September 27, 2009

Whip It - 2009

Director: Drew Barrymore
Writer: Shauna Cross
Starring: Ellen Page, Alia Shawkat, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Andrew Wilson, Juliette Lewis

"That was odd." "Oddly glorious." The directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, Whip It tells the rather heartwarming story of Bliss Cavendar (Page), a girl from a tiny Texas town who, after being forced into pageants to fulfill her mother's (Harden) dreams, escapes to Austin, and falls in love with something to call her own: roller derby.

When I entered the theater (after getting my free t-shirt emblazoned with the film's title, tagline, and a roller skate), it was nearly barren. There couldn't have been more than ten people total, which I took to be a bad sign for a sneak preview. (Also, no ads or previews.) In retrospect, I'll chalk this up to underpromotion, as this film was phenomenal, especially considering it was virgin territory for Barrymore. The cast gave great performances, from Page and Shawkat (typical best-of-friends) to all the wonderfully-named derby girls to Andrew Wilson as the Hurl Scouts' (I told you they had awesome names) coach. The only performance I took issue with was that of Jimmy Fallon, who plays the derby announcer, but I've never been a fan of his. Also, I noticed cigarette burns during the film, meaning it wasn't the nice DLP projector I was used to, but that's not the film's fault.

There are some really good parts of the script, like the explanation of derby rules, how Page's character gets her best friend to throw up when she's been drinking, a tour of Austin, and the underwater sequence. However, what really makes the film is that you can tell that Drew Barrymore had a lot of fun making it. Her character Smashley Simpson gets to beat up on her in-movie fiance, get into fights with opponents, and declare a food fight, among other things. When a director's motivation is that apparent to the audience, I call it a success, no matter the box office returns or critical reviews.

September 20, 2009

The Informant! - 2009

Director: Stephen Soderbergh
Writers: Scott Z. Burns & Kurt Eichenwald
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula

"Everyone is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast." Soderbergh's latest film The Informant! details the true story of Archer Daniels Midland employee Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) who, while in the process of rooting out a company mole, turns whistleblower on a price-fixing scheme in his company's industry (mostly corn-based food additives). There's a little more to the plot (which you might already know, since it's based on a true story), but I'll try to stay relatively spoiler-free.

I recommend you go see this film as soon as possible. Soderbergh has recovered from his recent flop The Girlfriend Experience (although I understand people's hesitation to see a porn star play a prostitute in a real movie), and is back to the top form we saw in the Ocean's trilogy. A thirty-pounds-heavier Matt Damon excels comedically, in no small part due to what could end up an Oscar-nominated screenplay (the best parts are probably Whitacre's internal monologues about the German language, Japanese culture, polar bears, and everything else under the sun). Surprisingly, the score's also notable, with some nice James Bond-esque riffs during the corporate espionage scenes. My only complaint: it's very hard to take Tony Hale (formerly the man-child Buster on Arrested Development) seriously, especially as a lawyer. The same applies to Patton Oswalt, to a lesser extent. Overall, though, this might be my favorite comedy of the year.

Jennifer's Body - 2009

Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Diablo Cody
Starring: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody

"Hell is a teenage girl." Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Anita (Amanda Seyfried) are BFFs, despite the former being your typical hot chick and the latter an even more typical nerd. Indie band Low Shoulder (lead singer Nikolai played by Adam Brody) comes to their podunk Minnesota town looking for a virgin to sacrifice to Satan so the band can hit it big, so they kidnap Jennifer. (I'm not making this up; if I were, I'd be the one making the Hollywood bucks.) It turns out that if a non-virgin gets sacrificed, a demon will forever occupy the body, forcing that person to forever walk the earth, feasting on flesh (and apparently spewing out black ferromagnetic fluid from time to time). On the plus side, they get an awesome healing factor, a la Wolverine ("That's some X-men shit, right?"). So the best friend is forced to track down the newly-made femme fatale and put an end to her havoc.

Despite being written by stripper-cum-screenwriter Diablo Cody (who has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as a bartender) and having J.K. Simmons in a supporting role (sporting a full head of hair and Minnesota accent), this film is no Juno, and even Cody acknowledges that with a line about only being socially relevant two years in the past. It does bear the usual Cody trademarks (phrases like "tragedy boner" are present, though diminished; Jennifer is sacrificed to Tommy Tutone's "867-5309"), so take that for what it's worth. I can definitely promise it's a more memorable film than the director's last work, 2005's Aeon Flux. Despite missing the mark slightly as far as the elusive horror/comedy genre (think Shaun of the Dead) goes, it acknowledges films that came before it, including Exorcist, Heathers, and Evil Dead. There's one scene I really liked technically that cross-cuts from Anita and her boyfriend having sex to Jennifer (in silhouette) enjoying one of her victims. Amy Sedaris also has an all-too-brief scene as the self-described "hard-ass Ford-tough mama bear" of Anita. The film's also apparently about toxic friendships between women according to the director, but that went totally over my head. That's why you come to be for move reviews, right? My hard-hitting, in-depth discussion?

And for the love of all that is holy, don't be a bad audience like some of the people I was seeing the movie with. If you're not mature enough to handle certain things teenagers are apt to do without hooting and hollering, don't see this in theaters. Overall judgment: worth matinee price, and a DVD purchase if the commentary's good, but the $8.75 I paid was a bit steep.

September 12, 2009

9 - 2009

Director: Shane Acker
Writers: Pamela Pettler & Shane Acker
Starring: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly

"Sometimes fear is the appropriate response." In the universe of 9, a Communist country has made robots to bring peace to the world. Naturally, the robots turn on humanity and destroy everyone. The scientist responsible, seemingly the last remaining human, creates as his final act nine dolls, which director Acker loving terms "stitchpunks."
  1. the zealot of a leader
  2. a kindly inventor
  3. one of a pair of curious (yet silent) twins; eyes can become film projectors
  4. the other of the twins
  5. "healer" and mechanic; apprentice to 2; has only one eye
  6. has visions he is compelled to draw; rarely speaks, and says odd things when he does
  7. the daredevil of the bunch; only "female"
  8. bodyguard for 1; not bright
  9. newcomer; challenges authority
These nine little dolls are charged with the Herculean task of ending the evil robots' reign. (Essentially, it's "Little Big Planet vs. Skynet," as I read on one message board about the film.)

DISCLAIMER: this film is PG-13 (despite having no foul language or nudity) for a reason. Don't bring the little ones, as it gets rather intense at times.

The CGI and foley work for this film are both remarkable; you see every difference in construction between each of the dolls, down to the stitching itself, and hear every metallic scrape and fabric thud when the characters move. The environment in which they live is a rich and unique one, from the simple magnet that 8 uses for an inebriation-like experience to the Victorian-seeming hologram projector. Yes, you read that right. If a few more people see this film (current box office data has it at a disappointing less than 1/3 of its budget so far), it could bring the glory of steampunk into the mainstream. Furthermore, I'll go on the record as saying that despite mixed critical reviews, this is the best non-Pixar CGI film ever made, and probably better than everything CGI period except for Up and WALL-E.

September 11, 2009

Today in film

Two films I recommend watching today, and then promptly reshelving the rest of the year.

United 93
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass

"Let's roll." This film's about the events taking place on the plane that was diverted from hitting a third building when the passengers rushed the cockpit. Who knew a Brit would make the best September 11th film?

Reign Over Me
Director: Mike Binder
Writer: Mike Binder

" I don't need to talk about her or look at pictures... 'cause the truth is, a lot of times, I see her... on the street. I walk down the street, I see her in someone else's face... clearer than any of the pictures you carry with you. I get that you're in pain, but you got each other. You got each other! And I'm the one who's gotta see her and the girls all the time. Everywhere I go! I even see the dog. That's how f*cked up I still am! I look at a German shepherd, I see our g*dd*mn poodle." This fictional film looks at the life of a man (Adam Sandler) who lost his wife and daughters on 9/11, and has since cut himself off from the world. His former college roommate (Don Cheadle) struggles to reconnect with him and help him function properly in society. Definitely Sandler's best role of his career so far.

September 6, 2009

Extract - 2009

Director: Mike Judge
Writer: Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, JK Simmons

In the return (no one counts Idiocracy because of its poor studio situation) to the silver screen of Office Space writer/director Mike Judge, Joel (Jason Bateman) owns an extract company, and is having some trouble with his wife (Kristen Wiig). He's thinking of selling off the company, but a possible lawsuit from an injured employee complicates things. The gold-digging Cindy (Mila Kunis) and Joel's druggie best friend Dean (Ben Affleck) don't exactly make his life any easier either.

Office Space was a remarkable film, and maybe it's unfair to compare this to that. Unfortunately, everyone going to see it is going to do the same thing. You'd think a film with such an all-star cast would have to be good, but that would be a mistake. Kunis can't break the role of Jackie from That 70s Show, Bateman's usual Michael Bluthesque character falls flat--not even a small appearance by Gene Simmons as a bus-stop-bench-ad lawyer saves this film. On top of this, Judge essentially rewrote Office Space. Both films contain:
  • a white-collar main character with a lower-class friend
  • main character having relationship issues
  • character that talks too much, keeping people from getting where they want to be on time
  • an annoying female coworker
  • the death of a fat guy
Unfortunately, lightning can't strike twice for Mike Judge. The film's not quotable at all (there goes cult classic status), and I DIDN'T LAUGH ONCE. Kevin Smith said he got into the film industry to "make Clerks over and over again." I hope Judge doesn't take another page out of that book anytime soon.

Risky Business - 1983

Director: Paul Brickman
Writer: Paul Brickman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca de Mornay, Joe Pantoliano

"I don't believe this! I've got a trig midterm tomorrow, and I'm being chased by Guido the killer pimp." For the five people in North America who don't know, Risky Business is about 18-year-old Joel Goodson (played by a then-unknown Tom Cruise) whose parents leave town for a week, leaving him home alone, and he proceeds to do what every straight red-blooded American male would dream of doing in the same situation.

Knowing a movie this good can exist from a first-time filmmaker amazes me, yet at the same time reduces my hope about the quality of the masses of Hollywood lately. Brickman's writing is fresh and vibrant, so visceral that it's not too hard to think of Cruise's character as that guy from your economics class. The cinematography, especially in the first half of the film (notably that one famous scene), is truly inspired. Not only is the film technically brilliant, but it did well at the box office upon its release (made 10 times its budget) and launched the careers of virtually all the major actors. Who could ask for anything more?

September 3, 2009

Boondock Saints II

A little something to tide you over until I go see Extract (minor spoiler if you didn't see the first movie):

Ten years ago, Troy Duffy made a nice little film about two Irish Catholic fraternal twin brothers in Boston who run around exacting their own form of justice upon the wicked, and the homosexual FBI agent (played by Willem Dafoe) trying to piece together the puzzle left at the "crime" scenes. Mr. Duffy, while despite having written and directed phenomenally, had the poor fortune to finish the film around the time of the Columbine massacre, after which the media did its best to quash violence wherever possible. (He also had quite a few conflicts with the studio system, which can be seen in more detail in the documentary Overnight.) Nevertheless, the film went on to become a cult classic on DVD, and after a decade of waiting, the McManus brothers are coming back to the silver screen in Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.

This might seem like your steretypical stupid shoot-em-up flick, but I guarantee that if it's HALF as good as the original, you'll go home happy.

September 2, 2009

Something to ponder

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and supersition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Our story this evening concerns two directors, one from each side of the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently, they hadn't met, and they share no DNA. However, something very peculiar is going on. Judge for yourself.

Edgar Wright:
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
  • Hot Fuzz (2007)
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Jason Reitman:
  • Pierre Pierre (2009)
  • Juno (2007)
  • Thank You for Smoking (2006)
To paraphrase Shakespeare, "Two gentlemen, both alike in dignity, in fair Hollywood where we lay our scene..." Back to your regularly scheduled program come Friday, with Mike Judge's Extract.
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