August 30, 2009

Gremlins - 1984

Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Chris Columbus
Starring: Zack Galligan, Howie Mandel (voice), Phoebe Cates, Corey Feldman

"They're watching Snow White. And they love it." In Joe Dante's Gremlins, a man goes to Chinatown in search of his son's Christmas present, and leaves with a strange animal called a mogwai. He is given three rules to follow:
  1. Keep it out of bright light, especially sunlight, which is fatal.
  2. Don't let it come into contact with water.
  3. Don't feed it after midnight.
But wouldn't you know it, rule two gets broken, so our hero goes from having a single nice, cute pet to six, five of which are equally adorable, but not as nice. The father, a would-be inventor, immediately sees the marketing potential in the creatures, and the son takes the original to a local science teacher, and they make another duplicate for the teacher to run tests on (quite an advanced school they have, isn't it?). Adding to the never-ending stream of complications, all six of this new batch end up being fed after midnight, and enter pupal (cocoon) stages, despite being mammalian in nature. They break out of the cocoons distinctly reptilian, and proceed to wreak havoc on the town.

Let's keep this concise: there's a reason this movie is a classic. It appeals to both the young (although it does get a tad violent) and young at heart. I'd say the best scene of the film takes place in the family's kitchen and involves the mother (Frances Lee McCain, who'd co-star with Feldman again in Stand By Me) and a few of the evil gremlins. You'll know it when you see it. And finding out that Howie Mandel provides the voice of Gizmo, the original mogwai, is a pleasant surprise. Columbus does try to give the movie a message at the end, but it's still great despite that.

Julie and Julia - 2009

Director: Nora Ephron
Writer: Nora Ephron (adapted from Julie Powell & Julia Child)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci

CAVEAT: If you're going to jump down my throat for seeing a chick movie, don't even bother reading this. You've judged a movie for what it's not (sort of), and are already too far gone to ever appreciate it.

Ephron's Julie & Julia explores two women's lives, and how they are changed by food: Julia Child, during her Parisian rise to become the master chef we all know, and Julie Powell, a humble New York City bureaucrat who decided to blog about her own experience spending a year cooking through Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

One could argue that this is two movies in one, which is "one more than it needs to be." (Yes, that's an actual quote from a review.) One could also argue that Ephron's presence in the script is an unmistakable one, as quite a bit of screentime is devoted to the two women's relationships with their husbands, rather than the more plot-essential events in their respective lives. And as I've already said, calling it a "chick flick" would be a mistake; it's more than that, I promise. What really saves this movie is Meryl Streep's performance as Child--the voice is mimicked perfectly, and her distinct lilt (much like Jon Stewart's impression of Elizabeth II) shall haunt me for days to come. Stanley Tucci, never one to disappoint, also comes through with flying colors in his scenes as Child's husband. I even forgot for a moment that Julie was none other than Amy Adams from the despicable Enchanted, so that's a good sign. When it comes out on DVD, I might even go back for a second helping of this delicious film.

I'm really, really sorry about the puns. I couldn't help myself.

August 29, 2009

Stand By Me - 1986

Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon
Starring: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell

"It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant. " In Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, four 12-year-old boys set off into the Oregon woods in August of 1959 in search of a dead body.

I was expecting quite a different movie than I got. Before tonight, I had only seen once scene of the film, which lulled me into the false belief that this was going to be a comedy, which made sense considering some of Reiner's other work. All the boys have family issues: a dead brother (played by John Cusack, of all people), a battle-fatigued WWII vet father, things of that nature. While there are a few comedic moments, the film is mostly serious, especially one scene in particular involving leeches, although it's all very tame for a Stephen King adaptation. And for mostly child actors that never got big as adults, the performances are phenomenal! They can go from over-the-top excited to verbally abusing each other to openly weeping in no time flat. Another thing I liked about the young actors: the roles were edgy. These kids were smoking cigarettes and cursing up a storm; while I wouldn't approve of such things in real life, there was a certain draw to the viscality of the characters for me because of that. I wish I had seen this one sooner, or better yet, had a group of friends like the ones in Stand By Me when I was younger. Everybody needs somebody they can have a good time with, but also knows they'll look out for them.

August 28, 2009

Taking Woodstock - 2009

Director: Ang Lee
Writer: James Schamus
Starring: Demitri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch

Ang Lee's sixth English film Taking Woodstock depicts the real life story of Elliot Tiber, a nice Jewish boy from the Catskills, who ends up essentially hosting the defining cultural moment of the 20th century in his backyard.

Content warning, before I go on with the actual review: this film contains heavy nudity from both of the major genders, as well as gay content (Tiber was present at the Stonewall Riot, which gets a casual mention). If either of those bother you, don't see the movie (or feel the need to revisit this blog). Also, the concert itself receives virtually no screentime, so don't go in expecting to hear great music from the 1960s.

I'm going to break my trend of current films and put this in the category of "you don't need to see it tomorrow, but it's worth at least matinee price." While Martin's acting does fall a bit flat at times, the script and supporting cast back him up nicely. Staunton's old Jewish lady is so good, you'll forget she was ever Dolores Umbridge, and Hirsch's portrayal of a PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran is spot-on. There's even a nice acid trip (come on, it's inevitable) scene with Paul Dano, of Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood fame. And as for Schreiber...there's just something about seeing the ex-Sabretooth don a blonde wig and dress and chase bigots around with a baseball bat. I didn't even mind that Ang Lee utilized the same split-screen technique he did in Hulk. In fact, I think I can finally forgive Mr. Lee for that travesty of a superhero movie.

August 23, 2009

The Blues Brothers - 1980

Director: John Landis
Writers: Dan Akroyd & John Landis
Starring: Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, a bunch of blues musicians

"Are you police?"
"No, ma'am, we're musicians."
In this film, Akroyd and Belushi play Elwood and Jake Blues, respectively, two brothers who coincidentally were once part of a blues band. Upon Jake's release from jail, the two learn that the orphanage they grew up in owes some back taxes, and will be closing down soon. The two embark on the oft-repeated "mission from God" to reunite the band in order to raise money for the orphanage. Carrie Fisher's character also appears randomly and tries to kill our heroes for no apparent reason (until the last twenty or so minutes of the film).

Blues Brothers' first big action scene has Jake and Elwood evading some cops by DRIVING THROUGH A MALL. After this scene, the Mysterious Woman (Fisher's character is never named) shoots at Jake with an RPG. The climax involves the brothers being pursued by a country band in an RV, a bunch of "Illinois Nazis," countless Chicago police (most of who get into very nasty wrecks), and even a significant military force (complete with tank). This kind of wild action, along with the stellar musical performances (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway), make this film a definite must-see (despite my personal distaste for the irony of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love"). I don't know how I got through so much of life without it.

August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds - 2009

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Samuel L. Jackson (voice)

"We in the killin' Nazi business, and cousin, business is boomin'." The latest film by the legendary Taratino is an alternate history following two groups during World War II--the Basterds, a mostly Jewish-American group of soldiers led by Pitt's Tennessee-accented Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who exist solely to kill and scalp nearly every Nazi they come across (with one in each left with a swastika scar on his forehead to spread the tale and invoke fear in others); the other group is a family of Jews hiding on a dairy farm in France, the daughter of which ends up becoming a sort of independent freedom fighter later in the film.

Everyone loves bullet points!
  • This film, especially when it comes to the credits, is the most like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction out of all QT's work.
  • Speaking of other works, one of my few faults with the film was once scene in particular, which reminded me of the scene in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 when the Bride finds out she's pregnant, but the gender roles are reversed this time.
  • It's very much a Tarantino film, meaning there's pop culture references (mostly related to the filmmakers of the era), lots of blood (the aforementioned scalping, and one scene that can only be described as an orgy of gunfire), that sort of thing. He is getting a bit more artistic, though, using rack focus and some good slo-mo death scenes.
  • A caveat: Samuel L. Jackson's voice is heard maybe twice throughout the film, completely unexplained, and his face is never seen. Try not to be too disappointed. Also, Tarantino makes his usual cameo, but only his hands are seen (and his voice heard in another part of the film).
  • Hearing a ridiculous Southern accent speak Italian is fantastic.
I'd have to see it again to be sure, but I'll say that this might be the best film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. It's definitely the best work of his since Pulp Fiction.

August 15, 2009

Halloween (not the film)

These are my friends,
See how they glisten.
See this one shine,
How he smiles in the light,
My friends,
My faithful friends...

Speak to me, friend.
Whisper, I'll listen.
I know, I know
You've been locked out of sight
All these years!
Like me, my friend!
Well, I've come home
To find you waiting!
And we're together...
And we'll do wonders...
Won't we...?

You there, my friend,
Come, let me hold you.
Now, with a sigh,
You grow warm
In my hand...
My friend,
My clever friend...

August 14, 2009

District 9 - 2009

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Actors: a cast of unknowns

The briefest, non-spoilery summary of District 9 I can give is this: in the early 1980s, a monstrous alien spacecraft settles in the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the local goverment establishes a refugee camp (for lack of a better term) for the aliens, which ends up becoming a slum. Cut to present day, where a company called Multinational United attempts to evict the aliens and relocate them to a more militarily-controlled area.

For about the first forty minutes of the film (as well as the film's trailer), you get the idea that this is going to be one of those movies with a Message, probably something about apartheid or illegal immigration--the documentary-style parts of the movie contain news stories about nonhuman riots, the Nigerian population dealing in alien weaponry, and interspecies prostitution (two words I hope never to type again). Something remarkable happens at that point, however, which changes the movie entirely and sets an entirely separate plot in motion.

That's all I want to say plotwise, as it only gets better from that moment on. This film proves to certain directors (Michael Bay, I'm talking to you) that you can have a summer blockbuster with all the action and adventure, while also having an unpredictable story, well-developed characters, and interesting dialogue. Also, the director had been picked by Peter Jackson to direct the now-canceled Halo film; District 9 is so good that it won't matter that Master Chief won't be coming to the big screen anymore. One note, though: there's a bit of gore, mostly from conflict between the humans and aliens (that's NOT a spoiler--without conflict, you have no story), so I wouldn't recommend this one for the weak-stomached among you.

Please see this movie. I don't want to get up on Monday to find out this is number one at the box office.

August 10, 2009

The Graduate - 1967

Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Calder Willingham & Buck Henry
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me, aren't you?" Forty years ago, the term "cougar" wasn't applied to people; if you were a guy, sleeping with a woman your parents' age was considered just plain odd, and probably inappropriate. These days, times are different, yet Nichols's sophomore work still outshines most of the competition. This film (the breakout role for Hoffman) details the postgraduate summer of a young man, seduced by a friend of his parents, who subsequently falls in love with that woman's daughter.

The cinematography is picturesque, all the actors perform incredibly (especially the 30-year-old Hoffman playing an awkward 20-year-old), and the soundtrack...well, it's all Simon and Garfunkel, which works pretty well for a late 60s film, but some people don't get into it for whatever reason.

One of my favorite things about this movie is the following anecdote, as told by Nichols in the commentary: one scene has Hoffman's character in a church, banging on a glass window, arms outstretched. Many critics at the time of the film's release said this was Nichols's deliberate choice to depict the character as a Christ figure. According to Nichols, the minister was worried that Hoffman would break the fragile window. I've always disliked people saying that this is a metaphor, or that's symbolic of something, and The Graduate is a great counterpoint to those sort of people.

August 7, 2009

RIP John Hughes

This average-looking man is responsible for creating the town of Shermer, Illinois (and all its residents) for some of the great films of the 1980s.
  • Sixteen Candles
  • The Breakfast Club
  • Weird Science
  • Pretty in Pink
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Aside from those (which I'd recommend seeing ASAP if you haven't yet), his body of work as a writer was impressive as well, despite being not terribly succesful since the mid-90s. You were a great inspiration to us all, Mr. Hughes; you will truly be missed.

500 Days of Summer - 2009

Director: Marc Webb
Writers: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

"This is a boy meets girl story. It is not a love story." (500) Days of Summer is the latest indie comedy that will tug at your heartstrings. Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, an employee of a greeting card company who doesn't believe he'll ever be truly happy until he finds the woman of his dreams; Deschanel is the titular Summer, a girl who lost faith in true love after her parents' divorce when she was a young girl. I won't say much about where things go from here. However:
  • You will be laughing in the film's first couple minutes, before any actors appear onscreen.
  • The writers/director had to have been at least a little inspired by Amélie. Once you see both, it's obvious.
  • The film is not told entirely in chronological order.
  • Best scenes: Wii Tennis, karaoke, IKEA, criticism of modern art
  • Immediately before and after Tom and Summer have sex for the first time (and don't you dare tell me that's a spoiler) are worth the price of admission alone.
  • Something you don't ever see in movies: a couple watching porn together, and the girl suggesting they try something out.
  • A somewhat trite precocious child sage (Tom's younger sister)
  • Homages to French New Wave cinema, as well as Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal
  • Splitscreen dichotomy of expectations versus reality
  • The film's last line is a groaner.
For reasons that should be obvious, I don't recommend couples seeing this film together, especially if one or both parties are easily swayed emotionally by such things. Again, I'd say more, but you know...spoilers.

What ultimately makes (500) Days such a great film is its realism. Neustadter and Weber have definitely had their hearts massaged and subsequently ripped out by women, and they succeed masterfully at bringing the experience to the screen. Along with the director, they're geniuses, but terrible geniuses.

August 6, 2009

Amélie - 2001

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Guillaume Laurant & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain) is an Ang Lee-esque jump from Jeunet's previous film, Alien: Resurrection.

IMDB plot synopsis: "Amélie is a shy waitress in a Montmartre café. After returning a long-lost childhood treasure to a former occupant of her apartment, and seeing the effect it has on him, she decides to set out on a mission to make others happy and in the meantime pursues a quirky guy who collects discarded photo booth pictures."

It begins thusly: "On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend's funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born. " This same style of speech is maintained throughout the film, both in dialogue and further narration. Cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous, painting an idyllic picture of small-town life in France. This film got five Academy Award nominations the year that it came out, including best original screenplay (quite a feat for a film not in the native tongue of the Academy voters). I can't say enough about this film; it's truly nothing short of magical.

August 5, 2009

The Great Buck Howard - 2009

Director: Sean McGinly
Writer: Sean McGinly
Starring: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt

In this film, the up-and-coming Colin Hanks (son of Tom) plays a law school dropout who dreams of being a writer. Once real life hits, and he realizes he'll need to make money before landing his ideal job, he answers a want ad for a personal assistant. Thus, he meets the great John Malkovich's Buck Howard, a once-proud mentalist (who never fails to remind us he performed on Carson's Tonight Show 61 times) whose career is reduced to performing one-night shows in medium-sized towns after giving a hearty handshake to the locals.

While some consider Howard's onstage act underwhelming, this movie is far from it. McGinly's writing is dead-on, which may related to the fact the film is partially based on his own experiences as the assistant to the Amazing Kreskin. This realism, coupled with some appropriate celebrity cameos (not to mention Malkovich doing what he does best: playing a man surrounded by incompetence--at least, in his own eyes) makes for quite an enjoyable film.

August 3, 2009

Funny People - 2009

Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman

In Apatow's third film, Sandler plays a renowned comedian diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Hilarious already, isn't it? After a series of horrible yet financially successful films (much like Sandler's real-life career), he decides to get back to his roots and begins performing standup again. Rogen is your average Joe, working at the deli counter at a grocery store while moonlighting as a standup comic. Hill and Schwartzman are his roommates, Hill a more successful standup comic and Schwartzman the jerk star of an awful TV show (but the only truly financially successful of the three). Rogen runs into Sandler at a performance, and Sandler ends up hiring him to be his assistant, which includes writing jokes for him. There's a subplot involving Leslie Mann and Eric Bana (Sandler's ex-fianceé and her new husband), as well as their two children, but it ends up being a little excessive, and the film's 2 hour 20 minute runtime would have benefited from its excision.

Some other things:
  • Seeing Adam Sandler's face on a baby body will haunt me for the rest of my days.
  • LOTS of cameos, if that's your thing: James Taylor, Tom (from MySpace), Andy Dick, Norm MacDonald, Dave Attell, Sarah Silverman, Eminem, Ray Romano, and a couple others I didn't recognize
  • Two great jokes that no one got: one about Jon Favreau and the other about Daniel Day-Lewis. Maybe the latter's too cerebral for the Apatow crowd, but Favreau was in a trailer preceding the film.
  • I really like those pseudo-fedoras that Sandler's character wears in the movie.
  • "You sure know a lot about Delaware. Who are you, fucking Joe Biden?"
  • There's either a loving homage or blatant rip-off of the "'Memories' from Cats" joke from Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl
  • I thought Leslie Mann hadn't really done anything since George of the Jungle. Apparently, not only is she married to Apatow, but she's been in all his films (as well as six other films post-George). Who knew?
Overall, a pretty good movie. Adam Sandler does a great job of a guy pretending to be funny, but ultimately being depressed/depressing. Judd Apatow has made the bridge between his early, dick-joked-filled work, and possible mature, cinematic future projects. This one's a little of both, and it'll be interesting to see where things go from here.