Monday, March 23, 2009

It's Spring and I'm Thirsty

Hi. I've got something to review. Oh, and before I forget, my review of The Wrestler has been fixed where you can now actually read it. I'm not sure what happened there. Anyway, eat up!

Gran Torino (2008)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Rating: 8.0 (out of 10)

Clint Eastwood is such a man. Everything he does exudes blatant manliness, and his angry Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino is no exception. Kowalski hates everyone. He doesn't like his neighbors, he doesn't like his priest, and he doesn't like his own family. He feels like his sons are good for nothing, his grandchildren are good for less than that, and that his best friends in the world are his dog and his never ending supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The only thing constantly by his side is his shotgun.

As the movie opens, we learn that Kowalski's wife has just passed away, leaving him all alone in a world he very much dislikes. In a few early scenes, we quickly see that Walt doesn't want anything to do with anyone he doesn't respect (everyone). His sons are ready to take off as soon as they can after the funeral, his granddaughter spends her time "mourning" over text messages, and his priest just wants him to come to confession. Walt can't be bothered with anyone of this, and he also can't be bothered in any capacity by his Hmong neighbors, who he resents simply because they aren't white and he doesn't understand them.

Eastwood comes up with racial epithets for his character I swear I've never heard at all in Torino. It's downright over-the-top how frequently Walt tries to insult his Asian neighbors, even if there appears to be no reason at all to do so. Left alone in the wake of his wife's death, Kowalski begins to interact with these neighbors, and takes a legitimate liking to Sue (Ahney Her). He sees her as spunky, intelligent, and interesting. Gradually he also sees the good in her quiet younger brother Thao (Bee Vang), who winds up working for Walt after being forced by his gang-dwelling cousin to try and steal Walt's most prized possession, a 1972 Gran Torino.

The quick, somewhat surprising ending is sort of appropriate. I'm obviously not going to flatly say what it is, but it's sad and faintly disappointing. But it also makes sense, and there's sort of a build up to it once you recap what you've seen in your head. I mean, was there another way?

It's rather obvious that Gran Torino's intention is to show that we're all on this earth together, and that we all need to get along. Racism is stupid, petty, and ignorant, and if a guy like Walt can get past it, can't we all? The film adeptly follows Walt and Thao's simultaneous transformations. Walt becomes the loving, tolerant man he has always been capable of being. Thao becomes the confident, sharp kid that has always been bubbling beneath the surface. The key is, they really need each other to make this happen, and their journey is an inspired one. Gran Torino is emotionally involving, and all of the principal actors turn in satisfactory performances, even if this isn't anywhere near Eastwood's best work. After all, he can play a mean-ass son of a bitch in his sleep. While Gran Torino is a bit formulaic and preachy, it's also a very good film that is enjoyable to watch and know how to manipulate the audience's emotions. It also really drives home the notion that anyone is capable of what they allow themselves to become, for better or worse.

So I totally used to write tiny lil' review nuggets on MySpace every time I saw a movie. I've decided I might as well throw those up here, along with adjusted ratings for the new system. Here you go, salt shakers.

Black Snake Moan (2007) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

I sort of liked this movie. It should've felt a lot more ridiculous than it did. I'll explain why. Left to deal with her past demons alone after her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, who actually does a passable job) heads off to the army, Rae (Christina Ricci) falls back into a life of semi-prostitution and pill popping. One night, at a huge outdoor party, Rae gets quite messed up thanks to some OxyContin pills, and winds up lying in a field half-naked, unconscious and confused. Things get worse from here, though, as she is sexually and physically abused, and when she turns down the advances of one of Ronnie's friends, he beats her near death and leaves her by the side of the road to die. That's where Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues guitarist, comes in. Lazarus hasn't been doing well, either. His wife Rose has just left him for his brother, and he's having a lot of trouble coping with the fallout. Lazarus happens to stumble upon Rae, and decides to take her back to his house and nurse her back to health.

This isn't an easy task, though, as he learns Rae couldn't possibly be much more damaged psychologically. To keep her from leaving and continuing about her sleazy ways, Lazarus chains her to his water heater. Yes. He seriously does. One has to wonder if Lazarus also really just likes having company. The two learn a few things from each other, as Rae tries to fix what's broken and Lazrus tries to let everything out the way he used to: through his guitar and voice. Both lead actors do well for themselves, and their interaction with each other completely makes this movie. All in all, this feels like a really bizarre, dirty-ass movie with a really big heart. I'm not sure why it earned so much criticism from the masses.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hard Candy (2006) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

I'm starting to think Ellen Page is well on her way to being a historically excellent actress. Recently praised for her work as the title character in Juno, Page is probably more impressive in Hard Candy, a movie in which she plays Haley Stark a 14 year-old girl who is being seduced online by a 32 year-old photographer named Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson). Haley meets Jeff at a coffee shop, where after some conversation, she convinces him to take her back to her apartment to listen to music and have some drinks. What Jeff doesn't know is that Haley has no intention of being his prey, but instead wants to achieve the opposite. Haley fixes Jeff's drink for him, adding in some medication that knocks him out. When Jeff wakes up, he's tied up and sitting in a swivel chair. From here on out, Hard Candy ups the ante, as Haley tries to unearth secrets about Jeff and Jeff tries to bargain his way out of the situation he's in. Both actors are great in their respective roles, and that's a big reason the characters resonate so well and the tension feels so thick. Another interesting aspect of the film is Haley's revenge: is her joy over torturing Jeff, which is seemingly just below the surface, something that should be condoned given Jeff's crimes? Is this something the movie implies? Additionally, there are some strange, somewhat unexplained holes in the plot. They aren't huge, however, and they don't take much away from what amounts to a compelling work featuring a truly great performance by Ellen Page.

American Psycho (2000) Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

This is Christian Bale week on my MySpace blog. I'm wasting my life. Anyway, American Psycho is based on Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the same title, and much like the book, the movie doesn't pull a lot of punches. Patrick Bateman (Bale) works on Wall Street, is engaged to his longtime girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), and resides in an expensive apartment full of expensive things. He also enjoys killing people, and he simply can't hold back his blood lust. As he says near the film's beginning, he has skin and flesh, but he is "simply not there." Bateman also admits to feeling only two emotions, greed and disgust. All of this becomes increasingly evident, as Bateman is driven to kill over things as trivial as business cards. Much as he always does, Christian Bale steals the show with ease, making Bateman delightfully over-the-top and truly believable as a closet psychopath. At times, Bale makes Bateman seem genuinely terrifying, and other times he makes him coy and funny. In other words, Christian Bale transforms his character into one that truly does appear to be insane to the core. American Psycho's ending is also great, bringing to light a lot of things and clarifying the movie's underlying ideas. All in all, this is a memorable experience.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cloverfield (2008) Rating: 6.0 (out of 10)

Buried in thick layers of hype, the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield seemed a little weaker than it probably was. As all of you who have or haven't seen the movie know, this thing's all about a monster that attacks New York City, and the event is documented on a handheld camera. A few problems present themselves quickly. First off, the camera work is relentlessly shaky, even when it seems irrelevant. This I can forgive, because the approach in and of itself (not the exagerration of it) is part of what makes this movie unique and worth seeing. Second, I dare anyone who has seen this to honestly say he or she wasn't disappointed with the monster coming into full view near the movie's end. Having the monster appear only in glimpses created the aura of some unknown terror and made the middle section of the movie much more effective. And finally, the characters were all mostly boring, feeling like pretty cardboard cutouts. While I appreciate the attempt to really humanize them (most horror-esque movies don't bother), the writing doesn't warrant it. As you can see, each of these complaints are sort of met with compliments. In the end, Cloverfield just sort of feels like a missed opportunity. It's worth seeing, but damn it, it could've been such a cooler monster movie.

The Princess Bride (1987) Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

It's funny, but I remember seeing this movie when I was a child and finding it interesting and kind of suspenseful. I mean, I was probably six or seven years old, so my opinion didn't really matter, but it sort of serves to make a point. The Princess Bride flawlessly works on different levels. To a kid, it's a grandfather (Peter Falk) telling his grandson (Fred Savage) the story of a girl (Robin Wright) who believes her true lover (Cary Elwes) is dead, and in turn is later (as the law in her land constitutes) forced to marry a king who she really doesn't love. But what she doesn't know is that her lover is still alive, and is on his way back to her. To an adult, the plot remains the same, but wry humor is interspersed throughout. The Princess Bride certainly isn't meant to be taken dead seriously, and its witty dialogue allows for a seemingly ordinary plot to transcend into a terrifc and engaging film.

The Machinist (2004) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

Perhaps the most widely-known fact about The Machinist is that Christian Bale dropped about 60 pounds to take on his role as Trevor Reznik, a beleaguered factory worker who can't stop losing weight and hasn't gotten real sleep in a year. Strange events start plaguing Reznik. First, a mysterious man who he hasn't ever seen before begins working alongside him, claiming that he's been there all along. Then a terrible accident happens on Reznik's watch, causing him to question the motives of everyone around him, becoming frighteningly paranoid. All of this leads to a solid ending that for the most part avoids a really obvious path and seeks somewhat new ground. Bale uses his emaciated appearance to make Reznik appear truly disturbed, truly haunted. In short, Bale's performance makes this movie much more succesful than it would've been otherwise, which doesn't really come as much of a surprise when considering his filmography.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006) Rating: 5.5 (out of 10)

I remember this movie being heralded by family-friendly critics over a year ago, and I just now got around to watching it. While Happyness has its plusses, it probably has more minuses. On the plus side, Will Smith continues to show that he can act, as he does a fine job portraying Chris Gardner, a down-on-his-luck father whose wife (Linda, as played by Thandie Newton) leaves him due to financial stress. On the minus end of things, Linda comes across as an unsympathetic cunt, probably more than she was supposed to. She also initially voices concerns about the couple's son (Christopher, played by Smith's real-life son Jaden), but then has no trouble never seeing him again from the time she leaves her family until the end of the film. By movie's end, it really is easier to feel good for the Gardners, but for God's sake, the amount of shit endured is a bit drastic. The overall result? Eh.

Deja Vu (2006) Rating: 5.5 (out of 10)

So many times an interesting concept gets thrown away on contrived plot twists and idiotic endings. Deja Vu is really no exception, as it remains interesting and fun for a good while before devolving into an ending I just don't like. Denzel Washington does his usual sort of crime-thriller work here as Doug Carlin, a cop who is supposed to investigate a ferry explosion that killed a great number of people. Carlin impresses an FBI agent with his analysis of the crime scene and winds up a member of a special task force with unique technology. The result involves the ever-intriguing concepts of time travel and changing the past. While this is all well and good, things spin a bit out of control in Carlin's attempts to discover who is responsible for the lives of the ferry passengers and also an innocent woman who is found murdered near the movie's beginning.

Happiness (1998) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

Happiness isn't like many movies I've seen. At the center of the story are three sisters, one a traditionally happy housewife, one a wealthy author, and the other an aspiring musician who has yet to reach success. Around these three women revolve a cast of characters with plenty of inner demons. The most prominent of these characters aree the sex-obsessed, socially inept Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the seemingly normal psychologist Bill (Dylan Baker), who actually turns out to be a pedophile. Throughout Happiness's two hours, these disturbed characters are thoroughly evaluated, letting the audience really see who they are, even beyond the initial labels that might seem evident. By film's end, it's evident that director Todd Solondz definitely doesn't intend his title to be taken literally. Happiness is at times disturbing, surprising, and saddening, and it's worth watching for anyone who doesn't have a problem with subjective material and won't mind feeling weird for a little while after watching it.

3:10 To Yuma (2007) Rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

A remake of a 1957 western, 3:10 To Yuma is captivating for a good while. The story centers around ultra bad guy Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), who has done a whole lot of robbing and killing, and rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a mild-mannered fellow dedicated to doing the right thing. After Wade is caught, Evans offers to help transport Wade to a train that will take the villain to Yuma, where he is to be imprisoned. After all, Evans needs the money he'd receive for doing this to help out his family. The journey is an eventful one, with Wade doing anything and everything to settle scores and regain his freedom with the help of his gang. This is an excellent modern western, right up until an improbably eyebrow-raising ending. Though I don't necessarily like the ending, it doesn't derail the entire movie, and 3:10 To Yuma stands as a solid effort.

Juno (2007) Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Hey, it's a good teenage comedy! Ellen Page does a tremendous job playing the sarcastic Juno MacGuff, a 16 year-old girl who becomes impregnated by her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). Juno decides not to abort the baby, but to find a worthy couple for adoption. Finally settling on Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), Juno seems to have found a win-win solution. And of course, things get complicated. The most important elements of Juno are the smart script and the excellent acting. Every single actor in a major role does a commendable job, and the script ensures that all of the characters come across as real, interesting people. It's just really cool to watch a movie about teenage pregnancy where characters react to things in a reasonable manner, and even cooler to watch a comedy that doesn't shoot for bullshit "outrageous" humor, but rather humor of the intelligent, verbal variety. I wish people who wanted to laugh would see things like this instead of witnessing Dane Cook try to act or Adam Sandler regurgitate the same old stuff. I've heard a lot of talk about Juno garnering some Oscar respect much as Little Miss Sunshine did a year ago, and that would be nice. It's great to occasionally see good, less flashy movies get a chance at a really long and mostly pointless awards ceremony.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Sleepers (1996) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

Sleepers is a very solid, somewhat lengthy account of four boys growing up in New York that make a huge mistake and wind up in a correctional school where they endure unthinkable abuse. The movie then shifts to the boys later in life, as adults, as they try to fix what became broken within them. The movie moves at sort of a Goodfellas pace, spanning a number of years and readily showing ways of life in different places, whether it be Hell's Kitchen or the correctional school. None of the performers really stand out, but that may be because everyone involved is well-known (Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric) and does a capable job.

Wonder Boys (2001) Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

A lot of really traditional things happen here, and certainly no new ground is broken, but Wonder Boys is enjoyable, fairly funny, and well-performed. Michael Douglas plays a college English professor and successful but aging writer who takes a gifted student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire) under his wing. Both have a great deal of personal problems, and even create more for themselves in the process of trying to make things better. The general idea of the movie is certainly a bit regurgitated, but the execution is very good.

1408 (2007) Rating: 5.0 (out of 10)

The good news is that John Cusack and Sam Jackson are present, and that the idea of, as Jackson calls it, "an evil fucking room" is intriguing. Aside from that, things don't really get as exciting or intense as I would've preferred. While miles ahead of most recent releases in the horror genre, 1408 does at least manage to stay relatively smart, even if things don't get all that unique or, well, scary. Maybe I was just expecting too much.

Mr. Brooks (2007) Rating: 6.0 (out of 10)

I really hate Kevin Costner, maybe even to an irrational degree, and the idea of him being a serial killer is fairly laughable. That said, Mr. Brooks is actually kind of fun, even if it's a bit silly sometimes. While the movie was curiosity-inducing and well-paced, there are some really odd casting choices, maybe even more bizarre than that of Costner as a successful businessman/murderer. Demi Moore plays a cop, and, for some reason, Dane Cook (douchebag, can't act) has a role as a witness to one of Mr. Brooks's murders. I wish I was allowed to directly ask for this to be redone with a better cast (William Hurt was fine but barely present), but I'll take what I can get, which was a pretty entertaining movie.

No Country For Old Men (2007) Rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

This has got to be the best thing released in 2007. It's the Coen brothers bringing their weirdness to what amounts to a surprising meshing of several genres. No Country blends crime drama, thriller, action, western, and a little bit of comedy, and the results are amazing. the movie tells the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who accidentally stumbles upon the remains of a drug deal that went wrong, and as a result, finds $2 million. Several storylines weave in and out of each other, with the primary conflict centering around criminal/killer Anton Chigurh's (Javier Bardem) pursuit of Moss and his money. And may I say, Bardem's Chigurh is one evil, terrifying villain. He carries some sort of compressed air gun, sports a sweet shaggy bowl cut, doesn't really care if he's hurt, and according to one character, kills "with principle." Evil nature is certainly a big theme here among many interesting ones. No Country For Old Men works on every level, and should really be seen by everyone.

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