Thursday, March 31, 2011

Source Code

Duncan Jones' sophomore feature is a fast-paced, well-acted, and all around excellent look at multiple realities. Just don't call it a time travel movie. I had high expectations, and Source Code met them all: it's one of my favorite films of 2011 so far.

Source Code
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright


Jones stepped out of his father's shadow with his feature debut back in 2009, the excellent Sam Rockwell science fiction film Moon. (Jones' father is rock legend David Bowie, who has dabbled in film with performances in Labyrinth and The Prestige, among many others.) Here, he improves on Moon's budget by almost 30 million dollars, and puts every bit of that money on screen for us to see. The opening shots - beautiful aerial photography of Chicago - recall Chris Nolan's breathtaking introduction to The Dark Knight. Jones is an artist on the rise, and definitely someone to keep an eye out for in regards to upcoming projects. He was up for the directing job on the new Superman film (a gig that eventually went to Zack Snyder), and has at least one other science fiction project lined up before he wants to move on to other genres.

Source Code is essentially Groundhog Day meets Deja Vu, an action thriller that utilizes time and repetition to great effect. The film follows Captain Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) as he enters the Source Code, a new technology that allows him to take over the consciousness of the last eight minutes of another man's life. This man is Sean Fentress, a teacher on a train that exploded outside of Chicago, killing everyone on board. Stevens' mission is to relive these last eight minutes over and over again, learning more each time, until he can find the bomber and prevent a later attack that is scheduled to arrive back later in the day back in real time. That's where Goodwin (Farmiga) and Rutledge (Wright) are peering into cameras and speaking remotely to Stevens, giving him just enough information before whisking him back onto the train again, where he sits across from the beautiful Christina (Monaghan), Fentress' potential love interest. It's all a bit complicated, but that's why I love this movie - it forces you to pay attention and actually makes you think a little bit. 


It takes a special kind of director to make the same eight minutes interesting and avoid annoyance with the gimmick, but Jones pulls it off without a hitch and actually makes it look easy in the process. Movies like this also beg to be done properly, with all realities and storylines nicely wrapped up by the end; Jones doesn't disappoint on this front, either. His effectiveness specifically reminds me of a few other movies I've seen: the Spanish thriller Timecrimes and Christopher Smith's criminally underseen - and kind of brilliant - movie called Triangle, both of which I'd highly recommend if you're into time travel movies, theoretical physics, or philosophy.


Every great movie begins with a great script, and this one is a coming out party for writer Ben Ripley. You may not expect the writer of Species III to be able to put together a coherent, kinetic, and fleshed out story, but previous credits can sometimes be deceiving. Remember, James Cameron's first film was Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Ripley manages to create an engaging story that keeps the audience guessing throughout the film; all of the pieces fall into place eventually, but I relished the slow reveal. Too often these days, films will put all their cards on the table too early, leaving the savvy audience member bored out of his or her mind for the remainder of the movie while the story sputters to the finish line. Here, Ripley does a great job of keeping us interested and slowly presenting us with more information about Stevens' conditions and situation. Even during the parts of the movie NOT in the Source Code - the sections which allow the audience to catch our collective breath - we're not entirely sure where (or when) Captain Stevens is until the climax of the film.


Gyllenhaal, an actor who has been pretty hit-or-miss in my opinion, does some excellent work in this movie. I'm sure this was a difficult project to work on as an actor, with most films (and I'm assuming this one) being shot out of sequence, so I'm sure there was an added layer of confusion as to how confused Stevens should be in any given shot. Apparently he was the one who championed Jones to direct this project, and the two worked well together. I wouldn't be surprised if the two collaborated on many more things in the future. Michelle Monaghan, gorgeous and talented as always, turned on the charm in a role that unfortunately didn't require much. She has such a great screen presence; she was one of my favorite actresses back in 2009 and that hasn't changed in the years since. Vera Farmiga was quietly effective as Goodwin, a role unlike anything she's ever done. But the glaring standout (in a HORRIBLE way) was Jeffrey Wright, who inexplicably affected his speech with the most ridiculous delivery he could fathom. How Duncan Jones could make such an otherwise spectacular film and yet allow this egregious distraction to persist is this movie's greatest mystery.

I generally only mention a film's score if it is particularly memorable or outstanding, and this one is both. The initial plan was for longtime Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell to compose Source Code's score, but he had to drop out due to a schedule conflict. Enter Chris P. Bacon, a man I've never heard of before, but a composer for which I will assuredly be keeping an ear open in the future. His blasts of triumphant spirit mixed with Zimmer-esque strings made for a winning combination, and I'm interested to listen to this score separate from the film and see if it is imminently listenable as some of the more popular scores of 2010. If I compile a list of my favorite scores of 2011, expect this to be on it.


If I could somehow pinpoint a formula for a movie I know I'd enjoy, Source Code would be it. It's exactly what I want: a visually compelling, well-edited film with plenty of action, solid acting, a bit of romance, and a story that leaves you with something to think about as you walk out of the theater. Hey 2011 - more like this, please. Until next time...

Raw Deal

Kicking Ass with Alan Trehern

Every time I see a De Laurentiis produced film, I realize that I probably would have been best friends with this guy. Not only could I have hung out with his grand-daughter Giada, but I would have been on set for movies like Dune, Once Upon a Crime..., Conan the Destroyer, Maximum Overdrive, and Army of Darkness. Today, however, we see the De Laurentiis produced film Raw Deal as one movie that may not live up to the epicness of the before-mentioned, but still fits in soundly among that family of films.

Raw Deal (1986)
Directed by John Irvin
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathryn Harrold and Darren McGavin

Former FBI-agent Mark Kaminsky (Arnold) takes on a case to infiltrate a volatile mob war. Leaving his dead-beat wife behind and not looking back, Kaminsky becomes Joseph P. Brenner, who starts working for one of the mob bosses involved in the gang war. He's under the supervision of FBI veteran Harry Shannon (McGavin, the Old Man from A Christmas Story), but the most amazing part of the mob infiltration is that is takes less than 48 hours.

The action is a little sparse in this flick, with some general fist-fights and two epic gun-fights at the end of the movie. A majority of the film is spent talking about mob stuff and fears of infiltration (joke's on you!); they break into a police station at one point, and that seems to be the only illegal thing this group of mobsters can do through the entirety of the film.

"I SAID I FOOOOLLLLDDDDD!!!!!!"

Schwarzenegger's dialogue proves stale. 85 percent of his spoken word is one-liners, which I usually adore, but none lived up to my high-standard of one-liners. If you're a fan of GTAIII for the PS2, you'll probably really enjoy this film as it had many of the themes, stereotypes and action you would find in the video game, as well as some similar locales. So take that into consideration...

Raw Deal is a pretty awesome but run-of-the-mill action movie. This would be considered "comfort food" for those hankerin' for some needless violence, 80s fashion and Schwarzenegger's cue card memorization. If I were to rate this film by a number of thrown grenades, I'd launch 3 out of 5. Then maybe torch a pedestrian and chainsaw someone's motorcycle. See you in March 2012!!! Trehern out.

Sportin' the black jacket...nice.

Treasure Planet

Treasure Planet is one of those underseen and little-talked-about Disney films from the early 2000s. To be fair, many of those animated projects didn't deserve much acclaim or discussion (ahem, Brother Bear and Atlantis: The Lost Empire), but this one - a fantasy sci-fi retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island - is worth a watch if you're in the mood for some family-friendly swashbuckling.

Treasure Planet
Co-writers/Co-directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson


This film is notable for being the first movie released in IMAX and regular theaters simultaneously, and for its blend of 2D and 3D animation. The look of the film is really cool, mixing ancient pirate lore and the traditional depiction of pirates with an almost steampunk twist; for example, they updated Long John Silver's iconic peg leg into a mechanical cyborg leg. The production design is unique, with this mix being a wholly original combination of two genres the likes of which hasn't been seen (to this degree) before or since.


The casting was pretty spot on here, utilizing Not Just New Movies favorite Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role of 16-year-old Jim Hawkins. Voice actor Bryan Murray - who hasn't been in much else - killed it as John Silver, but I was surprised to find that the main draw actually came from the secondary characters. David Hyde Pierce was excellent as Doctor Doppler, Martin Short brought his special brand of zany humor to the character of B.E.N., and Emma Thompson was great as the no-nonsense captain of the RLS Legacy


There are a few jokes here that will go over the kids' heads: Doppler goes off on this paraphrased Star Trek-inspired tangent, saying something like, "For God's sake, I'm a doctor, not a...doctor. Well, not that kind of doctor, anyway. I've got a master's degree, but..." There was also a one-liner near the end about how the characters needed a bigger boat - clearly an homage to Spielberg's Jaws. The music was interesting: I liked the score from James Newton Howard, but John Rzeznik (lead singer and lead guitarist of the Goo Goo Dolls) wrote and performed the songs and they all seemed more gimmicky than I'm sure Disney would have liked. I don't know - the whole thing just struck me more as a marketing ploy rather than an organic collaboration.


The story is pretty close to Stevenson's original, although they took some liberties that I think make for a more enjoyable film (especially one geared toward a younger demographic). The flight sequences of Jim on the rocket board were pretty thrilling for the time, and the sense of adventure that permeates the entire story adds a special element to a script that, at times, feels a little flat. But Clements and Musker know their stuff: the duo co-directed some of the best Disney animated films ever made, including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Though this film doesn't even approach those two in terms of classic status, Treasure Planet is a fun ride through space that is certainly better than many of Disney's other efforts. Until next time...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Assault Girls/Terror of Mechagodzilla

Discovering the Titanosaurus with Alan Trehern

Greetings, Ben's Movie Reviews fans! Before I start this double-review of two Japanese films, I want to remind you of the destruction, heartache and fear that grips Japan right now. No society should be subject to this sort of natural disaster, and we should do as much as we can to help.
Those who want to help can go to www.redcross.org and donate to Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami. People can also text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific.
Let's jump to the reviews...

Seriously, who the hell made this thing?

Assault Girls (2009)
Original Title: Asaruto gâruzu
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Starring Yoshikazu Fujiki, Rinko Kikuchi and Meisa Kuroki

Okay, so I was really pumped about this movie. Trehern was first on the scene here at Ben's Movie Reviews when I reported on the trailer for this film. I think I was quoted as saying,
"What we would call a weekly event on the SciFi channel here in America is what the Japanese call an epic period piece. I'm pretty sure dragons roamed the lands of Japan long before men were men, and woman were gun toting black angels. Oh yes, you heard me right, this film claims to contain every cliché in the book: flying dragons with no means of flight, the girl from Brothers Bloom sporting some 1920s derby hat in the 2200s, some guy wearing a Yankees hat, and of course the montage of super-futuristic weaponry set to super-futuristic Japanatechnetronica/folk music."
The trailer is waaay better than the movie. Believe me. You'll have more fun watching the trailer than watching this terrible, painfully dreadful film that is so hashed together with repeating material, bad overdubbing and nature shots of snails that you end up saying "What the f*ck just happened?" about sixteen times.

First off, the movie starts with a 15 minute Windows Movie Maker slideshow of the events leading up to the film. With some ongoing drivel about international economies and the status quo, we're finally told that this movie takes place in a virtual reality RPG called Avalon (f). Consider me surprised when I realize that 90% of the film's dialogue is spoken in this pre-film rambling slideshow! "AHHHH!!!!!" I said to myself. Then the credits roll.

Yeah, the credits...

"Hey, you're watching Assault Girls!"

The girls: ready to assault anything that resembles a storyline...

They follow that with some Super Smash Brothers freeze-frame action scenes, and the Dune sand-snakes start attacking. And then boring shots of the barren Avalon (f) landscape. There's that snail again! 20 minutes later you might see a gun get fired, or a sand-snake die, but none of the intense or fast-paced material you see in the trailer...

"Hey buddy, go somewhere else for content." - translated from heavy mouthbreathing

Assault Girls is a ridiculously boring and unintelligent film. Faux-Literally, one of the worst movies I have ever seen. At one point, you can't even hear what the characters are saying because they have masks on. No one thought that the audience might like hearing what the f*ck is going on?!? And then, mid-film, they start speaking Japanese!!! The English over-dubbers got so fed up with the quality of this dumpster rental, they checked out halfway through. Ignore this film.

And now, BONUS REVIEW!!!!!!!

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Original Title: Mekagojira no Gyakushū
Director Ishirô Honda
Starring Katsuhiko Sasaki, Tomoko Ai and Akihiko Hirata

Being the 15th installment in the Godzilla franchise, I felt like I was a little lost. Apparently, this was the second film to feature Mechagodzilla, who has now been rebuilt by aliens from the third planet of the black hole (SPOILER ALERT!!). First off, how does a planet exist near a black hole? Anybody? Someone?? COBRA Commander.
Uhhhh, IT'S. A. BLACK. HOLE!!!! A collapsed star!!! Gravity is compressing itself into nothing!!! How the hell does a planet form and support life when the sun has ACTUALLY fallen unto itself??? Oprah must have written this script!!

Good one, COBRA. But seriously, this movie was fun to watch. A lot more fun than
Assault Girls (see above). But the thing to remember with Godzilla movies is that the monster fights aren't until the end, so you have to wade through dramatic science fiction with the human characters, like Asian Colonel Sanders.

"I say, I say, I say, SOMEBODY BELIEVE ME!"

Mr. Sanders lost his job because everyone thought he was crazy for trying to prove the existence of an underwater dinosaur. No, not Godzilla, another underwater dinosaur. His theory was even crazier than Godzilla! No one believed a guy about an extinct dinosaur even when the last 14 films have chronicled the attacks of groups of pre-historic monsters.

So Asian Colonel Sanders gets back at the human race by siding with the black hole aliens. Sanders' daughter can control Titanosaurus (the underwater dinosaur) with her mind. I think. I don't know, I got really lost. There are two cops, looking for... something... And then the daughter can control Mechagodzilla with her mind now too? Errrgghhh...

Mechagodzilla's Rainbow Ray results in very high toy sales...

Don't think too hard about this film. The monster fight is what it's all about, and that was pretty fantastic. Just the time and effort it takes to build these small models and then have your creations blown up and stomped on just takes some real talent and composure. Plus, it reminds me of the old Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Those Zord battles haven't changed since 1975.

Would I recommend this to anyone? Not anybody I know, but there's no surprise there. Keep your eyes glued to NJNM for more March Movies. Meanwhile, I'm gonna keep chasing those dreams, just like Asian Colonel Sanders! If you're looking for a digestible Godzilla movie, check out the MST3K version: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

GoogleVideo used to have the entire film, but not anymore.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Ten Commandments


Welcome back to March Madness 2011, and to yet another audio review. Leave your thoughts in the comment section, and keep checking back for more madness throughout the month. Until next time...

(Also, the audio cuts out as I'm signing off. Sorry.)

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, many more


Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever

A Panther Joe Yelp

Isn't it great when you find out that someone made a sequel to one of your favorite movies? Coincidentally, I was watching an old Boy Meets World episode that featured a young Julie Benz and thought, "what's Rider Strong up to these days?" I never followed up with that passing, mostly rhetorical question, but consider my amazement when I found Cabin Fever 2 available on Instant Watch...and Rider Strong with top billing! Unfortunately, unless you remember the exact ending of the original movie, watched it recently, or even remembered it was Strong who starred in the first one, you wouldn't know that he barely hits the radar on this underwhelming, straight to DVD sequel.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
Director: Ti West (Alan Smithee)
Starring: Noah Segan, Alexi Wasser, Rusty Kelley

Hoo boy, who's ready for some necrosis-themed horror/comedy? Without spoiling the efforts of the first film (which come highly recommended), a flesh eating virus has entered the public water system and infects the area of Springfield, including the local high school. This couldn't have come at a worse time for the young adults; it's Prom night and everyone seems to be drinking Down Home Water brand bottled water, which is shown ad nauseam to be the culprit for the virus. Vascillating between going to prom and not going, John (Segan) ends up going in hopes that his crush, Cassie (Wasser), will show up to the dance, which becomes riddled with extremely obese girls frolicking in the pool, vengeful school janitors pissing blood into the punch, and some sort of Center for Disease Control unit storming the school with automatic guns and gas canisters.

Most of the campy, gross, and hilarious aspects of the first film are just cheaply repackaged for a quick buck. While Eli Roth really tempered the gore and applied a comical tinge to it, the filmmakers responsible for this just went for the shock and awe gore factor. I will spare you most of the details, but we really didn't need an anatomically convincing, up close shot of a student prying off his fingernail and trying to reapply it with super glue.
From the opening scene you really knew what kind of movie you were about to view. When Rider Strong's character is seen wandering around in the woods, he of course stumbles upon a lonesome highway with a yellow school bus barreling toward him. Instead of slowing down to investigate the badly disfigured man, the bus driver seemingly swerves and intentionally hits him, splattering Strong's body to point of a minor explosion.

The head shaking didn't stop there. The first scene at school depicts Marc, the typical jock bully, harassing John about having feelings for Cassie. Marc eventually tough talks our protagonist, shoves him up against the lockers and delivers a warning complete with the phrase, "you and your bullshit friends!" C'mon, Marc, that adjective is just bull-headed and somewhat nonsensical. Perhaps if you read a book once in a while and stopped by such a jerk, maybe, just maybe you'd survive this movie*.
The acting as a whole was pretty porous, with the exception of the fast-talking best friend typecast, Alex (Kelley). John screams his lines to the point you'd think he pumped himself up by watching The Rock before shooting, other characters are dubbed horribly, and Judah Friedlander is in this. Similar to how Marc's empty threats couldn't be taken seriously, Friedlander struggled as the security guard for Down Home Water, even dropping this corny line when approached by a policeman: "She said she was 18. I always believe what children say."

If you like bad cinematic cliches, this flick is "infected" with them. I could see the writers now, deliberating the back story behind such tales of Prom babies being thrown in trash cans. "Hey, does that really happen? Well, it does now...shit's going in this movie!" The most disappointing thing about Cabin Fever 2 is if the writers would have stuck with cliches to finish out the film, it would have held an ounce of coherency. Instead, we are left with inane situations and setting shifts that really make it feel like you just switched the channel to a different movie. No wonder director Ti West wanted his name removed from the project.
While most aspects of this movie were trash, there remained some diamonds in the rough that I, as a campy horror film, appreciated. Clearly someone behind Cabin Fever 2 really dug the original Revenge of the Nerds...John announced early on that he was going to Adams, which was also the fictional university in Nerds, while one of the bit characters was a 12-year-old whiz kid, academically advanced well beyond his years and striking a similar resemblance to Nerds alum, Wormser.

Your patience is later rewarded as the funnier, more tactical stuff is saved for the last few acts. In probably one of the more out of place scenes in the movie, stoner cop Winston (Giuseppe Andrews, brilliantly reprising his role from the original) gets picked up by his cousin Herman to beat it out of town, only to see Herman drop an exaggerated elbow onto a distracted policeman that would make any garishly outfitted pro wrestler proud. Toward the end, the movie just broke down and got all metal on us. This stuff all happens in the course of ten or so minutes:

-A dude caves another dude's face in with a helium tank
-Guy has his necro-infected wrist cut off with a wood shop bandsaw
-Same guy forces another character to cauterize the amputation with a blow torch
-It gets wrapped in a comically large ball of duct tape
-Guy actually slams a claw hammer into the back of a female's head
-Girl shoots guy in the back of the head with a nail gun

"Parrrrty, man..."
While that stuff is all sorts of awesome, this isn't a movie I would recommend, except for maybe hardcore fans of the original. Even then, expect cheesy special effects, bad dialogue, and somewhat disjointed storytelling. The one scene I actually enjoyed enough to hunt down was the primitive, animated opening credits that stood alone as the only unique aspect of this film that ingested more like week old leftovers than a refreshing surprise. 3/10 stars

*He doesn't survive.

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 35 - Eight Men Out


In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler discuss John Sayles' 1988 film, Eight Men Out.





Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 01:17
In My Netflix (aka Up My Queue) - 01:48

Media Consumed
Tyler
Concerts: Neon Trees and The Roots - 07:33
Episode One of "Fawlty Towers" - 09:19
Season One of "30 Rock" - 10:50
Where The Wild Things Are - 12:07

Ben
NBA Live '08 - 16:45
Nick of Time - 20:50
"Lights Out" Cancelled - 27:34

Review
Eight Men Out - 30:35

Wrap-Up
Next Week: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - 01:03:26
Listener Voicemail/E-Mail/Twitter - 01:04:18
Character Name Game - 01:05:08
Where You Can Find Us - 01:07:59

Articles Mentioned: Nick of Time Review, Sentinel Music Breakdown, Where The Wild Things Are Review, Limitless Review

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Up in the Air

A Panther Joe Downsizing

I wasn't too sure what to expect when watching Up in the Air. Heck, I didn't even know what it was about, but some force of nature propelled it to the top of my queue. Now I can honestly say that this deserves to be among the best performances I've seen from George Clooney, bunched somewhere with Burn After Reading, Ocean's Eleven, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Up in the Air (2009)
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick

What I took away from this movie was that Ryan (Clooney) has successfully avoided all major human relationships by driving at a job that keeps him shuffling from city to city, never in one place for several days in a row. Then, in somewhat of a reawakening, Ryan sees what he has potentially been missing through encounters with his estranged siblings, a casual rendezvous with another fellow traveler (Farmiga), and taking a young, up and coming business woman and showing her the ropes of their company, whose job it is to take in outsourced announcements of employment terminations.

I really think a character in the movie described it better as Ryan having to fire people on behalf of their existing bosses being too cowardly.
The characters were well balanced and cast with bravery. I usually think of Clooney as more of a serious, action driven actor, but in this flick he was able to let go, crack some jokes, and convince us that his life was tailor made to enjoy his own seclusion and even give motivational speeches about cutting ties with our own relationships. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) played Ryan's future brother-in-law in a more serious role, which is surprising considering the raunchy and sometimes corny humor he usually does for a living.

The cameos in this movie are plentiful, but I won't spoil them outright. Come to think of it, are they even cameos if their names flash during the opening credits? A handful of big name actors appear in this movie with very limited air time and lines of dialogue. The payoff toward a more enjoyable scene was decent enough, but I am sure there are tons of unknown actors out there that would kill for a part in these types of movies.
One of the forces in Ryan's life was Natalie Keener (Kendrick), an inexperienced, fresh from Cornell whiz kid who helped design the program that would alter Ryan's work/lifestyle dramatically. While Kendrick is impossibly cute, the fact that she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress last year for this role is a joke. While she didn't outright embarrass herself, Kendrick never left her uptight comfort zone. There was one particular scene in an airport where she starts to break down and cry that was so forced, awkward, and screeched I had to rewind and make sure I wasn't imagining the awfulness in front of me.

Other peripheral characters hardly take away from the charm and succinctness of a movie that is pretty much a tour-de-force of George Clooney and his acting prowess. The dialogue is exceptionally sharp and ended up being my favorite part of the movie. I'd give this an open recommendation to anyone, but please note that the tone occasionally dips into darkness while convincing us we should sympathize with a wealthy main character in light of several other characters losing their careers. 7/10 stars

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nick of Time

It's 1995. Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken are in the same movie. Sounds awesome, right? Nope.

Nick of Time
Director: John Badham
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Courtney Chase, Roma Maffia


Not only does it have the star power going for it, but the plot synopsis sounds intriguing. Gene Watson (Depp), an accountant, heads into Los Angeles on a train with his six-year-old daughter. Upon their arrival, Mr. Smith (Walken) and his partner Ms. Jones (Maffia) pose as police officers and coerce Watson and his kid into the back of a vehicle, at which time Smith tells Watson he has 90 minutes to kill a woman or his daughter will be murdered. Watson is handed a gun, six bullets, and a picture of the target, who turns out to be the governor of California, nearby for a campaign speech.

Instead of watching this movie, I'd highly recommend everyone go to its Wikipedia page and read the summary there. (At the time of this article, the writing on the film's page is humorous.)


There are so many issues with this film it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start with common sense - Depp is strong armed into a van by "officers" who don't tell him anything about what's going on or why he's being detained. That's problem number one. After that, he is handed a gun and bullets by the man responsible for blackmailing him, and he fails to simply put the bullets into the gun and shoot Walken in the leg/arm/head/anywhere. The woman keeping an eye on his daughter in the backseat has no weapon that he's aware of, and let's be real: who's going to shoot a kid in the head at point blank range? You really think that's going to get Depp to do what you want him to do?

My favorite part(s) of the film involved Walken (natch), but not so much the character or anything as his innate ability to appear whenever Depp was just about to let the cat out of the bag. Dumped on the street as the van peels away, Depp approaches a real cop to tell him the situation. Right as he's saying "officer," Walken appears from nowhere, threatening to kill him and his daughter if he even things about going to the cops. Depp gets in a cab to head to the hotel where the Governor is, and after a few minutes of small talk with the driver, leans up to tell him the scenario. Instantly, the cab is rammed by another car on the road; it's Walken in the van, peering angrily across the dotted yellow line. How the eff did he know exactly when to hit the cab to avoid Depp spilling the beans? One of many unsolved mysteries of Nick of Time. Depp gets in an elevator with the Governor and some security guys (keeping in mind Depp has a gun in his pocket, a glaring security error if I've ever seen one). As soon as he begins to tell the Governor what's up, the elevator dings on a random floor and guess who's there? Walken. In case you're wondering if a listening device is being used, there wasn't. He somehow just...knows.

Depp goes into a bathroom, splashes some water on his face, and realizes there's a telephone behind him. He turns to go for the phone, and Walken slides into the room, yanking out the phone from the wall and destroying it, snarling through his teeth and continuously threatening and punching Depp. After making it through a security checkpoint at the Governor's rally outside, proving corruption within her organization, Depp approaches yet another officer and just as he begins to tell him what's happening, Walken intercepts. That's at least five instances of this phenomenon (that I can remember), and they all happened - I kid you not - within the first forty minutes of the movie. Think about that. Do you know what that means? On average, one of these incidents happened every eight minutes during those first forty minutes. That kind of repetition is INSANE. What the eff is the writer trying to pull here?


As if this movie couldn't get any more idiotic, Depp meets a disabled war veteran shoe shiner who inexplicably helps him out. The climactic sequence in the film involves this man beating Ms. Jones with his own prosthetic leg, kicking her in the face with his boot and commenting "nothing like a good wingtip!" Unbelievable. Depp does all kinds of ridiculous things in this movie, including firing a gun in closed room where the Governor is in the middle of a speech, and not only is he NOT killed by security (or shot, or maimed in any way), there are absolutely zero consequences for his actions. He simply runs away. Not a single person chases him. He's not a real criminal or anything, but security doesn't know that!

The dialogue is horrible, and most of the movie is written as if a child wrote it. There is, however, one bright spot: the Christopher Walken Monologue. Nearly every Walken film has one: Pulp Fiction, True Romance, The Rundown, Poolhall Junkies...the list goes on. You know it when you hear it, and it's generally profanity filled and kind of awesome. This one is no exception, and I present it to you below for your listening pleasure (beware the language).


The thing about this scene is that it's totally different from any other bit of dialogue in the entire movie. It's as if (and I'm almost positive this is what actually happened) they realized they had cast Walken but didn't have a Christopher Walken Monologue, so they quickly wrote one and shoehorned it in.

Nick of Time is an awful movie, and even for hardcore fans of Depp and/or Walken, this is a waste of your time. Even though the movie has a strong gimmick - it supposedly takes place in real time, though I'm not convinced that's entirely true - it manages to be boring, lazy, and mundane. The only reason this may be relevant to me is as an example of an interesting concept turned to utter garbage. John Badham is a decent director (he did WarGames for crying out loud!), but if you gave my mom the reins to this movie, I almost guarantee she could have delivered a more interesting product. Until next time...

Sucker Punch

After spending his career creating film adaptations of other people's content, Zack Snyder (along with co-writer Steve Shibuya) delves into writing for the first time with Sucker Punch. Snyder's trademark visuals are on full display, but anyone expecting this movie to be anything more than visual gratification will surely be disappointed. This movie is like a Cadbury cream egg that's been pricked with a needle and slowly drained of the nougat inside: we're upset all the substance is gone, but at least the chocolate shell is still tasty. On the most basic level, the film succeeds at being an entertaining piece of pop art that has some of the most ridiculous visuals ever committed to celluloid. What other movie has fire-breathing dragons, zeppelins, giant samurai with Gatling guns, robots, and machine gun-toting reanimated zombie Nazis?

Sucker Punch
Co-writer/Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung




Is Sucker Punch a good movie? Absolutely not. The script is riddled with as many cliches as there are spent bullet casings, with laughably bad dialogue and stilted performances throughout. Snyder reaches for epic ideas of survival and sacrifice, but because the film is so outrageous, it's hard to take him seriously; it's tough transitioning from a 10 minute slow motion action sequence to pretending to care about the death of a character in whom we've never truly been invested.

But was Snyder trying to make a "good movie" in the widely accepted sense of the phrase? I'm not sure, but I'm leaning towards "no" on that one, too. Sucker Punch is one of the best examples of a film playing to its demographic that I can think of; the intended audience - teenage guys - will go nuts for this thing. Come for the guns and dragons, stay for the over-sexualized fetishization of its female actors.


More on that later. First, let's go over the plot. This should take about forty seconds, considering there really isn't much of one. Baby Doll is institutionalized in the first five minutes of the film for an accidental crime, and in order to cope with her upcoming lobotomy (organized by her skeezy step-father and set to be performed by Jon Hamm, who is hideously underused in about three total minutes of screen time), she creates an alternate reality. The first layer replaces the asylum with an old-timey theater, in which the inmate girls are no longer prisoners to be gawked and violated by corrupt guards and cooks, but now dancers and prostitutes for high rollers and greasy politicians. When it's Baby Doll's turn to dance, she goes into a trance and imagines herself in another layer altogether: different each time, but with her and her fellow inmates as warriors battling robot ninjas and the like. Her mission: gain the items necessary for escape.



The entire movie uses its barely-there story as a stepping stone to jump from one action scene to the next, feeling more like an annoying interruption to a two-hour music video than a vital part of the film. Sucker Punch is half music video, half video game, complete with levels, items, and team search-and-destroy missions. But where Scott Pilgrim vs. The World used a bright color palette and the retro games of our childhoods to create a loving homage to video game culture, this movie is influenced more by the gritty dirt-stained look of more modern games like Call of Duty. Snyder eschews the typical three act structure for a level-based narrative, in which each action sequence (five in total) provides the distraction necessary for the girls to acquire a specific item in the theater layer of reality.

If you're like me, all this talk of layers and levels may remind of you of Chris Nolan's Inception. Warner Bros. has two of the biggest filmmakers on the planet in Snyder and Nolan, and though their styles are completely different, they're currently working together to bring Superman back to the big screen (Snyder's directing, Nolan's producing). Sucker Punch is kind of like Snyder's Inception, an original idea developed by the filmmaker after making serious bank for the studio working from other people's concepts. And though this movie is nowhere near as effective as Nolan's, I respect Snyder for stepping out from the shadow of other properties and trying to make it on his own. I also don't want to imply that even the levels of reality in Sucker Punch are as well executed as Inception; instead, I bring this up to say that I had such low expectations for Sucker Punch I was pleasantly surprised when they put a bit of thought into the film's structure instead of simply bookending it with the asylum sequences and calling it a day.


One of the biggest problems I had with the film comes in its depiction of its female characters. Listen, I love hot women as much as the next guy, but when infantilizing and fetishizing these girls reaches the point where they're one curl away from Natalie Portman during that scene in V For Vendetta, you should probably take a step back and think about what you're doing as a filmmaker. That's especially true if the themes of your movie are supposed to be about empowerment. If most of this movie takes place in Baby Doll's head, why are the characters dressed this way? To quote Morpheus, is that her "mental projection of her digital self"? (I guess technically it's not a "digital" self here, but you get the idea.) Snyder's trying to tell me that Baby Doll sees herself in a slutty schoolgirl outfit in her own mind's eye, complete with charms attached to the end of her handgun? I find it a little hard to believe that she sees herself in an outfit crafted primarily to please men*, but even if Snyder thinks that's a justifiable character decision, the message is still jumbled because on a purely visual level it enforces the very thing the film criticizes.


This is a Zack Snyder movie, after all, so let's talk about some of the positives. Objectifying or not, the costume designs were a highlight. Jena Malone's hair is the best direct translation of anything anime into live action I've ever seen. The overall production design was great, too, whether it be depicting the dingy atmosphere of the asylum or a spired castle with orcs from Lord of the Rings crawling all over it. By the time we see a giant Saturn-esque planet in the background of one of Baby Doll's imagined worlds, you're either along for the ride or you're not - fortunately for me, Sucker Punch hooked me early in this regard so I could enjoy these aspects instead of resent them like many of my colleagues did.


Say what you will about the man, but Snyder can direct the hell out of an action sequence. I've said this before, but he knows what looks cool and uses slow motion as his tool to bring his vision to life and accent little moments to drive his point home. Same can be said here: the fight scenes have the feel of a guru behind the camera (though they all seem a bit too similar to each other for my tastes). There's an extended sequence near the end when the girls fight robots on a train near the end which reminded me of River Tam's epic takedown of the Reavers in Serenity (sorry Zack - Joss did it better).

You've probably noticed I've gone this far without mentioning the acting. That's on purpose - Emily Browning seems to be a mute for half of the film, letting her sword and 9mm do most of the talking. (Her role was originally given to Amanda Seyfried, who had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with her TV show "Big Love.") Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish are occasionally called upon to actually emote, but  it's really tough to care when the film itself doesn't seem to put any importance into what anyone is saying. Hudgens and Chung are essentially worthless, filling out the posse and that's about it. Like this movie, they all look fantastic, but there's nothing really going on beneath the surface.


If you love seeing people fall from the sky and land with their fist in the ground, only to slowly and dramatically raise their heads with intense looks on their faces, you should love this movie: it happens more times here than in any one piece of media I can remember. Sucker Punch is fine entertainment for the pre-summer season, but I hope I'm not expecting too much when I hope for those tentpoles to be a bit smarter than this film: a shiny package, but nothing's inside. Until next time...

*It has just come to my attention that sexy schoolgirl outfits actually have the potential to provide women with confidence instead of just objectifying them. "Sex is power," someone once told me, and having that power over men in that way seems to be at least partially what Snyder was going for here.

Limitless

Limitless is a run-of-the-mill drama populated with tons of imagery and plot points we've seen hundreds of times before on the big screen. The basic premise - a guy finds a drug that grants him access to his entire mind, enabling his meteoric rise to prominence - and variations on it have been done to death. But though it leans heavily on tired plot points, the film somehow manages to be a quick digestible thriller that doesn't overextend its message or reach for ideas that are too grandiose. It's a B movie through and through, complete with ratcheting levels of lunacy that increase with the runtime.

Limitless
Director: Neil Burger
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish


Originally set as a starring vehicle for Shia LaBeouf, the movie features rising star Bradley Cooper as he ably steps into this role. As is the case with most of his films, Cooper is enjoyable to watch. This role doesn't require much range from the actor, but before he begins taking NZT (the name of the drug), we see - ever so briefly - Cooper as a schlubby writer: unkempt, dirty, a failure at his job, and dumped by his girlfriend. Quickly though, as if the writer has no confidence in her lead actor to pull off a convincing duality (or, more likely, she just didn't care), Cooper morphs into the smarmy cocksure douchebag he's made a career out of playing. Still fun to watch, just not as interesting.


When a chance meeting with an old acquaintance leads Eddie Morra (Cooper) to NZT, life can't get much worse for him. But he soon realizes that this drug isn't exactly street legal: it allows users to access all of their brain power, making Eddie the smartest guy in the room - regardless of what room he's in. It only takes him a few minutes to realize the drug's potential (he has sex with his landlord's daughter almost instantly due to his newfound conversational charm from unlocking eidetic memory), and soon after, Eddie's on his way to the top. The movie basically turns into Wall Street: Drugs Never Sleep, and Robert De Niro pops in for about half an hour of total screen time to raise the stakes as one part of a huge company merger Eddie helps negotiate.

SPOILERS AHEAD


I love Limitless for embracing insanity as it nears the end: the scene in which Abbie Cornish sprints across an outdoor ice rink, grabs a random child, and swings her around using the still-attached skate to slice her pursuer's face got a huge laugh from me because until that point, the film had toed the line of being legitimate. After that, it's game on for all kinds of crazy stuff, including Bradley Cooper drinking that guy's blood to get the last of the NZT (which I called as soon as the dude injected it, as I'm sure many of you did). There are no consequences for Eddie's actions throughout almost the whole movie; in fact, it rewards him for taking this drug! He theoretically killed that woman in the hotel room, he treats his girlfriend like crap (see: the aforementioned "landlord's daughter" incident) and of course she comes back to him, and he kills multiple people. His punishment? He becomes an elected government official and manages to reverse-engineer the drug so he's always on it with no side effects. What kind of message is Neil Burger trying to send here?

END SPOILERS

While most of this movie treads familiar territory, there is one aspect in which it breaks relatively new ground: the fantastic opening credits sequence and an effect that's featured a few times in the movie. Check it out below:



I've never seen anything quite like that before, and though Burger overuses it a bit, it's still a really cool effect and perhaps the one standout aspect that makes this film memorable. Matt Singer over at IFC talked to the director about these "fractal zooms" and his piece is definitely worth a read if you're as interested in this as I am.


Limitless isn't quite bad enough or exploitive enough to be called trash cinema. It's not a great movie or anything, but if you can get past Cooper's greased hair and pompous swagger, it's a fun time with enough ridiculousness to make it worth your while if you're cruising through Netflix Instant on a weeknight. I won't be watching this again for a few years (if ever), but the parts mentioned in the spoiler section above (not to mention those rad credits) made me glad I checked it out. Until next time...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

Getting the Hipster Hat-Trick with Alan Trehern

Hey, Spike Jonze, thanks for taking my lovely childhood memories and dragging them through your messed up ego so that anything fun about this film is overtaken by an extreme feeling of loss, loneliness and general depression. I really appreciate it. I hope you made some money off of other people's misery. Hope you're proud of yourself and your hippie fanbase and their life-sized Max pajamas and their uppity views on social conscience and their Urban Outfitters.


Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Max Records, James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara

"Well, look: this used to be all rock, and now it's sand, and then, one day, it's going to be dust, and then the whole island will be dust, and then... well I don't even know what comes after dust." - Carol

Plot
If "emo" could take cinematic form, it would be this film. The movie starts out with Max feeling forgotten and ignored by his family. So he escapes into his imagination (or someone's imagination) to start a society of monsters. The ups and downs of this society leads Max to realize...something. And he ends up back home. Not alot really happens in this movie, but nothing really happens in the book either, by Maurice Sendak.

Whatever angle you look at this movie from, whatever age you may be, WTWTA has the most pessimistic and hopeless themes I've seen in a film recently. Never do you see a glimmer of redemption, hope or legitimate happiness. Sure, friends like you, they hate you, they ignore you, they leave you, and then they forget about you; that's life. But this movie just DRIVES the point home. And that's it. That's the entire movie.

Jonze takes the audience's childhood and says, "Yeah, those times were pretty cool. But you're never going to feel that innocent or content again. And guess what, the world is ending too. And you can't stop that from happening any more than you can find any enjoyment out of life." Whether you see undertones of friendship and family, or some commentary on man and the society they live in, the right of kings or war, you are going to experience a spiral of depressing nostalgia and soul-crushing heartache.

Alexander...the real hero of the movie. He knows everyone is a fake. **emo blue steel**

Final Thoughts
The monsters were really awesome looking, and this was probably the most enjoyable part of the film. The music, most of which comes from Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), was enjoyable, if you had enough time to recover from the 20-year deep, dark memory just unlocked from the previous scene.

If you love the original children's book, and you have good memories of it, DO NOT see this movie. Please try to keep those innocent memories as pure as you can, whatever you do! If you have seen this film, how many times did you want to roll up and weep? Seriously. A thousand times over. Hey Jonze, you have any other ideas for corrupting our childhoods? Goodnight Moon could be about genocide. Or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish could have domestic violence at its forefront. Don't even get me started on Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

This kid knows what I'm talkin' about...