Summer Reviews

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Lately, I’ve been doing school work and rushing, so I haven’t been able to write as many reviews as I would have liked to. SO, here are the capsule reviews for the films I’ve seen over the last month or so.

The Other Guys

A collaboration between Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who brought you Talladega Nights, The Other Guys is an amusing buddy cop flick that doesn’t have a concrete point until the very end. Mark Wahlberg plays the bad, annoyed, peacock of a cop and Will Ferrell plays more of a schumcky cop who isn’t really a cop, but a desk worker. The two work well with one another. The comedy, for the most part, is rather brusque, but sometimes drops and becomes rather lame and pointless. The jokes become completely irrelevant to the rest of the film, which can be a nuisance. However, the film is enjoyable and funny. Stay for the credits; it’s the best part of the film.

Grade: B-

(500) Days of Summer

This quirky romantic comedy was, at first in my opinion, dull, depressing, and annoying. But, once it settles in your mind, it can really be appreciated for showing the little seen nuances in a real, adult relationship. Mature and well written, it takes its time showing the nonlinear storyline about a boy and a girl who meet, but, as the narrator says, it is not a love story. Summer is played eloquently by Zooey Deschanel and her boyfriend, from whose perspective we view the entire film from, is Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The two are great…on their own. But for some reason, they lack enough chemistry to really carry the film. Nevertheless, the amount of storytelling is fantastic and the visual style is very inventive. That is, if you can bear to sit that long.

Grade: B-

State of Play

Russell Crow plays a reporter trying to uncover a government conspiracy when a congressman’s (Ben Affleck) mistress is found dead. This intricate film is spindly and serpentine. The performances are all fantastic, particularly that of Helen Mirren and Crow. Rachel McAdams is fine, but her character is kind of whiny and overtly amateur throughout the entire film. Nevertheless, the film, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name, is crafted so well and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Grade: A-

An Education

Aside from the Jewish stereotypes that plague the film, An Education is a well-acted if feebly written film loosely based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of the same name. An older man named David (Peter Scaargard) seduces and Oxford bound young woman named Jenny (Oscar nominated Carey Mulligan). She goes off her track to higher education and is completely enveloped in the world of posh nightclubs and art. It’s like a significantly lesser version of Anna Karenina. However, Mulligan’s performance was completely Oscar worthy, even if the film was not.

Grade: B-

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

If you went through a horrible break up, would you go as far as to completely erase the person from your memory? That’s the question asked here in this brilliantly created drama written by Charlie Kaufman and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Carrey plays a straight laced guy named Joel who falls in love with a completely, almost polar opposite kook named Clementine (Winslet). After a year of ups and downs, she finally has him erased from her memory, using a company whose primary business is erasing people from people’s memories. Upset and shocked, Joel decides to have the same procedure done to him. As we go through his memories, something spectacular happens: we get to feel exactly how Joel feels. We feel his pain, his happiness, we feel everything. So fantastically written and acted, this film has been added to my list of favorite films of all time.

Grade: A+

Fear Thy Neighbor: Review for The Crazies

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I’ve talked about the idea of claustrophobia in films and how it enhances suspense several times in my reviews of horror and suspense movies. But, what if the fear of the unknown is actually in a wide open space, and you have more to fear about the people you actually know than the monsters you don’t? That’s the main question in The Crazies, a remake of the George A. Romero film from 1973 about a small town that is at the mercy of a pandemic and the government trying to contain it. As usual, four words apply here: All Hell breaks loose.

Romero was knowingly making a political statement in his original film. It was about the government’s responsibility and handling of serious issues shortly after Vietnam, and director Breck Eisner thought it was still relevant today. The idea of a government that, when Plan A goes wrong thinks Plan B is total destruction isn’t that far-fetched. Constantly, the cast and crew brought up H1N1 and how the government controlled that. In their minds, they thought, How different could this have been?

Timothy Olyphant plays a sheriff in a tiny town in Iowa called Ogden Marsh, a few miles away from Cedar Rapids. The population is 1,260 people. When he’s forced to shoot one man who’s acting, for lack of a better word, crazy, strange things start happening. Three hunters find a plane sunken in a marsh in town, which has contaminated the water with a biochemical. And then the government steps in. They try to sequester the healthy and quarantine the sickos. It’s a rough ride, as the crazies escape and wreak havoc on the army, forcing them to retreat and then go to plan B: total destruction.

The film is successful in scaring the bejesus out of you, using suspense, horror, and fresh spins on old clichés. The monsters themselves are scary enough, frankly because they aren’t monsters at all. They’re the people we know. The glassy stares penetrate the viewer, and the make-up, expertly created by Almost Human Studios, is so realistic. It’s not horrifying in the way that most zombie thrillers are, or as terribly grotesque, but normal, to an extent. Normal, for one who has caught a horrid virus. The veins pop, the eyes bulge, and it means you’re going to die.

The commentary that the movie offers is a stunning one in a way. What if this did happen? How would our government respond? How quickly could they contain it? Would they go to plan B if they really had to? Well, on that last question, I doubt it, but the idea of it is scary enough. The film starts quickly and never really lets up, giving the overall film a fast and exciting pace. From the second Sheriff David has to shot the crazy old man with the shotgun, you’re on the edge of your seat, anticipating the next phase.

I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the film isn’t the government commentary, rather the idea of not being able to trust the people around you. It’s a tiny town, and everyone knows everyone’s secret. And then to discover that your neighbor is going berserk, when you thought you knew him or her? Isn’t that horrifying? When they’re all around you, sometimes its scarier knowing your attackers than not knowing them. When the enemy is someone you don’t know, the kill is objective, just as much as the fear. But when you know the person well, added to that fear is shock, and a doubt in one’s mind, questioning why someone you knew is doing this. That aspect to me is quite fascinating.

There are, sadly, a few really stupid moments. By stupid, I mean David’s wife goes wandering when she should stay the hell where she is. And she does this a whopping three times throughout the film. This, as well as a few other stupid moments where characters act foolishly, causing the viewer to yell at the scree like a stereotypical black person. But, luckily, it does not mar the overall impression of the film.

I’m not a fan of remakes usually, but here again is proof that one can do it well. In order for it to be a good remake, you have to add something new and fresh to the film and add something that’s unique while still honoring the original source and this film does it. New scare tactics, same story. Sure, this isn’t the first time this story has been brought to the screen or the first time it’s been done well, but it is unique in how scary it is. 28 Weeks Later is very much a similar film, but it wasn’t as scary. It hit more heart strings than adrenal neurons. This is a great horror film; it’s psychologically complex, scary as all hell and well done. One of the scariest thrillers since The Silence of the Lambs. Truly fantastic!

Grade: A-

The New Kid: Review for The Karate Kid

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When it comes to remakes, I think that the concept of a remake itself is perhaps interesting, but the execution and actual creation is seldom, if ever, necessary. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule: The Magnificent Seven (Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and several others have proven that remakes can offer a wonderful new vision for a new generation. My question, however, has always been: If you want to introduce a good film (or bad) to a new generation, why not just re-release it in theaters? I mean, they’ve done it before. Gone with the Wind has been rereleased over five times, which is part of the reason that it is the most successful film ever released, including inflation. So, why not do that? The question has yet to be answered.

Will Smith, such a power hand in the land of Hollywood, has produced a remake of the film The Karate Kid as a vehicle for his son, Jaden. The original film starred Ralph Macchio as the “grasshopper”, as it were, and Pat Morita as the master, the legendary Mr. Miyagi. Macchio is bullied in California, having moved from New Jersey. He gets a job with a seemingly frail old man, who is in fact a martial arts master. And for the remake, the locales have been changed, moving the apprentice, young Jaden Smith as Dre, to China with his mother, played by Taraji P. Henson. Their maintenance man is a seemingly lonely recluse named Mr. Han, played by martial arts master Jackie Chan. From there, the changes are relatively minute, staying true to the original storyline and message of the 1984 film.

For the sake of both a contemporary audience and the main character being all “cool”, the dialogue has suffered a great deal because it needed to be “updated”. This update consists of some of the most cringe worthy lines in the last five years, Jaden saying things he probably wouldn’t dare say in real life for sheer embarrassment. Yeah, I hate to bring it up, but the dialogue is very stereotypical of black kids being cool. Saying banal things that make anyone with an above average vocabulary blush, the main problem was that not only was it really stupid. It was also really unrealistic. The problem of dialogue was also, for one reason or another, stretched to include Jackie Chan’s character. Yeah, we know Chan has an accent, but we also know he can speak pretty fluent English. What does screenwriter Christopher Murphey do? He gives him a broken up accent trying to make Mr. Han sound as foreign as possible. Now, I understand that it would be equally as silly if Mr. Han came out as some linguistics expert, but giving him such a thick and odd accent was troublesome. You could see Chan’s face struggle trying to make it sound as if his character were struggling with the words, climbing over them as if they were cumbersome logs.

The film’s strength lies in its storyline and its message, which is close enough to the original film to please purists but fresh enough for new audiences. The same coming-of-age device was used, but I suppose with a new outlook. The present generation, Generation Y, I believe, is impatient and mouthy, and never knows when to shut up. Chan’s Mr. Han shows us the importance of respect and patience. But Chan shows some of his most dramatic and strongest acting that we’ve ever seen in part of the film, where he and Jaden show the power of rising from within to master your feelings and reach your goal. As a bereaved son, it was powerful for me especially. Though, while the film is able to look upon Chan’s lost wife and child for an entire scene, little is mentioned of Dre’s father, which is disappointing.

The acting, besides Chan’s strong performance, regardless of its laughable lines, is average at best, even with Academy Award nominee Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) in the cast as the discernable mother. Though her facial expressions and tone of voice were certainly recognizable to any child and mother, the performance seemed very much as if she were trying far too hard. Jaden Smith is charming in a strange, child-like way, but if we’re looking for acting as good as his role in The Pursuit of Happyness, you’ll be a bit hard pressed to find it. Not to say he isn’t good, it’s just that, he’s not great. Macchio’s portrayal was more impressive, in comparison.

The story remained rather true to the original film, impressively so, and the insertion of new action sequences with new choreography was a very smart move. The sequences were filled with humor, but towards the end where the tournament takes place, gets violent, so I would suggest the littler ones shield their eyes. When Dre throws a bucket of dirty water at his tormentors early in the film, the chase sequence that ensues creates the same kind of excitement and suspense that the Madagascar scene in Casino Royale did. The movements and cinematography are very similar and even some of the choreography is reminiscent of the scene. It’s very successful in creating exciting moments in the film. And like all sports films, there’s a montage. The montage in this film is charming and funny and very cute, as you see Jaden work his way up and become stronger and stronger, a progression that is often done but seldom done in an interesting way. Sometimes montages are too funny, sometimes too inspirationally sweet, but this one balances it out to create a very good montage.

James Horner once again proves that he’s a great film composer, mixing contemporary American music with traditional Chinese compositions that give a nice flavor to the film. And what else is there when it comes to music? Very nice track selections, some classical, like a piece from Chopin, and some very hard and exciting rock, like “Back in Black” by AC/DC, and a great dance track like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, and some hip hop from Jay-Z, the overall selections are fantastic and eclectic.

The film represents a great show of rising from within to harness your inner power to reach your goals, and, much like the original is positively inspirational. The script is fine, while the dialogue is very weak, but overall, the film is another of those good remakes. Enjoyable and quietly powerful, Chan and Smith hit their marks and go above and beyond their expectations.

Grade: B+

Do You Want to Play a Game?: Review for Funny Games

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Most mainstream audiences don’t like snooty art house films. They seem to think that the subject matter that art house films tackle is too dense or something, but if it hasn’t been directed by Michael Bay, they tend to avoid it. They suspect that the people who watch them like to brag about it and like to brag they seem more cultured than everyone else.  But, when they come across a sadistic film like Funny Games, a film that acts like one of those Evangelical Christians knocking on your door and waiting to shove their message down your throat, they might have good reason.

What better an idea than to show how America loves to watch violence than just to hand it to them and give it to them on a foreign silver platter. Place them in a theater and subject them to watching what Americans love to watch: sadistic violence. Funny Games is a very drastic misnomer. Nothing is funny about this film.

George, Ann (Naomi Watts), and their young boy Georgie are terrorized by a pair of white sociopaths dressed immaculately in white. These young maniacs symbolically represent the entertainment biz, the ones who draw in those masses ready and rarin’ to watch brutal films like Saw and Hostel. The members of this upper-middle class family are the ones who get tortured, the ones that we American seem to love to watch so much.

Michael Haneke, who has directed masterpieces like Cache and The White Ribbon, has attempted to show us what kind of pigs we are. The subject of film violence and its influence on the public has been very controversial, the sides debating on its negative influence. Haneke’s objective is to show that violence indeed can be negative on someone’s way of thinking. While trying to do that, he simultaneously tries to anesthetize violence, trying to ward off the blame that one could put on him for making this film in the first place. However, this is a remake of a 1997 Austrian film of the same name. And by remake, I mean shot-by-shot remake. Nearly every frame of the film is identical to the original film, but for some reason, this version seems more malignant and mean than its Austrian counterpart.

The violence in incredibly unsettling, because unlike slasher films where the violence is cartoonish and torture porn films, where the violence is so over the top and sadistic, it’s unbelievable, it’s realistic and scary. But this film, which basically involves people in your home making you play mind games in which you hurt each other in a much more realistic way than Saw could ever portray, somehow crosses a line between reality and sick fantasy. Each move the family makes puts them closer in danger, because the killers are right there. They’re more than willing to cause this family as much harm as possible.

But the message of how sick Americans are doesn’t work well. One of the sociopaths, played by The Dreamer’s Michael Pitt, every so often looks into the camera ad speaks to the audience, making a *wink-wink* camera joke, making the film very self-aware. The lunatics know what they’re doing, and they know what the audience is doing: the audience is watching. The audience could stop, take the DVD out or something, but they haven’t. This is what Haneke is trying to say, and rather unsuccessfully. We’re hypnotized by violence. We can’t get enough. We play violent video games in which we blow people apart as part of our objective.

What is successful about the film is the way Haneke utilizes the violence. He wants us to recoil in fear and disgust, and sometimes he just shows the result of violence and not the violence itself. The deaths don’t happen on screen. Sometimes the scariest things are what you can’t see. Sort of like Tobe Hooper’s  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where there’s no blood in the movie, but only suggestion. But, isn’t he providing the violence for us? Couldn’t he have just as easily just made a documentary? Yes, he could have. But he didn’t. With the psychopaths smirking at the camera and the last shot on Michael Pitt, Haneke seems to relish the fear he’s instilled in us. He wants us to be ashamed. And in some ways, we are. But, before long, Haneke just gets snooty all over again. Dear god, even the tagline for the film is snooty: “You must admit, you brought this on yourself.” He is certainly poking us in the nose for watching this genre in the first place.

But what is, as a whole, a very sickening and preachy film, when you get halfway through, the film, God forbid, gets dull. The pace suddenly comes to a halt and we’re left with the two surviving parents blow-drying a cell phone and trying to find a car to save them. This could have been remedied by the use of a film score, but the only music you hear in this film is classical music at the beginning to show how snooty this family is and then some hard-rockabilly-metal hybrid that has screams in it. Does this music represent the screams we will undoubtedly pour from our mouths as we watch this film? Or is this just used to show that this is a “contemporary” update to his film made for Americans who love their metal music? Either way, without a score, we’re left hanging at certain scenes, not terrified, just sort of bored.

Repellent, sickening, and disgusting, Michael Haneke takes his message of media violence and how it influences us a bit too far and while making some of us think, he just comes off as an arrogant director who wants to rub it in the American’s faces. An absolutely repulsive film, Haneke tries to send a message and aestheticize violence but it becomes hypocritical.  Grade: D

Gangster Paradise: Review for “Public Enemies”

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John Dillinger had a very obvious suaveness to him. He liked cars, movies, and could woo a girl in no time. He is one of the most famous bank robbers. And his career, if untimely short, has been put on the screen. The director is a very able one at that. Michael Mann knows how to direct an action flick. With smashes like Heat, he was certainly the Mann for the job to direct Public Enemies. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger, embodying his spirit and his mind set, and he does just a fantastic job doing so. Marion Cotillard plays his love, Billie Frachette. She, I think, gives the best performance in the entire film. She won the Academy Award in 2007 for her turn in another biopic, La Vie en Rose as Edith Piaf. Christian Bale, who has lately been choosing roles in which no one can hear him speak, plays the conniving and efficient Melvin Purvis. In this time, 1934, the FBI is just starting and J. Edgar Hoover is as corrupt as can be. The film works very well not only as a historical docudrama but also as an action film and as a character driven film. Great performances and spectacular authenticity. The film has a very glossy feel about it; replicas and props that look as if they came out of Grandma’s closet, cars that Clyde Barrow would be envious of, and spectacular picture quality. The Collateral director chose to film the movie digitally and in high definition, which means that though it looks like you could poke the chin of J. Edgar Hoover, there are a few “blips” in which the pixels are a little misplaced. Another problem with the film is that it feels as if the cameramen, in the intent of getting an “in-your-face” view of the Dillinger gang, used handy-cams. The shaky feel, depending on the viewer, makes you feel closer to the characters or simply distract you from the story. An otherwise excellent film, we should be seeing an Oscar nomination for both Depp and Cotillard.


Grade: A-