Monday, October 29, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Into the Wild

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Billy Mitchell, Steve Weibe

This documentary is just as sweet as it appears in the trailer, and much funnier. If you have the means, I highly suggest getting to your nearest independent movie theater and seeing this immediately. It's definitely worth the price of admission. I can't explain the premise any better than that trailer did, but suffice it to say that some of the interviews with the gamers involved are priceless. And Billy Mitchell is just as much of a badass as he looks. Did you see that mullet!?! I've only seen one other real documentary (Murderball, in case you were wondering), but if more documentaries would cover cool stuff like this I'm sure their audience would grow at an exponential rate. This provided an inside look at Steve Weibe's life as he attempts to beat Billy Mitchell's Donkey Kong record and, in true documentary fashion, it does a great job of showing not only his gameplay and the competitive side of his personality, but his family life and how his play affects people around him. This movie opens your eyes to the world of intense world record caliber gaming, and after seeing it you'll never look at a classic arcade machine again without smiling.

Into the Wild
Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, William Hurt

What is it with actors wanting to be directors these days? Just kidding, Sean Penn. This was actually a pretty good movie. I guess actors-turned-directors have a pretty good track record in my book in recent years with Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, and Apocalypto. Part Castaway, part road movie, Into the Wild blends modern society with isolated nature and provides a pretty scathing critique regarding capitalism and materialism along the way. Casual fans might be interested to know that Eddie Vedder was responsible for the music in the film, and the music is one of its greatest assets and a huge reason behind its success. Emile Hirsch's performance is the other reason: after all - the movie hinges on him. He's totally believable as the rebellious Christopher McCandless, who, after graduating from Emory University, donates all of his money to charity and starts trekking north to live on the land up in Alaska. The film shows some of his time there, intercut with flashbacks to show his adventures along the way. There are appearances by some pretty good actors/actresses, including Catherine Keener (who I normally HATE, but enjoyed for the first time), Jena Malone, some guy who sounds exactly like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Vince Vaughn playing Vince Vaughn (again), and the aptly named William Hurt looking like he just realized he ate a Grande Combo at Taco Bell and the nearest bathroom is 200 miles away (pictured at right). I'm glad he always plays characters that are so torn up inside so he can struggle with himself in a pained voice - otherwise, he'd be really boring to watch.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Jena Malone plays Hirsch's sister, and provides most of the vocal depth to the movie through her insightful voiceovers. The combination of her voice and the words she was reading was beautiful, but you'll have no idea what I'm talking about unless you've seen it. Sean Penn did a surprisingly good job of varying camera angles and using his locations to their fullest effect, which had an impact on the viewer. Unfortunately, the movie dragged on a little too long and the protagonist dies at the end, so that's kind of a downer. But when you think about it, he really succeeded in his mission: to find the truth. That's what the whole movie was about - Chris' search for truth. He didn't believe in the crap that society was feeding him, and he boldly refused not to accept his place in the system. He didn't rebel in a lawless manner like most disillusioned people would (at least in the movies); he kept to himself on a quest of self-discovery and a search for the truth in this life. At the end of the movie, when he is close to death, he realizes that truth: happiness is nothing unless it is shared. By this time in the film he's trapped in the wild and too emaciated to attempt another escape, so he dies with his newfound knowledge, but at least he found what he was looking for. It had a good message, even if it took two and a half hours and some tragic events to get to it.

That's all I've got for now, film fans. Take a look at Branz's poster for Saw VIII if you haven't already, and check out my review of Saw IV directly below it. Until next time...

Saw VIII: Fake Poster...Or is it?

Ben, it's a great idea....
Read the review of Saw IV HERE!!

Saw IV

I was planning on doing another list-type review here with three other movies, but I got off on a little tangent with Saw IV, so I'll consolidate the others a little better when I get around to typing those up.

Saw IV

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman (this guy was a production assistant for Tara Reid for
Van Wilder? Wow. That's embarrassing. I'd probably take that off my resume if I were him.)
Starring: Tobin Bell, Donnie Wahlberg, other people we've never heard of

The first one was innovative, but the rest of these films are getting out of control. Since I'd seen all the others, I considered myself too involved in the mythology to NOT finish out the series. This may have been a mistake on my part since I've heard rumors that they are signing directors for Saw VIII. That's right - we're set to see a new Saw installment hit theaters every Halloween until 2011 (at least). I should have stopped after the first one.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Saw II was like a bad episode of some MTV reality show: locking strangers in a house together, only it's Jigsaw's twists keeping things interesting instead of unmitigated sex and alcohol poisoning. The third one returned to a more story-oriented format, with more backstory on the key players while continuing the narrative. I think the fourth movie is more similar to the third movie than to any other in the series. Joe also pointed out something which I can't argue with: he said he's never seen a sequel that takes place at the same time as another sequel. "Ben, what the heck are you talking about?" you frantically ask. "Well reader, I shall tell you," I reply calmly. If you drew a timeline that represents time during the entire Saw franchise, it would look something like this:

(Copyright 2007, Ben Pearson)

This weird time realization (which is revealed at the very end of Saw IV) is sadly the coolest thing about this pretty average sequel. There are just too many characters getting involved for the audience to follow exactly what's happening and remember who's who. The protagonists are all white guys with dark hair in their mid-thirties, and at most points I was fighting to keep everyone in perspective. You almost have to go back and watch all of the movies before going to see each new installment, but who has time for that?

This whole discussion of the so-called "torture porn" genre is really starting to piss me off. I don't like the term, and I don't think the
Saw films should be lumped in with those other films like the Hostel series, Wolf Creek, Turistas, Captivity, and The Devil's Rejects that critics throw into that category. I've never seen any of those movies, so I can't say anything positive or negative about them. But while torture is undoubtedly a feature, there's nothing pornographic about the Saw films (aside from the occasional rapist who meets his demise): they are all about retribution. That's why Jigsaw is such a great character - he's a serial killer who punishes people for taking their lives for granted. Creating a sympathetic killer is something the filmmakers should be rewarded for, not criticized - after all, "relatability to the audience" is one of the qualities that defines a great character. In a completely different take on the situation, it comes down to one simple concept: if you don't want to see it, don't pay to see it. No one is forcing anyone to watch these movies. I suspect we all get our enjoyment from different aspects of the films. I get mine from the sympathetic portrayal of Jigsaw and his developing backstory revealed in each subsequent movie. Others might get their enjoyment in a different part of the story, like dialogue, the unique traps, the interconnectedness of the characters, or what have you. Another point of view comes from Stephen King (not that I necessarily agree with him 100% here) who said, "sure [this type of movie] makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable."

Like I said, I'm too invested to give up now, but I can only hope these movies will improve with time and not end up with
Saw VIII: Jigsaw in Space. Honestly, I can't blame them for churning these things out every year. I'm pretty sure the first Saw was made for $1.5 million and made over $100 million worldwide. So from a moneymaking (and brand loyalty) standpoint, it's a sure thing for Lionsgate. Sadly, I think this franchise has a nasty case of Hootie and the Blowfish syndrome: the first one was great, and the rest we could all live without. We'll see if they prove me wrong in the upcoming years. Until next time...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gone Baby Gone, We Own The Night, The Graduate, Wall Street

Yeesh, it's been as bad as "The Playing Field" around here with the lack of posting. Sorry about that, readers. As soon as I knock out some pesky tests and things of that sort that stand in my way, I'm going to start cranking out mini-reviews on every movie that I watch, similar to what I did for March Madness earlier this year. How long will I continue this time? Only time will tell.

Anyway, here's the rundown for this post. I've seen a lot of movies lately: some good, some great, and some really mediocre. So in the spirit of what is to come, here's an appetizer of what things will (hopefully) be like around here for a while.

Gone Baby Gone
Writer/Director: Ben Affleck (co-written with Aaron Stockard)
Starring: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris

The source material was written by Dennis Lahane, the author of Mystic River (really good movie. Check out my review of it here), so GBG definitely has the same sort of dramatic corrupt Bostonian vibe that made Mystic River such a cool film. If you liked Mystic River, you'll be slightly disappointed with Gone Baby Gone, but it was still really good. Who knew that Ben Affleck could direct? He seemed incredibly comfortable behind the camera, not at all constrained like you'd expect a first-time director to be. He had some great helicopter shots; overall, everything was great on that end. In front of the camera, his little brother Casey (blowing up all of a sudden in this and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford in the same weekend) did a great job as a private detective on the hunt for a missing child. Jared and I were discussing this earlier; this movie is definitely a modern-day noir (neo-noir, if you want the real term), and Casey is great as the Bogart-esque character who gets sucked further and further into the unraveling story of a missing child. Everyone else's performance was pretty average with the exception of Ed Harris, who I thought was great. Oh, and Taggart from the Beverly Hills Cop movies was in this. No, not Eddie Murphy. Not Judge Reinhold, either. The other one. But seriously, go see Gone Baby Gone because apparently Ben Affleck's career depends on it. I for one would like to see him behind the camera more often that in front of it in the future. It's the only sure way we can avoid a Gigli sequel.

We Own The Night
Writer/Director: James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes

Everyone knows that this was marketed as if it were "The Departed 2," so naturally that's what everyone compares it to after they've seen it (myself included). The thing is, the movie wasn't bad on it's own; it just wasn't nearly as good as The Departed. If The Departed never came out, I think it might have resonated well with audiences, but since everyone thought it was trying too hard to emulate it, the film didn't do that well at the box office. If you'd give it a chance, you'd see that while it had some of the same elements as the aforementioned Best Picture winner, this movie was all about family. Joaquin Phoenix and Marky Mark are brothers on opposite sides of the law, mixed up in Russian drugs and police wars. Like I said, this was all about family: it follows Phoenix (who gave an extremely solid performance) as he tries to decide whether to side with his family or stay with the drug lords who have made him rich. I'm not going to say anything else about this, since I don't want to give away the one thing surprise that actually makes this worth watching, but check it out on DVD or something if you're bored in a couple of months and you're looking for a Robert Duvall fix.

The Graduate
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross, Anne Bancroft

Good Lord, I hated this movie. I'd seen it on those stupid "Lists of The 400 Greatest Movies Ever That You HAVE To See Before You Die," so I checked it out and it was one of the biggest wastes of time I've ever experienced. The acting was absolutely horrific. I don't know why this "made" Dustin Hoffman's career. He sucked. Almost as bad as in Meet the Fockers. It was near-painful to watch at points because of how bad the script was and how bad ALL of the acting was. If the filmmakers were doing that on purpose then I completely missed the point. Speaking of that, the ending made no sense in conjunction with the rest of the movie. I'm not going to ruin it, because undoubtedly some of you won't believe me and you'll go out and rent it anyway, but for the entire duration the tone is set in one direction until it takes a slamming right turn in the last 15 minutes into freakin' Fairytale Cheeseball Central. Ridiculous. It's like everything they were working for (whatever deeper meaning I couldn't see because the movie SUCKED SO HARD) was undercut by this stupid ending that seemed as if they couldn't come up with a legitimate ending and had to just finish the production quickly before they were kicked out of their locations. I'm sure seeing this back in 1967 when it came out would have been extremely liberating or whatever, but it doesn't hold up at all today. And I can't tell you how much I hate Simon and Garfunkel, who exclusively do the music for the whole movie. They even repeat songs during different scenes because they couldn't come up with enough original material in time for the film's release, so they force you to endure three or four montages to "The Sound of Silence." I wish to the highest heaven it HAD been silence. Sigh. I beg you, don't waste your time.

Wall Street
Writer/Director: Oliver Stone (co-written with Stanley Weiser)
Starring: Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah

Really awesome movie. It came out in 1987 and I'd never seen it before, so I thought I'd give it a shot. This is basically the template for The Devil's Advocate, so if you liked the relationship between Keanu and Pacino in that film, you'll love Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas in this one. Douglas rightly won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance, and it's one of the best in recent memory. He was fantastic. One of those "80's excess" movies in the same category with American Psycho and others like it, this one stands far above the rest as the best in the genre that I've ever seen. And I know it's hard to believe, but Charlie Sheen can actually carry a movie. He was on-screen probably 95% of the time, but you never got sick of him, and you always felt for him. This is the classic story of the young up-and-comer getting sucked into a world wildly beyond his expectations and the rise and fall of his career that comes with that cutthroat world. This film (like the last one mentioned) is also about family and the sacrifices one makes regarding priorities, seemingly pleading with the audience to make sure our capitalistic tendencies don't win out over general morality and ethics. Rent this now. Douglas's famous "Greed is Good" speech is worth the price of the rental. A quick side note: there's a lot of Wall Street jargon used here, but I still loved the movie even though I didn't understand any of it.

On a completely unrelated note, I just watched Shattered Glass for the first time. If you like journalism, it should be required viewing. It's like Resurrecting the Champ, but slightly better. See them both at your leisure.

All right ladies and gents, that's it for now. Hopefully I'll be back in full swing in a week or two, so get on me if I'm not. Until next time...