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The Strangers (2008)
Choice start and execution leads to so-so film
A young bachelor, James (Scott Speedmen), plans to propose to Kristen, (Liv Tyler). He's planned a night on the town in his hometown, which "uh oh" is a sleepy and dark haven in the woods. They stay at his family's old place. There is rose pedals and good champagne. Finally, he proposes and she says "No."
It's four in the morning when Kirsten says. "I'm just not ready." So, I guess, for this hopeful bachelor this may not be the end. The two begin to make love... Someone knocks on the door. It's a younger female, who sounds drugged out. She asks for someone who isn't there. It's disturbing, but it's already been one hell of a night. And they really don't think much of it. James leaves to get cigarettes. Kristen walks around in an abysmal daze. We're left to wonder about their future. It's a choice premise for any movie, really, and we forget we're watching a horror film. That's when the mask appears outside the window
The ominous lighting captured by Peter Sova, (The Proposition), is essential to the execution of this film, as it not only narrates the troubling story of this couple, but also foreshadows the doom and terror that ensues. From here, more masked villains appear and trap her in the house. They taunt and torture her. We're left to wonder if James will return or if he's somehow behind this. Without giving too much away, that's basically the rest of the movie. The antagonists and their intentions might remain mysterious throughout which would be fine, but one problem is we never discover anything else about our heroes. Everything we learn about them is within the first twenty minutes
The Strangers starts as a slow burn and then boils quickly. It wraps up within ninety minutes and while it isn't as a complex or tantalizing as say Funny Games, it's still absolutely watchable and a perfect rental for the Halloween season.
Death to Prom (2014)
Imagine Pretty in Pink if Andie and Duckie both had a crush on the same guy.
That's pretty much what the story is. It's clean cut and pure fun in a world not ran by Jerry Folwell. The story is about two high school kids who have a crush on the same guy. One boy, Rene, and one girl Frankie, both get a crush on Sasha, who isn't exactly clear on where he stands. What results is an often funny and dynamic story that leaves you wanting more.
Death to Prom is an independent feature film that works better than a lot of independent films I've seen recently. That's because it's actually funny, the acting isn't half bad and well because the story works. It doesn't get over it's head or try and do too much. The editing and sound are clean. The soundtrack works. The color is great.
The screenplay won the Mcknight Fellowship from the IFC and Coppola's Zoetrope contest. From there Stenerson decided to direct the project by himself and it's been playing at various festivals since last fall. Catch it at a festival if you can!
Out of the Furnace (2013)
Hard punching and straight forward film delivers
Scott Cooper takes a sharp turn from the school book tone of his last film Crazy Heart and brings us to a more dismal world in Out of the Furnace. Our hero, Russel Baze, (played smartly by Christian Bale), is a well intentioned and responsible man who in trying to protect his brother meets cruel and cold irony and is sent wayward in this ruined world. Meanwhile his brother returns from deployment with a terrible case of post traumatic stress disorder and brings his chaos into the "imbred" and lawless hills of New Jersey, led by the degenerate Harlan Degroat, (Woody Harrelson).
Now, the story in the vein of films like Deer Hunter and Winter's Bone, two films I personally admire for capturing the delicacy of people amid depressed communities. It's hard to say this film doesn't measure up. The lighting, sound, cinematography, editing, story, are all accomplished with the utmost professionalism. However, if the script fell into the wrong hands its flaws would easily be detected because the weakness of its integrity would show. The story takes too many short cuts to get where it needs to go. Some might already find it slow. It is after all a vignette of the decline of our hero.
However, what really made this movie work for me was the brilliant performances of the trait. William Dafoe as a local and smart small time boss. Sam Shepard as the uncle, a face of masculinity and integrity, Tom Bower as a complex and familiar bartender and gate man. Casey Affleck as the young and traumatized brother, Forrest Whitaker as the conflicted cop, Zoe Saldana as the girlfriend. Though, it's Harrelson who really steals the show, he's evil, beyond logic and powerful You can't wait to see him again and that antagonistic combination is rare and even more scarcely pulled off.
Out of the Furnace won't be nominated for best screenplay. However, in my eyes, it should get a nod for everything else.
Ender's Game (2013)
Better than a lot of the reviews
It's odd to me that "Ender's Game" is getting a bad wrap overall from the reviewers and "Gravity" is just so "wonderful". That's because Ender's Game is a much more engaging and visceral story with better character development, while Gravity relies on special effects and characters about as complicated as those in "Transformers".
This film gets off on the right foot. The protagonist is a lanky tween, (played by Aas Butterfield, who is established quickly. He's a prodigy, sensitive, an underdog who must balance personal issues with a greater responsibility. He's selected to lead against an alien race who once threatened our existence. You might ask where have we seen this before? Hey, at least it's not a prequel, sequel, or remake. And let me tell you something else, you haven't seen earth threatened quite like this.
I will say that along the way it gets a little silly. Ender goes into training and the developments seem generic and the games they play for training are pretty confusing. Some of the better moments are borrowed from "A Dirty Dozen" and some others seem tailored for children.. That said, this isn't a film for kids. The overall themes here are harsh, even cynical; however, this lends to a more interesting formula than your standard good guy, bad guy, movie.
Harrison Ford is powerful as a the captain of this mission to save humanity at any cost. His philosophy is cold, direct, and dangerous. By contrast, our hero is different, innocent, talented, and closer to the delicacy of life. And so there is a gigantic contrast between the two characters and a greater one with the final solution.
Despite looking forward to this movie, I almost didn't see this with negative reviews piling in and the recent homophobic rant by the author. However, I was glad I gave it the benefit of the doubt. You might too.
Bad Grandpa (2013)
A genre that's ran its course.
Bad Grandpa is a road movie about an unwanted child. His drug addicted mother has been sent to prison. His father is a dead beat and Bad Grandpa, (Johnny Knoxville), doesn't want him either because his wife "finally died" and he really wants to get his rocks off. He's also a heavy drinker with absolutely no concern for anyone else. So that's the plot really, Billy will either end up with his idiot grandpa, drug addict mom, or his father, (whose only concern is the money he'll get for taking care of him.) Apparently, all of this adds to the hilarity of the story.
So the grandpa and grandson go on the road to deliver Billy to North Carolina. Bad Grandpa tries to deliver him through UPS, but Billy blows their cover in a supposed universe where the employees are dumb enough to ship a moving and talking box. However, I guess UPS workers are just a tad less dumb and so Bad Grandpa and Billy are back on the road, damn, just about old Gramps to regain his freedom. So instead him and Billy bond over drinking, (he's 8 or so), farting,destroying property, and trying to get laid. That's the movie...
There is a few laughs in this film that's from the creators of Jackass, a TV show about practical jokes and hurting oneself for the sake of hilarious humiliation. The film follows Bad Grandpa around while candid cameras capture his interactions with the supposedly unknowing public. Some of it's obviously acted, (such as the UPS scene). However, the best moments of the movie are the reactions from the public when having to deal with Bad Grandpa or Billy. There is one running skit that's pretty funny where Billy walks up to strangers and tells them that they're going to be his new father. However, it's more about malfunctioning machines and making fun of old people. Yep, it's pie in the face and sex jokes that weren't even that clever in middle school.
There's simply nothing original or that funny in this movie. The climax is a rip off of a movie apparently no ones ever heard of. (Little Miss Sunshine). Knoxville has the audacity to go into public places and give people who live in impoverished areas a hard time. Hey, you may think I'm missing the point. This movie is about brainless humor. Sure, I'll say, but that's all it is. It's really just insensitive and brainless humor about kids with terrible role models who encourage them becoming as dumb as they are. (For the real deal see a John Waters film like Polyester).
In a movie theater that smelt more like pot than popcorn, I wonder just how far we've regressed. I'm not high brow, but this is the kind of movie that encourages the viewer to be dumber than before they sat down in the theater.
Any Day Now (2012)
Fighting the good fight
Any Day Now is a moving film about a gay couple who tries to adopt a displaced and lovable adolescent with Down Syndrome, (Marco). The story, set in West Hollywood in 1979, is meant to be relevant today, because it addresses gays on parenting, which the film confronts, but in an odd way. That's because this is a film about love at first sight. You would think this about a stable and well to do couple who decide to adopt, not so. The first scene finds Allan Cummings, (Rudy), playing a drag queen in a dimly lit dive bar. A well-dressed and sad looking man, Paul, sits down by himself. The two light up when they make eye contact. They fall in love. Then they take to Marco. Paul turns out to be in law. The two move in together and get custody of the child all within a few days. It's an unlikely family, an instant family, and it's based on a true story.
The film does come off, at least initially, as a bit preposterous. Why would this prominent lawyer go for a drag queen who can barely pay rent? Perhaps it's to emphasize the point that we don't know what makes people fall in love. And why would they risk everything to adopt this child with no future? Our heroes have a the gift of empathy, one wouldn't think that you would have to fight for your right to exercise it, but that's the main conflict here as they go to court for permanent custody. It's the story of a couple fighting against a world half stuck in dark ages that wants to destroy their family so they can salvage the prehistoric traditions they're holding onto. It's amazing how far we have come in the past thirty three years
Any Day Now is not a perfect film. The acting falls flat on occasion, at times you might not understand motives and some character development seems premature. That said, this is a pertinent work that gets stronger as you watch it. It also grows with you after leaving the theater. The test audience I sat with was in sync with laughter and tears. And yes, some even stayed through the credits.
The Master (2012)
"The Master" of an awe inspiring headache of a movie
Who could be a better student than Freddie Quell? This is one of many themes investigated by Paul Thomas Anderson's inspiring, "The Master". Aptly named, "Quell", is docile, impressionable and disillusioned. Our hero is supposed to be the ideal one, a war vet made up of cowboy heroics, pious servitude and James Dean Mythology, brilliantly captured by Joaquin Phoenix, his veneer is non-existent, someone of no form, no integrity, a man in desperate need of love, a drenched sponge, he's the lost and docile face of brilliant confusion in a film that doesn't quite do him justice, but tries to.
We first meet Quell on an island with seamen, consummating with sand in the form of a giant woman. There's talk of post-traumatic stress disorder from a pragmatic Military psychologist. Once discharged, Quell wanders, drinks and picks fights like Charlies Bukowski's alcoholic, but he does it without any pleasure. His mission, it seems, is blind, and without novelty.
Quell eventually stumbles onto a cult is led by a certain Lancaster Dodd, played by Hoffmann whose like Ned Beatty's omniscient character in "Network", but he's part lovable. Dodd is also occasionally brilliant, yet more often openly doubted by even his followers. His philosophy is partially that of "processing", a hypnotic type treatment meant to cure the experiences of lives long past. Quell is quickly a believer, which makes sense in an odd way, after all, the solutions of this life cannot console him, it is as if he needs the treatment of another world. How legitimate "processing" is in this world is left to interpretation, but it seems to make sense to our alien protagonist and we're never explained why. Our protagonist remains an enigma throughout. It's just not satisfying or engaging.
This occult is obviously a commentary on Scientology as well. No one is allowed to question Dodd's philosophy. No one is allowed to leave and come back. Dodd is awe inspiring because he is also part monster. All of his philosophy's value is placed on the individuals past life, which gives him more control over the students "current" life. There is a lot to wonder about in this piece. It's more philosophy than story. For instance, half way through, I began to wonder if Anderson was commenting on modern psychologies "over" use of altering brain chemistry through medication instead of attempting to deal with personal trauma, but it's hard to tell in a film so laced in metaphor.
From here, the focus becomes less on the philosophy and of a grander treatment itself. Intentionally or not, it becomes more and more difficult to relate to our heroes and it becomes harder for characters to relate to each other. The film captures two Oscar caliber performances that never really connect and what's more problematic is the way by which Anderson fails to develop what each character wants. Each character ends up dynamic, but the weight behind them is light. The supporting cast is even less effective. Amy Adams as the wife is a woman of fire and brimstone and Laura Dern is a nice surprise as a hesitant follower, but their characters, amongst others, do not equal in what becomes a chaotic equation, but one worth pondering. To be short, this work fails to seduce us like Anderson's "Magnolia" a film in which we experience many forms of life. With "The Master" we're pushed further and further away, until we're lost at sea without them.
Shutter Island (2010)
Don't miss this one - review from a skeptic.
From the look of the trailer, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" looks more like a horror film
This is a dangerous place where isolation rules under fascist control. A U.S Marshall is sent to an asylum to investigate a missing patient but discovers so much more. A demon? A ghost? Something more? Is this going to be as disappointing as I think it is?
I was skeptical walking into the theater, wondering if this twist could hold water. The film starts with Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck, standing on a ferry. They talk about their assignment. What's suspect here is that there is no additional development. We are bam, smack right into the story without so much as an opening montage. All that we see is the men smoking a couple cigarettes. Though this is what begins as momentous development. As our hero smokes we that this isn't the glorified top lit smoking of a beauty or that of a sophisticated and confident gangster. We see that this is a harsher character with poor posture, someone who doesn't sleep well, someone with a deep past
They are greeted at the gate by guards whose attitudes' seem immediately suspect. Soon we meet Dr Crawley, a seemingly complex and modern man who runs the asylum. However, he soon turns uncooperative with the investigation. Inmates and staff are hiding something but what? Everyone here seems off. Evidence and clues begin to appear but not before our hero seems riddled by psychosis himself. "You act like all this madness is contagious." Daniels says to the guard. Is it? Soon we begin to wonder, too, but not before he uncovers the tip of the iceberg and it's not only painfully intimate with his own past but also a mass conspiracy. The Nazis had concentration camps and the Americans have Shutter Island.
Though, it doesn't stop here, but to say anything else would do the story injustice Kingsley is in his finest role in years. Similarly, DiCaprio reaches new levels. Amongst others Elias Koteas, Ted Levine, Michelle Williams, all play small but wonderful roles. Robert Richardson captures a world all of its own.
While Scorsese is a master of film I'd say that his specialty has been more character than story. This is a fresh balance of both. It's a mix of noir and thriller. It's only sort of a horror movie and could be compared to "The Shining" but it makes it look like it's a one trick pony.
All this praise being said it's not for everyone. The story is complex. It takes some attention. At times it's a bit bleak and dire. Of course it all makes a little less sense when you actually think about it but then again that's film. There are a couple of moments where the story gets lost within itself. Things become a bit too complicated. At this point you might begin to lose faith in its viscosity, but don't worry because the story has you right where its put you.
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
Let's remake this excellent movie? NO SPOILERS!
At it's worst "Let the Right One In" is far too subtle and slow and nothing like typical horror movies, (if it should be considered one.) At its best its one of the better films we've seen in the last decade. As a foreign film it should see wider American distribution and publicity than any such film since
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Our hero here, who is just twelve, is so perfectly likable and so well played he is the sort of boy you'd want to raise, or the sort you'd want your child to end up with. He's richly contemplative and caring, lonely, but not broken, cool, but not pretentious, precocious and yet without arrogance. Who knew that he would fall for a vampire?
It's a story more like "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" than " The Lost Boys." It's more about asceticism and existentialism than blood and gore. I won't give any details away, but this film is neither convoluted nor cliché. Sure, it's not amongst the best stories. It's not a formula film, but it's intelligently written and doesn't start anything it doesn't conclude, (well not too much).
Beautifully shot in a snowy and desolate Swedish town, the film very much carries on a world of its own. The film as an entirety is subtle, even slow. Likewise the effects are far from showy, making tasteful use of CGI with kitties or watching our vampire climb seven stories.
The sound does not rely on a creepy score, nor attempts a hip or ambient soundtrack. Instead, it successfully amplifies the sounds of its fictional and isolated universe, (which is far away from reality and amid somewhere in the early 1980s.) For the most part we only hear what the characters or the world around them, gusts of wind, the brushing of teeth, The Clash. Though most notable is all of the silence, all of the stillness that creeps about keeping the viewer mystified and engaged.
What the film does is allow adequate time for the viewer to develop a consciousness about the situation of the story. It allows us to make our own determinations without being told what to conclude. Throughout the entire movie I could only count one legitimate flaw, a tiny divisive issue, which I'm sure was mulled over by a brilliant director and screenwriter.
It certainly won't be for everyone. It's not for those who can't read. It's not for kids. And it's not for those who can't bear non-traditional story telling. For me, the film was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly tiring and rehashed film industry. At least this film is rehash of a different kind.
This film should have seen a slew of Oscar nods and it seemed to me this film could have had a wide release. Nevertheless it will turn out to be a classic.
The Prestige (2006)
A great mix of inventive storytelling amid the mystery of magic
Sure, there are explosions and fires and bursts of electricity. There is at least one death and one chase scene, but there is more to this one. It's a compelling and often brilliant story about magic, science, good and evil. And it's set in 20th century London. The film is almost flawless.
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are both fine as rivaling magicians. They trade the roles of antagonist and protagonist throughout the film. And Bale has continued becoming a very interesting actor, at least one who takes really great roles. Though, Michael Caine really steals the show. He has a very warm role as Putter, the teacher, who is wise and complicated. Rebecca Hall is brilliant as Sarah, Rupert's wife. And David Bowie is less irritating than usual as the great Tesla. The editing is slick and helps the movie progress seamlessly. It's a very involving movie.
Ask the Dust (2006)
Mission Impossible III
This was Robert Towne's dream project. Lets consider other recent dream projects: Peter Jackson's King Kong, Oliver Stone's Alexander, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. None of these films were a success. Robert Towne's Ask The Dust is no exception. The film failed to get wide release and the critics did not rave about it. I saw this film at a premier in Minneapolis. Robert Towne was there to answer questions and such. He said for himself "I'm not sure if I like this movie or not. Ask me again in five years."
That said the movie isn't entirely a disaster. It's a fairly interesting story about a down and out of luck writer, Bandini. He falls in love with a beautiful waitress, Camilla Lopez. However, he struggles with being in love with a Mexican as much as she struggles with being in love with him at all. People are always confusing Bandini with a Mexican because of his last name. (He is actually Italian). This is a film more about race than anything else. It's an interesting side note that Towne's last name wasn't always "Towne" Robert Towne is Jewish. And Towne is not a Jewish name.
The actors are fine. The cinematography is exceptional. However, aside from the base plot this is a very distracted film with too many side stories, some of which are interesting enough. The film is faithful to the novel, but I'm not sure why. Ask the Dust is a wonderful novel with many literary qualities. It's a good read, but it's not a screenplay. Unfortunately, Ask the Dust is another film the exemplifies the facts that a faithful adaptation is rarely an intelligent choice. And that dream projects seem to sink more often than not. Ask the Dust is an inventive novel, the film is a fine adaptation. And that is precisely the problem.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
I steered clear after this movie even when it won best picture. I suppose I wasn't interested in watching a film about female boxer just as Eastwood's character wasn't interested in training one. That said, I finally watched it. The movie is simply captivating. Each character is equally interesting. Watching Freeman and Eastwood interact is brilliant. The story itself is about a desperate, white trash, waitress, (Swank) who dedicates her life to a sport that doesn't necessarily want her. Eastwood is a jaded boxing coach with a deep past. And Freeman plays a long retired boxer who was never able to make good with his big chance. It's a dark film, and the cinematography is appropriate to that. The only issue I had is that the antagonists are simply too easy to hate. They are not complicated enough. However, considering everything else in is to its advantage i rate this one 10/10.
Tres Noches de un Sábado (2002)
Chilean realist film
This film has the voyeuristic look of a John Sayles film. It is highly psychological, illustrating the relationships between two distinct groups of friends and two distinct young couples. This amounts to four narratives, which are all briefly intertwined by their own stupidity at the end of the film. It is stupidity and the inability to accept reality which bond these characters on the larger scale. The narrative which I found to be the most effective tells the story of a well off business couple who host a dinner party on their anniversary. What makes the narrative interesting is that the wife of the couple decides to confront her husband about his mistress, who is sitting at the table. This confrontation entails a meltdown of not only their marriage, but also offsets unrelated business tensions which had not been confronted. The acting is good considering that this is a low budget film. The wife of the couple is particularly good as mid-life beauty suffering from nostalgia, but some of the other actors are obviously amateurs, such as the waitress for instance, who's acting just isn't conceivable. The cinematography is quite rough, initially there are four distinct types of photography. As the film progresses, the photography interestingly blends into a unified medium. As a whole, I would say that this film is a good attempt at portraying the flaws of human relationships.