Friday, December 31, 2010

2010...so far


As stated, yesterday, I'm here to give my list of the best movies of 2010. I have a problem, though. I've only seen about a third of the year's movies that I plan on seeing. To that end, consider this the best of 2010, so far. At some point in 2011, I'll come up with a finalized list, but for now these are the best I've seen from this year:

10. Iron Man 2
9. The Karate Kid
8. Salt
7. How to Train Your Dragon
6. The Book of Eli
5. Shutter Island
4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
3. Kick-Ass
2. Toy Story 3
1. Inception


Hmmm...I can assure you that should I live at least a few more months like I plan to, those bottom 3 will certainly not make my final top 10. Honestly, I can easily foresee those last 5 entries dropping out. Lots of stuff I haven't seen, yet.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2009 Movie Wrap-Up


This is the time of year when everyone tells you what they think are the best movies of the year. I'll do the same, tomorrow. Today, when I was about to give you my two cents on 2010, I remembered I haven't told you what I thought were the best films of '09. Here's the long and short of it (* denotes foreign language movies):

25. Moon
24. The Secret in their Eyes*
23. A Serious Man
22. The Lovely Bones
21. Sin Nombre*

20. District 9
19. World's Greatest Dad
18. Paranormal Activity
17. Broken Embraces*
16. In the Loop
15. Up in the Air
14. Good Hair
13. Brothers
12. Big Fan
11. Thirst*

10. Zombieland
9. The Hangover
8. Drag Me to Hell
7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo*
6. The Messenger
5. Inglourious Basterds
4. Sugar
3. Up
2. Precious based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
1. The Hurt Locker




On the flipside...

The Worst of 2009:

10. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
9. Jennifer's Body
8. 2012
7. The Collector
6. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
5. The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day
4. Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
3. G-Force
2. Year One
1. Miss March


Finally, way on the other side...

The Most "So Bad They're Awesome!" (no rankings, here):

Blood: The Last Vampire
Blood and Bone
Crank: High Voltage
Ninja Assassin
Obsessed
The Stepfather
The Tournament

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pick-Up


Directed by Bernard Hirschenson.
1975. Rated R, 80 minutes.
Cast:
Jill Senter
Gini Eastwood
Alan Long
Tom Quinn
Bess Douglass
John Winter
Don Penny


When our story begins we get a closeup of some guy’s face as he takes a leak on the side of a bus. Umm…okaaay. Not too far off the side of the road, a couple of young ladies are sitting amongst the weeds watching the action. The blonde makes googly eyes at him, immediately convincing him to give these two random babes a lift wherever they want to go. She can’t get there fast enough, but the brunette is hesitant. You see, the brunette is an Aries. Apparently, all people born under that sign have psychic abilities. At least, that’s what she says. Anyhoo, her spider sense or something kicks in and with a rather blank look on her face that we’ll become far too familiar with, she says “It’s gonna be a bad trip.” Little did I know at this point, she is talking about our experience watching this crap. Thinking she means something bad, possibly gruesome and hopefully interesting is about to happen, I keep watching.

Once on board, we find out the bus is actually a 1970s style mobile home. It looks pretty spiffy on the inside. This thing must’ve eaten up a large chunk of the budget, but I digress. The brunette continues to be sour puss and has numerous flashbacks to her painful childhood, during which she appears fully grown, by the way. This must be contagious because eventually, the other two start having flashbacks, too. No to be outdone by a couple of non-Aries, the brunette also has all sorts of strange visions (hallucinations?). She conjures up a random Black woman dressed in an all-white flowing robe whispering very loudly in her best ominous voice. There is also the even more random and bizarre clown that chases her through the woods. Finally, there’s an even-more-random-than-the-clown concrete slab in the middle of said woods. The brunette wanders upon that, wearing only the robe she must have borrowed from the Black woman. She quickly strips that off and psychicly pleasures herself. What? You think I’m kidding? I wish.

Speaking of getting naked, that’s what the other two knuckleheads do best. Well, they have a lot of sex, too. They go for walks, take off their clothes, frolic in the grass, or water, ride a swing together and do the wild thing. They also laugh the whole time, unless they’re kissing or on those less than thrilling occasions one of their brains forms a sentence and forces them to speak. However, just so you don’t go thinking the blonde is having all the fun, or doubt our guy’s studliness, the brunette eventually comes around and he screws her, too. In fact, that’s the turning point of our movie. It precedes a very strange ending that makes about as much sense as inviting Hitler to a bar mitzvah.

The sad part is while we’re watching this, we get the sense the director is striving to create something deep, meaningful and artistically sexy. Unfortunately, we can also tell he doesn’t have anything even remotely resembling the ability to turn that particular trick. Just making it coherent is a task he fails miserably. What he’s given us is soft-core porn at its very weirdest.

MY SCORE: 0/10

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire


Directed by Daniel Alfredson.
2009. Rated R, 129 minutes, Swedish.
Cast:
Noomi Rapace
Michael Nyqvist
Lena Endre
Sofia Ledarp
Georgi Staykov
Peter Andersson
Michalis Koutsogiannakis
Hans Christian Thulin
Yasmine Garbi


After the unbelievable adventure that was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) understandably needed some time away. She took a year to do some traveling and, presumably, get a little R & R. Upon her return home, she visits some old friends and starts to take care of some unfinished business. This means going to see her probation officer and making sure he keeps up his end of the bargain they painfully came to agree upon in the first movie. However, when he turns up dead, along with a young journalist and his criminologist wife, Lisbeth becomes the top suspect in all three murders. They are all killed by the probation officer’sgun which has her fingerprints on them. Lisbeth trying to clear her name ensues.

Her biggest ally is the one friend she can’t bring herself to actually go see, Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist). The two worked closely together, even became lovers during the first movie. Here, he aids her from afar. Though she keeps her distance, he’s still supremely confident in her innocence.

For the genre of movie it finds itself in, it’s a very solid entry. It’s well written, moves at a brisk pace and gives us intriguing enough villains to root against. Lisbeth continues to be an amazing character, hellbent on living by her own rules. Where Fire suffers is in comparison to its predecessor. Dragon Tattoo is electrifying because it takes an unflinching look at the rawness of its characters and the situations they’re in. It leaves almost nothing to your insinuations and uses the camera’s trained eye to create empathy while resorting to normal movie manipulations as little as possible.

This time around, everything feels much more conventional. The plot machinations are more easily visible and feel culled from standardized Hollywood protocol. So too, do the revelations that pop up along the way. There’s little surprise here. In fact, at the risk of spoiling things, it’s almost like much of Star Wars lore has been adapted to this set of characters in present day Stockholm.

With all of that said, it is still a solid, if unspectacular, sequel. A good movie in its own right, it only loses points because fo the greatness of the original. I still recommend seeing it if, for no other reason than being thrust back into the world of Lisbeth Salander. It’s a dark, seedy place filled with the smoke from her constantly lit cigarette. Rapace gives another marvelous performance in the lead role. She alone is enough to keep us anxiously waiting the completion of this trilogy with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Directed by Ralph Nelson
1962. Not Rated, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Anthony Quinn
Jackie Gleason
Mickey Rooney
Julie Harris
Stanley Adams
Val Avery
Herbie Faye
Muhammad Ali
Jack Dempsey


After 17 years in the ring and 111 fights, Mountain Rivera (Quinn) is a shot fighter. In his last fight, he takes a beating at the hands of one Cassius Clay, a very young Muhammad Ali playing himself even before his famous name-change. Rivera is left with damage to his left eye. It is enough that the doctor present at the arena tells his manager he won’t allow Mountain to fight ever again. His speech has become permanently slurred from all the pounding his head has taken. With that, almost no formal education and no skill beyond boxing, Rivera has to try to find his way in normal society.

Rivera’s manager, Maish (Gleason) is in deep to a bookie after a startling bet doesn’t pan out. Since his mule can no longer work, his mad quest to come up with the money he owes, and just what he owes it for, hangs over the proceedings.

Owing is a huge factor in everything that goes on. Just who owes who is the cause of much debate and the reason for many of the actions taken. When the film ends, the scale has been tilted to one side, but we’re saddened by the way in which this comes about. It’s odd that the person we come to hate the most gets a sort of come-uppance, yet we’re still not happy.

The movie weaves its way up to that amazing conclusion through a tapestry of great writing and outstanding performances. Strangely enough, it’s written by Rod Serling. To people of my age and older, that name is forever linked to The Twilight Zone, not hard-hitting human drama. At only 95 minutes, Requiem for a Heavyweight is wound tight as a drum, yet still lets us know these people intimately. We know what drives them, what scares them and what repels them. We have strong feelings about each of our four principals.

Our strongest feelings are reserved for Mountain. It seems his whole life has been spent being used to get what other people want. Even at this stage, he’s torn between two people who want very different things for and from him. What does he want for himself? That’s hard to say. Other than know what he doesn’t want, he seems to lack original thought. To pull this off, Anthony Quinn gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. His work here is pretty clearly a major inspiration for the way Sylvester Stallone would portray Rocky Balboa fourteen years later.

Much to their credit, Quinn’s supporting cast is never overshadowed. They, themselves, turn in powerful portrayals. Mickey Rooney (Army) is our mouthpiece. He says what we’re thinking with blunt honesty. Julie Harris (Ms. Miller) is Mountain’s possibly bright future, full of happiness and love. Then there’s Maish, played by the incomparable Jackie Gleason. I’ll just say he’s as brilliant as he always is and leave it at that.

The passage of time has given RfaH great irony. The easiest to spot is the cameo of Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. He’s since become Mountain Rivera, in a physical sense. He was once so verbose and articulate that even in a post-ESPN, soundbite driven world his rantings and spontaneous verse remain among the most famous quotes in sports history. Yet, who really knows how many too many fights have robbed him and us of his vibrance, rendered him seemingly less than a shell of his former self. Luckily for Ali his legacy sustains him, both financially and in our mind’s eye. We’ll never forget him floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

Mountain Rivera has no such luxuries. The game of boxing that he loves so much has robbed him of many possibilities outside the ring and keeps taking from him. How many boxers over the years have suffered the same fate? Many of them aren’t even as lucky as Rivera. He’s enjoyed a measure of success most never do. As he would proudly tell you, in 1952 they ranked him number five in the world.

Another fairly obvious irony is the fact that it’s a boxing movie with almost no boxing. It all takes place in the first few minutes. A greater irony is how this mirrors the entire sport today. There is much talk of boxing’s demise and very little actual boxing, at least on the biggest stages. Boxing’s speech is slurred, it’s movements no longer sharp as MMA has it on the ropes poised to deliver a knockout blow. It’s fighting for its survival, trying to make its way in a ready to move on without it, much like Mountain Rivera.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holiday Cheer

MERRY CHRISTMAS...

AND HAPPY MOVIE WATCHING!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Splinterheads


Directed by Barnt Sersen.
2009. Rated R, 94 minutes.
Cast:
Thomas Middleditch
Rachael Taylor
Christopher McDonald
Lea Thompson
Dean Winters
Jason Rogel
Edmund Lyndeck
Pamela Shaw
Frankie Faison
Jason Mantzoukas
Lennon Parham


Justin (Middleditch) is a bit of a loser and a lot of a slacker. He’s grown but lives at home with mom and works for his best friend as a lawn mower. When an attractive girl hustles him for sixty bucks he still takes a shine to her. Well, I did say she’s attractive, right? When she hustles him a second time at the carnival where she works, he falls flat out in love with her. Okay, having a thing for her after she gets over on you once, I can see. Twice? She just isn’t that dang hot. Oh well, such is the way with lonely boys when a real live female that’s not related to them pays them the least bit of attention, I guess.

The girl’s name is Galaxy (Taylor). In case you were wondering, that’s the first clue this is a quirky indy comedy. I think her name is supposed to symbolize the enormity of her presence in Justin’s world, or something. It really just feels like her parent did a lot of drugs.

Anyhoo, to shorten this up a bit, the carnival Galaxy works at is a traveling one, in town for a couple weeks. She has a nasty, tough guy boyfriend named Reggie (Winters) that even she doesn’t like, but is obviously scared to death of. There’s also Bruce (McDonald). He seems to be the only cop in town and is still smarting from his breakup with Justin’s mom (Thompson). Add in the horny aunt (Shaw), the terrible carny magician known as the Amazing Steve (Mantzoukas), his assistant/girlfriend Wyoming (Parham) and Justin’s bestest buddy, Wayne (Rogel) and you have the whole dag-nabbit crew. In case you were wondering, though I don’t know why you would be, Wayne is of Asian descent and his full name is Wayne Chung. Someone who is too clever by half did this so they would have an excuse to use the song Everybody Have Fun Tonight by the group Wang Chung. Whatever.

Oh, I almost forgot the best character. That would be Justin’s 116 year old grandfather Albert (Lyndeck). Through a fortunately unfortunate event, he’s just become the world’s oldest living man. His scenes are consistently among the best.

As for the rest of the movie, it tries real hard. It efforts mightily for our laughs, but rarely earns them. It never gels into a cohesive piece of work. It’s also rather cliché despite all its surface quirkiness. Even worse, since much of it takes place at the carnival, it can’t avoid comparisons to the far superior Adventureland. In fact, I suggest you see Adventureland, instead.

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Inception


Directed by Christopher Nolan.
2010. Rated PG-13, 148 minutes.
Cast:
Leonardo DiCaprio
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Ellen Page
Ken Watanabe
Tom Hardy
Marion Cotillard
Cillian Murphy
Dileep Rao
Tom Berenger
Michael Caine


Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) is a unique sort of criminal. He’s often hired by companies to steal secrets from their competitors. What makes him uniqe is that he actually enters a person’s mind through their dreams to unlock these treasures. His latest employer, Mr. Saito (Watanabe), wants something different. Mr. Saito wants him to do the opposite and plant an idea in the mind of his biggest competitor’s son Robert Fischer (Murphy). Putting an idea into someone’s mind, we learn, is called “inception” and thought by most to be impossible. Cobb says he can deliver and sets out hiring a crack staff to help him do so.

At any given moment we are thrust into and kicked out of dreams. We watch land and cityscapes change before our eyes, often in impossible ways. We see how time operates on different levels of consciousness. We see Dom’s own sanity slipping as too much time spent in other people’s minds, along with the things going on in his own, take a steadily increasing toll on him and threatens his and the team’s ability to complete the mission.

This is far from a simple movie. Like many fantasy or science-fiction films, it asks us to accept something seemingly preposterous as a sort of reality. The difference between Inception and the majority of others is simple. For the two hours or so we’re watching those others, it’s mutually understood that the reality on screen is wholly separate from our own. We know that no amount of exposure to gamma rays is going to transform us into The Hulk. Here, we’re given cause to wonder about our own dreams and the odd events that occur during the portions we can remember. And what about those parts we can’t remember?

Amazingly, even with all the jumping in and out of dreams and playing with reality, Inception is not nearly as convoluted or complicated as it could’ve been. Like I said, though, nor is it simple. With incredible special fx, astute storytelling, enough action infused into the proceedings and another great performance by DiCaprio, it strikes a perfect balance between entertaining us and challenging us.

Speaking of DiCaprio, he’s becoming the go-to-guy for leading men with less than a firm grip of reality. Here, as well as in The Departed and most recently in Shutter Island, he plays a guy who struggles with the concept. Kudos to him for being brilliant in all three.

As I’ve mentioned, the special fx are also brilliant. Worlds coming together and falling apart as we watch provide splendid visuals. In particular, the city that folds over on itself is an awe-inspiring moment. My only gripe is that I didn’t see it on the big screen. I may not ever get to see it in a theater, but I definitely plan on seeing it on something bigger than my 32” television. Yes, I’m putting my pennies aside.

All of the great things Inception does would be for naught if it blew the ending. Thankfully, it does nothing of the sort. Surprisingly, it leaves us right where it tells us it will and somehow, it still works. It works because we hope against hope that that’s not how it will end. Still, when it does we’re left to wonder and debate what’s next. It’s a perfect ending that I hope isn’t ruined by a sequel.

MY SCORE: 10/10

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorite Boxing Movies


This weekend, one of the most hyped sports movies in recent memory has been released. That movie is The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg as former welterweight champ Mickey Ward. Though I haven’t seen it yet, I am anxious to. To me, boxing movies reign supreme in the genre of sports films. It seems that the folks who give out awards agree with me. The only two sports movies to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture were both about boxing. Don’t worry, I’ll name them as I get to them.

Truth told, none of these movies are truly about boxing. They’re about the triumphs and tragedies of an individual. They’re about one person trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps which earns our vested interest in whether they succeed or fail. They’re about winning and losing, both in the ring and in life.

I haven’t seen every boxing movie. In fact, while researching this topic I found there are a great number of them I’ve missed. Therefore, this is not a comprehensive “Greatest” list, it’s a “Favorites” list. As in, of the dozens I’ve seen these are my favorites. Oh, and why 12 instead of the normal 10? When I was growing up, championship fights lasted 15 rounds. In an effort to make the sport safer that number was reduced to 12. Initially, I was going to do 15, here. However, in the interest of your safety I’ve limited myself to…

My 12 Favorite Boxing Movies
(Quick Key:
The Key
Promoter = the director
Fighter = the person starring as the boxer
Weight Class = Fighting weight class of the boxer)

12. The Hurricane (1999)
Fighter: Denzel Washington
Weight Class: Middleweight
Promoter: Norman Jewison[/size][/color]
Based on the life and times on middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly convicted of murder and the subsequent fight to prove his innocence. In the title role, Denzel Washington gives a fantastic performance that elevates the movie past other contenders. However, as good as he is, take away a point for him being much bigger than any middleweight.

11. Tyson (2008)
Fighter: Mike Tyson
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: James Toback
Former Heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson basically psychoanalyzes himself. He displays the intelligence he’s hardly given credit for possessing. He also has some his own version of the truth and his sanity is very much in question. It’s hardly a traditional boxing movie but an intriguing watch, nonetheless.

10. Ali (2001)
Fighter: Will Smith
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Michael Mann
Instead of trying to chronicle Muhammad Ali’s entire life, this focuses on the period between 1964 and 1974, culminating with his historic fight in Zaire against then unbeaten and menacing champ George Foreman. It’s probably the most underappreciated movie on the list. Audiences and critics alike were rather apathetic towards it. Still, Will Smith’s powerful portrayal of “The Greatest” garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

9. Rocky II (1979)
Fighter: Sylvester Stallone
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Sylvester Stallone
Somehow, people conveniently forget that in the original Rocky our hero didn’t actually win the big fight. This is the movie where Rocky actually turned the trick. When he finally does, we let out two movies worth of exhilaration. Thus, some have proclaimed this to be the best in the series. I disagree, but it’s a pretty clear cut second as the series took a sharp turn in tone and slathered on the cheese even heavier starting with Rocky III.

8. Cinderella Man (2005)
Fighter: Russell Crowe
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Ron Howard
Here, we get a biopic on Heavyweight champ James J. Braddock. More than anything we watch him try to hold his family together through the Great Depression. Bills piled up and money stopped coming in, but through it all our champ remained a gentleman. Russell Crowe is as compelling as always. The only real knock is Braddock seemed a little too perfect. Still, it works.

7. Let’s Do it Again (1975)
Fighter: Jimmy Walker
Weight Class: Middleweight
Promoter: Sidney Poitier
This is the most unique movie on the list. It’s the only comedy and the fighter has little to do with our enjoyment of the film. That fighter is super scrawny Bootney Farnsworth played by Jimmy Walker, better known as J. J. from Good Times. It’s really about a couple guys pulling a con on a pair of gangsters to raise funds for their lodge. Those two guys are played brilliantly by the one of the 1970s greatest comedic duos, Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. As for our champ, well, let’s just say the power of positive thinking is taken to new heights. Hip Hop culture owes this movie a debt, as well. One of the gangsters is named Biggie Smalls, the original and still more popular moniker the late MC, The Notorious B.I.G.

6. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
Fighter: Jack Johnson
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Ken Burns
Ken Burns’ epic documentary on the first Black Heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, is a sprawling, enthralling masterpiece. It’s the only movie here that might not qualify as such. It originally aired in two parts on separate nights on PBS and totals about four hours making it a made-for-TV flick, at best. That’s okay. Quality transcends medium. Through Johnson, we get a palpable sense of the political and racial climate of the late 19th and early 20th century and we get to see a man who, for the most part, embodied a song Frank Sinatra would make decades later: “I Did it My Way”.

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Fighter: Hilary Swank
Weight Class: Welterweight
Promoter: Clint Eastwood
One day, a fighter walks into Frank’s gym asking to be trained by him in hopes of one day winning a title. First off, the fighter’s already 31 years old. The bigger problem: the fighter is a woman. Frank refuses, but she keeps coming back until he relents. From there, we get a fantastic boxing movie. Along with Swank as our champ, Maggie, and Clint bringing his usual gruffness to his role as Frank, we get a great supporting turn from Morgan Freeman. In case you’ve forgotten, this is one of only two sports movies to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture. It’s only movie featuring a female to make this list.

4. When We Were Kings (1996)
Fighter: Muhammad Ali
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Leon Gast
Back when he was young enough to do so, Muhammad Ali played himself in the autobiographic film The Greatest. It’s a solid movie in its own right that culminates with the champs win over George Foreman. Years later, Will Smith would play Ali in the movie of the same title and earn an Oscar nod for doing so. That movie also ended after the Foreman fight. Between the two is this documentary that takes us much deeper inside the making of that legendary fight. We see Ali realize that he is, and comfortably step into the role of an international figure. Meanwhile, Foreman struggles with having the cloak of a villain practically forced upon him. It’s a spectacular piece of work.

3. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1964)
Fighter: Anthony Quinn
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: Ralph Nelson
After taking a beating at the hands of Cassius Clay, a young Ali playing himself in a cameo (he’s all over this list), Mountain Rivera finds out that was his last fight. Damage to his eye has caused the doctor in attendance to forbid him to fight any longer. He’s been a fighter for 17 years, that’s all he knows. We watch him struggle to make his way in the world while the people close to him tug him in different directions. It’s a heart-breaking picture that’s just perfect all the way through, including the wonderful performance of Anthony Quinn as Mountain.

2. Rocky (1976)
Fighter: Sylvester Stallone
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Promoter: John G. Avildsen
This is where we first meet and fall in love with Rocky Balboa. At this point, he’s not even a has-been, he’s a never-was fighter trying to make ends meet on the mean streets in Philly. He lucks into a shot at the heavyweight title when the guy scheduled to fight the champ breaks his hand. From there, we get arguably the most imitated movie in history. Hundreds, if not thousands of movies have followed its template and not all of them are sports movie. For creating something so iconic, Sylvester Stallone never gets enough credit. After so many sequels and so many other not nearly as thoughtful movies, we forget that Stallone didn’t just play Rocky, he created the character and wrote the screenplay. Oh yeah, this was the first sports movie to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.


1. Raging Bull (1980)
Fighter: Jake La Motta
Weight Class: Middleweight
Promoter: Martin Scorcese
Former middleweight champ Jake La Motta has far more in common with Mike Tyson than Rocky. He pretty much defines “self-destructive.” He’s also destructive to those around him, too. He views them all like they’re his opponents, wary of every move they make, fearing they’re trying to land the knock out blow. He treats them as such and it costs him big. Here is a brutal movie about a brutal man in a brutal sport. To bring Jake to life, Robert De Niro gives what might be the best performance of his career. This didn’t win Best Picture, but it should’ve in my opinion. C’mon Academy! Ordinary People? For my money, this is the best sports movie ever made.

Other Contenders:

The Great White Hope (1970)

The Champ (1979)

Rocky IV (1985)

The Great White Hype (1996)

Resurrecting the Champ (2007)

Facing Ali (2009)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gunnin' For That #1 Spot

Directed by Adam Yauch.
2008. Rated PG-13, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Beasley
Brandon Jennings
Kyle Singler
Jerryd Bayless
Kevin Love
Tyreke Evans
Donte Greene
Lance Stephenson
Bobbito Garcia


In September of 2006, the mecca of streetball, otherwise known as New York City's Rucker Park, puts on it's first ever "Elite 24" game. This is a game involving 24 of the highest ranked high school basketball players in the nation. This documentary focuses on eight of the players, a number of whom have already moved on to the NBA. Director Adam Yauch, of Beastie Boys fame, has chosen his subjects wisely. They're from diverse backgrounds with a wide range of personalities. The first two thirds of the movie does a nice job showcasing this. We also get some insight into how the sometimes shady people who run recruiting websites work and how the often shadier agents and shoe companies try to hook these kids young. There's even a nice pre-game speech given by then New Jersey Nets head coach Lawrence Frank. I highly suggest watching the full length version of the speech, found among the special features on disc 2, especially if you're an aspiring ball player. On the court, we get the sort of high energy and acrobatic game, enhanced by the never-silent courtside MC Bobbito Garcia, that we've come to expect from Rucker Park events. Though, admittedly this isn't the constant trickeration of an And 1 tape. Still, many of the plays are amplified by terrifically done sound effects and the soundtrack is a lively mostly hip hop affair (lots of Jay Z, by the way). The unquestioned star is current Miami Heat forward Michael Beasley. From what we see, he appears to have been the best player on the court that day but that's not what makes him the star. What does it is his big-time, motor-mouth driven personality. With good reason, he was mic'd for the game. He talks and talks and talks. Then he talks some more. Most of it is pure basketball smack. However, we still like him because he comes off similarly to NFL wide receiver/showman Chad Ochocinco. Even when Beasley is saying something harsh, you get the sense that it's all in fun. As proof, in this machismo charged atmosphere no one seems to even bat an eye over his more venomous barbs. There does seem to be a little mano y mano between him and current Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love. Still, even as they try to stare each other down they both appear on the verge of uncontrollable laughter. All said, we have a solid basketball documentary. It's not emotionally charged like Hoop Dreams but it's an excellent watch for b-ball fans. Look for current Cleveland Cavalier J. J. Hickson and Kansas star Cole Aldrich, who are two of the players not chronicled. There are also brief appearances in the crowd and after the game by Jason Kidd, Ben Gordon and Steve Nash. If you're not into basketball, don't bother.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gran Torino


Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2008. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Cast:
Clint Eastwood
Bee Vang
Ahney Her
Christopher Carley


Plot: Bitter, old, racist widower Walt (Eastwood) begrudgingly takes a liking to the Asian teenagers who live next door, even after one of them tried to steal his 1972 Gran Torino.

The Good: Like most Eastwood directed movies, the story breathes and the characters develop without dragging. As our ever-abrasive (anti)hero, Clint proves himself more than a capable actor as well. Through his portrayal, enabled by an excellent script, he gives Walt pain, bitterness and depth. That depth most often surfaces in his exchanges with Father "J" (Carley). His young female costar, Ahney Her who plays Sue, has a real presence and commands attention. She appears to have a bright future if, ironically enough, her race doesn't typecast her.

The Bad: The racial epithets constantly flying from Walt's mouth are fine because they're germaine to the story. However, a better job could've been done showing more diversity within the different ethnicities. Not doing so lends credence to his racism and undermines what appears to be the moral of the story. In other words, since most of the Asians, Blacks and Hispanics we see are low-lives, why shouldn't he behave the way he does? Acting wise, Vang who plays Thao, appears to give a forced performance. However, since his character's relationship with Walt is akin to Daniel's with Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid I can live with it. It's not like Ralph Macchio was really all that great, either. Yes, I realize that's blasphemy to those of you old enough to care.

The Ugly: What happens to Sue.

Recommendation: This a very good drama for about 100 minutes followed by an ending that elevates it to the level of excellence. It might sound strange but it's really a hybrid of Falling Down and the aforementioned The Karate Kid. However, it doesn't just copy them. It borrows elements of both and adds some of its own to create something different.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The 400 Blows


Directed by Francois Truffaut.
1959. Not Rated, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Jean-Pierre Leaud
Claire Maurier
Albert Remy
Guy Decomble


Young Antoine Doinel (Leaud) navigates his tough childhood without much guidance from his largely apathetic parents. Part of appreciating this movie is understanding why it was made. This is the directorial debut of Truffaut. Prior to getting behing the camera, he was one of France's top movie critics and had become increasingly disappointed with the way movies were being made. Instead of continuing to complain about the matter, he simply made a movie himself, setting out to do something different than what he'd been seeing. On top of that, its largely autobiographical as well. In the process, he helped kick off what became known as the French New Wave. Read more about it, here. It is a real slice of life, feeling like you're simply spending time with our young hero, not necessarily watching a movie with a traditional plot and conflict, though both eventually become apparent. Nor is it manipulative melodrama, intent on getting you to cry as it so easily could've been. That its unobtrusively shot without a ton of fancy editing tricks helps foster the illusion. The natural feel of the writing and acting work heavily in its favor, also. Though each performance is effortlessly realistic, including that of our child star Leaud, the actors never seem to preen for the camera. Finally, in true slice of life fashion we get a stopping point moreso than an ending. The possibilities of what could happen next are endless, both good and bad. This gives the movie more resonance than your typical happy ending does. If you're an artsy-fartsy film buff, you must see this movie. If the sight of a black-and-white movie instantly puts you to sleep and the thought of reading subtitles turns your stomach stop reading this review now and forget I ever mentioned this flick. Yup subtitleophobes, we're speaking French.

MY SCORE: 10/10

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

9

Directed by Shane Acker.
2009. Rated PG-13, 79 minutes.
Cast:
Elijah Wood
Christopher Plummer
Martin Landau
Jennifer Connelly
John C. Reilly
Alan Oppenheimer
Crispin Glover


Plot: Man has been completely destroyed by it's war with machines. A group of dolls created shortly before this that have been given life, is the closest thing to humanity left. Each is known only by a number, and appear to be made of burlap. Together, they try to overcome what man couldn't.

The Good: It's an interesting take on a post-apocalyptic world where man vs. machine has technically become machine vs. machine. The overally dusty look works well and aids in the mood of the story. The moral dilemma of whether to run and hide or stay and fight is played quite nicely. On top of those things, we get excellent visuals during the many chase sequences.

The Bad: At only 79 minutes, it doesn't seem to fulfill it's potential. So much more could've been said and done. It's PG-13 rating ensures that it's not strictly for kids so worrying about the audience's attention span shouldn't be an issue. Therefore, it should've been free to expand it's world, situations and relationships, becoming a serious epic. Instead, it ends and leaves us feeling like it pulled it's punches.

The Ugly: We get perhaps the most menacing use of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, ever.

Recommendation: First, don't go in thinking this is another cuddly kiddie flick because it's not. Though the creative minds behind The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride are producers, Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, don't even think this is in a similar vein to those. This is not a musical and is a rather humorless affair. That said, it is a fascinating watch. I just wish there were more of it to see and absorb.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Year Without Sex

Directed by Sarah Watt.
2009. Not Rated, 96 minutes.
Cast:
Sacha Horler
Matt Day
Jonathan Segat
Portia Bradley
Maude Davey
Sonya Suares
Roy Davies
Eddie Baroo
Chloe Guymer


Natalie (Horler) and Ross (Day) are your typical middle class married Australian couple with a pair of kids, a boy and girl. We meet them one morning in May when the children walk in on them while they’re starting the day off right. Due to the movie’s title, this is presumably the last time they get it on for quite a while, but why? Well, shortly after this little rendezvous, Natalie suffers a near-fatal aneurysm and spends a few weeks in the hospital. Her doctor informs our lovebirds that orgasms are one of the things that might trigger a reoccurrence. So, they abstain while she recovers physically and they both do some psychological healing.

Okay, I’ve gotta stop right there. To paraphrase the late Malcolm X, I’ve been bamboozled, led astray. I didn’t land on My Year Without Sex, My Year Without Sex landed on me. As the movie plays I do something I try not to do while watching a film, start reading the back of the DVD cover. Yup, there it is. Right there, it tells me how great a romantic comedy this is. Romantic? Maybe, eventually. Comedy? It’s nothing of the sort.

Natalie’s recovery puts a serious strain on her marriage. Her union with Ross is stretched very near the point of breaking. Likewise, for this movie’s sense of humor. That’s because all of this is rendered in painful detail. How painful depends on the viewer. MYWS is far more depressing than any movie willing to call itself a rom-com should be.

There are some comic moments. Most of them revolve around how oblivious the children seem as their lives continue without missing a beat. Other humor comes in the form of point-blank sex talk by Natalie’s sister who is half of the only other couple our heroes spend any time with. This threatens to bring it to the level of dramedy, but doesn’t quite do the trick.

How is it for what it is? It moves along nicely, helped by placards that mark the passing of the months. Each has clever titles like “I Have a Headache” or “Missionary Position.” The performances are excellent throughout, particularly Horler as Natalie. She is outstanding. Together with Day as her husband, they feel like a genuine couple. However, it’s still a downer, making it a struggle to wade through.

It’s also rather heavy-handed with its atheism. Just as other movies can be overbearing with their religious messages, this is as much with it’s antithetical stand. Through a female priest, Margaret (Davey), the movie repeatedly questions any notions of God. It uses her as an example that’s intended to disprove the existence of a superior being. The ending is also one last thorn in the paw of the lion know as organized religion. The biggest problem with all this is it doesn’t sufficiently support its own argument. It would seem that the movie subscribes to the idea of science in favor of the hocus-pocus of religion, but never fully enables the doctors as it needs to to solidify its point.

Despite what some would say, there can be good movies with an atheist slant. The Invention of Lying is one. That movie doesn’t dwell on it for an hour and it’s actually funny. This is like a sledgehammer to the base of the skull. There’s no punchline to soothe us, just repetitive blunt force. The rest of the ride is well done, but less than enjoyable.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Everybody's Fine

Directed by Kirk Jones.
2009. Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Robert De Niro
Kate Beckinsale
Sam Rockwell
Drew Barrymore
Lucian Maisel
Damian Young
James Frain
Melissa Leo


Frank (De Niro) has recently become a widower. He lives alone while his four adult-children live in four different cities across the country. They are supposed to come see him this weekend for a small family reunion. However, they all cancel at the last minute. Frank then decides to go on a journey to pay each of them a surprise visit.

Of course, Frank discovers that he doesn’t know nearly as much about his kids as he thought. In addition, we’d be hard pressed to say they even give a crap about him, the way they shoo him from one destination to the next. And yes, each of his offspring phones ahead to the next one he’s going to see, so the surprise is shot pretty early.

The melodrama mounts as we, and Frank, realize his kids have been duping him for a long time about a great number of things. Sadly, there’s little mystery. We know that this is all just hurtling towards some great revelations and a happy ending. To make matters worse, we’re robbed of the big dramatic moments and the histrionics that one par for the course for such movies. True, they would’ve been cliché, but they may have added some life to the proceedings. Instead, everything is revealed, to us and Frank, through a supernatural event that fits this movie like a round peg in square hole.

Those of you prone to crying over movies will probably have a few of your tears jerked. For me, it comes off as way too hokey and undeserving of its impressive cast.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Friday, December 10, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Directed by Edgar Wright.
2010. Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Cera
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Ellen Wong
Kieran Culkin
Anna Kendrick
Alison Pill
Mark Webber
Johnny Simmons
Chris Evans
Brandon Routh
Jason Schwartzman


Every now and then you watch a movie that just shouldn’t work, but absolutely does. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is one of those movies. On paper, it seems to have nothing going for it. It’s based on a graphic novel I’m apparently not cool enough to have ever heard of. The story feels ripped from the early days of fighter games, not exactly profound literature. There is going to be lots of action, but our hero, Scott Pilgrim, is played by Michael Cera, the wimpy whiny dude from Juno and a number of other teen focused flicks. Unconventional heroes are fine. After all, I loved Kick-Ass. This just seems to be too much of a stretch. A comic book movie with a video game plot? Or is that the other way around? Either way, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by anticipation as I press “play” on my remote.

An odd thing happens once the movie actually starts. It strikes a perfect tone and absolutely relishes in how ridiculous things are going to get. It knows its premise is dumb and that our hero is something less than our ideal of heroic. However, unlike Macgruber, which I recently had the displeasure of watching, in this film the script, sight gags and action scenes are actually very smart. Together, they take the last three decades of what was once strictly nerd culture, comics and video games, and morphs it into a clever, funny imagining of those two worlds colliding on the screen. It uses cartoonish, but still flesh and blood people full of the attitudes prevalent among those in their late teens and early twenties taken to absurdist extremes. There’s even some sly social commentary and an obvious moral. And all of it works.

That dumb premise? Scott Pilgram has an odd dream one night. The next day, he meets the girl from that dream, strangely enough. He falls head over heels for her that instant and hounds her until she goes out with him. Where does all the action come from? Shortly after starting to date Ramona (Winstead), the girl of his dreams, it is revealed that to continue seeing her, he will have to defeat each of her “7 evil exes”. These guys pop up out of nowhere and have all sorts of powers and fighting skills.

If you’re a fan of the original Super Mario Bros. and fighting games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken, or any number of classic video games, you’re prepared to love this movie. The same goes if you’re a comic book fan as a number of scenes are made to look like panels from the hero mags. Then there’s the occasional narration that is spot-on. Finally, Cera’s usual self deprecating humor is perfect.

Here’s the thing: I get the sense this is a love it or hate it type of deal. People like me will sing its praises. Others will roll their eyes at all the madness, complain about how unrealistic it is, proclaim it moronic, and me a moron for liking it. It boils down to this: if you can’t understand the brilliance behind the “pee meter”, you’ll never get this movie.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea


Directed by Richard Fleischer.
1954. Not Rated, 170 minutes.
Cast:
Kirk Douglas
James Mason
Paul Lukas
Peter Lorre


Prof. Arronax (Lukas), Ned (Douglas) and Conseil (Lorre) sail around the world in the world's first submarine, thought by the rest of civilization to be a sea monster, as guests/prisoners of Cpt. Nemo (Mason). Based on the classic Jules Verne novel. Fans of the book will like that its pretty faithful to the source material. That's a major plus as it doesn't try to fix what isn't broken. It just tells the story pretty much the way it was intended to be told. It's also an early 1950s version of a big budget special fx flick. In that regard, its not bad as the fx are excellent for their era and haven't aged nearly as much as you would think going in. That said, the backdrops have. It is so obviously shot in a studio it can be hard to buy into the illusion these people are really sailing around the globe. Admittedy, that's a strange thing to say when this movie won the Oscar that year for Best Art Decoration & Set Decoration. Still, the solidly adapted screenplay and excellent acting keep us invested enough for it not to be a deal-breaker. Kirk Douglas is front and center among the actors, embodying all that is both good and bad about the movie. His actual performance is excellent the way its written. It makes the movie tick. However, the way its written is problematic. If there is one major drawback it's the same one that haunts Disney to this day. Ned and many grimier moments from the novel, including the overall tone, have been sanitized for mass consumption by children. This means while Douglas' work is great when it stands alone, its lacking when compared to its literary counterpart, a much more brooding and seething brute. All of this simply means its a pretty good movie but like most, it pales in comparison to the book.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Crater Lake Monster

Directed by William R. Stromberg.
1977. Rated PG, 85 minutes.
Cast:
Richard Cardella
Glen Roberts
Mark Siegel
Bob Hyman
Richard Garrison
Kacey Cobb
Michael F. Hoover
Suzanne Lewis


If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I’m always up for a movie that’s so bad it’s awesome. When the filmmaking is inept and/or the story and visuals are bizarre, I’m there. These things lead to what really puts a movie into that category: unintentional humor. That type of humor keeps you laughing all the way through and shaking your head in disbelief how bad, yet good whatever you’re watching is.

Of course, the problem with chasing movies you think might be so bad they’re awesome is you run into some that are just so bad. Soooo bad. My pursuit of the fantasically cheesy or unabashedly strange but enjoyable movies is what brought me to watch The Crater Lake Monster. You have to know the premise to understand why I was hopeful. A meteor falls from the sky and lands in the local lake. Shortly thereafter, a Loch Ness style dinosaur with flippers appears and starts eating people. It’s set in a hick town, complete with bumbling rednecks. It has a do-it-all but terribly confused sheriff and it was made duing the 1970s. This had glorious crap written all over it.

Alas, it’s just crap. Instead of enjoying the badness, I sat through something that was just plain horrible. The acting is cringe-worthy in a bad way. The script is of equal quality. The special fx? Well, our monster has about four different renderins, none of which are any good. It moves about using trusty old stop-motion animation. As you can tell, there is some unintentional humor, here. There is just not enough to make up for the pain the rest of the movie caused me.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes


Directed by Juan José Campanella.
2009. Rated R, 129 minutes, Spanish.
Cast:
Ricardo Darín
Soledad Villamil
Guillermo Francella
Pablo Rago
Javier Godino
Carla Quevedo
Rudy Romano
José Luis Gioia


Esposito (Darín) is a retired cop and an aspiring novelist. He wants his first book to be based on a case he worked 25 years ago, but still haunts him. Shortly, we find out why. He caught the killer and there was even a conviction. However, the bad guy weasled his way out of jail time and no one has spoken of the case ever since. What happened?

In trying to figure things out, Esposito goes to see Irene Hastings (Villamil), his long-time friend and colleague and one of the people that worked with him on the case. It was the rape and murder of a pretty and recently married young young woman. Esposito and Hastings also seem to have a thing for one another. Through numerous flashbacks, the two reminisce about the case and their uncomfortable, unpursued relationship. She is married.

Back and forth, we effortlessly jump through time. There’s never any need to inform us where or when we are, we intuitively know. The outstanding makeup jobs feel so natural that the actors don’t have to work very hard to pull off their roles at either end of a quarter century. Though I will say, the costuming and an overall better sense of time for the portion of the film set in 1974 would be welcome. The difference between the two eras is generally boiled down to not having a cell phone back then.

Makeup jobs and costuming aside, the actors turn in fine work. Our two leads are excellent. Still, they’re outdone by Guillermo Francella who plays Esposito’s almost constantly drunk partner Sandoval. He manages to give the movie both wisdom and comic relief. When doing either he’s as brilliant as he is at the other. It’s a terrific performance.

Most of the movie plays like a mixture between a whodunit murder mystery mixed with a story of a love affair that never actually happened. Ostensibly, the reason is those are the two subjects on which Esposito seems hellbent on writing about. What elevates this from being a routine movie of either genre is first how the two topics are woven together. Second, and more importantly, it’s where our tale ends. The finale involves two people, Esposito and one other I won’t reveal. Actually, there is a third party involved but that person, though an integral part of the final scene, has no say so in the matter.

That last scene creates one of those ambiguous endings I’m such a fan of. The question here: did either person do the right thing? Another question that begs to be asked is what would you have done? In discussing those, more questions may arise. The case that has haunted Esposito for 25 years, now haunts us.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Macgruber


Directed by Jorma Taccone.
2010. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Will Forte
Kristen Wiig
Val Kilmer
Ryan Phillippe
Powers Boothe
Andy Mackenzie
Maya Rudolph
Jasper Cole


Macgruber (Forte) is an ex-Navy SEAL with more awards than you can count. He’s already saved the world numerous times. For the last ten years, he’s been declared dead but has been living peacefully in another country. His old buddy Col. Faith (Boothe) comes calling for him to rescue us once more.

Since this is supposed to be a spoof of the thousands of movies with similar plots, Macgruber isn’t your typical strapping buck oozing testosterone with every step. Nor does he possess off the charts intelligence he was to outwit his foes. He’s regular enough in appearance, which is fine. However, he’s a total moron in every sense of the word that we’re supposed to believe was once a hero.

The character Macgruber is where the biggest problem with the movie Macgruber lies. The movie insists there was some greatness there to be lost. The neverending acts of buffoonery which follow, sink that notion. It doesn’t help that he still looks very young and hardly world-weary, not to mention he’s an ex-SEAL that doesn’t know how to use a gun. We never believe he was ever capable of the heroism assigned to him. Essentially, this means we’re not deconstructing a hero, we’re watching an idiot try really hard to make us laugh by doing idiotic things. The latter is never as fun as the former. Think back to the far less hyped but better Shoot ‘em Up, starring Clive Owen. The man who saves the day didn’t have to be a dunce for us to get that the whole thing is a ruse, one that actually makes us laugh.

Having an imbecile for a hero can work if the jokes are smart. The entire Naked Gun franchise is built on the dim bulb we’ve come to know and love as Frank Drebin, played by the recently late and always great Leslie Nielsen. However, the jokes themselves are exceedingly clever, for the most part. The ones that aren’t are far more forgivable and still make us laugh because of the ones that surround them. The best Macgruber can muster is our title character sticking celery up his butt, humping a tombstone and offering oral sex to men to get his way. That last one was done much funnier by a couple puppets in Team America, another better spoof.

There are a few occasions where Macgruber makes us laugh. It takes so many cracks at it, it will inevitably hit the target at least a few times. I’m reminded of the old saying about how often broken clocks are right.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Friday, December 3, 2010

Bitch Slap


Directed by Rick Jacobson
2009. Rated R, 109 minutes.
Cast:
Erin Cummings
Julia Voth
America Olivo
Michael Hurst
Ron Melendez
William Gregory Lee
Minae Noji
Kevin Sorbo
Lucy Lawless


Three women dressed in extremely tight and revealing clothes are bickering with one another and digging for some sort of buried treasure. There’s Hel (Cummings) who seems to the leader, Camaro (Olivo), the psychotic butch of the bunch, hopped up on some sort of pills and Trixie (Voth), the daintiest and most frantic. The treasure was buried by a Vegas gangster named Gage (Hurst), whom the ladies have just killed. Don’t worry that’s of minimal importance.

What is important is that this movie desperately wants to be so bad it’s awesome. It’s the type of film where each lady makes their big entrance by exiting a car cleavage first and in slow-motion. There are lots more slow-motion shots throughout the movie of the girls whipping their hair, bending over, throwing water on one another, touching themselves suggestively, twisting their faces into orgasmic visages and making out with each other. It’s often like one of those Playboy Playmate videos, but without any actual nudity except for a briefly bare chest of some random character’s only two seconds on screen. We also get more slo-mo in the middle of the action scenes as kicks, punches, recoils from automatic weapons and other strikes to the body causes hair to whip, lips to purse, boobies to jiggle…you get the idea. I’m sure this flick is an absolute goldmine for horny virgin boys lucky enough to come across it.

Those action scenes are manufactured by the girls arguing, other people interrupting them or one of the far too many flashback scenes. The flashbacks reveal a little at a time about each of the girls. Well, they’re supposed to. What they really do is play a major part in the story becoming an incoherent glob of B-movie madness that’s not nearly as enjoyable as it should be. It’s got all the elements needed to be truly craptacular: attractive women, guns, catfights, explosions and wacky villains. It just doesn’t know what to do with them all. Condensing this to a 10 or 15 minute clip on YouTube might have made it an internet sensation, worthy of all the lonely boy praise that would surely come its way. In its current form, stretched way too close to two hours, it’s repetitive, stupid and never quite perverse, bizarre or truly brazen enough to be what it so obviously wants.

MY SCORE: 3/10

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Grown Ups


Directed by Dennis Dugan.
2010. Rated PG-13, 102 minutes.
Cast:
Adam Sandler
Chris Rock
Kevin James
Rob Schneider
David Spade
Salma Hayek
Maria Bello
Maya Rudolph
Joyce Van Patten
Ebony Jo-Ann

Jamie Chung

A group of friends reunite for the funeral of their youth basketball coach. Sandler’s character is big time Hollywood agent married to a big time fashion designer played by Salma Hayek. This means we get a lot of his kids acting ridiculously spoiled and him trying to hide how rich he is by pretending his nanny is a foreign exchange student. Chris Rock feels underappreciated by his wife, played by the most underrated Saturday Night Live alum in recent memory, Maya Rudolph. Kevin James has also done pretty well for himself despite being a goofball and having a wife, played by Maria Bello, that still breastfeeds their four year old son anytime, any place. Rob Schneider is a neurotic vegetarian married to a woman at least 25 years his senior, Joyce Van Patten does the honors. He also has some very attractive daughters from a previous marriage. Finally, David Spade enjoys the single life. Go fill in the blanks.

Yup, this happens and that, and that too. Oh, forgot to mention the guys they beat in the championship game way back when want a rematch. So yeah, that happens too, just like that. Nothing takes place we don’t see coming.

All of our heroes are their usual wacky selves, with each pretty much sticking to the personas they’ve crafted over the years. Sandler fares best because his “everyman” act requires the least effort. While everyone else is typically over the top, he’s pretty even keel. He provides a solid foundation for the others to stand on, or jump off as their penchant for shenanigans might dictate.

What we end up with is a slapstick comedy that’s predictable, but funny in spots. Perhaps, the most interesting thing about it is that the cast is an extremely polarizing one. Most of us either love these guys or hate them with no middle ground. Decide accordingly.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lottery Ticket


Directed by Erik White.
2010. Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Bow Wow
Brandon T. Jackson
Naturi Naughton
Loretta Devine
Ice Cube
Keith David
Terry Crews
Charlie Murphy
Mike Epps
Gbenga Akinnagbe


Kevin (Bow Wow) lives with his grandmother (Devine) in the projects. Through a stroke of luck, they win the Mondo Millions lottery grand prize of $370 million. That probably works out to somewhere between $170 million and $200 million after taxes, but that’s not the point. The point is, they’ve suddenly changed tax brackets. However, before they actually make the jump they have to claim the winnings. The problem with that is its Fourth of July weekend and the claims office is closed until Tuesday. The task then seems simple enough: keep quiet about the windfall at least until Tuesday so the vultures don’t start immediately start circling. As it turns out, keeping quiet lasts about 30 seconds. Of course, news spreads like wildfire and everyone wants a piece of Kevin. Everyone includes Lorenzo (Akinnagbe), the local thug and Sweet Tee (David), the local loanshark. Trying to survive until Tuesday and maintain possession of the winning ticket ensues.

It has its moments. Enough funny things happen between chase scenes to keep us at least mildly entertained. The zany cast of characters are all given their brief chance to shine and usually make the most of it. One of the zanies is the recluse Mr. Washington, played by Ice Cube made up to look like an old man. How ironic that he figures prominently in an ending so clearly inspired by and reminiscent of Friday? It becomes doubly so when you pay attention to Brandon T. Jackson as Kevin’s best friend Benny. He seems to be doing his best Chris Tucker impersonation.

LT is also wholly predictable. We know which girl he’ll end up with, when he’s going to have a falling out with his best friend, when the thug is going to pop up out of nowhere and finally, how it ends. Strangely, we also know that for some reason unbeknownst to any logical human being, he will carry the ticket with him everywhere he goes.

In the end, this is cute and light-hearted movie content to breeze through it’s runtime. It brings up a few things that could’ve lead to more poignant social commentary but never goes any further than just mentioning them. It makes no examinations, only smirks at us as if to say ‘we could do something meaningful here, but we don’t want to’. Like its star, the movie as a whole has an innocent charm that will make it likeable for many. However, its lack of substance or any originality whatsoever means it won’t be particularly memorable.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Unstoppable


Directed by Tony Scott.
2010. Rated PG-13, 98 minutes.
Cast:
Denzel Washington
Chris Pine
Rosario Dawson
Kevin Dunn
Ethan Suplee
Kevin Corrigan
Lew Temple
Jessy Schram
Dylan Bruce


It’s Will Colson’s (Pine) first day on the job with the railroad company. He’s assigned to train under the tutelage of Frank Barnes (Washington). Barnes and the other vets are more than a little ticked they’re all being phased out in favor of youngsters like Colson. Will gets a double-dose of hateration because he’s got some family connections with the company. However, these two guys are just a subplot.

Our primary tale is about train 777, or Triple 7 as it’s sometimes called. It begins with a bumbling idiot simply failing at his job. Suffice it to say, the train gets away from him. Of course, it slips into the full throttle position. This means the unmanned locomotive with enough cars to be “the size of the Chrysler Building” is barreling down the tracks at 70+ miles per hour. As if that weren’t bad enough, many of the cars contain toxic and presumably highly flammable and combustible materials. If the train reaches the heavily populated Stanton it’s sure to fly off the tracks due to it going way too fast to make it through the elevated curve that has a speed limit of 15 mph. Attempts to stop this particularly dangerous runaway ensue.

To both the movie’s credit and detriment, it remains just that simple. We get to know a bit about the personal problems of our heroes, Frank and Will. There’s also the back and between Connie (Dawson), who runs the railroad and her boss back at HQ, Galvin (Dunn), but that’s all about the train. This makes Unstoppable remarkably free of clutter and effective at being exactly what it wants to be: a popcorn flick featuring a train.

However, since it is so committed to the action, we never really meet the loved ones of our heroes that we hear so much about and see so much of. Throughout the film, there are plenty of shots of them and they get a few lines here and there, but that’s it. They qualify as characters only in the strictest sense of the word.

Between scenes of our train raging out of control, the dialogue is surprisingly solid for a popcorn movie. It’s not terribly original, but the actors give it plenty of life. Pine and Washington play off one another well with Denzel playing the sort of wise old man usually portrayed by Morgan Freeman. Rosario Dawson turns in a stock performance. Since average for her is better than most, there are no problems there.

Unstoppable is a solid action flick that manages not to do anything egregiously wrong. Well, if you’re even remotely paying attention you should be able to spot one major movie gaffe (unless I saw it wrong). Other than that, it rather efficiently goes about its business. It’s a nice diversion of a movie, but nothing earth-shatteringly special.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Monday, November 29, 2010

Big Fan

Directed by Robert D. Siegel.
2009. Rated R, 86 minutes.
Cast:
Patton Oswalt
Kevin Corrigan
Michael Rapaport
Marcia Jean Kurtz
Gino Cafarelli
Matt Servitto
Serafina Fiore
Polly Humphreys
Jonathan Hamm


Plot: Paul (Oswalt) is a die-hard New York Giants football fan. He eats, sleeps and drinks "G-Men". What will he do after he is beaten up by Quantrell Bishop (Hamm), his favorite player on his favorite team?

The Good: Director Robert D. Siegel does the impossible and gives us an original movie - one dealing with sports, no less. In fact, I'd hesitate to actually call it a sports movie. It's more of a sports fan movie. Instead of focusing on a player, team or coach and working up to "the big game," we walk with an ordinary joe who lives to support his team. That fan, Paul, is portrayed brilliantly and without a hint of sarcasm by Patton Oswalt. That last part is important because Paul could've easily become a comic figure and sank the movie. Through a skillfully ambiguous ending, we're not sure whether to feel happy or sad for him even though he is inexplicably happy. By the way, that's not a spoiler. You have to see it to know what I'm talking about. As Paul's mom, Marcia Jean Kurtz is not only a riot but a constant reminder of how pathetic her son truly is.

The Bad: While Paul is supposed to be a sad case, the movie took the easiest route to that destination by utilizing stereotypes. In this case it's that a guy who's passionate about his team and likes to call the sports radio shows he listens to has to be child-like in all areas of life. Paul is so much so, it's nearly to the point of retardation. His buddy Sal (Corrigan) is similar. However, I wanted more from Sal. We can guess, but are never really sure how he feels about all that's going on. It's especially important since Sal is actually present when Paul is beaten. And what happens with what Paul's brother, Jeff (Cafarelli), is trying to do for him?

The Ugly: Whether you find her attractive or not, former (current?) porn-star Serafina Fiore as Paul's sister-in-law Gina has an unbelievably distracting appearance.

Recommendation: While it's an excellent movie, it's hard to recommend because it's a bit of a downer. It's doubly so for someone like me who is actually a Giants fan and likes to listen to sports talk radio. That said, definitely see this if you want to see a drama that's sports related but still has a unique vision. Just don't go looking for any actual sports scenes because there are none.


MY SCORE: 9/10

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Double Indemnity

Directed by Billy Wilder
1944. Not Rated, 108 minutes.
Cast:
Fred MacMurray
Barbara Stanwyck
Edward G. Robinson
Jean Heather


An insurance agent (MacMurray) falls in love with the wife of a client (Stanwyck). The two then hatch a plan to kill her husband so they can collect the insurance money and be together. This is Film Noir 101. All of the elements of the genre: the narration, dame that gets ultra-cool guy in hot water, murder and slick slang are not only present but have seldom, if ever, been done better. The dialogue is insanely sharp, filled with sexual innuendo, humor and thoughtfulness at appropriate times. The story keeps you on your toes, introducing elements that subtly change your idea of what you think will happen up until right before the climax. At that point, our hero tells you what's going to happen, or at least what he plans on, and instead of it being a let down it intrigues us even more because we've seen how his plans have worked out so far. MacMurray and Stanwyck are both marvelous in the lead roles and have great chemistry with one another. Robinson, not getting top billing for the first time in a career which was starting to wane by this point, conveys a fierce determination the couple in question must fear. He does so with one of his more subdued, but no less excellent performances. Any fans of film noir, or film buffs in general, must see this movie. This is the movie most recent efforts of the genre take their cues from, even something so over the top as Sin City or as experimental as the underappreciated Brick.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Brown

Directed by Daniel Barber.
2009. Rated R, 103 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Caine
Emily Mortimer
Charlie Creed-Miles
David Bradley
Ben Drew
Sean Harris
Iain Glen
Jack O’Connell


Harry Brown (Caine) is having a tough go of it. He spends his days at the side of his long-time wife’s hospital bed. She doesn’t even know he’s there. At night, he medicates himself with a few beers and a game of chess with Leonard (Bradley). Though Leonard is his only friend, it’s not the greatest company. Leonard spends most of their time together complaining about the young thugs that have overrun his neighborhood and his run-ins with them.

Shortly, Harry’s wife passes away and Leonard goes and gets himself killed. Harry copes by really getting sloshed. On the way home from the pub, Harry walks everywhere by the way, one of the hooligans Harry thinks was involved in Leonard’s murder tries to mug him at knife point. This apparently re-ignites whatever it is in Harry’s past he refuses to speak of on several occasions. Harry going vigilante ensues.

Obviously, two questions arise. First, will Harry be able to wipe out all the riff-raff in the hood? Second, will he be caught? Well, since the movie holds no real surprises in that area, the question then becomes how does the movie go about its business? The answer to that begins with the star, Michael Caine.

Caine has long been a brilliant actor. He doesn’t disappoint, here. His Harry is a weary old man with a dark past whose world is crumbling around him. On top of everything else gone wrong in his life, he has to take the long way around in his travels to avoid the knuckleheads. That’s how the role is written. The magic of Michael Caine is he makes us feel it. He’s perfect, as usual.

HB is also graphically violent, and for a short time sexually also, in a good way. It creates a hyper-realistic world that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting who these people are. Neatly, it turns the trick of not having any of these moments fell like they’re just for effect. Of course, this brilliantly gives it an unsettling effect.

There are issues, though. First, and foremost, it’s formulaic. As I wrote earlier, there are no real surprises except for one out of left-field character development. The only big difference between this and any other vigilante movie is the age of our hero. That would be enough if it explored that angle better. Instead of us getting to know more about the mysterious old chap, particularly about his time in the Marines and how that has affected him, which it obviously has, his age is merely a plot device that plays into the action. It works for that purpose but isn’t as satisfying a factor as it should be. This plagues the entire movie. Things are brought up as if their depths are about to be plumbed, yet time and again the movie is content to skim the surface.

Overall, it’s a solid watch that Michael Caine makes better than it has any right to be. He’s worth the price of admission because he is so undeniably believable. He alone, is not enough to make HB anything more than decent. That’s because you’ve seen this movie before. Think of it as Death Wish for senior citizens.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tokyo Gore Police


Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura.
2008. Not Rated, 110 minutes.
Cast:
Eihi Shiina
Itsuji Itao
Yukihide Benny
Jiji Bû
Ikuko Sawada
Cay Izumi
Mame Yamada


Sometimes you read the title of a movie and know you’re in for a wild ride. When your suspicions are confirmed within the first two minutes, you have a decision to make. Do you hit the stop button and end the madness now? Or do you subject yourself to what you know will be completely bonkers. If you keep going, you do so echoing the sentiments of legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight: if being raped is inevitable, you might as well enjoy it.

Okay, it’s not even remotely close to rape. However, it is something most normal people wouldn’t call entertainment. Note that I’ve never once claimed to be normal. What it is, is arguably one of the most ridiculous and without queston the most ridiculously bloody movie I’ve sat through. I don’t mean bloody like the English might say. I mean just plain old bloody. The slightest laceration sets off a geyser of bodily fluid. It literally sprays in all directions, by the gallon. It even seems to be raining blood in one scene.

There is a story, here. At some point in the future Tokyo’s police force has been privatized much like Detroit’s in Robocop. In general, crime in Tokyo isn’t nearly as widespread. Instead, most of the PD’s efforts concentrates on catching and killing “Engineers”. No, we’re not talking about any type of engineer you’ve ever heard of. Here, Engineers are a special breed of criminal. They basically try to kill anyone they come into contact with and keep killing until they themselves are dead. They’re not easy to kill. When wounded, whatever part of them has suffered the damage transforms into some sort of weapon. For instance, when the first Engineer we meet loses his arm, it grows back with a chainsaw attached. Seriously. And you’ll just have to see for yourself what happens when one guy’s penis is bitten off. Yup, I said bitten off. You did notice that this movie isn’t rated, right?

We focus on Ruka (Shiina). She’s the best “Engineer Hunter”. It stands to reason she’s so good at her job because she likes killing. Just ask that poor guy on the subway train. I would tell you what happens there, but that would deprive you of the joy of being surprised. You see that? I wrote that like you might actually watch it. Go ahead. I dare you.

If that’s not enough incentive then think about some of the other visuals you’re missing out on. There’s the woman who’s lower half transforms into what resembles an alligator’s head, the guy who pulls the skin off the top half of his own head, the woman stuffed in the cardboard box that’s only big enough for a few of my kid’s toys. Actually, she’s not stuffed at all, but piled there. Yeah, you kinda have to see it to understand. Believe it, or not, I left a lot out.

Bringing this out of the constant stream of gross-out moments for a minute, there is an interesting dynamic to the writing. Again borrowing from Robocop and even a little from The Warriors, TGP uses a string of wacky commercials and a hyped up dispatch lady to not only provide comic relief but also creates an element of satire that runs through the film. Whether or not it is sharp social commentary I probably need to know a lot more about contemporary Japanese culture to say. Some of it is universal and works just fine.

If you’re looking for something totally outrageous, this is the movie for you. It’s live-action anime with one visual after another you may never forget. I’ve read reviews that say this movie isn’t good or bad but exactly what it tries to be: perverse, bizarre, gory, silly and a number of other adjectives. I prefer to say it the way you’re used to me saying. It’s so bad, it’s awesome!

MY SCORE -10/10

Sunday, November 21, 2010

True Romance


Directed by Tony Scott.
1993. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Christian Slater
Patricia Arquette
Gary Oldman
Christopher Walken
James Gandolfini
Dennis Hopper
Bronson Pinchot
Brad Pitt
Michael Rapaport
Saul Rubinek
Samuel L. Jackson

Sarah Silverman

The setup is nearly too unbelievable for words. Since words are all I have, I’ll just tell you what happens and let you make of it what you will. Clarence (Slater) is a loner who has way too much love for Elvis Presley and decides to spend the night of his birthday alone in a theater showing a triple feature of all three of Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter movies. While there, he meets the beautiful Alabama (Arquette). The two hit it off, he shows her the comic book shop where he works and spends a good deal of his off time. They end up making love in his hole-in-the-wall apartment. In the wee hours of the same night she admits to him she’s a call-girl that was hired by his boss who wanted to make sure his top employee got laid for his birthday. She also admits that what started as an act became genuine and she is truly in love with him. Not the least bit upset about any of this because he had a great time, he admits that he’s also in love with her. Clearly, he needs to get out more. Then again, even if he had he might never meet another girl who’s not only into martial arts flicks but is really interested in his endless pontification on all the things in pop-culture he’s passionate about. Anyhoo, our two lovebirds get up first thing in the morning, head to the Justice of the Peace and get hitched. Um…yeah, I guess.

I’m with you. It plays like a geek’s wet dream come true. It’s the ultimate affirmation for those of us who tend to spend too much time in fantasy land. Keep immersing yourself in the alternate reality of your choice, without compromise and sex with beautiful women will miraculously (immaculately?) occur because you’re just that cool. Before any of you geek gods try to strike me down with the bolt of lightning you acquired from the roll of a twenty-sided die, spare me. I’ve been called a geek more than once by people who actually know me. Luckily for you strangers, my ridiculously sexy exterior conceals the analytically superior processor within my skull. Oh, wait…you wanna read about the movie, don’t you?

The reason the open plays like a fanboy’s fantasy is because, essentially, that’s what it is. For those unaware, this was written by a then video store clerk, still pop-culture and b-movie enthusiast named Quentin Tarantino. An opening like this only makes perfect sense.

Enough of this. I’ve spent way too much time on the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The truth is, even though we’ve got a flimsy basis for love, the rest of the film absolutely sizzles. In no way is this a conventional love story. All you really need to know to prove that is that what sets the story in motion is that Clarence's stupidity…er…bravery causes him to try and get Alabama’s things from her pimp, Drexel (Oldman). That’s former pimp, unbeknownst to Drexel. Bada-boom, bada-bing Clarence accidentally ends up with a suitcase full of cocaine and our loving couple goes on the run from the people it belongs to.

Like the best of Tarantino what makes the movie is not the plot but the situations the plot puts the characters in. The more tense the situation, the better the writing is a general Tarantino rule and it applies here. These moments are deliciously outrageous, violent and often clever. This is what drives the movie, makes it a thrilling watch.

The other major factor in making it a good movie are the characters. Really, most of them aren’t well developed. What they are is purpose driven, extreme and totally willing to say whatever comes to mind. Many of them are people we love to hate. Filling these roles is a superb cast that delivers every line perfectly. Stealing the show, however, are two guys who were relative newcomers at the time, James Gandolfini and Brad Pitt. Pitt plays a great stoner and Gandolfini is flat scary.

To his credit, director Tony Scott seems to stay out of the way of the screenplay. It doesn’t feel like his other movies. It’s less him, but in this case that works out well. It does, in fact, feel like a Tarantino movie except it doesn’t bounce around the timeline the way most of his self-directed films tend to. That said, atop what seems to be a faulty foundation an excellent movie is built.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Saturday, November 20, 2010

35 Shots of Rum


Directed by Claire Denis.
2009. Not Rated, 102 minutes.
Cast:
Alex Descas
Mati Diop
Nicole Dogue
Grégoire Colin
Jean-Christophe Folly
Djédjé Apali
Eriq Ebouaney
Julieth Mars Toussaint


You know what they say about us Americans who like watching foreign films? We think we’re smarter and more sophisticated than the rest of you. Along comes a movie like 35 Shots of Rum to remind me I might not be as artsy-fartsy as I’d like to think. I’ll explain.

It’s subtly written and filmed likewise. Of the movie’s 102 minutes of runtime, roughly 100 of them are very quiet. It’s beautifully acted, also subtly. It is so subtle the characters really do feel like actual people. There really is no plot to speak of so it plays like a true slice of life type of film. It’s even in French. It’s arthouse in every sense of the word. Yet, I was bored to tears and pissed off about the ambiguous ending. That last bit is most surprising. If you’ve been paying attention, you know I generally love those types of endings. Usually, the more questions I’m left with, the better. Here, not so much.

What is 35 Shots about? To be honest, I’m still not sure. We spend lots of time with Lionel (Descas) and Joséphine (Diop), a father and daughter who share an apartment. He works as a train conductor and goes out drinking with his buddies from work every now and then. She goes to college, does housework and occasionally works at a Virgin music store. I didn’t know they still had those. No, it’s not set in the past, either. I know this because the very whiny René is given an I-Pod as a retirement gift. Anyhoo, Joséphine seems to have a thing for Noé (Colin), the guy who lives in the apartment upstairs. There is also Gabrielle (Dogue), the cab driver who lives in the apartment next door. She seems to have been carrying a torch for Lionel since she learned to walk. The feeling isn’t really mutual. He likes her, he just doesn’t like like her. Oh, and there’s whiny René. He pops up every five or ten minutes to…um…whine…until he eventually does what I knew he would the first time he opened mouth.

Why was I bored? It was far too realistic. I realize that’s an odd complaint to make, but hear me out. If someone stuck a camera in most of our homes and just observed our true dailyu lives without forcing us to vote someone out, compete for a prize or give us random tasks and jobs to prove our worth, most of the viewing public would be hard-pressed to be entertained. In movies about families, dramatic devices occur at fairly regular intervals to advance the plot and/or add intrigue. Personalities are exaggerated to create sympathy, empathy, heroes and villains. In 35 Shots, it feels as if we’re watching reality without the TV. There are no votes, hypersexual tension or grand prize. These people go through their mundane existence in a mundane manner.

It takes courage and patience to make a movie like this but it lacks the magic to make its players transcend the screen. What passes for a romance feels disjointed and barren of hope until it is hastily resolved. The resolution, however, feels unreal and out of very deep left field. For all of the movie, we’re watching what seems to be everyday of their lives from the time we meet them and then, we suddenly fast-forward to a conclusion.

The 35 shots in the title is perhaps most perplexing. About midway through, we learn that Lionel either celebrates or rues a major event in his life, we’re not sure which, by downing 35 consecutive shots of rum. If he’s able to walk the next day I’d be shocked, but I digress. We’re told there is a story behind this ritual that he won’t tell at this time. This comes up again at the end of the film. Sadly, without having seen it you know as much as I about the significance of this practice. Justifying alcoholism? Probably not. If any of you brainiacs has happened to watch this movie, feel free to enlighten me.

This is a difficult film for me, if you couldn’t already tell. The writing is lyrical and sparse. People have conversations without saying a whole lot. Their pauses aren’t pregnant with the possibility of an earth-shattering revelation in the next sentence. They’re just pauses. There are no complaints to be made about any performance here. Many of the elements critics are thrilled by are present. Still, it doesn’t add up to winning cinema, for me. In my eyes, the whole equals much less than the sum of its parts.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10