You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2008.

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I don’t like the fact that I will go into films with a preconception about how I may end up enjoying them. Adam Sandler’s vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was one of these. Never really seeking it out due to the horrible track record his comedies have had of late, I wasn’t exactly psyched to sit down and watch. At the start I was pretty much in agreement with where my head was going in, the fake Brooklyn accents, the horrible bluescreen of NYC behind the racing fire truck (although I blame the HD for that), and the bland jokes made up of a mix between obvious and uninspired definitely didn’t help. However, once we get into the true plotline—Kevin James’ Larry Valentine attempting to get his pension moved to his kids after failing to do so in the year since his wife’s death—things start picking up, both story-wise and laugh-wise. By no means a great film, there is some charm hidden within that crops up enough to make it just the right amount of enjoyable making me feel that I didn’t completely waste two hours of my life.

We need a contrived instance to set up our asinine plot device and it comes in the form of James saving Sandler’s Chuck from plummeting to his death during a secondary search after a fire. Chuck, in the hospital, of course says how he will do anything Larry needs to make up for the deed. Well, this ladies man lothario—seducing a frigid nurse into having some fun with he and five Hooters girls—was not prepared for the bombshell laid on him to get married as domestic partners, moving the pension so he could give it to the children. Like the sentimental drivel that crops up at the end, this is NYC and these guys are firefighters. It’s a brotherhood and they stick together as a family. If one guy goes down, the whole lot of them does. Well, that is after they accept the fact their two buddies are gay…I mean these are manly-man men, they won’t turn to acceptance too fast.

The dynamic works as Sandler and James play up the whole “relationship” thing by creating marital humor doubling for friendship. They sleep in the same bed; they bicker about how they faked the laughter when the other told a joke and how they never hang out anymore. While that is all well and good, I was happy to see that the two don’t share as much screen time as I initially thought. Instead we get wonderful moments with periphery characters. James has a continual spat with Steve Buscemi’s insurance pawn looking to catch them in fraud as well as with the mailman who wants to get in on the “gay” action; Sandler has possibly the best relationship of the film with Jessica Biel, the lawyer they’ve hired to make sure they are seen as a legitimate couple. Sure the whole “girls night out” and friendship bracelet making is a tad much, but it worked for me. Here is a guy that finally finds a woman he wants to be better for and a girl who has found her perfect man in a gay married firefighter. It’s a pairing ripe with clichés yet I bought into it and enjoyed seeing how it all played out to the moment of revelation that will of course crop up at the end.

The story tries its hardest to be politically relevant, doing its best to shed light on bigotry and peace for all kinds of people. There are of course instances of flamboyancy to counter those of normalcy, showing that the true homosexuals may not be afraid to show off their colors, but they still get hurt from all the bashing. It’s a fine line that seems balanced enough to be unobtrusive, although I’m sure there are people who were offended just like there are for any movie with a hot-button topic.

Where Chuck and Larry succeeds—as with most Sandler films—is with the supporting cast. Rob Schneider shows once more that he can be funny when he is not the star of a movie. His Asian minister is a real good laugh, offensive yes, but doesn’t that always get coupled with funny? The usual crew of friends pops up throughout, either as fellow firemen or, in Allen Covert’s case, a fellow parent at James’ kid’s school. The real home-run hitter, though, is Ving Rhames. I should have known the arc his role would take, but the filmmakers do a nice enough job distracting us from him for most of the film until reintroduced towards the end. Starting as the big, strong, silent type no one wants to mess with, Rhames becomes the funniest part of the film when he finally speaks. There are also some funny scenes, even one taking place in the fire hall shower with soap being dropped. The idea itself is completely uninspired, but the way it’s handled made it work just enough to be fresh and funny despite its stereotype.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 5/10

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Not to badmouth American Pie, I actually really enjoyed it and its sequels, albeit less with each installment (and I mean the theatrically released offspring), but I must blame it for the dearth of quality for copycats each year. Sure there are some surprises—Eurotrip, I know, I really liked it, sue me—mixed in with the drivel, it’s just a shame they are so few and far between. Nothing will ever compare to the greats such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, nor the more sentimental cousins like The Breakfast Club, but at least give us something original and charming. This week’s release of Sex Drive just unveils a mixture of clichés and sexual innuendos. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed, quite a bit, possibly moreso for the absurdity of it all rather than genuine comedy, but laughed nonetheless. There are some likeable characters and fun things going on as it all progresses to its inevitable climax that could have been written by a teenager who just watched 80’s films and youtube, deciding to mash them together. Obvious is an understatement; enjoyable a word to be used very carefully. You could do a lot worse, but you could also start a bank account with the nine bucks you have to fork over too … hey, it’s your choice.

Like many before, and many more to come, the film revolves around a quasi-geek desperately looking to lose his virginity, not so much for the prospect of having sex, but instead to get everyone off his back about it. Ian (Josh Zuckerman) has decided to go the route of internet messaging to find a girl, using the informality to create a persona unlike him, but more in line with “what girls want”. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill loser though, he’s a kid on the fringe of high school, friends of differing clique status and really just a bit socially awkward when it comes to women and groups of people. The more dweeby kid, Lance (Clark Duke), is actually the lothario of the film. Don’t ask me why or how, but this kid looks like the one that would be getting slammed into lockers, instead, though, he can talk his way into any female’s pants. And of course, we have the “best friend” Felicia (Amanda Crew) thrown into the pot to add tension and suspense. Will she and Ian finally declare their love for each other? Will she forever not be into him yet always prevent him from being with anyone else? Or will the two go their separate ways with the unbearable weight of friendship too much to overcome their inner love for each other? Oh, the torture, I really couldn’t tell what would happen. I mean, wow, I had never seen anything like it before. (Please, I hope you sensed sarcasm there. If you don’t know how it will end, you really need to get out more).

A premise about driving nine hours to meet his web-girl is of course ripe for humor. He must steal his older, prick brother’s 1969 GTO, (James Marsden’s Rex is fantastic, definitely the highlight of the film), and reconcile the fact that his love/friend is on the journey with him. Looking to sow his wild oats with the woman of his dreams riding shotgun…no good can come of this. And it doesn’t. Jealous boyfriends enter the fray, the car gets banged up mechanically and physically, a strange hitchhiker joins the fold briefly, and the Amish play a big role. As far as the Amish are concerned, you must give credit to Seth Green for actually being funny. His deadpan jerking around of our trio of leads is perfect …”no I live to solve people’s problems for free.” But then you also must give them hell for adding Fall Out Boy to the proceedings to add some fangirl credibility maybe? I don’t know. Their very short appearance just shows what’s wrong with films like this rather than adds anything of substance. Wow, the Amish bring emo bands to the prairie for Rumspring, the one time they can let their hair down and taste the good life. There was no relevance whatsoever to their being shown.

So, while the leads are somewhat endearing and you do want to watch it all come to a conclusion, there are no real surprises. Thankfully, after a very crude and gross start, the comedy becomes a little less bodily fluids and more situational comedy. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments: Marsden air-kicking the garage door and falling down, Marsden flipping over his bike, Marsden dumping his bike as it sparks down the street to check his garage, Marsden…you get the idea. I don’t want to undersell the rest, the two eccentric boys hitting on anything that moves are great, the finale brawl/cat fight is funny just for the reaction shots, and the hotel rooms in Knoxville are just plain awesome. Sex Drive is definitely a film that will be seen no matter what anyone hears about it; highschoolers flock to this kind of thing and eat it right up. Unfortunately it is nothing more than the same old tale rehashed and repackaged for one more year.

Sex Drive 3/10

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[1] JAMES MARSDEN stars in Sex Drive, a Summit Entertainment release. Photo Credit: Van Redin
[2] CLARK DUKE (left) and JOSH ZUCKERMAN (right) star in Sex Drive, a Summit Entertainment release. Photo Credit: Van Redin

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If you have any predilection for being offended or hail from the quaint city of Tucson, Arizona, stay far away from Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. To say it pulls no punches and could care less about being politically correct would be an understatement. With a song titled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” and racism/bigotry running rampant, not to mention more that will make you question the meaning of decency, do not be surprised that it’s a film with a polarizing effect. A much talked about Sundance hit, you will be easily able to find a lot of bad press and scathing reviews. Much like the play Dana Marschz is attempting to put on at the high school he teaches in, religious zealots and liberal whack-jobs come out of the woodwork to show their disgust for a piece of art they have not seen to be able to accurately judge. It is definitely not for everyone, and I don’t even know who I could genuinely recommend it to as a surefire hit besides the friend I attended the screening with, but for this sarcasm-loving, don’t hold back on an opportunity to exploit anything for a joke kind of guy, I loved it.

OK, maybe love is a strong word. About halfway through I was thinking about how the jokes were becoming a bit slow and while funny, the story wasn’t quite clicking with me. However, soon came the fruition of all the drug-induced, bi-polar craziness with the actual performance of Hamlet 2 on stage for the sold-out crowd filled with detractors, interested parties, confused family members, and people just trying to get in on the experience. If you saw Team America: World Police and recall the scene with a performance of “Lease”, their play on “Rent”, you can begin to comprehend the utter absurdity and absolute hilarity of what is shown. Multiply that to the nth degree and sit back to experience laughter that will make you cringe at the fact you are laughing. And to top it all off, we are treated to some sprinklings of physical comedy—the wirework expunging of our two lightsaber wielding actors—and choreography that only enhances the words being spoken.

Revolving around the very real prospect in many small cities across America of the potential to have the arts cut from school budget, Hamlet 2 is about a failed actor, (he has long accepted his lack of talent), trying for once to show he has a pair of low-hangers to save his job and the craft he believes can inspire children into following their dreams. What begins as a pipe dream itself, backhandedly advised by a very young, yet extremely articulate, school film reviewer, snowballs into an event that brings the ACLU’s attention as well as the minds of many “troubled” kids to trade the street for the “leotard”. It’s blasphemy to even think about writing a sequel to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” let alone bringing Jesus in as a celebrity sex symbol, along with many other references to Hilary Clinton, Albert Einstein, and Dick Cheney. This is a creative work of genius, if nothing else. True you may find it offensive and down right trashy, but you have to at least show the respect for an artist to take a vision and not compromise it one iota before showing to the public. One thing you cannot accuse this film of is pandering to the masses in order to make money; no its blatantly giving the finger to all of us, wearing its unassuming bigotry on its sleeve like many of the clueless members of our society.

None of it could have been pulled off without the help of star Steve Coogan. He encompasses the shy, passive, loser to full effect, complete with outbursts of strength that soon explode into fear and embarrassment as he runs for cover. His awkward use of English is also great as his similes and metaphors never quite work as effectively as he may want, instead showing latent cruelty and sick-mindedness like with the heading of this review; oh and phrases like “it feels like I was raped…in the face.” Coogan is likeable as an everyman without all his wits, bumbling through life, falling into situations that help him to enhance his work and make it into the smash hit it could be. Without the pain he never could have written what his character of Marschz does. And you can’t help but fall in love with his rendition of Jesus as jean wearing Weird Al Yankovic.

The supporting cast is fantastic as well, showing some nice things from small players like Melonie Diaz, David Arquette, and Catherine Keener. Arquette is funny pretty much because he’s asked to portray a person so unlike the image we have of him. Rather than be manic and in constant motion he is practically a mute, sluggishly going through life with little to no emotion. Amy Poehler also has a good cameo as the ACLU lawyer ready to make some coin off of the slam dunk First Amendment case the controversy breeds. Harkening back to her “Upright Citizens Brigade” days, this role is crass and deadpan, effective mostly by the juxtaposition of her diminutive size and sharp, biting tongue. The real scene-stealer, though, is Elizabeth Shue, playing Elizabeth Shue. This meta-character is added as a foil to Coogan’s failed actor wanting to desperately get into the business. She instead was successful and needed to get out. In a very self-deprecating role, Shue shows that she is still gorgeous and possibly ready for a comeback to the big screen.

Again, though, I shouldn’t really say love. There were a lot of problems here, that, while can easily be swept under the rug, stick out. The planting of plot devices like Coogan’s seven years sober and the mute and abused girl in class who just screams Silent Bob moment of clarity at the end, do harm to the otherwise fresh script. Everyone needs to use clichés at times, so I do forgive them, especially when they are surrounded by the comedy gold accompanying it. Hamlet 2 will stir the pots and possibly make you feel angry, but just remember it’s a satire. Nothing here is meant to harm—I would say it’s meant to inspire, but that would just be weird considering some of the jokes—instead it’s there to entertain. I for one was highly entertained.

Hamlet 2 8/10

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© 2008, Courtesy of Focus Features.

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Ah, Broken Lizard. I would say that this is the movie that started it all, but of course it is not. That mantle is held by Puddle Cruiser, a little seen at the time, (self-distributed across country, college campus to college campus), released to dvd upon the troupe’s burgeoning popularity that has some charm if only showing what was to soon come fro. Super Troopers is the film that brought the group into the mainstream consciousness. The jokes may be crude, the humor a little lowbrow, but the movie as a whole is just plain funny. Some of the gags fire on all cylinders, utilizing wordplay, physical comedy, and well played cameos. These boys are certainly close-knit and unafraid to try something new or make fools of themselves. They write it all together and go out in front of the camera to make the audience laugh, even if that viewership consists solely of them. Not quite a pot comedy, nor a strict spoof on law enforcement, Super Troopers is a grab-bag of laughs that come often and fast, disguising a flimsy premise with its flash, one-liners, and shenanigans.

I will admit that I’d love this film if the final hour was acted out by sock puppets—that’s how good the first scene is. “Littering and… littering and…littering and…” When Jay Chandrasekhar (Thorny and the movie’s director) and Erik Stolhanske (Rabbit) take on the duty of pulling over a trio of drug-addled frat boys on the freeway, you will miss moments because of the loud laughter. From the moment they come onscreen until Steve Lemme (Mac) “hijacks” the cop car they are being held in for a trip to Mexico, you will have tears in your eyes. Hopefully I am not playing this sequence up, I truly believe anyone will find it hilarious. Geoffrey Arend steals the scene by far as he completely freaks out from the amount of drugs coursing through his body.

As for the actual plot, basically, the Vermont city they are in is strapped for cash and looking to dissolve either the state troopers or the city police. The troopers are played by our stars and while partaking in antics and games on the job; they do actually seem to work when needed. Whether they play the “repeater” game, try and say “meow” as often as they can, or any other crazy activity to infuse some fun into the daily grind, they’ll still write the ticket and put the bad guys behind bars. Even when a couple of German swingers offer their bodies for a warning, Thorny knows that they must be brought in because the car is stolen…he can always bring them home to spend some time with he and his hippy wife anyways, moustache rides free of charge. But I digress, the troopers attempt to crack open a case of drug smuggling in order to prove to the mayor that they should stay open while the city cops try and do the same. The two sides clash often and even find a bit of romance between them before all is said and done, but in the end, one must go the way of the dinosaur.

Credit must be given to Brian Cox, yes that venerable Scotsman, classically trained on the stage. This guy has no shame and just has fun with a group of jackasses, letting loose while still bringing his trademark professionalism. He boxes, while drunk, soon after urinating on a pulled-over car—classic. And besides those already mentioned, Paul Soter is great as Foster, whose “biker” snafu with Ursula (Marisa Coughlan) is a standout moment, and Kevin Heffernan steals the show as Farva. I knew this film had hit big and crossed into the American lexicon when, while working at Ted’s Hot Dogs here in Buffalo, a police officer came in for dinner and asked for a liter of cola. I had to smile as he returned one of his own—we both knew the joke and kudos to him for having a great sense of humor.

Super Troopers 8/10

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Tell No One is an ambitious adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel by French actor Guillaume Canet. I was completely surprised when checking out the actors’ names and seeing his as character Philippe Neuville, a deceased horse rider and integral part of the story. The writer/director could not be this young man; with all the accolades and success in my eyes of this intricately plotted thriller, I was expecting someone older and more accomplished at the craft. Knowing that this was put together by a young actor directing only his second feature just adds to the splendor at hand. It is often said, but I do believe it is true, actors seem to perform at their best with one of their own as leader. Every performance is strong—flawlessly enhancing a taut script that slowly uncovers the mystery of a woman’s disappearance and sudden surfacing eight years later.

With many visual stunning sequences, Canet shows skill at capturing the simple moments in an otherwise extravagant plot. A husband and wife, two souls that have been together since grade school, go to his family’s land for an evening of skinny-dipping when she decides to go back and let the dogs out. A scream for help causes Alexandre Beck to go after Margot, only to be struck twice with a bat, knocked unconscious, falling to the bottom of the lake. Eight years pass and we discover he was somehow saved and found on the dock, in a coma, where he survived only to find that his wife’s body had been victim to a notorious serial killer. Not quite allowing himself to let go, Alexandre becomes close to his sister’s wife as confidant, while still a bit strained with the sibling, and buries himself in his work as a Pediatrician. His job becomes his life and he loves the children that he helps, not doing it for the money, but instead the satisfaction of helping and saving lives. He even has cultivated a relationship with a local street thug Bruno, in his debt after Beck proved his son was a hemophiliac and was not beaten by his father. As the story continues on we find that we should all have a criminal on our moral payroll…they can come in quite handy.

When the doctor gets a strange email at work, he begins to question whether the body found almost a decade earlier was really that of Margot. The message appears to be from her, trying to reach out in secrecy, because she says they are watching him. Here is where the story could have gone off the tracks as it introduces so many different threads that all end up being well thought out and important. We become knowledgeable of a team of heavies keeping tabs on Beck while the woman of the team inflicts torture through pressure points to gather information. Deaths begin to mount and evidence starts to be planted, framing Beck while also reigniting the speculation that he could have been the one to kill his wife. Margot’s father begins to act strange, horse-breeding millionaire Gilbert Neuville is introduced along with the murder of his son, and the police inspectors on Beck’s tail start to act smart and think that maybe something bigger than initially anticipated is going on. Beck must do whatever he can to stay away from the men trying to kill him, the men trying to arrest him, and the sinking feeling that whoever is contacting him might not be the woman he can’t live without.

The slow unraveling of the story has its pros and cons. By not telling the audience who any of the characters are at the beginning, or their relationship to each other, we are keep in the dark and constantly surprised as they all reenter the story. A jovial dinner party starts the film and each person becomes a cog in the system as Beck commences the journey to see whether Margot is alive. What doesn’t work, however, is that this script is very airtight and extremely detailed. As a result, the audience begins to put the pieces together before the characters onscreen do. Sure the filmmakers try to deflect aspects by showing you one thing, (what certain actors are viewing), before showing the truth, (what actually is happening), the end result always ends up being what you think. Therefore, the final half becomes a tad tedious, waiting for the inevitable to occur, wondering when Beck and the rest will be brought into the light. I understand that we as viewers get to see things the cast does not, but I just thought they probably could have cut a half hour out by expediting the finale.

What is perfect, though, is the stellar acting. Even with small roles, Jean Rochefort shines with his stoic, affluent stature, and Kristin Scott Thomas is effective as Beck’s best friend and sister-in-law, showing that she should have been born in France and not England. It is also a lot of fun seeing François Berléand as a dramatic police inspector to counter the comedic one he plays in the Transporter series. The most memorable actors end up being our two leads, as one should expect nothing less. Marie-Josée Croze’s beauty makes you believe the love and compassion her husband has for her. First seen by me last year in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Croze must go through many emotions here, the lover and the moral compass for those she works with; when the truth is uncovered as to what really happened to her, you’ll see the strife gone through, breaking her into doing things you couldn’t think she was capable of. As for Beck, François Cluzet carries this film on his back. His geniality is always prevalent, showing the most when with his patients, but while on the run, he really steps it up a notch. When traveling with Bruno, he bluffs his way out of tight spots and even causes a gigantic automobile collision when running for his life. It is a complicated role and one he pulls off to perfection.

Tell No One 8/10

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Never having watched many Westerns, I just know from what I have heard, that they are chock full of anti-heroes. Men who live conflicted lives and, while they may do the right thing, probably only help others when it ultimately serves their own purposes. These aren’t businessmen, but just plain men … an ancient race. With Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, this cannot be truer. Between our three male leads, and even our female star, not a one can be called a hero of any sort. One is a killer, one a criminal, one a whore, and the other a man looking for vengeance, making friends, but really just traveling to the point of avenging a wrong done to him and his family. Do the two men protect the newly widowed Mrs. McBain from the ruthless killer Frank? Or do they just use her and the prospect of her money to get to where they want to be? Just because someone risks his life for another doesn’t mean it is a selfless act. Quite the contrary, it usually means they have a lot more invested in the situation than one might think. Concerning these four characters, you never can tell where allegiances lie, or how long they may hold up. All one can be sure of is that the almost three hour ride they take together, from strangers to intimate acquaintances, for better of worse, is a helluva good time.

I completely understand any complaint that the film may be too long and perhaps even boring in stretches. There are plenty of times where little to no speech is uttered; all we have to work with are the amazing visuals and sumptuous score. Each character seems to have their own song that follows them along, giving away their presence as time passes. The use of sound in general is so integral that those passages of silence, on behalf of the cast, is a necessity to create mood and tension between them. Who couldn’t think that a short diddy on the harmonica can elicit the amount of suspense it does here. Not only does it give away the position and identity of its player, it inflicts fear in those confronting it. An uncomfortable unease at this weathered cowboy exuding such a lyrical melody mingled with the inability to know if the musical talent hides an expertise with the gun or compensates for a lack thereof. The absence of sound also helps at moments to keep the audience off balance. In one of my favorite sequences—not to ruin anything, but the death of the McBain clan—contains two extended instances of nothingness. A father and his children are smiling and readying themselves for the arrival of Jill, their new wife and mother respectively, yet are taken off-guard twice at the lack of noise from nature, and, on our end, score. You know something is amiss and causing the turmoil to the circle of life, you just don’t quite know when or where that rift will show its face.

Cinematically, one couldn’t ask for more. There is a laborious, detail-orientated craft in play, carefully framing each second for full impact. The multiple showings of a large head in the foreground opposite a full figure in the distance, at diagonals to each other, never grows tired. The long focus, keeping it all in view is stunning to behold, as are the sweeping shots from above. A few long takes are interspersed as well, uncovering a dusty, realistic cesspool of deceit and wild west aspirations, the desert and tumbleweeds crawling around while the action moves through. Even the introduction to each character is handled with a skilled touch, framing them in silhouette, in close-up, or from afar, adding just the right amount of intrigue and importance to each. Especially for our three male leads, it couldn’t be better. After a long sequence at a deserted train station, men dealing with the heat, dripping water, and uncaring flies searching for a place to land, we see the figure of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, just arrived from the passing train, telling the three men that they brought “two horses too many”. For Frank, an amazing role of villainy by Henry Fonda, we see his handiwork from off-camera as the McBains fall one after the other, culminating with a true glimpse into the compassionless void where his heart should be. And even Jason Robards’ Cheyenne enters with subtle bombast, walking into a saloon, slowly and with confidence, following the volleys of gunfire and struggle outside the establishment’s walls, ending with the camera upon his handcuffed wrists, pouring alcohol down his dry throat.

Claudia Cardinale has her moments as well, those times where she appears to be a lady of good-upbringing, truly distraught over the murder of her new family, a clan of farm folk that would allow her to leave the life of prostitution she had in New Orleans. A strong-willed firecracker, her Jill is unashamed to use her body for whatever means necessary; she likes the touch of a man, knowing that a hot bath will wash away all the unpleasantness for her to continue on living afterwards. Never allowing her to be the victim, Cardinale is no waif in need of protection and help, she can most definitely hold her own.

There is of course a story holding the brilliant character studies on display together, one of greed and power. The land left to Jill by her dead husband is worth a fortune once the railroad reaches it’s station, something Frank and his benefactor Morton, (another great performance by Gabriele Ferzetti), know, causing him to commit the murder. Harmonica and Cheyenne take it upon themselves to save that land for Jill, although their true reasoning results from the desire to stop Frank and all the evil he has caused the world. No one here is innocent, all are after power in some capacity, selfishly and without too much caring about the others except how much they can help achieve it. Truly a tale of humanity being undone by a world without rules, Once Upon a Time in the West is everything you’ve heard it was and more. I almost don’t want to watch another Western because I’m sure all the rest will pale in comparison.

Once Upon a Time in the West 10/10

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Despite my somewhat indifference, bordering on dislike, of Ben Stiller and most of what he does, Tropic Thunder has been on my much-anticipated list for some time now. The audacity of what he was attempting, spoofing the industry that was giving him the money to do so, blatantly and lovingly, was too great to ignore. And then there is the cast of stars with cameo after cameo of surprise faces joining in on the fun, not to mention the intense marketing strategy pushing it along. Websites for each fictional actor, a site with clips from the Rain of Madness making of documentary (a Hearts of Darkness send up “directed” by co-writer Justin Theroux), and even a faux E! True Hollywood Story to air the week before its premiere in theatres just add to the mythology and attention to detail that went into its making. Now, having finally seen the end result, I must say it didn’t let me down. True, I was expecting more in the way of story and plot, especially with all that background info manufactured, but when you get down to it, the entertainment value is off the charts, the one-liners are going to be quoted for years to come, and the laughs come often and hard.

To take on subject matter as lofty as a send-up to war films, mainly Apocalypse Now, needs a certain amount to bravery and confidence to not care if it all backfires. The production value and effects make this seem as though it is a certified blockbuster falling apart at the seams. Sure the characters are funny and the events on display hilarious, but by the look and feel of the aesthetic, this is a war film to the end. Between that realism and the love I have for meta-narrative, there was little chance Stiller would be bombing in my eyes. Something about movies within movies intrigue the heck out of me, and this one having actors within actors just played up my interest more. There was truly no better way to start this movie then how was done: the playing of Alpa Chino’s rap music, consumerism selling commercial and trailers for our three leads’ previous films. What better way to be introduced to our action star, our funnyman, and our award winning thespian? Knowing full well the extent of satire going on, each spot delivers, giving a little background into the work these men have done in the past.

Directly connecting with the subsequent shot, a live scene from the film at hand, the egos finally come out and show face. Jack Black’s Jeff Portney reins in his comedian schtick to portray a hardened solider, voice rasping as he shows his serious side; Stiller’s Tugg Speedman attempts to revive the action cred he tried to leave behind with his Oscar-bait turn as a mentally handicapped man in Simple Jack, where he went “full retarded, no one ever comes back from that”; and Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, Australian genius at his craft, playing a black man like he was born one. The scene continues without a hitch, explosions everywhere, screams heard in the distance, and a heartfelt death about to be delivered, until the men show their true colors. Tugg can’t make himself cry, (he’s just not that good), and Kirk’s blubbering and drooling is just so real that the two must partake in a pissing match while effects guru Cody, (the red hot of late Danny McBride), let’s loose the one-take only scorched earth fire storm. It’s all falling apart and script-writer/former soldier Four Leaf, (the always gruff Nick Nolte), gets the director, (Steve Coogan with one of the best film exits I’ve ever seen), to agree on guerilla filming, deep in the jungle of foreign lands. Here is where the fun begins and where the movie inside the movie becomes real, or, in effect, the actual movie—kind of like “the dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude”. The levels at play here are just too many to mention.

Besides a weakly written role for Black, the rest of the men are given enough to work with for some truly great moments. Stiller has a few instances where he returns to his over-long annoying routine—pouring “fake” blood into his mouth for one—but for the most part did a real good job, especially with his tough guy poses shooting off his gun. Jay Baruchel shines as the only non-celebrity involved, the guy who went to boot camp, read the novel and the script, and idolizes the men he is working with. Good to see him get a more beefed up role as opposed to the side parts in Apatow flims. And the back and forth between Downey Jr. and Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa never get old. The whole dynamic of real black man versus fake was unceasingly funny.

There were plot points that irked me throughout, TiVo’s cameo being the biggest culprit, but I found myself pushing the problems aside and just enjoying the ride. Downey Jr.’s facial expressions, voices, and presence may steal the show, but what really allowed me to forget my worries was an absolutely brilliant cameo from Tom Cruise. His studio executive, pompously crass, loud-mouth made me think of all the horror stories you hear about the Weinsteins, and his dance moves can not be equaled. Tropic Thunder is first and foremost a vehicle for a bunch of friends to have a blast poking fun at their craft and really at themselves. I’ll be remembering quotes all night now, thinking that while the story itself doesn’t necessitate me watching it again soon, the jokes just might make buying it a must…not to mention the wealth of extras that DVD is sure to have.

Tropic Thunder 8/10

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[1] Jay Baruchel,Brandon Jackson, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Steve Coogan in DreamWorks Pictures’ Tropic Thunder (2008). Photo credit by Merie Weismiller Wallace. Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Robert Downey Jr. stars as Kirk Lazarus in DreamWorks Pictures’ Tropic Thunder (2008) Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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Ah, Italian cinema from the late 60’s. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Mario Bava brings the world an adaptation of the comic Diabolik. Complete with cheesy set pieces, laughable heists, and over-the-top sexuality, this film may not be quite bad enough to be good, but it isn’t enough to be bad either. A lot is fun here and that must count for something. Feel free to check your brain at the door, (or perhaps you shouldn’t even wake up that morning with it), because once you start questioning how emeralds can be shot out of a gun without gunpowder, the charm will be missed. There are enough sci-fi aspects to bring it out of the reality we think of, so when craziness occurs, please just go with the flow. It will be a better experience as a result and our villian’s, (or is he the hero?), winks at the audience will bring a smile rather than an eye roll as you press the stop button on your remote control.

I couldn’t help but think about one of my favorite films CQ while watching this. From the camerawork of the car chase scenes, to the conveniently placed circles on the shower doors, to the bed romp with money, Roman Coppola’s film borrowed a lot. However, what his film had was a dramatic storyline about the director of the cheesy sci-fi film being created rather than just be about that overblown story itself. Diabolik is its own tale without any meta-narrative aspects, so the fun factor did leave the building after the first couple heists. Once you steal 10 million dollars and then a priceless emerald necklace, does the theft of a gigantic bar of gold really hold any interest? Not really for me because it becomes the same recycled plotline over and over again with incompetent government police on his tail. For a 100-minute film, it did drag a lot for me, more for the repetition than anything else. Everyone is having a grand ol’ time so it is definitely fun to enjoy the ride, a little variety would have been nice though.

There are moments that did definitely work. Diabolik scaling a tower wall with suction cup gadgets and spying the catapult on top is great fun; his girlfriend Eva’s sex appeal getting a truck driver to abandon his car is obvious yet well done; and the new Financial Minister’s plea to the public to pay what they believe they owe in taxes is priceless. Without any real plot other than the police trying to catch a master criminal and his girl while they get away with all the goods, it is definitely the parts more than the whole that you should focus on. I wouldn’t be surprised if the adaptation is from multiple comics in the series, strung together here as a cohesive whole when they may have been solitary books. The fact that our mob boss Ralph Valmont is dispatched so early on helps me believe this because is surely felt as though that would end the film, but no, it keeps on going to the next great caper.

With hammy acting and some down right horrid actors, there is no way a movie like this wouldn’t have a cult following, even if not directed by a schlock master like Bava. Marisa Mell is femme fatale to the fullest, never allowed to show she is anything more than an accomplice for the love of her man; Adolfo Celi is campy in all the right ways as Valmont, a brazen crime boss who thinks he’s one step ahead but always two steps behind; and Michel Piccoli tries his best to be the straight man amongst the eccentrics as Inspector Ginko, the man who has made it his life work to catch Diabolik. However, the entire film hinges on the great facial expressions and calm coolness of our lead played by John Phillip Law. His stone-faced serious delivery of lines like, “don’t worry, I could walk on the sun with this suit,” are just plain top-notch. The painted on tight rubber wardrobe allow for his eyes to take center stage as they attempt to frighten us with their diabolic nature and the sly smile of success is great whenever he outsmarts the authorities. Law takes the role so seriously that the absurdity works even more as he thwarts the advances by those looking to capture him. This is Diabolik, the greatest criminal of our time, not even liquid gold can keep him down.

Diabolik 5/10

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Joachim Trier has definitely accomplished something with his debut feature film. The opening sequence is so disorienting that you can’t begin to expect what will happen next. Showing a montage of what “could” happen once our two leads mail out their manuscripts, from success to failure to meeting again and succeeding together, is a bold move. I wasn’t sure if we had just been privy to the entire film condensed and would soon see the details, or if the title of the film would be taken literally and we’d see a Reprise of the events. Of course, the latter is what occurred. After the montage, we are transported back to that fateful moment of their first novels being submitted for publishing. This time, however, in the real world, only Phillip succeeds in getting a book deal done while Erik is rejected to try again. Both young men then find their lives going in different directions only to converge once more at a dark place for both, a time for a rebirth in life for Phillip and career for Erik.

The gimmick of showing the audience multiple vignettes of the past throughout the film never seems forced. Always seamlessly giving us insight and background into the proceedings, these teleportations through time help flesh out our characters and their motivations. We learn how these two writers got mixed up with a group of friends a little rougher around the edges than them, how Phillip and his girlfriend Kari met, the boys’ affinity for author Sten Egil Dahl, and much more. The most brilliant use is when Phillip and Kari go to Paris to relive the journey that made them fall in love the first time. A trip where he hopes to regain those feelings he had been programmed to forget during his stint in a mental hospital, the mixing of scenes from the first time and this current time are nice. The dialogue is overlapping the images, sporadically rejoining with the mouth movements of the characters before getting unsynched again. Words and images don’t necessarily have to converge here, whether it the voice of the leads or that of the narrator. A story is being told; we are shown what could happen in their lives, not necessarily the end all.

When the final black screen of Stop is shown, you begin to wonder what other way the story could have gone. What could have happened if Erik found initial success and not Phillip? Would the latter’s psychosis still have cropped up? Would Erik have fallen fast into pretentiousness like fellow writer Mathis Wergeland? Who knows? Trier just gives us a glimpse of this one way that it can happen, and for once it is not the easy way out. What continues on as a tragedy, one where you can just feel something horrific will occur, to the point where the director puts us in a sequence that screams suicide is made all the more powerful by the prospect of happiness at the end. The opening introduction ends on a happy note, so there is always hope the meat of the film will too, despite the allusions to epic tragedy of Icarus flying too close to the sun.

Overall, the actual activity of writing a novel has little to do with the meaning of the film. It is just the occupation of these two men, the driving force of their lives and impetus for how they live. What Reprise truly concerns is the meaning of life and how one chooses to live it. It is a cyclical path bringing people in and out of each other’s vision for good or worse at the most random times. Relationships play a huge role as well, whether they are romantic or platonic. Erik and Phillip have a bond with one another, a bond that had been forged at a very young age. The two compete yet also prop the other up when they need it most. At times there is jealousy and hatred, but never at their cores. The inclusion of Lillian and Kari only show both men’s insecurities in themselves; Erik keeping Lillian away from the friends he hangs with and Phillip unable to accept the profound love he has for Kari. Both writers have dreams, but they are young, and achieving them too fast can have a profound effect on even the strongest soul.

This strong story and deftly handled craft is bolstered by a couple brilliant performances. Sure the group is fun to join with on their excursions—a party towards the end is a lot of fun—yet the main three shine above all else. Viktoria Winge is stunning as Kari, so deeply in love with her broken man, she is willing to pick up the pieces of their relationship after his time away getting help. Trying her hardest to stay patient with Phillip, she does everything in her power to make him remember what it was they felt upon meeting, to smile at the memory of him saying they were always destined to meet and be together. Espen Klouman-Høiner as Erik is very good as well. He is the rock of the group, the one with his head on straight always attempting to help those around him, sometimes at the neglect of himself. At the end, when faced with the dilemma of staying around to help or going away from Oslo to clear his mind and hone his apparent skills from his first novel, the decision weighs deeply upon him. Lastly, and most importantly, is Anders Danielsen Lie portraying Phillip. A deeply emotive soul, he is one who needs to break and fail in order to except the fact that he is fallible. Getting all he wants so early only eats away at him, making him feel that it is undeserved. Needing to find alignment again, it takes time and pain to be able to live once more is happiness.

Reprise 9/10

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[1] Anders Danielsen Lie as Phillip, Viktoria Winge as Kari. Photo credit: Nils Vik/Courtesy of Miramax Films
[2] Magnus Williamson as Morten, Pål Stokka as Geir, Espen Klouman Høiner as Erik, Anders Danielsen Lie as Phillip, Viktoria Winge as Kari, and Christian Rubeck as Lars. Photo credit: Nils Vik/Courtesy of Miramax Films.

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Oh, the 1980’s, such happy times. Excess in full force, younger upstart yuppies making money that they could only imagine as children while doing as little work as possible. When did going to lunch, out to dinner at restaurants booked for months in advance, and vying for the biggest ego constitute an occupation worth six figures? Only in America. Bret Easton Ellis’ novel was looked upon as very demeaning to women in its portrayal of these masochistic males using their girls as trophies and toys, so who better to adapt and direct a feature of American Psycho than a woman such as Mary Harron. Her film version is a satire on society’s fall to materialism and conformity, showing how along with the money and power comes a way of life that is unavoidable. Our lead, Patrick Bateman at one point tells his girlfriend that he is trying to fit in. He is catering to the image of masculinity and success despite his urges to break free into his own lifestyle of gratuitous sex and violence. He says early on that Patrick Bateman doesn’t exist, he is an empty face hiding the darkness underneath, the scheming and desire to live on the fringe of society and be able to get away with it amongst the self-absorbed snobs running around blind to anything but themselves.

The story hinges on the devolution of humanity for Bateman as the vapid existence he lives becomes too much to handle. Everything in his world is superficial, from his girlfriend, to his lithium-using mistress, to his meaningless job and his need to look and live better than his peers. One of the best scenes comes from a comparison of business cards and whose is more subtly beautiful due to the whiteness of stock and uniqueness of font. Each card is identical to the layperson, but to these men, obsessed with appearances, they couldn’t be more different and inferior. It is such a cookie-cutter lifestyle that no one even knows whom each other is. They will call “friends” by the wrong name and then proceed to talk about how much of a reject the person they are actually speaking to is, unknowing they are insulting them to their face. It is one thing to allow the mistakes to happen, it’s another to revel in it and pretend to be that other person, because really, what is the difference? Both wear the same suits, have an affinity for the same glasses, and get their hair cut at the same salon. Just because Bateman’s coif is slightly better doesn’t mean he can’t pretend to be someone else.

Because of this duality in identity, Bateman is given a carte blanche to live out his dark fantasies at night. If people think he is someone else when he is raping and murdering people, he is able to live without risk of being caught. Heck, he doesn’t even need an alibi because his friends are 100% positive he was out with them the night he was committing heinous crimes. Between the drugs and carbon copy personas, no one knows who they are let alone who they are with. Therefore, Bateman can do whatever he wants, and does. With tongue-in-cheek dialogue and monologue dissertations on Huey Lewis and the News or Phil Collins, Bateman lives in his own world, waxing pontifically about asinine drivel before going in for the kill.

I don’t think anyone could have pulled this role off besides Christian Bale. His demeanor is so likeable that no one would think twice about feeling safe with him. As a model he meets and later dispatches says, “there is something good about you.” Even when in rage, he retains his smile and jovial attitude, praising Phil Collins’ talent for bringing Genesis out of their arty funk and Whitney Houston for four of the greatest songs ever written on her album appropriately titled Whitney Houston. The way his delivery makes the most benign topics jump out at you is amazing and when the blood splatters onto his face, you can’t help but laugh through the carnage. No other film will make you see the humor in serial killing for sport. All Bateman does is what we fantasize about everyday, breaking free from the monotony and acting on our impulses to punish the stupid and the weak. As he tells a homeless man before killing him, “why don’t you get a job?” It’s the man’s negative attitude and laziness that prevents him from succeeding in life. This is a time of self-pride and preservation, albeit an excess of said pride, that allows everyone to look at themselves as God. Even a diatribe about the troubles in South Africa and the US with poverty comes off as staged and humorous. Not because Bateman feels these subject are more relevant than Sri Lanka, but because he really doesn’t care about any of it.

Shot beautifully with many static frames focusing on the person’s face in action rather than the activity happening around them, American Psycho is gorgeous to behold. The stark sanitation of everything: clean apartments, pristine bodies, and impeccable dressing style counters lovely with the chaos that Bateman brings from his bloodlust. Watching him slowly unravel, whether it be from the fact he does what he does or the fact that he gets away with it so easily, makes the supporting cast that much more intriguing. Men like Justin Theroux and Josh Lucas are so effective because they completely buy into the image they exude. Even Jared Leto, with his fakeness in mannerisms and speech, shows the banality of life perfectly.

It is Leto’s disappearance that lends to the fact of whether what we see actually happens. Did Bateman kill him and continue with his atrocities afterwards or did Leto really go to London, where people had lunch with him, and the murder was just imagination? No one can ever really know since no character ever knows whom it is they are talking to. Perhaps those who saw Leto really saw others who pretended to be him mistakenly, or maybe he was there still alive and breathing. This is the confusion with insanity and chaos, one can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction; the line blurs to infinity. American Psycho could be a tale of the psyche or a story of murderous rage left unchecked, it’s really up to you to decide.

American Psycho 10/10

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