionism of Godzilla. The Transformers-like battles. Yeah, we've seen all of that. It's been done before. 

What is the point of the soldiers proving that they are capable of proving their martial arts abilities? The robots don't even utilize those moves. They slowly punch through the air like soaking wet Rock-em Sock-em toys. Oh, and they can break out a sword in a clutch moment to abruptly end the battle so the film can make one of many erratic cuts in the story? How convenientThe $190M budget was clearly spent on CGI and not on the writing. The dialogue is so elementary and just feels empty and downright lacking. Cliche sayings like "step into my office" or "let me check for a pulse, okay, no pulse". Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) does step out of his Jax Teller comfort zone (albeit handcuffed to Ron Perlman), and does come off as a more wholesome figure than his well-known Samcro President role. And poor Idris Elba. The man who will always live in infamy for his role as Stringer Bell deserves more than this. But he probably made the mistake we all did. We all saw Guillermo del Toro's name on it, and thought: "how could this be a bad move?!". He had nothing to work with. The soldiers jump into the Jaeger head and they look like Daft Punk members who couldn't play an instrument. The interpersonal relationships between father and son, or almost-lovers feels rigid. It will be interesting to see how history treats this film. Maybe Guillermo is saying bye bye to his darker days. Clearly at this point he is more inclined to channel Ishiro Honda instead of The Brothers Grimm. 

October 27, 2013

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Henry Selick, 1993

From the mind of Tim Burton comes a story about Halloween Land and its inhabitants. After another successful holiday, Jack Skellington expresses his boredom with the repetition and looks for something different to reinvigorate his interest in Halloween. He ventures to a crossroads that has a doorway to Christmas Land. There, he finds a completely different world... one that he becomes quite enamored with.

This film was made in a time when Burton used to make good films. Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman. Back in a time when Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter weren't fixtures in every piece of work. And despite the fact he didn't direct this one, his personality is all over it. The film is basically a Tim Burton PCP trip laid out before your eyes. A glance into his younger, more creative brain. Bizarre, odd-shaped claymation with an impressive amount of detail. Headless creatures, windy roads etched with curvature, circular tree branches. Everywhere you turn, there's a ghost, ghoul or vampire lurking ready to pop out and go into song. And there's plenty of song. A bit much, actually. In front of Elfman's catchy score are lyrics that end up feeling repetitive and tiresome. It's an eerie musical with Jack Skellington at the forefront. He plays the curious one, the seeker, the explorer. The inhabitants of Halloween Land are satisfied with their existence but he grows hungry. The film plays on the dichotomy of Halloween and Christmas, and reinforces a sort of alternate dimension approach to them where one world isn't aware of the other. When Jack's cross-pollination occurs it's quite artfully done, with the Christmas set pieces almost coming off as a satisfying Candyland game board. But the simple message takes a long time to get delivered as it heads down its predictable path. It's certainly not rich in story as it's a feast for the eyes. While Burton's characters are uniquely constructed, the film could be watched with the volume down. Probably at least worth a single watch to see Burton's art at work, at the peak of his career. 

October 26, 2013

Ghostbusters II

Ivan Reitman, 1989


The population of ghosts seem to be increasing in the Big Apple, which puts the Ghostbusters back in business. They realize that the bad vibes of the city are actually causing a pink slime to materialize below the city that in turn is energizing the reanimation of an ancient genocidal ruler from his painting in the Manhattan Museum of Art.

The sequel to the 80's cult classic holds up. It could easily make a list of "Most consistent sequels ever", because it really feels like an accurate continuation of the first film. "Movies that if they are on television, you can't turn the channel and must sit down and watch". The screenplay is superb, the script is impeccable, and the acting is great because you are really seeing Dan Akroyd, Harold Remis, Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver at the peak of their careers. Also at his peak is Rick Moranis, who has been noticeably absent from cinema since his self-imposed retirement in 1997 after becoming a single dad when his wife died of cancer. It's a masterful blend of the supernatural and comedy genres. Michael Chapman is really great behind the camera in this film as well, such as the Statue of Liberty scene. The film also gives you another serving of an 80's soundtrack that if you don't like, you are empty inside. How dare anyone criticize the effects. The proton-packs are on equally par with light-sabers, no argument. That would be one of the disappointing elements of a future remake of this franchise, which you know will come twenty years from now. They will have some cutting-edge visuals that will take away all of the grit and everything that made these films so good. The younger generation will then criticize the Ghostbusters purists as being old-timers. Ugh. Both films are an ode to the older New York City. Pre-9/11 (as you are reminded seeing the sky-scape shots of the Twin Towers), Pre-Giuliani, Post-Taxi Driver, Pre-Disneyfication of Times Square, Mid Central Park Ghost jogger. The city where the film's fictional Mayor reminds the boys that "Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker's God-given right". This is an American Classic. One of those films you can't wait to force your kids to watch when they get older, and they damn well better appreciate it for what it is.

October 23, 2013

Our Idiot Brother

Jesse Peretz, 2011

Ned (Paul Rudd) has run into some tough luck with some legal troubles and a breakup with his girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn). He turns to his three sisters, who all seem to be preoccupied with their own lives to provide support.

An ensemble cast fuels the film with a lot of the usual suspects of the modern comedy world. Paul Rudd brings his very Paul Rudd persona to the film, and that's never really a bad thing. His character in this film would be the equivalent to his character in Wanderlust if he lived in the commune for years and were suddenly evicted. He possesses a certain naivete that doesn't really help him elevate him in any kind of professional capacity but he certainly should sleep better at night than his sisters do. He means well. Tries to do the right thing. A happy failure. Failure is a subjective term though. Is he a failure because he doesn't have the house, or the children, or the job? His sisters play hot potato with his couch surfing, and don't really feel any kind of familial gravitational pull. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is completely obsessed with making her mark in her journalism career. Liz (Emily Mortimer) is wrapped up in with her children and seemingly disinterested husband. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is just wrapped up in herself. Maybe they all are. All of these different lifestyles, but with one common theme. They all push Ned away despite the fact that he is really the one force that can help them. How does he help? That's sort of complicated. Hard to say really. You could say things have to get bad before they get better? Sometimes you need a good shakeup in your life? Testing the foundation? Maybe all of those. Ned comes in like a hippie tornado, and completely disrupts their lives, and the whole time has this whole "Whoa, was just trying to help... didn't mean for all of this to happen!" approach to it all. And that feels genuine, and quite charming.

And it's a modern comedy so of course it has its flaws. The attempt to ugly up Rashida Jones is quite obvious, and quite honestly... still fails. You need more than a giant pair of dorky glasses on her face to do that. Why did she need to be "uglied up" in the first place? Let her be her. Is it Peretz' attempt to make her more of the tomboy lesbian type? In the end, not really important and not so pertinent to the overall plot. Emily Mortimer's English accent leaks throughout the film. The attempted backdrop of New York City feels completely absent. The fact that those are the flaws actually speaks well for the film. Everything is actually put together quite nicely. The funny hits the target when it needs to (often having an effective Improv-ish tone), and the dramatic moments hit close enough.

October 20, 2013

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

George Clooney, 2002

Ambitious television producer Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) who created The Gong Show and The Dating Game also moonlights as a CIA operative assassin in this film directed by George Clooney and a screenplay written by Charlie Kaufman. Based on a memoir written by Barris.

Sam Rockwell is a good choice for Chuck Barris. Barris is sort of an unassuming figure. At one point in the film Jim Byrd (Clooney) says to Chuck: "You're a fairly bright guy. You'll figure it out". And that sort of sums up a lot about Chuck. He has the drive, there's no doubt about that. But his youth was full of rejection, and that never really subsided. And life isn't necessarily timed perfectly. When he finally meets the girl who is sincerely attracted to him, Chuck has a lot of fires burning. He wasn't exactly thrilled to take on the job working for the CIA, but does anyway without much defiance. And that's why Jim chose him anyway. He fit the profile. What was the profile? Probably a softy loner who wasn't going to stand out. Someone who nobody really looks at twice. Someone who is quite forgettable. Not one to solicit a second glance. Someone perfect for Sam Rockwell, who is no stranger to playing the "also-ran" type of character.

The film at times offers a taste of classic film noir. At other times its more of a character study. And other times it feels like a black comedy mixed with a crime drama. Clooney is quite capable in the director's chair, there's no doubt about that. The scene where the camera pans while introducing the various contestants really gives the feeling its all one continuous shot. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel plays with a lot of color, at times an absence of it. There's a certain stylistic quality to the film that at times feels almost Sin City-like. You get a sense that the entire film has a lot of skillful people behind the camera, and it's realized quite early on that everyone in front of the camera is more than capable. It's not going to be a film for everyone, and it's certainly not Kaufman's best screenplay, but it's a film that should certainly be appreciated for the production-value.

October 19, 2013


Brian De Palma, 1976

Outcast Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is young girl with a secret ability who is tormented by her high school classmates. After an embarrassing shower incident, some of the girls look for revenge while she is just looking to fit in. Based on the book by Stephen King.

One of the better film adaptations of Stephen King's work. This film doesn't appear on a lot of peoples lists in terms of best King films, and that's an oversight. Because ultimately it's a better film than 1408. It's a better film than Sometimes They Come Back. And it's certainly a much better film than Secret Window. The film is an example of old times, old traditions, an old world. A world in which teachers can physically hit their students if they mouth bath. A world in which the act of bullying is ruthless, and in the norm. A world of old gym lockers, and high socks. A world of drinking cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon while driving.

De Palma does a terrific job of directing the film, and the final product is well-organized. Mario Tosi demonstrates some great cinematography with several stand-out moments. The scene where the gym teacher is forcing the girls to exercise during detention. The camera pans just above ground level, capturing the very much outdated clothing and the complaining moans of the girls at each rep. The prom scene is perfectly put together. The glittery silver paper stars sort of give a sense of false pageantry, a disconcerting elegance. The dance band plays on as the sense of uneasiness continues. The camera spins around Carrie as she is experiencing a lot of firsts at once, creating an intoxicating dizziness. Spacek really delivers a great performance. Immediately sympathetic, her eyes tell a whole story. One of the flaws of the film is her mother, played by Piper Laurie. She was surprisingly nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but her character is very much over-the-top and borderline cartoonish. Probably a character better suited for a book than on film. But Spacek deserved her Oscar nod, and unfortunately lost to Faye Dunaway in Network (tough call there). Some of the horror films like this (although this is more of a thriller) play off a demonic less-is-more let-your-imagination-do-the-work minimalist approach. Character driven 1970's pieces focused on a central force like The Exorcist or The Omen. Films like this can't be made today on a $1.8M budget, and that's a shame. Instead, they are remade on a large budget that relies heavily on CGI to tell the story. A lot ends up being lost. But it's hard to categorize this film as well. It always felt as if it were marketed as a horror. But it's not really that scary. It's more of a well-acted, well-constructed, revenge piece.

October 13, 2013


Alfonso Cuaron, 2013

Novice astronaut & medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney) must work together to survive after their space mission is abruptly interrupted by a debris storm.

This limited-storytelling picture opens in the infinite landscape of space as astronauts are performing maintenance duties on the station. Rather than being a space-film existing in the comforts of being in a air-locked ship, much of the time is actually spent outside. An almost complete absence of sound creates a very disconcerting feeling. The early sound you hear are some oldies echoing through Matt's headset as he communicates with Houston. Some segments become a white-knuckle fight, trying to grab onto anything secured. The problem is, everything attached seems frighteningly detachable, and from a distance there's no clear indication. Seeing earth from above the atmosphere can go from being a beautiful time-stopping thing to a very isolating feeling. You're stuck in an outside world where the world below is completely unaware of any dilemma that may arise. We all likely believe that the space stations we build are rock solid (probably because they cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build), and can withstand anything. Gravity certainly proves this wrong. And in zero gravity, small objects can cause large problems. And with a communication breakdown, that only becomes more isolating. Audio hisses, and teardrops float. Clooney and Bullock have a complimentary dynamic. Matt Kowalski's carefree demeanor is basically the opposite of Ryan Stone's distressed character. You sort of have to have a character like Kowalski's present, otherwise things would just become so stiff your heart rate would never slow down watching. Both are fine for the roles, with Bullock bringing more to the table. Clooney doesn't really break out of his typical mold. But Bullock has evolved quite a bit from similarly toned Annie Porter in Speed.

You lose yourself in the film. Any thoughts of a green screen dissipate. The camera shifts seamlessly, from long shots of Stone and Kowalski's spacesuits floating to crafty in-helmet shots with a subtle display of illuminated gauge lights. Everything that Cuaron seems to be going for in the film is executed well. It's probably not a film for everyone. The same people who would be bored with similar limited storytelling space film Moon may also be looking at their watches here, and too bad for them. The many 3D cynics will probably be surprised by Gravity. It's done well, arguably the best use of the technology since Cuaron's best friend Cameron's Avatar. Like Avatar, the film is quite immersive and it's probably the bigger-the-better in terms of where you see it (IMAX must be a treat). The eye-candy is certainly built for the big screen, and not for an iPad.

Electrick Children

Rebecca Thomas, 2013

Rachel (Julia Garner) is a young girl living in a remote Mormon community, separated from the outside world. When she discovers a tape recorder in the basement of her home, she plays a rock and roll tape she finds. Soon after, she begins displaying symptoms of pregnancy and is convinced the music impregnated her. When she hears that she will soon be forced into an arranged marriage with an elder member of the community she runs away. She travels to Las Vegas where she meets a boy her age named Clyde (Rory Culkin) who shows her a world she's never seen before.

The film blends in some of the beats of Almost Famous with some Christian symbolism such as the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception. Rachel is so hungry for stimuli outside of her small community that the second the music plays on the old tape recorder she is starving for more, like tasting the forbidden fruit. She departs the small community in the desert Utah landscape and discovers a new world. Departing her faith like she is partaking in a Rumspringa-tradition. She arrives in the obviously ironic Sin City which might as well be an alternate dimension to her. Cell phones, neon lights, pizza, skateboarding. It's all new to her. Rachel's mother Gay Lynn clearly relates to Rachel. You get the feeling early on that she has a past outside of the Mormon faith, as she tells her tale of the unicorn-like Red Mustang. Early on the Mustang feels like a symbol of freedom, or perhaps represents something that has passed and that you can't get back. It later reveals itself, and it's more than that. It's a well put together fish out of water story. Love, purity, innocence. The world she enters is friendly and inviting. When entered, everything changes. Like seeing the world in black and white your whole life and finally getting a taste of color.

October 11, 2013

The Way Way Back

Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013

Duncan (Liam Jones) is a fourteen year old loner forced to tag along with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) on a trip to his beach house. Eager to escape the boredom of his mother and Trent's dinner parties, he leaves the beach house in search of some excitement. He finds it at a local water park where he meets immature park worker Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen takes him under his wing and tries to pull Duncan out of his shell.

If The Sandlot and Adventureland had a baby, it would be The Way Way Back. It's a coming of age tale that does cross some similar themes with some of the other films in it's category, but also contains some raw honesty and emotional value that add some distinction. Duncan's character immediately draws sympathy as Trent asks him what number out of 10 he thinks he is, only to answer his own question by callously saying he believes he's a "3". This not only makes you feel for Duncan, but also shows you that Trent's character is going to be a true departure from Carrell's typical work. Liam Jones does a great job of playing a character that may not necessarily talk your ear off, but his body language and facial expressions paint a detailed picture. Clearly never equipped with proper social skills, his mother partly to blame - at least in the short term. She is so preoccupied with making her relationship work with Trent that she doesn't have time to spend with Duncan. Instead, she leaves a few dollars on the table with a quick note and (ironically) urges him to go out and make some friends. While his mother is clearly settling on a relationship, Owen has settled on his job at the water-park. He clearly sees something early on in Duncan, likely within himself, and generously offers him a job at the park with no former background check. Owen soon serves as an exorcist to Duncan's reserved demeanor, urging him to come out of his shell. To do this, he needs to respect Duncan and treat him as an equal.

Faxon and Rash made some decisions that really added some originality. The scene where Duncan is forced to take the cardboard from the street-dancers could have gone in a different direction. The dancers could have put him on the spot and completely humiliated him, setting him way back from the progress he had already made. Instead, they encouraged him to give the dancing a shot. While it may be a more Disney-esque route, it was refreshing. Even the casting of Duncan proves to be a bold move. Instead of casting a good looking young guy who pretends to be the dork (seen that before), they go with Liam Jones who really seems to live the part. Instead of the filmmakers mailing it in when it comes to the interpersonal relationships involved, they do the opposite. They are challenged. When Duncan gets to a breaking point with his frustration over his mothers complete lack of confidence in her relationship - he is vocal about it. You feel the disappointment, you feel the frustration. You feel the sympathy. And you feel proud of him. In the end it's a film really designed to see the story through the eyes of Duncan. And in ninety minutes, it is transformative. At that age, when working at a place like The Water Whiz, the older people you work for seem almost god-like at times. You can't wait to get to their age, so you can be exactly like them. Little do you know, you'll grow up to have a completely different perspective and what you should have done is just appreciated that moment in time to it's fullest. Owen knows this, and realizes that Duncan just doesn't know it yet - but he'll move on to bigger things. But until then, the best seat in the house will be the one in the way, way back.

October 6, 2013


Ridley Scott, 2012

A group of scientific explorers descend on a planet that they believe may be the key to understanding the birth of our existence. As they land on the volatile surface of the planet, they realize that finding those answers is not going to come very easy, if at all. 

Ridley Scott spent more than 10 years developing this Sci-Fi thriller, a loose prequel to the Alien films. The lengthy production time certainly shows. The final product is a visually stunning, suspenseful picture that feels very much like Scott's past films. Intricate set design rivals all of his past work. The film shows off technology that would make Tim Cook jealous. Holograms, stasis pods, dream readers, mapping sensors. They say film can predict future technology, and this would certainly be a great example of it. The array of high-tech gadgets make it feel like Minority Report blended with the original Alien. It's certainly a film built for the big-screen. Some may accuse the film of biting off more than it could chew. Probably because it attempts to tackle those age-old philosophical questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Rather than have a crew land on a planet to be eaten alive by whatever native creatures exist, it's good that there's some complexity to the mission - despite how grandiose it is.

The tension builds as the Prometheus lands on the foreign ship, with the crew looking for The Engineers. The pace effectively picks up, and the applied tension through the rest of the film is very well-placed. While the dialogue isn't exactly mind-blowing, the acting is impressive. Michael Fassbender is perfectly cast as the android David. Charlize Theron is effective as cold-mannered ship captain Meredith Vickers. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth in the original Dragon Tattoo films) is also particularly impressive as Dr. Shaw. When the first unfriendly creature appears, a wave of familiarity washes over you. It feels very Alien-like, you welcome it with open arms. Once that door opens, it does not close. While the film may have it's flaws, one of them is not a lack of ambition. Scott is likely the only living filmmaker who could make a picture with so much detail. He is willing to put in the time to make sure his distinct style is all over the place. Almost like a James Cameron from space, Scott has a history of putting together a beautiful ship, only to deconstruct it piece by piece with damage and still maintain the aesthetics.

October 5, 2013


Tim Burton, 1988


Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) realize that they are deceased. Bound to their country home they loved dearly, they want to do anything they can to stop the new residents from getting too comfortable. They seek the help of "Beetlejuice", a "bio-exorcist" who assists them in scaring the new homeowners away.

A classic for children of the 1980's, any probably scary to young ones of today. One of Tim Burton's best, probably second best (with Edward Scissorhands in the lead). He uses the innocent Vermont backdrop to showcase quirky caricatures and his own bizarre creations. You venture into the white farmhouse only to discover the model home Adam has been working on so detailed, and comes alive as soon as they are dead. There are so many moments in this film that have a lasting impact. Walking out of the house and landing in the sand-worm's dimension. The waiting room of the case worker's office. The possession scene at the dinner table. And most of Beetlejuice's antics. Keaton is so buried in his role. One must wonder who or what he used to channel this performance. He probably should have been nominated for an Oscar, but it was a very competitive year with Dustin Hoffman winning Best Actor for his role in Rain Man. The film still took home an Oscar for Best Makeup, and for good reason.

Tim Burton's older films are so much better than his newer films. Why? Age? Did he lose that edge as he got older? Probably a lot of reasons. But he certainly took more risks in the 1980's. This film was so out there for it's time, it could have completely flopped. But it didn't. It was made on a rather modest $15M budget and ultimately grossed $73M. At times it has an almost Cronenbergy feel to it. But also very much unlike Cronenberg's films in the sense that the characters never really take themselves seriously. Adam and Barbara are very quickly accepting of their own death, and jump into a more defensive mode in trying to maintain ownership of the house. The most serious person in the film is likely Lydia (Winona Ryder), but her lack of fear of communicating with her deceased housemates certainly diminishes any kind of serious tone and only adds to the comedy.

October 3, 2013

Louis C.K.: Oh My God

Louis C.K., 2013

Louis C.K. is funny. It's been long overdue that the world comes to realize this, and maybe they finally have. He has a popular television series on FX that garners favorable ratings. He is getting cast in mainstream full feature films (Blue Jasmine, American Hustle). He's at the peak of his career, and we are all lucky to get the opportunity to see it. Our grandchildren will be envious of the fact that we were around to see him at his best. The closest comparison to Louie could be drawn to the late George Carlin. And understandably, because C.K. adored him, even had the honor of eulogizing him on stage (tearfully). Carlin examined the simple things in life, and dissected them to the point where there was nothing more to draw on.

What's different about this special than some of his others is there is a surprising sense of evolved confidence and comfort coming from Louie. Not that he's ever timid on stage, but there's something different going on. He crosses subjects that he may have crossed before, but at different angles. The horrible things we say while driving, and the odd sense of confidence we have yelling at our fellow man. Filming kids at school plays with our phones, while they are literally 10 feet in front of us. Examining slavery, and how it created some of the wonders of the world. And of course, boobs.

Louis always has his themes. Animals, sex, the human body, the horrible things that we do as humans, the horrible things that he may do AS a human. It's always going to be dark. It's going to have its irony. It may at times just come off as pure existential truth. It's amazing that he's still able to keep it fresh. And savor what you hear, because its not going to be there a year from now. He's going to discard the bits that absolutely killed on stage and start with nothing. And that must be the most rewarding part of his life at this point. Building it up, taking it down, starting over, and repeating over and over again while the crowds continue to come.