Friday, July 31, 2009

Movie Review: Gonzo

"Football season's over. No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt."
-Hunter S. Thompson's Suicide Note

Has there ever been a voice as confused yet clear; bizarre yet brilliant; as relevant as the voice of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson? No, there hasn't been. I may seem biased because Hunter S. Thompson is one of my idols, but you don't even have to know the name of Hunter S. Thompson to know that "Gonzo" is one of the best documentaries made in a long while. However, if you do know his name, it would definitely help.
The name Gonzo was the name of the form of journalism Thompson invented. It was a form of journalism in which the writer literally threw himself into the middle of the action they were covering and the events happening around the event they were supposed to be covering often became more important than the actual event.
"Gonzo" traces back to the humble beginnings of Thompson's radicalism, finding it at the 1968 Democratic Convention, where Thompson's main focus became the rioters outside rather than the speech of Hubert Humphrey inside.
The movie is not so much a chronicle of Thompson's entire life. It briefly touches on Thompson's childhood in Louisville, but only uses it reveal his persona as a true outsider. The rest of "Gonzo" chronicles the rise, fall, and legacy of Thompson. It shows how this one man changed how we view writing, journalism, and the American Dream forever.
"Gonzo" achieves this through interviews with people who knew Thompson all too well, and those who knew him so little, yet could never get enough of him. Director Alex Gibney uses archival footage amazingly, revealing footage of Thompson the world might not have seen otherwise. There's footage of Thompson doing drugs, being interviewed, and even swimming with dolphins. It is footage that goes beyond the usual insanity that shrouds Thompson's image and shows that he was above all, just a normal guy. He might've been normal, but he was still nothing short of ordinary.
The film is not all archival footage, it often contains readings of Thompson's brilliant writing. Those writings are read out by Johnny Depp, who so flawlessly portrayed Thompson in the film adaptation of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." The film often contains some reenactments of past events, which are almost as well handled as anything Errol Morris did in "The Thin Blue Line."
The film, at times, doesn't feel like a documentary. It often lets Thompson speak for himself. We get to listen to Thompson chronicle every major event of the last 40 years from Watergate to 9/11. Through these events (and Thompson's opinions on them), the film forms a kind of chronology, and Thompson's words guide the course of film. There honestly could not have been a better way to bring such meaning to his writing.
If Thompson were still alive today, he would be proud of "Gonzo." He would be proud that it is not just a film about him but for him. It portrays Nixon as a villain and displays a soundtrack full of Bob Dylan. If Thompson made a film about himself, this is surely what it would be like.
"Gonzo" is about a man who had a passion for sex, guns, and drugs, yet wasn't a bad man. It's about a man who was an outsider, yet shaped the political discourse of the last half of the 20th century. The best documentaries look past the flaws of the people they portray, and show what they did to truly impact the world. As the film ends with Thompson's ashes being shot out of a cannon, he was not just being shot into the sky, but into eternity; into the realms of immortality.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Return of Wes Anderson & The Coen Brothers

Today marked the exciting return of not one, but two* of the greatest directors of all time: Joel & Ethan Coen and Wes Anderson. Trailers for their latest films were released today.
The Coen Brothers will be returning with a film called "A Serious Man." The trailer doesn't give much of a plot, besides the fact that the main character is Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). Larry's story is told to the soundtrack of the noise his head makes while being banged against a chalkboard. Larry is a university professor seeking help from multiple rabbis after his marriage, job, and sanity get into major trouble.
The character of Larry seems like the Coen Brothers' The Dude and Llewelyn Moss--just a normal guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. With this movie, it looks like The Coen Brothers have fully returned back to making black comedies after going the darkest they've after gone in "No Country for Old Men."
Usually the one factor that most affects the plot of a Coen film is location. No matter where a film is set, the Coen Brothers nail every part of the culture they are filming in. So far, I have no idea where exactly this film takes place. However, the synopsis gives off a clue that it is set in the Midwest. Could this mean that the Coen Brothers are returning to their Minnesota homeland, a place they haven't shot a movie in since "Fargo?"
While their films are usually known for having great casts, "A Serious Man" seems to have a lot of nobodies. But, if the writing is as good as every one of their other films, that shouldn't matter.

Next up is Wes Anderson's newest film: "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is based on a book by Roald Dahl, a book that happened to be a favorite of mine growing up. That's making me even more excited for this film.
"Fox" will be Wes Anderson's first film since his underrated 2007 film "The Darjeeling Limited." This is Anderson's first time making a movie for the family, but I don't think he'll have any trouble doing so. Just because it's in stop-motion animation, I don't think it will be different than any other Anderson film; the titles and background music might as well have been from a scene in "The Royal Tenenbaums." The film will be released this fall alongside "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Alice in Wonderland." Based on the look of it, after this fall, kids' films will never be the same again.
A Serious Man will be released October 9. The Fantastic Mr. Fox will be released November 13
*Joel & Ethan count as one person
View the Trailers Here:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

Sometimes, the only way to understand tragedy is to face it--especially when it's projected on film. The War in Iraq has been going on for just over six years now. Over the past few years, many fine filmmakers have tried to tackle the subject, but none have come close to truly understanding it. Kathryn Bigelow, however, has perhaps come closest. Her latest film, "The Hurt Locker," is a masterpiece, and one that may define this generation for some time to come.
"The Hurt Locker" takes place in Baghdad in 2004. It begins with Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce), a bomb disarmer. After Thompson is killed in an explosion, he is replaced by William James (Jeremy Renner). James is different from his fellow soldiers. During his military career, he disarmed over 840 bombs, and thus has become fearless. The word "dangerous" certainly does not appear in his vocabulary.
The movie doesn't really have a plot. It is not about a major assassination attempt or a mission to destroy an enemy target. It is simply about soldiers trying to survive in Iraq; trying to survive a war where with no distinct enemy. It is a war where any civilian walking down the street could be carrying a case of C4.
At times, "The Hurt Locker" doesn't even feel like a movie. Maybe that's because of the grainy, shaky-cam style in which it is shot. But it could also be that every situation feels so real and so scary that it might as well have been real footage someone shipped back from Baghdad.
Maybe the reason previous films about Iraq never connected with mainstream audiences is because it was too soon to be trying to figure out the War while it was still going strong. As the War seems to finally be winding down, now seems like the time to start reflecting on it. After all, the best films about Vietnam didn't come out until years after the conflict ended. "The Deer Hunter" was released three years after the war ended, "Apocalypse Now" was released four years after the war ended, "Platoon" eleven years, and "Full Metal Jacket" twelve years. "The Hurt Locker" is to date the best film made about Iraq. I believe though, that it may not remain that way; the film has opened up a new era of how war is portrayed on film.
In addition to being the best film made about Iraq, I believe that it is not an understatement to say that "The Hurt Locker" is one of the best war movies ever made. At times, it is scarier than any horror film. Every gun shot and every explosion send an immediate jolt to the heart.
Unlike most action films today which seem to go through every scene as quickly as possible, "The Hurt Locker" has no problem slowing things down. The scenes of a bullet being fired and a bomb blowing up are both shot in real time. When the first bomb blows up, things are slowed down so much that you can literally see metal melting and the sidewalk lift off up the ground. It is nothing short of stunning. Perhaps the scene that stuck out most was the sniper shootout. This scene takes no restraints in showing the effects of violence, and both sides are so far off that literally anything could happen at any moment.
I believe "The Hurt Locker" is a movie that can be both enjoyable and moving to anyone. It does not matter whether or not you support the War, because "The Hurt Locker" does what a good war film should do: it leaves politics out. It doesn't say we should be there. It doesn't say we shouldn't be there. But it does seem to ask why we are there.
The real issue at hand though, is the idea of war in general and what it does to the human soul. In one of the film's pivotal scenes, James admires the way his infant son seems to love everything. James remarks that as one ages, you can't love everything like that. You only stick to one, two things at most. For him, that thing is war. In a way, director Kathryn Bigelow shapes the character of William James to be something like Willard from "Apocalypse Now," or John Rambo. That is, the soldier that has been through war so much that he now depends on it. At this point, killing (or in James's case, disarming bombs) has become the only thing they are good at, and the only thing they really have to live for.
Many people seem to forget the true difficulties our men and women face in Iraq. "The Hurt Locker" shows it in a way that no news report could. It portrays a world in which everything is a potential danger, and anything can be made into a weapon. At one point, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, in an unforgettable performance) reveals that he feels that so few people care about him, and his fear of being forgotten. This comment is not referring to his friends and family, but to the country in general. News everyday of soldiers being killed by car bombs seems typical to the point that no one even notices anymore. "The Hurt Locker" shows that no matter what, we must not forget.
I believe "The Hurt Locker" is this year's top contender for a Best Picture nomination. And in a year where there will be ten nominees instead of five, snubbing this unforgettable film would be almost impossible.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Five Most Important Years in Film

A recent blog post on argued that the greatest year for movies ever was 1984. Is this something of an overstatement? No doubt 1984 was a very good year for movies. After all, it was the year that gave birth to such masterpieces as "Amadeus," "Once Upon a Time in America," and "Blood Simple" as well as such popular classics as "Footloose," "The Natural," "Ghostbusters," and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
Some great movies, no doubt, but does this really constitute as the greatest year for movies ever? Here now, I would like to explore the five most important (not just the best) years in cinematic history:
1927- The year modern cinema was born. "The Jazz Singer" became the first feature-length "talkie" ever. "Jazz Singer" allowed the existence of such timeless snippets of dialogue as "Here's looking at you kid," and "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse"--however it also allowed for years of Michael Bay films and endless amounts of fart jokes.
1939- The second Dorothy exited black and white Kansas and entered color-filled Oz, audiences knew film would never be the same. However, "The Wizard of Oz" was not the only great achievement of 1939. Films like "Gone with the Wind," "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "Wuthering Heights" would become part of film fanatics' basic vocabulary, and add to the year that most historians call "the miracle year" for movies.
1967- Outside the theater, upheaval over the Vietnam War as well as the beginning of the Sexual Revolution were causing America to lose its innocence. That anger and newfound maturity soon made its way into the movies. "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde" showed the erasing of decades of Hays Code oppression and a new exploration of violence and sex that had never before been seen in film. However this was only the beginning of a revolution that took full bloom two years later.
1969- The revolution was now in full bloom. In this year, "Midnight Cowboy" became the first and only X-rated film to ever take home the Best Picture prize. "Easy Rider" showed the true life of the counterculture with no restraints. Filmmakers were no longer afraid; they were ready to head to uncharted waters in the years ahead. Perhaps the most famous line from "The Wild Bunch" best sums up 1969: "it ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."
1999- 30 years later, a new revolution was born. "The Blair Witch Project," although arguable in its quality (see my review here), proved that any movie, no matter how small, was capable of making a massive profit. Could this truly have been the movie that gave studio executives more faith in the independent film? But '99 was not all about "Blair Witch." It also gave birth to darker, more out-of-the-box views of typical American life such as "American Beauty," "Election," and "Magnolia." It also gave us the first major film about the First Gulf War ("Three Kings") and a comedy about the inside of John Malkovich's head ("Being John Malkovich"). The real question now is, where will the revolution of '99 take us from here?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Movie Review: Doctor Zhivago

When one thinks of an epic today, what comes to mind are scenes of massive war; explosions take over as bombs explode and the sky is showered in a storm of bullets. But not in this epic. Perhaps it is possible that an epic can be epic in scope and not in noise. Yes, a film like that does exist; and it's called "Doctor Zhivago."
"Doctor Zhivago" is nothing but pure grandeur in nearly every aspect, from its cinematography, to its score, to its larger-than-life characters, and of course the tale that it all fits into. It comes from the master of the epic David Lean ("Lawrence of Arabia").
"Doctor Zhivago" is one of Lean's many films that take place during World War I. This time, it is not focused on the Arabs and the British, but rather on the Russians and their Revolution. The story of the Revolution is not told through the eyes of Lenin, Stalin, or even Trotsky, but rather through the eyes of ordinary citizens who happened to get involved in the whole mess.
The film is told from the narrative perspective of General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guiness). He is searching for his brother's daughter, and thinks he has found the answer in a young woman named Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).
Like "Lawrence of Arabia," the film is told in flashback form. But rather than focusing on himself, Yevgraf tells the story of his brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Originally from Moscow, Yuri gets caught up in revolutionary fever and serves for many years away from his wife as a doctor from the Red Army. While on the battlefield, he begins a long and doomed affair with the beautiful Lara (Julie Christie) which sets the course for the remainder of the film.
Despite being labeled as an epic, one surprising thing about the typical Lean film (and especially this one), is how little action actually occurs. The battle sequences are sparse, but the film almost keeps you waiting on purpose, because every time a sword is raised or a gun is fired, the film becomes nothing short of spectacular. Such scenes as the March on Moscow, the trench fighting, and the attack on the White Army are among the most stunning ever shot. The trench sequence is perhaps the most intimate and realistic look at trench warfare in World War I since "Paths of Glory."
But even when the characters aren't caught in the middle of bloody battle, the film never has a dull moment. Cinematographer Freddie Young captures the Russian landscape in a way that is sometimes haunting and at other times romantic. The images of sparkling snow and icicles are almost as stunning as the yellow flowers blooming in spring. The mansion where Yuri and Lara later live, covered in snow and boarded up by Communists, becomes something of a representation of the characters' isolation and separation caused by war. The mansion therefore becomes the filmmaker's statement on war. This opinion uttered without speaking a single word is a testament to the power of the idea that more is less.
The film's cast contains both Lean regulars as well as newcomers. Shariff, who had a supporting role in "Lawrence of Arabia," proves he is leading man material in the title role. Often, his fine performance is not realized through words, but rather through expressions; his bloodshot eyes express pain and sadness throughout. Christie, as Shariff's mistress, steals scenes with her beauty, but also with her pain of having a lover who is more committed to revolution than to her.
Some people say music makes a movie, and the most epic part of "Doctor Zhivago" is its musical score. It is not the greatest score, but it is without a doubt the most beautiful, and one that flawlessly transitions from one scene to another. In one particular scene, two songs overlap. In one corner of Moscow, the resistance of the workers is met with a dreary tune while a fancy restaurant in the other corner is draped in a more uplifting tune. The score of course is conducted by Maurice Jarre. With this film, he proves himself a conductor of film scores that the likes of even John Williams could never live up to. Just try and get "Lara's Theme" out of your head.
As much as "Doctor Zhivago" is a haunting tale of how war tears apart basic human ties, it is in the end an optimistic look to the future. Some harsh critics have argued that the film's final shot is "pro-Communist." This would be like calling "Munich" pro-terrorist. By the end of the film's 3 hour and 20 minute run, David Lean isn't trying to sway his audience in one political direction or another. What he's giving us instead is a beautiful epic about the survival of love and humanity in any circumstance. If more directors made their blockbusters like "Doctor Zhivago," the world of movies would be a much better place.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Bruno Failed

Okay, maybe it wasn't a total failure. But without the slightest doubt, "Bruno" opened with sky high expectations and in just one week, it has already fallen off the radar. What happened to the movie analysts once predicted would be the biggest comedy of the summer?
Last weekend, "Bruno" opened up with a wave of buzz, only to have that buzz crash. The movie opened up with $30 million. That's a high opening for an R-rated comedy, and it's about $4 million more than "Borat" earned on its opening weekend. However, "Bruno" opened up on three times as many screens as "Borat" did. On its second weekend, "Bruno" lost a devastating 73% of its opening weekend take, bringing in a mere $8 million. The film's 10 day gross now stands at $49.5 million. While the film has already surpassed its $40 million budget, its unlikely to reach the $128 million final tally that "Borat" made. "Bruno" will be lucky if it is even able to reach $100 million.
Now that we've gotten all the numbers out of the way, lets talk philosophically. What was it that made "Bruno" fail. Or maybe not fail, but certainly score way lower than expectations. The reviews for the film have been mixed, and its rating on Rotten Tomatoes currently stands at a decent 69% (compared to "Borat"'s 91%). While "Borat" was a love it kind of film, "Bruno" seems to have mustered up a love-it-or-hate-it reaction.
But lets end the "Borat" connections. After all, one of the reasons that most people have felt disappointed in "Bruno" is that they believe it isn't up to par with Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat." But then again, what is up to par with "Borat." Few comedies made today can ever top the shocking, over-the-top genius that is "Borat." Also, "Borat" was something of a surprise with expectations much lower than those of "Bruno." Had "Bruno" come out before "Borat," it would have experienced the same level of success that "Borat" experienced. I hope all viewers of "Bruno" can forget about "Borat" and realize they are watching a totally different movie, with a totally different characters, and totally different laughs.
"Bruno" certainly hasn't carried the talk-ability that "Borat" had back in 2006. Its numerous lawsuits have gone almost completely unnoticed, despite being almost as entertaining as the lawsuits "Borat" faced. One lawsuit comes from the terrorist Bruno interviews, who claims to have reformed. We'll see about that.
But maybe the real reason people aren't seeing "Bruno": they don't think it's good. Maybe it's just too gross; replacing shock for laughs and political commentary. I beg to differ. Yes, "Bruno" was shocking beyond belief at times, but often the humor lies in the overall ridiculousness of the character. And while "Bruno" might not expose as much ignorance as "Borat," it still exposes a lot. Sometimes, that ignorance is more subtle. For example, as Bruno tries to learn how to defend himself from a gay man, he learns it is best to attack and even break a few of his bones if possible. If that's not ignorance, than I don't know what is.
"Bruno" is also timely and very political. In fact, 2009 is the perfect year for a film like "Bruno" which blows the lid off on a decades long culture war. The debate about "Bruno" should not be whether or not the film is homophobic, it should be what this film is saying about the debate over essential human rights in America. Anything that may seem homophobic in the film is in fact ironic. But then again, the definition of irony seems to have disappeared from the mind of the modern movie goer. 
However, "Bruno"'s failure might be short lived. Is it possible the film could return in the years to come as a DVD success and something of a midnight-movie cult classic? Upon there release, such cult classics as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Blade Runner," "Donnie Darko," and "The Big Lebowski" might've been considered too weird, too shocking, or too good upon their initial release. Perhaps the world just wasn't quite ready for "Bruno" yet. Ten years down the road, well, that might be a different story.

In Honor of Walter Cronkite: Some of the Finest 5 Minutes and 43 Seconds in Journalism

"...And that's the way it is."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Emmy Nominations: In with the Old, In with the New

Today marked the announcement of the nominations for the 2009 Emmy Awards. The result: some good, some bad, and some inexplicable.
Lets start with the best show on TV. "30 Rock" was once again nominated for Best Comedy. If it wins again, it will mark three years in a row for the NBC sitcom. As usual, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin received lead acting nominations for the show, but this year there was a twist. After what I assume was multiple years of angry letters, "30 Rock" supporting actors Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer finally got the Best Supporting Actor/Actress nods they deserved. 
The good fortune didn't end for Tina Fey there. She also scored a nod for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy series for her performance as Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live," an award I'm guessing she will most likely win. "Saturday Night Live" was also rewarded a few more times for having a great season. Kristin Wiig and Amy Poehler both well-deserved received nominations for Best Supporting Actress. 
And of course, in the Best Drama category, there was "Mad Men." The best drama on TV snagged a Best Drama nomination as well as nominations for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. Unfortunately, the voters forget to acknowledge January Jones, who had a fine performance this season as Don's betrayed wife. "Lost" also received a Best Drama nomination for its weird, daring, and fantastic fifth season. Of course, "Lost"'s Michael Emerson received a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but a few great actors from the show were missing. Where was Terry O'Quinn? And Josh Holloway? Holloway deserved a nomination for his Sawyer, who was this season's most transformed character.
As for the snubs and mistakes, there were many. The biggest offender was the Best Comedy Series category. I think it's about time that the Emmy Voters end their obsession with "Entourage." My obsession with the show ended three years ago, theirs has gone on three years too long. Nothing about the show feels award-worthy nowadays. When "Entourage" gets an Emmy nomination, it feels more out of clout than actual worthiness. 
If the Emmy voters actually voted for worthiness, they'd have chosen "Pushing Daisies" instead. This was the show's final season ever. Wouldn't it have been nice if they could be acknowledged for great work at least once? Few shows have ever been as inventive as "Pushing Daisies" was. At least the charming Kristin Chenoweth snagged a nomination, but what about the pie maker himself, Lee Pace?
This year, the Emmys also decided to break a little ground and allow an animated series a Best Comedy nomination. So, what did they choose to be the first animated show nominated since "The Flinstones?" "Family Guy." Like "Entourage," "Family Guy" lost all its charm years ago and has been reduced to a series of meandering pop culture references. What about "South Park?" A great animated series that's been running for over a decade didn't get a single nomination. "Family Guy" should surrender its nomination to the far superior "South Park."
But what snub was most bothersome? The snub of "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia." The show has been running for five years and every year, it is totally ignored. Why? Why is it that great, funny work like this goes under the radar every year? The comedy about a group of losers should this year have become a group of winners. And if not for Best Comedy, why not award the shows fantastic ensemble. They do improvisation like no other show on TV today.
Even if your favorite show didn't get nominated, there's still one reason to watch the Emmys this year: host Neil Patrick Harris.
Find the Full List of Nominees Here
Note: I just realized now that I forgot to include the glaring omission of Eastbound & Down's Danny McBride from the Best Actor category. Why he was snubbed is beyond me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Movie Review: Carrie

With all your power, what would you do?
-The Flaming Lips
"Carrie" is no ordinary horror film. "Carrie" doesn't frighten the audience by making people jump out of the dark. It doesn't frighten the audience by taking lives every five seconds. It frightens the audience simply by building up and up to one of the most thrilling and tragic finales ever shot on film.
"Carrie," at its heart, is a high school movie. And it's not a happy, funny, or uplifting one at that. However, I could see someone somehow viewing it that way.
The Carrie used in the title is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), who is currently a senior in high school. Imagine the worst thing that's ever happened to you in high school. Now times that experience by ten. Now imagine yourself going through that every day of your life. Now imagine Carrie's life. 
Carrie is quite possibly the least popular girl in school. Her face covered by long locks of hair, she manages to be bullied by nearly every student in school. To top it all off, she must go home everyday to her mother (Piper Laurie) who is nothing short of a Christ fanatic. If she was any crazier, she'd be a Black Death era flagellant.  
Then one day, as the torment gets worse, Carrie's body begins to change. She soon finds that she is telekinetic; she has the power to move objects with her mind. It seems only like a thought at first, but after a while, Carrie is ready to use her newly found ability as a weapon of vengeance. 
Besides the stuff with the superpowers, "Carrie" doesn't at all seem like it was made to be a horror film. With a different director and a few different twists, the film could've just been a dark drama. But director Brian De Palma took "Carrie" and directed it as a Hitchcockian thriller. Many try to emulate the great Alfred Hitchcock, but few succeed. De Palma is one of the few that actually does. Many shots out of "Carrie" seem directly out of Hitchcock films. The score blares the sounds heard as Janet Leigh was stabbed in the shower in "Psycho." Bright colors flash on the screen that often make the film seem like an hallucination, a la Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo."
One technique De Palma often uses that might be a Hitchcockian technique, or if not, just a fine one are the constant zoom-ins to character's distraught faces. It is an almost perfect technique for this film. Carrie is a very isolated character. By zooming in from far, it is almost as if we're feeling her isolation, that distance from everyone who loathes her so much. Then by zooming in, we see who she really is, and realize there is more to this silent soul than meets the eye. Something very frightening.
As previously mentioned, "Carrie" is a horror film that doesn't act like a horror film. It is actually the best kind of horror film; it is one that uses camera angles and songs, rather than blood and gore, to produce thrills. And what we get are not light thrills that leave you in a second, they are thrills that run through throughout the entire film. Even the first time viewer can guess what will happen in the finale, but you still feel so frightened because you know it will happen but you don't want to see it unfold. But then again, you kind of do.
Carrie is played to near perfection by Sissy Spacek, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her role. She plays Carrie to a silent, awkward perfection. It is that silence that truly makes up the character. Even while committing her gruesome revenge, Carrie's lips remain sealed. She seems neither happy nor upset at what she's doing. 
Rapped in all of the horror, maybe "Carrie" is just a giant punch line. And what is the punch line? Simply that there is nothing more horrifying than high school. The saddest part of the story is Carrie's horrible mistreatment, and the famous finale is not just scary; it's also nothing short of a tragedy. What drives people to behave this way? What makes them mistreat those who perhaps just want a friend?
"Carrie" is one of the best horror films ever made, especially in the ever popular teen horror film. It is the model for a great horror film that is sadly rarely followed today. It's a model because it isn't exploitative, it's not gruesome to a point where it isn't even scary, and most importantly, it takes it time. It saves the best thrills for last and it doesn't disappoint. If I learned one lesson from "Carrie," it's that horror, like comedy, takes time.
Recommended For Fans Of: Rosemary's Baby, American Beauty, Silence of the Lambs, Scarface, Carlito's Way, The Untouchables, Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, Kill Bill, Deliverance 

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Movie Review: Bruno

Is it an overstatement to say Sacha Baron Cohen is the bravest man in the world? I don't think so, so I'll say it now: Sacha Baron Cohen is the bravest man in the world. Think of the thing that would probably get you killed in the scariest of situations, and then watch Sacha Baron Cohen do it in "Bruno."
Of the three characters from Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" (Ali G, Borat, Bruno) Bruno was the least intriguing and the last one you'd expect to headline a coherent and hilarious feature length film. Following 2006's groundbreaking "Borat," "Bruno" is another part of Baron Cohen's revolution in line-crossing humor.
"Bruno" begins in Bruno's homeland of Austria. Bruno is Austria's most famous gay fashion reporter. Everything seems to be working out for him, he's got his own TV show and the perfect boyfriend. But after a fashion show fiasco involving a velcro suit, Bruno finds his whole career going down hill. He loses his show, his boyfriend, and his good reputation. So like any foreigner searching for the fortune he'll never find, he heads to the USA. His goal: to become "the most famous Austrian since Hitler."
Bruno's journey begins in Los Angeles, where he hopes to learn how to be famous from the famous themselves. He then travels the country doing anything possible to launch his way to stardom. Unlike "Borat," Baron Cohen doesn't stay in America. At one point, he heads to the Middle East where he manages to unite the Jews and the Muslims by making them all want to kill him.
"Bruno" got a lot of attention before its release, not just for Baron Cohen's ridiculous hijinks, but also because of the questions it raises. Does putting a flamboyantly gay stereotype in the most homophobic parts of the country bring an end to a cultural war or just reignite it? In a way, it does both. As Bruno, Baron Cohen tests people's tolerance levels, and the boundaries of their ignorance. His style is to make people feel as uncomfortable as possible, and once that level of awkwardness reaches a high, the people he interviews eventually show their true selves. And usually, their true personas are not pretty.
At times, Baron Cohen barely has to push people's buttons. Sometimes, all he has to do is say one small statement, and the interviewee goes off on a tirade. For example, when interviewing a few priests who run clinics to convert gays to heterosexuality, all he has to do is say his disdain for women and suddenly they spurt out a string of unintentionally hilarious sexist statements. In this scene, could he even be questioning the sexuality of these homophobic men as well?
Most times though, he has to push hard to really anger people. A scene involving male nudity with a bunch of Alabama hunters ends up becoming somewhat scary in the end.
Still, even though he is trying to reveal homophobia through this stereotype rather than promote it, one could see why "Bruno" might unintentionally cause homophobia. For example, during his foray in the army, his in-your-face gay antics are probably meant to challenge the army's Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy. In the end, while hilarious, he may just be furthering the myth of those negative gay stereotypes that caused the policy to be made in the first place.
The great thing about "Bruno" is that it's not merely an assault on homophobia, but an assault on American culture as a whole. Baron Cohen's main target is the view of fame in America. He goes through many humiliating trials just to become famous. Some of these include adopting an African baby he names O.J., and trying to find an important cause to support just to further his image. The best scene in the film comes as he goes to an agency to find a cause to support (some causes included global warming and Save Darfur), and finds that the people who support these causes know about as little about them as he does. It is this moment of satirical clarity where Baron Cohen's point in making the film becomes truly known. This amount of satirical clarity isn't reached at every point in the film, but when it does, we are exposed to nothing but pure and utter brilliance.
Of course, "Bruno" wouldn't exist without the brilliant minds behind it. One of those is director Larry Charles. Charles started his career on shows like "Seinfeld" and "Curb your Enthusiasm." He would later direct "Borat" and last year's "Religulous." In "Bruno," he furthers his guerilla documentary filmmaking style where he is also able to connect all of the events and create a real story. What is most brilliant about his style is that the film really is a mockumentary with a real documentary.
But the true visionary behind the film is Sacha Baron Cohen. His Cambridge-trained acting skills have gotten him far, and he absolutely refuses to break character, even in the most dire of situations.  Yes, he did just walk naked into that redneck's tent and yes, he did just walk through an anti-gay rally. But he's doing it all in the name of art. Creating comedy out of real life situations is the new form of comedy, and he will always be the master of it. Perhaps this year the Academy will crown him this year with the acting nomination he never got for "Borat." He could deserve it not just for staying straight faced the whole time, but also for challenging some real emotional depth at times.
I don't think I could end this review without mentioning the true audacity that went into every frame of this movie. Some scenes are so shocking, you might wonder how they even made it into the theaters. A scene involving a failed TV pilot tests the squeamishness of both the focus group watching it, and the viewers viewing it in theaters. Some things Bruno does should never have landed in a movie, but then again the best films are made simply by pushing boundaries. A safe movie can be nice, but a daring one can be masterful.
No movie could ever live up to the hype as massive as that of "Bruno." So unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to all the hype. However, "Bruno" is still a great movie that might not have disappointed so many people had it not had such high expectations to surpass. 
There are definitely a few essential flaws in the film. One being that many of the scenes felt blatantly staged. The staged scenes were hilarious, but the film truly reaches its culmination when its capturing reality. Also, Bruno just isn't as funny a character as Borat is, although at times his behavior is just as shocking. Baron Cohen uses Bruno for the same reason he uses Borat: to reveal ignorance by using a character who is just as ignorant as the ignorant people he finds.
"Bruno"'s themes can be both timely and timeless. The quest for fame in America is something that will never die. However, the discussion it opens about homophobia in America could not be more timely, as gay rights were recently gained in some areas (Iowa) and suddenly taken away in others (California). Through its findings, "Bruno" exposes the utter ridiculousness of homophobia and hate as a whole. And in this, Baron Cohen draws the line between uncomfortableness and pure hate. Rep. Ron Paul felt as weird as anyone would when a stranger tries to make a sex tape with you, but that still isn't an excuse to run out and shout the word "queer" at the top of your lungs.
You really don't have to enter this level of discussion after seeing "Bruno." You can just see it as it truly is: a damn funny comedy that takes no shame in putting the joke on the audience and then getting a few giant gasps out of them as well. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cheer Up With a Little Bit of "Sunny"

Here's a promo for the fifth season of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," premiering September 17 on FX. It's a compilation of various Youtubers paying tribute to the famed Dayman song from the show's third season. If you get the reference, enjoy. If not, you've still got two months to catch up on four seasons of brilliance. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Movie Review: Public Enemies

John Dillinger was an interesting character. Among names like Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger was one of the great criminals and anti-heroes of the Great Depression. He robbed banks with style. Too bad this personality is lost in the new film about his robbing days, "Public Enemies."
At a young age, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is sent off to prison for a petty crime. In 1933, four years into the Great Depression, he successfully escapes in the first of many daring escapes throughout his life. Once escaping prison, he goes on a bank robbing spree throughout the Midwest. During this time, he becomes public enemy #1 to the FBI. Dillinger's biggest enemy? FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Unfortunately for Purvis, Dillinger is not so easy to find.
With the right direction, with the right script, "Public Enemies" could have been "Bonnie and Clyde" for the 2000s. But the film is misguided. Maybe it's because the director is Michael Mann. Mann is also known for directing "Collateral." While "Collateral" was entertaining at times, it lacked depth or any real purpose. "Public Enemies" suffers from this same problem.
However, Mann does have some talents. He knows style. But he doesn't know substance. The sets and costumes echo the era perfectly. But all of that seems to be viewed from a distance. There's not much exploring the sets and seeing how they effect the people's lives. That's why, for example, "Mad Men" works so well and why "Public Enemies" doesn't.
Where the film is strong in sets and costumes, it lacks in cinematography and score. The film often looks like it could have been shot on a shoestring budget, and the camera is too often right in the characters' faces. This usually becomes distracting and often makes the film hard to watch. Meanwhile, the score does not properly reflect the culture of the era and could have better used music directly from the 1930s. The film tries to use a few modern songs, but they eventually clash with the scenes they are put into.
Now, "Public Enemies" does have a few strong points. Mann is not bad at shooting action sequences, and the shootout in the woods is something of a stunning sequence. Also, Dillinger's death at the film's end (not a spoiler: this is a true story) borders on something of a tragedy, despite Dillinger being a major criminal. 
The audience may feel a bit saddened by Dillinger's death because of Depp's ability to capture the character so well.  Even with a weak script, he does his best to bring out all the quirks of the character. His most interesting trait: fearlessness. In one scene, he walks directly into a police department and doesn't seem afraid at all. It's a scene that has a very droll sense of humor. After viewing that scene, you may wonder why the rest of the movie couldn't have been done in the same way.
Bale, another fine young actor, could have given a much better performance had he been given something better to act upon. Same goes for Depp. Although his performance was good, it had potential to be one of his best had the script been better. 
Perhaps "Public Enemies" could have been a masterpiece if it had a different director. My top choice would've been Martin Scorsese. He emphasized the era in "Goodfellas" but didn't lose track of his gangster characters. He knows how to show consequence to crime, while Mann just consistently glorified Dillinger's crime spree without really showing much of it. Another good choice might have been Ridley Scott, whose "American Gangster" was one of the best films the genre has produced in years.
The biggest problem with "Public Enemies," despite its 143 minute running time, is that everything happens too quickly. Mann is so used to making fast-paced films that he barely stops to take a breath and admire the scenery. He seems to want to rush to the finale so quickly that he forgets that any good finale must have sufficient development before it can occur. He takes us to Chicago, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona without pausing to explain why we are going to these places, and maybe introduce us to the rest of Dillinger's crew. Perhaps a voiceover from Depp might have worked well here. Depp knows how to give a good narration (see: "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas").
The era that "Public Enemies" takes place in is one that somewhat echos what we are going through now: a time of economic hardship, desperation, and confusion. The great "Bonnie and Clyde" connects the couple's escape from home and eventual crime spree to the rebellious feelings of the late 1960s. Couldn't Mann have gone deeper and connected the Depression to our own lives?
The substance of "Public Enemies" does not lie in the style; the film is all style and no substance. Its few redeeming qualities can't help make it a better movie. 
While I am happy to see that Hollywood is trying to make more adult cinema and I hope they continue to do so, I just hope that next time they do it right.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Judging the Trailer: Jennifer's Body

Normally, I wouldn't be too interested in a movie like "Jennifer's Body." Frankly, "Twilight" has made me sick of all things that have to do with teen horror films. But "Jennifer's Body" has one thing that sets it apart from your average teen flick: Diablo Cody.
Yes, that Diablo Cody; the one who was once a stripper and is now an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for "Juno"). To this day, "Juno" splits many people apart. To this day, I still need to take time to convince my friends that it's a classic. Maybe what they don't like is the blatant way-too-hip dialogue. If that's true, then they certainly won't like "Jennifer's Body."
"Jennifer's Body" is far from a heart warming "Juno"esque comedy. Based on the trailer, it's a horror film with a dark comic twist. 
So, who has the honor of playing the title role of Jennifer? It's none other than Megan Fox. She's a cheerleader who becomes possessed and goes off on a man killing spree. 
Unfortunately, the movie does not reunite Cody with "Juno" director Jason Reitman. Fortunately, Reitman remains a part of the production, but this time in the producer rather than the director chair. But at least Reitman had the good sense of putting J.K. Simmons in this movie (he was in Reitman's "Thank you for Smoking" and "Juno").
Besides Fox and Simmons, the cast also boasts Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody, and "Strangers with Candy" comedian Amy Sedaris.
Despite looking like a gory horror film, "Jennifer's Body" also seems something like a high school satire, especially when you hear the line "No I mean, she's actually evil. Not high school evil." Hilarious.
With an Oscar- screenwriter behind it, "Jennifer's Body" looks like (and hopefully will be) a sophisticated horror film (like "Silence of the Lambs" or "Rosemary's Baby") rather than a piece of horror porn (like "Hostel"). My one question: can Megan Fox pull off a convincing high schooler? And can someone from "The O.C." (Brody) actually act?
Here's the trailer*:
*Note: The trailer requires you to enter your age to watch. You must be over 18. It comes with a simple (and probably intended) loophole: just enter any age you want. Man, I love the internet.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Movie Review: Wall Street

"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good."
Here it is, one of the most famous quotes a movie has ever produced. It's not famous for what it says, but rather for what it doesn't say, and what it really represents. This quote is not all you think it is, and neither is "Wall Street."
Before explaining the plot of "Wall Street," it is important to give a little history lesson. The film was released in December 1987, just three months after the "Black Monday" stock market crash. The film however, takes place in 1985. During this time, under then-president Ronald Reagan, there was massive economic de-regulation. This lead to more power to Wall Street, and some very shady business, which would ultimately lead way to disaster. Wait is this 1985, or 2008?
"Wall Street" begins with various shots of the beginning of a work day in New York City. There are shots of various New York landmarks shrouded in sunrise, until we zoom in closer to Wall Street, and then even closer to human life. And not just human life, but human life bustling in crowded elevators and subways. This is the rat race.
Going further, we meet the young, ambitious stockbroker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). Bud is an NYU business school graduate from a middle-class family headed by an honest union man (Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen's real life father). Bud wants more success, and quick. He turns to the advice of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a greedy millionaire who is a slightly less lethal version of Patrick Bateman.
While most investors were making hundreds of thousands, Gekko was making hundreds of millions. He did not amass this great fortune honestly however; it was amassed through an immense amount of insider trading. 
Though Bud wants to make a fortune, he'd rather make it honestly. However, he is quickly seduced by the power of money and becomes embroiled in Gekko's insider trading. Soon enough, Bud has transformed into a clone of Gordon Gekko.
"Wall Street," although highly praised at the time of its release, could not have been as appreciated as it is now, a time when fiction became reality and life imitated art. Why did life imitate art? It all stems from the legendary line Gekko utters at the stockholders meeting: " good." The irony of this quote was lost, and only its surface meaning was seen and an excuse for greed was found. This misinterpretation proves that maybe irony really is dead. Another example of this is Peter Finch's "I'm mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore!" mantra from "Network." Was this showing that the best form of journalism was entertainment with a mixture of pushing forward one's own agenda, or was it pure satire? Obviously, the satire was lost on most journalists (mainly, Glenn Beck).
"Wall Street" just might be Oliver Stone's best film. It shows that the man can truly direct when he is more down to earth and not chaotically switching between color and time like he did in "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers." It is in films like "Wall Street," "Platoon," and "W." where he finds a way to portray chaos through less chaotic means that his best work is born.
"Wall Street" contains a fine ensemble that consists of future stars ("Scrubs" star John C. McGinley) and old pros (Hal Holbrook). But every actor in the cast pales in comparison to Douglas in his superb performance as Gordon Gekko. Not only is Gekko one of the most interesting characters ever created, but he is also one of film's greatest villians; no doubt in the ranks of Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Harry Powell, and Daniel Plainview. However, he does not become villainous by murdering women, eating people, and bludgeoning false prophets with bowling pins. No, he is the new type of villain: the white collar criminal. He is so evil in his capacity to commit so much lying, stealing, and fraud for the sake of his own self-interests. He represents all that can be wrong with capitalism and the "reach for the sky" mentality.
"Wall Street" is extremely relevant today. Could Gordon Gekko have been a prediction of the future crimes of Bernie Madoff?
No matter how relevant the film is today, it won't stop being relevant once this recession ends. The film is not just a reflection on this day and age, but rather a reflection on American culture as a whole. It defines the American Dream as the need to be the wealthiest, and the most successful as humanly possible. Therefore, the film spits in the face of the American Dream and sees it as something attainable only through greed. Sometimes, in our race to success, we lose sight of the human heart.
I know by this point the quote "greed is good" has been analyzed past any point of analysis. But since irony is dead, I will now explain the quote in the bluntest way possible: greed, for lack of a better word, is bad. 
But then again, I guess greed can be good. That is, until the SEC (and reality), catch up with you.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Math

Sarah Palin+Resignation=1,000,000,000 late night jokes disappearing

Well, I guess Tina Fey wasn't planning on doing her impression anymore, anyway. And at least Letterman is safe now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Remembering Karl Malden

Off the heals of the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Billy Mays, Hollywood lost another one of its finest. Karl Malden, an Oscar and Emmy winning actor died today of natural causes. He was 97.
Malden's legacy reaches the movie screen, the TV screen, and the stage as well. He is perhaps best known for his performance as Lt. Mike Stone in the 70s TV series "The Streets of San Francisco." From film, he is best known for his performance in the timeless 1954 classic, "On the Waterfront." In that movie, he played Father Barry, one of the few decent men in a corrupt world, trying to bring a sense of morality to Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy.
Malden also starred in classics such as "Baby Doll," "How the West was Won," and "Patton." Even though Brando managed to steal the thunder from every other actor in "A Streetcar Named Desire," you can't forget that Malden won best supporting actor for his performance in the film. Once again, he gave a fantastic performance of a man trying to bring a little joy and goodness to a wretched life.
During a career that lasted for nearly 70 years, Malden proved himself a worthy addition to some of the greatest movies ever made.

Happy Canada Day

Today, I give a shout out to all of my Canadian readers (no matter how few they are) on Canada Day. Why must I mention Canada Day and what does it have to do with entertainment? Quite simply, Canada has given the world some of our greatest actors, comedians, and performers. Want proof? Here's some great people Canada has given us:
Dan Akroyd, Lorne Michaels, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Michael Cera, Jay Baruchel, Neil Young, Scarlett Johansson, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Donald & Kiefer Sutherland, Terry Gilliam, Will Arnett, Tommy Chong, Michael J. Fox, Eugene Levy, Norm MacDonald, Leslie Nielsen, Ellen Page, Christopher Plummer, Martin Short, Terrance & Phillip, and the list goes on

Those Canadians are quite talented, eh? That's what I'm talkin' aboot.