Thursday, February 25, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

When I saw the first trailer for How To Train Your Dragon, I must admit it didn't pique my interest. A non-Pixar film is automatically fighting an uphill battle in the animation industry, and Dragon just didn't seem that interesting to me. So I practically surprised myself when I decided to check out an advanced screening (in 3D, no less) at the Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood on Thursday night. I was also surprised with how much I ended up enjoying the film.

How To Train Your Dragon
Directors: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson

How To Train Your Dragon shares plot elements with a lot of stories we've seen recently. The plot follows Hiccup, a young Viking living in a culture that thrives on fighting dragons. His dad is the chief of the village and wants nothing more than for his son to grow up to be a hard-nosed Viking like the rest of the tribe. That's what Hiccup wants, too - but the problem is he's kind of clumsy and seems to be more of an inventor than a warrior (he's the apprentice to a blacksmith). When Hiccup uses one of his inventions to take down a Night Fury (the most mysterious and rare of all dragon classifications), he finds he doesn't have it in him to kill the beast and instead befriends it. As the rest of the story unfolds, Hiccup attempts to convince his tribe that dragons may not be as bad as they thought.

So why did I like this film? First off, aside from the overly-cartoonish characters (admittedly a Dreamworks style that I don't particularly care for), the animation was phenomenal. There were a few sequences in which Viking ships were travelling over water where I literally whispered "wow" in the theater because of how beautifully the water was rendered. I know it's a small detail, but it was some of the best CG water I've ever seen. More than the water, though, I loved the actual "dragon training" sequences. Remember the scene in Avatar where Jake Sully's Na'vi flies through Pandora on the back of a dragon? This film does that same sequence, but better (and about half an hour longer). You can practically feel the wind on your face as Hiccup and his dragon soar through the air, coast above the water, and dodge through rock formations. It's genuinely thrilling filmmaking, and I had an insane amount of fun with those scenes.

I mentioned before the film shares plot elements with a few other films. Besides the Avatar similarities (which are too blatant to ignore), How To Train Your Dragon also borrows a bit from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, one of my favorite animated films of the past decade. The protagonists in both films are "different" from societal norms; they are outcast inventors trying to impress their fathers and score their first girlfriend at the same time. They both get in over their heads, but eventually prove that not only is it OK to be different, but it's ultimately necessary for the well-being of their respective towns. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the (slight spoiler alert) huge monster dragon that appears near the end of the film bears a striking resemblance to the Kraken from the upcoming Clash of the Titans. The animators must have been pissed when they saw that Titans trailer.

Rising above the shuffle of filmic references and breathtaking visuals is a solid cast featuring Jay Baruchel (She's Out of My League, The Sorcerer's Apprentice) as Hiccup, Gerard Butler (300, Gamer) as Stoic, Hiccup's father and village chief, and late night talk show personality Craig Ferguson as Stoic's right hand man, Gobber. Butler and Ferguson relish in their Scottish accents, while Baruchel mercifully plays it straight and avoids any annoying vocal tricks. America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig round out the cast in supporting roles, all to fine effect. (Hill plays a character clearly based on Jack Black.)

The film tries to introduce a romance that didn't work for me, partly because Astrid's (Ferrera) transformation from "badass alpha-female" who wants nothing to do with Hiccup to "instant girlfriend" was rushed and didn't feel natural. There's even a scene reminiscent of Aladdin's famous "A Whole New World" montage where Hiccup and Astrid fly for the first time together, but it isn't enough to make their relationship believable. With that said, the visuals during that sequence were spectacular. There's one shot in particular that stood out as something I've never seen before. The camera stays locked in a side profile view of the pair flying atop a dragon as the dragon goes into a flying flip, with the background around the camera rotating but the trio staying right-side-up for the duration of the shot. It's a cool little touch; add that to the training sequences I talked about earlier and I think we have one of the most gorgeous films of the year so far. It's no surprise that Academy-Award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual advisor on the film.

Speaking of visuals, I haven't mentioned the 3D yet. Like Pixar's Up, this movie uses 3D as a means of adding depth instead of bringing things out into the face of the audience. I'm generally not a fan of 3D, but this felt totally organic and didn't distract from the story at all. However, if you're not willing to part with the extra cash for the more expensive 3D ticket, I'm confident the film will look just as dazzling in the standard two dimensions.

My last point comes with a brief disclaimer: I'm fully aware some people are going to accuse me of reading too far into a "kid's movie," but I figured I'd bring this up anyway. At one point, Astrid disgustedly looks at Hiccup (who has just failed a training mission in Viking Camp) and says "our parents' war is about to become ours. You better figure out whose side you're on." Poignant words from a movie geared towards kids, especially today. Later on, Hiccup and his father argue over the merits of saving the dragons or fighting them. "They've killed hundreds of us!" Stoic yells at his son. "But we've killed thousands of them!" Hiccup replies. "They're just defending themselves." I'm not going to use this review as a platform for my own political beliefs, but it would appear someone was trying to slide a little current affairs into this movie. For those who would argue with me on this, let me offer a bit of defense: I think the aforementioned points are just as relevant as the political references in The Dark Knight. How To Train Your Dragon was based on a book written in 2003, so it's probable that if those specific bits of dialogue were in the text, they were written with the War on Terror consciously or subconsciously in the author's mind.

Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois co-wrote (with a few others) and co-directed, and overall I had a really fun time with this movie. The characters aren't as fully rounded as I'd like, but the breathtaking visuals and fun tone of the film more than made up for any missteps along the way. While I haven't seen many of Dreamworks Animation's films outside of the Shrek series, How To Train Your Dragon definitely ranks up there next to the first Shrek film as my favorite of their work so far. Unlike the Shrek sequels (and, from what I hear, other Dreamworks Animation films since), this movie does not rely on pop culture gags AT ALL and instead chooses to focus completely on the story and the characters. Obviously this was a great decision on their part, one I hope they repeat in the future. I'd recommend this movie to anyone of any age. Until next time...

Friday, February 19, 2010

L.A. Streetfighters


It's your old boy Alan Trehern here with another review of a good movie. And by "good movie", I mean "pretty bad". And by "pretty bad", I mean "pretty bad ass". L.A. Streetfighters was exactly what I thought it would be, for numerous reasons. And as usual, I'm going to tell you those reasons, whether you like it or not. So let's begin!

L.A. Streetfighters (1985)
Starring Jun Chong and Phillip Rhee
Produced by Jun Chong
Directed by Woo-sang Park (as Richard Park)

The plot of this film follows a high-school group of kids who must band together and work as bodyguards to survive the dangerous streets of inner-city Los Angeles. Young (Chong) and Tony (Rhee), become tight friends within the first thirty seconds when the bully and self-appointed ruler of the high school, Chan (James Lew), starts trouble. The movie continues from this awkward cold-opening and manages to throw in every stereotype and cliché in the book.

Young and his crew begin getting work as protection at clubs, parties and Mexican fiestas, all the while running the night away on the dark and dingy streets. The best aspect of this movie is that there are literal "street fights" in almost every scene. Whether the guys piss off the Mexican gangs, or Chan's gang or the coke dealers, the movie is over the top action through and through, and for that, I give it 25 Branzys.

However, the movie also shines in the drama department, depicting a troubling life for these young ruffians. Young and his mother have a delicate relationship, and while he strives to improve their mother-son demeanor, she would rather have strange men plow drinks into her in a smoky club. Tony, who has a well-structured family life, spends more time with Young, learns more about his past and the two become like brothers; the kinship portrayed in the movie between Young and Tony, as well as within the Young group, is pretty believable and doesn't seem forced like most movies I see.

For the most part, though, the overall tale has alot of loose ends. Numerous sub-plots were attempted but never resolved, so you're left with six or seven unfinished stories. The movie doesn't actually have a recurring storyline until the very end when they steal the coke dealers' money and the coke dealers come after them; it was the first instance during the film that a plot took more than two scenes to complete.

The lowest point of the movie? The acting. The entire movie was over-dubbed in post-production, even though the damn thing was clearly filmed in English. Not only that, but it seemed like every single sentence of dialogue was recorded by the actors separately with no context to the scene, causing each scene to lack the fluidity and substance you expect from any other movie. I mean, seriously, who watched the final cut of this and said, "Well, there's nothing more we can do to it. Let's ship it out." This movie could have met the ranks of A Better Tomorrow or any other "low-quality but good" martial arts movie, but the producers just didn't give a rat's ass. **grumble**

Most of the time, everyone speaks at the same time, but the actors' mouths aren't moving, so you really don't know who's saying what. Further, on occasion a character will ask a question, but no one will answer it. It's like the screenwriters just wrote random lines of dialogue with no real structure in mind. It's utter bullsh*t.

You probably still don't believe how bad the dialogue is. Well, let me give you another example. At one point in the movie, Chan attempts to rough up young Tony and his girlfriend. Each over-dubbed insult is met with an awkward pause, followed by some forced laughter from Chan, like he really burned Tony with that one-liner. The only thing that soothed my temper was the knowledge that the inevitable street fight that would break out within seven seconds. Ahhhh...

As I said before, the fight scenes were pretty good considering the dialogue is pure elephant diarrhea. The fights had what the other scenes lacked: fluidity, quickness, substance, structure. I mean they were no

Protector or John Woo fight scenes, but for an hour and 22 minutes, I was thoroughly pleased.

I love 80s music; I really, really do. And this movie delivered. The trashy streets of L.A. mixed with the synthesized/urban feel of the instrumentals hearkened back memories of
Robocop, The Terminator and any other 1980s urban films. For some reason these types of movies make me feel good, and it's something I can't explain, but when I stumble across a movie that fits the criteria, I get so damn excited. Call me a freak, see if I care, but I feel like music can make a movie 50-60 percent better, and L.A. Streetfighters is a perfect example of this.

Now, I have accepted the fact that my taste in movies is far from anything socially acceptable or in any way thoughtful or intellectual. I get persecuted time and time again for the sh*t that I watch and declare as "remarkable". But believe me, if you enjoy a good "bad movie" every once an a while, this film probably isn't for you.

Is it an artistic film? No. Is the story worthwhile? Not by a long shot. Does the dialogue speak to a generation? No, it's god-awful.

This movie is an action-packed Korean martial arts film with themes of friendship, love, family and honor buried somewhere deep among the travesty that these guys call a script. It's a genuine movie made with hardly any budget, and if you watch movies like I do, you'll get a kick out of how bad but terrific it is. Any martial arts fan (Ben included) should check it out, and any pretentious, arty cenophile (Ben
not included) should stay far away, lest they defecate all over this film's redeeming qualities with their pompous, analytical poppycock.

: Trehern reviews Miami Connection and the
Robocop Trilogy.

: Miami Connection is regrettably no where to be found. If you have a copy of it, let me know. Until then, witness this sweet 1980s music video from the movie. Until I find a copy, that's all I got.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shutter Island

It's not difficult for the adept moviegoer to predict the direction Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island travels; the fun is in the ride. The Oscar-winning director has crafted a psychologically charged thriller that is as much about recapturing a classical style of filmmaking as it is a showcase for the acting talents of star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Shutter Island
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams

The plot is familiar enough: In 1954, a pair of "duly appointed federal marshals" (an irresistibly fun phrase to imitate with a Boston accent) arrive on Shutter Island to visit Ashcliffe, the federal mental hospital for the criminally insane. A woman named Rachel has vanished, and it's up to Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to find her. As a threatening storm places the island on lock down and Dr. Cowley (Sir Ben Kingsley) begins playing mind games with the marshals, Teddy must battle through delusions, drugs, and hysteria to discover the truth behind Rachel's disappearance and relive his own horrific wartime experiences in the process.

Like I said: if you've seen the trailer, you know this movie is going to tackle the tried and true question, "what is real?" Thematically, the film this instantly reminded me of is Total Recall, the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick directed by Paul Verhoeven. Like that film, Shutter Island presents a world in which reality is called into question, and it's our job as the audience to sift through the details and discover the truth for ourselves. Tonally, the movie reminds me more of an old Vincent Price film; the "trapped on an island" setup and mind games lend well to recapturing the claustrophobia of 1940's film noir (Key Largo comes to mind). Scorsese's style also fits this mold well - his use of close ups help to force the viewer in for a closer look (mirroring Teddy's journey) and he employs quick cuts to keep the audience slightly uneasy and uncertain of anything they are seeing.

The score, an eerie mix of previously recorded songs, was put together by Scorsese's frequent collaborator Robbie Robertson. Surprisingly, it works extremely well, providing an old school vibe that is overpowering at points. (The introduction to the island in the opening scene is fantastic.) But the uncomfortably loud volume (again, only at certain points) definitely served its purpose, driving the audience into their seats and cringing to escape the pulsating strings and deep orchestral tones. In Shutter Island, the score is used as yet another manipulation, keeping the viewer off balance and intensely aware of every detail.

For the sake of full disclosure, let it be known that I'm a huge fan of Leonardo DiCaprio - so take this next paragraph with a grain of salt. DiCaprio is my favorite actor working today, and his performance here was outstanding. The movie itself has a sort of B-movie vibe to it, not taking itself too seriously and allowing certain aspects (like Ben Kingsley's performance) to be wonderfully over the top. DiCaprio's performance, on the other hand, was as straight as an arrow. We needed him to be believable since everything on the island is questionable. He takes us on a personal journey and we can feel every emotion seething through him on the screen. We completely buy into his viewpoint, and Scorsese and Co. knew that the entire film rides on this performance. The actor is fairly selective about his film projects and always strives to push himself into a challenging role, and Teddy Daniels was different enough from other characters he's played to meet his needs. If this movie was released back in October of 2009 as initially planned, we would most likely be discussing the battle between Jeff Bridges and Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards.

The cinematography is striking, avoiding cheap camera tricks in favor of a classical shooting style that retains suspense and simultaneously borders on beautiful. The disorienting aura surrounding Teddy's flashbacks and slowly infiltrating his existence is translated skillfully through the camera, allowing us the luxury of an enjoyable ride even if we know (or at least suspect) where the path will end.

The script, written by Laeta Kalogridis and based on Dennis Lehane's novel, is complex and layered, giving Teddy a solid arc and providing a captivating commentary about living with guilt. Teddy's flashback sequences, both of his days as a soldier at the liberation of Dachau and memories of his deceased wife, are well paced throughout the movie's run time. Small-but-solid parts for Jackie Earle Haley and Max von Sydow also add to the creepy and moody atmosphere.

Overall, Shutter Island is my favorite movie of the year so far. It's tight, suspenseful, well-acted, well-directed, and well-shot. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Even if you think you've figured out the "twist" from the trailers, it's still a joy to watch Scorsese give us a film that so wholly embraces its film noir roots and, as an added bonus, features DiCaprio's most complex role in years. Until next time...

Hot Tub Time Machine

by Guest Contributor Joe Leininger

Starring: John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, and Clark Duke
Director: Steve Pink
Genre: Raunchy comedy
U.S. Release: March 26th, 2010

I can't say that I've ever been a huge John Cusack fan, but when I heard about this movie I almost had a beneurysm. Alright, so I wasn't excited to that extent, but I do love most everything Craig Robinson (Darryl from The Office, Pineapple Express) touches and his performance in this flick did not stray from the path.

The movie starts out with longtime buddies Adam, Nick, and Lou deciding to escape their everyday problems and take a bender at a local ski resort. Adam (Cusack) also takes it upon himself to bring along his 23-year old nephew Jacob, who sits around the house all day and plays Second Life.

After some heavy boozing the foursome gets zapped back to 1986 and must find the clues to get back to present day, no matter the cost. At this juncture of the film it's not the how or why this happened but rather the absorption of the adventure.

I enjoyed this movie because it was cut from the same cloth as The Hangover and Back to the Future. The gross-out gags were tempered nicely with the one-liners and situational humor. At one point Nick (Robinson) realizes the absurd situation his dumbass friends got him in and looks straight at the camera, channeling some misplaced 'brother' rage seen only in Sam Jackson's character in Snakes on a Plane.

Even though at times it was hard to believe Nick's character would have been such good friends with the other characters most everyone was cast well. Crispin Glover's bellhop character was entertaining but I had a real problem with Chevy Chase as the repairman. Chase was drab, inconsequential and at times frustrating to watch. Clark Duke (who played Jacob) held his own with the others and it appears he can be a more well-rounded version of Jonah Hill.

The women of the movie weren't anything special, but with the way this film plowed its way into the 'guy movie' bin it wasn't much of a surprise or disappointment. Collette Wolfe was very easy on the eyes as Adam's mega-party-whore sister and I wouldn't be shocked to start seeing her in more movies.

This was by no means a must see in theatres but I would strongly suggest it to any John Cusack fan or comedy junkie. It wasn't as good as The Hangover but it gives that same feeling of careless adventure and debauchery. For only his second film as director, Steve Pink executed a comedic tale in which the majority of the gags will have the audience in stitches.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Crazy Heart

I've read some middling reviews of Crazy Heart that essentially say the only reason to see this film is Jeff Bridges' Academy Award-nominated performance. While Bridges undeniably raises the appeal of the movie, I'd argue that Scott Cooper delivers an entertaining film that is more than merely a showcase for one of the best actors of our generation.

The movie tells the story of Bad Blake, a 57-year-old country music legend who has fallen out of the public eye. Touring the country by himself in his '78 Suburban, he plays bowling alleys and dive bars to small crowds, barely making a living. He gives an interview to a reporter, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and their relationship provides the foundation for the film. Along the way, Blake reunites with a young country singer whom he once mentored.

Crazy Heart
Writer/Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall

First-time feature writer/director Scott Cooper wanted to tell the story of Merle Haggard, but couldn't obtain the rights. So he turned to "Crazy Heart," a novel written in 1987 by Thomas Cobb. Cooper made a fantastic choice to tell the fictional story of Bad Blake because, unlike the typical biopic, we don't know how this story ends. We don't enter into this film carrying our own bias for or against an actual musician that inhabits our world. We aren't subconsciously questioning why the director didn't include what we perceive as milestone events in the main character's life because we don't have any prior knowledge of this character. At the same time, by basing him so closely on the lives of Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and other country legends, Cooper easily tapped into our expectations for Bad Blake. We instantly pinpoint this character and his situation, and from the first frame of the film can recognize his story. Cooper gave us what appears to be a blank slate, but upon closer inspection already has outlines drawn out for us.

But what might be one of the film's best strengths is also a potential weakness. By delving a little too far into the derivative, the movie can feel overly familiar and loses its way at certain points, meandering until it hits plot points that move the story forward. While I initially thought these wandering segments of the film weren't as important, in hindsight I've been given a new perspective: I think the movie was designed this way on purpose. By including the relevant with the seemingly irrelevant, we're given a much more realistic look into Bad Blake's character and can extrapolate his life story out of these moments without a single flashback in the entire film. Sure, there are some borderline stereotypical aspects - surrogate sons, rehab, etc. - but the movie also feels startlingly real at times, and the characterizations (not just Bridges, but supporting characters) lend an air of authenticity that makes Crazy Heart one of my favorite movies in this genre.

Allow me to briefly add to the growing chorus of supporters for Jeff Bridges and his work here. He completely disappears into this role, and definitely earns every bit of praise he's getting. Similar to Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Bridges himself actually sings in this film and sounds pretty convincing as a country performer (after I saw the film, I went home and downloaded one of the film's songs from iTunes - something I NEVER do). But how this film differs from Walk the Line is in the details - an interview with Scott Cooper reveals that Bridges and Co. actually sang live on set as well as in a studio, and Cooper used the audio of the live performances whenever possible. This adds yet another level of realism to the production of this film; one that you can feel on the screen and unquestionably hear through the speakers.

The music is fantastic, and every song sounds as if it could be heard on the radio. This, I'm sure, is thanks to T-Bone Burnett, a music producer who has worked on such albums as The Wallflowers' "Bringing Down the Horse" and contributed to Crazy Heart as a music producer and songwriter. "The Weary Kind," the theme for this film, earned Burnett (along with fellow composer Ryan Bingham) an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture.

Through all the praise I heard about this film before I saw it, I heard almost nothing about Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance. She's since been nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and this is without a doubt the best work I've seen from her. (To be fair, I haven't seen Sherry Baby or Secretary.) We never get to explore Jean's work as a journalist, instead primarily focusing on her much more important job of being a mother. Gyllenhaal appeared at a Q&A after my screening, and said she approached the character as a good mom who allowed her son the security of knowing that she's always nearby. Adding yet another level of realism to this film, the mother/son relationship between her and 5-year-old debut actor Jack Nation was believable and sincere. Gyllenhaal captures the essence of both responsible parent and free-spirited lover with ease, and is equally effective in the quiet moments as in the few emotional outbursts her character experiences.

One of the most complex relationships depicted in this film is between Bad Blake and Tommy Sweet, the young heartthrob country superstar whom Bad mentored years prior. I'm not going to give away who plays Tommy in the film, but it's a great surprise since this actor hasn't appeared in any of the marketing. If you plan on seeing this movie, don't read anything else about it before you hit the theater - other websites surely won't be so kind about hiding the spoiler. Robert Duvall (who produced the film) appears as a friend of Blake, and does solid work with a small role (as if there were any doubt).

Crazy Heart is a small film that needs your support. It's refreshing to see a movie crafted with such passion on every level, and to see that passion translated through the big screen. If the current reboot/sequel trend is any indication, the days of seeing small films like this in theaters are unfortunately numbered. I'd highly suggest checking out Crazy Heart if you get a chance. I'd normally say it's not a film that demands to be seen in theaters, but if you prefer having choices that don't involve adaptations of 80's television shows when you visit a multiplex, then supporting a film like this is the only chance we have. Until next time...


One of my favorite lines in the film comes during Gyllenhaal's interview with Bridges. She asks, "What would you have done if you didn't make music?" and he responds, "Play baseball. I used to play, and was pretty good, too. I just couldn't hit the curveball. So I figured I'd stick with playing my guitar - the sonofabitch stays where it belongs."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I remember watching this with my college roommate in our dorm in 2004/2005 on the campus movie channel. The film was playing on a loop for a month or so, so we started watching it one afternoon. We had something planned for that evening, so we left the movie halfway through and attended our little shindig (which probably involved playing poker at one of the dorms across campus). The next night, we returned to the movie to try to finish it off, and I remember both of us being incredibly confused and - for myself, at least, - kind of dismissive of the film because we didn't understand it. [Note: If there ever is a movie that demands to be watched in one sitting, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fits the bill.]

And so it was. I heard people mention it sporadically over the years, always showering it with praise; occasionally someone would ask me if I'd seen it, to which I would reply, "yes" and they would heave a great sigh of relief and go on for a few minutes about how incredible it is. I would always kind of nod my head and smile, never contributing anything to the conversation since I could only remember vague snippets about it and even then I was wildly unsure of what I had watched. While my reply was technically true, I hadn't really seen the movie.

Fast forward to December 2009. The internet is inundated with an influx of "Best of the Decade" lists from just about every movie-related website known to man, even those only tangentially related to the film writing world. I even contributed my own "Favorites of the 2000's" list here and reproduced it at GeekTyrant. While perusing other people's lists, Eternal Sunshine made an appearance on nearly every one of them. By this point, I knew I had missed something. I realized my first viewing of this film was completely flawed, and so I promised myself I'd re-watch it to give it the fair shake that I hadn't given it the first time.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet

It's 1:02 on a Tuesday morning, and I'm sitting here watching my cursor blink in front of me. The film just ended, and instead of immediately exploring the special features (like I did for Duncan Jones' Moon last night or almost any other film I see on DVD/BD, even if only for a couple minutes), I just sat there and let the credits play for a little while. I went to the special features menu, but I couldn't allow myself to click on any content. This film earned more than that. It deserves a bit of reflection and some time to sink in before the illusion is ruined.

Add this to the list of films that evoked a deep emotional reaction immediately upon seeing it - for those keeping score at home, file it right next to Dear Zachary, Before Sunrise, Garden State, and Slumdog Millionaire for me. [Another note: if you haven't seen Dear Zachary yet and are capable of handling an emotional kick to the stomach, check it out. It's a really powerful movie.] Writer Charlie Kaufman has never really connected with me before (I liked Confessions of a Dangerous Mind but hated Adaptation), but his script combined with the unique vision of director Michel Gondry resonated in a way I wasn't expecting.

It's far too much of a mindscrew for me to attempt to recreate the story for you in this post, not to mention a complete disservice to a film which everyone over the age of 18 should see. I say that not because of the rating, but to give potential viewers some time to love and lose - the film becomes much more personal if you've been in a meaningful relationship. Looking back on what I've written so far, I realize that I haven't clearly said whether I even like this movie or not. Rest assured, I loved it. Every single aspect - score, writing, cinematography, production design, everything - was perfectly executed. Sometimes you finish watching a movie and think, "that could have been better if ____ happened, or if they did it ____ way." Not this one. For me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind hits a level of complexity that almost defies questioning; I realize making such a statement has worrisome implications, but I think it's true for this film. Everything about is just seems...right. That's as simply as I can put it.

Jim Carrey gives an outstanding dramatic performance (topping his already brilliant work in The Truman Show) and definitively proves himself an exceptional leading man. He is equally believable embodying sadness, desperation, contentment, and excitement, and in some ways his character Joel is the prototypical model of the definitive filmic male character of the 2000's: disconnected, threatened by technology, and desperate to hold onto a sense of good times past. Kate Winslet reminds me yet again why she is one of my favorite actresses with a fantastic performance as well. Similar to Natalie Portman's manic pixie dream girl from the same year's Garden State, Winslet's Clementine is a messed-up romantic caught up in her own problems, and is the perfect antithesis to Joel's shy personality. She earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance, and although she didn't win, it doesn't matter - she's rarely been better than she is here, and this will go down as some of her best work.

The supporting cast is also superb - Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and even Kirsten Dunst all gave tight performances that propelled the secondary narrative alongside the love story between the two main characters. The circular nature of the script (think Memento, but slightly different) can be confusing at times, but these characters lend an added weight to certain sections of the film and help the audience to navigate the "when are we?" feeling that sometimes arises.

An incredible film that truly is one of the best of the decade - I'm an idiot for not including it on my own list - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that is sure to stand the test of time and become a classic from the 2000's. Where I chose to comprise my list of my favorite films to avoid arguing over the definition of "best," I think Eternal Sunshine is a movie I can point to when someone says "best" and contend that it deserves that categorization. If you haven't seen it (or even if it's been a while), I can't recommend this one highly enough. Until next time...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From Paris With Love

Pierre Morel's Taken was a surprise hit in 2008, and that film was actually a lot of fun. Watching a 56-year-old Liam Neeson kick ass in a role that was physically more suited for the likes of Jason Statham was immensely entertaining, and he brought a legitimacy to the character of "worried father" which made the film emotionally resonant as well.

So it stands to reason that I went into From Paris with Love expecting similar results: a solid action movie, some good one-liners, and - most importantly - a fun time at the movies. Unfortunately, Morel's follow-up film has none of these qualities. I don't like being negative, but I can't in good conscience recommend this movie to anyone.

From Paris with Love
Director: Pierre Morel
Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

The story, another half-hearted concoction from the once-great Luc Besson, revolves around James Reese (Meyers), a low level CIA operative who finally gets his big chance to move up in the ranks. His new job: assist mega-agent Charlie Wax (Travolta), a leather-jacket-wearing rebel who miraculously and inexplicably stands in good graces with the bureaucracy despite his "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality. There's a plot to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, but these characters are so poorly realized that we almost don't care if it explodes or not. Wax blows through the film unscathed and undeterred, and when Reese says late in the movie,"You don't need me," and Wax replies,"Sure I do! Tell me we aren't a perfect match," we have a hard time buying this dynamic - Reese really doesn't contribute to Wax's plans in any significant way, and we spend half of the film's runtime wondering what Wax would be doing if he were alone on this mission.

Perhaps that last statement gives the character too much credit. The only reason we wonder anything about Wax is because he's the only remotely interesting character in the movie. I want to make clear, however, that "interesting character" and "compelling character" are not the same thing in this case. Travolta desperately tries to imbue Wax with a loose-cannon sensibility, but as said in Super Troopers, "desperation is a stinky cologne." I'm a fan of larger-than-life personas and over the top acting, but it must be done in moderation before it starts to feel silly. Here, Travolta goes so over the top that Stallone's Lincoln Hawk would be proud. While Denzel Washington was believable in an equally physical role in The Book of Eli, Travolta clearly isn't made for this kind of action film anymore. Try as they might, the filmmakers cannot convince me that the slightly tubby Travolta can take down six armed thugs in an alleyway single handed. This very aspect was what made Taken so fun to watch, but it is From Paris with Love's Achilles heel.

For films like these, there seems to be an unspoken contract between director and audience. The director provides spectacular action amid a loosely-conceived plot, and the audience forgives the more practical elements of the story after they are rewarded with the aforementioned action sequences. The problem is, Pierre Morel didn't live up to his end of the bargain. Don't get me wrong, he's done it before - I wish this film was more like Morel's own District B-13 - but this time, the action is lackluster and predictable. In one scene lifted straight out of Wanted, Charlie Wax runs in slow motion through a dummy factory, blindly shooting guns from both extended arms. I think one of the few rules of an action film is "don't let the audience get bored." I guess Morel didn't get the memo. Sure, the occasional car blows up or person gets shot, but these things don't matter when we don't care about the characters.

I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here, but the dialogue is beyond terrible in this movie. Cliched one-liners can be fun depending on context, but Travolta's foul-mouthed special agent reminded me more of someone out of Crank 2: High Voltage - he seemed to say certain things solely to offend people. Aside from unforgivable rom-com lines between Rhys Meyers and his fiance, there is a forehead-slapping callback to Travolta's famous "royale with cheese" speech from Pulp Fiction. Since I feel the need to say something positive about this movie, there is one particular line that I was a fan of: after Wax has killed a slew of Asian drug dealers, Reese asks "how many more of them do you think there are?" Wax comically responds, "According to the last census? About a billion."

Sadly, that cheap joke was the peak of enjoyment for this film. I sincerely hope Travolta learns a lesson from this and returns to making decent films again - I don't think he's beyond redemption, and I truly hope he can make yet another comeback after his recent downfall. (For more on that, check out this solid piece by Jen Yamato over at Cinematical.) From Paris with Love was a disaster from the title onward. If you've seen the trailer, you've already experienced a better film in your head than the one we're actually given. I'll be interested to see if Morel's upcoming adaptation of Dune will feature any dinner scenes, because if Taken and From Paris with Love are any indication, if nothing else we're in for a bloody meal.