Monday, January 30, 2012

Moneyball

Directed by Bennett Miller.
2011. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Cast:
Brad Pitt
Jonah Hill
Philip Seymour-Hoffman
Robin Wright
Chris Pratt
Stephen Bishop
Brent Jennings
Jack McGee
Nick Porrazzo

Billy Beane (Pitt) was a can’t miss baseball prospect that did indeed miss. Now, he’s General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, responsible for acquiring players to put on the field. After a 2001 season in which his team nearly reached the World Series, he’s lost his three best players to the big money contracts they’ve been offered by larger market teams. He has to figure out how to put together a competitive team on a shoestring budget.

Like any self-respecting sports movie, Moneyball isn’t about the sport that makes up the action scenes. It’s about the people involved. In this case, it’s Billy and, to a lesser degree, Peter Brand (Hill). Billy is a man already under pressure. The fact he can only spend a third of what some of his competitors can makes it so. He wants to think outside the box, but the people who’ve been advising him for many years are stuck in their traditional mindset.

This is where Peter comes in. For lack of a better description, Pete is a stat-geek. However, he is of a breed not yet accepted by the establishment. Baseball has always been about numbers to a degree greater than other sports. The question is are the numbers once deemed of supreme importance giving way to a new set of statistics. The old guys already working for Billy can talk doubles, triples, homeruns and runs batted in, endlessly. Pete analyzes players differently. He uses their numbers for raw data, inputs them into mathematical equations and comes up with opinions on players that are often far different that what old school baseball people think.



Though he’s not the protagonist, Pete is the movie’s most important and best written character. He fully embodies a new ideology. In him, we see what Billy is hoping is the wave of the future. He’s the best written because he’s constantly walking a tightrope, teetering on the edge of losing the audience. Anytime he speaks more than a couple sentences at a time, MB risks making people hate the very concept he and Billy so feverently push because it can feel like a steady stream of baseball nerd jargon that many people don’t care or want to hear about. Magically, he speaks just enough that viewers with even minimal understanding of the sport get a vague idea of what he does and why everyone else tells he and Billy that they’re crazy.

Still, Billy’s drama drives the movie. There’s the aforementioned pressure he’s facing which includes probably losing not only his job, but Pete’s as well. We also get to see Billy’s close relationship with his daughter. She lives with his ex and worries about her dad. After all, specualation about whether he should be fired is extremely public. It’s a story arc we’re familiar with. Whatever is lacking in the way of suspense, Brad Pitt makes up for with his sheer magnetism. He’s compelling without being showy. He’s pretty much the difference between MB being a decent sports flick and being an excellent film of any type.

In tone and style MB resembles The Social Network. Of course, we’re replacing Jesse Eisenberg’s sullenness with Pitt’s movie star wattage. Both movies represent changes in our collective thinking. The way Facebook helped revolutionize the way we communicate, so too does the ideals championed by Billy and Pete to the way baseball teams are structured, or so we’re told. Hardcore fans of the sport may bristle at the omission of contributions to the team’s success made by shortstop Miguel Tejada. The fact that he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player with some very big traditional numbers in 2002 flies in the face of the notion that Beane is working strictly with castoffs and misfits. However, if you don’t know or care who Tejada is you won’t miss him. In fact, that may add to your enjoyment. Whether or not it gets all the particulars of the 2002 Major League Baseball season right isn’t important. What is important is that it symbolizes another triumph for the cyber generation. It’s another nail in the coffin of the 20th century.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Taken

Directed by Pierre Morel.
2009. Rated PG-13, 91 minutes.
Cast:
Liam Neeson
Famke Janssen
Maggie Grace
Leland Orser

After reluctantly letting his teenage daughter go on a trip to Paris with a friend, Bryan Mills' (Neeson) daughter Kim (Grace) is kidnapped on her first day abroad. Hunting "them" (those responsible) down, finding them and killing them ensues.

Action! After a few minutes of our hero stressing about building a relationship whit his daughter it transforms into an adrenaline junkies' fix. We get lots of car chases, fight scenes, shootouts and myriad other forms of badassness. Two other things aid the movie immensely. First, Neeson's performance is spot on. He stoically goes about his business and projects his voice so authoritatively you believe whatever he's spouting off. Second, the runtime is kept short. At a shade over 90 minutes, it doesn't have time for long, emotional scenes that break up the action. It's a tightly packed rush with the cute stuff serving as bookends to the carnage.


Plot-wise, I've already seen this movie probably 500 to 1000 times without exaggeration. You probably have, too. Think about it: bad guys kidnap, kill or rape someone in the good guy's family (maybe even the entire family) without realizing that the good guy is/was some sort of special agent and won't be taking any of this BS too lightly. Basically, it's a Steven Segal movie without Steven Segal. And yes, it has many of the implausibilities and eye-rolling moments that come along with that.

True, I did, in fact, call this a Steven Segal movie. However, it's a very well done one. Therefore, if you're into action flicks at all turn your brain off, except for that miniscule portion that compels you to shovel popcorn into your mouth and suck back the beverage of your choice while your eyes delight in images of mayhem and you'll enjoy it. Scrutinize it even a little and you'll ruin it for yourself.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ong-Bak

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew.
2003. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Tony Jaa
Petchtai Wongkamlao
Pumwaree Yodkamol
Suchao Pongwilai
Chumphorn Thepphithak
Cheathavuth Watcharakhun
Wannakit Sirioput

A country boy goes to the big city and kicks a whole lotta ass. By the way, I mean that literally. He doesn’t often kick, like with his foot or punch, like with his hand. He’s hitting guys with elbows, knees, even his entire torso. By guys, I mean lots of guys. Make that lots and lots of guys. There’s so many guys that he has to escape from time to time to catch his breath. By escape, I mean flipping over guys, walking on their heads, climbing a will and hopping a fence without using his hands, etc. Then he gets back to kickin’ ass. When it’s all over I’ve lost track of just how many asses he’s kicked. Yes, I mean that literally.

Um, plot? There is one, I guess. Our hero’s name is Ting (Jaa). He’s from a small village where they worship a Buddha-like figure called Ong-Bak. Heeeyyyyy, I wonder if that’s where they got the idea for the title. Duh. Anyhoo, Ong-Bak is symbolized by a statue they keep in their sanctuary. One of the young guys who left the village, moved to the big city and became a hoodlum steals the statue’s head in hopes of selling it for big bucks. Besides this, two things let us know there’s going to be a lof of fightin’. First, Ting volunteers to bring back Ong-Bak, by himself of course. More importantly, Ting’s master tells him that even though he taught him everything there is to know about Muay Thai, he doesn’t want him to ever use it. Hot diggity dang! As soon as I heard that I knew it was on. I hit pause, went and popped some popcorn, poured myself a tall glass of the beverage of my choice and spilled it all over the place as I ran back to the couch, picked up the remote and pressed play.



I’ve already spent too much time on the plot. Truthfully, the movie does this also. We mosey along at a pace that’s a little too slow as we’re introduced to new characters and the dynamics between them are set up. None of them warrants any mention as particularly interesting. What is interesting is when we get beyond all that and our hero gets down to business. Once he gets going, Ong-Bak becomes a special movie. Tony Jaa makes it so. The things he does are simply amazing. And yes, these are all organic stunts performed by Mr. Jaa himself. By organic I mean it really is all him, no cgi and no wires. It’s a stunning display of athleticism reminiscent of a young Jackie Chan, but without the comedic overtones.

For fans of martial arts flicks, this is a must-see. It’s more than worth the time it takes to wade through the less than thrilling first act to get to the non-stop fighting portion of the movie. Don’t come into this with any notions of a well-crafted scripted, character development, good acting or any other high saditty ideas. This is all about high-flyin’, bone-crunchin’ action. It’s all about amazing feats of human physicality. It’s all about a country boy going to the big city and kickin’ a whole lotta ass. Literally.

MY SCORE: 6/10

MARTIAL ARTS MOVIE SCORE: 9/10

Monday, January 23, 2012

Invictus


Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2009. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Cast:
Morgan Freeman
Matt Damon
Tony Kgoroge
Patrick Mofokeng
Matt Stern
Julian Lewis Jones
Marguerite Wheatley
Patrick Lyster
McNeil Hendricks

Newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Freeman) attempts to use the country’s rugby team to forge national unity in the days shortly after apartheid has ended; based on a true story.

Once again, Clint Eastwood proves you don’t need extensive fireworks to keep the audience engaged. He gives us his normal patient storytelling. Though nothing much happens in the way of action until the big game at the end, we don’t get bored. Instead, we’re fascinated by the picture being painted before us. It helps that Morgan Freeman turns in a splendid performance as Mandela. In him, we see a leader doing what he thinks is best for his country despite the fact he’s alone in his thinking.



There is no shortage of sports movie clichés. Long story short, and I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything here: an underdog team gets their act together. Think of all the movies you’ve already seen with that theme and you get the idea. It also gets to be repetitive. The typical cycle goes something like this: we see some dissention or doubt cast on what Mandela’s doing. Somehow word gets back to him and he pops up wherever the problem is and says a few magic words and everyone falls in line.

It’s a movie that manages to be good in spite of itself. Genre clichés and Mandela’s almost mystical presence threatens to overwhelm, but they never quite ruin things. It just becomes precisely what it wants to be, a feel good movie. This means that while there are reasons to knock it, it eventually wins you over.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Friday, January 20, 2012

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
2011. Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.
Cast:
Steve Carell
Julianne Moore
Ryan Gosling
Emma Stone
Analeigh Tipton
Jonah Bobo
Marisa Tomei
John Carroll Lynch
Kevin Bacon
Liza Lapira
Josh Groban

Cal’s (Carell) life is sent spiraling out of control practically the moment we met him. Emily (Moore), his wife of 25 years abruptly informs him over dinner that she wants a divorce. With that, he packs up, moves into an apartment and tries to get on with his life. By get on, I mean spend nights at the local bar griping about his failed marriage. While there, he meets Jacob (Gosling), the local ladies man. Jacob takes pity on our hero and wants to help out by imparting his carnal knowledge upon Cal. Meanwhile, Cal’s 13 year old son Robbie (Bobo) is having his own love problems. Robbie is in love with Jessica (Tipton), his 17 year old baby-sitter. Aside from the obvious age difference there is another issue. Unbeknownst to either guy, Jessica has a crush on Cal. Finally, there’s Hannah (Stone) who’s studying for the bar exam. She’s in a serious relationship with Richard (Groban), but appears to be settling, much to the chagrin of her pal Liz (Lapira). A bunch of people pursuing love, or sex, while simultaneously wondering if it’s even worth the effort ensues.

Our plot moves along nicely, but in a fairly straight forward manner, for most of its runtime. However, things pick up towards the end with a fabulous twist. It’s the type of thing you don’t see coming, at least I didn’t, but once it happens you’ll wonder how you didn’t. Best of all, it absolutely works. It’s not some M. Night Shamalamadingdong idiotic turn of events flying in from very deep left field. The movie doesn’t end with this occurrence, either. Instead, it crystallizes things for the people involved.



The common theme running through Crazy, Stupid, Love is people romanticizing the person they desire so much as to deify them. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why it’s so painful for the jilted parties. However, this is no mopey affair. Like most of us, these people do ridiculous things while dealing with their emotions. It’s a ridiculousness we can relate to. We’ve been there. Maybe, we’re there now. At the very least, we’ve known a few people who are, or have been there. We laugh because we see our own silliness in the people on the screen.

At the end of the day, CSL is a romantic comedy. It actually does go through many of the machinations of other rom-coms. However, the numbers aren’t quite as visible here as they are in many of it’s kind. It’s well crafted, all the way around. We get wonderful performances across the board. The scene-stealers here are Bobo as Robbie and Marisa Tomei in a very interesting and hilarious role. It also helps that the ending is a bit ambiguous. When the credits roll nothing has definitively happened to say for sure whether it’s a happy ending or not. We can guess either way we like. Still, we cannot say for certain how things will turn out, much like our own lives.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle.
2008. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Dev Patel
Freida Pinto
Madhur Mittal
Anil Kapoor

Jamal (Patel) is one question away from winning it all on Mumbai's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" He's also uneducated and poor so the police are questioning him to find out if he's been cheating.

The screenplay is exceptionally written. It weaves the gameshow, the interrogation and Jamal's life together beautifully. Each flashback is a harrowing adventure for us to get caught up in. The movie also causes us a bit of a moral dilemma as we try to decide how we feel about Jamal's brother, Salim. Director Danny Boyle does a masterful job of pulling things together, and went on to win Best Director at this year's Oscars. It's right there with Trainspotting as my favorite movie of his. And his lead actor is a charmer.


The ending is ultimately predictable and a little too fairytale. Also, since the movie covers most of our hero's life there are three sets of actors playing him, his brother and Latika, the love of his life. Visually, it works splendidly but it robs us of any real chemistry between the actors that play them during the present.

That we can predict the ending is only a small drawback to our enjoyment. This movie is much more about the journey than the destination, and what a wonderful journey it is. By the time we realize we've been tricked into a chick flick, we're totally immersed in the storytelling and thoroughly enjoying the ride. And yes, I did call the winner of the Academy's Best Picture award (and 7 other Oscars) for 2008 a chick flick.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Monday, January 16, 2012

Best Friends

Directed by Noel Nesseck.
1975. Rated R, 83 minutes.
Cast:
Richard Hatch
Doug Chapin
Susanne Benton
Anne Noland

Pat (Chapin) has just gotten out of the military. He’s reunited with his best friend Jesse (Hatch). They immediately buy a Winnebago and hit the road on a cross-country trip their girlfriends in tow. Things are all hunky dory at first. When it becomes clear Jesse is ready to settle down and marry Kathy (Benton) Pat has such a hissy fit it terrorizes the others, including his own girl Jo Ella (Noland). We spend the rest of the movie watching Pat be a class A jerk. By the way, the Native Americans on the poster shown above have absolutely nothing to do with anything.

Honestly, the crap Pat pulls is only mildly interesting. What keeps things somewhat fascinating is the unintentional humore brought on by mostly bad acting and a good deal of bad writing. Even within that writing there are a few possible subtexts that may keep us somewhat involved. The first is the easiest to see. Pat’s deathly afraid of growing up. The second is a little less implied but certainly plausible given the era in which Best Friends was made. To oversimplify: going through the Vietnam War has made him a psycho. They don’t really make any allusions to the war, but I’m putting two and two together here.

There is one other possible subtext. This might be a serious reach on my part, but it would also seem that Pat is a latent homosexual. Watching him do anything he can think of to get Jesse to ditch his girl just so the two fo them can hit the open road together has a distinct Little Caesar feel. Obviously, this is nowhere near as good as the gangster movie classic but it is an intriguing similarity. Much like Rico seems to be in love with Joe in that film so does Pat appear to be with Jesse. Nothing ever happens with this making it seem more like an unintended consequence of a low quality script than any type of actual effort.



Another interesting similarity is with a pop song that was recorded six years after BF was released. It’s in the way Pat’s actions are explained away. I’ll just say google the lyrics to the Rick Springfield classic “Jessie’s Girl” and leave it at that. After seeing this movie it looks to be impossible that it didn’t inspire this song. For the record, Springfield has maintained that he wrote the song based on an experience he had in high school. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Some viewers will get another minor jolt very early in the movie. Richard Hatch is the guy that plays Jesse. He’s recognizable because he went on the bigger and better things. Most notably, he would play Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica television series and Tom Zarek years later in the remake. Strange that the only person in the cast to have a viable acting career plays second fiddle here.

As a whole BF is just bad. It feels much more like a made-for-TV melodrama than a feature except for the nudity. We’re never completely bored with it, but we’re not enamored with it like we are some of our favorite cult movies, either. It loiters in purgatory, not so bad it’s awesome but just interesting enough to watch all the way through.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Friday, January 13, 2012

Kung Fu Panda 2

Directed by Jennifer Yuh.
2011. Rated PG, 91 minutes.
Cast:
Jack Black
Angelina Jolie
Dustin Hoffman
Gary Oldman
Jackie Chan
Seth Rogen
Lucy Liu
David Cross
James Hong
Michelle Yeoh
Danny McBride
Dennis Haybert
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Victor Garber

Since becoming the Dragon Warrior, Po (Black) is enjoying life and dispatching the occasional bad guy. Of course, we wouldn’t get a new movie without a newer, greater threat on the horizon. That threat comes in the form of shunned peacock Shen (Oldman). He was banished from the city he calls home long ago for being a very bad boy. Now he’s back with plans to take over all of China, starting with his hometown. Though he’s pretty darn good at martial arts, fighting isn’t his main tactic. Instead, he has created something that seems to symbolize the death of kung fu itself. Not only is it up to Po and the rest of the Furious Five to stop him, but Po is also dealing with an identity crisis. Having never met another panda, he wants to figure out where he came from and what happened to his parents.

Like he was in the original, our hero is still a goofball and very much like most other characters played by Jack Black. By the way, his schtick works better here than in his live-action roles. There are also fun interactions between Po, Master Shifu (Hoffman) and the rest of the Furious Five. In particular, his moments with Tigress (Jolie) provides a huge chunk of the movie’s most tender moments. Another large chunk comes from Po’s time with the only dad he’s known. There is also plenty of action, even more than in the original since we don’t have to spend so much time on Po learning to fight.

Alas, more action does not necessarily make a good movie. This is a good movie because it maintains its predecessor’s most important trait. Aside from the fighting, the plot functions as much like a true martial arts film as it does a kiddie flick. Other than using human beings not many changes, if any, would be needed. It would be right at home amongst a group of Shaw Brothers productions.


It also helps that Gary Oldman gives us a wonderful heel in Shen. He’s more menacing than Tai Lung from the first movie because instead of wanting to be more than he is, Shen embraces his villainy. His one true care is about vengeance. What he has to do to achieve it is not important to him, only that it is done. Oldman conveys this in that just over the top, maniacal bad guy. Even as just a voice actor, he continues to show he is one of the most versatile performers in Hollywood.

When speaking of sequels, I don’t like saying that if you liked the first, you’ll like the second. In this case, that’s a true statement. The follow-up maintains the original’s magic and expands enough to still feel fresh. It pulls the trick of making us feel like we know these characters and that their adventure is bigger because they’ve grown – not just because. I’d be naïve to say it definitely isn’t, but it doesn’t feel like a cash-grab. It feels like the continuation of a saga.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chinese Hercules

Directed by Choy Tak.
1973. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Chen Hui Min
Bolo Yeung
Liang Tin
Wang Chung Tsung
Yeh Fang
Yuan Feng
Fan Chiang

As a child of the seventies and eighties, I’ve learned some interesting things. One of them is if I ever see Bolo Yeung coming towards me I should run screaming in the other direction. If I somehow wind up in a position where I have no choice but to engage him I’ll simply scan the area for any sign of Bruce Lee or John Saxson before resigning myself to a bloody and painful fate. Not the machismo of my full-blown masculinity nor the passage of time has quelled my cowardice in regards to Mr. Yeung.

Such fear, rational or otherwise is what brought me to Chinese Hercules. The brief blurb on the back of the DVD doesn’t say much but seems to suggest something I’ve never seen: Bolo as the hero. That and the slum-friendly $1 price tag were too much to resist. Buying this movie wasn’t a choice, but the fulfilling of a destiny.

Alas, such a lofty buildup can only lead to disappointment. For starters, Bolo is not the hero. Once again, he plays the monosyllabic hulk of a henchman. Given that, I have no problem with anything he does. Do you hear that Mr. Yeung? If you’re reading this I want the record to show I think this and every other performance you’ve ever given is perfect. As for the rest of you, don’t judge me.


The movie’s problems really are elsewhere. As low-budget kung-fu flicks go the story is solid. Our hero Kang (Chan) is dedicated to studying kung-fu. He also subscribes to the action of living the disciplined, honorable life of a martial artist. However, when trouble finds him he makes the mistake of killing the man he’s fighting. So distraught is he over his failure as a person he leaves town without his girl, vows never to fight again and takes a job by a pier, loading and unloading ships. To make a long story short, Bolo’s boss takes over the pier, has all the workers fired and bada-boom, bada-bing Kang’s gotta do some fighting.

Sadly, this is that odd martial arts movie in which the action is the problem. This includes the way things are shot and/or were transferred from their previous format onto DVD. The fight choreography is often bland and poorly filmed. Too many missed blows are clearly visible and the camera is often too close and at bad angles. It becomes a chore to watch. Again, at least a portion of that is due to the shoddy manner in which it was transferred. It looks haphazardly done and subtracts from what may have been somewhat enjoyable. Was it worth my dollar? Well…if you’re reading this Mr. Yeung, it was indeed worth all 100 of those pennies. In fact, I tried to give the clerk two dollars but he wouldn’t hear of it. Wink.

MY SCORE: 2/10

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hobo with a Shotgun

Directed by Jason Eisener.
2011. Not Rated, 86 minutes.
Cast:
Rutger Hauer
Molly Dunsworth
Brian Downey
Gregory Smith
Nick Bateman
Pasha Ebrahimi
Robb Wells
Timothy Dunn

This is for gore-freaks. Yeah, I’ll start there. After all, that’s where the movie starts. Almost no time is wasted before we get the first decapitation and subsequent geyser of blood splattering the screen. A damp cloth clears it nicely. Keep it handy, along with a poncho to wear over your clothing. That stuff is tough to get out of cotton. Throughout Hobo with a Shotgun we’re treated to all sorts of messy deaths and dismemberments. All of it is rendered in glorious, but not seen in quite some time, Technicolor. At least that’s what the opening credits say.

Technicolor is an appropriate choice for this movie. Everything about it feels like it’s from a bygone era. This includes the film’s star, Rutger Hauer. True, this is a more weathered version but he seems to have pulled this from the same pile of scripts he regularly drew from back in the 1980s. I mean that in a literal sense. The movie appears to be set back then, but it’s not something we’re told. The one possible exception is the guy that films bum fights, an internet era thing. However, even that guy uses VHS tapes and an old school camcorder.



What we are told is the town where our hobo (Hauer) finds himself is a very bad place. If you saw Sin City, think that and multiply it a few times. Local gangster The Drake (Downey) runs thins along with the two goons he calls his sons. The Drake starts things off by cutting his own brother’s head off in broad daylight and in public where he makes dozens of bystanders watch. Why? Mostly just so you know what kind of movie you’re getting into. Soon enough, the hobo is at odds with the bad guys over Abby (Dunsworth), the prostitute he’s taken a shine to in a fatherly sort of way. With that, he acquires a shotgun from the town pawn shop while stopping a robbery attempt. He then sets out trying to clean up the streets “one shell at a time.”

From beginning to end “Hobo” is a smorgasbord of ridiculousness. The story itself is rather simple. To say the acting is over the top is a massive understatement. Aside from Hauer’s relative subtlety, everyone is in full-ham mode. It helps they’re spouting lines ranging from hilariously bad to cringe inducing. To their credit, they say them with all the gusto they could possibly muster. Most important to this production though is the human body. It is destroyed and/or mutilated repeatedly in extremely graphic fashion. This is where it will either grab you or lose you. I can see plenty of people giving up after ten or twenty minutes. If we’re being honest, it’s disgusting. For us twisted folks who eagerly devour Saw movies, it’s so bad it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Help

Directed by Tate Taylor.
2011. Rated PG-13, 146 minutes.
Cast:
Emma Stone

Viola Davis
Bryce Dallas Howard

Octavia Spencer
Sissy Spacek
Jessica Chastain
Ahna O’Reilly
Allison Janney
Anna Camp
Cicely Tyson
Chris Lowell

Skeeter (Stone) has returned home from college and aspires to be a serious writer. Home is Jackson, Mississippi and this is the 1960s. It is common for the affluent white families to have black maids who not only cook and clean but practically raise their children. Constantine (Tyson), the maid who raised Skeeter no longer works for the family, much to Skeeter’s dismay.

Also not to Skeeter’s liking is the way the town’s maids are treated in general. They are often mistreated and demeaned. Since this appears to be the only type of employment available to black women, they perform their duties and bite their tongues. Skeeter decides she wants to write a book telling the perspective of these women. As you might imagine, this is no easy task.

The chief characters on each side of the racial line assume the roles of hero and villain. For the maids Aibileen (Davis) becomes one of the heroes. She’s the first one to agree to talk to Skeeter. Given the climate of the times, she’s literally putting her life on the line. Our villain is Hilly (Howard). Hilly rules Jackson’s group of wealthy white housewives with an iron fist. She’s the one the others aspire to please and fear incurring her wrath.



I guess here is where I should mention that men are only on the periphery of this world. White men appear occasionally. Mostly, they’re off to work ruling the parts of Jackson outside of their own households. Black men are almost non-existent except for distant civil rights leaders (distant meaning only seen on television) and Minny’s (Spencer) abusive husband Leroy. Even he is only heard and never seen. If this movie has flaws they come from this setup. White men have nothing of consequence to say, showing no backbone despite either being responsible for or at least presumably supportive of society’s design. Black men are either far away martyrs or, as represented by our most tangible vessel, angry wife-beaters totally dependent on their women to support the family.

Luckily, this world full of women is deeply engrossing. There are demons to exorcise and obstacles to overcome on all sides. Not only is Skeeter having a difficult time putting together her book, but her mother is withering away due to cancer. That’s not to mention all the issues others have. However, they all come together in a manner that enhances the ending without overwhelming the movie.



It also helps that there are a bevy of wonderful performances. Fresh off her outstanding work in Easy A, Emma Stone is again very good. However, she’s outdone by the cast around her. As Aibileen, Viola Davis is perfectly restrained, exuding the quiet strength it takes to do her job and then to speak about it to Skeeter. Octavia Spencer is much the opposite as Minny. She’s loud and short-tempered. She plays it perfectly, stealing nearly all of her scenes. Some may complain Minny is a stereotypical character but she’s a perfect complement to the reserved Aibileen. The other scene-stealer is Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly. It’s a thankless role but she fully embraces it and runs with it. By the end she becomes one of 2011’s best villains.

Without question, the subject matter is touchy. Racism has not disappeared yet. This is a movie that will inspire strong feelings. As such, it’s a film that deserves to be seen. Even if you don’t like it, it gives us something to discuss and possibly learn from. It is flawed but poignant.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Rupert Wyatt.
2011. Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Andy Serkis
James Franco
John Lithgow
Freida Pinto
David Oyelowo
Brian Cox
Tom Felton
Tyler Labine
Jamie Harris
Ty Olsson
David Hewlett

Will (Franco) is a scientist for the cleverly named Gen-Sys (think genesis). He is hard at work on a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father (Lithgow) suffers from. The drug he’s invented is being tested on chimpanzees. He’s had a breakthrough with the one named Bright Eyes. However, after she goes wild and is shot dead right in front of potential investors things seem to go kaput. It’s then discovered that the chimp was hiding a baby. Will takes the baby home to raise and names him Caesar (Serkis). Due to Will’s drug having been given to Bright Eyes during pregnancy, Caesar has heightened intelligence and awareness. Apparently unsure of his place in the world, the chimp becomes depressed and eventually attacks the next door neighbor while trying to protect Will’s dad. For this he’s sent to a not-so-well run shelter for apes, gets even more depressed and decides things are gonna change.

Making Caesar a character we really feel for is done through a perfect marriage of technology and acting. The fact we’re not looking at a real chimp 100% of the time is difficult to discern. He looks real enough. He’s certainly more realistic than recent kiddie flick stars Yogi Bear and Garfield. He also has much more depth and personality. It’s a remarkable performance by the man in the computerized monkey suit, Andy Serkis. If I had my druthers, which I don’t in this case, he’d receive Oscar consideration. However, since it’s hard to say how much is him and how much is animation I don’t think he will.


As a whole, the movie is well-written, drawing us in as it goes along. This is no small feat considering it’s a prequel to a movie in which the apes are the villains. It’s an about-face in viewpoint that is pulled off quite nicely. This is not only due to the empathy we’ve developed for Caesar. It also helps that although there are human villains, all humans aren’t evil. Likewise, Caesar does not go completely mad with rage and start killing people at will. Things seem to balance out and we understand his side of the equation.

When it’s all said and done, Rise… makes itself into a fun popcorn flick that somehow manages to be a little deeper. The visuals are often remarkable but the story gives us a bit more to hold on to. Normally, a prequel to a forty year old movie is a bad idea. Maybe this “was” a bad idea. However, it’s brilliantly executed. They’ve done the franchise proud.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Doesn't Kill You


Directed by Brian Goodman.
2008. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Cast:
Mark Ruffalo
Ethan Hawke
Amanda Peet
Will Lyman
Brian Goodman
Donnie Wahlberg
Angela Featherstone
Edward Lynch

Two lifelong best friends, Brian (Ruffalo) and Paulie (Hawke), and career criminals deal with the trials and tribulations of the life they’ve chosen.

Though neither is a likeable guy, their frustration with where they’ve found themselves draws us in. To facilitate this we get excellent performances from both Ruffal and Hawke. Ruffalo, in particular, is outstanding. It’s an unfortunately overlooked portrayal of a man with many demons. The city of Boston is also a menacing character. Refreshingly, it’s subtly so. Unlike a lot of other movies set there, this one never puts it in your face. There are no extended scenes scored by blaring Irish music, no ridiculously bad New England accents, no shamrocks and no references to the Celtics or Red Sox. Instead, the city either mirrors the bleakness or hope of our heroes, depending on what’s going on, or enforces its own will upon them. It not only helps set the mood, but to change it, as well.




Our two (anti) heroes work for Sully (Lyman). We know they’re frustrated with their position in his organization and have an idea of the type of relationship he has with them, but it could’ve been much more fleshed out. How what transpires affect him might’ve added even more depth. I would also like to have seen more Detective Moran (Wahlberg). The subplot involving his character and Brian could’ve developed into an intriguing cat-and-mouse but instead, it’s a wasted opportunity.

This is definitely for those of us into gritty, urban drama. It gives us great acting and a story that keeps us locked in throughout. Interesting tidbit: apparently, this is inspired by the director’s real life.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10