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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Corrupt leaders & other runaway trains

I wanted to see me some Italian corrupt politics riddled with assassination but I got more than I needed in Il Divo. Rather than just tell the story straightforward, which would have been gripping enough, director Paolo Sorrentino goes gonzo and thinks he’s Kubrick meets Scorcese but is neither as proven by his pretentious over-direction. Lead actor Toni Servillo plays the main character of long-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti like a grotesque caricature, hunching around, an expressionless Dracula save for the stagey (but really it’s all so stagey) soliloquies where he rants rapidly like a madman. Much like 2006’s visually beautiful but hollow “The Fall” this director knows how to make beautiful pictures, he just doesn’t know when the say ‘basta’ and tell a story. Subtlety is not sin signore; see ‘La dolce vita’ instead.

The frustrating age of Bush resulted in a backlash that produced not just a satirical film in last years’ “W.”, but also a one-man show, before he had even left office. Will Ferrell’s “You’re Welcome America, A Final Night with George W. Bush” being the latter. Ferrell is as always absurd and funny, his political satire spot-on, but weighing in at almost an hour and a half the show does get tired. It seems like a drawn out SNL sketch not helped by a dancing secret service man between scenes played by Ferrells’ brother. Maybe it’s just too soon.

The remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” is a textbook example of how current Hollywood does thrillers bad with Tony “Top Gun” Scott pulling out all his tricks: The macho mustachioed men from Central ‘New Yawk’ casting, loud soundtrack booms with pulsating rock riffs, intermittent slow motion with over-saturated colors, super quick cuts and zooms, the overused helicopter shots and not one ounce of honest character development in the mix. Denzel Washington goes from a coffee spilling demoted MTA boss to a superhero chasing his nemesis on the Brooklyn Bridge with gun in hand. (I would say “Spoiler alert” but the tell-all trailer for this film already gives most of this film up). John Travolta is the brains of the subway-napping who eats up the scenery and all but gives his name and address to the dispatchers. In short this movie sucks. Scott constantly cuts to police officers and SWAT teams who do nothing with the exception of getting into three (Count em!) separate car crashes in one trip uptown. The filmmakers had unrestricted access to the NY subway system so it’s a shame this film pales in comparison to the original. That 70’s film directed by Joseph Sargent was shot with real grit and intelligence as it had the meticulous Robert Shaw matching wits with the great low-key Walter Matthau. Its classic ending was near perfect. They don’t make them like that anymore as this remake proves loudly.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why I Loved "Land of the Lost"

Did you grow up watching "Land of the Lost" when it was a television series in the mid 1970s? If so, you will remember the Sleestak, Holly's braids, and the family's little ape-like pal, Cha-Ka.
Put those cheesy memories aside so you can enjoy the current theatrical remake of the series.

Though the film has taken a critical bashing from some, I disagree. It was fun and silly and captivating from start to finish. Will Farrell as 'Marshall' leads 'Holly' and 'Will' into a tachyon- chasing adventure that catapults them back to a very unusual, ancient time.

Here's what worked:
1. Changing the original father and two children into three adults (two scientists and a beer-bellied opportunist) creates greater humor without the forced drama of children in peril.
2. "Grumpy," the scheming and vengeful dinosaur (with a sense of humor, too) was a brilliant twist on the typical, blundering giant. One could argue that Grumpy nearly steals the show.
3. Matt Lauer's cameo. Seriously, the guy can act. I see him on "Mad Men," cohorting with Jon Hamm.
4. The wonderfully creative way in which our three-some end up in the Land of the Lost is through the mouth of The Cave, a desert tourist attraction that brings visitors on a boat ride into an underground, spooky theme-park-type cave. Chasing tachyon signals to this location, all three head in.
5. A Sleestak gone bad. Very bad. Taking-over-the-world type of bad.
6. Will Farrell's dependable, lovable, hilarious bumbling scientist.
7. Danny McBride is cast to perfection as the cave proprietor turned Land of the Lost survivor.
8. Cha-Ka's life of debauchery and glory.

Silly, great fun. Sign me up.

Woody Meets Larry and it 'Works'

Is it even necessary to start out by saying that I'm a huge Woody Allen fan? Is it even possible for someone to love film without being a huge Woody Allen fan? I say, no. The man is a genius. Yes, he's become a tad predictable in adhering to the New York-intellectuals-lament-love-with-age-diverse-pairings-and-ultimately-come-together-during-celebratory-party-while-vintage-clarinet-jazz-music-colors-the-scene formula. But there's still a little magic there.

To find Larry David inhabiting the lead (the Woody role, par usual) in "Whatever Works" is Woody's most brilliant casting to date. Larry David is so lovable and believable that we can even forgive the absurdity of the prerequisite, later years Woody standard: the nubile young beauty who falls in love with the cantankerous old man. We can also forgive the silliness of 'Boris Yellnikoff' (David) suddenly addressing the camera while his friends look on, wondering if he has lost his marbles. The typically semi-natural Woody dialogue becomes butter in David's mouth. Never a pause, never a falter, never a blip in how normal it all seems.

Yellnikoff is a bitter, self-proclaimed genius who lives alone in Manhattan. When he arrives home one night to find a needy young girl on his doorstep, he begrudgingly takes her in. 'Melodie' (Evan Rachel Wood) is the starry-eyed Southern girl who pours honey all over Yellnikoff's bile. When Patricia Clarkson, as her mother, 'Marietta,' enters the scene, we're in for a wild joy ride. From a repressed, religious Southern self-righteousness, to an expressive, uninhibited, threesome-living artist, Marietta makes a delicious transformation. 'John' (Ed Begley Jr.), Melodie's father, makes a less believable transformation.

Loaded with truisms about religion, politics, and the general state of things, burdened with a familiar plot, and sugar-coated with a formulaic ending...still. "Whatever Works" works, thanks to the wit and wisdom of Larry David.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Threes of Fall

Since so many films are just average, neither outstanding nor particularly bad, I find them hard to write on. We only use 5 shakers to keep it simple- not the one to one-hundred exactness of Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. Some average threes are almost-fours- others almost-twos. Zzzzzzz... Sorry, anyway here’s a bunch of average Joes:

"Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" - Made during the writing strike this is basically a showcase for the singing and comic talents of Neil Patrick Harris who went on to take over the award show host circuit. A cute story of offbeat superheroes; it’s retro, kitschy and hip with catchy songs. Kind of like a fun college film. The creators are the Hollywood writing family behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other hi-grade pop phenoms: Jed, Joss and Zack Whedon. These men have a cult army of followers and this was a big hit at Comic-Con. You get the picture, wants to be a mini-“Rocky Horror Picture Show” for geeks.

O’ Horten” - I loved how director Brent Hamer adapted Charles Bukowski in 2005’s “Factotum”. Here he creates a Norwegian deadpan existentialist flick about a retiring train engineer so I counted myself in! Loneliness, old age, absurdity and non sequiturs are all represented in this offbeat tale. However, like Jim Jarmusch’s work (except “Mystery Train” which I loved) this was critically praised but didn't quite work for me.

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!” - This is a pretty comprehensive look at how the B-Movies of Australia from the sixties through the eighties helped to establish that countrys’ national film industry. A feast of clips intercut with the older and wiser filmmakers and one horribly pretentious film critic (I hate those guys), this film moves along briskly with sex, violence, Kung Fu and car crashes. Seeing how all of this gave birth to “Mad Max”, the “Godfather” of these films, is fascinating but like the exploitive films themselves it does get tired and repetitive.

Every Little Step” – When choreographer Michael Bennett held an interview/workshop with a bunch of dancers in New York City in 1974 and turned it into “A Chorus Line”, it became a classic Broadway success story. Winning a Pulitzer and nine Tony Awards it ran on Broadway for fifteen years closing in 1990. Fifteen more years later some of the members of the original creative team reassemble to stage a revival and this doc follows the dancers that audition for this show in a clever, life-imitating-fiction-which imitates-life loop. Yet just as the original writing team feared that too many stories would overwhelm the audience this film spreads itself too thin. I would say this is for hardcore fans only, but watching actor Jason Tam nail an audition so convincingly that it renders the production team into a bunch of crying schoolgirls, is to watch an actors’ dream. I wanted more of these breakthrough moments but as they say it’s like lightening in a bottle. “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway” was much more fun.

Lymelife” - Directed by Derick Martini and co written with his brother Steven (what’s with all the family teams popping up?), this film felt like the serious older cousin to Greg Mottola’s excellent “Adventureland”. I guess I should have reviewed that one. A coming-of-age film set in the late seventies on Long Island, this film would fall into the suburban angst genre I talked about earlier this year. Long-faced Rory and Kieran Culkin do their best as two siblings trapped in a disintegrating family. The adult stars Alec Baldwin, Cynthia Nixon, Timothy Hutton and Jill Hennessy almost save this film from its own over-seriousness. Almost doesn’t count.

Coraline” - Speaking of depressing? Jeez Louise who is this film aimed at? Too creepy for children and a little too weird for adults, “Coraline” is Henry Selicks’ version of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” without the fun. The stop-animation is clever and all, but an alternative universe where a young girl must replace her eyes with buttons freaks me out much more than when the Abominable Snowman terrorized Rudolph. Children will go all Goth or Emo soon enough without entertaining them with this kind of horror and loneliness; as Joker asked: “Why so serious? “

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Demonic Ambitions

Fall is upon us and Halloween approaches! I rented the Blu-Ray of the original “Halloween” and several other scary flicks to get in the mood and will cap off the month seeing the original “Psycho” accompanied by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra- good times!

In ‘Audience of One ‘ director Mike Jacobs shows us something pretty scary- real-life religious fanaticism which is growing by leaps and bounds in this country. In uncertain times it’s comforting to have religion, however when it stops being a personal expression of spirituality and goes all cultish it is downright dangerous. Folks who believe that they are on a “mission from God” ala the “Blues Brothers” will have no problem causing all sorts of mayhem since anyone against them must be “the devil”. Working Jim Jones’ old hood, Pastor Richard Gazowsky is introduced to us as a charismatic leader who seems harmless at first as he preaches the word to his San Francisco congregation. We are told that he didn’t see his first film “The Lion King” until he was 40, but that God then told him to make a film (“Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments”) and lo the misadventures begin!

A delusional man pressing his family and parishioners to make a film that he says has 200 million in financing for is fascinating but also a little sad. Church collections don’t go to help the unfortunate but instead fund massive film expenses such as creating unnecessarily elaborate costumes. Volunteers are pressed into crew and talent positions putting in long workdays where safety precautions are non-existent. This is kind of like the doc “Burden of Dreams” about the madness of director Werner Herzog while making “Fitzcarraldo'” with the important exception that Herzog is a great filmmaker, Gazowksy is just a fool. Even late in the film as we see that his fiasco has no funding and he is forcing his studio landlord (the city of San Franciso) to sue him for his back rent, he attends a filmmakers trade show promising vendors that he is planning on buying their high end equipment. In short he has no conscience. Why should he? God talks directly to him. Kind of like “Bowfinger” meets “Jesus Camp”.

As I’ve said before here, I hate the cinema of sadism that passes as horror. Splatter and gore has hardcore followers but I can’t help to think that it’s just not a good thing to get such pleasure watching people get tortured and killed. It reminds me too much of how Rome fell with its residents using death as entertainment in the Coliseum (Though I did like “Gladiator” which makes me a bit of a hypocrite).

Sam Raimi on the other hand, gave us the “Evil Deadtrilogy back in the eighties and early nineties, films that mixed the spookiness of folklore with rollercoaster thrills shot like great slapstick ala “An American Werewolf in London”. These films were scary fun and became better as the budgets went up. Raimi went on to do a respectable indie, “A Simple Plan” before moving on up to the big budget “Spidermanseries. Obviously his brother and he had an old spooky script that they never made and Raimi decided to dust it off and give his fans a little bit of retro horror. I’m glad he did.

In “Drag Me to Hell” he shows his ability to take all of the scariness of that original haunted wooded cabin and bring it to a normal suburban home in Southern California transforming ordinary objects into instruments of fear: a stapler, a handkerchief, a coin, a button, a ruler even a piece of cake. Yes a piece of cake – did you ever eye up a delicious pastry when dieting? Raimi and the demons at his disposal know of these inner conflicts.

Our heroine, bank loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman), is a former obese farm girl from a broken home who wrestles these inner demons as she reinvents herself in LA. When her relationship and career seem troubled, the evil spirits channel her fear of eating; the arm of a demonic woman, a fly, embalming liquid, maggots and blood all make their way into her mouth at some point in this flick. It all begins with her fixation on an old gypsy womans’ dirty dentures that she observes as she is trying to decide whether to give her another extension on her home loan. Being exploited by her boss (David Paymer) as she vies for a promotion (he has her bring him and her rival food of course) she is forced into deciding to evict this old woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), which sets off the action as she is then attacked, cursed and terrorized.

Raimi gives us plenty of shout-outs to the ‘Evil Dead’ films including using his trademark 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, a visual reference to the original poster art, cartoon violence in an old shed and Christine’s boyfriend (Justin Long, the Mac pitchman seen using Mac products) making a passing reference that he has a cabin in the woods. The film even opens with an 80’s era logo for Universal. A drawback is the flat acting by the young actors in the leads; old-timers Raver and Paymer fare much better. Lohman, Long and Dileep Rao (as the worlds' most knowledgeable spiritualist) all seem to play the film straight rather than give it the subtle twist of camp that it needed. Lohman especially seems more of a dullard than an ambitious and then horrified woman. A Bruce Campbell cameo also would have rocked it. This is nitpicky of course – this film as I witnessed makes men swear in disbelief and women scream in fright and that’s a lot of fun in the serious world of mass marketed torture porn. A definition of Irish blarney is when you can tell someone to go to hell and have them anticipate the trip. Raimi still has the charm.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lose your Illusion

There have been many documentaries about the war in Iraq but Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss's Full Battle Rattle” captures the motivation and policies of our military better than most. Ironically it was filmed in the US, in a mock Iraqi city in the Mojave Desert of California. The “city” is a battle training ground that seems to be a cross between a video game simulation and the town featured in “The Truman Show”. The make-believe hamlet is populated by Iraqi-Americans and other soldiers portraying the locals. There are meetings with the city council, confrontations at check points and even photo opportunities as building contracts and cash are handed out to buy good faith. Insurgents and assassinations also sneak in as programmed by the war game officials. A soldier and the man portraying the deputy mayor refer to their script as they discuss how to play a scene in one of the many surreal moments in this interesting film. When the same deputy mayor proudly shows video of his mock execution to his real family, his wife breaks into tears and we are reminded that this role playing is mirroring the real life violence effecting actual families. As the military personnel are shipped off after their training exercise you can really sense the anxiety as they leave a place where the dead were just actors or medical dummies to enter the very real chaos of war. I found this to be an interesting dissection of the logistics of modern war with the implied violence eerily foreshadowing the reality that awaits them.

In “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”, director Sacha Gervasi first introduces the Canadian rockers via old footage of the 1984 Japanese Super Rock Festival that they appeared at with The Scorpions, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and other top bands. Members of Metallica, Motorhead, Guns N Roses and others are seen telling of their influence. We then cut to 2007 Toronto to see the band members working middle-class jobs while still holding onto the dream of making it big. Lead guitar/singer “Lips” (Steve Kudlow) and his long suffering best friend/drummer, Robb Reiner are mellow but often prone to explosive arguments like an old married couple. This is one of the many parallels of this film with the famed mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap”: We see the band making its’ way to the stage saying “Hello Cleveland!’, the silly album covers, an audio knob going to “11”, the foreign road manager girlfriend, the series of humiliating gigs, Stonehenge and the redeeming call from Japan. Yet somehow this flick does not mock its subjects, in fact the optimism of “Lips” in the face of all odds is actually inspiring and touching. Their families are still trying to support them and you can’t help but to pull for (or head bang for) this group as well.

Steven Soderbergh follows his dense but unmoving “Che (Parts One & Two)” with a small film about a high-end escort in Manhattan just prior to the election of 2008. “The Girlfriend Experience” uses real-life porn star Sasha Grey to portray Chelsea, a call girl just trying to make it in the world of the wealthy. Captured in a series of high-end restaurants and stores we see what may be a collapsing gilded era as Chelsea acts as ‘the girlfriend” of several nervous movers and shakers, which mostly means listening to them talk about finances. Her live-in boyfriend is a personal trainer also trying to leverage his relationship with his rich clients to get ahead. Their parallel realities comment about the materialism and superficiality of life. Sex, looks and money is all important, but this soullessness is also the death of real love. The film even has a trip to Vegas in it, the ultimate metaphor for the illusions of wealth and the American dream of success. However, again Soderbergh just doesn’t pull it off. This is yet another arty film that moves slowly and seems plot less. To mix it up a bit, it is edited in a confusingly deliberate non-chronological order which is reminiscent of “Memento”. The biggest problem is the monosyllabic, boring performance by Grey in the lead. I suspect a high end call girl would be intelligent and an excellent conversationalist. Grey seems more like a bored teenager here and that’s a GF experience that no one would pay for.

Quick review: “Watchmen” a sadistic abomination, torture porn and fanboys still ruling Hollywood!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

No Doubt

This film was another one of those instances of not remembering how it ended up in the Netflix queue but thankful it did.

"The History Boys" is initially a loving, gentle, pre-college educational romp. But as things progress, the truth is revealed in an easy-going, British style. In an all-boys prep school, the various characters have all nearly aced their preliminary college exams. But their headmaster wants more, and brings in a young consultant to bring more polish to the students, in the hopes of not just getting into Oxford or Cambridge, but getting in with scholarships.

A gifted ensemble cast delivers great performances. Esteemed English actor, Richard Griffiths (you know him from "Harry Potter"), as "Hector," is the teddy bear of a professor whose under-appreciated teaching style eventually gives way to a more serious charge, when he is seen fondling one of his male students while they ride his motorcycle. The students are all old enough to know what's going on with old Hector, and even have a standard retort to give when they feel his reaching hand. Nothing is done beyond this. There is a certain amount of acceptance and calm here that keeps things from developing beyond a simple, acknowledged fondle. Hector himself seems to truly care for the boys and encourages their success. We get the impression that he is controlling his urges so that he would never go beyond a roving hand. But when a crossing guard takes notice of this, the headmaster of the school steps in and "requests" that Hector retire immediately. Hector is so loveable, it's hard to come to terms with the realization that he truly is a pedophile. But, as in life, there are many shades of grey.

The struggles and coercion and maneuvering that the boys all partake in is what gets at the heart of the story. Learning the less-than-admirable manipulations that adults engage in is as much a part of their education as essays worthy of acceptance into Oxford.

Like "Doubt," "The History Boys" was also a play before it became a film. And both films tackle sexual child abuse in different ways. In Doubt, there is the ruination and damnation of an esteemed clergyman, and the tragedy of his young victim. In The History Boys, there is the more subtle realism of a gentle yet lecherous old man. Here, not only are the students older, but they are wiser, and know that these subtle advances are a part of the adult world, as it is about to unfold before them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The American dream: Elusive, then hard to maintain

As the US seems more divided than ever lately, I recently saw three new DVDs that deal with our freedoms in their own personal way.

In “Sugar” (2008), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to their very good “Half Nelson” (2006), we are introduced to a Dominican baseball player whose whole town depends on him making the minor leagues in the US and then possibly the majors. The pressure to succeed and the fish-out-of-water culture clashes of his life are examined in a very low-key, naturalistic style: Far too low-key for my tastes. Whereas in “Half Nelson” we had the Oscar nominated performance of lead actor Ryan Gosling taking us into the shadowy world of teachers who abuse drugs, here we have a non-actor, Algenis Perez Soto playing the lead. The fact that he isn’t an actor does increase the realism but since in 90% of this film the camera is pointed at him, the story would have benefitted if we could have had more insight into his mind. He just seems to stare vacantly most of the time as things occur almost randomly around him. This trend of almost hyper-realism, where we find ourselves stuck into one unstructured scene after another seems a bit lazy and pretentious to me. In one long shot we see ‘Sugar’ walking through a blurry entertainment arcade finally arriving at the edge of a bowling alley where his American counterpart is enjoying a game surrounded by friends. I know I was supposed to sympathize with his isolation here but I was too bored by the length of the take of his walk. That’s just me- ADD boy! His character then makes a questionable decision halfway through the film that seems unlikely given all we’ve been shown. So although this film came with high praise and had some nice plays, it just failed to score with me.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Sin Nombre” (2008), which although shot with equal realism gives us memorable imagery, strong dramatic performances and a tight story. Filmmaker Cary Fukunaga wrote and directed this tale of a group of Central American immigrants making their way to the American border. Casper (Edgar Flores) is a Mexican gang member of the scarily tattooed ‘Mara Salvatrucha’, who needs to prove his worth. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a young Honduran girl just trying to follow her family to a better life. Both end up hitching on top of a rural train that snakes its’ way north. Somehow these images capture the beauty and sacrifice of these people. One touching scene has the train passing under a large statue of Mother Mary as many pray for her blessing. As the gang pursues Casper, he tries to thwart the advances of Sayra to no avail. Like good and evil itself these two seem trapped with each other. I found this film similar in my mind to “The Warriors” another surreal adventure of a road trip to redemption.

State of Play” (2009) is based on a popular BBC mini-series and I’m sure if I had seen this I would have hated this film. In fact, I expected not to like it since it seemed super-hokey, which it is to some degree. However, although not the best political thriller ever it does make its’ points, have strong performances and is nicely shot. Russell Crowe plays Cal McCaffrey a veteran reporter for the fictional Washington Globe (a stand in for the Post); Della (Rachel McAdams) is a newbie blogger for the paper which has just been acquired though a merger by a global corporate media group. Helen Mirren is the editor who must weigh the pressure to sell papers with the infotainment demands of a 24-hour news cycle rather than taking the time to get the story told correctly. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal’s old college roommate, is a congressman from Pennsylvania who oversees a committee investigating a defense contract corporation which eerily looks like Blackwater. The film opens with a series of killings that somehow link up to the death of a female Collins’ staffer who also was having an affair with him. Collin’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) still pines for Cal in a ‘Casablanca’-like triangle that I found to be great old-timey Hollywood fun. The old-school vet reporter and newbie blogger team up to clear Collins’ name and get to the bottom of the killings in an attempt to bring the evil defense contractor out into the light while saving the paper from the pressures of its’ new owners.
There sure is a lot going on in this flick (since it is distilled from a mini-series) but it sucked me in and I enjoyed it! Director Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”, “The Last King of Scotland”) really captures the surroundings from the messy newsroom, to the streets and eateries of DC, to the clean yet ominous halls of our government. He also gives some visual nods to “All the Presidents’ Men” with scenes at a creepy garage, the Watergate hotel, as well as extreme close-ups of copy being written, this time with a blinking cursor rather than the rifle-like cracks of typewriter strikes. Although it is flawed and a little too tidy in resolution, this film demonstrates how diligence is always needed to maintain our country’s morality in the face of a very complex, corrupt world. Sadly, this film also seemed like an epitaph for printed newspapers in a world overcome by the internet and bloggers (like me?).

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Shaky First Year!

Wow! As August comes to a close after flying by, a lot of great films hit which I would give four salt shakers to: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Trouble the Water, Tyson, The Class and Goodbye Solo. Normally I would choose one or two of these and tell you why to see them, but I didn’t want August to pass without acknowledging that this month marks the first anniversary of this blog!

Jessi and I worked together before she moved to New Mexico. I have seen so many friends come and go out of my little friendship fish bowl that I assumed we would e-mail once or twice a year before eventually losing touch. We are both frustrated creatives with the exception that Jessi works at it and I just repress it. Our e-mails would often turn to films we’d seen and we’d compare notes. As is obvious in this blog, some of the films she loved I hated and visa-versa. She then suggested this blog which I was dead against it since I see most blogs as self-indulgent and didn’t want to jump in that pool. However she convinced me to give it a try, nothing fancy just straightforward, concise reviews.

Last August, 'Salty Popcorn' began with Jessi’s post on 'Tsotsi'- I immediately countered thinking it was going to be the point-counterpoint deal, like the original Siskel & Ebert. We then both reviewed "The Savages" and "Surfwise", two great little indies and I put my best of all time list down. As we closed the most productive month ever, Jessi reviewed "Jumper" and I looked at "August" as we quickly realized it would never work for us to line up our viewing habits with the same films. We persevered somehow and this blog literally became my therapy.

Without going into detail we have both continued our struggle for meaningful work, again Jessi being more successful than I. I thought this blog would just die off since there were so many other places where folks could get opinions- but between Jessi and myself I feel we have added some original voice on the state of current home cinema. Even if we do have very light traffic, content is content.

I know one thing- as life gets me down - I do still find watching films to be my most favorite thing ever. This past year wasn't a banner year but through it all I have been able to watch many films I would never have had time for. Films inspire me and take me to a world as seen through someone else’s eyes. They touch and inform me- and remind me that the struggles of life are a common drama. I've seen artists who understand film as the 20th century art form and those who see it as a business churning out product. SP has allowed me the forum to yell at those who get it wrong and praise those who get it right. I’m still touched by heartfelt dramas and laugh loud at good comedies but unfortunately, more often than not, I feel like a hollow piece of crap has wasted my time and sucked out my soul. Yet that’s the point, I can suffer that turkey so you don’t have to. Even in my negative reviews I try to steer you to a similar film that got it right. So I thank you Jessi for nudging me into this. Happy Birthday ‘Salty Popcorn’! - Let’s keep the films popping and I’ll keep it shaking!

Your co-editor,


Monday, August 24, 2009


Two new releases this month tell of unusual male friendships- one for laughs and one for sentiment; both seemed overrated and predictable.

In “The Soloist” Jamie Foxx went with the advice of Robert Downey’s actor character in “Tropic Thunder” and didn’t play “full retard” just going with schizophrenia. Based on the true story of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Downey) who befriended a down-and-out man, Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx), who he discovers had some classical cello training at Julliard and then told his story in several articles. Director Joe Wright tries hard to beat the clichés and be original, but by playing loose with the facts (and doing hokey things like presenting a symphony internally from Ayers point of view), the film lays the melodrama on when understatement would have worked better. Downey as usual is great and Foxx keeps his character credible but this is another case of the actors being better than the material. With forced flashbacks and a skid row that seems to be more “Escape from New York” than the real streets of LA, Wright and the screenwriters kill the reality of film despite the two strong performances up front. Trying to play a meaningful violin piece with only two strings again doesn’t work.

On the wackier side of unusual male friendship is “I Love You Man” written and directed by John Hamburg although it seems way similar to the work of bro-mance comedy director Judd Apatow. Paul Rudd is Peter Klaven, an LA realtor who is getting married but seems to just realize that he has no male friends. He finally bumps into bohemian free-spirit Sydney Fife (Jason Segal) who he connects with on the rocky road to male bonding. Along the way there are jams in the man cave, scuffles with Lou Ferrigno and some forced awkward man-dates. Unfortunately for me all seemed like a Comedy Central made-for-TV movie and the only laughs are when Rudd tries to speak hip – saying things like “Slappa da bass mon! “, calling Sydney bizarre nicknames like “Joben” and generally mining the un-coolness of his character to the hilt. Segal as Fife on the other hand seems completely unreal whether when he is threatening people who ask him to curb his dog, launching an unauthorized billboard campaign for Peter or engaging in primal scream therapy. Needless to say this all builds to a downright stupid ending. Reworking date movies for male appeal is a good idea, but they need to be funny, this one is all premise no delivery- totally ... totes my goats!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Surreal Japan – Lost in Translation

Hikikomori - a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive individuals who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement because of various personal and social factors in their lives.

Well I’m down for this! I love to learn about social phenoms and in the film “Tokyo!” which presents three short films (about 35 minutes each) we have this lifestyle dramatized in the final sequence "Shaking Tokyo," directed by Korean director Joon-ho Bong (“The Host”). Similar in style to 2006’s “Paris, je t'aime”, this time all three films are by foreign directors again using the titled city as a setting.

The first segment is “Interior Design,” by Michel Gondry who gave us the great “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the poor “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind, Rewind” (Though Jessi and I disagreed on that one). I really enjoyed this tale in the offbeat style of Jim Jarmusch. A quirky indie director and his supportive girlfriend crash at her friends’ apartment in Tokyo in attempt to get his film shown and to become established there. They look at dirty potential apartments and try to find work as their host becomes increasingly annoyed since her apartment literally gets smaller as the film goes on. Once her filmmaker beau begins to get some recognition, the girlfriend is sidelined and must find a new purpose in her life possibly supporting another artist, this time a musician. Wonderful and bizarre!

The next segment “Merde” by director Leos Carax then destroys the charm by introducing an overacting Caucasian male playing a childlike “monster” who lives in the sewers and terrorizes the city. This film was so horrible I had to fast-forward through it. It is pretentious, boring and I swear unwatchable which means it will be hailed by critics as a masterpiece.

The final triptych “Shaking Tokyo”, as I noted at the start, returns to the offbeat tone of the opening segment, presenting an isolated man living off his fathers’ kindness (mailed cash) who has chosen not to leave his apartment in 11 years. The shots outside of an empty Tokyo are quite remarkable as everyone else appears to have chosen to do the same. I thought this was a very creative take on the isolation of a mega-city and Yû Aoi as the cute delivery woman who literally displays her emotions is great. Yet this story’s pace is way slow and in the end the structure is weak. So the cumulative effect of the film “Tokyo” is one of exhaustion and frustration due to its' uneven nature, a common problem with these kinds of anthology films. I think “New York Stories” started this trilogy and trend twenty years ago since I remember that Coppola’s segment really bit. My rating therefore is based on the segments and the overall effect; the salt here would be four shakers, one shaker and three shakers which gives us a two shaker overall.

In a full length film which actually would be better off it were a shorter entry in the above is Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “Big Man Japan” This one features some wonderfully freaky fight scenes between the title character (A beefy giant in his briefs carrying a big stick) and bizarre monsters that have to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately these absurdist scenes are interspersed in a mockumentary about the hero who spends most of his time as a normal-sized man looking sullen and bored. There are some clever ideas about how the glory days of his giant ancestors are gone as modern Tokyo holds him accountable more for the wreckage he causes than for his heroism in his frequent battles to protect its’ citizens. He must now rely on selling his giant body as a corporate billboard and deal with a condescending agent and an estranged daughter. Yet these sections just drag on and any potential humor gets lost in the tedious direction. Then the ending just drives the stake through this films’ heart as it dramatically changes style and tone further alienating the frustrated viewer. Like the giant himself, the director doesn’t know when to let up and move on.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Past Lives

I like scary movies but not torture porn. For example I was spooked by “The Blair Witch Project” because it was so inventive for its’ budget and it went for the root of what scares us: “There’s something out there in the dark trying to get us!” I also enjoyed the original Japanese versions of “The Ring” and “The Grudge”. Yet American horror movies of today are a dime a dozen, full of soundtrack jolts and cheap scares. To confess a guilty pleasure, I do TiVo all of the paranormal stuff for easy entertainment. I especially love ridiculous shows like “Ghost Adventures” where Scooby Doo is recreated and ghost teams startle each other on night vision camera.

One ghostly documentary “A Haunting in Connecticut” was made in 2002 but still airs frequently. It was genuinely spooky following a family who move into a large house which is offered at a surprisingly cheap asking price so that their son, who suffers from cancer, can be closer to his treatment hospital. The house which is next to a cemetery is actually an old funeral home and the sick boy who sleeps in the basement discovers that this is where the mortician did his thing. Needless to say as someone whose childhood home was also nearby a cemetery, I found this show scary. The main ghost even wore those black contacts which on its own freaks me out. So hoping for the best I rented the Hollywood film version which was recently released on DVD. My worst fears were realized as even the credits were filled with the quick cuts and soundtrack blasts that earmark the worst horror films of today. Virginia Madsen and Elias Koteas are two actors who try to ground all the unnecessary CGI vainly. Lifetime movie vet, Martin Donovan is featured as always playing the well meaning dad. (Spoiler) When the house burns the end titles tell us it was rebuilt and stands there to this day. Well the house does stand because it was never burned and therefore never needed to be rebuilt. Since “based on a true story” means nothing to Hollywood versions of ghost stories they obviously feel no shame in rewriting history like this, kind of like Fox News. It’s a shame though since as I say the original story was spooky before they rewrote. See the original version if you can.

Past glory is also what haunts the title character of “The Great Buck Howard’ played by the great John Malkovich. The story here however is not Howard himself but that of his assistant played by Colin Hanks. Based on the real life experiences of a former assistant to “The Amazing Kreskin”, Howard is a mentalist who performs mind reading, hypnosis and the like before finishing up with a few cornball songs. His act is dated, his audience dwindling and Howard is constantly repeating stories of his salad days, especially his appearances on “The Tonight show with Johnny Carson”. (I do love it when Buck calls Leno Satan!) The film wants to be quaint old-fashioned fun but is actually kind of predictable and dull. Hanks is likable enough but doesn’t seem to have the charisma of his dad Tom to pull off this one-dimensional character. (Hanks Sr. appears here briefly playing, of course, his father) The Howard role seems custom made for Malkovich but yet it is too cartoony and underwritten. Involving has-beens do make for interesting stories (“Sunset Boulevard”, “Raging Bull”, “All about Eve”, “My Favorite Year”. “The Wrestler” etc) but here the magic just isn’t there.

In the film version of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” there are haunting scenes of the crazy Miss Havisham still in her wedding dress trapped in the past, living in her rotting mansion. In 1975 the Maysles brothers made a bizarre documentary about a mother and daughter living in similar conditions. Edith Bouvier Beale was nearly eighty and her daughter “Little Edie” was in her fifties at the time of filming, both living in the squalor of their rotting East Hampton mansion. Both women were obviously mentally ill with “Little Edie” being absolutely manic doing dances with her head constantly wrapped in a makeshift scarf. It was a sad film to watch and yet the subjects seemed perfectly happy in their little world, delusional as they were. Their home and the film was perfectly named “Grey Gardens

This year HBO returned to these subjects making a dramatic film that attempts to fill in the blanks on the plight of these women. Also titled “Grey Gardens” the filmmakers do a great job at recreating scenes of the original doc between flashbacks of the characters affluent earlier years. Drew Barrymore who has made some bad films really shines here playing little Edie from her teenage years into her fifties. She totally nails this character and has a great time doing so. Jessica Lange playing the elder Edie also brings to life the desperation and increasing madness of her character. Both women, along with Ken Howard who plays Mr. Beale and Jeanne Tripplehorn as a shell-shocked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the womens’ famous cousin) have been nominated for well deserved Emmys. I think this film is best viewed after seeing the original documentary but in any case it is as haunting as the original. See it and then clean your home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Exciting Film to Love...and An Important Film to Look Forward To

I'm so blown away by this film, I can barely type. Like the magic that happens when a certain group of musicians get together (The Beatles?), every bit of The International is exquisite. It's like watching a master symphony at work.

But you won't notice that. Instead, you'll be caught up in this thriller, catapulted on a ride from New York to Berlin to Luxembourg to France to Italy to Turkey and back to New York (not necessarily in that order). With spot-on direction, brilliant, never-faltering performances, and plot twists and turns, I can not imagine it would be possible not to enjoy the ride. And then there's the Guggenheim. The esteemed New York museum has been recreated. Yes, the Guggenheim recreated, for a chilling clash of forces. Only on the DVD extras do we get to see the work that went into this feat.

While many international espionage/thrillers get caught up in their own web of complexity, Eric Singer's script keeps things razor sharp. A mega-powerful international bank gets intimately involved in funding war. Clive Owen, an Interpol agent determined to expose this extensive racket, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Truly, he is one of our greatest contemporary actors.

I searched out the director, Tom Tykwer, whose name didn't ring a bell. Silly me. Not only is he the director of the much-praised, Run Lola Run, but he is also an accomplished composer—creating a chillingly effective and original soundtrack for this film.

But a quick gander at his IMDB profile reveals something that has me giddy with anticipation. Listed under "In Development," is "What is the What," Dave Eggers' staggeringly beautiful story of the experiences of Sudanese refugee, Valentino Achak Deng. So Valentino's unbelievably heart-breaking yet triumphant life will be brought to the big screen. We can only hope. The world will be a better place for knowing Valentino's story.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tim’s summer reruns: Reviews of non-new releases

I have seen a few new releases but nothing spectacular of late so I decided to go back to my Netflix review vault and give you a bakers’ dozen of old release reviews never put on this blog. It’s a nice cross-section of DVDs of the past couple of years in no particular order. Seattle is in the midst of a heat wave so my mind is more fried than usual but being a surviving catholic I felt guilty about not posting. :) Stay cool people!

Lady in the Water (2006) One salt Shaker.
Half-baked folklore, cartoon creatures and a pale redhead astound an apartment complex. Boredom and malarkey shattered by the cliché loud soundtrack jump-scares. Good actors wasted by a crazed egomaniacal filmmaker- you know his name- it's plastered over the credits like spam. See “Night of the Hunter” instead.

28 Weeks Later (2007) Three salt shakers.
What this film lacks in originality, entertainment and character development, it more than compensates for in severe, quick edits with shaky cam. Scenes that may have been horrifying are jazzed up as this method is taken to its zenith. Oh and when someone has been exposed to the deadly virus and is a sole survivor worthy of study- I'm pretty sure she'd be monitored and guarded. And when "dad' keeps appearing all over the map, it's more like a comedy than a horror flick. A sad follow-up to such a classic original, kind of like “Halloween II” was.

All About My Mother (1999) Two salt shakers.
I had found it hard to believe that a teen-age boy is so transfixed by an actress in "Streetcar" that he frantically dashes after her cab in the rain. Then the nun getting AIDs after being impregnated by a transvestite? Another pal, a transsexual and the main character then switch roles as the assistants to the lesbian actresses. Suddenly there's an "All about Eve" twist as the all female cast again talk about their lives and then ….my gaydar just exploded. Pedro A, your films are just too ridiculous to merit the heaping praise.

Disturbia (2007) Three salt shakers.
If you're looking out your window at your neighbors and your friggin lights are on- they can see you. How basic is that? What would be a cool update of "Rear Window" loses steam from a strong setup and becomes yet another bland, predictable wanna-be thriller. The lead actor, Shia LaBeouf, does his best though which spring boarded him to fame.

The Host (2006) Three salt shakers.
Would be slimy monster fun if it didn't get weighed down in they typical Asian cinema broad comedy along with heavy-handed social statement. Whenever the slime monster is off-screen it stalls. Then a non-crowd-pleasing death spoils the end.

I Think I Love My Wife (2007) Four salt shakers.
Chris Rock tones down the smartass to make a nice stretch as a bored, middle-aged, sexual frustrated buppie. Better than expected and a cool step as a mature filmmaker/performer.

Bobby (2006) Three salt shakers.
This is a very flawed film! Ashton Kutcher as a hippy and Demi Moore as a drunken lounge singer both overact badly written parts. Harry Belafonte and Anthony Hopkins play chess. All of the performances seem stereotyped and unreal. However it's obvious throughout and especially toward the end that Estevez is passionately relating the death of the optimism and hope that succumbed after this "3rd" assassination and grew darker as Vietnam dragged on. To hear the speeches and to imagine 'what if' is depressing but a message that is important. The social value of this tribute outweighs it's "Love Boat"-like feel.

300 (2006) Four salt shakers.
Crazy, silly, and totally comic book- this film captures the pulp, style and amazing energy of the comic and takes it up a notch. As a pencil-pushing office rat - I felt my lost savage awakened in amazing battle scenes of stop action bloodletting! This is pure escapism and catharsis for anyone who has felt isolated while fighting a losing battle. Amazing visuals, stunts and sound make this an instant classic.

Catch a Fire (2006) Three salt shakers.
Like "Blood Diamond" this should have been a great film but somehow comes across as formula. I think Tim Robbins didn't blend into his heavy role enough and the long-winded opening of domestic tranquility seemed too forced. When the dark torture of apartheid finally occurs, the main character's transformation is overnight - like a "Rocky” training montage. (Even though this is a true story) Strong story- so why does it never catch fire?

District B13 (2004) Three salt shakers.
The incredible acrobatic foot chases, Parkour, elevates this- like Matrix stunts without the CGI. But the clichés are too deep and the plot too dumb- like anime characters rehashing 'Escape from New York'.

Breach (2007) Three salt shakers.
Depicting the FBI as a drab bureaucracy filled with office politics seems dead-on and Chris Cooper plays the hypocrisy of his role well. We needed more of him and less of Ryan Philippe.

Old Joy (2006) One salt shaker.
A condescending dullard and an unkempt hippy go camping and have about 15 minutes of dialogue- that leaves an hour or so of random scenery shots including multiple minutes of footage shot from a moving car at the passing scenery. ‘Chuck & Buck’ meets your stoned pals' bad camping home videos. No joy in this mumblecore. See “Mutual Appreciation” instead.

Crank (2006) One salt shaker.
Everything that's bad about filmmaking today: the clichés, the desperate attempt to be hip, the over-stylized direction...see “Run, Lola Run” or even ‘Speed.’ Yes the sequel is out this year, so yet another in a trend of sequels to bad films.