Friday, March 26, 2010

Movie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine

In his review of "Shutter Island," the New Yorker's Anthony Lane drew upon a quote from Umberto Eco: "Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us, because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion." Lane was using this to describe a totally different movie, but I think it fits even more perfectly into "Hot Tub Time Machine."
"Hot Tub Time Machine" is the 1980s comedy made for 2010, both stylistically and literally. It begins in the modern day. The film's anti-heros, three best friends who've hit some rocky times, are typical everyday schlubs. Adam (John Cusack) has to deal with both a recent breakup and his reclusive nephew (Clark Duke) who lives with him. Nick (Craig Robinson) is a burnt out musician, and Lou (Rob Corddry) is an alcoholic who has just hit rock bottom.
Well, the first half of the premise probably made this movie sound a little too serious. Just wait until you hear the next part. The four head up to a now decrepit ski resort to try and relive their glory days. After a night of too much to drink, the boys' hot tub sends them back to the 1980s. There, they relive all the greatest moments of their life, and those they tried to totally forget about.
"Hot Tub Time Machine" can be described as a different kind of nostalgia. It's a nostalgic tone that's both a little mocking, and a little reminiscent. Unlike some other previous homage films such as "Black Dynamite," "Hot Tub Time Machine" wouldn't totally fit in as a film in the 1980s. It does contain everything we love about an 80s classic, but with the wisdom of someone living in the year 2010.
However, this isn't to say that "Hot Tub Time Machine" doesn't evoke its era well. When it does go back in time, it does everything it can to put you into the year 1986 from the music people listened to, to the kind of shoes they wore. Then, it crams in about a million different 80s movie cliches. There's the upper class bully, the losing-your-virginity story, and of course, some anti-Communist paranoia. "Red Dawn" style.
It really does feel like all of these different cliches are having a reunion together. It could be that the writers, director, and actors were actually having a fun time with it all, or that this era of filmmaking had a little more depth than ever imagined. Maybe this was just an era where people were making films about the world they wished they lived in, rather than what it actually was.
Even for a film that's unapologetically dirty (consider this a warning), there is still something very smart behind its stupidity. The film's humor is a mix of gross out and tongue-in-cheek.
Perhaps the one moment in the film that could actually be described as brilliant comes after the characters have been transferred back to the 80s. Robinson remarks, "must be tub time machine." Then he just stares at the camera. Not only have the filmmakers broken the fourth wall, but they've also managed to make fun of how films try to incorporate their titles into their dialogue while at the same time creating one of the best title tie-ins I've seen in a movie.
"Hot Tub Time Machine" would definitely have been a failure had it not been for a cast and crew who actually knows their way around the subject. I would like to point out that co-writer Sean Anders, who also wrote the awful "Sex Drive," manages to succeed here by actually putting funny words on a page.
I think the cast really helped make the film even better. You can feel that they took control and made it their film as well. Corddry finally got the breakout role he deserved, and he's certainly gotten the a-hole personality down well. Robinson always incorporates his smooth talking, but sometimes very angry, personality and turns it into laughs.
Then, of course, there's Cusack. Here, Cusack seems to play a bit more of a demented version of Lloyd Dobler and any other romantic he played during the 80s. There's something about his personality that is so endearing. Maybe it's that he never seems happy yet he's never a killjoy. I think it might be a little closer to his performance than "Better Off Dead" than in "Say Anything..." What I really want to say here is that I hope Cusack takes more roles like "Hot Tub Time Machine" and less like "2012."
There is one thing I've thought about complaining about in "Hot Tub Time Machine." However, I can't bring myself to because it actually works here. That one thing is how much the premise resembles "The Hangover." It's also about the result of a night of debauchery and contains the same archetypal characters. But as long as this premise keeps working, I will keep seeing movies just like it. This premise might one day become the cliche to define the 2000s.
"Hot Tub Time Machine" broke the fourth wall in more ways than mentioned before. The sum of the film and its characters is not just homage to the films of the 80s, but rather both the characters and the filmmakers looking back at what that era meant. It fits the style of the 80s into the style of the present. Oh, and most importantly, it's just the kind of film that you see, laugh at, and then keep laughing at long after it ends.
80s Movies That Likely Inspired Hot Tub Time Machine: Back to the Future, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, One Crazy Summer, The Breakfast Club, Say Anything..., Red Dawn, Sixteen Candles, Better Off Dead, Weird Science, Encino Man (Not 80s, but close enough)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

During the preceding months, much of the buzz about Roman Polanski has been focused more on his twisted personal life, rather than his twisted new film, "The Ghost Writer."
"The Ghost Writer" combines contemporary political intrigue with the two things Polanski does best: mysterious thriller, and the utter darkness that humanity is capable of. It begins with a struggling British writer (Ewan McGregor). He's never given a name, he's simply referred to as "The Ghost." It's fitting, as his character seems more like a spirit than an actual human beings to the rest of the characters.
Anyway, McGregor's writer accepts a high paying job to be a ghost writer on the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang is forced to live in the United States after being convicted of war crimes for ordering the torture of several terror suspects. The Ghost is brought in after Lang's previous ghost writer is found dead on the beach. As The Ghost finds out more about Lang's strange life and personality, he unravels a shocking and dangerous mystery.
"The Ghost Writer" comes out at the heals of another fascinating psychological thriller from a legendary director: "Shutter Island." "The Ghost Writer," however, is one that exists much more in reality. Yet, they both deal with characters we would've seen in films by these directors during their finest hours. The Ghost is the typical Polanski lead: he is the good guy who tries to do good in a world filled with wrong. However, his good intentions always go awry.
Polanski is the rare director who fully incorporates both his life experience and world views into his work. Over 40 years on, and he is still capable of producing some of the darkest visions that will ever hit your local cinema.
"The Ghost Writer" is raised up by a trifecta of brilliant male leads. McGregor not only plays The Ghost, but he transforms himself into a true ghost of a man. He never seems content with his situation as he quite simply floats through life. He always contains the restless, red-eyed look of a disheveled insomniac.
Meanwhile, two of the films character whom can be classified as villains fit into the Polanski category of the "genial villain": that bad guy who hides their evil under a mask of false kindness. In just a few scenes, Brosnan stole the show and totally erased his Bond image. You may be tricked by his humor and good personality, but he never lets you forget why he's on trial in the first place.
The other scene stealer is the always dependable Tom Wilkinson. He also has a talent for obscuring what may be bad intentions. The scenes in which The Ghost converses with Lang and Paul Emmett (Wilkinson) gave me a strong vibe of Polanski's masterpiece "Chinatown," specifically the scene where Jake questions Noah Cross. In that scene, we all know Cross is a guilty, despicable human being; but Polanski chooses not to show him behave that way. In this way, both Wilkinson and Brosnon channel John Huston fully. It also brings out Polanski's theme that most times, evil prevails because evil can disguise itself.
Despite the great performances, this is entirely Polanski's film. He turns what could've been a trashy thriller into intriguing film noir. The mystery is great because we never give up on it, we want to know what the answer is up to the film's very final frame.
Polanski's voice is ever present. He uses both sight and sound perfectly to emphasize mood. Dark shadows mixed with a creepy score heighten the mystery, while the film's often oddly cheery musical beats will mislead you into thinking things might just be going right for once. Don't believe that. The film also takes full advantage of the camera, as it heightens tension with the use of longshots. The longshot is key turning an edge-of-your-seat chase scene as well as one pivotal scene at the film's end.
"The Ghost Writer" is one of those films that doesn't leave you after you've finished it. You'll talk about the twist, and you'll likely talk about the modern political worldview the film opens up. You'll see that things just might work in ways you never even imagined.
After this film was released, many have been harsh toward it because of Polanski's personal struggles with the law. While his actions in real life may be deplorable, they must remain separate from the artist. Art should not be judged on morality. However, it does seem to be that personal conflict is often what inspires people most in their art. Polanski's dark films are likely inspired from the unimaginably dark events that have shaped his life. Perhaps without this struggle, without this intrigue, without Polanski, "The Ghost Writer" would not have been the great film that it truly is.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Movie Review: Badlands

"Badlands" just proved the impossible to me: an epic story can be told in under two hours. In fact, all you really need is 90 minutes. It may just be that Terrence Malick is one of the best, and definitely the briefest, epic storyteller.

"Badlands" is a story that's been done time and time again. Yet, Malick takes it and tells it in the most gripping, original way possible. "Badlands" begins in a quaint South Dakota suburb. It's told from the point of view of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a bored fifteen-year-old with an overbearing and abusive father. She forms a relationship with Kit (Martin Sheen), a rebellious garbageman with the look and attitude of James Dean. Kit "saves" Holly from her sheltered life and they live a slightly nomadic life on the road. They leave a bloody trail up to the Badlands of South Dakota.
"Badlands" came out just six years after the revolutionary "Bonnie & Clyde." I bring this up simply because the story of Kit and Holly nearly matches the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Though in a way, "Badlands" might just be a better movie because their escape feels so much more painstakingly built up to. Not to mention, their crimes are even more inexplicable and therefore even more horrifying.

The greatness of "Badlands" can be attributed to the culmination of so many different things. It is not merely an achievement in one field. First off, there's the fine performance by the then unknown, but now legendary stars. Sheen so perfectly emulates James Dean, the one man his character constantly seems to try to emulate. Spacek meanwhile, is so convincing in her innocence that even after all Holly has been through, we realize she is nothing more than a confused and misguided teenager.

Despite the fact that nearly everything in the movie achieves for the satisfying whole, "Badlands" is overall a triumph in cinematography and directing. The images at times feel less like film and more like still photos. They are jaw dropping in their scope. It's amazing how the film is able to turn nature into a living, changing character. We get to see the sky turn from day to dusk to light.
Of course, not of that would be possible without Malick. Malick is a known recluse who only directs a film every 20 years or so. That's a shame. He has created possibly one of the most beautifully shot films I've ever seen. It's not just what's in the images, but how much detail is put in every shot that astonishes me so much. Sometimes, it seems like nature is more important to Malick than the actual story. Look closely at how Malick makes the tall, brown grass looks golden. And watch how the gold contrasts to the lush green right behind it.

Look at other times how the characters are framed against the ever expanding desert, or the gorgeous sun at dusk. These are our characters: as wild and curious as the world that surrounds them. Nature is our characters. Our characters are nature. It's not just the fact that the images are beautifully shot, but that they feel so real. Everything about "Badlands" just feels absolutely organic.

What I feel is so impressive about Malick's direction is not just the images he shows, but how he strings all of that together into a story. Some films linger on their beautiful images and forget to tell their stories. Malick doesn't forget his. He manages to both tell a compelling story and take extended breaks to admire the scenery without running on forever. It's epic filmmaking without an annoyingly long epic running time. I'd also like to add that the film's climax includes one of the best chase scenes never talked about in cinema. It's eerily personal, and so effective in how it manages to create sympathy for a character who really doesn't deserve it.

"Badlands" has an influence that extends well into today's world of film. I can see its visual influence in filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Sam Mendes, and Gus Van Sant. It has imagery that will forever haunt and stun me. The story of Kit and Holly being blinded by false ideas of freedom and rebellion is like the ultimate American ballad. And Mallick is not just its auteur, but its poet.
If You Liked This Movie, You'll Also Like: Bonnie & Clyde, My Own Private Idaho, Natural Born Killers, Mean Streets, Barry Lyndon, American Beauty, Away We Go, No Country for Old Men

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Oscars: The Show Goes On

Despite a feud between ABC and Cablevision that left millions unable to watch the big show, the Academy Awards still went on as planned.

As expected, "The Hurt Locker" took home the big prize at the Academy Awards, along with five other Oscars. Also, as expected, "Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow broke one of the last glass ceilings and became the first woman ever to take home the Best Director prize.

Perhaps the only real surprises of the night came in the Screenplay categories. The Best Adapted Screenplay category seemed like a done deal: "Up in the Air" had it basically since it came out in December. It's balance of comedy and drama, along with its ability to be both original and faithful, made it seem like a shoo-in. Instead, the heart-wrenching screenplay for "Precious" took home the prize. It seemed as if "Precious" had lost much of its momentum after its November release. Guess I was wrong on that one.

Meanwhile, in Best Original Screenplay, "The Hurt Locker" and "Inglourious Basterds" were virtually tied. It seemed that "Basterds" was a frontrunner, as "Hurt Locker" was much more of an achievement in directing and editing than it was in writing.

However, this night was a "Hurt Locker" sweep, so Tarantino unfortunately walked home empty handed. However, the film didn't get totally shut out: Waltz got his well-deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy. He also gave what was probably the best speech of the night. Seriously, this man has a knack for taking ordinary words and making them sound like poetry. As Waltz's Landa might say, "that's a bingo!" Lets hope he rides this to a fortuitous future career.

Another win, although expected, was still no less exciting. Jeff Bridges won the first Oscar of his long career for his performance as a burnt out country singer in "Crazy Heart." He movingly thanked his parents, saying the award was as much for them as it was for him. There's nothing much more to say about the greatness of Bridges besides this: "The Dude Abides."

No surprises in the female acting categories, either. Mo'Nique took home an Oscar for something that will not be lost in time and Sandra Bullock won for "The Blind Side." I have not seen "The Blind Side" yet, so therefore I can't judge Bullock's worthiness. However, from what I've seen of her, I do know that she is a good actress, and never a great one. Perhaps she can prove me wrong.

Now, onto the show itself. It was a night of ups and downs, or as the Dude would say, "strikes and gutters." The biggest up were the two hosts: Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Both men are funny and charismatic, but two hosts seemed like two much. However, it was perfect in every way. The two actors read off their scripted banter in the most perfect harmony. And they threw out a few good improvised lines, as well.

The pair of Baldwin and Martin were a welcome improvement over last year, when the Academy attempted the "song-and-dance man" approach with Hugh Jackman, with little success. While Baldwin and Martin would be great recurring hosts, Neil Patrick Harris proved himself an eligible contender contented his surprise performance at the beginning of the telecast. The combination of Baldwin and Martin (along with other performers like Harris) made a mostly predictable show easier to watch.

Before the winners were even announced, the Best Picture race was defined as a race between “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar,” a true David and Goliath story.

This isn’t the first David and Goliath Oscar race, but this was one of the very first where David came out the victor. In the past, it seemed an A-list cast and a successful box office gross were key to getting the crown. It makes you think now that maybe “Goodfellas” could’ve beaten “Dances with Wolves,” “Pulp Fiction” could’ve beaten “Forrest Gump,” or even “L.A. Confidential” could’ve beaten “Titanic.”

Will “The Hurt Locker” be remembered down the road as a cinematic classic, or one of Oscar’s biggest mistakes? Maybe in the future it’ll be known as the best film made about the Iraq War, with “Inglourious Basterds” and “A Serious Man” being masterpieces ahead of their time, “Avatar” a fun blockbuster that changed visual cinema, “District 9” a sci-fi film on the same level with “Blade Runner,” and “Up in the Air” as an example for aspiring filmmakers of how to write a good script.

What I’m trying to say is that no matter your number one preference, and no matter what won, this was a rare year where almost every film and filmmaker earned their nominations. Here's to hoping 2010 is going to be another good year for cinema.

See the Full List of Winners Here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

This is not the Alice you were expecting. Or so we are reminded throughout. This is a new Alice, in a new Wonderland, for better, or for worse.
Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" gives you exactly what you'd expect in a Tim Burton film: weirdness, darkness, and madness. Although it misses out on some of the depth of his earlier work, "Alice" shows that this man still understands the concept of the fairytale.
Rather than making this "Alice" exactly like the original, Burton decided to give it a little twist. Thirteen years after first discovering Wonderland, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is curious teen, totally loathing her dull Victorian lifestyle. As she is proposed to, she follows that same white rabbit with the stop watch and falls down that same rabbit hole. She's back where she's been before but this time, she can't remember a thing.
While in Wonderland, she meets the very mad Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who convinces her to team up with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and defeat the evil, reigning Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) by slaying the Jabberwocky.
To this minute, I still feel split in my thoughts on this film. On the one hand, it was thoroughly entertaining. On the other hand, it's filled with flaws.
My biggest problem with "Alice" was that it felt as if Burton was rushing through the story. Even though Alice has existed for almost 150 years, this is obviously a different Alice than we've seen before. It's apparent that she's a bored free spirit living in the wrong universe. However, barely any background is given as to how she became this way. I thought one of the stronger aspects of "Where the Wild Things Are" (a film I use as a basis of comparison because they are actually very similar) was that it built up all of Max's anger and alienation into this alternate world. He earned his rite of passage into the Land of the Wild Things. Alice should've waited a bit longer.
"Alice in Wonderland" is perhaps the most ambitious experiment in converting a film into 3D. However, this story should've been kept in the second dimension. None of the visuals seem to pop out at you in an "Avatar" way. Seriously, that 3D cat food commercial that ran before the movie started used the technology better. A film that isn't shot in 3D isn't shot in 3D for a reason. Burton was probably trying to keep his vision two dimensional on purpose.
Despite the failed 3D, the set design and cinematography are nothing short of stunning. Burton creates a world that's been seen so many times before in a surprisingly unique way. He tries to turn Wonderland into his own land. Meanwhile, the lush yet dark photography perfectly matches the film's tone.
Rather than going with a known lead to play Alice, Burton went for newcomer Wasikowska. She's a welcome breath of fresh air, and certainly a promising future star. She takes a 19th century character and fills her with relatable, 21st century teenage angst. It's too bad she wasn't given a better script, though. Same goes for Depp. Based on interviews, it's obvious how much amazing work Depp did to portray the Mad Hatter. However, he's given such little time to do his thing. I think with a little less constraint, Depp could've done the same thing with the Mad Hatter that he did with Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Hunter Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
I think what this is all leading up to is an unfortunate amount of superficiality. That's disappointing for a director who's brought humanity to both a man with scissors for hands ("Edward Scissorhands") and the guy who directed "Plan 9 from Outer Space" ("Ed Wood"). Burton has always put much effort into the world he creates, but he never abandons the humans that inhabit it. And even here, Burton doesn't seem to relish the wonders that Wonderland provide. You stare, but don't gaze, at it.
I hope I'm not sounding too negative because overall, "Alice in Wonderland" is a good film, but just not the great one that it could've been. "Alice in Wonderland" might give us a new story, and a new Alice, but something about it just doesn't seem inspired enough.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Oscars: Who Will Win

While an easy year to predict the Oscars might be good for your betting pool, it's never much fun. That's why I've gotten quite a kick out of this Oscar season. My picks just kept changing and changing.
At first, I saw "Precious" as the frontrunner. It opened with an amazing amount of festival buzz and strong opening numbers. Suddenly, it's box office glow began to fade and an unfortunate backlash followed. Then, "Up in the Air" became the critical smash of December and seemed to be the perfect Best Picture material. Then "Avatar" came along and broke every box office record imaginable and picked up a few Golden Globes on the way. At that point, "Avatar" was unstoppable.
But then, an underdog with very little Oscar qualities suddenly jumped ahead. "The Hurt Locker," indeed a fantastic and worthy film, seemed like it would just have to be happy with a nomination. It grossed a mere $12 million (it's the second lowest grossing Best Picture nominee this year, after "A Serious Man"), and first released in theaters last July. However, praise was beginning to overshadow clout. As "The Hurt Locker" swept the Guilds and every critics' award imaginable, it was clear what this year's frontrunner was.
Here now, are the films, filmmakers, actors, writers, and crew members you can bet on to take home the gold this Sunday night. I will present my predictions commentary free because I believe I've analyzed most of the following to death at this point:
Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Best Animated Film: Up
Best Documentary: The Cove
Best Foreign Film: A Prophet
Best Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Cinematography: The Hurt Locker
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Score: Up
Best Song: The Weary Kind
Best Sound Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: Avatar
Best Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Live Action Short: The New Tenants
Best Documentary Short: Music By Prudence
Best Animated Short: A Matter of Loaf and Death

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Oscars: Who Should Win

You'll find out later in the week who I think will actually win the Awards. But for now, I'd like to share the directors, writers, and actors who would win if only I could hand out the trophies. A few you won't surprised by, and a few you just might be.
Best Picture: Inglourious Basterds
It was the best movie of 2009 when it came out in August, and it's still the best movie today. While this is a strong year for Best Picture nominees (for the most part), "Basterds" is more movie than any of these movies. It was almost even a magnum opus. It probably won't pick up the Best Picture statue, but history certainly will be kind to these "Basterds."
Best Director: Quentin Tarantino or Kathryn Bigelow
How could this be? Am I really rooting against Tarantino? While I'd love seeing him earn the first Best Director Oscar of his career, Bigelow did something special with "The Hurt Locker." I don't root for her solely because her win would make history, but because she directed the action so elegantly, and so ingeniously found suspense not in the moment the bomb blows up, but rather the moment before it could potentially blow our hero away.
Best Actor: Colin Firth (A Single Man)
Jeff Bridges gave a fine performance in "Crazy Heart." I root for him in a way because, well, he's the Dude, man. But the more I think about it, the more I find it impossible to neglect my admiration for Firth. Throughout the flawed "A Single Man," he was so perfectly understated. His reaction to his lover's death is one that has been engrained into my memory. Simply, he showed he showed he had amazing talent I didn't even know existed.
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan (An Education)
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what about Mulligan's performance was so Oscar worthy. Maybe it was just that simply through her emotions and expressions, she turned Jenny from a cardboard figure into a three dimensional human being. Her looks have often been compared to that of Audrey Hepburn. Her acting should be, as well.
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
Am I a horrible Jew for saying I was charmed by a Nazi? Probably. I don't care, because Waltz created possibly the most interesting and complex Nazi ever put on screen. At times, his performance is as terrifying and manipulative as it is breezy and funny. He created a character who single-handedly defines what it means to be "Tarantinoesque." May you have a long and prosperous future of fine work ahead of you, Mr. Waltz.
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique (Precious)
I still remember the day I walked out of "Precious" (then "Push") at Sundance. Even though the whole film had made an impression on me, Mo'Nique's performance stole the entire show. She gives the horrible Mary very few redeeming qualities, but she never neglects to make her feel human, whether that means good or bad. But then, there's that final, heart-wrenching monologue, in which she inspires a sort of pathetic sympathy. In January 2009 I said, this performance deserves an Oscar. In March 2010, it will win one.
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
There's not much more that can be said about "Basterds" that I haven't said already, but I'll give it a try. Tarantino's writing deserves to win because it's written so eloquently, and so flawlessly. Despite the fact that the time period limits Tarantino from much of his pop culture references, this script still shows his amazing ability to make long stretches of dialogue both utterly intense and extremely fascinating. We don't get any conversations about "Like a Virgin" or cheeseburgers, but we do get an explanation for the war put in the terms of rodents. Also, we get some conversations about cinema that only a true cinephile would be able to give us.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
I debated giving this one to "In the Loop," for its overly creative cursing. But the script of "Up in the Air" works both in completed film form, and on its own. In Jason Reitman's script, he stayed loosely faithful to the book he was adapting and added his own story in. He also kept that fine balance between relevant tragedy and light-hearted yet smart humor. Simply, this script flows like water and never seems to hit a false note. There would be no great movie without this great script.
Best Animated Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox
It might be blasphemous to pass over a Pixar film. However, they've had their moment in the sun for countless years. The true best animated film of the year was from the mind of both Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl. It ignored CGI animation and instead stuck with traditional models. Strangely, in that sense, it seemed all the more real. It's a witty labor of love that criminally did not receive all of the love it deserved.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Movie Review: Black Dynamite

Something very interesting happened while I was watching "Black Dynamite." For about an hour, I understood what it was getting at, and what it was trying to do. At that, it was doing well. What I couldn't help but wonder was: where's the big punchline?
Then, it came. And then I saw that "Black Dynamite" was not just an homage, nor was it a product, it was a twisted, brilliant little movie of its own.
"Black Dynamite," a film released last year, is a throwback to the ever influential Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s. As the name suggests, it was a genre that exploited black stereotypes (as well as violence) for the sake of entertainment. In the latest addition, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is a former CIA agent who knows Kung Fu.
After his brother, an undercover agent, is murdered in a drug deal gone wrong, Black Dynamite gets his license to kill back and seeks revenge. In the process, he cleans the streets of drugs and uncovers, a deep, and possibly very lethal, conspiracy.
"Black Dynamite" is more than just an homage to Blaxploitation cinema, it is Blaxploitation. This movie could've been released amongst films like "Shaft" and "Foxy Brown" and blended in just fine. It transports us back to a simpler time, when it was still acceptable to call a white person "honky."
Before I go further, I will admit that I'm only loosely familiar with Blaxploitation films. I know more about them through reputation than actual viewing. Having said that, "Black Dynamite" could capture more than a genre; it even captures an entire era. While watching it, I felt reminded of the underrated "Grindhouse." Both are films that could easily fit into their eras as they both mimic the little things of the films they emulate such as the lighting and even the sound effects.
On that note, "Black Dynamite" has a score that sounds like the great, smooth Funk of Isaac Hayes. That warm glow of the light makes for a light-hearted, utterly entertaining work of film. Meanwhile, the often grainy, documentary-like cinematography, was common in shoe string budget exploitation films.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, lets talk about that little turning point. "Black Dynamite" goes from purposefully silly exploitation to a sort of over-the-top ridiculousness that becomes almost sublime in a scene where Black Dynamite and his men figure a conspiracy out. In one way, it's mocking ridiculous explanations for twists in films (I'll never look at the white board scene in "Shutter Island" the same again). In another way, it hops from one point to another in such a form that only someone with a knowledge of film both great and bad could ever come up with. You'll be astounded not at the fact that you couldn't come up with it, but that anyone could ever think of something like this in the first place.
I would definitely credit much of the film's success to Scott Sanders' 70s style direction. But much credit should be given to the screenplay, which is co-written by star Jai White. It remains totally in the era and manages to make several running jokes (such as the repeated use of the phrase "jive turkey") fresh throughout. Despite the film's extremely short running time, it still manages to get most of what it sets out accomplished. There were a few strands, like a corrupt congressman character, that remained somewhat unsolved at the end. Then again, this is a tribute to imperfect cinema.
"Black Dynamite" is the kind of film I could see myself watching several times and not tiring of it. In its goal of not only evoking a past era, but becoming a part of it, it succeeds admirably. Oh, and I forgot to mention that odd yet almost audacious thing it does with a certain former President of the United States. Guess you'll just have to find that out for yourselves.