Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles - "Completists Only"

Newest review for chud.com is of these landmark historic moments from television history, presented here in their complete unabridged form. Read it here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Maid - "Sweeping Up Awards"

Review of this Chilean indie-hit up on Chud.com here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life - "Begins at BBC"

DVD review of the excellent BBC / Discovery Channel nature series Life now up at Chud.com. Warning: This is the Oprah narrated American version in standard definition! Click here to read.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street - "Dream Lover?"

A Blu-ray review of the 80's horror classic for Chud.com and a short analysis of the horror genre's progression over the last 25 years. Click Here to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Infidel - "Middle Eastern Dissent"

Written by David Baddiel

Directed by Josh Appignanesi

The Infidel is the comedic story of Mahmud Nasir (Omar Djalili), Arabic-British citizen, a man who we Jews would refer to as a “reform” Muslim in his practice of faith. He has a family; a wife who wears trendy clothes and is obsessed with exercise, a young daughter who likes to play jihad with a toy sword, and an older son who is about to get married to his more strictly traditional girlfriend, as soon as he can get permission from her step-father, an Islamic extremist. Mahmud has just lost his mother, part of a somber tone that the film tries to include to balance the sometimes outlandish comedy. In the process of cleaning out her house, he encounters a stubborn black cab driver named Leonard Goldberg played wonderfully by The West Wing’s Richard Schiff, and finds adoption documents that lead him to finding out that his life as Muslim Mahmud Nasir actually began as Jew Solly Shimshillewitz.
A good part of the film has Mahmud trying to come to terms with his Jewish identity and finding his real parents, which leads him back to Leonard to try and learn more about Judaism. The irony, at least to this reviewer, is that Leonard is a stereotypical non-practicing Jew. He has a passing knowledge of common Yiddish phrases, supports the state of Israel, has tons of books on the holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof on VHS (although he taped over most of it with pornography) but has little else to teach Mahmud when it comes to holidays, prayers, history or the Torah itself. The two characters are actually a pretty good pair, but Leonard’s lack of knowledge is disappointing to see because there seems to be a genuine thirst for knowledge on Mahmud’s part. It’s a shame that the filmmakers themselves seemingly are lacking this thirst, because the entire film’s portrayal of Judaism is based on this surface impression that popular culture seems to have (though in a stroke of realism Artscroll’s edition of the Torah gets a nice close-up in a few scenes). Most Hassids in the film look more Amish than “Heimish”, with their lack of moustaches and a mismatched mode of dress that so many films seem convinced is accurate.

This reviewer cannot speak much on the accuracy of the portrayal of Muslim culture, though it certainly is given more dimensions on screen than Judaism is, by showing moderates, extremists, and those that are lax in practice of many kinds. A concept of Islam as only extremists spread through the western world since 2001, and this film certainly combats that through both comedy and drama. “Extreme”, Hassidic Jews however are shown as the vast majority of Judaism, with the only balance being a complete polar opposite in the form of secularized, bar mitzvah disco-ers. Seemingly the entirety of Judaism here is an Anglo-Judaism, perplexingly simplified and completely ignoring the Sephardi (Spanish) or Arabic Jews, a crossover aspect that could have been mined for more heart and interest here.

There is a political strain to the film which is unavoidable when dealing with Islamic-Jewish relations, most notably the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is addressed. At the rally where Mahmud burns a yarmulke he’s discovered to be secretly wearing, the crowd is predominantly white, middle-class college students. This is a sad truth witnessed firsthand and a subtlety that the filmmakers did get right. Also, in a scene at a bar mitzvah, Mahmud gets pressured into signing a petition to make the BBC correct their strong anti-Israel slant, stating that the state has a right to exist and assert its power. The comedy of the scene stems from us knowing how much he has been trained to hate Israel, something that many on both sides of the religious/political spectrum may be squirming in their seats while laughing at. Leonard himself is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel and a big conflict scene between he and Mahmud is hinged on this. Many of his early scenes are accompanied by a rendition of “Hatikvah”, the Israeli National Anthem. It comes as no surprise to find that Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha (aka Borat aka Bruno aka Ali G), scored the film as he has done for his brother’s just as controversial films.

There is still ample silliness along the way, despite the many tightropes the film has to walk to not offend too many people. A scene of Mahmud telling a made up story about Rabbi Akiva at the bar mitzvah, Mahmud’s Imam thinking he is gay, a female friend in a burqa seen jogging or dancing, or a subplot about a missing 80’s pop star all come to mind. The Muslim and Jewish stars of the film say “Christ” consistently, raising questions about whether this is an intentional joke or a matter of popular current slang. The film’s problems come to the fore when it tries to balance all that with the dramatic arc taking place. There is a real struggle for this man who lost both sets of parents, and whether Jewish or Muslim he is a man that needs guidance. He wants what is best for his family, and is respectable for this very reason- even when hiding the truth from them. Yet we get a clichéd comedy-farce ending that completely crashes; a disappointing ending to a film with moments of promise. It has shades of the ending to Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison more than anything else, except sadly not as successful in humor or execution (Your personal view on that film will inform how much of an insult this truly is).

Surprisingly taken for granted here is the philosophy that one that is born a Jew is a lifetime Jew, or similarly with Islam. This is a point I found intriguing, considering how lax in practice most of the characters on screen are. The resulting message seems to be about striving for middle-ground acceptance no matter your religion, as long as it is from Abraham. The film, having originated in England, has gained international attention and screened recently in the states as part of the 2010 Tribecca Film Festival. Audiences of all races seem to find something they can laugh about, whether with a passing knowledge of Islam, Judaism or both. However, while many Arab countries have begun distributing the film, Israel has yet to make plans to bring it to its shores.

The Infidel is available now On Demand and in limited release in The U.S.

**1/2 Two and a Half Stars

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Lovely Bones - "We're Boned"

A special audio review, coming you courtesy of Video Deathray, a film review podcast that covers weird, forgotten, and unpopular films. Click the link above to listen.

At the end of it all we get into Staff Picks, films we recommend based on a theme. This time covering "smaller films after bigger films", where filmmakers make a smaller film after their big blockbusters or career highs.

Give it a listen.

This is my second appearance on the show, the first of which I forgot to post here. So expect that one up soon!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cold Souls - "Soul Searching"

My newest DVD review for Chud.com. Click here.

Cold Souls is available on DVD this week.

Question to my readers: would you prefer I reprint the articles in full, or keep things neat by just providing a link to the original page? Comment below.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - "Imaginarium Delirium"

Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Director Terry Gilliam has had a stream of bad luck experiences. His adaptation of Don Quixote infamously fell apart mid-production (as depicted in the documentary Lost in La Mancha), part of a tough decade or so in which he has released three films, all of which have had problems or been tampered with by the studio. He even appeared on the streets of New York City in 2006 holding a sign that said “Studio-less Film Maker… Family to support… Will direct for food.” So it comes as no surprise that the plot of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus revolves around the quest to continue telling stories even after an audience for them may have moved on.

Christopher Plummer stars as the titular doctor, whom many ages ago made a pact with the devil Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, acting as if the role was written for him) for immortality. He travels around modern day London in his horse-drawn collapsible theater with his accomplices Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), and daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). They sucker patrons into the Imaginarium’s mirror, a gateway into their imagination which fulfills their wildest dreams. After a moment of enlightenment, they are then forced to choose between Doctor Parnassus’ road to salvation which returns them to the real world or Mr. Nick’s sinful easy out, which commits their soul to hell. This ongoing wager for souls is mightily favoring Nick these days, until along comes Tony (Heath Ledger).

Parnassus, a mystical man, foresees a hangman entering his life in a tarot card. Tony is found hanging from a bridge over the Thames with a noose around his neck and runes on his forehead. He fits the bill and soon integrates himself into their little troupe, much to the chagrin of Anton, because Tony is quickly charming Valentina away from him. The fact that Tony is seen narrowly avoiding death time and time again in the film has a shadow of sadness hanging over it, as Heath Ledger infamously died of an apparent overdose during the filming of Parnassus. Gilliam’s curse seemingly extended beyond even that to producer William Vince who died of cancer after production was completed and Gilliam was struck by a car, cracking his vertebrae. He was quoted as saying afterward, “They got the star, the producer, and they were going for the director, and the fuckers failed on the last one.”

Only one scene in the film feels like it was edited around a lack of Ledger, otherwise his lack of presence is only felt within the Imaginarium itself. Tony is creatively played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell for certain scenes, respectfully seen through different people’s imaginary perceptions of Tony. The use of other actors is integrated well, because it is well within the film’s logic that when someone’s imagination idealizes a person to look a certain way, then they will appear as such. Each actor retains the variety of quirks that Ledger attributes to Tony, making the transitions quite smooth.

The worlds created within the Imaginarium itself are quite astounding. Inspired by famous illustrators and painters like Maxfield Parrish, Grant Wood, and Jose Maria Sert, each venture into a character’s imagination is wholly unique. These fully CGI creations never feel “realistic”, but then again, that’s kind of the point. Like the scene from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ where Eddie ends up in Toon Town, they are surreal masterpieces of the imagination that immerse our live action actors.

Gilliam’s unique style comes across successfully for the first time since 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His penchant for wide angle and fisheye camera lenses sometimes is a cliché, but when the scene is ripe for such treatment, it is a wonderfully surreal fit. No one mixes the real world and fantasy quite like Gilliam, who has a truly handpicked cast at his disposal here that can balance the drama and comedy of it all (excepting Verne Troyer who despite his best efforts, can’t stand up to Christopher Plummer). If you have enjoyed Brazil, Time Bandits, or any number of other Terry Gilliam movies, you should enter The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

*** Three Stars

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is still in theaters if you look hard enough. It arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on April 27th.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Editorial: The 15 Best Films of 2009

The nominations for the 2010 Academy Awards were announced this morning, setting the final nail in the coffin for 2009's movie year. Here now, is my long gestating list of my favorite films of this past year, culled to 15 out of the 80 or so new releases I saw. Click on the film title for my review (if available).

15.    The Girlfriend Experience

Under seen, Overshadowed,  and brilliantly edited, this tiny film from visionary director Steven Soderbergh had a wit about it. The film's tagline, "See it with someone you ****" perfectly captured the ambiguous line between love and sex that Chelsea (Sasha Grey) faces balancing life both as a girlfriend and a for-hire simulator of The Girlfriend Experience.

14.    Trouble the Water

After a limited release and Academy Award nomination in 2008, this film finally made it to DVD this year giving me a chance to catch it. Heartbreaking, moving, and inspiring, Trouble the Water is a documentary that follows the Roberts family in New Orleans' 9th Ward as they survive Hurricane Katrina. The most remarkable thing is that Kimberly Roberts had been filming the whole experience with her own video camera, giving a firsthand view of the entire ordeal, before the professional filmmakers joined them and chronicled the rest of their story.

13.    Where the Wild Things Are

An emotional rollercoaster that plunges the audience right into the mind of a frustrated young boy like no other. Maurice Sendak's famous book is expanded and riffed upon to create a story that captures the emotions, from nervousness to anger to fright that one can feel when abandoned by the word they know. A technical achievement that felt much more real and weighty than the other CG meets actor meets performer film from this year, Avatar.

12.   The Boat that Rocked (Pirate Radio)

"It's fun, fun, fun 'til your daddy takes the T-bird away." So went the Beach Boys song, which sums up this electric, often silly film that tells the story of a pirate rock n' roll radio station off the coast of England in the mid-1960's. Propelled by the music of the era, it overcomes the faults in story that it may have by sheer will alone. The performances by a great cast full of comedians and a few serious actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh) who are just looking to rock out. Unfortunately, I've heard that the U.S. version, renamed "Pirate Radio", had cut 14 minutes out of the film, which I imagine could only hurt it. Seek out the British cut if you can find it.

11.    Black Dynamite
I haven't laughed this hard in years. Black Dynamite is going to get the little orphan children off smack, solve a murder, and have time to have sex with many women at once. He will do it with his karate moves, a gun and some pimpness. For anyone who grew up watching shlocky kung fu or blaxsploitation movies, this is the one we've been waiting for. If you love the absurd humor of Anchorman or The Kentucky Fried Movie, don't miss Black Dynamite, who responded to my review with "I can dig it".

10.    Up in the Air

Of all the films I've reviewed this year, few feel like they capture living life in 2009 like Up in the Air. A perfectly played trio of stars under the direction of getting-better-every-movie Jason Reitman. The third in his trilogy of "America Now" films, which balance an emotional and comedic story simultaneously. George Clooney recently was quoted as saying he is only as good as the film that surrounds him, and that is true here of his capturing the character Ryan Bingham's life Up in the Air.

9.    Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. is looking to change the way you think of food. Some have claimed it is preaching to the choir, but that's downplaying how effective the statements made in the film truly are. My favorite documentary of 2009, what grabbed my attention is not only the message it sends about how we can improve the state of our food, but also how even handed it is. The film speaks specifically to its potentially harshest critics, who might claim the film as liberal left wing propaganda. The actuality couldn't be further from the truth, and on top of it all it is a slick, technically well made film.

8.    Adam Resurrected

One could have claimed prior to this year that the Holocaust film was dead, that after 60-plus years nothing more could be said to bring across the true horror that was inflicted under the Nazi regime. But Adam Resurrected brought such pain and such heart to the tale of a German Jewish comedian and performer who is treated as a dog in the labor camps and ends up being the hero of his mental rehabilitation center in Israel years later. It is a unique story that balances the comedy and tragedy that make up all great stories. Jeff Goldblum gives a career best performance under the direction of Paul Schrader, who is (believe it or not) lightening up for this film. I know it sounds like a very heavy subject matter, but I implore you to see this great film which has been unreasonably ignored.

7.    Moon

Sam Rockwell gives an amazing (and woefully ignored come awards season) performance as Sam Bell, the lone worker on a moon base that collects energy for use on Earth. His only companion is Gerty, coolly voiced by Kevin Spacey, a robot who helps manage the station. One day, just a few weeks from finishing his stint on the base and returning to his family on Earth, an accident happens. What transpires from this point is some of the most suspenseful and artfully accomplished moments in cinema this year. Part 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Primer, a great entry into the sci-fi genre under the direction of  first time filmmaker Duncan Jones, who said of my review "thank you sir, very enjoyable read".

6.    In The Loop

A worthy heir to Dr. Strangelove, In The Loop follows what happens when government employees are just as incompetent as the news media that blow their words out of proportion. A cast made up mostly of British unknowns to an American audience, save James Gandolfini as a military liaison, it is full of humor that anyone who appreciates a good satire can enjoy. Best of all is the screenplay, which is brought to life with a fitting documentary style, and a standout performance from Peter Capaldi, who has the most creative expletives you've ever heard streaming out of his mouth at every turn.

 5.    The Messenger

I suppose one could say I feel about The Messenger what the consensus seems to be about The Hurt Locker this year. It is powerful, brilliantly acted, and surprises you when you least expect it. It knows how to use the camera for each and every moment and feels true, not artificial, when showing you the life of the modern soldier. First time director Oren Moverman draws on his own experiences as a former military man to truly capture the feeling of life after war, and the effect that losing a loved one can have on people. Stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson were never better, and it's sad that they have been overshadowed by some other (in the case of Harrelson, he has been consistently the runner up to Christoph Waltz) strong performances this year.

4.    Inglourious Basterds

Speaking of Christoph Waltz, here he is in Inglourious Basterds, stealing every scene he is in by playing a character so well written in a screenplay full of gems. Quentin Tarantino's film is his best to date in a career that has pushed cinema forward while pulling from behind. Not the Jewish revenge film it was advertised as, it is instead a series of many slow building suspenseful vignettes, now a Tarantino staple, which all form one cohesive story out of building to violence after long, intricately written conversations. The message it sends in the end may be muddled, but the cinematic genius on display here is unmatched.

3.    L'Heure D'ete (Summer Hours)

Olivier Assayas' excellent film is about life, art, and family. I wasn't completely sold on this film going in, but it grabbed my attention and never let go, even as the final scene, which hammers home the beauty and the metaphor at play here. The film, and the portrayal of three grown children with families of their own now, shows how difficult it can be to finally transition from being a child to being an adult when your parents are finally gone.The art, and the summer home that houses it, shows us the worth that we ascribe to any number of objects that hold sentimental value to us, and how that too evolves as the generations do. Few films can capture so much about life as a whole and what it is like to be part of a family in the way that Summer Hours does.

2.    Up

It is a common and stereotypical slogan to say "I laughed, I cried" but Up did precisely that for this film reviewer. The first 20 minutes of this film is so good, that I have watched it over and over and over more than any film clip in recent memory trying to learn exactly how it works as well as it does. The rest of the film is an excellent adventure piece, which Pete Doctor does so well. The balance between genuine heartfelt moments and exciting movie stuff is struck, here even better than Doctor's previous film, Monsters Inc. and anyone who thought that a grumpy old man flying away in a house lifted by thousands of balloons was a bad idea for a film was proven wrong immediately. Every time I hear the Michael Giacchino's theme music for Ellie, which is but a part of the best score of 2009, I am lovingly transported back to the film in my mind.

1.    A Serious Man

I could write a thesis on this film, but I'll wait til you see it first. What can be said about this film that I haven't blathered on about to any person who would listen since it came out? Drama and comedy coexist in a perfect way taking on the entire Jewish concept of G-d and His works in such a brilliant, if backhanded way that I'm still in shock. No other film has encouraged such deep discussion amongst myself and my peers, while making us all laugh simultaneously.The ambiguity we are left with at every turn here is the mystery that those of us who search out meaning in our own lives deal with on a daily basis. The film is scarcely explains itself, but gives us each and every clue necessary to understand it all and that is why it is my favorite film of 2009.

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    Friday, January 29, 2010

    Saint John of Las Vegas - What Happens In Hell...

    Written and Diected by Hue Rhodes

    Who reads Dante’s Inferno and decides that it is a comedy? I mean, besides it being a “Divine Comedy”. Apparently Writer/Director Hue Rhodes did for his debut feature, based on the classic work by Dante Alighieri. Steve Buscemi plays John Alighieri, a recovering gambling addict from Las Vegas who is now living low as a car insurance claims adjuster. His circle of friends consists of Jill (Sarah Silverman) who has a fetish for smiley faces (and hair pulling) and works in the cubicle next to him. When John works up the confidence to ask his boss Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage) for a raise, he is instead thrust into a promotion to fraud investigation that consists of hitting the road with the no-nonsense Virgil (The 40 Year-Old Virgin’s Romany Malco).

    What follows is a parade of crazy characters in a heightened reality not unlike the Coen Brother’s take on Homer’s The Odyssey, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” While Virgil and John investigate an insurance claim filed by a stripper in a wheelchair named “Tasty D Lite” (Emmanuelle Chriqui) they encounter any number of oddities and reoccurring gas station mini marts. Each convenience mart serves to fuel John’s lapsing break from gambling, where he plays the lotto and scratch off tickets like his life depended on it. This addiction of his, which we are introduced to from the get go as an explanation of why John no longer lives in Las Vegas (he drove until he ran out of gas- landing him in Albuquerque, NM), seems to be his failing, though not entirely his passion. John is a well rounded character that Buscemi gives a tremendous depth which may not have been on the page. We understand that he cares about more than gambling, that he has a true drive for success in work and life, even if he lapses often. We see this every time he talks his way into getting what he wants out of a stranger, or has the instinct to call Jill from the road.

    The allegory (perhaps there’s a connection between this word and Alighieri?) of The Inferno as applied to wandering the desert on an insurance fraud claim is a dynamic one. Several audience members at my screening didn’t even get the Inferno references without it being spelled out for them afterward, but a greater appreciation can be culled from the film with a passing knowledge of the work. For those that aren’t familiar, the concept of traveling through hell meeting sinners along the way is pretty much all you’ll need to know. Look for many differing references to heaven and hell, both obvious (flames) and subtle (color palettes). Those who are sinners are marked by the presence of red, whether in clothing, set dressing or lighting. Places portrayed with the potential for good or bad seem to be marked by tones of blue, like the strip club or various mini-marts (save the one in Las Vegas, which is red), and Jill herself, with her obsession with smiley-faces, is a constant burst of yellow making her stand out as seemingly the one happy, good (though probably naïve) person in the whole fracas.

    Virgil is a charred coal man dressed in straight black the entire film. Malco plays Virgil excellently with a confidence and otherworldly manner which only adds to John’s confusion through the processional of weirdness. By the time you learn more about him, he is gone, leaving you thinking about exactly why he acted the way he did through the whole ordeal. Deeper mysteries are left for the audience to mostly put together themselves, something this reviewer appreciates in his cinematic experiences. John is subjected to torment much like the great detectives of noir fiction, the center of a swirling swindle full of outlandish people and events. This touch that can’t help but feel intentional, in John’s suit, Jill’s clothing, and the way the desert reflects the “too bright” noir stories of the west coast. That is not to mention a Citizen Kane-nodding look back at the events that led John to his situation at the opening to the film, beat and dirty, carrying a wad of cash, as he begins to narrate and events unfold.

    The entire film is impressive for a first time filmmaker like Rhodes, whose material is obviously elevated by the experiences and talented cast he has assembled. Even cameo roles are filled by known talent, some of whom are put in awkward situations or are given no face time. There is a feeling of mid-90’s independent film to the whole thing, not just because of budget or star, but in the way the people behind it seem so passionate, never knowing if this could be their only shot. Had this been 15 years ago, this film would be released by a company like Miramax, who sadly closed their doors completely this week after years under corporate control by Disney and the parting of the Weinstein brothers who steered the ship from the beginning. Saint John of Las Vegas is a film for those of us who remember that greater era for independent cinema, and strive to find the tiniest glimmer it could reemerge.

    *** Three stars – Take it or leave it

    Saint John of Las Vegas opens today on select screens. Check your local listings or http://saintjohnmovie.com/ for more.

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Avatar - "The Battles Yellow Spaceship Takes Them To Pepperland's Blue Meanies"

    Written and Directed by James Cameron

    Have you ever been so engrossed in a world created in fiction that you live it, breathe it, and even dream about it? This reviewer certainly has. But Avatar, the new film from James (Titanic, The Terminator) Cameron, is not that film. Notoriously many years in the making, Avatar tells the archetypical story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine who has lost the use of his legs that now finds himself on a far off moon called Pandora. His twin brother, who was a scientist, was meant to “pilot” an Avatar, or mock body of the extremely tall, lanky and blue native aliens called The Na’vi. Unfortunately, this brother dies and the Avatars are expensive to develop, so they recruit Jake to be the new Avatar.

    Quite predictably, the film is filled with the stereotypes of this type of picture. The military leader who Jake turns on to fulfill his destiny as “the one” and reveals himself as the ultimate villain, the small band of outsiders who assist Jake, the foreign woman he falls for and whose native people he saves, the man she was supposed to marry that first is opposed to this outsider but bows his allegiance to him after being bested, etc. Naturally everything wraps up in a nice little package. The plot is hardly a notch above what one may find late at night on the SyFy channel.

    The dialogue is even worse. This reviewer would like you to take a moment to look up any quotes from the film. Any at all. Now simply read them. Here are some of my favorites:
    Neytiri: You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer.
    Jake Sully: I don't want Ninat.
    Neytiri: Peyral is a good hunter.
    Jake Sully: Yes, she is a good hunter. But I've already chosen. But this woman must also choose me.
    Neytiri: [smiles] She already has.
    [They kiss]
    Also, Col. Quaritch: This low gravity makes you soft. You get soft and Pandora will shit you out dead with zero warning.
    What’s worse than the line written on a page is how they are delivered. Sam Worthington has an Australian accent for 90% of the movie but is supposed to be American. The Na’vi call the humans “sky people” but are otherwise able to speak English quite well. Each subsequent Na’vi who spoke English further drove home the idiocy of having such nonsense phrases. The entire concept of Na’vi speaking English in the first place is nonsensical until we learn that Segourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine (who I believe is also the name of amnesia surviving murderess on some daytime soap opera) at one point had a school for them. Though apparently only the lead female, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and her mother attended it.

    Giovanni Ribisi, an actor whose work I usually enjoy, has absolutely nothing to do the entire film. The resolution of his character is literally a sad look. Ribisi’s character, Parker Selfridge (I think he was the prom king on Beverly Hills 90210) wants to tear up the Na’vi’s hometree for a rare mineral called Unobtaneum. This is Science Fiction and any ridiculous name is pretty much game. But calling an unobtainable mineral Unobtaneum is stupefyingly obvious, something that Cameron seems to not care about holding back from at all during the film. After all, we are told about it by a selfish character named Selfridge. And some of the first words we hear in the film are “You are not in Kansas anymore… you are on Pandora”, which means that apparently in the future that a phrase that has permeated the consciousness to mean “you are no longer at home” has to be explained with a follow up to tell you where in fact you are.

    Navi is a Hebrew word that means prophet. This may be the most subtle thing about the religion and spirituality that Cameron has laid before us. It is an anti-jingoistic combination of every colonized native nation from recent history, somehow excepting Islam. This is bizarre, since the parable is obviously a reflection of the current occupation by western countries of oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries. Perhaps parable is too strong a word, since it is sitting on the surface the entire time, to the point of the term “shock and awe” being used by the military here. But this still seems like a backhanded love letter to “native religions”. Of course they are “wise” but they don’t wear clothes (perhaps the technology just doesn’t exist yet to put some pants on?) and they cannot possibly fight back with anything more powerful than spears and arrows. That is, unless you include the deus ex machina that literally comes in the form of the animals we are taught to fear and then appreciate rallying for the forces of the planet. Of all the religious concepts that have been so apparently plucked for use here, modesty is not one of them, and so any Abrahamic religious concepts also go out the door with it as well.

    The one thing the film has going for it is the technology behind it. The performance capture system that has been developed for this film is in fact the next step for the technology and James Cameron has to be applauded for taking the time to shepherd it. Give the man a technical Oscar and nothing more. Compare this to Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol from this year (or his other recent films) and you’ll see that while that was intentionally a performance captured cartoon, it doesn’t hold a candle in terms of communicating movement or acting. The tech on display here is now a step beyond the previous standard, Gollum from The Lord of the Ring films. But how much more impressive is it than Peter Jackson’s King Kong himself, who Andy Serkis also portrayed in the performance capture studio in 2005? Perhaps the five years in the making Avatar finally got off the ground because Cameron was convinced the technology existed once Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital developed it. After all, Weta Digital is one of the lead visual effects studios on Avatar. Anyone who tells you that what is on display in this film is unlike anything they’ve ever seen hasn’t been paying attention to creature effects animation since 1993, when Jurassic Park set the (still holding up against many successors) bar. The film also makes a complete misstep by having the characters (and supposedly the audience by extension) have their breath taken away about halfway into the film by some floating mountains. But the joke is, the sometimes impressive world of Pandora has a million and one things that we the audience have already swooned over at this point which crown any kind of anti-gravity rock piles. It is a completely superfluous scene that serves only to set up the silly zone of electrical disturbance.

    But hey, it’s in 3-D! Obviously, the thrill of the entire film is the 3-D itself. One of the best films of this past year was Pixar’s Up, which like many other CG animated films released recently, was presented in 3-D theatrically. The beauty of Up in 3-D was that there was an added depth to the visual spectrum, an extra element that could immerse you that much more in the world. It was never obtrusive or in your face. One might forget that they are witnessing 3-D in action, and at the time of seeing it I lauded such use of the tool as the future of the medium. At times Avatar falls into this added depth of field, but just as you settle into it, the balance is upset by psych-out gags that made 3-D tiresome fifty years ago. If there is one reason to see the film, it is to see it in 3-D. Unfortunately almost three hours of this, even with updated technology, still gave this reviewer terrible eye strain.

    James Cameron can’t separate himself from the same themes, obsessions and holes he falls into every time including but not limited to: evil corporations, mech-suits, tough as nails females, competing male suitors who are wild cards, and an idealized idea of what a future/space soldier is. One should be clear though that just because there are archetypes at work here doesn’t make the film bad. The Matrix, the “Avatar of its decade” if you will, followed a somewhat similar path. However, what separates the wheat from the chaff is how they are utilized. While the Matrix relied on a strong story that could lend itself to both popcorn adventure and subtle nuanced concepts augmented by groundbreaking visuals, Avatar uses the visual artistry on display to distract the audience from a hollow morality play that not only is familiar, but heavy-handed. It is a blindfold in three dimensions.

    ** Two stars – Watch it if you Must.

    Avatar is now playing in theaters. It won the Golden Globe awards for Best Director and Best Picture – Drama.


    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Sherlock Holmes - "Elementary Schooled"

    Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg
    Directed by Guy Richie

    There have been many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes on film, dating back to a 1905 movie presumed lost to the ages. He has been played infamously by the likes of Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing, and has always been a reflection of the times, even if all of his adventures were written for the 19th century. During World War Two, Holmes became a reflection of allied sentiment, literally being updated to take on the Nazis. In 1970, filmmaking giant Billy (The Apartment, Some Like it Hot) Wilder showed us “The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes” imbuing the film with an anti-government skew and the character with a drug addled side that existed in the source material but had been washed over in cinematic adaptations.

    Guy Richie, along with his cast and crew, has brought us the 21st century’s Holmes in the form of Robert Downey, Jr., himself infamous for addictions and redemptions through his talent and craft. It is precisely this which makes Downey believable in the role, a bit more “pipe” than “deerskin cap”. In fact, a hat has been mostly forgotten all together, something that was quite a faux pas during this time but fits with Holmes being the slovenly man removed from the world that he is. Also adapted is Holmes’ trusty sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who along with his partner has been de-aged, a move that somewhat indicates a shift from an era of “wisdom of the elders” to a dominating youth culture (thankfully this isn’t ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’, though). Watson, who has traditionally been portrayed as bumbling, portly, or both, also follows the Billy Wilder route by being a much more respectable and able person (something that this reviewer had always observed in the novels as well). He is a veteran of colonial wars, a talented doctor, and a scholar of Holmes’ adventures out of psychological curiosity and allegiance.

    The film leans heavily on the brotherly allegiance of Watson and Holmes rather than coming from a place of Watson’s infinite curiosity. In fact, the film is set during a “prequel” moment of sorts where their mutual bachelorhood comes to an end as Watson moves out of Baker Street and gets engaged. That is, we assume he does, because the ring gets left at the scene of a battle and the issue is never once mentioned again. This is one of many proofs that instead of being from Watson’s recollections on paper as the adventures are in the books, this film makes quite an effort to make us live in Holmes’ head, not Watson’s (though several references are made to Watson keeping notes and journals). Watson personal feelings are very much disregarded by Holmes on many occasions, a petty competition he has to keep Watson at his side because of Holmes’ infinite loneliness and the individualistic face he has to put on for the world. The film does include the one female Holmes finds himself drawn to, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that they can never be together and she will never provide the companionship that someone like Watson provides (non-sexually, of course).

    As we are now living in Holmes’ head, we get a peek into his thought processes, mostly in the form of his fighting strategies. Though there is textual support for Holmes’ combative abilities, I would only imagine that he would be the type to be frustrated by his physical body not being able to keep up with his mind, but this is not the case here. The film shows us twice how he plans out his series of moves in slow motion and then implements them in rapid succession, a chance for director Richie to combine Holmes with his Pikey boxer Mickey O’Neil (Brad Pitt) from Snatch. I would assume we are only shown this breaking down of the world around him from inside his mind in regards to battle simply because as an audience we are already aware of his ability to do this with other problems, but perhaps that is giving this film too much credit.

    The pace that the film sets in its first act is astonishingly brisk and captivating, something which they try to sustain through the two hour-plus running time, thought it falls somewhat in the final act. That is not to mention that the whole experience is itself a clever ruse, meant to make us believe we have seen a more exciting plot than what is actually on screen (the world’s first chemical bomb?). The film tries so hard to pride itself on tying up loose ends, to the point where keeping track mentally of the explanations for Lord Blackwood’s (Mark Strong) nefarious deeds leaves only one aspect (literally) dangling, and the film tacks on a dénouement to cover that. However, it doesn’t explain the woman writhing at the outset of the film, who we are led to believe is under some spell of possession nor the five other murders which presumably happened in much the same way. Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade also goes against character and his orders to help Holmes in the end for some reason as well and of course there is the matter of Watson’s relationship, but the film seems to throw up a big “who cares?” and tacks that issue on as well in the end.

    The film is so confident in a sequel that it is set to launch into another adventure when the credits go up. I can only hope that despite the film’s flaws that it does in fact materialize. Much like recent comic book-based films, the first film takes its time to set up the world we now inhabit and the sequel gives the breathing room to enjoy the characters that have endeared themselves to us. One cannot fault Holmes’ newfound fighting skills, again making more comic book than novel, because he is as stated ever again a reflection of our times.

    *** Three Stars – Take it or leave it

    Sherlock Holmes is in theaters now. Robert Downey Jr. won the Golden Globe for Best Actor - Comedy/Musical for his performance.

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    The Cove - “r Up”

    Written by Mark Monroe
    Directed by Louie Psihoyos

    Have you ever been to Sea World? Swam with Dolphins on a tropical vacation? What about watched the TV show “Flipper”? Congratulations, you are now a cog in the international trade of dolphins from Japan. Richard O’Barry, the man responsible for capturing and training the original Flipper dolphins, essentially created the dolphin industry. But after years of learning more and more about these magnificent, intelligent creatures, O’Barry realized the error of his ways and took it upon himself to be one of the leading activists for the safety of dolphins. This has led to his arrest several times, and in the documentary The Cove, he, along with director Louie Psihoyos investigates the current dolphin trade. Even more importantly, they also explain the ongoing capture and slaughter of thousands of dolphins in a hidden cove in Taiji, Japan every year. They know they must reveal conclusive evidence of this to the world by any means necessary.

    Passions run high on both sides. While the activists try to show the world the reasons for preserving dolphin-kind, the Japanese government is doing everything in their power to continue business as usual. Dolphin and whale hunting is claimed as an essential aspect of Japanese culture dating back many generations and Taiji is the current epicenter of it all, taking civic pride in their work. Thousands of dolphins are routinely rounded up into a cove for buyers to select their preference. Anyone can watch this process from a nearby bridge, but the actual slaughter of those not sold takes place in a smaller area off the cove that is inaccessible to observers of any kind. This meat is sold in stores (sometimes not labeled as dolphin) and was being integrated into the mandatory meals for school children. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is also trying to push for the legalization of hunting cetaceans by enlisting small island nations in the Caribbean into the International Whaling Commission solely to support them with their votes.

    O’Barry explains that in Taiji, he has to wear a mask and change his appearance to hide from the police, who know him too well these days. He is a known man for his dolphin liberation movement, and gets questioned by police several times over the course of the proceeding film which we are shown on hidden camera. The Japanese authorities and dedicated businessmen are very astute and very little gets by them. There have been several attempts to halt the rounding up and killing of dolphins the in the cove, all of which have led to banning and/or arrest. And this, as it is explained, is what you have to avoid. If you are caught breaking the rules, even in a peaceful manner, you will never be able to return to continue fighting the good fight. So everything has to be done extremely covertly.

    A crack team of experts in different fields have been assembled by the filmmakers to help them accomplish their goal of conclusive proof of the slaughter, which the Japanese irrevocably deny. This includes divers, cameramen, technicians, and even a professional thrill seeker. In addition, they are working with the latest covert technology. Night vision cameras are the tip of the iceberg, here. Underwater sonar audio recorders need to be planted in the depths of the water to hear the screams of the dolphins. A military-grade thermal camera, which can see the life signature of any living creature from afar, night or day is in Psihoyos’ hand at all times in case of anyone approaching the cove while they work in the black of night. Even enlisted is George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, who have built props for everything from Star Wars to Ghostbusters, hollow rock formations to fit those of the cove’s cliffs have been constructed to house hidden Hi-Def cameras to film the slaughter the following day. The thrills ramp up as they narrowly avoid police, spies, and mysterious cars following them around.

    The main weakness of the film is that after it has dynamically laid out the three steps of the mission, the “ocean’s eleven”-like team, and the cutting edge technology that will aid them in their endeavor, the film chooses not to give us the payoff of all three tense experiences in succession. Whereas a documentary like 2008’s Man on Wire, which is also in the “suspense-umentary” genre, remarkably stayed on target through its running time, The Cove falters right when they have your attention most. Instead, the anticipation is lost as the film goes back to explain a bit more about the international spectrum or why dolphins are special several more times before returning to the night’s task. The final mission serves as the climax for the film, so this additional material sometimes feels like padding to make a 75-minute documentary into a 90-minute one.

    This is one of those documentaries that is a first step. While it would surely be fascinating to see the continued effect O’Barry and Psihoyos’ efforts yielded as part of the film, the filmmakers have chosen instead to lay out the evidence and enlist the viewing public to their cause from this point forth. The ending is one of hope and not immediate success, because realistically there is still much to be done for the slaughter to end conclusively. The Cove is a solid dramatic documentary that educates and thrills, but leaves you wanting more in an unfortunate manner.

    *** Three Stars – Take it or leave it

    The Cove is available now on DVD. It has won and been nominated for numerous awards including the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    The Hurt Locker - "Selfless Selfishness"

    Written by Mark Boal
    Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

    The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film about a bomb dismantling unit in Iraq is an odd duck. What separates it (positively or negatively) from most films about the modern American involvement in the Middle East is that the idea of politics never enters the scene. It is purely an action film disguised as a suspenseful war film. It doesn’t have satire, it doesn’t have a sense of loss, it is a film that follows men, (particularly one man – SSgt. William James, well-played by Jeremy Renner) who are doing a job. This job just happens to be one of the most high risk and life threatening occupations possible.

    James doesn’t enter the scene until we have already met Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who along with their team leader (a cameo from Guy Pearce) play by the rules. They always send in the robot first to assess the possible explosive device. If they need to, the leader will suit up and go in to dismantle the bomb himself. It is precisely this situation that sets forth the template for every “adventure” thereafter and leads to James joining Sanborn and Eldridge. Every member of a bomb squad has to be a bit crazy, but James sets a new standard. He literally lives for this stuff, to a fault. He discards the use of the robot, and even the protective suit at times. He makes decisions that endanger his team, at least in the eyes of Sanborn, with whom he butts heads.

    Unfortunately, while James is the gung-ho Die Hard “doesn’t play by the rules” action character that we all idolize in movies, placing him into “reality” essentially makes him the villain of the film in this reviewer’s humble opinion. It forces a bizarro twist on the archetype, where he is praised by his superiors in the Army (David Morse, the second of several cameos from known actors including Ralph Fiennes and Lost’s Evangeline Lilly) while his team contemplates simply getting rid of him because of his recklessness. He deserves the “f*** you” he receives as last words from one of his team members. The worst offense of all seems to be that he is a completely selfish jerk to his family. A scene late in the film of his restless civilian life could have been a flashback to before he joined in for his first tour of duty in Iraq. Instead, it rather bluntly is not.

    Sanborn may hate James, but Eldridge isn’t quite sure what to make of any of him. Eldridge is the one main character who is simply a good person and he is treated like crap as a result. He puts trust in his superiors, questions baseless violence, and tries to be the best damn soldier he can be. His reward is that he is portrayed as the one person in the film who is seeking psychological counseling. This isn’t just the film reflecting James’ view of him, as someone who has to be pushed to the edge in order to make him a better person, but essentially the film is attacking anyone who feels like Eldridge feels. The resolution for his character is fairly unsympathetic and should be a moment to root for the hero “beating” the villain but instead it plays more like a “good riddance to someone who wasn’t cut out for Iraq in the first place”.

    The film is great for reflecting James’ cocksure attitude but at fault for glorifying it. It is sending a bad message about adrenaline rushes. The fact that James will never quit on an IED challenge makes him praiseworthy, but when you realize it is all for him and not the safety of those around him you can’t help but feel saddened. As long as the bomb gets dismantled, does the reason matter? Well when James does fail, is he beating himself up about it because a person died or because he failed himself? James does have his moments of selflessness, though they are few and far between. He cares deeply for a local “base rat” called Beckham and is willing to endanger himself to protect him. Unfortunately, the fact he would go to such lengths for this foreign boy while hanging up on a long distance call with his own wife reflects his completely backwards sense of honor.

    As much as this reviewer would like to be able to sit back and just go along for the ride with a well made action-drama about bomb dismantlers who face a new exciting challenge each episode, there has to be more going on beneath the surface. To ignore that is to ignore the idea that film is an art form capable of brilliant levels of subtext. The film makes a case that it is worth having someone abandon every other aspect of life for the one thing they are good at if it helps save lives, but does he have to be such a jerk? Whether it is being accurate to the type of person one has to be to exist under this kind of pressure on a day to day basis or not, there is a terribly mixed message about responsibilities for one’s self and those that care about them.

    ***1/2 Three and a half stars – Take it or leave it

    The Hurt Locker was released on DVD and Blu-ray this week. It is nominated for 3 Golden Globe awards, for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture- Drama. It has also been nominated for and won countless other awards and accolades.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Big Fan - "Hero War Ship"

    Written and Directed by Robert D. Siegel
    How much do you love your passions? At what point would you give up on something; when does undying love die?  Standup comedian and animated rat Patton Oswalt plays Paul Aufiero, or “Paul from Staten Island” as he is known when he calls into his local sports talk radio show to make methodical statements about the dominance of his local New York Giants football team. Paul has a crappy job as a night attendant at a car park, but at least it lets him listen to the radio while he works. On weekends, he and his buddy Sal (Kevin Corrigan, who seems stereotyped into these types of roles) head down to the stadium to cheer on The Giants even though they are too poor for actual tickets. Instead, they sit in the parking lot watching the game on a tv rigged to a car battery. They are die-hard fans, and nothing is more important than The Giants winning it all this season.

    When they spot star Quarterback Quantrell Bishop one night in Staten Island, they begin to follow him, which leads them to a strip club in midtown Manhattan. Eventually they meet him, but with dire consequences- Paul is beaten within an inch of his life. The ensuing events pull Paul apart from the inside out. Does he hold Bishop responsible for his actions, bring a lawsuit against him, and get him thrown out of the NFL? Or does he keep his mouth shut and try to put the entire ordeal behind them all so that The Giants can win games? Meanwhile, Paul continues the back and forth rivalry he shares with “Philadelphia Phil” (Michael Rapaport), his Eagles-fan counterpart who calls the NY sport shows just to rile up the local fans.

    Staying up nights at work and listening to the radio well past midnight have given him bags under his eyes and a zombie-like sleepwalk through anything that isn’t football related. Writer/Director Robert D. Siegel would like you to think of Paul as a modern day Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy (both portrayed by Robert Deniro and directed by Martin Scorsese). He has the drive, the trauma, and the celebrity worship to follow in their footsteps (and in Pupkin’s case, the berating mother as well). What’s missing is a serious dissection of the mind that ends up a political commentary on par with these predecessors. Most likely, we have become too jaded with professional athletes in recent times to have this story be as shocking as it could be. The idea that a drug addled football player would beat up an innocent fan seems like nothing new.

    What does hold your attention is the way in which Paul deals with the event. There is a tension to his love for the Giants that makes one fear the possibilities of what he is capable of. Outside forces are swirling around his head and he would like nothing more than for them to all disappear. But Paul is a weak man. He is well into his thirties and still living with his mother who he has a frighteningly realistic love-hate relationship with. He asserts himself in his convictions but cannot bring the people around him to follow suit (excepting Sal, who for undisclosed reasons is such a loser that he worships Paul as the next man up the evolutionary chain of football fans).

    Paul Aufiero is a man that we may all have met at some point in our lives and passed over. He loves football to a dangerous degree, a reflection of how these teams of sport reflect the tribal warfare of the past. With that conviction, you know it will all end in some kind of violence. When the ending comes, and you are expecting the worst- only to basically have your fears met- Siegel plays on the way we subconsciously associate Big Fan with Taxi Driver. The film plays like a parody of ‘Driver’ in a way that befits Paul’s weak will and need to vent his aggression not against the real life villains that he loves but against the villains in his head.

    ***1/2 Three and a half stars – Take it or leave it

    Big Fan is available now on DVD, with too cheery a cover.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Editorial: This week on DVD

    This week on DVD is highlighting a few noteworthy films that are coming out that you won't want to miss. All six films release today on Blu-ray and DVD unless otherwise noted. Any purchases made through the amazon sidebar help support this site.

    Moon ****
    Duncan Jones' haunting sci-fi film with a powerhouse lead performance by Sam Rockwell. Don't listen to award season hype, this was in fact one of the best films of the year. Click to read my review.

    The Hurt Locker
    Kathryn Bigelow's suspense filled tale of an American bomb squad in Iraq. Click to read my review.

    Big Fan
    Comedian Patton Oswalt plays a man dealing with the dark side of fandom in 'The Wrestler' writer Robert Siegel's film. Available only on DVD. Click to read my review.

    The Brothers Bloom ***&1/2
    From 'Brick' director Rian Johnson, a whimsical tale of international con men and the woman that throws them off their game.

    In The Loop ****&1/2
    One of the funniest films of 2009, 'Loop' dissects the way politicians mis-handle international relations, namely between American and British governments. A worthy heir to Dr. Strangelove's practice.

    8&1/2 *****
    Fellini's classic 1963 masterpiece of the mind finds its' way to Blu-ray this week, thanks to the Criterion Collection.