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Ruby Sparks (2012)
Funny and Fun, if Also Quite Derivative
24 July 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Before I start in with the swooning I feel it my duty to cover the heavy baggage Ruby Sparks carries into the theater. For starters, you should know that this is a big studio film carefully designed as a cute indie movie. Indie culture is the hotness these days, and so movies like Ruby get the kind of polish and push they rarely, if ever, saw in previous decades. The amount of cash put into the promotion of this film alone could keep true indie auteurs like Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, whom also make smart rom-coms, working for decades. But who cares - film production has always been clouded with smoke and less-than-honest selling. Also, few people outside of festival goers - and critics like myself - see Swanberg- and Bujalski-level indies like the masterful Beeswax (though they should).

The true problem with this dramatic comedy, written by actress Zoe Kazan and directed by the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), is that its device - basically, a slumping writer (Paul Dano) magically creates a new girlfriend by typing out his dreams into a typewriter - is a little too familiar. Remember Marc Forster's excellent Stranger Than Fiction? Same set-up here, right down to the buttoned-up typewriter cliché, but with a different framework. That said, the fantasy element in Ruby Sparks doesn't apologize for itself as Stranger did, and thus reminds more of the movie magic 80s kids like myself, Kazan and co-star/real-life-beau Paul Dano saw on the screen in several Tom Hanks films (Big, Splash, etc.). Ruby also apes the whimsycool mood of (500) Days of Summer, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy element of Splash and, kinda sorta, the all-too-perfect ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The too-obvious weird science of Kazan's Ruby Sparks script aside, I found the film to be perfectly enjoyable with a handful of notably well defined characters. Sure, the writing is highly derivative and almost too-textbook-for-comfort, but the story plays out quite well. Kazan, a Yale grad who happens to be the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan, proves herself to be a cool, smart writer with a solid knack for pacing and clear narrative. While piecing together a mostly-straight-faced fantasy film like Ruby Sparks does seem quite textbook, any spinner of long form original stories will tell you that writing with a device is an awfully tricky duty. You have to cover all your bases more than you usually would, leaving no holes for the smart audience to gripe about and, inevitably, use to drag down the work (talking to you, M. Night). Kazan, despite lacking in originality and authentic dialog in her writing, sells this story with a surprisingly polished touch.

The highlight of the film, for me, was actor Paul Dano, who has been sitting on the edge of greatness for the better part of the last decade. That the role of the film's protagonist, genius writer Calvin Weir-Fields, was written specifically for Dano is not an opportunity squandered. The actor moves through scenes with humor and grace, neither going too far nor playing to the easy cliché in front of him (skinny, smart writer who can't figure out women). His is a nuanced performance that I believe will resonate with the 18-30 crowd in a way none of his past performances have. As much as I want to picture Jesse Eisenberg in the role (and I'm sure the studio wanted Michael Cera), I can't. This is Paul Dano's character.

Another highlight is the cinematography of Matthew Libatique, best known for his work with Jon Favreau, Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee. While Ruby isn't the kind of film that wins cinematography statues, it's certainly a beautiful one in subtle, graceful, technically perfect ways. (And don't be surprised if, over the next decade or so, Libatique does take home some golden bookends.)

The biggest topic on conversation here, unlike most films, is not the work of the directors. Faris and Dayton strike me as indie tourists whose work comes off as safe and sound - too hip to be sell-outs and too schooled to be inventive. The headline, of course, is Kazan, an oddly cute actress who has been on the cusp of B- or even A-level fame since 2007's Fracture. Thus far Kazan has picked - aside from Nia Vardalos' dreadful I Hate Valentine's Day - all respectable projects. And she's good here as an exaggerated fantasy character that she wrote for herself. Not great, as you'd hope an actor would be in such a situation, but good enough that the movie - which hinges on her dream girl performance - doesn't fail. But, truth be told, I can't help but daydream of Ruby Sparks with a more charming, dreamy actress like Zooey Deschanel or even Kirsten Dunst. Both have an ability to set fire to the screen in a way we've not yet seen from Kazan, who seems better off in more brooding roles, like the one she played so well in The Exploding Girl.

All complaints and shortcomings aside, Ruby Sparks is a fine film full of hearty laughs. A good time at the movies that wraps up properly and entertains in a way that's both slightly hip and widely accessible. It's probably not the "surprise hit" that the folks at Fox Searchlight designed it to be, but the movie should do well enough, giving both Kazan's and Dano's careers needed lifts into commercial hipdom. Here's to hoping that when Kazan next picks up the pen, she takes better care to flesh out the psychological depths of her characters and, ya know, disguises her influences a far better.


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Tanner Hall (2009)
Surprisingly Great - and Tastefully Stylized - Gal Drama
30 December 2011
We, the 99.9 percent of the world that wasn't in attendance at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, have to consider the recent DVD release of Franny Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg's gal drama, Tanner Hall, the film's public debut. So, despite being a movie filmed in late 2008 and not going public until late 2011, this super stylized drama is a 2011 film, and one of the most surprisingly fulfilling watches we sat for all year.

Staffed with a cast of A-level young talent (led by Rooney Mara, Georgia King and the sizzling Brie Larson), this New England boarding school ensemble flick rolls through scenes with no clear cut story arc, instead playing through as a glimpse into the lives of a group of A-level teen girls going through the way crazy stage of puberty, full blast. Pure fire.

We see details of relationships morphing when the new girl, Victoria (King), arrives and fearlessly stomps her way into the pack or sisters. The crew's soul captain, Fernanda (Mara), is the most powerful and interesting character, and she's brought to life with grace by the Girl With the Dragon Tats herself. It's a performance that could've maybe even been considered legendary, had only Tanner Hall been treated as a major release. Mara's moves are so good that we have to assume this was the film that helped David Fincher find his new discovery.

Imagine if Sophia Coppola rewrote the Little Women script for John Hughes in the late 80s and you'll have a good idea of the haunting appeal that is Tanner Hall. As far as film art and storytelling goes, this is one of the great surprises of 2011. An incredible mix of design, writing and performance. Better late than never.
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Drive (I) (2011)
An Incredible Exercise in Style and Nuanced Storytelling
17 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Going into the theater I knew I was in for a treat. The little bits and pieces I'd seen of the film were clearly from the brush of a highly stylized, truly eccentric filmmaker with much to offer. And it looked beautiful - the lighting, the LA scenery, the poetic stillness. Needless to say, me and my crew walked into the theater for the first screening of the day, ready for something big, fingers crossed and hopes high. One hundred minutes later we celebrated the Christmas feast we'd just taken in, Refn and Gosling's brilliance clogging the holes of our soul. We'd seen a masterpiece - a film that certainly nods here and there (John Hughes, Heat, A History of Violence), but was also wholly original and stuffed full of style and understated grace. A story told in an inventive manner, not unlike Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs over 10 years ago.

Rather than discuss the many turns and layers of Refn's crime drama, I'd like to talk about the style of the film and, eventually, the crafty storytelling textures that most likely won't pick up on. First, the brilliant style of the film …

As the film's action segments play out, we see the Driver turn from a handsome shadow into a blood-soaked scorpion, striking quickly and confidently at all the right moments, taking down the danger in his way without losing his breath. He moves from person to person, conflict to conflict, each scene lit, framed and composed in a beautiful, poetic manner. The technique in this film is the stuff of legends, Refn and his crew's work standing high above that of the average modern film. If nothing else, the movie is a clinic in lighting, editing and sound design (much of the Driver's emotion is told through the cracking sound of his leather gloves - no joke). We see blood and love and cars. Villains and heroes and victims - and it's all beautifully composed. Mostly, we see Gosling's Driver, an unmarked loner who reminds a bit of the George Clooney character in last year's great The American. We see him fall in love and take care of business.

But here's where things get interesting: after the film a friend suggested a new layer. As the story plays we're led to believe that, on the surface at least, the Driver is a normal guy put into extraordinary situations - a naturally cool, calm, collected guy seemingly capable of anything, so as long as it keeps his new love (Irene) out of harm's way. That he handles these intense situations with such grace, precision and confidence seems, again, on the surface, like a dose of Hollywood fantasy. Led by a series of clues throughout the film, my movie- going pals and I figured some things out. If you've seen the film, you'll remember the following bits of information: The Driver just showed up one day, got a job with a semi- connected garage owner, and began working for peanuts; the three additional male principals (Nino, Bernie and Shannon) all share an organized crime-infused history that we're told links back to a Jersey crime family; the Driver leaves the catalyst for the tension in the film (a bag full of unmarked bills) behind with the final bloody body that stood in the way of Irene and Benicio's safety. Those details in mind, we decided that the Driver was planted in L.A. to observe Shannon and his criminal friends - whom we learn feel unappreciated by their Jersey- based bosses. Sure, the Driver was there to put in work, too, but he was more or less a skilled spy, sent by the Jersey family. When the things get messy he acts - not as a quiet man who can drive cars, but as an instinctive and trained driver with a presumed history in the muscle game. One of the shadow men who keep things moving - a deeper variation of the Jackyl character in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

The final scene, featuring a silent performance by Gosling, is the cherry on top. We see the just-stabbed Driver in his car, still, not moving, covered in the blood of himself and the three men who stood in his way. We sit starring at the still screen for a 30-second stretch that feels like an eternity, wondering if our hero is dead. Then, suddenly, the Driver blinks. Then starts his car. Then drives away. Probably towards Jersey. Irene and Benicio are safe; and thus the job is done. We're left sad that the believable love-at-first-sight between Irene and the Driver didn't come to fruition, but moved by the lengths our man went to in order to assure the safety of the films only two pure and innocent characters. The quick blast of love he found flipped a switch that, as movie-goers, we hope helps our man move up, on his way towards a more emotional, connected, human existence.

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Best Film I've Seen In Years
12 June 2011
Rather than offer a standard form review of auteur/poet/man-of-mystery Terrence Malick's fifth feature film, the Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life, I figured I'd offer some stray thoughts on the movie. This because Malick's film pays no mind to any definable variation of standard form in the realm of filmmaking or storytelling as a whole. The film is big and wide open, poking the brain to think and remember, question and ponder in ways it often skirts around - the hard memories of youth. That, and the meaning of the universe and our existence. Thoughts No. 1: I can't imagine how a theater full of females or non-Americans - or even African Americans - will respond to Tree; but, for me (a young white male raised by a protective mother and a no **** hard-as-nails father, circumstances similar to what we see on the screen), the movie was as poignant as any I've seen - ever. Malick somehow remembers the most profound seconds of his youth - a collection of single moments that made him the man he is today. He uses his memory of those moments to create a story about a Waco, Texas family going through some serious growing pains. Dad is nature and mom is nurture, or, in Malick's case, Mom is grace. The family's three young boys (led by the eldest, Jack), struggle to find the balance between the two often opposing lessons their parents teach them. My words on your paper or computer screen can't begin to express the poignancy Malick puts into his poetic movie - into this family. Many moments in the film prompted me to remember childhood moments that I hadn't thought about since they happened 20 or more years ago. Those moments of discovery - and the painful process of trying to figure out day- to-day life as a member of an intellectual society - deepen Malick's movie, which is basically an open-ended questioning of our existence. Poignancy defined. Thought No. 2: Supposedly there are people walking our Earth who booed The Tree of Life when it premiered at Cannes a few weeks ago. To those people, I say this: Iron Man 3 will probably be out before you know it; for now, you have Thor, The Green Lantern, Wal-Mart and "American Idol." Thought No. 3: I believe this film will go down as a deserved all-time classic, as well as one of the more cerebral and visually poetic movies ever made. I can't think of a better movie about youth and the adult act of pondering it all as we look back and figure out how we came to be the people we are. Malick brilliantly juxtaposes wide-eyed children discovering the small things in life against a perplexed adult looking back on simpler and better days - even if those "better days" were as complex as any he's seen as an adult. It's a moving and profound device that any movie-goer living a conscious existence should feel deeply, even if they came up under different circumstances than Malick's O'Brien family. Great movies leave you talking and thinking - usually about one big thing that happened, one topic. Something having to do with the human experience. This movie left me thinking about so many different things, and deeply. I could go on and on about the many details, visuals and style points that I just can't shake. But, chances are, you've not yet seen it. The movie is a an existential puzzle piece of a movie that frames up the broad topics of creation, existence and self-worth (and about 20 other things) in a challenging and abstract manner that will be interpreted differently by anyone lucky enough to feast their eyes. It's a not just a new classic, but the very rare piece of art that will be obsessed over and picked apart by thinkers for generations to come. If the intellectual depths of Terrence Malick's imagination were ever in question, Tree assures that they will never be again. The best movie I've seen at the theater in years. A new all-time masterpiece. Check out more of my music- and film-related writing at
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Super 8 (2011)
Super 8 is Great!
10 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I'm of the belief that most people haven't yet digested just how much things have changed over the last five years. We're living in a different world than we were in 2006, one that certainly seems alien to the movie settings of classic-era Steven Spielberg films. A modern world that, aside from the look of the creature/catalyst in the film itself, is alien to the world we see in J.J. Abrams' 1970s-set film, Super 8.

Set your clock back to 1979, a simpler time, back when people moved slower, talked nicer and … well … cared more. Now consider these things: The Goonies; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Signs; Cloverfield; the geeks from "Freaks the Geeks"; and maybe, just maybe, a splash of Mars Attacks! and Spielberg's War of the Worlds and ET. Throw all that junk in a blender, stick it in a small town (still, remember, in 1979) and you have an idea of the style and appeal of this Abrams' new movie.

The story, as it should be, is a simple one. Basically, something really bad happens to a small town full of good people. Something impossible to understand, even for the Air Force dudes who have been working on a solution for decades. Something impossible that only the silent minds of children can translate and solve. We meet our crew of inevitable heroes - five sassy boys and one enigmatic and broken girl - as they savor their summer break working on a zombie movie they plan to enter into a film festival. They go here, they go there, they screw around, not unlike the crew of goons from Goonies or even Stand by Me. The lead boy, Joe (played by future star Joel Courtney), is the soulful son of a fearless and recently widowed deputy (played brilliantly by "Friday Night Lights" star Kyle Chandler); his best friend (the hilarious Riley Griffiths) is a brilliant old soul with big dreams and high emotions; and Joe's crush (the suddenly amazing Elle Fanning) is the stunning daughter of Joe's father's mortal enemy, a town drunk named Louis Dainard (Ron Elard). Solid set-up, right? Formulaic you say? You bet.

And sure, Super 8 is, from afar, quite formulaic. A period piece monster/alien flick set in a small town and led by a cast of incredibly lovable "tweens" - almost sounds like something a scriptwriting class would put down on paper, right? Who cares. Abrams handles each frame, each scene, each gigantic explosion and slight facial expression, with so much love, so much skill and so much studied consideration that you can't help but get sucked into his Spielberg- produced version of movie magic. As the story progresses we know that everything will eventually - after plenty of running scared, wild flames, sweet tears and epic destruction - be alright. There will be a hug and maybe a kiss. There will be heroes and connections. There will be sub plots that make us care and bad guys who only the crowd can understand in full. Super 8 is, without any doubt, a big, brawny blockbuster film that intends to touch all the bases - your head, your heart, your funny bone and, most importantly to folks like myself, the part of your soul that values strongly crafted screen art.

Without giving away too much, I'll just say this: Super 8 is the first movie I ever outwardly cheered for during the end credits. Not because it's necessarily a huge artistic achievement like, say, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life; but because it managed to take me to another world. A world where Michael Bay isn't allowed, Spielberg is your lovable guiding light, we don't solve our problems with computers and … ya know … anything is possible. Movie magic. And sure, same as was the case with M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, there are plot holes of reason here and there that some NASA goofs will someday dissect. But how much has that really ever mattered at the movies? And do we, the people of 2011, have any business saying what could or should be in an alternate reality such as the one in the 70s small town of Super 8? We, the lovers of fiction, do not.

My recommendation: leave the boringly logical part of your brain at home, forget about reality television, get to the theater and escape to Steven Spielberg and J.J Abram's 1979. Super 8 is a tasty, incredibly well-made Hollywood film that demands another lap before it has even crossed home. Somehow the so- far best commercially released film of 2011is a blockbuster about aliens, "tweens" and explosions. Who'd have thunk it?

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Some Production Shortcomings But Otherwise Incredible
24 May 2011
Like the bulk of music fans from my generation, my first impression of Bruce Springsteen was established when I was young, back when Bruce was doing the Born in the USA thing. He'd stick his underbite way out, wear skin tight jeans and headbands, stomp around on stage riffing like he was in a hair band, ride those cheesy synthlines, etc. Needless to say, I wrote the guy off before I was in high school and even figured him for some sort of idiot savant. By the time I was 20 or so I was a fan of his music, surely; but not until I saw director Thom Zimny's The Promise: The Making of the Darkness on the Edge of Town did I realize that, in his day, Bruce was as cool as anyone, and an all-around brilliant man of deep artistry.

The bulk of Zimny's film is comprised of archival footage of Bruce and The E Street Band following the worldwide success of their previous album, Born to Run. Overnight, it seemed, Bruce had become a household name. His working class background forever lingering, Bruce saw the opportunity to make something that was not just better than Born to Run, but different. Next came the notebooks, then the songs, then the rehearsals, then the recording. Then more recording. Then more writing. Eventually Bruce and his band had 70+ new songs to choose from, 10 of which ended up on his now-classic Darkness record. Thanks for Zimny's film, we get to see the whole process, mixed up with recent footage of the band reflecting on the Darkness era.

The Promise is one of the 10 best music docs I've ever seen, telling a great story that focuses on a great – and brilliant – leading man. The movie reminds me quite a bit of Sam Jones' film about Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but with a much cooler focus and much cheesier production. Had the producers and director done a better job of mixing the old footage with the new (and not used every cliché doc trick in the book), this would've been a near-perfect movie. Still, though, it's a must-see for fans of rock n' roll, pop culture, songwriting or film in general.

The movie is an amazing document of a brilliant writer, music mind, band leader and thinker who was working in his artistic prime. I still can't say much for the pop star 80s version of Bruce, but damn if the struggling back alley artist of the 70s wasn't as good as they came. This film will stand as the one of the essential pieces to the Art of Bruce.

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Beeswax (2009)
The So-Far Best of the Mumblecore Movement
15 March 2011
By the time the movie Chop Shop ended I wanted to move to New York and befriend writer/director Ramin Bahrani, simply because his movie was so good and made me feel so much. I thought that would be a one-of-a-kind reaction, but the moment writer/director Andrew Bujalski's third feature, Beeswax, ended, I was looking around online, trying to find his contact info.

I gave up on that quickly, instead opting to start the movie over from the beginning. If you've seen Bujalski's other works, you know what to expect: artfully told - and small - stories that feel very authentic. Beeswax, even more than his other films, feels very, very real. And while the story is simple, there's so much nuance in the performances and production style that you feel as if you've seen some grand tale unfold.

So, the story. Two twin twenty-something sisters living in the city of Austin, Texas work their way through two very different struggles. Jeannie (played by Tilly Hatcher) is an overachieving boutique clothing/thrift store owner who is worried that her business partner, Corinne (Katy O'Connor), is planning to sue her; all along she spends time with Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), her on-again love who attempts at every turn to help her through her legal woes. Jeannie's sister, Lauren (Maggie Hatcher), is kinda/sorta looking for work and, more or less, just sort of breezing through life - hanging out, getting high and just being all around socially pleasant and fun. We get the impression that Lauren's only real concern (aside from maybe money) is her need to be around for her sister, who, in addition to having problems at work, is a paraplegic young woman with much stress in her life. Both sisters are incredibly kind and soulful people who I came to love through the movie - especially Jeannie. (Also, both of the sisters are absolute knockouts who resemble Juliette Binoche, which can only be a good thing.)

I won't say too much more about the story, aside from mentioning that, at most times, you simply feel like you're hanging out with the sisters and Merrill, who, despite tense times, seem to almost always be enjoying themselves - joking and teasing each other in loving ways. The dialogue never feels too much like a movie and the story just sort of falls into place - less a framework than it is a reason to talk. All that said, Bujalski's script is wonderful, and brought to life very well by the solid, very natural cast.

I kept thinking that, at some point, I'd feel the wear of Bujalski's style-over-substance approach, as this was my experience with his other two movies (which are both worth checking out). Didn't happen. Not even close. I was very into the story of the two sisters at every moment, not so much caring about where the story was going as I was excited to see what I'd learn next about these girls and their world.

And then there's the end. Ohhhhhhh what an ending. I won't say a peep, other than that it was the very rare conclusion that had me simultaneously screaming, shouting, howling and smiling. It was, in a word, perfect. Major, major kudos to Bujalski, his crew and the Hatcher sisters. Great, great work all around; okay, time for a third viewing!
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The Freebie (2010)
Superior to Hall Pass in Every Way
6 March 2011
I'll start with the one bone I need to pick: the title of the movie, The Freebie. The name implies that the film is fun and lighthearted. Sure, at times. But, as a whole, this is a serious story that will surely be relatable to a whole lot of people. And, while I'm on the topic, I get the impression that a lot of people were misled by both the poster (which makes it look like an Jud Apatow movie) and the casting of Dax Shepard, who is mostly known for his comedic roles. Thus, I'd guess, the low score the movie has on IMDb. The unreasonably low score.

So, I'm guessing, someone along the way knew that this was a pretty great movie and thus wanted it to be one that people would see. Thus the title. Thus the poster. Thus all the wrong people seeing this movie. The Freebie is for fans of Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg.

What The Freebie is is naturalistic drama done right. The story is simple: a happy couple decide to "fix" their bedroom apathy by taking a single night to go out and share some bone with a stranger. Both Katie Aselton and Shepard are fantastic, both as lovers and as people going through a mighty big challenge together. Much of the dialogue in the first two acts plays through in a way that makes you wish it was your relationship - the two leads seeming so uniquely happy together at times that you get the feeling that Aselton took from her personal life for the script. Things change a bit in the third act, as they should. Things get, well, heavy.

Knowing that the writer/director, Aselton, is married to actor/writer/director Mark Duplass, I half expected the film to have a Mumblecore vibe. Not really the case. The cinematography is solid, if simple, the picture always looking big and bright and, at times, quite stylized. And sure, the writing and acting are great, but it's the combination of clever editing and the believable bond between the two leads that really make this thing work.

I don't want to give too much away. Go watch the movie ... it's streaming right now on Netflix and up for rent at your local video store. I'll be excited to see what Katie does next. I could see the coupling of this project and her role on "The League" getting her some rom-com roles alongside Paul Rudd or Seth Rogan or whoever. I hope she passes on those. I love to see a smart, talented female "make it" in any male-dominated industry. I think Katie has what it takes to have a solid career as a filmmaker, The Freebie standing as a very promising directorial debut.
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The Extra Man (2010)
A Scatterbrained Review for An Odd Film
6 December 2010
I like the book. I like the directors. I like the actors. I like the location. And, I suppose, I generally like the visual style of the film. Seeing as how there are four legit movie star-level actors in the film (not to mention the expensive shooting locations), I suppose I understand why the film had a $7 million budget ... but, really, you don't see that budget on the screen. In fact, aside from having mostly solid cinematography, this is a very simple movie that could've been made for far less.

But, like I was saying, I like the book enough that I can't call this a bad movie - even if I do understand why others might. Kevin Kline is great in what is more or less a comedy of manners, his approach reminding me more so of, say, Withnail & I than American Splendor. Paul Dano, who seems to be becoming something of a one-note actor, does his best with the flimsy adaptation, obviously doing all he can to believe in the vision of the filmmakers (a vision I suspect EVERYONE on the set secretly felt strange about at some point during the shoot).

Between this film and HBO's "Bored to Death," I'm convinced that writer Jonathan Ames has no business writing for the screen. Had someone like, I don't know, Woody Allen or Whit Stillman adapted Ames' book, I think this movie would've stood a chance. But, to me, the only thing useful about the movie is Kline's often hilarious performance. And when I say hilarious, I mean hilarious to a very small segment of viewers ... fans of Allen, Stillman, Noah Baumbach and maybe Stephen Frears.
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Holy Awfulness
21 October 2010
Bad movie.

REALLY bad movie. Did an adult make this?

Bums me out that loads and loads of money and work go into what is essentially no more than a blatant Todd Solondz-inspired, mean spirited comedy full of cliché characters and obvious jokes and story lines.

Wait, did I say "Todd Solondz-inspired?" Ha. How nice of me. This is a Todd Solondz rip-off. Waste of money. Waste of time. Piece of s**t. Imagine if the guys who own McDonalds attempted to rip-off Todd and you'll have a pretty good idea of how much soul this film has.

Really, though, I can't help but shed a little tear for the film US industry whenever I see a movie like this. Actual adults put their time and money into this project. Bad humor. Bad writing. Bad acting. Great resources. For every $20,000 spent on a film like this, there is a unique indie film maker out there wishing he/she could catch a break.
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Jarhead (2005)
A Must-See War Film, Thanks to Roger Deakins
15 August 2010
Director Sam Mendes, the man responsible for modern classics American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, almost always seems to know what he's doing, be it heavy (Road to Perdition) or light (Away We Go). This is why his 2005 war film, Jarhead, is such a disappointment. The concept of the film is great and the cinematography is, at times, as beautiful as you'll see in a war film. But damn, some of the attempts to make the film seem … err … hip, are embarrassing. The incessant use of unfitting, of-its-time music - used as an attempt to keep the movie light and fun - is so blatant and annoying that you can't help but cringe. The playful moments amongst the Marines who make up the story of this film are borderline cheesy. Actually, they're not borderline anything - they're flat out cheese.

This is a shame because, aside from the then-hip casting of lead man Jake Gyllenhaal (at the time a sudden cult figure thanks to Donnie Darko), the casting was great. The writing was great. The production was great. These few small mistakes keep Jarhead from being the best war film of the Naughts.

The story of Jarhead is simple. Our hero, Anthony Swofford (Gyllenhaal in his first major studio lead role), joins the Marines just as Operation Desert Shield is about to hit. He spends a lot of time adjusting and questioning what he's doing, but even more time wondering what his girlfriend is doing back home. (We're made to feel like this girlfriend of his is his everything - amusing, considering the character is 20 years old.) At the urging of Seargent Sykes (Jamie Foxx), Swofford becomes a Marine sniper, which he is very good at. He's he part of an ace team of shooters, paired with the always excellent Peter Sarsgaard, as Cpl. Alan Troy.

The crew of Marines, led in rank by Sykes and spirit by Troy, almost never appear scared. Aside from Skarsgaard, who leads the way as far as acting, Lucas Black (as Chris Kruger) stands out. He's a Texas boy who goes back and forth between airhead and the most reasonable man in his squad. At one point, when the Marines are discussing the point of the war, Kruger puts it straight: "I know these oil guys; I've been around them all my life. They drink oil like water. This is a war about money; we're here to keep the oil cheap." No one believes him. Later in the film, when the soldiers are told to sign a waiver and take an untested pill that can supposedly fight the side effects of nuclear weapons, Kruger again stands up, spitting the pill out after fighting with Sykes. These are some of the most memorable scenes, not only because of the subject matter, but because Black (who most know as the young, twangy boy in Sling Blade), is a heck of an actor.

But don't get excited, this isn't an overly political film. There are points made here and there, but, mostly, the film attempts to show what it was like to be a Marine during Operation Desert Shield. The movie moves slow as we watch the Marines sit and wait. They foolishly hope for action as the days pass. There are side stories here and there (watching porn together, sneaking alcohol, accidentally burning up a tent full of explosives, etc.) that remind more of an American Pie movie than Apocalypse, Now.

But that's okay, in a movie this slow, I'm guessing the producers and Mendes knew they'd need some cheap thrills. Personally, I'd rather have the film be shorter and less fluffy, but, when you cast Jake Gyllenhaal, you almost HAVE to bring the fluff. My personal favorite comedy bit, and maybe the only one that works in the entire film, happens when a helicopter flies over the Marines when they're at their lowest point. As the helicopter passes, blaring the Doors song "Break On Through," Swofford looks at the sky and says "that's Vietnam music; can't we get our own music?" After about 80 minutes the film starts to pick up. Our crew of Marines are in the 112 degree desert, chasing a group of fire-happy Iraqi soldiers. The way cinematographer Roger Deakins (known mostly for his work on The Shawshank Redemption and every great Coen Brothers film) shoots the desert footage is amazing. I don't want to give anything away, but will say that, between Skarsgaard's powerful performance and Deakins' cinematography, Jarhead is a must-see. Sometimes it feels like a painfully by-the-books war film and at other times it stands alone - thanks to Deakins' amazing eye and mastery of his craft. (Towards the end we get to see some incredible footage of a desert filled with burning oil wells. It's the kind of cinematic imagery film fans dreamt of before all this crazy CGI stuff became so standard. I recall being wide-eyed and out of breath through many of these scenes.) Is there a big bang at the end? Does the suspense and conflict finally come as it does in, well, every war film ever? Well … maybe. Kinda. I don't quite know how to explain it. I will say this: upon it's initial release, the ending made the average movie-goer angry and many cinephile types happy. It's uncompromising and subtle, which is strange when you consider how much, at times, it felt likes Mendes was trying to make an artsy war film for the popcorn crowd. Instead, he ends up with a film that is only a few cheap mistakes away from being a classic.

Jarhead is full of memorable lines, but is best summed up in the final minutes when Swofford says "every war is different; every war is the same."
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Ride with the Devil (I) (1999)
Not Perfect, But Technically Amazing
4 August 2010
Directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, etc.), edited by Tim Squyres (Gosford Park, Rachel Getting Married, Crouching Tiger, etc.), shot by Frederick Elmes (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Night On Earth, Broken Flowers, etc.), produced by Ted Hope (too many cool movies to name), starring loads of great people and based on Daniel Woodrell's novel, 1999's Civil War epic Ride With the Devil is one of the more interesting films of the last 20 years. Here's why …

Lee, who has made some major classics in his still-young career, has also made some smaller films. Smaller, such as Lust, Caution, The Ice Storm and The Wedding Banquet, but none so small as Ride With the Devil, a film that only played on eight US screens for a total of three days - less than 120 total US showings. The difference between the small productions of Lust, Ice and Banquet and that of Devil is that Devil cost a whole lot to make. It cost as much as many of the summer blockbusters coming out around the same time.

To put all that into perspective, this huge Hollywood production - mind you, that featured the work of so many great artists - was seen by less than 80,000 people in the US when it came out in late 1999. That's about the number of tickets that sell every three hours for the current No. 1 film, Inception. Also, aside from a small spike when Sam Raimi's second Spider-Man film came out (both films star Tobey Maguire), the Devil DVD has never sold or rented remotely well. So, in short, Devil is a one-of-a-kind major production in that it's beloved by critics and industry types, yet almost no one else has seen it. Some film buffs even consider it to be the best civil war film ever made.

There were no billboards or ads promoting Ride With the Devil. Maguire and Lee didn't go on talk shows and newspaper's didn't run Roger Ebert's review of the film. No soundtrack, no cross-marketing, no nothing. There are six theories often discussed when talking about why, after completion, Devil saw the studio treatment it did: 1) Matt Damon was originally signed on to star, but dropped out after the film had already gone into pre-production; 2) director Ang Lee was not given final cut of the film; 3) the studio heads simply thought the movie was awful; 4) the film tested poorly in the UK (only partially true); 5) a whole lot of loudmouth history buffs made public issue of a few inaccurate details; and 6) people hated the idea of a true-to-life sub-plot featuring a black man, John Noland, who joins the Confederate Army.

So no, people did not seen this movie, but they might now. The Criterion Collection just released what they're calling the "definitive cut" of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray. The difference? Well, for starters, many of those original problems are no longer relevant. The main issue, the editing, has been fixed, Lee re-cutting the entire film in late 2009 on his own dime. So now, after 10 years, it's here, the much discussed yet little-seen Civil War epic from Ang Lee, out on shelves just waiting for your cinephile hearts.

What do we at the Screen time offices think of the movie? Well, it's fantastic. Of course it's fantastic. Or, should we say, pretty much anything cinematographer Frederick Elmes photographs is worth feasting your eyes on. He's one of the best working today, topped only by Christopher Doyle, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Janusz Kaminski, Bruno Delbonnel, Vilmos Zsigmond, John Toll and a very few others. So yes, Ride With the Devil is a beautiful movie to look at … in fact, as is the case with every Ang Lee film, all of the technical elements are handled incredibly well.

The cast? Well, Maguire shares the lead duties with Skeet Ulrich and the great Jeffrey Wright. If that's not enough, check out this list of supporting actors: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers; Mark Ruffalo; Tom Wilkinson; Simon Baker; James Urbaniak; Jim Caviezel; Jonathan Brandis and even the super underrated Margo Martindale. We were sold at Ruffalo, Wright and Wilkinson, though Urbaniak and Rhys-Meyers are great as well.

So is Devil the best Civil War film ever? Meh. Nah, we can't agree with that, though we would agree that it's likely the best made Civil War film ever. As far as the best all around Civil War pictures, go, we'd probably go with either Edward Zwick's Glory, John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage or even Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. Lee's final cut is a fine one, sadly though, Screen time can't quite give this movie the classic rating so many seem ready to give it. The cinematography and coloring are amazing. Amazing. But the storytelling and direction is too often forgettable for such high accolades. As great as the movie is, I get the feeling that, at times, Lee found the script tedious.

So how then, you ask, did Ride With the Devil make the prestigious Criterion Collection cut? Well, from what we gather, similar to when they did releases for The Rock and RoboCop, the folks at Criterion added Devil to their collection because, technically speaking, it's that well made. It's the kind of movie that any future Civil War film projects will have to consider before going into production. Is it the kind of movie you'll watch over and over again? No, in fact, unless you're as in love with the cinematography as I am, you might even struggle to finish it the first time.
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Election Meets Happiness Meets American Pie?
1 August 2010
Awful lighting. AWFUL. Lazy set design. No attention to color, framing or camera movements. The usage of music is some of the absolute worst I've ever seen in a serious film. Simply, this is just not the work of a filmmaker; at best, it's the work of a comedian interested in storytelling. These were my immediate thoughts while watching World's Greatest Dad, a new comedy from comedian Bobcat Goldsthwait, who here writes, directs and makes a cameo.

Wait, did I just say Bobcat Goldsthwait? Yep. Remember that early 90s film Shakes the Clown? Awful but destined to be a cult film? He directed that, too. And other stuff, too. Anyone can play guitar.

I probably should've watched World's Greatest Dad when it first came out. I was living in Seattle when it was filmed there and it screened early at the Seattle International Film Festival. When it hit mainstream distribution there was a lot of press in Seattle, if only because it was filmed in town (though you'd hardly know it, save for maybe three shots). Regardless, nothing made get out to the theater to see the film. In retrospect, this maybe had much to do with the awful promotional poster. These things DO matter. The poster looks like the poster for Norbit. Or whatever. It looks like a cheesy Hollywood comedy. And no, despite starring Robin Williams in a comedic role, this is NOT a cheesy Hollywood comedy. It's a lot of things, but not that.

This is an awkward film that starts rough. It likely read very well on paper and got made only because of that reason and the fact that Williams signed on to star in what could've been a potential Oscar-buzz-worthy role for the actor.

I know people who HATE Robin Williams. H-A-T-E him. Not me. I've seen Dead Poet's Society, Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, August Rush, The Birdcage, Insomnia and Awakenings. Flat out, Robin Williams is, at times, a GREAT dramatic actor. Not always (see One Hour Photo), but often enough. And he's in that mode here - or trying to be - as a single father who tragically loses his piece-of-s&%# son, who dies while - yep - masturbating.

Williams, as high school teacher/aspiring writer Lance Clayton, finds his dead masturbating son and does what I suspect many would do in this unique situation: he makes it look like his son killed himself. He even writes a suicide note.

Here's where the plot gets strange: the suicide note gets printed in the school paper (Clayton and his son worked at/attended the same school) and everyone talks about how well the note is written. Dad then starts writing more and more under his son's name, which everyone in the school cares dearly about despite hating the son when he was alive (of course, right?). Dad does such a good job writing for his dead son that all of his writer dreams begin to come true. He goes on talk shows and gets book deals. Gets his young, sexy girlfriend to commit and worship him. Life is good for a while.

The problems are almost too many to list. For example, Clayton, a poetry-loving 50- something stocky geek with glasses and gray hair is banging the hottest teacher at the school - a young, tall, thin, shallow minded, pretty teacher. The kid who kills himself jerking off is one of the more unbelievable depictions of a high schooler I've ever seen on film. Very one- dimensional and extreme. Adolescence has never gotten such a bad rap. That Bobcat is so removed from his youth is a big, huge problem considering the film's subject matter (problems at school, basically, and what they mean about society).

Also, the jokes. They're often bad. They're not too different from the jokes in Superbad, the difference being that the actors in that film are young and energetic and convincing.  Here's an example of one of the film's better bits: "But dad, being seen with one teacher is bad enough. Being seen with two is AIDS." To which the dad responds, "If you don't act right at dinner I'll stab you in the face." Yikes. And that's one of the best bits in the film. Ugh.

I wanted to hate the film for SO many reasons, but couldn't. And by the time the DVD was back in the case, I momentarily thought that I liked the film. The script, while not strong, does have enough good ideas to warrant being made. The direction, however, is SO awful. Bobcat just isn't a director, no matter what glasses he wears. He's a decent enough writer and a funny, unique man, but, under the direction of a REAL director, Williams likely could've given a great, buzz-worthy performance.

I suppose you could compare the film to Election, Happiness and American Pie, all three of which do a much better job at doing what they do than World's Greatest Dad. But is this a bad film? Ehh. I wouldn't quite say that. It's not a well made film by any stretch of the imagination, but it does offer some entertainment value at times. Empty, shallow, poorly executed entertainment value. But, whatever … yeah, in a world full of pretty great films, this one kinda stinks. I'll say it: no good. 
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Slackavettes Flick From Austin Texas
28 July 2010
There's much here that's promising but, for the most part, Love & Tambourines functions as the one film that makes Paper Heart look like a really strong piece of cinema. There's a youthful sense of everything (humor, being, understanding) here that could be mistaken as naivety. But that's okay; this is a movie for young people. The attempts to be wildly creative at every turn, for example, will only work for two kinds of viewers: 1) people who don't know much about cinema; 2) young people (who also probably don't know much about cinema).

I watched the film, like most I'm sure, because I have high hopes for Stephanie Hunt. She's off to a slow start, but I wouldn't be surprised if she's the next half-fiction/half-herself Greta Gerwig sort of actor. She plays awkward very well. She's fun to look at and listen to, even if she only really seems to ever be playing Stephanie Hunt. Looks and charm are on her side. Of all the Friday Night Lights kids, we're rooting for Hunt and co-star Jesse Plemons the most.

Very little happens over director Jeremy Cohen's 70 minute movie aside from a healthy number of attempts to be creative. There's a minor storyline thrown in here and there that's supposed to hold things together, but it doesn't really work. Love & Tambourines is not what Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless was in 1960, but that DIY ambition is definitely present from the first to last frame.

The fact that, when describing the movie they don't even call it what it is (cinéma vérité), is proof that we can't take this movie too seriously. These kids just don't quite know what they're doing yet, but they have an actress from a TV show and they have some modest production gear. You get to see some very young people experimenting with art and narrative. And that's fun. Indulgent and fun. Assuming that Hunt will do more and more in the years to come, Love & Tambourines will be fun to look back on at some point. And hopefully Cohen's ambition eventually meets up with a better understanding of film and narrative. He was smart enough to put the camera on Hunt for most of his 70 minutes, which shows that he does, if anything, have taste. And ambition.

Taste and ambition. And hard work. Throw in a better understanding of his art and you might just have a promising filmmaker.

(Post Script - I watched the film a second time and enjoyed its many creative turns much more. Not a great film, but, considering how modest the production is, definitely some nice work.)
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Inside Man (2006)
Lee Finds Another Way to Prove His Brilliance
23 July 2010
Inside Man features an incredible cast, a great - but not perfect - crime thriller script, amazing cinematography and a World Class director named Spike Lee. On paper it's a great film. If you see clips of some of the should-be classic scenes, you'd think this was one for the ages. It's not. There are just too many problems. Problems, sadly, that could've easily been avoided.

That said, Inside Man is a pretty good film. Not the classic it should've been, but a solid film that appeals to both the cinephile set and the everyday popcorn movie goer. Lee, who didn't write the script and only casually adds his signature fingerprints, here comes off as a real movie maker, Inside Man maybe being the movie we'll look back on as proof of his ability. Where fellow auteur types of his generation such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino seem unable to make anything other than signature films, Lee has done much for his legacy by proving that he can skillfully - and successfully - make someone else's movie.

And damn if Inside Man - which stars heavyweights Denzel Washington and Clive Owen (as well as a great supporting cast and the unnecessary presence of Jodie Foster) - isn't the by-far most commercially successful film of Lee's career, bringing in almost $200 million at theaters worldwide. To put that into perspective, Lee's films average $20 million. The concept of an auteur stepping away from his usual style to make a Hollywood picture, and then that film making 10 times more than the average of his other films, would be a great topic for a paper. Hell, it'd be a great idea for a topics course at a film school. I'd say that it's a shame, but, for what it is (an instantly entertaining bid dollar film whose only real creative touch is a small storytelling device), it's about as good as they come.

Now, how about those above mentioned problems. The usage of music, for starters, is embarrassingly unfitting and bad. Just plain bad taste. Also, Denzel's lead is a bit too clichéd of a character. They made lots of good movies anchored by characters so obvious in 40s, 50s and 60s, but not much since. Needless to say, Denzel's Detective Keith Frazier is a snore despite the actor's every effort to bring him to life. Another major problem is the Jodie Foster character, who is just downright out of place and almost unnecessary. We know why she's there, and it makes sense, but I get the feeling that some of the scenes that would've held her storyline together were cut or written out. Her presence will likely leave you scratching your head. And last but not least we have that story telling device we mentioned above, which is best described as a "In Medias Res" style, with Owen's character teasing us from the first frame and interrogation scenes edited here and there. It's not a bad device … it just doesn't work nearly as well as the writer, director, producers and cast probably thought it would when they were in production. Sometimes that happens in movies. Often, especially when you attempt something as ambitious as In Medias Res.

Inside Man does succeed, however, thanks to how well its made (especially the non linear editing, which is almost next-to-none), how nicely Lee injects style points here and there, and how downright memorable and well executed a handful of scenes are. But what, you ask, is the movie really about? Well, it's a heist movie. It's about some people robbing a bank and a very paranoid man who really doesn't want something he has stored in a safe deposit box to be uncovered. It's about a detective's last case before retiring and it's about a brilliant criminal. I don't want to say too much more, due to how the story is told and how easy it can be to kill the fun of a heist film by trying to describe the action. To me, Inside Man is about its director. It's about Spike Lee, who uses the film to remind us that he's one of the very best of his time.
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Hollywood Wasting Money on Vamp Tears
22 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I spent the day doing writing and design work while watching movies. A normal day. First I watched 2046 (my first time seeing it), then Me and You and Everyone We Know (my first time seeing it in at least a year, maybe two), then I'm Not There (first time since the DVD was first released). All three were great, even if I was only half watching while I worked. And no, I don't sleep very much.

As the night settled in I started to get those oh-so-special cabin fever feelings. So I called up my younger sister, who had been wanting me to go check out New Moon with her, and we decided to meet up and see the film. The two of us aren't all that much alike, truthfully, but we both love film/movies. She collects DVDs, loves going to the theater and at one time worked at a theater. Same stuff going on over here, though to much geekier, obsessive compulsive degrees.

The film was ... ummmm. Pretty bad. Awful, even. There's this group of Native American youths who run around together doing some really serious outlaw-type like swimming in cold water and eating big muffins. One of the guys gets mad and destroys his girlfriend's face ... then she makes him some really big muffins (nope, that wasn't a pun). She understands his rage because, you see, these dudes are actually werewolves (I suppose that's why their shirts are off in chilly Oregon, but I don't really understand the logic). They do not remind of Michael J. Fox. They turn into very large wolves that hunt vampires and fix motorbikes and go to private schools.

All through the film I was laughing as I kept running through all the SNL skits I could easily write spoofing this blockbuster. Too easy, but I just love the idea of these Native American guys walking home from private school, fully dressed and trying to decide if they should hang out or go separate ways before they go home and get all mechanical. Once they decide that, yes, they're going to hang out, they all take off their shirts and go eat some muffins and look at the girl with the chewed up face. One of them even decides that he wants to fight the 100 lb. heroine (Bella Swan, duh) at one point.

The bare chest stuff wasn't the only funny business going on. Edward, the biggest pu$$y of an anti-hero ever (sorry for saying the word "pu$$y," but I figured this was the perfect opportunity to play my once-per-decade Pu$$y Card), keeps appearing out of nowhere, looking incredibly brooding. Then he cries. Then he tries to kill himself in front of a perfectly happy parade. Then he gets his tush beat by a vampire played by an awful actor (obviously cast for his fake fighting skills). Then he goes home and wants to play house again with the Bella Swan. Then Taylor Swift's werewolf boyfriend takes off his shirt and tries to fight the pu$$y. Don't get too excited, though, the dudes don't even fight over the girl. In fact, the film just kind of ends. And this is not exactly the kind of story that you can end without a payoff. Actually, it's hardly a story at all.

Directed by Chris Weitz, who I was once SERIOUSLY rooting for (About A Boy and Chuck & Buck were both excellent early works), New Moon is something of a trapper keeper film. That is, if they were still making trapper keepers, those awesome contraptions would sell like crazy if you put the dudes with no shirts on one side and the big pu$$y on the other.

Oh, drag ... I'm outta pu$$ys on my Pu$$y Card. Guess that means I should go watch Russian Dolls and pass out.
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Avatar (2009)
An xBox Game Mistaken For Progressive Cinema
21 July 2010
If computer animation/manipulation and graphic design are here forward destined to be one of the major elements - alongside writing, acting, photography and music - of cinema, then whatever. Blah. So be it. It's been a long time coming and I'm sure the best filmmakers out there will find a way to make it work for them while still making organic/human work. If nothing else, James Cameron's sci-fi blockbuster Avatar makes this animation-is-inevitable downturn a certainty.

And this is where my problems with 2009's most attention-hogging film begin. If we are to let the digital revolution re-imagine the art of cinema, then we must do so carefully - so as not to erase history or cheapen the future. What I'm saying is this: for all the money, work and time put into Avatar (a film that, to this writer at least, looks as much like an xBox game as it does a film), shouldn't it be more impressive? I'd argue that 2008's cutesy sci-fi Pixar film, Wall-E, looked better on the big screen and will certainly look twice as good on the small screen. Wall-E also had a better story and soundtrack. And eff if this little Disney children's film didn't have TWICE the edge of Avatar.

But damn. After only two weeks, Avatar had already more than Wall-E ever did. It made more than Dances With Wolves and Alien combined. But, wait, why all the money talk? We keep hearing about how Avatar had the biggest production and promotion budgets ever. In it's first 11 days the film had already brought in $641 million in worldwide ticket sales. This movie, more than any film ever released, is made for money talk.

But does ANY of that money talk matter? Not to me and, aside from inevitable corporate chatter, not to the film history books. What matters is that Cameron used new technologies and created a film that, to some at least, supposedly looks better than any other film ever made. But I call BS on that. To me, it looks like a video game. A new age-y, suburban soft-core daydream for blockbuster fanatics and haters alike. Sci-fi is a hard genre, though, right? A creepy genre. Sci-fi, by nature, is mysterious and weird and effed up; this is why it works. Even Wall-E was all these things. Not Avatar. Avatar holds your hand with it's cheesy score, always telling you how to feel, screaming "it'll be okay" even at the supposed-to-be uncertain segments of the film.

The lack of imagination here only helps further the argument that graphic designers and computer geeks don't belong working on films. Cameron, who with Avatar attempts to create his own alien world, is clearly more interested in special effects than he is telling a story. Simply, he's more interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking than he is the art of visual storytelling. There's just no arguing, a number of films (City of Lost Children, Dark City, Code 46, Brazil, even old-as-hell Blade Runner, etc.), despite having incredibly small production budgets and limited technological resources compared to Avatar, have much more interesting visual takes on the future. Even 2009's District 9, an R-rated film with 1/10th the shooting budget of Avatar, is far more fascinating.

And I focus on the look of the film because, frankly, the story blows. It's a rewrite of Dances With Wolves, at best. There are interesting bits here and there, but Cameron's ego gets in the way. For example, had a more dynamic actor (say, Ryan Gosling or ANYONE who can show at least SOME emotional depth) played the lead role, well, I may have fallen into the storyline more. And need I list the Michael Bay-like plot holes. And, sure, in sci-fi we don't discuss plot holes with too much seriousness, but here it's painful. For example: this intelligent tribe of natives let outsiders into their inner circle despite knowing that the outsiders are controlled by their enemy? Since they KNOW this, why do the humans even need to pretend to be natives? And isn't that the point of the movie? I just don't get it … Avatars? Would you let a confirmed alien enemy into your house simply because they looked like you, this while shooting the other confirmed alien enemy with a poisonous arrows?

I could go on. The color palette is suburban-soft and child-ready. (They may as well have been selling pajamas and lunch boxes outside the theater.) The look of the aliens WILL be made fun of from here until forever. The segments with the flying things - both machine and animal - shooting and flying and whatever already look just as bad as the flying things in the Star Wars movies. How is it even possible that they look so awful?!

But hey, if your three favorite movies ever are The Happening, Dances With Wolves and Alien, then James Cameron's soft-core sci-fi blockbuster is maybe for you. If you listen to all the propaganda you read on the Internet and are one to get caught up in pop-hype, then see this movie ASAP if you've not yet - do so before the tide officially turns. But if you love cinema and don't need your storytelling to feel like a roller-coaster that holds your hand and sings shallow emotions into your ear, then please, go see something else. Something with some actual acting. A film where the director is less business and mouse-click oriented and more interested in photography, storytelling and - gasp - directing. There are plenty of worthwhile films in theaters and on store shelves right now, do the right thing and see one of those instead.
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Execution Can't Match the Concept
21 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
The Lucky Ones was a great idea for a film. A road movie about three soldiers on leave, played my Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins and Michael Pena. When these three soldiers - who are initially strangers - end up on a plane together (and eventually a rental car due to the grounding of planes) they're forced to spend time together, limping and driving across the country, battle scars everywhere.

Directed by Neil Burger, known mostly for 2006's decent enough The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones feels like the work of a filmmaker who has ended up far out of his league. He seems to make some good decisions here and there (the film is well cast and the concept is strong), but, for a $14 million dollar film with three great leads, The Lucky Ones is a major disappointment. For starters, cinematographer Declan Quinn (In America, Rachel Getting Married, Leaving Las Vegas, Monsoon Wedding, etc.) doesn't give this film a $14 million dollar look. In fact, after a few scenes I got excited, thinking that this might be a true indie film with a tiny budget. It's not. And, unless Burger paid his stars big bucks, I can't figure out where the $14 million went - there's nothing in this film that should've cost much more than a Joe Swanberg or Andrew Bujalski film.

And while that might seem like a petty complaint (seeing as how most movie watchers don't analyze such things), let me also take this opportunity to point out how sad it is to see Burger, who also wrote the film, waste away a great story idea. Three unconnected modern day soldiers end up stuck in a car together, crossing the country? How can you mess that up?! Especially when you have McAdams, Robbins, Pena and Quinn on your team? Burger finds a way.

All that said, there are some enjoyable moments in this pedestrian piece of film art. Whenever the trio pass any sort of landmark or tourist trap, McAdams' character begs to stop, the other two denying her. They three all wake up at night with night terrors. We even get to see the endlessly soft-and-sweet McAdams start a fight at a college bar in southern Indiana where she's eventually backed up by her new solider pals. It could've been a classic moment. Unfortunately, it's not memorable and hardly believable, no matter how convincingly muscular McAdams' jaw and shoulders are. Robbins' and Pena's performances are strong throughout and McAdams' face continues to be the best screen face of her time. But, aside from these minor points, The Lucky Ones is a disappointment. Soldiers are, by average, living the most storyteller-worthy lives of any Americans right now, and this is all Berger can come up with? A bar fight and night terrors? Needless to say, this isn't a very deep or thoughtful film. The end - which I'm sure Burger thinks is incredibly thoughtful and unexpected - wraps things up nicely, of course. Don't things always wrap up nicely for soldiers?

And the use of music? Ugh. Berger offers a selection of super obvious hipster picks mixed in with a score so cheesy that you have to doubt the vision of the director. F'real; it's that bad. Does the guy who likes this awful score really like all of this great indie music, or is he just trying to be hip? That's the question.

I could go on, but why bother. Burger, who with The Illusionist became a director to watch, has become, with The Lucky Ones, a director who is going to have to fight for jobs, stars and production budgets. The classic case of an over-hyped auteur blowing their big break.
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The Fine Art of Jim Jarmusch
21 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is one of the rare pieces of cinema that I consider to be fine art. Straight-faced, I'll call it a masterpiece. Not just because of Jarmusch's solid direction, the well placed cameos and endlessly interesting location choices. Not just because of the epic/drone-y guitars (played by both Boris and Jarmusch himself) and Christopher Doyle cinematography, but, most importantly, because of the holes and hints and clues in the story we see unfold.

You can - nay, must - make up your own version of what's going on every time you watch The Limits of Control. I'm guessing that this is the reason why American critics, for the most part, hated this film. These are people who - more than in any other country - are paid to go into a theater ready to quickly judge art - it's their job. They research and think ahead, knowing that they're responsible for insightful ideas and opinions as soon as the credits roll. They must work quick, which is, in my opinion, no way to judge true art.

The Limits of Control demands inspection. For this, Jarmusch's tenth - and most beautifully photographed - film, you have to sit back and take in the atmospheres, visuals, mood and tone. You have to live with it for a week. You can follow a story and hope for resolution, but that approach will offer little-to-no satisfaction. Pay attention to the many clues and hints, but don't expect them to ever makes the sense your practical reasoning needs them to make. For this story, Jarmusch wants you to fill in the blanks yourself. The ending is anticlimactic but interesting - our protagonist puts on a jumpsuit in a public bathroom then walks out the door. We hear a helicopter flying for no reason we understand.

Limits is all about three key things: 1) location, location, location; 2) visual composition; 3) details and mystery. It's not about good guys and bad guys or lost love or laughs. Christopher Doyle shoots each frame as if he's trying to win a photography contest. His work here, as it is every few pictures, is fine art. Fine art made possible by how strong - yet subtle - all the locations are. Doyle makes every doorway, staircase, train and skyline look so perfect.

As for the story, well … Isaach De Bankole, who you may recognize from Ghost Dog and Night On Earth, plays our protagonist, Lone Man. Lone Man goes from place to place, having the same conversation with a different stranger each time. Each stranger gives him a clue of some sort, helping him along his way. Bankole does yoga, denies women's sexual advances, lets his strangers ramble in his ear, doesn't like guns, wears a shiny suit and rarely talks.

Lone Man meets a number of strangers along the way, including Blonde (Tilda Swinton), Mexican (Gael Garcia Bernal), Nude (Paz de la Huerta), Guitar (John Hurt), Molecules (Youki Kudoh, who you might remember from Jarmusch's Mystery Train) and many others. With each meeting he's given a coded clue, which he handles with cold precision, eating each clue after memorizing it. In the end, Lone Man finds himself outside a heavily guarded secret complex in the middle of nowhere. He studies a map of the complex from afar, burns it and walks off into the desert. The scenes that follow (i.e. the third act) are understated and beautiful - Jarmusch couldn't have found a better ending for his highly poetic, mystery-filled thriller.

While I can't for certain deduce why both critics and fans seemed to overlook Limits, I would like to offer a theory. Following the success of Broken Flowers, which starred Bill Murray hot off his Lost in Translation buzz, Jarmusch's place in cinema changed. For the first 28 years of his storied career he'd been an auteur to watch, study and learn from. He was a mystery so much so that no one ever knew what to expect from him. Along with the heightened profile that Broken Flowers gave him, Jarmusch was, for the first time, met with expectations. Knowing how smart the man is, one would have to think that he'd consider this. So, to me, the fact that Jarmusch made such an uncompromising film regardless of the heavy burden of critical expectations should be celebrated. And I'd bet that, someday, when critics are going back over the man's filmography, it will be.

And, for the most part, that's the end of my review. But I do feel it necessary to give my theory on what the film is about. So don't read any further unless you've either seen the film or don't mind having some of the fun spoiled.

My Theory (Spoiler Alert!): Lone Man is a highly regarded, incredibly secretive hit-man hired by someone to take out a heavily guarded man who is also a formerly high ranking politician from the United States. Through a number of clues, Lone Man finds the politician's hideout - a bunker in the middle of nowhere in an unidentified country. Lone Man makes his way into the former politician's top secret room and waits for him there. Once the man shows up, Lone Man calmly kills him without anyone hearing a peep, then goes to a museum and sits in front of a strange piece of art that is meant to represent cleansing and clarity. It's beautiful.

Who plays the ex-politician? Bill Murray, of course. Who do I think the ex-politician is supposed to be? Dick Cheney, of course. Not just because the way they style Murray, but because of his temper and mannerisms. And the title, too, seems to make sense. Also, didn't Dick Cheney really buy some land in some far off country and build a heavily guarded hideout? That's what I heard. And, again, this is my version of Jim Jarmusch's movie.
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Inception (2010)
Nolan's Biggest, Strangest and Most Memorable Work Yet.
21 July 2010
Set for a November 2010 release, Terrence Malick's long gestating The Tree of Life is my pick for the year's big Oscar film. The details of the production have been kept as secret as any major production ever, word slipping here and there that the film is the product of nearly three decades of writing by Malick. The production is said to be huge and the post-production as labored-over as any. All that said, I refuse to believe that Tree's production will match that of the just released new Christopher Nolan film, Inception, surely another big Oscar film.

Where to begin? Inception, Nolan's seventh proper feature, is the British-American auteur's biggest, strangest, most promoted, most anticipated and most memorable work yet. Opening this past weekend at No. 1 with over $60 million in US sales, I left the theater wondering three things about the dreamy heist flick: 1) how many people in the theater with me were able to follow not just the bombastic action, but the delicate storyline? And what did they think that final shot meant?; 2) How the f%#@ do you write something like that?; and 3) which of Screen time's favorite directors saw this film? Malick? Tarantino? Scorcese? Spielberg?! What did they think of it? This, I'd love to know.

I wasn't alive when Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, but I can still watch it today and feel its power and originality, every time wondering how it made Kubrick's contemporaries feel. My guess is that it made them all realize that they needed to think harder and work harder. Even if your name is Spielberg and you made an epic production called Saving Private Ryan, Inception likely has a similar 2001 effect on you. More than Star Wars in 1977 or Avatar just last year, Inception just feels bigger, grander, more labored over and "next level" than anything of recent memory. Films likes Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Tarantino's original Kill Bill cut, Nolan's own The Dark Knight are humbled by the mastery and creativity of Inception.

That said, Inceptions is not the best film to see a US release in 2010. Not in our book. It may be the best made film of 2010, but a better film, Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete, has already been released and there are a couple coming yet (The Tree of Life, mostly), that stand to be better. After such a rant about the brilliance of Inception, how can I already say such a thing? Well, many reasons. For starters, Inception is an often tedious film. Using a chopped-up non-linear storytelling device, Nolan has made an extraordinarily cerebral caper film that's dressed up as a big summer blockbuster. There's enough action to make Sly Stallone blush, which is cool, but there's also an awful lot of important dialogue. You have to hear every word in the film so much so that, in fact, if you simply sneeze at the wrong parts of the film, you'll miss something that could maybe spoil your complete understanding of what's going on. (Tedious is the word I keep coming back to, even if I'm uncomfortable using such a negative word to describe such a masterful work.) If you've not yet seen the movie, imagine sitting in a theater for 150 minutes, paying close attention to every word and movement, never more than a 10 second break for a joke or two. Plan to walk out of the theater with a fried brain, dropped jaw and crossed eyes.

But hey, let's not knock an artist for being wildly ambitious. I'm cool with Inception frying our brain. And, aside from that, I have very few issues with the movie. Sure, the setup (basically, these dudes gotta crack into this younger dude's dreams and plant an idea in this his mind before he turns his dad's company into a Wal-Mart-like monster) is incredibly underbaked compared to what follows, but that's no big deal. And the casting, aside from Marion Cotillard (who is perfect), seems a bit off, DiCaprio's Dom Cobb seeming a bit too similarly played to his recent Shutter Island performance. The still-very-young-feeling Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the mature daddy of the operation? Ellen Page as the big brain? Ummm.

Now let's focus on the good things. The writing, which is brilliant. People who write as well as Nolan usually write long, details novels. But Nolan thinks equally in movement and vision, and we're the luckier for it. His writing, especially in Memento and The Prestige, has always been impressive, but here he makes his mark. The amount of detail and thought put into this puzzle is mind-blowing. Look for Nolan to grab an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. No. 2 on the list of things Inception does impossibly well is editing. You have to see it twice to believe it. Telling a story like this on paper is hard enough, but taking moving pictures of it, adding sound, music and CGI, then cutting it all up non-linear-style and making sense of it is the hardest part of the process. Editor Lee Smith, known mostly for his work with Peter Weir, will win 2010's Oscar for Best Editing. He should've won it in 2008 for The Dark Knight and in 2006 for The Prestige, but he will win it in 2010. His time has come, and Inception is the film Smith will be remembered for.

There's much more to say about the tedious but brilliant, visually inventive yet action-packed new Christopher Nolan movie, but let's not get carried away. It's just a movie. It's just the movie that deserves all of the attention Avatar received last year but won't (this because it makes you think too hard). It's just the movie that (fingers crossed) might change the way Hollywood studios treat big brain artists with big ideas. For a while, anyhow. And we have Christopher Nolan and his brilliant new sci-fi mindbender to thank.
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