You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.

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The Apatow machine churns out another one. I don’t think Pineapple Express could fail even if it tried because the pairing of Seth Rogen and marijuana seems to be a match made in heaven. Billed as an action stoner comedy, Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg have crafted a tale around the titular strain of weed that allows for drug-induced confusion and paranoia due to the fact our two heroes are being hunted down by hitmen. Shortly after Dale Denton (Rogen) sees a murder by a drug dealer and cop, he is traced back to his personal drug outlet Saul (James Franco) and the two must run to save their lives. A buddy comedy more than anything, the chase allows for a lot of action sequences and stunts, but it really succeeds when we’re shown conversation and humor between our leads and the crazy bunch of characters they meet along the way.

While not as smart as The 40-Year Old Virgin, or funny as Superbad, Pineapple Express lives close to them in entertainment level. There is a huge sense of heightened reality throughout, (another character Red and his tolerance for pain among the more absurd moments), that somewhat distances the audience from relating to the events. There are instances that are clearly written haphazardly and for the purpose of bridging events together, no matter how implausible. Deaths are convenient, but funny as a result. Don’t be afraid to let loose and enjoy the comedy for what it is instead of looking for a smart story to string it all together.

More a series of crazy shenanigans then A to B narrative, many parts are unforgettable and perhaps more successful than the whole. Our introduction to Danny McBride’s Red is one that comes to mind. He, along with Rogen and Franco, just exudes a calm comfortability. The three are obviously improvising with perfect comedic timing as they meet, with the scene culminating into an all out brawl. They are all people that probably never partook in a fight before and it shows. Slamming people into furniture, throwing ashtrays at each other’s faces, and even sacrificing a bong to use as a weapon add to the laughs and utter craziness of the situation. When Rogen finally ends the battle he looks at Franco with genuine surprise on his face saying, “was that overboard? Too much?” It is a priceless moment with Red unconscious on the ground.

There is a lot more that works to mix in with some that doesn’t. The police car chase is great if just for the moment when Franco attempts to kick out the windshield. Rather than play it for action-sense, they allow humor to show as his foot becomes lodged in the glass. The sporadic driving is refreshing because he can’t see where he is going and is high on weed. Car chases are always so matter-of-fact going down streets, avoiding other automobiles. Here, though, the chaos expected this situation comes through. Where the realism works for this scene, its absence ruins the final shootout. The cost of life is thrown out the window towards the end so that it can all go out in a blaze of glory. Deaths are many and almost all are nicely orchestrated to a contrived perfection so as to work with what is going on. If a car explodes and flies into the air it must fall and kill someone; if a car rams through a wall randomly, it must run down a character that is about to kill someone else. The comedy is broad and obvious, unfortunately making this conclusion drag for me as I just wanted it to end to hear what everyone had to say, (which is a great payoff as the survivors enjoy a meal and rehash the entire movie to each other, filling in what the others missed—I almost would have rather had the conclusion be told in flashbacks as they relate it to one another, that would be comedy gold).

I give all involved a pass on the action shortcomings because no one has ever handled something like this before. Rogen, wanting a non-Michael Bay type to helm it, made an interesting choice in Indie-darling David Gordon Green. I think it was a successful pairing in that no one really had a set way to do things, much like the script was probably tweaked during production, I wouldn’t be surprised if the setpieces were also. While they may be novices on that front, they aren’t in terms of acting, or at least playing themselves for jokes. Green is known for getting brilliant dramatic performances out of his cast and here we have some very funny ones. Rogen is hilarious as we all know, but his castmates surprised me. McBride is just a natural onscreen as though he is oblivious to the cameras and just reacting as though this is life. His deadpan delivery can’t help but make you smile. As for James Franco, he really excels. Usually the brooding, conflicted villain or hero, he loosens up and is phenomenal. Facial expressions, misunderstanding of words, and overall actions exude pothead. He is having fun and is absolutely believable playing off Rogen as though they do this type of thing everyday. I hope he finds his way into more comedy in the future.

One can’t deny notice to a strong supporting cast as well. Rosie Perez is plucked from obscurity to play the murdering cop on Gary Cole’s drug entrepreneur’s payroll. She is a little firecracker and her fighting at the end brings some huge laughs. Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan are a fantastic hitman duo, the gay muscle partnered with the crazed brain that just wants to go home and have dinner with his wife. Many other great cameos are sprinkled throughout including Bill Hader as a pot smoking soldier in 1937, Nora Dunn and Ed Begley Jr. as protective parents to Rogen’s high school aged girlfriend, and Joe Lo Truglio’s small moment as a messed up teacher, the kind trying to be relevant to the students while also attempting to demand respect as an adult. There is a lot to enjoy here and while the overall journey is lacking, the pieces making it up do not disappoint. Maybe drug dealers and their customer truly can put business aside and become friends.

Pineapple Express 8/10

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[1] Dale Denton (Seth Rogen, left) and Saul Silver (James Franco, right) are two lazy stoners running for their lives in Columbia Pictures’ action-comedy Pineapple Express.
[2] Hired killers Matheson (Craig Robinson, left) and Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan, right) flank Red (Danny McBride, center) in Columbia Pictures’ action-comedy Pineapple Express.
© 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

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Genghis Khan, sympathetic king of the people? If Sergei Bodrov is to be believed: yes. His tale of Khan’s ascent to power from childhood, Mongol, tells of how he kept his ideals and the laws of Mongolia intact to unite a country from greed. After a battle, he takes an even share as those fighting under him; he respects his men and their families above survival. “Fight your enemy until the end” becomes one of his rules, and he himself lives by it. Sure, as one man says, maybe he’ll just take everything after the next battle, but at this early point in his life, Temudjin stands for justice and decency in war times. Unafraid to kill, he is still a man in love with his wife and the country he fights for. Fearless, this man rolls with the punches as his wife is stolen twice from his clutch; he becomes mortal enemies with his best friend and blood brother; and even lives as a slave. Never giving up, Temudjin always bides his time until he can strike his enemies and show his people that he can bring them to the forefront of the world. “One day everyone will speak Mongolian.” Lofty goals for sure, but watching this interpretation, you can’t stop yourself from believing that it could happen.

Bodrov is fearless himself shooting this two-hour film in Mongolian with an abundance of blood and gore. While some moments feel cartoony with splashes a la 300 or the video game Mortal Kombat, the feel still maintains a high level of realism. The cinematography is just plain gorgeous to behold with beautiful framing as well as slow-motion sequences adding to the majestic quality nature has to offer. Close-ups abound adding a level of intrigue rather than just framing conversations conventionally at mid-range. We are thrust into the story, peering at every ornate detail on display. Costumes, scenery, and props are fabulously rendered allowing the style and artistry to break through and enhance the story going on inside of it.

Temudjin is a man of the people who knows how to lead. Wherever he goes, people defect from other armies to follow his clan and take him as a master. Whether it is because of his natural tendency to come out victoriously or that he truly is a just a fair leader, none can match the power he wields without a weapon. From the beginning he was feared and not shy to play on that fact. Upon his father’s murder and what should have been his inheritance of the Khan mantel, a rival decides to kill him as well and become ruler of the group. Mongols do not kill children, as a rule, until they grow to a certain height, so Targutai must wait. That time only allows Temudjin to grow older and more experienced and to run away, finding a kindred spirit in Jamukha for whom he grows so close to that they call each other brother. These two discover that they are the strongest ones in the country, but cannot work together as they both prefer to be their own masters. After the killing of Jamukha’s real brother at the hands of one of Temudjin’s men, the bond of comradery dissolves, as they become enemies, fighting to be the Khan to rule all of Mongolia. However, the level of respect they have for each other never allows the title of brother to be thrown to the side. The two may be battling against one another, but it doesn’t mean all that they had been through and all that they admire in the other needs to be forgotten.

Jamukha is played by Honglei Sun and is perhaps my favorite character in the entire film. He is always in control of the bigger army, but when he looks over to his rival he never relinquishes the smile and knowledge that his brother will not be easily overcome. Temudjin himself is stoic perfection on behalf of actor Tadanobu Asano. Beaten but never broken, Asano exudes a stillness of control even when behind the bars of a cage. Always thinking five steps ahead, his fearlessness doesn’t allow for worry or doubt. He is prepared for death and has been since he was a child—nothing can scare him—not even the thunder God Tengri, because defeat is a journey itself. As long as he never gives up, that journey will be pushed off until the future. As for his strong-legged love Börte, Khulan Chuluun is magnificent. This is a woman of immense mental strength, willing to do whatever it takes for her family. Despite being captured and mothering two children out of wedlock, she never loses hope in her husband to recover her and make her proud. A pro with the knife, Börte is not one to cross or let your guard down in front of. Much like Temudjin, she is always thinking of her next move, ready to escape with her children and be reunited with her master and lover.

While the cinematography and overall look of the film lends the quieter moments a stunning beauty, one cannot forget the epic battles put on display. These are filmed without the help of computers to multiply three soldiers a thousand times. One scene needed 1,500 horses and riders to work and having it all be real adds to the sequence immensely. The blood spurts and gore is added afterwards, but it only enhances the maneuvering and fighting happening onscreen. Temudjin’s capture by Jamukha at about the midway point of the story is my favorite. One man against an army, the soon to be Genghis Khan never tires despite injury, continually swinging his sword at those advancing on him with spears until finally surrounded and subdued. It’s just one moment in a story spanning from Temudjin’s youth to control of a kingdom. A story that is fascinating to hear and glorious to behold.

Mongol 8/10

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Wow, six years later and Chris Carter decided that his old show “The X-Files” still had relevance. I’ll admit to having loved the show when it first aired, diligently watching each episode for the first five or so seasons to see where the mythology arc would lead. Yeah, the one-off shows were fun, the occasional monster/killer/paranormal weirdness, but when they continued the alien conspiracy tale, my ears and eyes stayed glued. Black Oil, Krycek, and Cancer-Man made up the ultimate trifecta in 90’s television for me. With all that said, I was anticipating the return of Scully and Mulder to the big screen with The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Maybe not completely excited, I really just wanted to see what they had to say, maybe get a nice extension to the conspiracy, because really, why else would they do it? Well it appears that answer is money and the hope to cash in on nostalgia and salivating fans. Besides the mention of Mulder’s sister’s abduction, the alien plotline is vacant, Black Oil plays no part, (and they have to kick us while we’re down showing the bleeding tears, at first making me question if the oil was upon us), and what we are left with is more psychically charged “CSI” than the “X-Files” I know and remember well.

I admit to not knowing what happened to these characters later on in the series. How did they write Mulder off the show? What ever happened between these two agents with all kinds of repressed sexual tension? I kind of got my answers during the course of the film, if not the details, at least the circumstances. It seems as though Carter wrote this tale to give some closure to the team he formed back in 1993. We learn how their relationship has progressed amidst his hiding from the FBI and pretty much underground mentality as well as Scully’s journey into the actual practice of medicine to save lives. The crime on hand to be solved—a Russian black market organ transportation scheme—takes a backseat to the evolution we see as our two heroes glimpse back into the lives they thought they left behind. It is somewhat unfortunate because the groundwork was laid out for some creepiness, but instead the blood and psychotic surgeries stay on the periphery.

It is somewhat sad to say too, but the new faces introduced are all pretty much unnecessary. Xzibit is way out of his element as a by the books, not a skeptical bone in his body FBI agent. He has one expression and one job throughout: to cast doubt and play the downer. It is tiresome. As is Amanda Peet, an actress I generally enjoy. She is no more than a pawn used to get Mulder out of the cave he holed up in. Whatever hard chick persona she attempts is annoying and the hidden “I kinda dig Fox” agenda seems to bubble to the surface every once in a while, (the scene after he shaved), but never becomes anything. Both characters are wasted and could have been cut down immensely to just random agents that hire Mulder to help them out.

Don’t think I hated them all though. When the role was relevant to the plot, the actors did a bang up job. Billy Connolly is fantastic as the psychic, ex-priest, pedophile Father Joe. He plays it up at all times and borders on crazy while coming across as genuine in every action he takes. When you put him and Scully in a room together, sparks fly. Well one screaming match towards the end in his dorm is a bit wooden, but for the most part they play off each other well. As for villainy, who better than the best manifestation of psychological terror on TV with his Leoben role in “Battlestar Galactica”? Callum Keith Rennie plays with a nice Russian accent and just does what he does, creepy ulterior motive smile working splendidly.

But really, this film is about a return to the roles that made them for David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Yeah Mitch Pileggi gets a bone thrown his way too, but that one is more for the fanboys than anything else. I have to say, it was exciting seeing these two back onscreen together as the skeptic and the believer. Duchovny’s quips bring the funny like always; however, I couldn’t help but think that his role in “Californication” added to the humor for me. Both were made for these characters and they seem to be comfortable returning to them after a half-decade hiatus. They brought me back into the world of paranormal crime, I just wanted a little more to the story. I get the whole “never give up” creed and it is beaten into our heads repeatedly. What about not giving up on the search for proof of alien existence? That is the story I wanted and hoped to see at least a cursory nod to. Maybe the mythology was wrapped up with the end of the series, I don’t know having not watched it. Either way, I wanted more “X-Files” and less crime scene evidence disproving the psychic connection so obviously at work. Don’t let science ruin your beliefs, Mulder never did and I won’t either. Maybe in another five years we’ll get the movie I’ve been waiting for—Fox finally being reunited with Samantha.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe 6/10

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The film The Perfect Game is a great story of the underdog defeating adversity at home and in public. This young team of Mexicans band together against all odds to form a Little League team in Monterey to be entered into the 1957 competition against the powerhouses of 12-year old baseball Americans. Not only must they overcome a novice at best skill at the game—helped enormously by their ex-Major League towel boy turned coach—but also the bigotry and racism of a segregated America not yet ready to see foreigners from below the southern border hand their precious kids a lesson in humility. Standing on its own, the story is quite the tale and intriguing at every turn. However, this is not a book, it is a visual medium and in that respect doesn’t live up to the quality of its plot. A made-for-TV movie at best, this film is very heavy-handed and way too feel-good for anyone with a brain hoping to find something that may stimulate a cell up there in his skull. Laughable in its saccharine drenched contrivances and score’s orchestral swells just begging to elicit sentimental tears, the Lifetime movie of the week quality definitely distracted this viewer, one who was intent on learning a story and seeing it all play out, not just to watch close-ups of pouting boys and cheesy smiles.

Don’t get me wrong, people looking for the uplifting story of success, when no one gave them a chance, will be very pleased. The amount of applause DURING the screening proves that point as viewers definitely get invested in these types of tales. For me, however, I need a little more, some real stakes that at times showed face—the coach’s drunken misstep that risks deporting them all due to expired visas—but mostly just bridge us to the next heartfelt moment. Stereotypes and clichés abound leading me to tell you all to make sure you check your mind at the door; it will not be needed. I don’t want to fault any of the acting, except of course Emilie de Ravin’s atrocious accent that made me want to wring her neck, because it isn’t bad considering the script and material. Clifton Collins Jr. is a favorite of mine and while at times is very out of his element playing off of a troupe of children, brings some of his standard brood and contemplative thinking. Used to playing psychotics, whether extreme as in Rules of Attraction or introverted as in Capote, casting him as the coach finding his heart again is a bold choice. For the most part it is a gamble that pays off.

As for the rest of the cast, I was completely thrown off by the amount of familiar faces being that I truly had not even heard of the film before being given the preview pass. Stalwarts like Bruce McGill, John Cothran Jr., Frances Fisher, and Chris Mulkey all make appearances alongside Louis Gossett Jr., (talk about a blast from the past). Even David Koechner reins in his annoyance for a decent cameo that brings a couple laughs. However, the kids definitely become the heart of the tale. Head-shaking for the fact that “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere’s younger brother Jansen is playing a Mexican aside, the kids are very cute and fun to spend time with. You have your common traits for each to overcome and be friends despite of them, as well as the father/son dynamic needed to bring the heavy emotion. Unfortunately the chasm between Papa Macias and his last living son is so huge and so front and center, the inevitable reconciliation is so obvious that it loses all impact it might have had.

A warning must be said as well concerning the make-up of the film. Yes, there are many montages and time lapses to save time, however, you experience a ton of baseball. Whether an inning or abridged games in their entirety, director William Dear shows a little piece of each stop to the championship. The cuts are quick and often, so I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the actual baseball action was faked, but they do their job to portray what was being done. A family film from start to finish, I was the least bit surprised to find that Dear also helmed Angels in the Outfield. More life-affirming tale then sports flick, don’t be afraid to take your young ones to a movie even though it stars Cheech Marin. Long gone are his Cheech and Chong days, playing the priest that starts the seed of baseball in the small Mexican town, Marin brings some subtle chuckles, but mostly plays the rock opposite Collins Jr.’s conflicted hero. Never surprising at any moment, The Perfect Game may not be brilliance at the movies, but for what it is, you could do much worse than partake in a courageous true story while sitting through the candy-coated exuberance of it all.

The Perfect Game 5/10

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A Scene from THE PERFECT GAME featuring (from left to right) Angel (Jake T. Austin), Cesar (Clifton Collins Jr.), Mario (Moises Arias), Gerando (Mario Quinonez), Enrique (Jansen Panettiere), Padre Esteban (Cheech Marin) and Frankie (Emilie de Ravin). Photo credit: Vivian Zink. Copyright © Lionsgate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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Documentaries have never been my genre of choice. I go to the movies to escape from reality and embed myself into a world unlike my own, or at least skewed enough to make me look upon my life and see what can be improved from the new experiences and ideas culled from the viewing. However, with American Teen I could not have been more engrossed in the trials and tribulations of senior year of high school. Watching this film, you will find a piece of yourself in each of the students followed around whether it the nerd, the outcast, the jock, or the prom queen. As Brian’s paper states at the conclusion of The Breakfast Club, we all have a little of each clique inside of us, it is just a matter of being confident in yourself to let those traits out when surrounded by those you don’t think of as your crowd. I started reliving moments from that time in my life, good and bad, sparked by the events occurring onscreen—things I may not have even thought I remembered too. Just because these are kids graduating six years after I did, in a school with technology my friends and I never dreamt of, (Texting in school during class? What the hell is texting?), all the craziness, emotion, pressure, and fight to either conform or be as different as possible definitely remains the same.

The great thing about this film is the utter candidness everyone involved portrays. These kids do horrible, horrible things to each other and yet none of them fear the camera they confess to. Everything is documented from moments amongst a group, confessionals alone with the camera, texting and phone conversations, even drinking binges in San Diego. I would love to see something on the DVD release showing everyone’s reactions to watching it all for the first time, whether they realized some of the things they did when they happened and if they feel any remorse now. It is all very genuine in most instances. Sure guys like Jake Tusing play to the camera to make him seem as dorky as possible and Mitch Reinholt performs for the filmmakers as he winks and talks to the camera while trying to get Hannah Bailey’s attention at the gas station, but it is all still their personalities coming through. My favorite has to be Miss Perfect Megan Krizmanich, though. She is so self-absorbed that everything going wrong has to be the fault of everyone but herself. Does she drive her friends away? Of course not, they abandon her. I feel sorry because that is just whom she is and how she was raised to be the best and go to Notre Dame like her father and siblings before her. It really is too bad because when we get to see the true her come out, as she speaks about her sister’s death, you can see the compassion that she hides deep down so as not to ruin her ice princess façade.

Nanette Burstein has crafted a highly enjoyable film with equal amounts of poignancy and laugh out loud moments. Her film is very funny, both in intentional and unintentional instances. Following these kids around for an entire school year, especially one with so much importance as senior year, the last seconds before going off into the real world of work, college, or the army, could not have been an easy task. It must have been even harder to edit down all the footage into the seamless progression we are shown. There is no true lead, besides the main four of Megan, Jake, Hannah, and basketball star Colin Clemens, and Burstein is never afraid to linger on the characters hanging out in the periphery. Some of these friends and acquaintances outshine the stars because they just interact with each other and never try to extrapolate their feelings for the camera. A guy like Geoff Haase or Megan’s friend that likes him or even Hannah’s best friend, always there for her, (I forget his name but he is such a mystery because you never get his reaction to it all, whether he has feelings for Hannah or if they truly are just friends), are the most intriguing.

Credit the parents, or the filmmakers for duping them, because to show some of the things going on takes some guts. We are privy to what could have easily been a felony/misdemeanor, underage drinking at private homes as well as bars and clubs, and some very cruel activities. You have to feel for Erica as her naked pose to the boy she liked spread like wildfire throughout the entire student body—I guess Vanessa Hudgens isn’t alone. And times like Megan’s party, when her two best friends put the moves on each other, seeing things get out of control. Screaming matches, tempers flaring, and even a face slap escalate what was a pretty chill get-together. For the cameraman and Burstein to be able to just sit back and watch, unknowing whether the anger rose because they knew they were on film and wanted to go all out, must have been tough. I know I would have wanted to step in and calm things down, especially being the adult when underage drinking is going on.

I really enjoyed following these kids around, reminiscing about the “hardships” my friends and I had in high school. We look back now and realize how easy we had it; despite thinking our lives were rough and stress ridden then. For a teenager, high school drama is all you have, your image is king and if you don’t like yourself, times can be very tough. I wonder what happened to Jake, which reinvention he chose for Wisconsin; whether Colin excelled at Indiana Tech’s basketball program; and how Hannah, the person I related to most being the middle of the pack, friends with all yet not quite included anywhere, dealt with her year in California and if she finally went to college. I hope everyone does well and maybe use this film experience as a way to see who they really are, altering themselves if necessary to be the best they can.

American Teen 7/10

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[1] Jake Tusing stars in Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen”. Copyright: (c) 2007 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Courtesy of Paramount Vantage
[2] Hannah Bailey stars in Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen”. Copyright: (c) 2007 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved. Photo by James Rexroad

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What do you do when your film is hyped up as the best comic book movie of all-time? What about when your star dies of an accidental drug overdose after completion, attributed by some to prescribed depression medication acquired due to the toll his character took on him? Well, you just have to ride the wave and hope it all turns out good. I mean just those two aspects alone were going to drive people to the theatres on Friday night, the real question was would the word-of-mouth keep them coming afterwards? My answer is a resounding yes. Rarely does a film not only live up to the lofty expectations set before it, but almost never does it exceed them. The Dark Knight is not only a great comic adaptation, but also a great movie from any genre. The acting is amazing, the story is intelligent and always keeping you on your toes, and the direction is a step up from the original installment, Batman Begins. I definitely had my reservations with the plethora of new characters and return of so many old ones, but Christopher Nolan handled it all like a champ. Some were so small that they probably weren’t necessary at all—I’m talking to you Scarecrow—but it never suffered from the sequel curse of too much too soon. Having The Joker and Harvey Dent introduced at the same time was natural and necessary because the two are on opposite sides of the legal spectrum, helping give Batman a look at what life could be in Gotham without him, both for the worst and the best.

The Gotham crime syndicates are afraid of the caped crusader to the point where their employees cower in the shadows at the sight of the Bat-signal and the mob bosses hold their meetings during the day. Worried that their finances are about to be seized by Lt. Gordon’s strike force, (Gary Oldman once more showing his greatness in even the straightforward roles he takes when on hiatus from the crazed villains he is used to playing), they pool it all together and hand over control to an Asian corporation, naively thinking it is safe from Gotham and new DA Harvey Dent’s jurisdiction. Only the demented nihilist The Joker understands that Batman has no bounds when it comes to what he is capable of. A vigilante himself, the superhero can go where he pleases and extract Lau from Hong Kong, the man with every penny owned by the city’s underbelly in his seemingly safe hands. This fact isn’t a question of could happen, but instead one of will happen. It is the first step in The Joker’s elaborate plan to take control of the city and prove to all that even the pure of heart can be and will be corruptible. Human nature is flawed and he wants to show the world just how much. Money is inconsequential; all he wants is the power and control.

While first seen as a fly sticking out of a bee swarm, Batman and Gordon don’t take any real heed of The Joker’s threat. It is the mob they are after and, with the help of Dent, are almost to the point where they can take them down for good. But as Harvey says, it is always darker before the dawn and this crazed maniac is blotting out the sun. Devoid of morals and seriously insane—“do you want to know how I got these scars?”—he takes no prisoners and consistently plays with everyone on his trail. A master of the human psyche, he is always two steps ahead of Batman and Gotham’s finest, pulling the strings on who is to live and who is to die. With the finding of his polar opposite in the form of Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego, The Joker is ready to have fun. Knowing how Batman’s one rule is the inability to kill, he pushes his buttons and places the blame of those he kills onto Wayne’s consciousness. Having a man like Dent there to stand for justice, face accessible to the world and not hidden behind a mask, Wayne’s guilt drives him to the edge of finally letting his identity be known. The Joker is a wild card in the poker match of life, orchestrator of anarchy, turning the world on each other and soon doesn’t even need to actually do any of the killings himself. Those he toys with find themselves falling to the darkness of revenge and greed, doing his bidding without even having to be asked.

No one is safe in this pitch-black world of violence and crime, almost completely shrouded in shadow once the small glint of light that seemed about to break through is snuffed out. Nolan throws conventions out the window with his plotting and willingness to take a chance on letting those we may find to be untouchable become expendable. He also has honed his action skills by giving us a bit more of a wide angle view on fights, letting them happen before our eyes and not be constructed later with quick cuts that don’t meld together. And the special effects, all I can say is bravo. From the new gadgets, (sonar systems and a kickass bat-cycle whose introduction is only upstaged by its ability to flip 90 degrees by riding up a building wall), to the make-up work, (The Joker is unsettling to view without Heath Ledger’s superb acting work), to the computer graphics, (not to ruin anything, but Two-Face is a sight to see), The Dark Knight pulls no punches.

With solid acting all around, Christian Bale and company carry over the success from the first film without fail. He himself is more comfortable in the duality of lifestyles, shining as Bruce Wayne the playboy, while also getting a chance to show some heroics before able to get his suit on, showing how it is the man and not the costume that really is super. However, it is the newcomers that bring the standard for comic book performances up to a level that may never be eclipsed. Aaron Eckhart is great as Dent with his pretty boy looks and affable charm. Unable to be bullied or scared, Eckhart embodies the good that Gotham has in its future and the subtle hinting to the darkness always hiding behind the façade of someone that pure of heart. He himself said it best, “you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Foreshadowing at its best.

But of course, the true amazement is with Ledger’s Joker. When cast, many had their doubts, yet I remember always standing by the choice, knowing he could hit it out of the park if given the chance. Wow, this is the best villain ever put to screen. His vocal work and laugh are chilling and the facial ticks and licking of the lips just show the detail Ledger put in. The back-and-forths between him and Bale are always intriguing and exciting as the two powerhouses just put on a clinic and how about the introduction to his character at the start robbing the bank, what an entrance. The only part of this film that left me sad was the fact that we won’t be able to see Ledger reprise the role in the next installment. Kudos to Nolan for already saying that they will not recast; it is an honor to the job Heath did and to the audience so as not to pull a switch, ruining the character and movie because no one could ever even attempt to match the craft that went into the role here. A fantastic performance in a fantastic film…whatever you have heard, believe it.

The Dark Knight 9/10

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[1] HEATH LEDGER stars as The Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action drama “The Dark Knight,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and also starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. TM & © DC Comics.
[2] Batman on his Bat-Pod in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action drama “The Dark Knight,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. TM & © DC Comics.

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I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever utter these words about a Will Ferrell vehicle, especially one with Adam McKay as collaborator—besides that Pearl video The Landlord on the internet last year—but here it is. Step Brothers is an absolutely hilarious film. From end to end, I don’t remember the last time I’ve laughed this hard, without stop. This is what Ferrell needs to do, no more of those bio-spoofs of idiots that fall flat due to their tired joke. He is unstoppable as a part of an ensemble when he doesn’t have to be the center of attention for an hour and half. The guy is obnoxious, and while funny, the more freedom he gets, the more annoying he is. Having a guy like John C. Reilly to play off of helps rein him in and give the audience a break, allowing the jokes to breath and not become stifled by the monotony of his schtick. Like Old School before it, Ferrell kills in smaller doses. He has shown me that ability again here and whereas I won’t even keep Anchorman or Talladega Nights on screen when flipping through the television, I seriously can’t wait to revisit this one again.

There is no bloated plot involved or even a love interest to distract from the comedy like the previous two “Everyman” entries in the Ferrell/McKay tag team’s canon. I do believe that is the most refreshing aspect here; they finally see that you don’t need a contrived romantic bent to be successful, we as an audience don’t need to see the schlubby guy get the attractive girl, that is a cliché used way too often. We go to see a film like this to be entertained and to cause us to wet our pants with unstoppable laughter. As a result there are no lulls as even when the two stars begin to see how they must shape up and become adults for once, the awkwardness brings the laughs as well.

Step Brothers isn’t winning any Oscars any time soon. With a premise involving the union of two older professionals, both of whom have 40-year old sons still living at home, devoid of responsibility, and lacking serious occupations, what do you really expect? Nancy Huff, (Mary Steenburgen showing that she is still around Hollywood), and Robert Doback, (Richard Jenkins letting his funny side out to complement the wonderful dramatic turn he gave in this year’s The Visitor), are in love and perfect for one another. Their sons, unbeknownst to them at first, are also soulmates in the best friend platonic way. Completely the same person, right down to the hiding things in the kitchen while sleepwalking at night, Brennan and Dale are children trapped in adult bodies who waited forty years to be brought together. The chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly is unstoppable onscreen, they are having fun, they must be improvising, and truthfully not a second falls flat.

With so many gags, one would think it’d all seem a bit disparate and thrown together, but the filmmakers and stars have sewn everything up nicely. You want a rap video that is the most offensive thing you’ll hear all year? Get Brennan and Dale to create a music talent agency. You want an a cappella rendition of Guns N’ Roses? Give Brennan a cocky, pompous brother who can afford singing/voice listens for his entire family—absolutely priceless, and Adam Scott kills in this role, “Pow!”. You need some gratuitous fake nudity? Give Ferrell a chance to rub his genitalia on Reilly’s drumset. Check, check, and check. These guys cover all their bases, not to mention the swearing quota. I am surprised that they approved an R-rating here because it is so vulgar. The fact that a couple lines from the trailer didn’t make the final cut shows that the actors must have improvised and done multiple takes of each scene. As a result, I’m sure they all tried to be as creatively crass as they could and to fantastic result. Some of the gems that spew forth ever so naturally are one-liners that will be repeated over and over again.

Really, it is these vulgarities that make the film that much more enjoyable to me. I think that McKay and Ferrell took a page out of the Apatow machine’s book realizing a hard-R can and will sell. No one holds back at all, some of the sarcasm even makes the characters cry because it is so harsh. I love this aspect as it plays into the fact that these are 8-year old adults. Their excess of childlike exuberance and simplicity of mind and life—and let’s not forget the way their parents react by either screaming and going to the Cheesecake Factory bar or coddling them as only a mother can do—adds to the absurdity of the situation and the laughs. Dale and Brennan fight, bicker, and eventually do everything together because they aren’t just stepbrothers, no they are brothers for life in terms of their internal makeup. Think you and your sibling growing up in grade school, multiply that to the nth degree in terms of sex, violence, and language, and maybe you will be able to imagine what’s in store for you once you sit down at the theatre. Just don’t forget to stay after the first short run of end credits as the best jungle gym park brawl ever is awaiting you. Those kids didn’t even have a chance.

Step Brothers 7/10

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[1] Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell, left) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly, right) are two middle-aged, immature, overgrown boys forced to live together as stepbrothers when Brennan’s mother, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen, center left) marries Dale’s father, Robert (Richard Jenkins, center right) in Columbia Pictures’ Step Brothers.
[2] Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell, right) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly, left) are two middle-aged, immature, overgrown boys forced to live together as stepbrothers when Dale’s single father, Robert (Richard Jenkins, center) marries Brennan’s mom in Columbia Pictures’ Step Brothers.
© 2008 Columbia Tristar Marketing Group, Inc. Æ All rights reserved

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When it comes to a film by Jean-Luc Godard, it may be better for you to go in with eyes wide, ready to go on a journey of surrealism and cerebral craziness instead of one tied to a strict plot. Bande à part is a perfect example of this as the story itself, loosely based on an American pulp novel, is very slight and acts only as a framework for the events occurring. Two classmates learning English strike up a friendship, she tells about the stolen government cash at the house where she lives, he tells his friend, and the three decide to pull a heist and get out of the city. Most of the film consists of the waiting and botched attempts at getting the job done. You can see a lot of influence for Quentin Tarantino here and just as his films rely on conversation to fill the empty space, Godard does the same. Whether it be reading the newspaper, having air gun battles with each other, formulating their plan at a diner table where they even partake in a minute of true/complete silence, these kids are your everyday normal young adults, figuring out ways to entertain each other, falling in love, and getting talked into doing bad things.

The heist aspect is never at the forefront though. What the characters do on the way to that inevitable conclusion makes the film interesting. Loudly passing notes in English class; impromptu dance moves at the diner, alternating between moments of music and others devoid of that soundtrack for only the noise they create; and running through the Louvre to break a record for fastest viewing are just a few of the eccentric things that go on. Chock full of inside jokes and nods to his industry friends and peers, Godard creates a world that, while steeped in reality, truly resides on an alternate level of consciousness. Just the fact that it is narrated throughout lends a manufactured feel. When you are told early on that if you missed the beginning you only have to know a few things, promptly recited to you, and when it ends you are sales-pitched on a sequel that does not exist, you will realize what you are seeing is not any ordinary piece of work. What boggles the mind then is that it was shot in 1964, doing things that had not been done in cinema before, yet are now so commonplace you don’t even think twice.

Much like Tarantino has appropriated from this film, the characters themselves do the same thing for films they have seen. Basing the entire heist on the fact that it works in the movies and they can do it just as good comments on how cinema has begun to influence the world’s youth. It is all a game to the two men, devoid of the stakes that exist right in front of their faces. Never fully fleshing out any real plan, they fly by the seat of their pants, relying on the girl’s insights to be truths and as a result are very sloppy. They don’t work out escape plans, what will happen if the door is locked, or care that Arthur, the brains behind the operation once Franz tells him the situation at Odile’s house, has told his uncle the plan and said to be there after it is all done. Double-crosses aplenty at the end, but once again, this is “real” life and Arthur never anticipates the severity of what he is doing and how much greed can influence someone into doing whatever it takes to come out the winner.

Our trio is very naïve and partakes in a strange love triangle made up of a mix of love, lust, necessity, and information retrieval and sharing. Each is using the other for their own means with none realizing the lies and deceit until they are in the midst of the robbery itself. By then it is too late.

For me, the true brilliance lies in the craft of the work itself. The sound editing at moments like the dancing in the diner are unlike anything, jarring you out of your comfort zone, telling you that what you see has been manufactured and manipulated rather then attempt to create a world to escape to. While watching, you never lose the grasp of the world you are actually in. This is a work of art making itself visible to you; it is not a story to be transported into. Seeing a sequence of Odile singing a song and actually looking right into the camera at we the audience shows the breaking of the fourth wall and insists blatantly that we are viewing artistry, not seeing a glimpse into the film’s own world.

Credit the acting for its natural feel and gritty realism. Anna Karina is beautiful; showing at all times her shy sexuality, drawing men in without even trying. She is playing with the boys because she thinks they are playing with her. Always looking for a way out, they keep forcing her back into being an accomplice, something not quite kosher with her sensibilities, but on she treks, following every step of the way. Sami Frey, as Franz, is constantly brooding, acting as though he is in total control, unafraid of anything. Karina even mentions on a couple occasions that he scares her with his tenacity. While we see him break into smile every now and then, the others believe his façade as stoic power. As for Arthur, played by Claude Brasseur, he is the one grown up in an abusive house, always looking for the big score. Willing to do whatever it takes, his nonchalance and calm demeanor lull his friends into his trap, leading them to do the work while he reaps the benefits. That is until the conclusion when the charade becomes real and the kids realize that they have not been playing a game at all.

Bande à part 8/10

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Guillermo del Toro goes behind the camera again to continue the saga of everyone’s favorite demon on Earth, working for the government to fight evil, in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. Having already worked on a sequel in his career with Blade II, I had high hopes for this work to improve upon the solid first installment. Being that he was the second director in as many films for that vampire series, he was able to come in with a fresh eye. Here, however, he may be too close to the material and thus been subjected to the sophomore curse of trying to be bigger and better, yet only making it stuffed with fluff rather than anything with increasing value. By no means is the movie unentertaining or unenjoyable, on the contrary it is a good action flick. My problems lie with the fact that del Toro decided to leave behind the simplicity of tone and plot that worked so well in the first. Instead he has brought to screen a bloated, highly comedic, and much lighter entry to the series. The transitions between laughs and borderline melodramatic moments are too abrupt and confusing without any time to recover from one before going to the other. With a few cringe-inducing scenes evened out by some stellar effects, creatures, and choreographed fights, Hellboy 2 ends up being a mixed bag whose whole isn’t consistent enough to allow us to forget those times when it does derail.

While not as bad as Spider-man 3, I can’t help but think of comparing the two. The overly hammy nature of the two are somewhat similar with a scene here containing Abe and Hellboy singing Barry Manilow while drinking Tecate recalling the horrid emo Peter Parker jazzing it up downtown in Spidey. What worked in the first film was the subtle infusion of wit to counteract the dark nature of the actual storyline. In the sequel, the comedy actually takes center stage during the first two-thirds of the duration. Ron Perlman plays it up wonderfully, but it just became overkill for me. Trying to fit in as many one-liners as possible, the jabs started to take away from the story being told. Every time something important seems to be explained, it gets turned on its head with a laugh, cute at first, but annoyingly counterproductive after numerous instances.

I understand the fact that this is Hellboy trying to come out to the world, trying to become a celebrity and get the credit he feels he deserves. With that aspect he of course needs to play to the cameras and the rockstar sensibility they bring. In my opinion, they just took it too far, especially the Jeffrey Tambor role of Manning, the head of the government operation. He has been turned into a whiner and loses any respect he had from the first movie. I truly believe this is due to the fact that the filmmakers have decided to inject as much as they can into the film. There is just too much Tambor, watering down what works about his character and making him into a prop to be played with by Hellboy. This is not the only piece of the puzzle that has been given exponentially increased screentime. The sheer number of creatures is mind-boggling. Between the scene in the Troll Market—very reminiscent of the Mos Eisley spaceport on Tatooine in Star Wars: A New Hope—and just the random baddies thrown in throughout, we are assaulted by monsters and costumes at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, the effects work is impeccable and some of the races top-notch, it is just once again overkill. The elves are fantastically constructed, Johann Krauss’s ectoplasmic self is entertaining, and The Angel of Death is the coolest thing about the entire film. Did we need the tumor-man, or cat-eating troll, or even the forest God? Not really. The first two could have been anything and the giant God, is he a villain or is he an endangered species of worldly creation that could have been any big faceless monster and still have worked.

One thing that was grown well from the previous installment is the role of Abe Sapien, played once more by the great Doug Jones, (only this time he is allowed to use his own voice rather than a redub from David Hyde Pierce). One of the best characters from the first, his increased screentime is welcome despite the hitches into lovey-dovey drivel and the badly orchestrated “drunk” sequence.” His extension might be at the demise of Selma Blair’s role, which not only has been pushed to the background for much of the film, but while being given a cool new fire “suit” loses the very awesome blue inferno from part one.

However, what may be lacking in dramatic weight and darkness is compensated with amazing fight scenes. One thing this one has going for it are moments of brilliance on the battlefields. Luke Goss steals the show with his acrobatics and really steps up in the final fight versus Hellboy. He shows what made him so perfect as the main villain in Blade II and why del Toro decided to bring him on board to recapture that magic. It is the hand-to-hand combat that dazzles and I wish there was more of it to showcase. Even when the titular Golden Army arrives, they fight in a human-like way with arms and legs stabbing with swords. Unfortunately, moreso than not, we are treated with battles of destructions, roads and walls being blown apart by creatures and gunfire, showing how much the American public loves to see explosions. I myself would rather partake in the amazing dance-like work of true professionals doing it all without computer help. Del Toro got a lot right here, but also fell victim to the Hollywood machine, getting a little too big than necessary, watering down a final result that had the potential of being great.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army 7/10

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[1] Ron Perlman as Hellboy in Universal Pictures’ Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) Copyright © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] A scene from Universal Pictures’ Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) Copyright © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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You gotta love Guillermo del Toro. The man knows how to play the system, staggering his Spanish language tales of wonderment with the oft-Hollywood big-budget action flick. The beauty of it is, however, that del Toro never compromises his vision when tackling a comic book adaptation. Looking at a film like Blade II shows that he carries his style with him wherever he goes, improving on a pretty solid first installment and showing that he can handle the work. That film helped land him the duties of helming Hellboy—I’m sure—a film with flair, humor, action, and style. Anyone else could have phoned a film like this in for the paycheck, biding time until his next passion project came down the pipeline, but with del Toro, this adaptation was just as important in his oeuvre as any other, and it shows.

With an almost perfect mix of exposition, character development, and plot, this tale of a demon coming to Earth from a portal to Hell, only to be raised by a scientist into the ultimate fighter against evil, fires on all cylinders. Concise in its origin—not quite a flashback since it’s the first thing we see—we learn where the titular character comes from, who brings him here, and for what purpose. This is the all-encompassing larger plotline that will inevitably be carried on throughout the series, a demon fighting for good against the powers that spawned him. The ultimate cautionary tale of nature vs. nurture, Hellboy may be sarcastic, cranky, and abrasive, but he knows his role and revels in the fact that he saves lives on a daily basis. I always seem to connect more with the heroes that don’t necessarily have powers. True he does, but only those abilities common to his kind. He is a demon and thus does demon things, much like Superman who is Kryptonian, (he doesn’t have superhuman abilities, he isn’t human), and Batman, who uses inventions and skill to battle villainy. These heroes use what God gave them and nothing else; no mutations or radiations make them different, life does, and they are doing the best they can, attempting to assimilate and be seen as normal.

What really works here is the way that character relationships are developed as the plot continues on. Rather than everyone have a set bond that we must become privy to, they all kind of start apart from one another. Hellboy and his father Prof. Broom are at odds, he and his friend Liz are separated by a sanitarium, Abe Sapien is detached by his glass water tank, and newcomer John Myers has only just met them all. Connections are repaired and newly created before our eyes while the fights rage on. It is the fieldwork by this secretive government group against evil that brings them all together. Unfortunately, as a result, this also means that the plot to save Earth is a tad undercooked. Sure the action scenes are great, especially involving our Nazi timeclock, knife-welding friend, but the overall story really just shows whether Hellboy will stay good or go to the dark side. The only true peril Earth faces is in the off-chance he decides to follow his destiny as ruler of our dimension, a simple no could pretty much quash all the trouble faced here. But this was always to be the first of at least a trilogy, setting up motivations and tone, and for that you can’t fault the film one iota.

To complement it all is some fine acting from the large cast. John Hurt has made a living in his later life playing the sage mentors and he does so again here; Selma Blair stays true to her filmography as well playing the troubled youth trying to find herself while also helping her friends discover themselves; and Jeffrey Tambor adds wonderful jabs of wit and humor every time he graces the screen. Even Karel Roden as the evil Rasputin continues in the type of villainy he is recognized for. A stalwart at playing the stone-faced maniac, he is truly terrifying as he just carries on, back from the dead after 50 years, as though it’s the next day and another opportunity to make Herr Hitler proud. The true star, though, is unquestionably Ron Perlman as our red hero. He excels at the sardonic rhetoric, chomping on his cigar as he cuts down those around him with words. A truly troubled soul, Perlman has full range of his facial features under the massive amount of makeup and portrays every emotion needed to realize the role. Credit the filmmakers for utilizing costumes that never hindered any performances.

And one couldn’t end without talking of del Toro’s vision. Straight off we are graced with a vortex opening out into space and the Seven Gods of Hell awaiting their rebirth. The Sammael creatures are well-fleshed out, and the multitudes of squid-like monsters also. The art direction is superb with only a couple blemishes of illusion showing through, (Hellboy’s crunching of a Red Bull can and numerous instances of bodies being thrown about, among others). It is with the fire from Blair’s character that I was most impressed with. The blue flames encompassing her entire body and all that surrounds her was very realistic and cool to boot. Just viewing the trailers for the sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army shows that del Toro has upped the ante on fantastical beings. I can’t wait to see what happens now that we can delve into the story from start to finish and check out whether the world can be saved from outside forces rather than the fragile psyche of our hero, although I’m sure that will play into it as well.

Hellboy 7/10

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© Copyright Revolution Studios, ©2004 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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