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Cedar Rapids (2011)
Awkward comedy attempts to be Ed Helms's "40 Year Old Virgin"
Cedar Rapids is a decent comedy aiming to be Ed Helms's attempt to segue into leading man status as fellow "Daily Show" reporter Steve Carell did with "The 40 Year Old Virgin". This is a less successful attempt, due in large part to some strange story decisions (he's sleeping with his former teacher, one scene involving illicit drugs comes out of nowhere and seems like part of a completely different movie). Ed Helms is funny enough, likable although he lacks Carell's goofy charm that makes it so easy to look past his quirks. This renders much of the comedy more awkwardly uncomfortable than it otherwise should have been.
Anne Heche is the real highlight here, portraying a married woman who uses her annual trips to an insurance convention as an escape from her mundane family life. She is charming, funny, and easy to sympathize with, even if her motivations are entirely selfish. John C. Reilly chews the scenery in an over-the-top performance--a very hit-or-miss performance here. Isiah Whitlock Jr. pulls off his role very well, and he does offer up one of the most hilarious scenes in the film as he attempts to escape from a hostile group of partygoers. Alia Shawkat (excellent on Arrested Development) shines when she's on screen, making me wish the film had focused more on her than it did. Her role as a drug-addled prostitute does eventually lead to some unfortunate plot turns, but Shawkat is able to rise above the material. The same can't be said for Sigourney Weaver, who has the thankless role of former teacher, and while she's entertaining on screen, she seems to be here more for name recognition than anything else.
This is a somewhat entertaining comedy, lacking technical expertise (excruciatingly bad lighting, lackluster cinematography, poor direction and editing) but bearing some bad storytelling decisions. The art direction seems to suggest this film takes place during the 1980s, and had it not been for the cars and cell phones, I would have believed it. Did the costumer design team purposefully hit thrift stores looking for the most unfortunate clothes around? I imagine this was for comedic effect, but it sadly misses the mark and makes the film oddly anachronistic instead.
Let Me In (2010)
Let Me In: Why is everyone moving so slowly??
Comparisons to the original Swedish "Let The Right One In" are inevitable to those who have seen it. A fan myself, I was worried about the remake being an unnecessary clone. The trailers made me hope that Matt Reeves had done a decent job, and to the extent that he has, he succeeded in creating an atmospheric vampire film.
But sadly, the original film does exist, and the comparisons do not hold up well: Tomas Alfredon's original far surpasses this remake's attempts on virtually all levels. From the visual palette to the mixed bag of visual effects to the plodding pacing, Reeves's vision often pales as a cheap copy of Alfredon's telling of the same story. The cast of actors here seem hamstrung by a director's choices, leading to a very forced, unnatural flow in character interactions. Chloe Moretz, in particular, is unable to capture the haunting coldness that Lina Leandersson tapped into so effortlessly. On the other hand, Kodi Smit-McPhee handles his part of a tortured student exceptionally well. His character seems poised to grow up into a tormented soul, potentially with serial killer tendencies (the mask is an eerie hint of a future Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees). His exposure to Abby seems to refocus his purpose in life, giving him meaning where little existed before. The rest of the cast is decent, although this film rests on the shoulders of these two young actors alone.
And for the life of me, I do not understand why everyone talks and moves so slowly in this film. I assume they were aiming for atmosphere and slow-building suspense, but the result is actually boring. I swear, a good ten minutes could have been shaved off this film's running time had the actors run things at a normal pace. This fault seems to be a result of poor direction though, as the actors are all quite capable.
Surprisingly, the visual effects work in "Let Me In" is lackluster, often unnecessary and artificial. While the badly-rendered (but hilarious) CGI cat attack from the original is missing, it is replaced with other poor CGI effects. One scene involving a vampire's exposure to sunlight is particularly obvious; done so well in the original, the remake replaces it with some awful computer effects. Abby's violent attacks become little more than ragdoll effects with gruesome sound design. This lack of realism pulls the viewer from the story, a crucial mistake that hinders the effectiveness of the film's eerie story.
The music pales to the original, and Reeves's color palette of browns and yellows doesn't quite capture the chilly effectiveness of Alfredson's stark blue hues. On its own, "Let Me In" would probably have been a pretty effective, nasty gem of a horror film. But, at least for me, I was unable to disconnect my love of the original from my experience viewing this one. Hard as I tried, I could not seem to shake the powerful impact the original had and how little of an impact this remake has.
** Updated 10-05-2010: Watched Let The Right One In again last night. Having seen both so closely together, there are some updates in the remake that make more dramatic sense but oddly enough lessen the dramatic pull of the story. The lack of parental figures in the remake gives the story a more melancholy feel but at the expense of limiting Owen's believability as a child. The bullying in the remake is harder, more violent and mean-spirited. This should make for a more satisfying conclusion, but instead makes the bullies into caricatures.
The father/protector's role in the remake is more clearly defined, and his actions are more plausible, but the original performance by Per Ragnar is more poignant, a tragic mess of bad choices and regret whose sole purpose in life is to sustain Eli's existence.
Sidenote: the one thing which I noticed more than anything is how Tomas Alfredson chose to focus on the characters' eyes and their observations of the world. Eli and Oskar's eyes are constantly in frame (especially true of Lina Leandersson, whose hauntingly big eyes portray so much sadness and a hard edge suggesting her character's true age). I don't know if this is what affected my enjoyment of the original over the remake, but it was something I definitely noticed.
Another Gay Movie (2006)
Not Another Teen Movie
The first thirty minutes of "Another Gay Movie" are some of the most excruciatingly bad film-making I've seen this side of film school classes. I quite expected to shut the movie off, and I would have, except something quite unexpected occurs: the movie actually begins to be quite funny. Perhaps it was sleep deprivation or maybe the sheer audacity at which the filmmakers go to up the comedic (and gross-out) ante is shockingly funny in the way shock jocks can be funny. Quite often, you'll be asking how far the filmmakers will go--with fart jokes, vomit jokes, sex jokes, fetish jokes--and you'll almost always be surprised at how far they do push the border of taste. That is quite admirable by itself.
This is not nearly as good as the rave reviews here would have you believe, nor is it a disastrous bomb. I wouldn't say this spoofs or parodies "American Pie" so much as it copies the formula with gay teens. There are no laugh-out-loud moments to be found here, most of the humor is met with a smile. There are scenes that push the envelope beyond what "American Pie" ever did. The unrated version of this is a virtual comedic soft-core porn with better acting and a story.
The four leads are pretty much the reason the film works as much as it does. The directing is DOA, the writing is about as smart as you'd expect, and the production looks on a whole as a cross between "Strangers with Candy" and "But I'm A Cheerleader!". The actors are therefore required to carry this one, and they prove to be up to the challenge. The sweet romance that buds between two of the characters is well-handled and well-performed, one of the few believable aspects of an otherwise over-the-top campy comedy.
If you can make it past the initial scenes of filmic torture, you may even find yourself rooting for the guys to finally get some action. This is definitely one of the more unique gay-themed productions, and that is at least cause for celebration. I am harshly critical of "gay" films, especially comedies, but this one is a surprisingly sweet and charming no-holds-barred gross-out romantic comedy. Now if that isn't a backhanded compliment, I don't know what is.
Adam & Steve (2005)
Nearly unwatchable "romantic" "comedy"
It seems exceptionally difficult to make a gay romance (or any gay-themed film, it seems) without delving into cheap stereotypes. There have been a few diamonds in the rough, but Adam & Steve is a painfully unfunny and extremely dull film that is neither romantic nor comedic. Aside from the throwaway sight gags, the poor directing, the mediocre acting, the spectacularly awful writing, Adam & Steve's real problem is its tonal shifts. The mish-mash of genres here keeps adding barrier after barrier to push the audience out of the picture. The film begins with an odd introduction of the main characters, complete with Parker Posey in a fat suit. Next up, we get two visual sight gags of poop and vomit in one scene (one of which is so poorly done, I laughed in spite of how unfunny it was).
There are scenes of drama, there are scenes of comedy, there are scenes of musical numbers and a choreographed dance sequence. It only takes about 15 minutes to realize how bad this picture really is. Parker Posey and Chris Kattan, along with a handful of supporting character actors, upstage the two main leads who are about as charismatic as two rocks. There are scenes where Posey and Kattan both seem to be rolling their eyes, maybe wondering how they got roped into this production.
Adam & Steve has no direction and flounders in search of one. It jumps all over the place, going from a completely screwball gross-out comedy (attempting a pale imitation of the Farrelly Brothers) to a tender love story (admittedly neither tender nor particularly loving... not even really a story for that matter). It almost seems as if the screenplay were written in segments and then spliced together. There are a handful of humorous moments, most of which come courtesy of Posey and Kattan, that prevent the movie from becoming a complete waste of time. And the final climactic moments are nicely handled, a welcome break from the maddening confusion that has preceded it all. The only reason to see this one is if you are a fan of either Posey or Kattan. And, really, if you are, both have done far superior work.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Lonely Broken Hearts
"Brokeback Mountain" was the first short story I read from Annie Proulx--it was also the last. Her story drove me into a week-long depression, a reaction I've never had before or since. Her words spoke volumes in just a few short pages. I read this story after hearing about Ang Lee taking the director's chair for this supposedly "gay cowboy" adaptation. This oversimplification may have simply lowered my emotional guard. Why not also call Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" a love story about teens? Brokeback Mountain, as filmed by Ang Lee, is one of the best romantic tragedies I've ever seen. It is one of the greatest love stories ever told. It is also one of the saddest, most heart-wrenching displays of grief, fear and regret to ever grace the silver screen. It is a tragedy of epic proportions--this is not the simple story of two gay cowboys (which isn't even accurate itself since they are not cowboys). It is about families torn apart through lies, it is about society's inability to accept unconventional love, it is about a man who is so stricken with fear that he is unable to accept love from anyone. Ennis Del Mar is a representation of the lonely broken heart, damaged at an early age and incapable or unwilling to be mended.
Both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play these characters with respect and dignity, relying on the emotional core to drive the story instead of the plot. There isn't one misstep in the cast, not one moment that rings false. Michelle Williams has the unenviable task of playing another lonely broken heart, one damaged by her husband's betrayal and dishonesty. Anne Hathaway does exceptional work with her rather underwritten character--until her final key scene shows her to be just another victim of Twist and Del Mar's love affair.
One could easily blame Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar for ruining many lives, not to mention their own. But such is the tragedy of Brokeback Mountain. Two characters who had no intention of ever falling in love finding themselves gripped with the kind of passion a person would be lucky to experience even once in a lifetime. In spite of this, Del Mar gives in to fear, pulling away from the only true love he may ever know. The final climactic moments as Del Mar learns of Jack Twist's fate are poignant, underplayed, and emotionally devastating--both for him and the viewer. I can not begin to express how shattering the final moments of this film are. Annie Proulx's words captured it perfectly and I can not do it justice but with pale imitation.
Common complaints and criticisms seek superficial answers for the complexities of this film's story. These characters are never pardoned for their transgressions. Del Mar's emotional abuse of his wife is a reflection of his own internal abuse. These are flawed human beings with real problems that are not easily tidied up. To say the film excuses his behavior is wrong on many levels; in fact, his behavior leads to his ultimate punishment, a life spent alone with only regret and pain to fall back on. This is the tragedy of Ennis Del Mar's choices, one we should all learn from. Love can never be explained and none is needed here.
Brokeback Mountain, in my opinion, transcends itself to become more than the sum of its parts. It is one of the greatest love stories ever told, but it is also emotionally tragic. This is Shakespearean in scope, a tale of true love lost by way of fear, and one of the best American films ever produced. Hopefully we may all learn to love and overcome the fear which can often paralyze us. One day, it may be too late, handed our fate on a small postcard, forever trapped in a pit of despair and sadness. I can not think of a worse punishment for anybody, a life of internal pain and sorrow that nothing can rectify. The final moments of the film, with Del Mar alone in his trailer with nothing but his long lost love's shirt hanging in his closet, are at the same moment truly horrific and truly heart-breaking. It is a punch to the gut. The lonely broken-hearted end of all things for Del Mar.
This movie has no right to be this entertaining
I stumbled upon "The Shaft" while flipping through the cable channels. The TV guide had it listed as the 2000 Samuel L. Jackson version of "Shaft", which I had not yet seen. My first thought was that the film was off to a bad start by the mistitled "The Shaft"--it became clear rather soon that this was not the same film as I was led to believe. Jackson was nowhere in sight, instead replaced by an as-yet-unknown Naomi Watts.
And yet, I sat there for the entire film, cheering and laughing and applauding what I think must be one of the most absurd B-movies I've ever seen. The production values are surprisingly strong, with good cinematography, decent (to a point) visual effects, and some obviously tongue-in-cheek acting from the unusually stocked cast (Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya?). I almost get the feeling that this film was shelved from theatrical release upon the 9/11 attacks (the screenplay contains some very eerie and prescient references to the not-yet-committed terrorist attacks on the WTC towers and Osama bin Laden).
However, with all that said, "The Shaft" is one insanely enjoyable ride through B-movie territory. What do you expect from a movie whose villain is a possessed self-aware elevator? To be sure, this is far superior to "The Mangler", another film about a killer machine gone haywire. This one never takes itself seriously, in spite of the rather frightening effects of people being decapitated (a most impressive effect) and others falling to their deaths. No one is spared: pregnant women, children, dogs. This elevator is one mean SOB.
Yet the filmmakers know exactly what tone to take, mixing dark comedy with the macabre to make what I can say is one of the more entertaining films I've seen in a while. From a masochistic German daycare worker (played riotously over the top) to an obnoxious blind man and his seeing-eye dog (whose ends are both laughable and sad simultaneously), this film does almost everything right--that is, up until the conclusion. The story takes an awkward turn into military cover-ups and corporate greed which drags the story into unnecessary territory. What should have been a fast-paced climax is more complicated than it should be and more serious than it demands.
That said, "The Shaft" is one of those movies which screams to be watched with friends, laughed at with a beer in one hand and a shot in the other. This is one odd-ball feature film, both very funny and shocking. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but one that will stick in my memory for a while to come. Definitely worth a look if you are in the mood for what it is.
Alexander the Human
Oliver Stone's "Alexander" has been on the receiving end of a great deal of controversy and slanderous criticisms. And to a very slight extent, the opinions condemning the film have merit. But in picking apart the film, piece by petty piece, these critics have unfairly tarnished what is otherwise an above-average epic, not quite reaching the heights of "Ben-Hur" but far superior to "Gladiator". All in all, Stone has created a beautiful-looking film with good performances, brutal war scenes, and some over-the-top Shakespearean melodrama.
Of course, it isn't hard to see why people are upset. "Alexander" does not focus on the man's conquests, but instead on his emotions, his drive, his reasons. It asks, "Why?" when moviegoers seem to want to know, "How?" Even the mainstream critics have trashed Stone's creation, which surprised even me. If anyone is to appreciate his work, it should be the pro-critics. One obvious clue should come from the title and its noticeably absent "the Great". Stone is not focusing on the legend, but on who the real man might have been. Taking that course, it is no surprise people are disappointed.
There are flaws, of course, as with every film. Primarily, the voice-over work by Anthony Hopkins is harshly detrimental, in filmic terms. Voice-over is considered some of the worst technique in storytelling, and "Alexander" is chock full of it (presumably because Stone has so much to say in so little time). Elements we want to see are instead told by Ptolemy (Hopkins) as we watch Alexander's army wander from battle to battle. There's a commonly-held philosophy in screen writing: don't tell--show! Some of Ptolemy's monologues are decent and allow us further insight into the story, but some simply gloss over important elements of Alexander's life.
And it is far too drawn out. With only two major battle scenes, "Alexander" strives towards great drama instead of great action. And while Stone's battle scenes are brutally intense, they are often cut short or interrupted before any sort of climax. One jarring example comes during the first intense battle between hoards of Persians and the Macedonians. Midway through, so it seems, the film cuts to Alexander parading in through the Persian empire, victorious. With so many scenes of Alexander's armies wandering around through deserts, you think he could have excised a couple to shorten the length.
But those flaws aside, "Alexander" is an absolutely stunning film to watch. It is pure eye candy in a way most films only wish they could be. Where movies nowadays revel in CGI to "create" a look, Oliver Stone uses old-fashioned camera tricks (filters, panoramas, etc.) to establish a visual palette that puts the recent (and similar) epic "Troy" to shame. This is a rare big-budget Hollywood sword-and-sandals film where the sets look like ancient buildings. Where the crowds of fighting extras are, for the most part, real people. Where the blood and brutality of battle is shown in graphic detail. In a crucial scene, Stone implements a pink (almost infrared) filter which provides for some of the most gorgeous images I've ever seen in a major motion picture.
Colin Farrell has his work cut out for him with the role of Alexander and succeeds quite admirably. He portrays Alexander as a conflicted man who becomes legend with his death. Angelina Jolie chews the scenery, complete with a strange Russian/Transylvanian accent. This is exactly the type of film Jolie's face was made for--and she excels here. Most impressively is Val Kilmer, giving a bravura performance as King Philip. This is Oscar-quality work from Kilmer, and if justice holds out, he should get a nod for supporting actor.
Oliver Stone has made an epic of grand sweeping vision about a man who arguably doesn't deserve it. He's pared off "the Great" legend and myth, strive to look at Alexander the man, whose impressive conquests overshadowed his flaws. In doing so, he'll find himself lambasted by almost everyone. People dislike thinking of their legends as problematic humans. And Stone's flair of over-the-top soap opera makes the film a likely target for cynical crabbies (and before I create the wrong picture, I am myself a cynical crabby). I find myself wondering why I appreciated the film as much as I did--my jaded side seems to have been beaten into submission.
In closing, "Alexander" is not a great film, but it is a very good one. It is a step up from "Troy" (which I also enjoyed), but it isn't the grand Best Picture of 2004 that I was anticipating. Once the dust settles and it is relegated to the video stores, people may come to recognize the good qualities of this truly epic film. When all is said and done, this is a solid 8 out of 10 on the IMDb rating scale. It could (and should) have been better, but it certainly isn't the disaster critics are talking about.
Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (2000)
This existential fairy tale is devastatingly beautiful
"The Princess and the Warrior" moves at a leisurely pace, nowadays commonly mistaken for slow or plodding. It is the pacing antithesis of "Run Lola Run", yet in remarkable ways, covers the same thematic ground. Tykwer takes Krzysztof Kieslowski's favorite themes (fate, chance, destiny) and tells one of the most uplifting existentialist tales I've ever seen on film. Poetic in its visceral impacts, heartbreaking in its emotional force, "The Princess and the Warrior" achieves an astonishing level of humanity which very few films ever strive to attain.
As a result, "The Princess and the Warrior" becomes the jewel in the crown of Tykwer's filmic repertoire. With Franka Potente as the emotionally-reserved Sissi and Benno Furmann as the jaded Bodo, Tykwer has created two opposites who are fated to attract. Unlike Hollywood, however, there are no magical forces at work, no clever "Meet Cute". It is very conceivable that these two could have never met, and only due to Bodo's criminal actions do they meet. Is it fate or coincidence that Bodo's run in with the law causes a run in with Sissi? Their interactions are quiet with bursts of trauma, their eyes do most of the talking. Tykwer seems to suggest that Bodo and Sissi's entire existence is to affirm each other's life.
Tykwer has crafted a psychological exploration of two misguided souls looking for an escape from their lives. Stuck in perpetual repetition, Sissi and Bodo live without living, searching for some meaning but incapable of doing so or, even more sorrowful, rejecting whatever is presented to them. This is not a "Pretty Woman" clone but an honestly reaffirming look at two unhappy individuals finding what they so desperately need in each other. Bodo and Sissi's relationship of awkward meetings, misconceptions, and soul-binding metaphysical connections culminates in what I can only describe as one of the most impactful and emotional climaxes in all of film history--period.
Kudos to Tykwer for creating one of the most romantic and spiritually-fulfilling films I've ever seen. A perfect and necessary viewing experience for anyone feeling stuck in the mundane routine of life, thrilling, suspenseful, almost painfully aware of what it feels like to be emotionally and spiritually lost. "The Princess and the Warrior" upholds the optimistic idea that even when things go bad, life is still worth living, if only to help someone else. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest motion pictures ever made.
Taking Lives (2004)
A brief review with minor plot spoilers
This well-acted psychological drama bears no resemblance to "Seven" or "Copycat", although the title credits would hint to otherwise. Stylishly directed by D.J. Caruso ("The Salton Sea"), "Taking Lives" dives full on into the psychological aspects of identity. However, despite the timeliness of the film given our real world problems with identity theft, the story's plot holes drags down the proceedings.
FBI agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is called up to Quebec to help in an investigation of a possible serial killer. The case has spanned nearly twenty years, with the first murder depicted in the film's early moments.
The investigation is cracked open when a sole witness to a murder comes forward. James Costa (Ethan Hawke) claims to have witnessed and interrupted the killer during one of his murders. Soon thereafter, it becomes apparent that Costa is now being pursued by the murderer.
All of this is handled in a most unusual manner. With excellent cinematography, Caruso revels in the forensic and quirky mannerisms of Illeana (credit to Jolie for fully involving herself in the character). Her eyes dart back and forth, scanning everything for any detail. Using simple techniques of observation and instinct, she can quickly notice anything which might help her case. The camera captures everything in a graceful manner, quite unusual for this kind of film. Worthy of notice is a chase on foot through crowded streets, which attains a sense of surreality without drawing needless attention to itself.
Credit must be given to the screenplay, which smartly crafts Jolie's character into a full-fledged, rational woman. When feelings arise between herself and Costa, she asks to be removed from the case so her judgment may not be clouded. However, the screenplay also takes serious missteps, leaving many gaping plot holes and questions unanswered.
Whatever the script lacks, thankfully, is made up for by an excellent cast (particularly Jolie, Hawke, and Martinez) and creative direction by Caruso. There are no surprise twists in this film--if you've seen any serial killer movie, you'll quickly figure out who the killer is well before the characters do. There are, however, some surprises to be had, particularly in the final five minutes. There is a scene of shocking violence just before credits roll which caused our preview audience to scream in horror. Even I, desensitized to most movie violence, recoiled in shock.
While the screenplay leaves much to be desired and Philip Glass's score is disappointing, "Taking Lives" is a generally entertaining, scary movie which gets under your skin and may possibly leave you finding it hard to fall asleep at night.
Out of 4 Stars: *** (3 Stars)
*On a sidenote, this film contains one of the all-time best "jump scares" in film history. I almost threw my nachos into the row behind me. That alone makes it worth viewing on the big screen.
Angels in America (2003)
Powerful, unsettling, and hilarious
Raised in Salt Lake City, I was brought up a member of the Mormon church. I say this to give backing to my next comment: Patrick Wilson gives a hands-down pitch perfect performance of a married Mormon man. His severe emotional and sexual repression, his mental anguish, and particularly his stoic facial expressions. Tony Kushner deserves credit for writing such a spot-on role--as a gay man, I identified heavily with his character. Any reviewer who criticizes Wilson's performance obviously does not know many Mormon folk. It wasn't until I left the church that I began to grow into a mature and emotionally balanced person.
That said, "Angels in America" is easily one of the best films of the year. The dialogue is beautiful ("threshold of revelation") and the actors all deliver the lines without making it sound like a theatrical play.
Kudos must go to Justin Kirk for his award-worthy performance. Going up against Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and other heavy-hitters, Kirk comes out with the strongest performance of them all. I laughed and cried as he went through a juggernaut of emotions.
Mary Louise Parker also does a phenomenal job, although (and my friends agreed) she has far too much personality to be a Mormon housewife. I guess that's why her character is going crazy. This is perhaps Parker's best performance in a fine line of work.
Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Emma Thompson all do great work here, but they are upstaged by the lesser-known actors. Thompson is fantastic in every one of her roles (particularly with her New York accent) and Pacino gives one of his finest performances in a long time. Streep has a multitude of roles, particularly as the elderly rabbi (never would have guessed it was Streep until the credits rolled). On a more personal note, she plays the Mormon mother to perfection!
"Angels in America" is a poetic, heartfelt examination of loss and suffering during a troublesome point in America's history. Don't miss this poignant film!!!