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 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.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Messenger - "Recieved"

Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
Directed by Oren Moverman

The opening shot of The Messenger isn’t that important. In fact, there is hardly a sole image that may sit in your mind when looking back at the film. But man, there will be a feeling. And it will stay with you for a long time. Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is recovering from injuries he sustained in Iraq including a scarred eye and a slightly gimpy leg. For the last three months before he is released from the Army, he has been assigned casualty notification duty, to inform next of kin that their family member has died in service. His new partner, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is a tough man assigned to how him the ropes in what is often a terribly stressful job. They must stick to the script, be clear and precise about the death of the individual, and get the news to the family before they could find out from some news outlet or alternative source.

Part of the trauma of the position is that they are representing the U.S. Armed Forces, and as such must follow a protocol to not touch or get emotionally involved with the next of kin. They cannot inform anyone but the listed next of kin. They never know how someone will react to the news, and the film shows a variety of the kinds of things people go through when being informed of such disheartening information. Sometimes it is a slap to the face of the officer, sometimes it is being spat at. Sometimes a person will become sick to their stomach. All of these possibilities must be accounted for and expected, and that’s why it is so odd when Stone and Montgomery inform a woman named Olivia (Samantha Morton) of her husband’s death and she reacts with certain nonchalance.

Olivia and her son become a sort of obsession for Montgomery. But despite the synopsis or the advertising, the film is hardly about his relationship with her or the fact that his trying to start a forbidden relationship with a widow he recently informed. Above all else, this is an excellent account of how war is still very much a battle even when you are “home”. Stone and Montgomery reflect this throughout, and the ways they handle the stresses therein are the real lynchpin of it all.

Foster plays Montgomery as a sort of everyman. This could be any soldier’s story, and the location that the film takes place in is never defined - a sort of general America. This is a key component of the film, because although we are drawn to the extremely dynamic performances on the screen by Foster and Harrelson, we are so enamored because they present themselves not as actors but as people. Foster is sort of quiet through the opening scenes of the film (for good reason) but I hung on his every word because I was curious whether Montgomery was being portrayed as a stereotypical movie soldier farm boy or with some sort of southern accent. In not going this route and giving him a flat Middle American voice, the fact that this could be any soldier’s story is furthered in a subtle but relevant way. Montgomery has anger issues, problems with abandonment, probably drinks too much, and general frustrations that plague a man who has seen the worst the world has to offer in war. Yet he is intelligent, does his job, and sometimes needs to just blow off some steam. The same can be said of Harrelson’s Stone (though he does natively have a southern accent), who is similarly great in his essential supporting role which has been nominated for a Golden Globe award.

One scene portrays a soldier who is having a welcome home party in a bar, and we see it all through Montgomery’s eyes. Similarly, the first time that he and Stone go to report a death in the family, it would have been just as easy to focus the camera on the tragedy- the wild outburst of tears and crippling pain on the faces of the next of kin. But instead the camera stays steadily on the stern and unchanging face of Montgomery who is clearly going through a baptism of sorts. It is only once he has become comfortable in the mission that the camera loosens up a bit and focuses on the mourners more. This was possibly the wisest camera choice in the whole film, next to a scene of Montgomery and Olivia in her kitchen that plays out in one long take.

Sound also has a large presence in the film, arguably more than the visuals. The music that Montgomery (or Stone) listens to is never mentioned, save a neighbor yelling to turn it down. But it is a great decision to have it be a constant stream of hard-rock, all of which seems slightly behind the times. The general sound design in the film often accentuates the mood, sometimes to add a small moment of anticipation or suspense as we wait for the visuals to catch up to what we are hearing. A voice, an approaching person, something unexpected, we often hear these things before it steps on screen. Perhaps this is a subtle allusion to Montgomery’s own eye trauma. If so, it is brilliantly conceived and executed, as it never grabs your attention unless you pick up on it.

Director Owen Moverman and his co-writer Alessandro Camos have brought an intellect to the post-war experience. Being Israeli, Moverman’s own experiences as a paratrooper must have contributed to this understanding. Living in a country where everyone you know has served in the military, you see all the forms people can take after the fact. Yet, this film has very distinctly American details- a scene where Stone and Montgomery sing “Home on the Range”, for instance (which subsequently Willie Nelson plays over the end credits). The fact that neither Moverman nor Camos, who is Italian, are American-born matters as they are evidently wise observers of American life. Just as the Montgomery is the everyman and the setting is anywhere, the experiences of loss and finding a balance are universal.

****1/2 Four and a half stars – Definitely see this film

The Messenger is still playing in limited release. For a list of where it may be playing near you, see the list on this site or check your local listings.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs - "For Cast, Good, with Pratfalls"

Screenplay and Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Way back in the distant past known as 2002, MTV was already making the transition from music videos to more half hour programming and Total Request Live was at the height of popularity. There was an animated program that lasted only one season that almost no one watched called “Clone High” and it was the brain child of Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and Bill Lawrence. Lawrence, who was coming off the success of Michael J. Fox-starrer Spin City, was also launching his eventual hit Scrubs at this time, and ‘High’ had almost the entire cast of Scrubs voicing characters. Clone High was absurd, hilarious and had a great twist on science much like its spiritual brother, Miller and Lord’s latest project Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

‘Cloudy’ is a freeform prequel to the classic children’s book it is based on, an even looser take than Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are. It sets up a completely new story in the ‘Meatballs’ world, showing in essence how the rain of food first began in the town of Chewandswallow, primarily a sardine fishing town before the rain began. Our hero is one Flint Lockwood (SNL’s Bill Hader), a young man who has known since he was a boy that he would be a great inventor. Naturally, all of his inventions are humorously ill-conceived, like spray on shoes (that can never be taken off) or “rat-birds”, which now plague the town. One day the world realizes that Sardines are gross and the fishing industry all but dries up, leaving the entire town to sustain themselves on an exclusive diet of the salty mini-fish.

Flint decides to make a machine which converts simple water into all the foods that the town never gets to eat. He and his monkey sidekick Steve (Neil Patrick Harris) plan to unveil the device while the town is gathered for the Mayor’s presentation of a new Sardine Land to promote tourism for the remote island town. Through a series of events everything goes awry and the machine ends up in sky, where it begins feeding on the precipitation of clouds and causing a rain of whatever foods Flint requests of it from his computer. A perky young weathergirl named Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) gets involved, and is now covering the ongoing unique meteorological events and brings about one of the best lines of the film, “You may have seen a meteor shower, but I bet you've never seen a shower "meatier" than this.”

Naturally, everything goes to hell by the third act. The story is weak and predictable but it is precisely the above quoted type of pun-laden and blink-and-you-miss-it humor that helps keep the film afloat like a sandwich boat. Most of the credit can be attributed to the cast that Lord and Miller have assembled, who know how deliver the lines to maximally accentuate this heavily cartoonish world. While this reviewer has a low opinion of celebrity casts in general, which take jobs away from excellent voice actors, no one here is too showy. In fact, it came as a surprise who was actually voicing most of the characters when the end credits rolled (James Caan played Flint’s father?!). Frankly, who could have predicted that Neil Patrick Harris was behind the talking monkey Steve, who mostly just says his own name in a computerized voice via monkey thought translator? The only celebrity who made their presence known during the course of the film is Mr. T as Earl, because frankly, you always know Mr. T when you hear him.

Animation’s possibilities are fully taken advantage of as characters like Earl have a Tex Avery-like elasticity to their movements. I would also say that the color palette throughout is as wonderfully colorful as the characters who inhabit this world. Clearly, a lot of work went into the accurate rendering of food, and things like how a cheeseburger would fall apart as it hits the ground. While Disney pioneered the animation of humans and animals, I would say that ‘Meatballs’ has reaches a new pedestal for food animation (as silly as that may be). Though the film was clearly made for a 3D presentation (and was released as such this year), there are never gags that rely solely on that and detract from the 2D presentation of the film. In fact, the depth of field that is beginning to develop in CG animated films in general as a result of thinking for 3D is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, a step forward for the whole medium. While this is not the strongest animated film this year, it is a fun movie, something to watch when you want to relax.

*** Three Stars – Take it or leave it

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs releases today on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. It has been nominated for a Best Animated Feature Golden Globe Award.

Sugar - "Baseball Uncoated"

Check out my newest DVD review for!

**** Four Stars - Definitely see this film

Sugar is available now on DVD and Blu-ray Disc

Monday, January 4, 2010

9 - “Denyin’ 9”

Screenplay by Pamela Pettler
Story and Directed by Shane Acker

The humans are all dead. Life on planet Earth is over, destroyed by an uprising of intelligent robots. All that remains are nine small sackcloth people, each numbered and given distinct personalities. Their origin is somewhat a mystery, and the lives of the first eight consist mainly of trying to avoid death at the hands of a cat-like robot creature. 9 (Elijah Wood) suddenly awakens after a long dormancy to find himself flung into this world, being brought up to speed by 2 (Martin Landau), who he meets first but is quickly captured by the creature and 1 (Christopher Plummer), an old grouch who leads the rest of the group. 9 doesn’t play by 1’s rules, and at every turn follows his own instincts about how to improve their lives and ultimately make life safe for them.

The world they occupy is a bombed out war zone, seen from their six inch tall point of view. All kinds of mechanical pieces of the world and rubble from buildings make up the dangerous world they live in. The church used as a home base is like a football stadium to these tiny numbered men (and woman). The small details and inventiveness of these backgrounds are some of the best aspects of the film. No wonder someone with a passion for production design like Tim Burton would attach himself to the project as a producer.

At its best, 9 is a film that has thrills. The adventures that these sack-people go though are engaging and never dull. The camera often sweeps around the action in such a whirly-bird way that any notions that such a tale would be better served in another animation medium (like stop-motion) are dashed quickly (though Coraline does achieve one or two of these camera moves- tremendously more difficult when not done in CG). Whether it be running from one monster or chasing another, on the whole the fight scenes are well choreographed. That is, except when too many characters are involved, and the film purposely chooses to forget a few of them for a moment. It is these conveniences that help move the plot along at its fast clip, but also contribute to a lot of plot holes and moments when the audience is expected to simply go along with it all because that is what is happening now. Ultimately too many of these scenes with “subtle” gaps in them occur, to the point of becoming the dominant form of storytelling throughout the film.

Dialogue in the film is used frustratingly in a simple manner, where it only occurs to give us a simple line to explain what is going on now. Things along the lines of:
“I’m going to go there to rescue someone now.”
“No, I don’t want you to go.”
“But I have to go to find the thing we are searching for to help rescue life as we know it.”
“Then I will go with you to help, but only so I can serve a plot device later.”
Of course, this is exaggerated. But it really feels like this is what is being said at almost every turn and it hampers the movie from achieving any cohesive emotional impact every time. You get so used to it as an audience member that when a moment comes late in the film where a moment of important planning is completely understated, you get confused. 9 hints a plan to 5, without telling him a single thing. 5 then naturally understands the entire plan, to the point where you question if 9 intended that at all in the first place. And it turns out he did. Oh well. The (almost mandatory at this point for an animated film) celebrity cast that also includes John C. Reilly and Jennifer Connelly is wasted on such dialogue.

There is a certain technological or political lesson lurking below this world, that machines will one day destroy us, or that our government will betray us and get everyone killed. Yet it is a Computer Graphics animated film. Again, why I would make a case for why this film may have otherwise been made with stop motion animation. But like the rest of the story, it is best to not think too hard about that. The film’s ending kind of makes sense, but not really. Somehow 9 knows the secret way to redeem the entire situation through a ritual that he was never shown nor was hinted at (I guess it’s just another of the instinctual gut feelings he has). In the end we kind of get a sense of redemption, an uplifting moment for the human soul, but is it really? Some of the nine sack-people have gone on to another place and we leave our remaining characters alone in this shell of a lifeless world. What do they have? What will they do with their lives from this point forth? Seemingly nothing.

9 Came out in a tough year. Not only is it unfortunately now part of the 2009 “nine trilogy” (with District 9 and the musical Nine), but it also faces stiff competition from more animated films this year than any this reviewer can recall. In any other year, 9 might be a welcome change of pace to the Disney and Dreamworks dominated animation scene. But instead, this inventive and fairly independent (Tim Burton and Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov threw their weight behind the project as producers) CG animated film is merely another one on the pile, held back by a weak script.

** Two Stars – Watch it if you Must

9 was released last week and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.