April 30, 2010

Synechdoche, New York - 2008

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Emily Browning

"I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't." The directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind), Synecdoche tells the story of Caden Cotard (Hoffman), a struggling playwright who, after being left by his wife (Keener) and convinced of his impending death by one condition mounting upon another, embarks on the great task of any artist's life: to create something that will outlast him and be remembered throughout the ages. His grand idea involves reproducing a section of the city inside a massive warehouse, and having the actors portray himself and the people in his life. Within the city in the warehouse is a smaller warehouse containing a smaller city, and a third warehouse inside that (hence the film's title, not just a play on the town of Schenectady, but the term where a part of something is used to describe the whole).
I'll be the first to admit that this film went slightly over my head, but that's the only thing that would stop me from recommending it outright. Hoffman is an incredible actor in everything I've seen him in, and his Charles Foster Kane-eque portrayal of Cotard (the film takes place over a few decades of his life), aided by the stellar makeup effects, is no exception; his performance leads everyone else's the way a director should lead his cast. Synecdoche ended up on several critics' top 10 lists for the first decade of the new millennium, but I can't hold it in such high regard. It's a tad too cerebral (but without being pretentious) for most to enjoy, which is a dealbreaker for me.

April 27, 2010

Awakenings - 1990

Director: Penny Marshall
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Starring: Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro

"Hello. My name is Leonard Lowe. It has been explained to me that I've been away for quite some time. I'm back." Based on the nonfiction book of the same name, Awakenings tells the true story of a doctor (Williams) and his decision to use a new drug in an attempt to cure a group of seemingly hopelessly catatonic patients. Leonard Lowe (DeNiro) is the initial test subject, and after some initial tampering with the dosage, it works incredibly well...for a while.

My sole criticism: Malcolm Sayer, Williams's character, is American. Oliver Sacks, his real life counterpart, is British. Why do such insignificant changes need to happen? That's like if Black Widow wasn't Russian in Iron Man 2 (oh, wait...). Anyway, besides that, it's a remarkable film. Williams's serious roles are always underappreciated, and this is no exception. DeNiro, much like Hugh Darcy in last year's Adam, stellarly portrays a victim of a disease with accuracy, and never for laughs at its expense. The writing is solid, the characters sympathetic...everything a good film should have. If it had one any of its three Academy Award nominations (Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor--DeNiro), no one would have objected.

April 23, 2010

The Losers - 2010

Director: Sylvain White
Writers: Peter Berg & James Vanderbilt
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, Oscar Jaenada, Zoe Saldana
"Hell, let's just say it out loud. You're talking about declaring war on the Central Intelligence Agency." Five members of an elite special ops unit are declared dead after a mission in Bolivia goes awry. Before long, leader Colonel Franklin Clay (Morgan) encounters Aisha (Saldana), a mysterious operative who comes to him with a promise: the ability to return them to the United States, and information which allows them to get back at the man responsible for their exile.
Don't waste your time or money on this one. The "jokes" aren't funny, there's too much Zack Snyder-esque slow motion (think 300 and Watchmen), NO sympathy for the characters is formed, the performances range from uninspired to annoying to ridiculous, the backstory's an obvious A-Team ripoff (though that's to blame on the original graphic novel)...I could go on and on. The sole enjoyable scene comes about halfway through, and it involves Chris Evans's (who I really wish wasn't Captain America) character and a popular Journey song. And like so many movies lately, the "resolution" (virtually nonexistent) opens the film up for a sequel, which I don't ever want to see gracing the silver screen.

April 22, 2010

Slacker - 1991

Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Starring: a cast of nobodies

"Uh, I don't do much really, I just read, and work here, and, uh, sleep and eat, and, uh, watch movies. " There is no plot to describe whatsoever.

Richard Linklater made a movie in the early 1990s with no plot, no stars, and only 163 cuts (most films have between 500 and 1000) for $23,000. Despite its nondescript quality, this film is AMAZING. Entirely dialogue-driven, it follows various eccentrics in Austin, Texas, each scene consisting of a short conversation about a quirky topic, then moving on to another group. Via Wiki: "The characters include...a miscreant who just steps off a bus, a UFO buff who insists the U.S. has been on the moon since the 1950s, a JFK conspiracy theorist, an elderly anarchist who befriends a man trying to burglarize his house, a serial television set collector and a woman trying to sell a Madonna pap smear." Kevin Smith has repeatedly said that this is the movie that inspired him to make Clerks, and it shows, although Clerks has slightly more plot and a lot more profanity. It's a shame Linklater ended up helming the Bad News Bears remake, but they're called "classics" for a reason. Everyone needs to see this as soon as possible.

April 20, 2010

We Live in Public - 2009

Director: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Josh Harris

"Lions and tigers used to be kings of the jungle, and one day wound up in zoos. I suspect we're on the same track."

This documentary follows two decades in the life of Josh Harris, the "greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," from his establishment of an Internet TV network in the pre-high-quality-streaming-video era of the early 1990s to his eventual debt-ridden departure from the United States. What happens between these two events...all I can say is: this guy pretty much predicted what the Internet was going to become a decade ago. It might be the best nonpolitical documentary I've ever seen.

Con Air - 1997

Director: Simon West
Writer: Scott Rosenberg
Starring: Nicholas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo

"There's only two men in the world that I trust. One of 'em's me, and the other's not you." Former US Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Cage) is wrongly sent to jail for the death of a man resulting from self-defense, missing the first several years of the life of his daughter. Upon being paroled, he ends up on a flight with several of the country's worst murderers and rapists (who are being transferred to a Supermax prison). Led by Cyrus "the Virus" Grissom (Malkovich), the convicts take over the plane in an attempt to escape their sentences, leaving Poe and US Marshal Vince Larkin (Cusack) to keep order.

A lot of people dislike Nicholas Cage as a general rule, and I'm one of them. However, I'd put this (along with the recent Kick-Ass) in the handful of really good movies he's done. Malkovich excels, as he always does when playing a character with an overinflated ego, and Buscemi is nothing short of brilliant as the most likable psychopath I've ever seen. While it's your typical action-packed Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film (Pirates of the Caribbean, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), it's realistic enough where it's still enjoyable, even the film's fantastical climax that I won't spoil here for the five other people who haven't seen this yet. If you're in the mood for a great action film, and don't mind Nick Cage with a Southern accent, buy this DVD.

April 17, 2010

The Runaways - 2010

Director: Floria Sigismondi
Writer: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon

"This isn't women's lib, it's womens libido!" Before Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, there was the Runaways. Led by singer Cherie Curie (Fanning) and Joan Jett (Stewart) [and manipulated by creepy manager Kim Fowley (Shannon)], the first all-girl rock and roll band took the world by storm, until substance abuse issues by Curie led to its inevitable demise.

WOW. First of all, I need to take back what I've said in the past about Stewart and Fanning being subpar actresses, as Runaways proves this is not the case. The scenes introducing their characters have Jett being told "Girls don't play electric guitar" and Curie lip-syncing a Bowie song, complete with trademark lightning bolt on her face. I guess they finally found a proper script to suit their talents. Second, it's a rock biopic on level with any other--full of sex, drugs, and music. While the concert scenes stand out as easily the best cinematically of the film (Sigismondi was exclusively a music video director before now), it's nothing to sneeze at. My only major complaint: Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Whip It) stars as a fictionalized version of the group's bassist (due to legal issues) and has no real lines of dialogue outside of the songs. I understand that the film's focus is on Curie and Jett, but to underutilize someone so skilled is a shame. Regardless, see this movie if it's playing near you, if only to get educated about an important chapter of music history as I did.

April 16, 2010

Defendor - 2010

Director: Peter Stebbings
Writer: Peter Stebbings
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings

"You were just an ordinary guy, doing something remarkable." Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) is a not-entirely-mentally-sound construction worker who, by night, takes on the role of Defendor (think Bruce Wayne, but without the billionaire status, great fighting ability, and around 40 years old) to avenge the death of his mother at the hands of "Captain Industry." On one of his nightly outings, he saves a young prostitute (Dennings) with her own set of demons to face, and she attempts to help him in his quest.

Woody Harrelson hit it big last year (Zombieland, The Messenger, 2012), and this is yet another triumph to add to the list. It has an overall similar concept as Kick-Ass (a regular person fighting crime in costume), but grounds the subject more in reality with a lack of advanced weaponry and training, although he does use a slight Bale-Batman voice while in costume, as well as a certain interrogation technique made famous by Rorschach in Watchmen. If you want a film with wild, over-the-top everything, see Kick-Ass, but if you'd like a bit stronger message and perhaps a deeper emotional reaction, Defendor is the film for you.

Kick-Ass - 2010

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicholas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong

"With no power comes no responsibility." Dave (Johnson) is your typical high school comic book geek, nothing remarkable about him at all, who wonders why no one ever tried being a superhero in the real world. Despite warnings from his friends, he goes ahead with it, ordering a brightly-colored wetsuit online for his costume and makes a brave attempt to fight local crime. While initially unsuccessful, his first semi-success inspires two more heroes: Big Daddy (Cage) and Hit Girl (Moretz). Before long, however, local mobster Frank D'Amico (Strong) soon tires of the new heroes interfering in his business, and sends his son Chris (Mintz-Plasse) under the guise of Red Mist to infiltrate and take down the other heroes, with some help from his seemingly-infinite goon squad.

I admit to loving this film unabashedly. The film's performances are fantastic (especially Cage's Adam West-inspired vocal stylings), despite the newcomer status of most of the cast. Just like Sherlock Holmes, Strong makes a great villain, and although Mintz-Plasse hasn't quite shed the McLovin association, a possible sequel for the film might allow him to do so. Far and above all others, though, is Moretz as Hit Girl. She says and does things I never expected to hear and see from a 12-year-old girl, but she does it to an award-winning level. The writing is solid, and the soundtrack (which normally doesn't stand out) is phenomenal. As long as you're not easily offended (violence and foul language abounds), this is a movie you need to see.

April 13, 2010

Last Action Hero - 1993

Director: Jonathan McTiernan
Writers: Shane Black & David Arnott
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger

"Why am I wasting time with a dime-store putz like you when I could be doing something much more dangerous, like re-arranging my sock drawers? " The director of Die Hard teamed up with action star/comedian Schwarzenegger to make a send-up of the typical action movie, full of bad one-liners and plotholes. A film-obsessed kid goes to see the new Jack Slater movie (Schwarzenegger plays himself playing Slater...it's hard to explain), and thanks to a magic ticket from Houdini, gets catapulted into the film itself. Of course, the film's villain gets his hands on the ticket and wreaks havoc in the real world as well.

I think I liked this movie. If its intent is truly to parody the films of the genre, it excels spectacularly. In addition, I'll admit to enjoying a few of the one-liners. However, it hurts me that not only did "serious" films like this exist in the era (and still do, to an extent), but Schwarzenegger himself was in several. Then again, I have from a reliable source that this is Arnold's third best film after Terminator 2 and Commando, so I'd say it's worth your time.

April 11, 2010

Adam - 2009

Director: Max Mayer
Writer: Max Mayer
Starring: Hugh Darcy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher, Frankie Faison

"I can tell you're upset, but I don't know what to do." The debut of Max Mayer, Adam tells the story of a man (Darcy) with Asperger syndrome, living alone in New York City, and his attempt to properly connect with another person (Byrne).

Films with main characters that are mentally "different" in some way often come under criticism, usually from groups organized to protect such individuals. However, I never heard this happening with Adam, and I don't see it happening if the film increases in popularity. While the syndrome did not become an official diagnosis until 1994, Darcy's performance neither disrespects actual Asperger sufferers nor depicts it incorrectly. The supporting cast is a great foil to the film's title character, and Mayer's script and direction makes Asperger syndrome identifiable as simply a more intense version of the lack of identifiability with one's fellow man experienced by us all, to varying degrees. I highly recommend this, especially considering the skill of the intermingling of comedic beats while still keeping it a drama overall.

April 10, 2010

Toxic Avenger - 1986

Directors: Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman
Writer: Joe Ritter
Starring: Mitch Cohen, Mark Torgl, Andree Maranda, Pat Ryan Jr.

"All right, everybody, drop your tacos or I'll blow your brains out!" The debut of the infamous Troma Entertainment, Toxic Avenger tells the story of a 98-pound-weakling (Torgl) who works as a health club's mop boy who takes revenge on those who wronged him after falling into a barrel of toxic waste and becoming a monster (Cohen), going on to fight crime in the town of Tromaville, New Jersey.

This is supposed to be one of those so-bad-it's-good films, but for me, it's just so-bad-it's-bad. The acting is simultaneously subpar and over-the-top, the writing is awful, certain shots are reused (for budgetary purposes, I'm sure)...oh, and to make the audience immediately hate some of the many antagonists, they're depicted as creating a point system for running over people in their cars, the first of which depicted is a small child, who gets hit before having his skull burst after it's backed over. Wonderful gore for gore's sake. I don't know how the film has developed its cult following (or the several sequels it produced), but I'm okay with this getting remade.

April 4, 2010

Drop Dead Gorgeous - 1999

Director: Michael Patrick Jann
Writer: Lona Williams
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley, Brittany Murphy, Amy Adams

"Hi. I'm Amber Atkins, and I'm signing up cause uh my two favorite people in the whole world competed in pageants: my mom and Diane Sawyer... Course, I hope I end up a little more like Diane Sawyer than my mom. " Jann and Williams, two members of the film industry who came from nowhere and vanished after making this film, joined forces in the late 1990s to make this mockumentary about a high school beauty pageant in a small town in Minnesota.

For some reason, the film premiered to mixed reviews and fell $5 million short of a gross equal to its budget, but don't let that turn you off. It features stellar performances by the nearly all-female cast, has a plot with more and better twists than an M. Night Shyamalan film, and probably is the only movie to take advantage of the Minnesotan dialect better than the Coen brothers' Fargo. I don't know how I survived this long without having seen it, but I'm glad I have now.

This Boy's Life - 1993

Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Writer: Robert Getchell
Starring: Ellen Barkin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro

"I believe there's such thing as a bad boy, bad clear through. it's gonna be my job to set you straight, to kill or cure." Based on the memoirs of the same name, This Boy's Life follows a period of years in the adolescence of Tobias Wolff (DiCaprio), specifically related to his upbringing by his mother (Barkin) and abusive stepfather (DeNiro).

Now, I could just dismiss this film as a white, gender-reversed version of Precious set in the 1950s, but I won't, because it's so much more than that. The film paints a vivid picture of a childhood that, in the era, was unfortunately more likely the rule than the exception. Caton-Jones, fresh off Doc Hollywood, proved he could expertly work with a film legend like DeNiro, who shines as dreadful stepfather Dwight. DiCaprio was fresh off Growing Pains at this point, and obviously had a lot of growing to do as an actor to get to where he is today (making Scorsese films involving Massachusetts accents), but one can see how this set him up for the heralded performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Once you get past the idea of 50-year-old DeNiro beating up a 20-going-on-12-year-old DiCaprio, and the Elvis/Wolverine-ish haircuts which apparently all juvenile delinquents had in the 1950s, it's quite an entertaining flick.

Chloe - 2010

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried

"My husband's cheating on me. At least, I think he is." A remake of the 2004 French film Nathalie..., Chloe tells the story of a prostitute (Seyfried) hired by Catherine Stewart (Moore) to determine if her husband (Neeson) is being unfaithful.

This wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen, but I don't think I'll be buying this one on DVD. Despite the title (and an all-too-brief opening monologue), the focus of the film ends up more on Moore's shoulders than Seyfried's, though it meanders between the three of them quite a bit to get there. The writing is weak here and there, and it's never quite explained how Moore gets Seyfried's contact information to begin with. There's also a significant twist that will more than likely be a dealbreaker for any viewers, so tread lightly. But if you just want to shut your brain off and ogle Seyfried (you should be ashamed of yourself! that's not why I write these reviews!), by all means, watch the film.