Monday, February 1, 2010


Jessi has moved on and decided to continue her creative pursuits outside of this blogosphere. I continue to look for work and have taken my end of this blog to a new site, a former local Seattle newspaper:


This blog taught me that I like not just watching films but sharing opinions on the good ones. Thanks and happy continued viewing people!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Summer Lovin

Like most guys I don’t live in the romcom genre much. There have been great ones because of their innovative scripts and performances:
Moonstruck”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “When Harry Met Sally”, “Some Like it Hot”, “Groundhog Day”, “It Happened One Night” and of course the wonderfully contrived “Sleepless in Seattle”. “City Lights” may have been the genres’ great silent classic and proof that these films have been a staple of the film industry since its inception. After all movies are the perfect dates right? Yet the way Hollywood mass produces things, quality always wears thin and we have all been subjected to some outrageously bad romcoms. I don’t know why but “What Happens in Vegas” sticks in my mind but there are hundreds maybe thousands. (You hear that “Pretty Woman”?) Date movies or chick flicks have become the scourge of man’s existence.

Yet I still have a soft spot for “Annie Hall”. The fun way it dissected the relationship, its bits of absurdity and its unexpected conclusion. This was Woody Allens’ greatest moment, and as I’ve said on this blog before, it’s been a sad thing watching his films decline with each passing year. That classic came to my mind again as I watched “(500) Days of Summer”, the “Annie Hall” of Gen Y.

This generation so easily falls into a hipster pose but with this film we have none of the forced irony or ‘too cool for school” posing that makes older folks cranky. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom who wears old timey suits and ties rather than skinny jeans and a souvenir T-shirt. His love interest is Summer (Zooey Deschane) who also leans towards the classic, wearing vintage dresses. This is just one clever way that director Marc Webb (who also co wrote the script with Scott Neustadter) frames this story as timeless rather than as a bland modern romance. He also has filmed the story in older buildings, so although it’s set in LA which is so often cold and soulless on film, here it shows the character of a New York or Chicago backdrop.

Tom was an architecture student who now works as a greeting card writer. So, sure the movie doesn’t completely avoid being hokey. In fact his work attitude and rant at a meeting when he’s having love life troubles is a little overdone, but the movie is charming enough to forgive this. When Summer enters the workplace he is smitten and the countdown of the 500 days begins. The fun part is that since this is told from Tom’s point of view, the days are not in any order. Good days and bad days intermingle as we see their relationship without clear linearity. Opening narration even announces that “this is not a love story” so we watch the relationship knowing that it is short-term just like “Annie Hall”. I think in this day and age this makes the film more realistic and meaningful despite its flights of fancy. Zooey Deschanel is a bit cold but she does well in the role where she has to be a bit of a heavy. (Although I think Ellen Page would have rocked it) Her character is one who remains mysterious and is only revealed through Tom’s eyes, so she is always elusive and distant as crushes often are. Along the way we see two versions of a night (imagined versus actual) that I thought was brilliant. Tom even breaks out into song showing how we all live our lives and especially our romances through the filter of Hollywood expectations. In short this film is clever, well-performed, fun and defies hipster detachment with its sincerity. Isn’t that what romcoms are supposed to be? I also think the last line put a great bow on it. It’s like a brief romance itself, don’t over think it and you’ll have a lot of fun.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stars Trapped in their Vehicles

Robin Williams, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and Nicholas Cage are no slouches but these releases fall short despite their best efforts, usually due to over-indulgent writers/directors. I’m giving all of these two shakers each.

A pre-heart attack Robin Williams shot “The Worlds’ Greatest Dad” in Seattle and although that’s good for our local economy I wish this black comedy worked for me. Written and directed by fellow frantic comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, both the comedy and Williams are surprisingly understated. In fact Williams is so quiet that he almost disappears performance-wise and that doesn’t help. As a high school teacher, aspiring novelist and single parent, his character Lance Clayton seems to do all badly. Lance’s teenage son is a pervy arrogant fool (well-played by Daryl Sabara) who meets an early death which earns both he and his father the fame that eluded them both while he lived. The reverence and whitewashing we give to the dead is a great topic for satire and this film almost works; however, even a black comedy must have laughs. Caught up in its own dour plot machinations it wastes not only Williams but the great supporting cast. Too many music montages, an over-reliance on cutting to the goth girl and what feels like a tacked on Hollywood ending eventually bring it down. It’s a shame because I think if Bobcat played it less safe we might have a comedy in the “Heathers” vein instead of a film as repressed as Lance is.

I’m not going to lie; I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I find his movies over-hyped and ridiculous. Long b-movie speeches interrupted by sensationalized hyper-violence and not a touch of reality. His fan base eats them up though and I was curious how he’d take on a period drama in his latest: “Inglorious Basterds”. Weighing in at two and a half hours it’s a long haul but for a war film it had surprisingly less torture than I suspected, unless you count the twenty minute scene set in a basement pub to be audience torture. I feel if someone had been allowed to edit Tarantino the film would have worked better but perhaps not. When all the top brass for the Third Reich are attending an event it’s a bit surprising to see that only two guards are posted. We also are supposed to believe that the “Basterds” are a super squad of Nazi hunters but we see very little of their tracking and hunting, only Eli Roth (the fellow torture-porn director of “Hostel”) happily beating a Nazi to death with a baseball bat. Pitt’s portrayal is complete caricature, kind of like Foghorn Leghorn in a uniform. However the two female stars, (Diane Kruger as a German film actress/spy and Mélanie Laurent as a Jewish survivor who is living covertly as a local theater owner) outshine their material. But the breakout performance here and probable Oscar nom is Christoph Waltz portraying a nefarious “Jew hunter” SS Officer. Acting well and in four languages he represents the quiet evil of the Nazis better than most war movie heavies outshining even the Hitler in this one. If only the film lived up to his performance with a little less conversation a little more action. (Thanks Elvis!)

Another Oscar worthy performance trapped in a bad film is Tilda Swinton as the title character in “Julia”. It begins as a naturalistic character-driven story where Julia is shown as a hopeless alcoholic who sleeps around and finds it hard to hold down a job or to attend her AA meetings. However soon she meets her neurotic Mexican neighbor who wants to kidnap her son from his wealthy grandfather and the film begins to turn into a marathon of the improbable. This time director Erick Zonca steers the two and half hour ship as Julia makes one bad decision after another, abusing the ten year old in question endlessly before the film literally transforms into a Mexican soap opera where evil-looking gangsters scream “Puta!” a lot with drawn weapons. One twist too many for me and an unbelievable ending to boot, which is a shame since Swinton really shined through this overlong story.

Finally we have the newest trend in action films- full-out apocalypse! We know Nicholas Cage can act from “Leaving Las Vegas” but since then he has chosen films more for their paychecks which is a shame. In “Knowing” we have numerology, crazy psychic kids, Matrix-like aliens with shiny mouths and a shitload of CGI! Cage is a single parent whose son loses out when a fifty-year old time capsule is opened at his school; while the other kids in his class get drawings from the past students (kind of an expensive and wasteful school project no?) he gets a page filled with numbers written by a creepy girl in the film’s prologue. Cage cracks the code which turns out to be a listing of the time, locations and casualties of all the major disasters in the world. Frantically he races off to witness elaborately staged plane and subway crashes but seems only slightly perturbed. The biggest disaster is this film itself. You’ve been warned! Here’s to better DVDs in 10!!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The 20 Best DVDs of 2009

As we finish up 2009, it's time again to look back at the DVD film releases of the past year and give thanks! Again, I am talking about new films on disk, most released theatrically in 2008 (unless noted as a 2009 release).There are many fine TV series and re-releases, but that's another blog. Happily we've reviewed many of these films already on this blog, so I've included the links. Most of these films I give four shakers to unless noted as the elusive fifth shaker.

With all the chaos in life, nothing beats getting lost in a good film. So here are my picks on the best twenty. I think any film lover on your list would appreciate any of these. (Why not do a gift basket and get them all? :)

Happy Holidays and Happy viewing! (When the January rental doldrums hit, I will offer up some additional good films of the past year)

1) Anvil: The Story of Anvil - Old Head bangers keep the dream alive into middle age. Review here.

2) The Cove (2009) - A dramatic doc on the battle to save dolphins from slaughter and captivity.

3) Days and Clouds – A successful Italian couple try to keep their marriage afloat and start over in a harsh economy. Review here.

4) Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father – Began as a project to tell a son about his murdered father, director Kurt Kuenne successfully covers additional tragic twists in one of the most heart-wrenching films you'll ever see.

5) District 9 (2009) – A great sci-fi film on lost humanity that I think was totally overlooked this summer. Director Neill Blomkamp gives us an exciting story about aliens who become refugees in South Africa and how the corporation tasked with relocating them then seeks to exploit them for their weapons technology. 5 Shakers

6) Doubt - John Patrick Shanley's powerfully acted tale of the power struggle between a conservative nun and a progressive priest in a 1964 New York City parish. Our Reviews here. 5 Shakers

7) Eden - A simple but universal story of an Irish couple struggling with their ten-year marriage. Review here.

8) Frozen River - Another story of personal survival, Melissa Leo brings amazing truth and believability to her role of a mother struggling to keep her family afloat by any means possible. Jessi's Review here.

9) The Hangover (2009) - Todd Phillips directs a believable and likeable cast in a tale of the ultimate bachelor party gone bad in Las Vegas. Comedies about men who don't want to grow up are a Hollywood stable, but this one avoids the usual bathroom humor to deliver a fun and clever flick.

10) I've Loved You So Long – Another tale of family dynamics, this time two siblings who struggle to get reacquainted after a fifteen year absence. Kristin Scott Thomas is compelling as a shell-shocked woman who slowly reveals her secrets to her well-meaning but puzzled younger sister (Elsa Zylbertstein). Jessi's Review here.

11) Let the Right One In – An alternative vampire flick to the one which shall remain nameless. Original and creepy, the setting of a cold, dark, depressing Swedish town is spot on and the concept of a little girl vampire is spooky. Review here.

12) Milk – Director Gus Van Sant really captures the details and tone of the era in this timely biopic of Harvey Milk (Oscar winner Sean Penn) the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in America. A great supporting cast includes Josh Brolin who is brooding and intense as Dan White, a troubled fellow official on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who feels threatened enough to murder.

13) Revolutionary Road – Though I didn't notice the trend before this is my third pick to focus on a troubled marriage. Based on the novel by Richard Yates, Sam Mendes delivers a film not really about the homogenized suburbs but about the compromises of marriage and conformity. Very similar in time period and theme to "Mad Men", seeing April (Oscar winner Kate Winslet) framed behind a picture window like a caged bird is tragic. Review here.

14) Sin Nombre (2009) – A Honduran girl falls for a Central American gang banger on a train heading to the US border. Review here.

15) Slumdog Millionaire – Last years' big Oscar winner tells the fairy tale odyssey of an 18-year-old Mumbai "slumdog" (Dev Patel) attempting to find his lost love (Freida Pinto) by going on a TV game show. Director Danny Boyle directs this story with energy and heart and a breakout final song unexpectedly paying tribute to big Bollywood dance numbers. Jessi's review here.

16) Star Trek (2009) – J.J. Abrams reboots the franchise for new fans and old trekkers alike. A great finish to a decade of some outstanding sci-fi! 5 Shakers Review here.

17) Summer Hours - As an aging widow reunites her adult children and their families to their childhood home; she realizes her possessions and legacy will become devalued once she passes on. A subtle but powerful film on how the global economy is not only splintering families, but undermining cultures, creating a society does not value its’ own history.

18) Up (2009) – Pixar does it again with an amazingly touching film on never being too old to live out your dreams.

19) Waltz with Bashir – An "animated documentary" for adults as ex-soldiers revisit their fractured wartime memories. Review here.

20) The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke's amazing comeback film of a tortured middle-aged wrestler trying to come to terms with his life while staging a final bout. This is the wrestling picture Barton Fink should have written.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The 20 Worst DVDs of 2009

In the last month I have started blogging DVD reviews for another site! I am just trying something new. To build up content I have repackaged a lot of my reviews from SP, but I have also suceeded in adding unique posts there too. But I can swear on this one and that fucking rocks! I hope if you like what we do here - you'll also check my Seattle PI blog.

The good news this year is that where last years' list were all single shaker turkeys- this year we have more two shaker selections meaning that either there are less bad releases, or that I'm getting better at screening out the bad. Here are my year-end round-up of all those mediocre movie nights- the spoiled cream of the crop!

(Again these are only new releases, no re-releases)
1. Blindness – A virus makes everyone (except Julianne Moore) blind and they are then locked into a hospital and pitted against each other. Kind of like "Lord of the Flies" meets "The Miracle Worker" without the laughs.

2. The Day the Earth Stood Still – The classic original had benevolent aliens trying to save us; this unnecessary remake has them on an extermination mission led by Neo no less! So not excellent dude!

3. The Haunting in Connecticut - Quick cuts, soundtrack blasts and excessive CGI – it's like lipstick on a demon pig. The original 2002 TV documentary was much scarier on no budget.

4. JCVD - Jean-Claude Van Damme mocks his own image playing a version of himself having a middle-age crises only to then be taken hostage by bank robbers. Funny premise but that's basically it.

5. Medicine for Melancholy – Proves that African American indie filmmakers can be just as boring, pretentious and mumblecore as their dull white counterparts. The two leads try hard with bad material and slack direction.

6. Momma's Man - Kind of an arthouse "Step Brothers", an adult man refuses to leave his parents loft in the East Village avoiding his family and responsibilities. I wanted something else to happen here.

7. Of Time and the City - Filmmaker Terence Davies presents his "visual poem" (mostly stock footage) dedicated to Liverpool. This would have been more effective with a little less bombastic poetry recitation and venom (He hates the Queen, the church and the Beatles). Like an English Ken Burns dissing people over mushroom tea.

8. Paper Heart – Hipsters Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera try not to fall in love, because that's so funny right? (Take swig of PBR here)

9. Rachel Getting Married - Anne Hathaway is the black sheep who wrecks the wedding of her sister through her neurosis and addiction. I would have done the same; this wedding weekend is lame and overlong.

10. Righteous Kill – Although they had a brief scene in "Heat", screen legends Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro never made a film together outside of "Godfather II". (Genuflect) This unoriginal police drama proves that maybe that ship has sailed. . . ("Attica!" "You talkin' to me?")

11. RocknRolla – Wants so desperately to be cool as a dozen-or-so stock characters are paraded through this backlit piece of shite. All of them speak quickly and strive to be clever; none are developed or believable in the least.

12. Street Kings – Keanu Reeves (second appearance on this list –sorry!) is a hardened LA cop gone bad- and I'm just stopping there.

13. Synecdoche, New York - If nothing is real and the characters playing characters playing characters are neither really living nor really acting; why does anything matter? This is morose and confusing.

14. The Taking of Pelham 123 – Another unnecessary remake that is all loud and flashy without the street cred.

15. Tulpan – The critics loved it, but this Kazakhstan "comedy" left me as dry as a camel.

16. War, Inc. - Poor John and Joan Cusack who mug their way through a film that tries too hard to satire everything and ends up just a noisy mess. It wants to be "Dr. Strangelove" but instead it's another "Southland Tales".

17. Watchmen - A sadistic abomination proving that torture porn and fanboys are still ruling Hollywood.

18. Whatever Works - A creepy old neurotic, a self-described genius, finds himself cohabitating with a very young girl who he ends up sleeping with to the shock and amazement of his pals. Where does Woody come up with these ideas?
19. What Just Happened? - Will Bruce Willis shave and should the director cut a scene of a dog being shot? This film is just as contrived and shallow as the Hollywood culture it's mocking.

20. Zack and Miri Make a Porno - Kevin Smith tries to mix gross-out comedy with a date movie and fails both audiences. Judd Apatow has already delivered that money shot son

Monday, November 30, 2009

You've never seen a future like this

If you’re anything like me, you know the intensity of a good nightmare. No stranger to producing horror films in my sleep, I then struggle to describe my nightmares the next morning. How do you put into words... places that don’t exist and things that don’t make sense? How do you explain to someone a series of events that defy words—without boring them to death?

The 2007 French film, “Eden Log,” manages to bring all the confusion and darkness, the inexplicability of a nightmare, to film. From the start, an incomprehensible puzzle presents itself to Tolbiac (Clovis Cornillac), as he awakens in a muddy, cold, dark cave. We experience what he does, as he does, at a sometimes painstakingly slow pace.

Though the film tests our tolerance with a repetitive and uneventful first 20 minutes, it’s worth the experience to endure this for what lies beyond. Completely clueless as to where he is, what’s he’s doing there, and how he got there, he just keeps moving, upward, from what seems to be an impossibly deep system of caves, far underground.

Clues come in the form of random encounters and electronic video images, propelling him onward, towards some unknown but anticipated revelation.

I see quite a bit of science fiction and I believe this is one of the most original interpretations of a bleak future I have ever seen. There are no cliches here, no familiar futuristic conventions. This has got to be unlike anything you have ever seen before, awake or asleep.

The ending is open to interpretation and can even be quite confusing. And there was something about the audio that made it seem as though the film were dubbed into English. Still, it’s highly original premise and completely unpredictable plot make it one to see. That is, if you’re a fan of dark, foreboding dreams.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Star Trek' time travels in to save our day!

I used to work with a man who looked and acted deliberately like Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He later moved onto vampires but I did agree with him that our office would be more fun if we all wore the uniforms like those on the show. Yet TNG movies were too serious and more of a bore than their predecessors in the eighties with the classic original cast. Although those films got worse with each entry and began to look like 'beer bellies in space', they still retained that sense of wonderful cheesiness of the original series. In the fab sixties, Kirk and the crew which included plenty of mini-skirted fembots conquered the universe. Shatner kicked ass with a shoulder-rolling brawl set to a blazing horn section; A cosmic Don Draper. He also would bed down multi-colored alien babes as Spock and Bones argued logic versus emotion like a classic psych exam. My elder brother was an old school Trekkie and I recall as a boy going to a local mall to see Leonard Nimoy. (We didn't get close).

I didn't really watch TNG or the other spin-offs much. Yet I had "Star Trek" imbedded in my brain, a cultural touchstone and an example of how sci-fi could be fun as well as cerebral. Last year as I looked around an Apple Store one of the clerks (er Associates) was running down the features and programs of a Mac, when he asked casually "Hey have you seen this?" and played the new Star Trek trailer in Hi-def. I had no idea it was being remade. Suddenly it was all there in that three minute clip: JJ Abrams of "Lost", "Alias" and "Cloverfield" fame had rebooted the franchise with an origins story. Uhura was a super hottie! The guy from "Heroes" as Spock? 'Harold' from "Harold and Kumar" as Sulu? "Shaun of the Dead" as friggin Scotty? Leonard Nimoy - Are you serious? The original sounds effects even sounded hip. We both looked at each other in a WTF moment of nerdy joy. I saw the film as soon as it opened.

This would have been so easy to mess up but outside of one CGI snow monster that didn't thrill me as necessary, I am pleased to say that Abrams and company really nailed this! Chris Pine had extra large space shoes to fill with Kirk but has done it and here is the young captain, complete with his bar fights and the bedding of green girls, fully intact. He subverts authority follows his instincts and is brutally loyal to his team who form before our delighted eyes. Spock, Bones, Chekov, Uhura, Sulu and Scotty here are all thrown together for the first time and have their own heroic moments to shine. Eric Bana as Nero is the best villain since Khan and then there's the space-time continuum, the sci-fi device that opens the parallel universe and gets old and new Trek to fit together as it should. Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as Bones stand out and really channel their TV counterparts. So loyal to the original campy Trek but retrofitted with added adrenalin, it is as fun as the original series and is as movies should be. In these hard times it is so timely to see Gene Rodenberry's original vision of a diverse crew of young explorers attempting to right the wrongs of a sometimes evil universe. Fun for mind, body and soul, "Star Trek" is one of the best DVDs of the year.